EDWIN L. SABIN
Author of "How Are You Feeling Now?" etc.
J. CLINTON SHEPHERD
GEORGE W. JACOBS & COMPANY
Copyright, 1921, by Frank A. Munsey Company
Copyright, 1922, by George W. Jacobs & Company
All rights reserved Printed in U. S. A.
CHAPTER PAGE I. A Pair of Blue Eyes 9 II. To Better Acquaintance 22 III. I Rise in Favor 36 IV. I Meet Friends 54 V. On Grand Tour 72 VI. "High and Dry" 88 VII. I Go to Rendezvous 102 VIII. I Stake on the Queen 118 IX. I Accept an Offer 131 X. I Cut Loose 145 XI. We Get a "Super" 162 XII. Daniel Takes Possession 181 XIII. Someone Fears 197 XIV. I Take a Lesson 205 XV. The Trail Narrows 223 XVI. I Do the Deed 240 XVII. The Trail Forks 252 XVIII. Voices in the Void 261 XIX. I Stake Again 272 XX. The Queen Wins 286 XXI. We Wait the Summons 300 XXII. Star Shine 314
PAGE Like some land of Heart's Desire (see page 22). Frontispiece "Madam," I Uttered Foolishly, "Good Evening." 85 The Scouts Galloped Onward 280
A PAIR OF BLUE EYES
In the estimate of the affable brakeman (a gentleman wearing sky-blue army pantaloons tucked into cowhide boots, half-buttoned vest, flannel shirt open at the throat, and upon his red hair a flaring-brimmed black slouch hat) we were making a fair average of twenty miles an hour across the greatest country on earth. It was a flat country of far horizons, and for vast stretches peopled mainly, as one might judge from the car windows, by antelope and the equally curious rodents styled prairie dogs.
Yet despite the novelty of such a ride into that unknown new West now being spanned at giant's strides by the miraculous Pacific Railway, behold me, surfeited with already five days' steady travel, engrossed chiefly in observing a clear, dainty profile and waiting for the glimpses, time to time, of a pair of exquisite blue eyes.
Merely to indulge myself in feminine beauty, however, I need not have undertaken the expense and fatigue of journeying from Albany on the Hudson out to Omaha on the plains side of the Missouri River; thence by the Union Pacific Railroad of the new transcontinental line into the Indian country. There were handsome women a-plenty in the East; and of access, also, to a youth of family and parts. I had pictures of the same in my social register. A man does not attain to twenty-five years without having accomplished a few pages of the heart book. Nevertheless all such pages were—or had seemed to be—wholly retrospective now, for here I was, advised by the physicians to "go West," meaning by this not simply the one-time West of Ohio, or Illinois, or even Iowa, but the remote and genuine West lying beyond the Missouri.
Whereupon, out of desperation that flung the gauntlet down to hope I had taken the bull by the horns in earnest. West should be full dose, at the utmost procurable by modern conveyance.
The Union Pacific announcements acclaimed that this summer of 1868 the rails should cross the Black Hills Mountains of Wyoming to another range of the Rocky Mountains, in Utah; and that by the end of the year one might ride comfortably clear to Salt Lake City. Certainly this was "going West" with a vengeance; but as appeared to me—and to my father and mother and the physicians—somewhere in the expanse of brand new Western country, the plains and mountains, I would find at least the breath of life.
When I arrived in Omaha the ticket agent was enabled to sell me transportation away to the town of Benton, Wyoming Territory itself, six hundred and ninety miles (he said) west of the Missouri.
Of Benton I had never heard. It was upon no public maps, as yet. But in round figures, seven hundred miles! Practically the distance from Albany to Cincinnati, and itself distant from Albany over two thousand miles! All by rail.
Benton was, he explained, the present end of passenger service, this August. In another month—and he laughed.
"Fact is, while you're standing here," he alleged, "I may get orders any moment to sell a longer ticket. The Casements are laying two to three miles of track a day, seven days in the week, and stepping right on the heels of the graders. Last April we were selling only to Cheyenne, rising of five hundred miles. Then in May we began to sell to Laramie, five hundred and seventy-six miles. Last of July we began selling to Benton, a hundred and twenty miles farther. Track's now probably fifty or more miles west of Benton and there's liable to be another passenger terminus to-morrow. So it might pay you to wait."
"No," I said. "Thank you, but I'll try Benton. I can go on from there as I think best. Could you recommend local accommodations?"
He stared, through the bars of the little window behind which lay a six-chambered revolver.
"Could I do what, sir?"
"Recommend a hotel, at Benton where I'm going. There is a hotel, I suppose?"
"Good Lord!" he exclaimed testily. "In a city of three thousand people? A hotel? A dozen of 'em, but I don't know their names. What do you expect to find in Benton? You're from the East, I take it. Going out on spec', or pleasure, or health?"
"I have been advised to try Western air for a change," I answered. "I am looking for some place that is high, and dry."
"Consumption, eh?" he shrewdly remarked. "High and dry; that's it. Oh, yes; you'll find Benton high enough, and toler'bly dry. You bet! And nobody dies natural, at Benton, they say. Here's your ticket. Thank you. And the change. Next, please."
It did not take me long to gather the change remaining from seventy dollars greenbacks swapped for six hundred and ninety miles of travel at ten cents a mile. I hastily stepped aside. A subtle fragrance and a rustle warned me that I was obstructing a representative of the fair sex. So did the smirk and smile of the ticket agent.
"Your pardon, madam," I proffered, lifting my hat—agreeably dazzled while thus performing.
She acknowledged the tribute with a faint blush. While pocketing my change and stowing away my ticket I had opportunity to survey her further.
"Benton," she said briefly, to the agent.
We were bound for the same point, then. Ye gods, but she was a little beauty: a perfect blonde, of the petite and fully formed type, with regular features inclined to the clean-cut Grecian, a piquant mouth deliciously bowed, two eyes of the deepest blue veiled by long lashes, and a mass of glinting golden hair upon which perched a ravishing little bonnet. The natural ensemble was enhanced by her costume, all of black, from the closely fitting bodice to the rustling crinoline beneath which there peeped out tiny shoes. I had opportunity also to note the jet pendant in the shelly ear toward me, and the flashing rings upon the fingers of her hands, ungloved in order to sort out the money from her reticule.
Sooth to say, I might not stand there gawking. Once, by a demure sideways glance, she betrayed knowledge of my presence. Her own transaction was all matter-of-fact, as if engaging passage to Benton of Wyoming Territory contained no novelty for her. Could she by any chance live there—a woman dressed like she was, as much a la mode as if she walked Broadway in New York? Omaha itself had astonished me with the display upon its streets; and now if Benton, far out in the wilderness, should prove another surprise——! Indeed, the Western world was not so raw, after all. Strange to say, as soon as one crossed the Missouri River one began to sense romance, and to discover it.
As seemed to me, the ticket agent would have detained her, in defiance of the waiting line; but she finished her business shortly, with shorter replies to his idle remarks; and I turned away under pretense of examining some placards upon the wall advertising "Platte Valley lands" for sale. I had curiosity to see which way she wended. Then as she tripped for the door, casting eyes never right nor left, and still fumbling at her reticule, a coin slipped from her fingers and rolled, by good fortune, across the floor.
I was after it instantly; caught it, and with best bow presented it.
"Permit me, madam."
She took it.
"Thank you, sir."
For a moment she paused to restore it to its company; and I grasped the occasion.
"I beg your pardon. You are going to Benton, of Wyoming Territory?"
Her eyes met mine so completely as well-nigh to daze me with their glory. There was a quizzical uplift in her frank, arch smile.
"I am, sir. To Benton City, of Wyoming Territory."
"You are acquainted there?" I ventured.
"Yes, sir. I am acquainted there. And you are from Benton?"
"Oh, no," I assured. "I am from New York State." As if anybody might not have known. "But I have just purchased my ticket to Benton, and——" I stammered, "I have made bold to wonder if you would not have the goodness to tell me something of the place—as to accommodations, and all that. You don't by any chance happen to live there, do you?"
"And why not, sir, may I ask?" she challenged.
I floundered before her query direct, and her bewildering eyes and lips—all tantalizing.
"I didn't know—I had no idea—Wyoming Territory has been mentioned in the newspapers as largely Indian country——"
"At Benton we are only six days behind New York fashions," she smiled. "You have not been out over the railroad, then, I suspect. Not to North Platte? Nor to Cheyenne?"
"I have never been west of Cincinnati before."
"You have surely been reading of the railroad? The Pacific Railway between the East and California?"
"Yes, indeed. In fact, a friend of mine, named Stephen Clark, nephew of the Honorable Thurlow Weed formerly of Albany, was killed a year ago by your Indians while surveying west of the Black Hills. And of course there have been accounts in the New York papers."
"You are not on survey service? Or possibly, yes?"
"A pleasure trip to end of track?"
She evidently was curious, but I was getting accustomed to questions into private matters. That was the universal license, out here.
"The pleasure of finding health," I laughed. "I have been advised to seek a location high and dry."
"Oh!" She dimpled adorably. "I congratulate you on your choice. You will make no mistake, then, in trying Benton. I can promise you that it is high and reasonably dry. And as for accommodations—so far as I have ever heard anybody is accommodated there with whatever he may wish." She darted a glance at me; stepped aside as if to leave.
