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The Barrier By Rex Beach Characters: 22499

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Not until his dying day will Burrell lose the memory of that march with Necia through the untrodden valley, and yet its incidents were never clear-cut nor distinct when he looked back upon them, but blended into one dreamlike procession, as if he wandered through some calenture where every image was delightfully distorted and each act deliriously unreal, yet all the sweeter from its fleeting unreality. They talked and laughed and sang with a rush of spirits as untamed as the waters in the course they followed. They wandered, hand-in-hand, into a land of illusions, where there was nothing real but love and nothing tangible but joy. The touch of their lips had waked that delight which comes but once in a lifetime and then to but few; it was like the moon-madness of the tropics or the dementia of the forest folk in spring. A gentle frenzy possessed them, rendering them insensible to fatigue and causing them to hurry the more breathlessly that they might sooner rest and sit beside each other. At times they fell into sweet silences where the waters laughed with them and the trees whispered their secret, bowing and nodding in joyous surprise at this invasion; or, again, the breezes romped with them, withdrawing now and then to rush out and greet them at the bends in boisterous pleasure.

They held to the bed of the stream, for its volume was low and enabled them to ford it from bar to bar. Necia had been raised in the open, with the wild places for her playground, and her muscles were like those of a boy, hence the two swung merrily onward, as if in playful contest, while the youth had never occasion to wait for her or to moderate his gait. Indeed, her footing was more sure than his, as he found when she ventured out unhesitatingly upon felled logs that lay across swift, brawling depths. The wilderness had no mystery for her, and no terrors, so she was ever at his side, or in advance, while her eyes, schooled in the tints of the forest, and more active than those of a bird, saw every moving thing, from the flash of a camp-robber's wing through some hidden glade to the inquisitive nodding of a fool hen where it perched high up against the bole of a spruce. They surprised a marten fishing in a drift-wood dam, but she would not let the soldier shoot, and made him pass it by, where it sat amazed till it realized that these were lovers and resumed its fishing. Gradually the stream diminished, and its bowldered bed became more difficult to traverse, until, assuming the airs of a leader, the girl commanded him to lay off his pack, at which he pretended to obey mutinously, though thrilling with the keenest delight at his own submission.

"What are you going to do?" he inquired.

"Mind your own business, sir," she commanded, sternly.

From her belt she drew a little hunting-knife, with which she cut and trimmed a slender birch the thickness of his thumb, whereupon he pretended great fright, and said:

"Please! please! What have I done?"

"A great deal! You are a most bold and stubborn creature."

"All pack animals are stubborn," he declared. "It's the only privilege they have."

"You are much too presumptuous, also, as I discovered in your quarters."

"My only presumption is in loving you."

"That was not presumption," she smiled; "it was pre-emption. You must be punished."

"I shall run away," he threatened. "I shall gallop right off through the woods and-begin to eat grass. I am very wild."

As she talked she drew from her pocket a spool of line, and took a fly-hook from her hat; then, in a trice, she had rigged a fishing-rod, and, creeping out upon a ledge, she whipped the pool below of a half-dozen rainbow trout, which she thrust into his coat while they were still wriggling. Then she as quickly put up her gear, and they resumed their journey, climbing more steeply now, until, when the sun was low, they quit the stream-bed and made through the forest towards the shoulder of an untimbered ridge that ran down into the valley. And there, high up on the edge of the spruce, they selected a mossy shelf and pitched their camp.

They had become so intimate by now as to fall into a whimsical mode of speech, and Necia reverted to a childish habit in her talk that brought many a smile to the youth's face. It had been her fancy as a little girl to speak in adjectives, ignoring many of her nouns, and its quaintness had so amused her father that on rare occasions, when the humor was on him, he also took it up. She now addressed herself to Burrell in the same manner.

"I think we are very smarts to come so far," she said.

"You travel like a deer," he declared, admiringly. "Why, you have tired me down." Removing his pack, he stretched his arms and shook out the ache in his shoulders.

"Which way does our course lie now, Pathfinder?"

"Right up the side of this big, and then along the ridge. In two hours we come to a gully running so"-she indicated an imaginary direction-"which we go down till it joins another stream so, and right there we'll find old 'No Creek's' cabin, so! Won't they be surprised to see us! I think we're very cunning to beat them in, don't you?" She laughed a glad little bubbling laugh, and he cried:

"Oh, girl! How wonderful you are!"

"It's getting very dark and fierce," she chided, "and all the housework must be done."

So he built a fire, then fetched a bucket of water from a rill that trickled down among the rocks near by. He made as if to prepare their meal, but she would have none of it.

