The Long Chance by Peter B. Kyne
It must have been a sublime faith in that homely adage that there are more ways of killing a cat than by choking him with butter which moved Bob McGraw to cudgel his nimble brain until he had discovered exactly how it would be possible for him to accomplish legally what every freebooter with an appraising eye on the public domain is troubled to accomplish illegally. The sole difference between Bob's projected course and that of his competitors' would be a slightly lessened profit; but after inventorying a free and easy conscience and posting it to the credit side of his profit and loss account, Bob knew that this apparent difference would dwindle until it would be scarcely perceptible.
Immediately after breakfast on the morning of the day following his interview with Homer Dunstan, Bob set to work to draw up the circular letter and contract form, to be submitted later to his prospective clients. In about fifteen minutes he had outlined the following:
THE PROPOSITION IS THIS
I have information of some state lieu lands which I believe can be taken up under the State laws at $1.25 per acre. The right to buy them will very probably have to be established and enforced by legal proceedings.
Now, this right to purchase state lieu lands is a limited personal right. (See Political Code, Section 3495, et seq.) I am willing to try to make YOUR right good to a tract of this land, under the conditions of the contract herewith. I am willing to stand the expenses of suit to enforce your right, and to advance for you the legal fees and the first preliminary payment to the state, on the chance of being able to secure you something sufficiently valuable to justify you in paying me the fee provided for in the contract. Read the contract carefully and note that you retain the right to cancel it and relieve yourself of all obligation in the matter by abandoning your claim to the land.
READ THE CONTRACT CAREFULLY BEFORE YOU SIGN IT. BE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND JUST WHAT YOU ARE DOING.
"That looks like fair warning" mused Mr. McGraw, as he reread this document. "I defy any man to look between the lines and scent my hocus- pocus game."
Bob next proceeded to draw up the contract. It was a simple contract, framed in language that could not fail of comprehension by the dullest mind. For and in consideration of the sum of one dollar, the receipt whereof was duly acknowledged, Bob McGraw agreed to furnish, his applicants for land with certain valuable information, whereby the applicant would be enabled to file, or tender his application for, certain state lieu lands, "bounded and particularly described as follows:" (Here he left a space sufficient for the insertion, at a later date, of the exact description of the lands he desired; the descriptions he would glean from maps of the valley on sale in the United States Land Office in San Francisco.)
He agreed to tender the application of his client to the State Land Office and to conduct, at his own expense, any litigation that might arise or become necessary to establish the right of his client to purchase the land from the state; stipulating, however, that he (McGraw) should be the sole judge of the necessity for such litigation. He agreed to pay the filing fees and the first payment on the land, required at the time of filing the application, and to represent the applicant before the state land office; also to notify his client, by registered letter, at the address given him, whenever the application should be approved; and it was distinctly stipulated that the applicant should not be required to elect whether or not he would abandon the application until served with this written notice!
In consideration, also, of the services, fees and costs provided for in the contract, Mr. McGraw would make a charge of Three Dollars per acre for all, or any part, of the land which the applicant might be awarded the opportunity to purchase; this fee to be payable to him, his heirs or assigns, if and whenever the application of his client should be duly approved by the Registrar of the State Land Office.
In consideration of these covenants, the applicant was to bind himself to pay Mr. Robert McGraw the stipulated fee of Three Dollars per acre, in addition to the One Dollar and Twenty-five Cents per acre demanded by the state, reserving, however, the right to abandon his filing at any time prior to its approval by the Registrar of the State Land Office, but pledging himself not to abandon without first furnishing his attorney (Robert McGraw) with a proper instrument of abandonment, in order that some other person might be located on the land. In addition the applicant was required to state that he was duly qualified, under the law, to make the application and that he had read both the application form and the contract and was familiar with the section of the code under which he made it.
A critical perusal of the terms of this shrewd contract will readily convince even a layman that it was perfectly legal. Bob hurled mental defiance at every legal light in the country to prove collusion and conspiracy to defraud under that contract. It proved merely that Bob McGraw was acting in his capacity as a duly authorized attorney-at-law, seeking to turn an honest penny.
