Chapter 32
 

The mere sight of Warren Neale had transformed life for Allie Lee. The shame of being forced to meet degraded men, the pain from Durade's blows, the dread that every hour he would do the worst by her or kill her, the sudden and amazing recognition between her and her father--these became dwarfed and blurred in the presence of the glorious truth that Neale was there.

She had recognized him with reeling senses and through darkening eyes. She had seen him leap before her father to confront that glittering-eyed Durade. She had neither fear for him nor pity for the Spaniard.

Sensations of falling, of being carried, of the light and dust and noise of the street, of men around her, of rooms and the murmur of voices, of being worked over and spoken to by a kindly woman, of swallowing what was put to her mouth, of answering questions, of letting other clothes be put upon her; she was as if in a trance, aware of all going on about her, but with consciousness riveted upon one stunning fact--his presence. When she was left alone this state gradually wore away, and there remained a throbbing, quivering suspense of love. Her despair had ended. The spirit that had upheld her through all the long, dark hours had reached its fulfilment.

She lay on a couch in a small room curtained off from another, the latter large and light, and from which came a sound of low voices. She heard the quick tread of men; a door opened.

"Lee, I congratulate you. A narrow escape!" exclaimed a deep voice, with something sharp, authoritative in it.

"General Lodge, it was indeed a narrow shave for me," replied another voice, low and husky.

Allie slowly sat up, with the dreamy waiting abstraction less strong. Her father, Allison Lee, and General Lodge, Neale's old chief, were there in the other room.

"Neale almost killed Durade! Broke him! Cut him all up!" said the general, with agitation. "I had it from McDermott, one of my spikers--a reliable man.... Neale was shot--perhaps cut, too.... But he doesn't seem to know it."

Allie sprang up, transfixed and thrilling.

"Neale almost killed--him!" echoed Allison Lee, hoarsely. Then followed a sound of a chair falling.

"Indeed, Allison, it's true," broke in a strange voice. "The street's full of men--all talking--all stirred up."

Other men entered the room.

"Is Neale here?" queried General Lodge, sharply.

"They're trying to hold him up--in the office. The boys want to pat him on the back.... Durade was not liked," replied some one.

"Is Neale badly hurt?"

"I don't know. He looked it. He was all bloody."

"Colonel Dillon, did you see Neale?" went on the sharp, eager voice.

"Yes. He seemed dazed--wild. Probably badly hurt. Yet he moved steadily. No one could stop him," answered another strange voice.

"Ah! here comes McDermott!" exclaimed General Lodge. Allie's ears throbbed to a slow, shuffling, heavy tread. Her consciousness received the fact of Neale's injury, but her heart refused to accept it as perilous. God could not mock her faith by a last catastrophe.

"Sandy--you've seen Neale?"

Allie loved this sharp, keen voice for its note of dread. "Shure. B'gorra, yez couldn't hilp seein' him. He's as big as a hill an' his shirt's as red as Casey's red wan. I wint to give him the little gun wot Durade pulled on him. Dom' me! he looked roight at me an' niver seen me," replied the Irishman.

"Lee, you will see Neale?" queried General Lodge. There was a silence.

"No," presently came a cold reply. "It is not necessary. He saved me--injury perhaps. I am grateful. I'll reward him."

"How?" rang General Lodge's voice.

"Gold, of course. Neale was a gambler. Probably he had a grudge against this Durade.... I need not meet Neale, it seems, I am somewhat--overwrought. I wish to spare myself further excitement."

"Lee--listen!" returned General Lodge, violently. "Neale is a splendid young man--the nerviest, best engineer I ever knew. I predicted great things for him. They have come true."

"That doesn't interest me."

"You'll hear it, anyhow. He saved the life of this girl who has turned out to be your daughter. He took care of her. He loved her-- was engaged to marry her.... Then he lost her. And after that he was half mad. It nearly ruined him."

"I do not credit that. It was gambling, drink--and bad women that ruined him."

"No!"

