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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Iron Trail - Chapter 7. The Dream
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The Iron Trail - Chapter 7. The Dream Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :2510

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The Iron Trail - Chapter 7. The Dream

CHAPTER VII. THE DREAM

The clerk of the leading hotel in Seattle whirled his register about as a man deposited a weather-beaten war-bag on the marble floor and leaned over the counter to inquire:

"Is Murray O'Neil here?"

This question had been asked repeatedly within the last two hours, but heretofore by people totally different in appearance from the one who spoke now. The man behind the desk measured the stranger with a suspicious eye before answering. He saw a ragged, loose-hung, fat person of melancholy countenance, who was booted to the knee and chewing gum.

"Mr. O'Neil keeps a room here by the year," he replied, guardedly.

"Show me up!" said the new-comer as if advancing a challenge.

A smart reply was on the lips of the clerk, but something in the other's manner discouraged flippancy.

"You are a friend of Mr. O'Neil's?" he asked, politely.

"Friend? Um-m, no! I'm just him when he ain't around." In a loud tone he inquired of the girl at the news-stand, "Have you got any wintergreen

"Mr. O'Neil is not here."

The fat man stared at his informant accusingly, "Ain't this the fifteenth?" he asked.

"It is."

"Then he's here, all right!"

"Mr. O'Neil is not in," the clerk repeated, gazing fixedly over Mr. Slater's left shoulder.

"Well, I guess his room will do for me. I ain't particular."

"His room is occupied at present. If you care to wait you will find--"

Precisely what it was that he was to find Tom never learned, for at that moment the breath was driven out of his lungs by a tremendous whack, and he turned to behold Dr. Stanley Gray towering over him, an expansive smile upon his face.

"Look out!" Slater coughed, and seized his Adam's apple. "You made me swallow my cud." The two shook hands warmly.

"We've been expecting you, Tom," said the Doctor. "We're all here except Parker, and he wired he'd arrive to-morrow,"

"Where's Murray?"

"He's around somewhere."

Slater turned a resentful, smoldering gaze upon the hotel clerk, and looked about him for a chair with a detachable leg, but the object of his regard disappeared abruptly behind the key-rack.

"This rat-brained party said he hadn't come."

"He arrived this morning, but we've barely seen him."

"I left Appleton in Juneau. He'll be down on the next boat."

"Appleton? Who's he?" Dr. Gray inquired.

"Oh, he's a new member of the order--initiated last month. He's learning to be a sleep-hater, like the rest of us. He's recording the right-of-way."

"What's in the air? None of us know. We didn't even know Murray's whereabouts--thought he was in Kyak, until he sounded the tocsin from New York. The other boys have quit their jobs and I've sold my practice."

"It's a railroad!"

Dr. Gray grinned. "Well! That's the tone I use when I break the news that it's a girl instead of a boy."

"It's a railroad," Slater repeated, "up the Salmon River!"

"Good Lord! What about those glaciers?"

"Oh, it ain't so much the glaciers and the floating icebergs and the raging chasms and the quaking tundra--Murray thinks he can overcome them--it's the mosquitoes and the Copper Trust that are going to figure in this enterprise. One of 'em will be the death of me, and the other will bust Murray s if he don't look out. Say, my neck is covered with bumps till it feels like a dog- collar of seed pearls."

"Do you think we'll have a fight?" asked the doctor, hopefully.

"A fight! It'll be the worst massacre since the Little Big Horn. We're surrounded already, and no help in sight."

O'Neil found his "boys" awaiting him when he returned to his room. There was Mellen, lean, gaunt and serious-minded, with the dust of Chihuahua still upon his shoes; there were McKay, the superintendent, who had arrived from California that morning; Sheldon, the commissary man; Elkins; "Doc" Gray; and "Happy Tom" Slater. Parker, the chief engineer, alone was absent.

"I sent Appleton in from Cortez," he told them, "to come down the river and make the preliminary survey into Omar. He cables me that he has filed his locations and everything is O. K. On my way East I stopped here long enough to buy the Omar cannery, docks, buildings, and town site. It's all mine, and it will save us ninety days' work in getting started."

"What do you make of that tundra between Omar and the canon?" queried McKay, who had crossed the Salmon River delta and knew its character. "It's like calf's-foot jelly--a man bogs down to his waist in it."

"We'll fill and trestle," said O'Neil.

"We couldn't move a pile-driver twenty feet."

"It's frozen solid in winter."

McKay nodded. "We'll have to drive steam points ahead of every pile, I suppose, and we'll need Eskimos to work in that cold, but I guess we can manage somehow."

