A Tangled Skein





When Burrell entered he wasted no time in greetings.



"I know why you sent for me, Poleon. I've heard the news, and I

would have been up anyhow to congratulate her very soon. I call it

pretty fine."



"Yes, dere's been beeg strike all right, an' Necia is goin' be riche

gal."



"I'm as pleased as if the claim were mine, and you feel the same

way, of course."



The Frenchman nodded. "I love Necia very much, lak'--well, lak' I'm

broder to her." The knowledge that she was listening made him very

uncomfortable--in fact, this whole affair savored more of double-

dealing and treachery than anything he had ever attempted, and it

went sorely against his grain, but it had presented itself as the

only way to help her, and he proceeded, groping haltingly for fit

expression, "Dere's t'ing I want for talk 'bout wit' you, but I'm

scare' you'll t'ink I'm butt in."



"Nonsense," said Burrell. "I know you too well for that."



"You know me for good man, eh? An' you know I ain' try for bre'k up

oder fellers' biznesse, never! Wal, I'm come to you now lak' wan

good man to 'noder biccause I'm got bad trouble on de min', an' you

mus'n't get sore."



"There's no danger, Poleon. Let's have it. If there is anything I

can do, you may count on me."



"Wal," he began, nervously, clearing his throat, "it's lak' dis.

Dere's feller been talk some 'bout Necia, an' it ain' nice talk

neider."



"Who is he?" exclaimed the soldier, in a tone that made the girl's

heart leap.



"Wait! Lemme tol' you w'at he say, den we'll talk 'bout feex 'im

plaintee. He say dere's joke down on Stark's saloon dat Necia Gale

is mak' fool of herse'f on you, an' dat you ain' care for marry

her."



"Runnion!" cried Burrell, and started for the door. "I'll settle

with him now for fair!" But Poleon blocked his way, and, observing

him gravely, continued, in a tone that the other could not disregard

nor mistake:



"No, M'sieu', before you pass on dat place you'll tol' me if it's

true."



"True!" the Lieutenant retorted, angrily. "What business is it of

yours? This concerns me."



"An' me, too! I'm w'at you call gardeen for Necia till John Gale

come back, an' I'm broder of her, too. You promis' jus' now you don'

get mad, an' I don' say she's Runnion neider w'at spik dose t'ing;

dere's more dan 'im been talkin'. Is it true?"



His sternness offended Burrell, for the soldier was not the kind to

discuss his affairs in this way, therefore he drew back scowling.



"Poleon Doret," he said, "it's not one's enemies who do him injury,

it's his damned fool friends. I have learned to regard you highly

because you are a brave man and an honest one, but it seems that you

are a sentimental idiot."



"Dem is tough word," Doret replied. "But dere's reason w'y I can't

tak' on no madnesse. You say I'm hones'. Wal, I'm hones' now, an' I

come to you wit' fair words an' I show my han' to you--I don' hoi'

out no cards, M'sieu'--but I don' t'ink it is you who have play

square, altogeder. I'm Necia's frien', an' I'll fight for her jus'

so queecker lak' you, but I mus' know dis t'ing for sure, so if you

have de good heart an' de courage of good man you'll tell me de

truth. Do you have the feelin' for marry on her?"



The pause that followed was awkward for both of them, while the

girl, who stood concealed near by, held her breath and buried her

nails in her palms. Why did he hesitate? Would he never speak? It

seemed not, for he swung between diverse emotions--anger that this

outsider should question him on so intimate a matter, chagrin at the

knowledge of having injured Necia, and rage, blind rage, at the

thought of its becoming a bar-room topic. Gradually the conviction

grew that it was not a question of idle curiosity with Doret, and

the man's history recurred to him. No wonder he was interested in

the girl, no wonder he wished to guard her; he had been a brother

indeed, even as he said, and he could have no motive save an

honorable one. It never occurred to the soldier that this Frenchman

could harbor feelings akin to his own. The man was rough and

foreign; his thoughts had been couched in harsher language, perhaps,

than he intended; moreover, the fellow's high sense of honor was a

byword--and of a sudden the desire to set himself right in this

man's eyes dictated his answer.



"I am amazed at myself for listening to you," he said, at last, "and

quite shocked, in fact, at my answering your questions, but perhaps

I'd better, after all. First, however, let me say that the little

girl is just as pure now as she was before she knew me--"



Poleon threw up his hand. "M'sieu', dat's more closer to de insult

dan w'at you call me jus' now. You don' need for spoke it."



