The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XI. Abe Lee Resigns.
In obedience to its master passion--Good Business--the race now began pouring its life into the barren wastes of The King's Basin Desert.
In the city by the sea at the end of the Southwestern and Continental there was a suite of offices with real gold letters on the ground-glass doors richly spelling "The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company." Behind these doors there was real mahogany furniture, solid, substantial and rich; a high safe; many attractive maps; and a gentleman who--never having traveled west of Buffalo before--could answer with authority every conceivable question relating to the reclamation of the arid lands of the great West. When there were no more questions to ask he could still tell you many things of the wonderland of wealth that was being opened to the public by the Company, demonstrating thus beyond the possibility of a doubt how many times a dollar could be multiplied.
From this office went forth to the advertising departments of the magazines and papers, skillfully prepared copy, which in turn was followed by pamphlets, circulars and letters innumerable. In one room a company of clerks and book-keepers and accountants pored over their tasks at desks and counters. In another a squad of stenographers filled the air with the sound of their type-writers. Through the doors of the different rooms passed an endless procession; men from the front with the marks of the desert sun on their faces--engineers, superintendents, bosses, messengers, agents --servants of the Company; laborers of every sort and nationality came in answer to the cry: "Men wanted!"; special salesmen from foundry, factory and shop drawn by prospective large sales of machinery, implements and supplies; land-hungry men from everywhere seeking information and opportunity for investment.
At Deep Well (which is no well at all) on the rim of the Basin, trainloads of supplies, implements, machinery, lumber and construction material, horses, mules and men were daily side-tracked and unloaded on the desert sands. Overland travelers gazed in startled wonder at the scene of stirring activity that burst so suddenly upon them in the midst of the barren land through which they had ridden for hours without sight of a human habitation or sign of man. The great mountain of goods, piled on the dun plain; the bands of horses and mules; the camp-fires; the blankets spread on the bare ground; the men moving here and there in seemingly hopeless confusion; all looked so ridiculously out of place and so pitifully helpless.
Every hour companies of men with teams and vehicles set out from the camp to be swallowed up in the silent distance. Night and day the huge mountain of goods was attacked by the freighters who, with their big wagons drawn by six, eight, twelve, or more, mules, appeared mysteriously out of the weird landscape as if they were spirits materialized by some mighty unknown genii of the desert. Their heavy wagons loaded, their water barrels filled, they turned again to the unseen realm from which they had been summoned. The sound of the loud voices of the drivers, the creaking of the wagons, the jingle of harness, the shot-like reports of long whips died quickly away; while, to the vision, the outfits passed slowly-- fading, dissolving in their great clouds of dust, into the land of mystery.
In Rubio City Jefferson Worth continued on his machine-like way at the Pioneer Bank, apparently paying no heed to the movement that offered such opportunities for profitable investment. Barbara rarely spoke now of the work that had been so dear to her, nor did she ever ride to the foot of the hill on the Mesa to look over the Desert. The Seer was in the northern railroad work again, but Abe Lee, with Tex and Pat and Pablo Garcia, had gone with the beginning of the stream of life that was pouring into the new country.
True to the far-reaching plans of the Company, at the largest and most central of the supply camps, located in the very heart of The King's Basin, the townsite of Kingston was laid out, and even in the days when every drop of water was hauled from three to ten miles town lots were offered for sale and sold to eager speculators.
A year from the beginning of the work at the intake at the river, water was turned into the canals. With the coming of the water, Kingston changed, almost between suns, from a rude supply camp to an established town with post-office, stores, hotel, blacksmith shop, livery stables, all in buildings more or less substantial. Most substantial of all was the building owned and occupied by the offices of the Company.
With the coming of the water also, the stream of human life that flowed into the Basin was swollen by hundreds of settlers driven by the master passion--Good Business--to toil and traffic, to build the city, to subdue and cultivate the land and thus to realize the Seer's dream, while the engineer himself was banished from the work to which he had given his life. Every sunrise saw new tent-houses springing up on the claims of the settlers around the Company town and new buildings beginning in the center of it all--Kingston. Every sunset saw miles of new ditches ready to receive the water from the canal and acres of new land cleared and graded for irrigation.
Thus it was that afternoon when, from his office window, Mr. Burk, the General Manager of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company, watched a freighter with a twelve-mule load of goods stop his team directly across the street in front of the largest and most important general store in the Basin.
Deck Jordan, the merchant, came out and the Manager easily heard the driver's loud voice: "Jim'll be along in 'bout another hour, I reckon. We aim to get the rest in two more trips."
