E-text prepared by Al Haines
REX E. BEACH
Author of "The Barrier," "The Spoilers"
PARDNERS THE MULE DRIVER, AND THE GARRULOUS MUTE THE COLONEL AND THE HORSE-THIEF THE THAW AT SLISCO'S BITTER ROOT BILLINGS, ARBITER THE SHYNESS OF SHORTY THE TEST NORTH OF FIFTY-THREE WHERE NORTHERN LIGHTS COME DOWN O' NIGHTS THE SCOURGE
"Most all the old quotations need fixing," said Joyce in tones forbidding dispute. "For instance, the guy that alluded to marriages germinating in heaven certainly got off on the wrong foot. He meant pardnerships. The same works ain't got capacity for both, no more'n you can build a split-second stop-watch in a stone quarry. No, sir! A true pardnership is the sanctifiedest relation that grows, is, and has its beans, while any two folks of opposite sect can marry and peg the game out some way. Of course, all pardnerships ain't divine. To every one that's heaven borned there's a thousand made in ——. There goes them cussed dogs again!"
He dove abruptly at the tent flap, disappearing like a palmed coin, while our canvas structure reeled drunkenly at his impact. The sounds of strife without rose shrilly into blended agony, and the yelps of Keno melted away down the gulch in a rapid and rabid diminuendo.
Inasmuch as I had just packed out from camp in a loose pair of rubber boots, and was nursing two gall blisters, I did not feel called upon to emulate this energy of arbitration, particularly in bare feet.
"That black malamoot is a walking delegate for strife," he remarked, returning. "Sometime I'll lose my temper—and that's the kind of pardners me and Justus Morrow was."
Never more do I interrupt the allegory of my mate, no matter how startling its structure. He adventures orally when and in the manner the spirit calls, without rote, form, or tone production. Therefore I kicked my blistered heels in the air and grunted aimless encouragement.
"I was prospectin' a claim on Caribou Creek, and had her punched as full of holes as a sponge cake, when the necessity of a change appealed to me. I was out of everything more nourishing than hope and one slab of pay-streaked bacon, when two tenderfeet 'mushed' up the gulch, and invited themselves into my cabin to watch me pan. It's the simplest thing known to science to salt a tenderfoot, so I didn't have no trouble in selling out for three thousand dollars.
"You see, they couldn't kick, 'cause some of us 'old timers' was bound to get their money anyhow—just a question of time; and their inexperience was cheap at the price. Also, they was real nice boys, and I hated to see 'em fall amongst them crooks at Dawson. It was a short-horned triumph, though. Like the Dead Sea biscuits of Scripture, it turned to ashes in my mouth. It wasn't three days later that they struck it; right in my last shaft, within a foot of where I quit diggin'. They rocked out fifty ounces first day. When the news filtered to me, of course, I never made no holler. I couldn't—that is, honestly—but I bought a six hundred dollar grub stake, loaded it aboard a dory, and—having instructed the trader regarding the disposition of my mortal, drunken remains, I fanned through that camp like a prairie fire shot in the sirloin with a hot wind.
"Of course, it wasn't such a big spree; nothing gaudy or Swedelike; but them that should know, claimed it was a model of refinement. Yes, I have got many encomiums on its general proportions and artistic finish. One hundred dollars an hour for twenty-four hours, all in red licker, confined to and in me and my choicest sympathizers. I reckon all our booze combined would have made a fair sluice-head. Anyhow, I woke up considerable farther down the dim vistas of time and about the same distance down the Yukon, in the bottom of my dory, seekin' new fields at six miles an hour. The trader had follered my last will and testament scrupulous, even to coverin' up my legs.
"That's how I drifted into Rampart City, and Justus Morrow.
"This here town was the same as any new camp; a mile long and eighteen inches wide, consisting of saloons, dance-halls, saloons, trading-posts, saloons, places to get licker, and saloons. Might not have been so many dancehalls and trading-posts as I've mentioned, and a few more saloons.
"I dropped into a joint called The Reception, and who'd I see playing 'bank' but 'Single Out' Wilmer, the worst gambler on the river. Mounted police had him on the woodpile in Dawson, then tied a can on him. At the same table was a nice, tender Philadelphia squab, 'bout fryin' size, and while I was watching, Wilmer pulls down a bet belonging to it. That's an old game.
"'Pardon me,' says the broiler; 'you have my checks.'
"'What?' growls 'Single Out;' 'I knowed this game before you quit nursin', Bright Eyes. I can protect my own bets.'
"'That's right,' chimes the dealer, who I seen was 'Curly' Budd, Wilmer's pardner.
"'Lord!' thinks I, 'there's a pair to draw to.'
"'Do you really think you had ought to play this? It's a man's game,' says Wilmer nasty.
"I expected to see the youngster dog it. Nothin' of the kind.
"'That's my bet!' he says again, and I noticed something dry in his voice, like the rustle of silk.
"Single Out just looks black and snarls at the dealer.
"'Turn the cards!'
"'Oh, very well,' says the chechako, talking like a little girl.
"Somebody snickered and, thinks I 'there's sprightly doin's hereabouts. I'll tarry a while and see 'em singe the fowl. I like the smell of burning pin feathers; it clears my head.'
"Over in the far corner was another animal in knee panties, riggin' up one of these flash-light, snappy-shot, photograft layouts. I found afterwards that he done it for a living; didn't work none, just strayed around as co-respondent for an English newspaper syndicate, taking pictures and writing story things. I didn't pay much attention to him hiding under his black cloth, 'cause the faro-table was full of bets, and it's hard to follow the play. Well, bye-and-bye Wilmer shifted another stack belonging to the Easterner.
"The lad never begged his pardon nor nothin'. His fist just shot out and landed on the nigh corner of Wilmer's jaw, clean and fair, and 'Single Out' done as pretty a headspin as I ever see—considering that it was executed in a cuspidore. 'Twas my first insight into the amenities of football. I'd like to see a whole game of it. They say it lasts an hour and a half. Of all the cordial, why-how-do-you-do mule kicks handed down in rhyme and story, that wallop was the adopted daddy.
"When he struck, I took the end of the bar like a steeplechaser, for I seen 'Curly' grab at the drawer, and I have aversions to witnessing gun plays from the front end. The tenderfoot riz up in his chair, and snatchin' a stack of reds in his off mit, dashed 'em into 'Curly's' face just as he pulled trigger. It spoiled his aim, and the boy was on to him like a mountain lion, follerin' over the table, along the line of least resistance.
"It was like takin' a candy sucker from a baby. 'Curly' let go of that 'six' like he was plumb tired of it, and the kid welted him over the ear just oncet. Then he turned on the room; and right there my heart went out to him. He took in the line up at a sweep of his lamps:
"'Any of you gentlemen got ideas on the subject?' he says, and his eyes danced like waves in the sunshine.
"It was all that finished and genteel that I speaks up without thinkin', 'You for me pardner!'
"Just as I said it, there come a swish and flash as if a kag of black powder had changed its state of bein'. I s'pose everybody yelled and dodged except the picture man. He says, 'Thank you, gents; very pretty tableau.'
"It was the first flash-light I ever see, and all I recall now is a panorama of starin' eyeballs and gaping mouths. When it seen it wasn't torpedoed, the population begin crawlin' out from under chairs and tables. Men hopped out like toads in a rain.
"I crossed the boy's trail later that evening; found him watchin' a dance at the Gold Belt. The photografter was there, too, and when he'd got his dog-house fixed, he says:
"'Everybody take pardners, and whoop her up. I want this picture for the Weekly. Get busy, you, there!" We all joined in to help things; the orchestra hit the rough spots, and we went highfalutin' down the centre, to show the English race how our joy pained us, and that life in the Klondyke had the Newport whirl, looking like society in a Siwash village. He got another good picture.
"Inside of a week, Morrow and I had joined up. We leased a claim and had our cabin done, waiting for snow to fall so's to sled our grub out to the creek. He took to me like I did to him, and he was an educated lad, too. Somehow, though, it hadn't gone to his head, leaving his hands useless, like knowledge usually does.
"One day, just before the last boat pulled down river, Mr. Struthers, the picture man, come to us—R. Alonzo Struthers, of London and 'Frisco, he was—and showin' us a picture, he says:
"'Ain't that great? Sunday supplements! Full page! Big display! eh?'
"It sure was. 'Bout 9x9, and showing every detail of the Reception saloon. There was 'Single Out' analyzing the cuspidore and 'Curly' dozin', as contorted and well-done as a pretzel. There was the crowd hiding in the corners, and behind the faro-table stood the kid, one hand among the scattered chips and cards, the other dominating the layout with 'Curley's' 'six.' It couldn't have looked more natural if we'd posed for it. It was a bully likeness, I thought, too, till I seen myself glaring over the bar. All that showed of William P. Joyce, bachelor of some arts and plenty of science, late of Dawson, was the white of his eyes. And talkin' of white—say, I looked like I had washing hung out. Seemed like the draught had riz my hair up, too.
"'Nothing like it ever seen,' continues Struthers. 'I'll call it 'The Winning Card,' or 'At Bay,' or something like that. Feature it as a typical Klondyke card game. I'll give you a two-page write-up. Why, it's the greatest thing I ever did!'
"'I'm sorry,' says Morrow, thoughtful, 'but you musn't run it.'
"'What! says he, and I thinks, 'Oh, Lord! There goes my only show to get perpetufied in ink.'
"'I can't let you use it. My wife might see it.'
"'Your wife!' says I. 'Are you married, pardner?'
"'Yes, I'm married,' and his voice sounded queer. 'I've got a boy—too, see.'
"He took a locket from his flannel shirt and opened it. A curly-headed, dimpled little youngster laughed out at me.
"'Well, I'm d——!' and then I took off my hat, for in the other side was a woman—and, gentlemen, she was a woman! When I seen her it made me feel blushy and ashamed. Gee! She was a stunner. I just stared at her till Struthers looked over my shoulder, and says, excited:
"'Why, it's Olive Troop, the singer!'
