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The Barrier

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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....