Chapter XXII. Gathering of Ominous Forces.
 

Kingston was a boiling, seething, steaming volcano of hot wrath, burning indignation and fiery protest. Kingston cursed, raved, stormed and resoluted, then stormed, raved and resoluted some more. Kingston was tricked, betrayed, cheated, defrauded, insulted and mocked. And the unspeakable villain, the sordid wretch, the miserable gamester who had ruined Kingston was Jefferson Worth.

It is unknown to this day who first brought the news that all work on the railroad for a distance of seven miles out from Kingston was stopped and that the camps with their entire outfits had disappeared, leaving the scenes of their stirring activity as still and lifeless as if they had never existed. Next it was known that from Deep Well southward the construction train was still pushing its way into the Basin and that the work ahead of the train went on.

Then, while Kingston was wondering, questioning, discussing, the word went quickly around that the grading crews were setting up their camps twelve miles east of the Company town and that a line of stakes led one way to the town of Barba and the other way in the direction to meet the construction train working out from the junction with the S. & C. at Deep Well.

Then the startled people grasped the truth of the appalling situation and awoke from their dream. In the line of the railroad survey that had led to Kingston as straight as you could draw a string, there was now a curve seven miles away, the tangent of which would carry it twelve miles east of the Company town and straight into Barba.

Practically all business ceased, while the citizens in knots and groups discussed the situation. Jefferson Worth was in the Coast city and telegrams to him, all save one, received no answer. To a message from Mr. Burk he replied that the line had been changed by his orders. As for Abe Lee, they might as well have questioned one of the surveyor's grade stakes. Even Barbara, besought by the distracted citizens, could tell them nothing except that her father would return Saturday. There was nothing to do save to wait for Mr. Worth and to prepare for his coming.

When the president of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company arrived on the scene in answer to an urgent wire from his Manager, he was at once the center of public interest. But Mr. Greenfield escaped quickly from the crowd at the hotel and was very soon closeted with Burk in the office.

Then a boy found Horace P. Blanton. Horace P. was not hard to find. With the word that Mr. Greenfield desired to see him immediately, Horace P. Blanton increased visibly--so visibly that the spectators watched the white vest with no little anxiety.

"Tell Mr. Greenfield that I will see him immediately," he said in a voice that was easily heard across the street. Then Horace P. arrived at the door of the Company office a full length ahead of the messenger.

An hour later, when Blanton reappeared to the public eye, the white vest could no longer be buttoned over his expanding importance and beads of portentous dignity stood on his massive brow.

What did Greenfield want? What was the Company going to do? the crowd demanded eagerly.

From his lofty height the great one answered: "Our Company president simply desired my opinion and advice in this little difficulty. As to what we will do, I am not at liberty to make a public statement, but--" That "but" was filled with tremendous potential power.

"Did Mr. Greenfield know that the change in the railroad line was contemplated?"

"Certainly not. He learned of it first from the telegram that called him to Kingston."

"Why was the change in the road made?"

Horace P. Blanton smiled. It was very easy to understand if they would look over this man Worth's operations since he had been in the Basin. What had he done? First he had quietly invested heavily in Kingston real estate. Next he had as quietly, through his various companies and agents, gained control of all the public utilities in the new country. Then he had so manipulated things that he gained absolute control of the whole South Central District, one of the richest sections of the Basin, and had started the town of Barba on land owned by himself. His next move was to gain control of the railroad, which, as every one knew, was started as an S. & C. line. "Remember," said the perspiring master of affairs, "that when this man Worth began work on the railroad into Kingston, he still owned a large amount of Kingston real estate with buildings and business establishments. To-day you will find that--save for the newspaper, the telephone line, the power plant, the ice plant, the bank and his home--he does not own a foot of land, a building, or a business establishment in Kingston. What has he done? He used the railroad to start a boom in our beautiful little city, then sold out at an immense profit and now, having no further interest in Kingston, changes the line of his road to Barba--the town that he owns, leaving us to make the most of the situation."

The orator's impressive climax called forth from every hearer furious invectives against the absent financier. Following the announcement of the coming of the road to Kingston, the name of Jefferson Worth had been on every tongue. The same name was on every tongue now, but the man that had been hailed as the good genius of the reclamation was now cursed for a selfish fiend, who would lay waste the whole country for his own greedy ends.

Horace P. Blanton exhausted both himself and the English language in a lurid, picturesque and vigorous delineation of the character of this monstrous enemy of the race. It was such gold-thirsty pirates as Jefferson Worth who, by preying upon legitimate business interests and coining for themselves the heart-blood of the people, made it so hard for such public benefactors as James Greenfield to promote the interests of the country.

