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The Knife








From: The Barrier

In every community, be it never so small, there are undesirable
citizens; and, while the little party was still at breakfast on the
following morning, three such members of society came around the
cabin and let fall their packs, greeting the occupants boisterously.

"Well, well!" said Lee, coming to the door. "You're travellin' kind
of early, ain't you?"

"Yes--early and late," one of them laughed, while the other two
sprawled about as if to rest.

"How far are you goin'?"

"Not far," the spokesman answered.

Now in the North there is one formality that must be observed with
friend or enemy, and, though Lee knew these men for what they were,
he said:

"Better have some breakfast, anyhow."

"We just ate." There was an uncomfortable pause, then the speaker
continued: "Look here. It's no use to flush around. We want a piece
of this creek."

"What are you goin' to do with it?"

"Cut that out, Lee. We're on."

"Who wised you up to this?" inquired the miner, angrily, for he had
other friends besides those present whom he wished to profit by this
strike, and he had hoped to keep out this scum.

"Never mind who put us Jerry. We're here, ain't we?"

Stark spoke up. "You can't keep news of a gold strike when the wind
blows, Lee. It travels on the breeze."

The harm was done, and there was no use in concealment, so Lee
reluctantly told them of his discovery and warned them of the stakes
already placed.

"And see here, you fellers," he concluded, "I've been forty years at
this game and never had a creek named after me, but this one is
goin' to be called '"No Creek" Lee Creek' or I fight. Does it go?"

"Sure, that's a good name, and we'll vote for it."

"Then go as far as you like," said the miner, dismissing them
curtly.

"I'll step along with the boys and show them where our upper stakes
are," volunteered Stark, and Runnion offered to do the same, adding
that it were best to make sure of no conflict so early in the game.
The five disappeared into the woods, leaving the others at the cabin
to make preparations for the homeward trip.

"That man who did the talking is a tin-horn gambler who drifted in a
month ago, the same as Runnion, and the others ain't much better,"
said Gale, when they had gone. "Seems like the crooks always beat
the straight men in."

"Never knowed it to fail," Lee agreed. "There's a dozen good men in
camp I'd like to see in on this find, but it'll be too late 'gin we
get back."

"Dose bum an' saloon feller got all de bes' claims at Klondike,"
said Poleon. "I guess it's goin' be de same here."

"I don't like the look of this," observed the Lieutenant,
thoughtfully. "I'm afraid there's some kind of a job on foot."

"There's nothing they can do," Gale answered. "We've got our ground
staked out, and it's up to them to choose what's left."

They were nearly ready to set out for Flambeau when the five men
returned.

"Before you go," said Stark, "I think we'd better organize our
mining district. There are enough present to do it."

"We can make the kind of laws we want before the gang comes along,"
Runnion chimed in, "and elect a recorder who will give us a square
deal."

"I'll agree if we give Lee the job," said Gale. "It's coming to him
as the discoverer, and I reckon the money will be handy, seeing the
hard luck he's played in."

"That's agreeable to me," Stark replied, and proceeded forthwith to
call a miners' meeting, being himself straightway nominated as
chairman by one of the strangers. There was no objection, so he went
in, as did Lee, who was made secretary, with instructions to write
out the business of the meeting, together with the by-laws as they
were passed.

The group assembled in the cleared space before the cabin to make
rules and regulations governing the district, for it is a custom in
all mining sections removed from authority for the property holders
thus to make local laws governing the size of claims, the amount of
assessment work, the size of the recorder's fees, the character of
those who may hold mines, and such other questions as arise to
affect their personal or property interests. In the days prior to
the establishment of courts and the adoption of a code of laws for
Alaska, the entire country was governed in this way, even to the
adjudication of criminal actions. It was the primitive majority rule
that prevails in every new land, and the courts later recognized and
approved the laws so made and administered, even when they differed
in every district, and even when these statutes were often grotesque
and ridiculous. As a whole, however, they were direct in their
effect and worked no hardship; in fact, government by miners'
meeting is looked upon to this day, by those who lived under it, as
vastly superior to the complicated machinery which later took its
place.

The law permits six or more people to organize a mining district and
adopt articles of government, so this instance was quite ordinary
and proper.

Lee had come by his learning slowly, and he wrote after the fashion
of a school-boy, who views his characters from every angle and
follows their intricacies with corresponding movements of the
tongue, hence the business of the meeting progressed slowly.

