Chapter 8
 

That summer the engineers crossed the Wyoming hills and ran the line on into Utah, where they met the surveying party working in from the Pacific.

The initial step of the great construction work was done, the engineers with hardship and loss of life had proved that a railroad across the Rockies was a possibility. Only, they had little conception of the titanic labor involved in the building.

For Neale the months were hard, swift, full. It came to him that love of the open and the wild was incorporated in his ambition for achievement. He wondered if he would have felt the one without the other. Camp life and the daily climbing over the ridges made of him a lithe, strong, sure-footed mountaineer. They made even the horse- riding cowboy a good climber, though nothing, Neale averred, would ever straighten Larry's bow legs.

Only two incidents or accidents marred the work and pleasure of those fruitful weeks.

The first happened in camp. There was a surly stake--driver by the name of Shurd who was lazy and otherwise offensive among hard-- working men. Having been severely handled by Neale, he had nursed a grievance and only waited for an opportunity for revenge. Neale was quick--tempered, and prone to sharp language and action when irritated or angered. Shurd, passing through the camp, either drunk or unusually surly, had kicked Neale's instrument out of his way. Some one saw him do it and told Neale. Thereupon Neale, in high dudgeon, had sought out the fellow. Larry King, always Neale's shadow, came slouching after with his cowboy's gait. They found Shurd at the camp of the teamsters and other laborers. Neale did not waste many words. He struck Shurd a blow that staggered him, and would have followed it up with more had not the man, suddenly furious, plunged away to pick up a heavy stake with which he made at Neale to brain him.

Neale could not escape. He yelled at Shurd, trying to intimidate him.

Then came a shot from behind. It broke Shurd's arm. The stake fell and the man began to bawl curses.

"Get out of heah!" called Larry King, advancing slowly. The maddened Shurd tried to use the broken arm, perhaps to draw on King. Thereupon the cowboy, with gun low and apparently not aiming, shot again, this time almost tearing Shurd's arm off. Then he prodded Shurd with the cocked gun. The man turned ghastly. He seemed just now to have realized the nature of this gaunt flaming-eyed cowboy,

"Shore your mind ain't workin'," said Larry. "Get out of heah. Mozey over to thet camp doctor or you'll never need one."

Shurd backed away, livid and shaking, and presently he ran.

"Red! ..." expostulated Neale. "You--you shot him all up! You nearly killed him."

"Why in hell don't you pack a gun?" drawled Larry.

"Red, you're--you're--I don't know what to call you. I'd have licked him, club and all."

"Mebbe," replied the cowboy, as he sheathed the big gun. "Neale. I'm used to what you ain't. Shore I can see death a--comin'. Wal, every day the outfit grows wilder. A little whisky 'll burn hell loose along this heah U.P. line."

Larry strode on in the direction Shurd had taken. Neale pondered a moment, perplexed, and grateful to his comrade. He heard remarks among the laborers, and he saw the flagman Casey remove his black pipe from his lips--an unusual occurrence.

"Mac, it wus thot red--head cowboy wot onct p'inted his gun at me!" burst out Casey.

"Did yez see him shoot?" replied Mac, with round eyes. "Niver aimed an' yit he hit!"

Mike Shane, the third of the trio of Irish laborers in Neale's corps, was a little runt of a sandy--haired wizened man, and he spoke up: "Begorra, he's wan of thim Texas Jacks. He'd loike to kill yez, Pat Casey, an' if he ever throwed thot cannon at yez, why, runnin' 'd be slow to phwat yez 'd do."

"I niver run in me loife," declared Casey, doggedly.

Neale went his way. It was noted that from that day he always carried a gun, preferably a rifle when it was possible. In the use of the long gun he was an adept, but when it came to Larry's kind of a gun Neale needed practice. Larry could draw his gun and shoot twice before Neale could get his hand on his weapon.

It was through Neale's habit of carrying the rifle out on his surveying trips that the second incident came about.

