By REX BEACH
Author of "THE AUCTION BLOCK" "RAINBOW'S END" "THE IRON TRAIL" Etc.
THIS BOOK IS LOVINGLY DEDICATED TO MY MOTHER
I. THE ENCOUNTER
II. THE STOWAWAY
III. IN WHICH GLENISTER ERRS
IV. THE KILLING
V. WHEREIN A MAN APPEARS
VI. AND A MINE IS JUMPED
VII. THE "BRONCO KID'S" EAVESDROPPING
VIII. DEXTRY MAKES A CALL
IX. SLUICE ROBBERS
X. THE WIT OF AN ADVENTURESS
XI. WHEREIN A WRIT AND A RIOT FAIL
XIII. IN WHICH A MAN IS POSSESSED OF A DEVIL
XIV. A MIDNIGHT MESSENGER
XVI. IN WHICH THE TRUTH BEGINS TO BARE ITSELF
XVII. THE DRIP OF WATER IN THE DARK
XVIII. WHEREIN A TRAP IS BAITED
XX. IN WHICH THREE GO TO THE SIGN OF THE SLED AND BUT TWO RETURN
XXI. THE HAMMER-LOCK
XXII. THE PROMISE OF DREAMS
Glenister gazed out over the harbor, agleam with the lights of anchored ships, then up at the crenelated mountains, black against the sky. He drank the cool air burdened with its taints of the sea, while the blood of his boyhood leaped within him.
"Oh, it's fine—fine," he murmured, "and this is my country—my country, after all, Dex. It's in my veins, this hunger for the North. I grow. I expand."
"Careful you don't bust," warned Dextry. "I've seen men get plumb drunk on mountain air. Don't expand too strong in one spot." He went back abruptly to his pipe, its villanous fumes promptly averting any danger of the air's too tonic quality.
"Gad! What a smudge!" sniffed the younger man. "You ought to be in quarantine."
"I'd ruther smell like a man than talk like a kid. You desecrate the hour of meditation with rhapsodies on nature when your aesthetics ain't honed up to the beauties of good tobacco."
The other laughed, inflating his deep chest. In the gloom he stretched his muscles restlessly, as though an excess of vigor filled him.
They were lounging upon the dock, while before them lay the Santa Maria ready for her midnight sailing. Behind slept Unalaska, quaint, antique, and Russian, rusting amid the fogs of Bering Sea. Where, a week before, mild-eyed natives had dried their cod among the old bronze cannon, now a frenzied horde of gold-seekers paused in their rush to the new El Dorado. They had come like a locust cloud, thousands strong, settling on the edge of the Smoky Sea, waiting the going of the ice that barred them from their Golden Fleece—from Nome the new, where men found fortune in a night.
The mossy hills back of the village were ridged with graves of those who had died on the out-trip the fall before, when a plague had gripped the land—but what of that? Gold glittered in the sands, so said the survivors; therefore men came in armies. Glenister and Dextry had left Nome the autumn previous, the young man raving with fever. Now they returned to their own land.
"This air whets every animal instinct in me," Glenister broke out again. "Away from the cities I turn savage. I feel the old primitive passions—the fret for fighting."
"Mebbe you'll have a chance."
"Well, it's this way. I met Mexico Mullins this mornin'. You mind old Mexico, don't you? The feller that relocated Discovery Claim on Anvil Creek last summer?"
"You don't mean that 'tin-horn' the boys were going to lynch for claim-jumping?"
"Identical! Remember me tellin' you about a good turn I done him once down Guadalupe way?"
"Greaser shooting-scrape, wasn't it?"
"Yep! Well, I noticed first off that he's gettin fat; high-livin' fat, too, all in one spot, like he was playin' both ends ag'in the centre. Also he wore di'mon's fit to handle with ice-tongs.
"Says I, lookin' at his side elevation, 'What's accented your middle syllable so strong, Mexico?'
"'Prosperity, politics, an' the Waldorf-Astorier,' says he. It seems Mex hadn't forgot old days. He claws me into a corner an' says, 'Bill, I'm goin' to pay you back for that Moralez deal.'
"'It ain't comin' to me,' says I. 'That's a bygone!'
"'Listen here,' says he, an', seein' he was in earnest, I let him run on.
"'How much do you value that claim o' yourn at?'
'"Hard tellin',' says I. 'If she holds out like she run last fall, there'd ought to be a million clear in her."
"'How much'll you clean up this summer?'
"''Bout four hundred thousand, with luck.'
"'Bill,' says he, 'there's hell a-poppin' an' you've got to watch that ground like you'd watch a rattle-snake. Don't never leave 'em get a grip on it or you're down an' out.'
"He was so plumb in earnest it scared me up, 'cause Mexico ain't a gabby man.
"'What do you mean?' says I.
"'I can't tell you nothin' more. I'm puttin' a string on my own neck, sayin' THIS much. You're a square man, Bill, an' I'm a gambler, but you saved my life oncet, an' I wouldn't steer you wrong. For God's sake, don't let 'em jump your ground, that's all.'
"'Let who jump it? Congress has give us judges an' courts an' marshals—' I begins.
"'That's just it. How you goin' to buck that hand? Them's the best cards in the deck. There's a man comin' by the name of McNamara. Watch him clost. I can't tell you no more. But don't never let 'em get a grip on your ground.' That's all he'd say."
"Bah! He's crazy! I wish somebody would try to jump the Midas; we'd enjoy the exercise."
The siren of the Santa Maria interrupted, its hoarse warning throbbing up the mountain.
"We'll have to get aboard," said Dextry.
"Sh-h! What's that?" the other whispered.
At first the only sound they heard was a stir from the deck of the steamer. Then from the water below them came the rattle of rowlocks and a voice cautiously muffled.
"Stop! Stop there!"
A skiff burst from the darkness, grounding on the beach beneath. A figure scrambled out and up the ladder leading to the wharf. Immediately a second boat, plainly in pursuit of the first one, struck on the beach behind it.
As the escaping figure mounted to their level the watchers perceived with amazement that it was a young woman. Breath sobbed from her lungs, and, stumbling, she would have fallen but for Glenister, who ran forward and helped her to her feet.
"Don't let them get me," she panted.
He turned to his partner in puzzled inquiry, but found that the old man had crossed to the head of the landing ladder up which the pursuers were climbing.
"Just a minute—you there! Back up or I'll kick your face in." Dextry's voice was sharp and unexpected, and in the darkness he loomed tall and menacing to those below.
"Get out of the way. That woman's a runaway," came from the one highest on the ladder.
"So I jedge."
"She broke qu—"
"Shut up!" broke in another. "Do you want to advertise it? Get out of the way, there, ye damn fool! Climb up, Thorsen." He spoke like a bucko mate, and his words stirred the bile of Dextry.
Thorsen grasped the dock floor, trying to climb up, but the old miner stamped on his fingers and the sailor loosened his hold with a yell, carrying the under men with him to the beach in his fall.
"This way! Follow me!" shouted the mate, making up the bank for the shore end of the wharf.
"You'd better pull your freight, miss," Dextry remarked; "they'll be here in a minute."
"Yes, yes! Let us go! I must get aboard the Santa Maria. She's leaving now. Come, come!"
Glenister laughed, as though there were a humorous touch in her remark, but did not stir.
"I'm gettin' awful old an' stiff to run," said Dextry, removing his mackinaw, "but I allow I ain't too old for a little diversion in the way of a rough-house when it comes nosin' around." He moved lightly, though the girl could see in the half-darkness that his hair was silvery.
"What do you mean?" she questioned, sharply.
"You hurry along, miss; we'll toy with 'em till you're aboard." They stepped across to the dockhouse, backing against it. The girl followed.
Again came the warning blast from the steamer, and the voice of an officer:
"Clear away that stern line!"
"Oh, we'll be left!" she breathed, and somehow it struck Glenister that she feared this more than the men whose approaching feet he heard.
"YOU can make it all right," he urged her, roughly. "You'll get hurt if you stay here. Run along and don't mind us. We've been thirty days on shipboard, and were praying for something to happen." His voice was boyishly glad, as if he exulted in the fray that was to come; and no sooner had he spoken than the sailors came out of the darkness upon them.
During the space of a few heart-beats there was only a tangle of whirling forms with the sound of fist on flesh, then the blot split up and forms plunged outward, falling heavily. Again the sailors rushed, attempting to clinch. They massed upon Dextry only to grasp empty air, for he shifted with remarkable agility, striking bitterly, as an old wolf snaps. It was baffling work, however, for in the darkness his blows fell short or overreached.
Glenister, on the other hand, stood carelessly, beating the men off as they came to him. He laughed gloatingly, deep in his throat, as though the encounter were merely some rough sport. The girl shuddered, for the desperate silence of the attacking men terrified her more than a din, and yet she stayed, crouched against the wall.
Dextry swung at a dim target, and, missing it, was whirled off his balance. Instantly his antagonist grappled with him, and they fell to the floor, while a third man shuffled about them. The girl throttled a scream.
"I'm goin' to kick 'im, Bill," the man panted hoarsely. "Le' me fix 'im." He swung his heavy shoe, and Bill cursed with stirring eloquence.
"Ow! You're kickin' me! I've got 'im, safe enough. Tackle the big un."
Bill's ally then started towards the others, his body bent, his arms flexed yet hanging loosely. He crouched beside the girl, ignoring her, while she heard the breath wheezing from his lungs; then silently he leaped. Glenister had hurled a man from him, then stepped back to avoid the others, when he was seized from behind and felt the man's arms wrapped about his neck, the sailor's legs locked about his thighs. Now came the girl's first knowledge of real fighting. The two spun back and forth so closely entwined as to be indistinguishable, the others holding off. For what seemed many minutes they struggled, the young man striving to reach his adversary, till they crashed against the wall near her and she heard her champion's breath coughing in his throat at the tightening grip of the sailor. Fright held her paralyzed, for she had never seen men thus. A moment and Glenister would be down beneath their stamping feet—they would kick his life out with their heavy shoes. At thought of it, the necessity of action smote her like a blow in the face. Her terror fell away, her shaking muscles stiffened, and before realizing what she did she had acted.
The seaman's back was to her. She reached out and gripped him by the hair, while her fingers, tense as talons, sought his eyes. Then the first loud sound of the battle arose. The man yelled in sudden terror; and the others as suddenly fell back. The next instant she felt a hand upon her shoulder and heard Dextry's voice.
"Are ye hurt? No? Come on, then, or we'll get left." He spoke quietly, though his breath was loud, and, glancing down, she saw the huddled form of the sailor whom he had fought.
