Chapter 33
 

The sun set pale-gold and austere as Neale watched the train bear Allie Lee away. No thought of himself entered into that solemn moment of happiness. Allie Lee--alive--safe--her troubles ended--on her way home with her father! The long train wound round the bold bluff and at last was gone. For Neale the moment held something big, final. A phase--a part of his life ended there.

"Son, it's over," said Slingerland, who watched with him. "Allie's gone home--back to whar she belongs--to come into her own. Thank God! An' you--why this day turns you back to whar you was once.... Allie owes her life to you an' her father's life. Think, son, of these hyar times--how much wuss it might hev been."

Neale's sense of thankfulness was unutterable. Passively he went with Slingerland, silent and gentle. The trapper dressed his wounds, tended him, kept men away from him, and watched by him as if he were a sick child.

Neale suffered only the weakness following the action and stress of great passion. His mind seemed full of beautiful solemn bells of blessing, resonant, ringing the wonder of an everlasting unchangeable truth. Night fell--the darkness thickened--the old trapper kept his vigil--and Neale sank to sleep, and the sweet, low- toned bells claimed him in his dreams.

How strange for Neale to greet a dawn without hatred! He and Slingerland had breakfast together.

"Son, will you go into the hills with me?" asked the old trapper.

"Yes, some day, when the railroad's built," replied Neale, thoughtfully.

Slingerland's keen eyes quickened. "But the railroad's about done-- an' you need a vacation," he insisted.

"Yes," Neale answered, dreamily.

"Son, mebbe you ought to wait awhile. You're packin' a bullet somewhar in your carcass."

"It's here," said Neale, putting his hand to his breast, high up toward the shoulder. "I feel it--a dull, steady, weighty pain.... But that's nothing. I hope I always have it."

"Wal, I don't.... An', son, you ain't never goin' back to drink an' cards-an' all thet hell? ... Not now!"

Neale's smile was a promise, and the light of it was instantly reflected on the rugged face of the trapper.

"Reckon I needn't asked thet. Wal, I'll be sayin' good-bye.... You kin expect me back some day.... To see the meetin' of the rails from east an' west--an' to pack you off to my hills."

Neale rode out of Roaring City on the work-train, sitting on a flat- car with a crowd of hairy-breasted, red-shirted laborers.

That train carried hundreds of men, tons of steel rails, thousands of ties; and also it was equipped to feed the workers and to fight Indians. It ran to the end of the rails, about forty miles out of Roaring City.

Neale sought out Reilly, the boss. This big Irishman was in the thick of the start of the day-which was like a battle. Neale waited in the crowd, standing there in his shirt-sleeves, with the familiar bustle and color strong as wine to his senses. At last Reilly saw him and shoved out a huge paw.

"Hullo, Neale! I'm glad to see ye.... They tell me ye did a dom' foine job."

"Reilly, I need work," said Neale.

"But, mon--ye was shot!" ejaculated the boss.

"I'm all right."

"Ye look thot an' no mistake.... Shure, now, ye ain't serious about work? You--that's chafe of all thim engineer jobs?"

"I want to work with my hands. Let me heave ties or carry rails or swing a sledge--for just a few days. I've explained to General Lodge. It's a kind of vacation for me."

Reilly gazed with keen, twinkling eyes at Neale. "Ye can't be drunk an' look sober."

"Reilly, I'm sober--and in dead earnest," appealed Neale. "I want to go back--be in the finish--to lay some rails--drive some spikes."

The boss lost his humorous, quizzing expression. "Shure--shure," replied Reilly, as if he saw, but failed to comprehend. "Ye're on.... An' more power to ye!"

He sent Neale out with the gang detailed to heave railroad ties.

A string of flat-cars, loaded with rails and ties, stood on the track where the work of yesterday had ended. Beyond stretched the road-bed, yellow, level, winding as far as eye could see. The sun beat down hot; the dry, scorching desert breeze swept down from the bare hills, across the waste; dust flew up in puffs; uprooted clumps of sage, like balls, went rolling along; and everywhere the veils of heat rose from the sun-baked earth.

"Drill, ye terriers, drill!" rang out a cheery voice. And Neale remembered Casey.

Neale's gang was put to carrying ties. Neale got hold of the first tie thrown off the car.

"Phwat the hell's ye're hurry!" protested his partner. This fellow was gnarled and knotted, brick-red in color, with face a network of seams, and narrow, sun-burnt slits for eyes. He answered to the name of Pat.

