Casey left Benton on the work-train. It was composed of a long string of box—and flat-cars loaded with stone, iron, gravel, ties—all necessaries for the up-keep of the road. The engine was at the rear end, pushing instead of pulling; and at the extreme front end there was a flat-car loaded with gravel. A number of laborers rode on this car, among whom was Casey. In labor or fighting this Irishman always gravitated to the fore.
All along the track, from outside of Benton to the top of a long, slow rise of desert were indications of the fact that Indians had torn up the track or attempted to derail trains.
The signs of Sioux had become such an every-day matter in the lives of the laborers that they were indifferent and careless. Thus isolated, unprotected groups of men, out some distance from the work-train, often were swooped down upon by Indians and massacred.
The troopers had gone on with the other trains that carried Benton’s inhabitants and habitations.
Casey and his comrades had slow work of it going westward, as it was necessary to repair the track and at the same time to keep vigilant watch for the Sioux. They expected the regular train from the east to overtake them, but did not even see its smoke. There must have been a wreck or telegraph messages to hold it back at Medicine Bow.
Toward sunset the work-train reached the height of desert land that sloped in long sweeping lines down to the base of the hills.
At this juncture a temporary station had been left in the shape of several box-cars where the telegraph operators and a squad of troopers lived.
As the work-train lumbered along to the crest of this heave of barren land Casey observed that some one at the station was excitedly waving a flag. Thereupon Casey, who acted as brakeman, signaled the engineer.
“Dom’ coorious that,” remarked Casey to his comrade McDermott. “Thim operators knowed we’d stop, anyway.”
That was the opinion of the several other laborers on the front car. And when the work-train halted, that car had run beyond the station a few rods. Casey and his comrades jumped off.
A little group of men awaited them. The operator, a young fellow named Collins, was known to Casey. He stood among the troopers, pale-faced and shaking.
“Casey, who’s in charge of the train?” he asked, nervously.
The Irishman’s grin enlarged, making it necessary for him to grasp his pipe.
“Shure the engineer’s boss of the train an’ I’m boss of the gang.”
More of the work-train men gathered round the group, and the engineer with his fireman approached.
“You’ve got to hold up here,” said Collins.
Casey removed his pipe to refill it. “Ah-huh!” he grunted.
“Wire from Medicine Bow—order to stop General Lodge’s train—three hundred Sioux in ambush near this station—Lodge’s train between here and Roaring City,” breathlessly went on the operator.
“An’ the message come from Medicine Bow!” ejaculated Casey, while his men gaped and muttered.
“Yes. It must have been sent here last night. But O’Neil, the night operator, was dead. Murdered by Indians while we slept.”
“Thot’s hell!” replied Casey, seriously, as he lit his pipe.
“The message went through to Medicine Bow. Stacey down there sent it back to me. I tried to get Hills at Roaring City. No go! The wire’s cut!”
“An’ shure the gineral’s train has left—wot’s that new camp—Roarin’ wot?”
“Roaring City…. General Lodge went through two days ago with a private train. He had soldiers, as usual. But no force to stand off three hundred Sioux, or even a hundred.”
“Wal, the gineral must hev lift Roarin’ City—else thot message niver would hev come.”
“So I think…. Now what on earth can we do? The engineer of his train can’t stop for orders short of this station, for the reason that there are no stations.”
“An’ thim Sooz is in ambush near here?” queried Casey, reflectively. “Shure thot could only be in wan place. I rimimber thot higher, narrer pass.”
“Right. It’s steep up-grade coming east. Train can be blocked. General Lodge with his staff and party—and his soldiers—would be massacred without a chance to fight. That pass always bothered us for fear of ambush. Now the Sioux have come west far enough to find it…. No chance on earth for a train there—not if it carried a thousand soldiers.”
“Wal, if the gineral an’ company was sthopped somewhere beyond thot pass?” queried Casey, shrewdly, as he took a deep pull at his pipe.
“Then at least they could fight. They have stood off attacks before. They might hold out for the train following, or even run back.”
“Thin, Collins, we’ve only got to sthop the gineral’s train before it reaches thot dom’ trap.”
“But we can’t!” cried Collins. “The wire is cut. It wouldn’t help matters if it weren’t. I thought when I saw your train we might risk sending the engine on alone. But your engine is behind all these loaded cars. No switch. Oh, it is damnable!”
