Chapter XXXV. Nature and Human Nature
 

Two weeks after the victory of Willard Holmes in the River war the engineer arrived in Republic on the evening train from the city by the sea.

At the hotel he was quickly surrounded by the pioneer citizens, who were eager to greet him with expressions of appreciation for his work. But it was Horace P. Blanton who did the talking.

Horace P., in his brave picture-general hat, his impressively swelling front of white vest and his black clerical tie, was the personification of economic, financial and scholastic--not to say ecclesiastic, dignity. His greeting of the engineer was majestic. But, as a royal sovereign might welcome the returning general of his conquering armies with sadness at the thought of the lives his victories had cost, the countenance of Horace P. expressed a noble grief.

"Willard," he said, his voice charged with emotion, "I congratulate you. You are the savior of this imperial King's Basin. When we saw that Greenfield's Company was not able to handle the awful situation, I told my friend the general manager and our other officials of the S. & C. that they must come to the rescue without an instant's delay and that you must be put in charge of the work. I knew that if any man on earth could stop that river, you could. So we decided to let you go ahead. You have justified my confidence nobly, Willard; you certainly have. I'm proud of you, old man; I am indeed."

The engineer tried manfully to appreciate the spirit of the speaker's words. With that white vest and black tie before him, to say nothing of the picture hat that crowned the massive head, it was impossible for Holmes not to wish that he could appreciate Horace P. Blanton's spirit--it hungered so for appreciation.

"I am very grateful to you, Mr. Blanton," said the engineer. "But really I feel that you over-estimate my part in the work. I--"

"Not at all; not at all, my dear boy. I knew my man and I was not disappointed. But the cost--" he shook his kingly head sorrowfully and heaved a majestic sigh. "Confidentially, Willard, I estimate that the financial losses of Greenfield and myself alone are close on to a million. I haven't a thing left. Wiped me out clean."

Holmes looked really sympathetic. He knew that every dollar that Horace P. Blanton ever spent was a dollar belonging to someone else, but even mythical losses of mythical property, when suffered by Horace P., demanded sympathy. The man in the white vest felt them so keenly and strove with such noble courage to bear them bravely.

Encouraged by the engineer's interest and the presence of the little crowd of pioneers, the speaker continued: "When I saw our beautiful town--the town that we had built with our own hands--falling in ruins into that terrible chasm, I cried like a baby, sir." Even as he spoke his eyes filled with manly tears which he made no attempt to hide. Then he lifted his majestic bulk grandly and looked about with kingly countenance. "But I shall stay with it, Willard. I shall stay and help these people to regain their losses. We can't desert them now. If my creditors will give me a little time, and I am sure they will, not a man shall lose a penny, no matter what it costs me."

The sentence was a bit ambiguous but it was a noble resolution, worthy of such a lofty soul.

At this moment a boy with the evening papers approached the group. "Here son, my paper," called Horace P.

The boy gripped his wares with a firm hand. "I got to have my money first. You ain't done nothin' but promise for a month."

"Boy! Give me my paper. You shall have your money to-morrow," he thundered from the depths beneath the white vest.

The boy backed away, "I dassn't do it. I can't live on hot air."

With an imperial air, as if tremendous stakes hung upon the trivial incident, the great man said to Holmes: "Excuse me, Willard; I must see about this," and with a firm and determined step he left the hotel.

A hush fell upon the company of pioneers. Not one of them but would have gladly--had he dared--offered the outraged monarch the price of a paper. The King's Basin settlers were proud of Horace P.

But that night Horace P. Blanton boarded the north-bound train and was never seen in The King's Basin again. His creditors--and they are many, from the newsboy to the hotel manager, the barber, the laundry agent, the liveryman and boot-black--are still "giving him time," as he was confident that they would. The pioneers miss him sorely, but they manage to struggle along without him, living perhaps in the hope that he will some day come back.

In the silence that followed the passing of Horace P., Willard Holmes slipped away from the group of men and approached the Manager of The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company, who was sitting alone with his cigar in a far corner of the room.

"Hello, old man," was Burk's greeting as the engineer approached. The thoughtful Manager of the Company had been an interested observer of his friend's reception and of the newspaper incident. As the two men shook hands the Manager's cigar shifted to one corner of his mouth and his head tipped toward the opposite shoulder. "How much did Horace P. touch you for, Willard?"

"I gave him my admiration and sympathy."

The other shook his head wonderingly. "A special providence watches over you, my son. After that, nothing could have saved your pocket- book if that kid had not been sent by your guardian angel to your rescue. When did you leave the river?"

"Last week. The S. & C. called me into the city. I'm on my way back to the work now. What's the news?"

Burk grinned. "The first train over the King's Basin Central went out this morning with a special party of distinguished citizens-- Jefferson Worth, the Seer, Abe Lee and Miss Worth. The lady will spend a week or two in the town of Barba and with friends in the South Central District. Texas Joe and Pat left this morning in a rig, leading Miss Worth's saddle horse, El Capitan. It's all in The King's Basin Messenger." He handed the paper to Holmes who mechanically stuffed it into his pocket.

"How's Uncle Jim?"

"He is at the office, I think. You know he is winding up the affairs of the poor old K. B. L. and I."

"So I understand."

The two men were silent for a moment, then Burk said thoughtfully: "It's hard lines for the Company, Willard, but the mules, including your humble servant, don't seem to care much. That's one advantage in being a mule. I will be glad to get back to civilization and so will your Uncle Jim I fancy. Take it altogether I don't think he has enjoyed watching the success of Jefferson Worth's little experiments as much as we have. The same beneficent power that has knocked out the Company seems to have taken good care of friend Jeff."

