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"A Klondike Wooing" and other stories of the Far North by Jack London
Friday 4 March 2022, by
More tales of adventure, drama, skulduggery and comedy during the great Klondike Gold Rush in 1897-98 around Dawson City in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
An e-book is available for downloading below.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. THE TEST: A KLONDIKE WOOING (1898) Lucky Jack has struck it rich in the Klondike and has also gotten lucky with Lucille, the prettiest girl in Dawson. Lucille loves music too and begs Jack to teach her the violin which he plays marvellously – so he puts her true feelings for him to the test by giving everything away and holing up with her in a primitive cabin for the winter, where he ends up destroying his beloved instrument. Will she pass the test with flying colours? (2,000 words)
2. THE MAN WITH THE GASH (1900) A profiteer has squatted a log cabin on the route to Dawson City, where he levies a fee on passing gold-rushers for the right to sleep on the floor. But he has nightmares about a man with a gash on his face robbing him of his ill-gotten hoard of gold dust – and one day a burly musher with a huge slash across his face comes by and vigorously declines to submit to the roadside Shylock’s arbitrary demands. (4,400 words)
3. LI WAN, THE FAIR (1902) Li-Wan’s a young Indian woman of mysterious origins who’s never seen a white man, so she’s in for a big culture-shock when she arrives in the Klondike region and sees the frenzied gold-mining activity there. She tries to fraternise with a couple of wealthy American women who are visiting the diggings and who are interested in her native finery, but her very domineering native husband is very much to be reckoned with, as the only law either of them knows is that man is the master of woman. (6,300 words)
4. TOO MUCH GOLD (1903) Two old-timers drop into the town of Forty Miles to find it completely emptied of its inhabitants, as news of the fabulous gold strike at Dawson City further upriver has just hit town and every last person has left on a stampede to get there asap and stake a claim themselves. (5,300 words)
5. THE MAN ON THE OTHER BANK (1911) Smoke Bellew sets off alone across uncharted territory in search of a mythical lost gold-rich lake and actually manages by sheer chance to find it. Only to be shot at on his way back by an unknown assailant and then arrested by a large group of very irate prospectors who put him on trial for murder, as the unknown shooter had also shot down one of theirs while leaving no trace of his presence. (6,400 words)
6. A FLUTTER IN EGGS (1912) Eggs are going for two dollars each in Dawson, and Smoke Bellew and his partner Shorty calculate that if they buy up every one in the whole area they can make a killing by selling them to eager egg-lovers at ten dollars apiece. But they’re not the only sharp operators in town, as they learn from bitter experience. (8,100 words)
7. THE TOWN-SITE OF TRA-LEE (1912) Prospectors Smoke Bellew and Shorty Jack launch a massive real-estate speculation-cum-swindle that has the whole of Dawson queueing up for a piece of the action at whatever price. (8,400 words)
1. THE TEST: A KLONDIKE WOOING
THE air throbbed with the confused uproar of many sounds-swinging, waltz-time music; the clicking of chips; the sharp clattering of the roulette ball; the clear-cut decisions of the game keepers; noisy gaiety and laughter; and above, under, all about, the deep hum of conversation. Candles and kerosene lamps looked down upon the scene. The floor was alive with the flying feet of the be-moccasined dancers, while at the tables clustered the gamblers, intent on the golden chase. In groups, the men of the creeks and camps and trails, talked of past deeds and planned new enterprises. Unkempt; clad in mackinaw, furs and muclucs; with the worn, tired faces of those who are brothers of toil and hardship; they unbent their stiffened tongues and talked and lived the old times over once again, ere, with the dogs, they faced the trail on the morrow. The long bar was crowded by those who sought to ease their thirst, or found temporary oblivion from the heavy labor of their meager lives.
The music struck up a lively "two-step"; but it was too cultivated for the dancers, only one couple taking the floor. A moment they became the cynosure of all eyes; conversation lulled, then rose again to a drowsy hum—they had been recognized-Lucille, and Jack Harrington, the Mastadon King. A fine pair they were to look at-Lucille, as pretty and charming a woman as ever graced a mining camp; Jack Harrington, strong and handsome, the owner of the richest claim on Mastadon. She-well she was Lucille, and for her past, such things are forgiven and forgotten in Dawson. And he was, as everybody said, a jolly good fellow, who had greater luck and could play a violin better than any man in the country.
They talked as they danced-talked of many things; of royalties and Gold Commissioners, the price of dogs and grub, of mines and miners; for they did not know each other and this was all they had in common. But given two healthy beings with time on their hands for mutual intercourse, you can safely trust to Chance for the finding of something in common-nay, something uncommonly in common. Ere the music ceased, the germ was sown.
"So you play the violin," she said. "O, teach me how! Above all, I love it. Won’t you teach me?"
And this is how it began.
Three weeks later:
Past midnight, the dancing and gambling at its height, as Lucille and Jack enter, finishing a conversation begun the cold northern lights.
"And you are sure?" he asks.
"O Jack, I do love you for yourself, and I don’t care whether you’re broke or can count your ounces by the thousand. I know my feelings."
It slips trippingly from your tongue and feelings are easily mistaken. Can you prove it?"
"Prove it? How can I? I wish it were so, but it can’t be done."
"O yes it can."
Then did a comet flash athwart the Dawson sky. Limits were removed and the tables crowded by the miners, intent on seeing the high play. The last turn at the faro table, and he plays the queen to win and "coppers" the deuce for an even thousand apiece, with another thousand on the high card. The deuce follows the queen and the three bets are lost. The onlookers are breathless with admiration. In fifteen minutes the whole town knows that "Lucky" Jack Harrington has broken loose, and comes to see. The test has begun.
Ever, as he ventures the markers he repeats his question, and as often she reiterates her reply. At the end of an hour he is fifteen thousand to the bad; still the play is not fast enough for him. He sends for the chairman of the committee, appointed by the miners to aid several score of unfortunates, who had lost their all in the "great fire." Laconic the conversation:
"There’s ten thousand behind the bar for you, on one consideration."
"And that—" "Is that you weigh it out and take it away at once." "Done." Father
B is summoned and the scene repeated; this time twenty-five thousand for the hospital. And the town voices one conclusion: either "Lucky" Jack Harrington is drunk or has gone clean daft.
"I’ve sold my mine and this is the last of it," he says to Lucille as he scatters a final handful of dust under the feet of the dancers. "What do you think of me now?"
"Jack! Jack! the test is hard! I had thought we could do so much, that we could have gone away and forgotten all this
“I hate it so! But you should know that I cannot change. I would do anything, endure anything for your sake. Thank God! you’ve done your worst and I’m not altered."
"Would you cleave unto me and follow me to the ends of the earth, in misery, toil and hardship?"
"Why jangle words? Can a woman do more? I have told you: you have tried me. Is there aught under the sun a woman won’t do when she truly loves?"
"But would you?"
"If you will have it so, yes. Like the squaw, it is my duty to follow my lord and master-aye, and my pleasure."
Old Sol, attended by twin sun dogs, has just cleared the southern horizon at meridian, and pauses for a peep at the Northern Eldorado. Before he can slip behind the mountain over which he rose, he catches a glimpse of a scene, which all Dawson has turned out to behold. Two heavily laden sleds and an Indian dog driver, wait where the throng is densest, before the Opera House. A passage is forced through the onlookers and he is joined by Jack and Lucille.
Cold, the morning; dreary, the scene; crude, the environment: but withal, magnificent, the picture. Filled with scintillating frost particles, the air is a sparkling, silvery sheen, a fairy gossamer. The mighty Yukon, the towering peaks, the far-reaching forest; monotonously white and sphinx-like in their brooding calm, sleep on the bosom of the awful Arctic silence. In garments of leather and fur, toilworn and hardy, their eyes slumbering with latent action and power, the gold-seekers group like heroes of the Elder World. And there, in their midst, a veritable King of the Northland—"Lucky" Jack Harrington. From his wolverine cap to his Inuit muclucs, he stood a MAN amongst MEN. And she, in buckskin and furs and beaded moccasins, with her rosy cheeks and laughing eyes, was truly a dainty, Arctic princess.
The air is filled with goodbyes and good wishes. The whips snap spitefully; the wolf-dogs lunge in the traces with the quick, impatient whine of their wild progenitors; and the steel-shod sleds crunch into the river trail. Some one in the crowd sings
"And Ruth clave unto her,"
And Dawson wondered over "Lucky" Jack Harrington’s latest freak, and would be wondering yet, had it not forgot it all that night in a wild stampede to Swede Creek.
For a month, now, entirely isolated on the head waters of the Clondyke, had they lived in a rough cabin of Jack’s building. Meager had been their fare—bacon, beans and flour, with an occasional moose steak. Meager had been their lives, shorn of all but the barest necessaries. And for a woman, bright, accomplished, and who has known so much better, to settle down to the coarse, dreary round of housekeeping in such a camp, windowless and cheerless, with its tin plates and pine bough bed and guttering slush-lamp, it was indeed hard. Lucille stood it, however, because she was with the man of her choosing; though little did she see of him, for he was in the forest or over the mountains from morning till night.
But she was a woman in whom the emotions were important factors of her existence, and when they mounted the throne of her reason they ruled with a rod of steel. Finely strung, sensitive, delicate, with the sensuous soul of the artist, loving the rhythmic pulse of harmony and responding to its loftiest flights; small wonder she took pleasure in the violin during his constant absences. And small wonder in the long evenings when he could be induced to play, that she sat as one entranced. Nor was it the instinctive delight of the untutored animal that bade her best. She was more like a thirsty soul, wandered afar in the desert and harking back to the founts and springs of its childhood.
But of her love for the music, Jack thought strange things, and a certain, unconscious jealousy, grained and distorted his conclusions. So, on this night of nights, he played as one possessed. He excelled himself, venturing difficult flights, half in bitterness, half in pleasure born of the consciousness that he was soon to know. Clever at improvisation, he at last essayed one, that soared to heights and sank to depths, hitherto unattainable. And in the voluptuous harmony he enticed and lost, not only her, but himself.
The tremulous, long-drawn strains, saddened to a minor of gentle runs and soft, melancholy cords. For a space, the air thrilled with the pathos of the theme; then the finale begun. The adagio changed to allegretto, to allegro, from allegro to velocissimo. Shaking, shuddering, shivering, quivering, the violin shrieked its passion, bursting into one final vortex of emotions.
A string broke: a jangling discord died away: they looked at each other across the beloved instrument. Without, a wolf-dog howled mournfully: the slush-lamp guttered gloomily. All else was silent. Into her eyes he gazed as though he would lay bare her soul.
"For myself, or the music?" he asked. And with one fierce stroke the violin crashed into fragments.
An early April morning—there is a low hum of life, a subdued murmur of running waters, a vague feeling of preparation, in the air. Spring, that bursts into an instant miracle of bloom and life and action, has crept in insidiously and unawares. Yesterday, the ghastly silence of winter weighed upon us; to-day we have a strange sensation of unrest, an unconscious expectancy; and to-morrow there is a crashing and rending of fetters, and the full-grown Spring breaks upon us like a marvelous vision.
All Dawson awoke and drank the exhilarating tonic of the air; felt the premonition of things to come; and wandered up and down the main street through the very joy of living. And not among the least, was its interest in the dog-teams, ready to commence their long journey to "salt water," to the Outside. Again the hearty grip and good luck blessing; again the whips snapped, the dogs howled, and the sleds churned into the river trail; and for the last time, Jack and Lucille turned their backs on the Golden City.
As usual, Dawson was excited, and several of her most respected citizens so far forgot themselves as to baptize the departing travelers with rice – rice, worth a dollar a pound and only purchasable in small quantities.
A few comments were made.
"Lucky’ Jack Harrington stands pat," quoth one of the gambling fraternity.
"Why shouldn’t he?" said another. "He’s a good hand at the game. Who’d have thought he owned a mile of Dominion all the time, and it as rich as Eldorado?"
"They say he bought it up for a song when it wasn’t worth the recording fee."
"I say, boys, he may have an Eldorado in Dominion, but we know he’s got a Bonanza in Lucille."
"Bet you the ice breaks before he makes Chilkoot!" "Even it don’t!" "Who’ll give me odds?" "Two to one it does!"
And herewith, all Dawson fell to gambling on the race "Lucky" Jack Harrington was running with Spring.
2. THE MAN WITH THE GASH
Jacob Kent had suffered from cupidity all the days of his life. This, in turn, had engendered a chronic distrustfulness, and his mind and character had become so warped that he was a very disagreeable man to deal with. He was also a victim to somnambulic propensities, and very set in his ideas. He had been a weaver of cloth from the cradle, until the fever of Klondike had entered his blood and torn him away from his loom. His cabin stood midway between Sixty Mile Post and the Stuart River; and men who made it a custom to travel the trail to Dawson, likened him to a robber baron, perched in his fortress and exacting toll from the caravans that used his ill-kept roads. Since a certain amount of history was required in the construction of this figure, the less cultured wayfarers from Stuart River were prone to describe him after a still more primordial fashion, in which a command of strong adjectives was to be chiefly noted.
This cabin was not his, by the way, having been built several years previously by a couple of miners who had got out a raft of logs at that point for a grub-stake. They had been most hospitable lads, and, after they abandoned it, travelers who knew the route made it an object to arrive there at nightfall. It was very handy, saving them all the time and toil of pitching camp; and it was an unwritten rule that the last man left a neat pile of firewood for the next comer. Rarely a night passed but from half a dozen to a score of men crowded into its shelter. Jacob Kent noted these things, exercised squatter sovereignty, and moved in. Thenceforth, the weary travelers were mulcted a dollar per head for the privilege of sleeping on the floor, Jacob Kent weighing the dust and never failing to steal the down-weight. Besides, he so contrived that his transient guests chopped his wood for him and carried his water. This was rank piracy, but his victims were an easy-going breed, and while they detested him, they yet permitted him to flourish in his sins.
One afternoon in April he sat by his door, – for all the world like a predatory spider, – marvelling at the heat of the returning sun, and keeping an eye on the trail for prospective flies. The Yukon lay at his feet, a sea of ice, disappearing around two great bends to the north and south, and stretching an honest two miles from bank to bank. Over its rough breast ran the sled-trail, a slender sunken line, eighteen inches wide and two thousand miles in length, with more curses distributed to the linear foot than any other road in or out of all Christendom.
Jacob Kent was feeling particularly good that afternoon. The record had been broken the previous night, and he had sold his hospitality to no less than twenty-eight visitors. True, it had been quite uncomfortable, and four had snored beneath his bunk all night; but then it had added appreciable weight to the sack in which he kept his gold dust. That sack, with its glittering yellow treasure, was at once the chief delight and the chief bane of his existence. Heaven and hell lay within its slender mouth. In the nature of things, there being no privacy to his one-roomed dwelling, he was tortured by a constant fear of theft. It would be very easy for these bearded, desperate-looking strangers to make away with it. Often he dreamed that such was the case, and awoke in the grip of nightmare. A select number of these robbers haunted him through his dreams, and he came to know them quite well, especially the bronzed leader with the gash on his right cheek. This fellow was the most persistent of the lot, and, because of him, he had, in his waking moments, constructed several score of hiding-places in and about the cabin. After a concealment he would breathe freely again, perhaps for several nights, only to collar the Man with the Gash in the very act of unearthing the sack. Then, on awakening in the midst of the usual struggle, he would at once get up and transfer the bag to a new and more ingenious crypt. It was not that he was the direct victim of these phantasms; but he believed in omens and thought- transference, and he deemed these dream-robbers to be the astral projection of real personages who happened at those particular moments, no matter where they were in the flesh, to be harboring designs, in the spirit, upon his wealth. So he continued to bleed the unfortunates who crossed his threshold, and at the same time to add to his trouble with every ounce that went into the sack.
As he sat sunning himself, a thought came to Jacob Kent that brought him to his feet with a jerk. The pleasures of life had culminated in the continual weighing and reweighing of his dust; but a shadow had been thrown upon this pleasant avocation, which he had hitherto failed to brush aside. His gold-scales were quite small; in fact, their maximum was a pound and a half, – eighteen ounces, – while his hoard mounted up to something like three and a third times that. He had never been able to weigh it all at one operation, and hence considered himself to have been shut out from a new and most edifying coign of contemplation. Being denied this, half the pleasure of possession had been lost; nay, he felt that this miserable obstacle actually minimized the fact, as it did the strength, of possession. It was the solution of this problem flashing across his mind that had just brought him to his feet. He searched the trail carefully in either direction. There was nothing in sight, so he went inside.
In a few seconds he had the table cleared away and the scales set up. On one side he placed the stamped disks to the equivalent of fifteen ounces, and balanced it with dust on the other. Replacing the weights with dust, he then had thirty ounces precisely balanced. These, in turn, he placed together on one side and again balanced with more dust. By this time the gold was exhausted, and he was sweating liberally. He trembled with ecstasy, ravished beyond measure. Nevertheless he dusted the sack thoroughly, to the last least grain, till the balance was overcome and one side of the scales sank to the table. Equilibrium, however, was restored by the addition of a pennyweight and five grains to the opposite side. He stood, head thrown back, transfixed. The sack was empty, but the potentiality of the scales had become immeasurable. Upon them he could weigh any amount, from the tiniest grain to pounds upon pounds. Mammon laid hot fingers on his heart. The sun swung on its westering way till it flashed through the open doorway, full upon the yellow-burdened scales. The precious heaps, like the golden breasts of a bronze Cleopatra, flung back the light in a mellow glow. Time and space were not.
"Gawd blime me! but you ’aye the makin’ of several quid there, ’aven’t you?"
Jacob Kent wheeled about, at the same time reaching for his double-barreled shot-gun, which stood handy. But when his eyes lit on the intruder’s face, he staggered back dizzily. It was the face of the man with the gash!
The man looked at him curiously.
"Oh, that’s all right," he said, waving his hand deprecatingly. "You needn’t think as I’ll ’arm you or your blasted dust.
"You’re a rum ’un, you are," he added reflectively, as he watched the sweat pouring from off Kent’s face and the quavering of his knees.
"W’y don’t you pipe up an’ say somethin’?" he went on, as the other struggled for breath. "Wot’s gone wrong o’ your gaff? Anythink the matter?"
"W – w – where’d you get it?" Kent at last managed to articulate, raising a shaking forefinger to the ghastly scar which seamed the other’s cheek.
"Shipmate stove me down with a marlin-spike from the main-royal. An’ now as you ’aye your figger’ead in trim, wot I want to know is, wot’s it to you? That’s wot I want to know – wot’s it to you? Gawd blime me! do it ’urt you? Ain’t it smug enough for the likes o’ you? That’s wot I want to know!"
"No, no," Kent answered, sinking upon a stool with a sickly grin. "I was just wondering."
"Did you ever see the like?" the other went on truculently.
"Ain’t it a beute?"
"Yes." Kent nodded his head approvingly, intent on humoring this strange visitor, but wholly unprepared for the outburst which was to follow his effort to be agreeable.
"You blasted, bloomin’, burgoo-eatin’ son-of-a-sea-swab! Wot do you mean, a sayin’ the most onsightly thing Gawd Almighty ever put on the face o’ man is a beute? Wot do you mean, you – "
And thereat this fiery son of the sea broke off into a string of Oriental profanity, mingling gods and devils, lineages and men, metaphors and monsters, with so savage a virility that Jacob Kent was paralyzed. He shrank back, his arms lifted as though to ward off physical violence. So utterly unnerved was he that the other paused in the mid-swing of a gorgeous peroration and burst into thunderous laughter.
"The sun’s knocked the bottom out o’ the trail," said the Man with the Gash, between departing paroxysms of mirth. "An’ I only ’ope as you’ll appreciate the hoppertunity of consortin’ with a man o’ my mug. Get steam up in that fire-box o’ your’n. I’m goin’ to unrig the dogs an’ grub ’em. An’ don’t be shy o’ the wood, my lad; there’s plenty more where that come from, and it’s you’ve got the time to sling an axe. An’ tote up a bucket o’ water while you’re about it. Lively! or I’ll run you down, so ’elp me!"
Such a thing was unheard of. Jacob Kent was making the fire, chopping wood, packing water – doing menial tasks for a guest! When Jim Cardegee left Dawson, it was with his head filled with the iniquities of this roadside Shylock; and all along the trail his numerous victims had added to the sum of his crimes. Now, Jim Cardegee, with the sailor’s love for a sailor’s joke, had determined, when he pulled into the cabin, to bring its inmate down a peg or so. That he had succeeded beyond expectation he could not help but remark, though he was in the dark as to the part the gash on his cheek had played in it. But while he could not understand, he saw the terror it created, and resolved to exploit it as remorselessly as would any modern trader a choice bit of merchandise.
"Strike me blind, but you’re a ’ustler," he said admiringly, his head cocked to one side, as his host bustled about. "You never ’ort to ’ave gone Klondiking. It’s the keeper of a pub’ you was laid out for. An’ it’s often as I ’ave ’eard the lads up an’ down the river speak o’ you, but I ’adn’t no idea you was so jolly nice."
Jacob Kent experienced a tremendous yearning to try his shotgun on him, but the fascination of the gash was too potent. This was the real Man with the Gash, the man who had so often robbed him in the spirit. This, then, was the embodied entity of the being whose astral form had been projected into his dreams, the man who had so frequently harbored designs against his hoard; hence – there could be no other conclusion – this Man with the Gash had now come in the flesh to dispossess him. And that gash! He could no more keep his eyes from it than stop the beating of his heart. Try as he would, they wandered back to that one point as inevitably as the needle to the pole.
"Do it ’urt you?" Jim Cardegee thundered suddenly, looking up from the spreading of his blankets and encountering the rapt gaze of the other. "It strikes me as ’ow it ’ud be the proper thing for you to draw your jib, douse the glim, an’ turn in, seein’ as ’ow it worrits you. Jes’ lay to that, you swab, or so ’elp me I’ll take a pull on your peak-purchases!"
Kent was so nervous that it took three puffs to blow out the slush-lamp, and he crawled into his blankets without even removing his moccasins. The sailor was soon snoring lustily from his hard bed on the floor, but Kent lay staring up into the blackness, one hand on the shotgun, resolved not to close his eyes the whole night. He had not had an opportunity to secrete his five pounds of gold, and it lay in the ammunition box at the head of his bunk. But, try as he would, he at last dozed off with the weight of his dust heavy on his soul. Had he not inadvertently fallen asleep with his mind in such condition, the somnambulic demon would not have been invoked, nor would Jim Cardegee have gone mining next day with a dish-pan.
The fire fought a losing battle, and at last died away, while the frost penetrated the mossy chinks between the logs and chilled the inner atmosphere. The dogs outside ceased their howling, and, curled up in the snow, dreamed of salmon-stocked heavens where dog-drivers and kindred task-masters were not. Within, the sailor lay like a log, while his host tossed restlessly about, the victim of strange fantasies. As midnight drew near he suddenly threw off the blankets and got up. It was remarkable that he could do what he then did without ever striking a light. Perhaps it was because of the darkness that he kept his eyes shut, and perhaps it was for fear he would see the terrible gash on the cheek of his visitor; but, be this as it may, it is a fact that, unseeing, he opened his ammunition box, put a heavy charge into the muzzle of the shotgun without spilling a particle, rammed it down with double wads, and then put everything away and got back into bed.
Just as daylight laid its steel-gray fingers on the parchment window, Jacob Kent awoke. Turning on his elbow, he raised the lid and peered into the ammunition box. Whatever he saw, or whatever he did not see, exercised a very peculiar effect upon him, considering his neurotic temperament. He glanced at the sleeping man on the floor, let the lid down gently, and rolled over on his back. It was an unwonted calm that rested on his face. Not a muscle quivered. There was not the least sign of excitement or perturbation. He lay there a long while, thinking, and when he got up and began to move about, it was in a cool, collected manner, without noise and without hurry.
It happened that a heavy wooden peg had been driven into the ridge-pole just above Jim Cardegee’s head. Jacob Kent, working softly, ran a piece of half-inch manila over it, bringing both ends to the ground. One end he tied about his waist, and in the other he rove a running noose. Then he cocked his shotgun and laid it within reach, by the side of numerous moose-hide thongs. By an effort of will he bore the sight of the scar, slipped the noose over the sleeper’s head, and drew it taut by throwing back on his weight, at the same time seizing the gun and bringing it to bear.
Jim Cardegee awoke, choking, bewildered, staring down the twin wells of steel.
"Where is it?" Kent asked, at the same time slacking on the rope.
"You blasted – ugh – "
Kent merely threw back his weight, shutting off the other’s wind.
"Bloomin’ – Bur – ugh – "
"Where is it?" Kent repeated.
"Wot?" Cardegee asked, as soon as he had caught his breath.
"Wot gold-dust?" the perplexed sailor demanded.
"You know well enough, – mine."
"Ain’t seen nothink of it. Wot do ye take me for? A safe- deposit? Wot ’ave I got to do with it, any’ow?"
"Mebbe you know, and mebbe you don’t know, but anyway, I’m going to stop your breath till you do know. And if you lift a hand, I’ll blow your head off!"
"Vast heavin’!" Cardegee roared, as the rope tightened.
Kent eased away a moment, and the sailor, wriggling his neck as though from the pressure, managed to loosen the noose a bit and work it up so the point of contact was just under the chin.
"Well?" Kent questioned, expecting the disclosure.
But Cardegee grinned. "Go ahead with your ’angin’, you bloomin’ old pot-wolloper!"
Then, as the sailor had anticipated, the tragedy became a farce. Cardegee being the heavier of the two, Kent, throwing his body backward and down, could not lift him clear of the ground. Strain and strive to the uttermost, the sailor’s feet still stuck to the floor and sustained a part of his weight. The remaining portion was supported by the point of contact just under his chin. Failing to swing him clear, Kent clung on, resolved to slowly throttle him or force him to tell what he had done with the hoard. But the Man with the Gash would not throttle. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed, and at the end of that time, in despair, Kent let his prisoner down.
