BY CY WARMAN.
What Did the Superintendent Mean When He Told the Chief
"Four-flush strong at Lone Tree, north and south. VanLaw."
It took the chief engineer as much as a minute to appreciate the full meaning of the telegram quoted above. He made no reply, but began surveying, grading, and building a railroad north and another south from Lone Tree.
VanLaw was the recognized genius of the P. D. & Q., that was rushing its rails into every new town and prospective county-seat in the waking West of the seventies. His title was simply superintendent, but he was the president's right arm, the pathfinder's inspiration, the contractor's boss, and a constant menace to the peace and rest of the weary Jerry who wanted to smoke between spikes.
The "Amateurs," as VanLaw invariably called the competing line, the Illinois Western, were making a dash for the same promising points. The " P. D." people always argued that the Western took tips from them and headed where VanLaw's stakes gleamed above the wild grass, but the other fellows denied this. One thing, however, they could not deny. They wanted to build to Spike Buck and be in first. In the seventies men did not hang about the State Legislature waiting for right of way. They built, and asked permission afterward. If a pathfinder preempted a pass, he named it and held it by right of discovery, and wo often came to the man who tried to dislodge him.
When the spring that piloted the summer of which I write opened, each company had special detectives watching the other. It is related that these "spotters," to save work and worry, used to meet and compare notes, make out their reports, and mail them together. But the man who would rob his employer in that way would certainly deceive his pal, and so it fell out that VanLaw's man held out on the secret service of the opposition. That is to say, there were some things he forgot to tell. From Lone Tree, the first divisional station west of the Missouri, a stage line ran to Spike Buck, forty miles south.
"Why are you building north from Lone Tree? " asked the Amateurs.
"Goin' to Sunset," answered the "Q." man, and that was true. It was also true that five miles out on this Sunset Branch the "Q." people had a supply-camp where they were piling up material, but the Amateur, accepting the other man's word, never went up to see.
VanLaw had so constructed his time-tables that all the material passed Lone Tree between midnight and morning. It was summer now and the prairie was hard and dry. From the camp at the end of the Sunset spur every night a long string of wagons trailed out toward Spike Buck, forty miles south. This freight-road passed down a rock-floored ravine under the main line of the "Q.," so that looking from the car-window you would not notice the white marks on the sand stone bed of the dry river where the wagons went, burdened with cross-ties, timbers, and rails for the line VanLaw was quietly constructing north and south from a point midway between Spike Buck and the aforementioned main-line bridge. Every night a mile or so of mules, four, six, and sometimes eight to a wagon, crept out across the prairie and in the shelter of the following night they came back empty on a slow trot.
At Lone Tree, the "Q." established an engineering-camp and began leisurely surveying a line to Spike Buck. The Amateurs smiled. They had looked that land over a year ago and found it impossible to reach the roaring metropolis of the plain under a two-per-cent grade. They reasoned that the "Q." would fool away the summer sounding the swales and then abandon the route. When they began a second survey the Amateurs would begin building up from the south. Even if the " Q." should foolishly decide to build where they were now surveying, the Western could easily cover the sixty miles of level land long before the "Q." could build this fifty miles of bad road and bridge the swales.
So the Amateurs rested on their arms, watching the "Q." engineering outfit and securing terminal facilities at Spike Buck. That is to say, they were negotiating for land and a bonus. But as often as they came to close the deal, one man on the board of aldermen balked. It was nonsense, he said, to say the railroads would ignore Spike Buck, the best town in the West. He would favor, rather, charging the railroads for the privilege of coming into camp. And so the business would fall or hang fire.
This balky alderman had a cow-ranch a few miles north of Spike Buck and spent much of his time with the cowboys. Sometimes he would go far beyond the ranch and one day he came suddenly upon a gang of men distributing cross-ties on the prairie.
"What are you doing?" asked the alderman.
"Three dollars a day."
"What's his name?"
"I never asked him."
"Where's he headed?"
"He didn't say, but if you're curious or interested an' 'll follow that line of stakes, you'll more'n likely catch up with the engineers drivin' 'em."
Inasmuch as the line of stakes led toward the cow-ranch, the alderman decided to follow. He was not, however, looking for the engineer. He was after the presiding genius of the "Q."' but he would not say so to the foreman of the tie-gang. Ten minutes later, at the summit of the little hill he met VanLaw.
"Howdy?" said the pathfinder, reaching for the alderman's hand. "How is the herd behaving?" he asked as they both swung down.
