The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey
Slingerland appeared younger to Neale. The burden of loneliness did not weigh upon him, and the habit of silence had been broken. Neale guessed why, and was actually jealous.
"Wal, it's beyond my calculatin'," the trapper said, out by the spring, where Neale followed him. "She jest changed thet's all. Not so much at first, though she sparked up after I give her your ring. I reckon it" come little by little. An' one day, why, the cabin was full of sunshine! ... Since then I've seen how she's growed an' brightened. Workin', runnin' after me--an' always watchin' fer you. Allie's changed to what she is now. Onct, fur back, I recollect she said she had you to live fer. Mebbe thet's the secret. Anyhow, she loves you as I never seen any man loved.... An', son, I reckon you oughter be somewhars near the kingdom of heaven!"
Neale stole oil by himself and walked in the twilight. The air was warm and sultry, full of fragrance and the low chirp of crickets. Within his breast was a full uneasy sensation of imminent catastrophe. Something was rising in him--great--terrible--precious. It bewildered him to try to think of himself, of his strange emotions, when his mind seemed to hold only Allie.
What then had happened? After a long absence up in the mountains he had returned to Slingerland's valley home, and to the little girl he had rescued and left there. He had left her frail, sick-minded, silent, somber, a pale victim to a horrible memory. He had found her an amazing contrast to what she had been in the past. She had grown strong, active, swift. She was as lovely as a wild rose. No dream of his idle fancy, but a fact! Then last--stirring him even as he tried to clarify and arrange this magic, this mystery--had come the unbelievable, the momentous and dazzling assurance that she loved him. It was so plain that it seemed unreal. While near her he saw it, yet could not believe his eyes; he felt it, but doubted his sensibilities. But now, away from the distraction of her presence and with Slingerland's eloquent words ringing in his ears, he realized the truth. Love of him had saved the girl's mind and had made her beautiful and wonderful. He had heard of the infinite transforming power of love; here in Allie Lee was its manifestation. Whether or not he deserved such a blessing was not the question. It was his, and he felt unutterably grateful and swore he would be worthy of this great gift.
Darkness had set in when Neale returned to the cabin, the interior of which was lighted by blazing sticks in a huge stone fireplace.
Slingerland was in the shadow, busy as usual, but laughing at some sally of Larry's. The cowboy and Allie, however, were in plain sight. Neale needed only one look at Larry to divine what had come over that young man. Allie appeared perplexed.
"He objects to my calling him Mr. King and even Larry," she said.
Larry suddenly looked sheepish.
"Allie, this cowboy is a bad fellow with guns, ropes, horses--and I suspect with girls," replied Neale, severely.
"Neale, he doesn't look bad," she rejoined. "You're fooling me.... He wants me to call him Reddy."
"Ahuh!" grunted Neale. He laughed grimly at himself, for again he had felt a pang of jealousy. He knew what to expect from Larry or any other young man who ever had the wonderful good luck to get near Allie Lee. "All right, call him Reddy," he went on. "I guess I can allow my future wife so much familiarity with my pard."
This confused Allie out of her sweet gravity, and she blushed.
"Shore you're mighty kind," drawled Larry, recovering. "More 'n I reckoned on from a fellar who's shore lost his haid."
"I've lost more 'n that," retorted Neale, "and I'm afraid a certain wild young cowboy I know has lost as much."
"Wal, I reckon somethin' abbot this heah place of Slingerland's draws on a fellar," admitted Larry, resignedly.
Allie did not long stay embarrassed by their sallies.
"Neale, tell me--"
"See heah, Allie, if you call me Reddy an' him only Neale--why he's a-goin' to pitch into me," interrupted Larry, with twinkling eyes. "An' he's shore a bad customer when he's r'iled."
"Only Neale? What does he mean?" inquired Allie.
"Beyond human conjecture," replied Neale, laughing.
"Wal, don't you know his front name?" asked Larry.
"Neale. I call him that," she replied.
"Haw! Haw! But it ain't thet."
"Allie, my name is Warren," said Neale. "You've forgotten."
"Oh! ... Well, it's always been Neale--and always will be."
Larry rose and stretched his long arms for the pipe on the rude stone chimney.
