AUTHOR OF "THE SPOILERS"
ILLUSTRATED BY DENMAN FINK
I. THE LAST FRONTIER II. POLEON DORET'S HAND IS QUICKER THAN HIS TONGUE III. WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY IV. THE SOLDIER FINDS AN UNTRODDEN VALLEY V. A STORY IS BEGUN VI. THE BURRELL CODE VII. THE MAGIC OF BEN STARK VIII. THE KNIFE IX. THE AWAKENING X. MEADE BURRELL FINDS A PATH IN THE MOONLIGHT XI. WHERE THE PATH LED XII. A TANGLED SKEIN XIII. STARK TAKES A HAND IN THE GAME XIV. A MYSTERY IS UNRAVELLED XV. AND A KNOT TIGHTENED XVI. JOHN GALE'S HOUR XVII. THE LOVE OF POLEON DORET XVIII. RUNNION FINDS THE SINGING PEOPLE XIX. THE CALL OF THE OREADS
"GREAT LOVELY DOVE!" EJACULATED BURRELL, FERVENTLY ... WONDERING IF THIS GLORIOUS THING COULD BE THE QUAINT HALF-BREED GIRL OF YESTERDAY
"I MISSED YOU DREADFULLY, DADDY," SAID NECIA. "THERE WASN'T ANY FUN IN THINGS WITHOUT YOU"
POLEON FOLLOWED HER WITH HIS EYES. "AN' DAT'S DE END OF IT ALL," HE MUSED. "FIVE YEAR I'VE WAIT—AN' JUS' FOR DIS"
"LET ME OUT OF HERE!" THE GIRL DEMANDED, IMPERIOUSLY
THE COMBATANTS WERE DRAGGED APART ... "I GOT YOU, BENNETT!" CRIED THE TRADER, HOARSELY. "YOUR MAGIC IS NO GOOD"
NECIA SAW RUNNION RAISE HIS GUN, AND WITHOUT THOUGHT OF HER OWN SAFETY, THREW HERSELF UPON HIM
THE LAST FRONTIER
Many men were in debt to the trader at Flambeau, and many counted him as a friend. The latter never reasoned why, except that he had done them favors, and in the North that counts for much. Perhaps they built likewise upon the fact that he was ever the same to all, and that, in days of plenty or in times of famine, his store was open to every man, and all received the same measure. Nor did he raise his prices when the boats were late. They recalled one bleak and blustery autumn when the steamer sank at the Lower Ramparts, taking with her all their winter's food, how he eked out his scanty stock, dealing to each and every one his portion, month by month. They remembered well the bitter winter that followed, when the spectre of famine haunted their cabins, and when for endless periods they cinched their belts, and cursed and went hungry to sleep, accepting, day by day, the rations doled out to them by the grim, gray man at the log store. Some of them had money-belts weighted low with gold washed from the bars at Forty Mile, and there were others who had wandered in from the Koyukuk with the first frosts, foot-sore and dragging, the legs of their skin boots eaten to the ankle, and the taste of dog meat still in their mouths. Broken and dispirited, these had fared as well through that desperate winter as their brothers from up-river, and received pound for pound of musty flour, strip for strip of rusty bacon, lump for lump of precious sugar. Moreover, the price of no single thing had risen throughout the famine.
Some of them, to this day, owed bills at Old Man Gale's, of which they dared not think; but every fall and every spring they came again and told of their disappointment, and every time they fared back into the hills bearing another outfit, for which he rendered no account, not even when the debts grew year by year, not even to "No Creek" Lee, the most unlucky of them all, who said that a curse lay on him so that when a pay-streak heard him coming it got up and moved away and hid itself.
There were some who had purposely shirked a reckoning, in years past, but these were few, and their finish had been of a nature to discourage a similar practice on the part of others, and of a nature, moreover, to lead good men to care for the trader and for his methods. He mixed in no man's business, he took and paid his dues unfalteringly. He spoke in a level voice, and he smiled but rarely. He gazed at a stranger once and weighed him carefully, thereafter his eyes sought the distances again, as if in search of some visitor whom he knew or hoped or feared would come. Therefore, men judged he had lived as strong men live, and were glad to call him friend.
This day he stood in the door of his post staring up the sun-lit river, absorbing the warmth of the Arctic afternoon. The Yukon swept down around the great bend beneath the high, cut banks and past the little town, disappearing behind the wooded point below, which masked the up-coming steamers till one heard the sighing labor of their stacks before he saw their smoke. It was a muddy, rushing giant, bearing a burden of sand and silt, so that one might hear it hiss and grind by stooping at its edge to listen; but the slanting sun this afternoon made it appear like a boiling flood of molten gold which issued silently out of a land of mystery and vanished into a valley of forgetfulness. At least so the trader fancied, and found himself wishing that it might carry away on its bosom the heavy trouble which weighed him down, and bring in its place forgetfulness of all that had gone before. Instead, however, it seemed to hurry with news of those strange doings "up-river," news that every down-coming steamboat verified. For years he had known that some day this thing would happen, that some day this isolation would be broken, that some day great hordes of men would overrun this unknown land, bringing with them that which he feared to meet, that which had made him what he was. And now that the time had come, he was unprepared.
The sound of shouting caused him to turn his head. Down-stream, a thousand yards away, men were raising a flag-staff made from the trunk of a slender fir, from which the bark had been stripped, heaving on their tackle as they sang in unison. They stood well out upon the river's bank before a group of well-made houses, the peeled timbers of which shone yellow in the sun. He noted the symmetrical arrangement of the buildings, noted the space about them that had been smoothed for a drill-ground, and from which the stumps had been removed; noted that the men wore suits of blue; and noted, in particular, the figure of an officer commanding them.
The lines about the trader's mouth deepened, and his heavy brows contracted.
"That means the law," he murmured, half aloud, while in his voice was no trace of pleasure, nor of that interest which good men are wont to show at sight of the flag. "The last frontier is gone. The trail ends here!"
He stood so, meditating sombrely, till the fragment of a song hummed lightly by a girl fell pleasantly on his ears, whereupon the shadows vanished from his face, and he turned expectantly, the edges of his teeth showing beneath his mustache, the corners of his eyes wrinkling with pleasure.
The sight was good to him, for the girl approaching down the trail was like some wood sprite, light-footed, slender, and dark, with twin braids of hair to her waist framing an oval face colored by the wind and sun. She was very beautiful, and a great fever surged up through the old man's veins, till he gripped the boards at his side and bit sharply at the pipe between his teeth.
"The salmon-berries are ripe," she announced, "and the hills back of the village are pink with them. I took Constantine's squaw with me, and we picked quarts and quarts. I ate them all!"
Her laughter was like the tinkle of silver bells. Her head, thrown back as she laughed gayly, displayed a throat rounded and full and smooth, and tanned to the hue of her wind-beaten cheeks. Every move of her graceful body was unrestrained and flowing, with a hint of Indian freedom about it. Beaded and trimmed like a native princess, her garments manifested an ornature that spoke of savagery, yet they were neatly cut and held to the pattern of the whites.
"Constantine was drunk again last night, and I had to give him a talking to when we came back. Oh, but I laid him out! He's frightened to death of me when I'm angry."
She furrowed her brow in a scowl—the daintiest, most ridiculous pucker of a brow that ever man saw—and drew her red lips into an angry pout as she recounted her temperance talk till the trader broke in, his voice very soft, his gray-blue eyes as tender as those of a woman:
"It's good to have you home again, Necia. The old sun don't shine as bright when you're away, and when it rains it seems like the moss and the grass and the little trees was crying for you. I reckon everything weeps when you're gone, girl, everything except your old dad, and sometimes he feels like he'd have to bust out and join the rest of them."
He seated himself upon the worn spruce-log steps, and the girl settled beside him and snuggled against his knee.
"I missed you dreadfully, daddy," she said. "It seemed as if those days at the Mission would never end. Father Barnum and the others were very kind, and I studied hard, but there wasn't any fun in things without you."
"I reckon you know as much as a priest, now, don't you?"
"Oh, lots more," she said, gravely. "You see, I am a woman."
He nodded reflectively. "So you are! I keep forgetting that."
Their faces were set towards the west, where the low sun hung over a ragged range of hills topped with everlasting white. The great valley, dark with an untrodden wilderness of birch and spruce and alder, lay on this side, sombre and changeless, like a great, dark-green mat too large for its resting-place, its edges turned up towards the line of unmelting snow. Beyond were other ranges thrust skyward in a magnificent confusion, while still to the farther side lay the purple valley of the Koyukuk, a valley that called insistently to restless men, welcoming them in the spring, and sending them back in the late summer tired and haggard with the hunger of the North. Each year a tithe remained behind, the toll of the trackless places, but the rest went back again and again, and took new brothers with them.
"Did you like the books I sent you with Poleon when he went down to the coast? I borrowed them from Shakespeare George."
The girl laughed. "Of course I did—that is, all but one of them."
"I think it was called The Age of Reason, or something like that. I didn't get a good look at it, for Father Barnum shrieked when he saw it, then snatched it as if it were afire. He carried it down to the river with the tongs."
"H'm! Now that I think of it," said the old man, "Shakespeare grinned when he gave it to me. You see, Poleon ain't much better on the read than I am, so we never noticed what kind of a book it was."
"When will Poleon get back, do you suppose?"
"Most any day now, unless the Dawson dance-halls are too much for him. It won't take him long to sell our skins if what I hear is true."
"What is that?"
"About these Cheechakos. They say there are thousands of tenderfeet up there, and more coming in every day."
"Oh! If I had only been here in time to go with him!" breathed the girl. "I never saw a city. It must be just like Seattle, or New York."
Gale shook his head. "No. There's considerable difference. Some time I'll take you out to the States, and let you see the world—maybe." He uttered the last word in an undertone, as if in self-debate, but the girl was too excited to notice.
"You will take mother, too, and the kiddies, won't you?"
"Oh! I—I—" The attempt to express what this prospect meant to her was beyond her girlish rapture, but her parted lips and shining eyes told the story to Gale. "And Poleon must go, too. We can't go anywhere without him." The old man smiled down upon her in reassurance. "I wonder what he'll say when he finds the soldiers have come. I wonder if he'll like it."
Gale turned his eyes down-stream to the barracks, and noted that the long flag-staff had at last been erected. Even as he looked he saw a bundle mounting towards its tip, and then beheld the Stars and Stripes flutter out in the air, while the men below cheered noisily. It was some time before he answered.
