Chapter 7. Back from Arcadia
 

The president of the Mesa Ore-producing Company stepped from the parlor-car of the Limited at the hour when all wise people are taking life easy after a good dinner. He did not, however, drive to his club, but took a cab straight for his rooms, where he had telegraphed Eaton to meet him with the general superintendent of all his properties and his private secretary, Smythe. For nearly a week his finger had been off the pulse of the situation, and he wanted to get in touch again as soon as possible. For in a struggle as tense as the one between him and the trust, a hundred vital things might have happened in that time. He might be coming back to catastrophe and ruin, brought about while he had been a prisoner to love in that snow-bound cabin.

Prisoner to love he had been and still was, but the business men who met him at his rooms, fellow adventurers in the forlorn hope he had hitherto led with such signal success, could have read nothing of this in the marble, chiseled face of their sagacious general, so indomitable of attack and insatiate of success. His steel-hard eyes gave no hint of the Arcadia they had inhabited so eagerly a short twenty-four hours before. The intoxicating madness he had known was chained deep within him. Once more he had a grip on himself; was sheathed in a cannonproof plate armor of selfishness. No more magic nights of starshine, breathing fire and dew; no more lifted moments of exaltation stinging him to a pulsating wonder at life's wild delight. He was again the inexorable driver of men, with no pity for their weaknesses any more than for his own.

The men whom he found waiting for him at his rooms were all young Westerners picked out by him because he thought them courageous, unscrupulous and loyal. Like him, they were privateers in the seas of commerce, and sailed under no flag except the one of insurrection he had floated. But all of them, though they were associated with him and hoped to ride to fortune on the wave that carried him there, recognized themselves as subordinates in the enterprises he undertook. They were merely heads of departments, and they took orders like trusted clerks with whom the owner sometimes unbends and advises.

Now he heard their reports, asked an occasional searching question, and swiftly gave decisions of far-reaching import. It was past midnight before he had finished with them, and instead of retiring for the sleep he might have been expected to need, he spent the rest of the night inspecting the actual workings of the properties he had not seen for six days. Hour after hour he passed examining the developments, sometimes in the breasts of the workings and again consulting with engineers and foremen in charge. Light was breaking in the sky before he stepped from the cage of the Jack Pot and boarded a street-car for his rooms. Cornishmen and Hungarians and Americans, going with their dinner-buckets to work, met him and received each a nod or a word of greeting from this splendidly built young Hermes in miners' slops, who was to many of them, in their fancy, a deliverer from the slavery which the Consolidated was ready to force upon them.

Once at his rooms, Ridgway took a cold bath, dressed carefully, breakfasted, and was ready to plunge into the mass of work which had accumulated during his absence at the mining camp of Alpine and the subsequent period while he was snowbound. These his keen, practical mind grasped and disposed of in crisp sentences. To his private secretary he rapped out order sharply and decisively.

"Phone Ballard and Dalton I want to see them at once. Tell Murphy I won't talk with him. What I said before I left was final. Write Cadwallader we can't do business on the terms he proposes, but add that I'm willing to continue his Mary Kinney lease. Dictate a letter to Riley's lawyer, telling him I can't afford to put a premium on incompetence and negligence; that if his client was injured in the Jack Pot explosion, he has nobody but himself to blame for it. Otherwise, of course, I should be glad to pension him. Let me see the letter before you send it. I don't want anything said that will offend the union. Have two tons of good coal sent up to Riley's house, and notify his grocer that all bills for the next three months may be charged to me. And, Smythe, ask Mr. Eaton to step this way."

Stephen Eaton, an alert, clear-eyed young fellow who served as fidus Achates to Ridgway, and was the secretary and treasurer of the Mesa Ore-producing Company, took the seat Smythe had vacated. He was good-looking, after a boyish, undistinguished fashion, but one disposed to be critical might have voted the chin not quite definite enough. He had been a clerk of the Consolidated, working for one hundred dollars a month, when Ridgway picked him out and set his feet in the way of fortune. He had done this out of personal liking, and, in return, the subordinate was frankly devoted to his chief.

"Steve, my opinion is that Alpine is a false alarm. Unless I guess wrong, it is merely a surface proposition and low-grade at that."

"Miller says--"

"Yes, I know what Miller says. He's wrong. I don't care if he is the biggest copper expert in the country."

"Then you won't invest?"

"I have invested--bought the whole outfit, lock, stock and barrel."

"But why? What do you want with it if the property is no good?" asked Eaton in surprise.

Ridgway laughed shortly. "I don't want it, but the Consolidated does. Two of their experts were up at Alpine last week, and both of them reported favorably. I've let it leak out to their lawyer, O'Malley, that Miller thought well of it; in fact, I arranged to let one of their spies steal a copy of his report to us."

"But when they know you have bought it "

"They won't know till too late. I bought through a dummy. It seemed a pity not to let then have the property since they wanted it so badly, so this morning he sold out for me to the Consolidated at a profit of a hundred and fifty thousand."

Eaton grinned appreciatively. It was in startling finesse of this sort his chief excelled, and Stephen was always ready with applause.

"I notice that Hobart slipped out of town last night. That is where he must have been going. He'll be sick when he learns how you did him."

Ridgway permitted himself an answering smile. "I suppose it will irritate him a trifle, but that can't be helped. I needed that money to get clear on that last payment for the Sherman Bell."

"Yes, I was worried about that. Notes have been piling up against us that must be met. There's the Ransom note, too. It's for a hundred thousand."

"He'll extend it," said the chief confidently.

"He told me he would have to have his money when it came due. I've noticed he has been pretty close to Mott lately. I expect he has an arrangement with the Consolidated to push us."

