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- The Winning of Barbara Worth - 10/75 -
Wheeler? And how is Mrs. Wheeler and that dear little baby?"
The man's face lighted, his form straightened, his voice rang out heartily. "Fine, Miss Barbara, fine, thank you. All we need in the world now is for your father to give me time enough on that blamed note to make a crop."
Barbara Worth was just tall enough to look straight into her father's eyes. As she looked at him now the banker felt a little as he had felt that night in the Desert, when the baby, whose dead mother lay beside the dry water hole, shrank back from him in fear.
"Oh, I'm sure father will be glad to do that," the girl said eagerly. "Won't you father? You know how hard Mr. Wheeler works and what trouble he has had. And I want some money, too," she added; "that's what I came in for."
The farmer laughed loudly. Jefferson Worth smiled.
"But I don't want it for myself," Barbara went on quickly, smiling at them both. "I want it for that poor Mexican family down by the wagon yard--the Garcias. Pablo's leg was broken in the mines, you know, and there is no one to look after his mother and the children. Someone must care for them."
They were interrupted by a clerk who handed a paper to the banker. "This is ready for your signature, sir."
Jefferson Worth's face was again a cold, gray mask. Methodically he affixed his name to the document. Then to the clerk: "You may give Miss Worth whatever money she wants."
The employe smiled as he answered: "Yes, sir," and withdrew.
Barbara turned to follow. "Good-by, Mr. Wheeler. Tell Mrs. Wheeler I'm going to ride out to see her soon. I haven't forgotten that good buttermilk you see."
"Good-by, Miss Barbara, good-by! I'll tell the wife. We're always glad to see you."
The farmer could not have said that Jefferson Worth's face changed or that his voice altered a shade in tone as they turned again to the business in hand. "I guess we can fix you out this time, Wheeler. Sixty days, you say? You'd better make it ninety so you will not be crowded in marketing your crop."
Quickly the black horse carrying Barbara passed through the streets to the outskirts of the city, where the adobe houses of the earlier days, with tents and shacks of every description, were scattered in careless disorder to the very edge of the barren Mesa. Beyond the wagon yard Barbara turned Pilot toward a whitewashed house that stood by itself on the extreme outskirts. Her approach was announced by the loud barking of a lean dog and the joyful shouts of three half-naked Mexican children; and as the horse stopped a woman appeared in the low doorway.
"Buenas dias, Senorita," she called; then, still in her native tongue: "Manuel, take the lady's horse. You Juanita, drive that dog away. This is not the manner to receive a lady. Come in, come in, Senorita. May God bless you for a good friend to the poor. Come in."
Everything about the place, although showing unmistakable signs of poverty, was clean and orderly, while the manner of the woman, though quietly respectful and warmly grateful, showed a dignified self-respect. In one corner of the room, on a rude bed, lay a young man.
The girl returned the woman's greeting kindly in Spanish and, going to the bedside, spoke, still in the soft, musical tongue of the South, to the man. "How are you to-day, Pablo? Is the leg getting better all right?"
"Si, Senorita, thank you," he replied, his dark face beaming with gladness and gratitude and his eyes looking up at her with an expression of dumb devotion. "Yes, I think it gets better right along. But it is slow and it is hard to lie here doing nothing for the mother and the children. God knows what would become of us if it were not for your goodness. La Senorita is an angel of mercy. We can never repay."
The people were of the better class of industrious poor Mexicans. The father was dead, and Pablo, the eldest son, who was the little family's sole support, had been hurt in the mine some two weeks before. Barbara visited them every few days, caring for their wants as indeed she helped many of Rubio City's worthy poor. For this work Jefferson Worth gave her without question all the money that she asked and often expressed his interest in his own cold way, even telling her of certain cases that came to his notice from time to time. So the banker's daughter was hailed as an angel of mercy and greatly loved by the same class that feared and cursed her father.
For a little while the girl talked to Pablo and his mother cheerfully and encouragingly, with understanding asking after their needs. Then, placing a gold piece in the woman's hand and promising to come again, she bade them--"Adios."
For a short distance Barbara now followed the old San Felipe trail along which, as a baby, she had been brought by her friends to Jefferson Worth's home. But where the old road crosses the railroad tracks, and leads northwest into The King's Basin, the girl turned to the right toward the end of that range of low hills that rims the Desert.
