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The Awakening








From: The Barrier

Early the next morning Corporal Thomas came into the store and found
Necia tending it while Gale was out. Ever since the day she had
questioned him about Burrell, this old man had taken every occasion
to talk with the girl, and when he asked her this morning about the
reports concerning Lee's strike, she told him of her trip, and all
that had occurred.

"You see, I'm a mine-owner now," she concluded. "If it hadn't been a
secret I would have told you before I went so you could have been
one of the first."

"I'm goin', anyhow," he said, "if the Lieutenant will let me and if
it's not too late."

Then she told him of the trail by Black Bear Creek which would save
him several hours.

"So that's how you and he made it?" he observed, gazing at her
shrewdly. "I supposed you went with your father?"

"Oh, no! We beat him in," she said, and fell to musing at the memory
of those hours passed alone with Meade, while her eyes shone and her
cheeks glowed. The Corporal saw the look, and it bore out a theory
he had formed during the past month, so, as he lingered, he set
about a task that had lain in his mind for some time. As a rule he
was not a careful man in his speech, and the delicacy of this
manoeuvre taxed his ingenuity to the utmost, for he loved the girl
and feared to say too much.

"The Lieutenant is a smart young fellow," he began; "and it was
slick work jumpin' all those claims. It's just like him to befriend
a girl like you--I've seen him do it before--"

"What!" exclaimed Necia, "befriend other girls?"

"Or things just like it. He's always doing favors that get him into
trouble."

"This couldn't cause him trouble, could it, outside of Stark's and
Runnion's grudge?"

"No, I reckon not," assented the Corporal, groping blindly for some
way of expressing what he wished to say. "Except, of course, it
might cause a lot of talk at headquarters when it's known what he's
done for you and how he done it. I heard something about it down the
street this morning, so I'm afraid it will get to St. Michael's, and
then to his folks." He realized that he was not getting on well, for
the task was harder than he had imagined.

"I don't understand," said Necia. "He hasn't done anything that any
man wouldn't do under the same circumstances."

"No man's got a right to make folks talk about a nice girl," said
the Corporal; "and the feller that told me about it said he reckoned
you two was in love." He hurried along now without offering her a
chance to speak. "Of course, that had to be caught up quick; you're
too fine a girl for that."

"Too fine?" Necia laughed.

"I mean you're too fine and good to let him put you in wrong, just
as he's too fine a fellow and got too much ahead of him to make what
his people would call a messy alliance."

"Would his people object to--to such a thing?" questioned the girl.
They were alone in the store, and so they could talk freely. "I'm
just supposing, you know."

"Oh, Lord! Would they object?" Corporal Thomas laughed in a highly
artificial manner that made Necia bridle and draw herself up
indignantly.

"Why should they, I'd like to know? I'm just as pretty as other
girls, and I'm just as good. I know just as much as they do, too,
except--about certain things."

"You sure are all of that and more, too," the Corporal declared,
heartily, "but if you knowed more about things outside you'd
understand why it ain't possible. I can't tell you without hurtin'
your feelin's, and I like you too much for that, Miss Necia. Seems
as if I'm almost a daddy to you, and I've only knowed you for a few
weeks--"

"Go ahead and tell me; I won't be offended," insisted the girl. "You
must. I don't know much about such things, for I've lived all my
life with men like father and Poleon, and the priests at the
Mission, who treat me just like one of themselves. But somebody will
want to marry me some day, I suppose, so I ought to know what is
wrong with me." She flushed up darkly under her brown cheeks.

The feeling came over Corporal Thomas that he had hurt a helpless
animal of some gentle kind; that he was bungling his work, and that
he was not of the calibre to go into the social amenities. He began
to perspire uncomfortably, but went on, doggedly:

"I'm goin' to tell you a story, not because it applies to Lieutenant
Burrell, or because he's in love with you, which of course he ain't
any more than you be with him--"

"Of course," said the girl.

