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- The Winning of Barbara Worth - 6/75 -

The Irishman turned to see the strange horse lying dead on the sand. "Fwhat the hell--" he demanded hotly, but Texas was eyeing him coolly, and something checked the anger of the Irishman.

"You don't seem to sabe," drawled the man of the desert, replacing the empty shell in his gun. "There ain't hardly enough water to carry us through now, an' we may have to pick up this other outfit."

No one spoke as Pat climbed heavily back to his seat.

For two miles the tracks of the strange horse were visible, then they were blotted out by the sand that had filled them. "He made that much since the blow," was Texas' slow comment. "How far we are from where he started is all guess."

As they pushed on, all eyes searched the country eagerly and before long they found the spot for which they looked. A light spring wagon with a piece of a halter strap tied to one of the wheels was more than half-buried by the sand in the lee of a high drift. There was a small water keg, empty, with its seams already beginning to open in the fierce heat of the sun, a "grub-box," some bedding and part of a bale of hay-nothing more.

Jefferson Worth, Pat and the boy attempted to dig in the steep side of the drift that rose above the half-buried outfit, but at their every movement tons of the dry sand came sliding down upon them. "It ain't no use, Mr. Worth," said Texas, as the banker straightened up, baffled in his effort. "You will never know what's buried in there until God Almighty uncovers it."

Then the man of the desert and plains read the story of the tragedy as though he had been an eye witness. "They was travelin' light an' counted on makin' good time. They must have counted, too, on, findin' water in the hole." He kicked the empty keg. "Their supply give out an' then that sand-storm caught 'em and the horses broke loose. Of course they would go to hunt their stock, not darin' to be left afoot and without water, an' hits a thousand to one they never got back to the outfit. We're takin' too many chances ourselves to lose much time and I don't reckon there's any use, but we'd better look around maybe."

He directed the little party to scatter and to keep on the high ground so that they would not lose sight of each other. Until well on in the afternoon they searched the vicinity, but with no reward, while the hot sun, the dry burning waste and the glaring sands of the desert warned them that every hour's delay might mean their own death. When they returned at last to the wagon, called in by Texas, no one spoke. As they went on their way each was busy with his own thoughts of the grim evidence of the desert's power.

Another hour passed. Suddenly Texas halted the mules and, with an exclamation, leaped to the ground. The others saw that he was bending over a dim track in the sand.

"My God! men," he shouted, "hit's a woman."

For a short way he followed the foot-prints, then, running back to the wagon and springing to his seat, swung his long whip and urged the team ahead.

"Hit's a woman," he repeated. "When the others went away and didn't come back she started ahead in the storm alone. She had got this far when the blow quit, leavin' her tracks to show. We may--" He urged his mules to greater effort.

The prints of the woman's shoe could be plainly seen now. "Look!" said Tex, pointing, "she's staggerin'--Now she's stopped! Whoa!" Throwing his weight on the lines he leaned over from his seat. "Look, men! Look there!" he cried, as he pointed. "She's carryin' a kid. See, there's where she set it down for a rest." It was all too clear. Beside the woman's track were the prints of two baby shoes.

The Seer, with a long breath, drew his hand across his sand-begrimed face. "Hurry, Tex. For God's sake, hurry!"

The Irishman was cursing fiercely in impotent rage, clenching and unclenching his huge, hairy fists. The boy cowered in his seat. But not a change came over the mask-like features of Jefferson Worth. Only the delicate, pointed fingers of his nervous hands caressed constantly his unshaven chin, fingered his clothing, or--gripped the edge of the wagon seat as he leaned forward in his place. Texas-- grim, cool, alert, his lean figure instinct now with action and his dark eyes alight--swung his long whip and handled his reins with a master's skill, calling upon every atom of his team's strength, while reading those tracks in the sand as one would scan a printed page.

It was all written there--that story of mother love; where she staggered with fatigue; where she was forced to rest; where the baby walked a little way; and once or twice where the little one stumbled and fell as the sand proved too heavy for the little feet. And all the while the desert, dragging with dead weight at the wheels, seemed to fight against them. It was as though the dreadful land knew that only time was needed to complete its work. Then the hot sun dropped beyond the purple wall of mountain and the mystery of the long twilight began.

"Dry River Crossing is just ahead," said Tex, and soon the outfit pitched down the steep bank of a deep wash that had been made in some forgotten age by an overflow of the great river. Occasionally, after the infrequent rains of winter, some water was to be found here in a hole under the high bank a short way from the trail.