"That's all right—he ain't hurt. It's a Jap trick I learned. Hurry up!"
They ran swiftly down the wharf, followed by Glenister and by the groans of the sailors in whom the lust for combat had been quenched. As they scrambled up the Santa Maria's gang-plank, a strip of water widened between the boat and the pier.
"Close shave, that," panted Glenister, feeling his throat gingerly, "but I wouldn't have missed it for a spotted pup."
"I've been through b'iler explosions and snowslides, not to mention a triflin' jail-delivery, but fer real sprightly diversions I don't recall nothin' more pleasin' than this." Dextry's enthusiasm was boylike.
"What kind of men are you?" the girl laughed nervously, but got no answer.
They led her to their deck cabin, where they switched on the electric light, blinking at each other and at their unknown guest.
They saw a graceful and altogether attractive figure in a trim, short skirt and long, tan boots. But what Glenister first saw was her eyes; large and gray, almost brown under the electric light. They were active eyes, he thought, and they flashed swift, comprehensive glances at the two men. Her hair had fallen loose and crinkled to her waist, all agleam. Otherwise she showed no sign of her recent ordeal.
Glenister had been prepared for the type of beauty that follows the frontier; beauty that may stun, but that has the polish and chill of a new-ground bowie. Instead, this girl with the calm, reposeful face struck a note almost painfully different from her surroundings, suggesting countless pleasant things that had been strange to him for the past few years.
Pure admiration alone was patent in the older man's gaze.
"I make oration," said he, "that you're the gamest little chap I ever fought over, Mexikin, Injun, or white. What's the trouble?"
"I suppose you think I've done something dreadful, don't you?" she said. "But I haven't. I had to get away from the Ohio to-night for—certain reasons. I'll tell you all about it to-morrow. I haven't stolen anything, nor poisoned the crew—really I haven't." She smiled at them, and Glenister found it impossible not to smile with her, though dismayed by her feeble explanation.
"Well, I'll wake up the steward and find a place for you to go," he said at length. "You'll have to double up with some of the women, though; it's awfully crowded aboard."
She laid a detaining hand on his arm. He thought he felt her tremble.
"No, no! I don't want you to do that. They mustn't see me to- night. I know I'm acting strangely and all that, but it's happened so quickly I haven't found myself yet. I'll tell you to-morrow, though, really. Don't let any one see me or it will spoil everything. Wait till to-morrow, please."
She was very white, and spoke with eager intensity.
"Help you? Why, sure Mike!" assured the impulsive Dextry, "an', see here, Miss—you take your time on explanations. We don't care a cuss what you done. Morals ain't our long suit, 'cause 'there's never a law of God or man runs north of Fifty-three,' as the poetry man remarked, an' he couldn't have spoke truer if he'd knowed what he was sayin'. Everybody is privileged to 'look out' his own game up here. A square deal an' no questions asked."
She looked somewhat doubtful at this till she caught the heat of Glenister's gaze. Some boldness of his look brought home to her the actual situation, and a stain rose in her cheek. She noted him more carefully; noted his heavy shoulders and ease of bearing, an ease and looseness begotten of perfect muscular control. Strength was equally suggested in his face, she thought, for he carried a marked young countenance, with thrusting chin, aggressive thatching brows, and mobile mouth that whispered all the changes from strength to abandon. Prominent was a look of reckless energy. She considered him handsome in a heavy, virile, perhaps too purely physical fashion.
"You want to stowaway?" he asked.
"I've had a right smart experience in that line," said Dextry, "but I never done it by proxy. What's your plan?"
"She will stay here to-night," said Glenister quickly. "You and I will go below. Nobody will see her."
"I can't let you do that," she objected. "Isn't there some place where I can hide?" But they reassured her and left.
When they had gone, she crouched trembling upon her seat for a long time, gazing fixedly before her. "I'm afraid!" she whispered; "I'm afraid. What am I getting into? Why do men look so at me? I'm frightened. Oh, I'm sorry I undertook it." At last she rose wearily. The close cabin oppressed her; she felt the need of fresh air. So, turning out the lights, she stepped forth into the night. Figures loomed near the rail and she slipped astern, screening herself behind a life-boat, where the cool breeze fanned her face.
The forms she had seen approached, speaking earnestly. Instead of passing, they stopped abreast of her hiding-place; then, as they began to talk, she saw that her retreat was cut off and that she must not stir.
"What brings her here?" Glenister was echoing a question of Dextry's. "Bah! What brings them all? What brought 'the Duchess,' and Cherry Malotte, and all the rest?"
"No, no," said the old man. "She ain't that kind—she's too fine, too delicate—too pretty."
"That's just it—too pretty! Too pretty to be alone—or anything except what she is."
Dextry growled sourly. "This country has plumb ruined you, boy. You think they're all alike—an' I don't know but they are—all but this girl. Seems like she's different, somehow—but I can't tell."
Glenister spoke musingly:
"I had an ancestor who buccaneered among the Indies, a long time ago—so I'm told. Sometimes I think I have his disposition. He comes and whispers things to me in the night. Oh, he was a devil, and I've got his blood in me—untamed and hot—I can hear him saying something now—something about the spoils of war. Ha, ha! Maybe he's right. I fought for her to-night—Dex—the way he used to fight for his sweethearts along the Mexicos. She's too beautiful to be good—and 'there's never a law of God or man runs north of Fifty-three.'"
They moved on, his vibrant, cynical laughter stabbing the girl till she leaned against the yawl for support.
She held herself together while the blood beat thickly in her ears, then fled to the cabin, hurling herself into her berth, where she writhed silently, beating the pillow with hands into which her nails had bitten, staring the while into the darkness with dry and aching eyes.
She awoke to the throb of the engines, and, gazing cautiously through her stateroom window, saw a glassy, level sea, with the sun brightly agleam on it.
So this was Bering? She had clothed it always with the mystery of her school-days, thinking of it as a weeping, fog-bound stretch of gray waters. Instead, she saw a flat, sunlit main, with occasional sea-parrots flapping their fat bodies out of the ship's course. A glistening head popped up from the waters abreast, and she heard the cry of "seal!"
Dressing, the girl noted minutely the personal articles scattered about the cabin, striving to derive therefrom some fresh hint of the characteristics of the owners. First, there was an elaborate, copper-backed toilet-set, all richly ornamented and leather-bound. The metal was magnificently hand-worked and bore Glenister's initial. It spoke of elegant extravagance, and seemed oddly out of place in an Arctic miner's equipment, as did also a small set of De Maupassant.
Next, she picked up Kipling's Seven Seas, marked liberally, and felt that she had struck a scent. The roughness and brutality of the poems had always chilled her, though she had felt vaguely their splendid pulse and swing. This was the girl's first venture from a sheltered life. She had not rubbed elbows with the world enough to find that Truth may be rough, unshaven, and garbed in homespun. The book confirmed her analysis of the junior partner.
Pendent from a hook was a worn and blackened holster from which peeped the butt of a large Colt's revolver, showing evidence of many years' service. It spoke mutely of the white-haired Dextry, who, before her inspection was over, knocked at the door, and, when she admitted him, addressed her cautiously:
"The boy's down forrad, teasin' grub out of a flunky. He'll be up in a minute. How'd ye sleep?"
"Very well, thank you," she lied, "but I've been thinking that I ought to explain myself to you."
"Now, see here," the old man interjected, "there ain't no explanations needed till you feel like givin' them up. You was in trouble—that's unfortunate; we help you—that's natural; no questions asked—that's Alaska."
"Yes—but I know you must think—"
"What bothers me," the other continued irrelevantly, "is how in blazes we're goin' to keep you hid. The steward's got to make up this room, and somebody's bound to see us packin' grub in."
"I don't care who knows if they won't send me back. They wouldn't do that, would they?" She hung anxiously on his words.
"Send you back? Why, don't you savvy that this boat is bound for Nome? There ain't no turnin' back on gold stampedes, and this is the wildest rush the world ever saw. The captain wouldn't turn back—he couldn't—his cargo's too precious and the company pays five thousand a day for this ship. No, we ain't puttin' back to unload no stowaways at five thousand per. Besides, we passengers wouldn't let him—time's too precious." They were interrupted by the rattle of dishes outside, and Dextry was about to open the door when his hand wavered uncertainly above the knob, for he heard the hearty greeting of the ship's captain.
"Well, well, Glenister, where's all the breakfast going?"
"Oo!" whispered the old man—"that's Cap' Stephens."
"Dextry isn't feeling quite up to form this morning," replied Glenister easily.
"Don't wonder! Why weren't you aboard sooner last night? I saw you—'most got left, eh? Served you right if you had." Then his voice dropped to the confidential: "I'd advise you to cut out those women. Don't misunderstand me, boy, but they're a bad lot on this boat. I saw you come aboard. Take my word for it—they're a bad lot. Cut 'em out. Guess I'll step inside and see what's up with Dextry."
The girl shrank into her corner, gazing apprehensively at the other listener.
"Well—er—he isn't up yet," they heard Glenister stammer; "better come around later."
"Nonsense; it's time he was dressed." The master's voice was gruffly good-natured. "Hello, Dextry! Hey! Open up for inspection." He rattled the door.
There was nothing to be done. The old miner darted an inquiring glance at his companion, then, at her nod, slipped the bolt, and the captain's blue bulk filled the room.
His grizzled, close-bearded face was genially wrinkled till he spied the erect, gray figure in the corner, when his cap came off involuntarily. There his courtesy ended, however, and the smile died coldly from his face. His eyes narrowed, and the good- fellowship fell away, leaving him the stiff and formal officer.
"Ah," he said, "not feeling well, eh? I thought I had met all of our lady passengers. Introduce me, Dextry."
Dextry squirmed under his cynicism.
"Well—I—ah—didn't catch the name myself."
"Oh, there ain't much to say. This is the lady—we brought aboard last night—that's all."
"Who gave you permission?"
"Nobody. There wasn't time."
"There wasn't TIME, eh? Which one of you conceived the novel scheme of stowing away ladies in your cabin? Whose is she? Quick! Answer me." Indignation was vibrant in his voice.
"Oh!" the girl cried—her eyes widening darkly. She stood slim and pale and slightly trembling.
His words had cut her bitterly, though through it all he had scrupulously avoided addressing her.
The captain turned to Glenister, who had entered and closed the door.
"Is this your work? Is she yours?"
"No," he answered quietly, while Dextry chimed in:
"Better hear details, captain, before you make breaks like that. We helped the lady side-step some sailors last night and we most got left doing it. It was up to her to make a quick get-away, so we helped her aboard."
