Chapter XXIX. Tell Barbara I'm All Right.
 

When Abe Lee, after twenty-six hard hours in the saddle, dismounted in front of the San Felipe hotel and entered the lobby his usually perfect nerves were strained almost to the breaking point. For weeks the surveyor had carried the burden of Jefferson Worth's financial condition as if it were his own. With the prospect of seeing the work he loved better than his life wrecked and taken over by the Company, he had for days faced the critical situation of the strike. Then, in the very hour of relief, the situation had become seemingly hopeless. Abe Lee, better than anyone, knew the temper of the Mexican and Indian strikers. He realized fully how great the chances were that at the very moment when he finished his ride for relief the town of Republic was the scene of tragic violence.

If Jefferson Worth had left San Felipe ignorant of the failure of his effort to relieve the dangerous situation at home, or if by some chance the money so desperately needed was not ready, Abe knew that the cause was lost. The Company would triumph.

As he entered the hotel his eyes, searching eagerly for his employer, fell first on James Greenfield. With a movement wholly involuntary the hand of the overwrought desert man came to rest on his hip close to the heavy Colt's forty-five. Then he saw Jefferson Worth and Willard Holmes moving towards him.

When a man feels himself hard-pressed in a fight and is struggling desperately to hold his ground, he has small thought for the trifling courtesies demanded by custom. Without returning the greetings of the two men and instinctively drawing apart from Holmes, the surveyor shot a single question at his employer. "Have you got it?"

"Everything is all right," answered Jefferson Worth, and with his words something of his calm confidence went to Abe Lee.

When the two men reached Worth's apartment the surveyor, without hesitation, began stripping off his clothes. "I want a good bath first," he said. "And while I am at it will you please have a good thick beefsteak cooked rare and sent up here? Then I'll sleep for a couple of hours. That buckskin of Texas Joe's is standing in from of the hotel. He's about all in. I wish that you would see that he is cared for."

As he finished speaking the tall lean figure of the surveyor disappeared through the bath room door. Mr. Worth sent the order for his superintendent's supper to the cook with a sum of money that insured immediate and careful attention. Then with his own hands he led the buckskin horse to a barn where the animal would have the care he had so well earned.

When Mr. Worth returned to the hotel he opened the door of his room softly. There was a tray of empty dishes on the table, an odor of cigarette smoke in the atmosphere, and in his employer's bed the surveyor, sound asleep. Abe Lee understood the value of every moment even in taking rest.

Two hours later Mr. Worth, going again to his room, found that the surveyor had just finished dressing. With a smile the financier handed Abe a slip of yellow paper. It was a message from Barbara saying that so far all was well at home, and concluded with the words: "Love to Abe."

Without a word Abe turned away to buckle about his hips the broad cartridge belt with its worn holster and his big black gun. But Barbara's father did not see him slip the bit of yellow paper into the pocket of his blue flannel shirt.

Then Mr. Worth gave the surveyor a black leather bill-book stuffed to its utmost capacity and secured with rubber bands. "Here it is," he said.

Abe stored the package in an inner pocket of his khaki coat and was ready.

At the barn they found Willard Holmes waiting with two horses. The engineer wore a new belt, holster and revolver. When he had greeted them he said: "Well, are we all ready? I have a lunch here. Is there anything else?"

Abe looked at him questioningly and turned to Mr. Worth.

"Mr. Holmes is going back with you," said the banker.

For an instant the surveyor hesitated. But something in his employer's tone caused him to withhold any objection, and with no comment he turned to inspect the horses. The animals were of the same tough breed as the buckskin. "They're all right, are they?" Abe asked of the liveryman.

"You can see for yourself," came the answer. "You know the kind. The' ain't nothin' can outlast 'em, an' Mr. Worth said that was what he wanted."

"We will need one feed apiece," said Abe. "Put it in two sacks, you know."

"Sure," returned the man. "I'd a-had it ready but this here gentleman didn't tell me."

While the liveryman was preparing the grain Abe examined saddles and cinches. "Are your stirrups right?" he asked Holmes.

"I think so."

"You'd better know. We don't want to stop to monkey around in the dark."

The barn man grinned, with a wink at the surveyor, as the engineer decided, after trying, that he had better shorten the straps a hole. Abe silently assisted him in adjusting them. Then--swinging into his saddle--the surveyor said to his employer as the horses moved ahead: "Good-by, sir. Wire little sister that I'm coming."

