The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey
Neale conceived an idea that he was in line for the long-looked-for promotion. Neither the chief nor Baxter gave any suggestion of a hint of such possibility, but more and more, as the work rapidly progressed, Neale had been intrusted with important inspections.
Long since he had discovered his talent for difficult engineering problems, and with experience had come confidence in his powers. He had been sent from place to place, in each case with favorable results. General Lodge consulted him, Baxter relied upon him, the young engineers learned from him. And when Baxter and his assistants were sent on ahead into the hills Neale had an enormous amount of work on his hands. Still he usually managed to get back to Benton at night.
Whereupon he became a seeker, a searcher; he believed there was not a tent or a hut or a store or a hall in the town that he had not visited. But he found no clue of Allie; he never encountered the well-remembered face of the bandit Fresno. He saw more than one Spaniard and many Mexicans, not one of whom could have been the gambler Durade.
But Benton was too full, too changeful, too secret to be thoroughly searched in little time. Neale bore his burden, although it grew heavier each day. And his growing work on the railroad was his salvation.
One morning he went to the telegraph station, expecting orders from General Lodge. He found the chief's special train at the station, headed east.
"Neale, I'm off for Omaha," said Lodge. "Big pow-wow. The directors roaring again!"
"What about?" queried Neale, always alive to interest of that nature.
"Cost of the construction. What else? Neale, there are two kinds of men building the U. P. R.--men who see the meaning of the great work, and the men who see only the gold in it."
"And they conflict! ... That's what you mean?" "Exactly. We've been years on the job now, and the nearer the meeting of rails from west to east the harder become our problems. Henney is played out, Boone is ill, Baxter won't last much longer. If I were not an old soldier, I would be done up now."
"Chief, I can see only success," replied Neale, with spirit. "Assuredly. We see with the same eyes," said General Lodge, smiling. "Neale, I've a job for you that will make you gray-headed."
"Hardly that," returned Neale, laughing. "Do you remember the survey we made out here in the hills for Number Ten Bridge? Made over two years ago." "I'm not likely to forget it."
"Well, the rails are within twenty miles of Number Ten. They'll be there presently--and no piers to cross on." "How's that?"
"I don't know. The report came in only last night. It's a queer document. Here it is. Study it at your leisure.... It seems a big force of men have been working there for months. Piers have been put in--only to sink."
"Sink!" ejaculated Neale. "Whew! That's a stumper! ... Chief, the survey is mine. I'll never forget how I worked on it."
"Could you have made a mistake?"
"Of course," replied Neale, readily. "But I'd never believe that unless I saw it. A tough job it was--but just the kind of work I eat up."
"Well, you can go out and eat it up some more."
"That means I'll have to camp out there. I can't get back to Benton."
"No, you can't. And isn't that just as well?" queried the chief, with his keen, dark glance on Neale. "Son, I've heard your name coupled with gamblers--and that Stanton woman."
"No doubt. I know them. I've been--seeking some trace of--Allie."
"You still hope to find her? You still imagine some of this riffraff Benton gang made off with her?"
"Son, it's scarcely possible," said Lodge, earnestly. "Anderson claims the Sioux got her. We all incline to that.... Oh, it's hard, Neale.... Love and life are only atoms under the iron heel of the U. P. R.... It's too late now. You can't forget--no--but you must not risk your life--your opportunities--your reputation."
Neale turned away his face for a moment and was silent. An engine whistled; a bell began to ring; some train official called to General Lodge. The chief held up his hand for a little more delay.
"I'm off," he said rapidly. "Neale, you'll go out to Number Ten and take charge."
That surprised and thrilled Neale into eagerness.
"Who are the engineers?"
"Blake and Coffee. I don't know them. Henney sent them out from Omaha. They're well recommended. But that's no matter. Something is wrong. You're to have full charge of engineers, bosses, masons. In fact, I've sent word out to that effect."
"Who's the contractor?" asked Neale.
"I don't know. But whoever he is he has made a pile of money out of this job. And the job's not done. That's what galls me."
"Well, chief, it will be done," said Neale, sharp with determination.
"Good! Neale, I'll start east with another load off my shoulders.... And, son, if you throw up a bridge so there'll be no delay, something temporary for the rails and the work-train, and then plan piers right for Number Ten--well--you'll hear from it, that's all." They shook hands.
"I may be gone a week or a month--I can't tell," went on the chief. "But when I do come I'll probably have a trainload of directors, commissioners, stockholders."
"Bring them on," said Neale. "Maybe if they saw more of what we're up against they wouldn't holler so."