"I am to understand that it is a city?" I pleaded.
"Benton? Why, certainly. All the world is flowing to Benton. We gained three thousand people in two weeks—much to the sorrow of poor old Cheyenne and Laramie. No doubt there are five thousand people there now, and all busy. Yes, a young man will find his opportunities in Benton. I think your choice will please you. Money is plentiful, and so are the chances to spend it." She bestowed upon me another sparkling glance. "And since we are both going to Benton I will say 'Au revoir,' sir." She left me quivering.
"You do live there?" I besought, after; and received a nod of the golden head as she entered the sacred Ladies' Waiting Room.
Until the train should be made up I might only stroll, restless and strangely buoyed, with that vision of an entrancing fellow traveler filling my eyes. Summoned in due time by the clamor "Passengers for the Pacific Railway! All aboard, going west on the Union Pacific!" here amidst the platform hurly-burly of men, women, children and bundles I had the satisfaction to sight the black-clad figure of My Lady of the Blue Eyes; hastening, like the rest, but not unattended—for a brakeman bore her valise and the conductor her parasol. The scurrying crowd gallantly parted before her. It as promptly closed upon her wake; try as I might I was utterly unable to keep in her course.
Obviously, the train was to be well occupied. Carried on willy-nilly I mounted the first steps at hand; elbowed on down the aisle until I managed to squirm aside into a vacant seat. The remaining half was at once effectually filled by a large, stout, red-faced woman who formed the base of a pyramid of boxes and parcels.
My neighbor, who blocked all egress, was going to North Platte, three hundred miles westward, I speedily found out. And she almost as speedily learned that I was going to Benton.
She stared, round-eyed.
"I reckon you're a gambler, young man," she accused.
"No, madam. Do I look like a gambler?"
"You can't tell by looks, young man," she asserted, still suspicious, "Maybe you're on spec', then, in some other way."
"I am seeking health in the West, is all, where the climate is high and dry."
"My Gawd!" she blurted. "High and dry! You're goin' to the right place. For all I hear tell, Benton is high enough and dry enough. Are your eye-teeth peeled, young man?"
"My eye-teeth?" I repeated. "I hope so, madam. Are eye-teeth necessary in Benton?"
"Peeled, and with hair on 'em, young man," she assured. "I guess you're a pilgrim, ain't you? I see a leetle green in your eye. No, you ain't a tin-horn. You're some mother's boy, jest gettin' away from the trough. My sakes! Sick, too, eh? Weak lungs, ain't it? Now you tell me: Why you goin' to Benton?"
There was an inviting kindness in her query. Plainly she had a good heart, large in proportion with her other bulk.
"It's the farthest point west that I can reach by railroad, and everybody I have talked with has recommended it as high and dry."
"So it is," she nodded; and chuckled fatly. "But laws sakes, you don't need to go that fur. You can as well stop off at North Platte, or Sidney or Cheyenne. They'll sculp you sure at Benton, unless you watch out mighty sharp."
"How so, may I ask?"
"You're certainly green," she apprised. "Benton's roarin'—and I know what that means. Didn't North Platte roar? I seen it at its beginnin's. My old man and me, we were there from the fust, when it started in as the railroad terminal. My sakes, but them were times! What with the gamblin' and the shootin' and the drinkin' and the high-cockalorums night and day, 'twasn't no place for innocence. Easy come, easy go, that was the word. I don't say but what times were good, though. My old man contracted government freight, and I run an eatin' house for the railroaders, so we made money. Then when the railroad moved terminus, the wust of the crowd moved, too, and us others who stayed turned North Platte into a strictly moral town. But land sakes! North Platte in its roarin' days wasn't no place for a young man like you. Neither was Julesburg, or Sidney, or Cheyenne, when they was terminuses. And I hear tell Benton is wuss'n all rolled into one. Young man, now listen: You stop off at North Platte, Nebrasky. It's healthy and it's moral, and it's goin' to make Omyha look like a shinplaster. I'll watch after you. Maybe I can get you a job in my man's store. You've j'ined some church, I reckon? Now if you're a Baptist——?"
But since I had crossed the Missouri something had entered into my blood which rendered me obstinate against such allurements. For her North Platte, "strictly moral," and the guardianship of her broad motherly wing I had no ardent feeling. I was set upon Benton; foolishly, fatuously set. And in after days—soon to arrive—I bitterly regretted that I had not yielded to her wholesome, honest counsel.
Nevertheless this was true, at present:
"But I have already purchased my ticket to Benton," I objected. "I understand that I shall find the proper climate there, and suitable accommodations. And if I don't like it I can move elsewhere. Possibly to Salt Lake City, or Denver."
"In among them Mormons? My Gawd, young man! Where they live in conkibinage—several women to one man, like a buffler herd or other beasts of the field? I guess your mother never heard you talk like that. Denver—well, Denver mightn't be bad, though I do hear tell that folks nigh starve to death there, what with the Injuns and the snow. Denver ain't on no railroad, either. If you want health, and to grow up with a strictly moral community, you throw in with North Platte of Nebrasky, the great and growin' city of the Plains. I reckon you've heard of North Platte, even where you come from. You take my word for it, and exchange your ticket."
It struck me here that the good woman might not be unbiased in her fondness for North Platte. To extol the present and future of these Western towns seemed a fixed habit. During my brief stay in Omaha—yes, on the way across Illinois and Iowa from Chicago, I had encountered this peculiar trait. Iowa was rife with aspiring if embryonic metropolises. Now in Nebraska, Columbus was destined to be the new national capital and the center of population for the United States; Fremont was lauded as one of the great railroad junctions of the world; and North Platte, three hundred miles out into the plains, was proclaimed as the rival of Omaha, and "strictly moral."
"I thank you," I replied. "But since I've started for Benton I think I'll go on. And if I don't like it or it doesn't agree with me you may see me in North Platte after all."
"You can find me at the Bon Ton restaurant. If you get in broke, I'll take care of you."
With that she settled herself comfortably. In remarkably short order she was asleep and snoring.
TO BETTER ACQUAINTANCE
The train had started amidst clangor of bell and the shouts of good-bye and good-luck from the crowd upon the station platform. We had rolled out through train yards occupied to the fullest by car shops, round house, piled-up freight depot, stacks of ties and iron, and tracks covered with freight cars loaded high to rails, ties, baled hay, all manner and means of supplies designed, I imagined, for the building operations far in the West.
Soon we had left this busy Train Town behind, and were entering the open country. The landscape was pleasing, but the real sights probably lay ahead; so I turned from my window to examine my traveling quarters.
The coach—a new one, built in the company's shops and decidedly upon a par with the very best coaches of the Eastern roads—was jammed; every seat taken. I did not see My Lady of the Blue Eyes, nor her equal, but almost the whole gamut of society was represented: Farmers, merchants, a few soldiers, plainsmen in boots and flannel shirt-sleeves and long hair and large hats, with revolvers hanging from the racks above them or from the seat ends; one or two white-faced gentry in broadcloth and patent-leather shoes—who I fancied might be gamblers such as now and then plied their trade upon the Hudson River boats; two Indians in blankets; Eastern tourists, akin to myself; women and children of country type; and so forth. What chiefly caught my eye were the carbines racked against the ends of the coach, for protection in case of Indians or highwaymen, no doubt. I observed bottles being passed from hand to hand, and tilted en route. The amount and frequency of the whiskey for consumption in this country were astonishing.
My friend snored peacefully. Near noon we halted for dinner at the town of Fremont, some fifty miles out. She awakened at the general stir, and when I squeezed by her she immediately fished for a packet of lunch. We had thirty minutes at Fremont—ample time in which to discuss a very excellent meal of antelope steaks, prairie fowl, fried potatoes and hot biscuits. There was promise of buffalo meat farther on, possibly at the next meal station, Grand Island.
The time was sufficient, also, to give me another glimpse of My Lady of the Blue Eyes, who appeared to have been awarded the place of honor between the conductor and the brakeman, at table. She bestowed upon me a subtle glance of recognition—with a smile and a slight bow in one; but I failed to find her upon the station platform after the meal. That I should obtain other opportunities I did not doubt. Benton was yet thirty hours' travel.
All that afternoon we rocked along up the Platte Valley, with the Platte River—a broad but shallow stream—constantly upon our left. My seat companion evidently had exhausted her repertoire, for she slumbered at ease, gradually sinking into a shapeless mass, her flowered bonnet askew. Several other passengers also were sleeping; due, in part, to the whiskey bottles. The car was thinning out, I noted, and I might bid in advance for the chance of obtaining a new location in a certain car ahead.
The scenery through the car window had merged into a monotony accentuated by great spaces. As far as Fremont the country along the railroad had been well settled with farms and unfenced cultivated fields. Now we had issued into the untrammeled prairies, here and there humanized by an isolated shack or a lonely traveler by horse or wagon, but in the main a vast sun-baked dead sea of gentle, silent undulations extending, brownish, clear to the horizons. The only refreshing sights were the Platte River, flowing blue and yellow among sand-bars and islands, and the side streams that we passed. Close at hand the principal tokens of life were the little flag stations, and the tremendous freight trains side-tracked to give us the right of way. The widely separated hamlets where we impatiently stopped were the oases in the desert.