Along the lighted city streets they rode at a pace that seemed to Willard Holmes more fitting for ladies' gentle exercise than for two men bound on an errand against time. The eastern man urged his horse ahead, but his companion held back and Holmes was forced to check his speed and wait for the other to come up with him. To the engineer's attempts at conversation the other answered only in monosyllables or not at all.

There had been no opportunity for Mr. Worth to explain to Abe the engineer's part in helping him to secure the money from Cartwright and the consequent discharge of Holmes by Greenfield. To the surveyor's mind his companion belonged to the enemy. He could not understand why--with the victory or defeat of Jefferson Worth in his fight with the Company hanging upon his superintendent's mission-- the Company's chief engineer should volunteer to accompany him. The presence of Greenfield and Holmes in San Felipe, the action of the banks controlled by the Company, made it clear to Abe that they understood the dangerous situation of Mr. Worth and his urgent need of immediate relief. The Company had everything to gain if the arrival of the money at the scene of the strike could be delayed even for a few hours. But Abe had seen that it was Jefferson Worth's wish that Holmes go with him and the surveyor could not, in the presence of Holmes, discuss the question.

On his part Holmes felt the antagonism of his silent companion but could not guess the reason, while Abe's attitude of aloofness prevented the engineer from making any explanation. He told himself that the surveyor was naturally over-wrought with the mental and physical strain of his long ride, and that later, at some more opportune time, when they halted for lunch and rest perhaps, they would come to a more agreeable spirit of companionship.

But he could not content himself with the slow pace when there was such evident need of haste. It was all a mistake, he thought, for the man already wearied to undertake the return trip. A fresh rider was as necessary as a fresh horse. The surveyor was evidently too exhausted to push on at the necessary speed and Holmes felt that it fell upon him to set the pace and thus force his companion to the exertion required. So he continued urging his horse ahead while Abe's mount, held back by his rider, tugged at the reins and grew restless, and the horse of Holmes, now started sharply forward, now pulled down almost to a standstill, became equally uneasy. So they rode out of the city beyond the lights and movement of the streets into the stillness and the darkness of the night.

At last as Holmes again touched his horse with the spur, making him bound several lengths ahead, and again pulled him down waiting for Abe to overtake him, the western man broke the long silence. "You'll have to quit that, Mr. Holmes," he said somewhat sharply.

The engineer did not understand. "Quit what?"

"Breaking ahead like that. I'll set the pace for this trip."

"You don't seem to be in any hurry," retorted Holmes, nettled by the surveyor's tone.

"I ain't. Not in that kind of a hurry."

"But look here, Abe. Don't you know that Mr. Worth expects us to make the trip in the shortest possible time? We've got to get that money into Republic to-morrow evening, and before if we can. There is too much at stake to poke along like this."

Abe reflected. The Company man certainly understood the situation. Aloud he said: "I think I know what Jefferson Worth wants, Mr. Holmes, and I reckon you'll have to trust me to carry out his wishes. I know the distance; I know this road; and I know horse flesh a little. At the rate you're trying to go you'll be afoot before noon to-morrow. You can ride your own horse down if you want to, but you can't hinder me by fretting mine into unnecessary exertion. He'll need every ounce of his strength and I'm going to see that he doesn't waste any of it. Either push ahead out of sight and hearing as fast as you please, or turn back; but if you ride with me you'll quit this monkey business and ride quietly at the gait I set."

Willard Holmes instantly saw the force of the western man's words. "I beg your pardon, Lee," he said. "Of course you know best. I'm so anxious over this business that I'm acting like a fool."

After that companionship was a little easier, but under the circumstances the one topic most on the mind of each was carefully avoided. At midnight they stopped at the crossing of a stream to water and feed, and Abe showed his companion how to make a nosebag out of the sack in which his grain was carried.

Daybreak found them in the foothills. At the ranch where Abe had been accommodated the morning before they again halted for breakfast. With another feed for the horses tied behind their saddles, they began the long climb of the western slope of the mountains and about four o'clock in the afternoon had crossed over the summit and reached the spring at the head of Devil's Canyon--the last water they would find until they reached Wolf Wells in the desert.

When they dismounted at the watering place some two hundred yards off the trail, the surveyor, after slipping the bit from his horse's mouth and loosening the saddle girth, moved slowly about the little glen, his eyes on the ground. Holmes, standing by the horses which had their muzzles deep in the cool water, watched his companion wearily. "Lost something?" he asked, as Abe continued moving cautiously about.