It was of wondrous interest to Necia to be an integral part of such
important matters, and she took pride in voting on every question;
but Burrell, who observed the proceedings from neutral ground, could
not shake off the notion that all was not right. Things moved too
smoothly. It looked as if there had been a rehearsal. Poleon and the
trader, however, seemed not to notice it, and Lee was wallowing to
the waist in his own troubles, so the young man kept his eyes open
and waited.

The surprise came when they had completed the organization of the
district and had nearly finished adopting by-laws. It was so boldly
attempted and so crude in its working-out that it seemed almost
laughable to the soldier, until he saw these men were in deadly
earnest and animated by the cruelest of motives. Moreover, it showed
the first glimpse of Stark's spite against the trader, which the
Lieutenant had divined.

Runnion moved the adoption of a rule that no women be allowed to
locate mining claims, and one of the strangers seconded it.

"What's that?" said Lee, raising his one eye from the note-book in
which he was transcribing.

"It isn't right to let women in on a man's game," said Runnion.

"That's my idea," echoed the seconder.

"I s'pose this is aimed at my girl," said Gale, springing to his
feet. "I might have known you bums were up to some crooked work."

Poleon likewise rose and ranged himself with the trader.

"Ba Gar! I don' stan' for dat," said he, excitedly. "You want for
jump Necia's claims, eh?"

"As long as I'm chairman we'll have no rough work," declared Stark,
glaring at them. "If you want trouble, you two, I reckon you can
have it, but, whether you do or not, the majority is going to rule,
and we'll make what laws we want to."

He took no pains now to mask his dislike of Gale, who began to move
towards him in his dogged, resolute way. Necia, observing them,
hastened to her father's side, for that which she sensed in the
bearing of both men quite overcame her indignation at this blow
against herself.

"No, no, don't have any trouble," she pleaded, as she clung to the
trader. "For my sake, daddy, sit down." Then she whispered fiercely
into his ear: "Can't you see he's trying to make you fight? There's
too many of them. Wait! Wait!"

Burrell attempted to speak, but Stark, who was presiding, turned
upon him fiercely:

"Now this is one time when you can't butt in, Mr. Soldier Man. This
is our business. Is that plain?"

The Lieutenant realized that he had no place in this discussion, and
yet their move was so openly brazen that he could restrain himself
with difficulty. A moment later he saw the futility of interference,
when Stark continued, addressing the trader:

"This isn't aimed at you in particular, Gale, nor at your girl, for
a motion to disqualify her isn't necessary. She isn't old enough to
hold mining property."

"She's eighteen," declared the trader.

"Not according to her story."

"Well, I can keep her claims for her till she gets of age."

"We've just fixed it so you can't," grinned Runnion, cunningly. "No
man can hold more than one claim on a creek. You voted for that
yourself."

Too late, Gale saw the trick by which Stark had used him to rob his
own daughter. If he and his two friends had declined to be a part of
this meeting, the others could not have held it, and before another
assembly could have been called the creek would have been staked
from end to end, from rim to rim, by honest men, over whom no such
action could pass; but, as it was, his own votes had been used to
sew him up in a mesh of motions and resolutions.

"No Creek" Lee had the name of a man slow in speech and action, and
one who roused himself to anger deliberately, much as a serpent
stings itself into a painful fury; but now it was apparent that he
was boiling over, for he stammered and halted and blurted
explosively.

"You're a bunch of rascals, all of you, tryin' to down a pore girl
and get her ground; but who put ye wise to this thing, in the first
place? Who found this gold? Just because there's enough of you to
vote that motion through, that don't make it legal, not by a damned
sight, and it won't hold, because I won't write it in the book. You-
-you--" He glared at them malevolently, searching his mind for an
epithet sufficiently vile, and, finding it, spat it out--
"dressmakers!"