One day in early summer Neale was waiting near a spring for Larry to arrive with the horses. On this occasion the cowboy was long in coming. Neale fell asleep in the shade of some bushes and was awakened by the thud of hoofs. He sat up to see Larry in the act of kneeling at the brook to drink. At the same instant a dark moving object above Larry attracted Neale's quick eye. It was an Indian sneaking along with a gun ready to level. Quick as a flash Neale raised his own weapon and fired. The Indian fell and lay still.

Larry's drink was rudely disturbed by plunging horses. When he had quieted them he turned to Neale.

"So you--all was heah. Shore you scared me. What'd you shoot at?"

Neale stared and pointed. His hand shook. He felt cold, sick, hard, yet he held the rifle ready to fire again. Larry dropped the bridles and, pulling his gun, he climbed the bank with unusual quickness for him. Neale saw him stand over the Indian.

"Wal, plumb center!" he called, with a new note in his usually indolent voice. "Come heah!"

"No!" shouted Neale, violently. "Is he dead?"

"Daid! Wal, I should smile.... An' mebbe he ain't alone."

The cowboy ran down to his horse and Neale followed suit. They rode up on the ridge to reconnoiter, but saw no moving objects.

"I reckon thet redskin was shore a-goin' to plug me," drawled Larry, as they trotted homeward.

"He certainly was," replied Neale, with a shudder.

Larry reached a long hand to Neale's shoulder. He owed his life to his friend. But he did not speak of that. Instead he glanced wisely at Neale and laughed.

"Kinda weak in the middle, eh?" he said. "I felt thet way once.... Pard, if you ever get r'iled you'll be shore bad."

For Neale shooting at an Indian was strikingly different from boyish dreams of doing it. He had acted so swiftly that it seemed it must have been instinctive. Yet thinking back, slowly realizing the nature of the repellent feeling within him, he remembered a bursting gush of hot blood, a pantherish desire to leap, to strike--and then cool, stern watchfulness. The whole business had been most unpleasant.

Upon arriving at camp they reported the incident, and they learned Indians had showed up at various points along the line. Troopers had been fired upon. Orders were once more given that all work must be carried on under the protection of the soldiers, so that an ambush would be unlikely. Meanwhile a detachment of troops would be sent out to drive back the band of Sioux.

These two hard experiences made actuality out of what Neale's chief had told him would be a man's game in a wild time. This work on the U. P. was not play or romance. But the future unknown called alluringly to him. In his moments of leisure, by the camp-fire at night, he reflected and dreamed and wondered. And these reflections always turned finally to memory of Allie.

The girl he had saved seemed far away in mind as well as in distance. He tried to call up her face--to see it in the ruddy embers. But he could visualize only her eyes. They were unforgettable--the somber, haunting shadows of thoughts of death. Yet he remembered that once or twice they had changed, had become wonderful, with promise of exceeding beauty.

It seemed incredible that he had pledged himself. But he had no regrets. Time had not made any difference, only it had shown him that his pity and tenderness were not love. Still there had been another emotion connected with Allie--a strange thing too subtle and brief for him to analyze; when away from her he lost it. Could that have been love? He thought of the day she waded the brook, the feel of her as he carried her in his arms; and of that last sight of her, on her knees in the cabin, her face hidden, her slender form still as a statue. His own heart was touched. Yet this was not love. It was enough for Neale to feel that he had done what he would have applauded in another man, that he seemed the better for his pledge, that the next meeting with Allie was one he looked forward to with a strange, new interest.

September came and half sped by before Neale, with Larry and an engineer named Service, arrived at the head of Sherman Pass with pack-burros and supplies, ready to begin the long vigil of watching the snow drift over the line in winter.

They were to divide the pass between them, Service to range the upper half and Neale the lower. As there were but few trees up in that locality, and these necessary for a large supply of fire-wood, they decided not to attempt building a cabin for Service, but to dig a dugout. This was a hole hollowed out in a hillside and covered with a roof of branches and earth.

