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Off His Range








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

Bruce stood before the blackboard in the Bartlesville station studying
the schedule. A train went west at 11.45. The first train went east at
11.10. He hesitated a moment, then the expression of uncertainty upon
his face hardened into decision. He turned quickly and bought a ticket
east. If Sprudell had lied he was going to find it out.

As he sat by the car window watching the smug, white farm-houses and big
red barns of the middle west fly by, their dull respectability, their
commonplace prosperity vaguely depressed him. What if he should be
sentenced for life to walk up to his front door between two rows of
whitewashed rocks, to live surrounded by a picket fence, and to die
behind a pair of neat green blinds? But mostly his thoughts were a
jumble of Sprudell, of his insincere cordiality and the unexpected
denouement when Abe Cone's call had forced his hand; of Dill and his
mission, and disgust at his own carelessness in failing to record his
claims.

They concentrated finally upon the work which lay before him once he had
demonstrated the truth or falsity of Sprudell's assertion that Slim's
family were not to be found. He turned the situation over and over in
his mind and always it resolved itself into the same thing, namely, his
lack of money. That obstacle confronted him at every turn and yet in
spite of it, in spite of the doubts and fears which reason and caution
together thrust into his mind, his determination to win, to outwit
Sprudell, to make good his boast, grew stronger with every turn of the
car wheels.

Ambition was already awake within him; but it needed Sprudell's sneers
to sting his pride, Sprudell's ingratitude and arrogant assumption of
success in whatever it pleased him to undertake, to arouse in Bruce that
stubborn, dogged, half-sullen obstinacy which his father had called
mulishness but which the farmer's wife with her surer woman's intuition
had recognized as one of the traits which make for achievement. It is a
quality which stands those who have it in good stead when failure stares
them in the face.

It did not take Bruce long to discover that in whatever else Sprudell
had prevaricated he at least had told the truth when he said that the
Naudain family had disappeared. They might never have existed, for all
the trace he could find of them in the city of a million.

The old-fashioned residence where "Slim" had lived, with its dingy
trimmings, and its marble steps worn in hollows, affected him strangely
as he stood across the street where he could see it from roof to
basement. It made "Slim" seem more real, more like "folks" and less like
a malignant presence. It had been an imposing house in its time but now
it was given over to doctors' offices and studios, while a male
hair-dresser in the basement transformed the straight locks of
fashionable ladies into a wonderful marcelle.

Bruce went down to make some inquiries and he stared at the proprietor
as though he were some strange, hybrid animal when he came forward
testing the heat of a curling-iron against his fair cheek.

No, the hair-dresser shook his fluffy, blonde head, he never had heard
of a family named Naudain, although he had been four years in the
building and knew everyone upstairs. A trust company owned the place
now; he was sure of that because the rent collector was just a shade
more prompt than the rising sun. Yes, most certainly he would give Bruce
the company's address and it was no trouble at all.

He was a fascinating person to Bruce, who would have liked to prolong
the conversation, but the disheveled customer in the chair was growing
restless, so he took the address, thanked him, and went out wondering
whimsically if through any cataclysm of nature he should turn up a
hair-dresser, sweet-scented, redolent of tonique, smelling of pomade,
how it would seem to be curling a lady's hair?

Back in the moderate-priced hotel where he had established himself, he
set about interviewing by telephone the Naudains whose names appeared in
the directory. It was a nerve-racking task to Bruce, who was unfamiliar
with the use of the telephone, and those of the name with whom he
succeeded in getting in communication seemed singularly busy folk,
indifferent to the amenities and entirely uninterested in his quest. But
he persisted until he had exhausted the list.

Since there was no more to do that night, in fact no more to do at all
if the trust company failed him, he went to bed: but everything was too
strange for him to sleep well.

A sense of the nearness of people made him uneasy, and the room seemed
close although there was no steam and the window was wide open. The
noises of the street disturbed him; they were poor substitutes for the
plaintive music of the wind among the pines. His bed was far too soft;
he believed he could have slept if only he had had his mattress of
pine-boughs and his bear-grass pillow. The only advantage that his
present quarters had over his cabin was the hot and cold water. It
really was convenient, he told himself with a grin, to have a spring in
the room.