"A poor story! What was she running away from?" He still addressed the men, ignoring her completely, till, with hoarse voice, she broke in:
"You mustn't talk about me that way—I can answer your questions. It's true—I ran away. I had to. The sailors came after me and fought with these men. I had to get away quickly, and your friends helped me on here from gentlemanly kindness, because they saw me unprotected. They are still protecting me. I can't explain how important it is for me to reach Nome on the first boat, because it isn't my secret. It was important enough to make me leave my uncle at Seattle at an hour's notice when we found there was no one else who could go. That's all I can say. I took my maid with me, but the sailors caught her just as she was following me down the ship's ladder. She had my bag of clothes when they seized her. I cast off the rope and rowed ashore as fast as I could, but they lowered another boat and followed me."
The captain eyed her sharply, and his grim lines softened a bit, for she was clean-cut and womanly, and utterly out of place, He took her in, shrewdly, detail by detail, then spoke directly to her:
"My dear young lady—the other ships will get there just as quickly as ours, maybe more quickly. To-morrow we strike the ice- pack and then it is all a matter of luck."
"Yes, but the ship I left won't get there."
At this the commander started, and, darting a great, thick- fingered hand at her, spoke savagely:
"What's that? What ship? Which one did you come from? Answer me."
"The Ohio," she replied, with the effect of a hand-grenade. The master glared at her.
"The Ohio! Good God! You DARE to stand there and tell me that?" He turned and poured his rage upon the others.
"She says the Ohio, d'ye hear? You've ruined me! I'll put you in irons—all of you. The Ohio!"
"What d'ye mean? What's up?"
"What's up? There's small-pox aboard the Ohio! This girl has broken quarantine. The health inspectors bottled up the boat at six o'clock last night! That's why I pulled out of Unalaska ahead of time, to avoid any possible delay. Now we'll all be held up when we get to Nome. Great Heavens! do you realize what this means—bringing this hussy aboard?"
His eyes burned and his voice shook, while the two partners stared at each other in dismay. Too well they knew the result of a small- pox panic aboard this crowded troop-ship. Not only was every available cabin bulging with passengers, but the lower decks were jammed with both humanity and live stock all in the most unsanitary conditions. The craft, built for three hundred passengers, was carrying triple her capacity; men and women were stowed away like cattle. Order and a half-tolerable condition were maintained only by the efforts of the passengers themselves, who held to the thought that imprisonment and inconvenience would last but a few days longer. They had been aboard three weeks and every heart was aflame with the desire to reach Nome—to reach it ahead of the pressing horde behind.
What would be the temper of this gold-frenzied army if thrown into quarantine within sight of their goal? The impatient hundreds would have to lie packed in their floating prison, submitting to the foul disease. Long they must lie thus, till a month should have passed after the disappearance of the last symptom. If the disease recurred sporadically, that might mean endless weeks of maddening idleness. It might even be impossible to impose the necessary restraint; there would be violence, perhaps mutiny.
The fear of the sickness was nothing to Dextry and Glenister, but of their mine they thought with terror. What would happen in their absence, where conditions were as unsettled as in this new land; where titles were held only by physical possession of the premises? During the long winter of their absence, ice had held their treasure inviolate, but with the warming summer the jewel they had fought for so wearily would lie naked and exposed to the first comer. The Midas lay in the valley of the richest creek, where men had schemed and fought and slain for the right to inches. It was the fruit of cheerless, barren years of toil, and if they could not guard it—they knew the result.
The girl interrupted their distressing reflections.
"Don't blame these men, sir," she begged the captain. "I am the only one at fault. Oh! I HAD to get away. I have papers here that must be delivered quickly." She laid a hand upon her bosom. "They couldn't be trusted to the unsettled mail service. It's almost life and death. And I assure you there is no need of putting me in quarantine. I haven't the smallpox. I wasn't even exposed to it."
"There's nothing else to do," said Stephens. "I'll isolate you in the deck smoking-cabin. God knows what these madmen on board will do when they hear about it, though. They're apt to tear you to shreds. They're crazy!"
Glenister had been thinking rapidly.
"If you do that, you'll have mutiny in an hour. This isn't the crowd to stand that sort of thing."
"Bah! Let 'em try it. I'll put 'em down." The officer's square jaws clicked.
"Maybe so; but what then? We reach Nome and the Health Inspector hears of small-pox suspects, then we're all quarantined for thirty days; eight hundred of us. We'll lie at Egg Island all summer while your company pays five thousand a day for this ship. That's not all. The firm is liable in damages for your carelessness in letting disease aboard."
"MY CARELESSNESS!" The old man ground his teeth.
"Yes; that's what it amounts to. You'll ruin your owners, all right. You'll tie up your ship and lose your job, that's a cinch!"
Captain Stephens wiped the moisture from his brow angrily.
"My carelessness! Curse you—you say it well. Don't you realize that I am criminally liable if I don't take every precaution?" He paused for a moment, considering. "I'll hand her over to the ship's doctor."
"See here, now," Glenister urged. "We'll be in Nome in a week— before the young lady would have time to show symptoms of the disease, even if she were going to have it—and a thousand to one she hasn't been exposed, and will never show a trace of it. Nobody knows she's aboard but we three. Nobody will see her get off. She'll stay in this cabin, which will be just as effectual as though you isolated her in any other part of the boat. It will avoid a panic—you'll save your ship and your company—no one will be the wiser—then if the girl comes down with small-pox after she gets ashore, she can go to the pest-house and not jeopardize the health of all the people aboard this ship. You go up forrad to your bridge, sir, and forget that you stepped in to see old Bill Dextry this morning. Well take care of this matter all right. It means as much to us as it does to you. We've GOT to be on Anvil Creek before the ground thaws or we'll lose the Midas. If you make a fuss, you'll ruin us all."
For some moments they watched him breathlessly as he frowned in indecision, then—
"You'll have to look out for the steward," he said, and the girl sank to a stool while two great tears rolled down her cheeks. The captain's eyes softened and his voice was gentle as he laid his hand on her head.
"Don't feel hurt over what I said, miss. You see, appearances don't tell much, hereabouts—most of the pretty ones are no good. They've fooled me many a time, and I made a mistake. These men will help you through; I can't. Then when you get to Nome, make your sweetheart marry you the day you land. You are too far north to be alone."
He stepped out into the passage and closed the door carefully.
IN WHICH GLENISTER ERRS
"Well, bein' as me an' Glenister is gougin' into the bowels of Anvil Creek all last summer, we don't really get the fresh-grub habit fastened on us none. You see, the gamblers down-town cop out the few aigs an' green vegetables that stray off the ships, so they never get out as far as the Creek none; except, maybe, in the shape of anecdotes.
"We don't get intimate with no nutriments except hog-boosum an' brown beans, of which luxuries we have unstinted measure, an' bein' as this is our third year in the country we hanker for bony fido grub, somethin' scan'lous. Yes, ma'am—three years without a taste of fresh fruit nor meat nor nuthin'—except pork an' beans. Why, I've et bacon till my immortal soul has growed a rind.
"When it comes time to close down the claim, the boy is sick with the fever an' the only ship in port is a Point Barrow whaler, bound for Seattle. After I book our passage, I find they have nothin' aboard to eat except canned salmon, it bein' the end of a two years' cruise, so when I land in the States after seventeen days of a fish diet, I am what you might call sated with canned grub, and have added salmon to the list of things concernin' which I am goin' to economize.
"Soon's ever I get the boy into a hospital, I gallop up to the best restarawnt in town an' prepare for the huge pot-latch. This here, I determine, is to be a gormandizin' jag which shall live in hist'ry, an' wharof in later years the natives of Puget Sound shall speak with bated breath.
"First, I call for five dollars' worth of pork an' beans an' then a full-grown platter of canned salmon. When the waiter lays 'em out in front of me, I look them vittles coldly in their disgustin' visages, an' say in sarcastic accents:
"'Set there, damn you! an' watch me eat REAL grub,' which I proceed to do, cleanin' the menu from soda to hock. When I have done my worst, I pile bones an' olive seeds an' peelin's all over them articles of nourishment, stick toothpicks into 'em, an' havin' offered 'em what other indignities occur to me, I leave the place."
Dextry and the girl were leaning over the stern-rail, chatting idly in the darkness. It was the second night out and the ship lay dead in the ice-pack. All about them was a flat, floe-clogged sea, leprous and mottled in the deep twilight that midnight brought in this latitude. They had threaded into the ice-field as long as the light lasted, following the lanes of blue water till they closed, then drifting idly till others appeared; worming out into leagues of open sea, again creeping into the shifting labyrinth till darkness rendered progress perilous.
Occasionally they had passed herds of walrus huddled sociably upon ice-pans, their wet hides glistening in the sunlight. The air had been clear and pleasant, while away on all quarters they had seen the smoke of other ships toiling through the barrier. The spring fleet was knocking at the door of the Golden North.
Chafing at her imprisonment, the girl had asked the old man to take her out on deck under the shelter of darkness; then she had led him to speak of his own past experiences, and of Glenister's; which he had done freely. She was frankly curious about them, and she wondered at their apparent lack of interest in her own identity and her secret mission. She even construed their silence as indifference, not realizing that these Northmen were offering her the truest evidence of camaraderie.
The frontier is capable of no finer compliment than this utter disregard of one's folded pages. It betokens that highest faith in one's fellow-man, the belief that he should be measured by his present deeds, not by his past. It says, translated: "This is God's free country where a man is a man, nothing more. Our land is new and pure, our faces are to the front. If you have been square, so much the better; if not, leave behind the taints of artificial things and start again on the level—that's all."
It had happened, therefore, that since the men had asked her no questions, she had allowed the hours to pass and still hesitated to explain further than she had explained to Captain Stephens. It was much easier to let things continue as they were; and there was, after all, so little that she was at liberty to tell them.
In the short time since meeting them, the girl had grown to like Dextry, with his blunt chivalry and boyish, whimsical philosophy, but she avoided Glenister, feeling a shrinking, hidden terror of him, ever since her eavesdropping of the previous night. At the memory of that scene she grew hot, then cold—hot with anger, icy at the sinister power and sureness which had vibrated in his voice. What kind of life was she entering where men spoke of strange women with this assurance and hinted thus of ownership? That he was handsome and unconscious of it, she acknowledged, and had she met him in her accustomed circle of friends, garbed in the conventionalities, she would perhaps have thought of him as a striking man, vigorous and intelligent; but here he seemed naturally to take on the attributes of his surroundings, acquiring a picturesque negligee of dress and morals, and suggesting rugged, elemental, chilling potentialities. While with him—and he had sought her repeatedly that day—she was uneasily aware of his strong personality tugging at her; aware of the unbridled passionate flood of a nature unbrooking of delay and heedless of denial. This it was that antagonized her and set her every mental sinew in rigid resistance.
