Chapter XXVII. Abe Lee's Ride to Save Jefferson Worth.
 

The evening that Jefferson Worth spent in the San Felipe hotel lobby, apparently absorbed in his paper while Greenfield, Holmes and Cartwright with their New York friends were enjoying their dinner, Barbara and her court had their anxious supper together in the Worth home.

The night that followed was one of wakeful readiness on the part of the men who guarded the Worth property. But the strikers seemed content to curse and threaten. Breakfast the next morning, in spite of Barbara's efforts at cheerfulness, was a gloomy meal. Worn with their anxious vigil the men ate in silence, save when they forced themselves to respond to their young hostess's attempts at conversation. They knew that another day of idleness would fit the striking laborers for reckless action.

When the meal was over Barbara insisted that they must get some sleep. They protested, but she argued rightly that there was nothing else that they could do and that they must keep themselves fit for a possible need of their strength later. So she brought comforts and blankets for a bed on the floor in the little sitting room and, drawing the shades, announced that she would take her sewing to the front porch while they slept.

Three hours passed and a boy arrived from the telegraph office with a message addressed to Abe Lee. Speaking in low tones that the tired men within might not be disturbed, Barbara said that she would hand the message to Mr. Lee, who was in the house, and signed her name in the book. Then as the boy went down the walk the young woman, with trembling fingers, tore open the yellow envelope.

The message read: "Money to-day by wire from Tenth National Bank, New York. Pay men and go on with work. I leave for home to-night ten-thirty.

Jefferson Worth."

Barbara and her Desert had won against the Company through Willard Holmes, but Barbara did not know that.

Behind her, as she stood with the yellow slip in her hand, the sitting room door opened softly and turning she saw Abe standing on the threshold. The alert surveyor had been aroused by the coming of the messenger. Even before she spoke her face told him the good news.

Abe went at once to notify the strikers that they would receive their pay on the morrow without fail. To several of the leaders he exhibited the telegram with Mr. Worth's instructions: "Pay men and go on with work," and they in turn verified to their countrymen the good news. As the word went around, the dark scowling faces were lighted with satisfaction and pleased anticipation, curses and threats were silenced in laughter and merry talk. In a short hour or two the little army of striking laborers that had for days been in a mood for any violence became a good natured crowd bent on enjoying to the full their short holiday.

Barbara insisted on serving dinner for her three friends, and with the strike practically settled and the weary strain of the situation removed the four made the meal a jolly one. When they could eat no more they still sat idling at the table, reluctant to break the spell of their companionship.

Texas Joe, leaning back in his chair, with his slow smile drawled in an inconsequential way: "I reckon, now that the financial obsequies of Mr. Jefferson Worth has been indefinitely postponed owin' to the corpse refusin' to perform, that Company bunch will wear mournin' because said funeral didn't come off as per schedule. Them roosters are sure a humorous lot."

"Of course they will be sorry, Uncle Tex," said Barbara. "It's Good Business, you know, to want your competitor to fail."

The old plainsman shook his head. "I sure don't sabe this financierin' game, honey, but I'm stakin' my pile on your dad just the same."

"Well," said Pat, "we're all glad on Mr. Worth's account, av course, that ut's over as aisy as ut is. But for mesilf, av ut was all the same to him an' to ye Barbara, I'd be wishin' the danged greasers 'd kape on a shtrikin' so long as ye wud lave me put my fate under yer table."

They all laughed at Pat's sentiments, which the other two men endorsed most heartily. Then the surveyor with his two helpers went up town.

Stopping at the bank and showing the cashier his message from Mr. Worth, Abe asked if he had heard from New York.

Before answering, the man picked up a telegram from his desk and scanned it thoughtfully. "No," said Greenfield's cashier, as if against his will; "we have heard nothing to-day."

Just before the close of banking hours the surveyor again called at the bank. "Any news from New York yet?"

"Yes. We had their wire just after you left."

"Well?" asked Abe impatiently. "Isn't it all right?"

"It's all right, Mr. Lee, except that we were forced to answer that we could not handle the business."

The surveyor searched his pockets for tobacco and cigarette papers. "I think you'd better explain, Mr. Williams."

Again the cashier hesitated, turning thoughtfully to the telegram on his desk. Then he said reluctantly: "It is Mr. Greenfield's orders, Lee."

With a cloud of smoke from Abe's lips came the question: "And the other banks in the Basin?"

"You would only waste your time."

"Thanks, Williams. Adios."

Abe Lee walked slowly out of the building. Moving aimlessly down the street, unseeing and unheeding, he ran fairly into Pat and Texas, who were talking with a rancher from the South Central District.