"Right.... Remember, you've full charge and that I trust you implicitly. Good-by and good luck!"
The chief boarded his train as it began to move. Neale watched it leave the station, and with a swelling heart he realized that he had been placed high, that his premonition of advancement had not been without warrant.
The work-train was backing into the station and would depart westward in short order. Neale hurried to his lodgings to pack his few belongings. Larry was lying on his cot, fully dressed and asleep. Neale shook him.
"Wake up, you lazy son-of-a-gun!" shouted Neale. Larry opened his eyes. "Wal, what's wrong? Is it last night or to-morrow?"
"Larry, I'm off. Got charge of a big job." "Is thet all?" drawled Larry, sleepily. "Why, shore I always knowed you'd be chief engineer some day."
"Pard--sit up," said Neale, unsteadily. "Will you stay sober--and watch--and listen for some news of Allie? ... Till I come back to Benton?"
"Neale, air you still dreamin'?" asked Larry, incredulously. "Will you do that much for me?" "Shore."
"Thank you, old friend. Good-by now. I've got to rustle." He left Larry sitting on his cot, staring at nothing. On the way to the station Neale encountered the gambler, Place Hough, who, despite his nocturnal habits, was an early riser. In the excitement of the hour Neale gave way to an impulse. Briefly he told Hough about Allie--her disappearance and probable hidden presence in Benton, and he asked the gambler to keep his eyes and ears open. Hough seemed both surprised and pleased with the confidence, and he said he would go out of his way to help Neale.
Neale had to run to catch the train. A brawny Irishman extended a red-sleeved arm to help him up.
"Up wid yez. Thor!"
Neale found himself with bag and rifle and blanket sprawling on the gravel-covered floor of a flat car. Casey, the old lineman, grinned at him over the familiar short, black pipe.
"B'gorra, it's me ould fri'nd Neale."
"It sure is. How're you Casey?"
"Pritty good fur an ould soldier.... An' it's news I hear of yez, me boy."
"Shure yez hed a boost. Gineral Lodge hisself wor tellin' Grady, the boss, that yez had been given charge of Number Ten."
"Yes, that's correct."
"I'm dom' glad to hear ut," declared the Irishman. "But yez hev a hell of a job in thot Number Ten."
"So I've been told. What do you know about it, Casey?"
"Shure ut ain't much. A fri'nd of mine was muxin' mortor over there. An' he sez whin the crick was dry ut hed a bottom, but whin wet ut shure hed none."
"Then I have got a job on my hands," replied Neale, grimly.
Those days it took the work-train several hours to reach the end of the rails. Neale rode by some places with a profound satisfaction in the certainty that but for him the track would not yet have been spiked there. Construction was climbing fast into the hills. He wondered when and where would be the long-looked-for meeting of the rails connecting East with West. Word had drifted over the mountains that the Pacific division of the construction was already in Utah.
At the camp Colonel Dillon offered Neale an escort of troopers out to Number Ten, but Neale decided he could make better time alone. There had been no late sign of the Indians in that locality and he knew both the road and the trail.
Early next morning, mounted on a fast horse, he set out. It was a melancholy ride. Several times he had been over that ground, once traveling west with Larry, full of ardor and joy at the prospect of soon seeing Allie Lee, and again on the return, in despair at the loss of her.
He rode the twenty miles in three hours. The camp of dirty tents was clustered in a hot valley surrounded by hills sparsely fringed with trees. Neale noted the timber as a lucky augury to his enterprise. It was an idle camp full of lolling laborers.
As Neale dismounted a Mexican came forward.
"Look after the horse," said Neale, and, taking his luggage, he made for a big tent with a fly extended in front. Several men sat on camp-chairs round a table. One of them got up and stepped out.
"Where's Blake and Coffee?" inquired Neale.
"I'm Blake," was the reply, "and there's Coffee. Are you Mr. Neale?"
"Coffee, here's our new boss," called Blake as he took part of Neale's baggage.
Coffee appeared to be a sunburnt, middle-aged man, rather bluff and hearty in his greeting. The younger engineer, Blake, was a tanned, thin-faced individual, with a shifty gaze and constrained manner. The third fellow they introduced as a lineman named Somers. Neale had not anticipated a cordial reception and felt disposed to be generous.
"Have you got quarters for me here?" he inquired.
"Sure. There's lots of room and a cot," replied Coffee.
They carried Neale's effects inside the tent. It was large and spare, containing table and lamp, boxes for seats, several cots, and bags.
