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John Gale's Hour

From: The Barrier

It was a heathenish time of night to arouse the girl, thought
Burrell, as he left the barracks, but he must allay these fears that
were besetting him, he must see Necia at once. The low, drifting
clouds obscured what star-glow there was in the heavens, and he
stepped back to light a lantern. By its light he looked at his watch
and exclaimed, then held it to his ear. Five hours had passed since
he left Gale's house. Well, the call was urgent, and Necia would
understand his anxiety.

A few moments later he stood above the squaw, who crouched on the
trader's doorstep, wailing her death song into the night. He could
not check her; she paid no heed to him, but only rocked and moaned
and chanted that strange, weird song which somehow gave strength to
his fears.

"What's wrong; where is Necia? Where is she?" he demanded, and at
last seized her roughly, facing her to the light, but Alluna only
blinked owlishly at his lantern and shook her head.

"Gone away," she finally informed him, and began to weave again in
her despair, but he held her fiercely.

"Where has she gone? When did she go?" He shook her to quicken her

"I don' know. I don' know. Long time she's gone now." She trailed
off into Indian words he could not comprehend, so he pushed past her
into the house to see for himself, and without knocking flung
Necia's door open and stepped into her chamber. Before he had swept
the unfamiliar room with his eyes he knew that she had indeed gone,
and gone hurriedly, for the signs of disorder betrayed a reckless
haste. Hanging across the back of a chair was what had once been the
wondrous dress, Poleon's gift, now a damp and draggled ruin, and on
the floor were two sodden satin slippers and a pair of wet silk
stockings. He picked up the lace gown and saw that it was torn from
shoulder to waist. What insanity had possessed the girl to rip her
garment thus?

"She take her 'nother dress; the one I make las' summer," said
Alluna, who had followed him in and stood staring as he stared.

"When did she go, Alluna? For God's sake, what does this mean?"

"I don' know! She come and she go, and I don' see her; mebbe three,
four hour ago."

"Where's Gale? He'll know. He's gone after her, eh?"

The upward glow of the lantern heightened the young man's pallor,
and again the squaw broke into her sad lament.

"John Gale--he's gone away with the knife of my father. I am afraid-
-I am afraid."

Burrell forced himself to speak calmly; this was no time to let his
wits stampede.

"How long ago?"

"Long time."

"Did he come back here just now?"

"No; he went to the jail-house, and he would not let me follow. He
don' come back no more."

This was confusing, and Meade cried, angrily:

"Why didn't you give the alarm? Why didn't you come to me instead of
yelling your lungs out around the house?"

"He told me to wait," she said, simply.

"Go find Poleon, quick."

"He told me to wait," she repeated, stoically, and Burrell knew he
was powerless to move her. He saw the image of a great terror in the
woman's face. The night suddenly became heavy with the hint of
unspeakable things, and he grew fearful, suspecting now that Gale
had told him but a part of his story, that all the time he knew
Stark's identity, and that his quarry was at hand, ready for the
kill; or, if not, he had learned enough while standing behind that
partition. Where was he now? Where was Necia? What part did she play
in this? Stark's parting words struck Burrell again like a blow.
This life-long feud was drawing swiftly to some tragic culmination,
and somewhere out in the darkness those two strong, hate-filled men
were settling their scores. All at once a fear for the trader's life
came upon the young man, and he realized that a great bond held them
together. He could not think clearly, because of the dread thing
that gripped him at thought of Necia. Was he to lose her, after all?
He gave up trying to think, and fled for Stark's saloon, reasoning
that where one was the other must be near, and there would surely be
some word of Necia. He burst through the door; a quick glance over
the place showed it empty of those he sought, but, spying Poleon
Doret, he dragged him outside, inquiring breathlessly:

"Have you seen Gale?"

"Have you seen Stark? Has he been about?"

"Yes, wan hour, mebbe two hour ago. W'y? Wat for you ask?"

"There's the devil to pay. Those two have come together, and Necia
is gone."

"Necia gone?" the Canadian jerked out. "Wat you mean by dat? Were
she's gone to?"

"I don't know--nobody knows. God! I'm shaking like a leaf."

"Bah! She's feel purty bad! She's go out by herse'f. Dat's all

"I tell you something has happened to her; there's hell to pay. I
found her clothes at the house torn to ribbons and all muddy and

Poleon cried out at this.

"We've got to find her and Gale, and we haven't a minute to lose.
I'm afraid we're too late as it is. I wish it was daylight. Damn the
darkness, anyhow! It makes it ten times harder."

His incoherence alarmed his listener more than his words.

"Were have you look?"

