Chapter 17
 

Neale and Larry and Slingerland planned to go into the hills late in the fall, visit Slingerland's old camp, and then try to locate the gold buried by Horn. For the present Larry meant to return to Benton, and Neale, though vacillating as to his own movements, decided to keep an eye on the cowboy.

The trapper's last words to Neale were interesting. "Son," he said, "there's a feller hyar in Medicine Bow who says as how he thought your pard Larry was a bad cowpuncher from the Pan Handle of Texas."

"Bad?" queried Neale.

"Wal, he meant a gun-throwin' bad man, I take it."

"Don't let Reddy overhear you say it," replied Neale, "and advise your informant to be careful. I've always had a hunch that Reddy was really somebody."

"Benton 'll work on the cowboy," continued Slingerland, earnestly. "An', son, I ain't so all-fired sure of you."

"I'll take what comes," returned Neale, shortly. "Good-bye, old friend. And if you can use us for buffalo-hunting without the 'dom' Sooz,' as Casey says; why, we'll come."

After Slingerland departed Neale carried with him a memory of the trapper's reluctant and wistful good-bye. It made Neale think--where were he and Larry going? Friendships in this wild West were stronger ties than he had known elsewhere.

The train arrived at Benton after dark. And the darkness seemed a windy gulf out of which roared yellow lights and excited men. The tents, with the dim lights through the canvas, gleamed pale and obscure, like so much of the life they hid. The throngs hurried, the dust blew, the band played, the barkers clamored for their trade.

Neale found the more pretentious hotels overcrowded, and he was compelled to go to his former lodgings, where he and Larry were accommodated.

"Now, we're here, what 'll we do?" queried Neale, more to himself. He felt as if driven. And the mood he hated and feared was impinging upon his mind.

"Shore we'll eat," replied Larry.

"Then what?"

"Wal, I reckon we'll see what's goin' on in this heah Benton."

As a matter of fact, Neale reflected, there was nothing to do that he wanted to do.

"You-all air gettin' the blues," said Larry, with solicitude.

"Red, I'm never free of them."

Larry put his hands on Neale's shoulder. Demonstration of this kind was rare in the cowboy.

"Pard, are we goin' to see this heah Benton, an' then brace, an' go back to work?"

"No. I can't hold a job," replied Neale, bitterly.

"You're showin' a yellow streak? You're done, as you told Slingerland? Nothin' ain't no good? ... Life's over, fer all thet's sweet an' right? Is thet your stand?"

"Yes, it must be, Reddy," said Neale, with scorn of himself. "But you--it needn't apply to you."

"I reckon I'm sorry," rejoined Larry, ignoring Neale's last words. "I always hoped you'd get over Allie's loss.... You had so much to live fer."

"Reddy, I wish the bullet that hit Shane to-day had hit me instead.... You needn't look like that. I mean it. To-day when the Sioux chased us my hair went stiff and my heart was in my mouth. I ran for my life as if I loved it. But that was my miserable cowardice.... I'm sick of the game."

"Are you in daid earnest?" asked Larry, huskily.

Neale nodded gloomily. He did not even regret the effect of his speech upon the cowboy. He divined that somehow the moment was as critical and fateful for Larry, but he did not care. The black spell was enfolding him. All seemed hard, cold, monstrous within his breast. He could not love anything. He was lost. He realized the magnificent loyalty of this simple Texan, who was his true friend.

"Reddy, for God's sake don't make me ashamed to look you in the eyes," appealed Neale. "I want to go on. You know!"

"Wal, I reckon there ain't anythin' to hold me now," drawled Larry. He had changed as he spoke. He had aged. The dry humor of the cowboy, the amiable ease, were wanting.

"Oh, forgive my utter selfishness!" burst out Neale. "I'm not the man I was. But don't think I don't love you."

They went out together, and the hum of riotous Benton called them; the lights beckoned and the melancholy night engulfed them.

Next morning late, on the way to breakfast, Neale encountered a young man whose rough, bronzed face somehow seemed familiar.

At sight of Neale this young fellow brightened and he lunged forward.

"Neale! Lookin' for you was like huntin' for a needle in a haystack."

Neale could not place him, and he did not try hard for recognition, for that surely would recall his former relations to the railroad.

"I don't remember you," replied Neale.

"I'll bet Larry does," said the stranger, with a grin at the cowboy.

"Shore. Your name's Campbell an' you was a lineman for Baxter," returned Larry.

"Right you are," said Campbell, offering his hand to Neale, and then to Larry. He appeared both glad and excited.

"I guess I recall you now," said Neale, thoughtfully. "You said--you were hunting me?"

