The Magic Of Ben Stark





Before the party came in sight, the sound of their voices reached

the cabin, and Burrell rose nervously and sauntered to the door.

Uncertain how this affair might terminate, he chose to get first

look at his enemies, if they should prove to be such, realizing the

advantage that goes to a man who stands squarely on both feet.



The trail came through the brush at the rear, and he heard Lee say:



"This here's the place, boys--the shack ain't fifty yards away."



"Likely looking gulch," Gale was heard to reply, in his deep tones--

there was a crackle of dead brush, a sound as of a man tripping and

falling heavily, then oaths in a voice that made the Lieutenant

start.



"Ha, ha!" laughed Doret. "You mus' be tired, Meestaire R-r-unnion.

Better you pick up your feet. Dat's free tarn' you've-"



They emerged into the open behind the house to pause in line back of

Lee, who was staring at the stove-pipe of his cabin, from which came

a wisp of smoke. It seemed to Burrell that they held their position

for a long time. Then he heard Lee say:



"Well, I'll be damned! Somebody's here ahead of us."



"We've been beaten," growled Stark, angrily, pushing past him and

coming round the corner, an ugly look in his eyes.



Burrell was standing at ease in the door, smoking, one forearm

resting on the jamb, his wide shoulders nearly filling the entrance.



"Good-afternoon," he nodded, pleasantly.



Lee answered him unintelligibly; Stark said nothing, but Runnion's

exclamation was plain.



"It's that damned blue-belly!"



"When did YOU get here?" said Stark, after a pause.



"A few hours ago."



"How did you come?" asked Lee.



"Black Bear Creek," said the soldier, curtly, at which Runnion broke

into profanity.



"Better hush," Burrell admonished him; "there's a lady inside," and

at that instant Necia showed her laughing face under his arm, while

the trader uttered her name in amazement.



"Lunch is ready," she said. "We've been expecting you for quite a

while."



"Ba Gar! Dat's fonny t'ing for sure," said Poleon. "Who tol' you

'bout dis strike--eh?"



"Mother; I made her," the girl answered.



"Take off your packs and come in," Burrell invited, but Stark strode

forward.



"Hold on a minute. This don't look good to me. You say your mother

told you. I suppose you're Old Man Gale's other daughter--eh?"



Necia nodded.



"What time of day was it when you learned about this?"



"Cut that out," roughly interjected Gale. "Do you think I double-

crossed you?"



The other turned upon him.



"It looks that way, and I intend to find out. You said yesterday you

hadn't told anybody--"



"I didn't think about the woman," said the trader, a trifle

disconcerted, whereupon Runnion gave vent to an ironical sneer.



"But here's your girl and this man ahead of us. I suppose there's

others on the way, too."



"Nonsense!" Burrell cut in. "Don't quarrel about this. Miss Gale got

wind of your secret, and beat you at your own game, so that ends it;

but there's plenty of ground left for all of you, and no harm done.

Nobody knows of this strike from us, I can assure you."



"I call it dam' sleeck work," chuckled the Canadian, slipping out of

his straps. "De nex' tam' I go stampedin' I tak' you 'long, Necia."



"Me, too," said Lee. "An' now I'm goin' to tear into some of them

beans I smell a bilin' in yonder."



The others followed, although Stark and Runnion looked black and had

little to say. It was an uncomfortable meal--every one was ill at

ease; Gale, in particular, was quiet, and ate less than any of them.

His eyes sought Stark's face frequently, and once the blood left his

cheeks and his eyes blazed as he observed the gambler eying Necia,

gazing at her with the same boldness he would have used in scanning

a horse.



"You are a mighty good-looking girl for a 'blood,'" remarked Stark,

at last.



"Thank you," she replied, simply, and the soldier's vague dislike of

the man crystallized into hate on the instant. There was a tone back

of his words that seemed aimed at the trader, Meade thought, but

Gale showed no sign of it, so the meal was finished in silence,

after which the five belated prospectors went out to make their

locations, for the fear of interruption was upon them now.