Now, in the first place, the abandonment clause in the contract, while not holding his client to the contract, nevertheless held the land to Bob McGraw! He anticipated that, in the event of his success in forcing the registrar of the state land office to accept and approve the applications, the land ring would immediately seek out each applicant, charge the applicant with being a party to a gigantic land fraud conspiracy and threaten him with a Federal Grand Jury investigation in case he did not at once abandon his filing! The poor and the ignorant are easily intimidated, and Bob McGraw had figured on this. In the event of "cold feet" on the part of his applicant, the applicant would come to him, to abandon, as per the terms of the contract, but by that time Bob would have a man with nerve to take his place, and his scheme would still be impervious to "leaks!" While the land was "tied up" by a McGraw applicant, Bob knew the enemy could not get it.
When Bob's clients signed that contract, it meant nothing! But the moment the applications were approved for patent, and the State Land Office had so notified him, and he, in turn, had so notified his clients, his clients were no longer his clients. They were his victims! His contract then constituted a promissory note, and Mr. McGraw knew enough law to realize that failure to pay a promissory note or perform a contract is actionable. Should his client repudiate the contract prior to the approval of the application, he was safe; but to repudiate it after approval and after Bob McGraw had advanced him the money to pay for the land--ah, that was a different matter. Bob McGraw knew he could secure a judgment against his unfortunate client in any court of law in the country--and the land was good for the judgment! Having advanced the cash to purchase the land for his clients, Bob McGraw would hold that deadly contract over their heads as security for the advance!
Under the terms of the contract, when fulfilled, each client would owe Bob his three dollars per acre on six hundred and forty acres, or a total of one thousand nine hundred and forty dollars as a legal attorney's fee, and to the clients that Bob McGraw intended to select, a debt of such magnitude would loom up in all the pristine horror of the end of the world at hand and salvation not yet in sight. With, malice aforethought the promoter of Donnaville was trading on the credulity of the very people he planned to benefit! He knew with what ease the poor rush into debt where the creditor requires nothing down; he knew also the avidity with which they grasp the first means of escape from the burden, once it becomes onerous; and at the thought the villain McGraw chuckled pleasurably.
"Once under the McGraw thumb, and I have them! I'll demand cash on the nail for my services. They will be unable to pay me. I'll harass them and threaten to sue them, and then, when I have them thoroughly cowed, I'll send a secret agent around to buy their land from them at ten dollars an acre. After using their constitutional right to purchase lieu lands, they are entitled to a profit on the investment, and besides, I must show a 'valuable consideration' or have a secret service operative trailing me.
"However, I will not have sufficient funds on hand to pay them ten dollars per acre spot cash, so I shall turn over to them their signed contracts and thus relieve them of that bugbear, and for these three- dollar contracts they shall credit me with a payment of four dollars and twenty-five cents per acre on the land! I will secure them for the balance by a first mortgage on the property! And with that accomplished, I court an official investigation. Come on, you secret service operatives, and prove Bob McGraw a crook. I am a crook, and I know it, but nobody else shall know it and I have never been accused of talking in my sleep. I'm a crook, but I'm an honest crook, and the ends justify the means. Besides, I'm going to present every one of my clients with a cheek for three thousand six hundred and seventy dollars for the mere scratch of a pen and the use of their constitutional right to purchase lieu land. Why, I'm a philanthropist! I'm going to make fifty men happy by giving them a lot of money for something they never knew they had. Three thousand six hundred and seventy dollars for the use of one constitutional right, when the market price is a hundred! McGraw, my boy, this must never leak out. If it does, your sanity will be questioned, in addition to your morality."
Thus figured Bob McGraw, the sage of Donnaville. Let him but get his applications past the land ring's tool in the state land office, and a receipt issued for his first payment, and Donnaville would be no longer a dream. Should the applications be rejected later on some flimsy pretext, he would commence a mandamus suit to enforce the selection of his lands, and force action of the pending applications of the land ring, whereby they so artfully "tied up the basis" of exchange. If he should find himself opposed by a corrupt judge who should rule against him, he would not be daunted. If beaten in the Superior Court he would appeal the case to the United States Circuit Court, for Bob McGraw had a sublime faith in the ability of Truth, crushed to earth, to rise again and kick the underpinning from crookedness and graft, provided one never acknowledged defeat. And he could go into court with clean hands, for he broke no law himself and he would induce no one else to break it, in thought, spirit or action!