"Bigs should never cook," she declared. "That work belongs to littles," then forced him to vacate her domain and turn himself to the manlier duties of chopping wood and boughs.

First, however, she showed him how to place two green foot-logs upon which the teapot and the frying-pan would sit without upsetting, and how long she wished the sticks of cooking-wood. Then she banished him, as it were, and he built a wickiup of spruce tops, under the shelter of which he piled thick, fragrant billows of "Yukon feathers."

Once while he was busy at his task he paused to revel in the colors that lay against hill and valley, and to drink in the splendid isolation of it all. Below lay the bed of Black Bear Creek, silent and sombre in the creeping twilight; beyond, away beyond, across the westward brim of the Yukon basin, the peaks were blue and ivory and gold in the last rays of the sun; while the open slopes behind and all about wore a carpet of fragrant short-lived flowers, nodding as if towards sleep, and over all was the hush of the lonely hills. A gust blew a whiff of the camp smoke towards him, and he turned back to watch Necia kneeling beside the fire like some graceful virgin at her altar rites, while the peculiar acrid out-door odor of burning spruce was like an incense in his nostrils.

He filled his chest deeply and leaned on his axe, for he found himself shaking as if under the spell of some great expectancy.

"Your supper is getting cold," she called to him.

He took a seat beside her on a pile of boughs where the smoke was least troublesome; he had chosen a spot that was sheltered by a lichen-covered ledge, and this low wall behind, with the wickiup joining it, formed an enclosure that lent them a certain air of privacy. They ate ravenously, and drank deep cupfuls of the unflavored tea. By the time they were finished the night had fallen and the air was just cool enough to make the fire agreeable. Burrell heaped on more wood and stretched out beside her.

"This day has been so wonderful," said the girl, "that I shall never go to sleep. I can't bear to end it."

"But you must be weary, little maid," he said, gently; "I am."

"Wait, let me see." She stretched her limbs and moved slightly to try her muscles. "Yes, I am a very tired, but not the kind of tired that makes you want to go to bed. I want to talk, talk, talk, and not about ourselves either, but about sensibles. Tell me about your people-your sister."

He had expected her to ask this, for the subject seemed to have an inexhaustible charm for her. She would sit rapt and motionless as long as he cared to talk of his sister, in her wide, meditative eyes the shadow of a great unvoiced longing. It always seemed to make her grave and thoughtful, he had noticed, so he had tried lately to avoid the topic, and to-night in particular he wanted to do so, for this was no time for melancholy. He had not even allowed himself to think, as yet, and there were reasons why he did not wish her to do so; thought and realization and a readjustment of their relations would come after to-night, but this was the hour of illusion, and it must not be broken; therefore he began to tell her of other people and of his youth, making his tales as fanciful as possible, choosing deliberately to foster the merry humor in which they had been all day. He told her of his father, the crotchety old soldier, whose absurd sense of duty and whose elaborate Southern courtesy had become a byword in the South. He told her household tales that were prized like pieces of the Burrell plate, beautiful heirlooms of sentiment that mark the honor of high-blooded houses; following which there was much to recount of the Meades, from the admiral who fought as a boy in the Bay of Tripoli down to the cousin who was at Annapolis; the while his listener hung upon his words hungrily, her mind so quick in pursuit of his that it spurred him unconsciously, her great, dark eyes half closed in silent laughter or wide with wonder, and in them always the warmth of the leaping firelight blended with the trust of a new-born virginal love.

Without realizing it, the young man drifted further than he had intended, and further than he had ever allowed himself to go before, for in him was a clean and honest pride of birth, like his mother's glory in her forebears, the expression of which he had learned to repress, inasmuch as it was a Dixie-land conceit and had been misunderstood when he went North to the Academy. In some this would have seemed bigoted and feminine, this immoderate admiration for his own blood, this exaggerated appreciation of his family honor, but in this Southern youth it was merely the unconscious commendation of an upright manliness for an upright code. When he had finished, the girl remarked, with honest approval:

"What a fine you are. Those people of yours have all been good men and women, haven't they?"

"Most of them," he admitted, "and I think the reason is that we've been soldiers. The army discipline is good for a man. It narrows a fellow, I suppose, but it keeps him straight."

Then he began to laugh silently.

"What is it?" she said, curiously.

"Oh, nothing! I was just wondering what my strait-laced ancestors would say if they could see me now."

"What do you mean?" the girl asked, in open-eyed wonderment.

"I don't care," he went on, unheeding her question. "They did worse things in their time, from what I hear." He leaned forward to draw her to him.

"Worse things? But we are doing nothing bad," said Necia, holding him off. "There's no wrong in loving."

