A Novel of the North
By JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
With Illustrations by Walt Louderback
To the strong-hearted men and women of Alaska, the new empire rising in the North, it is for me an honor and a privilege to dedicate this work.
JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
Owosso, Michigan August 1, 1923
It was as if the man was deliberately insulting her (Frontispiece).
The long, black launch nosed its way out to sea.
The man wore a gun ... within reach of his hand.
Mary sobbed as the man she loved faced winged death.
Captain Rifle, gray and old in the Alaskan Steamship service, had not lost the spirit of his youth along with his years. Romance was not dead in him, and the fire which is built up of clean adventure and the association of strong men and a mighty country had not died out of his veins. He could still see the picturesque, feel the thrill of the unusual, and—at times—warm memories crowded upon him so closely that yesterday seemed today, and Alaska was young again, thrilling the world with her wild call to those who had courage to come and fight for her treasures, and live—or die.
Tonight, with the softly musical throb of his ship under his feet, and the yellow moon climbing up from behind the ramparts of the Alaskan mountains, something of loneliness seized upon him, and he said simply:
"That is Alaska."
The girl standing beside him at the rail did not turn, nor for a moment did she answer. He could see her profile clear-cut as a cameo in the almost vivid light, and in that light her eyes were wide and filled with a dusky fire, and her lips were parted a little, and her slim body was tense as she looked at the wonder of the moon silhouetting the cragged castles of the peaks, up where the soft, gray clouds lay like shimmering draperies.
Then she turned her face a little and nodded. "Yes, Alaska," she said, and the old captain fancied there was the slightest ripple of a tremor in her voice. "Your Alaska, Captain Rifle."
Out of the clearness of the night came to them a distant sound like the low moan of thunder. Twice before, Mary Standish had heard it, and now she asked: "What was that? Surely it can not be a storm, with the moon like that, and the stars so clear above!"
"It is ice breaking from the glaciers and falling into the sea. We are in the Wrangel Narrows, and very near the shore, Miss Standish. If it were day you could hear the birds singing. This is what we call the Inside Passage. I have always called it the water-wonderland of the world, and yet, if you will observe, I must be mistaken—for we are almost alone on this side of the ship. Is it not proof? If I were right, the men and women in there—dancing, playing cards, chattering—would be crowding this rail. Can you imagine humans like that? But they can't see what I see, for I am a ridiculous old fool who remembers things. Ah, do you catch that in the air, Miss Standish—the perfume of flowers, of forests, of green things ashore? It is faint, but I catch it."
"And so do I."
She breathed in deeply of the sweet air, and turned then, so that she stood with her back to the rail, facing the flaming lights of the ship.
The mellow cadence of the music came to her, soft-stringed and sleepy; she could hear the shuffle of dancing feet. Laughter rippled with the rhythmic thrum of the ship, voices rose and fell beyond the lighted windows, and as the old captain looked at her, there was something in her face which he could not understand.
She had come aboard strangely at Seattle, alone and almost at the last minute—defying the necessity of making reservation where half a thousand others had been turned away—and chance had brought her under his eyes. In desperation she had appealed to him, and he had discovered a strange terror under the forced calm of her appearance. Since then he had fathered her with his attentions, watching closely with the wisdom of years. And more than once he had observed that questing, defiant poise of her head with which she was regarding the cabin windows now.
She had told him she was twenty-three and on her way to meet relatives in Nome. She had named certain people. And he had believed her. It was impossible not to believe her, and he admired her pluck in breaking all official regulations in coming aboard.
In many ways she was companionable and sweet. Yet out of his experience, he gathered the fact that she was under a tension. He knew that in some way she was making a fight, but, influenced by the wisdom of three and sixty years, he did not let her know he had guessed the truth.
He watched her closely now, without seeming to do so. She was very pretty in a quiet and unusual way. There was something irresistibly attractive about her, appealing to old memories which were painted clearly in his heart. She was girlishly slim. He had observed that her eyes were beautifully clear and gray in the sunlight, and her exquisitely smooth dark hair, neatly coiled and luxuriant crown of beauty, reminded him of puritanism in its simplicity. At times he doubted that she was twenty-three. If she had said nineteen or twenty he would have been better satisfied. She puzzled him and roused speculation in him. But it was a part of his business to see many things which others might not see—and hold his tongue.
"We are not quite alone," she was saying. "There are others," and she made a little gesture toward two figures farther up the rail.
"Old Donald Hardwick, of Skagway," he said. "And the other is Alan Holt."
She was facing the mountains again, her eyes shining in the light of the moon. Gently her hand touched the old captain's arm. "Listen," she whispered.
"Another berg breaking away from Old Thunder. We are very near the shore, and there are glaciers all the way up."
"And that other sound, like low wind—on a night so still and calm! What is it?"
"You always hear that when very close to the big mountains, Miss Standish. It is made by the water of a thousand streams and rivulets rushing down to the sea. Wherever there is melting snow in the mountains, you hear that song."
"And this man, Alan Holt," she reminded him. "He is a part of these things?"
"Possibly more than any other man, Miss Standish. He was born in Alaska before Nome or Fairbanks or Dawson City were thought of. It was in Eighty-four, I think. Let me see, that would make him—"
"Thirty-eight," she said, so quickly that for a moment he was astonished.
Then he chuckled. "You are very good at figures."
He felt an almost imperceptible tightening of her fingers on his arm.
"This evening, just after dinner, old Donald found me sitting alone. He said he was lonely and wanted to talk with someone—like me. He almost frightened me, with his great, gray beard and shaggy hair. I thought of ghosts as we talked there in the dusk."
"Old Donald belongs to the days when the Chilkoot and the White Horse ate up men's lives, and a trail of living dead led from the Summit to Klondike, Miss Standish," said Captain Rifle. "You will meet many like him in Alaska. And they remember. You can see it in their faces—always the memory of those days that are gone."
She bowed her head a little, looking to the sea. "And Alan Holt? You know him well?"
"Few men know him well. He is a part of Alaska itself, and I have sometimes thought him more aloof than the mountains. But I know him. All northern Alaska knows Alan Holt. He has a reindeer range up beyond the Endicott Mountains and is always seeking the last frontier."
"He must be very brave."
"Alaska breeds heroic men, Miss Standish."
"And honorable men—men you can trust and believe in?"
"It is odd," she said, with a trembling little laugh that was like a bird-note in her throat. "I have never seen Alaska before, and yet something about these mountains makes me feel that I have known them a long time ago. I seem to feel they are welcoming me and that I am going home. Alan Holt is a fortunate man. I should like to be an Alaskan."
"And you are—"
"An American," she finished for him, a sudden, swift irony in her voice. "A poor product out of the melting-pot, Captain Rifle. I am going north—to learn."
"Only that, Miss Standish?"
His question, quietly spoken and without emphasis, demanded an answer. His kindly face, seamed by the suns and winds of many years at sea, was filled with honest anxiety as she turned to look straight into his eyes.
"I must press the question," he said. "As the captain of this ship, and as a father, it is my duty. Is there not something you would like to tell me—in confidence, if you will have it so?"
For an instant she hesitated, then slowly she shook her head. "There is nothing, Captain Rifle."
"And yet—you came aboard very strangely," he urged. "You will recall that it was most unusual—without reservation, without baggage—"
"You forget the hand-bag," she reminded him.
"Yes, but one does not start for northern Alaska with only a hand-bag scarcely large enough to contain a change of linen, Miss Standish."
"But I did, Captain Rifle."
"True. And I saw you fighting past the guards like a little wildcat. It was without precedent."
"I am sorry. But they were stupid and difficult to pass."
"Only by chance did I happen to see it all, my child. Otherwise the ship's regulations would have compelled me to send you ashore. You were frightened. You can not deny that. You were running away from something!"
He was amazed at the childish simplicity with which she answered him.
"Yes, I was running away—from something."
Her eyes were beautifully clear and unafraid, and yet again he sensed the thrill of the fight she was making.
"And you will not tell me why—or from what you were escaping?"
"I can not—tonight. I may do so before we reach Nome. But—it is possible—"
"That I shall never reach Nome."
Suddenly she caught one of his hands in both her own. Her fingers clung to him, and with a little note of fierceness in her voice she hugged the hand to her breast. "I know just how good you have been to me," she cried. "I should like to tell you why I came aboard—like that. But I can not. Look! Look at those wonderful mountains!" With one free hand she pointed.
