More of Jack London’s best Far North stories
Thursday 21 May 2020, by
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. The Wife of a King (1899)
A prospector has left his half-Indian wife to join the flood of gold-seekers in Dawson, and when he fails to return word comes back about his dallying with a casino dancer, the plucky wife sets off for Dawson in the thick of winter to see for herself what is going on. She is taken in hand by several old hands who prepare her for a surprise confrontation with the erring husband at the city’s annual masked ball. (5,700 words).
2. At the Rainbow’s End (1901)
We follow various escapades of the rather picturesque Montana Kid down the Yukon to Dawson City and beyond, almost always hotly pursued by Mounted Police or irate victims of his misdoings. But as it carries on the tone becomes grimmer, the conditions worse, and we are treated to a quite unforgettable final cataclysm. (3,600 words).
3. The “Fuzziness” of Hoockla-Heen (1902)
The hero of the title is a twelve-year-old Indian boy who comes with the rest of his isolated Yukon tribe for the first time to sell furs in Dawson City. Where he is recognized as the son of a rich prospector, lost as a baby during an ill-fated winter crossing many years previously. (3,500 words).
4. Up the Slide (1906)
An enterprising youth goes out in wintertime near Dawson to collect firewood in the form of an old pine that he has spotted hidden in a gully high up on a cliff, and barely escapes with his life. But when wood is selling in Dawson at forty dollars a cord and you are seventeen, you are somewhat more reckless than most. (2,300 words).
5. Negore, the Coward (1907)
In the earlier part of the 19th Century when Alaska was Russian and open war had been declared upon rebellious native tribes, Negore, to prove his valour to his beloved, volunteers to guide a troop of Russians into an ambush. (4,400 words).
6. Flush of Gold (1908)
A prospector and his guide seek shelter in an isolated cabin in the wilderness where they are made welcome by a beautiful but very strange woman whose story of love, betrayal, tragedy and insanity is later recounted by the guide. (6,300 words).
7. The Stampede to Squaw Creek (1911)
Smoke and Shorty are tipped off in the middle of the night that gold has been found nearby, and sneak out to stake a claim on the new find before the news gets abroad. But while on the outskirts of town they discover that there are a thousand men ahead of them with the same idea in mind and thousands coming along fast behind — a typical Dawson stampede is under way! (7,100 words).
8. The Little Man (1911)
Smoke Bellew partners up with a likeable fellow prospector to investigate an incredibly rich gold lode that they have stumbled across, but as they cross a dangerous ice bridge cracks start appearing, and this is the story of their desperate inch-by-inch struggle to avoid sliding hundreds of feet down to an icy grave below. (6,500 words).
9. Wonder of Woman (1912)
Smoke and Shorty are taken prisoner by an unknown tribe of Indians in an unexplored region of the Far North. This tribe is determined to avoid any contact whatsoever with the outside world, so any attempt on the part of our two heroes to escape would be punished more than severely. But the chief’s daughter has taken a liking to one of them against her father’s wishes, so sparks are bound to fly. (15,600 words).
10. The Mistake of Creation} (1912)
Smoke and Shorty discover an isolated settlement of neophyte prospectors in dire straits, as all are suffering from acute scurvy and several have already died of the dread disease. They do their best to help the rapidly-declining colony, but to little avail until they finally discover why one member of the group has remained healthy and scurvy-free all the while. (7,000 words).
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1. THE WIFE OF A KING
Once when the northland was very young, the social and civic virtues were remarkably alike for their paucity and their simplicity. When the burden of domestic duties grew grievous, and the fireside mood expanded to a constant protest against its bleak loneliness, the adventurers from the Southland, in lieu of better, paid the stipulated prices and took unto themselves native wives. It was a foretaste of Paradise to the women, for it must be confessed that the white rovers gave far better care and treatment of them than did their Indian copartners. Of course, the white men themselves were satisfied with such deals, as were also the Indian men for that matter. Having sold their daughters and sisters for cotton blankets and obsolete rifles and traded their warm furs for flimsy calico and bad whisky, the sons of the soil promptly and cheerfully succumbed to quick consumption and other swift diseases correlated with the blessings of a superior civilization.
It was in these days of Arcadian simplicity that Cal Galbraith journeyed through the land and fell sick on the Lower River. It was a refreshing advent in the lives of the good Sisters of the Holy Cross, who gave him shelter and medicine; though they little dreamed of the hot elixir infused into his veins by the touch of their soft hands and their gentle ministrations. Cal Galbraith, became troubled with strange thoughts which clamored for attention till he laid eyes on the Mission girl, Madeline. Yet he gave no sign, biding his time patiently. He strengthened with the coming spring, and when the sun rode the heavens in a golden circle, and the joy and throb of life was in all the land, he gathered his still weak body together and departed.
Now, Madeline, the Mission girl, was an orphan. Her white father had failed to give a bald-faced grizzly the trail one day, and had died quickly. Then her Indian mother, having no man to fill the winter cache, had tried the hazardous experiment of waiting till the salmon-run on fifty pounds of flour and half as many of bacon. After that, the baby, Chook-ra, went to live with the good Sisters, and to be thenceforth known by another name.
But Madeline still had kinsfolk, the nearest being a dissolute uncle who outraged his vitals with inordinate quantities of the white man’s whisky. He strove daily to walk with the gods, and incidentally, his feet sought shorter trails to the grave. When sober he suffered exquisite torture. He had no conscience. To this ancient vagabond Cal Galbraith duly presented himself, and they consumed many words and much tobacco in the conversation that followed. Promises were also made; and in the end the old heathen took a few pounds of dried salmon and his birch-bark canoe, and paddled away to the Mission of the Holy Cross.
It is not given the world to know what promises he made and what lies he toldthe Sisters never gossip; but when he returned, upon his swarthy chest there was a brass crucifix, and in his canoe his niece Madeline. That night there was a grand wedding and a potlach; so that for two days to follow there was no fishing done by the village. But in the morning Madeline shook the dust of the Lower River from her moccasins, and with her husband, in a poling-boat, went to live on the Upper River in a place known as the Lower Country. And in the years which followed she was a good wife, sharing her husband’s hardships and cooking his food. And she kept him in straight trails, till he learned to save his dust and to work mightily. In the end, he struck it rich and built a cabin in Circle City; and his happiness was such that men who came to visit him in his home-circle became restless at the sight of it and envied him greatly.
But the Northland began to mature and social amenities to make their appearance.
Hitherto, the Southland had sent forth its sons; but it now belched forth a new exodus- this time of its daughters. Sisters and wives they were not; but they did not fail to put new ideas in the heads of the men, and to elevate the tone of things in ways peculiarly their own. No more did the squaws gather at the dances, go roaring down the center in the good, old Virginia reels, or make merry with jolly ’Dan Tucker.’ They fell back on their natural stoicism and uncomplainingly watched the rule of their white sisters from their cabins.
Then another exodus came over the mountains from the prolific Southland.
This time it was of women that became mighty in the land. Their word was law; their law was steel. They frowned upon the Indian wives, while the other women became mild and walked humbly. There were cowards who became ashamed of their ancient covenants with the daughters of the soil, who looked with a new distaste upon their dark-skinned children; but there were also others—men—who remained true and proud of their aboriginal vows. When it became the fashion to divorce the native wives. Cal Galbraith retained his manhood, and in so doing felt the heavy hand of the women who had come last, knew least, but who ruled the land.
One day, the Upper Country, which lies far above Circle City, was pronounced rich. Dog- teams carried the news to Salt Water; golden argosies freighted the lure across the North Pacific; wires and cables sang with the tidings; and the world heard for the first time of the Klondike River and the Yukon Country. Cal Galbraith had lived the years quietly. He had been a good husband to Madeline, and she had blessed him. But somehow discontent fell upon him; he felt vague yearnings for his own kind, for the life he had been shut out from—a general sort of desire, which men sometimes feel, to break out and taste the prime of living. Besides, there drifted down the river wild rumors of the wonderful El Dorado, glowing descriptions of the city of logs and tents, and ludicrous accounts of the che-cha- quas who had rushed in and were stampeding the whole country.
Circle City was dead. The world had moved on up river and become a new and most marvelous world.
Cal Galbraith grew restless on the edge of things, and wished to see with his own eyes.
So, after the wash-up, he weighed in a couple of hundred pounds of dust on the Company’s big scales, and took a draft for the same on Dawson. Then he put Tom Dixon in charge of his mines, kissed Madeline good-by, promised to be back before the first mush-ice ran, and took passage on an up-river steamer.
Madeline waited, waited through all the three months of daylight. She fed the dogs, gave much of her time to Young Cal, watched the short summer fade away and the sun begin its long journey to the south. And she prayed much in the manner of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The fall came, and with it there was mush-ice on the Yukon, and Circle City kings returning to the winter’s work at their mines, but no Cal Galbraith. Tom Dixon received a letter, however, for his men sledded up her winter’s supply of dry pine. The Company received a letter for its dogteams filled her cache with their best provisions, and she was told that her credit was limitless.
Through all the ages man has been held the chief instigator of the woes of woman; but in this case the men held their tongues and swore harshly at one of their number who was away, while the women failed utterly to emulate them. So, without needless delay, Madeline heard strange tales of Cal Galbraith’s doings; also, of a certain Greek dancer who played with men as children did with bubbles. Now Madeline was an Indian woman, and further, she had no woman friend to whom to go for wise counsel. She prayed and planned by turns, and that night, being quick of resolve and action, she harnessed the dogs, and with Young Cal securely lashed to the sled, stole away.
Though the Yukon still ran free, the eddy-ice was growing, and each day saw the river dwindling to a slushy thread. Save him who has done the like, no man may know what she endured in traveling a hundred miles on the rim-ice; nor may they understand the toil and hardship of breaking the two hundred miles of packed ice which remained after the river froze for good. But Madeline was an Indian woman, so she did these things, and one night there came a knock at Malemute Kid’s door. Thereat he fed a team of starving dogs, put a healthy youngster to bed, and turned his attention to an exhausted woman. He removed her icebound moccasins while he listened to her tale, and stuck the point of his knife into her feet that he might see how far they were frozen.
Despite his tremendous virility, Malemute Kid was possessed of a softer, womanly element, which could win the confidence of a snarling wolf-dog or draw confessions from the most wintry heart. Nor did he seek them. Hearts opened to him as spontaneously as flowers to the sun. Even the priest, Father Roubeau, had been known to confess to him, while the men and women of the Northland were ever knocking at his door—a door from which the latch-string hung always out. To Madeline, he could do no wrong, make no mistake. She had known him from the time she first cast her lot among the people of her father’s race; and to her half-barbaric mind it seemed that in him was centered the wisdom of the ages, that between his vision and the future there could be no intervening veil.
There were false ideals in the land. The social strictures of Dawson were not synonymous with those of the previous era, and the swift maturity of the Northland involved much wrong. Malemute Kid was aware of this, and he had Cal Galbraith’s measure accurately.
He knew a hasty word was the father of much evil; besides, he was minded to teach a great lesson and bring shame upon the man. So Stanley Prince, the young mining expert, was called into the conference the following night as was also Lucky Jack Harrington and his violin. That same night, Bettles, who owed a great debt to Malemute Kid, harnessed up Cal Galbraith’s dogs, lashed Cal Galbraith, Junior, to the sled, and slipped away in the dark for Stuart River.
II ’So; one—two—three, one—two—three. Now reverse! No, no! Start up again, Jack. See—this way.’ Prince executed the movement as one should who has led the cotillion.
’Now; one—two—three, one—two—three. Reverse! Ah! that’s better. Try it again. I say, you know, you mustn’t look at your feet. One—two—three, one—twothree. Shorter steps! You are not hanging to the gee-pole just now. Try it over.
There! that’s the way. One—two—three, one—two—three.’ Round and round went Prince and Madeline in an interminable waltz. The table and stools had been shoved over against the wall to increase the room. Malemute Kid sat on the bunk, chin to knees, greatly interested. Jack Harrington sat beside him, scraping away on his violin and following the dancers.
It was a unique situation, the undertaking of these three men with the woman.
The most pathetic part, perhaps, was the businesslike way in which they went about it.
No athlete was ever trained more rigidly for a coming contest, nor wolf-dog for the harness, than was she. But they had good material, for Madeline, unlike most women of her race, in her childhood had escaped the carrying of heavy burdens and the toil of the trail. Besides, she was a clean-limbed, willowy creature, possessed of much grace which had not hitherto been realized. It was this grace which the men strove to bring out and knock into shape.
’Trouble with her she learned to dance all wrong,’ Prince remarked to the bunk after having deposited his breathless pupil on the table. ’She’s quick at picking up; yet I could do better had she never danced a step. But say, Kid, I can’t understand this.’ Prince imitated a peculiar movement of the shoulders and head—a weakness Madeline suffered from in walking.
’Lucky for her she was raised in the Mission,’ Malemute Kid answered. ’Packing, you know,—the head-strap. Other Indian women have it bad, but she didn’t do any packing till after she married, and then only at first. Saw hard lines with that husband of hers. They went through the Forty-Mile famine together.’ ’But can we break it?’ ’Don’t know.
Perhaps long walks with her trainers will make the riffle. Anyway, they’ll take it out some, won’t they, Madeline?’ The girl nodded assent. If Malemute Kid, who knew all things, said so, why it was so. That was all there was about it.
She had come over to them, anxious to begin again. Harrington surveyed her in quest of her points much in the same manner men usually do horses. It certainly was not disappointing, for he asked with sudden interest, ’What did that beggarly uncle of yours get anyway?’ ’One rifle, one blanket, twenty bottles of hooch. Rifle broke.’ She said this last scornfully, as though disgusted at how low her maiden-value had been rated.
She spoke fair English, with many peculiarities of her husband’s speech, but there was still perceptible the Indian accent, the traditional groping after strange gutturals. Even this her instructors had taken in hand, and with no small success, too.
At the next intermission, Prince discovered a new predicament.
’I say, Kid,’ he said, ’we’re wrong, all wrong. She can’t learn in moccasins.
Put her feet into slippers, and then onto that waxed floor—phew!’ Madeline raised a foot and regarded her shapeless house-moccasins dubiously. In previous winters, both at Circle City and Forty-Mile, she had danced many a night away with similar footgear, and there had been nothing the matter.
But now—well, if there was anything wrong it was for Malemute Kid to know, not her.
But Malemute Kid did know, and he had a good eye for measures; so he put on his cap and mittens and went down the hill to pay Mrs. Eppingwell a call. Her husband, Clove Eppingwell, was prominent in the community as one of the great Government officials.
The Kid had noted her slender little foot one night, at the Governor’s Ball. And as he also knew her to be as sensible as she was pretty, it was no task to ask of her a certain small favor.
On his return, Madeline withdrew for a moment to the inner room. When she reappeared Prince was startled.
’By Jove!’ he gasped. ’Who’d a’ thought it! The little witch! Why my sister-’ ’Is an English girl,’ interrupted Malemute Kid, ’with an English foot. This girl comes of a small-footed race. Moccasins just broadened her feet healthily, while she did not misshape them by running with the dogs in her childhood.’ But this explanation failed utterly to allay Prince’s admiration. Harrington’s commercial instinct was touched, and as he looked upon the exquisitely turned foot and ankle, there ran through his mind the sordid list—’One rifle, one blanket, twenty bottles of hooch.’ Madeline was the wife of a king, a king whose yellow treasure could buy outright a score of fashion’s puppets; yet in all her life her feet had known no gear save red-tanned moosehide. At first she had looked in awe at the tiny white-satin slippers; but she had quickly understood the admiration which shone, manlike, in the eyes of the men. Her face flushed with pride. For the moment she was drunken with her woman’s loveliness; then she murmured, with increased scorn, ’And one rifle, broke!’ So the training went on. Every day Malemute Kid led the girl out on long walks devoted to the correction of her carriage and the shortening of her stride.
There was little likelihood of her identity being discovered, for Cal Galbraith and the rest of the Old-Timers were like lost children among the many strangers who had rushed into the land. Besides, the frost of the North has a bitter tongue, and the tender women of the South, to shield their cheeks from its biting caresses, were prone to the use of canvas masks. With faces obscured and bodies lost in squirrel-skin parkas, a mother and daughter, meeting on trail, would pass as strangers.
The coaching progressed rapidly. At first it had been slow, but later a sudden acceleration had manifested itself. This began from the moment Madeline tried on the white-satin slippers, and in so doing found herself. The pride of her renegade father, apart from any natural self-esteem she might possess, at that instant received its birth. Hitherto, she had deemed herself a woman of an alien breed, of inferior stock, purchased by her lord’s favor. Her husband had seemed to her a god, who had lifted her, through no essential virtues on her part, to his own godlike level. But she had never forgotten, even when Young Cal was born, that she was not of his people. As he had been a god, so had his womenkind been goddesses. She might have contrasted herself with them, but she had never compared.
It might have been that familiarity bred contempt; however, be that as it may, she had ultimately come to understand these roving white men, and to weigh them.
True, her mind was dark to deliberate analysis, but she yet possessed her woman’s clarity of vision in such matters. On the night of the slippers she had measured the bold, open admiration of her three man-friends; and for the first time comparison had suggested itself. It was only a foot and an ankle, but—but comparison could not, in the nature of things, cease at that point. She judged herself by their standards till the divinity of her white sisters was shattered. After all, they were only women, and why should she not exalt herself to their midst? In doing these things she learned where she lacked and with the knowledge of her weakness came her strength. And so mightily did she strive that her three trainers often marveled late into the night over the eternal mystery of woman.
In this way Thanksgiving Night drew near. At irregular intervals Bettles sent word down from Stuart River regarding the welfare of Young Cal. The time of their return was approaching. More than once a casual caller, hearing dance-music and the rhythmic pulse of feet, entered, only to find Harrington scraping away and the other two beating time or arguing noisily over a mooted step. Madeline was never in evidence, having precipitately fled to the inner room.
On one of these nights Cal Galbraith dropped in. Encouraging news had just come down from Stuart River, and Madeline had surpassed herself—not in walk alone, and carriage and grace, but in womanly roguishness. They had indulged in sharp repartee and she had defended herself brilliantly; and then, yielding to the intoxication of the moment, and of her own power, she had bullied, and mastered, and wheedled, and patronized them with most astonishing success. And instinctively, involuntarily, they had bowed, not to her beauty, her wisdom, her wit, but to that indefinable something in woman to which man yields yet cannot name.
The room was dizzy with sheer delight as she and Prince whirled through the last dance of the evening. Harrington was throwing in inconceivable flourishes, while Malemute Kid, utterly abandoned, had seized the broom and was executing mad gyrations on his own account.
At this instant the door shook with a heavy rap-rap, and their quick glances noted the lifting of the latch. But they had survived similar situations before. Harrington never broke a note. Madeline shot through the waiting door to the inner room. The broom went hurtling under the bunk, and by the time Cal Galbraith and Louis Savoy got their heads in, Malemute Kid and Prince were in each other’s arms, wildly schottisching down the room.
As a rule, Indian women do not make a practice of fainting on provocation, but Madeline came as near to it as she ever had in her life. For an hour she crouched on the floor, listening to the heavy voices of the men rumbling up and down in mimic thunder. Like familiar chords of childhood melodies, every intonation, every trick of her husband’s voice swept in upon her, fluttering her heart and weakening her knees till she lay half- fainting against the door. It was well she could neither see nor hear when he took his departure.
’When do you expect to go back to Circle City?’ Malemute Kid asked simply.
’Haven’t thought much about it,’ he replied. ’Don’t think till after the ice breaks.’ ’And Madeline?’
He flushed at the question, and there was a quick droop to his eyes. Malemute Kid could have despised him for that, had he known men less. As it was, his gorge rose against the wives and daughters who had come into the land, and not satisfied with usurping the place of the native women, had put unclean thoughts in the heads of the men and made them ashamed.
’I guess she’s all right,’ the Circle City King answered hastily, and in an apologetic manner. ’Tom Dixon’s got charge of my interests, you know, and he sees to it that she has everything she wants.’ Malemute Kid laid hand upon his arm and hushed him suddenly. They had stepped without. Overhead, the aurora, a gorgeous wanton, flaunted miracles of color; beneath lay the sleeping town. Far below, a solitary dog gave tongue.
The King again began to speak, but the Kid pressed his hand for silence. The sound multiplied. Dog after dog took up the strain till the full-throated chorus swayed the night.
To him who hears for the first time this weird song, is told the first and greatest secret of the Northland; to him who has heard it often, it is the solemn knell of lost endeavor. It is the plaint of tortured souls, for in it is invested the heritage of the North, the suffering of countless generations—the warning and the requiem to the world’s estrays.
Cal Galbraith shivered slightly as it died away in half-caught sobs. The Kid read his thoughts openly, and wandered back with him through all the weary days of famine and disease; and with him was also the patient Madeline, sharing his pains and perils, never doubting, never complaining. His mind’s retina vibrated to a score of pictures, stern, clear-cut, and the hand of the past drew back with heavy fingers on his heart. It was the psychological moment. Malemute Kid was halftempted to play his reserve card and win the game; but the lesson was too mild as yet, and he let it pass. The next instant they had gripped hands, and the King’s beaded moccasins were drawing protests from the outraged snow as he crunched down the hill.
Madeline in collapse was another woman to the mischievous creature of an hour before, whose laughter had been so infectious and whose heightened color and flashing eyes had made her teachers for the while forget. Weak and nerveless, she sat in the chair just as she had been dropped there by Prince and Harrington.
Malemute Kid frowned. This would never do. When the time of meeting her husband came to hand, she must carry things off with high-handed imperiousness. It was very necessary she should do it after the manner of white women, else the victory would be no victory at all. So he talked to her, sternly, without mincing of words, and initiated her into the weaknesses of his own sex, till she came to understand what simpletons men were after all, and why the word of their women was law.
A few days before Thanksgiving Night, Malemute Kid made another call on Mrs. Eppingwell. She promptly overhauled her feminine fripperies, paid a protracted visit to the dry-goods department of the P. C. Company, and returned with the Kid to make Madeline’s acquaintance. After that came a period such as the cabin had never seen before, and what with cutting, and fitting, and basting, and stitching, and numerous other wonderful and unknowable things, the male conspirators were more often banished the premises than not. At such times the Opera House opened its double storm-doors to them.
So often did they put their heads together, and so deeply did they drink to curious toasts, that the loungers scented unknown creeks of incalculable richness, and it is known that several checha-quas and at least one Old-Timer kept their stampeding packs stored behind the bar, ready to hit the trail at a moment’s notice.
Mrs. Eppingwell was a woman of capacity; so, when she turned Madeline over to her trainers on Thanksgiving Night she was so transformed that they were almost afraid of her. Prince wrapped a Hudson Bay blanket about her with a mock reverence more real than feigned, while Malemute Kid, whose arm she had taken, found it a severe trial to resume his wonted mentorship. Harrington, with the list of purchases still running through his head, dragged along in the rear, nor opened his mouth once all the way down into the town. When they came to the back door of the Opera House they took the blanket from Madeline’s shoulders and spread it on the snow. Slipping out of Prince’s moccasins, she stepped upon it in new satin slippers. The masquerade was at its height. She hesitated, but they jerked open the door and shoved her in. Then they ran around to come in by the front entrance.
III ’Where is Freda?’ the Old-Timers questioned, while the che-cha-quas were equally energetic in asking who Freda was. The ballroom buzzed with her name.
It was on everybody’s lips. Grizzled ’sour-dough boys,’ day-laborers at the mines but proud of their degree, either patronized the spruce-looking tenderfeet and lied eloquently- the ’sour-dough boys’ being specially created to toy with truth—or gave them savage looks of indignation because of their ignorance. Perhaps forty kings of the Upper and Lower Countries were on the floor, each deeming himself hot on the trail and sturdily backing his judgment with the yellow dust of the realm. An assistant was sent to the man at the scales, upon whom had fallen the burden of weighing up the sacks, while several of the gamblers, with the rules of chance at their finger-ends, made up alluring books on the field and favorites.
Which was Freda? Time and again the ’Greek Dancer’ was thought to have been discovered, but each discovery brought panic to the betting ring and a frantic registering of new wagers by those who wished to hedge. Malemute Kid took an interest in the hunt, his advent being hailed uproariously by the revelers, who knew him to a man. The Kid had a good eye for the trick of a step, and ear for the lilt of a voice, and his private choice was a marvelous creature who scintillated as the ’Aurora Borealis.’ But the Greek dancer was too subtle for even his penetration. The majority of the gold-hunters seemed to have centered their verdict on the ’Russian Princess,’ who was the most graceful in the room, and hence could be no other than Freda Moloof.
During a quadrille a roar of satisfaction went up. She was discovered. At previous balls, in the figure, ’all hands round,’ Freda had displayed an inimitable step and variation peculiarly her own. As the figure was called, the ’Russian Princess’ gave the unique rhythm to limb and body. A chorus of I-told-you-so’s shook the squared roof-beams, when lo! it was noticed that ’Aurora Borealis’ and another masque, the ’Spirit of the Pole,’ were performing the same trick equally well. And when two twin ’Sun-Dogs’ and a ’Frost Queen’ followed suit, a second assistant was dispatched to the aid of the man at the scales.
Bettles came off trail in the midst of the excitement, descending upon them in a hurricane of frost. His rimed brows turned to cataracts as he whirled about; his mustache, still frozen, seemed gemmed with diamonds and turned the light in varicolored rays; while the flying feet slipped on the chunks of ice which rattled from his moccasins and German socks. A Northland dance is quite an informal affair, the men of the creeks and trails having lost whatever fastidiousness they might have at one time possessed; and only in the high official circles are conventions at all observed. Here, caste carried no significance. Millionaires and paupers, dog-drivers and mounted policemen joined hands with ’ladies in the center,’ and swept around the circle performing most remarkable capers. Primitive in their pleasure, boisterous and rough, they displayed no rudeness, but rather a crude chivalry more genuine than the most polished courtesy.
In his quest for the ’Greek Dancer,’ Cal Galbraith managed to get into the same set with the ’Russian Princess,’ toward whom popular suspicion had turned.
But by the time he had guided her through one dance, he was willing not only to stake his millions that she was not Freda, but that he had had his arm about her waist before. When or where he could not tell, but the puzzling sense of familiarity so wrought upon him that he turned his attention to the discovery of her identity. Malemute Kid might have aided him instead of occasionally taking the Princess for a few turns and talking earnestly to her in low tones. But it was Jack Harrington who paid the ’Russian Princess’ the most assiduous court. Once he drew Cal Galbraith aside and hazarded wild guesses as to who she was, and explained to him that he was going in to win. That rankled the Circle City King, for man is not by nature monogamic, and he forgot both Madeline and Freda in the new quest.
It was soon noised about that the ’Russian Princess’ was not Freda Moloof. Interest deepened. Here was a fresh enigma. They knew Freda though they could not find her, but here was somebody they had found and did not know. Even the women could not place her, and they knew every good dancer in the camp. Many took her for one of the official clique, indulging in a silly escapade. Not a few asserted she would disappear before the unmasking. Others were equally positive that she was the woman-reporter of the Kansas City Star, come to write them up at ninety dollars per column. And the men at the scales worked busily.
At one o’clock every couple took to the floor. The unmasking began amid laughter and delight, like that of carefree children. There was no end of Oh’s and Ah’s as mask after mask was lifted. The scintillating ’Aurora Borealis’ became the brawny negress whose income from washing the community’s clothes ran at about five hundred a month. The twin ’Sun-Dogs’ discovered mustaches on their upper lips, and were recognized as brother Fraction-Kings of El Dorado. In one of the most prominent sets, and the slowest in uncovering, was Cal Galbraith with the ’Spirit of the Pole.’ Opposite him was Jack Harrington and the ’Russian Princess.’ The rest had discovered themselves, yet the ’Greek Dancer’ was still missing. All eyes were upon the group. Cal Galbraith, in response to their cries, lifted his partner’s mask. Freda’s wonderful face and brilliant eyes flashed out upon them. A roar went up, to be squelched suddenly in the new and absorbing mystery of the ’Russian Princess.’ Her face was still hidden, and Jack Harrington was struggling with her. The dancers tittered on the tiptoes of expectancy. He crushed her dainty costume roughly, and then—and then the revelers exploded. The joke was on them. They had danced all night with a tabooed native woman.
But those that knew, and they were many, ceased abruptly, and a hush fell upon the room.
Cal Galbraith crossed over with great strides, angrily, and spoke to Madeline in polyglot Chinook. But she retained her composure, apparently oblivious to the fact that she was the cynosure of all eyes, and answered him in English. She showed neither fright nor anger, and Malemute Kid chuckled at her well-bred equanimity. The King felt baffled, defeated; his common Siwash wife had passed beyond him.
’Come!’ he said finally. ’Come on home.’ ’I beg pardon,’ she replied; ’I have agreed to go to supper with Mr. Harrington. Besides, there’s no end of dances promised.’
Harrington extended his arm to lead her away. He evinced not the slightest disinclination toward showing his back, but Malemute Kid had by this time edged in closer. The Circle City King was stunned. Twice his hand dropped to his belt, and twice the Kid gathered himself to spring; but the retreating couple passed through the supper-room door where canned oysters were spread at five dollars the plate.
The crowd sighed audibly, broke up into couples, and followed them. Freda pouted and went in with Cal Galbraith; but she had a good heart and a sure tongue, and she spoiled his oysters for him. What she said is of no importance, but his face went red and white at intervals, and he swore repeatedly and savagely at himself.
The supper-room was filled with a pandemonium of voices, which ceased suddenly as Cal Galbraith stepped over to his wife’s table. Since the unmasking considerable weights of dust had been placed as to the outcome. Everybody watched with breathless interest.
Harrington’s blue eyes were steady, but under the overhanging tablecloth a Smith & Wesson balanced on his knee. Madeline looked up, casually, with little interest.
’May—may I have the next round dance with you?’ the King stuttered.
The wife of the King glanced at her card and inclined her head.
2. AT THE RAINBOW’S END
It was for two reasons that Montana Kid discarded his “chaps” and Mexican spurs, and shook the dust of the Idaho ranges from his feet. In the first place, the encroachments of a steady, sober, and sternly moral civilization had destroyed the primeval status of the western cattle ranges, and refined society turned the cold eye of disfavor upon him and his ilk. In the second place, in one of its cyclopean moments the race had arisen and shoved back its frontier several thousand miles. Thus, with unconscious foresight, did mature society make room for its adolescent members. True, the new territory was mostly barren; but its several hundred thousand square miles of frigidity at least gave breathing space to those who else would have suffocated at home.
Montana Kid was such a one. Heading for the sea-coast, with a haste several sheriff’s posses might possibly have explained, and with more nerve than coin of the realm, he succeeded in shipping from a Puget Sound port, and managed to survive the contingent miseries of steerage sea-sickness and steerage grub. He was rather sallow and drawn, but still his own indomitable self, when he landed on the Dyea beach one day in the spring of the year. Between the cost of dogs, grub, and outfits, and the customs exactions of the two clashing governments, it speedily penetrated to his understanding that the Northland was anything save a poor man’s Mecca. So he cast about him in search of quick harvests. Between the beach and the passes were scattered many thousands of passionate pilgrims. These pilgrims Montana Kid proceeded to farm. At first he dealt faro in a pine-board gambling shack; but disagreeable necessity forced him to drop a sudden period into a man’s life, and to move on up trail. Then he effected a corner in horseshoe nails, and they circulated at par with legal tender, four to the dollar, till an unexpected consignment of a hundred barrels or so broke the market and forced him to disgorge his stock at a loss. After that he located at Sheep Camp, organized the professional packers, and jumped the freight ten cents a pound in a single day. In token of their gratitude, the packers patronized his faro and roulette layouts and were mulcted cheerfully of their earnings. But his commercialism was of too lusty a growth to be long endured; so they rushed him one night, burned his shanty, divided the bank, and headed him up the trail with empty pockets.
Ill-luck was his running mate. He engaged with responsible parties to run whisky across the line by way of precarious and unknown trails, lost his Indian guides, and had the very first outfit confiscated by the Mounted Police. Numerous other misfortunes tended to make him bitter of heart and wanton of action, and he celebrated his arrival at Lake Bennett by terrorizing the camp for twenty straight hours. Then a miners’ meeting took him in hand, and commanded him to make himself scarce. He had a wholesome respect for such assemblages, and he obeyed in such haste that he inadvertently removed himself at the tail-end of another man’s dog team. This was equivalent to horse-stealing in a more mellow clime, so he hit only the high places across Bennett and down Tagish, and made his first camp a full hundred miles to the north.
Now it happened that the break of spring was at hand, and many of the principal citizens of Dawson were travelling south on the last ice. These he met and talked with, noted their names and possessions, and passed on. He had a good memory, also a fair imagination; nor was veracity one of his virtues.
Dawson, always eager for news, beheld Montana Kid’s sled heading down the Yukon, and went out on the ice to meet him. No, he hadn’t any newspapers; didn’t know whether Durrant was hanged yet, nor who had won the Thanksgiving game; hadn’t heard whether the United States and Spain had gone to fighting; didn’t know who Dreyfus was; but O’Brien? Hadn’t they heard? O’Brien, why, he was drowned in the White Horse; Sitka Charley the only one of the party who escaped. Joe Ladue? Both legs frozen and amputated at the Five Fingers. And Jack Dalton? Blown up on the “Sea Lion” with all hands. And Bettles? Wrecked on the “Carthagina,” in Seymour Narrows,—twenty survivors out of three hundred. And Swiftwater Bill? Gone through the rotten ice of Lake LeBarge with six female members of the opera troupe he was convoying. Governor Walsh? Lost with all hands and eight sleds on the Thirty Mile. Devereaux? Who was Devereaux? Oh, the courier! Shot by Indians on Lake Marsh.
So it went. The word was passed along. Men shouldered in to ask after friends and partners, and in turn were shouldered out, too stunned for blasphemy. By the time Montana Kid gained the bank he was surrounded by several hundred fur-clad miners. When he passed the Barracks he was the centre of a procession. At the Opera House he was the nucleus of an excited mob, each member struggling for a chance to ask after some absent comrade. On every side he was being invited to drink. Never before had the Klondike thus opened its arms to a che-cha-qua. All Dawson was humming. Such a series of catastrophes had never occurred in its history. Every man of note who had gone south in the spring had been wiped out. The cabins vomited forth their occupants. Wild-eyed men hurried down from the creeks and gulches to seek out this man who had told a tale of such disaster. The Russian half-breed wife of Bettles sought the fireplace, inconsolable, and rocked back and forth, and ever and anon flung white wood-ashes upon her raven hair. The flag at the Barracks flopped dismally at half-mast. Dawson mourned its dead.
Why Montana Kid did this thing no man may know. Nor beyond the fact that the truth was not in him, can explanation be hazarded. But for five whole days he plunged the land in wailing and sorrow, and for five whole days he was the only man in the Klondike. The country gave him its best of bed and board. The saloons granted him the freedom of their bars. Men sought him continuously. The high officials bowed down to him for further information, and he was feasted at the Barracks by Constantine and his brother officers. And then, one day, Devereaux, the government courier, halted his tired dogs before the gold commissioner’s office. Dead? Who said so? Give him a moose steak and he’d show them how dead he was. Why, Governor Walsh was in camp on the Little Salmon, and O’Brien coming in on the first water. Dead? Give him a moose steak and he’d show them.
And forthwith Dawson hummed. The Barracks’ flag rose to the masthead, and Bettles’ wife washed herself and put on clean raiment. The community subtly signified its desire that Montana Kid obliterate himself from the landscape. And Montana Kid obliterated; as usual, at the tail-end of some one else’s dog team. Dawson rejoiced when he headed down the Yukon, and wished him godspeed to the ultimate destination of the case-hardened sinner. After that the owner of the dogs bestirred himself, made complaint to Constantine, and from him received the loan of a policeman.
With Circle City in prospect and the last ice crumbling under his runners, Montana Kid took advantage of the lengthening days and travelled his dogs late and early. Further, he had but little doubt that the owner of the dogs in question had taken his trail, and he wished to make American territory before the river broke. But by the afternoon of the third day it became evident that he had lost in his race with spring. The Yukon was growling and straining at its fetters. Long détours became necessary, for the trail had begun to fall through into the swift current beneath, while the ice, in constant unrest, was thundering apart in great gaping fissures. Through these and through countless airholes, the water began to sweep across the surface of the ice, and by the time he pulled into a woodchopper’s cabin on the point of an island, the dogs were being rushed off their feet and were swimming more often than not. He was greeted sourly by the two residents, but he unharnessed and proceeded to cook up.