"Not yet," came the laconic reply.

"Well, what the deuce are you looking for then?"

Abe, coming back to arrange the feed for his horse, looked closely at his companion but made no answer.

When the two men had thrown themselves on the grass to eat their lunch the surveyor, between bites of his sandwich, carefully scanned the mountain side and the mouth of the canyon below. Suddenly reaching out his hand he picked up a burnt cigarette butt and regarded it intently, while the engineer watched him with curious, amused interest.

"What the deuce is the matter, Abe? You act like one of Cooper's Leather-Stocking heroes. What's the matter with that cigarette stub?"

The man of the desert, knowing nothing of Cooper, did not smile but answered shortly, eyeing the engineer as he spoke: "It ain't dry. There was a party at this watering place not more than three hours ago."

"Well, what of it? This is government property. Probably somebody ahead of us going into the new country to locate."

"There's been nobody ahead of us all day."

"How do you know that?"

Abe shrugged his shoulders. "How do I know that a party of five or six watered here since noon?"

"Perhaps it's someone going out."

"Did we meet anyone? This is the only trail."

"Well, maybe it was a party of prospectors or hunters. They would not follow the road."

"They would have pack burros or mules. Nothing but horses in this bunch. They----" The surveyor turned his head quickly to look up the hill. His ear had caught the sound of a horse's feet on the mountain road above.

Holmes, looking also, saw a horseman ride leisurely around the turn and down the grade toward the canyon. Silently they watched and as the newcomer came nearer they saw that he was a Mexican. When the traveler reached the point where he should have turned aside to the water he did not pause but jogged steadily past. "By George!" exclaimed Holmes, "I believe that's one of our greasers from the outfit in Number Eight."

"I know it is," said Abe. "Perhaps you can make a guess as to what he's doing here and why he didn't stop for water." As the surveyor spoke he was rolling a cigarette, and from the cloud of smoke he watched the Mexican ride down the mountain side and disappear between the narrow walls of Devil's Canyon.

"I'm sure I don't know what he's doing. He seems to be going toward the desert. There might be a hundred different reasons why he should have been out somewhere."

"There's only one reason why he didn't stop for water at this place."

"What's that?"

"He had already watered."

"But there has been no chance for miles back!"

"He watered here."

Holmes spoke sharply. Abe's manner irritated him. "I don't see how you know."

"Because this is the only water for twenty miles going either way."

"But you said you thought there was a party of five or six."

"I know there are five or six."

"Where are the others, then, if this man was one of the party?"

"I don't know exactly where they are, but I can guess."

By this time Willard Holmes had come to see that to his companion there was a great deal more in the common-place incident than the surveyor chose to put into words. Abe, throwing away his cigarette and rolling another with his long-practiced fingers, seemed to be striving to arrive at some conclusion about something that to the engineer was all very much in the dark.

Aggravated by the reticence of his companion, Holmes burst forth with: "For heaven's sake! Abe, open up. What's on your mind? What's the matter anyway? What's all this about?"

Abe faced the engineer with a straight, hard look. "Don't you know what it's all about?"

"So far as I can see it's all about nothing at all. Tell me."

"Well, Mr. Holmes, I will. But I'm not sure yet that it will be news to you. The rest of the gang that watered here is down in Devil's Canyon waiting for us. They were here something like three hours ago. After watering, one of them went on over the ridge to watch for us and the others went back down the canyon. They knew that we would stop here to feed and water and that the lookout could jog along past, apparently minding his own business, and tell 'em that we were coming."

"You mean it's a hold-up?" cried Holmes, in some excitement.

"That's what I would call it. Your Company would probably call it intercepting Mr. Worth's messenger."

"The Company? What has the Company to do with it?"

"Greenfield and you were in San Felipe. You knew what I went after. You know that the chances are big that Jefferson Worth will go to smash if I don't make it to Republic to-night, and that greaser is a Company man."

In a flash Holmes saw the whole situation from his companion's point of view and understood the surveyor's suspicions. At the same time the engineer realized that it was now too late for him to explain his presence or that he was no longer connected with the Company. In his perplexity and chagrin and in the suddenness of it all he said the worst thing possible. "Well, what are you going to do about it?"

