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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Wreckers By Francis Lynde Characters: 19133

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The Tipping of the Scale

After all, it wasn't so very late in the night when our special pulled up to the Portal City station platform and I turned myself into a messenger-boy escort for the lady and the little girl whose muff had been responsible for so many different flip-flaps in the short space of a few hours.

I hadn't hung around while the boss was telling Mrs. Sheila and Maisie Ann good-by. Our conductor had wired ahead from the first telegraph station we came to and had asked to have our dunnage-the two women's, the boss's, and mine-taken out of the "Flyer" Pullman and sent back to Portal City on a local, and I was in the baggage-room, digging up the put-off stuff, at the good-by minute. But I guess they didn't quarrel any-the boss and Mrs. Sheila. She was laughing a little to herself as I helped her down from the car, and when I asked her where she wanted to go, she said I might ask one of the porters to carry the traps, and we'd walk to the hotel, which was only a few blocks up the main street.

She took Maisie Ann on the other side of her and let two of the blocks go by without saying anything more, and then she gave that quiet little laugh again and said, "Your Mr. Norcross amuses me, Jimmie. He says I have no business to travel without a guardian. What do you think about it?"

I told her I hadn't any thinks coming, and she seemed to take that for a joke and laughed some more. Then she asked me if I'd ever been in New York, and I felt sort of small when I had to tell her that I had never been east of Omaha in all my life. With that, she told me not to worry; that if I stayed with Mr. Norcross I'd probably get to go anywhere I wanted to.

Something in the way she said it made it sound like a little slam on the boss, and of course I wasn't going to stand for that.

"There is one thing about it: the boss will make good wherever he goes," I hit back. "You can bet on that."

"I like your loyalty," she flashed out. "It is a fine thing in a day that is much too careless of such qualities. And I agree with you that your Mr. Norcross is likely to succeed; more than likely, if he will only learn to combine a little gentle cleverness with the heavy hand."

There was no doubt about it this time; she was slamming the boss, and I meant to get at the bottom of it, right there and then.

"I don't think you have any cause to blacklist Mr. Norcross," I said. "Hasn't he been right good and brotherly to both of you this evening?"

"Oh, I didn't mean that," she said real earnestly. "But in the stateroom in Mr. Chadwick's car: the ventilator was open, you know, until Maisie Ann got up and shut it, and we couldn't very well help hearing what was said about the kidnapping. Neither Mr. Chadwick nor Mr. Norcross seemed to be able to account for it."

"Can you account for it?" I asked, bluntly enough, I guess.

At this she smiled and said, "It would be rather presumptuous for me to try where Mr. Norcross and Mr. Chadwick failed, wouldn't it? But maybe I can give you just a wee little hint. If you are not well enough acquainted with Mr. Chadwick to ask him yourself, you might tell Mr. Norcross to ask him if there isn't some strong reason why somebody, or perhaps a number of somebodies, wanted to keep him out of Portal City over Sunday night and possibly a part of the Monday."

We were coming to the big electric sign that was winking out the letters to spell "Hotel Bullard," and I was bound to have it out with her before my chance was gone.

"See here," I put in; "you saw something more than I did, and more than Mr. Norcross did. What was it?"

This time she took the motherly tone with me again and told me I must learn not to be rude and masterful, like the boss. Then she gave me what I was reaching for.

"You saw the two men who went over to the auto and smoked while they were waiting for the other two to come back?"

I told her that I hadn't seen them very well; couldn't, with nothing but the starlight to help out.

"Neither did I," she admitted. "But if I am not mistaken, I have seen them many times before, and they are very well known here in Portal City. One of them, the smaller one with the derby hat and the short overcoat, was either Mr. Rufus Hatch or his double; and the other, the heavy-set one, might have been Mr. Gustave Henckel, Mr. Hatch's partner in the Red Tower Company."

This didn't help out much, but you can bet that I made a note of the two names. We were just going into the hotel, so I didn't have a chance to ask any more questions; and after I had paid the porter for lugging the grips, Mrs. Sheila had made whatever arrangement she wanted to with the clerk, and she and Maisie Ann were ready to take the elevator.

