Chapter 20
 

Neale took up lodgings with his friend Larry. He did not at first tell the cowboy about his recovery of Allie Lee and then her loss for the second time; and when finally he could not delay the revelation any longer he regretted that he had been compelled to tell.

Larry took the news hard. He inclined to the idea that she had fallen again into the hands of the Indians. Nevertheless, he showed himself terribly bitter against men of the Fresno stamp, and in fact against all the outlaw, ruffianly, desperado class so numerous in Benton.

Neale begged Larry to be cautious, to go slow, to ferret out things, and so help him, instead of making it harder to locate Allie through his impetuosity.

"Pard, I reckon Allie's done for," said Larry, gloomily.

"No--no! Larry, I feel she's alive--well. If she were dead or--or-- well, wouldn't I know?" protested Neale.

But Larry was not convinced. He had seen the hard side of border life; he knew the odds against Allie.

"Reckon I'll look fer that Fresno," he said.

And deeper than before he plunged into Benton's wild life.

One evening Neale, on returning from work to his lodgings, found the cowboy there. In the dim light Larry looked strange. He had his gun- belt in his hands. Neale turned up the lamp.

"Hello, Red! What's the matter? You look pale and sick," said Neale.

"They wanted to throw me out of thet dance ball," said Larry.

"Which one?"

"Stanton's."

"Well, did they?" inquired Neale.

"Wal, I reckon not. I walked. An' some night I'll shore clean out thet hall."

Neale did not know what to make of Larry's appearance. The cowboy seemed to be relaxing. His lips, that had been tight, began to quiver, and his hands shook. Then he swung the heavy gun-belt with somber and serious air, as if he were undecided about leaving it off even when about to go to bed.

"Red, you've thrown a gun!" exclaimed Neale.

Larry glanced at him, and Neale sustained a shock.

"Shore," drawled Larry.

"By Heaven! I knew you would," declared Neale, excitedly, and he clenched his fist. "Did you--you kill some one?"

"Pard, I reckon he's daid," mused the cowboy. "I didn't look to see.... Fust gun I've throwed fer long.... It 'll come back now, shorer 'n hell!"

"What 'll come back?" queried Neale.

Larry did not answer this.

"Who'd you shoot?" Neale went on.

"Pard, I reckon it ain't my way to gab a lot," replied Larry.

"But you'll tell me," insisted Neale, passionately. He jerked the gun and belt from Larry, and threw them on the bed. "All right," drawled Larry, taking a deep breath. "I went into Stanton's hall the other night, an' a pretty girl made eyes at me. Wal, I shore asked her to dance. I reckon we'd been good pards if we'd been let alone. But there's a heap of fellers runnin' her an' some of them didn't cotton to me. One they called Cordy--he shore did get offensive. He's the four-flush, loud kind. I didn't want to make any trouble for the girl Ruby--thet's her name--so I was mighty good-natured.... I dropped in Stanton's to-day. Ruby spotted me fust off, an' she asked me to dance. Shore I'm no dandy dancer, but I tried to learn. We was gettin' along powerful nice when in comes Cordy, hoppin' mad. He had a feller with him. An' both had been triflin' with red liquor. You oughter seen the crowd get back. Made me think Cordy an' his pard had blowed a lot round heah an' got a rep. Wal, I knowed they was bluff. Jest mean, ugly four-flushers. Shore they didn't an' couldn't know nothin' of me. I reckon I was only thet long-legged, red-headed galoot from Texas. Anyhow, I was made to understand it might get hot sudden-like if I didn't clear out. I left it to the girl. An' some of them girls is full of hell. Ruby jest stood there scornful an' sassy, with her haid leanin' to one side, her eyes half-shut, an' a little smile on her face. I'd call her more 'n hell. A nice girl gone wrong. Them kind shore is the dangerest.... Wal, she says: 'Reddy, are you goin' to let them run you out of heah? They haven't any strings on me.' So I slapped Cordy's face an' told him to shut up. He let out a roar an' got wild with his hands, like them four-flush fellers do who wants to look real bad. I says, pretty sharplike, 'Don't make any moves now!' An' the darned fool went fer his gun! ... Wal, I caught his hand, twisted the gun away from him, poked him in the ribs with it, an' then shoved it back in his belt. He was crazy, but pretty pale an' surprised. Shore I acted sudden-like. Then I says, 'My festive gent, if you think of thet move again you'll be stiff before you start it.' ... Guess he believed me."