The street lamp made his room like day and as he lay wide-eyed in the
white light listening to the clatter of hoofs over the pavement, he
recalled his childish ambition to buy up all the old horses in the world
when he was big--he smiled now at the size of the contract--all the
horses he could find that were stiff and sore, and half dead on their
feet from straining on preposterous loads; the horses that were lashed
and cut and cursed because in their wretched old age they could not step
out like colts. He meant to turn them into a pasture where the grass was
knee-deep and they could lie with their necks outstretched in the sun
and rest their tired legs.

He had explained the plan to his mother and he remembered how she had
assured him gravely that it was a fine idea indeed. It was from her that
he had inherited his passionate fondness for animals. Cruelty to a dumb
brute hurt him like a blow.

On the trip out from Ore City an overworked stage horse straining on a
sixteen per cent. grade and more had dropped dead in the harness--a
victim to the parsimony of a government that has spent millions on
useless dams, pumping plants, and reservoirs, but continues to pay
cheerfully the salaries of the engineers responsible for the blunders;
footing the bills for the junkets of hordes of "foresters," of
"timber-inspectors" and inspectors inspecting the inspectors, and what
not, yet forcing the parcel post upon some poor mountain mail-contractor
without sufficient compensation, haggling over a pittance with the man
it is ruining like some Baxter street Jew.

Like many people in the West, Bruce had come to have a feeling for some
of the departments of the government, whose activities had come under
his observation, that was as strong as a personal enmity.

He put the picture of the stage-horse, staggering and dying on its feet,
resolutely from his mind.

"I never will sleep if I get to thinking of that," he told himself. "It
makes me hot all over again."

From this disquieting subject his thought reverted to his own affairs,
to "Slim's" family and his self-appointed task, to the placer and
Sprudell. Nor were these reflections conducive to sleep. More and more
he realized how much truth there was in Sprudell's taunts. Without money
how could he fight him in the Courts? There were instances in plenty
where prospectors had been driven from that which was rightfully theirs
because they were without the means to defend their property.

Squaw Creek was the key to the situation. This was a fact which became
more and more plain. However, Sprudell was undoubtedly quite as well
aware of this as he was himself and would lose no time in applying for
the water right. The situation looked dark indeed to Bruce as he tossed
and turned. Then like a lost word or name which one gropes for for
hours, days, weeks perhaps, there suddenly jumped before Bruce's eyes a
paragraph from the state mining laws which he had glanced over
carelessly in an idle moment. It stood out before him now as though it
were in double-leaded type.

"If it isn't too late! If it isn't too late!" he breathed excitedly.
"Dog-gone, if it isn't too late!"

With the same movement that he sprang out on the floor he reached for
his hat; then he recalled that telegraph operators were sometimes ladies
and it would be as well to dress. He made short work of the performance,
however, and went downstairs two steps at a time rather than wait for
the sleepy bell-boy, who did double duty on the elevator at night. The
telegraph office was two squares away, the wondering night-clerk told
him, and Bruce, stepping frequently on his shoelaces, went up the street
at a gait which was more than half suspicious to the somnambulant
officer on the beat.

The trust company's doors had not been opened many minutes the next
morning before Bruce arrived. The clerk who listened to his inquiries
was willing enough to give him any information that he had but he had
none beyond the fact that the property in question had passed from the
possession of a family named Dunbar into the hands of the trust company
many years ago, and no person named Naudain had figured in the transfer,
or any other transfer so far as he could ascertain from consulting
various deeds and documents in the vault.

It was puzzling enough to Bruce, who was sure that he had read the
number and the street correctly and had remembered it, but the clerk was
waiting politely for him to go, so he thanked him and went out.

As Bruce stood in the wide stone archway of the building watching the
stream of passers-by hastening to their offices and shops, some faint
glimmerings of the magnitude of the task he had set himself in raising
money among strangers to defend the placer ground if need be and install
the hydro-electric plant for working it, came to him. He had little, if
any, idea how to begin or where, and he had a feeling as he studied the
self-centred faces of the hurrying throng that if he should fall on his
knees before anyone among them and beg for a hearing they would merely
walk around him and go on.

It occurred to Bruce that the clerk inside was an uncommonly good
fellow, and friendly; he believed he would ask his advice. He might make
some useful suggestions. Bruce acted at once upon the idea and again the
clerk came forward cheerfully. Going to the point at once, Bruce
demanded:

"How would a stranger go about raising money here for a mining
proposition?"

A quizzical expression came into the clerk's eyes and a faint smile
played about his mouth. He looked Bruce over with some personal interest
before he answered.

"If I was the stranger," he said dryly, "I'd get a piece of lead-pipe
and stand in an area-way about 11.30 one of these dark nights. That's
the only way I know to raise money for mining purposes in this town."

