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   Chapter 5 No.5

The City of Numbered Days By Francis Lynde Characters: 28253

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Symptomatic

For some few minutes after the gray-bearded, absent-eyed old man who had been working at the mine forge had disappeared in the depths of the tunnel upon finishing his job of drill pointing, the two on the cabin porch made no attempt to resume the talk which had been broken by the blacksmithing. But when the rumbling thunder of the ore-car which the elder Massingale was pushing ahead of him into the mine had died away in the subterranean distances Brouillard began again.

"I do get your point of view-sometimes," he said. "Or perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that I have had it now and then in times past. Civilization, or what stands for it, does have a way of shrinking into littleness, not to say cheapness, when one can get the proper perspective. And your life up here on Chigringo has given you the needful detached point of view."

The trouble shadows in the eyes of the young woman who was sitting in the fish-net hammock gave place to a smile of gentle derision.

"Do you call that civilization?" she demanded, indicating the straggling new town spreading itself, map-like, in the valley below.

"I suppose it is-one form of it. At least it is civilization in the making. Everything has to have some sort of a beginning."

Miss Massingale acquiesced in a little uptilt of her perfectly rounded chin.

"Just the same, you don't pretend to say that you are enjoying it," she said in manifest deprecation.

"Oh, I don't know. My work is down there, and a camp is a necessary factor in it. You'd say that the more civilized the surroundings become, the less need there would be for me to sit up nights to keep the lid on. That would be the reasonable conclusion, wouldn't it?"

"If you were really trying to make the fact fit the theory-which you are not-it would be a sheer, self-centred eye-shutting to all the greater things that may be involved," she continued. "Don't you ever get beyond that?"

"I did at first. When I learned a few weeks ago that the boomers had taken hold of us in earnest and that we were due to acquire a real town with all the trimmings, I was righteously hot. Apart from the added trouble a wide-open town would be likely to give us in maintaining order in the camp, it seemed so crudely unnecessary to start a pigeon-plucking match at this distance from Wall Street."

"But now," she queried-"now, I suppose, you have become reconciled?"

"I am growing more philosophical, let us say. There are just about so many pigeons to be plucked, anyway; they'd moult if they weren't plucked. And it may as well be done here as on the Stock Exchange, when you come to think of it."

"I like you least when you talk that way," said the young woman in the hammock, with open-eyed frankness. "Do you do it as other men do?-just to hear how it sounds?"

Brouillard, sitting on the top step of the porch, leaned his head against the porch post and laughed.

"You know too much-a lot too much for a person of your tender years," he asserted. "Which names one more of the charming collection of contradictions which your father or mother or somebody had the temerity to label 'Amy,' sweetest and most seraphic of diminutives."

"If you don't like my name-" she began, and then she went off at another tangent. "Please tell me why I am a 'collection of contradictions.' Tig never says anything like that to me."

"'Tig,'" said Brouillard, "'Tig' Smith. Speaking of names, I've often wondered how on earth our breezy friend of the Tri'-Circ' ever got such a handle as that."

"It's his own name-or a part of it. His father was a country preacher back in Tennessee, and I imagine he had the Smith feeling that the surname wasn't very distinctive. So he named the poor boy Tiglath-Pileser. Just the same, it is not to laugh," she went on in friendly loyalty. "Tig can't help his name, and, anyway, he's the vastest possible improvement on those old Assyrian gentlemen who were the first to wear it."

Brouillard's gaze went past the shapely little figure in the string hammock to lose itself in the far Timanyoni distances.

"You are a bundle of surprises," he said, letting the musing thought slip into speech. "What can you possibly know about the Assyrians?"

She made a funny little grimace at him. "It was 'contradictions' a moment ago and now it is 'surprises.' Which reminds me, you haven't told me why I am a 'collection.'"

"I think you know well enough," he retorted. "The first time I saw you-down at the Nick-wire ford with Tig, you remember-I tried to recall which Madonna it is that has your mouth and eyes."

