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THE U. P. TRAIL
... When I think how the railroad has been pushed through this unwatered wilderness and haunt of savage tribes; how at each stage of the construction roaring, impromptu cities, full of gold and lust and death, sprang up and then died away again, and are now but wayside stations in the desert; how in these uncouth places Chinese pirates worked side by side with border ruffians and broken men from Europe, gambling, drinking, quarreling, and murdering like wolves; and then when I go on to remember that all this epical turmoil was conducted by gentlemen in frock-coats, with a view to nothing more extraordinary than a fortune and a subsequent visit to Paris—it seems to me as if this railway were the one typical achievement of the age in which we live, as if it brought together into one plot all the ends of the world and all the degrees of social rank, and offered to some great writer the busiest, the most extended, and the most varied subject for an enduring literary work. If it be romance, if it be contrast, if it be heroism that we require, what was Troy to this?
—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON In ACROSS THE PLAINS
In the early sixties a trail led from the broad Missouri, swirling yellow and turgid between its green-groved borders, for miles and miles out upon the grassy Nebraska plains, turning westward over the undulating prairie, with its swales and billows and long, winding lines of cottonwoods, to a slow, vast heave of rising ground— Wyoming—where the herds of buffalo grazed and the wolf was lord and the camp-fire of the trapper sent up its curling blue smoke from beside some lonely stream; on and on over the barren lands of eternal monotony, all so gray and wide and solemn and silent under the endless sky; on, ever on, up to the bleak, black hills and into the waterless gullies and through the rocky gorges where the deer browsed and the savage lurked; then slowly rising to the pass between the great bold peaks, and across the windy uplands into Utah, with its verdant valleys, green as emeralds, and its haze- filled canons and wonderful wind-worn cliffs and walls, and its pale salt lakes, veiled in the shadows of stark and lofty rocks, dim, lilac-colored, austere, and isolated; ever onward across Nevada, and ever westward, up from desert to mountain, up into California, where the white streams rushed and roared and the stately pines towered, and seen from craggy heights, deep down, the little blue lakes gleamed like gems; finally sloping to the great descent, where the mountain world ceased and where, out beyond the golden land, asleep and peaceful, stretched the illimitable Pacific, vague and grand beneath the setting sun.
Deep in the Wyoming hills lay a valley watered by a stream that ran down from Cheyenne Pass; a band of Sioux Indians had an encampment there. Viewed from the summit of a grassy ridge, the scene was colorful and idle and quiet, in keeping with the lonely, beautiful valley. Cottonwoods and willows showed a bright green; the course of the stream was marked in dark where the water ran, and light where the sand had bleached; brown and black dots scattered over the valley were in reality grazing horses; lodge-pole tents gleamed white in the sun, and tiny bits of red stood out against the white; lazy wreaths of blue smoke rose upward.
The Wyoming hills were split by many such valleys and many such bare, grassy ridges sloped up toward the mountains. Upon the side of one ridge, the highest, there stood a solitary mustang, haltered with a lasso. He was a ragged, shaggy, wild beast, and there was no saddle or bridle on him, nothing but the halter. He was not grazing, although the bleached white grass grew long and thick under his hoofs. He looked up the slope, in a direction indicated by his pointing ears, and watched a wavering movement of the long grass.
It was wild up on that ridge, bare of everything except grass, and the strange wavering had a nameless wildness in its motion. No stealthy animal accounted for that trembling—that forward undulating quiver. It wavered on to the summit of the ridge.
What a wide and wonderful prospect opened up to view from this lofty point! Ridge after ridge sloped up to the Wyoming hills, and these in turn raised their bleak, dark heads toward the mountains, looming pale and gray, with caps of snow, in the distance. Out beyond the ridges, indistinct in the glare, stretched an illimitable expanse, gray and dull—that was the prairie-land. An eagle, lord of all he surveyed, sailed round and round in the sky.
Below this grassy summit yawned a valley, narrow and long, losing itself by turns to distant east and west; and through it ran a faint, white, winding line which was the old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail.
There came a moment when the wavering in the grass ceased on the extreme edge of the slope. Then it parted to disclose the hideous visage of a Sioux Indian in war paint. His dark, piercing, malignant glance was fixed upon the St. Vrain and Laramie Trail. His half- naked body rested at ease; a rifle lay under his hand.
There he watched while the hours passed. The sun moved on in its course until it tipped the peaks with rose. Far down the valley black and white objects appeared, crawling round the bend. The Indian gave an almost imperceptible start, but there was no change in his expression. He watched as before.
These moving objects grew to be oxen and prairie-schooners—a small caravan traveling east. It wound down the trail and halted in a circle on the bank of a stream.
The Indian scout slid backward, and the parted grass, slowly closing, hid from his dark gaze the camp scene below. He wormed his way back well out of sight; then rising, he ran over the summit of the ridge to leap upon his mustang and ride wildly down the slope.
Bill Horn, leader of that caravan, had a large amount of gold which he was taking back East. No one in his party, except a girl, knew that he had the fortune.
Horn had gone West at the beginning of the gold strikes, but it was not until '53 that any success attended his labors. Later he struck it rich, and in 1865, as soon as the snow melted on the mountain passes, he got together a party of men and several women and left Sacramento. He was a burly miner, bearded and uncouth, of rough speech and taciturn nature, and absolutely fearless.
At Ogden, Utah, he had been advised not to attempt to cross the Wyoming hills with so small a party, for the Sioux Indians had gone on the war-path.
Horn was leading his own caravan and finding for himself the trail that wound slowly eastward. He did not have a scout or hunter with him. Eastward-traveling caravans were wont to be small and poorly outfitted, for only the homesick, the failures, the wanderers, and the lawless turned their faces from the Golden State. At the start Horn had eleven men, three women, and the girl. On the way he had killed one of the men; and another, together with his wife, had yielded to persuasion of friends at Ogden and had left the party. So when Horn halted for camp one afternoon in a beautiful valley in the Wyoming hills there were only nine men with him.
On a long journey through wild country strangers grow close together or far apart. Bill Horn did not think much of the men who had accepted the chance he offered them, and daily he grew more aloof. They were not a responsible crowd, and the best he could get out of them was the driving of oxen and camp chores indifferently done. He had to kill the meat and find the water and keep the watch. Upon entering the Wyoming hills region Horn showed a restlessness and hurry and anxiety. This in no wise affected the others. They continued to be aimless and careless as men who had little to look forward to.
This beautiful valley offered everything desirable for a camp site except natural cover or protection in case of attack. But Horn had to take the risk. The oxen were tired, the wagons had to be greased, and it was needful to kill meat. Here was an abundance of grass, a clear brook, wood for camp-fires, and sign of game on all sides.
"Haul round—make a circle!" Horn ordered the drivers of the oxen.
This was the first time he had given this particular order, and the men guffawed or grinned as they hauled the great, clumsy prairie- schooners into a circle. The oxen were unhitched; the camp duffle piled out; the ring of axes broke the stillness; fires were started.
Horn took his rifle and strode away up the brook to disappear in the green brush of a ravine.
It was early in the evening, with the sun not yet out of sight behind a lofty ridge that topped the valley slope. High grass, bleached white, shone brightly on the summit. Soon several columns of blue smoke curled lazily aloft until, catching the wind high up, they were swept away. Meanwhile the men talked at their tasks.
"Say, pard, did you come along this here Laramie Trail goin' West?" asked one.
"Nope. I hit the Santa Fe Trail," was the reply.
"How about you, Jones?"
"Same fer me."
"Wal," said another, "I went round to California by ship, an' I'd hev been lucky to drown."
"An' now we're all goin' back poorer than when we started," remarked a third.
"Pard, you've said somethin'."
"Wal, I seen a heap of gold, if I didn't find any."
"Jones, has this here Bill Horn any gold with him?"
"He acts like it," answered Jones. "An' I heerd he struck it rich out thar."
The men appeared divided in their opinions of Bill Horn. From him they drifted to talk of possible Indian raids and scouted the idea; then they wondered if the famous Pony Express had been over this Laramie Trail; finally they got on the subject of a rumored railroad to be built from East to West.
"No railroad can't be built over this trail," said Jones, bluntly.
"Sure not. But couldn't more level ground be dug?" asked another.
"Dug? Across them Utah deserts an' up them mountains? Hell! Men sure hev more sense than thet," exclaimed the third.
And so they talked and argued at their tasks.
The women, however, had little to say. One, the wife of the loquacious Jones, lived among past associations of happy years that would not come again—a sober-faced, middle-aged woman. The other woman was younger, and her sad face showed traces of a former comeliness. They called her Mrs. Durade. The girl was her daughter Allie. She appeared about fifteen years old, and was slight of form. Her face did not seem to tan. It was pale. She looked tired, and was shy and silent, almost ashamed. She had long, rich, chestnut-colored hair which she wore in a braid. Her eyes were singularly large and dark, and violet in color.
"It's a long, long way we are from home yet," sighed Mrs. Jones.
"You call East home!" replied Mrs. Durade, bitterly.
"For land's sake! Yes, I do," exclaimed the other. "If there was a home in that California, I never saw it. Tents and log cabins and mud-holes! Such places for a woman to live. Oh, I hated that California! A lot of wild men, all crazy for gold. Gold that only a few could find and none could keep! ... I pray every night to live to get back home."
Mrs. Durade had no reply; she gazed away over the ridges toward the east with a haunting shadow in her eyes.
Just then a rifle-shot sounded from up in the ravine. The men paused in their tasks and looked at one another. Then reassured by this exchange of glances, they fell to work again. But the women cast apprehensive eyes around. There was no life in sight except the grazing oxen. Presently Horn appeared carrying a deer slung over his shoulders.
Allie ran to meet him. She and Horn were great friends. To her alone was he gentle and kind. She saw him pause at the brook, then drop the deer carcass and bend over the ground, as if to search for something. When Allie reached his side he was on his knees examining a moccasin print in the sand.
"An Indian track!" exclaimed Allie.
"Allie, it sure ain't anythin' else," he replied. "Thet is what I've been lookin' fer.... A day old—mebbe more."
"Uncle Bill, is there any danger?" she asked, fearfully gazing up the slope.
"Lass, we're in the Wyoming hills, an' I wish to the Lord we was out," he answered.
Then he picked up the deer carcass, a heavy burden, and slung it, hoofs in front, over his shoulders.
"Let me carry your gun," said Allie.
They started toward camp.