"'Not any more,' says Morrow, smiling.
"'Oh! So you're the fellow she gave up her art for? I knew her on the stage.'
"Something way deep down in the man grated on me, but the kid was lookin' at the picture and never noticed, while hunger peered from his face.
"'You can't blame me,' he says finally. 'She'd worry to death if she saw that picture. The likeness is too good. You might substitute another face on my shoulders; that can be done, can't it?'
"'Why, sure; dead easy, but I'll not run it at all if you feel that way,' says the artist.
"Then, Morrow resumes, 'You'll be in Denver this fall, Struthers, eh? Well, I want you to take a letter to her. She'll be glad to see an old friend like you, and to hear from me. Tell her I'm well and happy, and that I'll make a fortune, sure. Tell her, too, that there won't be any mail out of here till spring.'
"Now, I don't claim no second sight in the matter of female features: I ain't had no coachin'; not even as much as the ordinary, being raised on a bottle, but I've studied the ornery imprints of men's thoughts, over green tables and gun bar'ls, till I can about guess whether they've drawed four aces or an invite to a funeral. I got another flash from that man I didn't like, though his words were hearty. He left, soon after, on the last boat.
"Soon as ever the ground froze we began to sink. In those days steam thawers wasn't dreamed of, so we slid wood down from the hills, and burned the ground with fires. It's slow work, and we didn't catch bed-rock till December, but when we did we struck it right. Four feet of ten-cent dirt was what she averaged. Big? Well, I wonder! It near drove Morrow crazy.
"'Billy, old boy, this means I'll see her next summer!'
"Whenever he mentioned her name, he spoke like a man in church or out of breath. Somehow it made me feel like takin' off my cap—forty below at that, and my ears freeze terrible willing since that winter on the Porcupine.
"That evening, when I wasn't looking, he sneaked the locket out of his shirt and stared at it, famished. Then he kissed it, if you might rehabilitate such a scandalous, hold-fast-for-the-corner performance by that name.
"'I must let her know right away,' says he. 'How can I do it?'
"'We can hire a messenger, and send him to Dawson,' says I. 'Everybody in camp will pay five dollars a letter, and he can bring back the outside mail. They have monthly service from there to the coast. He'll make the trip in ninety days, so you'll get news from home by the first of March. Windy Jim will go. He'd leave a good job and a warm camp any time to hit the trail. Just hitch up the dogs, crack a whip, and yell 'Mush on!' and he'll get the snow-shoe itch, and water at the mouth for hardship.'
"Not being house-broke and tame myself, I ain't authority on the joys of getting mail from home, but, next to it, I judge, comes writing to your family. Anyhow, the boy shined up like new money, and there was from one to four million pages in his hurried note. I don't mean to say that he was grouchy at any time. No, sir! He was the nickel-plated sunbeam of the whole creek. Why, I've knowed him to do the cooking for two weeks at a stretch, and never kick—and wash the dishes, too,—which last, as anybody knows, is crucifyin'er than that smelter test of the three Jews in the Scripture. Underneath all of his sunshine, though, I saw hints of an awful, aching, devilish, starvation. It made me near hate the woman that caused it.
"He was a wise one, too. I've seen him stirring dog-feed with one hand and spouting 'Gray's Elegy' with the other. I picked up a heap of knowledge from him, for he had American history pat. One story I liked particular was concerning the origin of placer mining in this country, about a Greaser, Jason Somebody, who got the gold fever and grub-staked a mob he called the Augerknots—carpenters, I judge, from the mess they made of it. They chartered a schooner and prospected along Asy Miner, wherever that is. I never seen any boys from there, but the formation was wrong, like Texas, probably, 'cause they sort of drifted into the sheep business. Of course, that was a long ways back, before the '49 rush, but the way he told it was great.
"Well, two weeks after Windy left we worked out of that rich spot and drifted into barren ground. Instead of a fortune, we'd sunk onto the only yellow spot in the whole claim. We cross-cut in three places, and never raised a colour, but we kept gophering around till March, in hopes.
"'Why did I write that letter?' he asked one day. 'I'd give anything to stop it before it gets out. Think of her disappointment when she hears I'm broke!'
"'Nobody can't look into the ground,' says I. 'I don't mind losin' out myself, for I've done it for twenty years and I sort of like it now, but I'm sorry for the girl.'
"'It means another whole season,' he says. 'I wanted to see them this summer, or bring them in next fall.'
"'Sufferin' sluice-boxes! Are you plumb daffy? Bring a woman into the Yukon—and a little baby.'
"'She'd follow me anywhere. She's awful proud; proud as a Kentucky girl can be, and those people would make your uncle Lucifer look like a cringing cripple, but she'd live in an Indian hut with me.'
"'Sure! And follerin' out the simile, nobody but a Siwash would let her. If she don't like some other feller better while you're gone, what're you scared about?'
"He never answered; just looked at me pityfyin', as much as to say, 'Well, you poor, drivelin, old polyp!'
"One day Denny, the squaw-man, drove up the creek:
"'Windy Jim is back with the mail,' says he, and we hit for camp on the run. Only fifteen mile, she is, but I was all in when we got there, keepin' up with Justus. His eyes outshone the snow-glitter and he sang—all the time he wasn't roasting me for being so slow—claimed I was active as a toad-stool. A man ain't got no license to excite hisself unless he's struck pay dirt—or got a divorce.
"'Gi'me my mail, quick!' he says to Windy, who had tinkered up a one-night stand post-office and dealt out letters, at five dollars per let.'
"'Nothing doing,' says Windy.
"'Oh, yes there is,' he replies, still smiling; 'she writes me every week.'
"'I got all there was at Dawson,' Windy give back, 'and there ain't a thing for you!'
"I consider the tragedy of this north country lies in its mail service. Uncle Sam institutes rural deliveries, so the bolomen can register poisoned arrowheads to the Igorrotes in exchange for recipes to make roulade of naval officer, but his American miners in Alaska go shy on home news for eight months every year.
"That was the last mail we had till June.
"When the river broke we cleaned up one hundred and eighty-seven dollars' worth of lovely, yellow dust, and seven hundred and thirty-five dollars in beautiful yellow bills from the post.
"The first boat down from Dawson brought mail, and I stood beside him when he got his. He shook so he held on to the purser's window. Instead of a stack of squares overrun with female chiropody, there was only one for him—a long, hungry sport, with indications of a law firm in the northwest corner. It charmed him like a rattler. He seemed scared to open it. Two or three times he tried and stopped.
"'They're dead,' thinks I; and, sure enough, when he'd looked, I knew it was so, and felt for his hand. Sympathy don't travel by word of mouth between pardners. It's the grip of the hand or the look of the eye.
"'What cause?' says I.
"He turned, and s'help me, I never want to see the like again. His face was plumb grey and dead, like wet ashes, while his eyes scorched through, all dry and hot. Lines was sinkin' into it as I looked.
"'It's worse,' says he, 'unless it's a joke.' He handed me the dope: 'In re Olive Troop Morrow vs. Justus Morrow,' and a letter stating that out of regard for her feelings, and bein' a gentleman, he wasn't expected to cause a scandal, but to let her get the divorce by default. No explanation; no word from her; nothing.
"God knows what that boy suffered the next few weeks, but he fought it out alone. She was proud, but he was prouder. Her silence hurt him the worst, of course; but what could he do? Go to her? Fine! Both of us broke and in debt. Also, there's such a thing as diggin' deep enough to scrape the varnish off of a man's self-respect, leavin' it raw and shrinking. No! He done like you or me—let her have her way. He took off the locket and hid it, and I never heard her name mentioned for a year.
"I'd been up creek for a whip-saw one day, and as I came back I heard voices in the cabin. 'Some musher out from town,' thinks I, till something in their tones made me stop in my tracks.
"I could hear the boy's voice, hoarse and throbbing, as though he dragged words out bleeding, then I heard the other one laugh—a nasty, sneering laugh that ended in a choking rattle, like a noose had tightened on his throat.
"I jumped for the door, and rounding the corner, something near took me off my feet; something that shot through the air, all pretty and knickerbockery, with a two-faced cap, and nice brown leggin's. Also, a little camera was harnessed to it by tugs. It arose, displaying the face of R. Alonzo Struthers, black and swollen, with chips stickin' in it where he'd hit the woodpile. He glared at Morrow, and his lips foamed like a crab out of water.
"'I hope I'm not intrudin', I ventures.
"When the kid seen me, he says, soft and weak, like something ailed his palate:
"'Don't let me kill him, Billy.'"
"Struthers spit, and picked splinters forth from his complexion.
"'I told you for your own good. It's common gossip,' says he. 'Everybody is laughing at you, an—'
"Then I done a leap for life for the kid, 'cause the murder light blazed up white in his face, and he moved at the man like he had something serious in view.
"'Run, you idiot!' I yells to Struthers as I jammed the youngster back into the cabin. All of a sudden the gas went out of him and he broke, hanging to me like a baby.
"'It can't be,' he whispers. 'It can't be.' He throwed hisself on to a goods' box, and buried his face in his hands. It gripes me to hear a man cry, so I went to the creek for a pail of water.
"I never heard what Struthers said, but it don't take no Nick Carter to guess.
"That was the fall of the Fryin' Pan strike—do you mind it? Shakespeare George put us on, so me and the kid got in ahead of the stampede. We located one and two above discovery, and by Christmas we had a streak uncovered that was all gold. She was coarse, and we averaged six ounces a day in pick-ups. Man, that was ground! I've flashed my candle along the drift face, where it looked like gold had been shot in with a scatter-gun.
"We was cleaned up and had our 'pokes' at the post when the first boat from Dawson smoked 'round the bend.
"Now, in them days, a man's averdupoise was his abstract of title. There was nothing said about records and patentees as long as you worked your ground; but, likewise, when you didn't work it, somebody else usually did. We had a thousand feet of as good dirt as ever laid out in the rain; but there was men around drulin' to snipe it, and I knowed it was risky to leave. However, I saw what was gnawin' at the boy, and if ever a man needed a friend and criminal lawyer, that was the time. According to the zodiac, certain persons, to the complainant unknown, had a mess of trouble comin' up and I wanted to have the bail money handy.