"Well, I should smile!" returned Campbell, and handed Neale a letter.

Neale tore it open and hastily perused its contents. It was a brief, urgent request from Baxter that Neale should return to work. The words, almost like an order, made Neale's heart swell for a moment. He stood there staring at the paper. Larry read the letter over his shoulder.

"Pard, shore I was expectin' jest thet there, an' I say go!" exclaimed Larry.

Neale slowly shook his head.

Campbell made a quick, nervous movement. "Neale, I was to say--tell- -There's more 'n your old job waitin' for you."

"What do you mean?" queried Neale.

"That's all, except the corps have struck a snag out here west of Benton. It's a bad place. You an' Henney were west in the hills when this survey was made. It's a deep wash--bad grade an' curves. The gang's stuck. An' Baxter swore, 'We've got to have Neale back on the job!'"

"Where's Henney?" asked Neale, rather thickly. Campbell's words affected him powerfully.

"Henney had to go to Omaha. Boone is sick at Fort Fetterman. Baxter has only a new green hand out there, an' they've sure struck a snag."

"That's too bad," replied Neale, still thoughtfully. "Is--the chief- -is General Lodge there?"

"Yes. There's a trooper camp. Colonel Dillon an' some of the officers have their wives out on a little visit to see the work. They couldn't stand Benton."

"Well--you thank Baxter and tell him I'm sorry I must refuse," said Neale.

"You won't come!" ejaculated Campbell.

Neale shook his head. Larry reached out with big, eager hands.

"See heah, pard, I reckon you will go."

Campbell acted strangely, as if he wanted to say more, but did not have authority to do so. He looked dismayed. Then he said: "All right, Neale. I'll take your message. But you can expect me back."

And he went on his way.

"Neale, shore there's somethin' in the wind," said Larry. "Wal, it jest tickles me. They can't build the railroad without you."

"Would you go back to work?" queried Neale.

"Shore I would if they'd have me. But I reckon thet little run-in of mine with Smith has made bad feelin'. An' come to think of thet, if I did go back I'd only have to fight some of Smith's friends. An' I reckon I'd better not go. It'd only make trouble for you."

"Me! ... You heard me refuse."

"Shore I heerd you," drawled Larry, softly, "but you're goin' back if I have to hawg-tie you an' pack you out there on a hoss."

Neale said no more. If he had said another word he would have betrayed himself to his friend. He yearned for his old work. To think that the engineer corps needed him filled him with joy. But at the same time he knew what an effort it would take to apply himself to any task. He hated to attempt it. He doubted himself. He was morbid. All that day he wandered around at Larry's heels, half oblivious of what was going on. After dark he slipped away from his friend to be alone. And being alone in the dark quietness brought home to him the truth of a strange, strong growth, out of the depths of him, that was going to overcome his morbid craving to be idle, to drift, to waste his life on a haunting memory.

He could not sleep that night, and so was awake when Larry lounged in, slow and heavy. The cowboy was half-drunk. Neale took him to task, and they quarreled. Finally Larry grew silent and fell asleep. After that Neale likewise dropped into slumber.

In the morning Larry was again his old, cool, easy, reckless self, and had apparently forgotten Neale's sharp words. Neale, however, felt a change in himself. This was the first morning for a long time that he had not hated the coming of daylight.

When he and Larry went out the sun was high. For Neale there seemed something more than sunshine in the air. At sight of Campbell, waiting in the same place in which they had encountered him yesterday, Neale's pulses quickened.

Campbell greeted them with a bright smile. "I'm back," he said.

"So I see," replied Neale, constrainedly.

"I've a message for you from the chief," announced Campbell.

"The chief!" exclaimed Neale.

Larry edged closer to them, with the characteristic hitch at his belt, and his eyes flashed.

"He asks as a personal favor that you come out to see him," replied Campbell.

Neale flushed. "General Lodge asks that!" he echoed. There was a slow heat stirring all through him.

"Yes. Will you go?"

"I--I guess I'll have to," replied Neale. He did not feel that he was deciding. He had to go. But this did not prove that he must take up his old work.

Larry swung his hand on Neale's shoulder, almost staggering him. The cowboy beamed.

"Go in to breakfast," he said. "Order for me, too. I'll be back."

"You want to hurry," rejoined Campbell. "We've only a half-hour to eat an' catch the work-train."