First they went down-stream, and, according to their agreement, the

trader staked first, followed by Poleon and Stark, thus throwing

Runnion's claim more than a mile distant from Lee's discovery. From

here they went up the creek to find the girl's other locations, one

on each branch, at which Stark sneeringly remarked that she had pre-

empted enough ground for a full-grown white woman.



Runnion's displeasure was even more open, and he fell into foul-

mouthed mutterings, addressing himself to Poleon and Stark while the

trader was out of earshot.



"This affair don't smell right, and I still think it's a frame-up."



"Bah!" exclaimed Doret.



"The old man sent the girl on ahead of us to blanket all the good

ground. That's what he did!"



"Dat's fool talk," declared the Frenchman.



"I'm not so sure," Stark broke in. "You remember he hung back and

wanted to go slow from the start; and didn't he ask us to camp early

last night? Looks now as if he did it just to give her time to get

in first. He admitted that he knew the Black Bear trail, and if he

lied about keeping his mouth shut to the squaw, he'd lie about

other--"



"Wait wan minnit," interrupted Poleon, his voice as soft as a

woman's. "I tol' you dat I know all 'bout dis Black Bear Creek,

too--you 'member, eh? Wal, mebbe you t'ink I'm traitor, too. Wat?

W'y don' you spik out?"



The three of them were alone, and only the sound of Gale's axe came

to them; but at the light in the Canadian's face Runnion hastily

disclaimed any such thought on his part, and Stark shrugged his

denial.



"I don' know you feller' at all," continued Poleon, "but Ole Man

Gale, he's my frien', so I guess you don' better talk no more lak'

dat."



"Don't get sore," said Stark. "I simply say it looks bad." But the

other had turned his back and was walking on.



There are men quite devoid of the ability to read the human face,

and Runnion was of this species. Moreover, malice was so bitter in

his mouth that he must have it out, so when they paused to blaze the

next stake he addressed himself to Stark loud enough for Poleon to

hear.



"That Lieutenant is more of a man than I thought he was."



"How so?" inquired the older man.



"Well, it takes nerve to steal a girl for one night and then face

the father; but the old man don't seem to mind it any more than she

does. I guess he knows what it means, all right."



Stark laughed raucously. "I thought of that myself," he said.



"That's probably how Gale got his squaw," concluded Runnion, with a

sneer.



It seemed a full minute before the Frenchman gave sign that he had

heard, then a strange cry broke from his throat and he began to

tremble as if with cold. He was no longer the singer of songs or the

man who was forever a boy; the mocking anger of a moment ago was

gone; in its place was a consuming fury that sucked the blood from

beneath his tan, leaving him the pallor of ashes, while his mouth

twitched and his head rolled slightly from side to side like a

palsied old man's. The red of his lips was blanched, leaving two

white streaks against a faded, muddy background, through which came

strange and frightful oaths in a bastard tongue. Runnion drew back,

fearful, and the older man ceased chopping and let his axe hang

loosely in his hand. But evidently Poleon meant no violence, for he

allowed the passion to run from him freely until it had spent its

vigor, then said to Runnion:



"M'sieu, eider you are brave man or dam' fool."



"What do you mean, Frenchy?" said the man addressed, uneasily.



"Somebody goin' die for w'at you say jus' now. Mebbe it's goin' be

you, m'sieu; mebbe it's goin' be him; I can't tell yet, but I'm hope

an' pray it's goin' be you, biccause I t'ink w'at you say is a lie,

an' nobody can spik dose kin' of lie 'bout Necia Gale."



He went crashing blindly through the underbrush, his head wagging,

his shoulders slumped loosely forward like those of a drunken man,

his lips framing words they could not understand.



When he had disappeared Runnion drew a deep breath.



"I guess I've framed something for Mister Burrell this time."



"You go about it queer," said Stark. "I'd rather tackle a gang-saw

than a man like Poleon Doret. Your frame-up may work double."



"Huh! No chance. The soldier was out all night alone with that half-

breed girl, and anybody can see she's crazy about him. What's the

answer?"