"Six twelve-mule loads in that shipment," thought the Company's manager; "and that fellow set up business with a two-horse load of stuff!"
An empty wagon was driven up to the store and the General Manager recognized in the driver one of the Company's men from a grading camp six miles away; while another wagon--a Company wagon also-- nearly filled with supplies moved away toward the open desert.
Deck's business was assuming quite respectable proportions thought Mr. Burk. And Deck's business was mostly with employes of the Company. Taking a cigar from a box on his desk, Mr. Burk scratched a match on the heel of his shoe and, leaning back in his office chair, continued thinking. The Manager of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company was paid to think. The Company hired Mr. Burk's peculiar talent even as they hired the physical strength of their laborers or the professional skill of their engineers.
As he meditated, the Manager still watched from the window the activities of the street. Soon from the open desert, beyond the last new building down the street, he saw a horseman approaching. At an easy swinging lope the rider came straight toward the Company's headquarters and, as he drew near, the Manager recognized the chief engineer. Greeting the man at the open window as he passed, Willard Holmes dismounted at the entrance of the building and, going first to the water tank, soon appeared in the doorway of the Manager's room. The engineer's clothes from boots to Stetson were covered with dust and his face was deeply bronzed by the months in the open air.
Turning from the window Mr. Burk held out the box of cigars.
"No thanks," said the Chief with a smile. "I'm hot as a lime kiln now. Wait until after supper."
Throwing his hat and gloves on the floor, he dropped into a chair with a sigh of relief at the grateful coolness of the room after hours of riding in the dazzling light of the desert sun.
The other, returning the box to its place, tipped back in his chair and elevated his well-dressed feet to his desk and, with his cigar in one corner of his mouth and his head cocked suggestively to one side, looked his companion over with a critical smile. "I say, Holmes, how would you like to be in little old New York this evening?"
At the question and the manner of the speaker the engineer held up his hands with a motion of protest as he commanded, in tragic voice: "Get thee behind me, Satan!" Then, at the Manager's laugh, he added seriously: "New York is all right, Burk, but I guess I can manage to stick it out here a while longer."
Burk looked at the engineer with the same thoughtful expression that had marked his face when he watched the wagon-load of supplies before the store across the street. "I have noticed that you show symptoms of slowly developing an interest in your job," he murmured. "You were at the river yesterday."
"No; I was at Number Five Heading. Abe Lee will be in from the intake this afternoon. I was there day before yesterday."
"How is the little old Colorado behaving herself?"
"All right so far. Our work is all a guess though. There is not a scrap of data to go on, you know." There was a hint of anxiety in the chief engineer's answer.
"I suppose you find the talkative Abe cheerfully optimistic about the future of our structures as usual?"
Holmes did not smile at the jesting tone of the Manager. "Lee is certainly doing all he can to make things safe. He is a fiend for thoroughness, and between you and me, Burk, the Company ought to spend more money on that intake at least. A few more thousands would make it what it should be."
The man who was paid to think held out a hand protestingly. "My dear boy, how many times have we gone over that? The Company will spend just what they must spend to get this scheme going and not a cent more. Later, when the business justifies, they will improve the system. Don't get yourself sidetracked by the notion that this whole project is for the benefit of the dear people and that the Company is made up of benevolent old gentlemen, who have nothing to do with their wealth but promote philanthropic enterprises. You should know your Uncle Jim better. Dividends, my boy, dividends; that's what we're all here for, and you can't afford to forget it. By the way, did you have any dinner to-day?"
"I struck Camp Seven on the Alamitos at noon."
"Hum-m. Sour bread, sow-belly, frijoles? Or was it canned corn? I say, old man, do you remember some of the places where we used to dine at home--flowers and music, and table linen, and real dishes, and waiters with real food, and women--God bless 'em!--real women? What would you give to-night, Holmes, for something to eat that had never been preserved, embalmed, cured, dried or tinned? It's not a dream of fairyland, my boy; there are such places in the world and there are such things to eat. Come, what do you say? Where shall we dine tonight and what will you have?"
"You fiend!" growled Holmes. "You know I'd sell my soul this minute for one good red apple."
Lowering his feet to the floor and rising, the Manager of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company crossed the room stealthily and carefully closed the door. Then taking a bunch of keys from his pocket, with an air of great secrecy he unlocked a drawer in his desk, pulled it open and took out--an apple.
The Company's chief engineer fell on the Manager with an exclamation of amazement and delight.
