Chapter 22
 

To Allie Lee, again a prisoner in the clutches of Durade, the days in Benton had been mysterious, the nights dreadful. In fear and trembling she listened with throbbing ears to footsteps and low voices, ceaseless, as of a passing army, and a strange, muffled roar, rising and swelling and dying.

Durade's caravan had entered Benton in the dark. Allie had gotten an impression of wind and dust, lights and many noisy hurried men, and a crowded jumble of tents. She had lived in the back room of a canvas house. A door opened out into a little yard, fenced high with many planks, over or through which she could not see. Here she had been allowed to walk. She had seen Durade once, the morning after Fresno and his gang had brought her to Benton, when he had said that meals would be sent her, and that she must stay there until he had secured better quarters. He threatened to kill her if he caught her in another attempt to escape. Allie might have scaled the high fence, but she was more afraid of the unknown peril outside than she was of him.

She listened to the mysterious life of Benton, wondering and fearful; and through the hours there came to her the nameless certainty of something tremendous and terrible that was to happen to her. But spirit and hope were unquenchable. Not prayer nor reason nor ignorance was the source of her sustained and inexplicable courage. A star shone over her destiny or a good angel hovered near. She sensed in a vague and perplexing way that she must be the center of a mysterious cycle of events. The hours were fraught with strain and suspense, yet they passed fleetingly. A glorious and saving moment was coming--a meeting that would be as terrible as sweet. Benton held her lover Neale and her friend Larry. They were searching for her. She felt their nearness. It was that which kept her alive. She knew the truth with her heart. And while she thrilled at the sound of every step, she also shuddered, for there was Durade with his desperadoes. Blood would be spilled. Somewhere, somehow, that meeting would come. Neale would rush to her. And the cowboy! ... Allie remembered the red blaze of his face, the singular, piercing blue of his eye, his cool, easy, careless air, his drawling speech--and underneath all his lazy gentleness a deadliness of blood and iron.

So Allie Lee listened to all sounds, particularly to all footsteps, waiting for that one which was to make her heart stand still.

Some one had entered the room adjoining hers and was now fumbling at the rude door which had always been barred from the other side. It opened. Stitt, the mute who attended and guarded her, appeared, carrying bundles. Entering, he deposited these upon Allie's bed. Then he made signs for her to change from the garb she wore to the clothes contained in the bundles. Further, he gave her to understand that she was to hurry, that she was to be taken away. With that he went out, shutting and barring the door after him.

Allie's hands shook as she opened the packages. That very hour might bring her freedom. She was surprised to find a complete outfit of woman's apparel, well made and of fine material. Benton, then, had stores and women. Hurriedly she made the change, which was very welcome. The dress did not fit her as well as it might have done, but the bonnet and cloak were satisfactory, as were also the little boots. She found a long, dark veil and wondered if she was expected to put that on.

A knocking at the door preceded a call, "Allie, are you ready?"

"Yes," she replied.

The door opened. Durade entered. He appeared thinner than she had ever seen him, with more white in or beneath his olive complexion, and there were marks of strain and of passion on his face. Allie knew he labored under some strong, suppressed excitement. More and more he seemed to lose something of his old character--of the stately Spanish manner.

"Put that veil on," he said. "I'm not ready for Benton to see you."

"Are you--taking me away?" she asked.

"Only down the street. I've a new place," he replied. "Come. Stitt will bring your things."

Allie could not see very well through the heavy veil and she stumbled over the rude threshold. Durade took hold of her arm and presently led her out into the light. The air was hot, windy, dusty. The street was full of hurrying and lounging men. Allie heard different snatches of speech as she and Durade went on. Some stared and leered at her, at which times Durade's hold tightened on her arm and his step quickened. She was certain no one looked at Durade. Some man jostled her, another pinched her arm. Her ears tingled with unfamiliar coarse speech.

They walked through heavy sand and dust, then along a board walk, to turn aside before what was apparently a new brick structure, but a closer view proved it to be only painted wood. The place rang hollow with a sound of hammers. It looked well, but did not feel stable underfoot. Durade led her through two large hall-like rooms into a small one, light and newly furnished.

"The best Benton afforded," said Durade, waving his hand. "You'll be comfortable. There are books--newspapers. Here's a door opening into a little room. It's dark, but there's water, towel, soap. And you've a mirror.... Allie, this is luxury to what you've had to put up with."

"It is, indeed," she replied, removing her veil, and then the cloak and bonnet. "But--am I to be shut up here?"

