Chapter XX. What the Stakes Revealed.
 

James Greenfield, returning to Kingston from his tour of inspection, left at once for his own world--a world of offices with mahogany furniture, of men with white collars and pale faces, of banks and trust companies, and Good Business.

The afternoon of the day he left, Willard Holmes rode into the camp at Dry River Crossing. The engineer explained that he was looking over the route of a new main canal that was being surveyed by his men and that, finding himself in the vicinity of Mr. Worth's headquarters, he had taken the opportunity to call.

From Barbara as well as from Jefferson Worth and Abe Lee the Company man received a hearty welcome with a cordial invitation to ride with them the next day over the line of their work. Although Holmes watched with peculiar sensitiveness, there was no sign from either of the three that they had yet discovered the real significance of the South Central deal or that they knew the part he had played in it. His desire to end the whole unpleasant situation by going over the work with Mr. Worth and the surveyor, and by confessing to Barbara how he had permitted her father to walk into the trap, led him to accept the invitation.

The little party left camp early the next morning and following the line of Black's survey found a mile or more of the canal already completed, while a large force of men and teams was at work clearing the ground and pushing the big ditch still farther in a general southerly direction toward the Company canal fifteen miles away.

Abe Lee explained to Barbara that other camps were located at points farther on, thus dividing the whole district to be excavated into several sections. "You see," he said turning to Holmes, "the waste from Dry River Heading coming down the old channel gives us water at several points so that we can handle this work to a little better advantage than we used to do with the first of the Company canals."

"I see," said the Company man. "And how many head of stock are you working?"

"About fifteen hundred now, but we are increasing the force right along. We expect to handle about twice that."

Instantly Willard Holmes saw that he could still save Jefferson Worth from heavy financial loss. But it was to the interest of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company for Jefferson Worth to lose heavily. What should he do?

They had left the first section of the work now and were following the line of the survey where the brush had been roughly cleared. The engineer, preoccupied in his struggle with the question that confronted him, had dropped behind the others, when suddenly Barbara, looking back, checked El Capitan. "What's the matter, Mr. Holmes?" she called.

The others also looked back to see the engineer kneeling on the ground. Jefferson Worth glanced quickly at his superintendent who chuckled outright.

"What is it?" cried Barbara at Abe's unusual laugh. "What's the joke?"

Before either of the men could answer, Holmes sprang to his saddle and, with a quick jab of his spurs in the horse's flanks, rejoined them on the run. In his excitement the mental habits of his life asserted themselves and he was again the typical corporation official dealing with a mere private individual operating on a small scale. "Look here!" he burst forth sharply to Abe; "these are not our Company stakes. You are not following Black's line."

The surveyor grinned. "We followed it for a half mile this side of the cut, then we branched off. You evidently did not notice."

"Where do you strike it again?"

"We don't strike it again."

"Then how do you get to the intake location?"

"We don't get to the intake you located at all. We strike your canal three miles farther up."

The Company's chief engineer retorted hotly: "But you can't do that. Our survey shows"--he stopped.

"Your survey shows what?" came Abe Lee's sharp challenge. "You are undoubtedly familiar with the data turned in by your man Black, for you told Mr. Worth the quality of the soil before he closed the deal. What else does your survey show?"

Before the engineer could answer, Jefferson Worth's cool voice broke in. "You understand, Mr. Holmes, that there is nothing in my contract with your Company that binds me to follow the line of your survey or accept your location of the intake. The Company contracts to deliver the water into my canal, that is all."

The engineer regained control of himself. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Worth; and yours, Lee. I forgot myself. I see that my man Black made a mistake."

Abe laughed dryly. "In checking over Black's work, Holmes, I found his elevations correct at every point."

Holmes himself smiled as he said: "Well, Lee, whether you believe me or not, I am very glad you checked over Black's work, and, Mr. Worth, with all my heart I wish you success in your project."

"Thank you," said Worth, "I am already indebted to you for a valuable piece of information."

"Indebted to me?"

"You remember what I asked you when I was going over this proposition with Greenfield and Burk in the Company office?"

"I remember that you asked me about the soil in the district."

"You answered that the soil was all right."

Holmes drew a long breath. "And you let Uncle Jim and Burk think--"

"I let them think what they wanted to think," said Jefferson Worth.

Barbara, who had listened with intense interest to the conversation, at Holmes's unfinished remark and her father's reply moved El Capitan slowly away from his place beside Worth's horse and went close to Abe Lee. All the gladness was gone from the young woman's face now, and while she maintained a show of interest it was plainly forced.

