Chapter XXXIII. Willard Holmes Receives His Answer.
 

When Barbara returned to the living room with some trivial excuse to explain her rather long absence, she found Holmes determined to go with Mr. Greenfield to his rooms in the hotel in Kingston.

When she protested he answered: "Really, Miss Worth, my shoulder troubles me so little that I am ashamed to offer myself as an invalid; and now that Uncle Jim is with me I haven't the shadow of an excuse for burdening you any longer."

"I am sorry if I have made you feel that you were a burden," she returned with a brave smile.

He answered warmly: "You know I did not mean to imply that. I shall never forget your kindness--never."

Greenfield too expressed his appreciation of her kindness but she answered the engineer as if she had not heard the older man. "And I can never thank you for what you have done for us."

As they stood on the porch while Greenfield went on ahead to the buggy, Holmes held out his hand. "And we are square again?"

"Yes, we are square."

"Then adios, Senorita."

"Adios, amigo."

Bravely she stood watching until the carriage disappeared down the street. Then she went slowly into the house to Abe's room.

The surveyor lay propped up in bed with pillows, looking quite cheerful. "Well, sister," was his greeting; "you have lost one patient and you are going to lose the other one before long. I feel like a new man already."

For a little she made no answer and, as she stood before him silent, those eyes that were trained to let nothing escape their notice studied her face and noted her hands clasped in nervous pain. "Why, Barbara! What is it, sister? What has gone wrong?"

At his words the brown eyes filled.

"Barbara!"

She dropped into the chair by the bedside and, throwing herself toward him, buried her face in her arms in the pillow by his side, her form shaking with sobs.

The surveyor's face was white now under its bronze--white and set. Lightly he placed his hand upon the soft brown hair so near his shoulder and his eyes seemed now to be looking far away. When her grief had spent itself a little he said quietly: "Don't you think, sister, that you had better tell me about this?"

When she did not answer he said again gently: "Do you care for him so much, Barbara?"

The brown head nodded her confession and for a moment the man closed his eyes and turned away his face. Then: "Won't you let me help you?"

Slowly, with many pauses, she told him what she had overheard. When she had finished Abe said simply: "But he has not told you of his love, Barbara. Perhaps you are mistaken."

"No, Abe; I'm not mistaken. He has not told me--not in words, but I know; I know!"

"Then," said the surveyor, "he will tell you. Listen, Barbara. The man who went through those Mexicans in Devil's Canyon with me is not the kind of a man who gives up the woman he loves for what others think. Wait a little, dear, and you will see that I am right. You have been too quick. Be patient a little and you shall see."

"But Abe, Mr. Greenfield is right. I am a nameless nobody; and he-- he is--"

"He is a man and you are a woman, and this is La Palma de la Mano de Dios where nothing else matters," said Abe Lee almost sternly.

A few minutes later, when Barbara was gone, the surveyor slipped lower on the pillows and wearily turned his face to the wall. Several times that day Barbara looked in on him and at last, when he had not moved for so long, called him softly. He answered with a smile, but when she had arranged his pillows for him he closed his eyes again with a word of thanks.

Jefferson Worth arrived that evening and with him came the Seer, who had joined him in the city by the sea. But Barbara's joy at their coming was overshadowed by her anxiety for Abe, who seemed to have fallen into a half-unconscious condition that was alarming. When they entered his room the surveyor, who still lay with his face to the wall, did not look up.

"Daddy is here, Abe," said Barbara; "Daddy and the Seer."

Slowly the man turned toward them and held out his hand with a word of greeting for each. "I'm mighty glad you have come," he added; "Barbara has had rather more than her hands full."

But the old engineer noticed that he did not look at Barbara as he spoke.

While the three were at supper Barbara told the men the whole story, and when they had finished the meal the Seer said: "Now Jeff, I know you have important business needing your immediate attention and our girl here must have a good night's rest--she has been through enough to kill an average woman. I'm going to take care of Abe to-night myself."

When his old chief was alone with the surveyor he drew a chair to the bedside and sat for some time looking at the man on the bed. Then he said: "I think, son, that you and I had better get to the bottom of this. First, I'll have a look at that leg."

When the examination was over the big man eyed the surveyor. "Humph! This is not a scratch beside what that greaser did to you with his knife in Arizona. You didn't even stop work for that. Your ride to San Felipe and back ordinarily would call for about twelve hours sleep and that's all. Come, lad, what's the matter? Out with it." Abe smiled. "I'm down and out, I reckon."

"Down and out, hell!" returned the big man. "That won't do, Abe. You forget that you are talking to me." Then he leaned forward and spoke in a low tone. "I know what it is, my boy. It's Barbara." By the pain in the surveyor's eyes the Seer knew that he was right.

Then the Seer in his own way did for Abe what Abe had done for Barbara.

When the young woman brought in his breakfast the next morning Abe greeted her with his old cheery "Hello!", and declared facetiously that the Seer had talked him into a sleep from which he had awakened as hungry as a bear and ready to go to work.

Two days later Texas Joe, who had ridden in from somewhere late the night before, came to report.

"We were beginning to think that you were not coming back at all, Uncle Tex," said Barbara, who with the others was curious to hear of the old-timer's adventure.

"I 'lowed once mebbe I wouldn't come back no more neither," he drawled. "You see, Mr. Worth, after we-all got Abe at Wolf Wells I figured that--bein' so far on the way--I might as well go on over to Felipe an' get that ol' buckskin hawss o' mine what Abe had left." He paused, and, turning his head to one side, looked meditatively down at the spur on his high-heeled boot. "That there buckskin is sure some hawss, Barbara; he sure is."

