Late April 1887
"You don't need a loan, Mr. McQuaid, so much as you need a miracle."
The diminutive loan officer looked down his gold-rimmed spectacles at Bear McQuaid and gave him an excessively polite smile.
It was the second time in as many days that Barton "Bear" McQuaid had seen that look on a banker's face. He wanted nothing more than to replace it with a grimace of pain from a fist connecting solidly with a nose. Instead, he rose and tucked his maps and documents under his arm, thanked the man for his time, and walked out. Moments later he stepped onto the street where his partner, Halt Finnegan, was waiting for him.
"How did ye get on?" The big Irishman pushed off from the lamppost he was leaning against, but stopped at the sight of Bear's grim expression. "We didn't get it, did we?" He ripped off his Western hat and slapped his thigh with it, releasing a small cloud of dust from the brim. "Miserable . . . sidewindin' . . ." He trailed off into a blistering curse that was all the more potent for being soundless. "Makin' ye get an appoin'ment, to get delivered bad news. We oughta--"
"No, we oughtn'ta." Bear grabbed his partner's arm and kept him from charging back into the bank. "Look--you bruise a knuckle or two on him . . . then the police will bruise a few on you . . . then I'll have to stick up for your mangy hide . . . and ten years from now we'll both be toothless, scarred up, dead broke, and just getting out of prison." Halt eased and Bear released him.
"What do we do now?" Halt demanded, rolling the lingering tension from his shoulders. "We ain't got much time. Them land office boys won' wait long for proof of our ownership of th' right-o'-way land. Them grants depend--"
"We'll find another banker." Bear settled his wide-brimmed Western hat on his head and searched the street for a sign of another financial institution. "Then another. Then another, if necessary. The city's lousy with bankers, and we only need one. The right one. A man with a soft spot in his heart for railroads." He grabbed Halt's arm and dragged him along. "Or a soft spot in his head. Anyway . . . the next time I try to put the touch on a banker, you're coming with me."
"No I ain't." Halt stopped dead on the pavement and glared at Bear, who squared off and glared back. It was a contest for a moment, but the outcome was never really in doubt; the power of Bear McQuaid's stare was legendary around Billings, Montana. Almost as legendary as his independence.
Barton McQuaid had had to make his own way in the world from a tender age, and as a result, had made it his policy not to ask anything or expect anything from others. But as he worked to put together the land and resources he needed to build his railroad line, he learned there were some things a man simply couldn't do by sheer force of will no matter how capable or determined he was. Funding something as costly and complex as a railroad line was one of them.
For the last six months he and Halt had worked their way across the country, in search of the money they needed to exercise land options they had contracted and use those options to secure government grants. Over and over they had come close to securing loans, only to have the deal fall through when their potential investors insisted on taking charge of the enterprise. Colorado silver men, Kansas City beef barons, and St. Louis bankers alike watched in frustration as Bear McQuaid headed farther east in search of loans with fewer strings attached.
The simple fact was that it strained every fiber of Bear's being to have to ask for money from strangers . . . citified strangers, at that. His Westerner's self-reliance chafed at having to submit his hard-wrought plans to the judgments of men who had never had to raise calluses in order to eat or to wonder if they would ever see another sunrise during a frigid winter night on the high plains. But if he had to bend his stubborn will, he would do so in order to build something of his own, something lasting, something that would make both his fortune and his mark on the world. And if he was willing to make that sacrifice, Halt Finnegan had better be prepared to make it, too.
"Oh, you're coming, all right." Bear's face hardened to weathered bronze.
"Come now, Bear, me lad," Halt said in a brogue suddenly as thick as potato soup. "Ye know these Eastern bank fellas don't like doin' business with Irish."
"Yeah, well . . . if you're so damned Irish, then brush up on your blarney. Because I'm not going in there again without a partner." His legendary stare intensified. "I've got a partner . . . don't I?"
The next afternoon they sat together in the spacious walnut-paneled office of the president of the Mercantile Bank of Baltimore. Across a huge, highly polished desk sat a rotund and impeccably dressed man, templing his fingers and studying them with a gaze that was somehow both unnerving and disarming.