"It's hot. Got any drinking-water?" asked Neale, taking off his coat. Next he opened his bag to take things out, then drank thirstily of the water offered him. He did not care much for this part of his new task. These engineers might be sincere and competent, but he had been sent on to judge their work, and the situation was not pleasant. Neale had observed many engineers come and go during his experience on the road; and that fact, together with the authority given him and his loyalty to, the chief, gave him cause for worry. He hoped, and he was ready to believe, that these engineers had done their best on an extremely knotty problem.
"We got Lodge's telegram last night," said Coffee. "Kinda sudden. It jarred us."
"No doubt. I'm sorry. What was the message?"
"Lodge never wastes words," replied the engineer, shortly. But he did not vouchsafe the information for which Neale had asked.
Neale threw his note-book upon the dusty table and, sitting down on the box, he looked up at the men. Both engineers were studying him intently, almost eagerly, Neale imagined.
"Number Ten's a tough nut to crack, eh?" he inquired.
"We've been here three months," replied Blake.
"Wait till you see that quicksand hole," added Coffee.
"Quicksand! It was a dry, solid stream-bed when I ran the line through here and drew the plans for Number Ten," declared Neale.
Coffee and Blake stared blandly at him. So did the lineman Somers.
"You? Did you draw the plans we--we've been working on?" asked Coffee.
"Yes, I did," answered Neale, slowly. It struck him that Blake had paled slightly. Neale sustained a slight shock of surprise and antagonism. He bent over his note-book, opening it to a clean page. Fighting his first impressions, he decided they had arisen from the manifest dismay of the engineers and their consciousness of a blunder.
"Let's get down to notes," Neale went on, taking up his pencil. "You've been here three months?"
"With what force?"
"Two hundred men on and off."
"Who's the gang boss?"
"Colohan. He's had some of the biggest contracts along the line."
Neale was about to inquire the name of the contractor, but he refrained, governed by one of his peculiar impulses.
"Anybody working when you got here?" he went on.
"Yes. Masons had been cutting stone for six weeks."
"What's been done?"
Coffee laughed harshly. "We got the three piers in--good and solid on dry bottom. Then along comes the rain--and our work melts into the quicksand. Since then we've been trying to do it over."
"But why did this happen in the first place?"
Coffee spread wide his arms. "Ask me something easy. Why was the bottom dry and solid? Why did it rain? Why did solid earth turn into quicksand?"
Neale slapped the note-book shut and rose to his feet. "Gentlemen, that is not the talk of engineers," he said, deliberately.
"The hell you say! What is it, then?" burst out Coffee, his face flushing redder.
"I'll inform you later," replied Neale, turning to the lineman. "Somers, tell this gang boss, Colohan, I want him."
Neale left the tent. He had started to walk away when he heard Blake speak up in a fierce undertone.
"Didn't I tell you? We're up against it!"
And Coffee growled a reply Neale could not understand. But the tone of it was conclusive. These men had made a serious blunder and were blaming each other, hating each other for it. Neale was conscious of anger. This section of line came under his survey, and he had been proud to be given such important and difficult work. Incompetent or careless engineers had bungled Number Ten. Neale strode on among the idle and sleeping laborers, between the tents, and then past the blacksmith's shop and the feed corrals down to the river.
A shallow stream of muddy water came murmuring down from the hills. It covered the wide bed that Neale remembered had been a dry, sand- and-gravel waste. On each side the abutment piers had been undermined and washed out. Not a stone remained in sight. The banks were hollowed inward and shafts of heavy boards were sliding down. In the middle of the stream stood a coffer-dam in course of building, and near it another that had collapsed. These frameworks almost hid the tip of the middle pier, which had evidently slid over and was sinking on its side. There was no telling what had been sunk in that hole. All the surroundings--the tons of stone, cut and uncut, the piles of muddy lumber, the platforms and rafts, the crevices in the worn shores up and down both sides--all attested to the long weeks of fruitless labor and to the engulfing mystery of that shallow, murmuring stream.
Neale returned thoughtfully to camp. Blake and Coffee were sitting under the fly in company with a stalwart Irishman.
"Fine sink-hole you picked out for Number Ten, don't you think?" queried Blake.
Neale eyed his interrogator with somewhat of a penetrating glance. Blake did not meet that gaze frankly.
"Yes, it's a sink-hole, all right, and--no mistake," replied Neale. "It's just what I calculated when I ran the plans.... Did you follow those plans?"
Blake appeared about to reply when Coffee cut him short "Certainly we did," he snapped.
"Then where are the breakwaters?" asked Neale, sharply.