They carried the tie out to the end of the rails and dropped it on the level road-bed. Men there set it straight and tamped the gravel around it. Neale and his partner went back for another, passing a dozen couples carrying ties forward. Behind these staggered the rows of men burdened with the heavy iron rails.

So the day's toil began.

Pat had glanced askance at Neale, and then had made dumb signs to his fellow-laborers, indicating his hard lot in being yoked to this new wild man on the job. But his ridicule soon changed to respect. Presently he offered his gloves to Neale. They were refused.

"But, fri'nd, ye ain't tough loike me," he protested.

"Pat, they'll put you to bed to-night--if you stay with me," replied Neale.

"The hell ye say! Come on, thin!"

At first Neale had no sensations of heat, weariness, thirst, or pain. He dragged the little Irishman forward to drop the ties--then strode back ahead of him. Neale was obsessed by a profound emotion. This was a new beginning for him. For him the world and life had seemed to cease when yesternight the sun sank and Allie Lee passed out of sight. His motive in working there, he imagined, was to lay a few rails, drive a few spikes along the last miles of the road that he had surveyed. He meant to work this way only a little while, till the rails from east met those from west.

This profound emotion seemed accompanied by a procession of thoughts, each thought in turn, like a sun with satellites, reflecting its radiance upon them and rousing strange, dreamy, full- hearted fancies ... Allie lived--as good, as innocent as ever, incomparably beautiful--sad-eyed, eloquent, haunting. From that mighty thought sprang both Neale's exaltation and his activity. He had loved her so well that conviction of her death had broken his heart, deadened his ambition, ruined his life. But since, by the mercy of God and the innocence that had made men heroic, she had survived all peril, all evil, then had begun a colossal overthrow in Neale's soul of the darkness, the despair, the hate, the indifference. He had been flung aloft, into the heights, and he had seen into heaven. He asked for nothing in the world. All-satisfied, eternally humble, grateful with every passionate drop of blood throbbing through his heart, he dedicated all his spiritual life to memory. And likewise there seemed a tremendous need in him of sustained physical action, even violence. He turned to the last stages of the construction of the great railroad.

What fine comrades these hairy-breasted toilers made! Neale had admired them once; now he loved them. Every group seemed to contain a trio like that one he had known so well--Casey, Shane, and McDermott. Then he divined that these men were all alike. They all toiled, swore, fought, drank, gambled. Hundreds of them went to nameless graves. But the work went on--the great, driving, united heart beat on.

Neale was under its impulse, in another sense.

When he lifted a tie and felt the hard, splintering wood, he wondered where it had come from, what kind of a tree it was, who had played in its shade, how surely birds had nested in it and animals had grazed beneath it. Between him and that square log of wood there was an affinity. Somehow his hold upon it linked him strangely to a long past, intangible spirit of himself. He must cling to it, lest he might lose that illusive feeling. Then when he laid it down he felt regret fade into a realization that the yellow-gravel road-bed also inspirited him. He wanted to feel it, work in it, level it, make it somehow his own.

When he strode back for another load his magnifying eyes gloated over the toilers in action--the rows of men carrying and laying rails, and the splendid brawny figures of the spikers, naked to the waist, swinging the heavy sledges. The blows rang out spang--spang-- spang! Strong music, full of meaning! When his turn came to be a spiker, he would love that hardest work of all.

The engine puffed smoke and bumped the cars ahead, little by little as the track advanced; men on the train carried ties and rails forward, filling the front cars as fast as they were emptied; long lines of laborers on the ground passed to and fro, burdened going forward, returning empty-handed; the rails and the shovels and the hammers and the picks all caught the hot gleam from the sun; the dust swept up in sheets; the ring, the crash, the thump, the scrape of iron and wood and earth in collision filled the air with a sound rising harshly above the song and laugh and curse of men.

A shifting, colorful, strenuous scene of toil!

Gradually Neale felt that he was fitting into this scene, becoming a part of it, an atom once more in the great whole. He doubted while he thrilled. Clearly as he saw, keenly as he felt, he yet seemed bewildered. Was he not gazing out at this construction work through windows of his soul, once more painted, colored, beautiful, because the most precious gift he might have prayed--for had been given him- -life and hope for Allie Lee?

He did not know. He could not think.

His comrade, Pat, wiped floods of sweat from his scarlet face. "I'll be domned if ye ain't a son-of-a-gun fer worrk!" he complained.