"We jumped camp together. I made oration to the general gnat-bitten populace, from the gang-plank, to the effect that one William P. Joyce, trap, crap, and snap shooter was due to happen back casual most any time, and any lady or gent desirous of witnessing at first hand, a shutzenfest with live targets, could be gratified by infestin' in person or by proxy, the lands, tenements, and hereditaments of me and the kid.
"'Well, we hit the Seattle docks at a canter, him headed for the postal telegraph, me for a fruit-stand. I bought a dollar's worth of everything, from cracker-jack to cantaloupe, reserving the local option of eatin' it there in whole or in part, and returning for more. First fresh fruit in three years. I reckon my proudest hour come when I found, beyond peradventure, that I hadn't forgot the 'Georgy Grind.' What? 'Georgy Grind' consists of feeding rough-hewed slabs of watermelon into your sou' sou'east corner, and squirting a stream of seeds out from the other cardinal points, without stopping or strangling.
"I et and et, and then wallered up to the hotel, sweatin' a different kind of fruit juice from every pore. Not wishing to play any favourites, I'd picked up a basket of tomatoes, a gunny-sack of pineapples, and a peck of green plums on the way. Them plums done the business. I'd orter let bad enough alone. They was non-union, and I begin having trouble with my inside help. Morrow turned in a hurry-up call for the Red Cross, two medical colleges, and the Society of Psycolic Research. Between 'em they diagnosed me as containing everything from 'housemaid's knee' to homesickness of the vital organs, but I know. I swallered a plum pit, and it sprouted.
"Next day, when I come out of it, Justus had heard from Denver. His wife had been gone a year, destination unknown. Somebody thought she went to California, so, two days later, we registered at the Palace, and the 'Frisco police begin dreaming of five thousand dollar rewards.
"It was no use, though. One day I met Struthers on Market Street, and he was scared stiff to hear that Morrow was in town. It seems he was night editor of one of the big dailies.
"'Do you know where the girl is?' says I.
"'Yes, she's in New York,' he answers, looking queer, so I hurried back to the hotel.
"As I was explaining to Morrow, a woman passed us in the hall with a little boy. In the dimness, the lad mistook Justus.
"'Oh, papa, papa!" he yells, and grabs him by the knees, laughing and kicking.
"'Ah-h!' my pardner sighs, hoarse as a raven, and quicker'n light he snatched the little shaver to him, then seeing his mistake, dropped him rough. His face went grey again, and he got wabbly at the hinges, so I helped him into the parlour. He had that hungry, Yukon look, and breathed like he was wounded.
"'You come with me,' says I, 'and get your mind off of things. The eastern limited don't leave till midnight. Us to the theatre!'
"It was a swell tepee, all right. Variety house, with moving pictures, and actorbats, and two-ton soubrettes, with Barrios diamonds and hand-painted socks.
"First good show I'd seen in three years, and naturally humour broke out all over me. When joy spreads its wings in my vitals, I sound like a boy with a stick running past a picket-fence. Not so Morrow. He slopped over the sides of his seat, like he'd been spilled into the house.
"Right after the sea-lions, the orchestra spieled some teetery music, and out floats a woman, slim and graceful as an antelope. She had a big pay-dump of brown hair, piled up on her hurricane deck, with eyes that snapped and crinkled at the corners. She single-footed in like a derby colt, and the somnambulists in the front row begin to show cause. Something about her startled me, so I nudged the kid, but he was chin-deep in the plush, with his eyes closed. I marked how drawed and haggard he looked; and then, of a sudden he raised half on to his feet. The girl had begun to sing. Her voice was rich and low, and full of deep, still places, like a mountain stream. But Morrow! He sunk his fingers into me, and leaned for'rad, starin' as though Paradise had opened for him, while the sweat on his face shone like diamond chips.
"It was the girl of the locket, all right, on the stage again—in vaudeville.
"Her song bubbled along, rippling over sandy, sunlit gravel bars, and slidin' out through shadowy trout pools beneath the cool, alder thickets, and all the time my pardner sat burning his soul in his eyes, his breath achin' out through his throat. Incidental, his digits was knuckle-deep into the muscular tissue of William P., the gent to the right.
"When she quit, I had to jam him back.
"For an encore she sang a reg'lar American song, with music to it. When she reached the chorus she stopped. Then away up in the balcony sounded the tiny treble of a boy's soprano, sweet as the ring of silver. The audience turned, to a man, and we seen, perched among the newsboys, the littlest, golden-haired youngster, 'bout the size of your thumb, his eyes glued to the face of his mother on the stage below, pourin' out his lark song, serious and frightened. Twice he done it, while by main stren'th I held his father to the enjoyments of a two-dollar orchestra chair.
"'Let us in,' we says, three minutes later, to the stranger at the stage door, but he looked upon us with unwelcome, like the seven-headed hydrant of Holy Writ.
"'It's agin' the rules,' says he. 'You kin wait in the alley with the other Johnnies.'
"I ain't acclimated to the cold disfavour of a stage door, never having soubretted along the bird and bottle route. I was for the layin' on of hands. Moreover, I didn't like the company we was in, 'Johnnies,' by designations of the Irish terrier at the wicket. They smoked ready-made cigarettes, and some of 'em must have measured full eight inches acrost the chest.
"'Let us stroll gently but firmly into, over, and past the remains of this party, to the missus,' says I, but Morrow got seized with the shakes, of a sudden.
"'No, no. We'll wait here.'
"At last she come out, steppin' high. When she moved she rustled and rattled like she wore sandpaper at the ankles.
"Say, she was royal! She carried the youngster in her arms, sound asleep, and it wasn't till she stepped under the gaslight that she seen us.
"'Oh!' she cried, and went white as the lace of her cloak. Then she hugged the kiddie clost to her, standing straight and queenly, her eyes ablaze, her lips moist, and red, and scornful.
"God, she was grand—but him? He looked like a barnacle.
"'Olive!' says he, bull-froggy, and that's all. Just quit like a dog and ate her up by long-distance eyesight. Lord! Nobody would have knowed him for the same man that called the crookedest gamblers on the Yukon, and bolted newspaper men raw. He had ingrowing language. It oozed out through his pores till he dreened like a harvest hand. I'd have had her in my arms in two winks, so that all hell and a policeman couldn't have busted my holt till she'd said she loved me.
"She shrivelled him with a look, the likes of which ain't strayed over the Mason-Dixon line since Lee surrendered, and swept by us, invitin' an' horspitable as an iceberg in a cross sea. Her cab door slammed, and I yanked Morrow out of there, more dead than alive.
"'Let me go home,' says he wearily.
"'You bet!' I snorts. 'It's time you was tucked in. The dew is fallin' and some rude person might accost you. You big slob! There's a man's work to do to-night, and as I don't seem to have no competition in holding the title, I s'pose it's my lead.' I throwed him into a carriage. 'You'd best put on your nighty, and have the maid turn down your light. Sweet dreams, Gussie!' I was plumb sore on him. History don't record no divorce suits in the Stone Age, when a domestic inclined man allus toted a white-oak billy, studded with wire nails, according to the pictures, and didn't scruple to use it, both at home and abroad. Women was hairy, them days, and harder to make love, honour and obey; but principles is undyin'.
"I boarded another cab:
"'Drive me to number ——,' giving him the address I'd heard her use.
"'Who is it,' came her voice when I rang the bell.
"'Messenger boy,' I replies, perjuring my vocal cords.
"When she opened the door, I pushed through and closed it behind me.
"'What does this mean?' she cried. 'Help!'
"'Shut up! It means you're killing the best boy in the world, and I want to know why.'
"'Who are you?'
"'I'm Bill Joyce, your husband's pardner. Old Tarantula Bill, that don't fear no man, woman, or child that roams the forest. I'm here to find what ails you—'
"'Leave this house, sir!'
"'Well, not to any extent. You're a good girl; I knowed it when I first seen your picture. Now, I want you to tell me—'
"'Insolent! Shall I call the police?' Her voice was icy, and she stood as solid as stone.
"'Madam, I'm as gentle as a jellyfish, and peaceful to a fault, but if you raise a row before I finish my talk I'll claim no responsibility over what occurs to the first eight or ten people that intrudes,' and I drawed my skinnin' knife, layin' it on the planner. 'Philanthropy is raging through my innards, and two loving hearts need joining!'
"'I don't love him,' she quotes, like a phonograft, ignoring my cutlery.
"'I'll take exception to that ruling,' and I picks up a picture of Justus she'd dropped as I broke in. She never batted an eye.
"'I nursed that lad through brain fever, when all he could utter was your name.'
"'Has he been sick?' The first sign of spring lit up her peaks.
"'Most dead. Notice of the divorce done it. He's in bad shape yet.' Morrow never had a sick day in his life, but I stomped both feet on the soft pedal, and pulled out the tremulo stop.
"'Oh! Oh!' Her voice was soft, though she still stood like a birch.
"'Little girl,' I laid a hand on her shoulder. 'We both love that boy. Come, now, what is the matter?'
"She flashed up like powder.
"'Matter? I thought he was a gentleman, even though he didn't love me; that he had a shred of honour, at least. But no! He went to Alaska and made a fortune. Then he squandered it, drinking, fighting, gambling, and frittering it away on women. Bah! Lewd creatures of the dance-halls, too.'
"'Hold up! Your dope sheet is way to the bad. There's something wrong with your libretto. Who told you all that?'
"'Never mind. I have proof. Look at these, and you dare to ask me why I left him?'
"She dragged out some pictures and throwed 'em at me.
"'Ah! Why didn't I let the kid kill him?' says I, through my teeth.
