The Main Chance

By Meredith Nicholson, 1903
The Main Chance


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"Well, sir, they say I'm crooked!"

William Porter tipped back his swivel chair and placidly puffed a cigar as he watched the effect of this declaration on the young man who sat talking to him.

"That's said of every successful man nowadays, isn't it?" asked John Saxton.

The president of the Clarkson National Bank ignored the question and rolled his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, as he waited for his words to make their full impression upon his visitor.

"They say I'm crooked," he repeated, with a narrowing of the eyes, "but they don't say it very loud!"

Porter kicked his heels together gently and watched his visitor with eyes in which there was no trace of humor; but Saxton saw that he was expected to laugh.

"No, sir;" the banker continued, "they don't say it very loud, and I guess they don't any of them want to have to prove it. I'm afraid those Boston friends of yours have given us up as a bad lot," he went on, waiving the matter of his personal rectitude and returning to the affairs of his visitor; "and they've sent you out here to get their money, and I don't blame them. Well, sir; that money's got to come out in time, but it's going to take time and money to get it."

"I believe they sent me because I had plenty of time," said Saxton, smiling.

"Well, we want to help you win out," returned Porter. "And now what can I do to start you off?" he asked briskly. "Have you got a place to stay? Well, sir, I warn you solemnly against the hotels in this town; but we've got a fairly decent club up here, and you'd better stay there till you get acquainted. Been to breakfast? Breakfast on the train? That's good. Just look over the papers till I get rid of these letters and I'll be free."

Porter turned to his desk and replaced the eye-glasses which he had dropped while talking. There was an air of great alertness in his small, lean figure as he pushed buttons to summon various members of the clerical force and rapidly dictated terse telegrams and letters to a stenographer. He continued to smoke, and he shifted constantly the narrow-brimmed, red-banded straw hat that he wore above his shrewd face. It was an agreeable face to see, of a type that is common wherever the North-Irish stock is found in America, and its characteristics were expressed in his firm, lean jaw and blue eyes, and his reddish hair and mustache, through which there were streaks of gray. He wore his hair short, but it was still thick, and he combed it with precision. His clothes fitted him; he wore a bright cravat, well tied, and his shoes were carefully polished. Saxton was impressed by the banker's perfect confidence and ease; it manifested itself in the way he tapped buttons to call his subordinates, or turned to satisfy the importunities of the desk-telephone at his elbow.

John Saxton had been sent to Clarkson by the Neponset Trust Company of Boston to represent the interests of a group of clients who had made rash investments in several of the Trans-Missouri states. Foreclosure had, in many instances, resulted in the transfer to themselves of much town and ranch property which was, in the conditions existing in the early nineties, an exceedingly slow asset. It was necessary that some one on the ground should care for these interests. The Clarkson National Bank had been exercising a general supervision, but, as one of the investors told his fellow sufferers in Boston, they should have an agent whom they could call home and abuse, and here was Saxton, a conscientious and steady fellow, who had some knowledge of the country, and who, moreover, needed something to do. Saxton's acquaintance with the West had been gained by a bitter experience of ranching in Wyoming. A blizzard had destroyed his cattle, and the subsequent depression in land values in the neighborhood of his ranch had left him encumbered with a property for which there was no market. His friends had been correct in the assumption that he needed employment, and he was, moreover, glad of the chance to get away from home, where the impression was making headway that he had failed at something in the vague, non-interest-paying West. When, on his return from Wyoming, it became necessary for his former acquaintances to identify him to one another, they said, with varying degrees of kindness, that John had gone broke at ranching; and if they liked him particularly, they said it was too bad; if they had not known him well in his fortunate days, they mildly intimated that a fool and his money found quicker divorce at ranching than in any other way. Most of Saxton's friends and contemporaries had made good beginnings at home, and he felt, unnecessarily perhaps, that his failure made him a marked man among them.