“Collins, there’s more domnable things than yez ever heerd of…. I’ll sthop Gineral Lodge!”
The brawny Irishman wheeled and strode back toward the front car of the train. All the crowd,—to a man, muttering and gaping, followed him. Casey climbed up on the gravel-car.
“Casey, wot in hell would yez be afther doin’?” demanded McDermott.
Casey grinned at his old comrade. “Mac, yez do me a favor. Uncouple the car.”
McDermott stepped between the cars and the rattle and clank of iron told that he had complied with Casey’s request. Collins, with all the men on the ground, grasped Casey’s idea.
“By God! Casey can you do it? There’s down-grade for twenty miles. Once start this gravel-car and she’ll go clear to the hills. But—but—”
“Collins, it’ll be aisy. I’ll slip through thot pass loike oil. Thim Sooz won’t be watchin’ this way. There’s a curve. They won’t hear till too late. An’ shure they don’t niver obsthruct a track till the last minute.”
“But, Casey, once through the pass you can’t control that gravel-car. The brakes won’t hold. You’ll run square into the general’s train—wreck it!”
“Naw! I’ve got a couple of ties, an’ if thot wreck threatens I’ll heave a tie off on the track an’ derail me private car.”
“Casey, it’s sure death!” exclaimed Collins. His voice and the pallor of his face and the beads of sweat all proclaimed him new to the U. P. R.
“Me boy, nothin’s shure whin yez are drillin’ with the Paddies.”
Casey was above surprise and beyond disdain. He was a huge, toil-hardened, sun-reddened, hard-drinking soldier of the railroad, a loquacious Irishman whose fixed grin denied him any gravity, a foreman of his gang. His chief delight was to outdo his bosom comrade, McDermott. He did not realize that he represented an unconquerable and unquenchable spirit. Neither did his comrade know. But under Casey’s grin shone something simple, radiant, hard as steel.
“Put yer shoulders ag’in’ an’ shove me off,” he ordered.
Like automatons the silent laborers started the car.
“Drill, ye terriers, drill! Drill, ye terriers, drill!” sang Casey, as he stood at the wheel-brake.
The car gathered momentum. McDermott was the last to let go.
“Good luck to yez!” he shouted, hoarsely.
“Mac, tell thim yez saw me!” called Casey. Then he waved his hand in good-by to the crowd. Their response was a short, ringing yell. They watched the car glide slowly out of sight.
For a few moments Casey was more concerned with the fact that a breeze had blown out his pipe than with anything else. Skilful as years had made him, he found unusual difficulty in relighting it, and he would not have been beyond stopping the car to accomplish that imperative need. When he had succeeded and glanced back the station was out of sight.
Casey fixed his eyes upon the curve of the track ahead where it disappeared between the sage-covered sandy banks. Here the grade was scarcely perceptible to any but experienced eyes. And the gravel-car crept along as if it would stop any moment. But Casey knew that it was not likely to stop, and if it did he could start it again. A heavy-laden car like this, once started, would run a long way on a very little grade. What worried him was the creaking and rattle of wheels, sounds that from where he stood were apparently very loud.
He turned the curve into a stretch of straight track where there came a perceptible increase in the strength of the breeze against his face. While creeping along at this point he scooped out a hole in the gravel mound on the car, making a place that might afford some protection from Indian bullets and arrows. That accomplished, he had nothing to do but hold on to the wheel-brake, and gaze ahead.
It seemed a long time before the speed increased sufficiently to insure him against any danger of a stop. The wind began to blow his hair and whip away the smoke of his pipe. And the car began to cover distance. Several miles from the station he entered the shallow mouth of a gully where the grade increased. His speed accelerated correspondingly until he was rolling along faster than a man could run. The track had been built on the right bank of the gully which curved between low bare hills, and which grew deeper and of a rougher character. Casey had spiked many of the rails over which he passed.
He found it necessary to apply the brake so that he would not take the sharp curves at dangerous speed. The brake did not work well and gave indications that it would not stand a great deal. With steady, rattling creak, and an occasional clank, the car rolled on.
If Casey remembered the lay of the land, there was a long, straight stretch of track, ending in several curves, the last of which turned sharply into the narrow cut where the Sioux would ambush and obstruct the train. At this point it was Casey’s intention to put off the brake and let his car run wild.
It seemed an endless time before he reached the head of that stretch. Then he let go of the wheel. And the gravel-car began to roll on faster.
