Chapter XII. Signs of Conflict.
 

Not a line of Jefferson Worth's countenance changed as the tall surveyor, pushing his way through the crowd about the new arrivals, greeted him. But Abe Lee felt the man from behind his gray mask reaching out to grasp his innermost thoughts and emotions.

"Where is the hotel?"

Abe explained that the rough board shelter that bore that name was full to the door. People were even sleeping on the floor. "But there is room in our tent, Mr. Worth," he finished and led the way out of the crowd.

To the surveyor's eager questions the banker answered that Barbara was visiting friends in the Coast city.

When they had reached the tent and Abe had found and lighted a lantern, Mr. Worth said--and his manner was as though he were continuing a conversation that had been interrupted only for a moment--"well, I see you stayed."

At his words the surveyor, who was filling a tin wash-basin with fresh water that his guest might wash away the dust of his journey, felt the hot blood in his cheeks. Before answering he pulled an old cracker-box from under a cot in one corner of the canvas room and, rummaging therein, brought to light a clean towel. When he had placed this evidence of civilization beside the basin on the box that did duty as a wash-stand, he answered: "I quit the Company this afternoon."

"Why?"

"Because I won't do the kind of work the Company wants." The surveyor spoke hotly now. The man busy with the basin of water made no comment, and Abe continued: "Mr. Worth, they are putting in the cheapest possible kind of wooden structures all through the system, even at points where the safety of the whole project depends on the control of the water. The intake itself is nothing but the flimsiest sort of a makeshift. One good flood, such as we have every few years, and there wouldn't be a damned stick of it left in twelve hours. You remember what the grade is from the river at the point of the intake this way into the Basin and you know how water cuts this soil. If that gate goes out the whole river will come through; and these settlers, who are tumbling over each other to put into this country every cent they have in the world, will lose everything."

"The Company takes its chances with the settlers, doesn't it?"

"The Company takes mighty small chances compared to the risk the settlers are carrying. As a matter of fact, Mr. Worth, it is the people who are building this system; not the Company at all. To prove up on these desert claims the government compels them to have the water. They can't use the water without paying the Company for the right. After they have bought the water rights then they must pay for every acre-foot they use. All Greenfield and his bunch did was to put up enough to start the thing going and the people are doing the rest. The Company knows the risk and stakes a comparatively small amount of capital. The settlers know nothing of the real conditions and stake everything they have in the world. If the Company would tell the people the situation it would be square, but you know what would happen if they did that. No one would come in. As it is, the Company, by risking the smallest amount possible, leads the people to risk everything they have and yet the Greenfield crowd stands to win big on the whole stake."

Mr. Worth was drying his slim fingers with careful precision. "I figured that was the way it would be done. That's the way all these big enterprises are launched. The first work is always done on a promoter's estimate. Later, when the business justifies, the system will be strengthened and improved."

"Which means," retorted the surveyor, "that when the Company has taken enough money from the settlers, whom they have induced to stake everything they have on the gamble by letting them think it is a sure thing, they will use a part of it to give the people what they think they are getting now."

The banker laid the towel carefully aside and disposed of the water in the wash-basin by the primitive method of throwing it from the tent door. Then he spoke again: "The people themselves could never start a work like this, and if there wasn't a chance to make a big thing Capital wouldn't. It's the size of the profit compared with the amount invested that draws Capital into this kind of a thing. If the Company had to take all the chance in this project they would simply stay out and the work would never be done. This feature of unequal risk is the very thing, and the only thing, that could attract the money to start this proposition going; and that's what people like you and the Seer and Barbara can't see. Holmes and Burk can't help themselves. It's Greenfield and the Company, and they are just as honest as other men. They are simply promoting this scheme in the only way possible to start it and the people will share the results."

"Holmes and Burk are all right, except that they're owned body and soul by the Company," said Abe quickly. "But Greenfield and the men who engineered this thing look to me like a bunch of green-goods men who live on the confidence of the people."

"The people will gain their farms just the same," returned the financier. "They wouldn't have anything without the Company."