"Really," said Burk as he watched the fruit disappear, "your child- like pleasure almost justifies my crime. I even feel repaid for my self-denial. There were only three in the basket."
"How did you do it?" asked Holmes between bites, gazing at the apple in his hand as though to devour the treat with his eyes also, thereby doubling the pleasure.
"It was one of our dearly beloved prospective settlers," the thoughtful Manager explained with an air of conscious merit. "He came in from somewhere yesterday to spy out the land and, being a prudent and thrifty farmer, he possesses, or is possessed by, a prudent and thrifty wife. Said wife fitted out said farmer for his journey into this far country with a market basket of provisions. Home-made provisions, Willard, my son; home made! A whole basket full! He had one feed left and was finishing it out there on the sidewalk when I returned from what we of this benighted land call dinner. How could I help looking. I watched him devour the leg of a chicken. I watched him eat real bread with jelly on it. Then I caught sight of three apples--three! Holmes, such wealth is criminal. I considered--I became an anarchist. He was a big husky and I dared not assault him, so I talked--Lord forgive me!--how I talked. I offered confidential advice, I conjured up visions of wealth untold. I laid him under a spell and gently led him and his basket into the office even as he finished the pie. I showed him maps; I gave him a cigar; I urged him to leave his basket and satchel here in my private office for safe-keeping while he looked around. Gladly he accepted my invitation. His confidence was pathetic. How could the poor, trusting farmer know that I was ready, if necessary, to murder him for his fortune? When he had gone I locked the door and I--I--I only took two, Holmes; I dared not take them all, for he was big and rough, as I say. But I could not believe that a man with such wealth could miss a part of it."
"But you said you ate two," said the engineer severely, taking another long, lingering bite.
"I did," returned the Manager, with awful solemnity. "When that trusting but husky farmer returned later for his possessions he thanked me many times for my kindness while I trembled with the consciousness of my guilt, assuring him that it was no trouble at all--no trouble at all. And then--just as I felt sure that he was going and was beginning to breathe easier--he stopped and fumbled around in his basket. My heart stood still. 'Hannah put some fine apples in my dinner,' he muttered. 'I thought maybe you might like some. Reckon I must a-et 'em after all. I thought there was--no, by jocks! here she is.' Holmes, as I live he handed me that other apple. It was positively uncanny. I was speechless. Not until he was gone did I realize that it was prophetic. In like manner shall the settlers, the farmers, save this land and us from destruction."
"It's Good Business," returned Holmes. "It exactly illustrates your methods of dealing with the confiding public."
"Humph!" grunted the other. "I observe that you do not hesitate to enjoy the fruits of my financiering."
A knock at the door prevented the engineer's reply.
"Come in!" called Burk.
The door opened and Abe Lee stood on the threshold. The two men greeted the surveyor cordially but with that subtle touch in their voices that hinted at consciousness of superior position and authority.
Abe addressed himself directly to his Chief, saying: "We finished at the intake last night, sir, and moved to Dry River Heading this morning as you directed."
"You left everything at the river in good shape, of course?"
The surveyor did not answer. The tobacco and paper that, in his long fingers, were assuming the form of a cigarette seemed to demand his undivided attention. Burk was thoughtfully watching the two men. At the critical moment he handed Abe a match. From the cloud of smoke Abe spoke again. "The outfit will be ready to begin work at the Heading to-morrow morning."
Before Holmes could speak the Manager said: "You evidently still think, Lee, that the work at the river is not satisfactory. Are you still predicting that our intake will go out with the next high water?"
"I don't know whether the next high water will do it or not. The Rio Colorado alone won't hurt us, but when the Gila and the Little Colorado go on the war-path and come down on top of a high Colorado flood you'll catch hell. It may be this season; it may be next. It depends on the snowfall in the upper countries and the weather in the spring, but it has come and it will come again."
"How do you know? There have been no records kept and no surveys. We have no data."
"There's data enough. The Colorado leaves her own record. I know the country; I know what the river has done and I know what the Indians have told me."
At the surveyor's words his Chief stirred impatiently and the Manager answered: "But we can't spend twenty or thirty thousand dollars on a mere guess at what may happen, Lee. When the country is fairly well settled and business justifies, we will put in a new intake. In the meantime those structures will have to do. The K. B. L. and I. is not in business for glory, you know." Abe spoke softly from a cloud of smoke. "And are you explaining this situation to the people who are coming here by the hundreds to settle? Do they understand the chances they are taking when they buy water rights and go ahead to develop their ranches?"
