The young man in the swivel chair drummed with his toes against the desk, while he studied the gaudy fire insurance calendar on the wall before him. His pipe hung bowl downward from his lips, and the long fingers of one hand toyed with a legal document in his lap.
“Something new is hatching in this incubator,” he muttered at last, dipping his pen in the ink bottle again. “And I think—I think it’s an ugly duckling. Of course, it’s no business of mine, but——” He looked up suddenly as a bulky figure darkened the doorway. “Hello, Jeff!”
Jeff Wray nodded and walked to the water cooler.
“Mulrennan’s been here to see you three times,” said the man in the swivel chair. “Each time he’s been getting madder. I wish you’d keep your appointments or get another office-boy. That man’s vocabulary is a work of genius. Even you, in your happiest humors—why, what’s the matter with your face?”
Wray put his fingers up. Four red streaks ran parallel across his cheek bone. He touched the marks with his hand, then looked at his finger tips.
“Oh, that? Seems like I must have butted into something.” He gave a short, unmirthful laugh. “Don’t make me look any prettier, does it? Funny I didn’t feel it before.” And then, as he turned to the inner office, “Is Mulrennan coming back?” he asked.
“Yes, at five.”
Wray glanced at the clock. “Has Bent been in?”
“When will those papers be ready?”
“To-night, if you want them.”
“Good!” Wray turned, with his hand on the knob of the door. “When Pete comes, send him back. Will you, Larry?”
Larry Berkely nodded, and Wray went into the back office and closed the door behind him. He took out his keys and unlocked the desk, but, instead of sitting at once, he went over to a cracked mirror in the corner and examined his face, grinning at his image and touching the red marks with his fingers.
“That was a love-tap for fair,” he said. “I reckon I deserved it. But she oughtn’t to push a man too far. She was sure angry. Won’t speak now for a while.” He turned with a confident air. “She’ll come around, though,” he laughed. “You just bet she will.” Then he sat down at his desk, took a photograph in a brass frame out of the drawer, put it up against the pen-rack before him, and, folding his arms across the blotter, gazed at it steadily for a moment.
“It was a mean trick, wasn’t it, Camilla girl?” he muttered, half aloud. “I’m sorry. But you’ve got to learn who you belong to. There can’t be any fooling of other fellows around Jeff Wray’s girl. I just had to kiss you—had to put my seal on you, Camilla. I reckon you put yours on me, too, black and blue.” He laughed ruefully. “You’ll forgive me, though. A diamond necklace or so will square that. You bet it will!”
He put the picture down, hid it away, and took up some papers that lay before him. But when, a while later, Larry Berkely showed Mulrennan in, they found him sitting with his face to the window, looking out with his baby stare over the hundred thousand acres of the Hermosa Company.
“Come in, Pete, and shut the door. You don’t mind, Larry? Mulrennan and I have got some private business.” Then, when the door was closed, he said in a half-whisper, “Well? What did you find out about the ‘Lone Tree’?”
Mr. Mulrennan carefully sought the cuspidor, then wiped his brow with a dirty red handkerchief. “What didn’t I find out? God, Jeff! that mine’s lousy with sylvanite. The watchman was asleep, and we got in scrumpshus-like. It’s half way down that short winze they made last fall. Max had put some timbers up to hide it, and we pulled ’em down. We only had matches to strike and couldn’t see much, but what we saw was a-plenty. It’s the vein, all right. Holy Mother! but it started my mouth to watherin’—I haven’t had a wink of shlape. Where in h—l have you been all day?”
“Business,” said Jeff vaguely, “in the mountains.”
“It’s no time to be potherin’ about wid little matthers.” Mulrennan brought his huge fist down on the table. “You’ve got to nail this deal, Jeff, to-day.”
“To-day? Bent hasn’t been back.”
“Well, you’ve got to find him—now.”