"You're right! There's no need to tell you that. As for showing her

certain attentions--well, I admit that I have, as you know, but,

thank God, I can say I've been a gentleman and addressed her as I

would the fairest lady I've known."



"An' you mean for marry, eh?" probed the other.



Now, no man could have answered such a direct question easily, and

in this case it was especially hard for the Kentuckian, who was torn

between his ungovernable desire and that decision which cold reason

had thrust upon him. He wanted to say, "Yes, I'll marry her to-

morrow," but something bade him pause before he sacrificed upon this

altar of a youthful love his life, his hopes, his ambitions. Had he

not wrestled with himself for months in thinking it all out, until

his mind was weary and listless with the effort? For the great test

that tries a man's soul and compels him to know himself had not yet

come to Meade Burrell; wherefore, he hesitated long.



"I did not say so," he declared, at last. "It's a thing I can't well

discuss, because I doubt if you could understand what I would say.

This life of yours is different from mine, and it would be useless

for me to explain the reason why I cannot marry her. Leaving out all

question of my sentiment, there are insurmountable obstacles to such

a union; but as to this talk, I think that can be stopped without

annoyance to her, and as for the rest, we must trust to time to

bring about a proper adjustment--"



A low, discordant sound of laughter arrested his words, and,

turning, he beheld Necia standing revealed in the dimness.



"What an amusing person you are!" she said. "I've had hard work

holding in all this time while you were torturing your mind and

twisting the honest English language out of shape and meaning. I

knew I should have to laugh sooner or later."



"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Is it a joke?"



"Indeed it is," she declared, laughing afresh, "and the best I've

ever enjoyed. Wasn't it funny, Poleon"--she turned gayly to the

Frenchman, but he stood like one petrified--"to see him debating

coolly whether he cared for me enough to face the world with me, and

trying to explain to you that he was too good to marry a squaw? Oh,

you were very gentlemanly about it, sir, and you wouldn't have hurt

my feelings for the world!"



"Necia!"



"That's your Dixie chivalry, I suppose. Well, I've played with you

long enough, Lieutenant Burrell, I'm tired of the game, and you

interest me no longer."



"You--you--say you've been playing with me!" stammered the man. The

bottom of things seemed suddenly to slide from under him; he was

like one sinking in some hideous quagmire. He felt as if he were

choking.



"Why, of course," she cried, scornfully, "just as you took me up for

amusement. You were such a fine, well-dressed, immaculate mound of

conceit that I couldn't resist the temptation, and you hid your

condescension so poorly that I thought you ought to be taken down a

peg. I knew I was a squaw, but I wanted to see if I were not like

other women, after all, and if you were not like other men." She was

talking rapidly now, almost shrilly, for she had never attempted to

act before, while he stood dazed and speechless, fumbling at his

throat while she railed at him. "You needn't waste time debating

whether I'm good enough for you, because I'm not--decidedly, I'm not

your kind, and you are a joke to me."



He uttered an inarticulate cry, but she ran on unheeding, her eyes

wide and glowing like coals, her lips chalk-white. "You see, it's

time I stopped such foolishness, anyhow, for I'm to be married on

Sunday."



"You are going to be married?" he muttered, laboriously.



"Yes, to Poleon. Why, that's been understood for years."



He whirled upon the Canadian in a fury, and his words came hot and

tumbling.



"So you're in this, Doret. You're a part of this little farce. You

trapped me here to make a fool of me, did you? Well, I can settle

with you--"



"D-don't blame him!" cried the girl, hysterically. "It is all my

doing. He had no part in it."



Burrell wheeled back to the Frenchman again. "Is this true?"



"Yes," said Doret, in a restrained voice. "Dis ain' no work of

mine."



"You're a liar!" breathed the Kentuckian, now fairly wild with

anger; but the other looked him squarely between the eyes and made

no move.



"M'sieu'," he cried, "I'm livin' t'orty year, an' never took no nam'

lak' dat before, but dere's reason here w'y I can't mak' no answer."

He inclined his head towards the girl, and before Burrell could

break out again he checked him.



"It's no good mak' fight wit' lesser dan two people. You've tol' me

dat you are gentleman. Wal, I ain' nobody but trapper an' trader,

but I don' spoil de name of no good girl, an' I don' quarrel in

presence of lady, so mebbe, affer all, dere's mistak' somew'ere, an'

I'm gentleman mese'f 'stead of you."



"Why, you aren't really angry, Lieutenant?" mocked Necia. "It's only

the joke of an ignorant half-breed girl whose sense of humor is all

out of gear. You mustn't quarrel over a SQUAW!"



