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Where The Path Led








From: The Barrier

By daylight next morning every man and most of the women among the
new arrivals had disappeared into the hills--the women in spite of
the by-laws of Lee's Creek, which discriminated against their sex.
When a stampede starts it does not end with the location of one
stream-bed, nor of two; every foot of valley ground for miles on
every hand is pre-empted, in the hope that more gold will be found;
each creek forms a new district, and its discoverers adopt laws to
suit their whims. The women, therefore, hastened to participate in
the discovery of new territory and in the shaping of its government,
leaving but few of either sex to guard the tents and piles of
provisions standing by the river-bank. In two days they began to
return, and straggled in at intervals for a week thereafter, for
many had gone far.

And now began a new era for Flambeau--an era of industry such as the
frontier town had never known. The woods behind rang with the
resounding discords of axes and saws and crashing timber, and new
cabins appeared on every hand, rising in a day. The sluggish air was
noisy with voices, and the edge of the forest receded gradually
before the busy pioneers, replacing the tall timbers with little,
high-banked homes of spruce and white-papered birch. From dawn till
dark arose the rhythmic rasp of men whip-sawing floor lumber to the
tune of two hundred dollars per thousand; and with the second
steamer came a little steam sawmill, which raised its shrill
complaint within a week, punctuating the busy day with its piping
whistle.

The trail along the Flambeau, was dotted continuously with toiling
human beasts of burden, that floundered laboriously beneath great
packs of provisions and tools and other baggage, winding like an
endless stream of ants through the hills to "No Creek" Lee Creek,
where they re-enacted the scenes that were occurring in the town.
Tents and cabins were scattered throughout the length of the valley,
lumber was sawed for sluice-boxes, and the virginal breezes that had
sucked through this seam in the mountains since days primeval came
to smell of spruce fires and echo with the sounds of life.

A dozen tents were pitched on Lee's discovery claim, for the owner
had been besieged by men who clamored to lease a part of his ground,
and, yielding finally, he had allotted to each of them a hundred
feet. Forth-with they set about opening their portions, for the
ground was shallow, and the gold so near the surface that winter
would interfere with its extraction; wherefore, they made haste. The
owner oversaw them all, complacent in the certainty of a steady
royalty accruing from the working of his allotments.

Every day there came into Flambeau exaggerated reports of new
strikes in other spots, of strong indications and of rich prospects
elsewhere. Stories grew out of nothing, until the camp took an
hysterical pleasure in exciting itself and deceiving every stranger
who came from north or south, for the wine of discovery was in them
all, and it pleased them to distort and enlarge upon every rumor
that came their way, such being the temper of new gold-fields. They
knew they were lying, and that all other men were lying also, and
yet they hearkened to each tale and almost deceived themselves.

Burrell sought Necia at an early day and, in presence of her father,
told her that he had been approached by men who wished to lease the
claims he held for her. It would prove an inexpensive way to develop
her holdings, he said, and she would run no risk; moreover, it would
be rapid, and insure a quick return, for a lease so near to proven
territory was in great demand. After some discussion this was
arranged, and Meade, as trustee, allotted her ground in tracts, as
Lee had done. Poleon followed suit; but the trader chose to prospect
his own claims, and to that end called in a train of stiff-backed
Indian packers, moved a substantial outfit to the creek, and
thereafter spent much of his time in the hills, leaving the store to
Doret. He seemed anxious to get away from the camp and hide himself
in the woods. Stark was almost constantly occupied at his saloon,
for it was a mint, and ran day and night. Runnion was busy with the
erection of a substantial structure of squared logs, larger than the
trading-post, destined as a dance-hall, theatre, and gambling-house.
Flambeau, the slumbrous, had indeed aroused itself, stretched its
limbs, and sprung into vigorous, virile, feverish being, and the
wise prophets were predicting another Dawson for it, notwithstanding
that many blank spots had been found as the creek of Lee's finding
bared its bedrock to the miners. These but enhanced the value of the
rich finds, however, for a single stroke of good-fortune will more
than offset a dozen disappointments. The truth is, the stream was
very spotted, and Leo had by chance hit upon one of the bars where
the metal had lodged, while others above and below uncovered a bed-
rock as barren as a clean-swept floor. In places they cross-cut from
rim to rim, drove tunnels and drains and drifts, sunk shafts and
opened trenches without finding a color that would ring when dropped
in the pan; but that was an old, old story, and they were used to
it.

