Bob Bowen comes to Town
THE fat man squeezed himself into the chair of the smoking-room, eyed the lean man and the drummer who had stretched out on the cushioned seat, wiped his beaded brow, and sighed.
"This central California," he observed squeakily, "is the hottest place this side of Topheth! Thank Heaven, we get into Frisco to-night."
The drummer from San Francisco resented the diminutive and gave him a casual stare. The lean man said nothing. Then the drummer turned to the lean man and picked up a thread of conversation which had apparently been broken by the fat man's entrance.
"This here ruby silver, now," he argued. "I've heard it ain't up to snuff. Ain't no thin' in working it, they tell me."
The lean man smiled. When he smiled, his jaw looked a little leaner and stronger, and he was quite a likeable chap.
You can hear 'most anything, especially about ores," he remarked, between pulls at his cigar. "But Tonopah was founded on ruby silver, and the Tonopah mines are not exactly poor properties to own." His eyes twinkled, as if at some secret jest. "But they tell me," persisted the drummer, "that ruby silver's got too much arsenic in it to make development and smelting pay. Besides it comes in small veins—"
"It has not too much arsenic to make smelting pay—sometimes! It does not come in small veins—sometimes! Look at the Yellow Jack, the richest mine over at Tonopah! They busted into ruby silver; last week a bunch of mining sharks come and look over the outcrop. They wire east, and their principals pay a cool million and a half cash for the property. That's what ruby silver did for the Yellow Jack!"
"How d'you know so much about, it?" demanded the drummer. "You been up that way yourself, eh?"
"I'm the man who sold out the Yellow Jack." The lean man smiled again as he threw back his elbows into the cushions and puffed his cigar.
"Gee!" The drummer stared sidewise at his informant. Very manifestly, that mention of a million and a half was running in his mind. His eyes began to bulge under the force of impact. "Gee! Say, are you stringin' me?"
Carelessly, the lean man reached into his vest pocket and extended a pasteboard.
"Here's my card." The twinkle in his gray eyes deepened a bit. "Bob Bowen—I guess 'most everybody around Tonopah knows me. I'm going to Frisco to sell a couple more mines."
This time, the drummer took no umbrage at the hated word "Frisco." Instead, he put out his hand with quick affability.
"Glad to meet you, Mr. Bowen! Here's my card. Going to the Palace?"
Before the lean man could respond, the fat man leaned forward in his chair. He stared intently at Bowen, then spoke.
" Do I understand, sir," he squeaked, that you are Robert Bowen, and that you have sold the Yellow Jack mine?"
"You do," said Bowen, eying him.
"Upon my word! " The ejaculation was one of surprise and was followed by a chuckle. "My name is Dickover—of New York, Mr. Bowen. If I'm not mistaken, it was my agent who bought that mine of yours! Am I right?"
Bowen's gray eyes hardened for a moment, and then they twinkled again and his lean hand shot forth.
"Well, well!" he exclaimed heartily. "Talk about unadulterated coincidence! And you're actually Dickover; the Dickover? You're the man who owns half the copper mines in Arizona and two-thirds of Tonopah?"
"Uhuh. Glad to meet you, Bowen. Going to Frisco, are you?"
The drummer looked from one to the other, agape. And small wonder! The name of Dickover was known wherever ores were smelted or mining stocks sold.
Bowen and Dickover gazed at each other, appraisingly. After a moment they began to discuss mining stocks. The drummer listened attentively, and after venturing one timid assertion which was promptly quashed by Dickover, ventured no more. At length the train slowed down, and he sprang to his feet.
"Gee, I'd plumb forgotten that I had to make a stop!" he said regretfully, and held out his hand. "Mighty glad to 've met you, Mr. Bowen. And you, Mr. Dickover. Mighty glad! May see you at the Palace in three-four days. Look me up, won't you? So-long."
So, breezily, he swung out of the smoking-room and from the train. Bowen carelessly watched him depart, then sat up with quickening interest.
"Gone into the telegraph office—"
The great magnate broke in with a falsetto chuckle.
"Sure! You can gamble that he knows one or two newspaper men in Frisco. He's tipping 'em off that we're on the Limited. Get our names in the paper."
Bowen looked a trifle startled. "Oh, hell!" he uttered disgustedly.
The two smoked in silence, no one else entering their compartment. Slowly the train pulled out and with gathering speed slipped westward. The fat man leaned forward again, his eyes on Bowen. Mirth shook his ponderous frame.
"Say!" he uttered. "I happen to know about that Yellow Jack mine. It was sold to Dickover of New York, all right; but it was sold by a big Swede named Olafson. No offense, pardner—but you're some liar! What made you string that poor boob?"
Bowen laughed unassumedly, and the fat man laughed in sympathy with him.
"He asked too many questions—too curious. Anyway, I told him the exact truth!"
"Come on, come on!" squealed the fat man scornfully. "I'm no chicken. You can't put it over me, young man!"
"I'm not trying to," said Bowen coolly, his eyes twinkling. "It's a matter of record that I sold the Yellow Jack mine. Only, as it happens, I sold it to Olafson two years ago, before we dreamed there was any ruby ore in that locality! And I sold it for five hundred dollars. Now who's the boob? Me, Bob Bowen! Don't hold back, stranger; when old Olafson sold out for a million and a half, I quit Tonopah for good."
The fat man chuckled. The chuckle deepened into a billowing laugh that shook his broad frame, and the laugh became a roar of mirth. Bowen grinned wrily.
"Laugh your fool head off—I deserve it!" he went on. "Still, I'll hand it to you at that. You with your talk of Dickover! That's what made our late friend really sit up and rubber. Did you notice what reverent attention he paid to your fool dissertation on curb stocks? I'll bet a nickel he'll invest twenty dollars or so in Big Daisy or Apex Crown on the strength of your remarks."
The fat man choked over his cigar, and flung it away.
"Didn't you think much of my spiel?" he demanded. "Why, I thought I knew a little—"
"Huh!" grunted Bowen, yet no whit unpleasantly. "Stranger, if you really want to learn a little about curb stocks, you go and float around the mining country a bit. If I took your pointers on stocks, I'd be in a poorhouse next month!"
"Then you're a broker?"
"No. Not by a long sight!" snapped Bowen. "I play a straight game."
"No offense." The fat man chuckled again. "You're really going to sell a couple of mines in Frisco? Or was that bunk, too?"
"No, that was straight enough; not the selling part, maybe, but the trying." Bowen sighed a little, and older lines showed in his lean face. "I've got two properties close in to the Yellow Jack."
"Why didn't you try selling them to Dickover's agent?"
"Him!" Bowen grunted in disgust. "Stranger, that guy Henderson, just between you and me, is crooked as hell! Know what he did? Made Olafson give him fifty thousand dollars before he'd approve the sale! I sure do feel sorry for old man Dickover; some day that confidential agent, Henderson, is going to get into him good and deep, believe me!"
The fat man carefully extracted two fat, gold-banded, amazing cigars from a case, and extended one to Bowen.
"Smoke. You seem to be sore on that agent."
"Not me, stranger. You can ask anybody on the ground."
"H-m! Going to the Palace, I suppose? Best way to sell mines is to put up at the best place and make a splurge. But you know that, I guess."
"I didn't; but maybe I'll take your advice. It listens good. No, don't get the notion that I'm sore on the Dickover crowd. My ground isn't the sort they're after. It's low-grade ore and heaps of it. I'll get after the low-graders in Frisco, see?"
The fat man nodded knowingly. "What are your properties?"
"The Sunburst and the Golden Lode."
For a space the two men smoked in silence. Bowen enjoyed his cigar; it had been long months since he had smoked a cigar whose aroma even approached this. Evidently the fat man was no pauper.
The word struck bitterness into Bowen. Pauper! He himself had just thirty dollars to his name. He would look fine, going to the Palace! Yet, why not? He could get by with it and let the bill run, on his appearance; if he sold his two mines, or either of them, everything would be fine.
And if not—well, something would turn up.
"Yep," he said abruptly, ending his thoughts in speech before he could check the impulse, "I guess that was good advice. I'll go to the Palace."
The fat man eyed him shrewdly, but Bowen was again lost in frowning thought.
At eight that evening the Limited was "in." Bowen took a taxi up to the Palace. When he stepped up to the register of the big Market Street hostelry, he found his way blocked by the bulky figure of the fat man, who had just finished signing. The fat man turned from the desk, saw Bowen, and took him by the arm.
"Say!" he exclaimed. "Just a minute, Bowen. I want to thank you, old man, for that tip about my agent. I'll sure bear it in mind. You're all right!"
Slapping Bowen on the shoulder, he departed after an obsequious bellhop. For a moment Bob Bowen did not understand that speech; but as he leaned over the register and saw the signature of the fat man, he gulped in sudden, stark amazement.
Great glory! The fat man was Dickover, after all!
CALLED IN FOR CONSULTATION.
THAT evident recognition, that low murmur of confidential speech, that friendly slap on the shoulder, turned the trick. This Robert Bowen of Tonopah was manifestly known to the great Dickover; was palpably a friend of the great Dickover; was clearly and openly a confidant of the great Dickover!
Realizing this, Bowen grinned to himself as the desk clerk doffed all haughtiness and became cordially human. He realized it with greater emphasis as he turned from the desk and found a brisk young man at his elbow with extended card.
"Mr. Bowen? I'm Harkness of the Chronicle. May I have two minutes of your time?"
Bowen affected to eye the young man in consideration.
Publicity! Well, why not? It might affect untold wonders for him. He was arriving in San Francisco unknown and unknowing. He had ore samples and assayers' reports galore in his grip; but these might do him no good unless he got the impetus he needed. And publicity would give it to him. At least, publicity could not hurt him!
"Sure," he said, nodding toward the parlors. "Come along and sit down."
A moment later the two men pulled chairs together and relaxed comfortably.
"Shoot," commanded Bowen laconically.
The reporter grinned.
"I got a tip that you sold the Yellow Jack mine to Dickover for a million and—"
"Pause right there, Harkness!" Bowen lifted his hand, but smiled in his whimsical, likable fashion. "You've got it wrong. Dickover has just bought the Yellow Jack, but not from me. Don't start me off with a false report like that, for the love of Mike!"
"Whew! Good thing you put me wise," said Harkness frankly. "Well, do you mind telling me what mine you did sell to Dickover?"
Bowen gazed at him again, heavy-lidded. Was this rank deception? He decided that it was not. There was nothing crooked about it. Besides, Dickover had certainly known just how his words and manner to Bowen would be seen and recognized; Dickover had tried to do him a good turn. He was justified in taking advantage of the situation.
