Chapter 21
 

Benton slowed and quieted down a few days before pay-day, to get ready for the great rush. Only the saloons and dance-halls and gambling-hells were active, and even here the difference was manifest.

The railroad-yard was the busiest place in the town, for every train brought huge loads of food, merchandise, and liquor, the transporting of which taxed the teamsters to their utmost.

The day just before pay-day saw the beginning of a singular cycle of change. Gangs of laborers rode in on the work-trains from the grading-camps and the camps at the head of the rails, now miles west of Benton. A rest of several days inevitably followed the visit of the pay-car. It was difficult to keep enough men at work to feed and water the teams, and there would have been sorry protection from the Indians had not the troops been on duty. Pay-days were not off-days for the soldiers.

Steady streams of men flowed toward Benton from east and west; and that night the hum of Benton was merry, subdued, waiting.

Bright and early the town with its added thousands awoke. The morning was clear, rosy, fresh. On the desert the colors changed from soft gray to red and the whirls of dust, riding the wind, resembled little clouds radiant with sunset hues. Silence and solitude and unbroken level reigned outside in infinite contrast to the seething town. Benton resembled an ant-heap at break of day. A thousand songs arose, crude and coarse and loud, but full of joy. Pay-day and vacation were at hand!

    "Then drill, my Paddies, drill!
     Drill, my heroes, drill!
     Drill all day,
     No sugar in your tay,
     Workin' on the U. P. Railway."

Casey was one Irish trooper of thousands who varied the song and tune to suit his taste. The content alone they all held. Drill! They were laborers who could turn into regiments at a word.

They shaved their stubby beards and donned their best--a bronzed, sturdy, cheery army of wild boys. The curse rested but lightly upon their broad shoulders.

Strangely enough, the morning began without the gusty wind so common to that latitude, and the six inches of powdery white dust did not rise. The wind, too, waited. The powers of heaven smiled in the clear, quiet morning, but the powers of hell waited--for the hours to come, the night and the darkness.

At nine o'clock a mob of five thousand men had congregated around the station, most of them out in the open, on the desert side of the track. They were waiting for the pay-train to arrive. This hour was the only orderly one that Benton ever saw. There were laughter, profanity, play--a continuous hum, but compared to Benton's usual turmoil, it was pleasant. The workmen talked in groups, and, like all crowds of men sober and unexcited, they were given largely to badinage and idle talk.

"Wot was ut I owed ye, Moike?" asked a strapping grader.

Mike scratched his head. "Wor it thorty dollars this toime?"

"It wor," replied the other. "Moike, yez hev a mimory."

A big Negro pushed out his huge jaw and blustered at his fellows.

"I's a-gwine to bust thet yaller nigger's haid," he declared.

"Bill, he's your fr'en'. Cool down, man, cool down," replied a comrade.

A teamster was writing a letter in lead-pencil, using a board over his knees.

"Jim, you goin' to send money home?" queried a fellow-laborer.

"I am that, an' first thing when I get my pay," was the reply.

"Reminds me, I owe for this suit I'm wearin'. I'll drop in an' settle."

A group of spikers held forth on a little bank above the railroad track, at a point where a few weeks before they had fastened those very rails with lusty blows.

"Well, boys, I think I see the smoke of our pay-dirt, way down the line," said one.

"Bandy, your eyes are pore," replied another.

"Yep, she's comin'," said another. "'Bout time, for I haven't two- bits to my name."

"Boys, no buckin' the tiger for me to-day," declared Bandy.

He was laughed at by all except one quiet comrade who gazed thoughtfully eastward, back over the vast and rolling country. This man was thinking of home, of wife and little girl, of what pay-day meant for them.

Bandy gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder.

"Frank, you got drunk an' laid out all night, last payday."

Frank remembered, but he did not say what he had forgotten that last pay-day.

A long and gradual slope led from Benton down across the barren desert toward Medicine Bow. The railroad track split it and narrowed to a mere thread upon the horizon. The crowd of watching, waiting men saw smoke rise over that horizon line, and a dark, flat, creeping object. Through the big throng ran a restless murmur. The train was in sight. It might have been a harbinger of evil, for a subtle change, nervous, impatient, brooding, visited that multitude. A slow movement closed up the disintegrated crowd and a current of men worked forward to encounter resistance and opposing currents. They had begun to crowd for advantageous positions closer to the pay-car so as to be the first in line.

A fight started somewhere, full of loud curses and dull blows; and then a jostling mass tried the temper of the slow-marching men. Some boss yelled an order from a box-car, and he was hooted. There was no order. When the train whistled for Benton a hoarse and sustained shout ran through the mob, not from all lips, nor from any massed group, but taken up from man to man--a strange sound, the first note of calling Benton.

The train arrived. Troops alighting preserved order near the pay- car; and out of the dense mob a slow stream of men flowed into the car at one end and out again at the other.

Bates, a giant digger and a bully, was the first man in the line, the first to get his little share of the fortunes in gold passing out of the car that day.

Long before half of that mob had received its pay Bates lay dead upon a sanded floor, killed in a drunken brawl.

And the Irishman Mike had received his thirty dollars.

And the big Negro had broken the head of his friend.

And the teamster had forgotten to send money home.

And his comrade had neglected to settle for the suit of clothes he was wearing.

And Bandy, for all his vows, had gone straight for bucking the tiger.

And Frank, who had gotten drunk last pay-day, had been mindful of wife and little girl far away and had done his duty.

As the spirit of the gangs changed with the coming of the gold, so did that of the day.

