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The Last Frontier

From: The Barrier

Many men were in debt to the trader at Flambeau, and many counted
him as a friend. The latter never reasoned why, except that he had
done them favors, and in the North that counts for much. Perhaps
they built likewise upon the fact that he was ever the same to all,
and that, in days of plenty or in times of famine, his store was
open to every man, and all received the same measure. Nor did he
raise his prices when the boats were late. They recalled one bleak
and blustery autumn when the steamer sank at the Lower Ramparts,
taking with her all their winter's food, how he eked out his scanty
stock, dealing to each and every one his portion, month by month.
They remembered well the bitter winter that followed, when the
spectre of famine haunted their cabins, and when for endless periods
they cinched their belts, and cursed and went hungry to sleep,
accepting, day by day, the rations doled out to them by the grim,
gray man at the log store. Some of them had money-belts weighted low
with gold washed from the bars at Forty Mile, and there were others
who had wandered in from the Koyukuk with the first frosts, foot-
sore and dragging, the legs of their skin boots eaten to the ankle,
and the taste of dog meat still in their mouths. Broken and
dispirited, these had fared as well through that desperate winter as
their brothers from up-river, and received pound for pound of musty
flour, strip for strip of rusty bacon, lump for lump of precious
sugar. Moreover, the price of no single thing had risen throughout
the famine.

Some of them, to this day, owed bills at Old Man Gale's, of which
they dared not think; but every fall and every spring they came
again and told of their disappointment, and every time they fared
back into the hills bearing another outfit, for which he rendered no
account, not even when the debts grew year by year, not even to "No
Creek" Lee, the most unlucky of them all, who said that a curse lay
on him so that when a pay-streak heard him coming it got up and
moved away and hid itself.

There were some who had purposely shirked a reckoning, in years
past, but these were few, and their finish had been of a nature to
discourage a similar practice on the part of others, and of a
nature, moreover, to lead good men to care for the trader and for
his methods. He mixed in no man's business, he took and paid his
dues unfalteringly. He spoke in a level voice, and he smiled but
rarely. He gazed at a stranger once and weighed him carefully,
thereafter his eyes sought the distances again, as if in search of
some visitor whom he knew or hoped or feared would come. Therefore,
men judged he had lived as strong men live, and were glad to call
him friend.

This day he stood in the door of his post staring up the sun-lit
river, absorbing the warmth of the Arctic afternoon. The Yukon swept
down around the great bend beneath the high, cut banks and past the
little town, disappearing behind the wooded point below, which
masked the up-coming steamers till one heard the sighing labor of
their stacks before he saw their smoke. It was a muddy, rushing
giant, bearing a burden of sand and silt, so that one might hear it
hiss and grind by stooping at its edge to listen; but the slanting
sun this afternoon made it appear like a boiling flood of molten
gold which issued silently out of a land of mystery and vanished
into a valley of forgetfulness. At least so the trader fancied, and
found himself wishing that it might carry away on its bosom the
heavy trouble which weighed him down, and bring in its place
forgetfulness of all that had gone before. Instead, however, it
seemed to hurry with news of those strange doings "up-river," news
that every down-coming steamboat verified. For years he had known
that some day this thing would happen, that some day this isolation
would be broken, that some day great hordes of men would overrun
this unknown land, bringing with them that which he feared to meet,
that which had made him what he was. And now that the time had come,
he was unprepared.

The sound of shouting caused him to turn his head. Down-stream, a
thousand yards away, men were raising a flag-staff made from the
trunk of a slender fir, from which the bark had been stripped,
heaving on their tackle as they sang in unison. They stood well out
upon the river's bank before a group of well-made houses, the peeled
timbers of which shone yellow in the sun. He noted the symmetrical
arrangement of the buildings, noted the space about them that had
been smoothed for a drill-ground, and from which the stumps had been
removed; noted that the men wore suits of blue; and noted, in
particular, the figure of an officer commanding them.

The lines about the trader's mouth deepened, and his heavy brows

"That means the law," he murmured, half aloud, while in his voice
was no trace of pleasure, nor of that interest which good men are
wont to show at sight of the flag. "The last frontier is gone. The
trail ends here!"

He stood so, meditating sombrely, till the fragment of a song hummed
lightly by a girl fell pleasantly on his ears, whereupon the shadows
vanished from his face, and he turned expectantly, the edges of his
teeth showing beneath his mustache, the corners of his eyes
wrinkling with pleasure.