"We've had a hot, dry spell," said the alderman, "and I'm afraid I sha'n't be able to hold 'em much longer. The Maverick has gone over to the cause of the Western."
"To the Amateurs, eh?"
"To the Amateurs, and I'm all alone. I've kept them milling for a month, but they're due to stampede any night. The other fellows are working in every direction. Jones & Co., the new real estate firm, buy pages in both the papers, and while they are buying and selling a few inside lots, they are negotiating for a large tract of land near the town for a suburb. Fancy a two-year-old town with coal-oil lamps and horse-cars wanting a suburb."
VanLaw nodded, smiled, and rubbed his chin.
"Jones & Co. are buying for the Western," the alderman went on, "and I hear the mayor is to invite the president out from Boston. This move I can't block. In short, the proposition is becoming too warm to handle. You know you can take a hot potato and by tossing from one hand to the other cool it down, but it's pretty hard on a one-armed man. So long as I had the Maverick to toss it to occasionally, I was confident, but he's been seen."
"What are the Amateurs asking?"
"Depot site, fifty acres for shops and yards, and a cash bonus. What do your people ask?"
"Right of way, that's all."
"Good boy. That makes my job easier. But the other fellow will agree to run trains in and out in six months from the date of contract."
"We can do it in six weeks. Bradford stepped it off last night and assured me that ten miles will take us from the end of the track to your town. Only five miles remain to be built to connect us with the main line at the bridge. We approach the main line along the shoulder of a little lift of table-land and can build up to within half a mile of the connection before we can be seen from the train, which, I may explain, is flagged safely through Lone Tree at a good forty miles an hour. Only night trains stop at Lone Tree now." The alderman smiled approvingly on his friend the pathfinder. While the two men talked the sun sank low in the western sky. A party of engineers drove by in a big buckboard. Down the prairie they saw the tie-men cacheing their shovels and picks in the tall grass. Then they lined up, two abreast, and marched away to camp, the foreman, who knew nothing, in front. As the sun went down the two men parted with a warm handclasp, and the alderman galloped back to his ranch for the night.
Long after the others had gone to sleep VanLaw sat in Bradford's tent and told him what was expected of him.
"Let no man escape to tell the tale from now on, guilty or innocent," said the superintendent, "but try to avoid manslaughter."
Bradford smoked and listened. He knew that all the gang brought out were still with him and the few who had joined since had stayed. He had seen to that. If a man became disgruntled he was humored. If he insisted upon quitting, he was given his time and told to go over to the boarding-tent and stop until the buckboard would be going out to Lone Tree. In each instance the man had been completely baffled and disarmed by this kindness and in a few days, having been shamed by his companions, he returned to work. For the sick he had a splendid hospital and everything that could be desired - everything but transportation. "Certainly," he would say to the sick or discharged, "you can have a pass as soon as I can get a book," and so the prospective traveler would wait patiently, for all men delight to ride free.
Something of importance had been forgotten. VanLaw was going back to Bradford's tent, after having said good night, when be saw the engineer come out and walk to a smoldering fire that had been burning in the open. As VanLaw approached, Bradford stopped, brushed the coals, and put a small book on the fire. As it blazed it lit up the faces of the two road-makers.
"What on earth are you about?" asked the chief.
"Cortez," said Bradford, "burned his boats to keep his men in Mexico. That's a book of passes that your thoughtful chief-clerk sent out to me."
There was a good deal of suppressed excitement in Spike Buck when the alderman returned to camp on the day following his interview with VanLaw. The Tri-Weekly Herald had a strong editorial on "The Needs of the Camp." The alderman, who, as editor of his college paper, had learned to mark the style of a writer, saw at a glance that this literature had not originated in the Herald office. And then, too, there was a fine chalk cut of Mr. Jones on the front page and the argument was the argument of a man who saw only one railroad headed for Spike Buck and that the Western.
The Weekly Chronicle, not to be outdone, came out next day with a full-page ad for Jones & Co. and a warm roast for the "Obstructionist," whom it introduced for the first time as the college chum of Superintendent VanLaw, of the P. D. & Q. road. The Chronicle advised the alderman to resign, since it was an open secret that he was on the pay-rolls of the P. D. & Q. This was the only thrust that hurt the alderman, the charge that he had been bribed.
Late in the afternoon the alderman saw a great crowd about the post-office. The people were cheering and as he approached they cheered him. Then they hooted and hissed him. A friend whispered to the alderman that the president of the Western was coming next week.