During these stirring weeks of unsleeping activity Burrell saw
little of Necia, for he had many things to occupy him, and she was
detained much in the store, now that her father was away. When they
met for a moment they were sure to be interrupted, while in and
around the house Alluna seemed to be always near her. Even so, she
was very happy; for she was sustained by the constant hectic
excitement that was in the air and by her brief moments with Meade,
which served to gladden her and make of the days one long,
delicious, hopeful procession of undisturbed dreams and fancies. He
was the same fond lover as on that adventurous journey up Black Bear
Creek, and wooed her with a reckless fire that set her aglow. And so
she hummed and laughed and dreamed the days away, her happiness
matching the peace and gladness of the season.

With Burrell, on the contrary, it was a season of penance and
flagellations of spirit, lightened only by the moments when he was
with her, and when she made him forget all else. This damnable
indecision goaded him to self-contempt; he despised himself for his
weakness; his social instincts and training, his sense of duty, and
the amenities of life that proud men hold dear tugged steadily,
untiringly at his reason, while the little imp of impulse sat
grinning wickedly, ready to pop out and upset all his high
resolutions. It raised such a tumult in his ears that he could not
hear the other voices; it stirred his blood till it leaped and
pounded, and then ran off with him to find this tiny brown and
beaming witch who was at the bottom of it all.

No months in any clime can compare with an Arctic summer when Nature
is kind, for she crowds into this short epoch all the warmth and
brightness and splendor that is spread over longer periods in other
lands, and every growing thing rejoices riotously in scent and color
and profusion. It was on one of these heavenly days, spiced with the
faintest hint of autumn, that Necia received the news of her good-
fortune. One of her leasers came into the post to show her and
Poleon a bag of dust. He and his partner had found the pay-streak
finally, and he had come to notify her that it gave promise of being
very rich, and now that its location was demonstrated, no doubt the
other "laymen" would have it within a fortnight. As all of them were
ready to begin sluicing as soon as the ground could be stripped,
undoubtedly they would be able to take out a substantial stake
before winter settled and the first frost closed them down.

She took the news quietly but with shining eyes, though her pleasure
was no greater or more genuine than Poleon's, who grasped both her
hands in his and shouted, gleefully:

"Bien! I'm glad! You'll be riche gal for sure now, an' wear plaintee
fine dress lak' I fetch you. Jus' t'ink, you fin' gol' on your place
more queecker dan your fader, an' he's good miner, too. Ha! Dat's
bully!"

"Oh, Poleon! I'll be a fine lady, after all," she cried--"just as
I've dreamed about! Wasn't it beautiful, that pile of yellow grains
and nuggets? Dear, dear! And part of it is mine! You know I've never
had money. I wonder what it is like to be rich!"

"How I'm goin' tell you dat?"

"Oh, well, they will find it on your claims very soon."

He shook his head. "You better knock wood w'en you say dat. Mebbe I
draw de blank again; nobody can't tell. I've do de sam' t'ing
before, an' dose men w'at been workin' my groun' dey're gettin'
purty blue."

"It's impossible. You're sure to strike it, or if you don't, you can
have half of what I make--I'll be too wealthy, anyhow, so you might
as well."

He laughed again, at which she suddenly remembered that he had not
laughed very much of late, or else she had been too deeply absorbed
in her own happiness to mark the lack of his songs and merriment.

"When you do become a Flambeau king," she continued, "what will you
do with yourself? Surely you won't continue that search for your far
country. It could never be so beautiful as this." She pointed to the
river that never changed, and yet was never the same, and to the
forests, slightly tinged with the signs of the coming season. "Just
look at the mountains," she mused, in a hushed voice; "see the haze
that hangs over them--the veil that God uses to cover up his
treasures." She drew a deep breath. "The breeze fairly tastes with
clean things, doesn't it? Do you know, I've often wanted to be an
animal, to have my senses sharpened--one of those wild things with a
funny, sharp, cold nose. I'd like to live in the trees and run along
the branches like a squirrel, and drink in the perfume that comes on
the wind, and eat the tender, growing things. The sun is bright
enough and the world is good enough, but I can't feel enough. I'm
incomplete."

'It's very fine," agreed the Canadian. "I don' see w'y anybody would
care for livin' on dem cities w'en dere's so much nice place
outside."

"Oh, but the cities must be fine also," said she, "though, of
course, they can't be as lovely as this. Won't I be glad to see
them!"

"Are you goin' away?" he inquired, quickly.

"Of course." Then glimpsing his downcast face, she hastened to add,
"That is, when my claims turn out rich enough to afford it."

"Oh," he said, with relief. "Dat's different. I s'pose it mus' be
purty dull on dem beeg town; now'ere to go, not'in' to see 'cept lot
of houses."