“What for? See here, Pete, cool down. Can’t you see if I go after him he’ll get suspicious—and then good-bye to everything. You leave this deal to me. He’ll sign. Larry’s drawing the lease and bond now. Maybe to-morrow——”
“To-morrow? To-morrow will be too late. That’s what I’m gettin’ at. Max is ugly——”
Wray clenched his bony fingers over the chair arm and leaned across the desk.
“Max!” he whispered angrily. “What——?”
“He’s afther more money. He talked pretty big last night, but this mornin’——” He broke off breathlessly. “Oh, I’ve had the h—l of a day——”
“What did he say?”
“He’s talkin’ of goin’ to the mine owner. He says, after all, Cort Bent never harmed him any, and it’s only a matter of who gives him the most.”
Wray got to his feet and took two or three rapid turns up and down the room.
“D—n him!” he muttered. And then suddenly, “Where is he now?”
“Up the bar playing pinochle with Fritz.”
“Are you sure?”
“He was twenty minutes ago. I haven’t left him a minute except to come here. Fritz is losin’ money to him. I told him to. That will kape him for a while.”
But Wray had already taken up his hat. “Come, let’s go up there. We’ve got to shut his mouth some way,” he said, through set lips.
“I’ve been promisin’ myself sick, but he’s a sharp one—God! But I wish them papers was signed,” sighed Mulrennan.
As they passed through the office Jeff stopped a moment.
“If Bent comes in, Larry, tell him I’ll be back in half an hour. Understand? Don’t seem anxious. Just tell him I’m going to Denver and want to settle that deal one way or another as soon as possible.”
Berkely nodded and watched the strange pair as they made their way up the street. Wray, his head down and hands in his pockets, and the Irishman using his arms in violent gestures.
“I’m sure it’s an ugly duckling,” commented the sage.
* * * * *
It was three years now since Berkely had come to Colorado for his health, and two since Fate had sent him drifting down to Mesa City and Jeff Wray. Mesa City was a “boom” town. Three years ago, when the “Jack Pot” mine was opened, it had become the sudden proud possessor of five hotels (and saloons), three “general” stores, four barber shops, three pool rooms, a livery stable, and post office. Its main (and only) street was a quarter of a mile in length, and the plains for a half mile in every direction had been dotted with the camps of the settlers. It had almost seemed as if Saguache County had found another Cripple Creek.
A time passed, and then Mesa City awoke one morning to find that the gamblers, the speculators, and the sporting men (and women) had gone forth to other fields, and left it to its fate, and the town knew that it was a failure.
But Jeff Wray stayed on. And when Berkely came, he stayed, too, partly because the place seemed to improve his health, but more largely on account of Jeff Wray. What was it that had drawn him so compellingly toward the man? He liked him—why, he could not say—but he did—and that was the end of it. There was a directness in the way Wray went after what he wanted which approached nothing Berkely could think of so much as the unhesitating self-sufficiency of a child. He seemed to have an intuition for the right thing, and, though he often did the wrong one, Berkely was aware that he did it open-eyed and that no book wisdom or refinement would have made the slightest difference in the consummation of his plans. Berkely was sure, as Wray was sure, that the only reason Jeff hadn’t succeeded was because opportunity hadn’t yet come knocking at his door. He liked Wray because he was bold and strong, because he looked him in the eye, because he gave a sense of large areas, because his impulses, bad as well as good, were generous and big, like the mountains and plains of which he was a part. His schemes showed flashes of genius, but neither of them had money enough to put them into practice. He was always figuring in hundreds of thousands or even in millions, and at times it seemed to Berkely as though he was frittering his life away over small problems when he might have been mastering big ones. At others he seemed very like Mulberry Sellers, Munchausen, and D’Artagnan all rolled into one.
What was happening now, Berkely could not determine, so he gave up the problem and, when his work was done, filled his pipe, strolled to the door, and watched the changing colors on the mountains to the east of him, as the sun, sinking lower, found some clouds and sent their shadows scurrying along the range to the southward. With his eye he followed the line of the trail up the cañon, and far up above the cottonwoods that skirted the town he could see two figures on horseback coming down. He recognized them at once, even at that distance, for they were a sight to which Mesa City had become accustomed.