"Did you get him?" asked Barbara.

Texas looked up, mildly surprised. "Sure we got him. That's what I'm a-tellin' you."

Then he laughed softly as though mildly amused at some incident suddenly remembered. "Abe, you know that greaser that tumbled into the Dry River Spillway when we-all was puttin' in Number Five Gate?"

"Yes."

"I 'lowed you'd know him. I heard somethin' funny about him when I was in San Felipe after that buckskin."

"What was it, Texas?"

"He's daid."

The recovery of the two wounded men was rapid. For a while Holmes came over from Kingston every day to see Lee, and the two, with the Seer and Barbara, spent many delightful hours on the big front porch.

Jefferson Worth's enterprises pushed steadily toward completion. The power plant in Barba was finished and The King's Basin Central had stretched its steel length from the junction at Republic to within three miles of the terminal.

When Abe was able to go back to his work, Holmes did not go so often to the Worth home; but the presence of the Seer still enabled him to excuse to himself his quite frequent visits. But while the young engineer continually sought the Seer, not only because of their growing friendship but because he was always sure of meeting Barbara, he avoided seeing the girl alone for he felt that he could not trust himself; and the young woman, feeling his attitude toward her, was convinced against her will and Abe's protest that the man who loved her guarded himself against her for the reasons that she had overheard Greenfield urge upon him.

Then Holmes received a letter from the Southwestern and Continental Railroad Company offering him a position that would place him at the head of the engineering department of the district that included The King's Basin. The letter stated that the position was tendered on recommendation of Jefferson Worth and, in view of the fact that the flood season was at hand and that conditions seriously threatening to the Company's property might be expected at any hour, urged him to accept by wire and take charge immediately.

With the letter in his hand a sudden desire to go with it to Barbara mastered him. He knew that the Seer had planned to go that morning with Abe Lee to Barba and that the young woman was alone.

An hour later he dismounted in front of the Worth home. Barbara herself met him at the door. "The Seer is not at home to-day" she said, as they entered the living room. "I thought you knew."

"I did not come to see the Seer to-day. I came to see you," he answered bluntly.

"To see me?"

"Yes; to ask you how I shall answer this." He handed her the letter.

She read it slowly, gaining time for self-control. "But I do not understand why you should come to me."

He studied her face a moment before he answered. How could he explain to her the impulse that had prompted him, as every man is prompted to take the big things of his life to the one woman who--if she be really the one woman for him--is more than all? "I thought--I hoped that you would be interested," he said.

"And I am!" she cried eagerly, feeling that which he could not put into words. "Of course I'm interested. I was only surprised that you should hesitate a moment to accept. Don't you want to continue your work? Don't you want to stay with us?" She added the last words wistfully and the heart of the man longed to tell her that which she longed to hear.

"Yes," he said slowly, "I want to stay, but I--I am afraid." The words slipped out unbidden.

Barbara interpreted his answer in the light of his conversation with Greenfield, which she had overheard, and her woman's pride was aroused. He should be made to understand that he was in no danger from her. Her next words were a challenge. "Afraid of what?"

"Afraid of you," he burst forth savagely. "Afraid of myself. Because I love you. From the first day when you showed me the desert you have been so closely associated in my mind with this work that I cannot think of it without thinking of you. Everything I have done I have felt was done for you. I would have given it all up a hundred times but my thoughts of you would not let me. When I have been untrue to the work I have felt that I have been untrue to you. If I have accomplished any good here it has been through you. Everywhere I have gone in this country you have seemed to me to be there. Everything I see speaks to me of you. The desert--the mountains--the farms and homes and towns; it is all you--and you--and you. I did not realize it at first, but I felt it, and then as I came to love my work I came to love you. I did not intend to tell you this. I hate myself for telling you--but I love you. I love you! Do you understand now why I came to you with this letter? Do you understand why I am afraid to stay?"

At the man's passionate outburst that came as if dragged from him against his will, Barbara shrank back as if he threatened her. He had not asked if she loved him; he had only spoken brutally-- savagely, of his passion for her. She repeated insistently, blindly, to herself: "He must not know! He must not know!"

The man spoke again. "Forgive me, Miss Worth; I did not mean to let go of myself. I know how you love this work--how hard you have tried to hold me true to it. I could not bear that you should think of me as leaving it without reason. But you see--you see how impossible it is now for me to stay."

As he spoke, a running horse stopped suddenly in front of the house and through the open door they saw Pablo leap from the saddle and run swiftly up the walk toward the house.

"Senorita!" the Mexican cried, as Barbara sprang towards him; "the river! the river! It has come. The Company works--it is all gone! Senor Worth send me quick to tell Senor Holmes. I go to Kingston; he not there. They say he ride this way. I come to you, Senorita; I think maybe you know where I find him." He turned to the engineer. "Senor Holmes, the river has come again into La Palma de la Mano de Dios like the Indians say it was long time ago. Senor Worth say you come please pronto!"

Barbara wheeled on the engineer with flushed cheeks and blazing eyes.

"This is your answer!" she cried. "Not for me; not for yourself; but for the work--your work--our work!"

For an instant he looked into her eyes, then turned and ran towards his horse with Pablo at his heels.

Barbara saw them spring into their saddles and disappear in a cloud of dust, and the engineer, as he rode, remembered what Abe Lee had once told him of Pablo's saying: "In the Company there is no Senorita!"