"Pat, we've been given the honor of pace-makers. They've got to keep up with us. Come on," replied Neale.

"Be gad! there ain't a mon in the gang phwat'll trade fer me honor, thin," declared Pat. "Fri'nd, I'd loike to live till next pay-day,"

"Come on, then, work up an appetite," rejoined Neale.

"Shure I'll die.... An' I'd loike to ask, beggin' ye're pardon, hevn't ye got some Irish in ye?"

"Yes, a little."

"I knowed thot.... All roight, I'll die with ye, thin."

In half an hour Pat was in despair again. He had to rest.

"Phwat's--ye're--name?" he queried.

"Neale."

"It ought to be Casey. Fer there was niver but wan loike ye--an' he was Casey.... Mon, ye're sweatin' blood roight now!"

Pat pointed at Neale's red, wet shirt. Neale slapped his breast, and drops of blood and sweat spattered from under his hand.

"An' shure ye're hands are bladin', too!" ejaculated Pat.

They were, indeed, but Neale had not noted that.

The boss, Reilly, passing by, paused to look and grin.

"Pat, yez got some one to kape up with to-day. We're half a mile ahead of yestidy this time."

Then he turned to Neale.

"I've seen one in yer class--Casey by name. An' thot's talkin'."

He went his way. And Neale, plodding on, saw the red face of the great Casey, with its set grin and the black pipe. Swiftly then he saw it as he had heard of it last, and a shadow glanced fleetingly across the singular radiance of his mind.

The shrill whistle of the locomotive halted the work and called the men to dinner and rest. Instantly the scene changed. The slow, steady, rhythmic motions of labor gave place to a scramble back to the long line of cars. Then the horde of sweaty toilers sought places in the shade, and ate and drank and smoked and rested. As the spirit of work had been merry, so was that of rest, with always a dry, grim earnestness in the background.

Neale slowed down during the afternoon, to the unconcealed thankfulness of his partner. The burn of the sun, the slippery sweat, the growing ache of muscles, the never-ending thirst, the lessening of strength--these sensations impinged upon Neale's emotion and gradually wore to the front of his consciousness. His hands grew raw, his back stiff and sore, his feet crippled. The wound in his breast burned and bled and throbbed. At the end of the day he could scarcely walk.

He rode in with the laborers, slept twelve hours, and awoke heavy- limbed, slow, and aching. But he rode out to work, and his second day was one of agony.

The third was a continual fight between will and body, between spirit and pain. But so long as he could step and lift he would work on. From that time he slowly began to mend.

Then came his siege with the rails. That was labor which made carrying ties seem light. He toiled on, sweating thin, wearing hard, growing clearer of mind. As pain subsided, and weariness of body no longer dominated him, slowly thought and feeling returned until that morning dawned when, like a flash of lightning illuminating his soul, the profound and exalted emotion again possessed him. Soon he came to divine that the agony of toil and his victory over weak flesh had added to his strange happiness. Hour after hour he bent his back and plodded beside his comrades, doing his share, burdened as they were, silent, watchful, listening, dreaming, keen to note the progress of the road, yet deep in his own intense abstraction. He seemed to have two minds. He saw every rod of the ten miles of track laid every day, knew, as only an engineer could know, the wonder of such progress; and, likewise, always in his sight, in his mind, shone a face, red-lipped, soulful, lovely like a saint's, with mournful violet eyes, star-sweet in innocence. Life had given Allie Lee back to him--to his love and his memory; and all that could happen to him now must be good. At first he had asked for nothing, so grateful was he to fate, but now he prayed for hours and days and nights to remember.

The day came when Neale graduated into the class of spikers. This division of labor to him had always represented the finest spirit of the building. The drivers--the spikers--the men who nailed the rails--who riveted the last links--these brawny, half-naked wielders of the sledges, bronzed as Indians, seemed to embody both the romance and the achievement. Neale experienced a subtle perception with the first touch and lift and swing of the great hammer. And there seemed born in him a genius for the stroke. He had a free, easy swing, with tremendous power. He could drive so fast that his comrade on the opposite rail, and the carriers and layers, could not keep up with him. Moments of rest seemed earned. During these he would gaze with glinting eyes back at the gangs and the trains, at the smoke, dust, and movement; and beyond toward the east.

One day he drove spikes for hours, with the gangs in uninterrupted labor around him, while back a mile along the road the troopers fought the Sioux; and all this time, when any moment he might be ordered to drop his sledge for a rifle, he listened to the voice in his memory and saw the face.