Donald and Davy were fair specimens of frontier inefficients. Canadian-born, city-bred Scots, in a foolish moment they had resigned their counting-house desks, drawn upon their savings, and gone Klondiking. And now they were feeling the rough edge of the country. Grubless, spiritless, with a lust for home in their hearts, they had been staked by the P. C. Company to cut wood for its steamers, with the promise at the end of a passage home. Disregarding the possibilities of the ice-run, they had fittingly demonstrated their inefficiency by their choice of the island on which they located. Montana Kid, though possessing little knowledge of the break-up of a great river, looked about him dubiously, and cast yearning glances at the distant bank where the towering bluffs promised immunity from all the ice of the Northland.
After feeding himself and dogs, he lighted his pipe and strolled out to get a better idea of the situation. The island, like all its river brethren, stood higher at the upper end, and it was here that Donald and Davy had built their cabin and piled many cords of wood. The far shore was a full mile away, while between the island and the near shore lay a back-channel perhaps a hundred yards across. At first sight of this, Montana Kid was tempted to take his dogs and escape to the mainland, but on closer inspection he discovered a rapid current flooding on top. Below, the river twisted sharply to the west, and in this turn its breast was studded by a maze of tiny islands.
“That’s where she’ll jam,” he remarked to himself.
Half a dozen sleds, evidently bound up-stream to Dawson, were splashing through the chill water to the tail of the island. Travel on the river was passing from the precarious to the impossible, and it was nip and tuck with them till they gained the island and came up the path of the wood-choppers toward the cabin. One of them, snow-blind, towed helplessly at the rear of a sled. Husky young fellows they were, rough-garmented and trail-worn, yet Montana Kid had met the breed before and knew at once that it was not his kind.
“Hello! How’s things up Dawson-way?” queried the foremost, passing his eye over Donald and Davy and settling it upon the Kid.
A first meeting in the wilderness is not characterized by formality. The talk quickly became general, and the news of the Upper and Lower Countries was swapped equitably back and forth. But the little the newcomers had was soon over with, for they had wintered at Minook, a thousand miles below, where nothing was doing. Montana Kid, however, was fresh from Salt Water, and they annexed him while they pitched camp, swamping him with questions concerning the outside, from which they had been cut off for a twelvemonth.
A shrieking split, suddenly lifting itself above the general uproar on the river, drew everybody to the bank. The surface water had increased in depth, and the ice, assailed from above and below, was struggling to tear itself from the grip of the shores. Fissures reverberated into life before their eyes, and the air was filled with multitudinous crackling, crisp and sharp, like the sound that goes up on a clear day from the firing line.
From up the river two men were racing a dog team toward them on an uncovered stretch of ice. But even as they looked, the pair struck the water and began to flounder through. Behind, where their feet had sped the moment before, the ice broke up and turned turtle. Through this opening the river rushed out upon them to their waists, burying the sled and swinging the dogs off at right angles in a drowning tangle. But the men stopped their flight to give the animals a fighting chance, and they groped hurriedly in the cold confusion, slashing at the detaining traces with their sheath-knives. Then they fought their way to the bank through swirling water and grinding ice, where, foremost in leaping to the rescue among the jarring fragments, was the Kid.
“Why, blime me, if it ain’t Montana Kid!” exclaimed one of the men whom the Kid was just placing upon his feet at the top of the bank. He wore the scarlet tunic of the Mounted Police and jocularly raised his right hand in salute.
“Got a warrant for you, Kid,” he continued, drawing a bedraggled paper from his breast pocket, “an’ I ’ope as you’ll come along peaceable.”
Montana Kid looked at the chaotic river and shrugged his shoulders, and the policeman, following his glance, smiled.
“Where are the dogs?” his companion asked.
“Gentlemen,” interrupted the policeman, “this ’ere mate o’ mine is Jack Sutherland, owner of Twenty-Two Eldorado—”
“Not Sutherland of ’92?” broke in the snow-blinded Minook man, groping feebly toward him.
“The same.” Sutherland gripped his hand.
“Oh, I’m after your time, but I remember you in my freshman year,—you were doing P. G. work then. Boys,” he called, turning half about, “this is Sutherland, Jack Sutherland, erstwhile full-back on the ’Varsity. Come up, you gold-chasers, and fall upon him! Sutherland, this is Greenwich,—played quarter two seasons back.”
“Yes, I read of the game,” Sutherland said, shaking hands. “And I remember that big run of yours for the first touchdown.”
Greenwich flushed darkly under his tanned skin and awkwardly made room for another.
“And here’s Matthews,—Berkeley man. And we’ve got some Eastern cracks knocking about, too. Come up, you Princeton men! Come up! This is Sutherland, Jack Sutherland!”
Then they fell upon him heavily, carried him into camp, and supplied him with dry clothes and numerous mugs of black tea.
Donald and Davy, overlooked, had retired to their nightly game of crib. Montana Kid followed them with the policeman.
“Here, get into some dry togs,” he said, pulling them from out his scanty kit. “Guess you’ll have to bunk with me, too.”
“Well, I say, you’re a good ’un,” the policeman remarked as he pulled on the other man’s socks. “Sorry I’ve got to take you back to Dawson, but I only ’ope they won’t be ’ard on you.”
“Not so fast.” The Kid smiled curiously. “We ain’t under way yet. When I go I’m going down river, and I guess the chances are you’ll go along.”
“Not if I know myself—”
“Come on outside, and I’ll show you, then. These damn fools,” thrusting a thumb over his shoulder at the two Scots, “played smash when they located here. Fill your pipe, first—this is pretty good plug—and enjoy yourself while you can. You haven’t many smokes before you.”
The policeman went with him wonderingly, while Donald and Davy dropped their cards and followed. The Minook men noticed Montana Kid pointing now up the river, now down, and came over.
“What’s up?” Sutherland demanded.
“Nothing much.” Nonchalance sat well upon the Kid. “Just a case of raising hell and putting a chunk under. See that bend down there? That’s where she’ll jam millions of tons of ice. Then she’ll jam in the bends up above, millions of tons. Upper jam breaks first, lower jam holds, pouf!” He dramatically swept the island with his hand. “Millions of tons,” he added reflectively.
“And what of the woodpiles?” Davy questioned.
The Kid repeated his sweeping gestures and Davy wailed, “The labor of months! It canna be! Na, na, lad, it canna be. I doot not it’s a jowk. Ay, say that it is,” he appealed.
But when the Kid laughed harshly and turned on his heel, Davy flung himself upon the piles and began frantically to toss the cordwood back from the bank.
“Lend a hand, Donald!” he cried. “Can ye no lend a hand? ’T is the labor of months and the passage home!”
Donald caught him by the arm and shook him, but he tore free. “Did ye no hear, man? Millions of tons, and the island shall be sweepit clean.”
“Straighten yersel’ up, man,” said Donald. “It’s a bit fashed ye are.”
But Davy fell upon the cordwood. Donald stalked back to the cabin, buckled on his money belt and Davy’s, and went out to the point of the island where the ground was highest and where a huge pine towered above its fellows.
The men before the cabin heard the ringing of his axe and smiled. Greenwich returned from across the island with the word that they were penned in. It was impossible to cross the back-channel. The blind Minook man began to sing, and the rest joined in with—
“Wonder if it’s true?
Does it seem so to you?
Seems to me he’s lying—
Oh, I wonder if it’s true?”
“It’s ay sinfu’,” Davy moaned, lifting his head and watching them dance in the slanting rays of the sun. “And my guid wood a’ going to waste.”
“Oh, I wonder if it’s true,”
was flaunted back.
The noise of the river ceased suddenly. A strange calm wrapped about them. The ice had ripped from the shores and was floating higher on the surface of the river, which was rising. Up it came, swift and silent, for twenty feet, till the huge cakes rubbed softly against the crest of the bank. The tail of the island, being lower, was overrun. Then, without effort, the white flood started down-stream. But the sound increased with the momentum, and soon the whole island was shaking and quivering with the shock of the grinding bergs. Under pressure, the mighty cakes, weighing hundreds of tons, were shot into the air like peas. The frigid anarchy increased its riot, and the men had to shout into one another’s ears to be heard. Occasionally the racket from the back channel could be heard above the tumult. The island shuddered with the impact of an enormous cake which drove in squarely upon its point. It ripped a score of pines out by the roots, then swinging around and over, lifted its muddy base from the bottom of the river and bore down upon the cabin, slicing the bank and trees away like a gigantic knife. It seemed barely to graze the corner of the cabin, but the cribbed logs tilted up like matches, and the structure, like a toy house, fell backward in ruin.
“The labor of months! The labor of months, and the passage home!” Davy wailed, while Montana Kid and the policeman dragged him backward from the woodpiles.
“You’ll ’ave plenty o’ hoppertunity all in good time for yer passage ’ome,” the policeman growled, clouting him alongside the head and sending him flying into safety.
Donald, from the top of the pine, saw the devastating berg sweep away the cordwood and disappear down-stream. As though satisfied with this damage, the ice-flood quickly dropped to its old level and began to slacken its pace. The noise likewise eased down, and the others could hear Donald shouting from his eyrie to look down-stream. As forecast, the jam had come among the islands in the bend, and the ice was piling up in a great barrier which stretched from shore to shore. The river came to a standstill, and the water finding no outlet began to rise. It rushed up till the island was awash, the men splashing around up to their knees, and the dogs swimming to the ruins of the cabin. At this stage it abruptly became stationary, with no perceptible rise or fall.
Montana Kid shook his head. “It’s jammed above, and no more’s coming down.”
“And the gamble is, which jam will break first,” Sutherland added.
“Exactly,” the Kid affirmed. “If the upper jam breaks first, we haven’t a chance. Nothing will stand before it.”
The Minook men turned away in silence, but soon “Rumsky Ho” floated upon the quiet air, followed by “The Orange and the Black.” Room was made in the circle for Montana Kid and the policeman, and they quickly caught the ringing rhythm of the choruses as they drifted on from song to song.
“Oh, Donald, will ye no lend a hand?” Davy sobbed at the foot of the tree into which his comrade had climbed. “Oh, Donald, man, will ye no lend a hand?” he sobbed again, his hands bleeding from vain attempts to scale the slippery trunk.
But Donald had fixed his gaze up river, and now his voice rang out, vibrant with fear:—
“God Almichty, here she comes!”
Standing knee-deep in the icy water, the Minook men, with Montana Kid and the policeman, gripped hands and raised their voices in the terrible, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But the words were drowned in the advancing roar.
And to Donald was vouchsafed a sight such as no man may see and live. A great wall of white flung itself upon the island. Trees, dogs, men, were blotted out, as though the hand of God had wiped the face of nature clean. This much he saw, then swayed an instant longer in his lofty perch and hurtled far out into the frozen hell.
3. THE “FUZZINESS” OF HOOCKLA-HEEN
HOOCKLA-HEEN half-crouched, half-knelt in the tall, dank grass. Not a motion passed over him, yet he had been there a long, long hour. In his hands he held a slender bow, with bone-barbed arrow strung in place; and he would have seemed turned to stone had it not been for the look of eagle alertness in his face. In fact, he was never more alive than at that very moment. His nostrils gave him full report of the green and growing things, of the budded willows and quaking aspens down by the edge of the low bank, of the great red raspberries thickly studding the bushes at his back, and over to the right, a dozen paces away and well hidden, he knew there must be a clump of the bright-colored but poisonous snake-flower.
His senses told him many things. He felt the moisture of the grass creeping and soaking through his moosehide trousers and chilling his knees, and by its breath on his brow he knew that the light breeze was hauling slowly around in the pale wake of the moon. And of the low hum of sound which rose from the land, his ears distinguished each component part—the rustling of the leaves and grasses, the calls of birds and squirrels and wild fowl, and the myriad noises of a vast insect life.
But chief of all was one sound which made his face grow tense with expectancy. Just before him a tangle of sticks and poles, laid together in rude order, dammed the swampy stream and formed a shallow pond. Through a break in the dam the water gurgled noisily. That, however, was not the sound which held him. From above he heard the faint, sharp slap of some object upon the earth, followed by the plump of a body into water. Then silence settled down again, and he stared steadily at the break through which the water slipped away.
But as he waited a new sound disturbed him. From far below came the low whine of a dog, and once the crackle of a broken twig. And although he felt vexation at this, his face gave no sign, while he centered his whole consciousness in his one sense of hearing. From above there came a low splashing, nearer than before, and from below the crackle of another breaking twig, likewise nearer.
It was if these approaching sounds were running a race, and he wished the one from the water to win. And win it did, for a ripple broke the surface of the pond and a small log floated into the opening in the dam. Shoving it along, he could make out a large, ratlike head, with little, round ears laid back and nearly lost in hair.
Hoockla-Heen bent his bow noiselessly and waited. The animal pushed and shoved at the log, trying to block the opening. Failing in this, it crawled cautiously out on the dam, exposing three feet and more of body, covered with fur of heavy chestnut-brown. A crackle of twigs from below, and the animal rose suspiciously on its hind legs to listen. Then it was that Hoockla-Heen felt the thrill of achievement, the consciousness of having done and done well, as the arrow sped through the moonlight, singing its shrill song and transfixing the animal, which knew its end in the sound.
The boy, for Hoockla-Heen could boast but twelve years, sprang upright and called out joyously. A like call came from below and a tremendous crashing of underbrush answered him; and as he stooped and lifted the beaver by its broad, flat tail, another boy broke out of the bushes and waded to him through the grass.
"And hast thou got that old gray nose at last?" the newcomer questioned, excitedly.
"Aye," Hoockla-Heen made answer, coldly, hiding his exultation under an impassive mask. "Aye, old gray nose, and small thanks to thee, Klanik, who flounder over the ground like a blind bull moose and make much noise."
"I came softly," the other boy replied, a little hurt by the censure.
"Yes, with a whining dog."
"Broken Tooth would follow me, but I sent him back," said Klanik. "Did you know," he went on, eagerly, "that the tribe is to journey down to see these white men of the Yukon?"
Upon that, Hoockla-Heen danced gleefully up and down. Klanik joined hands with him, and they circled round and round till, in sheer excess of joy, the dance was turned into a wrestling bout, and they were panting and straining to the utmost. Klanik finally slipped on the beaver’s tail, and Hoockla-Heen, profiting by the advantage, forced him suddenly backward and pressed his shoulders into the soggy ground. Then they sprang to their feet, laughing, and started down the trail to camp with the burden of the beaver shared between them.
On the way Klanik told of what had taken place at the council. Kootznaloo, one of their bravest hunters, had wandered off the previous fall, and after a long absence had returned with incredible tales of the white men. He had gone down the White River farther than the tribe had ever ventured; he had gone to the great Yukon, and the wonderful city of Dawson. At the council he had spoken of the many furs the tribe possessed, of how highly furs were esteemed by the white men, and of his plan for the tribe to go down to Dawson and trade these furs for immense wealth in guns and blankets and scarlet cloths.
But Ya-Koo, the maker of medicine, had opposed him. As they all knew, he, too, had been among the white men once upon a time, and he could tell that the white men were very bad. This Kottznaloo denied; the white men were very good, he said, in token whereof had he not returned with a fine new gun?
So the discussion waged to and fro. Many who had never seen white men had agreed with Kootznaloo. Moreover, all of them were anxious to possess fine new guns like his. Hoockla-Heen’s father, Kow-Whi, who was chief, had also declared in favor of Kootznaloo’s project; and Ya-Koo, though he was medicine-man to the tribe, had been forced to give in. In two days, it had been decided, now that summer was come and the rivers running free, the whole tribe, men, women and children, would load their canoes and depart for the wonder city.
For some time after Klanik had finished telling of what occurred at the council the boys walked on in silence. The Klanik spoke again, gravely: "It is not to be believed that these white men are white, all over white—face, hands, everything."
"Aye," Hoockla-Heen answered, absently, "and their eyes are of the color of summer skies when there are no clouds."
Klanik looked at him curiously, for Klanik knew many strange things concerning Hoockla-Heen of which Hoockla-Heen himself was ignorant—things which Kow-Whi and Ya-Koo had commanded should never be spoken.
But Hoockla-Heen went on: "And their womenkind are fair and soft, and their hair is yellow, quite yellow, and often I remember —
He stopped suddenly and looked into the curious eyes of his chum.
"What dost thou remember?" Klanik queried, gently. "Thou hast never seen the white men and their womenkind."
"I remember —"
"Truly art thou Hoockla-Heen, the dreamer."
"Aye, I dream." Hoockla-Heen shook his head sadly. "Surely, I dream."
He put his hand before him as if to dispel some vision, and after that, till camp was reached, there was silence between them. But when Hoockla-Heen crept into his furs and pulled the bearskin over him, he could not close his eyes, and sleep was far from him. It was the old sickness, com-ta-nitch-i-wyan, come back to him again—the dream-sickness which he had thought outgrown. It was the sickness which, when a little boy, had made the children draw away from him in fear, and the tears come into the eyes of the squaws when they looked upon him. The dream-sickness—how it had made his childhood miserable!
Of course all men dreamed, and even the wolf-dogs; but they dreamed with their eyes shut, when they slept, and he had dreamed with eyes wide open, broad awake. And the men dreamed about things they knew, about hunting and fishing; but he had dreamed about things he did not know, and which nobody else knew. Haunting memories of things he could not express had come to him; and it seemed, if only he could think back, that all would be clear, only, try as he would, he could not think back.
At such times he felt very much as he did when he was sick of the river fever, and his head was dizzy, his eyes trembling and watery, and his fingers felt twice their natural size, strangely large and fuzzy. Ah, that was it, the very word—fuzzy! That was the way his head felt when he tried to think back.
Then, as he gradually outgrew and forgot it, the dream-sickness had left him. The medicine-man, Ya-Koo, had made public incantation over him, and besought the bad spirits to depart from him, and privately he told him to think back no more, lest misfortune should fall upon him. And he had obeyed, and the thing had gone from him. But now it had come back again. Was there ever such an unhappy boy? He clenched his hands passionately, and for hours stared blindly into the blackness above him.
Chief Kow-Whi’s canoe led the procession of the tribe, and with him were Hoockla-Heen and Klanik. All day they had been sweeping down the Yukon, rounding one great bend after another, but they had not landed. They passed one place early in the day where men, white men, were firing off their guns excitedly. Kootznaloo paddled alongside Kow-Whi’s canoe and explained that he thought it must be a custom of the white men, although he had never seen the like during the time he spent among them. But after a brief deliberation, not being sure that it was merely a custom, they decided not to venture in, but to run on to Dawson.
And all day Hoockla-Heen had had attacks of the dream-sickness; and when he had looked a long way off at the white men discharging their guns, he had suffered from an especially severe attack. The fuzziness had been almost overpowering. He was also worried by a feeling that something was going to happen—what he did not know.
He tried to tell Klanik about it, but Klanik had retorted, "Don’t be a baby; nothing’ll eat you." After that he kept quiet, although he was sure that he was not afraid. Instead, he was very anxious that the thing should happen whatever it was.
At midday the flotilla swung along a series of mighty bluffs and rounded an abrupt turn. Here the Klondike emptied its swollen flood into the Yukon, and here, suddenly, without warning, Dawson burst upon their astonished eyes.
As far as they could see, from river rim to mountain side, was a sea of tents and cabins. And this sea of dwellings spilled over the river rim and down into the water, where the bank was lined for a mile and a half with boats—boats, three and four deep, and scows, dories, canoes and huge rafts, all heaped high with provisions and the possessions of men. The suddenness and the vastness of it took away the breath of the old chief, Kow-Whi, and he could only gaze in speechless wonder.
Hoockla-Heen was almost suffocating with fuzziness. He reached up hurriedly and held his head with both hands. Oh, if he could only understand! What did it all mean?
Klanik cried out sharply to him for missing stroke with his paddle, and with an effort of will he controlled himself. They drove in close to the shore and by the barracks, where were the Northwest mounted police and where the British banner floated.
Hoockla-Heen pointed to it and said, "That is a flag."
"How dost thou know, dreamer?" Klanik demanded.
But Hoockla-Heen did not hear. They were drifting past a great barge loaded with huge animals, as large as a large moose. The sight frightened the women, and several of the canoes sheered out into the stream to give it a wide berth.
"And what manner of animal is that?" Klanik asked, mischievously.
"That is —" Hoockla-Heen hesitated a moment, and then went on confidently, "That is a horse."
"Truly, agreed Kootznaloo, whose canoe was alongside, "those be horses. I have seen them before, and they are harmless. But how dost thou know, O Hoockla-Heen?"
Hoockla-Heen shook his head and bent to his paddle as the canoes whirled in to a landing. When all had been made fast, they climbed the steep bank and came upon an open space among the houses. Flags were flying everywhere, but flags different from the one which floated over the barracks; and everywhere were men, firing guns and revolvers into the air and shouting like mad.
A great crowd filled the open space, and as the wide-eyed Indians took up their position on the outskirts the noise died away, and in the center, on a heap of lumber, a man rose and began to speak. Very often he pointed to a flag which flew above his head, and every little while he was interrupted by clappings of hands and great rolling shouts and volleys of gun-shots. At such times he would pause and drink water from a glass which stood on a box beside him.
"Oh! oh!" Hoockla-Heen cried, striving to clutch at the phantoms which were fluttering through his mind.
"Strange-looking boy, that, for an Indian," remarked a man in a draggled mackinaw jacket, who now and then pulled out a writing-pad and took down notes.
Hoockla-Heen glanced quickly at him, although he did not understand what had been said; but as he looked at him the dream-sickness came over him violently.
The man’s companion, clad in a lieutenant’s uniform of the mounted police, took the cigar from his lips and exclaimed, "by Jove, he’s no ——"
But just then a red-headed boy touched a lighted punk to a string which braided together hundreds of small red tubes. These he threw to the ground. At once there was a tremendous flashing and spluttering and banging, and the Indians, Ya-Koo leading, surged backward in terror.
Hoockla-Heen alone stood his ground. A sudden lightness came upon him, as when the fog rises from the earth and all things shine clear and bright in the sun. The fuzziness had left him. "Firecrackers! he cried, dancing into the exploding mass. "Firecrackers! The Fourth of July! Hurrah! Hurrah!"
When the last cracker had gone off he came to himself, startled and blushing under his tanned skin. He looked timidly about him. His tribespeople had come back and were regarding him curiously. Kow-Whi, however, was looking straight before him, a sad expression on his face. But the lieutenant and the man who made notes had stepped up to him.
"What’s your name?" the lieutenant demanded, seizing him by the arm.
"Jimmy," he answered, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Then the fuzzy sensation came back to him, and he fell to wondering why he had spoken that strange word. He did not know what the man had said. And what did Jimmy mean, anyway? Why had he spoken it?
"Jimmy what?" the lieutenant asked.
Hoockla-Heen shook his head. He did not understand the white man’s speech. Besides, his tribespeople were pressing round him excitedly, and Ya-Koo was plucking at his sleeve for him to come away.
"How old are you?"
Again he shook his head, this time adding, "White River," as if it might help.
"Yes, um White River," Kottznaloo corroborated, glad of the chance to play interpreter. "Um White River, ’way up."
"White River, eh?" the lieutenant repeated, in sudden surprise. Then turning to his companion, "How old do you make him out, Dawes?"
Dawes considered, "Twelve or thirteen, I should judge."
The lieutenant pondered audibly: "Summer of ’91—winter of ’92—four years and eight make twelve —" He broke off suddenly, then cried out, "Dawes! Dawes! It’s the kid, sure! Hold him! As you love me, hold him tight!"
Before Hoockla-Heen could realize what was happening, the lieutenant had jerked open his squirrel-skin shirt, the soft leather tearing down under his grasp. Ya-Koo tried to come between, but the lieutenant thrust him roughly back. There was a murmuring and a snarl from the tribespeople, a flashing of knives from the sheaths and a clicking of rusting guns. But Kow-Whi quieted them with a sharp word of command.
"Look at that! White, eh?" The lieutenant pointed at Hoockla-Heen’s naked chest.
Dawes looked carefully and shook his head. "Pretty black, I should judge."
"Oh, that’s the sun!" the lieutenant exclaimed, impatiently, at the same time ripping and tearing away at the shirt. "Under the arms, man! Under the arms, where it’s untouched!"
"It is white!" Dawes cried, with sudden conviction. "What shall we do?"
"Do! I’ll show you!" The lieutenant beckoned to the red-headed boy, who was looking on with huge interest. "Hey, you, boy! Run and fetch Jim McDermott. He’s right over there in that bunch of men. I saw him not five minutes ago."
The red-headed boy darted off, and Hoockla-Heen watched him go, wondering at it all, and yet aware, that the thing which was to happen was happening.
Kootznaloo was jabbering excitedly to the lieutenant, who was nodding his head to every word and interjecting short, sharp questions.
"But I say, you know, I say, old man, what’s up?" Dawes interrupted, pulling out his writing pad and poising his pencil.
"McDermott, Jim McDermott!" the lieutenant answered hastily. "Old-timer in the country. A bonanza king, worth a couple of millions at least. Used to be an agent for the P. C. C. Company. In ’94 came in with his kid and a party from the west coast of Alaska. The wife was to come in the following year by the regular way. Unknown country. First white people to come over it, and the last. Frightful time. Nearly starved to death. In fact, two did. They, being the weakest, were the very ones left in charge of McDermott’s boy while McDermott and the others pushed out after game. I heard him tell the story once, how, after three days, when he had got a moose and returned, he found the two men stiff and cold and the boy missing."
"The boy missing?" Dawes’s pencil was suspended in mid-air.
"Yes, missing; and never a sign. The camp was close by the river, and McDermott figured that the boy must have crawled to the bank and fallen in. Seems now, though, that some Indian must have landed from a canoe, found the two dead men, and carried the living boy away with him. Of course McDermott never dreamed of such an outcome—but here he is now."
Hoockla-Heen followed the lieutenant’s eyes, and saw a tall, dark-bearded man. And wonder! Oh, wonder! Clothed in flesh and blood, it was one of the phantoms of his dreams! He felt suddenly very light again, and the fuzziness went from him.
"Da-da!" he cried; "O da-da!" and flung himself into the man’s arms.
Then followed ten minutes of confusion, everybody explaining at once. Hoockla-Heen remembered nothing except that once or twice the man he had called "Da-da" stooped and kissed him, and that his clutch upon his hand kept growing tighter and tighter. Then the man said something to him and started to lead him away, still clutching his hand; but Hoockla-Heen did not understand, and stopped.
The man spoke to Kootznaloo, who said to Hoockla-Heen, "This man takes you to see a woman, white woman."
"Ask him if her hair be yellow," Hoockla-Heen commanded.
And when Kootznaloo had interpreted it, the man’s face grew bright with gladness, and he stooped and kissed Hoockla-Heen again and yet again.
Kow-Whi was standing apart, silent, his eyes fixed steadily before him, as if he saw nothing of what was taking place. There was a dignity and nobleness about his demeanor, and withal a sadness which the dullest could read.
Hoockla-Heen turned his head and then ran back to him, his eyes filling with tears. There he hesitated, in doubt, looking first to one man and then the other.
"Tell him, and them, that they will see the boy again," McDermott ordered Kootznaloo to say. "And tell them that he shall always remember them, and they are welcome ever to a place by my fire and his. And further, that due reward, and great reward, shall be given."
The thing had happened. It was all right to Hoockla-Heen that he should go up the hill holding this tall, dark-bearded man by the hand. For he knew he was going to see the woman, fair and soft, the woman he often remembered, whose hair was yellow.
4. UP THE SLIDE
WHEN Clay Dilham left the tent to get a sled-load of firewood, he expected to be back in half an hour. So he told Swanson, who was cooking the dinner. Swanson and he belonged to different outfits, located about twenty miles apart on the Stuart River; but they had become traveling partners on a trip down the Yukon to Dawson to get the mail.
Swanson had laughed when Clay said he would be back in half an hour. It stood to reason, Swanson said, that good, dry fire-wood could not be found so close to Dawson; that whatever fire-wood there was originally had long since been gathered in; that fire-wood would not be selling at forty dollars a cord if any man could go out and get a sled-load and be back in the time Clay expected to make it. Then it was Clay’s turn to laugh as he sprang on the sled and mushed the dogs onto the river-trail. For, coming up from the Siwash village the previous day, he had noticed a small dead pine in an out-of-the-way place which had defied discovery by eyes less sharp than his. And his eyes were both young and sharp, for his seventeenth birthday was just cleared.
A swift ten minutes over the ice brought him to the place, and figuring ten minutes to get the tree and ten minutes to return made him certain that Swanson’s dinner would not wait.
Just below Dawson, and rising out of the Yukon itself, towered the great Moosehide Mountain, so named by Lieutenant Schwatka long ere the Klondike became famous. On the river side the mountain was scarred and gullied and gored; and it was up one of these gores or gullies that Clay had seen the tree.
Halting his dogs beneath, on the river ice, he looked up, and after some searching rediscovered it. Being dead, its weather-beaten gray so blended with the gray of rock that a thousand men could pass by and never notice it. Taking root in a cranny, it had grown up, exhausted its bit of soil, and perished. Beneath it the wall fell sheer away for a hundred feet to the river. All one had to do was to sink an ax into the dry trunk a dozen times and it would fall to the ice, and most probably smash conveniently to pieces. This Clay had figured on when confidently limiting the trip to half an hour.
He studied the cliff thoroughly before attempting it. So far as he was concerned, the longest way round was the shortest way to the tree. Twenty feet of nearly perpendicular climbing would bring him to where a slide sloped more gently in. By making a long zigzag across the face of this slide and back again, he would arrive at the pine.
Fastening his ax across his shoulders so that it would not interfere with his movements, he clawed up the broken rock, hand and foot, like a cat, till the twenty feet were cleared, and he could draw breath on the edge of the slide.
The slide was steep and its snow-covered surface slippery. Further, the heelless, walrus-hide soles of his mukluks were polished by much ice travel, and by his second step he realized how little he could depend upon them for clinging purposes. A slip at that point meant a plunge over the edge and a twenty-foot fall to the ice. A hundred feet farther along, and a slip would mean a fifty-foot fall.
He thrust his mittened hand through the snow to the earth to steady himself, and went on. But he was forced to exercise such care that the first zigzag consumed five minutes. Then, returning across the face of the slide toward the pine, he met with a new difficulty. The slope steepened considerably, so that little snow collected, while bent flat beneath this thin covering were long, dry last-year’s grasses. The surface they presented was glassy as that of his mukluks, and when both surfaces came together his feet shot out and he fell on his face, sliding downward, and convulsively clutching for something to stay himself.
This he succeeded in doing, though he lay quiet for a couple of minutes to get back his nerve. He would have taken off his mukluks and gone at it in his socks, only the cold was thirty below zero, and at such temperature his feet would quickly freeze. So he went on, and after ten minutes of risky work made the safe and solid rock where stood the pine.
A few strokes of the ax felled it into the chasm, and peeping over the edge, he indulged in a laugh at the startled dogs. They were on the verge of bolting when he called aloud to them, soothingly, and they were reassured.
Then he turned about for the back trip. Going down, he knew, was even more dangerous than coming up, but how dangerous he did not realize till he had slipped half a dozen times, and each time saved himself by what appeared to him a miracle, Time and again he ventured upon the slide, and time and again he was balked when he came to the grasses.
He sat down and looked at the treacherous snow-covered slope. It was manifestly impossible for him to make it with a whole body, and he did not wish to arrive at the bottom shattered like the pine-tree.
But while he sat inactive the frost was stealing in on him, and the quick chilling of his body warned him that he could not delay. He must be doing something to keep his blood circulating. If he could not get down by going down, there only remained to him to get down by going up. It was a Herculean task, but it was the only way out of the predicament.
From where he was he could not see the top of the cliff, but he reasoned that the gully in which lay the slide must give inward more and more as it approached the top. From what little he could see, the gully displayed this tendency; and he noticed, also, that the slide extended for many hundreds of feet upward, and that where it ended the rock was well broken up and favorable for climbing. Here and there, at several wide intervals, small masses of rock projected through the snow of the slide itself, giving sufficient stability to the enterprise to encourage him.
So, instead of taking the zigzag which led downward, he made a new one leading upward and crossing the slide at an angle of thirty degrees. The grasses gave him much trouble, and made him long for soft-tanned moosehide moccasins which could make his feet cling like a second pair of hands.
He soon found that thrusting his mittened hands through the snow and clutching the grass-roots was uncertain and unsafe. His mittens were too thick for him to be sure of his grip, so he took them off. But this brought with it new trouble. When he held on to a bunch of roots the snow, coming in contact with his bare warm hand, was melted, so that his hands and the wristbands of his woolen shirt were dripping with water. This the frost was quick to attack, and his fingers were numbed and made worthless.
Then he was forced to seek good footing where he could stand erect unsupported, to put on his mittens, and to thrash his hands against his sides until the heat came back into them.
This constant numbing of his fingers made his progress very slow; but the zigzag came to an end, finally, where the side of the slide was buttressed by perpendicular rock, and he turned back and upward again. As he climbed higher and higher, he found that the slide was wedge-shaped, its rocky buttresses pinching it away as it neared its upper end. Each step increased the depth which seemed to yawn for him.
While beating his hands against his sides he turned and looked down the long slippery slope, and figured, in case he slipped, that he would be flying with the speed of an express-train ere he took the final plunge into the icy bed of the Yukon. He passed the first outcropping rock, and the second, and at the end of an hour found himself above the third and fully five hundred feet above the river. And here, with the end nearly two hundred feet above him, the pitch of the slide was increasing.
Each step became more difficult and perilous, and he was faint from exertion and from lack of Swanson’s dinner. Three or four times he slipped slightly and recovered himself; but, growing careless from exhaustion and the long tension on his nerves, he tried to continue with too great haste, and was rewarded by a double slip of each foot, which tore loose and started him down the slope. On account of the steepness there was little snow; but what little there was, was displaced by his body, so that he became the nucleus of a young avalanche. He clawed desperately with his hands, but there was little to cling to, and he sped downward faster and faster.
The first and second outcroppings were below him, but he knew that the first was almost out of line, and pinned his hope on the second. Yet the first was just enough in line to catch one of his feet and to whirl him over and head downward on his back.
The shock of this was severe in itself, and the fine snow enveloped him in a blinding, maddening cloud; but he was thinking quickly and clearly of what would happen if he brought up head first against the second outcropping. He twisted himself over on his stomach, thrust both hands out to one side, and pressed them heavily against the flying surface.
This had the effect of a brake, drawing his head and shoulders to the side. In this position he rolled over and over a couple of times, and then, with a quick jerk at the right moment, he got his body the rest of the way round. And none too soon, for the next moment his feet drove into the outcropping, his legs doubled up, and the wind was driven from his stomach with the abruptness of the stop.
There was much snow down his neck and up his sleeves. At once and with unconcern he shook this out, only to discover when he looked up to where he must climb again, that he had lost his nerve. He was shaking as if with a palsy, and sick and faint from a frightful nausea.
Fully ten minutes passed by ere he could master these sensations and summon sufficient strength for the weary climb. His legs hurt him and he was limping, and he was conscious of a sore place in his back, where he had fallen on the ax.
In an hour he had regained the point of his tumble, and was contemplating the slide, which so suddenly steepened. It was plain to him that he could not go up with hands and feet alone, and he was beginning to lose his nerve again when he remembered the ax.
Reaching upward the distance of a step, he brushed away the snow, and in the frozen gravel and crumbled rock of the slide chopped a shallow resting-place for his foot. Then he came up a step, reached forward, and repeated the maneuver, And so, step by step, foot-hole by foot-hole, a tiny speck of toiling life poised like a fly on the mighty face of Moosehide Mountain, he fought his upward way.
Twilight was beginning to fall when he gained the head of the slide and drew himself into the rocky bottom of the gully. At this point the shoulder of the mountain began to bend back toward the crest, and in addition to its being less steep, the rocks afforded better hand-hold and foot-hold. The worst was over, and the best yet to come!
The gully opened out into a miniature basin, in which a floor of soil had been deposited, out of which, in turn, a tiny grove of pines had sprung. The trees were all dead, dry and seasoned, having long since exhausted the thin skin of earth. Clay ran his experienced eye over the timber, and estimated that it would chop up into fifty cords at least. Beyond, the gully closed in and became barren rock again. On every hand was barren rock, so the wonder was small that the trees had escaped the eyes of men. They were only to be discovered as he had discovered them—by climbing after them.
He continued the ascent, and the white moon greeted him when he came out upon the crest of Moosehide Mountain. At his feet, a thousand feet below, sparkled the lights of Dawson.
But the descent on that side was precipitate and dangerous in the uncertain moonshine, and he elected to go down the mountain by its gentler northern flank. In a couple of hours he reached the Yukon at the Siwash village, and took the river-trail back to where he had left the dogs. There he found Swanson, with a fire going, waiting for him to come down.
And though Swanson had a hearty laugh at his expense, nevertheless, a week or so later, in Dawson, there were fifty cords of wood sold at forty dollars a cord, and it was he and Swanson who sold them.
