Chapter 6
 

Some ten miles from the scene of the massacre and perhaps fifteen from the line surveyed by the engineers, Slingerland lived in a wild valley in the heart of the Wyoming hills.

The ride there was laborsome and it took time, but Neale scarcely noted either fact. He paid enough attention to the trail to fix landmarks and turnings in his mind, so that he would remember how to find the way there again. He was, however, mostly intent upon the girl he was carrying.

Twice that he knew of her eyes opened during the ride. But it was to see nothing and only to grip him tighter, if that were possible. Neale began to imagine that he had been too hopeful. Her body was a dead weight and cold. Those two glimpses he had of her opened eyes hurt him. What should he do when she did come to herself? She would be frantic with horror and grief and he would be helpless. In a case like hers it might have been better if she had been killed.

The last mile to Slingerland's lay through a beautiful green valley with steep sides almost like a canon--trees everywhere, and a swift, clear brook running over a bed of smooth rock. The trail led along this brook up to where the valley boxed and the water boiled out of a great spring in a green glade overhung by bushy banks and gray rocks above. A rude cabin with a red-stone chimney and clay-chinked cracks between the logs, stuffed to bursting with furs and pelts and horns and traps, marked the home of the trapper.

"Wal, we're hyar," sung out Slingerland, and in the cheery tones there was something which told that the place was indeed home to him.

"Shore is a likely-lookin' camp," drawled Red, throwing his bridle. "Been heah a long time, thet cabin."

"Me an' my pard was the first white men in these hyar hills," replied Slingerland. "He's gone now." Then he turned to Neale. "Son, you must be tired. Thet was a ways to carry a girl nigh onto dead.... Look how white! Hand her down to me."

The girl's hands slipped nervelessly and limply from their hold upon Neale. Slingerland laid her on the grass in a shady spot. The three men gazed down upon her, all sober, earnest, doubtful.

"I reckon we can't do nothin' but wait," said the trapper.

Red King shook his head as if the problem were beyond him.

Neale did not voice his thought, yet he wanted to be the first person her eyes should rest upon when she did return to consciousness.

"Wal, I'll set to work an' clean out a place fer her," said Slingerland.

"We'll help," rejoined Neale. "Red, you have a look at the horses."

"I'll slip the saddles an' bridles," replied King, "an' let 'em go. Hosses couldn't be chased out of heah."

Slingerland's cabin consisted really of two adjoining cabins with a door between, one part being larger and of later construction. Evidently he used the older building as a storeroom for his pelts. When all these had been removed the room was seen to be small, with two windows, a table, and a few other crude articles of home-made furniture. The men cleaned this room and laid down a carpet of deer hides, fur side up. A bed was made of a huge roll of buffalo skins, flattened and shaped, and covered with Indian blankets. When all this had been accomplished the trapper removed his fur cap, scratched his grizzled head, and appealed to Neale and King.

"I reckon you can fetch over some comfortable-like necessaries-- fixin's fer a girl," he suggested.

Red King laughed in his cool, easy, droll way. "Shore, we'll rustle fer a lookin'-glass, an' hair-brush, an' such as girls hev to hev. Our camp is full of them things."

But Neale did not see any humor in Slingerland's perplexity or in the cowboy's facetiousness. It was the girl's serious condition that worried him, not her future comfort.

"Run out thar!" called Slingerland, sharply.

Neale, who was the nearest to the door, bolted outside, to see the girl sitting up, her hair disheveled, her manner wild in the extreme. At sight of him she gave a start, sudden and violent, and uttered a sharp cry. When Neale reached her it was to find her shaking all over. Terrible fear had never been more vividly shown, yet Neale believed she saw in him a white man, a friend. But the fear in her was still stronger than reason.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"My name's Neale--Warren Neale," he replied, sitting down beside her. He took one of the shaking hands in his. He was glad that she talked rationally.

"Where am I?"

"This is the home of a trapper. I brought you here. It was the best- -in fact, the only place."

"You saved me--from--from those devils?" she queried, hoarsely, and again the cold and horrible shade veiled her eyes.

"Yes--yes--but don't think of them--they're gone," replied Neale, hastily. The look of her distressed and frightened him. He did not know what to say.

The girl fell back with a poignant cry and covered her eyes as if to shut out a hateful and appalling sight. "My--mother!" she moaned, and shuddered with agony. "They--murdered--her! ... Oh! the terrible yells! ... I saw--killed--every man--Mrs. Jones! My mother--she fell- -she never spoke! Her blood was on me! ... I crawled away--I hid! ... The Indians--they tore--hacked--scalped--burned! ... I couldn't die!--I saw! ... Oh!--Oh!--Oh!" Then she fell to moaning in inarticulate fashion.