Philip Vassar, they had learned, owned one of the three largest banks in Baltimore and, despite his enormous personal wealth, continued to run the bank on a daily basis and make most of the decisions about major business loans. Bear took that information as a good sign; it meant Vassar was a man who understood the value and satisfactions of hard work. When their letter of introduction--from the territorial governor of Montana--was taken seriously and they were shown into Vassar's presidential office, Bear shot a hopeful look at Halt. The Irishman tucked his chin and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, wearing a look that said he would rather be shoveling boiler coal than sitting down to talk money in a banker's office.
"We are launching a railroad venture that you should find quite interesting, Mr. Vassar," Bear began. He went on to describe their proposed railroad line, unrolling his maps, detailing their meticulously drawn estimates, and laying out the option contracts and promissory letters from the land office in Washington. Vassar asked pertinent questions and seemed genuinely interested in the spur line they intended to build. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, nodded, and even smiled once. More hopeful signs.
But when the presentation was over, a deep silence descended. Bear shifted uncomfortably in his chair and glanced at Halt, who squirmed more or less discreetly. Vassar seemed to be measuring them inch by inch, turning them inside out, examining them as men as well as financial risks.
"Well, gentlemen," Vassar finally began, then paused to clear his throat. "Yours is a most interesting proposition. Railroads are opening all of the riches of the West to us and this project would certainly make lucrative connections. Who is your primary competition for these right-of-way grants?"
Bear tensed. Vassar was nothing if not astute. He obviously knew enough about men and railroads to understand that the possibility of free land alongside every mile of track laid would draw not only great interest, but also fierce competition.
"To be honest"--Bear shot a glance at Halt--"there are two major competitors. One is James J. Hill and his Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul. He likes to build his own spur lines. Then there is Jay Gould of the Northern Pacific, who would like nothing more than to move in on Hill's operation. A couple of lucrative spurs or short lines would give him bargaining power with Hill. But we got there first, optioned the land on the only logical route through two major valleys. Our right-of-way will cut through some of the finest wheat land in the West. Once the track is in place, that land will be golden in more ways than one. And of course, I've already mentioned the timber in the upper reaches."
Vassar thought about Bear's response for a moment, then frowned. "A tempting proposal, gentlemen, assuming all is as you said." He canted his head, regarding them from a different angle. "If only it were in the next county, or even in this state, you would have your money within the hour. But I am afraid I must decline the opportunity. I simply cannot invest the kind of capital you require on a venture so far from here . . . in such perilous country . . . in competition with men whose reputations and resources far outstrip your own."
"Of course it's far away." Bear shot to the edge of his seat. "That's where railroads need to be built--where the money is to be made!" He clenched his hands resting on the maps covering the banker's desk. "Look, Mr. Vassar . . . as a full partner, your profit from the land sales alone would far exceed the profit from any sort of investment you could make here in Baltimore."
"I simply cannot commit my shareholders' money to such a risky venture. And my own personal holdings are not liquid enough to permit me to back you at the level of your needs. I'm afraid you'll have to find your funding elsewhere." Vassar watched the exchange of glances between Bear and his partner. "Perhaps Gephardt, over at the First Baltimore."
"We a'ready seen th' little bas--" Halt muttered.
"He's . . . not interested." Bear glowered at Halt, who clamped his jaw shut and lowered his scowl to his boots. "We would appreciate any other suggestions you might make . . . another bank . . . perhaps a private investor." He stood, ran his hands back through his hair, and began to gather up the documents.
Vassar gave a contemplative "hmm" as he watched Bear's movements and assessed his reaction. After a moment, he reached for a pen, dipped it in a silver ink pot, and wrote something down on a small vellum card. "I believe I do have a suggestion for you. You seem knowledgeable and well-spoken, a presentable enough fellow. If you won't take this ill--" He handed Bear the card, and Bear studied his expression before glancing down and reading the names aloud.
"Martene and Savoy." He looked up with guarded relief. "Are they bankers or investors?"
"Tailors." Vassar got to his feet and stuck his thumbs into his vest pockets. "The best in Baltimore."
Bear scowled, then stiffened as the sense of it struck. Tailors? He asked for financing and got clothing advice instead?