"Behind them and beyond them lie the romance and adventure and mystery of centuries, and for nearly thirty years you have been very near those things, Captain Rifle. No man will ever see again what you have seen or feel what you have felt, or forget what you have had to forget. I know it. And after all that, can't you—won't you—forget the strange manner in which I came aboard this ship? It is such a simple, little thing to put out of your mind, so trivial, so unimportant when you look back—and think. Please Captain Rifle—please!"
So quickly that he scarcely sensed the happening of it she pressed his hand to her lips. Their warm thrill came and went in an instant, leaving him speechless, his resolution gone.
"I love you because you have been so good to me," she whispered, and as suddenly as she had kissed his hand, she was gone, leaving him alone at the rail.
Alan Holt saw the slim figure of the girl silhouetted against the vivid light of the open doorway of the upper-deck salon. He was not watching her, nor did he look closely at the exceedingly attractive picture which she made as she paused there for an instant after leaving Captain Rifle. To him she was only one of the five hundred human atoms that went to make up the tremendously interesting life of one of the first ships of the season going north. Fate, through the suave agency of the purser, had brought him into a bit closer proximity to her than the others; that was all. For two days her seat in the dining-salon had been at the same table, not quite opposite him. As she had missed both breakfast hours, and he had skipped two luncheons, the requirements of neighborliness and of courtesy had not imposed more than a dozen words of speech upon them. This was very satisfactory to Alan. He was not talkative or communicative of his own free will. There was a certain cynicism back of his love of silence. He was a good listener and a first-rate analyst. Some people, he knew, were born to talk; and others, to trim the balance, were burdened with the necessity of holding their tongues. For him silence was not a burden.
In his cool and causal way he admired Mary Standish. She was very quiet, and he liked her because of that. He could not, of course, escape the beauty of her eyes or the shimmering luster of the long lashes that darkened them. But these were details which did not thrill him, but merely pleased him. And her hair pleased him possibly even more than her gray eyes, though he was not sufficiently concerned to discuss the matter with himself. But if he had pointed out any one thing, it would have been her hair—not so much the color of it as the care she evidently gave it, and the manner in which she dressed it. He noted that it was dark, with varying flashes of luster in it under the dinner lights. But what he approved of most of all were the smooth, silky coils in which she fastened it to her pretty head. It was an intense relief after looking on so many frowsy heads, bobbed and marcelled, during his six months' visit in the States. So he liked her, generally speaking, because there was not a thing about her that he might dislike.
He did not, of course, wonder what the girl might be thinking of him—with his quiet, stern face, his cold indifference, his rather Indian-like litheness, and the single patch of gray that streaked his thick, blond hair. His interest had not reached anywhere near that point.
Tonight it was probable that no woman in the world could have interested him, except as the always casual observer of humanity. Another and greater thing gripped him and had thrilled him since he first felt the throbbing pulse of the engines of the new steamship Nome under his feet at Seattle. He was going home. And home meant Alaska. It meant the mountains, the vast tundras, the immeasurable spaces into which civilization had not yet come with its clang and clamor. It meant friends, the stars he knew, his herds, everything he loved. Such was his reaction after six months of exile, six months of loneliness and desolation in cities which he had learned to hate.
"I'll not make the trip again—not for a whole winter—unless I'm sent at the point of a gun," he said to Captain Rifle, a few moments after Mary Standish had left the deck. "An Eskimo winter is long enough, but one in Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York is longer—for me."
"I understand they had you up before the Committee on Ways and Means at Washington."
"Yes, along with Carl Lomen, of Nome. But Lomen was the real man. He has forty thousand head of reindeer in the Seward Peninsula, and they had to listen to him. We may get action."
"May!" Captain Rifle grunted his doubt. "Alaska has been waiting ten years for a new deck and a new deal. I doubt if you'll get anything. When politicians from Iowa and south Texas tell us what we can have and what we need north of Fifty-eight—why, what's the use? Alaska might as well shut up shop!"
"But she isn't going to do that," said Alan Holt, his face grimly set in the moonlight. "They've tried hard to get us, and they've made us shut up a lot of our doors. In 1910 we were thirty-six thousand whites in the Territory. Since then the politicians at Washington have driven out nine thousand, a quarter of the population. But those that are left are hard-boiled. We're not going to quit, Captain. A lot of us are Alaskans, and we are not afraid to fight."
"That we'll have a square deal within another five years, or know the reason why. And another five years after that, we'll he shipping a million reindeer carcasses down into the States each year. Within twenty years we'll be shipping five million. Nice thought for the beef barons, eh? But rather fortunate, I think, for the hundred million Americans who are turning their grazing lands into farms and irrigation systems."
One of Alan Holt's hands was clenched at the rail. "Until I went down this winter, I didn't realize just how bad it was," he said, a note hard as iron in his voice. "Lomen is a diplomat, but I'm not. I want to fight when I see such things—fight with a gun. Because we happened to find gold up here, they think Alaska is an orange to be sucked as quickly as possible, and that when the sucking process is over, the skin will be worthless. That's modern, dollar-chasing Americanism for you!"
"And are you not an American, Mr. Holt?"
So soft and near was the voice that both men started. Then both turned and stared. Close behind them, her quiet, beautiful face flooded with the moon-glow, stood Mary Standish.
"You ask me a question, madam," said Alan Holt, bowing courteously. "No, I am not an American. I am an Alaskan."
The girl's lips were parted. Her eyes were very bright and clear. "Please pardon me for listening," she said. "I couldn't help it. I am an American. I love America. I think I love it more than anything else in the world—more than my religion, even. America, Mr. Holt. And America doesn't necessarily mean a great many of America's people. I love to think that I first came ashore in the Mayflower. That is why my name is Standish. And I just wanted to remind you that Alaska is America."
Alan Holt was a bit amazed. The girl's face was no longer placidly quiet. Her eyes were radiant. He sensed the repressed thrill in her voice, and he knew that in the light of day he would have seen fire in her cheeks. He smiled, and in that smile he could not quite keep back the cynicism of his thought.
"And what do you know about Alaska, Miss Standish?"
"Nothing," she said. "And yet I love it." She pointed to the mountains. "I wish I might have been born among them. You are fortunate. You should love America."
"Alaska, you mean!"
"No, America." There was a flashing challenge in her eyes. She was not speaking apologetically. Her meaning was direct.
The irony on Alan's lips died away. With a little laugh he bowed again. "If I am speaking to a daughter of Captain Miles Standish, who came over in the Mayflower, I stand reproved," he said. "You should be an authority on Americanism, if I am correct in surmising your relationship."
"You are correct," she replied with a proud, little tilt of her glossy head, "though I think that only lately have I come to an understanding of its significance—and its responsibility. I ask your pardon again for interrupting you. It was not premeditated. It just happened."
She did not wait for either of them to speak, but flashed the two a swift smile and passed down the promenade.
The music had ceased and the cabins at last were emptying themselves of life.
"A remarkable young woman," Alan remarked. "I imagine that the spirit of Captain Miles Standish may be a little proud of this particular olive-branch. A chip off the old block, you might say. One would almost suppose he had married Priscilla and this young lady was a definite though rather indirect result."
He had a curious way of laughing without any more visible manifestation of humor than spoken words. It was a quality in his voice which one could not miss, and at times, when ironically amused, it carried a sting which he did not altogether intend.
In another moment Mary Standish was forgotten, and he was asking the captain a question which was in his mind.
"The itinerary of this ship is rather confused, is it not?"
"Yes—rather," acknowledged Captain Rifle. "Hereafter she will ply directly between Seattle and Nome. But this time we're doing the Inside Passage to Juneau and Skagway and will make the Aleutian Passage via Cordova and Seward. A whim of the owners, which they haven't seen fit to explain to me. Possibly the Canadian junket aboard may have something to do with it. We're landing them at Skagway, where they make the Yukon by way of White Horse Pass. A pleasure trip for flabby people nowadays, Holt. I can remember—"
"So can I," nodded Alan Holt, looking at the mountains beyond which lay the dead-strewn trails of the gold stampede of a generation before. "I remember. And old Donald is dreaming of that hell of death back there. He was all choked up tonight. I wish he might forget."
"Men don't forget such women as Jane Hope," said the captain softly.
"You knew her?"
"Yes. She came up with her father on my ship. That was twenty-five years ago last autumn, Alan. A long time, isn't it? And when I look at Mary Standish and hear her voice—" He hesitated, as if betraying a secret, and then he added: "—I can't help thinking of the girl Donald Hardwick fought for and won in that death-hole at White Horse. It's too bad she had to die."
"She isn't dead," said Alan. The hardness was gone from his voice. "She isn't dead," he repeated. "That's the pity of it. She is as much a living thing to him today as she was twenty years ago."
