Chapter 15
 

The building of the U. P. R. as it advanced westward caused many camps and towns to spring up and flourish, like mushrooms, in a single night; and trains were run as far as the rails were laid.

Therefore strange towns and communities were born, like to nothing that the world had ever seen before.

Warren Neale could not get away from the fascination of the work and life, even though he had lost all his ambition and was now nothing more than an ordinary engineer, insignificant and idle. He began to drink and gamble in North Platte, more in a bitter defiance to fate than from any real desire; then with Larry King he drifted out to Kearney.

At Kearney, Larry got into trouble--characteristic trouble. In a quarrel with a construction boss named Smith, Larry accused Smith of being the crooked tool of the crooked commissioners who had forced Neale to quit his job. Smith grew hot and profane. The cowboy promptly slapped his face. Then Smith, like the fool he was, went after his gun. He never got it out.

It distressed Neale greatly that Larry had shot up a man--and a railroad man at that. No matter what Larry said, Neale knew the shooting was on his account. This deed made the cowboy a marked man. It changed him, also, toward Neale, inasmuch as that he saw his wildness, was making small Neale's chances of returning to work. Larry never ceased importuning Neale to go back to his job. After shooting Smith the cowboy made one more eloquent appeal to Neale and then left for Cheyenne. Neale followed him.

Cheyenne was just sobering up after its brief and tempestuous reign as headquarters town, and though depleted and thin, it was now making a bid for permanency. But the sting and wildness of life had departed with the construction operations, and now Benton had become the hub of the railway universe.

Neale boarded a train for Benton and watched with bitterness the familiar landmarks he had learned to know so well while surveying the line. He was no longer connected with the great project--no more a necessary part of the great movement.

Beyond Medicine Bow the grass and the green failed and the immense train of freight-cars and passenger-coaches, loaded to capacity, clattered on into arid country. Gray and red, the drab and fiery colors of the desert lent the ridges character--forbidding and barren.

From a car window Neale got his first glimpse of the wonderful terminus city, and for once his old thrills returned. He recalled the distance--seven hundred--no, six hundred and ninety-eight miles from Omaha. So far westward was Benton.

It lay in the heart of barrenness, alkali, and desolation, on the face of the windy desert, alive with dust-devils, sweeping along, yellow and funnel-shaped--a huge blocked-out town, and set where no town could ever live. Benton was prey for sun, wind, dust, drought, and the wind was terribly and insupportably cold. No sage, no cedars, no grass, not even a cactus-bush, nothing green or living to relieve the eye, which swept across the gray and the white, through the dust, to the distant bare and desolate hills of drab.

The hell that was reported to abide at Benton was in harmony with its setting.

The immense train clattered and jolted to a stop. A roar of wind, a cloud of powdery dust, a discordant and unceasing din of voices, came through the open windows of the car. The heterogeneous mass of humanity with which Neale had traveled jostled out, struggling with packs and bags.

Neale, carrying his bag, stepped off into half a foot of dust. He saw a disintegrated crowd of travelers that had just arrived, and of travelers ready to depart--soldiers, Indians, Mexicans, Negroes, loafers, merchants, tradesmen, laborers, an ever-changing and ever- remarkable spectacle of humanity. He saw stage-coaches with hawkers bawling for passengers bound to Salt Lake, Ogden, Montana, Idaho; he saw a wide white street--white with dust where it was not thronged with moving men and women, and lined by tents and canvas houses and clapboard structures, together with the strangest conglomeration of painted and printed signs that ever advertised anything in the world.

A woman, well clad, young, not uncomely, but with hungry eyes like those of a hawk, accosted Neale. He drew away. In the din he had not heard what she said. A boy likewise spoke to him; a greaser tried to take his luggage; a man jostling him felt of his pocket; and as Neale walked on he was leered at, importuned, jolted, accosted, and all but mobbed.

So this was Benton.

A pistol-shot pierced the din. Some one shouted. A wave of the crowd indicated commotion somewhere; and then the action and noise went on precisely as before. Neale crossed five intersecting streets; evidently the wide street he was on must be the main one.

