Chapter XVII. James Greenfield Seeks an Advantage.
 

The next morning Jefferson Worth, in his office in the store building, again received the president of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company. James Greenfield, with outstretched hand, was quite cordial in his greeting.

"I owe you an apology, sir. I did not know until my return to the hotel last night of the demonstration to be held this evening in your honor and in celebration of the turning on of our new lights, or I should have congratulated you sooner. I am glad the people of Kingston are recognizing you in this public manner. Permit me to express my personal appreciation also."

"Thank you," said Worth from behind his mask. "I figure that my interests in Kingston will pan out all right some day."

Greenfield dropped his complimentary manner and came at once to business. "Look here, Mr. Worth, I have been thinking over the matter I mentioned last night. I can see the strength of your position here and I appreciate the value of your operations in the development of this country, which mean, of course, an added value to the Company's property and interests. We don't want to fight you; such things are bad for all concerned. We would all lose money and it would have a bad effect on the whole project. If you won't come in with us, will you consider a proposition that you can handle independently?"

"What is your proposition?"

"It is this. In forming our plans for extending the Company's system we have laid out a new district--the South Central. Before placing the water rights on the open market, it occurred to me that we might make a deal whereby the development of the district would be assured and at the same time we would be free to use our forces in still further extensions. As you know, the settlers are coming in so rapidly now that we need all our equipment to get the water to them as fast as they are located. My proposition is this: We will sell you the entire amount of water rights covering this South Central District--sixty thousand shares--at the lowest figure we can make; you to build your own canals and structures. The entire district will thus be altogether in your hands to handle as you see fit, we, of course, being bound only to deliver into your canals the amount of water called for by the regular contract under which the rights are sold."

"You have already completed the survey and formed the district?"

"We have. The surveys have just been completed. We are all ready to go ahead with our work and to sell the water." Greenfield did not say that the Company was ready to go to work on this particular district, nor did he say that the stock would be offered for sale save to Mr. Worth. The president of course expected Worth to apply his statement to the particular tract of land under consideration and to accept it as establishing beyond question the value of the South Central District. If Jefferson Worth noted the general character of Greenfield's answer he gave no sign.

"Where is the land located?"

"If you will step over to our office I can show you the maps."

When Jefferson Worth saw the boundaries of the South Central District showing the course of Dry River and the San Felipe trail, for the first time his long, tapering fingers, tapping softly the arm of his chair, smoothing his gray cheek and caressing his chin betrayed emotion. The spot where the San Felipe trail crossed Dry River and where the banker and his party had found the baby girl was just within the boundary of the district.

Apparently studying the map before him, Barbara's father sat motionless save for those nervous fingers; and Greenfield, thinking that the man's mind was intent upon the business under consideration, spoke no word. But Jefferson Worth was not thinking of business. He was seeing again a brown-eyed, brown-haired baby girl, who shrank back from his outstretched arms as though in fear.

But that mask-like face betrayed no hint of emotion, and when the banker spoke again it was to ask mechanically: "Where is your engineer?"

Greenfield looked inquiringly at Burk. The Manager touched a button on his desk. To the young man who answered the signal the Manager said: "Charlie, if Mr. Holmes is in the building please ask him to step in here a moment."

Presently the chief engineer stood before them. An expression of surprise flashed over his bronzed face as he saw Mr. Worth. From the banker his glance moved swiftly to Burk and Greenfield, then fell on the map before the three men.

Instantly he saw Greenfield's purpose. But what did they want of him? Surely they would not dare ask him to make a false statement regarding the surveys! He could not interfere; it was not his business. It was the creed of his type that in business transactions every man must take care of himself; but the Company must not ask him to lie for them. As these thoughts went through his mind his form straightened and his eyes shot a warning--almost a defiant-- look at his two superiors.

Greenfield saw and signaled caution. Burk saw and smiled. But none of the three Company men could have told whether Jefferson Worth, who was bending over the map, saw or not. Before the others could speak the banker, without looking up, said: "I just wanted to ask, Mr. Holmes, whether you can tell me about the character of the soil in this new district?"

"The soil, Mr. Worth, is, I believe, as good as there is in the Basin."

The three men awaited the next question with breathless interest.

"Thank you, Mr. Holmes. Mr. Greenfield, I will consider the proposition."