"Well, did you succeed in placing the lady?"

"No. Somehow, I haven't cared to since I've come to know you. You're different-always different, and then-oh, well, comparisons are such hopelessly inadequate things, anyway," he finished lamely.

"You are not getting on very well with the 'contradictions,'" she demurred.

"Oh, I can catalogue them if you push me to it. One minute you are the Madonna lady that I can't recall, calm, reposeful, truthful, and all that, you know-so truthful that those childlike eyes of yours would make a stuttering imbecile of the man who should come to you with a lie in his mouth."

"And the next minute?" she prompted.

"The next minute you are a witch, laughing at the man's little weaknesses, putting your finger on them as accurately as if you could read his soul, holding them up to your ridicule and-what's much worse-to his own. At such times your insight, or whatever you choose to call it, is enough to give a man a fit of 'seeing things.'"

Her laugh was like a school-girl's, light-hearted, ringing, deliciously unrestrained.

"What a picture!" she commented. And then: "I can draw a better one of you, Monsieur Victor de Brouillard."

"Do it," he dared.

"It'll hurt your vanity."

"I haven't any."

"Oh, but you have! Don't you know that it is only the very vainest people who say that?"

"Never mind; go on and draw your picture."

"Even if it should give you another attack of the 'seeing things'?"

"Yes; I'll chance even that."

"Very well, then: once upon a time-it was a good while ago, I'm afraid-you were a very upright young man, and your uprightness made you just a little bit austere-for yourself, if not for others. At that time you were busy whittling out heroic little ideals and making idols of them; and I am quite sure you were spelling duty with a capital 'D' and that you would have been properly horrified if a sister of yours had permitted an unchaperoned acquaintance like-well, like ours."

"Go on," he said, neither affirming nor denying.

"Also, at that time you thought that a man's work in the world was the biggest thing that ever existed, the largest possible order that could be given, and the work and everything about it had to be transparently honest and openly aboveboard. You would cheerfully have died for a principle in those days, and you would have allowed the enemy to cut you up into cunning little inch cubes before you would have admitted that any pigeon was ever made to be plucked."

He was smiling mirthlessly, with the black mustaches taking the sardonic upcurve.

"Then what happened?"

"One of two things, or maybe both of them. You were pushed out into the life race with some sort of a handicap. I don't know what it was-or is. Is that true?"

"Yes."

"Then I'll hazard the other guess. You discovered that there were women in the world and that there was something in you, or about you, that was sufficiently attractive to make them sit up and be nice to you. For some reason-perhaps it was the handicap-you thought you'd be safer in the unwomaned wilderness and so you came out here to the 'wild and woolly.' But even here you're not safe. There is a passable trail over War Arrow Pass and at a pinch an automobile can cross the Buckskin."

When she stopped he nodded gravely. "It is all true enough. You haven't added anything more than a graceful little touch here and there. Who has been telling you all these things about me?"

She clapped her hands in delighted self-applause.

"You don't deny them?"

"I wouldn't be so impolite."

In the turning of a leaf her mood changed and the wide-open, fearless eyes were challenging him soberly.

"You can't deny them."

He tried to break away from the level-eyed, accusing gaze-tried and found it impossible.

"I asked you who has been gossiping about me; not Grizzy?"

"No, not Murray Grislow; it was the man you think you know best in all the world-who is also the one you probably know the least-yourself."

"Good Heavens! am I really such a transparent egoist as all that?"

"All men are egoists," she answered calmly. "In some the ego is sound and clear-eyed and strong; in others it is weak-in the same way that passion is weak; it will sacrifice all it has or hopes to have in some sudden fury of self-assertion."

