The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter IX. The Master Passion--"Good Business."
When Jefferson Worth left headquarters camp that morning, his purpose was to ride over a part of the territory lying southeast of the old San Felipe trail between the sand hills and the old beach- line. He had covered practically all of the land on the western side of the ancient sea-bed, from the delta dam at the southern end north to the lowest point in the Basin, and southward again on the eastern side as far as the old trail. There remained for him to see only this section in the southeast.
It was nearly noon when the banker, from a slight elevation that afforded him a view of the surrounding country, recognized the group of sand hills and, by the general course of Dry River, distinguished the spot where the San Felipe trail crosses the deep arroyo. Occupied with his thoughts, he had ridden farther from camp than he had realized. He should turn back. But the distant scene of the desert tragedy called him. He became possessed of a desire to visit once more the spot that was so closely associated with the child, who had so strangely come into his life and whom he loved as his own daughter.
An hour later he dismounted to stand beside the water hole where, with his companions, he had found the dead woman with the empty canteen by her side. The incidents of that hour were as vivid in the banker's memory as if it had all happened only the day before. He remembered how Texas Joe had lifted the canteen and, inverting it, had held out to them his finger moistened with the last drop of water in the cloth-covered vessel; and how he and his companions, standing by the dead body of the woman, had turned to each other in startled awe at the coyotes' ghostly call in the dusk. He heard again with thrilling clearness the baby's plaintive voice: "Mamma, mamma! Barba wants drink. Please bring drink, mamma. Barba's 'fraid!"
Going a short way up the wash, he stood with uncovered head on the very spot where he had knelt with out-stretched hands before the big-eyed, brown-haired baby girl, who, crouching under the high bank, shrank back from him in fear. He saw the frightened look in her eyes and heard the sweet voice cry: "Go 'way! Go 'way! Go 'way!" Then he saw the expression on the little face change as Pat and Tex and the boy tried to reassure her; saw her hold up her baby hands in full confidence to the big engineer; and felt again the pain and humiliation in his heart.
Why had the baby instinctively feared him? Why had she turned from him to the Seer? Why, he asked himself bitterly, had she always feared him? Why did she still shrink from him? For Barbara did shrink from him, unconsciously--unintentionally--but, to Jefferson Worth, none the less plainly now than when he knelt before her that night in the desert. And it hurt him now as it had hurt him then; hurt the more, perhaps, because Barbara did not know--because her attitude was instinctive.
Still living over again the incidents and emotions of that hour in the desert night, he walked back to the crossing and, leading his horse, climbed the little hill out of the wash to the spot where, with Texas and Pat, he had rendered the last possible service to the unknown woman, who had given her life for the life of the child--the child that was his but not his. Long ago he had marked the grave with a simple headstone bearing the only name possible--the one word: "Mother"--and the date of her death.
Then mounting again, he rode swiftly along the old trail toward the sand hills in the near distance. The great drifts, in the years that had passed, had been moved on by the wind until the wagon and all that remained of the half-buried outfit were now hidden somewhere deep in its heart. But the general form of the sand hill was still the same.
Dismounting, Mr. Worth tied his horse to a scraggly, half-buried mesquite and, taking his canteen from the saddle, climbed laboriously up the steep, sandy slope. He would look over the country from that point and then make straight for camp, for it was getting well on in the afternoon. From the top of the hill he could see the wide reaches of The King's Basin Desert sweeping away on every side. At his feet the bare sand hills themselves lay like huge, rolling, wind-piled drifts of tawny snow glistening in the sunlight with a blinding glare. Beyond these were the gray and green of salt-bush, mesquite and greasewood, with the dun earth showing here and there in ragged patches. Still farther away the detail of hill and hummock and bush and patch was lost in the immensity of the scene, while the dull tones of gray and green and brown were over- laid with the ever-changing tints of the distance, until, to the eyes, the nearer plain became an island surrounded on every side by a mighty, many-colored sea that broke only at the foot of the purple mountain wall.
