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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Iron Trail - Chapter 6. The Dreamer
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The Iron Trail - Chapter 6. The Dreamer Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :1045

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The Iron Trail - Chapter 6. The Dreamer

CHAPTER VI. THE DREAMER

Unobserved the two friends watched the poker game, which for a time proceeded quietly. But suddenly they saw Appleton lean over the table and address the man with the derby hat; then, thrusting back his chair, he rose, declaring, in a louder tone:

"I tell you I saw it. I thought I was mistaken at first." His face was white, and he disregarded the efforts of his right-hand neighbor to quiet him.

"Don't squeal," smiled the dealer. "I'll leave it to the boys if I did anything wrong."

"You pulled that king from the bottom. It may not be wrong, but it's damned peculiar."

"Forget it!" one of the others exclaimed. "Denny wouldn't double- cross you."

"Hardly!" agreed Mr. Denny, evenly. "You're 'in' a hundred and eighty dollars, but if you're sore you can have it back."

Appleton flung his cards into the middle of the table and turned away disgustedly. "It's a hard thing to prove, and I'm not absolutely sure I saw straight, or--I'd take it back, fast enough."

Denny shrugged and gathered in the discarded hand. "You've been drinking too much, that's all. Your eyesight is scattered."

Appleton's face flushed as he beheld the gaze of the company upon him and heard the laughter which greeted this remark. He turned to leave when O'Neil, who had continued to watch the proceedings with interest, crossed to the group and touched Denny on the shoulder, saying, quietly:

"Give him his money."

"Eh?" The smile faded from the fellow's face; he looked up with startled inquiry. "What?"

"Give him his money."

In the momentary hush which followed, "Happy Tom" Slater, who had frequently seen his employer in action and understood storm signals, sighed deeply and reached for the nearest chair. With a wrench of his powerful hands he loosened a leg. Although Mr. Slater abhorred trouble, he was accustomed to meet it philosophically. A lifetime spent in construction camps had taught him that, of all weapons, the one best suited to his use was a pick-handle; second to that he had come to value the hardwood leg of a chair. But in the present case his precaution proved needless, for the dispute was over before he had fairly prepared himself.

Without waiting for O'Neil to put his accusation into words Denny had risen swiftly, and in doing so he had either purposely or by accident made a movement which produced a prompt and instinctive reaction. Murray's fist met him as he rose, met him so squarely and with such force that he lost all interest in what followed. The other card-players silently gathered Mr. Denny in their arms and stretched him upon a disused roulette table; the bartender appeared with a wet towel and began to bathe his temples.

Appleton, dazed by the suddenness of it all, found a stack of gold pieces in his hand and heard O'Neil saying in an every-day tone:

"Come to my room, please. I'd like to talk to you." Something commanding in the speaker's face made the engineer follow against his will. He longed to loiter here until Denny had regained his senses--but O'Neil had him by the arm and a moment later he was being led down the hall away from the lobby and the barroom. As Slater, who had followed, closed the door behind them, Dan burst forth:

"By Jove! Why didn't you tell me? I knew he was crooked--but I couldn't believe--"

"Sit down!" said O'Neil. "He won't pull himself together for a while, and I want to get to bed. Are you looking for a job?"

The engineer's eyes opened wide.

"Yes."

"Do you know the Kyak country?"

"Pretty well."

"I need a surveyor. Your wages will be the same that Gordon paid and they begin now, if it's agreeable."

"It certainly is!"

"Good! We'll leave at six o'clock, sharp. Bring your bedding and instruments."

"Thanks! I--This is a bit of a surprise. Who are you?"

"I'm O'Neil." "Oh!" Mr. Appleton's expression changed quickly. "You're Murray--" He stammered an instant. "It was very good of you to take my part, after I'd been fool enough to--"

"Well--I didn't want to see you make a total idiot of yourself."

The young man flushed slightly, then in a quieter voice, he asked:

"How did you know I was out of work?"

"Mr. Gordon told me. He recommended you highly."

"He did?"

"He said you were unreliable, disloyal, and dishonest. Coming from him I took that as high praise."

There was a moment's pause, then Appleton laughed boyishly.

"That's funny! I'm very glad to know you, Mr. O'Neil."

"You don't, and you won't for a long time. Tom tells me you didn't think well of Gordon's enterprise and so he fired you."

"That's right! I suppose I ought to have kept my mouth shut, but it has a way of flying open when it shouldn't. He is either a fool or a crook, and his mine is nothing but a prospect. I couldn't resist telling him so."

"And his railroad?"