"You are not going to stay in the West?" asked the engineer.

"I go Monday. I understand there is still a demand for good mules back home."

The president of the wrecked Company received his former chief engineer warmly, and heartily congratulated him on the success of his battle with the river.

"I suppose you know, Willard," he said, "that The King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company has virtually passed into the hands of the S. & C.? We owe them a good half million for closing the break, which means that they will have to take over the property. We knew when we went into the deal how it would end, of course. If you had remained with the Company the river never would have had a chance to get in at all."

The younger man did not remind Mr. Greenfield of the many times the Company had been urged to make the improvements that would have prevented the disaster, nor did he suggest that he would have remained with the Company had not the president himself discharged him. "Your engineer did all that any man could do after the break was made," he said warmly. "It was the equipment and organization of the S. & C. that put the river back in its channel, and no other power on earth, under the circumstances, could have done it in time to head off that back-cut."

The older man smiled. "We all know who closed the break, my boy. I suppose you are planning to stay with the railroad?"

"They have offered me the management of the irrigation work here in the Basin. They are going to put in permanent structures and reconstruct the whole system in first-class shape."

"And you accepted?" There was a note of anxiety in the older man's voice.

"Not yet. I asked for a few days to consider."

James Greenfield did not speak for several minutes, then he said-- hesitating as if searching for words: "Don't do it, Willard. Don't do it, for my sake. Let's go back home. You know how I hate this cursed country. I ought never to have gone into this deal after what I had already suffered in the West. But it looked as if I could clean up a good thing and get out. Personally, my money losses don't amount to anything. I have enough left for both of us, and you know, Willard my boy, that it's all yours when I go. Come back home with me and leave this damned hole! We don't fit in here; let's go back where we belong. I'm coming along now to the time when I must begin to think of getting out of the game; and I need you, my boy, I need you."

Willard Holmes was strongly moved by the appeal of this man for whom he had a son's affection. "I wish I could say yes, Uncle Jim," he answered. "I owe you more than I can ever repay, and if it was only the work here I would go. But--there's something else--something that I cannot give up if I would--that I have no right to give up."

"You mean that girl? I thought that was all settled."

"So did I," returned the other grimly. "When I talked with you about it I thought there was no possible chance for me, and perhaps I was right. But I can't let it go now without absolute certainty."

"You don't mean, Willard, that you are going to offer yourself to a woman whose love you have every reason to think belongs to another man?"

The engineer rose to his feet and walked up and down the room. When he spoke there was in his voice a suggestion of that which marked his speech in the days of the river fight. "I mean this: that no man on earth shall take this woman from me if I can prevent it. I would deserve to lose her if I gave her up on the mere guess that she cared for another man. I am going to know from her own words. If there is still a chance for me I am going to stay and fight for it. If I have no chance"--he dropped into a chair--"then I'll go back with you, Uncle Jim."

James Greenfield's face flushed hotly at the younger man's words and then, in the silence that followed, grew pale and stern while his fingers gripped his pencil nervously. "Very well, Willard," he said at last. "You are a man and your own master. If your love for me cannot influence you--"

"Uncle Jim!" The engineer's cry was a protest and an appeal, but the other continued as though he had not heard: "I can urge no other consideration. But you must understand this. I will never receive this nameless woman of unknown parentage as your wife. If you prefer her with that illiterate, low, cunning trickster whom she calls father, you need never expect to come back to me. I have been true to your mother in my care for you. I have done all in my power to give you the place in life that you are entitled to fill by your birth and family. You have been my son in everything but blood. But, by God, sir! if you, with your breeding and raising--if you can turn your back upon the memory of your mother and father and upon me and all that we stand for--if you can turn your back upon us, desert us for these--these damned cattle, you can herd with them the rest of your life."

He was on his feet now, pacing the floor angrily. The engineer had also risen and stood waiting for this storm of wrath to spend itself.

"Understand me," the older man continued. "If she refuses you, you can come back. If she accepts you, you need never show your face to me again, and I shall take good care that your friends at home understand the reason. Probably if you let these people know what the result will be if you are accepted it will make a great difference in the woman's answer."

Willard Holmes dared not speak. Nothing but his life-long love for the man whose devotion to the engineer's mother had stood the test of years enabled the younger man to control himself. When he could speak calmly he said: "I am sorry, sir, that you said that; for you must see how you have made it impossible for me now ever to go back with you. If Miss Worth does not care for me, I would have been glad to go home with you, for next to her, Uncle Jim, you are more to me than anyone in the world. When you say that my relation to you shall depend upon her answer you make it impossible for her answer to make any difference so far as you and I are concerned. Won't you--won't you reconsider, Uncle Jim? Won't you take back your words?"

"No, sir; I have said exactly what I mean."

"Good-by, sir."

"Good-by."

When the office door had closed behind the engineer, James Greenfield stood motionless in the center of the room. Once he took a step toward the door but checked himself. Then turning slowly, wearily, he sank into the chair before his desk. For a few moments he fumbled aimlessly over the papers and documents, then from his pocket took a flat leather case and, opening it, held in his hand a portrait of the engineer's mother. As he looked at the face of the woman who had never ceased to hold the first place in his heart, his lips framed words he could not speak aloud.

Slowly his form drooped, his head bowed. Then, with the picture held close, he buried his face in his arms among the business papers on his desk.