"The first was the gambling-room of the Reception. There stood Morrow with the men under foot; there was the bottles and glasses; the chips and cards, and also the distressful spectacle of Tarantula Bill Joyce, a number twelve man, all gleaming teeth, and rolling eyeballs, inserting hisself into a number nine opening, and doing surprising well at it.
"'Look at them. Look at them well,' she gibed.
"The second was the Gold-Belt dance-hall, with the kid cavorting through a drunken orgy of painted ladies, like a bull in a pansy patch. But the other—it took my breath away till I felt I was on smooth ice, with cracks showing. It was the inside of a cabin, after a big 'pot-latch,' displaying a table littered up with fizz bottles and dishes galore. Diamond Tooth Lou stood on a chair, waving kisses and spilling booze from a mug. In the centre stood Morrow with another girl, nestling agin his boosum most horrible lovin'. Gee! It was a home splitter and it left me sparring for wind. The whole thing exhaled an air of debauchery that would make a wooden Indian blush. No one thing in particular; just the general local colour of a thousand-dollar bender.
"'Charming, isn't it?' she sneered.
"'I don't savvy the burro. There's something phony about it. I can explain the other two, but this one—.' Then it come to me in a flash. The man's face was perfect, but he wore knickerbockers! Now, to my personal knowledge, the only being that ever invaded Rampart City in them things was R. Alonzo Struthers.
"'There's secrets of the dark-room that I ain't wise to,' says I, 'but I feel that this is going to be a bad night for the newspaper enterprise of 'Frisco if it don't explain. I'll fetch the man that busted your Larrys and Peanuts.'
"'Our what?' says she.
"'Larrys and Peanuts—that's Roman. The kid told me all about 'em. They're sort of little cheap gods!'
"'Will you ever go?' she snapped. 'I don't need your help. Tell him I hate him!' She stamped her foot, and the iron come into her again till the pride of all Kentucky blazed in her eyes.
"She couldn't understand my explanations no more than I could, so I ducked. As I backed out the door, though, I seen her crumple up and settle all of a heap on the floor. She certainly did hate that man scandalous.
"I'm glad some editors work nights. Struthers wasn't overjoyed at my call, particular, as I strayed in with two janitors dangling from me. They said he was busy and couldn't be interrupted, and they seemed to insist on it.'
"'It's a bully night,' says I, by way of epigram, unhooking the pair of bouncers. "'You wouldn't like me to take you ridin' perhaps?'
"'Are you drunk, or crazy?' says he. 'What do you mean by breaking into my office? I can't talk to you; we're just going to press.'
"'I'd like to stay and watch it,' says I, 'but I've got a news item for you.' At the same time I draws my skinner and lays it on the back of his neck, tempting. Steel, in the lamp-light, is discouraging to some temperaments. One of the body-guards was took with urgent business, and left a streamer of funny noises behind him, while the other gave autumn-leaf imitations in the corner. Struthers looked like a dose of seasickness on a sour stomach.
"Get your hat. Quick!' I jobbed him, gentle and encouraging.
"Age allus commands respect. Therefore the sight of a six-foot, grizzled Klondiker in a wide hat, benevolently prodding the night editor in the short ribs and apple sauce, with eight bright and chilly inches, engendered a certain respect in the reportorial staff.
"'You're going to tell Mrs. Morrow all about the pretty pictures,' I says, like a father.
"'Let me go, damn you!' he frothed, but I wedged him into a corner of the cab and took off his collar—in strips. It interfered with his breathing, as I couldn't get a holt low enough to regulate his respiration. He kicked out two cab windows, but I bumped his head agin the woodwork, by way of repartee. It was a real pleasure, not to say recreation, experimenting with the noises he made. Seldom I get a neck I give a cuss to squeeze. His was number fifteen at first, by the feel; but I reduced it a quarter size at a time.
"When we got there I helped him out, one hand under his chin, the other back of his ears. I done it as much from regard of the neighbours as animosities to him, for it was the still, medium small hours. I tiptoed in with my treatise on the infamies of photography gurgling under my hand, but at the door I stopped. It was ajar; and there, under the light, I spied Morrow. In his arms I got glimpses of black lace and wavy, brown hair, and a white cheek that he was accomplishing wonders with. They wouldn't have heard a man-hole explosion.
"'He's still fitting to be my pardner,' I thinks, and then I heard Struthers's teeth chatter and grind. I looked at him, and the secret of the whole play came to me.
"Never having known the divine passion, it ain't for me to judge, but I tightened on his voice-box and whispered:
"'You've outlived your period of usefulness, Struthers, and it's time to go. Let us part friends, however.' So I bade him Godspeed from the top step.
"Looking back on the evening now, that adieu was my only mistake. I limped for a week—he had a bottle in his hip pocket."
THE MULE DRIVER AND THE GARRULOUS MUTE
Bill had finished panning the concentrates from our last clean-up, and now the silver ball of amalgam sizzled and fried on the shovel over the little chip-fire, while we smoked in the sun before the cabin. Removed from the salivating fumes of the quicksilver, we watched the yellow tint grow and brighten in the heat.
"There's two diseases which the doctors ain't got any license to monkey with," began Bill, chewing out blue smoke from his lungs with each word, "and they're both fevers. After they butt into your system they stick crossways, like a swallered toothpick; there ain't any patent medicine that can bust their holt."
I settled against the door-jamb and nodded.
"I've had them both, acute and continuous, since I was old enough to know my own mind and the taste of tobacco; I hold them mainly responsible for my present condition." He mournfully viewed his fever-ridden frame which sprawled a pitiful six-feet-two from the heels of his gum-boots to the grizzled hair beneath his white Stetson.
"The first and most rabid," he continued, "is horse-racing—and t'other is the mining fever, which last is a heap insidiouser in its action and more lingering in its effect.
"It wasn't long after that deal in the Territory that I felt the symptoms coming on agin, and this time they pinted most emphatic toward prospecting, so me and 'Kink' Martin loaded our kit onto the burros and hit West.
"Kink was a terrible good prospector, though all-fired unlucky and peculiar. Most people called him crazy, 'cause he had fits of goin' for days without a peep.
"Hosstyle and ornery to the whole world; sort of bulging out and exploding with silence, as it were.
"We'd been out in the hills for a week on our first trip before he got one of them death-watch faces on him, and boycotted the English langwidge. I stood for it three days, trying to jolly a grin on to him or rattle a word loose, but he just wouldn't jolt.
"One night we packed into camp tired, hungry, and dying for a good feed.
"I hustled around and produced a supper fit for old Mr. Eppycure. Knowing that Kink had a weakness for strong coffee that was simply a hinge in him, I pounded up about a quart of coffee beans in the corner of a blanket and boiled out a South American liquid that was nothing but the real Arbuckle mud.
"This wasn't no chafing-dish party either, because the wood was wet and the smoke chased me round the fire. Then it blazed up in spurts and fired the bacon-grease, so that when I grabbed the skillet the handle sizzled the life all out of my callouses. I kicked the fire down to a nice bed of coals and then the coffee-pot upset and put it out. Ashes got into the bacon, and—Oh! you know how joyful it is to cook on a green fire when you're dead tired and your hoodoo's on vicious.
"When the 'scoffings' were finally ready, I wasn't in what you might exactly call a mollyfying and tactful mood nor exuding genialness and enthusiasms anyways noticeable."
"I herded the best in camp towards him, watching for a benevolent symptom, but he just dogged it in silence and never changed a hair. That was the limit, so I inquired sort of ominous and gentle, 'Is that coffee strong enough for ye, Mr. Martin?'
"He give a little impecunious grunt, implying, 'Oh! it'll do,' and with that I seen little green specks begin to buck and wing in front of my eyes; reaching back of me, I grabbed the Winchester and throwed it down on him.
"'Now, you laugh, darn you,' I says, 'in a hurry. Just turn it out gleeful and infractious.'
"He stared into the nozzle of that Krupp for a minute, then swallered twice to tune up his reeds, and says, friendly and perlite, but serious and wheezy:
"'Why, what in hell ails you, William?'
"'Laugh, you old dong-beater,' I yells, rising gradually to the occasion, 'or I'll bust your cupola like a blue-rock.'
"'I've got to have merriment,' I says. 'I pine for warmth and genial smiles, and you're due to furnish the sunshine. You emit a few shreds of mirth with expedition or the upper end of your spinal-cord is going to catch cold.'
"Say! his jaws squeaked like a screen door when he loosened, but he belched up a beauty, sort of stagy and artificial it was, but a great help. After that we got to know each other a heap better. Yes, sir; soon after that we got real intimate. He knocked the gun out of my hands, and we began to arbitrate. We plumb ruined that spot for a camping place; rooted it up in furrows, and tramped each other's stummicks out of shape. We finally reached an amicable settlement by me getting him agin a log where I could brand him with the coffee-pot.
"Right there we drawed up a protoplasm, by the terms of which he was to laugh anyways twice at meal-times.
"He told me that he reckoned he was locoed, and always had been since a youngster, when the Injuns run in on them down at Frisbee, the time of the big 'killing.' Kink saw his mother and father both murdered, and other things, too, which was impressive, but not agreeable for a growing child. He had formed a sort of antipathy for Injuns at that time, which he confessed he hadn't rightly been able to overcome.
"Now, he allus found himself planning how to hand Mr. Lo the double cross and avoid complications.
"We worked down into South Western Arizony to a spot about thirty-five miles back of Fort Walker and struck a prospect. Sort of a teaser it was, but worth working on. We'd just got nicely started when Kink comes into camp one day after taking a passiar around the butte for game, and says:
"'The queerest thing happened to me just now, Kid.'
"'Well, scream it at me,' I says, sort of smelling trouble in the air.
"'Oh! It wasn't much,' says he. 'I was just working down the big canyon over there after a deer when I seen two feather-dusters coming up the trail. I hid behind a rock, watching 'em go past, and I'm durned if my gun didn't go off accidental and plumb ruin one of 'em. Then I looks carefuller and seen it wasn't no feather-duster at all—nothing but an Injun.'
"'What about the other one?'
