Chapter 7
 

Neale rode to Slingerland's cabin twice during the ensuing fortnight, but did not note any improvement in Allie's condition or demeanor. The trapper, however, assured Neale that she was gradually gaining a little and taking some slight interest in things; he said that if Neale could only spend enough time there the girl might recover. This made Neale thoughtful.

General Lodge and his staff had decided to station several engineers in camp along the line of the railroad for the purpose of studying the drift of snow. It was important that all information possible should be obtained during the next few winters. There would be severe hardships attached to this work, but Neale volunteered to serve, and the chief complimented him warmly. He was to study the action of the snowdrift along Sherman Pass.

Upon his next visit to Slingerland Neale had the project soberly in mind and meant to broach it upon the first opportunity.

This morning, when Neale and King rode up to the cabin, Allie did not appear as upon the last occasion of their arrival. Neale missed her.

Slingerland came out with his usual welcome.

"Where's Allie?" asked Neale,

"Wal, she went in jest now. She saw you comin' an' then run in to hide, I reckon. Girls is queer critters."

"She watched for me--for us--and then ran?" queried Neale, curiously.

"Wal, she ain't done nothin' but watch fer you since you went away last. An', son, thet's a new wrinkle fer Allie, An' run? Wal, like a skeered deer."

"Wonder what that means?" pondered Neale. Whatever it meant, it sent a little tingle of pleasure along his pulses. "Red, I want to have a serious talk with Slingerland," he announced, thoughtfully.

"Shore; go ahaid an' talk," drawled the Southerner, as he slipped his saddle and turned his horse loose with a slap on the flank. "I reckon I'll take a gun an' stroll off fer a while."

Neale led the trapper aside to a shady spot under the pines and there unburdened himself of his plan for the winter.

"Son, you'll freeze to death!" ejaculated the trapper.

"I must build a cabin, of course, and prepare for severe weather," replied Neale.

Slingerland shook his shaggy head. "I reckon you ain't knowin' these winters hyar as I know them. But thet long ridge you call Sherman Pass--it ain't so fur we couldn't get thar on snow-shoes except in the wust weather. I reckon you can stay with me hyar."

"Good!" exclaimed Neale. "And now about Allie."

"Wal, what about her?"

"Shall I leave her here or send her back to Omaha with the first caravan, or let her go to Fort Fetterman with the troops?"

"Son, she's your charge, but I say leave her hyar, 'specially now you can be with us. She'd die or go crazy if you sent her. Why, she won't even say if she's got a livin' relation. I reckon she hain't. She'd be better hyar. I've come to be fond of Allie. She's strange. She's like a spirit. But she's more human lately."

"I'm glad you say that, Slingerland," replied Neale. "What to do about her had worried me. I'll decide right now. I'll leave her with you, and I hope to Heaven I'm doing best by her."

"Wal, she ain't strong enough to travel fur. We didn't think of thet."

"That settles it, then," said Neale, in relief. "Time enough to decide when she is well again.... Tell me about her."

"Son, thar's nuthin' to tell. She's done jest the same, except fer thet takin' to watchin' fer you. Reckon thet means a good deal."

"What?"

"Wal, I don't figger girls as well as I do other critters," answered Slingerland, reflectively. "But I'd say Allie shows interest in you."

"Slingerland! You don't mean she--she cares for me?" demanded Neale.

"I don't know. Mebbe not. Mebbe she's beyond carin'. But I believe you an' thet red memory of bloody death air all she ever thinks of. An' mostly of it."

"Then it'll be a fight between me and that memory?"

"So I take it, son. But recollect I ain't no mind-doctor. I jest feel you could make her fergit thet hell if you tried hard enough."

"I'll try--hard as I can," replied Neale, resolutely, yet with a certain softness. "I'm sorry for her. I saved her. Why shouldn't I do everything possible?"

"Wal, she's alone."

"No, Allie has friends--you and King and me. That's three."