So this was why both Stark and Runnion had gone up the creek with
the three new men, thought Burrell. No doubt they had deliberately
arranged the whole thing so that the new arrivals could immediately
relocate each of Necia's claims--the pick of all the ground outside
Lee's discovery, and the surest to be valuable--and that Stark would
share in the robbery. He or Runnion, or both of them, had broken
Lee's oath of secrecy even before leaving camp, which accounted for
the presence of these thugs; and now, as he revolved the situation
rapidly in his mind, the soldier looked up at a sudden thought.
Poleon had begun to speak, and from his appearance it seemed
possible that he might not cease with words; moreover, it was
further evident that they were all intent on the excited Frenchman
and had no eyes for the Lieutenant. Carefully slipping around the
corner of the cabin, and keeping the house between him and the
others, Burrell broke into a swift run, making the utmost possible
speed for fear they should miss him and guess his purpose, or, worse
yet, finish their discussion and adjourn before he could complete
his task. He was a light man on his feet, and he dodged through the
forest, running more carelessly the farther he went, visiting first
the upper claims, then, making a wide detour of the cabin, he came
back to the initial stake of Necia's lower claim, staggering from
his exertions, his lungs bursting from the strain. He had covered
nearly a mile, but, even so, he laughed grimly as he walked back
towards the cabin, for it was a game worth playing, and he was glad
to take a hand on the side of the trader and the girl. Coming within
earshot, he heard the meeting vote to adjourn. It could not have
terminated more opportunely had he held a stopwatch on it.

From the look of triumph on Runnion's face, the Lieutenant needed no
glance at Gale or Poleon or Necia to know that the will of the
majority had prevailed, and that the girl's importunities had
restrained her advocates from a resort to violence. She looked very
forlorn, like a little child just robbed and deceived, with the
shock of its first great disillusionment still fresh in its eyes.

Runnion addressed the other conspirators loudly.

"Well, boys, there are three good claims open for relocation. I'm
sorry I can't stake one of them."

"They won't lie open long," said one of the undesirable citizens,
starting to turn down-stream while his two companions made for the
opposite direction. But Burrell stopped them.

"Too late, boys. Your little game went wrong. Now! Now! Don't get
excited. Whew! I had quite a run."

Gale paused in his tracks and looked at the young man queerly.

"What do you mean?"

"I've jumped those claims myself."

"YOU jumped them!" cried Necia.

"Sure! I changed my mind about staking."

"It's a lie!" cried Runnion, at which Burrell whirled on him.

"I've been waiting for this, Runnion--ever since you came back. Now-
-"

"I mean you haven't had time," the other temporized, hurriedly.

"Oh, that sounds better! If you don't believe me take a look for
yourself; you'll find my notice just beneath Miss Gale's." Then to
"No Creek" Lee he continued, "Kindly record them for me so there
will be no question of priority."

"I'll be damned if I do!" said the belligerent recorder. "You're
worse'n these crooks. That ground belongs to Necia Gale."

Up to this time Stark had remained silent, his impassive face
betraying not a shadow of chagrin, for he was a good loser; but now
he spoke at large.

"Anybody who thinks the American army is asleep is crazy." Then to
Burrell, "You certainly are a nice young man to double-cross your
friends like that."

"You're no friend of mine," Meade retorted.

"I? What do you mean?"

"I double-crossed you, Stark, nobody else."

The Kentuckian glared at him with a look like that which Runnion had
seen in his face on that first day at the trading-post. The thought
of these five men banded together to rob this little maid had caused
a giddiness to rise up in him, and his passions were beginning to
whirl and dance.

"There's no use mouthing words about it," said he. "These thugs are
your tools, and you tried to steal that ground because it's sure to
be rich."

Stark exclaimed angrily, but the other gave him no time to break in.

"Now, don't get rough, because THAT is my game, and I'd be pleased
enough to take you back a prisoner." Then turning to Lee, he said:
"Don't make me force you to record my locations. I staked those
claims for Miss Gale, and I'll deed them to her when she turns
eighteen."

Poleon Doret called to Runnion: "M'sieu, you 'member w'at I tol' you
yestidday? I'm begin for t'ink it's goin' be you."

The man paled in his anger, but said nothing. Necia clapped her
hands gleefully.

Seeing that the game had gone against him, Stark got his feelings
under control quickly, and shrugged his shoulders as he turned away.

"You're in the wrong, Lieutenant," he remarked; "but I don't want
any trouble. You've got the law with you." Then to Runnion and the
others he said, "Well, I'm ready to hit the trail."

When they had shouldered their packs and disappeared down the
valley, Gale held out his hand to the soldier. "Young man, I reckon
you and I will be friends."

"Thank you," said Burrell, taking the offer of friendship which he
knew was genuine at last.

"I'm in on that!" said "No Creek" Lee; "you're all right!"

Poleon had been watching Stark's party disappear, but now he turned
and addressed the young soldier.

"You mak' some enemies to-day, M'sieu."

"That's right," agreed Lee. "Ben Stark will never let up on you
now."

"Very well, that is his privilege."

