The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter VIII. Why Willard Holmes Stayed.
Slowly, day by day, the surveying party under the Seer pushed deeper and deeper into the awful desolation of The King's Basin Desert. They were the advance force of a mighty army ordered ahead by Good Business--the master passion of the race. Their duty was to learn the strength of the enemy, to measure its resources, to spy out its weaknesses and to gather data upon which a campaign would be planned.
Under the Seer the expedition was divided into several smaller parties, each of which was assigned to certain defined districts. Here and there, at seemingly careless intervals in the wide expanse, the white tents of the division camps shone through the many colored veils of the desert. Tall, thin columns of dust lifted into the sky from the water wagons that crawled ceaselessly from water hole to camp and from camp to water hole--hung in long clouds above the supply train laboring heavily across the dun plain to and from Rubio City--or rose in quick puffs and twisting spirals from the feet of some saddle horse bearing a messenger from the Chief to some distant lieutenant.
Every morning, from each of the camps, squads of khaki-clad men bearing transit and level, stake and pole and flag--the weapons of their warfare--put out in different directions into the vast silence that seemed to engulf them. Every evening the squads returned, desert-stained and weary, to their rest under the lonesome stars. Every morning the sun broke fiercely up from the long level of the eastward plain to pour its hot strength down upon these pigmy creatures, who dared to invade the territory over which he had, for so many ages, held undisputed dominion. Every evening the sun plunged fiercely down behind the purple wall of mountains that shut in the Basin on the west, as if to gather strength in some nether world for to-morrow's fight.
Always there was the same flood of white light from the deep, dry sky that was uncrossed by shred of cloud; always the same wide, tawny waste, harshly glaring near at hand--filled with awful mysteries under the many colored mists of the distance; until the eyes ached and the soul cried out in wonder at it all. Always there were the same deep nights, with the lonely stars so far away in the velvet purple darkness; the soft breathing of the desert; the pungent smell of greasewood and salt-bush; the weird, quavering call of the ground owl; or the wild coyote chorus, as if the long lost spirits of long ago savage races cried out a dreadful warning to these invaders.
And in all of this the land made itself felt against these men in the silent menace, the still waiting, the subtle call, the promise, the threat and the challenge of La Palma de la Mano de Dios.
To Barbara, who rode often in those days to the very rim of the Basin, there to search the wild, wide land with straining eyes for signs of her friends, the white glare of the camps was lost in the bewildering maze of color. The columns, clouds and spirals of dust-- save perhaps from a near supply wagon coming in or passing out-- could not be distinguished from the whirling dust-devils that danced always over the hot plains. The toiling pigmy dots of the little army were far beyond her vision's range. It was as though the fierce land had swallowed up horses, wagons and men. Only through the frequent letters brought by the freighters did she know that all was going well.
Perhaps the gray lizard that climbed to the top of a line stake wondered at the strange new growth that had sprung so suddenly from the familiar soil; or perhaps the horned-toad, scuttling to cover, marveled at the strange sounds as the stakes were driven and man called to man figures and directions. Perhaps the scaly side-winder, springing his warning rattle at the approaching step, questioned what new enemy this was; or the lone buzzard, wheeling high over head, watched the tiny moving figures with wondering hopefulness, and the coyote, that hushed for a little his wild music to follow up the wind this strange new scent, laughed at the Seer's dream.
These lines of stakes that every day stretched farther and farther into and across the waste seemed, in the wideness of the land, pitifully foolish. Looking back over the lines, the men who set them could scarcely distinguish the way they had come. But they knew that the stakes were there. They knew that some day that other, mightier company, the main army, would move along the way they had marked to meet the strength of the barren waste with the strength of the great river and take for the race the wealth of the land. The sound of human voices was flat and ineffectual in that age-old solitude, but the speakers knew that following their feeble voices would come the shouting, ringing, thundering chorus of the life that was to follow them into that silent land of death.
