The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter III. Miss Barbara Worth.
Mrs. Worth, sitting on the wide veranda of her home after a lonely supper, lifted her eyes frequently from the work in her lap to look down the street. Perhaps it was unusual for a banker's wife to be darning her husband's socks; it may be, even, that bankers do not usually wear socks that have been darned. But Mrs. Worth was not sensible that her task was at all strange.
A group of dust-covered cow-boys, coming into town for an evening's pleasure, jogged past with loud laughter and soft-clinking spurs and bridle-chains. "There's Jefferson Worth's place," said one. "D'ye reckon he'll make good corralin' all the money there is in the world?"
Now and then a carriage, filled with well-to-do citizens out for an evening ride, drove slowly by. The people in the carriages always saluted Mrs. Worth and she returned their salutations with a prim little bow. But no one stopped to chat or to offer her a seat. In this, also, there was nothing strange to the woman on the porch of the big, empty house. Sometimes the people in the carriages, entertaining visiting friends, pointed to Jefferson Worth's house, with proper explanations, as they also called attention to the Pioneer Bank--Jefferson Worth's bank.
When dusk came and she could no longer see, Mrs. Worth laid aside her work and sat with folded hands, her face turned down the street. Inside the house the lights were not yet on; there was no need for them and she liked to sit in the dark.
The Indian servant woman came softly to the door. "Does the Senora wish anything?"
"No, thank you, Ynez; come and sit down."
Noiselessly the woman seated herself on the top step.
"It has been warm to-day, Ynez."
"It is nearly three weeks since Mr. Worth left with Texas Joe for San Felipe, Ynez."
"Do you know how far it is across the Desert to San Felipe?"
"Si. I think three--four day, maybe five, Senora."
"It will be very hot."
"Si, Senora. Las' year my sister's man--Jose--go for San Felipe. No much water. He no come back."
"Yes, I remember. What is it your people call The King's Basin Desert? The Hollow of God's Hand, isn't it?"
"Si, Senora. La Palma de la Mano de Dios."
"I wish they would come."
"He come pretty quick, I think. Mebbe so he not start when he think. Mebbe so what you call 'beesness' not let him come," said the Indian woman, soothingly.
"But Mr. Worth expected to be back two days ago and he is always on time, you know, Ynez."
"Si, Senora. But mebbe so this one time different"
"I do wish they would---Look, Ynez, look! There's some one stopping!"
A carriage was turning in toward the house.
"It is Senor Worth," said the Indian woman.
"Someone is with him, Ynez. They have a child."
As Jefferson Worth and the Seer came up the walk--the engineer carrying the little girl--Mrs. Worth rose unsteadily to her feet. "Run, quick, Ynez--quick! The lights!"
That night when the Seer, with everything possible done for his comfort, had retired, and the baby--bathed and fed--was sound asleep in a child's bed that Ynez had brought from an unused room in the banker's big house and placed in Mrs. Worth's own chamber, Jefferson Worth and his wife crept softly to the little girl's bedside. Silently they looked at the baby form under the snow-white coverlet and at the round, baby face, with the tumbled brown hair, on the pillow.
Mrs. Worth clasped her hands in eager longing as she whispered: "Oh, Jeff, can we keep her? Can we?"
Jefferson Worth answered in his careful manner: "Did you look for marks on her clothing?"
"There was nothing--not a letter even. And all that she can tell of her name is Barba. I'm sure she means Barbara." As she answered, Mrs. Worth searched her husband's face anxiously. Then she exclaimed: "Oh you do want her; you do!" and added wistfully: "Of course we must try to find her folks, but do you think it very wrong, Jeff, to wish--to wish that we never do? I feel as though she were sent to take the place of our own little girl. We need her so, Jeff. I need her so--and you--you will need her, when--" There was a day coming that the banker and his wife did not talk about. Since the birth and death of their one child, Mrs. Worth had been a hopeless invalid.
Several weeks passed and every effort to find little Barbara's people was fruitless. Inquiry in Rubio City and San Felipe and through the newspapers on the Coast brought no returns. The land in those days was a land of strangers where people came and went with little notice and were lost quickly in the ever-restless tide. It was not at all strange that no one could identify an outfit of which it was possible to tell only of a woman and child and one bay horse. There were many outfits with a woman and child in the party and many that had among the two, four, six, or more animals one bay horse.
In the meantime, little Barbara, in her new home, was growing gradually away from all that had gone before her long ride in the big wagon with the men. Already she was beginning to talk of her "other mamma and papa." Mrs. Worth slipped into the other woman's place in the childish heart, even as little Barbara filled the empty mother-heart of the woman.
Toward Mr. Worth, though she no longer shrank from him in fear, the little girl maintained an attitude of questioning regard. With Texas or Pat or the boy Abe, who often went together to see her, she laughed and chattered like a good little comrade and play-fellow. But when the Seer came, as he did whenever his duties and his presence in town would permit, she flew to him with eager love, climbing on his knee or snuggling under his arm with entire confidence and understanding.
Public interest in Rubio City, keen at first, died out quickly. Rubio City, in those days of railroad building, had too many things of interest to retain any one thing long. Still, because it was Jefferson Worth, Rubio City could not altogether drop the matter. So it was one evening in the Gold Bar saloon, where Pat, coming into town for a quiet evening from the grading camp on the new road, and Texas Joe, who was just back from another trip across the Desert, were having a friendly glass in a quiet corner.
"Is there anythin' doin' in that San Felipe I don't know?" was Pat's natural question. "Things is that slow in this danged town I'm gettin' all dead on me insides."
Texas grinned in his slow way. "There'll be another pay day before long."
