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A Tangled Skein








From: The Barrier

When Burrell entered he wasted no time in greetings.

"I know why you sent for me, Poleon. I've heard the news, and I
would have been up anyhow to congratulate her very soon. I call it
pretty fine."

"Yes, dere's been beeg strike all right, an' Necia is goin' be riche
gal."

"I'm as pleased as if the claim were mine, and you feel the same
way, of course."

The Frenchman nodded. "I love Necia very much, lak'--well, lak' I'm
broder to her." The knowledge that she was listening made him very
uncomfortable--in fact, this whole affair savored more of double-
dealing and treachery than anything he had ever attempted, and it
went sorely against his grain, but it had presented itself as the
only way to help her, and he proceeded, groping haltingly for fit
expression, "Dere's t'ing I want for talk 'bout wit' you, but I'm
scare' you'll t'ink I'm butt in."

"Nonsense," said Burrell. "I know you too well for that."

"You know me for good man, eh? An' you know I ain' try for bre'k up
oder fellers' biznesse, never! Wal, I'm come to you now lak' wan
good man to 'noder biccause I'm got bad trouble on de min', an' you
mus'n't get sore."

"There's no danger, Poleon. Let's have it. If there is anything I
can do, you may count on me."

"Wal," he began, nervously, clearing his throat, "it's lak' dis.
Dere's feller been talk some 'bout Necia, an' it ain' nice talk
neider."

"Who is he?" exclaimed the soldier, in a tone that made the girl's
heart leap.

"Wait! Lemme tol' you w'at he say, den we'll talk 'bout feex 'im
plaintee. He say dere's joke down on Stark's saloon dat Necia Gale
is mak' fool of herse'f on you, an' dat you ain' care for marry
her."

"Runnion!" cried Burrell, and started for the door. "I'll settle
with him now for fair!" But Poleon blocked his way, and, observing
him gravely, continued, in a tone that the other could not disregard
nor mistake:

"No, M'sieu', before you pass on dat place you'll tol' me if it's
true."

"True!" the Lieutenant retorted, angrily. "What business is it of
yours? This concerns me."

"An' me, too! I'm w'at you call gardeen for Necia till John Gale
come back, an' I'm broder of her, too. You promis' jus' now you don'
get mad, an' I don' say she's Runnion neider w'at spik dose t'ing;
dere's more dan 'im been talkin'. Is it true?"

His sternness offended Burrell, for the soldier was not the kind to
discuss his affairs in this way, therefore he drew back scowling.

"Poleon Doret," he said, "it's not one's enemies who do him injury,
it's his damned fool friends. I have learned to regard you highly
because you are a brave man and an honest one, but it seems that you
are a sentimental idiot."

"Dem is tough word," Doret replied. "But dere's reason w'y I can't
tak' on no madnesse. You say I'm hones'. Wal, I'm hones' now, an' I
come to you wit' fair words an' I show my han' to you--I don' hoi'
out no cards, M'sieu'--but I don' t'ink it is you who have play
square, altogeder. I'm Necia's frien', an' I'll fight for her jus'
so queecker lak' you, but I mus' know dis t'ing for sure, so if you
have de good heart an' de courage of good man you'll tell me de
truth. Do you have the feelin' for marry on her?"

The pause that followed was awkward for both of them, while the
girl, who stood concealed near by, held her breath and buried her
nails in her palms. Why did he hesitate? Would he never speak? It
seemed not, for he swung between diverse emotions--anger that this
outsider should question him on so intimate a matter, chagrin at the
knowledge of having injured Necia, and rage, blind rage, at the
thought of its becoming a bar-room topic. Gradually the conviction
grew that it was not a question of idle curiosity with Doret, and
the man's history recurred to him. No wonder he was interested in
the girl, no wonder he wished to guard her; he had been a brother
indeed, even as he said, and he could have no motive save an
honorable one. It never occurred to the soldier that this Frenchman
could harbor feelings akin to his own. The man was rough and
foreign; his thoughts had been couched in harsher language, perhaps,
than he intended; moreover, the fellow's high sense of honor was a
byword--and of a sudden the desire to set himself right in this
man's eyes dictated his answer.

"I am amazed at myself for listening to you," he said, at last, "and
quite shocked, in fact, at my answering your questions, but perhaps
I'd better, after all. First, however, let me say that the little
girl is just as pure now as she was before she knew me--"

Poleon threw up his hand. "M'sieu', dat's more closer to de insult
dan w'at you call me jus' now. You don' need for spoke it."