She taunted him like a baited badger, for this thing was getting

beyond her control and the savage instincts of the wilderness were

uppermost.



"You are quite right," he replied. "I am very foolish, and the laugh

is with you." His lips tried to frame a smile, but failed, and he

added: "Your wit is not my kind, that is all. I beg you both to

accept my congratulations on your nuptials. Undoubtedly, you will be

happy together; two people with such similar ideas of humor must

have much to enjoy in common." He bowed low and, turning, walked

out.



The moment he was gone she cried, breathlessly:



"You must marry me, Poleon. You've got to do it now."



"Do you mean dat for sure?" he said.



"Can't you see there's nothing else for it, after this? I'll show

him that he can't make me a toy to suit his convenience. I've told

him I would marry you on Sunday, and I'll do it or die. Of course

you don't love me, for you don't know what love is, I suppose; how--

could you?" She broke down and began to catch her breath amid

coughing sobs that shook her slender body, though they left her eyes

dry and feverish.



"I--I'm very unhappy, b-but I'll be a good--wife to you. Oh, Poleon,

if you only knew--"



He drew a long breath. When he spoke his voice had the timbre of

some softly played instrument, and a tremor ran through his words.



"No! I don' know w'at kin' of love is dis, for sure. De kin' of love

I know is de kin' I sing 'bout in my songs; I s'pose it's different

breed to yours, an' I'm begin to see it don' live nowhere but on dem

songs of mine. Dere's long tarn' I waste here now--five year--but

to-morrow I go again lookin' for my own countree."



"Poleon!" she cried, looking up with startled eyes. "Not to-morrow,

but Sunday--we will go together."



He shook his head. "To-morrow, Necia! An' I go alone."



"Then you won't--marry me?" she asked, in a hushed and frightened

voice.



"No! Dere's wan t'ing I can't do even for you, Necia, dere's wan

t'ing I can't geeve, dat's all--jus' wan on all de worl'. I can't

kill de li'l' god wit' de bow an' arrer. He's all dat mak' de sun

shine, de birds sing, an' de leaves w'isper to me; he's de wan li'l'

feller w'at mak' my life wort' livin' an' keep music in my soul. If

I keel 'im dere ain' no more lef lak' it, an' I'm never goin' fin'

my lan' of content, nor sing nor laugh no more. I'm t'inkin' I would

rader sing songs to 'im all alone onderneat' de stars beside my

campfire, an' talk wit' 'im in my bark canoe, dan go livin' wit' you

in fine house an' let 'im get col' an' die."



"But I told him I'd marry you--that I had always intended to. He'll

believe I was lying," she moaned, in distress.



"Dat's too bad--but dis t'ing ain' no doin's wit' me. Dere's wan

t'ing in dis worl' mus' live forever, an' dat's love--if we kill 'im

den it's purty poor place for stoppin' in. I'm cut off my han' for

help you, Necia, but I can't be husban' to no woman in fun."



"Your foolish head is full of romance," she burst out. "You think

you're doing me a favor, but you're not. Why, there's Runnion--he

wants me so much that he'd 'even marry me'!" Her wild laughter

stabbed the man. "Was ever a girl in such a fix! I've been made love

to ever since I was half a woman, but at thought of a priest men

seem to turn pale and run like whipped dogs. I'm only good enough

for a bad man and a gambler, I suppose." She sank to a seat, flung

out her arms hopelessly, and, bowing her head, began to weep

uncontrollably. "If--if--I only had a woman to talk to--but they are

all men--all men."



Poleon waited patiently until her paroxysm of sobbing had passed,

then gently raised her and led her out through the back door into

the summer day, which an hour ago had been so bright and promising

and was now so gray and dismal. He followed her with his eyes until

she disappeared inside the log-house.



"An' dat's de end of it all," he mused. "Five year I've wait--an'

jus' for dis."



Meade Burrell never knew how he gained his quarters, but when he had

done so he locked his door behind him, then loosed his hold on

things material. He raged about the room like a wild animal, and

vented his spite on every inanimate thing that lay within reach. His

voice was strange in his own ears, as was the destructive frenzy

that possessed him. In time he grew quieter, as the physical energy

of this brutal impulse spent itself; but there came no surcease of

his mental disquiet. As yet his mind grasped but dully the fact that

she was to marry another, but gradually this thought in turn took

possession of him. She would be a wife in two days. That great,

roistering, brown man would fold her to himself--she would yield to

him every inch of her palpitant, passionate body. The thought drove

the lover frantic, and he felt that madness lay that way if he dwelt

on such fancies for long. Of a sudden he realized all that she meant

to him, and cursed himself anew. While he had the power to possess

her he had dallied and hesitated, but now that he had no voice in

it, now that she was irretrievably beyond his reach, he vowed to

snatch her and hold her against the world.