It was beautiful to see how the speaker appreciated the splendid character, matchless genius and noble life of his friend Greenfield, the distinguished president of The King's Basin Company and the father of Reclamation. Some day, he declared, the citizens of the reclaimed desert, looking over their magnificent farms and beautiful homes, would appreciate the work of this man and understand then, as they could not now, how he had toiled in their interests. As for this fellow Jefferson Worth, dark and dreadful were the hints that Horace P. dropped as to his future.

It was Horace P. Blanton who arranged for a public indignation meeting in the Worth opera house the afternoon of Jefferson Worth's expected return. When the day arrived Kingston entertained the largest crowd that had ever gathered within the boundaries of the town. For word of the situation had traveled throughout the Basin, and from every corner of the new country men came to the scene of the excitement to attend the mass-meeting and to be present when the man that threatened Kingston with ruin should appear. Teamsters left their teams and Fresnos on the Company works, ranchers left their crops and cattle, newly located settlers forsook their ditching and leveling, zanjeros deserted their water gates and levees. Bold, hardy, venturesome spirits these were, with bodies toughened by hard toil in the open air and faces blackened and bronzed by constant exposure to the semi-tropical sun, for the desert did not yield to weaklings who would submit tamely to being skillfully juggled out of their own by a slim-fingered manipulator of business. Under the natural curiosity and love of entertainment that drew these strong, roughly dressed, roughly speaking pioneers to the point of interest, there was an under-current of grim determination to protect their new country from the schemes of unprincipled corporations. It was an old, old story.

At the mass-meeting there were many vigorous speeches by hot-headed ones, a masterly address by Horace P. Blanton, and--because he could not escape this--a few words by James Greenfield, who was introduced by Blanton as "the father of The King's Basin Reclamation work" and received by the citizens with generous applause. Acting upon Greenfield's suggestion, a committee was appointed to wait upon Mr. Worth immediately upon his arrival and the meeting adjourned until nine o'clock that evening, when the committee would report.

As the eventful day drew near its close, horsemen from the South Central District began to arrive. These were the men who had worked for Jefferson Worth on the canals and who, through him, were now developing ranches of their own. These South Central men scattered quietly through the crowd and soon in every group there was one or more of the new-comers, listening attentively. And it was a significant, though in that country an unnoticed fact, that every man from Jefferson Worth's district wore the familiar side-arms of the West. But these attentive ones took no part in the discussions, speaking neither in defense nor in condemnation of the man who had so stirred the public indignation.

As the hour for the arrival of the stage approached, the crowd massed in front of the hotel, filling the lobby, the arcade and the street, and still scattered through the throng were the men from the South Central District.

When the stage was seen in the distance a low murmur, like the threatening rumble of a coming storm, arose from the mass of men and, following this, a hush like the hush of Nature before the storm breaks. Into and through the strangely silent crowd the driver of the six broncos forced his frightened team. As the stage stopped and the passengers, looking curiously down into the excited faces of the throng, prepared to alight, a murmur arose. The murmur swelled into a roar. Jefferson Worth was not there!

When the main line train discharged its Basin passengers at the Junction that afternoon, the engine of the construction train on the new road brought Mr. Worth as far as the rails were laid. Here Texas Joe, with a fast team and light buckboard, was waiting. So it happened that while the crowd was massing in front of the hotel awaiting the arrival of the stage, Jefferson Worth was at his home quietly eating his supper and reassuring his frightened daughter.

When the assembled pioneers learned from the stage driver that the man they waited for had left the Junction on the engine, they were not long in arriving at the truth. The excitement, inflamed by what seemed the fear of Jefferson Worth and increased by the judicious efforts of Horace P. Blanton, was intense. From an orderly company of indignant citizens waiting to interview a public man, the crowd became a mob pursuing an escaping victim. With shouts and yells they started for the Worth home. And with them went the quiet men from the South Central District.

As the sound of the approaching crowd reached the two at the table, Barbara sprang to her feet, her face white with fear. "Daddy, they're coming. They're coming!" she whispered, trembling with anxiety for her father's safety. "Quick! El Capitan is ready. I told Pablo to have him saddled."

But Jefferson Worth, quietly sipping the cup of black coffee with which he always finished his meal, returned calmly: "Sit down, Barbara. I won't need El Capitan to-night."

As he spoke the crowd arrived at the front of the house and, as if to confirm his words, a sudden peaceful silence followed the uproar of their coming.