"Poleon Doret is like the rest of us men up here in the North. We have taken care of ourselves so far, and I guess we're able to keep it up without the help of a smooth-faced Yankee kid for guardian."
"Lieutenant Burrell isn't a Yankee," said Necia. "He is a blue-grass man. He comes from Kentucky."
Her father grunted contemptuously. "I might have known it. Those rebels are a cultus, lazy lot. A regular male man with any ginger in him would shed his coat and go to work, instead of wearing his clothes buttoned up all day. It don't take much 'savvy' to run a handful of thirteen-dollar-a-month soldiers." Necia stirred a bit restlessly, and the trader continued: "It ain't man's work, it's—loafing. If he tries to boss us he'll get QUITE a surprise."
"He won't try to boss you. He has been sent here to build a military post, and to protect the miners in their own self-government. He won't take any part in their affairs as long as they are conducted peaceably."
Being at a loss for an answer to this unexpected defence, the old man grunted again, with added contempt, while his daughter continued:
"This rush to the upper country has brought in all sorts of people, good, bad—and worse; and the soldiers have been sent to prevent trouble, and to hold things steady till the law can be established. The Canadian Mounted Police are sending all their worst characters down-river, and our soldiers have been scattered among the American camps for our protection. I think it's fine."
"Where did you learn all this?"
"Lieutenant Burrell told me," she replied; at which her father regarded her keenly. She could not see the curious look in his eyes, nor did she turn when, a moment later, he resumed, in an altered tone:
"I reckon Poleon will bring you something pretty from Dawson, eh?"
"He has never failed to bring me presents, no matter where he came from. Dear old Poleon!" She smiled tenderly. "Do you remember that first day when he drifted, singing, into sight around the bend up yonder? He had paddled his birch-bark from the Chandelar without a thing to eat; hunger and hardship only made him the happier, and the closer he drew his belt the louder he sang."
"He was bound for his 'New Country'!"
"Yes. He didn't know where it lay, but the fret for travel was on him, and so he drifted and sang, as he had drifted and sung from the foot of Lake Le Barge."
"That was four years ago," mused Gale, "and he never found his 'New Country,' did he?"
"No. We tied him down and choked it out of him," Necia laughed. "Dear, funny old Poleon—he loves me like a brother."
The man opened his lips, then closed them, as if on second thought, and rose to his feet, for, coming towards them up the trail from the barracks, he beheld a trim, blue-coated figure. He peered at the approaching officer a moment, set his jaw more firmly, and disappeared into the store.
"Well, we have raised our flag-staff," said the Lieutenant as he took a seat below Necia. "It's like getting settled to keep house."
"Are you lazy?" inquired the girl.
"I dare say I am," he admitted. "I've never had time to find out. Why?"
"Are you going to boss our people around?" she continued, bent on her own investigation.
"No. Not as long as they behave. In fact, I hardly know what I am to do. Maybe you can tell me." His smile was peculiarly frank and winning. "You see, it's my first command, and my instructions, although comprehensive, are rather vague. I am supposed to see that mining rights are observed, to take any criminals who kindly offer themselves up to be arrested, and to sort of handle things that are too tough for the miners themselves."
"Why, you are a policeman!" said Necia, at which he made a wry face.
"The Department, in its wisdom, would have me, a tenderfoot, adjust those things that are too knotty for these men who have spent their lives along the frontier."
"I don't believe you will be very popular with our people," Necia announced, meditatively.
"No. I can see that already. I wasn't met with any brass-bands, and I haven't received any engraved silver from the admiring citizens of Flambeau. That leaves nothing but the women to like me, and, as you are the only one in camp, you will have to like me very much to make up for its shortcomings."
She approved of his unusual drawl; it gave him a kind of deliberation which every move of his long, lithe body belied and every glance of his eyes contradicted. Moreover, she liked his youth, so clean and fresh and strange in this land where old men are many and the young ones old with hardship and grave with the silence of the hills. Her life had been spent entirely among men who were her seniors, and, although she had ruled them like a spoiled queen, she knew as little of their sex as they did of hers. Unconsciously the strong young life within her had clamored for companionship, and it was this that had drawn her to Poleon Doret—who would ever remain a boy—and it was this that drew her to the young Kentuckian; this, and something else in him, that the others lacked.
"Now that I think it over," he continued, "I'd rather have you like me than have the men do so."
"Of course," she nodded. "They do anything I want them to—all but father, and—"
"It isn't that," he interrupted, quickly. "It is because you ARE the only woman of the place, because you are such a surprise. To think that in the heart of this desolation I should find a girl like—like you, like the girls I know at home."
"Am I like other girls?" she inquired, eagerly. "I have often wondered."
"You are, and you are not. You are surprisingly conventional for these surroundings, and yet unconventionally surprising—for any place. Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you get here?"
"I am just what you see. I came from the States, and I was carried. That is all I can remember."
"Then you haven't lived here always?"
"Oh, dear, no! We came here while I was very little, but of late I have been away at school."
"Some seminary, eh?"
At this she laughed aloud. "Hardly that, either. I've been at the Mission. Father Barnum has been teaching me for five years. I came up-river a day ahead of you."
She asked no questions of him in return, for she had already learned all there was to know the day before from a grizzled corporal in whom was the hunger to talk. She had learned of a family of Burrells whose name was known throughout the South, and that Meade Burrell came from the Frankfort branch, the branch that had raised the soldiers. His father had fought with Lee, and an uncle was now in the service at Washington. On the mother's side the strain was equally militant, but the Meades had sought the sea. The old soldier had told her much more, of which she understood little; told her of the young man's sister, who had come all the way from Kentucky to see her brother off when he sailed from San Francisco; told her of the Lieutenant's many friends in Washington, and of his family name and honor. Meade Burrell was undoubtedly a fine young fellow in his corporal's eyes, and destined to reach great heights, as the other Burrells had before him. The old soldier, furthermore, had looked at her keenly and added that the Burrells were known as "divils among the weemen."
Resting thus on the steps of Old Man Gale's store, the two talked on till they were disturbed by the sound of shrill voices approaching, at which the man looked up. Coming down the trail from the town was a squaw and two children. At sight of Necia the little ones shouted gleefully and scampered forward, climbing over her like half-grown puppies. They were boy and girl, both brown as Siwashes, with eyes like jet beads and hair that was straight and coarse and black. At a glance Burrell knew them for "breeds," and evidently the darker half was closer to the surface now, for they choked, gurgled, stuttered, and coughed in their Indian tongue, while Necia answered them likewise. At a word from her they turned and saw him, then, abashed at the strange splendor of his uniform, fell silent, pressing close to her. The squaw, also, seemed to resent his presence, for, after a lowering glance, she drew the shawl closer about her head, and, leaving the trail, slunk out of sight around the corner of the store.
Burrell looked up at his companion's clear-cut, delicate face, at the wind-tanned cheeks, against which her long braids lay like the blue-black locks of an Egyptian maid, then at her warm, dark eyes, in which was a hint of the golden light of the afternoon sun. He noted covertly the slender lines of her body and the dainty, firm, brown hands flung protectingly about the shoulders of her little friends, who were peering at him owlishly from their shelter.
The bitter revolt that had burned in him at the prospect of a long exile in this undiscovered spot died out suddenly. What a picture she made! How fresh and flower-like she looked, and yet the wisdom of her! He spoke impulsively:
"I am glad you are here, Miss Necia. I was glad the moment I saw you, and I have been growing gladder ever since, for I never imagined there would be anybody in this place but men and squaws—men who hate the law and squaws who slink about—like that." He nodded in the direction of the Indian woman's disappearance. "Either that, or, at best, a few 'breeds' like these little fellows."
She looked at him quickly.
"Well! What difference would that make?"
"Ugh! Squaws and half-breeds!" His tone conveyed in full his utter contempt.
The tiny hands of the boy and girl slid into her own as she arose. A curiously startled look lay in her eyes, and an inquiring, plaintive wrinkle came between her brows.
"I don't believe you understand," she said. "Lieutenant Burrell, this is my sister, Molly Gale, and this is my little brother John." Both round-eyed elfs made a ducking courtesy and blinked at the soldier, who gained his feet awkwardly, a flush rising into his cheeks.
From the regions at the rear of the store came the voice of an Indian woman calling:
"Coming in a moment!" the girl called back; then, turning to the young officer, she added, quietly: "Mother needs me now. Good-bye!"
POLEON DORET'S HAND IS QUICKER THAN HIS TONGUE
The trader's house sat back of the post, farther up on the hill. It was a large, sleepy house, sprawling against the sunny side of the slope, as if it had sought the southern exposure for warmth, and had dozed off one sultry afternoon and never waked up from its slumber. It was of great, square-hewn timbers, built in the Russian style, the under side of each log hollowed to fit snugly over its fellow underneath, upon which dried moss had previously been spread, till in effect the foot-thick walls were tongued and grooved and, through years of seasoning, become so tinder dry that no frosts or heats could penetrate them. Many architects had worked on it as it grew, room by room, through the years, and every man had left behind the mark of his individuality, from Pretty Charlie the pilot, who swung an axe better than any Indian on the river, to Larsen the ship's carpenter, who worked with an adze and who starved the summer following on the Koyukuk. It had stretched a bit year by year, for the trader's family had been big in the early days when hunters and miners of both breeds came in to trade, to loaf, and to swap stories with him. Through the winter days, when the caribou were in the North and the moose were scarce, whole families of natives came and camped there, for Alluna, his squaw, drew to her own blood, and they felt it their due to eat of the bounty of him who ruled them like an overlord; but when the first goose honked they slipped away until, by the time the salmon showed, the house was empty again and silent, save for Alluna and the youngsters. In return these people brought him many skins and much fresh meat, for which he paid no price, and, with the fall, his cache was filled with fish of which the bulk were dried king salmon as long as a grown man's leg and worth a dollar apiece to any traveller.
There are men whose wits are quick as light, and whose muscles have been so tempered and hardened by years of exercise that they are like those of a wild animal. Of such was John Gale; but with all his intelligence he was very slow at reading, hence he chose to spend his evenings with his pipe and his thoughts, rather than with a book, as lonesome men are supposed to do. He did with little sleep, and many nights he sat alone till Alluna and Necia would be awakened by his heavy step as he went to his bed. That he was a man who could really think, and that his thoughts were engrossing, no one doubted who saw him sitting enthralled at such a time, for he neither rocked, nor talked, nor moved a muscle hour after hour, and only his eyes were alive. To-night the spell was on him again, and he sat bulked up in his chair, rocklike and immovable.
