Chapter XV. Barbara Comes into Her Own.
 

Jefferson Worth and his daughter had just finished their first breakfast in the new home when their Indian servant woman entered the room.

"What is it, Ynez?" asked Barbara, seeing that the woman wished to speak.

Ynez's black eyes were shining and her voice was eager as she answered: "There is someone without waiting for La Senorita."

"Someone waiting outside for me, Ynez?"

"Who is it?" asked Mr. Worth.

"It is Pablo Garcia, Senor, and he say please ask La Senorita to come. If La Senorita will go only to the door she can see."

With an expression of excited interest Barbara, followed by her father, went out on the porch. In front of the house stood Pablo holding a beautiful saddle horse fully equipped and ready for a rider. The Mexican's dark face shone with the pride and triumph of the moment toward which he had looked forward for months. The horse, too, as if sensing the importance of the occasion, pawed the earth with his dainty hoofs, arched his neck and tossed his head--proudly impatient.

Uttering low exclamations and little cries of delight the girl left the porch and ran forward, greeting Pablo and moving about the horse, admiring the animal from every point of view. "What a beauty! He is perfect, Pablo; perfect! Where did you find him? Is he yours? What's his name?" Her questions came tumbling from her lips in such eager bursts that Pablo answered only the last.

"He is yours, Senorita. His name El Capitan."

"Mine?" Barbara turned to her father, who explained, Abe having told him the night before of the purchase.

When her father finished, the delighted girl announced that she "simply couldn't wait" but must go for a ride immediately. Running into the house she returned a few minutes later in her riding dress and, mounting with--"I'll be back for dinner, daddy," and "Adios, Pablo!"--rode away toward the open country, while the Mexican and the banker watched her out of sight.

By the time they had passed the last of the tent houses in the town Barbara and El Capitan were friends. There is no doubt whatever that a worthy horse appreciates a worthy rider and the girl, accustomed to riding since childhood, certainly appreciated her mount.

"Oh, you beauty!" she cried, leaning forward in the saddle to pat the shining neck. "Oh, you beauty!"

As though to return the compliment and express his pleasure at finding such an agreeable companion, El Capitan turned his delicate pointed ears forward, arched his neck, and, stepping as on a velvet carpet, sprang lightly to the other side of the road in sheer overflow of good spirits and confidence in his rider, while the girl, at his play, laughed aloud.

But Barbara had eyes and thoughts for more than her horse that morning. It was her first day in "her Desert" and there was much for her to see. Through her father she had kept in close touch with every phase of the work of reclaiming The King's Basin and had often begged him to take her with him into the new country. Now at last her wish was realized. She was where she could see with her own eyes the Seer's dream--the Seer's and her own--coming true.

On either hand as she rode, stretching away until all fixed lines and objects were lost in the shifting mirage and many-colored lights of the desert, the dun plain with its thin growth of thirsty vegetation was broken by the green cultivated fields, newly leveled acres, buildings and stacks of the ranches, with canals, ditches and ponds filled with water that reflected the colors of the morning. Everywhere, in what had been a land of death, life was stirring. In one field beside the road a herd of soft-eyed cattle, knee-deep in rich alfalfa, lifted their heads to greet her. In another a band of horses and colts scampered along with her as far as their fence would permit, as if good-naturedly seeking her further acquaintance. Everywhere men with their teams were at work in the fields newly won from the desert. At one house a woman was hanging her weekly wash on the line, while a group of children played in the yard. As the girl passed the woman waved her hand and the children shouted a greeting. And a little farther on a meadow-lark, perched on a fence-post, filled the world with liquid music.

The wine-like atmosphere, the glorious light, the odor of the fields and the strength and beauty of the life new-born in the desert, with the spirit and freedom of the animal she rode, all appealed with almost painful intensity to the girl who was herself so richly alive. She felt her close kinship with it all and answered to it all out of the fullness of her own young woman's strength. She wanted to cry aloud with the joy and gladness of the victory over barrenness and desolation. It was her Desert that was yielding itself to the strong ones; for them it had waited--waited through the ages, and at last they had come.