After a moment the captain said, "She was talking with him early this evening, Alan."
"Miss Captain Miles Standish, you mean?"
"Yes. There seems to be something about her that amuses you."
Alan shrugged his shoulders. "Not at all. I think she is a most admirable young person. Will you have a cigar, Captain? I'm going to promenade a bit. It does me good to mix in with the sour-doughs."
The two lighted their cigars from a single match, and Alan went his way, while the captain turned in the direction of his cabin.
To Alan, on this particular night, the steamship Nome was more than a thing of wood and steel. It was a living, pulsating being, throbbing with the very heart-beat of Alaska. The purr of the mighty engines was a human intelligence crooning a song of joy. For him the crowded passenger list held a significance that was almost epic, and its names represented more than mere men and women. They were the vital fiber of the land he loved, its heart's blood, its very element—"giving in." He knew that with the throb of those engines romance, adventure, tragedy, and hope were on their way north—and with these things also arrogance and greed. On board were a hundred conflicting elements—some that had fought for Alaska, others that would make her, and others that would destroy.
He puffed at his cigar and walked alone, brushing sleeves with men and women whom he scarcely seemed to notice. But he was observant. He knew the tourists almost without looking at them. The spirit of the north had not yet seized upon them. They were voluble and rather excitedly enthusiastic in the face of beauty and awesomeness. The sour-doughs were tucked away here and there in shadowy nooks, watching in silence, or they walked the deck slowly and quietly, smoking their cigars or pipes, and seeing things beyond the mountains. Between these two, the newcomers and the old-timers, ran the gamut of all human thrill for Alan, the flesh-and-blood fiber of everything that went to make up life north of Fifty-four. And he could have gone from man to man and picked out those who belonged north of Fifty-eight.
Aft of the smoking-room he paused, tipping the ash of his cigar over the edge of the rail. A little group of three stood near him, and he recognized them as the young engineers, fresh from college, going up to work on the government railroad running from Seward to Tanana. One of them was talking, filled with the enthusiasm of his first adventure.
"I tell you," he said, "people don't know what they ought to know about Alaska. In school they teach us that it's an eternal icebox full of gold, and is headquarters for Santa Claus, because that's where reindeer come from. And grown-ups think about the same thing. Why"—he drew in a deep breath—"it's nine times as large as the state of Washington, twelve times as big as the state of New York, and we bought it from Russia for less than two cents an acre. If you put it down on the face of the United States, the city of Juneau would be in St. Augustine, Florida, and Unalaska would be in Los Angeles. That's how big it is, and the geographical center of our country isn't Omaha or Sioux City, but exactly San Francisco, California."
"Good for you, sonny," came a quiet voice from beyond the group. "Your geography is correct. And you might add for the education of your people that Alaska is only thirty-seven miles from Bolshevik Siberia, and wireless messages are sent into Alaska by the Bolsheviks urging our people to rise against the Washington government. We've asked Washington for a few guns and a few men to guard Nome, but they laugh at us. Do you see a moral?"
From half-amused interest Alan jerked himself to alert tension. He caught a glimpse of the gaunt, old graybeard who had spoken, but did not know him. And as this man turned away, a shadowy hulk in the moonlight, the same deep, quiet voice came back very clearly:
"And if you ever care for Alaska, you might tell your government to hang a few such men as John Graham, sonny."
At the sound of that name Alan felt the blood in him run suddenly hot. Only one man on the face of the earth did he hate with undying hatred, and that man was John Graham. He would have followed, seeking the identity of the stranger whose words had temporarily stunned the young engineers, when he saw a slim figure standing between him and the light of the smoking-room windows. It was Mary Standish. He knew by her attitude that she had heard the words of the young engineer and the old graybeard, but she was looking at him. And he could not remember that he had ever seen quite that same look in a woman's face before. It was not fright. It was more an expression of horror which comes from thought and mental vision rather than physical things. Instantly it annoyed Alan Holt. This was the second time she had betrayed a too susceptible reaction in matters which did not concern her. So he said, speaking to the silent young men a few steps away:
"He was mistaken, gentlemen. John Graham should not be hung. That would be too merciful."
He resumed his way then, nodding at them as he passed. But he had scarcely gone out of their vision when quick footsteps pattered behind him, and the girl's hand touched his arm lightly.
"Mr. Holt, please—"
He stopped, sensing the fact that the soft pressure of her fingers was not altogether unpleasant. She hesitated, and when she spoke again, only her finger-tips touched his arm. She was looking shoreward, so that for a moment he could see only the lustrous richness of her smooth hair. Then she was meeting his eyes squarely, a flash of challenge in the gray depths of her own.
"I am alone on the ship," she said. "I have no friends here. I want to see things and ask questions. Will you ... help me a little?"
"You mean ... escort you?"
"Yes, if you will. I should feel more comfortable."
Nettled at first, the humor of the situation began to appeal to him, and he wondered at the intense seriousness of the girl. She did not smile. Her eyes were very steady and very businesslike, and at the same time very lovely.
"The way you put it, I don't see how I can refuse," he said. "As for the questions—probably Captain Rifle can answer them better than I."
"I don't like to trouble him," she replied. "He has much to think about. And you are alone."
"Yes, quite alone. And with very little to think about."
"You know what I mean, Mr. Holt. Possibly you can not understand me, or won't try. But I'm going into a new country, and I have a passionate desire to learn as much about that country as I can before I get there. I want to know about many things. For instance—"
"Why did you say what you did about John Graham? What did the other man mean when he said he should be hung?"
There was an intense directness in her question which for a moment astonished him. She had withdrawn her fingers from his arm, and her slim figure seemed possessed of a sudden throbbing suspense as she waited for an answer. They had turned a little, so that in the light of the moon the almost flowerlike whiteness of her face was clear to him. With her smooth, shining hair, the pallor of her face under its lustrous darkness, and the clearness of her eyes she held Alan speechless for a moment, while his brain struggled to seize upon and understand the something about her which made him interested in spite of himself. Then he smiled and there was a sudden glitter in his eyes.
"Did you ever see a dog fight?" he asked.
She hesitated, as if trying to remember, and shuddered slightly. "Once."
"It was my dog—a little dog. His throat was torn—"
He nodded. "Exactly. And that is just what John Graham is doing to Alaska, Miss Standish. He's the dog—a monster. Imagine a man with a colossal financial power behind him, setting out to strip the wealth from a new land and enslave it to his own desires and political ambitions. That is what John Graham is doing from his money-throne down there in the States. It's the financial support he represents, curse him! Money—and a man without conscience. A man who would starve thousands or millions to achieve his ends. A man who, in every sense of the word, is a murderer—"
The sharpness of her cry stopped him. If possible, her face had gone whiter, and he saw her hands clutched suddenly at her breast. And the look in her eyes brought the old, cynical twist back to his lips.
"There, I've hurt your puritanism again, Miss Standish," he said, bowing a little. "In order to appeal to your finer sensibilities I suppose I must apologize for swearing and calling another man a murderer. Well, I do. And now—if you care to stroll about the ship—"
From a respectful distance the three young engineers watched Alan and Mary Standish as they walked forward.
"A corking pretty girl," said one of them, drawing a deep breath. "I never saw such hair and eyes—"
"I'm at the same table with them," interrupted another. "I'm second on her left, and she hasn't spoken three words to me. And that fellow she is with is like an icicle out of Labrador."
And Mary Standish was saying: "Do you know, Mr. Holt, I envy those young engineers. I wish I were a man."
"I wish you were," agreed Alan amiably.
Whereupon Mary Standish's pretty mouth lost its softness for an instant. But Alan did not observe this. He was enjoying his cigar and the sweet air.
Alan Holt was a man whom other men looked at twice. With women it was different. He was, in no solitary sense of the word, a woman's man. He admired them in an abstract way, and he was ready to fight for them, or die for them, at any time such a course became necessary. But his sentiment was entirely a matter of common sense. His chivalry was born and bred of the mountains and the open and had nothing in common with the insincere brand which develops in the softer and more luxurious laps of civilization. Years of aloneness had put their mark upon him. Men of the north, reading the lines, understood what they meant. But only now and then could a woman possibly understand. Yet if in any given moment a supreme physical crisis had come, women would have turned instinctively in their helplessness to such a man as Alan Holt.
He possessed a vein of humor which few had been privileged to discover. The mountains had taught him to laugh in silence. With him a chuckle meant as much as a riotous outburst of merriment from another, and he could enjoy greatly without any noticeable muscular disturbance of his face. And not always was his smile a reflection of humorous thought. There were times when it betrayed another kind of thought more forcefully than speech.