"Lass, listen," began Horn, earnestly. "Mebbe there's no need to fear. But I don't like Injun tracks. Not these days. Now I'm goin' to scare this lazy outfit. Mebbe thet'll make them rustle. But don't you be scared."
In camp the advent of fresh venison was hailed with satisfaction.
"Wal, I'll gamble the shot thet killed this meat was heerd by Injuns," blurted out Horn, as he deposited his burden on the grass and whipped out his hunting-knife. Then he glared at the outfit of men he had come to despise.
"Horn, I reckon you 'pear more set up about Injuns than usual," remarked Jones.
"Fresh Sioux track right out thar along the brook."
"Sioux!" exclaimed another.
"Go an' look fer yourself."
Not a man of them moved a step. Horn snorted his disdain and without more talk began to dress the deer.
Meanwhile the sun set behind the ridge and the day seemed far spent. The evening meal of the travelers was interrupted when Horn suddenly leaped up and reached for his rifle.
"Thet's no Injun, but I don't like the looks of how he's comin'."
All gazed in the direction in which Horn pointed. A horse and rider were swiftly approaching down the trail from the west. Before any of the startled campers recovered from their surprise the horse reached the camp. The rider hauled up short, but did not dismount.
"Hello!" he called. The man was not young. He had piercing gray eyes and long hair. He wore fringed gray buckskin, and carried a long, heavy, muzzle-loading rifle.
"I'm Slingerland—trapper in these hyar parts," he went on, with glance swiftly taking in the group. "Who's boss of this caravan?"
"I am—Bill Horn," replied the leader, stepping out.
"Thar's a band of Sioux redskins on your trail."
Horn lifted his arms high. The other men uttered exclamations of amaze and dread. The women were silent.
"Did you see them?" asked Horn.
"Yes, from a ridge back hyar ten miles. I saw them sneakin' along the trail an' I knowed they meant mischief. I rode along the ridges or I'd been hyar sooner."
"How many Injuns?"
"I counted fifteen. They were goin' along slow. Like as not they've sent word fer more. There's a big Sioux camp over hyar in another valley."
"Are these Sioux on the war-path?"
"I saw dead an' scalped white men a few days back," replied Slingerland.
Horn grew as black as a thundercloud, and he cursed the group of pale-faced men who had elected to journey eastward with him.
"You'll hev to fight," he ended, brutally, "an' thet'll be some satisfaction to me."
"Horn, there's soldiers over hyar in camp," went on Slingerland. "Do you want me to ride after them?"
"Soldiers!" ejaculated Horn.
"Yes. They're with a party of engineers surveyin' a line fer a railroad. Reckon I could git them all hyar in time to save you—IF them Sioux keep comin' slow.... I'll go or stay hyar with you."
"Friend, you go—an' ride thet hoss!"
"All right. You hitch up an' break camp. Keep goin' hard down the trail, an' I'll fetch the troops an' head off the redskins."
"Any use to take to the hills?" queried Horn, sharply.
"I reckon not. You've no hosses. You'd be tracked down. Hurry along. Thet's best.... An' say, I see you've a young girl hyar. I can take her up behind me."
"Allie, climb up behind him," said Horn, motioning to the girl.
"I'll stay with mother," she replied.
"Go child—go!" entreated Mrs. Durade.
Others urged her, but she shook her head. Horn's big hand trembled as he held it out, and for once there was no trace of hardness about his face.
"Allie, I never had no lass of my own.... I wish you'd go with him. You'd be safe—an' you could take my—"
"No!" interrupted the girl.
Slingerland gave her a strange, admiring glance, then turned his quick gray eyes upon Horn. "Anythin' I can take?"
Horn hesitated. "No. It was jest somethin' I wanted the girl to hev."
Slingerland touched his shaggy horse and called over his shoulder: "Rustle out of hyar!" Then he galloped down the trail, leaving the travelers standing aghast.
"Break camp!" thundered Horn.
A scene of confusion followed. In a very short while the prairie- schooners were lumbering down the valley. Twilight came just as the flight got under way. The tired oxen were beaten to make them run. But they were awkward and the loads were heavy. Night fell, and the road was difficult to follow. The wagons rolled and bumped and swayed from side to side; camp utensils and blankets dropped from them. One wagon broke down. The occupants, frantically gathering together their possessions, ran ahead to pile into the one in front.
Horn drove on and on at a gait cruel to both men and beasts. The women were roughly shaken. Hours passed and miles were gained. That valley led into another with an upgrade, rocky and treacherous. Horn led on foot and ordered the men to do likewise. The night grew darker. By and by further progress became impossible, for the oxen failed and a wild barrier of trees and rocks stopped the way.
Then the fugitives sat and shivered and waited for dawn. No one slept. All listened intently to the sounds of the lonely night, magnified now by their fears. Horn strode to and fro with his rifle —a grim, dark, silent form. Whenever a wolf mourned, or a cat squalled, or a night bird voiced the solitude, or a stone rattled off the cliff, the fugitives started up quiveringly alert, expecting every second to hear the screeching yell of the Sioux. They whispered to keep up a flickering courage. And the burly Horn strode to and fro, thoughtful, as though he were planning something, and always listening. Allie sat in one of the wagons close to her mother. She was wide awake and not so badly scared. All through this dreadful journey her mother had not seemed natural to Allie, and the farther they traveled eastward the stranger she grew. During the ride that night she had moaned and shuddered, and had clasped Allie close; but when the flight had come to a forced end she grew silent.
Allie was young and hopeful. She kept whispering to her mother that the soldiers would come in time.
"That brave fellow in buckskin—he'll save us," said Allie.
"Child, I feel I'll never see home again," finally whispered Mrs. Durade.
"Allie, I must tell you—I must!" cried Mrs. Durade, very low and fiercely. She clung to her daughter.
"Tell me what?" whispered Allie.
"The truth—the truth! Oh, I've deceived you all your life!"
"Deceived me! Oh, mother! Then tell me—now."
"Child—you'll forgive me—and never—hate me?" cried the mother, brokenly.
"Mother, how can you talk so! I love you." And Allie clasped the shaking form closer. Then followed a silence during which Mrs. Durade recovered her composure.
"Allie, I ran off with Durade before you were born," began the mother, swiftly, as if she must hurry out her secret. "Durade is not your father.... Your name is Lee. Your father is Allison Lee. I've heard he's a rich man now.... Oh, I want to get back—to give you to him—to beg his forgiveness.... We were married in New Orleans in 1847. My father made me marry him. I never loved Allison Lee. He was not a kind man—not the sort I admired.... I met Durade. He was a Spaniard—a blue-blooded adventurer. I ran off with him. We joined the gold-seekers traveling to California. You were born out there in 1850.... It has been a hard life. But I taught you—I did all I could for you. I kept my secret from you—and his! ... Lately I could endure it no longer. I've run off from Durade."
"Oh, mother, I knew we were running off from him!" cried Allie, breathlessly. "And I know he will follow us."
"Indeed, I fear he will," replied the mother. "But Lord spare me his revenge!"
"Mother! Oh, it is terrible! ... He is not my father. I never loved him. I couldn't.... But, mother, you must have loved him!"
"Child, I was Durade's slave," she replied, sadly.
"Then why did you run away? He was kind—good to us."
"Allie, listen. Durade was a gambler—a man crazy to stake all on the fall of a card. He did not love gold. But he loved games of chance. It was a terrible passion with him. Once he meant to gamble my honor away. But that other gambler was too much of a man. There are gamblers who are men! ... I think I began to hate Durade from that time.... He was a dishonest gambler. He made me share in his guilt. My face lured miners to his dens.... My face—for I was beautiful once! ... Oh, I sunk so low! But he forced me.... Thank God I left him—before it was too late—too late for you."
"Mother, he will follow us!" cried Allie.
"But he shall never have you. I'll kill him before I let him get you," replied the mother.
"He'd never harm me, mother, whatever he is," murmured Allie.
"Child, he would use you exactly as he used me. He wanted me to let him have you—already. He wanted to train you—he said you'd be beautiful some day."
"Mother!" gasped Allie, "is THAT what he meant?"
"Forget him, child. And forget your mother's guilt! ... I've suffered. I've repented.... All I ask of God is to take you safely home to Allison Lee—the father whom you have never known."
The night hour before dawn grew colder and blacker. A great silence seemed wedged down between the ebony hills. The stars were wan. No cry of wolf or moan of wind disturbed the stillness. And the stars grew warmer. The black east changed and paled. Dawn was at hand. An opaque and obscure grayness filled the world; all had changed, except that strange, oppressive, and vast silence of the wild.
That silence was broken by the screeching, blood-curdling yell of the Sioux.
At times these bloody savages attacked without warning and in the silence of the grave; again they sent out their war-cries, chilling the hearts of the bravest. Perhaps that warning yell was given only when doom was certain.
Horn realized the dread omen and accepted it. He called the fugitives to him and, choosing the best-protected spot among the rocks and wagons, put the women in the center.
"Now, men—if it's the last for us—let it be fight! Mebbe we can hold out till the troops come."
Then in the gray gloom of dawn he took a shovel; prying up a piece of sod, he laid it aside and began to dig. And while he dug he listened for another war-screech and gazed often and intently into the gloom. But there was no sound and nothing to see. When he had dug a hole several feet deep he carried an armful of heavy leather bags and deposited them in it. Then he went back to the wagon for another armful. The men, gray-faced as the gloom, watched him fill up the hole, carefully replace the sod, and stamp it down.
He stood for an instant gazing down, as if he had buried the best of his life. Then he laughed grim and hard.
"There's my gold! If any man wins through this he can have it!"
Bill Horn divined that he would never live to touch his treasure again. He who had slaved for gold and had risked all for it cared no more what might become of it. Gripping his rifle, he turned to await the inevitable.
Moments of awful suspense passed. Nothing but the fitful beating of hearts came to the ears of the fugitives—ears that strained to the stealthy approach of the red foe—ears that throbbed prayerfully for the tramp of the troopers' horses. But only silence ensued, a horrible silence, more nerve-racking than the clash of swift, sure death.
Then out of the gray gloom burst jets of red flame; rifles cracked, and the air suddenly filled with hideous clamor. The men began to shoot at gliding shadows, grayer than the gloom. And every shot brought a volley in return. Smoke mingled with the gloom. In the slight intervals between rifleshots there were swift, rustling sounds and sharp thuds from arrows. Then the shrill strife of sound became continuous; it came from all around and closed in upon the doomed caravan. It swelled and rolled away and again there was silence.
In 1865, just after the war, a party of engineers was at work in the Wyoming hills on a survey as hazardous as it was problematical. They had charge of the laying out of the Union Pacific Railroad.