"Breakwaters?" ejaculated Coffee. His surprise was sincere.
"Yes, breakwaters," retorted Neale. "I drew plans for breakwaters to be built up-stream so that in high water the rapid current would be directed equally between the piers, and not against them."
"Oh yes! Why--we must have got--it mixed," replied Coffee. "Thought they were to be built last. Wasn't that it, Blake?"
"Sure," replied his colleague, but his tone lacked something.
"Ah--I see," said Neale, slowly.
Then the big Irishman got up to extend a huge hand. "I'm Colohan," he boomed.
Neale liked the bronzed, rough face, good-natured and intelligent. And he was aware of a shrewd pair of gray eyes taking his measure. Why these men seemed to want to look through Neale might have been natural enough, but somehow it struck him strangely. He had come there to help them, not to discharge them. Colohan, however, did not rouse Neale's antagonism as the others had done.
"Colohan, are you sick of this job?" queried Neale, after greeting the boss.
"Yes--an' no," replied Colohan.
"You want to quit, then?" went on Neale, bluntly. The Irishman evidently took this curt query as a foreword of the coming dismissal. He looked shamed, crestfallen, at a loss to reply.
"Don't misunderstand me," continued Neale. "I'm not going to fire you. But if you are sick of the job you can quit. I'll boss the gang myself ... The rails will be here in ten days, and I'm going to have a trestle over that hole so the rails can cross. No holding up the work at this stage of the game ... There's near five thousand men in the gangs back along the line--coming fast. They've all got just one idea--success. The U. P. R. is going through. Soon out here the rails will meet. ... Colohan, make it a matter of your preference. Will you stick?"
"You bet!" he replied, heartily. A ruddy glow emanated from his face. Neale was quick to sense that this Irishman, like Casey, had an honest love for the railroad, whatever he might feel for the labor.
"Get on the job, then," ordered Neale, cheerily. "We'll hustle while there's daylight. We'll have that trestle ready when the rails get here."
Coffee laughed scornfully. "Neale, that sounds fine, but it's impossible until the trains get here with piles and timbers, iron, and other stuff. We meant to run up a trestle then."
"I dare say," replied Neale. "But the U. P. R. did not start that way, and never would finish that way."
"Well, you'll have your troubles," declared Coffee. "Troubles! ... Do you imagine I'm going to think of myself?" retorted Neale. These fellows were beginning to get on his nerves. Coffee grew sullen, Blake shifted uneasily from foot to foot, Colohan beamed upon Neale. "Come on with them orders," he said.
"Right! ... Send men up on the hills to cut and trim trees for piles and beams. ... Find a way or make one for horses to snake down these timbers. Haul that pile-driver down to the river and set it up. ... Have the engineer start up steam and try out. ... Look the blacksmith shop over to see if there's iron enough. If not, telegraph Benton for more--for whatever you want--and send wagons back to the end of the rails. ... That's all for this time, Colohan."
"All right, chief," replied the boss, and he saluted. Then he turned sneeringly to Blake and Coffee. "Did you hear them orders? I'm not takin' none from you again. They're from the chief."
Colohan's manner or tone or the word chief amazed Coffee. He looked nasty.
"Go on and work, then, you big Irish Paddy," he said, violently. "Your chief-blarney doesn't fool us. You're only working to get on the right side of your new boss. ... Let me tell you--you're in this Number Ten deal as deep--as deep as we are."
It had developed that there was hatred between these men. Colohan's face turned fiery red, and, looming over Coffee, he looked the quick-tempered and dangerous nature of his class. "Coffee, I'm sayin' this to your face right now. I ain't deep in this Number Ten deal. ... I obeyed orders--an' damn strange ones, some of them."
Neale intervened and perhaps prevented a clash. "Don't quarrel, men. Sure there's bound to be a little friction for a day or so. But we'll soon get to working."
Colohan strode away without another word. His brawny shoulders were expressive of a doubt.
"Get me my plans for Number Ten construction," said Neale, pleasantly, for he meant to do his share at making the best of it.
Blake brought the plans and spread them out on the table.
"Will you both go over them with me?" inquired Neale.
"What's the use?" returned Coffee, disgustedly. "Neale, you're thick-headed."
"Yes, I guess so," rejoined Neale, constrainedly. "That's why General Lodge sent me up here--over your clear heads."
