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And A Knot Tightened








From: The Barrier

A day of shattered hopes is a desolate thing, but the night of such
a day is desolate indeed. In all his life Poleon Doret had never
sunk to such depths of despondency, for his optimistic philosophy
and his buoyant faith in the goodness of life forbade it. Therefore,
when darkness came it blotted out what little brightness and light
and hope were left to him after Necia's stormy interview with the
Lieutenant. The arrival of the freight steamer afforded him some
distraction, but there was only a small consignment for the store,
and that was quickly disposed of; so, leaving the other citizens of
Flambeau to wrangle over their private merchandise, he went back to
his solitary vigil, which finally became so unbearable that he
sought to escape his thoughts, or at least to drown them for a
while, amid the lights and life and laughter of Stark's saloon.
Being but a child by nature, his means of distraction were primal
and elementary, and he began to gamble, as usual with hard luck, for
the cards had ever been unkind to him. He did not think of winnings
or losings, however--he merely craved the occupation; and it was
this that induced him to sit at a game in which Runnion played,
although ordinarily he would not have tolerated even tacitly such a
truce to his dislikes. As it was, he crouched in a corner, his hat
pulled down over his brow, his swarthy face a darker hue beneath the
shadow, losing steadily, only now and then showing a flash of white
teeth as he saw his money go. What mattered loss to him? He had no
more need of money now than Necia had of his love. He would spend
the dollars he had eked and scraped and saved for her as she had
spent the treasures of his heart, and now that the one had brought
him no return he wished to be rid of the other, for he was shortly
to go again in search of his "New Country," where no man needs gold
half so much as a clean heart. It would be a long journey, far to
the West and North--a journey that none of his kind had ever fared
back from, and he wished to go light, as all good adventurers go.

Runnion annoyed him with his volubility, for the news of his good-
fortune had fired the man with a reckless disregard for money, and
he turned to gaming as the one natural recourse of his ilk. As the
irony of fate would have it, he won what the Canadian lost, together
with the stakes of various others who played for a time with him and
then gave up, wagging their heads or swearing softly at the cards.

It was shortly after midnight that Stark came into the place. Poleon
was not too absorbed in his own fortunes to fail to notice the
extraordinary ferocity and exhilaration of the saloon-keeper, nor
that his face was keener, his nostrils thinner, his walk more
nervous, and his voice more cutting than usual when he spoke to
Runnion.

"Come here."

"I'll be with you when I finish this hand," said the player, over
his shoulder.

"Come here!" Stark snapped his command, and Runnion threw down his
cards.

"I'm right in the middle of a winning streak. You'll break my luck,
Ben."

But the other only frowned impatiently, and, drawing the reluctant
gambler aside, began to talk rapidly to him, almost within ear-shot
of Poleon, who watched them, idly wondering what Stark had to say
that could make Runnion start and act so queerly. Well, it was their
affair. They made a bad pair to draw to. He knew that Runnion was
the saloon-keeper's lieutenant and obeyed implicitly his senior's
commands. He could distinguish nothing they said, nor was he at all
curious until a knot of noisy men crowded up to the bar, and,
forcing the two back nearer to the table where he sat, his sharp
ears caught these words from Runnion's lips:

"Not with me! She'd never go with me!" and Stark's reply:

"She'll go where I send her, and with anybody I tell her to."

The Frenchman lost what followed, for a newly dealt hand required
study. He scanned his cards, and tossed them face up before the
dealer; then he overheard Runnion say:

"It's the only one in camp. He might sell it if you offered him
enough." At this Stark called one of the men at the bar aside, and
the three began to dicker.

"Not a cent less," the third man announced, loudly. "There ain't
another Peterborough in town."

It was Poleon's deal now, and when he had finished both Stark and
Runnion had disappeared, also the man they had accosted, which
pleased the Canadian, for now that Runnion was eliminated from the
game he might win a little. A steady, unvarying run of bad hands is
uninteresting, and does not occupy one's mind as well as an
occasional change of luck.

Outside Runnion was saying again to Stark:

"She won't go with me, Ben; she don't like me. You see, I made love
to her, and she got mad and wanted me killed."

"She'll never know who you are until it's too late to turn back,"
said the other, "and you are the only man I can trust to take her
through. I can trust you--you owe me too much to be crooked."

"Oh, I'll act square with you! But look here, what's all this about,
anyhow? Why do you want that girl? You said you didn't care for her
that way; you told me so yourself. Been having a change of heart, or
is it your second childhood?" He laughed disagreeably.

