The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part II: The Landlooker
At nine o'clock neither of the partners had appeared. Thorpe entered the office and approached the desk.
"Is there a telegram here for Harry Thorpe?" he inquired.
The clerk to whom he addressed himself merely motioned with his head toward a young fellow behind the railing in a corner. The latter, without awaiting the question, shifted comfortably and replied:
At the same instant steps were heard in the corridor, the door opened, and Mr. Morrison appeared on the sill. Then Thorpe showed the stuff of which he was made.
"Is this the desk for buying Government lands?" he asked hurriedly.
"Yes," replied the clerk.
"I have some descriptions I wish to buy in."
"Very well," replied the clerk, "what township?"
Thorpe detailed the figures, which he knew by heart, the clerk took from a cabinet the three books containing them, and spread them out on the counter. At this moment the bland voice of Mr. Morrison made itself heard at Thorpe's elbow.
"Good morning, Mr. Smithers," it said with the deliberation of the consciously great man. "I have a few descriptions I would like to buy in the northern peninsula."
"Good morning, Mr. Morrison. Archie there will attend to you. Archie, see what Mr. Morrison wishes."
The lumberman and the other clerk consulted in a low voice, after which the official turned to fumble among the records. Not finding what he wanted, he approached Smithers. A whispered consultation ensued between these two. Then Smithers called:
"Take a seat, Mr. Morrison. This gentleman is looking over these townships, and will have finished in a few minutes."
Morrison's eye suddenly became uneasy.
"I am somewhat busy this morning," he objected with a shade of command in his voice.
"If this gentleman---?" suggested the clerk delicately.
"I am sorry," put in Thorpe with brevity, "my time, too, is valuable."
Morrison looked at him sharply.
"My deal is a big one," he snapped. "I can probably arrange with this gentleman to let him have his farm."
"I claim precedence," replied Thorpe calmly.
"Well," said Morrison swift as light, "I'll tell you, Smithers. I'll leave my list of descriptions and a check with you. Give me a receipt, and mark my lands off after you've finished with this gentleman."
Now Government and State lands are the property of the man who pays for them. Although the clerk's receipt might not give Morrison a valid claim; nevertheless it would afford basis for a lawsuit. Thorpe saw the trap, and interposed.
"Hold on," he interrupted, "I claim precedence. You can give no receipt for any land in these townships until after my business is transacted. I have reason to believe that this gentleman and myself are both after the same descriptions."
"What!" shouted Morrison, assuming surprise.
"You will have to await your turn, Mr. Morrison," said the clerk, virtuous before so many witnesses.
The business man was in a white rage of excitement.
"I insist on my application being filed at once!" he cried waving his check. "I have the money right here to pay for every acre of it; and if I know the law, the first man to pay takes the land."
He slapped the check down on the rail, and hit it a number of times with the flat of his hand. Thorpe turned and faced him with a steel look in his level eyes.
"Mr. Morrison," he said, "you are quite right. The first man who pays gets the land; but I have won the first chance to pay. You will kindly step one side until I finish my business with Mr. Smithers here."
"I suppose you have the amount actually with you," said the clerk, quite respectfully, "because if you have not, Mr. Morrison's claim will take precedence."
"I would hardly have any business in a land office, if I did not know that," replied Thorpe, and began his dictation of the description as calmly as though his inside pocket contained the required amount in bank bills.
Thorpe's hopes had sunk to zero. After all, looking at the matter dispassionately, why should he expect Carpenter to trust him, a stranger, with so large a sum? It had been madness. Only the blind confidence of the fighting man led him further into the struggle. Another would have given up, would have stepped aside from the path of this bona-fide purchaser with the money in his hand.
But Thorpe was of the kind that hangs on until the last possible second, not so much in the expectation of winning, as in sheer reluctance to yield. Such men shoot their last cartridge before surrendering, swim the last ounce of strength from their arms before throwing them up to sink, search coolly until the latest moment for a way from the burning building,--and sometimes come face to face with miracles.