During Dextry's garrulous ramblings, Glenister emerged from the darkness and silently took his place beside her, against the rail.
"What portent do you see that makes you stare into the night so anxiously?" he inquired.
"I am wishing for a sight of the midnight sun or the aurora borealis," she replied.
"Too late for one an' too fur south for the other," Dextry interposed. "We'll see the sun further north, though."
"Have you ever heard the real origin of the Northern Lights?" the young man inquired.
"Naturally, I never have," she answered.
"Well, here it is. I have it from the lips of a great hunter of the Tananas. He told it to me when I was sick, once, in his cabin, and inasmuch as he is a wise Indian and has a reputation for truth, I have no doubt that it is scrupulously correct.
"In the very old days, before the white man or corned beef had invaded this land, the greatest tribe in all the North was the Tananas. The bravest hunter of these was Itika, the second chief. He could follow a moose till it fell exhausted in the snow and he had many belts made from the claws of the brown bear which is deadly wicked and, as every one knows, inhabited by the spirits of 'Yabla-men,' or devils.
"One winter a terrible famine settled over the Tanana Valley. The moose departed from the gulches and the caribou melted from the hills like mist. The dogs grew gaunt and howled all night, the babies cried, the women became hollow-eyed and peevish.
"Then it was that Itika decided to go hunting over the saw-tooth range which formed the edge of the world. They tried to dissuade him, saying it was certain death because a pack of monstrous white wolves, taller than the moose and swifter than the eagle, was known to range these mountains, running madly in chase. Always, on clear, cold nights, could be seen the flashing of the moonbeams from their gleaming hungry sides, and although many hunters had crossed the passes in other years, they never returned, for the pack slew them.
"Nothing could deter Itika, however, so he threaded his way up through the range and, night coming, burrowed into a drift to sleep in his caribou-skin. Peering out into the darkness, he saw the flashing lights a thousand times brighter than ever before. The whole heavens were ablaze with shifting streamers that raced and writhed back and forth in wild revel. Listening, he heard the hiss and whine of dry snow under the feet of the pack, and a distant noise as of rushing winds, although the air was deathly still.
"With daylight, he proceeded through the range, till he came out above a magnificent valley. Descending the slope, he entered a forest of towering spruce, while on all sides the snow was trampled with tracks as wide as a snow-shoe. There came to him a noise which, as he proceeded, increased till it filled the woods. It was a frightful din, as though a thousand wolves were howling with the madness of the kill. Cautiously creeping nearer, he found a monstrous white animal struggling beneath a spruce which had fallen upon it in such fashion as to pinion it securely.
"All brave men are tender-hearted, so Itika set to work with his axe and cleared away the burden, regardless of the peril to himself. When he had released it, the beast arose and instead of running away addressed him in the most polite and polished Indian, without a trace of accent.
"'You have saved my life. Now, what can I do for you?'
"'I want to hunt in this valley. My people are starving,' said Itika, at which the wolf was greatly pleased and rounded up the rest of the pack to help in the kill.
"Always thereafter when Itika came to the valley of the Yukon the giant drove hunted with him. To this day they run through the mountains on cold, clear nights, in a multitude, while the light of the moon flickers from their white sides, flashing up into the sky in weird, fantastic figures. Some people call it Northern Lights, but old Isaac assured me earnestly, toothlessly, and with the light of ancient truth, as I lay snow-blind in his lodge, that it is nothing more remarkable than the spirit of Itika and the great white wolves."
"What a queer legend!" she said. "There must be many of them in this country. I feel that I am going to like the North."
"Perhaps you will," Glenister replied, "although it is not a woman's land."
"Tell me what led you out here in the first place. You are an Eastern man. You have had advantages, education—and yet you choose this. You must love the North."
"Indeed I do! It calls to a fellow in some strange way that a gentler country never could. When once you've lived the long, lazy June days that never end, and heard geese honking under a warm, sunlit midnight; or when once you've hit the trail on a winter morning so sharp and clear that the air stings your lungs, and the whole white, silent world glistens like a jewel; yes—and when you've seen the dogs romping in harness till the sled runners ring; and the distant mountain-ranges come out like beautiful carvings, so close you can reach them—well, there's something in it that brings you back—that's all, no matter where you've lost yourself. It means health and equality and unrestraint. That's what I like best, I dare say—the utter unrestraint.
"When I was a school-boy, I used to gaze at the map of Alaska for hours. I'd lose myself in it. It wasn't anything but a big, blank corner in the North then, with a name, and mountains, and mystery. The word 'Yukon' suggested to me everything unknown and weird— hairy mastodons, golden river bars, savage Indians with bone arrow-heads and seal-skin trousers. When I left college I came as fast as ever I could—the adventure, I suppose....
"The law was considered my destiny. How the shades of old Choate and Webster and Patrick Henry must have wailed when I forswore it. I'll bet Blackstone tore his whiskers."
"I think you would have made a success," said the girl, but he laughed.
"Well, anyhow, I stepped out, leaving the way to the United States Supreme bench unobstructed, and came North. I found it was where I belonged. I fitted in. I'm not contented—don't think that. I'm ambitious, but I prefer these surroundings to the others—that's all. I'm realizing my desires. I've made a fortune—now I'll see what else the world has."
He suddenly turned to her. "See here," he abruptly questioned, "what's your name?"
She started, and glanced towards where Dextry had stood, only to find that the old frontiersman had slipped away during the tale.
"Helen Chester," she replied.
"Helen Chester," he repeated, musingly. "What a pretty name! It seems almost a pity to change it—to marry, as you will."
"I am not going to Nome to get married."
He glanced at her quickly.
"Then you won't like this country. You are two years too early; you ought to wait till there are railroads and telephones, and tables d'hote, and chaperons. It's a man's country yet."
"I don't see why it isn't a woman's country, too. Surely we can take a part in taming it. Yonder on the Oregon is a complete railroad, which will be running from the coast to the mines in a few weeks. Another ship back there has the wire and poles and fixings for a telephone system, which will go up in a night. As to tables d'hote, I saw a real French count in Seattle with a monocle. He's bringing in a restaurant outfit, imported snails, and pate de joies gras. All that's wanting is the chaperon. In my flight from the Ohio I left mine. The sailors caught her. You see I am not far ahead of schedule."
"What part are you going to take in this taming process?" he asked.
She paused long before replying, and when she did her answer sounded like a jest.
"I herald the coming of the law," she said.
"The law! Bah! Red tape, a dead language, and a horde of shysters! I'm afraid of law in this land; we're too new and too far away from things. It puts too much power in too few hands. Heretofore we men up here have had recourse to our courage and our Colts, but we'll have to unbuckle them both when the law comes. I like the court that hasn't any appeal." He laid hand upon his hip.
"The Colts may go, but the courage never will," she broke in.
"Perhaps. But I've heard rumors already of a plot to prostitute the law. In Unalaska a man warned Dextry, with terror in his eye, to beware of it; that beneath the cloak of Justice was a drawn dagger whetted for us fellows who own the rich diggings. I don't think there's any truth in it, but you can't tell."
"The law is the foundation—there can't be any progress without it. There is nothing here now but disorder."
"There isn't half the disorder you think there is. There weren't any crimes in this country till the tenderfeet arrived. We didn't know what a thief was. If you came to a cabin you walked in without knocking. The owner filled up the coffee-pot and sliced into the bacon; then when he'd started your meal, he shook hands and asked your name. It was just the same whether his cache was full or whether he'd packed his few pounds of food two hundred miles on his back. That was hospitality to make your Southern article look pretty small. If there was no one at home, you ate what you needed. There was but one unpardonable breach of etiquette—to fail to leave dry kindlings. I'm afraid of the transitory stage we're coming to—that epoch of chaos between the death of the old and the birth of the new. Frankly, I like the old way best. I love the license of it. I love to wrestle with nature; to snatch, and guard, and fight for what I have. I've been beyond the law for years and I want to stay there, where life is just what it was intended to be—a survival of the fittest."
His large hands, as he gripped the bulwark, were tense and corded, while his rich voice issued softly from his chest with the hint of power unlimited behind it. He stood over her, tall, virile, and magnetic. She saw now why he had so joyously hailed the fight of the previous night; to one of his kind it was as salt air to the nostrils. Unconsciously she approached him, drawn by the spell of his strength.
"My pleasures are violent and my hate is mighty bitter in my mouth. What I want, I take. That's been my way in the old life, and I'm too selfish to give it up."
He was gazing out upon the dimly lucent miles of ice; but now he turned towards her, and, doing so, touched her warm hand next his on the rail.
She was staring up at him unaffectedly, so close that the faint odor from her hair reached him. Her expression was simply one of wonder and curiosity at this type, so different from any she had known. But the man's eyes were hot and blinded with the sight of her, and he felt only her beauty heightened in the dim light, the brush of her garments, and the small, soft hand beneath his. The thrill from the touch of it surged over him—mastered him.
"What I want—I take," he repeated, and then suddenly he reached forth and, taking her in his arms, crushed her to him, kissing her softly, fiercely, full upon the lips. For an instant she lay gasping and stunned against his breast, then she tore her fist free and, with all her force, struck him full in the face.
It was as though she beat upon a stone. With one movement he forced her arm to her side, smiling into her terrified eyes; then, holding her like iron, he kissed her again and again upon the mouth, the eyes, the hair—and released her.
"I am going to love you—Helen," said he.
"And may God strike me dead if I ever stop HATING you!" she cried, her voice coming thick and hoarse with passion.
Turning, she walked proudly forward towards her cabin, a trim, straight, haughty figure; and he did not know that her knees were shaking and weak.
For four days the Santa Maria felt blindly through the white fields, drifting north with the spring tide that sets through Behring Strait, till, on the morning of the fifth, open water showed to the east. Creeping through, she broke out into the last stage of the long race, amid the cheers of her weary passengers; and the dull jar of her engines made welcome music to the girl in the deck state-room.