"Well," he remarked, wiping away the sweat, "if you won’t hang you’ll shoot. Some men wasn’t born to be hanged, anyway."
"An’ it’s a pretty mess as you’ll make o’ this ’ere cabin floor." Cardegee was fighting for time. "Now, look ’ere, I’ll tell you wot we do; we’ll lay our ’eads ’longside an’ reason together. You’ve lost some dust. You say as ’ow I know, an’ I say as ’ow I don’t. Let’s get a hobservation an’ shape a course – "
"Vast heavin’!" Kent dashed in, maliciously imitating the other’s enunciation. "I’m going to shape all the courses of this shebang, and you observe; and if you do anything more, I’ll bore you as sure as Moses!"
"For the sake of my mother – "
"Whom God have mercy upon if she loves you. Ah! Would you?" He frustrated a hostile move on the part of the other by pressing the cold muzzle against his forehead. "Lay quiet, now! If you lift as much as a hair, you’ll get it."
It was rather an awkward task, with the trigger of the gun always within pulling distance of the finger; but Kent was a weaver, and in a few minutes had the sailor tied hand and foot. Then he dragged him without and laid him by the side of the cabin, where he could overlook the river and watch the sun climb to the meridian.
"Now I’ll give you till noon, and then – "
"You’ll be hitting the brimstone trail. But if you speak up, I’ll keep you till the next bunch of mounted police come by."
"Well, Gawd blime me, if this ain’t a go! ’Ere I be, innercent as a lamb, an’ ’ere you be, lost all o’ your top ’amper an’ out o’ your reckonin’, run me foul an’ goin’ to rake me into ’ell-fire. You bloomin’ old pirut! You – "
Jim Cardegee loosed the strings of his profanity and fairly outdid himself. Jacob Kent brought out a stool that he might enjoy it in comfort. Having exhausted all the possible combinations of his vocabulary, the sailor quieted down to hard thinking, his eyes constantly gauging the progress of the sun, which tore up the eastern slope of the heavens with unseemly haste. His dogs, surprised that they had not long since been put to harness, crowded around him. His helplessness appealed to the brutes. They felt that something was wrong, though they knew not what, and they crowded about, howling their mournful sympathy.
"Chook! Mush-on! you Siwashes!" he cried, attempting, in a vermicular way, to kick at them, and discovering himself to be tottering on the edge of a declivity. As soon as the animals had scattered, he devoted himself to the significance of that declivity which he felt to be there but could not see. Nor was he long in arriving at a correct conclusion. In the nature of things, he figured, man is lazy. He does no more than he has to. When he builds a cabin he must put dirt on the roof. From these premises it was logical that he should carry that dirt no further than was absolutely necessary. Therefore, he lay upon the edge of the hole from which the dirt had been taken to roof Jacob Kent’s cabin. This knowledge, properly utilized, might prolong things, he thought; and he then turned his attention to the moose-hide thongs which bound him. His hands were tied behind him, and pressing against the snow, they were wet with the contact. This moistening of the raw-hide he knew would tend to make it stretch, and, without apparent effort, he endeavored to stretch it more and more.
He watched the trail hungrily, and when in the direction of Sixty Mile a dark speck appeared for a moment against the white background of an ice-jam, he cast an anxious eye at the sun. It had climbed nearly to the zenith. Now and again he caught the black speck clearing the hills of ice and sinking into the intervening hollows; but he dared not permit himself more than the most cursory glances for fear of rousing his enemy’s suspicion. Once, when Jacob Kent rose to his feet and searched the trail with care, Cardegee was frightened, but the dog-sled had struck a piece of trail running parallel with a jam, and remained out of sight till the danger was past.
"I’ll see you ’ung for this," Cardegee threatened, attempting to draw the other’s attention. "An’ you’ll rot in ’ell, jes’ you see if you don’t.
"I say," he cried, after another pause; "d’ye b’lieve in ghosts?" Kent’s sudden start made him sure of his ground, and he went on: "Now a ghost ’as the right to ’aunt a man wot don’t do wot he says; and you can’t shuffle me off till eight bells – wot I mean is twelve o’clock – can you? ’Cos if you do, it’ll ’appen as ’ow I’ll ’aunt you. D’ye ’ear? A minute, a second too quick, an’ I’ll ’aunt you, so ’elp me, I will!"
Jacob Kent looked dubious, but declined to talk.
"’Ow’s your chronometer? Wot’s your longitude? ’Ow do you know as your time’s correct?" Cardegee persisted, vainly hoping to beat his executioner out of a few minutes. "Is it Barrack’s time you ’ave, or is it the Company time? ’Cos if you do it before the stroke o’ the bell, I’ll not rest. I give you fair warnin’. I’ll come back. An’ if you ’aven’t the time, ’ow will you know? That’s wot I want – ’ow will you tell?"
"I’ll send you off all right," Kent replied. "Got a sun-dial here."
"No good. Thirty-two degrees variation o’ the needle."
"Stakes are all set."
"’Ow did you set ’em? Compass?"
"No; lined them up with the North Star."
Cardegee groaned, then stole a glance at the trail. The sled was just clearing a rise, barely a mile away, and the dogs were in full lope, running lightly.
"’Ow close is the shadows to the line?"
Kent walked to the primitive timepiece and studied it. "Three inches," he announced, after a careful survey.
"Say, jes’ sing out ’eight bells’ afore you pull the gun, will you?"
Kent agreed, and they lapsed into silence. The thongs about Cardegee’s wrists were slowly stretching, and he had begun to work them over his hands.
"Say, ’ow close is the shadows?"
The sailor wriggled slightly to assure himself that he would topple over at the right moment, and slipped the first turn over his hands.
"Half an inch." Just then Kent heard the jarring churn of the runners and turned his eyes to the trail. The driver was lying flat on the sled and the dogs swinging down the straight stretch to the cabin. Kent whirled back, bringing his rifle to shoulder.
"It ain’t eight bells yet!" Cardegee expostulated. "I’ll ’aunt you, sure!"
Jacob Kent faltered. He was standing by the sun-dial, perhaps ten paces from his victim. The man on the sled must have seen that something unusual was taking place, for he had risen to his knees, his whip singing viciously among the dogs.
The shadows swept into line. Kent looked along the sights.
"Make ready!" he commanded solemnly. "Eight b- "
But just a fraction of a second too soon, Cardegee rolled backward into the hole. Kent held his fire and ran to the edge. Bang! The gun exploded full in the sailor’s face as he rose to his feet. But no smoke came from the muzzle; instead, a sheet of flame burst from the side of the barrel near its butt, and Jacob Kent went down. The dogs dashed up the bank, dragging the sled over his body, and the driver sprang off as Jim Cardegee freed his hands and drew himself from the hole.
"Jim!" The new-comer recognized him. "What’s the matter?"
"Wot’s the matter? Oh, nothink at all. It jest ’appens as I do little things like this for my ’ealth. Wot’s the matter, you bloomin’ idjit? Wot’s the matter, eh? Cast me loose or I’ll show you wot! ’Urry up, or I’ll ’olystone the decks with you!"
"Huh!" he added, as the other went to work with his sheath-knife. "Wot’s the matter? I want to know. Jes’ tell me that, will you, wot’s the matter? Hey?"
Kent was quite dead when they rolled him over. The gun, an old- fashioned, heavy-weighted muzzle-loader, lay near him. Steel and wood had parted company. Near the butt of the right-hand barrel, with lips pressed outward, gaped a fissure several inches in length. The sailor picked it up, curiously. A glittering stream of yellow dust ran out through the crack. The facts of the case dawned upon Jim Cardegee.
"Strike me standin’!" he roared; "’ere’s a go! ’Ere’s ’is bloomin’ dust! Gawd blime me, an’ you, too, Charley, if you don’t run an’ get the dish-pan!"
3. LI WAN, THE FAIR
"The sun sinks, Canim, and the heat of the day is gone!"
So called Li Wan to the man whose head was hidden beneath the squirrel-skin robe, but she called softly, as though divided between the duty of waking him and the fear of him awake. For she was afraid of this big husband of hers, who was like unto none of the men she had known. The moose-meat sizzled uneasily, and she moved the frying-pan to one side of the red embers. As she did so she glanced warily at the two Hudson Bay dogs dripping eager slaver from their scarlet tongues and following her every movement. They were huge, hairy fellows, crouched to leeward in the thin smoke-wake of the fire to escape the swarming myriads of mosquitoes. As Li Wan gazed down the steep to where the Klondike flung its swollen flood between the hills, one of the dogs bellied its way forward like a worm, and with a deft, catlike stroke of the paw dipped a chunk of hot meat out of the pan to the ground. But Li Wan caught him from out the tail of her eye, and he sprang back with a snap and a snarl as she rapped him over the nose with a stick of firewood.
"Nay, Olo," she laughed, recovering the meat without removing her eye from him. "Thou art ever hungry, and for that thy nose leads thee into endless troubles."
But the mate of Olo joined him, and together they defied the woman. The hair on their backs and shoulders bristled in recurrent waves of anger, and the thin lips writhed and lifted into ugly wrinkles, exposing the flesh-tearing fangs, cruel and menacing. Their very noses serrulated and shook in brute passion, and they snarled as the wolves snarl, with all the hatred and malignity of the breed impelling them to spring upon the woman and drag her down.
"And thou, too, Bash, fierce as thy master and never at peace with the hand that feeds thee! This is not thy quarrel, so that be thine! and that!"
As she cried, she drove at them with the firewood, but they avoided the blows and refused to retreat. They separated and approached her from either side, crouching low and snarling. Li Wan had struggled with the wolf-dog for mastery from the time she toddled among the skin-bales of the teepee, and she knew a crisis was at hand. Bash had halted, his muscles stiff and tense for the spring; Olo was yet creeping into striking distance.
Grasping two blazing sticks by the charred ends, she faced the brutes. The one held back, but Bash sprang, and she met him in mid-air with the flaming weapon. There were sharp yelps of pain and swift odors of burning hair and flesh as he rolled in the dirt and the woman ground the fiery embers into his mouth. Snapping wildly, he flung himself sidewise out of her reach and in a frenzy of fear scrambled for safety. Olo, on the other side, had begun his retreat, when Li Wan reminded him of her primacy by hurling a heavy stick of wood into his ribs. Then the pair retreated under a rain of firewood, and on the edge of the camp fell to licking their wounds and whimpering by turns and snarling.
Li Wan blew the ashes off the meat and sat down again. Her heart had not gone up a beat, and the incident was already old, for this was the routine of life. Canim had not stirred during the disorder, but instead had set up a lusty snoring.
"Come, Canim!" she called. "The heat of the day is gone, and the trail waits for our feet."
The squirrel-skin robe was agitated and cast aside by a brown arm. Then the man’s eyelids fluttered and drooped again.
"His pack is heavy," she thought, "and he is tired with the work of the morning."
A mosquito stung her on the neck, and she daubed the unprotected spot with wet clay from a ball she had convenient to hand. All morning, toiling up the divide and enveloped in a cloud of the pests, the man and woman had plastered themselves with the sticky mud, which, drying in the sun, covered their faces with masks of clay. These masks, broken in divers places by the movement of the facial muscles, had constantly to be renewed, so that the deposit was irregular of depth and peculiar of aspect.
Li Wan shook Canim gently but with persistence till he roused and sat up. His first glance was to the sun, and after consulting the celestial timepiece he hunched over to the fire and fell-to ravenously on the meat. He was a large Indian fully six feet in height, deep-chested and heavy-muscled, and his eyes were keener and vested with greater mental vigor than the average of his kind. The lines of will had marked his face deeply, and this, coupled with a sternness and primitiveness, advertised a native indomitability, unswerving of purpose, and prone, when thwarted, to sullen cruelty.
"To-morrow, Li Wan, we shall feast." He sucked a marrow-bone clean and threw it to the dogs. "We shall have flapjacks fried in bacon grease, and sugar, which is more toothsome – "
"Flapjacks?" she questioned, mouthing the word curiously.
"Ay," Canim answered with superiority; "and I shall teach you new ways of cookery. Of these things I speak you are ignorant, and of many more things besides. You have lived your days in a little corner of the earth and know nothing. But I," – he straightened himself and looked at her pridefully, – "I am a great traveller, and have been all places, even among the white people, and I am versed in their ways, and in the ways of many peoples. I am not a tree, born to stand in one place always and know not what there be over the next hill; for I am Canim, the Canoe, made to go here and there and to journey and quest up and down the length and breadth of the world."
She bowed her head humbly. "It is true. I have eaten fish and meat and berries all my days and lived in a little corner of the earth. Nor did I dream the world was so large until you stole me from my people and I cooked and carried for you on the endless trails." She looked up at him suddenly. "Tell me, Canim, does this trail ever end?"
"Nay," he answered. "My trail is like the world; it never ends. My trail is the world, and I have travelled it since the time my legs could carry me, and I shall travel it until I die. My father and my mother may be dead, but it is long since I looked upon them, and I do not care. My tribe is like your tribe. It stays in the one place – which is far from here, – but I care naught for my tribe, for I am Canim, the Canoe!"
"And must I, Li Wan, who am weary, travel always your trail until I die?"
"You, Li Wan, are my wife, and the wife travels the husband’s trail wheresoever it goes. It is the law. And were it not the law, yet would it be the law of Canim, who is lawgiver unto himself and his."
She bowed her head again, for she knew no other law than that man was the master of woman.
"Be not in haste," Canim cautioned her, as she began to strap the meagre camp outfit to her pack. "The sun is yet hot, and the trail leads down and the footing is good."
She dropped her work obediently and resumed her seat.
Canim regarded her with speculative interest. "You do not squat on your hams like other women," he remarked.
"No," she answered. "It never came easy. It tires me, and I cannot take my rest that way."
"And why is it your feet point not straight before you?"
"I do not know, save that they are unlike the feet of other women."
A satisfied light crept into his eyes, but otherwise he gave no sign.
"Like other women, your hair is black; but have you ever noticed that it is soft and fine, softer and finer than the hair of other women?"
"I have noticed," she answered shortly, for she was not pleased at such cold analysis of her sex-deficiencies.
"It is a year, now, since I took you from your people," he went on, "and you are nigh as shy and afraid of me as when first I looked upon you. How does this thing be?"
Li Wan shook her head. "I am afraid of you, Canim, you are so big and strange. And further, before you looked upon me even, I was afraid of all the young men. I do not know... I cannot say... only it seemed, somehow, as though I should not be for them, as though..."
"Ay," he encouraged, impatient at her faltering.
"As though they were not my kind."
"Not your kind?" he demanded slowly. "Then what is your kind?"
"I do not know, I" She shook her head in a bewildered manner. "I cannot put into words the way I felt. It was strangeness in me. I was unlike other maidens, who sought the young men slyly. I could not care for the young men that way. It would have been a great wrong, it seemed, and an ill deed."
"What is the first thing you remember?" Canim asked with abrupt irrelevance.
"Pow-Wah-Kaan, my mother."
"And naught else before Pow-Wah-Kaan?"
But Canim, holding her eyes with his, searched her secret soul and saw it waver.
"Think, and think hard, Li Wan!" he threatened.
She stammered, and her eyes were piteous and pleading, but his will dominated her and wrung from her lips the reluctant speech.
"But it was only dreams, Canim, ill dreams of childhood, shadows of things not real, visions such as the dogs, sleeping in the sun-warmth, behold and whine out against."
"Tell me," he commanded, "of the things before Pow-Wah-Kaan, your mother."
"They are forgotten memories," she protested. "As a child I dreamed awake, with my eyes open to the day, and when I spoke of the strange things I saw I was laughed at, and the other children were afraid and drew away from me. And when I spoke of the things I saw to Pow-Wah-Kaan, she chided me and said they were evil; also she beat me. It was a sickness, I believe, like the falling-sickness that comes to old men; and in time I grew better and dreamed no more. And now... I cannot remember" – she brought her hand in a confused manner to her forehead – "they are there, somewhere, but I cannot find them, only"
"Only," Canim repeated, holding her.
"Only one thing. But you will laugh at its foolishness, it is so unreal."
"Nay, Li Wan. Dreams are dreams. They may be memories of other lives we have lived. I was once a moose. I firmly believe I was once a moose, what of the things I have seen in dreams, and heard."
Strive as he would to hide it, a growing anxiety was manifest, but Li Wan, groping after the words with which to paint the picture, took no heed.
"I see a snow-tramped space among the trees," she began, "and across the snow the sign of a man where he has dragged himself heavily on hand and knee. And I see, too, the man in the snow, and it seems I am very close to him when I look. He is unlike real men, for he has hair on his face, much hair, and the hair of his face and head is yellow like the summer coat of the weasel. His eyes are closed, but they open and search about. They are blue like the sky, and look into mine and search no more. And his hand moves, slow, as from weakness, and I feel"
"Ay," Canim whispered hoarsely. "You feel –?"
"No! no!" she cried in haste. "I feel nothing. Did I say ’feel’? I did not mean it. It could not be that I should mean it. I see, and I see only, and that is all I see – a man in the snow, with eyes like the sky, and hair like the weasel. I have seen it many times, and always it is the same – a man in the snow – "
"And do you see yourself?" he asked, leaning forward and regarding her intently. "Do you ever see yourself and the man in the snow?"
"Why should I see myself? Am I not real?"
His muscles relaxed and he sank back, an exultant satisfaction in his eyes which he turned from her so that she might not see.
"I will tell you, Li Wan," he spoke decisively; "you were a little bird in some life before, a little moose-bird, when you saw this thing, and the memory of it is with you yet. It is not strange. I was once a moose, and my father’s father afterward became a bear – so said the shaman, and the shaman cannot lie. Thus, on the Trail of the Gods we pass from life to life, and the gods know only and understand. Dreams and the shadows of dreams be memories, nothing more, and the dog, whining asleep in the sun-warmth, doubtless sees and remembers things gone before. Bash, there, was a warrior once. I do firmly believe he was once a warrior."
Canim tossed a bone to the brute and got upon his feet. "Come, let us begone. The sun is yet hot, but it will get no cooler."
"And these white people, what are they like?" Li Wan made bold to ask.
"Like you and me," he answered, "only they are less dark of skin. You will be among them ere the day is dead."
Canim lashed the sleeping-robe to his one-hundred-and-fifty-pound pack, smeared his face with wet clay, and sat down to rest till Li Wan had finished loading the dogs. Olo cringed at sight of the club in her hand, and gave no trouble when the bundle of forty pounds and odd was strapped upon him. But Bash was aggrieved and truculent, and could not forbear to whimper and snarl as he was forced to receive the burden. He bristled his back and bared his teeth as she drew the straps tight, the while throwing all the malignancy of his nature into the glances shot at her sideways and backward. And Canim chuckled and said, "Did I not say he was once a very great warrior?"
"These furs will bring a price," he remarked as he adjusted his head-strap and lifted his pack clear of the ground. "A big price. The white men pay well for such goods, for they have no time to hunt and are soft to the cold. Soon shall we feast, Li Wan, as you have feasted never in all the lives you have lived before."
She grunted acknowledgment and gratitude for her lord’s condescension, slipped into the harness, and bent forward to the load.
"The next time I am born, I would be born a white man," he added, and swung off down the trail which dived into the gorge at his feet.
The dogs followed close at his heels, and Li Wan brought up the rear. But her thoughts were far away, across the Ice Mountains to the east, to the little corner of the earth where her childhood had been lived. Ever as a child, she remembered, she had been looked upon as strange, as one with an affliction. Truly she had dreamed awake and been scolded and beaten for the remarkable visions she saw, till, after a time, she had outgrown them. But not utterly. Though they troubled her no more waking, they came to her in her sleep, grown woman that she was, and many a night of nightmare was hers, filled with fluttering shapes, vague and meaningless. The talk with Canim had excited her, and down all the twisted slant of the divide she harked back to the mocking fantasies of her dreams.
"Let us take breath," Canim said, when they had tapped midway the bed of the main creek.
He rested his pack on a jutting rock, slipped the head-strap, and sat down. Li Wan joined him, and the dogs sprawled panting on the ground beside them. At their feet rippled the glacial drip of the hills, but it was muddy and discolored, as if soiled by some commotion of the earth.
"Why is this?" Li Wan asked.
"Because of the white men who work in the ground. Listen!" He held up his hand, and they heard the ring of pick and shovel, and the sound of men’s voices. "They are made mad by gold, and work without ceasing that they may find it. Gold? It is yellow and comes from the ground, and is considered of great value. It is also a measure of price."
But Li Wan’s roving eyes had called her attention from him. A few yards below and partly screened by a clump of young spruce, the tiered logs of a cabin rose to meet its overhanging roof of dirt. A thrill ran through her, and all her dream-phantoms roused up and stirred about uneasily.
"Canim," she whispered in an agony of apprehension. "Canim, what is that?"
"The white man’s teepee, in which he eats and sleeps."
She eyed it wistfully, grasping its virtues at a glance and thrilling again at the unaccountable sensations it aroused. "It must be very warm in time of frost," she said aloud, though she felt that she must make strange sounds with her lips.
She felt impelled to utter them, but did not, and the next instant Canim said, "It is called a cabin."
Her heart gave a great leap. The sounds! the very sounds! She looked about her in sudden awe. How should she know that strange word before ever she heard it? What could be the matter? And then with a shock, half of fear and half of delight, she realized that for the first time in her life there had been sanity and significance in the promptings of her dreams.
"Cabin" she repeated to herself. "Cabin." An incoherent flood of dream-stuff welled up and up till her head was dizzy and her heart seemed bursting. Shadows, and looming bulks of things, and unintelligible associations fluttered and whirled about, and she strove vainly with her consciousness to grasp and hold them. For she felt that there, in that welter of memories, was the key of the mystery; could she but grasp and hold it, all would be clear and plain –
O Canim! O Pow-Wah-Kaan! O shades and shadows, what was that?
She turned to Canim, speechless and trembling, the dream-stuff in mad, overwhelming riot. She was sick and fainting, and could only listen to the ravishing sounds which proceeded from the cabin in a wonderful rhythm.
"Hum, fiddle," Canim vouchsafed.
But she did not hear him, for in the ecstasy she was experiencing, it seemed at last that all things were coming clear. Now! now! she thought. A sudden moisture swept into her eyes, and the tears trickled down her cheeks. The mystery was unlocking, but the faintness was overpowering her. If only she could hold herself long enough! If only – but the landscape bent and crumpled up, and the hills swayed back and forth across the sky as she sprang upright and screamed, "Daddy! Daddy!" Then the sun reeled, and darkness smote her, and she pitched forward limp and headlong among the rocks.
Canim looked to see if her neck had been broken by the heavy pack, grunted his satisfaction, and threw water upon her from the creek. She came to slowly, with choking sobs, and sat up.
"It is not good, the hot sun on the head," he ventured.
And she answered, "No, it is not good, and the pack bore upon me hard."
"We shall camp early, so that you may sleep long and win strength," he said gently. "And if we go now, we shall be the quicker to bed."
Li Wan said nothing, but tottered to her feet in obedience and stirred up the dogs. She took the swing of his pace mechanically, and followed him past the cabin, scarce daring to breathe. But no sounds issued forth, though the door was open and smoke curling upward from the sheet-iron stovepipe.
They came upon a man in the bend of the creek, white of skin and blue of eye, and for a moment Li Wan saw the other man in the snow. But she saw dimly, for she was weak and tired from what she had undergone. Still, she looked at him curiously, and stopped with Canim to watch him at his work. He was washing gravel in a large pan, with a circular, tilting movement; and as they looked, giving a deft flirt, he flashed up the yellow gold in a broad streak across the bottom of the pan.
"Very rich, this creek," Canim told her, as they went on. "Sometime I will find such a creek, and then I shall be a big man."
Cabins and men grew more plentiful, till they came to where the main portion of the creek was spread out before them. It was the scene of a vast devastation. Everywhere the earth was torn and rent as though by a Titan’s struggles. Where there were no upthrown mounds of gravel, great holes and trenches yawned, and chasms where the thick rime of the earth had been peeled to bed-rock. There was no worn channel for the creek, and its waters, dammed up, diverted, flying through the air on giddy flumes, trickling into sinks and low places, and raised by huge water-wheels, were used and used again a thousand times. The hills had been stripped of their trees, and their raw sides gored and perforated by great timber-slides and prospect holes. And over all, like a monstrous race of ants, was flung an army of men – mud-covered, dirty, disheveled men, who crawled in and out of the holes of their digging, crept like big bugs along the flumes, and toiled and sweated at the gravel-heaps which they kept in constant unrest – men, as far as the eye could see, even to the rims of the hilltops, digging, tearing, and scouring the face of nature.
Li Wan was appalled at the tremendous upheaval. "Truly, these men are mad," she said to Canim.
"Small wonder. The gold they dig after is a great thing," he replied. "It is the greatest thing in the world."
For hours they threaded the chaos of greed, Canim eagerly intent, Li Wan weak and listless. She knew she had been on the verge of disclosure, and she felt that she was still on the verge of disclosure, but the nervous strain she had undergone had tired her, and she passively waited for the thing, she knew not what, to happen. From every hand her senses snatched up and conveyed to her innumerable impressions, each of which became a dull excitation to her jaded imagination. Somewhere within her, responsive notes were answering to the things without, forgotten and undreamed-of correspondences were being renewed; and she was aware of it in an incurious way, and her soul was troubled, but she was not equal to the mental exultation necessary to transmute and understand. So she plodded wearily on at the heels of her lord, content to wait for that which she knew, somewhere, somehow, must happen.