In that walk of five blocks he saw thousands of persons, but they were not the soldiers who protected the line, nor the laborers who made the road. These were the travelers, the business people, the stragglers, the nondescripts, the parasites, the criminals, the desperadoes, and the idlers--all who must by hook or crook live off the builders.

Neale was conscious of a sudden exhilaration. The spirit was still in him. After all, his defeated ambition counted for nothing in the great sum of this work. How many had failed! He thought of the nameless graves already dotting the slopes along the line and already forgotten. It would be something to live through the heyday of Benton,

Under a sign, "Hotel," he entered a door in a clapboard house. The place was as crude as an unfinished barn. Paying in advance for lodgings, he went to the room shown him--a stall with a door and a bar, a cot and a bench, a bowl and a pitcher. Through cracks he could see out over an uneven stretch of tents and houses. Toward the edge of town stood a long string of small tents and several huge ones, which might have been the soldiers' quarters.

Neale went out in search of a meal and entered the first restaurant. It was merely a canvas house stretched over poles, with compartments at the back. High wooden benches served as tables, low benches as seats. The floor was sand. At one table sat a Mexican, an Irishman, and a Negro. The Irishman was drunk. The Negro came to wait on Neale, and, receiving an order, went to the kitchen. The Irishman sidled over to Neale.

"Say, did yez hear about Casey?" he inquired, in very friendly fashion.

"No, I didn't," replied Neale. He remembered Casey, the flagman, but probably there were many Caseys in that camp.

"There wus a foight, out on the line, yisteddy," went on the fellow, "an' the dom' redskins chased the gang to the troop-train. Phwat do you think? A bullet knocked Casey's pipe out of his mouth, as he wus runnin', an' b'gorra, Casey sthopped fer it an' wus all shot up."

"Is he dead?" inquired Neale.

"Not yit. No bullets can't kill Casey."

"Was his pipe a short, black one?"

"It wus thot."

"And did Casey have it everlastingly in his mouth?"

"He shlept in it."

Neale knew that particular Casey, and he examined this loquacious Irishman more closely. He recognized him as Pat Shane, one of the trio he had known during the survey in the hills two years ago. The recognition was like a stab to Neale. Memory of the Wyoming hills-- of the lost Allie Lee--cut him to the quick. Shane had aged greatly. There were scars on his face that Neale had not seen before.

"Mister, don't I know yez?" leered Shane, studying Neale with bleary eyes.

Neale did not care to be remembered. The waiter brought his dinner, which turned out to be a poor one at a high price. After eating, Neale went out and began to saunter along the walk. The sun had set and the wind had gone down. There was no flying dust. The street was again crowded with men, but nothing like it had been after the arrival of the train. No one paid much attention to Neale. On that walk he counted nineteen saloons, and probably some of the larger places were of like nature, but not so wide open to the casual glance.

Neale strolled through the town from end to end, and across the railroad outside the limits, to a high bank, where he sat down. The desert was beautiful away to the west, with its dull, mottled hues backed by gold and purple, with its sweep and heave and notched horizon. Near at hand it seemed drab and bare. He watched a long train of flat and box cars come in, and saw that every car swarmed with soldiers and laborers. The train discharged its load of thousands, and steamed back for more.

Twilight fell. All hours were difficult for Neale, but twilight was the most unendurable, for it had been the hour Allie Lee loved best, and during which she and Neale had walked hand in hand along the brook, back there in the lovely and beautiful valley in the hills. Neale could not sit still long; he could not rest, nor sleep well, nor work, nor indeed be of any use to himself or to any one, and all because he was haunted and driven by the memory of Allie Lee. And at such quiet hours as this, in the midst of the turmoil he had sought for weeks, a sadness filled his soul, and an eternal remorse. The love that had changed him and the life that had failed him seemed utterly misrelated.

To and fro he paced on the bare ridge while twilight shadowed. A star twinkled in the west, a night wind began to seep the sand. The desert, vast, hidden, mysterious, yet so free and untrammeled, darkened.