No small job, indeed, was it to build a satisfactory dugout--one that was not conspicuous from every ridge for Indian eyes to spy out--and warm and dry and safe. They started several before they completed one.

"It'll be lonesomer for you--and colder," observed Neale.

"I won't mind that," replied the other.

"We'll see each other before the snow flies, surely."

"Not unless you come up. I'm no climber. I've got a bad leg."

"I'll come, then. We may have weeks of fine weather yet. I'm going to hunt some."

"Good luck to you."

So these comrades parted. They were only two of the intrepid engineers selected to brave the perils and hardships of that wild region in winter, to serve the great cause.

The golds and purples of autumn mingled with the predominating green of Slingerland's valley. In one place beaver had damned the stream, forming a small lake, and here cranes and other aquatic birds had congregated. Neale saw beaver at work, and deer on the hillside.

"It's been three months," he soliloquized, as he paused at the ford which Allie had so bravely and weakly tried to cross at his bidding. "Three months! So much can have happened. But Slingerland is safe from Indians. I hope--I believe I'll find her well."

He was a prey to dread and yet he did not hurry. Larry, driving the pack-train, drew on ahead and passed out of sight in a green bend of the brook. At length Neale saw a column of blue smoke curling up above the trees, and that sight relieved him. If the trapper was there, the girl would be with him.

At this moment his horse shot up his long ears and snorted.

A gray form glided out of the green and began to run down the trail toward him--a lithe, swift girl in buckskin.

"An Indian girl!" ejaculated Neale.

But her face was white, her hair tawny and flying in the wind. Could that be Allie? It must be she. It was.

"Lord! I'm in for it!" muttered Neale, dismounting, and he gazed with eager eyes. She was approaching quickly.

"Neale! You've come!" she cried, and ran straight upon him.

He hardly recognized her face or her voice, but what she said proclaimed her to be Allie. She enveloped him. Her arms, strong, convulsive, clasped him. Up came her face, white, gleaming, joyous, strange to Neale, but he knew somehow that it was held up to be kissed. Dazedly he kissed her--felt cool sweet lips touch his lips again and then again.

"Allie! ... I--I hardly knew you!" was his greeting. Now he was holding her, and he felt her press her head closely to his breast, felt the intensity of what must have been her need of physical contact to make sure he was here in the flesh. And as he held her, looking down upon her, he recognized the little head and the dull gold and ripple of chestnut hair. Yes--it was Allie. But this new Allie was taller--up to his shoulder--and lithe and full-bosomed and strong. This was not the frail girl he had left.

"I thought--you'd--never, never come," she murmured, clinging to him.

"It was--pretty long," he replied, unsteadily. "But I've come.... And I'm very glad to see you."

"You didn't know me," she said, shyly. "You looked--it."

"Well, no wonder. I left a thin, pale little girl, all eyes--and what do I find? ... Let me look at you."

She drew back and stood before him, shy and modest, but without a trace of embarrassment, surely the sweetest and loveliest girl he had ever beheld. Some remembered trace he found in her features, perhaps the look, the shape of her eyes--all else was unfamiliar. And that all else was a white face, blue-veined, with rich blood slowly mantling to the broad brow, with sweet red lips haunting in their sadness, with glorious eyes, like violets drenched in dew, shadowy, exquisite, mournful and deep, yet radiant with beautiful light.

Neale recognized her beauty at the instant he realized her love, and he was so utterly astounded at the one, and overwhelmed with the other, that he was mute. A powerful reaction took place within him, so strong that it helped to free him from the other emotions. He found his tongue and controlled his glance.

"I took you for an Indian girl in all this buckskin," he said.

"Dress, leggings, moccasins, I made them all myself," she replied, sweeping a swift hand from fringe to beads. "Not a single button! Oh, it was hard--so much work! But they're more comfortable than any clothes I ever had."

"So you've not been--altogether idle since I left?"

"Since that day," and she blushed exquisitely at the words, "I've been doing everything under the sun except that grieving which you disliked--everything--cooking, sewing, fishing, bathing, climbing, riding, shooting--and watching for you."

