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Meade Burrell Finds A Path In The Moonlight








From: The Barrier

"No Creek" Lee had come into his own at last, and was a hero, for
the story of his long ill-luck was common gossip now, and men
praised him for his courage. He had never been praised for anything
before and was uncertain just how to take it.

"Say, are these people kiddin' me?" he inquired, confidentially, of
Poleon.

"W'y? Wat you mean?"

"Well, there's a feller makin' a speech about me down by the
landing."

"Wat he say?"

"It ain't nothin' to fight over. He says I'm another Dan'l Boom,
leadin' the march of empire westward."

"Dat's nice, for sure."

"Certainly sounds good, but is it on the level?"

"Wal, I guess so," admitted Poleon.

The prospector swelled with indignation. "Then, why in hell didn't
you fellers tell me long ago?"

The scanty ounce or two of gold from his claim lay in the scales at
the post, where every new-comer might examine it, and, realizing
that he was a never-ending source of information, they fawned on him
for his tips, bribing him with newspapers, worth a dollar each, or
with cigars, which he wrapped up carefully and placed in his
mackinaw till every pocket of the rusty garment bulged so that he
could not sit without losing them. They dwelt upon his lightest
word, and stood him up beside the bar where they filled him with
proofs of friendliness until he shed tears from his one good eye.

He had formed a habit of parsimony born of his years of poverty, and
was so widely known as a tight man by the hundreds who had lent to
him that his creditors never at any time hoped for a reckoning. And
he never offered one; on the contrary, he had invariably flown into
a rage when dunned, and exhibited such resentment as to discourage
the practice. Now, however, the surly humor of the man began to
mellow, and in gradual stages he unloosened, the process being
attended by a disproportionate growth of the trader's cash receipts.
Cautiously, at first he let out his wit, which was logy from long
disuse, and as heavy on its feet as the Jumping Frog of Calaveras,
but when they laughed at its labored leaps and sallies his
confidence grew. With the regularity of a clock he planted cigars
and ordered "a little more hard stuff," while his roving eye
rejoiced in lachrymose profusion, its over-burden losing itself in
the tangle of his careless beard. By-and-by he wandered through the
town, trailed by a troop of tenderfeet, till the women marked him,
whereupon he fled back to the post and hugged the bar, for he was a
bashful man. When Stark's new place opened it offered him another
retreat of which he availed himself for some time. But late in the
evening he reappeared at Old Man Gale's store, walking a bit
unsteadily, and as he mounted the flight of logs to the door he
stepped once too often.

"What's become of that fourth step?" he demanded, sharply, of
Poleon.

"Dere she is," said the Frenchman.

"I'm'damned if it is. You moved it since I was here."

"I'll have 'im put back," laughed the other.

"Say! It's a grand thing to be rich, ain't it?"

"I don' know, I ain' never try it."

"Well, it is; and now that I've arrived, I'm goin' to change my ways
complete. No more extravagance in mine--I'll never lend another
cent."

"Wat's dat?" ejaculated Doret, in amazement.

"No more hard-luck stories and 'hurry-ups' for mine. I'm the stony-
hearted jailer, I am, from now, henceforth, world 'thout end, amen!
No busted miners need apply. I've been a good thing, but to-night I
turn on the time-lock."

"Ba gosh! You're fonny feller," laughed Poleon, who had lent the
one-eyed man much money in the past and, like others, regarded him
not merely as a bad risk but as a total loss. "Mebbe you t'ink
you've been a spen't'rif all dese year."

"I've certainly blowed a lot of money on my friends," Lee
acknowledged, "and they're welcome to what they've got so far, but
I'm goin' to chop all them prodigal habits and put on the tin vest.
I'll run the solderin'-iron up my seams so they can't get to me
without a can-opener. I'm air-tight for life, I am." He fumbled in
his pockets and unwrapped a gift cigar, then felt for a match.
Poleon tossed one on the bar, and he reached for it twice, missing
it each time.

"I guess dose new frien' of yours is mak' you purty full, M'sieu'
Tin Vest."