"It's none of your business," said the gambler. "I want her, and
that's enough. All you have to do is to take her to St. Michael's
and keep her there till you hear from me. She thinks she is going to
the Mission, and you needn't tell her otherwise until you get her
aboard a steamer; then take her, no matter what kind of a fight she
puts up. You've got a light-rowing skiff, and you'd better keep
going till you're overtaken by a down-river boat. I want her as far
away from here as possible. There's going to be some hell in this
camp. Now, hike, and get yourself ready."

"All right! But I ain't the safest kind of a chaperon for a good-
looking girl."

Stark laid a cold hand on Runnion's shoulder, close up to his neck.

"Get that out of your mind. She belongs to me."

"You said just now--"

"Never mind what I said. She's mine, and you've got to promise to be
straight with her. I've trusted you before, and if you're not on the
level now, say so. It will save you a lot of trouble."

"Oh! All right!" exclaimed Runnion, testily. "Only it looks mighty
queer."

He melted into the darkness and Stark returned to his cabin, where
he paced back and forth impatiently, smiling evilly now and then,
consulting his watch at frequent intervals. A black look had begun
to settle on his face, but it vanished when Necia came, and he met
her with a smile.

"I was afraid you had weakened," he said. "Everything is ready and
waiting. I've got the only canoe in the place, a Peterborough, and
hired a good oarsman to put you through, instructing him to make as
fast time as he can, and to board the first steamer that overtakes
you. Too bad this freighter that just got in isn't going the other
way. However, there's liable to be another any hour, and if one
doesn't come along you'll find enough blankets and food in the
skiff, so you needn't go ashore. You'll be there before you know
it."

"You are very kind," said the girl. "I can't thank you enough." She
was clothed in her simple everyday dress, and looked again the sun-
colored half-breed girl with the wide, dark eyes and the twin braids
of crow-black hair.

"You didn't run into anybody, eh?"

She shook her head. Then he led her out into the darkness, and they
stumbled down to the river's-bank, descending to the gravelly
water's edge, where rows of clumsy hand-sawed boats and poling-
skiffs were chafing at their painters. The up-river steamer was just
clearing.

Stark's low whistle was answered a hundred yards below, and they
searched out a darker blot that proved to be a man's figure.

"Is everything ready?" he inquired, at which the shadow grunted
unintelligibly. So, holding Necia by the arm, Stark helped her back
to a seat in the stern.

"This man will take you through," he said. "You can trust him, all
right."

The oarsman clambered in and adjusted his sweeps, then Stark laid a
hand on the prow and shoved the light boat out into the current,
calling softly:

"Good-bye, and good-luck."

"Good-bye, Mr. Stark. Thank you ever so much," the girl replied, too
numb and worn out to say much, or to notice or care whither she was
bound or who was her boatman. She had been swept along too swiftly
to reason or fear for herself any more.

Half an hour later the scattered lights of the little camp winked
and twinkled for the last time. Turning, she set her face forward,
and, adjusting the cushions to her comfort, strained her tired eyes
towards the rising and falling shadow of her boatman. She seemed
borne along on a mystic river of gloom that hissed and gurgled about
her, invisible but all-pervading, irresistible, monstrous, only the
ceaseless, monotonous creak of the rowlocks breaking the silence.

Stark did not return to his cabin, but went back instead to his
saloon, where he saw Poleon Doret still sprawling with elbows on the
table, his hat pulled low above his sullen face. The owner of the
place passed behind the bar and poured himself a full glass of
whiskey, which he tossed off, then, without a look to right or left,
went out and down towards the barracks. A light behind the drawn
curtains of the officer's house told that his man was not abed, but
he waited a long moment after his summons before the door was
opened, during which he heard the occupant moving about and another
door close in the rear. When he was allowed entrance at last he
found the young man alone in a smoke-filled room with a bottle and
two empty glasses on the table.

For at the sound of his voice Gale had whispered to Burrell, "Keep
him out!" and the Lieutenant had decided to refuse his late visitor
admittance when he lighted on the expedient of concealing the trader
in the bedroom at the rear. It was only natural, he reasoned, that
Gale should dislike to face a man like Stark before he had regained
his composure.

"Go in there and wait till I see what he wants," he had said, and,
shutting the old man in, he had gone forth to admit Stark, resenting
his ill-timed intrusion and inquiring brusquely the cause of it.