"Yes. Sometimes at night early I'll take you out to walk. But Benton is--"

"What?" she asked, as he paused.

"Benton will not last long," he finished, with a shrug of his shoulders. "There'll be another one of these towns out along the line. We'll go there. And then to Omaha."

More than once he had hinted at going on eastward.

"I'll find your mother--some day," he added, darkly. "If I didn't believe that I'd do differently by you."

"Why?"

"I want her to see you as good as she left you. Then! ... Are you ever going to tell me how she gave me the slip?"

"She's dead, I told you."

"Allie, that's a lie. She's hiding in some trapper's cabin or among the Indians. I should have hunted all over that country where you met my caravan. But the scouts feared the Sioux. The Sioux! We had to run. And so I never got the truth of your strange appearance on that trail."

Allie had learned that reiteration of the fact of her mother's death only convinced Durade the more that she must be living. While he had this hope she was safe so long as she obeyed him. A dark and sinister meaning lay covert in his words. She doubted not that he had the nature and the power to use her in order to be revenged upon her mother. That passion and gambling appeared to be all for which he lived.

Suddenly he seized her fiercely in his arms. "You're the picture of her!"

Then slowly he released her and the corded red of his neck subsided. His action had been that of a man robbed of all he loved, who remembered, in a fury of violent longing, hate, and despair, what he had lost in life. Allie was left alone.

She gazed around the room that she expected to be her prison for an indefinite length of time. Walls and ceiling were sections, locking together, and in some places she could see through the cracks. One side opened upon a tent wall; the other into another room; the small glass windows upon a house of canvas. When Allie put her hand against any part of her room she found that it swayed and creaked. She understood then that this house had been made in sections, transported to Benton by train, and hurriedly thrown together.

She looked next at the newspapers. How strange to read news of the building of the U. P. R.! The name of General Lodge, chief engineer, made Allie tremble. He had predicted a fine future for Warren Neale. She read that General Lodge now had a special train and that he contemplated an inspection trip out as far as the rails were laid. She read that the Pacific Construction Company was reputed to be crossing the Sierra Nevada, that there were ten thousand Chinamen at work on the road, that the day when East and West were to meet was sure to come. Eagerly she searched, her heart thumping, for the name of Neale, but she did not find it. She read in one paper that the Sioux were active along the line between Medicine Bow and Kearney. Every day the workmen would sight a band of Indians, and, growing accustomed to the sight, they would become careless, and so many lost their lives. A massacre had occurred out on the western end of the road, where the construction gangs were working. Day after day the Sioux had prowled around without attacking, until the hardy and reckless laborers lost fear and caution. Then, one day, a grading gang working a mile from the troops was set upon by a band of swiftly riding warriors, and before they could raise a gun in defense were killed and scalped in their tracks.

Allie read on. She devoured the news. Manifestly the world was awakening to the reality of the great railroad. How glad Neale must be! Always he had believed in the greatness and the reality of the U. P. R. Somewhere along that line he was working--perhaps every night he rode into Benton. Her emotions overwhelmed her as she thought of him so near, and for a moment she could not see the print. Neale would never again believe she was dead. And indeed she did live! She breathed--she was well, strong, palpitating. She was sitting here in Benton, reading about the building of the railroad. She wondered with a pang what her disappearance would mean to Neale. He had said his life would be over if he lost her again. She shivered.

Suddenly her eye rested on printed letters, familiar and startling. Allison Lee!

"Allison Lee!" she breathed, very low. "My father!" And she read that Allison Lee, commissioner of the U. P. R. and contractor for big jobs along the line, would shortly leave his home in Council Bluffs, to meet some of the directors in New York City in the interests of the railroad. "If Durade and he ever meet!" she whispered. And in that portent she saw loom on the gambler's horizon another cloud. In his egotism and passion and despair he was risking more than he knew. He could not hope to keep her a prisoner for very long. Allie felt again the gathering surety of an approaching climax.

"My danger is, he may harm me, use me for his gambling lure, or kill me," she murmured. And her prevision of salvation contended with the dark menace of the hour. But, as always, she rose above hopelessness.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of the mute, Stitt, who brought her a few effects left at the former place, and then a tray holding her dinner. That day passed swiftly.