"Frankly, Harkness," said Bowen slowly, "I don't want to name any names. I'm here to try and dispose of same low-grade properties; rich in ore, but not in rich ore. Maybe you know that the Dickover people touch nothing but pretty rich propositions in the silver field."
"Sure, I understand." Harkness nodded assent. "But I heard a rumor that Dickover was here for the purpose of opening up a low-grade system; somebody had invented a means of smelting—"
"Nothing to it," asserted Bowen. "At least, I was talking about it with Dickover on the train, and he didn't say—"
He checked himself abruptly. He had no business talking like this. Harkness, however, came to his feet as if unwilling to detain the magnate further.
"Much obliged for your time, Mr. Bowen; mighty good of you, I'm sure! No special news from Tonopah way? Nothing on the inside that you'd pass along—"
"Oh, sure!" Bowen grinned. "The Yellow Jack was sold to Dickover by a Swede named Olafson. I sold the mine to Olafson two years ago—for five hundred beans!"
Harkness whistled. "Say—but you wouldn't let me use that, of course."
"Go ahead. I should worry!" Bowen chuckled. "The joke is on me, and everybody up at Tonopah knows it. Only don't make me out a fool, Harkness; two years ago there was no ruby vein known in that property."
"Trust me! Thanks, a thousand times."
Bowen went to his room, and sighed at the luxury of it. After that talk with the mining reporter, he had almost believed in his own assured wealth.
When he sought the "hotel personals" in the next morning's Chronicle, he smiled!
With Mr. Dickover, on the Overland, arrived Mr. Robert Bowen, of Tonopah, who, it is rumored, has recently disposed of large holdings in the Dickover interests. Mr. Bowen is heavily interested in low-grade silver properties near Tonopah.
And upon the mining page were separate stories; one concerning the Yellow Jack, the other, by the authority of Dickover himself, flatly contradicting the rumor that the Dickover interests had anything to do with low-grade silver ores.
"If nobody calls my little bluff, all right!" thought Bowen. "Now for work."
Having a list of every one who might put capital into his holdings, Bowen engaged a car by the day and set forth.
At four that afternoon, with ten dollars left in his pocket and no hope left in his soul, Bob Bowen of Tonopah reentered his room at the hotel and threw down his grip.
He had covered everybody, even to those in whom he had looked for no interest. And always the same story: courtesy, a good reception, growing caution, flat refusal. It seemed that nobody in San Francisco would put a cent into low-grade silver. The Arizona crash had scared every investor away from mines for the next six months.
Bowen swore savagely to himself. Then, at the jingle of the telephone bell, he stumbled across the room to the instrument.
"Mr. Bowen? A party has called you three times since this morning. Left the number: Mission 34852. Do you wish to call them?"
"If you please."
Bowen hung up. Sudden hope was reborn within him for a brief moment. Who was so infernally anxious to see him? Who but some one to whom he had talked that morning—some one who wanted him to return—some one who now wanted to invest!
The telephone jingled again.
"Mr. Bowen?" To his intense disappointment, a feminine voice impinged upon his ear. Then his feeling changed. It was a nice voice and he liked it. It held a softly appealing note. He imagined that it held a trace of tears.
"Mr. Bowen, I'm a stranger to you; my name is Alice Ferguson. I used to be a stenographer for your friend Judge Lyman in Tonopah. In this morning's paper I saw that you were here, and I wondered if I might see you for five minutes on a matter of business. It—it is about some stock in Apex Crown, and it means everything to me; and if I could possibly impose on you to the extent of asking your advice—"
"My dear Miss Ferguson," exclaimed Bowen, warmth in his voice, "I remember you very well indeed, although I never met you formally. Sure, I'll be only too glad to do anything in my power. Where are you now?"
"In my office at the Crothers Building. I'll come over—"
"Not a bit of it! I'll be there in five minutes. Good-by!"
Bob Bowen remembered Judge Lyman's stenographer as a girl not particularly striking, but looking very feminine, capable, and as level-headed as a girl could be. He seized his hat and sought the quickest way to the Crothers Building.
As he strode along, his mind was busy—very busy. Apex Crown! That was a small producing mine over in the Tonopah district; like his own futures. Apex Crown was low-grade ore and barely paid expenses. It had been scraping alone for about three years with the stock down to five cents and less.
But on the train, the great Dickover had said to—buy Apex Crown!
Had Dickover been uttering a grim jest, thinking that the drummer and Bowen would rush to operate on his tip? Was Apex Crown worthless? And what was Alice Ferguson's interest in this stock, this stock which on the curb market was unsought and unbought?
Bob Bowen reached the Crothers Building. The elevator-man informed him that Miss Ferguson was a public stenographer. Two minutes later he was shaking hands with her.
She was as he remembered her—dark, lithe, rather grave-eyed just at present but with merriment latent in her face; and altogether feminine. Bowen would have been amazed had he realized how he himself was smiling as he seldom smiled.
"I've often heard Judge Lyman say that you were the squarest man he knew, Mr. Bowen," said the girl frankly, and smiled as Bowen stammered dissent. "Nonsense! That is why I called on you. I'm up against it and don't know what I should do."
"Neither do I," returned Bowen cheerfully. "What's the trouble?"
"Well, my father was a business man in Tonopah. He died three years ago, leaving me alone. After his death, it developed that he had sunk all his money in Apex Crown stock; this was in the early days, you know. The stock looked valuable, but there was no immediate demand for it. Then gradually it went down, and stayed down—"
"How much stock?" demanded Bowen.
"Ten thousand shares."
"Whew! Say, that was a shame! A shame—"
"No. My father had good judgment as a rule," was the grave rebuke, and Bowen fell silent. The girl pursued her subject coolly. "This morning a broker looked me up and made me an offer of ten cents a share for the stock. I refused him, and he went up to twenty cents—"
"He—what?" broke out Bowen. "Twenty cents?"
"Yes. I told him that I'd give him my answer to-morrow. The paper said that you were largely interested in low-grade ores, and I thought you might know something about this Apex Crown. If it's really worth anything, of course I don't want to throw it away—"
"Hold on a minute!" Bowen drew forth an afternoon paper which he had bought and had stuffed into his overcoat pocket without reading. "I don't know anything definite, but if anything has broken loose—ah! Here we are! Look at this!"
Excitedly he laid on the desk before her the opened paper. His finger pointed to an obscure paragraph—a list of curb stocks. The first stock was Apex Crown. Five thousand shares had changed hands, at a price of five cents, before the paper had gone to press.
"Now, see here, Miss Ferguson!" exclaimed Bowen. "Yesterday on the train, I met Mr. Dickover; the big plunger, you know! He said to buy Apex Crown. Naturally, I thought he was handing me a stinger by way of a joke. But here five thousand shares have changed hands to-day! Do you realize that for the last year or two nobody would have that stock at any figure? And here a broker comes to you with an offer for your block—"
They stared at each other, wordless. A touch of crimson crept into the girl's cheeks. Their eyes exchanged the same message of comprehension, of surmise.
"You think," said the girl suddenly, "that Dickover is taking control of Apex Crown?"
Bowen was silent for so long that the silence became painful.
"No," he returned at last. "No. I don't think he is. My cool judgment says he is not. But what's judgment anyhow? You hang on to that stock, Miss Ferguson!"
She flushed a little, but her eyes dwelt on his. "I—I need the money it would bring at twenty cents," she faltered. "And yet—look here, Mr. Bowen! I suppose you're a very busy man and I have no right to ask it—"
"I'm not busy," said Bowen bitterly. "I'm on a vacation. I'll do anything you ask."
"I was wondering if—if you would let me indorse the stock over to you, and then you could act as you think best. Either sell it, or bargain for a higher figure—"
She paused, her grave eyes intent upon his lean-muscled face.
"If it's too much to ask of you," she went on, "please say so. I don't want to make you trouble or to impose on you, Mr. Bowen; you're been altogether too good in wasting this much of your time on me—"
"Wasting it? Great Jehu! I was just kicking myself for wasting so much time in not knowing you—I mean," he added confusedly, "for not having wasted a little time in the past—no, I don't mean that either. Well, if you're willing to trust me, I'll do my best in the matter! Where's the stock?"
"I have the certificates here," and the girl turned to the desk, but not quickly enough to hide the new tide of crimson that had welled into her face. It was not hard for any young lady to see that Bob Bowen of Tonopah was flustered. And Bob Bowen, as this young lady knew very well, had the reputation of never being flustered by anything or any one.
Why should she not blush, at such an unspoken compliment?
A QUICK SALE.
ON the following morning Bob Bowen did not at once leap up and dress, nor did he disturb the morning paper. Instead, he lay quiet and frowned at the ceiling.
"No doubt at all about it," he reflected. "She never said a word about it, of course. She's not that kind. Just the same, it was there. It was in her eyes. Fear! She was afraid of something. That's why she gave me that stock in trust."
Instinct told him that he was right. Instinct had warned him from his first sight of Alice Ferguson that she was afraid of something. She had appealed to him for advice, yes; but fear had driven her further than she had first meant to go. Bowen had seen that hidden fear ere this, but not in the eye of a woman. It angered him.
What the devil was she afraid of? Rather—of whom? The answer was to Bowen quite obvious. Bowen had no use for brokers anyway. That hound of a broker who had visited her, had made some kind of threats, or had said something which put fear into her. Bowen swore to himself and looked at the time. It was seven thirty.
"I'll do it," he muttered, and opened his paper to the mining and stock page.
Instead of an obscure paragraph, he found that Apex Crown had leaped into prominence. The reasons, however, were entirely unknown. On the previous day some eight thousand shares had changed hands in San Francisco, and the price had closed at five cents bid, none offered.
In Los Angeles, however, things were different. Southern California was the "boob" end or the State, where people speculated with penny stocks. Here a great deal of Apex Crown had been unloaded in past years, and yesterday had wakened the moribund stock. Here the price had closed at five and a half. Twelve thousand shares had been quietly picked up at two and three cents before the market had discovered the activity.
"Somebody's got agents at work, all right," said Bowen grimly. "And they offered the little girl as high as twenty! Wonder if Apex Crown broke into ruby ore? No, that's not likely over on those holdings. Something's going on secretly."
At that moment the telephone jingled.
"Yep, this is Bowen speaking. Who? Say it again. Oh, Dickover! Thought you were out of town—"
"I was," returned the squeaky voice of the fat man. "Now I'm back. And I want to see you right now. I'm coming up to your room."
Bowen struggled into his clothes hurriedly, wondering why Dickover was seeking him. After that ten-thousand-share block? No, Dickover wasn't buying low-grade stuff.
Five minutes later the fat man entered the room, puffing a little and eying Bowen with angry suspicion. He refused to sit down.