From the open door of the next room he could hear Necia and the little ones. She had made them ready for bed, and was telling them the tale of the snow-bird's spot.
"So when all the other birds had failed," he heard her say, "the little snowbird asked for a chance to try. He flew and flew, and just before he came to the edge of the world where the two Old Women lived he pulled out all of his feathers. When he came to them he said:"
"'I am very cold. May I warm myself at your fire?'"
"They saw how little and naked he was, and how he shivered, so they did not throw sticks at him, but allowed him to creep close. He watched his chance, and when they were not looking he picked up a red-hot coal in his beak and flew back home with it as fast as ever he could—and that is how fire came to the Indian people."
"Of course the coal was hot, and it burned his throat till a drop of blood came through, so ever since that day the snowbird has had a red spot on his throat."
The two children spoke out in their mother's tongue, clamoring for the story of the Good Beaver who saved the hunter's life, and she began, this time in the language of the Yukon people, while Gale listened to the low music of her voice, muffled and broken by the log partition.
His squaw came in, her arrival unannounced except by the scuff of her moccasins, and seated herself against the wall. She did not use a chair, of which there were several, but crouched upon a bear-skin, her knees beneath her chin, her toes a trifle drawn together. She sat thus for a long time, while Necia continued her stories and put the little ones to bed. Soon the girl came to say good-night.
John Gale had never kissed his daughter, and, as it was not a custom of her mother's race, she never missed the caresses. On rare occasions the old man romped with the little ones and took them in his arms and acted as other fathers act, but he had never done these things with her. When she had gone he spoke without moving.
"She'll never marry Poleon Doret."
"Why?" inquired Alluna.
"He ain't her kind."
"Poleon is a good man."
"None better. But she'll marry some—some white man."
"Poleon is white," the squaw declared.
"He is and he ain't. I mean she'll marry an 'outside' man. He ain't good enough, and—well, he ain't her kind." Alluna's grunt of indignation was a sufficient answer to this, but he resumed, jerking his head in the direction of the barracks. "She's been talking a lot with this—this soldier."
"Him good man, too, I guess," said the wife.
"The hell he is!" cried the trader, fiercely. "He don't mean any good to her."
"Him got a woman, eh?" said the other.
"No, no! I reckon he's single all right, but you don't understand. He's different from us people. He's—he's—" Gale paused, at a loss for words to convey his meaning. "Well, he ain't the kind that would marry a half-breed."
Alluna pondered this cryptic remark unsuccessfully, and was still seeking its solution when her lord continued:
"If she really got to loving him it would be bad for all of us."
Evidently Alluna read some hidden meaning back of these words, for she spoke quickly, but in her own tongue now, as she was accustomed to do when excited or alarmed.
"Then this thing must cease at once. The risk is too great. Better that you kill him before it is too late."'
"Hardly that," said the trader.
"Think of the little ones and of me," the squaw insisted, and, encouraged by his silence, continued: "Why not? Soon the nights will grow dark. The river runs swiftly, and it never gives up its dead. I can do it if you dare not. No one would suspect me."
Gale rose and laid his big hand firmly on her shoulder.
"Don't talk like that. There has been too much blood let already. We'll allow things to run along a bit as they are. There's time enough to worry."
He rose, but instead of going to his room he strode out of the house and walked northward up the trail, passing through the town and out of sight. Alluna sat huddled up in the doorway, her shawl drawn close about her head, and waited for him until the late sun—which at this time of year revolves in a great circle overhead—dipped down below the distant mountains for the midnight hour, then rolled slanting out again a few points farther north, to begin its long journey anew; but he did not return. At last she crept stiffly in-doors, like an old and weary woman, the look of fright still staring in her eyes.
About nine o'clock the next morning a faint and long-drawn cry came from the farthest limits of the little camp. An instant later it was echoed closer, and then a dog began to howl. Before its voice had died away another took it up sadly, and within three breaths, from tip and down the half-mile of scanty water-front, came the cry of "Steam-bo-o-a-t!" Cabin doors opened and men came out, glanced up the stream and echoed the call, while from sleepy nooks and sun-warmed roofs wolf-dogs arose, yawning and stretching. Those who had slept late dressed as they hurried towards the landing-place, joining in the plaint, till men and malamutes united in the shrill, slow cry.
Down-stream came the faint-sighing whoof-whoof of a steamer, and then out from behind the bend she burst, running on the swift spring current with the speed of a deer. She blew hoarsely before the tardy ones had reached the bank, and when abreast of the town her bell clanged, the patter of her great wheel ceased, she reversed her engines and swung gracefully till her bow was up against the current, then ploughed back, inching in slowly until, with much shouting and the sound of many gongs, she slid her nose quietly into the bank beneath the trading-post and was made fast. Her cabin-deck was lined with passengers, most of whom were bound for the "outside," although still clad in mackinaw and overalls. They all gazed silently at the hundred men of Flambeau, who stared back at them till the gang-plank was placed, when they came ashore to stretch their legs. One of them, however, made sufficient noise to make up for the silence of the others. Before the steamer had grounded he appeared among the Siwash deck-hands, his head and shoulders towering above them, his white teeth gleaming from a face as dark as theirs, shouting to his friends ashore and pantomiming his delight to the two Gale children who had come with Alluna to welcome him.
"Who's dose beeg, tall people w'at stan' 'longside of you, Miz Gale?" he called to her; then, shading his eyes elaborately, he cried, in a great voice: "Wall! wal! I b'lieve dat's M'sieu Jean an' Mam'selle Mollee. Ba Gar! Dey get so beeg w'ile I'm gone I don' know dem no more!"
The youthful Gales wriggled at this delicious flattery and dug their tiny moccasined toes into the sand. Molly courtesied nervously and continuously as she clung to her mother, and the boy showed a gap where two front teeth had been and was now filled by a very pink tongue.
"Wen you goin' stop grow, anyhow, you two, eh?" continued the Frenchman, and then, in a tone of sadness: "If I t'ink you ack lak' dis, I don' buy all dese present. Dese t'ing ain' no good for ole folks. I guess I'll t'row dem away." He made as if to heave a bundle that he carried into the river, whereupon the children shrieked at him so shrilly that he laughed long and incontinently at the success of his sally.
Lieutenant Burrell had come with the others, for the arrival of a steamboat called for the presence of every soul in camp, and, spying Necia in the outskirts of the crowd, he took his place beside her. He felt constrained, after what had happened on the previous evening, but she seemed to have forgotten the episode, and greeted him with her usual frankness. Even had she remembered it, there was nothing he could say in explanation or in apology. He had lain awake for hours thinking of her, and had fallen asleep with her still in his mind, for the revelation of her blood had come as a shock to him, the full force of which he could not appreciate until he had given himself time to think of it calmly.
He had sprung from a race of Slave-holders, from a land where birth and breed are more than any other thing, where a drop of impure blood effects an ineradicable stain; therefore the thought of this girl's ignoble parentage was so repugnant to him that the more he pondered it the more pitiful it seemed, the more monstrous. Lying awake and thinking of her in the stillness of his quarters, it had seemed a very unfortunate and a very terrible thing. During his morning duties the vision of her had been fresh before him again, and his constant contemplation of the matter had wrought a change in his attitude towards the girl, of which he was uncomfortably conscious and which he was glad to see she did not perceive.
"There are some of the lucky men from El Dorado Creek," she informed him, pointing out certain people on the deck. "They are going out to the States to get something to eat. They say that nothing like those mines have ever been heard of in the world. I wish father had gone up last year when the news came."
"Why didn't he?" asked the Lieutenant. "Surely he must have been among the first to learn of it."
"Yes. 'Stick' George sent him word a year ago last fall, when he made the first discovery, but for some reason father wouldn't go."
The men were pouring off the boat now, and through the crowd came the tall Frenchman, bearing in the hollow of each arm a child who clasped a bundle to its breast. His eyes grew brighter at sight of Necia, and he broke into a flood of patois; they fairly bombarded each other with quick questions and fragmentary answers till she remembered her companion, who had fallen back a pace and was studying the newcomer, whereupon she turned.
"Oh, I forgot my manners. Lieutenant Burrell, this is Napoleon Doret—our Poleon!" she added, with proud emphasis.
Doret checked his volubility and stared at the soldier, whom he appeared to see for the first time. The little brown people in his arms stared likewise, and it seemed to Burrell that a certain distrust was in each of the three pairs of eyes, only in those of the man there was no shyness. Instead, the Canadian looked him over gravely from head to heel, seeming to note each point of the unfamiliar attire; then he inquired, without removing his glance:
"Were'bouts you live, eh?"
"I live at the post yonder," said the Lieutenant.
"Wat biznesse you work at?"
"I am a soldier."
"Wat for you come 'ere? Dere's nobody fightin' roun' dis place."
"The Lieutenant has been stationed here, foolish," said Necia. "Come up to the store quick and tell me what it's like at Dawson." With a farewell nod to Burrell, she went off with Doret, whose speech was immediately released again.
In spite of the man's unfriendliness, Burrell watched him with admiration. There were no heels to his tufted fur boots, and yet he stood a good six feet two, as straight as a pine sapling, and it needed no second glance to tell of what metal he was made. His spirit showed in his whole body, in the set of his head, and, above all, in his dark, warm face, which glowed with eagerness when he talked, and that was ever—when he was not singing.
"I never see so many people since I lef Quebec," he was saying. "She's jus' lak' beeg city—mus' be t'ree, four t'ousan' people. Every day some more dey come, an' all night dey dance an' sing an' drink w'iskee. Ba gosh, dat's fine place!"
"Are there lots of white women?" asked the girl.
"Yes, two, t'ree hondred. Mos' of dem is work in dance-halls. Dere's one fine gal I see, name' Marie Bourgette. I tell you 'bout her by-an'-by."
"Oh, Poleon, you're in love!" cried Necia.
"No, siree!" he denied. "Dere's none of dem gal look half so purty lak' you." He would have said more, but spying the trader at the entrance of the store, he went to him, straightway launching into the details of their commercial enterprise, which, happily, had been most successful. Before they could finish, the crowd from the boat began to drift in, some of them buying drinks at the bar and others making purchases of tobacco and so forth, but for the main part merely idling about curiously.