5. NEGORE, THE COWARD
He had followed the trail of his fleeing people for eleven days, and his pursuit had been in itself a flight; for behind him he knew full well were the dreaded Russians, toiling through the swampy lowlands and over the steep divides, bent on no less than the extermination of all his people. He was travelling light. A rabbit-skin sleeping-robe, a muzzle-loading rifle, and a few pounds of sun-dried salmon constituted his outfit. He would have marvelled that a whole people—women and children and aged—could travel so swiftly, had he not known the terror that drove them on.
It was in the old days of the Russian occupancy of Alaska, when the nineteenth century had run but half its course, that Negore fled after his fleeing tribe and came upon it this summer night by the head waters of the Pee-lat. Though near the midnight hour, it was bright day as he passed through the weary camp. Many saw him, all knew him, but few and cold were the greetings he received.
“Negore, the Coward,” he heard Illiha, a young woman, laugh, and Sun-ne, his sister’s daughter, laughed with her.
Black anger ate at his heart; but he gave no sign, threading his way among the camp-fires until he came to one where sat an old man. A young woman was kneading with skilful fingers the tired muscles of his legs. He raised a sightless face and listened intently as Negore’s foot crackled a dead twig.
“Who comes?” he queried in a thin, tremulous voice.
“Negore,” said the young woman, scarcely looking up from her task.
Negore’s face was expressionless. For many minutes he stood and waited. The old man’s head had sunk back upon his chest. The young woman pressed and prodded the wasted muscles, resting her body on her knees, her bowed head hidden as in a cloud by her black wealth of hair. Negore watched the supple body, bending at the hips as a lynx’s body might bend, pliant as a young willow stalk, and, withal, strong as only youth is strong. He looked, and was aware of a great yearning, akin in sensation to physical hunger. At last he spoke, saying:
“Is there no greeting for Negore, who has been long gone and has but now come back?”
She looked up at him with cold eyes. The old man chuckled to himself after the manner of the old.
“Thou art my woman, Oona,” Negore said, his tones dominant and conveying a hint of menace.
She arose with catlike ease and suddenness to her full height, her eyes flashing, her nostrils quivering like a deer’s.
“I was thy woman to be, Negore, but thou art a coward; the daughter of Old Kinoos mates not with a coward!”
She silenced him with an imperious gesture as he strove to speak.
“Old Kinoos and I came among you from a strange land. Thy people took us in by their fires and made us warm, nor asked whence or why we wandered. It was their thought that Old Kinoos had lost the sight of his eyes from age; nor did Old Kinoos say otherwise, nor did I, his daughter. Old Kinoos is a brave man, but Old Kinoos was never a boaster. And now, when I tell thee of how his blindness came to be, thou wilt know, beyond question, that the daughter of Kinoos cannot mother the children of a coward such as thou art, Negore.”
Again she silenced the speech that rushed up to his tongue.
“Know, Negore, if journey be added unto journey of all thy journeyings through this land, thou wouldst not come to the unknown Sitka on the Great Salt Sea. In that place there be many Russian folk, and their rule is harsh. And from Sitka, Old Kinoos, who was Young Kinoos in those days, fled away with me, a babe in his arms, along the islands in the midst of the sea. My mother dead tells the tale of his wrong; a Russian, dead with a spear through breast and back, tells the tale of the vengeance of Kinoos.
“But wherever we fled, and however far we fled, always did we find the hated Russian folk. Kinoos was unafraid, but the sight of them was a hurt to his eyes; so we fled on and on, through the seas and years, till we came to the Great Fog Sea, Negore, of which thou hast heard, but which thou hast never seen. We lived among many peoples, and I grew to be a woman; but Kinoos, growing old, took to him no other woman, nor did I take a man.
“At last we came to Pastolik, which is where the Yukon drowns itself in the Great Fog Sea. Here we lived long, on the rim of the sea, among a people by whom the Russians were well hated. But sometimes they came, these Russians, in great ships, and made the people of Pastolik show them the way through the islands uncountable of the many-mouthed Yukon. And sometimes the men they took to show them the way never came back, till the people became angry and planned a great plan.
“So, when there came a ship, Old Kinoos stepped forward and said he would show the way. He was an old man then, and his hair was white; but he was unafraid. And he was cunning, for he took the ship to where the sea sucks in to the land and the waves beat white on the mountain called Romanoff. The sea sucked the ship in to where the waves beat white, and it ground upon the rocks and broke open its sides. Then came all the people of Pastolik, (for this was the plan), with their war-spears, and arrows, and some few guns. But first the Russians put out the eyes of Old Kinoos that he might never show the way again, and then they fought, where the waves beat white, with the people of Pastolik.
“Now the head-man of these Russians was Ivan. He it was, with his two thumbs, who drove out the eyes of Kinoos. He it was who fought his way through the white water, with two men left of all his men, and went away along the rim of the Great Fog Sea into the north. Kinoos was wise. He could see no more and was helpless as a child. So he fled away from the sea, up the great, strange Yukon, even to Nulato, and I fled with him.
“This was the deed my father did, Kinoos, an old man. But how did the young man, Negore?”
Once again she silenced him.
“With my own eyes I saw, at Nulato, before the gates of the great fort, and but few days gone. I saw the Russian, Ivan, who thrust out my father’s eyes, lay the lash of his dog-whip upon thee and beat thee like a dog. This I saw, and knew thee for a coward. But I saw thee not, that night, when all thy people—yea, even the boys not yet hunters—fell upon the Russians and slew them all.”
“Not Ivan,” said Negore, quietly. “Even now is he on our heels, and with him many Russians fresh up from the sea.”
Oona made no effort to hide her surprise and chagrin that Ivan was not dead, but went on:
“In the day I saw thee a coward; in the night, when all men fought, even the boys not yet hunters, I saw thee not and knew thee doubly a coward.”
“Thou art done? All done?” Negore asked.
She nodded her head and looked at him askance, as though astonished that he should have aught to say.
“Know then that Negore is no coward,” he said; and his speech was very low and quiet. “Know that when I was yet a boy I journeyed alone down to the place where the Yukon drowns itself in the Great Fog Sea. Even to Pastolik I journeyed, and even beyond, into the north, along the rim of the sea. This I did when I was a boy, and I was no coward. Nor was I coward when I journeyed, a young man and alone, up the Yukon farther than man had ever been, so far that I came to another folk, with white faces, who live in a great fort and talk speech other than that the Russians talk. Also have I killed the great bear of the Tanana country, where no one of my people hath ever been. And I have fought with the Nuklukyets, and the Kaltags, and the Sticks in far regions, even I, and alone. These deeds, whereof no man knows, I speak for myself. Let my people speak for me of things I have done which they know. They will not say Negore is a coward.”
He finished proudly, and proudly waited.
“These be things which happened before I came into the land,” she said, “and I know not of them. Only do I know what I know, and I know I saw thee lashed like a dog in the day; and in the night, when the great fort flamed red and the men killed and were killed, I saw thee not. Also, thy people do call thee Negore, the Coward. It is thy name now, Negore, the Coward.”
“It is not a good name,” Old Kinoos chuckled.
“Thou dost not understand, Kinoos,” Negore said gently. “But I shall make thee understand. Know that I was away on the hunt of the bear, with Kamo-tah, my mother’s son. And Kamo-tah fought with a great bear. We had no meat for three days, and Kamo-tah was not strong of arm nor swift of foot. And the great bear crushed him, so, till his bones cracked like dry sticks. Thus I found him, very sick and groaning upon the ground. And there was no meat, nor could I kill aught that the sick man might eat.
“So I said, ‘I will go to Nulato and bring thee food, also strong men to carry thee to camp.’ And Kamo-tah said, ‘Go thou to Nulato and get food, but say no word of what has befallen me. And when I have eaten, and am grown well and strong, I will kill this bear. Then will I return in honor to Nulato, and no man may laugh and say Kamo-tah was undone by a bear.’
“So I gave heed to my brother’s words; and when I was come to Nulato, and the Russian, Ivan, laid the lash of his dog-whip upon me, I knew I must not fight. For no man knew of Kamo-tah, sick and groaning and hungry; and did I fight with Ivan, and die, then would my brother die, too. So it was, Oona, that thou sawest me beaten like a dog.
“Then I heard the talk of the shamans and chiefs that the Russians had brought strange sicknesses upon the people, and killed our men, and stolen our women, and that the land must be made clean. As I say, I heard the talk, and I knew it for good talk, and I knew that in the night the Russians were to be killed. But there was my brother, Kamo-tah, sick and groaning and with no meat; so I could not stay and fight with the men and the boys not yet hunters.
“And I took with me meat and fish, and the lash-marks of Ivan, and I found Kamo-tah no longer groaning, but dead. Then I went back to Nulato, and, behold, there was no Nulato—only ashes where the great fort had stood, and the bodies of many men. And I saw the Russians come up the Yukon in boats, fresh from the sea, many Russians; and I saw Ivan creep forth from where he lay hid and make talk with them. And the next day I saw Ivan lead them upon the trail of the tribe. Even now are they upon the trail, and I am here, Negore, but no coward.”
“This is a tale I hear,” said Oona, though her voice was gentler than before. “Kamo-tah is dead and cannot speak for thee, and I know only what I know, and I must know thee of my own eyes for no coward.”
Negore made an impatient gesture.
“There be ways and ways,” she added. “Art thou willing to do no less than what Old Kinoos hath done?”
He nodded his head, and waited.
“As thou hast said, they seek for us even now, these Russians. Show them the way, Negore, even as Old Kinoos showed them the way, so that they come, unprepared, to where we wait for them, in a passage up the rocks. Thou knowest the place, where the wall is broken and high. Then will we destroy them, even Ivan. When they cling like flies to the wall, and top is no less near than bottom, our men shall fall upon them from above and either side, with spears, and arrows, and guns. And the women and children, from above, shall loosen the great rocks and hurl them down upon them. It will be a great day, for the Russians will be killed, the land will be made clean, and Ivan, even Ivan who thrust out my father’s eyes and laid the lash of his dog-whip upon thee, will be killed. Like a dog gone mad will he die, his breath crushed out of him beneath the rocks. And when the fighting begins, it is for thee, Negore, to crawl secretly away so that thou be not slain.”
“Even so,” he answered. “Negore will show them the way. And then?”
“And then I shall be thy woman, Negore’s woman, the brave man’s woman. And thou shalt hunt meat for me and Old Kinoos, and I shall cook thy food, and sew thee warm parkas and strong, and make thee moccasins after the way of my people, which is a better way than thy people’s way. And as I say, I shall be thy woman, Negore, always thy woman. And I shall make thy life glad for thee, so that all thy days will be a song and laughter, and thou wilt know the woman Oona as unlike all other women, for she has journeyed far, and lived in strange places, and is wise in the ways of men and in the ways they may be made glad. And in thine old age will she still make thee glad, and thy memory of her in the days of thy strength will be sweet, for thou wilt know always that she was ease to thee, and peace, and rest, and that beyond all women to other men has she been woman to thee.”
“Even so,” said Negore, and the hunger for her ate at his heart, and his arms went out for her as a hungry man’s arms might go out for food.
“When thou hast shown the way, Negore,” she chided him; but her eyes were soft, and warm, and he knew she looked upon him as woman had never looked before.
“It is well,” he said, turning resolutely on his heel. “I go now to make talk with the chiefs, so that they may know I am gone to show the Russians the way.”
“Oh, Negore, my man! my man!” she said to herself, as she watched him go, but she said it so softly that even Old Kinoos did not hear, and his ears were over keen, what of his blindness.
* * * * *
Three days later, having with craft ill-concealed his hiding-place, Negore was dragged forth like a rat and brought before Ivan—“Ivan the Terrible” he was known by the men who marched at his back. Negore was armed with a miserable bone-barbed spear, and he kept his rabbit-skin robe wrapped closely about him, and though the day was warm he shivered as with an ague. He shook his head that he did not understand the speech Ivan put at him, and made that he was very weary and sick, and wished only to sit down and rest, pointing the while to his stomach in sign of his sickness, and shivering fiercely. But Ivan had with him a man from Pastolik who talked the speech of Negore, and many and vain were the questions they asked him concerning his tribe, till the man from Pastolik, who was called Karduk, said:
“It is the word of Ivan that thou shalt be lashed till thou diest if thou dost not speak. And know, strange brother, when I tell thee the word of Ivan is the law, that I am thy friend and no friend of Ivan. For I come not willingly from my country by the sea, and I desire greatly to live; wherefore I obey the will of my master—as thou wilt obey, strange brother, if thou art wise, and wouldst live.”
“Nay, strange brother,” Negore answered, “I know not the way my people are gone, for I was sick, and they fled so fast my legs gave out from under me, and I fell behind.”
Negore waited while Karduk talked with Ivan. Then Negore saw the Russian’s face go dark, and he saw the men step to either side of him, snapping the lashes of their whips. Whereupon he betrayed a great fright, and cried aloud that he was a sick man and knew nothing, but would tell what he knew. And to such purpose did he tell, that Ivan gave the word to his men to march, and on either side of Negore marched the men with the whips, that he might not run away. And when he made that he was weak of his sickness, and stumbled and walked not so fast as they walked, they laid their lashes upon him till he screamed with pain and discovered new strength. And when Karduk told him all would he well with him when they had overtaken his tribe, he asked, “And then may I rest and move not?”
Continually he asked, “And then may I rest and move not?”
And while he appeared very sick and looked about him with dull eyes, he noted the fighting strength of Ivan’s men, and noted with satisfaction that Ivan did not recognize him as the man he had beaten before the gates of the fort. It was a strange following his dull eyes saw. There were Slavonian hunters, fair-skinned and mighty-muscled; short, squat Finns, with flat noses and round faces; Siberian half-breeds, whose noses were more like eagle-beaks; and lean, slant-eyed men, who bore in their veins the Mongol and Tartar blood as well as the blood of the Slav. Wild adventurers they were, forayers and destroyers from the far lands beyond the Sea of Bering, who blasted the new and unknown world with fire and sword and clutched greedily for its wealth of fur and hide. Negore looked upon them with satisfaction, and in his mind’s eye he saw them crushed and lifeless at the passage up the rocks. And ever he saw, waiting for him at the passage up the rocks, the face and the form of Oona, and ever he heard her voice in his ears and felt the soft, warm glow of her eyes. But never did he forget to shiver, nor to stumble where the footing was rough, nor to cry aloud at the bite of the lash. Also, he was afraid of Karduk, for he knew him for no true man. His was a false eye, and an easy tongue—a tongue too easy, he judged, for the awkwardness of honest speech.
All that day they marched. And on the next, when Karduk asked him at command of Ivan, he said he doubted they would meet with his tribe till the morrow. But Ivan, who had once been shown the way by Old Kinoos, and had found that way to lead through the white water and a deadly fight, believed no more in anything. So when they came to a passage up the rocks, he halted his forty men, and through Karduk demanded if the way were clear.
Negore looked at it shortly and carelessly. It was a vast slide that broke the straight wall of a cliff, and was overrun with brush and creeping plants, where a score of tribes could have lain well hidden.
He shook his head. “Nay, there be nothing there,” he said. “The way is clear.”
Again Ivan spoke to Karduk, and Karduk said:
“Know, strange brother, if thy talk be not straight, and if thy people block the way and fall upon Ivan and his men, that thou shalt die, and at once.”
“My talk is straight,” Negore said. “The way is clear.”
Still Ivan doubted, and ordered two of his Slavonian hunters to go up alone. Two other men he ordered to the side of Negore. They placed their guns against his breast and waited. All waited. And Negore knew, should one arrow fly, or one spear be flung, that his death would come upon him. The two Slavonian hunters toiled upward till they grew small and smaller, and when they reached the top and waved their hats that all was well, they were like black specks against the sky.
The guns were lowered from Negore’s breast and Ivan gave the order for his men to go forward. Ivan was silent, lost in thought. For an hour he marched, as though puzzled, and then, through Karduk’s mouth, he said to Negore:
“How didst thou know the way was clear when thou didst look so briefly upon it?”
Negore thought of the little birds he had seen perched among the rocks and upon the bushes, and smiled, it was so simple; but he shrugged his shoulders and made no answer. For he was thinking, likewise, of another passage up the rocks, to which they would soon come, and where the little birds would all be gone. And he was glad that Karduk came from the Great Fog Sea, where there were no trees or bushes, and where men learned water-craft instead of land-craft and wood-craft.
Three hours later, when the sun rode overhead, they came to another passage up the rocks, and Karduk said:
“Look with all thine eyes, strange brother, and see if the way be clear, for Ivan is not minded this time to wait while men go up before.”
Negore looked, and he looked with two men by his side, their guns resting against his breast. He saw that the little birds were all gone, and once he saw the glint of sunlight on a rifle-barrel. And he thought of Oona, and of her words: “And when the fighting begins, it is for thee, Negore, to crawl secretly away so that thou be not slain.”
He felt the two guns pressing on his breast. This was not the way she had planned. There would be no crawling secretly away. He would be the first to die when the fighting began. But he said, and his voice was steady, and he still feigned to see with dull eyes and to shiver from his sickness:
“The way is clear.”
And they started up, Ivan and his forty men from the far lands beyond the Sea of Bering. And there was Karduk, the man from Pastolik, and Negore, with the two guns always upon him. It was a long climb, and they could not go fast; but very fast to Negore they seemed to approach the midway point where top was no less near than bottom.
A gun cracked among the rocks to the right, and Negore heard the war-yell of all his tribe, and for an instant saw the rocks and bushes bristle alive with his kinfolk. Then he felt torn asunder by a burst of flame hot through his being, and as he fell he knew the sharp pangs of life as it wrenches at the flesh to be free.
But he gripped his life with a miser’s clutch and would not let it go. He still breathed the air, which bit his lungs with a painful sweetness; and dimly he saw and heard, with passing spells of blindness and deafness, the flashes of sight and sound again wherein he saw the hunters of Ivan falling to their deaths, and his own brothers fringing the carnage and filling the air with the tumult of their cries and weapons, and, far above, the women and children loosing the great rocks that leaped like things alive and thundered down.
The sun danced above him in the sky, the huge walls reeled and swung, and still he heard and saw dimly. And when the great Ivan fell across his legs, hurled there lifeless and crushed by a down-rushing rock, he remembered the blind eyes of Old Kinoos and was glad.
Then the sounds died down, and the rocks no longer thundered past, and he saw his tribespeople creeping close and closer, spearing the wounded as they came. And near to him he heard the scuffle of a mighty Slavonian hunter, loath to die, and, half uprisen, borne back and down by the thirsty spears.
Then he saw above him the face of Oona, and felt about him the arms of Oona; and for a moment the sun steadied and stood still, and the great walls were upright and moved not.
“Thou art a brave man, Negore,” he heard her say in his ear; “thou art my man, Negore.”
And in that moment he lived all the life of gladness of which she had told him, and the laughter and the song, and as the sun went out of the sky above him, as in his old age, he knew the memory of her was sweet. And as even the memories dimmed and died in the darkness that fell upon him, he knew in her arms the fulfilment of all the ease and rest she had promised him. And as black night wrapped around him, his head upon her breast, he felt a great peace steal about him, and he was aware of the hush of many twilights and the mystery of silence.
6. FLUSH OF GOLD
Lon McFane was a bit grumpy, what of losing his tobacco pouch, or else he might have told me, before we got to it, something about the cabin at Surprise Lake. All day, turn and turn about, we had spelled each other at going to the fore and breaking trail for the dogs. It was heavy snowshoe work, and did not tend to make a man voluble, yet Lon McFane might have found breath enough at noon, when we stopped to boil coffee, with which to tell me. But he didn’t. Surprise Lake?—it was Surprise Cabin to me. I had never heard of it before. I confess I was a bit tired. I had been looking for Lon to stop and make camp any time for an hour; but I had too much pride to suggest making camp or to ask him his intentions; and yet he was my man, lured at a handsome wage to mush my dogs for me and to obey my commands. I guess I was a bit grumpy myself. He said nothing, and I was resolved to ask nothing, even if we tramped on all night.
We came upon the cabin abruptly. For a week of trail we had met no one, and, in my mind, there had been little likelihood of meeting any one for a week to come. And yet there it was, right before my eyes, a cabin, with a dim light in the window and smoke curling up from the chimney.
“Why didn’t you tell me—” I began, but was interrupted by Lon, who muttered—
“Surprise Lake—it lies up a small feeder half a mile on. It’s only a pond.”
“Yes, but the cabin—who lives in it?”
“A woman,” was the answer, and the next moment Lon had rapped on the door, and a woman’s voice bade him enter.
“Have you seen Dave recently?” she asked.
“Nope,” Lon answered carelessly. “I’ve been in the other direction, down Circle City way. Dave’s up Dawson way, ain’t he?”
The woman nodded, and Lon fell to unharnessing the dogs, while I unlashed the sled and carried the camp outfit into the cabin. The cabin was a large, one-room affair, and the woman was evidently alone in it. She pointed to the stove, where water was already boiling, and Lon set about the preparation of supper, while I opened the fish-bag and fed the dogs. I looked for Lon to introduce us, and was vexed that he did not, for they were evidently old friends.
“You are Lon McFane, aren’t you?” I heard her ask him. “Why, I remember you now. The last time I saw you it was on a steamboat, wasn’t it? I remember . . . ”
Her speech seemed suddenly to be frozen by the spectacle of dread which, I knew, from the tenor I saw mounting in her eyes, must be on her inner vision. To my astonishment, Lon was affected by her words and manner. His face showed desperate, for all his voice sounded hearty and genial, as he said—
“The last time we met was at Dawson, Queen’s Jubilee, or Birthday, or something—don’t you remember?—the canoe races in the river, and the obstacle races down the main street?”
The terror faded out of her eyes and her whole body relaxed. “Oh, yes, I do remember,” she said. “And you won one of the canoe races.”
“How’s Dave been makin’ it lately? Strikin’ it as rich as ever, I suppose?” Lon asked, with apparent irrelevance.
She smiled and nodded, and then, noticing that I had unlashed the bed roll, she indicated the end of the cabin where I might spread it. Her own bunk, I noticed, was made up at the opposite end.
“I thought it was Dave coming when I heard your dogs,” she said.
After that she said nothing, contenting herself with watching Lon’s cooking operations, and listening the while as for the sound of dogs along the trail. I lay back on the blankets and smoked and watched. Here was mystery; I could make that much out, but no more could I make out. Why in the deuce hadn’t Lon given me the tip before we arrived? I looked at her face, unnoticed by her, and the longer I looked the harder it was to take my eyes away. It was a wonderfully beautiful face, unearthly, I may say, with a light in it or an expression or something “that was never on land or sea.” Fear and terror had completely vanished, and it was a placidly beautiful face—if by “placid” one can characterize that intangible and occult something that I cannot say was a radiance or a light any more than I can say it was an expression.
Abruptly, as if for the first time, she became aware of my presence.
“Have you seen Dave recently?” she asked me. It was on the tip of my tongue to say “Dave who?” when Lon coughed in the smoke that arose from the sizzling bacon. The bacon might have caused that cough, but I took it as a hint and left my question unasked. “No, I haven’t,” I answered. “I’m new in this part of the country—”
“But you don’t mean to say,” she interrupted, “that you’ve never heard of Dave—of Big Dave Walsh?”
“You see,” I apologised, “I’m new in the country. I’ve put in most of my time in the Lower Country, down Nome way.”
“Tell him about Dave,” she said to Lon.
Lon seemed put out, but he began in that hearty, genial manner that I had noticed before. It seemed a shade too hearty and genial, and it irritated me.
“Oh, Dave is a fine man,” he said. “He’s a man, every inch of him, and he stands six feet four in his socks. His word is as good as his bond. The man lies who ever says Dave told a lie, and that man will have to fight with me, too, as well—if there’s anything left of him when Dave gets done with him. For Dave is a fighter. Oh, yes, he’s a scrapper from way back. He got a grizzly with a ’38 popgun. He got clawed some, but he knew what he was doin’. He went into the cave on purpose to get that grizzly. ’Fraid of nothing. Free an’ easy with his money, or his last shirt an’ match when out of money. Why, he drained Surprise Lake here in three weeks an’ took out ninety thousand, didn’t he?” She flushed and nodded her head proudly. Through his recital she had followed every word with keenest interest. “An’ I must say,” Lon went on, “that I was disappointed sore on not meeting Dave here to-night.”
Lon served supper at one end of the table of whip-sawed spruce, and we fell to eating. A howling of the dogs took the woman to the door. She opened it an inch and listened.
“Where is Dave Walsh?” I asked, in an undertone.
“Dead,” Lon answered. “In hell, maybe. I don’t know. Shut up.”
“But you just said that you expected to meet him here to-night,” I challenged.
“Oh, shut up, can’t you,” was Lon’s reply, in the same cautious undertone.
The woman had closed the door and was returning, and I sat and meditated upon the fact that this man who told me to shut up received from me a salary of two hundred and fifty dollars a month and his board.
Lon washed the dishes, while I smoked and watched the woman. She seemed more beautiful than ever—strangely and weirdly beautiful, it is true. After looking at her steadfastly for five minutes, I was compelled to come back to the real world and to glance at Lon McFane. This enabled me to know, without discussion, that the woman, too, was real. At first I had taken her for the wife of Dave Walsh; but if Dave Walsh were dead, as Lon had said, then she could be only his widow.
It was early to bed, for we faced a long day on the morrow; and as Lon crawled in beside me under the blankets, I ventured a question.
“That woman’s crazy, isn’t she?”
“Crazy as a loon,” he answered.
And before I could formulate my next question, Lon McFane, I swear, was off to sleep. He always went to sleep that way—just crawled into the blankets, closed his eyes, and was off, a demure little heavy breathing rising on the air. Lon never snored.
And in the morning it was quick breakfast, feed the dogs, load the sled, and hit the trail. We said good-bye as we pulled out, and the woman stood in the doorway and watched us off. I carried the vision of her unearthly beauty away with me, just under my eyelids, and all I had to do, any time, was to close them and see her again. The way was unbroken, Surprise Lake being far off the travelled trails, and Lon and I took turn about at beating down the feathery snow with our big, webbed shoes so that the dogs could travel. “But you said you expected to meet Dave Walsh at the cabin,” trembled on the tip of my tongue a score of times. I did not utter it. I could wait until we knocked off in the middle of the day. And when the middle of the day came, we went right on, for, as Lon explained, there was a camp of moose hunters at the forks of the Teelee, and we could make there by dark. But we didn’t make there by dark, for Bright, the lead-dog, broke his shoulder-blade, and we lost an hour over him before we shot him. Then, crossing a timber jam on the frozen bed of the Teelee, the sled suffered a wrenching capsize, and it was a case of make camp and repair the runner. I cooked supper and fed the dogs while Lon made the repairs, and together we got in the night’s supply of ice and firewood. Then we sat on our blankets, our moccasins steaming on upended sticks before the fire, and had our evening smoke.
“You didn’t know her?” Lon queried suddenly. I shook my head.
“You noticed the colour of her hair and eyes and her complexion, well, that’s where she got her name—she was like the first warm glow of a golden sunrise. She was called Flush of Gold. Ever heard of her?”
Somewhere I had a confused and misty remembrance of having heard the name, yet it meant nothing to me. “Flush of Gold,” I repeated; “sounds like the name of a dance-house girl.” Lon shook his head. “No, she was a good woman, at least in that sense, though she sinned greatly just the same.”
“But why do you speak always of her in the past tense, as though she were dead?”
“Because of the darkness on her soul that is the same as the darkness of death. The Flush of Gold that I knew, that Dawson knew, and that Forty Mile knew before that, is dead. That dumb, lunatic creature we saw last night was not Flush of Gold.”
“And Dave?” I queried.
“He built that cabin,” Lon answered, “He built it for her . . . and for himself. He is dead. She is waiting for him there. She half believes he is not dead. But who can know the whim of a crazed mind? Maybe she wholly believes he is not dead. At any rate, she waits for him there in the cabin he built. Who would rouse the dead? Then who would rouse the living that are dead? Not I, and that is why I let on to expect to meet Dave Walsh there last night. I’ll bet a stack that I’d a been more surprised than she if I had met him there last night.”
“I do not understand,” I said. “Begin at the beginning, as a white man should, and tell me the whole tale.”
And Lon began. “Victor Chauvet was an old Frenchman—born in the south of France. He came to California in the days of gold. He was a pioneer. He found no gold, but, instead, became a maker of bottled sunshine—in short, a grape-grower and wine-maker. Also, he followed gold excitements. That is what brought him to Alaska in the early days, and over the Chilcoot and down the Yukon long before the Carmack strike. The old town site of Ten Mile was Chauvet’s. He carried the first mail into Arctic City. He staked those coal-mines on the Porcupine a dozen years ago. He grubstaked Loftus into the Nippennuck Country. Now it happened that Victor Chauvet was a good Catholic, loving two things in this world, wine and woman. Wine of all kinds he loved, but of woman, only one, and she was the mother of Marie Chauvet.”
Here I groaned aloud, having meditated beyond self-control over the fact that I paid this man two hundred and fifty dollars a month.
“What’s the matter now?” he demanded.
“Matter?” I complained. “I thought you were telling the story of Flush of Gold. I don’t want a biography of your old French wine-bibber.”
Lon calmly lighted his pipe, took one good puff, then put the pipe aside. “And you asked me to begin at the beginning,” he said.
“Yes,” said I; “the beginning.”
“And the beginning of Flush of Gold is the old French wine-bibber, for he was the father of Marie Chauvet, and Marie Chauvet was the Flush of Gold. What more do you want? Victor Chauvet never had much luck to speak of. He managed to live, and to get along, and to take good care of Marie, who resembled the one woman he had loved. He took very good care of her. Flush of Gold was the pet name he gave her. Flush of Gold Creek was named after her—Flush of Gold town site, too. The old man was great on town sites, only he never landed them.
“Now, honestly,” Lon said, with one of his lightning changes, “you’ve seen her, what do you think of her—of her looks, I mean? How does she strike your beauty sense?”
“She is remarkably beautiful,” I said. “I never saw anything like her in my life. In spite of the fact, last night, that I guessed she was mad, I could not keep my eyes off of her. It wasn’t curiosity. It was wonder, sheer wonder, she was so strangely beautiful.”
“She was more strangely beautiful before the darkness fell upon her,” Lon said softly. “She was truly the Flush of Gold. She turned all men’s hearts . . . and heads. She recalls, with an effort, that I once won a canoe race at Dawson—I, who once loved her, and was told by her of her love for me. It was her beauty that made all men love her. She’d ’a’ got the apple from Paris, on application, and there wouldn’t have been any Trojan War, and to top it off she’d have thrown Paris down. And now she lives in darkness, and she who was always fickle, for the first time is constant—and constant to a shade, to a dead man she does not realize is dead.
“And this is the way it was. You remember what I said last night of Dave Walsh—Big Dave Walsh? He was all that I said, and more, many times more. He came into this country in the late eighties—that’s a pioneer for you. He was twenty years old then. He was a young bull. When he was twenty-five he could lift clear of the ground thirteen fifty-pound sacks of flour. At first, each fall of the year, famine drove him out. It was a lone land in those days. No river steamboats, no grub, nothing but salmon bellies and rabbit tracks. But after famine chased him out three years, he said he’d had enough of being chased; and the next year he stayed. He lived on straight meat when he was lucky enough to get it; he ate eleven dogs that winter; but he stayed. And the next winter he stayed, and the next. He never did leave the country again. He was a bull, a great bull. He could kill the strongest man in the country with hard work. He could outpack a Chilcat Indian, he could outpaddle a Stick, and he could travel all day with wet feet when the thermometer registered fifty below zero, and that’s going some, I tell you, for vitality. You’d freeze your feet at twenty-five below if you wet them and tried to keep on.
“Dave Walsh was a bull for strength. And yet he was soft and easy-natured. Anybody could do him, the latest short-horn in camp could lie his last dollar out of him. ‘But it doesn’t worry me,’ he had a way of laughing off his softness; ‘it doesn’t keep me awake nights.’ Now don’t get the idea that he had no backbone. You remember about the bear he went after with the popgun. When it came to fighting Dave was the blamedest ever. He was the limit, if by that I may describe his unlimitedness when he got into action, he was easy and kind with the weak, but the strong had to give trail when he went by. And he was a man that men liked, which is the finest word of all, a man’s man.
“Dave never took part in the big stampede to Dawson when Carmack made the Bonanza strike. You see, Dave was just then over on Mammon Creek strikin’ it himself. He discovered Mammon Creek. Cleaned eighty-four thousand up that winter, and opened up the claim so that it promised a couple of hundred thousand for the next winter. Then, summer bein’ on and the ground sloshy, he took a trip up the Yukon to Dawson to see what Carmack’s strike looked like. And there he saw Flush of Gold. I remember the night. I shall always remember. It was something sudden, and it makes one shiver to think of a strong man with all the strength withered out of him by one glance from the soft eyes of a weak, blond, female creature like Flush of Gold. It was at her dad’s cabin, old Victor Chauvet’s. Some friend had brought Dave along to talk over town sites on Mammon Creek. But little talking did he do, and what he did was mostly gibberish. I tell you the sight of Flush of Gold had sent Dave clean daffy. Old Victor Chauvet insisted after Dave left that he had been drunk. And so he had. He was drunk, but Flush of Gold was the strong drink that made him so.
“That settled it, that first glimpse he caught of her. He did not start back down the Yukon in a week, as he had intended. He lingered on a month, two months, all summer. And we who had suffered understood, and wondered what the outcome would be. Undoubtedly, in our minds, it seemed that Flush of Gold had met her master. And why not? There was romance sprinkled all over Dave Walsh. He was a Mammon King, he had made the Mammon Creek strike; he was an old sour dough, one of the oldest pioneers in the land—men turned to look at him when he went by, and said to one another in awed undertones, ‘There goes Dave Walsh.’ And why not? He stood six feet four; he had yellow hair himself that curled on his neck; and he was a bull—a yellow-maned bull just turned thirty-one.
“And Flush of Gold loved him, and, having danced him through a whole summer’s courtship, at the end their engagement was made known. The fall of the year was at hand, Dave had to be back for the winter’s work on Mammon Creek, and Flush of Gold refused to be married right away. Dave put Dusky Burns in charge of the Mammon Creek claim, and himself lingered on in Dawson. Little use. She wanted her freedom a while longer; she must have it, and she would not marry until next year. And so, on the first ice, Dave Walsh went alone down the Yukon behind his dogs, with the understanding that the marriage would take place when he arrived on the first steamboat of the next year.
“Now Dave was as true as the Pole Star, and she was as false as a magnetic needle in a cargo of loadstone. Dave was as steady and solid as she was fickle and fly-away, and in some way Dave, who never doubted anybody, doubted her. It was the jealousy of his love, perhaps, and maybe it was the message ticked off from her soul to his; but at any rate Dave was worried by fear of her inconstancy. He was afraid to trust her till the next year, he had so to trust her, and he was pretty well beside himself. Some of it I got from old Victor Chauvet afterwards, and from all that I have pieced together I conclude that there was something of a scene before Dave pulled north with his dogs. He stood up before the old Frenchman, with Flush of Gold beside him, and announced that they were plighted to each other. He was very dramatic, with fire in his eyes, old Victor said. He talked something about ‘until death do us part’; and old Victor especially remembered that at one place Dave took her by the shoulder with his great paw and almost shook her as he said: ‘Even unto death are you mine, and I would rise from the grave to claim you.’ Old Victor distinctly remembered those words ‘Even unto death are you mine, and I would rise from the grave to claim you.’ And he told me afterwards that Flush of Gold was pretty badly frightened, and that he afterwards took Dave to one side privately and told him that that wasn’t the way to hold Flush of Gold—that he must humour her and gentle her if he wanted to keep her.
“There is no discussion in my mind but that Flush of Gold was frightened. She was a savage herself in her treatment of men, while men had always treated her as a soft and tender and too utterly-utter something that must not be hurt. She didn’t know what harshness was . . . until Dave Walsh, standing his six feet four, a big bull, gripped her and pawed her and assured her that she was his until death, and then some. And besides, in Dawson, that winter, was a music-player—one of those macaroni-eating, greasy-tenor-Eye-talian-dago propositions—and Flush of Gold lost her heart to him. Maybe it was only fascination—I don’t know. Sometimes it seems to me that she really did love Dave Walsh. Perhaps it was because he had frightened her with that even-unto-death, rise-from-the-grave stunt of his that she in the end inclined to the dago music-player. But it is all guesswork, and the facts are, sufficient. He wasn’t a dago; he was a Russian count—this was straight; and he wasn’t a professional piano-player or anything of the sort. He played the violin and the piano, and he sang—sang well—but it was for his own pleasure and for the pleasure of those he sang for. He had money, too—and right here let me say that Flush of Gold never cared a rap for money. She was fickle, but she was never sordid.