"See here!" he broke out suddenly. "When I slipped you a tip to take a flier in Apex Crown I didn't mean for you to jump into the market with both feet! Confound you, Bowen, what's back of this? Why are you buying stock all over California?"
Bowen's eyes twinkled as he surveyed his visitor.
"Guess you're on the wrong track, Dickover," he drawled. "When you told me about Apex Crown, I figured you were handing me a bum steer. I haven't bought a share of the stuff. Straight!"
"What? You mean it?" Dickover said.
Bowen laughed easily. "I'll prove it. I haven't ten dollars to my name, and if the hotel wanted me to pay my bill I'd have to work it out in jail. I'd look fine going around buying stock, I would!"
There was no doubting his words. Dickover mopped his round face.
"Damn it!" he said. "Who's doing it?"
"How much is it worth to you to know? I can tell you before ten o'clock."
"You can? What d'you know about it?"
"A friend of mine holds a block of ten thousand shares. Was offered twenty cents for it yesterday. Asked my advice, then transferred the stock to me to be held or sold on my judgment."
"Ten thousand shares, eh?" Dickover's eyes narrowed. "Give you thirty."
"I'm not selling. Do you want to know who's buying, or don't you? How much for my information? I'll find out who wants this block—if you offer enough. I owe a bill here."
Dickover grunted. Then he emitted a falsetto chuckle.
"Five hundred. Waiting for you at ten o'clock."
"And your interest in the property?"
Dickover grunted, turned, and left the room.
Bob Bowen hastened down to breakfast. He had learned that the magnate was keenly interested in Apex Crown—wanted to buy it himself. Why? The only plausible explanation was that Apex Crown had broken into a rich lode, and from his knowledge of the place Bowen thought this unlikely.
At eight forty-five Bowen was striding toward the Crothers Building. He had plenty to puzzle him, but refused to let himself be puzzled. He needed that five hundred dollars and needed it very much.
He went straight to Miss Ferguson's office, and found her just arrived. She greeted him with patent surprise, but with a smile that left no doubt of his welcome.
"Has that broker been here yet?" demanded Bowen bluntly.
"That broker? Oh, no! He didn't say what time he'd be here for his answer."
"He didn't need to. I figure that nine o'clock will fetch him, and if you don't mind, I want to sit around on the chance."
The girl looked away from him a moment, looked at the window, frowningly.
"Of course I don't mind," she said at last. "Only—I don't want you to lose your temper with him—"
Bowen laughed frankly, a boyish laugh that was good to hear on his lips.
"I never had any temper," he said. "I'm the mildest little fellow you ever did see. Miss Ferguson! Honest. I'm a business man. Now, suppose you sit down and let me dictate a letter to Judge Lyman. I don't mean to send it, but I mean your broker friend to hear me dictating. When he comes in, nod and smile and tell him to wait."
The girl sat down before her machine and slipped a sheet of paper into the roll.
"All ready?" asked Bowen. "Then shoot!
My dear Judge:
"I'm here in the big town and having the time of my life. Them are the exact words. I yesterday met your erstwhile stenographer, Miss Ferguson, who has an office of her own and deserves it. I don't know of any one I'd sooner have met—"
Bowen paused, meeting the girl's eyes on his. "That's all right," he said hurriedly. "I'm writing the judge. Confidential letter. Go ahead!"
Smiling a little, the girl leaned forward. At that instant, however, the office door opened and a man appeared framed in the opening. Bowen gave him a casual glance. Miss Ferguson looked up and smiled—a bit frostily.
"I'll be through this letter in a moment," she said, "and shall be at liberty then. Just take a chair, please. Yes, Mr. Bowen?"
"Paragraph," said Bowen, now staring past her at the window. He was conscious that the stranger had taken a chair, "You got that property location all straight now?"
Miss Ferguson glanced up quickly, caught Bowen's vacant expression, and smothered the surprise in her eyes. "Yes," she said. "All ready."
Bowen proceeded with his dictation, apparently ignoring the listener.
"For these two holdings of mine—the Sunburst and the Golden Lode—I want more money than has been offered me as yet. They are, of course, low-grade ore, and if I can get rid of them at a reasonable figure, I shall do so at once.
"However, I have an appointment with Mr. Dickover at ten o'clock, and have good reason to believe—"
There came a sudden interruption—from the stranger.
"I beg your pardon," he said, stepping forward. "Of course I couldn't help overhearing your dictation, sir. May I ask if you are Mr. Robert Bowen of Tonopah?"
Bowen gave him a slow stare. "I am."
"By George! It's lucky I met you, then. I arrived from Tonopah myself a couple of days ago, and have been trying to connect with you. My name's Henderson. While at Tonopah I looked over your holdings, among others; and if you'd consider an offer on them—"
Bowen drew a cigar from his pocket, bit off the end, and lighted it. He surveyed Henderson with indecision.
"I don't know you, Mr. Henderson," he observed coolly. "I don't want to sell those two properties, but I happen to need cash—in a hurry. My samples and assayers' reports are at the hotel—"
"I remember the properties very well," broke in Henderson. "I know you by reputation, and I know your ground by personal examination. Frankly, Mr. Bowen, I'm bucking the Dickover interests in a certain direction. If you'll give me an option—"
"Nothing doing!" snapped Bowen with finality. "Dickover is talking cold cash. Of course my ore is nothing wonderful—"
Henderson produced a check-book. "I'll give you a check for five thousand to cover both claims," he said quickly. "Not a cent more. Yes or no?"
"Now, I like your way of doing business!" said Bowen cordially. "That's what I call a man's way. Five thousand wins. Got any legal forms around, Miss Ferguson? Are you a notary?"
"I have and I am," said the girl quietly.
Twenty minutes later, with a witness called in from next door, Henderson was the owner of the Sunburst and Golden Lode claims. Bowen picked up the check for five thousand and handed it to Miss Ferguson.
"I don't know you, Henderson," he said quietly, "and I need cash badly. Further, I have an engagement in half an hour with Dickover and this must be settled one way or the other. So, Miss Ferguson, kindly step around the corner to the bank and cash this check for me. Good thing you deal with a local bank, Henderson."
"I'll go right with the young lady," spoke up Henderson. "I can facilitate the cashing of the check, perhaps."
"No," said Bowen, his gray eyes suddenly icy. "No. You stay here, Henderson. I want to have a little private conversation with you."
Henderson looked at him hard. Bowen's tone had not been nice; but then, Bowen seemed to be on the inside, and private conversation was an alluring bait.
"Well—" he hesitated.
"You'd better stay," said Bowen calmly. Then he rose and stepped outside the door as Miss Ferguson left. He closed the door again and spoke to the girl in a low voice.
"Cash that check, then run up to the Palace and wait for me, will you? Please!"
The girl nodded. Her eyes sought his with a mischievous gleam. "You won't hurt him?"
"Hurt him? Great Jehu! I should say not! Why, he's Dickover's confidential agent!"
BOWMEN HOLDS THE ACE.
BOB BOWEN reentered the office, closed the door, set his chair against it, and sat down. Then he regarded the surprised and frowning "broker."
Mr. Henderson was a man to be seen once and remembered. He had a large nose, thin slits of black hawk-eyes, shaggy black brows, and a thin red line of mouth under a closed-clipped mustache. An able man, a forceful man, an unscrupulous man, this confidential agent of the magnate Dickover! Bowen, however, did not appear to be much impressed.
"You wonder why I'm, sitting against the door, Mr. Henderson?" he drawled, chewing at his cigar. "For the obvious reason. To keep you from getting out."
Henderson stiffened. He was startled and taken aback. But Bowen continued his drawl without observing the agitation of the impeccably dressed agent.
"There's silver," he ruminated, "and silver. Bar-silver used to be forty-seven; now it's over ninety and still climbing. A low-grade ore that cost eight dollars a ton to produce a few months ago and gave back eight dollars, was no good. Now, however, it gives back eight dollars' profit and is a paying proposition. Those claims I sold you are that kind.
"Some day, and I guess it isn't very far off, folks are going to discover a chemical process that will take a zinc-silver ore and separate the zinc and the silver. An ore of that kind to-day, isn't worth a tinker's dam. If that chemical process is discovered, it will be worth millions. And tucked up in my sleeve I've got a property just like that."
Henderson rose impressively.
"See here, Bowen," he observed, "I don't see what you're driving at, but if you mean that I can't leave this room—"
"You can leave it pretty quick," drawled Bowen. "But remember one thing! I'd like nothing better than to mix it with you! I'm just itching to hold you in a corner and pound off that big nose of yours; so don't start anything unless you want me to finish it."
"What do you mean talking to me like that?" snarled Henderson angrily. "A moment ago you sold me two claims, and now—"
"And now, having concluded business before pleasure, I'm talking. Miss Ferguson has transferred her block of Apex Crown to me."
Henderson's eyes narrowed. He started to speak, and bit back the words.
"That's right, don't get hasty," and Bowen grinned exasperatingly. "Took you by surprise, did it? Thought I didn't know you, eh? Well, I had sort of figured out that you might be you, and when you stepped in the door I knew it was you. Picking up low-grade silver properties, are you? I don't suppose that by any stretch of friendship you'd tell me why you're picking them up?"
Henderson's face went livid with anger.
"So you cut in ahead of me!" he rasped. "You got that little fool of a girl to hand over the stock—"
"Just one minute, Henderson!" Bowen lifted his hand. "I've got a terrible temper. It doesn't work very hard, not every day; but to hear names and epithets applied to honest women is something that sets it on a hair-trigger. Now, if I were you, Henderson, I'd just speak names and leave out the adjectives. Do you get me? Get me right off the jump?"
Henderson swallowed hard. It was plain to see that he was seething internally. But he knew men; that was his business. He looked into Bowen's gray eyes, and controlled himself.
"What do you want?" he said slowly, his voice low and tense. "What are you driving at? Trying to force a bigger price for that stock out of me?"
"Nope," returned Bowen cheerfully. "But it isn't nice for a big man like you to come in here and try to threaten and browbeat a girl into giving away all she's got in the world. It's going to get you badly beaten up one of these days. However, now that you're dealing with me you might prove reasonable. How much will you give for that Apex Crown?"
"Thirty," growled Henderson.
"Buyin' for Dickover or yourself?" asked Bowen softly.
The agent uttered a lurid curse. Bowen rose and kicked away his chair, and opened the door.
"I thought so," he remarked cheerfully. "Well, I guess that check's cashed, so I'll mosey along. You needn't wait here for Miss Ferguson; she won't be back for quite a spell. And don't come down in my elevator; wait till I'm out of the way. And say—when you do come, shut the door after you, will you? So-long."