"That country is like an apple pie," said Tom Slater--"it's better cold than hot. There's a hundred inches of rainfall at Omar in summer. We'll all have web feet when we get out."

Sheldon, the light-hearted commissary man, spoke up. "If it's as wet as all that, well need Finns--instead of Eskimos." He was promptly hooted into silence.

"I understand those glaciers come down to the edge of the river," the superintendent ventured.

"They do!" O'Neil acknowledged, "and they're the liveliest ones I ever saw. Tom can answer for that. One of them is fully four hundred feet high at the face and four miles across. They're constantly breaking, too."

"Lumps bigger than this hotel," supplemented Slater. "It's quite a sight--equal to anything in the state of Maine."

O'Neil laughed with the others at this display of sectional pride, and then explained: "The problem of passing them sounds difficult, but in reality it isn't. If those other engineers had looked over the ground as I did, instead of relying entirely upon hearsay, we wouldn't be meeting here to-day. Of course I realized that we couldn't build a road over a moving river of ice, nor in front of one, for that matter, but I discovered that Nature had made us one concession. She placed her glaciers on opposite sides of the valley, to be sure, but she placed the one that comes in from the east bank slightly higher upstream than the one that comes in from the west. They don't really face each other, although from the sea they appear to do so. You see the answer?" His hearers nodded vigorously. "If we cross the river, low down, by a trestle, and run up the east bank past Jackson glacier until we are stopped by Garfield--the upper one--then throw a bridge directly across, and back to the side we started from, we miss them both and have the river always between them and us. Above the upper crossing there will be a lot of heavy rock work to do, but nothing unusual, and, once through the gorge, we come out into the valley, where the other roads run in from Cortez. They cross three divides, while we run through on a one-per-cent grade. That will give us a downhill pull on all heavy freight." "Sounds as simple as a pair of suspenders, doesn't it?" inquired Slater. "But wait till you see it. The gorge below Niagara is stagnant water compared with the cataract above those glaciers. It takes two looks to see the top of the mountains. And those glaciers themselves--Well! Language just gums up and sticks when it comes to describing them."

Mellen, the bridge-builder, spoke for the first time, and the others listened.

"As I understand it we will cross the river between the glaciers and immediately below the upper one."

"Exactly!"

He shook his head. "We can't build piers to withstand those heavy bergs which you tell me are always breaking off."

"I'll explain how we can," said O'Neil. "You've hit the bull's- eye--the tender spot in the whole enterprise. While the river is narrow and rapid in front of Jackson--the lower glacier--opposite Garfield there is a kind of lake, formed, I suppose, when the glacier receded from its original position. Now then, here lies the joker, the secret of the whole proposition. This lake is deep, but there is a shallow bar across its outlet which serves to hold back all but the small bergs. This gives us a chance to cross in safety. At first I was puzzled to discover why only the ice from the lower glacier came down-river; then, when I realized the truth, I knew I had the key to Alaska in my hands. We'll cross just below this bar. Understand? Of course it all depends upon Parker's verdict, but I'm so sure his will agree with mine that I've made my preparations, bought Omar and gathered you fellows together. We're going to spring the biggest coup in railroad history."

"Where's the money coming from?" Slater inquired, bluntly.

"I'm putting in my own fortune." "How much is that? I'm dead to all sense of modesty, you see."

"About a million dollars," said O'Neil.

"Humph! That won't get us started."

"I've raised another million in New York." The chief was smiling and did not seem to resent this inquisitiveness in the least.

"Nothing but a shoe-string!"

"My dear 'Happy,'" laughed the builder, "I don't intend to complete the road."

"Then--why in blazes are you starting it?" demanded Slater in a bewilderment which the others evidently shared. "It's one thing to build a railroad on a contractor's commission, but it's another thing to build it and pay your own way as you go along. Half a railroad ain't any good."

"Once my right-of-way is filed it will put those projects from Cortez out of business. No one but an imbecile would think of building in from there with the Omar route made possible. Before we come to that Salmon River bridge the Copper Trust will have to buy us out!"

"That's language!" said "Happy Tom" in sudden admiration. "Those are words I understand. I withdraw my objections and give my consent to the deal."

"You are staking your whole fortune on your judgment, as I understand it," McKay ventured.

"Every dollar of it," Murray answered.

"Say, chief, that's gambling some!" young Sheldon remarked with a wondering look.

They were deep in their discussion when the telephone broke in noisily. Sheldon, being nearest to the instrument, answered it. "There's a newspaper reporter downstairs to interview you," he announced, after an instant.

"I don't grant interviews," O'Neil said, sharply. He could not guess by what evil chance the news of his plans had leaked out.

"Nothing doing!" Sheldon spoke into the transmitter. He turned again to his employer. "Operator says the party doesn't mind waiting."

