Chapter 4
 

In 1865, just after the war, a party of engineers was at work in the Wyoming hills on a survey as hazardous as it was problematical. They had charge of the laying out of the Union Pacific Railroad.

This party, escorted by a company of United States troops under Colonel Dillon, had encountered difficulties almost insurmountable. And now, having penetrated the wild hills to the eastern slope of the Rockies they were halted by a seemingly impassable barrier--a gorge too deep to fill, too wide to bridge.

General Lodge, chief engineer of the corps, gave an order to one of his assistants. "Put young Neale on the job. If we ever survey a line through this awful place we'll owe it to him."

The assistant, Baxter, told an Irishman standing by and smoking a short, black pipe to find Neale and give him the chief's orders. The Irishman, Casey by name, was raw-boned, red-faced, and hard- featured, a man inured to exposure and rough life. His expression was one of extreme and fixed good humor, as if his face had been set, mask-like, during a grin. He removed the pipe from his lips.

"Gineral, the flag I've been holdin' fer thot dom' young surveyor is the wrong color. I want a green flag."

Baxter waved the Irishman to his errand, but General Lodge looked up from the maps and plans before him with a faint smile. He had a dark, stern face and the bearing of a soldier.

"Casey, you can have any color you like," he said. "Maybe green would change our luck."

"Gineral, we'll niver git no railroad built, an' if we do it'll be the Irish thot builds it," responded Casey, and went his way.

Truly only one hope remained--that the agile and daring Neale, with his eye of a mountaineer and his genius for estimating distance and grade, might run a line around the gorge.

While waiting for Neale the engineers went over the maps and drawings again and again, with the earnestness of men who could not be beaten.

Lodge had been a major-general in the Civil War just ended, and before that he had traveled through this part of the West many times, and always with the mighty project of a railroad looming in his mind. It had taken years to evolve the plan of a continental railroad, and it came to fruition at last through many men and devious ways, through plots and counterplots. The wonderful idea of uniting East and West by a railroad originated in one man's brain; he lived for it, and finally he died for it. But the seeds he had sown were fruitful. One by one other men divined and believed, despite doubt and fear, until the day arrived when Congress put the Government of the United States, the army, a group of frock-coated directors, and unlimited gold back of General Lodge, and bade him build the road.

In all the length and breadth of the land no men but the chief engineer and his assistants knew the difficulty, the peril of that undertaking. The outside world was interested, the nation waited, mostly in doubt. But Lodge and his engineers had been seized by the spirit of some great thing to be, in the making of which were adventure, fortune, fame, and that strange call of life which foreordained a heritage for future generations. They were grim; they were indomitable.

Warren Neale came hurrying up. He was a New Englander of poor family, self-educated, wild for adventure, keen for achievement, eager, ardent, bronze-faced, and keen-eyed, under six feet in height, built like a wedge, but not heavy--a young man of twenty- three with strong latent possibilities of character.

General Lodge himself explained the difficulties of the situation and what the young surveyor was expected to do. Neale flushed with pride; his eyes flashed; his jaw set. But he said little while the engineers led him out to the scene of the latest barrier. It was a rugged gorge, old and yellow and crumbled, cedar-fringed at the top, bare and white at the bottom. The approach to it was through a break in the walls, so that the gorge really extended both above and below this vantage-point.

"This is the only pass through these foot-hills," said Engineer Henney, the eldest of Lodge's corps.

The passage ended where the break in the walls fronted abruptly upon the gorge. It was a wild scene. Only inspired and dauntless men could have entertained any hope of building a railroad through such a place. The mouth of the break was narrow; a rugged slope led up to the left; to the right a huge buttress of stone wall bulged over the gorge; across stood out the seamed and cracked cliffs, and below yawned the abyss. The nearer side of the gorge could only be guessed at.

Neale crawled to the extreme edge of the precipice, and, lying flat, he tried to discover what lay beneath. Evidently he did not see much, for upon getting up he shook his head. Then he gazed at the bulging wall.

"The side of that can be blown off," he muttered.

"But what's around the corner? If it's straight stone wall for miles and miles we are done," said Boone, another of the engineers.

"The opposite wall is just that," added Henney. "A straight stone wall."