With the slow passing of the weeks came the trying out and testing of character inevitable to such a work. The concealing habits of civilization were dropped. Kindly, useful conventionalities were lost. Face to face with the unconquered forces of nature, nothing remained but the real strength or weakness of the individual himself. In some there were developed unguessed powers of endurance that bore the hard days without flinching; cheerful optimism that laughed at the appalling immensity of the task; strength of spirit that made a jest of galling discomforts; courage that smiled in the face of dangers. These were the strength of the party. Some there were who grew sullen, quarrelsome, and vicious in a kind of mad rebellion. These must be held in check, controlled and governed by the Seer with the assistance of Abe Lee and his helpers. Some became silent and moody, faint hearted and afraid. These were strengthened and guarded and given fresh courage. Some grew peevish and fretful, whining and complaining. These were disciplined wisely, forced gently into line. Some staggered and fell by the way. These were sent back and the ranks closed up. But the work--always the work went on.
To Willard Holmes the life was a slow torture, a revelation and an education. He found himself stripped of everything upon which he was accustomed to rely--family traditions, social position, influential friends, scholarship, experience in the world to which he was born-- all these were nothing in The Hollow of God's Hand. Slowly he learned that the power of such wealth is limited to certain fields. New York was very far away. He felt that he had been hopelessly banished to a strange world. Many times he would have thrown it all up and turned back with other deserters, but there was red blood in his veins. Stubborn pride and the thought of the girl who had hoped that he would "learn the language of her country" enabled him to hold on.
Once he ventured to speak to the Chief in a hopeless voice of the evident impossibility of ever converting that terrible land into a habitable country, and the Seer, strong in the strength of his dream, had looked at him from the still depth of his brown eyes without a word--looked until the younger man had turned away, his cheeks flushed with shame and his spirit doing homage to the strength of the master spirit of the work. And the eastern engineer remembered with new understanding his talks with Barbara Worth.
When they pulled the dead coyote from the only water hole within two days' travel and Holmes nearly fainted at the sickening sight, it was Texas Joe who saved the day for him by remarking, with an air of philosophical musing, after a deep draught of the tepid, tainted water: "Hit ain't so bad as you might think, Mr. Holmes, onct your oilfactory nerves has become somewhat regulated to the aroma and your palate has been eddicated to the point of appreciatin' the deliciously foreign flavor. In the judgment of some connysoors, it has several points the lead of them imported fancy drinks you get in Frisco."
When a Mexican died horribly from the bite of a rattlesnake, and Holmes himself was barely saved from a like fate by the prompt action and ready knowledge of Abe Lee, it was the slow smile of the desert-bred surveyor that stiffened him to go on.
And when he was nearly beaten by a three days' sand-storm so searching that even the flap-jacks and bacon gritted in his teeth and his blood-shot eyes smarted in his head like coals of fire and his skin felt as though it had been sand-papered, when he would have sold his soul for a bath and actually began to get his things together in readiness for the next wagon out, it was Pat, who, with the devilish ingenuity of an Irish imp, mocked and jeered at him for a quitter, "fit to act only as lady's maid or to serve soft dhrinks in a corner drug-sthore," until his fainting heart took fire and, cursing his tormentor with all the oaths he could muster, he offered to whip, single-handed, the whole grinning camp and stayed.
Thus he was advanced to the second degree, when he began to sense the spirit of the untamed land and of the men who went to meet it with sheer joy of the conquest; when he began to glory in the very greatness of the task; and the long dormant spirit of his ancestors stirred within him as he caught glimpses of the vision that inspired the Seer or, perhaps it should be written, the vision that tempted his employers, James Greenfield and his fellow capitalists.
He was still far from ready for the final degree; but even that might come.
Through all those hard days Jefferson Worth moved with the same careful, precise, certain manner that distinguished him in his work at home. Even the desert sun that so tanned, blistered and blackened the faces of his companions could not mark the gray pallor of that mask-like face. No disturbing incident or unforeseen difficulty could wring from him an exclamation or change the measured tones of his colorless voice. He seemed to accept everything as though he had foreseen, carefully considered and dismissed it from his mind before it came to pass. Day after day he rode in every direction over the land within easy reach of the many camps; familiarizing himself with every detail of the work, observing soil, studying conditions, poring over maps and figures with the Seer, verifying estimates, listening to and taking part in the many councils of the leaders. But not once did anyone catch a hint of what was going on behind those expressionless blue eyes that seemed to see everything without effort and to be incapable of expressing the emotions of the soul within.