"--but just to show you what I mean. It was a good long spell ago,
when I was at Fort Supply, which was the frontier in them days like
this is now. We freighted in from Dodge City with bull teams, and it
was sure the fringe of the frontier; no women--no society--nothin'
much except a fort, a lot of Injuns, and a few officials with their
wives and families. Now them kind of places is all right for married
men, but they're tough sleddin' for single ones, and after a while a
feller gets awful careless about himself; he seems to go backward
and run down mighty quick when he gets away from civilization and
his people and restaurants and such things; he gets plumb reckless
and forgetful of what's what. Well, there was a captain with us, a
young feller that looked like the Lieutenant here, and a good deal
the same sort--high-tempered and chivalrious and all that sort of
thing; a West Pointer, too, good family and all that, and, what's
more, a captain at twenty-five. Now, our head freighter was married
to a squaw, or leastways he had been, but in them days nobody
thought much of it any more than they do up here now, and
particularly because he'd had a government contract for a long
while, ran a big gang of men and critters, and had made a lot of
money. Likewise he had a girl, who lived at the fort, and was mighty
nice to look at, and restful to the eye after a year or so of
cactus-trees and mesquite and buffalo-grass. She was twice as nice
and twice as pretty as the women at the post, and as for money--
well, her dad could have bought and sold all the officers in a lump;
but they and their wives looked down on her, and she didn't mix with
them none whatever. To make it short, the captain married her.
Seemed like he got disregardful of everything, and the hunger to
have a woman just overpowered him. She'd been courted by every
single man for four hundred miles around. She was pretty and full of
fire, and they was both of an age to love hard, so Jefferson swore
he'd make the other women take her; but soldierin' is a heap
different from any other profession, and the army has got its own
traditions. The plan wouldn't work. By-and-by the captain got tired
of trying, and gave up the attempt--just devoted himself to her--and
then we was transferred, all but him. We shifted to a better post,
but Captain Jefferson was changed to another company and had to stay
at Supply. Gee! it was a rotten hole! Influence had been used, and
there he stuck, while the new officers cut him out completely, just
like the others had done, so I was told, and it drifted on that way
for a long time, him forever makin' an uphill fight to get his wife
reco'nized and always quittin' loser. His folks back East was
scandalized and froze him cold, callin' him a squaw-man; and the
story went all through the army, till his brother officers had to
treat him cold in order to keep enough warmth at home to live by,
one thing leading to another till he finally resented it openly.
After that he didn't last long. They made it so unpleasant that he
quit the service--crowded him out, that's all. He was a born
soldier, too, and didn't know nothing else nor care for nothing
else; as fine a man as I ever served under, but it soured him so
that a rattlesnake couldn't have lived with him. He tried to go into
some kind of business after he quit the army, but he wasn't cut out
for it, and never made good as long as I knew of him. The last time
I seen him was down on the border, and he had sure grown cultus. He
had quit the squaw, who was livin' with a greaser in Tucson--"

"And do you think I'm like that woman?" said Necia, in a queer,
strained voice. She had listened intently to the Corporal's story,
but he had purposely avoided her eyes and could not tell how she was
taking it.

"No! You're different, but the army is just the same. I told you
this to show you how it is out in the States. It don't apply to you,
of course--"

"Of course!" agreed Necia again. "But what would happen to
Lieutenant Burrell if--if--well, if he should do something like
that? There are many half-breed girls, I dare say, like this other
girl, or--like me."

She did not flush now as before; instead, her cheeks were pale.

"It would go a heap worse with him than it did with Captain
Jefferson," said the Corporal, "for he's got more ahead of him and
he comes from better stock. Why, his family is way up! They're all
soldiers, and they're strong at headquarters; they're mighty proud,
too, and they wouldn't stand for his doing such a thing, even if he
wanted to. But he wouldn't try; he's got too much sense, and loves
the army too well for that. No, sir! He'll go a long ways, that boy
will, if he's let alone."

"I never thought of myself as an Indian," said Necia, dully. "In
this country it's a person's heart that counts."

"That's how it ought to be," said the Corporal, heartily; "and I'm
mighty sorry if I've hurt you, little girl. I'm a rough old rooster,
and I never thought but what you understood all this. Up here folks
look at it right, but outside it's mighty different; even yet you
don't half understand."

"I'm glad I'm what I am!" cried the girl. "There's nothing in my
blood to be ashamed of, and I'm white in here!" She struck her bosom
fiercely. "If a man loves me he'll take me no matter what it means
to him."

"Right for you," assented the other; "and if I was younger myself,
I'd sure have a lot of nice things to say to you. If I'd 'a' had
somebody like you I'd 'a' let liquor alone, maybe, and amounted to
something, but all I'm good for now is to give advice and draw my
pay." He slid down from the counter where he had been sitting. "I'm
goin' to hunt up the Lieutenant and get him to let me off. Mebbe I
can stake a claim and sell it."

The moment he was gone the girl's composure vanished and she gave
vent to her feelings.

"It's a lie! It's a lie!" she cried, aloud, and with her fists she
beat the boards in front of her. "He loves me! I know he does!" Then
she began, to tremble, and sobbed: "I'm just like other girls."

She was still wrestling with herself when Gale returned, and he
started at the look in her face as she approached him.

"Why did you marry my mother?" she asked. "Why? Why did you do it?"