The alderman attended the special meeting of the council that night and to the surprise of the mayor, the other members, and the spectators, took a great interest in the arrangements that were being made for the entertainment of the distinguished visitor. Some one spoke to the mayor and he named the balky alderman as one of the members of the reception committee that was to meet the president's party at the station. "He's come down some," said the editor of the Herald.
"I thought I'd land him," commented the Chronicle man, audibly.
The next day the alderman rode out to the cow-ranch and beyond, and the next VanLaw galloped up to Lone Tree - and got his president on the company wire. They talked for an hour and then VanLaw began to issue orders to the engineer in charge of the survey east of Lone Tree to rush his stakes into Spike Buck by the end of the week and locate a depot site. The engineer jumped twenty miles in a single day and began setting stakes again. A young man with a swift-looking cayuse and a cowboy-hat joined the engineering force just before it reached Spike Buck and showed the engineer how to enter and where to plant his last stake.
The assistant superintendent took charge of the construction work on the south branch. Every inch of siding was filled with cars laden with tools and material, scrapers and Missouri mules. The Western detective reported to his company and the Western began building up from the south, confident of their ability to beat the enemy by a month or more. The Western detective was ordered to camp on the trail of the "Q." graders. One night he saw a long line of flats loaded with rails steal out of a siding, west-bound. In the dawn of the next day the spotter walked down the line alone. Some ten miles out he came upon the train of material standing on a blind siding, and went back kicking himself for not having asked his friend the enemy, and saved the long tramp.
When the president of the Western passed through Chicago the president of the P. D. & Q. called upon him and invited him to use the "Q." which would take him within forty miles of Spike Buck, whereas he would be obliged to stage sixty miles from Morgan's Pond on his road. Of course, the traveler was bound to accept the courtesy of the "Q."
Otherwise he would seem to be jealous, while he was not, having the best of it and the sympathy of the good people at Spike Buck.
"I should not be surprised," said the president of the "Q.," if VanLaw would finish our line in time to bring you back by rail. Anyway, we'll back your train down as near to Spike Buck as possible."
"Ah," said the Western man, " you're a great jollier. I like to fight a man who can look fate in the face as you do. Too bad," he added with mock sorrow, as they shook hands, "and young - so young!"
The president of the P. D. & Q. smiled for a long time after leaving his friend. "The dear old chap! Somehow --" but he could not stop now. If he did he could never stop VanLaw - never.
It was well for VanLaw that the excitement in Spike Buck kept the people in town, for the advance-guard of graders was almost in sight of the camp by the end of the week. The engineers had already picked up the line of stakes set by the south-branch surveyors, who had purposely swung round so as to enter the town from the north, and the location was completed. Under cover of the bluffers at Lone Tree, where they were actually laying some tracks and pretending to lay much more, VanLaw built boldly up to the blind-siding at the high bridge and made connection with the main line. This done they could rush material to the front and the line began to creep rapidly toward Spike Buck.
The president of the Western was amazed at the work being done by the "Q." at Lone Tree. He would have liked to look about but the committee hurried him into the canopied buckboard and they were off on the forty-mile drive. Before the dust had settled behind the last vehicle, the assistant superintendent had every grader in the outfit north of the station loaded onto a string of flats and away they went to join the VanLaw force, for this make-believe line had been given its last spike.
The general solicitor of the Western who accompanied the president met the council at the regular meeting that evening and made a formal proposition, asking an immediate reply. His company would, agree to complete their line within six months if the city would give them land for depots and shops. He had seen the folly of asking a cash bonus, since the "Q." were building and asking nothing. The balky alderman rose and a murmur ran through the room. The alderman was pleased, he said, to note that the Western would not insist upon a cash bonus. If nothing better offered he would favor accepting the proposition.
"What would you suggest?" asked the mayor, with a smile, for they all enjoyed seeing the obstruction foiled.
"I'd ask the "Q." people to bid," said the alderman, returning the mayor's smile with interest.
"Can you speak for your company?" asked the Maverick who had been for the "Q." but was not now.
The alderman answered that he had no company and no connection, directly or indirectly, with any company, but he has just learned that the superintendent of the " Q.," who was in charge of the construction work, was at the hotel, having ridden over from the camp that afternoon.
"S'pose he is?" demanded the Maverick, who having deserted the "Q." seemed to blame that company for his conduct. "Can't this board act without his consent? He doesn't own all the council."
The alderman, like the true gentleman that he was, ignored the Maverick.
