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   Chapter 5 A STORY IS BEGUN

The Barrier By Rex Beach Characters: 21087

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"It's fonny t'ing how two brown eye

Was changin' everything-

De cloud she's no more on de sky,

An' winter's jus' lak' spring

Dey mak' my pack so very light,

De trail, she's not so long-

I'd walk it forty mile to-night

For hear her sing wan song

But now I'm busy mak' fortune

For marry on dat girl,

An' if she's tole me yass, dat's soon,

Bonheur! I'm own de worl'!"

Poleon Doret sang gayly as the trader came towards him through the open grove of birch, for he was happy this afternoon, and, being much of a dreamer, this fresh enterprise awoke in him a boyish pleasure. Then Necia had teased him as he came away, and begged him, as was always her custom, to take her with him, no matter whence or whither, so long as there was adventure afoot. Well, it would not be long now before he could say yes, and he would take her on a journey far longer than either of them had yet taken-a journey that would never end. Had not the gods looked with favor, at last, upon his long novitiate, and been pleased with the faith he had kept? Had not this discovery of "No Creek" Lee's been providentially arranged for his own especial benefit? A fool could see that this was a mark of celestial approbation, and none but a fool would question the wisdom of the gods. Had he not watched the girl grow from a slip of thirteen and spoken never a word of his love? Had he not served and guarded her with all the gentle chivalry of an olden knight? Of course! And here was his reward, a gift of wealth to crown his service, all for her. Now that she was a woman, and had seen him tried, and knew he was a man, he would bring his burden of prosperity and lay it at her feet, saying:

"Here is another offering, my Necia, and with it go the laughter and the music and the heart of Poleon Doret."

Sacré! It would not take her long to wake up after that! The world was very bright indeed this afternoon, and he burst again into song in company with the voices of the forest people:

"Chanté, rossignol, chanté!

Toi qui à le coeur gai;

Tu as le coeur à rire

Mai j' l' ai-tà pleurer,

Il y a longtemps que j' t'aime

Jamais je ne t'oublierai."

[Footnote:

"Sing, little bird, oh, sing away!

You with the voice so light and gay!

Yours is a heart that laughter cheers,

Mine is a hearts that's full of tears.

Long have I loved, I love her yet;

Leave her I can, but not forget."]

"Whew!" said Gale, slipping out of his pack-straps, "the skeeters is bad."

"You bet your gum boots," said Poleon. "Dey're mos' so t'ick as de summer dey kill Johnnie Platt on de Porcupine." Both men wore gauntleted gloves of caribou-skin and head harnesses of mosquito-netting stretched over globelike frames of thin steel bands, which they slipped on over their hats after the manner of divers' helmets, for without protection of some kind the insects would have made travel impossible once the Yukon breezes were left behind or once the trail dipped from the high divides where there was no moss.

"Let's see. It was you that found him, wasn't it?" said Gale.

"Sure t'ing! I'm comin' down for grub in my canoe, w'en I see dis feller on de bank, walkin' lak' he's in beeg horry. 'Ba Gar!' I say, 'dere's man goin' so fast he'll meet hese'f comin' home!' Den he turn roun' an' go tearin' back, wavin' hees arms lak' he's callin' me, till he fall down. Wen I paddle close up, I don' know 'im no more dan stranger, an' me an' Johnnie Platt is trap togeder wan winter. Wat you t'ink of dat?"

"I saw a fellow killed that way at Holy Cross," interpolated the trader.

"'Hello,' I say, 'w'at's de matter?' An' den I see somet'ing 'bout 'im dat look familiar. Hees face she's all swell' up an' bleedin' lak' raw meat." The Frenchman curled his upper lip back from his teeth and shook his head at the remembrance.

"Jesu, dat's 'orrible sight! Dem fly is drive 'im crazee. Hees nose an' ears is look lak' holes in beeg red sponge, an' hees eye are close up tight."

"He died before you got him in, didn't he?"

"Yes. He was good man, too. Some tam' if I ever have bad enemy w'at I like to see catch hell I'm goin' turn 'im loose 'mong dose skeeter-bug."

"Holy Mackinaw!" ejaculated Gale. "Who'd ever think of that? Why, that's worse than dropping water on his skull till he goes crazy, like them Chinamen do."

The Frenchman nodded. "It's de wors' t'ing I know. Dat's w'y I lak' to geeve it to my enemy."

"Imagine fightin' the little devils till they stung you crazy and pizened your eyes shut!"

Gale fell to considering this, while Poleon filled his pipe, and, raising his veil, undertook to smoke. The pests proved too numerous, however, and forced him to give it up.

"Bagosh! Dey're hongry!"

