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Authors: Luke; Short

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BOOK: Hard Money
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“You do what I say,” Seay said grimly. “When you get so woolly you'll pass something like that, you're not safe, Borg.”

Borg swore now, but he was grinning. “I didn't mean it, Phil. Lueter's all right—only, damn the slowness of him! He's an old woman.”

Seay jerked his head toward the crew. “Get this muck cleared out of here and come off at noon.”

Draggingly, Seay turned down the tunnel. A ways down it, two mules were standing, hitched to a string of empty dump cars, the lanterns on their collars burning steadily in this semi-gloom. Soon they would be hauling the filled cars out, while other teams dragged empties in, making the line never ending. A half-naked driver was sitting on one of the cars, and Seay nodded to him as he passed.

Presently, after minutes of walking, he heard the mules coming down with the filled cars. He waited and swung up beside the driver and rode the rest of the way out of the tunnel.

At the mouth Seay hopped off, squinting against the blinding glare of the sun. Scrubbing the sweat and dirt from his body with the wet shirt, he tramped down the slope toward the buildings, the water squishing in his boots. The rest on the car had made him less tired, but he did not think of that. Mentally, he was calculating when the upcast, which was being dug on the slope above, would meet the tunnel. No reasonable man would have asked this tunnel crew to work in that heat and that danger, and it angered Seay that they had to. Tonight, the pipe line would be put through to the head of the tunnel, and a cool stream of water would be running continually for the men to bathe in and drink. That would help a little until they got the upcast completed and the blowers in.

He walked head down, scowling, his shirt wadded in his fist, the sun hammering on his bare back. A workman spoke to him, and Seay did not hear him.

When he crossed a patch of shade, thrown by the long bunkhouse, he looked up and around him. Down in front of the office a team and brougham were stopped. Someone after Bonal, he thought, and possibly a creditor. The back of the brougham hid the occupants, to whom Tober, foot on the wheel hub, was talking.

“Phil,” Tober called, and Seay cut over to them. As he approached, Tober stepped away, and Seay looked squarely at Sharon Bonal. There was an older woman beside her, and for a second Seay's face hardened. He remembered then that he was half naked, fouled with mud and sweat, but it gave him a perverse pleasure to see the color mount to Sharon Bonal's face as she looked at him and then away. Tober stifled a smile and touched his hat and walked away.

“Good morning,” Sharon stammered faintly. Ben, looking down from the driver's seat at Seay, grinned and addressed his attention to the horses.

“Mrs. Comber, this is Mr. Seay,” Sharon said coldly.

Maizie leaned forward to look at Seay across Sharon. Her survey was shrewd, friendly, slow.

“Your hands are dirty, and I'm glad they are,” she said, extending her hand. “It's the first dirty hand I've shaken in too long a time.”

Seay took her hand, the reticence in his long face thawing out a little. When he saw the friendliness of her eyes he almost smiled. “It's dirty all right, Mrs. Comber.”

“Mrs. Comber wants to see the tunnel,” Sharon said rapidly. “I'm sure it will be all right if I wait here while you take her through.”

Seay's glance shifted to her, and she saw the insolence, come into his gray eyes. The long muscles of his arms moved a little as he lifted his arm to place a hand on his knee. There was no shame in the man, she thought hotly, but still she looked at the thick shoulders capped by deep ropes of muscle. Seay was staring at her thoughtfully.

“That's nice,” he drawled coolly. “Maybe you'd like me to call the drill crew out so Mrs. Comber could go in there the only way anybody can stand it—half naked.”

Sharon stifled a gasp. Maizie only chuckled and looked sharply at Sharon. “You little liar,” she said amiably. “I don't want to see the tunnel.” Then she contradicted herself. “Yes, I do. I'd love to see it. Only I'm an old woman and I loathe heat, and I'm not spry enough to run around half naked a mile into the ground.”

Sharon blushed hotly now, and Seay looked swiftly at Maizie. Then he laughed softly, and Sharon shot him a swift glance of venomous dislike.

“What I came out for was to extend an invitation that'll probably be refused,” Maizie said. When Seay didn't reply, she went on. “Adelina Patti is singing at the opera house Saturday night. Afterwards, I'm having a reception for her at my house. I want you to come—and I mean it when I say I
want
you to.”

