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The U.P. Trail (Chapter7)

2006-08-22 23:28

  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, pantin

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