John Gale's Hour





It was a heathenish time of night to arouse the girl, thought

Burrell, as he left the barracks, but he must allay these fears that

were besetting him, he must see Necia at once. The low, drifting

clouds obscured what star-glow there was in the heavens, and he

stepped back to light a lantern. By its light he looked at his watch

and exclaimed, then held it to his ear. Five hours had passed since

he left Gale's house. Well, the call was urgent, and Necia would

understand his anxiety.



A few moments later he stood above the squaw, who crouched on the

trader's doorstep, wailing her death song into the night. He could

not check her; she paid no heed to him, but only rocked and moaned

and chanted that strange, weird song which somehow gave strength to

his fears.



"What's wrong; where is Necia? Where is she?" he demanded, and at

last seized her roughly, facing her to the light, but Alluna only

blinked owlishly at his lantern and shook her head.



"Gone away," she finally informed him, and began to weave again in

her despair, but he held her fiercely.



"Where has she gone? When did she go?" He shook her to quicken her

reply.



"I don' know. I don' know. Long time she's gone now." She trailed

off into Indian words he could not comprehend, so he pushed past her

into the house to see for himself, and without knocking flung

Necia's door open and stepped into her chamber. Before he had swept

the unfamiliar room with his eyes he knew that she had indeed gone,

and gone hurriedly, for the signs of disorder betrayed a reckless

haste. Hanging across the back of a chair was what had once been the

wondrous dress, Poleon's gift, now a damp and draggled ruin, and on

the floor were two sodden satin slippers and a pair of wet silk

stockings. He picked up the lace gown and saw that it was torn from

shoulder to waist. What insanity had possessed the girl to rip her

garment thus?



"She take her 'nother dress; the one I make las' summer," said

Alluna, who had followed him in and stood staring as he stared.



"When did she go, Alluna? For God's sake, what does this mean?"



"I don' know! She come and she go, and I don' see her; mebbe three,

four hour ago."



"Where's Gale? He'll know. He's gone after her, eh?"



The upward glow of the lantern heightened the young man's pallor,

and again the squaw broke into her sad lament.



"John Gale--he's gone away with the knife of my father. I am afraid-

-I am afraid."



Burrell forced himself to speak calmly; this was no time to let his

wits stampede.



"How long ago?"



"Long time."



"Did he come back here just now?"



"No; he went to the jail-house, and he would not let me follow. He

don' come back no more."



This was confusing, and Meade cried, angrily:



"Why didn't you give the alarm? Why didn't you come to me instead of

yelling your lungs out around the house?"



"He told me to wait," she said, simply.



"Go find Poleon, quick."



"He told me to wait," she repeated, stoically, and Burrell knew he

was powerless to move her. He saw the image of a great terror in the

woman's face. The night suddenly became heavy with the hint of

unspeakable things, and he grew fearful, suspecting now that Gale

had told him but a part of his story, that all the time he knew

Stark's identity, and that his quarry was at hand, ready for the

kill; or, if not, he had learned enough while standing behind that

partition. Where was he now? Where was Necia? What part did she play

in this? Stark's parting words struck Burrell again like a blow.

This life-long feud was drawing swiftly to some tragic culmination,

and somewhere out in the darkness those two strong, hate-filled men

were settling their scores. All at once a fear for the trader's life

came upon the young man, and he realized that a great bond held them

together. He could not think clearly, because of the dread thing

that gripped him at thought of Necia. Was he to lose her, after all?

He gave up trying to think, and fled for Stark's saloon, reasoning

that where one was the other must be near, and there would surely be

some word of Necia. He burst through the door; a quick glance over

the place showed it empty of those he sought, but, spying Poleon

Doret, he dragged him outside, inquiring breathlessly:



"Have you seen Gale?"



"Have you seen Stark? Has he been about?"



"Yes, wan hour, mebbe two hour ago. W'y? Wat for you ask?"



"There's the devil to pay. Those two have come together, and Necia

is gone."



"Necia gone?" the Canadian jerked out. "Wat you mean by dat? Were

she's gone to?"



"I don't know--nobody knows. God! I'm shaking like a leaf."



"Bah! She's feel purty bad! She's go out by herse'f. Dat's all

right."



"I tell you something has happened to her; there's hell to pay. I

found her clothes at the house torn to ribbons and all muddy and

wet."



Poleon cried out at this.



"We've got to find her and Gale, and we haven't a minute to lose.

I'm afraid we're too late as it is. I wish it was daylight. Damn the

darkness, anyhow! It makes it ten times harder."



His incoherence alarmed his listener more than his words.



"Were have you look?"