Busy with her thoughts, Barbara rode on until she had passed out of the settled district of which Kingston was the center and found herself in the desert. Save for the lightly marked trail she was following and the thin line of her father's telephone poles that led southward to Frontera, she saw no sign of a human being. Checking her horse and turning, she looked back. A tiny spot of thin color-- the red of brick, the yellow of new lumber and the white of tents-- marked Kingston. The ranches about the desert town were scattered spots of green scarcely seen at that distance. All the rest, from the distant snow-capped sentinels of the Pass in the north to Lone Mountain in the south and from the purple mountain wall on the west to the sky-line of the Mesa on the east, was the same dun plain as she had always known it.

Barbara caught her breath. Seen near at hand the work accomplished had seemed so great, so brave; seen from even so short a distance as she had come, it looked so pitifully small, so helpless. The desert was so huge, so masterful, so dominating in its silent grandeur, in its awful loneliness. All her life Barbara had seen the desert from her home in Rubio City. Many, many times she had ridden into it and back a day's ride. But never had she felt the dreadful spirit of the land as she felt it now, alone in the still, lonely heart of it. She was afraid with an unreasoning fear.

El Capitan, too, seemed to share her uneasiness. Tossing his head, tugging at the bridle reins and pawing the ground and starting nervously, he turned this way and that, signifying his desire to be away. But just as Barbara, on the point of yielding to his impatience and her own feeling of fear, lifted the reins to turn toward Kingston again, he threw up his head with a loud neigh and with ears pointed looked away toward the south, standing rigid and motionless as a horse of stone. A cloud of dust rising from the trail told her that someone was approaching. Instantly the girl's feeling of fear vanished. She laughed aloud.

"Company is coming, Capitan," she said. "Shall we wait until we see who it is? We can easily run away if we don't like his looks."

As she finished speaking, the light wind that was just strong enough to carry the dust with the coming rider shifted for a moment and revealed the horseman clearly. Barbara, not wishing to appear as though waiting, started ahead toward Kingston, while the stranger, evidently catching sight of a horse and rider on the road ahead and desiring company, quickened his pace.

Barbara glanced over her shoulder. "Shall we run, Capitan? No, we'll not run yet. But be ready." Again she glanced quickly back. "It's no one we know, Capitan. Be ready."

Nearer and nearer came the stranger.

When she heard the sound of his horse's feet on the sand Barbara turned again, this time openly. Then she laughed. "I don't think we'll run this time, Capitan."

A moment later the horseman had overtaken her.

"Good morning, Mr. Holmes. How do you do?"

"Miss Worth!"

Had the engineer checked his horse so suddenly a few months before he would undoubtedly have gone over the animal's head. El Capitan also stopped, while the man and the girl sat looking at each other, Barbara smiling at the man's surprise.

"Is it really you?" asked Holmes at last, "or is it some new trick of this confounded desert?" He rubbed his eyes. "I never saw a mirage like this before and I don't think the heat has affected my brain." He moved his horse closer. "Could you shake hands?"

Barbara held out her hand. "I assure you that I am very substantial," she laughed, "and I am here to stay, too."

"That's great! By George! it's good to see you," cried Holmes so heartily that the girl turned away her face and caused her horse to move ahead.

The engineer's horse, with a word from his rider, kept his place by El Capitan's side.

"It's very nice of you to say that but I didn't see you anywhere around last night when the stage arrived. Abe and Pat and Texas were there and this morning even Pablo came the first thing after breakfast."

Willard Holmes could not altogether hide his pleasure at her hinted rebuke. So she had thought of him--had looked for him--had missed him. "Indeed, you must forgive me. I did not know you were coming," he said and explained how his work took him away from Kingston much of the time.

"Of course, under those circumstances, I must forgive you," agreed Barbara, then added seriously: "I think I could forgive anyone who belonged to this desert work, anything, except one."

"And that?" He was watching her face. "What is it that you could not forgive?"

She returned his look steadily. "Don't you know?"

He drew a little back and she wondered at something in his voice and manner as he answered: "Yes, I know. You could never forgive one for being untrue to his work--for putting anything before the work itself."

"Yes," she returned, "that is it. I could never forgive one who did that."

