The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter V. What the Indian Told the Seer.
In the making of Barbara's Desert the canyon-carving, delta-building river did not count the centuries of its labor; the rock-hewing, beach-forming waves did not number the ages of their toil; the burning, constant sun and the drying, drifting winds were not careful for the years. Therefore is the time of the real beginning of what happened in this, the land of my story, unknown.
Somewhere in the eternity that lies back of all the yesterdays, the great river found the salt waves of the ocean fathoms deep in what is now The King's Basin and extending a hundred and seventy miles north of the shore that takes their wash to-day. Slowly, through the centuries of that age of all beginnings, the river, cutting canyons and valleys in the north and carrying southward its load of silt, built from the east across the gulf to Lone Mountain a mighty delta dam.
South of this new land the ocean still received the river; to the north the gulf became an inland sea. The upper edge of this new-born sea beat helpless against a line of low, barren hills beyond which lay many miles of a rainless land. Eastward lay yet more miles of desolate waste. And between this sea and the parent ocean on the west, extending southward past the delta dam, the mountains of the Coast Range shut out every moisture-laden cloud and turned back every life-bearing stream. Thus trapped and helpless, the bright waters, with all their life, fell under the constant, fierce, beating rays of the semi-tropical sun and shrank from the wearing sweep of the dry, tireless winds. Uncounted still, the centuries of that age also passed and the bottom of that sea lay bare, dry and lifeless under the burning sky, still beaten by the pitiless sun, still swept by the scorching winds. The place that had held the glad waters with their teeming life came to be an empty basin of blinding sand, of quivering heat, of dreadful death. Unheeding the ruin it had wrought, the river swept on its way.
And so--hemmed in by mountain wall, barren hills and rainless plains; forgotten by the ocean; deserted by the river, that thirsty land lay, the loneliest, most desolate bit of this great Western Continent.
But the river could not work this ruin without contributing to the desert the rich strength it had gathered from its tributary lands. Mingled with the sand of the ancient sea-bed was the silt from faraway mountain and hill and plain. That basin of Death was more than a dusty tomb of a life that had been; it was a sepulchre that held the vast treasure of a life that would be--would be when the ages should have made also the master men, who would dare say to the river: "Make restitution!"--men who could, with power, command the rich life within the tomb to come forth.
But master men are not the product of years--scarcely, indeed, of centuries. The people of my story have also their true beginnings in ages too remote to be reckoned. The master passions, the governing instincts, the leading desires and the driving fears that hew and carve and form and fashion the race are as reckless of the years as are wave and river and sun and wind. Therefore the forgotten land held its wealth until Time should make the giants that could take it.
In the centuries of those forgotten ages that went into the making of The King's Basin Desert, the families of men grew slowly into tribes, the tribes grew slowly into nations and the nations grew slowly into worlds. New worlds became old; and other new worlds were discovered, explored, developed and made old; war and famine and pestilence and prosperity hewed and formed, carved and built and fashioned, even as wave and river and sun and wind. The kingdoms of earth, air and water yielded up their wealth as men grew strong to take it; the elements bowed their necks to his yoke, to fetch and carry for him as he grew wise to order; the wilderness fled, the mountains lay bare their hearts, the waste places paid tribute as he grew brave to command.
Across the wide continent the tracks of its wild life were trodden out by the broad cattle trails, the paths of the herds were marked by the wheels of immigrant wagons and the roads of the slow-moving teams became swift highways of steel. In the East the great cities that received the hordes from every land were growing ever greater. On the far west coast the crowded multitude was building even as it was building in the East. In the Southwest savage race succeeded savage race, until at last the slow-footed padres overtook the swift-footed Indian and the rude civilization made possible by the priests in turn ran down the priest.
About the land of my story, forgotten under the dry sky, this ever- restless, ever-swelling tide of life swirled and eddied-swirled and eddied, but touched it not. On the west it swept even to the foot of the grim mountain wall. On the east one far-flung ripple reached even to the river--when Rubio City was born. But the Desert waited, silent and hot and fierce in its desolation, holding its treasures under the seal of death against the coming of the strong ones; waited until the man-making forces that wrought through those long ages should have done also their work; waited for this age--for your age and mine--for the age of the Seer and his companions--for the days of my story, the days of Barbara and her friends.