Casey appeared to be grimly and conscientiously concerned over his task, and he was worried about the outcome. He must get his car beyond that narrow cut. If it jumped the track or ran into an obstruction, or if the Sioux spied him in time, then his work would not be well done. He welcomed the gathering momentum, yet was fearful of the curve he saw a long distance ahead. When he reached that he would be going at a high rate of speed—too fast to take the curve safely.
A little dimness came to Casey’s eyes. Years of hot sun and dust and desert wind had not made his eyes any stronger. The low gray walls, the white bleached rocks, the shallow stream of water, the fringe of brush, and the long narrowing track—all were momentarily indistinct in his sight. His breast seemed weighted. Over and over in his mind revolved the several possibilities that awaited him at the cut, and every rod of the distance now added to his worry. It grew to be dread. Chances were against him. The thing intrusted to him was not in his control. Casey resented this. He had never failed at a job. The U. P. R. had to be built—and who could tell?—if the chief engineer and all his staff and the directors of the road were massacred by the Sioux, perhaps that might be a last and crowning catastrophe.
Casey had his first cold thrill. And his nerves tightened for the crisis, while his horny hands gripped on the brake. The car was running wild, with a curve just ahead. It made an unearthly clatter. The Indians would hear that. But they would have to be swift, if he stayed on the track. Almost before he realized it the car lurched at the bend. Casey felt the off-side wheels leave the rail, heard the scream of the inside wheels grinding hard. But for his grip on the wheel he would have been thrown. The wind whistled in his ears. With a sudden lurch the car seemed to rise. Casey thought it had jumped the track. But it banged back, righted itself, rounded the curve.
Here the gully widened—sent off branches. Casey saw hundreds of horses—but not an Indian. He rolled swiftly on, crossed a bridge, and saw more horses. His grim anticipation became a reality. The Sioux were in the ambush. What depended on him and his luck! Casey’s red cheek blanched, but it was not with fear for himself. Not yet on this ride had he entertained one thought concerning his own personal relation to its fragile possibilities.
To know the Sioux were there made a tremendous difference. A dark and terrible sternness actuated Casey. He projected his soul into that clattering car of iron and wood. And it was certain he prayed. His hair stood straight up. There! the narrow cut in the hill! the curve of the track! He was pounding at it. The wheels shrieked. Looking up, he saw only the rocks and gray patches of brush and the bare streak of earth. No Indian showed.
His gaze strained to find an obstruction on the track. The car rode the curve on two wheels. It seemed alive. It entered the cut with hollow, screeching roar. The shade of the narrow place was gloomy. Here! It must happen! Casey’s heart never lifted its ponderous weight. Then, shooting round the curve, he saw an open track and bright sunlight beyond.
Above the roar of wheels sounded spatting reports of rifles. Casey forgot to dodge into his gravel shelter. He was living a strange, dragging moment—an age. Out shot the car into the light. Likewise Casey’s dark blankness of mind ended. His heart lifted with a mighty throb. There shone the gray endless slope, stretching out and down to the black hills in the distance. Shrill wild yells made Casey wheel. The hillside above the cut was colorful and spotted with moving objects. Indians! Puffs of white smoke arose. Casey felt the light impact of lead. Glancing bright streaks darted down. They were arrows. Two thudded into the gravel, one into the wood. Then something tugged at his shoulder. Another arrow! Suddenly the shaft was there in his sight, quivering in his flesh. It bit deep. With one wrench he tore it out and shook it aloft at the Sioux. “Oh bate yez dom’ Sooz!” he yelled, in fierce defiance. The long screeching clamor of baffled rage and the scattering volley of rifle-shots kept up until the car passed out of range.
Casey faced ahead. The Sioux were behind him. He had a free track. Far down the gray valley, where the rails disappeared, were low streaks of black smoke from a locomotive. The general’s train was coming.
The burden of worry and dread that had been Casey’s was now no more—vanished as if by magic. His job had not yet been completed, but he had won. He never glanced back at the Sioux. They had failed in their first effort at ambushing the cut, and Casey knew the troops would prevent a second attempt. Casey faced ahead. The whistle of wind filled his ears, the dry, sweet odor of the desert filled his nostrils. His car was on a straight track, rolling along down-grade, half a mile a minute. And Casey, believing he might do well to slow up gradually, lightly put on the brake. But it did not hold. He tried again. The brake had broken.
