Stark Takes A Hand In The Game





The old man greeted the Lieutenant affably, but as his glance fell

on his daughter he stopped stock-still on the threshold.



"I told you never to wear that dress again," he said, in a dry,

harsh voice.



The girl made no answer, for her heart was breaking, but turned and

went into her room. Burrell had an irresistible desire to tell Gale

that he wanted his daughter for his wife; it would be an unwonted

pleasure to startle this iron-gray old man and the shawled and

shambling mummy of red, with the unwinking eyes that always reminded

him of two ox-heart cherries; but he had given Necia his promise. So

he descended to the exchange of ordinary topics, and inquired for

news of the creek.



"Necia's ground is getting better every hour," the trader said.

"Yesterday they found a sixty-dollar pan."



"Have you struck pay on yours?"



"No; Poleon and I seem to hold bad hands. Some of his laymen are

quitting work. They've cross-cut in half a dozen places and can't

find a color."



"But surely they haven't fully prospected his claims yet; there must

be plenty of room for a pay-streak somewhere, mustn't there?"



"It looks like he had drawn three blanks," said Gale, "although we

can't tell for sure. They're breaking most as bad for me, too; but

I've got a new hunch, and I'm running up a dreen to catch bed-rock

along the left rim. I've got twenty men at work, and I'll know

before long. You heard about Runnion, of course?"



"Yes; the usual story--the bad men get the good mines, and the good

ones get the hungry spots. Well, I might have been one of the

unfortunates if I had staked for myself; but I hardly think so, I'm

pretty lucky." He laughingly bade them good-night, content with

himself and at peace with the world.



Gale went to Necia's door and called her, but when she appeared he

was unprepared for the tragic face with which she greeted him.



"Daughter," he said, "don't feel bad over what I said; I didn't mean

to be cross with you, but--I don't like that dress."



"Were you cross with me, daddy?" she said, dully. "I didn't hear.

What did you say?"



He looked at her in amazement. "Necia, little girl, what is the

trouble?"



She was staring past him, and her fingers were fumbling helplessly

with the lace of her gown, but she began to show signs of collapse.



"I sent him away--I--gave him up, when he wanted me--wanted me--Oh,

daddy! he wants to marry me--and I sent him away."



Alluna uttered a short, satisfied exclamation, and, looking at Gale

meaningly, said:



"It is good. It is good. He is a stranger."



But the man disregarded her interruption.



"He asked you to marry him in--in--in spite of who you are and what

I am?"



"Yes; he is ready to give up his ambition, his army, his future, his

family, everything, for me--to sacrifice it all; and so, of course,

I couldn't let him." She spoke simply, as if her father would surely

understand and approve her action, while in her voice was a note of

inevitable resignation. "You see, I never understood what my blood

would mean to him until to-night. I've been selfish and thoughtless,

I guess. I just wanted him, and wanted him to take me; but now that

he is mine, I love him more than I thought. He is so dear to me that

I can't drag him down--I can't--I can't!" She went to the open door

and stood leaning against the casing, facing the cool outer

darkness, her face hidden from them, her form sagging wearily, as if

the struggle had sapped her whole strength.



Alluna crept to the trader and looked up at him eagerly, whispering:



"This will end in a little while, John. She is young. She can go

back to the Mission to-morrow. She will soon forget."



"Forget! Do you think she can forget?"



"Any woman can forget. Only men remember."



"It is the red blood in you--lying. You know you lie."



"It is to save your life," she said.



"I know; but it's no use." To Necia he said; "You needn't worry,

little daughter." But her ears were deaf. "You needn't give him up,

I say--this will end all right."



Seeing that she gave no sign of heeding, he stepped closer, and

swung her about till she faced him.



"Can't you trust me this one time? You always have before, Necia. I

say he'll marry you, and it will all come out right."



She raised her hopeless eyes and strove gamely to meet his, then,

failing, broke away, and turned back to the door. "I knew you

couldn't understand. I--I--oh, God, I love him so!" With a cry like

that of a wounded animal she fled out into the night, where she

could give vent to her anguish unseen; for she had never wept before

her father, but always crept away and hid herself until her grief

was spent. Gale would have started after her, but Alluna dragged him

back fiercely.