"Son, I reckon you don't figger me. Listen. You're a fine, strappin' young feller an' good-lookin'. More 'n thet, you've got some--some quality like an Injun's--thet you can feel but can't tell about. You needn't be insulted, fer I know Injuns thet beat white men holler fer all thet's noble. Anyway, you attract. An' now if you keep on with all thet--thet--wal, usin' yourself to make Allie fergit the bloody murder of all she loved, to make her mind clear again--why, sooner or later she's a-goin' to breathe an' live through you. Jest as a flower lives offen the sun. Thet's all, I reckon."

Neale's bronze cheek had paled a little. "Well, if that's all, that's easy," he replied, with a cool, bright smile which showed the latent spirit in him. "If it's only that--why she can have me.... Slingerland, I've no ties now. The last one was broken when my mother died--not long ago. I'm alone, too.... I'd do as much for any innocent girl--but for this poor child Allie--whose life I saved-- I'd do anything."

Slingerland shoved out a horny hand and made a giant grip express what evidently just then he could not express in speech.

Upon returning to the cabin they found Allie had left her room. From appearances Neale concluded that she had made little use of the things he had brought her. He was conscious of something akin to impatience. He was not sure what he did feel. The situation had subtly changed and grown, all in that brief talk with Slingerland. Neale slowly walked out toward the brook, where he expected to find her. It struck him suddenly that if she had watched for him all week and had run when he came, then she must have wanted to see him, but was afraid or shy or perverse. How like any girl! Possibly in the week past she had unconsciously grown a little away from her grief.

"I'll try something new on you, Allie," he muttered, and the boy in him that would never grow into a man meant to be serious even in his fun.

Allie sat in the shady place under the low pine where the brook spilled out of the big spring. She drooped and appeared oblivious to her surroundings. A stray gleam of sunlight, touching her hair, made it shine bright. Neale's quick eye took note of the fact that she had washed the blood-stain from the front of her dress. He was glad. What hope had there been for her so long as she sat hour after hour with her hands pressed to that great black stain on her dress--that mark where her mother's head had rested? Neale experienced a renewal of hope. He began to whistle, and, drawing his knife, he went into the brush to cut a fishing-pole. The trout in this brook had long tempted his fisherman's eye, and upon this visit he had brought a line and hooks. He made a lot of noise all for Allie's benefit; then, tramping out of the brush, he began to trim the rod within twenty feet of where she sat. He whistled; he even hummed a song while he was rigging up the tackle. Then it became necessary to hunt for some kind of bait, and he went about this with pleasure, both because he liked the search and because, out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Allie was watching him. Therefore he redoubled his efforts at pretending to be oblivious of her presence and at keeping her continually aware of his. He found crickets, worms, and grubs under the dead pine logs, and with this fine variety of bait he approached the brook.

The first cast Neale made fetched a lusty trout, and right there his pretensions of indifference vanished, together with his awareness of Allie's proximity. Neale loved to fish. He had not yet indulged his favorite pastime in the West. He saw trout jumping everywhere. It was a beautiful little stream, rocky, swift here and eddying there, clear as crystal, murmurous with tiny falls, and bordered by a freshness of green and gold; there were birds singing in the trees, but over all seemed to hang the quiet of the lonely hills. Neale forgot Allie--forgot that he had meant to discover if she could be susceptible to a little neglect. The brook was full of trout, voracious and tame; they had never been angled for. He caught three in short order.

When his last bait, a large and luscious grub, struck the water there was a swirl, a splash, a tug. Neale excitedly realized that he had hooked a father of the waters. It leaped. That savage leap, the splash, the amazing size of the fish, inflamed in Neale the old boyish desire to capture, and, forgetting what little skill he possessed, he gave a mighty pull. The rod bent double. Out with a vicious splash lunged the huge, glistening trout, to dangle heavily for an instant in the air. Neale thought he heard a cry behind him. He was sitting down, in awkward posture. But he lifted and swung. The line snapped. The fish dropped in the grass and began to thresh. Frantically Neale leaped to prevent the escape of the hugest trout he had ever seen. There was a dark flash--a commotion before him. Then he stood staring in bewilderment at Allie, who held the wriggling trout by the gills.

