Chapter XXIV. Jefferson Worth Goes for Help.
 

The winter following the birth of Republic witnessed the greatest activities that had been seen in the new country. The freighters' wagons that had once seemed so pitifully inadequate, as they crept feebly away into the mysterious silences, were replaced now by long trains, heavily loaded with building material and goods of every kind and drawn by laboring engines that puffed and roared and clanged and screamed their stirring answer to the challenge of the silent, age-old, desolate land. And still the work that had been done was small in comparison with that which was yet to do before the reclamation of Barbara's Desert would be complete. The acres of land untouched by grader's Fresno or rancher's plow were many more than the acres that were producing crops. The miles of canals and ditches that were to be built were many more than the miles already carrying water. The tent houses and shacks of the pioneers were yet to be replaced by more comfortable homes. The frontier towns--big in that new country--were yet to grow into cities. From the top of any building in any one of the four towns one could look into the barren desert.

Tourists on the main line that skirted the rim of the Basin, from the car windows saw only the mighty reaches of the dun plain, with its thirsty vegetation, stretching away to the distant purple mountain wall. Curiously the overland passengers looked at the crowds of settlers waiting for the Basin train at the Junction, wondering at their hardihood. Curiously they followed with their eyes the thin line of rails and telegraph poles leading southward until it was lost in the mystic depths of color. To the tourists it was a fantastic dream that out there, somewhere in the barren waste, people were building towns, cultivating fields, transacting business and engaging in all the Good Business activities of the race. It was as impossible to them as it had been to Willard Holmes when Barbara first introduced him to her Desert and tried to make him see, as she saw, the greatness of the work of which he was to become a part.

The latter part of that winter found Jefferson Worth again with his back to the wall. James Greenfield, in his attempt to hold up his rival in the matter of the King's Basin Central junction, had wrought better than he knew. While Worth's enterprises were barely as yet paying their way, the railroad, which he was forced to build in order to protect his own interests in the town of Barba and in the South Central District, would require practically all he had realized on the sale of the other line that had so nearly exhausted his resources. The Company president, in forcing him to build the town of Republic in addition to his heavy outlay on his new railroad, forced him to take another desperate chance. For the first time he was unable to pay the men, and in thirty days large obligations for material would be due; while certain rumors, carefully started by Greenfield, made it almost impossible for him to raise the funds he must have.

"I'm sorry, Jeff," said his friend the railroad man. "But with present unsafe conditions we can't load up with any more property in The King's Basin. You know as well as I that if the river comes in we will have to get in there to protect our interests, for if those ranchers were wiped out our road wouldn't sell for scrap iron. You couldn't do it and the Greenfield crowd wouldn't. Why, that New York bunch, outside of Greenfield, don't know whether the Colorado is a trout stream or a mill pond. Their actual investment doesn't amount to half what you have put into your work, for the sale of water rights to the settlers is paying all the expense of their extensions and they won't put up a cent to rebuild their shaky old structures. And look where we stand! We have put more money into that country now than the Company and you together, and we won't pay operating expenses until the land is developed. And still the public is roaring about our rates. We don't want another desert line on our hands."

Quietly Jefferson Worth sold his interest in the banks in Frontera, Barba and Republic; and as quietly Greenfield, who was watching, set about gaining control of these institutions. His South Central District water stock was already sold and most of his property in Barba. Even his little home in Republic was mortgaged.

Thus Worth held on for a while longer. He dared not stop his work, for such a move would not only ruin his chances of negotiating the loans he needed, but by bringing upon him a swarm of creditors, would make it impossible for him ever to recover his standing in the financial world.

Another pay day passed without the men receiving their pay and the third was drawing near. Already there was grumbling and complaining among the men over the delayed pay checks. It would take but little more to start serious trouble.

There were many in the crowd at the depot that day when Jefferson Worth waited for the train to the city, who looked with envy upon the builder of towns and railroads. Horace P. Blanton proudly pointed out to a stranger "his friend, the Wizard of the Desert," with the information that Mr. Worth had cleaned up a cool million in the new country. Several went out of their way for a closer look at him or for a possible greeting. Others cursed him roundly under their breath for a hated member of the class of parasites that live on the industry of the laborer, a financier who robbed the people, a capitalist who produced nothing.

