Chapter 18

Neale seemed to come into another world--a paradise. His eyes doubted the exquisite azure blue--the fleecy cloud--the golden sunshine.

There was a warm, wet cheek pressed close to his, bright chestnut strands of hair over his face, tight little hands clutching his breast. He scarcely breathed while he realized that Allie Lee lived. Then he felt so weak that he could hardly move.

"Allie--you're not dead?" he whispered.

With a start she raised her head. It was absolutely the face of Allie Lee.

"I'm the livest girl you ever saw," she replied, with a little low laugh of joy.

"Allie--then you're actually alive--safe--here!" he exclaimed, in wild assurance.

"Yes--yes.... With you again! Isn't it glorious? But, oh! I gave you a shock. You frightened me so. Neale, are you well?"

"I wasn't--but I am now."

He trembled as he gazed at her. Yes, it was Allie's face-- incomparable, unforgettable. She might have been a little thin and strained. But time and whatever she had endured had only enhanced her loveliness. No harm had befallen her--that was written in the white glow of her face, in the violet eyes, dark and beautiful, with the brave soul shining through their haunting shadows, in the perfect lips, tremulous and tender with love.

"Neale, they told me you gave up your work--were going to the bad," she said, with an eloquence of distress changing her voice and expression.

"Yes. Allie Lee, I loved you so well--that after I lost you--I cared for nothing."

"You gave up--"

"Allie," he interrupted, passionately, "don't talk of me! ... You haven't kissed me!"

Allie blushed. "I haven't? ... That's all you know!"

"Have you?"

"Yes I have--I have.... I was afraid I'd strangled you!"

"I never felt it. I lost all sense of feeling.... Kiss me now! Prove you're alive and love me still!"

And then presently, when Neale caught his breath again, it was to whisper, "Precious Allie!"

"Am I alive? Do I love you?" she whispered, her eyes like purple stars, her face flooded with a dark rose color.

"I'm forced to believe it, but you must prove it often," he replied. Then he drew her to a seat beside him. "I've had many dreams of you, yet not one like this.... How is it you are alive? By what Providence? ... I shall pray to Providence all my life. How do you come to be here? Tell me, quick."

She leaned close against him. "That's easy," she replied. "Only sometime I want to tell you all--everything.... Do you remember the four ruffians who visited Slingerland's cabin one day when we were all there? Well, they came back one day, the first time Slingerland ever left me alone. They fired the cabin and carried me off. Then they fought among themselves. Two were killed. I made up my mind to get on a horse and run. Just as I was ready I spied Indians riding down. I had to shoot the ruffian Frank. But I didn't kill him. Then I got on a horse and tried to ride away. The Indians captured me-- took me to their camp. There an Indian girl freed me--led me away at night. I found a trail and walked--oh, nights and days it seemed. Then I fell in with a caravan. I thought I was saved. But the leader of that caravan turned out to be Durade."

"Durade!" echoed Neale, intensely.

"Yes. He was traveling east. He treated me well, but threatened me. When we reached the construction camp, somewhere back there, he started his gambling-place. One night I escaped. I walked all that night--all the next day. And I was about ready to drop when I found this camp. It was night again. I saw the lights. They took me in. Mrs. Dillon and the other women were so kind, so good to me. I told them very little about myself. I only wanted to be hidden here and have them send for you. Then they brought General Lodge, your chief, to see me. He was kind, too. He promised to get you here. It has been a whole terrible week of waiting.... But now--"

"Allie," burst out Neale, "they never told me a word about you-- never gave me a hint. They sent for me to come back to my job. I could have come a day sooner--the day Campbell found me.... Oh!"

"I know they did not find you at once. And I learned yesterday they had located you. That eased my mind. A day more or less--what was that? ... But they were somehow strange about you. Then Mrs. Dillon told me how the chief had been disappointed in you--how he had needed you--how he must have you back."

"Good Lord! Getting me back would have been easy enough if they had only told me!" exclaimed Neale, impatiently.