The president and manager could scarcely believe their ears. The engineer vanished.

Jefferson Worth continued: "How long have you planned to be in the Basin this trip, Mr. Greenfield?"

"This week only. I start on my inspection with Mr. Burk and Mr. Holmes in the morning."

"I asked because I must go out in the morning for a few days, and I suppose you wish to close the deal before you leave."

"You think favorably of the proposition, then?"

"If we can get together on the terms"--Worth spoke exactly, as if he wished hie words to be remembered--"I will accept it. Suppose you put your proposition in writing and mail it to me in the city to- morrow. Then when I get back we will be in shape to finish the matter one way or the other. If everything is satisfactory and I see I can't get home before you leave I will wire you."

Thirty minutes after Jefferson Worth had returned to his office, Abe Lee came in. "You sent for me, sir?"

Abe's employer arose and closed the door.

That evening about dusk the surveyor rode out of Kingston on the road toward Frontera. And that night, while the celebration was in full swing and the new electric lights were sputtering and hissing in honor of Jefferson Worth, a loaded wagon, drawn by four mules, quietly left the rear of the Worth store. On the driver's seat sat Pablo. With little noise the outfit, with its lone driver, left the town in the midst of its demonstration and was soon in the open country on the road leading south.

An hour later they had passed the ranches and were in the Desert. Just beyond where a party of Jefferson Worth's linemen, who were stringing the telephone wires, was encamped, the Mexican halted his team and the heavy form of Pat came out of the darkness and climbed with smothered grunts and curses to his side.

Another hour and they reached the point where the new road crossed the old San Felipe trail. Again Pablo halted his team. Ten--fifteen --twenty minutes they waited in listening silence, save for an occasional grunt from the Irishman. Then from the south came the sound of wheels and horses' feet.

"Git under way, Pablo," mumbled Pat. "Ut may not be thim, an' Abe will hang yer black hide on the new tiliphone line av anybody goin' to town stops to pass ye the time av night."

Pablo swung his team to the left and drove slowly ahead on the old trail. A hundred yards farther on they were overtaken by Abe Lee and Texas Joe, who were driving a light spring wagon.

"Everything all right, boys?" asked the surveyor sharply.

"Si, Senor," and "Yis, Sorr," came the answers.

"Good. We'll hit the grit good and hard now for we must be in the sand hills by morning."

Twenty-four hours after Jefferson Worth left Kingston, the east bound overland express came to a full stop in the Desert at a point about twenty miles west of Rubio City.

The trainmen and porters ran to the vestibules and, throwing open the doors, looked out. Three or four passengers who had risen early followed the crew, inquiring anxiously the reason for the delay. The big conductor was standing by the rear steps of the Pullman and a medium sized man swung down to the ground by his side. Back from the track, in the gray of the morning, the watchers saw a tiny fire, over which two roughly dressed figures crouched, evidently preparing breakfast, while a team, with a light spring wagon, stood tied to a nearby mesquite tree. On every hand the great desert stretched its vast dun plain without a sign of life save for the train and the men and horses by the lonely fire.

"Right, sir?" asked the conductor of the man who alighted by his side.

"All right," answered the other in a low tone.

"Good-by, sir."

"Good-by."

The conductor lifted his hand, and, as the train started swung aboard. The watchers saw the man walk, without a glance at the departing train, straight toward the little group at the fire.

"Well, what do you make of that?" cried an excited tourist as the conductor came up the steps into the vestibule and the porter slammed down the platform and closed the door. And--"Who is he?" "Where is he going?" "What is he doing?" came in chorus from the others.

The conductor shook his head with a smile. "Don't ask me. I had orders to stop here to let him off; that's all I know."

Jefferson Worth greeted Abe Lee and Texas Joe as coolly as though it was his daily habit to meet them at that hour and place. "How is everything, Abe?"

"Not a hitch so far," answered the surveyor; and Tex drawled: "Coffee and frijoles ready, Mr. Worth."

"Can we make it to the outfit today?" asked Mr. Worth as they finished their rude meal and prepared to start.

"Easy," answered Abe. "We have plenty of water with us and this team will do it without turning a hair."

Just before sundown at a point on Dry River they found Pat and Pablo with the outfit in a comfortable camp.