Slingerland and King came out and looked down at the girl.

"Wal, the life's strong in her," said the trapper. "I reckon I know when life is strong in any critter. She'll git over thet. All we can do now is to watch her an' keep her from doin' herself harm. Take her in an' lay her down."

For two days and nights Neale watched over her, except for the hours she slept, when he divided his vigil with King. She had periods of consciousness, in which she knew Neale, but most of the time she raved or tossed or moaned or lay like one dead. On the third day, however. Neale felt encouraged. She awoke weak and somber, but quiet and rational. Neale talked earnestly to her, in as sensible a way as he knew how, speaking briefly of the tragic fate that had been hers, bidding her force it out of her mind by taking interest in her new surroundings. She listened to him, but did not seem impressed. It was a difficult matter to get her to eat. She did not want to move. At length Neale told her that he must go back to the camp of the engineers, where he had work to do; he promised that he would return to see her soon and often. She did not speak or raise her eyes when he left her.

Outside, when Red brought up the horses, Slingerland said to Neale: "See hyar, son, I reckon you needn't worry. She'll come around all right."

"Shore she will," corroborated the cowboy. "Time'll cure her. I'm from Texas, whar sudden death is plentiful in all families."

Neale shook his head. "I'm not so sure," he said. "That girl's more sensitively and delicately organized than you fellows see. I doubt if she'll ever recover from the shock. It'll take a mighty great influence.... But let's hope for the best. Now, Slingerland, take care of her as best you can. Shut her in when you leave camp. I'll ride over as often as possible. If she gets so she will talk, then we can find out if she has any relatives, and if so I'll take her to them. If not I'll do whatever else I can for her."

"Wal, son, I like the way you're makin' yourself responsible fer thet kid," replied the trapper. "I never had no wife nor daughter. But I'm thinkin'--wouldn't it jest be hell to be a girl--tender an' young an' like Neale said--an' sudden hev all you loved butchered before your eyes?"

"It shore would," said Red, feelingly. "An' thet's what she sees all the time."

"Slingerland, do we run any chance of meeting Indians?" queried Neale.

"I reckon not. Them Sioux will git fur away from hyar after thet massacre. But you want to keep sharp eyes out, an' if you do meet any, jest ride an' shoot your way through. You've the best horses I've seen. Whar'd you git them?"

"They belong to King. He's a cowboy."

"Hosses was my job. An' we can shore ride away from any redskins," replied King.

"Wal, good luck, an' come back soon," was Slingerland's last word.

So they parted. The cowboy led the way with the steady, easy, trotting walk that saved a horse yet covered distance; in three hours they were hailed by a trooper outpost, and soon they were in camp.

Shortly after their arrival the engineers returned, tired, dusty, work-stained, and yet in unusually good spirits. They had run the line up over Sherman Pass, and now it seemed their difficulties were to lessen as the line began to descend from the summit of the divide. Neale's absence had been noticed, for his services were in demand. But all the men rejoiced in his rescue of the little girl, and were sympathetic and kind in their inquiries. It seemed to Neale that his chief looked searchingly at him, as if somehow the short absence had made a change in him. Neale himself grew conscious of a strange difference in his inner nature; he could not forget the girl, her helplessness, her pathetic plight.

"Well, it's curious," he soliloquized. "But--it's not so, either. I'm sorry for her."

And he remembered the strange change in her eyes when he had watched the shadow of horror and death and blood fade away before the natural emotions of youth and life and hope.

Next day Neale showed more than ever his value to the engineering corps, and again won a word of quiet praise from his chief. He liked the commendation of his superiors. He began to believe heart and soul in the coming greatness of the railroad. And that strenuous week drove his faithful lineman, King, to unwonted complaint.

Larry tugged at his boots and groaned as he finally pulled them off. They were full of holes, at which he gazed ruefully. "Shore I'll be done with this heah job when they're gone," he said.

"Why do you work in high-heeled boots?" inquired Neale. "You can't walk or climb in them. No wonder they're full of holes."

"Wal, I couldn't wear no boots like yours," declared Red.

"You'll have to. Another day will about finish them, and your feet, too."

Red eyed his boss with interest. "You-all cussed me to-day because I was slow," he complained.

"Larry, you always are slow, except with a horse or gun. And lately you've been--well, you don't move out of your tracks."

Neale often exaggerated out of a desire to tease his friend. Nobody else dared try and banter King.

"Wal, I didn't sign up with this heah outfit to run up hills all day," replied Red.

"I'll tell you what. I'll get Casey to be my lineman. No, I've a better idea. Casey is slow, too. I'll use one of the niggers."

Red King gave a hitch to his belt and a cold gleam chased away the lazy blue warmth from his eyes. "Go ahaid," he drawled, "an' they'll bury the nigger to-morrow night."