“But to be getting along. She was plighted to Dave, and Dave was coming up on the first steamboat to get her—that was the summer of ’98, and the first steamboat was to be expected the middle of June. And Flush of Gold was afraid to throw Dave down and face him afterwards. It was all planned suddenly. The Russian music-player, the Count, was her obedient slave. She planned it, I know. I learned as much from old Victor afterwards. The Count took his orders from her, and caught that first steamboat down. It was the Golden Rocket. And so did Flush of Gold catch it. And so did I. I was going to Circle City, and I was flabbergasted when I found Flush of Gold on board. I didn’t see her name down on the passenger list. She was with the Count fellow all the time, happy and smiling, and I noticed that the Count fellow was down on the list as having his wife along. There it was, state-room, number, and all. The first I knew that he was married, only I didn’t see anything of the wife . . . unless Flush of Gold was so counted. I wondered if they’d got married ashore before starting. There’d been talk about them in Dawson, you see, and bets had been laid that the Count fellow had cut Dave out.
“I talked with the purser. He didn’t know anything more about it than I did; he didn’t know Flush of Gold, anyway, and besides, he was almost rushed to death. You know what a Yukon steamboat is, but you can’t guess what the Golden Rocket was when it left Dawson that June of 1898. She was a hummer. Being the first steamer out, she carried all the scurvy patients and hospital wrecks. Then she must have carried a couple of millions of Klondike dust and nuggets, to say nothing of a packed and jammed passenger list, deck passengers galore, and bucks and squaws and dogs without end. And she was loaded down to the guards with freight and baggage. There was a mountain of the same on the fore-lower-deck, and each little stop along the way added to it. I saw the box come aboard at Teelee Portage, and I knew it for what it was, though I little guessed the joker that was in it. And they piled it on top of everything else on the fore-lower-deck, and they didn’t pile it any too securely either. The mate expected to come back to it again, and then forgot about it. I thought at the time that there was something familiar about the big husky dog that climbed over the baggage and freight and lay down next to the box. And then we passed the Glendale, bound up for Dawson. As she saluted us, I thought of Dave on board of her and hurrying to Dawson to Flush of Gold. I turned and looked at her where she stood by the rail. Her eyes were bright, but she looked a bit frightened by the sight of the other steamer, and she was leaning closely to the Count fellow as for protection. She needn’t have leaned so safely against him, and I needn’t have been so sure of a disappointed Dave Walsh arriving at Dawson. For Dave Walsh wasn’t on the Glendale. There were a lot of things I didn’t know, but was soon to know—for instance, that the pair were not yet married. Inside half an hour preparations for the marriage took place. What of the sick men in the main cabin, and of the crowded condition of the Golden Rocket, the likeliest place for the ceremony was found forward, on the lower deck, in an open space next to the rail and gang-plank and shaded by the mountain of freight with the big box on top and the sleeping dog beside it. There was a missionary on board, getting off at Eagle City, which was the next step, so they had to use him quick. That’s what they’d planned to do, get married on the boat.
“But I’ve run ahead of the facts. The reason Dave Walsh wasn’t on the Glendale was because he was on the Golden Rocket. It was this way. After loiterin’ in Dawson on account of Flush of Gold, he went down to Mammon Creek on the ice. And there he found Dusky Burns doing so well with the claim, there was no need for him to be around. So he put some grub on the sled, harnessed the dogs, took an Indian along, and pulled out for Surprise Lake. He always had a liking for that section. Maybe you don’t know how the creek turned out to be a four-flusher; but the prospects were good at the time, and Dave proceeded to build his cabin and hers. That’s the cabin we slept in. After he finished it, he went off on a moose hunt to the forks of the Teelee, takin’ the Indian along.
“And this is what happened. Came on a cold snap. The juice went down forty, fifty, sixty below zero. I remember that snap—I was at Forty Mile; and I remember the very day. At eleven o’clock in the morning the spirit thermometer at the N. A. T. & T. Company’s store went down to seventy-five below zero. And that morning, near the forks of the Teelee, Dave Walsh was out after moose with that blessed Indian of his. I got it all from the Indian afterwards—we made a trip over the ice together to Dyea. That morning Mr. Indian broke through the ice and wet himself to the waist. Of course he began to freeze right away. The proper thing was to build a fire. But Dave Walsh was a bull. It was only half a mile to camp, where a fire was already burning. What was the good of building another? He threw Mr. Indian over his shoulder—and ran with him—half a mile—with the thermometer at seventy-five below. You know what that means. Suicide. There’s no other name for it. Why, that buck Indian weighed over two hundred himself, and Dave ran half a mile with him. Of course he froze his lungs. Must have frozen them near solid. It was a tomfool trick for any man to do. And anyway, after lingering horribly for several weeks, Dave Walsh died.
“The Indian didn’t know what to do with the corpse. Ordinarily he’d have buried him and let it go at that. But he knew that Dave Walsh was a big man, worth lots of money, a hi-yu skookum chief. Likewise he’d seen the bodies of other hi-yu skookums carted around the country like they were worth something. So he decided to take Dave’s body to Forty Mile, which was Dave’s headquarters. You know how the ice is on the grass roots in this country—well, the Indian planted Dave under a foot of soil—in short, he put Dave on ice. Dave could have stayed there a thousand years and still been the same old Dave. You understand—just the same as a refrigerator. Then the Indian brings over a whipsaw from the cabin at Surprise Lake and makes lumber enough for the box. Also, waiting for the thaw, he goes out and shoots about ten thousand pounds of moose. This he keeps on ice, too. Came the thaw. The Teelee broke. He built a raft and loaded it with the meat, the big box with Dave inside, and Dave’s team of dogs, and away they went down the Teelee.
“The raft got caught on a timber jam and hung up two days. It was scorching hot weather, and Mr. Indian nearly lost his moose meat. So when he got to Teelee Portage he figured a steamboat would get to Forty Mile quicker than his raft. He transferred his cargo, and there you are, fore-lower deck of the Golden Rocket, Flush of Gold being married, and Dave Walsh in his big box casting the shade for her. And there’s one thing I clean forgot. No wonder I thought the husky dog that came aboard at Teelee Portage was familiar. It was Pee-lat, Dave Walsh’s lead-dog and favourite—a terrible fighter, too. He was lying down beside the box.
“Flush of Gold caught sight of me, called me over, shook hands with me, and introduced me to the Count. She was beautiful. I was as mad for her then as ever. She smiled into my eyes and said I must sign as one of the witnesses. And there was no refusing her. She was ever a child, cruel as children are cruel. Also, she told me she was in possession of the only two bottles of champagne in Dawson—or that had been in Dawson the night before; and before I knew it I was scheduled to drink her and the Count’s health. Everybody crowded round, the captain of the steamboat, very prominent, trying to ring in on the wine, I guess. It was a funny wedding. On the upper deck the hospital wrecks, with various feet in the grave, gathered and looked down to see. There were Indians all jammed in the circle, too, big bucks, and their squaws and kids, to say nothing of about twenty-five snarling wolf-dogs. The missionary lined the two of them up and started in with the service. And just then a dog-fight started, high up on the pile of freight—Pee-lat lying beside the big box, and a white-haired brute belonging to one of the Indians. The fight wasn’t explosive at all. The brutes just snarled at each other from a distance—tapping at each other long-distance, you know, saying dast and dassent, dast and dassent. The noise was rather disturbing, but you could hear the missionary’s voice above it.
“There was no particularly easy way of getting at the two dogs, except from the other side of the pile. But nobody was on that side—everybody watching the ceremony, you see. Even then everything might have been all right if the captain hadn’t thrown a club at the dogs. That was what precipitated everything. As I say, if the captain hadn’t thrown that club, nothing might have happened.
“The missionary had just reached the point where he was saying ‘In sickness and in health,’ and ‘Till death us do part.’ And just then the captain threw the club. I saw the whole thing. It landed on Pee-lat, and at that instant the white brute jumped him. The club caused it. Their two bodies struck the box, and it began to slide, its lower end tilting down. It was a long oblong box, and it slid down slowly until it reached the perpendicular, when it came down on the run. The onlookers on that side the circle had time to get out from under. Flush of Gold and the Count, on the opposite side of the circle, were facing the box; the missionary had his back to it. The box must have fallen ten feet straight up and down, and it hit end on.
“Now mind you, not one of us knew that Dave Walsh was dead. We thought he was on the Glendale, bound for Dawson. The missionary had edged off to one side, and so Flush of Gold faced the box when it struck. It was like in a play. It couldn’t have been better planned. It struck on end, and on the right end; the whole front of the box came off; and out swept Dave Walsh on his feet, partly wrapped in a blanket, his yellow hair flying and showing bright in the sun. Right out of the box, on his feet, he swept upon Flush of Gold. She didn’t know he was dead, but it was unmistakable, after hanging up two days on a timber jam, that he was rising all right from the dead to claim her. Possibly that is what she thought. At any rate, the sight froze her. She couldn’t move. She just sort of wilted and watched Dave Walsh coming for her! And he got her. It looked almost as though he threw his arms around her, but whether or not this happened, down to the deck they went together. We had to drag Dave Walsh’s body clear before we could get hold of her. She was in a faint, but it would have been just as well if she had never come out of that faint; for when she did, she fell to screaming the way insane people do. She kept it up for hours, till she was exhausted. Oh, yes, she recovered. You saw her last night, and know how much recovered she is. She is not violent, it is true, but she lives in darkness. She believes that she is waiting for Dave Walsh, and so she waits in the cabin he built for her. She is no longer fickle. It is nine years now that she has been faithful to Dave Walsh, and the outlook is that she’ll be faithful to him to the end.”
Lon McFane pulled down the top of the blankets and prepared to crawl in.
“We have her grub hauled to her each year,” he added, “and in general keep an eye on her. Last night was the first time she ever recognized me, though.”
“Who are the we?” I asked.
“Oh,” was the answer, “the Count and old Victor Chauvet and me. Do you know, I think the Count is the one to be really sorry for. Dave Walsh never did know that she was false to him. And she does not suffer. Her darkness is merciful to her.”
I lay silently under the blankets for the space of a minute.
“Is the Count still in the country?” I asked.
But there was a gentle sound of heavy breathing, and I knew Lon McFane was asleep.
7. THE STAMPEDE TO SQUAW CREEK
Two months after Smoke Bellew and Shorty went after moose for a grub-stake, they were back in the Elkhorn saloon at Dawson. The hunting was done, the meat hauled in and sold for two dollars and a half a pound, and between them they possessed three thousand dollars in gold dust and a good team of dogs. They had played in luck. Despite the fact that the gold-rush had driven the game a hundred miles or more into the mountains, they had, within half that distance, bagged four moose in a narrow canyon.
The mystery of the strayed animals was no greater than the luck of their killers, for within the day four famished Indian families, reporting no game in three days’ journey back, camped beside them. Meat was traded for starving dogs, and after a week of feeding, Smoke and Shorty harnessed the animals and began freighting the meat to the eager Dawson market.
The problem of the two men now was to turn their gold-dust into food. The current price for flour and beans was a dollar and a half a pound, but the difficulty was to find a seller. Dawson was in the throes of famine. Hundreds of men, with money but no food, had been compelled to leave the country. Many had gone down the river on the last water, and many more, with barely enough food to last, had walked the six hundred miles over the ice to Dyea.
Smoke met Shorty in the warm saloon, and found the latter jubilant.
“Life ain’t no punkins without whiskey an’ sweetenin’,” was Shorty’s greeting, as he pulled lumps of ice from his thawing moustache and flung them rattling on the floor. “An’ I sure just got eighteen pounds of that same sweetenin’. The geezer only charged three dollars a pound for it. What luck did you have?”
“I, too, have not been idle,” Smoke answered with pride. “I bought fifty pounds of flour. And there’s a man up on Adam Creek who says he’ll let me have fifty pounds more to-morrow.”
“Great! We’ll sure live till the river opens. Say, Smoke, them dogs of ourn is the goods. A dog-buyer offered me two hundred apiece for the five of them. I told him nothin’ doin’. They sure took on class when they got meat to get outside of; but it goes against the grain, feedin’ dog-critters on grub that’s worth two an’ a half a pound. Come on an’ have a drink. I just got to celebrate them eighteen pounds of sweetenin’.”
Several minutes later, as he weighed in on the gold-scales for the drinks, he gave a start of recollection.
“I plum forgot that man I was to meet in the Tivoli. He’s got some spoiled bacon he’ll sell for a dollar an’ a half a pound. We can feed it to the dogs an’ save a dollar a day on each’s board-bill. So long.”
“So long,” said Smoke. “I’m goin’ to the cabin an’ turn in.”
Hardly had Shorty left the place, when a fur-clad man entered through the double storm-doors. His face lighted at sight of Smoke, who recognized him as Breck, the man whose boat they had run through the Box Canyon and White Horse Rapids.
“I heard you were in town,” Breck said hurriedly, as they shook hands. “Been looking for you for half an hour. Come outside, I want to talk with you.”
Smoke looked regretfully at the roaring, red-hot stove.
“Won’t this do?”
“No; it’s important. Come outside.”
As they emerged, Smoke drew off one mitten, lighted a match, and glanced at the thermometer that hung beside the door. He remittened his naked hand hastily as if the frost had burned him. Overhead arched the flaming aurora borealis, while from all Dawson arose the mournful howling of thousands of wolf-dogs.
“What did it say?” Breck asked.
“Sixty below.” Kit spat experimentally, and the spittle crackled in the air. “And the thermometer is certainly working. It’s falling all the time. An hour ago it was only fifty-two. Don’t tell me it’s a stampede.”
“It is,” Breck whispered back cautiously, casting anxious eyes about in fear of some other listener. “You know Squaw Creek?—empties in on the other side of the Yukon thirty miles up?”
“Nothing doing there,” was Smoke’s judgment. “It was prospected years ago.”
“So were all the other rich creeks. Listen! It’s big. Only eight to twenty feet to bedrock. There won’t be a claim that don’t run to half a million. It’s a dead secret. Two or three of my close friends let me in on it. I told my wife right away that I was going to find you before I started. Now, so long. My pack’s hidden down the bank. In fact, when they told me, they made me promise not to pull out until Dawson was asleep. You know what it means if you’re seen with a stampeding outfit. Get your partner and follow. You ought to stake fourth or fifth claim from Discovery. Don’t forget—Squaw Creek. It’s the third after you pass Swede Creek.”
When Smoke entered the little cabin on the hillside back of Dawson, he heard a heavy familiar breathing.
“Aw, go to bed,” Shorty mumbled, as Smoke shook his shoulder. “I’m not on the night shift,” was his next remark, as the rousing hand became more vigorous. “Tell your troubles to the barkeeper.”
“Kick into your clothes,” Smoke said. “We’ve got to stake a couple of claims.”
Shorty sat up and started to explode, but Smoke’s hand covered his mouth.
“Ssh!” Smoke warned. “It’s a big strike. Don’t wake the neighborhood. Dawson’s asleep.”
“Huh! You got to show me. Nobody tells anybody about a strike, of course not. But ain’t it plum amazin’ the way everybody hits the trail just the same?”
“Squaw Creek,” Smoke whispered. “It’s right. Breck gave me the tip. Shallow bedrock. Gold from the grass-roots down. Come on. We’ll sling a couple of light packs together and pull out.”
Shorty’s eyes closed as he lapsed back into sleep. The next moment his blankets were swept off him.
“If you don’t want them, I do,” Smoke explained.
Shorty followed the blankets and began to dress.
“Goin’ to take the dogs?” he asked.
“No. The trail up the creek is sure to be unbroken, and we can make better time without them.”
“Then I’ll throw ’em a meal, which’ll have to last ’em till we get back. Be sure you take some birch-bark and a candle.”
Shorty opened the door, felt the bite of the cold, and shrank back to pull down his ear-flaps and mitten his hands.
Five minutes later he returned, sharply rubbing his nose.
“Smoke, I’m sure opposed to makin’ this stampede. It’s colder than the hinges of hell a thousand years before the first fire was lighted. Besides, it’s Friday the thirteenth, an’ we’re goin’ to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”
With small stampeding-packs on their backs, they closed the door behind them and started down the hill. The display of the aurora borealis had ceased, and only the stars leaped in the great cold and by their uncertain light made traps for the feet. Shorty floundered off a turn of the trail into deep snow, and raised his voice in blessing of the date of the week and month and year.
“Can’t you keep still?” Smoke chided. “Leave the almanac alone. You’ll have all Dawson awake and after us.”
“Huh! See the light in that cabin? An’ in that one over there? An’ hear that door slam? Oh, sure Dawson’s asleep. Them lights? Just buryin’ their dead. They ain’t stampedin’, betcher life they ain’t.”
By the time they reached the foot of the hill and were fairly in Dawson, lights were springing up in the cabins, doors were slamming, and from behind came the sound of many moccasins on the hard-packed snow. Again Shorty delivered himself.
“But it beats hell the amount of mourners there is.”
They passed a man who stood by the path and was calling anxiously in a low voice: “Oh, Charley; get a move on.”
“See that pack on his back, Smoke? The graveyard’s sure a long ways off when the mourners got to pack their blankets.”
By the time they reached the main street a hundred men were in line behind them, and while they sought in the deceptive starlight for the trail that dipped down the bank to the river, more men could be heard arriving. Shorty slipped and shot down the thirty-foot chute into the soft snow. Smoke followed, knocking him over as he was rising to his feet.
“I found it first,” he gurgled, taking off his mittens to shake the snow out of the gauntlets.
The next moment they were scrambling wildly out of the way of the hurtling bodies of those that followed. At the time of the freeze-up, a jam had occurred at this point, and cakes of ice were up-ended in snow-covered confusion. After several hard falls, Smoke drew out his candle and lighted it. Those in the rear hailed it with acclaim. In the windless air it burned easily, and he led the way more quickly.
“It’s a sure stampede,” Shorty decided. “Or might all them be sleep-walkers?”
“We’re at the head of the procession at any rate,” was Smoke’s answer.
“Oh, I don’t know. Mebbe that’s a firefly ahead there. Mebbe they’re all fireflies—that one, an’ that one. Look at ’em! Believe me, they is a whole string of processions ahead.”
It was a mile across the jams to the west bank of the Yukon, and candles flickered the full length of the twisting trail. Behind them, clear to the top of the bank they had descended, were more candles.
“Say, Smoke, this ain’t no stampede. It’s a exode-us. They must be a thousand men ahead of us an’ ten thousand behind. Now, you listen to your uncle. My medicine’s good. When I get a hunch it’s sure right. An’ we’re in wrong on this stampede. Let’s turn back an’ hit the sleep.”
“You’d better save your breath if you intend to keep up,” Smoke retorted gruffly.
“Huh! My legs is short, but I slog along slack at the knees an’ don’t worry my muscles none, an’ I can sure walk every piker here off the ice.”
And Smoke knew he was right, for he had long since learned his comrade’s phenomenal walking powers.
“I’ve been holding back to give you a chance,” Smoke jeered.
“An’ I’m plum troddin’ on your heels. If you can’t do better, let me go ahead and set pace.”
Smoke quickened, and was soon at the rear of the nearest bunch of stampeders.
“Hike along, you, Smoke,” the other urged. “Walk over them unburied dead. This ain’t no funeral. Hit the frost like you was goin’ somewheres.”
Smoke counted eight men and two women in this party, and before the way across the jam-ice was won, he and Shorty had passed another party twenty strong. Within a few feet of the west bank, the trail swerved to the south, emerging from the jam upon smooth ice. The ice, however, was buried under several feet of fine snow. Through this the sled-trail ran, a narrow ribbon of packed footing barely two feet in width. On either side one sank to his knees and deeper in the snow. The stampeders they overtook were reluctant to give way, and often Smoke and Shorty had to plunge into the deep snow and by supreme efforts flounder past.
Shorty was irrepressible and pessimistic. When the stampeders resented being passed, he retorted in kind.
“What’s your hurry?” one of them asked.
“What’s yours?” he answered. “A stampede come down from Indian River yesterday afternoon an’ beat you to it. They ain’t no claims left.”
“That being so, I repeat, what’s your hurry?”
“WHO? Me? I ain’t no stampeder. I’m workin’ for the government. I’m on official business. I’m just traipsin’ along to take the census of Squaw Creek.”
To another, who hailed him with: “Where away, little one? Do you really expect to stake a claim?” Shorty answered:
“Me? I’m the discoverer of Squaw Creek. I’m just comin’ back from recordin’ so as to see no blamed chechako jumps my claim.”
The average pace of the stampeders on the smooth going was three miles and a half an hour. Smoke and Shorty were doing four and a half, though sometimes they broke into short runs and went faster.
“I’m going to travel your feet clean off, Shorty,” Smoke challenged.
“Huh! I can hike along on the stumps an’ wear the heels off your moccasins. Though it ain’t no use. I’ve been figgerin’. Creek claims is five hundred feet. Call ’em ten to the mile. They’s a thousand stampeders ahead of us, an’ that creek ain’t no hundred miles long. Somebody’s goin’ to get left, an’ it makes a noise like you an’ me.”
Before replying, Smoke let out an unexpected link that threw Shorty half a dozen feet in the rear. “If you saved your breath and kept up, we’d cut down a few of that thousand,” he chided.
“Who? Me? If you’d get outa the way I’d show you a pace what is.”
Smoke laughed, and let out another link. The whole aspect of the adventure had changed. Through his brain was running a phrase of the mad philosopher—“the transvaluation of values.” In truth, he was less interested in staking a fortune than in beating Shorty. After all, he concluded, it wasn’t the reward of the game but the playing of it that counted. Mind, and muscle, and stamina, and soul, were challenged in a contest with this Shorty, a man who had never opened the books, and who did not know grand opera from rag-time, nor an epic from a chilblain.
“Shorty, I’ve got you skinned to death. I’ve reconstructed every cell in my body since I hit the beach at Dyea. My flesh is as stringy as whipcords, and as bitter and mean as the bite of a rattlesnake. A few months ago I’d have patted myself on the back to write such words, but I couldn’t have written them. I had to live them first, and now that I’m living them there’s no need to write them. I’m the real, bitter, stinging goods, and no scrub of a mountaineer can put anything over on me without getting it back compound. Now, you go ahead and set pace for half an hour. Do your worst, and when you’re all in I’ll go ahead and give you half an hour of the real worst.”
“Huh!” Shorty sneered genially. “An’ him not dry behind the ears yet. Get outa the way an’ let your father show you some goin’.”
Half-hour by half-hour they alternated in setting pace. Nor did they talk much. Their exertions kept them warm, though their breath froze on their faces from lips to chin. So intense was the cold that they almost continually rubbed their noses and cheeks with their mittens. A few minutes’ cessation from this allowed the flesh to grow numb, and then most vigorous rubbing was required to produce the burning prickle of returning circulation.
Often they thought they had reached the lead, but always they overtook more stampeders who had started before them. Occasionally, groups of men attempted to swing in behind to their pace, but invariably they were discouraged after a mile or two and disappeared in the darkness to the rear.
“We’ve been out on trail all winter,” was Shorty’s comment. “An’ them geezers, soft from layin’ around their cabins, has the nerve to think they can keep our stride. Now, if they was real sour-doughs it’d be different. If there’s one thing a sour-dough can do it’s sure walk.”
Once, Smoke lighted a match and glanced at his watch. He never repeated it, for so quick was the bite of the frost on his bared hands that half an hour passed before they were again comfortable.
“Four o’clock,” he said, as he pulled on his mittens, “and we’ve already passed three hundred.”
“Three hundred and thirty-eight,” Shorty corrected. “I been keepin’ count. Get outa the way, stranger. Let somebody stampede that knows how to stampede.”
The latter was addressed to a man, evidently exhausted, who could no more than stumble along and who blocked the trail. This, and one other, were the only played-out men they encountered, for they were very near to the head of the stampede. Nor did they learn till afterwards the horrors of that night. Exhausted men sat down to rest by the way and failed to get up again. Seven were frozen to death, while scores of amputations of toes, feet, and fingers were performed in the Dawson hospitals on the survivors. For the stampede to Squaw Creek occurred on the coldest night of the year. Before morning, the spirit thermometers at Dawson registered seventy degrees below zero. The men composing the stampede, with few exceptions, were new-comers in the country who did not know the way of the cold.
The other played-out man they found a few minutes later, revealed by a streamer of aurora borealis that shot like a searchlight from horizon to zenith. He was sitting on a piece of ice beside the trail.
“Hop along, sister Mary,” Shorty gaily greeted him. “Keep movin’. If you sit there you’ll freeze stiff.”
The man made no response, and they stopped to investigate.
“Stiff as a poker,” was Shorty’s verdict. “If you tumbled him over he’d break.”
“See if he’s breathing,” Smoke said, as, with bared hand, he sought through furs and woollens for the man’s heart.
Shorty lifted one ear-flap and bent to the iced lips. “Nary breathe,” he reported.
“Nor heart-beat,” said Smoke.
He mittened his hand and beat it violently for a minute before exposing it to the frost to strike a match. It was an old man, incontestably dead. In the moment of illumination, they saw a long grey beard, massed with ice to the nose, cheeks that were white with frost, and closed eyes with frost-rimmed lashes frozen together. Then the match went out.
“Come on,” Shorty said, rubbing his ear. “We can’t do nothin’ for the old geezer. An’ I’ve sure frosted my ear. Now all the blamed skin’ll peel off, and it’ll be sore for a week.”
A few minutes later, when a flaming ribbon spilled pulsating fire over the heavens, they saw on the ice a quarter of a mile ahead two forms. Beyond, for a mile, nothing moved.
“They’re leading the procession,” Smoke said, as darkness fell again. “Come on, let’s get them.”
At the end of half an hour, not yet having overtaken the two in front, Shorty broke into a run.
“If we catch ’em we’ll never pass ’em,” he panted. “Lord, what a pace they’re hittin’. Dollars to doughnuts they’re no chechakos. They’re the real sour-dough variety, you can stack on that.”
Smoke was leading when they finally caught up, and he was glad to ease to a walk at their heels. Almost immediately he got the impression that the one nearer him was a woman. How this impression came, he could not tell. Hooded and furred, the dark form was as any form; yet there was a haunting sense of familiarity about it. He waited for the next flame of the aurora, and by its light saw the smallness of the moccasined feet. But he saw more—the walk, and knew it for the unmistakable walk he had once resolved never to forget.
“She’s a sure goer,” Shorty confided hoarsely. “I’ll bet it’s an Indian.”
“How do you do, Miss Gastell?” Smoke addressed her.
“How do you do,” she answered, with a turn of the head and a quick glance. “It’s too dark to see. Who are you?”
She laughed in the frost, and he was certain it was the prettiest laughter he had ever heard. “And have you married and raised all those children you were telling me about?” Before he could retort, she went on. “How many chechakos are there behind?”
“Several thousand, I imagine. We passed over three hundred. And they weren’t wasting any time.”
“It’s the old story,” she said bitterly. “The new-comers get in on the rich creeks, and the old-timers, who dared and suffered and made this country, get nothing. Old-timers made this discovery on Squaw Creek—how it leaked out is the mystery—and they sent word up to all the old-timers on Sea Lion. But it’s ten miles farther than Dawson, and when they arrive they’ll find the creek staked to the skyline by the Dawson chechakos. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, such perversity of luck.”
“It is too bad,” Smoke sympathized. “But I’m hanged if I know what you’re going to do about it. First come, first served, you know.”
“I wish I could do something,” she flashed back at him. “I’d like to see them all freeze on the trail, or have everything terrible happen to them, so long as the Sea Lion stampede arrived first.”
“You’ve certainly got it in for us hard,” he laughed.
“It isn’t that,” she said quickly. “Man by man, I know the crowd from Sea Lion, and they are men. They starved in this country in the old days, and they worked like giants to develop it. I went through the hard times on the Koyukuk with them when I was a little girl. And I was with them in the Birch Creek famine, and in the Forty Mile famine. They are heroes, and they deserve some reward, and yet here are thousands of green softlings who haven’t earned the right to stake anything, miles and miles ahead of them. And now, if you’ll forgive my tirade, I’ll save my breath, for I don’t know when you and all the rest may try to pass dad and me.”
No further talk passed between Joy and Smoke for an hour or so, though he noticed that for a time she and her father talked in low tones.
“I know ’em now,” Shorty told Smoke. “He’s old Louis Gastell, an’ the real goods. That must be his kid. He come into this country so long ago they ain’t nobody can recollect, an’ he brought the girl with him, she only a baby. Him an’ Beetles was tradin’ partners an’ they ran the first dinkey little steamboat up the Koyukuk.”
“I don’t think we’ll try to pass them,” Smoke said. “We’re at the head of the stampede, and there are only four of us.”
Shorty agreed, and another hour of silence followed, during which they swung steadily along. At seven o’clock, the blackness was broken by a last display of the aurora borealis, which showed to the west a broad opening between snow-clad mountains.
“Squaw Creek!” Joy exclaimed.
“Goin’ some,” Shorty exulted. “We oughtn’t to been there for another half hour to the least, accordin’ to my reckonin’. I must ’a’ been spreadin’ my legs.”
It was at this point that the Dyea trail, baffled by ice-jams, swerved abruptly across the Yukon to the east bank. And here they must leave the hard-packed, main-travelled trail, mount the jams, and follow a dim trail, but slightly packed, that hovered the west bank.
Louis Gastell, leading, slipped in the darkness on the rough ice, and sat up, holding his ankle in both his hands. He struggled to his feet and went on, but at a slower pace and with a perceptible limp. After a few minutes he abruptly halted.
“It’s no use,” he said to his daughter. “I’ve sprained a tendon. You go ahead and stake for me as well as yourself.”
“Can’t we do something?” Smoke asked solicitously.
Louis Gastell shook his head. “She can stake two claims as well as one. I’ll crawl over to the bank, start a fire, and bandage my ankle. I’ll be all right. Go on, Joy. Stake ours above the Discovery claim; it’s richer higher up.”
“Here’s some birch bark,” Smoke said, dividing his supply equally. “We’ll take care of your daughter.”
Louis Gastell laughed harshly. “Thank you just the same,” he said. “But she can take care of herself. Follow her and watch her.”
“Do you mind if I lead?” she asked Smoke, as she headed on. “I know this country better than you.”
“Lead on,” Smoke answered gallantly, “though I agree with you it’s a darned shame all us chechakos are going to beat that Sea Lion bunch to it. Isn’t there some way to shake them?”
She shook her head. “We can’t hide our trail, and they’ll follow it like sheep.”
After a quarter of a mile, she turned sharply to the west. Smoke noticed that they were going through unpacked snow, but neither he nor Shorty observed that the dim trail they had been on still led south. Had they witnessed the subsequent procedure of Louis Gastell, the history of the Klondike would have been written differently; for they would have seen that old-timer, no longer limping, running with his nose to the trail like a hound, following them. Also, they would have seen him trample and widen the turn to the fresh trail they had made to the west. And, finally, they would have seen him keep on the old dim trail that still led south.
A trail did run up the creek, but so slight was it that they continually lost it in the darkness. After a quarter of an hour, Joy Gastell was willing to drop into the rear and let the two men take turns in breaking a way through the snow. This slowness of the leaders enabled the whole stampede to catch up, and when daylight came, at nine o’clock, as far back as they could see was an unbroken line of men. Joy’s dark eyes sparkled at the sight.
“How long since we started up the creek?” she asked.
“Fully two hours,” Smoke answered.
“And two hours back make four,” she laughed. “The stampede from Sea Lion is saved.”
A faint suspicion crossed Smoke’s mind, and he stopped and confronted her.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“You don’t? Then I’ll tell you. This is Norway Creek. Squaw Creek is the next to the south.”
Smoke was for the moment, speechless.
“You did it on purpose?” Shorty demanded.
“I did it to give the old-timers a chance.” She laughed mockingly. The men grinned at each other and finally joined her. “I’d lay you across my knee an’ give you a wallopin’, if women folk wasn’t so scarce in this country,” Shorty assured her.
“Your father didn’t sprain a tendon, but waited till we were out of sight and then went on?” Smoke asked.
“And you were the decoy?”
Again she nodded, and this time Smoke’s laughter rang out clear and true. It was the spontaneous laughter of a frankly beaten man.
“Why don’t you get angry with me?” she queried ruefully. “Or—or wallop me?”
“Well, we might as well be starting back,” Shorty urged. “My feet’s gettin’ cold standin’ here.”
Smoke shook his head. “That would mean four hours lost. We must be eight miles up this creek now, and from the look ahead Norway is making a long swing south. We’ll follow it, then cross over the divide somehow, and tap Squaw Creek somewhere above Discovery.” He looked at Joy. “Won’t you come along with us? I told your father we’d look after you.”
“I—” She hesitated. “I think I shall, if you don’t mind.” She was looking straight at him, and her face was no longer defiant and mocking. “Really, Mr. Smoke, you make me almost sorry for what I have done. But somebody had to save the old-timers.”
“It strikes me that stampeding is at best a sporting proposition.”
“And it strikes me you two are very game about it,” she went on, then added with the shadow of a sigh: “What a pity you are not old-timers!”
For two hours more they kept to the frozen creek-bed of Norway, then turned into a narrow and rugged tributary that flowed from the south. At midday they began the ascent of the divide itself. Behind them, looking down and back, they could see the long line of stampeders breaking up. Here and there, in scores of places, thin smoke-columns advertised the making of camps.
As for themselves, the going was hard. They wallowed through snow to their waists, and were compelled to stop every few yards to breathe. Shorty was the first to call a halt.
“We been hittin’ the trail for over twelve hours,” he said. “Smoke, I’m plum willin’ to say I’m good an’ tired. An’ so are you. An’ I’m free to shout that I can sure hang on to this here pasear like a starvin’ Indian to a hunk of bear-meat. But this poor girl here can’t keep her legs no time if she don’t get something in her stomach. Here’s where we build a fire. What d’ye say?”
So quickly, so deftly and methodically, did they go about making a temporary camp, that Joy, watching with jealous eyes, admitted to herself that the old-timers could not do it better. Spruce boughs, with a spread blanket on top, gave a foundation for rest and cooking operations. But they kept away from the heat of the fire until noses and cheeks had been rubbed cruelly.
Smoke spat in the air, and the resultant crackle was so immediate and loud that he shook his head. “I give it up,” he said. “I’ve never seen cold like this.”
“One winter on the Koyukuk it went to eighty-six below,” Joy answered. “It’s at least seventy or seventy-five right now, and I know I’ve frosted my cheeks. They’re burning like fire.”
On the steep slope of the divide there was no ice, so snow, as fine and hard and crystalline as granulated sugar, was poured into the gold-pan by the bushel until enough water was melted for the coffee. Smoke fried bacon and thawed biscuits. Shorty kept the fuel supplied and tended the fire, and Joy set the simple table composed of two plates, two cups, two spoons, a tin of mixed salt and pepper, and a tin of sugar. When it came to eating, she and Smoke shared one set between them. They ate out of the same plate and drank from the same cup.
It was nearly two in the afternoon when they cleared the crest of the divide and began dropping down a feeder of Squaw Creek. Earlier in the winter some moose-hunter had made a trail up the canyon—that is, in going up and down he had stepped always in his previous tracks. As a result, in the midst of soft snow, and veiled under later snow falls, was a line of irregular hummocks. If one’s foot missed a hummock, he plunged down through unpacked snow and usually to a fall. Also, the moose-hunter had been an exceptionally long-legged individual. Joy, who was eager now that the two men should stake, and fearing that they were slackening their pace on account of her evident weariness, insisted on taking her turn in the lead. The speed and manner in which she negotiated the precarious footing called out Shorty’s unqualified approval.
“Look at her!” he cried. “She’s the real goods an’ the red meat. Look at them moccasins swing along. No high-heels there. She uses the legs God gave her. She’s the right squaw for any bear-hunter.”
She flashed back a smile of acknowledgment that included Smoke. He caught a feeling of chumminess, though at the same time he was bitingly aware that it was very much of a woman who embraced him in that comradely smile.
Looking back, as they came to the bank of Squaw Creek, they could see the stampede, strung out irregularly, struggling along the descent of the divide.
They slipped down the bank to the creek bed. The stream, frozen solidly to bottom, was from twenty to thirty feet wide and ran between six- and eight-foot earth banks of alluvial wash. No recent feet had disturbed the snow that lay upon its ice, and they knew they were above the Discovery claim and the last stakes of the Sea Lion stampeders.
“Look out for springs,” Joy warned, as Smoke led the way down the creek. “At seventy below you’ll lose your feet if you break through.”
These springs, common to most Klondike streams, never cease at the lowest temperatures. The water flows out from the banks and lies in pools which are cuddled from the cold by later surface-freezings and snow falls. Thus, a man, stepping on dry snow, might break through half an inch of ice-skin and find himself up to the knees in water. In five minutes, unless able to remove the wet gear, the loss of one’s foot was the penalty.
Though only three in the afternoon, the long grey twilight of the Arctic had settled down. They watched for a blazed tree on either bank, which would show the center-stake of the last claim located. Joy, impulsively eager, was the first to find it. She darted ahead of Smoke, crying: “Somebody’s been here! See the snow! Look for the blaze! There it is! See that spruce!”
She sank suddenly to her waist in the snow.