Bowen closed the door softly and strode off to the elevator. On the way down, he glanced at his watch. It was nine fifty.
"Lots of time," he thought. "I'll see Dickover, then meet the little lady."
At two minutes before the hour he inquired at the desk for Dickover, and was sent up to the latter's suite. He found Dickover declaiming to a private secretary, who admitted him and then retired discreetly. Bob Bowen dropped into a chair beside Dickover's table and accepted the cigar shoved at him.
"I like your cigars," he observed pleasantly. "The flavor is a little strong for my taste, but it's real tobacco. And then the label is pretty. Don't know when I've ever seen a prettier one—"
"Confound you!" snapped the fat man.
"What d' you know?"
"Well, I'm thirty years old, pretty near, and you'd be surprised to find how much I've learned in the last decade of that time! Experience is—"
"Damn your experience!" exploded Dickover. "Do you know who's buying Apex Crown?"
"Of course. Don't you?"
For answer, Dickover seized a check from the table and held it out. It was for five hundred dollars.
"Thanks." Bowen stuffed it carelessly into his pocket. "Since seeing you this morning I've become fairly rich, and this will add a trifle to the pile. Your agent, Henderson, is the man after Apex Crown. Just offered thirty for the stock I hold."
The fat features of Dickover purpled with anger. But he suppressed his emotion, drew another cigar from his pocket, and lighted it.
"I rather suspected it, Bowen," he squeaked more calmly. "Of course you didn't sell him the stock?"
"No. I'll sell it to you if you want it."
"Huh! How much you want?"
"Five dollars a share."
Dickover abandoned the subject, after an apoplectic choke.
"Tell you what, Bowen; that tip of yours sent me up to Tonopah in a hurry. I looked up Henderson and fired him—fired him good and hard. The confounded crook! Now I need another man to take his place. A man I can trust, and a man who can be trusted. Ten thousand a year if the man makes good."
"Too bad you didn't look around at Tonopah," said Bowen innocently. "I know heaps of good men up that way. You should have gone to Judge Lyman or Tom Jerkens or some of those men and had 'em pick you out a nice responsible party for that job. They know everybody up there. Where do you get these cigars? Think I'll buy me a box."
Dickover smoked for a moment in silence. Then he laughed.
"I did snoop around up there, Bowen," he remarked at last. "What kind of a cuss are you? This morning you couldn't pay your hotel bill; and now you turn down a ten-thousand-dollar job!"
Bob Bowen sighed.
"Well, I do say that it's tempting. It's just that, Dickover. But now I've got responsibilities, such as that Apex Crown stock."
"Huh! Well, you know those mines you told me about—the Sunburst and the Golden Lode? I looked 'em up in Tonopah. How much you want for 'em both?"
Bowen looked up, genuinely startled, "You want to buy?"
"Uhuh. If the price is right."
Bowen grinned. "Say, this is pretty rich! Listen here. An hour ago I was talking with Henderson, and talking soft. Somehow he got the notion that you were waiting here to buy those two claims off me. Savvy? He jumps into the breach with five thousand, which is now mine. The claims are his—"
Dickover purpled with indignation.
"You sold out to him; to that dirty yellow dog? What the jumping devils do; you mean by it? Why didn't you sell to me—"
"Now, you just pour some ice-water over your scalp and cool off." Bowen's long, lean forefinger shot out at him. "How the jumping devils did I know you wanted to buy those claims? How did I know you wanted any low-grade stuff? In yesterday's paper you said you did not want it—you've never touched it before—"
Dickover waved his hand in helpless resignation.
"Oh, shut up, Bowen! Let me think, will you?"
For a space the two men smoked in silence. Dickover's fat features were tensed in frowning thought. To Bowen but one thing was patent: the magnate was now after low-grade silver ores. If he had not sold those two claims to Henderson in such a hurry! He had certainly been hoist with his own petard that time!
The thought made him chuckle. At the sound, Dickover began to speak slowly.
"Bowen, you say you want five dollars for that Apex Crown? Now, I'll speak frankly. Apex Crown will be worth five dollars—but not for a few years. For the past week my men have been secretly buying it in at two cents; and now I want that block of yours. That or nothing! I'll offer you par, one dollar, for that stock. If you refuse, I'll wash my hands of the whole mess and throw what I've bought on the market at the present price. Speak quick! If I take the mine, it goes up in value. If I don't take it, it's dead."
Bowen stared at his cigar.
He did not doubt that Dickover was in earnest. And suddenly a light broke upon him. It was vague and foggy, but it was light.
"See here!" He leaned forward earnestly. "I'll put this Apex Crown offer up to my friend—she's a lady. I'll go to my own room and call her up. In the mean time, you get Tonopah over long-distance. Anybody there you'd trust down to the ground?"
Dickover, eying him, nodded. "Judge Lyman is my local attorney there and is one of the best men I know in the world."
"That goes for me. Well, you want low-grade ores of big body and zinc-silver mixture; same as the Apex Crown and Sunburst and Golden Lode, eh? All right. Now, I've had an ace up my sleeve for some years. I've called it the Big Bony, and it's located down Rhyolite way. The ore runs zinc-silver strong, just like these others; only Big Bony has it in large quantities.
"Until about ten minutes ago, Dickover, that group of claims was not worth a cuss. To you, if my guess is right, it's now worth all the money I need in my business—say thirty thousand dollars. Judge Lyman knows all about it; has had assayers report on it, has visited the place himself with me, and owns a bunch of claims the other side of it. You call up Lyman before I come back."
"Yes?" prompted Dickover as Bowen paused. The magnate was keen-eyed, attentive.
"That ore, I believe, is what you want. It's really worth a big bunch more than thirty thousand; but I'm needing thirty thousand bad, right now! Will you buy it at that?"
Dickover reached for the desk telephone. "I'll talk to Lyman. His word is good for all the money I own."
"Good! I'll be back pretty soon."
Bob Bowen sought his own room and requested the office to page Miss Ferguson, who was somewhere about the parlors.
While waiting, he strode up and down savagely. Ten thousand dollars meant a fortune to this girl! If the offer was rejected, Dickover would carry out his word and flood the market with Apex Crown. Sooner than make Henderson rich, he would smash Apex Crown and Henderson together.
The telephone jingled. Bowen caught up the receiver and heard Miss Ferguson's voice.
"This is Bob Bowen speaking, Miss Ferguson. I'll be down in a few minutes. Dickover has made me an offer of ten thousand for your stock, and I want your advice."
He heard the girl's voice catch. "Ten—ten thousand!"
"Yep. What I want to know is this: Do you want me to play safe on this stock or do you want me to handle it as I would my own? I warn you, there's a vast difference between the two! I can't warn you too seriously."
She did not reply at once. Bowen waited until waiting grew intolerable.
"Hello! Are you there. Miss Ferguson?"
"Yes. I—I was thinking. Please, Mr. Bowen, handle that stock entirely as if it were your own. I'll take the chance!"
"Good! Thank Heaven for your courage! I'll be down presently."
He had quite forgotten the five thousand which she bore for him.
Bowen returned to Dickover's rooms in no great haste; talking with Tonopah would take time as well as money. But when he entered, he found Dickover giving his private secretary some instructions. "And rush the papers here!" concluded the magnate. "With witnesses."
"Well?" Bowen dropped into a chair, as if casually. "Did you get Lyman yet?"
"The boy's making out the papers now. I'll buy. What did your lady friend say?"
Bowen felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. The game was won—almost!
"One thing at a time," he said, laughing. "Let's clean the Big Bony off the slate, then clean off the Apex Crown."
"Uhuh. One thing I meant to tell you, Bowen. Keep your eye peeled for Henderson! That fellow is bad medicine when he's crossed, and I judge by your manner that you have crossed him some this morning."
"I did, I hope," Bowen chuckled. The magnate grunted non-committally.
In ten minutes the ownership of the Big Bony group of claims was transferred from Bob Bowen to Dickover. The secretary and witnesses departed. Bowen pocketed the magnate's check for thirty thousand dollars.
"You lost another thirty on that deal," said Dickover complacently.
"I'll clean up fifty with the thirty I got," retorted Bowen. The other chuckled.
"I'll gamble that you do, at that! Well, about the Apex Crown—"
"We hang on to it."
The eyes of the two men met and held for a long moment.
"Then," Dickover's fist crashed down on the table, "you'll go smash! All or nothing is my motto. In three days you won't get three cents for that stock—and what's more, you never will get three cents for it!"
Bowen rose, his lips curving in a smile.
"Maybe. Well, I'm glad to 've met you. Hope we meet again."
"Same here." The two men shook hands. Dickover extended another cigar. "Smoke up on me after lunch, Bowen. Sorry you're going smash with that block of Apex Crown!"
"I'll be sorry if I do," said Bowen cryptically. "So-long!"
BOWEN TAKES A PARTNER.
WITHOUT comment, Bowen took the flat packet Miss Ferguson handed him, dropped into the big plush chair beside her, and glanced at his watch.
"Eleven o'clock. Time to talk before lunch." He glanced around and found they were in no danger of eavesdroppers. Then, with leaping pulses, he told the girl of his conversations with Henderson and Dickover.
"And I refused Dickover's offer," he concluded bluntly, "and accepted his threat to smash the stock. He'll do it, too. By this time he's sent orders to his brokers to sell it, to smash the market flat."
The girl's eyes were steady on his.
"I'm content," she said curtly. "But please explain. You've some scheme?"
"You've said it. Some scheme! Do you mind if I smoke? My nerves are jumpy, and they'll be worse before they're better."
She made a gesture of impatient assent. He lighted Dickover's parting gift and for a space sat in silence, his face deeply lined in thought.
"I've got to make this clear to you," he said at last slowly. "You know anything about low-grade silver ores?"
"They're low-grade because they are mixed with lead or zinc, hold a small proportion of silver, and yield very small profit. The separation of the silver and zinc is difficult. A hyperstatic process has been invented, but if a chemical process could be found, it would be cheaper and better; besides, it would make a yield of zinc as well as of silver. And to-day both zinc and silver are soaring. You understand?"
She nodded quickly. "And—and you think such a process has been found?"
A gleam of admiration sprang into Bowen's gray eyes. For the first time, he smiled his likable, boyish smile.
"Great Jehu, there is nothing slow about you!" he breathed. "Yes. My guess—and mind this, it's no more than a guess—is that Dickover has advance information that this chemical process is now a verity. You see? It is probably workable on ores of a certain silver-zinc combination. I deduce this from the fact that the Apex Crown, the two holdings I sold Henderson, and the Big Bony I sold Dickover are of almost the same identical ore properties. Only such a discovery would get Dickover after low-grade ores."
