Chapter 2. The Freebooter
 

When next Virginia Balfour saw Waring Ridgway she was driving her trap down one of the hit-or-miss streets of Mesa, where derricks, shaft-houses, and gray slag-dumps shoulder ornate mansions conglomerate of many unharmonious details of architecture. To Miss Balfour these composites and their owners would have been joys unalloyed except for the microbe of society ambition that was infecting the latter, and transforming them from simple, robust, self-reliant Westerners into a class of servile, nondescript newly rich, that resembled their unfettered selves as much as tame bears do the grizzlies of their own Rockies. As she had once complained smilingly to Hobart, she had not come to the West to study ragged edges of the social fringe. She might have done that in New York.

Virginia was still a block or two from the court-house on the hill, when it emptied into the street a concourse of excited men. That this was an occasion of some sort it was easy to guess, and of what sort she began to have an inkling, when Ridgway came out, the center of a circle of congratulating admirers. She was obliged to admit that he accepted their applause without in the least losing his head. Indeed, he took it as imperturbably as did Hobart, against whom a wave of the enthusiasm seemed to be directed in the form of a jeer, when he passed down the steps with Mott, one of the Consolidated lawyers. Miss Balfour timed her approach to meet Hobart at a right angle.

"What is it all about?" she asked, after he had reached her side.

"Judge Purcell has just decided the Never Say Die case in favor of Mr. Ridgway and against the Consolidated."

"Is that a great victory for him?"

"Yes, it's a victory, though, of course, we appeal," admitted Hobart. "But we can't say we didn't expect it," he added cheerfully.

"Mayn't I give you a lift if you are going down-town?" she said quickly, for Ridgway, having detached himself from the group, was working toward her, and she felt an instinctive sympathy for the man who had lost. Furthermore, she had something she wanted to tell him before he heard it on the tongue of rumor.

"Since you are so kind;" and he climbed to the place beside her.

"Congratulate me, Miss Balfour," demanded Ridgway, as he shook hands with her, nodding coolly at her companion. "I'm a million dollars richer than I was an hour ago. I have met the enemy and he is mine."

Virginia, resenting the bad taste of his jeer at the man who sat beside her, misunderstood him promptly. "Did you say you had met the enemy and won his mine?"

He laughed. "You're a good one!"

"Thank you very much for this unsolicited testimonial," she said gravely. "In the meantime, to avoid a congestion of traffic, we'll be moving, if you will kindly give me back my front left wheel."

He did not lift his foot from the spoke on which it rested. "My congratulations," he reminded her.

"I wish you all the joy in your victory that you deserve, and I hope the supreme court will reaffirm the decision of Judge Purcell, if it is a just one," was the form in which she acceded to his demand.

She flicked her whip, and Ridgway fell back, laughing. "You've been subsidized by the Consolidated," he shouted after her.

Hobart watched silently the businesslike directness with which the girl handled the ribbons. She looked every inch the thoroughbred in her well-made covert coat and dainty driving gauntlets. The grace of the alert, slender figure, the perfect poise of the beautiful little tawny head, proclaimed her distinction no less certainly than the fine modeling of the mobile face. It was a distinction that stirred the pulse of his emotion and disarmed his keen, critical sense. Ridgway could study her with an amused, detached interest, but Hobart's admiration had traveled past that point. He found it as impossible to define her charm as to evade it. Her inheritance of blood and her environment should have made her a finished product of civilization, but her salty breeziness, her nerve, vivid as a flame at times, disturbed delightfully the poise that held her when in repose.

When Virginia spoke, it was to ask abruptly: "Is it really his mine?"

"Judge Purcell says so."

"But do you think so--down in the bottom of your heart?"

"Wouldn't I naturally be prejudiced?"

"I suppose you would. Everybody in Mesa seems to have taken sides either with Mr. Ridgway or the Consolidated. Still, you have an option. Is he what his friends proclaim him--the generous-hearted independent fighting against trust domination? Or is he merely an audacious ore-thief, as his enemies say? The truth must be somewhere."

"It seems to lie mostly in point of view here the angle of observation being determined by interest," he answered.

"And from your angle of observation?"

"He is the most unusual man I ever saw, the most resourceful and the most competent. He never knows when he is beaten. I suppose that's the reason he never is beaten finally. We have driven him to the wall a score of times. My experience with him is that he's most dangerous when one thinks he must be about hammered out. He always hits back then in the most daring and unexpected way."

"With a coupling-pin," she suggested with a little reminiscent laugh.

"Metaphorically speaking. He reaches for the first effective weapon to his hand."

"You haven't quite answered my question yet," she reminded him. "Is he what his friends or what his enemies think him?"

"If you ask me I can only say that I'm one of his enemies."

"But a fair-minded man," she replied quickly.

