Chapter 28
 

Beauty Stanton opened her eyes to see blue sky through the ragged vents of a worn-out canvas tent. An unusual quietness all around added to the strange unreality of her situation. She heard only a low, mournful seeping of wind-blown sand. Where was she? What had happened? Was this only a vivid, fearful dream?

She felt stiff, unable to move. Did a ponderous weight hold her down? Her body seemed immense, full of dull, horrible ache, and she had no sensation of lower limbs except a creeping cold.

Slowly she moved her eyes around. Yes, she was in a tent--an abandoned tent, old, ragged, dirty; and she lay on the bare ground. Through a wide tear in the canvas she saw a stretch of flat ground covered with stakes and boards and denuded frameworks and piles of debris. Then grim reality entered her consciousness. Benton was evacuated. Benton was depopulated. Benton--houses, tents, people-- had moved away.

During her unconsciousness, perhaps while she had been thought dead, she had been carried to this abandoned tent. A dressing-gown covered her, the one she always put on in the first hours after arising. The white dress she had worn last night--was it last night?--still adorned her, but all her jewelry had been taken. Then she remembered being lifted to a couch and cried over by her girls, while awestruck men came to look at her and talk among themselves. But she had heard how the cowboy's shot had doomed her--how he had fought his way out, only to fall dead in the street and leave the girl to be taken by Durade.

Now Beauty Stanton realized that she had been left alone in an abandoned tent of an abandoned camp--to die. She became more conscious then of dull physical agony. But neither fear of death nor thought of pain occupied her mind. That suddenly awoke to remorse. With the slow ebbing of her life evil had passed out. If she had been given a choice between the salvation of her soul and to have Neale with her in her last moments, to tell him the truth, to beg his forgiveness, to die in his arms, she would have chosen the latter. Would not some trooper come before she died, some one to whom she could intrust a message? Some grave-digger! For the great U. P. R. buried the dead it left in its bloody tracks!

With strange, numb hands Stanton searched the pockets of her dressing-gown, to find, at length, a little account-book with pencil attached. Then, with stiffened fingers, but acute mind, she began to write to Neale. As she wrote into each word went something of the pang, the remorse, the sorrow, the love she felt; and when that letter was ended she laid the little book on her breast and knew for the first time in many years--peace.

She endured the physical agony; she did not cry out, or complain, or repent, or pray. Most of the spiritual emotion and life left in her had gone into the letter. Memory called up only the last moments of her life--when she saw Ancliffe die; when she folded innocent Allie Lee to the breast that had always yearned for a child; when Neale in his monstrous stupidity had misunderstood her; when he had struck her before the grinning crowd, and in burning words branded her with the one name unpardonable to her class; when at the climax of a morbid and all-consuming hate, a hate of the ruined woman whose body and mind had absorbed the vile dregs, the dark fire and poison, of lustful men, she had inhumanly given Allie Lee to the man she had believed the wildest, most depraved, and most dangerous brute in all Benton; when this Larry King, by some strange fatality, becoming as great as he was wild, had stalked out to meet her like some red and terrible death.

She remembered now that strange, icy gloom and shudder she had always felt in the presence of the cowboy. Within her vitals now was the same cold, deadly, sickening sensation, and it was death. Always she had anticipated it, but vaguely, unrealizingly.

Larry King had lifted the burden of her life. She would have been glad--if only Neale had understood her! That was her last wavering conscious thought.

Now she drifted from human consciousness to the instinctive physical struggle of the animal to live, and that was not strong. There came a moment, the last, between life and death, when Beauty Stanton's soul lingered on the threshold of its lonely and eternal pilgrimage, and then drifted across into the gray shadows, into the unknown, out to the great beyond.

Casey leaned on his spade while he wiped the sweat from his brow and regarded his ally McDermott. Between them yawned a grave they had been digging and near at hand lay a long, quiet form wrapped in old canvas.

"Mac, I'll be domned if I loike this job," said Casey, drawing hard at his black pipe.

"Yez want to be a directhor of the U. P. R., huh?" replied McDermott.

"Shure an' I've did ivery job but run an ingine.... It's imposed on we are, Mac. Thim troopers niver work. Why couldn't they plant these stiffs?"

"Casey, I reckon no wan's bossin' us. Benton picked up an' moved yistiday. An' we'll be goin' soon wid the graveltrain. It's only dacent of us to bury the remains of Benton. An' shure yez ought to be glad to see that orful red-head cowboy go under the ground."

"An' fer why?" queried Casey.

"Didn't he throw a gun on yez once an' scare the daylights out of yez?"

"Mac, I wuz as cool as a coocumber. An' as to buryin' Larry King, I'm proud an' sorry. He wuz Neale's fri'nd."

"My Gawd! but he wor chain lightnin', Casey. They said he shot the woman Stanton, too."

"Mac, thet wore a dom' lie, I bet," replied Casey. "He shot up Stanton's hall, an' a bullet from some of thim wot was foightin' him must hev hit her."

"Mebbe. But it wor bad bizness. That cowboy hit iviry wan of thim fellars in the same place. Shure, they niver blinked afther."