She sat up and put her hands to her hair, and he was free to look away, down upon the great ditch where the endless chain of concrete buckets linked itself to the overhead carrier like a string of mechanical insects, each with its pinch of material to add to the deep and wide-spread foundations of the dam. Across the river a group of hidden sawmills sent their raucous song like the high-pitched shrilling of distant locusts to tremble upon the still air of the afternoon. In the middle distance the camp-town city, growing now by leaps and bounds, spread its roughly indicated streets over the valley level, the yellow shingled roofs of the new structures figuring as patches of vivid paint under the slanting rays of the sun. Far away to the right the dark-green liftings of the Quadjenà? Hills cut across from mountain to river; at the foot of the ridge the tall chimney-stacks of the new cement plant were rising, and from the quarries beyond the plant the dull thunder of the blasts drifted up to the Chigringo heights like a sign from the mysterious underworld of Navajo legend.

This was not Brouillard's first visit to the cabin on the Massingale claim by many. In the earliest stages of the valley activities Smith, the Buckskin cattleman, had been Amy Massingale's escort to the reclamation camp-"just a couple o' lookers," in Smith's phrase-and the unconventional altitudes had done the rest. From that day forward the young woman had hospitably opened her door to Brouillard and his assistants, and any member of the corps, from Leshington the morose, who commonly came to sit in solemn silence on the porch step, to Griffith, who had lost his youthful heart to Miss Massingale on his first visit, was welcome.

Of the five original members of the staff and the three later additions to it, in the persons of the paymaster, the cost-keeper, and young Altwein, who had come in as Grislow's field assistant, Brouillard was the one who climbed oftenest up the mountain-side trail from the camp-a trail which was becoming by this time quite well defined. He knew he went oftener than any of the others, and yet he felt that he knew Amy Massingale less intimately and was far and away more hopelessly entangled than-well, than Grislow, for example, whose visits to the mine cabin came next in the scale of frequency and whose ready wit and gentle cynicism were his passports in any company.

For himself, Brouillard had not been pointedly analytical as yet. From the moment when Amy and Smith had reined up at the door of his office shack and he had welcomed them both, it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to fall under the spell of enchantment. He knew next to nothing of the young woman's life story; he had not cared to know. It had not occurred to him to wonder how the daughter of a man who drilled and shot the holes in his own mine should have the gifts and belongings-when she chose to display them-of a woman of a much wider world. It was enough for him that she was piquantly attractive in any character and that he found her marvellously stimulating and uplifting. On the days when the devil of moroseness and irritability possessed and maddened him he could climb to the cabin on high Chigringo and find sanity. It was a keen joy to be with her, and up to the present this had sufficed.

"Egoism is merely another name for the expression of a vital need," he said, after the divagating pause, defining the word more for his own satisfaction than in self-defense.

"You may put it in that way if you please," she returned gravely. "What is your need?"

He stated it concisely. "Money-a lot of it."

"How singular!" she laughed. "I need money, too-a lot of it."

"You?"

"Yes, I."

"What would you do with it? Buy corner lots in Niqoyastcàdjeburg?"

"No, indeed; I'd buy a farm in the Blue-grass-two of them, maybe."

"What an ambition for a girl! Have you ever been in the Blue-grass country?"

She got out of the hammock and came to lean, with her hands behind her, against the opposite porch post. "That was meant to humiliate me, and I sha'n't forget it. You know well enough that I have never been east of the Mississippi."

"I didn't know it. You never tell me anything about yourself."

Again the mood shutter clicked and her smile was the calm mask of discerning wisdom.

"Persons with well-developed egos don't care to listen to folk-stories," she rejoined, evading the tentative invitation openly. "But tell me, what would you do with your pot of rainbow gold-if you should find it?"

Brouillard rose and straightened himself with his arms over his head like an athlete testing his muscles for the record-breaking event.

"What would I do? A number of things. But first of all, I think, I'd buy the privilege of telling some woman that I love her."

This time her laugh was frankly disparaging. "As if you could!" she said, with a lip curl that set his blood afire-"as if any woman worth while would care two pins for your wretched pot of gold!"

