Chapter XXIII. Exacting Royal Tribute.
 

In spite of the optimistic view of the man who said that Jefferson Worth could build a railroad for Barba and the South Central District whenever he wished, there was no little disappointment expressed in Worth's town when it became known that the Company town was to have the road.

When the grading camps had returned to their former locations and the construction train drew every day nearer Kingston, with the time approaching when regular trains with passengers and freight would ply to and from the Company town, the feeling of discontent in Barba grew. It even came to be generally understood throughout the Basin that the whole movement had been cleverly planned by Jefferson Worth to force The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company to make a large contribution to the railroad builder's personal fortune. The people sensed something in the whole transaction that they could not clearly grasp, an intangible, mysterious something, as great as it was indefinite. They felt blindly that they were being used without their consent in a game played by these master financiers, and they resented being sacrificed as dumb pawns in a move, the purpose of which they could not know.

In the meantime, while the people were charging him with selling them out to gain his own ends, the man whose purpose was known only to himself was putting into his enterprise the last dollar of his resources, and another flood season with its appalling danger was at hand.

Because his laborers on the railroad were not as the men who built the South Central canals, working for more than their day's wage, and because, though no one knew it, Jefferson Worth's finances were so nearly exhausted, work on the road, as on the Company project, was discontinued for the summer months, to be resumed in the fall-- perhaps.

Barbara again refused to leave her father and in the close companionship and full understanding of his daughter, the man, who lived so much alone behind his gray mask, found inspiration and strength.

The telephone now connected the heading at the river intake with Kingston, and every hour of those hot days and nights Jefferson Worth listened for a call from Willard Holmes, who also had refused to leave his work, while three of the fastest saddle horses in the Basin were stabled with El Capitan. Texas, Abe and Pablo were ready to ride at an instant's notice to rally the pioneers, who were developing their ranches, building their homes and planning their future unconscious of the real danger that hung over them.

Vague rumors of the dangerous condition of the Company structures floated about and there were not wanting prophecies of disaster. But not one in a hundred of the settlers had even visited the intake at the river, or if they had, what could they judge of conditions there? The settlers were ranchers, not civil engineers. The Company zanjeros turned the water into their ditches when they asked for it; their crops, growing marvelously in the rich soil, demanded constant attention; they had neither time, inclination nor ability to investigate every flying rumor. As for the prophets of evil, only confirmed optimists can reclaim a desert or settle a new country and the croakers received little attention. Besides, the great, all- powerful Company would surely protect its own interests and, in protecting its own, would protect the interests of the settlers. It was the business of the Company engineers to look after the river. The ranchers were looking after the ranches.

Thus another summer went by and the great river, save for the small toll taken by those who were reclaiming the desert it had created in the ages of long ago, continued on its way to the sea. Its time was not yet.

With the return of the cooler weather and the still further increase in the volume of new life that continued to pour into the Basin from the great world outside, work on the railroad was begun again, but Jefferson Worth knew that the first pay day would mark the end. He was as a man with his back to a wall, fighting bravely to the last blow, and he stood alone.

Among the hundreds of pioneers with whom Worth had elected--as he had told Abe Lee the night of his arrival in Kingston--to take a chance, there was not one to take a chance with him now. If he lost he would lose alone, for those who had built upon the work that he had done would not suffer through his defeat. Had any of them known the situation they could have done nothing to help him. But no one knew, and this was the financier's one desperate chance--that no one did know, not even Barbara.

With his capital exhausted and no resources upon which he could realize, he went ahead with the work apparently with the confidence of one with millions behind him. It was, in the language of the West, all a bluff. But it was a magnificent bluff.

Two weeks of the month were gone when a telegram from the high official of the S. & C. summoned him to the city.

The railroad man, in the secrecy of his private office, greeted the promoter with his usual, "Hello, Jeff. I see The King's Basin is still on the map."

Jefferson Worth smiled, then, as the official's eyes were fixed upon his face in a way that he understood, he retreated behind his mask. "Things are going very well," he answered.

"Working full gangs on that railroad of yours?"

"We have taken on all the men we can handle. We will be ready for that last lot of steel in another two weeks."