"Slingerland," he drawled, "these heah young people need to find out who they are. An' I reckon we'd do wal to go out an' smoke an' talk."
The trapper came forth from the shadows, and as he filled his pipe his keen, bright gaze shifted from the task to his friends.
"It's good to see you an' hyar you," he said. "I was a youngster once I missed--but thet's no matter.... Live while you may! ... Larry, come with me. I've got a trap to set yit."
Allie flashed a glance at them.
"It's not so. You never set traps after dark."
"Wal, child, any excuse is better 'n none. Neale wouldn't never git to hyar you say all thet sweet talk as is comin' to him--if two old fools hung round."
"Slingerland, I've throwed a gun for less 'n thet," drawled Larry. "Aboot the fool part I ain't shore, but I was twenty-five yesterday- -an' I'm sixteen to-day."
They lit their pipes with red embers scraped from the fire, and with wise nods at Neale and Allie passed out into the dark.
Allie's eyes were upon Neale, with shy, eloquent intent, and directly the others had departed she changed her seat to one close to Neale; she nestled against his shoulder, her face to the fire.
"They thought we wanted to make love, didn't they?" she said, dreamily.
"I guess they did," replied Neale.
He was intensely fascinated. Did she want him to make love to her? A look at her face was enough to rebuke him for the thought. The shadows from the flickering fire played over her.
"Tell me all about yourself," she said. "Then about your work."
Neale told all that he thought would interest her about his youth in the East with a widowed mother, the home that was broken up after she died, and his working his way through a course of civil engineering.
"I was twenty when I first read about this U. P. railroad project," he went on. "That was more than three years ago. It decided me on my career. I determined to be an engineer and be in the building of the road. No one had any faith in the railroad. I used to be laughed at. But I stuck. And--well, I had to steal some rides to get as far west as Omaha.
"That was more than a year ago. I stayed there--waiting. Nothing was sure, except that the town grew like a mushroom. It filled with soldiers--and the worst crowd I ever saw. You can bet I was shaky when I finally got an audience with General Lodge and his staff. They had an office in a big storehouse. The place was full of men-- soldiers and tramps. It struck me right off what a grim and discouraged bunch those engineers looked. I didn't understand them, but I do now.... Well, I asked for a job. Nobody appeared to hear me. It was hard to make yourself heard. I tried again--louder. An old engineer, whom I know now--Henney--waved me aside. Just as if a job was unheard of!"
Neale quickened and warmed as he progressed, aware now of a little hand tight in his, of an interest that would have made any story- telling a pleasure.
"Well, I felt. sick. Then mad. When I get mad I do things. I yelled at that bunch: 'Here, you men! I've walked and stole rides to get here. I'm a surveyor. You're going to build a railroad. I want a job and I'm going to get it.'
"My voice quieted the hubbub. The old engineer, Henney, looked queerly at me.
"'Young man, there's not going to be any railroad.'
"Then I blurted out that there was going to be a railroad. Some one spoke up: 'Who said that? Fetch him here.' Pretty soon I was looking at Major-General Lodge. He was just from the war and he looked it. Stern and dark, with hard lines and keen eyes. He glanced me over.
"'There is going to be a railroad?' he questioned sharply.
"'Of course there is,' I replied. I felt foolish, disappointed.
"'You're right,' he said, and I'll never forget his eyes.
'I can use a few more young fellows like you.' And that's how I got on the staff.
"Well, we ran a quick survey west to the Bad Lands--for it was out here that we must find success or failure. And Allie, it's all been like the biggest kind of an adventure. The troops and horses and camps and trails--the Indian country with its threats from out of the air--the wild places with their deer, buffalo, panthers, trappers like Slingerland, scouts, and desperadoes. It began to get such a hold on me that I was wild. That might have been bad for me but for my work. I did well. Allie, I ran lines for the U. P. that no other engineer could run."
Neale paused, as much from the squeeze Allie suddenly gave him as for an instant's rest to catch his breath.
"I mean I had the nerve to tackle cliffs and dangerous slopes," he went on. Then he told how Larry Red King had saved his life, and that recollection brought back his service to the cowboy; then naturally followed the two dominating incidents of the summer.
Allie lifted a blanched face and darkening eyes. "Neale! You were in danger."
"Oh, not much, I guess. But Red thought so."