The work of the expedition was nearly finished. The banker knew now from the results of the survey and from his own careful observations and estimates that the Seer's dream was not only possible from an engineering point of view, but from the careful capitalist's standpoint, would justify a large investment. Lying within the lines of the ancient beach and thus below the level of the great river, were hundreds of thousands of acres equal in richness of the soil to the famous delta lands of the Nile. The bringing of the water from the river and its distribution through a system of canals and ditches, while a work of great magnitude requiring the expenditure of large sums of money, was, as an engineering problem, comparatively simple.
As Jefferson Worth gazed at the wonderful scene, a vision of the changes that were to come to that land passed before him. He saw first, following the nearly finished work of the engineers, an army of men beginning at the river and pushing out into the desert with their canals, bringing with them the life-giving water. Soon, with the coming of the water, would begin the coming of the settlers. Hummocks would be leveled, washes and arroyos filled, ditches would be made to the company canals, and in place of the thin growth of gray-green desert vegetation with the ragged patches of dun earth would come great fields of luxuriant alfalfa, billowing acres of grain, with miles upon miles of orchards, vineyards and groves. The fierce desert life would give way to the herds and flocks and the home life of the farmer. The railroad would stretch its steel strength into this new world; towns and cities would come to be where now was only solitude and desolation; and out from this world- old treasure house vast wealth would pour to enrich the peoples of the earth. The wealth of an empire lay in that land under the banker's eye, and Capital held the key.
But while the work of the engineers was simple, it would be a great work; and it was the magnitude of the enterprise and the consequent requirement of large sums of money that gave Capital its opportunity. Without water the desert was worthless. With water the productive possibilities of that great territory were enormous. Without Capital the water could not be had. Therefore Capital was master of the situation and, by controlling the water, could exact royal tribute from the wealth of the land.
Knowing James Greenfield and his business associates as he knew them, familiar with their operations as he was and knowing that they represented the power of almost unlimited capital, Jefferson Worth realized that they would plan to share in every dollar of wealth that The King's Basin lands could be made to produce. Already, his trained mind saw how easily, with the vast power in their hands, this could be brought about. And these men, recognizing his peculiar value in such an enterprise as this, wanted him to join them.
It was a triumphant moment in the life and business career of the western banker, the culmination of long, hard years of unceasing toil, of unfaltering devotion to business, of struggle and disappointments, of small victories and steady advance gained at the cost of sacrifice and hard fighting. This proposed alliance with the great eastern capitalists opened the door and invited him into the company of the real leaders of the financial world. As one of the powerful corporation that would literally hold the life of the future King's Basin in its hand, the multitudes of toilers who would come to reclaim the desert would be forced to toil not only for themselves but for him. A part of every dollar of the millions that would be taken from that treasury by the labor of the people would go to enrich him.
The financier's thoughts were interrupted by a sound. He turned to see his horse tugging at the bridle reins, snorting in fear. The man started quickly down the hill, but before he could cover half the distance that separated him from his mount the frightened animal broke the reins and, wheeling about, disappeared down the trail on a wild run. At the same instant a coyote trotted leisurely out from under the lee of the sand drift and, with a side glance over his shoulder at the banker, slipped around the point of the next low ridge.
The man knew that to catch his horse would be impossible. The animal would not stop until he reached his companions at the feed-rack in camp. He knew also that to attempt to find his way to headquarters such a distance and on foot, with night so near at hand, would be worse than folly. He would only exhaust his strength and make it harder for his friends to find him before his water, which could not last another day, should give out. Someone, he knew, would take his trail in the morning. The only thing he could do was to wait--to wait alone in the heart of this silent, age-old, waiting land.
Somewhere in those forgotten ages that went into the making of The King's Basin Desert, a company of free-born citizens of the land, moved by that master passion--Good Business, found their way to the banks of the Colorado. In time Good Business led them to build their pueblos and to cultivate their fields by irrigation with water from the river and erect their rude altars to their now long-forgotten gods. Driven by the same passion that drove the Indians, the emigrant wagons moved toward the new gold country, and some financial genius saw Good Business at the river-crossing near the site of the ancient city. At first it was no more than a ferry, but soon others with eyes for profit established a trading point where the overland voyagers could replenish their stock of supplies, sure to be low after the hundreds of miles across the wide plains. Then also, in obedience to Good Business, pleasures heard the call, saloons, gambling houses and dance halls appeared, and for profit the joys of civilization arrived in the savage land. Good Business sent the prospectors who found the mines, the capital that developed them and the laborers who dug the ore. Good Business sent the cattle barons and their cowboys, sent the speculators and the pioneer merchants. Good Business sent also, in the fulness of time, Jefferson Worth.