The train pulled in, and Mr. Worth, with a good-by to Barbara and Abe, who had come to see him off, stepped aboard. No one save Abe Lee, not even Barbara, knew that her father must raise fifty thousand dollars before the first of the month or suffer financial ruin. And no one--not even Jefferson Worth himself--knew where he could find the money.

Barbara, when her father was gone, though she knew nothing of the danger that threatened him, was restless and ill at ease, beset by vague and nameless doubts and fears. The little desert town with its bustling activity, its clamorous, rushing disorder, its naked newness and glaring bareness, offended her. Nothing was completed. The streets, the buildings, the very people, seemed so unsettled, so temporary. She could not shake off the feeling that it would all vanish soon, as she had often seen the phantom cities of the desert plain melt and disappear.

The morning after her father left, as she rode El Capitan slowly along the little village streets that lay so dusty and flat and that ended so quickly in the open country, she caught herself wondering how long the dream would endure. The farms, too, with their new green fields and their primitive, pioneer shacks, tent houses and shelters and their acres of still unimproved land, all lying under the white blaze of the semi-tropical sun, were they more than a mirage weirdly painted in the air by the spirit of the dreadful land to lure foolish men to their ruin?

Near the crossing of a canal she saw a zanjero turning the water through a new delivery gate into a new ditch, and checking El Capitan, she watched the brown flood rolling down the channel prepared for it and heard the dry earth hiss and purr as it sucked up the moisture with the thirst of a thousand years. She wanted to cry out a protest. The effort was so pitifully foolish. This awful, awful land would never yield to the men who sought to subdue it with such feeble means. From the little stream of water, no deeper than would reach to El Capitan's knees and no wider than his stride, she looked away and around over the seemingly endless miles of barren waste.

The man at the delivery gate recorded the number of inches in his book and, with a greeting to the young woman, mounted his horse and rode away along the canal. Barbara, moving on, left the farms behind and rode into the barren waste. This at least was real. This in its very desolation, its dreadful silence, its still menace, was satisfying. But as on that morning when she first rode El Capitan into the desert from Kingston, she grew afraid. The dreadful spirit of the land so pressed upon her that she turned her horse and fled as one might fly from an approaching storm.

Another restless, unsatisfying day and a lonely evening dragged by. Texas and Pat she had not seen for a week. Even Abe had not been near her since her father left. To-morrow, she told herself, she would find them at their work and demand a reason for their neglect.

The next morning she set out on El Capitan to follow the line of her father's railroad until she should find her neglectful men-folk. As she rode along the right-of-way she watched the hundreds of Mexican and Indian laborers at their work on the grade and thought of the men who had built the South Central Canal. Those men too had labored for her father, but they worked also for themselves. The canal they built was to reclaim their own land and to make for them farms and homes. These poor fellows on the railroad, she reflected, had no share in that which they were doing. There was in their toil nothing but the day's wage. She could not feel, as she had felt in the South Central District, that she had a part with them in their work. Here and there she recognized a Mexican from Rubio City, and these returned her greeting pleasantly, for they remembered the young woman's kindness to the poor. But by far the greater number gave her only sullen glances. She was to them only the daughter of the man for whom they toiled and who had not paid.

Passing from gang to gang and camp to camp, watching the dark faces of the laborers, listening to their sullen undertone, the young woman felt the restless, threatening spirit of the little army as one may feel sometimes the heavily charged atmosphere before an electric storm. But she did not understand. She had never before ridden over the railroad work alone as she had so often done in the South Central District.

She grew a little frightened at last at the scowling looks and muttered remarks that followed her as she went, and she was wishing that she had not come when she saw just ahead Abe Lee and Pat. The surveyor was giving some instructions to the Irish boss and both were so intent that they did not see Barbara approaching. As the young woman drew quite near, a low-browed Mexican who, in watching her approach, either forgot the presence of his superiors or, in sheer ruffianly bravado, ignored them, uttered a coarse remark to his companions about his employer's daughter.

The young woman heard and turned pale as death. Pat heard and, turning quickly around, caught sight of Barbara and saw the ruffian who had spoken looking at her. With a roar the Irishman leaped forward, and with a blow of his huge, hairy fist dropped the Mexican a senseless heap in the dirt.

With cries of rage the fellow's countrymen ran toward the white man, drawing their knives as they came. Barbara sat leaning forward in her saddle breathless. Abe Lee was quietly rolling a cigarette. Pat stood motionless, his battle-scarred features set and his eyes shining like points of light.