After undergoing the mad bondage of man, the creek finally returned to its ancient ways, all soiled and smirched from its toil, and coiled lazily among the broad flats and timbered spaces where the valley widened to its mouth. Here the "pay" ran out, and men were loth to loiter with the lure yet beyond. And here, as Li Wan paused to prod Olo with her staff, she heard the mellow silver of a woman’s laughter.
Before a cabin sat a woman, fair of skin and rosy as a child, dimpling with glee at the words of another woman in the doorway. But the woman who sat shook about her great masses of dark, wet hair which yielded up its dampness to the warm caresses of the sun.
For an instant Li Wan stood transfixed. Then she was aware of a blinding flash, and a snap, as though something gave way; and the woman before the cabin vanished, and the cabin and the tall spruce timber, and the jagged sky-line, and Li Wan saw another woman, in the shine of another sun, brushing great masses of black hair, and singing as she brushed. And Li Wan heard the words of the song, and understood, and was a child again. She was smitten with a vision, wherein all the troublesome dreams merged and became one, and shapes and shadows took up their accustomed round, and all was clear and plain and real. Many pictures jostled past, strange scenes, and trees, and flowers, and people; and she saw them and knew them all.
"When you were a little bird, a little moose-bird," Canim said, his eyes upon her and burning into her.
"When I was a little moose-bird," she whispered, so faint and low he scarcely heard. And she knew she lied, as she bent her head to the strap and took the swing of the trail.
And such was the strangeness of it, the real now became unreal. The mile tramp and the pitching of camp by the edge of the stream seemed like a passage in a nightmare. She cooked the meat, fed the dogs, and unlashed the packs as in a dream, and it was not until Canim began to sketch his next wandering that she became herself again.
"The Klondike runs into the Yukon," he was saying; "a mighty river, mightier than the Mackenzie, of which you know. So we go, you and I, down to Fort o’ Yukon. With dogs, in time of winter, it is twenty sleeps. Then we follow the Yukon away into the west – one hundred sleeps, two hundred – I have never heard. It is very far. And then we come to the sea. You know nothing of the sea, so let me tell you. As the lake is to the island, so the sea is to the land; all the rivers run to it, and it is without end. I have seen it at Hudson Bay; I have yet to see it in Alaska. And then we may take a great canoe upon the sea, you and I, Li Wan, or we may follow the land into the south many a hundred sleeps. And after that I do not know, save that I am Canim, the Canoe, wanderer and far-journeyer over the earth!"
She sat and listened, and fear ate into her heart as she pondered over this plunge into the illimitable wilderness. "It is a weary way," was all she said, head bowed on knee in resignation.
Then it was a splendid thought came to her, and at the wonder of it she was all aglow. She went down to the stream and washed the dried clay from her face. When the ripples died away, she stared long at her mirrored features; but sun and weather-beat had done their work, and, what of roughness and bronze, her skin was not soft and dimpled as a child’s. But the thought was still splendid and the glow unabated as she crept in beside her husband under the sleeping-robe.
She lay awake, staring up at the blue of the sky and waiting for Canim to sink into the first deep sleep. When this came about, she wormed slowly and carefully away, tucked the robe around him, and stood up. At her second step, Bash growled savagely. She whispered persuasively to him and glanced at the man. Canim was snoring profoundly. Then she turned, and with swift, noiseless feet sped up the back trail.
Mrs. Evelyn Van Wyck was just preparing for bed. Bored by the duties put upon her by society, her wealth, and widowed blessedness, she had journeyed into the Northland and gone to housekeeping in a cosy cabin on the edge of the diggings. Here, aided and abetted by her friend and companion, Myrtle Giddings, she played at living close to the soil, and cultivated the primitive with refined abandon.
She strove to get away from the generations of culture and parlor selection, and sought the earth-grip her ancestors had forfeited. Likewise she induced mental states which she fondly believed to approximate those of the stone-folk, and just now, as she put up her hair for the pillow, she was indulging her fancy with a paleolithic wooing. The details consisted principally of cave-dwellings and cracked marrow-bones, inter-sprinkled with fierce carnivora, hairy mammoths, and combats with rude flaked knives of flint; but the sensations were delicious. And as Evelyn Van Wyck fled through the sombre forest aisles before the too arduous advances of her slant-browed, skin-clad wooer, the door of the cabin opened, without the courtesy of a knock, and a skin-clad woman, savage and primitive, came in.
With a leap that would have done credit to a cave-woman, Miss Giddings landed in safety behind the table. But Mrs. Van Wyck held her ground. She noticed that the intruder was laboring under a strong excitement, and cast a swift glance backward to assure herself that the way was clear to the bunk, where the big Colt’s revolver lay beneath a pillow.
"Greeting, O Woman of the Wondrous Hair," said Li Wan.
But she said it in her own tongue, the tongue spoken in but a little corner of the earth, and the women did not understand.
"Shall I go for help?" Miss Giddings quavered.
"The poor creature is harmless, I think," Mrs. Van Wyck replied. "And just look at her skin-clothes, ragged and trail-worn and all that. They are certainly unique. I shall buy them for my collection. Get my sack, Myrtle, please, and set up the scales."
Li Wan followed the shaping of the lips, but the words were unintelligible, and then, and for the first time, she realized, in a moment of suspense and indecision, that there was no medium of communication between them.
And at the passion of her dumbness she cried out, with arms stretched wide apart, "O Woman, thou art sister of mine!"
The tears coursed down her cheeks as she yearned toward them, and the break in her voice carried the sorrow she could not utter. But Miss Giddings was trembling, and even Mrs. Van Wyck was disturbed.
"I would live as you live. Thy ways are my ways, and our ways be one. My husband is Canim, the Canoe, and he is big and strange, and I am afraid. His trail is all the world and never ends, and I am weary. My mother was like you, and her hair was as thine, and her eyes. And life was soft to me then, and the sun warm."
She knelt humbly, and bent her head at Mrs. Van Wyck’s feet. But Mrs. Van Wyck drew away, frightened at her vehemence.
Li Wan stood up, panting for speech. Her dumb lips could not articulate her overmastering consciousness of kind.
"Trade? you trade?" Mrs. Van Wyck questioned, slipping, after the fashion of the superior peoples, into pigeon tongue.
She touched Li Wan’s ragged skins to indicate her choice, and poured several hundreds of gold into the blower. She stirred the dust about and trickled its yellow lustre temptingly through her fingers. But Li Wan saw only the fingers, milk-white and shapely, tapering daintily to the rosy, jewel-like nails. She placed her own hand alongside, all work-worn and calloused, and wept.
Mrs. Van Wyck misunderstood. "Gold," she encouraged. "Good gold! You trade? You changee for changee?" And she laid her hand again on Li Wan’s skin garments.
"How much? You sell? How much?" she persisted, running her hand against the way of the hair so that she might make sure of the sinew-thread seam.
But Li Wan was deaf as well, and the woman’s speech was without significance. Dismay at her failure sat upon her. How could she identify herself with these women? For she knew they were of the one breed, blood-sisters among men and the women of men. Her eyes roved wildly about the interior, taking in the soft draperies hanging around, the feminine garments, the oval mirror, and the dainty toilet accessories beneath. And the things haunted her, for she had seen like things before; and as she looked at them her lips involuntarily formed sounds which her throat trembled to utter. Then a thought flashed upon her, and she steadied herself. She must be calm. She must control herself, for there must be no misunderstanding this time, or else, – and she shook with a storm of suppressed tears and steadied herself again.
She put her hand on the table. "Table," she clearly and distinctly enunciated. "Table," she repeated.
She looked at Mrs. Van Wyck, who nodded approbation. Li Wan exulted, but brought her will to bear and held herself steady. "Stove" she went on. "Stove."
And at every nod of Mrs. Van Wyck, Li Wan’s excitement mounted. Now stumbling and halting, and again in feverish haste, as the recrudescence of forgotten words was fast or slow, she moved about the cabin, naming article after article. And when she paused finally, it was in triumph, with body erect and head thrown back, expectant, waiting.
"Cat," Mrs. Van Wyck, laughing, spelled out in kindergarten fashion. "I – see – the – cat – catch – the – rat."
Li Wan nodded her head seriously. They were beginning to understand her at last, these women. The blood flushed darkly under her bronze at the thought, and she smiled and nodded her head still more vigorously.
Mrs. Van Wyck turned to her companion. "Received a smattering of mission education somewhere, I fancy, and has come to show it off."
"Of course," Miss Giddings tittered. "Little fool! We shall lose our sleep with her vanity."
"All the same I want that jacket. If it is old, the workmanship is good – a most excellent specimen." She returned to her visitor. "Changee for changee? You! Changee for changee? How much? Eh? How much, you?"
"Perhaps she’d prefer a dress or something," Miss Giddings suggested.
Mrs. Van Wyck went up to Li Wan and made signs that she would exchange her wrapper for the jacket. And to further the transaction, she took Li Wan’s hand and placed it amid the lace and ribbons of the flowing bosom, and rubbed the fingers back and forth so they might feel the texture. But the jeweled butterfly which loosely held the fold in place was insecurely fastened, and the front of the gown slipped to the side, exposing a firm white breast, which had never known the lip-clasp of a child.
Mrs. Van Wyck coolly repaired the mischief; but Li Wan uttered a loud cry, and ripped and tore at her skin-shirt till her own breast showed firm and white as Evelyn Van Wyck’s. Murmuring inarticulately and making swift signs, she strove to establish the kinship.
"A half-breed," Mrs. Van Wyck commented. "I thought so from her hair."
Miss Giddings made a fastidious gesture. "Proud of her father’s white skin. It’s beastly! Do give her something, Evelyn, and make her go."
But the other woman sighed. "Poor creature, I wish I could do something for her."
A heavy foot crunched the gravel without. Then the cabin door swung wide, and Canim stalked in. Miss Giddings saw a vision of sudden death, and screamed; but Mrs. Van Wyck faced him composedly.
"What do you want?" she demanded.
"How do?" Canim answered suavely and directly, pointing at the same time to Li Wan. "Um my wife."
He reached out for her, but she waved him back.
"Speak, Canim! Tell them that I am – "
"Daughter of Pow-Wah-Kaan? Nay, of what is it to them that they should care? Better should I tell them thou art an ill wife, given to creeping from thy husband’s bed when sleep is heavy in his eyes."
Again he reached out for her, but she fled away from him to Mrs. Van Wyck, at whose feet she made frenzied appeal, and whose knees she tried to clasp. But the lady stepped back and gave permission with her eyes to Canim. He gripped Li Wan under the shoulders and raised her to her feet. She fought with him, in a madness of despair, till his chest was heaving with the exertion, and they had reeled about over half the room.
"Let me go, Canim," she sobbed.
But he twisted her wrist till she ceased to struggle. "The memories of the little moose-bird are over-strong and make trouble," he began.
"I know! I know!" she broke in. "I see the man in the snow, and as never before I see him crawl on hand and knee. And I, who am a little child, am carried on his back. And this is before Pow-Wah-Kaan and the time I came to live in a little corner of the earth."
"You know," he answered, forcing her toward the door; "but you will go with me down the Yukon and forget."
"Never shall I forget! So long as my skin is white shall I remember!" She clutched frantically at the door-post and looked a last appeal to Mrs. Evelyn Van Wyck.
"Then will I teach thee to forget, I, Canim, the Canoe!"
As he spoke he pulled her fingers clear and passed out with her upon the trail.
4. TOO MUCH GOLD
This being a story – and a truer one than it may appear – of a mining country, it is quite to be expected that it will be a hard-luck story. But that depends on the point of view. Hard luck is a mild way of terming it so far as Kink Mitchell and Hootchinoo Bill are concerned; and that they have a decided opinion on the subject is a matter of common knowledge in the Yukon country.
It was in the fall of 1896 that the two partners came down to the east bank of the Yukon, and drew a Peterborough canoe from a moss-covered cache. They were not particularly pleasant-looking objects. A summer’s prospecting, filled to repletion with hardship and rather empty of grub, had left their clothes in tatters and themselves worn and cadaverous. A nimbus of mosquitoes buzzed about each man’s head. Their faces were coated with blue clay. Each carried a lump of this damp clay, and, whenever it dried and fell from their faces, more was daubed on in its place. There was a querulous plaint in their voices, an irritability of movement and gesture, that told of broken sleep and a losing struggle with the little winged pests.
"Them skeeters’ll be the death of me yet," Kink Mitchell whimpered, as the canoe felt the current on her nose, and leaped out from the bank
"Cheer up, cheer up. We’re about done," Hootchinoo Bill answered, with an attempted heartiness in his funereal tones that was ghastly. "We’ll be in Forty Mile in forty minutes, and then – cursed little devil!"
One hand left his paddle and landed on the back of his neck with a sharp slap. He put a fresh daub of clay on the injured part, swearing sulphurously the while. Kink Mitchell was not in the least amused. He merely improved the opportunity by putting a thicker coating of clay on his own neck.
They crossed the Yukon to its west bank, shot down-stream with easy stroke, and at the end of forty minutes swung in close to the left around the tail of an island. Forty Mile spread itself suddenly before them. Both men straightened their backs and gazed at the sight. They gazed long and carefully, drifting with the current, in their faces an expression of mingled surprise and consternation slowly gathering. Not a thread of smoke was rising from the hundreds of log-cabins. There was no sound of axes biting sharply into wood, of hammering and sawing. Neither dogs nor men loitered before the big store. No steamboats lay at the bank, no canoes, nor scows, nor poling-boats. The river was as bare of craft as the town was of life.
"Kind of looks like Gabriel’s tooted his little horn, and you an’ me has turned up missing," remarked Hootchinoo Bill.
His remark was casual, as though there was nothing unusual about the occurrence. Kink Mitchell’s reply was just as casual as though he, too, were unaware of any strange perturbation of spirit.
"Looks as they was all Baptists, then, and took the boats to go by water," was his contribution.
"My ol’ dad was a Baptist," Hootchinoo Bill supplemented. "An’ he always did hold it was forty thousand miles nearer that way."
This was the end of their levity. They ran the canoe in and climbed the high earth bank. A feeling of awe descended upon them as they walked the deserted streets. The sunlight streamed placidly over the town. A gentle wind tapped the halyards against the flagpole before the closed doors of the Caledonia Dance Hall. Mosquitoes buzzed, robins sang, and moose birds tripped hungrily among the cabins; but there was no human life nor sign of human life.
"I’m just dyin’ for a drink," Hootchinoo Bill said and unconsciously his voice sank to a hoarse whisper.
His partner nodded his head, loth to hear his own voice break the stillness. They trudged on in uneasy silence till surprised by an open door. Above this door, and stretching the width of the building, a rude sign announced the same as the "Monte Carlo." But beside the door, hat over eyes, chair tilted back, a man sat sunning himself. He was an old man. Beard and hair were long and white and patriarchal.
"If it ain’t ol’ Jim Cummings, turned up like us, too late for Resurrection!" said Kink Mitchell.
"Most like he didn’t hear Gabriel tootin’," was Hootchinoo Bill’s suggestion.
"Hello, Jim! Wake up!" he shouted.
The old man unlimbered lamely, blinking his eyes and murmuring automatically: "What’ll ye have, gents? What’ll ye have?"
They followed him inside and ranged up against the long bar where of yore a half-dozen nimble bar-keepers found little time to loaf. The great room, ordinarily aroar with life, was still and gloomy as a tomb. There was no rattling of chips, no whirring of ivory balls. Roulette and faro tables were like gravestones under their canvas covers. No women’s voices drifted merrily from the dance- room behind. Ol’ Jim Cummings wiped a glass with palsied hands, and Kink Mitchell scrawled his initials on the dust-covered bar.
"Where’s the girls?" Hootchinoo Bill shouted, with affected geniality.
"Gone," was the ancient bar-keeper’s reply, in a voice thin and aged as himself, and as unsteady as his hand.
"Where’s Bidwell and Barlow?"
"And Sweetwater Charley?"
"And his sister?"
"Your daughter Sally, then, and her little kid?"
"Gone, all gone." The old man shook his head sadly, rummaging in an absent way among the dusty bottles.
"Great Sardanapolis! Where?" Kink Mitchell exploded, unable longer to restrain himself. "You don’t say you’ve had the plague?"
"Why, ain’t you heerd?" The old man chuckled quietly. "They-all’s gone to Dawson."
"What-like is that?" Bill demanded. "A creek? or a bar? or a place?"
"Ain’t never heered of Dawson, eh?" The old man chuckled exasperatingly. "Why, Dawson’s a town, a city, bigger’n Forty Mile. Yes, sir, bigger’n Forty Mile."
"I’ve ben in this land seven year," Bill announced emphatically, "an’ I make free to say I never heard tell of the burg before. Hold on! Let’s have some more of that whisky. Your information’s flabbergasted me, that it has. Now just whereabouts is this Dawson-place you was a-mentionin’?"
"On the big flat jest below the mouth of Klondike," ol’ Jim answered. "But where has you-all ben this summer?"
"Never you mind where we-all’s ben," was Kink Mitchell’s testy reply. "We-all’s ben where the skeeters is that thick you’ve got to throw a stick into the air so as to see the sun and tell the time of day. Ain’t I right, Bill?"
"Right you are," said Bill. "But speakin’ of this Dawson-place how like did it happen to be, Jim?"
"Ounce to the pan on a creek called Bonanza, an’ they ain’t got to bed-rock yet."
"Who struck it?"
At mention of the discoverer’s name the partners stared at each other disgustedly. Then they winked with great solemnity.
"Siwash George," sniffed Hootchinoo Bill.
"That squaw-man," sneered Kink Mitchell.
"I wouldn’t put on my moccasins to stampede after anything he’d ever find," said Bill.
"Same here," announced his partner. "A cuss that’s too plumb lazy to fish his own salmon. That’s why he took up with the Indians. S’pose that black brother-in-law of his, – lemme see, Skookum Jim, eh? – s’pose he’s in on it?"
The old bar-keeper nodded. "Sure, an’ what’s more, all Forty Mile, exceptin’ me an’ a few cripples."
"And drunks," added Kink Mitchell.
"No-sir-ee!" the old man shouted emphatically.
"I bet you the drinks Honkins ain’t in on it!" Hootchinoo Bill cried with certitude.
Ol’ Jim’s face lighted up. "I takes you, Bill, an’ you loses."
"However did that ol’ soak budge out of Forty Mile?" Mitchell demanded.
"The ties him down an’ throws him in the bottom of a polin’-boat," ol’ Jim explained. "Come right in here, they did, an’ takes him out of that there chair there in the corner, an’ three more drunks they finds under the pianny. I tell you-alls the whole camp hits up the Yukon for Dawson jes’ like Sam Scratch was after them, – wimmen, children, babes in arms, the whole shebang. Bidwell comes to me an’ sez, sez he, ’Jim, I wants you to keep tab on the Monte Carlo. I’m goin’.’
"’Where’s Barlow?’ sez I. ’Gone,’ sez he, ’an’ I’m a-followin’ with a load of whisky.’ An’ with that, never waitin’ for me to decline, he makes a run for his boat an’ away he goes, polin’ up river like mad. So here I be, an’ these is the first drinks I’ve passed out in three days."
The partners looked at each other.
"Gosh darn my buttoms!" said Hootchinoo Bill. "Seems likes you and me, Kink, is the kind of folks always caught out with forks when it rains soup."
"Wouldn’t it take the saleratus out your dough, now?" said Kink Mitchell. "A stampede of tin-horns, drunks, an’ loafers."
"An’ squaw-men," added Bill. "Not a genooine miner in the whole caboodle."
"Genooine miners like you an’ me, Kink," he went on academically, "is all out an’ sweatin’ hard over Birch Creek way. Not a genooine miner in this whole crazy Dawson outfit, and I say right here, not a step do I budge for any Carmack strike. I’ve got to see the colour of the dust first."
"Same here," Mitchell agreed. "Let’s have another drink."
Having wet this resolution, they beached the canoe, transferred its contents to their cabin, and cooked dinner. But as the afternoon wore along they grew restive. They were men used to the silence of the great wilderness, but this grave-like silence of a town worried them. They caught themselves listening for familiar sounds – "waitin’ for something to make a noise which ain’t goin’ to make a noise," as Bill put it. They strolled through the deserted streets to the Monte Carlo for more drinks, and wandered along the river bank to the steamer landing, where only water gurgled as the eddy filled and emptied, and an occasional salmon leapt flashing into the sun.
They sat down in the shade in front of the store and talked with the consumptive storekeeper, whose liability to hemorrhage accounted for his presence. Bill and Kink told him how they intended loafing in their cabin and resting up after the hard summer’s work. They told him, with a certain insistence, that was half appeal for belief, half challenge for contradiction, how much they were going to enjoy their idleness. But the storekeeper was uninterested. He switched the conversation back to the strike on Klondike, and they could not keep him away from it. He could think of nothing else, talk of nothing else, till Hootchinoo Bill rose up in anger and disgust.
"Gosh darn Dawson, say I!" he cried.
"Same here," said Kink Mitchell, with a brightening face. "One’d think something was doin’ up there, ’stead of bein’ a mere stampede of greenhorns an’ tinhorns."
But a boat came into view from downstream. It was long and slim. It hugged the bank closely, and its three occupants, standing upright, propelled it against the stiff current by means of long poles.
"Circle City outfit," said the storekeeper. "I was lookin’ for ’em along by afternoon. Forty Mile had the start of them by a hundred and seventy miles. But gee! they ain’t losin’ any time!"
’We’ll just sit here quiet-like and watch ’em string by," Bill said complacently.
As he spoke, another boat appeared in sight, followed after a brief interval by two others. By this time the first boat was abreast of the men on the bank. Its occupants did not cease poling while greetings were exchanged, and, though its progress was slow, a half-hour saw it out of sight up river.
Still they came from below, boat after boat, in endless procession. The uneasiness of Bill and Kink increased. They stole speculative, tentative glances at each other, and when their eyes met looked away in embarrassment. Finally, however, their eyes met and neither looked away.
Kink opened his mouth to speak, but words failed him and his mouth remained open while he continued to gaze at his partner.
"Just what I was thinken’, Kink," said Bill.
They grinned sheepishly at each other, and by tacit consent started to walk away. Their pace quickened, and by the time they arrived at their cabin they were on the run.
"Can’t lose no time with all that multitude a-rushin’ by," Kink spluttered, as he jabbed the sour-dough can into the beanpot with one hand and with the other gathered in the frying-pan and coffee- pot.
"Should say not," gasped Bill, his head and shoulders buried in a clothes-sack wherein were stored winter socks and underwear. "I say, Kink, don’t forget the saleratus on the corner shelf back of the stove."
Half-an-hour later they were launching the canoe and loading up, while the storekeeper made jocular remarks about poor, weak mortals and the contagiousness of "stampedin’ fever." But when Bill and Kink thrust their long poles to bottom and started the canoe against the current, he called after them:-
"Well, so-long and good luck! And don’t forget to blaze a stake or two for me!"
They nodded their heads vigorously and felt sorry for the poor wretch who remained perforce behind.
* * * * *
Kink and Bill were sweating hard. According to the revised Northland Scripture, the stampede is to the swift, the blazing of stakes to the strong, and the Crown in royalties, gathers to itself the fulness thereof. Kink and Bill were both swift and strong. They took the soggy trail at a long, swinging gait that broke the hearts of a couple of tender-feet who tried to keep up with them. Behind, strung out between them and Dawson (where the boats were discarded and land travel began), was the vanguard of the Circle City outfit. In the race from Forty Mile the partners had passed every boat, winning from the leading boat by a length in the Dawson eddy, and leaving its occupants sadly behind the moment their feet struck the trail.
"Huh! couldn’t see us for smoke," Hootchinoo Bill chuckled, flirting the stinging sweat from his brow and glancing swiftly back along the way they had come.
Three men emerged from where the trail broke through the trees. Two followed close at their heels, and then a man and a woman shot into view.
"Come on, you Kink! Hit her up! Hit her up!"
Bill quickened his pace. Mitchell glanced back in more leisurely fashion.
"I declare if they ain’t lopin’!"
"And here’s one that’s loped himself out," said Bill, pointing to the side of the trail.
A man was lying on his back panting in the culminating stages of violent exhaustion. His face was ghastly, his eyes bloodshot and glazed, for all the world like a dying man.
"CHECHAQUO!" Kink Mitchell grunted, and it was the grunt of the old "sour dough" for the green-horn, for the man who outfitted with "self-risin’" flour and used baking-powder in his biscuits.
The partners, true to the old-timer custom, had intended to stake down-stream from the strike, but when they saw claim 81 BELOW blazed on a tree, – which meant fully eight miles below Discovery, – they changed their minds. The eight miles were covered in less than two hours. It was a killing pace, over so rough trail, and they passed scores of exhausted men that had fallen by the wayside.
At Discovery little was to be learned of the upper creek. Cormack’s Indian brother-in-law, Skookum Jim, had a hazy notion that the creek was staked as high as the 30’s; but when Kink and Bill looked at the corner-stakes of 79 ABOVE, they threw their stampeding packs off their backs and sat down to smoke. All their efforts had been vain. Bonanza was staked from mouth to source, – "out of sight and across the next divide." Bill complained that night as they fried their bacon and boiled their coffee over Cormack’s fire at Discovery.
"Try that pup," Carmack suggested next morning.
"That pup" was a broad creek that flowed into Bonanza at 7 ABOVE. The partners received his advice with the magnificent contempt of the sour dough for a squaw-man, and, instead, spent the day on Adam’s Creek, another and more likely-looking tributary of Bonanza. But it was the old story over again – staked to the sky-line.
For threes days Carmack repeated his advice, and for three days they received it contemptuously. But on the fourth day, there being nowhere else to go, they went up "that pup." They knew that it was practically unstaked, but they had no intention of staking. The trip was made more for the purpose of giving vent to their ill-humour than for anything else. They had become quite cynical, sceptical. They jeered and scoffed at everything, and insulted every chechaquo they met along the way.