In the sunset we halted at the supper station, named Grand Island. My seat neighbor finished her lunch box, and I returned well fortified by another excellent meal at the not exorbitant price, one dollar and a quarter. There had been buffalo meat—a poor apology, to my notion, for good beef. Antelope steak, on the contrary, was of far finer flavor than the best mutton.
At Grand Island a number of wretched native Indians drew my attention, for the time being, from quest of My Lady of the Blue Eyes. However, she was still escorted by the conductor, who in his brass buttons and officious air began to irritate me. Such a persistent squire of dames rather overstepped the duties of his position. Confound the fellow! He surely would come to the end of his run and his rope before we went much farther.
"Now, young man, if you get shet of your foolishness and decide to try North Platte instead of some fly-by-night town on west," my seat companion addressed, "you jest follow me when I leave. We get to North Platte after plumb dark, and you hang onto my skirts right up town, till I land you in a good place. For if you don't, you're liable to be skinned alive."
"If I decide upon North Platte I certainly will take advantage of your kindness," I evaded. Forsooth, she had a mind to kidnap me!
"Now you're talkin' sensible," she approved. "My sakes alive! Benton!" And she sniffed. "Why, in Benton they'll snatch you bald-headed 'fore you've been there an hour."
She composed herself for another nap.
"If that pesky brakeman don't remember to wake me, you give me a poke with your elbow. I wouldn't be carried beyond North Platte for love or money."
She gurgled, she snored. The sunset was fading from pink to gold—a gold like somebody's hair; and from gold to lemon which tinted all the prairie and made it beautiful. Pursuing the sunset we steadily rumbled westward through the immensity of unbroken space.
The brakeman came in, lighting the coal-oil lamps. Outside, the twilight had deepened into dusk. Numerous passengers were making ready for bed: the men by removing their boots and shoes and coats and galluses and stretching out; the women by loosening their stays, with significant clicks and sighs, and laying their heads upon adjacent shoulders or drooping against seat ends. Babies cried, and were hushed. Final night-caps were taken, from the prevalent bottles.
The brakeman, returning, paused and inquired right and left on his way through. He leaned to me.
"You for North Platte?"
"No, sir. Benton, Wyoming Territory."
"Then you'd better move up to the car ahead. This car stops at North Platte."
"What time do we reach North Platte?"
"Two-thirty in the morning. If you don't want to be waked up, you'd better change now. You'll find a seat."
At that I gladly followed him out. He indicated a half-empty seat.
"This gentleman gets off a bit farther on; then you'll have the seat to yourself."
The arrangement was satisfactory, albeit the "gentleman" with whom I shared appeared, to nose and eyes, rather well soused, as they say; but fortune had favored me—across the aisle, only a couple of seats beyond, I glimpsed the top of a golden head, securely low and barricaded in by luggage.
Without regrets I abandoned my former seat-mate to her disappointment when she waked at North Platte. This car was the place for me, set apart by the salient presence of one person among all the others. That, however, is apt to differentiate city from city, and even land from land.
Eventually I, also, slept—at first by fits and starts concomitant with railway travel by night, then more soundly when the "gentleman," my comrade in adventure, had been hauled out and deposited elsewhere. I fully awakened only at daylight.
The train was rumbling as before. The lamps had been extinguished—the coach atmosphere was heavy with oil smell and the exhalations of human beings in all stages of deshabille. But the golden head was there, about as when last sighted.
Now it stirred, and erected a little. I felt the unseemliness of sitting and waiting for her to make her toilet, so I hastily staggered to achieve my own by aid of the water tank, tin basin, roller towel and small looking-glass at the rear—substituting my personal comb and brush for the pair hanging there by cords.
The coach was the last in the train. I stepped out upon the platform, for fresh air.
We were traversing the real plains of the Great American Desert, I judged. The prairie grasses had shortened to brown stubble interspersed with bare sandy soil rising here and there into low hills. It was a country without north, south, east, west, save as denoted by the sun, broadly launching his first beams of the day. Behind us the single track of double rails stretched straight away as if clear to the Missouri. The dull blare of the car wheels was the only token of life, excepting the long-eared rabbits scampering with erratic high jumps, and the prairie dogs sitting bolt upright in the sunshine among their hillocked burrows. Of any town there was no sign. We had cut loose from company.
Then we thundered by a freight train, loaded with still more ties and iron, standing upon a siding guarded by the idling trainmen and by an operator's shack. Smoke was welling from the chimney of the shack—and that domestic touch gave me a sense of homesickness. Yet I would not have been home, even for breakfast. This wide realm of nowhere fascinated with the unknown.
The train and shack flattened into the landscape. A bevy of antelope flashed white tails at us as they scudded away. Two motionless figures, horseback, whom I took to be wild Indians, surveyed us from a distant sand-hill. Across the river there appeared a fungus of low buildings, almost indistinguishable, with a glimmer of canvas-topped wagons fringing it. That was the old emigrant road.
While I was thus orienting myself in lonesome but not entirely hopeless fashion the car door opened and closed. I turned my head. The Lady of the Blue Eyes had joined me. As fresh as the morning she was.
"Oh! You? I beg your pardon, sir." She apologized, but I felt that the diffidence was more politic than sincere.
"You are heartily welcome, madam," I assured. "There is air enough for us both."
"The car is suffocating," she said. "However, the worst is over. We shall not have to spend another such a night. You are still for Benton?"
"By all means." And I bowed to her. "We are fellow-travelers to the end, I believe."
"Yes?" She scanned me. "But I do not like that word: the end. It is not a popular word, in the West. Certainly not at Benton. For instance——"
We tore by another freight waiting upon a siding located amidst a wide debris of tin cans, scattered sheet-iron, stark mud-and-stone chimneys, and barren spots, resembling the ruins from fire and quake.
"There is Julesburg."
"A town?" I gasped.
"The end." She smiled. "The only inhabitants now are in the station-house and the graveyard."
"And the others? Where are they?"
"Farther west. Many of them in Benton."
"Indeed? Or in North Platte!" I bantered.
"North Platte!" She laughed merrily. "Dear me, don't mention North Platte—not in the same breath with Benton, or even Cheyenne. A town of hayseeds and dollar-a-day clerks whose height of sport is to go fishing in the Platte! A young man like you would die of ennui in North Platte. Julesburg was a good town while it lasted. People lived, there; and moved on because they wished to keep alive. What is life, anyway, but a constant shuffle of the cards? Oh, I should have laughed to see you in North Platte." And laugh she did. "You might as well be dead underground as buried in one of those smug seven-Sabbaths-a-week places."
Her free speech accorded ill with what I had been accustomed to in womankind; and yet became her sparkling eyes and general dash.
"To be dead is past the joking, madam," I reminded.
"Certainly. To be dead is the end. In Benton we live while we live, and don't mention the end. So I took exception to your gallantry." She glanced behind her, through the door window into the car. "Will you," she asked hastily, "join me in a little appetizer, as they say? You will find it a superior cognac—and we breakfast shortly, at Sidney."
From a pocket of her skirt she had extracted a small silver flask, stoppered with a tiny screw cup. Her face swam before me, in my astonishment.
"I rarely drink liquor, madam," I stammered.
"Nor I. But when traveling—you know. And in high and—dry Benton liquor is quite a necessity. You will discover that, I am sure. You will not decline to taste with a lady? Let us drink to better acquaintance, in Benton."
"With all my heart, madam," I blurted.
She poured, while swaying to the motion of the train; passed the cup to me with a brightly challenging smile.
"Ladies first. That is the custom, is it not?" I queried.
"But I am hostess, sir. I do the honors. Pray do you your duty."
"To our better acquaintance, then, madam," I accepted. "In Benton."
The cognac swept down my throat like a stab of hot oil. She poured for herself.
"A votre sante, monsieur—and continued beginnings, no ends." She daintily tossed it off.
We had consummated our pledges just in time. The brakeman issued, stumping noisily and bringing discord into my heaven of blue and gold and comfortable warmth.
"Howdy, lady and gent? Breakfast in twenty minutes." He grinned affably at her; yes, with a trace of familiarity. "Sleep well, madam?"
"Passably, thank you." Her voice held a certain element of calm interrogation as if to ask how far he intended to push acquaintance. "We're nearing Sidney, you say? Then I bid you gentlemen good-morning."
With a darting glance at him and a parting smile for me she passed inside. The brakeman leaned for an instant's look ahead, up the track, and lingered.
"Friend of yours, is she?"
"I met her at Omaha, is all," I stiffly informed.
"Considerable of a dame, eh?" He eyed me. "You're booked for Benton, too?"
"Never been there, myself. She's another hell-roarer, they say."
"Sir!" I remonstrated.
"Oh, the town, the town," he enlightened. "I'm saying nothing against it, for that matter—nor against her, either. They're both O. K."
"You are acquainted with the lady, yourself?"
"Her? Sure. I know about everybody along the line between Platte and Cheyenne. Been running on this division ever since it opened."