He saw that she was in a rage, and answered, bluntly, "I didn't."

She shrank at this. "Then why didn't you? Shame! Shame! That makes
me worse than I thought I was. Oh, why did you ever turn squaw-man?
Why did you make me a breed?"

"Look here! What ails you?" said the trader.

"What ails me?" she mocked. "Why, I'm neither white nor red; I'm not
even a decent Indian. I'm a--a--" She shuddered. "You made me what I
am. You didn't do me the justice even to marry my mother."

"Somebody's been saying things about you," said Gale, quietly,
taking her by the shoulders. "Who is it? Tell me who it is."

"No, no! It's not that! Nobody has said anything to my face; they're
afraid of you, I suppose, but God knows what they think and say to
my back."

"I'll--" began the trader, but she interrupted him.

"I've just begun to realize what I am. I'm not respectable. I'm not
like other women, and never can be. I'm a squaw--a squaw!"

"You're not!" he cried.

"It's a nice word, isn't it?"

"What's wrong with it?"

"No honest man can marry me. I'm a vagabond! The best I can get is
my bed and board, like my mother."

"By God! Who offered you that?" Gale's face was whiter than hers
now, but she disregarded him and abandoned herself to the tempest of
emotion that swept her along.

"He can play with me, but nothing more, and when he is gone another
one can have me, and then another and another and another--as long
as I can cook and wash and work. In time my man will beat me, just
like any other squaw, I suppose, but I can't marry; I can't be a
wife to a decent man."

She was in the clutch of an hysteria that made her writhe beneath
Gale's hand, choking and sobbing, until he loosed her; then she
leaned exhausted against a post and wiped her eyes, for the tears
were coming now.

"That's all damned rot," he said. "There's fifty good men in this
camp would marry you to-morrow."

"Bah! I mean real men, not miners. I want to be a lady. I don't want
to pull a hand-sled and wear moccasins all my life, and raise
children for men with whiskers. I want to be loved--I want to be
loved! I want to marry a gentleman."

"Burrell!" said Gale.

"No!" she flared up. "Not him nor anybody in particular, but
somebody like him, some man with clean finger-nails."

He found nothing humorous or grotesque in her measure of a
gentleman, for he realized that she was strung to a pitch of
unreason and unnatural excitement, and that she was in terrible
earnest.

"Daughter," he said, "I'm mighty sorry this knowledge has come to
you, and I see it's my fault, but things are different now to what
they were when I met Alluna. It wasn't the style to marry squaws
where we came from, and neither of us ever thought about it much. We
were happy with each other, and we've been man and wife to each
other just as truly as if a priest had mumbled over us."

"But why didn't you marry her when I came? Surely you must have
known what it would mean to me. It was bad enough without that."

The old man hesitated. "I'll own I was wrong," he said, finally,
staring out into the sunshine with an odd expression. "It was
thoughtless and wrong, dead wrong; but I've loved you better than
any daughter was ever loved in this wide world, and I've worked and
starved and froze and saved, and so has Alluna, so that you might
have something to live on when I'm gone, and be different to us. It
won't be long now, I guess. I've given you the best schooling of any
girl on the river, and I'd have sent you out to a convent in the
States, but I couldn't let you go so far away--God! I loved you too
much for that--I couldn't do it, girl. I've tried, but you're all
I've got, and I'm a selfish man, I reckon."

"No, no! You're not," his daughter cried, impulsively. "You're
everything that's good and dear, but you've lived a different life
from other men and you see things differently. It was mean of me to
talk as I did." She put her arms around his neck and hugged him.
"But I'm very unhappy, dad."

"Don't you aim to tell what started this?" he said, gently,
caressing her with his great, hard hand as softly as a mother. But
she shook her head, and he continued, "I'll take the first boat down
to the Mission and marry your ma, if you want me to."

"That wouldn't do any good," said she. "We'd better leave things as
they are." Then she drew away and smiled at him bravely from the
door. "I'm a very bad to act this way. S'cuses?"

He nodded and she went out, but he gazed after her for a long
minute, then sighed.

"Poor little girl!"

Necia was in a restless mood, and, remembering that Alluna and the
children had gone berrying on the slopes behind the Indian village,
she turned her way thither. All at once a fear of seeing Meade
Burrell came upon her. She wanted to think this out, to find where
she stood, before he had word with her. She had been led to observe
herself from a strange angle, and must verify her vision, as it
were. As yet she could not fully understand. What if he had changed,
now that he was alone, and had had time to think? It would kill her
if she saw any difference in him, and she knew she would be able to
read it in his eyes.

As she went through the main street of the camp she saw Stark
occupied near the water-front, where he had bought a building lot.
He spoke to her as she was about to pass.