At No. 23 the stakes ceased. The remainder of the creek was open for location.
"Moose pasture," sneered Kink Mitchell.
But Bill gravely paced off five hundred feet up the creek and blazed the corner-stakes. He had picked up the bottom of a candle- box, and on the smooth side he wrote the notice for his centre-stake:
THIS MOOSE PASTURE IS RESERVED FOR THE
SWEDES AND CHECHAQUOS.
– BILL RADER.
Kink read it over with approval, saying:-
"As them’s my sentiments, I reckon I might as well subscribe."
So the name of Charles Mitchell was added to the notice; and many an old sour dough’s face relaxed that day at sight of the handiwork of a kindred spirit.
"How’s the pup?" Carmack inquired when they strolled back into camp.
"To hell with pups!" was Hootchinoo Bill’s reply. "Me and Kink’s goin’ a-lookin’ for Too Much Gold when we get rested up."
Too Much Gold was the fabled creek of which all sour doughs dreamed, whereof it was said the gold was so thick that, in order to wash it, gravel must first be shoveled into the sluice-boxes. But the several days’ rest, preliminary to the quest for Too Much Gold, brought a slight change in their plan, inasmuch as it brought one Ans Handerson, a Swede.
Ans Handerson had been working for wages all summer at Miller Creek over on the Sixty Mile, and, the summer done, had strayed up Bonanza like many another waif helplessly adrift on the gold tides that swept willy-nilly across the land. He was tall and lanky. His arms were long, like prehistoric man’s, and his hands were like soup-plates, twisted and gnarled, and big-knuckled from toil. He was slow of utterance and movement, and his eyes, pale blue as his hair was pale yellow, seemed filled with an immortal dreaming, the stuff of which no man knew, and himself least of all. Perhaps this appearance of immortal dreaming was due to a supreme and vacuous innocence. At any rate, this was the valuation men of ordinary clay put upon him, and there was nothing extraordinary about the composition of Hootchinoo Bill and Kink Mitchell.
The partners had spent a day of visiting and gossip, and in the evening met in the temporary quarters of the Monte Carlo – a large tent were stampeders rested their weary bones and bad whisky sold at a dollar a drink. Since the only money in circulation was dust, and since the house took the "down-weight" on the scales, a drink cost something more than a dollar. Bill and Kink were not drinking, principally for the reason that their one and common sack was not strong enough to stand many excursions to the scales.
"Say, Bill, I’ve got a chechaquo on the string for a sack of flour," Mitchell announced jubilantly.
Bill looked interested and pleased. Grub as scarce, and they were not over-plentifully supplied for the quest after Too Much Gold.
"Flour’s worth a dollar a pound," he answered. "How like do you calculate to get your finger on it?"
"Trade ’m a half-interest in that claim of ourn," Kink answered.
"What claim?" Bill was surprised. Then he remembered the reservation he had staked off for the Swedes, and said, "Oh!"
"I wouldn’t be so clost about it, though," he added. "Give ’m the whole thing while you’re about it, in a right free-handed way."
Bill shook his head. "If I did, he’d get clean scairt and prance off. I’m lettin’ on as how the ground is believed to be valuable, an’ that we’re lettin’ go half just because we’re monstrous short on grub. After the dicker we can make him a present of the whole shebang."
"If somebody ain’t disregarded our notice," Bill objected, though he was plainly pleased at the prospect of exchanging the claim for a sack of flour.
"She ain’t jumped," Kink assured him. "It’s No. 24, and it stands. The chechaquos took it serious, and they begun stakin’ where you left off. Staked clean over the divide, too. I was gassin’ with one of them which has just got in with cramps in his legs."
It was then, and for the first time, that they heard the slow and groping utterance of Ans Handerson.
"Ay like the looks," he was saying to the bar-keeper. "Ay tank Ay gat a claim."
The partners winked at each other, and a few minutes later a surprised and grateful Swede was drinking bad whisky with two hard- hearted strangers. But he was as hard-headed as they were hard- hearted. The sack made frequent journeys to the scales, followed solicitously each time by Kink Mitchell’s eyes, and still Ans Handerson did not loosen up. In his pale blue eyes, as in summer seas, immortal dreams swam up and burned, but the swimming and the burning were due to the tales of gold and prospect pans he heard, rather than to the whisky he slid so easily down his throat.
The partners were in despair, though they appeared boisterous and jovial of speech and action.
"Don’t mind me, my friend," Hootchinoo Bill hiccoughed, his hand upon Ans Handerson’s shoulder. "Have another drink. We’re just celebratin’ Kink’s birthday here. This is my pardner, Kink, Kink Mitchell. An’ what might your name be?"
This learned, his hand descended resoundingly on Kink’s back, and Kink simulated clumsy self-consciousness in that he was for the time being the centre of the rejoicing, while Ans Handerson looked pleased and asked them to have a drink with him. It was the first and last time he treated, until the play changed and his canny soul was roused to unwonted prodigality. But he paid for the liquor from a fairly healthy-looking sack. "Not less ’n eight hundred in it," calculated the lynx-eyed Kink; and on the strength of it he took the first opportunity of a privy conversation with Bidwell, proprietor of the bad whisky and the tent.
"Here’s my sack, Bidwell," Kink said, with the intimacy and surety of one old-timer to another. "Just weigh fifty dollars into it for a day or so more or less, and we’ll be yours truly, Bill an’ me."
Thereafter the journeys of the sack to the scales were more frequent, and the celebration of Kink’s natal day waxed hilarious. He even essayed to sing the old-timer’s classic, "The Juice of the Forbidden Fruit," but broke down and drowned his embarrassment in another round of drinks. Even Bidwell honoured him with a round or two on the house; and he and Bill were decently drunk by the time Ans Handerson’s eyelids began to droop and his tongue gave promise of loosening.
Bill grew affectionate, then confidential. He told his troubles and hard luck to the bar-keeper and the world in general, and to Ans Handerson in particular. He required no histrionic powers to act the part. The bad whisky attended to that. He worked himself into a great sorrow for himself and Bill, and his tears were sincere when he told how he and his partner were thinking of selling a half-interest in good ground just because they were short of grub. Even Kink listened and believed.
Ans Handerson’s eyes were shining unholily as he asked, "How much you tank you take?"
Bill and Kink did not hear him, and he was compelled to repeat his query. They appeared reluctant. He grew keener. And he swayed back and forward, holding on to the bar and listened with all his ears while they conferred together on one side, and wrangled as to whether they should or not, and disagreed in stage whispers over the price they should set.
"Two hundred and – hic! – fifty," Bill finally announced, "but we reckon as we won’t sell."
"Which is monstrous wise if I might chip in my little say," seconded Bidwell.
"Yes, indeedy," added Kink. "We ain’t in no charity business a-disgorgin’ free an’ generous to Swedes an’ white men."
"Ay tank we haf another drink," hiccoughed Ans Handerson, craftily changing the subject against a more propitious time.
And thereafter, to bring about that propitious time, his own sack began to see-saw between his hip pocket and the scales. Bill and Kink were coy, but they finally yielded to his blandishments. Whereupon he grew shy and drew Bidwell to one side. He staggered exceedingly, and held on to Bidwell for support as he asked –
"They ban all right, them men, you tank so?"
"Sure," Bidwell answered heartily. "Known ’em for years. Old sour doughs. When they sell a claim, they sell a claim. They ain’t no air-dealers."
"Ay tank Ay buy," Ans Handerson announced, tottering back to the two men.
But by now he was dreaming deeply, and he proclaimed he would have the whole claim or nothing. This was the cause of great pain to Hootchinoo Bill. He orated grandly against the "hawgishness" of chechaquos and Swedes, albeit he dozed between periods, his voice dying away to a gurgle, and his head sinking forward on his breast. But whenever roused by a nudge from Kink or Bidwell, he never failed to explode another volley of abuse and insult.
Ans Handerson was calm under it all. Each insult added to the value of the claim. Such unamiable reluctance to sell advertised but one thing to him, and he was aware of a great relief when Hootchinoo Bill sank snoring to the floor, and he was free to turn his attention to his less intractable partner.
Kink Mitchell was persuadable, though a poor mathematician. He wept dolefully, but was willing to sell a half-interest for two hundred and fifty dollars or the whole claim for seven hundred and fifty. Ans Handerson and Bidwell laboured to clear away his erroneous ideas concerning fractions, but their labour was vain. He spilled tears and regrets all over the bar and on their shoulders, which tears, however, did not wash away his opinion, that if one half was worth two hundred and fifty, two halves were worth three times as much.
In the end, – and even Bidwell retained no more than hazy recollections of how the night terminated, – a bill of sale was drawn up, wherein Bill Rader and Charles Mitchell yielded up all right and title to the claim known as 24 ELDORADO, the same being the name the creek had received from some optimistic chechaquo.
When Kink had signed, it took the united efforts of the three to arouse Bill. Pen in hand, he swayed long over the document; and, each time he rocked back and forth, in Ans Handerson’s eyes flashed and faded a wondrous golden vision. When the precious signature was at last appended and the dust paid over, he breathed a great sigh, and sank to sleep under a table, where he dreamed immortally until morning.
But the day was chill and grey. He felt bad. His first act, unconscious and automatic, was to feel for his sack. Its lightness startled him. Then, slowly, memories of the night thronged into his brain. Rough voices disturbed him. He opened his eyes and peered out from under the table. A couple of early risers, or, rather, men who had been out on trail all night, were vociferating their opinions concerning the utter and loathsome worthlessness of Eldorado Creek. He grew frightened, felt in his pocket, and found the deed to 24 ELDORADO.
Ten minutes later Hootchinoo Bill and Kink Mitchell were roused from their blankets by a wild-eyed Swede that strove to force upon them an ink-scrawled and very blotty piece of paper.
"Ay tank Ay take my money back," he gibbered. "Ay tank Ay take my money back."
Tears were in his eyes and throat. They ran down his cheeks as he knelt before them and pleaded and implored. But Bill and Kink did not laugh. They might have been harder hearted.
"First time I ever hear a man squeal over a minin’ deal," Bill said. "An’ I make free to say ’tis too onusual for me to savvy."
"Same here," Kink Mitchell remarked. "Minin’ deals is like horse-tradin’."
They were honest in their wonderment. They could not conceive of themselves raising a wail over a business transaction, so they could not understand it in another man.
"The poor, ornery chechaquo," murmured Hootchinoo Bill, as they watched the sorrowing Swede disappear up the trail.
"But this ain’t Too Much Gold," Kink Mitchell said cheerfully.
And ere the day was out they purchased flour and bacon at exorbitant prices with Ans Handerson’s dust and crossed over the divide in the direction of the creeks that lie between Klondike and Indian River.
Three months later they came back over the divide in the midst of a snow-storm and dropped down the trail to 24 ELDORADO. It merely chanced that the trail led them that way. They were not looking for the claim. Nor could they see much through the driving white till they set foot upon the claim itself. And then the air lightened, and they beheld a dump, capped by a windlass that a man was turning. They saw him draw a bucket of gravel from the hole and tilt it on the edge of the dump. Likewise they saw another, man, strangely familiar, filling a pan with the fresh gravel. His hands were large; his hair wets pale yellow. But before they reached him, he turned with the pan and fled toward a cabin. He wore no hat, and the snow falling down his neck accounted for his haste. Bill and Kink ran after him, and came upon him in the cabin, kneeling by the stove and washing the pan of gravel in a tub of water.
He was too deeply engaged to notice more than that somebody had entered the cabin. They stood at his shoulder and looked on. He imparted to the pan a deft circular motion, pausing once or twice to rake out the larger particles of gravel with his fingers. The water was muddy, and, with the pan buried in it, they could see nothing of its contents. Suddenly he lifted the pan clear and sent the water out of it with a flirt. A mass of yellow, like butter in a churn, showed across the bottom.
Hootchinoo Bill swallowed. Never in his life had he dreamed of so rich a test-pan.
"Kind of thick, my friend," he said huskily. "How much might you reckon that-all to be?"
Ans Handerson did not look up as he replied, "Ay tank fafty ounces."
"You must be scrumptious rich, then, eh?"
Still Ans Handerson kept his head down, absorbed in putting in the fine touches which wash out the last particles of dross, though he answered, "Ay tank Ay ban wort’ five hundred t’ousand dollar."
"Gosh!" said Hootchinoo Bill, and he said it reverently.
"Yes, Bill, gosh!" said Kink Mitchell; and they went out softly and closed the door.
5. THE MAN ON THE OTHER BANK
It was before Smoke Bellew staked the farcical town-site of Tra-Lee, made the historic corner of eggs that nearly broke Swiftwater Bill’s bank account, or won the dog-team race down the Yukon for an even million dollars, that he and Shorty parted company on the Upper Klondike. Shorty’s task was to return down the Klondike to Dawson to record some claims they had staked.
Smoke, with the dog-team, turned south. His quest was Surprise Lake and the mythical Two Cabins. His traverse was to cut the headwaters of the Indian River and cross the unknown region over the mountains to the Stewart River. Here, somewhere, rumour persisted, was Surprise Lake, surrounded by jagged mountains and glaciers, its bottom paved with raw gold. Old-timers, it was said, whose very names were forgotten in the forests of earlier years, had dived in the ice-waters of Surprise Lake and fetched lump-gold to the surface in both hands. At different times, parties of old-timers had penetrated the forbidding fastness and sampled the lake’s golden bottom. But the water was too cold. Some died in the water, being pulled up dead. Others died of consumption. And one who had gone down never did come up. All survivors had planned to return and drain the lake, yet none had ever gone back. Disaster always happened. One man fell into an air-hole below Forty Mile; another was killed and eaten by his dogs; a third was crushed by a falling tree. And so the tale ran. Surprise Lake was a hoodoo; its location was unremembered; and the gold still paved its undrained bottom.
Two Cabins, no less mythical, was more definitely located. ’Five sleeps,’ up the McQuestion River from the Stewart, stood two ancient cabins. So ancient were they that they must have been built before ever the first known gold-hunter had entered the Yukon Basin. Wandering moose-hunters, whom even Smoke had met and talked with, claimed to have found the two cabins in the old days, but to have sought vainly for the mine which those early adventurers must have worked.
"I wish you was goin’ with me," Shorty said wistfully, at parting. "Just because you got the Indian bug ain’t no reason for to go pokin’ into trouble. They’s no gettin’ away from it, that’s loco country you’re bound for. The hoodoo’s sure on it, from the first flip to the last call, judgin’ from all you an’ me has hearn tell about it."
"It’s all right, Shorty. I’ll make the round trip and be back in Dawson in six weeks. The Yukon trail is packed, and the first hundred miles or so of the Stewart ought to be packed. Old-timers from Henderson have told me a number of outfits went up last fall after the freeze-up. When I strike their trail I ought to hit her up forty or fifty miles a day. I’m likely to be back inside a month, once I get across."
"Yes, once you get acrost. But it’s the gettin’ acrost that worries me. Well, so long, Smoke. Keep your eyes open for that hoodoo, that’s all. An’ don’t be ashamed to turn back if you don’t kill any meat."
A week later, Smoke found himself among the jumbled ranges south of Indian River. On the divide from the Klondike he had abandoned the sled and packed his wolf-dogs. The six big huskies each carried fifty pounds, and on his own back was an equal burden. Through the soft snow he led the way, packing it down under his snow-shoes, and behind, in single file, toiled the dogs.
He loved the life, the deep arctic winter, the silent wilderness, the unending snow-surface unpressed by the foot of any man. About him towered icy peaks unnamed and uncharted. No hunter’s camp- smoke, rising in the still air of the valleys, ever caught his eye. He, alone, moved through the brooding quiet of the untravelled wastes; nor was he oppressed by the solitude. He loved it all, the day’s toil, the bickering wolf-dogs, the making of the camp in the long twilight, the leaping stars overhead and the flaming pageant of the aurora borealis.
Especially he loved his camp at the end of the day, and in it he saw a picture which he ever yearned to paint and which he knew he would never forget–a beaten place in the snow, where burned his fire; his bed, a couple of rabbit-skin robes spread on fresh-chopped spruce- boughs; his shelter, a stretched strip of canvas that caught and threw back the heat of the fire; the blackened coffee-pot and pail resting on a length of log, the moccasins propped on sticks to dry, the snow-shoes up-ended in the snow; and across the fire the wolf- dogs snuggling to it for the warmth, wistful and eager, furry and frost-rimed, with bushy tails curled protectingly over their feet; and all about, pressed backward but a space, the wall of encircling darkness.
At such times San Francisco, The Billow, and O’Hara seemed very far away, lost in a remote past, shadows of dreams that had never happened. He found it hard to believe that he had known any other life than this of the wild, and harder still was it for him to reconcile himself to the fact that he had once dabbled and dawdled in the Bohemian drift of city life. Alone, with no one to talk to, he thought much, and deeply, and simply. He was appalled by the wastage of his city years, by the cheapness, now, of the philosophies of the schools and books, of the clever cynicism of the studio and editorial room, of the cant of the business men in their clubs. They knew neither food nor sleep, nor health; nor could they ever possibly know the sting of real appetite, the goodly ache of fatigue, nor the rush of mad strong blood that bit like wine through all one’s body as work was done.
And all the time this fine, wise, Spartan North Land had been here, and he had never known. What puzzled him was, that, with such intrinsic fitness, he had never heard the slightest calling whisper, had not himself gone forth to seek. But this, too, he solved in time.
"Look here, Yellow-face, I’ve got it clear!"
The dog addressed lifted first one fore-foot and then the other with quick, appeasing movements, curled his bush of a tail about them again, and laughed across the fire.
"Herbert Spencer was nearly forty before he caught the vision of his greatest efficiency and desire. I’m none so slow. I didn’t have to wait till I was thirty to catch mine. Right here is my efficiency and desire. Almost, Yellow Face, do I wish I had been born a wolf- boy and been brother all my days to you and yours."
For days he wandered through a chaos of canyons and divides which did not yield themselves to any rational topographical plan. It was as if they had been flung there by some cosmic joker. In vain he sought for a creek or feeder that flowed truly south toward the McQuestion and the Stewart. Then came a mountain storm that blew a blizzard across the riff-raff of high and shallow divides. Above timber-line, fireless, for two days, he struggled blindly to find lower levels. On the second day he came out upon the rim of an enormous palisade. So thickly drove the snow that he could not see the base of the wall, nor dared he attempt the descent. He rolled himself in his robes and huddled the dogs about him in the depths of a snow-drift, but did not permit himself to sleep.
In the morning, the storm spent, he crawled out to investigate. A quarter of a mile beneath him, beyond all mistake, lay a frozen, snow-covered lake. About it, on every side, rose jagged peaks. It answered the description. Blindly, he had found Surprise Lake.
"Well-named," he muttered, an hour later, as he came out upon its margin. A clump of aged spruce was the only woods. On his way to it, he stumbled upon three graves, snow-buried, but marked by hand- hewn head-posts and undecipherable writing. On the edge of the woods was a small ramshackle cabin. He pulled the latch and entered. In a corner, on what had once been a bed of spruce-boughs, still wrapped in mangy furs, that had rotted to fragments, lay a skeleton. The last visitor to Surprise Lake, was Smoke’s conclusion, as he picked up a lump of gold as large as his doubled fist. Beside the lump was a pepper-can filled with nuggets of the size of walnuts, rough-surfaced, showing no signs of wash.
So true had the tale run, that Smoke accepted without question that the source of the gold was the lake’s bottom. Under many feet of ice and inaccessible, there was nothing to be done, and at mid-day, from the rim of the palisade, he took a farewell look back and down at his find.
"It’s all right, Mr Lake," he said. "You just keep right on staying there. I’m coming back to drain you–if that hoodoo doesn’t catch me. I don’t know how I got here, but I’ll know by the way I go out."
In a little valley, beside a frozen stream and under beneficent spruce trees, he built a fire four days later. Somewhere in that white anarchy he left behind him, was Surprise Lake–somewhere, he knew not where; for a hundred hours of driftage and struggle through blinding driving snow, had concealed his course from him, and he knew not in what direction lay BEHIND. It was as if he had just emerged from a nightmare. He was not sure that four days or a week had passed. He had slept with the dogs, fought across a forgotten number of shallow divides, followed the windings of weird canyons that ended in pockets, and twice had managed to make a fire and thaw out frozen moose-meat. And here he was, well-fed and well-camped. The storm had passed, and it had turned clear and cold. The lay of the land had again become rational. The creek he was on was natural in appearance, and trended as it should toward the southwest. But Surprise Lake was as lost to him as it had been to all its seekers in the past.
Half a day’s journey down the creek brought him to the valley of a larger stream which he decided was the McQuestion. Here he shot a moose, and once again each wolf-dog carried a full fifty-pound pack of meat. As he turned down the McQuestion, he came upon a sled- trail. The late snows had drifted over, but underneath, it was well-packed by travel. His conclusion was that two camps had been established on the McQuestion, and that this was the connecting trail. Evidently, Two Cabins had been found and it was the lower camp, so he headed down the stream.
It was forty below zero when he camped that night, and he fell asleep wondering who were the men who had rediscovered the Two Cabins, and if he would fetch it next day. At the first hint of dawn he was under way, easily following the half-obliterated trail and packing the recent snow with his webbed shoes so that the dogs should not wallow.
And then it came, the unexpected, leaping out upon him on a bend of the river. It seemed to him that he heard and felt simultaneously. The crack of the rifle came from the right, and the bullet, tearing through and across the shoulders of his drill parka and woolen coat, pivoted him half around with the shock of its impact. He staggered on his twisted snow-shoes to recover balance, and heard a second crack of the rifle. This time it was a clean miss. He did not wait for more, but plunged across the snow for the sheltering trees of the bank a hundred feet away. Again and again the rifle cracked, and he was unpleasantly aware of a trickle of warm moisture down his back.
He climbed the bank, the dogs floundering behind, and dodged in among the trees and brush. Slipping out of his snow-shoes, he wallowed forward at full length and peered cautiously out. Nothing was to be seen. Whoever had shot at him was lying quiet among the trees of the opposite bank.
"If something doesn’t happen pretty soon," he muttered at the end of half an hour, "I’ll have to sneak away and build a fire or freeze my feet. Yellow Face, what’d you do, lying in the frost with circulation getting slack and a man trying to plug you?"
He crawled back a few yards, packed down the snow, danced a jig that sent the blood back into his feet, and managed to endure another half hour. Then, from down the river, he heard the unmistakable jingle of dog-bells. Peering out, he saw a sled round the bend. Only one man was with it, straining at the gee-pole and urging the dogs along. The effect on Smoke was one of shock, for it was the first human he had seen since he parted from Shorty three weeks before. His next thought was of the potential murderer concealed on the opposite bank.
Without exposing himself, Smoke whistled warningly. The man did not hear, and came on rapidly. Again, and more sharply, Smoke whistled. The man whoa’d his dogs, stopped, and had turned and faced Smoke when the rifle cracked. The instant afterwards, Smoke fired into the wood in the direction of the sound. The man on the river had been struck by the first shot. The shock of the high velocity bullet staggered him. He stumbled awkwardly to the sled, half- falling, and pulled a rifle out from under the lashings. As he strove to raise it to his shoulder, he crumpled at the waist and sank down slowly to a sitting posture on the sled. Then, abruptly, as the gun went off aimlessly, he pitched backward and across a corner of the sled-load, so that Smoke could see only his legs and stomach.
From below came more jingling bells. The man did not move. Around the bend swung three sleds, accompanied by half a dozen men. Smoke cried warningly, but they had seen the condition of the first sled, and they dashed on to it. No shots came from the other bank, and Smoke, calling his dogs to follow, emerged into the open. There were exclamations from the men, and two of them, flinging off the mittens of their right hands, leveled their rifles at him.
"Come on, you red-handed murderer, you," one of them, a black- bearded man, commanded, "an’ jest pitch that gun of yourn in the snow."
Smoke hesitated, then dropped his rifle and came up to them.
"Go through him, Louis, an’ take his weapons," the black-bearded man ordered.
Louis, a French-Canadian voyageur, Smoke decided, as were four of the others, obeyed. His search revealed only Smoke’s hunting knife, which was appropriated.
"Now, what have you got to say for yourself, Stranger, before I shoot you dead?" the black-bearded man demanded.
"That you’re making a mistake if you think I killed that man," Smoke answered.
A cry came from one of the voyageurs. He had quested along the trail and found Smoke’s tracks where he had left it to take refuge on the bank. The man explained the nature of his find.
"What’d you kill Joe Kinade for?" he of the black beard asked.
"I tell you I didn’t–" Smoke began.
"Aw, what’s the good of talkin’. We got you red-handed. Right up there’s where you left the trail when you heard him comin’. You laid among the trees an’ bushwhacked him. A short shot. You couldn’t a-missed. Pierre, go an’ get that gun he dropped."
"You might let me tell what happened," Smoke objected.
"You shut up," the man snarled at him. "I reckon your gun’ll tell the story."
All the men examined Smoke’s rifle, ejecting and counting the cartridges, and examining the barrel at muzzle and breech.
"One shot," Blackbeard concluded.
Pierre, with nostrils that quivered and distended like a deer’s, sniffed at the breech.
"Him one fresh shot," he said.
"The bullet entered his back," Smoke said. "He was facing me when he was shot. You see, it came from the other bank."
Blackbeard considered this proposition for a scant second, and shook his head.
"Nope. It won’t do. Turn him around to face the other bank–that’s how you whopped him in the back. Some of you boys run up an’ down the trail and see if you can see any tracks making for the other bank."
Their report was, that on that side the snow was unbroken. Not even a snow-shoe rabbit had crossed it. Blackbeard, bending over the dead man, straightened up, with a woolly, furry wad in his hand. Shredding this, he found imbedded in the centre the bullet which had perforated the body. Its nose was spread to the size of a half- dollar, its butt-end, steel-jacketed, was undamaged. He compared it with a cartridge from Smoke’s belt.