The voice of the Irishman aroused him. "Fwhat the hell! Is ut dhrunk ye are?" Then, as he caught a good look at the surveyor's face--"For the love av Gawd, fwhat's wrong wid ye, lad?"

The rancher also was looking at him curiously. Abe gained control of himself instantly with an apologetic laugh. "Excuse me, Pat. I was thinking about the work and didn't see you. There's a little matter that I want to take up with you this afternoon. I'll be too busy for it to-morrow."

The rancher, with another word or two, turned away. Then Abe, in a low tone, exclaimed: "Let's get away from the crowd quick, where we can talk."

They started down the street and instinctively their feet turned toward Jefferson Worth's home instead of toward the office. As they went Abe explained the situation. Pat cursed the bank and James Greenfield and the Company with no light weight curses.

"Hell will sure be a-poppin' when them greasers don't get their pay checks, as we've been promisin' them," drawled Texas Joe, shaking his head mournfully. "For regular unexpectedness this here financierin' business gets me plumb locoed. What will you do, Abe? Greenfield sure takes this trick, don't he?"

They had reached the gate of the Worth home and had paused as people sometimes will when engaged in conversation of absorbing interest. Before Abe could answer Texas, Barbara, who sat on the porch, called laughingly: "What's the matter with you men? Are you hungry again? Why don't you come in?"

In consternation the three looked blankly at each other. Pat growled another curse under his breath. Texas shook his head doubtfully. Abe groaned: "She'll have to know, boys."

Slowly they went up the walk and Barbara, as they drew near, did not need words to tell her that something seriously wrong had happened.

When Abe had explained it in as few words as possible she said: "But it will only be for a few days."

"A few days will be too late," said Abe bluntly. "We have promised these greasers and Indians that we will pay to-morrow without fail. When we don't pay, on top of all the trouble we have had, no explanation will stand. They'll go on the warpath sure. If they were white men it would be different."

"Well, why don't you telegraph father and let him bring the money or send it by express from San Felipe?"

"But he couldn't get the cash started before to-morrow afternoon. Then it would have to go around by the city and wouldn't get here until three days later. Williams didn't tell me, you see, until he knew that the San Felipe bank would be closed before I could, get a message through."

They sat in troubled silence--Pat in sullen rage, Texas squatting on his heels cow-boy fashion, Abe pulling at a cigarette, Barbara leaning forward in her chair. Three hours before they had been so merry because the trouble was over; now they faced a situation many times more perilous than before.

With a quick gesture of decision Abe tossed aside his cigarette. "Tex, where is that buckskin horse of yours?"

"In Clark's stable. Want him?"

"Yes. Give him a good feed and bring him here as soon as he is ready. Bring one feed and a canteen, and while the horse is eating go around to my room and get my gun."

Without a question the old plainsman left the group and walked swiftly away.

Barbara puzzled for a moment then asked: "Are you sending Tex to San Felipe for the money, Abe?"

"I am going myself. Tex will be needed here. He's worth three of me at this end of the game. To-day is Wednesday. That buckskin will make it to San Felipe in twenty-six hours. That will be to-morrow evening. If your father can have the money ready I should be back here by Friday night."

While speaking he was tearing a leaf from his note book. Quickly he wrote a message to Jefferson Worth. "Pat, take this to the telegraph office and make them rush it. It must catch Mr. Worth before he leaves at ten-thirty to-night."

Barbara sprang to her feet. "Oh, please let me go. Let me do something."

Abe handed her the slip of paper with a smile. "If you don't mind I will take a nap in your father's room. And will you ask Ynez to have a bite to eat ready for me with a sandwich or two that I can slip into my pocket. Pat, you stay here and don't let anyone disturb me until five-thirty. Then call me sure. Tex will be here with the horse by that time." With the last word he disappeared into the house.

When Pat called him he was sleeping soundly. Barbara had sent the telegram and with her own hands prepared his supper and a lunch. While he ate, the surveyor gave brief instructions to his two helpers.

Then Barbara went with him to the gate where the buckskin horse, one of that tough, wiry, half-wild breed native to the western plains, waited, head down with bridle reins hanging to the ground. As Abe tightened the cinch and took his spurs from the saddle horn, the girl went closer to his side. "I wish you did not have to go," she said as he stooped to put on a spur.

He straightened up and looked at her. The brown eyes regarded him seriously. "Why, Barbara! you are not afraid? Texas and Pat will be here."