"Yes," said Necia, "I've no doubt one would get tired of it soon,
and long for something to do and something really worth while, but I
should like to try it once, and I shall as soon as I'm rich enough.
Won't you come along?"

"I don' know," he said, thoughtfully; "mebbe so I stay here, mebbe
so I tak' my canoe an' go away. For long tam' I t'ink dis Flambeau
she's de promis' lan' I hear callin' to me, but I don' know yet for
w'ile."

"What kind of place is that land of yours, Poleon?"

"Ha! I never see 'im, but she's been cryin' to me ever since I'm
little boy. It's a place w'ere I don' get too hot on de summer an'
too col' on de winter; it's place w'ere birds sing an' flowers
blossom an' de sun shine, an' w'ere I can sleep widout dreamin'
'bout it all de tam'."

"Why, it's the land of content--you'll never discover it by travel.
I'll tell you a secret, Poleon. I've found it--yes, I have. It lies
here." She laid her hand on her breast. "Father Barnum told me the
story of your people, and how it lives in your blood--that hunger to
find the far places; it's what drove the voyageurs and coureur du
bois from Quebec to Vancouver, and from the Mississippi to Hudson's
Bay. The wanderlust was their heritage, and they pushed on and on
without rest, like the salmon in the spring, but they were different
in this: that they never came back to die."

"Dat's me! I never see no place yet w'at I care for die on, an' I
never see no place yet w'at I care for see again 'cept dis Flambeau.
I lak' it, dis one, purty good so far, but I ain' know w'en I'm
goin' get tire'. Dat depen's." There was a look of great tenderness
in his eyes as he bent towards her and searched her face, but she
was not thinking of him, and at length he continued:

"Fader Barnum, he's goin' be here nex' Sonday for cheer up dem
Injun. Constantine she's got de letter."

"Why, that's the day after to-morrow!" cried Necia. "Oh, won't I be
glad to see him!"

"You don' get dem kin' of mans on de beeg cities," said Poleon. "I
ain' never care for preachin' much, an' dese feller w'at all de tam'
pray an' sing t'rough de nose, dey mak' me seeck. But Fader Barnum--
Ba Gar! She's the swell man."

"Do you know," said Necia, wistfully, "I've always wanted him to
marry me."

"You t'inkin' 'bout marry on some feller, eh?" said the other, with
an odd grin. "Wal! w'y not? He'll be here all day an' night. S'pose
you do it. Mos' anybody w'at ain' got some wife already will be glad
for marry on you--an' mebbe some feller w'at has got wife, too! If
you don' lak' dem, an' if you're goin' marry on SOMEBODY, you can be
wife to me."

Necia laughed lightly. "I believe you WOULD marry me if I wanted you
to; you've done everything else I've ever asked. But you needn't be
afraid; I won't take you up." In all her life this man had never
spoken of love to her, and she had no hint of the dream he
cherished. He had sung his songs to her and told her stories till
his frank and boyish mind was like an open page to her; she knew the
romance that was the very fibre of him, and loved his exaggerated
chivalry, for it minded her of old tales she had read; but that he
could care for her save as a friend, as a brother--such a thought
had never dawned upon her.

While they were talking a boat had drawn inshore and made fast to
the bank in front of them. An Indian landed and, approaching,
entered into talk with the Frenchman.

By-and-by Poleon turned to the girl, and said:

"Dere's'hondred marten-skin come in; you min' de store w'ile I mak'
trade wit' dis man."

Together the two went down to the boat, leaving Necia behind, and
not long after Runnion sauntered up to the store and addressed her
familiarly.

"Hello, Necia! I just heard about the strike on your claim. That's
fine and dandy."

She acknowledged his congratulations curtly, for although it was
customary for most of the old-timers to call her by her Christian
name, she resented it from this man. She chose to let it pass,
however.

"I had some good news last night myself," he continued. "One of my
men has hit some good dirt, and we'll know what it means in a day or
so. I'll gamble we're into the money big, though, for I always was a
lucky cuss. Say, where's your father?"

"He's out at the mine."

"We've used up all of our bar sugar at the saloon, and I want to buy
what you've got."

"Very well, I'll get it for you."

He followed her inside, watching her graceful movements, and
attempting, with his free-and-easy insolence, to make friendly
advances, but, seeing that she refused to notice him, he became
piqued, and grew bolder.

"Look here, Necia, you're a mighty pretty girl. I've had my eye on
you ever since I landed, and the more I see of you the better I like
you."

"It isn't necessary to tell me that," she replied. "The price of the
sugar will be just the same."