No retort was forthcoming from the two disgruntled engineers. Neale went into the tent and drew a seat up to the table. He wanted to be alone--to study his plans--to think about the whole matter. He found his old figures and drawings as absorbing as a good story; still, there came breaks in his attention. Blake walked into the tent several times, as if to speak, and each time he retired silently. Again, some messenger brought a telegram to one of the engineers outside, and it must have caused the whispered colloquy that followed. Finally they went away, and Neale, getting to work in earnest, was not disturbed until called for supper.
Neale ate at a mess-table with the laborers, and enjoyed his meal. The Paddies always took to him. One thing he gathered early was the fact that Number Ten bridge was a joke with the men. This sobered Neale and he left the cheery, bantering company for a quiet walk alone.
It was twilight down in the valley, while still daylight up on the hilltops. A faint glow remained from the sunset, but it faded as Neale looked. He walked a goodly distance from camp, so as to be out of earshot. The cool night air was pleasant after the hot day. It fanned his face. And the silence, the darkness, the stars calmed him. A lonely wolf mourned from the heights, and the long wail brought to mind Slingerland's cabin. Then it was only a quick step to memory of Allie Lee; and Neale drifted from the perplexities and problems of his new responsibility to haunting memories, hopes, doubts, fears.
When he returned to the tent he espied a folded paper on the table in the yellow lamplight. It was a telegram addressed to him. It said that back salaries and retention of engineers were at his discretion, and was signed Lodge. This message nonplussed Neale. The chief must mean that Blake and Coffee would not be paid for past work nor kept for future work unless Neale decided otherwise. While he was puzzling over this message the engineers came in.
"Say, what do you make of this?" demanded Neale, and he shoved the telegram across the table toward them.
Both men read it. Coffee threw his coat over on his cot and then lit his pipe.
"What I make of this is--I lose three months' back pay ... nine hundred dollars," he replied, puffing a cloud of smoke.
"And I lose six hundred," supplemented Blake.
Neale leaned back and gazed up at his subordinates. He felt a subtle change in them. They had arrived at some momentous decision.
"But this message reads at my discretion," said Neale. "It's a plain surprise to me. I've no intention of making you lose your back pay, or of firing you, either."
"You'll probably do both--unless we can get together," asserted Coffee.
"Well, can't we get together?"
"That remains to be seen," was the enigmatic reply.
"Ill need you both," went on Neale, thoughtfully. "We've a big job. We've got to put a force of men on the piers while we're building the trestle ... Maybe I'll fall down myself. Heavens! I've made blunders myself. I can't condemn you fellows. I'm willing to call off all talk about past performances and begin over again."
Neale felt that this proposition should have put another light on the question, that it should have been received appreciatively if not enthusiastically. But he was somewhat taken aback by the fact that it was not.
"Ahem! Well, we can talk it over to-morrow," yawned Coffee.
Neale made no more overtures, busied himself with his notes for an hour, and then sought his cot.
Next morning, bright and early, Neale went down to the river to make his close inspection of what had been done toward building Number Ten. From Colohan he ascertained the number of shafts and coffer- dams sunk; from the masons he learned the amount of stone cut to patterns. And he was not only amazed and astounded, but overwhelmed, and incensed beyond expression. The labor had been prodigious. Hundreds of tons of material had been sunk there; and that meant that hundreds of thousands of dollars also had been sunk.
Upon investigation Neale found that, although many cribbings had been sunk for the piers, they had never been put deep enough. And there were coffer-dams that did not dam at all--useless, senseless wastes of time and material, not to say wages. His plans called for fifty thirty-foot piles driven to bedrock, which, according to the excavations he had had made at the time of survey, was forty feet below the surface. Not a pile had been driven! There had been no solid base for any of the cribbings! No foundations for the piers!
At the discovery the blood burned hot in Neale's face and neck.
"No blunder! No incompetence! No misreading of my plans! But a rotten, deliberate deal! ... Work done over and over again! Oh, I see it all now! General Lodge knew it without ever coming here. The same old story! That black stain--that dishonor on the great work! ... Graft! Graft!"
He clambered out of the wet and muddy hole and up the bank. Then he saw Blake sauntering across the flat toward him. Neale sat down abruptly to hide his face and fury, giving himself the task of scraping mud from his boots. When Blake got there Neale had himself fairly well in hand.
"Hello, Neale!" said Blake, suavely. "Collected some mud, I see. It's sure a dirty job."
"Yes, it's been dirty in more ways than mud, I guess," replied Neale. The instant his voice sounded in his ears it unleashed his temper.
"Sure has been a pile of money--dirty government money--sunk in there," rejoined Blake. He spoke with assurance that surprised Neale into a desire to see how far he would go.
"Blake, it's an ill wind that blows nobody good."