This party, escorted by a company of United States troops under Colonel Dillon, had encountered difficulties almost insurmountable. And now, having penetrated the wild hills to the eastern slope of the Rockies they were halted by a seemingly impassable barrier—a gorge too deep to fill, too wide to bridge.
General Lodge, chief engineer of the corps, gave an order to one of his assistants. "Put young Neale on the job. If we ever survey a line through this awful place we'll owe it to him."
The assistant, Baxter, told an Irishman standing by and smoking a short, black pipe to find Neale and give him the chief's orders. The Irishman, Casey by name, was raw-boned, red-faced, and hard- featured, a man inured to exposure and rough life. His expression was one of extreme and fixed good humor, as if his face had been set, mask-like, during a grin. He removed the pipe from his lips.
"Gineral, the flag I've been holdin' fer thot dom' young surveyor is the wrong color. I want a green flag."
Baxter waved the Irishman to his errand, but General Lodge looked up from the maps and plans before him with a faint smile. He had a dark, stern face and the bearing of a soldier.
"Casey, you can have any color you like," he said. "Maybe green would change our luck."
"Gineral, we'll niver git no railroad built, an' if we do it'll be the Irish thot builds it," responded Casey, and went his way.
Truly only one hope remained—that the agile and daring Neale, with his eye of a mountaineer and his genius for estimating distance and grade, might run a line around the gorge.
While waiting for Neale the engineers went over the maps and drawings again and again, with the earnestness of men who could not be beaten.
Lodge had been a major-general in the Civil War just ended, and before that he had traveled through this part of the West many times, and always with the mighty project of a railroad looming in his mind. It had taken years to evolve the plan of a continental railroad, and it came to fruition at last through many men and devious ways, through plots and counterplots. The wonderful idea of uniting East and West by a railroad originated in one man's brain; he lived for it, and finally he died for it. But the seeds he had sown were fruitful. One by one other men divined and believed, despite doubt and fear, until the day arrived when Congress put the Government of the United States, the army, a group of frock-coated directors, and unlimited gold back of General Lodge, and bade him build the road.
In all the length and breadth of the land no men but the chief engineer and his assistants knew the difficulty, the peril of that undertaking. The outside world was interested, the nation waited, mostly in doubt. But Lodge and his engineers had been seized by the spirit of some great thing to be, in the making of which were adventure, fortune, fame, and that strange call of life which foreordained a heritage for future generations. They were grim; they were indomitable.
Warren Neale came hurrying up. He was a New Englander of poor family, self-educated, wild for adventure, keen for achievement, eager, ardent, bronze-faced, and keen-eyed, under six feet in height, built like a wedge, but not heavy—a young man of twenty- three with strong latent possibilities of character.
General Lodge himself explained the difficulties of the situation and what the young surveyor was expected to do. Neale flushed with pride; his eyes flashed; his jaw set. But he said little while the engineers led him out to the scene of the latest barrier. It was a rugged gorge, old and yellow and crumbled, cedar-fringed at the top, bare and white at the bottom. The approach to it was through a break in the walls, so that the gorge really extended both above and below this vantage-point.
"This is the only pass through these foot-hills," said Engineer Henney, the eldest of Lodge's corps.
The passage ended where the break in the walls fronted abruptly upon the gorge. It was a wild scene. Only inspired and dauntless men could have entertained any hope of building a railroad through such a place. The mouth of the break was narrow; a rugged slope led up to the left; to the right a huge buttress of stone wall bulged over the gorge; across stood out the seamed and cracked cliffs, and below yawned the abyss. The nearer side of the gorge could only be guessed at.
Neale crawled to the extreme edge of the precipice, and, lying flat, he tried to discover what lay beneath. Evidently he did not see much, for upon getting up he shook his head. Then he gazed at the bulging wall.
"The side of that can be blown off," he muttered.
"But what's around the corner? If it's straight stone wall for miles and miles we are done," said Boone, another of the engineers.
"The opposite wall is just that," added Henney. "A straight stone wall."
General Lodge gazed at the baffling gorge. His face became grimmer, harder. "It seems impossible to go on, but we must go on!" he said.
A short silence ensued. The engineers faced one another like men confronted by a last and crowning hindrance. Then Neale laughed. He appeared cool and confident.
"It only looks bad," he said. "We'll climb to the top and I'll go down over the wall on a rope."
Neale had been let down over many precipices in those stony hills. He had been the luckiest, the most daring and successful of all the men picked out and put to perilous tasks. No one spoke of the accidents that had happened, or even the fatal fall of a lineman who a few weeks before had ventured once too often. Every rod of road surveyed made the engineers sterner at their task, just as it made them keener to attain final success.
The climb to the top of the bluff was long and arduous. The whole corps went, and also some of the troopers.
"I'll need a long rope," Neale had said to King, his lineman.
It was this order that made King take so much time in ascending the bluff. Besides, he was a cowboy, used to riding, and could not climb well.
"Wal—I—shore—rustled—all the line—aboot heah," he drawled, pantingly, as he threw lassoes and coils of rope at Neale's feet.
Neale picked up some of the worn pieces. He looked dubious. "Is this all you could get?" he asked.
"Shore is. An' thet includes what Casey rustled from the soldiers."
"Help me knot these," went on Neale.
"Wal, I reckon this heah time I'll go down before you," drawled King.
Neale laughed and looked curiously at his lineman. Back somewhere in Nebraska this cowboy from Texas had attached himself to Neale. They worked together; they had become friends. Larry Red King made no bones of the fact that Texas had grown too hot for him. He had been born with an itch to shoot. To Neale it seemed that King made too much of a service Neale had rendered—the mere matter of a helping hand. Still, there had been danger.
"Go down before me!" exclaimed Neale.
"I reckon," replied King.
"You will not," rejoined the other, bluntly. "I may not need you at all. What's the sense of useless risk?"
"Wal, I'm goin'—else I throw up my job."
"Oh, hell!" burst out Neale as he strained hard on a knot. Again he looked at his lineman, this time with something warmer than curiosity in his glance.
Larry Red King was tall, slim, hard as iron, and yet undeniably graceful in outline—a singularly handsome and picturesque cowboy with flaming hair and smooth, red face and eyes of flashing blue. From his belt swung a sheath holding a heavy gun.
"Wal, go ahaid," added Neale, mimicking his comrade. "An' I shore hope thet this heah time you-all get aboot enough of your job."
One by one the engineers returned from different points along the wall, and they joined the group around Neale and King.
"Test that rope," ordered General Lodge.
The long rope appeared to be amply strong. When King fastened one end round his body under his arms the question arose among the engineers, just as it had arisen for Neale, whether or not it was needful to let the lineman down before the surveyor. Henney, who superintended this sort of work, decided it was not necessary.
"I reckon I'll go ahaid," said King. Like all Texans of his type, Larry King was slow, easy, cool, careless. Moreover, he gave a singular impression of latent nerve, wildness, violence.
There seemed every assurance of a deadlock when General Lodge stepped forward and addressed his inquiry to Neale.
"Larry thinks the rope will break. So he wants to go first," replied Neale.
There were broad smiles forthcoming, yet no one laughed. This was one of the thousands of strange human incidents that must be enacted in the building of the railroad. It might have been humorous, but it was big. It fixed the spirit and it foreshadowed events.
General Lodge's stern face relaxed, but he spoke firmly. "Obey orders," he admonished Larry King.
The loop was taken from Larry's waist and transferred to Neale's. Then all was made ready to let the daring surveyor with his instrument down over the wall.
Neale took one more look at the rugged front of the cliff. When he straightened up the ruddy bronze had left his face.
"There's a bulge of rock. I can't see what's below it," he said. "No use for signals. I'll go down the length of the rope and trust to find a footing. I can't be hauled up."
They all conceded this silently.
Then Neale sat down, let his legs dangle over the wall, firmly grasped his instrument, and said to the troopers who held the rope, "All right!"
They lowered him foot by foot.
It was windy and the dust blew up from under the wall. Black canon swifts, like swallows, darted out with rustling wings, uttering frightened twitterings. The engineers leaned over, watching Neale's progress. Larry King did not look over the precipice. He watched the slowly slipping rope as knot by knot it passed over. It fascinated him.
"He's reached the bulge of rock," called Baxter, craning his neck.
"There, he's down—out of sight!" exclaimed Henney.
Casey, the flagman, leaned farther out than any other. "Phwat a dom' sthrange way to build a railroad, I sez," he remarked.
The gorge lay asleep in the westering sun, silent, full of blue haze. Seen from this height, far above the break where the engineers had first halted, it had the dignity and dimensions of a canon. Its walls had begun to change color in the sunset light.
Foot by foot the soldiers let the rope slip, until probably two hundred had been let out, and there were scarcely a hundred feet left. By this time all that part of the cable which had been made of lassoes had passed over; the remainder consisted of pieces of worn and knotted and frayed rope, at which the engineers began to gaze fearfully.
"I don't like this," said Henney, nervously. "Neale surely ought to have found a ledge or bench or slope by now."
Instinctively the soldiers held back, reluctantly yielding inches where before they had slacked away feet. But intent as was their gaze, it could not rival that of the cowboy.
"Hold!" he yelled, suddenly pointing to where the strained rope curved over the edge of the wall.
The troopers held hard. The rope ceased to pay out. The strain seemed to increase. Larry King pointed with a lean hand.
"It's a-goin' to break!"
His voice, hoarse and swift, checked the forward movement of the engineers. He plunged to his knees before the rope and reached clutchingly, as if he wanted to grasp it, yet dared not.
"Ropes was my job! Old an' rotten! It's breakin'!"
Even as he spoke the rope snapped. The troopers, thrown off their balance, fell backward. Baxter groaned; Boone and Henney cried out in horror; General Lodge stood aghast, dazed. Then they all froze rigid in the position of intense listening.
A dull sound puffed up from the gorge, a low crash, then a slow- rising roar and rattle of sliding earth and rock. It diminished and ceased with the hollow cracking of stone against stone.
Casey broke the silence among the listening men with a curse. Larry Red King rose from his knees, holding the end of the snapped rope, which he threw from him with passionate violence. Then with action just as violent he unbuckled his belt and pulled it tighter and buckled it again. His eyes were blazing with blue lightning; they seemed to accuse the agitated engineers of deliberate murder. But he turned away without speaking and hurried along the edge of the gorge, evidently searching for a place to go down.
General Lodge ordered the troopers to follow King and if possible recover Neale's body.