Larry strode back toward the lodging-house. And it was Campbell who led Neale into the restaurant and ordered the meal. Neale's mind was not in a whirl, nor dazed, but he did not get much further hi thought than the remarkable circumstance of General Lodge sending for him personally. Meanwhile Campbell rapidly talked about masonry, road-beds, washouts, and other things that Neale heard but did not clearly understand. Then Larry returned. He carried Neale's bag, which he deposited carefully on the bench.

"I reckon you might as well take it along," he drawled.

Neale felt himself being forced along an unknown path.

They indulged in little further conversation while hurriedly eating breakfast. That finished, they sallied forth toward the station. Campbell clambered aboard the work-train.

"Come on, Larry," he said.

And Neale joined in the request. "Yes, come," he said.

"Wal, seein' as how I want you-all to get on an' the rail-road built, I reckon I'd better not go," drawled Larry. His blue eyes shone warm upon his friend.

"Larry, I'll be back in a day or so," said Neale.

"Aw, now, pard, you stay. Go back on the job an' stick," appealed the cowboy.

"No. I quit and I'll stay quit. I might help out--for a day--just as a favor. But--" Neale shook his head.

"I reckon, if you care anythin' aboot me, you'll shore stick."

"Larry, you'll go to the bad if I leave you here alone," protested Neale.

"Wel, if you stay we'll both go," replied Larry, sharply. He had changed subtly. "It's in me to go to hell--I reckon I've gone--but that ain't so for you."

"Two's company," said Neale, with an attempt at lightness. But it was a pretense. Larry worried him.

"Listen. If you go back on the job--then it 'll be all right for you to run in heah to see me once in a while. But if you throw up this chance I'll--"

Larry paused. His ruddy tan had faded slightly.

Neale eyed him, aware of a hard and tense contraction of the cowboy's throat.

"Well, what 'll you do?" queried Neale, shortly.

Larry threw back his head, and the subtle, fierce tensity seemed to leave him.

"Wal, the day you come back I'll clean out Stanton's place--jest to start entertainin' you," he replied, with his slow drawl as marked as ever it was.

A stir of anger in Neale's breast subsided with the big, warm realization of this wild cowboy's love for him and the melancholy certainty that Larry would do exactly as he threatened.

"Suppose I come back and beat you all up?" suggested Neale.

"Wal, thet won't make a dam' bit of difference," replied Larry, seriously.

Whereupon Neale soberly bade his friend good-bye and boarded the train.

The ride appeared slow and long, dragged out by innumerable stops. All along the line laborers awaited the train to unload supplies. At the end of the line there was a congestion Neale had not observed before in all the work. Freight-cars, loaded with stone and iron beams and girders for bridge-work, piles of ties and piles of rails, and gangs of idle men attested to the delay caused by an obstacle to progress. The sight aggressively stimulated Neale. He felt very curious to learn the cause of the setback, and his old scorn of difficulties flashed up.

The camp Neale's guide led him to was back some distance from the construction work. It stood in a little valley through which ran a stream. There was one large building, low and flat, made of boards and canvas, adjoining a substantial old log cabin; and clustered around, though not close together, were a considerable number of tents. Troopers were in evidence, some on duty and many idle. In the background, the slopes of the valley were dark green with pine and cedar.

At the open door of the building Neale met Baxter face to face, and that worthy's greeting left Neale breathless and aghast, yet thrilling with sheer gladness.

"What're you up against?" asked Neale.

"The boss 'll talk to you. Get in there!" Baxter replied, and pushed Neale inside. It was a big room, full of smoke, noise, men, tables, papers. There were guns stacked under port-holes. Some one spoke to Neale, but he did not see who it was. All the faces he saw so swiftly appeared vague, yet curious and interested. Then Baxter halted him at a table. Once again Neale faced his chief. Baxter announced something. Neale did not hear the words plainly.

General Lodge looked older, sterner, more worn. He stood up.

"Hello, Neale!" he said, offering his hand, and the flash of a smile went over his grim face.

"Come in here," continued the chief, and he led Neale into another room, of different aspect. It was small; the walls were of logs; new boards had been recently put in the floor; new windows had been cut; and it contained Indian blankets, chairs, a couch.

Here General Lodge bent a stern and piercing gaze upon his former lieutenant.

"Neale, you failed me when you quit your job," he said. "You were my right-hand man. You quit me in my hour of need."

"General, I--I was furious at that rotten commissioner deal," replied Neale, choking. What he had done now seemed an offense to his chief. "My work was ordered done over!"

"Neale, that was nothing to what I've endured. You should have grit your teeth--and gone on. That five miles of reconstruction was nothing--nothing."

In his chief's inflexible voice, in the worn, shadowed face, Neale saw the great burden, and somehow he was reminded of Lincoln, and a passion of remorse seized him. Why had he not been faithful to this steadfast man who had needed him!