"Thank you. Then I'll say that perhaps he is neither just what his friends or his foes think him. One must make allowances for his training and temperament, and for that quality of bigness in him. 'Mediocre men go soberly on the highroads, but saints and scoundrels meet in the jails,'" he smilingly quoted.

"He would make a queer sort of saint," she laughed.

"A typical twentieth century one of a money-mad age."

She liked it in him that he would not use the opportunity she had made to sneer at his adversary, none the less because she knew that Ridgway might not have been so scrupulous in his place. That Lyndon Hobart's fastidious instincts for fair play had stood in the way of his success in the fight to down Ridgway she had repeatedly heard. Of late, rumors had persisted in reporting dissatisfaction with his management of the Consolidated at the great financial center on Broadway which controlled the big copper company. Simon Harley, the dominating factor in the octopus whose tentacles reached out in every direction to monopolize the avenues of wealth, demanded of his subordinates results. Methods were no concern of his, and failure could not be explained to him. He wanted Ridgway crushed, and the pulse of the copper production regulated lay the Consolidated. Instead, he had seen Ridgway rise steadily to power and wealth despite his efforts to wipe him off the slate. Hobart was perfectly aware that his head was likely to fall when Harley heard of Purcell's decision in regard to the Never Say Die.

"He certainly is an amazing man," Virginia mused, her fiancee in mind. "It would be interesting to discover what he can't do--along utilitarian lines, I mean. Is he as good a miner underground as he is in the courts?" she flung out.

"He is the shrewdest investor I know. Time and again he has leased or bought apparently worthless claims, and made them pay inside of a few weeks. Take the Taurus as a case in point. He struck rich ore in a fortnight. Other men had done development work for years and found nothing."

"I'm naturally interested in knowing all about him, because I have just become engaged to him," explained Miss Virginia, as calmly as if her pulse were not fluttering a hundred to the minute

Virginia was essentially a sportsman. She did not flinch from the guns when the firing was heavy. It had been remarked of her even as a child that she liked to get unpleasant things over with as soon as possible, rather than postpone them. Once, aetat eight, she had marched in to her mother like a stoic and announced: "I've come to be whipped, momsie, 'cause I broke that horrid little Nellie Vaile's doll. I did it on purpose, 'cause I was mad at her. I'm glad I broke it, so there!"

Hobart paled slightly beneath his outdoors Western tan, but his eyes met hers very steadily and fairly. "I wish you happiness, Miss Balfour, from the bottom of my heart."

She nodded a brisk "Thank you," and directed her attention again to the horses.

"Take him by and large, Mr. Ridgway is the most capable, energetic, and far-sighted business man I have ever known. He has a bigger grasp of things than almost any financier in the country. I think you'll find he will go far," he said, choosing his words with care to say as much for Waring Ridgway as he honestly could.

"I have always thought so," agreed Virginia.

She had reason for thinking so in that young man's remarkable career. When Waring Ridgway had first come to Mesa he had been a draftsman for the Consolidated at five dollars a day. He was just out of Cornell, and his assets consisted mainly of a supreme confidence in himself and an imposing presence. He was a born leader, and he flung himself into the raw, turbid life of the mining town with a readiness that had not a little to do with his subsequent success.

That success began to take tangible form almost from the first. A small, independent smelter that had for long been working at a loss was about to fall into the hands of the Consolidated when Ridgway bought it on promises to pay, made good by raising money on a flying trip he took to the East. His father died about this time and left him fifty thousand dollars, with which he bought the Taurus, a mine in which several adventurous spirits had dropped small fortunes. He acquired other properties; a lease here, an interest there. It began to be observed that he bought always with judgment. He seemed to have the touch of Midas. Where other men had lost money he made it.

When the officers of the Consolidated woke up to the menace of his presence, one of their lawyers called on him. The agent of the Consolidated smiled at his luxurious offices, which looked more like a woman's boudoir than the business place of a Western miner. But that was merely part of Ridgway's vanity, and did not in the least interfere with his predatory instincts. Many people who walked into that parlor to do business played fly to his spider.

The lawyer had been ready to patronize the upstart who had ventured so boldly into the territory of the great trust, but one glance at the clear-cut resolute face of the young man changed his mind.

"I've come to make you an offer for your smelter, Mr. Ridgway," he began. "We'll take it off your hands at the price it cost you."

"Not for sale, Mr. Bartel."

"Very well. We'll give you ten thousand more than you paid for it."

"You misunderstand me. It is not for sale."

"Oh, come! You bought it to sell to us. What can you do with it?"

"Run it," suggested Ridgway.

"Without ore?"

"You forget that I own a few properties, and have leases on others. When the Taurus begins producing, I'll have enough to keep the smelter going."

"When the Taurus begins producing?"--Bartel smiled skeptically. "Didn't Johnson and Leroy drop fortunes on that expectation?"