"No, no! It means your life, John. Let the secret die, and she will

forget. She is so young. Time will cure her--time cures everything.

Don't tell her--don't tell any one--and, above all, don't tell that

soldier! He would not believe, nor would she. Even I have doubted!"



"You?"



"Yes, John. And if I don't believe, what is a stranger to say? No

man knowing you would believe the tale--without proof. Suppose she

doubted--have you ever thought of that? Would you not rather have

her die still loving you than live and disbelieve?"



"Yes, yes! Of course, I--I've thought of that, but--Woman, you're

worse than a rattlesnake!"



"Even if he knew, he might not marry her. You at least are clean,

and that other man was a devil. A brave man's life is too great a

price to pay for a grief that will die in a year." Alluna was

speaking swiftly in her own language, her body tense, her face

ablaze, and no man seeing her could ever again have called her

people stolid.



"You think time will cure a love like that?" he said.



"Yes, yes!"



"That's all you know about it. Time may act that way perhaps in

cities and such places, but out in the hills it is different. When

you've got the breath of the forest in you, I say it is different.

Time--why, I've lived fifteen years in the open with a living

memory. Every night I've dreamed it over, every day I've lived it

through; in every camp-fire I see a face, and every wind from the

south brings a voice to me. Every stormy night a girl with eyes like

Necia's calls to me, and I have to follow. Every patch of moonlight

shows her smiling at me, just beyond, just in the shadow's edge.

Love! Time! Why, Alluna, love is the only thing in the world that

never dies, and time only makes it the more enduring."



He took up the white slouch hat he had thrown down when he came in,

and stepped to the door.



"Where are you going?" inquired the squaw, fearfully.



"To the barracks to give myself up!"



She flung herself at him with a great cry, and seized him about the

waist.



"You never loved me, John, but I have been a good woman to you,

although I knew you were always thinking of her--and had no thought

of me. I have loved this girl because you loved her. I have hated

your enemies because you hated them, and now I remember while you

forget."



"Forget! What do you mean?"



"Stark!"



The man paused. "I did almost forget him--and after fifteen years!"



"Let us kill him to-night; then we will go to the soldier together,

side by side--I am your woman. Necia will look after the little

ones."



Gale stared at her, and as he gazed the red pigment underneath her

skin, the straight-hanging, mane-like hair, the gaudy shawl she

never went without, the shapeless, skin-shod feet, the slovenly,

ill-fitting garb of a mis-cast woman vanished, and he saw her as she

was on a day long past, a slim, shy, silent creature, with great,

watchful, trusting eyes and a soul unspoiled. No woman had ever been

so loyal, so uncomplaining. He had robbed her of her people and her

gods. He had shifted hither and yon at the call of his uncertain

fortune, or at a sign of that lurking fear that always dogged him,

and she had never left his side, never questioned, never doubted,

but always served him like a slave, without asking for a part in

that other love, without sharing in the caresses he had consecrated

to a woman she had never seen.



"By Heaven! You're game, Alluna, but there's a limit even to what I

can take from you," he said, at last. "I don't ever seem to have

noticed it before, but there is. No! I've got to do this thing alone

to-night, all of it, for you have no place in it, and I can't let

the little girl go on like this. The sooner that soldier knows the

better." He leaned down and touched her brown mouth with his

grizzled lips. "Thank you, Alluna, for making a man of me when I'd

nearly forgotten. Now you stay here." He knew he could count on her

obedience, and so he left her. When he had gone she drew the shawl

up over her face and crouched in the doorway, straining her eyes

after him through the dark. In time she began to rock and sway, and

then to chant, until the night moaned with the death-song of her

people.



Necia had no idea whither she went; her only thought was to flee

from her kin, who could not understand, to hide under cover in some

solitary place, to let the darkness swallow her up, so that she

might give way to her grief and be just a poor, weak woman. So, with

a dull and aching heart, she wandered, bareheaded, bare-necked,

half-demented, and wholly oblivious to her surroundings, without

sense of her incongruous attire or of the water that squeezed up

through the soggy moss at her tread and soaked her frail slippers.

On she stumbled blindly through the murk like some fair creature of

light cast out and banished.



