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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Iron Trail - Chapter 8. In Which We Come To Omar
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The Iron Trail - Chapter 8. In Which We Come To Omar Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :1997

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The Iron Trail - Chapter 8. In Which We Come To Omar


"Miss Appleton," said the editor of The Review, "would you like to take a vacation?"

"Is that your delicate way of telling me I'm discharged?" inquired Eliza.

"You know very well we wouldn't fire you. But you haven't had a vacation for three years, and you need a rest."

"I thought I was looking extremely well, for me."

"We're going to send you on an assignment--to Alaska--if you'll go."

"I'm thinking of quitting newspaper-work for good. The magazines pay better, and I'm writing a book."

"I know. Perhaps this will just fit in with your plans, for it has to do with your pet topic of conservation. Those forestry stories of yours and the article on the Water Power Combination made a hit, didn't they?"

"I judge so. Anyhow the magazine people want more."

"Good! Here's your chance to do something big for yourself and for us. Those Alaskan coal claimants have been making a great effort in Washington to rush their patents through, and there seems to be some possibility of their succeeding unless the public wakes up. We want to show up the whole fraudulent affair, show how the entries were illegal, and how the agents of the Trust are trying to put over the greatest steal of the century. It's the Heidlemanns that are back of it--and a few fellows like Murray O'Neil."


"You know him, don't you?"

"Yes. I interviewed him a year ago last spring, when he started his railroad."

"He's fighting for one of the biggest and richest groups of claims. He's backed by some Eastern people. It's the psychological moment to expose both the railroad and the coal situation, for the thieves are fighting among themselves--Gordon, O'Neil, and the Heidlemanns."

"Mr. O'Neil is no thief," said the girl, shortly.

"Of course not. He's merely trying to snatch control of an empire, and to grab ten million dollars' worth of coal, for nothing. That's not theft, it's financial genius! Fortunately, however, the public is rousing itself--coming to regard its natural resources as its own and not the property of the first financier who lays hold of them. Call it what you will, but give us the true story of the Kyak coal and, above all, the story of the railroad battle. Things are growing bitter up there already, and they're bound to get rapidly worse. Give us the news and we'll play it up big through our Eastern syndicate. You can handle the magazine articles in a more dignified way, if you choose. A few good vigorous, fearless, newspaper stories, written by some one on the ground, will give Congress such a jolt that no coal patents will be issued this season and no Government aid will be given to the railroads. You get the idea?"

"Certainly! But it will take time to do all that."

"Spend a year at it if necessary. The Review is fighting for a principle; it will back you to any extent. Isn't it worth a year, two years, of hard labor, to awaken the American people to the knowledge that they are being robbed of their birthright? I have several men whom I could send, but I chose you because your work along this line has given you a standing. This is your chance, Eliza--to make a big reputation and to perform a real service to the country. It's a chance that may never come your way again. Will you go?"

"Of course I'll go."

"I knew you would. You're all business, and that's what makes a hit in this office. You're up against a tough proposition, but I can trust you to make good on it. You can't fail if you play one interest against the other, for they're all fighting like Kilkenny cats. The Heidlemanns are a bunch of bandits; Gordon is a brilliant, unscrupulous promoter; O'Neil is a cold, shrewd schemer with more brains and daring than any of the others--he showed that when he walked in there and seized the Salmon River canon. He broke up all their plans and set the Copper Trust by the ears, but I understand they've got him bottled up at last. Here's your transportation--on Saturday's steamer." The editor shook Miss Appleton's hand warmly as she rose. "Good luck, Eliza! Remember, we won't balk, no matter how lively your stuff is. The hotter the better--and that's what the magazines want, too. If I were you, I'd gum-shoe it. They're a rotten crowd and they might send you back if they got wise."

"I think not," said Eliza, quietly.

The town of Omar lay drenched in mist as the steamer bearing the representative of The Review drew in at the dock. The whole region was sodden and rain-soaked, verdant with a lush growth. No summer sun shone here, to bake sprouting leaves or sear tender grasses. Beneath the sheltering firs a blanket of moss extended over hill and vale, knee-deep and treacherous to the foot. The mountain crests were white, and down every gully streamed water from the melting snows. The country itself lay on end, as if crumpled by some giant hand, and presented a tropical blend of colors. There was the gray of fog and low-swept clouds, the dense, dark green of the spruces, underlaid with the richer, lighter shades where the summer vegetation rioted. And running through it all were the shimmering, silent reaches of the sound.