"He saved you again! ... I--I'll never forget that."
"Anyway, we're square, for he'd have got shot sure the day the Indian sneaked up on him." Allie shuddered and shrank back to Neale, while he hastily resumed his story. "We're great pards now, Red and I. He doesn't say much, but his acts tell. He will not let me alone. He follows me everywhere. It's a joke among the men.... Well Allie, it seems unbelievable that we have crossed the mountains and the desert--grade ninety feet to the mile! The railroad can and will be built. I wish I could tell you how tremendously all this has worked upon me--upon all the engineers. But somehow I can't. It chokes me. The idea is big. But the work--what shall I call that? ... Allie, if you can, imagine some spirit seizing hold of you and making you see difficulties as joys--impossible tasks as only things to strike fire from genius, perils of death as merely incidents of daring adventure to treasure in memory--well that's something like it. The idea of the U. P. has got me. I believe in it. I shall see it accomplished.... I'll live it all."
Allie moved her head on his shoulder, and, looking up at him with eyes that made him ashamed of his egotism, she said, "Then, when it's done you'll be chief of engineers or superintendent of maintenance of way?"
She had remembered his very words.
"Allie, I hope so," he replied, thrilling at her faith. "I'll work-- I'll get some big position."
Next day ushered in for Neale a well-earned rest, and he proceeded to enjoy it to the full.
The fall had always been Neale's favorite season. Here, as elsewhere, the aspect of it was flaming and golden, but different from what he had known hitherto. Dreaming silence of autumn held the wildness and loneliness of the Wyoming hills. The sage shone gray and purple, the ridges yellow and gold; the valleys were green and amber and red. No dust, no heat, no wind--a clear, blue, cloudless sky, sweet odors in the still air--it was a beautiful time.
Days passed and nights passed, as if on wings. Every waking hour drew him closer to this incomparable girl who had arisen upon his horizon like a star. He knew the hour was imminent when he must read his heart. He fought it off; he played with his bliss. Allie was now his shadow instead of the faithful Larry, although the cowboy was often with them, adapting himself to the changed conditions, too big and splendid to be envious or jealous. They fished down the brook, and always at the never-to-be-forgotten ford he would cross first and turn to see her follow. She could never understand why Neale would delight in carrying her across at other points, yet made her ford this one by herself.
"It's such a bother to take off moccasins and leggings," she would say.
They rode horseback up and down the trails that Slingerland assured them were safe. And it was the cowboy Larry who lent his horse and taught her a flying mount; he said she would make a rider.
In the afternoons they would climb the high ridge, and on the summit sit in the long whitening grass and gaze out over the dim and purple vastness of the plains. In the twilight they walked under the pines. When night set in and the air grew cold they would watch the ruddy fire on the hearth and see pictures of the future there, and feel a warmth on hand and cheek that was not all from the cheerful blaze.
Neale found it strange to realize how his attachment for Larry had changed to love. All Neale's spiritual being was undergoing a great and vital change, but this was not the reason he loved Larry. It was because of Allie. The cowboy was a Texan and he had inherited the Southerner's fine and chivalric regard for women. Neale never knew whether Larry had ever had a sister or a sweetheart or a girl friend. But at sight Larry had become Allie's own; not a brother or a friend or a lover, but something bigger and higher. The man expanded under her smiles, her teasing, her playfulness, her affection. Neale had no pang in divining the love Larry bore Allie. Drifter, cowboy, gun-thrower, man-killer, whatever he had been, the light of this girl's beautiful eyes, her voice, her touch, had worked the last marvel in man--forgetfulness of self. And so Neale loved him.
It made Neale quake inwardly to think of the change being wrought in himself. It made him thoughtful of many things. There was much in life utterly new to him. He had listened to a moan in his keen ear; he had felt a call of something helpless; he had found a gleam of chestnut hair; he had stirred two other men to help him befriend a poor, broken-hearted, half-crazed orphan girl. And, lo! the world had changed, his friends had grown happier in their unloved lives, a strange strength had come to him, and, sweetest, most wonderful of all, in the place of the helpless and miserable waif appeared a woman, lovely of face and form, with only a ghost of sadness haunting her eyes, a woman adorable and bright, with the magic of love on her lips.