"I'm watching him, Steve. Don't worry about that. He did arrange to sell the note to Mott, but I stopped that little game."

"How?"

"For a year I've had all the evidence of that big government timber steal of his in a safety-deposit vault. Before he sold, I had a few words with him. He changed his mind and decided he preferred to hold the notes. More, he is willing to let us have another hundred thousand if we have to have it."

Eaton's delight bubbled out of him in boyish laughter. "You're a wonder, Waring. There's nobody like you. Can't any of them touch you--not Harley himself, by Jove."

"We'll have a chance to find that out soon, Steve."

"Yes, they say he's coming out in person to run the fight against you. I hope not."

"It isn't a matter of hoping any longer. He's here," calmly announced his leader.

"Here! On the ground?"

"Yes."

"But--he can't be here without us knowing it."

"I'm telling you that I do know it."

"Have you seen him yourself?" demanded the treasurer incredulously.

"Seen him, talked with him, cursed him and cuffed him," announced Ridgway with a reminiscent gleam in his eye.

"Er--what's that you say?" gasped the astounded Eaton.

"Merely that I have already met Simon Harley."

"But you said--"

"--that I had cursed and cuffed him. That's all right. I have."

The president of the Mesa Ore-producing Company leaned back with his thumbs in the armholes of his fancy waistcoat and smiled debonairly at his associate's perplexed amazement.

"Did you say--cuffed him?"

"That's what I meant to say. I roughed him around quite a bit--manhandled him in general. But all for his good, you know."

"For his good?"

Eaton's dazed brain tried to conceive the situation of a billionaire being mauled for his good, and gave it up in despair. If Steve Eaton worshipped anything, it was wealth. He was a born sycophant, and it was partly because his naive unstinted admiration had contributed to satisfy his chief's vanity that the latter had made of him a confidant. Now he sat dumb before the lese-majeste of laying forcible hands upon the richest man in the world.

"But, of course, you're only joking," he finally decided.

"You haven't been back twelve hours. Where could you have seen him?,"

"Nevertheless I have met him and been properly introduced by his wife."

"His wife?"

"Yes, I picked her out of a snow-drift."

"Is this a riddle?"

"If it is, I don't know the answer, Steve. But it is a true one, anyhow, not made to order merely to astonish you."

"True that you picked Simon Harley's wife out of a snow-drift and kicked him around?"

"I didn't say kicked, did I?" inquired the other, judicially. "But I rather think I did knee him some."

"Of course, I read all about his marriage two weeks ago to Miss Aline Hope. Did he bring her out here with him for the honeymoon?"

"If he did, I euchred him out of it. She spent it with me alone in a miner's cabin," the other cried, malevolence riding triumph on his face.

"Whenever you're ready to explain," suggested Eaton helplessly. "You've piled up too many miracles for me even to begin guessing them."

"You know I was snow-bound, but you did not know my only companion was this Aline Hope you speak of. I found her in the blizzard, and took her to an empty cabin near. She and her husband were motoring from Avalanche to Mesa, and the machine had broken down. Harley had gone for help and left her there alone when the blizzard came up. Three days later Sam Yesler and the old man broke trail through from the C B Ranch and rescued us."

It was so strange a story that it came home to Eaton piecemeal.

"Three days--alone with Harley's wife--and he rescued you himself."

"He didn't rescue me any. I could have broken through any time I wanted to leave her. On the way back his strength gave out, and that was when I roughed him. I tried to bullyrag him into keeping on, but it was no go. I left him there, and Sam went back after him with a relief-party."

"You left him! With his wife?"

"No!" cried Ridgway. "Do I look like a man to desert a woman on a snow-trail? I took her with me."

"Oh!" There was a significant silence before Eaton asked the question in his mind. "I've seen her pictures in the papers. Does she look like them?"

His chief knew what was behind the question, and he knew, too, that Eaton might be taken to represent public opinion. The world would cast an eye of review over his varied and discreditable record with women. It would imagine the story of those three days of enforced confinement together, and it would look to the woman in the case for an answer to its suspicions. That she was young, lovely, and yet had sold herself to an old man for his millions, would go far in itself to condemn her; and he was aware that there were many who would accept her very childish innocence as the sophistication of an artist.

Waring Ridgway put his arms akimbo on the table and leaned across with his steady eyes fastened on his friend.

"Steve, I'm going to answer that question. I haven't seen any pictures of her in the papers, but if they show a face as pure and true as the face of God himself then they are like her. You know me. I've got no apologies or explanations to make for the life I've led. That's my business. But you're my friend, and I tell you I would rather be hacked in pieces by Apaches than soil that child's white soul by a single unclean breath. There mustn't be any talk. Do you understand? Keep the story out of the newspapers. Don't let any of our people gossip about it. I have told you because I want you to know the truth. If any one should speak lightly about this thing stop him at once. This is the one point on which Simon Harley and I will pull together.

Any man who joins that child's name with mine loosely will have to leave this camp--and suddenly."

"It won't be the men--it will be the women that will talk."

"Then garble the story. Change that three days to three hours, Steve. Anything to stop their foul-clacking tongues!"

"Oh, well! I dare say the story won't get out at all, but if it does I'll see the gossips get the right version. I suppose Sam Yesler will back it up."

"Of course. He's a white man. And I don't need to tell you that I'll be a whole lot obliged to you, Stevie."

"That's all right. Sometimes I'm a white man, too, Waring," laughed Steve. Ridgway circled the table and put a hand on the younger man's shoulder affectionately. Steve Eaton was the one of all his associates for whom he had the closest personal feeling.

"I don't need to be told that, old pal," he said quietly.