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The Barrier

The Barrier

Author:Rex Beach


Many men were in debt to the trader at Flambeau, and many counted him as a friend. The latter never reasoned why, except that he had done them favors, and in the North that counts for much. Perhaps they......
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  Many men were in debt to the trader at Flambeau, and many counted himas a friend. The latter never reasoned why, except that he had donethem favors, and in the North that counts for much. Perhaps they builtlikewise upon the fact that he was ever the same to all, and that, indays of plenty or in times of famine, his store was open to every man,and all received the same measure. Nor did he raise his prices when theboats were late. They recalled one bleak and blustery autumn when thesteamer sank at the Lower Ramparts, taking with her all their winter'sfood, how he eked out his scanty stock, dealing to each and every onehis portion, month by month. They remembered well the bitter winterthat followed, when the spectre of famine haunted their cabins, andwhen for endless periods they cinched their belts, and cursed and wenthungry to sleep, accepting, day by day, the rations doled out to themby the grim, gray man at the log store. Some of them had money-beltsweighted low with gold washed from the bars at Forty Mile, and therewere others who had wandered in from the Koyukuk with the first frosts,foot-sore and dragging, the legs of their skin boots eaten to theankle, and the taste of dog meat still in their mouths. Broken anddispirited, these had fared as well through that desperate winter astheir brothers from up-river, and received pound for pound of mustyflour, strip for strip of rusty bacon, lump for lump of precious sugar.Moreover, the price of no single thing had risen throughout the famine.

  Some of them, to this day, owed bills at Old Man Gale's, of which theydared not think; but every fall and every spring they came again andtold of their disappointment, and every time they fared back into thehills bearing another outfit, for which he rendered no account, noteven when the debts grew year by year, not even to "No Creek" Lee, themost unlucky of them all, who said that a curse lay on him so that whena pay-streak heard him coming it got up and moved away and hid itself.

  There were some who had purposely shirked a reckoning, in years past,but these were few, and their finish had been of a nature to discouragea similar practice on the part of others, and of a nature, moreover, tolead good men to care for the trader and for his methods. He mixed inno man's business, he took and paid his dues unfalteringly. He spoke ina level voice, and he smiled but rarely. He gazed at a stranger onceand weighed him carefully, thereafter his eyes sought the distancesagain, as if in search of some visitor whom he knew or hoped or fearedwould come. Therefore, men judged he had lived as strong men live, andwere glad to call him friend.

  This day he stood in the door of his post staring up the sun-lit river,absorbing the warmth of the Arctic afternoon. The Yukon swept downaround the great bend beneath the high, cut banks and past the littletown, disappearing behind the wooded point below, which masked theup-coming steamers till one heard the sighing labor of their stacksbefore he saw their smoke. It was a muddy, rushing giant, bearing aburden of sand and silt, so that one might hear it hiss and grind bystooping at its edge to listen; but the slanting sun this afternoonmade it appear like a boiling flood of molten gold which issuedsilently out of a land of mystery and vanished into a valley offorgetfulness. At least so the trader fancied, and found himselfwishing that it might carry away on its bosom the heavy trouble whichweighed him down, and bring in its place forgetfulness of all that hadgone before. Instead, however, it seemed to hurry with news of thosestrange doings "up-river," news that every down-coming steamboatverified. For years he had known that some day this thing would happen,that some day this isolation would be broken, that some day greathordes of men would overrun this unknown land, bringing with them thatwhich he feared to meet, that which had made him what he was. And nowthat the time had come, he was unprepared.

  The sound of shouting caused him to turn his head. Down-stream, athousand yards away, men were raising a flag-staff made from the trunkof a slender fir, from which the bark had been stripped, heaving ontheir tackle as they sang in unison. They stood well out upon theriver's bank before a group of well-made houses, the peeled timbers ofwhich shone yellow in the sun. He noted the symmetrical arrangement ofthe buildings, noted the space about them that had been smoothed for adrill-ground, and from which the stumps had been removed; noted thatthe men wore suits of blue; and noted, in particular, the figure of anofficer commanding them.

  The lines about the trader's mouth deepened, and his heavy browscontracted.

  "That means the law," he murmured, half aloud, while in his voice wasno trace of pleasure, nor of that interest which good men are wont toshow at sight of the flag. "The last frontier is gone. The trail endshere!"

  He stood so, meditating sombrely, till the fragment of a song hummedlightly by a girl fell pleasantly on his ears, whereupon the shadowsvanished from his face, and he turned expectantly, the edges of histeeth showing beneath his mustache, the corners of his eyes wrinklingwith pleasure.

