Locked Up In God's Eternal Mountains
There are thousands of tons of gold locked up in God's eternal mountains which men will never see nor spend. But that fact doesn't keep them from trying. There is something about yellow metal which turns heads, transforms morals and grows devils in the soil of saints. Merely an instance of this is the case of the Hectopus mine, with which I, as a Post Office Inspector, was well acquainted for the space of a month.
I had been called into the case on a complaint made by Jedidiah Quinot, of Boston, an esteemed gentleman of his community, who shed real tears, nearly wore out his glasses in polishings and blew his nose prodigiously as he told me the story of his suspicions concerning his harum-scarum nephew — one Herbert Cryder, whom he feared had not only hopelessly involved himself but disgraced the family in a gold mine speculation.
After I had called upon Cryder, a few days later, I did not blame the old gentleman for his suspicions. If there ever was an outfit which bore all the marks of a fraud it was this Hectopus mine concern. As usual, it was quartered in the most expensive office building in the city, and the boss himself was twice as hard to see as the President of the United States. Inside the usual railing, with a boy at the gate, were a dozen stenographers copying names out of telephone directories or pages out of books — anything to keep them busy.
In a room opening off that was Dick Garrity, one of the shrewdest mine swindlers in America, with his name brazenly on the door and the title of "General Manager." In the front office — when I finally got there — was the most impressive and expensive set of mahogany office furniture I have ever seen, and behind the big desk in the center of the room a clean-cut chap of about thirty, bronzed, smiling, devil-may-care and a most disarming way of waving a visitor to a chair and forcing him to take two cigars at once.
And this was Herbert Cryder, a disgrace to his family, a worry to his old friends, suspected by the Government of being a thief, facing the world and Atlanta prison not only with a smile but with a laugh that refused to stay bottled.
I had met many crooks but this was a new type, so new that I am afraid I made a poor job of my role as a prospective investor. As to that I do not know to this day whether he really suspected my errand or whether it was only a part of his plan when he laughed at my proposal to invest a few thousand dollars in the stock of the Hectopus Mining and Exploration Co., slapped me on the back and literally pushed me out into the hall with a third cigar clutched in my hand.
Whatever he thought, he had left me no recourse but to go back to old Jedidiah with such information as I had been able to pick up on the outside, and the two of us spent the evening going over the cards we held in our hands and speculating on what the young scapegrace held in his.
That he was the most brazen young swindler outside a penitentiary, I was convinced. Jedidiah did not have to tell me that. Those girls in his outer office — twelve of them busy when there was not work enough for two — were the plainest sort of bait for the unwary. Dick Garrity, I knew, would be lost with an honest concern; he knew so much about mining that he wouldn't accept a gold piece in change at a bank. Then that mahogany office; it was far too gorgeous to be true. And as a crowning piece of effrontery, on the wall just behind Cryder's chair, was a picture — a painting at that — of an Indian spearing a fish from a little platform above a raging torrent. I had not noticed what kind of fish it was, but to me it looked like a sucker and I gasped almost aloud as I grasped the daring nerve of the laughing man who had placed it there.
Herbert Cryder, I had found out, came of one of the best families in New England. Mixed in his blood somewhere must have been a strong element of the old-time whalers or sea captains of some sort because even as a boy he had been a daring, adventurous young devil. The more conservative expressed the opinion that it was God's mercy that his parents were dead, and even those who were still on good terms with him socially threw up their hands when his name was mentioned in casual conversation.
Old Jedidiah had told me the young man had a long police record, and I wasted a whole day before I found out that this consisted of a score of arrests for crimes ranging from the theft of a barber's striped pole to an unproved charge of driving an automobile while intoxicated.
I must have shown my disgust at such evidence because Quinot went to great pains to explain to me that his nephew was such a skilful liar that it had been impossible to convict him of numerous grave offenses of which he had undoubtedly been guilty, but I could not pin him down to just what these were.
Young Cryder, it seemed, according to Jedidiah, was absolutely untrustworthy where facts were concerned and a lover of mischief to such an extent that serious trouble had always been predicted for him.
"Why, do you know," said the old man, "that scapegrace disappeared two years or so ago for six months and came back with a most remarkable tale about elephant shooting in East Africa. At my own expense I cabled to Nairobi and found he had never been there. Then what did he do? He produced two of the finest elephant tusks you ever saw and the foot of one of the beasts mounted as a humidor. Furthermore, he had the impudence to present the humidor to me — to me who had exposed him. There it is on the mantel. In my own club he met and talked for two hours with a man who had spent years in East Africa without making a single slip."