"Nothin" of the sort. I've got a bad dose of indigestion."

"Dat's 'orrible disease! Dere's plaintee riche man die on dat
seecknesse. You better lie down."

Doret took the hero of the day by the arm and led him to the rear of
the store, where he bedded him on a pile of flour sacks, but he had
hardly returned to the bar when Lee came veering out of the dimness,
making for the light like a ship tacking towards a beacon.

"What kind of flour is that?" he spluttered.

"Dat's just plain w'eat flour."

"Not on your life," said the miner, with the firmness of a great
conviction. "It's full of yeast powders. Why, it's r'arin' and
risin' like a buckin' hoss. I'm plumb sea-sick." He laid a zigzag
course for the door.

"W'ere you goin'?" asked Poleon.

"I'm goin' to get somethin' for this stomach trouble. It's fierce."
He descended into the darkness boldly, and stepped off with
confidence--this time too soon. Poleon heard him floundering about,
his indignant voice raised irascibly, albeit with a note of triumph.

"Wha'd I tell you? You put it back while I was ashleep." Then
whistling blithely, if somewhat out of tune, he steered for the new
saloon to get something for his "stomach trouble."

At Stark's he found a large crowd of the new men who welcomed him
heartily, plying him with countless questions, and harking to his
maudlin tales of this new country which to him was old. He had
followed the muddy river from Crater Lake to the Delta, searching
the bars and creek-beds in a tireless quest, till he knew each
stream and tributary, for he had been one of the hardy band that
used to venture forth from Juneau on the spring snows, disappearing
into the uncharted valley of the Yukon, to return when the river
clogged and grew sluggish, and, like Gale, he had lived these many
years ahead of the law where each man was his own court of appeals
and where crime was unknown. He had helped to build camps like Forty
Mile and Circle; he knew by heart the by-laws and rules that
governed every town and mining district in the country; he knew
every man and child by name, but, while many of his friends had
prospered, unceasing ill-luck had dogged him. Yet he had held to
honesty and hard work, measuring a man by his ability to swing an
axe or a shovel, and, despite his impecuniosity, regarding theft as
the one crime deserving capital punishment.

"Oh, there's lots of countries worse'n this," he declared. "We may
not be very han'some to the naked eye, and we may not wear our
handk'chiefs in our shirt cuffs, but there ain't no widders and
orphans doin' our washin', and a man can walk away from his house,
stay a month, and find it there when he comes back."

"Those days are past," said Stark, who had joined in the discussion.
"There's too many new people coming in for all of them to be
honest."

"They'd better be," said Lee, aggressively. "We ain't got no room
for stealers. Why, I had a hand in makin' the by-laws of this camp
myself, 'long with John Gale, and they stip'lates that any person
caught robbin' a cache is to be publicly whipped in front of the
tradin'-post, then, if it's winter time, he's to be turned loose on
the ice barefooted, or, if it's summer, he's to be set adrift on a
log with his shirt off."

"Either one would mean certain death," said a stranger. "Frost in
winter, mosquitoes in summer!"

"That's all right," another bystander declared. "A man's life
depends on his grub up here, and I'd be in favor of enforcing that
punishment to the letter if we caught any one thieving."

"All the same, I take no chances," said Stark. "There's too many
strangers here. Just to show you how I stand, I've put Runnion on
guard over my pile of stuff, and I'll be glad when it's under cover.
It isn't the severity of punishment that keeps a man from going
wrong, it's the certainty of it."

"Well, he'd sure get it, and get it proper in this camp," declared
Lee; and at that moment, as if his words had been a challenge, the
flaps of the great tent were thrust aside, and Runnion half led,
half threw a man into the open space before the bar.

"Let's have a look at you," he panted. "Well, if it ain't a nigger!"

"What's up?" cried the men, crowding about the prisoner, who
crouched, terror-stricken, in the trampled mud and moss, while those
playing roulette and "bank" left the tables, followed by the
dealers.

"He's a thief," said Runnion, mopping the sweat from his brow. "I
caught him after your grub pile, Stark."

