Chapter 19
 

Neale slept in a tent, and when he was suddenly awakened it was bright daylight. His ears vibrated to a piercing blast. For an instant he could not distinguish the sound. But when it ceased he knew it had been a ringing bugle-call. Following that came the voices and movements of excited troopers.

He rolled from his blankets to get into boots and coat and rush out. The troopers appeared all around him in hurried orderly action. Neale asked a soldier what was up.

"Redskins, b'gorra--before brikfast!" was the disgusted reply.

Neale thought of Allie and his heart contracted. A swift glance on all sides, however, failed to see any evidence of attack on the camp. He espied General Lodge and Colonel Dillon among a group before the engineers' quarters. Neale hurried up.

"Good morning, Neale," said the chief, grimly. "You're back on the job, all right."

And Colonel Dillon added, "A little action to celebrate your return, Neale!"

"What's happened?" queried Neale, shortly.

"We just got a telegraph message: "Big force--Sioux.' That's all. The operator says the wire was cut in the middle of the message."

"Big force--Sioux!" repeated Neale. "Between here and Benton?"

"Of course. We sent a scout on horseback down along the line."

"Neale, you'll find guns inside. Help yourself," said General Lodge. "You'll take breakfast with us in the cabin. We don't know what's up yet. But it looks bad for us--having the women here. This cabin is no fort."

"General, we can have all those railroad ties hustled here and throw up defenses," suggested the officer.

"That's a good idea. But the troopers will have to carry them. That work-train won't get out here today."

"It's not likely. But we can use the graders from the camp up the line... Neale, go in and get guns and a bite to eat. I'll have a horse here ready for you. I want you to ride out after those graders."

"All right," replied Neale, rapidly. "Have you told--Do the women know yet what's up?"

"Yes. And that girl of yours has nerve. Hurry, Neale."

Neale rode away on his urgent errand without having seen Allie. His orders had been to run the horse. It was some distance to the next grading camp--how far he did not know. And the possibility of his return being cut off by Indians had quickened Neale into a realization of the grave nature of the situation.

He had difficulty climbing down and up the gorge, but, once across it, there was the graded road-bed, leading straight to the next camp. This road-bed was soft, and not easy going for a horse. Neale found better ground along the line, on hard ground, and here he urged the fresh horse to a swift and steady gait.

The distance was farther than he had imagined, and probably exceeded ten miles. He rode at a gallop through a wagontrain camp, which, from its quiet looks, was not connected with the work on the railroad, straight on into the midst of two hundred or more graders just about to begin the day's work. His advent called a halt to everything. Sharply and briefly Neale communicated the orders given him. Then he wheeled his horse for the return trip.

When he galloped through the wagon-train camp several rough- appearing men hailed him curiously.

"Indians!" yelled Neale, as he swept on.

He glanced back once to see a tall, dark-faced man wearing a frock- coat speak to the others and then wildly fling out his arms.

It was down-hill on the way back, and the horse, now thoroughly heated and excited, ran his swiftest. Far down the line Neale saw columns of smoke rolling upward. They appeared farther on than his camp, yet they caused him apprehension. His cheek blanched at the thought that the camp containing Allie Lee might be surrounded by Indians. His fears, however, were groundless, for soon he saw the white tents and the cabins, with the smoke columns rising far below.

Neale rode into camp from the west in time to see Dillon's scout galloping hard up from the east. Neale dismounted before the waiting officers to give his report.

"Good!" replied Dillon. "You certainly made time. We can figure on those graders in an hour or so?"

"Yes. There were horses enough for half the gang," answered Neale.

"Now for Anderson's report," muttered the officer.

Anderson was the scout. He rode up on a foam-lashed mustang, and got off, dark and grimy with dust. His report was that he had been unable to get in touch with any soldiers or laborers along the line, but he had seen enough with his own eyes. Half-way between the camp and Benton a large force of Sioux had torn up the track, halted and fired the work-train. A desperate battle was being fought, with the odds against the workmen, for the reason that the train of box-cars was burning. Troops must be rushed to the rescue.

Colonel Dillon sent a trooper with orders to saddle the horses.

This sent a cold chill through Neale. "General, if the Sioux rounded us up here in this camp we'd be hard put to it," he said, forcibly.

"Right you are, Neale. The high slopes, rocks, and trees would afford cover. Whoever picked out this location for a camp wasn't thinking of Indians ... But we need scarcely expect an attack here."

"Suppose we get the women away--to the hills," suggested Neale.

Anderson shook his head. "They might be worse off. Here you've shelter, water, food, and men coming. That's a big force of Sioux. They'll have lookouts on all the hills."

It was decided to leave a detachment of soldiers under Lieutenant Brady, who was to remain in camp until the arrival of the graders, and then follow hard on Colonel Dillon's trail.