Because he understood fairly well and knew what he was, the present situation amused him. He could not but see what an error in judgment Miss Standish had made in selecting him, when compared with the intoxicating thrill she could easily have aroused by choosing one of the young engineers as a companion in her evening adventure. He chuckled. And Mary Standish, hearing the smothered note of amusement, gave to her head that swift little birdlike tilt which he had observed once before, in the presence of Captain Rifle. But she said nothing. As if challenged, she calmly took possession of his arm.
Halfway round the deck, Alan began to sense the fact that there was a decidedly pleasant flavor to the whole thing. The girl's hand did not merely touch his arm; it was snuggled there confidently, and she was necessarily so close to him that when he looked down, the glossy coils of her hair were within a few inches of his face. His nearness to her, together with the soft pressure of her hand on his arm, was a jolt to his stoicism.
"It's not half bad," he expressed himself frankly. "I really believe I am going to enjoy answering your questions, Miss Standish."
"Oh!" He felt the slim, little figure stiffen for an instant. "You thought—possibly—I might be dangerous?"
"A little. I don't understand women. Collectively I think they are God's most wonderful handiwork. Individually I don't care much about them. But you—"
She nodded approvingly. "That is very nice of you. But you needn't say I am different from the others. I am not. All women are alike."
"Possibly—except in the way they dress their hair."
"You like mine?"
He was amazed at the admission, so much so that he puffed out a huge cloud of smoke from his cigar in mental protest.
They had come to the smoking-room again. This was an innovation aboard the Nome. There was no other like it in the Alaskan service, with its luxurious space, its comfortable hospitality, and the observation parlor built at one end for those ladies who cared to sit with their husbands while they smoked their after-dinner cigars.
"If you want to hear about Alaska and see some of its human make-up, let's go in," he suggested. "I know; of no better place. Are you afraid of smoke?"
"No. If I were a man, I would smoke."
"Perhaps you do?"
"I do not. When I begin that, if you please, I shall bob my hair."
"Which would be a crime," he replied so earnestly that again he was surprised at himself.
Two or three ladies, with their escorts, were in the parlor when they entered. The huge main room, covering a third of the aft deck, was blue with smoke. A score of men were playing cards at round tables. Twice as many were gathered in groups, talking, while others walked aimlessly up and down the carpeted floor. Here and there were men who sat alone. A few were asleep, which made Alan look at his watch. Then he observed Mary Standish studying the innumerable bundles of neatly rolled blankets that lay about. One of them was at her feet. She touched it with her toe.
"What do they mean?" she asked.
"We are overloaded," he explained. "Alaskan steam-ships have no steerage passengers as we generally know them. It isn't poverty that rides steerage when you go north. You can always find a millionaire or two on the lower deck. When they get sleepy, most of the men you see in there will unroll blankets and sleep on the floor. Did you ever see an earl?"
He felt it his duty to make explanations now that he had brought her in, and directed her attention to the third table on their left. Three men were seated at this table.
"The man facing us, the one with a flabby face and pale mustache, is an earl—I forget his name," he said. "He doesn't look it, but he is a real sport. He is going up to shoot Kadiak bears, and sleeps on the floor. The group beyond them, at the fifth table, are Treadwell mining men, and that fellow you see slouched against the wall, half asleep, with whiskers nearly to his waist, is Stampede Smith, an old-time partner of George Carmack, who discovered gold on Bonanza Creek in Ninety-six. The thud of Carmack's spade, as it hit first pay, was the 'sound heard round the world,' Miss Standish. And the gentleman with crumpled whiskers was the second-best man at Bonanza, excepting Skookum Jim and Taglish Charlie, two Siwah Indians who were with Carmack when the strike was made. Also, if you care for the romantic, he was in love with Belinda Mulrooney, the most courageous woman who ever came into the north."
"Why was she courageous?"
"Because she came alone into a man's land, without a soul to fight for her, determined to make a fortune along with the others. And she did. As long as there is a Dawson sour-dough alive, he will remember Belinda Mulrooney."
"She proved what a woman could do, Mr. Holt."
"Yes, and a little later she proved how foolish a woman can be, Miss Standish. She became the richest woman in Dawson. Then came a man who posed as a count, Belinda married him, and they went to Paris. Finis, I think. Now, if she had married Stampede Smith over there, with his big whiskers—"
He did not finish. Half a dozen paces from them a man had risen from a table and was facing them. There was nothing unusual about him, except his boldness as he looked at Mary Standish. It was as if he knew her and was deliberately insulting her in a stare that was more than impudent in its directness. Then a sudden twist came to his lips; he shrugged his shoulders slightly and turned away.
Alan glanced swiftly at his companion. Her lips were compressed, and her cheeks were flaming hotly. Even then, as his own blood boiled, he could not but observe how beautiful anger made her.
"If you will pardon me a moment," he said quietly, "I shall demand an explanation."
Her hand linked itself quickly through his arm.
"Please don't," she entreated. "It is kind of you, and you are just the sort of man I should expect to resent a thing like that. But it would be absurd to notice it. Don't you think so?"
In spite of her effort to speak calmly, there was a tremble in her voice, and Alan was puzzled at the quickness with which the color went from her face, leaving it strangely white.
"I am at your service," he replied with a rather cold inclination of his head. "But if you were my sister, Miss Standish, I would not allow anything like that to go unchallenged."
He watched the stranger until he disappeared through a door out upon the deck.
"One of John Graham's men," he said. "A fellow named Rossland, going up to get a final grip on the salmon fishing, I understand. They'll choke the life out of it in another two years. Funny what this filthy stuff we call money can do, isn't it? Two winters ago I saw whole Indian villages starving, and women and little children dying by the score because of this John Graham's money. Over-fishing did it, you understand. If you could have seen some of those poor little devils, just skin and bones, crying for a rag to eat—"
Her hand clutched at his arm. "How could John Graham—do that?" she whispered.
He laughed unpleasantly. "When you have been a year in Alaska you won't ask that question, Miss Standish. How? Why, simply by glutting his canneries and taking from the streams the food supply which the natives have depended upon for generations. In other words, the money he handles represents the fish trust—and many other things. Please don't misunderstand me. Alaska needs capital for its development. Without it we will not only cease to progress; we will die. No territory on the face of the earth offers greater opportunities for capital than Alaska does today. Ten thousand fortunes are waiting to be made here by men who have money to invest.
"But John Graham does not represent the type we want. He is a despoiler, one of those whose only desire is to turn original resource into dollars as fast as he can, even though those operations make both land and water barren. You must remember until recently the government of Alaska as manipulated by Washington politicians was little better than that against which the American colonies rebelled in 1776. A hard thing for one to say about the country he loves, isn't it? And John Graham stands for the worst—he and the money which guarantees his power.
"As a matter of fact, big and legitimate capital is fighting shy of Alaska. Conditions are such, thanks to red-tapeism and bad politics, that capital, big and little, looks askance at Alaska and cannot be interested. Think of it, Miss Standish! There are thirty-eight separate bureaus at Washington operating on Alaska, five thousand miles away. Is it a wonder the patient is sick? And is it a wonder that a man like John Graham, dishonest and corrupt to the soul, has a fertile field to work in?
"But we are progressing. We are slowly coming out from under the shadow which has so long clouded Alaska's interests. There is now a growing concentration of authority and responsibility. Both the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture now realize that Alaska is a mighty empire in itself, and with their help we are bound to go ahead in spite of all our handicaps. It is men like John Graham I fear. Some day—"
Suddenly he caught himself. "There—I'm talking politics, and I should entertain you with pleasanter and more interesting things," he apologized. "Shall we go to the lower decks?"
"Or the open air," she suggested. "I am afraid this smoke is upsetting me."
He could feel the change in her and did not attribute it entirely to the thickness of the air. Rossland's inexplicable rudeness had disturbed her more deeply than she had admitted, he believed.
"There are a number of Thlinkit Indians and a tame bear down in what we should ordinarily call the steerage. Would you like to see them?" he asked, when they were outside. "The Thlinkit girls are the prettiest Indian women in the world, and there are two among those below who are—well—unusually good-looking, the Captain says."
"And he has already made me acquainted with them," she laughed softly. "Kolo and Haidah are the girls. They are sweet, and I love them. I had breakfast with them this morning long before you were awake."
"The deuce you say! And that is why you were not at table? And the morning before—"
"You noticed my absence?" she asked demurely.
"It was difficult for me not to see an empty chair. On second thought, I think the young engineer called my attention to it by wondering if you were ill."