"Well, she's mighty pretty," agreed the other, "most too pretty for

a mixed blood, but you can't make that Frenchman believe she's

wrong."



"Why, he believes it now," chuckled Runnion, "or at least he's

jealous, and that's just as good. Those two will have trouble before

dark. I wish they would--then I'd have a chance."



"Have you got your eye on her, too?"



"Sure! Do you blame me?"



"No, but she's too good for you."



"Then she's too good for them. I think I'll enter the running."



"Better stay out," the gambler advised; "you'll have sore feet

before you finish. As a matter of fact, I don't like her father any

better than you like her lovers--"



"Well, it's mutual. I can see Gale hates you like poison."



"--and I don't intend to see him and his tribe hog all the best

ground hereabouts."



"They've already done it. You can't stop them."



Before answering, Stark listened for the trader, but evidently Gale

had finished his task and returned to the shack, for there was

neither sign nor sound of him.



"Yes, I can stop them," said Stark. "I want the ground that girl has

staked, and I'm going to get it. It lies next to Lee's, and it's

sure to be rich; ours is so far away it may not be worth the

recorder's fees. This creek may be as spotted as a coach-dog, so I

don't intend to take any chances."



"She made her locations legally," said Runnion.



"You leave that to me. When will the other boys he here?"



"To-morrow morning. I told them to follow about four hours behind,

and not to run in on us till we had finished. They'll camp a few

miles down the creek, and be in early."



"You couldn't get but three, eh?"



"That's all I could find who would agree to give up half."



"Can we count on them?"



"Huh!" the other grunted. "They worked with me and Soapy on the

Skagway trail."



"Good. Five against three, not counting the girl and the

Lieutenant," Stark mused. "Well, that will do it." He outlined his

plan, then the two returned to the cabin to find Lee cooking supper.

Poleon was there with the others, but, except for his silence, he

showed no sign of what had taken place that afternoon.



Stark developed a loquacious mood after supper, devoting himself

entirely to Necia, in whom he seemed to take great interest. He was

an engaging talker, with a peculiar knack of suggestion in story-

telling--an unconscious halting and elusiveness that told more than

words could express--and, knowing his West so well, he fascinated

the girl, who hung upon his tales with flattering eagerness.



Poleon had finished several pipes, and now sat in the shadows in the

open doorway, apparently tired and dejected, though his eyes shone

like diamonds and roved from one to the other. Half unconsciously he

heard Stark saying:



"This girl was about your size, but not so dark. However, you remind

me of her in some ways--that's why it puts her in my mind, I

suppose. She was about your age at the time--nineteen."



"Oh, I'm not eighteen yet," said Necia.



"Well, she was a fine woman, anyhow, the best that ever set foot in

Chandon, and there was a great deal of talk when she chose young

Bennett over the Gaylord man, for Bennett had been running second

best from the start, and everybody thought it was settled between

her and the other one. However, they were married quietly."



The story did not interest the Canadian; his mind was in too great

agitation to care for dead tales; his heart burned within him too

fiercely, and he felt too great a desire to put his hands to work.

As he watched Burrell and Runnion bend over the table looking at a

little can of gold-dust that Lee had taken from under his bunk, his

eyes grew red and bloodshot beneath his hat-brim. Which one of the

two would it be, he wondered. From the corner of his eye he saw Gale

rise from Lee's bed, where he had stretched himself to smoke, and

take his six-shooter from his belt, then remove the knotted bandanna

from his neck, and begin to clean the gun, his head bowed over it

earnestly, his face in the shadow. He had ever been a careful and

methodical man, reflected Poleon, and evidently would not go to

sleep with his fire-arm in bad condition.



"Nobody imagined that Gaylord would cause trouble," Stark was

saying, "for he didn't seem to be a jealous sort, just stupid and

kind of heavy-witted; but one night he took advantage of Bennett's

absence and sneaked up to the house." The story-teller paused, and

Necia, who was under the spell of his recital, urged him on:



"Yes, yes. What happened then? Go on." But Stark stared gloomily at

his hands, and held his silence for a full minute, the tale

appearing to have awakened more than a fleeting interest in him.