Lights began to flash up along the streets of Benton, and presently Neale became aware of a low and mounting hum, like a first stir of angry bees.

The loud and challenging strains of a band drew Neale toward the center of the main street, where men were pouring into a big tent.

He halted outside and watched. This strident, businesslike, quick- step music and the sight of the men and women attracted thereby made Neale realize that Benton had arisen in a day and would die out in a night; its life would be swift, vile, and deadly.

When the band ceased a sudden roar came from inside the big tent, a commingling of the rough voices of men and the humming of wheels, the clinking of glasses and gold, the rattling of dice, the hoarse call of a dealer, the shuffling of feet--a roar pierced now and then by the shrill, vacant, soundless laugh of a woman.

It was that last sound which almost turned Neale away from the door. He shunned women. But this place fascinated him. He went in under the flaming lamps.

The place was crowded--a huge tent stretched over a framework of wood, and it was full of people, din, smoke, movement. The floor was good planking covered with sand. Walking was possible only round the narrow aisles between groups at tables.

Neale's sauntering brought him to the bar. It had to him a familiar look, and afterward he learned that it had been brought complete from St. Louis, where he had seen it in a saloon. It seemed a huge, glittering, magnificent monstrosity in that coarse, bare setting. Wide mirrors, glistening bottles, paintings of nude women, row after row of polished glasses, a brawny, villainous barkeeper, with three attendants, all working fast, a line of rough, hoarse men five deep before the counter--all these things constituted a scene that had the aspects of a city and yet was redolent with an atmosphere no city ever knew. The drinkers were not all rough men. There were elegant black-hatted, frock-coated men of leisure in that line--not directors and commissioners and traveling guests of the U. P. R., but gentlemen of chance. Gamblers!

The band now began a different strain of dance music. Neale slowly worked his way around. At the end of the big tent a wide door opened into another big room--a dance-hall, full of dancers.

Neale had seen nothing like this in the other construction camps.

A ball was in progress. Just now it was merry, excited, lively. Neale got inside and behind the row of crowded benches; he stood up against a post to watch. Probably two-hundred people were in the hall, most of them sitting. How singular, it struck Neale, to see good-looking, bare-armed and bare-necked young women dancing there, and dancing well! There were other women--painted, hollow-eyed--sad wrecks of womanhood. The male dancers were young men, as years counted, mostly unfamiliar with the rhythmic motion of feet to a tune, and they bore the rough stamp of soldiers and laborers. But there were others, as there had been before the bar, who wore their clothes differently, who had a different poise and swing--young men, like Neale, whose earlier years had known some of the graces of society. They did not belong there; the young women did not belong there. The place seemed unreal. This was a merry scene, apparently with little sign, at that moment, of what it actually meant. Neale sensed its undercurrent.

He left the dance-hall. Of the gambling games, he liked best both to watch and to play poker. It had interest for him. The winning or losing of money was not of great moment. Poker was not all chance or luck, such as the roll of a ball, the turn of a card, or the facing up of dice. Presently he became one of an interested group round a table watching four men play poker.

One, a gambler in black, immaculate in contrast to his companions, had a white, hard, expressionless face, with eyes of steel and thin lips. His hands were wonderful. Probably they never saw the sunlight, certainly no labor. They were as swift as light, too swift for the glance of an eye. But when he dealt the cards he was slow, careful, deliberate. The stakes were gold, and the largest heap lay in front of him. One of his opponents was a giant of a fellow, young, with hulking shoulders, heated face, and broken nose--a desperado if Neale ever saw one. The other two players called this strapping brute Fresno. The little man with a sallow face like a wolf was evidently too intent on the game to look up. He appeared to be losing. Beside his small pile of gold stood an empty tumbler. The other and last player was a huge, bull-necked man whom Neale had seen before. It was difficult to place him, but after studying the red cheeks and heavy, drooping mustache, and hearing the loud voice, he recognized him as a boss of graders--a head boss. Presently the sallow-faced player called him Mull, and then Neale remembered him well.