"You don't know how to fish!" she exclaimed, with great severity.

"I don't, eh?" ejaculated Neale, blankly.

"You should play a big trout. You lifted him right out. He broke your line. He'd have--gotten--away--but for me."

She ended, panting a little from her exertion and quick speech. A red spot showed in each white cheek. Her eyes were resolute and flashing. It dawned upon Neale that he had never before seen a tinge of color in her face, nor any of the ordinary feelings of life glancing in her eyes. Now she seemed actually pretty. He had made a discovery--perhaps he had now another means to distract her from herself. Then the squirming trout drew his attention and he took it from her.

"What a whopper! Oh, say, Allie, isn't he a beauty? I could hug--I-- You bet I'm thankful. You were quick.... He certainly is slippery."

Allie dropped to her knees and wiped her hands on the grass while Neale killed the fish and strung it upon a willow with the others he had caught. Then turning to Allie, he started to tell her how glad he was to see her again, to ask her if she were glad to see him. But upon looking at her he decided to try and keep her mind from herself. She was different now and he liked the difference. He feared he might frighten it away.

"Will you help me get more bait?" he asked.

Allie nodded and got up. Then Neale noticed her feet were bare. Poor child! She had no shoes and he did not know how to procure any suitable footwear in that wilderness.

"Have you ever fished for trout?" he asked, as he began to dig under a rotting log.

"Yes. In California," she replied, with sudden shadowing of her eyes.

"Let's go down the brook," said Neale, hastily, fearful that he had been tactless. "There are some fine holes below."

She walked beside him, careful of the sharp stones that showed here and there. Presently they came to a likely-looking pool.

"If you hook another big one don't try to pull him right out," admonished Allie.

Neale could scarcely conceal his delight, and in his effort to appear natural made a poor showing at this pool, losing two fish and scaring others so they would not rise.

"Allie, won't you try?" he asked, offering the rod.

"I'd rather look on. You like it so much."

"How do you know that?" he asked, more to hear her talk than from curiosity.

"You grow so excited," she said.

Thankfully he accepted the realization that after all these weeks of silence it was possible to make her speak. But he must exercise extreme caution. One wrong word might send her back into that apathy--that senseless, voiceless trance.

In every pool where Neale cast he caught or lost a trout. He was enjoying himself tremendously and at the same time feeling a warmth in his heart that was not entirely due to the exhilaration of fishing. Below the head of the valley, where the stream began and the cabin nestled, the ground was open, like a meadow, with grass and flowers growing to the edge of the water. There were deep, swirling pools running under the banks, and in these Neale hooked fish he could not handle with his poor tackle, and they broke away. But he did not care. There was a brightness, a beauty, a fragrance along the stream that seemed to enhance the farther down he went. Presently they came to a place where the water rushed over a rocky bed, and here Neale Wanted to cross. He started to wade, curious and eager to see what Allie would do.

"I can't wade that," she called.

Neale returned to her side. "I'll carry you," he said. "You hold the rod. We'll leave the fish here." Then he lifted her in his arms. How light she was--how much lighter than upon that first occasion of his carrying her. He slipped in the middle of the brook and nearly fell with her. Allie squealed. The sound filled Neale with glee. After all, and whatever she had gone through, she was feminine--she was a girl--she was squeamish. Thereupon he slipped purposely and made a heroic effort to save himself. She clasped his neck convulsively with her free arm, and as he recovered his balance her head bumped into his and her hair got into his eyes. He laughed. This was great fun. But it could scarcely have been the exertion that made his heart beat out of time. At last he gained the opposite bank.

"You nearly fell with me," she said.

"Well, I'd have got wet, too," he replied, wondering if it were possible to make her laugh or even smile. If he could do that to- day, even in the smallest degree, he would be assured that happiness might come back to her.

Soon they met Larry, who came stooping along, burdened with a deer carcass on his shoulder. Relieving himself, he hailed them.