"'That's the strangest part,' says Kink. 'Pretty soon the other one turns and hits the back-trail like he'd forgot something; then I seen him drop off his horse, too, sudden and all togetherish. I'm awful careless with this here gun,' he says. I hate to see a man laugh from his tonsils forrard, the way he did. It ain't humorous.
"'See here,' I says, 'I ain't the kind that finds fault with my pardner, nor saying this to be captious and critical of your play; but don't you know them Cochises ain't on the warpath? Them Injuns has been on their reservation for five years, peaceable, domesticated, and eating from the hand. This means trouble."
"'My old man didn't have no war paint on him one day back at Frisbee,' whispers Kink, and his voice sounded puckered up and dried, 'and my mother wasn't so darned quarrelsome, either.'
"Then I says, 'Well! them bodies has got to be hid, or we'll have the tribe and the bluebellies from the fort a scouring these hills till a red-bug couldn't hide.'
"'To hell with 'em,' says Kink. 'I've done all I'm going to for 'em. Let the coyotes finish the job.'
"'No, siree,' I replies. 'I don't blame you for having a prejudice agin savages, but my parents is still robust and husky, and I have an idea that they'd rather see me back on the ranch than glaring through the bars for life. I'm going over to bury the meat.'
"Off I went, but when I slid down the gulch, I only found one body. T'other had disappeared. You can guess how much time I lost getting back to camp.
"'Kink,' I says, 'we're a straddle of the raggedest proposition in this country. One of your dusters at this moment is jamming his cayuse through the horizon between here and the post. Pretty soon things is going to bust loose. 'Bout to-morrer evening we'll be eating hog-bosom on Uncle Sam.'
"'Well! Well!' says Kink, 'ain't that a pity. Next time I'll conquer my natural shyness and hold a post-mortem with a rock.'
"'There won't be no next time, I reckon,' I says, ''cause we can't make it over into Mexico without being caught up. They'll nail us sure, seeing as we're the only white men for twenty-five miles around.'
"'I'd rather put up a good run than a bad stand, anyhow,' says he, 'and I allows, furthermore, there's going to be some hard trails to foller and a tolable disagreeable fight before I pleads 'not guilty' to the Colonel. We'll both duck over into the Santa—'
"'Now, don't tell me what route you're going,' I interrupts,' 'cause I believe I'll stay and bluff it through, rather than sneak for it, though neither proposition don't appeal to me. I may get raised out before the draw, but the percentage is just as strong agin your game as mine.'
"'Boy, if I was backing your system,' says Kink, 'I'd shore copper this move and play her to lose. You come on with me, and we'll make it through—mebbe.'
"'No,' I says; 'here I sticks.'
"I made up a pack-strap out of my extry overhalls while he got grub together, to start south through one hundred miles of the ruggedest and barrenest country that was ever left unfinished.
"Next noon I was parching some coffee-beans in the frying-pan, when I heard hoofs down the gully back of me. I never looked up when they come into the open nor when I heard a feller say 'Halt!'
"'Hello there!' somebody yells. 'You there at the fire.' I kept on shaking the skillet over the camp-fire.
"'What's the matter with him?' somebody said. A man got off and walked up behind me.
"'See here, brother,' he says, tapping me on the shoulder; 'this don't go.'
"I jumped clean over the fire, dropped the pan, and let out a deaf and dumb holler, 'Ee! Ah!'
"The men began to laugh; it seemed to rile the little leftenant.
"'Cut this out,' says he. 'You can talk as well as I can, and you're a going to tell us about this Injun killin'. Don't try any fake business, or I'll roast your little heels over that fire like yams.'
"I just acted the dummy, wiggled my fingers, and handed him the joyful gaze, heliographing with my teeth as though I was glad to see visitors. However, I wondered if that runt would really give my chilblains a treat. He looked like a West Pointer, and I didn't know but he'd try to haze me.
"Well! they 'klow-towed' around there for an hour looking for clues, but I'd hid all the signs of Kink, so finally they strapped me onto a horse and we hit back for the fort.
"The little man tried all kinds of tricks to make me loosen on the way down, but I just acted wounded innocence and 'Ee'd' and 'Ah'd' at him till he let me alone.
"When we rode up to the post he says to the Colonel:
"'We've got the only man there is in the mountains back there, sir, but he's playing dumb. I don't know what his game is.'
"'Dumb, eh?' says the old man, looking me over pretty keen. 'Well! I guess we'll find his voice if he's got one.'
"He took me inside, and speaking of examinations, probably I didn't get one. He kept looking at me like he wanted to place me, but I give him the 'Ee! Ah!' till everybody began to laugh. They tried me with a pencil and paper, but I balked, laid my ears back, and buck-jumped. That made the old man sore, and he says: 'Lock him up! Lock him up; I'll make him talk if I have to skin him.' So I was dragged to the 'skookum-house,' where I spent the night figuring out my finish.
"I could feel it coming just as plain, and I begun to see that when I did open up and prattle after Kink was safe, nobody wouldn't believe my little story. I had sized the Colonel up as a dead stringy old proposition, too. He was one of these big-chopped fellers with a mouth set more'n half way up from his chin and little thin lips like the edge of a knife blade, and just as full of blood—face, big and rustic-finished.
"I says to myself, 'Bud, it looks like you wouldn't be forced to prospect for a living any more this season. If that old sport turns himself loose you're going to get 'life' three times and a holdover.'
"Next morning they tried every way to make me talk. Once in a while the old man looked at me puzzled and searching, but I didn't know him from a sweat-pad, and just paid strict attention to being dumb.
"It was mighty hard, too. I got so nervous my mouth simply ached to let out a cayoodle. The words kept trying to crawl through my sesophagus, and when I backed 'em up, they slid down and stood around in groups, hanging onto the straps, gradually filling me with witful gems of thought.
"The Colonel talked to me serious and quiet, like I had good ears, and says, 'My man, you can understand every word I say, I'm sure, and what your object is in maintaining this ridiculous silence, I don't know. You're accused of a crime, and it looks serious for you."
"Then he gazes at me queer and intent, and says, 'If you only knew how bad you are making your case you'd make a clean breast of it. Come now, let's get at the truth.'
"Them thought jewels and wads of repartee was piling up in me fast, like tailings from a ground-sluice, till I could feel myself getting bloated and pussy with langwidge, but I thought, 'No! to-morrow Kink 'll be safe, and then I'll throw a jolt into this man's camp that'll go down in history. They'll think some Chinaman's been thawing out a box of giant powder when I let out my roar.'
"I goes to the guard-house again, with a soldier at my back. Everything would have been all right if we hadn't run into a mule team.
"They had been freighting from the railroad, and as we left the barracks we ran afoul of four outfits, three span to the wagon, with the loads piled on till the teams was all lather and the wheels complainin' to the gods, trying to pass the corner of the barracks where there was a narrow opening between the buildings.
"Now a good mule-driver is the littlest, orneriest speck in the human line that's known to the microscope, but when you get a poor one, he'd spoil one of them cholera germs you read about just by contact. The leader of this bunch was worse than the worst; strong on whip-arm, but surprising weak on judgment. He tried to make the turn, run plump into the corner of the building, stopped, backed, swung, and proceeded to get into grief.
"The mules being hot and nervous, he sent them all to the loco patch instanter. They began to plunge and turn and back and snarl. Before you could say 'Craps! you lose,' them shave-tails was giving the grandest exhibition of animal idiocy in the Territory, barring the teamster. He follered their trail to the madhouse, yanking the mouths out of them, cruel and vicious.
"Now, one mule can cause a heap of tribulation, and six mules can break a man's heart, but there wasn't no excuse for that driver to stand up on his hind legs, close his eyes, and throw thirty foot of lash into that plunging buckin', white-eyed mess. When he did it, all the little words inside of me began to foam and fizzle like sedlitz; out they came, biting, in mouthfuls, and streams, and squirts, backwards, sideways, and through my nose.
"'Here! you infernal half-spiled, dog-robbing walloper,' I says; 'you don't know enough to drive puddle ducks to a pond. You quit heaving that quirt or I'll harm you past healing.'
"He turned his head and grit out something through his teeth that stimulated my circulation. I skipped over the wheels and put my left onto his neck, fingering the keys on his blow-pipe like a flute. Then I give him a toss and gathered up the lines. Say! it was like the smell of grease-paint to an actor man for me to feel the ribbons again, and them mules knew they had a chairman who savvied 'em too, and had mule talk pat, from soda to hock.
"I just intimated things over them with that whip, and talked to them like they was my own flesh and blood. I starts at the worst words the English langwidge and the range had produced, to date, and got steadily and rapidly worse as long as I talked.
"Arizony may be slow in the matter of standing collars and rag-time, but she leads the world in profanity. Without being swelled on myself, I'll say, too, that I once had more'n a local reputation in that line, having originated some quaint and feeling conceits which has won modest attention, and this day I was certainly trained to the minute.
"I addressed them brutes fast and earnest for five minutes steady, and never crossed my trail or repeated a thought.
"It must have been sacred and beautiful. Anyhow, it was strong enough to soak into their pores so that they strung out straight as a chalk-line. Then I lifted them into the collars, and we rumbled past the building, swung in front of the commissary door, cramped and stopped. With the wheelers on their haunches, I backed up to the door square as a die.
"I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and looked up into the grinning face of about fifty swatties, realizing I was a mute—and a prisoner.
"I heard a voice say, 'Bring me that man.' There stood the Colonel oozing out wrath at every pore.
"I parted from that wagon hesitating and reluctant, but two soldiers to each leg will bust any man's grip, I lost some clothes, too, after we hit the ground, but I needed the exercise.
"The old man was alone in his office when they dragged me in, and he sent my guards out.
"'So you found your voice, did you?' he says.
"'Yes, sir," I answers. 'It came back unexpected, regular miracle.'
"'He drummed on the table for a long time, and then says, sort of immaterial and irreverent, 'You're a pretty good mule puncher, eh?'