"It will be all right when we get out of the woods," said the elder man.

"I guess you been purty glad for havin' Necia home again, eh?" ventured the other after a while, unable to avoid any longer the subject uppermost in his mind.

"Yes, I'm glad she's through with her schooling."

"She's gettin' purty beeg gal now."

"That's right."

"By-an'-by she's goin' marry on some feller-w'at?"

"I suppose so. She ain't the kind to stay single."

"Ha! Dat's right, too. Mebbe you don' care if she does get marry, eh?"

"Not if she gets a man that will treat her right."

"Wal! Wal! Dere's no trouble 'bout dat," exclaimed Doret, fervently. "No man w'at's livin' could treat her bad. She's too good an' too purty for have bad husban'."

"She is, is she?" Gale turned on him with a strange glare in his eyes. "Them's the kind that get the he-devils. There's something about a good girl that attracts a bad man, particularly if she's pretty; and it goes double, too-the good men get the hellions. A fellow can't get so tough but what he can catch a good woman, and a decent man usually draws a critter that looks like a sled and acts like a timber wolf."

"Necia wouldn't marry on no bad man," said Doret, positively.

"No?" said Gale. "Let me tell you what I saw with my own eyes. I knew a girl once that was just as good and pure as Necia, and just as pretty, too-yes, and a thousand times prettier."

"Ho, ho!" laughed Doret, sceptically.

"She was an Eastern girl, and she come West where men were different to what she'd been used to. Those were early days, and it was a new country, where a person didn't know much about his neighbor's past and cared less; and, although there were a heap of girls thereabouts, they were the kind you'll always find in such communities, while this one was plumb different. Man! Man! But she was different. She was a WOMAN! Two fellows fell in love with her. One of them lived in the same camp as her, and he was a good man, leastways everybody said he was, but he wasn't wise to all the fancy tricks that pretty women hanker after; and, it being his first affair, he was right down buffaloed at the very thought of her, so he just hung around and slept late so that he might dream about her and feel like he was her equal or that she loved back at him. You know! The other fellow came from a neighboring town, and he wasn't the same kind, for he'd knocked around more, and was a better liar, but he wasn't right. No, sir! He was sure a wrong guy, as it came out, but he was handsomer and younger, and the very purity and innocence of the girl drew him, I reckon, being a change from what he had ever mixed up with."

"W'y don' dis good man tak' a shot at him?" asked Poleon, hotly.

"First, he didn't realize what was going on, being too tied up with dreaming, I reckon; and, second, neither man didn't know the other by sight, living as they did in different parts; third, he was an ordinary sort of fellow, and hadn't ever had any trouble, man to man, at that time. Anyhow, the girl up and took the bad one."

"Wat does de good man do, eh?"

"Well, he was all tore up about it, but he went away like a sick quail hides out."

"Dat's too bad."

"He heard about them now and then, and what he heard tore him up worse than the other had, for the girl's husband couldn't wear the harness long, and, having taken away what good there was in her, he made up in deviltry for the time he had lost. She stood it pretty well, and never whimpered, even when her eyes were open and she saw what a prize-package she had drawn. The fact that she was game enough to stand for him and yet keep herself clean without complaint made the man worse. He tried to break her spirit in a thousand ways, tried to make her the same as he was, tried to make her a bad woman, like the others he had known. It appeared like the one pleasure he got was to torture her."

"W'y don' she quit 'im?" said Doret. "Dat ain' wrong for quit a man lak' him."

"She couldn't quit on account of the kid. They had a youngster. Then, too, she had ideas of her own; so she stood it for three years, living worse than a dog, till she saw it wasn't any use-till she saw that he would make a bad woman of her as sure as he would make one of the kid-till he got rough-"

"No! No! You don' mean dat? No man don' hurt no woman," interjected Doret.

"By God! That's just what I mean," the trader answered, while his face had grown so gray as to match his brows. "He beat her."

Poleon broke into French words that accorded well with the trader's harsh voice.

"The woman sent for the other man after that, for he had been living lonely, loving her all the time, and you'd better believe he went."

"Ha! Dat's fine! Dat's dam' fine!" said the other. "I'll bet dere's hell to pay den-w'at?"

"Yes, there was a kind of reckoning." The old man lapsed into moody silence, the younger one waiting eagerly for him to continue, but there came the sound of voices down the trail, and they looked up.

"Here comes Lee," said Gale.

"Wat happen' den? I'm got great interes' 'bout dis woman," insisted Poleon.

"It's a long story, and I just told you this much to show what I said was true about a good girl and a bad man, and to show why I want Necia to get a good one. The sooner it happens the better it will suit me."

