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From: Desert Dust

The train had started amidst clangor of bell and the shouts of good-bye
and good-luck from the crowd upon the station platform. We had rolled out
through train yards occupied to the fullest by car shops, round house,
piled-up freight depot, stacks of ties and iron, and tracks covered with
freight cars loaded high to rails, ties, baled hay, all manner and means
of supplies designed, I imagined, for the building operations far in the
West.

Soon we had left this busy Train Town behind, and were entering the open
country. The landscape was pleasing, but the real sights probably lay
ahead; so I turned from my window to examine my traveling quarters.

The coach--a new one, built in the company's shops and decidedly upon a
par with the very best coaches of the Eastern roads--was jammed; every
seat taken. I did not see My Lady of the Blue Eyes, nor her equal, but
almost the whole gamut of society was represented: Farmers, merchants, a
few soldiers, plainsmen in boots and flannel shirt-sleeves and long hair
and large hats, with revolvers hanging from the racks above them or from
the seat ends; one or two white-faced gentry in broadcloth and
patent-leather shoes--who I fancied might be gamblers such as now and then
plied their trade upon the Hudson River boats; two Indians in blankets;
Eastern tourists, akin to myself; women and children of country type; and
so forth. What chiefly caught my eye were the carbines racked against the
ends of the coach, for protection in case of Indians or highwaymen, no
doubt. I observed bottles being passed from hand to hand, and tilted en
route. The amount and frequency of the whiskey for consumption in this
country were astonishing.

My friend snored peacefully. Near noon we halted for dinner at the town of
Fremont, some fifty miles out. She awakened at the general stir, and when
I squeezed by her she immediately fished for a packet of lunch. We had
thirty minutes at Fremont--ample time in which to discuss a very excellent
meal of antelope steaks, prairie fowl, fried potatoes and hot biscuits.
There was promise of buffalo meat farther on, possibly at the next meal
station, Grand Island.

The time was sufficient, also, to give me another glimpse of My Lady of
the Blue Eyes, who appeared to have been awarded the place of honor
between the conductor and the brakeman, at table. She bestowed upon me a
subtle glance of recognition--with a smile and a slight bow in one; but I
failed to find her upon the station platform after the meal. That I should
obtain other opportunities I did not doubt. Benton was yet thirty hours'
travel.

All that afternoon we rocked along up the Platte Valley, with the Platte
River--a broad but shallow stream--constantly upon our left. My seat
companion evidently had exhausted her repertoire, for she slumbered at
ease, gradually sinking into a shapeless mass, her flowered bonnet askew.
Several other passengers also were sleeping; due, in part, to the whiskey
bottles. The car was thinning out, I noted, and I might bid in advance for
the chance of obtaining a new location in a certain car ahead.

The scenery through the car window had merged into a monotony accentuated
by great spaces. As far as Fremont the country along the railroad had been
well settled with farms and unfenced cultivated fields. Now we had issued
into the untrammeled prairies, here and there humanized by an isolated
shack or a lonely traveler by horse or wagon, but in the main a vast
sun-baked dead sea of gentle, silent undulations extending, brownish,
clear to the horizons. The only refreshing sights were the Platte River,
flowing blue and yellow among sand-bars and islands, and the side streams
that we passed. Close at hand the principal tokens of life were the little
flag stations, and the tremendous freight trains side-tracked to give us
the right of way. The widely separated hamlets where we impatiently
stopped were the oases in the desert.

In the sunset we halted at the supper station, named Grand Island. My
seat neighbor finished her lunch box, and I returned well fortified by
another excellent meal at the not exorbitant price, one dollar and a
quarter. There had been buffalo meat--a poor apology, to my notion, for
good beef. Antelope steak, on the contrary, was of far finer flavor than
the best mutton.

At Grand Island a number of wretched native Indians drew my attention, for
the time being, from quest of My Lady of the Blue Eyes. However, she was
still escorted by the conductor, who in his brass buttons and officious
air began to irritate me. Such a persistent squire of dames rather
overstepped the duties of his position. Confound the fellow! He surely
would come to the end of his run and his rope before we went much
farther.