"Maybe he was there," I ventured.
"He certainly was not," Jedidiah replied with some heat. "After I had been laughed at to such an extent that I did not dare visit my club, I investigated still further. He had spent those six months in Paris. He bought the elephant trophies by cable in London after I had questioned his story, and he spent a month reading every book on Africa and elephant hunting he could find.
"He isn't any mere fibber, Mr. Guernsey. When he sets out to tell a lie, he makes a thorough job of it."
With the picture of that wonderful office fresh in my mind, I was of the opinion that there was much strength in Jedidiah's opinion.
The Hectopus Mining and Exploration Co., it seemed, was in somewhat the same category as the elephant trophies. The story of the mine had followed another of the young man's more or less regular but mysterious absences. This time he had not told where he had been, but lent an air of mystery to his recent experiences. For three or four weeks after his reappearance at home he had gone about clad in laced boots and wearing a tourist-style Stetson, khaki riding breeches and a Norfolk jacket. His face was bronzed, his hands calloused and he had cultivated a drawl that might have been acquired in Georgia, Arizona or the Blue Ridge mountains. To all inquiries as to where he had been, he had replied by placing a finger to his lips, glancing furtively about and whispering the one word — "Gold."
According to Quinot, his nephew had followed up this bit of playacting with a lie as elaborate as the elephant story. But with this difference — he had commercialized his mendacity. In the case of the elephant he had reached his climax by the gift of the humidor trophy to his indignant uncle; in the present episode he had gone to the length of selling for money stock in a gold mine which did not exist.
"Why?" had been about the third question I asked when I started the investigation.
The answer was simple enough. Herbert Cryder was "broke." One cannot go on forever playing practical jokes which involve such expenses as a pair of elephant tusks and the like indefinitely unless one is a multimillionare. And this our young friend was not. He had inherited about $150,000 from his father and apparently started out to spend it on a million dollar scale. Just before he vanished on the trip that preceded the gold mine story, he was known to be playing heavily in the market and the result had evidently been disastrous. He had admitted as much — talked about it quite openly, in fact — and the news was common gossip.
There was a further motive which Jedidiah explained to me at length and which sounded perfectly logical after I had induced him to talk. He did not want to tell me anything about it at first, saying it was purely a family matter.
It seemed that Cryder was in line for another fortune — a big one this time, amounting to about three-quarters of a million. This was the estate of a childless old uncle of whom he had once been the favorite but in whose "black book" his escapades had enrolled him time and again. If Cryder could tide matters over until the death of this uncle, Quinot demonstrated, and at the same time appear to have settled down as a solid business man, he would be fixed for life. It all sounded simple enough to me. The old uncle was apparently already on his death bed, with stocks of the Hectopus in his vaults, and all Cryder had to guard against was a speedy exposure.
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To those of us who knew these facts it was plain that behind his laughing mask young Cryder was nothing less than a desperate adventurer, staking his wits and his nerve against time and fate in a game for the fortune of old Ezekiel Cryder.
It had been about a year, I learned, since Cryder had appeared at home in his Wild West outfit and mysteriously whispered about gold. At first his friends had merely laughed among themselves at what they called "Herb's latest," but finally Cryder had begun to scatter a few nuggets around as souvenir gifts in the form of scarf pins, cuff links and one thing and another, and he even tried to pay for a round of drinks out of a "poke" of gold dust. Raised quite a row, it seems, because they didn't have gold scales at the cashier's desk to weigh it, like they do in a new mining camp.
Pretty soon his friends were demanding to buy shares in the mine. Cryder had laughed at them, just like he laughed at me, but they kept at him and persuaded him — as they thought — to form a company and issue stock. He sold it cheap enough — ten dollars for a $100 share — but apparently he had sold quite a lot — nobody knew then just how much.
He had pretended that he wanted to keep it a close corporation — so that he could have full control himself, he said — and wouldn't sell to anyone except close friends and relatives. Old Ezekiel bought quite a block and even Jedidiah bought some. He had an honest young lawyer as "general counsel," and almost at the start declared a dividend of ten per cent.
The stock certificates were beautifully engraved and the prospectus was a work of art. I read it through three times before I discovered that it was all generalities and that nowhere in it was the mine definitely located. It was, some place that the book described as the "El Dorado of the Munificent West," and that's no place to buy a railroad ticket to.