Before answering, Stark entered and closed the door behind him.

"I've got some work for you, Lieutenant."

"I guess it can wait till morning," said Meade.

"No, it can't; it's got to be done to-night, right now! You
represent the law, or at least you've taken every occasion to so
declare yourself, and to mix in with little things that don't cut
much figure; so now I've come to you with something big. It's a
serious affair, and being as I'm a peaceful man I want to go by the
law." His eyes mocked the words he uttered. "You're mighty prompt
and determined when it comes to regulating such affairs. You seem to
carry the weight of this whole community on your shoulders, so I'm
here to give you some information."

Burrell ignored the taunt, and said, quietly: "It's a little late
for polite conversation. Come to the point."

"I've got a criminal for you."

"What kind?"

"Murderer."

"You've had a killing in your place, eh?"

"No, I've just made a discovery. I found it all out by accident,
too--pure accident. By Heaven! You can't tell me there isn't a
beneficent Providence overlooking our affairs. Why, this felon has
lived here among us all this time, and only for the merest chance I
never would have recognized him."

"Well, well! Go on!" snapped Burrell, impatiently.

"He's a friend of yours, and a highly respected party. He's a
glorious example to this whole river."

The officer started. Could it be? he wondered. Could knowledge of
this affair have reached this man? He was uncomfortably aware of
that presence in the back room, but he had to know the truth.

"Who is the man?"

"He's your friend. He's--" Stark paused, gloating over his enemy's
suspense.

"Go on." "He's everybody's friend. He's the shining mark of this
whole country. He's the benevolent renegade, Squaw-man Gale."

"John Gale?"

"Gaylord is his name, and I was a fool not to know it sooner."

"How did you discover this?" inquired Burrell, lamely. "What proof
have you?"

The disclosure had not affected the soldier as Stark expected, and
his anger began to lift itself.

"That's neither here nor there; the man's a murderer; he's wanted in
California, where I came from; he's been indicted, and there's a
price on his head. He's hidden for fifteen years, but he'll hang as
sure as I stand here."

Disclosures of a complex nature had so crowded on Burrell in the
last few hours that he saw himself the centre of a most unfortunate
and amazing tangle. Things were difficult enough as it was, but to
have this man appear and cry for justice--this man above all
others!--it was a complication quite unlocked for--a hideous
mockery. He must gain time for thought. One false step might ruin
all. He could not face this on the spur of the moment, so, shrugging
his shoulders with an air of polite scepticism, he assumed a tone of
good-natured raillery.

"Fifteen years? Murder? John Gale a murderer? Why, that's almost--
pardon me if I smile--I'm getting sleepy. What proof have you?"

"Proof!" blazed the gambler. "Proof! Ask Gaylord! Proof! Why, the
woman he murdered was my wife!"

It was Burrell's turn now to fall incoherent, and not only did his
speech forsake him, but his thoughts went madly veering off into a
wilderness where there was no trail, no light, no hope. What kind of
a coil was this? What frightful bones were these he bared? This man
was Bennett! This was Necia's father! This man he hated, this man
who was bad, whose name was a curse throughout the length and
breadth of the West, was the father of the girl he loved! His head
began to whirl, then the story of the trader came back to him, and
he remembered who and what the bearer of these later tidings was. He
raised a pair of eyes that had become furious and bloodshot, and
suddenly realized that the man before him, who persisted in saddling
upon Gale this heinous crime, was the slayer of Necia's mother; for
he did not doubt Gale's story for an instant. He found his fingers
writhing to feel the creature's throat.

"Proof!" Stark was growling. "How much proof do you need? I've
followed him for fifteen years. I've tracked him with men and dogs
through woods and deserts and mining-camps. I've slept on his trail
for five thousand miles, and now do you think I'm mistaken? He
killed my wife, I say, and robbed me of my little girl! That's her
in his house. That's her he calls Necia. She's my girl--MY GIRL, do
you understand?--and I'll have his life."

It was hate that animated him, and nothing more. He had no joy in
the finding of his offspring, no uplifted thought of justice. The
thirst for revenge, personal, violent, utter, was all that prompted
this man; but Burrell had no inkling yet of the father's well-shaped
plans, nor how far-reaching they were, and could barely stammer:

"So! You--you know?"