"I'll bet five thousand dollars we make a strike within two weeks."

"Chimerical!" pronounced the graybeard as he rose to go, with an air of finality. "Better sell the smelter while you have the chance."

"Think not," disagreed Ridgway.

At the door the lawyer turned. "Oh, there's another matter! It had slipped my mind." He spoke with rather elaborate carelessness. "It seems that there is a little triangle--about ten and four feet across--wedged in between the Mary K, the Diamond King, and the Marcus Daly. For some reason we accidentally omitted to file on it. Our chief engineer finds that you have taken it up, Mr. Ridgway. It is really of no value, but it is in the heart of our properties, and so it ought to belong to us. Of course, it is of no use to you. There isn't any possible room to sink a shaft. We'll take it from you if you like, and even pay you a nominal price. For what will you sell?"

Ridgway lit a cigar before he answered: "One million dollars."

"What?" screamed Bartel.

"Not a cent less. I call it the Trust Buster. Before I'm through, you'll find it is worth that to me."

The lawyer reported him demented to the Consolidated officials, who declared war on him from that day.

They found the young adventurer more than prepared for them. If he had a Napoleonic sense of big vital factors, he had no less a genius for detail. He had already picked up an intimate knowledge of the hundreds of veins and crossveins that traverse the Mesa copper-fields, and he had delved patiently into the tangled history of the litigation that the defective mining laws in pioneer days had made possible. When the Consolidated attempted to harass him by legal process, he countered by instituting a score of suits against the company within the week. These had to do with wills, insanity cases, extra lateral rights, mine titles, and land and water rights. Wherever Ridgway saw room for an entering wedge to dispute the title of the Consolidated, he drove a new suit home. To say the least, the trust found it annoying to be enjoined from working its mines, to be cited for contempt before judges employed in the interests of its opponent, to be served with restraining orders when clearly within its rights. But when these adverse legal decisions began to affect vital issues, the Consolidated looked for reasons why Ridgway should control the courts. It found them in politics.

For Ridgway was already dominating the politics of Yuba County, displaying an amazing acumen and a surprising ability as a stumpspeaker. He posed as a friend of the people, an enemy of the trust. He declared an eight-hour day for his own miners, and called upon the Consolidated to do the same. Hobart refused, acting on orders from Broadway, and fifteen thousand Consolidated miners went to the polls and reelected Ridgway's corrupt judges, in spite of the fight the Consolidated was making against them.

Meanwhile, Ridgway's colossal audacity made the Consolidated's copper pay for the litigation with which he was harassing it. In following his ore-veins, or what he claimed to be his veins, he crossed boldly into the territory of the enemy. By the law of extra lateral rights, a man is entitled to mine within the lines of other property than his own, provided he is following the dip of a vein which has its apex in his claim. Ridgway's experts were prepared to swear that all the best veins in the field apexed in his property. Pending decisions of the courts, they assumed it, tunneling through granite till they tapped the veins of the Consolidated mines, meanwhile enjoining that company from working the very ore of which Ridgway was robbing it.

Many times the great trust back of the Consolidated had him close to ruin, but Ridgway's alert brain and supreme audacity carried him through. From their mines or from his own he always succeeded in extracting enough ore to meet his obligations when they fell due. His powerful enemy, as Hobart had told Miss Balfour, found him most dangerous when it seemed to have him with his back to the wall. Then unexpectedly would fall some crushing blow that put the financial kings of Broadway on the defensive long enough for him to slip out of the corner into which they had driven him. Greatly daring, he had the successful cavalryman's instinct of risking much to gain much. A gambler, his enemies characterized him fitly enough. But it was also true, as Mesa phrased it, that he gambled "with the lid off," playing for large stakes, neither asking nor giving quarter.

At the end of five years of desperate fighting, the freebooter was more strongly entrenched than he had been at any previous time. The railroads, pledged to give rebates to the Consolidated, had been forced by Ridgway, under menace of adverse legislation from the men he controlled at the State-house, to give him secretly a still better rate than the trust. He owned the county courts, he was supported by the people, and had become a political dictator, and the financial outlook for him grew brighter every day.

Such were the conditions when Judge Purcell handed down his Never Say Die decision. Within an hour Hobart was reading a telegram in cipher from the Broadway headquarters. It announced the immediate departure for Mesa of the great leader of the octopus. Simon Harley, the Napoleon of finance, was coming out to attend personally to the destruction of the buccaneer who had dared to fire on the trust flag.

Before night some one of his corps of spies in the employ of the enemy carried the news to Waring Ridgway. He smiled grimly, his bluegray eyes hardening to the temper of steel. Here at last was a foeman worthy of his metal; one as lawless, unscrupulous, daring, and far-seeing as himself, with a hundred times his resources.