Soon they picked up a mountainous coast which rose steadily into majestic, barren ranges, still white with the melting snows; and at ten in the evening under a golden sunset, amid screaming whistles, they anchored in the roadstead of Nome. Before the rumble of her chains had ceased or the echo from the fleet's salute had died from the shoreward hills, the ship was surrounded by a swarm of tiny craft clamoring about her iron sides, while an officer in cap and gilt climbed the bridge and greeted Captain Stephens. Tugs with trailing lighters circled discreetly about, awaiting the completion of certain formalities. These over, the uniformed gentleman dropped back into his skiff and rowed away.
"A clean bill of health, captain," he shouted, saluting the commander.
"Thank ye, sir," roared the sailor, and with that the row-boats swarmed inward pirate-like, boarding the steamer from all quarters.
As the master turned, he looked down from his bridge to the deck below, full into the face of Dextry, who had been an intent witness of the meeting. With unbending dignity, Captain Stephens let his left eyelid droop slowly, while a boyish grin spread widely over his face. Simultaneously, orders rang sharp and fast from the bridge, the crew broke into feverish life, the creak of booms and the clank of donkey-hoists arose.
"We're here, Miss Stowaway," said Glenister, entering the girl's cabin. "The inspector passed us and it's time for you to see the magic city. Come, it's a wonderful sight."
This was the first time they had been alone since the scene on the after-deck, for, besides ignoring Glenister, she had managed that he should not even see her except in Dextry's presence. Although he had ever since been courteous and considerate, she felt the leaping emotions that were hidden within him and longed to leave the ship, to fly from the spell of his personality. Thoughts of him made her writhe, and yet when he was near she could not hate him as she willed—he overpowered her, he would not be hated, he paid no heed to her slights. This very quality reminded her how willingly and unquestioningly he had fought off the sailors from the Ohio at a word from her. She knew he would do so again, and more, and it is hard to be bitter to one who would lay down his life for you, even though he has offended—particularly when he has the magnetism that sweeps you away from your moorings.
"There's no danger of being seen," he continued, "The crowd's crazy, and, besides, we'll go ashore right away. You must be mad with the confinement—it's on my nerves, too."
As they stepped outside, the door of an adjacent cabin opened, framing an angular, sharp-featured woman, who, catching sight of the girl emerging from Glenister's state-room, paused with shrewdly narrowed eyes, flashing quick, malicious glances from one to the other. They came later to remember with regret this chance encounter, for it was fraught with grave results for them both.
"Good evening, Mr. Glenister," the lady said with acid cordiality.
"Howdy, Mrs. Champian?" He moved away.
She followed a step, staring at Helen.
"Are you going ashore to-night or wait for morning?"
"Don't know yet, I'm sure." Then aside to the girl he muttered, "Shake her, she's spying on us."
"Who is she?" asked Miss Chester, a moment later.
"Her husband manages one of the big companies. She's an old cat."
Gaining her first view of the land, the girl cried out, sharply. They rode on an oily sea, tinted like burnished copper, while on all sides, amid the faint rattle and rumble of machinery, scores of ships were belching cargoes out upon living swarms of scows, tugs, stern-wheelers, and dories. Here and there Eskimo oomiaks, fat, walrus-hide boats, slid about like huge, many-legged water- bugs. An endless, ant-like stream of tenders, piled high with freight, plied to and from the shore. A mile distant lay the city, stretched like a white ribbon between the gold of the ocean sand and the dun of the moss-covered tundra. It was like no other in the world. At first glance it seemed all made of new white canvas. In a week its population had swelled from three to thirty thousand. It now wandered in a slender, sinuous line along the coast for miles, because only the beach afforded dry camping ground. Mounting to the bank behind, one sank knee-deep in moss and water, and, treading twice in the same tracks, found a bog of oozing, icy mud. Therefore, as the town doubled daily in size, it grew endwise like a string of dominoes, till the shore from Cape Nome to Penny River was a long reach of white, glinting in the low rays of the arctic sunset like foamy breakers on a tropic island.
"That's Anvil Creek up yonder," said Glenister. "There's where the Midas lies. See!" He indicated a gap in the buttress of mountains rolling back from the coast. "It's the greatest creek in the world. You'll see gold by the mule-load, and hillocks of nuggets. Oh, I'm glad to get back. THIS is life. That stretch of beach is full of gold. These hills are seamed with quartz. The bed-rock of that creek is yellow. There's gold, gold, gold, everywhere—more than ever was in old Solomon's mines—and there's mystery and peril and things unknown."
"Let us make haste," said the girl. "I have something I must do to-night. After that, I can learn to know these things."
Securing a small boat, they were rowed ashores the partners plying their ferryman with eager questions. Having arrived five days before, he was exploding with information and volunteered the fruits of his ripe experience till Dextry stated that they were "sourdoughs" themselves, and owned the Midas, whereupon Miss Chester marvelled at the awe which sat upon the man and the wondering stare with which he devoured the partners, to her own utter exclusion.
"Sufferin' cats! Look at the freight!" ejaculated Dextry. "If a storm come up it would bust the community!"
The beach they neared was walled and crowded to the high-tide mark with ramparts of merchandise, while every incoming craft deposited its quota upon whatever vacant foot was close at hand, till bales, boxes, boilers, and baggage of all kinds were confusedly intermixed in the narrow space. Singing longshoremen trundled burdens from the lighters and piled them on the heap, while yelling, cursing crowds fought over it all, selecting, sorting, loading.
There was no room for more, yet hourly they added to the mass. Teams splashed through the lapping surf or stuck in the deep sand between hillocks of goods. All was noise, profanity, congestion, and feverish hurry. This burning haste rang in the voice of the multitude, showed in its violence of gesture and redness of face, permeated the atmosphere with a magnetic, electrifying energy.
"It's somethin' fierce ashore," said the oarsman. "I been up fer three days an' nights steady—there ain't no room, nor time, nor darkness to sleep in. Ham an' eggs is a dollar an' a half, an' whiskey's four bits a throw." He wailed the last, sadly, as a complaint unspeakable.
"Any trouble doin'?" inquired the old man.
"You KNOW it!" the other cried, colloquially. "There was a massacree in the Northern last night."
"Yep. Tin-horn called 'Missou' done it."
"Sho!" said Dextry. "I know him. He's a bad actor." All three men nodded sagely, and the girl wished for further light, but they volunteered no explanation.
Leaving the skiff, they plunged into turmoil. Dodging through the tangle, they came out into fenced lots where tents stood wall to wall and every inch was occupied. Here and there was a vacant spot guarded jealously by its owner, who gazed sourly upon all men with the forbidding eye of suspicion. Finding an eddy in the confusion, the men stopped.
"Where do you want to go?" they asked Miss Chester.
There was no longer in Glenister's glance that freedom with which he had come to regard the women of the North. He had come to realize dully that here was a girl driven by some strong purpose into a position repellent to her. In a man of his type, her independence awoke only admiration and her coldness served but to inflame him the more. Delicacy, in Glenister, was lost in a remarkable singleness of purpose. He could laugh at her loathing, smile under her abuse, and remain utterly ignorant that anything more than his action in seizing her that night lay at the bottom of her dislike. He did not dream that he possessed characteristics abhorrent to her; and he felt a keen reluctance at parting.
She extended both hands.
"I can never thank you enough for what you have done—you two; but I shall try. Good-bye!"
Dextry gazed doubtfully at his own hand, rough and gnarly, then taking hers as he would have handled a robin's egg, waggled it limply.
"We ain't goin' to turn you adrift this-a-way. Whatever your destination is, we'll see you to it."
"I can find my friends," she assured him.
"This is the wrong latitude in which to dispute a lady, but knowin' this camp from soup to nuts, as I do, I su'gests a male escort."
"Very well! I wish to find Mr. Struve, of Dunham & Struve, lawyers."
"I'll take you to their offices," said Glenister. "You see to the baggage, Dex. Meet me at the Second Class in half an hour and we'll run out to the Midas." They pushed through the tangle of tents, past piles of lumber, and emerged upon the main thoroughfare, which ran parallel to the shore.
Nome consisted of one narrow street, twisted between solid rows of canvas and half-erected frame buildings, its every other door that of a saloon. There were fair-looking blocks which aspired to the dizzy height of three stories, some sheathed in corrugated iron, others gleaming and galvanized. Lawyers' signs, doctors', surveyors', were in the upper windows. The street was thronged with men from every land—Helen Chester heard more dialects than she could count. Laplanders in quaint, three-cornered, padded caps idled past. Men with the tan of the tropics rubbed elbows with yellow-haired Norsemen, and near her a carefully groomed Frenchman with riding-breeches and monocle was in pantomime with a skin-clad Eskimo. To her left was the sparkling sea, alive with ships of every class. To her right towered timberless mountains, unpeopled, unexplored, forbidding, and desolate—their hollows inlaid with snow. On one hand were the life and the world she knew; on the other, silence, mystery, possible adventure.
The roadway where she stood was a crush of sundry vehicles from bicycles to dog-hauled water-carts, and on all sides men were laboring busily, the echo of hammers mingling with the cries of teamsters and the tinkle of music within the saloons.
"And this is midnight!" exclaimed Helen, breathlessly. "Do they ever rest?"
"There isn't time—this is a gold stampede. You haven't caught the spirit of it yet." They climbed the stairs in a huge, iron-sheeted building to the office of Dunham
"Anybody else here besides you?" asked her escort of the lawyer.
"No. I'm runnin' the law business unassisted. Don't need any help. Dunham's in Wash'n'ton, D. C., the lan' of the home, the free of the brave. What can I do for you?"
He made to cross the threshold hospitably, but tripped, plunged forward, and would have rolled down the stairs had not Glenister gathered him up and borne him back into the office, where he tossed him upon a bed in a rear room.
"Now what, Miss Chester?" asked the young man, returning.
"Isn't that dreadful?" she shuddered. "Oh, and I must see him to- night!" She stamped impatiently. "I must see him alone."
"No, you mustn't," said Glenister, with equal decision. "In the first place, he wouldn't know what you were talking about, and in the second place—I know Struve. He's too drunk to talk business and too sober to—well, to see you alone."
"But I MUST see him," she insisted. "It's what brought me here. You don't understand."
"I understand more than he could. He's in no condition to act on any important matter. You come around to-morrow when he's sober."
"It means so much," breathed the girl. "The beast!"
Glenister noted that she had not wrung her hands nor even hinted at tears, though plainly her disappointment and anxiety were consuming her.
"Well, I suppose I'll have to wait, but I don't know where to go— some hotel, I suppose."
"There aren't any. They're building two, but to-night you couldn't hire a room in Nome for money. I was about to say 'love or money.' Have you no other friends here—no women? Then you must let me find a place for you. I have a friend whose wife will take you in."