Among the merchandise of the Post there were for sale a scanty assortment of fire-arms, cheap shot-guns, and a Winchester or two, displayed in a rack behind the counter in a manner to attract the eye of such native hunters as might need them, and with the rest hung a pair of Colt's revolvers. One of the new arrivals, who had separated from the others at the front, now called to Gale:
"Are those Colts for sale? Mine was stolen the other day." Evidently he was accustomed to Yukon prices, for he showed no surprise at the figure the trader named, but took the guns and tested each of them, whereupon the old man knew that here was no "Cheechako," as tenderfeet are known in the North, although the man's garb had deceived him at first glance. The stranger balanced the weapons, one in either hand, then he did the "double roll" neatly, following which he executed a move that Gale had not witnessed for many years. He extended one of the guns, butt foremost, as if surrendering it, the action being free and open, save for the fact that his forefinger was crooked and thrust through the trigger-guard; then, with the slightest jerk of the wrist, the gun spun about, the handle jumped into his palm, and instantly there was a click as his thumb flipped the hammer. It was the old "road-agent spin," which Gale as a boy had practised hours at a time; but that this man was in earnest he showed by glancing upward sharply when the trader laughed.
"This one hangs all right," he said; "give me a box of cartridges."
He emptied his gold-sack in payment for the gun and ammunition, then remarked: "That pretty nearly cleans me. If I had the price I'd take them both."
Gale wondered what need induced this fellow to spend his last few dollars on a fire-arm, but he said nothing until the man had loosened the bottom buttons of his vest and slipped the weapon inside the band of his trousers, concealing its handle beneath the edge of his waistcoat. Then he inquired:
"Bound for the outside?"
"No. I'm locating here."
The trader darted a quick glance at him. He did not like this man.
"There ain't much doing in this camp; it's a pretty poor place," he said, guardedly.
"I'll put in with you, from its looks," agreed the other. "It's got too many soldiers to be worth a damn." He snarled this bitterly, with a peculiar leering lift of his lip, as if his words tasted badly.
"Most of the boys are going up-river," said Gale.
"Well, those hills look as if they had gold in them," said the stranger, pointing vaguely. "I'm going to prospect."
Gale knew instinctively that the fellow was lying, for his hands were not those of a miner; but there was nothing to be said. His judgment was verified, however, when Poleon drew him aside later and said:
"You know dat feller?"
"He's bad man."
"How do you know?"
"She's leave Dawson damn queeck. Dose Mounted Police t'row 'im on de boat jus' before we lef." Then he told a story that he had heard. The man, it seemed, had left Skagway between two suns, upon the disruption of Soapy Smith's band of desperadoes, and had made for the interior, but had been intercepted at the Pass by two members of the Citizens' Committee who came upon him suddenly. Pretending to yield, he had executed some unexpected coup as he delivered his gun, for both men fell, shot through the body. No one knew just what it was he did, nor cared to question him overmuch. The next heard of him was at Lake Bennett, over the line, where the Mounted Police recognized him and sent him on. They marked him well, however, and passed him on from post to post as they had driven others whose records were known; but he had lost himself in the confusion at Dawson for a few weeks, until the scarlet-coated riders searched him out, disarmed him, and forced him sullenly aboard this steamer. The offscourings of the Canadian frontier were drifting back into their native country to settle.
Old Man Gale cared little for this, for he had spent his life among such men, but as he watched the fellow a scheme outlined itself in his head. Evidently the man dared not go farther down the river, for there was nothing save Indian camps and a Mission or two this side of St. Michael's, and at that point there was a court and many soldiers, where one was liable to meet the penalty of past misdeeds, hence he was probably resolved to stop here, and, judging by his record, he was a man of settled convictions. Continued persecution is wont to stir certain natures to such reckless desperation that interference is dangerous, and Gale, recalling his sullen look and ill-concealed contempt for the soldiers, put the stranger down as a man of this type. Furthermore, he had been impressed by the fellow's remarkable dexterity of wrist.
The trader stepped to the door, and, seeing Burrell on the deck of the steamer, went down towards him. It was a long chance, but the stakes were big and worth the risk. He had thought much during the night previous—in fact, for many hours—and the morning had found him still undecided, wherefore he took this course.
"Necia tells me that you aim to keep law and order here," he began, abruptly, having drawn the young man aside.
"Those are my instructions," said Burrell, "but they are so vague—"
"Well! This camp is bigger than it was an hour ago, and it 'ain't improved any in the growth. Yonder goes the new citizen." He pointed to the stranger, who had returned to the steamer for his baggage and was descending the gang-plank beneath them, a valise in each hand. "He's a thief and a murderer, and we don't want him here. Now, it's up to you."
"I don't understand," said the Lieutenant, whereupon the trader told him Doret's tale. "You and your men were sent here to keep things peaceable," he concluded, "and I reckon when a man is too tough for the Canuck police he is tough enough for you to tackle. There ain't a lock and key in the camp, and we ain't had a killing or a stealing in ten years. We'd like to keep it that way."
"Well—you see—I know nothing of that shooting affray, so I doubt if my authority would permit me to interfere," the soldier mused, half to himself.
"I allowed you were to use your own judgment," said the elder man.
"So I am, I suppose. There is one chance, Mr. Gale. If you'll back me up I'll send him on down to St. Michael's. That is the most I can do."
The Lieutenant outlined his plan, and as he went on the trader nodded approval.
The young man gazed back at him so squarely, his eyes were so pleasant and friendly, his whole person breathed such straight-up honesty and freshness, that shame arose in the old man, and he had hard shift to keep his glance from wavering. Without forethought he answered, impulsively:
"He's desperate and he's dangerous. I sold him a '45' just now." He was about to tell him where the man wore it, and to add a word concerning his dexterity with the gun, when the very fearless deliberation of the youth deterred him. On second thought, Gale yielded to an impulse to wait and see how Meade Burrell would act under fire. If the soldier emerged scathless, it would give him a line on his character; if he did not—well, that would be even better. The sight of his blue and brass awoke in the elder man dread and cowardice, emotions he had never experienced before. Anyhow, he owed it to himself, to Necia, and to the others to find out what kind of man this soldier was.
The crowd was coming back to the steamer, which had discharged her few bundles of freight, and there was no one inside the log post as they entered except Doret and the stranger, who had deposited his baggage at the rear and was talking with the Frenchman at the bar. At sight of the Lieutenant he became silent, and turned carelessly, although with a distrustful stare. Burrell wasted no time.
"Are you going to locate here?" he began.
"I notice you go skeleton-rigged," the soldier continued, indicating the man's baggage. "Pretty small outfit for a miner, isn't it?"
"It's plenty for me."
"Have you enough money to buy your season's grub?"
"I guess that's my business."
"Pardon me, it is my business also."
"What is this—a hold-up?" The man laughed harshly, at the same time swinging around till he faced his questioner. Gale noted that his right hand now hung directly over the spot where his suspenders buttoned on the right side. The trader moved aside and took up a position at some distance.
"My orders are to see that all new-comers either have an outfit or are able to buy one," said Burrell. "Those that are not equipped properly are to be sent down-river to St. Michael's, where there is plenty of everything and where they will be taken care of by the government. Mr. Gale has only sufficient provisions to winter the men already in this district."
"I can take care of myself," said the man, angrily, "whether I'm broke or not, and I don't want any of your interference." He shot a quick glance at Poleon Doret, but the Frenchman's face was like wood, and his hand still held the neck of the whiskey bottle he had set out for the stranger before the others entered. Gale leaned against the opposite counter, his countenance inert but for the eyes, which were fixed upon the Lieutenant.
"Come," said the officer, peremptorily, "I have heard all about you, and you are not the kind of citizen we want here, but if you have enough money for an outfit I can't send you away. If you haven't—"
"I'm broke," said the man, but at the note in his voice Poleon Doret's muscles tightened, and Burrell, who also read a sinister message in the tone, slid his heavy service revolver from its holster beneath his coat.
He had never done this thing before, and it galled him. He had never drawn a weapon on a man, and this playing at policeman became suddenly most repugnant, stirring in him the uncomfortable feeling that he was doing a mean thing, and not only a mean thing, but one of which he ought to be heartily ashamed. He felt decidedly amateurish, especially when he saw that the man apparently intended no resistance and made no move. However, he was in for it now, and must end as he had begun.
"Give me your gun," he said; "I'll unload it and give it back to you at the gang-plank."
"All right, you've got the upper hand," said the man through lips that had gone white. Drawing his weapon from beneath his vest, he presented it to the officer, butt foremost, hammer underneath. The cylinder reposed naturally in the palm of his hand, and the tip of his forefinger was thrust through the trigger-guard.
Burrell lowered the barrel of his revolver and put out his left hand for the other's weapon. Suddenly the man's wrist jerked, the soldier saw a blue flicker of sunlight on the steel as it whirled, saw the arm of Poleon Doret fling itself across the bar with the speed of a striking serpent, heard a smash of breaking glass, felt the shock of a concussion, and the spatter of some liquid in his face. Then he saw the man's revolver on the floor half-way across the room, saw fragments of glass with it, and saw the fellow step backward, snatching at the fingers of his right hand. A smell of powder-smoke and rank whiskey was in the air.
There are times when a man's hand will act more swiftly than his tongue. Napoleon Doret had seen the manner of the stranger's surrender of his gun, and, realizing too late what it meant, had acted. At the very instant of the fellow's treachery, Doret struck with his bottle just in time to knock the weapon from his hand, but not in time to prevent its discharge. The bullet was lodged in the wall a foot from where Gale stood. As the stranger staggered back, the Frenchman vaulted the bar, but, though swift as a cat, the soldier, who had also leaped, was before him. Aiming a sweeping downward blow with his Colt, Burrell clipped the Skagway man just above the ear, and he reeled; then as he fell the officer struck wickedly again at his opponent's skull, but Doret seized him by the arm.
"Ba Gar, don't kill 'im twice!"
Burrell wrenched his arm free and turned on Doret a face that remained long in the Frenchman's memory, a face suffused with fury and convulsed like that of a sprinter at the finish of a race. The two men stared at each other over the fallen figure for a brief moment, until the soldier gained mastery of himself and sheathed his weapon, when Poleon smiled.
"I spoil' a quart of good w'iskee on you. Dat's wort' five dollar."
The Lieutenant wiped the liquor from his face.
"Quick work, Doret," he said. "I owe you one."
Gale's face was hidden as he bent over the prostrate man, fingering a long and ragged cut which laid the fellow's scalp open from back of the ear to the temple, but he mumbled something unintelligible.