October came. In the early morning and late afternoon a keen cold breath hung in the air. Slingerland talked of a good prospect for fur. He chopped great stores of wood. Larry climbed the hills with his rifle. Neale walked the trails hand in hand with Allie.
He had never sought to induce her to speak of her past, though at times the evidence of refinement and education and mystery around her made strong appeal to him. She could, tell her story whenever she liked or never--it did not greatly matter.
Then,--one day, quite naturally, but with a shame she did not try to conceal, she confided to him part of the story her mother had told her that dark night when the Sioux were creeping upon the caravan.
Neale was astounded, agitated, intensely concerned.
"Allie! ... Your father lives!" he exclaimed.
"Then I must find him--take you to him."
"Do what you think best," she replied, sadly. "But I never saw him. I've no love for him. And he never knew I was born."
"Is it possible? How strange! ... If any man could see you now! Allie, do you resemble your mother?"
"Yes, we were alike."
"Where is your father?" Neale went on, curiously.
"How should I know? It was in New Orleans that mother ran off from him. I--I never blamed her--since she said what she said.... Do you? Will this--make any difference to you?"
"My God, no! But I'm so--so thunderstruck.... This man--this Durade- -tell me more of him."
"He was a Spaniard of high degree, an adventurer, a gambler. He was mad to gamble. He forced my mother to use her beauty to lure men to his gambling-hell.... Oh, it's terrible to remember. She said he meant to use me for that purpose. That's why she left him. But in a way he was good to me. I can see so many things now to prove he was wicked.... And mother said he would follow her--track her to the end of the world."
"Allie! If he should find you some day!" exclaimed Neale, hoarsely.
She put her arms up round his neck. And that, following a terrible pang of dread in Neale's breast, was too much for him. The tide burst. Love had long claimed him, but its utterance had been withheld. He had been happy in her happiness. He had trained himself to spare her.
"But some day--I'll be--your wife," she whispered.
"Soon? Soon?" he returned, trembling.
The scarlet fired her temples, her brow, darkening the skin under her bright hair.
"That's for you to say."
She held up her lips, tremulous and sweet.
Neale realized the moment had come. There had never been but the one kiss between them--that of the meeting upon his return in September.
"Allie, I love you!" He spoke thickly.
"And I love you," she replied, with sweet courage.
"This news you've told--this man Durade," he went on, hoarsely, "I'm suddenly alive--stinging--wild! ... If I lost you!"
"Dear, you will never lose me--never in this world or any other," she replied, tenderly.
"My work, my hope, my life, they all get spirit now from you ... Allie! You're sweet--oh, so sweet! You're glorious!" he rang out, passionately.
Surprise momentarily checked the rising response of her feeling.
"Neale! You've never before said--such-things! ... And the way you look!"
"How do I look?" he queried, seeing the joyousness of her surprise.
Then she laughed and that was new to him--a sound low, unutterably rich and full, sweet-toned like a bell, and all resonant of youth.
"Oh, you look like Durade when he was gambling away his soul ... You should see him!"
"Well, how's that?"
"So white--so terrible--so piercing!"
Neale drew her closer, slipped her arms farther up round his neck. "I'm gambling my soul away now," he said. "If I kiss you I lose it-- and I must!"
"Must what?" she whispered, with all a woman's charm.
"I must kiss you!"
So their lips met.
In the sweetness of that embrace, in the simplicity and answering passion of her kiss, in the overwhelming sense of her gift of herself, heart and soul, he found a strength, a restraint, a nobler fire that gave him peace.
Allie was to amaze Neale again before the sun set on that memorable day.
"I forgot to tell you about the gold!" she exclaimed, her face paling.
"Gold!" ejaculated Neale.
"Yes. He buried it--there--under the biggest of the three trees together. Near a rock! Oh, I can see him now!"
"Him! Who? Allie, what's this wild talk?"
She pressed his hand to enjoin silence.
"Listen! Horn had gold. How much I don't know. But it must have been a great deal. He owned the caravan with which we left California. Horn grew to like me. But he hated all the rest.... That night we ended the awful ride! The wagons stalled! ... The grayness of dawn-- the stillness--oh, I feel them now! ... That terrible Indian yell rang out. All my life I'll hear it! ... Then Horn dug a hole. He buried his gold.... And he said whoever escaped could have it. He had no hope."
