The Boss of Wind River/Chapter 7

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VII

COINCIDENT with the rise in the freight rate the car shortage became a thing of the past. Orders from Clancy Brothers poured in and were filled as slowly as possible. Around them flourished a mass of acrid correspondence—complaints and threats from the consignees, tart rejoinders from Kent. In other quarters sales were slow and small, for the time was one of money stringency. Credit, once long and easy, contracted, and the men who held the purse-strings drew them tight.

Hagel, of the Commercial Bank, communicated his directors' decision as to the maturing notes, with his usual verbose solemnity. Done into plain English it amounted to this: The directors insisted on having the notes reduced by half, and they didn't care a hoot for the Kent current account.

Kent thereupon drew a check for his balance and took it to the Farmers' National, where he had already made tentative arrangements. New notes were signed, the Commercial paid off, and the securities held by them transferred to the Farmers'. That incident was closed.

Joe found McDowell a vast improvement upon Hagel. Where the latter had backed and filled and referred to his directors, McDowell, to whom responsibility was as the breath of life, decided instantly. He was less bound by routine and tradition, more willing to take a chance, and in closer touch with the exigencies of modern business. But for all that he never lost sight of his bank's interests, and his impartial and cool advice was of inestimable benefit to Joe. Also he made it very plain that while his institution would meet any reasonable proposition more than half way, it would protect itself first, last, and all the time. But their policy was a more liberal one than the Commercial's.

Thus Joe was able to pay the interest on the mortgages held by the Northern Loan Company. This was overdue, and the mortgagees had threatened legal proceedings. And he was able, also, to accompany his tender for the choice Wind River limits by a marked check, a necessary formality which had cost him some sleepless nights.

Naturally neither Crooks nor Kent sat down quietly under the new freight rate. They protested warmly, and, protests failing, deputed Locke to handle the matter for them. Locke went straight to headquarters, as was his custom. Henry J. Beemer, the general manager of the Peninsular Railway, tilted back his chair and knocked the ashes from his cigar.

“As a matter of fact, Locke,” he said, “there never was a freight rate that pleased everybody.”

“Certainly not this one,” Locke replied. “It pleases no one.”

“Oh, I don't know,” said Beemer. “It's not such a bad rate. We have the usual number of complaints, but nothing more. Before promulgating it we made inquiries——

“From my clients?” Locke interrupted sceptically.

“No, I'm afraid we overlooked them. But we have letters from several large lumber shippers and dealers. Like to read them?”

Locke nodded. He perused the letters produced, with a sardonic smile.

“Very pretty,” he commented, handing them back. “You couldn't have worded them better yourself. They wouldn't deceive a child.”

“Do you insinuate that they are not genuine?” asked Beemer sharply, frowning.

“They're not forgeries, but that lets them out,” said Locke. “They're inspired, every one of them. The signatories would admit it under oath, too. Are you paying them rebates?”

“Illegal,” said Beemer, recovering his usual suavity.

“Yes—but are you?” Locke retorted.

“I'm not in the witness box,” said Beemer.

“You will be, one of these days,” Locke predicted. “Then we'll thresh out the letters and the rebate question, if I have the cross-examining of you.”

Beemer smiled rather uneasily. “We don't seem to be getting ahead. What do you want us to do?”

“Restore the old rate. My clients—or one of them—made contracts on the faith of it.”

“Shouldn't have done it,” said Beemer. “Good heavens! You, as a lawyer, can't hold us responsible for that.”

“No, but you see how the new rate hits them.”

“We were losing money on the old one,” said Beemer. “This has just gone into effect. We must see how it works. I won't promise anything, but later we may be able to reduce it.”

“That isn't satisfactory,” Locke told him bluntly. “I shall advise my clients to file a complaint with the Transportation Commission.”

Beemer laughed. The commission was notoriously slow and over-loaded with work. Taken in its order of priority the complaint would not, in all probability, be disposed of inside a year.

“Go ahead!” he said indifferently.

“All right,” said Locke. “Give me a list of your directors.”

“What do you want that for?”

“I want to find out, if I can, how many or which of them will benefit by this increased rate on lumber.”

“Confound it, Locke,” snapped Beemer, “that's another insinuation. It amounts to a charge of manipulation of rates.”

“Which is, of course, absurd,” said Locke ironically. “Will you give me the names, or must I get them another way?”

That night he and Crooks went carefully over the list of directors. They found several names whose owners were more or less connected with lumber interests, though just how they benefited by the new rate was not apparent, unless they received rebates in some form, as doubtless they did.

“As to Carney it's plain enough,” said Crooks. “His business is over on the O. & N. The rise won't touch him and will cut us out of his markets.”

“That's so,” responded Locke. “Now, take Ackerman. I know he's mixed up in about everything, but I never heard that he had lumber interests.”

“He tried to get young Kent to turn his business into a stock company, and failing that to sell it,” said Crooks.

“The devil he did? Then we may assume his interest. But what is it?”

Neither could answer the question. Mr. Ackerman's varied activities were not blazoned forth to the world. He was more prominent in finance than in commerce, and so far as they knew he was not identified with any lumber business.

“But he must be,” said Locke thoughtfully. “I'll see what I can find out. It's strange. I wonder——” He broke off abruptly and pulled out a drawer of his desk, burrowing among the papers. “Yes, here we are. Huh!” He laid two papers side by side and ran his eye down them. “By the Lord Harry, Crooks, Ackerman is a director of the Peninsular Railway, of the Commercial Bank, and of the Northern Loan Company!”

“Is, hey?” Crooks did not see the connection. “He's in a lot of things besides.”