"You're right! There's no need to tell you that. As for showing her
certain attentions--well, I admit that I have, as you know, but,
thank God, I can say I've been a gentleman and addressed her as I
would the fairest lady I've known."

"An' you mean for marry, eh?" probed the other.

Now, no man could have answered such a direct question easily, and
in this case it was especially hard for the Kentuckian, who was torn
between his ungovernable desire and that decision which cold reason
had thrust upon him. He wanted to say, "Yes, I'll marry her to-
morrow," but something bade him pause before he sacrificed upon this
altar of a youthful love his life, his hopes, his ambitions. Had he
not wrestled with himself for months in thinking it all out, until
his mind was weary and listless with the effort? For the great test
that tries a man's soul and compels him to know himself had not yet
come to Meade Burrell; wherefore, he hesitated long.

"I did not say so," he declared, at last. "It's a thing I can't well
discuss, because I doubt if you could understand what I would say.
This life of yours is different from mine, and it would be useless
for me to explain the reason why I cannot marry her. Leaving out all
question of my sentiment, there are insurmountable obstacles to such
a union; but as to this talk, I think that can be stopped without
annoyance to her, and as for the rest, we must trust to time to
bring about a proper adjustment--"

A low, discordant sound of laughter arrested his words, and,
turning, he beheld Necia standing revealed in the dimness.

"What an amusing person you are!" she said. "I've had hard work
holding in all this time while you were torturing your mind and
twisting the honest English language out of shape and meaning. I
knew I should have to laugh sooner or later."

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Is it a joke?"

"Indeed it is," she declared, laughing afresh, "and the best I've
ever enjoyed. Wasn't it funny, Poleon"--she turned gayly to the
Frenchman, but he stood like one petrified--"to see him debating
coolly whether he cared for me enough to face the world with me, and
trying to explain to you that he was too good to marry a squaw? Oh,
you were very gentlemanly about it, sir, and you wouldn't have hurt
my feelings for the world!"

"Necia!"

"That's your Dixie chivalry, I suppose. Well, I've played with you
long enough, Lieutenant Burrell, I'm tired of the game, and you
interest me no longer."

"You--you--say you've been playing with me!" stammered the man. The
bottom of things seemed suddenly to slide from under him; he was
like one sinking in some hideous quagmire. He felt as if he were
choking.

"Why, of course," she cried, scornfully, "just as you took me up for
amusement. You were such a fine, well-dressed, immaculate mound of
conceit that I couldn't resist the temptation, and you hid your
condescension so poorly that I thought you ought to be taken down a
peg. I knew I was a squaw, but I wanted to see if I were not like
other women, after all, and if you were not like other men." She was
talking rapidly now, almost shrilly, for she had never attempted to
act before, while he stood dazed and speechless, fumbling at his
throat while she railed at him. "You needn't waste time debating
whether I'm good enough for you, because I'm not--decidedly, I'm not
your kind, and you are a joke to me."

He uttered an inarticulate cry, but she ran on unheeding, her eyes
wide and glowing like coals, her lips chalk-white. "You see, it's
time I stopped such foolishness, anyhow, for I'm to be married on
Sunday."

"You are going to be married?" he muttered, laboriously.

"Yes, to Poleon. Why, that's been understood for years."

He whirled upon the Canadian in a fury, and his words came hot and
tumbling.

"So you're in this, Doret. You're a part of this little farce. You
trapped me here to make a fool of me, did you? Well, I can settle
with you--"

"D-don't blame him!" cried the girl, hysterically. "It is all my
doing. He had no part in it."

Burrell wheeled back to the Frenchman again. "Is this true?"

"Yes," said Doret, in a restrained voice. "Dis ain' no work of
mine."

"You're a liar!" breathed the Kentuckian, now fairly wild with
anger; but the other looked him squarely between the eyes and made
no move.

"M'sieu'," he cried, "I'm livin' t'orty year, an' never took no nam'
lak' dat before, but dere's reason here w'y I can't mak' no answer."
He inclined his head towards the girl, and before Burrell could
break out again he checked him.

"It's no good mak' fight wit' lesser dan two people. You've tol' me
dat you are gentleman. Wal, I ain' nobody but trapper an' trader,
but I don' spoil de name of no good girl, an' I don' quarrel in
presence of lady, so mebbe, affer all, dere's mistak' somew'ere, an'
I'm gentleman mese'f 'stead of you."

"Why, you aren't really angry, Lieutenant?" mocked Necia. "It's only
the joke of an ignorant half-breed girl whose sense of humor is all
out of gear. You mustn't quarrel over a SQUAW!"