"Allie, you're a mine of surprises. Buried gold! What next?"
"Neale, I wonder--did the Sioux find that gold?" she asked.
"It's not likely. There certainly wasn't any hole left open around that place. I saw every inch of ground under those trees.... Allie, I'll go there to-morrow and hunt for it."
"Let me go," she implored. "Ah! I forgot! No--no! ... There must be my mother's grave."
"Yes, it's there. I saw. I will mark it.... Allie, how glad I am that you can speak of her--of her past--her grave there without weakening. You are brave! But forget ... Allie, if I find that gold it'll be yours."
"But I wasn't one of the caravan. He did not give it to any outsider. You escaped. Therefore it will belong to you."
"Dearest, I am yours."
Next day, without acquainting Slingerland or Larry with his purpose, Neale rode down the valley trail.
He expected the road to cross the old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail, but if it did cross he could not find the place. It was easy to lose bearings in these hills. Neale had to abandon the hunt for that day, and turning back, with some annoyance at his failure, he decided that it would be best to take Larry and Slingerland into his confidence.
Allie was waiting for him at the brook ford.
"Oh, it was gone!" she cried.
"Allie, I couldn't find the place. Come, ride back and let me walk beside you.... We'll have fun telling Larry and Slingerland."
"Neale, let me tell them," she begged.
"Go ahead. Make a strong story. Larry always had leanings toward gold-strikes."
And that night, after supper, when the log fire had begun to blaze, and all were comfortable before it, Allie glanced demurely at Larry and said:
"Reddy, if you had known that I was heiress to great wealth, would you have proposed to me?"
Slingerland roared. Larry seemed utterly stricken.
"Wealth!" he echoed, feebly.
"Yes. Gold! Lots of gold!"
Slingerland's merry face suddenly grew curious and earnest.
Larry struggled with his discomfiture.
"I reckon I'd done thet anyhow--without knowin' you was rich--if it hadn't been fer this heah U. P. surveyor fellar."
And then the joke was on Allie, as her blushes proved. Neale came to her rescue and told the story of Horn's buried gold, and of his own search that day for the place.
"Shore I'll find it," declared Larry. "We'll go to-morrow...."
Slingerland stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"If thar's gold been buried thar it's sure an' certain thar yet," he said. "But I'm afraid we won't git thar tomorrow."
"Why not? Surely you or Larry can find the place?"
Neale listened while he was watching Allie's parted lips and speaking eyes. A low, whining wind swept through the trees and over the roof of the cabin.
"Thet wind says snow," declared the trapper.
Neale went outside. The wind struck him cold and keen, with a sharp edge to it. The stars showed pale and dim through hazy atmosphere. Assuredly there was a storm brewing. Neale returned to the fire, shivering and holding his palms to the heat.
"Cold, you bet, with the wind rising," he said. "But, Slingerland, suppose it does snow. Can't we go, anyhow?"
"It ain't likely. You see, it snows up hyar. Mebbe we'll be snowed in fer a spell. An' thet valley is open down thar. In deep snow what could we find? We'll wait an' see."
On the morrow a storm raged and all was dim through a ghostly, whirling pall. The season of drifting snow had come, and Neale's winter work had begun.
Five miles by short cut over the ridges curved the long survey over which Neale must keep watch; and the going and coming were Neale's hardest toil. It was laborsome to trudge up and down in soft snow.
That first snow of winter, however, did not last long, except in the sheltered places. Fortunately for Neale, almost all of his section of the survey ran over open ground. But this fact augured seriously for his task when the dry and powdery snow of midwinter began to fall and sweep before the wind and drift over the lee side of the ridge.
During the first week of tramping he thoroughly learned the lay of the land, the topography of his particular stretch of Sherman Pass. And one day, taking an early start from camp, he set forth to make his first call upon his nearest associate in this work, the engineer Service. Once high up on the pass he found the snow had not all melted, and still higher it lay white and unbroken as far as he could see. The air was keener up there. Neale gathered that Service would have a colder job than his own, if it was not so long and hard.
He found Service at home in his dugout, warm and comfortable and in excellent spirits. They compared notes, and even in this early work they decided it would be a wise plan for the engineering staff to study the problem of drifting snow.