He stood at the wheel, his eyes clear now, watching ahead. The train down in the valley was miles away, not yet even a black dot in the gray. The smoke, however, began to lift.
Casey was suddenly struck by a vague sense that something was wrong with him.
“Phwat the hell!” he muttered. Then his mind, strangely absorbed, located the trouble. His pipe had gone out! Casey stooped in the hole he had made in the gravel, and there, knocking his pipe in his palm, he found the ashes cold. When had that ever happened before? Casey wagged his head. For his pipe to go cold and he not to know! Things were happening on the U. P. R. these days. Casey refilled his pipe, and, with the wind whistling over him, he relit it. He drew deep and long, stood up, grasped the wheel, and felt all his blood change.
“Me poipe goin’ cold—that wor funny!” soliloquized Casey.
The phenomenon appeared remarkable to him. Indeed, it stood alone. He measured the nature of this job by that forgetfulness. And memories thrilled him. With his eye clear on the track that split the gray expanse, with his whole being permeated by the soothing influence of smoke, with his task almost done, Casey experienced an unprecedented thing for him—he lived over past performances and found them vivid, thrilling, somehow sweet. Battles of the Civil War; the day he saved a flag; and, better, the night he saved Pat Shane, who had lived only to stop a damned Sioux bullet; many and many an adventure with McDermott, who, just a few minutes past, had watched him with round, shining eyes; and the fights he had seen and shared—all these things passed swiftly through Casey’s mind and filled him with a lofty and serene pride.
He was pleased with himself; more pleased with what McDermott would think. Casey’s boyhood did not return to him, but his mounting exhilaration and satisfaction were boyish. It was great to ride this way!… There! he saw a long, black dot down in the gray. The train!… General Lodge had once shaken hands with Casey.
Somebody had to do these things, since the U. P. R. must reach across to the Pacific. A day would come when a splendid passenger-train would glide smoothly down this easy grade where Casey jolted along on his gravel-car. The fact loomed large in the simplicity of the Irishman’s mind. He began to hum his favorite song. Facing westward, he saw the black dot grow into a long train. Likewise he saw the beauty of the red-gold sunset behind the hills. Casey gloried in the wildness of the scene—in the meaning of his ride—particularly in his loneliness. He seemed strangely alone there on that vast gray slope—a man and somehow accountable for all these things. He felt more than he understood. His long-tried nerves and courage and strength had never yielded this wonderful buoyancy and sense of loftiness. He was Casey—Casey who had let all the gang run for shelter from the Sioux while he had remained for one last and final drive at a railroad spike. But the cool, devil-may-care indifference, common to all his comrades as well as to himself, was not the strongest factor in the Casey of to-day. Up out of the rugged and dormant soul had burst the spirit of a race embodied in one man. Casey was his own audience, and the light upon him was the glory of the setting sun. A nightingale sang in his heart, and he realized that this was his hour. Here the bloody, hard years found their reward. Not that he had ever wanted one or thought of one, but it had come—out of the toil, the pain, the weariness. So his nerves tingled, his pulses beat, his veins glowed, his heart throbbed; and all the new, sweet, young sensations of a boy wildly reveling in the success of his first great venture, all the vague, strange, deep, complex emotions of a man who has become conscious of what he is giving to the world—these shook Casey by storm, and life had no more to give. He knew that, whatever he was, whatever this incomprehensible driving spirit in him, whatever his unknown relation to man and to duty, there had been given him in the peril just passed, in this wonderful ride, a gift splendid and divine.
Casey rolled on, and the train grew plain in his sight. When perhaps several miles of track lay between him and the approaching engine, he concluded it was time to get ready. Lifting one of the heavy ties, he laid it in front where he could quickly shove it off with his foot.
Then he stood up. It was certain that he looked backward, but at no particular thing—just an instinctive glance. With his foot on the tie he steadied himself so that he could push it off and leap instantly after.
And at that moment he remembered the little book he had found on Beauty Stanton’s breast, and which contained the letter to his friend Neale. Casey deliberated in spite of the necessity for haste. Then he took the book from his pocket.
“B’gorra, yez niver can tell, an’ thim U. P. R. throopers hev been known to bury a mon widout searchin’ his pockets,” he said.
And he put the little book between the teeth that held his pipe. Then he shoved off the tie and leaped.