Appleton hesitated. "Oh, it's as good a route as the Trust's. I worked on the two surveys. Personally I think both outfits are crazy to try to build in from here. I had to tell Gordon that, too. You see I'm a volunteer talker. I should have been born with a stutter--it would have saved me a lot of trouble."

O'Neil smiled. "You may talk all you please in my employ, so long as you do your work. Now get some sleep, for we have a hard trip. And by the way"--the youth paused with a hand on the doorknob-- "don't go looking for Denny."

Appleton's face hardened stubbornly.

"I can't promise that, sir."

"Oh yes you can! You must! Remember, you're working for me, and you're under orders. I can't have the expedition held up on your account."

The engineer's voice was heavy with disappointment, but a vague admiration was growing in his eyes as he agreed:

"Very well, sir. I suppose my time is yours. Good night."

When he had gone "Happy Tom" inquired:

"Now, why in blazes did you hire him? We don't need a high-priced surveyor on this job."

"Of course not, but don't you see? He'd have been arrested, sure. Besides--he's Irish, and I like him."

"Humph! Then I s'pose he's got a job for life," said Tom, morosely. "You make friends and enemies quicker than anybody I ever saw. You've got Curtis Gordon on your neck now."

"On account of this boy? Nonsense!"

"Not altogether. Denny is Gordon's right bower. I think he calls him his secretary; anyhow, he does Gordon's dirty work and they're thicker than fleas. First you come along and steal me, underhanded, then you grab his pet engineer before he has a chance to hire him back again. Just to top off the evening you publicly brand his confidential understrapper as a card cheat and thump him on the medulla oblongata--"

"Are you sure it wasn't the duodenum?"

"Well, you hit him in a vital spot, and Gordon won't forget it."

Late on the following morning O'Neil's expedition was landed at the deserted fishing-station of Omar, thirty miles down the sound from Cortez. From this point its route lay down the bay to open water and thence eastward along the coast in front of the Salmon River delta some forty miles to Kyak. This latter stretch would have been well-nigh impossible for open boats but for the fact that the numerous mud bars and islands thrown out by the river afforded a sheltered course. These inside channels, though shallow, were of sufficient depth to allow small craft to navigate and had long been used as a route to the coal-fields.

Appleton, smiling and cheerful, was the first member of the party to appear at the dock that morning, and when the landing had been effected at Omar he showed his knowledge of the country by suggesting a short cut which would save the long row down to the mouth of the sound and around into the delta. Immediately back of the old cannery, which occupied a gap in the mountain rim, lay a narrow lake, and this, he declared, held an outlet which led into the Salmon River flats. By hauling the boats over into this body of water--a task made easy by the presence of a tiny tramway with one dilapidated push-car which had been a part of the cannery equipment--it would be possible to save much time and labor.

"I've heard there was a way through," O'Neil confessed, "but nobody seemed to know just where it was."

"I know," the young man assured him. "We can gain a day at least, and I judge every day is valuable."

"So valuable that we can't afford to lose one by making a mistake," said his employer, meaningly.

"Leave it to me. I never forget a country once I've been through it."

Accordingly the boats were loaded upon the hand-car and transferred one at a time. In the interval O'Neil examined his surroundings casually. He was surprised to find the dock and buildings in excellent condition, notwithstanding the fact that the station had lain idle for several years. A solitary Norwegian, with but a slight suspicion of English, was watching the premises and managed to make known his impression that poor fishing had led the owners to abandon operations at this point. He, too, had heard that Omar Lake had an outlet into the delta, but he was not sure of its existence; he was sure of nothing, in fact except that it was very lonesome here, and that he had run out of tobacco five days before.

But Dan Appleton was not mistaken. A two hours' row across the mirror-like surface of Omar Lake brought the party out through a hidden gap in the mountains and afforded them a view across the level delta. To their left the range they had just penetrated retreated toward the canon where the Salmon River burst its way out from the interior, and beyond that point it continued in a coastward swing to Kyak, their destination. Between lay a flat, trackless tundra, cut by sloughs and glacial streams, with here and there long tongues of timber reaching down from the high ground and dwindling away toward the seaward marshes. It was a desolate region, the breeding-place of sea fowl, the hunting- ground for the great brown bear.

O'Neil had never before been so near the canon as this, and the wild stories he had heard of it recurred to him with interest. He surveyed the place curiously as the boats glided along, but could see nothing more than a jumble of small hills and buttes, and beyond them the dead-gray backs of the twin glaciers coming down from the slopes to east and west. Beyond the foot-hills and the glaciers themselves the main range was gashed by a deep valley, through which he judged the river must come, and beyond that he knew was a country of agricultural promise, extending clear to the fabulous copper belt whither the railroads from Cortez were headed. Still farther inland lay the Tanana, and then the Yukon, with their riches untouched.