"Oh, I didn't mean it quite that way," he hastened to explain. "I said: 'Buy the privilege.' If you knew the conditions you would understand me when

I say that the money must come first."

She was silent for so long a time that he looked at his watch and thought of going. But at the deciding instant she held him with a low-spoken question.

"Does it date back to the handicap? You needn't tell me if you don't want to."

"It does. And there is no reason why I shouldn't tell you the simple fact. When my father died he left me a debt-a debt of honor; and it must be paid. Until it is paid-but I am sure you understand."

"Quite fully," she responded quickly, and now there was no trace of levity in the sweetly serious tone. "Is it much?-so much that you can't--"

He nodded and sat down again on the porch step. "Yes, it is big enough to go in a class by itself-in round numbers, a hundred thousand dollars."

"Horrors!" she gasped. "And you are carrying that millstone? Must you carry it?"

"If you knew the circumstances you would be the first to say that I must carry it, and go on carrying it to the end of the chapter."

"But-but you'll never be free!"

"Not on a government salary," he admitted. "As a matter of fact, it takes more than half of the salary to pay the premiums on-pshaw! I'm boring you shamelessly for the sake of proving up on my definition of the eternal ego. You ought not to have encouraged me. It's quite hopeless-the handicap business-unless some good angel should come along with a miracle or two. Let's drop it."

She was looking beyond him and her voice was quick with womanly sympathy when she said: "If you could drop it-but you can't. And it changes everything for you, distorts everything, colors your entire life. It's heart-breaking!"

This was dangerous ground for him and he knew it. Sympathy applied to a rankling wound may figure either as the healing oil or the maddening wine. It was the one thing he had hitherto avoided, resolutely, half-fearfully, as a good general going into battle marches around a kennel of sleeping dogs. But now the under-depths were stirring to a new awakening. In the ardor of young manhood he had taken up the vicarious burden dutifully, and at that time his renunciation of the things that other men strove for seemed the lightest of the many fetterings. But now love for a woman was threatening to make the renunciation too grievous to be borne.

"How did you know?" he queried curiously. "It does change things; it has changed them fiercely in the past few weeks. We smile at the old fable of a man selling his soul for a ready-money consideration, but there are times when I'd sell anything I've got, save one, for a chance at the freedom that other men have-and don't value."

"What is the one thing you wouldn't sell?" she questioned, and Brouillard chose to discover a gently quickened interest in the clear-seeing eyes.

"My love for the-for some woman. I'm saving that, you know. It is the only capital I'll have when the big debt is paid."

"Do you want me to be frivolous or serious?" she asked, looking down at him with the grimacing little smile that always reminded him of a caress. "A little while ago you said 'some woman,' and now you say it again, making it cautiously impersonal. That is nice of you-not to particularize; but I have been wondering whether she is or isn't worth the effort-and the reservation you make. Because it is all in that, you know. You can do and be what you want to do and be if you only want to hard enough."

He looked up quickly.

"Do you really believe that? What about a man's natural limitations?"

"Poof!" she said, blowing the word away as if it were a bit of thistle-down. "It is only the woman's limitations that count, not the man's. The only question is this: Is the one only and incomparable she worth the effort? Would you give a hundred thousand dollars for the privilege of being able to say to her: 'Come, dear, let's go and get married'?"

He was looking down, chiefly because he dared not look up, when he answered soberly: "She is worth it many times over; her price is above rubies. Money, much or little, wouldn't be in it."

"That is better-much better. Now we may go on to the ways and means; they are all in the man, not in the things, 'not none whatsoever,' as Tig would say. Let me show you what I mean. Three times within my recollection my father has been worth considerably more than you owe, and three time she has-well, it's gone. And now he is going to make good again when the railroad comes."

Brouillard got up, thrust his hands into the pockets of his working-coat, and faced about as if he had suddenly remembered that he was wasting the government's time.