"That lad had a future," said old Henney, sadly. "We'll miss him."
Boone's face expressed sickness and horror.
Baxter choked. "Too bad!" he murmured, "but what's to be done?"
The chief engineer looked away down the shadowy gorge where the sun was burning the ramparts red. To have command of men was hard, bitter. Death stalked with his orders. He foresaw that the building of this railroad was to resemble the war in which he had sent so many lads and men to bloody graves.
The engineers descended the long slope and returned to camp, a mile down the narrow valley. Fires were blazing; columns of smoke were curling aloft; the merry song and reckless laugh of soldiers were ringing out, so clear in the still air; horses were neighing and stamping.
Colonel Dillon reported to General Lodge that one of the scouts had sighted a large band of Sioux Indians encamped in a valley not far distant. This tribe had gone on the war-path and had begun to harass the engineers. Neale's tragic fate was forgotten in the apprehension of what might happen when the Sioux discovered the significance of that surveying expedition.
"The Sioux could make the building of the U. P. impossible," said Henney, always nervous and pessimistic.
"No Indians—nothing can stop us!" declared his chief.
The troopers sent to follow Larry King came back to camp, saying that they had lost him and that they could not find any place where it was possible to get down into that gorge.
In the morning Larry King had not returned.
Detachments of troopers were sent in different directions to try again. And the engineers went out once more to attack their problem. Success did not attend the efforts of either party, and at sunset, when all had wearily returned to camp, Larry King was still absent. Then he was given up for lost.
But before dark the tall cowboy limped into camp, dusty and torn, carrying Neale's long tripod and surveying instrument. It looked the worse for a fall, but apparently was not badly damaged. King did not give the troopers any satisfaction. Limping on to the tents of the engineers, he set down the instrument and called. Boone was the first to come out, and his summons brought Henney, Baxter, and the younger members of the corps. General Lodge, sitting at his campfire some rods away, and bending over his drawings, did not see King's arrival.
No one detected any difference in the cowboy, except that he limped. Slow, cool, careless he was, yet somehow vital and impelling. "Wal, we run the line around—four miles up the gorge whar the crossin' is easy. Only ninety-foot grade to the mile."
The engineers looked at him as if he were crazy.
"But Neale! He fell—he's dead!" exclaimed Henney.
"Daid? Wal, no, Neale ain't daid," drawled Larry.
"Where is he, then?"
"I reckon he's comin' along back heah."
"Is he hurt?"
"Shore. An' hungry, too, which is what I am," replied Larry, as he limped away.
Some of the engineers hurried out in the gathering dusk to meet Neale, while others went to General Lodge with the amazing story.
The chief received the good news quietly but with intent eyes. "Bring Neale and King here—as soon as their needs have been seen to," he ordered. Then he called after Baxter, "Ninety feet to the mile, you said?"
"Ninety-foot grade, so King reported."
"By all that's lucky!" breathed the chief, as if his load had been immeasurably lightened. "Send those boys to me."
Some of the soldiers had found Neale down along the trail and were helping him into camp. He was crippled and almost exhausted. He made light of his condition, yet he groaned when he dropped into a seat before the fire.
Some one approached Larry King to inform him that the general wanted to see him.
"Wal, I'm hungry—an' he ain't my boss," replied Larry, and went on with his meal. It was well known that the Southerner would not talk.
But Neale talked; he blazed up in eloquent eulogy of his lineman; before an hour had passed away every one in camp knew that Larry had saved Neale's life. Then the loquacious Casey, intruding upon the cowboy's reserve, got roundly cursed for his pains.
"G'wan out among thim Sooz Injuns an' be a dead hero, thin," retorted Casey, as the cowboy stalked off to be alone in the gloom. Evidently Casey was disappointed not to get another cursing, for he turned to his comrade, McDermott, an axman. "Say, Mac, phwot do you make of cowboys?"
"I tell ye, Pat, I make of thim thet you'll be full of bulletholes before this railroad's built."
"Thin, b'gosh, I'll hould drink fer a long time yit," replied Casey.
Later General Lodge visited Neale and received the drawings and figures that made plain solution of what had been a formidable problem.
"It was easy, once I landed under that bulge of cliff," said Neale. "There's a slope of about forty-five degrees—not all rock. And four miles up the gorge peters out. We can cross. I got to where I could see the divide—and oh! there is where our troubles begin. The worst is all to come."
"You've said it," replied the chief, soberly. "We can't follow the trail and get the grade necessary. We've got to hunt up a pass."
"We'll find one," said Neale, hopefully.
"Neale, you're ambitious and you've the kind of spirit that never gives up. I've watched your work from the start. You'll make a big position for yourself with this railroad, if you only live through the building of it."
"Oh, I'll live through it, all right," replied Neale, laughing. "I'm like a cat—always on my feet—and have nine lives besides."
"You surely must! How far did you fall this time?"
"Not far. I landed in a tree, where my instrument stuck. But I crashed down, and got a hard knock on the head. When Larry found me I was unconscious and sliding for another precipice."
"That Texan seems attached to you."
"Well, if he wasn't before he will be now," said Neale, feelingly. "I'll tell you, General, Larry's red-headed, a droll, lazy Southerner, and he's made fun of by the men. But they don't understand him. They certainly can't see how dangerous he is. Only I don't mean that. I do mean that he's true like steel."
"Yes, he showed that. When the rope snapped I was sure he'd pull a gun on us.... Neale, I would like to have had you and Larry Red King with me through the war."
"Thank you, General Lodge.... But I like the prospects now."
"Neale, you're hungry for wild life?"
"Yes," replied Neale, simply.
"I said as much. I felt very much the same way when I was your age. And you like our prospects? ... Well, you've thought things out. Neale, the building of the U. P. will be hell!"
"General, I can see that. It sort of draws me—two ways—the wildness of it and then to accomplish something."
"My lad, I hope you will accomplish something big without living out all the wildness."
"You think I might lose my head?" queried Neale.
"You are excitable and quick-tempered. Do you drink?"
"Yes—a little," answered the young man. "But I don't care for liquor."
"Don't drink, Neale," said the chief, earnestly. "Of course it doesn't matter now, for we're only a few men out here in the wilds. But when our work is done over the divide, we must go back along the line. You know ground has been broken and rails laid west of Omaha. The work's begun. I hear that Omaha is a beehive. Thousands of idle men are flocking West. The work will be military. We must have the army to protect us, and we will hire all the soldiers who apply. But there will be hordes of others—the dregs of the war and all the bad characters of the frontier. They will flock to the construction camp. Millions of dollars will go along with the building. Gold! ... Where it's all coming from I have no idea. The Government backs us with the army—that's all. But the gold will be forthcoming. I have that faith.... And think, lad, what it will mean in a year or two. Ten thousand soldiers in one camp out here in these wild hills. And thousands of others—honest merchants and dishonest merchants, whisky men, gamblers, desperadoes, bandits, and bad women. Niggers, Greasers, Indians, all together moving from camp to camp, where there can be no law."
"It will be great!" exclaimed Neale, with shining eyes.
"It will be terrible," muttered the elder man, gravely. Then, as he got up and bade his young assistant good night, the somberness had returned to his eyes and the weight to his shoulders. He did not underestimate his responsibility nor the nature of his task, and he felt the coming of nameless and unknown events beyond all divining.
Henney was Neale's next visitor. The old engineer appeared elated, but for the moment he apparently forgot everything else in his solicitude for the young man's welfare.
Presently, after he had been reassured, the smile came back to his face.
"The chief has promoted you," he said.
"What!" exclaimed Neale, starting up.
"It's a fact. He just talked it over with Baxter and me. This last job of yours pleased him mightily... and so you go up."
"Go up! ... To what?" queried Neale, eagerly.
"Well, that's why he consulted us, I guess," laughed Henney. "You see, we sort of had to make something to promote you to, for the present."
"Oh, I see! I was wondering what job there could be," replied Neale, and he laughed, too. "What did the chief say?"
"He said a lot. Figured you'd land at the top if the U. P. is ever built.... Chief engineer! ... Superintendent of maintenance of way!"
"Good Lord!" breathed Neale. "You're not in earnest?"
"Wal, I shore am, as your cowboy pard says," returned Henney. And then he spoke with real earnestness. "Listen, Neale. Here's the matter in a nutshell. You will be called upon to run these particular and difficult surveys, just as yesterday. But no more of the routine for you. Added to that, you will be sent forward and back, inspecting, figuring. You can make your headquarters with us or in the construction camps, as suits your convenience. All this, of course, presently, when we get farther on. So you will be in a way free—your own boss a good deal of the time. And fitting yourself for that 'maintenance of way' job. In fact, the chief said that—he called you Maintenance-of-Way Neale. Well, I congratulate you. And my advice is keep on as you've begun—go straight—look out for your wildness and temper.... That's all. Good night."
Then he went out, leaving Neale speechless.
Neale had many callers that night, and the last was Larry Red King. The cowboy stooped to enter the tent.
"Wal, how aboot you-all?" he drawled.
"Not so good, Red," replied Neale. "My head's hot and I've got a lot of pain. I think I'm going to be a little flighty. Would you mind getting your blankets and staying with me tonight?"
"I reckon I'd be glad," answered King. He put a hand on Neale's face. "You shore have fever." He left the tent, to return presently with a roll of blankets and a canteen. Then he awkwardly began to bathe Neale's face with cold water. There was a flickering camp-fire outside that threw shadows on the wall of the tent. By its light Neale saw that King's left hand was bandaged and that he used it clumsily.
"What's wrong with your hand?" he queried.
"I reckon nawthin'."
"Why is it bound up, then?"
"Wal, some one sent thet fool army doctor to me an' he said I had two busted bones in it."
"He did! I had no idea you were hurt. You never said a word. And you carried me and my instrument all day—with a broken hand!"
"Wal, I ain't so shore it's broke."
Neale swore at his friend and then he fell asleep. King watched beside him, ever and anon rewetting the hot brow.
The camp-fire died out, and at length the quietness of late night set in. The wind mourned and lulled by intervals; a horse thudded his hoofs now and then; there were the soft, steady footsteps of the sentry on guard, and the wild cry of a night bird.
Neale had not been wrong when he told the engineers that once they had a line surveyed across the gorge and faced the steep slopes of the other side their troubles would be magnified.
They found themselves deeper in the Wyoming hills, a range of mountains that had given General Lodge great difficulty upon former exploring trips, and over which a pass had not yet been discovered.