"It was one of the worst killings that ever happened in those

parts," he continued. "Bennett came back to find his wife murdered

and the kid gone."



"Oh!" said the girl, in a shocked voice.



"Yes, there was the deuce of a time. The town rose up in a body, and

we--you see, I happened to be there--we followed the man for weeks.

We trailed him and the kid clear over into the Nevada desert where

we lost them."



"Poor man!"



"Poor man?" The story-teller raised his eyes and laughed sinisterly.

"I don't see where that comes in."



"And you never caught him?"



"No. Not yet."



"He died of thirst in the desert, maybe, he and the little one."



"That's what we thought at the time, but I don't believe it now."



"How so?"



"Well, I've crossed his trail since then. No. Gaylord is alive to-

day, and so is the girl. Some time we'll meet--" His voice gave out,

and he stared again at the floor.



"Couldn't the little girl be traced?" said Necia. "What was her

name?"



Stark made to speak, but the word was never uttered, for there came

a deafening roar that caused Lee's candle to leap and flicker and

the air inside the cabin to strike the occupants like a blow.

Instantly there was confusion, and each man sprang to his feet

crying out affrightedly, for the noise had come with utter

unexpectedness.



"My God, I've killed him!" cried Gale, and with one jump he cleared

half the room and was beside Stark, while his revolver lay on the

floor where he had been sitting.



"What is it?" exclaimed Burrell; but there was no need to ask, for

powder-smoke was beginning to fill the room and the trader's face

gave answer. It was whiter than that of his daughter, who had

crouched fearfully against the wall, and he shook like a man with

ague. But Stark stood unhurt, and more composed than any of them;

following the first bound from his chair, he had relapsed into his

customary quiet. There had blazed up one momentary flash of

suspicion and anger, but it died straightway, for no man could have

beheld the trader and not felt contrition. His condition was

pitiable, and the sight of a strong man overcome is not pleasant;

when it was seen that no harm had been done the others strove to

make light of the accident.



"Get together, all of you! It's nothing to be excited over," said

Stark.



"How did it happen?" Runnion finally asked Gale, who had sunk limply

upon the edge of the bunk; but when the old man undertook to answer

his words were unintelligible, and he shook his head helplessly.



Stark laid his finger on the hole that the bullet had bored in the

log close to where he was sitting, and laughed.



"Never mind, old man, it missed me by six inches. You know there

never was a bullet that could kill me. I'm six-shooter proof."



"Wha'd I tell you?" triumphantly ejaculated Lee, turning his one eye

upon the Lieutenant. "You laughed at me, didn't you?"



"I'm beginning to believe it myself," declared the soldier.



"It's a cinch," said Stark, positively,



Doret, of all in the cabin, had said nothing. Seated apart from the

others, he had seen the affair from a distance, as it were, and now

stepped to the bed to lay his hand on Gale's shoulder.



"Brace up, John! Sacre" bleu! Your face look lak' flour. Come

outside an' get li'l' air."



"It will do you good, father," urged Necia.



The trader silently rose, picked up his hat, and shambled out into

the night behind the Frenchman.



"The old man takes it hard," said Lee, shaking his head, and Burrell

remarked:



"I've seen things like that in army quarters, and the fellow who

accidentally discharges his gun invariably gets a greater shock than

his companion."



"I call it damned careless, begging your pardon, Miss Necia," said

Runnion.



Poleon led his friend down the trail for half a mile without

speaking, till Gale had regained a grip of himself and muttered,

finally:



"I never did such a thing before, Poleon, never in all my life."



The young man turned squarely and faced him, the starlight

illumining their faces dimly.



"Why?" said Doret.



"Why?" echoed Gale, with a start. "Well, because I'm careful, I

suppose."



"Why?" insisted the Frenchman.



"I--I--I--What do you mean?"



"Don" lie wit' me, John. I'm happen to be watch you underneat' my

hat w'en you turn roun' for see if anybody lookin'."



"You saw?"



"Yes."



"I thought you were asleep," said Gale.





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