Several of the watchers round this table lounged away, leaving a better vantage-place for Neale.

"May I sit in the game?" he inquired, during a deal.

"Certainly," replied the gambler.

"Naw. We gotta nough," said the sallow man, and he glanced from Neale to the gambler as if he suspected them. Gamblers often worked in pairs.

"I just came to Benton," added Neale, reading the man's thought. "I never saw the gentleman in black before."

"What th' hell!" rumbled Mull, grabbing up his cards.

Fresno leered.

The gambler leaned back and his swift white hands flashed. Neale believed he had a derringer up each sleeve. A wrong word now would precipitate a fight.

"Excuse me," said Neale, hastily. "I don't want to make trouble. I just said I never saw this gentleman before."

"Nor I him," returned the gambler, courteously. "My name is Place Hough and my word is not doubted."

Neale had heard of this famous Mississippi River gambler. So, evidently, had the other three players. The game proceeded, and when it came to Hough's deal Mull bet hard and lost all. His big, hairy hands shook. He looked at Fresno and the other fellow, but not at Hough.

"I'm broke," he said, gruffly, and got up from the bench.

He strode past Hough, and behind him; then as if suddenly, instinctively, answering to fury, he whipped out a gun.

Neale, just as instinctively, grasped the rising hand.

"Hold on, there!" he called. "Would you shoot a man in the back?"

And Neale, whose grip was powerful, caused the other to drop the gun. Neale kicked it aside. Fresno got up.

"Whar's your head, Mull?" he growled. "Git out of this!"

Attention had been attracted to Mull. Some one picked up the gun. The sallow-faced man rose, holding out his hand for it. Hough did not even turn around.

"I was goin' to hold him up," said Mull. He glared fiercely at Neale, wrenched his hand free, and with his comrades disappeared in the crowd.

The gambler rose and shook down his sleeves. The action convinced Neale that he had held a little gun in each hand. "I saw him draw," he said. "You saved his life! ... Nevertheless, I appreciate your action. My name is Place Hough. Will you drink with me?"

"Sure.... My name is Neale."

They approached the bar and drank together.

"A railroad man, I take it?" asked Hough.

"I was. I'm foot-loose now."

A fleeting smile crossed the gambler's face. "Benton is bad enough, without you being foot-loose."

"All these camps are tough," replied Neale.

"I was in North Platte, Kearney, Cheyenne, and Medicine Bow during their rise," said Hough. "They were tough. But they were not Benton. And the next camp west, which will be the last--it will be Roaring Hell. What will be its name?"

"Why is Benton worse?" inquired Neale.

"The big work is well under way now, with a tremendous push from behind. There are three men for every man's work. That lays off two men each day. Drunk or dead. The place is wild--far off. There's gold--hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold dumped off the trains. Benton has had one payday. That day was the sight of my life! ... Then... there are women."

"I saw a few in the dance-hall," replied Neale.

"Then you haven't looked in at Stanton's?"

"Who's he?"

"Stanton is not a man," replied Hough.

Neale glanced inquiringly over his glass.

"Beauty Stanton, they call her," went on Hough. "I saw her in New Orleans years ago when she was a very young woman--notorious then. She had the beauty and she led the life... did Beauty Stanton."

Neale made no comment, and Hough, turning to pay for the drinks, was accosted by several men. They wanted to play poker.

"Gentlemen, I hate to take your money," he said. "But I never refuse to sit in a game. Neale, will you join us?"

They found a table just vacated. Neale took two of the three strangers to be prosperous merchants or ranchers from the Missouri country. The third was a gambler by profession. Neale found himself in unusually sharp company. He did not have a great deal of money. So in order to keep clear-headed he did not drink. And he began to win, not by reason of excellent judgment, but because he was lucky. He had good cards all the time, and part of the time very strong ones. It struck him presently that these remarkable hands came during Hough's deal, and he wondered if the gambler was deliberately manipulating the cards to his advantage. At any rate, he won hundreds of dollars.

"Mr. Neale, do you always hold such cards?" asked one of the men.

"Why, sure," replied Neale. He could not help being excited and elated.