Neither man had ever spoken thus openly to the other about Necia before, and although their language was indirect, each knew the other's thought. But there was no time for further talk now, for the others were close upon them. As they came into view, Gale exclaimed:

"Well, if he hasn't brought Runnion along!"

"Humph!" grunted Doret. "I don' t'ink much of dat feller. Wat's de matter wit' 'No Creek,' anyhow?"

The three new

arrivals dropped down upon the moss to rest, for the up-trail was heavy and the air sultry inside the forest. Lee was the first to speak.

"Did you get away without bein' seen?" he asked.

"Sure," answered Gale. "Poleon has been here two hours."

"That's good; I don't want nobody taggin' along."

"We came right through the town boldly," announced Stark; "but if they had seen you two they would have suspected something, sure."

Runnion volunteered nothing except oaths at the mosquitoes and at his pack-straps, which were new and cut him already. As no explanation of his presence was offered, neither the trader nor Doret made any comment then, but it came out later, when the old miner dropped far enough behind the others to render conversation possible.

"You decided to take in another one, eh?" Gale asked Lee.

"It wasn't exactly my doin's," replied the miner. "Stark asked me to let Runnion come 'long, bein' as he had grub-staked him, and he seemed so set on it that I ackeressed. You see, it's the first chance I ever had to pay him back for a favor he done me in the Cassiar country. There's plenty of land to go around."

It was Lee's affair, thought the trader, and he might tell whom he liked, so he said no more, but fell to studying the back of the man next in front, who happened to be Stark, observing every move and trick of him, and, during the frequent pauses, making a point of listening and watching him guardedly.

All through the afternoon the five men wound up the valley, following one another's footsteps, emerging from sombre thickets of fir to flounder across wide pastures of "nigger-heads," that wobbled and wriggled and bowed beneath their feet, until at cost of much effort and profanity they gained the firmer footing of the forest. Occasionally they came upon the stream, and found easier going along its gravel bars, till a bend threw them again into the meadows and mesas on either hand. Their course led them far up the big valley to another stream that entered from the right, bearing backward in a great bow towards the Yukon, and always there were dense clouds of mosquitoes above their heads. At one point Stark, hot and irritable, remarked:

"There must be a shorter cut than this, Lee?"

"I reckon there is," the miner replied, "but I've always had a pack to carry, so I chose the level ground ruther than climb the divides."

"S'pose dose people at camp hear 'bout dis strike an' beat us in?" suggested Poleon.

"It wouldn't be easy going for them after they got there," Stark said, sourly. "I, for one, wouldn't stand for it."

"Nor I," agreed Runnion.

"I don't see how you'd help yourself," the trader remarked. "One man's got as good a right as another."

"I guess I'd help myself, all right," Stark laughed, significantly, as did Runnion, who added:

"Lee is entitled to put in anybody he wants on his own discovery, and if anybody tries to get ahead of us there's liable to be trouble."

"I reckon if I don't know no short-cut, nobody else does," Lee remarked, whereupon Doret spoke up reassuringly:

"Dere's no use gettin' scare' lak' dat, biccause nobody knows w'ere Lee's creek she's locate' but John an' me, an' dere's nobody w'at knows he mak' de strike but us four."

"That's right," said Gale; "the only other way across is by Black Bear Creek, and there ain't a half-dozen men ever been up to the head of that stream, much less over the divide, so I don't allow there's any use to fret ourselves."

They went on their way, travelling leisurely until late evening, when they camped at the mouth of the valley up which the miner's cabin lay. They chose a long gravel bar, that curved like a scimitar, and made down upon its outer tip where the breeze tended to thin the plague of insects. They were all old-stagers in the ways of camplife, so there was no lost motion or bickering as to their respective duties. Their preparations were simple. First they built a circle of smudges out of wet driftwood, and inside this Lee kindled a camp-fire of dry sticks, upon which he cooked, protected by the smoke of the others, while Gale went back to the edge of the forest and felled a dozen small firs, the branches of which he clipped. These Poleon and Runnion bore down to the end of the spit for bedding, while Stark chopped a pile of dry wood for the night. Gale noted that the new man swung an axe with the free dexterity of one to whom its feel was familiar, also that he never made a slip nor dulled it on the gravel of the bar, displaying an all-round completeness and a knack of doing things efficiently that won reluctant approval from the trader despite the unreasoning dislike he had taken to him.