  The sight was good to him, for the girl approaching down the trail waslike some wood sprite, light-footed, slender, and dark, with twinbraids of hair to her waist framing an oval face colored by the windand sun. She was very beautiful, and a great fever surged up throughthe old man's veins, till he gripped the boards at his side and bitsharply at the pipe between his teeth.

  "The salmon-berries are ripe," she announced, "and the hills back ofthe village are pink with them. I took Constantine's squaw with me, andwe picked quarts and quarts. I ate them all!"

  Her laughter was like the tinkle of silver bells. Her head, thrown backas she laughed gayly, displayed a throat rounded and full and smooth,and tanned to the hue of her wind-beaten cheeks. Every move of hergraceful body was unrestrained and flowing, with a hint of Indianfreedom about it. Beaded and trimmed like a native princess, hergarments manifested an ornature that spoke of savagery, yet they wereneatly cut and held to the pattern of the whites.

  "Constantine was drunk again last night, and I had to give him atalking to when we came back. Oh, but I laid him out! He's frightenedto death of me when I'm angry."

  She furrowed her brow in a scowl--the daintiest, most ridiculous puckerof a brow that ever man saw--and drew her red lips into an angry poutas she recounted her temperance talk till the trader broke in, hisvoice very soft, his gray-blue eyes as tender as those of a woman:

  "It's good to have you home again, Necia. The old sun don't shine asbright when you're away, and when it rains it seems like the moss andthe grass and the little trees was crying for you. I reckon everythingweeps when you're gone, girl, everything except your old dad, andsometimes he feels like he'd have to bust out and join the rest ofthem."

  He seated himself upon the worn spruce-log steps, and the girl settledbeside him and snuggled against his knee.

  "I missed you dreadfully, daddy," she said. "It seemed as if those daysat the Mission would never end. Father Barnum and the others were verykind, and I studied hard, but there wasn't any fun in things withoutyou."

  "I reckon you know as much as a priest, now, don't you?"

  "Oh, lots more," she said, gravely. "You see, I am a woman."

  He nodded reflectively. "So you are! I keep forgetting that."

  Their faces were set towards the west, where the low sun hung over aragged range of hills topped with everlasting white. The great valley,dark with an untrodden wilderness of birch and spruce and alder, lay onthis side, sombre and changeless, like a great, dark-green mat toolarge for its resting-place, its edges turned up towards the line ofunmelting snow. Beyond were other ranges thrust skyward in amagnificent confusion, while still to the farther side lay the purplevalley of the Koyukuk, a valley that called insistently to restlessmen, welcoming them in the spring, and sending them back in the latesummer tired and haggard with the hunger of the North. Each year atithe remained behind, the toll of the trackless places, but the restwent back again and again, and took new brothers with them.

  "Did you like the books I sent you with Poleon when he went down to thecoast? I borrowed them from Shakespeare George."

  The girl laughed. "Of course I did--that is, all but one of them."

  "Which one?"

  "I think it was called The Age of Reason, or something like that. Ididn't get a good look at it, for Father Barnum shrieked when he sawit, then snatched it as if it were afire. He carried it down to theriver with the tongs."

  "H'm! Now that I think of it," said the old man, "Shakespeare grinnedwhen he gave it to me. You see, Poleon ain't much better on the readthan I am, so we never noticed what kind of a book it was."

  "When will Poleon get back, do you suppose?"

  "Most any day now, unless the Dawson dance-halls are too much for him.It won't take him long to sell our skins if what I hear is true."

  "What is that?"

  "About these Cheechakos. They say there are thousands of tenderfeet upthere, and more coming in every day."

  "Oh! If I had only been here in time to go with him!" breathed thegirl. "I never saw a city. It must be just like Seattle, or New York."

  Gale shook his head. "No. There's considerable difference. Some timeI'll take you out to the States, and let you see the world--maybe." Heuttered the last word in an undertone, as if in self-debate, but thegirl was too excited to notice.

  "You will take mother, too, and the kiddies, won't you?"

  "Of course!"

  "Oh! I--I--" The attempt to express what this prospect meant to her wasbeyond her girlish rapture, but her parted lips and shining eyes toldthe story to Gale. "And Poleon must go, too. We can't go anywherewithout him." The old man smiled down upon her in reassurance. "Iwonder what he'll say when he finds the soldiers have come. I wonder ifhe'll like it."