The Seer's expedition, returning from the south, made camp on the bank of the Rio Colorado twenty miles below Rubio City. It was the last night out. Supper was over and the men, with their pipes and cigarettes, settled themselves in various careless attitudes of repose after the long day. Their sun-burned faces, toughened figures and worn, desert-stained clothing testified to their weeks of toil in the open air under the dry sky of an almost rainless land. Some were old-timers--veterans of many a similar campaign. Two were new recruits on their first trip. All were strong, clean-cut, vigorous specimens of intelligent, healthy manhood, for in all the professions, not excepting the army and navy, there can be found no finer body of men than our civil engineers.
Easily they fell to talking of to-morrow night in Rubio City, of baths and barbers and good beds and clean clothes and dinners and the pleasures of civilization and prospective future jobs. Much good-natured chaff was passed with hearty give and take. Jokes that had become time-worn in the many days and nights that the party had been cut off from all other society were revived with fresh interest. Incidents and accidents of the trip were related and reviewed with zest, with here and there a comment on the work itself that was still fresh in their minds.
Abe Lee, sitting with his back against a wagon-wheel and his long legs stretched straight out in front, listened, enjoying it all in his own way, taking his share of the chaff with a slow smile, exhaling great clouds of cigarette smoke and only at rare intervals contributing a word or a short sentence to the talk. Abe was at home with these men out there in the desert night. Under the Chief he was their master--respected, admired and loved. But the old-timers knew that to-morrow, in town with these same men, dressed in conventional garb, on the street or in the hotel, the surveyor would be as bashful and awkward as a country boy. So they joked him about his numerous sweethearts in Rubio City and related many entirely fictitious love adventures and romantic experiences that he was said to have passed through in different parts of the country during the years they had known him. Not one of them but would have been astonished beyond words had he known of Abe's adventure the afternoon before they left Rubio City, and how, through every day of the hard, grilling labor with the expedition, the image of the girl he had watched through his field glass was before him.
When the fire of the wits was turned on another mark Abe slowly arose to his feet and slipped out of the circle. Going quietly to the cook-wagon where the Chinaman sat smoking in solitary grandeur, he asked: "Wing, where is the Chief? I saw him talking to you a little while ago."
"Me no sabe, Boss Abe. Chief, him go off that way." He pointed toward the river with his long bamboo pipe. "Wing sabe Chief feel velly bad, Boss Abe; damn."
The white man regarded the Chinaman silently for a moment, then: "You're a good boy, Wing. Good night."
"Night, Boss Abe," came the plaintive answer, and the surveyor went on to where a group of Cocopah Indian laborers made their rude camp. These he greeted in Spanish and asked: "Has the Chief been with you since supper?"
"No, Senor. He by river there little time past," said one, pointing to a clump of cottonwood trees that rose above a fringe of willows.
"Buenos noches, hombres," said Abe.
"Buenos noches, Senor," came the chorus of soft voices in the dusk.
On the high bank under the cottonwoods the Seer sat with bowed head. He did not heed the broad yellow tide of silt-laden water that swept by him so silently; he did not see the myriad stars in the velvet sky, nor notice the golden moon climbing slowly up from the dark level of the land. The jovial voices and merry laughter of his men came to him from the camp, but he did not hear. To-morrow the expedition would be over, the party disbanded. He would make his report to the capitalists who had sent him forth. His report!--the Seer groaned. Few words would be needed to sum up the work of the last two months but it would not be easy to frame them. His ear caught the snap of a twig and a whiff of cigarette smoke floated to him. He turned his head quickly. "That you, Abe?"
The long figure of the surveyor settled on the bank by his side. For a little neither spoke, while the Seer, with slow care, filled and lighted his pipe.
"Well, lad," he said at last, "we have about reached the end of another failure."
"Will you go to New York, sir?"
"No, it will not be necessary. I can write in fifty words all there is to say."
"Perhaps they will send you out again," offered the surveyor.