Besides Allie Lee there were five other women in camp, and they all came out to see the troops ride away. Neale heard Colonel Dillon assure his wife that he did not think there was any danger. But the color failed to return to her face. The other women, excepting Allie, were plainly frightened. Neale found new pride in Allie. She showed little fear of the Sioux.

General Lodge rode beside Colonel Dillon at the head of the troops. They left camp on a trot, raising a cloud of dust, and quickly disappeared round the curve of the hill. The troopers who were left behind stacked their guns and sallied out after railroad ties with which to build defenses. Anderson, the scout, rode up the slope to a secluded point from which he was to keep watch. The women were instructed to stay inside the log cabin that adjoined the flimsy quarters of the engineers. Baxter, with his assistants, overhauled the guns and ammunition left; and Neale gathered up all the maps and plans and drawings and put them in a bag close at hand.

Time passed swiftly, and in another half-hour the graders began to arrive. They came riding in bareback, sometimes two on one horse, flourishing their guns--a hundred or more red-faced Irishmen spoiling for a fight. Their advent eased Neale's dread. Still, a strange feeling weighed upon him and he could not understand it or shake it. He had no optimism for the moment. He judged it to be over-emotion, a selfish and rather exaggerated fear for Allie's safety.

Lieutenant Brady then departed with his soldiers, leaving the noisy laborers to carry ties and erect bulwarks. The Irish, as ever, growled and voiced their complaints at finding work instead of fighting.

"Hurry an' fetch on yez dirn Sooz!" was the cry sent after Brady, and that request voiced the spirit of the gang.

In an hour they had piled a fence of railroad ties, six feet high, around the engineers' quarters. This task had scarcely been done when Anderson was discovered riding recklessly down the slope. Baxter threw up his hands.

"We're going to have it," he said. "Neale, I'm not so young as I was."

Anderson rode in behind the barricade and dismounted. "Sioux!"

The graders greeted this information with loud hurrahs. But when Anderson pointed out a large band of Sioux filing down from the hilltop the enthusiasm was somewhat checked. It was the largest hostile force of Sioux that Neale had ever seen. The sight of the lean, wild figures stirred Neale's blood, and then again sent that cold chill over him. The Indians rode down the higher slope and turned off at the edge of the timber out of rifle-range. Here they got off their mustangs and apparently held a council. Neale plainly saw a befeathered chieftain point with long arm. Then the band moved, disintegrated, and presently seemed to have melted into the ground.

"Men, we're in for a siege!" yelled old Baxter.

At this juncture the women came running out, badly frightened.

"The Indians! The Indians!" cried Mrs. Dillon. "We saw them--behind the cabin--creeping down through the rocks."

"Get inside--stay in the cabin!" ordered Baxter.

Allie was the last one crowded in. Neale, as he half forced her inside, was struck with a sudden wild change in her expression.

"There! There!" she whispered, trying to point.

Just then rifle-shots and the spattering of bullets made quick work urgent.

"Go--get inside the log walls," said Neale, as he shoved Allie in.

Excitement prevailed among the graders. They began to run under cover of the inclosure and some began to shoot aimlessly.

"Anderson, take some men! Go to the back of the cabin!" shouted Baxter.

The scout called for men to follow him and ran out. So many of the graders essayed to follow that they blocked the narrow opening between the inclosure and house. Suddenly one of them in the rear sheered round so that he looked at Neale. It was but a momentary glance, but Neale sensed recognition there. Then the man was gone and Neale sustained a strange surprise. That face had been familiar, but he could not recall where he had ever seen it. The red, leering, evil visage, with its prominent, hard features, grew more vivid in memory, as Neale's mind revolved closer to discovery.

"Inside with you, Neale," yelled Baxter.

Baxter and Neale, with the four young engineers, took to the several rooms of the log cabin, where each selected an aperture between the logs or a window through which to fire upon the Indians. But Neale soon ascertained that there was nothing to shoot at, outside of some white puffs of smoke rising from behind rocks on the slope. There was absolutely not a sign of an Indian. The graders were firing, but Neale believed they would have done better to save their powder. Bullets pattered against the logs; now and then a leaden pellet sang through a window, to thud into the wall. Neale shut the heavy door leading from the cabin into the engineers' quarters, for bullets were ripped through from one side to the other of this canvas-and- clapboard structure. Then Neale passed from room to room, searching for Allie. Two of the engineers were kneeling at a chink between the logs, aiming and firing in great excitement. Campbell had sustained a slight wound and looked white with rage and fear. Baxter was peeping from behind the rude jamb of a window.

"Nothin' to shoot at, boy," he said, in exasperation.

"Wait. Listen to that bunch of Irish shoot. They're wasting powder."

"We've plenty of ammunition. Let 'em shoot. They may not hit any redskins, but they'll scare 'em."