Seay studied Maizie's face with reflective eyes and then he turned his head to look away.

Maizie went on placidly, “Nothing in the world can make Abe Comber wear a boiled shirt. I'm giving this party mainly because it's expected of me, not because I like to. I'll have a dull time. If I could get more like you, young man, I would have a good time.” She settled back in her seat and said firmly, “You'll come, even if Sharon thinks you won't.”

Seay said casually to Maizie, and Maizie only, “Even if I have to drink rye whisky?”

Maizie looked quickly at him and then at Sharon, who was kneading a fold of her pale lawn dress. Maizie opened her mouth to speak, and then she lay back against the cushions and laughed. Seay's face was perfectly sober, but there were small dancing lights in his eyes.

He stepped away and said, “If I'm free I'll come, Mrs. Comber. Thank you.”

Maizie waved to Ben to drive on, and Ben whipped up the horses. Sharon's face was turned toward Ben's back and was rigid with humiliation as they drove off. Seay stood there a moment, watching the brougham, and on his face was the look of an impudent boy. Turning, he tramped across to the office, whistling thinly.

That night at the mess table Seay finished supper first. As he reached for his pipe, Tober glanced obliquely at him and then continued eating. Seay regarded each man at the table. Only Kelly was absent, for he was personally bossing the laying of the water pipe. The heat of this small room was stifling. Tilting back in his chair, Seay filled his pipe and rammed his pouch in his pocket. He was studying these men in a curious, unhostile way, yet they were aware of it all the same.

“Reed, you and Cruickshank and Hardiston step down to the office after supper. And ask Kelly for the dump-car count for the first three hours of Lueter's shift.”

He rose and went out, and after he was gone the atmosphere was a little freer. Down at the office, he lighted the lamp and sat down in the swivel chair and hoisted his feet to the desk. The single window was open, and a hot wind rode through the room, ruffling the untidy heap of papers on his desk top. He smoked and stared at the wall, listening for a sound. When he got it—that of men approaching the shack—he did not move.

Cruickshank entered first, his heavy boots booming on the hollow floor. Seay pointed with a pipe to the chairs and said, “Sit down,” and watched Cruickshank's slow, deliberate movements as he hauled up three chairs. Cruickshank was a rough and untidy man with a powerful frame that had slacked off to fat, and a kind of sour scowl on his pale face. He was a man of action, chained to a desk and drafting table by a keen knowledge of a job he did not like, and Seay understood that this was why he drank too much. He shifted his attention to Hardiston, the spare and precise little bookkeeper whom Charles Bonal had carried around with him, like a pair of comfortable slippers, for some twenty years. In that small skull, with its saddle of gray hair from ear to ear, there was vast and thorough knowledge of Bonal's business, Seay knew. Hardiston turned to get a match from Reed and then seated himself, puffing carefully on his cigar, after he lit it, to even the ash. He had the sturdy obsequiousness of the indispensable underling. He was right all the time, and he knew it and seemed content.

Cruickshank sprawled his feet out and said, “You think Lueter will do for two shifts?”

“I think he's got to,” Seay murmured. Reed leaned against the wall, watchful.

Seay sucked on his cold pipe, then hunched forward and laid it on the desk, asking, “You satisfied with your wages, you three?” and turned to regard them.

Cruickshank spoke up immediately, “No.”

Seay shifted his gaze to Hardiston and Hardiston said carefully, “Not exactly. Under the circumstances, however, it's enough.”

Seay didn't have to look at Reed, who said, “Yes,” whereupon Seay tilted back in the chair.

He began slowly. “You three—we four, I should say—are the only persons who have access to the tunnel books, besides Charles Bonal, aren't we?”

“Yes,” Hardiston said.

“You, Cruickshank, because you've got to run for the balance sheet every time a drill breaks,” Seay said. Cruickshank nodded meagerly. “And you, Hardiston, because it's your business as bookkeeper and paymaster. Reed knows it for the same reason I do, because he wonders every week how we'll pay off the men.”

He waited a moment before he continued, and he could see nothing but idle curiosity in these three. Reed's face he couldn't see at all, and he didn't want to.