Neale laughed. He knew Red hated darkies--he suspected the Texan had thrown a gun on more than a few--and he knew there surely would be a funeral in camp if he changed his lineman.

"All right, Red. I don't want blood spilled," he said, cheerfully. "I'll be a martyr and put up with you.... What do you say to a day off? Let's ride over to Slingerland's."

The cowboy's red face slowly wrinkled into a smile. "Wal, I shore was wonderin' what in the hell made you rustle so lately. I reckon nothin' would suit me better. I've been wonderin', too, about our little girl."

"Red, let's wade through camp and see what we can get to take over."

"Man, you mean jest steal?" queried King, in mild surprise.

"No. We'll ask for things. But if we can't get what we want that way--why, we'll have to do the other thing," replied Neale, thoughtfully. "Slingerland did not have even a towel over there. Think of that girl! She's been used to comfort, if not luxury. I could tell.... Let's see. I've a mirror and an extra brush.... Red, come on."

Eagerly they went over their scant belongings, generously appropriating whatever might be made of possible use to an unfortunate girl in a wild and barren country. Then they fared forth into the camp. Every one in the corps contributed something. The chief studied Neale's heated face, and a smile momentarily changed his stern features--a wise smile, a little sad, and full of light.

"I suppose you'll marry her," he said.

Neale blushed like a girl. "It--that hadn't occurred to me, sir," he stammered.

Lodge laughed, but his glance was kind. "Sure you'll marry her," he said. "You saved her life. And, boy, you'll be a big man of the U. P. some day. Chief engineer or superintendent of maintenance of way or some other big job. What could be finer? Romance, boy. The little waif of the caravan--you'll send her back to Omaha to school; she'll grow into a beautiful woman! She'll have a host of admirers, but you'll be the king of the lot--sure."

Neale got out of the tent with tingling ears. He was used to the badinage of the men, and had always retaliated with a sharp and ready tongue. But this half-kind, half-humorous talk encroached upon what he felt to be the secret side of his nature--the romantic and the dreamful side--to which such fancies were unconscionably dear.

Early the next morning Neale and King rode out on the way to Slingerland's.

The sun was warm when they reached the valley through which ran the stream that led up to the cabin. Spring was in the air. The leaves of cottonwood and willow added their fresh emerald to the darker green of the pine. Bluebells showed in the grass along the trail; there grew lavender and yellow flowers unfamiliar to Neale; trout rose and splashed on the surface of the pools; and the way was melodious with the humming of bees and the singing of birds.

Slingerland saw them coming and strode out to meet them with hearty greeting.

"Is she all right?" queried Neale, abruptly.

"No, she ain't," replied Slingerland, shaking his shaggy head. "She won't eat or move or talk. She's wastin' away. She jest sits or lays with that awful look in her eyes."

"Can't you make her talk?"

"Wal, she'll say no to 'most anythin'. There was three times she asked when you was comin' back. Then she quit askin'. I reckon she's forgot you. But she's never forgot thet bloody massacre. It's there in her eyes."

Neale dismounted, and, untying the pack from his saddle, he laid it down, removed saddle and bridle; then he turned the horse loose. He did this automatically while his mind was busy.

"Where is she?" he asked.

"Over thar under the pines whar the brook spills out of the spring. Thet's the only place she'll walk to. I believe she likes to listen to the water. An' she's always afraid."

"I've fetched a pack of things for her," said Neale. "Come on, Red."

"Shore you go alone," replied the cowboy, hanging back. "Girls is not my job."

So Neale approached alone. The spot was green, fragrant, shady, bright with flowers, musical with murmuring water. Presently he spied her--a drooping, forlorn little figure. The instant he saw her he felt glad and sad at once. She started quickly at his step and turned. He remembered the eyes, but hardly the face. It had grown thinner and whiter than the one he had in mind.

"My Lord! she's going to die!" breathed Neale. "What can I do--what can I say to her?"

He walked directly but slowly up to her, aware of her staring eyes, and confused by them.

"Hello! little girl, I've brought you some things," he said, and tried to speak cheerfully.

"Oh--is--it you?" she said, brokenly.

"Yes, it's Neale. I hope you've not forgotten me."

There came a fleeting change over her, but not in her face, he thought, because not a muscle moved, and the white stayed white. It must have been in her eyes, though he could not certainly tell. He bent over to untie the pack.