"Their interest is not strong enough. They only tackled this because some other fellows were considering the proposition. That made them think there might be something in it. If I had the capital to make surveys and could go to them with data for some other project they might consider it, but--"
Abe rolled another cigarette and with the first cloud of smoke came the slow words: "Well, then, let's get the data."
Even at what seemed a hopeless suggestion the discouraged heart of the old engineer beat more quickly. He turned his face toward the younger man. "Where?"
Abe stretched forth a long arm toward the broad Colorado at their feet and toward the desert beyond. "The King's Basin. You've often told me about that country. If I sabe the lay of the land we're somewhere at the southern end of it, at the beginning of the high ground of the delta that shuts out the ocean. There's water enough here for five times that territory."
"Do you mean--" the Seer began quickly and stopped.
"I mean this: you already know the north and northeastern part of the Basin from the railroad. You have been through it from the west on the San Felipe trail. Send the outfit in to-morrow with the boys. Give them orders on the bank for their pay and let them go. You and I can scout around the delta end of that country over there for a week or two and if it looks good, with what you have already seen, you have enough to talk on. Then go on to New York and when you report on the southern project turn loose on 'em with this."
"Abe," said the engineer thoughtfully, "if anyone but you were to propose that I go before these capitalists to interest them in a project without ever having put an instrument on it I would knock him down. Such recklessness would ruin any civil engineer in the world, if--"
"If he guessed wrong," finished Abe dryly.
"If he guessed wrong," admitted the Seer reluctantly.
"If it looked good enough for you to risk an opinion you would have some strong talking points," ventured Abe. "There must be five hundred thousand acres in that old sea-bed. The Colorado carries water enough for five times that area. There's the railroad already built along one side; there's San Felipe and the whole Coast country within easy reach. It beats the other proposition a hundred to one, if it can be done at all."
The Seer rose and paced up and down in the bright moonlight. Presently he said: "If you accept the position with Hunt up north you should go on at once. That job would be the best thing you ever had. Don't you want to take it?"
"You know what I want, if you can use me."
"I could manage your present salary for this trip but beyond that you know how uncertain it all is. Hunt can't wait any longer."
"Look here," said Abe, angrily, "I understood when I made my proposition that our salaries would stop when we cut the outfit. Do you think I meant for you to take all the risk? I'm only a surveyor and you an educated engineer but this thing means as much to me as it does to you. Let me share the expense and I'm with you but not on any other terms. Hunt and his job can go hang. I don't see why you should assume that it's only my pay that I work for." It was a long speech for Abe.
The engineer put his big hand on the young man's shoulder. "Thank you, Abe," he said. "That does me good. I've always known that it was there. But it's a hard road, lad, a mighty hard road!" Then: "I wonder if we have an Indian in the outfit who knows this country."
"Yes, sir," Abe answered promptly. "Jose knows it well. I've been pumping him for a month. I'll get him."
As the tall figure of the surveyor disappeared in the direction of the Oocopah camp the Seer smiled to himself. "Been pumping him for a month," he repeated. "That means that he saw almost before I did that the other proposition was no good. Humph!"
He faced toward the river and looked away into the night where The King's Basin lay--a weird dream-country under the light of the moon. And because it was impossible to think of Barbara's Desert without thinking of Barbara he smiled again, musing that there would be little sleep that night for the girl in Rubio City if she knew what he and Abe were considering. From across the river came the shrill, snarling, yelping coyote chorus and the engineer saw again the body of a dead woman at the dry water hole, an empty canteen, and a big- eyed, brown-haired baby stretching out her arms to him.
While the Seer was too careful an engineer to take quickly the suggestion of Abe, he had seen too many tests of the desert-bred surveyor's genius not to consider his proposition seriously. He was also too much of a dreamer not to be influenced by thoughts of Barbara and her association in his mind with this particular project. Could it be that the land which had so tragically given the child into his life was now to realize his dreams of Reclamation.
He was interrupted by the return of Abe, who was followed by an old, grizzly-haired Cocopah.
"Tell the Chief what you have told me, Jose," said the surveyor and, stepping aside, he rolled the inevitable cigarette with an air of taking himself wholly out of the matter under consideration.