On the front porch, in the red level light of the sun that across the desert was just touching the topmost ridge of No Man's Mountains, stood the tall, grizzly-haired, dark-faced old-timer, Texas Joe; the heavy-shouldered, bull-necked Irish gladiator, Pat; and the lean, sinewy, iron-nerved man of the desert, Abe Lee; while quietly pushing and elbowing their way to the front were the men from the South Central District.

The quiet was broken by the slow, drawling voice of Texas Joe. "Evenin' boys. What for is the stampede? We-all trusts you ain't aimin' to tromp out the grass none on Mr. Worth's premises."

Within the house Barbara and her father heard the drawling challenge and the color returned to the young woman's cheeks as she smiled and whispered: "Good old Uncle Tex."

There was in that soft, southern voice an undercurrent of such cool readiness, such confident mastery of the situation, that her fears vanished. Nor was the crowd in front slow to recognize that which reassured Barbara.

For a moment following Texas Joe's greeting there was a restless shifting to and fro in the crowd, then the impressive bulk of Horace P. Blanton detached itself from the "common herd." With hands uplifted and a gesture of mingled command and appeal, he called: "No violence, men! No violence! For God's sake don't shoot! Let me talk a minute."

Whether he appealed to the three men on the porch or to the company behind him was not clear, but Texas answered: "You-all has the floor as usual, Senator. I don't reckon anybody here will be so impolite as to interrupt your remarks."

"Is Mr. Worth at home?"

"He sure is; altogether and very much to home."

"Could we--ah--see him to ask about a matter that concerns vitally every gentleman in this company?" Horace P. was regaining his breath and his poise at the same time.

"Mr. Worth, just at this minute, is engaged with his daughter at the supper table. His superintendent, Mr. Lee, is present and will be glad to hear what you have to say." The exact, formal politeness of the old plainsman was delightful. In spite of the gravity of the situation several in the crowd chuckled audibly.

"Mr. Worth will see your committee," said Abe crisply.

The citizens had forgotten their committee. Horace P. Blanton had made it difficult to remember. Three men now came out of the crowd at different points and went forward, James Greenfield's orator following them to the porch. But as the men came up the steps Abe spoke in a low tone to his companions, and Blanton found his way barred by the solid bulk of Pat.

"Were you also appointed to interview Mr. Worth?" asked Abe, dryly. "I understood it was a committee of three."

"I'm not exactly a member of our committee, but I'm always glad to offer my services in the best interests of the people."

"Mr. Worth will see the committee," said Abe.

"But you have no right, sir--This is an outrage, a disgrace! I--"

A growl from the Irishman interrupted him. "That's just fwhat I'm thinkin'. The presence av sich a domned hot air merchant as yersilf is a disgrace to any Gawd-fearin' company av honest workin' men. Av Abe here will only give me lave-"

Horace P. backed away, and from beyond reach of those huge fists said loftily: "My friend Mr. Worth shall hear of this."

"'Tis likely that he will av ye stand widin rache of me two hands," agreed Pat.

Horace P. backed farther away. "I shall let him know that I offered my services," he declared with all the dignity he could command.

"Do," called the Irishman. "I think that av ye offered yersilf chape enough he might give ye a job wid a shovel on the grade. 'Tis mesilf wud be proud to have ye in me gang av rough-necks. Dom' me but I think I cud rejuce yer waist line to more reshpectable an' presintable deminsions."

At this the crowd laughed outright, for not one of those hardy pioneers but knew the real value of Horace P. Blanton to the reclamation work and therefore the force of the Irish boss's remarks.

While Pat and--against his will--the Company's representative were amusing the crowd, Abe led the committee to Jefferson Worth. One of these men was a prominent merchant who, for the first eight months of his business in Kingston, had occupied a store-room in one of Worth's buildings rent free. Another was a real estate man, whom the banker had supplied with funds that enabled him to make several profitable deals that would otherwise have been lost. The other man was a successful rancher, who owned a half-section of improved land joining the townsite. Deck Jordan had carried him at the store for implements, seed and provisions the first two years.

Jefferson Worth greeted them in his habitually colorless voice, and they--striving to see behind that gray mask--felt that there might be something in the situation that had not appeared on the surface in spite of the fact that the situation had been made so clear by Horace P. Blanton after his interview with the president of the Company. This quiet voiced, calm-faced man, who had been so ready to help every worthy settler in the new country, did not appear at all the monster in disguise that the chief speaker at the mass-meeting had pictured. The committee, free from the heat of the crowd and the eloquence of Horace P., felt just a little ashamed.

"Mr. Worth," said the spokesman with a smile, "we were appointed to interview you about this railroad business."