Larry paused in his narrative, wiped his face, and moistened his lips. Evidently he was considerably shaken.

"Well, go on," said Neale, impatiently,

"Thet was all right so far as it went," resumed Larry. "But the pard of Cordy's--he was half-drunk an' a big brag, anyhow. He took up Cordy's quarrel. He hollered so he stopped the music an' drove 'most everybody out of the hall. They was peepin' in at the door. But Ruby stayed. There's a game kid, an' I'm goin' to see her to-morrow."

"You are not," declared Neale. "Hurry up. Finish your story."

"Wal, the big bloke swaggered all over me, an' I seen right off thet he didn't have sense enough to be turned. Then I got cold. I always used to.... He says, 'Are you goin' to keep away from Ruby?'

"An' I says, very polite, 'I reckon not.'

"Then he throws hisself in shape, like he meant to leap over a hoss, an' hollers, 'Pull yer gun!'

"I asks, very innocent, 'What for, mister?'

"An' he bawls fer the crowd. ''Cause I'm a-goin' to bore you, an' I never kill a man till he goes fer his gun,'

"To thet I replies, more considerate: 'But it ain't fair. You'd better get the fust shot.'

"Then the fool hollers, 'Redhead!'

"Thet settled him. I leaps over quick, slugged him one--lefthanded. He staggered, but he didn't fall.... Then he straightens an' goes fer his gun."

Larry halted again. He looked as if he had been insulted, and a bitter irony sat upon his lips.

"I seen, when he dropped, thet he never got his hand to his gun at all.... Jest as I'd reckoned.... Wal, what made me sick was that my bullet went through him an' then some of them thin walls--an' hit a girl in another house. She's bad hurt.... They ought to have walls thet'd stop a bullet."

Neale heard the same narrative from the lips of Ancliffe, and it differed only in the essential details of the cowboy's consummate coolness. Ancliffe, who was an eye-witness of the encounter, declared that drink or passion or bravado had no part in determining Larry's conduct. Ancliffe talked at length about the cowboy. Evidently he had been struck with Larry's singular manner and look and action. Ancliffe had all an Englishman's intelligent observing powers, and the conclusion he drew was that Larry had reacted to a situation familiar to him.

Neale took more credence in what Slingerland had told him at Medicine Bow. That night Hough and then many other acquaintances halted Neale to gossip about Larry Reel King.

The cowboy had been recognized by Texans visiting Benton. They were cattle barons and they did not speak freely of King until ready to depart from the town. Larry's right name was Fisher. He had a brother--a famous Texas outlaw called King Fisher. Larry had always been Red Fisher, and when he left Texas he was on the way to become as famous as his brother. Texas had never been too hot for Red until he killed a sheriff. He was a born gun-fighter, and was well known on all the ranches from the Pan Handle to the Rio Grande. He had many friends, he was a great horseman, a fine cowman. He had never been notorious for bad habits or ugly temper. Only he had an itch to throw a gun and he was unlucky in always running into trouble. Trouble gravitated to him. His red head was a target for abuse, and he was sensitive and dangerous because of that very thing. Texas, the land of gunfighters, had seen few who were equal to him in cool nerve and keen eye and swift hand.