"He is very much interested in you, Miss Standish. It amuses me to see him torture the corners of his eyes to look at you. I have thought it would be only charity and good-will to change seats with him."
"In which event, of course, your eyes would not suffer."
"Have they ever suffered?"
"I think not."
"When looking at the Thlinkit girls, for instance?"
"I haven't seen them."
She gave her shoulders a little shrug.
"Ordinarily I would think you most uninteresting, Mr. Holt. As it is I think you unusual. And I rather like you for it. Would you mind taking me to my cabin? It is number sixteen, on this deck."
She walked with her fingers touching his arm again. "What is your room?" she asked.
"Twenty-seven, Miss Standish."
Not until she had said good night, quietly and without offering him her hand, did the intimacy of her last questions strike him. He grunted and lighted a fresh cigar. A number of things occurred to him all at once, as he slowly made a final round or two of the deck. Then he went to his cabin and looked over papers which were going ashore at Juneau. These were memoranda giving an account of his appearance with Carl Lomen before the Ways and Means Committee at Washington.
It was nearly midnight when he had finished. He wondered if Mary Standish was asleep. He was a little irritated, and slightly amused, by the recurring insistency with which his mind turned to her. She was a clever girl, he admitted. He had asked her nothing about herself, and she had told him nothing, while he had been quite garrulous. He was a little ashamed when he recalled how he had unburdened his mind to a girl who could not possibly be interested in the political affairs of John Graham and Alaska. Well, it was not entirely his fault. She had fairly catapulted herself upon him, and he had been decent under the circumstances, he thought.
He put out his light and stood with his face at the open port-hole. Only the soft throbbing of the vessel as she made her way slowly through the last of the Narrows into Frederick Sound came to his ears. The ship, at last, was asleep. The moon was straight overhead, no longer silhouetting the mountains, and beyond its misty rim of light the world was dark. Out of this darkness, rising like a deeper shadow, Alan could make out faintly the huge mass of Kupreanof Island. And he wondered, knowing the perils of the Narrows in places scarcely wider than the length of the ship, why Captain Rifle had chosen this course instead of going around by Cape Decision. He could feel that the land was more distant now, but the Nome was still pushing ahead under slow bell, and he could smell the fresh odor of kelp, and breathe deeply of the scent of forests that came from both east and west.
Suddenly his ears became attentive to slowly approaching footsteps. They seemed to hesitate and then advanced; he heard a subdued voice, a man's voice—and in answer to it a woman's. Instinctively he drew a step back and stood unseen in the gloom. There was no longer a sound of voices. In silence they walked past his window, clearly revealed to him in the moonlight. One of the two was Mary Standish. The man was Rossland, who had stared at her so boldly in the smoking-room.
Amazement gripped Alan. He switched on his light and made his final arrangements for bed. He had no inclination to spy upon either Mary Standish or Graham's agent, but he possessed an inborn hatred of fraud and humbug, and what he had seen convinced him that Mary Standish knew more about Rossland than she had allowed him to believe. She had not lied to him. She had said nothing at all—except to restrain him from demanding an apology. Evidently she had taken advantage of him, but beyond that fact her affairs had nothing to do with his own business in life. Possibly she and Rossland had quarreled, and now they were making up. Quite probable, he thought. Silly of him to think over the matter at all.
So he put out his light again and went to bed. But he had no great desire to sleep. It was pleasant to lie there, flat on his back, with the soothing movement of the ship under him, listening to the musical thrum of it. And it was pleasant to think of the fact that he was going home. How infernally long those seven months had been, down in the States! And how he had missed everyone he had ever known—even his enemies!
He closed his eyes and visualized the home that was still thousands of miles away—the endless tundras, the blue and purple foothills of the Endicott Mountains, and "Alan's Range" at the beginning of them. Spring was breaking up there, and it was warm on the tundras and the southern slopes, and the pussy-willow buds were popping out of their coats like corn from a hopper.
He prayed God the months had been kind to his people—the people of the range. It was a long time to be away from them, when one loved them as he did. He was sure that Tautuk and Amuk Toolik, his two chief herdsmen, would care for things as well as himself. But much could happen in seven months. Nawadlook, the little beauty of his distant kingdom, was not looking well when he left. He was worried about her. The pneumonia of the previous winters had left its mark. And Keok, her rival in prettiness! He smiled in the darkness, wondering how Tautuk's sometimes hopeless love affair had progressed. For Keok was a little heart-breaker and had long reveled in Tautuk's sufferings. An archangel of iniquity, Alan thought, as he grinned—but worth any man's risk of life, if he had but a drop of brown blood in him! As for his herds, they had undoubtedly fared well. Ten thousand head was something to be proud of—
Suddenly he drew in his breath and listened. Someone was at his door and had paused there. Twice he had heard footsteps outside, but each time they had passed. He sat up, and the springs of his berth made a sound under him. He heard movement then, a swift, running movement—and he switched on his light. A moment later he opened the door. No one was there. The long corridor was empty. And then—a distance away—he heard the soft opening and closing of another door.
It was then that his eyes saw a white, crumpled object on the floor. He picked it up and reentered his room. It was a woman's handkerchief. And he had seen it before. He had admired the pretty laciness of it that evening in the smoking-room. Rather curious, he thought, that he should now find it at his door.
For a few minutes after finding the handkerchief at his door, Alan experienced a feeling of mingled curiosity and disappointment—also a certain resentment. The suspicion that he was becoming involved in spite of himself was not altogether pleasant. The evening, up to a certain point, had been fairly entertaining. It was true he might have passed a pleasanter hour recalling old times with Stampede Smith, or discussing Kadiak bears with the English earl, or striking up an acquaintance with the unknown graybeard who had voiced an opinion about John Graham. But he was not regretting lost hours, nor was he holding Mary Standish accountable for them. It was, last of all, the handkerchief that momentarily upset him.
Why had she dropped it at his door? It was not a dangerous-looking affair, to be sure, with its filmy lace edging and ridiculous diminutiveness. As the question came to him, he was wondering how even as dainty a nose as that possessed by Mary Standish could be much comforted by it. But it was pretty. And, like Mary Standish, there was something exquisitely quiet and perfect about it, like the simplicity of her hair. He was not analyzing the matter. It was a thought that came to him almost unconsciously, as he tossed the annoying bit of fabric on the little table at the head of his berth. Undoubtedly the dropping of it had been entirely unpremeditated and accidental. At least he told himself so. And he also assured himself, with an involuntary shrug of his shoulders, that any woman or girl had the right to pass his door if she so desired, and that he was an idiot for thinking otherwise. The argument was only slightly adequate. But Alan was not interested in mysteries, especially when they had to do with woman—and such an absurdly inconsequential thing as a handkerchief.
A second time he went to bed. He fell asleep thinking about Keok and Nawadlook and the people of his range. From somewhere he had been given the priceless heritage of dreaming pleasantly, and Keok was very real, with her swift smile and mischievous face, and Nawadlook's big, soft eyes were brighter than when he had gone away. He saw Tautuk, gloomy as usual over the heartlessness of Keok. He was beating a tom-tom that gave out the peculiar sound of bells, and to this Amuk Toolik was dancing the Bear Dance, while Keok clapped her hands in exaggerated admiration. Even in his dreams Alan chuckled. He knew what was happening, and that out of the corners of her laughing eyes Keok was enjoying Tautuk's jealousy. Tautuk was so stupid he would never understand. That was the funny part of it. And he beat his drum savagely, scowling so that he almost shut his eyes, while Keok laughed outright.
It was then that Alan opened his eyes and heard the last of the ship's bells. It was still dark. He turned on the light and looked at his watch. Tautuk's drum had tolled eight bells, aboard the ship, and it was four o'clock in the morning.
Through the open port came the smell of sea and land, and with it a chill air which Alan drank in deeply as he stretched himself for a few minutes after awakening. The tang of it was like wine in his blood, and he got up quietly and dressed while he smoked the stub-end of a cigar he had laid aside at midnight. Not until he had finished dressing did he notice the handkerchief on the table. If its presence had suggested a significance a few hours before, he no longer disturbed himself by thinking about it. A bit of carelessness on the girl's part, that was all. He would return it. Mechanically he put the crumpled bit of cambric in his coat pocket before going on deck.