"But, pardon me, General. If--as you intimate--there was an attachment between him and my unfortunate child, would he have become an associate of gamblers and vicious women?"

"He would not. The nature of his fury, the retribution he visited upon this damned Spaniard, prove the manner of man he is."

"Wild indeed. But hardly from a sense of loyalty. These camps breed blood-spillers. I heard you say that."

"You'll hear me say something more, presently," retorted the other, with heat scarcely controlled. "But we're wasting time. I don't insist that you see Neale. That's your affair. It seems to me the least you could do would be to thank him. I certainly advise you not to offer him gold. I do insist, however, that you let him see the girl!"

"No!"

"But, man.... Say, McDermott, go fetch Neale in here."

Allie Lee heard all this strange talk with consternation. An irresistible magnet drew her toward those curtains, which she grasped with trembling hands, ready, but not able, to part them and enter the room. It seemed that in there was a friend of Neale's whom she was going to love, and an enemy whom she was going to hate. As for Neale seeing her--at once--only death could rob her of that.

"General Lodge, I have no sympathy for Neale," came the cold voice of Allison Lee.

There was no reply. Some one coughed. Footsteps sounded in the hallway, and a hum of distant voices.

"You forget," continued Lee, "what happened not many hours ago when your train was saved by that dare-devil Casey--the little book held tight in his locked teeth--the letter meant for this Neale from one of Benton's camp-women.... Your engineer read enough. You heard. I heard.... A letter from a dying woman. She accused Neale of striking her--of killing her.... She said she was dying, but she loved him.... Do you remember that, General Lodge?"

"Yes, alas! ... Lee, I don't deny that. But--"

"There are no buts."

"Lee, you're hard, hard as steel. Appearances seem against Neale. I don't seek to extenuate them. But I know men. Neale might have fallen--it seems he must have. These are terrible times. In anger or drink Neale might have struck this woman.... But kill her--No!"

A gleam pierced Allie Lee's dark bewilderment. They meant Beauty Stanton, that beautiful, fair woman with such a white, soft bosom and such sad eyes--she whom Larry King had shot. What a tangle of fates and lives! She could tell them why Beauty Stanton was dying. Then other words, like springing fire, caught Allie's thought, and a sickening ripple of anguish convulsed her. They believed Beauty Stanton had loved Neale--had--Allie would have died before admitting that last thought to her consciousness. For a second the room turned black. Her hold on the curtains kept her from falling. With frantic and terrible earnestness--the old dominance Neale had acquired over her--she clung to the one truth that mattered. She loved Neale-- belonged to him--and he was there! That they were about to meet again was as strange and wonderful a thing as had ever happened. What had she not endured? What must he have gone through? The fiery, stinging nature of her new and sudden pain she could not realize.

Again the strong speech became distinct to her.

"... You'll stay here--and you, Dillon.... Don't any one leave this room.... Lee, you can leave, if you want. But we'll see Neale, and so will Allie Lee."

Allie spread the curtains and stood there. No one saw her. All the men faced the door through which sounded slow, heavy tread of boots. An Irishman entered. Then a tall man. Allie's troubled soul suddenly calmed. She saw Neale.

Slowly he advanced a few steps. Another man entered, and Allie knew him by his buckskin garb. Neale turned, his face in the light. And a poignant cry leaped up from Allie's heart to be checked on her lips. Was this her young and hopeful and splendid lover? She recognized him, yet now did not know him. He stood bareheaded, and her swift, all-embracing glance saw the gray over his temples, and the eyes that looked out from across the border of a dark hell, and face white as death and twitching with spent passion.

"Mr.--Lee," he panted, very low, and the bloody patch on his shirt heaved with his breath, "my only--regret--is--I didn't--think to make--Durade--tell the truth.... He lied.... He wanted to--revenge himself--on Allie's mother--through Allie.... What he said--about Allie--was a lie--as black as his heart. He meant evil--for her. But--somehow she was saved. He was a tiger--playing--and he waited-- too long. You must realize--her innocence--and understand. God has watched over Allie Lee! It was not luck--nor accident. But innocence! ... Hough died to save her! Then Ancliffe! Then my old friend--Larry King! These men--broken--gone to hell--out here--felt an innocence that made them--mad--as I have just been.... That is proof--if you need it.... Men of ruined lives--could not rise--and die--as they did--victims of a false impression--of innocence.... They knew!"