"How air you-all?" he drawled, addressing himself mostly to Allie.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"Allie, he's my friend and partner," replied Neale. "Larry King. But I call him Red--for obvious reasons."

"Wal, Miss Allie, I reckon no tall kick would be a-comin' if you was to call me Red," drawled Larry. "Or better--Reddy. No other lady ever had thet honor."

Allie looked at him steadily, as if this was the first time she had seen him, but she did not reply. And Larry, easily disconcerted, gathered up his burden and turned toward camp.

"Wal, I'm shore wishin' you-all good luck," he called, significantly.

Neale shot a quick glance at Allie to see if the cowboy's good- humored double meaning had occurred to her. But apparently she had not heard. She seemed to be tiring. Her lips were parted and she panted.

"Are you tired? Shall we go back?" he asked.

"No--I like it," she returned, slowly, as if the thought were strange to her.

They fished on, and presently came to a wide, shallow place with smooth rock bottom, where the trail crossed. Neale waded across alone. And he judged that the water in the middle might come up to Allie's knees.

"Come on," he called.

Allie hesitated. She gathered up her faded skirt, slowly waded in and halted, uncertain of her footing. She was not afraid, Neale decided, and neither did she seem aware that her slender, shapely legs gleamed white against the dark water.

"Won't you come and carry me?" she asked.

"Indeed I won't," replied Neale. "Carry a big girl like you!"

She took him seriously and moved a little farther. "My feet slip so," she said.

It became fascinating to watch her. The fun of it--the pleasure of seeing a girl wade a brook, innocently immodest, suddenly ceased for Neale. There was something else. He had only meant to tease; he was going to carry her; he started back. And then he halted. There was a strange earnestness in Allie's face--a deliberateness in her intent, out of all proportion to the exigency of the moment. It was as if she must cross that brook. But she kept halting. "Come on!" Neale called. And she moved again. Every time this happened she seemed to be compelled to go on. When she got into the swift water, nearly to her knees, then she might well have faltered. Yet she did not falter. All at once Neale discovered that she was weak. She did not have the strength to come on. It was that which made her slip and halt. What then made her try so bravely? How strange that she tried at all! Stranger than all was her peculiar attitude toward the task- -earnest, sober, grave, forced.

Neale was suddenly seized with surprise and remorse. That which actuated this girl Allie was merely the sound of his voice--the answer to his demand. He plunged in and reached her just as she was slipping. He carried her back to the side from which she had started. It cost him an effort not to hold her close. Whatever she was--orphan or waif, left alone in the world by a murdering band of Sioux--an unfortunate girl to be cared for, succored, pitied--none of these considerations accounted for the change that his power over her had wrought in him.

"You're not strong," he said, as he put her down.

"Was that it?" she asked, with just a touch of wonder. "I used to wade--anywhere."

He spoke little on the way back up the brook, for he hesitated to tell her that he must return to his camp so as to be ready for important work on the morrow, and not until they were almost at the cabin did he make up his mind. She received the intelligence in silence, and upon reaching the cabin she went to her room.

Neale helped Larry and Slingerland with the task of preparing a meal that all looked forward to having Allie share with them. However, when Slingerland called her there was no response.

Neale found her sunk in the old, hopeless, staring, brooding mood. He tried patience at first, and gentleness, but without avail. She would not come with him. The meal was eaten without her. Later Neale almost compelled her to take a little food. He felt discouraged again. Time had flown all too swiftly, and there was Larry coming with the horses and sunset not far off. It might be weeks, even months, before he would see her again.

"Allie, are you ever going to cheer up?" he demanded.

"No--no," she sighed.

He put his hand under her chin, and, forcing her face up, studied it earnestly. Strained, white, bloodless, thin, with drooping lips and tragic eyes, it was not a beautiful, not even a pretty face. But it might have been one--very easily. The veiled, mournful eyes did not evade his; indeed, they appeared to stare deeply, hopelessly, yearningly. If he could only say and do the right thing to kill that melancholia. She needed to be made to live. Suddenly he had the impulse to kiss her. That, no doubt, was owing to the proximity of her lips. But he must not kiss her. She might care for him some day- -it was natural to imagine she would. But she did not care now, and that made kisses impossible.