"Yes, an' 'tis ye that'll be 'round agin to kape me from proper enjoyment av the blissin's av civilization wid yer talk av the gold that's to be found in thim mountains that nobody but ye knows where they are. 'Tis a fool I am to be listenin' to yer crazy drames."
"Just keep your shirt on a little longer, pard," returned the other soothingly. "We've most enough for a grub-stake now. When we're a little mite better fixed we'll pull out of this sinful land o' temptation an' when we come back"--he drew a long breath--"we'll do the thing up proper."
Pat dropped his glass with a thump. "We will," he said. "We will that. An' it's to San Felipe we'll go. Tell me, did you see no wan there inquirin' afther me good health this last thrip?"
"I kept away from Sailor Mike's place, not wishin' to deprive you of your share o' the sport. But I met a big policeman who said: 'Tell that red-headed Irish bum that it'll be better for his health to stay away from San Felipe.'"
"He did, did he? He towld ye that? The big slob! He knows ut will be better for him. Fwhat did ye tell him?"
"I said you'd decided to locate here permanent."
Pat gasped for breath. "Ye towld him that! Ye did! Yer a danged sun- baked herrin' av a man wid no proper spirit at all. Fwhat the hell do ye mane to be so slanderin' me reputation an' two or three hundred miles av disert between me an' him? For a sup av wather I'd go to ye wid me two hands."
Texas Joe laughed outright. "Let's have another drink instead," he said.
In the silence occasioned by the re-filling of their glasses the two friends caught the name of Jefferson Worth. Instantly their attention was attracted to a well-dressed, smart-looking stranger, who stood at the bar talking loudly to a man known to Rubio City as a promoter of somewhat doubtful mining schemes. Pat and Texas listened with amused interest while the two in concert cursed Jefferson Worth with careful and exhaustive attention to details.
"Go to it, gentlemen!" put in the bar-keeper, as he returned to his place from the table in the corner. "We-all sure endorses your opinions. Have one on the house." He graciously helped them to more liquor.
"Brother Worth sure stands high with this here congregation," drawled Texas Joe to his companion.
"Hst!" whispered Pat. "They're askin' afther the kid." The casual, amused interest of the two friends became intense.
"They sure tried everything to find her folks," the saloon man was saying, "but there ain't no thin' doin' so far. They say if nobody shows up with a claim Jefferson Worth is goin' to adopt her an' bring her up like his own."
This statement of Jefferson Worth's intentions called forth from the stranger an exhaustive opinion as to the banker's fitness to have the child and her probable chances for right training and happiness in the financier's hands. His remarks being cordially commended by the promoter and the man in the white apron, the speaker was encouraged to strengthen his position in reference to the future of this poor, helpless orphan and to point out freely the duties of Rubio City in the matter. He was interrupted by a light hand on his shoulder. Turning with a start that spilled the liquor in his glass, he looked into the lean face of Texas Joe. Behind the plainsman stood the heavy form of the Irishman, a look of pleased anticipation on his battle-scarred features. There was a sudden sympathetic hush in the room. Every face was turned toward the group.
"Excuse me, stranger," said Texas, in his softest tones; "but I sure am moved to testify in this here meetin'."
The man would have made some angry, blustering reply, but a warning look from the promoter and a slight cough from the bar-tender checked him.
Tex proceeded. "That you-all has rights to your opinion regardin' Mr. Jefferson Worth's character I ain't denyin', an' there's plenty in Rubio City that'll agree with you. Mebbe you has reasons for feelin' grieved. I don't sabe this here business game nohow. Mebbe you stacked the deck an' he caught you at it. You sure impresses me that a-way, for I've noticed that it ain't the sport who plays fair or loses fair that squeals loudest when the cards are agin him. But when you touches on said Jefferson Worth an' the future of that little kid, with free remarks on the duties of Rubio City regardin' the same, you're sure gettin' around where I live. Me an' this gent here"--he waved his hand toward Pat with elaborate formality, to the huge delight of his audience--"me an' this here gent is first uncles to that kid, an' any pop-eyed, lop-eared, greasy-fingered cross between a coyot' an' a jack-rabbit that comes a-pouncin' out o' the wilds o' civilization to jump our claim by makin' insinuations that we ain't competent to see that the aforementioned kid has proper bringin' up an' that Brother Worth ain't a proper daddy for her, had best come loaded for trouble. For trouble'll sure camp on his trail 'til he's reformed or been safely planted."
In the significant pause that followed no one moved. Texas stood easily, looking into the eyes of the stranger. Pat shot fierce, watchful glances around the room, from face to face.
"I trust you get's the force o' my remarks," concluded Texas suggestively.
The stranger moved uneasily and looked hurriedly about for signs of sympathy or assistance. Every face was a blank. Texas waited.
"I suppose I was hasty," said the stranger, sullenly. "I beg your pardon, gentlemen."
"Consider the meetin' dismissed, gentlemen," said Texas, easily. "Me an' my pardner trusts that the congregation will treasure our remarks in the future. Now, you bar-tender, everybody drinks on us to the health and happiness of our respected niece--Miss Barbara Worth."
On the street a few minutes later Pat growled his disappointment. "The divil take a man wid no bowels."
Ignoring his friend's complaint, Texas returned meditatively; "Do you think, Pat, that there might be anything in what that there gent said? In spite o' what we seen of him on that trip, Jefferson Worth is sure a cold proposition. Give it to me straight. What will he do for the little one?"
"An' it's just fwhat we see'd on that thrip that makes me think ut's a question av fwhat the little girl will do to him," answered Pat, thereby sustaining the reputation of his race.