"That’s plain enough evidence, Stranger, to satisfy a blind man. It’s soft-nosed an’ steel-jacketed; yourn is soft-nosed and steel- jacketed. It’s thirty-thirty; yourn is thirty-thirty. It’s manufactured by the J. and T. Arms Company; yourn is manufactured by the J. and T. Arms Company. Now you come along an’ we’ll go over to the bank an’ see jest how you done it."
"I was bushwhacked myself," Smoke said. "Look at the hole in my parka."
While Blackbeard examined it, one of the voyageurs threw open the breech of the dead man’s gun. It was patent to all that it had been fired once. The empty cartridge was still in the chamber.
"A damn shame poor Joe didn’t get you," Blackbeard said bitterly. "But he did pretty well with a hole like that in him. Come on, you."
"Search the other bank first," Smoke urged.
"You shut up an’ come on, an’ let the facts do the talkin’."
They left the trail at the same spot he had, and followed it on up the bank and in among the trees.
"Him dance that place keep him feet warm," Louis pointed out. "That place him crawl on belly. That place him put one elbow w’en him shoot–"
"And by God there’s the empty cartridge he had done it with!" was Blackbeard’s discovery. "Boys, there’s only one thing to do–"
"You might ask me how I came to fire that shot," Smoke interrupted.
"An’ I might knock your teeth into your gullet if you butt in again. You can answer them questions later on. Now, boys, we’re decent an’ law-abidin’, an’ we got to handle this right an’ regular. How far do you reckon we’ve come, Pierre?"
"Twenty mile I t’ink for sure."
"All right. We’ll cache the outfit an’ run him an’ poor Joe back to Two Cabins. I reckon we’ve seen an’ can testify to what’ll stretch his neck."
It was three hours after dark when the dead man, Smoke, and his captors arrived at Two Cabins. By the starlight, Smoke could make out a dozen or more recently built cabins snuggling about a larger and older cabin on a flat by the river bank. Thrust inside this older cabin, he found it tenanted by a young giant of a man, his wife, and an old blind man. The woman, whom her husband called ’Lucy,’ was herself a strapping creature of the frontier type. The old man, as Smoke learned afterwards, had been a trapper on the Stewart for years, and had gone finally blind the winter before. The camp of Two Cabins, he was also to learn, had been made the previous fall by a dozen men who arrived in half as many poling- boats loaded with provisions. Here they had found the blind trapper, on the site of Two Cabins, and about his cabin they had built their own. Later arrivals, mushing up the ice with dog-teams, had tripled the population. There was plenty of meat in camp, and good low-pay dirt had been discovered and was being worked.
In five minutes, all the men of Two cabins were jammed into the room. Smoke, shoved off into a corner, ignored and scowled at, his hands and feet tied with thongs of moose-hide, looked on. Thirty- eight men he counted, a wild and husky crew, all frontiersmen of the States or voyageurs from Upper Canada. His captors told the tale over and over, each the centre of an excited and wrathful group. There were mutterings of "Lynch him now–why wait?" And, once, a big Irishman was restrained only by force from rushing upon the helpless prisoner and giving him a beating.
It was while counting the men that Smoke caught sight of a familiar face. It was Breck, the man whose boat Smoke had run through the rapids. He wondered why the other did not come and speak to him, but himself gave no sign of recognition. Later, when with shielded face Breck passed him a significant wink, Smoke understood.
Blackbeard, whom Smoke heard called Eli Harding, ended the discussion as to whether or not the prisoner should be immediately lynched.
"Hold on," Harding roared. "Keep your shirts on. That man belongs to me. I caught him an’ I brought him here. D’ye think I brought him all the way here to be lynched? Not on your life. I could a- done that myself when I found him. I brought him here for a fair an’ impartial trial, an’ by God, a fair an’ impartial trial he’s goin’ to get. He’s tied up safe an’ sound. Chuck him in a bunk till morning, an’ we’ll hold the trial right here."
Smoke woke up. A draught, that possessed all the rigidity of an icicle, was boring into the front of his shoulder as he lay on his side facing the wall. When he had been tied into the bunk there had been no such draught, and now the outside air, driving into the heated atmosphere of the cabin with the pressure of fifty below zero, was sufficient advertisement that some one from without had pulled away the moss-chinking between the logs. He squirmed as far as his bonds would permit, then craned his neck forward until his lips just managed to reach the crack.
"Who is it?" he whispered.
"Breck," came the answer. "Be careful you don’t make a noise. I’m going to pass a knife in to you."
"No good," Smoke said. "I couldn’t use it. My hands are tied behind me and made fast to the leg of the bunk. Besides, you couldn’t get a knife through that crack. But something must be done. Those fellows are of a temper to hang me, and, of course, you know I didn’t kill that man."
"It wasn’t necessary to mention it, Smoke. And if you did you had your reasons. Which isn’t the point at all. I want to get you out of this. It’s a tough bunch of men here. You’ve seen them. They’re shut off from the world, and they make and enforce their own law–by miner’s meeting, you know. They handled two men already– both grub-thieves. One they hiked from camp without an ounce of grub and no matches. He made about forty miles and lasted a couple of days before he froze stiff. Two weeks ago they hiked the second man. They gave him his choice: no grub, or ten lashes for each day’s ration. He stood for forty lashes before he fainted. And now they’ve got you, and every last one is convinced you killed Kinade."
"The man who killed Kinade, shot at me, too. His bullet broke the skin on my shoulder. Get them to delay the trial till some one goes up and searches the bank where the murderer hid."
"No use. They take the evidence of Harding and the five Frenchmen with him. Besides, they haven’t had a hanging yet, and they’re keen for it. You see, things have been pretty monotonous. They haven’t located anything big, and they got tired of hunting for Surprise Lake. They did some stampeding the first part of the winter, but they’ve got over that now. Scurvy is beginning to show up amongst them, too, and they’re just ripe for excitement."
"And it looks like I’ll furnish it," was Smoke’s comment. "Say, Breck, how did you ever fall in with such a God-forsaken bunch?"
"After I got the claims at Squaw Creek opened up and some men to working, I came up here by way of the Stewart, hunting for Two Cabins. They’d beaten me to it, so I’ve been higher up the Stewart. Just got back yesterday out of grub."
"Nothing much. But I think I’ve got a hydraulic proposition that’ll work big when the country’s opened up. It’s that, or a gold- dredger."
"Hold on," Smoke interrupted. "Wait a minute. Let me think."
He was very much aware of the snores of the sleepers as he pursued the idea that had flashed into his mind.
"Say, Breck, have they opened up the meat-packs my dogs carried?"
"A couple. I was watching. They put them in Harding’s cache."
"Did they find anything?"
"Good. You’ve got to get into the brown canvas pack that’s patched with moosehide. You’ll find a few pounds of lumpy gold. You’ve never seen gold like it in the country, nor has anybody else. Here’s what you’ve got to do. Listen."
A quarter of an hour later, fully instructed and complaining that his toes were freezing, Breck went away. Smoke, his own nose and one cheek frosted by proximity to the chink, rubbed them against the blankets for half an hour before the blaze and bite of the returning blood assured him of the safety of his flesh.
"My mind’s made up right now. There ain’t no doubt but what he killed Kinade. We heard the whole thing last night. What’s the good of goin’ over it again? I vote guilty."
In such fashion, Smoke’s trial began. The speaker, a loose-jointed, hard-rock man from Colorado, manifested irritation and disgust when Harding set his suggestion aside, demanded the proceedings should be regular, and nominated one, Shunk Wilson, for judge and chairman of the meeting. The population of Two Cabins constituted the jury, though, after some discussion, the woman, Lucy, was denied the right to vote on Smoke’s guilt or innocence.
While this was going on, Smoke, jammed into a corner on a bunk, overheard a whispered conversation between Breck and a miner.
"You haven’t fifty pounds of flour you’ll sell?" Breck queried.
"You ain’t got the dust to pay the price I’m askin’," was the reply.
"I’ll give you two hundred."
The man shook his head.
"Three hundred. Three-fifty."
At four hundred, the man nodded, and said: "Come on over to my cabin an’ weigh out the dust."
The two squeezed their way to the door, and slipped out. After a few minutes Breck returned alone.
Harding was testifying, when Smoke saw the door shoved open slightly, and in the crack appear the face of the man who had sold the flour. He was grimacing and beckoning emphatically to one inside, who arose from near the stove and started to work toward the door.
"Where are you goin’, Sam?" Shunk Wilson demanded.
"I’ll be back in a jiffy," Sam explained. "I jes’ got to go."
Smoke was permitted to question the witnesses, and he was in the middle of the cross-examination of Harding, when from without came the whining of dogs in harness, and the grind and churn of sled- runners. Somebody near the door peeped out.
"It’s Sam an’ his pardner an’ a dog-team hell-bent down the trail for Stewart River," the man reported.
Nobody spoke for a long half-minute, but men glanced significantly at one another, and a general restlessness pervaded the packed room. Out of the corner of his eye, Smoke caught a glimpse of Breck, Lucy, and her husband whispering together.
"Come on, you," Shunk Wilson said gruffly to Smoke. "Cut this questionin’ short. We know what you’re tryin’ to prove–that the other bank wasn’t searched. The witness admits it. We admit it. It wasn’t necessary. No tracks led to that bank. The snow wasn’t broke."
"There was a man on the other bank just the same," Smoke insisted.
"That’s too thin for skatin’, young man. There ain’t many of us on the McQuestion, an’ we got every man accounted for."
"Who was the man you hiked out of camp two weeks ago?" Smoke asked.
"Alonzo Miramar. He was a Mexican. What’s that grub-thief got to do with it?"
"Nothing, except that you haven’t accounted for HIM, Mr Judge."
"He went down the river, not up."
"How do you know where he went?"
"Saw him start."
"And that’s all you know of what became of him?"
"No, it ain’t, young man. I know, we all know, he had four day’s grub an’ no gun to shoot meat with. If he didn’t make the settlement on the Yukon he’d croaked long before this."
"I suppose you’ve got all the guns in this part of the country accounted for, too," Smoke observed pointedly.
Shunk Wilson was angry.
"You’d think I was the prisoner the way you slam questions into me. Come on with the next witness. Where’s French Louis?"
While French Louis was shoving forward, Lucy opened the door.
"Where you goin’?" Shunk Wilson shouted.
"I reckon I don’t have to stay," she answered defiantly. "I ain’t got no vote, an’ besides my cabin’s so jammed up I can’t breathe."
In a few minutes her husband followed. The closing of the door was the first warning the judge received of it.
"Who was that?" he interrupted Pierre’s narrative to ask.
"Bill Peabody," somebody spoke up. "Said he wanted to ask his wife something and was coming right back."
Instead of Bill, it was Lucy who re-entered, took off her furs, and resumed her place by the stove.
"I reckon we don’t need to hear the rest of the witnesses," was Shunk Wilson’s decision, when Pierre had finished. "We know they only can testify to the same facts we’ve already heard. Say, Sorensen, you go an’ bring Bill Peabody back. We’ll be votin’ a verdict pretty short. Now, Stranger, you can get up an’ say your say concernin’ what happened. In the meantime we’ll just be savin’ delay by passin’ around the two rifles, the ammunition, an’ the bullets that done the killin’."
Midway in his story of how he had arrived in that part of the country, and at the point in his narrative where he described his own ambush and how he had fled to the bank, Smoke was interrupted by the indignant Shunk Wilson.
"Young man, what sense is there in you testifyin’ that way? You’re just takin’ up valuable time. Of course you got the right to lie to save your neck, but we ain’t goin’ to stand for such foolishness. The rifle, the ammunition, the bullet that killed Joe Kinade is against you–What’s that? Open the door, somebody!"
The frost rushed in, taking form and substance in the heat of the room, while through the open door came the whining of dogs that decreased rapidly with distance.
"It’s Sorensen an’ Peabody," some one cried, "a-throwin’ the whip into the dawgs an’ headin’ down river!"
"Now, what the hell–!" Shunk Wilson paused, with dropped jaw, and glared at Lucy. "I reckon you can explain, Mrs Peabody."
She tossed her head and compressed her lips, and Shunk Wilson’s wrathful and suspicious gaze passed on and rested on Breck.
"An’ I reckon that new-comer you’ve ben chinning with could explain if HE had a mind to."
Breck, now very uncomfortable, found all eyes centred on him.
"Sam was chewing the rag with him, too, before he hit out," some one said.
"Look here, Mr Breck," Shunk Wilson continued. "You’ve ben interruptin’ proceedings, and you got to explain the meanin’ of it. What was you chinnin’ about?"
Breck cleared his throat timidly and replied. "I was just trying to buy some grub."
"Dust, of course."
"Where’d you get it?"
Breck did not answer.
"He’s ben snoopin’ around up the Stewart," a man volunteered. "I run across his camp a week ago when I was huntin’. An’ I want to tell you he was almighty secretious about it."
"The dust didn’t come from there," Breck said. "That’s only a low- grade hydraulic proposition."
"Bring your poke here an’ let’s see your dust," Wilson commanded.
"I tell you it didn’t come from there."
"Let’s see it just the same."
Breck made as if to refuse, but all about him were menacing faces. Reluctantly, he fumbled in his coat pocket. In the act of drawing forth a pepper can, it rattled against what was evidently a hard object.
"Fetch it all out!" Shunk Wilson thundered.
And out came the big nugget, first-size, yellow as no gold any onlooker had ever seen. Shunk Wilson gasped. Half a dozen, catching one glimpse, made a break for the door. They reached it at the same moment, and, with cursing and scuffling, jammed and pivoted through. The judge emptied the contents of the pepper can on the table, and the sight of the rough lump-gold sent half a dozen more toward the door.
"Where are you goin’?" Eli Harding asked, as Shunk started to follow.
"For my dogs, of course."
"Ain’t you goin’ to hang him?"
"It’d take too much time right now. He’ll keep till we get back, so I reckon this court is adjourned. This ain’t no place for lingerin’."
Harding hesitated. He glanced savagely at Smoke, saw Pierre beckoning to Louis from the doorway, took one last look at the lump- gold on the table, and decided.
"No use you tryin’ to get away," he flung back over his shoulder. "Besides, I’m goin’ to borrow your dogs."
"What is it–another one of them blamed stampedes?" the old blind trapper asked in a queer and petulant falsetto, as the cries of men and dogs and the grind of the sleds swept the silence of the room.
"It sure is," Lucy answered. "An’ I never seen gold like it. Feel that, old man."
She put the big nugget in his hand. He was but slightly interested.
"It was a good fur-country," he complained, "before them danged miners come in an’ scared back the game."
The door opened, and Breck entered.
"Well," he said, "we four are all that are left in camp. It’s forty miles to the Stewart by the cut-off I broke, and the fastest of them can’t make the round trip in less than five or six days. But it’s time you pulled out, Smoke, just the same."
Breck drew his hunting knife across the other’s bonds, and glanced at the woman.
"I hope you don’t object?" he said, with significant politeness.
"If there’s goin’ to be any shootin’," the blind man broke out, "I wish somebody’d take me to another cabin first."
"Go on, an’ don’t mind me," Lucy answered. "If I ain’t good enough to hang a man, I ain’t good enough to hold him."
Smoke stood up, rubbing his wrists where the thongs had impeded the circulation.
"I’ve got a pack all ready for you," Breck said. "Ten days’ grub, blankets, matches, tobacco, an axe, and a rifle."
"Go to it," Lucy encouraged. "Hit the high places, Stranger. Beat it as fast as God’ll let you."
"I’m going to have a square meal before I start," Smoke said. "And when I start it will be up the McQuestion, not down. I want you to go along with me, Breck. We’re going to search that other bank for the man that really did the killing."
"If you’ll listen to me, you’ll head down for the Stewart and the Yukon," Breck objected. "When this gang gets back from my low-grade hydraulic proposition, it will be seeing red."
Smoke laughed and shook his head.
"I can’t jump this country, Breck. I’ve got interests here. I’ve got to stay and make good. I don’t care whether you believe me or not, but I’ve found Surprise Lake. That’s where that gold came from. Besides, they took my dogs, and I’ve got to wait to get them back. Also, I know what I’m about. There was a man hidden on that bank. He came pretty close to emptying his magazine at me."
Half an hour afterward, with a big plate of moose-steak before him and a big mug of coffee at his lips, Smoke half-started up from his seat. He had heard the sounds first. Lucy threw open the door.
"Hello, Spike; hello, Methody," she greeted the two frost-rimed men who were bending over the burden on their sled.
"We just come down from Upper Camp," one said, as the pair staggered into the room with a fur-wrapped object which they handled with exceeding gentleness. "An’ this is what we found by the way. He’s all in, I guess."
"Put him in the near bunk there," Lucy said. She bent over and pulled back the furs, disclosing a face composed principally of large, staring, black eyes, and of skin, dark and scabbed by repeated frost-bite, tightly stretched across the bones.
"If it ain’t Alonzo!" she cried. "You pore, starved devil!"
"That’s the man on the other bank," Smoke said in an undertone to Breck.
"We found it raidin’ a cache that Harding must a-made," one of the men was explaining. "He was eatin’ raw flour an’ frozen bacon, an’ when we got ’m he was cryin’ an’ squealin’ like a hawk. Look at him! He’s all starved, an’ most of him frozen. He’ll kick at any moment."
Half an hour later, when the furs had been drawn over the face of the still form in the bunk, Smoke turned to Lucy.
"If you don’t mind, Mrs Peabody, I’ll have another whack at that steak. Make it thick and not so well done."
6. A FLUTTER IN EGGS
It was in the A. C. Company’s big store at Dawson, on a morning of crisp frost, that Lucille Arral beckoned Smoke Bellew over to the dry-goods counter. The clerk had gone on an expedition into the storerooms, and, despite the huge, red-hot stoves, Lucille had drawn on her mittens again.
Smoke obeyed her call with alacrity. The man did not exist in Dawson who would not have been flattered by the notice of Lucille Arral, the singing soubrette of the tiny stock company that performed nightly at the Palace Opera House.
"Things are dead," she complained, with pretty petulance, as soon as they had shaken hands. "There hasn’t been a stampede for a week. That masked ball Skiff Mitchell was going to give us has been postponed. There’s no dust in circulation. There’s always standing-room now at the Opera House. And there hasn’t been a mail from the Outside for two whole weeks. In short, this burg has crawled into its cave and gone to sleep. We’ve got to do something. It needs livening – and you and I can do it. We can give it excitement if anybody can. I’ve broken with Wild Water, you know."
Smoke caught two almost simultaneous visions. One was of Joy Gastell; the other was of himself, in the midst of a bleak snow-stretch, under a cold arctic moon, being pot-shotted with accurateness and dispatch by the aforesaid Wild Water. Smoke’s reluctance at raising excitement with the aid of Lucille Arral was too patent for her to miss.
"I’m not thinking what you are thinking at all, thank you," she chided, with a laugh and a pout. "When I throw myself at your head you’ll have to have more eyes and better ones than you have now to see me."
"Men have died of heart disease at the sudden announcement of good fortune," he murmured in the unveracious gladness of relief.
"Liar," she retorted graciously. "You were more scared to death than anything else. Now take it from me, Mr. Smoke Bellew, I’m not going to make love to you, and if you dare to make love to me, Wild Water will take care of your case. You know HIM. Besides, I – I haven’t really broken with him."
"Go on with your puzzles," he jeered. "Maybe I can start guessing what you’re driving at after a while."
"There’s no guessing, Smoke. I’ll give it to you straight. Wild Water thinks I’ve broken with him, don’t you see."
"Well, have you, or haven’t you?"
"I haven’t – there! But it’s between you and me in confidence. He thinks I have. I made a noise like breaking with him, and he deserved it, too."
"Where do I come in, stalking-horse or fall-guy?"
"Neither. You make a pot of money, we put across the laugh on Wild Water and cheer Dawson up, and, best of all, and the reason for it all, he gets disciplined. He needs it. He’s – well, the best way to put it is, he’s too turbulent. Just because he’s a big husky, because he owns more rich claims than he can keep count of – "
"And because he’s engaged to the prettiest little woman in Alaska," Smoke interpolated.
"Yes, and because of that, too, thank you, is no reason for him to get riotous. He broke out last night again. Sowed the floor of the M. & M. with gold-dust. All of a thousand dollars. Just opened his poke and scattered it under the feet of the dancers. You’ve heard of it, of course."
"Yes; this morning. I’d like to be the sweeper in that establishment. But still I don’t get you. Where do I come in?"
"Listen. He was too turbulent. I broke our engagement, and he’s going around making a noise like a broken heart. Now we come to it. I like eggs."
"They’re off!" Smoke cried in despair. "Which way? Which way?"
"But what have eggs and appetite got to do with it?" he demanded.
"Everything, if you’ll only listen."
"Listening, listening," he chanted.
"Then for Heaven’s sake listen. I like eggs. There’s only a limited supply of eggs in Dawson."
"Sure. I know that, too. Slavovitch’s restaurant has most of them. Ham and one egg, three dollars. Ham and two eggs, five dollars. That means two dollars an egg, retail. And only the swells and the Arrals and the Wild Waters can afford them."
"He likes eggs, too," she continued. "But that’s not the point. I like them. I have breakfast every morning at eleven o’clock at Slavovitch’s. I invariably eat two eggs." She paused impressively. "Suppose, just suppose, somebody corners eggs."
She waited, and Smoke regarded her with admiring eyes, while in his heart he backed with approval Wild Water’s choice of her.
"You’re not following," she said.
"Go on," he replied. "I give up. What’s the answer?"
"Stupid! You know Wild Water. When he sees I’m languishing for eggs, and I know his mind like a book, and I know how to languish, what will he do?"
"You answer it. Go on."
"Why, he’ll just start stampeding for the man that’s got the corner in eggs. He’ll buy the corner, no matter what it costs. Picture: I come into Slavovitch’s at eleven o’clock. Wild Water will be at the next table. He’ll make it his business to be there. ’Two eggs, shirred,’ I’ll say to the waiter. ’Sorry, Miss Arral,’ the waiter will say; ’they ain’t no more eggs.’ Then up speaks Wild Water, in that big bear voice of his, ’Waiter, six eggs, soft boiled.’ And the waiter says, ’Yes, sir,’ and the eggs are brought. Picture: Wild Water looks sideways at me, and I look like a particularly indignant icicle and summon the waiter. ’Sorry, Miss Arral,’ he says, ’but them eggs is Mr. Wild Water’s. You see, Miss, he owns ’em.’ Picture: Wild Water, triumphant, doing his best to look unconscious while he eats his six eggs.
"Another picture: Slavovitch himself bringing two shirred eggs to me and saying, ’Compliments of Mr. Wild Water, Miss.’ What can I do? What can I possibly do but smile at Wild Water, and then we make up, of course, and he’ll consider it cheap if he has been compelled to pay ten dollars for each and every egg in the corner."
"Go on, go on," Smoke urged. "At what station do I climb onto the choo-choo cars, or at what water-tank do I get thrown off?"
"Ninny! You don’t get thrown off. You ride the egg-train straight into the Union Depot. You make that corner in eggs. You start in immediately, to-day. You can buy every egg in Dawson for three dollars and sell out to Wild Water at almost any advance. And then, afterward, we’ll let the inside history come out. The laugh will be on Wild Water. His turbulence will be some subdued. You and I share the glory of it. You make a pile of money. And Dawson wakes up with a grand ha! ha! Of course – if – if you think the speculation too risky, I’ll put up the dust for the corner."
This last was too much for Smoke. Being only a mere mortal Western man, with queer obsessions about money and women, he declined with scorn the proffer of her dust.
"Hey! Shorty!" Smoke called across the main street to his partner, who was trudging along in his swift, slack-jointed way, a naked bottle with frozen contents conspicuously tucked under his arm. Smoke crossed over.
"Where have you been all morning? Been looking for you everywhere."
"Up to Doc’s," Shorty answered, holding out the bottle. "Something’s wrong with Sally. I seen last night, at feedin’-time, the hair on her tail an’ flanks was fallin’ out. The Doc says – "
"Never mind that," Smoke broke in impatiently. "What I want – "
"What’s eatin’ you?" Shorty demanded in indignant astonishment. "An’ Sally gettin’ naked bald in this crimpy weather! I tell you that dog’s sick. Doc says – "
"Let Sally wait. Listen to me – "
"I tell you she can’t wait. It’s cruelty to animals. She’ll be frost-bit. What are you in such a fever about anyway? Has that Monte Cristo strike proved up?"
"I don’t know, Shorty. But I want you to do me a favor."
"Sure," Shorty said gallantly, immediately appeased and acquiescent. "What is it? Let her rip. Me for you."
"I want you to buy eggs for me – "
"Sure, an’ Floridy water an’ talcum powder, if you say the word. An’ poor Sally sheddin’ something scand’lous! Look here, Smoke, if you want to go in for high livin’ you go an’ buy your own eggs. Beans an’ bacon’s good enough for me."
"I am going to buy, but I want you to help me to buy. Now, shut up, Shorty. I’ve got the floor. You go right straight to Slavovitch’s. Pay as high as three dollars, but buy all he’s got."
"Three dollars!" Shorty groaned. "An’ I heard tell only yesterday that he’s got all of seven hundred in stock! Twenty-one hundred dollars for hen-fruit! Say, Smoke, I tell you what. You run right up and see the Doc. He’ll tend to your case. An’ he’ll only charge you an ounce for the first prescription. So-long, I gotta to be pullin’ my freight."
He started off, but Smoke caught his partner by the shoulder, arresting his progress and whirling him around.