Of old New England Puritan stock, Worth had come through the hard life of a poor farm boy with two dominant elements in his character: an almost super-human instinct for Good Business, inherited no doubt, and an instinct, also inherited, for religion. The instinct for trade, from much cultivation, had waxed strong and stronger with the years. The religion that he had from his forefathers was become little more than a superstition. It was his genius for business that led him, in his young manhood, to leave the farm, and it was inevitable that from making money he should come to making money make more money. It was the other dominant element in his character that kept him scrupulously honest, scrupulously moral. Besides this, honesty and morality were also "good business."
Seeking always larger opportunities for the employment of his small, steadily-increasing financial strength, Mr. Worth established the Pioneer Bank. Later, as he had foreseen, the same master passion brought the great railroad with still larger opportunities for his money to make more money. And now the same master passion that had driven the Indian, the emigrant, the miner, the cowman, the banker and the railroad was driving the eastern capitalists to spend their moneyed strength in the reclamation of The King's Basin Desert. It was Good Business that led Greenfield and his friends to seek the co-operation of the western financier. It was Good Business that called to Jefferson Worth now as he saw the immense possibilities of the land.
As truly as the ages had made the barren desert with its hard, thirsty life, the ages had produced Jefferson Worth, a carefully perfected, money making machine, as silent, hard and lonely as the desert itself. With apparently no vices, no passions, no mistakes, no failures, his only relation to his fellow-men was a business relation. With his almost supernatural ability to foresee, to measure, to weigh and judge, with his cold, mask-like face and his manner of considering carefully every word and of placing a value upon every trivial incident, he was respected, feared, trusted, even admired--and that was all. No; not all. By those who were forced, through circumstances--business circumstances--to contribute to his prosperity and financial success, he was hated. Such is the unreasonableness of human kind.
Business, to this man as to many of his kind, was not the mean, sordid grasping and hoarding of money. It was his profession, but it was even more than a profession; it was the expression of his genius. Still more it was, through him, the expression of the age in which he lived, the expression of the master passion that in all ages had wrought in the making of the race. He looked upon a successful deal as a good surgeon looks upon a successful operation, as an architect upon the completion of a building or an artist upon his finished picture. But to a greater degree than to artist or surgeon, the success of his work was measured by the accumulation of dollars. Apart from his work he valued the money received from his operations no more than the surgeon his fee, the artist his price. The work itself was his passion. Because dollars were the tools of his craft he was careful of them. The more he succeeded, the more power he gained for greater success.
But extremely simple in his tastes, lacking, with his lack of education, knowledge of the more costly luxuries of life, with the habits of an ascetic, Jefferson Worth could not evidence his success; and success hidden and unknown loses its power to reward. It is not enough for the engineer to run his locomotive; he must have train loads of goods and passengers to carry to some objective point. It is not enough for the captain to have command of his ship; he must have a port. Self to Jefferson Worth meant little; his nature demanded so little. Nor could Mrs. Worth in this fill the need in her husband's life, for her nature was as simple as his own. But a child, whose life could be part of his life, filling out, supplementing and complementing his own nature; a child who, dependent upon him, should have all the training that he lacked, who should share his success and for whom he could plan to succeed--a child, an heir, would fill the blank in his empty career. For a brief time he had looked forward to a child of his own blood. Then the death of the baby and the ill health of his wife had left him hopeless. He continued his work because he knew no life apart from his work.
Then came the little girl so strangely the gift of the desert. The banker's mind, trained to act quickly, had grasped the possibilities of the situation instantly as he ran with his companions to answer the call of that childish voice. From the moment when he knelt with outstretched hands and pleading words before little Barbara, he had never ceased trying to win her. Mrs. Worth, knowing that she could not be with him many years, had said: "You need her, Jeff," and he did need her.