"It's not myself, Abe; it's you," she answered. "You have had such a hard time since this trouble began and now this long, lonely ride. I wish there was some other way."

Stooping quickly so that she might not see his face he adjusted the other spur with trembling fingers.

"I shall think of you every minute, Abe," said the young woman softly.

The strap of the spur required several ineffectual efforts before the man could fasten it on the steel button. At length it was on and, rising again, he threw the bridle reins over the horse's head, holding them in his left hand on the animal's neck. Barbara came still closer and with her finger traced the design carved on the heavy Mexican saddle. "You will be careful, won't you, Abe?"

The hand on the horse's neck tightened on the reins as the surveyor looked straight into the young woman's eyes a moment as if searching for something that he knew was not there. Then he held out his free hand, saying in Spanish with a smile: "Adios, sister."

Giving him her hand she answered in the same soft musical tongue: "Adios, my brother."

Turning he put his foot in the stirrup and, with the easy graceful swing of the western horseman, he mounted and the buckskin, as his rider lifted the bridle reins, struck at once into the long lazy lope of his kind.

Leisurely Abe Lee rode along the main street of the little town. The strikers, idling in front of the stores, leaning against the buildings or awning posts, squatting on their heels on the sidewalks, or sitting in rows on the curbing, saw him pass without interest. If they thought anything it was that the superintendent was going to Kingston on some business or other for their employer, Senor Worth, or that to-morrow the man on the buckskin horse would give them the slips of paper that they would take to the senor at the bank, who would give them their money.

Still riding leisurely, Abe left behind the town that Jefferson Worth had built in the barren desert and passed the newly improved ranches on the outskirts. Without hurry, even checking his horse to a shuffling fox-trot at times, he reached Kingston.

From the window of his office in the Company building Mr. Burk saw the horseman as he passed, and the Company manager, who was paid for thinking, shifted his cigar to one corner of his mouth and, tilting his head, grew thoughtful while the buckskin horse carried his rider out of Kingston toward the south.

Reaching the old San Felipe trail the surveyor swung his horse to the west and, leaving behind all that man had so far wrought in La Palma de la Mano de Dios, rode straight toward the mountain wall that in grim barrenness and forbidding solitude had stood sentinel through the unnumbered ages, shutting out from the land of death the world of life that lay on the other side. As that mighty wall had from the beginning turned back every moisture-laden cloud from the thirsty, starving land, so it seemed now to impose itself as an impassable barrier against the man who rode to save the work of Jefferson Worth.

The buckskin horse, as if realizing that this was no jaunt of ten or twenty miles, held to his steady, machine-like lope that measured the distance of each swing with the accurate regularity of a pendulum; while the lean, loose body of his rider, resting easily in the saddle, yielded without resistance to the horse's every movement so that those laboring muscles, working so smoothly under the yellow hide, might not be called upon to adjust themselves to the sudden strain of unexpected changes in balance. Mile after mile of the dun plain slipped away under those apparently slow-measuring hoofs at surprising speed. Now and then, at the slightest signal from Abe, the gait was changed from a lope to that easy shuffling fox-trot that lifted the dust in a great yellow cloud.

Straight ahead the rider saw the sun go slowly down behind the mountain wall. He watched the purple shadows that he knew were canyons deepen, and the blue that he knew to be shoulders and spurs and points change and darken until every detail was lost in the slate gray mass, while against the light that lingered in the west every tooth, knob and peak of the sky-line showed a sharp, clean-cut silhouette. He saw the colors of the desert fade and melt as the dark mantle of the night was drawn quietly over the plain. He heard the night voices of the desert awakening and sensed the soft breathing of the lonely land. And in his nostrils was the indescribable odor of the ancient sea-bed that, for uncounted thousands of years, had lain under a blazing sun and scorching wind and mistless nights, knowing no touch of human life save the passing presence of those who dared to follow that one thin trail.

And always with that dogged regularity the sandy miles were being measured by those steady hoofs. At Wolf Wells, as the last faint tinge of light went out of the sky beyond the black mass of No Man's Mountains, Abe drew rein for the first time. Dismounting, he slipped the bit from the horse's mouth and the animal plunged his nose deep into the refreshing water. The buckskin, with the blood of his wild ancestors strong in his veins, was no dainty, tenderly-nourished aristocrat that needed to be rested, cooled and blanketed before he could slake his thirst. Without pausing he drank his fill and then, lifting his head, drew one long, deep breath of satisfaction and stood ready.