"Smoke, I’d sure do anything for you," Shorty protested earnestly. "If you had a cold in the head an’ was layin’ with both arms broke, I’d set by your bedside, day an’ night, an’ wipe your nose for you. But I’ll be everlastin’ly damned if I’ll squander twenty-one hundred good iron dollars on hen-fruit for you or any other two-legged man."
"They’re not your dollars, but mine, Shorty. It’s a deal I have on. What I’m after is to corner every blessed egg in Dawson, in the Klondike, on the Yukon. You’ve got to help me out. I haven’t the time to tell you of the inwardness of the deal. I will afterward, and let you go half on it if you want to. But the thing right now is to get the eggs. Now you hustle up to Slavovitch’s and buy all he’s got."
"But what’ll I tell ’m? He’ll sure know I ain’t goin’ to eat ’em."
"Tell him nothing. Money talks. He sells them cooked for two dollars. Offer him up to three for them uncooked. If he gets curious, tell him you’re starting a chicken ranch. What I want is the eggs. And then keep on; nose out every egg in Dawson and buy it. Understand? Buy it! That little joint across the street from Slavovitch’s has a few. Buy them. I’m going over to Klondike City. There’s an old man there, with a bad leg, who’s broke and who has six dozen. He’s held them all winter for the rise, intending to get enough out of them to pay his passage back to Seattle. I’ll see he gets his passage, and I’ll get the eggs. Now hustle. And they say that little woman down beyond the sawmill who makes moccasins has a couple of dozen."
"All right, if you say so, Smoke. But Slavovitch seems the main squeeze. I’ll just get an iron-bound option, black an’ white, an’ gather in the scatterin’ first."
"All right. Hustle. And I’ll tell you the scheme tonight."
But Shorty flourished the bottle. "I’m goin’ to doctor up Sally first. The eggs can wait that long. If they ain’t all eaten, they won’t be eaten while I’m takin’ care of a poor sick dog that’s saved your life an’ mine more ’n once."
Never was a market cornered more quickly. In three days every known egg in Dawson, with the exception of several dozen, was in the hands of Smoke and Shorty. Smoke had been more liberal in purchasing. He unblushingly pleaded guilty to having given the old man in Klondike City five dollars apiece for his seventy-two eggs. Shorty had bought most of the eggs, and he had driven bargains. He had given only two dollars an egg to the woman who made moccasins, and he prided himself that he had come off fairly well with Slavovitch, whose seven hundred and fifteen eggs he had bought at a flat rate of two dollars and a half. On the other hand, he grumbled because the little restaurant across the street had held him up for two dollars and seventy-five cents for a paltry hundred and thirty-four eggs.
The several dozen not yet gathered in were in the hands of two persons. One, with whom Shorty was dealing, was an Indian woman who lived in a cabin on the hill back of the hospital.
"I’ll get her to-day," Shorty announced next morning. "You wash the dishes, Smoke. I’ll be back in a jiffy, if I don’t bust myself a-shovin’ dust at her. Gimme a man to deal with every time. These blamed women – it’s something sad the way they can hold out on a buyer. The only way to get ’em is sellin’. Why, you’d think them eggs of hern was solid nuggets."
In the afternoon, when Smoke returned to the cabin, he found Shorty squatted on the floor, rubbing ointment into Sally’s tail, his countenance so expressionless that it was suspicious.
"What luck?" Shorty asked carelessly, after several minutes had passed.
"Nothing doing," Smoke answered. "How did you get on with the squaw?"
Shorty cocked his head triumphantly toward a tin pail of eggs on the table. "Seven dollars a clatter, though," he confessed, after another minute of silent rubbing.
"I offered ten dollars finally," Smoke said, "and then the fellow told me he’d already sold his eggs. Now that looks bad, Shorty. Somebody else is in the market. Those twenty-eight eggs are liable to cause us trouble. You see, the success of the corner consists in holding every last – "
He broke off to stare at his partner. A pronounced change was coming over Shorty – one of agitation masked by extreme deliberation. He closed the salve-box, wiped his hands slowly and thoroughly on Sally’s furry coat, stood up, went over to the corner and looked at the thermometer, and came back again. He spoke in a low, toneless, and super-polite voice.
"Do you mind kindly just repeating over how many eggs you said the man didn’t sell to you?" he asked.
"Hum," Shorty communed to himself, with a slight duck of the head of careless acknowledgment. Then he glanced with slumbering anger at the stove. "Smoke, we’ll have to dig up a new stove. That fire-box is burned plumb into the oven so it blacks the biscuits."
"Let the fire-box alone," Smoke commanded, "and tell me what’s the matter."
"Matter? An’ you want to know what’s the matter? Well, kindly please direct them handsome eyes of yourn at that there pail settin’ on the table. See it?"
"Well, I want to tell you one thing, just one thing. They’s just exactly, preecisely, nor nothin’ more or anythin’ less’n twenty-eight eggs in the pail, an’ they cost, every danged last one of ’em, just exactly seven great big round iron dollars a throw. If you stand in cryin’ need of any further items of information, I’m willin’ and free to impart."
"Go on," Smoke requested.
"Well, that geezer you was dickerin’ with is a big buck Indian. Am I right?"
Smoke nodded, and continued to nod to each question.
"He’s got one cheek half gone where a bald-face grizzly swatted him. Am I right? He’s a dog-trader – right, eh? His name is Scar-Face Jim. That’s so, ain’t it? D’ye get my drift?"
"You mean we’ve been bidding –?"
"Against each other. Sure thing. That squaw’s his wife, an’ they keep house on the hill back of the hospital. I could ’a’ got them eggs for two a throw if you hadn’t butted in."
"And so could I," Smoke laughed, "if you’d kept out, blame you! But it doesn’t amount to anything. We know that we’ve got the corner. That’s the big thing."
Shorty spent the next hour wrestling with a stub of a pencil on the margin of a three-year-old newspaper, and the more interminable and hieroglyphic grew his figures the more cheerful he became.
"There she stands," he said at last. "Pretty? I guess yes. Lemme give you the totals. You an’ me has right now in our possession exactly nine hundred an’ seventy-three eggs. They cost us exactly two thousand, seven hundred an’ sixty dollars, reckonin’ dust at sixteen an ounce an’ not countin’ time. An’ now listen to me. If we stick up Wild Water for ten dollars a egg we stand to win, clean net an’ all to the good, just exactly six thousand nine hundred and seventy dollars. Now that’s a book-makin’ what is, if anybody should ride up on a dog-sled an’ ask you. An’ I’m in half on it! Put her there, Smoke. I’m that thankful I’m sure droolin’ gratitude. Book-makin’! Say, I’d sooner run with the chicks than the ponies any day."
At eleven that night Smoke was routed from sound sleep by Shorty, whose fur parka exhaled an atmosphere of keen frost and whose hand was extremely cold in its contact with Smoke’s cheek.
"What is it now?" Smoke grumbled. "Rest of Sally’s hair fallen out?"
"Nope. But I just had to tell you the good news. I seen Slavovitch. Or Slavovitch seen me, I guess, because he started the seance. He says to me: ’Shorty, I want to speak to you about them eggs. I’ve kept it quiet. Nobody knows I sold ’em to you. But if you’re speculatin’, I can put you wise to a good thing.’ An’ he did, too, Smoke. Now what’d you guess that good thing is?"
"Go on. Name it."
"Well, maybe it sounds incredible, but that good thing was Wild Water Charley. He’s lookin’ to buy eggs. He goes around to Slavovitch an’ offers him five dollars an egg, an’ before he quits he’s offerin’ eight. An’ Slavovitch ain’t got no eggs. Last thing Wild Water says to Slavovitch is that he’ll beat the head offen him if he ever finds out Slavovitch has eggs cached away somewheres. Slavovitch had to tell ’m he’d sold the eggs, but that the buyer was secret.
"Slavovitch says to let him say the word to Wild Water who’s got the eggs. ’Shorty,’ he says to me, ’Wild Water’ll come a-runnin’. You can hold him up for eight dollars.’ ’Eight dollars, your grandmother,’ I says. ’He’ll fall for ten before I’m done with him.’ Anyway, I told Slavovitch I’d think it over and let him know in the mornin’. Of course we’ll let ’m pass the word on to Wild Water. Am I right?"
"You certainly are, Shorty. First thing in the morning tip off Slavovitch. Have him tell Wild Water that you and I are partners in the deal."
Five minutes later Smoke was again aroused by Shorty.
"Say! Smoke! Oh, Smoke!"
"Not a cent less than ten a throw. Do you get that?"
"Sure thing – all right," Smoke returned sleepily.
In the morning Smoke chanced upon Lucille Arral again at the dry-goods counter of the A. C. Store.
"It’s working," he jubilated. "It’s working. Wild Water’s been around to Slavovitch, trying to buy or bully eggs out of him. And by this time Slavovitch has told him that Shorty and I own the corner."
Lucille Arral’s eyes sparkled with delight. "I’m going to breakfast right now," she cried. "And I’ll ask the waiter for eggs, and be so plaintive when there aren’t any as to melt a heart of stone. And you know Wild Water’s been around to Slavovitch, trying to buy the corner if it costs him one of his mines. I know him. And hold out for a stiff figure. Nothing less than ten dollars will satisfy me, and if you sell for anything less, Smoke, I’ll never forgive you."
That noon, up in their cabin, Shorty placed on the table a pot of beans, a pot of coffee, a pan of sourdough biscuits, a tin of butter and a tin of condensed cream, a smoking platter of moose-meat and bacon, a plate of stewed dried peaches, and called: "Grub’s ready. Take a slant at Sally first."
Smoke put aside the harness on which he was sewing, opened the door, and saw Sally and Bright spiritedly driving away a bunch of foraging sled-dogs that belonged to the next cabin. Also he saw something else that made him close the door hurriedly and dash to the stove. The frying-pan, still hot from the moose-meat and bacon, he put back on the front lid. Into the frying-pan he put a generous dab of butter, then reached for an egg, which he broke and dropped spluttering into the pan. As he reached for a second egg, Shorty gained his side and clutched his arm in an excited grip.
"Hey! What you doin’?" he demanded.
"Frying eggs," Smoke informed him, breaking the second one and throwing off Shorty’s detaining hand. "What’s the matter with your eyesight? Did you think I was combing my hair?"
"Don’t you feel well?" Shorty queried anxiously, as Smoke broke a third egg and dexterously thrust him back with a stiff-arm jolt on the breast. "Or are you just plain loco? That’s thirty dollars’ worth of eggs already."
"And I’m going to make it sixty dollars’ worth," was the answer, as Smoke broke the fourth. "Get out of the way, Shorty. Wild Water’s coming up the hill, and he’ll be here in five minutes."
Shorty sighed vastly with commingled comprehension and relief, and sat down at the table. By the time the expected knock came at the door, Smoke was facing him across the table, and, before each, was a plate containing three hot, fried eggs.
"Come in!" Smoke called.
Wild Water Charley, a strapping young giant just a fraction of an inch under six feet in height and carrying a clean weight of one hundred and ninety pounds, entered and shook hands.
"Set down an’ have a bite, Wild Water," Shorty invited. "Smoke, fry him some eggs. I’ll bet he ain’t scoffed an egg in a coon’s age."
Smoke broke three more eggs into the hot pan, and in several minutes placed them before his guest, who looked at them with so strange and strained an expression that Shorty confessed afterward his fear that Wild Water would slip them into his pocket and carry them away.
"Say, them swells down in the States ain’t got nothin’ over us in the matter of eats," Shorty gloated. "Here’s you an’ me an’ Smoke gettin’ outside ninety dollars’ worth of eggs an’ not battin’ an eye."
Wild Water stared at the rapidly disappearing eggs and seemed petrified.
"Pitch in an’ eat," Smoke encouraged.
"They – they ain’t worth no ten dollars," Wild Water said slowly.
Shorty accepted the challenge. "A thing’s worth what you can get for it, ain’t it?" he demanded.
"Yes, but – "
"But nothin’. I’m tellin’ you what we can get for ’em. Ten a throw, just like that. We’re the egg trust, Smoke an’ me, an’ don’t you forget it. When we say ten a throw, ten a throw goes." He mopped his plate with a biscuit. "I could almost eat a couple more," he sighed, then helped himself to the beans.
"You can’t eat eggs like that," Wild Water objected. "It – it ain’t right."
"We just dote on eggs, Smoke an’ me," was Shorty’s excuse.
Wild Water finished his own plate in a half-hearted way and gazed dubiously at the two comrades. "Say, you fellows can do me a great favor," he began tentatively. "Sell me, or lend me, or give me, about a dozen of them eggs."
"Sure," Smoke answered. "I know what a yearning for eggs is myself. But we’re not so poor that we have to sell our hospitality. They’ll cost you nothing – " Here a sharp kick under the table admonished him that Shorty was getting nervous. "A dozen, did you say, Wild Water?"
Wild Water nodded.
"Go ahead, Shorty," Smoke went on. "Cook them up for him. I can sympathize. I’ve seen the time myself when I could eat a dozen, straight off the bat."
But Wild Water laid a restraining hand on the eager Shorty as he explained. "I don’t mean cooked. I want them with the shells on."
"So that you can carry ’em away?"
"That’s the idea."
"But that ain’t hospitality," Shorty objected. "It’s – it’s tradin’."
Smoke nodded concurrence. "That’s different, Wild Water. I thought you just wanted to eat them. You see, we went into this for a speculation."
The dangerous blue of Wild Water’s eyes began to grow more dangerous. "I’ll pay you for them," he said sharply. "How much?"
"Oh, not a dozen," Smoke replied. "We couldn’t sell a dozen. We’re not retailers; we’re speculators. We can’t break our own market. We’ve got a hard and fast corner, and when we sell out it’s the whole corner or nothing."
"How many have you got, and how much do you want for them?"
"How many have we, Shorty?" Smoke inquired.
Shorty cleared his throat and performed mental arithmetic aloud. "Lemme see. Nine hundred an’ seventy-three minus nine, that leaves nine hundred an’ sixty-two. An’ the whole shootin’-match, at ten a throw, will tote up just about nine thousand six hundred an’ twenty iron dollars. Of course, Wild Water, we’re playin’ fair, an’ it’s money back for bad ones, though they ain’t none. That’s one thing I never seen in the Klondike – a bad egg. No man’s fool enough to bring in a bad egg."
"That’s fair," Smoke added. "Money back for the bad ones, Wild Water. And there’s our proposition – nine thousand six hundred and twenty dollars for every egg in the Klondike."
"You might play them up to twenty a throw an’ double your money," Shorty suggested.
Wild Water shook his head sadly and helped himself to the beans. "That would be too expensive, Shorty. I only want a few. I’ll give you ten dollars for a couple of dozen. I’ll give you twenty – but I can’t buy ’em all."
"All or none," was Smoke’s ultimatum.
"Look here, you two," Wild Water said in a burst of confidence. "I’ll be perfectly honest with you, an’ don’t let it go any further. You know Miss Arral an’ I was engaged. Well, she’s broken everything off. You know it. Everybody knows it. It’s for her I want them eggs."
"Huh!" Shorty jeered. "It’s clear an’ plain why you want ’em with the shells on. But I never thought it of you."
"It’s low-down mean, that’s what it is," Shorty rushed on, virtuously indignant. "I wouldn’t wonder somebody filled you full of lead for it, an’ you’d deserve it, too."
Wild Water began to flame toward the verge of one of his notorious Berserker rages. His hands clenched until the cheap fork in one of them began to bend, while his blue eyes flashed warning sparks. "Now look here, Shorty, just what do you mean? If you think anything underhanded – "
"I mean what I mean," Shorty retorted doggedly, "an’ you bet your sweet life I don’t mean anything underhanded. Overhand’s the only way to do it. You can’t throw ’em any other way."
"Eggs, prunes, baseballs, anything. But Wild Water, you’re makin’ a mistake. They ain’t no crowd ever sat at the Opery House that’ll stand for it. Just because she’s a actress is no reason you can publicly lambaste her with hen-fruit."
For the moment it seemed that Wild Water was going to burst or have apoplexy. He gulped down a mouthful of scalding coffee and slowly recovered himself.
"You’re in wrong, Shorty," he said with cold deliberation. "I’m not going to throw eggs at her. Why, man," he cried, with growing excitement, "I want to give them eggs to her, on a platter, shirred – that’s the way she likes ’em."
"I knowed I was wrong," Shorty cried generously, "I knowed you couldn’t do a low-down trick like that."
"That’s all right, Shorty," Wild Water forgave him. "But let’s get down to business. You see why I want them eggs. I want ’em bad."
"Do you want ’em ninety-six hundred an’ twenty dollars’ worth?" Shorty queried.
"It’s a hold-up, that’s what it is," Wild Water declared irately.
"It’s business," Smoke retorted. "You don’t think we’re peddling eggs for our health, do you?"
"Aw, listen to reason," Wild Water pleaded. "I only want a couple of dozen. I’ll give you twenty apiece for ’em. What do I want with all the rest of them eggs? I’ve went years in this country without eggs, an’ I guess I can keep on managin’ without ’em somehow."
"Don’t get het up about it," Shorty counseled. "If you don’t want ’em, that settles it. We ain’t a-forcin’ ’em on you."
"But I do want ’em," Wild Water complained.
"Then you know what they’ll cost you – ninety-six hundred an’ twenty dollars, an’ if my figurin’s wrong, I’ll treat."
"But maybe they won’t turn the trick," Wild Water objected. "Maybe Miss Arral’s lost her taste for eggs by this time."
"I should say Miss Arral’s worth the price of the eggs," Smoke put in quietly.
"Worth it!" Wild Water stood up in the heat of his eloquence. "She’s worth a million dollars. She’s worth all I’ve got. She’s worth all the dust in the Klondike." He sat down, and went on in a calmer voice. "But that ain’t no call for me to gamble ten thousand dollars on a breakfast for her. Now I’ve got a proposition. Lend me a couple of dozen of them eggs. I’ll turn ’em over to Slavovitch. He’ll feed ’em to her with my compliments. She ain’t smiled to me for a hundred years. If them eggs gets a smile for me, I’ll take the whole boiling off your hands."
"Will you sign a contract to that effect?" Smoke said quickly; for he knew that Lucille Arral had agreed to smile.
Wild Water gasped. "You’re almighty swift with business up here on the hill," he said, with a hint of a snarl.
"We’re only accepting your own proposition," Smoke answered.
"All right – bring on the paper – make it out, hard and fast," Wild Water cried in the anger of surrender.
Smoke immediately wrote out the document, wherein Wild Water agreed to take every egg delivered to him at ten dollars per egg, provided that the two dozen advanced to him brought about a reconciliation with Lucille Arral.
Wild Water paused, with uplifted pen, as he was about to sign. "Hold on," he said. "When I buy eggs I buy good eggs."
"They ain’t a bad egg in the Klondike," Shorty snorted.
"Just the same, if I find one bad egg you’ve got to come back with the ten I paid for it."
"That’s all right," Smoke placated. "It’s only fair."
"An’ every bad egg you come back with I’ll eat," Shorty declared.
Smoke inserted the word "good" in the contract, and Wild Water sullenly signed, received the trial two dozen in a tin pail, pulled on his mittens, and opened the door.
"Good-by, you robbers," he growled back at them, and slammed the door.
Smoke was a witness to the play next morning in Slavovitch’s. He sat, as Wild Water’s guest, at the table adjoining Lucille Arral’s. Almost to the letter, as she had forecast it, did the scene come off.
"Haven’t you found any eggs yet?" she murmured plaintively to the waiter.
"No, ma’am," came the answer. "They say somebody’s cornered every egg in Dawson. Mr. Slavovitch is trying to buy a few just especially for you. But the fellow that’s got the corner won’t let loose."
It was at this juncture that Wild Water beckoned the proprietor to him, and, with one hand on his shoulder, drew his head down. "Look here, Slavovitch," Wild Water whispered hoarsely, "I turned over a couple of dozen eggs to you last night. Where are they?"
"In the safe, all but that six I have all thawed and ready for you any time you sing out."
"I don’t want ’em for myself," Wild Water breathed in a still lower voice. "Shir ’em up and present ’em to Miss Arral there."
"I’ll attend to it personally myself," Slavovitch assured him.
"An’ don’t forget – compliments of me," Wild Water concluded, relaxing his detaining clutch on the proprietor’s shoulder.
Pretty Lucille Arral was gazing forlornly at the strip of breakfast bacon and the tinned mashed potatoes on her plate when Slavovitch placed before her two shirred eggs.
"Compliments of Mr. Wild Water," they at the next table heard him say.
Smoke acknowledged to himself that it was a fine bit of acting – the quick, joyous flash in the face of her, the impulsive turn of the head, the spontaneous forerunner of a smile that was only checked by a superb self-control which resolutely drew her face back so that she could say something to the restaurant proprietor.
Smoke felt the kick of Wild Water’s moccasined foot under the table.
"Will she eat ’em? – that’s the question – will she eat ’em?" the latter whispered agonizingly.
And with sidelong glances they saw Lucille Arral hesitate, almost push the dish from her, then surrender to its lure.
"I’ll take them eggs," Wild Water said to Smoke. "The contract holds. Did you see her? Did you see her! She almost smiled. I know her. It’s all fixed. Two more eggs to-morrow an’ she’ll forgive an’ make up. If she wasn’t here I’d shake hands, Smoke, I’m that grateful. You ain’t a robber; you’re a philanthropist."
Smoke returned jubilantly up the hill to the cabin, only to find Shorty playing solitaire in black despair. Smoke had long since learned that whenever his partner got out the cards for solitaire it was a warning signal that the bottom had dropped out of the world.
"Go ’way, don’t talk to me," was the first rebuff Smoke received.
But Shorty soon thawed into a freshet of speech.
"It’s all off with the big Swede," he groaned. "The corner’s busted. They’ll be sellin’ sherry an’ egg in all the saloons to-morrow at a dollar a flip. They ain’t no starvin’ orphan child in Dawson that won’t be wrappin’ its tummy around eggs. What d’ye think I run into? – a geezer with three thousan’ eggs – d’ye get me? Three thousan’, an’ just freighted in from Forty Mile."
"Fairy stories," Smoke doubted.
"Fairy hell! I seen them eggs. Gautereaux’s his name – a whackin’ big, blue-eyed French-Canadian husky. He asked for you first, then took me to the side and jabbed me straight to the heart. It was our cornerin’ eggs that got him started. He knowed about them three thousan’ at Forty Mile an’ just went an’ got ’em. ’Show ’em to me,’ I says. An’ he did. There was his dog-teams, an’ a couple of Indian drivers, restin’ down the bank where they’d just pulled in from Forty Mile. An’ on the sleds was soap-boxes – teeny wooden soap-boxes.
"We took one out behind a ice-jam in the middle of the river an’ busted it open. Eggs! – full of ’em, all packed in sawdust. Smoke, you an’ me lose. We’ve been gamblin’. D’ye know what he had the gall to say to me? – that they was all ourn at ten dollars a egg. D’ye know what he was doin’ when I left his cabin? – drawin’ a sign of eggs for sale. Said he’d give us first choice, at ten a throw, till 2 P. M., an’ after that, if we didn’t come across, he’d bust the market higher’n a kite. Said he wasn’t no business man, but that he knowed a good thing when he seen it – meanin’ you an’ me, as I took it."
"It’s all right," Smoke said cheerfully. "Keep your shirt on an’ let me think a moment. Quick action and team play is all that’s needed. I’ll get Wild Water here at two o’clock to take delivery of eggs. You buy that Gautereaux’s eggs. Try and make a bargain. Even if you pay ten dollars apiece for them, Wild Water will take them off our hands at the same price. If you can get them cheaper, why, we make a profit as well. Now go to it. Have them here by not later than two o’clock. Borrow Colonel Bowie’s dogs and take our team. Have them here by two sharp."
"Say, Smoke," Shorty called, as his partner started down the hill. "Better take an umbrella. I wouldn’t be none surprised to see the weather rainin’ eggs before you get back."
Smoke found Wild Water at the M. & M., and a stormy half-hour ensued.
"I warn you we’ve picked up some more eggs," Smoke said, after Wild Water had agreed to bring his dust to the cabin at two o’clock and pay on delivery.
"You’re luckier at finding eggs than me," Wild Water admitted. "Now, how many eggs have you got now? – an’ how much dust do I tote up the hill?"
Smoke consulted his notebook. "As it stands now, according to Shorty’s figures, we’ve three thousand nine hundred and sixty-two eggs. Multiply by ten – "
"Forty thousand dollars!" Wild Water bellowed. "You said there was only something like nine hundred eggs. It’s a stickup! I won’t stand for it!"
Smoke drew the contract from his pocket and pointed to the PAY ON DELIVERY. "No mention is made of the number of eggs to be delivered. You agreed to pay ten dollars for every egg we delivered to you. Well, we’ve got the eggs, and a signed contract is a signed contract. Honestly, though, Wild Water, we didn’t know about those other eggs until afterward. Then we had to buy them in order to make our corner good."
For five long minutes, in choking silence, Wild Water fought a battle with himself, then reluctantly gave in.
"I’m in bad," he said brokenly. "The landscape’s fair sproutin’ eggs. An’ the quicker I get out the better. There might come a landslide of ’em. I’ll be there at two o’clock. But forty thousand dollars!"
"It’s only thirty-nine thousand six hundred an’ twenty," Smoke corrected. "It’ll weigh two hundred pounds," Wild Water raved on. "I’ll have to freight it up with a dog-team."
"We’ll lend you our teams to carry the eggs away," Smoke volunteered.
"But where’ll I cache ’em? Never mind. I’ll be there. But as long as I live I’ll never eat another egg. I’m full sick of ’em."
At half-past one, doubling the dog-teams for the steep pitch of the hill, Shorty arrived with Gautereaux’s eggs. "We dang near double our winnings," Shorty told Smoke, as they piled the soap-boxes inside the cabin. "I holds ’m down to eight dollars, an’ after he cussed loco in French he falls for it. Now that’s two dollars clear profit to us for each egg, an’ they’re three thousan’ of ’em. I paid ’m in full. Here’s the receipt."