He had guessed that he would be alone. The promenade was deserted. Through the ghost-white mist of morning he saw the rows of empty chairs, and lights burning dully in the wheel-house. Asian monsoon and the drifting warmth of the Japan current had brought an early spring to the Alexander Archipelago, and May had stolen much of the flowering softness of June. But the dawns of these days were chilly and gray. Mists and fogs settled in the valleys, and like thin smoke rolled down the sides of the mountains to the sea, so that a ship traveling the inner waters felt its way like a child creeping in darkness.
Alan loved this idiosyncrasy of the Alaskan coast. The phantom mystery of it was stimulating, and in the peril of it was a challenging lure. He could feel the care with which the Nome was picking her way northward. Her engines were thrumming softly, and her movement was a slow and cautious glide, catlike and slightly trembling, as if every pound of steel in her were a living nerve widely alert. He knew Captain Rifle would not be asleep and that straining eyes were peering into the white gloom from the wheel-house. Somewhere west of them, hazardously near, must lie the rocks of Admiralty Island; eastward were the still more pitiless glacial sandstones and granites of the coast, with that deadly finger of sea-washed reef between, along the lip of which they must creep to Juneau. And Juneau could not be far ahead.
He leaned over the rail, puffing at the stub of his cigar. He was eager for his work. Juneau, Skagway, and Cordova meant nothing to him, except that they were Alaska. He yearned for the still farther north, the wide tundras, and the mighty achievement that lay ahead of him there. His blood sang to the surety of it now, and for that reason he was not sorry he had spent seven months of loneliness in the States. He had proved with his own eyes that the day was near when Alaska would come into her own. Gold! He laughed. Gold had its lure, its romance, its thrill, but what was all the gold the mountains might possess compared with this greater thing he was helping to build! It seemed to him the people he had met in the south had thought only of gold when they learned he was from Alaska. Always gold—that first, and then ice, snow, endless nights, desolate barrens, and craggy mountains frowning everlastingly upon a blasted land in which men fought against odds and only the fittest survived. It was gold that had been Alaska's doom. When people thought of it, they visioned nothing beyond the old stampede days, the Chilkoot, White Horse, Dawson, and Circle City. Romance and glamor and the tragedies of dead men clung to their ribs. But they were beginning to believe now. Their eyes were opening. Even the Government was waking up, after proving there was something besides graft in railroad building north of Mount St. Elias. Senators and Congressmen at Washington had listened to him seriously, and especially to Carl Lomen. And the beef barons, wisest of all, had tried to buy him off and had offered a fortune for Lomen's forty thousand head of reindeer in the Seward Peninsula! That was proof of the awakening. Absolute proof.
He lighted a fresh cigar, and his mind shot through the dissolving mist into the vast land ahead of him. Some Alaskans had cursed Theodore Roosevelt for putting what they called "the conservation shackles" on their country. But he, for one, did not. Roosevelt's far-sightedness had kept the body-snatchers at bay, and because he had foreseen what money-power and greed would do, Alaska was not entirely stripped today, but lay ready to serve with all her mighty resources the mother who had neglected her for a generation. But it was going to be a struggle, this opening up of a great land. It must be done resourcefully and with intelligence. Once the bars were down, Roosevelt's shadow-hand could not hold back such desecrating forces as John Graham and the syndicate he represented.
Thought of Graham was an unpleasant reminder, and his face grew hard in the sea-mist. Alaskans themselves must fight against the licensed plunderers. And it would be a hard fight. He had seen the pillaging work of these financial brigands in a dozen states during the past winter—states raped of their forests, their lakes and streams robbed and polluted, their resources hewn down to naked skeletons. He had been horrified and a little frightened when he looked over the desolation of Michigan, once the richest timber state in America. What if the Government at Washington made it possible for such a thing to happen in Alaska? Politics—and money—were already fighting for just that thing.
He no longer heard the throb of the ship under his feet. It was his fight, and brain and muscle reacted to it almost as if it had been a physical thing. And his end of that fight he was determined to win, if it took every year of his life. He, with a few others, would prove to the world that the millions of acres of treeless tundras of the north were not the cast-off ends of the earth. They would populate them, and the so-called "barrens" would thunder to the innumerable hoofs of reindeer herds as the American plains had never thundered to the beat of cattle. He was not thinking of the treasure he would find at the end of this rainbow of success which he visioned. Money, simply as money, he hated. It was the achievement of the thing that gripped him; the passion to hew a trail through which his beloved land might come into its own, and the desire to see it achieve a final triumph by feeding a half of that America which had laughed at it and kicked it when it was down.
The tolling of the ship's bell roused him from the subconscious struggle into which he had allowed himself to be drawn. Ordinarily he had no sympathy with himself when he fell into one of these mental spasms, as he called them. Without knowing it, he was a little proud of a certain dispassionate tolerance which he possessed—a philosophical mastery of his emotions which at times was almost cold-blooded, and which made some people think he was a thing of stone instead of flesh and blood. His thrills he kept to himself. And a mildly disturbing sensation passed through him now, when he found that unconsciously his fingers had twined themselves about the little handkerchief in his pocket. He drew it out and made a sudden movement as if to toss it overboard. Then, with a grunt expressive of the absurdity of the thing, he replaced it in his pocket and began to walk slowly toward the bow of the ship.
He wondered, as he noted the lifting of the fog, what he would have been had he possessed a sister like Mary Standish. Or any family at all, for that matter—even an uncle or two who might have been interested in him. He remembered his father vividly, his mother a little less so, because his mother had died when he was six and his father when he was twenty. It was his father who stood out above everything else, like the mountains he loved. The father would remain with him always, inspiring him, urging him, encouraging him to live like a gentleman, fight like a man, and die at last unafraid. In that fashion the older Alan Holt had lived and died. But his mother, her face and voice scarcely remembered in the passing of many years, was more a hallowed memory to him than a thing of flesh and blood. And there had been no sisters or brothers. Often he had regretted this lack of brotherhood. But a sister.... He grunted his disapprobation of the thought. A sister would have meant enchainment to civilization. Cities, probably. Even the States. And slavery to a life he detested. He appreciated the immensity of his freedom. A Mary Standish, even though she were his sister, would be a catastrophe. He could not conceive of her, or any other woman like her, living with Keok and Nawadlook and the rest of his people in the heart of the tundras. And the tundras would always be his home, because his heart was there.
He had passed round the wheel-house and came suddenly upon an odd figure crumpled in a chair. It was Stampede Smith. In the clearer light that came with the dissolution of the sea-mist Alan saw that he was not asleep. He paused, unseen by the other. Stampede stretched himself, groaned, and stood up. He was a little man, and his fiercely bristling red whiskers, wet with dew, were luxuriant enough for a giant. His head of tawny hair, bristling like his whiskers, added to the piratical effect of him above the neck, but below that part of his anatomy there was little to strike fear into the hearts of humanity. Some people smiled when they looked at him. Others, not knowing their man, laughed outright. Whiskers could be funny. And they were undoubtedly funny on Stampede Smith. But Alan neither smiled nor laughed, for in his heart was something very near to the missing love of brotherhood for this little man who had written his name across so many pages of Alaskan history.
This morning, as Alan saw him, Stampede Smith was no longer the swiftest gunman between White Horse and Dawson City. He was a pathetic reminder of the old days when, single-handed, he had run down Soapy Smith and his gang—days when the going of Stampede Smith to new fields meant a stampede behind him, and when his name was mentioned in the same breath with those of George Carmack, and Alex McDonald, and Jerome Chute, and a hundred men like Curley Monroe and Joe Barret set their compasses by his. To Alan there was tragedy in his aloneness as he stood in the gray of the morning. Twenty times a millionaire, he knew that Stampede Smith was broke again.
"Good morning," he said so unexpectedly that the little man jerked himself round like the lash of a whip, a trick of the old gun days. "Why so much loneliness, Stampede?"
Stampede grinned wryly. He had humorous, blue eyes, buried like an Airedale's under brows which bristled even more fiercely than his whiskers. "I'm thinkin'," said he, "what a fool thing is money. Good mornin', Alan!"
He nodded and chuckled, and continued to chuckle in the face of the lifting fog, and Alan saw the old humor which had always been Stampede's last asset when in trouble. He drew nearer and stood beside him, so that their shoulders touched as they leaned over the rail.
"Alan," said Stampede, "it ain't often I have a big thought, but I've been having one all night. Ain't forgot Bonanza, have you?"
Alan shook his head. "As long as there is an Alaska, we won't forget Bonanza, Stampede."
"I took a million out of it, next to Carmack's Discovery—an' went busted afterward, didn't I?"
Alan nodded without speaking.