A moment of silence passed before Blake spoke again. "Sure. And it'll blow you good, too," he said, breathing hard.
"Every man has his price," replied Neale, lightly.
Then he felt a big, soft roll of bills stuffed into his hand. He took it, trembling all over. He wanted to spring erect, to fling that bribe in its giver's face. But he could, control himself a moment longer.
"Blake, who's the contractor on this job?" he queried, rapidly.
"Don't you know?"
"Well, we supposed you knew. It's Lee."
Neale started as if he had received a stab; the name hurt him in one way and was a shock in another.
"Allison Lee--the commissioner?" he asked, thickly.
"Sure. Oh, we're in right, Neale," replied Blake, with a laugh of relief.
Swift as an Indian, and as savagely, Neale sprang up. He threw the roll of bills into Blake's face.
"You try to bribe me! Me!" burst out Neale, passionately. "You think I'll take your dirty money--cover up your crooked job! Why, you sneak! You thief! You dog!"
He knocked Blake down. "Hold--on--Neale!" gasped Blake. He raised himself on his elbow, half stunned.
"Pick up that money," ordered Neale, and he threatened Blake again. "Hurry! ... Now march for camp!"
Neale walked the young engineer into the presence of his superior. Coffee sat his table under the fly, with Somers and another man. Colohan appeared on the moment, and there were excited comments from others near by. Coffee stood up. His face turned yellow. His lips snarled.
"Coffee, here's your side partner," called Neale, and his voice was biting. "I've got you both dead to rights, you liars! ... You never even tried to work on my plans for Number Ten."
"Neale, what in hell do you suppose we're out here for?" demanded Coffee, harshly. "They're all getting a slice of this money. There's barrels of it. The directors of the road are crooked. They play both ends against the middle. They borrow money from the government and then pay it out to themselves. You're one of these dreamers. You're Lodge's pet. But you can't scare me."
"Coffee, if there was any law out here for stealing you'd go to jail," declared Neale. "You're a thief, same as this pup who tried to bribe me. You're worse. You've held up the line. You've ordered your rotten work done over and over again. This is treachery to General Lodge--to Henney, who sent you out here. And to me it's-- it's--there's no name low enough. I surveyed the line through here. I drew the plans for Number Ten. And I'm going to prove you both cheats. You and your contractor."
"Neale, there's more than us in the deal," said Coffee sullenly.
Colohan strode close, big and formidable. "If you mean me, you're a liar," he declared. "An' don't say it!" Coffee was plainly intimidated, and Colohan turned to Neale. "Boss, I swear I wasn't in on this deal. Lately I guessed it was all wrong. But all I could do was obey orders."
"Neale, you can't prove anything," sneered Coffee. "If you have any sense you'll shut up. I tell you this is only a little deal. I'm on the inside. I know financiers, commissioners, Congressmen, and Senators--and I told you before the directors are all in on this U. P. R. pickings. You're a fool!"
"Maybe. But I'm no thief," retorted Neale.
"Shut up, will you?" shouted Coffee, who plainly did not take kindly to that epithet before the gathering crowd. "I'm no thief ... Men get shot out here for saying less than that."
Neale laughed. He read Coffee's mind. That worthy, responding to the wildness of the time and place, meant to cover his tracks one way or another. And Neale had not lived long with Larry Red King for nothing.
"Coffee, you are a thief," declared Neale, striding forward. "The worst kind. Because you stole without risk. You can't be punished. But I'll carry this deal higher than you." And quick as a flash Neale snatched some telegrams from Coffee's vest pocket. The act infuriated Coffee. His face went purple.
"Hand 'em back!" he yelled, his arm swinging back to his hip.
"I'll bet there's a telegram here from Lee, and I'm entitled to keep it," responded Neale, coolly and slowly.
Then as Coffee furiously jammed his hand back for his gun Neale struck him. Coffee fell with the overturned table out in the sand. His gun dropped as he dropped. Neale was there light and quick. He snatched up the gun.
"Coffee, you and Blake are to understand you're fired," said Neale. "Fired off the job and out of camp, just as you are."
Fifteen days later the work-train crossed Number Ten on a trestle and the construction progressed with new impetus.
Not many days later a train of different character crept slowly foot by foot over that temporary bridge. It carried passenger-coaches, a private car containing the directors of the railroad, and General Lodge's special car. The engine was decorated with flags and the engineer whistled a piercing blast as he rolled out upon the structure. Number Ten had been the last big obstacle.