The road to Donnaville stretched ahead of him now, smooth and white and free from ruts, and with but one bridge to cross. For the successful crossing of that bridge Bob McGraw had not evolved a plan, for he was merely a human being, and human cunning has its limitations. It was a bridge which he must cross when he came to it. He only knew that he must make the effort on a certain day--the day that Owens river valley should be thrown open to entry. He must be first at the window of the land office, and once before that window, the future of Donnaville, the future of Bob McGraw and his sweetheart in San Pasqual, lay in the laps of the gods. He must manage somehow to get his applications filed that day, without designating the basis of the exchange of school lands for the lieu lands which he sought; for that was information which Bob McGraw did not possess, and should it come into his possession the day after the valley was opened for entry, it would be worthless; for the land ring, in the parlance of the present day, would have "beaten him to it."
To get those precious filings accepted! That was all that worried him now. Prior to his visit to Homer Dunstan, this task had seemed to Bob the least of his worries compared with the titanic task of accumulating the money necessary to pay for the land when the filings should be approved. Yesterday everything had revolved around the necessity for thirty-nine thousand dollars, until the contemplation of this monetary axis had threatened to set his reason tottering on its throne. But that worry no longer existed. Homer Dunstan had indicated very clearly to Bob that he considered him insane, but Homer Dunstan had pledged him the thirty-nine thousand dollars when he could come to him with the notification from the Registrar of the State Land Office that the lands had been passed to patent, and Bob knew that Dunstan would keep his word, provided his death did not occur prior to the granting of the patents.
The rough draft of the contract having been drawn up to his satisfaction, Bob sallied forth in search of a public stenographer. He knew that he had evolved rather a clever scheme, and he was averse to permitting the details of his plan to fall under the comprehending eye of some boss printer, whose enterprise might perchance soar beyond the boundaries of his vocation. So Bob sought, instead, a public stenographer and had his copy multigraphed by a young lady whose interest could never, by any possibility, center in anything more than her fee.
The job was delivered two days later, and with the knowledge that he had thirty days in which to make the acquaintance of his fifty prospective clients, Bob resolved to devote one more week to the problem of still further recruiting his shattered vitality before getting down to active work.
He spent that week wandering through Golden Gate Park, along the romantic and picturesque San Francisco water-front, and in moving- picture shows. Each morning, before starting for the day's wanderings, he wrote a long letter to Donna and then waited for the first mail delivery for her letter to him. Those letters came with unfailing regularity, and in that city where Bob McGraw prowled through the day, unknown and unnoticed, there was no man so free from the curse of loneliness as he. The very opening line in Donna's matutinal greeting--"My Dear Sweetheart"--routed the blue devils that camped nightly on his worried and harassed soul, as he lay abed and wrestled with the mighty problems that confronted him. To Bob McGraw those three words held the open-sesame of life; they gave him strength to cling to his high, resolve; they whispered to him of the prize of the conflict which awaited him at the end of his long road to Donnaville, and sent him forth to face the world with a smile on his dauntless face and a lilt in his great kind heart.
Time glided by on weary wings, but eventually the day arrived for Bob to open his campaign. He must clear for action. It was imperative that he must have his fifty applications filled out and the signatures of his clients attested before a notary public on the very date upon which the desert of Owens river valley would be opened for entry, for to have them dated the day before would nullify them--to arrive with them at the land office the day after would be too late. Bob was obsessed with a suspicion that amounted almost to a conviction that the land ring would endeavor to acquire the desert valley by practically the same method which he was pursuing, only for every section of lieu land upon which they filed, they would be enabled to show a corresponding loss of school lands. His line of reasoning had convinced him that they had caused dummy entrymen to file on worthless lands in some other part of the state, in order that these bases might appear of record in the land office as already used, in case of an investigation; he was equally convinced that these dummy applications had never been acted upon in the land office, but were being held up there until the land ring was ready to act, when their dummy entrymen would abandon their filings on the worthless land, thus throwing the original basis open for use once more and permitting the land ring to step in with other dummy entrymen and use the basis for the acquisition of valuable lands. It was absurdly simple when one understood it and took the time to reason it out.