Abe's voice was hard. "I'm not going to take any fool chances. This may be a plain ordinary case of hold-up or it may be a job framed up by the Company simply to delay me. It's all the same to me, but this money goes to Republic to-night. Sabe that?"

The other would have spoken but Abe interrupted.

"We've palavered long enough, Mr. Holmes. The horses have finished their feed and it's time to start."

When they were mounted the surveyor said shortly: "Now, sir, you just ride ahead and you ride slow until I give the word--then you go like hell. If you lift a hand to signal or make any mistakes like stopping to fix your saddle girth or checking up to speak to that bunch or turning 'round, I get you first and you can't afford to have any hazy notions about my not wanting to kill you because you're from New York. If you're square you can make good on those Company greasers down there and I'll apologize afterwards. If you're in this deal with your damned Company, you'll stop drawing your salary right here and there won't be any funeral expenses for them to pay either! Go ahead."

"Just a word first," and Abe saw that the engineer was as cool as a veteran. "Granting that you are right about that crowd being down there to stop us, if anything should happen to you tell me how to get into Republic with the money. You will be taking no chances with that at least."

"Follow the trail to the telephone line. You know it from there. There's water at Wolf Wells. Give your horse a drink but don't wait to rest. You can push him from now on as hard as you like. You should make it to Republic in six hours from here. Give the money to Miss Worth. Anything else?"

Holmes replied by turning in his saddle and moving ahead. Abe followed, his horse's nose even with the flank of the animal in the lead.

Easily they jogged ahead down the grade toward the narrow throat of the canyon. A hundred yards from where two points of jutting rock in the walls of the mountain hallway leave an opening not more than fifty feet wide, Holmes, with the slightest turn of his head, spoke, over his shoulder. "I see a man's face looking around that point of rock on the right."

"Be ready when I give the word."

"Won't they pot us?"

"Not if they can get the drop. They'll turn us loose on the desert."

"Shall I shoot?"

Behind the engineer's back Abe smiled grimly. "When they halt us and I give the word, cut loose if you want to. I'll take all on the left."

The distance lessened to a hundred feet.

Suddenly from the left three mounted Mexicans pushed into the road and from the right two more.

Even as they threw up their guns and called: "Alto--Halt!" Abe gave the word:

"Now!"

The two white men drove their spurs deep into their horses' flanks, throwing themselves forward in their saddles with the same motion. With mad plunges the animals leaped toward the highwaymen. Even as he spoke Abe's gun had cracked thrice in quick succession--the Mexicans firing at about the same instant. Two of the horsemen on the left went down and the surveyor reeled almost out of his saddle. But Holmes did not see. His own revolver barked a prompt second to Abe's, and on his side a Mexican went over clutching at his saddle horn. The horses of the Mexicans were rearing and plunging. The quick reports of the revolvers echoed viciously from the rocky walls.

But the white men went through. Down the rocky hallway they raced, side by side now, as hard as their maddened horses could run. A moment to slip fresh cartridges into his cylinder and Holmes cried to his companion: "Good stuff, old man! Go on; I'll hold 'em." And before Abe could grasp his purpose he had jerked his horse to his haunches and, wheeling, faced back up the canyon and disappeared around a turn.

Even as the surveyor was trying to check his own horse--a tough- mouthed brute--another rattling volley of revolver shots echoed down the canyon. By the time Abe had succeeded in turning his stubborn mount Holmes re-appeared.

"All over!" the engineer sang out, as his companion wheeled again and rode beside him. "Two of 'em were coming after us. I got one and the other turned tail." He winced with pain as he spoke. "They presented me with a little souvenir, though."

Abe saw that his left arm was swinging loosely. "You are hurt," he said sharply, reining up his horse. "Where is it?"

"Here, in my shoulder. It don't amount to anything. Let's get on to water and I'll fix it up." With the word the engineer, whose mount had also stopped, started ahead. The horse went a few steps and stumbled--struggled to regain his feet--staggered weakly a few steps farther--stumbled again--and went down. As he fell Holmes sprang clear. The animal raised his head, made another attempt to rise and dropped back. Another bullet from the last encounter had found a mark.

The dismounted engineer, who stood as if dazed, staring at his dead horse, was aroused by the voice of Abe Lee. "It looks like we'd got all that was coming to us this trip."

At his companion's tone Holmes looked up quickly. The surveyor's lips were white and his face was drawn with pain.

The man on the ground sprang toward him with a startled exclamation. "You too; Abe! Where is it?"

