The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XIV. Much Confusion and Happy Excitement.
As the trying months of the semi-tropical summer approached, the great Desert, so awful in its fierce desolation, so pregnant with the life it was still so reluctant to yield, gathered all its dreadful forces to withstand the inflowing streams of human energy. In the fierce winds that rushed through the mountain passes and swept across the hot plains like a torrid furnace blast; in the blinding, stinging, choking, smothering dust that moved in golden clouds from rim to rim of the Basin; in the blazing, scorching strength of the sun; in the hard, hot sky, without shred or raveling of cloud; in the creeping, silent, poison life of insect and reptile; in the maddening dryness of the thirsty vegetation; in the weird, beautiful falseness of the ever-changing mirage, the spirit of the Desert issued its silent challenge.
It was not the majestic challenge of the mountains with their unsealed heights of peak and dome and impassable barriers of rugged crag and sheer cliff. It was not the glad challenge of the untamed wilderness with its myriad formed life of tree and plant and glen and stream. It was not the noble challenge of the wide-sweeping, pathless plains; nor the wild challenge of the restless, storm- driven sea. It was the silent, sinister, menacing threat of a desolation that had conquered by cruel waiting and that lay in wait still to conquer.
With grim determination, nervous energy, enduring strength and a dogged tenacity of purpose, the invading flood of humanity, irresistibly driven by that master passion, Good Business, matched its strength against that of the Desert in the season of its greatest power.
Steadily mile by mile, acre by acre, and at times almost foot by foot, the pioneers wrested their future farms and homes from the dreadful forces that had held them for ages. Steadily, with the inflowing stream of life from the world beyond the Basin's rim, the area of improved lands about Kingston extended and the work in the Company's town went on. By midsummer many acres of alfalfa, with Egyptian corn and other grains, showed broad fields of living green cut into the dull, dun plain of the Desert and laced with silver threads of water shining in the sun.
Save for occasional brief business trips to the city, Jefferson Worth did not leave Kingston. In the most trying of those grilling days of heat and dust, when a man's skin felt like cracking parchment and his eyes burned in their sockets and it seemed as though every particle of moisture in his body was sucked up by the dry, scorching air, Barbara's father gave no sign of discomfort. He accepted the most nerve-racking situation with the even-tempered calmness of one who had foreseen it and to whom it was but a trivial incident, inevitable to his far-reaching plans. When others--their tempers tried to the breaking point--cursed with dry, high-pitched, querulous curses the heat, the land, the sun, the dust, the Company and their fellow-sufferers, Jefferson Worth's cool, even tones and unruffled spirit helped them to a needed self-control and gave them a new and stronger grip on things. And many a baffled, discouraged and well-nigh beaten settler, ready to give up, found in the man whose gray, mask-like face seemed so incapable of expression, fresh inspiration and new courage; while the store continued its policy of helping the worthy, hard-pressed ranchers with necessary material assistance.
And so it was that while James Greenfield and his fellow-capitalists of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company were taking their much needed vacations and seeking relaxation and rest from business cares at their seaside and mountain retreats, the desert pioneers were coming more and more to Jefferson Worth for advice and counsel, for strength and courage and help to go on with the work. By fall the financier's position in the life of the new country seemed to be securely won. Perhaps only Jefferson Worth himself, alone behind his gray mask, knew the real value of his apparent victory.
The Company's thoughtful Manager went out--as the pioneers had come to say of those who left the Basin--for over a month, and for the rest of the summer spent only a part of his time in Kingston. But the Company's chief engineer refused to leave even for a week. To a pressing invitation from Greenfield to join him on his vacation, Holmes answered that he could not get away. All through the June rise of the river, while the settlers, ignorant of the danger that threatened them through the Good Business policy of the Company, were risking everything that Capital might gain its greater profits, the engineer lived in his camp at the intake. Day and night, as he watched the swelling yellow torrent that threw its weight against his work, he remembered the words of the desert-bred surveyor: "When the Gila and the Little Colorado go on the warpath and come down on top of a high Colorado flood, you'll catch hell." It had come in the past, Abe had declared, and it would come again.