Another day dawned in which he saw the grading gangs return from work ahead. They were done. Streams of horses, wagons, and men on the return! They had met the graders from the west, and the two lines of road-bed had been connected. As these gangs passed, cheer on cheer greeted them from the rail-layers. It was a splendid moment.

From lip to lip then went the word that the grading-gangs from east and west had passed each other in plain sight, working on, grading on for a hundred miles farther than necessary. They had met and had passed on, side by side, doubling the expense of construction.

This knowledge gave Neale a melancholy reminder of the dishonest aspect of the road-building. And he thought of many things. The spirit of the work was grand, the labor heroic, but, alas! side by side with these splendid and noble attributes stalked the specters of greed and gold and lust of blood and of death.

But neither knowledge such as this, nor peril from Indians, nor the toil-pangs of a galley slave had power to change Neale's supreme state of joy.

He gazed back toward the east, and then with mighty swing he drove a spike. He loved Allie Lee beyond all conception, and next he loved the building of the railroad.

When such thoughts came he went back to pure sensations, the great, bold peaks looming dark, the winding, level road-bed, the smoky desert-land, reflecting heat, the completed track and gangs of moving men like bright ants in the sunlight, and the exhaust of the engines, the old song, "Drill, ye terriers, drill!" the ring and crash and thud and scrape of labor, the whistle of the seeping sand on the wind, the feel of the heavy sledge that he could wield as a toy, the throb of pulse, the smell of dust and sweat, the sense of his being there, his action, his solidarity, his physical brawn-- once more manhood.

But at last human instincts encroached upon Neale's superlative detachment from self. It seemed all of a sudden that he stepped toward an east-bound train. When he reached the coach something halted him--a thought--where was he going? The west-bound work-train was the one he wanted. He laughed, a little grimly. Certainly he had grown absentminded. And straightway he became thoughtful, in a different way. Not many moments of reflection were needed to assure him that he had moved toward the east-bound train with the instinctive idea of going to Allie Lee. The thing amazed him.

"But she--she's gone out of my life," he soliloquized. "And I am--I was glad!"

The lightning-swift shift to past tense enlightened Neale.

He went out to work. That work still loomed splendid to him, but it seemed not the same. He saw and felt the majesty of common free men, sweating and bleeding and groaning over toil comparable to the building of the Pyramids; he felt the best that had ever been in him quicken and broaden as he rubbed elbows with these simple, elemental toilers; with them he had gotten down to the level of truth. His old genius for achievement, the practical and scientific side of him, still thrilled with the battle of strong hands against the natural barriers of the desert. He saw the thousands of plodding, swearing, fighting, blaspheming, joking laborers on the field of action--saw the picture they made, red and bronzed and black, dust-begrimed; and how here with the ties and the rails and the road-bed was the heart of that epical turmoil. What approach could great and rich engineers and directors have made to that vast enterprise without these sons of brawn? Neale now saw what he had once dreamed, and that was the secret of his longing to get down to the earth with these men.

He loved to swing that sledge, to hear the spang of the steel ring out. He had a sheer physical delight in the power of his body, long since thinned-out, hardened, tough as the wood into which he drove the spikes. He loved his new comrade, Pat, the gnarled and knotted little Irishman who cursed and complained of his job and fought his fellow-workers, yet who never lagged, never shirked, and never failed, though his days of usefulness must soon be over. Soon Pat would drop by the roadside, a victim to toil and whisky and sun. And he was great in his obscurity. He wore a brass tag with a number; he signed his wage receipt with a cross; he cared only for drink and a painted hag in a squalid tent; yet in all the essentials that Neale now called great his friend Pat reached up to them--the spirit to work, to stand his share, to go on, to endure, to fulfill his task.

Neale might have found salvation in this late-developed and splendid relation to labor and to men. But there was a hitch in his brain. He would see all that was beautiful and strenuous and progressive around him; and then, in a flash, that hiatus in his mind would operate to make him hopeless. Then he would stand as in a trance, with far-away gaze in his eyes, until his fellow-spiker would recall him to his neglected work. These intervals of abstraction grew upon him until he would leave off in the act of driving a spike.

And sometimes in these strange intervals he longed for his old friend, brother, shadow--Larry Red King. He held to Larry's memory, though with it always would return that low, strange roar of Benton's gold and lust and blood and death. Neale did not understand the mystery of what he had been through. It had been a phase of wildness never to be seen again by his race. His ambition and effort, his fall, his dark siege with hell, his friendship and loss, his agony and toil, his victory, were all symbolical of the progress of a great movement. In his experience lay hid all that development.