Thorpe's descriptions were contained in the battered little note- book he had carried with him in the woods. For each piece of land first there came the township described by latitude and east-and- west range. After this generic description followed another figure representing the section of that particular district. So 49--17 W--8, meant section 8, of the township on range 49 north, 17 west. If Thorpe wished to purchase the whole section, that description would suffice. On the other hand, if he wished to buy only one forty, he described its position in the quarter-section. Thus SW-- NW 49--17--8, meant the southwest forty of the northwest quarter of section 8 in the township already described.
The clerk marked across each square of his map as Thorpe read them, the date and the purchaser's name.
In his note-book Thorpe had, of course, entered the briefest description possible. Now, in dictating to the clerk, he conceived the idea of specifying each subdivision. This gained some time. Instead of saying simply, "Northwest quarter of section 8," he made of it four separate descriptions, as follows:--Northwest quarter of northwest quarter; northeast of northwest quarter; southwest of northwest quarter; and southeast of northwest quarter.
He was not so foolish as to read the descriptions in succession, but so scattered them that the clerk, putting down the figures mechanically, had no idea of the amount of unnecessary work he was doing. The minute hands of the clock dragged around. Thorpe droned down the long column. The clerk scratched industriously, repeating in a half voice each description as it was transcribed.
At length the task was finished. It became necessary to type duplicate lists of the descriptions. While the somnolent youth finished this task, Thorpe listened for the messenger boy on the stairs.
A faint slam was heard outside the rickety old building. Hasty steps sounded along the corridor. The landlooker merely stopped the drumming of his fingers on the broad arm of the chair. The door flew open, and Wallace Carpenter walked quickly to him.
Thorpe's face lighted up as he rose to greet his partner. The boy had not forgotten their compact after all.
"Then it's all right?" queried the latter breathlessly.
"Sure," answered Thorpe heartily, "got 'em in good shape."
At the same time he was drawing the youth beyond the vigilant watchfulness of Mr. Morrison.
"You're just in time," he said in an undertone. "Never had so close a squeak. I suppose you have cash or a certified check: that's all they'll take here."
"What do you mean?" asked Carpenter blankly.
"Haven't you that money?" returned Thorpe quick as a hawk.
"For Heaven's sake, isn't it here?" cried Wallace in consternation. "I wired Duncan, my banker, here last night, and received a reply from him. He answered that he'd see to it. Haven't you seen him?"
"No," repeated Thorpe in his turn.
"What can we do?"
"Can you get your check certified here near at hand?"
"Well, go do it. And get a move on you. You have precisely until that boy there finishes clicking that machine. Not a second longer."
"Can't you get them to wait a few minutes?"
"Wallace," said Thorpe, "do you see that white whiskered old lynx in the corner? That's Morrison, the man who wants to get our land. If I fail to plank down the cash the very instant it is demanded, he gets his chance. And he'll take it. Now, go. Don't hurry until you get beyond the door: then fly!"
Thorpe sat down again in his broad-armed chair and resumed his drumming. The nearest bank was six blocks away. He counted over in his mind the steps of Carpenter's progress; now to the door, now in the next block, now so far beyond. He had just escorted him to the door of the bank, when the clerk's voice broke in on him.
"Now," Smithers was saying, "I'll give you a receipt for the amount, and later will send to your address the title deeds of the descriptions."
Carpenter had yet to find the proper official, to identify himself, to certify the check, and to return. It was hopeless. Thorpe dropped his hands in surrender.
Then he saw the boy lay the two typed lists before his principal, and dimly he perceived that the youth, shamefacedly, was holding something bulky toward himself.
"Wh--what is it?" he stammered, drawing his hand back as though from a red-hot iron.
"You asked me for a telegram," said the boy stubbornly, as though trying to excuse himself, "and I didn't just catch the name, anyway. When I saw it on those lists I had to copy, I thought of this here."
"Where'd you get it?" asked Thorpe breathlessly.
"A fellow came here early and left it for you while I was sweeping out," explained the boy. "Said he had to catch a train. It's yours all right, ain't it?"
"Oh, yes," replied Thorpe.
He took the envelope and walked uncertainly to the tall window. He looked out at the chimneys. After a moment he tore open the envelope.
"I hope there's no bad news, sir?" said the clerk, startled at the paleness of the face Thorpe turned to the desk.
"No," replied the landlooker. "Give me a receipt. There's a certified check for your money!"