She was leaning forward now, her eyes shining like twin stars.
"I see! Of course!" she exclaimed eagerly. "Henderson learned of this and at once went out on his own hook to secure all the mines and claims possible containing this grade of ore! And Dickover is here in San Francisco to buy everything in sight before news of the discovery has broken! Is that it?"
"You've said it. So far all's straight. Got any questions ready?"
"Heaps!" The girl laughed, then instantly grew grave. "Dickover knows that Henderson is a traitor and has been buying Apex Crown; yet Dickover is ready to buy our stock, make the Apex Crown a great success and enrich Henderson! Why?"
"I've doped it out; I struck the same snag myself—and others, too. Like this! If Dickover gets our block of stock, he controls that mine. He can let it lie useless for years, until Henderson has given up hope and sold out the stock he's been buying. And until that happens, Dickover lets the mine lie dead for five years or fifty! Savvy?"
"Sure, so far." Miss Ferguson frowned. "It's getting involved, though. The salient fact is the human equation—Dickover wants to smash Henderson first, then develop the mine!"
"Exactly. He knows that Henderson is loaded to the guards with the stock and is taking all that's offered."
"Then why does Dickover threaten to throw all his stock on the market? How would that smash anybody? Henderson could simply buy it up, control the mine, and develop it by means of the new chemical process!"
Bowen leaned back in his chair and puffed for a moment.
"Right there is where I had to make another quick guess, Miss Ferguson. But I think I'm right. I know I'm right! From what I remember of the Apex Crown affair, a fair quantity of stock was issued in the early days; close to half a million, I believe. We can verify the figures this afternoon. With Henderson and Dickover scrapping over a mere block of ten thousand shares, you see they have absorbed about all of that stock that was lying around loose. Call it about two hundred thousand shares or more to each of them.
"Now, when Dickover issued his Apex Crown ultimatum, I thought about what I'd do if I were in his place and with his power; and upon that it flashed over me exactly what he would do—the only thing he logically could do, upon such a threat as his! Remember that Dickover knows human nature and gambles on it; remember, also, he has agents or brokers in every large city in the country, and can strike contemporaneously at a moment's notice."
"All clear so far," said the girl quietly. "And your prophecy—"
"Is this: By to-day the stock is probably up to ten cents or more, and none offered. Dickover to-day issues orders to throw overboard the stock, beginning to-morrow morning; to throw overboard in such big blocks that Henderson will know where it's coming from. He'll hammer down the market, hammer it down until the stock is back to two cents or less.
"And what happens? Will Henderson buy everything in sight? No. He won't have the money or the nerve. He's a traitor, remember, and a traitor has a yellow spot somewhere. Henderson will think that the Apex Crown ore has proven unfit for going through the new chemical process; or he may think that Dickover has put some string on the property that makes the stock worthless; he may think any of a dozen things, and he will. He'll think all of 'em! Instead of finding himself grown rich by a sneaky, slick trick, he'll find Dickover fighting him—and his nerve will go."
"Possibly," agreed the girl, watching Bowen with fascinated eyes. "But it's a poor thing to bet on, isn't it? What's the rest of the prophecy?"
Bowen smiled grimly. "Quite logical. Henderson will find that he gave me five thousand of his cash when he's going to need it all. Before the market is quite smashed down to its original state, he's going to loosen up on a big bunch of his stock. He'll argue that at the right moment. When Dickover begins to buy in again, he, too, can step forward and get back his own—with some of Dickover's to boot; enough to give him control."
"And," cried the girl quickly, "Dickover knows that he'll think so! With all his organization and power, Dickover will step in first! Before Henderson can do it, Dickover has done it. Is that the idea?"
"Exactly." Bowen puffed for a moment; that cigar was too good to be allowed to die. "Exactly. If Henderson does have the nerve to stick, Dickover will beat him anyhow. Now do you see what the game of Dickover is?"
"I see. And I think I agree with you—Henderson will lack nerve. He'll begin to unload his stock at four cents, will unload more at three, and throw off all of it at two to break even. Then, when he's cleaned out of the stock, Dickover will rob the whole market!"
"Bully for you!" exclaimed Bowen eagerly. "I knew you'd understand!"
"Thank you." She smiled, a trifle wanly. He saw that the strain of understanding had been telling upon her. After all, that block of stock was hers! "But I don't understand yet why you refused Dickover's offer for my stock; and I don't understand why you sold him a mine at half its value!"
"I sold him that mine because I was going to need the money right after lunch—and need it badly." Bowen rose. "As for why I refused his offer, let that go until we have lunch. I've licked Henderson and Dickover this morning, which is going some; now I must add you to the list—and I need a stimulant before opening fire."
The girl made no demur. They sought the dining-room together; Bowen, no less than Alice Ferguson, was keyed up to a high tension by the big game, and the biggest game was still ahead of him—the hardest work.
Midway through luncheon, Bowen was sought by special messenger and was handed a folded message. He put it in his pocket without reading, and smiled across the table.
"Information for which I phoned. I don't think much of brokers as a class, but I do know of one man in the game whom I'd trust—Gus Saunders. Ever hear of him?"
The girl shook her head. Bowen switched the subject. He took pains to impress upon Miss Ferguson that he was not the magnate she had thought him. He felt impelled to stand upon a frankly honest footing with this level-eyed girl; he could do nothing else.
"And it was meeting Dickover on the train and here at the hotel," she said, laughter twinkling in her eyes, "that started you on this high finance wave? Good gracious! If I'd known that when you called up about the stock—"
"Well? What would you have said?"
"Just what I did say!" she finished with a laugh. "Now here comes our coffee. Can't you possibly unburden your mind yet? I can't stand this suspense a moment longer!"
Bowen grinned and slipped the waiter a gold piece. They were in a corner of the big dining-room, and to themselves.
"Here, my friend! Keep everybody away from us and don't bother us until I call you!" The waiter bobbed and departed, and Bowen drew a sigh of relief. "Now! We'll wade in."
He produced the packet of notes, and Dickover's check for thirty thousand, and laid them on the table before him. Then he drew forth the message that had been brought him.
"Miss Ferguson, my proposition is simply this: That we go into partnership on the Apex Crown. This message is from Gus Saunders. The Apex Crown issued five hundred thousand shares, and the original holders unloaded everything about a year ago, so that the entire issue is on the market—or is divided between Henderson and Dickover. We've already figured out that by to-morrow most of that stock will be back on the market temporarily."
"Until Dickover can swallow it at a gulp," she added.
"Sure. That mine is highly valuable property—if the chemical process has really been discovered. That's what I'm gambling on; I'm certain that in about another fortnight the mining world will get the news. So, then, let's get busy! I propose that you and I step in at the psychological moment, when Dickover has scared Henderson into unloading; that we make a bold strike and gobble about three hundred thousand shares of that stock at the lowest figure. In short, that we grab the Apex Crown for ourselves! Are you game?"
He was leaning forward, his lean face tensed, his gray eyes holding her gaze.
For a moment she did not respond. When she did answer, her words surprised him.
"Mr. Bowen, I—I don't see why you make this proposition to me. You have enough money there on the table to handle the affair yourself. I cannot put any money into it."
"What! Then you don't want to go into it? You have no faith in my theories?"
"Please don't misunderstand me!" she replied quickly. "I've every faith in you. But I cannot enter upon a partnership where I can give nothing. Because I'm a girl, you're generous to me—and I don't want people to be generous; I can fight my own battles—"
From Bowen broke a sudden ejaculation.
"Great Jehu! Of all the nonsense I ever heard, this is the worst!"
"Well! Isn't it true?"
"No!" he exclaimed savagely. "It is not true! Not as you think. See here, don't you like the scheme? Don't you realize that it's a big thing if successful?"
"Of course I do. But—if I were not a woman, you'd not offer this partnership."
It was Bowen's turn to take the aggressive; he did it with a vim and earnestness that brought the color flooding into her cheeks.
"You're right. I wouldn't! It's because you are a woman that I want you for partner in this business; I need you! Fighting for myself, I'd be apt to do any fool trick. But with your interests hanging on mine, fighting for you as well as for myself, saddled with the responsibility of your trust and your future—why, I'd fight like hell! Excuse me, I didn't mean that profanely, but literally.
"I tell you frankly. Miss Ferguson, you'd be an inspiration to any man! I don't talk like this to every woman. I've never felt like this before in my life. I never met you before, that's the reason! When I say I need you for a partner, I mean just that.
"Get angry if you want to; I can't help it. This isn't a question of what money you can put in. You can put in your block of stock, for that matter; the rest is personality, outbalancing all the money on earth! You can help me with your advice, your character. I'm not offering you charity, God knows!
"Now, it's up to you—my cards are on the table. Say no, and I'll give you ten thousand for your stock. Say yes, and we'll go into the game as fighting partners. Which is it?"
In his appeal was force and something better than force—earnestness.
Alice Ferguson recognized it. She worked for her living, and had learned to know something of what might lie beneath the words of a man. She saw that Bowen's speech might be crude and a bit too frank; but she saw that he meant it. She read down to the good honest soul of the man from Tonopah, and found honesty there. She realized that he did indeed need her; that it would be a coward's part to fail him.
And he was a man to trust.
"Yes," she said, her eyes grave.
Bowen relaxed suddenly, drew a long breath like a sigh. He had been tremendously keyed up to that moment.
"Then let's go," he said, rising. "Let's go see Gus Saunders."
ONCE they were settled in a taxicab, Bowen produced the five thousand in notes, removed the rubber-bands from the package, and counted out twenty fifties.
"Here." He handed the girl ten of the yellow-backs. "I need expense money and so do you. Five hundred apiece will do."
"No time to be squeamish! We're partners. This is an advance on the profits."
Miss Ferguson offered no further objection.
They found Gus Saunders awaiting them in his private office. A conservative broker, this, albeit a young man; by inheritance the junior head of a big firm: clean-cut in every line, and a good sportsman. Bowen had frequently met him at Tonopah.
"Miss Ferguson, allow me to introduce Mr. Saunders. Miss Ferguson is my partner at present, Gus, in a deal we've got on hand; looks like a big one, and we need your help."
"That's my business," and the broker smiled.
"There's a curb stock by the name of—"
"Hold on!" Saunders flung up his hands. "Don't talk curb stock to me. Don't touch the stuff, and you ought to know it!"
"Shut up till I get through!" snapped Bowen, and grinned. "You're refusing no good business that comes along; and I'm paying you any commission on this job that you care to name, I'll trust your end of it, Gus—and there's no one else I can trust."
"Well," conceded the other, "let's hear about it."