"Certainly not. If we talked risks no one would come in. The Company must protect its interests."
"Who protects the settlers' interests?"
The Manager stiffened. "I don't recognize your right to criticise the Company's policy, Lee. Mr. Holmes is our chief engineer and he assures me that our structures are as good as they can be made with the money at our disposal. We can only carry out the policies of the Company and we are responsible to them for the money we spend. You have no responsibility in the matter whatever."
"Oh, hell, Burk," drawled Abe, though his eyes contradicted flatly his soft tone. "There's no occasion for you to climb so high up that ladder. You've been a corporation mouthpiece so long you have no more soul than the Company." He turned to his Chief. "I left Andy in charge at camp. He understands that I will not be back. I dropped my resignation in your box in the office as I came in. Adios."
Leaving the office, Abe walked slowly down the street through the heart of the Company's little town. On every hand he saw the work that was being wrought in the Desert. There were business blocks and houses in every stage of building from the new-laid foundation to the moving-in of the tenants. The air rang with sound of hammer and saw. Teams and wagons from the ranches lined the street. The very faces of the people he met glowed with enthusiasm, while determination and purpose were expressed in their very movements as they hurried by.
A mile west of town the surveyor stopped on the bridge that spanned the main canal. He paused to look around. He saw the country already dotted with the white tent-houses of the settlers, and even as he looked three new wagons, loaded with supplies and implements, passed, bound for the claims of the owners. Under his feet the water from the distant river ran strongly. To the west was a grading camp on the line of a Company ditch; to the south was another. Far to the north and east, along the rim of the Basin, he knew the railroad was bringing other pioneers by the hundreds. He drew a deep breath and, taking off his sombrero, drank in the scene. How he loved it all! It was the Seer's dream, but the Seer could have no part in it. It was Barbara's Desert, but Barbara was shut out--exiled. It was his work, but he was powerless to do it. The Seer had told him to stay for his work's sake. He smiled grimly, remembering the Manager's words. Barbara had told him to stay, but the girl knew nothing of conditions--how could she know? Jefferson Worth had told him to stay. Why? Barbara, in her letters, never spoke of the work. The Seer seldom wrote; Jefferson Worth, never. Every month the situation had grown more unbearable. Burk might insist that he had no responsibility and Holmes might argue that they could only do their best with what funds the Company would supply. Abe was not of their school. Well, he was out of it now for good. He was not the kind of a man the Company wanted.
Returning to town he had supper at the little shack restaurant and, going to the tent house owned by himself and two brother-surveyors that they might have a place to sleep when in town, he gathered his few possessions together in readiness for departure in the morning.
When the brief task was finished and he had written a note to his two friends, who were away, he went out again on the main street, because there was nothing else to do. It was evening now and the usual crowd was gathered in front of the post-office to watch the arrival of the stage, the one event of never-failing interest to these hardy pioneers. In the throng there were teamsters, laborers, ranchers, mechanics, real-estate agents, speculators, surveyors-- gathered from camp and field and town. Some were expecting letters from the home folks in the world outside; a few were looking for friends among the passengers. Many were there, as was Abe, because it was the point of interest. All were roughly clad, marked by the semi-tropical desert wind and sun.
It was among such men as these that Abe Lee's life had been spent. Such scenes as these were home scenes to him. In a peculiar way, through the Seer and Barbara, the work that these men were doing was dear to him. He felt that he was being cast out of his own place. As he passed through the throng Abe heard always the same topic of conversation: the work--the work--the work. News to these men meant more miles of canal finished, new ditches dug, more land leveled and graded, new settlers located. The surveyor thought of the future of these people, given wholly into the hands of the Company; of the men in the East, who knew nothing of their hardships but who would force them to pay royal tribute out of the fruits of their toil; of how, even then, they were increasing the value of the Company property.
"Here she comes!" cried someone, and all eyes were turned to see the stage swinging down the street. Abe drew back a little--to the thin edge of the crowd; he was expecting neither letters nor friends. The six broncos were brought to a stand in the midst of the crowd, the mail bag was tossed to the post-master and the passengers began climbing down from their seats.
As the last man rose from his place he stood for a moment in a stooped position, gripping with each hand one of the standards that supported the canvas top of the vehicle. Looking out thus over the crowd he seemed to be gathering data for an estimate of the population before he felt cautiously with his foot for the step.
Abe Lee started forward with an exclamation.
It was Jefferson Worth!