Chapter 30
 

Neale, aghast and full of bitter amaze and shame at himself, fled from the gambling-hall where he had struck Beauty Stanton. How beside himself with rage and torture he had been! That woman to utter Allie Lee's name! Inconceivable! Could she know his story?

He tramped the dark streets, and the exercise and the cool wind calmed him. Then the whistle of an engine made him decide to leave Benton at once, on the first train out. Hurriedly he got his baggage and joined the throng which even at that late hour was making for the station.

A regret that was pain burned deep in him--somehow inexplicable. He, like other men, had done things that must be forgotten. What fatality in the utterance of a single name--what power to flay!

From a window of an old coach he looked out upon the dim lights and pale tent shapes.

"The last--of Benton! ... Thank God!" he murmured, brokenly. Well he realized how Providence had watched over him there. And slowly the train moved out upon the dark, windy desert.

It took Neale nearly forty-eight hours to reach the new camp-- Roaring City. A bigger town than Benton had arisen, and more was going up--tents and clapboard houses, sheds and cabins--the same motley jumble set under beetling red Utah bluffs.

Neale found lodgings. Being without food or bed or wash for two days and nights was not helpful to the task he must accomplish--the conquering of his depression. He ate and slept long, and the following day he took tune to make himself comfortable and presentable before he sallied forth to find the offices of the engineer corps. Then he walked on as directed, and heard men talking of Indian ambushes and troops.

When at length he reached the headquarters of the engineer corps he was greeted with restraint by his old officers and associates; was surprised and at a loss to understand their attitude.

Even in General Lodge there was a difference. Neale gathered at once that something had happened to put out of his chief's mind the interest that officer surely must have in Neale's trip to Washington. And after greeting him, the first thing General Lodge said gave warrant to the rumors of trouble with Indians.

"My train was to have been ambushed at Deep Cut," he explained. "Big force of Sioux. We were amazed to find them so far west. It would have been a massacre--but for Casey.... We have no particulars yet, for the wire is cut. But we know what Casey did. He ran the gantlet of the Indians through that cut.... He was on a gravel-car running wild down-hill. You know the grade, Neale.... Of course his intention was to hold up my train--block us before we reached the ambushed cut. There must have been a broken brake, for he derailed the car not half a mile ahead of us. My engineer saw the runaway flat-car and feared a collision.... Casey threw a railroad tie--on the track--in front of him.... We found him under the car--crushed-- dying--"

General Lodge's voice thickened and slowed a little. He looked down. His face appeared quite pale.

Neale began to quiver in the full presaging sense of a revelation.

"My engineer, Tom Daley, reached Casey's side just the instant before he died," said General Lodge, resuming his story. "In fact, Daley was the only one of us who did see Casey alive.... Casey's last words were 'ambush--Sooz--' Deep Cut,' and then 'me fri'nd Neale!' ... We were at a loss to understand what he meant--that is, at first. We found Casey with this little note-book and his pipe tight between his teeth."

The chief gave the note-book to Neale, who received it with a trembling hand.

"You can see the marks of Casey's teeth in the leather. It was difficult to extract the book. He held on like grim death. Oh! Casey was grim death.... We could not pull his black pipe out at all. We left it between his set jaws, where it always had been--where it belonged.... I ordered him interred that way.... So they buried him out there along the track." The chief's low voice ceased, and he stood motionless a moment, his brow knotted, his eyes haunted, yet bright with a glory of tribute to a hero.

Neale heard the ticking of a watch and the murmur of the street outside. He felt the soft little note-book in his hand. And the strangest sensation shuddered over him. He drew his breath sharply.

When General Lodge turned again to face him, Neale saw him differently--aloof, somehow removed, indistinct.

"Casey meant that note-book for you," said the general, "It belonged to the woman, Beauty Stanton. It contained a letter, evidently written while she was dying.... This developed when Daley began to read aloud. We all heard. The instant I understood it was a letter intended for you I took the book. No more was read. We were all crowded round Daley--curious, you know. There were visitors on my train--and your enemy Lee. I'm sorry--but, no matter. You see it couldn't be helped.... That's all...."