"Is he hurt badly?"
"No, you chipped him too low," said the trader. "I told you he was bad."
"He's goin' have nice birt'-mark, anyhow," said Doret, going back of the bar for some water. They revived the man, then bound up his injury hastily, and as the steamer cast off they led him to the bank and passed his grip-sacks to a roustabout. He said no word as he walked unsteadily up the plank, but turned and stared malignantly at them from the deck; then, as the craft swung outward into the stream, he grinned through the trickle of blood that stole down from beneath his wide hat, if the convulsive grimace he made could be termed a grin, and cried:
"I'd like to introduce myself, for I'm coming back to winter with you, Lieutenant! My name is Runnion." And until the steamer was hidden behind the bend below they saw him standing there gazing back at them fixedly.
As Burrell left the two men at the store, he gave his hand frankly to the French-Canadian, and said, while his cheeks flushed:
"I want to thank you for saving me from my own awkwardness."
Doret became even more embarrassed than the Lieutenant at this show of gratitude, and grunted churlishly. But when the young man had gone he turned to Gale, who had watched them silently, and said:
"He's nice young feller, ole man. Sapre! Wen he's mad his eye got so red lak' my ondershirt."
But the trader made no reply.
WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY
When the steamer had gone Napoleon Doret went to look for Necia, and found her playing with the younger Gales, who revelled in the gifts he had brought. Never had there been such a surprise. Never had there been such gorgeous presents for little folks. This was a land in which there were no toys, a country too young for babes; and any one whose youth had been like that of other children would have seen a pathos in the joy of these two. Poleon had been hard put to it to find anything suitable for his little friends, for although there was all manner of merchandise coming into Dawson, none of it was designed for tiny people, not even clothes.
It was evident that he had pleased them, for when he appeared they ran at his legs like twin cubs, incoherent and noisy, the pleasure within them too turbulent for expression. They had never played with a toy that Poleon had not built for them, nor worn a garment that Alluna had not made. This, then, was a day of revelations, for the first thing they beheld upon opening their packs was a pair of rubber boots for each. They were ladies' knee-boots, the smallest size in stock, but the Gales entered them bodily, so to speak, moccasins and all, clear to their hips, like the waders that duck-hunters use. When they ran they fell down and out of them, but their pride remained upright and serene, for were not these like the boots that Poleon wore, and not of Indian make, with foolish beads on them? Next, the youthful heir had found a straw hat of strange and wondrous fashion, with a brim like a board and a band of blue, which Poleon had bought from a college man who had retained this emblem of his past to the final moment. Like the boots, it was much too large for little John, and hard to master, but it made a brave display, as did a red cravat, which covered his front like a baseball catcher's harness. Molly had also two sets of side-combs, gorgeously ornamented with glass diamonds, and a silver-handled tooth-brush, with which she scrubbed the lame puppy. This puppy had three legs and the mange, and he was her particular pride.
There were certain other things, the use of which they did not understand, like queer-smelling, soft, yellow balls which Necia said were oranges and good to eat, although the skins were leathery and very bitter, nor were they nearly so pleasant to the nose as the toilet soap, which Necia would not allow them even to taste. Then there was a box of chocolate candies such as the superintendent at St. Michael's sent them every spring, and an atomizer, which Necia had filled with Florida Water. This worked on the puppy even better than the tooth-brush.
The elder girl laughed gladly as Poleon entered, though her eyes were wet with the pity of it.
"You seem to bring sunshine wherever you go," she said. "They have never had things to play with like other children, and it makes me cry to watch them."
"Ho, ho!" he chuckled, "dis ain'no time for cryin'. Ba gosh! I guess you don' have so much present w'en you was li'l' gal you'se'f, w'at? Mebbe you t'ink I forget you. Wal, I didn't."
He began to undo the fastenings of a parcel he carried in his arms, for Napoleon Doret had brought other things from Dawson besides his gifts to the children. Necia snatched at the package.
"Don't you dare open it! Why, that's half the fun." She was a child herself now, her face flushed and her hands a-tremble. Taking the package to the table, she hurriedly untied the knots while he stood watching her, his teeth showing white against his dark face, and his eyes half shut as if dazzled by the sight of her.
"Oh, why didn't you tie more knots in it?" she breathed as she undid the last, and then, opening the wrappings slowly, she gasped in astonishment. She shook it out gently, reverently—a clinging black lace gown of Paris make. Next she opened a box and took from it a picture hat, with long jet plumes, which she stroked and pressed fondly against her face. There were other garments also—a silken petticoat, silk stockings, and a pair of high-heeled shoes to match, with certain other delicate and dainty things which she modestly forbore to inspect before the Frenchman, who said no word, but only gazed at her, and for whom she had no eyes as yet. Finally she laid her presents aside, and, turning to him, said, in a hushed, awe-stricken voice:
"It's all there, everything complete! Oh, Poleon—you dear, dear Poleon!" She took his two big hands by the thumbs, as had been her custom ever since she was a child, and looked up at him, her eyes wet with emotion. But she could not keep away from the dress for long, and returned to feast her eyes upon it, the two children standing beside her, sprouting out of their rubber boots, with eyes and mouths round and protruding.
"You lak' it, eh?" pressed Poleon, hungry for more demonstrative expression.
"Oh-h," she sighed, "can't you SEE? Where on earth did you get it?" Then suddenly realizing its value, she cried, "Why, it must have cost a fortune!" A quick reproach leaped into her face, but he only laughed again.
"Wan night I gamble in beeg saloon. Yes, sir! I gamble good dat night, too. For w'ile I play roulette, den I dance, den I play some more, an' by-an'-by I see a new dance gal. She's Franche gal, from Montreal. Dat's de one I tol' you 'bout. Ba Gar! She's swell dress', too. She's name' Marie Bourgette."
"Oh, I've heard about her," said Necia. "She owns a claim on Bonanza Creek."
"Sure, she's frien's wit' Charlie McCormack, dat riche feller, but I don' know it dis tam', so I ask her for dance wit' me. Den we drink a bottle of champagne—twenty dollar."
"'Mamselle,' I say, 'how much you charge for sell me dat dress?'"
"'For w'y shall I sell im,' she say; 'I don' wear 'im before till to-night, an' I don' get no more dress lak' dis for t'ousan' dollar.'"
Necia exclaimed excitedly.
'"For w'y you sell 'im?' I say. 'Biccause I'll tak' 'im down to Flambeau for Necia Gale, w'at never had no dress lak' dat in all her life.' Wal, sir, dat Marie Bourgette, she's hear of you before, an' your dad, too—mos' all dose Cheechakos know 'bout Old Man Gale—so she say:
"'Wat lookin' kind of gal is dis Necia?' An' I tell her all 'bout you. Wen I'm t'rough she say:'"
"'But maybe your little frien' is more bigger as I am. Maybe de dress won't fit.'"
"'Ha! You don' know me, mamselle,' I say. 'I can guess de weight of a caribou to five poun'. She'll be same size la'kin' one inch 'roun' de wais'.'"
"'Poleon Doret,' she say, 'you ain' no Franchemans to talk lak'dat. Look here! I can sell dis dress for t'ousan' dollar to-night, or I can trade 'im for gol'-mine on El Dorado Creek to some dose Swede w'at want to catch a gal, but I'm goin' sell 'im to you for t'ree hondred dollar, jus' w'at I pay for 'im. You wait here till I come back.'"
"'No, no, Mamselle Marie, I'll go 'long, too, for so you don' change your min',' I say; an' I stan' outside her door till she pass me de whole dam' works."
"' Don' forget de little shoes,' I say—an' dat's how it come!"
"And you paid three hundred dollars for it!" Necia said, aghast. The Canadian shrugged.
"Only for de good heart of Marie Bourgette I pay wan t'ousan'," said he. "I mak' seven hondred dollar clean profit!"
"It was very nice of both of you, but—I can't wear it. I've never seen a dress like it, except in pictures, and I couldn't—" She saw his face fall, and said, impulsively:
"I'll wear it once, anyhow, Poleon, just for you. Go away quick, now, and let me put it on."
"Dat's good," he nodded, as he moved away. "I bet you mak' dose dance-hall women look lak' sucker."
No man may understand the girl's feelings as she set about clothing herself in her first fine dress. Time and again she had studied pictures from the "outside" showing women arrayed in the newest styles, and had closed her eyes to fancy herself dressed in like manner. She had always had an instinctive feeling that some day she would leave the North and see the wonderful world of which men spoke so much, and mingle with the fine ladies of her picture-books, but she never dreamed to possess an evening-gown while she lived in Alaska. And now, even while she recognized the grotesqueness of the situation, she burned to wear it and see herself in the garb of other women. So, with the morning sun streaming brightly into her room, lighting up the moss-chinked walls, the rough barbarism of fur and head and trophy, she donned the beautiful garments.
Poleon's eye had been amazingly correct, for it fitted her neatly, save at the waist, which was even more than an inch too large, notwithstanding the fact that she had never worn such a corset as the well-formed Marie Bourgette was accustomed to.
She pondered long and hesitated modestly when she saw its low cut, which exposed her neck and shoulders in a totally unaccustomed manner, for it struck her as amazingly indecent until she scurried through her magazines again and saw that its construction, as compared with others, was most conservative. Even so she shrank at sight of herself below the line of sunburn, for she was ringed about like a blue-winged teal, the demarcation being more pronounced because of the natural whiteness of her skin. The year previous Doret had brought her from the coast a Spanish shawl, which a salt-water sailor had sold him, and which had lain folded away ever since. She brought it forth now and arranged it about her shoulders, but in spite of this covering the fair flesh beneath peeped through its wide interstices most brazenly. She had never paid marked attention to the fairness of her skin till now, and all at once this difference between herself and her little brother and sister struck her. She had been a mother to them ever since they came, and had often laughed when she saw how brown their little bodies were, rejoicing in blushing quietude at her own whiteness, but to-day she neither laughed nor felt any joy, rather a dim wonder. She sat down, dress and all, in the thick softness of a great brown bear-skin and thought it over.
How odd it was, now that she considered it, that she needed no aid with these alien garments, that she knew instinctively their every feature, that there was no intricacy to cause her more than an instant's trouble. This knowledge must be a piece with the intuitive wit that had been the wonder of Father Barnum and had enabled her to absorb his teachings as fast as he gave them forth.