Omar itself was a mushroom city, sprung up by magic, as if the dampness at its roots had caused it to rise overnight. A sawmill shrieked complainingly; a noisy switch-engine shunted rows of flat cars back and forth, tooting lustily; the rattle of steam- winches and the cries of stevedores from a discharging freighter echoed against the hillsides. Close huddled at the water-front lay the old cannery buildings, greatly expanded and multiplied now and glistening with fresh paint. Back of them again lay the town, its stumpy, half-graded streets terminating in the forest like the warty feelers of a stranded octopus. Everywhere was hurry and confusion, and over all was the ever-present shroud of mist which thickened into showers or parted reluctantly to let the sun peep through.

Dan Appleton, his clothing dewy from the fog, his cheeks bronzed by exposure, was over the rail before the ship had made fast, and had Eliza in his arms, crushing her with the hug of a bear.

"Come up to the house, Sis, quick!" he cried, when the first frenzy of greeting was over--"your house and mine!" His eyes were dancing, his face was alight with eagerness.

"But, Danny," she laughed, squeezing his arm tenderly, "you live with Mr. O'Neil and all those other men in a horrible, crawling bunk-house."

"Oh, do I? I'll have you know that our bunk-houses don't crawl. And besides--But wait! It's a s'prise."

"A s'prise?" she queried, eagerly. "For me?"

He nodded.

"Tell me what it is, quick! You know I never could wait for s'prises."

"Well, it's a brand-new ultra-stylish residence for just you and me. When the chief heard you were coming he had a cottage built."

"Danny! It was only five days ago that I cabled you!"

"That's really ten days for us, for you see we never sleep. It is finished and waiting, and your room is in white, and the paint will be dry to-morrow. He's a wonder!"

Remembering the nature of her mission, Eliza demurred. "I'm afraid I can't live there, Dan. You know"--she hesitated--"I may have to write some rather dreadful things about him."

"What?" Dan's face fell. "You are going to attack the chief! I had no idea of that!" He looked genuinely distressed and a little stern.

She laid a pleading hand upon his arm. "Forgive me, Dan," she said. "I knew how you would feel, and, to tell the truth, I don't like that part of it one bit. But it was my big chance--the sort of thing I have been waiting years for. I couldn't bear to miss it." There was a suspicion of tears in her eyes. "I didn't think it all out. I just came. Things get awfully mixed, don't they? Of course I wouldn't attack him unfairly, but I do believe in conservation--and what could I do but come here to you?"

Dan smiled to reassure her. "Perhaps you won't feel like excoriating him when you learn more about things. I know you wouldn't be unfair. You'd flunk the job first. Wait till you talk to him. But you can't refuse his kindness, for a time at least. There's nowhere else for you to stay, and Murray would pick you up and put you into the cottage, muck-rake and all, if I didn't. He had to go out on the work this morning or he'd have been here to welcome you. He sent apologies and said a lot of nice things, which I've forgotten."

"Well"--Eliza still looked troubled--"all right. But wait," she cried, with a swift change of mood. "I've made a little friend, the dearest, the most useless creature! We shared the same stateroom and we're sisters. She actually says I'm pretty, so of course I'm her slave for life." She hurried away in the midst of Dan's loyal protestations that she WAS pretty--more beautiful than the stars, more pleasing to the eye than the orchids of Brazil. A moment later she reappeared to present Natalie Gerard.

Dan greeted the new arrival with a cordiality in which there was a trace of shyness unusual with him. "We've made quite a change since you were up here, Miss Gerard," he remarked. "The ships stop first at Omar now, you see. I trust it won't inconvenience you."

"Not in the least," said Natalie. "I shall arrive at Hope quite soon enough." "Omar Khayyam is out in the wilderness somewhere," Eliza informed her girl friend, "with his book of verses and his jug of wine, I suppose."

"Mr. O'Neil?"

"Yes. But he'll be back soon, and meanwhile you are to come up and see our paradise."

"It--looks terribly wet," Natalie ventured. "Perhaps we'd better wait until the rain stops."

"Please don't," Dan laughed. "It won't stop until autumn and then it will only change to snow. We don't have much sunshine--"

"You must! You're tanned like an Indian," his sister exclaimed.

"That's rust! O'Neil wanted to get a record of the bright weather in Omar, so he put a man on the job to time it, but the experiment failed!"

"How so?"

"We didn't have a stop-watch in town. Now come! Nobody ever catches cold here--there isn't time."

He led the two girls ashore and up through the town to a moss- green bungalow, its newness attested by the yellow sawdust and fresh shavings which lay about. Amid their exclamations of delight he showed them the neatly furnished interior, and among other wonders a bedroom daintily done in white, with white curtains at the mullioned windows and a suite of wicker furniture.