Bruce stepped back abruptly and his dark face reddened.

"Sorry I bothered you," he eyed the clerk steadily, "but I made a
mistake in the way I sized you up."

It was the clerk's turn to flush, but because he really was a good
fellow and there was that in Bruce's unusual appearance that he liked,
he called him back when he would have gone.

"I apologize," he said frankly, "I hadn't any business to get funny
when you asked me a civil question, but the fact is the town's been
worked to death with mining schemes. Nearly everyone's been bitten to
the point of hydrophobia and I doubt if you can raise a dollar without
friends."

"I wouldn't say I had much show if that's the case," Bruce answered,
"for I'm a long way off my range."

In his well-worn Stetson, with his dark skin tanned by sun and wind and
snow to a shade that was only a little lighter than an Indian's; using,
when he talked, the wide, careless gestures that bespeak the far West,
Bruce was so obviously of the country beyond the Mississippi that the
clerk could not repress a smile.

"I've never promoted anything more important than a theatre party or a
motor trip," the clerk vouchsafed, "but I should think some of the
brokers who handle mining stocks would be the people to see. There's a
good firm two doors above. I can give you the names of a few people who
sometimes take 'flyers' on the side but even they don't go into anything
that isn't pretty strongly endorsed by someone they know. There's always
the chance though," he continued, looking Bruce over speculatively,
"that someone may take a fancy to you personally. I've noticed that
personality sometimes wins where facts and figures couldn't get a look
in."

Bruce answered simply:

"That lets me out again, I've no silver tongue. I've talked with too few
people to have much fluency."

The clerk did not contradict him though he was thinking that Bruce could
thank his personality for the time he was giving him and the pains he
was taking to help him.

"Here," handing Bruce a hastily written list. "You needn't tell them I
sent you for it wouldn't do any good. Some of them come in here often
but they look upon me as an office fixture--like this mahogany desk, or
that Oriental rug."

"This is mighty good of you," said Bruce, as grateful as though he had
written special letters of endorsement for him to all his friends.
"Say," with his impulsive hospitality, "I wish you could come out and
visit me. Couldn't you get away the end of August when the bull-trout
and the redsides are biting good?"

"Me?" The clerk started, then he murmured wistfully: "When the
bull-trout and the redsides are biting good! Gee! I like the way that
sounds! Then," with a resigned gesture, "I was never farther west than
South Bethlehem; I never expect to have the price."

He looked so efficient and well dressed that Bruce had thought he must
receive a large salary and he felt badly to learn that the prosperity of
such a nice chap was only clothes deep. He promised to look in on him
before he left the city and tell him how he had gotten on; then he took
his list and went back to the hotel prepared to spend some anxious hours
in the time which must intervene before he could expect to hear from his
night telegram. He hoped the answer would come in the morning, for
disappointments, he had learned, were easier to bear when the sun shone.

The telegram was awaiting him when he returned from an excursion to a
department store which had been fraught with considerable excitement. A
majestic blonde had assumed a kind of protectorate over him and
dissuaded him from his original intention of buying thirty yards of
ruching for Ma Snow with a firmness that approached a refusal to sell
him anything so old-fashioned, although he protested that it had looked
beautiful in the neck and sleeves of his mother's gowns some fifteen
years before. Neglecting to explain that his gift was for a woman all of
fifty, a pink crepe-de-chine garment was held alluringly before his
embarrassed eyes and a filmy petticoat, from beneath which, in his
mind's eye, Bruce could see Pa Snow's carpet-slippers, in which Ma Snow
"eased her feet," peeping in and out. In the end he fought his way
out--through more women than he had seen together in all his life--with
a box of silk hose in appallingly vivid colors and a beaded bag which,
he had it on the saleslady's honor, was "all the rage."

Bruce took the yellow envelope which the desk-clerk handed him and
looked at it with a feeling of dread. He had counted the hours until it
should come and now he was afraid to open it. It meant so much to
him--everything in fact--the moment was a crisis but he managed to tear
the envelope across with no outward indication of his dread.

He took in the contents at a glance and there was such relief, such
renewed hope in his radiant face that the desk-clerk was moved to
observe smilingly: "Good news, I gather." And Bruce was so glad, so
happy, that for the moment he could think of nothing more brilliant to
answer than--"Well I should say so! I should say so!"





Next: His Only Asset

Previous: Thorns And A Few Roses



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