As he grew calmer his reason began to dissect the scene that had

taken place in the store, and he wondered whether she had been lying

to him, after all. No doubt she had been engaged to the Frenchman,

and had always planned to wed Poleon, for that was not out of

reason; she might even have set out mischievously to amuse herself

with him, but at the recollection of those rapturous hours they had

spent together, he declared aloud that she had loved him, and him

only. Every instinct in him shouted that she loved him, in spite of

her cruel protestations.



All that afternoon he stayed locked in his room, and during those

solitary hours he came to know his own soul. He saw what life meant:

what part love plays in it, how dwarfed and withered all things are

when pitted against it.



A man came with his supper, but he called to him to be gone. The

night settled slowly, and with the darkness came such a feeling of

despair and lonesomeness that Burrell lighted every lamp and candle

in the place to dispel, in some measure, the gloom that had fallen

upon him. There are those who believe that in passing from daylight

to darkness a subtle transition occurs akin to the change from

positive to negative in an electrical current, and that this

intangible, untraceable atmospheric influence exerts a definite,

psychical effect upon men and their modes of thought. Be this as it

may, it is certain that as the night grew darker the Lieutenant's

mood changed. He lost his fierce anger at the girl, and reasoned

that he owed it to her to set himself right in her eyes; that in all

justice to her he ought to prove his own sincerity, and assure her

that whatever her own state of mind had been, she wronged him when

she said he had made sport of her for his own pleasure. She might

then dismiss him and proceed with her marriage, but first she must

know this much of the truth at least. So he argued, insensible to

the sophistry of his reasoning, which was in reality impelled by the

hunger to see her and hear her voice again. He snatched his hat and

bolted out, almost running in his eagerness.



An up-river steamboat was just landing as he neared the trading-

post--a freighter, as he noted by her lights. In the glare at the

river-bank he saw Poleon and the trader, who had evidently returned

from Lee's Creek, and without accosting them he hurried on to the

store. Peering in from the darkness, he saw Alluna; no doubt Necia

was alone in the house behind. So he stumbled around to the back to

find the window of her room aglow behind its curtain, and, receiving

no answer to his knock, he entered, for it was customary at Gale's

to waive ceremony. Inside the big room he paused, then stepped

swiftly across and rapped at her door, falling back a pace as she

came out.



Instead of speaking at once, as he had planned, to prevent her

escaping, he was struck speechless, for the vision that met his eyes

was that which he had seen one blithe spring morning three months

before; but to-night there was no shawl to conceal her sweetly

rounded neck and shoulders, whose whiteness was startling against

the black of the ball-room gown. The slim gold chain hung around her

neck and her hair was piled high, as before. He noted every smallest

detail as she stood there waiting for him to speak, forgetful of

everything else.



She had put on the gown again to see if, perchance, there might be

some mark of her blood or breed that had escaped her previous

scrutiny, and, as there was no one to observe her, she had attired

herself slowly, absorbed in her whimsy. Her wistful beauty dazed the

young man and robbed him of the words he had rehearsed; but as she

made to flee from him, with a pitiful gesture, towards her room, the

fear of losing her aroused him and spurred his wit.



"Don't go away! I have something I must tell you. I've thought it

over, and you've got to listen, Necia."



"I am listening," she answered, very quietly.



"Understand me, I'm not whining, and I'm willing to take my

medicine. I couldn't talk or think very straight this afternoon, but

you were wrong."



"Yes, I know now, I was wrong. It was most unlady-like, wasn't it?

But you see, I am only a little savage."



"I don't mean that; I mean you were wrong when you said I had played

with you. In the sight of God, I swear you were mistaken. You have

made me love you, Necia. Can't you see?"



She made no sign.



"If you can't, I owe it to you and to myself to set you right. I am

not ashamed to acknowledge my love, and even when you are married to

Poleon I want you to know that I shall love you always."



Even yet she made no sign. Was he not merely repeating the same

empty words with which he had so often beguiled her? There was no

word of marriage: he still considered her unworthy, beneath him. The

pain of it caused the girl to wince suddenly, and her sensitive face

flinched, seeing which he broke out:



"You do love me, Necia--you do; I see it in your eyes!" And he

started towards her with open arms, but she shrank away from him.