Neale enjoyed a meal with Service, and then, early in the afternoon, he started back on his long tramp homeward. He gathered from his visit that Service did not mind the lonesomeness, but that he did suffer from the cold more than he had expected. Service was not an active, full-blooded man, and Neale had some misgivings. Judging from the trapper's remarks, winter high up in the Wyoming hills was something to dread.
November brought the real storms--the gray banks of rolling cloud, the rain and sleet and snow and ice, and the wind. Neale concluded he had never before faced a real wind, and when, one day on a ridge- top, he was blown off his feet he was sure of it. Some days he could not go out at all. Other days it was not imperative, for it was only during and after snow-storms that he could make observations. He learned to travel on snow-shoes, and ten miles of such traveling up and down the steep slopes was the most killing hard toil he had ever attempted. After such trips he would reach the cabin utterly fagged out, too tired to eat, too weary, to talk, almost too dead to hear the solicitations of his friends or to appreciate Allie's tender, anxious care. If he had not been strong and robust and in good training to begin with, he would have failed under the burden. Gradually he grew used to the strenuous toil, and became hardened, tough, and enduring.
Though Neale hated the cold and the wind, there were moments when an exceedingly keen exhilaration uplifted him. These experiences visited him while on the heights, looking far over the snowy ridges to, the white, monotonous plain or up toward the shining peaks. All seemed barren and cold. He never saw a living creature or a track upon those slopes. When the sun shone all was so dazzlingly, glaringly white that his eyes were struck by temporary blindness.
Upon one of the milder days, which were getting rarer in mid- December, Neale again visited his comrade on the summit. He found Service in bad shape. In falling down a slippery ledge he had injured or broken his lame leg. Neale, with great concern, tried to ascertain the nature and extent of the harm done, but he was unable to do so. Service was practically helpless, although not suffering any great pain. The two of them decided, at length, that he had not broken any bones, but that it was necessary to move him to where he could be waited upon and treated, or else some one must be brought in to take care of him. Neale deliberated a moment.
"I'll tell you what," he said, finally. "You can be moved down to Slingerland's cabin without pain to you. I'll get Slingerland and his sled. You'll be more comfortable there. It'll be better all around."
So that was decided upon. And Neale, after doing all he could for Service, and assuring him that he would return in less than twenty- four hours, turned his steps for the valley.
The sunset that night struck him as singularly dull, pale, menacing. He understood its meaning later, when Slingerland said they were in for another storm. Before dark the wind began to moan through the trees like lost spirits. The trapper shook his shaggy head ominously.
"Reckon thet sounds bad to me," he said. And from moan it rose to wail, and from wail to roar.
That alarmed Neale. He went outside and Slingerland followed. Snow was sweeping down-light, dry, powdery. The wind was piercingly cold. Slingerland yelled something, but Neale could not distinguish what. When they got back inside the trapper said:
Neale grew distressed.
"Wal, no use to worry about Service," argued the trapper. "If it is a blizzard we can't git up thar, thet's all. Mebbe this'll not be so bad. But I ain't bettin' on thet."
Even Allie couldn't cheer Neale that night. Long after she and the others had retired he kept up the fire and listened to the roar of the wind. When the fire died down a little the cabin grew uncomfortably cold, and this fact attested to a continually dropping temperature. But he hoped against hope and finally sought his blankets.
Morning came, but the cabin was almost as dark as by night. A blinding, swirling snow-storm obscured the sun.
A blizzard raged for forty-eight hours. When the snow finally ceased falling the cold increased until Neale guessed the temperature might be forty degrees below zero. The trapper claimed sixty. It was necessary to stay indoors till the weather moderated.
On the fifth morning Slingerland was persuaded to attempt the trip to aid Service. Larry wanted to accompany them, but Slingerland said he had better stay with Allie. So, muffled up, the two men set out on snow-shoes, dragging a sled. A crust had frozen on the snow, otherwise traveling would have been impossible. Once up on the slope the north wind hit them square in the face. Heavily clad as he was, Neale thought the very marrow in his bones would freeze. That wind blew straight through him. There were places where it took both men to hold the sled to keep it from getting away. They were blown back one step for every two steps they made. On the exposed heights they could not walk upright. At last, after hours of desperate effort, they got over the ridge to a sheltered side along which they labored up to Service's dugout.