"Yes! She wears the evidence around her neck, and if that isn't
enough I can furnish more--evidence enough to smother you. My name
isn't Stark at all; I changed it years ago for certain reasons. I've
changed it more than once, but that's my privilege and my own
affair. Her name is Merridy Bennett."

"I don't suppose you know I'm going to marry her," said the
Kentuckian, irrelevantly.

"No," replied the other, "I wasn't aware of the fact."

"Well, I am. I'll be your son-in-law." He said this as if it were
the statement of an astonishing truth, whereat Stark grinned, a
mirthless, disquieting sort of grimace, and said:

"There's a lot of things for you and me to settle up first. For one
thing, I want those mines of hers."

"Why?"

"Well, I'm her father, and she's not of age."

"I'll think it over."

"I'll take them, anyway, as her next of kin."

Burrell did not follow up this statement, for its truth was
incontrovertible, and showed that the father's ill-will was too
tangible a thing to be concealed; so he continued:

"We'll adjust that after Gale is attended to; but, meanwhile, what
do you want me to do?"

"I want you to arrest the man who killed my wife. If you don't take
him the miners will. I've got a following in this camp, and I'll
raise a crowd in fifteen minutes--enough to hang this squaw-man, or
batter down your barracks to get him. But I don't want to do that; I
want to go by the law you've talked so much about; I want you to do
the trick."

At last Burrell saw the gambler's deviltry. He knew Stark's
reputation too well to think that he feared a meeting with Gale, for
the man had lived in hope of that these fifteen years, and had
shaped his life around such a meeting; but this indirect method--the
Kentuckian felt a flash of reluctant admiration for a man who could
mould a vengeance with such cruel hands, and, even though he came
from a land of feuds, where hate is a precious thing, the cunning
strength of this man's enmity dwarfed any he had ever known. Stark
had planned his settlement coldly and with deliberate malice;
moreover he was strong enough to stand aside and let another take
his place, and thus deny to Gale the final recourse of a hunted
beast, the desperate satisfaction that the trader craved. He tied
his enemy's hands and delivered him up with his thirst unsatisfied--
to whom? He thrust a weapon into the hand of his other enemy, and
bade this other enemy use it; worse than that, forced him to strike
the man he honored--the man he loved. Burrell never doubted that
Stark had carefully weighed the effect of this upon Necia, and had
reasoned that a girl like her could not understand a soldier's duty
if it meant the blood of a parent. If he refused to act, the gambler
could break him, while every effort he made to protect Gale would
but increase the other's satisfaction. There was no chance of the
trader's escape. Stark held him in his hand. His followers would do
his bidding. It was a desperate affair. Was it impossible, the
Lieutenant wondered, to move this man from his purpose?

"Have you thought of Necia? She loves Gale. What effect will this
have on her?"

"Damn her! She's more his brat than mine. I want John Gaylord!"

At this a vicious frenzy overtook Burrell, and he thought of the man
behind yonder door, whom he had forgotten until these words woke
something savage in him. Well! Why not? These two men had stalked
each other clear into the farthest places, driven by forces that
were older than the hills. Who was he to stand between such
passions? This was ordained, it was the course of nature, the clash
of elements, and this was a fair battle-ground, so why should he
undertake to stop a thing decreed?

The gambler's words rang in his ears--"I want John Gaylord"--and
before he knew what he was doing he had answered: "Very well. I'll
give him to you," and crossed quickly to the door of his bedroom and
flung it open. On the threshold he paused stock-still. The place was
empty; a draught sucked through the open window, flirting with the
curtain and telling the story of the trader's exit.

"If you're looking for your coat, it's here," he heard Stark say.
"Get into it, and we'll go for him."

The Lieutenant's mind was working fast enough now, in all
conscience, and he saw with clear and fateful eyes whither he was
being led, at which a sudden reckless disregard for consequences
seized him. He felt a blind fury at being pulled and hauled and
driven by this creature, and also an unreasoning anger at Gale's
defection. But it was the thought of Necia and the horrible net of
evil in which this man had ensnared them both that galled him most.
It was all a terrible tangle, in which the truth was hopelessly
hidden, and nothing but harm could come from attempting to unravel
it. There was but one solution, and that, though fundamental and
effective, was not to be expected from an officer of the law.
Nevertheless, he chose it, for Ben Stark was too potent a force for
evil to be at large, and needed extermination as truly as if he were
some dangerous beast. He determined to finish this thing here and
now.