In the dark Abe felt his saddle girths, then ran his hand over the moist warm neck and slapped the strong hips approvingly. "Good boy, Buck! Good old boy!" Without thought of further rest they went on-- on--and on, without pause or cheek save the occasional change in gait from the swinging lope to the shuffling fox-trot, until they reached the line of the ancient beach, and the buckskin, with head down, labored heavily up the steep grade to the Mesa.

It was at this point, years before, that the four men and the boy had stopped to look away over the awe-inspiring scenes of wide sky, measureless plain, rolling sand hills, dream lakes and ever-changing seas of color, all hidden now in the blackness of the night.

In the dark, hall-like Devil's Canyon the sound of the horse's feet echoed and re-echoed sharply from the rock walls, while the darkness was so thick that Abe could not see the animal's head.

At Mountain Spring, where travelers into the desert always filled their water barrels, Abe stopped again. It was a little past midnight. Loosing the saddle girth and removing the bridle, the surveyor let his horse drink and, taking a sack with his one feed of rolled barley, he deftly converted it into a rude nose-bag by cutting a strip in each side two-thirds the length of the sack and tying it over the horse's head. After eating his own lunch the surveyor stretched himself out flat on his back on the ground with every muscle relaxed. The sound of the horse munching his feed ceased; the animal's head dropped lower, and he too--wise in the wisdom of the open country--relaxed his muscles and rested.

For an hour they remained there, then again the bridle was adjusted, the saddle girths tightened, and they went on. But the gait was not so measured now nor the pace so steady, for they were well into the mountains, climbing toward the summit. But still there was no pause for breath, no relief for the straining muscles of the horse or for the weary aching body of the rider.

Crossing over the summit at last they were on the long western slope of the range with much better going, and the buckskin again carried his rider swiftly on while the thud and ring of the iron-shod hoofs on the rock-strewn road aroused the echoes in the dark and lonely hills.

Hour after hour of the long night passed with no sound to break the silence save the sound of the horse's feet, the rattle of bridle chains, the clink of spur or the creak of saddle leather. And when the gray of the morning came they were in the foot hills. Behind them the mountains--a bare and forbidding wall on the desert side-- lifted ridge upon ridge with the green of pine on the heights, oak on the slopes and benches, and sycamore in the lower canyons. Streams of bright water tumbled merrily down their clean rocky courses or rested in quiet pools in the cold shadows. Before them spread the beautiful Coast country, sloping with many a dip and hollow and rolling ridge and rounding hill westward to the sea.

At the first ranch house they stopped. A short hour's rest with breakfast for man and horse, and they were away again. For dinner Abe drew rein in a beautiful little village in the heart of the rich farming country and at four o'clock, from the summit of a low hill, he saw the ocean, with the smoke of San Felipe dark against the blue of sky and water. There were yet three hours of riding. The tired man straightened himself in the saddle, the horse felt the motion and responded with a slight quickening of the movements of those wonderful muscles that still worked so steadily and smoothly under the buckskin coat. The animal seemed to realize with the man that the end of the journey was in sight. Yet it would take another hour and another of that steady, measured lope and the easy shuffling fox-trot.

The sun was dipping downward now toward the ocean's rim, and sea and sky were a blaze of glorious light; while on that dazzling background sail and mast and roof and steeple were painted black with edges of yellow flame. The horse, with the dogged, determined spirit of his breed, was drawing upon the last of his strength--the strength that had brought them so many miles without faltering. But still he answered gamely to the lifting of the reins with that measured, swinging lope.

But as he watched the sun go down, Abe Lee forgot his weariness, forgot his aching muscles and stiffened limbs. He remembered only that miles away in the little desert town there was a mob of striking Mexicans and Indian laborers who, disappointed and enraged at not receiving their promised pay, would be ready now for any deed that promised to satisfy their blind desire for vengeance. He knew that no explanations would be accepted. No plea for patience would be heard. They could not understand. In their eyes they had been tricked, fooled, cheated, defrauded of their just dues. They knew no better way to redress their wrongs than the primitive way--to destroy, to injure, perhaps to kill. And Barbara--Barbara was there. If only they would let that one night pass! If only Tex and Pat and the little handful of white men could hold them off a few more hours until he could get back.

Until he could get back! But what if Jefferson Worth had not received the telegram before he left San Felipe? What if there should be a still further delay in getting the money?

Through the lighted streets of the harbor city the buckskin and his rider finally made their way. A policeman, looking suspiciously at the dust-begrimed, sweat-caked, trembling horse that stood with legs braced wide and drooping head, and at the haggard-faced rider, directed the surveyor to the hotel a block away, and then stood watching them as they moved slowly toward the end of the ride.