"If the gentleman wishes to invite his friend to appear before the council," said the solicitor, "pray let him. I shall find no fault."
It was agreed and when VanLaw came in and the alderman rose to introduce him, there was a hush in the city hall.
"Mr. Mayor, gentlemen, this is Mr. VanLaw, general superintendent of the P. D. & Q. Railroad, a great pathfinder and a gentleman. The only thing against him so far as I know - and I have known him all my life - is that he is my friend. I have been accused of having been bribed by him and having been paid by the "Q." company to champion his cause. I should have felt and resented these insults more if they had been offered in the open and by men, but the insinuations have been made covertly and by cowards, moral and physical cowards."
Those who followed the speaker's gaze saw the Maverick shift his glance from the indignant alderman to the floor. VanLaw was too much of a diplomat to allow himself to become mixed up in this family row. Moreover, he knew his friend would have his day and that it was not far distant. The mayor caused the Western's proposition to be read and then asked VanLaw, playfully, if he could "raise it."
"I think we can do it in three months," said the "Q." man.
"Would you undertake to complete your line in ninety days?" asked the mayor.
"I should like to ask, before we proceed, if this gentleman is authorized to make such rash and extravagant promises."
"I think I can satisfy the board on that point," said VanLaw, without looking toward the lawyer. "Let the Western make the terms, and the P. D. & Q. will set the pace."
"The arrangements, as stated in the agreement just read, are entirely satisfactory to the Western. We are not asking for any cash bonus."
"The "Q." never did ask for cash, or for anything but right of way," said VanLaw, "but if the town's got it to burn we'd like to sit by the fire, inasmuch as we're sure to be in town."
"Fix your time limit," said the lawyer, never looking at thc road-maker. Make it six months or six years if you like."
"Suppose we say six weeks?" said VanLaw, gloating.
The lawyer blew smoke, glancing up at the mayor.
"Let us do business," said the mayor, by way of calling the pathfinder to order.
"I'm dead serious," said VanLaw. Six weeks - and the first road in gets the land, and failing to build within the time limit, we forfeit the bonus and pay the regular price."
"I'm talking sense and you are talking nonsense," said the lawyer, dusting the ash from his cigar.
The obstructionist having cooled down, got slowly to his feet. "I would remind the representative of the Western that no one here has questioned his sincerity, much less his authority. Further, it seems to me that all that remains is for him to accept the time limit, since he invited the representative of the P. D. & Q. to fix the time."
The Bostonian got up and gathered up his papers. "Mr. Mayor, gentlemen, I shall not contribute any more of my time and talent to this farce. I bid you good night."
When the lawyer had left them the mayor asked VanLaw what he proposed to do.
"Precisely what I stated. We will build a line to Spike Buck and have a regular through Chicago sleeper leaving here every afternoon within six weeks from to-day, or forfeit our agreement and pay the price, but in any case you'll have a railroad long before the leaves begin to turn."
The city solicitor, who happened to be present, was instructed to draw up the agreement for the mayor and VanLaw to sign before eight o'clock on the following day, as the pathfinder must hurry back to the grading-camp. The solicitor did not disturb his chief that night, but when he told the president at breakfast of the absurd proposition made to him by the "Q." and assured him that the "hams" on the board actually believed it, the president told him to order a conveyance to carry them back to the station at once.
When they had gone six or eight miles, they were held up by a man on foot. The solicitor, leaning out, recognized the hold-up. It was VanLaw. "On behalf of the president of the P. D. & Q.," said he, "I wish to offer you the use of our line. Your special, freshly iced by the limited this morning, is standing just over that little hill."
"Damn me, if I don't believe the fellow's crazy," said the lawyer.
As VanLaw turned and pointed toward the little hill a man on the summit waved his hand and then the deep, musical voice of the iron-horse rolled over the silent prairie. The glad, triumphant cry of that unseen locomotive seemed to tell the whole story. The president leaped from the wagon and grasped the hand of the pathfinder. Arm in arm they walked to the top of the ridge and saw below in the narrow vale a thousand men working like ants, staking, surfacing, and laying track.
"You see," said VanLaw, " I could have made it six days just as well as six weeks."
"Let us sit down," said the president of the Western.
As he spoke he produced a couple of excellent cigars and there he sat and smoked in silence for some time. Presently he said: "Do you know, I am glad I came out here. I've learned a lot today, but tell me, why are you building both ways from Lone Tree?"
"Oh!" said VanLaw, looking at the president of the Western, "we weren't building; we were only four-flushing."