The surveyor shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you may be right, Mr. Worth; but I've had all I can stand of it."

Again Jefferson Worth looked full into the younger man's eyes and Abe felt that Something behind the mask reaching out to seize the thoughts and motives that lay back of his words: "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know. Punch steers or get a job in a mine somewhere, I reckon. I'm going somewhere out of this. I've had enough of promoter's estimates."

"Suppose you stay and work for me."

Abe Lee sprang to his feet. "Work for you? Here? I thought you had refused to go into this deal?"

"I declined to join Greenfield's Company," said the banker exactly.

"Do you mean, Mr. Worth, that you are going to operate in the Basin independently, knowing the Company's strength and the whole situation as you do?"

"I have decided to take a chance with the rest," was the unemotional answer. "I sold out of the bank and cleaned up everything in Rubio City last week."

"But what are you going into here?"

"I can use you if you want to stay," came the cautious answer.

"Stay? Of course I'll stay!"

It was characteristic of these men that nothing was said of salary on either side. Extinguishing the lantern, Abe led the way out into the night. The darkness was intense and unrelieved save by the thin broken line of twinkling lights from the windows of the buildings, which gave them the direction of the main street, and the few dull glowing tent houses, whose tenants were at home. Overhead the desert stars shone with a brilliance that put to shame the feeble efforts of the earth-men, while about the little pioneer town the desert night drew close with its circling wall of mystery.

Did Jefferson Worth think, as he stumbled along by the surveyor's side, of that other night in The Hollow of God's Hand, when he had faced, alone, the spirit of the land?

"This town needs an electric lighting system," he said in his colorless voice.

When Jefferson Worth had finished supper in the shack restaurant he proposed cautiously that they look around a little. The street was lined with teams and saddle horses, their forms shadowy and indistinct in the dark places of vacant lots or where buildings were under construction, but standing forth with startling clearness where the light from a store streamed forth. The sidewalk was filled with men from the ranches and grading camps, who had come to town after sunset for their mail or supplies so that no hour of the day should be lost to the work that had called them into the desert; and these ever-shifting figures passed to and fro through the bands of light and darkness, gathered in groups in front of the stores and dissolved again, to form other groups or to lose themselves in the general throng. Every moment a wagon-load of men, a party of horsemen, or a single rider would appear suddenly and mysteriously out of the night, while others, leaving the throng to depart in like manner, would be swallowed up as mysteriously by the blackness. In the center of the picture and the very heart of the activity was the general store opposite the office of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company.

Deck Jordan had opened his store in the days when Kingston was still a supply camp. No one knew much about Deck or how he had guessed that the camp would become the chief town in the new country. He was a pleasing, capable, but close-mouthed man, who knew what to buy, paid his bills promptly and--with one exception--conducted his business on a cash basis.

The exception to the cash rule was in favor of the Company's employes. It was on Deck's initiative that an arrangement was made with Mr. Burk by which the Company men received credit at the store, the amount of their bills being deducted from their wages each month by the Company paymaster. It was this plan that, by giving Deck practically all of the trade from the hundreds of Company employes, had increased his business so rapidly. To the thoughtful Manager, also, the plan seemed good. He foresaw how, with the Company thus controlling the bulk of the merchant's business, he could, when the proper time came, "persuade" Deck to enter into a still "closer" arrangement--thus carrying out the Good Business policy of the Company. That very afternoon Mr. Burk had decided the time had come and had so written Mr. Greenfield.

Leisurely Jefferson Worth and his companion worked their way through the crowd and into the store where Deck and his helpers were toiling to supply the various needs of a small army of customers. From the open doors and from the big implement shed in the rear of the building, a steady stream of provisions, clothing, dry goods, hardware, blankets, harness and tools flowed forth.

In the midst of the confusion Deck himself was holding an animated conversation with a would-be purchaser. "I'd be mighty glad to accommodate you, Sam, if I could, but you know we're running this store on a cash basis and I can't break my rules. If I begin with you I'll have to do it for everybody and I can't."