"She lives in Benton, though, I understand," I proffered.
"Why, yes; sure she does. Moved there from Cheyenne." He looked at me queerly. "Naturally. Ain't that so?"
"Probably it is," I admitted. "I see no reason to doubt your word."
"Yep. Followed her man. A heap of people moved from Cheyenne to Benton, by way of Laramie."
"She is married, then?"
"Far as I know. Anyway, she's not single, by a long shot." And he laughed. "But, Lord, that cuts no great figger. People here don't stand on ceremony in those matters. Everything's aboveboard. Hands on the table until time to draw—then draw quick."
His language was a little too bluff for me.
"Her husband is in business, no doubt?"
"Business?" He stared unblinking. "I see." He laid a finger alongside his nose, and winked wisely. "You bet yuh! And good business. Yes, siree. Are you on?"
"Am I on?" I repeated. "On what? The train?"
"Oh, on your way."
"To Benton; certainly."
"Do you see any green in my eye, friend?" he demanded.
"I do not."
"Or in the moon, maybe?"
"No, nor in the moon," I retorted. "But what is all this about?"
"I'll be damned!" he roundly vouchsafed. And—"You've been having a quiet little smile with her, eh?" He sniffed suspiciously. "A few swigs of that'll make a pioneer of you quicker'n alkali. She's favoring you—eh? Now if she tells you of a system, take my advice and quit while your hair's long."
"My hair is my own fashion, sir," I rebuked. "And the lady is not for discussion between gentlemen, particularly as my acquaintance with her is only casual. I don't understand your remarks, but if they are insinuations I shall have to ask you to drop the subject."
"Tut, tut!" he grinned. "No offense intended, Mister Pilgrim. Well, you're all right. We can't be young more than once, and if the lady takes you in tow in Benton you'll have the world by the tail as long as it holds. She moves with the top-notchers; she's a knowing little piece—no offense. Her and me are good enough friends. There's no brace game in that deal. I only aim to give you a steer. Savvy?" And he winked. "You're out to see the elephant, yourself."
"I am seeking health, is all," I explained. "My physician had advised a place in the Far West, high and dry; and Benton is recommended."
His response was identical with others preceding.
"High and dry? By golly, then Benton's the ticket. It's sure high, and sure dry. You bet yuh! High and dry and roaring."
"Why 'roaring'?" I demanded at last. The word had been puzzling me.
"Up and coming. Pop goes the weasel, at Benton. Benton? Lord love you! They say it's got Cheyenne and Laramie backed up a tree, the best days they ever seen. When you step off at Benton step lively and keep an eye in the back of your head. There's money to be made at Benton, by the wise ones. Watch out for ropers and if you get onto a system, play it. There ain't any limit to money or suckers."
"I may not qualify as to money," I informed. "But I trust that I am no sucker."
"No green in the eye, eh?" he approved. "Anyhow, you have a good lead if your friend in black cottons to you." Again he winked. "You're not a bad-looking young feller." He leaned over the side steps, and gazed ahead. "Sidney in sight. Be there directly. We're hitting twenty miles and better through the greatest country on earth. The engineer smells breakfast."
I RISE IN FAVOR
With that he went forward. So did I; but the barricade at the end of My Lady's seat was intact, and I sat down in my own seat, to keep expectant eye upon her profile—a decided relief amidst that crude melange of people in various stages of hasty dressing after a night of cramped postures.
The brakeman's words, although mysterious in part, had concluded reassuringly. My Lady, he said, would prove a valuable friend in Benton. A friend at hand means a great deal to any young man, stranger in a strange land.
The conductor came back—a new conductor; stooped familiarly over the barricade and evidently exchanged pleasantries with her.
"Sidney! Sidney! Twenty minutes for breakfast!" the brakeman bawled, from the door.
There was the general stir. My Lady shot a glance at me, with inviting eyes, but arose in response to the proffered arm of the conductor, and I was late. The aisle filled between us as he ushered her on and the train slowed to grinding of brakes and the tremendous clanging of a gong.
Of Sidney there was little to see: merely a station-house and the small Railroad Hotel, with a handful of other buildings forming a single street—all squatting here near a rock quarry that broke the expanse of uninhabited brown plains. The air, however, was wonderfully invigorating; the meal excellent, as usual; and when I emerged from the dining-room, following closely a black figure crowned with gold, I found her strolling alone upon the platform.
Therefore I caught up with her. She faced me with ready smile.
"You are rather slow in action, sir," she lightly accused. "We might have breakfasted together; but it was the conductor again, after all."
"I plead guilty, madam," I admitted. "The trainmen have an advantage over me, in anticipating events. But the next meal shall be my privilege. We stop again before reaching Benton?"
"For dinner, yes; at Cheyenne."
"And after that you will be home."
"Home?" she queried, with a little pucker between her brows.
"Yes. At Benton."
"Of course." She laughed shortly. "Benton is now home. We have moved so frequently that I have grown to call almost no place home."
"I judge then that you are connected, as may happen, with a flexible business," I hazarded. "If you are in the army I can understand."
"No, I'm not an army woman; but there is money in following the railroad, and that is our present life," she said frankly. "A town springs up, you know, at each terminus, booms as long as the freight and passengers pile up—and all of a sudden the go-ahead business and professional men pull stakes for the next terminus as soon as located. That has been the custom, all the way from North Platte to Benton."
"Which accounts for your acquaintance along the line. The trainmen seem to know you."
"Trainmen and others; oh, yes. It is to be expected. I have no objections to that. I am quite able to take care of myself, sir."
We were interrupted. A near-drunken rowdy (upon whom I had kept an uneasy corner of an eye) had been careening over the platform, a whiskey bottle protruding from the hip pocket of his sagging jeans, a large revolver dangling at his thigh, his slouch hat cocked rakishly upon his tousled head. His language was extremely offensive—he had an ugly mood on, but nobody interfered. The crowd stood aside—the natives laughing, the tourists like myself viewing him askance, and several Indians watching only gravely.
He sighted us, and staggered in.
"Howdy?" he uttered, with an oath. "Shay—hello, stranger. Have a smile. Take two, one for lady. Hic!" And he thrust his bottle at me.
My Lady drew back. I civilly declined the "smile."
"Thank you. I do not drink."
"What?" He stared blearily. His tone stiffened. "The hell you say. Too tony, eh? Too—'ic! Have a smile, I ask you, one gent to 'nother. Have a smile, you (unmentionable) pilgrim; fer if you don't——"
"Train's starting, Jim," she interposed sharply. "If you want to get aboard you'd better hurry."
The engine tooted, the bell was ringing, the passengers were hurrying, incited by the conductor's shout: "All 'board!"
Without another word she tripped for the car steps. I gave the fellow one firm look as he stood stupidly scratching his thatch as if to harrow his ideas; and perforce left him. By the cheers he undoubtedly made in the same direction. I was barely in time myself. The train moved as I planted foot upon the steps of the nearest car—the foremost of the two. The train continued; halted again abruptly, while cheers rang riotous; and when I crossed the passageway between this car and ours the conductor and brakeman were hauling the tipsy Jim into safety.
My Lady was ensconced.
"Did they get him?" she inquired, when I paused.
"By the scruff of the neck. The drunken fellow, you mean."
"You know him?"
"He's from Benton. I suppose he's been down here on a little pasear, as they say."
"If you think he'll annoy you——?" I made bold to suggest, for I greatly coveted the half of her seat.
"Oh, I'm not afraid of Jim. But yes, do sit down. You can put these things back in your seat. Then we can talk."
I had no more than settled triumphantly, when the brakeman ambled through, his face in a broad grin. He also paused, to perch upon the seat end, his arm extended friendlily along the back.
"Well, we got him corralled," he proclaimed needlessly. "That t'rantular juice nigh broke his neck for him."
"Did you take his bottle away, Jerry?" she asked.
"Sure thing. He'll be peaceable directly. Soused to the guards. Reckon he's inclined to be a trifle ugly when he's on a tear, ain't he? They'd shipped him out of Benton on a down train. Now he's going back up."
"He's safe, you think?"
"Sewed tight. He'll sleep it off and be ready for night." The brakeman winked at her. "You needn't fear. He'll be on deck, right side up with care."
"I've told this gentleman that I'm not afraid," she answered quickly.
"Of course. And he knows what's best for him, himself." The brakeman slapped me on the shoulder and good-naturedly straightened. "So does this young gentleman, I rather suspicion. I can see his fortune's made. You bet, if he works it right. I told him if you cottoned to him——"
"Now you're talking too much, Jerry," she reproved. "The gentleman and I are only traveling acquaintances."
"Yes, ma'am. To Benton. Let 'er roar. Cheyenne's the closest I can get, myself, and Cheyenne's a dead one—blowed up, busted worse'n a galvanized Yank with a pocket full o' Confed wall-paper." He yawned. "Guess I'll take forty winks. Was up all night, and a man can stand jest so much, Injuns or no Injuns."
"Did you expect to meet with Indians, sir, along the route?" I asked.
"Hell, yes. Always expect to meet 'em between Kearney and Julesburg. It's about time they were wrecking another train. Well, so long. Be good to each other." With this parting piece of impertinence he stumped out.