"But that wasn't a circumstance to Gold Run Creek, over the Divide," Stampede continued ruminatively. "Ain't forgot old Aleck McDonald, the Scotchman, have you, Alan? In the 'wash' of Ninety-eight we took up seventy sacks to bring our gold back in and we lacked thirty of doin' the job. Nine hundred thousand dollars in a single clean-up, and that was only the beginning. Well, I went busted again. And old Aleck went busted later on. But he had a pretty wife left. A girl from Seattle. I had to grub-stake."
He was silent for a moment, caressing his damp whiskers, as he noted the first rose-flush of the sun breaking through the mist between them and the unseen mountain tops.
"Five times after that I made strikes and went busted," he said a little proudly. "And I'm busted again!"
"I know it," sympathized Alan.
"They took every cent away from me down in Seattle an' Frisco," chuckled Stampede, rubbing his hands together cheerfully, "an' then bought me a ticket to Nome. Mighty fine of them, don't you think? Couldn't have been more decent. I knew that fellow Kopf had a heart. That's why I trusted him with my money. It wasn't his fault he lost it."
"Of course not," agreed Alan.
"And I'm sort of sorry I shot him up for it. I am, for a fact."
"You killed him?"
"Not quite. I clipped one ear off as a reminder, down in Chink Holleran's place. Mighty sorry. Didn't think then how decent it was of him to buy me a ticket to Nome. I just let go in the heat of the moment. He did me a favor in cleanin' me, Alan. He did, so help me! You don't realize how free an' easy an' beautiful everything is until you're busted."
Smiling, his odd face almost boyish behind its ambush of hair, he saw the grim look in Alan's eyes and about his jaws. He caught hold of the other's arm and shook it.
"Alan, I mean it!" he declared. "That's why I think money is a fool thing. It ain't spendin' money that makes me happy. It's findin' it—the gold in the mountains—that makes the blood run fast through my gizzard. After I've found it, I can't find any use for it in particular. I want to go broke. If I didn't, I'd get lazy and fat, an' some newfangled doctor would operate on me, and I'd die. They're doing a lot of that operatin' down in Frisco, Alan. One day I had a pain, and they wanted to cut out something from inside me. Think what can happen to a man when he's got money!"
"You mean all that, Stampede?"
"On my life, I do. I'm just aching for the open skies, Alan. The mountains. And the yellow stuff that's going to be my playmate till I die. Somebody'll grub-stake me in Nome."
"They won't," said Alan suddenly. "Not if I can help it. Stampede, I want you. I want you with me up under the Endicott Mountains. I've got ten thousand reindeer up there. It's No Man's Land, and we can do as we please in it. I'm not after gold. I want another sort of thing. But I've fancied the Endicott ranges are full of that yellow playmate of yours. It's a new country. You've never seen it. God only knows what you may find. Will you come?"
The humorous twinkle had gone out of Stampede's eyes. He was staring at Alan.
"Will I come? Alan, will a cub nurse its mother? Try me. Ask me. Say it all over ag'in."
The two men gripped hands. Smiling, Alan nodded to the east. The last of the fog was clearing swiftly. The tips of the cragged Alaskan ranges rose up against the blue of a cloudless sky, and the morning sun was flashing in rose and gold at their snowy peaks. Stampede also nodded. Speech was unnecessary. They both understood, and the thrill of the life they loved passed from one to the other in the grip of their hands.
Breakfast hour was half over when Alan went into the dining-room. There were only two empty chairs at his table. One was his own. The other belonged to Mary Standish. There was something almost aggressively suggestive in their simultaneous vacancy, it struck him at first. He nodded as he sat down, a flash of amusement in his eyes when he observed the look in the young engineer's face. It was both envious and accusing, and yet Alan was sure the young man was unconscious of betraying an emotion. The fact lent to the eating of his grapefruit an accompaniment of pleasing and amusing thought. He recalled the young man's name. It was Tucker. He was a clean-faced, athletic, likable-looking chap. And an idiot would have guessed the truth, Alan told himself. The young engineer was more than casually interested in Mary Standish; he was in love. It was not a discovery which Alan made. It was a decision, and as soon as possible he would remedy the unfortunate omission of a general introduction at their table by bringing the two together. Such an introduction would undoubtedly relieve him of a certain responsibility which had persisted in attaching itself to him.
So he tried to think. But in spite of his resolution he could not get the empty chair opposite him out of his mind. It refused to be obliterated, and when other chairs became vacant as their owners left the table, this one straight across from him continued to thrust itself upon him. Until this morning it had been like other empty chairs. Now it was persistently annoying, inasmuch as he had no desire to be so constantly reminded of last night, and the twelve o'clock tryst of Mary Standish with Graham's agent, Rossland.
He was the last at the table. Tucker, remaining until his final hope of seeing Mary Standish was gone, rose with two others. The first two had made their exit through the door leading from the dining salon when the young engineer paused. Alan, watching him, saw a sudden change in his face. In a moment it was explained. Mary Standish came in. She passed Tucker without appearing to notice him, and gave Alan a cool little nod as she seated herself at the table. She was very pale. He could see nothing of the flush of color that had been in her cheeks last night. As she bowed her head a little, arranging her dress, a pool of sunlight played in her hair, and Alan was staring at it when she raised her eyes. They were coolly beautiful, very direct, and without embarrassment. Something inside him challenged their loveliness. It seemed inconceivable that such eyes could play a part in fraud and deception, yet he was in possession of quite conclusive proof of it. If they had lowered themselves an instant, if they had in any way betrayed a shadow of regret, he would have found an apology. Instead of that, his fingers touched the handkerchief in his pocket.
"Did you sleep well, Miss Standish?" he asked politely.
"Not at all," she replied, so frankly that his conviction was a bit unsettled. "I tried to powder away the dark rings under my eyes, but I am afraid I have failed. Is that why you ask?"
He was holding the handkerchief in his hand. "This is the first morning I have seen you at breakfast. I accepted it for granted you must have slept well. Is this yours, Miss Standish?"
He watched her face as she took the crumpled bit of cambric from his fingers. In a moment she was smiling. The smile was not forced. It was the quick response to a feminine instinct of pleasure, and he was disappointed not to catch in her face a betrayal of embarrassment.
"It is my handkerchief, Mr. Holt. Where did you find it?"
"In front of my cabin door a little after midnight."
He was almost brutal in the definiteness of detail. He expected some kind of result. But there was none, except that the smile remained on her lips a moment longer, and there was a laughing flash back in the clear depths of her eyes. Her level glance was as innocent as a child's and as he looked at her, he thought of a child—a most beautiful child—and so utterly did he feel the discomfiture of his mental analysis of her that he rose to his feet with a frigid bow.
"I thank you, Mr. Holt," she said. "You can imagine my sense of obligation when I tell you I have only three handkerchiefs aboard the ship with me. And this is my favorite."
She busied herself with the breakfast card, and as Alan left, he heard her give the waiter an order for fruit and cereal. His blood was hot, but the flush of it did not show in his face. He felt the uncomfortable sensation of her eyes following him as he stalked through the door. He did not look back. Something was wrong with him, and he knew it. This chit of a girl with her smooth hair and clear eyes had thrown a grain of dust into the satisfactory mechanism of his normal self, and the grind of it was upsetting certain specific formulae which made up his life. He was a fool. He lighted a cigar and called himself names.
Someone brushed against him, jarring the hand that held the burning match. He looked up. It was Rossland. The man had a mere twist of a smile on his lips. In his eyes was a coolly appraising look as he nodded.
"Beg pardon." The words were condescending, carelessly flung at him over Rossland's shoulder. He might as well have said, "I'm sorry, Boy, but you must keep out of my way."
Alan smiled back and returned the nod. Once, in a spirit of sauciness, Keok had told him his eyes were like purring cats when he was in a humor to kill. They were like that now as they flashed their smile at Rossland. The sneering twist left Rossland's lips as he entered the dining-room.
A rather obvious prearrangement between Mary Standish and John Graham's agent, Alan thought. There were not half a dozen people left at the tables, and the scheme was that Rossland should be served tete-a-tete with Miss Standish, of course. That, apparently, was why she had greeted him with such cool civility. Her anxiety for him to leave the table before Rossland appeared upon the scene was evident, now that he understood the situation.
He puffed at his cigar. Rossland's interference had spoiled a perfect lighting of it, and he struck another match. This time he was successful, and he was about to extinguish the burning end when he hesitated and held it until the fire touched his flesh. Mary Standish was coming through the door. Amazed by the suddenness of her appearance, he made no movement except to drop the match. Her eyes were flaming, and two vivid spots burned in her cheeks. She saw him and gave the slightest inclination to her head as she passed. When she had gone, he could not resist looking into the salon. As he expected, Rossland was seated in a chair next to the one she had occupied, and was calmly engaged in looking over the breakfast card.