"You just won't cheer up?" he went on.

"No--no."

"But you were so different out there by the brook."

She made no reply. The veil grew darker, more shadowy, over her eyes. Neale divined a deadness in her.

"I'm going away," he said, sharply.

"Yes."

"Do you care?" He went on, with greater intensity.

She only stared at him.

"You must care!" he exclaimed.

"Why?" she asked, dully,

"Why! ... Because--because--" he stammered, angry with himself. After all, why should she care?

"I wish--you'd--left me--to die!" she moaned.

"Oh! Allie! Allie!" began Neale, in distress. Then he caught the different quality in her voice. It carried feeling. She was thinking again. He swore that he would overcome this malady of hers, and he grew keen, subtle, on fire with his resolve. He watched her. He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her gently. She slid off the pile of buffalo robes to her knees before him. Then she showed the only hint of shyness he had ever noted in her. Perhaps it was fear. At any rate, she half averted her face, so that her loosened hair hid it.

"Allie! Allie! Listen! Have you nothing to live for?" he asked.

"No."

"Why, yes, you have."

"What?"

"Why, I--The thing is-Allie--you have me!" he said, a little hoarsely. Then he laughed. How strange his laugh sounded! He would always remember that rude room of logs and furs and the kneeling girl in the dim light.

"You!"

"Yes, me," he replied, with a ring in his voice. Never before had she put wonder in a word. He had struck the right chord at last. Now it seemed that he held a live creature under his hands, as if the deadness and the dread apathy had gone away forever with the utterance of that one syllable. This was a big moment. If only he could make up to her for what she had lost! He felt his throat swell, and speech was difficult.

"Allie, do you understand me now? You--have something--to live for! ... Do you hear?"

When his ear caught the faint "Yes" he suddenly grew glad and strong with what he felt to be a victory over her gloom and despair.

"Listen. I'm going to my work," he began, swiftly. "I'll be gone weeks--maybe more. But I'll come back! ... Early in the fall. I'll be with you all winter. I'm to work here on the pass.... Then--then-- Well, I'll be a big man on the U. P. some day. Chief engineer or superintendent of maintenance of way.... You're all alone--maybe you'll care for me some day. I'll work hard. It's a great idea--this railroad. When it's done--and I've my big job--will you--you'll marry me then?"

Neale heard her gasp and felt her quiver. He let go of her and stood up, for fear he might suddenly take her in his arms. His words had been shock enough. He felt remorse, anxiety, tenderness, and yet he was glad. Some delicate and fine consciousness in him told him he had not done wrong, even if he had been dominating. She was alone in the world; he had saved her life. His heart beat quick and heavy.

"Good-by, Allie.... I'll come back. Never forget!"

She stayed motionless on her knees with the mass of hair hiding her face, and she neither spoke nor made a sign.

Neale went out. The air seemed to wave in his face, cool and relieving. Larry was there with the horses. Slingerland stood by with troubled eyes. Both men stared at Neale. He was aware of that, and conscious of his agitation. And suddenly, as always at a climax of emotion, he swiftly changed and grew cool.

"Red, old pard, congratulate me! I'm engaged to marry Allie!" he said, with a low laugh that had pride in it.

"Wal, damn me!" ejaculated Larry King. Then he shot out the hand that was so quick with rope and gun. "Put her thar! Shore if you hadn't made up to her I'd have.... An', Neale, if you say Pard, I'm yours till I'm daid!"

"Pard!" replied Neale, as he met the outstretched hand.

Slingerland's hard and wrinkled face softened.

"Strange how we all cottoned to thet girl! No--I reckon it ain't so strange. Wal, it's as it oughter be. You saved her. May you both be happy, son!"

Neale slipped a ring from his little finger.

"Give Allie this. Tell her it's my pledge. I'll come back to her. And she must think of that."