But the flood waters of the Gila and the Little Colorado did not come down on top of the larger river that year and the promoter's estimate work stood. When the danger was past and the engineer was free again to make Kingston his headquarters, his acquaintance with Jefferson Worth grew into something like friendship. It became, indeed, an established custom for Mr. Worth, Abe Lee and the chief engineer of the Company to sit at the same table in the shack restaurant and, during their meals of canned stuff, to talk over the work that held them from the comforts and pleasures of civilization.
But little work toward extending the Company system could be undertaken during the hot summer months. It was difficult for Holmes to hold even enough men to maintain that which was already in operation. But Jefferson Worth did not fare so badly. Abe Lee was steadfast, of course, while Texas, Pat and Pablo would, as the Irishman said, "have fried thimsilves on the coals av hell" before they would quit their job. Were there not letters every week from Barbara with messages to the surveyor and his three helpers? Pablo said truly that "there was no Senorita in the Company." So through Abe's leadership, Texas Joe's diplomacy, Pat's wisdom and Pablo's influence with his countrymen, the Worth enterprises did not suffer for lack of laborers but went steadily ahead.
In Kingston the different buildings for the power plant and lighting system were nearly completed and several cottages were under construction on lots owned by Jefferson Worth, while men and teams were busy excavating and hauling materials for a large ice plant. In Frontera, a little town that "just happened" to grow from a supply camp in the southern end of the Basin, a hotel and a bank building were being erected, while between the two communities poles for a telephone system were being placed.
Thus far very few women had come into the desert. When the torrid summer was past, the first crops on the new ranches harvested and more comfortable homes prepared, they would come with the children to join the men-folks. Until then the new country would continue a man's country--the poorest possible kind of a country, the men themselves declared.
Therefore when, late in September, The King's Basin Messenger, with an extraordinary blare of trumpets, announced the birth of a child and that the first-born of the new country was a boy, the news was received with the greatest excitement. In Kingston, in Frontera, at grading camps and ranches, as the word was passed, there were wild and joyous celebrations. Such a crowd of male visitors closed in on the humble tent home to beg for a look at the little pink stranger that the matter-of-fact pioneer parents were heard to express the wish that they themselves had never been born. Had the baby been forced to carry through life all the names that were suggested he would undoubtedly have echoed the parents' wish at an early age.
Then came the terrible word to Kingston, brought by Texas Joe, that the baby was ill. Tex, returning to town from a trip to Frontera, had turned a mile aside to bring the latest news of the baby. It was early evening and the light yet lingered in the sky back of No Man's Mountains, when the citizens, relaxing after the heat of the day and the evening meal, looked up to see him coming, riding like a mad man, his horse white with foam.
Jefferson Worth, with Abe and Holmes coming from the restaurant, had paused a moment in front of the store before separating when Texas leaped from his staggering mount. One thought flashed into the mind of each: "The intake! The river!" Holmes went white under his tan; Abe's jaws came together with a click; Jefferson Worth's slim fingers caressed his chin.
As the word passed quickly through the town, the crowd that followed Mr. Worth and Texas Joe into the store grew until it over-flowed the building and filled the street. Over all there was a solemn hush, save for low-spoken words of inquiry, or explanation, and of advice. What to do was the question. What could they do? There was no doctor nearer than Rubio City and men who pioneer in a desert land are not men experienced with sickness.
On a high shelf in one back corner of the store there was a small dust-covered stock of assorted patent medicines. Desperately they pulled the bottles down and studied the labels and directions, but only to their further confusion and doubt. At last, his pockets laden with everything that seemed to promise a possible relief, Texas Joe set out on a fresh horse, the first one handy, to be followed later by a spring wagon drawn by four fast broncos and carrying four women. The entire female population of Kingston had been mustered by Abe Lee, whom the ladies declared then and there to be the only man of sense in all The King's Basin.