"I've been to the house, but Alluna is crazy, and says Gale has gone

to kill Stark, as near as I can make out. Both of them were at my

quarters to-night, and I'm afraid the squaw is right."



"But w'ere is Necia?"



"We don't know; maybe Stark has got her."



The Frenchman cursed horribly. "Have you try hees cabane?"



"No."



Without answer the Frenchman darted away, and the Lieutenant sped

after him through the deserted rows of log-houses.



"Ha! Dere's light," snarled Doret, over his shoulder, as they neared

their goal.



"Be careful," panted Burrell. "Wait! Don't knock." He forced Poleon

to pause. "Let's find out who's inside. Remember, we're working

blind."



He gripped his companion's arm with fingers of steel, and together

they crept up to the door, but even before they had gained it they

heard a voice within. It was Stark's. The walls of the house were of

moss-chinked logs that deadened every sound, but the door itself was

of thin, whip-sawed pine boards with ample cracks at top and bottom,

and, the room being of small dimensions, they heard plainly. The

Lieutenant leaned forward, then with difficulty smothered an

exclamation, for he heard another voice now--the voice of John Gale.

The words came to him muffled but distinct, and he raised his hand

to knock, when, suddenly arrested, he seized Poleon and forced him

to his knees, hissing into his ear:



"Listen! Listen! For God's sake, listen!"



For the first time in his tempestuous life Ben Stark lost the iron

composure that had made his name a by-word in the West, and at sight

of his bitterest enemy seated in the dark of his own house waiting

for him he became an ordinary, nervous, frightened man faced by a

great peril. It was the utter unexpectedness of the thing that shook

him, and before he could regain his balance Gale spoke:



"I've come to settle, Bennett."



"What are you doing here?" the gambler stammered.



"I was up at the soldier's place just now and heard you. I didn't

want any interruptions, so I came here where we can be alone." He

paused, and, when Stark made no answer, continued, "Well, let's get

at it." But still the other made no move. "You've had all the best

of it for twenty years," Gale went on, in his level voice, "but to-

night I get even. By God! I've lived for this."



"That shot in Lee's cabin?" recalled Stark, with the light of a new

understanding. "You knew me then?"



"Yes."



Stark took a deep breath. "What a damned fool I've been!"



"Your devil's magic saved you that time, but it won't stop this."

The trader rose slowly with the knife in his hand.



"You'll hang for this!" said the gambler, unsteadily, at which

Gale's face blazed.



"Ha!" exclaimed the trader, exultingly; "you can feel it in your

guts already, eh?"



With an effort Stark began to assemble his wits as the trader

continued:



"You saddled your dirty work on me, Ben Stark, and I've carried it

for fifteen years; but to-night I put you out the way you put her

out. An eye for an eye!"



"I didn't kill her," said the man.



"Don't lie. This isn't a grand jury. We're all alone."



"I didn't kill her."



"So? The yellow is showing up at last. I knew you were a coward, but

I didn't think you'd be afraid to own it to yourself. That thing

must have lived with you."



"Look here," said Stark, curiously, "do you really think I killed

Merridy?"



"I know it. A man who would strike a woman would kill her--if he had

the nerve."



Stark had now mastered himself, and smiled.



"My hate worked better than I thought. Well, well, that made it hard

for you, didn't it?" he chuckled. "I supposed, of course, you knew--

"



"Knew?" Gale's face showed emotion for the first time. "Knew what--?"

His hands were quivering slightly.



"She killed herself."



"So help you God?"



"So help me God!"



There was a long pause.



"Why?"



"Say, it's kind of funny our standing here talking about that thing,

isn't it? Well, if you want to know, I came home early that night--I

guess you hadn't been gone two hours--and the surprise did it, more

than anything else, I suppose--she hadn't prepared a story. I got

suspicious, named you at random, and hit the nail on the head. She

broke down, thought I knew more than I did, and--and then there was

hell to pay."



"Go on."



"I suppose I talked bad and made threats--I was crazy over you--till

she must have thought I meant to kill her, but I didn't. No. I never

was quite that bad. Anyhow, she did it herself."



Gale's face was like chalk, and his voice sounded thin and dry as he

said:



"You beat her, that's why she did it."



Stark made no answer.



"The papers said the room showed a struggle."



When the other still kept silent, Gale insisted:



"Didn't you?"



At this Stark flamed up defiantly.



"Well, I guess I had cause enough. No woman except her was ever

untrue to me--wife or sweetheart."



"You didn't really think--?"



"Think hell! I thought so then, and I think so now. She denied it,

but--"



"And you knew her so well, too. I guess you've had some bad nights

yourself, Bennett, with that always on your mind--"



"I swore I'd have you--"



"--and so you put her blood on my head, and made me an outlaw."