"In my cache?"

"Yes. He dropped a crate of hams when I came up on him, and tried to
run, but I dropped him." He held his Colt in his right hand, and a
trickle of blood from the negro's head showed how he had been
felled.

"Why didn't you shoot?" growled Stark, angrily, at which the negro
half arose and broke into excited denials of his guilt. Runnion
kicked him savagely, and cursed him, while the crowd murmured
approval.

"Le' me see him," said Lee, elbowing his way through the others.
Fixing his one eye upon the wretch, he spoke impressively.

"You're the first downright thief I ever seen. Was you hungry?"

"No, he's got plenty," answered one of the tenderfeet, who had
evidently arrived on the boat with the darky. "He's got a bigger
outfit than I have."

The prisoner drew himself up against the bar, facing his enemies
sullenly.

"Then I reckon it's a divine manifestation," said "No Creek" Lee,
tearfully. "This black party is goin' to furnish an example as will
elevate the moral tone of our community for a year."

"Let me take him outside," cried Stark, reaching under the bar for a
weapon. His eyes were cruel, and he had the angry pallor of a
dangerous man. "I'll save you a lot of trouble."

"Why not do it legal?" expostulated Lee. "It's just as certain."

"Yes! Lee is right," echoed the crowd, bent on a Roman holiday.

"What y'all aim to do?" whined the thief.

"We're goin' to try you," announced the one-eyed miner, "and if
you're found guilty, as you certainly are goin' to be, you'll be
flogged. After which perdicament you'll have a nice ride down-stream
on a saw-log without your laundry."

"But the mosquitoes--"

"Too bad you didn't think of them before. Let's get at this, boys,
and have it over with."

In far countries, where men's lives depend upon the safety of their
food supply, a side of bacon may mean more than a bag of gold;
therefore, protection is a strenuous necessity. And though any one
of those present would have gladly fed the negro had he been needy,
each of them likewise knew that unless an example were made of him
no tent or cabin would be safe. The North being a gameless,
forbidding country, has ever been cruel to thieves, and now it was
heedless of the black man's growing terror as it set about to try
him. A miners' meeting was called on the spot, and a messenger sent
hurrying to the post for the book in which was recorded the laws of
the men who had made the camp. The crowd was determined that this
should be done legally and as prescribed by ancient custom up and
down the river. So, to make itself doubly sure, it gave Runnion's
evidence a hearing; then, taking lanterns, went down to the big
tarpaulin-covered pile beside the river, where it found the crate of
hams and the negro's tracks. There was no defence for the culprit
and he offered none, being too scared by now to do more than plead.
The proceedings were simple and quiet and grim, and were wellnigh
over when Lieutenant Burrell walked into the tent saloon. He had
been in his quarters all day, fighting a fight with himself, and in
the late evening, rebelling against his cramped conditions and the
war with his conscience, he had sallied out, and, drawn by the crowd
in Stark's place, had entered.

A man replied to his whispered question, giving him the story, for
the meeting was under Lee's domination, and the miners maintained an
orderly and business-like procedure. The chairman's indigestion had
vanished with his sudden assumption of responsibility, and he showed
no trace of drink in his bearing. Beneath a lamp one was binding
four-foot lengths of cotton tent-rope to a broomstick for a knout,
while others, whom Lee had appointed, were drawing lots to see upon
whom would devolve the unpleasant duty of flogging the captive. The
matter-of-fact, relentless expedition of the affair shocked Burrell
inexpressibly, and seeing Poleon and Gale near by, he edged towards
them, thinking that they surely could not be in sympathy with this
barbarous procedure.

"You don't understand, Lieutenant," said Gale, in a low voice. "This
nigger is a THIEF!"

"You can't kill a man for stealing a few hams."

"It ain't so much WHAT he stole; it's the idea, and it's the custom
of the country."

"Whipping is enough, without the other."

"Dis stealin' she's bad biznesse," declared Poleon. "Mebbe dose ham
is save some poor feller's life."

"It's mob law," said the Lieutenant, indignantly, "and I won't stand
for it."

