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The U.P. Trail (Chapter9)

2006-08-22 23:28

  Chapter 9

  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

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