For the first evening since his arrival Jefferson Worth left his office in the store to mingle with the restless crowds on the street that, in ever-changing knots and groups, discussed in fearful voice this public calamity. No one dreamed of retiring. No one had thoughts for sleep, nor indeed for anything save the little sufferer in the tent house ten miles out on the Desert. They smoked and talked and swore softly in hushed tones and waited the return of Texas Joe.
It was after midnight when he came again. Before he could dismount, the crowd of silent men hemmed him in. From the saddle the old plainsman looked down into their eager solemn faces and that slow smile broke over his sun-blackened features.
"Boys" he drawled, "I'm sure proud to bring you-all the unanimous verdict of the female relief expedition sent out by our illustrious fellow-citizen, Abe Lee. The kid's better and is headed straight for good health and six or eight square meals a day."
When the joyous chorus of yells that would have startled a coyote two miles away subsided, Tex dismounted and approached Jefferson Worth. "Mr. Worth, them women commanded me also to return to you with their compliments and gratitude the various and sundry bottles with which same my clothes is full. One of them angels of mercy, it seems, went to the scene of action loaded with a flask of castor oil."
Just before retiring that night Mr. Worth said to his superintendent: "Abe, I'm going out in the morning. You had better push the work on that largest cottage as fast as possible. I'll ship in an outfit of furniture and things as soon as I get to the city. Let me know when the house is finished and the goods arrive. You can stack the furniture up on the porches or anywhere until I get back. The hot weather is about over and the hotel will open up next week."
"All right, sir," the surveyor answered quietly and made no comment on this unexpected move of his employer, though his nerves tingled at the evident purpose of his instructions. Abe Lee could not know how the events of the evening had awakened in Jefferson Worth memories of another baby in the desert-memories that stirred the child-hungry heart of the lonely man and drove him to his daughter without an hour's delay.
Did Abe Lee push the work on the house? Did he? Every man in Jefferson Worth's employ, who could find a place to lay his hand on the building, was put on the job. By the time the house was finished the furniture had arrived.
It was quitting time and Pablo, who with four Mexican laborers had been at work grading the yard and removing the rubbish that had accumulated incident to building, dismissed his helpers. The surveyor was gloomily contemplating the pile of boxes, bales and crates on the front porch. Evidently there was something not to the surveyor's liking.
The surveyor turned sharply to face the Mexican, whose dark features were glowing with pleasure. "Well?"
"Pardon, but Senor Lee seems not pleased. Is not the work well done?"
"The work is all right, Pablo. You have done well. It is not that. I was wishing I had nerve enough to tackle another job."
The Mexican smiled. "Oh, Senor, you make fun. What can not El Senor do? He can do everything."
"There is a job here all right I don't sabe, Pablo." Abe turned again to the pile of household goods.
"Si Senor, me sabe. It is that La Senorita come pronto an' Senor Lee would have the house what you call ready."
Abe started at the tone of quiet conviction. "How the devil do you know that La Senorita is coming?" he asked sharply.
The answer came with a flash of white teeth: "For what else does El Senor hurry so the house? For what else does he all time cry-- 'Pronto! pronto!' and go not much to the other work but stay all time here? And is there not all this--" He waved his hand gracefully to indicate the household goods. "For who should it be that Senor Lee is hurry so? When Texas Joe come say--'Senor Worth is here,' I think quick some time La Senorita come. I work for Senor Worth, as La Senorita send word, that I may be near. All time I work I say-- 'It is for La Senorita.' Pretty quick now she come and with Senor Lee will be happy to live in the house he make."
A deeper red than the desert color stained the surveyor's thin cheeks as he said: "You're a good hombre, Pablo, but you're away off on part of what you say. I reckon you're right enough that Miss Worth is coming, but she will live here with her father just as they did in Rubio City. And listen, Pablo. You must never say to anyone what you have said to me. You sabe, Pablo? I am with La Senorita as you are, and Tex and Pat; sabe?"