“Now I’ve done it,” she said woefully. Then she cried: “Don’t come near me! I’ll wade out.”
Step by step, each time breaking through the thin skin of ice concealed under the dry snow, she forced her way to solid footing. Smoke did not wait, but sprang to the bank, where dry and seasoned twigs and sticks, lodged amongst the brush by spring freshets, waited the match. By the time she reached his side, the first flames and flickers of an assured fire were rising.
“Sit down!” he commanded.
She obediently sat down in the snow. He slipped his pack from his back, and spread a blanket for her feet.
From above came the voices of the stampeders who followed them.
“Let Shorty stake,” she urged.
“Go on, Shorty,” Smoke said, as he attacked her moccasins, already stiff with ice. “Pace off a thousand feet and place the two center-stakes. We can fix the corner-stakes afterwards.”
With his knife Smoke cut away the lacings and leather of the moccasins. So stiff were they with ice that they snapped and crackled under the hacking and sawing. The Siwash socks and heavy woollen stockings were sheaths of ice. It was as if her feet and calves were encased in corrugated iron.
“How are your feet?” he asked, as he worked.
“Pretty numb. I can’t move nor feel my toes. But it will be all right. The fire is burning beautifully. Watch out you don’t freeze your own hands. They must be numb now from the way you’re fumbling.”
He slipped his mittens on, and for nearly a minute smashed the open hands savagely against his sides. When he felt the blood-prickles, he pulled off the mittens and ripped and tore and sawed and hacked at the frozen garments. The white skin of one foot appeared, then that of the other, to be exposed to the bite of seventy below zero, which is the equivalent of one hundred and two below freezing.
Then came the rubbing with snow, carried on with an intensity of cruel fierceness, till she squirmed and shrank and moved her toes, and joyously complained of the hurt.
He half-dragged her, and she half-lifted herself, nearer to the fire. He placed her feet on the blanket close to the flesh-saving flames.
“You’ll have to take care of them for a while,” he said.
She could now safely remove her mittens and manipulate her own feet, with the wisdom of the initiated, being watchful that the heat of the fire was absorbed slowly. While she did this, he attacked his hands. The snow did not melt nor moisten. Its light crystals were like so much sand. Slowly the stings and pangs of circulation came back into the chilled flesh. Then he tended the fire, unstrapped the light pack from her back, and got out a complete change of foot-gear.
Shorty returned along the creek bed and climbed the bank to them. “I sure staked a full thousan’ feet,” he proclaimed. “Number twenty-seven an’ number twenty-eight, though I’d only got the upper stake of twenty-seven, when I met the first geezer of the bunch behind. He just straight declared I wasn’t goin’ to stake twenty-eight. An’ I told him—”
“Yes, yes,” Joy cried. “What did you tell him?”
“Well, I told him straight that if he didn’t back up plum five hundred feet I’d sure punch his frozen nose into ice-cream an’ chocolate eclaires. He backed up, an’ I’ve got in the center-stakes of two full an’ honest five-hundred-foot creek claims. He staked next, and I guess by now the bunch has Squaw Creek located to head-waters an’ down the other side. Ourn is safe. It’s too dark to see now, but we can put out the corner-stakes in the mornin’.”
When they awoke, they found a change had taken place during the night. So warm was it, that Shorty and Smoke, still in their mutual blankets, estimated the temperature at no more than twenty below. The cold snap had broken. On top of their blankets lay six inches of frost crystals.
“Good morning! how are your feet?” was Smoke’s greeting across the ashes of the fire to where Joy Gastell, carefully shaking aside the snow, was sitting up in her sleeping-furs.
Shorty built the fire and quarried ice from the creek, while Smoke cooked breakfast. Daylight came on as they finished the meal.
“You go an’ fix them corner-stakes, Smoke,” Shorty said. “There’s gravel under where I chopped ice for the coffee, an’ I’m goin’ to melt water and wash a pan of that same gravel for luck.”
Smoke departed, axe in hand, to blaze the stakes. Starting from the down-stream center-stake of ’twenty-seven,’ he headed at right angles across the narrow valley towards its rim. He proceeded methodically, almost automatically, for his mind was alive with recollections of the night before. He felt, somehow, that he had won to empery over the delicate lines and firm muscles of those feet and ankles he had rubbed with snow, and this empery seemed to extend to the rest and all of this woman of his kind. In dim and fiery ways a feeling of possession mastered him. It seemed that all that was necessary was for him to walk up to this Joy Gastell, take her hand in his, and say “Come.”
It was in this mood that he discovered something that made him forget empery over the white feet of woman. At the valley rim he blazed no corner-stake. He did not reach the valley rim, but, instead, he found himself confronted by another stream. He lined up with his eye a blasted willow tree and a big and recognizable spruce. He returned to the stream where were the center-stakes. He followed the bed of the creek around a wide horseshoe bend through the flat and found that the two creeks were the same creek. Next, he floundered twice through the snow from valley rim to valley rim, running the first line from the lower stake of ’twenty-seven,’ the second from the upper stake of ’twenty-eight,’ and he found that THE UPPER STAKE OF THE LATTER WAS LOWER THAN THE LOWER STAKE OF THE FORMER. In the gray twilight and half-darkness Shorty had located their two claims on the horseshoe.
Smoke plodded back to the little camp. Shorty, at the end of washing a pan of gravel, exploded at sight of him.
“We got it!” Shorty cried, holding out the pan. “Look at it! A nasty mess of gold. Two hundred right there if it’s a cent. She runs rich from the top of the wash-gravel. I’ve churned around placers some, but I never got butter like what’s in this pan.”
Smoke cast an incurious glance at the coarse gold, poured himself a cup of coffee at the fire, and sat down. Joy sensed something wrong and looked at him with eagerly solicitous eyes. Shorty, however, was disgruntled by his partner’s lack of delight in the discovery.
“Why don’t you kick in an’ get excited?” he demanded. “We got our pile right here, unless you’re stickin’ up your nose at two-hundred-dollar pans.”
Smoke took a swallow of coffee before replying. “Shorty, why are our two claims here like the Panama Canal?”
“What’s the answer?”
“Well, the eastern entrance of the Panama Canal is west of the western entrance, that’s all.”
“Go on,” Shorty said. “I ain’t seen the joke yet.”
“In short, Shorty, you staked our two claims on a big horseshoe bend.”
Shorty set the gold pan down in the snow and stood up. “Go on,” he repeated.
“The upper stake of ’twenty-eight’ is ten feet below the lower stake of ’twenty-seven.’”
“You mean we ain’t got nothin’, Smoke?”
“Worse than that; we’ve got ten feet less than nothing.”
Shorty departed down the bank on the run. Five minutes later he returned. In response to Joy’s look, he nodded. Without speech, he went over to a log and sat down to gaze steadily at the snow in front of his moccasins.
“We might as well break camp and start back for Dawson,” Smoke said, beginning to fold the blankets.
“I am sorry, Smoke,” Joy said. “It’s all my fault.”
“It’s all right,” he answered. “All in the day’s work, you know.”
“But it’s my fault, wholly mine,” she persisted. “Dad’s staked for me down near Discovery, I know. I’ll give you my claim.”
He shook his head.
“Shorty,” she pleaded.
Shorty shook his head and began to laugh. It was a colossal laugh. Chuckles and muffled explosions yielded to hearty roars.
“It ain’t hysterics,” he explained. “I sure get powerful amused at times, an’ this is one of them.”
His gaze chanced to fall on the gold-pan. He walked over and gravely kicked it, scattering the gold over the landscape.
“It ain’t ourn,” he said. “It belongs to the geezer I backed up five hundred feet last night. An’ what gets me is four hundred an’ ninety of them feet was to the good—his good. Come on, Smoke. Let’s start the hike to Dawson. Though if you’re hankerin’ to kill me I won’t lift a finger to prevent.”
8. THE LITTLE MAN
“I wisht you wasn’t so set in your ways,” Shorty demurred. “I’m sure scairt of that glacier. No man ought to tackle it by his lonely.”
Smoke laughed cheerfully, and ran his eye up the glistening face of the tiny glacier that filled the head of the valley. “Here it is August already, and the days have been getting shorter for two months,” he epitomized the situation. “You know quartz, and I don’t. But I can bring up the grub, while you keep after that mother lode. So-long. I’ll be back by to-morrow evening.”
He turned and started.
“I got a hunch something’s goin’ to happen,” Shorty pleaded after him.
But Smoke’s reply was a bantering laugh. He held on down the little valley, occasionally wiping the sweat from his forehead, the while his feet crushed through ripe mountain raspberries and delicate ferns that grew beside patches of sun-sheltered ice.
In the early spring he and Shorty had come up the Stewart River and launched out into the amazing chaos of the region where Surprise Lake lay. And all of the spring and half of the summer had been consumed in futile wanderings, when, on the verge of turning back, they caught their first glimpse of the baffling, gold-bottomed sheet of water which had lured and fooled a generation of miners. Making their camp in the old cabin which Smoke had discovered on his previous visit, they had learned three things: first, heavy nugget gold was carpeted thickly on the lake bottom; next, the gold could be dived for in the shallower portions, but the temperature of the water was man-killing; and, finally, the draining of the lake was too stupendous a task for two men in the shorter half of a short summer. Undeterred, reasoning from the coarseness of the gold that it had not traveled far, they had set out in search of the mother lode. They had crossed the big glacier that frowned on the southern rim and devoted themselves to the puzzling maze of small valleys and canyons beyond, which, by most unmountainlike methods, drained, or had at one time drained, into the lake.
The valley Smoke was descending gradually widened after the fashion of any normal valley; but, at the lower end, it pinched narrowly between high precipitous walls and abruptly stopped in a cross wall. At the base of this, in a welter of broken rock, the streamlet disappeared, evidently finding its way out underground. Climbing the cross wall, from the top Smoke saw the lake beneath him. Unlike any mountain lake he had ever seen, it was not blue. Instead, its intense peacock-green tokened its shallowness. It was this shallowness that made its draining feasible. All about arose jumbled mountains, with ice-scarred peaks and crags, grotesquely shaped and grouped. All was topsyturvy and unsystematic—a Dore nightmare. So fantastic and impossible was it that it affected Smoke as more like a cosmic landscape-joke than a rational portion of earth’s surface. There were many glaciers in the canyons, most of them tiny, and, as he looked, one of the larger ones, on the north shore, calved amid thunders and splashings. Across the lake, seemingly not more than half a mile, but, as he well knew, five miles away, he could see the bunch of spruce-trees and the cabin. He looked again to make sure, and saw smoke clearly rising from the chimney. Somebody else had surprised themselves into finding Surprise Lake, was his conclusion, as he turned to climb the southern wall.
From the top of this he came down into a little valley, flower-floored and lazy with the hum of bees, that behaved quite as a reasonable valley should, in so far as it made legitimate entry on the lake. What was wrong with it was its length—scarcely a hundred yards; its head a straight up-and-down cliff of a thousand feet, over which a stream pitched itself in descending veils of mist.
And here he encountered more smoke, floating lazily upward in the warm sunshine beyond an outjut of rock. As he came around the corner he heard a light, metallic tap-tapping and a merry whistling that kept the beat. Then he saw the man, an upturned shoe between his knees, into the sole of which he was driving hob-spikes.
“Hello!” was the stranger’s greeting, and Smoke’s heart went out to the man in ready liking. “Just in time for a snack. There’s coffee in the pot, a couple of cold flapjacks, and some jerky.”
“I’ll go you if I lose,” was Smoke’s acceptance, as he sat down. “I’ve been rather skimped on the last several meals, but there’s oodles of grub over in the cabin.”
“Across the lake? That’s what I was heading for.”
“Seems Surprise Lake is becoming populous,” Smoke complained, emptying the coffee-pot.
“Go on, you’re joking, aren’t you?” the man said, astonishment painted on his face.
Smoke laughed. “That’s the way it takes everybody. You see those high ledges across there to the northwest? There’s where I first saw it. No warning. Just suddenly caught the view of the whole lake from there. I’d given up looking for it, too.
“Same here,” the other agreed. “I’d headed back and was expecting to fetch the Stewart last night, when out I popped in sight of the lake. If that’s it, where’s the Stewart? And where have I been all the time? And how did you come here? And what’s your name?”
“Bellew. Kit Bellew.”
“Oh! I know you.” The man’s eyes and face were bright with a joyous smile, and his hand flashed eagerly out to Smoke’s. “I’ve heard all about you.”
“Been reading police-court news, I see,” Smoke sparred modestly.
“Nope.” The man laughed and shook his head. “Merely recent Klondike history. I might have recognized you if you’d been shaved. I watched you putting it all over the gambling crowd when you were bucking roulette in the Elkhorn. My name’s Carson—Andy Carson; and I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am to meet up with you.”
He was a slender man, wiry with health, with quick black eyes and a magnetism of camaraderie.
“And this is Surprise Lake?” he murmured incredulously.
“It certainly is.”
“And its bottom’s buttered with gold?”
“Sure. There’s some of the churning.” Smoke dipped in his overalls pocket and brought forth half a dozen nuggets. “That’s the stuff. All you have to do is go down to bottom, blind if you want to, and pick up a handful. Then you’ve got to run half a mile to get up your circulation.”
“Well, gosh-dash my dingbats, if you haven’t beaten me to it,” Carson swore whimsically, but his disappointment was patent. “An’ I thought I’d scooped the whole caboodle. Anyway, I’ve had the fun of getting here.”
“Fun!” Smoke cried. “Why, if we can ever get our hands on all that bottom, we’ll make Rockefeller look like thirty cents.”
“But it’s yours,” was Carson’s objection.
“Nothing to it, my friend. You’ve got to realize that no gold deposit like it has been discovered in all the history of mining. It will take you and me and my partner and all the friends we’ve got to lay our hands on it. All Bonanza and Eldorado, dumped together, wouldn’t be richer than half an acre down here. The problem is to drain the lake. It will take millions. And there’s only one thing I’m afraid of. There’s so much of it that if we fail to control the output it will bring about the demonetization of gold.”
“And you tell me—” Carson broke off, speechless and amazed.
“And glad to have you. It will take a year or two, with all the money we can raise, to drain the lake. It can be done. I’ve looked over the ground. But it will take every man in the country that’s willing to work for wages. We’ll need an army, and we need right now decent men in on the ground floor. Are you in?”
“Am I in? Don’t I look it? I feel so much like a millionaire that I’m real timid about crossing that big glacier. Couldn’t afford to break my neck now. Wish I had some more of those hob-spikes. I was just hammering the last in when you came along. How’s yours? Let’s see.”
Smoke held up his foot.
“Worn smooth as a skating-rink!” Carson cried. “You’ve certainly been hiking some. Wait a minute, and I’ll pull some of mine out for you.”
But Smoke refused to listen. “Besides,” he said, “I’ve got about forty feet of rope cached where we take the ice. My partner and I used it coming over. It will be a cinch.”
It was a hard, hot climb. The sun blazed dazzlingly on the ice-surface, and with streaming pores they panted from the exertion. There were places, criss-crossed by countless fissures and crevasses, where an hour of dangerous toil advanced them no more than a hundred yards. At two in the afternoon, beside a pool of water bedded in the ice, Smoke called a halt.
“Let’s tackle some of that jerky,” he said. “I’ve been on short allowance, and my knees are shaking. Besides, we’re across the worst. Three hundred yards will fetch us to the rocks, and it’s easy going, except for a couple of nasty fissures and one bad one that heads us down toward the bulge. There’s a weak ice-bridge there, but Shorty and I managed it.”
Over the jerky, the two men got acquainted, and Andy Carson unbosomed himself of the story of his life. “I just knew I’d find Surprise Lake,” he mumbled in the midst of mouthfuls. “I had to. I missed the French Hill Benches, the Big Skookum, and Monte Cristo, and then it was Surprise Lake or bust. And here I am. My wife knew I’d strike it. I’ve got faith enough, but hers knocks mine galleywest. She’s a corker, a crackerjack—dead game, grit to her finger-ends, never-say-die, a fighter from the drop of the hat, the one woman for me, true blue and all the rest. Take a look at that.”
He sprung open his watch, and on the inside cover Smoke saw the small, pasted photograph of a bright-haired woman, framed on either side by the laughing face of a child.
“Boys?” he queried.
“Boy and girl,” Carson answered proudly. “He’s a year and a half older.” He sighed. “They might have been some grown, but we had to wait. You see, she was sick. Lungs. But she put up a fight. What’d we know about such stuff? I was clerking, railroad clerk, Chicago, when we got married. Her folks were tuberculous. Doctors didn’t know much in those days. They said it was hereditary. All her family had it. Caught it from each other, only they never guessed it. Thought they were born with it. Fate. She and I lived with them the first couple of years. I wasn’t afraid. No tuberculosis in my family. And I got it. That set me thinking. It was contagious. I caught it from breathing their air.
“We talked it over, she and I. Then I jumped the family doctor and consulted an up-to-date expert. He told me what I’d figured out for myself, and said Arizona was the place for us. We pulled up stakes and went down—no money, nothing. I got a job sheep-herding, and left her in town—a lung town. It was filled to spilling with lungers.
“Of course, living and sleeping in the clean open, I started right in to mend. I was away months at a time. Every time I came back, she was worse. She just couldn’t pick up. But we were learning. I jerked her out of that town, and she went to sheep-herding with me. In four years, winter and summer, cold and heat, rain, snow, and frost, and all the rest, we never slept under a roof, and we were moving camp all the time. You ought to have seen the change—brown as berries, lean as Indians, tough as rawhide. When we figured we were cured, we pulled out for San Francisco. But we were too previous. By the second month we both had slight hemorrhages. We flew the coop back to Arizona and the sheep. Two years more of it. That fixed us. Perfect cure. All her family’s dead. Wouldn’t listen to us.
“Then we jumped cities for keeps. Knocked around on the Pacific coast and southern Oregon looked good to us. We settled in the Rogue River Valley—apples. There’s a big future there, only nobody knows it. I got my land—on time, of course—for forty an acre. Ten years from now it’ll be worth five hundred.
“We’ve done some almighty hustling. Takes money, and we hadn’t a cent to start with, you know—had to build a house and barn, get horses and plows, and all the rest. She taught school two years. Then the boy came. But we’ve got it. You ought to see those trees we planted—a hundred acres of them, almost mature now. But it’s all been outgo, and the mortgage working overtime. That’s why I’m here. She’d ’a’ come along only for the kids and the trees. She’s handlin’ that end, and here I am, a gosh-danged expensive millionaire—in prospect.”
He looked happily across the sun-dazzle on the ice to the green water of the lake along the farther shore, took a final look at the photograph, and murmured:
“She’s some woman, that. She’s hung on. She just wouldn’t die, though she was pretty close to skin and bone all wrapped around a bit of fire when she went out with the sheep. Oh, she’s thin now. Never will be fat. But it’s the prettiest thinness I ever saw, and when I get back, and the trees begin to bear, and the kids get going to school, she and I are going to do Paris. I don’t think much of that burg, but she’s just hankered for it all her life.”
“Well, here’s the gold that will take you to Paris,” Smoke assured him. “All we’ve got to do is to get our hands on it.”
Carson nodded with glistening eyes. “Say—that farm of ours is the prettiest piece of orchard land on all the Pacific coast. Good climate, too. Our lungs will never get touched again there. Ex-lungers have to be almighty careful, you know. If you’re thinking of settling, well, just take a peep in at our valley before you settle, that’s all. And fishing! Say!—did you ever get a thirty-five-pound salmon on a six-ounce rod? Some fight, bo’, some fight!”
“I’m lighter than you by forty pounds,” Carson said. “Let me go first.”
They stood on the edge of the crevasse. It was enormous and ancient, fully a hundred feet across, with sloping, age-eaten sides instead of sharp-angled rims. At this one place it was bridged by a huge mass of pressure-hardened snow that was itself half ice. Even the bottom of this mass they could not see, much less the bottom of the crevasse. Crumbling and melting, the bridge threatened imminent collapse. There were signs where recent portions had broken away, and even as they studied it a mass of half a ton dislodged and fell.
“Looks pretty bad,” Carson admitted with an ominous head-shake. “And it looks much worse than if I wasn’t a millionaire.”
“But we’ve got to tackle it,” Smoke said. “We’re almost across. We can’t go back. We can’t camp here on the ice all night. And there’s no other way. Shorty and I explored for a mile up. It was in better shape, though, when we crossed.”
“It’s one at a time, and me first.” Carson took the part coil of rope from Smoke’s hand. “You’ll have to cast off. I’ll take the rope and the pick. Gimme your hand so I can slip down easy.”
Slowly and carefully he lowered himself the several feet to the bridge, where he stood, making final adjustments for the perilous traverse. On his back was his pack outfit. Around his neck, resting on his shoulders, he coiled the rope, one end of which was still fast to his waist.
“I’d give a mighty good part of my millions right now for a bridge-construction gang,” he said, but his cheery, whimsical smile belied the words. Also, he added, “It’s all right; I’m a cat.”
The pick, and the long stick he used as an alpenstock, he balanced horizontally after the manner of a rope-walker. He thrust one foot forward tentatively, drew it back, and steeled himself with a visible, physical effort.
“I wish I was flat broke,” he smiled up. “If ever I get out of being a millionaire this time, I’ll never be one again. It’s too uncomfortable.”
“It’s all right,” Smoke encouraged. “I’ve been over it before. Better let me try it first.”
“And you forty pounds to the worse,” the little man flashed back. “I’ll be all right in a minute. I’m all right now.” And this time the nerving-up process was instantaneous. “Well, here goes for Rogue River and the apples,” he said, as his foot went out, this time to rest carefully and lightly while the other foot was brought up and past. Very gently and circumspectly he continued on his way until two-thirds of the distance was covered. Here he stopped to examine a depression he must cross, at the bottom of which was a fresh crack. Smoke, watching, saw him glance to the side and down into the crevasse itself, and then begin a slight swaying.
“Keep your eyes up!” Smoke commanded sharply. “Now! Go on!”
The little man obeyed, nor faltered on the rest of the journey. The sun-eroded slope of the farther edge of the crevasse was slippery, but not steep, and he worked his way up to a narrow ledge, faced about, and sat down.
“Your turn,” he called across. “But just keep a-coming and don’t look down. That’s what got my goat. Just keep a-coming, that’s all. And get a move on. It’s almighty rotten.”
Balancing his own stick horizontally, Smoke essayed the passage. That the bridge was on its last legs was patent. He felt a jar under foot, a slight movement of the mass, and a heavier jar. This was followed by a single sharp crackle. Behind him he knew something was happening. If for no other reason, he knew it by the strained, tense face of Carson. From beneath, thin and faint, came the murmur of running water, and Smoke’s eyes involuntarily wavered to a glimpse of the shimmering depths. He jerked them back to the way before him. Two-thirds over, he came to the depression. The sharp edges of the crack, but slightly touched by the sun, showed how recent it was. His foot was lifted to make the step across, when the crack began slowly widening, at the same time emitting numerous sharp snaps. He made the step quickly, increasing the stride of it, but the worn nails of his shoe skated on the farther slope of the depression. He fell on his face, and without pause slipped down and into the crack, his legs hanging clear, his chest supported by the stick which he had managed to twist crosswise as he fell.
His first sensation was the nausea caused by the sickening up-leap of his pulse; his first idea was of surprise that he had fallen no farther. Behind him was crackling and jar and movement to which the stick vibrated. From beneath, in the heart of the glacier, came the soft and hollow thunder of the dislodged masses striking bottom. And still the bridge, broken from its farthest support and ruptured in the middle, held, though the portion he had crossed tilted downward at a pitch of twenty degrees. He could see Carson, perched on his ledge, his feet braced against the melting surface, swiftly recoiling the rope from his shoulders to his hand.
“Wait!” he cried. “Don’t move, or the whole shooting-match will come down.”
He calculated the distance with a quick glance, took the bandana from his neck and tied it to the rope, and increased the length by a second bandana from his pocket. The rope, manufactured from sled-lashings and short lengths of plaited rawhide knotted together, was both light and strong. The first cast was lucky as well as deft, and Smoke’s fingers clutched it. He evidenced a hand-over-hand intention of crawling out of the crack. But Carson, who had refastened the rope around his own waist, stopped him.
“Make it fast around yourself as well,” he ordered.
“If I go I’ll take you with me,” Smoke objected.
The little man became very peremptory.
“You shut up,” he ordered. “The sound of your voice is enough to start the whole thing going.”
“If I ever start going—” Smoke began.
“Shut up! You ain’t going to ever start going. Now do what I say. That’s right—under the shoulders. Make it fast. Now! Start! Get a move on, but easy as you go. I’ll take in the slack. You just keep a-coming. That’s it. Easy. Easy.”
Smoke was still a dozen feet away when the final collapse of the bridge began. Without noise, but in a jerky way, it crumbled to an increasing tilt.
“Quick!” Carson called, coiling in hand-over-hand on the slack of the rope which Smoke’s rush gave him.
When the crash came, Smoke’s fingers were clawing into the hard face of the wall of the crevasse, while his body dragged back with the falling bridge. Carson, sitting up, feet wide apart and braced, was heaving on the rope. This effort swung Smoke in to the side wall, but it jerked Carson out of his niche. Like a cat, he faced about, clawing wildly for a hold on the ice and slipping down. Beneath him, with forty feet of taut rope between them, Smoke was clawing just as wildly; and ere the thunder from below announced the arrival of the bridge, both men had come to rest. Carson had achieved this first, and the several pounds of pull he was able to put on the rope had helped bring Smoke to a stop.
Each lay in a shallow niche, but Smoke’s was so shallow that, tense with the strain of flattening and sticking, nevertheless he would have slid on had it not been for the slight assistance he took from the rope. He was on the verge of a bulge and could not see beneath him. Several minutes passed, in which they took stock of the situation and made rapid strides in learning the art of sticking to wet and slippery ice. The little man was the first to speak.
“Gee!” he said; and, a minute later, “If you can dig in for a moment and slack on the rope, I can turn over. Try it.”
Smoke made the effort, then rested on the rope again. “I can do it,” he said. “Tell me when you’re ready. And be quick.”
“About three feet down is holding for my heels,” Carson said. “It won’t take a moment. Are you ready?”
It was hard work to slide down a yard, turn over and sit up; but it was even harder for Smoke to remain flattened and maintain a position that from instant to instant made a greater call upon his muscles. As it was, he could feel the almost perceptible beginning of the slip when the rope tightened and he looked up into his companion’s face. Smoke noted the yellow pallor of sun-tan forsaken by the blood, and wondered what his own complexion was like. But when he saw Carson, with shaking fingers, fumble for his sheath-knife, he decided the end had come. The man was in a funk and was going to cut the rope.
“Don’t m-mind m-m-me,” the little man chattered. “I ain’t scared. It’s only my nerves, gosh-dang them. I’ll b-b-be all right in a minute.”
And Smoke watched him, doubled over, his shoulders between his knees, shivering and awkward, holding a slight tension on the rope with one hand while with the other he hacked and gouged holes for his heels in the ice.
“Carson,” he breathed up to him, “you’re some bear, some bear.”
The answering grin was ghastly and pathetic. “I never could stand height,” Carson confessed. “It always did get me. Do you mind if I stop a minute and clear my head? Then I’ll make those heel-holds deeper so I can heave you up.”
Smoke’s heart warmed. “Look here, Carson. The thing for you to do is to cut the rope. You can never get me up, and there’s no use both of us being lost. You can make it out with your knife.”
“You shut up!” was the hurt retort. “Who’s running this?”
And Smoke could not help but see that anger was a good restorative for the other’s nerves. As for himself, it was the more nerve-racking strain, lying plastered against the ice with nothing to do but strive to stick on.
A groan and a quick cry of “Hold on!” warned him. With face pressed against the ice, he made a supreme sticking effort, felt the rope slacken, and knew Carson was slipping toward him. He did not dare look up until he felt the rope tighten and knew the other had again come to rest.
“Gee, that was a near go,” Carson chattered. “I came down over a yard. Now you wait. I’ve got to dig new holds. If this danged ice wasn’t so melty we’d be hunky-dory.”
Holding the few pounds of strain necessary for Smoke with his left hand, the little man jabbed and chopped at the ice with his right. Ten minutes of this passed.
“Now, I’ll tell you what I’ve done,” Carson called down. “I’ve made heel-holds and hand-holes for you alongside of me. I’m going to heave the rope in slow and easy, and you just come along sticking an’ not too fast. I’ll tell you what, first of all. I’ll take you on the rope and you worry out of that pack. Get me?”
Smoke nodded, and with infinite care unbuckled his pack-straps. With a wriggle of the shoulders he dislodged the pack, and Carson saw it slide over the bulge and out of sight.
“Now, I’m going to ditch mine,” he called down. “You just take it easy and wait.”
Five minutes later the upward struggle began. Smoke, after drying his hands on the insides of his arm-sleeves, clawed into the climb—bellied, and clung, and stuck, and plastered—sustained and helped by the pull of the rope. Alone, he could not have advanced. Despite his muscles, because of his forty pounds’ handicap, he could not cling as did Carson. A third of the way up, where the pitch was steeper and the ice less eroded, he felt the strain on the rope decreasing. He moved slower and slower. Here was no place to stop and remain. His most desperate effort could not prevent the stop, and he could feel the down-slip beginning.
“I’m going,” he called up.
“So am I,” was the reply, gritted through Carson’s teeth.
“Then cast loose.”
Smoke felt the rope tauten in a futile effort, then the pace quickened, and as he went past his previous lodgment and over the bulge the last glimpse he caught of Carson he was turned over, with madly moving hands and feet striving to overcome the downward draw. To Smoke’s surprise, as he went over the bulge, there was no sheer fall. The rope restrained him as he slid down a steeper pitch, which quickly eased until he came to a halt in another niche on the verge of another bulge. Carson was now out of sight, ensconced in the place previously occupied by Smoke.
“Gee!” he could hear Carson shiver. “Gee!”
An interval of quiet followed, and then Smoke could feel the rope agitated.
“What are you doing?” he called up.
“Making more hand- and foot-holds,” came the trembling answer. “You just wait. I’ll have you up here in a jiffy. Don’t mind the way I talk. I’m just excited. But I’m all right. You wait and see.”
“You’re holding me by main strength,” Smoke argued. “Soon or late, with the ice melting, you’ll slip down after me. The thing for you to do is to cut loose. Hear me! There’s no use both of us going. Get that? You’re the biggest little man in creation, but you’ve done your best. You cut loose.”
“You shut up. I’m going to make holes this time deep enough to haul up a span of horses.”
“You’ve held me up long enough,” Smoke urged. “Let me go.”
“How many times have I held you up?” came the truculent query.
“Some several, and all of them too many. You’ve been coming down all the time.”
“And I’ve been learning the game all the time. I’m going on holding you up until we get out of here. Savvy? When God made me a light-weight I guess he knew what he was about. Now, shut up. I’m busy.”
Several silent minutes passed. Smoke could hear the metallic strike and hack of the knife and occasional driblets of ice slid over the bulge and came down to him. Thirsty, clinging on hand and foot, he caught the fragments in his mouth and melted them to water, which he swallowed.
He heard a gasp that slid into a groan of despair, and felt a slackening of the rope that made him claw. Immediately the rope tightened again. Straining his eyes in an upward look along the steep slope, he stared a moment, then saw the knife, point first, slide over the verge of the bulge and down upon him. He tucked his cheek to it, shrank from the pang of cut flesh, tucked more tightly, and felt the knife come to rest.
“I’m a slob,” came the wail down the crevasse.
“Cheer up, I’ve got it,” Smoke answered.
“Say! Wait! I’ve a lot of string in my pocket. I’ll drop it down to you, and you send the knife up.”
Smoke made no reply. He was battling with a sudden rush of thought.
“Hey! You! Here comes the string. Tell me when you’ve got it.”
A small pocket-knife, weighted on the end of the string, slid down the ice. Smoke got it, opened the larger blade by a quick effort of his teeth and one hand, and made sure that the blade was sharp. Then he tied the sheath-knife to the end of the string.
“Haul away!” he called.
With strained eyes he saw the upward progress of the knife. But he saw more—a little man, afraid and indomitable, who shivered and chattered, whose head swam with giddiness, and who mastered his qualms and distresses and played a hero’s part. Not since his meeting with Shorty had Smoke so quickly liked a man. Here was a proper meat-eater, eager with friendliness, generous to destruction, with a grit that shaking fear could not shake. Then, too, he considered the situation cold-bloodedly. There was no chance for two. Steadily, they were sliding into the heart of the glacier, and it was his greater weight that was dragging the little man down. The little man could stick like a fly. Alone, he could save himself.
“Bully for us!” came the voice from above, down and across the bulge of ice. “Now we’ll get out of here in two shakes.”
The awful struggle for good cheer and hope in Carson’s voice decided Smoke.
“Listen to me,” he said steadily, vainly striving to shake the vision of Joy Gastell’s face from his brain. “I sent that knife up for you to get out with. Get that? I’m going to chop loose with the jack-knife. It’s one or both of us. Get that?”
“Two or nothing,” came the grim but shaky response. “If you’ll hold on a minute—”
“I’ve held on for too long now. I’m not married. I have no adorable thin woman nor kids nor apple-trees waiting for me. Get me? Now, you hike up and out of that!”
“Wait! For God’s sake, wait!” Carson screamed down. “You can’t do that! Give me a chance to get you out. Be calm, old horse. We’ll make the turn. You’ll see. I’m going to dig holds that’ll lift a house and barn.”
Smoke made no reply. Slowly and gently, fascinated by the sight, he cut with the knife until one of the three strands popped and parted.
“What are you doing?” Carson cried desperately. “If you cut, I’ll never forgive you—never. I tell you it’s two or nothing. We’re going to get out. Wait! For God’s sake!”
And Smoke, staring at the parted strand, five inches before his eyes, knew fear in all its weakness. He did not want to die; he recoiled from the shimmering abyss beneath him, and his panic brain urged all the preposterous optimism of delay. It was fear that prompted him to compromise.
“All right,” he called up. “I’ll wait. Do your best. But I tell you, Carson, if we both start slipping again I’m going to cut.”
“Huh! Forget it. When we start, old horse, we start up. I’m a porous plaster. I could stick here if it was twice as steep. I’m getting a sizable hole for one heel already. Now, you hush, and let me work.”
The slow minutes passed. Smoke centered his soul on the dull hurt of a hang-nail on one of his fingers. He should have clipped it away that morning—it was hurting then—he decided; and he resolved, once clear of the crevasse, that it should immediately be clipped. Then, with short focus, he stared at the hang-nail and the finger with a new comprehension. In a minute, or a few minutes at best, that hang-nail, that finger, cunningly jointed and efficient, might be part of a mangled carcass at the bottom of the crevasse. Conscious of his fear, he hated himself. Bear-eaters were made of sterner stuff. In the anger of self-revolt he all but hacked at the rope with his knife. But fear made him draw back the hand and to stick himself again, trembling and sweating, to the slippery slope. To the fact that he was soaking wet by contact with the thawing ice he tried to attribute the cause of his shivering; but he knew, in the heart of him, that it was untrue.
A gasp and a groan and an abrupt slackening of the rope, warned him. He began to slip. The movement was very slow. The rope tightened loyally, but he continued to slip. Carson could not hold him, and was slipping with him. The digging toe of his farther-extended foot encountered vacancy, and he knew that it was over the straight-away fall. And he knew, too, that in another moment his falling body would jerk Carson’s after it.
Blindly, desperately, all the vitality and life-love of him beaten down in a flashing instant by a shuddering perception of right and wrong, he brought the knife-edge across the rope, saw the strands part, felt himself slide more rapidly, and then fall.
What happened then, he did not know. He was not unconscious, but it happened too quickly, and it was unexpected. Instead of falling to his death, his feet almost immediately struck in water, and he sat violently down in water that splashed coolingly on his face. His first impression was that the crevasse was shallower than he had imagined and that he had safely fetched bottom. But of this he was quickly disabused. The opposite wall was a dozen feet away. He lay in a basin formed in an out-jut of the ice-wall by melting water that dribbled and trickled over the bulge above and fell sheer down a distance of a dozen feet. This had hollowed out the basin. Where he sat the water was two feet deep, and it was flush with the rim. He peered over the rim and looked down the narrow chasm hundreds of feet to the torrent that foamed along the bottom.
“Oh, why did you?” he heard a wail from above.
“Listen,” he called up. “I’m perfectly safe, sitting in a pool of water up to my neck. And here’s both our packs. I’m going to sit on them. There’s room for a half-dozen here. If you slip, stick close and you’ll land. In the meantime you hike up and get out. Go to the cabin. Somebody’s there. I saw the smoke. Get a rope, or anything that will make rope, and come back and fish for me.”
“Honest!” came Carson’s incredulous voice.
“Cross my heart and hope to die. Now, get a hustle on, or I’ll catch my death of cold.”