"That accounts," he replied, musingly.

"For what?"

"Your--your improvement. You seem happy--and well."

"Do you mean the activity accounts for that--or my watching for you?" she queried, archly. She was quick, bright, roguish. Neale had no idea what qualities she might have possessed before that fateful massacre, but she was bewilderingly different from the sick-minded girl he had tried so hard to interest and draw out of her gloom. He was so amazed, so delighted with her, and so confused with his own peculiar state of mind, that he could not be natural. Then his mood shifted and a little heat at his own stupidity aroused his wits.

"Allie, I want to realize what's happened," he said. "Let's sit down here. We sat here once before, if you remember. Slingerland can wait to see me."

Neale's horse grazed along the green border of the brook. The water ran with low, swift rush; there were bees humming round the autumn flowers and a fragrance of wood-smoke wafted down from the camp; over all lay the dreaming quietness of the season and the wild.

Allie sat down upon the rock, but Neale, changing his mind, stood beside her. Still he did not trust himself to face her. He was unsettled, uncertain. All this was like a dream.

"So you watched for me?" he asked, gently.

"For hours and days and weeks," she sighed.

"Then you--cared--cared a little for me?"

She kept silence. And he, wanting intensely to look up, did not.

"Tell me," he insisted, with a hint of the old dominance. He remembered again the scene at the crossing of the brook. Could he control this wonderful girl now?

"Of course," she replied.

"But--how do you care?" he added, more forcibly. He felt ashamed, yet he could not resist it. What was happening to him?

"I--I love you." Her voice was low, almost faltering, rich with sweetness, and full of some unutterable emotion.

Neale sustained a shock. He never could have told how that affected him, except in his sudden fury at himself. Then he stole a glance at her. Her eyes were downcast, hidden under long lashes; her face was soft and sweet, dreaming and spiritual, singularly pure; her breast heaved under the beaded buckskin. Neale divined she had never dreamed of owing him anything except the maiden love which quivered on her tremulous lips and hovered in the exquisite light of her countenance. And now he received a great and impelling change in his spirit, an uplift, a splendid and beautiful consciousness of his good fortune. But what could he say to her? If only he could safely pass over this moment, so he could have time to think, to find himself. Another glance at her encouraged him. She expected nothing- -not a word; she took all for granted. She was lost in dreams of her soul.

He looked down again to see her hand--small, shapely, strong and brown; and upon the third finger he espied his ring. He had forgotten to look to see if she wore it. Then softly he touched it and drew her hand in his,

"My ring. Oh, Allie!" he whispered.

The response was a wonderful purple blaze of her eyes. He divined then that his ring had been the tangible thing upon which she had reconstructed her broken life.

"You rode away--so quickly--I had no chance to--tell," she replied, haltingly and low-voiced. All was sweet shame about her now, and he had to fight himself to keep from gathering her to his breast. Verily this meeting between Allie and him was not what he had anticipated.

He kissed her hand.

"You've all the fall and all the winter to tell me such sweet things," he said. "Perhaps to-morrow I'll find my tongue and tell you something."

"Tell me now," she said, quickly.

"Well, you're beautiful," he replied, with strong feeling.

"Really?" she smiled, and that smile was the first he had ever seen upon her face. It brought out the sadness, the very soul of her great beauty. "I used to be pretty," she went on, naively. "But if I remember how I used to look I'm not pretty any more."

Neale laughed. He had begun to feel freer, and to accept this unparalleled situation with some composure.

"Tell me," he said, with gentle voice and touch--"tell me your name. Allie--what?"

"Didn't you ever know?" she asked.

"You said Allie. That was all."

He feared this call to her memory, yet he wanted to put her to a test. Her eyes dilated--the light shaded; they grew sad, dark, humid gulfs of thought. But the old, somber veil, the insane, brooding stare, did not return.

"Allie what?" he repeated.

Then the tears came, softening and dimming the pain. "Allie Lee," she said.