"You sabe that country over there, Jose?" asked the Chief.
"Si, Senor," came the soft answer, and reaching out, the Indian gently turned the engineer so that the latter stood with his back squarely to the river. Taking the Seer's right hand and holding it outstretched with open palm upward in one of his own and tracing with the other dark-skinned finger, as one might trace on a relief map, he continued in Spanish, as he drew his finger carefully along the white man's thumb from the wrist: "Here are the mountains that shut out the country by the Big Sea where is San Felipe. I go there once, long time ago. My people live there." He indicated the space between the first and second joints of the thumb. Next he touched the base of the Seer's little finger. "Here is Rubio City." Then tracing the outer rim of the palm toward the wrist: "Here are the hills, and the railroad that the Senor made." His finger paused in the depression between the base of the thumb and the outer edge of the palm at the wrist. "The Senor's railroad goes through the Pass in the high mountains here." Next, from the outer edge of the hand he traced across the palm at the base of the fingers. "The river goes this way to the big water that comes in from the sea here." He indicated the open space between the extended thumb and the inner edge of the palm.
"We stand now here." He touched the base of the Seer's index finger. "It is The Hollow of God's Hand, Senor--La Palma de la Mano de Dios," he repeated reverently. He dropped the engineer's hand and stood quietly waiting to be questioned.
Again the Seer put forth his hand and pointing with his own finger to the inner edge of the palm between the base of the index finger and the thumb, he asked: "The land is high here?"
"Si, Senor, a little. Just like the hand. It is much low here." He touched the deepest part of the palm. "And a little high here where we stand. Sometimes when much water comes the river goes all over here." He indicated the extreme inner edge of the palm. "Most always this water go all this way"--toward the open space between the thumb and palm. "Sometimes a little goes here." He traced the lines that cross the palm towards the wrist.
"You can show us this country?"
"Si, Senor." "How long will it take?"
"What you like. From here to Lone Mountain straight--maybe one day go, maybe two day go."
"There is water?"
[Illustration: MAP OF LA PALMA DE LA MANO DE DIOS (THE HOLLOW Of GOD'S HAND) DRAWN BY ALLEN KELLY TECOLOTE RANCHO 1911]
"Si. Much water left from the river last time big water come."
The Chief looked at the silent Abe, then back to the old Indian. "All right, Jose; we go in the morning--you, Senor Lee and I. Be ready."
"Si, Senor. Buenos noches, Senores."
"Good night! Good night!" returned the two white men.
There was much conjecturing among the surprised surveyors next morning, when the Chief gave to each man his pay check and placed an old-timer in charge with instructions as to the disposition of the outfit when they should arrive in Rubio City.
Two loaded pack-mules and three saddle ponies were ready when the Seer had finished his business with the men. Good-bys were spoken all around and the Seer and Abe, with Jose in the lead, turned back toward the south.
"Looks like they had forgotten something," said one of the recruits as the group stood watching the little party jog steadily into the distance, apparently retracing the tracks the expedition had made the day before.
"Sonny," remarked the veteran left in charge, "what one of that pair forgets the other is dead sure to remember. All the signs say that they're makin' big medicine. All we have to do with it is to push for Rubio City pronto and cash our pay checks. Lord! but wouldn't I like to be in it," he added regretfully as he turned away.
With provisions for three weeks on the pack-animals and the assurance of Jose that there was feed and water in the overflow lands for the horses, the Seer and Abe proposed to cover most of the territory lying between the Rio Colorado and Lone Mountain. It was here that the great river, in the ages long past, had built the delta dam, thus cutting off the northern end of the gulf that was now The King's Basin Desert. It was their plan to follow this high land that separated the ocean from the Basin to the mountains, then to work back as far out in the Basin from water and feed as they could. They would then follow the river on the Basin side to Rubio City.
They had barely passed beyond sight of the main party when Jose turned directly toward the river. At that stage of water a long bar put out into the stream and from its point the current set strongly toward the opposite bank.
"Here we cross," said the Indian briefly.
Constructing a rude raft for their supplies and swimming the animals, they reached the other shore some distance below the point of launching with no accident, and that night camped well back from the river on the delta land.