It was after the dividend that he hired Garrity and the ten extra stenographers and opened the mahogany offices. Several of his friends got pinched in the market about that time and sold their stock to strangers. These began calling for information and reports and things, and young Cryder did not laugh as much as he used to, folks said. Something was really worrying him. In another week Jedidiah Quinot, among others, became suspicious and he would have carried the tale to old Ezekiel had not the physicians forbidden him to see the sick man. As a result of this, he had appealed to the Department and I was put on the case.
Of course I could have gone straight to Cryder, showed my credentials and demanded his books, the location of the mine and all the rest of the information I wanted, but Cryder was supposedly a citizen of some importance in that community — no common crook — and besides that there kept buzzing in the back of my mind a lingering suspicion of Jedidiah Quinot, the chief complainant in the case. While he seemed to be all broken up over the matter, nevertheless I had found out that in case old Ezekiel Cryder disinherited his nephew, his fortune would go to Quinot's son.
So, instead of declaring myself to Herbert Cryder, I called on his "general manager," Mr. Richard Garrity. Dick was not exactly pleased to see me when I ran across him in the lobby of his hotel, but he was quite willing to renew our acquaintance and talk at length. Garrity had been wondering for some time why I did not send him to the penitentiary and seemed to think it was because I had use for him outside. The fact was I did not have the evidence but he thought I had and I was willing to let him hold that belief. It certainly helped in this case.
"Where's the mine?" echoed Garrity in response to my first pointed question. "There isn't any mine. I don't sabe the game myself and I don't ask too many questions but I know that. Why, I wrote that prospectus myself and it's a dandy, if I do say it. I'm drawing down good money as a coach for the young man because he's never even seen a gold mine. Outside of that he don't need any help from me. Why, Guernsey, this Cryder is such a magnificent liar that he makes me ashamed of myself. Sometimes when he's talking for effect I can just see that old Hectopus mine, with men shoveling out gold, big mountains all around and the thriving city that's springing up there in the wilderness. Honest, it is a pretty picture that forms while he's talking.
"But the samples," I asked. "Where does he get his samples — his nuggets and gold dust, and so on?"
"Oh, those things," Garrity answered with a laugh. "Why, he bought those nugget pins and cuff buttons in Seattle. They're quite common out there — made out of Alaskan gold. I bought the gold dust right here in town, and to make it look proper I sent West for some black sand that the gold is usually found in a placer diggings. That's easy enough to find but there isn't usually more than a trace of gold in it. All I did was mix some dust and small nuggets in with the sand and we had the raw product 'fresh from the Hectopus,' as Cryder says.
"It's been funny, Guernsey," he concluded. "It's been good fun and good pay, too, but I suppose it's all over now. Say, isn't there any chance to save the young fellow from going to the pen? He's a helluva good scout."
Garrity really seemed to be in earnest about this end of the matter and I was puzzled. Sentiment was a new quality in Dick.
"But why did he do it?" I asked. "What's behind it all?"
"Broke, they say," said Garrity. "But damned if I know really what it is all about. He seems to have plenty of money. That dividend was his own idea, and he paid out over $10,000 in cash on it without turning a hair. For a guy who's broke, he's about the nerviest gambler I've ever struck because we did not need to pay that dividend a-tall. I just want to show them how good this mine really is,' he says to me, with a twinkle in his eye. And all I could do was just set there and stare at him with my mouth open.
"Why, if this was my deal, Guernsey, and I had this guy for a 'dummy' president, I could clean up a hundred thousand here in a month and beat it for Russia or Bones Airs or some place where even you couldn't get me. But this Cryder fellow — why, he seems to get all het up every time anybody tries to buy some stock and spends more time telling the suckers he's already landed what a great mine it is, than he does figuring out where the money for the next dividend is coming from."
"Is he going to pay another?" I asked, startled, for this was news to me.
"He sure is. It's already announced for October — that's six weeks from now, and I happen to know that there isn't money enough in our acqount to more than half meet it."
"Then you — think — " I ventured.
"Look here, Guernsey," said Garrity, reaching over and laying his hand on my knee. "I've come clean on this and I'll go further. I know some other things that you'd like to know — things that would help you a lot in Washington. Isn't there some chance for Cryder? Can't we make him see that he's in over his head and get a settlement before it's too late. I can't — I just can't see that boy go over the road."
There it was again — Dick Garrity with sentiment in his soul — the unknown quantity heretofore in that old swindler. Herbert Cryder, I decided, must be a regular fellow, and with the determination to visit him in the morning in my proper guise, I went to bed.
But in the morning Cryder had disappeared. Garrity was waiting for me, white of face, at the foot of the elevator shaft with the news. He had found a note on his desk, he said, instructing him to keep the office open as usual, and inclosing a check for $3,000 for expenses while he was gone.
