Chapter 24
 

So for Neale the wonderful dream had come to pass, and but for the memory that made all hours of life bitter his cup of joy would have been full.

He made his headquarters in Benton and spent his days riding east or west over the line, taking up the great responsibility he had long trained for--the maintaining of the perfect condition of the railroad.

Toward the end of that month Neale was summoned to Omaha.

The message had been signed Warburton. Upon arriving at the terminus of the road Neale found a marvelous change even in the short time since he had been there. Omaha had become a city. It developed that Warburton had been called back to New York, leaving word for Neale to wait for orders.

Neale availed himself of this period to acquaint himself with the men whom he would deal with in the future. Among them, and in the roar of the railroad shops and the bustle of the city, he lost, perhaps temporarily, that haunting sense of pain and gloom. Despite himself the deference shown him was flattering, and his old habit of making friends reasserted itself. His place was assured now. There were rumors in the air of branch lines for the Union Pacific. He was consulted for advice, importuned for positions, invited here and there. So that the days in Omaha were both profitable and pleasurable.

Then came a telegram from Warburton calling him to Washington, D.C.

It took more than two days to get there, and the time dragged slowly for Neale. It seemed to him that his importance grew as he traveled, a fact which was amusing to him. All this resembled a dream.

When he reached the hotel designated in the telegram it was to receive a warm greeting from Warburton.

"It's a long trip to make for nothing," said the director. "And that's what it amounts to now. I thought I'd need you to answer a few questions for me. But you'll not be questioned officially, and so you'd better keep a close mouth ... We've raised the money. The completion of the U.P.R. is assured."

Neale could only conjecture what those questions might have been, for the director offered no explanation. And this circumstance recalled to mind his former impression of the complexity of the financial and political end of the construction. Warburton took him to dinner and later to a club, and introduced him to many men.

For this alone Neale was glad that he had been summoned to the capital. He met Senators, Congressmen, and other government officials, and many politicians and prominent men, all of whom, he was surprised to note, were well informed regarding the Union Pacific. He talked with them, but answered questions guardedly. And he listened to discussions and talks covering every phase of the work, from the Credit Mobilier to the Chinese coolies that were advancing from the west to meet the Paddies of his own division.

How strange to realize that the great railroad had its nucleus, its impetus, and its completion in such a center as this! Here were the frock-coated, soft-voiced, cigar-smoking gentlemen among whom Warburton and his directors had swung the colossal enterprise. What a vast difference between these men and the builders! With the handsome white-haired Warburton, and his associates, as they smoked their rich cigars and drank their wine, Neale contrasted Casey and McDermott and many another burly spiker or teamster out on the line. Each class was necessary to this task. These Easterners talked of money, of gold, as a grade foreman might have talked of gravel. They smoked and conversed at ease, laughing at sallies, gossiping over what was a tragedy west of North Platte; and about them was an air of luxury, of power, of importance, and a singular grace that Neale felt rather than saw.

Strangest of all to him was the glimpse he got into the labyrinthine plot built around the stock, the finance, the gold that was constructing the road. He was an engineer, with a deductive habit of mind, but he would never be able to trace the intricacy of this monumental aggregation of deals. Yet he was hugely, interested. Much of the scorn and disgust he had felt out on the line for the mercenaries connected with the work he forgot here among these frock-coated gentlemen.

An hour later Neale accompanied Warburton to the station where the director was to board a train for his return to New York.

"You'll start back to-morrow," said Warburton. "I'll see you soon, I hope--out there in Utah where the last spike is to be driven. That will be the day--the hour! ... It will be celebrated all over the United States."

Neale returned to his hotel, trying to make out the vital thing that had come to him on this hurried and apparently useless journey. His mind seemed in a whirl. Yet as he pondered, there gradually loomed up the reflection that in the eastern, or constructive, end of the great plan there were the same spirits of evil and mystery as existed in the western, or building, end. Here big men were interested, involved; out there bigger men sweat and burned and aged and died. The difference was that these toilers gave all for an ideal while the directors and their partners thought only of money, of profits.

Neale restrained what might have been contempt, but he thought that if these financiers could have seen the life of the diggers and spikers as he knew it they might be actuated by a nobler motive. Before he dropped to sleep that night he concluded that his trip to Washington, and the recognition accorded him by Warburton's circle, had fixed a new desire in his heart to heave some more rails and drive some more spikes for the railroad he loved so well. To him the work had been something for which he had striven with all his might and for which he had risked his life. Not only had his brain been given to the creation, but his muscles had ached from the actual physical toil attendant upon this biggest of big jobs.

When Neale at last reached Benton it was night. Benton and night! And he had forgotten. A mob of men surged down and up on the train. Neale had extreme difficulty in getting off at all. But the excitement, the hurry, the discordant and hoarse medley of many voices, were unusual at that hour around the station, even for strenuous Benton. All these men were carrying baggage. Neale shouted questions into passing ears, until at length some fellow heard and yelled a reply.

The last night of Benton!

He understood then. The great and vile construction camp had reached the end of its career. It was being torn down--moved away-- depopulated. There was an exodus. In another forty-eight hours all that had been Benton, with its accumulated life and gold and toil, would be incorporated in another and a greater and a last camp-- Roaring City.

The contrast to the beautiful Washington, the check to his half- dreaming memory of what he had experienced there, the sudden plunge into this dim--lighted, sordid, and roaring hell, all brought about in Neale a revulsion of feeling.

And with the sinking of his spirit there returned the old haunting pangs--the memory of Allie Lee, the despairing doubts of life or death for her. Beyond the camp loomed the dim hills, mystical, secretive, and unchangeable. If she were out there among them, dead or alive, to know it would be a blessed relief. It was this horror of Benton that he feared.

He walked the street, up and down, up and down, until the hour was late and he was tired. All the halls and saloons were blazing in full blast. Once he heard low, hoarse cries and pistol-shots--and then again quick, dull, booming guns. How strange they should make him shiver! But all seemed strange. From these sounds he turned away, not knowing what to do or where to go, since sleep or rest was impossible. Finally he went into a gambling-den and found a welcome among players whose faces he knew.

It was Benton's last night, and there was something in the air, menacing, terrible.

Neale gave himself up to the spirit of the hour and the game. He had almost forgotten himself when a white, jeweled hand flashed over his shoulder, to touch it softly. He heard his name whispered. Looking up, he saw the flushed and singularly radiant face of Beauty Stanton.