"An' Mac, the best an' dirtiest job we've had on this Casey's huge hand indicated a row of freshly filled graves U. P. was the plantin' of thim fellars." over which the desert sand was seeping. Then dropping his spade, he bent to the quiet figure.

"Lay hold, Mac," he said.

They lowered the corpse into the hole. Casey stood up, making a sign of the cross before him.

"He wor a man!"

Then they filled the grave.

"Mac, wouldn't it be dacent to mark where Larry King's buried? A stone or wooden cross with his name?"

McDermott wrinkled his red brow and scratched his sandy beard. Then he pointed. "Casey, wot's the use? See, the blowin' sand's kivered all the graves."

"Mac, yez wor always hell at shirkin' worrk. Come on, now, Drill, ye terrier, drill!"

They quickly dug another long, narrow hole. Then, taking a rude stretcher, they plodded away in the direction of a dilapidated tent that appeared to be the only structure left of Benton. Casey entered ahead of his comrade.

"Thot's sthrange!"

"Wot?" queried McDermott.

"Didn't yez kiver her face whin we laid her down here?"

"Shure an' I did, Casey."

"An' that face has a different look now! ... Mac, see here!"

Casey stooped to pick up a little book from the woman's breast. His huge fingers opened it with difficulty.

"Mac, there's wroitin' in ut!" he exclaimed.

"Wal, rade, ye baboon."

"Oh, I kin rade ut, though I ain't much of a wroiter meself," replied Casey, and then laboriously began to decipher the writing. He halted suddenly and looked keenly at McDermott.

"Wot the divil! ... B'gorra, ut's to me fri'nd Neale--an' a love letter--an'--"

"Wal, kape it, thin, fer Neale an' be dacent enough to rade no more."

Lifting Beauty Stanton, they carried her out into the sunlight. Her white face was a shadowed and tragic record.

"Mac, she wor shure a handsome woman," said Casey, "an' a loidy."

"Casey, yez are always sorry fer somebody.... Thot Stanton wuz a beauty an' she mebbe wuz a loidy. But she wuz dom' bad."

"Mac, I knowed long ago thot the milk of human kindness hed curdled in yez. An' yez hev no brains."

"I'm as intilligint as yez any day," retorted McDermott.

"Thin why hedn't yez seen thot this poor woman was alive whin we packed her out here? She come to an' writ thot letter to Neale--thin she doied!"

"My Gawd! Casey, yez ain't meanin' ut!" ejaculated McDermott, aghast.

Casey nodded grimly, and then he knelt to listen at Stanton's breast. "Stone dead now--thot's shure."

For her shroud these deliberate men used strippings of canvas from the tent, and then, carrying her up the bare and sandy slope, they lowered her into the grave next to the one of the cowboy.

Again Casey made a sign of the cross. He worked longer at the filling in than his comrade, and patted the mound of sand hard and smooth. When he finished, his pipe was out. He relighted it.

"Wal, Beauty Stanton, shure yez hev a cleaner grave than yez bed a bed.... Nice white desert sand.... An' prisintly no man will ivir know where yez come to lay."

The laborers shouldered their spades and plodded away.

The wind blew steadily in from the desert seeping the sand in low, thin sheets. Afternoon waned, the sun sank, twilight crept over the barren waste. There were no sounds but the seep of sand, the moan of wind, the mourn of wolf. Loneliness came with the night that mantled Beauty Stanton's grave. Shadows trooped in from the desert and the darkness grew black. On that slope the wind always blew, and always the sand seeped, dusting over everything, imperceptibly changing the surface of the earth. The desert was still at work. Nature was no respecter of graves. Life was nothing. Radiant, cold stars blinked pitilessly out of the vast blue-black vault of heaven. But there hovered a spirit beside this woman's last resting-place--a spirit like the night, sad, lonely, silent, mystical, immense.

And as it hovered over hers so it hovered over other nameless graves.

In the eternal workshop of nature, the tenants of these unnamed and forgotten graves would mingle dust of good with dust of evil, and by the divinity of death resolve equally into the elements again.

The place that had known Benton knew it no more. Coyotes barked dismally down what had been the famous street of the camp and prowled in and out of the piles of debris and frames of wood. Gone was the low, strange roar that had been neither music nor mirth nor labor. Benton remained only a name.

The sun rose upon a squalid scene--a wide flat area where stakes and floors and frames mingled with all the flotsam and jetsam left by a hurried and profligate populace, moving on to another camp. Daylight found no man there nor any living creature. And all day the wind blew the dust and sheets of sand over the place where had reigned such strife of toil and gold and lust and blood and death. A train passed that day, out of which engineer and fireman gazed with wondering eyes at what had been Benton. Like a mushroom it had arisen, and like a dust-storm on the desert wind it had roared away, bearing its freight of labor, of passion, and of evil. Benton had become a name--a fabulous name.

But nature seemed more merciful than life. For it began to hide what man had left--the scars of habitations where hell had held high carnival. Sunset came, then night and the starlight. The lonely hours were winged, as if in a hurry to resolve back into the elements the flimsy remains of that great camp.

And that spot was haunted.