She rebelled at this. Was she never to have done with this man's favors? She thought of returning to the ship, but dismissed that. She undertook to decline his aid, but he was half-way down the stairs and paid no attention to her beginning—so she followed him.
It was then that Helen Chester witnessed her first tragedy of the frontier, and through it came to know better the man whom she disliked and with whom she had been thrown so fatefully. Already she had thrilled at the spell of this country, but she had not learned that strength and license carry blood and violence as corollaries.
Emerging from the doorway at the foot of the stairs, they drifted slowly along the walk, watching the crowd. Besides the universal tension, there were laughter and hope and exhilaration in the faces. The enthusiasm of this boyish multitude warmed one. The girl wished to get into this spirit—to be one of them. Then suddenly from the babble at their elbows came a discordant note, not long nor loud, only a few words, penetrating and harsh with the metallic quality lent by passion.
Helen glanced over her shoulder to find that the smiles of the throng were gone and that its eyes were bent on some scene in the street, with an eager interest she had never seen mirrored before. Simultaneously Glenister spoke:
"Come away from here."
With the quickened eye of experience he foresaw trouble and tried to drag her on, but she shook off his grasp impatiently, and, turning, gazed absorbed at the spectacle which unfolded itself before her. Although not comprehending the play of events, she felt vaguely the quick approach of some crisis, yet was unprepared for the swiftness with which it came.
Her eyes had leaped to the figures of two men in the street from whom the rest had separated like oil from water. One was slim and well dressed; the other bulky, mackinawed, and lowering of feature. It was the smaller who spoke, and for a moment she misjudged his bloodshot eyes and swaying carriage to be the result of alcohol, until she saw that he was racked with fury.
"Make good, I tell you, quick! Give me that bill of sale, you—."
The unkempt man swung on his heel with a growl and walked away, his course leading him towards Glenister and the girl. With two strides he was abreast of them; then, detecting the flashing movement of the other, he whirled like a wild animal. His voice had the snarl of a beast in it.
"Ye had to have it, didn't ye? Well, there!"
The actions of both men were quick as light, yet to the girl's taut senses they seemed theatrical and deliberate. Into her mind was seared forever the memory of that second, as though the shutter of a camera had snapped, impressing upon her brain the scene, sharp, clear-cut, and vivid. The shaggy back of the large man almost brushing her, the rage-drunken, white shirted man in the derby hat, the crowd sweeping backward like rushes before a blast, men with arms flexed and feet raised in flight, the glaring yellow sign of the "Gold Belt Dance Hall" across the way—these were stamped upon her retina, and then she was jerked violently backward, two strong arms crushed her down upon her knees against the wall, and she was smothered in the arms of Roy Glenister.
"My God! Don't move! We're in line!"
He crouched over her, his cheek against her hair, his weight forcing her down into the smallest compass, his arms about her, his body forming a living shield against the flying bullets. Over them the big man stood, and the sustained roar of his gun was deafening. In an instant they heard the thud and felt the jar of lead in the thin boards against which they huddled. Again the report echoed above their heads, and they saw the slender man in the street drop his weapon and spin half round as though hit with some heavy hand. He uttered a cry and, stooping for his gun, plunged forward, burying his face in the sand.
The man by Glenister's side shouted curses thickly, and walked towards his prostrate enemy, firing at every step. The wounded man rolled to his side, and, raising himself on his elbow, shot twice, so rapidly that the reports blended—but without checking his antagonist's approach. Four more times the relentless assailant fired deliberately, his last missile sent as he stood over the body which twitched and shuddered at his feet, its garments muddy and smeared. Then he turned and retraced his steps. Back within arm's-length of the two who pressed against the building he came, and as he went by they saw his coarse and sullen features drawn and working pallidly, while the breath whistled through his teeth. He held his course to the door they had just quitted, then as he turned he coughed bestially, spitting out a mouthful of blood. His knees wavered. He vanished within the portals and, in the sickly silence that fell, they heard his hob-nailed boots clumping slowly up the stairs.
Noise awoke and rioted down the thoroughfare. Men rushed forth from every quarter, and the ghastly object in the dirt was hidden by a seething mass of miners.
Glenister raised the girl, but her head rolled limply, and she would have slipped to her knees again had he not placed his arm about her waist. Her eyes were staring and horror-filled.
"Don't be frightened," said he, smiling at her reassuringly; but his own lips shook and the sweat stood out like dew on him; for they had both been close to death. There came a surge and swirl through the crowd, and Dextry swooped upon them like a hawk.
"Be ye hurt? Holy Mackinaw! When I see 'em blaze away I yells at ye fit to bust my throat. I shore thought you was gone. Although I can't say but this killin' was a sight for sore eyes—so neat an' genteel—still, as a rule, in these street brawls it's the innocuous bystander that has flowers sent around to his house afterwards."
"Look at this," said Glenister. Breast-high in the wall against which they had crouched, not three feet apart, were bullet holes.
"Them's the first two he unhitched," Dextry remarked, jerking his head towards the object in the street. "Must have been a new gun an' pulled hard—throwed him to the right. See!"
Even to the girl it was patent that, had she not been snatched as she was, the bullet would have found her.
"Come away quick," she panted, and they led her into a near-by store, where she sank upon a seat and trembled until Dextry brought her a glass of whiskey.
"Here, Miss," he said. "Pretty tough go for a 'cheechako.' I'm afraid you ain't gettin' enamoured of this here country a whole lot."
For half an hour he talked to her, in his whimsical way, of foreign things, till she was quieted. Then the partners arose to go. Although Glenister had arranged for her to stop with the wife of the merchant for the rest of the night, she would not.
"I can't go to bed. Please don't leave me! I'm too nervous. I'll go MAD if you do. The strain of the last week has been too much for me. If I sleep I'll see the faces of those men again."
Dextry talked with his companion, then made a purchase which he laid at the lady's feet.
"Here's a pair of half-grown gum boots. You put 'em on an' come with us. We'll take your mind off of things complete. An' as fer sweet dreams, when you get back you'll make the slumbers of the just seem as restless as a riot, or the antics of a mountain-goat which nimbly leaps from crag to crag, and—well, that's restless enough. Come on!"
As the sun slanted up out of Behring Sea, they marched back towards the hills, their feet ankle-deep in the soft fresh moss, while the air tasted like a cool draught and a myriad of earthy odors rose up and encircled them. Snipe and reed birds were noisy in the hollows and from the misty tundra lakes came the honking of brant. After their weary weeks on shipboard, the dewy freshness livened them magically, cleansing from their memories the recent tragedy, so that the girl became herself again.
"Where are we going?" she asked, at the end of an hour, pausing for breath.
"Why, to the Midas, of course," they said; and one of them vowed recklessly, as he drank in the beauty of her clear eyes and the grace of her slender, panting form, that he would gladly give his share of all its riches to undo what he had done one night on the Santa Maria.
WHEREIN A MAN APPEARS
In the lives of countries there are crises where, for a breath, destinies lie in the laps of the gods and are jumbled, heads or tails. Thus are marked distinctive cycles like the seven ages of a man, and though, perhaps, they are too subtle to be perceived at the time, yet, having swung past the shadowy milestones, the epochs disclose themselves.
Such a period in the progress of the Far Northwest was the nineteenth day of July, although to those concerned in the building of this new empire the day appealed only as the date of the coming of the law. All Nome gathered on the sands as lighters brought ashore Judge Stillman and his following. It was held fitting that the Senator should be the ship to safeguard the dignity of the first court and to introduce Justice into this land of the wild.
The interest awakened by His Honor was augmented by the fact that he was met on the beach by a charming girl, who flung herself upon him with evident delight.
"That's his niece," said some one. "She came up on the first boat- -name's Chester—swell looker, eh?"
Another new-comer attracted even more notice than the limb of the law; a gigantic, well-groomed man, with keen, close-set eyes, and that indefinable easy movement and polished bearing that come from confidence, health, and travel. Unlike the others, he did not dally on the beach nor display much interest in his surroundings; but, with purposeful frown strode through the press, up into the heart of the city. His companion was Struve's partner, Dunham, a middle-aged, pompous man. They went directly to the offices of Dunham & Struve, where they found the white-haired junior partner.
"Mighty glad to meet you, Mr. McNamara," said Struve. "Your name is a household word in my part of the country. My people were mixed up in Dakota politics somewhat, so I've always had a great admiration for you and I'm glad you've come to Alaska. This is a big country and we need big men."
"Did you have any trouble?" Dunham inquired when the three had adjourned to a private room.
"Trouble," said Struve, ruefully; "well, I wonder if I did. Miss Chester brought me your instructions O.K. and I got busy right off. But, tell me this—how did you get the girl to act as messenger?"
"There was no one else to send," answered McNamara. "Dunham intended sailing on the first boat, but he was detained in Washington with, me, and the Judge had to wait for us at Seattle. We were afraid to trust a stranger for fear he might get curious and examine the papers. That would have meant—" He moved his hand eloquently.
Struve nodded. "I see. Does she know what was in the documents?"
"Decidedly not. Women and business don't mix. I hope you didn't tell her anything."
"No; I haven't had a chance. She seemed to take a dislike to me for some reason, I haven't seen her since the day after she got here."
"The Judge told her it had something to do with preparing the way for his court," said Dunham, "and that if the papers were not delivered before he arrived it might cause a lot of trouble— litigation, riots, bloodshed, and all that. He filled her up on generalities till the girl was frightened to death and thought the safety of her uncle and the whole country depended on her."
"Well," continued Struve, "it's dead easy to hire men to jump claims and it's dead easy to buy their rights afterwards, particularly when they know they haven't got any—but what course do you follow when owners go gunning for you?"
"Who did that?"
"A benevolent, silver-haired old Texan pirate by the name of Dextry. He's one half owner in the Midas and the other half mountain-lion; as peaceable, you'd imagine, as a benediction, but with the temperament of a Geronimo. I sent Galloway out to relocate the claim, and he got his notices up in the night when they were asleep, but at 6 A.M. he came flying back to my room and nearly hammered the door down. I've seen fright in varied forms and phases, but he had them all, with some added starters.
"'Hide me out, quick!' he panted.
"'What's up?' I asked.
"'I've stirred up a breakfast of grizzly bear, smallpox, and sudden death and it don't set well on my stummick. Let me in.'
"I had to keep him hidden three days, for this gentle-mannered old cannibal roamed the streets with a cannon in his hand, breathing fire and pestilence."
"Anybody else act up?" queried Dunham.