"Of course not," he assured her.

"I am proud of it," she declared. "It is the finest thing, the g

reatest thing that has ever come into my life. Why, I simply can't hold it; I want to sing it to the stars and cry it out to the whole world. Don't you?"

"I hardly think we'd better advertise," he said, dryly.

"Why not?"

"Well, I shouldn't care to publish the tale of this excursion of ours, would you?"

"I don't see any reason against it. I have often taken trips with Poleon, and been gone with him for days and days at a time."

"But you were not a woman then," he said, softly.

"No, not until to-day, that's true. Dear, dear! How I did grow all of a sudden! And yet I'm just the same as I was yesterday, and I'll always be the same, just a wild little. Please don't ever let me be a big tame. I don't want to be commonplace and ordinary. I want to be natural-and good."

"You couldn't be like other women," he declared, and there was more tenderness than hunger in his tone now, as she looked up at him trustingly from the shelter of his arms. "It would spoil you to grow up."

"It is so good to be alive and to love you like this!" she continued, dreamily, staring into the fire. "I seem to have come out of a gloomy house into the glory of a warm spring day, for my eyes are blinded and I can't see half the beautifuls I want to, there are so many about me."

"Those are my arms," interjected the soldier, lightly, in an effort to ward off her growing seriousness.

"I've never been afraid of anything, and yet I feel so safe inside them. Isn't it queer?"

The young man became conscious of a vague discomfort, and realized dimly that for hours now he had been smothering with words and caresses a something that had striven with him to be heard, a something that instead of dying grew stronger the more utterly this innocent maid yielded to him. It was as if he had ridden impulse with rough spurs in a fierce desire to distance certain voices, and in the first mad gallop had lost them, but now far back heard them calling again more strongly every moment. A man's honor, if old, may travel feebly, but its pursuit is persistent. It was the talk about his people that had raised this damned uneasiness and indecision, he thought. Why had he ever started it?

"The marvellous part of it all," continued the girl, "is that it will never end. I know I shall love you always. Do you suppose I am really different from other girls?"

"Everything is different to-night-the whole world," he declared, impatiently. "I thought I knew myself, but suddenly I seem strange in my own eyes."

"I've had a big handicap," she said, "but you must help me to overcome it. I want to be like your sister."

He rose and piled more wood upon the fire. What possessed the girl? It was as if she knew each cunning joint of his armor, as if she had realized her peril and had set about the awakening of his conscience, deliberately and with a cautious wisdom beyond her years. Well, she had done it-and he swore to himself. Then he melted at the sight of her, crouched there against the shadows, following his every movement with her soul in her eyes, the tenderest trace of a smile upon her lips. He vowed he was a reprobate to wrong her so; it was her white soul and her woman's love that spoke.

When she beheld him gazing at her, she tilted her head sidewise daintily, like a little bird.

"Oh, my! What a fierce you are all at once!"

Her smile flashed up as if illumined by the leaping blaze, and he crossed quickly, kneeling beside her.

"Dear, wonderful girl," he said, "it is going to be my heart's work to see that you never change and that you remain just what you are. You can't understand what this means to me, for I, too, was blinded, but the darkness of the night has restored my vision. Now you must go to sleep; the hours are short and we must be going early."

He piled up a great, sweet-scented couch of springy boughs, and fashioned her a pillow out of a bundle of smaller ones, around which he wrapped his khaki coat; then he removed her high-laced boots, and, taking her tiny feet, one in the palm of either hand, bowed his head over them and kissed them with a sense of her gracious purity and his own unworthiness. He spread one of the big gray blankets over her, and tucked her in, while she sighed in delightful languor, looking up at him all the time.

"I'll sit here beside you for a while," he said. "I want to smoke a bit."

She stole a slim, brown hand out from beneath the cover and snuggled it in his, and he leaned forward, closing her lids down with his lips. Her utter weariness was manifest, for she fell asleep almost instantly, her fingers twined about his in a childlike grip.

At times a great desire to feel her in his arms, to have her on his breast, surged over him, for he had lived long apart from women, and the solitude of the night seemed to mock him. He was a strong man, and in his veins ran the blood of wayward forebears ho were wont to possess that which they conquered in the lists of love, mingled with which was the blood of spirited Southern women who had on occasion loved not wisely, according to Kentucky rumor, but only too well. Nevertheless, they were honest men and women, if over-sentimental, and had transmitted to him a heritage of chivalry and a high sense of honor and courage. Strange to say, this little, simple half-breed girl had revived this honor and courage, even when he tried most stubbornly to smother it. If only her love was like her blood, he might have had no scruples; or if her blood were as pure as her love-even then it would be easier; but, as it was, he must give her up to-night, and for all time. Her love had placed a barrier between them greater and more insurmountable than her blood.