"We can hold out here--if the troopers hurry back," said Neale.

"Sure. But maybe they're hard at it, too. I've no hope this is the same bunch of Sioux that held up the work-train."

"Neither have I. And if the troops don't get here before dark--"

Neale halted, and Baxter shook his gray head.

"That would be bad," he said. "But we've squeezed out of narrow places before, buildin' this U. P. R."

Neale found the women in the large room, between the corner of the walls and a huge stone fireplace. They were quiet. Allie leaped at sight of Neale. Her hands trembled as she grasped him.

"Neale!" she whispered. "I saw Fresno!"

"Who's he?" queried Neale, blankly.

"He's one of Durade's gang."

"No!" exclaimed Neale. He drew Allie aside. "You're scared."

"I'd never forget Fresno," she replied, positively. "He was one of the four ruffians who burned Slingerland's cabin and made off with me."

Then Neale shook with a violent start. He grasped Allie tight.

"I saw him, too. Just before I came in. I saw one of the men that visited us at Slingerland's.... Big, hulking fellow--red, ugly face- -bad look."

"That's Fresno. He and the gang must have been camped with those graders you brought here. Oh, I'm more afraid of Fresno's gang than of the Indians."

"But Allie--they don't know you're here. You're safe. The troops will be back soon, and drive these Indians away."

Allie clung to Neale, and again he felt something of the terror these ruffians had inspired in her. He reassured her, assuming a confidence he was far from feeling, and cautioned her to stay in that protected corner. Then he went in the other room to his station. It angered Neale, and alarmed him, that another peril perhaps menaced Allie. And he prayed for the return of the troops.

The day passed swiftly, in intense watchfulness on the part of the defenders, and in a waiting game on the part of the besiegers. They kept up a desultory firing all afternoon. Now and then a reckless grader running from post to post drew a volley from the Sioux; and likewise something that looked like an Indian would call forth shots from the defenses. But there was no real fighting.

It developed that the Sioux were waiting for night. A fiery arrow, speeding from a bow in the twilight, left a curve of sparks in the air, like a falling rocket. It appeared to be a signal for demoniacal yells on all sides. Rifle-shots ceased to come from the slopes. As darkness fell gleams of little fires shot up from all around. The Sioux were preparing to shoot volleys of burning arrows down into the camp.

Anderson hurried in to consult with Baxter. "We're surrounded," he said, tersely. "The redskins are goin' to try burnin' us out. We're in a mighty tight place."

"What's to be done?" asked Baxter.

Anderson shook his head.

On the instant there was a dull spat of an object striking the roof over their heads. This sound was followed by a long, shrill yell.

"That was a burnin' arrow," declared Anderson.

The men, as of one accord, ran out through the engineers' quarters to the open. It was now dark. Little fires dotted the hillsides. A dull red speck, like an ember, showed over the roof, darkened, and disappeared. Then a streak of fire shot out from the black slope and sped on clear over the camp.

"Sooner or later they'll make a go of that," muttered Anderson.

Neale heard the scout's horse, that had been left there in the inclosure.

"Anderson, suppose I jump your horse. It's dark as pitch. I could run through--reach the troops. I'll take a chance."

"I had that idee myself," replied Anderson. "But it seems to me if them troopers wasn't havin' hell they'd been here long ago. I'm lookin' for them every minnit. They'll come. An' we've got to fight fire now till they get here."

"But there's no fire yet," said Baxter.

"There will be," replied Anderson. "But mebbe we can put it out as fast as they start it. Plenty of water here. An' it's dark. What I'm afraid of is they'll fire the tents out there, an' then it 'll be light as day. We can't risk climbin' over the roofs."

"Neale, go inside--call the boys out," said Baxter.

Neale had to feel his way through the rooms. He called to his comrades, and then to the women to keep up their courage--that surely the troops would soon return.

When he went out again the air appeared full of fiery streaks. Shouts of the graders defiantly answered the yells of the savages. Showers of sparks were dropping upon the camp. The Sioux had ceased shooting their rifles for the present, and, judging from their yells, they had crawled down closer under the cover of night.

Presently a bright light flared up outside of the inclosure. One of the tents had caught fire. The Indians yelled triumphantly. Neale and his companions crouched back in the shadow. The burning tent set fire to the tent adjoining. They blazed up like paper, lighting the camp and slopes. But not an Indian was visible. They stopped yelling. Then Neale heard the thudding of arrows. Almost at once the roof of the engineers' quarters, which was merely strips of canvas over a wooden frame, burst into flames. In a single moment the roof of the cabin was blazing. More tents ignited, flared up, and the scene became almost as light as day. Rifles again began to crack. The crafty Indians poured a hail of bullets into the inclosure and the walls of the buildings. Still not an Indian was visible for the defenders to shoot at.