"Well, he can't be beat," said the other.

"Lucky at cards, unlucky in love," remarked the third of the trio. "I pass."

Hough was looking straight at Neale when this last remark was made. And Neale suddenly lost his smile, his flush. The gambler dropped his glance.

"Play the game and don't get personal in your remarks," he said. "This is poker."

Neale continued to win, but his excitement did not return, nor his elation. A random word from a strange man had power to sting him. Unlucky in love! Alas! What was luck, gold--anything to him any more!

By the time the game was ended Neale felt a friendly interest in Hough that was difficult to define or explain; and the conviction gained upon him that the gambler had deliberately dealt him those remarkable cards.

"Let's see," said Hough, consulting his watch. "Twelve o'clock! Stanton's will be humming. We'll go in."

Neale did not want to show his reluctance, yet he did hot know just what to say. After all, he was drifting. So he went.

It seemed that all the visitors who had been in the gambling-hall had gravitated to this other dance-hall. The entrance appeared to be through a hotel. At least Neale saw the hotel sign. The building was not made of canvas, but painted wood in sections, like the scenes of a stage. Men were coming and going; the hum of music and gaiety came from the rear; there were rugs, pictures, chairs; this place, whatever its nature, made pretensions. Neale did not see any bar.

They entered a big room full of people, apparently doing nothing. From the opposite side, where the dance-hall opened, came a hum that seemed at once music and discordance, gaiety and wildness, with a strange, carrying undertone raw and violent.

Hough led Neale across the room to where he could look into the dance-hall.

Neale saw a mad, colorful flash and whirl of dancers.

Hough whispered in Neale's ear: "Stanton throws the drunks out of here."

No, it appeared the dancers were not drunk with liquor. But there was evidence of other drunkenness than that of the bottle. The floor was crowded. Looking at the mass, Neale could only see whirling, heated faces, white, clinging arms, forms swaying round and round, a wild rhythm without grace, a dance in which music played no real part, where men and women were lost. Neale had never seen a sight like that. He was stunned. There were no souls here. Only beasts of men, and women for whom there was no name. If death stalked in that camp, as Hough had intimated, and hell was there, then the two could not meet too soon.

If the mass and the spirit and the sense of the scene dismayed Neale, the living beings, the creatures, the women--for the men were beyond him--confounded him with pity, consternation, and stinging regret. He had loved two women--his mother and Allie--so well that he ought to love all women because they were of the same sex. Yet how impossible! Had these creatures any sex? Yet they were--at least many were--young, gay, pretty, wild, full of life. They had swift suppleness, smiles, flashing eyes, a look at once intent and yet vacant. But few onlookers would have noticed that. The eyes for which the dance was meant saw the mad whirl, the bare flesh, the brazen glances, the close embrace.

The music ended, the dancers stopped, the shuffling ceased. There were no seats unoccupied, so the dancers walked around or formed in groups.

"Well, I see Ruby has spotted you," observed Hough.

Neale did not gather exactly what the gambler meant, yet he associated the remark with a girl dressed in red who had paused at the door with others and looked directly at Neale. At that moment some one engaged Hough's attention.

The girl would have been striking in any company. Neale thought her neither beautiful nor pretty, but he kept on looking. Her arms were bare, her dress cut very low. Her face offered vivid contrast to the carmine on her lips. It was a round, soft face, with narrow eyes, dark, seductive, bold. She tilted her head to one side and suddenly smiled at Neale. It startled him. It was a smile with the shock of a bullet. It held Neale, so that when she crossed to him he could not move. He felt rather than saw Hough return to his side. The girl took hold of the lapels of Neale's coat. She looked up. Her eyes were dark, with what seemed red shadows deep in them. She had white teeth. The carmined lips curled in a smile--a smile, impossible to believe, of youth and sweetness, that disclosed a dimple in her cheek. She was pretty. She was holding him, pulling him a little toward her.

"I like you!" she exclaimed.