After an instant: "Why did you tell me this, anyhow?"



"It's our last talk, and I wanted you to know how well my hate

worked."



"Well, I guess that's all," said Gale. So far they had watched each

other with unwavering, unblinking eyes, straining at the leash and

taut in every nerve. Now, however, the trader's fingers tightened on

the knife-handle, and his knuckles whitened with the grip, at which

Stark's right hand swept to his waist, and simultaneously Gale

lunged across the table. His blade nickered in the light, and a gun

spoke, once--twice--again and again. A cry arose outside the cabin,

then some heavy thing crashed in through the door, bringing light

with it, for with his first leap Gale had carried the lamp and the

table with him, and the two had clenched in the dark,



Burrell had waited an instant too long, for the men's voices had

held so steady, their words had been so vital, that the finish found

him unprepared, but, thrusting the lantern into Poleon's hand, he

had backed off a pace and hurled himself at the door. He had learned

the knack of bunching his weight in football days, and the barrier

burst and splintered before him. He fell to his knees inside, and an

instant later found himself wrestling for his life between two

raging beasts. The Lieutenant knew Doret must have entered too,

though he could not see him, for the lantern shed a sickly gloom

over the chaos. He was locked desperately with John Gale, who flung

him about and handled him like a child, fighting like an old gray

wolf, hoary with years and terrible in his rage. Burrell had never

been so battered and harried and torn; only for the lantern's light

Gale would doubtless have sheathed his weapon in his new assailant,

but the more fiercely the trader struggled, the more tenaciously the

soldier clung. As it was, Gale carried the Lieutenant with him and

struck over his head at Stark.



Poleon had leaped into the room at Burrell's heels, to receive the

impact of a heavy body hurled backward into his arms as if by some

irresistible force. He seized it and tore it away from the thing

that pressed after and bore down upon it with the ferocity of a wild

beast. He saw Gale reach over the Lieutenant's head and swing his

arm, saw the knife-blade bury itself in what he held, then saw it

rip away, and felt a hot stream spurt into his face. So closely was

the Canadian entangled with Stark that he fancied for an instant the

weapon had wounded both of them for the trader had aimed at his

enemy's neck where it joined the shoulder, but, hampered by the

soldier, his blow went astray about four inches. Doret glimpsed

Burrell rising from his knees, his arms about the trader's waist,

and the next instant the combatants were dragged apart.



The Lieutenant wrenched the dripping blade from Gale's hand; it no

longer gleamed, but was warm and slippery in his fingers. Poleon

held Stark's gun, which was empty and smoking.



The fight had not lasted a minute, and yet what terrible havoc had

been wrought! The gambler was drenched with his own blood, which

gushed from him, black in the yellow flicker, and so plentifully

that the Frenchman was befouled with it, while Gale, too, was

horribly stained, but whether from his own or his enemy's veins it

was hard to tell. The trader paid no heed to himself nor to the

intruders, allowing Burrell to push him back against the wall, the

breath wheezing in and out of his lungs, his eyes fastened on Stark.



"I got you, Bennett!" he cried, hoarsely. "Your magic is no good."

His teeth showed through his grizzled muzzle like the fangs of some

wild animal.



Bennett, or Stark, as the others knew him, lunged about with his

captor, trying to get at his enemy, and crying curses on them all,

but he was like a child in Poleon's arms. Gradually he weakened, and

suddenly resistance died out of him.



"Come away from here," the Lieutenant ordered Gale.



But the old man did not hear, and gathered himself as if to resume

the battle with his bare hands, whereupon the soldier, finding

himself shaking like a frightened child, and growing physically weak

at what he saw, doubted his ability to prevent the encounter, and

repeated his command.



"Come away!" he shouted, but the words sounded foolishly flat and

inane.



Then Stark spoke intelligibly for the first time.



"Arrest him! You've got to believe what I told you now, Burrell." He

poured forth a stream of unspeakable profanity, smitten by the

bitter knowledge of his first and only defeat. "You'll hang,

Gaylord! I'll see your neck stretched, damn your heart!" To Poleon

he panted, excitedly: "I followed him for fifteen years, Doret. He

killed my wife."



"Dat's damn lie!" said the Frenchman.



"No, it isn't. He's under indictment for it back in California. He

shot her down in cold blood, then ran off with my kid. That's her he

calls Necia. She's mine. Ain't I right, Lieutenant?"



At this final desperate effort to fix the crime upon his rival,

Burrell turned on him with loathing.



"It's no use, Stark. We heard you say she killed herself. We were

standing outside the door, both of us, and got it from your own

lips."