The banker, at his daughter's movement, retreated behind his gray mask and for the rest of the trip spoke only when it was necessary, leaving her entirely to the surveyor and Willard Holmes.

Barbara had understood from the talk of the men that her father, by using the unsuspecting engineer, had in some way shrewdly gained a business advantage over the Company. The incident forced her, as she thought, to see with a cruel clearness that to Jefferson Worth this splendid work of reclaiming the desert was nothing but the opportunity to win larger financial gains; that he was still practicing the tactics for which he was famous. She shrank from him unconsciously but to the man as plainly as she had drawn back in fear that night years before. As the baby had turned from him to the Seer then, the young woman turned from him to Abe Lee now.

During the rest of the day Barbara kept so close to the surveyor's side that Willard Holmes had no opportunity to talk with her alone, and when they arrived again at the headquarters camp the engineer, promising to call upon her soon in Kingston, left for one of his own camps a few miles away.

That evening Jefferson Worth and his daughter sat alone under the arrow weed ramada facing the river. Moving her camp chair closer in the dusk--so close that, reaching out she laid her warm young hand on the hand of her father--Barbara said in a low tone: "Daddy, I wish you would tell me all about this South Central District business."

She felt the slim nervous fingers move uneasily. Never before had Barbara asked him to explain any of his transactions. The man's habit of retiring behind that gray mask whenever the subject of his business was mentioned, together with the girl's instinctive shrinking lest his answers to such a question should drive them farther apart, prevented. But to-night, perhaps because Willard Holmes was concerned, perhaps because of her peculiar interest in the work involved, Barbara forced herself to ask.

"What do you want to know?"

At his expressionless tone it was to Barbara as though she felt the chill of his cold mask coming between them, but she persisted and in her voice was passionate earnestness. "I want to know all about it, father; I must."

"Why?"

"Because"--she hesitated. "Because I understood from the conversation to-day about the surveys that someone had made a mistake. I--I don't want to make a mistake, daddy. Won't you please explain it all to me? What was it that you let Mr. Greenfield and Mr. Burk think?"

Perhaps because of the memories of the place, or because it was the first time Barbara had ever sought an explanation, or again perhaps it was because Willard Holmes was interested, Jefferson Worth answered: "I let them think I was a fool."

"But why was Mr. Holmes so excited to-day when he found out about those stakes?"

"He discovered that I was not such a fool as they thought."

Then Jefferson Worth explained to the girl the whole situation. He made clear Greenfield's reason for offering him the water rights; why he would have taken the stock without investigation but for the hint he received from the Company engineer's manner and the way Holmes had answered that simple question about the soil; how he had made the survey secretly, because Greenfield would have refused to close the deal if he had known that Worth wanted it after he had it investigated, and because if Greenfield believed the district stock to be valueless he would sell at a very low figure rather than not sell at all; and how it was that same low figure that enabled him to give the men who were working on the canal a chance to acquire farms of their own.

When he had made it all plain, the young woman exclaimed: "And this man Greenfield and those with him in the Company are the men who are doing the Seer's work; who are making the reclamation of the desert possible! I don't--I can't understand it."

"It is a very simple business deal," said Worth. "There is nothing unusual about it. Greenfield and his men are good men; they are simply defending their interests from a competitor. This Desert never could be reclaimed at all without them or others like them."

"Tell me again, daddy; was Mr. Holmes sure that this land was worthless?"

"Certainly he was sure of it. He had all of Black's data giving the elevations."

"And he knew that they were trying to sell it to you?"

"Yes."

"But did he know why? Did he know it was a trap to ruin your work?"

"Certainly, he must have known."

The girl's voice trembled. "Oh, why--why didn't he tell you? Why didn't he warn you?"

"He did."

"Yes, daddy, but he did not intend to do it, for to-day he did not know that he had until you explained. And I thought-I thought--" Her voice ended in a sob.

"But Barbara, Holmes did just what he should have done. He is in the employ of the Company. He had no right to interfere with their business."

"Every man has a right to be a man," she answered hotly. "Abe wouldn't have kept still. The Seer would not have helped them in their schemes. I don't wonder that the Company discharged the Seer to give Mr. Holmes his place!"

Jefferson Worth was silent for a little, then he said: "If I had thought that you would blame Holmes I never would have told you."