"Where he dug all that up I don't know," Dan said, pointing to the bed and dresser and chairs. "He must have had it hidden out somewhere."

Eliza surveyed this chamber with wondering eyes. "It makes me feel quite ashamed," she said, "though, of course, he did it for Dan. When he discovers my abominable mission he'll probably set me out in the rain and break all my lead-pencils. But--isn't he magnificent?"

"He quite overwhelms one," Natalie agreed. "Back in New York, he's been sending me American Beauties every week for more than a year. It's his princely way." She colored slightly, despite the easy frankness of her manner.

"Oh, he's always doing something like that," Dan informed them, whereupon his sister exclaimed:

"You see, Natalie! The man is a viper. If he let his beard grow I'm sure we'd see it was blue."

"You shall have an opportunity of judging," came O'Neil's voice from behind them, and he entered with hands outstretched, smiling at their surprise. When he had expressed his pleasure at Natalie's presence and had bidden both her and Eliza welcome to Omar, he explained:

"I've just covered eighteen miles on a railroad tricycle and my back is broken. The engines were busy, but I came, anyhow, hoping to arrive before the steamer. Now what is this I hear about my beard?"

It was Eliza's turn to blush, and she outdid Natalie.

"They were raving about your gallantry," said Dan with all a brother's ruthlessness, "until I told them it was merely a habit of mind with you; then Sis called you a Bluebeard."

O'Neil smiled, stroking his stubbly chin. "You see it's only gray."

"I--don't see," said Eliza, still flushing furiously.

"You would if I continued to let it grow."

"Hm-m! I think, myself, it's a sort of bluish gray," said Dan.

"You are still working miracles," Natalie told O'Neil, an hour later, while he was showing his visitors the few sights of Omar-- "miracles of kindness, as usual."

Dan and his sister were following at a distance, arm in arm and chattering like magpies.

"No, no! That cottage is nothing. Miss Appleton had to have some place to stop."

"This all seems like magic." Natalie paused and looked over the busy little town. "And to think you have done it in a year."

"It was not I who did it; the credit belongs to those 'boys' of whom I told you. They are all here, by the way--Parker, McKay, Mellen, Sheldon, 'Doc' Gray--he has the hospital, you know."

"And Mr. Slater?"

"Oh, we couldn't exist without 'Happy Tom'! No, the only miracle about all this is the loyalty that has made it possible. It is that which has broken all records in railroad-building; that's what has pushed our tracks forward until we're nearly up to one of Nature's real miracles. You shall see those glaciers, one of these days. Sometimes I wonder if even the devotion of those men will carry us through the final test. But--you shall meet them all, to-night--my whole family."

"I can't. The ship leaves this afternoon."

"I've arranged to send you to Hope in my motor-boat, just as Mr. Gordon sent me on my way a year ago. You will stay with the Appletons to-night and help at the house-warming, then Dan will take you on in the morning. Women are such rare guests at Omar that we refuse to part with them. You agree?"

"How can I refuse? Your word seems to be law here. I'll send word to mother by the ship that I am detained by royal decree."

She spoke with a gaiety that seemed a little forced, and at mention of her departure a subtle change had come over her face. O'Neil realized that she had matured markedly since his last meeting with her; there was no longer quite the same effect of naive girlishness.

"This was a very unhappy year for your loyal subject, Mr. O'Neil."

"I'm sorry," he declared with such genuine kindliness that she was moved to confide in him.

"Mother and I are ruined."

"Will you tell me about it?"

"It's merely--those wretched coal claims. I have a friend in the Land Office at Washington, and, remembering what you said, I asked him to look them up. I knew no other way to go about it. He tells me that something was done, or was not done, by us, and that we have lost all we put in."

"I urged Gordon to obey that ruling, last spring." Natalie saw that his face was dark with indignation, and the knowledge that he really cared set her heart to pounding gratefully. She was half tempted to tell about that other, that greater trouble which had stolen in upon her peace of mind and robbed her of her girlhood, but she shrank from baring her wounds--above all, a wound so vital and so personal as this.

"Does your mother know?" he queried.

"No, I preferred to tell her in Mr. Gordon's presence." Murray noticed that she no longer called the man uncle. "But now that the time has come, I'm frightened."

"Never allow yourself to be afraid. Fear is something false; it doesn't exist."

"It seems to me he was--unfaithful to his trust. Am I right?"