The other lay back in his chair and laughed with hearty admiration and regard. "Jeff, you are a wonder! How long do you suppose it would take Greenfield to start something with your creditors if he knew what I know?"

Not a line of Jefferson Worth's face changed, only his nervous fingers caressed his chin and the railroad man, noting the familiar signal, smiled again. Then leaning forward in his chair he said: "Jeff, I have been keeping my eye on you ever since those days when our line was building into Rubio City and you handled the right-of- way for us. I have never caught you in a blunder yet. When it comes to sizing up a proposition all around I don't believe you have an equal. Now look here." With a quick movement he took a paper from a pigeon-hole in his desk and laid it before the other. The paper was a carefully tabulated statement of Jefferson Worth's financial condition at that moment. In vain the official tried to see behind that gray mask.

"Well." The word was absolutely colorless.

"Well!" repeated the other savagely, "what I want to know is this: why in hell you are bucking Greenfield and his crowd to such a limit?"

"Because," said Jefferson Worth carefully, "I believe in the future of The King's Basin project, providing--" he paused.

"Providing what?"

"Providing someone bucks Greenfield to the limit."

In one instantaneous flash, the man whose clear brain directed thousands of miles of a great railroad system caught a glimpse of the real Jefferson Worth--the Jefferson Worth who was not, as the railroad man had himself said, "doing it all for a dinky little power plant."

"Jeff," he said slowly, "when you asked us to build a branch line into the Basin I told you that we couldn't do it. As I said then, we are not in the insurance business. A railroad's business depends upon the actual development of a country, not upon backing promoters who open up a new country simply as a speculative proposition. You say you believe in the future of The King's Basin country providing some one bucks Greenfield and you are sure giving him a run for his money. But you have reached the end of your pile and I know it. Now, I have been taking up this matter with our people and we are ready to take a chance on your judgment. Suppose we take over your road as it stands at a fair price--what would be your next move? Get out and leave us in the insurance business?"

"I would build a line from Kingston to Barba, tapping the South Central District, which is the richest section of the Basin," came the instant reply.

"Good! But perhaps you don't want to sell the line you are building to the S. & C.," he suggested with a smile.

"I figured that you would be ready to make me a proposition about the time I had it in shape for the last shipment of steel."

Worth's bluff had won.

The railroad man said again solemnly: "Jeff, you are a wonder!"

With the passing of his nearly completed railroad into the hands of the S. & C. Jefferson Worth began at once to arrange for the building of the other line from Barba to Kingston. This new road, to be known as the King's Basin Central, connecting with what was now the S. & C., would give an outlet to the rich South Central District, while the Southwestern and Continental Company announced that its new branch would not stop at Kingston but would build on south to Frontera.

With a main line branch of a trans-continental railroad building straight through the heart of the new country, and their town located just half way between the junction and the terminal, The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company saw the value of their property increased many times. The day was not far distant now when every quarter section of the desert land would be filed on by eager settlers, and the once barren waste would rapidly give place to the fertile fields of the ranchers, every foot of which should yield tribute to James Greenfield and his associates. But the reclamation of the desert opened many avenues for profit other than the irrigation system.

From these also the Company, obeying the law of Good Business, had planned to take toll, but the field for investment most closely allied with the fields of the ranchers, and therefore keeping even pace with the increasing wealth of the new country, had been preempted by Jefferson Worth. The Company desired to add to their holdings those enterprises that had come to be known as the Worth interests. They had failed repeatedly to bring about a union of forces. Their only recourse then was to force the independent operator to sell to them or to eliminate him from The King's Basin project. To this end Greenfield and Burk watched and planned on the well known principle that whatever Jefferson Worth wanted was bad for the Company, until the day when the interests of Worth and those of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company should be the same or Jefferson Worth should be no longer a factor in the new country.

While the Worth enterprises were firmly established in all the centers of activity in the Basin, the Company knew that his largest interests were in Barba and the South Central District. Worth must have railroad connections with the S. & C. line before he could even begin to realize on his largest investments. There was every reason why he should desire to make Kingston the junction point of the road he was now forced to build. James Greenfield was not backward in letting Worth understand that he would need to pay well for a right- of-way with terminal facilities in the Company town.