All this was rather interesting, Alan conceded, if one liked puzzles. Personally he had no desire to become an answerer of conundrums, and he was a little ashamed of the curiosity that had urged him to look in upon Rossland. At the same time he was mildly elated at the freezing reception which Miss Standish had evidently given to the dislikable individual who had jostled him in passing.
He went on deck. The sun was pouring in an iridescent splendor over the snowy peaks of the mountains, and it seemed as if he could almost reach out his arms and touch them. The Nome appeared to be drifting in the heart of a paradise of mountains. Eastward, very near, was the mainland; so close on the other hand that he could hear the shout of a man was Douglas Island, and ahead, reaching out like a silver-blue ribbon was Gastineau Channel. The mining towns of Treadwell and Douglas were in sight.
Someone nudged him, and he found Stampede Smith at his side.
"That's Bill Treadwell's place," he said. "Once the richest gold mines in Alaska. They're flooded now. I knew Bill when he was worrying about the price of a pair of boots. Had to buy a second-hand pair an' patched 'em himself. Then he struck it lucky, got four hundred dollars somewhere, and bought some claims over there from a man named French Pete. They called it Glory Hole. An' there was a time when there were nine hundred stamps at work. Take a look, Alan. It's worth it."
Somehow Stampede's voice and information lacked appeal. The decks were crowded with passengers as the ship picked her way into Juneau, and Alan wandered among them with a gathering sense of disillusionment pressing upon him. He knew that he was looking with more than casual interest for Mary Standish, and he was glad when Stampede bumped into an old acquaintance and permitted him to be alone. He was not pleased with the discovery, and yet he was compelled to acknowledge the truth of it. The grain of dust had become more than annoying. It did not wear away, as he had supposed it would, but was becoming an obsessive factor in his thoughts. And the half-desire it built up in him, while aggravatingly persistent, was less disturbing than before. The little drama in the dining-room had had its effect upon him in spite of himself. He liked fighters. And Mary Standish, intensely feminine in her quiet prettiness, had shown her mettle in those few moments when he had seen her flashing eyes and blazing cheeks after leaving Rossland. He began to look for Rossland, too. He was in a humor to meet him.
Not until Juneau hung before him in all its picturesque beauty, literally terraced against the green sweep of Mount Juneau, did he go down to the lower deck. The few passengers ready to leave the ship gathered near the gangway with their luggage. Alan was about to pass them when he suddenly stopped. A short distance from him, where he could see every person who disembarked, stood Rossland. There was something grimly unpleasant in his attitude as he fumbled his watch-fob and eyed the stair from above. His watchfulness sent an unexpected thrill through Alan. Like a shot his mind jumped to a conclusion. He stepped to Rossland's side and touched his arm.
"Watching for Miss Standish?" he asked.
"I am." There was no evasion in Rossland's words. They possessed the hard and definite quality of one who had an incontestable authority behind him.
"And if she goes ashore?"
"I am going too. Is it any affair of yours, Mr. Holt? Has she asked you to discuss the matter with me? If so—"
"No, Miss Standish hasn't done that."
"Then please attend to your own business. If you haven't enough to take up your time, I'll lend you some books. I have several in my cabin."
Without waiting for an answer Rossland coolly moved away. Alan did not follow. There was nothing for him to resent, nothing for him to imprecate but his own folly. Rossland's words were not an insult. They were truth. He had deliberately intruded in an affair which was undoubtedly of a highly private nature. Possibly it was a domestic tangle. He shuddered. A sense of humiliation swept over him, and he was glad that Rossland did not even look back at him. He tried to whistle as he climbed back to the main-deck; Rossland, even though he detested the man, had set him right. And he would lend him books, if he wanted to be amused! Egad, but the fellow had turned the trick nicely. And it was something to be remembered. He stiffened his shoulders and found old Donald Hardwick and Stampede Smith. He did not leave them until the Nome had landed her passengers and freight and was churning her way out of Gastineau Channel toward Skagway. Then he went to the smoking-room and remained there until luncheon hour.
Today Mary Standish was ahead of him at the table. She was seated with her back toward him as he entered, so she did not see him as he came up behind her, so near that his coat brushed her chair. He looked across at her and smiled as he seated himself. She returned the smile, but it seemed to him an apologetic little effort. She did not look well, and her presence at the table struck him as being a brave front to hide something from someone. Casually he looked over his left shoulder. Rossland was there, in his seat at the opposite side of the room. Indirect as his glance had been, Alan saw the girl understood the significance of it. She bowed her head a little, and her long lashes shaded her eyes for a moment. He wondered why he always looked at her hair first. It had a peculiarly pleasing effect on him. He had been observant enough to know that she had rearranged it since breakfast, and the smooth coils twisted in mysterious intricacy at the crown of her head were like softly glowing velvet. The ridiculous thought came to him that he would like to see them tumbling down about her. They must be even more beautiful when freed from their bondage.
The pallor of her face was unusual. Possibly it was the way the light fell upon her through the window. But when she looked across at him again, he caught for an instant the tiniest quiver about her mouth. He began telling her something about Skagway, quite carelessly, as if he had seen nothing which she might want to conceal. The light in her eyes changed, and it was almost a glow of gratitude he caught in them. He had broken a tension, relieved her of some unaccountable strain she was under. He noticed that her ordering of food was merely a pretense. She scarcely touched it, and yet he was sure no other person at the table had discovered the insincerity of her effort, not even Tucker, the enamored engineer. It was likely Tucker placed a delicate halo about her lack of appetite, accepting daintiness of that sort as an angelic virtue.
Only Alan, sitting opposite her, guessed the truth. She was making a splendid effort, but he felt that every nerve in her body was at the breaking-point. When she arose from her seat, he thrust back his own chair. At the same time he saw Rossland get up and advance rather hurriedly from the opposite side of the room. The girl passed through the door first, Rossland followed a dozen steps behind, and Alan came last, almost shoulder to shoulder with Tucker. It was amusing in a way, yet beyond the humor of it was something that drew a grim line about the corners of his mouth.
At the foot of the luxuriously carpeted stair leading from the dining salon to the main deck Miss Standish suddenly stopped and turned upon Rossland. For only an instant her eyes were leveled at him. Then they flashed past him, and with a swift movement she came toward Alan. A flush had leaped into her cheeks, but there was no excitement in her voice when she spoke. Yet it was distinct, and clearly heard by Rossland.
"I understand we are approaching Skagway, Mr. Holt," she said. "Will you take me on deck, and tell me about it?"
Graham's agent had paused at the foot of the stair and was slowly preparing to light a cigarette. Recalling his humiliation of a few hours before at Juneau, when the other had very clearly proved him a meddler, words refused to form quickly on Alan's lips. Before he was ready with an answer Mary Standish had confidently taken his arm. He could see the red flush deepening in her upturned face. She was amazingly unexpected, bewilderingly pretty, and as cool as ice except for the softly glowing fire in her cheeks. He saw Rossland staring with his cigarette half poised. It was instinctive for him to smile in the face of danger, and he smiled now, without speaking. The girl laughed softly. She gave his arm a gentle tug, and he found himself moving past Rossland, amazed but obedient, her eyes looking at him in a way that sent a gentle thrill through him.
At the head of the wide stair she whispered, with her lips close to his shoulder: "You are splendid! I thank you, Mr. Holt."
Her words, along with the decisive relaxing of her hand upon his arm, were like a dash of cold water in his face. Rossland could no longer see them, unless he had followed. The girl had played her part, and a second time he had accepted the role of a slow-witted fool. But the thought did not anger him. There was a remarkable element of humor about it for him, viewing himself in the matter, and Mary Standish heard him chuckling as they came out on deck.
Her fingers tightened resentfully upon his arm. "It isn't funny," she reproved. "It is tragic to be bored by a man like that."
He knew she was politely lying to anticipate the question he might ask, and he wondered what would happen if he embarrassed her by letting her know he had seen her alone with Rossland at midnight. He looked down at her, and she met his scrutiny unflinchingly. She even smiled at him, and her eyes, he thought, were the loveliest liars he had ever looked into. He felt the stir of an unusual sentiment—a sort of pride in her, and he made up his mind to say nothing about Rossland. He was still absurdly convinced that he had not the smallest interest in affairs which were not entirely his own. Mary Standish evidently believed he was blind, and he would make no effort to spoil her illusion. Such a course would undoubtedly be most satisfactory in the end.