“You're sure?” he asked slowly. “You're sure nobody else can get at these books?”

“They're in the safe,” Cruickshank said bluntly. “How could anyone else?”

Seay said, “They couldn't.” He paused. “One of us four here has sold to outsiders—to Janeece and to Feldhake, specifically—information contained in our books. I gambled with tunnel funds last Friday night in a poker game. Somebody gave out the information that we had less than two thousand dollars to meet the pay roll with. I showed up with that two thousand at that poker game and was later robbed of it and my winnings in gold pieces.” He added mildly, “I don't suppose any of you care to admit it now.”

There was a long and uncomfortable silence, then Cruickshank snorted. “Who the hell would admit it if he had?”

“Someone will,” Seay said gently.

“That's one hell of a charge,” Cruickshank said idly.

“Speaking of charges, what right had you to gamble with tunnel funds?” Hardiston asked.

“None.”

“Are you going to tell Mr. Bonal?”

“I am. Or you can, Hardiston.”

Hardiston shrugged. “I'm merely pointing out that you aren't free of blame yourself.”

Seay nodded quietly and looked up at Reed. Reed's gaze held his.

“That's all,” Seay said finally. “I'll know the traitor soon—if he doesn't skip out. Good night, gentlemen.”

Cruickshank and Hardiston went out, but Tober remained. Seay filled his pipe again and lighted it and said, “Which one, Reed?”

“I don't know,” Tober said, lounging erect from the wall and walking over to the window. He stood with his hands rammed in his pockets, looking out at the rank of hulking buildings in the night, and presently murmured, “You're a hard man, Phil.”

“I want loyalty,” Seay said vehemently. “Bonal deserves it. I do. Any man worth his food deserves it!”

Tober half turned from the window to regard Seay's back.

“You don't get it by asking for it.”

Seay swiveled his head to look at him. “I get it by demanding it.”

Tober walked across to the door, and before he went out he paused beside the desk. “Damned if you don't,” he said and left.

For three days Seay left Cruickshank and Hardiston alone. Two nights he worked one of Lueter's shifts himself, until slowly the German shiftboss could learn to bear the heat of the tunnel. Tober wanted to spell him, but Seay would not allow it. And ponderously, with the steady fury of obsession, the tunnel went deeper and deeper into the Pintwater.

It was after one of these shifts, at six o'clock in the morning, that Seay came out of the tunnel. The denim trousers and wooden-soled boots he wore were dripping water. He was clean, having bathed under the cold-water pipe before he left the tunnel head, and he went directly to the mess hall. Breakfast and a clean shirt were set out for him, and he slumped into the chair, too tired to eat immediately.

Halfway through breakfast he heard someone approach, and Hardiston stepped inside. Never in all this heat had Hardiston been seen without a coat, and he wore it now, even though the comparative cool of early morning was already being blotted up by the sun.

Seay greeted him. “You're up early, Hardiston.”

Hardiston took the bench opposite. “It's the only time I can see you alone. I—I've been a while making up my mind about this.”

Seay continued eating, occasionally covertly observing Hardiston. If the man wanted to talk, Seay intended to hear him, but he would not help him.

“It's about this matter you spoke of the other night,” Hardiston said.

“All right.”

“I don't like to do this, only the way you've put it up to us, it's a case of simple survival.”

Seay kept silent.

“Bonal has trusted me for twenty years,” Hardiston said.

Seay glanced up at him. “Why shouldn't he?”

“I don't mean that. I mean I've minded my business and known my job. I learned that in New England.”

Still Seay did not help him.

“This isn't minding my business,” Hardiston went on, urgency in his eyes. “I want you to understand it's distinctly disagreeable—against every principle I have.”

To which Seay nodded gravely.

“It's about Tober.”

“Go on.”

The little man started to speak and then cleared his throat and began again. “The way I understand it, you were robbed at McGrew's stable, weren't you? There was no lantern at the corral, and in the dark there someone slugged you and robbed you of your gold.”

“That's right.”

“Tober was standing beside you when you regained consciousness. Isn't that queer?”

“What's queer about it?” Seay asked swiftly.

BOOK: Hard Money
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