  Gale turned his eyes down-stream to the barracks, and noted that thelong flag-staff had at last been erected. Even as he looked he saw abundle mounting towards its tip, and then beheld the Stars and Stripesflutter out in the air, while the men below cheered noisily. It wassome time before he answered.

  "Poleon Doret is like the rest of us men up here in the North. We havetaken care of ourselves so far, and I guess we're able to keep it upwithout the help of a smooth-faced Yankee kid for guardian."

  "Lieutenant Burrell isn't a Yankee," said Necia. "He is a blue-grassman. He comes from Kentucky."

  Her father grunted contemptuously. "I might have known it. Those rebelsare a cultus, lazy lot. A regular male man with any ginger in him wouldshed his coat and go to work, instead of wearing his clothes buttonedup all day. It don't take much 'savvy' to run a handful ofthirteen-dollar-a-month soldiers." Necia stirred a bit restlessly, andthe trader continued: "It ain't man's work, it's--loafing. If he triesto boss us he'll get QUITE a surprise."

  "He won't try to boss you. He has been sent here to build a militarypost, and to protect the miners in their own self-government. He won'ttake any part in their affairs as long as they are conducted peaceably."

  Being at a loss for an answer to this unexpected defence, the old mangrunted again, with added contempt, while his daughter continued:

  "This rush to the upper country has brought in all sorts of people,good, bad--and worse; and the soldiers have been sent to preventtrouble, and to hold things steady till the law can be established. TheCanadian Mounted Police are sending all their worst charactersdown-river, and our soldiers have been scattered among the Americancamps for our protection. I think it's fine."

  "Where did you learn all this?"

  "Lieutenant Burrell told me," she replied; at which her father regardedher keenly. She could not see the curious look in his eyes, nor did sheturn when, a moment later, he resumed, in an altered tone:

  "I reckon Poleon will bring you something pretty from Dawson, eh?"

  "He has never failed to bring me presents, no matter where he camefrom. Dear old Poleon!" She smiled tenderly. "Do you remember thatfirst day when he drifted, singing, into sight around the bend upyonder? He had paddled his birch-bark from the Chandelar without athing to eat; hunger and hardship only made him the happier, and thecloser he drew his belt the louder he sang."

  "He was bound for his 'New Country'!"

  "Yes. He didn't know where it lay, but the fret for travel was on him,and so he drifted and sang, as he had drifted and sung from the foot ofLake Le Barge."

  "That was four years ago," mused Gale, "and he never found his 'NewCountry,' did he?"

  "No. We tied him down and choked it out of him," Necia laughed. "Dear,funny old Poleon--he loves me like a brother."

  The man opened his lips, then closed them, as if on second thought, androse to his feet, for, coming towards them up the trail from thebarracks, he beheld a trim, blue-coated figure. He peered at theapproaching officer a moment, set his jaw more firmly, and disappearedinto the store.

  "Well, we have raised our flag-staff," said the Lieutenant as he took aseat below Necia. "It's like getting settled to keep house."

  "Are you lazy?" inquired the girl.

  "I dare say I am," he admitted. "I've never had time to find out. Why?"

  "Are you going to boss our people around?" she continued, bent on herown investigation.

  "No. Not as long as they behave. In fact, I hardly know what I am todo. Maybe you can tell me." His smile was peculiarly frank and winning."You see, it's my first command, and my instructions, althoughcomprehensive, are rather vague. I am supposed to see that miningrights are observed, to take any criminals who kindly offer themselvesup to be arrested, and to sort of handle things that are too tough forthe miners themselves."

  "Why, you are a policeman!" said Necia, at which he made a wry face.

  "The Department, in its wisdom, would have me, a tenderfoot, adjustthose things that are too knotty for these men who have spent theirlives along the frontier."

  "I don't believe you will be very popular with our people," Neciaannounced, meditatively.

  "No. I can see that already. I wasn't met with any brass-bands, and Ihaven't received any engraved silver from the admiring citizens ofFlambeau. That leaves nothing but the women to like me, and, as you arethe only one in camp, you will have to like me very much to make up forits shortcomings."

  She approved of his unusual drawl; it gave him a kind of deliberationwhich every move of his long, lithe body belied and every glance of hiseyes contradicted. Moreover, she liked his youth, so clean and freshand strange in this land where old men are many and the young ones oldwith hardship and grave with the silence of the hills. Her life hadbeen spent entirely among men who were her seniors, and, although shehad ruled them like a spoiled queen, she knew as little of their sex asthey did of hers. Unconsciously the strong young life within her hadclamored for companionship, and it was this that had drawn her toPoleon Doret--who would ever remain a boy--and it was this that drewher to the young Kentuckian; this, and something else in him, that theothers lacked.