"Where did he say he was going?" I demanded.
Garrity sighed as he produced the note.
"To visit the mine," he said, and added plaintively: "Do you suppose the boy's lost his mind entirely. You know and I know, Guernsey, there's no more Hectopus mine than that elm over there in the park is a plum tree."
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I was rather glad of the change. The new development gave me a chance to get out into the open. Trailing men across wide stretches always was more in my line than trailing plots through the pages of ledgers and letter files. Dick helped me, both because he was afraid of me and anxious to save his boss from something he could not understand — and before noon I was aboard a train and speeding for Montreal.
No, I did not have any thought that he had fled to Canada to escape from me. He had no idea who I was and also, Canada is no safe refuge for evil-doing Americans. Maybe it was once, but not in my time. I had no notion why he had gone there except a suspicion that he might have a confederate on the other side of the border who would provide the funds for the October dividend.
But that wasn't it. Cryder stayed in Montreal just long enough to catch the limited for the West Coast. The news of that rather staggered me and I missed the next train after him raising money enough to follow. You know we are not supposed to go outside the United States without a lot of red tape being unwound, but this Cryder fellow had sort of got my goat and I borrowed some coin from some Canadian officers I knew and went ahead with just a few cards of introduction from them instead of new credentials from Washington. We have to do that occasionally. If we make good, we are praised; if we get into a jam, we get fired.
Cryder was an easy man to follow on this trip, and I had plenty of leisure to enjoy my journey across the continent. I don't mean that the young fellow was leaving any broad trail of empty bottles and twenty dollar tips along the right of way of the Canadian Pacific, but he was making himself known to every one he met and his scintillating personality was one to be remembered. All along I found that he had talked nothing but mines and mining and that he had made a trip up into Edmonton to look into the Fort Norman reports of gold and oil along the Mackenzie.
I almost missed him there and had to double back from Banff before I picked up his trail. I lost it again after I passed Field, B. C., on my second dash for the coast, and had to come back — carefully this time — before I found he had left the main highway at a little town called Hope, perched between the mountains and the Fraser River Canyon and struck off into the hills.
There is still gold along the Fraser. On the sand bars that ridge the rushing torrent every half mile or so, Chinamen can still be seen washing the sands of the river and turning "color" with almost every pan. But the best of them average only about two dollars a day and white men merely laugh as they pass them by. It doesn't pay for grub, hardship and loneliness. But this was a great country once. Back in the 50's Hope was a great outfitting point for a stampede of Americans who had failed to find fortunes at the first few turns of a shovel in the California rush, and chased the rainbow a thousand miles northward rather than return East empty handed.
There certainly is gold in the Fraser. Everyone could see that. But the tossing, heaving, rushing waters knew nothing of its value. Only on the sandbars could it be found and the rambunctious river tore these down over night and erected new ones every morning. Every miner knows that gold in rivers is washed down from the hills and for seventy years prospectors have been seeking the "mother lode" of the Fraser deposits.
Ten thousand hopeful men have crossed the hills from Hope to seek this treasure house of Nature. Herbert Cryder, I soon found out, had been the ten-thousand-and-first.
There was no concealment about his journey. He was easier to follow than a new yellow freight car. The guides who had taken him into the hills were already back in Hope when I arrived there, and perfectly willing to repeat their thirty-six hour journey with no questions asked. In fact, they volunteered the information that Cryder had bought an abandoned claim without even looking at it, and taken a crew of six men — fully equipped with grub and tools for placer work in with him. The head man of the pack train tapped his forehead and winked solemnly as he told me about it, but beyond that he was non-communicative. As for me, I walked down to the river and looked at the waters as they rushed through the canyon on their way to the sea, the snow-capped mountains from which the flood had tumbled and the ruined little town which still clung to its post between the railroad and the torrent, and pinched myself to retain the idea that I was an officer of the United States Government in pursuit of a criminal.
They had told me there was but one trail across the hills to Cryder's claim, but apparently they did not know Cryder. Because, when we arrived at his camp, he was not there. "Gone back to the Fraser to spear salmon," a disgusted Irish laborer informed me as he took a fresh grip on his shovel.
It was dusk then and I was tired out from unaccustomed pony travel over the rough trail. I was glad enough to accept the foreman's offer of supper and a bed in his tent and put off any further investigation until morning. Tired as I was, the foreman and I talked together well into the night and long after he had begun snoring I lay awake thinking over the things he had told me. I could not believe them. As nearly as I dared I had called the man a liar and accused him of being in league with Cryder. He had refused to talk at all until I had shown him my American credentials — worthless in British Columbia, but he did not know that. Then I found myself facing again that strange loyalty and sentimentality in this rough mine-workman that I had found in Dick Garrity, soft-palmed swindler.