O'Neil frowned impatiently.

"Throw him out!" Sheldon directed, brusquely, then suddenly dropped the receiver as if it had burnt his fingers. "Hell! It's a woman, Murray! She's on the wire. She thanks you sweetly and says she'll wait."

"A woman! A newspaper woman!" O'Neil rose and seized the instrument roughly. His voice was freezing as he said: "Hello! I refuse to be interviewed. Yes! There's no use_--" His tone suddenly altered. "Miss Appleton! I beg your pardon. I'll be right down." Turning to his subordinates, he announced with a wry smile: "This seems to terminate our interview. She's Dan Appleton's sister, and therefore--" He shrugged resignedly. "Now run along. I'll see you in the morning."

His "boys" made their way down to the street, talking guardedly as they went. All were optimistic save Slater, whose face remained shrouded in its customary gloom.

"Cheer up, 'Happy'!" Dr. Gray exhorted him. "It's the biggest thing we ever tackled."

"Wait! Just wait till you've seen the place," Tom said.

"Don't you think it can be done?"

"Nope!"

"Come, come!"

"It's impossible! Of course WE'LL do it, but it's impossible, just the same. It will mean a scrap, too, like none of us ever saw, and I was raised in a logging-camp where fighting is the general recreation. If I was young, like the rest of you, I wouldn't mind; but I'm old--and my digestion's gone. I can't hardly take care of myself any more, Doc. I'm too feeble to fight or--" He signaled a passing car; it failed to stop and he rushed after it, dodging vehicles with the agility of a rabbit and swinging his heavy war-bag as if it weighed no more than a good resolution.

O'Neil entered the ladies' parlor with a feeling of extreme annoyance, expecting to meet an inquisitive, bold young woman bent upon exploiting his plans and his personality in the usual inane journalistic fashion. He was surprised and offended that Dan Appleton, in whom he had reposed the utmost faith, should have betrayed his secret. Publicity was a thing he detested at all times, and at present he particularly dreaded its effect. But he was agreeably surprised in the girl who came toward him briskly with hand outstretched.

Miss Appleton was her brother's double; she had his frank blue eyes, his straw-gold hair, his humorous smile and wide-awake look. She was not by any means beautiful!--her features were too irregular, her nose too tip-tilted, her mouth too generous for that--but she seemed crisp, clean-cut, and wholesome What first struck O'Neil was her effect of boyishness. From the crown of her plain straw "sailor" to the soles of her sensible walking-boots there was no suggestion of feminine frippery. She wore a plain shirtwaist and a tailored skirt, and her hair was arranged simply. The wave in its pale gold was the only concession to mere prettiness. Yet she gave no impression of deliberate masculinity. She struck one as merely not interested in clothes, instinctively expressing in her dress her own boyish directness and her businesslike absorption in her work.

"You're furious, of course; anybody would be," she began, then laughed so frankly that his eyes softened and the wrinkles at their corners deepened.

"I fear I was rude before I learned you were Dan's sister," he apologized. "But you see I'm a bit afraid of newspaper people."

"I knew you'd struggle--although Dan described you as a perfectly angelic person."

"Indeed!"

"But I'm a real reporter, so I won't detain you long. I don't care where you were born or where you went to school, or what patent breakfast-food you eat. Tell me, are you going to build another railroad?"

"I hope so. I'm always building roads when my bids are low enough to secure the contracts; that's my business."

"Are you going to build one in Alaska?"

"Possibly! There seems to be an opportunity there--but Dan has probably told you as much about that as I am at liberty to tell. He's been over the ground."

She pursed her lips at him. "You know very well, or you ought to know, that Dan wouldn't tell me a thing while he's working for you. He hasn't said a word, but--Is that why you came in frowning like a thunder-cloud? Did you think he set me on your trail?"

"I think I do know that he wouldn't do anything really indiscreet." Murray regarded her with growing favor. There was something about this boyish girl which awakened the same spontaneous liking he had felt upon his first meeting with her brother. He surprised her by confessing boldly:

"I AM building a railroad--to the interior of Alaska. I've been east and raised the money, my men are here; we'll begin operations at once."

"That's what Mr. Gordon told me about his scheme, but he hasn't done much, so far."

"My line will put his out of business, also that of the Trust, and the various wildcat promoters."

"Where does your road start from?"

"The town of Omar, on King Phillip Sound, near Hope and Cortez. It will run up the Salmon River and past the glaciers which those other men refused to tackle."

"If I weep, it is for joy," said the girl. "I don't like Curtis Gordon. I call him Simon Legree."

"Why?"