"You don't make these Company men pay cash. Anybody--Injuns, greasers or anything else--gets what he wants and no questions asked if he works for the Company."

"But that's different, you see," explained Deck. "We have an arrangement with the Company by which they hold out from each man's pay the amount of my bills against him."

"I understand that, but you'll find out that it's the rancher's trade that'll keep you going. We'll be here long after these ditchers an' mule skinners have left the country and we'll have money to spend. You'll find, too, that when things do begin to come our way we'll stand by the store that'll stand by us now when we've got everything goin' out an' nothin' comin' in."

Deck, over the shoulder of the rancher, saw Jefferson Worth and the surveyor, who with several others had drawn near, attracted by the loud tones of the farmer. Abe thought that he caught a look of recognition as Deck's eyes fell on his companion but the banker gave no sign.

The merchant, answering his customer, said: "I know you are right about that part of it, Sam, and I'd like to back every rancher in this Basin if I could. But I can't."

"Why not? Ain't you runnin' this store?"

Before Deck could reply, to Abe's astonishment the quiet voice of Jefferson Worth broke in. "You are improving a ranch of your own near here?"

The settler turned sharply. "You bet I am, Mister; leastwise, I'm tryin' to, and if workin' from sun-up 'til dark an' livin' on nothin' til I can make a crop will pull me through I'll make it."

"I suppose the heaviest expense is all in getting started?" asked Mr. Worth, as if seeking to verify an observation.

"It sure is," replied the pioneer. "There's the outfit you've got to have--work-stock an' tools; you've got to build your ditches and grade your land; and you've got to buy water rights and pay for your water; and you've got to make your payments to the government. Then there's feed for your work-stock and yourself, an' there ain't nothin' to bring in a cent 'til you can make a crop. The farmers that are comin' into this country ain't got a great big pile of ready money stacked away, Mister, an' they're mighty apt to run a little short the first year. When our home merchants, who expect to make their money off from us, won't even trust us for a few dollars' worth of provisions 'til we can get a start, I'm damned if it ain't tough."

"But everyone is a stranger in this new country," said Mr. Worth. "How can a merchant know whether a man will pay or not? I suppose there are ranchers coming in here who would beat a bill if they could. The merchants have to pay for their goods or close up."

"I reckon that's all so," returned the other. "And of course everybody knows that there never was such a thing as dishonest store-keepers. Merchants don't never beat anybody with short weight and all that?"

This raised a laugh in which Deck joined as heartily as anyone. Even the banker smiled coldly as he asked: "What did you say your name was?"

"Didn't say; but it's Sam Warren."

"Where is your ranch?"

"Six miles north on the Number One main."

"Well, Mr. Warren, I've been considering this proposition and I've got it figured out like this. We all want to make what we can in this new country; that's what we came in for. This store can't get along without the ranchers' support and you ranchers can't get along without the store. We've all got to pull together and help each other. I don't believe that many of the men who come into this Desert to actually settle on and improve the land are the kind of men who beat their bills. I figured to run on a cash basis only until things got started and sort of settled down, you see. I know that you people need credit until you get on your feet. From now on you come here--for whatever you actually need, you understand--and we'll carry you for any reasonable amount until you get something coming in. All we ask in return is that you ranchers do as you say and stand by us when you do get on top."

At Jefferson Worth's simple and quietly spoken words a hush fell over the group of men. Abe Lee looked at his companion in amazement. Sam Warren turned from the stranger to the store-keeper and back to the stranger. The man behind the counter was smiling broadly as if enjoying the situation.

When no one could find a word with which to break the silence, Deck Jordan said: "Gentlemen, this is Mr. Jefferson Worth, the owner of this store. George!" he called to a passing clerk, "give Sam whatever he wants as soon as you can get around to it, and charge it."

At this such a yell went up from the bystanders that a crowd from the outside rushed in, and as the word passed and others voiced their approval as loudly, the Manager of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company in his rooms across the street thought that another fight was on.

The Manager was not far wrong in his conclusion.