"My leg, on the other side."

Quickly the engineer went around Lee's horse to find the leg of the surveyor's khaki trousers darkly stained with blood. "Get down," he commanded and, reaching with his uninjured arm, almost lifted his companion from the saddle. An examination revealed an ugly hole in the surveyor's thigh. With handkerchiefs and some strips cut from the engineer's coat they dressed their wounds as best they could. When they had finished, Holmes straightened up and looked around. Behind them was the bold mountain wall, grim and forbidding; on either hand the dry, barren Mesa; and ahead the miles and miles of desert.

As if in answer to his thoughts the man on the ground said grimly: "This is hell now, ain't it? Mr. Holmes, I'll make that apology. If you please, would you mind shaking hands with me?"

Willard Holmes grasped the out-stretched hand cordially. "You did just right, old man. It was the only thing you could do. But I want to tell you quick, before anything else happens, that I'm not a Company man any more."

"Not a Company man?'

"Greenfield fired me because I helped Jefferson Worth to interest the capitalist who is furnishing him the money he needs."

For a moment Abe Lee looked at the engineer in silence; then his pale lips twisted into a smile. "Mr. Holmes, would you mind shaking hands again?"

With a laugh the engineer once more held out his hand. Then he asked seriously: "How are we going to get out of this, Abe?"

The smile was already gone from the surveyor's face. He answered slowly, with dogged determination in his voice. "We've got to get this money to Republic to-night. It's the only thing that will stop those cholos and Cocopahs. We'll make it to water together, then you can go on. Help me up!"

With the engineer's assistance Abe managed to gain his seat in the saddle, Holmes mounting behind, and thus they made their way down into the Basin and to Wolf Wells.

[Illustration: "Adios. Tell Barbara I'm all right"]

There Holmes helped his companion from the horse and to the shade of a mesquite tree near the water hole, where he stood over him as he lay on the ground, protesting vigorously against leaving him alone in the desert. But the surveyor argued him down. "I couldn't possibly make it if we had another horse," he said. "I'm down and out. There'll be hell to pay in Republic to-night, even if the boys have held them off this long. The money's got to get there this evening. You can reach there by ten o'clock and send a wagon back for me. Don't you see there's no other way?" He held out the black leather bill-book with the rubber bands. "Here, take this and go on. Go on, man! What's a night in the desert to me?"

"But those greasers may come this way."

"They won't. But if they should I have my gun, haven't I, and I'll see them before they see me. Go on, I tell you. We've lost too much time already. Think of that mob and Barbara. You've got to go, Holmes."

The engineer turned towards his horse. "Good-by, old man."

"Adios. Tell Barbara I'm all right."

Abe Lee watched the loping horse grow smaller and smaller in the distance, then watched the cloud of dust that lifted from the trail to hang all golden in the last of the light. Turning he saw the summit of the mountain wall sharply defined against the sky. With a groan his form relaxed. He closed his eyes. He was indeed down and out.

The desert night fell softly over the wide, thirsty plain. The snarling coyote chorus came out of the gloom. Out there Willard Holmes was riding--riding--riding--along the old San Felipe trail. Away over there, somewhere under those stars, Barbara was waiting his return. He remembered her parting words and how he had failed to find in her eyes that which he had longed to see. He felt for the paper in the pocket of his shirt: "Love to Abe." She would never have sent that message had her love been other than it was. Abe Lee, born and reared in the desert, was not the kind of man to deceive himself. For his work and for the woman whose life was so strangely and closely bound up with it he had given the utmost limit of his strength. And now another man would finish the ride and go to her with the prize. Not that it would make any difference to Barbara, but somehow it mattered a great deal to Abe.

Willard Holmes, who in spite of his splendid strength had not the desert man's powers of endurance, clung grimly to one thought--the money must go to Republic. The steady rhythm of his horse's feet seemed to beat out the word: "Barbara! Barbara! Barbara!"

The trying scene with Greenfield, the long hard hours in the saddle, the excitement of the fight in the canyon, with his anxiety for his wounded companion left alone in the desert, were almost too much. Could he hold out? Could he make it? He must.

The engineer held his seat with the strength of desperation. He must! The money must go to Republic that night--to Barbara! Barbara! Barbara! The horse's feet seemed to have beaten out the word for ages. For ages he had been riding--riding--riding towards some point out there ahead in the desert night.

The engineer knew now what it was that called him back.