Within ten steps of their boss the little mob stopped. Then the Irishman spoke in a voice that rumbled and shook with menacing rage. "Ye, Manuel an' Pedro--drag that carrion off the right-av-way, an' tell him when he wakes up av he values his life to shtay out av rache av me two hands. The rest av ye hombres git the hell out av here!"

The two whom he called by name did his bidding and the rest scattered like sheep. Pat turned to Barbara. "'Tis sorry I am that ye should see ut, me girl, but ut had to be done."

"Oh, Pat! Did you--Is he--" She could not speak the word, but followed with frightened eyes the still form of the unconscious man as his companions half-dragged, half-carried him to the shade of a mesquite tree.

"There, there, don't worry," said her big friend soothingly. "He's not as much hurted as he should be. He'll have a bit av a bump on his noodle that'll maybe make him a bit careful wid his foul tongue for a while, that's all."

Barbara looked down into the face of the old gladiator whose eyes, as they looked up at her, were soft as a childs. "Oh, Pat! Are you sure? He--he crumpled up so! It was awful!" She shuddered.

"There, there; av course I'm sure. Don't I know? Look at him; he's sittin' up now. He'll be on his fate in a minute."

Sure enough, as Barbara looked again she saw the Mexican rising to a sitting posture and with his hand to his head look around in a dazed manner as though awakening out of a deep sleep. The young woman drew a long breath of relief and, with a faint smile, said to the surveyor, who had drawn nearer: "I'm sorry I came, Abe. I'm afraid you'll think that I'm only in the way to make trouble. But I was so lonesome all alone at home."

"Why, Barbara, you know how glad we always are to see you. You must not mind this little incident. It's all in the day's work with Pat, you see. That fellow there has had this coming to him for some time."

The Irishman grinned and the young woman on the horse, with a little laugh, said: "All the same I don't think I would like you for a boss, Uncle Pat. You're too--too emphatic."

And the big Irishman with twinkling eyes retorted: "Sure av ye was boss av a gang ye wud break more hearts wid yer swate face than I could heads wid me two hands." Which retort effectually closed the incident.

When the three had chatted a while and Barbara had scolded them for not coming to see her, Abe said: "I think you had better go back now, Barbara. But don't follow the line. Strike west over the desert until you come to the road and go in that way. We can't leave now to go with you, and some of these greasers might get gay again. I'll see you this evening."

It was after nine o'clock that night when the surveyor finally reached the Worth cottage. Somewhat awkwardly he entered and seated himself in the nearest chair, while Barbara, returning to her favorite rocker by the table, said: "It's time you came. I was so lonely I don't believe I could have stood it another hour. Really you and Pat and Tex have neglected me shamefully. You haven't been near since the day father left. Even Pablo has forgotten me."

"Pablo is at the power house at Dry River," Abe said slowly. "We've all had our hands full for the last three days. I reckon you know we have not stayed away because we wanted to."

Something in the man's tone and manner caused Barbara to look at him closely. Was it a fancy in keeping with her gloomy spirit of the last few days, or did the surveyor's tall form droop as if with discouragement? He was not looking at her with his usual straightforward manner. He seemed to be studying the pattern of the Navajo rug that lay between them, and certainly his lean, bronzed face wore a careworn look that was new. She noticed too that he wore belt and revolver, which was very unusual for Abe.

"Of course; I know!" she exclaimed. "It was childish of me to complain. Forgive me."

Abe, without answering, looked at her--a straight, questioning, challenging look that for some reason brought another flush to her cheek. Then the surveyor turned his gaze again upon the Navajo rug.

"I know you are tired," said the young woman again. "You have so much to think about with all those men to look after and daddy away. Come now; you sit right over here in this easy chair and shut your eyes and smoke and forget all about the work and everything, while I make a little music for you."

Barbara did not realize how she tried this man of the desert with a glimpse of a heaven that Abe knew could never be for him. For a moment he sat motionless without answering, his eyes still fixed upon the floor. Then with a quick, resolute movement he threw up his head and straightened himself. "I'm sorry, Barbara, but I can't stay this evening."

"Can't stay?" she cried. "Why, Abe, you just came!"

"Yes, I know. I--I just ran in to ask you--to see if you"--he hesitated and stammered, then finished desperately--"to ask you to let me send Texas to stay here to-night."

She looked at him in bewildered amazement. "Why, what in the world do you mean? Why should Texas stay here to-night?"