For two weeks Jefferson Worth tried to bring the Company president to some reasonable settlement but his efforts only served to make Greenfield more determined to exact royal tribute. "I tell you," said the president triumphantly to his Manager, "he's forced to build that line or go to smash with his town and district. No one will settle away off there from the railroad as long as they can locate in reach of Kingston or Frontera, and he has got to connect with the S. & C. branch at Kingston, for we are the only place between the main line and the terminal."

When Mr. Worth reminded them that the proposed road would benefit Kingston and that in view of its value to their town it would be only just for them to give him the privileges he needed but for which he was quite ready to pay a reasonable price, Greenfield declared that his Company had already given Worth quite enough. Of course, if they could find some basis upon which to unite their interests that would be another matter.

Then the evening mail brought to Mr. Worth certain legal looking papers and the next morning he called again upon Mr. Greenfield. In a spring wagon in front of the Company office Texas Joe and Abe Lee waited with a prosperous looking stranger who also had arrived the evening before.

"Mr. Greenfield, I have come for your final answer on this railroad deal."

On Greenfield's face there was a smile of satisfaction and triumph. There were several reasons why he enjoyed seeing Jefferson Worth in a corner. "I am ready to listen to any other proposition you have to make, Mr. Worth."

"You have the only proposition I shall make."

"Really, I fear that we can do nothing this morning."

The visitor turned on his heel and left the office.

Later, in describing the interview to Willard Holmes, Burk commented thoughtfully: "I very much fear your festive Uncle Jim played the game a little too fine. You can take some things and most men for granted; but a railroad, now, and Jefferson Worth----" he shifted his cigar to the corner of his mouth and cocked his head in the opposite direction. "I think, Willard, that something is going to happen."

What happened was this: When Jefferson Worth left the Company's office he stepped into the waiting rig beside the stranger. "Go ahead, Abe," he said. Then the surveyor giving Texas the direction, the team sped away. Once in the desert they stopped occasionally while the surveyor examined the four by four redwood stakes. At a point on the S. & C. four miles north of Kingston and therefore between the Company town and the main line, Abe directed Texas to stop.

The surveyor, taking a note book from his pocket, went to a corner stake and indicated with outstretched hands the direction of the boundary lines of a tract of land owned by his employer. "Here we are, Mr. Worth."

The place was raw desert and except for the railroad without sign of life save the life of the hard, desolate land; though in the distance could be seen the improved ranches, with Kingston in their midst. Standing on the slight elevation of the railroad grade Jefferson Worth looked around silently. Then, followed by the stranger and Abe, he walked some distance west of the track.

Pausing and striking his boot-heel into the soft earth, he said with much less show of emotion than is exhibited by the average school boy in laying out a ball-ground: "We will build a hotel here; over there a bank. The main street will run toward the railroad. The Basin Central from Barba will come in from the southeast."

And this was the beginning of Republic, the town that was built on a barren desert almost in the time it would have taken to prepare the land, plant and grow a crop of corn.

The stranger was the president of a townsite company organized by Jefferson Worth while James Greenfield was congratulating himself that he at last had that gentleman in a trap. Worth had given the company the land and had entered into an agreement whereby he was to build a hotel and several business blocks and furnish them, rent free, for one year.

With the railroad to deliver material in any desired quantity, work was begun in a few days. The King's Basin Messenger and the papers in Frontera and Barba, all owned by Worth, gave full accounts of the birth of the new town and the reason why The King's Basin Central would not be built into Kingston, with glowing accounts of Worth's plans for the future of the Company's rival town. The Worth Electric Company moved its plant from Kingston to Republic; the ice-plant, the bank, the telephone office and every enterprise controlled by Worth followed; while many merchants, lured by the success of the Wizard of the Desert in every undertaking and by the promise of rent free, went with the Worth industries; and from the world outside many, who had hesitated to enter the new country before the railroad, rushed in to locate in the new town. The first building completed in Republic was a cottage for Barbara and her father.

Meanwhile the work on the road to Barba and the South Central District was begun. The "something" prophesied by Mr. Burk had happened.