Up there the snow had blown away in places, leaving bare spots, bleak, icy, barren, stark. No smoke appeared to rise above the dugout. The rude habitation looked as though no man had been there that winter. Neale glanced in swift dismay at Slingerland.
"Son, look fer the wust," he said. "An' we hain't got time to waste."
They pushed open the canvas framework of a door and, stooping low, passed inside. Neale's glance saw first the fireplace, where no fire had burned for days. Snow had sifted into the dugout and lay in little drifts everywhere. The blankets on the bunk covered Service, hiding his face. Both men knew before they uncovered him what his fate had been.
"Frozen to death!" gasped Neale.
Service lay white, rigid, like stone, with no sign of suffering upon his face.
"He jest went to sleep--an' never woke up," declared Slingerland.
"Thank God for that!" exclaimed Neale. "Oh, why did I not stay with him?"
"Too late, son. An' many a good man will go to his death before thet damn railroad is done."
Neale searched for Service's notes and letters and valuables which could be turned over to the engineering staff.
Slingerland found a pick and shovel, which Neale remembered to have used in building the dugout; and with these the two men toiled at the frozen sand and gravel to open up a grave; It was like digging in stone. At length they succeeded. Then, rolling Service in the blankets and tarpaulin, they lowered him into the cold ground and hurriedly filled up his grave.
It was a grim, gruesome task. Another nameless grave! Neale had already seen nine graves. This one was up the slope not a hundred feet from the line of survey.
"Slingerland," exclaimed Neale, "the railroad will run along there! Trains will pass this spot. In years to come travelers will look out of the train windows along here. Boys riding away to seek their fortunes! Bride and groom on their honeymoon! Thousands of people-- going, coming, busy, happy at their own affairs, full of their own lives--will pass by poor Service's grave and never know it's there!"
"Wal, son, if people must hev railroads, they must kill men to build them," replied the trapper.
Neale conceived the idea that Slingerland did, not welcome the coming of the steel rails. The thought shocked him. But then, he reflected, a trapper would not profit by the advance of civilization.
With the wind in their backs Neale and Slingerland were practically blown home. They made it up between them to keep knowledge of the tragedy from Allie. So ended the coldest and hardest and grimmest day Neale had ever known.
The winter passed, the snows melted, the winds quieted, and spring came.
Long since Neale had decided to leave Allie with Slingerland that summer. She would be happy there, and she wished to stay until Neale could take her with him. That seemed out of the question for the present. A construction camp full of troopers and laborers was no place for Allie. Neale dreaded the idea of taking her to Omaha. Always in his mind were haunting fears of this Spaniard, Durade, who had ruined Allie's mother, and of the father whom Allie had never seen. Neale instinctively felt that these men were to crop up somewhere in his life, and before they did appear he wanted to marry Allie. She was now little more than sixteen years old.
Neale's plans for the summer could not be wholly known until he had reported to the general staff, which might be at Fort Fetterman or North Platte or all the way back in Omaha. But it was probable that he would be set to work with the advancing troops and trains and laborers. Engineers had to accompany both the grading gangs and the rail gangs.
Neale, in his talks with Larry and Slingerland, had dwelt long and conjecturingly upon what life was going to be in the construction camps.
To Larry what might happen was of little moment. He lived in the present. But Neale was different. He had to be anticipating events; he lived in the future, his mind was centered on future work, achievement, and what he might go through in attaining his end. Slingerland was his appreciative listener.
"Wal," he would say, shaking his grizzled head, "I reckon I don't believe all your General Lodge says is goin' to happen."
"But, man, can't you imagine what it will be?" protested Neale. "Take thousands of soldiers--the riffraff of the war--and thousands of laborers of all classes, niggers, greasers, pigtail chinks, and Irish. Take thousands of men who want to earn an honest dollar, but not honestly. All the gamblers, outlaws, robbers, murderers, criminals, adventurers in the States, and perhaps many from abroad, will be on the trail. Think, man, of the money--the gold! Millions spilled out in these wilds! ... And last and worst--the bad women!"
Slingerland showed his amazement at the pictures drawn by Neale, especially at the final one.