Neale was conscious of calamity. It lay in his hand. "Poor old Casey!" he murmured. Then he remembered. Stanton dying! What had happened? He could not trust himself to read that message before Lodge, and, bowing, he left the room. But he had to grope his way through the lobby, so dim had become his sight. By the time he reached the street he had lost his self-control. Something burnt his hand. It was the little leather note-book. He had not the nerve to open it. What had been the implication in General Lodge's strange words?

He gazed with awe at the tooth-marks on the little book. How had Casey come by anything of Beauty Stanton's? Could it be true that she was dead?

Then again he was accosted in the street. A heavy hand, a deep voice arrested his progress. His eyes, sweeping up from the path, saw fringed and beaded buckskin, a stalwart form, a bronzed and bearded face, and keen, gray eyes warm with the light of gladness. He was gripped in hands of iron.

"Son! hyar you air--an' it's the savin' of me!" exclaimed a deep, familiar voice.

"Slingerland!" cried Neale, and he grasped his old friend as a drowning man at an anchor-rope. "My God! What will happen next? ... Oh, I'm glad to find you! ... All these years! Slingerland, I'm in trouble!"

"Son, I reckon I know," replied the other.

Neale shivered. Why did men look at him so? This old trapper had too much simplicity, too big a heart, to hide his pity.

"Come! Somewhere--out of the crowd!" cried Neale, dragging at Slingerland. "Don't talk. Don't tell me anything. Wait! ... I've a letter here--that's going to be hell!"

Neale stumbled along out of the crowded street, he did not know where, and with death in his soul he opened Beauty Stanton's book. And he read:

You called me that horrible name. You struck me. You've killed me. I lie here dying. Oh, Neale! I'm dying--and I loved you. I came to you to prove it. If you had not been so blind--so stupid! My prayer is that some one will see this I'm writing--and take it to you.

Ancliffe brought your sweetheart, Allie Lee, to me--to hide her from Durade. He told me to find you and then he died. He had been stabbed in saving her from Durade's gang. And Hough, too, was killed.

Neale, I looked at Allie Lee, and then I understood your ruin. You fool! She was not dead, but alive. Innocent and sweet like an angel! Ah, the wonder of it in Benton! Neale, she did not know--did not feel the kind of a woman I am. She changed me--crucified me. She put her face on my breast. And I have that touch with me now, blessed, softening.

I locked her in a room and hurried out to find you. For the first time in years I had a happy moment. I understood why you had never cared for me. I respected you. Then I would have gone to hell for you. It was my joy that you must owe your happiness to me--that I would be the one to give you back Allie Lee and hope, and the old, ambitious life. Oh, I gloried in my power. It was sweet. You would owe every kiss of hers, every moment of pride, to the woman you had repulsed. That was to be my revenge.

And I found you, and in the best hour of my bitter life--when I had risen above the woman of shame, above thought of self--then you, with hellish stupidity, imagined I was seeking you--you for myself! Your annoyance, your scorn, robbed me of my wits. I could not tell you. I could only speak her name and bid you come.

You branded me before that grinning crowd, you struck me! And the fires of hell--my hell--burst in my heart. I ran out of there--mad to kill your soul--to cause you everlasting torment. I swore I would give that key of Allie Lee's room to the first man who entered my house.

The first man was Larry Red King. He was drunk. He looked wild. I welcomed him. I sent him to her room.

But Larry King was your friend. I had forgotten that. He came out with her. He was sober and terrible. Like the mad woman that I was I rushed at him to tear her away. He shot me. I see his eyes now. But oh, thank God, he shot me! It was a deliverance.

I fell on the stairs, but I saw that flaming-faced devil kill four of Durade's men. He got Allie Lee out. Later I heard he had been killed and that Durade had caught the girl.

Neale, hurry to find her. Kill that Spaniard. No man could tell why he has spared her, but I tell you he will not spare her long.

Don't ever forget Hough or Ancliffe or that terrible cowboy. Ancliffe's death was beautiful. I am cold. It's hard to write. All is darkening. I hear the moan of wind. Forgive me! Neale, the difference between me and Allie Lee--is a good man's love. Men are blind to woman's agony. She laid her cheek here--on my breast. I-- who always wanted a child. I shall die alone. No--I think God is here. There is some one! After all, I was a woman. Neale forgive--