Neale did not tell Larry what he had heard. The cowboy changed subtly, but not in his attitude toward Neale. Benton and its wildness might have been his proper setting. So many rough and bad men, inspired by the time and place, essayed to be equal to Benton. But they lasted a day and were forgotten. The great compliment paid to Larry King was the change in the attitude of this wild camp. He had been one among many--a stranger. In time when the dance-halls grew quiet as he entered and the gambling-hells suspended their games. His fame increased as from lip to lip his story passed, always gaining something. Jealousy, hatred, and fear grew with his fame. It was hinted that he was always seeking some man or men from California. He had been known to question new arrivals: "Might you- all happen to be from California? Have you ever heard of an outfit that made off with a girl out heah in the hills?"

Neale, not altogether in the interest of his search for Allie, became a friend and companion of Place Hough. Ancliffe sought him, also, and he was often in the haunts of these men. They did not take so readily to Larry King. The cowboy had become a sort of nervous factor in any community; his presence was not conducive to a comfortable hour. For Larry, though he still drawled his talk and sauntered around, looked the name the Texan visitors had left him. His flashing blue eyes, cold and intent and hard in his naming red face, his blazing red hair, his stalking form, and his gun swinging low--these characteristics were so striking as to make his presence always felt. Beauty Stanton insisted the cowboy had ruined her business and that she had a terror of him. But Neale doubted the former statement. All business, good and bad, grew in Benton. It was strange that as this attractive and notorious woman conceived a terror of Larry, she formed an infatuation for Neale. He would have been blind to it but for the dry humor of Place Hough, and the amiable indifference of Ancliffe, who had anticipated a rival in Neale. Their talk, like most talk, drifted through Neale's ears. What did he care? Both Hough and Ancliffe began to loom large to Neale. They wasted every day, every hour; and yet, underneath the one's cold, passionless pursuit of gold, and the other's serene and gentle quest for effacement there was something finer left of other years. Benton was full of gamblers and broken men who had once been gentlemen. Neale met them often--gambled with them, watched them. He measured them all. They had given life up, but within him there was a continual struggle. He swore to himself, as he had to Larry, that life was hopeless without Allie Lee--yet there was never a sleeping or a waking hour that he gave up hope. The excitement and allurement of the dance-halls, though he admitted their power, were impossible for him; and he frequented them, as he went everywhere else, only in search of a possible clue.

Gambling, then, seemed the only excuse open to him for his presence in Benton's sordid halls. And he had to bear as best he could the baseness of his associates; of course, women had free run of all the places in Benton.

At first Neale was flirted with and importuned. Then he was scorned. Then he was let alone. Finally, as time went on, always courteous, even considerate of the women who happened in his way, but blind and cold to the meaning of their looks and words, he was at last respected and admired.

There was always a game in the big gambling-place, and in fact the greatest stakes were played for by gamblers like Hough, pitted against each other. But most of the time was reserved for the fleecing of the builders of the U. P. R., the wage-earners whose gold was the universal lure and the magnet. Neale won money in those games in which he played with Place Hough. His winnings he scattered or lost in games where he was outpointed or cheated.

One day a number of Eastern capitalists visited Benton. The fame of the town drew crowds of the curious and greedy. And many of these transient visitors wanted to have their fling at the gambling-hells and dancing-halls. There was a contagion in the wildness that affected even the selfish. It would be something to remember and boast of when Benton with its wild life should be a thing of the past.

Place Hough met old acquaintances among some St. Louis visitors, who were out to see the road and Benton, and perhaps to find investments; and he assured them blandly that their visit would not be memorable unless he relieved them of their surplus cash. So a game with big stakes was begun. Neale, with Hough and five of the visitors, made up the table.

Eastern visitors worked upon Neale's mood, but he did not betray it. He was always afraid he would come face to face with some of the directors, whom he did not care to meet in such surroundings. And so, while gambling, he seldom looked up from his cards. The crowd came and went, but he never saw it.

This big game attracted watchers. The visitors were noisy; they drank a good deal; they lost with an equanimity that excited interest, even in Benton. The luck for Neale seesawed back and forth. Then he lost steadily until he had to borrow from Hough.