"'It ain't for me to say I'm the best in the Territory,' I says; 'but I'm curious to meet the feller that claims the title.'
"He continues, 'It reminds me of an exhibition I saw once, back in New Mexico, long time ago, at the little Flatwater Canyon.'
"'Maybe you've heard tell of the fight there when the Apaches were up? Yes? Well, I happened to be in that scrimmage.'
"'I was detailed with ten men to convoy a wagon train through to Fort Lewis. We had no trouble till we came to the end of that canyon, just where she breaks out onto the flats. There we got it. They were hidden up on the ridges; we lost two men and one wagon before we could get out onto the prairie.
"'I got touched up in the neck, first clatter, and was bleeding pretty badly; still I hung to my horse, and we stood 'em off till the teams made it out of the gulch; but just as we came out my horse fell and threw me—broke his leg. I yelled to the boys:
"'"Go on! For God's sake go on!" Any delay there meant loss of the whole outfit. Besides, the boys had more than they could manage, Injuns on three sides.
"'We had a young Texan driving the last wagon. When I went down he swung those six mules of his and came back up that trail into the gut, where the bullets snapped like grasshoppers.
"'It was the prettiest bit of driving I ever saw, not to mention nerve. He whirled the outfit between me and the bluff on two wheels, yelling, "Climb on! Climb on! We ain't going to stay long!" I was just able to make it onto the seat. In the turn they dropped one of his wheelers. He ran out on the tongue and cut the brute loose. We went rattling down the gulch behind five mules. All the time there came out of that man's lungs the fiercest stream of profanity my ears ever burned under. I was pretty sick for a few weeks, so I never got a chance to thank that teamster. He certainly knew the mind of an army mule, though. His name was—let me see—Wiggins—yes, Wiggins.
"'Oh, no it wasn't,' I breaks in, foolish; 'it was Joyce.'
"Then I stopped and felt like a kid, for the Colonel comes up and shuts the circulation out of both my hands.
"'I wasn't sure of you, Bill,' he says, 'till I saw you preside over those mules out there and heard your speech—then I recognized the gift.' He laughed like a boy, still making free with my hands. 'I'm darn glad to see you, Bill Joyce. Now then,' he says, 'tell me all about this killing up in the hills,' and I done so.
"After I finished he never said anything for a long time, just drummed the desk again and looked thoughtful.
"'It's too bad you didn't speak out, Bill, when you first came in. Now, you've showed everybody that you can talk—just a little, anyhow,' and he smiles, 'and they all think you're the man caused the trouble. I don't see but that you've got to stand trial. I wish I could help you, Bill.'
"'But see here, Colonel,' I says; 'I couldn't squeal on Kink. We're pardners. I just had to give him a chance to cut. I played dumb 'cause I knew if I talked at all, being simple and guileless, you all would twist me up and have the whole thing in a jiffy. That man give me the last drop of water in his canteen on the Mojave, and him with his own tongue swelled clean out of his mouth, too. When we was snowed in, up in the Bitter Roots, with me snow-blind and starving, he crawled from Sheeps-Horn clean to Miller's—snow twelve foot deep, too, and nary a snow-shoe in miles, but he brought the outfit in to where I was lyin' 'bout gone in. He lost some fingers and more toes wallering through them mountain drifts that day, but he never laid down till he brought the boys back.
"'Colonel! we've slept on the same blanket, we've et the same grub, we've made and lost together, and I had to give him a show, that's all. I'm into this here trouble now. Tell me how I'm going to get out. What would you do?'
"He turns to the open window and says: 'Partners are partners! That's my horse out there at that post. If I were you I'd run like hell.'
"That was the willingest horse I ever rode, and I hated to sell him, but he was tolable used up when I got across the line."
THE COLONEL AND THE HORSE-THIEF
Those marks on my arm? Oh! I got 'em playin' horse-thief. Yes, playin'. I wasn't a real one, you know—Well, I s'pose it was sort of a queer game. Came near bein' my last too, and if Black Hawk hadn't been the best horse in Texas the old Colonel would've killed me sure. He chased me six miles as it was—me with one arm full of his buckshot and anxious to explain, and him strainin' to get in range again and not wishin' any further particulars.
That was way back in the sixties, when I was as wild a lad as ever straddled a pony.
You see five of us had gone over into the Crow Nation to race horses with the Indians, and it was on the way back that the old man and the bullet holes figger in the story.
At the beginnin' it was Jim Barrett's plan, and it had jest enough risk and devilment in it to suit a harum-scarum young feller like me; so we got five of the boys who had good horses, lumped together all of our money, and rode out to invade the reservation.
You know how an Indian loves to run horses? Well, the Crows had a good deal of money then, and our scheme was to go over there, get up a big race, back our horses with all we had, and take down the wealth.
Takin' chances? Don't you believe it. That's where the beauty of Jim's plan commenced to sort of shine through.
You see, as soon as the money was up and the horses started, every Indian would be watchin' the race and yellin' at the nags, then, in the confusion, our boys was to grab the whole pot, Indian's money and ours too, and we'd make our get away across the river back into Texas.
We figured that we could get a few minutes start of 'em, and, with the horses we had under us, there wasn't much danger of their gettin' in range before we crossed back to where they couldn't follow us.
Well, sir! I never see anything work out like that scheme did. Them Crows was dead anxious to run their ponies and seemed skeered that we wouldn't let 'em get all their money up.
As we was eatin' supper the night before the race, Donnelly says: "Boys, I'm sore that we didn't have more coin. If we'd worked 'em right they'd 'a' give us odds. We could 'a' got five to three anyhow, and maybe more."
"They shore have got a heap of confidence in them skates of their'n," says Kink Martin. "I never see anybody so anxious to play a race in my life. If it wasn't all planned out the way it is, I'd like to stick and see which hoss is the best. I'd back Black Hawk agin any hunk of meat in the Territory, with the Kid here in the saddle."
They'd ribbed it up for me to ride Martin's mare, Black Hawk, while a little feller named Hollis rode his own horse.
Donnelly's part was to stay in the saddle and keep the other horses close to Barrett and Martin. They was to stick next to the money, and one of 'em do the bearin' off of the booty while the other made the protection play.
We hoped in the excitement to get off without harmin' any of Uncle Sam's pets, but all three of the boys had been with the Rangers and I knew if it came to a show down, they wouldn't hesitate to "pot" one or two in gittin' away.
We rode out from camp the next mornin' to where we'd staked out a mile track on the prairie and it seemed as if the whole Crow Nation was there, and nary a white but us five.
They'd entered two pretty good-lookin' horses and had their jockeys stripped down to breech-clouts, while Hollis and me wore our whole outfits on our backs, as we didn't exactly figger on dressin' after the race, leastways, not on that side of the river.
Just before we lined up, Jim says: "Now you —— all ride like ——, and when you git to the far turn we'll let the guns loose and stampede the crowd. Then jest leave the track and make a break fer the river, everybody fer himself. We'll all meet at them cottonwoods on the other side, so we can stand 'em off if they try to swim across after us."
That would have been a sure enough hot race if we had run it out, for we all four got as pretty a start as I ever see and went down the line all together with a-bangin' of hoofs and Indian yells ringin' in our ears.
I had begun to work Black Hawk out of the bunch to get a clear start across the prairie at the turn, when I heard the guns begin snappin' like pop-corn.
"They've started already," yelled Hollis, and we turned the rearin' horses toward the river, three miles away, leavin' them two savages tearin' down the track like mad.
I glanced back as I turned, but, instead of seein' the boys in the midst of a decent retreat, the crowd was swarmin' after 'em like a nest of angry hornets, while Donnelly, with his reins between his teeth, was blazin' away at three reds who were right at Barrett's heels as he ran for his horse. Martin was lashin' his jumpin' cayuse away from the mob which sputtered and spit angry shots after him. Bucks were runnin' here and there and hastily mountin' their ponies—while an angry roar came to me, punctuated by the poppin' of the guns.
Hollis and I reached the river and swam it half a mile ahead of the others and their yellin' bunch of trailers, so we were able to protect 'em in their crossin'.
I could see from their actions that Bennett and Martin was both hurt and I judged the deal hadn't panned out exactly accordin' to specifications.
The Crows didn't attempt to cross in the teeth of our fire, however, being satisfied with what they'd done, and the horses safely brought our three comrades drippin' up the bank to where we lay takin' pot-shots at every bunch of feathers that approached the opposite bank.
We got Barrett's arm into a sling, and, as Martin's hurt wasn't serious, we lost no time in gettin' away.
"They simply beat us to it," complained Barrett, as we rode south. "You all had jest started when young Long Hair grabs the sack and ducks through the crowd, and the whole bunch turns loose on us at once. We wasn't expectin' anything so early in the game, and they winged me the first clatter. I thought sure it was oft with me when I got this bullet in the shoulder, but I used the gun in my left hand and broke for the nearest pony."
"They got me, too, before I saw what was up," added Martin; "but I tore out of there like a jack-rabbit. It was all done so cussed quick that the first thing I knew I'd straddled my horse and was makin' tracks. Who'd a thought them durned Indians was dishonest enough fer a trick like that?"
Then Donnelly spoke up and says: "Boys, as fur as the coin goes, we're out an' injured; we jest made a 'Mexican stand-off'—lost our money, but saved our lives—and mighty lucky at that, from appearances. What I want to know now is, how we're all goin' to get home, clean across the State of Texas, without a dollar in the outfit, and no assets but our guns and the nags."
That was a sure tough proposition, and we had left it teetotally out of calculations. We'd bet every bean on that race, not seein' how we could lose. In them days there wasn't a railroad in that section, ranches were scatterin', and people weren't givin' pink teas to every stranger that rode up—especially when they were as hard-lookin' as we were.
"We've got to eat, and so's the horses," says Hollis, "but no rancher is goin' to welcome with open arms as disreputable an outfit as we are. Two men shot up, and the rest of us without beddin', grub, money, or explanations. Them's what we need—explanations. I don't exactly see how we're goin' to explain our fix to the honest hay-diggers, either. Everybody'll think some sheriff is after us, and two to one they'll put some officer on our trail, and we'll have more trouble. I believe I've had all I want for awhile."