"I like you, McQuaid. You're a forward-thinking fellow. I believe you will take that suggestion in the spirit in which it was intended. Now as to your funding . . ." Vassar indulged in a quirk of a smile. "I doubt you'll find a banker in Baltimore willing to give you the kind of money you need. However, there are other avenues to acquiring such assets . . . other sorts of "alliances' that can prove most profitable for a presentable fellow such as yourself."
Frustration rose with a bitter taste up the back of Bear's throat, preventing him from catching Vassar's meaning at first.
"I take it you are an unmarried
The suggestion so astonished Bear that it took him a moment to be able to respond. Better clothing . . . other "alliances" . . . He looked to Halt and then back at the banker with disbelief.
"I want no part of that sort of "funding.'" His voice sounded choked. "I am a railroad man, not a fortune hunter."
Vassar sighed. "Pity. You would find Baltimore brimming with possibilities. We seem to have a surfeit of eligible females just now. However, if you are determined against--"
"I am." Bear's voice vibrated with conviction.
Vassar shrugged. "Well, then, I suppose your best chance in Baltimore is probably Diamond Wingate. She has been known to be accommodating in such matters. Come to think of it, my wife is giving a little party next Saturday and she will most certainly attend. I could introduce you to her there, if you'd like."
"I repeat, I'll have no part of romancing a female for money."
Vassar gave a short laugh. "You mistake me, Mr. McQuaid. Miss Wingate is an investor. She has considerable assets, many of which are suitably liquid. And she is known to be generous. She supports a number of philanthropic and entrepreneurial projects, and is widely known as Baltimore's foremost . . . proponent of 'Progress.' Of all the investors in Baltimore, I truly believe her to be your best hope for funding your railroad line." The banker's direct and unwavering regard caused some of the heat in Bear's temper to drain.
"We appreciate your offer, Mr. Vassar, but by next Saturday we should have letters of credit in hand and be on a train bound for Washington."
Vassar seemed to take the rejection in stride. He rose and extended his hand to both men, wishing them luck.
By the time they reached the street, Halt could no longer contain his outrage. "Nervy bastard. We ask for a loan an' he gives us a tailor!
But Bear was staring at the card in his hand, caught hard in the grip of something he hadn't experienced in a very long time: embarrassment. He had a sketchy idea of what his face looked like, and that only because he had seen it in the peeling mirrors of the bathhouse he used every morning. But what he had seen was enough now to shame him.
He looked rough, edgy. His sun-darkened skin resembled weathered stone and his hands were as hardened as a ditchdigger's. He looked down at his callused palms and for the first time noticed how much of his arm showed below his too-tight sleeves and how much of his boot showed below his too-short pants. The sight shocked him. He must look as if he'd been melted down and poured into somebody else's clothes.
Clearly, he'd been out West too long, where a man was judged mainly by what was inside him, his strength, skill, and character. He had forgotten the most basic tenets of Eastern society: appearance determined acceptance, and acceptance determined opportunity.
He spotted the darkened glass of a nearby shop window and made for it. His full-length reflection caused him to wince. The fellow looking back at him was tall and rangy, with hair that was too long and a suit that was too tight. His tie was knotted, his buttons were straining his coat fabric, and his worn Western boots were beyond the aid of brush and polish. Halt stood alongside him in a dusty Western hat, chambray shirt, and ancient string tie . . . looking done up like a sore thumb and acting every bit as touchy.
Who in his right mind would lend money to men who looked like them?
"How much traveling money do we have left?" he demanded.
"Three hundred or so." Halt was puzzled by the way his partner glowered at the pots and pans in the dry-goods shop window. Then he realized Bear was using the glass as a mirror, and he too began to examine their reflections . . . making a face at himself.
"It might be enough," Bear muttered.
"For what? What are we goin' to do?"
"We're going to find a barber." Bear wheeled and struck off down the street, searching the sign boards and shop fronts for evidence of the familiar red-and-white-striped pole. "Then we're going to find this "Martene and Savoy.' And then
we're going to find us another blessed banker!"
Excerpted from The Soft Touch by Betina Krahn. Copyright © 1999 by Betina Krahn. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.