Chapter 34
 

The home to which Allie Lee was brought stood in the outskirts of Omaha upon a wooded bank above the river.

Allie watched the broad, yellow Missouri swirling by. She liked best to be alone outdoors in the shade of the trees. In the weeks since her arrival there she had not recovered from the shock of meeting Neale only to be parted from him.

But the comfort, the luxury of her home, the relief from constant dread, such as she had known for years, the quiet at night--these had been so welcome, so saving, that her burden of sorrow seemed endurable. Yet in time she came to see that the finding of a father and a home had only added to her bitterness.

Allison Lee's sister, an elderly woman of strong character, resented the home-bringing of this strange, lost daughter. Allie had found no sympathy in her. For a while neighbors and friends of the Lees' flocked to the house and were kind, gracious, attentive to Allie. Then somehow her story, or part of it, became gossip. Her father, sensitive, cold, embittered by the past, suffered intolerable shame at the disgrace of a wife's desertion and a daughter's notoriety. Allie's presence hurt him; he avoided her as much as possible; the little kindnesses that he had shown, and his feelings of pride in her beauty and charm, soon vanished. There was no love between them. Allie had tried hard to care for him, but her heart seemed to be buried in that vast grave of the West. She was obedient, dutiful, passive, but she could not care for him. And there came a day when she realized that he did not believe she had come unscathed through the wilds of the gold-fields and the vileness of the construction camps. She bore this patiently, though it stung her. But the loss of respect for her father did not come until she heard men in his study, loud-voiced and furious, wrangle over contracts and accuse him of double-dealing.

Later he told her that he had become involved in financial straits, and that unless he could raise a large sum by a certain date he would be ruined.

And it was this day that Allie sat on a bench in the little arbor and watched the turbulent river. She was sorry for her father, but she could not help him. Moreover, alien griefs did not greatly touch her. Her own grief was deep and all-enfolding. She was heart-sick, and always yearning--yearning for that she dared not name.

The day was hot, sultry; no birds sang, but the locusts were noisy; the air was full of humming bees.

Allie watched the river. She was idle because her aunt would not let her work. She could only remember and suffer. The great river soothed her. Where did it come from and where did it go? And what was to become of her? Almost it would have been better--

A servant interrupted her. "Missy, heah's a gennelman to see yo'," announced the Negro girl.

Allie looked. She thought she saw a tall, buckskin-clad man carrying a heavy pack. Was she dreaming or had she lost her mind? She got up, shaking in every limb. This tall man moved; he seemed real; his bronzed face beamed. He approached; he set the pack down on the bench. Then his keen, clear eyes pierced Allie.

"Wal, lass," he said, gently.

The familiar voice was no dream, no treachery of her mind. Slingerland! She could not speak. She could hardly see. She swayed into his arms. Then when she felt the great, strong clasp and the softness of buckskin on her face and the odor of pine and sage--and desert dust, she believed in his reality.

Her heart seemed to collapse. All within her was riot.

"Neale!" she whispered, in anguish.

"All right an' workin' hard. He sent me," replied Slingerland, swift to get his message out.

Allie quivered and closed her eyes and leaned against him. A beautiful something pervaded her soul. Slowly the tumult within her breast subsided. She recovered.

"Uncle Al!" she called him, tenderly.

"Wal, I should smile! An' glad to see you--why Lord! I'd never tell you! ... You're white an' shaky, lass.... Set down hyar--on the bench--beside me. Thar! ... Allie, I've a powerful lot to tell you."

"Wait! To see you--and to hear--of him--almost killed me with joy," she panted. Her little hands, once so strong and brown, but now thin and white, fastened tight in the fringe of his buckskin hunting- coat.

"Lass, sight of you sort of makes me young agin--but--Allie, those are not the happy eyes I remember."

"I--am very unhappy," she whispered.

"Wal, if thet ain't too bad! Shore it's natural you'd be downhearted, losin' Neale thet way."

"It's not all--that," she murmured, and then she told him.

"Wal, wal!" ejaculated the trapper, stroking his beard in thoughtful sorrow. "But I reckon thet's natural, too. You're strange hyar, an' thet story will hang over you.... Lass, with all due respect to your father, I reckon you'd better come back to me an' Neale."

"Did he tell you--to say that?" she whispered, tremulously.

"Lord, no!" ejaculated Slingerland.

"Does he--care--for me still?"

"Lass, he's dyin' fer you--an' I never spoke a truer word."

Allie shuddered close to him, blinded, stormed by an exquisite bitter-sweet fury of love. She seemed rising, uplifted, filled with rich, strong joy.