"No; all the rest are Swedes and they haven't got the nerve to fight. They couldn't lick a spoon if they tried. These other men are different, though. There are two of them, the old one and a young fellow. I'm a little afraid to mix it up with them, and if their claim wasn't the best in the district, I'd say let it alone."
"I'll attend to that," said McNamara.
"Yes, gentlemen, I've been working pretty hard and also pretty much in the dark so far. I'm groping for light. When Miss Chester brought in the papers I got busy instanter. I clouded the title to the richest placers in the region, but I'm blamed if I quite see the use of it. We'd be thrown out of any court in the land if we took them to law. What's the game—blackmail?"
"Humph!" ejaculated McNamara. "What do you take me for?"
"Well, it does seem small for Alec McNamara, but I can't see what else you're up to."
"Within a week I'll be running every good mine in the Nome district."
McNamara's voice was calm but decisive, his glance keen and alert, while about him clung such a breath of power and confidence that it compelled belief even in the face of this astounding speech.
In spite of himself, Wilton Struve, lawyer, rake, and gentlemanly adventurer, felt his heart leap at what the other's daring implied. The proposition was utterly past belief, and yet, looking into the man's purposeful eyes, he believed.
"That's big—awful big—TOO big," the younger man murmured. "Why, man, it means you'll handle fifty thousand dollars a day!"
Dunham shifted his feet in the silence and licked his dry lips.
"Of course it's big, but Mr. McNamara's the biggest man that ever came to Alaska," he said.
"And I've got the biggest scheme that ever came north, backed by the biggest men in Washington," continued the politician. "Look here!" He displayed a type-written sheet bearing parallel lists of names and figures. Struve gasped incredulously.
"Those are my stockholders and that is their share in the venture. Oh, yes; we're incorporated—under the laws of Arizona—secret, of course; it would never do for the names to get out. I'm showing you this only because I want you to be satisfied who's behind me."
"Lord! I'm satisfied," said Struve, laughing nervously. "Dunham was with you when you figured the scheme out and he met some of your friends in Washington and New York. If he says it's all right, that settles it. But say, suppose anything went wrong with the company and it leaked out who those stockholders are?"
"There's no danger. I have the books where they will be burned at the first sign. We'd have had our own land laws passed but for Sturtevant of Nevada, damn him. He blocked us in the Senate. However, my plan is this." He rapidly outlined his proposition to the listeners, while a light of admiration grew and shone in the reckless face of Struve.
"By heavens! you're a wonder!" he cried, at the close, "and I'm with you body and soul. It's dangerous—that's why I like it."
"Dangerous?" McNamara shrugged his shoulders. "Bah! Where is the danger? We've got the law—or rather, we ARE the law. Now, let's get to work."
It seemed that the Boss of North Dakota was no sluggard. He discarded coat and waistcoat and tackled the documents which Struve laid before him, going through them like a whirlwind. Gradually he infected the others with his energy, and soon behind the locked doors of Dunham & Struve there were only haste and fever and plot and intrigue.
As Helen Chester led the Judge towards the flamboyant, three- storied hotel she prattled to him light-heartedly. The fascination of a new land already held her fast, and now she felt, in addition, security and relief. Glenister saw them from a distance and strode forward to greet them.
He beheld a man of perhaps threescore years, benign of aspect save for the eyes, which were neither clear nor steady, but had the trick of looking past one. Glenister thought the mouth, too, rather weak and vacillating; but the clean-shaven face was dignified by learning a acumen and was wrinkled in pleasant fashion.
"My niece has just told me of your service to her," the old gentleman began. "I am happy to know you, sir."
"Besides being a brave knight and assisting ladies in distress, Mr. Glenister is a very great and wonderful man," Helen explained, lightly. "He owns the Midas."
"Indeed!" said the old man, his shifting eyes now resting full on the other with a flash of unmistakable interest. "I hear that is a wonderful mine. Have you begun work yet?"
"No. We'll commence sluicing day after to-morrow. It has been a late spring. The snow in the gulch was deep and the ground thaws slowly. We've been building houses and doing dead work, but we've got our men on the ground, waiting."
"I am greatly interested. Won't you walk with us to the hotel? I want to hear more about these wonderful placers."
"Well, they ARE great placers," said the miner, as the three walked on together; "nobody knows HOW great because we've only scratched at them yet. In the first place the ground is so shallow and the gold is so easy to get, that if nature didn't safeguard us in the winter we'd never dare leave our claims for fear of 'snipers.' They'd run in and rob us."
"How much will the Anvil Creek mines produce this summer?" asked the Judge.
"It's hard to tell, sir; but we expect to average five thousand a day from the Midas alone, and there are other claims just as good."
"Your title is all clear, I dare say, eh?"
"Absolutely, except for one jumper, and we don't take him seriously. A fellow named Galloway relocated us one night last month, but he didn't allege any grounds for doing so, and we could never find trace of him. If we had, our title would be as clean as snow again." He said the last with a peculiar inflection.
"You wouldn't use violence, I trust?"
"Sure! Why not? It has worked all right heretofore."
"But, my dear sir, those days are gone. The law is here and it is the duty of every one to abide by it."
"Well, perhaps it is; but in this country we consider a man's mine as sacred as his family. We didn't know what a lock and key were in the early times and we didn't have any troubles except famine and hardship. It's different now, though. Why, there have been more claims jumped around here this spring than in the whole length and history of the Yukon."
They had reached the hotel, and Glenister paused, turning to the girl as the Judge entered. When she started to follow, he detained her.
"I came down from the hills on purpose to see you. It has been a long week—"
"Don't talk that way," she interrupted, coldly. "I don't care to hear it."
"See here—what makes you shut me out and wrap yourself up in your haughtiness? I'm sorry for what I did that night—I've told you so repeatedly. I've wrung my soul for that act till there's nothing left but repentance."
"It is not that," she said, slowly. "I have been thinking it over during the past month, and now that I have gained an insight into this life I see that it wasn't an unnatural thing for you to do. It's terrible to think of, but it's true. I don't mean that it was pardonable," she continued, quickly, "for it wasn't, and I hate you when I think about it, but I suppose I put myself into a position to invite such actions. No; I'm sufficiently broad-minded not to blame you unreasonably, and I think I could like you in spite of it, just for what you have done for me; but that isn't all. There is something deeper. You saved my life and I'm grateful, but you frighten me, always. It is the cruelty in your strength, it is something away back in you—lustful, and ferocious, and wild, and crouching."
He smiled wryly.
"It is my local color, maybe—absorbed from this country. I'll try to change, though, if you want me to. I'll let them rope and throw and brand me. I'll take on the graces of civilization and put away revenge and ambition and all the rest of it, if it will make you like me any better. Why, I'll even promise not to violate the person of our claim-jumper if I catch him; and Heaven knows THAT means that Samson has parted with his locks."
"I think I could like you if you did," she said, "but you can't do it. You are a savage."
There are no clubs nor marts where men foregather for business in the North—nothing but the saloon, and this is all and more than a club. Here men congregate to drink, to gamble, and to traffic.
It was late in the evening when Glenister entered the Northern and passed idly down the row of games, pausing at the crap-table, where he rolled the dice when his turn came. Moving to the roulette-wheel, he lost a stack of whites, but at the faro "lay- out" his luck was better, and he won a gold coin on the "high- card." Whereupon he promptly ordered a round of drinks for the men grouped about him, a formality always precedent to overtures of general friendship.
As he paused, glass in hand, his eyes were drawn to a man who stood close by, talking earnestly. The aspect of the stranger challenged notice, for he stood high above his companions with a peculiar grace of attitude in place of the awkwardness common in men of great stature. Among those who were listening intently to the man's carefully modulated tones, Glenister recognized Mexico Mullins, the ex-gambler who had given Dextry the warning at Unalaska. As he further studied the listening group, a drunken man staggered uncertainly through the wide doors of the saloon and, gaining sight of the tall stranger, blinked, then approached him, speaking with a loud voice:
"Well, if 'tain't ole Alec McNamara! How do, ye ole pirate!"
McNamara nodded and turned his back coolly upon the new-comer.
"Don't turn your dorsal fin to me; I wan' to talk to ye."
McNamara continued his calm discourse till he received a vicious whack on the shoulder; then he turned for a moment to interrupt his assailant's garrulous profanity:
"Don't bother me. I am engaged."
"Ye won' talk to me, eh? Well, I'm goin' to talk to YOU, see? I guess you'd listen if I told these people all I know about you. Turn around here."
His voice was menacing and attracted general notice. Observing this, McNamara addressed him, his words dropping clear, concise, and cold:
"Don't talk to me. You are a drunken nuisance. Go away before something happens to you."
Again he turned away, but the drunken man seized and whirled him about, repeating his abuse, encouraged by this apparent patience.
"Your pardon for an instant, gentlemen." McNamara laid a large white and manicured hand upon the flannel sleeve of the miner and gently escorted him through the entrance to the sidewalk, while the crowd smiled.
As they cleared the threshold, however, he clenched his fist without a word and, raising it, struck the sot fully and cruelly upon the jaw. His victim fell silently, the back of his head striking the boards with a hollow thump; then, without even observing how he lay, McNamara re-entered the saloon and took up his conversation where he had been interrupted. His voice was as evenly regulated as his movements, betraying not a sign of anger, excitement, or bravado. He lit a cigarette, extracted a note-book, and jotted down certain memoranda supplied him by Mexico Mullins.
All this time the body lay across the threshold without a sign of life. The buzz of the roulette-wheel was resumed and the crap- dealer began his monotonous routine. Every eye was fixed on the nonchalant man at the bar, but the unconscious creature outside the threshold lay unheeded, for in these men's code it behooves the most humane to practise a certain aloofness in the matter of private brawls.
Having completed his notes, McNamara shook hands gravely with his companions and strode out through the door, past the bulk that sprawled across his path, and, without pause or glance, disappeared.
A dozen willing, though unsympathetic, hands laid the drunkard on the roulette-table, where the bartender poured pitcher upon pitcher of water over him.
"He ain't hurt none to speak of," said a bystander; then added, with enthusiasm:
"But say! There's a MAN in this here camp!"
AND A MINE IS JUMPED
"Who's your new shift boss?" Glenister inquired of his partner, a few days later, indicating a man in the cut below, busied in setting a line of sluices.
"That's old 'Slapjack' Simms, friend of mine from up Dawson way."