"Now, young man, if you get shet of your foolishness and decide to try
North Platte instead of some fly-by-night town on west," my seat companion
addressed, "you jest follow me when I leave. We get to North Platte after
plumb dark, and you hang onto my skirts right up town, till I land you in
a good place. For if you don't, you're liable to be skinned alive."

"If I decide upon North Platte I certainly will take advantage of your
kindness," I evaded. Forsooth, she had a mind to kidnap me!

"Now you're talkin' sensible," she approved. "My sakes alive! Benton!" And
she sniffed. "Why, in Benton they'll snatch you bald-headed 'fore you've
been there an hour."

She composed herself for another nap.

"If that pesky brakeman don't remember to wake me, you give me a poke with
your elbow. I wouldn't be carried beyond North Platte for love or money."

She gurgled, she snored. The sunset was fading from pink to gold--a gold
like somebody's hair; and from gold to lemon which tinted all the prairie
and made it beautiful. Pursuing the sunset we steadily rumbled westward
through the immensity of unbroken space.

The brakeman came in, lighting the coal-oil lamps. Outside, the twilight
had deepened into dusk. Numerous passengers were making ready for bed: the
men by removing their boots and shoes and coats and galluses and
stretching out; the women by loosening their stays, with significant
clicks and sighs, and laying their heads upon adjacent shoulders or
drooping against seat ends. Babies cried, and were hushed. Final
night-caps were taken, from the prevalent bottles.

The brakeman, returning, paused and inquired right and left on his way
through. He leaned to me.

"You for North Platte?"

"No, sir. Benton, Wyoming Territory."

"Then you'd better move up to the car ahead. This car stops at North
Platte."

"What time do we reach North Platte?"

"Two-thirty in the morning. If you don't want to be waked up, you'd better
change now. You'll find a seat."

At that I gladly followed him out. He indicated a half-empty seat.

"This gentleman gets off a bit farther on; then you'll have the seat to
yourself."

The arrangement was satisfactory, albeit the "gentleman" with whom I
shared appeared, to nose and eyes, rather well soused, as they say; but
fortune had favored me--across the aisle, only a couple of seats beyond, I
glimpsed the top of a golden head, securely low and barricaded in by
luggage.

Without regrets I abandoned my former seat-mate to her disappointment when
she waked at North Platte. This car was the place for me, set apart by the
salient presence of one person among all the others. That, however, is apt
to differentiate city from city, and even land from land.

Eventually I, also, slept--at first by fits and starts concomitant with
railway travel by night, then more soundly when the "gentleman," my
comrade in adventure, had been hauled out and deposited elsewhere. I fully
awakened only at daylight.

The train was rumbling as before. The lamps had been extinguished--the
coach atmosphere was heavy with oil smell and the exhalations of human
beings in all stages of deshabille. But the golden head was there, about
as when last sighted.

Now it stirred, and erected a little. I felt the unseemliness of sitting
and waiting for her to make her toilet, so I hastily staggered to achieve
my own by aid of the water tank, tin basin, roller towel and small
looking-glass at the rear--substituting my personal comb and brush for the
pair hanging there by cords.

The coach was the last in the train. I stepped out upon the platform, for
fresh air.

We were traversing the real plains of the Great American Desert, I judged.
The prairie grasses had shortened to brown stubble interspersed with bare
sandy soil rising here and there into low hills. It was a country without
north, south, east, west, save as denoted by the sun, broadly launching
his first beams of the day. Behind us the single track of double rails
stretched straight away as if clear to the Missouri. The dull blare of the
car wheels was the only token of life, excepting the long-eared rabbits
scampering with erratic high jumps, and the prairie dogs sitting bolt
upright in the sunshine among their hillocked burrows. Of any town there
was no sign. We had cut loose from company.

Then we thundered by a freight train, loaded with still more ties and
iron, standing upon a siding guarded by the idling trainmen and by an
operator's shack. Smoke was welling from the chimney of the shack--and
that domestic touch gave me a sense of homesickness. Yet I would not have
been home, even for breakfast. This wide realm of nowhere fascinated with
the unknown.