The sight was good to him, for the girl approaching down the trail
was like some wood sprite, light-footed, slender, and dark, with
twin braids of hair to her waist framing an oval face colored by the
wind and sun. She was very beautiful, and a great fever surged up
through the old man's veins, till he gripped the boards at his side
and bit sharply at the pipe between his teeth.

"The salmon-berries are ripe," she announced, "and the hills back of
the village are pink with them. I took Constantine's squaw with me,
and we picked quarts and quarts. I ate them all!"

Her laughter was like the tinkle of silver bells. Her head, thrown
back as she laughed gayly, displayed a throat rounded and full and
smooth, and tanned to the hue of her wind-beaten cheeks. Every move
of her graceful body was unrestrained and flowing, with a hint of
Indian freedom about it. Beaded and trimmed like a native princess,
her garments manifested an ornature that spoke of savagery, yet they
were neatly cut and held to the pattern of the whites.

"Constantine was drunk again last night, and I had to give him a
talking to when we came back. Oh, but I laid him out! He's
frightened to death of me when I'm angry."

She furrowed her brow in a scowl--the daintiest, most ridiculous
pucker of a brow that ever man saw--and drew her red lips into an
angry pout as she recounted her temperance talk till the trader
broke in, his voice very soft, his gray-blue eyes as tender as those
of a woman:

"It's good to have you home again, Necia. The old sun don't shine as
bright when you're away, and when it rains it seems like the moss
and the grass and the little trees was crying for you. I reckon
everything weeps when you're gone, girl, everything except your old
dad, and sometimes he feels like he'd have to bust out and join the
rest of them."

He seated himself upon the worn spruce-log steps, and the girl
settled beside him and snuggled against his knee.

"I missed you dreadfully, daddy," she said. "It seemed as if those
days at the Mission would never end. Father Barnum and the others
were very kind, and I studied hard, but there wasn't any fun in
things without you."

"I reckon you know as much as a priest, now, don't you?"

"Oh, lots more," she said, gravely. "You see, I am a woman."

He nodded reflectively. "So you are! I keep forgetting that."

Their faces were set towards the west, where the low sun hung over a
ragged range of hills topped with everlasting white. The great
valley, dark with an untrodden wilderness of birch and spruce and
alder, lay on this side, sombre and changeless, like a great, dark-
green mat too large for its resting-place, its edges turned up
towards the line of unmelting snow. Beyond were other ranges thrust
skyward in a magnificent confusion, while still to the farther side
lay the purple valley of the Koyukuk, a valley that called
insistently to restless men, welcoming them in the spring, and
sending them back in the late summer tired and haggard with the
hunger of the North. Each year a tithe remained behind, the toll of
the trackless places, but the rest went back again and again, and
took new brothers with them.

"Did you like the books I sent you with Poleon when he went down to
the coast? I borrowed them from Shakespeare George."

The girl laughed. "Of course I did--that is, all but one of them."

"Which one?"

"I think it was called The Age of Reason, or something like that. I
didn't get a good look at it, for Father Barnum shrieked when he saw
it, then snatched it as if it were afire. He carried it down to the
river with the tongs."

"H'm! Now that I think of it," said the old man, "Shakespeare
grinned when he gave it to me. You see, Poleon ain't much better on
the read than I am, so we never noticed what kind of a book it was."

"When will Poleon get back, do you suppose?"

"Most any day now, unless the Dawson dance-halls are too much for
him. It won't take him long to sell our skins if what I hear is

"What is that?"

"About these Cheechakos. They say there are thousands of tenderfeet
up there, and more coming in every day."

"Oh! If I had only been here in time to go with him!" breathed the
girl. "I never saw a city. It must be just like Seattle, or New

Gale shook his head. "No. There's considerable difference. Some time
I'll take you out to the States, and let you see the world--maybe."
He uttered the last word in an undertone, as if in self-debate, but
the girl was too excited to notice.

"You will take mother, too, and the kiddies, won't you?"

"Of course!"

"Oh! I--I--" The attempt to express what this prospect meant to her
was beyond her girlish rapture, but her parted lips and shining eyes
told the story to Gale. "And Poleon must go, too. We can't go
anywhere without him." The old man smiled down upon her in
reassurance. "I wonder what he'll say when he finds the soldiers
have come. I wonder if he'll like it."

Gale turned his eyes down-stream to the barracks, and noted that the
long flag-staff had at last been erected. Even as he looked he saw a
bundle mounting towards its tip, and then beheld the Stars and
Stripes flutter out in the air, while the men below cheered noisily.
It was some time before he answered.