"Yes, and you're bright, too," he declared. "That's what I like in a
woman--good looks and brains. I believe in strong methods and
straight talk, too; none of this serenading and moonlight mush for
me. When I see a girl I like, I go and get her. That's me. I make
love like a man ought to--"

"Are you making love to me?" she inquired, curiously.

"It's a little bit sudden, I know, but a man has to begin some time.
I think you'd just about suit me. We'll both have money before long,
and I'll be good to you."

The girl laughed derisively in his face.

"Now don't get sore. I mean business. I don't wear a blue coat and
use a lot of fancy words, and then throw you down when I've had my
fun, and I don't hang around and spoil your chances with other men
either."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I'm no soft-talking Southerner with gold buttons and
highfalutin' ways. I don't care if you are a squaw, I'll take you--"

"Don't talk to me!" she cried, in disgust, her voice hot with anger
and resentment.

But he continued, unheeding: "Now, cut out these airs and get down
to cases. I mean what I say. I know you've been casting sheep's eyes
at Burrell, but, Lord! he wouldn't have you, no matter how rich you
get. Of course, you acted careless in going off alone with him, but
I don't mind what they're saying around camp, for I've made little
slips like that myself, and we'd get along--"

"I'll have you killed!" she hissed, through her clinched teeth,
while her whole body vibrated with passion. "I'll call Poleon and
have him shoot you!" She pointed to the river-bank a hundred yards
away, where the Canadian was busy assorting skins.

But he only laughed at her show of temper, and shrugged his
shoulders as he answered her, roughly:

"Understand me, I'm on the square. So think it over, and don't go up
in the air like a sky-rocket."

She cried out at him to "Go--go--go!" and finally he took up his
bundle, saying, as he stepped out slowly:

"All right! But I'm coming back, and you'll have to listen to me. I
don't mind being called a squaw-man. You're pretty near white, and
you're good enough for me. I'll treat you right--why, I'll even
marry you if you're dead set on it. Sure!"

She could scarcely breathe, but checked her first inclination to
call Poleon, knowing that it needed only a word from her to set that
nut-brown savage at Runnion's throat. Other thoughts began to crowd
her brain and to stifle her. The fellow's words had stabbed her
consciousness, and done something for her that gentler means would
not have accomplished; they had opened her eyes to a thing that she
had forgotten--a hideous thing that had reared its fangs once before
to strike, but which her dreams of happiness had driven out of her
Eden. All at once she saw the wrong that had been done her, and
realized from this brute's insult that those early fears had been
well grounded. It suddenly occurred to her that in all the hours she
had spent with her lover, in all those unspeakably sweet and
intimate hours, there had never been one word of marriage. He had
looked into her eyes and vowed he could not live without her, and
yet he had never said the words he should have said, the words that
would bind her to him. His arms and his lips had comforted her and
stilled her fears, but after all he had merely made love. A cold
fear crept over the girl. She recalled the old Corporal's words of a
few weeks ago, and her conversation with Stark came back to her.
What if it were true--that which Runnion implied? What if he did not
intend to ask her, after all? What if he had only been amusing
himself? She cried out sharply at this, and when Doret staggered in
beneath a great load of skins he found her in a strange excitement.
When he had finished his accounting with the Indian and dismissed
him, she turned an agitated face to the Frenchman.

"Poleon," she said, "I'm in trouble. Oh, I'm in such awful trouble!"

"It's dat Runnion! I seen 'im pass on de store w'ile I'm down
below." His brows knit in a black scowl, and his voice slid off a
pitch in tone. "Wat he say, eh?"

"No, no, it's not that. He paid me a great compliment." She laughed
harshly. "Why, he asked me to marry him." The man beside her cursed
at this, but she continued: "Don't blame him for liking me--I'm the
only woman for five hundred miles around--or I was until this crowd
came--so how could he help himself? No, he merely showed me what a
fool I've been."

"I guess you better tell me all 'bout dis t'ing," said Poleon,
gravely. "You know I'm all tam' ready for help you, Necia. Wen you
was little feller an' got bust your finger you run to me queeck, an'
I feex it."

"Yes, I know, dear Poleon," she assented, gratefully. "You've been a
brother to me, and I need you now more than I ever needed you
before. I can't go to father; he wouldn't understand, or else he
would understand too much, and spoil it all, his temper is so
quick."

"I'm not w'at you call easy-goin' mese'f," the Canadian said,
darkly, and it was plain that he was deeply agitated, which added to
the girl's distress; but she began to speak rapidly, incoherently,
her impulsiveness giving significance to her words, so that the man
had no difficulty in following her drift. With quick insight he
caught her meaning, and punctuated her broken sentences with a
series of grave nods, assuring her that he knew and understood. He
had always known, he had always understood, it seemed.