She was interrupted in her reverie by the passing of a shadow across her window and the stamp of a man's feet on the planks at the door. Of course, it was Poleon, who had come back to see her; so she rose hastily, gave one quick glance at the mirror above her washstand, choosing the side that distorted her image the least, and, hearing him still stamping, perfunctorily called:
"Come in! I'll be right out."
She kicked the train into place behind her, looped the shawl carelessly about her in a way to veil her modesty effectively, and, with an expectant smile at his extravagance of admiration, swept out into the big room, very self-conscious and very pleasing to the eye. She crossed proudly to the reading-table to give him a fair view of her splendor, and was into the middle of the room before she looked up. Taken aback, she uttered a little strangled cry and made a quick movement of retreat, only to check herself and stand with her chin high in the air, while wave after wave of color swept over her face.
"Great lovely dove!" ejaculated Burrell, fervently, staring at her.
"Oh, I—I thought you were Poleon. He—" In spite of herself she glanced towards her room as if to flee; she writhed at the utter absurdity of her appearance, and knew the Lieutenant must be laughing at her. But flight would only make it worse, so she stood as she was, having drawn back as far as she could, till the table checked her. Burrell, however, was not laughing, nor smiling even, for his embarrassment rivalled hers.
"I was looking for your father," he said, wondering if this glorious thing could be the quaint half-breed girl of yesterday. There was nothing of the native about her now, for her lithe young figure was drawn up to its height, and her head, upon which the long, black braids were coiled, was tipped back in a haughty poise. She had flung her hands out to grasp the table edge behind her, forgetful of her shawl, which drooped traitorously and showed such rounded lines as her ordinary dress scarce hinted at. This was no Indian maid, the soldier vowed; no blood but the purest could pulse in such veins, no spirit save the highest could flash in such eyes as these. A jealous rancor irked him at the thought of this beauty intended for the Frenchman's eyes.
"Can't you show yourself to me as well as to Poleon?" he said.
"Certainly not!" she declared. "He bought this dress for me, and I put it on to please him." Now she was herself again, for some note in the Lieutenant's voice gave her dominance over him. "After he sees it I will take it off, and—"
"Don't—don't take it off—ever," said Burrell. "I thought you were beautiful before, because of your quaintness and simplicity, but now—" his chest swelled—"why, this is a breath from home. You're like my sister and the girls back in Kentucky, only more wonderful."
"Am I?" she cried, eagerly. "Am I like other girls? Do I really look as if I'd always worn clothes like these?"
"Born to them," said he.
A smile broke over her grave face, assuming a hundred different shades of pleasure and making a child of her on the instant; all her reserve and hauteur vanished. Her warmth and unaffected frankness suffused him, as she stood out, turning to show the beauties of her gown, her brown hands fluttering tremulously as she talked.
"It's my first party-dress, you know, and I'm as proud of it as Molly is of her rubber boots. It's too big in here and too small right there; that girl must have had a bad chest; but otherwise it fits me as if it had been made for me, doesn't it? And the shoes! Aren't they the dearest things? See." She held her skirts back, showing her two feet side by side, her dainty ankles slim and shapely in their silk.
"They won't shed water," he said.
"I know; and look at the heels. I couldn't walk a mile to save my life."
"And they will come off if they get wet."
"But they make me very tall."
"They don't wear as well as moccasins." Both laughed delightedly till he broke in, impulsively:
"Oh, girl, don't you know how beautiful you are?"
"Of course I do!" she cried, imitating his change of voice; then added, naively, "That's why I hate to take it off."
"Where did you learn to wear things like that?" he questioned. "Where did you get that—well—that air?"
"It seems to me I've always known. There's nothing strange about it. The buttons and the hooks and the eyes are all where they belong. It's instinct, I suppose, from father's side—"
"Probably. I dare say I should understand the mechanism of a dress-suit, even if I'd never seen one," said the man, amused, yet impressed by her argument.
"I've always had visions of women dressed in this kind of clothing, white women—never natives—not dressed like this exactly, but in dainty, soft things, not at all like the ones I wear. I seem to have a memory, although it's hardly that, either—it's more like a dream—as if I were somebody else. Father says it is from reading too much."
"A memory of what?"
"It's too vague and tantalizing to tell what it is, except that I should be called Merridy."
"Merridy? Why that?"
"I'll show you. See." She slipped her hand inside the shawl and drew from her breast a thin gold chain on which was strung a band ring. "It was grandmother's—that's where I got the fancy for the name of Merridy, I suppose."
"May I look?"
"Of course. But I daren't take it off. I haven't had it off my neck since I was a baby." She held it out for him to examine, and, although it brought his head close to hers, there was no trace of coquetry in the invitation. He read the inscription, "From Dan to Merridy," but had no realization of what it meant, for he glimpsed the milk-white flesh almost at his lips, and felt her breath stirring his hair, while the delicate scent of her person seemed to loose every strong emotion in him. She was so dainty and yet so virile, so innocent and yet so wise, so cold and yet so pulsating.
"It is very pretty," he said, inanely.
At the look in his eyes as he raised his head her own widened, and she withdrew from him imperceptibly, dismissing him with a mere inflection.
"I wish you would send Poleon here. It's time he saw his present."
As Burrell walked out into the air he shut his jaws grimly and muttered: "Hold tight, young man. She's not your kind—she's not your kind."
Inside the store he found Doret and the trader in conversation with a man he had not met before, a ragged nondescript whose overalls were blue and faded and patched, particularly on the front of the legs above the knees, where a shovel-handle wears hardest; whose coat was of yellow mackinaw, the sleeves worn thin below the elbows, where they had rubbed against his legs in his work. As the soldier entered, the man turned on him a small, shrewd, weather-beaten face with one eye, while he went on talking to Gale.
"It ain't nothin' to git excited over, but it's wuth follerin'. If I wasn't so cussed unlucky I'd know there was a pay streak som'ere close by."
"Your luck is bound to change, Lee," said the trader, who helped him to roll up a pack of provisions.
"Mebbe so. Who's the dressmaker?" He jerked his bushy head towards Burrell, who had stopped at the front door with Poleon to examine some yellow grains in a folded paper.
"He's the boss soldier."
"Purty, ain't he?"
"If you ain't good he'll get you," said Gale, a trifle cynically, at which Lee chuckled.
"I reckon there's several of us in camp that ain't been a whole lot too good," said he. "Has he tried to git anybody yet?"
"No, but he's liable to. What would happen if he did? Suppose, for instance, he went after you—or me?"
The one-eyed man snorted derisively. "It ain't wuth considerin'!"
"Why not?" insisted Gale, guardedly. "Maybe I've got a record—you don't know."
"If you have, don't tell me nothin' about it," hastily observed Lee. "I'm a God-fearin' citizen myself, leanin' ever towards peace and quietudes, but what's past is dead and gone, and I'd hate to see a lispin' child like that blue-and-yeller party try to reezureck it."
"He's got the American army to back him up—at least five of them."
"Five agin a hundred. He aims to overawe us, don't he?" snickered the unregenerate Lee, but his wrinkles changed and deepened as he leaned across the counter confidentially.
"You say the word, John, and I'll take some feller along to help me, and we'll transfer this military post. There's plenty that would like the job if you give the wink."
"Pshaw! I'm just supposing," said the trader. "As long as they play around and drill and toot that horn, and don't bother anybody, I allow they're not in the way."
"All right! It's up to you. However, if I happen to leap down on this pay streak before it sees me comin', I'm goin' to put my friends in first and foremost, and shut out these dressmakers complete. So long!" He thrust his arms beneath the legs of a new pair of blue overalls that formed his pack-straps, wriggled the burden comfortably into place between his shoulders, and slouched out past Doret, to whom he nodded, ignoring the "dressmaker."
Having given Necia's message to Poleon, the Lieutenant took up his business with the trader. It concerned the purchase of certain supplies that had been omitted from the military outfit, and when this was concluded he referred to the encounter of that morning.
"I don't want you to think I bungle everything in that manner," he said, "for I don't. I want to work with you, and I want to be friends with you."
"I'm willing," said Gale.
"Nobody dislikes playing policeman more than I do, but it's a part of my duty, and I'll have to do it," continued the young man.
"I reckon you simply aim to keep peace, eh? You ain't lookin' for nobody in particular?"
"Of course not—outside of certain notorious criminals who have escaped justice and worked north."
"Then there is a few that you want, eh?"
"Yes, certain old-timers. The officers at every post have descriptions of a few such, and if they show up we will take them in and hold them till courts are established."
"If you've got their names and descriptions, mebbe I could help you," said the trader, carelessly.
"Thank you, I'll bring up the list and we'll go over it together. You must have been here a good while."
"About ten years."
"Then Miss Necia was born out in the States?"
Gale shot a startled glance at the soldier before he answered in the affirmative, but Burrell was studying a pattern of sunlight on the floor and did not observe him. A moment later he inquired, hesitatingly:
"Is this your first marriage, Mr. Gale?" When the other did not answer, he looked up and quickly added:
"I beg your pardon, sir. What led me to ask was Miss Necia—she is so—well—she is such a remarkable girl."
Gale's face had undergone a change, but he answered, quietly:
"I 'ain't never been married."
"When I took Alluna it wasn't the style, and neither one of us has thought much about it since."
"Oh, I see," exclaimed Burrell, hurriedly. "I'll bring that list with me the first time I think about it," and, nodding amiably, he sauntered out. But his mind was in a whirl, and even after he had reached his quarters he found himself repeating:
"The other was bad enough. Poor little girl! Poor little girl!"
Gale likewise left the store and went into his house, the odd look still strong in his eyes, to find Necia posing in her new regalia for Poleon's benefit. At sight of her he fell into a strange and unexpected humor, and to their amazement commanded her roughly to take the things off. His voice and manner were harsh and at utter variance with any mood he had ever displayed before; nor would he explain his unreasoning fury, but strode out again, leaving her in tears and the Frenchman staring.
THE SOLDIER FINDS AN UNTRODDEN VALLEY
During the weeks that followed Meade Burrell saw much of Necia. At first he had leaned on the excuse that he wanted to study the curious freak of heredity she presented; but that wore out quickly, and he let himself drift, content with the pleasure of her company and happy in the music of her laughter. Her quick wit and keen humor delighted him, and the mystery of her dark eyes seemed to hold the poetry and beauty of all the red races that lay behind her on the maternal side. At times he thought of her as he had seen her that morning in the dance-girl's dress, and remembered the purity of neck and breast it had displayed, but he attributed that to the same prank of heritage that had endowed her with other traits alien to her mother's race.