General Lodge gazed at the baffling gorge. His face became grimmer, harder. "It seems impossible to go on, but we must go on!" he said.

A short silence ensued. The engineers faced one another like men confronted by a last and crowning hindrance. Then Neale laughed. He appeared cool and confident.

"It only looks bad," he said. "We'll climb to the top and I'll go down over the wall on a rope."

Neale had been let down over many precipices in those stony hills. He had been the luckiest, the most daring and successful of all the men picked out and put to perilous tasks. No one spoke of the accidents that had happened, or even the fatal fall of a lineman who a few weeks before had ventured once too often. Every rod of road surveyed made the engineers sterner at their task, just as it made them keener to attain final success.

The climb to the top of the bluff was long and arduous. The whole corps went, and also some of the troopers.

"I'll need a long rope," Neale had said to King, his lineman.

It was this order that made King take so much time in ascending the bluff. Besides, he was a cowboy, used to riding, and could not climb well.

"Wal--I--shore--rustled--all the line--aboot heah," he drawled, pantingly, as he threw lassoes and coils of rope at Neale's feet.

Neale picked up some of the worn pieces. He looked dubious. "Is this all you could get?" he asked.

"Shore is. An' thet includes what Casey rustled from the soldiers."

"Help me knot these," went on Neale.

"Wal, I reckon this heah time I'll go down before you," drawled King.

Neale laughed and looked curiously at his lineman. Back somewhere in Nebraska this cowboy from Texas had attached himself to Neale. They worked together; they had become friends. Larry Red King made no bones of the fact that Texas had grown too hot for him. He had been born with an itch to shoot. To Neale it seemed that King made too much of a service Neale had rendered--the mere matter of a helping hand. Still, there had been danger.

"Go down before me!" exclaimed Neale.

"I reckon," replied King.

"You will not," rejoined the other, bluntly. "I may not need you at all. What's the sense of useless risk?"

"Wal, I'm goin'--else I throw up my job."

"Oh, hell!" burst out Neale as he strained hard on a knot. Again he looked at his lineman, this time with something warmer than curiosity in his glance.

Larry Red King was tall, slim, hard as iron, and yet undeniably graceful in outline--a singularly handsome and picturesque cowboy with flaming hair and smooth, red face and eyes of flashing blue. From his belt swung a sheath holding a heavy gun.

"Wal, go ahaid," added Neale, mimicking his comrade. "An' I shore hope thet this heah time you-all get aboot enough of your job."

One by one the engineers returned from different points along the wall, and they joined the group around Neale and King.

"Test that rope," ordered General Lodge.

The long rope appeared to be amply strong. When King fastened one end round his body under his arms the question arose among the engineers, just as it had arisen for Neale, whether or not it was needful to let the lineman down before the surveyor. Henney, who superintended this sort of work, decided it was not necessary.

"I reckon I'll go ahaid," said King. Like all Texans of his type, Larry King was slow, easy, cool, careless. Moreover, he gave a singular impression of latent nerve, wildness, violence.

There seemed every assurance of a deadlock when General Lodge stepped forward and addressed his inquiry to Neale.

"Larry thinks the rope will break. So he wants to go first," replied Neale.

There were broad smiles forthcoming, yet no one laughed. This was one of the thousands of strange human incidents that must be enacted in the building of the railroad. It might have been humorous, but it was big. It fixed the spirit and it foreshadowed events.

General Lodge's stern face relaxed, but he spoke firmly. "Obey orders," he admonished Larry King.

The loop was taken from Larry's waist and transferred to Neale's. Then all was made ready to let the daring surveyor with his instrument down over the wall.

Neale took one more look at the rugged front of the cliff. When he straightened up the ruddy bronze had left his face.

"There's a bulge of rock. I can't see what's below it," he said. "No use for signals. I'll go down the length of the rope and trust to find a footing. I can't be hauled up."

They all conceded this silently.

Then Neale sat down, let his legs dangle over the wall, firmly grasped his instrument, and said to the troopers who held the rope, "All right!"

They lowered him foot by foot.

It was windy and the dust blew up from under the wall. Black canon swifts, like swallows, darted out with rustling wings, uttering frightened twitterings. The engineers leaned over, watching Neale's progress. Larry King did not look over the precipice. He watched the slowly slipping rope as knot by knot it passed over. It fascinated him.