About this time Beauty Stanton, with Ruby and another woman, entered the room, and were at once attracted by the game, to the evident pleasure of the visitors. And then, unexpectedly, Larry Red King stalked in and lounged forward, cool, easy, careless, his cigarette half smoked, his blue eyes keen.

"Hey! is that him?" whispered one of the visitors, indicating Larry.

"That's Red," replied Hough. "I hope he's not looking for one of you gentlemen."

They laughed, but not spontaneously.

"I've seen his like in Dodge City," said one.

"Ask him to sit in the game," said another.

"No. Red's a card-sharp," replied Hough. "And I'd hate to see him catch one of you pulling a crooked deal."

They lapsed back into the intricacies and fascination of poker.

Neale, however, found the game unable to hold his undivided attention. Larry was there, looking and watching, and he made Neale's blood run cold. The girl Ruby stood close at hand, with her half-closed eyes, mysterious and sweet, upon him, and Beauty Stanton came up behind him.

"Neale, I'll bring you luck," she said, and put her hand on his shoulder.

Neale's luck did change. Fortune faced about abruptly, with its fickle inconsistency, and Neale had a run of cards that piled the gold and bills before him and brought a crowd ten deep around the table. When the game broke up Neale had won three thousand dollars.

"See! I brought you luck," whispered Beauty Stanton in his ear. And across the table Ruby smiled hauntingly and mockingly.

Neale waved the crowd toward the bar. Only the women and Larry refused the invitation. Ruby gravitated irresistibly toward the cowboy.

"Aren't you connected with the road?" inquired one of the visitors, drinking next to Neale.

"Yes," replied Neale.

"Saw you in Omaha at the office of the company. My name's Blair. I sell supplies to Commissioner Lee. He has growing interests along the road."

Neale's lips closed and he set down his empty glass. Excusing himself, he went back to the group he had left. Larry sat on the edge of the table; Ruby stood close to him and she was talking; Stanton and the other woman had taken chairs.

"Wal, I reckon you made a rake-off," drawled Larry, as Neale came up. "Lend me some money, pard."

Neale glanced at Larry and from him to the girl. She dropped her eyes.

"Ruby, do you like Larry?" he queried.

"Sure do," replied the girl.

"Reddy, do you like Ruby?" went on Neale.

Beauty Stanton smiled her interest. The other woman came back from nowhere to watch Neale. Larry regarded his friend in mild surprise.

"I reckon it was a turrible case of love at fust sight," he drawled.

"I'll call your bluff!" flashed Neale. "I've just won three thousand dollars. I'll give it to you. Will you take it and leave Benton--go back--no! go west--begin life over again?"

"Together, you mean!" exclaimed Beauty Stanton, as she rose with a glow on her faded face. No need to wonder why she had been named Beauty.

"Yes, together," replied Neale, in swift steadiness. "You've started bad. But you're young. It's never too late. With this money you can buy a ranch--begin all over again."

"Pard, haven't you seen too much red liquor?" drawled Larry.

The girl shook her head. "Too late!" she said, softly.

"Why?"

"Larry is bad, but he's honest. I'm both bad and dishonest."

"Ruby, I wouldn't call you dishonest," returned Neale, bluntly. "Bad--yes. And wild! But if you had a chance?"

"No," she said.

"You're both slated for hell. What's the sense of it?"

"I don't see that you're slated for heaven," retorted Ruby.

"Wal, I shore say echo," drawled Larry, as he rolled a cigarette. "Pard, you're drunk this heah minnit."

"I'm not drunk. I appeal to you, Miss Stanton," protested Neale.

"You certainly are not drunk," she replied. "You're just--"

"Crazy," interrupted Ruby.

They laughed.

"Maybe I do have queer impulses," replied Neale, as he felt his face grow white. "Every once in a while I see a flash--of--of I don't know what. I could do something big--even--now--if my heart wasn't dead."

"Mine's in its grave," said Ruby, bitterly. "Come, Stanton, let's get out of this. Find me men who talk of drink and women."

Neale deliberately reached out and stopped her as she turned away. He faced her.