"A friendly individual, evidently," I hazarded, to tide her over her possible embarrassment.
Her laugh assured me that she was not embarrassed at all, which proved her good sense and elevated her even farther in my esteem.
"Oh, Jerry's all right. I don't mind Jerry, except that his tongue is hung in the middle. He probably has been telling you some tall yarns?"
"He? No, I don't think so. He may have tried it, but his Western expressions are beyond me as yet. In fact, what he was driving at on the rear platform I haven't the slightest idea."
"Driving at? In what way, sir?"
"He referred to the green in his eye and in the moon, as I recall; and to a mysterious 'system'; and gratuitously offered me a 'steer.'"
Her face hardened remarkably, so that her chin set as if tautened by iron bands. Those eyes glinted with real menace.
"He did, did he? Along that line of talk! The clapper-jaw! He's altogether too free." She surveyed me keenly. "And naturally you couldn't understand such lingo."
"I was not curious enough to try, my dear madam. He talked rather at random; likely enjoyed bantering me. But," I hastily placated in his behalf, "he recommended Benton as a lively place, and you as a friend of value in case that you honored me with your patronage."
"My patronage, for you?" she exclaimed. "Indeed? To what extent? Are you going into business, too? As one of—us?"
"If I should become a Bentonite, as I hope," I gallantly replied, "then of course I should look to permanent investment of some nature. And before my traveling funds run out I shall be glad of light employment. The brakeman gave me to understand merely that by your kindly interest you might be disposed to assist me."
"Oh!" Her face lightened. "I dare say Jerry means well. But when you spoke of 'patronage'—— That is a current term of certain import along the railroad." She leaned to me; a glow emanated from her. "Tell me of yourself. You have red blood? Do you ever game? For if you are not afraid to test your luck and back it, there is money to be made very easily at Benton, and in a genteel way." She smiled bewitchingly. "Or are you a Quaker, to whom life is deadly serious?"
"No Quaker, madam." How could I respond otherwise to that pair of dancing blue eyes, to that pair of derisive lips? "As for gaming—if you mean cards, why, I have played at piquet and romp, in a social way, for small stakes; and my father brought Old Sledge back from the army, to the family table."
"You are lucky. I can see it," she alleged.
"I am, on this journey," I asserted.
"Well said, sir. And if you choose to make use of your luck, in Benton, by all means——"
Whether she would have shaped her import clearly I did not know. There was a commotion in the forward part of the car. That same drunken wretch Jim had appeared; his bottle (somehow restored to him) in hand, his hat pushed back from his flushed greasy forehead.
"Have a smile, ladies an' gents," he was bellowing thickly. "Hooray! Have a smile on me. Great an' gloryus 'casion—'ic! Ever'body smile. Drink to op'nin' gloryus Pac'fic—'ic—Railway. Thash it. Hooray!" Thus he came reeling down the aisle, thrusting his bottle right and left, to be denied with shrinkings or with bluff excuses.
It seemed inevitable that he should reach us. I heard My Lady utter a little gasp, as she sat more erect; and here he was, espying us readily enough with that uncanny precision of a drunken man, his bottle to the fore.
"Have a smile, you two. Wouldn't smile at station; gotto smile now. Yep. 'Ic! 'Ray for Benton! All goin' to Benton. Lesh be good fellers."
"You go back to your seat, Jim," she ordered tensely. "Go back, if you know what's good for you."
"Whash that? Who your dog last year? Shay! You can't come no highty-tighty over me. Who your new friend? Shay!" He reeled and gripped the seat, flooding me with his vile breath. "By Gawd, I got the dead-wood on you, you——!" and he had loosed such a torrent of low epithets that they are inconceivable.
"For that I'd kill you in any other place, Jim," she said. "You know I'm not afraid of you. Now get, you wolf!" Her voice snapped like a whip-lash at the close; she had made sudden movement of hand—it was extended and I saw almost under my nose the smallest pistol imaginable; nickeled, of two barrels, and not above three inches long; projecting from her palm, the twin hammers cocked; and it was as steady as a die.
Assuredly My Lady did know how to take care of herself. Still, that was not necessary now.
"No!" I warned. "No matter. I'll tend to him."
The fellow's face had convulsed with a snarl of redder rage, his mouth opened as if for fresh abuse—and half rising I landed upon it with my fist.
"Go where you belong, you drunken whelp!"
I had struck and spoken at the same time, with a rush of wrath that surprised me; and the result surprised me more, for while I was not conscious of having exerted much force he toppled backward clear across the aisle, crashed down in a heap under the opposite seat. His bottle shattered against the ceiling. The whiskey spattered in a sickening shower over the alarmed passengers.
"Look out! Look out!" she cried, starting quickly. Up he scrambled, cursing, and wrenching at his revolver. I sprang to smother him, but there was a flurry, a chorus of shouts, men leaped between us, the brakeman and conductor both had arrived, in a jiffy he was being hustled forward, swearing and blubbering. And I sank back, breathless, a degree ashamed, a degree rather satisfied with my action and my barked knuckles.
Congratulations echoed dully.
"The right spirit!"
"That'll l'arn him to insult a lady."
"You sartinly rattled him up, stranger. Squar' on the twitter!"
"For a pilgrim you're consider'ble of a hoss."
"If he'd drawn you'd have give him a pill, I reckon, lady. I know yore kind. But he won't bother you ag'in; not he."
"Oh, what a terrible scene!"
To all this I paid scant attention. I heard her, as she sat composedly, scarcely panting. The little pistol had disappeared.
"The play has been made, ladies and gentlemen," she said. And to me: "Thank you. Yes," she continued, with a flash of lucent eyes and a dimpling smile, "Jim has lost his whiskey and has a chance to sober up. He'll have forgotten all about this before we reach Benton. But I thank you for your promptness."
"I didn't want you to shoot him," I stammered. "I was quite able to tend to him myself. Your pistol is loaded?"
"To be sure it is." And she laughed gaily. Her lips tightened, her eyes darkened. "And I'd kill him like a dog if he presumed farther. In this country we women protect ourselves from insult. I always carry my derringer, sir."
The brakeman returned with a broom, to sweep up the chips of broken bottle. He grinned at us.
"There's no wind in him now," he communicated. "Peaceful as a baby. We took his gun off him. I'll pass the word ahead to keep him safe, on from Cheyenne."
"Please do, Jerry," she bade. "I'd prefer to have no more trouble with him, for he might not come out so easily next time. He knows that."
"Surely ought to, by golly," the brakeman agreed roundly. "And he ought to know you go heeled. But that there tanglefoot went to his head. Looks now as if he'd been kicked in the face by a mule. Haw haw! No offense, friend. You got me plumb buffaloed with that fivespot o' yourn." And finishing his job he retired with dust-pan and broom.
"You're going to do well in Benton," she said suddenly, to me, with a nod. "I regret this scene—I couldn't help it, though, of course. When Jim's sober he has sense, and never tries to be familiar."
She was amazingly cool under the epithets that he had applied. I admired her for that as she gazed at me pleadingly.
"A drunken man is not responsible for words or actions, although he should be made so," I consoled her. "Possibly I should not have struck him. In the Far West you may be more accustomed to these episodes than we are in the East."
"I don't know. There is a limit. You did right. I thank you heartily. Still"—and she mused—"you can't always depend on your fists alone. You carry no weapon, neither knife nor gun?"
"I never have needed either," said I. "My teaching has been that a man should be able to rely upon his fists."
"Then you'd better get 'heeled,' as we say, when you reach Benton. Fists are a short-range weapon. The men generally wear a gun somewhere. It is the custom."
"And the women, too, if I may judge," I smiled.
"Some of us. Yes," she repeated, "you're likely to do well, out here, if you'll permit me to advise you a little."
"Under your tutelage I am sure I shall do well," I accepted. "I may call upon you in Benton? If you will favor me with your address——?"
"My address?" She searched my face in manner startled. "You'll have no difficulty finding me; not in Benton. But I'll make an appointment with you in event"—and she smiled archly—"you are not afraid of strange women."
"I have been taught to respect women, madam," said I. "And my respect is being strengthened."
"Oh!" I seemed to have pleased her. "You have been carefully brought up, sir."
"To fear God, respect woman, and act the man as long as I breathe," I asserted. "My mother is a saint, my father a nobleman, and what I may have learned from them is to their credit."
"That may go excellently in the East," she answered. "But we in the West favor the Persian maxim—to ride, to shoot, and to tell the truth. With those three qualities even a tenderfoot can establish himself."
"Whether I can ride and shoot sufficient for the purpose, time will show," I retorted. "At least," and I endeavored to speak with proper emphasis, "you hear the truth when I say that I anticipate much pleasure as well as renewed health, in Benton."
"Were we by ourselves we would seal the future in another 'smile' together," she slyly promised. "Unless that might shock you."
"I am ready to fall in with the customs of the country," I assured. "I certainly am not averse to smiles, when fittingly proffered."
So we exchanged fancies while the train rolled over a track remarkable for its smoothness and leading ever onward across the vast, empty plains bare save for the low shrubs called sage-brush, and rising here and there into long swells and abrupt sandstone pinnacles.