She taunted him like a baited badger, for this thing was getting
beyond her control and the savage instincts of the wilderness were
uppermost.

"You are quite right," he replied. "I am very foolish, and the laugh
is with you." His lips tried to frame a smile, but failed, and he
added: "Your wit is not my kind, that is all. I beg you both to
accept my congratulations on your nuptials. Undoubtedly, you will be
happy together; two people with such similar ideas of humor must
have much to enjoy in common." He bowed low and, turning, walked
out.

The moment he was gone she cried, breathlessly:

"You must marry me, Poleon. You've got to do it now."

"Do you mean dat for sure?" he said.

"Can't you see there's nothing else for it, after this? I'll show
him that he can't make me a toy to suit his convenience. I've told
him I would marry you on Sunday, and I'll do it or die. Of course
you don't love me, for you don't know what love is, I suppose; how--
could you?" She broke down and began to catch her breath amid
coughing sobs that shook her slender body, though they left her eyes
dry and feverish.

"I--I'm very unhappy, b-but I'll be a good--wife to you. Oh, Poleon,
if you only knew--"

He drew a long breath. When he spoke his voice had the timbre of
some softly played instrument, and a tremor ran through his words.

"No! I don' know w'at kin' of love is dis, for sure. De kin' of love
I know is de kin' I sing 'bout in my songs; I s'pose it's different
breed to yours, an' I'm begin to see it don' live nowhere but on dem
songs of mine. Dere's long tarn' I waste here now--five year--but
to-morrow I go again lookin' for my own countree."

"Poleon!" she cried, looking up with startled eyes. "Not to-morrow,
but Sunday--we will go together."

He shook his head. "To-morrow, Necia! An' I go alone."

"Then you won't--marry me?" she asked, in a hushed and frightened
voice.

"No! Dere's wan t'ing I can't do even for you, Necia, dere's wan
t'ing I can't geeve, dat's all--jus' wan on all de worl'. I can't
kill de li'l' god wit' de bow an' arrer. He's all dat mak' de sun
shine, de birds sing, an' de leaves w'isper to me; he's de wan li'l'
feller w'at mak' my life wort' livin' an' keep music in my soul. If
I keel 'im dere ain' no more lef lak' it, an' I'm never goin' fin'
my lan' of content, nor sing nor laugh no more. I'm t'inkin' I would
rader sing songs to 'im all alone onderneat' de stars beside my
campfire, an' talk wit' 'im in my bark canoe, dan go livin' wit' you
in fine house an' let 'im get col' an' die."

"But I told him I'd marry you--that I had always intended to. He'll
believe I was lying," she moaned, in distress.

"Dat's too bad--but dis t'ing ain' no doin's wit' me. Dere's wan
t'ing in dis worl' mus' live forever, an' dat's love--if we kill 'im
den it's purty poor place for stoppin' in. I'm cut off my han' for
help you, Necia, but I can't be husban' to no woman in fun."

"Your foolish head is full of romance," she burst out. "You think
you're doing me a favor, but you're not. Why, there's Runnion--he
wants me so much that he'd 'even marry me'!" Her wild laughter
stabbed the man. "Was ever a girl in such a fix! I've been made love
to ever since I was half a woman, but at thought of a priest men
seem to turn pale and run like whipped dogs. I'm only good enough
for a bad man and a gambler, I suppose." She sank to a seat, flung
out her arms hopelessly, and, bowing her head, began to weep
uncontrollably. "If--if--I only had a woman to talk to--but they are
all men--all men."

Poleon waited patiently until her paroxysm of sobbing had passed,
then gently raised her and led her out through the back door into
the summer day, which an hour ago had been so bright and promising
and was now so gray and dismal. He followed her with his eyes until
she disappeared inside the log-house.

"An' dat's de end of it all," he mused. "Five year I've wait--an'
jus' for dis."

Meade Burrell never knew how he gained his quarters, but when he had
done so he locked his door behind him, then loosed his hold on
things material. He raged about the room like a wild animal, and
vented his spite on every inanimate thing that lay within reach. His
voice was strange in his own ears, as was the destructive frenzy
that possessed him. In time he grew quieter, as the physical energy
of this brutal impulse spent itself; but there came no surcease of
his mental disquiet. As yet his mind grasped but dully the fact that
she was to marry another, but gradually this thought in turn took
possession of him. She would be a wife in two days. That great,
roistering, brown man would fold her to himself--she would yield to
him every inch of her palpitant, passionate body. The thought drove
the lover frantic, and he felt that madness lay that way if he dwelt
on such fancies for long. Of a sudden he realized all that she meant
to him, and cursed himself anew. While he had the power to possess
her he had dallied and hesitated, but now that he had no voice in
it, now that she was irretrievably beyond his reach, he vowed to
snatch her and hold her against the world.