"Dear, maybe that was just it. I suspect General Lodge cared enough for you to want you to come back to your job for your sake--for his sake--for sake of the railroad. And not for me."

"Aha!" breathed Neale, softly. "I wonder! ... Allie, how cheap, how little I felt awhile ago, when he talked to me. I never was so ashamed in my life. He called me.... But that's over.... You said Durade had you. Allie, that scares me to death."

"It scares me, too," she replied. "For I'm in more danger hidden here than when he had me."

"Oh no! How can that be?"

"He would kill me for running away," she shuddered, paling. "But while I was with him, obedient--I don't think he would have done me harm. I'm more afraid now than when I was his prisoner."

"I'll take a bunch of soldiers and go after Durade," said Neale, grimly.

"No. Don't do that. Let him alone. Just get me away safely, far out of his reach."

"But, Allie, that's not possible now," declared Neale, "I'm certainly not going to lose sight of you, now I've got you again. And I must go back to work. I promised."

"I can stay here--or go along with you to other camps, and be careful to veil myself and hide."

"But that's not safe--not the best plan," protested Neale. Then he gave a start; his face darkened. "I'll put Larry King on Durade's trail."

"Oh no, Neale! Don't do that! Please don't do that! Larry would kill him."

"I rather guess Larry would. And why not?"

"I don't want Durade killed. It would be dreadful. He never hurt me. Let him alone. After all, he seems to be the only father I ever knew. Oh, I don't care for him. I despise him.... But let him live.... He will soon forget me. He is mad to gamble. This railroad of gold is a rich stake for him. He will not last long, nor will any of his kind."

Neale shook his head doubtfully. "It doesn't seem wise to me-- letting him go.... Allie, does he use his right name--Durade?"


"What does he look like? You described him once to me, but I've forgotten."

Allie resolutely refused to tell him and once more entreated Neale to let well enough alone, to keep her hidden from the mob, and not to seek Durade.

"He has a bad gang," she added. "They might kill you. And do you-- you think I'd--ever be--able to live longer without you?"

Whereupon Neale forgot all about Durade and vengeance, and everything but the nearness and sweetness of this girl.

"When shall we get married?" he asked, presently.

This simple question caused Allie to avert her face, and just at that moment there came a knock on the door. Allie made a startled movement.

"Come in," called Neale.

It was his chief who entered. General Lodge's face wore the smile that softened it. Then it showed surprise.

"Neale, you're transfigured!"

Neale's laugh rang out. "Behold cause--even for that," he replied, indicating the blushing Allie.

"Son, I didn't have to play my trump card to fetch you back to work," said the general.

"If you only had!" exclaimed Neale.

Allie got up, shyly and with difficulty disengaged her hand from Neale's.

"You--you must want to talk," she said, and then she fled.

"A wonderful girl, Neale. We're all in love with her," declared the chief. "She dropped down on us one night--asked for protection and you. She does not talk much. All we know is that she is the girl you saved back in the hills and has been kept a prisoner. Here she hides, by day and night. She will not talk. But we know she fears some one."

"Yes, indeed she does," replied Neale, seriously. And then briefly he told General Lodge Allie's story as related by her.

"Well!" ejaculated the chief. "If that doesn't beat me! ... What are you going to do?"

"I'll keep her close. Surely she will be safe here--hidden--with the soldiers about."

"Of course. But you can never tell what's going to happen. If she could be gotten to Omaha--now--"

"No--no," replied Neale, almost violently. He could not bear the thought of parting with Allie, now just when he had found her. Then the chief's suggestion had reminded Neale of the possibility of Allie's father materializing. And the idea was attended by a vague dread.

"I appreciate how you feel. Don't worry about it, Neale."

"What's this snag the engineers are up against?" queried Neale, abruptly changing the subject.

"We're stuck. It's an engineering problem that I hope--and expect you to solve."

"Who ran this survey in the first place?"

