MoboReader> Literature > The Barrier

   Chapter 2 POLEON DORET'S HAND IS QUICKER THAN HIS TONGUE

The Barrier By Rex Beach Characters: 29189

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


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 entra

nce 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?"

"No."

"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.

"Yes."

"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.

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