Of one thing Bob was morally certain. The representative of the land ring would be on hand, bright and early, to file the dummy applications. Bob decided, therefore, that the field of his operations until that eventful day must be confined to the state capital, Sacramento, where the state land office was located. He must recruit his little army of applicants from the capital itself, attest their applications before a notary public after midnight of the day preceding the opening of the valley for entry, and be first at the filing window when the land office opened.
Accordingly Bob proceeded to Sacramento. Immediately upon his arrival he rented a cheap back office, a desk and some chairs, and for the time being announced himself to the world, through the medium of a modest sign on his office door, as The Desert Development Company. The following day he set to work.
He interviewed street sweepers, hotel porters, cab drivers newspaper reporters, milk-wagon drivers, barkeepers and laborers along the river docks--in fact every follower of an occupation which Bob judged might be sufficiently unremunerative to keep its votaries in poverty as long as they persisted in sticking to it. By discreet questioning he learned whether the prospective client had money in bank, or was involved in debt. If the former, Bob terminated his interview and neglected to return; if the latter, Bob would present the victim with a good cigar and proceed to unfold a tale of wealth in desert lands.
To these men Bob explained every detail of his proposition and gave them a copy of his contract form and his explanatory circular attached. He answered all their questions patiently--and satisfactorily, and he was particularly insistent upon calling to their attention the fact that they were not required to put up a single dollar in order to acquire the land. Naturally, this seeming philanthropy immediately inspired suspicion and a request for information as to what was in the deal for Mr. McGraw; whereupon Mr. McGraw would point proudly to that clause in the contract which stipulated a three-dollar-per-acre fee and inform them that he had private and reliable information of not less than two irrigation schemes which were being projected in the valley-- schemes which would give their apparently worthless land a value of at least ten dollars per acre and enable both Mr. McGraw and his client to turn a nice little profit together. He showed them where he was helpless without them and where they were profitless without him, and to make a profit of three dollars per acre for himself he was willing to buy the land for them and take their promissory notes in payment. More: he would agree to carry them for the land until they had an opportunity to sell out at a profit of at least three thousand dollars! Mr. McGraw demanded to know if anything could possibly be fairer than that.
It could not, and the clients were forced to admit it. Win, lose or draw, it cost them nothing to play the game with Bob McGraw. After all is said and done the average human being is a gambler and likes long odds, and Bob's prospective clients were not so deficient in intelligence as in ready cash. They knew that desert land without irrigation is worthless; that no man would advance them money to purchase it at $1.25 per acre unless he saw a profit in the deal for himself. Consequently, irrigation was the only solution of that problematic increase in value, and if Mr. McGraw could afford a flyer so could they.
Bob had foreseen this line of reasoning, for he knew that spot cash is the bugbear of life and that a good salesman can sell anything provided he sells it on time. Long before the expiration of the period he had set himself to accomplish this task, he had signed up fifty eager applicants for desert land, procured their addresses and then retired to his little back office to write letters to Donna and await the rising of the sun on his day of destiny.
The day preceding the one on which the valley would be opened for entry was a busy one for Bob McGraw. His cash reserve was beginning to run so low that he decided to save the dollar postage necessary to remind his clients that they were to meet him in his office at midnight of that day; consequently, and in view of the fact that his old-time strength practically had been restored to him, he walked several miles in order to call upon his clients at their places of employment and secure from their lips a solemn promise to be on hand at the appointed hour. His apparent anxiety made them all the more eager to sign up with him, and not a single client failed him.
This matter attended to, Bob engaged a notary public, with instructions to meet him at his office at midnight. By eleven-thirty the corridors of the silent office building were thronged with the eager fifty; at eleven-forty-five the notary arrived and at exactly one minute past midnight Bob commenced to sign his clients up. The notarial blanks had already been filled out and, together with the notary's seal, had been attached to each contract. In addition to the contract Bob took a power-of-attorney in duplicate from each applicant; the notary swore each of the fifty applicants in as many minutes, Bob paid him twenty- five dollars and he departed; after which Bob made a short speech to his clients and exhorted them to stand by their guns in the event of influence being brought to bear upon them to abandon their filings; whereupon the fifty gave him their promises, collectively and individually, shook the hand of their benefactor and departed to their homes.