Glenister laughed immoderately, for the object was unusually tall and loose-jointed, and wore a soiled suit of yellow mackinaw. He had laid off his coat, and now the baggy, bilious trousers hung precariously from his angular shoulders by suspenders of alarming frailty. His legs were lost in gum boots, also loose and cavernous, and his entire costume looked relaxed and flapping, so that he gave the impression of being able to shake himself out of his raiment, and to rise like a burlesque Aphrodite. His face was overgrown with a grizzled tangle that looked as though it had been trimmed with button-hole scissors, while above the brush heap grandly soared a shiny, dome-like head.
"Has he always been bald?"
"Naw! He ain't bald at all. He shaves his nob. In the early days he wore a long flowin' mane which was inhabited by crickets, tree- toads, and such fauna. It got to be a hobby with him finally, so that he growed superstitious about goin' uncurried, and would back into a corner with both guns drawed if a barber came near him. But once Hank—that's his real name—undertook to fry some slapjacks, and in givin' the skillet a heave, the dough lit among his forest primeval, jest back of his ears, soft side down. Hank polluted the gulch with langwidge which no man had ought to keep in himself without it was fumigated. Disreppitableness oozed out through him like sweat through an ice-pitcher, an' since then he's been known as Slapjack Simms, an' has kept his head shingled smooth as a gun bar'l. He's a good miner, though; ain't none better—an' square as a die."
Sluicing had begun on the Midas. Long sinuous lengths of canvas hose wound down the creek bottom from the dam, like gigantic serpents, while the roll of gravel through the flumes mingled musically with the rush of waters, the tinkle of tools, and the song of steel on rock. There were four "strings" of boxes abreast, and the heaving line of shovellers ate rapidly into the creek bed, while teams with scrapers splashed through the tail races in an atmosphere of softened profanity. In the big white tents which sat back from the bluffs, fifty men of the night shift were asleep; for there is no respite here—no night, no Sunday, no halt, during the hundred days in which the Northland lends herself to pillage.
The mine lay cradled between wonderful, mossy, willow-mottled mountains, while above and below the gulch was dotted with tents and huts, and everywhere, from basin to hill crest, men dug and blasted, punily, patiently, while their tracks grew daily plainer over the face of this inscrutable wilderness.
A great contentment filled the two partners as they looked on this scene. To wrest from reluctant earth her richest treasures, to add to the wealth of the world, to create—here was satisfaction.
"We ain't robbin' no widders an' orphans doin' it, neither," Dextry suddenly remarked, expressing his partner's feelings closely. They looked at each other and smiled with that rare understanding that exceeds words.
Descending into the cut, the old man filled a gold-pan with dirt taken from under the feet of the workers, and washed it in a puddle, while the other watched his dexterous whirling motions. When he had finished, they poked the stream of yellow grains into a pile, then, with heads together, guessed its weight, laughing again delightedly, in perfect harmony and contentment.
"I've been waitin' a turrible time fer this day," said the elder. "I've suffered the plagues of prospectin' from the Mexicos to the Circle, an' yet I don't begretch it none, now that I've struck pay."
While they spoke, two miners struggled with a bowlder they had unearthed, and having scraped and washed it carefully, staggered back to place it on the cleaned bed-rock behind. One of them slipped, and it crashed against a brace which held the sluices in place. These boxes stand more than a man's height above the bed- rock, resting on supporting posts and running full of water. Should a sluice fall, the rushing stream carries out the gold which has lodged in the riffles and floods the bed-rock, raising havoc. Too late the partners saw the string of boxes sway and bend at the joint. Then, before they could reach the threatened spot to support it, Slapjack Simms, with a shriek, plunged flapping down into the cut and seized the flume. His great height stood him in good stead now, for where the joint had opened, water poured forth in a cataract, He dived under the breach unhesitatingly and, stooping, lifted the line as near to its former level as possible, holding the entire burden upon his naked pate. He gesticulated wildly for help, while over him poured the deluge of icy, muddy water. It entered his gaping waistband, bulging out his yellow trousers till they were fat and full and the seams were bursting, while his yawning boot-tops became as boiling springs. Meanwhile he chattered forth profanity in such volume that the ear ached under it as must have ached the heroic Slapjack under the chill of the melting snow. He was relieved quickly, however, and emerged triumphant, though blue and puckered, his wilderness of whiskers streaming like limber stalactites, his boots loosely "squishing," while oaths still poured from him in such profusion that Dextry whispered:
"Ain't he a ring-tailed wonder? It's plumb solemn an' reverent the way he makes them untamed cuss-words sit up an' beg. It's a privilege to be present. That's a GIFT, that is."
"You'd better get some dry clothes," they suggested, and Slapjack proceeded a few paces towards the tents, hobbling as though treading on pounded glass.
"Ow—w!" he yelled. "These blasted boots is full of gravel."
He seated himself and tugged at his foot till the boot came away with a sucking sound, then, instead of emptying the accumulation at random, he poured the contents into Dextry's empty gold-pan, rinsing it out carefully. The other boot he emptied likewise. They held a surprising amount of sediment, because the stream that had emerged from the crack in the sluices had carried with it pebbles, sand, and all the concentration of the riffles at this point. Standing directly beneath the cataract, most of it had dived fairly into his inviting waistband, following down the lines of least resistance into his boot-legs and boiling out at the knees.
"Wash that," he said. "You're apt to get a prospect."
With artful passes Dextry settled it in the pan bottom and washed away the gravel, leaving a yellow, glittering pile which raised a yell from the men who had lingered curiously.
"He pans forty dollars to the boot-leg," one shouted.
"How much do you run to the foot, Slapjack?"
"He's a reg'lar free-milling ledge."
"No, he ain't—he's too thin. He's nothing but a stringer, but he'll pay to work."
The old miner grinned toothlessly.
"Gentlemen, there ain't no better way to save fine gold than with undercurrents an' blanket riffles. I'll have to wash these garments of mine an' clean up the soapsuds 'cause there's a hundred dollars in gold-dust clingin' to my person this minute." He went dripping up the bank, while the men returned to their work singing.
After lunch Dextry saddled his bronco.
"I'm goin' to town for a pair of gold-scales, but I'll be back by supper, then we'll clean up between shifts. She'd ought to give us a thousand ounces, the way that ground prospects." He loped down the gulch, while his partner returned to the pit, the flashing shovel blades, and the rumbling undertone of the big workings that so fascinated him. It was perhaps four o'clock when he was aroused from his labors by a shout from the bunk-tent, where a group of horsemen had clustered. As Glenister drew near, he saw among them Wilton Struve, the lawyer, and the big, well-dressed tenderfoot of the Northern—McNamara—the man of the heavy hand. Struve straightway engaged him.
"Say, Glenister, we've come out to see about the title to this claim."
"What about it?"
"Well, it was relocated about a month ago." He paused.
"Yes. What of that?"
"Galloway has commenced suit."
"The ground belongs to Dextry and me. We discovered it, we opened it up, we've complied with the law, and we're going to hold it." Glenister spoke with such conviction and heat as to nonplus Struve, but McNamara, who had sat his horse silently until now, answered:
"Certainly, sir; if your title is good you will be protected, but the law has arrived in Alaska and we've got to let it take its course. There's no need of violence—none whatever—but, briefly, the situation is this: Mr. Galloway has commenced action against you; the court has enjoined you from working and has appointed me as receiver to operate the mine until the suit is settled. It's an extraordinary procedure, of course, but the conditions are extraordinary in this country. The season is so short that it would be unjust to the rightful owner if the claim lay idle all summer—so, to avoid that, I've been put in charge, with instructions to operate it and preserve the proceeds subject to the court's order. Mr. Voorhees here is the United States Marshal. He will serve the papers."
Glenister threw up his hand in a gesture of restraint.
"Hold on! Do you mean to tell me that any court would recognize such a claim as Galloway's?"
"The law recognizes everything. If his grounds are no good, so much the better for you."
"You can't put in a receiver without notice to us. Why, good Lord! we never heard of a suit being commenced. We've never even been served with a summons and we haven't had a chance to argue in our own defence."
"I have just said that this is a remarkable state of affairs and unusual action had to be taken," McNamara replied, but the young miner grew excited.
"Look here—this gold won't get away. It's safe in the ground. We'll knock off work and let the claim lie idle till the thing is settled. You can't really expect us to surrender possession of our mine on the mere allegation of some unknown man. That's ridiculous. We won't do it. Why, you'll have to let us argue our case, at least, before you try to put us off."
Voorhees shook his head. "We'll have to follow instructions. The thing for you to do is to appear before the court to-morrow and have the receiver dismissed. If your title is as good as you say it is, you won't have any trouble."
"You're not the only ones to suffer," added McNamara. "We've taken possession of all the mines below here." He nodded down the gulch. "I'm an officer of the court and under bond—"
"Five thousand dollars for each claim."
"What! Why, heavens, man, the poorest of these mines is producing that much every day!"
While he spoke, Glenister was rapidly debating what course to follow.
"The place to argue this thing is before Judge Stillman," said Struve—but with little notion of the conflict going on within Glenister. The youth yearned to fight—not with words nor quibbles nor legal phrases, but with steel and blows. And he felt that the impulse was as righteous as it was natural, for he knew this process was unjust, an outrage. Mexico Mullins's warning recurred to him. And yet—. He shifted slowly as he talked till his back was to the door of the big tent. They were watching him carefully, for all their apparent languor and looseness in saddle; then as he started to leap within and rally his henchmen, his mind went back to the words of Judge Stillman and his niece. Surely that old man was on the square. He couldn't be otherwise with her beside him, believing in him; and a suspicion of deeper plots behind these actions was groundless. So far, all was legal, he supposed, with his scant knowledge of law; though the methods seemed unreasonable. The men might be doing what they thought to be right. Why be the first to resist? The men on the mines below had not done so. The title to this ground was capable of such easy proof that he and Dex need have no uneasiness. Courts do not rob honest people nowadays, he argued, and moreover, perhaps the girl's words were true, perhaps she WOULD think more of him if he gave up the old fighting ways for her sake. Certainly armed resistance to her uncle's first edict would not please her. She had said he was too violent, so he would show her he could lay his savagery aside. She might smile on him approvingly, and that was worth taking a chance for—anyway it would mean but a few days' delay in the mine's run. As he reasoned he heard a low voice speaking within the open door. It was Slapjack Simms.
"Step aside, lad. I've got the big un covered."
Glenister saw the men on horseback snatch at their holsters, and, just in time, leaped at his foreman, for the old man had moved out into the open, a Winchester at shoulder, his cheek cuddling the stock, his eyes cold and narrow. The young man flung the barrel up and wrenched the weapon from his hands.