"But how would you know? How could you judge?" he asked almost roughly. "Perhaps the very one whom you would call false to the work would, in reality, be doing the best thing for the work. I have noticed that, after all, those who have the loftiest ideals and the highest visions of man's duty to man and all that are seldom the ones who accomplish much of the actual work of the world. Look here, honestly now: how many of the people who are reclaiming this desert --I mean all of us--laborers, business men, ranchers, everybody who has come in here to do this work--how many of them do you think see a single thing beyond the dollars they have hoped to make on the venture? Whether it's the high wage paid by the Company, the big profits of the business man or the heavier crop of the rancher, it amounts to the same. And yet you would insist that they must not be governed by this desire for gain. So far as I can see, it is this same desire for gain that has driven men into doing every really great thing that has ever been done. Look carefully into every great enterprise that is of value to the world and you will find at the beginning of it someone reaching for a dollar or its equivalent. Your father, for instance--"

Barbara threw out her hand protestingly. "Please don't, Mr. Holmes. I know that what you say is every bit true. Father and I have gone over it so many times. And yet I know, I know that what I feel is true also. Oh, dear! what a muddle it is, isn't it? It seems so wrong to spend one's life working for nothing but money. And yet all the really good work in the world is done by those who don't work to do good at all but for what they get out of it. I suppose now that you stayed in the Desert all this past summer and worked so hard without any vacation at all just for your salary."

"How did you know that I took no vacation?"

"Father told me. You seem to have made quite an impression on my father. He has told me a great deal about you. But I want to know-- did you stay in the desert for money?"

Holmes wondered if she knew the danger that threatened the settlers because of the unsubstantial character of the Company's structures. "Perhaps," he said, "it was to save my professional reputation. That would amount to the same thing, wouldn't it?"

Barbara laughed. "I don't think that your taking a vacation would have lost you your reputation. That won't do, Mr. Chief Engineer." For some reason Barbara seemed highly pleased at the turn the conversation had taken.

The man thought of those anxious days and nights at the intake, when the safety of the success of the whole King's Basin project hung on the whim of an uncertain river, but he did not explain to Barbara nor did he tell her that a vacation would have made no difference in his salary.

"I'll tell you why you stayed with the work in the Desert this summer, Mr. Holmes," she said, and in her voice was a note of pleased triumph.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because you are learning the language of the country."

For an instant he was puzzled. Then he remembered the evening he had said good-by. "Si, Senorita. I suppose one could not help learning a little in La Palma de la Mano de Dios, could he?"

"Not if he had ancestors," came the answer.

Holmes flushed. "What a snob I must have seemed to you that day," he said in deep disgust at the recollection of his first attempt to impress the western girl with the importance of his place in life.

"I don't think snob is just the word," she answered. "I didn't mind that ancestor business and all that one bit. In fact I think I rather enjoyed it. You were such a tenderfoot! But there was something else I did mind. Did you know that there was a time when I hated you with my whole heart?"

"Miss Worth!"

"It's so. I even promised myself that I would never speak to you again--never! Then I came after awhile to understand how foolish it was of me to blame you and father told me so much of your work here this summer that I became heartily ashamed of myself. I'm telling you now because, you see, I have come here to stay and to be, in a way, a tiny little part in this great work you are doing, and I feel that I ought to tell you so that we can start square again."

"But, Miss Worth, what in the world are you talking about?"

"I know it was foolish of me for you were not at all to blame. But I couldn't help it. It is all over though and we are square now--or will be when you have said that you forgive me."

"But I don't know what you mean. What on earth did I do?"

She looked straight at him. "Can't you even guess?"

"I haven't the ghost of an idea."

"Well, I'm glad you haven't," she declared, "even if it does make me appear so foolish. It was because the Seer was discharged and you were put in his place."

"But I--"

"Oh, I know all about it," she interrupted. "You didn't do it. You were not to blame. The Company did it because it was Good Business. I told you it was all over now. But please, I don't think we'd better talk about it only just for you to say that you forgive me. I had to tell you for that, you see."

Then the once carefully proper Willard Holmes did a thing that would have astonished his most intimate eastern friends beyond expression. Reining his horse close to El Capitan he held out his hand to Barbara.

"Shake, pard! You're the squarest girl I ever knew."