"You don't savvy what it means to get him down on you," insisted
Lee. "He'll frame things up to suit himself, then pick a row with
you. He's the quickest man on a trigger in the West, but he won't
never make no open play, only just devil the life out of you with
little things till you flare up, then he'll down you. That's how he
killed the gold commissioner back in British Columbia."

Necia had said little so far, but the look in her eyes repaid the
soldier for his undertaking in her behalf, and for any mischief that
might ensue from it. She came forward and laid her hands upon his.

"Promise that you won't have trouble with him," she begged,
anxiously, "for it's all my fault, and I'd--I'd always blame myself
if any hurt came to you. Promise! Won't you?"

"Don't worry, daughter," reassured Gale. "There's nothing Stark can
do, and whatever happens we're with the Lieutenant. He's our kind of
people."

Burrell liked this grizzled old fellow with the watchful eyes, and
was glad now that he could grip his hand and face him squarely with
no guilt upon his conscience.

By this time Doret had finished with their blankets, and the four
set out for town, but instead of following the others they accepted
Necia as guide and chose the trail to Black Bear Creek. They had not
gone far before she took occasion to lag behind with the Lieutenant.

"I couldn't thank you before all those people--they would have read
our secret--but you know how I feel, don't you, Meade?"

"Why! It was a simple thing--"

"It was splendid when you defied them. My, what a fierce you are!
Oh, boy! What if something should happen to you over this!"

"But there's no chance. It's all done, and you'll have your fine
dresses and be able to hold your nose just as high as you want."

"Whatever I get I will owe to you. I--I've been thinking. Suppose--
well, suppose you keep two of those claims; they are sure to be
rich--"

"Why, Necia!" he exclaimed.

"They're yours, and I have no right to them under the law. Of course
it would be very handsome of you to give me one--the poorest."

"You ought to have your ears boxed," he laughed at her.

"I don't see why. You--you--may be very poor, for all I know."

"I am," he declared, "but not poor enough to take payment for a
favor."

"Well, then, if they are really mine to do with as I please, I'll
sell one to you--"

"Thanks. I couldn't avail myself of the offer," he said, with mock
hauteur.

"If you were a business man instead of a fighting person you would
listen to my proposition before you declined it. I'll make the price
right, and you may pay me when we get behind yonder clump of
bushes." She pouted her lips invitingly, but he declared she was a
minor and as such her bargain would not hold.

It was evidently her mood to re-enter the land of whims and travel
again, as they had on the way from town, but he knew that for him
such a thing could not be, for his eyes had cleared since then. He
knew that he could never again wander through the happy valley, for
he vowed this maid should be no plaything for him or for any other
man, and as there could be no honorable end to this affair, it must
terminate at once. Just how this was to be consummated he had not
determined as yet, nor did he like to set about its solution, it
hurt him so to think of losing her. However, she was very young,
only a child, and in time would come to count him but a memory, no
doubt; while as for him--well, it would be hard to forget her, but
he could and would. He reasoned glibly that this was the only honest
course, and his reasoning convinced him; then, all of a sudden, the
pressure of her warm lips came upon him and the remembrance upset
every premise and process of his logic. Nevertheless, he was honest
in his stubborn determination to conclude the affair, and finally
decided to let time show him the way.

She seemed to be very happy, her mood being in marked contrast to
that of Poleon and the trader, both of whom had fallen silent and
gloomy, and in whom the hours wrought no change. The latter had
tacitly acknowledged his treachery towards Stark on the previous
night, but beyond that he would not go, offering no motive, excuse,
or explanation, choosing to stand in the eyes of his friend as an
intended murderer, notwithstanding which Poleon let the matter drop-
-for was not his friend a good man? Had he not been tried in a
hundred ways? The young Frenchman knew there must have been strong
reason for Gale's outburst, and was content to trust him without
puzzling his mind to discover the cause of it.

Now, a secret must either grow or die--there is no fallow age for
it--and this one had lived with Gale for fifteen years, until it had
made an old man of him. It weighed him down until the desire to be
rid of it almost became overpowering at times; but his caution was
ingrained and powerful, and so it was that he resisted the
temptation to confide in his partner, although the effort left him
tired and inert. The only one to whom he could talk was Alluna--she
understood, and though she might not help, the sound of his own
voice at least always afforded him some relief.