“Camilla and Bent,” he muttered. “I’m glad Jeff’s not here. It’s been getting on his nerves. I hope if Bent sells out he’ll hunt a new field. There are too few women around here—too few like Camilla. I wonder if she really cares. I wonder——”
He stopped, his eyes contracted to pin points. The pair on the horses had halted, and the man had drawn close to his companion, leaning forward. Was he fixing her saddle? An unconscious exclamation came from Berkely’s lips.
“He’s got his nerve—right in plain view of the town, too. What——?”
The girl’s horse suddenly drew ahead and came galloping down through the scrub-oak, the man following. Berkely smiled. “The race isn’t always to the swift, Cort Bent,” he muttered.
At the head of the street he saw Miss Irwin’s horse turn in at the livery stable where she kept him, but Cortland Bent’s came straight on at an easy canter and halted at Berkely’s door.
“Is Wray there?” asked Bent.
“No, but he told me to ask you to wait. Won’t you come in?”
“Just tell him I’ll be in in the morning.”
“Jeff may go to Denver to-morrow,” said Larry, “but of course there’s no hurry——”
Bent took out a silver cigarette case and offered it to Berkely. “See here, Larry,” he said, “what the devil do you fellows want with the ‘Lone Tree’? Are you going to work it, or are you getting it for some one else? Of course, it’s none of my business—but I’d like to know, just——”
“Oh, I’m not in this. This is Jeff’s deal. I don’t know much about it, but I think he’d probably work it for a while.”
Together they walked into the office, and Berkely spread some papers out over the desk. “Jeff told me to draw these up. I think you’ll find everything properly stated.”
Bent nodded. “Humph! He feels pretty certain I’ll sign, doesn’t he?”
Berkely stood beside him, smoking and leaning over his shoulder, but didn’t reply.
Bent laughed. “Well, it’s all cut and dried. Seems a pity to have put you to so much trouble, Larry. I haven’t made up my mind. They say twice as much money goes into gold mines as ever comes out of ’em. I guess it’s true. If it wasn’t for Jeff Wray in this deal I’d sign that paper in a minute. But I’ve always had an idea that some day he’d make his pile, and I don’t relish the idea of his making it on me. He’s a visionary—a fanatic on the gold in these mountains, but fortune has a way of favoring the fool——”
“Sounds as though you might be talking about me,” said a voice from the doorway, where Jeff stood smiling, his broad figure completely blocking the entrance.
Bent turned, confused, but recovered himself with a short laugh. “Yes, I was,” he replied slowly. “I’ve put twenty thousand dollars in that hole in the rocks, and I hate to leave it.”
Jeff Wray wiped his brow, went to the cooler, drew a glass of water, and slowly drank it.
“Well, my friend,” he said carelessly between swallows, “there’s still time to back down. You’re not committed to anything. Neither am I. Suit yourself. I’m going to get a mine or so. But I’m not particular which one. The ‘Daisy’ looks good to me, but they want too much for it. The terms on your mine, the ‘Lone Tree,’ just about suited me—that’s all. It’s not a ‘big’ proposition. It might pan thirty or forty to the ton, but there’s not much in that—not away up there. Take my offer—or leave it, Bent. I don’t give a d—n.”
He tossed his hat on the chair, took off his coat, and opened the door of the back office.
“Larry,” he added, “you needn’t bother to stay, I’ve got some writing to do. I’ll lock up when I go.”
If Mr. Mulrennan had been present he would have lost his senses in sheer admiration or sheer dismay. Berkely remembered that “bluff” later, when he learned how much had depended on its success.
But it worked beautifully.
“Oh, well,” said Bent peevishly, “let’s get it over. I’ll sign. Are you ready to make a settlement?”
Categories: English Literature