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   Chapter 1 THE LAST FRONTIER

The Barrier By Rex Beach Characters: 20817

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


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."

"Which one?"

"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?"

"Of course!"

"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 to

wards 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:

"Necia! Necia!"

"Coming in a moment!" the girl called back; then, turning to the young officer, she added, quietly: "Mother needs me now. Good-bye!"

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