"I must be going back down the hill," he said. And then, without warning: "What if I should tell you that the railroad is not coming to the Niquoia, Amy?"

To his utter amazement the blue eyes filled suddenly. But the owner of the eyes was winking the tears away and laughing before he could put the amazement into words.

"You shouldn't hit out like that when one isn't looking; it's wicked," she protested. "Besides, the railroad is coming; it's got to come."

"It is still undecided," he told her mechanically. "Mr. Ford is coming over with the engineers to have a conference on the ground with-with the Cortwright people. I am expecting him any day."

"The Cortwright people want the road, don't they?" she asked.

"Yes, indeed; they are turning heaven and earth over to get it."

"And the government?"

"The department is holding entirely aloof, as it should. Every one in the Reclamation Service knows that no good can possibly come of any effort to force the region ahead of its normal and natural development. And, besides, none of us here in the valley want to help blow the Cortwright bubble any bigger than it has to be."

"Then you will advise against the building of the Extension?"

Instead of answering her question he asked one of his own.

"What does it mean to you-to you, personally, and apart from the money your father might make out of it, Amy?"

She hesitated a moment and then met the shrewd scrutiny of his gaze with open candor.

"The money is only a means to an end-as yours will be. You know very well what I meant when I told you that three times we have been obliged to come back to the mountains to-to try again. I dreaded the coming of your camp; I dread a thousand times more the other changes that are coming-the temptations that a mushroom city will offer. This time father has promised me that when he can make his stake he will go back to Kentucky and settle down; and he will keep his promise. More than that, Stevie has promised me that he will go, too, if he can have a stock-farm and raise fine horses-his one healthy ambition. Now you know it all."

He reached up from the lower step where he was standing and took her hand.

"Yes; and I know more than that: I know that you are a mighty brave little girl and that your load is heavier than mine-worlds heavier. But you're going to win out; if not to-day or to-morrow, why, then, the day after. It's written in the book."

She returned his hand-grip of encouragement impulsively and smiled down upon him through quick-springing tears.

"You'll win out, too, Victor, because it's in you to do it. I'm sure of it-I know it. There is only one thing that scares me."

"Name it," he said. "I'm taking everything that comes to-day-from you."

"You are a strong man; you have a reserve of strength that is greater than most men's full gift; you can cut and slash your way to the thing you really want, and nothing can stop you. But-you'll forgive me for being plain, won't you?-there is a little, just the least little, bit of desperation in the present point of view, and--"

"Say it," he commanded when she hesitated.

"I hardly know how to say it. It's just a little shudder-inside, you know-as you might have when you see a railroad train rushing down the mountain and think what would happen if one single, inconsequent wheel should climb the rail. There were ideals in the beginning; you admitted it, didn't you? And they are not as distinct now as they used to be. You didn't say that, but I know.... Stand them up again, Victor; don't let them fall down in the dust or in the-in the mud. It's got to be clean money, you know; the money that is going to give you the chance to say: 'Come, girl, let's go and get married.' You won't forget that, will you?"

He relinquished the hand of encouragement because he dared not hold it any longer, and turned away to stare absently at the timbered tunnel mouth whence a faint clinking of hammer upon steel issued with monotonous regularity.

"I wish you hadn't said that, Amy-about the ideals."

"Why shouldn't I say it? I had to say it."

"I can't afford to play with too many fine distinctions. I have accepted the one great handicap. I may owe it to myself-and to some others-not to take on any more."

"I don't know what you mean now," she said simply.

"Perhaps it is just as well that you don't. Let's talk about something else; about the railroad. I told you that President Ford is coming over to have a wrestle with the Cortwright people, but I didn't tell you that he has already had his talk with Mr. Cortwright in person-in Chicago. He hasn't decided; he won't decide until he has looked the ground over and had a chance to confer with me."

She bridged all the gaps with swift intuition. "He means to give you the casting vote? He will build the Extension if you advise it?"