While Smoke got out the gold-scales and prepared for business, Shorty devoted himself to calculation.
"There’s the figgers," he announced triumphantly. "We win twelve thousan’ nine hundred an’ seventy dollars. An’ we don’t do Wild Water no harm. He wins Miss Arral. Besides, he gets all them eggs. It’s sure a bargain-counter all around. Nobody loses."
"Even Gautereaux’s twenty-four thousand to the good," Smoke laughed, "minus, of course, what the eggs and the freighting cost him. And if Wild Water plays the corner, he may make a profit out of the eggs himself."
Promptly at two o’clock, Shorty, peeping, saw Wild Water coming up the hill. When he entered he was brisk and businesslike. He took off his big bearskin coat, hung it on a nail, and sat down at the table.
"Bring on them eggs, you pirates," he commenced. "An’ after this day, if you know what’s good for you, never mention eggs to me again."
They began on the miscellaneous assortment of the original corner, all three men counting. When two hundred had been reached, Wild Water suddenly cracked an egg on the edge of the table and opened it deftly with his thumbs.
"Hey! Hold on!" Shorty objected.
"It’s my egg, ain’t it?" Wild Water snarled. "I’m paying ten dollars for it, ain’t I? But I ain’t buying no pig in a poke. When I cough up ten bucks an egg I want to know what I’m gettin’."
"If you don’t like it, I’ll eat it," Shorty volunteered maliciously.
Wild Water looked and smelled and shook his head. "No, you don’t, Shorty. That’s a good egg. Gimme a pail. I’m goin’ to eat it myself for supper."
Thrice again Wild Water cracked good eggs experimentally and put them in the pail beside him.
"Two more than you figgered, Shorty," he said at the end of the count. "Nine hundred an’ sixty-four, not sixty-two."
"My mistake," Shorty acknowledged handsomely. "We’ll throw ’em in for good measure."
"Guess you can afford to," Wild Water accepted grimly. "Pass the batch. Nine thousan’ six hundred an’ twenty dollars. I’ll pay for it now. Write a receipt, Smoke."
"Why not count the rest," Smoke suggested, "and pay all at once?"
Wild Water shook his head. "I’m no good at figgers. One batch at a time an’ no mistakes."
Going to his fur coat, from each of the side pockets he drew forth two sacks of dust, so rotund and long that they resembled bologna sausages. When the first batch had been paid for, there remained in the gold-sacks not more than several hundred dollars.
A soap-box was carried to the table, and the count of the three thousand began. At the end of one hundred, Wild Water struck an egg sharply against the edge of the table. There was no crack. The resultant sound was like that of the striking of a sphere of solid marble.
"Frozen solid," he remarked, striking more sharply.
He held the egg up, and they could see the shell powdered to minute fragments along the line of impact.
"Huh!" said Shorty. "It ought to be solid, seein’ it has just been freighted up from Forty Mile. It’ll take an ax to bust it."
"Me for the ax," said Wild Water.
Smoke brought the ax, and Wild Water, with the clever hand and eye of the woodsman, split the egg cleanly in half. The appearance of the egg’s interior was anything but satisfactory. Smoke felt a premonitory chill. Shorty was more valiant. He held one of the halves to his nose.
"Smells all right," he said.
"But it looks all wrong," Wild Water contended. "An’ how can it smell when the smell’s frozen along with the rest of it? Wait a minute."
He put the two halves into a frying-pan and placed the latter on the front lid of the hot stove. Then the three men, with distended, questing nostrils, waited in silence. Slowly an unmistakable odor began to drift through the room. Wild Water forbore to speak, and Shorty remained dumb despite conviction.
"Throw it out," Smoke cried, gasping.
"What’s the good?" asked Wild Water. "We’ve got to sample the rest."
"Not in this cabin." Smoke coughed and conquered a qualm. "Chop them open, and we can test by looking at them. Throw it out, Shorty – Throw it out! Phew! And leave the door open!"
Box after box was opened; egg after egg, chosen at random, was chopped in two; and every egg carried the same message of hopeless, irremediable decay.
"I won’t ask you to eat ’em, Shorty," Wild Water jeered, "an’ if you don’t mind, I can’t get outa here too quick. My contract called for GOOD eggs. If you’ll loan me a sled an’ team I’ll haul them good ones away before they get contaminated."
Smoke helped in loading the sled. Shorty sat at the table, the cards laid before him for solitaire.
"Say, how long you been holdin’ that corner?" was Wild Water’s parting gibe.
Smoke made no reply, and, with one glance at his absorbed partner, proceeded to fling the soap boxes out into the snow.
"Say, Shorty, how much did you say you paid for that three thousand?" Smoke queried gently.
"Eight dollars. Go ’way. Don’t talk to me. I can figger as well as you. We lose seventeen thousan’ on the flutter, if anybody should ride up on a dog-sled an’ ask you. I figgered that out while waitin’ for the first egg to smell."
Smoke pondered a few minutes, then again broke silence. "Say, Shorty. Forty thousand dollars gold weighs two hundred pounds. Wild Water borrowed our sled and team to haul away his eggs. He came up the hill without a sled. Those two sacks of dust in his coat pockets weighed about twenty pounds each. The understanding was cash on delivery. He brought enough dust to pay for the good eggs. He never expected to pay for those three thousand. He knew they were bad. Now how did he know they were bad? What do you make of it, anyway?"
Shorty gathered the cards, started to shuffle a new deal, then paused. "Huh! That ain’t nothin’. A child could answer it. We lose seventeen thousan’. Wild Water wins seventeen thousan’. Them eggs of Gautereaux’s was Wild Water’s all the time. Anything else you’re curious to know?"
"Yes. Why in the name of common sense didn’t you find out whether those eggs were good before you paid for them?"
"Just as easy as the first question. Wild Water swung the bunco game timed to seconds. I hadn’t no time to examine them eggs. I had to hustle to get ’em here for delivery. An’ now, Smoke, lemme ask you one civil question. What did you say was the party’s name that put this egg corner idea into your head?"
Shorty had lost the sixteenth consecutive game of solitaire, and Smoke was casting about to begin the preparation of supper, when Colonel Bowie knocked at the door, handed Smoke a letter, and went on to his own cabin.
"Did you see his face?" Shorty raved. "He was almost bustin’ to keep it straight. It’s the big ha! ha! for you an’ me, Smoke. We won’t never dast show our faces again in Dawson."
The letter was from Wild Water, and Smoke read it aloud:
Dear Smoke and Shorty: I write to ask, with compliments of the season, your presence at a supper to-night at Slavovitch’s joint. Miss Arral will be there and so will Gautereaux. Him and me was pardners down at Circle five years ago. He is all right and is going to be best man. About them eggs. They come into the country four years back. They was bad when they come in. They was bad when they left California. They always was bad. They stopped at Carluk one winter, and one winter at Nutlik, and last winter at Forty Mile, where they was sold for storage. And this winter I guess they stop at Dawson. Don’t keep them in a hot room. Lucille says to say you and her and me has sure made some excitement for Dawson. And I say the drinks is on you, and that goes.
Respectfully your friend,
"Well? What have you got to say?" Smoke queried. "We accept the invitation, of course?"
"I got one thing to say," Shorty answered. "An’ that is Wild Water won’t never suffer if he goes broke. He’s a good actor – a gosh-blamed good actor. An’ I got another thing to say: my figgers is all wrong. Wild Water wins seventeen thousan’ all right, but he wins more ’n that. You an’ me has made him a present of every good egg in the Klondike – nine hundred an’ sixty-four of ’em, two thrown in for good measure. An’ he was that ornery, mean cussed that he packed off the three opened ones in the pail. An’ I got a last thing to say. You an’ me is legitimate prospectors an’ practical gold-miners. But when it comes to fi-nance we’re sure the fattest suckers that ever fell for the get-rich-quick bunco. After this it’s you an’ me for the high rocks an’ tall timber, an’ if you ever mention eggs to me we dissolve pardnership there an’ then. Get me?"
7. THE TOWN-SITE OF TRA-LEE
Smoke and Shorty encountered each other, going in opposite directions, at the corner where stood the Elkhorn saloon. The former’s face wore a pleased expression, and he was walking briskly. Shorty, on the other hand, was slouching along in a depressed and indeterminate fashion.
"Whither away?" Smoke challenged gaily.
"Danged if I know," came the disconsolate answer. "Wisht I did. They ain’t nothin’ to take me anywheres. I’ve set two hours in the deadest game of draw – nothing excitin’, no hands, an’ broke even. Played a rubber of cribbage with Skiff Mitchell for the drinks, an’ now I’m that languid for somethin’ doin’ that I’m perambulatin’ the streets on the chance of seein’ a dogfight, or a argument, or somethin’."
"I’ve got something better on hand," Smoke answered. "That’s why I was looking for you. Come on along."
"Across the river to make a call on old Dwight Sanderson."
"Never heard of him," Shorty said dejectedly. "An’ never heard of no one living across the river anyway. What’s he want to live there for? Ain’t he got no sense?"
"He’s got something to sell," Smoke laughed.
"Dogs? A gold-mine? Tobacco? Rubber boots?"
Smoke shook his head to each question. "Come along on and find out, because I’m going to buy it from him on a spec, and if you want you can come in half."
"Don’t tell me it’s eggs!" Shorty cried, his face twisted into an expression of facetious and sarcastic alarm.
"Come on along," Smoke told him. "And I’ll give you ten guesses while we’re crossing the ice."
They dipped down the high bank at the foot of the street and came out upon the ice-covered Yukon. Three-quarters of a mile away, directly opposite, the other bank of the stream uprose in precipitous bluffs hundreds of feet in height. Toward these bluffs, winding and twisting in and out among broken and upthrown blocks of ice, ran a slightly traveled trail. Shorty trudged at Smoke’s heels, beguiling the time with guesses at what Dwight Sanderson had to sell.
"Reindeer? Copper-mine or brick-yard? That’s one guess. Bear-skins, or any kind of skins? Lottery tickets? A potato-ranch?"
"Getting near it," Smoke encouraged. "And better than that."
"Two potato-ranches? A cheese-factory? A moss-farm?"
"That’s not so bad, Shorty. It’s not a thousand miles away."
"That’s as near as the moss-farm and the potato-ranch."
"Hold on. Let me think. I got one guess comin’." Ten silent minutes passed. "Say, Smoke, I ain’t goin’ to use that last guess. When this thing you’re buyin’ sounds like a potato-ranch, a moss-farm, and a stone-quarry, I quit. An’ I don’t go in on the deal till I see it an’ size it up. What is it?"
"Well, you’ll see the cards on the table soon enough. Kindly cast your eyes up there. Do you see the smoke from that cabin? That’s where Dwight Sanderson lives. He’s holding down a town-site location."
"What else is he holdin’ down?"
"That’s all," Smoke laughed. "Except rheumatism. I hear he’s been suffering from it."
"Say!" Shorty’s hand flashed out and with an abrupt shoulder grip brought his comrade to a halt. "You ain’t telling me you’re buyin’ a town-site at this fallin’-off place?"
"That’s your tenth guess, and you win. Come on."
"But wait a moment," Shorty pleaded. "Look at it – nothin’ but bluffs an’ slides, all up-and-down. Where could the town stand?"
"Then you ain’t buyin’ it for a town?"
"But Dwight Sanderson’s selling it for a town," Smoke baffled. "Come on. We’ve got to climb this slide."
The slide was steep, and a narrow trail zigzagged up it on a formidable Jacob’s ladder. Shorty moaned and groaned over the sharp corners and the steep pitches.
"Think of a town-site here. They ain’t a flat space big enough for a postage-stamp. An’ it’s the wrong side of the river. All the freightin’ goes the other way. Look at Dawson there. Room to spread for forty thousand more people. Say, Smoke. You’re a meat-eater. I know that. An’ I know you ain’t buyin’ it for a town. Then what in Heaven’s name are you buyin’ it for?"
"To sell, of course."
"But other folks ain’t as crazy as old man Sanderson an’ you."
"Maybe not in the same way, Shorty. Now I’m going to take this town-site, break it up in parcels, and sell it to a lot of sane people who live over in Dawson."
"Huh! All Dawson’s still laughing at you an’ me an’ them eggs. You want to make ’em laugh some more, hey?"
"I certainly do."
"But it’s too danged expensive, Smoke. I helped you make ’em laugh on the eggs, an’ my share of the laugh cost me nearly nine thousan’ dollars."
"All right. You don’t have to come in on this. The profits will be all mine, but you’ve got to help me just the same."
"Oh, I’ll help all right. An’ they can laugh at me some more. But nary a ounce do I drop this time.
"What’s old Sanderson holdin’ it at? A couple of hundred?"
"Ten thousand. I ought to get it for five."
"Wisht I was a minister," Shorty breathed fervently.
"So I could preach the gosh-dangdest, eloquentest sermon on a text you may have hearn – to wit: a fool an’ his money."
"Come in," they heard Dwight Sanderson yell irritably, when they knocked at his door, and they entered to find him squatted by a stone fireplace and pounding coffee wrapped in a piece of flour-sacking.
"What d’ye want?" he demanded harshly, emptying the pounded coffee into the coffee-pot that stood on the coals near the front of the fireplace.
"To talk business," Smoke answered. "You’ve a town-site located here, I understand. What do you want for it?"
"Ten thousand dollars," came the answer. "And now that I’ve told you, you can laugh, and get out. There’s the door. Good-by."
"But I don’t want to laugh. I know plenty of funnier things to do than to climb up this cliff of yours. I want to buy your town-site."
"You do, eh? Well, I’m glad to hear sense." Sanderson came over and sat down facing his visitors, his hands resting on the table and his eyes cocking apprehensively toward the coffee-pot. "I’ve told you my price, and I ain’t ashamed to tell you again – ten thousand. And you can laugh or buy, it’s all one to me."
To show his indifference he drummed with his knobby knuckles on the table and stared at the coffee-pot. A minute later he began to hum a monotonous "Tra-la-loo, tra-la-lee, tra-la-lee, tra-la-loo."
"Now look here, Mr. Sanderson," said Smoke. "This town-site isn’t worth ten thousand. If it was worth that much it would be worth a hundred thousand just as easily. If it isn’t worth a hundred thousand – and you know it isn’t – then it isn’t worth ten cents."
Sanderson drummed with his knuckles and hummed, "Tra-la-loo, tra-la-lee," until the coffee-pot boiled over. Settling it with a part cup of cold water, and placing it to one side of the warm hearth, he resumed his seat. "How much will you offer?" he asked of Smoke.
Again came an interval of drumming and of tra-loo-ing and tra-lee-ing.
"You ain’t no fool," Sanderson announced to Smoke. "You said if it wasn’t worth a hundred thousand it wasn’t worth ten cents. Yet you offer five thousand for it. Then it IS worth a hundred thousand."
"You can’t make twenty cents out of it," Smoke replied heatedly. "Not if you stayed here till you rot."
"I’ll make it out of you."
"No, you won’t."
"Then I reckon I’ll stay an’ rot," Sanderson answered with an air of finality.
He took no further notice of his guests, and went about his culinary tasks as if he were alone. When he had warmed over a pot of beans and a slab of sour-dough bread, he set the table for one and proceeded to eat.
"No, thank you," Shorty murmured. "We ain’t a bit hungry. We et just before we come."
"Let’s see your papers," Smoke said at last. Sanderson fumbled under the head of his bunk and tossed out a package of documents. "It’s all tight and right," he said. "That long one there, with the big seals, come all the way from Ottawa. Nothing territorial about that. The national Canadian government cinches me in the possession of this town-site."
"How many lots you sold in the two years you’ve had it?" Shorty queried.
"None of your business," Sanderson answered sourly. There ain’t no law against a man living alone on his town-site if he wants to."
"I’ll give you five thousand," Smoke said. Sanderson shook his head.
"I don’t know which is the craziest," Shorty lamented. "Come outside a minute, Smoke. I want to whisper to you."
Reluctantly Smoke yielded to his partner’s persuasions.
"Ain’t it never entered your head," Shorty said, as they stood in the snow outside the door, "that they’s miles an’ miles of cliffs on both sides of this fool town-site that don’t belong to nobody an’ that you can have for the locatin’ and stakin’?"
"They won’t do," Smoke answered.
"Why won’t they?"
"It makes you wonder, with all those miles and miles, why I’m buying this particular spot, doesn’t it?"
"It sure does," Shorty agreed.
"And that’s the very point," Smoke went on triumphantly. "If it makes you wonder, it will make others wonder. And when they wonder they’ll come a-running. By your own wondering you prove it’s sound psychology. Now, Shorty, listen to me; I’m going to hand Dawson a package that will knock the spots out of the egg-laugh. Come on inside."
"Hello," said Sanderson, as they re-entered. "I thought I’d seen the last of you."
"Now what is your lowest figure?" Smoke asked.
"I’ll give you ten thousand."
"All right, I’ll sell at that figure. It’s all I wanted in the first place. But when will you pay the dust over?"
"To-morrow, at the Northwest Bank. But there are two other things I want for that ten thousand. In the first place, when you receive your money you pull down the river to Forty Mile and stay there the rest of the winter."
"That’s easy. What else?"
"I’m going to pay you twenty-five thousand, and you rebate me fifteen of it."
"I’m agreeable." Sanderson turned to Shorty. "Folks said I was a fool when I come over here an’ town-sited," he jeered. "Well, I’m a ten thousand dollar fool, ain’t I?"
"The Klondike’s sure full of fools," was all Shorty could retort, "an’ when they’s so many of ’em some has to be lucky, don’t they?"
Next morning the legal transfer of Dwight Sanderson’s town-site was made – "henceforth to be known as the town-site of Tra-Lee," Smoke incorporated in the deed. Also, at the Northwest Bank, twenty-five thousand of Smoke’s gold was weighed out by the cashier, while half a dozen casual onlookers noted the weighing, the amount, and the recipient.
In a mining-camp all men are suspicious. Any untoward act of any man is likely to be the cue to a secret gold strike, whether the untoward act be no more than a hunting trip for moose or a stroll after dark to observe the aurora borealis. And when it became known that so prominent a figure as Smoke Bellew had paid twenty-five thousand dollars to old Dwight Sanderson, Dawson wanted to know what he had paid it for. What had Dwight Sanderson, starving on his abandoned town-site, ever owned that was worth twenty-five thousand? In lieu of an answer, Dawson was justified in keeping Smoke in feverish contemplation.
By mid-afternoon it was common knowledge that several score of men had made up light stampeding-packs and cached them in the convenient saloons along Main Street. Wherever Smoke moved, he was the observed of many eyes. And as proof that he was taken seriously, not one man of the many of his acquaintance had the effrontery to ask him about his deal with Dwight Sanderson. On the other hand, no one mentioned eggs to Smoke. Shorty was under similar surveillance and delicacy of friendliness.
"Makes me feel like I’d killed somebody, or had smallpox, the way they watch me an’ seem afraid to speak," Shorty confessed, when he chanced to meet Smoke in front of the Elkhorn. "Look at Bill Saltman there acrost the way – just dyin’ to look, an’ keepin’ his eyes down the street all the time. Wouldn’t think he’d knowed you an’ me existed, to look at him. But I bet you the drinks, Smoke, if you an’ me flop around the corner quick, like we was goin’ somewheres, an’ then turn back from around the next corner, that we run into him a-hikin’ hell-bent."
They tried the trick, and, doubling back around the second corner, encountered Saltman swinging a long trail-stride in pursuit.
"Hello, Bill," Smoke greeted. "Which way?"
"Hello. Just a-strollin’," Saltman answered, "just a-strollin’. Weather’s fine, ain’t it?"
"Huh!" Shorty jeered. "If you call that strollin’, what might you walk real fast at?"
When Shorty fed the dogs that evening, he was keenly conscious that from the encircling darkness a dozen pairs of eyes were boring in upon him. And when he stick-tied the dogs, instead of letting them forage free through the night, he knew that he had administered another jolt to the nervousness of Dawson.
According to program, Smoke ate supper downtown and then proceeded to enjoy himself. Wherever he appeared, he was the center of interest, and he purposely made the rounds. Saloons filled up after his entrance and emptied following upon his departure. If he bought a stack of chips at a sleepy roulette-table, inside five minutes a dozen players were around him. He avenged himself, in a small way, on Lucille Arral, by getting up and sauntering out of the Opera House just as she came on to sing her most popular song. In three minutes two-thirds of her audience had vanished after him.
At one in the morning he walked along an unusually populous Main Street and took the turning that led up the hill to his cabin. And when he paused on the ascent, he could hear behind him the crunch of moccasins in the snow.
For an hour the cabin was in darkness, then he lighted a candle, and, after a delay sufficient for a man to dress in, he and Shorty opened the door and began harnessing the dogs. As the light from the cabin flared out upon them and their work, a soft whistle went up from not far away. This whistle was repeated down the hill.
"Listen to it," Smoke chuckled. "They’ve relayed on us and are passing the word down to town. I’ll bet you there are forty men right now rolling out of their blankets and climbing into their pants."
"Ain’t folks fools," Shorty giggled back. "Say, Smoke, they ain’t nothin’ in hard graft. A geezer that’d work his hands these days is a – well, a geezer. The world’s sure bustin’ full an’ dribblin’ over the edges with fools a-honin’ to be separated from their dust. An’ before we start down the hill I want to announce, if you’re still agreeable, that I come in half on this deal."
The sled was lightly loaded with a sleeping- and a grub-outfit. A small coil of steel cable protruded inconspicuously from underneath a grub-sack, while a crowbar lay half hidden along the bottom of the sled next to the lashings.
Shorty fondled the cable with a swift-passing mitten, and gave a last affectionate touch to the crowbar. "Huh!" he whispered. "I’d sure do some tall thinking myself if I seen them objects on a sled on a dark night."
They drove the dogs down the hill with cautious silence, and when, emerged on the flat, they turned the team north along Main Street toward the sawmill and directly away from the business part of town, they observed even greater caution. They had seen no one, yet when this change of direction was initiated, out of the dim starlit darkness behind arose a whistle. Past the sawmill and the hospital, at lively speed, they went for a quarter of a mile. Then they turned about and headed back over the ground they had just covered. At the end of the first hundred yards they barely missed colliding with five men racing along at a quick dog-trot. All were slightly stooped to the weight of stampeding-packs. One of them stopped Smoke’s lead-dog, and the rest clustered around.
"Seen a sled goin’ the other way?" was asked.
"Nope," Smoke answered. "Is that you, Bill?"
"Well, I’ll be danged!" Bill Saltman ejaculated in honest surprise. "If it ain’t Smoke!"
"What are you doing out this time of night?" Smoke inquired. "Strolling?"
Before Bill Saltman could make reply, two running men joined the group. These were followed by several more, while the crunch of feet on the snow heralded the imminent arrival of many others.
"Who are your friends?" Smoke asked. "Where’s the stampede?"
Saltman, lighting his pipe, which was impossible for him to enjoy with lungs panting from the run, did not reply. The ruse of the match was too obviously for the purpose of seeing the sled to be misunderstood, and Smoke noted every pair of eyes focus on the coil of cable and the crowbar. Then the match went out.
"Just heard a rumor, that’s all, just a rumor," Saltman mumbled with ponderous secretiveness.
"You might let Shorty and me in on it," Smoke urged.
Somebody snickered sarcastically in the background.
"Where are YOU bound?" Saltman demanded.
"And who are you?" Smoke countered. "Committee of safety?"
"Just interested, just interested," Saltman said.
"You bet your sweet life we’re interested," another voice spoke up out of the darkness.
"Say," Shorty put in, "I wonder who’s feelin’ the foolishest?"
Everybody laughed nervously.
"Come on, Shorty; we’ll be getting along," Smoke said, mushing the dogs.
The crowd formed in behind and followed.
"Say, ain’t you-all made a mistake?" Shorty gibed. "When we met you you was goin’, an’ now you’re comin’ without bein’ anywheres. Have you lost your tag?"
"You go to the devil," was Saltman’s courtesy. "We go and come just as we danged feel like. We don’t travel with tags."
And the sled, with Smoke in the lead and Shorty at the pole, went on down Main Street escorted by three score men, each of whom, on his back, bore a stampeding-pack. It was three in the morning, and only the all-night rounders saw the procession and were able to tell Dawson about it next day.
Half an hour later, the hill was climbed and the dogs unharnessed at the cabin door, the sixty stampeders grimly attendant.
"Good-night, fellows," Smoke called, as he closed the door.
In five minutes the candle was put out, but before half an hour had passed Smoke and Shorty emerged softly, and without lights began harnessing the dogs.
"Hello, Smoke!" Saltman said, stepping near enough for them to see the loom of his form.
"Can’t shake you, Bill, I see," Smoke replied cheerfully. "Where’re your friends?"
"Gone to have a drink. They left me to keep an eye on you, and keep it I will. What’s in the wind anyway, Smoke? You can’t shake us, so you might as well let us in. We’re all your friends. You know that."
"There are times when you can let your friends in," Smoke evaded, "and times when you can’t. And, Bill, this is one of the times when we can’t. You’d better go to bed. Good-night."
"Ain’t goin’ to be no good-night, Smoke. You don’t know us. We’re woodticks."
Smoke sighed. "Well, Bill, if you WILL have your will, I guess you’ll have to have it. Come on, Shorty, we can’t fool around any longer."
Saltman emitted a shrill whistle as the sled started, and swung in behind. From down the hill and across the flat came the answering whistles of the relays. Shorty was at the gee-pole, and Smoke and Saltman walked side by side.
"Look here, Bill," Smoke said. "I’ll make you a proposition. Do you want to come in alone on this?"
Saltman did not hesitate. "An’ throw the gang down? No, sir. We’ll all come in."