Lee was ready for them by the time they had finished their tasks, and, fanned by the breeze that sucked up the stream and lulled by the waters, they ate their scanty supper. Their one-eyed guide had lived so long among mosquitoes and had become so inoculated with their poison that he was in a measure impervious to their sting, hence the insects gathered on his wrinkled, hair-grown hide only to give up in melancholy disgust and fly to other and fuller-blooded feeding-grounds. Camp had been made early, at Gale's suggestion, instead of pushing on a few miles farther, as Lee had intended; and now, when the cool evening fell and the draught quickened, it became possible to lay off gloves and head-gear; so they sat about the fire, talking, smoking, and rubbing their tired feet.

It is at such hours and in the smoke of such fires that men hark backward and bring forth the sacred, time-worn memories they have treasured, to turn them over fondly by the glow of dying embers. It is at such times that men's garrulity asserts itself, for the barriers of caution are let down, as are the gates of remembrance, and it is then that friends and enemies are made, for there are those who cannot listen and others who cannot understand.

"No Creek" Lee, the one-eyed miner who had made this lucky strike, told in simple words of his long and solitary quest, when ill-luck had risen with him at the dawn and misfortune had stalked beside him as he drifted and drank from camp to camp, while the gloom of a settled pessimism soured him, and men began to shun him because of the evil that seemed to follow in his steps.

"I've been rainbow-chasin' forty years," he said, "and never caught nothin' but cramps and epidemics and inflammations. I'm the only miner in Alaska that never made a discovery of gold and never had a creek named after him."

"Is that how you got your name?" asked Runnion.

"It is. I never was no good to myself nor nobody else. I just occupied space. I've been the vermifuge appendix of the body politic; yes, worse'n that-I've been an appendix with a seed in it. I made myself sore, and everybody around me, but I'm at the bat now, and don't you never let that fact escape you."

"How are you going to spend your money?" inquired Stark.

"I'm goin' to eat it up! I've fed on dried and desiccated and other disastrous and dissatisfactory diets till I'm all shrivelled up inside like a dead puff-ball; now it's me for the big feed and the long drink. I'm goin' to 'Frisco and get full of wasteful and exorbitant grub, of one kind and another, like tomatters and French vicious water."

Poleon Doret laughed with the others; he was bubbling with the spirits of a boy whose life is clean, for whom there are no eyes in the black dark that lies beyond a camp-fire, and for whom there are no unforgettable faces in its smoke. When Lee fell silent the trader and Stark resumed their talk, which was mainly of California, it seemed to the Frenchman, who also noted that it was his friend who subtly shaped the topics. In time their stories revived his memory of the conversation in the birch grove that morning, and when there occurred a lapse in the talk he said:

"Say, John, w'at happen' to dat gal we was talkin' 'bout dis mornin'?"

Gale shook his head and turned again to his companion, but the young man's mind was bent on its quest, and he continued:

"Dat was strange tale, for sure."

"What was it?" questioned Runnion.

"John was tell 'bout a feller he knowed w'at marry a good gal jus' to mak' her bad lak' hese'f."

"How's that?" inquired Stark, turning curiously upon the old man; but Gale knocked the ashes from his pipe and replied:

"Oh, it's a long story-happened when I was in Washington State."

Poleon was about to correct him-it was California, he had said-when Gale arose, remarking sleepily that it was time to turn in if they wished to get any rest before the mosquitoes got bad again, then sauntered away from the fire and spread his blanket. The rest followed and made down their beds; then, drawing on gloves and hat-nets, and rolling themselves up in their coverings, fell to snoring. All except the trader, who lay for hours on his back staring up at the stars, as if trying to solve some riddle that baffled him.

They awoke early, and in half an hour had eaten, remade their packs, and were ready to resume their march. As they were about to start, Gale said:

"I reckon we'd better settle right now who has the choice of locations when we get up yonder. I've been on stampedes where it saved a heap of hard feeling."

"I'm agreeable," said Stark. "Then there won't be any misunderstanding."

The others, being likewise old at the game, acquiesced. They knew that in such cases grave trouble has often occurred when two men have cast eyes on the same claim, and have felt the miner's causeless "hunch" that gold lies here or there, or that the ground one of them covets is wanted by the other.

"I'll hold the straws," said Lee, "and every feller will have an even break." Turning his back on the others, he cut four splinters of varying lengths, and, arranging them so that the ends peeped evenly from his big hand, he held them out.

"The longest one has the first choice, and so on," he said, presenting them to Gale, who promptly drew the longest of the four. He turned to Doret, but the Frenchman waved him courteously to Stark, and, when both he and Runnion had made their choice, Lee handed him the remaining one, which was next in length to that of the trader. Stark and Runnion qualified in the order they drew, the latter cursing his evil luck.

"Never min', ole man," laughed Poleon, "de las' shot she's de sure wan."

They took up their burdens again, and filed towards the narrow valley that stretched away into the hazy distances.

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