"You are going back to Mr. Chadwick's car?" she asked, when she was telling me good-by and thanking me for coming up to the hotel with them.

I told her I was, and then she came around to the kidnapping business again of her own accord.

"You may give Mr. Norcross the hint I gave you, if you wish," she said; "only you must be a good boy, Jimmie, and not drag me into it. I couldn't be positively certain, you know, that the two men were really Mr. Hatch and Mr. Henckel. But if there is any reason why those two wouldn't want Mr. Chadwick to reach the city at the time he was counting on--"

"I see," I nodded; "it just puts the weight of the inference over on that side. I'll tell the boss, when I get a good chance, and you can bet your last dollar he won't tangle you up in it-he isn't put together that way."

"Well, then, good-night," she smiled, giving me her hand. And then: "Mr. Norcross says you'll be going on East to-morrow, and in that case it may be a long time before we meet again. After a while, after he has forgotten all about it, you may tell him from me-" She stopped and gave me that funny little laugh again that made her look so pretty, and said: "No, I guess you needn't, either." And with that she sort of edged the little girl into the elevator before we could get a chance to shake hands, and I heard her tell the boy to take them up to the mezzanine landing.

Since I didn't have any reason to suppose that the boss was needing me, I took my own time about going back to hunt for Mr. Chadwick's car in the railroad yards, loafing for a while in the Bullard lobby to rubber and look on at the people coming and going. You can tell pretty well how a town stacks up for business if you hit it between ten and eleven o'clock of a Sunday night and hang around its best hotel. If the town is dead, there won't be anybody stirring around the hotel at that hour. But Portal City seemed to be good and alive. There were lots of people knocking about on the sidewalks and drifting in and out of the lobby.

By and by, I went down to the station and began to hunt for the Alexa. The yard crew had side-tracked it on a spur down by the freight-house, and when I had stumbled over to it the negro porter remembered me well enough to let me in.

The boss and Mr. Chadwick were facing each other across the table, which was all littered up with papers and maps and reports, and they hardly noticed me when I blew in and sat down a little to one side. I had known well enough, when Mr. Norcross had turned the new offer down, that Mr. Chadwick wasn't going to let it go at that. It seemed that he hadn't; he had got the boss sufficiently interested to go over the papers with him, anyhow.

But just after I broke in, Mr. Norcross jumped up and began to pace back and forth before the table, with his hands in his pockets.

"No, I can't see it, Uncle John," he said, still sort of stubborn and determined. "You are trying to make me believe that I ought to take the biggest job that has ever been set before the expert in any field: to demonstrate, on this rotten corpse of a railroad, the solution of a problem that has the entire country guessing at the present time; namely, the winning of success, and public-and industrial-approval for a carrier corporation which had continuously and persistently broken every commandment in all the decalogues-of business; of fair-dealing with its employees; of common honesty with everybody."

Mr. Chadwick nodded. "That is about the size of it," he said.

"I wouldn't say that it can't be done," the boss went on. "Perhaps it is possible, for the right man. But I'm not the right man. You need somebody who can combine the qualities of a pretty brutal slugger with those of a fine-haired, all-things-to-all-men, diplomatic peacemaker. I can do the slugging; I've proved it a time or two in the past. But I'm no good at the other end of the game. When it comes to handling the fellow with a 'pull,' I've either got to smash him or quit."

At that Mr. Chadwick nodded again and said: "That is one of the reasons why I have reached out and picked you for the job. There will be a good bit of the slugging needed, at first, and I guess you can acquire the other things as you go along, can't you?"

"Not at this late day, I'm afraid. People who know me best call me a scrapper, and I've been living up to my reputation. Yesterday, when we were held up behind the freight wreck at Widner, I got off to see what we were in for. The conductor of our train had spotted me from seeing my pass, and I happened to hear him docketing me for the wrecking boss. He said I was known on the Midland as 'Hell-and-repeat' Norcross; that it was a habit with me to have a man for breakfast every morning."