"Good-morning, Miss. Are you rested from your trip?"

She answered that she was, and would have continued on her way, but
he stopped her.

"I don't want you to think that mining matter was my doing," he
said. "I've got nothing against you. Your old man hasn't wasted any
affection on me, and I can get along without him, all right, but I
don't make trouble for girls if I can help it."

The girl believed that he meant what he said; his words rang true,
and he spoke seriously. Moreover, Stark was known already in the
camp as a man who did not go out of his way to make friends or to
render an accounting of his deeds, so it was natural that when he
made her a show of kindness Necia should treat him with less
coldness than might have been expected. The man had exercised an
occult influence upon her from the time she first saw him at Lee's
cabin, but it was too vague for definite feeling, and she had been
too strongly swayed by Poleon and her father in their attitude
towards him to be conscious of it. Finding him now, however, in a
gentle humor, she was drawn to him unwittingly, and felt an
overweening desire to talk with him, even at the hazard of offending
her own people. The encounter fitted in with her rebellious mood,
for there were things she wished to know, things she must find out
from some one who knew the world and would not be afraid to answer
her questions candidly.

"I'm going to build a big dance-hall and saloon here," said Stark,
showing her the stakes that he had driven. "As soon as the rush to
the creek is over I'll hire a gang of men to get out a lot of house
logs. I'll finish it in a week and be open for the stampede."

"Do you think this will be a big town?" she asked.

"Nobody can tell, but I'll take a chance. If it proves to be a false
alarm I'll move on--I've done it before."

"You've been in a great many camps, I suppose."

He said that he had, that for twenty years he had been on the
frontier, and knew it from West Texas to the Circle.

"And are they all alike?"

"Very much. The land lies different but the people are the same."

"I've never known anything except this." She swept the points of the
compass with her arm. "And there is so much beyond that I want to
know about--oh, I feel so ignorant! There is something now that
perhaps you could tell me, you have travelled so much."

"Let's have it," said he, smiling at her seriousness.

She hesitated, at a loss for words, finally blurting out what was in
her mind.

"My father is a squaw-man, Mr. Stark, and I've been raised to think
that such things are customary."

"They are, in all new countries," he assured her.

"But how are they regarded when civilization comes along?"

"Well, they aren't regarded, as a rule. Squaw-men are pretty
shiftless, and people don't pay much attention to them. I guess if
they weren't they wouldn't be squaw-men."

"My father isn't shiftless," she challenged, at which he remained
silent, refusing to go on record. "Isn't a half-breed just as good
as a white?"

"Look here," said he. "What are you driving at?"

"I'm a 'blood,'" she declared, recklessly, "and I want to know what
people think of me. The men around here have never made me feel
conscious of it, but--"

"You're afraid of these new people who are coming, eh? Well, don't
worry about that, Miss. It wouldn't make any difference to me or to
any of your friends whether you were red, white, black, or yellow."

"But it would make a difference with some people?" insisted the
girl.

"Oh, I reckon it would with Eastern people. They look at things kind
of funny, but we're not in the East."

"That's what I wanted to know. Nice people back there wouldn't
tolerate a girl like me for a moment, would they? They wouldn't
consider me good enough to associate with them?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I guess you'd have a hard time breaking
in among the 'bon-tonners.' But what's the use of thinking about it.
This is your country and these are your people."

A morbid desire was upon her to track down this intangible racial
distinction, but she saw Runnion, whom she could not bear, coming
towards them, so thanked Stark hurriedly and went on her way.

"Been making friends with that squaw, eh?" remarked Runnion,
casually.

"Yes," replied Stark. "She's a nice little girl, and I like her. I
told her I didn't have any part in that miners' meeting affair."

"Huh! What's the matter with you? It was all your doing."

"I know it was, but I didn't aim it at her. I wanted that ground
next to Lee's, and I wanted to throw a jolt into Old Man Gale. I
couldn't let the girl stand in my way; but now that it's over, I'm
willing to be friends with her."

"Me, too," said Runnion, looking after Necia as her figure
diminished up the street. "By Heaven! She's as graceful as a fawn;
she's white, too. Nobody would ever know she was a breed."

"She's a good girl," said Stark, musingly, in a gentle tone that
Runnion had never heard before.

"Getting kind of mushy, ain't you? I thought you had passed that
stage, old man."

"No, I don't like her in that way."

"Well, I do, and I'm dead sore on that soldier."

"She's not your kind," said Stark. "A bad man can't hold a good
woman; he can win one easy enough, but he can't keep her. I know!"

"Nobody but a fool would want to keep one," Runnion replied,
"specially a squaw."