"Si, Senor; forgive me; I am sorry. But sometime it will be if El Senor is patient."
The surveyor, annoyed at the Mexican's talk, but unwilling, because of the spirit that prompted the words, to speak sharply, sought to dismiss the matter by changing the subject. He explained to Pablo how he was wishing that he could unpack the furniture and have the house all ready when Mr. Worth and Barbara arrived.
"Why not?" asked the Mexican.
Abe shook his head. "It's out of my line. I don't sabe the job, Pablo."
"Maybe so Tex and Pat, they would sabe."
"By George, I believe Pat would. Texas wouldn't be any better than I, but Pat ought to know something about such things. You go tell them I want them at the office to-night. Pat was at the power house to-day and Texas will be coming in from the line early."
"Si, Senor. And Senor Lee! La Senorita will want a horse."
"Hell, I forgot that!"
Pablo smiled. "I know where is good one--a beautiful horse, Senor. Long time I watch him and think some day he be for La Senorita when she come. The man will sell for enough. Shall I go to-morrow?"
"Yes, get him. Tell the man it is for me and that I will pay. No"-- he corrected himself--"tell him it is for Senor Worth and that he will pay. Sabe? You must not speak of me."
"Si, Senor; it shall be as you say. To-morrow night I return."
That evening at the office in the rear of the store Abe laid the situation before Pat and Texas Joe. Could the three undertake to have the furniture unpacked and the house properly settled? The hotel had been opened to receive guests, of course, but--
Texas Joe shook his head solemnly. "I pass, Abe. There ain't no use in my affirmin' that I knows anything about such undertakings. Household furnishin' such as is proper in a case like this is a long way off my range."
But the Irishman waxed indignant. "Sich ignorance as ye two do be showin' is heathenish," he declared. "I suppose now ye wud be for puttin' the cook stove in the parlor an' settin' up the piany in the young lady's budwar."
The strange word caught the attention of Texas instantly. "An' what might that be, pard?" he drawled. "What's a budwar?"
Pat snorted. "Budwar, ye ignorant owld limb, is polite for the girl's bedroom, which in civilization is not discussed by thim as has manners."
Such overwhelming evidence of the Irishman's familiarity with the best social customs was not to be rejected. The morning stage carried a telegram to be sent from Deep Well to Jefferson Worth, and all that day the three toiled under command of Pat. When the evening stage brought a message from Mr. Worth saying that he and Barbara would arrive the following evening, they decided that a night shift was necessary and worked until nearly morning, redoubling their efforts the following day.
When the dusty old stage with its four half-broken horses pulled into Kingston that night, three tired and anxious, but joyful, desert men occupied the front rank of the waiting crowd before the new hotel.
With all the grace of generous curves and ponderous dignity, Horace P. Blanton was first to alight. When he turned his broad back to the "common herd" and, with an indescribable air of proprietorship, assisted Miss Worth to the ground, three darkened faces scowled with disapproval and three smothered oaths expressed deep disgust.
The excited citizens behind the three crowded closer. Even Ynez, climbing down from the stage, was received with another cheer by the delighted men. The irrepressible Horace P., quick to recognize the spirit of the company and ever ready to do more than his part, burst into an eloquent address of welcome in behalf of the entire population of The King's Basin. But the ceremony was interrupted and the imposing personage in the white vest was thrust roughly aside while Barbara, with glad eyes and hands outstretched, greeted the rude disturbers of the great man's dignity.
"Texas! Pat! Mr. Lee! Oh, I'm glad! I have been hoping all day that you would be here to meet me. It seemed to me that I would never get here. It has been the longest day of my life." Which, considering that the impressive attentions of Horace P. Blanton had been continuous since the moment when he had forced an introduction from Mr. Worth on the train that morning, was rather hard on his majesty.