Darkness came, bringing a strange augmentation of the sounds with which Allie had become familiar. She did not use her lamp, for she had become accustomed to being without one, and she seemed to be afraid of a light. Only a dim, pale glow came in at her window. But the roar of Benton--that grew as night fell. She had heard something similar in the gold-camps of California and in the grading-camps where Durade had lingered; this was at once the same and yet vastly different. She lay listening and thinking. The low roar was that of human beings, and any one of its many constituents seemed difficult to distinguish. Voices--footsteps--movement--music--mirth--dancing-- clink of gold and glasses--the high, shrill laugh of a woman--the loud, vacant laugh of a man--sudden gust of dust-laden wind sweeping overhead... all these blended in the mysterious sound that voiced the strife and agony of Benton. For hours it kept her awake; and when she did fall asleep it was so late in the night that, upon awakening next day, she thought it must be noon or later.

That day passed and another night came. It brought a change in that the house she was in became alive and roaring. Durade had gotten his establishment under way. Allie lay in sleepless suspense. Rough, noisy, thick-voiced men appeared to be close to her, in one of the rooms adjoining hers, and outside in the tents. The room, however, into which hers opened was not entered. Dawn had come before Allie fell asleep.

Thus days passed during which she saw only the attendant, Stitt, and Allie began to feel a strain that she believed would be even harder on her than direct contact with Benton life. While she was shut up there, what chance had she of ever seeing Neale or Larry even if they were in Benton? Durade had said he would take her outdoors occasionally, but she had not seen him. Restlessness and gloom began to weigh upon her and she was in continual conflict with herself. She began to think of disobeying Durade. Something would happen to him sooner or later, and in that event what was she to do? Why not try and escape? Whatever the evil of Benton, it was possible that she might not fall into bad hands. Anything would be better than her confinement here, with no sight of the sun, with no one to speak to, with nothing to do but brood and fight her fancies and doubts, and listen to that ceaseless, soft, mysterious din. Allie believed she could not long bear that. Now and then occurred a change in her mind which frightened her. It was a regurgitation of the old tide of somber horror which had submerged her after the murder of her mother.

She was working herself into a frenzied state when unexpectedly Durade came to her room. At first glance she hardly knew him. He looked thin and worn; his eyes glittered; his hands shook; and the strange radiance that emanated from him when his passion for gambling had been crowned with success shone stronger than Allie had ever seen it.

"Allie, the time's come," he said. He seemed to be looking back into the past.

"What time?" she asked.

"For you to do for me--as your mother did before you."

"I--I--don't understand."

"Make yourself beautiful!"

"Beautiful! ... How?" Allie had an inkling of what it meant, but all her mind repudiated the horrible suggestion.

Durade laughed. He had indeed changed. He seemed a weaker man. Benton was acting powerfully upon him.

"How little vanity you have! ... Allie, you are beautiful now or at any time. You'll be so when you're old or dead.... I mean for you to show more of your beauty.... Let down your hair. Braid it a little. Put on a white waist. Open it at the neck.... You remember how your mother did."

Allie stared at him, slowly paling. She could not speak. It had come--the crisis that she had dreaded.

"You look like a ghost!" Durade exclaimed. "Like she did, years ago when I told her--this same thing--the first time!"

"You mean to use me--as you used her?" faltered Allie.

"Yes. But you needn't be afraid or sick. I'll always be with you."

"What am I to do?"

"Be ready in the afternoon when I call you."

"I know now why my mother hated you," burst out Allie. For the first time she too hated him, and felt the stronger for it.

"She'll pay for that hate, and so will you," he replied, passionately. His physical action seemed involuntary--a shrinking as if from a stab. Then followed swift violence. He struck Allie across the mouth with his open hand, a hard blow, almost knocking her down.

"Don't let me hear that from you again!" he continued, furiously.

With that he left the room, closing but not barring the door.

Allie put her hand to her lips. They were bleeding. She tasted her own warm and salty blood. Then there was born in her something that burned and throbbed and swelled and drove out all her vacillations. That blow was what she had needed. There was a certainty now as to her peril, just as there was imperious call for her to help herself and save herself.

"Neale or Larry will visit Durade's," she soliloquized, with her pulses beating fast. "And if they do not come--some one else will... some man I can trust."

Therefore she welcomed Durade's ultimatum. She paid more heed to the brushing and arranging of her hair, and to her appearance, than ever before in her life. The white of her throat and neck mantled red as she exposed them, intentionally, for the gaze of men. Her beauty was to be used as had been her mother's. But there would be some one who would understand, some one to pity and help her.

She had not long to meditate and wait. She heard the heavy steps and voices of men entering the room next hers.