As he grew calmer his reason began to dissect the scene that had
taken place in the store, and he wondered whether she had been lying
to him, after all. No doubt she had been engaged to the Frenchman,
and had always planned to wed Poleon, for that was not out of
reason; she might even have set out mischievously to amuse herself
with him, but at the recollection of those rapturous hours they had
spent together, he declared aloud that she had loved him, and him
only. Every instinct in him shouted that she loved him, in spite of
her cruel protestations.

All that afternoon he stayed locked in his room, and during those
solitary hours he came to know his own soul. He saw what life meant:
what part love plays in it, how dwarfed and withered all things are
when pitted against it.

A man came with his supper, but he called to him to be gone. The
night settled slowly, and with the darkness came such a feeling of
despair and lonesomeness that Burrell lighted every lamp and candle
in the place to dispel, in some measure, the gloom that had fallen
upon him. There are those who believe that in passing from daylight
to darkness a subtle transition occurs akin to the change from
positive to negative in an electrical current, and that this
intangible, untraceable atmospheric influence exerts a definite,
psychical effect upon men and their modes of thought. Be this as it
may, it is certain that as the night grew darker the Lieutenant's
mood changed. He lost his fierce anger at the girl, and reasoned
that he owed it to her to set himself right in her eyes; that in all
justice to her he ought to prove his own sincerity, and assure her
that whatever her own state of mind had been, she wronged him when
she said he had made sport of her for his own pleasure. She might
then dismiss him and proceed with her marriage, but first she must
know this much of the truth at least. So he argued, insensible to
the sophistry of his reasoning, which was in reality impelled by the
hunger to see her and hear her voice again. He snatched his hat and
bolted out, almost running in his eagerness.

An up-river steamboat was just landing as he neared the trading-
post--a freighter, as he noted by her lights. In the glare at the
river-bank he saw Poleon and the trader, who had evidently returned
from Lee's Creek, and without accosting them he hurried on to the
store. Peering in from the darkness, he saw Alluna; no doubt Necia
was alone in the house behind. So he stumbled around to the back to
find the window of her room aglow behind its curtain, and, receiving
no answer to his knock, he entered, for it was customary at Gale's
to waive ceremony. Inside the big room he paused, then stepped
swiftly across and rapped at her door, falling back a pace as she
came out.

Instead of speaking at once, as he had planned, to prevent her
escaping, he was struck speechless, for the vision that met his eyes
was that which he had seen one blithe spring morning three months
before; but to-night there was no shawl to conceal her sweetly
rounded neck and shoulders, whose whiteness was startling against
the black of the ball-room gown. The slim gold chain hung around her
neck and her hair was piled high, as before. He noted every smallest
detail as she stood there waiting for him to speak, forgetful of
everything else.

She had put on the gown again to see if, perchance, there might be
some mark of her blood or breed that had escaped her previous
scrutiny, and, as there was no one to observe her, she had attired
herself slowly, absorbed in her whimsy. Her wistful beauty dazed the
young man and robbed him of the words he had rehearsed; but as she
made to flee from him, with a pitiful gesture, towards her room, the
fear of losing her aroused him and spurred his wit.

"Don't go away! I have something I must tell you. I've thought it
over, and you've got to listen, Necia."

"I am listening," she answered, very quietly.

"Understand me, I'm not whining, and I'm willing to take my
medicine. I couldn't talk or think very straight this afternoon, but
you were wrong."

"Yes, I know now, I was wrong. It was most unlady-like, wasn't it?
But you see, I am only a little savage."

"I don't mean that; I mean you were wrong when you said I had played
with you. In the sight of God, I swear you were mistaken. You have
made me love you, Necia. Can't you see?"

She made no sign.

"If you can't, I owe it to you and to myself to set you right. I am
not ashamed to acknowledge my love, and even when you are married to
Poleon I want you to know that I shall love you always."

Even yet she made no sign. Was he not merely repeating the same
empty words with which he had so often beguiled her? There was no
word of marriage: he still considered her unworthy, beneath him. The
pain of it caused the girl to wince suddenly, and her sensitive face
flinched, seeing which he broke out:

"You do love me, Necia--you do; I see it in your eyes!" And he
started towards her with open arms, but she shrank away from him.