What a pity, what a mockery, it was that this obvious entrance to the country had been blocked by nature! Just at his back was Omar, with its deep and sheltered harbor; the lake he had crossed gave a passage through the guardian range, and this tundra-- O'Neil estimated that he could lay a mile of track a day over it --led right up to the glaciers. Once through the Coast Range, building would be easy, for the upper Salmon was navigable, and its banks presented no difficulties to track-laying.

He turned abruptly to Appleton, who was pulling an oar.

"What do you know about that canyon?" he asked.

"Not much. Nobody knows much, for those fellows who went through in the gold rush have all left the country. Gordon's right-of-way comes in above, and so does the Trust's. From there on I know every foot of the ground."

"I suppose if either of them gets through to the Salmon the rest will be easy."

"Dead easy!"

"It would be shorter and very much cheaper to build from Omar, through this way."

"Of course, but neither outfit knew anything about the outlet to Omar Lake until I told them--and they knew there was the canon to be reckoned with."

"Well?"

Appleton shook his head. "Look at it! Does it look like a place to build a railroad?"

"I can't tell anything about it, from here."

"I suppose a road could be built if the glaciers were on the same side of the river, but--they're not. They face each other, and they're alive, too. Listen!" The oarsmen ceased rowing at Dan's signal, and out of the northward silence came a low rumble like the sound of distant cannonading. "We must be at least twenty miles away, in an air line. The ice stands up alongside the river, hundreds of feet high, and it breaks off in chunks as big as a New York office-building."

"You've been up there?"

"No. But everybody says so, and I've seen glacier ice clear out here in the delta. They're always moving, too--the glaciers themselves--and they're filled with crevasses, so that it's dangerous to cross them on foot even if one keeps back from the river."

"How did those men get their outfits through in '98?" O'Neil queried.

"I'm blessed if I know--maybe they flew." After a moment Dan added, "Perhaps they dodged the pieces as they fell."

O'Neil smiled. He opened his lips to speak, then closed them, and for a long time kept his eyes fixed speculatively in the direction of the canyon. When he had first spoken of a route from Omar he had thrown out the suggestion with only a casual interest. Now, suddenly, the idea took strong possession of his mind; it fascinated him with its daring, its bigness. He had begun to dream.

The world owes all great achievements to dreamers, for men who lack vivid imaginations are incapable of conceiving big enterprises. No matter how practical the thing accomplished, it requires this faculty, no less than a poem or a picture. Every bridge, every skyscraper, every mechanical invention, every great work which man has wrought in steel and stone and concrete, was once a dream.

O'Neil had no small measure of the imaginative power that makes great leaders, great inventors, great builders. He was capable of tremendous enthusiasm; his temperament forever led him to dare what others feared to undertake. And here he glimpsed a tremendous opportunity. The traffic of a budding nation was waiting to be seized. To him who gained control of Alaskan transportation would come the domination of her resources. Many were striving for the prize, but if there should prove to be a means of threading that Salmon River canon with steel rails, the man who first found it would have those other railroad enterprises at his mercy. The Trust would have to sue for terms or abandon further effort; for this route was shorter, it was level, it was infinitely cheaper to improve. The stakes in the game were staggering. The mere thought of them made his heart leap. The only obstacle, of course, lay in those glaciers, and he began to wonder if they could not be made to open. Why not? No one knew positively that they were impregnable, for no one knew anything certainly about them. Until the contrary had been proven there was at least a possibility that they were less formidable than rumor had painted them.

Camp was pitched late that night far out on the flats. During the preparation of supper Murray sat staring fixedly before him, deaf to all sounds and insensible to the activities of his companions. He had lost his customary breeziness and his good nature; he was curt, saturnine, unsmiling. Appleton undertook to arouse him from this abstraction, but Slater drew the young man aside hurriedly with a warning,

"Don't do that, son, or you'll wear splints for the rest of the trip."

"What's the matter with him, anyhow?" Dan inquired. "He was boiling over with enthusiasm all day, but now--Why, he's asleep sitting up! He hasn't moved for twenty minutes."

Tom shook his head, dislodging a swarm of mosquitoes.

"Walk on your toes, my boy! Walk on your toes! I smell something cooking--and it ain't supper."

When food was served O'Neil made a pretense of eating, but rose suddenly in the midst of it, with the words:

"I'll stretch my legs a bit." His voice was strangely listless; in his eyes was the same abstraction which had troubled Appleton during the afternoon. He left the camp and disappeared up the bank of the stream.