The train and shack flattened into the landscape. A bevy of antelope
flashed white tails at us as they scudded away. Two motionless figures,
horseback, whom I took to be wild Indians, surveyed us from a distant
sand-hill. Across the river there appeared a fungus of low buildings,
almost indistinguishable, with a glimmer of canvas-topped wagons fringing
it. That was the old emigrant road.

While I was thus orienting myself in lonesome but not entirely hopeless
fashion the car door opened and closed. I turned my head. The Lady of the
Blue Eyes had joined me. As fresh as the morning she was.

"Oh! You? I beg your pardon, sir." She apologized, but I felt that the
diffidence was more politic than sincere.

"You are heartily welcome, madam," I assured. "There is air enough for us
both."

"The car is suffocating," she said. "However, the worst is over. We shall
not have to spend another such a night. You are still for Benton?"

"By all means." And I bowed to her. "We are fellow-travelers to the end, I
believe."

"Yes?" She scanned me. "But I do not like that word: the end. It is not a
popular word, in the West. Certainly not at Benton. For instance----"

We tore by another freight waiting upon a siding located amidst a wide
debris of tin cans, scattered sheet-iron, stark mud-and-stone chimneys,
and barren spots, resembling the ruins from fire and quake.

"There is Julesburg."

"A town?" I gasped.

"The end." She smiled. "The only inhabitants now are in the station-house
and the graveyard."

"And the others? Where are they?"

"Farther west. Many of them in Benton."

"Indeed? Or in North Platte!" I bantered.

"North Platte!" She laughed merrily. "Dear me, don't mention North
Platte--not in the same breath with Benton, or even Cheyenne. A town of
hayseeds and dollar-a-day clerks whose height of sport is to go fishing in
the Platte! A young man like you would die of ennui in North Platte.
Julesburg was a good town while it lasted. People lived, there; and
moved on because they wished to keep alive. What is life, anyway, but a
constant shuffle of the cards? Oh, I should have laughed to see you in
North Platte." And laugh she did. "You might as well be dead underground
as buried in one of those smug seven-Sabbaths-a-week places."

Her free speech accorded ill with what I had been accustomed to in
womankind; and yet became her sparkling eyes and general dash.

"To be dead is past the joking, madam," I reminded.

"Certainly. To be dead is the end. In Benton we live while we live, and
don't mention the end. So I took exception to your gallantry." She glanced
behind her, through the door window into the car. "Will you," she asked
hastily, "join me in a little appetizer, as they say? You will find it a
superior cognac--and we breakfast shortly, at Sidney."

From a pocket of her skirt she had extracted a small silver flask,
stoppered with a tiny screw cup. Her face swam before me, in my
astonishment.

"I rarely drink liquor, madam," I stammered.

"Nor I. But when traveling--you know. And in high and--dry Benton liquor
is quite a necessity. You will discover that, I am sure. You will not
decline to taste with a lady? Let us drink to better acquaintance, in
Benton."

"With all my heart, madam," I blurted.

She poured, while swaying to the motion of the train; passed the cup to me
with a brightly challenging smile.

"Ladies first. That is the custom, is it not?" I queried.

"But I am hostess, sir. I do the honors. Pray do you your duty."

"To our better acquaintance, then, madam," I accepted. "In Benton."

The cognac swept down my throat like a stab of hot oil. She poured for
herself.

"A votre sante, monsieur--and continued beginnings, no ends." She daintily
tossed it off.

We had consummated our pledges just in time. The brakeman issued, stumping
noisily and bringing discord into my heaven of blue and gold and
comfortable warmth.

"Howdy, lady and gent? Breakfast in twenty minutes." He grinned affably at
her; yes, with a trace of familiarity. "Sleep well, madam?"


"Passably, thank you." Her voice held a certain element of calm
interrogation as if to ask how far he intended to push acquaintance.
"We're nearing Sidney, you say? Then I bid you gentlemen good-morning."