The coming of night was always a relief now, for with the end of the day's work he need no longer fight his battle. It was a losing battle--that he knew. Shunning everybody, he paced to and fro out on the dark, windy desert, under the lonely, pitiless stars.

His longing to see Allie Lee grew upon him. While he had believed her dead he had felt her spirit hovering near him, in every shadow, and her voice whispered on the wind. She was alive now, but gone away, far distant, over mountains and plains, out of his sight and reach, somewhere to take up a new life alien to his. What would she do? Could she bear, it? Never would she forget him--be faithless to his memory! Yet she was young and her life had been hard. She might yield to that cold Allison Lee's dictation. In happy surroundings her beauty and sweetness would bring a crowd of lovers to her.

"But that's all--only natural," muttered Neale, in perplexity. "I want her to forget--to be happy--to find a home.... For her to grow old--alone! No! She must love some man--marry--"

And with the spoken words Neale's heart contracted. He knew that he lied to himself. If she ever cared for another man, that would be the end of Warren Neale. But then, he was ended, anyhow. Jealousy, strange, new, horrible, added to Neale's other burdens, finished him. He had the manhood to try to fight selfishness, but he had failed to subdue it; and he had nothing left to fight his consuming love and hatred of life and terrible loneliness and that fierce thing--jealousy. He had saved Allie Lee! Why had he given her up? He had stained his hands with blood for her sake. And that awful moment came back to him when, maddened by the sting of a bullet, he had gloried in the cracking of Durade's bones, in the ghastly terror and fear of death upon the Spaniard's face, in the feel of the knife- blade as he forced Durade to stab himself. Always Neale had been haunted by this final scene of his evil life in the construction camps. A somber and spectral shape, intangible, gloomy-faced, often, attended him in the shadow. He justified his deed, for Durade would have killed Allison Lee. But that fact did not prevent the haunting shape, the stir in the dark air, the nameless step upon Neale's trail.

And jealousy, stronger than all except fear, wore Neale out of his exaltation, out of his dream, out of his old disposition to work. He could persist in courage if not in joy. But jealous longing would destroy him--he felt that. It was so powerful, so wonderful that it brought back to him words and movements which until then he had been unable to recall.

And he lived over the past. Much still baffled him, yet gradually more and more of what had happened became clear specifically hi his memory. He could not think from the present back over the past. He had to ponder the other way, One day, leaning on his sledge, Neale's torturing self, morbid, inquisitive, growing by what it fed on, whispered another question to his memory.

"What were some of the last words she spoke to me?" And there, limned white on the dark background of his mind, the answer appeared, "Neale, I forgive you!"

He recalled her face, the tragic eyes, the outstretched arms.

"Forgive me! For what?" Neale muttered, dazed and troubled. He dropped his sledge and remained standing there, though the noon whistle called the gang to dinner. Looking out across the hot, smoky, arid desert he saw again that scene where he had appealed to Allison Lee.

The picture was etched out vividly, and again he lived through those big moments of emotion.

The room full of men--Lee's cold acceptance of fact, his thanks, his offer, his questions, his refusal--General Lodge's earnest solicitation--the rapid exchange of passionate words between them-- the query put to Neale and his answer--the sudden appearance of Allie, shocking his heart with rapture--her sweet, wild words--and so the end! How vivid now--how like flashes of lightning in his mind!

"Lee thought I'd killed Stanton," muttered Neale, in intense perplexity. "But she--she told them Larry did it.... What a strange idea Lee had--and General Lodge, too. He defended me.... Ah!"

Suddenly Neale drew from his pocket the little leather note-book that had been Stanton's, and which contained her letter to him. With trembling hands he opened it. Again this letter was to mean a revelation.

General Lodge had said his engineer had read aloud only the first of that message to Neale; and from this Allison Lee and all the listeners had formed their impressions.

Neale read these first lines.

"No wonder they imagined I killed her!" he exclaimed. "She accuses me. But she never meant what they imagined she meant. Why, that evidence could hang me! ... Allie told them she saw Larry do it. And it's common knowledge now--I've heard it here.... What, then, had Allie to forgive--to forgive with eyes that will haunt me to my grave?"

Then the truth burst upon him with merciless and stunning force.

"My God! Allie believed what they all believed--what I must have blindly made seem true! ... That I was Beauty Stanton's lover!"