"That is something you must judge for yourself," he told her, gravely. "You see, I don't know anything about the reasons which prompted him to sacrifice your rights. He may have had very good reasons. I dare say he had. In building this railroad I have felt but one regret; that is the indirect effect it may have upon you and your mother. Your affairs are linked closely with Gordon's and the success of my enterprise will mean the failure of his."

"You mustn't feel that way. I'm sure it won't affect us at all, for we have nothing more to lose. Sometimes I think his judgment is faulty, erratic, wonderful man though he is. Mother trusts him blindly, of course, and so do I, yet I hardly know what to do. It is impossible that he did worse than make a mistake."

Her dark eyes were bent upon Murray and they were eloquent with the question which she could not bring herself to ask. He longed to tell her frankly that Curtis Gordon was a charlatan, or even worse, and that his fairest schemes were doomed to failure by the very nature of his methods, but instead he said:

"I'm deeply distressed. I hope things are not as bad as you think and that Mr. Gordon will be able to straighten them out for you. If ever I can be of service you must be sure to call upon me."

Her thanks were conventional, but in her heart was a deep, warm gratitude, for she knew that he meant what he said and would not fail her.

Dan Appleton, eying Natalie and his chief from a distance, exclaimed, admiringly:

"She's a perfect peach, Sis. She registered a home run with me the first time at bat."

"She IS nice."

"You know a fellow gets mighty lonely in a place like this. She'd make a dandy sister-in-law for you, wouldn't she?"

"Forget it!" said Eliza, sharply. "That's rank insubordination. Omar Khayyam snatched her from the briny and tried to die for her. He has bought her two acres of the most expensive roses and he remembers the date of her birthday. Just you keep your hands off."

"How does she feel about him?"

"Oh, she heroizes him, of course. I don't know just how deep the feeling goes, but I got the impression that it was pretty serious. Two women can't borrow hair-pins and mix powder puffs for a week and remain strangers."

"Then, as for Daniel Appleton, C.E., GOOD NIGHT!" exclaimed her brother, ruefully. "If I were a woman I'd marry him myself, provided I could get ahead of the rush; but, being a male of the species, I suppose I shall creep out into the jungle and sulk."

"Right-o! Don't enter this race, for I'm afraid you'd be a bad loser! Personally I can't see anything in him to rave about. What scares me pink is the knowledge that I must tell him the wretched business that brings me here. If he strikes me, Danny, remember I'm still your sister."

When the big gong gave the signal for luncheon Appleton conducted Natalie and Eliza to the company messroom, where the field and office force dined together, and presented them to his fellow- lieutenants. At supper-time those who had been out on the line during the day were likewise introduced, and after a merry meal the whole party escorted the two girls back to the green bungalow.

"Why, here's a piano!" Eliza exclaimed upon entering the parlor.

"I borrowed it for the evening from the Elite Saloon," O'Neil volunteered. "It's a dissipated old instrument, and some of its teeth have been knocked out--in drunken brawls, I'm afraid--but the owner vouched for its behavior on this occasion."

"It knows only one tune--'I Won't Go Home until Morning,'" Dan declared.

McKay, however, promptly disproved this assertion by seating himself at the keyboard and rattling off some popular melodies. With music and laughter the long twilight fled, for O'Neil's "boys" flung themselves into the task of entertaining his guests with whole-souled enthusiasm.

So successful were their efforts that even "Happy Tom" appeared to derive a mild enjoyment from them, which was a testimonial indeed. His pleasure was made evident by no word of praise, nor faintest smile, but rather by the lightened gloom in which he chewed his gum and by the fact that he complained of nothing. In truth, he was not only entertained by the general gaiety, but he was supremely interested in Miss Appleton, who resembled no creature he had ever seen. He had met many girls like Natalie, and feared them, but Eliza, with her straightforward airs and her masculine mannerisms, was different. She affected him in a way at once pleasant and disagreeable. He felt no diffidence in speaking to her, for instance--a phenomenon which was in itself a ground for suspicion. Then, too, her clothes--he could not take his eyes off her clothes--were almost like Dan's. That seemed to show common sense, but was probably only the sign of an eccentric, domineering nature. On the other hand, the few words she addressed to him were gracious, and her eyes had a merry twinkle which warmed his heart. She must be all right, he reluctantly concluded, being Dan's sister and O'Neil's friend. But deep down in his mind he cherished a doubt.

At her first opportunity Eliza undertook to make that confession the thought of which had troubled her all the afternoon. Drawing O'Neil aside, she began with some trepidation, "Have you any idea why I'm here?"

"I supposed either you or Dan had achieved your pet ambition."