"Wal, I reckon thet's all guff too," he said. "A lot of bad women out in these wilds ain't to be feared. Supposin' thar was a lot of them which ain't likely--how'd they ever git out to the camps?"
"Slingerland, the trains--the trains will follow the laying of the rails!"
"Oho! An' you mean thar'll be towns grow up overnightall full of bad people who ain't workin' on the railroad, but jest followin' the gold?"
"Exactly. Now listen. Remember all these mixed gangs--the gold--and the bad women--out here in the wild country--no law--no restraint-- no fear, except of death--drinking-hells--gambling-hells--dancing- hells! What's going to happen?"
The trapper meditated a while, stroking his beard, and then he said: "Wal, thar ain't enough gold to build thet railroad--an' if thar was it couldn't never be done!"
"Ah!" cried Neale, raising his head sharply. "It's a matter of gold first. Streams of gold! And then--can it be done?"
One day, as the time for Neale's departure grew closer, Slingerland's quiet and peaceful valley was violated by a visit from four rough-looking men.
They rode in without packs. It was significant to Neale that Larry swore at sight of them, and then in his cool, easy way sauntered between them and the cabin door, where Allie stood with astonishment fixed on her beautiful face. The Texan always packed his heavy gun, and certainly no Western men would mistake his quality. These visitors were civil enough, asked for a little tobacco, and showed no sign of evil intent.
"Way off the beaten track up hyar," said one.
"Yes. I'm a trapper," replied Slingerland. "Whar do you hail from?"
"Ogden. We're packin' east."
"Much travel on the trail?"
"Right smart fer wild country. An' all goin' east. We hain't met an outfit headin' west. Hev you heerd any talk of a railroad buildin' out of Omaha?"
Here Larry put a word in.
"Shore. We've had soldiers campin' around aboot all heah."
"Soldiers!" ejaculated one of the gang.
"Shore, the road's bein' built by soldiers."
The men made no further comment and turned away without any good- bys. Slingerland called out to them to have an eye open for Indians on the war-path.
"Wal, I don't like the looks of them fellars," he declared.
Neale likewise took an unfavorable view of the visit, but Larry scouted the idea of there being any danger in a gang like that.
"Shore they'd be afraid of a man," he declared.
"Red, can you look at men and tell whether or not there's danger in them?" inquired Neale.
"I shore can. One man could bluff thet outfit.... But I reckon I'd hate to have them find Allie aboot heah alone."
"I can take care of myself," spoke up Allie, spiritedly.
Neale and Slingerland, for all their respect for the cowboy's judgment, regarded the advent of these visitors as a forerunner of an evil time for lonely trappers.
"I'll hev to move back deeper in the mountains, away from the railroad," said Slingerland.
This incident also put a different light upon the intention Neale had of hunting for the buried gold. Just now he certainly did not want to risk being seen digging gold or packing it away; and Slingerland was just as loath to have it concealed in or near his cabin.
"Wal, seein' we're not sure it's really there, let's wait till you come back in summer or fall," he suggested. "If it's thar it'll stay thar."
All too soon the dawn came for Neale's departure with Larry. Allie was braver than he. At the last he was white and shaken. She kissed Larry.
"Reddy, you'll take care of yourself--and him," she said.
"Allie, I shore will. Good-by." Larry rode down the trail in the dim gray dawn.
"Watch sharp for Indians," she breathed, and her face whitened momentarily. Then the color returned. Her eyes welled full of sweet, soft light.
"Allie, I can't go," said Neale, hoarsely. The clasp of her arms unnerved him.
"You must. It's your work. Remember the big job! ... Dearest! Dearest! Hurry--and--go!"
Neale could no longer see her face clearly. He did not know what he was saying.
"You'll always--love me?" he implored.
"Do you need to ask? All my life! ... I promise."
"Kiss me, then," he whispered, hoarsely, blindly leaning down. "It's hell--to leave you! ... Wonderful girl--treasure--precious--Allie! ... Kiss me--enough! ... I--"
She held him with strong and passionate clasp and kissed him again and again.
"Good-by!" Her last word was low, choked, poignant, and had in it a mournful reminder of her old tragic woe.
Then he was alone. Mounting clumsily, with blurred eyes, he rode into the winding trail.