"But you did right to tell me. I am glad, for I see now that I was making a mistake--that I was making two mistakes. I misjudged you, daddy--forgive me; and I--I have been mistaken about Mr. Holmes."

For an hour or more the two sat silent, the mind of each occupied with thoughts that were much the same. Barbara for the first time felt that she could enter fully into her father's life. She had at last seen behind his gray mask and found herself in full sympathy with him. And the lonely man knew that at last he had gained that for which his heart hungered--the fullest companionship of the girl he loved as his only child.

At last Barbara said softly: "Daddy, I am not going back to Kingston to-morrow. I am going to stay here with you. You can have another tent house built and Texas can go for Ynez who will bring what things I need. I am going to make a home for you. You need me, daddy. You are so alone in your work; no one understands you as I do now. Let me come and help you."

Awkwardly Jefferson Worth put out his hand and drawing his daughter closer said in a tone that Barbara had never heard before: "I was wishing that you would want to stay. You--you are not afraid of me now, Barbara?"

"Why, no, of course not; what a strange thing to ask! I have never been afraid of you; why should I be?"

And Barbara thought that she spoke truly--that she had never feared him; though Jefferson Worth knew better.

So another tent house was built and Texas went alone to Kingston, to return with Ynez as Barbara had planned, and the young woman set about making a home for her father in the rude desert camp.

Every day nearly she rode El Capitan out to some part of the work, and the men who were toiling for more than wages learned to know her and to hail her presence as a good omen. Many a rough fellow, dreaming of wife or sweetheart and the home he would make for them in the desert as he drove his team and held the bar of his Fresno, worked the harder for a cheery word from the daughter of his employer.

And every evening under the ramada Barbara sat with her father, often alone, sometimes with one or more of her little court; and always the talk was of the work, save for the times when Pablo would come softly to make music for his Senorita and then they would sit silently, listening to the sweet harmonies that floated away into the night.

Often Barbara would go the short distance from the house to the old wash; there to sit almost on the very spot where her mother had perished beside the dry water hole; and watching the stream that now flowed through the old channel, or looking away across the deep cut to the sand hills that showed clearly in the distance, she would live over the story as she had learned it that day with Texas-- asking the old, old question, to which there was still no answer.

One afternoon as she was sitting there, two wagons with a small party of men appeared on the high bank of the stream opposite. As the men climbed down from their seats, someone on horseback rode to the edge of the cut and sat for a moment looking across. Even at that distance she knew him; it was Willard Holmes. Watching she saw him turn and by his motions guessed that he was giving some instructions to the men. Then he rode away toward the Crossing.

Quickly Barbara returned to the rude porch of the tent house and in a few minutes saw the engineer approach. Dismounting and throwing the reins over his horse's head he came to her smiling, sombrero in hand. "Buenas dias, Senorita. Please may I have a drink?"

"Certainly, Mr. Holmes; help yourself." She pointed to the olla hanging in the shade of the ramada.

The engineer started at her cool reply, given as she would have addressed a stranger, and, more to regain his composure than because he was thirsty, helped himself from the earthen water jar. When he could delay no longer he turned again to her, and forcing himself to speak as if he had not noticed the lack of warmth in her greeting said: "I was sorry to miss you in town. I called several times."

"I am keeping house here for father," she answered.

"Then we will be neighbors," he said with assumed lightness; "at least half-way neighbors. A party of my surveyors will be camped over there across the river. I will be with them part of the time."

When she made no reply to this, the man understood. Slowly he drew on his gloves and, laying aside all pretense, said simply: "I have been trying to see you, Miss Worth, because I wanted to tell you myself of the miserable part I took in the shameful trick my uncle attempted to play on your father. I see that you know all about it and I realize that it is quite useless for me to ask you to forgive me."

He paused, but still the young woman was silent.

[Illustration: More to regain his composure than because he was thirsty helped himself from the earthen water jar]

The man could not know how she was fighting to keep back the tears.

"You told me plainly that you could never forgive one who was untrue to his work," he went on hopelessly, "and you are right. There was a time, before I knew you, when I would have defended my action, when I would have held that it was right; but I cannot now. Perhaps if I had known you longer--But what's the use. I am a sad bungler in this great work, Miss Worth. I am out of place in the big desert. I should have stayed at home. I wish--I wish you had never wakened me to the possibilities of life--real life. You would not need to feel ashamed for me now."

When she looked up he was mounting his horse. Almost she cried out to him, but he rode quickly out of her sight.