"He's reached the bulge of rock," called Baxter, craning his neck.

"There, he's down--out of sight!" exclaimed Henney.

Casey, the flagman, leaned farther out than any other. "Phwat a dom' sthrange way to build a railroad, I sez," he remarked.

The gorge lay asleep in the westering sun, silent, full of blue haze. Seen from this height, far above the break where the engineers had first halted, it had the dignity and dimensions of a canon. Its walls had begun to change color in the sunset light.

Foot by foot the soldiers let the rope slip, until probably two hundred had been let out, and there were scarcely a hundred feet left. By this time all that part of the cable which had been made of lassoes had passed over; the remainder consisted of pieces of worn and knotted and frayed rope, at which the engineers began to gaze fearfully.

"I don't like this," said Henney, nervously. "Neale surely ought to have found a ledge or bench or slope by now."

Instinctively the soldiers held back, reluctantly yielding inches where before they had slacked away feet. But intent as was their gaze, it could not rival that of the cowboy.

"Hold!" he yelled, suddenly pointing to where the strained rope curved over the edge of the wall.

The troopers held hard. The rope ceased to pay out. The strain seemed to increase. Larry King pointed with a lean hand.

"It's a-goin' to break!"

His voice, hoarse and swift, checked the forward movement of the engineers. He plunged to his knees before the rope and reached clutchingly, as if he wanted to grasp it, yet dared not.

"Ropes was my job! Old an' rotten! It's breakin'!"

Even as he spoke the rope snapped. The troopers, thrown off their balance, fell backward. Baxter groaned; Boone and Henney cried out in horror; General Lodge stood aghast, dazed. Then they all froze rigid in the position of intense listening.

A dull sound puffed up from the gorge, a low crash, then a slow- rising roar and rattle of sliding earth and rock. It diminished and ceased with the hollow cracking of stone against stone.

Casey broke the silence among the listening men with a curse. Larry Red King rose from his knees, holding the end of the snapped rope, which he threw from him with passionate violence. Then with action just as violent he unbuckled his belt and pulled it tighter and buckled it again. His eyes were blazing with blue lightning; they seemed to accuse the agitated engineers of deliberate murder. But he turned away without speaking and hurried along the edge of the gorge, evidently searching for a place to go down.

General Lodge ordered the troopers to follow King and if possible recover Neale's body.

"That lad had a future," said old Henney, sadly. "We'll miss him."

Boone's face expressed sickness and horror.

Baxter choked. "Too bad!" he murmured, "but what's to be done?"

The chief engineer looked away down the shadowy gorge where the sun was burning the ramparts red. To have command of men was hard, bitter. Death stalked with his orders. He foresaw that the building of this railroad was to resemble the war in which he had sent so many lads and men to bloody graves.

The engineers descended the long slope and returned to camp, a mile down the narrow valley. Fires were blazing; columns of smoke were curling aloft; the merry song and reckless laugh of soldiers were ringing out, so clear in the still air; horses were neighing and stamping.

Colonel Dillon reported to General Lodge that one of the scouts had sighted a large band of Sioux Indians encamped in a valley not far distant. This tribe had gone on the war-path and had begun to harass the engineers. Neale's tragic fate was forgotten in the apprehension of what might happen when the Sioux discovered the significance of that surveying expedition.

"The Sioux could make the building of the U. P. impossible," said Henney, always nervous and pessimistic.

"No Indians--nothing can stop us!" declared his chief.

The troopers sent to follow Larry King came back to camp, saying that they had lost him and that they could not find any place where it was possible to get down into that gorge.

In the morning Larry King had not returned.

Detachments of troopers were sent in different directions to try again. And the engineers went out once more to attack their problem. Success did not attend the efforts of either party, and at sunset, when all had wearily returned to camp, Larry King was still absent. Then he was given up for lost.

But before dark the tall cowboy limped into camp, dusty and torn, carrying Neale's long tripod and surveying instrument. It looked the worse for a fall, but apparently was not badly damaged. King did not give the troopers any satisfaction. Limping on to the tents of the engineers, he set down the instrument and called. Boone was the first to come out, and his summons brought Henney, Baxter, and the younger members of the corps. General Lodge, sitting at his campfire some rods away, and bending over his drawings, did not see King's arrival.