Anderson, Neale, and Baxter were in grim consultation. They agreed on the scout's dictum: "Reckon the game's up. Hustle the women out."

Neale crawled along the inclosure to the opening. On that side of the buildings there was dark shadow. But it was lifting He ran along the wall, and he heard the whistle of bullets. Back of the cabin the Indians appeared to have gathered in force. Neale got to the corner and peered round. The blazing tents lighted up this end. He saw the graders break and run, some on his side of the cabin. He clambered in. A door of this room was open, and through it Neale saw the roof of the engineers' quarters blazing. He heard the women screaming. Evidently they too were running out to the in-closure. Neale hurried into the room where he had left Allie. He called. There was no answer, but a growing roar outside apparently drowned his voice. It was dark in this room. He felt along the wall, the fireplace, the corner. Allie was not there. The room was empty. His hands groping low along the floor came in contact with the bag he had left in Allie's charge. It contained the papers he had taken the precaution to save. Probably in her flight to escape from the burning cabin she had dropped it. But that was not like Allie: she would have clung to the bag while strength and sense were hers. Perhaps she had not gotten out of the cabin. Neale searched again, growing more and more aware of the strife outside. He heard the crackling of wood over his head. Evidently the cabin was burning like tinder. There were men in the back room, fighting, yelling, crowding. Neale could see only dim, burly forms and the flashes of guns. Smoke floated thickly there. Some one, on the inside or outside, was beating out the door with an axe.

He decided quickly that whatever Allie might have done she would not have gone into that room. He retraced his steps, groping, feeling everywhere in the dark.

Suddenly the crackling, the shots, the yells ceased, or were drowned in a volume of greater sound. Neale ran to the window. The flare from the burning tents was dying down. But into the edge of the circle of light he saw loom a line of horsemen.

"Troopers!" he cried, joyfully. A great black pressing weight seemed lifted off his mind. The troops would soon rout that band of sneaking Sioux.

Neale ran to the back room, where, above the din outside, he made himself heard. But for all he could see or hear his tidings of rescue did not at once affect the men there. Then he forgot them and the fight outside in his search for Allie. The cabin was on fire, and he did not mean to leave it until he was absolutely sure she was not hidden or lying in a faint in some corner. And he had not made sure of that until the burning roof began to fall in. Then he leaped out the window and ran back to the inclosure.

The blaze here was no longer bright, but Neale could see distinctly. Some of the piles of ties were burning. The heat had begun to drive the men out. Troopers were everywhere. And it appeared the rattle of rifles was receding up the valley. The Sioux had retreated.

Here Neale continued his search for Allie. He found Mrs. Dillon and her companions, but Allie was not with them. All he could learn from the frightened women was that Allie had been in their company when they started to run from the cabin. They had not seen her since.

Still Neale did not despair, though his heart sank. Allie was hiding somewhere. Frantically he searched the inclosure, questioned every man he met, rushed back to the burning cabin, where the fire drove him out. But there was no trace of Allie.

Then the conviction of calamity settled upon him. While the cabin burned, and the troopers and graders watched, Neale now searched for the face of the man he had recognized--the ruffian Allie called Fresno. This search was likewise fruitless.

The following hours were a hideous, slow nightmare for Neale. He had left one hope--that daylight would disclose Allie somewhere.

Day eventually dawned. It disclosed many facts. The Sioux had departed, and if they had suffered any loss there was no evidence of it. The engineers' quarters, cabin, and tents had burned to the ground. Utensils, bedding, food, grain, tools, and instruments-- everything of value except the papers Neale had saved--had gone up in smoke. The troopers who had rescued the work-train must now depend upon that train for new supplies. Many of the graders had been wounded, some seriously, but none fatally. Nine of them were missing, as was Allie Lee.

The blow was terrible for Neale. Yet he did not sink under it. He did not consider the opinion of his sympathetic friends that Allie had wildly run out of the burning cabin to fall into the hands of the Sioux. He returned with the graders to their camp; and it was no surprise to him to find the wagon-train, that had tarried near, gone in the night. He trailed that wagon-train to the next camp, where on the busy road he lost the wheel-tracks. Next day he rode horseback all the way in to Benton. But all his hunting and questioning availed nothing. Gloom, heartsickness, and despair surged in upon him, but he did not think of giving up. He remembered all Allie had told him. Those fiends had gotten her again. He believed now all that she had said; and there was something of hope in the thought that if Durade had found her again she would at least not be at the mercy of ruffians like Fresno. But this was a forlorn hope. Still, it upheld Neale and determined him to seek her during the time in which his work did not occupy him.

And thus it came about that Neale plodded through his work along the line during the day, and late in the afternoon rode back with the laborers to Benton. If Allie Lee lived she must be in Benton.