"You're no four-flush," he said. "You're game. You mean to play this out to a finish.... But you're no--no maggot like the most. You can think. You're afraid to talk to me."

"I'm afraid of no man. But you--you're a fool--a sky-pilot. You're-- "

"The thing is--it's not too late."

"It is too late!" she cried, with trembling lips.

Neale saw and felt his dominance over her.

"It is never too late!" he responded, with all his force. "I can prove that."

She looked at him mutely. The ghost of another girl stood there instead of the wild Ruby of Benton.

"Pard, you're drunk shore!" ejaculated Larry, as he towered over them and gave his belt a hitch. The cowboy sensed events.

"I've annoyed you more than once," said Neale. "This's the last.... So tell me the truth.... Could I take you away from this life?"

"Take me? ... How--man?"

"I--I don't know. But somehow.... I'd hold it--as worthy--to save a girl like you--any girl--from hell."

"But--how?" she faltered. The bitterness, the irony, the wrong done by her life, was not manifest now.

"You refused my plan with Larry. ... Come, let me find a home for you--with good people."

"My God--he's not in earnest!" gasped the girl to her women friends.

"I am in earnest," said Neale.

Then the tension of the girl relaxed. Her face showed a rebirth of soul.

"I can't accept," she replied. If she thanked him it was with a look. Assuredly her eyes had never before held that gaze for Neale. Then she left the room, and presently Stanton's companion followed her. But Beauty Stanton remained. She appeared amazed, even dismayed.

Larry lighted his cigarette. "Shore I'd call thet a square kid," he said. "Neale, if you get any drunker you'll lose all thet money."

"I'll lose it anyhow," replied Neale, absent-mindedly.

"Wal, stake me right heah an' now."

At that Neale generously and still absent-mindedly delivered to Larry a handful of gold and notes that he did not count.

"Hell! I ain't no bank," protested the cowboy.

Hough and Ancliffe joined them and with amusement watched Larry try to find pockets enough for his small fortune.

"Easy come, easy go in Benton," said the gambler, with a smile. Then his glance, alighting upon the quiet Stanton, grew a little puzzled. "Beauty, what ails you?" he asked.

She was pale and her expressive eyes were fixed upon Neale. Hough's words startled her.

"What ails me? ... Place, I've had a forgetful moment--a happy one-- and I'm deathly sick!"

Ancliffe stared in surprise. He took her literally.

Beauty Stanton looked at Neale again. "Will you come to see me?" she asked, with sweet directness.

"Thank you--no," replied Neale. He was annoyed. She had asked him that before, and he had coldly but courteously repelled what he thought were her advances. This time he was scarcely courteous.

The woman flushed. She appeared about to make a quick and passionate reply, in anger and wounded pride, but she controlled the impulse. She left the room with Ancliffe.

"Neale, do you know Stanton is infatuated with you?" asked Hough, thoughtfully.

"Nonsense!" replied Neale.

"She is, though. These women can't fool me. I told you days ago I suspected that. Now I'll gamble on it. And you know how I play my cards."

"She saw me win a pile of money," said Neale, with scorn.

"I'll bet you can't make her take a dollar of it. Any amount you want and any odds."

Neale would not accept the wager. What was he talking about, anyway? What was this drift of things? His mind did not seem clear. Perhaps he had drunk too much. The eyes of both Ruby and Beauty Stanton troubled him. What had he done to these women?

"Neale, you're more than usually excited to-day," observed Hough. "Probably was the run of luck. And then you spouted to the women." Neale confessed his offer to Ruby and Larry, and then his own impulse.

"Ruby called me a fool--crazy--a sky-pilot. Maybe I am."

"Sky-pilot! Well, the little devil!" laughed Hough. "I'll gamble she called you that before you declared yourself."