"I'll tell you how we'll work it," I says. "One of us'll be the sheriff of Guadalupe County, back home, with three deputies, bringin' back a prisoner that we've chased across the State. We'll ride up to a ranch an' demand lodgin' for ourselves and prisoner in the name of the State of Texas and say that we'll pay with vouchers on the county in the morning."
"No, sir! not fer me," says Martin. "I'm not goin' in fer forgery. It's all right to practice a little mild deception on our red brothers, as we figgered on doing, but I'm not goin' to try to flimflam the State of Texas. Our troubles 'd only be startin' if we began that game."
"Your plan's all right, Kid," says Bennett to me. "You be the terrible desperado that I'm bringin' home after a bloody fight, where you wounded Martin and me, and 'most escaped. You'll have ev'ry rancher's wife givin' you flowers and weepin' over your youth and kissin' you good-bye. In the mornin', when we're ready to go and I'm about to fix up the vouchers for our host, you break away and ride like the devil. We'll all tear off a few shots and foller in a hurry, leavin' the farmer hopin' that the villain is recaptured and the girls tearfully prayin' that the gallunt and misguided youth escapes."
It seemed to be about our only resort, as the country was full of bad men, and we were liable to get turned down cold if we didn't have some story, so we decided to try it on.
We rode up to a ranch 'bout dark, that night, me between the others, with my hands tied behind me, and Jim called the owner out.
"I want a night's lodgin' fer my deputies and our prisoner," he says. "I'm the sheriff of Guadalupe County, and I'll fix up the bill in the mornin'."
"Come in! Come in!" the feller says, callin' a man for the horses. "Glad to accommodate you. Who's your prisoner?"
"That's Texas Charlie that robbed the Bank of Euclid single-handed," answers Jim. "He give us a long run clean across the State, but we got him jest as he was settin' over into the Indian Territory. Fought like a tiger."
It worked fine. The feller, whose name was Morgan, give us a good layout for the night and a bully breakfast next morning.
That desperado game was simply great. The other fellers attended to the horses, and I jest sat around lookin' vicious, and had my grub brought to me, while the women acted sorrowful and fed me pie and watermelon pickles.
When we was ready to leave next morning, Jim says: "Now, Mr. Morgan, I'll fix up them vouchers with you," and givin' me the wink, I let out a yell, and jabbin' the spurs into Black Hawk, we cleared the fence and was off like a puff of dust, with the rest of 'em shootin' and screamin' after me like mad.
Say! It was lovely—and when the boys overtook me, out of sight of the house, Morgan would have been astonished to see the sheriff, his posse, and the terrible desperado doubled up in their saddles laughin' fit to bust.
Well, sir! we never had a hitch in the proceedings for five days, and I was gettin' to feel a sort of pride in my record as a bank-robber, forger, horse-thief, and murderer, accordin' to the way Bennett presented it. He certainly was the boss liar of the range.
He had a story framed up that painted me as the bloodiest young tough the Lone Star had ever produced, and it never failed to get me all the attention there was in the house.
One night we came to the best lookin' place we'd seen, and, in answer to Jim's summons, out walked an old man, followed by two of the prettiest girls I ever saw, who joined their father in invitin' us in.
"Glad to be of assistance to you, Mr. Sheriff," he said. "My name is Purdy, sir! Colonel Purdy, as you may have heard. In the Mexican War, special mention three times for distinguished conduct. These are my daughters, sir! Annabel and Marie." As we went in, he continued: "You say you had a hard time gettin' your prisoner? He looks young for a criminal. What's he wanted for?"
Somehow, when I saw those girls blushin' and bowin' behind their father, I didn't care to have my crimes made out any blacker'n necessary and I tried to give Jim the high-sign to let me off easy—just make it forgery or arson—but he was lookin' at the ladies, and evidently believin' in the strength of a good impression, he said: "Well, yes! He's young but they never was a old man with half his crimes. He's wanted for a good many things in different places, but I went after him for horse-stealin' and murder. Killed a rancher and his little daughter, then set fire to the house and ran off a bunch o' stock."
"Oh! Oh! How dreadful!" shuddered the girls, backin' off with horrified glances at me.
I tried to get near Jim to step on his foot, but the old man was glarin' at me somethin' awful.
"Come to observe him closely, he has a depraved face," says he. "He looks the thorough criminal in every feature, dead to every decent impulse, I s'pose."
I could have showed him a live impulse that would have surprised him about then.
In those days I was considered a pretty handsome feller too, and I knew I had Jim beat before the draw on looks, but he continues makin' matters worse.
"Yes, and he's desperate too. One of the worst I ever see. We had an awful fight with him up here on the line of the Territory. He shot Martin and me before we got him. Ye see, I wanted to take him alive, and so I took chances on gettin' hurt.
"Thank ye, Miss; my arm does ache considerable; of course, if you'd jest as soon dress it—Oh, no! I'm no braver'n anybody else, I guess. Nice of ye to say so, anyhow," and he went grinnin' out into the kitchen with the girls to fix up his arm.
The old man insisted on havin' my feet bound together and me fastened to a chair, and said: "Yes, yes, I know you can watch him, but you're in my house now, and I feel a share of the responsibility upon me. I've had experience with desperate characters and I'm goin' to be sure that this young reprobate don't escape his just punishment. Are you sure you don't need more help gettin' him home? I'll go with you if—"
"Thank ye," interrupted Hollis. "We've chased the scoundrel four hundred miles, and I reckon, now we've got him, we can keep him."
At supper, Jim with his arm in a new sling, sat between the two girls who cooed over him and took turns feedin' him till it made me sick.
The old man had a nigger move my chair up to the foot of the table and bring me a plate of coarse grub after they all finished eatin'.
He had tied my ankles to the lower rung of the chair himself, and when I says to the nigger, "Those cords have plum stopped my circulation, just ease 'em up a little," he went straight up.
"Don't you touch them knots, Sam!" he roared. "I know how to secure a man, and don't you try any of your games in my house, either, you young fiend. I'd never forgive myself if you escaped."
I ate everything I could reach, which wasn't much, and when I asked for the butter he glared at me and said: "Butter's too good for horse-thieves; eat what's before you."
Every time I'd catch the eye of one of the girls and kind of grin and look enticing, she'd shiver and tell Jim that the marks of my depravity stood out on my face like warts on a toad.
Jim and the boys would all grin like idiots and invent a new crime for me. On the square, if I'd worked nights from the age of three I couldn't have done half they blamed me for.
They put it to the old man so strong that when he turned in he chained me to Sam, the cross-eyed nigger that stood behind me at supper, and made us sleep on the floor.
I told Sam that I cut a man's throat once because he snored, and that nigger never closed an eye all night. I was tryin' to get even with somebody.
After breakfast, when it came time to leave, Donnelly untied my feet and led me out into the yard, where the girls were hangin' around the Colonel and Jim, who was preparin' to settle up.
As we rode up the evening before, I had noticed that we turned in from the road through a lane, and that the fence was too high to jump, so, when I threw my leg over Black Hawk, I hit Donnelly a swat in the neck, and, as he did a stage-fall, I swept through the gate and down the lane.
The old man cut the halter off one of his Mexican war-whoops, and broke through the house on the run, appearin' at the front door with his shot-gun just as I checked up to make the turn onto the main road.
As I swung around, doubled over the horse's neck, he let drive with his old blunderbuss, and I caught two buckshot in my right arm where you see them marks.
I had sense enough to hang on and ride for my life, because I knew the old fire-eater would reckon it a pleasure to put an end to such a wretch as me, if he got half a chance.
I heard him howl, "Come on boys! We'll get him yet," and, over my shoulder, I saw him jump one of his loose horses standin' in the yard and come tearin' down the lane, ahead of the befuddled sheriff and posse, his white hair streamin' and the shot-gun wavin' aloft, as though chargin' an army of greasers at the head of his regiment.
From the way he drew away from the boys, I wouldn't have placed any money that he was wrong either.
I've always wondered how the old man ever got through that war with only three recommendations to the government.
He certainly kept good horses too, for in five minutes we'd left the posse behind, and I saw him madly urgin' his horse into range, reloadin' as he came.
As I threw the quirt into the mare with my good arm, I allowed I'd had about all the horse-stealin' I wanted for a while.
The old devil finally saw he was losin' ground in spite of his best efforts, and let me have both barrels. I heard the shot patter on the hard road behind me, and hoped he'd quit and go home, but I'm blamed if he didn't chase me five miles further before turnin' back, in hopes I'd cast a shoe or something would happen to me.
I believe I was on the only horse in Texas that could have outrun the Colonel and his that mornin'.
About noon I stopped at a blacksmith's shop, half dead with pain, and had my arm dressed and a big jolt of whiskey.
As the posse rode up to me, sittin' in the sun by the lathered flanks of my horse and nursin' my arm, Jim yells out: "Here he is! Surround him, boys! You're our prisoner!"
"No! I'm blamed if I am," I says. "You'll have to get another desperado. After this, I'm the sheriff!"
THE THAW AT SLISCO'S
The storm broke at Salmon Lake, and we ran for Slisco's road-house. It whipped out from the mountains, all tore into strips coming through the saw-teeth, lashing us off the glare ice and driving us up against the river banks among the willows. Cold? Well, some! My bottle of painkiller froze slushy, like lemon punch.
There's nothing like a warm shack, with a cache full of grub, when the peaks smoke and the black snow-clouds roar down the gulch.
Other "mushers" were ahead of us at the road-house, freighters from Kougarok, an outfit from Teller going after booze, the mail-carrier, and, who do you reckon?—Annie Black. First time I had seen her since she was run out of Dawson for claim jumping.
Her and me hadn't been essential to one another since I won that suit over a water right on Eldorado.