He had experienced a profound sense of pity for her upon learning her father's relation to Alluna, but this also largely vanished when he found that the girl was entirely oblivious to its significance. He had tried her in many subtle ways, and found that she regarded the matter innocently, as customary, and therefore in the light of an accepted convention; nor did she seem to see anything in her blood or station to render her inferior to other women. She questioned him tirelessly about his sister, and he was glad of this, for it placed no constraint between them. So that, as he explored her many quaint beliefs and pagan superstitions, the delight of being with her grew, and he ceased to reason whither it might lead him.
As for her, each day brought a keener delight. She unfolded before the Kentuckian like some beautiful woodland flower, and through innumerable, unnoticed familiarities took him into her innermost confidence, sharing with him those girlish hopes and beliefs and aspirations she had never voiced till now.
A month of this went by, and then Runnion returned. He came on an up-going steamer which panted in for a rest from its thousand-mile climb, and for breath to continue its fight against the never-tiring sweep of waters. The manner of his coming was bold, for he stood fairly upon the ship's deck, staring at the growing picture of the town, as he had watched it recede a month before, and his smile was evil now, as it had been then. With him was a stranger. When the boat was at rest Runnion sauntered down the gang-plank and up to the Lieutenant, who stood above the landing-place, and who noted that the scar, close up against his hat-band, was scarce healed. He accosted the officer with an insolent assurance.
"Well, I'm back again, you see, and I'm back to stay."
"Very well, Runnion; did you bring an outfit with you?" The young man addressed him civilly, although he felt that the fellow's presence was a menace and would lead to trouble.
"Yes, and I'm pretty fat besides." He shook a well-laden gold-sack at the officer. "I reckon I can rustle thirteen dollars a month most anywhere, if I'm left alone."
"What do you want in this place, anyhow?" demanded Burrell, curiously.
"None of your damned business," the man answered, grinning.
"Be sure it isn't," retorted the Lieutenant, "because it would please me right down to the ground if it were. I'd like to get you."
"I'm glad we understand each other," Runnion said, and turned to oversee the unloading of his freight, falling into conversation with the stranger, who had been surveying the town without leaving the boat. Evidently this man had a voice in Runnion's affairs, for he not only gave him instructions, but bossed the crew who handled his merchandise, and Meade Burrell concluded that he must be some incoming tenderfoot who had grub-staked the desperado to prospect in the hills back of Flambeau. As the two came up past him he saw that he was mistaken—this man was no more of a tenderfoot than Runnion; on the contrary, he had the bearing of one to whom new countries are old, who had trod the edge of things all his life. There was a hint of the meat-eating animal about him; his nose was keen and hawk-like, his walk and movements those of the predatory beast, and as he passed by, Burrell observed that his eyes were of a peculiar cruelty that went well with his thin lips. He was older by far than Runnion, but, while the latter was mean-visaged and swaggering, the stranger's manner was noticeable for its repression.
Impelled by an irresistible desire to learn something about the man, the Lieutenant loitered after Runnion and his companion, and entered the store in time to see the latter greet "No Creek" Lee, the prospector, who had come into town for more food. Both men spoke with quiet restraint.
"Nine years since I saw you, Stark," said the miner. "Where you bound?"
"The diggings," replied Stark, as Lee addressed the stranger.
"No, same old thing, but I'm grub-staking a few men, as usual. One of them stays here. I may open a house in Dawson if the camp is as good as they say it is."
"This here's a good place for you."
Stark laughed noiselessly and without mirth. "Fine! There must be a hundred people living here."
"Never mind, you take it from me," said the miner, positively, "and get in now on the quiet. There's something doing." His one sharp eye detected the Lieutenant close by, so he drew his friend aside and began talking to him earnestly and with such evident effect as to alter Stark's plans on the moment; for when Runnion entered the store shortly Stark spoke to him quickly, following which they both hurried back to the steamer and saw to the unloading of much additional freight and baggage. From the volume and variety of this merchandise, it was evident that Mr. Stark would in no wise be a burden to the community.
Burrell was not sufficiently versed in the ways of mining-camps to know exactly what this abrupt change of policy meant, but that there was something in the air he knew from the mysterious manner of "No Creek" Lee and from the suppressed excitement of Doret and the trader. His curiosity got the better of him finally, and he fell into talk with Lee, inquiring about the stranger by way of an opening.
"That's Ben Stark. I knew him back in the Cassiar country," said Lee.
"Is he a mining man?"
"Well, summat. He's made and lost a bank-roll that a greyhound couldn't leap over in the mining business, but it ain't his reg'lar graft. He run one of the biggest places in the Northwest for years."
"Saloon and variety house—seven bartenders, that's all. He's the feller that killed the gold-commissioner. Of course, that put him on the hike again."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, he had a record as long as a sick man's drug bill before he went into that country, and when he put the commissioner away them Canadian officials went after him like they was killin' snakes, and it cost him all he had made to get clear. If it had happened across the line, the coroner's jury would have freed him, 'cause the commissioner was drunk and started the row; but it happened right in Stark's saloon, and you know Canucks is stronger than vitriol for law and order. Not bein' his first offence, it went hard with him."
"He looks like a killer," said Burrell.
"Yes, but he ain't the common kind. He always lets the other man begin, and therefore he ain't never done time."
"Come, now," argued the Lieutenant, "if it were the other man who invariably shot first, Stark would have been killed long ago."
"I don't care what WOULD have happened, it 'AIN'T happened, and he's got notches on his gun till it looks like a cub bear had chawed it. If you was a Western man you'd know what they say about him."
"'The bullet 'ain't been run to kill him.' That's the sayin'. You needn't grin, there's many a better man than you believes it."
"Who is it that the bullet hasn't been run to kill?" said the trader's deep voice behind them. He had finished with his duties, and now sauntered forward.
"Ben Stark," said Lee, turning. "You know him, John?"
"No, I never saw him, but I know who he is—used to hear of him in the Coeur d'Alenes."
"That's him I was talking to," said the miner. "He's an old friend of mine, and he's going to locate here."
Burrell thought he saw Lee wink at the trader, but he was not sure, for at that moment the man of whom they were speaking re-entered. Lee introduced him, and the three men shook hands. While the soldier fell into easy conversation with the new-comer, Gale gazed at him narrowly, studying him as he studied all men who came as strangers. As he was doing so Alluna entered, followed by Johnny and Molly. She had come for sugar, and asked for it in her native tongue. Upon her exit Stark broke off talking to the Lieutenant and turned to the trader.
"Your squaw, Mr. Gale?"
The old man nodded.
"Yes. Why, do you savvy the talk?"
"Some. I lived in California once."
"Where?" The question came like a shot.
"Oh, here and there; I followed the Mother Lode for a spell."
"I don't recall the name," said the trader, after a bit.
"Possibly. Where were you located?"
"I never lit on any one place long enough to call it home."
It seemed to Burrell that both men were sparring cautiously in an indirect, impersonal manner.
"Those your kids, too, eh?" Stark continued.
"Yes, and I got another one besides—older. A girl."
"She's a 'pip,' too," said "No Creek" Lee, fervently. "She's plumb beautiful."
"All of them half-breeds?" questioned Stark.
"Sure." The trader's answer was short, and when the other showed no intention of pressing the subject further he sauntered away; but no sooner was he out of hearing than Stark said: "Humph! They're all alike."
"This one ain't," Lee declared. "He's different; ain't he, Lieutenant?"
"He certainly is," agreed Burrell. This was the first criticism he had heard of Necia's father, and although Stark volunteered no argument, it was plain that his opinion remained unaffected.
The old man went through the store at the rear and straightway sought Alluna. Speaking to her with unwonted severity in the Pah-Ute language, he said:
"I have told you never to use your native tongue before strangers. That man in the store understands."
"I only asked for sugar to cook the berries with," she replied.
"True, but another time you might say more, therefore the less you speak it the better. He is the kind who sees much and talks little. Address me in Siwash or in English unless we are alone."
"I do not like that man," said the woman. "His eyes are bad, like a fish eagle's, and he has no heart."
Suddenly she dropped her work and came close up to him. "Can he be the one?"
"I don't know. Stark is not the name, but he might have changed it; he had reasons enough."
"Who is this man Stark?"
"I don't know that, either. I used to hear of him when I was in British Columbia."
"But surely you must know if he is the same—she must have told you how he looked—others must have told you—"
Gale shook his head. "Very little. I could not ask her, and others knew him so well they never doubted that I had seen him; but this much I do know, he was dark—"
"This man is dark—"
"—and his spirit was like that of a mad horse—"
"This man's temper is black—"
"—and his eyes were cruel."
"This man has evil eyes."
"He lacked five years of my age," said the trader.
"This man is forty years old. It must be he," said the squaw.
Even Necia would have marvelled had she heard this revelation of her father's age, for his hair and brows were grizzled, and his face had the look of a man of sixty, while only those who knew him well, like Doret, were aware of his great strength and the endurance that belied his appearance.
"We will send Necia down to the Mission to-night, and let Father Barnum keep her there till this man goes," said the squaw, after some deliberation.
"No, she must stay here," Gale replied, with decision. "The man has come here to live, so it won't do any good to send her away, and, after all, what is to be will be. But she must never be seen in that dance-girl's dress again, at least, not till I learn more about this Stark. It makes no difference whether this one is the man or not; he will come and I shall know him. For a year I have felt that the time was growing short, and now I know it."
"No, no!" Alluna cried; "we have no strangers here. No white men except the soldiers and this one have come in a year. This is but a little trading-post."
"It was yesterday, but it isn't to-day. Lee has made a strike—like the one George Carmack made on the Klondike. He came to tell me and Poleon, and we are going back with him to-night, but you must say nothing or it will start a stampede."
"Other men will come—a great many of them?" interrogated Alluna, fearfully, ignoring utterly the momentous news.
"Yes. Flambeau will be another Dawson if this find is what Lee thinks it is. I stayed away from the Upper Country because I knew crowds of men would come from the States, and I feared that he might be among them; but it's no use hiding any longer, there's no other place for us to go. If Lee has got a mine, I'll have the one next to it, for we will be the first ones on the ground. What happens after that won't matter much, you four will be provided for. We are to leave in an hour, one at a time, to avoid comment."
"But why did this man stop here?" insisted the woman. "Why did he not stay on the steamboat and go to Dawson?"