With a darting glance at him and a parting smile for me she passed inside.
The brakeman leaned for an instant's look ahead, up the track, and
lingered.

"Friend of yours, is she?"

"I met her at Omaha, is all," I stiffly informed.

"Considerable of a dame, eh?" He eyed me. "You're booked for Benton,
too?"

"Yes, sir."

"Never been there, myself. She's another hell-roarer, they say."

"Sir!" I remonstrated.

"Oh, the town, the town," he enlightened. "I'm saying nothing against it,
for that matter--nor against her, either. They're both O. K."

"You are acquainted with the lady, yourself?"

"Her? Sure. I know about everybody along the line between Platte and
Cheyenne. Been running on this division ever since it opened."

"She lives in Benton, though, I understand," I proffered.

"Why, yes; sure she does. Moved there from Cheyenne." He looked at me
queerly. "Naturally. Ain't that so?"

"Probably it is," I admitted. "I see no reason to doubt your word."

"Yep. Followed her man. A heap of people moved from Cheyenne to Benton, by
way of Laramie."

"She is married, then?"

"Far as I know. Anyway, she's not single, by a long shot." And he laughed.
"But, Lord, that cuts no great figger. People here don't stand on ceremony
in those matters. Everything's aboveboard. Hands on the table until time
to draw--then draw quick."

His language was a little too bluff for me.

"Her husband is in business, no doubt?"

"Business?" He stared unblinking. "I see." He laid a finger alongside his
nose, and winked wisely. "You bet yuh! And good business. Yes, siree. Are
you on?"

"Am I on?" I repeated. "On what? The train?"

"Oh, on your way."

"To Benton; certainly."

"Do you see any green in my eye, friend?" he demanded.

"I do not."

"Or in the moon, maybe?"

"No, nor in the moon," I retorted. "But what is all this about?"

"I'll be damned!" he roundly vouchsafed. And--"You've been having a quiet
little smile with her, eh?" He sniffed suspiciously. "A few swigs of
that'll make a pioneer of you quicker'n alkali. She's favoring you--eh?
Now if she tells you of a system, take my advice and quit while your
hair's long."

"My hair is my own fashion, sir," I rebuked. "And the lady is not for
discussion between gentlemen, particularly as my acquaintance with her is
only casual. I don't understand your remarks, but if they are insinuations
I shall have to ask you to drop the subject."

"Tut, tut!" he grinned. "No offense intended, Mister Pilgrim. Well, you're
all right. We can't be young more than once, and if the lady takes you in
tow in Benton you'll have the world by the tail as long as it holds. She
moves with the top-notchers; she's a knowing little piece--no offense. Her
and me are good enough friends. There's no brace game in that deal. I only
aim to give you a steer. Savvy?" And he winked. "You're out to see the
elephant, yourself."

"I am seeking health, is all," I explained. "My physician had advised a
place in the Far West, high and dry; and Benton is recommended."

His response was identical with others preceding.

"High and dry? By golly, then Benton's the ticket. It's sure high, and
sure dry. You bet yuh! High and dry and roaring."

"Why 'roaring'?" I demanded at last. The word had been puzzling me.

"Up and coming. Pop goes the weasel, at Benton. Benton? Lord love you!
They say it's got Cheyenne and Laramie backed up a tree, the best days
they ever seen. When you step off at Benton step lively and keep an eye in
the back of your head. There's money to be made at Benton, by the wise
ones. Watch out for ropers and if you get onto a system, play it. There
ain't any limit to money or suckers."

"I may not qualify as to money," I informed. "But I trust that I am no
sucker."

"No green in the eye, eh?" he approved. "Anyhow, you have a good lead if
your friend in black cottons to you." Again he winked. "You're not a
bad-looking young feller." He leaned over the side steps, and gazed ahead.
"Sidney in sight. Be there directly. We're hitting twenty miles and better
through the greatest country on earth. The engineer smells breakfast."





Next: I Rise In Favor

Previous: A Pair Of Blue Eyes



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