As fortune would have it, Neale happened on the moment to be standing in a significant and thrilling position, for himself and for all who saw him. And that happened to be in the middle of the stream opposite the trestle on the masonry of the middle pier, now two feet above the coffer-dam. He was as wet and muddy as the laborers with him.
Engineer, fireman, brakemen, and passengers cheered him. For Neale the moment was unexpected and simply heart-swelling. Never in his life had he felt so proud. And yet, stinging among these sudden sweet emotions was a nameless pang.
Presently Neale espied General Lodge leaning out of a window of his car. He was waving. Neale pointed down at his feet, at the solid masonry; and then, circling his mouth with his hands, he yelled with all his might:
His chief yelled back, "You're a soldier!"
That perhaps in the excitement and joy of the moment was the greatest praise the army officer could render. Nothing could have pleased Neale more.
The train passed over the trestle and on out of sight. Upon its return, about the middle of the afternoon, it stopped in camp. A messenger came with word for Neale to report at once to the directors. He hurried to his tent to secure his papers, and then, wet and muddy, he entered the private car of the directors.
It contained only four men--General Lodge, and Warburton, Rogers, and Rudd. All except the tall, white-haired Warburton were comfortable in shirt-sleeves, smoking with a table between them. The instant Neale entered their presence he divined that he faced a big moment in his life.
The chiefs manner, like Larry King's when there was something in the wind, seemed quiet, easy, potential. His searching glance held warmth and a gleam that thrilled Neale. But he was ceremonious, not permitting himself his old familiarity before these dignitaries of the great railroad.
"Gentlemen, you remember Mr. Neale," said Lodge.
They were cordial--pleasant.
Warburton vigorously shook Neale's hand, and leaned back, after the manner of matured men, to look Neale over.
"Young man, I'm glad to meet you again," he declared, in his big voice. "Remember him! Well, I do--though he's thinner, older."
"Small wonder," interposed the chief. "He's been doing a man's work."
"Neale, back there in Omaha you got sore--you quit us," went on Warburton, reprovingly. "That was bad business. I cottoned to you-- and I might have--But no matter. You're with us again."
"Mr. Warburton, I'm ashamed of that," replied Neale, hastily. "But I was hot-headed ... am so still, I fear."
"So am I. So is Lodge. So is any man worth a damn," replied the director.
"Mr. Neale, you look cool enough now," observed Rogers, smiling. "Wish I was as wet and cool as you are. It's hot--in this desert."
Warburton took off his frock-coat. "You gentlemen aren't going to have any the best of me ... And now, Neale, tell us things."
Neale looked at his papers and then at his chief. "For instance," said Lodge, "tell us about Blake and Coffee."
"Haven't you seen them--heard from them?" inquired Neale.
"No. Henney has not, either. And they were his men."
"Gentlemen, I'm afraid I lost my head in regard to them."
"Explain, please," said Warburton. "We will judge your conduct."
It was a rather difficult moment for Neale, because his actions regarding the two engineers now appeared to have been the result of violent temper, rather than a dignified exercise of authority. But then as he remembered Blake's offer and Coffee's threat the heat thrilled along his nerves; and that stirred him to forceful expression.
"I drove them both out of this camp."
"Why?" queried Warburton, sharply.
"Blake tried to bribe me, and Coffee--"
"One at a time," interrupted Warburton, and he thrust a strong hand through his hair, ruffling it. He began to scent battle. "What did Blake try to bribe you to do?"
"He didn't say. But he meant me to cover their tracks."
"So! ... And what did Coffee do?"
"He tried to pull a gun on me."
"Why? Be explicit, please."
"Well, he threatened me. And I laughed at him--called him names."
"Quite a lot, if I remember. The one he objected to was thief ... I repeated that, and snatched some telegrams from his pocket. He tried to draw his gun on me--and then I drove them both out of camp. They got through safely, for they were seen in Benton."
"Sir, it appears to me you lost your head to good purpose," said Warburton. "Now just what were the tracks they wanted you to cover?"
"I drew the original plans for Number Ten. They had not followed them. To be exact, they did not drive piles to hold the cribbings for the piers. They did not go deep enough. They sank shafts, they built coffer-dams, they put in piers over and over again. There was forty feet of quicksand under all their work and of course it slipped and sank."
Warburton slowly got up. He was growing purple in the face. His hair seemed rising. He doubled a huge fist. "Over and over again!" he roared, furiously. "Over and over again! Lodge, do you hear that?"
"Yes. Sounds kind of familiar to me," replied the chief, with one of his rare smiles. He was beyond rage now. He saw the end. He alone, perhaps, had realized the nature of that great work. And that smile had been sad as well as triumphant.