Gale turned a look of curiosity upon the officer. "How are you going
to help yourself?" said he; but the young man did not wait to reply.
Quickly he elbowed his way towards the centre of the scene with that
air of authority and determination before which a crowd melts and
men stand aside. Gale whispered to his companion:

"Keep your eye open, lad. There's going to be trouble." They stood
on tiptoe, and watched eagerly.

"Gentlemen," announced Burrell, standing near the ashen-gray wretch,
and facing the tentful of men, "this man is a thief, but you can't
kill him!"

Stark leaned across the bar, his eyes blazing, and touched the
Lieutenant on the shoulder.

"Do you mean to take a hand in all of my affairs?"

"This isn't your affair; it's mine," said the officer. "This is what
I was sent here for, and it's my particular business. You seem to
have overlooked that important fact."

"He stole my stuff, and he'll take his medicine."

"I say he won't!"

For the second time in their brief acquaintance these two men looked
fair into each other's eyes. Few men had dared to look at Stark thus
and live; for when a man has once shed the blood of his fellow, a
mania obsesses him, a disease obtains that is incurable. There is an
excitation of every sense when a hunter stands up before big game;
it causes a thrill and flutter of undiscovered nerves, which nothing
else can conjure up, and which once lived leaves an incessant
hunger. But the biggest game of all is man, and the fiercest
sensation is hate. Stark had been a killer, and his brain had been
seared with the flame till the scar was ineradicable. He had lived
those lurid seconds when a man gambles his life against his enemy's,
and, having felt the great sensation, it could never die; yet with
it all he was a cautious man, given more to brooding on his injuries
and building up a quarrel than to reckless paroxysms of passion, and
experience had taught him the value of a well-handled temper as well
as the wisdom of knowing when to use it and put it in action. He
knew intuitively that his hour with Burrell had not yet come.

The two men battled with their eyes for an opening. Lee and the
others mastered their surprise at the interruption, and then began
to babble until Burrell turned from the gambler and threw up his arm
for silence.

"There's no use arguing," he told the mob. "You can't do it. I'll
hold him till the next boat comes, then I'll send him down-river to
St. Michael's."

He laid his hand upon the negro and made for the door, with face set
and eyes watchful and alert, knowing that a hair's weight might
shift the balance and cause these men to rive him like wolves.

Lee's indignation at this miscarriage of justice had him so by the
throat as to strangle expostulation for a moment, till he saw the
soldier actually bearing off his quarry. Then he broke into a flood
of invective.

"Stop that!" he bellowed. "To hell with YOUR law--we're goin'
accordin' to our own." An ominous echo arose, and in the midst of it
the miner, in his blind fury forgetting his exalted position, took a
step too near the edge of the bar, and fell off into the body of the
meeting. With him fell the dignity of the assemblage. Some one
laughed; another took it up; the nervous tension broke, and a man
cried:

"The soldier is right. You can't blame a dinge for stealing," and
another: "Sure! Hogs and chickens are legitimate prey."

Lee was helped back to his stand, and called for order; but the
crowd poked fun at him, and began moving about restlessly till some
one shouted a motion to adjourn, and there arose a chorus of
seconders. A few dissenting voices opposed them, but in the meantime
Burrell was gone, and with him the cause of the tumult; so the
meeting broke up of its own weight a moment later.

As Poleon and Gale walked home, the Frenchman said, "Dat was nervy
t'ing to do."

The trader made no answer, and the other continued, "Stark is goin'
for kill 'im, sure."

"It's a cinch," agreed Gale, "unless somebody gets Stark first."

When they were come to his door the trader paused, and, looking back
over the glowing tents and up at the star-sprinkled heavens,
remarked, as if concluding some train of thought, "If that boy has
got the nerve to take a nigger thief out of a miners' meeting and
hold him against this whole town, he wouldn't hesitate much at
taking a white man, would he?"

"Wal," hesitated the other, "mebbe dat would depen' on de crime."

"Suppose it was--murder?"

"Ha! We ain' got no men lak' dat in Flambeau."