No one detected any difference hi the cowboy, except that he limped. Slow, cool, careless he was, yet somehow vital and impelling. "Wal, we run the line around--four miles up the gorge whar the crossin' is easy. Only ninety-foot grade to the mile."

The engineers looked at him as if he were crazy.

"But Neale! He fell--he's dead!" exclaimed Henney.

"Daid? Wal, no, Neale ain't daid," drawled Larry.

"Where is he, then?"

"I reckon he's comin' along back heah."

"Is he hurt?"

"Shore. An' hungry, too, which is what I am," replied Larry, as he limped away.

Some of the engineers hurried out in the gathering dusk to meet Neale, while others went to General Lodge with the amazing story.

The chief received the good news quietly but with intent eyes. "Bring Neale and King here--as soon as their needs have been seen to," he ordered. Then he called after Baxter, "Ninety feet to the mile, you said?"

"Ninety-foot grade, so King reported."

"By all that's lucky!" breathed the chief, as if his load had been immeasurably lightened. "Send those boys to me."

Some of the soldiers had found Neale down along the trail and were helping him into camp. He was crippled and almost exhausted. He made light of his condition, yet he groaned when he dropped into a seat before the fire.

Some one approached Larry King to inform him that the general wanted to see him.

"Wal, I'm hungry--an' he ain't my boss," replied Larry, and went on with his meal. It was well known that the Southerner would not talk.

But Neale talked; he blazed up in eloquent eulogy of his lineman; before an hour had passed away every one in camp knew that Larry had saved Neale's life. Then the loquacious Casey, intruding upon the cowboy's reserve, got roundly cursed for his pains.

"G'wan out among thim Sooz Injuns an' be a dead hero, thin," retorted Casey, as the cowboy stalked off to be alone in the gloom. Evidently Casey was disappointed not to get another cursing, for he turned to his comrade, McDermott, an axman. "Say, Mac, phwot do you make of cowboys?"

"I tell ye, Pat, I make of thim thet you'll be full of bulletholes before this railroad's built."

"Thin, b'gosh, I'll hould drink fer a long time yit," replied Casey.

Later General Lodge visited Neale and received the drawings and figures that made plain solution of what had been a formidable problem.

"It was easy, once I landed under that bulge of cliff," said Neale. "There's a slope of about forty-five degrees--not all rock. And four miles up the gorge peters out. We can cross. I got to where I could see the divide--and oh! there is where our troubles begin. The worst is all to come."

"You've said it," replied the chief, soberly. "We can't follow the trail and get the grade necessary. We've got to hunt up a pass."

"We'll find one," said Neale, hopefully.

"Neale, you're ambitious and you've the kind of spirit that never gives up. I've watched your work from the start. You'll make a big position for yourself with this railroad, if you only live through the building of it."

"Oh, I'll live through it, all right," replied Neale, laughing. "I'm like a cat--always on my feet--and have nine lives besides."

"You surely must! How far did you fall this time?"

"Not far. I landed in a tree, where my instrument stuck. But I crashed down, and got a hard knock on the head. When Larry found me I was unconscious and sliding for another precipice."

"That Texan seems attached to you."

"Well, if he wasn't before he will be now," said Neale, feelingly. "I'll tell you, General, Larry's red-headed, a droll, lazy Southerner, and he's made fun of by the men. But they don't understand him. They certainly can't see how dangerous he is. Only I don't mean that. I do mean that he's true like steel."

"Yes, he showed that. When the rope snapped I was sure he'd pull a gun on us.... Neale, I would like to have had you and Larry Red King with me through the war."

"Thank you, General Lodge.... But I like the prospects now."

"Neale, you're hungry for wild life?"

"Yes," replied Neale, simply.

"I said as much. I felt very much the same way when I was your age. And you like our prospects? ... Well, you've thought things out. Neale, the building of the U. P. will be hell!"

"General, I can see that. It sort of draws me--two ways--the wildness of it and then to accomplish something."

"My lad, I hope you will accomplish something big without living out all the wildness."

"You think I might lose my head?" queried Neale.

"You are excitable and quick-tempered. Do you drink?"

"Yes--a little," answered the young man. "But I don't care for liquor."