It was no flimsy, two-fingered ceremony, but a whole-hearted, whole- handed grip that made the man's blood move more quickly. Unconsciously, as he felt the warm strength in the touch of the girl's hand, he leaned toward her with quick eagerness. And Barbara, who was looking straight into his face with the open frankness of one man to another, started and drew back a little, turning her head aside.

For some distance they rode in silence, then she began questioning him about his life in the desert and all the rest of the way home made him talk of the work so dear to her heart. As he talked and the girl watched his strong bronzed face and listened to his words, she found something in his voice and manner that was not there that day when she introduced him to "her Desert." There was a self-reliance, an enthusiasm, a purpose that was good to hear.

At the door of her new home when he, pleading his work, would not stay for lunch but promised to call in the evening, she bade him "Adios" in the soft tongue of the Southland and when he had wheeled his horse and was riding away, Barbara turned on the porch to look after him. Watching the khaki clad figure that was so easily at home in the saddle and that, with the loping horse, seemed so much a part of the country, the girl wondered at the change that was being wrought by the wild land upon the man from the eastern city.

"Indeed," she thought, "he is learning the language of the desert!" And she, too, was glad.

When Holmes arrived at the Company headquarters the General Manager shifted his cigar to the corner of his mouth and cocked his head to one side, looking him over critically.

"Buenas dias, Senor," cried the engineer gaily, throwing his sombrero, quirt and gloves on the floor and helping himself from the box of cigars on the desk. Holmes was still thinking in the language of Barbara's land.

"Humph!" grunted the slender man at the desk, "I said 'hello' to you when you passed the office, also I bowed my best New York bow, but you were too engaged to see. Were you practicing your greaser lingo on her? I suppose she talks it like a native."

"She talks a language you would not understand, my friend," said Holmes coolly, lighting a cigar.

"Probably not," agreed the other. "Who am I that I should understand the words of a being of such exalted rank? The whole fool town is crazy over her already. I've heard nothing but Miss Worth, Miss Worth, all morning. You would think the hotel was a ladies' sewing circle. Every man on the street is wearing his Sunday clothes and walks with his head twisted over his shoulder for fear he will miss a glimpse of her. Horace P. Blanton is the man of the hour. He came in with her last night and is arranging a public reception, talking like the business manager of a Greek goddess. And now here you go riding down the street with her, so interested that you can't even see me. Permit me to congratulate you. You certainly have lost no time."

Holmes scowled. "That fellow Blanton is an officious ass," he growled, "and you"--he checked himself.

"Go on; go on!" cried the delighted Burk. "Don't spare me. In the name of the goddess, smite!"

The engineer laughed in spite of himself, though he spoke sharply. "Cut it out, Burk. I met Miss Worth in Rubio City when I landed fresh from New York. She's a mighty charming girl, whom you'll be as glad as anybody to know. She was riding over in the West District this morning and I overtook her on my way in. Of course we came on together. Have you heard from Uncle Jim?"

The Manager dropped his bantering tone instantly and taking an open letter from his desk, scanned it thoughtfully as he answered: "He'll be here Saturday. He's not at all pleased, Holmes, with my report on the Worth operations. Our friend Jeff's getting altogether too strong a grip on things. It beats all the way he hops into a game and draws all the high cards before you know he is on the other side of the table."

The thoughtful Manager of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company was evidently worried. Holmes made no reply.

With his eyes still on the letter in his hand Burk asked: "How are you getting on with the survey of the South Central District?"

"Black finished yesterday. I brought in the data."

"What do you think of it?"

"It's no good, Burk. The land is a rough jumble of small hummocks, covered with a heavy growth of greasewood and mesquite, and practically all of it lies so high that we could never get the water on it at all."

Burk considered. "Do you know whether Abe Lee ever went over that district?"

Holmes stiffened. "No, he never worked in that part of the Basin at all, but what the deuce has Lee to do with it? Black is a graduate engineer and as good a man as ever looked over a transit. If you can't trust the men I send out, why"--

"Wow, wow!" cried Burk, "keep your shirt on, old man! I'm not making insinuations against your pet surveyor. I merely asked for information. Now if you please, turn your South Central data over to your office force and tell them to get it in shape by Saturday without fail. It's an order, my son. Selah!"