The night was cloudy and a wind came sighing from the north, tossing

the girl's hair and tugging at the careless folds of her dress, but

she heard nothing save the devil's tattoo that rang in her head, and

felt nothing beyond the pain at throat and breast, which in time

became so bitter that the tears were wrung from her dry eyes, and

she began to weep in a pitiful woman fashion, as if her heart would

burst. The first drops cleared a way for others, and soon she was

sobbing freely, alone and without solace, lost in the night.



She had not succeeded in thoroughly isolating herself, however, for

a man who was steering his course by the sense of feel and the

wind's direction heard her and paused. His steps were muffled in the

soft footing, so that she had no warning of his presence until he

was near enough to distinguish her dimly where she leaned against

the log wall of a half-completed cabin.



To his question, "What's the trouble here?" she made no answer, but

moved away, whereupon he detained her. "There's something wrong. Who

are you, anyhow?"



"It's only Necia, Mr. Stark," said the girl, at which be advanced

and took her by the arm.



"What ails you, child? What in the world are you doing here? Come!

It's only a step to my cabin; you must come in and rest awhile, and

you'll soon be all right. Why, you'll break your neck in this

darkness."



She hung back, but he compelled her to go with him in spite of her

unwillingness.



"Now, now," he admonished, with unusual kindliness for him; "you

know you're my little friend, and I can't let you go on this way;

it's scandalous. I won't stand for it. I like you too much."



In truth he had done things during these last few weeks to make her

think so, having never missed an opportunity to stop and pass a word

with her, at the same time showing her a queer courtesy and

consideration quite foreign to his saturnine habits. She had never

mentioned the fact to her father or the others, for she had

developed a sort of sympathy for the man, and felt that she

understood him better than they did.



He led her inside his cabin, and closed the door in the face of the

night wind before he struck a light.



"I can't stand to see you cry," he repeated, as he adjusted the

wick. "Now, as soon as--" He stopped in astonishment, for he had

turned to behold, instead of the little half-breed girl, this

slender, sorrowful stranger in her amazingly wonderful raiment.



"By--" He checked himself insensibly, and stood motionless for a

long time, while she wiped her eyes and, woman-like, straightened

out her gown and smoothed her hair with little feminine touches.



"I--I--hope you'll excuse me for acting this way," she smiled at

him, piteously; then, observing his strange features, "Why, what is

the matter, Mr. Stark; are you angry?"



His hawklike face was strained and colorless, his black eyes fierce

and eager, his body bent as if to pounce upon a victim. In truth he

was now the predatory animal.



"No," he replied, as if her question carried no meaning; then,

coming to himself, "No--no! of course not, but--you gave me a start.

You reminded me of some one. How do you come to be dressed like

that? I never knew you had such clothes?"



"Poleon brought them from Dawson; they are the first I ever had."



He shook his head in a slow, puzzled fashion.



"You look just like a white girl--I mean--I don't know what I mean."

This time he roused himself fully, the effort being more like a

shudder.



"So I have always thought," she said, and her eyes filled again.



"Your skin is like milk beneath your tan, and--I don't mean any

disrespect, but--Well, I'm just so damned surprised! Come over here

and sit down while I mix you something to put the heart back into

you."



He shoved forward a big chair with a wolf-skin flung over it, into

which she sank dejectedly, while he stepped to the shelves beside

the Yukon stove and took down a bottle and some glasses. She glanced

about with faint curiosity, but the interior of the cabin showed

nothing out of the ordinary, consisting as it did of one room with a

cot in the corner, upon which were tumbled blankets, and above which

was a row of pegs. Opposite was a sheet-iron box-stove supported

knee-high on a tin-capped framework of wood, and in the centre a

table with oil-cloth cover. Around the walls were some cooking

utensils, a few cases of canned goods, and clothes hanging in a row.



"I'm not fixed up very well yet," he apologized; "I've been too busy

at the saloon to waste time on living quarters. But it's comfortable

enough for an old roadster like me, for I've bruised around the

frontier so long that I've learned there's only three things

necessary to a man's comfort--warm clothes, a full stomach, and a

dry place to sleep. All the rest that goes to make a man content he

has inside him, and I'm not the kind to be satisfied, no matter

where I am or what I have. I never was that kind, so I just don't

make the attempt."



