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As the Pacific Express was speeding westward across the prairies, a young man, half reclining among the cushions of the smoking car, was enjoying a choice Havana. He took no note of external objects as they flashed with almost lightning rapidity past the car windows, and he seemed equally unconscious of the presence of his fellow passengers. His dress and manner, as well as his nonchalant, graceful attitude, and even the delicate poise of his cigar, were all indicative of wealth and refinement, and of a courtesy innate, not acquired. His head was slightly thrown back, and with half-closed, dreamy eyes, he watched the coils of blue smoke wreathing and curling above his head, but his mind was actively engaged in planning the details of the new life opening up before him in the west. Walter Everard Houston, of New York, the possessor of a million in his own name, and prospective heir to many millions more, was en route for a small mining camp, far west, in the heart of the Rockies, where he was to fill the position of bookkeeper and corresponding secretary in the office of a mining company, at a salary of one hundred dollars per month.
Mr. Houston’s parents had died when he was very young, and he had been tenderly reared in the home of his uncle, his mother’s brother, Walter Everard Cameron. Even now, as he watched the blue coils above his head, his memory was going back to the time when he had entered that beautiful home. He recalled the different members of that lovely family, as they then appeared to him; the dark, patrician face of his aunt, with its wondrous beauty, which, in the following years had been so softened and deepened by sorrow that now it was almost saint-like in the calm look of peace and love which it wore, with the soft, snow-white hair surrounding it like a halo of glory. Then his beautiful cousin Edna, with her sunny hair and starry eyes, and her wonderful voice filling the home with music. She had married soon after he entered the family, and went with her husband to a distant, western city, often returning to visit the old home. How well he remembered the last visit! Her baby was then nearly two years old; he could not now recall her name, but she was a little, golden-haired toddler, with her mother’s eyes and voice. His cousin was suddenly called home by a telegram that her husband was ill; then, in a day or two, came the news of a frightful railroad accident, a collision and a fire which quickly consumed the wreck. Edna was rescued from the flames, unconscious and dying, but no trace could be found of the little one. Then followed word of the death of Edna’s husband; he had died a few hours later than the accident occurred, ignorant of the terrible fate of his wife and child.
Next came the memory of his cousin, Guy Cameron, but a few years older than himself; dark and beautiful like his mother, proud spirited and headstrong, the pride of his parents, but through him came their most bitter sorrow. Through fast living and gambling he became deeply involved, and forged his father’s name to several checks, amounting to nearly a hundred thousand; then, overcome by shame and remorse, he had fled in the night, no one knew whither. His father payed the full amount of the debt, without even betraying his son’s guilt, and then for years employed the most skillful detectives, trying to bring back the wanderer to the love and forgiveness which awaited him; but in vain, no trace of him existed. The father had long ago given up all hope of ever seeing his boy again, and doubted whether he were living. Only the sweet-faced mother, strong in her mother-love and in her faith in God, believed that he would yet return, and was content to watch and wait.
Meantime, Everard Houston had become like a son to Mr. and Mrs. Cameron. After leaving college, he had been taken by his uncle as a partner into his enormous banking house, and intrusted more or less with the charge of various departments of business with which he was connected, and he had proven himself worthy of the trust reposed in him.
For a number of years, Mr. Cameron had been president of a large investment company, which, among other properties, owned a number of mines in the west which had been represented to be very valuable, and which, at the time of purchase, possessed every indication of being heavy producers of very rich ore. Lately, these mines had not been yielding the profit which it was reasonable to expect from them, and there were indications of bad management, if not of dishonesty, at the western end of the line. One or two so-called experts had been sent out to investigate, but they had after all so little knowledge of practical mining, that they were unable to produce any tangible evidence against the company who constituted their western agents, although their reports had only tended to strengthen Mr. Cameron’s belief that there was underhanded and dishonest dealing somewhere, which could only be detected by a person on the ground whom the western company would not suspect of being personally interested. Happening to learn, through a Chicago firm who were friends of Mr. Cameron’s, that the western company were desirous of getting a bookkeeper and confidential clerk, it was decided, after consultation, to send out Everard Houston to take this position. Accordingly, he had gone to Chicago, and the firm there had written a letter to the mining company, recommending him as a young man of their acquaintance, of exceptional ability, reliable, and thoroughly to be trusted in all confidential matters. The company had responded favorably, offering the position to Mr. Houston for one month on trial, at one hundred dollars, his traveling expenses to be paid by them. If he proved satisfactory, they would retain him as long as would be mutually agreeable, and if his services proved as valuable as expected, would increase his salary. Mr. Houston was, therefore, on his way to the mines to accept this position, together with the munificent salary, and hoped to prove so satisfactory as to soon be admitted to the “confidential” clerkship, in which event he anticipated being able to accomplish a nice little piece of detective work.
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