As to Poleon, no one had ever seen him thus. Never in all his life
of dream and song and romance had he known a heavy heart until now,
for if at times he had wept like a girl, it was at the hurts of
others. He had loved a bit and gambled much, with equal misfortune,
and the next day he had forgotten. He had lived the free, clean life
of a man who wins joyously or goes down with defiance in his throat,
but this venomous thing that Runnion had planted in him had seeped
and circulated through his being until every fibre was penetrated
with a bitter poison. Most of his troubles could be grappled with
bare hands, but here was one against which force would not avail,
hence he was unhappy.

The party reached Flambeau on the following day, sufficiently ahead
of Stark and his men for Lee to make known his find to his friends,
and by sunset the place was depopulated, while a line of men could
be seen creeping slowly up the valleys.

Gale found Alluna in charge of the store, but no opportunity of
talking alone with her occurred until late in the evening, after
Necia had put the two little ones to bed and had followed them
wearily. Then he told his squaw. She took the news better than he
expected, and showed no emotion such as other women would have
displayed, even when he told her of the gunshot. Instead, she
inquired:

"Why did you try it there before all those others?"

"Well, when I heard him talking, the wish to kill him was more than
I could stand, and it came on me all at once, so that I was mad, I
suppose. I never did the like before." He half shuddered at the
memory.

"I am sorry," she said.

"Yes! So am I."

"Sorry that you failed, for you will never have as good a chance
again. What was the matter with your aim? I have seen you hit a
knot-hole, shooting from the hip."

"The man is charmed," declared Gale. "He's bullet-proof."

"There are people," she agreed, "that a gunshot will not injure.
There was a man like that among my people--my father's enemy--but he
was not proof against steel."

"Your old man knifed him, eh?"

She nodded.

"Ugh!" the man shivered. "I couldn't do that. A gun is a straight
man's friend, but a knife is the weapon of traitors. I couldn't
drive it home."

"Does this man suspect?"

"No."

"Then it is child's play. We will lay a trap."

"No, by God!" Gale interrupted her hotly. "I tried that kind of
work, and it won't do. I'm no murderer."

"Those are only words," said the woman, quietly. "To kill your enemy
is the law."

The only light in the room came from the stove, a great iron
cylinder made from a coal-oil tank that lay on a rectangular bed of
sand held inside of four timbers, with a door in one end to take
whole lengths of cord-wood, and which, being open, lit the space in
front, throwing the sides and corners of the place into blacker
mystery.

When he made no answer the squaw slipped out into the shadows,
leaving him staring into the flames, to return a moment later
bearing something in her hands, which she placed in his. It was a
knife in a scabbard, old and worn.

"There is no magic that can turn bright steel," she said, then
squatted again in the dimness outside of the firelight. Gale slid
the case from the long blade and held it in his palm, letting the
firelight flicker on it. He balanced it and tested the feel of its
handle against his palm, then tried the edge of it with his thumb-
nail, and found it honed like a razor.

"A child could kill with it," said Alluna. "Both edges of the blade
are so thin that a finger's weight will bury it. One should hold the
wrist firmly till it pierces through the coat, that is all--after
that the flesh takes it easily, like butter."

The glancing, glinting light flashing from the deadly thing seemed
to fascinate the man, for he held it a long while silently. Then he
spoke.

"For fifteen years I've been a haunted man, with a soul like a dark
and dismal garret peopled with bats and varmints that flap and
flutter all the time. I used to figger that if I killed this man I'd
kill that memory, too, and those flitting, noiseless things would
leave me, but the thought of doing it made me afraid every time, so
I ran away, which never did no good--you can't outfoot a memory--and
I knew all the while that we'd meet sooner or later. Now that the
day is here at last, I'm not ready for it. I'd like to run away
again if there was any place to run to, but I've followed frontiers
till I've seen them disappear one by one; I've retreated till my
back is against the Circle, and there isn't any further land to go
to. All the time I've prayed and planned for this meeting, and yet--
I'm undecided."

"Kill him!" said Alluna.

"God knows I've always hated trouble, whereas it's what he lives on.
I've always wanted to die in bed, while he's been a killer all his
life and the smoke hangs forever in his eyes. Only for an accident
we might have lived here all our days and never had a 'run-in,'
which makes me wonder if I hadn't better let things go on as they
are."

"Kill him! It is the law," repeated Alluna, stubbornly, but he put
her aside with a slow shake of the head and arose as if very tired.

"No! I don't think I can do it--not in cold blood, anyhow. Good-
night! I'm going to sleep on it." He crossed to the door of his
room, but as he went she noted that he slipped the knife and
scabbard inside the bosom of his shirt.





Next: The Awakening

Previous: The Magic Of Ben Stark



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