"Neither Miss Ferguson nor I are very wise to the brokerage game," pursued Bowen, "but we've doped out a theory and a course of action, and if it's O. K.'d by you, and if it is feasible, then you can shoot ahead. To-morrow there is going to be some whopping big activity in Apex Crown, both here and at Los Angeles.
"Everybody is going to unload that stuff; the market is to be crammed down to two cents or under—probably under. At two cents, the man who's behind the move figures on jumping in and getting control of the mine. Savvy? All right.
"Now, we want you to step in ahead of him. When that stock touches three cents, step softly and begin to buy. At two cents grab it with both hands. Keep on grabbing until the price goes up again to ten—"
"Just one minute, please!" broke in Miss Ferguson excitedly. "If this activity does not begin until to-morrow, why can't we begin to-day? Every share we get is going to count for control of the mine, Mr. Bowen. If we can get some to-day, each of our friends will think the other man is buying it."
"Good," assented Bowen crisply. "Now, Gus, will you handle it for us? You have plenty of agents, and can pull the strings at the right moment without trouble."
The broker chuckled. "This is the first time I ever manipulated curb stocks, Bob! But we'll tackle it. You don't want to buy two-cent stocks on a margin, I suppose?"
Bowen emitted a sarcastic grunt, and drew forth his cash and checks.
"Here are two checks Dickover handed me this morning," and he was not above feeling an inner satisfaction at the broker's quickly concealed surprise, "and some cash. An even thirty-four thousand, five hundred in all. Will that turn the deal?"
"What do you folks think you're buying—Amalgamated Motors? This ought to buy the Apex Crown outright—half of it ought to buy all the shares on the market!"
"Half of it won't," said Bowen grimly. "And you take out your commission before the money evaporates, because we haven't any more! But you get us control of that mine, and as much more as the cash will let you buy."
"All right. Let's sign up the orders. Do you want to stick around here and get my reports as they come in?"
"Not me," said Bowen emphatically.
"Bob Bowen does not intend to become a hanger-on and a parasite, with his nerves snapping and bursting all to h—all to thunder! You call me up at the Palace when I'm broke or when the deal is over."
Ten minutes later Bowen and Miss Ferguson returned to the street.
"Please don't call a taxi!" The girl laughed. "It's such—such an awful waste of money—and I'd much sooner walk!"
"We'll be millionaires gn this deal; we should worry! However, I'm with you. Let's walk. Where next?"
"Where? Why, I'll have to get back to the office—"
"The office? And you a potential millionaire?"
She laughed, and not nervously this time. Bowen's air was infectious.
"I think I'll hang on to that office, Mr. Bowen! Anyway, I've promised to turn out some work by to-night."
They walked along in silence until they reached the Crothers Building. At the entrance the girl paused and turned to Bowen.
"You haven't told me what you expect to do with that mine—when we get it!"
"Do! Why, what did you suppose? Work it by the new chemical process, of course! Or else sell it outright; once the process is on the market, a mine like the Apex Crown will be a bargain at a million! Dickover knows. He said the stock would be worth five dollars a share—when he got ready to make it worth that!"
"Very well." Miss Ferguson put out her hand. "I'll say good-by for this time and get back to work. You'll let me know?"
"You bet I will!" exclaimed Bowen heartily, seeking a pretext for detaining her, but finding none.
He strode along to the Palace with his head in the clouds. Come to think of it, he had earned an afternoon of loafing!
All the previous day he had been watching his plans go from bad to worse, despite the puff he had received in the paper. But at nine o'clock this morning things had begun to move, and they had continued to move with lightning rapidity. His brain had been on the jump keeping one step ahead. For five hours he had been under a growing mental strain which had told tenfold upon his iron-bound physical self.
In five hours he had taken in thirty-five thousand, five hundred dollars, most of it from a man whom he could never have approached in an ordinary way. The whole thing had started with his meeting on the limited with Dickover and the drummer. And now the majority of that money had been laid out on a gamble which might—might—return millions! If he could grab enough of Henderson's stock and Dickover's stock combined, at the moment both men had unloaded; if he could step in ahead of Dickover and at the proper moment get control—
"I've got to stop thinking about this thing," he muttered fiercely. "It's got my brain turning handsprings. There's nothing for me to do, anyhow! Everything is in the hands of Gus Saunders now. I need a bracer, and I'm going to get it. Then I'll buy some magazines and loaf a while."
Bowen was the type of man who takes a drink only when he really needs it, and does not need it often. Now he needed it, and straightway got it. Then he visited a few shops. Having bought some clothes and certain other things of which he stood in need, he returned to the hotel, deposited most of his five hundred in the hotel safe, and settled down in the lobby over some magazines.
For half an hour he read and let his jangled nerves relax. He refused utterly to look up Apex Crown in the papers.
Suddenly he realized that his own name was being called by an evanescent page with a tray. "Mr. Bow-en! Mr, Bow-en!" Rising, Bowen attracted the attention of the buttoned autocrat and was handed a card. It read:
"Oliver Hazard Perry Cheadle, Mineralogist."
"The gentleman's at the desk? Send him up to my room in five minutes."
Bowen betook himself to the elevator. Who was Oliver Hazard Perry Cheadle? The name was totally unknown to him. Arriving at his room, he sought the telephone directory, but found no such name listed.
Mr. O. H. P. Cheadle proved to be a plump, chalky-faced little man with the bland countenance of a cherub. His eyelids blinked behind thick spectacles. His linen was dirty to a degree. He spoke with a slow hesitance in the selection of words. He shook hands with a limp, flaccid grip.
"Mr. Bowen, may I request—er—a few moments of your—er—time? You are a very busy man, I know, but I believe that I have a—er—a proposition to interest you. I read of your being here in—er—the paper—"
"Sit down and rest your heels," said Bowen cordially, laughing to himself.
So here was another result of his publicity! It was something to be a public character, to be classed with the great Dickover!
Mr. Oliver Hazard Perry Cheadle, like a solemn little owl, went directly to business. He had just come to town from Arizona. He had a mine to sell. He had seen by the paper that Bob Bowen, of Tonopah, was heavily interested in low-grade silver properties. His holdings were not silver, but were copper-zinc, and he was so badly in need of ready money, et cetera.
Bowen heard him out. After all, why not have a crack at everything that offered? Zinc-copper ore was not unattractive in prospect.
"Besides, I've nothing to keep me busy," he thought. And said aloud, "Let's see the samples."
Mr. Cheadle was apologetic. The samples and assayer's report were all at his own lodgings. He had not ventured to think that Mr. Bowen—er—would be interested offhand, and—
"Well, let's go have a look," said Bowen, rising. The humility of Mr. Cheadle was slightly annoying. "Where are you stopping? Oh, don't protest, man; I'm free for the day."
It appeared that Mr. Cheadle was stopping at a rooming-house just off Sutter Street. Together the two men descended to the street, where the magnate hailed a taxicab. Bob Bowen, of Tonopah, believed in enjoying affluence while he had it.
The taxi sped out Sutter, crossed Van Ness, and a few blocks farther on veered to the left and halted before one of the extremely old-fashioned residences, high off the sidewalk, which in this section of the city had escaped the fire.
Being a stranger to San Francisco, Bob Bowen did not realize that they had entered upon what in these latter days had become the Japanese quarter; nor, had he known, would the fact have meant anything to him. He felt a mingled repulsion and interest in Oliver Hazard Perry Cheadle. It was entirely reasonable that an impecunious Hassayamper would have sought just such a dingy, antiquated rooming-house as this.
And Bowen reasoned why not pass the good work along? He himself had come to town practically broke; a clap on the back from Dickover had put him on the path to fortune. Why not lend the same halo to Oliver Hazard Perry Cheadle?
Thus thinking, with a righteous glow of generosity warming the cockles of his heart, Bob Bowen allowed himself to be ushered into a dark hallway. To Bowen's surprise, the hallway seemed roofed by stars and specks of light; he was only dimly conscious of a crushing blow on the head that sent him reeling and staggering into utter darkness.
A PAIR OF PROFITEERS.
WHEN a man is hit on the back of the head, hard enough to knock him out without any error, it hurts. Bob Bowen discovered this fact with a vengeance. He had never before been hit on the head with malice prepense; and when he came to himself he was slow in realizing what had happened, and why. He was conscious of a light, and also of a keenly stabbing headache. There seemed to be a lump of some consequence behind his right ear.
The light presently made itself clear as coming from a gas-jet against the wall. Bowen was quite uncertain about his perspective, but finally decided that he was lying on the floor. Pain in his wrists and ankles told him that, incredible though it seemed, his wrists and ankles were lashed together too tightly for comfort.
"Guess I'm not supposed to be comfortable," he murmured, with the ghost of a smile.
The murmur produced an effect.
Into the area of gaslight above Bowen appeared a face. It was a plump but chalky face, the face of Oliver Hazard Perry Cheadle. Gone were the thick spectacles and the bland, cherubic expression. In the stead of them there was a leering grin that quite transfigured the erstwhile mineralogist from Arizona.
"Dropped you!" said Mr, Cheadle, with a complete absence of hesitation or culture. "You poor fish! Dropped you like a innercent babe, I did! Mebbe Plenderson won't grin when he lamps that mug of yours. But why you don't carry more cash in your pocket, I don't see—"
The voice died away, and the livid face. Bowen felt unconsciousness swirling upon him; but before his senses lapsed, he realized that things are seldom what they seem, and that in his first half-amused judgment of Mr. Cheadle he had made a grievous error. Then he fell asleep, entirely satisfied on that point.
When he wakened again he saw through half-closed lids that now it was broad daylight. Hearing the voices of two men in the room, and recognizing both voices, Bowen did not open his eyes fully. Instead, he shut them again and kept them shut for a time.
His head was still hurting, but not with that first keen pain; it was now the dulled, deadened hurt of an old bruise. It no longer dominated him. He had wakened alert, with full memory of what had passed; he was, in short, pretty much himself, except for the cold anger that possessed him. A burning thirst consumed him, but anger dominated it.
And when Bob Bowen was angry to the bottom of his soul, he was not the man to pause over half-way measures, or to ask himself what might happen. He knew what would happen if he got the chance! "He ain't wise to the world yet," said the voice of Cheadle. "Want to stir him up?"
"No," the more biting tones of Henderson made response. "No time for that now. Let it wait until to-night."
"Well, what then?" Cheadle was evidently impatient. "I'm tired o' being a door-mat, Henderson. I want to know how the big stroke is comin', and why; and about this poor boob—what's going to happen to him and us. No more obeying orders till I know why, boss."
The ugly note in that voice was manifest even to Bowen. Henderson replied quickly.