They said good-night, and the old man entered his house to find
Alluna waiting for him, a look of worry on her stolid face.

"What's wrong?" he inquired.

"All night Necia has been weeping."

"Is she sick?" He started for the girl's door, but Alluna stopped
him.

"No! It is not that kind of weeping; this comes from the heart. It
is there she is sick. I went to her, but she grew angry, and said I
had a black skin and could not understand; then she went out-doors
and has not returned."

Gale sat down dejectedly. "Yes, she's sick in her heart, all right,
and so am I, Alluna. When did she go out?"

"An hour ago."

"Where is she?"

"Out by the river-bank--I followed her in the shadows. It is best
for her to stay there till she is calm."

"I know what ails her," said the father. "She's found that she's not
like other girls. She's found that a white soul doesn't count with
white people; they never go below the skin." Then he told her of the
scene that morning in the store, adding that he believed she loved
Lieutenant Burrell.

"Did she say so?"

"No, she denied it, now that she knows she hasn't got his kind of
blood in her."

"Blood makes no difference," said the woman, stubbornly. "If he
loves her, he will take her; if he does not--that is all."

Gale looked up at her, and was about to explain, when the utter
impossibility of her comprehending him made him desist, and he fell
moody again. At last he said, "I've got to tell her, Alluna."

"No, no!" cried the woman, aghast. "Don't tell her the truth!
Nothing could be worse than that!"

But he continued, deliberately: "Love is the biggest thing in the
world; it's the only thing worth while, and she has got to have a
fair show at it. This has been on my mind for weeks, and I've put it
away, hoping I wouldn't have to do it; but to-day I came face to
face with it again, and it's up to me. She'll have to know some
time, so the sooner the better."

"She would not believe you," said the woman, at which he started.

"I never thought of that. I wonder if she would doubt! I couldn't
stand that."

"There is no proof, and it would mean your life. A good man's life
is a great price to pay for the happiness of one girl--"

"I gave it once before," said Gale, a trifle bitterly, "and now that
the game is started I've got to play the string out; but--I wonder
if she would doubt--" He paused for a long moment. "Well, I'll have
to risk it. However, I've got a lot of things to do first--you and
the youngsters must be taken care of."

"And Stark?" said Alluna.

"Yes, and Stark."

Burrell took his prisoner to the barracks, where he placed him under
guard, giving instructions to hold him at any cost, not knowing what
wild and reckless humor the new citizens of Flambeau might develop
during the night, for it is men who have always lived with the
halter of the law tight upon their necks who run wildest when it is
removed. Men grown old on the frontier adhere more closely to a
rigid code than do tenderfeet who feel for the first time the
liberty and license of utter unrestraint, and it was these strangers
whom the soldier feared rather than men like Gale and "No Creek"
Lee, who would recognize the mercy of his intervention and let the
matter drop.

After he had taken every precaution he went out into the night
again, and fought with himself as he had fought all that day and all
the night before; in fact, ever since old Thomas had come to him
after leaving Necia, and had so cunningly shaped his talk that
Burrell never suspected his object until he perceived his position
in such a clear light that the young man looked back upon his work
with startled eyes. The Corporal had spoken garrulously of his
officer's family; of their pride, and of their love for his
profession; had dwelt enthusiastically upon the Lieutenant's future
and the length he was sure to go, and finally drifted into the same
story he had told Necia. Burrell at last sensed the meaning of the
crafty old soldier's strategy and dismissed him, but not before his
work had been accomplished. If a coarse-fibred, calloused old
campaigner like Corporal Thomas could recognize the impossibility of
a union between Necia and himself, then the young man must have been
blind indeed not to have seen it for himself. The Kentuckian was a
man of strong and virile passions, but he was also well balanced,
and had ever followed his head rather than his heart, holding, as he
did, a deep-seated contempt for weak men who laid their courses
otherwise. The generations of discipline back of him spoke to his
conscience. He had allowed himself to become attached to this girl
until--yes, he knew now he loved her. If only he had not awakened
her and himself with that first hot kiss; if only--But there was no
going back now, no use for regrets, only the greater necessity of
mapping out a course that would cause her least unhappiness. If he
could have run away he would have done so gladly, but he was bound
here to this camp, with no possibility of avoiding her.