"Poleon Doret is like the rest of us men up here in the North. We
have taken care of ourselves so far, and I guess we're able to keep
it up without the help of a smooth-faced Yankee kid for guardian."

"Lieutenant Burrell isn't a Yankee," said Necia. "He is a blue-grass
man. He comes from Kentucky."

Her father grunted contemptuously. "I might have known it. Those
rebels are a cultus, lazy lot. A regular male man with any ginger in
him would shed his coat and go to work, instead of wearing his
clothes buttoned up all day. It don't take much 'savvy' to run a
handful of thirteen-dollar-a-month soldiers." Necia stirred a bit
restlessly, and the trader continued: "It ain't man's work, it's--
loafing. If he tries to boss us he'll get QUITE a surprise."

"He won't try to boss you. He has been sent here to build a military
post, and to protect the miners in their own self-government. He
won't take any part in their affairs as long as they are conducted

Being at a loss for an answer to this unexpected defence, the old
man grunted again, with added contempt, while his daughter

"This rush to the upper country has brought in all sorts of people,
good, bad--and worse; and the soldiers have been sent to prevent
trouble, and to hold things steady till the law can be established.
The Canadian Mounted Police are sending all their worst characters
down-river, and our soldiers have been scattered among the American
camps for our protection. I think it's fine."

"Where did you learn all this?"

"Lieutenant Burrell told me," she replied; at which her father
regarded her keenly. She could not see the curious look in his eyes,
nor did she turn when, a moment later, he resumed, in an altered

"I reckon Poleon will bring you something pretty from Dawson, eh?"

"He has never failed to bring me presents, no matter where he came
from. Dear old Poleon!" She smiled tenderly. "Do you remember that
first day when he drifted, singing, into sight around the bend up
yonder? He had paddled his birch-bark from the Chandelar without a
thing to eat; hunger and hardship only made him the happier, and the
closer he drew his belt the louder he sang."

"He was bound for his 'New Country'!"

"Yes. He didn't know where it lay, but the fret for travel was on
him, and so he drifted and sang, as he had drifted and sung from the
foot of Lake Le Barge."

"That was four years ago," mused Gale, "and he never found his 'New
Country,' did he?"

"No. We tied him down and choked it out of him," Necia laughed.
"Dear, funny old Poleon--he loves me like a brother."

The man opened his lips, then closed them, as if on second thought,
and rose to his feet, for, coming towards them up the trail from the
barracks, he beheld a trim, blue-coated figure. He peered at the
approaching officer a moment, set his jaw more firmly, and
disappeared into the store.

"Well, we have raised our flag-staff," said the Lieutenant as he
took a seat below Necia. "It's like getting settled to keep house."

"Are you lazy?" inquired the girl.

"I dare say I am," he admitted. "I've never had time to find out.

"Are you going to boss our people around?" she continued, bent on
her own investigation.

"No. Not as long as they behave. In fact, I hardly know what I am to
do. Maybe you can tell me." His smile was peculiarly frank and
winning. "You see, it's my first command, and my instructions,
although comprehensive, are rather vague. I am supposed to see that
mining rights are observed, to take any criminals who kindly offer
themselves up to be arrested, and to sort of handle things that are
too tough for the miners themselves."

"Why, you are a policeman!" said Necia, at which he made a wry face.

"The Department, in its wisdom, would have me, a tenderfoot, adjust
those things that are too knotty for these men who have spent their
lives along the frontier."

"I don't believe you will be very popular with our people," Necia
announced, meditatively.

"No. I can see that already. I wasn't met with any brass-bands, and
I haven't received any engraved silver from the admiring citizens of
Flambeau. That leaves nothing but the women to like me, and, as you
are the only one in camp, you will have to like me very much to make
up for its shortcomings."

She approved of his unusual drawl; it gave him a kind of
deliberation which every move of his long, lithe body belied and
every glance of his eyes contradicted. Moreover, she liked his
youth, so clean and fresh and strange in this land where old men are
many and the young ones old with hardship and grave with the silence
of the hills. Her life had been spent entirely among men who were
her seniors, and, although she had ruled them like a spoiled queen,
she knew as little of their sex as they did of hers. Unconsciously
the strong young life within her had clamored for companionship, and
it was this that had drawn her to Poleon Doret--who would ever
remain a boy--and it was this that drew her to the young Kentuckian;
this, and something else in him, that the others lacked.

"Now that I think it over," he continued, "I'd rather have you like
me than have the men do so."