"Nice place to take a walk!" the engineer observed. "He'll bog down in half a mile or get lost among the sloughs."

"Not him!" said Slater. Nevertheless, his worried eyes followed the figure of his chief as long as it was in sight. After a time he announced: "Something is coming, but what it is or where it's going to hit us I don't know."

Their meal over, the boatmen made down their beds, rolled up in their blankets, and were soon asleep. Appleton and Tom sat in the smoke of a smudge, gossiping idly as the twilight approached. From the south came the distant voice of the sea, out of the north rolled the intermittent thunder of those falling bergs, from every side sounded a harsh chorus of water-fowl. Ducks whirred past in bullet-like flight, honkers flapped heavily overhead, a pair of magnificent snow-white swans soared within easy gunshot of the camp. An hour passed, another, and another; the arctic night descended. And through it all the mosquitoes sang their blood song and stabbed the watchers with tongues of flame.

"Happy Tom" sang his song, too, for it was not often that he obtained a listener, and it proved to be a song of infinite hard luck. Mr. Slater, it seemed, was a creature of many ills, the wretched abiding-place of aches and pains, of colics, cramps, and rheumatism. He was the target of misfortune and the sport of fate. His body was the galloping-ground of strange disorders which baffled diagnosis; his financial affairs were dominated by an evil genius which betrayed him at every turn. To top it all, he suffered at the moment a violent attack of indigestion.

"Ain't that just my luck?" he lamented. "Old 'Indy's got me good, and there ain't a bit of soda in the outfit."

Appleton, who was growing more and more uneasy at the absence of his leader, replied with some asperity:

"Instead of dramatizing your own discomforts you'd better be thinking of the boss. I'm going out to look for him."

"Now don't be a dam' fool," Slater advised. "It would be worth a broken leg to annoy him when he's in one of these fits. You'd make yourself as popular as a smallpox patient at a picnic. When he's dreamed his dream he'll be back."

"When will that be?"

"No telling--maybe to-night, maybe to-morrow night."

"And what are we going to do in the mean time?"

"Sit tight." Mr. Slater chewed steadily and sighed. "No soda in camp, and this gum don't seem to lay hold of me! That's luck!"

Darkness had settled when O'Neil reappeared. He came plunging out of the brush, drenched, muddy, stained by contact with the thickets; but his former mood had disappeared and in its place was a harsh, explosive energy.

"Tom!" he cried. "You and Appleton and I will leave at daylight. The men will wait here until we get back." His voice was incisive, its tone forbade question.

The youthful engineer stared at him in dismay, for only his anxiety had triumphed over his fatigue, and daylight was but four hours away. O'Neil noted the expression, and said, more gently:

"You're tired, Appleton, I know, but in working for me you'll be called upon for extraordinary effort now and then. I may not demand more than an extra hour from you; then again I may demand a week straight without sleep. I'll never ask it unless it's necessary and unless I'm ready to do my share."

"Yes, sir."

"The sacrifice is big, but the pay is bigger. Loyalty is all I require."

"I'm ready now, sir."

"We can't see to travel before dawn. Help Tom load the lightest boat with rations for five days. If we run short we'll 'Siwash' it." He kicked off his rubber boots, up-ended them to drain the water out, then flung himself upon his bed of boughs and was asleep almost before the two had recovered from their surprise.

"Five days--or longer!" Slater said, gloomily, as he and Dan began their preparations. "And me with indigestion!"

"What does it mean?" queried Appleton.

"It means I'll probably succumb."

"No, no! What's the meaning of this change of plan? I can't understand it."

"You don't need to," "Happy Tom" informed him, curtly. There was a look of solicitude in his face as he added, "I wish I'd made him take off his wet clothes before he went to sleep."

"Let's wake him up."

But Slater shook his head. "I'd sooner wake a rattlesnake," said he.

O'Neil roused the members of his expedition while the sky was reddening faintly, for he had a mind which worked like an alarm- clock. All except Appleton had worked for him before, and the men accepted his orders to await his return with no appearance of surprise.

With the first clear light he and his two companions set out, rowing up the estuary of the Salmon until the current became too swift to stem in that manner. Then landing, they rigged a "bridle" for the skiff, fitted their shoulders to loops in a ninety-foot tow rope, and began to "track" their craft up against the stream. It was heartbreaking work. Frequently they were waist-deep in the cold water. Long "sweepers" with tips awash in the flood interfered with their efforts. The many branches of the stream forced them to make repeated crossings, for the delta was no more than an endless series of islands through which the current swirled. When dusk overtook them they were wet, weary, and weak from hunger. With the dawn they were up and at it again, but their task became constantly more difficult because of the floating glacier ice, which increased with every mile. They were obliged to exercise the extremest caution. Hour after hour they strained against the current, until the ropes bit into their aching flesh, bringing raw places out on neck and palm. Hour after hour the ice, went churning past, and through it all came the intermittent echo of the caving glaciers ahead of them.