Smoke kept himself warm by kicking a channel through the rim with the heel of his shoe. By the time he had drained off the last of the water, a faint call from Carson announced that he had reached the top.
After that Smoke occupied himself with drying his clothes. The late afternoon sun beat warmly in upon him, and he wrung out his garments and spread them about him. His match-case was water-proof, and he manipulated and dried sufficient tobacco and rice-paper to make cigarettes.
Two hours later, perched naked on the two packs and smoking, he heard a voice above that he could not fail to identify.
“Oh, Smoke! Smoke!”
“Hello, Joy Gastell!” he called back. “Where’d you drop from?”
“Are you hurt?”
“Not even any skin off!”
“Father’s paying the rope down now. Do you see it?”
“Yes, and I’ve got it,” he answered. “Now, wait a couple of minutes, please.”
“What’s the matter?” came her anxious query, after several minutes. “Oh, I know, you’re hurt.”
“No, I’m not. I’m dressing.”
“Yes. I’ve been in swimming. Now! Ready? Hoist away!”
He sent up the two packs on the first trip, was consequently rebuked by Joy Gastell, and on the second trip came up himself.
Joy Gastell looked at him with glowing eyes, while her father and Carson were busy coiling the rope. “How could you cut loose in that splendid way?” she cried. “It was—it was glorious, that’s all.”
Smoke waved the compliment away with a deprecatory hand.
“I know all about it,” she persisted. “Carson told me. You sacrificed yourself to save him.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Smoke lied. “I could see that swimming-pool right under me all the time.”
9. WONDER OF WOMAN
“Just the same, I notice you ain’t tumbled over yourself to get married,” Shorty remarked, continuing a conversation that had lapsed some few minutes before.
Smoke, sitting on the edge of the sleeping-robe and examining the feet of a dog he had rolled snarling on its back in the snow, did not answer. And Shorty, turning a steaming moccasin propped on a stick before the fire, studied his partner’s face keenly.
“Cock your eye up at that there aurora borealis,” Shorty went on. “Some frivolous, eh? Just like any shilly-shallyin’, shirt-dancing woman. The best of them is frivolous, when they ain’t foolish. And they’s cats, all of ’em, the littlest an’ the biggest, the nicest and the otherwise. They’re sure devourin’ lions an’ roarin’ hyenas when they get on the trail of a man they’ve cottoned to.”
Again the monologue languished. Smoke cuffed the dog when it attempted to snap his hand, and went on examining its bruised and bleeding pads.
“Huh!” pursued Shorty. “Mebbe I couldn’t ’a’ married if I’d a mind to! An’ mebbe I wouldn’t ’a’ been married without a mind to, if I hadn’t hiked for tall timber. Smoke, d’you want to know what saved me? I’ll tell you. My wind. I just kept a-runnin’. I’d like to see any skirt run me outa breath.”
Smoke released the animal and turned his own steaming, stick-propped moccasins. “We’ve got to rest over to-morrow and make moccasins,” he vouchsafed. “That little crust is playing the devil with their feet.”
“We oughta keep goin’ somehow,” Shorty objected. “We ain’t got grub enough to turn back with, and we gotta strike that run of caribou or them white Indians almighty soon or we’ll be eatin’ the dogs, sore feet an’ all. Now who ever seen them white Indians anyway? Nothin’ but hearsay. An’ how can a Indian be white? A black white man’d be as natural. Smoke, we just oughta travel to-morrow. The country’s plumb dead of game. We ain’t seen even a rabbit-track in a week, you know that. An’ we gotta get out of this dead streak into somewhere that meat’s runnin’.”
“They’ll travel all the better with a day’s rest for their feet and moccasins all around,” Smoke counseled. “If you get a chance at any low divide, take a peep over at the country beyond. We’re likely to strike open rolling country any time now. That’s what La Perle told us to look for.”
“Huh! By his own story, it was ten years ago that La Perle come through this section, an’ he was that loco from hunger he couldn’t know what he did see. Remember what he said of whoppin’ big flags floatin’ from the tops of the mountains? That shows how loco HE was. An’ he said himself he never seen any white Indians—that was Anton’s yarn. An’, besides, Anton kicked the bucket two years before you an’ me come to Alaska. But I’ll take a look to-morrow. An’ mebbe I might pick up a moose. What d’ you say we turn in?”
Smoke spent the morning in camp, sewing dog-moccasins and repairing harnesses. At noon he cooked a meal for two, ate his share, and began to look for Shorty’s return. An hour later he strapped on his snow-shoes and went out on his partner’s trail. The way led up the bed of the stream, through a narrow gorge that widened suddenly into a moose-pasture. But no moose had been there since the first snow of the preceding fall. The tracks of Shorty’s snow-shoes crossed the pasture and went up the easy slope of a low divide. At the crest Smoke halted. The tracks continued down the other slope. The first spruce-trees, in the creek bed, were a mile away, and it was evident that Shorty had passed through them and gone on. Smoke looked at his watch, remembered the oncoming darkness, the dogs, and the camp, and reluctantly decided against going farther. But before he retraced his steps he paused for a long look. All the eastern sky-line was saw-toothed by the snowy backbone of the Rockies. The whole mountain system, range upon range, seemed to trend to the northwest, cutting athwart the course to the open country reported by La Perle. The effect was as if the mountains conspired to thrust back the traveler toward the west and the Yukon. Smoke wondered how many men in the past, approaching as he had approached, had been turned aside by that forbidding aspect. La Perle had not been turned aside, but, then, La Perle had crossed over from the eastern slope of the Rockies.
Until midnight Smoke maintained a huge fire for the guidance of Shorty. And in the morning, waiting with camp broken and dogs harnessed for the first break of light, Smoke took up the pursuit. In the narrow pass of the canyon, his lead-dog pricked up its ears and whined. Then Smoke came upon the Indians, six of them, coming toward him. They were traveling light, without dogs, and on each man’s back was the smallest of pack outfits. Surrounding Smoke, they immediately gave him several matters for surprise. That they were looking for him was clear. That they talked no Indian tongue of which he knew a word was also quickly made clear. They were not white Indians, though they were taller and heavier than the Indians of the Yukon basin. Five of them carried the old-fashioned, long-barreled Hudson Bay Company musket, and in the hands of the sixth was a Winchester rifle which Smoke knew to be Shorty’s.
Nor did they waste time in making him a prisoner. Unarmed himself, Smoke could only submit. The contents of the sled were distributed among their own packs, and he was given a pack composed of his and Shorty’s sleeping-furs. The dogs were unharnessed, and when Smoke protested, one of the Indians, by signs, indicated a trail too rough for sled-travel. Smoke bowed to the inevitable, cached the sled end-on in the snow on the bank above the stream, and trudged on with his captors. Over the divide to the north they went, down to the spruce-trees which Smoke had glimpsed the preceding afternoon. They followed the stream for a dozen miles, abandoning it when it trended to the west and heading directly eastward up a narrow tributary.
The first night was spent in a camp which had been occupied for several days. Here was cached a quantity of dried salmon and a sort of pemmican, which the Indians added to their packs. From this camp a trail of many snow-shoes led off—Shorty’s captors, was Smoke’s conclusion; and before darkness fell he succeeded in making out the tracks Shorty’s narrower snow-shoes had left. On questioning the Indians by signs, they nodded affirmation and pointed to the north.
Always, in the days that followed, they pointed north; and always the trail, turning and twisting through a jumble of upstanding peaks, trended north. Everywhere, in this bleak snow-solitude, the way seemed barred, yet ever the trail curved and coiled, finding low divides and avoiding the higher and untraversable chains. The snow-fall was deeper than in the lower valleys, and every step of the way was snow-shoe work. Furthermore, Smoke’s captors, all young men, traveled light and fast; and he could not forbear the prick of pride in the knowledge that he easily kept up with them. They were travel-hardened and trained to snow-shoes from infancy; yet such was his condition that the traverse bore no more of ordinary hardship to him than to them.
In six days they gained and crossed the central pass, low in comparison with the mountains it threaded, yet formidable in itself and not possible for loaded sleds. Five days more of tortuous winding, from lower altitude to lower altitude, brought them to the open, rolling, and merely hilly country La Perle had found ten years before. Smoke knew it with the first glimpse, on a sharp cold day, the thermometer forty below zero, the atmosphere so clear that he could see a hundred miles. Far as he could see rolled the open country. High in the east the Rockies still thrust their snowy ramparts heavenward. To the south and west extended the broken ranges of the projecting spur-system they had crossed. And in this vast pocket lay the country La Perle had traversed—snow-blanketed, but assuredly fat with game at some time in the year, and in the summer a smiling, forested, and flowered land.
Before midday, traveling down a broad stream, past snow-buried willows and naked aspens, and across heavily timbered flats of spruce, they came upon the site of a large camp, recently abandoned. Glancing as he went by, Smoke estimated four or five hundred fires, and guessed the population to be in the thousands. So fresh was the trail, and so well packed by the multitude, that Smoke and his captors took off their snow-shoes and in their moccasins struck a swifter pace. Signs of game appeared and grew plentiful—tracks of wolves and lynxes that without meat could not be. Once, one of the Indians cried out with satisfaction and pointed to a large area of open snow, littered with fang-polished skulls of caribou, trampled and disrupted as if an army had fought upon it. And Smoke knew that a big killing had been made by the hunters since the last snow-flurry.
In the long twilight no sign was manifested of making camp. They held steadily on through a deepening gloom that vanished under a sky of light—great, glittering stars half veiled by a greenish vapor of pulsing aurora borealis. His dogs first caught the noises of the camp, pricking their ears and whining in low eagerness. Then it came to the ears of the humans, a murmur, dim with distance, but not invested with the soothing grace that is common to distant murmurs. Instead, it was in a high, wild key, a beat of shrill sound broken by shriller sounds—the long wolf-howling of many wolf-dogs, a screaming of unrest and pain, mournful with hopelessness and rebellion. Smoke swung back the crystal of his watch and by the feel of finger-tips on the naked hands made out eleven o’clock. The men about him quickened. The legs that had lifted through a dozen strenuous hours lifted in a still swifter pace that was half a run and mostly a running jog. Through a dark spruce-flat they burst upon an abrupt glare of light from many fires and upon an abrupt increase of sound. The great camp lay before them.
And as they entered and threaded the irregular runways of the hunting-camp, a vast tumult, as in a wave, rose to meet them and rolled on with them—cries, greetings, questions and answers, jests and jests thrust back again, the snapping snarl of wolf-dogs rushing in furry projectiles of wrath upon Smoke’s stranger dogs, the scolding of squaws, laughter, the whimpering of children and wailing of infants, the moans of the sick aroused afresh to pain, all the pandemonium of a camp of nerveless, primitive wilderness folk.
Striking with clubs and the butts of guns, Smoke’s party drove back the attacking dogs, while his own dogs, snapping and snarling, awed by so many enemies, shrank in among the legs of their human protectors, and bristled along stiff-legged in menacing prance.
They halted in the trampled snow by an open fire, where Shorty and two young Indians, squatted on their hams, were broiling strips of caribou meat. Three other young Indians, lying in furs on a mat of spruce-boughs, sat up. Shorty looked across the fire at his partner, but with a sternly impassive face, like those of his companions, made no sign and went on broiling the meat.
“What’s the matter?” Smoke demanded, half in irritation. “Lost your speech?”
The old familiar grin twisted on Shorty’s face. “Nope,” he answered. “I’m a Indian. I’m learnin’ not to show surprise. When did they catch you?”
“Next day after you left.”
“Hum,” Shorty said, the light of whimsy dancing in his eyes. “Well, I’m doin’ fine, thank you most to death. This is the bachelors’ camp.” He waved his hand to embrace its magnificence, which consisted of a fire, beds of spruce-boughs laid on top of the snow, flies of caribou skin, and wind-shields of twisted spruce and willow withes. “An’ these are the bachelors.” This time his hand indicated the young men, and he spat a few spoken gutturals in their own language that brought the white flash of acknowledgment from eyes and teeth. “They’re glad to meet you, Smoke. Set down an’ dry your moccasins, an’ I’ll cook up some grub. I’m gettin’ the hang of the lingo pretty well, ain’t I? You’ll have to come to it, for it looks as if we’ll be with these folks a long time. They’s another white man here. Got caught six years ago. He’s a Irishman they picked up over Great Slave Lake way. Danny McCan is what he goes by. He’s settled down with a squaw. Got two kids already, but he’ll skin out if ever the chance opens up. See that low fire over there to the right? That’s his camp.”
Apparently this was Smoke’s appointed domicile, for his captors left him and his dogs, and went on deeper into the big camp. While he attended to his foot-gear and devoured strips of hot meat, Shorty cooked and talked.
“This is a sure peach of a pickle, Smoke—you listen to me. An’ we got to go some to get out. These is the real, blowed-in-the-glass, wild Indians. They ain’t white, but their chief is. He talks like a mouthful of hot mush, an’ if he ain’t full-blood Scotch they ain’t no such thing as Scotch in the world. He’s the hi-yu, skookum top-chief of the whole caboodle. What he says goes. You want to get that from the start-off. Danny McCan’s been tryin’ to get away from him for six years. Danny’s all right, but he ain’t got go in him. He knows a way out—learned it on huntin’ trips—to the west of the way you an’ me came. He ain’t had the nerve to tackle it by his lonely. But we can pull it off, the three of us. Whiskers is the real goods, but he’s mostly loco just the same.”
“Who’s Whiskers?” Smoke queried, pausing in the wolfing-down of a hot strip of meat.
“Why, he’s the top geezer. He’s the Scotcher. He’s gettin’ old, an’ he’s sure asleep now, but he’ll see you to-morrow an’ show you clear as print what a measly shrimp you are on his stompin’-grounds. These grounds belong to him. You got to get that into your noodle. They ain’t never been explored, nor nothin’, an’ they’re hisn. An’ he won’t let you forget it. He’s got about twenty thousand square miles of huntin’ country here all his own. He’s the white Indian, him an’ the skirt. Huh! Don’t look at me that way. Wait till you see her. Some looker, an’ all white, like her dad—he’s Whiskers. An’ say, caribou! I’ve saw ’em. A hundred thousan’ of good running meat in the herd, an’ ten thousan’ wolves an’ cats a-followin’ an’ livin’ off the stragglers an’ the leavin’s. We leave the leavin’s. The herd’s movin’ to the east, an’ we’ll be followin’ ’em any day now. We eat our dogs, an’ what we don’t eat we smoke ’n cure for the spring before the salmon-run gets its sting in. Say, what Whiskers don’t know about salmon an’ caribou nobody knows, take it from me.”
“Here comes Whiskers lookin’ like he’s goin’ somewheres,” Shorty whispered, reaching over and wiping greasy hands on the coat of one of the sled-dogs.
It was morning, and the bachelors were squatting over a breakfast of caribou-meat, which they ate as they broiled. Smoke glanced up and saw a small and slender man, skin-clad like any savage, but unmistakably white, striding in advance of a sled team and a following of a dozen Indians. Smoke cracked a hot bone, and while he sucked out the steaming marrow gazed at his approaching host. Bushy whiskers and yellowish gray hair, stained by camp smoke, concealed most of the face, but failed wholly to hide the gaunt, almost cadaverous, cheeks. It was a healthy leanness, Smoke decided, as he noted the wide flare of the nostrils and the breadth and depth of chest that gave spaciousness to the guaranty of oxygen and life.
“How do you do,” the man said, slipping a mitten and holding out his bare hand. “My name is Snass,” he added, as they shook hands.
“Mine’s Bellew,” Smoke returned, feeling peculiarly disconcerted as he gazed into the keen-searching black eyes.
“Getting plenty to eat, I see.”
Smoke nodded and resumed his marrow-bone, the purr of Scottish speech strangely pleasant in his ears.
“Rough rations. But we don’t starve often. And it’s more natural than the hand-reared meat of the cities.”
“I see you don’t like cities,” Smoke laughed, in order to be saying something; and was immediately startled by the transformation Snass underwent.
Quite like a sensitive plant, the man’s entire form seemed to wilt and quiver. Then the recoil, tense and savage, concentered in the eyes, in which appeared a hatred that screamed of immeasurable pain. He turned abruptly away, and, recollecting himself, remarked casually over his shoulder:
“I’ll see you later, Mr. Bellew. The caribou are moving east, and I’m going ahead to pick out a location. You’ll all come on to-morrow.”
“Some Whiskers, that, eh?” Shorty muttered, as Snass pulled on at the head of his outfit.
Again Shorty wiped his hands on the wolf-dog, which seemed to like it as it licked off the delectable grease.
Later on in the morning Smoke went for a stroll through the camp, busy with its primitive pursuits. A big body of hunters had just returned, and the men were scattering to their various fires. Women and children were departing with dogs harnessed to empty toboggan-sleds, and women and children and dogs were hauling sleds heavy with meat fresh from the killing and already frozen. An early spring cold-snap was on, and the wildness of the scene was painted in a temperature of thirty below zero. Woven cloth was not in evidence. Furs and soft-tanned leather clad all alike. Boys passed with bows in their hands, and quivers of bone-barbed arrows; and many a skinning-knife of bone or stone Smoke saw in belts or neck-hung sheaths. Women toiled over the fires, smoke-curing the meat, on their backs infants that stared round-eyed and sucked at lumps of tallow. Dogs, full-kin to wolves, bristled up to Smoke to endure the menace of the short club he carried and to whiff the odor of this newcomer whom they must accept by virtue of the club.
Segregated in the heart of the camp, Smoke came upon what was evidently Snass’s fire. Though temporary in every detail, it was solidly constructed and was on a large scale. A great heap of bales of skins and outfit was piled on a scaffold out of reach of the dogs. A large canvas fly, almost half-tent, sheltered the sleeping- and living-quarters. To one side was a silk tent—the sort favored by explorers and wealthy big-game hunters. Smoke had never seen such a tent, and stepped closer. As he stood looking, the flaps parted and a young woman came out. So quickly did she move, so abruptly did she appear, that the effect on Smoke was as that of an apparition. He seemed to have the same effect on her, and for a long moment they gazed at each other.
She was dressed entirely in skins, but such skins and such magnificently beautiful fur-work Smoke had never dreamed of. Her parka, the hood thrown back, was of some strange fur of palest silver. The mukluks, with walrus-hide soles, were composed of the silver-padded feet of many lynxes. The long-gauntleted mittens, the tassels at the knees, all the varied furs of the costume, were pale silver that shimmered in the frosty light; and out of this shimmering silver, poised on slender, delicate neck, lifted her head, the rosy face blonde as the eyes were blue, the ears like two pink shells, the light chestnut hair touched with frost-dust and coruscating frost-glints.
All this and more, as in a dream, Smoke saw; then, recollecting himself, his hand fumbled for his cap. At the same moment the wonder-stare in the girl’s eyes passed into a smile, and, with movements quick and vital, she slipped a mitten and extended her hand.
“How do you do,” she murmured gravely, with a queer, delightful accent, her voice, silvery as the furs she wore, coming with a shock to Smoke’s ears, attuned as they were to the harsh voices of the camp squaws.
Smoke could only mumble phrases that were awkwardly reminiscent of his best society manner.
“I am glad to see you,” she went on slowly and gropingly, her face a ripple of smiles. “My English you will please excuse. It is not good. I am English like you,” she gravely assured him. “My father he is Scotch. My mother she is dead. She is French, and English, and a little Indian, too. Her father was a great man in the Hudson Bay Company. Brrr! It is cold.” She slipped on her mitten and rubbed her ears, the pink of which had already turned to white. “Let us go to the fire and talk. My name is Labiskwee. What is your name?”
And so Smoke came to know Labiskwee, the daughter of Snass, whom Snass called Margaret.
“Snass is not my father’s name,” she informed Smoke. “Snass is only an Indian name.”
Much Smoke learned that day, and in the days that followed, as the hunting-camp moved on in the trail of the caribou. These were real wild Indians—the ones Anton had encountered and escaped from long years before. This was nearly the western limit of their territory, and in the summer they ranged north to the tundra shores of the Arctic, and eastward as far as the Luskwa. What river the Luskwa was Smoke could not make out, nor could Labiskwee tell him, nor could McCan. On occasion Snass, with parties of strong hunters, pushed east across the Rockies, on past the lakes and the Mackenzie and into the Barrens. It was on the last traverse in that direction that the silk tent occupied by Labiskwee had been found.
“It belonged to the Millicent-Adbury expedition,” Snass told Smoke.
“Oh! I remember. They went after musk-oxen. The rescue expedition never found a trace of them.”
“I found them,” Snass said. “But both were dead.”
“The world still doesn’t know. The word never got out.”
“The word never gets out,” Snass assured him pleasantly.
“You mean if they had been alive when you found them—?”
Snass nodded. “They would have lived on with me and my people.”
“Anton got out,” Smoke challenged.
“I do not remember the name. How long ago?”
“Fourteen or fifteen years,” Smoke answered.
“So he pulled through, after all. Do you know, I’ve wondered about him. We called him Long Tooth. He was a strong man, a strong man.”
“La Perle came through here ten years ago.”
Snass shook his head.
“He found traces of your camps. It was summer time.”
“That explains it,” Snass answered. “We are hundreds of miles to the north in the summer.”
But, strive as he would, Smoke could get no clew to Snass’s history in the days before he came to live in the northern wilds. Educated he was, yet in all the intervening years he had read no books, no newspapers. What had happened in the world he knew not, nor did he show desire to know. He had heard of the miners on the Yukon, and of the Klondike strike. Gold-miners had never invaded his territory, for which he was glad. But the outside world to him did not exist. He tolerated no mention of it.
Nor could Labiskwee help Smoke with earlier information. She had been born on the hunting-grounds. Her mother had lived for six years after. Her mother had been very beautiful—the only white woman Labiskwee had ever seen. She said this wistfully, and wistfully, in a thousand ways, she showed that she knew of the great outside world on which her father had closed the door. But this knowledge was secret. She had early learned that mention of it threw her father into a rage.
Anton had told a squaw of her mother, and that her mother had been a daughter of a high official in the Hudson Bay Company. Later, the squaw had told Labiskwee. But her mother’s name she had never learned.
As a source of information, Danny McCan was impossible. He did not like adventure. Wild life was a horror, and he had had nine years of it. Shanghaied in San Francisco, he had deserted the whaleship at Point Barrow with three companions. Two had died, and the third had abandoned him on the terrible traverse south. Two years he had lived with the Eskimos before raising the courage to attempt the south traverse, and then, within several days of a Hudson Bay Company post, he had been gathered in by a party of Snass’s young men. He was a small, stupid man, afflicted with sore eyes, and all he dreamed or could talk about was getting back to his beloved San Francisco and his blissful trade of bricklaying.
“You’re the first intelligent man we’ve had,” Snass complimented Smoke one night by the fire. “Except old Four Eyes. The Indians named him so. He wore glasses and was short-sighted. He was a professor of zoology.” (Smoke noted the correctness of the pronunciation of the word.) “He died a year ago. My young men picked him up strayed from an expedition on the upper Porcupine. He was intelligent, yes; but he was also a fool. That was his weakness—straying. He knew geology, though, and working in metals. Over on the Luskwa, where there’s coal, we have several creditable hand-forges he made. He repaired our guns and taught the young men how. He died last year, and we really missed him. Strayed—that’s how it happened—froze to death within a mile of camp.”
It was on the same night that Snass said to Smoke:
“You’d better pick out a wife and have a fire of your own. You will be more comfortable than with those young bucks. The maidens’ fires—a sort of feast of the virgins, you know—are not lighted until full summer and the salmon, but I can give orders earlier if you say the word.”
Smoke laughed and shook his head.
“Remember,” Snass concluded quietly, “Anton is the only one that ever got away. He was lucky, unusually lucky.”
Her father had a will of iron, Labiskwee told Smoke.
“Four Eyes used to call him the Frozen Pirate—whatever that means—the Tyrant of the Frost, the Cave Bear, the Beast Primitive, the King of the Caribou, the Bearded Pard, and lots of such things. Four Eyes loved words like these. He taught me most of my English. He was always making fun. You could never tell. He called me his cheetah-chum after times when I was angry. What is cheetah? He always teased me with it.”
She chattered on with all the eager naivete of a child, which Smoke found hard to reconcile with the full womanhood of her form and face.
Yes, her father was very firm. Everybody feared him. He was terrible when angry. There were the Porcupines. It was through them, and through the Luskwas, that Snass traded his skins at the posts and got his supplies of ammunition and tobacco. He was always fair, but the chief of the Porcupines began to cheat. And after Snass had warned him twice, he burned his log village, and over a dozen of the Porcupines were killed in the fight. But there was no more cheating. Once, when she was a little girl, there was one white man killed while trying to escape. No, her father did not do it, but he gave the order to the young men. No Indian ever disobeyed her father.
And the more Smoke learned from her, the more the mystery of Snass deepened.
“And tell me if it is true,” the girl was saying, “that there was a man and a woman whose names were Paolo and Francesca and who greatly loved each other?”
“Four Eyes told me all about it,” she beamed happily. “And so he did not make it up, after all. You see, I was not sure. I asked father, but, oh, he was angry. The Indians told me he gave poor Four Eyes an awful talking to. Then there were Tristan and Iseult—two Iseults. It was very sad. But I should like to love that way. Do all the young men and women in the world do that? They do not here. They just get married. They do not seem to have time. I am English, and I will never marry an Indian—would you? That is why I have not lighted my maiden’s fire. Some of the young men are bothering father to make me do it. Libash is one of them. He is a great hunter. And Mahkook comes around singing songs. He is funny. To-night, if you come by my tent after dark, you will hear him singing out in the cold. But father says I can do as I please, and so I shall not light my fire. You see, when a girl makes up her mind to get married, that is the way she lets young men know. Four Eyes always said it was a fine custom. But I noticed he never took a wife. Maybe he was too old. He did not have much hair, but I do not think he was really very old. And how do you know when you are in love?—like Paolo and Francesca, I mean.”
Smoke was disconcerted by the clear gaze of her blue eyes. “Why, they say,” he stammered, “those who are in love say it, that love is dearer than life. When one finds out that he or she likes somebody better than everybody else in the world—why, then, they know they are in love. That’s the way it goes, but it’s awfully hard to explain. You just know it, that’s all.”
She looked off across the camp-smoke, sighed, and resumed work on the fur mitten she was sewing. “Well,” she announced with finality, “I shall never get married anyway.”
“Once we hit out we’ll sure have some tall runnin’,” Shorty said dismally.
“The place is a big trap,” Smoke agreed.
From the crest of a bald knob they gazed out over Snass’s snowy domain. East, west, and south they were hemmed in by the high peaks and jumbled ranges. Northward, the rolling country seemed interminable; yet they knew, even in that direction, that half a dozen transverse chains blocked the way.
“At this time of the year I could give you three days’ start,” Snass told Smoke that evening. “You can’t hide your trail, you see. Anton got away when the snow was gone. My young men can travel as fast as the best white man; and, besides, you would be breaking trail for them. And when the snow is off the ground, I’ll see to it that you don’t get the chance Anton had. It’s a good life. And soon the world fades. I have never quite got over the surprise of finding how easy it is to get along without the world.”
“What’s eatin’ me is Danny McCan,” Shorty confided to Smoke. “He’s a weak brother on any trail. But he swears he knows the way out to the westward, an’ so we got to put up with him, Smoke, or you sure get yours.”
“We’re all in the same boat,” Smoke answered.
“Not on your life. It’s a-comin’ to you straight down the pike.”
“You ain’t heard the news?”
Smoke shook his head.
“The bachelors told me. They just got the word. To-night it comes off, though it’s months ahead of the calendar.”
Smoke shrugged his shoulders.
“Ain’t interested in hearin’?” Shorty teased.
“I’m waiting to hear.”
“Well, Danny’s wife just told the bachelors,” Shorty paused impressively. “An’ the bachelors told me, of course, that the maidens’ fires is due to be lighted to-night. That’s all. Now how do you like it?”
“I don’t get your drift, Shorty.”
“Don’t, eh? Why, it’s plain open and shut. They’s a skirt after you, an’ that skirt is goin’ to light a fire, an’ that skirt’s name is Labiskwee. Oh, I’ve been watchin’ her watch you when you ain’t lookin’. She ain’t never lighted her fire. Said she wouldn’t marry a Indian. An’ now, when she lights her fire, it’s a cinch it’s my poor old friend Smoke.”
“It sounds like a syllogism,” Smoke said, with a sinking heart reviewing Labiskwee’s actions of the past several days.
“Cinch is shorter to pronounce,” Shorty returned. “An’ that’s always the way—just as we’re workin’ up our get-away, along comes a skirt to complicate everything. We ain’t got no luck. Hey! Listen to that, Smoke!”
Three ancient squaws had halted midway between the bachelors’ camp and the camp of McCan, and the oldest was declaiming in shrill falsetto.
Smoke recognized the names, but not all the words, and Shorty translated with melancholy glee.
“Labiskwee, the daughter of Snass, the Rainmaker, the Great Chief, lights her first maiden’s fire to-night. Maka, the daughter of Owits, the Wolf-Runner—”
The recital ran through the names of a dozen maidens, and then the three heralds tottered on their way to make announcement at the next fires.
The bachelors, who had sworn youthful oaths to speak to no maidens, were uninterested in the approaching ceremony, and to show their disdain they made preparations for immediate departure on a mission set them by Snass and upon which they had planned to start the following morning. Not satisfied with the old hunters’ estimates of the caribou, Snass had decided that the run was split. The task set the bachelors was to scout to the north and west in quest of the second division of the great herd.
Smoke, troubled by Labiskwee’s fire-lighting, announced that he would accompany the bachelors. But first he talked with Shorty and with McCan.
“You be there on the third day, Smoke,” Shorty said. “We’ll have the outfit an’ the dogs.”
“But remember,” Smoke cautioned, “if there is any slip-up in meeting me, you keep on going and get out to the Yukon. That’s flat. If you make it, you can come back for me in the summer. If I get the chance, I’ll make it, and come back for you.”
McCan, standing by his fire, indicated with his eyes a rugged mountain where the high western range out-jutted on the open country.
“That’s the one,” he said. “A small stream on the south side. We go up it. On the third day you meet us. We’ll pass by on the third day. Anywhere you tap that stream you’ll meet us or our trail.”
But the chance did not come to Smoke on the third day. The bachelors had changed the direction of their scout, and while Shorty and McCan plodded up the stream with their dogs, Smoke and the bachelors were sixty miles to the northeast picking up the trail of the second caribou herd. Several days later, through a dim twilight of falling snow, they came back to the big camp. A squaw ceased from wailing by a fire and darted up to Smoke. Harsh tongued, with bitter, venomous eyes, she cursed him, waving her arms toward a silent, fur-wrapped form that still lay on the sled which had hauled it in.
What had happened, Smoke could only guess, and as he came to McCan’s fire he was prepared for a second cursing. Instead, he saw McCan himself industriously chewing a strip of caribou meat.
“I’m not a fightin’ man,” he whiningly explained. “But Shorty got away, though they’re still after him. He put up a hell of a fight. They’ll get him, too. He ain’t got a chance. He plugged two bucks that’ll get around all right. An’ he croaked one square through the chest.”
“Yes, I know,” Smoke answered. “I just met the widow.”
“Old Snass’ll be wantin’ to see you,” McCan added. “Them’s his orders. Soon as you come in you was to go to his fire. I ain’t squealed. You don’t know nothing. Keep that in mind. Shorty went off on his own along with me.”
At Snass’s fire Smoke found Labiskwee. She met him with eyes that shone with such softness and tenderness as to frighten him.
“I’m glad you did not try to run away,” she said. “You see, I—” She hesitated, but her eyes didn’t drop. They swam with a light unmistakable. “I lighted my fire, and of course it was for you. It has happened. I like you better than everybody else in the world. Better than my father. Better than a thousand Libashes and Mahkooks. I love. It is very strange. I love as Francesca loved, as Iseult loved. Old Four Eyes spoke true. Indians do not love this way. But my eyes are blue, and I am white. We are white, you and I.”
Smoke had never been proposed to in his life, and he was unable to meet the situation. Worse, it was not even a proposal. His acceptance was taken for granted. So thoroughly was it all arranged in Labiskwee’s mind, so warm was the light in her eyes, that he was amazed that she did not throw her arms around him and rest her head on his shoulder. Then he realized, despite her candor of love, that she did not know the pretty ways of love. Among the primitive savages such ways did not obtain. She had had no chance to learn.
She prattled on, chanting the happy burden of her love, while he strove to grip himself in the effort, somehow, to wound her with the truth. This, at the very first, was the golden opportunity.
“But, Labiskwee, listen,” he began. “Are you sure you learned from Four Eyes all the story of the love of Paolo and Francesca?”
She clasped her hands and laughed with an immense certitude of gladness. “Oh! There is more! I knew there must be more and more of love! I have thought much since I lighted my fire. I have—”
And then Snass strode in to the fire through the falling snowflakes, and Smoke’s opportunity was lost.
“Good evening,” Snass burred gruffly. “Your partner has made a mess of it. I am glad you had better sense.”
“You might tell me what’s happened,” Smoke urged.
The flash of white teeth through the stained beard was not pleasant. “Certainly, I’ll tell you. Your partner has killed one of my people. That sniveling shrimp, McCan, deserted at the first shot. He’ll never run away again. But my hunters have got your partner in the mountains, and they’ll get him. He’ll never make the Yukon basin. As for you, from now on you sleep at my fire. And there’ll be no more scouting with the young men. I shall have my eye on you.”
Smoke’s new situation at Snass’s fire was embarrassing. He saw more of Labiskwee than ever. In its sweetness and innocence, the frankness of her love was terrible. Her glances were love glances; every look was a caress. A score of times he nerved himself to tell her of Joy Gastell, and a score of times he discovered that he was a coward. The damnable part of it was that Labiskwee was so delightful. She was good to look upon. Despite the hurt to his self-esteem of every moment spent with her, he pleasured in every such moment. For the first time in his life he was really learning woman, and so clear was Labiskwee’s soul, so appalling in its innocence and ignorance, that he could not misread a line of it. All the pristine goodness of her sex was in her, uncultured by the conventionality of knowledge or the deceit of self-protection. In memory he reread his Schopenhauer and knew beyond all cavil that the sad philosopher was wrong. To know woman, as Smoke came to know Labiskwee, was to know that all woman-haters were sick men.
Labiskwee was wonderful, and yet, beside her face in the flesh burned the vision of the face of Joy Gastell. Joy had control, restraint, all the feminine inhibitions of civilization, yet, by the trick of his fancy and the living preachment of the woman before him, Joy Gastell was stripped to a goodness at par with Labiskwee’s. The one but appreciated the other, and all women of all the world appreciated by what Smoke saw in the soul of Labiskwee at Snass’s fire in the snow-land.
And Smoke learned about himself. He remembered back to all he knew of Joy Gastell, and he knew that he loved her. Yet he delighted in Labiskwee. And what was this feeling of delight but love? He could demean it by no less a name. Love it was. Love it must be. And he was shocked to the roots of his soul by the discovery of this polygamous strain in his nature. He had heard it argued, in the San Francisco studios, that it was possible for a man to love two women, or even three women, at a time. But he had not believed it. How could he believe it when he had not had the experience? Now it was different. He did truly love two women, and though most of the time he was quite convinced that he loved Joy Gastell more, there were other moments when he felt with equal certainty that he loved Labiskwee more.
“There must be many women in the world,” she said one day. “And women like men. Many women must have liked you. Tell me.”
He did not reply.
“Tell me,” she insisted.
“I have never married,” he evaded.
“And there is no one else? No other Iseult out there beyond the mountains?”
Then it was that Smoke knew himself a coward. He lied. Reluctantly he did it, but he lied. He shook his head with a slow indulgent smile, and in his face was more of fondness than he dreamed as he noted Labiskwee’s swift joy-transfiguration.
He excused himself to himself. His reasoning was jesuitical beyond dispute, and yet he was not Spartan enough to strike this child-woman a quivering heart-stroke.
Snass, too, was a perturbing factor in the problem. Little escaped his black eyes, and he spoke significantly.
“No man cares to see his daughter married,” he said to Smoke. “At least, no man of imagination. It hurts. The thought of it hurts, I tell you. Just the same, in the natural order of life, Margaret must marry some time.”
A pause fell; Smoke caught himself wondering for the thousandth time what Snass’s history must be.
“I am a harsh, cruel man,” Snass went on. “Yet the law is the law, and I am just. Nay, here with this primitive people, I am the law and the justice. Beyond my will no man goes. Also, I am a father, and all my days I have been cursed with imagination.”
Whither his monologue tended, Smoke did not learn, for it was interrupted by a burst of chiding and silvery laughter from Labiskwee’s tent, where she played with a new-caught wolf-cub. A spasm of pain twitched Snass’s face.
“I can stand it,” he muttered grimly. “Margaret must be married, and it is my fortune, and hers, that you are here. I had little hopes of Four Eyes. McCan was so hopeless I turned him over to a squaw who had lighted her fire twenty seasons. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been an Indian. Libash might have become the father of my grandchildren.”