The old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail wound along the base of these slopes and through the valleys. But that trail was not possible for a railroad. A pass must be found—a pass that would give a grade of ninety feet to the mile. These mountains had short slopes, and they were high.
It turned out that the line as already surveyed through ravines and across the gorge had to be abandoned. The line would have to go over the hills. To that end the camp was moved east again to the first slopes of the Wyoming hills; from there the engineers began to climb. They reached the base of the mountains, where they appeared to be halted for good and all.
The second line, so far as it went, overlooked the Laramie Trail, which fact was proof that the old trail-finders had as keen eyes as engineers.
With a large band of hostile Sioux watching their movements the engineer corps found it necessary to have the troops close at hand all the time. The surveyors climbed the ridges while the soldiers kept them in sight from below. Day after day this futile search for a pass went on. Many of the ridges promised well, only to end in impassable cliffs or breaks or ascents too steep. There were many slopes and they all looked alike. It took hard riding and hard climbing. The chief and his staff were in despair. Must their great project fail because of a few miles of steep ascent? They would not give up.
The vicinity of Cheyenne Pass seemed to offer encouragement. Camp was made in the valley on a creek. From here observations were taken. One morning the chief, with his subordinates and a scout, ascended the creek and then through the pass to the summit. Again the old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail lay in sight. And again the troops rode along it, with the engineers above.
The chief with his men rode on and up farther than usual; farther than they ought to have gone unattended. Once the scout halted and gazed intently across the valley.
"Smoke signals over thar," he said.
The engineers looked long, but none of them saw any smoke. They moved on. But the scout called them back.
"Thet bunch of redskins has split on us. Fust thing we'll run into some of them."
It was Neale's hawk eye that first sighted Indians. "Look! Look!" he cried, in great excitement, as he pointed with shaking finger.
Down a grassy slope of a ridge Indians were riding, evidently to head off the engineers, to get between them and the troops.
"Wal, we're in fer it now," declared the scout. "We can't get back the way we come up."
The chief gazed coolly at the Indians and then at the long ridge sloping away from the summit. He had been in tight places before.
"Ride!" was his order.
"Let's fight!" cried Neale.
The band of eight men were well armed and well mounted, and if imperative, could have held off the Sioux for a time. But General Lodge and the scout headed across a little valley and up a higher ridge, from which they expected to sight the troops. They rode hard and climbed fast, but it took a quarter of an hour to gain the ridge-top. Sure enough the troops were in sight, but far away, and the Sioux were cutting across to get in front.
It was a time for quick judgment. The scout said they could not ride down over the ridge, and the chief decided they must follow along it. The going got to be hard and rough. One by one the men dismounted to lead their horses. Neale, who rode a mettlesome bay, could scarcely keep up.
"Take mine," called Larry King, as he turned to Neale.
"Red, I'll handle this stupid beast or—"
"Wal, you ain't handlin' him," interrupted King. "Hosses is my job, you know."
Red took the bridle from Neale and in one moment the balky horse recognized a master arm.
"By Heaven! we've got to hurry!" called Neale.
It did seem that the Indians would head them off. Neale and King labored over the rocky ground as best they could, and by dint of hard effort came up with their party. The Indians were quartering the other ridge, riding as if on level ground. The going grew rougher. Baxter's horse slipped and lamed his right fore leg. Henney's saddle turned, and more valuable time was lost. All the men drew their rifles. At every dip of ground they expected to come to a break that would make a stand inevitable.
From one point on the ridge they had a good view of the troops.
"Signal!" ordered the chief.
They yelled and shot and waved hats and scarfs. No use—the soldiers kept moving on at a snail pace far below.
"On—down the ridge!" was the order.
"Wal, General, thet looks bad to me," objected the scout. Red King shoved his lean, brown hand between them. There was a flame in his flashing, blue glance as it swept the slowly descending ridge.
"Judgin' the lay of land is my job," he said, in his cool way. "We'll git down heah or not at all."
Neale was sore, lame, and angry as well. He kept gazing across at the Sioux. "Let's stop—and fight," he panted. "We can—whip—that bunch."
"We may have to fight, but not yet," replied the chief. "Come on."
They scrambled on over rocky places, up and down steep banks. Here and there were stretches where it was possible to ride, and over these they made better time. The Indians fell out of sight under the side of the ridge, and this fact was disquieting, for no one could tell how soon they would show up again or in what quarter. This spurred the men to sterner efforts.
Meanwhile the sun was setting and the predicament of the engineers grew more serious. A shout from Neale, who held up the rear, warned all that the Indians had scaled the ridge behind them and now were in straightaway pursuit. Thereupon General Lodge ordered his men to face about with rifles ready. This move checked the Sioux. They halted out of range.
"They're waitin' fer dark to set in," said the scout.
"Come on! We'll get away yet," said the chief, grimly. They went on, and darkness began to fall about them. This increased both the difficulty and the danger. On the other hand, it enabled them to try and signal the troops with fire. One of them would hurry ahead and build a fire while the others held back to check the Indians if they appeared. And at length their signals were answered by the troops. Thus encouraged, the little band of desperate men plunged on down the slope. And just when night set in black—the fateful hour that would have precipitated the Indian attack—the troops met the engineers on the slope. The Indians faded away into the gloom without firing a shot. There was a general rejoicing. Neale, however, complained that he would rather have fought them.
"Wal, I shore was achin' fer trouble," drawled his faithful ally, King.
The flagman, Casey, removed his black pipe to remark, "All thet cloimb without a foight'"
General Lodge's first word to Colonel Dillon was evidently inspired by Casey's remark.
"Colonel, did you have steep work getting up to us?"
"Yes, indeed, straight up out of the valley," was the rejoinder.
But General Lodge did not go back to camp by this short cut down the valley. He kept along the ridge, and it led for miles slowly down to the plain. There in the starlight he faced his assistants with singular fire and earnestness.
"Men, we've had a bad scare and a hard jaunt, but we've found our pass over the Wyoming hills. To-morrow we'll run a line up that long ridge. We'll name it Sherman Pass.... Thanks to those red devils!"
On the following morning Neale was awakened from a heavy, dreamless sleep by a hard dig in the ribs.
"Neale—air you daid?" Larry was saying. "Wake up! An' listen to thet."
Neale heard the clear, ringing notes of a bugle-call. He rolled out of his blankets. "What's up, Red?" he cried, reaching for his boots.
"Wal, I reckon them Injuns," drawled Red.
It was just daylight. They found the camp astir—troopers running for horses, saddles, guns.
"Red, you get our horses and I'll see what's up," cried Neale.
The cowboy strode off, hitching at his belt. Neale ran forward into camp. He encountered Lieutenant Leslie, whom he knew well, and who told him a scout had come in with news of a threatened raid; Colonel Dillon had ordered out a detachment of troopers.
"I'm going," shouted Neale. "Where's that scout?"
Neale soon descried a buckskin-clad figure, and he made toward it. The man, evidently a trapper or hunter, carried a long, brown rifle, and he had a powder-horn and bullet-pouch slung over his shoulder. There was a knife in his belt. Neale went directly up to the man.
"My name's Neale," he said. "Can I be of any help?"
He encountered a pair of penetrating gray eyes.
"My name's Slingerland," replied the other, as he offered his hand. "Are you an officer?"
"No. I'm a surveyor. But I can ride and shoot. I've a cowboy with me—a Texan. He'll go. What's happened?"
"Wal, I ain't sure yet. But I fear the wust. I got wind of some Sioux thet was trailin' some prairie-schooners up in the hills. I warned the boss—told him to break camp an' run. Then I come fer the troops. But the troops had changed camp an' I jest found them. Reckon we'll be too late."
"Was it a caravan?" inquired Neale, intensely interested.
"Six wagons. Only a few men. Two wimmen. An' one girl."
"Girl!" exclaimed Neale.
"Yes. I reckon she was about sixteen. A pretty girl with big, soft eyes. I offered to take her up behind me on my hoss. An' they all wanted her to come. But she wouldn't.... I hate to think—"
Slingerland did not finish his thought aloud. Just then Larry rode up, leading Neale's horse. Slingerland eyed the lithe cowboy.
"Howdy!" drawled Larry. He did not seem curious or eager, and his cool, easy, reckless air was in sharp contrast to Neale's fiery daring.
"Red, you got the rifles, I see," said Neale.
"Sure, an' I rustled some biscuits."
In a few moments the troops were mounted and ready. Slingerland led them up the valley at a rapid trot and soon started to climb. When he reached the top he worked up for a mile, and then, crossing over, went down into another valley. Up and down he led, over ridge after ridge, until a point was reached where the St. Vrain and Laramie Trail could be seen in the valley below. From there he led them along the top of the ridge, and just as the sun rose over the hills he pointed down to a spot where the caravan had been encamped. They descended into this valley. There in the trail were fresh tracks of unshod horses.
"We ain't fur behind, but I reckon fur enough to be too late," said Slingerland. And he clenched a big fist.
On this level trail he led at a gallop, with the troops behind in the clattering roar. They made short work of that valley. Then rougher ground hindered speedy advance.
Presently Slingerland sighted something that made him start. It proved to be the charred skeleton of a prairie-schooner. The oxen were nowhere to be seen.
Then they saw that a little beyond blankets and camp utensils littered the trail. Still farther on the broad wheel-tracks sheered off the road, where the hurried drivers had missed the way in the dark. This was open, undulating ground, rock-strewn and overgrown with brush. A ledge of rock, a few scraggy trees, and more black, charred remains of wagons marked the final scene of the massacre.
Neale was the first man who dismounted, and Larry King was the second. They had outstripped the more cautious troopers.
"My Gawd!" breathed Larry.
Neale gripped his rifle with fierce hands and strode forward between two of the burned wagons. Naked, mutilated bodies, bloody and ghastly, lay in horrible positions. All had been scalped.
Slingerland rode up with the troops, and all dismounted, cursing and muttering.
Colonel Dillon ordered a search for anything to identify the dead. There was nothing. All had been burned or taken away. Of the camp implements, mostly destroyed, there were two shovels left, one with a burnt handle. These were used by the troopers to dig graves.
Neale had at first been sickened by the ghastly spectacle. He walked aside a little way and sat down upon a rock. His face was wet with clammy sweat. A gnawing rage seemed to affect him in the pit of the stomach. This was his first experience with the fiendish work of the savages. A whirl of thoughts filled his mind.
Suddenly he fancied he heard a low moan. He started violently. "Well, I'm hearing things," he muttered, soberly.
