Chapter XXXV
 

A few clear-headed men--not the "chivalry," as the fire-eating professional politicians and lawyers from the South were almost uniformly designated-- were able to see exactly the problem that must eventually demand Keith's solution. Some of them talked it over while lounging and smoking in the Fire Queen reading-room. There were present Talbot Ward and his huge satellite, Munro; Coleman, quiet, grim, complacent, but looking, with his sweeping, inky moustache and his florid, complexion, like a flashy "sport"; Hossfros, soon to become an historic character; and the banker, James King of William.

The latter had recently come in for considerable public discussion. He had for some time conducted a banking business, but becoming involved in difficulties, he had turned over all his assets, all his personal fortune, even his dwelling-house, to another bank as trustee to take care of his debts. Almost immediately after, that bank had failed. Opinion in the community divided according to the interests involved. The majority considered that King had been almost quixotically conscientious in stripping himself; but there did not lack those who accused him of sharp practice. In the course of ensuing discussions and recriminations King was challenged to a duel. He declined to fight, basing his refusal on principle. As may be imagined, such an action at such a time was even more widely commented upon than even his refusal to take advantage of the bankruptcy laws. It was, as far as known, the first time any one had had the moral courage to refuse a duel. King had gone quietly about his business, taking an ordinary clerkship with Palmer, Cook & Co. In the eyes of the discriminating few he had gained prestige, but most people thought him down and out.

"What do you think of our new Assistant District Attorney?" Ward had begun the conversation.

"He's a lawyer," growled Hossfros.

"A pretty fairly honest one, I think," ventured King. "His training may be wrong, but his instincts are right."

"Fat chance anything's got when it mixes up with legalities," supplemented Frank Munro.

"Nevertheless," remarked Coleman seriously, "I believe plain justice has more of a chance with him in charge than with another."

"What sort of justice?" queried King. "Commercial?" He laughed in answer to his own question. "Criminal? I'd like to think it, gentlemen, but I cannot. You know as well as I do that any of us could this evening go into the streets, select our victim, and shoot him down secure in the knowledge that inconvenience is all the punishment we need expect--if we have money or friends. Am I not right, Coleman?"

Coleman smiled sardonically, lifting his blue-black moustache.

"Were Herod for the slaughter of the Innocents brought before a jury of this town, he would be acquitted," he said half-seriously. "Judas Iscariot would pass unscathed so long as any portion of his thirty pieces of silver remained with him."

They laughed at this remarkable pronouncement, but with an undernote of seriousness.

"No man, even exceptionally equipped as this young man seems to be," went on Coleman after a moment, "can accomplish that"--he snapped his fingers --"against organized forces such as those of 'Law and Order.'"

"We can't stand this sort of thing forever!" cried Hossfros hotly. "It's getting worse and worse!"

"We probably shall not stand it forever," agreed Coleman equably, "but we are powerless--at present."

They looked toward him for explanation of this last.

"When the people at large find that they cannot stand it either, then we shall be no longer powerless. A single man can do something then--a single child!"

"What will happen then?" asked Munro. "Vigilantes? '51 again?"

Coleman, the leader of the Vigilantes of '51, turned on him a grave eye.

"God forbid! We were then a frontier community. We are now an organized, civilized city. We have rights and powers through the regular channels--at the ballot box for example."

Hossfros laughed skeptically.

"It must wait," continued Coleman; "it must wait on public opinion."

"Well," spoke up King, "it's all very well to wait, but public opinion left to itself is a mighty slow growth. It should be fostered. The newspapers--"

"Don't let's lose our sense of humour," cut in Talbot Ward. "Can you see Charley Nugent or Mike Rowlee crusading for the right?"

"But my point is good," insisted King. "An honest, fearless editor, not afraid to call a spade a spade--"

"Would be shot," said Coleman briefly.

"The chances of war," replied King.

"They don't grow that kind around here," grinned Ward.

"Well," concluded Coleman, "this young Keith probably won't help any, but he's going to be interesting to watch, just the same, to see what he'll do the first time they crack the whip over him. That's the vital point as far as he is concerned."