And then Labiskwee came from her tent to the fire, the wolf-cub in her arms, drawn as by a magnet, to gaze upon the man, in her eyes the love that art had never taught to hide.
“Listen to me,” said McCan. “The spring thaw is here, an’ the crust is comin’ on the snow. It’s the time to travel, exceptin’ for the spring blizzards in the mountains. I know them. I would run with no less a man than you.”
“But you can’t run,” Smoke contradicted. “You can keep up with no man. Your backbone is limber as thawed marrow. If I run, I run alone. The world fades, and perhaps I shall never run. Caribou meat is very good, and soon will come summer and the salmon.”
Said Snass: “Your partner is dead. My hunters did not kill him. They found the body, frozen in the first of the spring storms in the mountains. No man can escape. When shall we celebrate your marriage?”
And Labiskwee: “I watch you. There is trouble in your eyes, in your face. Oh, I do know all your face. There is a little scar on your neck, just under the ear. When you are happy, the corners of your mouth turn up. When you think sad thoughts they turn down. When you smile there are three and four wrinkles at the corners of your eyes. When you laugh there are six. Sometimes I have almost counted seven. But I cannot count them now. I have never read books. I do not know how to read. But Four Eyes taught me much. My grammar is good. He taught me. And in his own eyes I have seen the trouble of the hunger for the world. He was often hungry for the world. Yet here was good meat, and fish in plenty, and the berries and the roots, and often flour came back for the furs through the Porcupines and the Luskwas. Yet was he hungry for the world. Is the world so good that you, too, are hungry for it? Four Eyes had nothing. But you have me.” She sighed and shook her head. “Four Eyes died still hungry for the world. And if you lived here always would you, too, die hungry for the world? I am afraid I do not know the world. Do you want to run away to the world?”
Smoke could not speak, but by his mouth-corner lines was she convinced.
Minutes of silence passed, in which she visibly struggled, while Smoke cursed himself for the unguessed weakness that enabled him to speak the truth about his hunger for the world while it kept his lips tight on the truth of the existence of the other woman.
Again Labiskwee sighed.
“Very well. I love you more than I fear my father’s anger, and he is more terrible in anger than a mountain storm. You told me what love is. This is the test of love. I shall help you to run away back to the world.”
Smoke awakened softly and without movement. Warm small fingers touched his cheek and slid gently to a pressure on his lips. Fur, with the chill of frost clinging in it, next tingled his skin, and the one word, “Come,” was breathed in his ear. He sat up carefully and listened. The hundreds of wolf-dogs in the camp had lifted their nocturnal song, but under the volume of it, close at hand, he could distinguish the light, regular breathing of Snass.
Labiskwee tugged gently at Smoke’s sleeve, and he knew she wished him to follow. He took his moccasins and German socks in his hand and crept out into the snow in his sleeping moccasins. Beyond the glow from the dying embers of the fire, she indicated to him to put on his outer foot-gear, and while he obeyed, she went back under the fly where Snass slept.
Feeling the hands of his watch Smoke found it was one in the morning. Quite warm it was, he decided, not more than ten below zero. Labiskwee rejoined him and led him on through the dark runways of the sleeping camp. Walk lightly as they could, the frost crunched crisply under their moccasins, but the sound was drowned by the clamor of the dogs, too deep in their howling to snarl at the man and woman who passed.
“Now we can talk,” she said, when the last fire had been left half a mile behind.
And now, in the starlight, facing him, Smoke noted for the first time that her arms were burdened, and, on feeling, discovered she carried his snowshoes, a rifle, two belts of ammunition, and his sleeping-robes.
“I have everything fixed,” she said, with a happy little laugh. “I have been two days making the cache. There is meat, even flour, matches, and skees, which go best on the hard crust and, when they break through, the webs will hold up longer. Oh, I do know snow-travel, and we shall go fast, my lover.”
Smoke checked his speech. That she had been arranging his escape was surprise enough, but that she had planned to go with him was more than he was prepared for. Unable to think immediate action, he gently, one by one, took her burdens from her. He put his arm around her and pressed her close, and still he could not think what to do.
“God is good,” she whispered. “He sent me a lover.”
Yet Smoke was brave enough not to suggest his going alone. And before he spoke again he saw all his memory of the bright world and the sun-lands reel and fade.
“We will go back, Labiskwee,” he said. “You will be my wife, and we shall live always with the Caribou People.”
“No! no!” She shook her head; and her body, in the circle of his arm, resented his proposal. “I know. I have thought much. The hunger for the world would come upon you, and in the long nights it would devour your heart. Four Eyes died of hunger for the world. So would you die. All men from the world hunger for it. And I will not have you die. We will go on across the snow mountains on the south traverse.”
“Dear, listen,” he urged. “We must go back.”
She pressed her mitten against his lips to prevent further speech. “You love me. Say that you love me.”
“I do love you, Labiskwee. You are my wonderful sweetheart.”
Again the mitten was a caressing obstacle to utterance.
“We shall go on to the cache,” she said with decision. “It is three miles from here. Come.”
He held back, and her pull on his arm could not move him. Almost was he tempted to tell her of the other woman beyond the south traverse.
“It would be a great wrong to you to go back,” she said. “I—I am only a wild girl, and I am afraid of the world; but I am more afraid for you. You see, it is as you told me. I love you more than anybody else in the world. I love you more than myself. The Indian language is not a good language. The English language is not a good language. The thoughts in my heart for you, as bright and as many as the stars—there is no language for them. How can I tell you them? They are there—see?”
As she spoke she slipped the mitten from his hand and thrust the hand inside the warmth of her parka until it rested against her heart. Tightly and steadily she pressed his hand in its position. And in the long silence he felt the beat, beat of her heart, and knew that every beat of it was love. And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, still holding his hand, her body began to incline away from his and toward the direction of the cache. Nor could he resist. It was as if he were drawn by her heart itself that so nearly lay in the hollow of his hand.
So firm was the crust, frozen during the night after the previous day’s surface-thaw, that they slid along rapidly on their skees.
“Just here, in the trees, is the cache,” Labiskwee told Smoke.
The next moment she caught his arm with a startle of surprise. The flames of a small fire were dancing merrily, and crouched by the fire was McCan. Labiskwee muttered something in Indian, and so lashlike was the sound that Smoke remembered she had been called “cheetah” by Four Eyes.
“I was minded you’d run without me,” McCan explained when they came up, his small peering eyes glimmering with cunning. “So I kept an eye on the girl, an’ when I seen her caching skees an’ grub, I was on. I’ve brought my own skees an’ webs an’ grub. The fire? Sure, an’ it was no danger. The camp’s asleep an’ snorin’, an’ the waitin’ was cold. Will we be startin’ now?”
Labiskwee looked swift consternation at Smoke, as swiftly achieved a judgement on the matter, and spoke. And in the speaking she showed, child-woman though she was in love, the quick decisiveness of one who in other affairs of life would be no clinging vine.
“McCan, you are a dog,” she hissed, and her eyes were savage with anger. “I know it is in your heart to raise the camp if we do not take you. Very well. We must take you. But you know my father. I am like my father. You will do your share of the work. You will obey. And if you play one dirty trick, it would be better for you if you had never run.”
McCan looked up at her, his small pig-eyes hating and cringing, while in her eyes, turned to Smoke, the anger melted into luminous softness.
“Is it right, what I have said?” she queried.
Daylight found them in the belt of foothills that lay between the rolling country and the mountains. McCan suggested breakfast, but they held on. Not until the afternoon thaw softened the crust and prevented travel would they eat.
The foothills quickly grew rugged, and the stream, up whose frozen bed they journeyed, began to thread deeper and deeper canyons. The signs of spring were less frequent, though in one canyon they found foaming bits of open water, and twice they came upon clumps of dwarf willow upon which were the first hints of swelling buds.
Labiskwee explained to Smoke her knowledge of the country and the way she planned to baffle pursuit. There were but two ways out, one west, the other south. Snass would immediately dispatch parties of young men to guard the two trails. But there was another way south. True, it did no more than penetrate half-way into the high mountains, then, twisting to the west and crossing three divides, it joined the regular trail. When the young men found no traces on the regular trail they would turn back in the belief that the escape had been made by the west traverse, never dreaming that the runaways had ventured the harder and longer way around.
Glancing back at McCan, in the rear, Labiskwee spoke in an undertone to Smoke. “He is eating,” she said. “It is not good.”
Smoke looked. The Irishman was secretly munching caribou suet from the pocketful he carried.
“No eating between meals, McCan,” he commanded. “There’s no game in the country ahead, and the grub will have to be whacked in equal rations from the start. The only way you can travel with us is by playing fair.”
By one o’clock the crust had thawed so that the skees broke through, and before two o’clock the web-shoes were breaking through. Camp was made and the first meal eaten. Smoke took stock of the food. McCan’s supply was a disappointment. So many silver fox-skins had he stuffed in the bottom of the meat bag that there was little space left for meat.
“Sure an’ I didn’t know there was so many,” he explained. “I done it in the dark. But they’re worth good money. An’ with all this ammunition we’ll be gettin’ game a-plenty.”
“The wolves will eat you a-plenty,” was Smoke’s hopeless comment, while Labiskwee’s eyes flashed their anger.
Enough food for a month, with careful husbanding and appetites that never blunted their edge, was Smoke’s and Labiskwee’s judgment. Smoke apportioned the weight and bulk of the packs, yielding in the end to Labiskwee’s insistence that she, too, should carry a pack.
Next day the stream shallowed out in a wide mountain valley, and they were already breaking through the crust on the flats when they gained the harder surface of the slope of the divide.
“Ten minutes later and we wouldn’t have got across the flats,” Smoke said, when they paused for breath on the bald crest of the summit. “We must be a thousand feet higher here.”
But Labiskwee, without speaking, pointed down to an open flat among the trees. In the midst of it, scattered abreast, were five dark specks that scarcely moved.
“The young men,” said Labiskwee.
“They are wallowing to their hips,” Smoke said. “They will never gain the hard footing this day. We have hours the start of them. Come on, McCan. Buck up. We don’t eat till we can’t travel.”
McCan groaned, but there was no caribou suet in his pocket, and he doggedly brought up the rear.
In the higher valley in which they now found themselves, the crust did not break till three in the afternoon, at which time they managed to gain the shadow of a mountain where the crust was already freezing again. Once only they paused to get out McCan’s confiscated suet, which they ate as they walked. The meat was frozen solid, and could be eaten only after thawing over a fire. But the suet crumbled in their mouths and eased the palpitating faintness in their stomachs.
Black darkness, with an overcast sky, came on after a long twilight at nine o’clock, when they made camp in a clump of dwarf spruce. McCan was whining and helpless. The day’s march had been exhausting, but in addition, despite his nine years’ experience in the arctic, he had been eating snow and was in agony with his parched and burning mouth. He crouched by the fire and groaned, while they made the camp.
Labiskwee was tireless, and Smoke could not but marvel at the life in her body, at the endurance of mind and muscle. Nor was her cheerfulness forced. She had ever a laugh or a smile for him, and her hand lingered in caress whenever it chanced to touch his. Yet, always, when she looked at McCan, her face went hard and pitiless and her eyes flashed frostily.
In the night came wind and snow, and through a day of blizzard they fought their way blindly, missing the turn of the way that led up a small stream and crossed a divide to the west. For two more days they wandered, crossing other and wrong divides, and in those two days they dropped spring behind and climbed up into the abode of winter.
“The young men have lost our trail, an’ what’s to stop us restin’ a day?” McCan begged.
But no rest was accorded. Smoke and Labiskwee knew their danger. They were lost in the high mountains, and they had seen no game nor signs of game. Day after day they struggled on through an iron configuration of landscape that compelled them to labyrinthine canyons and valleys that led rarely to the west. Once in such a canyon, they could only follow it, no matter where it led, for the cold peaks and higher ranges on either side were unscalable and unendurable. The terrible toil and the cold ate up energy, yet they cut down the size of the ration they permitted themselves.
One night Smoke was awakened by a sound of struggling. Distinctly he heard a gasping and strangling from where McCan slept. Kicking the fire into flame, by its light he saw Labiskwee, her hands at the Irishman’s throat and forcing from his mouth a chunk of partly chewed meat. Even as Smoke saw this, her hand went to her hip and flashed with the sheath-knife in it.
“Labiskwee!” Smoke cried, and his voice was peremptory.
The hand hesitated.
“Don’t,” he said, coming to her side.
She was shaking with anger, but the hand, after hesitating a moment longer, descended reluctantly to the sheath. As if fearing she could not restrain herself, she crossed to the fire and threw on more wood. McCan sat up, whimpering and snarling, between fright and rage spluttering an inarticulate explanation.
“Where did you get it?” Smoke demanded.
“Feel around his body,” Labiskwee said.
It was the first word she had spoken, and her voice quivered with the anger she could not suppress.
McCan strove to struggle, but Smoke gripped him cruelly and searched him, drawing forth from under his armpit, where it had been thawed by the heat of his body, a strip of caribou meat. A quick exclamation from Labiskwee drew Smoke’s attention. She had sprung to McCan’s pack and was opening it. Instead of meat, out poured moss, spruce-needles, chips—all the light refuse that had taken the place of the meat and given the pack its due proportion minus its weight.
Again Labiskwee’s hand went to her hip, and she flew at the culprit only to be caught in Smoke’s arms, where she surrendered herself, sobbing with the futility of her rage.
“Oh, lover, it is not the food,” she panted. “It is you, your life. The dog! He is eating you, he is eating you!”
“We will yet live,” Smoke comforted her. “Hereafter he shall carry the flour. He can’t eat that raw, and if he does I’ll kill him myself, for he will be eating your life as well as mine.” He held her closer. “Sweetheart, killing is men’s work. Women do not kill.”
“You would not love me if I killed the dog?” she questioned in surprise.
“Not so much,” Smoke temporized.
She sighed with resignation. “Very well,” she said. “I shall not kill him.”
The pursuit by the young men was relentless. By miracles of luck, as well as by deduction from the topography of the way the runaways must take, the young men picked up the blizzard-blinded trail and clung to it. When the snow flew, Smoke and Labiskwee took the most improbable courses, turning east when the better way opened south or west, rejecting a low divide to climb a higher. Being lost, it did not matter. Yet they could not throw the young men off. Sometimes they gained days, but always the young men appeared again. After a storm, when all trace was lost, they would cast out like a pack of hounds, and he who caught the later trace made smoke signals to call his comrades on.
Smoke lost count of time, of days and nights and storms and camps. Through a vast mad phantasmagoria of suffering and toil he and Labiskwee struggled on, with McCan somehow stumbling along in the rear, babbling of San Francisco, his everlasting dream. Great peaks, pitiless and serene in the chill blue, towered about them. They fled down black canyons with walls so precipitous that the rock frowned naked, or wallowed across glacial valleys where frozen lakes lay far beneath their feet. And one night, between two storms, a distant volcano glared the sky. They never saw it again, and wondered whether it had been a dream.
Crusts were covered with yards of new snow, that crusted and were snow-covered again. There were places, in canyon- and pocket-drifts, where they crossed snow hundreds of feet deep, and they crossed tiny glaciers, in drafty rifts, wind-scurried and bare of any snow. They crept like silent wraiths across the faces of impending avalanches, or roused from exhausted sleep to the thunder of them. They made fireless camps above timber-line, thawing their meat-rations with the heat of their bodies ere they could eat. And through it all Labiskwee remained Labiskwee. Her cheer never vanished, save when she looked at McCan, and the greatest stupor of fatigue and cold never stilled the eloquence of her love for Smoke.
Like a cat she watched the apportionment of the meager ration, and Smoke could see that she grudged McCan every munch of his jaws. Once, she distributed the ration. The first Smoke knew was a wild harangue of protest from McCan. Not to him alone, but to herself, had she given a smaller portion than to Smoke. After that, Smoke divided the meat himself. Caught in a small avalanche one morning after a night of snow, and swept a hundred yards down the mountain, they emerged half-stifled and unhurt, but McCan emerged without his pack in which was all the flour. A second and larger snow-slide buried it beyond hope of recovery. After that, though the disaster had been through no fault of his, Labiskwee never looked at McCan, and Smoke knew it was because she dared not.
It was a morning, stark still, clear blue above, with white sun-dazzle on the snow. The way led up a long, wide slope of crust. They moved like weary ghosts in a dead world. No wind stirred in the stagnant, frigid calm. Far peaks, a hundred miles away, studding the backbone of the Rockies up and down, were as distinct as if no more than five miles away.
“Something is going to happen,” Labiskwee whispered. “Don’t you feel it?—here, there, everywhere? Everything is strange.”
“I feel a chill that is not of cold,” Smoke answered. “Nor is it of hunger.”
“It is in your head, your heart,” she agreed excitedly. “That is the way I feel it.”
“It is not of my senses,” Smoke diagnosed. “I sense something, from without, that is tingling me with ice; it is a chill of my nerves.”
A quarter of an hour later they paused for breath.
“I can no longer see the far peaks,” Smoke said.
“The air is getting thick and heavy,” said Labiskwee. “It is hard to breathe.”
“There be three suns,” McCan muttered hoarsely, reeling as he clung to his staff for support.
There was a mock sun on either side of the real sun.
“There are five,” said Labiskwee; and as they looked, new suns formed and flashed before their eyes.
“By Heaven, the sky is filled with suns beyant all countin’,” McCan cried in fear.
Which was true, for look where they would, half the circle of the sky dazzled and blazed with new suns forming.
McCan yelped sharply with surprise and pain. “I’m stung!” he cried out, then yelped again.
Then Labiskwee cried out, and Smoke felt a prickling stab on his cheek so cold that it burned like acid. It reminded him of swimming in the salt sea and being stung by the poisonous filaments of Portuguese men-of-war. The sensations were so similar that he automatically brushed his cheek to rid it of the stinging substance that was not there.
And then a shot rang out, strangely muffled. Down the slope were the young men, standing on their skees, and one after another opened fire.
“Spread out!” Smoke commanded. “And climb for it! We’re almost to the top. They’re a quarter of a mile below, and that means a couple of miles the start of them on the down-going of the other side.”
With faces prickling and stinging from invisible atmospheric stabs, the three scattered widely on the snow surface and toiled upward. The muffled reports of the rifles were weird to their ears.
“Thank the Lord,” Smoke panted to Labiskwee, “that four of them are muskets, and only one a Winchester. Besides, all these suns spoil their aim. They are fooled. They haven’t come within a hundred feet of us.”
“It shows my father’s temper,” she said. “They have orders to kill.”
“How strange you talk,” Smoke said. “Your voice sounds far away.”
“Cover your mouth,” Labiskwee cried suddenly. “And do not talk. I know what it is. Cover your mouth with your sleeve, thus, and do not talk.”
McCan fell first, and struggled wearily to his feet. And after that all fell repeatedly ere they reached the summit. Their wills exceeded their muscles, they knew not why, save that their bodies were oppressed by a numbness and heaviness of movement. From the crest, looking back, they saw the young men stumbling and falling on the upward climb.
“They will never get here,” Labiskwee said. “It is the white death. I know it, though I have never seen it. I have heard the old men talk. Soon will come a mist—unlike any mist or fog or frost-smoke you ever saw. Few have seen it and lived.”
McCan gasped and strangled.
“Keep your mouth covered,” Smoke commanded.
A pervasive flashing of light from all about them drew Smoke’s eyes upward to the many suns. They were shimmering and veiling. The air was filled with microscopic fire-glints. The near peaks were being blotted out by the weird mist; the young men, resolutely struggling nearer, were being engulfed in it. McCan had sunk down, squatting, on his skees, his mouth and eyes covered by his arms.
“Come on, make a start,” Smoke ordered.
“I can’t move,” McCan moaned.
His doubled body set up a swaying motion. Smoke went toward him slowly, scarcely able to will movement through the lethargy that weighed his flesh. He noted that his brain was clear. It was only the body that was afflicted.
“Let him be,” Labiskwee muttered harshly.
But Smoke persisted, dragging the Irishman to his feet and facing him down the long slope they must go. Then he started him with a shove, and McCan, braking and steering with his staff, shot into the sheen of diamond-dust and disappeared.
Smoke looked at Labiskwee, who smiled, though it was all she could do to keep from sinking down. He nodded for her to push off, but she came near to him, and side by side, a dozen feet apart, they flew down through the stinging thickness of cold fire.
Brake as he would, Smoke’s heavier body carried him past her, and he dashed on alone, a long way, at tremendous speed that did not slacken till he came out on a level, crusted plateau. Here he braked till Labiskwee overtook him, and they went on, again side by side, with diminishing speed which finally ceased. The lethargy had grown more pronounced. The wildest effort of will could move them no more than at a snail’s pace. They passed McCan, again crouched down on his skees, and Smoke roused him with his staff in passing.
“Now we must stop,” Labiskwee whispered painfully, “or we will die. We must cover up—so the old men said.”
She did not delay to untie knots, but began cutting her pack-lashings. Smoke cut his, and, with a last look at the fiery death-mist and the mockery of suns, they covered themselves over with the sleeping-furs and crouched in each other’s arms. They felt a body stumble over them and fall, then heard feeble whimpering and blaspheming drowned in a violent coughing fit, and knew it was McCan who huddled against them as he wrapped his robe about him.
Their own lung-strangling began, and they were racked and torn by a dry cough, spasmodic and uncontrollable. Smoke noted his temperature rising in a fever, and Labiskwee suffered similarly. Hour after hour the coughing spells increased in frequency and violence, and not till late afternoon was the worst reached. After that the mend came slowly, and between spells they dozed in exhaustion.
McCan, however, steadily coughed worse, and from his groans and howls they knew he was in delirium. Once, Smoke made as if to throw the robes back, but Labiskwee clung to him tightly.
“No,” she begged. “It is death to uncover now. Bury your face here, against my parka, and breathe gently and do no talking—see, the way I am doing.”
They dozed on through the darkness, though the decreasing fits of coughing of one invariably aroused the other. It was after midnight, Smoke judged, when McCan coughed his last. After that he emitted low and bestial moanings that never ceased.
Smoke awoke with lips touching his lips. He lay partly in Labiskwee’s arms, his head pillowed on her breast. Her voice was cheerful and usual. The muffled sound of it had vanished.
“It is day,” she said, lifting the edge of the robes a trifle. “See, O my lover. It is day; we have lived through; and we no longer cough. Let us look at the world, though I could stay here thus forever and always. This last hour has been sweet. I have been awake, and I have been loving you.”
“I do not hear McCan,” Smoke said. “And what has become of the young men that they have not found us?”
He threw back the robes and saw a normal and solitary sun in the sky. A gentle breeze was blowing, crisp with frost and hinting of warmer days to come. All the world was natural again. McCan lay on his back, his unwashed face, swarthy from camp-smoke, frozen hard as marble. The sight did not affect Labiskwee.
“Look!” she cried. “A snow bird! It is a good sign.”
There was no evidence of the young men. Either they had died on the other side of the divide or they had turned back.
There was so little food that they dared not eat a tithe of what they needed, nor a hundredth part of what they desired, and in the days that followed, wandering through the lone mountain-land, the sharp sting of life grew blunted and the wandering merged half into a dream. Smoke would become abruptly conscious, to find himself staring at the never-ending hated snow-peaks, his senseless babble still ringing in his ears. And the next he would know, after seeming centuries, was that again he was roused to the sound of his own maunderings. Labiskwee, too, was light-headed most of the time. In the main their efforts were unreasoned, automatic. And ever they worked toward the west, and ever they were baffled and thrust north or south by snow-peaks and impassable ranges.
“There is no way south,” Labiskwee said. “The old men know. West, only west, is the way.”
The young men no longer pursued, but famine crowded on the trail.
Came a day when it turned cold, and a thick snow, that was not snow but frost crystals of the size of grains of sand, began to fall. All day and night it fell, and for three days and nights it continued to fall. It was impossible to travel until it crusted under the spring sun, so they lay in their furs and rested, and ate less because they rested. So small was the ration they permitted that it gave no appeasement to the hunger pang that was much of the stomach, but more of the brain. And Labiskwee, delirious, maddened by the taste of her tiny portion, sobbing and mumbling, yelping sharp little animal cries of joy, fell upon the next day’s portion and crammed it into her mouth.
Then it was given to Smoke to see a wonderful thing. The food between her teeth roused her to consciousness. She spat it out, and with a great anger struck herself with her clenched fist on the offending mouth.
It was given to Smoke to see many wonderful things in the days yet to come. After the long snow-fall came on a great wind that drove the dry and tiny frost-particles as sand is driven in a sand-storm. All through the night the sand-frost drove by, and in the full light of a clear and wind-blown day, Smoke looked with swimming eyes and reeling brain upon what he took to be the vision of a dream. All about towered great peaks and small, lone sentinels and groups and councils of mighty Titans. And from the tip of every peak, swaying, undulating, flaring out broadly against the azure sky, streamed gigantic snow-banners, miles in length, milky and nebulous, ever waving lights and shadows and flashing silver from the sun.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” Smoke chanted, as he gazed upon these dusts of snow wind-driven into sky-scarves of shimmering silken light.
And still he gazed, and still the bannered peaks did not vanish, and still he considered that he dreamed, until Labiskwee sat up among the furs.
“I dream, Labiskwee,” he said. “Look. Do you, too, dream within my dream?”
“It is no dream,” she replied. “This have the old men told me. And after this will blow the warm winds, and we shall live and win west.”
Smoke shot a snow-bird, and they divided it. Once, in a valley where willows budded standing in the snow, he shot a snowshoe rabbit. Another time he got a lean, white weasel. This much of meat they encountered, and no more, though, once, half-mile high and veering toward the west and the Yukon, they saw a wild-duck wedge drive by.
“It is summer in the lower valleys,” said Labiskwee. “Soon it will be summer here.”
Labiskwee’s face had grown thin, but the bright, large eyes were brighter and larger, and when she looked at him she was transfigured by a wild, unearthly beauty.
The days lengthened, and the snow began to sink. Each day the crust thawed, each night it froze again; and they were afoot early and late, being compelled to camp and rest during the midday hours of thaw when the crust could not bear their weight. When Smoke grew snow-blind, Labiskwee towed him on a thong tied to her waist. And when she was so blinded, she towed behind a thong to his waist. And starving, in a deeper dream, they struggled on through an awakening land bare of any life save their own.
Exhausted as he was, Smoke grew almost to fear sleep, so fearful and bitter were the visions of that mad, twilight land. Always were they of food, and always was the food, at his lips, snatched away by the malign deviser of dreams. He gave dinners to his comrades of the old San Francisco days, himself, with whetting appetite and jealous eye, directing the arrangements, decorating the table with crimson-leafed runners of the autumn grape. The guests were dilatory, and while he greeted them and all sparkled with their latest cleverness, he was frantic with desire for the table. He stole to it, unobserved, and clutched a handful of black ripe olives, and turned to meet still another guest. And others surrounded him, and the laugh and play of wit went on, while all the time, hidden in his closed hand, was this madness of ripe olives.
He gave many such dinners, all with the same empty ending. He attended Gargantuan feasts, where multitudes fed on innumerable bullocks roasted whole, prying them out of smoldering pits and with sharp knives slicing great strips of meat from the steaming carcasses. He stood, with mouth agape, beneath long rows of turkeys which white-aproned shopmen sold. And everybody bought save Smoke, mouth still agape, chained by a leadenness of movement to the pavement. A boy again, he sat with spoon poised high above great bowls of bread and milk. He pursued shy heifers through upland pastures and centuries of torment in vain effort to steal from them their milk, and in noisome dungeons he fought with rats for scraps and refuse. There was no food that was not a madness to him, and he wandered through vast stables, where fat horses stood in mile-long rows of stalls, and sought but never found the bran-bins from which they fed.
Once, only, he dreamed to advantage. Famishing, shipwrecked or marooned, he fought with the big Pacific surf for rock-clinging mussels, and carried them up the sands to the dry flotsam of the spring tides. Of this he built a fire, and among the coals he laid his precious trove. He watched the steam jet forth and the locked shells pop apart, exposing the salmon-colored meat. Cooked to a turn—he knew it; and this time there was no intruding presence to whisk the meal away. At last—so he dreamed within the dream—the dream would come true. This time he would eat. Yet in his certitude he doubted, and he was steeled for the inevitable shift of vision until the salmon-colored meat, hot and savory, was in his mouth. His teeth closed upon it. He ate! The miracle had happened! The shock aroused him. He awoke in the dark, lying on his back, and heard himself mumbling little piggish squeals and grunts of joy. His jaws were moving, and between his teeth meat was crunching. He did not move, and soon small fingers felt about his lips, and between them was inserted a tiny sliver of meat. And in that he would eat no more, rather than that he was angry, Labiskwee cried and in his arms sobbed herself to sleep. But he lay on awake, marveling at the love and the wonder of woman.
The time came when the last food was gone. The high peaks receded, the divides became lower, and the way opened promisingly to the west. But their reserves of strength were gone, and, without food, the time quickly followed when they lay down at night and in the morning did not arise. Smoke weakly gained his feet, collapsed, and on hands and knees crawled about the building of a fire. But try as she would Labiskwee sank back each time in an extremity of weakness. And Smoke sank down beside her, a wan sneer on his face for the automatism that had made him struggle for an unneeded fire. There was nothing to cook, and the day was warm. A gentle breeze sighed in the spruce-trees, and from everywhere, under the disappearing snow, came the trickling music of unseen streamlets.
Labiskwee lay in a stupor, her breathing so imperceptible that often Smoke thought her dead. In the afternoon the chattering of a squirrel aroused him. Dragging the heavy rifle, he wallowed through the crust that had become slush. He crept on hands and knees, or stood upright and fell forward in the direction of the squirrel that chattered its wrath and fled slowly and tantalizingly before him. He had not the strength for a quick shot, and the squirrel was never still. At times Smoke sprawled in the wet snow-melt and cried out of weakness. Other times the flame of his life flickered, and blackness smote him. How long he lay in the last faint he did not know, but he came to, shivering in the chill of evening, his wet clothing frozen to the re-forming crust. The squirrel was gone, and after a weary struggle he won back to the side of Labiskwee. So profound was his weakness that he lay like a dead man through the night, nor did dreams disturb him.
The sun was in the sky, the same squirrel chattering through the trees, when Labiskwee’s hand on Smoke’s cheek awakened him.
“Put your hand on my heart, lover,” she said, her voice clear but faint and very far away. “My heart is my love, and you hold it in your hand.”
A long time seemed to go by, ere she spoke again.
“Remember always, there is no way south. That is well known to the Caribou People. West—that is the way—and you are almost there—and you will make it.”
And Smoke drowsed in the numbness that is near to death, until once more she aroused him.
“Put your lips on mine,” she said. “I will die so.”
“We will die together, sweetheart,” was his answer.
“No.” A feeble flutter of her hand checked him, and so thin was her voice that scarcely did he hear it, yet did he hear all of it. Her hand fumbled and groped in the hood of her parka, and she drew forth a pouch that she placed in his hand. “And now your lips, my lover. Your lips on my lips, and your hand on my heart.”
And in that long kiss darkness came upon him again, and when again he was conscious he knew that he was alone and he knew that he was to die. He was wearily glad that he was to die.
He found his hand resting on the pouch. With an inward smile at the curiosity that made him pull the draw-string, he opened it. Out poured a tiny flood of food. There was no particle of it that he did not recognize, all stolen by Labiskwee from Labiskwee—bread-fragments saved far back in the days ere McCan lost the flour; strips and strings of caribou-meat, partly gnawed; crumbles of suet; the hind-leg of the snowshoe rabbit, untouched; the hind-leg and part of the fore-leg of the white weasel; the wing dented still by her reluctant teeth, and the leg of the snow-bird—pitiful remnants, tragic renunciations, crucifixions of life, morsels stolen from her terrible hunger by her incredible love.
With maniacal laughter Smoke flung it all out on the hardening snow-crust and went back into the blackness.
He dreamed. The Yukon ran dry. In its bed, among muddy pools of water and ice-scoured rocks, he wandered, picking up fat nugget-gold. The weight of it grew to be a burden to him, till he discovered that it was good to eat. And greedily he ate. After all, of what worth was gold that men should prize it so, save that it was good to eat?
He awoke to another sun. His brain was strangely clear. No longer did his eyesight blur. The familiar palpitation that had vexed him through all his frame was gone. The juices of his body seemed to sing, as if the spring had entered in. Blessed well-being had come to him. He turned to awaken Labiskwee, and saw, and remembered. He looked for the food flung out on the snow. It was gone. And he knew that in delirium and dream it had been the Yukon nugget-gold. In delirium and dream he had taken heart of life from the life sacrifice of Labiskwee, who had put her heart in his hand and opened his eyes to woman and wonder.
He was surprised at the ease of his movements, astounded that he was able to drag her fur-wrapped body to the exposed thawed gravel-bank, which he undermined with the ax and caved upon her.
Three days, with no further food, he fought west. In the mid third day he fell beneath a lone spruce beside a wide stream that ran open and which he knew must be the Klondike. Ere blackness conquered him, he unlashed his pack, said good-by to the bright world, and rolled himself in the robes.
Chirping, sleepy noises awoke him. The long twilight was on. Above him, among the spruce boughs, were ptarmigan. Hunger bit him into instant action, though the action was infinitely slow. Five minutes passed before he was able to get his rifle to his shoulder, and a second five minutes passed ere he dared, lying on his back and aiming straight upward, to pull the trigger. It was a clean miss. No bird fell, but no bird flew. They ruffled and rustled stupidly and drowsily. His shoulder pained him. A second shot was spoiled by the involuntary wince he made as he pulled trigger. Somewhere, in the last three days, though he had no recollection how, he must have fallen and injured it.
The ptarmigan had not flown. He doubled and redoubled the robe that had covered him, and humped it in the hollow between his right arm and his side. Resting the butt of the rifle on the fur, he fired again, and a bird fell. He clutched it greedily and found that he had shot most of the meat out of it. The large-caliber bullet had left little else than a mess of mangled feathers. Still the ptarmigan did not fly, and he decided that it was heads or nothing. He fired only at heads. He reloaded and reloaded the magazine. He missed; he hit; and the stupid ptarmigan, that were loath to fly, fell upon him in a rain of food—lives disrupted that his life might feed and live. There had been nine of them, and in the end he clipped the head of the ninth, and lay and laughed and wept he knew not why.
The first he ate raw. Then he rested and slept, while his life assimilated the life of it. In the darkness he awoke, hungry, with strength to build a fire. And until early dawn he cooked and ate, crunching the bones to powder between his long-idle teeth. He slept, awoke in the darkness of another night, and slept again to another sun.
He noted with surprise that the fire crackled with fresh fuel and that a blackened coffee-pot steamed on the edge of the coals. Beside the fire, within arm’s length, sat Shorty, smoking a brown-paper cigarette and intently watching him. Smoke’s lips moved, but a throat paralysis seemed to come upon him, while his chest was suffused with the menace of tears. He reached out his hand for the cigarette and drew the smoke deep into his lungs again and again.
“I have not smoked for a long time,” he said at last, in a low calm voice. “For a very long time.”
“Nor eaten, from your looks,” Shorty added gruffly.
Smoke nodded and waved his hand at the ptarmigan feathers that lay all about.
“Not until recently,” he returned. “Do you know, I’d like a cup of coffee. It will taste strange. Also flapjacks and a strip of bacon.”
“And beans?” Shorty tempted.
“They would taste heavenly. I find I am quite hungry again.”
While the one cooked and the other ate, they told briefly what had happened to them in the days since their separation.
“The Klondike was breakin’ up,” Shorty concluded his recital, “an’ we just had to wait for open water. Two polin’ boats, six other men—you know ’em all, an’ crackerjacks—an’ all kinds of outfit. An’ we’ve sure been a-comin’—polin’, linin’ up, and portagin’. But the falls’ll stick ’em a solid week. That’s where I left ’em a-cuttin’ a trail over the tops of the bluffs for the boats. I just had a sure natural hunch to keep a-comin’. So I fills a pack with grub an’ starts. I knew I’d find you a-driftin’ an’ all in.”
Smoke nodded, and put forth his hand in a silent grip. “Well, let’s get started,” he said.
“Started hell!” Shorty exploded. “We stay right here an’ rest you up an’ feed you up for a couple of days.”
Smoke shook his head.
“If you could just see yourself,” Shorty protested.
And what he saw was not nice. Smoke’s face, wherever the skin showed, was black and purple and scabbed from repeated frost-bite. The cheeks were fallen in, so that, despite the covering of beard, the upper rows of teeth ridged the shrunken flesh. Across the forehead and about the deep-sunk eyes, the skin was stretched drum-tight, while the scraggly beard, that should have been golden, was singed by fire and filthy with camp-smoke.
“Better pack up,” Smoke said. “I’m going on.”
