Chapter XIX. Gathered at Barbara's Court.
 

Barbara's trip to the South Central District was full of interest. Riding with Texas Joe in a light buckboard drawn by a span of lively broncos with El Capitan leading behind, she was as merry as a school-girl out for a long-talked-of holiday. The dark-faced old plainsman, whose iron will and marvelous endurance had brought his companions and the baby safely out of that land of death years before, turned often to look at her now while his keen eyes, dark still under their grizzly brows, were soft with fond regard, and his voice, gentle and drawling as ever, was filled with tender affection. Under his drooping gray mustache, black once, his slow smile came in the ready answer of full sympathy with her mood.

Eager as ever to know all about the work of reclaiming her Desert, the young woman plied him with questions and Texas exerted himself to recall scenes and incidents of which he had not told her before. He reviewed the work from that first survey to the present with vivid pictures of life in the camps, in the towns, or on the trail, with construction gangs and grading crews or freighters' outfits, and the glimpses of toil and hardship, discomforts and suffering lost none of their reality in the dry humor of his words. Texas Joe was of that sort who habitually laugh at hardships, who, indeed, could not otherwise live in the wild lands they helped to tame. Nor did the shrewd old frontiersman fail to observe how most of Barbara's questions required in their answers something touching Willard Holmes, or how the incidents that pleased her most were those in which the engineer figured. On her part the young woman was secretly delighted to see how loyally her companion spoke in admiring praise of the desert-bred surveyor, Abe Lee. Whenever the name of Holmes was mentioned, Abe was somehow brought into the story.

"Mr. Holmes is really a fine engineer, don't you think?" asked Barbara mischievously at the conclusion of a story in which both Holmes and Abe figured.

"Sure he is. I don't reckon them eastern schools ever turned out a better. And what counts more, sometimes, he's all man, he is. But you see, honey, he belongs to the Company. Abe now, wal--you see, Abe, he sabeys the country like a burro does the cook shack and he's just as good a man as the Easterner, though not so pretty to look at. And you can bet there don't no Company get a hobble on Abe."

"Do the men who work for the Company like Mr. Holmes?"

"Sure they do. All the men like Holmes fine. But they just naturally love Abe."

But when they had turned into the San Felipe trail and were traveling eastward, Barbara ceased to question Texas about the reclamation work and led him to tell her again the familiar story of his journey from San Felipe with Mr. Worth, the Seer, Pat and the boy Abe, in the days when that old road was the only mark of man in all those miles of desolate waste.

Reaching a point where the sand hills could be distinguished, he pointed them out to her, and the young woman, at sight of the huge rolling drifts that shone all golden in the desert sun, grasped his arm with a low exclamation. In silence, as they drew nearer, they watched the low yellow hills lift their naked bulk up from the gray and green patches of salt-bush and greasewood that so thinly carpeted the plain. When even the desert vegetation could find no life in the ever shifting sands and the first of the great drifts loomed huge and forbidding against the sky, seeming to bar their way, Barbara spoke again. "Now tell me, Uncle Tex; tell me as we go just how it was and show me the places."

The plainsman did not answer and she urged again: "Please, Uncle Tex, tell me. I want to see it all just as it happened. I feel that I must, don't you understand?"

So the old plainsman told her and pointed out the places as nearly as he could, explaining how the drifts moved always eastward under the winds; how at times, most frequently in the spring months, when the fierce gales swept down through the Pass and across the Basin, the huge billows of sand would roll forward so swiftly that tents or wagons in their path would be buried in a few hours, and how, in the calm seasons, with every light breeze they work their silent way inch by inch. Even as he spoke Barbara, looking, saw a thin film of sand, fine as powdered snow, curl like mist over the edge of a drift as a breath of air swept lightly up the western slope and over the summit of the hill.

At the point where Mr. Worth's party had camped to await the passing of the storm, Texas stopped the team and showed her how they had rigged their rude canvas shelter on one side of the wagon to protect themselves from the cutting blast. Farther on he pointed out the spot where they had found the horse with the broken halter strap, and then they came to the great drift where her people had made their last camp and where, later, Jefferson Worth had spent that night alone with the spirit that lives in La Palma de la Mano de Dios.

Again Texas halted his team, and Barbara, leaving her companion in the buckboard, climbed to the top of the hill that held buried deep in its heart--what? Was the body of her true father buried there? Were there brothers, sisters, lying under that huge mound? Could the sands, if they could speak, tell her who she was, her name and people? Could they, if they would, make known to her relatives and friends of her own blood?

Coming slowly down the shoulder of the drift she went around to the foot of the steep eastern side and there, in the lee of the billow that curled high above her, she tried to dig with her hands a tiny hole. At every movement that displaced a handful of sand, a dry golden flood poured down from above, covering instantly the mark she had made. With sudden, energy the young woman exerted all her strength, digging faster and faster. But still, from above her head, down the steep side of the drift the sand slid without effort, making a faint whispering sound as if to mock her labors. Then Texas called and she went back to him, her brown eyes hard and dry.