The wind began to blow, the dust began to fly, the sun began to burn; and the freshness and serenity of the morning passed.

Main street in Benton became black-streaked with men, white-sheeted with dust. There was a whining whistle in the wind as it swooped down. It complained; it threatened; it strengthened; and from the heating desert it blew in stiflingly hot. A steady tramp, tramp, tramp rattled the loose boards as the army marched down upon Benton. It moved slowly, the first heave of a great mass getting under way. Stores and shops, restaurants and hotels and saloons, took toll from these first comers. Benton swallowed up the builders as fast as they marched from the pay-train. It had an insatiable maw. The bands played martial airs, and soldiers who had lived through the Rebellion felt the thrill and the quick-step and the call of other days.

Toward afternoon Benton began to hurry. The hour was approaching when crowded halls and tents must make room for fresh and unspent gangs. The swarms of men still marched up the street. Benton was gay and noisy and busy then. White shirts and blue and red plaid held their brightness despite the dust. Gaudily dressed women passed in and out of the halls. All was excitement, movement, color, merriment, and dust and wind and heat. The crowds moved on because they were pushed on. Music, laughter, shuffling feet and clinking glass, a steady tramp, voices low and voices loud, the hoarse brawl of the barker--all these varying elements merged into a roar--a roar that started with a merry note and swelled to a nameless din.

The sun set, the twilight fell, the wind went down, the dust settled, and night mantled Benton. The roar of the day became subdued. It resembled the purr of a gorging hyena. The yellow and glaring torches, the bright lamps, the dim, pale lights behind tent walls, all accentuated the blackness of the night and filled space with shadows, like specters. Benton's streets were full of drunken men, staggering back along the road upon which they had marched in. No woman now showed herself. The darkness seemed a cloak, cruel yet pitiful. It hid the flight of a man running from fear; it softened the sounds of brawling and deadened the pistol-shot. Under its cover soldiers slunk away sobered and ashamed, and murderous bandits waited in ambush, and brawny porters dragged men by the heels, and young gamblers in the flush of success hurried to new games, and broken wanderers sought some place to rest, and a long line of the vicious, of mixed dialect, and of different colors, filed down in the dark to the tents of lust.

Life indoors that night in Benton was monstrous, wonderful, and hideous.

Every saloon was packed, and every dive and room filled with a hoarse, violent mob of furious men: furious with mirth, furious with drink, furious with wildness--insane and lecherous, spilling gold and blood.

The gold that did not flow over the bars went into the greedy hands of the cold, swift gamblers or into the clutching fingers of wild- eyed women. The big gambling-hell had extra lights, extra attendants, extra tables; and there round the great glittering mirror-blazing bar struggled and laughed and shouted a drink-sodden mass of humanity. And all through the rest of the big room groups and knots of men stood and sat around the tables, intent, absorbed, obsessed, listening with strained ears, watching with wild eyes, reaching with shaking hands--only to gasp and throw down their cards and push rolls of gold toward cold-faced gamblers, with a muttered curse. This was the night of golden harvest for the black-garbed, steel-nerved, cold-eyed card-sharps. They knew the brevity of time, and of hour, and of life.

In the dancing-halls there was a maddening whirl, an immense and incredible hilarity, a wild fling of unleashed, burly men, an honest drunken spree. But there was also the hideous, red-eyed drunkenness that did not spring from drink; the unveiled passion, the brazen lure, the raw, corrupt, and terrible presence of bad women in absolute license at a wild and baneful hour.

That was the last pay-day Beauty Stanton's dancing-hall ever saw. Likewise it was to be the last she would ever see. In the madness of that night there was written finality--the end. Benton had reached its greatest, wildest, blackest, vilest. But not its deadliest! That must come--later--as an aftermath. But the height or the depth was reached.

The scene at midnight was unreal, livid, medieval. Dance of cannibals, dance of sun-worshipers, dance of Apaches on the war- path, dance of cliff-dwellers wild over the massacre of a dreaded foe--only these orgies might have been comparable to that whirl of gold and lust in Beauty Stanton's parlors.

Benton seemed breathing hard, laboring under its load of evil, dancing toward its close.

Night wore on and the hour of dawn approached. The lamps were dead; the tents were dark; the music was stilled; and the low, soft roar was but a hollow mockery of its earlier strength.

Like specters men staggered slowly and wanderingly through the gray streets. Gray ghosts! All was gray. A vacant laugh pealed out and a strident curse, and then again the low murmur prevailed. Benton was going to rest. Weary, drunken, spent nature sought oblivion--on disordered beds, on hard floors, and in dusty corners. An immense and hovering shadow held the tents and halls and streets. Through this opaque gloom the silent and the mumbling revelers reeled along. Louder voices broke the spell only for an instant. Death lay in the middle of the main street, in the dust--and no passing man halted. It lay as well down the side streets in sandy ditches, and on tent floors, and behind the bar of the gambling-hell, and in a corner of Beauty Stanton's parlor. Likewise death had his counterpart in hundreds of prostrate men, who lay in drunken stupor, asleep, insensible to the dust in their faces. No one answered the low moans of the man who, stabbed and robbed, had crawled so far and could crawl no farther.

But the dawn would not stay back in order to hide Benton's hideousness. The gray lifted out of the streets, the shadows lightened, the east kindled, and the sweet, soft freshness of a desert dawn came in on the gentle breeze.

And when the sun arose, splendid and golden, with its promise and beauty, it shone upon a ghastly, silent, motionless sleeping Benton.