"It's Baxter's work--with the men he had under him then," replied the chief. "Somebody blundered. His later surveys make over one hundred feet grade to the mile. That won't do. We've got to get down to ninety feet. Baxter's stuck. The new surveyor is floundering. Oh, it's bad business. Neale... I don't sleep of nights."

"No wonder," returned Neale, and he felt suddenly the fiery grip of his old state of mind toward all the engineering obstacles. "I'm going out to look over the ground."

"I'll send Baxter and some of the men with you."

"No, thanks," replied Neale. "I'd rather--take up my job all alone out there."

The chief's acquiescence was silent and eloquent.

Neale strode outdoors. The color of things, the feel of wind, the sounds of men and horses all about him, had remarkably changed, just as he himself had incalculably changed; General Lodge had said-- transfigured!

He walked down to the construction line and went among the idle men and the strings of cars, the piles of rails and the piles of ties. He seemed to absorb in them again. Then he walked down the loose, unspiked ties to where they ended, and so on along the graded road- bed to the point where his quick eyes recognized the trouble. They swiftly took in what had been done and what had been attempted. How much needless work begun and completed in the building of the railroad! He clambered around in the sand, up and down the ravine, over the rocks, along the stream for half a mile, and it was laborious work. But how good to pant and sweat once more! He retraced his steps. Then he climbed the long slope of the hill. The wind up there blew him a welcome, and the sting and taste of dust were sweet. His steps was swift. And then again he loitered, with keen, roving glance studying the lay of the ground. Neale's was the deductive method of arriving at conclusions. Today he was inspired. And at length there blazed suddenly his solution to the problem.

Then he gazed over the rolling hills with contemplative and dreamy vision. They were beautiful, strong, changeless--and he divined now how they might have helped him if he had only looked with seeing eyes.

Late that afternoon, tired and dusty, he tramped into the big office room. General Lodge was pacing the floor, chewing at his cigar; Baxter sat over blueprint papers, and his face was weary; Colonel Dillon, Campbell, and several other young men were there.

Neale saw that his manner of entrance, or the look of him, or both together, struck these men singularly. He laughed.

"It was great--going back to my job!" he exclaimed.

Baxter sat up. General Lodge threw away his cigar with an action that suggested a sudden vitalizing of a weary but indomitable spirit.

"Did you find the snag we've struck?" asked Baxter, slowly.

"No," replied Neale.

"Aha! Well, I'll have to take you out tomorrow and show you."

The chief's keen eyes began to shine as they studied Neale.

"No, couldn't find any snag, Baxter, old boy... and the reason is because there's no snag to find."

Baxter stared and his worn face reddened. "Boy, somethin's gone to your head," he retorted.

"Wal, I should smile, as Larry would say."

Baxter pounded the table. "Neale, it's no smiling matter," he said harshly. "You come back here, your eye and mind--fresh, but even so, it can't be you make light of this difficulty. You can't--you can't- -"

"But I do!" cried Neale, his manner subtly changing.

Baxter got up. His shaking hand rustled a paper he held. "I know you--of old. You've tormented me often. You're a boy... But here-- this--this thing has stumped me. I've had no one to help... and I'm getting old--this damned railroad has made me old. If--if you saw a way out--tell me--"

Baxter faltered. Indeed he had aged. Neale saw the growth of the great railroad with its problems in the face and voice of the old engineer.

"Listen," said Neale, swiftly. "A half-mile down from where you struck your snag we'll change the course of that stream... We'll change the line--set a compound curve by intersections--and we'll get much less than a ninety-foot grade to the mile."

Then he turned to General Lodge. "Chief, Baxter had so many problems--so much on his mind--that he couldn't think... The work will go on tomorrow."

"But, Neale, you went out without any instrument," protested the chief.

"I didn't need one."

"Son, are you sure? This has been a stumper. What you say--seems too good--too--"

"Am I sure?" cried Neale, gaily. "Look at Baxter's face!"

Indeed, one look at the old engineer was confirmation enough.