Warburton stamped up and down the car aisle. Manifestly he wanted to smash something or to take out his anger upon his comrades. That was not the quick rage of a moment; it seemed the bursting into flame of a smoldering fire. He used language more suited to one of Benton's dance-halls than the private car of the directors of the Union Pacific Railroad. Once he stooped over Lodge, pounded the table.
"Three hundred thousand dollars sunk in that quicksand hole!" he thundered. "Over and over again! That's what galls me. Work done over and over--unnecessary--worse than useless--all for dirty gold! Not for the railroad, but for gold! ... God! what a band of robbers we've dealt with! ... Lodge, why in hell didn't you send Neale out here at the start?"
A shadow lay dark in the chiefs lined face. Why had he not done a million other things? Why, indeed! He did not answer the irate director.
"Three hundred thousand dollars sunk in that hole--for nothing!" shouted Warburton, in a final explosion.
The other two directors laughed. "Pooh!" exclaimed Rogers, softly. "What is that? A drop in the bucket! Consult your note-book, Warburton."
And that speech cooled the fighting director. It contained volumes. It evidently struck home. Warburton growled, he mopped his red face, he fell into a seat.
"Lodge, excuse me," he said, apologetically. "What our fine young friend here told me was like some one stepping on my gouty foot. I've been maybe a little too zealous--too exacting. Then I'm old and testy ... What does it matter? How could it have been prevented? Alas! it's black like that hideous Benton ... But we're coming out into the light. Lodge, didn't you tell me this Number Ten bridge was the last obstacle?"
"I did. The rails will go down now fast and straight till they meet out there in Utah! Soon!"
Warburton became composed. The red died out of his face. He looked at Neale.
"Young man, can you put permanent piers in that sink-hole?"
"Yes. They are started, on bed-rock," replied Neale.
"Bed-rock!" he repeated, and remained gazing at Neale fixedly. Then he turned to Lodge. "Do you remember that wild red-head cowboy-- Neale's friend--when he said, 'I reckon thet's aboot all?' ... I'll never forget him ... Lodge, say we have Lee and his friend Senator Dunn come in, and get it over. An' thet'll be aboot all!"
"Thank Heaven!" replied the chief, fervently. He called to his porter, but as no one replied, General Lodge rose and went into the next car.
Neale had experienced a disturbing sensation in his breast. Lee! Allison Lee! The mere name made him shake. He could not understand, but he felt there was more reason for its effect on him than his relation to Allison Lee as a contractor. Somewhere there was a man named Lee who was Allie's father, and Neale knew he would meet him some day.
Then when the chief walked back into the car with several frock- coated individuals, Neale did recognize in the pale face of one a resemblance to the girl he loved.
There were no greetings. This situation had no formalities. Warburton faced them and he seemed neither cold nor hot.
"Mr. Lee, as a director of the road I have to inform you that, following the reports of our engineer here, your present contracts are void and you will not get any more."
A white radiance of rage swiftly transformed Allison Lee. His eyes seemed to blaze purple out of his white face.
And Neale knew him to be Allie's father--saw the beauty and fire of her eyes in his.
"Warburton! You'll reconsider. I have great influence--"
"To hell with your influence!" retorted Warburton, the lion in him rising. "The builders--the directors--the owners of the U. P. R. are right here in this car. Do you understand that? Do you demand that I call a spade a spade?"
"I have been appointed by Congress. I will--"
"Congress or no Congress, you will never rebuild a foot of this railroad," thundered Warburton. He stood there glaring, final, assured. "For the sake of your--your government connections, let us say--let well enough alone."
"This upstart boy of an engineer!" burst out Lee, in furious resentment. "Who is he? How dare he accuse or report against me?"
"Mr. Lee, your name has never been mentioned by him," replied the director.
Lee struggled for self-control. "But, Warburton, it's preposterous!" he protested. "This wild boy--the associate of desperadoes--his report, whatever it is--absurd! Absurd as opposed to my position! A cub surveyor--slick with tongue and figures--to be thrown in my face! It's outrageous! I'll have him--"
Warburton held up a hand and impelled Lee to silence. In that gesture Neale read what stirred him to his soul. It was coming. He saw it again in General Lodge's fleeting, rare smile. He held his breath. The old pang throbbed in his breast.
"Lee, pray let me enlighten you and Senator Dunn," said Warburton, sonorously, "and terminate his awkward interview ... When the last spike is driven out here--presently--Mr. Neale will be chief engineer of maintenance of way of the Union Pacific Railroad."