Chapter XVIII. The Game Progresses.
 

The purchase of the South Central District water rights by Jefferson Worth was immediately announced by The King's Basin Messenger in a lengthy article which began with the modest statement that this was the largest and most important business transaction that had yet occurred in the new country. The article declared that the name of Jefferson Worth was a guarantee that the new district would be made the richest and most prosperous section of the Basin and that-- splendid as the undertaking was--it was only the beginning of far greater things to be wrought by the wizard of the desert whose genius had made him the greatest factor in the reclamation and development of The King's Basin country. The work would be begun at once--as soon as men and teams could be secured.

The thoughtful Manager of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company read the article with a grin, shifted his cigar to the corner of his mouth, cocked his head to one side and sent a marked copy of the paper to the Company's president.

James Greenfield read the article with the satisfaction of a good business man who sees his competitor heavily over-stocked with a line of goods for which there is no market. The pioneers in the desert who were not already located, and the newly arriving prospectors read and called upon Mr. Worth for further information. The article, reprinted in the Rubio City papers, was read by many who, familiar with Jefferson Worth's business record, took the San Felipe trail for the new district.

The main supply camp for the new work was established at Dry River Crossing, the location being ideal, with an abundant supply of running water from the waste gate at the heading coming down the old channel where Barbara's mother had perished of thirst beside a dry water hole. From the camp, the San Felipe trail led in one direction straight to Rubio City and in the other to the main road in the heart of the Basin half way between Kingston and Frontera. At this camp Jefferson Worth made his headquarters. Not a man, whether he presented himself empty-handed or with team and tools, but was forced to talk with Mr. Worth in his tent office before he was set to work under Abe Lee and his three lieutenants--Texas, Pat and Pablo.

It was in those days that Willard Holmes reported to the Manager that many of his men were leaving the Company and were going to work for Jefferson Worth. The news did not appear to alarm Mr. Burk. With a grin he advised the engineer, "Don't worry, old man. They'll be damned glad to come back to us before many weeks." "I was looking out a route for the new central main yesterday," said Holmes, "and rode over to Worth's camp at the Crossing. Judging from the size and activity of the camp, he is planning to go in good and strong. He must have a big force at work now and he is taking on men all the time."

"Your Uncle Jim will be delighted to hear of Friend Jefferson's enterprise."

The engineer's face did not express appreciation of the Manager's wit. "Have you heard the proposition that Mr. Worth is making to every man on the job?" he asked.

"No, what is he doing? Giving away one hundred and sixty shares of stock with free telephones and electric lights, passes at the opera house, unlimited credit at the store and a deposit at the bank as a bonus to anyone who will locate in his district? He seems to have all kinds of money to throw away."

"It's not quite so bad as that," answered the other with a smile. "But he tells every man, when he hires him, to file on any claim in the district that he wants and he can have the water rights for it without any cash payment and without any interest for five years. In a good many cases he is even advancing money to pay the government entry fee and promising to carry them for their equipment and supplies until they make a crop. But he makes them agree to stay on the land and actually farm the claims. He won't let a speculator even look in."

Mr. Burk expressed his opinion of Jefferson Worth's ability in the strongest terms. The man was insane, childish! Those fellows would leave him high and dry.

"That's what I said at first," agreed Holmes. "I asked Bill Watson, who quit us with his team at Number Five to go to work in the South Central, if he actually thought Worth was going to let his men make all the money."

"What did Bill say?"

Holmes smiled. "You know how Bill talks? 'Hell, no,' he said. 'I put it to the old man just that way myself. I says, say I: 'That sounds good all right, Mr. Worth; but it ain't reasonable that you're leavin' yourself out of this deal. Where do you come in?' says I. 'Who's the joker in this little game?'"

"And Worth explained?" put in Burk eagerly, shaken out of his usual thoughtful calm by Holmes's story.

"Bill says that Mr. Worth told him that he owns a big tract of land where the camp is located and that he is going to build a town there and would make his money by the increased value of his property that would result from the development of the district; by business enterprises that would depend on the prosperity of the ranchers; and by the large increase in the value of water rights that he would sell later to those who came in to invest after the district was developed. I suggested to Bill that he could see how Worth was simply using him to gain his own ends."

"And did Bill see the point?"

"He said: 'You're damned right he is, and so am I usin' Jefferson Worth to gain my ends, ain't I? I might work for the Company a hundred years and never get a cent more than the wages that you're payin' now. Jefferson Worth, he pays me the same wages and gives me a chance to get my share of all that comes out of what I do. I don't care a damn if he makes ten millions out of the country. I hope he will, because he is giving us poor devils, who ain't got nothin' now, a chance to get a ranch an' do somethin' for ourselves. Of course he uses us to make money for himself. So does the Company use us, don't they? The difference is that Jefferson Worth lets us use him and the Company just counts us in with the rest of the live stock.'"