"Well, he impresses me as a real old-time villain--with the riding-boots and the whip and all that. 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is my favorite play, it's so funny. This is a big story you've given me, Mr. O'Neil."

"I realize that."

"It has the biggest news value of anything Alaskan which has 'broken' for some time. I think you are a very nice person to interview, after all."

"Wait! I don't want you to use a word of what I've told you."

Miss Appleton's clearly penciled brows rose inquiringly. "Then why didn't you keep still?"

"You asked me. I told you because you are Dan Appleton's sister. Nevertheless, I don't want it made public."

"Let's sit down," said the girl with a laugh. "To tell you the truth, I didn't come here to interview you for my paper. I'm afraid I've tried your patience awfully." A faint flush tinged her clear complexion. "I just came, really, to get some news of Dan."

"He's perfectly well and happy, and you'll see him in a few days." Miss Appleton nodded. "So he wrote, but I couldn't wait! Now won't you tell me all about him--not anything about his looks and his health, but little unimportant things that will mean something. You see, I'm his mother and his sister and his sweetheart."

O'Neil did as he was directed and before long found himself reciting the details of that trying trip up the Salmon River. He told her how he had sent the young engineer out to run the preliminary survey for the new railroad, and added: "He is in a fair way to realize his ambition of having you with him all the time. I'm sure that will please you."

"And it is my ambition to make enough money to have him with me," she announced. With an air of some importance she continued: "I'll tell you a secret: I'm writing for the magazines--stories!" She sat back awaiting his enthusiasm. When she saw that it was not forthcoming she exclaimed: "My! How you do rave over the idea!"

"I congratulate you, of course, but--"

"Now don't tell me that you tried it once. Of course you did. I know it's a harmless disease, like the measles, and that everybody has it when they're young. Above all, don't volunteer the information that your own life is full of romance and would make a splendid novel. They all say that."

Murray O'Neil felt the glow of personal interest that results from the discovery in another of a congenial sense of humor.

"I didn't suppose you had to write," he said. "Dan told me you had invested your fortune and were on Easy Street."

"That was poetic license. I fictionized slightly in my report to him because I knew he was doing so well."

"Then your investment didn't turn out fortunately?"

Miss Appleton hesitated. "You seem to be a kindly, trusting person. I'm tempted to destroy your faith in human nature."

"Please don't."

"Yes, I shall. My experience may help you to avoid the pitfalls of high finance. Well, then, it was a very sad little fortune, to begin with, like a boy in grammar-school--just big enough to be of no assistance. But even a boy's-size fortune looked big to me. I wanted to invest it in something sure--no national-bank stock, subject to the danger of an absconding cashier, mind you; no government bonds with the possibility of war to depreciate them; but something stable and agricultural, with the inexhaustible resources of nature back of it. This isn't my own language. I cribbed it from the apple-man."

"Apple-man?"

"Yes. He had brown eyes, and a silky mustache, and a big irrigation plan over east of the mountains. You gave him your money and he gave you a perfectly good receipt. Then he planted little apple trees. He nursed them tenderly for five years, after which he turned them over to you with his blessing, and you lived happily for evermore. At least that was the idea. You couldn't fail to grow rich, for the water always bubbled through his little ditch and it never froze nor rained to spoil things, I used to love apples. And then there was my name, which seemed a good omen. But lately I've considered changing 'Appleton' to 'Berry' or 'Plummer' or some other kind of fruit."

"I infer that the scheme failed." O'Neil's eyes were half closed with amusement.

"Yes. It was a good scheme, too, except for the fact that the irrigation ditch ran uphill, and that there wasn't any water where it started from, and that apples never had been made to grow in that locality because of something in the soil, and that Brown-eyed Betty's title to the land wouldn't hold water any more than the ditch. Otherwise I'm sure he'd have made a success and I'd have spent my declining years in a rocking-chair under the falling apple blossoms, eating Pippins and Jonathans and Northern Spies. I can't bear to touch them now. Life at my boarding-house is one long battle against apple pies, apple puddings, apple tapioca. Ugh! I hate the very word."

"I can understand your aversion," laughed O'Neil. "I wonder if you would let me order dinner for both of us, provided I taboo fruit. Perhaps I'll think of something more to tell you about Dan. I'm sure he wouldn't object--"

"Oh, my card is all the chaperon I need; it takes me everywhere and renders me superior to the smaller conventionalities." She handed him one, and he read:

ELIZA V. APPLETON

THE REVIEW

"May I ask what the 'V' stands for?" He held up the card between his thumb and finger.

Miss Appleton blushed, for all the world like a boy, then answered, stiffly:

"It stands for Violet. But that isn't my fault, and I'm doing my best to live it down."

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