But much experience in similar situations had made Horace P. Blanton immune to such thrusts. Even while Barbara was speaking he regained his place at her side. With his voice and manner of a "personal conductor"--before either of the three could speak--he followed her words with: "Ah, Miss Worth, I see you already know some of our men. Texas, Pat and Abe here are three of the best fellows we have. They--"
Again he was interrupted. The young woman turned easily aside to Abe, and Horace P. found himself very close to and facing the tall plainsman and the heavy shouldered Irish boss.
"Excuse me, Colonel," drawled Texas in tones so soft that no one in the noisy crowd could hear; "but the welfare of the citizens of this here community, as well as the safety of the country, demands your immediate presence up the street."
Without hesitation the lordly one exclaimed: "Ah, thank you, Tex. Miss Worth will excuse me I'm sure. Please explain my absence to her." Then before their startled eyes he faded away--if the vanishing of such a bulk can be so described.
A few minutes after the passing of Horace P. Blanton, Tex and Pat also disappeared, for it was part of the carefully arranged plot that Barbara's "uncles" were to see to the disposal of the girl's trunks while she was at supper at the hotel with her father and Abe.
At the table Barbara was all eagerness in her desire to know everything about the work; and the surveyor, in answering her questions, found himself drawn out of the dumbness that usually beset him in such situations.
"And our house?" asked the girl. "When can I begin settling? You see I brought Ynez with me. Can we begin in the morning, Abe? And could you spare Pat and Tex to help us?"
Abe glanced at his employer. "If you would like to see the house we can look at it this evening after supper."
"Can we? Can we go, daddy?"
Jefferson Worth met Abe's look with a twinkle in the corner of his eye, but he only answered his eager daughter with a calm, "If you like."
They found the house with every window brilliantly lighted, and on the front porch, on opposite sides of the wide-open door, Texas and Pat standing to welcome them. From one room to another Barbara ran in laughing delight, followed by the three, who were perspiring in an agony of suspense while Jefferson Worth looked on. The cook stove was not in the parlor, nor was the piano--out of place. In the proper room Barbara even found her trunks. There was a supply of provisions in the pantry and kindlings even ready by the kitchen stove for the morning fire. If there were little irregularities here and there, Barbara, with graceful tact, did not see them but, to the delight of the three men, declared again and again that no woman could have done it better.
The climax came when she said that unless her father insisted she would not even return to the hotel that evening. Could not someone go for the hand luggage and Ynez? Breathless the three waited, and when Mr. Worth said he saw no reason why they should leave their own home for a hotel Tex and Pat could hold themselves no longer but made a wild run for the door.
When Barbara's "uncles" had returned with the Indian woman and the grips, Pat stood in the center of the living room and looked curiously about, an expression of wonder upon his battle-scarred Irish countenance. "Now don't that bate the divil! Tell me"--he faced the girl with mock severity--"fwhat's this ye've been doin' already?"
"Doing?" exclaimed Barbara, "I haven't been doing anything, Uncle Pat."
"Aw, go on, don't be tellin' me that. Aven Uncle Tex here can see that ye've changed ivery blissid thing in the place. 'Tis not the same, at all, an' afther us a-workin' our fingers to the bone to fix ut up. 'Tis quare. I know now that Tex hung that curtain there. Ye could have heard him swearin' a mile away, but ut's not that same curtain at all, at all. 'Tis mighty quare."
For an hour or more Barbara, at the piano, sang for them the simple songs they loved, while many a tired horseman, riding past on his way to his lonely desert shack or to some rough camp on the works, paused to listen to the sweet voice and to dream perhaps of the time that was to come when such sounds would no longer seem strange on the Desert.
When the hour came for Texas and Pat and Abe to go, and Barbara with shining eyes tried again to express her gratitude while insisting that they must always come to her home as to their own, the three felt that indeed they had their reward. And when later the girl kissed her father good night Jefferson Worth also knew in his lonely heart that he had done well.