"It seemed--so much to me," faltered Neale.

"Why did you not look at that as you have looked at so many physical difficulties--the running of a survey, for instance?"

"I--I guess I have a yellow streak."

"Why didn't you come to me?" went on the chief. Evidently he had been disappointed in Neale.

"I might have come--only Larry, my friend--he got into it, and I was afraid he'd kill somebody," replied Neale.

"That cowboy--he was a great fellow, but gone wrong. He shot one of the bosses--Smith."

"Yes, I know. Did--did Smith die?"

"No, but he'll never be any more good for the U. P. R., that's certain.... Where is your friend now?"

"I left him in Benton."

"Benton!" exclaimed the chief, bitterly. "I am responsible for Benton. This great work of my life is a hell on wheels, moving on and on.... Your cowboy friend has no doubt found his place--and his match--in Benton."

"Larry has broken loose from me--from any last restraint."

"Neale, what have you been doing?"

And at that Neale dropped his head.

"Idling in the camps--drifting from one place to the next--drinking, gambling, eh?"

"I'm ashamed to say, sir, that of late I have been doing just those things," replied Neale, and he raised his gaze to his chief's.

"But you haven't been associating with those camp women!" exclaimed General Lodge, with his piercing eyes dark on Neale.

"No!" cried Neale. The speech had hurt him.

"I'm glad to hear that--gladder than you can guess. I was afraid-- But no matter.... What you did do is bad enough. You ought to be ashamed. A young man with your intelligence, your nerve, your gifts! I have not had a single man whose chances compared with yours. If you had stuck you'd be at the head of my engineer corps right now. Baxter is played out. Boone is ill. Henney had to take charge of the shops in Omaha.... And you, with fortune and fame awaiting you, throw up your job to become a bum... to drink and gamble away your life in these rotten camps!"

General Lodge's scorn flayed Neale.

"Sir, you may not know I--I lost some one--very dear to me. After that I didn't seem to care." Neale turned to the window. He was ashamed of what blurred his eyes. "If it hadn't been for that--I'd never have failed you."

The chief strode to Neale and put a hand on his shoulder. "Son, I believe you. Maybe I've been a little hard. Let's forget it." His tone softened and there was a close pressure of his hand. "The thing is now--will you come back on the job?"

"Baxter's note--Campbell said they'd struck a snag here. You mean help them get by that?"

"Snag! I guess it is a snag. It bids fair to make all our labor and millions of dollars--wasted.... But I'm not asking you to come back just to help us over this snag. I mean will you come back for good-- and stick?"

Neale was lifted out of the gloom into which memory had plunged him. He turned to his chief and found him another person. There was a light on his face and eagerness on his lips, and the keen, stern eyes were soft.

"Son, will you come back--stand by me till the finish?" repeated General Lodge, his voice deep and full. There was more here than just the relation of employer to his lieutenant.

"Yes, sir, I'll come back," replied Neale, in low voice.

Their hands met.

"Good!" exclaimed the chief.

Then he deliberately took out his watch and studied it. His hand trembled slightly. He did not raise his eyes again to Neale's face.

"I'll call you--later," he said. "You stay here. I'll send some one in."

With that he went out.

Neale remained standing, his eyes fixed on the gray-green slope, seen through the window. He seemed a trifle unsteady on his feet, and he braced himself with a knee against the couch. His restraint, under extreme agitation, began to relax. A flooding splendid thought filled his mind--his chief had called him back to the great work.

Presently the door behind him opened and closed very softly. Then he heard a low, quick gasp. Some one had entered. Suddenly the room seemed strange, full, charged with terrible portent. And he turned as if a giant hand had heavily swung him around.

It was not light at the other end of the room, yet he saw a slight figure of a girl backed against the door. Her outline was familiar. Haunting ghost of his dreams! Bewildered and speechless, he stared, trembling all over. The figure moved, swayed. A faint, sweet voice called, piercing his heart like a keen blade. All of a sudden he had gone mad, he thought; this return to his old work had disordered his mind. The tremor of his body succeeded to a dizziness; his breast seemed about to burst.

"Neale!" called the sweet voice. She was coming toward him swiftly. "It's allie--alive and well!"

Neale felt lifted, as if by invisible wings. His limbs were useless- -had lost strength and feeling. The room whirled around him, and in that whirl appeared Allie Lee's face. Alive--flushed--radiant! Recognition brought a maddening check--a shock--and Neale's sight darkened. Tender, fluttering hands caught him; soft strong arms enfolded him convulsively.