Dan Appleton realized very soon whither the journey was leading, and at thought of actually facing those terrors which loomed so large in conjecture his pulses began to leap. He had a suspicion of O'Neil's intent, but dared not voice it. Though the scheme seemed mad enough, its very audacity fascinated him. It would be worth while to take part in such an undertaking, even if it ended in failure. And somehow, against his judgment, he felt that his leader would find a way.

For the most part, O'Neil was as silent as a man of stone, and only on those rare occasions when he craved relief from his thoughts did he encourage Dan to talk. Then he sometimes listened, but more frequently he did not. Slater had long since become a dumb draught animal, senseless to discomfort except in the hour of relaxation when he monotonously catalogued his ills.

"Are you a married man?" O'Neil inquired once of Dan.

"Not yet, sir."

"Family?"

"Sure! A great big, fine one, consisting of a sister. But she's more than a family--she's a religion." Receiving encouragement from his employer's look of interest, he continued: "We were wiped out by the San Francisco earthquake, and stood in the bread line for a while. We managed to save four thousand dollars from the wreck, which we divided equally. Then we started out to make our fortunes. It was her idea."

"You came to Cortez?"

"Yes. Money was so easy for me that I lost all respect for it. The town rang with my mirth for a while. I was an awful fool."

"Education!"

"Now it's my ambition to get settled and have her with me. I haven't had a good laugh, a hearty meal, or a Christian impulse since I left her."

"What did she do with her half of the fortune?"

"Invested it wisely and went to work. I bought little round celluloid disks with mine; she bought land of some sort with hers. She's a newspaper woman, and the best in the world--or at least the best in Seattle. She wrote that big snow-slide story for The Review last fall. She tells 'em how to raise eight babies on seven dollars a week, or how to make a full set of library furniture out of three beer kegs, a packing-case, and an epileptic icebox. She runs the 'Domestic Economy' column; and she's the sweetest, the cleverest, the most stunning--"

Appleton's enthusiastic tribute ceased suddenly, for he saw that O'Neil was once more deaf and that his eyes were fixed dreamily upon the canon far ahead.

As the current quickened the progress of the little party became slower and more exhausting. Their destination seemed to retreat before them; the river wound back and forth in a maddening series of detours. Some of the float ice was large now, and these pieces rushed down upon them like charging horses, keeping them constantly on the alert to prevent disaster. It seemed impossible that such a flat country could afford so much fall. "Happy Tom" at length suggested that they tie up and pack the remaining miles overland, but O'Neil would not hear to this.

They had slept so little, their labors had been so heavy, that they were dumb and dull with fatigue when they finally reached the first bluffs and worked their boat through a low gorge where all the waters of the Salmon thrashed and icebergs galloped past like a pallid host in flight. Here they paused and stared with wondering eyes at what lay before; a chill, damp breath swept over them, and a mighty awe laid hold of their hearts.

"Come on!" said O'Neil. "Other men have gone through; we'll do the same,"

On the evening of the sixth day a splintered, battered poling- boat with its seams open swung in to the bank where O'Neil's men were encamped, and its three occupants staggered out. They were gaunt and stiff and heavy-eyed. Even Tom Slater's full cheeks hung loose and flabby. But the leader was alert and buoyant; his face was calm, his eyes were smiling humorously.

"You'll take the men on to the coal-fields and finish the work," he told his boss packer later that night. "Appleton and I will start back to Cortez in the morning. When you have finished go to Juneau and see to the recording."

"Ain't that my luck?" murmured the dyspeptic. "Me for Kyak where there ain't a store, and my gum all wet."

"Chew it, paper and all," advised Appleton, cheerfully.

"Oh, the good has all gone out of it now," Slater explained.

"Meet me in Seattle on the fifteenth of next month," his employer directed.

"I'll be there if old 'Indy' spares me. But dyspepsia, with nothing to eat except beans and pork bosom, will probably lay me in my grave long before the fifteenth. However, I'll do my best. Now, do you want to know what I think of this proposition of yours?" He eyed his superior somberly.

"Sure; I want all the encouragement I can get, and your views are always inspiriting."

"Well, I think it's nothing more nor less than hydrophobia. These mosquitoes have given you the rabies and you need medical attention. You need it bad."

"Still, you'll help me, won't you?"

"Oh yes," said Tom, "I'll help you. But it's a pity to see a man go mad."

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