"No, no! Don't touch me!" she almost screamed.



"My dear one," he breathed, "you must listen to me. You have nothing

to fear, for I love you--love you--love you! You were made for me!

You'll be my wife. Yes; you'll be married on Sunday, but to me, not

to Poleon or any other man!"



Did she hear aright? Was he, her soldier lover, asking her, the

Indian girl--?



"You do love me, don't you?" he pleaded. But still she could not

speak, and he tried to read the answer in her swimming eyes.



"You mean--you want to--marry me?" she murmured, at last, hesitating

shyly at the word that had come to play so momentous a part in her

little world.



"Indeed I do!" he declared, with emphasis. "In spite of everything,

anything. Nothing else matters."



"Nothing?"



"Nothing! I'll quit the army. I'll give up the Service, and my

people, too. I'll put everything back of me, and we'll start out

anew--just you and I."



"Wait a moment," she said, retreating a little from his eager, out-

stretched arms. "Why do you need to do all that?"



"Never mind why; it's as good as done. You wouldn't understand--"



"But I think I do understand now. Do I really mean all that to you?"



"Yes, and more!"



"Listen to me," said the girl, quietly. "I want you to talk slowly

so I may not misunderstand. If you--marry me, must you forego all

those great things you speak of--your profession, your family, your

future?"



"Don't let's talk about it, Necia; I've got you, and--"



"Please answer me," she urged. "I thought I understood, but I'm

afraid I don't. I thought it was my being a breed that stood in the

way--"



"There's nothing in the way--"



"--that I wasn't good enough. I knew I could overcome that; I knew I

could make myself grow to your level, but I didn't think my blood

would fetter you and make this difference. I suppose I am putting it

awkwardly, because I'm not sure that I quite understand it myself

yet. Things seem different now, somehow, than they did before."



"Nonsense!" exclaimed the soldier. "If they don't bother me, Necia,

why should you worry?"



"Would you really have to give up your family--your sister? Would

those people you are so proud of and who are so proud of you--would

they cut you off?"



"There is no question of cutting off. I have no inheritance coming;

I don't want any. I don't want anything except you, dear."



"Won't you tell me?" she persisted. "You see, I am dull at these

things."



"Well, what if they do?" he conceded. "You more than make it up to

me--you outweigh a thousand families."



"And would your marriage to a--a--to me destroy your army career?"



"Well, it will really be much easier for both of us if I resign from

the Service," he finally admitted. "In fact, I've decided to do so

at once."



"No, no! You mustn't do that. To-night you think I am worth the

price, but a day will come--"



He leaned forward and caught her hands in his.



"--Meade, I can't let you do it."



"I'd like to see you help yourself," he said, banteringly.



"I can and I will. You must not marry me, Meade--it's not right--it

can't be." She suddenly realized what this renunciation would mean,

and began to shiver. To think of losing him now, after he had come

to her freely--it would be very hard! But to her, too, there had

come the revelation that love means sacrifice, and she knew now that

she loved her soldier too well to let her shadow darken his bright

future, too well to ruin him.



"It will be over before you know it," she heard him saying, in a

lame attempt at levity. "Father Barnum is an expert, and the

operation won't occupy him ten minutes."



"Meade, you must listen to me now," she said, so earnestly that it

sobered him. "Do you think a girl could be happy if she knew a good

man had spoiled his life for her? I would rather die now than let

you do such a thing. I couldn't bear to see myself a drag on you.

Oh, I know it would be wonderful, this happiness of ours, for a

time, and then--" She was finding it more and more difficult to

continue. "A prisoner grows to hate the chains that bind him; when

that day came for you, I should hate myself. No, no! Believe me, it

can't be. You're not of my people, and I'm not of yours."



At that moment they heard the voices of the trader and his squaw

outside, approaching the house. The girl's breath caught in her

throat, she flung herself recklessly upon her lover's breast and

threw her arms around his neck in an agony of farewell.



"Meade! Meade! my soldier!" she sobbed, "kiss me good-bye for the

last time!"



"No," he said roughly.



But she dragged his face down to her burning lips.



"Now you must go," she said, tearing herself away, "and, for my

sake, don't see me again."



"I will! I will! I'll ask your father for you to-night."



"No, no! Don't; please don't! Wait till--till to-morrow--till I say

the word! Promise me! On your love, promise!"



Her eyes held such a painful entreaty that he nodded acquiescence as

the door opened and her father and Alluna entered.





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