“But you’re feeble as a kid baby. You can’t hike. What’s the rush?”
“Shorty, I am going after the biggest thing in the Klondike, and I can’t wait. That’s all. Start packing. It’s the biggest thing in the world. It’s bigger than lakes of gold and mountains of gold, bigger than adventure, and meat-eating, and bear-killing.”
Shorty sat with bulging eyes. “In the name of the Lord, what is it?” he queried huskily. “Or are you just simple loco?”
“No, I’m all right. Perhaps a fellow has to stop eating in order to see things. At any rate, I have seen things I never dreamed were in the world. I know what a woman is,—now.”
Shorty’s mouth opened, and about the lips and in the light of the eyes was the whimsical advertisement of the sneer forthcoming.
“Don’t, please,” Smoke said gently. “You don’t know. I do.”
Shorty gulped and changed his thought. “Huh! I don’t need no hunch to guess HER name. The rest of ’em has gone up to the drainin’ of Surprise Lake, but Joy Gastell allowed she wouldn’t go. She’s stickin’ around Dawson, waitin’ to see if I come back with you. An’ she sure swears, if I don’t, she’ll sell her holdin’s an’ hire a army of gun-fighters, an’ go into the Caribou Country an’ knock the everlastin’ stuffin’ outa old Snass an’ his whole gang. An’ if you’ll hold your horses a couple of shakes, I reckon I’ll get packed up an’ ready to hike along with you.”
10. THE MISTAKE OF CREATION
"Whoa!" Smoke yelled at the dogs, throwing his weight back on the gee-pole to bring the sled to a halt.
"What’s eatin’ you now?" Shorty complained. "They ain’t no water under that footing."
"No; but look at that trail cutting out to the right," Smoke answered. "I thought nobody was wintering in this section."
The dogs, on the moment they stopped, dropped in the snow and began biting out the particles of ice from between their toes. This ice had been water five minutes before. The animals had broken through a skein of ice, snow-powdered, which had hidden the spring water that oozed out of the bank and pooled on top of the three-foot winter crust of Nordbeska River.
"First I heard of anybody up the Nordbeska," Shorty said, staring at the all but obliterated track covered by two feet of snow, that left the bed of the river at right angles and entered the mouth of a small stream flowing from the left. "Mebbe they’re hunters and pulled their freight long ago."
Smoke, scooping the light snow away with mittened hands, paused to consider, scooped again, and again paused. "No," he decided. "There’s been travel both ways, but the last travel was up that creek. Whoever they are, they’re there now—certain. There’s been no travel for weeks. Now what’s been keeping them there all the time? That’s what I want to know."
"And what I want to know is where we’re going to camp to-night," Shorty said, staring disconsolately at the sky-line in the southwest, where the mid-afternoon twilight was darkening into night.
"Let’s follow the track up the creek," was Smoke’s suggestion. "There’s plenty of dead timber. We can camp any time."
"Sure we can camp any time, but we got to travel most of the time if we ain’t goin’ to starve, an’ we got to travel in the right direction."
"We’re going to find something up that creek," Smoke went on.
"But look at the grub! Look at them dogs!" Shorty cried. "Look at—oh, hell, all right. You will have your will."
"It won’t make the trip a day longer," Smoke urged. "Possibly no more than a mile longer."
"Men has died for as little as a mile," Shorty retorted, shaking his head with lugubrious resignation. "Come on for trouble. Get up, you poor sore-foots, you—get up! Haw! You Bright! Haw!"
The lead-dog obeyed, and the whole team strained weakly into the soft snow.
"Whoa!" Shorty yelled. "It’s pack trail."
Smoke pulled his snow-shoes from under the sled-lashings, bound them to his moccasined feet, and went to the fore to press and pack the light surface for the dogs.
It was heavy work. Dogs and men had been for days on short rations, and few and limited were the reserves of energy they could call upon. Though they followed the creek bed, so pronounced was its fall that they toiled on a stiff and unrelenting up-grade. The high rocky walls quickly drew near together, so that their way led up the bottom of a narrow gorge. The long lingering twilight, blocked by the high mountains, was no more than semi-darkness.
"It’s a trap," Shorty said. "The whole look of it is rotten. It’s a hole in the ground. It’s the stampin’-ground of trouble."
Smoke made no reply, and for half an hour they toiled on in silence—a silence that was again broken by Shorty.
"She’s a-workin’," he grumbled. "She’s sure a-workin’, an’ I’ll tell you if you’re minded to hear an’ listen."
"Go on," Smoke answered.
"Well, she tells me, plain an’ simple, that we ain’t never goin’ to get out of this hole in the ground in days an’ days. We’re goin’ to find trouble an’ be stuck in here a long time an’ then some."
"Does she say anything about grub?" Smoke queried unsympathetically. "For we haven’t grub for days and days and days and then some."
"Nope. Nary whisper about grub. I guess we’ll manage to make out. But I tell you one thing, Smoke, straight an’ flat. I’ll eat any dog in the team exceptin’ Bright. I got to draw the line on Bright. I just couldn’t scoff him."
"Cheer up," Smoke girded. "My hunch is working overtime. She tells me there’ll be no dogs eaten, and, whether it’s moose or caribou or quail on toast, we’ll all fatten up."
Shorty snorted his unutterable disgust, and silence obtained for another quarter of an hour.
"There’s the beginning of your trouble," Smoke said, halting on his snow-shoes and staring at an object that lay on one side of the old trail.
Shorty left the gee-pole and joined him, and together they gazed down on the body of a man beside the trail.
"Well fed," said Smoke.
"Look at them lips," said Shorty.
"Stiff as a poker," said Smoke, lifting an arm, that, without moving, moved the whole body.
"Pick ’m up an’ drop ’m and he’d break to pieces," was Shorty’s comment.
The man lay on his side, solidly frozen. From the fact that no snow powdered him, it was patent that he had lain there but a short time.
"There was a general fall of snow three days back," said Shorty.
Smoke nodded, bending over the corpse, twisting it half up to face them, and pointing to a bullet wound in the temple. He glanced to the side and tilted his head at a revolver that lay on top of the snow.
A hundred yards farther on they came upon a second body that lay face downward in the trail. "Two things are pretty clear," Smoke said. "They’re fat. That means no famine. They’ve not struck it rich, else they wouldn’t have committed suicide."
"If they did," Shorty objected.
"They certainly did. There are no tracks besides their own, and each is powder-burned." Smoke dragged the corpse to one side and with the toe of his moccasin nosed a revolver out of the snow into which it had been pressed by the body. "That’s what did the work. I told you we’d find something."
"From the looks of it we ain’t started yet. Now what’d two fat geezers want to kill theirselves for?"
"When we find that out we’ll have found the rest of your trouble," Smoke answered. "Come on. It’s blowing dark."
Quite dark it was when Smoke’s snow-shoe tripped him over a body. He fell across a sled, on which lay another body. And when he had dug the snow out of his neck and struck a match, he and Shorty glimpsed a third body, wrapped in blankets, lying beside a partially dug grave. Also, ere the match flickered out, they caught sight of half a dozen additional graves.
"B-r-r-r," Shorty shivered. "Suicide Camp. All fed up. I reckon they’re all dead."
"No—peep at that." Smoke was looking farther along at a dim glimmer of light. "And there’s another light—and a third one there. Come on. Let’s hike."
No more corpses delayed them, and in several minutes, over a hard-packed trail, they were in the camp.
"It’s a city," Shorty whispered. "There must be twenty cabins. An’ not a dog. Ain’t that funny!"
"And that explains it," Smoke whispered back excitedly. "It’s the Laura Sibley outfit. Don’t you remember? Came up the Yukon last fall on the Port Townsend Number Six. Went right by Dawson without stopping. The steamer must have landed them at the mouth of the creek."
"Sure. I remember. They was Mormons."
"No—vegetarians." Smoke grinned in the darkness. "They won’t eat meat and they won’t work dogs."
"It’s all the same. I knowed they was something funny about ’em. Had the allwise steer to the yellow. That Laura Sibley was goin’ to take ’em right to the spot where they’d all be millionaires."
"Yes; she was their seeress—had visions and that sort of stuff. I thought they went up the Nordensjold."
"Huh! Listen to that!"
Shorty’s hand in the darkness went out warningly to Smoke’s chest, and together they listened to a groan, deep and long drawn, that came from one of the cabins. Ere it could die away it was taken up by another cabin, and another—a vast suspiration of human misery. The effect was monstrous and nightmarish.
"B-r-r-r," Shorty shivered. "It’s gettin’ me goin’. Let’s break in an’ find what’s eatin’ ’em."
Smoke knocked at a lighted cabin, and was followed in by Shorty in answer to the "Come in" of the voice they heard groaning. It was a simple log cabin, the walls moss-chinked, the earth floor covered with sawdust and shavings. The light was a kerosene-lamp, and they could make out four bunks, three of which were occupied by men who ceased from groaning in order to stare.
"What’s the matter?" Smoke demanded of one whose blankets could not hide his broad shoulders and massively muscled body, whose eyes were pain-racked and whose cheeks were hollow. "Smallpox? What is it?"
In reply, the man pointed at his mouth, spreading black and swollen lips in the effort; and Smoke recoiled at the sight.
"Scurvy," he muttered to Shorty; and the man confirmed the diagnosis with a nod of the head.
"Plenty of grub?" Shorty asked.
"Yep," was the answer from a man in another bunk. "Help yourself. There’s slathers of it. The cabin next on the other side is empty. Cache is right alongside. Wade into it."
In every cabin they visited that night they found a similar situation. Scurvy had smitten the whole camp. A dozen women were in the party, though the two men did not see all of them. Originally there had been ninety-three men and women. But ten had died, and two had recently disappeared. Smoke told of finding the two, and expressed surprise that none had gone that short distance down the trail to find out for themselves. What particularly struck him and Shorty was the helplessness of these people. Their cabins were littered and dirty. The dishes stood unwashed on the rough plank tables. There was no mutual aid. A cabin’s troubles were its own troubles, and already they had ceased from the exertion of burying their dead.
"It’s almost weird," Smoke confided to Shorty. "I’ve met shirkers and loafers, but I never met so many all at one time. You heard what they said. They’ve never done a tap. I’ll bet they haven’t washed their own faces. No wonder they got scurvy."
"But vegetarians hadn’t ought to get scurvy," Shorty contended. "It’s the salt-meat-eaters that’s supposed to fall for it. And they don’t eat meat, salt or fresh, raw or cooked, or any other way."
Smoke shook his head. "I know. And it’s vegetable diet that cures scurvy. No drugs will do it. Vegetables, especially potatoes, are the only dope. But don’t forget one thing, Shorty: we are not up against a theory but a condition. The fact is these grass-eaters have all got scurvy."
"Must be contagious."
"No; that the doctors do know. Scurvy is not a germ disease. It can’t be caught. It’s generated. As near as I can get it, it’s due to an impoverished condition of the blood. Its cause is not something they’ve got, but something they haven’t got. A man gets scurvy for lack of certain chemicals in his blood, and those chemicals don’t come out of powders and bottles, but do come out of vegetables."
"An’ these people eats nothin’ but grass," Shorty groaned. "And they’ve got it up to their ears. That proves you’re all wrong, Smoke. You’re spielin’ a theory, but this condition sure knocks the spots outa your theory. Scurvy’s catchin’, an’ that’s why they’ve all got it, an’ rotten bad at that. You an’ me’ll get it too, if we hang around this diggin’. B-r-r-r!—I can feel the bugs crawlin’ into my system right now."
Smoke laughed skeptically, and knocked on a cabin door. "I suppose we’ll find the same old thing," he said. "Come on. We’ve got to get a line on the situation."
"What do you want?" came a woman’s sharp voice.
"We want to see you," Smoke answered.
"Who are you?"
"Two doctors from Dawson," Shorty blurted in, with a levity that brought a punch in the short ribs from Smoke’s elbow.
"Don’t want to see any doctors," the woman said, in tones crisp and staccato with pain and irritation. "Go away. Good night. We don’t believe in doctors."
Smoke pulled the latch, shoved the door open, and entered, turning up the low-flamed kerosene-lamp so that he could see. In four bunks four women ceased from groaning and sighing to stare at the intruders. Two were young, thin-faced creatures, the third was an elderly and very stout woman, and the fourth, the one whom Smoke identified by her voice, was the thinnest, frailest specimen of the human race he had ever seen. As he quickly learned, she was Laura Sibley, the seeress and professional clairvoyant who had organized the expedition in Los Angeles and led it to this death-camp on the Nordbeska. The conversation that ensued was acrimonious. Laura Sibley did not believe in doctors. Also, to add to her purgatory, she had wellnigh ceased to believe in herself.
"Why didn’t you send out for help?" Smoke asked, when she paused, breathless and exhausted, from her initial tirade. "There’s a camp at Stewart River, and eighteen days’ travel would fetch Dawson from here."
"Why didn’t Amos Wentworth go?" she demanded, with a wrath that bordered on hysteria.
"Don’t know the gentleman," Smoke countered. "What’s he been doing?"
"Nothing. Except that he’s the only one that hasn’t caught the scurvy. And why hasn’t he caught the scurvy? I’ll tell you. No, I won’t." The thin lips compressed so tightly that through the emaciated transparency of them Smoke was almost convinced he could see the teeth and the roots of the teeth. "And what would have been the use? Don’t I know? I’m not a fool. Our caches are filled with every kind of fruit juice and preserved vegetables. We are better situated than any other camp in Alaska to fight scurvy. There is no prepared vegetable, fruit, and nut food we haven’t, and in plenty."
"She’s got you there, Smoke," Shorty exulted. "And it’s a condition, not a theory. You say vegetables cures. Here’s the vegetables, and where’s the cure?"
"There’s no explanation I can see," Smoke acknowledged. "Yet there is no camp in Alaska like this. I’ve seen scurvy—a sprinkling of cases here and there; but I never saw a whole camp with it, nor did I ever see such terrible cases. Which is neither here nor there, Shorty. We’ve got to do what we can for these people, but first we’ve got to make camp and take care of the dogs. We’ll see you in the morning, er—Mrs. Sibley."
"MISS Sibley," she bridled. "And now, young man, if you come fooling around this cabin with any doctor stuff I’ll fill you full of birdshot."
"This divine seeress is a sweet one," Smoke chuckled, as he and Shorty felt their way back through the darkness to the empty cabin next to the one they had first entered.
It was evident that two men had lived until recently in the cabin, and the partners wondered if they weren’t the two suicides down the trail. Together they overhauled the cache and found it filled with an undreamed-of variety of canned, powdered, dried, evaporated, condensed, and desiccated foods.
"What in the name of reason do they want to go and get scurvy for?" Shorty demanded, brandishing to the light packages of egg-powder and Italian mushrooms. "And look at that! And that!" He tossed out cans of tomatoes and corn and bottles of stuffed olives. "And the divine steeress got the scurvy, too. What d’ye make of it?"
"Seeress," Smoke corrected.
"Steeress," Shorty reiterated. "Didn’t she steer ’em here to this hole in the ground?"
Next morning, after daylight, Smoke encountered a man carrying a heavy sled-load of firewood. He was a little man, clean-looking and spry, who walked briskly despite the load. Smoke experienced an immediate dislike.
"What’s the matter with you?" he asked.
"Nothing," the little man answered.
"I know that," Smoke said. "That’s why I asked you. You’re Amos Wentworth. Now why under the sun haven’t you the scurvy like all the rest?"
"Because I’ve exercised," came the quick reply. "There wasn’t any need for any of them to get it if they’d only got out and done something. What did they do? Growled and kicked and grouched at the cold, the long nights, the hardships, the aches and pains and everything else. They loafed in their beds until they swelled up and couldn’t leave them, that’s all. Look at me. I’ve worked. Come into my cabin."
Smoke followed him in.
"Squint around. Clean as a whistle, eh? You bet. Everything shipshape. I wouldn’t keep those chips and shavings on the floor except for the warmth, but they’re clean chips and shavings. You ought to see the floor in some of the shacks. Pig-pens. As for me, I haven’t eaten a meal off an unwashed dish. No, sir. It meant work, and I’ve worked, and I haven’t the scurvy. You can put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"You’ve hit the nail on the head," Smoke admitted. "But I see you’ve only one bunk. Why so unsociable?"
"Because I like to be. It’s easier to clean up for one than two, that’s why. The lazy blanket-loafers! Do you think that I could have stood one around? No wonder they got scurvy."
It was very convincing, but Smoke could not rid himself of his dislike of the man.
"What’s Laura Sibley got it in for you for?" he asked abruptly.
Amos Wentworth shot a quick look at him. "She’s a crank," was the reply. "So are we all cranks, for that matter. But Heaven save me from the crank that won’t wash the dishes that he eats off of, and that’s what this crowd of cranks are like."
A few minutes later, Smoke was talking with Laura Sibley. Supported by a stick in either hand, she had paused in hobbling by his cabin.
"What have you got it in for Wentworth for?" he asked, apropos of nothing in the conversation and with a suddenness that caught her off her guard.
Her green eyes flashed bitterly, her emaciated face for the second was convulsed with rage, and her sore lips writhed on the verge of unconsidered speech. But only a splutter of gasping, unintelligible sounds issued forth, and then, by a terrible effort, she controlled herself.
"Because he’s healthy," she panted. "Because he hasn’t the scurvy. Because he is supremely selfish. Because he won’t lift a hand to help anybody else. Because he’d let us rot and die, as he is letting us rot and die, without lifting a finger to fetch us a pail of water or a load of firewood. That’s the kind of a brute he is. But let him beware! That’s all. Let him beware!"
Still panting and gasping, she hobbled on her way, and five minutes afterward, coming out of the cabin to feed the dogs, Smoke saw her entering Amos Wentworth’s cabin.
"Something rotten here, Shorty, something rotten," he said, shaking his head ominously, as his partner came to the door to empty a pan of dish-water.
"Sure," was the cheerful rejoinder. "An’ you an’ me’ll be catchin’ it yet. You’ll see."
"I don’t mean the scurvy."
"Oh, sure, if you mean the divine steeress. She’d rob a corpse. She’s the hungriest-lookin’ female I ever seen."
"Exercise has kept you and me in condition, Shorty. It’s kept Wentworth in condition. You see what lack of exercise has done for the rest. Now it’s up to us to prescribe exercise for these hospital wrecks. It will be your job to see that they get it. I appoint you chief nurse."
"What? Me?" Shorty shouted. "I resign."
"No, you don’t. I’ll be able assistant, because it isn’t going to be any soft snap. We’ve got to make them hustle. First thing, they’ll have to bury their dead. The strongest for the burial squad; then the next strongest on the firewood squad (they’ve been lying in their blankets to save wood); and so on down the line. And spruce-tea. Mustn’t forget that. All the sour-doughs swear by it. These people have never even heard of it."
"We sure got ourn cut out for us," Shorty grinned. "First thing we know we’ll be full of lead."
"And that’s our first job," Smoke said. "Come on."
In the next hour, each of the twenty-odd cabins was raided. All ammunition and every rifle, shotgun, and revolver was confiscated.
"Come on, you invalids," was Shorty’s method. "Shootin’-irons—fork ’em over. We need ’em."
"Who says so?" was the query at the first cabin.
"Two doctors from Dawson," was Shorty’s answer. "An’ what they say goes. Come on. Shell out the ammunition, too."
"What do you want them for?"
"To stand off a war-party of canned beef comin’ down the canyon. And I’m givin’ you fair warnin’ of a spruce-tea invasion. Come across."
And this was only the beginning of the day. Men were persuaded, coaxed, bullied or dragged by main strength from their bunks and forced to dress. Smoke selected the mildest cases for the burial squad. Another squad was told off to supply the wood by which the graves were burned down into the frozen muck and gravel. Still another squad had to chop firewood and impartially supply every cabin. Those who were too weak for outdoor work were put to cleaning and scrubbing the cabins and washing clothes. One squad brought in many loads of spruce-boughs, and every stove was used for the brewing of spruce-tea.
But no matter what face Smoke and Shorty put on it, the situation was grim and serious. At least thirty fearful and impossible cases could not be taken from the beds, as the two men, with nausea and horror, learned; while one, a woman, died in Laura Sibley’s cabin. Yet strong measures were necessary.
"I don’t like to wallop a sick man," Shorty explained, his fist doubled menacingly. "But I’d wallop his block off if it’d make him well. And what all you lazy bums needs is a wallopin’. Come on! Out of that an’ into them duds of yourn, double quick, or I’ll sure muss up the front of your face."
All the gangs groaned, and sighed, and wept, the tears streaming and freezing down their cheeks as they toiled; and it was patent that their agony was real. The situation was desperate, and Smoke’s prescription was heroic.
When the work-gangs came in at noon, they found decently cooked dinners awaiting them, prepared by the weaker members of their cabins under the tutelage and drive of Smoke and Shorty.
"That’ll do," Smoke said at three in the afternoon. "Knock off. Go to your bunks. You may be feeling rotten now, but you’ll be the better for it to-morrow. Of course it hurts to get well, but I’m going to get you well."
"Too late," Amos Wentworth sneered pallidly at Smoke’s efforts. "They ought to have started in that way last fall."
"Come along with me," Smoke answered. "Pick up those two pails. You’re not ailing."
From cabin to cabin the three men went, dosing every man and woman with a full pint of spruce-tea. Nor was it easy.
"You might as well learn at the start that we mean business," Smoke stated to the first obdurate, who lay on his back, groaning through set teeth. "Stand by, Shorty." Smoke caught the patient by the nose and tapped the solar-plexus section so as to make the mouth gasp open. "Now, Shorty! Down she goes!"
And down it went, accompanied with unavoidable splutterings and stranglings.
"Next time you’ll take it easier," Smoke assured the victim, reaching for the nose of the man in the adjoining bunk.
"I’d sooner take castor oil," was Shorty’s private confidence, ere he downed his own portion. "Great jumpin’ Methuselem!" was his entirely public proclamation the moment after he had swallowed the bitter dose. "It’s a pint long, but hogshead strong."
"We’re covering this spruce-tea route four times a day, and there are eighty of you to be dosed each time," Smoke informed Laura Sibley. "So we’ve no time to fool. Will you take it or must I hold your nose?" His thumb and forefinger hovered eloquently above her. "It’s vegetable, so you needn’t have any qualms."
"Qualms!" Shorty snorted. "No, sure, certainly not. It’s the deliciousest dope!"
Laura Sibley hesitated. She gulped her apprehension.
"Well?" Smoke demanded peremptorily.
"I’ll—I’ll take it," she quavered. "Hurry up!"
That night, exhausted as by no hard day of trail, Smoke and Shorty crawled into their blankets.
"I’m fairly sick with it," Smoke confessed. "The way they suffer is awful. But exercise is the only remedy I can think of, and it must be given a thorough trial. I wish we had a sack of raw potatoes."
"Sparkins he can’t wash no more dishes," Shorty said. "It hurts him so he sweats his pain. I seen him sweat it. I had to put him back in the bunk, he was that helpless."
"If only we had raw potatoes," Smoke went on. "The vital, essential something is missing from that prepared stuff. The life has been evaporated out of it."
"An’ if that young fellow Jones in the Brownlow cabin don’t croak before morning I miss my guess."
"For Heaven’s sake be cheerful," Smoke chided.
"We got to bury him, ain’t we?" came the indignant snort. "I tell you that boy’s something awful—"
"Shut up," Smoke said.
And after several more indignant snorts, the heavy breathing of sleep arose from Shorty’s bunk.
In the morning, not only was Jones dead, but one of the stronger men who had worked on the firewood squad was found to have hanged himself. A nightmare procession of days set in. For a week, steeling himself to the task, Smoke enforced the exercise and the spruce-tea. And one by one, and in twos and threes, he was compelled to knock off the workers. As he was learning, exercise was the last thing in the world for scurvy patients. The diminishing burial squad was kept steadily at work, and a surplus half-dozen graves were always burned down and waiting.
"You couldn’t have selected a worse place for a camp," Smoke told Laura Sibley. "Look at it—at the bottom of a narrow gorge, running east and west. The noon sun doesn’t rise above the top of the wall. You can’t have had sunlight for several months."
"But how was I to know?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don’t see why not, if you could lead a hundred fools to a gold-mine."
She glared malevolently at him and hobbled on. Several minutes afterward, coming back from a trip to where a squad of groaning patients was gathering spruce-boughs, Smoke saw the seeress entering Amos Wentworth’s cabin and followed after her. At the door he could hear her voice, whimpering and pleading.
"Just for me," she was begging, as Smoke entered. "I won’t tell a soul."
Both glanced guiltily at the intruder, and Smoke was certain that he was on the edge of something, he knew not what, and he cursed himself for not having eavesdropped.
"Out with it," he commanded harshly. "What is it?"
"What is what?" Amos Wentworth asked sullenly. And Smoke could not name what was what.
Grimmer and grimmer grew the situation. In that dark hole of a canyon, where sunlight never penetrated, the horrible death list mounted up. Each day, in apprehension, Smoke and Shorty examined each other’s mouths for the whitening of the gums and mucous membranes—the invariable first symptom of the disease.
"I’ve quit," Shorty announced one evening. "I’ve been thinkin’ it over, an’ I quit. I can make a go at slave-drivin’, but cripple-drivin’s too much for my stomach. They go from bad to worse. They ain’t twenty men I can drive to work. I told Jackson this afternoon he could take to his bunk. He was gettin’ ready to suicide. I could see it stickin’ out all over him. Exercise ain’t no good."
"I’ve made up my mind to the same thing," Smoke answered. "We’ll knock off all but about a dozen. They’ll have to lend a hand. We can relay them. And we’ll keep up the spruce-tea."
"It ain’t no good."
"I’m about ready to agree with that, too, but at any rate it doesn’t hurt them."
"Another suicide," was Shorty’s news the following morning. "That Phillips is the one. I seen it comin’ for days."
"We’re up against the real thing," Smoke groaned. "What would you suggest, Shorty?"
"Who? Me? I ain’t got no suggestions. The thing’s got to run its course."
"But that means they’ll all die," Smoke protested.
"Except Wentworth," Shorty snarled; for he had quickly come to share his partner’s dislike for that individual.
The everlasting miracle of Wentworth’s immunity perplexed Smoke. Why should he alone not have developed scurvy? Why did Laura Sibley hate him, and at the same time whine and snivel and beg from him? What was it she begged from him and that he would not give?
On several occasions Smoke made it a point to drop into Wentworth’s cabin at meal-time. But one thing did he note that was suspicious, and that was Wentworth’s suspicion of him. Next he tried sounding out Laura Sibley.
"Raw potatoes would cure everybody here," he remarked to the seeress. "I know it. I’ve seen it work before."
The flare of conviction in her eyes, followed by bitterness and hatred, told him the scent was warm.
"Why didn’t you bring in a supply of fresh potatoes on the steamer?" he asked.
"We did. But coming up the river we sold them all out at a bargain at Fort Yukon. We had plenty of the evaporated kinds, and we knew they’d keep better. They wouldn’t even freeze."
Smoke groaned. "And you sold them all?" he asked.
"Yes. How were we to know?"
"Now mightn’t there have been a couple of odd sacks left?—accidentally, you know, mislaid on the steamer?"
She shook her head, as he thought, a trifle belatedly, then added, "We never found any."
"But mightn’t there?" he persisted.
"How do I know?" she rasped angrily. "I didn’t have charge of the commissary."
"And Amos Wentworth did," he jumped to the conclusion. "Very good. Now what is your private opinion—just between us two. Do you think Wentworth has any raw potatoes stored away somewhere?"
"No; certainly not. Why should he?"
"Why shouldn’t he?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
Struggle as he would with her, Smoke could not bring her to admit the possibility.
"Wentworth’s a swine," was Shorty’s verdict, when Smoke told his suspicions.
"And so is Laura Sibley," Smoke added. "She believes he has the potatoes, and is keeping it quiet, and trying to get him to share with her."
"An’ he won’t come across, eh?" Shorty cursed frail human nature with one of his best flights, and caught his breath. "They both got their feet in the trough. May God rot them dead with scurvy for their reward, that’s all I got to say, except I’m goin’ right up now an’ knock Wentworth’s block off."
But Smoke stood out for diplomacy. That night, when the camp groaned and slept, or groaned and did not sleep, he went to Wentworth’s unlighted cabin.
"Listen to me, Wentworth," he said. "I’ve got a thousand dollars in dust right here in this sack. I’m a rich man in this country, and I can afford it. I think I’m getting touched. Put a raw potato in my hand and the dust is yours. Here, heft it."
And Smoke thrilled when Amos Wentworth put out his hand in the darkness and hefted the gold. Smoke heard him fumble in the blankets, and then felt pressed into his hand, not the heavy gold-sack, but the unmistakable potato, the size of a hen’s egg, warm from contact with the other’s body.
Smoke did not wait till morning. He and Shorty were expecting at any time the deaths of their worst two cases, and to this cabin the partners went. Grated and mashed up in a cup, skin, and clinging specks of the earth, and all, was the thousand-dollar potato—a thick fluid, that they fed, several drops at a time, into the frightful orifices that had once been mouths. Shift by shift, through the long night, Smoke and Shorty relieved each other at administering the potato juice, rubbing it into the poor swollen gums where loose teeth rattled together and compelling the swallowing of every drop of the precious elixir.
By evening of the next day the change for the better in the two patients was miraculous and almost unbelievable. They were no longer the worst cases. In forty-eight hours, with the exhaustion of the potato, they were temporarily out of danger, though far from being cured.
"I’ll tell you what I’ll do," Smoke said to Wentworth. "I’ve got holdings in this country, and my paper is good anywhere. I’ll give you five hundred dollars a potato up to fifty thousand dollars’ worth. That’s one hundred potatoes."
"Was that all the dust you had?" Wentworth queried.
"Shorty and I scraped up all we had. But, straight, he and I are worth several millions between us."
"I haven’t any potatoes," Wentworth said finally. "Wish I had. That potato I gave you was the only one. I’d been saving it all the winter for fear I’d get the scurvy. I only sold it so as to be able to buy a passage out of the country when the river opens."
Despite the cessation of potato-juice, the two treated cases continued to improve through the third day. The untreated cases went from bad to worse. On the fourth morning, three horrible corpses were buried. Shorty went through the ordeal, then turned to Smoke.
"You’ve tried your way. Now it’s me for mine."
He headed straight for Wentworth’s cabin. What occurred there, Shorty never told. He emerged with knuckles skinned and bruised, and not only did Wentworth’s face bear all the marks of a bad beating, but for a long time he carried his head, twisted and sidling, on a stiff neck. This phenomenon was accounted for by a row of four finger-marks, black and blue, on one side of the windpipe and by a single black-and-blue mark on the other side.
Next, Smoke and Shorty together invaded Wentworth’s cabin, throwing him out in the snow while they turned the interior upside down. Laura Sibley hobbled in and frantically joined them in the search.
"You don’t get none, old girl, not if we find a ton," Shorty assured her.
But she was no more disappointed than they. Though the very floor was dug up, they discovered nothing.
"I’m for roastin’ him over a slow fire an’ make ’m cough up," Shorty proposed earnestly.
Smoke shook his head reluctantly.
"It’s murder," Shorty held on. "He’s murderin’ all them poor geezers just as much as if he knocked their brains out with an ax, only worse."
Another day passed, during which they kept a steady watch on Wentworth’s movements. Several times, when he started out, water-bucket in hand, for the creek, they casually approached the cabin, and each time he hurried back without the water.
"They’re cached right there in his cabin," Shorty said. "As sure as God made little apples, they are. But where? We sure overhauled it plenty." He stood up and pulled on his mittens. "I’m goin’ to find ’em, if I have to pull the blame shack down a log at a time."
He glanced at Smoke, who, with an intent, absent face, had not heard him.
"What’s eatin’ you?" Shorty demanded wrathfully. "Don’t tell me you’ve gone an’ got the scurvy!"
"Just trying to remember something, Shorty."
"I don’t know. That’s the trouble. But it has a bearing, if only I could remember it."
"Now you look here, Smoke; don’t you go an’ get bug-house," Shorty pleaded. "Think of me! Let your think-slats rip. Come on an’ help me pull that shack down. I’d set her afire, if it wa’n’t for roastin’ them spuds."
"That’s it!" Smoke exploded, as he sprang to his feet. "Just what I was trying to remember. Where’s that kerosene-can? I’m with you, Shorty. The potatoes are ours."
"What’s the game?"
"Watch me, that’s all," Smoke baffled. "I always told you, Shorty, that a deficient acquaintance with literature was a handicap, even in the Klondike. Now what we’re going to do came out of a book. I read it when I was a kid, and it will work. Come on."
Several minutes later, under a pale-gleaming, greenish aurora borealis, the two men crept up to Amos Wentworth’s cabin. Carefully and noiselessly they poured kerosene over the logs, extra-drenching the door-frame and window-sash. Then the match was applied, and they watched the flaming oil gather headway. They drew back beyond the growing light and waited.
They saw Wentworth rush out, stare wildly at the conflagration, and plunge back into the cabin. Scarcely a minute elapsed when he emerged, this time slowly, half doubled over, his shoulders burdened by a sack heavy and unmistakable. Smoke and Shorty sprang at him like a pair of famished wolves. They hit him right and left, at the same instant. He crumpled down under the weight of the sack, which Smoke pressed over with his hands to make sure. Then he felt his knees clasped by Wentworth’s arms as the man turned a ghastly face upward.
"Give me a dozen, only a dozen—half a dozen—and you can have the rest," he squalled. He bared his teeth and, with mad rage, half inclined his head to bite Smoke’s leg, then he changed his mind and fell to pleading. "Just half a dozen," he wailed. "Just half a dozen. I was going to turn them over to you—to-morrow. Yes, to-morrow. That was my idea. They’re life! They’re life! Just half a dozen!"
"Where’s the other sack?" Smoke bluffed.
"I ate it up," was the reply, unimpeachably honest. "That sack’s all that’s left. Give me a few. You can have the rest."
"Ate ’em up!" Shorty screamed. "A whole sack! An’ them geezers dyin’ for want of ’em! This for you! An’ this! An’ this! An’ this! You swine! You hog!"
The first kick tore Wentworth away from his embrace of Smoke’s knees. The second kick turned him over in the snow. But Shorty went on kicking.
"Watch out for your toes," was Smoke’s only interference.
"Sure; I’m usin’ the heel," Shorty answered. "Watch me. I’ll cave his ribs in. I’ll kick his jaw off. Take that! An’ that! Wisht I could give you the boot instead of the moccasin. You swine!"
There was no sleep in camp that night. Hour after hour Smoke and Shorty went the rounds, doling the life-renewing potato-juice, a quarter of a spoonful at a dose, into the poor ruined mouths of the population. And through the following day, while one slept the other kept up the work.
There were no more deaths. The most awful cases began to mend with an immediacy that was startling. By the third day, men who had not been off their backs for weeks crawled out of their bunks and tottered around on crutches. And on that day, the sun, two months then on its journey into northern declination, peeped cheerfully over the crest of the canyon for the first time.
"Nary a potato," Shorty told the whining, begging Wentworth. "You ain’t even touched with scurvy. You got outside a whole sack, an’ you’re loaded against scurvy for twenty years. Knowin’ you, I’ve come to understand God. I always wondered why he let Satan live. Now I know. He let him live just as I let you live. But it’s a cryin’ shame, just the same."
"A word of advice," Smoke told Wentworth. "These men are getting well fast; Shorty and I are leaving in a week, and there will be nobody to protect you when these men go after you. There’s the trail. Dawson’s eighteen days’ travel."
"Pull your freight, Amos," Shorty supplemented, "or what I done to you won’t be a circumstance to what them convalescents’ll do to you."
"Gentlemen, I beg of you, listen to me," Wentworth whined. "I’m a stranger in this country. I don’t know its ways. I don’t know the trail. Let me travel with you. I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you’ll let me travel with you."
"Sure," Smoke grinned maliciously. "If Shorty agrees."
"WHO? ME?" Shorty stiffened for a supreme effort. "I ain’t nobody. Woodticks ain’t got nothin’ on me when it comes to humility. I’m a worm, a maggot, brother to the pollywog an’ child of the blow-fly. I ain’t afraid or ashamed of nothin’ that creeps or crawls or stinks. But travel with that mistake of creation! Go ’way, man. I ain’t proud, but you turn my stomach."
And Amos Wentworth went away, alone, dragging a sled loaded with provisions sufficient to last him to Dawson. A mile down the trail Shorty overhauled him.
"Come here to me," was Shorty’s greeting. "Come across. Fork over. Cough up."
"I don’t understand," Wentworth quavered, shivering from recollection of the two beatings, hand and foot, he had already received from Shorty.
"That thousand dollars, d’ ye understand that? That thousand dollars gold Smoke bought that measly potato with. Come through."
And Amos Wentworth passed the gold-sack over.
"Hope a skunk bites you an’ you get howlin’ hydrophoby," were the terms of Shorty’s farewell.