It made him so nervous that he got up and walked back to where the troopers were digging. He saw the body of a woman being lowered into a grave and the sight reminded him of what Slingerland had said. He saw the scout searching around and he went over to him.
"Have you found the girl?" he asked.
"Not yet. I reckon the devils made off with her. They'd take her, if she happened to be alive."
"God! I hope she's dead."
"Wal, son, so does Al Slingerland."
More searching failed to find the body of the girl. She was given up as lost.
"I'll find out if she was took captive," said Slingerland. "This Sioux band has been friendly with me."
"Man, they're on the war-path," rejoined Dillon.
"Wal, I've traded with them same Sioux when they was on the war- path.... This massacre sure is awful, an' the Sioux will hev to be extarminated. But they hev their wrongs. An' Injuns is Injuns."
Slabs of rock were laid upon the graves. Then the troopers rode away.
Neale and Slingerland and Larry King were the last to mount. And it was at this moment that Neale either remembered the strange, low moan or heard it again. He reined in his horse.
"I'm going back," he called.
"What fer?" Slingerland rejoined.
Larry King wheeled his mount and trotted back to Neale.
"Red, I'm not satisfied," said Neale, and told his friend what he thought he had heard.
"Boy, you're oot of yur haid!" expostulated Red.
"Maybe I am. But I'm going back. Are you coming?"
"Shore," replied Red, with his easy good nature.
Slingerland sat his horse and watched while he waited. The dust- cloud that marked the troops drew farther away.
Neale dismounted, threw his bridle, and looked searchingly around. But Larry, always more comfortable on horseback than on land, kept his saddle. Suddenly Neale felt inexplicably drawn in a certain direction—toward a rocky ledge. Still he heard nothing except the wind in the few scraggy trees. All the ground in and around the scene of the massacre had been gone over; there was no need to examine it again. Neale had nothing tangible upon which to base his strange feeling. Yet absurd or not, he refused to admit it was fancy or emotion. Some voice had called him. He swore it. If he did not make sure he would always be haunted. So with clear, deliberate eyes he surveyed the scene. Then he strode for the ledge of rock.
Tufts of sage grew close at its base. He advanced among them. The surface of the rock was uneven—and low down a crack showed. At that instant a slow, sobbing, gasping intake of breath electrified Neale.
"Red—come here!" he yelled, in a voice that made the cowboy jump.
Neale dropped to his knees and parted the tufts of sage. Lower down the crack opened up. On the ground, just inside that crack he saw the gleam of a mass of chestnut hair. His first flashing thought was that here was a scalp the red devils did not get.
Then Red King was kneeling beside him—bending forward. "It's a girl!" he ejaculated.
"Yes—the one Slingerland told me about—the girl with big eyes," replied Neale. He put a hand softly on her head. It was warm. Her hair felt silky, and the touch sent a quiver over him. Probably she was dying.
Slingerland came riding up. "Wal, boys, what hev you found?" he asked, curiously.
"That girl," replied Neale.
The reply brought Slingerland sliding out of his saddle.
Neale hesitated a moment, then reaching into the aperture, he got his hands under the girl's arms and carefully drew her out upon the grass. She lay face down, her hair a tumbled mass, her body inert. Neale's quick eye searched for bloodstains, but found none.
"I remember thet hair," said Slingerland. "Turn her over."
"I reckon we'll see then where she's hurt," muttered Red King.
Evidently Neale thought the same, for he was plainly afraid to place her on her back.
"Slingerland, she's not such a little girl," he said, irrelevantly. Then he slipped his hands under her arms again. Suddenly he felt something wet and warm and sticky. He pulled a hand out. It was blood-stained.
"Aw!" exclaimed Red.
"Son, what'd you expect?" demanded Slingerland. "She got shot or cut, an' in her fright she crawled in thar. Come, over with her. Let's see. She might live."
This practical suggestion acted quickly upon Neale. He turned the girl over so that her head lay upon his knees. The face thus exposed was deathly pale, set like stone in horror. The front of her dress was a bloody mass, and her hands were red.
"Stabbed in the breast!" exclaimed King.
"No," replied Slingerland. "If she'd been stabbed she'd been scalped, too. Mebbe thet blood comes from an arrow an' she might hev pulled it out."
Neale bent over her with swift scrutiny. "No cut or hole in her dress!"
"Boys, thar ain't no marks on her—only thet blood," added Slingerland, hopefully.
Neale tore open the front of her blouse and slipped his hand in upon her breast. It felt round, soft, warm under his touch, but quiet. He shook his head.
"Those moans I heard must have been her last dying breaths," he said.
"Mebbe. But she shore doesn't look daid to me," replied King. "I've seen daid people. Put your hand on her heart."
Neale had been feeling for heart pulsations on her right side. He shifted his hand. Instantly through the soft swell of her breast throbbed a beat-beat-beat. The beatings were regular and not at all faint.
"Good Lord, what a fool I am!" he cried. "She's alive! Her heart's going! There's not a wound on her!"
"Wal, we can't see any, thet's sure," replied Slingerland.
"She might hev a fatal hurt, all the same," suggested King.
"No!" exclaimed Neale. "That blood's from some one else—most likely her murdered mother.... Red, run for some water. Fetch it in your hat. Slingerland, ride after the troops."
Slingerland rose and mounted his horse. "Wal, I've an idee. Let's take the girl to my cabin. Thet's not fur from hyar. It's a long ride to the camp. An' if she needs the troop doctor we can fetch him to my place."
"But the Sioux?"
"Wal, she'd be safer with me. The Injuns an' me are friends."
"All right. Good. But you ride after the troops, anyhow, and tell Dillon about the girl—that we're going to your cabin." Slingerland galloped away after the dust cloud down the trail.
Neale gazed strangely down at the face of the girl he had rescued. Her lips barely parted to make again the low moan. So that was what had called to him. No—not all! There was something more than this feeble cry that had brought him back to search; there had been some strong and nameless and inexplicable impulse. Neale believed in his impulses—in those strange ones which came to him at intervals. So far in his life girls had been rather negative influences. But this girl, or the fact that he had saved her, or both impressions together, struck deep into him; life would never again be quite the same to Warren Neale.
Red King came striding back with a sombrero full of water.
"Take your scarf and wash that blood off her hands before she comes to and sees it," said Neale.
The cowboy was awkward at the task, but infinitely gentle. "Poor kid! I'll bet she's alone in the world now."
Neale wet his scarf and bathed the girl's face. "If she's only fainted she ought to be reviving now. But I'm afraid—"
Then suddenly her eyes opened. They were large, violet-hued, covered with a kind of veil or film, as though sleep had not wholly gone; and they were unseeingly, staringly set with horror. Her breast heaved with a sharply drawn breath; her hands groped and felt for something to hold; her body trembled. Suddenly she sat up. She was not weak. Her motions were violent. The dazed, horror-stricken eyes roved around, but did not fasten upon anything.
"Aw! Gone crazy!" muttered King, pityingly.
It did seem so. She put her hands to her ears as if to shut out a horrible sound. And she screamed. Neale grasped her shoulders, turned her round, and forced her into such a position that her gaze must meet his.
"You're safe!" he cried sharply. "The Indians have gone! I'm a white man!"
It seemed as though his piercing voice stirred her reason. She stared at him. Her face changed. Her lips parted and her hand, shaking like a leaf, covered them, clutched at them. The other hand waved before her as if to brush aside some haunting terror.
Neale held that gaze with all his power—dominant, masterful, masculine. He repeated what he had said.
Then it became a wonderful and terrible sight to watch her, to divine in some little way the dark and awful state of her mind. The lines, the tenseness, the shade, the age faded out of her face; the deep-set frown smoothed itself out of her brow and it became young. Neale saw those staring eyes fix upon his; he realized a dull, opaque blackness of horror, hideous veils let down over the windows of a soul, images of hell limned forever on a mind. Then that film, that unseeing cold thing, like the shade of sleep or of death, passed from her eyes. Now they suddenly were alive, great dark- violet gulfs, full of shadows, dilating, changing into exquisite and beautiful lights.
"I'm a white man!" he said, tensely. "You're saved! The Indians are gone!"
She understood him. She realized the meaning of his words. Then, with a low, agonized, and broken cry she shut her eyes tight and reached blindly out with both hands; she screamed aloud. Shock claimed her again. Horror and fear convulsed her, and it must have been fear that was uppermost. She clutched Neale with fingers of steel, in a grip he could not have loosened without breaking her bones.
"Red, you saw—she was right in her mind for a moment—you saw?" burst out Neale.
"Shore I saw. She's only scared now," replied King. "It must hev been hell fer her."
At this juncture Slingerland came riding up to them. "Did she come around?" he inquired, curiously gazing at the girl as she clung to Neale.
"Yes, for a moment," replied Neale.
"Wal, thet's good.... I caught up with Dillon. Told him. He was mighty glad we found her. Cussed his troopers some. Said he'd explain your absence, an' we could send over fer anythin'."
"Let's go, then," said Neale. He tried to loosen the girl's hold on him, but had to give it up. Taking her in his arms, he rose and went toward his horse. King had to help him mount with his burden. Neale did not imagine he would ever forget that spot, but he took another long look to fix the scene indelibly on his memory. The charred wagons, the graves, the rocks over which the naked, gashed bodies had been flung, the three scraggy trees close together, and the ledge with the dark aperture at the base—he gazed at them all, and then turned his horse to follow Slingerland.
Some ten miles from the scene of the massacre and perhaps fifteen from the line surveyed by the engineers, Slingerland lived in a wild valley in the heart of the Wyoming hills.
The ride there was laborsome and it took time, but Neale scarcely noted either fact. He paid enough attention to the trail to fix landmarks and turnings in his mind, so that he would remember how to find the way there again. He was, however, mostly intent upon the girl he was carrying.
Twice that he knew of her eyes opened during the ride. But it was to see nothing and only to grip him tighter, if that were possible. Neale began to imagine that he had been too hopeful. Her body was a dead weight and cold. Those two glimpses he had of her opened eyes hurt him. What should he do when she did come to herself? She would be frantic with horror and grief and he would be helpless. In a case like hers it might have been better if she had been killed.
The last mile to Slingerland's lay through a beautiful green valley with steep sides almost like a canon—trees everywhere, and a swift, clear brook running over a bed of smooth rock. The trail led along this brook up to where the valley boxed and the water boiled out of a great spring in a green glade overhung by bushy banks and gray rocks above. A rude cabin with a red-stone chimney and clay-chinked cracks between the logs, stuffed to bursting with furs and pelts and horns and traps, marked the home of the trapper.