But Jefferson Worth knew that Barbara was not his. She shrank from him as instinctively and unconsciously as she had drawn back that night of her mother's death when he knelt before her in the desert. As she had turned to the Seer then, she turned from the banker now. And now, far more than then, his lonely heart hungered for her; for with the years his need of her had grown. Envied of foolish men as men so foolishly envy his class, the banker knew himself to be destitute, an object of their pity. The poorest Mexican in his adobe hut, with his half-naked, laughing children, was more wealthy than he.
Jefferson Worth, that afternoon on the very scene of the tragedy that had given Barbara to him, realized that in the land before him he faced the greatest opportunity of his business career. He realized also that he was as much alone in his life as he was alone in the silent, barren waste that surrounded him. Would La Palma de la Mano de Dios, which had given him the child that was not his child, give him wealth that still never could be his?
At last, from his place on the sand drift that held the secret of Barbara's life, he saw the sun as it appeared to rest for a moment on the western wall before plunging down into the world on the other side. Watching, he saw the purple of the hills deepen and deepen and the wondrous light on the wide sea of colors fade slowly out as the colors themselves paled and grew dim in the misty dusk of the coming night. Slowly the twilight sky grew dark, and into the velvet plain above came the heavenly flocks until their number was past counting save by Him who leadeth them in their fields. Against the last lingering light in the west that marked where the day had gone, the mountains lifted their vast bulk in solemn grandeur as if to bar forever the coming of another day. Closing about him on every hand, coming dreadfully nearer and nearer, the black walls of darkness shut him in. In the cool, mysterious breath of the desert, in the grotesque, fantastic, nearby shapes and monstrous forms of the sand dunes, in the mysterious phantom voices that whispered in the dark, Jefferson Worth felt the close approach of the spirit of the land; the calling of the age-old, waiting land--the silent menace, the voiceless threat, the whispered promise.
And there, alone--held close in The Hollow of God's Hand as the long hours of the night passed--the spirit of the man's Puritan fathers stirred within him. In the silent, naked heart of the Desert that, knowing no hand but the hand of its Creator, seemed to hold in its hushed mysteriousness the ages of a past eternity, he felt his life to be but a little thing. Beside the awful forces that made themselves felt in the spirit of Barbara's Desert, the might of Capital became small and trivial. Sensing the dreadful power that had wrought to make that land, he shrank within himself--he was afraid. He marveled that he had dared dream of forcing La Palma de la Mano de Dios to contribute to his gains. And so at last it was given him to know why Barbara instinctively shrank from him in fear.
With the coming of the day the banker went a little way back on the trail where the vegetation was not entirely covered by the drifting sand, and there gathered materials for a fire. Later, when he judged his friends would be in sight, he fired the pile and, watching the tall, thick column of smoke ascend, awaited the answer. In a little while it came, faint and far away, the report of Texas Joe's forty- five. Soon he heard the sound of voices calling loudly and, following his answer, the swift hoof-beats of galloping horses; and Tex and Abe, leading another horse appeared.
But the Jefferson Worth who rode back to camp with his friends, there to be greeted and congratulated by the party, was not the same Jefferson Worth who had left camp the morning before, though no one congratulated him because of that.
It was three weeks later when a portly, well-fed gentleman entered the Pioneer Bank in Rubio City and asked of the teller: "Is Mr. Worth in?"
The man on the other side of the counter looked through his grated window at the speaker with unusual interest. And in the teller's voice there was a shade of unusual deference as he replied, "Yes, sir."
"Tell him that Mr. Greenfield is here."
At the magic of that name every man in the bank within sound of the speaker's voice lifted his head and turned toward the face at the window.
"Yes, sir. Come this way, sir."
A door in the partition opened and the visitor was admitted to the sacred precincts behind the gratings, the bars and the plate glass. As he moved down the room past counters and desks, every eye followed him and there was an electrical hush in the atmosphere like the hush that marks the massing of the forces in Nature before a conflict of the elements.