"She's just woke up to the fact that she is a squaw and isn't as
good as white. She's worried."

"I'll lay you a little eight to five that Burrell has thrown her
down," chuckled Runnion.

"I never thought of that. You may be right."

"If it's true I'll shuffle up a hand for that soldier."

"If I were you I wouldn't deal it to him," said the gambler, dryly.
"He may not cut to your break."

Meanwhile, Necia had passed on out of the town and through the
Indian village at the mouth of the creek, until high up on the
slopes she saw Alluna and the little ones. She climbed up to them
and seated herself where she could look far out over the westward
valley, with the great stream flowing half a mile beneath her. She
stayed there all the morning, and although the day was bright and
the bushes bending with their burden of blue, she picked no berries,
but fought resolutely through a dozen varying moods that mirrored
themselves in her delicate face. It was her first soul struggle, but
in time the buoyancy of youth and the almighty optimism of early
love prevailed; she comforted herself with the fond illusion that
this man was different from all others, that his regard was equal to
her own, and that his love would rise above such accidental things
as blood or breed or birth. And so she was in a happier frame of
mind when the little company made their descent at mid-day.

As they approached the town they heard the familiar cry of "Steam-
bo-o-o-at," and by the time they had reached home the little camp
was noisy with the plaint of wolf-dogs. There were few men to join
in the welcome to-day, every able-bodied inhabitant having
disappeared into the hills, but the animals came trooping lazily to
the bank, and sat down on their haunches watching the approaching
steamer, in their soft eyes the sadness of a canine race of slaves.
Behind them limped a sick man or two, a soldier from the barracks,
and in the rear a fellow who had drifted in the week before with
scurvy. It was a pitiful review that lined up to greet the tide of
tenderfeet crowding towards their El Dorado, and unusual also, for
as yet the sight of new faces was strange in the North.

The deserted aspect of the town puzzled the captain of the steamer,
and upon landing he made his way at once to John Gale's store, where
he learned from the trader of the strike and of the stampede that
had resulted. Before the recital was finished a man approached and
spoke excitedly.

"Captain, my ticket reads to Dawson, but I'm getting off here. Won't
you have my outfit put ashore?" He was followed by a group of
fellow-passengers who made a similar request.

"This place is good enough for me," one of them said.

"Me, too," another volunteered. "This strike is new, and we've hit
her just in time."

Outside a dozen men had crowded "No Creek" Lee against the wall of
the store and were clamoring to hear about his find. Before the
tardy ones had cleared the gang-plank the news had flashed from
shore to ship, and a swarm came up the bank and into the post,
firing questions and answers at each other eagerly, elbowing and
fighting for a place within ear-shot of the trader or the ragged man
outside.

The frenzy of a gold stampede is like the rush from a burning
building, and equally easy to arouse. No statement is too wild to
lack believers, no rumor too exaggerated to find takers. Within an
hour the crew of the steamer was busy unloading countless tons of
merchandise and baggage billed to Dawson, and tents began to show
their snowy whiteness here and there. As a man saw his outfit appear
he would pounce upon it, a bundle at a time, and pile it by itself,
which resulted in endless disputes and much confusion; but a spirit
of youth and expectancy permeated all and prevented more than angry
words. Every hour the heaps of baggage grew larger and the tents
more numerous.

Stark wasted no time. With money in his hands he secured a dozen men
who were willing to work for hire, for there are always those who
prefer the surety of ten coined dollars to the hope of a hundred. He
swooped down with these helpers on his pile of merchandise that had
lain beneath tarpaulins on the river-bank since the day he and
Runnion landed, and by mid-afternoon a great tent had been stretched
over a framework of peeled poles built on the lot where he and Necia
had stood earlier in the day. Before dark his saloon was running. To
be sure, there was no floor, and his polished fixtures looked
strangely new and incongruous, but the town at large had assumed a
similar air of incompleteness and crude immaturity, and little
wonder, for it had grown threefold in half a day. Stark swiftly
unpacked his gambling implements, keen to scent every advantage, and
out of the handful of pale-faced jackals who follow at the heels of
a healthy herd, he hired men to run them and to deal. By night
Flambeau was a mining-camp.

Late in the evening the boat swung out into the river, and disclosed
a strange scene of transformation to the puzzled captain of a few
hours ago. The riverbank was lined with canvas shelters, illumined
dully by the tent-lights within till they looked like a nest of
glowworms in deep grass. A long, hoarse blast of good wishes rose
from the steamer, then she sighed her way around the point above
bearing forth the message that a new camp had been born.





Next: Meade Burrell Finds A Path In The Moonlight

Previous: The Knife



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