Neale's voice sank to a whisper, his eyes intent to read belief in the cold face of Allison Lee.

"I thank you, Neale, for your service to me and your defense of her," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"Sir--I--I--"

"Can I reward you in any way?"

The gray burned out of Neale's face. "I ask--nothing--except that you believe me."

Lee did not grant this, nor was there any softening of his cold face.

"I would like to ask you a few questions," he said. "General Lodge here informed me that you saved my--my daughter's life long ago.... Can you tell me what became of her mother?"

"She was in the caravan--massacred by Sioux," replied Neale. "I saw her buried. Her grave is not so many miles from here."

Then a tremor changed Allison Lee's expression. He turned away an instant: his hand closed tight; he bit his lips. This evidence of feeling in him relaxed the stony scrutiny of the watchers, and they shifted uneasily on their feet.

Allie stood watching--waiting, with her heart at her lips.

"Where did you take my daughter?" queried Lee, presently.

"To the home of a trapper. My friend--Slingerland," replied Neale, indicating the buckskin-clad figure. "She lived there--slowly recovering. You don't know that she lost her mind--for a while. But she recovered.... And during an absence of Slingerland's--she was taken away."

"Were you and she--sweethearts?"

"Yes."

"And engaged to marry?"

"Of course," replied Neale, dreamily.

"That cannot be now."

"I understand. I didn't expect--I didn't think...."

Allie Lee had believed many times that her heart was breaking, but now she knew it had never broken till then. Why did he not turn to see her waiting there--stricken motionless and voiceless, wild to give the lie to those cold, strange words?

"Then, Neale--if you will not accept anything from me, let us terminate this painful interview," said Allison Lee.

"I'm sorry. I only wanted to tell you--and ask to see--Allie--a moment," replied Neale.

"No. It might cause a breakdown. I don't want to risk anything that might prevent my taking the next train with her."

"Going to take her--back East?" asked Neale, as if talking to himself.

"Certainly."

"Then--I--won't see her!" Neale murmured, dazedly.

At this juncture General Lodge stepped out. His face was dark, his mouth stern.

His action caused a breaking of the strange, vise-like clutch--the mute and motionless spell--that had fallen upon Allie. She felt the gathering of tremendous forces in her; in an instant she would show these stupid men the tumult of a woman's heart.

"Lee, be generous," spoke up General Lodge, feelingly. "Let Neale see the girl."

"I said no!" snapped Lee.

"But why not, in Heaven's name?"

"Why? I told you why," declared Lee, passionately.

"But, Lee--that implication may not be true. We didn't read all that letter," protested General Lodge.

"Ask him."

Then the general turned to Neale. "Boy--tell me--did this Stanton woman love you--did you strike her? Did you--" The general's voice failed.

Neale faced about with a tragic darkening of his face. "To my shame- -it is true," he said, clearly.

Then Allie Lee swept forward. "Oh, Neale!"

He seemed to rise and leap at once. And she ran straight into his arms. No man, no trouble, no mystery, no dishonor, no barrier-- nothing could have held her back the instant she saw how the sight of her, how the sound of her voice, had transformed Neale. For one tumultuous, glorious, terrible moment she clung to his neck, blind, her heart bursting. Then she fell back with hands seeking her breast.

"I heard!" she cried. "I know nothing of Beauty Stanton's letter.... But you didn't shoot her. It was Larry. I saw him do it."

"Allie!" he whispered.

At last he had realized her actual presence, the safety of her body and soul; and all that had made him strange and old and grim and sad vanished in a beautiful transfiguration.

"You know Larry did it!" implored Allie. "Tell them so."