The suddenness of the incident, the impossibility of what was happening, made Neale dumb. He felt her, saw her as he were in a dream. Her face possessed a peculiar fascination. The sleepy, seductive eyes; the provoking half-smile, teasing, alluring; the red lips, full and young through the carmine paint; all of her seemed to breathe a different kind of a power than he had ever before experienced--unspiritual, elemental, strong as some heady wine. She represented youth, health, beauty, terribly linked with evil wisdom, and a corrupt and irresistible power, possessing a base and mysterious affinity for man.

The breath and the charm and the pestilence of her passed over Neale like fire.

"Sweetheart, will you dance with me?" she asked, with her head tilted to one side and her half-open veiled eyes on his.

"No," replied Neale. He put her from him, gently but coldly.

She showed slow surprise. "Why not? Can't you dance? You don't look like a gawk."

"Yes, I can dance," replied Neale.

"Then will you dance with me?" she retorted, and red spots showed through the white on her cheeks.

"I told you no," replied Neale.

His reply transported her into a sudden fury. She swung her hand viciously. Hough caught it, saving Neale from a sounding slap in the face.

"Ruby, don't lose your temper," remonstrated the gambler.

"He insulted me!" she cried, passionately.

"He did not. Ruby, you're spoiled--"

"Spoiled--hell! ... Didn't he look at me, flirt with me? That's why I asked him to dance. Then he insulted me. I'll make Cordy shoot him up for it."

"No, you won't," replied Hough, and he pulled her toward his companion, a tall woman with golden hair. "Stanton, shut her up."

The woman addressed spoke a few words in Ruby's ear. Then the girl flounced away. But she spoke with withering scorn to Neale.

"What in hell did you come in here for, you big handsome stiff?"

With that she was lost amid her mirthful companions.

Hough turned to Neale. "The girl's a favorite. You ruffled her vanity ... you see. That's Benton. If you had happened to be alone you would have had gunplay. Be careful after this."

"But I didn't flirt with her," protested Neale. "I only looked at her--curiously, of course. And I said I wouldn't dance."

Hough laughed. "You're young in Benton. Neale, let me introduce to you the lady who saved you from some inconvenience .... Miss Stanton--Mr. Neale."

And that was how Neale met Beauty Stanton. It seemed she had done him a service. He thanked her. Neale's manner with women was courteous and deferential. It showed strangely here by contrast. The Stanton woman was superb, not more than thirty years old, with a face that must have been lovely once and held the haunting ghost of beauty still. Her hair was dead gold; her eyes were large and blue, with dark circles under them; and her features had a clear-cut classic regularity.

"Where's Ancliffe?" asked Hough, addressing Stanton. She pointed, and Hough left them.

"Neale, you're new here," affirmed the woman, rather curiously.

"Didn't I look like it? I can't forget what that girl said," replied Neale.

"Tell me."

"She asked me what in the hell I came here for. And she called me--"

"Oh, I heard what Ruby called you. It's a wonder it wasn't worse. She can swear like a trooper. The men are mad over Ruby. It'd be just like her to fall in love with you for snubbing her."

"I hope she doesn't," replied Neale, constrainedly.

"May I ask--what did you come here for?"

"You mean here to your dance-hall? Why, Hough brought me. I met him. We played cards and--"

"No. I mean what brought you to Benton?"

"I just drifted here .... I'm looking for a--a lost friend," said Neale.

"No work? But you're no spiker or capper or boss. I know that sort. And I can spot a gambler a mile. The whole world meets out here in Benton. But not many young men like you wander into my place."

"Like me? How so?"

"The men here are wolves on the scent for flesh; like bandits on the trail of gold.... But you--you're like my friend Ancliffe."

"Who is he?" asked Neale, politely.

"Who is he? God only knows. But he's an Englishman and a gentleman. It's a pity men like Ancliffe and you drift out here."

She spoke seriously. She had the accent and manner of breeding.

"Why, Miss Stanton?" inquired Neale. He was finding another woman here and it was interesting to him.

"Because it means wasted life. You don't work. You're not crooked. You can't do any good. And only a knife in the back or a bullet from some drunken bully's gun awaits you."