"You first, then," Smoke exclaimed, lurching into a clinch and tipping the other into deep snow beside the trail.
Shorty hawed the dogs and swung the team to the south on the trail that led among the scattered cabins on the rolling slopes to the rear of Dawson. Smoke and Saltman, locked together, rolled in the snow. Smoke considered himself in gilt-edged condition, but Saltman outweighed him by fifty pounds of clean, trail-hardened muscle and repeatedly mastered him. Time and time again he got Smoke on his back, and Smoke lay complacently and rested. But each time Saltman attempted to get off him and get away, Smoke reached out a detaining, tripping hand that brought about a new clinch and wrestle.
"You can go some," Saltman acknowledged, panting at the end of ten minutes, as he sat astride Smoke’s chest. "But I down you every time."
"And I hold you every time," Smoke panted back. "That’s what I’m here for, just to hold you. Where do you think Shorty’s getting to all this time?"
Saltman made a wild effort to go clear, and all but succeeded. Smoke gripped his ankle and threw him in a headlong tumble. From down the hill came anxious questioning whistles. Saltman sat up and whistled a shrill answer, and was grappled by Smoke, who rolled him face upward and sat astride his chest, his knees resting on Saltman’s biceps, his hands on Saltman’s shoulders and holding him down. And in this position the stampeders found them. Smoke laughed and got up.
"Well, good-night, fellows," he said, and started down the hill, with sixty exasperated and grimly determined stampeders at his heels.
He turned north past the sawmill and the hospital and took the river trail along the precipitous bluffs at the base of Moosehide Mountain. Circling the Indian village, he held on to the mouth of Moose Creek, then turned and faced his pursuers.
"You make me tired," he said, with a good imitation of a snarl.
"Hope we ain’t a-forcin’ you," Saltman murmured politely.
"Oh, no, not at all," Smoke snarled with an even better imitation, as he passed among them on the back-trail to Dawson. Twice he attempted to cross the trailless ice-jams of the river, still resolutely followed, and both times he gave up and returned to the Dawson shore. Straight down Main Street he trudged, crossing the ice of Klondike River to Klondike City and again retracing to Dawson. At eight o’clock, as gray dawn began to show, he led his weary gang to Slavovitch’s restaurant, where tables were at a premium for breakfast.
"Good-night fellows," he said, as he paid his reckoning.
And again he said good-night, as he took the climb of the hill. In the clear light of day they did not follow him, contenting themselves with watching him up the hill to his cabin.
For two days Smoke lingered about town, continually under vigilant espionage. Shorty, with the sled and dogs, had disappeared. Neither travelers up and down the Yukon, nor from Bonanza, Eldorado, nor the Klondike, had seen him. Remained only Smoke, who, soon or late, was certain to try to connect with his missing partner; and upon Smoke everybody’s attention was centered. On the second night he did not leave his cabin, putting out the lamp at nine in the evening and setting the alarm for two next morning. The watch outside heard the alarm go off, so that when, half an hour later, he emerged from the cabin, he found waiting for him a band, not of sixty men, but of at least three hundred. A flaming aurora borealis lighted the scene, and, thus hugely escorted, he walked down to town and entered the Elkhorn. The place was immediately packed and jammed by an anxious and irritated multitude that bought drinks, and for four weary hours watched Smoke play cribbage with his old friend Breck. Shortly after six in the morning, with an expression on his face of commingled hatred and gloom, seeing no one, recognizing no one, Smoke left the Elkhorn and went up Main Street, behind him the three hundred, formed in disorderly ranks, chanting: "Hay-foot! Straw-foot! Hep! Hep! Hep!"
"Good-night, fellows," he said bitterly, at the edge of the Yukon bank where the winter trail dipped down. "I’m going to get breakfast and then go to bed."
The three hundred shouted that they were with him, and followed him out upon the frozen river on the direct path he took for Tra-Lee. At seven in the morning he led his stampeding cohort up the zigzag trail, across the face of the slide, that led to Dwight Sanderson’s cabin. The light of a candle showed through the parchment-paper window, and smoke curled from the chimney. Shorty threw open the door.
"Come on in, Smoke," he greeted. "Breakfast’s ready. Who-all are your friends?"
Smoke turned about on the threshold. "Well, good-night, you fellows. Hope you enjoyed your pasear!"
"Hold on a moment, Smoke," Bill Saltman cried, his voice keen with disappointment. "Want to talk with you a moment."
"Fire away," Smoke answered genially.
"What’d you pay old Sanderson twenty-five thousan’ for? Will you answer that?"
"Bill, you give me a pain," was Smoke’s reply. "I came over here for a country residence, so to say, and here are you and a gang trying to cross-examine me when I’m looking for peace an’ quietness an’ breakfast. What’s a country residence good for, except for peace and quietness?"
"You ain’t answered the question," Bill Saltman came back with rigid logic.
"And I’m not going to, Bill. That affair is peculiarly a personal affair between Dwight Sanderson and me. Any other question?"
"How about that crowbar an’ steel cable then, what you had on your sled the other night?"
"It’s none of your blessed and ruddy business, Bill. Though if Shorty here wants to tell you about it, he can."
"Sure!" Shorty cried, springing eagerly into the breach. His mouth opened, then he faltered and turned to his partner. "Smoke, confidentially, just between you an’ me, I don’t think it IS any of their darn business. Come on in. The life’s gettin’ boiled outa that coffee."
The door closed and the three hundred sagged into forlorn and grumbling groups.
"Say, Saltman," one man said, "I thought you was goin’ to lead us to it."
"Not on your life," Saltman answered crustily. "I said Smoke would lead us to it."
"An’ this is it?"
"You know as much about it as me, an’ we all know Smoke’s got something salted down somewheres. Or else for what did he pay Sanderson the twenty-five thousand? Not for this mangy town-site, that’s sure an’ certain."
A chorus of cries affirmed Saltman’s judgment.
"Well, what are we goin’ to do now?" someone queried dolefully.
"Me for one for breakfast," Wild Water Charley said cheerfully. "You led us up a blind alley this time, Bill."
"I tell you I didn’t," Saltman objected. "Smoke led us. An’ just the same, what about them twenty-five thousand?"
At half-past eight, when daylight had grown strong, Shorty carefully opened the door and peered out. "Shucks," he exclaimed. "They-all’s hiked back to Dawson. I thought they was goin’ to camp here."
"Don’t worry; they’ll come sneaking back," Smoke reassured him. "If I don’t miss my guess you’ll see half Dawson over here before we’re done with it. Now jump in and lend me a hand. We’ve got work to do."
"Aw, for Heaven’s sake put me on," Shorty complained, when, at the end of an hour, he surveyed the result of their toil – a windlass in the corner of the cabin, with an endless rope that ran around double logrollers.
Smoke turned it with a minimum of effort, and the rope slipped and creaked. "Now, Shorty, you go outside and tell me what it sounds like."
Shorty, listening at the closed door, heard all the sounds of a windlass hoisting a load, and caught himself unconsciously attempting to estimate the depth of shaft out of which this load was being hoisted. Next came a pause, and in his mind’s eye he saw the bucket swinging short to the windlass. Then he heard the quick lower-away and the dull sound as of the bucket coming to abrupt rest on the edge of the shaft. He threw open the door, beaming.
"I got you," he cried. "I almost fell for it myself. What next?"
The next was the dragging into the cabin of a dozen sled-loads of rock. And through an exceedingly busy day there were many other nexts.
"Now you run the dogs over to Dawson this evening," Smoke instructed, when supper was finished. "Leave them with Breck. He’ll take care of them. They’ll be watching what you do, so get Breck to go to the A. C. Company and buy up all the blasting-powder – there’s only several hundred pounds in stock. And have Breck order half a dozen hard-rock drills from the blacksmith. Breck’s a quartz-man, and he’ll give the blacksmith a rough idea of what he wants made. And give Breck these location descriptions, so that he can record them at the gold commissioner’s to-morrow. And finally, at ten o’clock, you be on Main Street listening. Mind you, I don’t want them to be too loud. Dawson must just hear them and no more than hear them. I’ll let off three, of different quantities, and you note which is more nearly the right thing."
At ten that night Shorty, strolling down Main Street, aware of many curious eyes, his ears keyed tensely, heard a faint and distant explosion. Thirty seconds later there was a second, sufficiently loud to attract the attention of others on the street. Then came a third, so violent that it rattled the windows and brought the inhabitants into the street.
"Shook ’em up beautiful," Shorty proclaimed breathlessly, an hour afterward, when he arrived at the cabin on Tra-Lee. He gripped Smoke’s hand. "You should a-saw ’em. Ever kick over a ant-hole? Dawson’s just like that. Main Street was crawlin’ an’ hummin’ when I pulled my freight. You won’t see Tra-Lee to-morrow for folks. An’ if they ain’t some a-sneakin’ acrost right now I don’t know minin’ nature, that’s all."
Smoke grinned, stepped to the fake windlass, and gave it a couple of creaking turns. Shorty pulled out the moss-chinking from between the logs so as to make peep-holes on every side of the cabin. Then he blew out the candle.
"Now," he whispered at the end of half an hour.
Smoke turned the windlass slowly, paused after several minutes, caught up a galvanized bucket filled with earth and struck it with slide and scrape and grind against the heap of rocks they had hauled in. Then he lighted a cigarette, shielding the flame of the match in his hands.
"They’s three of ’em," Shorty whispered. "You oughta saw ’em. Say, when you made that bucket-dump noise they was fair quiverin’. They’s one at the window now tryin’ to peek in."
Smoke glowed his cigarette, and glanced at his watch.
"We’ve got to do this thing regularly," he breathed. "We’ll haul up a bucket every fifteen minutes. And in the meantime – "
Through triple thicknesses of sacking, he struck a cold-chisel on the face of a rock.
"Beautiful, beautiful," Shorty moaned with delight. He crept over noiselessly from the peep-hole. "They’ve got their heads together, an’ I can almost see ’em talkin’."
And from then until four in the morning, at fifteen-minute intervals, the seeming of a bucket was hoisted on the windlass that creaked and ran around on itself and hoisted nothing. Then their visitors departed, and Smoke and Shorty went to bed.
After daylight, Shorty examined the moccasin-marks. "Big Bill Saltman was one of them," he concluded. "Look at the size of it."
Smoke looked out over the river. "Get ready for visitors. There are two crossing the ice now."
"Huh! Wait till Breck files that string of claims at nine o’clock. There’ll be two thousand crossing over."
"And every mother’s son of them yammering ’mother-lode,’" Smoke laughed. "’The source of the Klondike placers found at last.’"
Shorty, who had clambered to the top of a steep shoulder of rock, gazed with the eye of a connoisseur at the strip they had staked.
"It sure looks like a true fissure vein," he said. "A expert could almost trace the lines of it under the snow. It’d fool anybody. The slide fills the front of it an’ see them outcrops? Look like the real thing, only they ain’t."
When the two men, crossing the river, climbed the zigzag trail up the slide, they found a closed cabin. Bill Saltman, who led the way, went softly to the door, listened, then beckoned Wild Water Charley up to him. From inside came the creak and whine of a windlass bearing a heavy load. They waited at the final pause, then heard the lower-away and the impact of a bucket on rock. Four times, in the next hour, they heard the thing repeated. Then Wild Water knocked on the door. From inside came low furtive noises, then silences, and more furtive noises, and at the end of five minutes Smoke, breathing heavily, opened the door an inch and peered out. They saw on his face and shirt powdered rock-fragments. His greeting was suspiciously genial.
"Wait a minute," he added, "and I’ll be with you."
Pulling on his mittens, he slipped through the door and confronted the visitors outside in the snow. Their quick eyes noted his shirt, across the shoulders, discolored and powdery, and the knees of his overalls that showed signs of dirt brushed hastily but not quite thoroughly away.
"Rather early for a call," he observed. "What brings you across the river? Going hunting?"
"We’re on, Smoke," Wild Water said confidentially. "An’ you’d just as well come through. You’ve got something here."
"If you’re looking for eggs – " Smoke began.
"Aw, forget it. We mean business."
"You mean you want to buy lots, eh?" Smoke rattled on swiftly. "There’s some dandy building sites here. But, you see, we can’t sell yet. We haven’t had the town surveyed. Come around next week, Wild Water, and for peace and quietness, I’ll show you something swell, if you’re anxious to live over here. Next week, sure, it will be surveyed. Good-by. Sorry I can’t ask you inside, but Shorty – well, you know him. He’s peculiar. He says he came over for peace and quietness, and he’s asleep now. I wouldn’t wake him for the world."
As Smoke talked he shook their hands warmly in farewell. Still talking and shaking their hands, he stepped inside and closed the door.
They looked at each other and nodded significantly.
"See the knees of his pants?" Saltman whispered hoarsely.
"Sure. An’ his shoulders. He’s been bumpin’ an’ crawlin’ around in a shaft." As Wild Water talked, his eyes wandered up the snow-covered ravine until they were halted by something that brought a whistle to his lips. "Just cast your eyes up there, Bill. See where I’m pointing? If that ain’t a prospect-hole! An’ follow it out to both sides – you can see where they tramped in the snow. If it ain’t rim-rock on both sides I don’t know what rim-rock is. It’s a fissure vein, all right."
"An’ look at the size of it!" Saltman cried. "They’ve got something here, you bet."
"An’ run your eyes down the slide there – see them bluffs standin’ out an’ slopin’ in. The whole slide’s in the mouth of the vein as well."
"And just keep a-lookin’ on, out on the ice there, on the trail," Saltman directed. "Looks like most of Dawson, don’t it?"
Wild Water took one glance and saw the trail black with men clear to the far Dawson bank, down which the same unbroken string of men was pouring.
"Well, I’m goin’ to get a look-in at that prospect-hole before they get here," he said, turning and starting swiftly up the ravine.
But the cabin door opened, and the two occupants stepped out.
"Hey!" Smoke called. "Where are you going?"
"To pick out a lot," Wild Water called back. "Look at the river. All Dawson’s stampeding to buy lots, an’ we’re going to beat ’em to it for the choice. That’s right, ain’t it, Bill?"
"Sure thing," Saltman corroborated. "This has the makin’s of a Jim-dandy suburb, an’ it sure looks like it’ll be some popular."
"Well, we’re not selling lots over in that section where you’re heading," Smoke answered. "Over to the right there, and back on top of the bluffs are the lots. This section, running from the river and over the tops, is reserved. So come on back."
"That’s the spot we’ve gone and selected," Saltman argued.
"But there’s nothing doing, I tell you," Smoke said sharply.
"Any objections to our strolling, then?" Saltman persisted.
"Decidedly. Your strolling is getting monotonous. Come on back out of that."
"I just reckon we’ll stroll anyways," Saltman replied stubbornly. "Come on, Wild Water."
"I warn you, you are trespassing," was Smoke’s final word.
"Nope, just strollin’," Saltman gaily retorted, turning his back and starting on.
"Hey! Stop in your tracks, Bill, or I’ll sure bore you!" Shorty thundered, drawing and leveling two Colt’s forty-fours. "Step another step in your steps an’ I let eleven holes through your danged ornery carcass. Get that?"
Saltman stopped, perplexed.
"He sure got me," Shorty mumbled to Smoke. "But if he goes on I’m up against it hard. I can’t shoot. What’ll I do?"
"Look here, Shorty, listen to reason," Saltman begged.
"Come here to me an’ we’ll talk reason," was Shorty’s retort.
And they were still talking reason when the head of the stampede emerged from the zigzag trail and came upon them.
"You can’t call a man a trespasser when he’s on a town-site lookin’ to buy lots," Wild Water was arguing, and Shorty was objecting: "But they’s private property in town-sites, an’ that there strip is private property, that’s all. I tell you again, it ain’t for sale."
"Now we’ve got to swing this thing on the jump," Smoke muttered to Shorty. "If they ever get out of hand – "
"You’ve sure got your nerve, if you think you can hold them," Shorty muttered back. "They’s two thousan’ of ’em an’ more a-comin’. They’ll break this line any minute."
The line ran along the near rim of the ravine, and Shorty had formed it by halting the first arrivals when they got that far in their invasion. In the crowd were half a dozen Northwest policemen and a lieutenant. With the latter Smoke conferred in undertones.
"They’re still piling out of Dawson," he said, "and before long there will be five thousand here. The danger is if they start jumping claims. When you figure there are only five claims, it means a thousand men to a claim, and four thousand out of the five will try to jump the nearest claim. It can’t be done, and if it ever starts, there’ll be more dead men here than in the whole history of Alaska. Besides, those five claims were recorded this morning and can’t be jumped. In short, claim-jumping mustn’t start."
"Right-o," said the lieutenant. "I’ll get my men together and station them. We can’t have any trouble here, and we won’t have. But you’d better get up and talk to them."
"There must be some mistake, fellows," Smoke began in a loud voice. "We’re not ready to sell lots. The streets are not surveyed yet. But next week we shall have the grand opening sale."
He was interrupted by an outburst of impatience and indignation.
"We don’t want lots," a young miner cried out. "We don’t want what’s on top of the ground. We’ve come for what’s under the ground."
"We don’t know what we’ve got under the ground," Smoke answered. "But we do know we’ve got a fine town-site on top of it."
"Sure," Shorty added. "Grand for scenery an’ solitude. Folks lovin’ solitude come a-flockin’ here by thousands. Most popular solitude on the Yukon."
Again the impatient cries arose, and Saltman, who had been talking with the later comers, came to the front.
"We’re here to stake claims," he opened. "We know what you’ve did – filed a string of five quartz claims on end, and there they are over there running across the town-site on the line of the slide and the canyon. Only you misplayed. Two of them entries is fake. Who is Seth Bierce? No one ever heard of him. You filed a claim this mornin’ in his name. An’ you filed a claim in the name of Harry Maxwell. Now Harry Maxwell ain’t in the country. He’s down in Seattle. Went out last fall. Them two claims is open to relocation."
"Suppose I have his power of attorney?" Smoke queried.
"You ain’t," Saltman answered. "An’ if you have you got to show it. Anyway, here’s where we relocate. Come on, fellows."
Saltman, stepping across the dead-line, had turned to encourage a following, when the police lieutenant’s voice rang out and stopped the forward surge of the great mass.
"Hold on there! You can’t do that, you know!"
"Can’t, eh?" said Bill Saltman. "The law says a fake location can be relocated, don’t it?"
"Thet’s right, Bill! Stay with it!" the crowd cheered from the safe side of the line.
"It’s the law, ain’t it?" Saltman demanded truculently of the lieutenant.
"It may be the law," came the steady answer. "But I can’t and won’t allow a mob of five thousand men to attempt to jump two claims. It would be a dangerous riot, and we’re here to see there is no riot. Here, now, on this spot, the Northwest police constitute the law. The next man who crosses that line will be shot. You, Bill Saltman, step back across it."
Saltman obeyed reluctantly. But an ominous restlessness became apparent in the mass of men, irregularly packed and scattered as it was over a landscape that was mostly up-and-down.
"Heavens," the lieutenant whispered to Smoke. "Look at them like flies on the edge of the cliff there. Any disorder in that mass would force hundreds of them over."
Smoke shuddered and got up. "I’m willing to play fair, fellows. If you insist on town lots, I’ll sell them to you, one hundred apiece, and you can raffle locations when the survey is made." With raised hand he stilled the movement of disgust. "Don’t move, anybody. If you do, there’ll be hundreds of you shoved over the bluff. The situation is dangerous."
"Just the same, you can’t hog it," a voice went up. "We don’t want lots. We want to relocate."
"But there are only two disputed claims," Smoke argued. "When they’re relocated where will the rest of you be?"
He mopped his forehead with his shirt-sleeve, and another voice cried out:
"Let us all in, share and share alike!"
Nor did those who roared their approbation dream that the suggestion had been made by a man primed to make it when he saw Smoke mop his forehead.
"Take your feet out of the trough an’ pool the town-site," the man went on. "Pool the mineral rights with the town-site, too."
"But there isn’t anything in the mineral rights, I tell you," Smoke objected.
"Then pool them with the rest. We’ll take our chances on it."
"Fellows, you’re forcing me," Smoke said. "I wish you’d stayed on your side of the river."
But wavering indecision was so manifest that with a mighty roar the crowd swept him on to agreement. Saltman and others in the front rank demurred.
"Bill Saltman, here, and Wild Water don’t want you all in," Smoke informed the crowd. "Who’s hogging it now?"
And thereat Saltman and Wild Water became profoundly unpopular.
"Now how are we going to do it?" Smoke asked. "Shorty and I ought to keep control. We discovered this town-site."
"That’s right!" many cried. "A square deal!" "It’s only fair!"
"Three-fifths to us," Smoke suggested, "and you fellows come in for two-fifths. And you’ve got to pay for your shares."
"Ten cents on the dollar!" was a cry. "And non-assessable!"
"And the president of the company to come around personally and pay you your dividends on a silver platter," Smoke sneered. "No, sir. You fellows have got to be reasonable. Ten cents on the dollar will help start things. You buy two-fifths of the stock, hundred dollars par, at ten dollars. That’s the best I can do. And if you don’t like it, just start jumping the claims. I can’t stand more than a two-fifths gouge."
"No big capitalization!" a voice called, and it was this voice that crystallized the collective mind of the crowd into consent.
"There’s about five thousand of you, which will make five thousand shares," Smoke worked the problem aloud. "And five thousand is two-fifths of twelve thousand, five hundred. Therefore The Tra-Lee Town-Site Company is capitalized for one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, there being twelve thousand, five hundred shares, hundred par, you fellows buying five thousand of them at ten dollars apiece. And I don’t care a whoop whether you accept it or not. And I call you all to witness that you’re forcing me against my will."
With the assurance of the crowd that they had caught him with the goods on him, in the shape of the two fake locations, a committee was formed and the rough organization of the Tra-Lee Town-Site Company effected. Scorning the proposal of delivering the shares next day in Dawson, and scorning it because of the objection that the portion of Dawson that had not engaged in the stampede would ring in for shares, the committee, by a fire on the ice at the foot of the slide, issued a receipt to each stampeder in return for ten dollars in dust duly weighed on two dozen gold-scales which were obtained from Dawson.
By twilight the work was accomplished and Tra-Lee was deserted, save for Smoke and Shorty, who ate supper in the cabin and chuckled at the list of shareholders, four thousand eight hundred and seventy-four strong, and at the gold-sacks, which they knew contained approximately forty-eight thousand seven hundred and forty dollars.
"But you ain’t swung it yet," Shorty objected.
"He’ll be here," Smoke asserted with conviction. "He’s a born gambler, and when Breck whispers the tip to him not even heart disease would stop him."
Within the hour came a knock at the door, and Wild Water entered, followed by Bill Saltman. Their eyes swept the cabin eagerly, coming to rest on the windlass elaborately concealed by blankets.
"But suppose I did want to vote twelve hundred shares," Wild Water was arguing half an hour later. "With the other five thousand sold to-day it’d make only sixty-two hundred shares. That’d leave you and Shorty with sixty-three hundred. You’d still control."
"But what d’you want with all that of a town-site?" Shorty queried.
"You can answer that better’n me," Wild Water replied. "An’ between you an’ me," his gaze drifted over the blanket-draped windlass, "it’s a pretty good-looking town-site."
"But Bill wants some," Smoke said grudgingly, "and we simply won’t part with more than five hundred shares."
"How much you got to invest?" Wild Water asked Saltman.
"Oh, say five thousand. It was all I could scare up."
"Wild Water," Smoke went on, in the same grudging, complaining voice, "if I didn’t know you so well, I wouldn’t sell you a single besotted share. And, anyway, Shorty and I won’t part with more than five hundred, and they’ll cost you fifty dollars apiece. That’s the last word, and if you don’t like it, good-night. Bill can take a hundred and you can have the other four hundred."
Next day Dawson began its laugh. It started early in the morning, just after daylight, when Smoke went to the bulletin-board outside the A. C. Company store and tacked up a notice. Men gathered and were reading and snickering over his shoulder ere he had driven the last tack. Soon the bulletin-board was crowded by hundreds who could not get near enough to read. Then a reader was appointed by acclamation, and thereafter, throughout the day, many men were acclaimed to read in loud voice the notice Smoke Bellew had nailed up. And there were numbers of men who stood in the snow and heard it read several times in order to memorize the succulent items that appeared in the following order:
The Tra-Lee Town-Site Company keeps its accounts on the wall. This is its first account and its last.
Any shareholder who objects to donating ten dollars to the Dawson General Hospital may obtain his ten dollars on personal application to Wild Water Charley, or, failing that, will absolutely obtain it on application to Smoke Bellew.
MONEYS RECEIVED AND DISBURSED
From 4874 shares at $10.00..............................$ 48,740.00
To Dwight Sanderson for Town-Site of Tra-Lee........ 10,000.00
To incidental expenses, to wit: powder, drills,
windlass, gold commissioner’s office, etc.................1,000.00
To Dawson General Hospital.................................37,740.00
– – – – –
From Bill Saltman, for 100 shares privately
purchased at $50.00...........................................$ 5,000.00
From Wild Water Charley, for 400 shares privately
purchased at $50.00............................................20,000.00
To Bill Saltman, in recognition of services as
volunteer stampede promoter................................5,000.00
To Dawson General Hospital..................................3,000.00
To Smoke Bellew and Jack Short, balance in full on
egg deal and morally owing..................................17,000.00
– – – – –
Shares remaining to account for $7,126. These shares, held by Smoke Bellew and Jack Short, value nil, may be obtained gratis, for the asking, by any and all residents of Dawson desiring change of domicile to the peace and solitude of the town of Tra-Lee.
(Note: Peace and solitude always and perpetually guaranteed in town of Tra-Lee)
(Signed) SMOKE BELLEW, President.
(Signed) JACK SHORT, Secretary.