"Of course," she nodded. "They do anything I want them to--all but
father, and--"

"It isn't that," he interrupted, quickly. "It is because you ARE the
only woman of the place, because you are such a surprise. To think
that in the heart of this desolation I should find a girl like--like
you, like the girls I know at home."

"Am I like other girls?" she inquired, eagerly. "I have often

"You are, and you are not. You are surprisingly conventional for
these surroundings, and yet unconventionally surprising--for any
place. Who are you? Where did you come from? How did you get here?"

"I am just what you see. I came from the States, and I was carried.
That is all I can remember."

"Then you haven't lived here always?"

"Oh, dear, no! We came here while I was very little, but of late I
have been away at school."

"Some seminary, eh?"

At this she laughed aloud. "Hardly that, either. I've been at the
Mission. Father Barnum has been teaching me for five years. I came
up-river a day ahead of you."

She asked no questions of him in return, for she had already learned
all there was to know the day before from a grizzled corporal in
whom was the hunger to talk. She had learned of a family of Burrells
whose name was known throughout the South, and that Meade Burrell
came from the Frankfort branch, the branch that had raised the
soldiers. His father had fought with Lee, and an uncle was now in
the service at Washington. On the mother's side the strain was
equally militant, but the Meades had sought the sea. The old soldier
had told her much more, of which she understood little; told her of
the young man's sister, who had come all the way from Kentucky to
see her brother off when he sailed from San Francisco; told her of
the Lieutenant's many friends in Washington, and of his family name
and honor. Meade Burrell was undoubtedly a fine young fellow in his
corporal's eyes, and destined to reach great heights, as the other
Burrells had before him. The old soldier, furthermore, had looked at
her keenly and added that the Burrells were known as "divils among
the weemen."

Resting thus on the steps of Old Man Gale's store, the two talked on
till they were disturbed by the sound of shrill voices approaching,
at which the man looked up. Coming down the trail from the town was
a squaw and two children. At sight of Necia the little ones shouted
gleefully and scampered forward, climbing over her like half-grown
puppies. They were boy and girl, both brown as Siwashes, with eyes
like jet beads and hair that was straight and coarse and black. At a
glance Burrell knew them for "breeds," and evidently the darker half
was closer to the surface now, for they choked, gurgled, stuttered,
and coughed in their Indian tongue, while Necia answered them
likewise. At a word from her they turned and saw him, then, abashed
at the strange splendor of his uniform, fell silent, pressing close
to her. The squaw, also, seemed to resent his presence, for, after a
lowering glance, she drew the shawl closer about her head, and,
leaving the trail, slunk out of sight around the corner of the

Burrell looked up at his companion's clear-cut, delicate face, at
the wind-tanned cheeks, against which her long braids lay like the
blue-black locks of an Egyptian maid, then at her warm, dark eyes,
in which was a hint of the golden light of the afternoon sun. He
noted covertly the slender lines of her body and the dainty, firm,
brown hands flung protectingly about the shoulders of her little
friends, who were peering at him owlishly from their shelter.

The bitter revolt that had burned in him at the prospect of a long
exile in this undiscovered spot died out suddenly. What a picture
she made! How fresh and flower-like she looked, and yet the wisdom
of her! He spoke impulsively:

"I am glad you are here, Miss Necia. I was glad the moment I saw
you, and I have been growing gladder ever since, for I never
imagined there would be anybody in this place but men and squaws--
men who hate the law and squaws who slink about--like that." He
nodded in the direction of the Indian woman's disappearance. "Either
that, or, at best, a few 'breeds' like these little fellows."

She looked at him quickly.

"Well! What difference would that make?"

"Ugh! Squaws and half-breeds!" His tone conveyed in full his utter

The tiny hands of the boy and girl slid into her own as she arose. A
curiously startled look lay in her eyes, and an inquiring, plaintive
wrinkle came between her brows.

"I don't believe you understand," she said. "Lieutenant Burrell,
this is my sister, Molly Gale, and this is my little brother John."
Both round-eyed elfs made a ducking courtesy and blinked at the
soldier, who gained his feet awkwardly, a flush rising into his

From the regions at the rear of the store came the voice of an
Indian woman calling:

"Necia! Necia!"

"Coming in a moment!" the girl called back; then, turning to the
young officer, she added, quietly: "Mother needs me now. Good-bye!"

Next: Poleon Doret's Hand Is Quicker Than His Tongue

Previous: Church-going Clothes

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