"I forgave him," she murmured, dreamily low to herself.

"War, mebbe you'll be right glad you did--presently," said Slingerland, with animation. "'Specially when thar wasn't nothin' much to forgive."

Allie became mute. She could not lift her eyes.

"Lass, listen!" began Slingerland. "After you left Roarin' City Neale went at hard work. Began by heavin' ties an' rails, an' now he's slingin' a sledge.... This was amazin' to me. I seen him only onct since, an' thet was the other day. But I heerd about him. I rode over to Roarin' City several times. An' I made it my bizness to find out about Neale.... He never came into the town at all. They said he worked like a slave the first day, bleedin' hard. But he couldn't be stopped. An' the work didn't kill him, though thar was some as swore it would. They said he changed, an' when he toughened up thar was never but one man as could equal him, an' thet was an Irish feller named Casey. I heerd it was somethin' worth while to see him sling a sledge.... Wal, I never seen him do it, but mebbe I will yet.

"A few days back I met him gettin' off a train at Roarin' City. Lord! I hardly knowed him! He stood like an Injun, with the big muscles bulgin', an' his face was clean an' dark, his eye like fire.... He nearly shook the daylights out of me. 'Slingerland, I want you!' he kept yellin' at me. An' I said, 'So it 'pears, but what fer?' Then he told me he was goin' after the gold thet Horn had buried along the old Laramie Trail. Wal, I took my outfit, an' we rode back into the hills. You remember them. Wal, we found the gold, easy enough, an' we packed it back to Roarin' City. Thar Neale sent me off on a train to fetch the gold to you. An' hyar I I am an' thar's the gold."

Allie stared at the pack, bewildered by Slingerland's story, Suddenly she sat up and she felt the blood rush to her cheeks.

"Gold! Horn's gold! But it's not mine! Did Neale send it to me?"

"Every ounce," replied the trapper, soberly. "I reckon it's yours. Thar was no one else left--an' you recollect what Horn said. Lass, it's yours--an' I'm goin' to make you keep it."

"How much is there?" queried Allie, with thrills of curiosity. How well she remembered Horn! He had told her he had no relatives. Indeed, the gold was hers.

"Wal, Neale an' me couldn't calkilate how much, hevin' nothin' to weigh the gold. But it's a fortune."

Allie turned from the pack to the earnest face of the trapper. There had been many critical moments in her life, but never one with the suspense, the fullness, the inevitableness of this.

"Did Neale send anything else?" she flashed.

"Wal, yes, an' I was comin' to thet," replied Slingerland, as he unlaced the front of his hunting-frock. Presently he drew forth a little leather note-book, which he handed to Allie. She took it while looking up at him. Never had she seen his face radiate such strange emotion. She divined it to be the supreme happiness inherent in the power to give happiness.

Allie trembled. She opened the little book. Surely it would contain a message that would be as sweet as life to dying eyes. She read a name, written in ink, in a clear script: "Beauty Stanton."

Her pulses ceased to beat, her blood to flow, her heart to throb. All seemed to freeze within her except her mind. And that leaped fearfully over the first lines of a letter--then feverishly on to the close--only to fly back and read again. Then she dropped the book. She hid her face on Slingerland's breast. She clutched him with frantic hands. She clung there, her body all held rigid, as if some extraordinary strength or inspiration or joy had suddenly inhibited weakness.

"Wal, lass, hyar you're takin' it powerful hard--an' I made sure--"

"Hush!" whispered Allie, raising her face. She kissed him. Then she sprang up like a bent sapling released. She met Slingerland's keen gaze--saw him start--then rise as if the better to meet a shock.

"I am going back West with you," she said, coolly.

"Wal, I knowed you'd go."

"Divide that gold. I'll leave half for my father." Slingerland's great hands began to pull at the pack.

"Thar's a train soon. I calkilated to stay over a day. But the sooner the better.... Lass, will you run off or tell him?"

"I'll tell him. He can't stop me, even if he would.... The gold will save him from ruin....He will let me go."

She stooped to pick up the little leather note-book and placed it in her bosom. Her heart seemed to surge against it. The great river rolled on--rolled on--magnified in her sight. A thick, rich, beautiful light shone under the trees. What was this dance of her blood while she seemed so calm, so cool, so sure?

"Does he have any idea--that I might return to him?" she asked.

"None, lass, none! Thet I'll swear," declared Slingerland. "When I left him at Roarin' City the other day he was--wal, like he used to be. The boy come out in him again, not jest the same, but brave. Sendin' thet gold an' thet little book made him happy.... I reckon Neale found his soul then. An' he never expects to see you again in this hyar world."