"That isn't a very hopeful outlook, I'll admit," replied Neale, thoughtfully.

At this point Hough returned with a pale, slender man whose clothes and gait were not American. He introduced him as Ancliffe. Neale felt another accession of interest. Benton might be hell, but he was meeting new types of men and women. Ancliffe was fair; he had a handsome face that held a story, arid tired blue eyes that looked out upon the world wearily and mildly, without curiosity and without hope. An Englishman of broken fortunes.

"Just arrived, eh?" he said to Neale. "Rather jolly here, don't you think?"

"A fellow's not going to stagnate in Benton," replied Neale.

"Not while he's alive," interposed Stanton.

"Miss Stanton, that idea seems to persist with you--the brevity of life," said Neale, smiling. "What are the average days for a mortal in this bloody Benton?"

"Days! You mean hours. I call the night blessed that some one is not dragged out of my place. And I don't sell drinks.... I've saved Ancliffe's life nine times I know of. Either he hasn't any sense or he wants to get killed."

"I assure you it's the former," said the Englishman.

"But, my friends, I'm serious," she returned, earnestly. "This awful place is getting on my nerves.... Mr. Neale here, he would have had to face a gun already but for me."

"Miss Stanton, I appreciate your kindness," replied Neale. "But it doesn't follow that if I had to face a gun I'd be sure to go down."

"You can throw a gun?" questioned Hough.

"I had a cowboy gun-thrower for a partner for years, out on the surveying of the road. He's the friend I mentioned."

"Boy, you're courting death!" exclaimed Stanton.

Then the music started up again. Conversation was scarcely worth while during the dancing. Neale watched as before. Twice as he gazed at the whirling couples he caught the eyes of the girl Ruby bent upon him. They were expressive of pique, resentment, curiosity. Neale did not look that way any more. Besides, his attention was drawn elsewhere. Hough yelled in his ear to watch the fun. A fight had started. A strapping fellow wearing a belt containing gun and bowie-knife had jumped upon a table just as the music stopped. He was drunk. He looked like a young workman ambitious to be a desperado.

"Ladies an' gennelmen," he bawled, "I been--requested t' sing."

Yells and hoots answered him. He glared ferociously around, trying to pick out one of his insulters. Trouble was brewing. Something was thrown at him from behind and it struck him. He wheeled, unsteady upon his feet. Then several men, bareheaded and evidently attendants of the hall, made a rush for him. The table was upset. The would-be singer went down in a heap, and he was pounced upon, handled like a sack, and thrown out. The crowd roared its glee.

"The worst of that is those fellows always come back drunk and ugly," said Stanton. "Then we all begin to run or dodge."

"Your men didn't lose time with that rowdy," remarked Neale.

"I've hired all kinds of men to keep order," she replied. "Laborers, ex-sheriffs, gunmen, bad men. The Irish are the best on the job. But they won't stick. I've got eight men here now, and they are a tough lot. I'm scared to death of them. I believe they rob my guests. But what can I do? Without some aid I couldn't run the place. It'll be the death of me."

Neale did not doubt that. A shadow surely hovered over this strange woman, but he was surprised at the seriousness with which she spoke. Evidently she tried to preserve order, to avert fights and bloodshed, so that licentiousness could go on unrestrained. Neale believed they must go hand in hand. He did not see how it would be possible for a place like this to last long. It could not. The life of the place brought out the worst in men. It created opportunities. Neale watched them pass, seeing the truth in the red eyes, the heavy lids, the open mouths, the look and gait and gesture. A wild frenzy had fastened upon their minds. He found an added curiosity in studying the faces of Ancliffe and Hough. The Englishman had run his race. Any place would suit him for the end. Neale saw this and marveled at the man's ease and grace and amiability. He reminded Neale of Larry Red King--the same cool, easy, careless air. Ancliffe would die game. Hough was not affected by this sort of debauched life any more than he would have been by any other kind. He preyed on men. He looked on with cold, gray, expressionless face. Possibly he, too, would find an end in Benton sooner or later.