Until this moment the man had stood on his own feet, but now he

began to sag, seeing which, Poleon supported him to the bed, where

he sank weakly, collapsing in every joint and muscle.



"It's a job," he snarled. "You put this up, you three, and came here

to gang me." An unnatural shudder convulsed him as his wounds bit at

him, and then he flared up viciously. "But I'll beat you all. I've

got the girl! I've got her!"



"Necia!" cried Burrell, suddenly remembering, for this affray had

driven all else from his mind.



Stark crouched on the edge of his bunk--a ghastly, gray, grinning

thing! One weapon still remained to him, and he used it.



"Yes, I've got my daughter!"



"Where is she?" demanded the trader, hoarsely. "Where's my girl?"



The gambler chuckled; an agony seized him till he hiccoughed and

strangled; then, as the spell passed, he laughed again.



"She's got you in her head, like the mother had, but I'll drive it

out; I'll treat her like I did her--"



Gale uttered a terrible cry and moved upon him, but Burrell

shouldered the trader aside, himself possessed by a cold fury that

intensified his strength tenfold.



"Stop it, Gale! Let me attend to this. I'll make him tell!"



"Oh, will you?" mocked the girl's father.



"Where is she?"



"None of your damned business." Again he was seized with a paroxysm

that left him shivering and his lips colorless. The blankets were

soaked and soggy with blood, and his feet rested in a red pool.



"Ben Stark," said the tortured lover, "you're a sick man, and you'll

be gone in half an hour at this rate. Won't you do one decent thing

before you die?"



"Bah! I'm all right."



"I'll get you a doctor if you'll tell us where she is. If you don't-

-I'll--let you die. For God's sake, man, speak up!"



The wounded man strove to rise, but could not, then considered for a

moment before he said:



"I sent her away."



"Where?"



"Up-river, on that freighter that left last night. She'll go out by

Skagway, and I'll join her later, where I can have her to myself.

She's forty miles up-river now, and getting farther every minute--

oh, you can't catch her!"



The three men stared at one another blankly.



"Why did she go?" said Gale, dully.



"Because I told her who she was, and who you are; because she thinks

you killed her mother; because she was glad to get away." Now that

he was grown too weak to inflict violent pain, the man lied

malevolently, gloating over what he saw in the trader's face.



"Never mind, old man, I'll bring her back," said Burrell, and laid a

comforting hand on Gale's shoulder, for the fact that she was safe,

the fact of knowing something relieved him immensely; but Stark's

next words plunged him into even blacker horror than the trader

felt.



"You won't want her if you catch her. Runnion will see to that."



"Runnion!"



"Yes, I sent him with her."



The lover cried out in anguish, and hid his face in his hands.



"He's wanted her for a long time, so I told him to go ahead--"



None of them noticed Poleon Doret, who, upon this unnatural

confession, alone seemed to retain sufficient control to doubt and

to reason. He was thinking hard, straightening out certain facts,

and trying to square this horrible statement with things he had seen

and heard to-night. All of a sudden he uttered a great cry, and

bolted out into the darkness unheeded by Gale and Burrell, who stood

dazed and distraught with a fear greater than that which was growing

in Stark at sight of his wounds.



The gambler looked down at his injuries, opened and closed the

fingers of his hand as if to see whether he still maintained control

of them, then cried out at the two helpless men:



"Well, are you going to let me bleed to death?"



It brought the soldier out of his trance.



"Why--no, no! We'll get a doctor."



But Gale touched him on the shoulder and said:



"He's too weak to get out. Lock him in, and let him die in the

dark."



Stark cursed affrightedly, for it is a terrible thing to bleed to

death in the dark, and in spite of himself the Lieutenant wavered.



"I can't do that. I promised."



"He told that lie to my girl. He gave her to that hound," said the

trader, but Burrell shoved him through the door.



"No! I can't do that." And then to the wounded man he said, "I'll

get a doctor, but God have mercy on your soul." He could not trust

himself to talk further with this creature, nor be near him any

longer, for though he had a slight knowledge of surgery, he would

sooner have touched a loathsome serpent than the flesh of this

monstrous man.



He pushed Gale ahead of him, and the old man went like a driven

beast, for his violence had wasted itself, and he was like a person

under the spell of a strong drug. At the doctor's door Burrell

stopped.



"I never thought to ask you," he said, wearily; "but you must be

hurt? He must have wounded you?"



"I reckon he did--I don't know." Then the man's listless voice

throbbed out achingly, as he cried in despair: "She believed him,

boy! She believed his lies! That's what hurts." Something like a sob

caught in his throat, and he staggered away under the weight of his

great bereavement.





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