We stopped near noon at the town of Cheyenne, in Wyoming Territory. Cheyenne, once boasting the title (I was told) "The Magic City of the Plains," was located upon a dreary flatness, although from it one might see, far southwest, the actual Rocky Mountains in Colorado Territory, looking, at this distance of one hundred miles, like low dark clouds. The up grade in the west promised that we should soon cross over their northern flanks, of the Black Hills.
Last winter, Cheyenne, I was given to understand, had ten thousand inhabitants; but the majority had followed the railroad west, so that now there remained only some fifteen hundred. After dinner we, too, went west.
We overcame the Black Hills Mountains about two o'clock, having climbed to the top with considerable puffing of the engine but otherwise almost imperceptibly to the passengers. When we were halted, upon the crown, at Sherman Station, to permit us to alight and see for ourselves, I scarcely might believe that we were more than eight thousand feet in air. There was nothing to indicate, except some little difficulty of breath; not so much as I had feared when in Cheyenne, whose six thousand feet gave me a slightly giddy sensation.
My Lady moved freely, being accustomed to the rarity; and she assured me that although Benton was seven thousand feet I would soon grow wonted to the atmosphere. The habitues of this country made light of the spot; the strangers on tour picked flowers and gathered rocks as mementoes of the "Crest of the Continent"—which was not a crest but rather a level plateau, wind-swept and chilly while sunny. Then from this Sherman Summit of the Black Hills of Wyoming the train swept down by its own momentum from gravity, for the farther side.
The fellow Jim had not emerged, as yet, much to my relief. The scenery was increasing in grandeur and interest, and the play of my charming companion would have transformed the most prosaic of journeys into a trip through Paradise.
I hardly noted the town named Laramie City, at the western base of the Black Hills; and was indeed annoyed by the vendors hawking what they termed "mountain gems" through the train. Laramie, according to My Lady, also once had been, as she styled it, "a live town," but had deceased in favor of Benton. From Laramie we whirled northwest, through a broad valley enlivened by countless antelope scouring over the grasses; thence we issued into a wilder, rougher country, skirting more mountains very gloomy in aspect.
However, of the panorama outside I took but casual glances; the phenomenon of blue and gold so close at hand was all engrossing, and my heart beat high with youth and romance. Our passage was astonishingly short, but the sun was near to setting beyond distant peaks when by the landmarks that she knew we were approaching Benton at last.
We crossed a river—the Platte, again, even away in here; briefly paused at a military post, and entered upon a stretch of sun-baked, reddish-white, dusty desert utterly devoid of vegetation.
There was a significant bustle in the car, among the travel-worn occupants. The air was choking with the dust swirled through every crevice by the stir of the wheels—already mobile as it was from the efforts of the teams that we passed, of six and eight horses tugging heavy wagons. Plainly we were within striking distance of some focus of human energies.
"Benton! Benton in five minutes. End o' track," the brakeman shouted.
"My valise, please."
I brought it. The conductor, who like the other officials knew My Lady, pushed through to us and laid hand upon it.
"I'll see you out," he announced. "Come ahead."
"Pardon. That shall be my privilege," I interposed. But she quickly denied.
"No, please. The conductor is an old friend. I shall need no other help—I'm perfectly at home. You can look out for yourself."
"But I shall see you again—and where? I don't know your address; fact is, I'm even ignorant of your name," I pleaded desperately.
"How stupid of me." And she spoke fast and low, over her shoulder. "To-night, then, at the Big Tent. Remember."
I pressed after.
"The Big Tent! Shall I inquire there? And for whom?"
"You'll not fail to see me. Everybody knows the Big Tent, everybody goes there. So au revoir."
She was swallowed in the wake of the conductor, and I fain must gather my own belongings before following. The Big Tent, she said? I had not misunderstood; and I puzzled over the address, which impinged as rather bizarre, whether in West or East.
We stopped with a jerk, amidst a babel of cries.
"Benton! All out!" Out we stumbled. Here I was, at rainbow's end.
I MEET FRIENDS
What shall I say of a young man like myself, fresh from the green East of New York and the Hudson River, landed expectant as just aroused from a dream of rare beauty, at this Benton City, Wyoming Territory? The dust, as fine as powder and as white, but shot through with the crimson of sunset, hung like a fog, amidst which swelled a deafening clamor from figures rushing hither and thither about the platform like half-world shades. A score of voices dinned into my ears as two score hands grabbed at my valise and shoved me and dragged me.
"The Desert Hotel. Best in the West. This way, sir."
"Buffalo Hump Corral! The Buffalo Hump! Free drinks at the Buffalo Hump."
"Vamos, all o' you. Leave the gent to me. I've had him before. Mike's Place for you, eh? Come along."
"The Widow's Cafe! That's yore grub pile, gent. All you can eat for two bits."
A deep voice boomed, stunning me.
"The Queen, the Queen! Bath for every room. Individual towels. The Queen, the Queen, she's clean, she's clean."
It was a magnificent bass, full toned as an organ, issuing, likewise as out of a reed, from a swart dwarf scarcely higher than my waist. The word "bath," with the promise of "individual towels," won me over. Something must be done, anyway, to get rid of these importunate runners. Thereupon I acquiesced, "All right, my man. The Queen," and surrendering my bag to his hairy paw I trudged by his guidance. The solicitations instantly ceased as if in agreement with some code.
We left the station platform and went ploughing up a street over shoetops with the impalpable dust and denoted by tents and white-coated shacks sparsely bordering. The air was breezeless and suffocatingly loaded with that dust not yet deposited. The noises as from a great city swelled strident: shouts, hammerings, laughter, rumble of vehicles, cracking of lashes, barkings of dogs innumerable—betokening a thriving mart of industry. But although pedestrians streamed to and fro, the men in motley of complexions and costumes, the women, some of them fashionably dressed, with skirts eddying furiously; and wagons rolled, horses cantered, and from right and left merchants and hawksters seemed to be calling their wares, of city itself I could see only the veriest husk.
The majority of the buildings were mere canvas-faced up for a few feet, perhaps, with sheet iron or flimsy boards; interspersed there were a few wooden structures, rough and unpainted; and whereas several of the housings were large, none was more than two stories—and when now and again I thought that I had glimpsed a substantial stone front a closer inspection told me that the stones were imitation, forming a veneer of the sheet iron or of stenciled pine. Indeed, not a few of the upper stories, viewed from an unfavorable angle, proved to be only thin parapets upstanding for a pretense of well-being. Behind them, nothing at all!
In the confusion of that which I took to be the main street because of the stores and piles of goods and the medley of signs, what with the hubbub from the many barkers for saloons and gambling games, the constant dodging among the pedestrians, vehicles and horses and dogs, in a thoroughfare that was innocent of sidewalk, I really had scant opportunity to gaze; certainly no opportunity as yet to get my bearings. My squat guide shuttled aside; a group of loafers gave us passage, with sundry stares at me and quips for him; and I was ushered into a widely-open tent-building whose canvas sign depending above a narrow veranda declared: "The Queen Hotel. Beds $3. Meals $1 each."
Now as whitely powdered as any of the natives I stumbled across a single large room bordered at one side by a bar and a number of small tables (all well patronized), and was brought up at the counter, under the alert eyes of a clerk coatless, silk-shirted, diamond-scarfed, pomaded and slick-haired, waiting with register turned and pen extended.
My gnome heavily dropped my bag.
"Gent for you," he presented.
"I wish a room and bath," I said, as I signed.
"Bath is occupied. I'll put you down, Mr.——" and he glanced at the signature. "Four dollars and four bits, please. Show the gentleman to Number Six, Shorty. That drummer's gone, isn't he?"
"The bath is occupied?" I expostulated. "How so? I wish a private bath."
"Private? Yes, sir. All you've got to do is to close the door while you're in. Nobody'll disturb you. But there are parties ahead of you. First come, first served."
"Your runner—this gentleman, if I am not mistaken (and I indicated the gnome, who grinned from dusty face), distinctly said 'A bath for every room.'"
Bystanders had pushed nearer, to examine the register and then me. They laughed—nudged one another. Evidently I had a trace of green in my eye.
"Quite right, sir," the clerk assented. "So there is. A bath for every room and the best bath in town. Entirely private; fresh towel supplied. Only one dollar and four bits. That, with lodging, makes four dollars and a half. If you please, sir."
"In advance?" I remonstrated—the bath charge alone being monstrous.
"I see you're from the East. Yes, sir; we have to charge transients in advance. That is the rule, sir. You stay in Benton City for some time?"
"I am undetermined."
"Of course, sir. Your own affair. Yes, sir. But we shall hope to make Benton pleasant for you. The greatest city in the West. Anything you want for pleasure or business you'll find right here."
"The greatest city in the West—pleasure or business!" A bitter wave of homesickness welled into my throat as, conscious of the enveloping dust, the utter shams, the tawdriness, the alien unsympathetic onlookers, the suave but incisive manner of the clerk, the sense of having been "done" and through my own fault, I peeled a greenback from the folded packet in my purse and handed it over. Rather foolishly I intended that this display of funds should rebuke the finicky clerk; but he accepted without comment and sought for the change from the twenty.
"And how is old New York, suh?"