Jefferson Worth looked up as the imposing figure of the great financier appeared on the threshold of his room, and at the name of James Greenfield carefully pushed back the papers he had been considering and rose. The movement, slight as it was, was as though he cleared his decks for action. The clerk, withdrawing, carefully, closed the door.
The two men shook hands with much the air of two wrestlers meeting for a bout. For a moment neither spoke. Each knew that in the silence he was being measured, estimated, searched for his weakness and his strength, and each gave to the other this opportunity as his right. No time was wasted in idle preliminaries. These men knew the value of time. No formal words expressing pleasure at the meeting were spoken. They tacitly accepted the fact that pleasure had not called them together.
James Greenfield was a fair representative of his class. His full, well-colored face with carefully clipped gray mustache, bright blue eyes and gray hair, was the calmly alert, well-controlled, thoughtful face of power: not the face of one who does things, but of one who causes things to be done; not the face of one who is himself powerful, but of one who controls and directs power; such a face as you may see leaning from the cab of a great locomotive that pulls the overland limited, or looking down at you from the bridge of the ocean liner. It was courageous, but with a courage not personal--a courage born rather of an exact knowledge of the strength and duty of every bolt, rivet and lever of the machine under his hand. It was confident, not in its own strength, but in the strength that it ruled and directed.
Jefferson Worth motioned toward a chair at the end of his desk and seated himself. The man from the East found himself forced to make the opening.
"Mr. Worth," he said, "we find it very difficult to understand your attitude toward our company. We do not see why you decline our proposition. Your own report gives every reason in the world why you should accept and you suggest no reason at all for declining. Frankly, it looks strange to us and I have come out to have a little talk with you over the matter and to see if we could not persuade you to reconsider your decision, or at least to learn your reasons for refusing to go in with us. Your report and your answer to our proposition are so conflicting that we feel we have a right to some definite reason for your unexpected decision."
As he spoke, the president of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company tried in vain to see behind the mask-like face of the man in the revolving chair. His failure only excited his admiration and respect. Instinctively he recognized the genius before him, and his desire to add this strength to his forces increased.
"My report was satisfactory?" The words were absolutely colorless.
"Very. It was exactly what we wanted. With your opinion, confirming our engineer's statements, we felt safe to go ahead with the organization of the Company and have already set the wheels moving toward actual work. It is because you so unhesitatingly and so strongly commend the project as warranting our investment that we cannot understand your refusal to share the profits of our enterprise."
He paused for an answer, but was forced to continue. "Let me explain more fully than I could outline in my letter just what we propose doing. The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company, Mr. Worth, will not confine its operations simply to furnishing water for the reclamation and development of these lands. That is no more than the beginning--the basis of our operations. With the settlement and improvement of the country will come many other openings for profitable investments--townsites, transportation lines, telephones, electric power, banking and all that, you understand. Our connections and resources make it possible for us to finance any industry or operation that promises attractive returns, while our position as the originators of the whole King's Basin movement and the owners of the irrigation system will give us tremendous advantage over any outside capital that may attempt to come in later, and will make competition practically impossible."
"I figured that was the way you would do it," was the unemotional reply.
More than ever James Greenfield wanted this man. He considered carefully a few minutes, with no help from Jefferson Worth, then tried again. "If you feel that our proposition to you is not liberal enough, Mr. Worth, I am prepared to double our offer."
If the financier from New York thought to startle this little western banker with a proposal that was more than princely he failed. His words seemed to have no effect. It was as though he talked to a marble figure of a man.
"I appreciate your proposition, but must decline it."
"May I ask your reason, sir?"
"I must decline to give any."
The other arose, the light of battle in his eyes, for to James Greenfield's mind there could be only one possible meaning in the answer. "That is, of course, your privilege, Mr. Worth," he said coldly. And then with the weight of conscious power he added: "But I'll tell you this, sir: if you think you can enter The King's Basin in opposition to our Company you're making the mistake of your life. We'll smash you, with your limited resources, so flat that you'll be glad for a chance to make the price of a meal. Good day, sir!"
Before the great capitalist was out of the building, Jefferson Worth was bending over the papers on his desk again as though declining to accept flattering offers from gigantic corporations was an hourly occurrence.