Meade went to his bureau, took his revolver from the belt where he
had hung it, and came out into the other room. Stark, seeing the
weapon, exclaimed:

"You don't need that; he won't resist you."

"I've decided not to take him," said Burrell.

"Decided not to take him?" shouted the other. "Have you weakened?
Don't you intend to arrest that man?"

"No!" cried the soldier. "I've listened to your lies long enough;
now I'm going to stop them, once for all. You're too dangerous to
have around."

They faced each other silently a moment; then Stark spoke in a very
quiet voice, though his eyes were glittering:

"What's the meaning of this? Are you crazy?"

"Gale was here just before you came, and told me who killed your
wife. I know."

"You do?"

"I do."

"Well?"

"It's pretty late. This place is lonely. This is the simplest way."

The gambler fell to studying his antagonist, and when he did not
speak Burrell continued:

"Come, brace up! I'm giving you a chance."

But Stark shook his head.

"Don't be afraid," insisted the Lieutenant. "There are no witnesses.
If you get me, nobody will know, and your word is good. If not--it's
much simpler than the other." Then, when the gambler still made no
move, he insisted, "You wouldn't have me kill you like a
rattlesnake?"

"You couldn't," said the older man. "You're not that kind--and I'm
not the kind to be cheated, either. Listen! I've lived over forty
years, and I never took less than was coming to me. I won't begin
to-night."

"You'll get your share--"

"Bah! You don't know what I mean. I don't want you; it's him I'm
after, and when I'm done with him I'll take care of you; but I won't
run any risk right now. I won't take a chance on losing what I've
risked so much to gain, what I've lived these fifteen years to get.
You might put me away--there's the possibility--and I won't let you
or any other man--or woman either, not even my girl--cheat me out of
Gale. Put up your gun."

The soldier hesitated, then did as he was bidden, for this man knew
him better than he knew himself.

"I ought to treat you like a mad dog, but I can't do it while your
hands are up. I'm going to fight for John Gale, however, and you
can't take him."

"I'll have his carcass hung to my ridge-pole before daylight."

"No."

"I say yes!" Stark turned to go, but paused at the door. "And you
think you'll marry Necia, do you?"

"I know it."

"Like hell you will! Suppose you find her first."

"What do you mean? Wait--"

But his visitor was gone, leaving behind him a lover already sorely
vexed, and now harassed by a new and sudden apprehension. What venom
the man distilled! Could it be that he had sent Necia away? Burrell
scouted the idea. She wasn't the kind to go at Stark's mere behest;
and as for his forcing her, why, this was not an age of abductions!
He might aim to take her, but it would require some time to
establish his rights, and even then there were Gale and himself to
be reckoned with. Still, this was no time for idling, and he might
as well make certain, so the young man put on his coat hurriedly,
knowing there was work to do There was no telling what this night
would bring forth, but first he must warn his friend, after which
they would fight this thing together, not as soldier and civilian,
but as man and man, not for the law, but against it. He smiled as he
realized the situation. Well, he was through with the army, anyhow;
his path was strange and new from this time henceforth, and led him
away from all he had known, taking him among other peoples; but he
did not flinch, for it led to her. Behind him was that former life;
to-night he began anew.

Stark traced his way back to his cabin in a ten times fiercer mood
than he had come, reviling, cursing, hating; back past the dark
trading-post he went, pausing to shake his clenched fist and grind
out an oath between his teeth; past the door of his own saloon,
which was a-light, and whence came the sound of revelry, through the
scattered houses, where he went more by feel than by sight, up to
the door of his own shack. He fitted his key in the lock, but the
door swung open without his aid, at which he remembered that he had
only pulled it after him when he came away with Necia. He closed it
behind him now, and locked it, for he had some thinking to do; then
felt through his pockets for a match, and, striking it, bent over
his lamp to adjust the wick. It flared up steady and strong at last,
flooding the narrow place with its illumination; then he
straightened up and turned towards the bed to throw off his coat,
when suddenly every muscle of his body leaped with an uncontrollable
spasm, as if he had uncovered a deadly serpent coiled and ready to
spring. In spite of himself his lungs contracted as if with the grip
of giant hands, and his breath came forth in a startled cry.

John Gale was sitting at his table, barely an arm's-length away, his
gray-blue eyes fixed upon him, and the deep seams of his heavy face
set as if graven in stone. His huge, knotted hands were upon the
table, and between them lay a naked knife.





Next: John Gale's Hour

Previous: A Mystery Is Unravelled



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