"I've been to the house, but Alluna is crazy, and says Gale has gone
to kill Stark, as near as I can make out. Both of them were at my
quarters to-night, and I'm afraid the squaw is right."

"But w'ere is Necia?"

"We don't know; maybe Stark has got her."

The Frenchman cursed horribly. "Have you try hees cabane?"


Without answer the Frenchman darted away, and the Lieutenant sped
after him through the deserted rows of log-houses.

"Ha! Dere's light," snarled Doret, over his shoulder, as they neared
their goal.

"Be careful," panted Burrell. "Wait! Don't knock." He forced Poleon
to pause. "Let's find out who's inside. Remember, we're working

He gripped his companion's arm with fingers of steel, and together
they crept up to the door, but even before they had gained it they
heard a voice within. It was Stark's. The walls of the house were of
moss-chinked logs that deadened every sound, but the door itself was
of thin, whip-sawed pine boards with ample cracks at top and bottom,
and, the room being of small dimensions, they heard plainly. The
Lieutenant leaned forward, then with difficulty smothered an
exclamation, for he heard another voice now--the voice of John Gale.
The words came to him muffled but distinct, and he raised his hand
to knock, when, suddenly arrested, he seized Poleon and forced him
to his knees, hissing into his ear:

"Listen! Listen! For God's sake, listen!"

For the first time in his tempestuous life Ben Stark lost the iron
composure that had made his name a by-word in the West, and at sight
of his bitterest enemy seated in the dark of his own house waiting
for him he became an ordinary, nervous, frightened man faced by a
great peril. It was the utter unexpectedness of the thing that shook
him, and before he could regain his balance Gale spoke:

"I've come to settle, Bennett."

"What are you doing here?" the gambler stammered.

"I was up at the soldier's place just now and heard you. I didn't
want any interruptions, so I came here where we can be alone." He
paused, and, when Stark made no answer, continued, "Well, let's get
at it." But still the other made no move. "You've had all the best
of it for twenty years," Gale went on, in his level voice, "but to-
night I get even. By God! I've lived for this."

"That shot in Lee's cabin?" recalled Stark, with the light of a new
understanding. "You knew me then?"


Stark took a deep breath. "What a damned fool I've been!"

"Your devil's magic saved you that time, but it won't stop this."
The trader rose slowly with the knife in his hand.

"You'll hang for this!" said the gambler, unsteadily, at which
Gale's face blazed.

"Ha!" exclaimed the trader, exultingly; "you can feel it in your
guts already, eh?"

With an effort Stark began to assemble his wits as the trader

"You saddled your dirty work on me, Ben Stark, and I've carried it
for fifteen years; but to-night I put you out the way you put her
out. An eye for an eye!"

"I didn't kill her," said the man.

"Don't lie. This isn't a grand jury. We're all alone."

"I didn't kill her."

"So? The yellow is showing up at last. I knew you were a coward, but
I didn't think you'd be afraid to own it to yourself. That thing
must have lived with you."

"Look here," said Stark, curiously, "do you really think I killed

"I know it. A man who would strike a woman would kill her--if he had
the nerve."

Stark had now mastered himself, and smiled.

"My hate worked better than I thought. Well, well, that made it hard
for you, didn't it?" he chuckled. "I supposed, of course, you knew--

"Knew?" Gale's face showed emotion for the first time. "Knew what--?"
His hands were quivering slightly.

"She killed herself."

"So help you God?"

"So help me God!"

There was a long pause.


"Say, it's kind of funny our standing here talking about that thing,
isn't it? Well, if you want to know, I came home early that night--I
guess you hadn't been gone two hours--and the surprise did it, more
than anything else, I suppose--she hadn't prepared a story. I got
suspicious, named you at random, and hit the nail on the head. She
broke down, thought I knew more than I did, and--and then there was
hell to pay."

"Go on."

"I suppose I talked bad and made threats--I was crazy over you--till
she must have thought I meant to kill her, but I didn't. No. I never
was quite that bad. Anyhow, she did it herself."

Gale's face was like chalk, and his voice sounded thin and dry as he

"You beat her, that's why she did it."

Stark made no answer.

"The papers said the room showed a struggle."

When the other still kept silent, Gale insisted:

"Didn't you?"

At this Stark flamed up defiantly.

"Well, I guess I had cause enough. No woman except her was ever
untrue to me--wife or sweetheart."

"You didn't really think--?"

"Think hell! I thought so then, and I think so now. She denied it,

"And you knew her so well, too. I guess you've had some bad nights
yourself, Bennett, with that always on your mind--"

"I swore I'd have you--"

"--and so you put her blood on my head, and made me an outlaw."
After an instant: "Why did you tell me this, anyhow?"