With a crash of brakes the team stopped at the bottom. The men, springing from the wagon and leaving the panting mules to stand with drooping heads, started to search the wash. But in a moment Texas shouted and the others quickly joined him. Near the dry water hole lay the body of a woman. By her side was a small canteen.

[Illustration: He had lifted the canteen and was holding it upside down.]

The engineer bent to examine the still form for some sign of life.

"It ain't no use, sir," said Texas. "She's gone." He had lifted the canteen and was holding it upside down. With his finger he touched the mouth of the vessel and held out his hand. The finger was wet. "You see," he said, "when her men-folks didn't come back she started with the kid an' what water she had. But she wouldn't drink none herself, an' the hard trip in the heat and sand carryin' the baby, an' findin' the water hole dry was too much for her. If only we had known an' come on, instead of huntin' back there where it wasn't no use, we'd a-been in time."

As the little party--speechless at the words of Texas--stood in the twilight, looking down upon the lifeless form, a chorus of wild, snarling, barking yowls, with long-drawn, shrill howls, broke on the still air. It was the coyotes' evening call. To the silent men the weird sound seemed the triumphant cry of the Desert itself and they started in horror.

Then from the dusky shadow of the high bank farther up the wash came another cry that broke the spell that was upon them and drew an answering shout from their lips as they ran forward.

"Mamma! Mamma! Barba wants drink. Please bring drink, mamma. Barba's 'fraid!"

Jefferson Worth reached her first. Close under the bank, where she had wandered after "mamma" lay down to sleep, and evidently just awakened from a tired nap by the coyotes' cry, sat a little girl of not more than four years. Her brown hair was all tumbled and tossed, and her big brown eyes were wide with wondering fear at the four strange men and the boy who stood over her.

"Mamma! Mamma!" she whimpered, "Barba wants mamma."

Jefferson Worth knelt before her, holding out his hands, and his voice, as he spoke to the baby, made his companions look at him in wonder, it was so full of tenderness.

The little girl fixed her big eyes questioningly upon the kneeling man. The others waited, breathless. Then suddenly, as if at something she saw in the gray face of the financier, the little one drew back with fear upon her baby features and in her baby voice. "Go 'way! Go 'way!" she cried. Then again, "Mamma! Barba wants mamma." Jefferson Worth turned sadly away, his head bowed as though with disappointment or shame.

The others, now, in turn tried to win her confidence. The plainsman and the Irishman she regarded gravely, as she had looked at the banker, but without fear. The boy won a little smile, but she still held back--hesitating--reluctant. Then with a pitiful little gesture of confidence and trust, she stretched forth her arms to the big brown-eyed engineer. "Barba wants drink," she said, and the Seer took her in his arms.

At the wagon it was Jefferson Worth who offered her a tin cup of water, but again she shrank from him, throwing her arms about the neck of the Seer. The engineer, taking the cup from the banker's hands, gave her a drink.

While Mr. Worth and the boy prepared a hasty meal, Texas fed his team and the Irishman, going back a short distance, made still another grave beside the road already marked by so many. The child-- still in the engineer's arms--ate hungrily, and when the meal was over he took her to the wagon, while the others, with a lantern, returned to the still form by the dry water hole. At the banker's suggestion, a thorough examination of the woman's clothing was made for some clue to her identity, but no mark was found. With careful hands they reverently wrapped the body in a blanket and laid it away in its rude, sandy bed.

When the grave was filled and protected as best it could be, a short consultation was held. Mr. Worth wished to return to the half buried outfit to make another effort to learn the identity of the Desert's victim, but Texas refused. "'Tain't that I ain't willin' to do what's right," he said, "but you see how that sand acted. Why, Mr. Worth, you couldn't move that there drift in a year, an' you know it. I jest gave the mules the last water they'll get an' we're goin' to have all we can do to make it through as it is. If we wait to go back there ain't one chance in a hundred that we-all 'll ever see Rubio City again. It ain't sense to risk killin' the kid when we've got a chance to save her--jest on a slim chance o' findin' out who she is."

Returning to the outfit they very quietly--so as not to awaken the sleeping child--hitched the team to the wagon and took their places. As the mules started the baby stirred uneasily in the Seer's arms

The Winning of Barbara Worth - 6/75

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