Presently Durade called her. With a beating heart Allie rose and pushed open the door. From that moment there never would be any more monotony for her--nor peace--nor safety. Yet she was glad, and faced the room bravely, for Neale or Larry might be there.

Durade had furnished this larger place luxuriously, and evidently intended to use it for a private gambling-den, where he would bring picked gamesters. Allie saw about eight or ten men who resembled miners or laborers.

Durade led her to a table that had been placed under some shelves which were littered with bottles and glasses. He gave her instructions what to do when called upon, saying that Stitt would help her; then motioning her to a chair, he went back to the men. It was difficult for her to raise her eyes, and she could not at once do so.

"Durade, who's the girl?" asked a man.

The gambler vouchsafed for reply only a mysterious smile.

"Bet she's from California," said another. "They bloom like that out there."

"Now, ain't she your daughter?" queried a third.

But Durade chose to be mysterious. In that he left his guests license for covert glances without the certainty which would permit of brutal boldness.

They gathered around a table to play faro. Then Durade called for drinks. This startled Allie and she hastened to comply with his demand. When she lifted her eyes and met the glances of these men-- she had a strange feeling that somehow recalled the California days. Her legs were weak under her; a hot anger labored under her breast; she had to drag her reluctant feet across the room. Her spirit sank, and then leaped. It whispered that looks and words and touches could only hurt and shame her for this hour of her evil plight. They must rouse her resistance and cunning wit. It was a fact that she was helpless for the present. But she still lived, and her love was infinite.

Fresno was there, throwing dice with two soldiers. To his ugliness had been added something that had robbed his face of the bronze tinge of outdoor life and had given it red and swollen lines and shades of beastly greed. Benton had made a bad man worse.

Mull was there, heavier than when he had ruled the grading-camp, sodden with drink, thick-lipped and red-cheeked, burly, brutal, and still showing in every action and loud word the bully. He was whirling a wheel and rolling a ball and calling out in his heavy voice. With him was a little, sallow-faced man, like a wolf, with sneaky, downcast eyes and restless hands. He answered to the name of Andy. These two were engaged in fleecing several blue-shirted, half- drunken spikers.

Durade was playing faro with four other men, or at least there were that number seated with him. One, whose back was turned toward Allie, wore black, and looked and seemed different from the others. He did not talk nor drink. Evidently his winning aggravated Durade. Presently Durade addressed the man as Jones.

Then there were several others standing around, dividing their attention between Allie and the gamblers. The door opened occasionally, and each time a different man entered, held a moment's whispered conversation with Durade, and then went out. These men were of the same villainous aspect that characterized Fresno. Durade had surrounded himself with lieutenants and comrades who might be counted upon to do anything.

Allie was not long in gathering this fact, nor that there were subtle signs of suspicion among the gamesters. Most of them had gotten under the influence of drink that Durade kept ordering. Evidently he furnished this liquor free and with a purpose.

The afternoon's play ended shortly. So far as Allie could see, Jones, the man in black, a pale, thin-lipped, cold-eyed gambler, was the only guest to win. Durade's manner was not pleasant while he paid over his debts. Durade always had been a poor loser.

"Jones, you'll sit in to-morrow," said Durade.

"Maybe," replied the other.

"Why not? You're winner," retorted Durade, hot-headed in an instant.

"Winners are choosers," returned Jones, with an enigmatic smile. His hard, cold eyes shifted to Allie and seemed to pierce her, then went back to Durade and Mull and Fresno. Plain it was to Allie, with her woman's intuition, that if Jones returned it would not be because he trusted that trio. Durade apparently made an effort to swallow his resentment, but the gambling pallor of his face had never been more marked. He went out with Jones, and the others slowly followed.

Fresno approached Allie.

"Hullo, gurly! You sure look purtier than in thet buckskin outfit," he leered.

Allie got up, ready for fight or defense. Durade had forgotten her.

Fresno saw her glance at the door.

"He's goin' to the bad," he went on, with his big hand indicating the door. "Benton's too hot fer his kind. He'll not git up some fine mornin'.... An' you'd better cotton to me. You ain't his kin--an' he hates you an' you hate him. I seen thet. I'm no fool. I'm sorta gone on you. I wish I hadn't fetched you back to him."

"Fresno, I'll tell Durade," replied Allie, forcing her lips to be firm. If she expected to intimidate him she was disappointed.

Fresno leered wisely. "You'd better not. Fer I'll kill him, an' then you'll be a sweet little chunk of meat among a lot of wolves!"