"Yes, I know," he replied. "But I did worse. I--"

She saw him shaken by an agony of remorse; and that agony was communicated to her.

"Neale! she loved you?"

He bowed his head.

"Oh!" Her cry was almost mute, full of an unutterable realization of tragic fatality for her. "And you--you--"

Allison Lee strode between them facing Neale. "See! She knows... and if you would spare her--go!" he exclaimed.

"She knows--what?" gasped Neale, in a frenzy between doubt and certainty.

Allie felt a horrible, nameless, insidious sense of falsity--a nightmare unreality--an intangible Neale, fated, drifting away from her.

"Good-bye--Allie! ... Bless you! I'll be--happy--knowing--you're--" He choked, and the tears streamed down his face. It was a face convulsed by renunciation, not by guilt. Whatever he had done, it was not base.

"Don't let me--go! ... I--forgive you!" she burst out. She held out her arms. "There's no one in the world but you!"

But Neale plunged away, upheld by Slingerland, and Allie's world grew suddenly empty and black.

The train swayed and creaked along through the Night with that strain and effort which told of upgrade. The oil-lamps burned dimly in corners of the coach. There were soldiers at open windows looking out. There were passengers asleep sitting up and lying down and huddled over their baggage.

But Allie Lee was not asleep. She lay propped up with pillows and blankets, covered by a heavy coat. Her window was open, and a cool desert wind softly blew her hair. She stared out into the night, and the wheels seemed to be grinding over her crushed heart.

It was late. An old moon, misshapen and pale, shone low down over a dark, rugged horizon. Clouds hid the stars. The desert void seemed weirdly magnified by the wan light, and all that shadowy waste, silent, lonely, bleak, called out to Allie Lee the desolation of her soul. For what had she been saved? The train creaked on, and every foot added to her woe. Her unquenchable spirit, pure as a white flame that had burned so wonderfully through the months of her peril, flickered now that her peril ceased to be. She had no fount of emotion left to draw upon, else she would have hated this creaking train.

It moved on. And there loomed bold outlines of rock and ridge familiar to her. They had been stamped upon her memory by the strain of her lonely wanderings along that very road. She knew every rod of the way, dark, lonely, wild as it was. In the midst of that stark space lay the spot where Benton had been. A spot lost in the immensity of the desert. If she had been asleep she would have awakened while passing there. There was not a light. Flat patches and pale gleams, a long, wan length of bare street, shadows everywhere--these marked Benton's grave.

Allie stared with strained eyes. They were there--in the blackness-- those noble men who had died for her in vain. No--not in vain! She breathed a prayer for them--a word of love for Larry. Larry, the waster of life, yet the faithful, the symbol of brotherhood. As long as she lived she would see him stalk before her with his red, blazing fire, his magnificent effrontery, his supreme will. He, who had been the soul of chivalry, the meekest of men before a woman, the inheritor of a reverence for womanhood, had ruthlessly shot out of his way that wonderful white-armed Beauty Stanton.

She, too, must lie there in the shadow. Allie shivered with the cool desert wind that blew in her face from the shadowy spaces. She shut her eyes to hide the dim passing traces of terrible Benton and the darkness that hid the lonely graves.

The train moved on and on, leaving what had been Benton far behind; and once more Allie opened her weary eyes to the dim, obscure reaches of the desert. Her heart beat very slowly under its leaden weight, its endless pang. Her blood flowed at low ebb. She felt the long-forgotten recurrence of an old morbid horror, like a poison lichen fastening upon the very spring of life. It passed and came again, and left her once more. Her thoughts wandered back along the night track she had traversed, until again her ears were haunted by that strange sound which had given Roaring City its name. She had been torn away from hope, love, almost life itself. Where was Neale? He had turned from her, obedient to Allison Lee and the fatal complexity and perversenes's of life. The vindication of her spiritual faith and the answer to her prayers lay in the fact that she had been saved; but rather than to be here in this car, daughter of a rich father, but separated from Neale, she would have preferred to fill one of the nameless graves in Benton.