Day after day they rode from sunrise until dark; studying the land, estimating distances and grades, observing the courses of the channels cut by the overflow and the marks of high water, noting the character of the soil and the vegetation; sometimes together, sometimes separated; with Jose to select their camping places and to help them with his Indian knowledge of the country.
And always at night, after the long hard day, when supper--cooked by their own hands--was over, with pipe and cigarettes they reviewed their observations and compared notes, summing up the results before rolling in their blankets to sleep under the stars.
Some day, perhaps, when the world is much older and very much wiser, Civilization will erect a proper monument to the memory of such men as these. But just now Civilization is too greedily quarreling over its newly acquired wealth to acknowledge its debt of honor to those who made this wealth possible.
But the Seer and his companion concerned themselves with no such thoughts as these. They thought only of the possibility of converting the thousands of acres of The King's Basin Desert into productive farms. For this they conceived to be their work.
They had worked across the Basin to Lone Mountain and back to the river to a point nearly opposite the clump of cotton woods where they had left the expedition. To-morrow night they would be in Rubio City.
"Abe," said the Seer, "our intake would go in right here. We could follow the old channel of Dry River with our canal about twenty miles out, put in a heading and lead off our mains and laterals."
For two or three hours they discussed plans and estimates, then the engineer shut his note-book with a snap. "If those New Yorkers don't listen to what I can tell them of this country now they're a whole lot slower than I take them to be."
"Then you think you will make a guess on the proposition," asked Abe slyly.
The Seer laughed like a boy. "I start for New York to-morrow night," he answered.
In the afternoon of the next day they struck the San Felipe trail a few miles from Rubio City. Perhaps it was the sight of that old road, with its memories for the Seer and his companion, that led the engineer to say: "It's curious, Abe, but I can't shake off the odd feeling that Barbara's life is somehow wrapped up in that country out there." As he spoke he turned in his saddle to look back toward the Basin. "She seems to belong to it somehow as, in a way, it belongs to her. There is a look in her eyes sometimes that makes me think of the desert and the desert always reminds me of her. I know one thing," he finished with a short laugh, "if I was to let out some of the fancies that have come to me in this connection it would ruin me forever so far as my profession goes."
Abe made no reply, possibly because he also had fancies--fancies that he could not tell even to the Seer.
It is astonishing what a great cloud of dust five animals can stir up on a desert trail. As the little outfit jogged slowly along, the great yellow mass rolled up into the air high above their heads and hung--a long, slow-drifting streamer--above the trail until it vanished in the distance.
Barbara, who was riding out from town on the Mesa, saw that cloud and stopped to study it intently for a few moments as if debating some question. Then touching her animal with the spur, she set off rapidly in the direction of the approaching horsemen; while the two men watched the dust that arose from the single horse's feet with the interest that travelers in lonely lands always feel in any life that chances to come their way.
"Abe, that's a woman," exclaimed the Seer after a time.
Abe said nothing. He had discovered that interesting fact some moments before.
The engineer rose in his stirrups. "Abe, I'll bet a month's salary it's Barbara."
"I'm not gambling," returned the other, smiling at his companion's excitement. "I know it is."
The big engineer dropped into his saddle with a grunt of disgust. "Young man, you've got eyes like a buzzard," he said, twisting about to face his companion. "By all traditions I suppose I should say 'eagle,' but you certainly don't look much like that noble king of birds. You're carrying dirt enough to bury a horse."
The Seer took off his sombrero and began beating the dust from his own shoulders, while the surveyor looked on in silent amusement.
"She'll think by the dust you're a-raisin' that there's some kind of a scrap goin' on and that she'd better head the other way."
"Not much she wouldn't head the other way from a scrap. She would come on all the faster. I thought you knew Barbara better than that." He replaced his hat. "Why Abe, one time when she was--"
The surveyor interrupted his Chief by standing up in his stirrups in turn and swinging his hat in greeting, while the Seer, in waving his own sombrero and whooping like a wild man, forgot what he was about to relate.
The girl came on at a run and--guiding her horse between the two dust-covered men--held out a hand to each.