"Hello, Annie," says I, clawing the ice out of my whiskers; "finding plenty of claims down here to relocate?"
"Shut up, you perjured pup," says she, full of disappointing affabilities; "I don't want any dealings with a lying, thieving hypocrite like you, Billy Joyce."
Annie lacks the sporting instinct; she ain't got the disposition for cup-racing. Never knew her to win a case, and yet she's the instigatress of more emotional activities than all the marked cards and home distilled liquor in Alaska.
"See here," says I, "a prairie dog and a rattler can hole up together, but humans has got to be congenial, so, seein' as we're all stuck to live in the same room till this blizzard blizzes out, let's forget our troubles. I'm as game a Hibernian as the next, but I don't hibernate till there's a blaze of mutual respect going."
"Blaze away," says she, "though I leave it to the crowd if you don't look and act like a liar and a grave robber." Her speech is sure full of artless hostilities.
Ain't ever seen her? Lord! I thought everybody knew Annie Black. She drifted into camp one day, tall, slab-sided, ornery to the view, and raising fifty or upwards; disposition uncertain as frozen dynamite. Her ground plans and elevations looked like she was laid out for a man, but the specifications hadn't been follered. We ain't consumed by curiosity regarding the etymology of every stranger that drifts in, and as long as he totes his own pack, does his assessments, and writes his location notices proper, it goes. Leastways, it went till she hit town. In a month she had the brotherly love of that camp gritting its teeth and throwing back twisters. 'Twas all legitimate, too, and there never was a pennyweight of scandal connected with her name. No, sir! Far's conduct goes, she's always been the shinin' female example of this country; but them qualities let her out.
First move was to jump Bat Ruggles's town lot. He had four courses of logs laid for a cabin when "Scotty" Bell came in from the hills with $1800 in coarse gold that he'd rocked out of a prospect shaft on Bat's Moose's Creek claim.
Naturally Bat made general proclamation of thirst, and our town kinder dozed violently into a joyful three days' reverie, during which period of coma the recording time on Bat's lot ran out.
He returns from his "hootch-hunt" to complete the shack, and finds Annie overseeing some "Siwashes" put a pole roof on it. Of course he promotes a race-war immediate, playing the white "open" and the red to lose, so to speak, when she up an' spanks his face, addressing expurgated, motherly cuss-words at him like he'd been a bad boy and swallered his spoon, or dug an eye out of the kitten. Bat realizes he's against a strange system and draws out of the game.
A week later she jumps No. 3, Gold Bottom, because Donnelly stuck a pick in his foot and couldn't stay to finish the assessment.
"I can't throw her off, or shoot her up," says he, "or even cuss at her like I want to, 'cause she's a lady." And it appeared like that'd been her graft ever since—presumin' on her sex to make disturbances. In six months we hated her like pizen.
There wasn't a stampede in a hundred miles where her bloomers wasn't leading, for she had the endurance of a moose; and between excitements she prospected for trouble in the manner of relocations.
I've heard of fellers speakin' disrespectful to her and then wandering around dazed and loco after she'd got through painting word pictures of 'em. It goes without saying she was generally popular and petted, and when the Commissioner invited her to duck out down the river, the community sighed, turned over, and had a peaceful rest—first one since she'd come in.
I hadn't seen her from that time till I blowed into Slisco's on the bosom of this forty mile, forty below blizzard.
Setting around the fire that night I found that she'd just lost another of her famous lawsuits—claimed she owned a fraction 'longside of No. 20, Buster Creek, and that the Lund boys had changed their stakes so as to take in her ground. During the winter they'd opened up a hundred and fifty feet of awful rich pay right next to her line, and she'd raised the devil. Injunctions, hearings and appeals, and now she was coming back, swearing she'd been "jobbed," the judge had been bought, and the jury corrupted.
"It's the richest strike in the district," says she. "They've rocked out $11,000 since snow flew, and there's 30,000 buckets of dirt on the dump. They can bribe and bulldoze a decision through this court, but I'll have that fraction yet, the robbers."
"Robbers be cussed," speaks up the mail man. "You're the cause of the trouble yourself. If you don't get a square deal, it's your own fault—always looking for technicalities in the mining laws. It's been your game from the start to take advantage of your skirts, what there is of 'em, and jump, jump, jump. Nobody believes half you say. You're a natural disturber, and if you was a man you'd have been hung long ago."
I've heard her oral formations, and I looked for his epidermis to shrivel when she got her replications focused. She just soared up and busted.
"Look out for the stick," thinks I.
"Woman, am I," she says, musical as a bum gramophone under the slow bell. "I take advantage of my skirts, do I? Who are you, you mangy 'malamoot,' to criticise a lady? I'm more of a man than you, you tin-horn; I want no favours; I do a man's work; I live a man's life; I am a man, and I'm proud of it, but you—; Nome's full of your kind; you need a woman to support you; you're a protoplasm, a polyp. Those Swedes changed their stakes to cover my fraction. I know it, they know it, and if it wasn't Alaska, God would know it, but He won't be in again till spring, and then the season's only three months long. I've worked like a man, suffered like a man—"
"Why don't ye' lose like a man?" says he.
"I will, and I'll fight like one, too," says she, while her eyes burned like faggots. "They've torn away the reward of years of work and agony, and they forget I can hate like a man."
She was stretched up to high C, where her voice drowned the howl of the storm, and her seamed old face was a sight. I've seen mild, shrinky, mouse-shy women 'roused to hell's own fury, and I felt that night that here was a bad enemy for the Swedes of Buster Creek.
She stopped, listening.
"What's that? There's some one at the door."
"Nonsense," says one of the freighters. "You do so much knocking you can hear the echo."
"There's some one at that door," says she.
"If there was, they'd come in," says Joe.
"Couldn't be, this late in this storm," I adds.
She came from behind the stove, and we let her go to the door alone. Nobody ever seemed to do any favours for Annie Black.
"She'll be seein' things next," says Joe, winking. "What'd I tell you? For God's sake close it—you'll freeze us."
Annie opened the door, and was hid to the waist in a cloud of steam that rolled in out of the blackness. She peered out for a minute, stooped, and tugged at something in the dark. I was at her side in a jump, and we dragged him in, snow-covered and senseless.
"Quick—brandy," says she, slashing at his stiff "mukluks." "Joe, bring in a tub of snow." Her voice was steel sharp.
"Well, I'm danged," says the mail man. "It's only an Injun. You needn't go crazy like he was a white."
"Oh, you fool" says Annie. "Can't you see? Esquimaux don't travel alone. There's white men behind, and God help them if we don't bring him to."
She knew more about rescustications than us, and we did what she said, till at last he came out of it, groaning—just plumb wore out and numb.
"Talk to him, Joe; you savvy their noise," says I.
The poor devil showed his excitement, dead as he was.
"There's two men on the big 'Cut-off,'" Joe translates. "Lost on the portage. There was only one robe between 'em, so they rolled up in it, and the boy came on in the dark. Says they can't last till morning."
"That lets them out," says the mail carrier. "Too bad we can't reach them to-night."
"What!" snaps Annie. "Reach 'em? Huh! I said you were a jellyfish. Hurry up and get your things on, boys."
"Have a little sense," says Joe. "You surely ain't a darn fool. Out in this storm, dark as the inside of a cow; blowin' forty mile, and the 'quick' froze. Can't be done. I wonder who they are?"
He "kowtowed" some more, and at the answer of the chattering savage we looked at Annie.
"Him called Lund," shivered the Siwash.
I never see anybody harder hit than her. I love a scrap, but I thinks "Billy, she's having a stiffer fight than you ever associated with."
Finally she says, kind of slow and quiet: "Who knows where the 'Cut-off' starts?"
Nobody answers, and up speaks the U. S. man again.
"You've got your nerve, to ask a man out on such a night."
"If there was one here, I wouldn't have to ask him. There's people freezing within five miles of here, and you hug the stove, saying: 'It's stormy, and we'll get cold.' Of course it is. If it wasn't stormy they'd be here too, and it's so cold, you'll probably freeze. What's that got to do with it? Ever have your mother talk to you about duty? Thank Heaven I travelled that portage once, and I can find it again if somebody will go with me."
'Twas a blush raising talk, but nobody upset any furniture getting dressed.
"So I'm the woman of this crowd and I hide behind my skirts. Mr. Mail Man, show what a glorious creature you are. Throw yourself—get up and stretch and roar. Oh, you barn-yard bantam! Has it had its pap to-night? I've a grand commercial enterprise; I'll take all of your bust measurements and send out to the States for a line of corsets. Ain't there half a man among you?"
She continued in this vein, pollutin' the air, and, having no means of defence, we found ourselves follerin' her out into a yelling storm that beat and roared over us like waves of flame.
Swede luck had guided their shaft onto the richest pay-streak in seven districts, and Swede luck now led us to the Lund boys, curled up in the drifted snow beside their dogs; but it was the level head and cool judgment of a woman that steered us home in the grey whirl of the dawn.
During the deathly weariness of that night I saw past the calloused hide of that woman and sighted the splendid courage cached away beneath her bitter oratory and hosstyle syllogisms. "There's a story there," thinks I, "an' maybe a man moved in it—though I can't imagine her softened by much affection." It pleased some guy to state that woman's the cause of all our troubles, but I figger they're like whisky—all good, though some a heap better'n others, of course, and when a frail, little, ninety pound woman gets to bucking and acting bad, there's generally a two hundred pound man hid out in the brush that put the burr under the saddle.
During the next three days she dressed the wounds of them Scow-weegians and nursed them as tender as a mother.
The wind hadn't died away till along came the "Flying Dutchman" from Dugan's, twenty miles up, floatin' on the skirts of the blizzard.
"Hello, fellers. Howdy, Annie. What's the matter here?" says he. "We had a woman at Dugan's too—purty as a picture; different from the Nome bunch—real sort of a lady."
"Who is she?" says I, "an' what's she doin' out here on the trail?"
"Dunno, but she's all right; come clean from Dawson with a dog team; says she's looking for her mother."