He was talking to give her leeway, and when he had concocted a weak

toddy, insisted that she must drink it, which she did listlessly,

while he rambled on.



"I've noticed a few things in my life, Miss Necia, and one of them

is that it often does a heap of good to let out and talk things

over; not that a fellow gains any real advantage from disseminating

his troubles, but it serves to sort of ease his mind. Folks don't

often come to me for advice or sympathy. I don't have it to give,

but maybe it will help you to tell me what caused this night-

marauding expedition of yours." Seeing that she hesitated, he went

on: "I suppose there's a lot of reasons why you shouldn't confide in

me--I don't like that old man of yours, nor any of your friends; but

maybe that's why I'm interested. If any of them has upset you, I'll

take particular pleasure in helping you get even."



"I don't want to get even, and there is nothing to tell," said

Necia, "except a girl's troubles, and I can't talk about them." She

smiled a painful, crooked smile at him.



"Your old man has been rough to you?"



"No, no! Nothing of that sort."



"Then it's that soldier?" he quizzed, shrewdly. "I knew you cared a

heap for him. Don't he love you?"



"Yes! That's the trouble; and he wants to many me; he swears he will

in spite of everything."



"See here! I don't quite follow. I thought you liked him--he's the

kind most women go daffy over."



"Like him!" The girl trembled with emotion. "Like him! Why--why, I

would do anything to make him happy."



"I guess I must be kind of dull," Stark said, perplexedly.



"Don't you see? I've got to give him up--I'm a squaw."



"Squaw hell! With those shoulders?"



Stark checked himself, for he found he was rejoicing in his enemy's

defeat, and was in danger of betraying himself to the girl. In every

encounter the young man had bested him, and these petty defeats had

crystallized his antipathy to Burrell into a hatred so strong that

he had begun to lie awake nights planning a systematic quarrel. For

he was the kind of man who throve upon contentions: so warped in

soul that when no man offered him offence he brooded over fancied

wrongs and conjured up a cause for enmity, goading himself into that

sour, sullen habit of mind that made him a dread and a menace to all

who lacked his favor. His path was strewn from the border North with

the husks of fierce brawls, and he bore the ineradicable mark of the

killer, carrying always in his brain those scars that hate had

seared. In his eyes forever slumbered a flame waiting to be blown to

life, and when embroiled in feuds or bickerings a custom had grown

upon him to fight these fights in secret many times, until of nights

he would lie in solitary darkness writhing in spirit as he hounded

his man to desperation, or forced him into a corner where he might

slake his thirsty vengeance. After such black, sleepless hours he

dragged himself from his battle-grounds of fancy, worn and weary,

and the daylight discovered him more saturnine and moody, more

menacing than ever.



He had brooded over his quarrel with Gale and the Lieutenant ever

since their first clash, for in this place they furnished the only

objects upon which his mania could work--and it was a mania, the

derangement of a diseased, distorted mind. His regard for Necia was

a careless whim, a rather aimless, satisfying hobby, not at all

serious, entirely extraneous to his every-day life, and interesting

only from its aimlessness, being as near to an unselfish and decent

motive as the man had ever come. But it was not of sufficient

consequence to stand out against or swerve the course of a quarrel;

wherefore, he was gladdened by the news of Burrell's discomfiture.



"So you like him too much to stand in his way," he said,

meditatively. "How does your father look at it?"



"He wants the Lieutenant to marry me. He says he will fix it up all

right; but he doesn't understand. How could he?"



"You are doing just right," concurred the man, hypocritically, "and

you'll live to be glad you stood out." Now that both his enemies

desired this thing, he was set on preventing it, regardless of the

girl. "How did the Lieutenant take it when you refused him?"



"He wouldn't take it at all. He only laughed and declared he would

marry me, anyhow." The very thought thrilled her.



"Does he knew you love him?"



The tender, sobbing laugh she gave was ample answer.



"Well, what's your plan?"



"I--I--I don't know. I am so torn and twisted with it all that I

can't plan, but I have thought I--ought--to go--away."



