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   Chapter 4 THE SOLDIER FINDS AN UNTRODDEN VALLEY

The Barrier By Rex Beach Characters: 26808

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


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.

"Mining now?"

"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, eh?"

"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.

"Pah-Ute, eh?"

"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."

"Who?"

"Squaw-men."

"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 m

an 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?"

"Yes."

"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.

"Is it not time to rest?" said the soldier, laughingly, yet with a look of yearning in his misty eyes as he took the girlish figure in his arms. But she only smiled up at him and, releasing his hold, led the way into the forest.

He turned for a moment and shook his fist at the village and those in it, laughing loudly as if from the feel of the blood that leaped within him. Then he joined his companion, and, hand-in-hand, they left the broad reaches of the greater stream behind them and plunged into the untrodden valley.

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