"How did you get around that?" asked Burk, studying his companion's face.

"I didn't get around it," answered the engineer dryly.

Burk leaned back in his chair and spoke with unusual earnestness. "Bill is right, Holmes. We consider the men who work for us as we consider horses and mules. We feed the stock; we pay wages to the men. When an animal is worn out and useless, we kill him and get another. When a man is down and out, we fire him and hire another, and you and I are no better. The Company looks on us exactly the same way. We have no more real interest in this work than the skinniest old plug on the job and the Company won't permit us to have. They think they couldn't afford it--that it wouldn't be Good Business. 'Get up!' 'Whoa!' 'Back!' 'Move, damn you! and here's your corn and hay.' That's all we have to do with it. If you balk and kick, out you go to rustle your own feed. It's a beautiful system-- for the Company. I almost wish that Worth had a chance to try out his scheme. It would at least be an interesting experiment to watch."

"Well, why hasn't he a chance to try it out?"

"You know very well why. Because the deal that your talented uncle fixed up for our friend Jeff was loaded for the express purpose of blowing that philanthropic promoter into financial Kingdom-come. Didn't you report that the development of that South Central District was practically impossible because of the elevations?"

"Yes."

"Well, ordinarily the project would have been abandoned then and there. But I suggested to Mr. Greenfield that we go ahead as if everything was all right and then unload it on Worth so that he would smash himself, as he is doing."

"You should be proud of your scheme."

"I am proud of the scheme, but I'm not proud of myself. I'm being a good mule, that's all. Jefferson Worth took our apparent purpose to go ahead with the work as evidence that the proposition was all right and that's why Jefferson Worth will not finish his intended experiment."

"Yes, but the fact is he did not accept the proposition without investigation."

"What?"

The engineer told the Manager what he had learned from Barbara. Burk whistled softly. "Then you think the old fox sent Abe Lee out to check our survey and framed up his trip to the city to gain time? Well, I'll be--But look here, Holmes, Worth didn't accept our proposition until after he had investigated?"

"No."

"Well; who makes the mistake then, your man Black or Abe Lee?"

"That's exactly what I'd like to know," said the Company's chief engineer grimly.

The Manager grinned as he saw the possibilities of the situation, then thoughtfully he selected a cigar. "Pretty game, isn't it, old man," he said and offered the box to Holmes who declined.

When the weed was going well the Manager's head tipped toward his left shoulder and his cigar was in the opposite corner of his mouth. "And you knew what Worth was up to before the deal was closed? Why didn't you report it, Holmes?"

The engineer frowned. "I didn't tell Mr. Worth what Black's survey showed, and you must remember that Uncle Jim rubbed it into me good and hard on the question of the construction work that the policy of the Company was none of my business. This deal was not in my department."

"Dear me," murmured the Manager with another grin. "What a well- broken Company mule it is. And you were so dead sure of your man Black. Which would you rather, my boy, have Black right and Abe wrong--the Company to win; or have Black wrong and Abe right--and Jefferson Worth free to go on with his little experiment?"

"Speak for yourself," growled Holmes.

"I will," returned Burk. "I have been a good mule, so my conscience is clear. If I knew how and thought it would do any good I would pray that Abe Lee made no mistake."

"Well, I won't believe that it's Black's mistake. He comes from too good a school," Holmes replied stubbornly.

"And your confidence in your man is no doubt equaled by Worth's confidence in his. Interesting, isn't it?"

"You go to thunder!" growled the engineer unable to stand more. The Manager's mocking laugh followed him out of the room.

As the engineer passed the open window of the office a moment later Burk called to him softly: "Oh, Holmes; I have an idea that may be helpful to you in the matter."

Against his will the engineer paused and drew close to the window. "Well?"

"Why don't you call on Miss Worth? Perhaps--"

But Willard Holmes fled. And yet that which Burk suggested in jest was exactly what Willard Holmes had already determined in his own mind to do.

The engineer had not seen Barbara since the conclusion of the South Central deal and he was continually asking himself how the girl would look upon his part in that transaction, or rather his failure to take a part in it. Barbara's frank confession, when she had asked him to forgive her for blaming him because of the Seer's dismissal that they might start square, had put their friendship upon such a ground that the man felt guilty in not confessing at once to her how he had aided Greenfield and Burk in their effort to trap her father. He could not shake off the conviction that she would undoubtedly look upon his attitude as being what she had called untrue to the work--the one thing she had declared she could not forgive. Would she forgive him? She had been so interested in his work, and the engineer was beginning to realize how very much this meant to him. At the Worth home the engineer learned from the Indian woman that Barbara had left Kingston that morning to visit her father in his camp in the South Central District. She had gone with Texas Joe in the buckboard and they had taken her saddle horse, El Capitan.

When would La Senorita return? Ynez did not know.