“Don't you get it?” Locke rapped out. “That bank was Joe Kent's till they tried to squeeze him and he changed. The loan company hold his mortgages and threatened foreclosure for an instalment of interest not much overdue. The railway makes a rate that loses money for him. And Ackerman, director in all three concerns, tries to get hold of his business. What do you think of that?”

Crooks's thought compressed itself into one forcible word.

“So there's a coon in the tree somewhere,” Locke pursued. “Now, here's another thing: Clancy Brothers knew of the intended change before the new rate was promulgated. The contract which they tried to obtain would have been absolutely ruinous to Kent. The one they have is bad enough. Therefore we seem to be warranted in assuming some connection between Ackerman and the Clancys.”

The assumption seemed warranted but did not put them much further forward. Out of their speculations two salient points emerged: Some person or persons were hammering the lumber interests along the Peninsular Railway, and Kent's in particular; and Mr. Stanley Ackerman represented the people who wielded the hammer.

Joe, when told of their deductions, was not nearly as surprised and indignant as he would have been a couple of months before. He was learning in a hard school, and hardening in the process. And his brief and pointed reference to Ackerman, the Clancys, Template:Tooleip, would have done credit to old Bill Crooks in his most vitriolic mood.

“Showing the effect of a modern college education upon the vocabulary,” Locke commented dryly.

Joe grinned mirthlessly. “They're all that and then some,” he said. “I'll show them yet.”

Therefore it was unfortunate for Mr. Stanley Ackerman that he should have chosen this juncture for a second call upon the son of his highly respected deceased acquaintance, William Kent.

Joe had just finished reading a letter from that eminent lawyer, Nicholas K. Ryan, setting forth the law in the matter of breach of contract, when Mr. Ackerman's accurately engraved card was handed to him. Followed Mr. Ackerman, perfectly dressed, bland, and smiling. His manner had lost nothing in warmth; indeed it was, if possible, more fatherly than ever. He beamed upon Joe, greatly to that young man's disgust.

“Well, Mr. Ackerman,” he said shortly, “what can I do for you?”

“Why, my dear boy, that is exactly what I was about to ask you,” replied Mr. Ackerman. “I promised myself that the first time I was in Falls City I would drop in and ask if I could be of any assistance in any way.”

“Awfully kind of you,” said Joe in a tone which should have given his visitor warning.

“Not a bit of it, my boy. The signs point to hard times, and the advice of one who has—hem!—a certain amount of business experience may not come amiss. What can I do for you? Out with it! How is the business?”

“The business,” said Joe grimly, “is doing about as well as can be expected—under the circumstances.”

Involuntarily his eyes sought the letter lying open on his desk. So did Mr. Ackerman's, and as he recognized the huge, sprawling signature of that eminent attorney, Nicholas K. Ryan, a satisfied comprehension came into them.

“Ah,” he said, “you feel the prevailing depression already. I am sorry to say—hem!—it is only beginning. These things move in cycles. Buoyant trade, optimism, expansion; over-expansion, falling trade, pessimism. We are on the down grade now, and have not nearly reached the lowest point. It may be one year or two or three before there is a revival. Those whose businesses are sound will weather the storm; but those who are unprepared will perhaps founder.”

“Well, I'll weather it all right, if that's what you mean,” said Joe.

“I hope so—I sincerely hope so,” said Mr. Ackerman in a tone which implied grave doubt. “By the way, since I was here I mentioned in a certain quarter—no matter where—the possibility of your being willing to stock your business or sell it, and I think a very good arrangement might be made—good from your standpoint, I mean. Let me tell you just what might be done.”

“I won't trouble you,” said Joe. “I told you once I wasn't open to anything of the kind.”

“But this would be most advantageous,” Ackerman persisted. “It would allow you to retain practical control of the business and give you more money than you are making at present.”

“Drop it!” rasped Joe. “You and your friends will get hold of the pieces of my business when you smash it and me, and not before.”

Mr. Ackerman was amazed, shocked, and pained. At least his face assumed an expression combining all three emotions.

“My dear boy——

“What's the use?” Joe interrupted hotly. “I know more about you than I did. You and your fellow directors of the railway raised the rate on lumber and tipped off the Clancys in advance. You nearly got me on that. You and your fellow directors of the bank tried to close me out when my security was ample. You and your fellow directors of the loan company wouldn't give me an ordinary extension of time for an interest payment. And if I went into any such arrangement as you seem prepared to suggest you'd cut my throat and throw me overboard when it suited you. And so, Mr. Ackerman, I think we may as well close this interview now.”

“I assure you——” Mr. Ackerman began earnestly.

“Don't!” Joe interrupted curtly. “I wouldn't believe you.”

Mr. Stanley Ackerman rose and held out his hand, a smile, tolerant and forgiving, illuminating a countenance which, to tell the truth, was somewhat red.

“I'd rather not, thanks,” said Joe, looking at the hand. His tone was so thoroughly contemptuous that Mr. Ackerman's beautiful smile vanished.

“All right, then, young man,” he snapped. “This is the last offer you'll get from me. And in future you need expect no consideration from any institution with which I am identified. Go ahead and run your own little business, and see what happens.”

Joe brightened instantly.

“That's better talk—and I believe you are telling the truth for once,” he said cheerfully. “That's precisely what I'm going to do.”

Mr. Ackerman's lips opened in a further remark; but thinking better of it he shut them again and left the office, wearing his dignity about him as a mantle. He brushed past Wright in the hall, and the latter whistled his astonishment, for the highly respectable and usually unperturbed twin brother of Capital was swearing through his teeth in a way that would have increased the reputation of any drunken pirate who ever infested the Florida Keys.