"Don't drink, Neale," said the chief, earnestly. "Of course it doesn't matter now, for we're only a few men out here in the wilds. But when our work is done over the divide, we must go back along the line. You know ground has been broken and rails laid west of Omaha. The work's begun. I hear that Omaha is a beehive. Thousands of idle men are flocking West. The work will be military. We must have the army to protect us, and we will hire all the soldiers who apply. But there will be hordes of others--the dregs of the war and all the bad characters of the frontier. They will flock to the construction camp. Millions of dollars will go along with the building. Gold! ... Where it's all coming from I have no idea. The Government backs us with the army--that's all. But the gold will be forthcoming. I have that faith.... And think, lad, what it will mean in a year or two. Ten thousand soldiers in one camp out here in these wild hills. And thousands of others--honest merchants and dishonest merchants, whisky men, gamblers, desperadoes, bandits, and bad women. Niggers, Greasers, Indians, all together moving from camp to camp, where there can be no law."

"It will be great!" exclaimed Neale, with shining eyes.

"It will be terrible," muttered the elder man, gravely. Then, as he got up and bade his young assistant good night, the somberness had returned to his eyes and the weight to his shoulders. He did not underestimate his responsibility nor the nature of his task, and he felt the coming of nameless and unknown events beyond all divining.

Henney was Neale's next visitor. The old engineer appeared elated, but for the moment he apparently forgot everything else in his solicitude for the young man's welfare.

Presently, after he had been reassured, the smile came back to his face.

"The chief has promoted you," he said.

"What!" exclaimed Neale, starting up.

"It's a fact He just talked it over with Baxter and me. This last job of yours pleased him mightily... and so you go up."

"Go up! ... To what?" queried Neale, eagerly.

"Well, that's why he consulted us, I guess," laughed Henney. "You see, we sort of had to make something to promote you to, for the present."

"Oh, I see! I was wondering what job there could be," replied Neale, and he laughed, too. "What did the chief say?"

"He said a lot. Figured you'd land at the top if the U. P. is ever built.... Chief engineer! ... Superintendent of maintenance of way!"

"Good Lord!" breathed Neale. "You're not in earnest?"

"Wal, I shore am, as your cowboy pard says," returned Henney. And then he spoke with real earnestness. "Listen, Neale. Here's the matter in a nutshell. You will be called upon to run these particular and difficult surveys, just as yesterday. But no more of the routine for you. Added to that, you will be sent forward and back, inspecting, figuring. You can make your headquarters with us or in the construction camps, as suits your convenience. All this, of course, presently, when we get farther on. So you will be in a way free--your own boss a good deal of the time. And fitting yourself for that 'maintenance of way' job. In fact, the chief said that--he called you Maintenance-of-Way Neale. Well, I congratulate you. And my advice is keep on as you've begun--go straight--look out for your wildness and temper.... That's all. Good night."

Then he went out, leaving Neale speechless.

Neale had many callers that night, and the last was Larry Red King. The cowboy stooped to enter the tent.

"Wal, how aboot you-all?" he drawled.

"Not so good, Red," replied Neale. "My head's hot and I've got a lot of pain. I think I'm going to be a little flighty. Would you mind getting your blankets and staying with me tonight?"

"I reckon I'd be glad," answered King. He put a hand on Neale's face. "You shore have fever." He left the tent, to return presently with a roll of blankets and a canteen. Then he awkwardly began to bathe Neale's face with cold water. There was a flickering camp-fire outside that threw shadows on the wall of the tent. By its light Neale saw that King's left hand was bandaged and that he used it clumsily.

"What's wrong with your hand?" he queried.

"I reckon nawthin'."

"Why is it bound up, then?"

"Wal, some one sent thet fool army doctor to me an' he said I had two busted bones in it."

"He did! I had no idea you were hurt. You never said a word. And you carried me and my instrument all day--with a broken hand!"

"Wal, I ain't so shore it's broke."

Neale swore at his friend and then he fell asleep. King watched beside him, ever and anon rewetting the hot brow.

The camp-fire died out, and at length the quietness of late night set in. The wind mourned and lulled by intervals; a horse thudded his hoofs now and then; there were the soft, steady footsteps of the sentry on guard, and the wild cry of a night bird.