"What do you wish to know, Gordon?"

"Well, first, is it true that you have sold out practically all of your property in Kingston?"

"Yes. It was my property." Jefferson Worth did not explain that he had sold because he was forced to turn everything he could into cash in order to build the railroad so badly needed by the new country.

The committee looked serious. "Is it true," continued the spokesman, "that you are changing the line of the railroad so as to take it to Barba and leave Kingston out entirely?"

"The line of the road is changed," came the exact, colorless answer.

"Will it be possible to make some arrangement by which you would carry out your former plan and build the road into Kingston?"

"You mean a bonus?"

"Yes."

"I'm not in the market."

"Is there nothing that we can do to change the situation?"

The answer startled the committee. "Tell Greenfield that he had better see me himself."

Jefferson Worth's relation to The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company was always a much discussed question among the pioneers. The new country was settled by working people of limited means, and if there is one belief common to this class it is that all capitalists are members of one great robber band, perfectly organized, firmly united and operating in perfect harmony against their helpless victim--the public. However much they might fight among themselves over the division of the spoils, they were a unit in their common operations against the masses.

From the first Jefferson Worth was held by many to be the secret agent, the silent co-partner, of Greenfield, and the South Central District seemed to justify this opinion, for of course the public knew nothing of the inside of that deal. The people accepted Mr. Worth's personal assistance cheerfully, thankfully, and had come to look upon him as a friend. But this did not in the least alter their belief that he belonged to the band. He was simply a generous, gentlemanly sort of robber, kin to the hold-up man who returns the railroad tickets of the passengers and refuses to rob the ladies. This railroad situation had seemed to deny the relationship between the banker and the Company, and now came Worth's advice: "Tell Greenfield that he had better see me himself." It was no wonder that the members of the committee looked at each other startled and bewildered. Was it, after all, a fight between the members of the band over the division of the spoils? It was too deep for the committee. They could feel dimly that mighty forces were stirring beneath the surface, but they could not fathom what it was all about. One thing was clear: the one thing that is always clear when capital speaks to business men of their class--they must obey.

"What shall we report to the crowd?" they asked as they arose to go.

"I figured that you would tell them what I have told you," came the answer.

The crowd, when the committee briefly reported their interview, were as puzzled as the members of the committee, and questioned and discussed, affirmed and denied until Pat said to his companions on the porch that it sounded like "a flock av domned bumble bees."

When the president of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company, who dared not refuse the request of the committee, stood before Jefferson Worth, the man behind the gray mask forced him to speak first.

"I understand you wished to see me about this railroad matter, Mr. Worth."

"I told the committee that you had better see me," came the answer without a trace of emotion in the colorless voice.

"Well, I am here; what do you want?"

"I want a new contract from your Company binding you to build your Central Main Canal on the line of the original survey, bringing it to a point within four hundred yards of the west line of the South Central District where the San Felipe trail crosses Dry River, and agreeing to deliver into my power canal without charge a flow of three hundred second feet of water, as in the old contract; and in addition the exclusive power rights in all of the Company's canals in the Basin."

"If I give you this contract you will build the railroad into Kingston?"

"When you change the line of your canal back to the original route I will change the line of my road."

"Suppose I refuse?"

"My railroad will not come into Kingston and I will explain to the crowd out there the reason. You have worked up a pretty strong public feeling against me, Mr. Greenfield. Now make good or stand in my place and take the consequences."

James Greenfield was not slow to grasp the point. A simple explanation of the situation from Jefferson Worth with the old contract to back it up would turn the wrath of the people against the Company president. Rising, he said with an oath: "You win, Mr. Worth. I'll have the contract ready for your signature in the morning. Now what will we do with that mob out there?"

"It is your mob, Mr. Greenfield," answered Jefferson Worth.

A few minutes later from the front porch of the Worth cottage, with Texas Joe on his right hand and Pat on his left, Horace P. Blanton announced: "Our committee will report at the opera house in half an hour."

The committee reported that Kingston was saved and the orator of the day made another speech so far eclipsing all his former efforts that the cheering citizens were evenly divided as to whether it was James Greenfield, Jefferson Worth or Horace P. Blanton who saved it.

"Well, boys," remarked one of the men from the South Central District as the little party of horsemen set out for the long ride home, "one thing is sure. Those Kingston fellows have got the railroad, but we still have Jefferson Worth, an' I reckon that Jeff can build us a railroad any old time he gets ready."

"That's right," returned another, "but what in hell do you suppose it was all about? What's Jeff's game anyhow?"