When he drove his reason with firm hands he saw but one course to
follow; but, when his mind went slack for a moment, the old desire
to have her returned more strongly than ever, and he heard voices
arguing, pleading, persuading--she was the equal of any woman in the
world, they said, in mind, in purity, and in innocence. He hated
himself for hesitating; he railed at his own indecision; and then,
when he had justified his love and persuaded himself that he was
right in seeking this union, there would rise again the picture of
his people, their chagrin, and what would result from such a
marriage. He knew how they would take it; he knew what his friends
would say, and how he would be treated as the husband of a half-
breed Indian; for in his country one drop of colored blood made a
negro, and his people saw but little difference between the red and
the black. It would mean his social ostracism; he would be shunned
by his brother officers, and his career would be at an end. He swore
aloud in the darkness that this was too great a price to pay for
love, that he owed it to himself and to his dear ones at home to
give up this dark-eyed maid who had bewitched him.

He had wandered far during this debate, clear past the town, and out
through the Indian village; but now that he believed he had come to
an understanding with himself, he turned back towards his quarters.
He knew it would be hard to give her up; but he had irrevocably
decided, and his path began to unfold itself so clear and straight
that he marvelled how he could have failed to see it. He was glad he
had conquered, although the pain was still sharp. He felt a better
man for it, and, wrapped in this complacent optimism, he passed
close by the front of the trader's store, where Necia had crept to
be alone with her misery.

The high moon cast a deep, wide shadow upon the store steps where
the girl sat huddled, staring out into the unreal world, waiting for
the night wind to blow away the fears and forebodings that would not
let her sleep. It was late, and the hush of a summer midnight lay
upon the distant hills. Burrell had almost passed her when he was
startled by the sound of his name breathed softly; then, to his
amazement, he saw her come forth like a spirit into the silver
sheen.

"Necia!" he cried, "what are you doing here at this hour?" She
looked up at him sadly; he saw that her cheeks were wet, and
something inside him snapped and broke. Without a word he took her
in his arms, meeting her lips in a long kiss, while she, trembling
with the joy of his strong embrace, drew closer and closer and
rested her body wearily against his.

"Little girl! little girl!" he whispered, over and over, his tone
conveying every shade of sympathy, love, and understanding she had
craved. He knew what had made her sad, and she knew that he knew.
There was no need for words; the anguish of this long day had
whetted the edge of their desire, and they were too deeply, too
utterly lost in the ecstasy of meeting to care for speech.

As she lay cradled in his arms, which alternately held her with the
soft tenderness of a mother and crushed her with the fierce ardor of
a lover, she lost herself in the bliss of a woman's surrender, and
forgot all her terrifying doubts and fears. What were questions of
breed or birth or color now, when she knew he loved her? Mere vapors
that vanished with the first flutter of warm wings.

Nor did Meade Burrell recall his recent self-conquest or pause to
reason why he should not love this little wisp of the wilderness.
The barriers he had built went down in the sight and touch of his
love and disappeared; his hesitation and infirmity seemed childish
now--yes, more than that, cowardly. He realized all in a moment that
he had been supremely selfish, that his love was a covenant, a
compact, which he had entered into with her and had no right to
dissolve without her consent, and, strangely enough, now that he
acknowledged the bond to himself, it became very sweet and
satisfying.

"Your lips cling so that I can't get free," sighed the girl, at
last.

"You never shall," he whispered. But when she smiled up at him
piteously, her eyes swimming, and said, "I must," he wrenched
himself away and let her go.

As he went lightly towards the barracks through the far-stretching
shadows, for the moon was yellow now, Meade Burrell sighed gladly to
himself. Again his course ran clear and straight before him though
wholly at variance with the one he had decided upon so recently. But
he knew not that his vision was obscured and that the moon-madness
was upon him.





Next: Where The Path Led

Previous: The Awakening



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