A hearty, florid, heavy-faced man, with singularly protruding fishy eyes and a tobacco-stained yellowish goatee underneath a loosely dropping lower lip, had stepped forward, his pudgy hand hospitably outstretched to me: a man in wide-brimmed dusty black hat, frayed and dusty but, in spots, shiny, black broadcloth frock coat spattered down the lapels, exceedingly soiled collar and shirt front and greasy flowing tie, and trousers tucked into cowhide boots.
I grasped the hand wonderingly. It enclosed mine with a soft pulpy squeeze; and lingered.
"As usual, when I last saw it, sir," I responded. "But I am from Albany."
"Of course. Albany, the capital, a city to be proud of, suh. I welcome you, suh, to our new West, as a fellow-citizen."
"You are from Albany?" I exclaimed.
"Bohn and raised right near there; been there many a time. Yes, suh. From the grand old Empire State, like yourself, suh, and without apologies. Whenever I meet with a New York State man I cotton to him."
"Have I your name, sir?" I inquired. "You know of my family, perhaps."
"Colonel Jacob B. Sunderson, suh, at your service. Your family name is familiar to me, suh. I hark back to it and to the grand old State with pleasure. Doubtless I have seen you befoh, sur. Doubtless in the City—at Johnny Chamberlain's? Yes?" His fishy eyes beamed upon me, and his breath smelled strongly of liquor. "Or the Astor? I shall remember. Meanwhile, suh, permit me to do the honors. First, will you have a drink? This way, suh. I am partial to a brand particularly to be recommended for clearing this damnable dust from one's throat."
"Thank you, sir, but I prefer to tidy my person, first," I suggested.
"Number Six for the gentleman," announced the clerk, returning to me my change from the bill. I stuffed it into my pocket—the Colonel's singular eyes followed it with uncomfortable interest. The gnome picked up my bag, but was interrupted by my new friend.
"The privilege of showing the gentleman to his quarters and putting him at home shall be mine."
"All right, Colonel," the clerk carelessly consented. "Number Six."
"And my trunk. I have a trunk at the depot," I informed.
"The boy will tend to it."
I gave the gnome my check.
"And my bath?" I pursued.
"You will be notified, sir. There are only five ahead of you, and one gentleman now in. Your turn will come in about two hours."
"This way, suh. Kindly follow me," bade the Colonel. As he strode before, slightly listed by the weight of the bag in his left hand, I remarked a peculiar bulge elevating the portly contour of his right coat-skirt.
We ascended a flight of rude stairs which quivered to our tread, proceeded down a canvas-lined corridor set at regular intervals on either hand with numbered deal doors, some open to reveal disorderly interiors; and with "Here you are, suh," I was importantly bowed into Number Six.
We were not to be alone. There were three double beds: one well rumpled as if just vacated; one (the middle) tenanted by a frowsy headed, whiskered man asleep in shirt-sleeves and revolver and boots; the third, at the other end, recently made up by having its blanket covering hastily thrown against a distinctly dirty pillow.
"Your bed yonduh, suh, I reckon," prompted the Colonel (whose accents did not smack of New York at all), depositing my bag with a grunt of relief. "Now, suh, as you say, you desire to freshen the outer man after your journey. With your permission I will await your pleasure, suh; and your toilet being completed we will freshen the inner man also with a glass or two of rare good likker."
I gazed about, sickened. Item, three beds; item, one kitchen chair; item, one unpainted board washstand, supporting a tin basin, a cake of soap, a tin ewer, with a dingy towel hanging from a nail under a cracked mirror and over a tin slop-bucket; item, three spittoons, one beside each bed; item, a row of nails in a wooden strip, plainly for wardrobe purposes; item, one window, with broken pane.
The board floor was bare and creaky, the partition walls were of once-white, stained muslin through which sifted unrebuked a mixture of sounds not thoroughly agreeable.
The Colonel had seated himself upon a bed; the bulge underneath his skirts jutted more pronouncedly, and had the outlines of a revolver butt.
"But surely I can get a room to myself," I stammered. "The clerk mistakes me. This won't do at all."
"You are having the best in the house, suh," asserted the Colonel, with expansive wave of his thick hand. He spat accurately into the convenient spittoon. "It is a front room, suh. Number Six is known as very choice, and I congratulate you, suh. I myself will see to it that you shall have your bed to yourself, if you entertain objections to doubling up. We are, suh, a trifle crowded in Benton City, just at present, owing to the unprecedented influx of new citizens. You must remember, suh, that we are less than one month old, and we are accommodating from three to five thousand people."
"Is this the best hotel?" I demanded.
"It is so reckoned, suh. There are other hostelries, and I do not desire, suh, to draw invidious comparisons, their proprietors being friends of mine. But I will go so far as to say that the Queen caters only to the elite, suh, and its patronage is gilt edge."
I stepped to the window, the lower sash of which was up, and gazed out—down into that dust-fogged, noisy, turbulent main street, of floury human beings and grime-smeared beasts almost within touch, boiling about through the narrow lane between the placarded makeshift structures. I lifted my smarting eyes, and across the hot sheet-iron roofs I saw the country south—a white-blotched reddish desert stretching on, desolate, lifeless under the sunset, to a range of stark hills black against the glow.
"There are no private rooms, then?" I asked, choking with a gulp of despair.
"You are perfectly private right here, suh," assured the Colonel. "You may strip to the hide or you may sleep with your boots on, and no questions asked. Gener'ly speaking, gentlemen prefer to retain a layer of artificial covering—but you ain't troubled much with the bugs, are you, Bill?"
He leveled this query at the frowsy, whiskered man, who had awakened and was blinking contentedly.
"I'm too alkalied, I reckon," Bill responded. "Varmints will leave me any time when there's fresh bait handy. That's why I likes to double up. That there Saint Louee drummer carried off most of 'em from this gent's bed, so he's safe."
"You are again to be congratulated, suh," addressed the Colonel, to me. "Allow me to interdeuce you. Shake hands with my friend Mr. Bill Brady. Bill, I present to you a fellow-citizen of mine from grand old New York State."
The frowsy man struggled up, shifted his revolver so as not to sit on it, and extended his hand.
"Proud to make yore acquaintance, sir. Any friend of the Colonel's is a friend o' mine."
"We will likker up directly," the Colonel informed. "But fust the gentleman desires to attend to his person. Mr. Brady, suh," he continued, for my benefit, "is one of our leading citizens, being proprietor of—what is it now, Bill?"
"Wall," said Mr. Brady, "I've pulled out o' the Last Chance and I'm on spec'. The Last Chance got a leetle too much on the brace for healthy play; and when that son of a gun of a miner from South Pass City shot it up, I quit."
"Naturally," conceded the Colonel. "Mr. Brady," he explained, "has been one of our most distinguished bankers, but he has retired from that industry and is considering other investments."
"The bath-room? Where is it, gentlemen?" I ventured.
"If you will step outside the door, suh, you can hear the splashing down the hall. It is the custom, however, foh gentlemen at tub to keep the bath-room door closed, in case of ladies promenading. You will have time foh your preliminary toilet and foh a little refreshment and a pasear in town. I judge, with five ahead of you and one in, the clerk was mighty near right when he said about two hours. That allows twenty minutes to each gentleman, which is the limit. A gentleman who requires more than twenty minutes to insure his respectability, suh, is too dirty foh such accommodations. He should resort to the river. Ain't that so, Bill?"
"Perfectly correct, Colonel. I kin take an all-over, myself, in fifteen, whenever it's healthy."
"But a dollar and a half for a twenty minutes' bath in a public tub is rather steep, seems to me," said I, as I removed my coat and opened my bag.
"Not so, suh, if I may question your judgment," the Colonel reproved. "The tub, suh, is private to the person in it. He is never intruded upon unless he hawgs his time or the water disagrees with him. The water, suh, is hauled from the river by a toilsome journey of three miles. You understand, suh, that this great and growing city is founded upon the sheer face of the Red Desert, where the railroad stopped—the river being occupied by a Government reservation named Fort Steele. The Government—the United States Government, suh—having corralled the river where the railroad crosses, until we procure a nearer supply by artesian wells or by laying a pipe line we are public spirited enough to haul our water bodily, for ablution purposes, at ten dollars the barrel, or ten cents, one dime, the bucket. A bath, suh, uses up consider'ble water, even if at a slight reduction you are privileged to double up with another gentleman."
I shuddered at the thought of thus "doubling up." God, how my stomach sank and my gorge rose as I rummaged through that bag, and with my toilet articles in hand faced the washstand!
They two intently watched my operations; the Colonel craned to peer into my valise—and presently I might interpret his curiosity.
"The prime old bourbon served at the fust-class New York bars still maintains its reputation, I dare hope, suh?" he interrogated.
"I cannot say, I'm sure," I replied.
"No, suh," he agreed. "Doubtless you are partial to your own stock. That bottle which I see doesn't happen to be a sample of your favorite preservative?"
"That?" I retorted. "It is toilet water. I am sorry to say I have no liquor with me."
"The deficiency will soon be forgotten, suh," the Colonel bravely consoled. "Bill, we shall have to personally conduct him and provide him with the proper entertainment."