"Wal, we're hyar," sung out Slingerland, and in the cheery tones there was something which told that the place was indeed home to him.
"Shore is a likely-lookin' camp," drawled Red, throwing his bridle. "Been heah a long time, thet cabin."
"Me an' my pard was the first white men in these hyar hills," replied Slingerland. "He's gone now." Then he turned to Neale. "Son, you must be tired. Thet was a ways to carry a girl nigh onto dead.... Look how white! Hand her down to me."
The girl's hands slipped nervelessly and limply from their hold upon Neale. Slingerland laid her on the grass in a shady spot. The three men gazed down upon her, all sober, earnest, doubtful.
"I reckon we can't do nothin' but wait," said the trapper.
Red King shook his head as if the problem were beyond him.
Neale did not voice his thought, yet he wanted to be the first person her eyes should rest upon when she did return to consciousness.
"Wal, I'll set to work an' clean out a place fer her," said Slingerland.
"We'll help," rejoined Neale. "Red, you have a look at the horses."
"I'll slip the saddles an' bridles," replied King, "an' let 'em go. Hosses couldn't be chased out of heah."
Slingerland's cabin consisted really of two adjoining cabins with a door between, one part being larger and of later construction. Evidently he used the older building as a storeroom for his pelts. When all these had been removed the room was seen to be small, with two windows, a table, and a few other crude articles of home-made furniture. The men cleaned this room and laid down a carpet of deer hides, fur side up. A bed was made of a huge roll of buffalo skins, flattened and shaped, and covered with Indian blankets. When all this had been accomplished the trapper removed his fur cap, scratched his grizzled head, and appealed to Neale and King.
"I reckon you can fetch over some comfortable-like necessaries— fixin's fer a girl," he suggested.
Red King laughed in his cool, easy, droll way. "Shore, we'll rustle fer a lookin'-glass, an' hair-brush, an' such as girls hev to hev. Our camp is full of them things."
But Neale did not see any humor in Slingerland's perplexity or in the cowboy's facetiousness. It was the girl's serious condition that worried him, not her future comfort.
"Run out thar!" called Slingerland, sharply.
Neale, who was the nearest to the door, bolted outside, to see the girl sitting up, her hair disheveled, her manner wild in the extreme. At sight of him she gave a start, sudden and violent, and uttered a sharp cry. When Neale reached her it was to find her shaking all over. Terrible fear had never been more vividly shown, yet Neale believed she saw in him a white man, a friend. But the fear in her was still stronger than reason.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"My name's Neale—Warren Neale," he replied, sitting down beside her. He took one of the shaking hands in his. He was glad that she talked rationally.
"Where am I?"
"This is the home of a trapper. I brought you here. It was the best —in fact, the only place."
"You saved me—from—from those devils?" she queried, hoarsely, and again the cold and horrible shade veiled her eyes.
"Yes—yes—but don't think of them—they're gone," replied Neale, hastily. The look of her distressed and frightened him. He did not know what to say.
The girl fell back with a poignant cry and covered her eyes as if to shut out a hateful and appalling sight. "My—mother!" she moaned, and shuddered with agony. "They—murdered—her! ... Oh! the terrible yells! ... I saw—killed—every man—Mrs. Jones! My mother—she fell —she never spoke! Her blood was on me! ... I crawled away—I hid! ... The Indians—they tore—hacked—scalped—burned! ... I couldn't die!—I saw! ... Oh!—Oh!—Oh!" Then she fell to moaning in inarticulate fashion.
Slingerland and King came out and looked down at the girl.
"Wal, the life's strong in her," said the trapper. "I reckon I know when life is strong in any critter. She'll git over thet. All we can do now is to watch her an' keep her from doin' herself harm. Take her in an' lay her down."
For two days and nights Neale watched over her, except for the hours she slept, when he divided his vigil with King. She had periods of consciousness, in which she knew Neale, but most of the time she raved or tossed or moaned or lay like one dead. On the third day, however. Neale felt encouraged. She awoke weak and somber, but quiet and rational. Neale talked earnestly to her, in as sensible a way as he knew how, speaking briefly of the tragic fate that had been hers, bidding her force it out of her mind by taking interest in her new surroundings. She listened to him, but did not seem impressed. It was a difficult matter to get her to eat. She did not want to move. At length Neale told her that he must go back to the camp of the engineers, where he had work to do; he promised that he would return to see her soon and often. She did not speak or raise her eyes when he left her.
Outside, when Red brought up the horses, Slingerland said to Neale: "See hyar, son, I reckon you needn't worry. She'll come around all right."
"Shore she will," corroborated the cowboy. "Time'll cure her. I'm from Texas, whar sudden death is plentiful in all families."
Neale shook his head. "I'm not so sure," he said. "That girl's more sensitively and delicately organized than you fellows see. I doubt if she'll ever recover from the shock. It'll take a mighty great influence.... But let's hope for the best. Now, Slingerland, take care of her as best you can. Shut her in when you leave camp. I'll ride over as often as possible. If she gets so she will talk, then we can find out if she has any relatives, and if so I'll take her to them. If not I'll do whatever else I can for her."
"Wal, son, I like the way you're makin' yourself responsible fer thet kid," replied the trapper. "I never had no wife nor daughter. But I'm thinkin'—wouldn't it jest be hell to be a girl—tender an' young an' like Neale said—an' sudden hev all you loved butchered before your eyes?"
"It shore would," said Red, feelingly. "An' thet's what she sees all the time."
"Slingerland, do we run any chance of meeting Indians?" queried Neale.
"I reckon not. Them Sioux will git fur away from hyar after thet massacre. But you want to keep sharp eyes out, an' if you do meet any, jest ride an' shoot your way through. You've the best horses I've seen. Whar'd you git them?"
"They belong to King. He's a cowboy."
"Hosses was my job. An' we can shore ride away from any redskins," replied King.
"Wal, good luck, an' come back soon," was Slingerland's last word.
So they parted. The cowboy led the way with the steady, easy, trotting walk that saved a horse yet covered distance; in three hours they were hailed by a trooper outpost, and soon they were in camp.
Shortly after their arrival the engineers returned, tired, dusty, work-stained, and yet in unusually good spirits. They had run the line up over Sherman Pass, and now it seemed their difficulties were to lessen as the line began to descend from the summit of the divide. Neale's absence had been noticed, for his services were in demand. But all the men rejoiced in his rescue of the little girl, and were sympathetic and kind in their inquiries. It seemed to Neale that his chief looked searchingly at him, as if somehow the short absence had made a change in him. Neale himself grew conscious of a strange difference in his inner nature; he could not forget the girl, her helplessness, her pathetic plight.
"Well, it's curious," he soliloquized. "But—it's not so, either. I'm sorry for her."
And he remembered the strange change in her eyes when he had watched the shadow of horror and death and blood fade away before the natural emotions of youth and life and hope.
Next day Neale showed more than ever his value to the engineering corps, and again won a word of quiet praise from his chief. He liked the commendation of his superiors. He began to believe heart and soul in the coming greatness of the railroad. And that strenuous week drove his faithful lineman, King, to unwonted complaint.
Larry tugged at his boots and groaned as he finally pulled them off. They were full of holes, at which he gazed ruefully. "Shore I'll be done with this heah job when they're gone," he said.
"Why do you work in high-heeled boots?" inquired Neale. "You can't walk or climb in them. No wonder they're full of holes."
"Wal, I couldn't wear no boots like yours," declared Red.
"You'll have to. Another day will about finish them, and your feet, too."
Red eyed his boss with interest. "You-all cussed me to-day because I was slow," he complained.
"Larry, you always are slow, except with a horse or gun. And lately you've been—well, you don't move out of your tracks."
Neale often exaggerated out of a desire to tease his friend. Nobody else dared try and banter King.
"Wal, I didn't sign up with this heah outfit to run up hills all day," replied Red.
"I'll tell you what. I'll get Casey to be my lineman. No, I've a better idea. Casey is slow, too. I'll use one of the niggers."
Red King gave a hitch to his belt and a cold gleam chased away the lazy blue warmth from his eyes. "Go ahaid," he drawled, "an' they'll bury the nigger to-morrow night."
Neale laughed. He knew Red hated darkies—he suspected the Texan had thrown a gun on more than a few—and he knew there surely would be a funeral in camp if he changed his lineman.
"All right, Red. I don't want blood spilled," he said, cheerfully. "I'll be a martyr and put up with you.... What do you say to a day off? Let's ride over to Slingerland's."
The cowboy's red face slowly wrinkled into a smile. "Wal, I shore was wonderin' what in the hell made you rustle so lately. I reckon nothin' would suit me better. I've been wonderin', too, about our little girl."
"Red, let's wade through camp and see what we can get to take over."
"Man, you mean jest steal?" queried King, in mild surprise.
"No. We'll ask for things. But if we can't get what we want that way—why, we'll have to do the other thing," replied Neale, thoughtfully. "Slingerland did not have even a towel over there. Think of that girl! She's been used to comfort, if not luxury. I could tell.... Let's see. I've a mirror and an extra brush.... Red, come on."
Eagerly they went over their scant belongings, generously appropriating whatever might be made of possible use to an unfortunate girl in a wild and barren country. Then they fared forth into the camp. Every one in the corps contributed something. The chief studied Neale's heated face, and a smile momentarily changed his stern features—a wise smile, a little sad, and full of light.
"I suppose you'll marry her," he said.
Neale blushed like a girl. "It—that hadn't occurred to me, sir," he stammered.
Lodge laughed, but his glance was kind. "Sure you'll marry her," he said. "You saved her life. And, boy, you'll be a big man of the U. P. some day. Chief engineer or superintendent of maintenance of way or some other big job. What could be finer? Romance, boy. The little waif of the caravan—you'll send her back to Omaha to school; she'll grow into a beautiful woman! She'll have a host of admirers, but you'll be the king of the lot—sure."
Neale got out of the tent with tingling ears. He was used to the badinage of the men, and had always retaliated with a sharp and ready tongue. But this half-kind, half-humorous talk encroached upon what he felt to be the secret side of his nature—the romantic and the dreamful side—to which such fancies were unconscionably dear.
Early the next morning Neale and King rode out on the way to Slingerland's.
The sun was warm when they reached the valley through which ran the stream that led up to the cabin. Spring was in the air. The leaves of cottonwood and willow added their fresh emerald to the darker green of the pine. Bluebells showed in the grass along the trail; there grew lavender and yellow flowers unfamiliar to Neale; trout rose and splashed on the surface of the pools; and the way was melodious with the humming of bees and the singing of birds.