"I can add a little something to that," Mr. Chadwic

k put in, quizzically. "Lepaige, your Oregon Midland president, says you need humanizing, and wonders why you haven't married some good woman who would knock the rough corners off. Why haven't you, Graham?"

The boss gave a short laugh. "Too busy," he said. "Past that, we might assume that the good woman hasn't presented herself. Let it go. The facts still stand. I am too heavy-handed for this job of yours. I should probably mix up with some of these grafters you've been telling me about and get a knife in my back. That would be all in the day's work, of course, but it would leave you right where you are now. And as for this other thing-the industrial side of it: that's a large order; a whaling big order. I'm not even prepared to say, off-hand, that it's the right thing to do."

"Right or wrong, it's a thing that is coming, Graham," was the sober reply. "If we don't meet it half-way-well, the time will come when we of the hiring-and-firing side won't be given any option in the matter. You may call it Utopian if you please, and add that I'm growing old and losing my grip. But that doesn't obliterate the fact that the days of the present master-and-man relations in the industries are numbered."

The boss shook his head. "As I say, I can't go that far with you, off-hand; and if I could, I should still doubt that I am the man to head your procession."

I thought that settled it, but that was because I didn't know Mr. Chadwick very well. The big wheat king just smiled up at the boss, sort of fatherly, and said:

"We'll let it rest until morning and give you a chance to sleep on it. You have spoken only of the difficulties and the responsibilities, Graham; but there is another side to it. In a way, it's an opportunity, carrying with it the promise of the biggest kind of a reward."

"I don't see it," said the boss, briefly.

"Don't you? I do. I have an idea rambling around in my head that it is about time some bright young fellow was demonstrating that problem you speak of-showing the people of the United States that a railroad needn't be regarded as an outlaw among the industries; needn't have the enmity of everybody it serves; needn't be the prey of a lot of disloyal and dissatisfied employees who are interested only in the figure of the pay-day check; needn't be shot at as a wolf with a bounty on its scalp. Let it rest at that for the present. Get your hat and we'll walk up-town to the hotel. I want to have a word with Dunton to-night, if I can shake him loose from his junketing bunch long enough to listen to it. Beyond that, I want to get hold of the sheriff and put him on the track of those hold-ups."

Here was a chance for me to butt in with the hint Mrs. Sheila had given me, but I didn't see how I was going to do it without giving her away. So I said the little end of nothing, just as hard as I could; and when we got out of the car, Mr. Norcross told me to go by the station and have our luggage sent to the hotel, and that killed whatever chance I might have had farther along.

It was some time after eleven o'clock when I got around to the hotel with the traps. The stir in the lobby had quieted down to make it seem a little more like Sunday night, but an automobile party had just come in, and some of the men were jawing at the clerk because the house wasn't serving a midnight theater supper in the café on the Sunday.

Mr. Chadwick had disappeared, but I saw the boss at the counter waiting for his chance at the clerk. The quarrelsome people melted away at last, all but one-a young swell who would have been handsome if he hadn't had the eyes of a maniac and a color that was sort of corpse-like with the pallor of a booze-fighter. He had his hat on the back of his head, and he was ripping it off at the clerk like a drunken hobo.

His ravings were so cluttered up with cuss-words that I couldn't get any more than the drift of them, but it seemed that he had caught a glimpse of somebody he knew-a woman, I took it, because he said "she"-looking down from the rail of the mezzanine, and he wanted to go up to her. And it appeared that the clerk had told the elevator man not to take him up in his present condition.

The boss was growing sort of impatient; I could tell it by the way the little side muscles on his jaw were working. When he got the ear of the clerk for a second or so between cusses, he asked what was the matter with the lunatic. I caught only broken bits of the clerk's half-whisper: "Young Collingwood ... President Dunton's nephew ... saw lady ... mezzanine ... wants to go up to her."

The boss scowled at the young fellow, who was now handing himself around the corner of the counter to get at the clerk again, and said: "Why don't you ring for an officer and have him run in?"