"No, no! Don't touch me!" she almost screamed.

"My dear one," he breathed, "you must listen to me. You have nothing
to fear, for I love you--love you--love you! You were made for me!
You'll be my wife. Yes; you'll be married on Sunday, but to me, not
to Poleon or any other man!"

Did she hear aright? Was he, her soldier lover, asking her, the
Indian girl--?

"You do love me, don't you?" he pleaded. But still she could not
speak, and he tried to read the answer in her swimming eyes.

"You mean--you want to--marry me?" she murmured, at last, hesitating
shyly at the word that had come to play so momentous a part in her
little world.

"Indeed I do!" he declared, with emphasis. "In spite of everything,
anything. Nothing else matters."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing! I'll quit the army. I'll give up the Service, and my
people, too. I'll put everything back of me, and we'll start out
anew--just you and I."

"Wait a moment," she said, retreating a little from his eager, out-
stretched arms. "Why do you need to do all that?"

"Never mind why; it's as good as done. You wouldn't understand--"

"But I think I do understand now. Do I really mean all that to you?"

"Yes, and more!"

"Listen to me," said the girl, quietly. "I want you to talk slowly
so I may not misunderstand. If you--marry me, must you forego all
those great things you speak of--your profession, your family, your
future?"

"Don't let's talk about it, Necia; I've got you, and--"

"Please answer me," she urged. "I thought I understood, but I'm
afraid I don't. I thought it was my being a breed that stood in the
way--"

"There's nothing in the way--"

"--that I wasn't good enough. I knew I could overcome that; I knew I
could make myself grow to your level, but I didn't think my blood
would fetter you and make this difference. I suppose I am putting it
awkwardly, because I'm not sure that I quite understand it myself
yet. Things seem different now, somehow, than they did before."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed the soldier. "If they don't bother me, Necia,
why should you worry?"

"Would you really have to give up your family--your sister? Would
those people you are so proud of and who are so proud of you--would
they cut you off?"

"There is no question of cutting off. I have no inheritance coming;
I don't want any. I don't want anything except you, dear."

"Won't you tell me?" she persisted. "You see, I am dull at these
things."

"Well, what if they do?" he conceded. "You more than make it up to
me--you outweigh a thousand families."

"And would your marriage to a--a--to me destroy your army career?"

"Well, it will really be much easier for both of us if I resign from
the Service," he finally admitted. "In fact, I've decided to do so
at once."

"No, no! You mustn't do that. To-night you think I am worth the
price, but a day will come--"

He leaned forward and caught her hands in his.

"--Meade, I can't let you do it."

"I'd like to see you help yourself," he said, banteringly.

"I can and I will. You must not marry me, Meade--it's not right--it
can't be." She suddenly realized what this renunciation would mean,
and began to shiver. To think of losing him now, after he had come
to her freely--it would be very hard! But to her, too, there had
come the revelation that love means sacrifice, and she knew now that
she loved her soldier too well to let her shadow darken his bright
future, too well to ruin him.

"It will be over before you know it," she heard him saying, in a
lame attempt at levity. "Father Barnum is an expert, and the
operation won't occupy him ten minutes."

"Meade, you must listen to me now," she said, so earnestly that it
sobered him. "Do you think a girl could be happy if she knew a good
man had spoiled his life for her? I would rather die now than let
you do such a thing. I couldn't bear to see myself a drag on you.
Oh, I know it would be wonderful, this happiness of ours, for a
time, and then--" She was finding it more and more difficult to
continue. "A prisoner grows to hate the chains that bind him; when
that day came for you, I should hate myself. No, no! Believe me, it
can't be. You're not of my people, and I'm not of yours."

At that moment they heard the voices of the trader and his squaw
outside, approaching the house. The girl's breath caught in her
throat, she flung herself recklessly upon her lover's breast and
threw her arms around his neck in an agony of farewell.

"Meade! Meade! my soldier!" she sobbed, "kiss me good-bye for the
last time!"

"No," he said roughly.

But she dragged his face down to her burning lips.

"Now you must go," she said, tearing herself away, "and, for my
sake, don't see me again."

"I will! I will! I'll ask your father for you to-night."

"No, no! Don't; please don't! Wait till--till to-morrow--till I say
the word! Promise me! On your love, promise!"

Her eyes held such a painful entreaty that he nodded acquiescence as
the door opened and her father and Alluna entered.





Next: Stark Takes A Hand In The Game

Previous: Where The Path Led



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