Could Cryder's swindle be as far-reaching as this, I wondered. Could he possibly have enlisted and coached this man in three days and then brazenly left him here alone. I knew that Cryder had never been in the district before. I knew that McGuire, the foreman, was a native of Hope. I knew that all Cryder had done in the camp was to take a few snapshots after the men he had brought in had started digging and put up a sign he had had painted in Hope. The sign was non-committal. It was merely a white board with black lettering planted against the face of a huge cliff. "Hectopus Mine," was all it said.
Two days later I was again walking the brink of the Fraser River Canyon. I was waiting for Cryder — reported somewhere in the neighborhood — and for a train. A hundred feet below me the same river boiled and swirled. It might have been the same water I had first seen, turning a corner and returning, so eternal was the tumult. It seemed as though the Fraser were composed of liquid hills and valleys, so firmly did the currents force the water into fantastic moulds.
Turning a bend in the stream in a longer cast for views, I finally came upon a spectacle that was strangely familiar. Far down below me was a tiny platform made of driftwood on driftwood piles, and upon it perched an Indian with a long spear. His lance darted once into the tumbling water and was withdrawn with a huge fish squirming on its point. A salmon, I knew, and with the knowledge came recollection. This was a picture almost the same as the painting over Cryder's desk. I had wronged the man from the start. Not suckers but game fish; that was his ideal.
Even as I looked, another figure clambered to the little platform — Cryder himself. I could see the Indian shake his head and motion him back with his hand, but Cryder climbed on and strode out upon the platform. It showed he was new to the country. The little perch was safe enough for the Indian, but under the second man's two hundred pounds it buckled, swayed, collapsed, and both were thrown into the torrent, fifty yards above me.
I have said that I knew at the start that Cryder was no ordinary crook. I have told about the strange sentimentality of Garrity and McGuire. I have said nothing about my own feelings. I doubt if I had analyzed them myself. But I held my breath as I saw him fall and, almost before I knew it, had peeled my coat and plunged into the Fraser after him. I am a rather strong swimmer or I would not be alive to tell this today. The Indian helped me a little at first but Cryder had got a bump on the head and was a drag on both of us. Next minute the Indian was crashed against a rock and only managed to struggle ashore. I finally landed Cryder a mile down the canyon where the current, rather than I, washed us on a sandbar where a Chinaman was stolidly panning out gold.
From some place the Chink produced a bottle of alcohol, or gin, I don't know which, and finally Cryder opened his eyes. He did not remember ever having seen me before and was a little "woozy," I suppose.
"How do you feel, Cryder?" I asked.
"You know my name?" he asked. "Who are you?"
"Guernsey's my name," I said. "United States Post Office Inspector."
"What are you doing way up here?"
"I've been following you for a month or so."
Cryder sighed and closed his eyes again.
"Oh, hell," he said, finally. "All that fuss. I'll pay out all right. There's two hundred thousand in the bank. I'm not broke. I made a fortune in that stock deal and told everybody I was broke. Please let me go on with it. I must get back with these pictures of the mine and drive old Jedidiah out of his club again. It'll only cost me about twenty thousand more and it's well worth it. I've spent so much time on it and it's such a grand yarn."
I shook him by the shoulder.
"But it's not like you to deceive people in this manner," I shouted in his ear.
"Don't you worry about that," he answered. "Jedidiah is only waiting to steal the pennies off Uncle Zeke's eyes. I just wanted to get that old double-crosser so good he wouldn't dare hold his head up. I wanted to show everybody who was the better business man — me or him. I guess I've done it. I've done something nobody ever did before. I've sold stock in a mine that never existed, paid dividends on it, made them want to emigrate out here, and now I've provided them with a spot to emigrate to. The big joke will come when Jedidiah gets out here and tries to find the gold."
I thought he had fainted in earnest, when his voice trailed off in a whisper at the close. But he rallied again and opened his eyes with a faint but whimsical smile.
"Cryder," I shouted. "There is gold in the Hectopus. McGuire has found a pocket that is worth a quarter of a million dollars if it is worth a cent. Do you hear me?"
The smile on his face broadened, then was replaced by a frown.
"Hell," he muttered. "All that time wasted. And it was such a perfectly beautiful lie."
~ The End ~