"It's our last talk, and I wanted you to know how well my hate

"Well, I guess that's all," said Gale. So far they had watched each
other with unwavering, unblinking eyes, straining at the leash and
taut in every nerve. Now, however, the trader's fingers tightened on
the knife-handle, and his knuckles whitened with the grip, at which
Stark's right hand swept to his waist, and simultaneously Gale
lunged across the table. His blade nickered in the light, and a gun
spoke, once--twice--again and again. A cry arose outside the cabin,
then some heavy thing crashed in through the door, bringing light
with it, for with his first leap Gale had carried the lamp and the
table with him, and the two had clenched in the dark,

Burrell had waited an instant too long, for the men's voices had
held so steady, their words had been so vital, that the finish found
him unprepared, but, thrusting the lantern into Poleon's hand, he
had backed off a pace and hurled himself at the door. He had learned
the knack of bunching his weight in football days, and the barrier
burst and splintered before him. He fell to his knees inside, and an
instant later found himself wrestling for his life between two
raging beasts. The Lieutenant knew Doret must have entered too,
though he could not see him, for the lantern shed a sickly gloom
over the chaos. He was locked desperately with John Gale, who flung
him about and handled him like a child, fighting like an old gray
wolf, hoary with years and terrible in his rage. Burrell had never
been so battered and harried and torn; only for the lantern's light
Gale would doubtless have sheathed his weapon in his new assailant,
but the more fiercely the trader struggled, the more tenaciously the
soldier clung. As it was, Gale carried the Lieutenant with him and
struck over his head at Stark.

Poleon had leaped into the room at Burrell's heels, to receive the
impact of a heavy body hurled backward into his arms as if by some
irresistible force. He seized it and tore it away from the thing
that pressed after and bore down upon it with the ferocity of a wild
beast. He saw Gale reach over the Lieutenant's head and swing his
arm, saw the knife-blade bury itself in what he held, then saw it
rip away, and felt a hot stream spurt into his face. So closely was
the Canadian entangled with Stark that he fancied for an instant the
weapon had wounded both of them for the trader had aimed at his
enemy's neck where it joined the shoulder, but, hampered by the
soldier, his blow went astray about four inches. Doret glimpsed
Burrell rising from his knees, his arms about the trader's waist,
and the next instant the combatants were dragged apart.

The Lieutenant wrenched the dripping blade from Gale's hand; it no
longer gleamed, but was warm and slippery in his fingers. Poleon
held Stark's gun, which was empty and smoking.

The fight had not lasted a minute, and yet what terrible havoc had
been wrought! The gambler was drenched with his own blood, which
gushed from him, black in the yellow flicker, and so plentifully
that the Frenchman was befouled with it, while Gale, too, was
horribly stained, but whether from his own or his enemy's veins it
was hard to tell. The trader paid no heed to himself nor to the
intruders, allowing Burrell to push him back against the wall, the
breath wheezing in and out of his lungs, his eyes fastened on Stark.

"I got you, Bennett!" he cried, hoarsely. "Your magic is no good."
His teeth showed through his grizzled muzzle like the fangs of some
wild animal.

Bennett, or Stark, as the others knew him, lunged about with his
captor, trying to get at his enemy, and crying curses on them all,
but he was like a child in Poleon's arms. Gradually he weakened, and
suddenly resistance died out of him.

"Come away from here," the Lieutenant ordered Gale.

But the old man did not hear, and gathered himself as if to resume
the battle with his bare hands, whereupon the soldier, finding
himself shaking like a frightened child, and growing physically weak
at what he saw, doubted his ability to prevent the encounter, and
repeated his command.

"Come away!" he shouted, but the words sounded foolishly flat and

Then Stark spoke intelligibly for the first time.

"Arrest him! You've got to believe what I told you now, Burrell." He
poured forth a stream of unspeakable profanity, smitten by the
bitter knowledge of his first and only defeat. "You'll hang,
Gaylord! I'll see your neck stretched, damn your heart!" To Poleon
he panted, excitedly: "I followed him for fifteen years, Doret. He
killed my wife."

"Dat's damn lie!" said the Frenchman.

"No, it isn't. He's under indictment for it back in California. He
shot her down in cold blood, then ran off with my kid. That's her he
calls Necia. She's mine. Ain't I right, Lieutenant?"

At this final desperate effort to fix the crime upon his rival,
Burrell turned on him with loathing.

"It's no use, Stark. We heard you say she killed herself. We were
standing outside the door, both of us, and got it from your own

Until this moment the man had stood on his own feet, but now he
began to sag, seeing which, Poleon supported him to the bed, where
he sank weakly, collapsing in every joint and muscle.