The old plainsman, quick to feel her mood, would have driven swiftly on past the remaining scenes of the tragedy and tried to talk of other things. But she would not have it so. She must know all. So he showed her where he had first found the tracks in the sand and then where the baby feet had left their marks when the tired mother had set her down to rest.

Thus they came at last, when the day was almost gone, to the grave beside the trail--the trail that had beside its many miles so many graves. And Barbara stood before the simple headstone that bore only the date and one word "Mother." And the silent man, who had in his wild adventurous life witnessed so many scenes of death, turned away his face that he might not see the girl kneeling beside the mound of earth.

When Barbara, coming back to the buckboard, saw him so, she understood; and when Texas, hearing her light steps, turned quickly toward her he saw the brown eyes filled now with softening tears while her face expressed the gratitude she could not put into words.

Behind them the upper rim of the sun shone blood-red above the top of the purple mountain wall; over their heads in the soft still depths of the velvet sky an early star appeared. Around them on every side the great desert lay under its seas of soft color, its veils of misty light and streaming scarfs of lilac and rose. Even as they looked the dusk of twilight fell upon the great plain. The ground-owl's weird call came from a hummock near the trail, the ghostly form of a coyote slipped stealthily past like a shadow moving from shadow to shadow until he was lost in the deeper shade, out of which, as if in mocking challenge of a spirit band to any mortal who would follow, came the wild, snarling, unearthly cries of his invisible mates. And still to the eastward the higher levels of the Mesa above the rim of the dark Basin, the slow drifting clouds of dust that lifted from the tired feet of the grading teams coming into the camp from the day's work on the canals, or from freighters drawing near their journey's end, caught the last of the light and showed long level bands and bars and threads of gold against the deep purple of the hills beyond, whose peaks and domes and ridges were flaming crimson, burnished copper and gleaming silver on the deep background of the sky. Before them on the other side of the deep Dry River channel, through which now a generous stream of water flowed, they could see the tents of the camp--some glowing brightly from lights within, others showing mere spots of dull white in the gloom, while here and there lanterns, like great fireflies, flitted aimlessly to and fro.

Before two tent houses, some distance apart from the main camp and built under a wide ramada made of willow poles and arrow weed brought from the distant river, Texas stopped his team. From the open door of one of the tents Jefferson Worth came quickly, at the sound of their arrival, to receive his daughter, and from her father's arms Barbara turned to greet Abe Lee who, following his chief from the canvas house, had paused a little back from the group in the shadow of the ramada. Later in the evening, when Barbara had had her supper with her father and Abe in the big camp dining tent and the three were sitting in the dark under the wide brush porch, Pat came with Texas, as the big Irishman said, "to see how the new boss liked her quarters." And then Pablo came softly out of the darkness with his guitar to bid La Senorita welcome and to ask if she would care that night to listen a little to the music that he knew she loved.

So Barbara held her little court before the rude tent house under the arrow weed ramada, in the heart of her Desert, within a stone's throw of the spot where they had gathered once before around a baby girl whose mother lay dead beside a dry water hole. And not one of them thought of the significance of the group or how each, representing a distinct type, stood for a vital element in the combination of human forces that was working out for the race the reclamation of the land. The tall, lean, desert-born surveyor, trained in no school but the school of his work itself, with the dreams of the Seer ruling him in his every professional service; the heavy-fisted, quick-witted, aggressive Irishman, born and trained to handle that class of men that will recognize in their labor no governing force higher than the physical; the dark-faced frontiersman, whom the forces of nature, through the hard years, had fashioned for his peculiar place in this movement of the race as truly as wave and river and wind and sun had made The King's Basin Desert itself; the self-hidden financier who, behind his gray mask, wrought with the mighty force of his age--Capital; and a little to one side, sitting on the ground, reclining against one of the willow posts that upheld the arrow weed shelter, dark Pablo, softly touching his guitar, representing a people still far down on the ladder of the world's upward climb, but still sharing, as all peoples would share, the work of all; and, in the midst of the group, the center of her court--Barbara, true representative of a true womanhood that holds in itself the future of the race, even as the desert held in its earth womb life for the strong ones whom the slow years had fitted to realize it.

"Faith," said Pat, when Pablo's guitar was silent for a little, "av only the Seer was here the family wud be altogether complete."

"Dear old Seer," said Barbara softly. "How he would love to be here; and how we would love to have him!"

But under cover of the darkness a warm blush colored the young woman's cheeks, for when Pat spoke she had not been thinking of the absence of her old friend, but wishing for the presence of another engineer, who also was working for the reclamation of her Desert and who was himself in turn being wrought upon by his work, learning as the girl had hoped he would learn, the language of the land.

Jefferson Worth spoke in his exact way. "Even if he is not here this is all the Seer's work."

And just then from a distance up the old wash came the weird, unnatural cry of a coyote. It was as though the spirit of the desert spoke in answer to the banker's words.

"Yell, ye sneaking thievin' imp. Yer time in this counthry is about up!" exclaimed the Irishman with a growl of deep satisfaction. And again out of the shadow the soft, plaintively sweet music of Pablo's guitar floated away on the still darkness of the night.