Slingerland saw them coming and strode out to meet them with hearty greeting.
"Is she all right?" queried Neale, abruptly.
"No, she ain't," replied Slingerland, shaking his shaggy head. "She won't eat or move or talk. She's wastin' away. She jest sits or lays with that awful look in her eyes."
"Can't you make her talk?"
"Wal, she'll say no to 'most anythin'. There was three times she asked when you was comin' back. Then she quit askin'. I reckon she's forgot you. But she's never forgot thet bloody massacre. It's there in her eyes."
Neale dismounted, and, untying the pack from his saddle, he laid it down, removed saddle and bridle; then he turned the horse loose. He did this automatically while his mind was busy.
"Where is she?" he asked.
"Over thar under the pines whar the brook spills out of the spring. Thet's the only place she'll walk to. I believe she likes to listen to the water. An' she's always afraid."
"I've fetched a pack of things for her," said Neale. "Come on, Red."
"Shore you go alone," replied the cowboy, hanging back. "Girls is not my job."
So Neale approached alone. The spot was green, fragrant, shady, bright with flowers, musical with murmuring water. Presently he spied her—a drooping, forlorn little figure. The instant he saw her he felt glad and sad at once. She started quickly at his step and turned. He remembered the eyes, but hardly the face. It had grown thinner and whiter than the one he had in mind.
"My Lord! she's going to die!" breathed Neale. "What can I do—what can I say to her?"
He walked directly but slowly up to her, aware of her staring eyes, and confused by them.
"Hello! little girl, I've brought you some things," he said, and tried to speak cheerfully.
"Oh—is—it you?" she said, brokenly.
"Yes, it's Neale. I hope you've not forgotten me."
There came a fleeting change over her, but not in her face, he thought, because not a muscle moved, and the white stayed white. It must have been in her eyes, though he could not certainly tell. He bent over to untie the pack.
"I've brought you a lot of things," he said. "Hope you'll find them useful. Here—"
She did not look at the open pack or pay any attention to him. The drooping posture had been resumed, together with the somber staring at the brook. Neale watched her in despair, and, watching, he divined that only the most infinite patience and magnetism and power could bring her out of her brooding long enough to give nature a chance. He recognized how unequal he was to the task. But the impossible or the unattainable had always roused Neale's spirit. Defeat angered him. This girl was alive; she was not hurt physically; he believed she could be made to forget that tragic night of blood and death. He set his teeth and swore he would display the tact of a woman, the patience of a saint, the skill of a physician, the love of a father—anything to hold back this girl from the grave into which she was fading. Reaching out, he touched her.
"Can you understand me?" he asked.
"Yes," she murmured. Her voice was thin, far away, an evident effort.
"I saved your life."
"I wish you had let me die." Her reply was quick with feeling, and it thrilled Neale because it was a proof that he could stimulate or aggravate her mind.
"But I DID save you. Now you owe me something."
"Why, gratitude—enough to want to live, to try to help yourself."
"No—no," she whispered, and relapsed into the somber apathy.
Neale could scarcely elicit another word from her; then by way of change he held out different articles he had brought—scarfs, a shawl, a mirror—and made her look at them. Her own face in the mirror did not interest her. He tried to appeal to a girl's vanity. She had none.
"Your hair is all tangled," he said, bringing forth comb and brush. "Here, smooth it out."
"No—no—no," she moaned.
"All right, I'll do it for you," he countered. Surprised at finding her passive when he had expected resistance, he began to comb out the tangled tresses. In his earnestness he did not perceive how singular his action might seem to an onlooker. She had a mass of hair that quickly began to smooth out and brighten under his hand. He became absorbed in his task and failed to see the approach of Larry King.
The cowboy was utterly amazed, and presently he grinned his delight. Evidently the girl was all right and no longer to be feared.
"Wal, shore thet's fine," he drawled. "Neale, I always knowed you was a lady's man." And Larry sat down beside them.
The girl's face was half hidden under the mass of hair, and her head was lowered. Neale gave Larry a warning glance, meant to convey that he was not to be funny.
"This is my cowboy friend, Larry Red King," said Neale. "He was with me when I—I found you."
"Larry—Red—King," murmured the girl. "My name is—Allie."
Again Neale had penetrated into her close-locked mind. What she said astounded him so that he dropped the brush and stared at Larry. And Larry lost his grin; he caught a glimpse of her face, and his own grew troubled.
"Allie—I shore—am glad to meet you," he said, and there was more feeling in his voice than Neale had ever before heard. Larry was not slow of comprehension. He began to talk in his drawling way. Neale heard him with a smile he tried to hide, but he liked Larry the better for his simplicity. This gun-throwing cowboy had a big heart.
Larry, however, did not linger for long. His attempts to get the girl to talk grew weaker and ended; then, after another glance at the tragic, wan face he got up and thoughtfully slouched away.
"So your name is Allie," said Neale. "Well, Allie what?"
She did not respond to one out of a hundred questions, and this query found no lodgment in her mind.
"Will you braid your hair now?" he asked.
The answer was the low and monotonous negative, but, nevertheless, her hands sought her hair and parted it, and began to braid it mechanically. This encouraged Neale more than anything else; it showed him that there were habits of mind into which he could turn her. Finally he got her to walk along the brook and also to eat and drink.
At the end of that day he was more exhausted than he would have been after a hard climb. Yet he was encouraged to think that he could get some kind of passive unconscious obedience from her.
"Reckon you'd better stay over to-morrow," suggested Slingerland. His concern for the girl could not have been greater had she been his own daughter. "Allie—thet was her name, you said. Wal, it's pretty an' easy to say."
Next day Allie showed an almost imperceptible improvement. It might have been Neale's imagination leading him to believe that there were really grounds for hope. The trapper and the cowboy could not get any response from her, but there was certain proof that he could. The conviction moved him to deep emotion.
An hour before sunset Neale decided to depart, and told Larry to get the horses. Then he went to Allie, undecided what to say, feeling that he must have tortured her this day with his ceaseless importunities. How small the chance that he might again awaken the springs of life interest. Yet the desire was strong within him to try.
"Allie." He repeated her name before she heard him. Then she looked up. The depths—the tragic lonesomeness—of her eyes—haunted Neale.
"I'm going back. I'll come again soon."
She made a quick movement—seized his arm. He remembered the close, tight grip of her hands.
"Don't go!" she implored. Black fear stared out of her eyes.
Neale was thunderstruck at the suddenness of her speech—at its intensity. Also he felt an unfamiliar kind of joy. He began to explain that he must return to work, that he would soon come to see her again; but even as he talked she faded back into that dull and somber apathy.
Neale rode away with only one conviction gained from the developments of the two days; it was that he would be restless and haunted until he could go to her again. Something big and moving— something equal to his ambition for his work on the great railroad— had risen in him and would not be denied.
Neale rode to Slingerland's cabin twice during the ensuing fortnight, but did not note any improvement in Allie's condition or demeanor. The trapper, however, assured Neale that she was gradually gaining a little and taking some slight interest in things; he said that if Neale could only spend enough time there the girl might recover. This made Neale thoughtful.
General Lodge and his staff had decided to station several engineers in camp along the line of the railroad for the purpose of studying the drift of snow. It was important that all information possible should be obtained during the next few winters. There would be severe hardships attached to this work, but Neale volunteered to serve, and the chief complimented him warmly. He was to study the action of the snowdrift along Sherman Pass.
Upon his next visit to Slingerland Neale had the project soberly in mind and meant to broach it upon the first opportunity.
This morning, when Neale and King rode up to the cabin, Allie did not appear as upon the last occasion of their arrival. Neale missed her.
Slingerland came out with his usual welcome.
"Where's Allie?" asked Neale,
"Wal, she went in jest now. She saw you comin' an' then run in to hide, I reckon. Girls is queer critters."
"She watched for me—for us—and then ran?" queried Neale, curiously.
"Wal, she ain't done nothin' but watch fer you since you went away last. An', son, thet's a new wrinkle fer Allie, An' run? Wal, like a skeered deer."
"Wonder what that means?" pondered Neale. Whatever it meant, it sent a little tingle of pleasure along his pulses. "Red, I want to have a serious talk with Slingerland," he announced, thoughtfully.
"Shore; go ahaid an' talk," drawled the Southerner, as he slipped his saddle and turned his horse loose with a slap on the flank. "I reckon I'll take a gun an' stroll off fer a while."
Neale led the trapper aside to a shady spot under the pines and there unburdened himself of his plan for the winter.
"Son, you'll freeze to death!" ejaculated the trapper.
"I must build a cabin, of course, and prepare for severe weather," replied Neale.
Slingerland shook his shaggy head. "I reckon you ain't knowin' these winters hyar as I know them. But thet long ridge you call Sherman Pass—it ain't so fur we couldn't get thar on snow-shoes except in the wust weather. I reckon you can stay with me hyar."
"Good!" exclaimed Neale. "And now about Allie."
"Wal, what about her?"
"Shall I leave her here or send her back to Omaha with the first caravan, or let her go to Fort Fetterman with the troops?"
"Son, she's your charge, but I say leave her hyar, 'specially now you can be with us. She'd die or go crazy if you sent her. Why, she won't even say if she's got a livin' relation. I reckon she hain't. She'd be better hyar. I've come to be fond of Allie. She's strange. She's like a spirit. But she's more human lately."
"I'm glad you say that, Slingerland," replied Neale. "What to do about her had worried me. I'll decide right now. I'll leave her with you, and I hope to Heaven I'm doing best by her."
"Wal, she ain't strong enough to travel fur. We didn't think of thet."
"That settles it, then," said Neale, in relief. "Time enough to decide when she is well again.... Tell me about her."
"Son, thar's nuthin' to tell. She's done jest the same, except fer thet takin' to watchin' fer you. Reckon thet means a good deal."
"Wal, I don't figger girls as well as I do other critters," answered Slingerland, reflectively. "But I'd say Allie shows interest in you."
"Slingerland! You don't mean she—she cares for me?" demanded Neale.
"I don't know. Mebbe not. Mebbe she's beyond carin'. But I believe you an' thet red memory of bloody death air all she ever thinks of. An' mostly of it."
"Then it'll be a fight between me and that memory?"
"So I take it, son. But recollect I ain't no mind-doctor. I jest feel you could make her fergit thet hell if you tried hard enough."
"I'll try—hard as I can," replied Neale, resolutely, yet with a certain softness. "I'm sorry for her. I saved her. Why shouldn't I do everything possible?"