"Don't think I'm unwomanly, Poleon, for I'm not. I may be foolish
and faithful and too trusting, but I'm not--unmaidenly. You see,
I've never been like other girls--and he was so fine, so different,
he made me love him--it's part of a soldier's training, I suppose.
It was so sweet to be near him, and to hear him tell of himself and
all the world he knows--I just let myself drift. I'm afraid--I'm
afraid I listened too well, and my ears heard more than he said--my
head is so full of books, you know."

"He should have know' dat, too," said Poleon.

"Yes," she flared up. "He knew I was only an Indian girl."

The only color in Doret's face lay now in his cheeks, where the sun
had put it; but he smiled at her--his warm, engaging smile--and laid
his great brown hand upon her shoulder softly.

"I've look' in hees eye an' I'm always t'ink he's good man. I don'
never t'ink he'll mak' fun of poor little gal."

"But he has, Poleon; that's just what he has done." She came near to
breaking down, and finished, pathetically, "They're telling the
story on the street, so Runnion says."

"Dat's easy t'ing for feex," he said. "Runnion, she don' spread no
more story lak' dat."

"I don't care what they say. I want the truth. I want to know what
he means, what his intentions are. He swears he loves me, and yet he
has never asked me to marry him. He has gone too far; he has made a
fool of me to amuse himself, and--and I couldn't see it until to-
day. He's laughing at me, Poleon, he's laughing at me now! Oh, I
can't bear it!"

The Frenchman took up his wide hat from the counter and placed it
carefully upon his head, but she stopped him as he moved towards the
door, for she read the meaning of the glare in his eyes.

"Wait till you understand--wait, I say! He hasn't done anything
yet."

"Dat's de trouble. I'm goin' mak' 'im do somet'ing."

"No, no! It isn't that; it's these doubts that are killing me--I'm
not sure--"

"I hear plaintee," he said. "Dere's no tam' for monkey roun'."

"I tell you he may be honest," she declared. "He may mean to marry
me, but I've got to know. That's why I came to you; that's what you
must find out for me."

"I'm good trader, Necia," said the Canadian, after a moment. "I'll
mak' bargain wit' you now. If he say yes, he'll marry you, I don'
ask no more; but if he say no, you geeve 'im to me. Is it go?"

She hesitated, while he continued, musingly, "I don' see how no man
on all dis worl' could lef' you go." Then to her, "Wal, is it
bargain?"

"Yes," she said, the Indian blood speaking now; "but you must learn
the truth, there must be no mistake--that would be terrible."

"Dere ain' goin' be no mistak'."

"If he should refuse, I--I'll marry SOME one, quick. I won't be
laughed at by this camp; I won't be a joke. Oh, Poleon! I've given
myself to him just as truly as if--well, he--he has taken my first
kiss."

Doret smote his hands together at this and began to roll his head
backward from side to side, as if in some great pain, but his lips
were dry and silent. After a moment the spell left him, the fire
died down, leaving only a dumb agony in its place. She came closer
and continued:

"I'll never let them point at me and say, 'There goes the squaw
that--he threw away.'"

"You mak' dis very hard t'ing for me," he said, wearily.

"Listen," she went on, lashing herself with pity and scorn. "You say
Father Barnum will be here on Sunday. Well--I'll marry some one, I
don't care who!" Then, with a sudden inspiration, she cried, "I'll
marry you--you said I could be a wife to you."

He uttered a sharp cry. "You mean dat, Necia?"

"Yes," she declared. "Why not? You'll do it for my sake, won't you?"

"Would you stan' up wit' me 'longside of de pries', lovin' dat oder
feller all de tam'?" he asked, queerly.

"Yes, YES! I'd rather it was you than anybody, but married I'll be
on Sunday. I'll never let them laugh at me."

Doret held his silence for a moment, then he looked up and said, in
level tones:

"It's easy t'ing for go an' ask 'im, but you mus' hear hees answer
wit' your own ears--den you can't t'ink I'm lyin'. I'll fetch 'im
'ere on dis place if you feex it for hide you'se'f behin' dose
post." He indicated a bundle of furs that were suspended against a
pillar, and which offered ample room for concealment. "Dere's goin'
be no lies to-day."

He pulled himself together and went out, with the tired gait of an
old man, his great shock head bowed low. A few moments later he
returned.

"I've sent li'l' Jean for 'im. You get in dere out of sight--an'
wait."





Next: A Tangled Skein

Previous: Meade Burrell Finds A Path In The Moonlight



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