He laughed and his large frame lurched closer. He wore a heavy gun and a knife in his belt. Also there protruded the butt of a pistol from the inside of his open vest. Allie felt the heat from his huge body, and she smelled the whisky upon him, and sensed the base, faithless, malignant animalism of the desperado. Assuredly, if he had any fear, it was not of Durade.

"I'm sorta gone on you myself," repeated Fresno. "An' Durade's a greaser. He's runnin' a crooked game. All these games are crooked. But Benton won't stand for a polite greaser who talks sweet an' gambles crooked. Mebbe' no one's told you what this place Benton is."

"I haven't heard. Tell me," replied Allie. She might learn from any one.

Fresno appeared at fault for speech. "Benton's a beehive," he replied, presently. "An' when the bees come home with their honey, why, the red ants an' scorpions an' centipedes an' rattlesnakes git busy. I've seen some places in my time, but--Benton beats 'em all.... Say, I'll sneak you out at nights to see what's goin' on, an' I'll treat you handsome. I'm sorta--"

The entrance of Durade cut short Fresno's further speech. "What are you saying to her?" demanded Durade, in anger.

"I was jest tellin' her about what a place Benton is," replied Fresno.

"Allie, is that true?" queried Durade, sharply.

"Yes," she replied.

"Fresno, I did not like your looks."

"Boss, if you don't like 'em you know what you can do," rejoined Fresno, impudently, and he lounged out of the room.

"Allie, these men are all bad," said Durade. "You must avoid them when my back's turned. I cannot run my place without them, so I am compelled to endure much."

Allie's attendant came in with her supper and she went to her room.

Thus began Allie Lee's life as an unwilling and innocent accomplice of Durade in his retrogression from the status of a gambler to that of a criminal. In California he had played the game, diamond cut diamond. But he had broken. His hope, spirit, luck, nerve were gone. The bottle and Benton had almost destroyed his skill at professional gambling.

The days passed swiftly. Every afternoon Durade introduced a new company to his private den. Few ever came twice. In this there was a grain of hope, for if all the men in Benton, or out on the road, could only pass through Durade's hall, the time would come when she would meet Neale or Larry. She lived for that. She was constantly on the lookout for a man she could trust with her story. Honest-faced laborers were not wanting in the stream of visitors Durade ushered into her presence, but either they were drunk or obsessed by gambling, or she found no opportunity to make her appeal.

These afternoons grew to be hideous for Allie. She had been subjected to every possible attention, annoyance, indignity, and insult, outside of direct violence. She could only shut her eyes and ears and lips. Fresno found many opportunities to approach her, sometimes in Durade's presence, the gambler being blind to all but the cards and gold. At such times Allie wished she was sightless and deaf and feelingless. But after she was safely in her room again she told herself nothing had happened. She was still the same as she had always been. And sleep obliterated quickly what she had suffered. Every day was one nearer to that fateful and approaching moment. And when that moment did come what would all this horror amount to? It would fade--be as nothing. She would not let words and eyes harm her. They were not tangible--they had no substance for her. They made her sick with rage and revolt at the moment, but they had no power, no taint, no endurance. They were evil passing winds.

As she saw Durade's retrogression, so she saw the changes in all about him. His winnings were large and his strange passion for play increased with them. The free gold that enriched Fresno and Mull and Andy only augmented their native ferocity. There were also Durade's other helpers--Black, his swarthy doorkeeper, a pallid fellow called Dayss, who always glanced behind him, and Grist, a short, lame, bullet-headed, silent man--all of them under the spell of the green cloth.

With Durade's success had come the craze for bigger stakes, and these could only be played for with other gamblers. So the black- frocked, cold-faced sharps became frequent visitors at Durade's. Jones, the professional, won on that second visit--a fatal winning for him. Allie saw the giant Fresno suddenly fling himself upon Jones and bear him to the floor. Then Allie fled to her room. But she heard curses--a shot--a groan--Durade's loud voice proclaiming that the gambler had cheated--and then the scraping of a heavy body being dragged out.

This murder horrified Allie, yet sharpened her senses. Providence had protected her. Durade had grown rich--wild--vain--mad to pit himself against the coolest and most skilful gamblers in Benton--and therefore his end was imminent. Allie lay in the dark, listening to Benton's strange wailing roar, sad, yet hideous, and out of what she had seen and heard, and from the mournful message on the night wind, she realized how closely associated were gold and evil and men, and how inevitably they must lead to lawlessness and to bloodshed and to death.