"I've brought you a lot of things," he said. "Hope you'll find them useful. Here--"

She did not look at the open pack or pay any attention to him. The drooping posture had been resumed, together with the somber staring at the brook. Neale watched her in despair, and, watching, he divined that only the most infinite patience and magnetism and power could bring her out of her brooding long enough to give nature a chance. He recognized how unequal he was to the task. But the impossible or the unattainable had always roused Neale's spirit. Defeat angered him. This girl was alive; she was not hurt physically; he believed she could be made to forget that tragic night of blood and death. He set his teeth and swore he would display the tact of a woman, the patience of a saint, the skill of a physician, the love of a father--anything to hold back this girl from the grave into which she was fading. Reaching out, he touched her.

"Can you understand me?" he asked.

"Yes," she murmured. Her voice was thin, far away, an evident effort.

"I saved your life."

"I wish you had let me die." Her reply was quick with feeling, and it thrilled Neale because it was a proof that he could stimulate or aggravate her mind.

"But I did save you. Now you owe me something."

"What?"

"Why, gratitude--enough to want to live, to try to help yourself."

"No--no," she whispered, and relapsed into the somber apathy.

Neale could scarcely elicit another word from her; then by way of change he held out different articles he had brought--scarfs, a shawl, a mirror--and made her look at them. Her own face in the mirror did not interest her. He tried to appeal to a girl's vanity. She had none.

"Your hair is all tangled," he said, bringing forth comb and brush. "Here, smooth it out."

"No--no--no," she moaned.

"All right, I'll do it for you," he countered. Surprised at finding her passive when he had expected resistance, he began to comb out the tangled tresses. In his earnestness he did not perceive how singular his action might seem to an onlooker. She had a mass of hair that quickly began to smooth out and brighten under his hand. He became absorbed in his task and failed to see the approach of Larry King.

The cowboy was utterly amazed, and presently he grinned his delight. Evidently the girl was all right and no longer to be feared.

"Wal, shore thet's fine," he drawled. "Neale, I always knowed you was a lady's man." And Larry sat down beside them.

The girl's face was half hidden under the mass of hair, and her head was lowered. Neale gave Larry a warning glance, meant to convey that he was not to be funny.

"This is my cowboy friend, Larry Red King," said Neale. "He was with me when I--I found you."

"Larry--Red--King," murmured the girl. "My name is--Allie."

Again Neale had penetrated into her close-locked mind. What she said astounded him so that he dropped the brush and stared at Larry. And Larry lost his grin; he caught a glimpse of her face, and his own grew troubled.

"Allie--I shore--am glad to meet you," he said, and there was more feeling in his voice than Neale had ever before heard. Larry was not slow of comprehension. He began to talk in his drawling way. Neale heard him with a smile he tried to hide, but he liked Larry the better for his simplicity. This gun-throwing cowboy had a big heart.

Larry, however, did not linger for long. His attempts to get the girl to talk grew weaker and ended; then, after another glance at the tragic, wan face he got up and thoughtfully slouched away.

"So your name is Allie," said Neale. "Well, Allie what?"

She did not respond to one out of a hundred questions, and this query found no lodgment in her mind.

"Will you braid your hair now?" he asked.

The answer was the low and monotonous negative, but, nevertheless, her hands sought her hair and parted it, and began to braid it mechanically. This encouraged Neale more than anything else; it showed him that there were habits of mind into which he could turn her. Finally he got her to walk along the brook and also to eat and drink.

At the end of that day he was more exhausted than he would have been after a hard climb. Yet he was encouraged to think that he could get some kind of passive unconscious obedience from her.

"Reckon you'd better stay over to-morrow," suggested Slingerland. His concern for the girl could not have been greater had she been his own daughter. "Allie--thet was her name, you said. Wal, it's pretty an' easy to say."

Next day Allie showed an almost imperceptible improvement. It might have been Neale's imagination leading him to believe that there were really grounds for hope. The trapper and the cowboy could not get any response from her, but there was certain proof that he could. The conviction moved him to deep emotion.

An hour before sunset Neale decided to depart, and told Larry to get the horses. Then he went to Allie, undecided what to say, feeling that he must have tortured her this day with his ceaseless importunities. How small the chance that he might again awaken the springs of life interest. Yet the desire was strong within him to try.

"Allie." He repeated her name before she heard him. Then she looked up. The depths--the tragic lonesomeness--of her eyes--haunted Neale.

"I'm going back. I'll come again soon."

She made a quick movement--seized his arm. He remembered the close, tight grip of her hands.

"Don't go!" she implored. Black fear stared out of her eyes.

Neale was thunderstruck at the suddenness of her speech--at its intensity. Also he felt an unfamiliar kind of joy. He began to explain that he must return to work, that he would soon come to see her again; but even as he talked she faded back into that dull and somber apathy.

Neale rode away with only one conviction gained from the developments of the two days; it was that he would be restless and haunted until he could go to her again. Something big and moving-- something equal to his ambition for his work on the great railroad-- had risen in him and would not be denied.