To the men he was the visible representative of that invisible power that willed their going forth. He was Capital--Money--Business incarnate. They set him apart as one not of their world. In his presence laughter was hushed, jests were unspoken. Silently they waited for him to speak first. When he conversed with them they answered thoughtfully in subdued tones, seeming to feel that their words were received by one who placed upon them undreamed-of values. Filled as these men were with the enthusiasm of their work, they were never unconscious of the knowledge that but for the power represented by Jefferson Worth their work would be impossible.
Small wonder, then, that there was consternation in the headquarters camp that night when Pat appeared, hat in hand, before the company of leaders in the Seer's office tent. "I beg yer pardon, Sorr."
"What is it, Pat?" asked the Seer, and all eyes were turned upon the burly Irishman, whose face and voice as well as his presence at that hour betrayed some unusual incident. "'Tis this, Sorr. Has anywan seen Mr. Worth this avenin'?"
Every head was shaken negatively.
"Was he not at supper wid you gintlemen?"
"Why no, he was not," returned the Seer. "But it is nothing unusual for him to be late. Have you asked the cook?"
"We have, Sorr. Ye see, whin ut come time to turn in an' he hadn't shown up an' Tex seen that his horse wasn't wid the bunch, we got a bit unaisy like. We axed the cook, an' we've been to his tent, an' we've axed the men."
"Perhaps he has put up at one of the other camps," suggested a surveyor.
"That's not like, Sorr, for he rode northeast this mornin'. Me an' Tex watched him go; an' there's divil a camp in that direction as we all know."
"He surely intended to return here or he would have told us," said the Seer. "You know how careful he is. What do you think, Abe?"
Before Abe could answer a Mexican ran up, and Pat, turning, hauled him into the tent by the neck. "Fwhat the hell is ut, ye greaser?"
"Senor Texas send me quick," the little brown man panted, bowing low to the company, sombrero in hand. "Senor Worth's horse, he just come. In the saddle is no one. Senor Worth he is not come. I think he is gone."
Before the Mexican finished speaking there was a rush of feet and he was alone. With a shrug of his shoulders and a flash of his white teeth, he turned leisurely to follow, saying half aloud: "It is all in La Palma de la Mano de Dios, Senor Worth. Maybe so you come back, maybe this time not." He stood for a moment looking into the black vault of the night; then, with another shrug, retired to his blanket to sleep.
Abe Lee was first to reach the corral where Texas Joe, by the light of a lantern, was examining Mr. Worth's horse. No word was exchanged between them while the surveyor in turn looked carefully over the animal. The others, coming up, stood silent a little apart, waiting for the word of these two.
"What do you make of it, Abe?" asked the Seer when the long surveyor turned toward him.
Deliberately rolling a cigarette, Abe answered from a cloud of smoke: "He is left afoot too far out to walk in, likely. We'll go for him in the morning."
A startled exclamation came from Willard Holmes, but no one heeded as the surveyor turned to Texas Joe. "How do you figure it, Tex?"
"The same," came the laconic answer. "This here cayuse wasn't broke to stand. He must have been tied somewheres, 'cause the reins are busted." He pointed to the pieces of leather hanging from the bit. "The canteen is gone. Jefferson Worth is too old a hand on the desert to leave it on the horse. He likely tied the pony to a bush and went to climb a hill or something. Mr. Hawss breaks loose and pulls for home. It happened a good way out, 'cause the pony's pretty well tired, which he wouldn't a-been, travelin' light, if Mr. Worth hadn't ridden some distance before it happened. An' if he was nearer the pony would have been in earlier. He'll likely show us a smoke in the morning and even if he don't it'll be easy to trail him, 'cause there ain't no wind. Will I go, sir?" He looked at the Chief.
"Yes; you and Abe, don't you think?"
Abe assented and the men turned toward the tents while Texas led the tired horse away.