"Good!" he said, quickly, but his acquiescence, instead of soothing

her, had the contrary effect, and she burst out impulsively:



"Oh--I can't--I can't! I can't go away and never see him! I can't do

it! I want to stay where he is!" She had been holding herself in

stubbornly, but at last gave way with reckless abandon. "Why wasn't

I born white like other girls? I've never felt like an Indian. I've

always dreamed and fancied I was different, and I am, in my soul--I

know I am! The white is so strong in me that it has killed the red,

and I'm one of father's people. I'm not like the other two; they are

brown and silent, and as cold as little toads; but I'm white and

full of life, all over. They never see the men and women that I see

in my dreams. They never have my visions of the beautiful snow-white

mother, with the tender mouth and the sad eyes that always smile at

me."



"You have visions of such things, eh?"



"Yes, but I came a generation late, that's all, and I've got that

other woman's soul. I'm not a half-breed--I'm not me at all. I'm

Merridy--Merridy! That's who I am."



Her face was turned away from him, so that she did not notice the

frightful effect her words had upon Stark.



"Where did you get--that name?" His voice was pitched in a different

key now. Then, after a moment, he added, "From the story I told you

at the mine that night, I suppose?"



"Oh no," she answered. "I've always had it, though they call me

Necia. Merridy was my father's mother. I guess I'm like her in many

ways, for I often imagine she is a part of me, that her spirit is

mine. It's the only way I can account for the sights I see."



"Your father's mother?" he said, mechanically. "That's queer." He

seemed to be trying to shake himself free from something. "It's

heredity, I suppose. You have visions of a white woman, a woman

named Merridy, eh?" Suddenly his manner changed, and he spoke so

roughly that she looked at him in vague alarm.



"How do you know? How do you know she was his mother?"



"He told me so--"



Stark snarled. "He lied!"



"I can show you her wedding-ring--I've always worn it." She fumbled

for the chain about her neck, but it eluded her trembling fingers.

"It has her name in it--'From Dan to Merridy.'"



Stark's hand darted forward and tore the thing from her shoulders,

then he thrust it under the lamp and glared at the inscription,

while his fingers shook so that he could barely distinguish the

words. His eyes were blazing and his face livid.



Necia cried out, but he dropped the ornament and seized her

fiercely, lifting her from the chair to her feet; then, with one

swift, downward clutch, he laid hold of her dress at the left

shoulder and ripped it half to her waist. A hoarse sound came from

his throat, a cry half of amazement, half of triumph.



"Let me go! Let me go!" She struggled to free herself, but he held

her in a viselike grip, while he peered closely at a blemish well

down upon her back. Then he let her slip from his grasp, and, seized

with terror, she staggered away from him. He was leaning heavily

with both hands upon the table, his face working, his head drawn

down between his shoulders, his thin lips grinning, his whole manner

so terrifying that she shrank back till she brought up against the

bark walls. She turned and made for the door, whereupon he

straightened up and said, in a queer, commanding voice:



"Wait--don't go! I--I--you--" He licked his lips as if they were

dust dry, passed an uncertain hand across his beaded brow, and,

raising the water-pail beside the door to his mouth, drank heavily

in great, noisy gulps.



"Let me out of here!" the girl demanded, imperiously.



"Don't be scared," he said, more quietly now. "You must excuse me.

You--you gave me an awful fright. Yes--that was it. Don't worry. I

didn't mean any harm."



"You hurt my shoulder," she said, almost ready to cry. "And you tore

my dress," she added, angrily--"my fine dress. Are you crazy?"



"You see, it's like this, that name of Merridy and that ring--well,

the whole thing was so startling, I--I went off my head. It came

sudden, and I thought--I thought--it don't matter what I thought,

but I'm sorry. I'll apologize--and I'll get you a new dress, a whole

lot of dresses, if you like." This seemed to amuse him, and he began

to laugh silently.



His first impulse had been to tell her everything, but his amazement

had rendered him speechless, and now he was thankful for it.