"It's a job," he snarled. "You put this up, you three, and came here
to gang me." An unnatural shudder convulsed him as his wounds bit at
him, and then he flared up viciously. "But I'll beat you all. I've
got the girl! I've got her!"

"Necia!" cried Burrell, suddenly remembering, for this affray had
driven all else from his mind.

Stark crouched on the edge of his bunk--a ghastly, gray, grinning
thing! One weapon still remained to him, and he used it.

"Yes, I've got my daughter!"

"Where is she?" demanded the trader, hoarsely. "Where's my girl?"

The gambler chuckled; an agony seized him till he hiccoughed and
strangled; then, as the spell passed, he laughed again.

"She's got you in her head, like the mother had, but I'll drive it
out; I'll treat her like I did her--"

Gale uttered a terrible cry and moved upon him, but Burrell
shouldered the trader aside, himself possessed by a cold fury that
intensified his strength tenfold.

"Stop it, Gale! Let me attend to this. I'll make him tell!"

"Oh, will you?" mocked the girl's father.

"Where is she?"

"None of your damned business." Again he was seized with a paroxysm
that left him shivering and his lips colorless. The blankets were
soaked and soggy with blood, and his feet rested in a red pool.

"Ben Stark," said the tortured lover, "you're a sick man, and you'll
be gone in half an hour at this rate. Won't you do one decent thing
before you die?"

"Bah! I'm all right."

"I'll get you a doctor if you'll tell us where she is. If you don't-
-I'll--let you die. For God's sake, man, speak up!"

The wounded man strove to rise, but could not, then considered for a
moment before he said:

"I sent her away."


"Up-river, on that freighter that left last night. She'll go out by
Skagway, and I'll join her later, where I can have her to myself.
She's forty miles up-river now, and getting farther every minute--
oh, you can't catch her!"

The three men stared at one another blankly.

"Why did she go?" said Gale, dully.

"Because I told her who she was, and who you are; because she thinks
you killed her mother; because she was glad to get away." Now that
he was grown too weak to inflict violent pain, the man lied
malevolently, gloating over what he saw in the trader's face.

"Never mind, old man, I'll bring her back," said Burrell, and laid a
comforting hand on Gale's shoulder, for the fact that she was safe,
the fact of knowing something relieved him immensely; but Stark's
next words plunged him into even blacker horror than the trader

"You won't want her if you catch her. Runnion will see to that."


"Yes, I sent him with her."

The lover cried out in anguish, and hid his face in his hands.

"He's wanted her for a long time, so I told him to go ahead--"

None of them noticed Poleon Doret, who, upon this unnatural
confession, alone seemed to retain sufficient control to doubt and
to reason. He was thinking hard, straightening out certain facts,
and trying to square this horrible statement with things he had seen
and heard to-night. All of a sudden he uttered a great cry, and
bolted out into the darkness unheeded by Gale and Burrell, who stood
dazed and distraught with a fear greater than that which was growing
in Stark at sight of his wounds.

The gambler looked down at his injuries, opened and closed the
fingers of his hand as if to see whether he still maintained control
of them, then cried out at the two helpless men:

"Well, are you going to let me bleed to death?"

It brought the soldier out of his trance.

"Why--no, no! We'll get a doctor."

But Gale touched him on the shoulder and said:

"He's too weak to get out. Lock him in, and let him die in the

Stark cursed affrightedly, for it is a terrible thing to bleed to
death in the dark, and in spite of himself the Lieutenant wavered.

"I can't do that. I promised."

"He told that lie to my girl. He gave her to that hound," said the
trader, but Burrell shoved him through the door.

"No! I can't do that." And then to the wounded man he said, "I'll
get a doctor, but God have mercy on your soul." He could not trust
himself to talk further with this creature, nor be near him any
longer, for though he had a slight knowledge of surgery, he would
sooner have touched a loathsome serpent than the flesh of this
monstrous man.

He pushed Gale ahead of him, and the old man went like a driven
beast, for his violence had wasted itself, and he was like a person
under the spell of a strong drug. At the doctor's door Burrell

"I never thought to ask you," he said, wearily; "but you must be
hurt? He must have wounded you?"

"I reckon he did--I don't know." Then the man's listless voice
throbbed out achingly, as he cried in despair: "She believed him,
boy! She believed his lies! That's what hurts." Something like a sob
caught in his throat, and he staggered away under the weight of his
great bereavement.

Next: The Love Of Poleon Doret

Previous: And A Knot Tightened

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