"It is something like that, I fancy; yes."

"And you think-you feel--"

"It is a matter of absolute indifference to me, officially. But in any event, Ford would ask for nothing more than a friendly opinion."

"Then it will lie in your hand to make us rich or to keep us poor," she laughed. "Be a good god-in-the-car, please, and your petitioners will ever pray." Then, with an instant return to seriousness: "But you mustn't think of that-of course, you won't-with so many other and greater things to consider."

"On the contrary, I shall think very pointedly of that; pointedly and regretfully-because your brother has made it practically impossible for me to help."

"My brother?" with a little gasp.

"Yes. He offered to buy my vote with a block of 'Little Susan' stock. That wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't talked about it-told other people what he was going to do. But he did that, as well."

He felt rather than saw that she had turned quickly to face the porch post, that she was hiding her face in the crooking of an arm. It melted him at once.

"Don't cry; I was a brute to say such a thing as that to you," he began, but she stopped him.

"No," she denied bravely. "The truth may hurt-it does hurt awfully; but it can't be brutal. And you are right. Stevie has made it impossible."

An awkward little silence supervened and once more Brouillard dragged his watch from its pocket.

"I'm like the awkward country boy," he said with quizzical humor. "I really must go and I don't know how to break away." Then he went back to the closed topic. "I guess the other thing was brutal, too-what I said about your brother's having made it impossible. Other things being equal--"

Again she stopped him.

"When Mr. Ford comes, you must forget what Stevie said and what I have said. Good-by."

* * *

An hour later, when the afternoon shadow of Jack's Mountain was lying all across the shut-in valley and pointing like the angle of a huge gnomon to the Quadjenà? Hills, Brouillard was closeted in his log-built office quarters with a big, fair-faced man, whose rough tweeds and unbrushed, soft hat proclaimed him fresh from the dust-dry reaches of the Quesado trail.

"It is your own opinion that I want, Victor," the fair-faced man was saying, "not the government engineer's. Can we make the road pay if we bring it here? That is a question which you can answer better than any other living man. You are here on the ground and you've been here from the first."

"You've had it out with Cortwright?" Brouillard asked. And then: "Where is he now? in Chicago?"

"No. He is on his way to the Niquoia, coming over in his car from El Gato. Says he made it that way once before and is willing to bet that it is easier than climbing War Arrow. But never mind J. Wesley. You are the man I came to see."

"I can give you the facts," was the quiet rejoinder. "While the Cortwright boom lasts there will be plenty of incoming business-and some outgoing. When the bubble bursts-as it will have to when the dam is completed, if it doesn't before-you'll quit until the Buckskin fills up with settlers who can give you crops to move. That is the situation in a nutshell, all but one little item. There is a mine up on Chigringo-Massingale's-with a good few thousand tons of pay ore on the dump. Where there is one mine there may be more, later on; and I don't suppose that even such crazy boomers as the Cortwright crowd will care to put in a gold reduction plant. So you would have the ore to haul to the Red Butte smelters."

A smile wrinkled at the corners of the big man's eyes.

"You are dodging the issue, Victor, and you know it," he objected. "What I want is your personal notion. If you were the executive committee of the Pacific Southwestern, would you, or would you not, build the Extension? That's the point I'm trying to make."

Brouillard got up and went to the window. The gnomon shadow of Jack's Mountain had spread over the entire valley, and its southern limb had crept up Chigringo until its sharply defined line was resting upon the Massingale cabin. When he turned back to the man at the desk he was frowning thoughtfully, and his eyes were the eyes of one who sees only the clearly etched lines of a picture which obscures all outward and visual objects ... the picture he saw was of a sweet-faced young woman, laughing through her tears and saying: "Besides, the railroad is coming; it's got to come."

"If you put it that way," he said to the man who was waiting, "if you insist on pulling my private opinion out by the roots, you may have it. I'd build the Extension."

* * *

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