  "Now that I think it over," he continued, "I'd rather have you like methan have the men do so."

  "Of course," she nodded. "They do anything I want them to--all butfather, and--"

  "It isn't that," he interrupted, quickly. "It is because you ARE theonly woman of the place, because you are such a surprise. To think thatin the heart of this desolation I should find a girl like--like you,like the girls I know at home."

  "Am I like other girls?" she inquired, eagerly. "I have often wondered."

  "You are, and you are not. You are surprisingly conventional for thesesurroundings, and yet unconventionally surprising--for any place. Whoare you? Where did you come from? How did you get here?"

  "I am just what you see. I came from the States, and I was carried.That is all I can remember."

  "Then you haven't lived here always?"

  "Oh, dear, no! We came here while I was very little, but of late I havebeen away at school."

  "Some seminary, eh?"

  At this she laughed aloud. "Hardly that, either. I've been at theMission. Father Barnum has been teaching me for five years. I cameup-river a day ahead of you."

  She asked no questions of him in return, for she had already learnedall there was to know the day before from a grizzled corporal in whomwas the hunger to talk. She had learned of a family of Burrells whosename was known throughout the South, and that Meade Burrell came fromthe Frankfort branch, the branch that had raised the soldiers. Hisfather had fought with Lee, and an uncle was now in the service atWashington. On the mother's side the strain was equally militant, butthe Meades had sought the sea. The old soldier had told her much more,of which she understood little; told her of the young man's sister, whohad come all the way from Kentucky to see her brother off when hesailed from San Francisco; told her of the Lieutenant's many friends inWashington, and of his family name and honor. Meade Burrell wasundoubtedly a fine young fellow in his corporal's eyes, and destined toreach great heights, as the other Burrells had before him. The oldsoldier, furthermore, had looked at her keenly and added that theBurrells were known as "divils among the weemen."

  Resting thus on the steps of Old Man Gale's store, the two talked ontill they were disturbed by the sound of shrill voices approaching, atwhich the man looked up. Coming down the trail from the town was asquaw and two children. At sight of Necia the little ones shoutedgleefully and scampered forward, climbing over her like half-grownpuppies. They were boy and girl, both brown as Siwashes, with eyes likejet beads and hair that was straight and coarse and black. At a glanceBurrell knew them for "breeds," and evidently the darker half wascloser to the surface now, for they choked, gurgled, stuttered, andcoughed in their Indian tongue, while Necia answered them likewise. Ata word from her they turned and saw him, then, abashed at the strangesplendor of his uniform, fell silent, pressing close to her. The squaw,also, seemed to resent his presence, for, after a lowering glance, shedrew the shawl closer about her head, and, leaving the trail, slunk outof sight around the corner of the store.

  Burrell looked up at his companion's clear-cut, delicate face, at thewind-tanned cheeks, against which her long braids lay like theblue-black locks of an Egyptian maid, then at her warm, dark eyes, inwhich was a hint of the golden light of the afternoon sun. He notedcovertly the slender lines of her body and the dainty, firm, brownhands flung protectingly about the shoulders of her little friends, whowere peering at him owlishly from their shelter.

  The bitter revolt that had burned in him at the prospect of a longexile in this undiscovered spot died out suddenly. What a picture shemade! How fresh and flower-like she looked, and yet the wisdom of her!He spoke impulsively:

  "I am glad you are here, Miss Necia. I was glad the moment I saw you,and I have been growing gladder ever since, for I never imagined therewould be anybody in this place but men and squaws--men who hate the lawand squaws who slink about--like that." He nodded in the direction ofthe Indian woman's disappearance. "Either that, or, at best, a few'breeds' like these little fellows."

  She looked at him quickly.

  "Well! What difference would that make?"

  "Ugh! Squaws and half-breeds!" His tone conveyed in full his uttercontempt.

  The tiny hands of the boy and girl slid into her own as she arose. Acuriously startled look lay in her eyes, and an inquiring, plaintivewrinkle came between her brows.

  "I don't believe you understand," she said. "Lieutenant Burrell, thisis my sister, Molly Gale, and this is my little brother John." Bothround-eyed elfs made a ducking courtesy and blinked at the soldier, whogained his feet awkwardly, a flush rising into his cheeks.

  From the regions at the rear of the store came the voice of an Indianwoman calling:

  "Necia! Necia!"

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