"Him? Oh, leave him till to-night. I'm not going to hurt him any more; just let him know he mustn't butt into my games after this. We'll scatter some whisky on his clothes and take him over to the Mission and leave him. He isn't the sort of fool who spills all he knows to the police; he's too wise to buy chips in a stacked game! He'll take his lesson.
"And now come along and we'll sit in at the big game."
Footsteps and silence. Then the two voices again, less clear this time, but quite intelligible, and a scrape of chairs.
Bowen opened his eyes. He was lying on the floor of a disordered bedroom, lighted by a dingy window. Three feet from him a curtain closed an old-style double doorway; the doors were not pulled to, and in the other room were Henderson and Cheadle. The former telephoned to some unknown "Charley," and gave orders to be kept in touch with every move of Apex Crown. Then he and Cheadle fell into conversation, earnest and low- voiced.
Though he caught only scraps of that conversation, Bowen listened in astounded incredulity. Before him the two speakers unfolded a deeper and craftier knavery than he had ever dreamed; schooled as he was in the tricky mining game, the former agent of Dickover was now springing something unrivaled in his experience for audacity and duplicity! From the muttered voices Bowen was enabled to piece together the following scheme of things:
Cheadle was the superintendent in charge of the Apex Crown development.
Two months previously, Dickover had received private information that a chemical process for treating zinc-silver ore economically was being perfected. He had at once sent Henderson on a private trip to pick up low-grade silver properties and form a gigantic combination; for as soon as news of the chemical process reached the market, low-grade silver would soar. Henderson had found from Cheadle that the Apex Crown was petering out. The vein had been worked to death, and there was no promise of picking up anything beyond. Whereupon Henderson had conceived a plan amazingly bold and clever, Cheadle being his accessory and abettor.
Henderson had sent Dickover a glowing report on the Apex Crown. Cheadle had sent his stockholders news that a twenty-five-foot vein was opening up. Therefore Dickover had issued orders to add Apex Crown to his low-grade holdings. Henderson had quietly bought for himself.
"So we now own some two hundred thousand shares," went on the voice of Henderson. Bowen drank in every word. He felt a cold sweat trickling down his spine as he realized that Apex Crown was worthless.
"Sure," rejoined Cheadle. "But I don't get this highbrow play with Dickover! Why bust things off with him?"
"To make him hate me." Henderson laughed silkily. "The day before Dickover came to town, I went to this Ferguson girl, made her a big offer for her stock, and then made her mad with some bullying. I figured she'd go to Dickover or some of his brokers for advice. Instead, she went to this boob, Bowen. You see? Bowen did the rest. He tipped off Dickover that I was crooked; Dickover fired me, hating me like hell! Now, Apex Crown was at nine and a half this morning—hello! There's a report."
The telephone rang.
"Sell?" rasped Henderson, a fighting edge to his voice. "Sell? You sell when I tell you to, and not before! No! You'll not sell—till I give the order!"
He slammed up the receiver and emitted an oath.
"Charley says the stock is getting shot all to pieces! Some one is unloading in chunks from one to ten thousand—it's down to seven here, and four at Los Angeles. That's Dickover's work. He's cramming the market down—"
"What!" From Cheadle broke a startled cry. "Then he's discovered—"
"Shut up!" snarled Henderson. "He's discovered nothing, I tell you! He's doing the very thing I'd expected him to do. Don't you suppose I know Dickover from start to finish? D'you think I've been his confidential agent without knowing him like a book?"
"Then why the hell is he unloading?" growled Cheadle.
"To bust me. He thinks I'm trying to get hold of Apex Crown. He's doing the very thing I knew he would do—I knew it from the day I met you first and got your report of the petering vein! He figures that because I double-crossed him I've got a yellow streak. He thinks that I want Apex Crown because I know about that chemical process. And what does he do? He—"
Cheadle broke in with a coarse laugh. "Then he still thinks the ol' mine is worth hanging on to?"
"Of course. You and I are the only men who know it isn't worth a damn. Dickover hates me now, hates me bad enough to ruin himself to get my pelt. He's trying to smash Apex Crown as flat as a pancake, and he'll do it before noon to-day! He figures that I'll get scared. He's dead sure that I've got a yellow streak. He's gambling that when Apex Crown gets away down, I'll grow scared and unload to save something from the wreck. See?"
"Uhuh! But what will you do? What's your game? How the devil do we make a killing out of this?"
"We bought our stock at two to five cents, didn't we?" Henderson laughed. "About noon Apex Crown will be flat. When it is, then I dump over a hundred thousand shares in small lots. Dickover thinks I've fully unloaded; he steps in to grab the stock. I help him by grabbing back my hundred thousand shares, and the price goes up. Worse than that, it skyrockets! When it gets to a dollar, which is about the limit, we'll unload for good. We'll get rid of the whole thing at between a dollar and fifty—and clean up a hundred thousand odd dollars!"
"Whew!" Cheadle 's whistle of admiration changed and died suddenly. "But say! Ain't that stock juggling illegal? Ain't the gov'ment going to investigate?"
"Let 'em!" Henderson laughed scornfully. "If they can ever prove anything on Dickover or me, either, let 'em! Think we are fools? With that hundred thousand, and the low-grade properties I've already got, I'll be fixed for life when news of that chemical process gets into print! And I'll see that it does get into print before many more days."
Again the telephone jingled.
"Some boob is buying," snarled Henderson, reporting to his partner in rascality. "But the price is going down just the same. Four here and two and a half tin Los Angeles."
The voices dropped beyond the hearing of Bowen. But he had heard enough. The irony of the situation was that Henderson did not in the least realize that his clever scheme was utterly ruining the man he hated, Bob Bowen, of Tonopah!
"And he sha'n't know it if I can help it," grimly reflected Bowen.
He fought down the panic that gripped him. He felt no satisfaction at having correctly guessed Dickover's plan of campaign. He felt no delight at having correctly guessed that a chemical process had been perfected. All this was lost in the thought that he had ruined Alice Ferguson. For himself he did not greatly care. He had been broke before, and would be broke again!
But the thought of the girl who had believed in him, hurt and rankled. It must now be getting on toward noon, he concluded. By this time Gus Saunders, through scattered agents, was buying Apex Crown here and in Los Angeles; buying it for Bowen and Ferguson! Dickover was grimly hammering down the stock. Saunders's buying would be too carefully handled to send it shooting up in a hurry. And when Saunders got all through, according to the orders the partners had given him, they would own a mine that was absolutely worthless!
"As soon as we've got in the clear"—Henderson's chuckling tone came through the muffling curtain with new clearness—"we'll spring the new^s about the mine having petered out completely. Then maybe she won't smash! I tell you what, Cheadle! This manipulation is going to be investigated, all right; you run out and bring up some lunch, will you? While you're gone, locate somebody you can trust, and have him spread the news that Apex Crown has petered out. Have it done at exactly two o'clock.
"Dickover will get the wires hot in five minutes, and you can arrange for him to discover the truth at Tonopah, Wire somebody there that the mine's busted and you are in Frisco."
"What's the matter with your own men doing all this?" growled Cheadle suspiciously.
"I'm doing the operating; I'll be the first man under investigation. Can't afford to take the risk, even to put a hole in Dickover's bank-account, blast him! But you can do it. Put on those glasses and that line of talk you can assume, and you'll get by. Don't you know any one you can trust?"
There was a moment of silence, then a chair was scraped back. "I know a guy," returned Cheadle, "I guess it can be done safe enough. Two o'clock, eh?"
Cheadle came through the curtained doorway and, without glancing. at the prostrate Bowen, opened a wall-cabinet, took out his thick spectacles, and donned them. Then, as he took a step, he stumbled over Bowen's feet. Catching at the wall to save himself from falling, he dislodged the wall-cabinet and sent a shower of toilet articles over the floor.
Mr. Oliver Hazard Perry Cheadle cursed heartily and fluently. He even kicked the man from Tonopah in the ribs, but Bowen merely grunted and kept his eyes closed. Then Cheadle passed back into the next room.
"Two o'clock, eh?" he repeated surlily. "Sure we'll be clear by then?"
"Leave that part of it to me," said Henderson sharply. "We'll be clear. But be sure to have the trick turned at two sharp! That 'll give Dickover plenty of time to find the report is true, and to unload. I want to see him get a crimp, the big toad!"
"Then at two she busts," said Cheadle.
"And hurry back here with the lunch. I'm getting hungry."
Cheadle grunted and a door slammed behind him.
Bowen lay motionless, his head twisted so that he could idly survey the wreckage caused by Cheadle's stumble. This final move of Henderson's had removed his last hope. At three o'clock that afternoon Apex Crown would be known to all men as worthless—and the Apex Crown would be the property of Bob Bowen, of Tonopah! But it was Alice Ferguson that Bowen was chiefly thinking. Whose fault but his that her little patrimony would be wiped out?
THE SMASH OF APEX CROWN.
SLOWLY anger uprose again in Bowen's soul. After all, the disaster that was upon him and upon Alice Ferguson was not primarily his own fault! It was due to the machinations, the fraud and trickery of Henderson.
"We're simply meshed in the net he has woven," thought Bowen, "And there's no way out! Great Jehu, if I could only get my hands free for five minutes!"
But he could not, and gave up the instinctive effort. His hands and feet were numb and swollen by reason of the tight lashings. The thirst that racked him was unbearable. He kept silent, however. Ask Henderson for a drink? Beg Henderson for mercy? Not yet!
Through the curtain Bowen could hear Henderson answering the telephone, but not in any manner to supply further information. He knew that the man was smoking, could smell the tobacco: it wakened the craving within him and intensified his thirst. Once Charley called up, and presumably demanded permission to sell, for Henderson answered savagely:
"I told you once before that I'd give orders! Now shut up. You sell when I tell you to sell, and not before. Get that? I'm giving the orders in this deal, and not you! You tell me when that stock climbs to ninety—what? Never mind your predictions; I know what's doing! When it touches ninety, call me, that's all. But don't you dare sell until I give you the word!"
Again the scratch of a match, followed by silence. Bowen's eyes were caught by a metallic glint on the threadbare carpet, two feet from his head—just about opposite his elbow. He stared at it for a moment without recognition. Then suddenly his gray eyes widened a little.
The object had been spilled with the other things from the wall-cabinet. It was rusty and had evidently been long discarded, forgotten. It was the slender steel blade of a safety-razor!
"Great Jehu!" muttered Bowen. "Great Jehu! If I only could!"
He was lying half on one side, half on his arms, which were bound behind his back. Carefully he moved his numbed limbs, moved his aching body. Inch by inch he moved it, sidling up and along until he judged that his lashed hands were about level with the bit of rusted steel. Gropingly he felt for it. A moment later his searching fingers came in contact with the razor-blade.