Following his discovery of her identity, he had been stricken dumb,

staring at her like one demented; then, as he was about to explain,

his mind suddenly grasped the significance of this revelation and

the advantage it gave him over his enemies; a plan began to unfold,

vague at first, its details not worked out, but a plan whereby he

could by keeping silent use this knowledge to serve his vengeful

ends. In an instant his vision cleared and his brain became active

and alert, like that of a man brought suddenly under the stimulus of

strong liquor. Care must be exercised--she must not learn too much--

for if she suspected the truth she would go to her soldier lover at

once, and no power on earth could hold her back. That would block

the vengeance that he saw shaping in the dank recesses of his

distorted brain.



First, and above all, he must get the girl away from Flambeau.



"I went clear off my head," he heard himself saying, "at that name

of Merridy, that ring, and all. Why--why, I thought you might be the

missing girl I told you of--you remember, that day up on Lee's

Creek--so I had to see; but, dear me, I should have been more

considerate--I should have explained. The trouble is I'm a nervous

man, and I get impulsive streaks on me sometimes that I can't

control. I'm sorry I spoiled your dress, but I'll get you another--

you bet I will."



This explanation of his strange behavior seemed plausible enough to

banish all personal fears from Necia's mind. Indeed, Stark had now

become so gentle and apologetic in his demeanor that her woman's

curiosity overcame her instinct to flee, and she ventured the

question:



"So you really thought I was that other girl?"



"I did for a minute. The mother was a--a--friend of mine, and so--I

lost my head. But I'm all right now, and if you'll overlook my

roughness we'll go back to your troubles."



These last few moments had driven her own worries from her mind, but

he was bent on recalling them, and so continued, cautiously:



"You were saying that you thought you'd go away. I think that's a

good plan, and you'd be wise to do it for more reasons than one. It

will give you time to think it all over and know your own mind--"



"I know my mind now, and yet--I don't want to go away."



"--and it will give Burrell a chance to prove himself. He'll either

show that he has got to have you at any cost, or that you are right

in your decision. If the first should happen, you can come back to

him; if the last--why, it will be better for you, anyhow. As long as

you stay here neither one of you can see clearly."



She was touched by his interest, and realized the force of his

argument, which, strange to say, seemed to second her own thoughts;

yet she hesitated.



"I want to help you--I'm going to help you--because I've got an

interest in you like you were mine." Again he betrayed that strange,

mirthless amusement.



"There is no place for me to go," said Necia, blankly, "except the

Mission, and I have no way of getting there."



"Don't you worry. I'll furnish the means, and you'd better go to-

night"--she flinched--"yes, to-night; there's no use prolonging your

agony. I'll get a boat ready and send a trusty man with you. The

current is swift, and if he rows well you can make it by to-morrow

evening. That's only one night out, and I'll put some blankets

aboard so you can wrap up and have a sleep."



"I feel as if I'd never sleep again," she sighed.



"Now, now, this will come out all right yet. I'd take you down there

myself, but I've got to stay here. I've got work to do. Yes, I've

sure got work of importance ahead of me."



"I must go back and get some clothes," she said, At which he would

have demurred had he not seen that she could not travel in her

present condition.



"Very well. But don't let anybody see you."



"Of course not."



"It's getting late, and your folks will be abed." He looked at his

watch. "Midnight! Be here in an hour, and I'll have the skiff

ready."



The light of sacrifice was in Necia's eyes, and her cheeks were

blanched with the pallor of a great resolution. She did not stop to

reason why or how she had been led to this disposal of her future,

but clutched desperately at Stark's plan of rescue from her

agonizing predicament.



"I'll be here in an hour," she said, simply.



He let her out, closed the door after her, and locked it; then,

drawing a deep breath, he raised his clenched hands above his head,

and gave a great sigh of exultation. Next he took out his six-

shooter and examined it carefully. The shells did not suit him, so

he filled the gun with new ones, loosened the three lower buttons of

his vest, and slid the weapon inside his trousers band; then, facing

the direction of Gale's trading-post, he spoke aloud.



"I was a long time coming, Gaylord, but I'm here, and I've got you

where I've wanted you these fifteen years--yes, and I've got you,

too, Burrell! By God, this is my night!"



His lithe body became panther-like in poise, his bearing that of the

meat-eating animal, and his face set in a fierce, exultant cruelty

as he blew out his light and left the cabin.





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