These reflections, passing swiftly, made Neale think of himself. What was true for others must be true for him. The presence of any of these persons--of Hough and Ancliffe, of himself, in Beauty Stanton's gaudy resort was sad proof of a disordered life.

Some one touched him, interrupted his thought.

"You've had trouble?", asked Stanton, who had turned from the others.

"Yes," he said.

"Well, we've all had that.... You seem young to me."

Hough turned to speak to Stanton. "Ruby's going to make trouble."

"No!" exclaimed the woman, with eyes lighting.

Neale then saw that the girl Ruby, with a short, bold-looking fellow who packed a gun, and several companions of both sexes, had come in from the dance-hall and had taken up a position near him. Stanton went over to them. She drew Ruby aside and talked to her. The girl showed none of the passion that had marked her manner a little while before. Presently Stanton returned.

"Ruby's got over her temper," she said, with evident relief, to Neale. "She asked me to say that she apologized. It's just what I told you. She'll fall madly in love with you for what you did.... She's of good family, Neale. She has a sister she talks much of, and a home she could go back to if she wasn't ashamed."

"That so?" replied Neale, thoughtfully. "Let me talk to her."

At a slight sign from Stanton, Ruby joined the group.

"Ruby, you've already introduced yourself to this gentleman, but not so nicely as you might have done," said Beauty.

"I'm sorry," replied Ruby. A certain wistfulness showed in her low tones.

"Maybe I was rude," said Neale. "I didn't intend to be. I couldn't dance with any one here--or anywhere...." Then he spoke to her in a lower tone. "But I'll tell you what I will do. I won a thousand dollars to-night. I'll give you half of it if you'll go home."

The girl shrank as if she had received a stab. Then she stiffened.

"Why don't you go home?" she retorted. "We're all going to hell out here, and the gamest will get there soonest."

She glared at Neale an instant, white-faced and hard, and then, rejoining her companions, she led them away.

Beauty Stanton seemed to have received something of the check that had changed the girl Ruby.

"Gentlemen, you are my only friends in Benton. But these are business hours."

Presently she leaned toward Neale and whispered to him: "Boy, you're courting death. Some one--something has hurt you. But you're young.... go home!"

Then she bade him good night and left the group.

He looked on in silence after that. And presently, when Ancliffe departed, he was glad to follow Hough into the street. There the same confusion held. A loud throng hurried by, as if bent on cramming into a few hours the life that would not last long.

Neale was interested to inquire more about Ancliffe. And the gambler replied that the Englishman had come from no one knew where; that he did not go to extremes in drinking or betting; that evidently he had become attached to Beauty Stanton; that surely he must be a ruined man of class who had left all behind him, and had become like so many out there--a leaf in the storm.

"Stanton took to you," went on Hough. "I saw that.... And poor Ruby! I'll tell you, Neale, I'm sorry for some of these women."

"Who wouldn't be?"

"Women of this class are strange to you, Neale. But I've mixed with them for years. Of course Benton sets a pace no man ever saw before. Still, even the hardest and vilest of these scullions sometimes shows an amazing streak of good. And women like Ruby and Beauty Stanton, whose early surroundings must have been refined--they are beyond understanding. They will cut your heart out for a slight, and sacrifice their lives for sake of a courteous word. It was your manner that cut Ruby and won Beauty Stanton. They meet with neither coldness nor courtesy out here. It must be bitter as gall for a woman like Stanton to be treated as you treated her--with respect. Yet see how it got her."

"I didn't see anything in particular," replied Neale.

"You were too excited and disgusted with the whole scene," said Hough as they reached the roaring lights of the gambling-hell. "Will you go in and play again? There are always open games."

"No, I guess not--unless you think--"

"Boy, I think nothing except that I liked your company and that I owed you a service. Good night."

Neale walked to his lodgings tired and thoughtful and moody. Behind him the roar lulled and swelled. It was three o'clock in the morning. He wondered when these night-hawks slept. He wondered where Larry was. As for himself, he found slumber not easily gained. Dawn was lighting the east when he at last fell asleep.