"What is your special line o' business, if you don't mind my axin'?" Bill invited.
"I am out here for my health, at present," said I, vainly hunting a clean spot on the towel. "I have been advised by my physician to seek a place in the Far West that is high and dry. Benton"—and I laughed miserably, "certainly is dry." For now I began to appreciate the frankly affirmative responses to my previous confessions. "And high, judging by the rates."
"Healthily dry, suh, in the matter of water," the Colonel approved. "We are not cursed by the humidity of New York State, grand old State that she is. Foh those who require water, there is the Platte only three miles distant. The nearer proximity of water we consider a detriment to the robustness of a community. Our rainy weather is toler'bly infrequent. The last spell we had—lemme see. There was a brief shower, scurcely enough to sanction a parasol by a lady, last May, warn't it, Bill? When we was camped at Rawlins' Springs, shooting antelope."
"Some'ers about that time. But didn't last long—not more'n two minutes," Bill responded.
"As foh fluids demanded by the human system, we are abundantly blessed, suh. There is scurcely any popular brand that you can't get in Benton, and I hold that we have the most skillful mixtologists in history. There are some who are artists; artists, suh. But mainly we prefer our likker straight."
"We're high, too," Bill put in. "Well over seven thousand feet, 'cordin' to them railroad engineers."
"Yes, suh, you are a mile and more nearer Heaven here in Benton than you were when beside the noble Hudson," supplemented the Colonel. "And the prices of living are reasonable; foh money, suh, is cheap and ready to hand. No drink is less than two bits, and a man won't tote a match across a street foh less than a drink. Money grows, suh, foh the picking. Our merchants are clearing thirty thousand dollars a month, and the professional gentleman who tries to limit his game is considered a low-down tin-horn. Yes, suh. This is the greatest terminal of the greatest railroad in the known world. It has Omaha, No'th Platte, Cheyenne beat to a frazzle. You cannot fail to prosper." They had been critically watching me wash and rearrange my clothing. "You are not heeled, suh, I see?"
"Heeled?" I repeated.
"Equipped with a shooting-iron, suh. Or do you intend to remedy that deficiency also?"
"I have not been in the habit of carrying arms."
"'Most everybody packs a gun or a bowie," Bill remarked. "Gents and ladies both. But there's no law ag'in not."
I had finished my meager toilet, and was glad, for the espionage had been annoying.
"Now I am at your service during a short period, gentlemen," I announced. "Later I have an engagement, and shall ask to be excused."
The Colonel arose with alacrity. Bill stood, and seized his hat hanging at the head of the bed.
"A little liquid refreshment is in order fust, I reckon," quoth the Colonel. "I claim the privilege, of course. And after that—you have sporting blood, suh? You will desire to take a turn or two foh the honor of the Empire State?"
The inference was not quite clear. To develop it I replied guardedly, albeit unwilling to pose as a milksop.
"I assuredly am not averse to any legitimate amusement."
"That's it," Bill commended. "Nobody is, who has red in him; and a fellow kin see you've cut yore eye-teeth. What might you prefer, in line of a pass-the-time, on spec'?"
"What is there, if you please?" I encouraged.
He and the Colonel gravely contemplated each other. Bill scratched his head, and slowly closed one eye.
"There's a good open game of stud at the North Star," he proffered. "I kin get the gentleman a seat. No limit."
"Maybe our friend's luck don't run to stud," hazarded the Colonel. "Stud exacts the powers of concentration, like faro." And he also closed one eye. "It's rather early in the evening foh close quarters. Are you particularly partial to the tiger or the cases, suh?" he queried of me. "Or would you be able to secure transient happiness in short games, foh a starter, while we move along, like a bee from flower to flower, gathering his honey?"
"If you are referring to card gambling, sir," I answered, "you have chosen a poor companion. But I do not intend to be a spoil sport, and I shall be glad to have you show me whatever you think worth while in the city, so far as I have the leisure."
"That's it, that's it, suh." The Colonel appeared delighted. "Let us libate to the gods of chance, gentlemen; and then take a stroll."
"My bag will be safe here?" I prompted, as we were about to file out.
"Absolutely, suh. Personal property is respected in Benton. We'd hang the man who moved that bag of yours the fraction of one inch."
This at least was comforting. As much could not be said of New York City. The Colonel led down the echoing hall and the shaking stairs, into the lobby, peopled as before by men in all modes of attire and clustered mainly at the bar. He led directly to the bar itself.
"Three, Ed. Name your likker, gentlemen. A little Double X foh me, Ed."
"Old rye," Bill briefly ordered.
The bartender set out bottle and whiskey glasses, and looked upon me. I felt that the bystanders were waiting. My garb proclaimed the "pilgrim," but I was resolved to be my own master, and for liquor I had no taste.
"Lemonade, if you have it," I faltered.
"Yes, sir." The bartender cracked not a smile, but a universal sigh, broken by a few sniggers, voiced the appraisal of the audience. Some of the loafers eyed me amusedly, some turned away.
"Surely, suh, you will temper that with a dash of fortifiah," the Colonel protested. "A pony of brandy, Ed—or just a dash to cut the water in it. To me, suh, the water in this country is vile—inimical to the human stomick."
"Thank you," said I, "but I prefer plain lemonade."
"The gent wants his pizen straight, same as the rest of you," calmly remarked the bartender.
My lemonade being prepared, the Colonel and Bill tossed off full glasses of whiskey, acknowledged with throaty "A-ah!" and smack of lips; and I hastily quaffed my lemonade. From the dollar which the Colonel grandly flung upon the bar he received no change—by which I might figure that whereas whiskey was twenty-five cents the glass, lemonade was fifty cents.
We issued into the street and were at once engulfed by a ferment of sights and sounds extraordinary.
ON GRAND TOUR
The sun had set and all the golden twilight was hazy with the dust suspended in swirl and strata over the ugly roofs. In the canvas-faced main street the throng and noise had increased rather than diminished at the approach of dusk. Although clatter of dishes mingled with the cadence, the people acted as if they had no thought of eating; and while aware of certain pangs myself, I felt a diffidence in proposing supper as yet.
My two companions hesitated a moment, spying up and down, which gave me opportunity to view the scene anew. Surely such an hotch-potch never before populated an American town: Men flannel shirted, high booted, shaggy haired and bearded, stumping along weighted with excess of belts and formidable revolvers balanced, not infrequently, by sheathed butcher-knives—men whom I took to be teamsters, miners, railroad graders, and the like; other men white skinned, clean shaven except perhaps for moustaches and goatees, in white silk shirts or ruffled bosoms, broadcloth trousers and trim footgear, unarmed, to all appearance, but evidently respected; men of Eastern garb like myself—tourists, maybe, or merchants; a squad of surveyors in picturesque neckerchiefs, and revolver girted; trainmen, grimy engineers and firemen; clerks, as I opined, dapper and bustling, clad in the latest fashion, with diamonds in flashy ties and heavy gold watch chains across their fancy waistcoats; soldiers; men whom I took to be Mexicans, by their velvet jackets, slashed pantaloons and filagreed hats; darkly weathered, leathery faced, long-haired personages, no doubt scouts and trappers, in fringed buckskins and beaded moccasins; blanket wrapped Indians; and women.
Of the women a number were unmistakable as to vocation, being lavishly painted, strident, and bold, and significantly dressed. I saw several in amazing costumes of tightly fitting black like ballet girls, low necked, short skirted, around the smooth waists snake-skin belts supporting handsome little pistols and dainty poignards. Contrasted there were women of other class and, I did not doubt, of better repute; some in gowns and bonnets that would do them credit anywhere in New York, and some, of course, more commonly attired in calico and gingham as proper to the humbler station of laundresses, cooks, and so forth.
The uproar was a jargon of shouts, hails, music, hammering, barking, scuff of feet, trample of horses and oxen, rumble of creaking wagons and Concord stages.
"Well, suh," spoke the Colonel, pulling his hat over his eyes, "shall we stroll a piece?"
"Might better," assented Bill. "The gentleman may find something of interest right in the open. How are you on the goose, sir?" he demanded of me.
"The goose?" I uttered.
"I am a stranger to the goose," said I.
"It gives a quick turn for a small stake. So do the three-card and rondo."
Of passageway there was not much choice between the middle of the street and the borders. Seemed to me as we weaved along through groups of idlers and among busily stepping people that every other shop was a saloon, with door widely open and bar and gambling tables well attended. The odor of liquor saturated the acrid dust. Yet the genuine shops, even of the rudest construction, were piled from the front to the rear with commodities of all kinds, and goods were yet heaped upon the ground in front and behind as if the merchants had no time for unpacking. The incessant hammering, I ascertained, came from amateur carpenters, including mere boys, here and there engaged as if life depended upon their efforts, in erecting more buildings from knocked-down sections like cardboard puzzles and from lumber already cut and numbered.
My guides nodded right and left with "Hello, Frank," "How are you, Dan?" "Evening, Charley," and so on. Occasionally the Colonel swept off his hat, with elaborate deference, to a woman, but I looked in vain for My Lady in Black. I did not see her—nor did I see her peer, despite the fact that now and then I observed a face and figure of apparent attractiveness.