"Before, yes. I tell you, Hough, I have crazy impulses. They've grown on me out here. They burst like lightning out of a clear sky. I would have done just that thing for Ruby.... Mad, you say? ... Why, man, she's not hopeless! There was something deep behind that impulse. Strange--not understandable! I'm at the mercy of every hour I spend here. Benton has got into my blood. And I see how Benton is a product of this great advance of progress--of civilization--the U. P. R. We're only atoms in a force no one can understand.... Look at Reddy King. That cowboy was set--fixed like stone in his character. But Benton has called to the worst and wildest in him. He'll do something terrible. Mark what I say. We'll all do something terrible. You, too, Place Hough, with all your cold, implacable control. The moment will come, born out of this abnormal tune. I can't explain, but I feel. There's a work-shop in this hell of Benton. Invisible, monstrous, and nameless! ... Nameless like the new graves dug every day out here on the desert.... How few of the honest toilers dream of the spirit that is working on them. That Irishman, Shane, think of him. He fought while his brains oozed from a hole in his head; I saw, but I didn't know then. I wanted to take his place. He said, no, he wasn't hurt, and Casey would laugh at him. Aye, Casey would have laughed! .... They are men. There are thousands of them. The U. P. R. goes on. It can't be stopped. It has the momentum of a great nation pushing it on from behind.... And I, who have lost all I cared for, and you, who are a drone among the bees, and Ruby and Stanton with their kind, poor creatures sucked into the vortex; yes, and that mob of leeches, why we all are so stung by that nameless spirit that we are stirred beyond ourselves and dare both height and depth of impossible things."

"You must be drunk," said Place, gravely, "and yet what you say hits me hard. I'm a gambler. But sometimes--there are moments when I might be less or more. There's mystery in the air. This Benton is a chaos. Those hairy toilers of the rails! I've watched them hammer and lift and dig and fight. By day they sweat and they bleed, they sing and joke and quarrel--and go on with the work. By night they are seized by the furies. They fight among themselves while being plundered and murdered by Benton's wolves. Heroic by day--hellish by night.... And so, spirit or what--they set the pace."

Next afternoon, when parasitic Benton awoke, it found the girl Ruby dead in her bed.

Her door had to be forced. She had not been murdered. She had destroyed much of the contents of a trunk. She had dressed herself in simple garments that no one in Benton had ever seen. It did not appear what means she had employed to take her life. She was only one of many. More than one girl of Benton's throng had sought the same short road and cheated life of further pain.

When Neale heard about it, upon his return to Benton, late that afternoon, Ruby was in her grave. It suited him to walk out in the twilight and stand awhile in the silence beside the bare sandy mound. No stone--no mark. Another nameless grave! She had been a child once, with dancing eyes and smiles, loved by some one, surely, and perhaps mourned by some one living. The low hum of Benton's awakening night life was borne faintly on the wind. The sand seeped; the coyotes wailed; and yet there was silence. Twilight lingered. Out on the desert the shadows deepened.

By some chance the grave of the scarlet woman adjoined that of a laborer who had been killed by a blast. Neale remembered the spot. He had walked out there before. A morbid fascination often drew him to view that ever-increasing row of nameless graves. As the workman had given his life to the road, so had the woman. Neale saw a significance in the parallel.

Neale returned to the town troubled in mind. He remembered the last look Ruby had given him. Had he awakened conscience in her? Upon questioning Hough, he learned that Ruby had absented herself from the dancing-hall and had denied herself to all on that last night of her life.

There was to be one more incident relating to this poor girl before Benton in its mad rush should forget her.

Neale divined the tragedy before it came to pass, but he was as powerless to prevent it as any other spectator in Beauty Stanton's hall.

Larry King reacted in his own peculiar way to the news of Ruby's suicide, and the rumored cause. He stalked into that dancing-hall, where his voice stopped the music and the dancers.

"Come out heah!" he shouted to the pale Cordy.

And King spun the man into the center of the hall, where he called him every vile name known to the camp, scorned and slapped and insulted him, shamed him before that breathless crowd, goaded him at last into a desperate reaching for his gun, and killed him as he drew it.