As her horse traveled up the long gradual slope in the easy swinging lope of western saddle stock, the view grew wider and wider. The sun poured its flood of white light down upon the broad Mesa, and away in the distance the ever-widening King's Basin lay, a magic, constantly changing ocean of soft colors. Nearer ahead were the hills, brown and tawny, with blue shadows in the canyons shading to rose and lilac and purple as they stretched their long lengths away toward the lofty, snow-capped sentinels of the Pass. Free from the city with its many odors, the dry air was invigorating like wine and came to her rich with the smell of the sun-burned, wind-swept plains. The girl breathed deeply. Her cheeks glowed--her eyes shone. Even her horse, seeming to catch her spirit, arched his neck and, in sheer joy of living, pretended to be frightened now and then at something that was really nothing at all.
At the foot of the first low, rounded hill Barbara faced Pilot to the northwest and bade him stand still. Motionless now the girl sat in her saddle, looking away over La Palma de la Mano de Dios. It was to this point that Barbara so often came, and as she looked now over the miles and miles of that silent, dreadful land her face grew sad and wistful and in her eyes there was an expression that the Seer sometimes said made him think of the desert.
Gentle Mrs. Worth had lived just long enough to leave an indelible impression of her simple genuineness upon the life of the child, who had come to take in her heart the place left vacant by the death of her own baby girl. Since the loss of her second mother the girl had lived with no woman companion save the Indian woman Ynez, and it was the Seer rather than Jefferson Worth to whom she turned in fullest confidence and trust. The childish instinct that had led the baby to the big engineer's arms that night on the Desert had never wavered through the years when she was growing into womanhood, and the Seer, whose work after the completion of the S. and C. called him to many parts of the West, managed every few months a visit to the girl he loved as his own. To Mr. Worth who, as far as it was possible for him to be, was in all things a father to her, Barbara gave in return a daughter's love, but she had never been able to enter into the life of the banker as she entered into the life of the engineer. So it was the Seer who became, after Mrs. Worth, the dominant influence in forming the character of the motherless girl. His dreams of Reclamation, his plans and efforts to lead the world to recognize the value of that great work, with his failures and disappointments, she shared at an early age with peculiar sympathy, for she had not been kept in ignorance of the tragic part the desert had played in her own life. Particularly did The King's Basin Desert interest her. She felt that, in a way, it belonged to her; that she belonged to it. It was _her_ Desert. Its desolation she shared; its waiting she understood; something of its mystery colored her life; something within her answered to its call. It was her Desert; she feared it; hated it; loved it.
Often as Barbara sat looking over that great basin her heart cried out to know the secret it held. Who was she? Who were her people? What was the name to which she had been born? What was the life from which the desert had taken her? But no answer to her cry had ever come from the awful "Hollow of God's Hand."
Before Barbara had left her home that afternoon a man, walking with long, easy stride, followed the San Felipe trail out from the city on to the Mesa. He was a tall man and of so angular and lean a figure that his body seemed made up mostly of bone somewhat loosely fastened together with sinews almost as hard as the frame-work. His face, thin and rugged, was burned to the color of saddle leather. He was dressed in corduroy trousers, belted and tucked in high-laced boots, a soft gray shirt and slouch hat, and over his square shoulders was the strap of a small canteen. His long legs carried him over the ground at an astonishing rate, so that before Barbara had left the Mexicans the pedestrian had gained the foot of the low hill at the mouth of the canyon.
With remarkable ease the man ascended the rough, steep side of the hill, where, selecting a convenient rock, he seated himself and gave his attention to the wonderful scene that, from his feet, stretched away miles and miles to the purple mountain wall on the west. So still was he and so intent in his study of the landscape, that a horned-toad, which had dodged under the edge of the rock at his approach, crept forth again, venturing quite to the edge of his boot heel; and a lizard, scaling the rock at his back, almost touched his shoulder.
When Barbara had left the San Felipe trail and was riding toward the hills, the man's eyes were attracted by the moving spot on the Mesa and he stirred to take from the pocket of his coat a field glass, while at his movement the horned-toad and the lizard scurried to cover. Adjusting his glass he easily made out the figure of the girl on horseback, who was coming in his direction. He turned again to his study of the landscape, but later, when the horse and rider had drawn nearer, lifted his glass for another look. This time he did not turn away.
Rapidly, as Barbara drew nearer and nearer, the details of her dress and equipment became more distinct until the man with the glass could even make out the fringe on her gauntlets, the contour of her face and the color of her hair. When she stopped and turned to look over the desert below he forgot the scene that had so interested him and continued to gaze at her, until, as the girl turned her face in
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