While Abe Lee, with his helpers, was running his levels over the proposed line of the canal staked out by the Company surveyors in the South Central District, Willard Holmes was trying to make Mr. Greenfield see the necessity of spending more money on the unsafe structures and at Dry River heading. He explained, argued and pleaded in vain.

"My dear boy," said the Company's president. "You must understand that we are not in this country for sweet charity's sake. Burk, here, can tell you that we have not yet begun to get our investment back. When the returns justify it we will give you the money for your construction work, but we can't do it now. The rights of the men who are putting up the capital for this project must be considered, you know. We can't use a dollar of the Company's money except when it is necessary. If I were to let you spend all the money you want, we never would pay a dividend."

"But, Uncle Jim, you are forcing these settlers to take terrible chances blindly. Have they not rights also? The interest of the Company is mighty small compared with the interests of the men who are buying the water rights and developing the land."

Greenfield flushed angrily. "Look here, Willard, you have nothing to do with the Company's business policy. As the engineer in charge, your work is to protect both the settlers and us to the best of your ability, but don't get any fool notions into your head. You can't afford to go the way of that dreamer who started this work with the exalted idea of making it a benefit to the whole human race. That line of talk is all right for the boosters like Horace P. Blanton, but we've got to make good in dollars and cents or the whole thing goes to smash."

With the South Central deal still on his mind and the picture of Barbara, as she talked to him of his work the morning he had met her in the desert, in his heart, these business discussions with Greenfield and Burk were almost unbearable to the engineer. After they had inspected the intake, the Dry River heading and the levees of the main canal he pleaded an urgent need of his presence at the office and left the party, to reach Kingston two days in advance of their return.

Barbara was on the porch when he stopped at the gate, tired, hot and dusty from his long trip. The girl, dressed in some cool simple white stuff and seated in her easy wicker chair in the deep shade of the wide porch, made a picture wonderfully attractive to the man who had ridden all day in the scorching heat of the desert sun. Of course he must come in. What nonsense to talk of his appearance. He was not making a fashionable social call. The weary engineer dropped into a chair and gratefully accepted the glass of cool lemonade she brought.

"I made it myself not five minutes ago, just as if I had known you were coming," she said with a laugh that was as refreshing as the drink itself. "Ynez is up town shopping for supper. Father is in the city. Abe has gone away somewhere. Even Pablo has vanished and I haven't seen Texas Joe nor Pat for a week. I was wishing someone would happen along. I suppose that's really why I made the lemonade."

Holmes set his glass carefully on the porch railing near at hand.

"Won't you have some more?"

"Thank you, no. You are quite deserted, aren't you? How long has Lee been gone?"

"Oh, he went the evening before father left and Pablo vanished the same night. It was quite tragic, and the next day I was in the office when a man from the line came in asking for Pat. He seems to have disappeared the same way. I think they might at least have left some word or said good-by."

In her innocent talk Barbara had told the whole story. It was easy for the Company engineer to guess where the surveyor and his helpers had gone and what they were doing. "Are you sure that your father is in the city?" he asked jokingly.

Barbara laughed. "Oh, there's no doubt about father. His departure was regular in every way."

On his way to the office a little later Holmes chuckled to himself, keenly enjoying the situation. He mentally pictured the chagrin of Greenfield and Burk when he should tell them what he had learned. But would he tell them? He had not told Mr. Worth what he knew of the Company's survey in the South Central District. Why should he tell the Company what he knew of Worth's surveyors? Once he would have considered that loyalty to his employers demanded that he tell what he had learned. But now, since he had been assured so very emphatically and very recently that the policy of the Company was none of his business, let the shrewd Manager and the president find out for themselves. Anyway, he told himself, it could make no difference, for he knew what the result of Abe's surveys would be and he was glad indeed that Barbara's father had not walked into the trap set for him. The engineer had concerned himself not a little about the probable view Barbara would take of his attitude in permitting her father to purchase water rights that he knew to be worthless. But now Mr. Worth himself would discover the trick of the Company men and it would not matter.

To his surprise and chagrin Jefferson Worth walked into the Company office a few days later and, in his exact colorless voice, said: "I will accept your proposition Mr. Greenfield. If you wish we can fix up the contract and close the deal to-day."