Neale was made much of that night. The chief and his engineers, the officers and their wives, all vied with one another in their efforts to celebrate Neale's return to work. The dinner party was merry, yet earnest, too. Baxter made a speech, his fine old face alight with gladness as he extolled youth and genius and the inspiring power of bright eyes. Neale had to answer. His voice was deep and full as he said that Providence had returned him to his work and to a happiness he had believed lost. He denied the genius attributed to him, but not the inspiring power of bright eyes. And he paid a fine tribute to Baxter.

Through all this gaiety and earnestness Allie's lips were mute, and her cheeks flushed and paled by turns. It was an ordeal for her, both confusing and poignant. At last she and Neale got away alone to the cabin room where they had met earlier in the day.

They stood at the open window, close together, hands locked, gazing out over the quiet valley. The moon was full, and broad belts of silver light lay in strong contrast to black shadows. The hour was late. The sentries paced their beats.

Allie stirred and lifted her face to Neale's. "What they said about you makes me almost as happy as to see you again," she said.

"They said! Who? What?" asked Neale, dreamily.

"Oh, I heard, I remember! ... For instance, Mr. Baxter said you had genius."

"He was just eulogizing me," replied Neale. "What he said about your bright eyes was more to the point, I think."

"It's sweet to believe I could inspire you. But I know--and you know--that if I had not been here you would have seen through the engineering problem just the same... Now, be honest."

"Yes, I would," replied Neale, frankly. "Though perhaps not so swiftly. I could see through stone today."

"And that proves your worth. Your duty it always has been--to stand by your chief. Oh, I love him! ... He seems so much younger today. You have encouraged them all... Oh, dear Neale, there is something noble in what you can do for him. Can't you see it?"

"Yes, Allie, indeed I do."

"Promise me--never to fail him again."

"I promise."

"No matter what happens to me. I am alive, safe, well... and I'm yours. But something might happen--you can never tell, and I don't refer particularly to Durade and his gang. I mean, life and everything is uncertain out here. So promise me, no matter what happens, that you'll stand by your work."

"I promise that, too," replied Neale, huskily. "But you frighten me. You fear--for yourself?"

"No, I don't," she protested.

"Fate could not be so brutal--to take you from me. Anyway, I'll not think of it."

"Do not. Nor will I... I wouldn't have asked you--only this night has shown me your opportunity. I'm so proud--so proud. You'll be great some day."

"Well, if you're so proud--if you think I'm so wonderful--why haven't you rewarded me for that little job today?" "Reward you! ... How?"

"How do you suppose?"

She was pale, eloquent, grave. But he was low-voiced, gay, intense.

"Dear Neale--what--what can I do? ... I have nothing... so big a thing as you did today!"

"Child! You can kiss me."

Allie's sweet gravity changed. She smiled. "I shore can, as Larry used to say. That's my privilege. But you spoke of a reward. My kisses--they are yours--and as many as the--the grains of sand out there. But they are not reward."

"No? ... Listen. For just one kiss--if I had to earn it so--I would dig that roadbed out there, carry every tie and rail with my bare hands, drive every spike--"

"Neale, you talk like a boy. Something, indeed, has gone to your head."

"Yes, indeed, it has. It's your face--In the moonlight."

She hid her blushes for a moment on his breast.

"I--I want to be serious," she whispered. "I want to thank God for my good fortune. To think of you and your work! ... The future! And you--you only want kisses."

"Well, since your future must be largely made up of kisses, suppose you begin your work--right now."

"Oh, you're teasing! Yet when you ask of me--whatever you ask--I have no mind--no will. Something drags at me... I feel it now--as I used to--when you made me wade the brook."

"Oh! That's my sweetest memory of you. How it haunted me!"

They stood silent for a while. Out in the moon--blanched space the sentries trod monotonously. A coyote yelped, sharp and wild. The wind moaned low. Suddenly Neale shook himself, as if awakening.

"Allie, it grows late. We must say good night... Today has been blessed. I am grateful to the depths of my heart... But I won't let you go--until my reward--"

She raised her face, white and noble in the moonlight.