The New York engineer approached the Chief. "Do I understand, sir, that you propose to do nothing until morning?"
The Seer faced him. "There is nothing to do, Mr. Holmes," he said simply.
Willard Holmes was amazed at the man's apparent unconcern. "Nothing to do?" he exclaimed. "Why don't you arouse the men and send them in every direction to search? Why man, don't you realize the situation? Mr. Worth may be hurt. He may even be dying alone out there! I protest! It's monstrous! It's cowardly, inhuman, to do nothing!"
The company, attracted by the loud words, paused. Abe Lee, standing beside his Chief, rolled another cigarette while the engineer was speaking.
The Seer answered patiently: "But Mr. Holmes, we could accomplish nothing by such a search as you suggest. The territory is too large to cover with a hundred times the number of men we have in camp. At daylight, when they can follow his trail, Abe and Tex will ride to him as fast as their horses can go. Granting that the worst you suggest may be true, our plan is the only sane way." "But I protest, sir. You should make the attempt. I will not submit to idly doing nothing while a life is in danger--particularly that of a man like Mr. Worth. I shall go alone if no one will help me, and"--he straightened himself haughtily--"I shall report this to Mr. Greenfield and the men interested with him in this work."
At the last words one of those rare changes swept over the big engineer, and the witnesses saw a side of the Chief's nature that was seldom revealed. His eyes flashed and his face hardened as he burst forth in tones that startled his hearers: "Report me? You! Report and be damned, sir. I was old at this work when you were a sucking babe. These men were learning the desert when you were attending a fashionable dancing school. Why, you damned lily- fingered tenderfoot, you couldn't find your way five hundred yards in this country without a guide or a compass. Now, sir, I'm running this outfit and if you have any protests against my cowardly inhumanity I advise you to smother them in your manly breast, or, by hell! I'll ship you out on the first wagon to-morrow morning and let you report to Greenfield that you were fired because you didn't know your work yourself and hadn't intelligence enough to listen to those who did!"
The Chief paused for breath, and Willard Holmes, whose experience with large corporations was expected to make him peculiarly valuable to the capitalists who sent him out, turned away with what dignity he could command.
"Howly Mither!" came a hoarse whisper from Pat to Abe; "I made sure the poor bhoy wud shrivel up. Sich a witherin', blistherin' tongue lashin' wud scorch the hide av the owld divil himsilf." He looked admiringly after the Seer. "D'ye think, now, that the poor lad will be afther tacklin' the job alone, like he said? Sure, ut's nerve he has all right but he lacks judgment."
"Yes, he has the nerve all right," returned Abe slowly, "and we'd better keep an eye on him. Tell Tex."
Willard Holmes knew that he owed his Chief an apology and he promised himself to make it in the morning. But neither the explanation of the Seer nor the bitter humiliation that he had brought upon himself could turn his thoughts from Mr. Worth alone on the desert. To sleep was impossible. The banker might be----As he tossed in his blankets the engineer pictured to himself a hundred things that might have happened to Barbara's father.
It was some two hours later when Pat touched Abe Lee on the shoulder.
"All right, Pat," said the surveyor, fully awake and in possession of all his senses in an instant.
"There's a light bobbin' off into nowhere an' the lad's blankets are impty."
Fifteen minutes later a quiet voice within three feet of Willard Holmes asked: "Shall I go with you, sir?"
The eastern man jumped like a nervous woman. He had not heard the approach of the surveyor, who walked with the step of an Indian. "I couldn't sleep," he explained. "I thought I would follow the tracks a little way out at least. He may not be so far away as you think."
After Abe had taken time to make his cigarette he spoke meditatively. "Mr. Worth rode a horse."
"I understand that," returned the man with the lantern tartly. "I saw him go this morning and I saw the horse to-night. This is the track."
From another cloud of smoke came the quiet, respectful answer: "But this is a mule's track, Mr. Holmes. It is Manuel Ramirez's mule. See, he has a broken shoe on the off fore-foot. I noticed it yesterday when I sent Manuel to hunt a water hole. Besides, Mr. Worth rode northeast; not in this direction."