"Far from it. I have a fell purpose, and when you learn what it is I expect you to move the piano out--that's what always happens in the play when the heroine is dispossessed. Well, then, I've been sent by The Review to bare all the disgraceful secrets of your life!"

"I'm delighted to learn you'll be here so long. You can't possibly finish that task before next spring." His manner, though quizzical, was genuinely hearty.

"Don't laugh!" said the girl. "There's nothing funny about it. I came north as a spy."

"Then you're a Northern Spy!"

"Apples!" she cried. "You remembered, didn't you? I never supposed men like you could be flippant. Well, here goes for the worst." She outlined her conversation with the editor of her paper.

"So you think I'm trying to steal Alaska," he said when she had concluded.

"That seems to be the general idea."

"It's a pretty big job."

"Whoever controls transportation will have the country by the throat."

"Yet somebody must build railroads, since the Government won't. Did it ever occur to you that there is a great risk involved in a thing of this sort, and that capital must see a profit before it enters a new field? I wonder if you know how badly this country needs an outlet and how much greater the benefit in dollars and cents will be to the men in the interior than to those who finance the road. But I perceive that you are a conservationist."

"Rabid!" Eliza bridled a little at the hint of amused superiority in his voice. "I'm a suffragist, too! I dare say that adds to your disgust."

"Nonsense!" he protested. "I have no quarrel with conservation nor with 'votes for women.' Neither have I anything to conceal. I'm only afraid that, like most writers, you will be content with half-information. Incomplete facts are responsible for most misunderstandings. If you are in earnest and will promise to take the time necessary to get at all the facts, I'll make an agreement with you."

"I promise! Time and a typewriter are my only assets. I don't intend to be hurried."

Dan approached, drawn by the uncomfortable knowledge of his sister's predicament, and broke in:

"Oh, Sis has time to burn! She's going to write a book on the salmon canneries while she's here. It's bound to be one of the 'six best smellers'!"

O'Neil waved him away with the threat of sending him out among the mosquitoes.

"I'll agree to show you everything we're doing."

"Even to the coal-fields?"

"Even to them. You shall know everything, then you can write what you please."

"And when I've exposed you to the world as a commercial pickpocket, as a looter of the public domain--after Congress has appropriated your fabulous coal claims--will you nail up the door of this little cottage, and fire Dan?"


"Will you still be nice to me?"

"My dear child, you are my guest. Come and go when and where you will. Omar is yours so long as you stay, and when you depart in triumph, leaving me a broken, discredited wretch, I shall stand on the dock and wave you a bon voyage. Now it's bedtime for my 'boys,' since we rise at five o'clock."

"Heavens! Five! Why the sun isn't up at that time!"

"The sun shines very little here; that's why we want you to stay at Omar. I wish we might also keep Miss Natalie."

When the callers had gone Eliza told Natalie and Dan:

"He took it so nicely that I feel more ashamed than ever. One would think he didn't care at all. Do you suppose he does?"

"There's no denying that you appeared at an unfortunate time," said her brother.


"Well--I'm not sure we'll ever succeed with this project. Parker says the glacier bridge can be built, but the longer he studies it the graver he gets. It's making an old man of him."

"What does Mr. O'Neil say?"

"Oh, he's sanguine, as usual. He never gives up. But he has other things to worry him--money! It's money, money, all the time. He wasn't terribly rich, to begin with, and he has used up all his own fortune, besides what the other people put in. You see, he never expected to carry the project so far; he believed the Trust would buy him out."


"It hasn't and it evidently doesn't intend to. When it learned of his plan, its engineers beat it out to the glaciers and looked them over. Then they gave up their idea of building in from Cortez, but instead of making terms with us, they moved their whole outfit down to Kyak Bay, right alongside of the coal- fields, and now it has become a race to the glaciers, with Gordon fighting us on the side just to make matters lively. The Trust has the shorter route, but we have the start."

"Why didn't Mr. O'Neil take Kyak as a terminus, instead of Omar?"

"He says it's not feasible. Kyak is an open harbor, and he says no breakwater can be built there to withstand the storms. He still clings to that belief, although the Trust is actually building one. If they succeed we're cooked. Meanwhile he's rushing work and straining every nerve to raise more money. Now you come along with a proposal to advertise the whole affair to the public as a gigantic graft and set Congress against him. I think he treated you mighty well, under the circumstances."

"I won't act against my convictions," Eliza declared, firmly, "even if it means calamity to everybody."

Natalie spoke for the first time, her voice tuned to a pitch of feeling that contrasted oddly with their conversational tones.

"If you hurt my Irish Prince," she said, "I shall hate you as long as I live."

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