Nothing now remained for Bob to do except present his fifty applications for filing at the land office in the morning, and realizing the truth of that ancient saw anent the early bird and the resulting breakfast he decided to wait in the office until it should be time for him to go to the land office. In the meantime, he decided to while away the lonely hours by a review of his financial status, so he locked the door and devoted the succeeding five minutes to the comparatively trifling task of counting his money and figuring on the outlay necessary to carry him back to San Pasqual. He was horrified to discover that after providing twelve hundred and fifty dollars for the registrar of the state land office (in the event that the day of miracles was not yet past and his filings should be accepted), his return journey by rail would terminate somewhere in the heart of the San Joaquin valley. Even after pawning his gun, Mr. McGraw could still see, in his mind's eye, at least one hundred miles of dusty county road stretching between him and San Pasqual, and he was not so conceited as to imagine that he was strong enough to walk a hundred miles with nothing more tangible than the scenery to sustain him en route. Moreover, he had promised Donna that they should be married immediately upon his return. The situation was truly embarrassing, and Mr. McGraw cast about him for a means to extricate himself from his terrible predicament. In his agony he saw a flash of light--and smiled as he realized that it radiated from Mr. Harley P. Hennage's three gold teeth.
"Saved!" quavered Mr. McGraw. "Good old Harley P! I'll just touch the old boy for that fifty again, in case I need it. If they accept my applications, I'll have to assault Harley, and if they decline the applications I will still have my twelve hundred and fifty. But in the meantime I'll write to Hennage and tell him frankly just how I'm fixed, and if it comes to a show-down I'll drop the letter in the mail, return to San Francisco and wait for him to send me a postal money order."
He turned to his desk, drew a blank sheet of paper toward him and indited a brief note to Mr. Hennage.
Dear Harley P.:
I have just made the discovery that I was too precipitate in paying you that fifty I owed you for three years. I am a financial wreck on a lee shore, but with millions in sight, and I will be very grateful if you will strain your good nature long enough to send me a P. O. order for the aforesaid fifty, addressing me General Delivery, San Francisco. I will explain the transaction to you when I get back to San Pasqual, merely mentioning in passing that until you send me the fifty the prospects for my immediate return are, to say the least, somewhat vague. I never could walk very far in my Sunday shoes.
Thanking you, my dear Harley, until you are better paid, believe me to be
Your sincere friend, ROBERT MCGRAW.
This communication Bob folded and sealed in an envelope. He was too preoccupied in the folding to notice that he had folded two sheets of paper instead of one. The second sheet was a spare copy of his marvelous contract for the acquisition of desert lands, which through some accident had become mixed, with the printed side up, among some loose sheets of blank legal-size typewriter paper which the unconventional Robert had purchased in the pursuit of his correspondence with Donna. His choice of letter paper was characteristic of Bob. He was a man who required room in which to operate.
His letter sealed and stamped, Bob slipped it into his pocket, lifted his long legs to the top of his rented desk, tilted back his chair, lit a cigar and gave himself up to the contemplation of his future. Providentially, his future, as he viewed it there in that lonely office, waiting to see what the dawn would bring to him of wealth or woe, was sufficiently indefinite to keep his fertile brain actively employed until, far off in the city, he heard a clock booming the hour of six; when he yawned, closed down his desk, picked up his suit-case which stood, packed with, his few poor possessions in one corner, and departed.
In an all-night restaurant he ate a hurried breakfast; then, suit-case in hand, walked over to the capitol building. The capitol grounds were deserted as he strolled through, entered the State House and passed down a dim deserted corridor until he came to the door of the state land office. He had definitely located the office, the previous day, in order to provide against possible fatal delay in finding it this morning. Apparently he was the sole applicant for desert lands that morning, and anticipating that there would be no great rush to file entries he set his suit-case down in the corridor, sat himself on the suit-case and waited for the office to open for business. In order to make certain that he would not be usurped in line, however, when the office opened for business, he had placed his suitcase directly in front of the door, against which he leaned his weary back. The door, he noticed, opened from within. In case it opened secretly, Mr. McGraw would thus fall into the surveyor-general's office, and hardy, indeed, would be he who could dispute his claim to priority in the line. In fact, so satisfied was he with this strategic position, and so tired and drowsy was he withal, that presently he relaxed his determination to remain wide awake.