Chapter 11
 

After Neale and Larry left, Slingerland saw four seasons swing round, in which no visitors disturbed the loneliness of his valley.

All this while he did not leave Allie Lee alone, or at least out of hearing. When he went to tend his traps or to hunt, to chop wood or to watch the trail, Allie always accompanied him. She grew strong and supple; she could walk far and carry a rifle or a pack; she was keen of eye and ear, and she loved the wilds; she not only was of help to him, but she made the time pass swiftly.

When a year passed after the departure of Neale and Larry King it seemed to Slingerland that they would never return. There was peril on the trails these days. He grew more and more convinced of some fatality, but he did not confide his fears to Allie. She was happy and full of trust; every day, almost every hour, she looked for Neale. The long wait did not drag her down; she was as fresh and hopeful as ever and the rich bloom mantled her cheek. Slingerland had not the heart to cast a doubt into her happiness. He let her live her dreams.

There came a day that spring when it was imperative for him to visit a distant valley, where he had left traps he now needed, and as the distance was long and time short he decided to go alone. Allie laughed at the idea of being unsafe at the cabin.

"I can take care of myself," she said. "I'm not afraid." Slingerland scarcely doubted her. She had nerve, courage; she knew how to use a gun; and underneath her softness and tenderness was a spirit that would not flinch at anything. Still he did not feel satisfied with the idea of leaving her alone, and it was with a wrench that he did it now.

Moreover, he was longer at the journey than he had anticipated. The moment he turned his face homeward, a desire to hurry, an anxiety, a dread fastened upon him. A presentiment of evil gathered. But, encumbered as he was with heavy traps, he could not travel swiftly. It was late afternoon when he topped the last ridge between him and home.

What Slingerland saw caused him to drop his traps and gaze aghast. A heavy column of smoke rose above the valley. His first thought was of Sioux. But he doubted if the Indians would betray his friendship. The cabin had caught on fire by accident or else a band of wandering desperadoes had happened along to ruin him. He ran down the slope, stole down round to the group of pines, and under cover, cautiously, approached the spot where his cabin had stood.

It was a heap of smoking logs and probably had burned for hours. There was no sign of Allie or of any one. Then he ran into the glade. Almost at once he saw boot-tracks and hoof-tracks, while pelts and hides and furs lay scattered around, as if they had been discarded for choicer ones.

"Robbers!" muttered Slingerland. "An' they've got the lass!"

He shook under the roughest blow he had ever been dealt; his conscience flayed him; his distress over Allie's fate was so keen and unfamiliar that, used as he was to prompt decision and action, he remained stock-still, staring at the ruins of his home.

Presently he roused himself. He had no hopes. He knew the nature of men who had done this deed. But it was possible that he might overtake them. In the dust he found four sizes of boot-tracks and he took the trail down the valley.

Then he became aware that a storm was imminent and that the air had become cold and raw. Rain began to fall, and darkness came quickly. Slingerland sought the shelter of a near-by ledge, and there, hungry, cold, wet, and unhappy, he waited for sleep that would not come.

It rained hard all night and by morning the brook had become a yellow flood and the trail was under water. Toward noon the rain turned to a drizzly snow, and finally ceased. Slingerland passed on down the valley, searching for tracks. The ground everywhere had been washed clean and smooth. When he reached the old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail it looked as though a horse had not passed there in months. He spent another wretched night, and next day awoke to the necessities of life. Except for his rifle, and his horses, and a few traps back up in the hills, he had nothing to show for years of hard and successful work. But that did not matter. He had begun with as little and he could begin again. He killed meat, satisfied his hunger, and cooked more that he might carry with him. Then he spent two more days in that locality, until he had crossed every outlet from his valley. Not striking a track, he saw nothing but defeat.

That moment was bitter. "If Neale'd happen along hyar now he'd kill me--an' sarve me right," muttered the trapper.

But he believed that Neale, too, had gone the way of so many who had braved these wilds. Slingerland saw in the fate of Neale and Allie the result of civilization marching westward. If before he had disliked the idea of the railroad entering his wild domain, he hated it now. Before that survey the Indians had been peaceful; no dangerous men rode the trails. What right had the Government to steal land from the Indians, to break treaties, to run a steam track across the plains and mountains? Slingerland foresaw the bloodiest period ever known in the West, before that work should be completed. It had struck him deep--this white-man movement across the Wyoming hills, and it was not the loss of all he had worked for that he minded. For years his life had been lonely, and then suddenly it had been full. Never again would it be either.

Slingerland turned his back to the trail made by the advancing march of the empire-builders, and sought the seclusion of the more inaccessible hills.

"Some day I'll work out with a load of pelts," he said, "an' then mebbe I'll hyar what become of Neale--an' her."

He found, as one of his kind knew how to find, the valleys where no white man had trod--where the game abounded and was tame--where if the red man came he was friendly--where the silent days and lonely nights slowly made more bearable his memory of Allie Lee.