The night clerk was evidently scared of his job. "I wouldn't dare to do that," he chittered. "He's one of the New York crowd-the railroad people-President Dunton's nephew-guest of the house."

The young fellow had pulled himself around to our side of the counter by this time and was hooking his arm to make a pass at Mr. Norcross, trimming things up as he came with a lot more language. The boss said, right short and sharp, to the clerk, "Get his room key and give it to a boy who can show me the way," and the next thing we knew he had bashed that lunatic square in the face and was cuffing him along to the nearest elevator.

I guess it sort of surprised the clerk, and everybody else who happened to see it-but not me. It was just like the boss. He came back in a few minutes, looking as cool as a cucumber.

"What did you do with him?" asked the clerk, kind of awed and half scared.

"Got a couple of the corridor sweepers to put him in a bath and turn the cold water on him. That'll take the whiskey out of him. Now, if you have a minute to spare, I'd like to get my assignment."

We hadn't more than got our rooms marked off for us when I saw Mr. Chadwick coming across from the farther of the three elevators. He was smiling sort of grim, as if he'd made a killing of some sort with Mr. Dunton, and instead of heading back for his car he took the boss over to a corner of the lobby and sat down to smoke with him.

I circled around for a while, and after a bit Mr. Norcross held up a finger at me to bring him a match. They didn't seem to be talking anything private, so I sat down just beyond them, so sleepy that I could hardly see straight. Mr. Chadwick was telling about his early experiences in Portal City, how he blew in first on top of the Strathcona gold boom, and how he had known mighty near everybody in the region in those days.

While he was talking, a taxi drove up and one of the old residenters came in from the street and crossed to the elevators; a mighty handsome, stately old gentleman, with fierce white mustaches and a goatee, and "Southern Colonel" written all over him.

"There's one of them now; Major Basil Kendrick-Kentucky born and raised, as you might guess," Mr. Chadwick was saying. "Old-school Southern 'quality,' and as fine as they make 'em. He is a lawyer, but not in active practice: owns a mine or two in Strathcona Gulch, and is neither too rich nor too poor."

I grabbed at the name, "Basil," right away: it isn't such a very common name, and Mrs. Sheila had said something-under the water tank, you recollect-about a "Cousin Basil" who was to have met her at the train. I was putting two or three little private guesses of my own together, when one of the elevators came down and here came our two, the young lady and the chunky little girl, with the major chuckling and smiling and giving an arm to each. They had apparently stopped at the Bullard only to wait until he could come after them and take them home. Mrs. Sheila was looking just as pretty as ever, only now there wasn't a bit of color in her face, and her eyes seemed a good deal brighter, some way.

"Yes, indeed; the major is all right; as you'd find out for yourself if you'd make up your mind to stay in Portal City and get acquainted with him," Mr. Chadwick was going on; and by that time the major and the two pretty ones had come on to where the boss and Mr. Chadwick could see them.

I saw the boss sit up in his chair and stare at them. Then he said: "That's Mrs. Macrae with him now. Is she a member of his family?"

"A second cousin, or something of that sort," said Mr. Chadwick. "I met her once at the major's house out in the northern suburb last summer, and that's how I came to know her when you put her aboard of the Alexa back yonder in the gulch."

Mr. Norcross let the three of them get out and away, and we heard their taxi speed up and trundle off before he said, "She is married, I'm told. Where is her husband?"

Mr. Chadwick looked up as if he'd already forgotten the three who had just crossed the lobby.

"Who-Sheila Macrae? Yes, she has been married. But there isn't any husband-she's a widow."

For quite a while the boss sat staring at his cigar in a way he has when he is thinking right hard, and Mr. Chadwick let him alone, being busy, I guess, with his own little scrap that lay just ahead of him in the coming directors' meeting. Then, all of a sudden, the boss got up and shoved his hands into his coat pockets.

"I've changed my mind, Uncle John," he said, looking sort of absent-like out of the window to where the major's taxi had been standing. "If you can pull me into that deal to-morrow morning-with an absolutely free hand to do as I think best, mind you-I'll take the job."

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