Bowen relaxed, a deep breath of achievement swelling his chest. He lay quiet, half fearing lest his movements had been heard by Henderson. But no sign came from the other room.
As the possibilities unfolded, a desperate inspiration flashed upon Bowen's brain.
After all, there was still a chance, more than a chance, of retrieving the disaster! That bit of rusted steel placed hope between his hands! How late it was, he could not tell, but it must be long past noon, although Cheadle had not yet returned with the luncheon. Bowen smiled at the thought. If he could but free his feet and wrists! If he could but down those two scoundrels! If he could but telephone to Gus Saunders before two o'clock! Then the market for Apex Crown would be at its height, and Saunders could unload before the crash!
Bowen had dreamed of millions, when he believed the mine to be good. Now that it was a question of at best getting out from under, there was still hope of cleaning up a tidy fortune. But he would have to phone Gus Saunders before two o'clock!
Cautiously holding the edged blade in his almost senseless fingers. Bob Bowen fumbled with it for the cord that bound his wrists behind him. He could not make the keen blade reach. Just as he realized this, just as he realized that the job was not going to be so easy as it had seemed, he heard Cheadle enter the adjoining room.
"Done it, Henderson!" Cheadle apparently set down a basket, for there was a rattle of dishes. "There's lunch."
"You fixed it all right? Sure it's safe?" demanded the eager voice of Henderson.
"Safe as shootin', pardner! At two o'clock the storm busts, and Lord help us if we ain't somewheres else!"
"Leave that to me. What's this you got to drink—milk! You're a nice one, you are! Bringing me milk to drink—"
"It's all you get. I mean that you shall keep a clear head to-day, pardner. No booze in yours until we've cashed in! Now lay out the grub. Have you looked at him in there? Has he waked up yet?"
"Don't know and don't care," grunted Henderson.
Cheadle came striding through the doorway. Forewarned, Bowen closed his hand over the bit of rusty steel in his palm. He looked up at Cheadle, who bent over and examined his bonds.
"Don't I get something to eat?" hoarsely demanded Bowen. "Give me a drink at least—"
"You shut up." Cheadle bestowed upon him a gentle kick. "You're blamed lucky to get off at all!"
Cheadle strode back to his partner in crime. Henderson began retailing reports that had come over the phone, but now Bowen paid no heed to the mumble of voices.
Working frantically, Bowen strove to reach his wrist-cords with the edged steel. At first he found it practically impossible. Twice the blade slipped in his numbed fingers and struck into his flesh. Fearful lest he sever a wrist-artery, he took more caution.
At length he got a grip that held upon the thin steel, and to his keen joy felt the tip of the blade touch a cord. Slowly it bit through. A slight tug told him that the strand had parted. Dropping the blade, he worked his arms until the severed cord loosened. Scarce sensible of the motion, scarce able to make his brain control the congested members, Bowen drew his arms from beneath him.
He was free—but for the moment, helpless. He could not move his hands; they were swollen and purpled, quite without feeling.
For a while he lay, content to slowly chafe the life back into his fingers. With an effort he sat up, found the razor-blade where he had dropped it, and freed his ankles. Still he could do no more than strive to bring the banished blood back into hands and feet. Motion intensified his thirst, which seemed burning the throat out of him! But he made no sound.
Slowly strength and control came back to his hands. He clenched them with a grim smile; they were pretty good hands after all—quite equal to the work that lay ahead! And suddenly, as he cautiously tried to gain his feet without noise, he heard a chair scraped back in the adjoining room.
"Confound that grapefruit!" It was Henderson who spoke, with irritation. "I'm going across the hall to the toilet and wash up. Call me if Charley rings up."
"Sure," responded Cheadle.
The door slammed after Henderson. The next instant Bowen heard the footsteps of Cheadle crossing the floor—toward him.
Catlike, the man from Tonopah came to his feet, looked swiftly around for a weapon. He could not trust his fists—yet! There was too much at stake. He must call Gus Saunders before two o'clock!
As the dumpy figure of Cheadle parted the curtains, Bowen caught up a small foot-stool—the first object to hand—and hurled it. The hassock took Cheadle in the side of the head and knocked him sprawling. Before he could recover, Bowen was upon him; and, without any mercy, struck two blows that knocked out the fat little mining man.
Moving rapidly, Bowen caught up the cords that had bound him, tied Cheadle hand and foot, and rolled the inert body under the bed. Barely had he finished and come erect, when Henderson returned to the adjoining room.
"Nothing doing yet, eh?" he sang out. The telephone rang, and saved Bowen from making any response. Henderson took the message and repeated his former commands.
"Well, didn't I tell you the stock was kiting up? Now you wait for my order to sell, and keep your ear close to the phone! I want no monkey business at the last moment."
Henderson banged up the receiver. "She's up to ninety, Cheadle!" he called exultantly. "What 'd I tell you, eh? It's just ten minutes of two now. In five minutes I'll give Charley orders to sell—"
"I'll bet you two to one you don't," said Bowen, stepping into the room.
He had thought to take Henderson by surprise; to down the thunderstruck man without a struggle. But he had far underestimated Dickover's former agent. Henderson had spread upon a small table which bore the telephone, the dishes borne in by Cheadle. Without a second's hesitation, Henderson picked up a heavy restaurant coffee-cup and hurled it fair and square at the face of his opponent.
Caught athwart the forehead by the missile, Bowen almost crumpled up. Henderson was upon him like a wildcat, beating at him with another cup. Bowen could do no more than clinch.
Locked in each other's arms, the two men reeled back and forth, smashed over chairs, went crashing into the wall with terrific impact. The shock separated them. Henderson's arm swept up; the heavy crockery cracked down upon Bowen's head, struck full against the blood-black bruise Cheadle had given him, and shivered to pieces.
Under that terrific blow. Bob Bowen felt himself going, and going fast. He lunged forward and caught Henderson about the body: A final great wave of strength surged into him, and he threw Henderson over his hip—an old wrestling trick. He saw the man drive head first into the wall—and saw no more. For the second time, his knees were loosened and black darkness engulfed his soul.
When he wakened again, Bowen sat up and looked around dazedly, wondering at the deadly ache in his head. He remembered by slow degrees. He saw Henderson lying across the room, lying in a limp mass. He heard the man's stertorous breathing. It was the deep, hard breathing of a man badly hurt.
Slowly Bob Bowen came to his feet. Staggering, he came to the table, clutched, the bottle of milk, poured the revivifying fluid down his throat. A deep sigh of satisfaction burst from him—and then he remembered. Two o'clock! How long had he lain senseless?
With a groan, Bowen flung himself across the room to Henderson's side. His fingers trembling, he drew out Henderson's watch. It was two forty!
A moment later, Bowen seized the telephone and gave the number of Gus Saunders. He waited, frantic with suspense, until he heard the broker's voice. There might yet be hope! Cheadle might have made mistakes.
"You, Bob? Good Lord!" Saunders's tone sent his heart down. We've been looking all over town for you—"
"What's your last report on Apex Crown?" cried Bowen hoarsely. "Has it broken—"
"Broke all to smash at two o'clock. Last report was eight cents here and going down fast. Miss Ferguson is here. You'd better come down and settle up—"
Bowen slammed the receiver on the hook. "Oh, hell!" he said simply. "Well, we'll face the music!"
BOB BOWEN sat in the private office of Gus Saunders at three fifteen. On the way down-town he had stopped at a doctor's office and had had his head bound up. As he himself put it, a couple of days would see him able to butt into another wall.
"And I've sure butted it this time," he said with assumed cheerfulness, as he concluded his story. In the eyes of Alice Ferguson he read quick sympathy—sympathy, and something else that set his pulses to leaping. But he refused to meet her eyes.
"I sure have," he went on. "Where I made my mistake was in thinking that Henderson was—was—well, that he was something less than Henderson! My one consolation is that I knocked him out so effectually that he never got word to the unknown Charley to sell out. When the news of the real condition of the Apex Crown got abroad, and the market busted all to nothing, Henderson was still rocked in the cradle of the deep. It makes me feel better to think that that skunk went down with us!
"But I'm only sorry for—for your sake, Miss Ferguson. I'm not worrying about my own money; but yours—"
"Mine is safe," said the girl, gazing at him with shining eyes.
Bowen sat up a trifle straighter. "What?"
"I have a confession to make, Mr. Bowen—a happy confession," said the girl, earnestly, leaning forward. "Mr. Saunders had been trying to get in touch with you all morning and had failed. No one knew where you were. At noon I came down here and got reports. Then the stock began to go up and up. It reached ninety, and was still climbing!
"To tell you the truth, I was afraid. Why? I can't say, except that it was just a feeling inside of me. There was no word from you; all sorts of rumors were flying around about Apex Crown, and—and Mr. Saunders said that the stock was being so rottenly manipulated that there might be an investigation! That frightened me more than anything. So I told Mr. Saunders to sell the whole thing—"
Saunders came to his feet with a whoop of delight.
"Feminine instinct, by George!" he shouted, his repressed mirth breaking out in a roar of laughter. "Bob, old man, she made me sell out the whole blamed bunch around ninety! So help me, she did, and we did!"
Bowen stared from one to the other, staggered. He could not at first grasp the reality of what had taken place.
"You're not trying just to brace me up—"
"Rats!" Saunders clapped him on the shoulders happily. "Not a bit of it. I'm a cold-blooded business man, and I don't give a whoop about bracing you up! As a matter of fact, I did not get control of the stock after all. Henderson's holdings never did come on the market, you know, except in part. So when I saw how things were going, I let Miss Ferguson boss the job. And it's blamed lucky I did!"
"Great Jehu!" said Bowen slowly. "Then—then we're not broke after all—"
"Not by two hundred thousand or so! Which, I judge, our friend Dickover pays—"
Bowen came to his feet, a trifle unsteadily.
"Gus," he said, his voice solemn, but a twinkle in his gray eyes, "this can only happen once in a lifetime. Thank Heaven it happened in my lifetime! Now, see here. It was Miss Ferguson who saved the bacon to-day, and I want to tell you that she's too good a partner to lose. Would you mind making this a real private office for a few minutes?"
With a blank look that swiftly changed to a grin of comprehension, Mr. Saunders left.
Bowen turned to Alice Ferguson, and at sight of her rapidly crimsoning countenance the old boyish smile came to his lips.
"Hold on!" he exclaimed. "Don't say anything for about two minutes, please! I'm all done with business. I don't want to hear the word again—between us. When I'm talking about partnership like I want to talk, I mean something else than business! Maybe you'll think that I'm pretty sudden, but I tell you that I never met any one like you before, and I never will again. And I want you to listen, because—"
And Alice Ferguson listened.
( T h e e n d. )