Then as a sudden possible explanation came to her mind--"Abe, has Uncle Tex--Is he in trouble?"

The surveyor smiled at her words. "It's nothing like that, Barbara. Tex is all right. But I don't think that you should be left alone here with only Ynez just now. Pat is at the power house and I must be at the ice plant, and Tex--" He checked himself in alarm.

Barbara's face was white and her eyes, fixed upon his, were big with sudden fear as, rising slowly to her feet, she went towards him. With an exclamation he sprang from his seat but she regained control of herself and, quietly taking another chair nearer him, said: "I think you had better tell me, Abe, just exactly what the trouble is. I know something is wrong or you would not want to send Texas here to me. You know that I have always stayed with Ynez. Why are you afraid for me? Why is Pat at the power house, and why are you going to stay at the ice plant? And why do you wear that?" She pointed to the heavy Colt's revolver.

Little by little she forced from the reluctant superintendent an explanation of the whole situation: how her father had been driven by the Company to build the new town of Republic in addition to the construction of his railroad to Barba and how conditions in the Basin had made it impossible to sell this line to the S. & C. as he had sold before. He told her as gently as he could that the men had not been paid for nearly two months, and that if her father did not succeed in raising the necessary funds quickly he would lose everything. The men had been put off from day to day with explanations that their employer was away and that they would receive their pay when he returned. But ugly rumors were afloat among them and their angry uneasiness and discontent were increasing. Threats against their employer and his property were being made by the hot-headed leaders, who always appear under such conditions, and the surveyor feared that serious trouble might start at any hour.

To Barbara the situation was almost incredible. Again and again she exclaimed with pity for her father, and demanded to know why they had all kept her in ignorance of the truth; and as she realized how lovingly she had been shielded from every worry that she might feel nothing of the burden that weighed so heavily upon them, her woman heart cried out that she had not been permitted to bear her share.

"But I know now," she said at last, brushing aside the tears that, against her will, filled the brown eyes. "I know now and you men shall see that I can do something to help." She stood before him-- her strong beautiful figure bravely erect, her face glowing with the light of a determined purpose.

The surveyor smiled his appreciation as he said: "It's almost as good as money in the bank to hear you talk like that, Barbara. But you'll let me send Tex over to-night, won't you?"

"You must do whatever you think best, Abe. But you must promise me this. From now on you will tell me everything, just as you have always told me about the work."

Abe drew a long breath. "I don't know what your father will say but I'll do it. I've felt all along that it was hardly square to keep you in the dark."

"Of course it wasn't," she agreed. "And now listen! You and Pat come here for breakfast with Texas Joe and me. Come as early as you like."

He began to protest, saying that they would need to eat at daybreak in order to get back to the work by seven o'clock, but she silenced him with--"And do you think that I cannot even get up at sun-rise? You shall not lose a minute's time and it will do you good to start out with one of Ynez's good breakfasts."

So the surveyor was forced to promise this also. Then with a soft "Buenos noches, Senorita," he left her.

Later Texas Joe came to sleep in Mr. Worth's room. The night passed without incident, and when the first trace of silver gray light shone above the eastern mesa beyond the rim of the Basin Abe Lee returned with Pat to find the meal ready and Barbara waiting to pour the fragrant coffee. While the sky was still aflame with the colors of the morning and the desert lay under a curtain of fantastic figures and grotesque patterns woven by the light, the three men mounted their horses and set out for the field of the day's labors. And Barbara at the gate watched them go until, in the distance, their forms too were caught in the magic of the desert's loom and woven into the airy design.

Before noon Abe came back. The men had struck. The surveyor had already sent a telegram to Mr. Worth and in the afternoon they had his answer that he was going to San Felipe. But there was no word of hope in the message.

All that day the men from the railroad were gathering in the little town, and in the early evening the laborers from the power canal at Barba joined the throng on the streets. This dark-faced, scowling crowd of Mexicans and Indians was very different from the company of pioneers that met in Kingston to receive Jefferson Worth a few months before. On every hand they were heard cursing the man who owed them their wages and threatening to take revenge if they were not soon paid.

That night Texas Joe again slept at the Worth cottage, for Barbara stoutly refused to leave her home, and Abe and Pat, with the little handful of white men from the office force, stood guard at the power house, the ice plant and the other buildings that were grouped near the railroad on the edge of town.