"He's a friend of Lee's. He is going with us." Then he added, almost in a whisper, "Before we return I shall know."
Alluna seized his arm. "Promise to come back, John! Promise that you will come back even if this should be the man."
"I promise. Don't worry, little woman; I'm not ready for a reckoning yet."
He gave her certain instructions about the store, charging her in particular to observe the utmost secrecy regarding the strike, else she might precipitate a premature excitement which would go far towards ruining his and Poleon's chances. All of which she noted; then, as he turned away, she laid her hand on his arm and said:
"If you do not know him he will not know you. Is it not so?"
"Then the rest is easy—"
But he only shook his head doubtfully and answered, "Perhaps—I am not sure," and went inside, where he made up a light pack of bacon, flour and tea, a pail or two, a coffee-pot and a frying-pan, which he rolled inside a robe of rabbit-skin and bound about in turn with a light tarpaulin. It did not weigh thirty pounds in all. Selecting a new pair of water-boots, he stuffed dry grass inside them, oiled up his six-shooter, then slipped out the back way, and in five minutes was hidden in the thickets. Half an hour later, having completed a detour of the town, he struck the trail to the interior, where he found Poleon Doret, equipped in a similar manner, resting beside a stream, singing the songs of his people.
When Burrell returned to his quarters he tried to mitigate the feeling of lonesomeness that oppressed him by tackling his neglected correspondence. Somehow, to-day, the sense of his isolation had come over him stronger than ever. His rank forbade any intimacy with his miserable handful of men, who had already fallen into the monotony of routine, while every friendly overture he made towards the citizens of Flambeau was met with distrust and coldness, his stripes of office seeming to erect a barrier and induce an ostracism stronger and more complete than if they had been emblems of the penitentiary. He began to resent it keenly. Even Doret and the trader seemed to share the general feeling, hence the thought of the long, lonesome winter approaching reduced the Lieutenant to a state of black despondency, deepened by the knowledge that he now had an open enemy in camp in the person of Runnion. Then, too, he had taken a morbid dislike to the new man, Stark. So that, all in all, the youth felt he had good reason to be in the dumps this afternoon. There was nothing desirable in this place—everything undesirable—except Necia. Her presence in Flambeau went far towards making his humdrum existence bearable, but of late he had found himself dwelling with growing seriousness on the unhappy circumstances of her birth, and had almost made up his mind that it would be wise not to see her any more. The tempting vision of her in the ball-dress remained vividly in his imagination, causing him hours of sweet torment. There was a sparkle, a fineness, a gentleness about her that seemed to make the few women he had known well dull and commonplace, and even his sister, whom till now he had held as the perfection of all things feminine, suffered by comparison with this maiden of the frontier.
He was steeped in this sweet, grave melancholy, when a knock came at his door, and he arose to find Necia herself there, excited and radiant. She came in without sign of embarrassment or slightest consciousness of the possible impropriety of her act.
"The most wonderful thing has happened," she began at once, when she found they were alone. "You'll faint for joy."
"What is it?"
"Nobody knows except father and Poleon and the two new men—"
"What is it?"
"I teased the news out of mother, and then came right here."
He laughed. "But what—may I ask—"
"Lee has made a strike—a wonderful strike—richer than the Klondike."
"So? The old man's luck has changed. I'm right glad of that," said the soldier.
"I came as fast as I could, because to-morrow everybody will know about it, and it will be too late."
"Too late for what?"
"For us to get in on it, of course. Oh, but won't there be a stampede! Why, all the people bound for Dawson on the next boat will pile off here, then the news will go up-river and down-river, and thousands of others will come pouring in from everywhere, and this will be a city. Then we will stake our town lots and sell them for ever so much money, and go around with our noses in the air, and they will say to each other:
"'Who is that beautiful lady with the fine clothes?' and somebody will answer:
"'Why, that is Miss Necia Gale, the mine-owner.' And then you will come along, and they will say:
"'That is Lieutenant Burrell, the millionaire, and—'"
"Hold on! hold on!" said the soldier, stopping her breathless patter. "Tell me all about this."
"Well, 'No Creek' came in this morning to tell dad and Poleon. Then the boat arrived with an old friend of Lee's, a Mr. Stark, so Lee told him, too, and now they've all gone back to his creek to stake more claims. They slipped away quietly to prevent suspicion, but I knew there was something up from the way Poleon acted, so I made Alluna tell me all about it. They haven't more than two hours start of us, and we can overtake them easily."
"We! Why, we are not going?"
"Yes, we are," she insisted, impatiently—"you and I. That's why I came, so you can get a mine for yourself and be a rich man, and so you can help me get one. I know the way. Hurry up!"
"No," said he, in as firm a tone as he could command. "In the first place, these men don't like me, and they don't want me to share in this."
"What do you care?"
"In the second place, I'm not a miner. I don't know how to proceed."
"Nevermind; I do. I've heard nothing but mining all my life."
"In the third place, I don't think I have the right, for I'm a soldier. I'm working for Uncle Sam, and I don't believe I ought to take up mining claims. I'm not sure there is anything to prevent it, but neither am I sure it would be quite the square thing—are you?"
"Why, of course it's all right," said Necia, her eager face clouding with the look of a hurt child. "If you don't do it, somebody else will."
But the Lieutenant shook his head. "Maybe I'm foolish, but I can't see my way clear, much as I would like to."
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" she exclaimed, brokenly. "I do so want to go. I want you to be rich, and I want to be rich myself. I want to be a fine lady, and go outside and live like other girls. It's—the only chance—I ever had—and I'll never have another. Oh, it means so much to me; it means life, future, everything! Why, it means heaven to a girl like me!" Her eyes were wet with the sudden dashing of her hopes, and her chin quivered in a sweet, girlish way that made the youth almost surrender on the instant. But she turned to the window and gazed out over the river, continuing, after a moment's pause: "Please don't—mind me—but you can't understand what a difference this would make to me."
"We couldn't possibly overtake them if we tried," he said, as if willing to treat with his conscience.
"No, but we could beat them in. I know where Lee is working, for I went up last winter with Constantine and his dog-team, over a short cut by way of Black Bear Creek. We took it coming back, and I could find it again, but Lee doesn't know that route, so he will follow the summer trail, which is fifteen miles farther. You see, his creek makes a great bend to the southward, and heads back towards the river, so by crossing the divide at the source of Black Bear you drop into it a few miles above his cabin."
While she made this appeal Burrell fought with himself. There were reasons why he longed to take this trip, more than he had longed for anything since boyhood. These men of Flambeau had disregarded him, and insisted on treating him with contemptuous distrust, despite his repeated friendly overtures; wherefore he was hungry to beat them at their own game, hungry to thrust himself ahead of them and compel them to reckon with him as an equal, preferring a state of open enmity, if necessary, to this condition of indifferent toleration. Moreover, he knew that Necia was coveted by half of them, and if he spent a night in the woods alone with her it would stir them up a bit, he fancied. By Heaven! That would make them sit up and notice him! But then—it might work a wrong upon her; and yet, would it? He was not so sure that it would. She had come to him; she was old enough to know her mind, and she was but a half-breed girl, after all, who doubtless was not so simple as she seemed. Other men had no such scruples in this or any other land, and yet the young man hesitated until, encouraged by his silence, the girl came forward and spoke again, impulsively:
"Don't be silly, Mr. Burrell. Come! Please come with me, won't you?"
She took him by the edges of his coat and drew him to her coaxingly. It may have been partly the spirit of revolt that had been growing in him all day, or it may have been wholly the sense of her there beside him, warm and pleading, but something caused a great wave to surge up through his veins, caused him to take her in his arms, fiercely kissing her upturned face again and again, crying softly, deep down in his throat:
"Yes! Yes! Yes! You little witch! I'll go anywhere with you! Anywhere! Anywhere!" The impulse was blind and ungovernable, and it grew as his lips met hers, while, strangely enough, she made no resistance, yielding herself quietly, till he found her arms wound softly about his neck and her face nestling close to his. Neither of them knew how long they stood thus blended together, but soon he grew conscious of the beating of her heart against his breast, as she lay there like a little fluttering bird, and felt the throbbing of his own heart swaying him. Her arms, her lips, and her whole body clung to his in a sweet surrender, and yet there was nothing immodest or unmaidenly about it, for his strength and ardor had lifted her and drawn her to him as on the sweep of a great wave.
She drew her face free and hid it against his neck, breathing softly and with shy timidity, as if the sound of the words she whispered half frightened her.
"I love you. I love you, Meade."
It may happen that a man will spend months in friendly and charming intimacy with a woman and never feel the violence or tenderness of passion till there comes a psychic moment or a physical touch that suddenly enwraps them like a flame. So it was with Burrell. The sweet burden of this girl in his arms, the sense of her yielding lips, the warmth of her caressing hands, momentarily unleashed a leaping pack of mad desires, and it was she who finally drew herself away to remind him smilingly that he was wasting time.
"My lips will be here when those mines are worked out," she said. "No, no!" and she held him off as he came towards her again, insisting that if they were going they must be off at once, and that he could have no more kisses for the present. "But, of course, it is a long trip, and we will have to sit down now and then to rest," she added, shyly; at which he vowed that he was far from strong, and could not walk but a little way at a time, yet even so, he declared, the trail would be too short, even though it led to Canada.
"Then get your pack made up," she ordered, "for we must be well up towards the head of Black Bear Creek before it grows dark enough to camp."
Swiftly he made his preparations; a madness was upon him now, and he took no pains to check or analyze the reasons for his decision. The thought of her loveliness in his arms once more, far up among the perfumed wooded heights, as the silent darkness stole upon them, stirred in him such a fret to be gone that it was like a fever. He slipped away to the barracks with instructions for his corporal, but was back again in a moment. Finally he took up his burden of blanket and food, then said to her:
"Well, are you ready, little one?"
"Yes, Meade," she answered, simply.
"And you are sure you won't regret it?"
"Not while you love me."
He kissed her again before they stepped out on the river trail that wound along the bank. A hundred yards beyond they were hidden by the groves of birch and fir.
Two hours later they paused where the foaming waters of Black Bear Creek rioted down across a gravelled bar and into the silent, sweeping river, standing at the entrance to a wooded, grass-grown valley, with rolling hills and domes displayed at its head, while back of them lay the town, six miles away, its low, squat buildings tiny and toy like, but distinctly silhouetted against the evening sky.