He sat for a long time with the dwindling firelight playing about him, his manhood and his desires locked in a grim struggle, wondering at the hold this forest elf had gained upon him, wondering how it was that she had stolen into his heart and head and taken such utter possession of him. It would be no easy task to shut her out of his mind and put her away from him. And she...?

He gently withdrew his fingers from her grasp, and, seeking the other side of the wickiup, covered himself over without disturbing her, and fell asleep.

It was early dawn when Necia crept to him.

"I dreamed you had gone away," she said, shivering violently and drawing close. "Oh, it was a terrible awakening-"

"I was too tired to dream," he said.

"So I had to come and see if you were really here."

He quickly rekindled the fire, and they made a hasty breakfast. Before the warmth of the rising sun had penetrated the cold air they had climbed the ridge and obtained a wondrous view of broken country, the hills alight with the morning rays, the valleys misty and mystical. They made good progress on the summit, which was paved with barren rock and sparsely carpeted with short moss, while there was never a hint of insects to annoy them. Merrily they swung along, buoyed up by an unnatural exaltation; yet now and then, as they drew near their destination, the young man had a chilling premonition of evil to come, and wondered if he had not been foolhardy to undertake this rash enterprise.

"I wish Stark was not one of Lee's party," he said once. "He may misunderstand our being together this way."

"But when he learns that we love each other, that will explain everything."

"I'm not so sure. He doesn't know you as Lee and Poleon and your father do. I think we had better say nothing at all about-you and me-to any one."

"But why?" questioned the girl, stopping abruptly. "They will know it, anyhow, when they see us. I can't conceal it."

"I am wiser in this than you are," the soldier insisted, "and we mustn't act like lovers; trust this to me."

"Oh, I won't play that!" cried Necia, petulantly. "If all this is going to end when we get to Lee's cabin, we'll stay right here forever."

He was not sure of all the logic he advanced in convincing her, but she yielded finally, saying:

"Well, I suppose you know best, and, anyhow, littles should always mind."

They clung to the divide for several hours, then descended into the bed of a stream, which they followed until it joined a larger one a couple of miles below, and there, sheltered in a grove of whispering firs, they found Lee's cabin nestling in a narrow, forked valley. Evidently the miner had selected a point on the main creek just below the confluence of the feeders as a place in which to prospect, and Burrell fell to wondering which one of these smaller streams supplied the run of gold.

"There's no one here," said Necia, gleefully. "We've beat them in! We've beat them in!"

They had been walking rapidly since dawn, and, although Burrell's watch showed two o'clock, she refused to halt for lunch, declaring that the others might arrive at any moment; so down they went to the lower end of "No Creek" Lee's location, where Burrell blazed a smooth spot on the down-stream side of a tree and wrote thereon at Necia's dictation. When he had finished, she signed her name, and he witnessed it, then paced off four hundred and forty steps, where he squared a spruce-tree, which she marked: "Lower centre end stake of No. I below discovery. Necia Gale, locator." She was vastly excited and immensely elated at her good-fortune in acquiring the claim next to Lee's, and chattered like a magpie, filling the glades with resounding echoes and dancing about in the bright sunlight that filtered through the branches.

"Now you stake the one below mine," she said. "It's just as good, and maybe better-nobody can tell." But he shook his head.

"I'm not going to stake anything," said he.

"You must!" she cried, quickly, the sparkle dying from her eyes. "You said you would, or I never would have brought you."

"I merely said I would come with you," he corrected. "I did not promise to take up a claim, for I don't think I ought to do so. If I were a civilian, it would be different, but this is government land, and I am a part of the government, as it were. Then, too, in addition to the question of my right to do it, there would be the certainty of making enemies of your people, old "No Creek" and the rest, and I can't afford that now. With you it is different, for you are entitled to this ground. After Lee's friends have shared in his discovery I may change my mind."

All arguments and pleading were in vain; he remained obdurate and insisted on her locating two other claims for herself, one on each of the smaller creeks where they came together above the house.

"But nobody ever stakes more than one claim on a gulch," objected the girl. "It's a custom of the miners."

"Then we'll call each one of these branches a different and separate creek," he said. "The gold was carried down one of those smaller streams, and we won't take any chances on which one it was. When a fellow plays a big game he should play to win, and, as this means such a great deal to you, we won't overlook any bets."

Necia consented, and when her three claims had been properly located the couple returned to the cabin to get lunch and to await with some foreboding the coming of the others and what of good or ill it might bring.

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