THE WINDS OF CHANCE
By REX BEACH
Author of "THE SILVER HORDE" "THE SPOILERS" "THE IRON TRAIL" Etc.
With an ostentatious flourish Mr. "Lucky" Broad placed a crisp ten-dollar bill in an eager palm outstretched across his folding- table.
"The gentleman wins and the gambler loses!" Mr. Broad proclaimed to the world. "The eye is quicker than the hand, and the dealer's moans is music to the stranger's ear." With practised touch he rearranged the three worn walnut-shells which constituted his stock in trade. Beneath one of them he deftly concealed a pellet about the size of a five-grain allopathic pill. It was the erratic behavior of this tiny ball, its mysterious comings and goings, that had summoned Mr. Broad's audience and now held its observant interest. This audience, composed of roughly dressed men, listened attentively to the seductive monologue which accompanied the dealer's deft manipulations, and was greatly entertained thereby. "Three tiny tepees in a row and a little black medicine-man inside." The speaker's voice was high-pitched and it carried like a "thirtythirty." "You see him walk in, you open the door, and— you double your money. Awfully simple! Simpully awful! What? As I live! The gentleman wins ten more—ten silver-tongued song-birds, ten messengers of mirth—the price of a hard day's toil. Take it, sir, and may it make a better and a stronger man of you. Times are good and I spend my money free. I made it packin' grub to Linderman, four bits a pound, but—easy come, easy go. Now then, who's next? You've seen me work. I couldn't baffle a sore-eyed Siwash with snow-glasses."
Lucky Broad's three-legged table stood among some stumps beside the muddy roadway which did service as the main street of Dyea and along which flowed an irregular stream of pedestrians; incidental to his practised manipulation of the polished walnut-shells he maintained an unceasing chatter of the sort above set down. Now his voice was loud and challenging, now it was apologetic, always it stimulated curiosity. One moment he was jubilant and gay, again he was contrite and querulous. Occasionally he burst forth into plaintive self-denunciations.
Fixing a hypnotic gaze upon a bland, blue-eyed bystander who had just joined the charmed circle, he murmured, invitingly: "Better try your luck, Olaf. It's Danish dice—three chances to win and one to lose."
The object of his address shook his head. "Aye ant Danish, Aye ban Norvegen," said he.
"Danish dice or Norwegian poker, they're both the same. I'll deal you a free hand and it won't cost you a cent. Fix your baby blues on the little ball and watch me close. Don't let me deceive you. Now then, which hut hides the grain?"
Noting a half-dozen pairs of eyes upon him, the Norseman became conscious that he was a center of interest. He grinned half- heartedly and, after a brief hesitation, thrust forth a clumsy paw, lifted a shell, and exposed the object of general curiosity.
"You guessed it!" There was commendation, there was pleased surprise, in Mr. Broad's tone. "You can't fool a foreigner, can you, boys? My, my! Ain't it lucky for me that we played for fun? But you got to give me another chance, Lars; I'll fool you yet. In walks the little pill once more, I make the magic pass, and you follow me attentively, knowing in your heart of hearts that I'm a slick un. Now then, shoot, Kid; you can't miss me!"
The onlookers stirred with interest; with eager fingers the artless Norwegian fumbled in his pocket. At the last moment, however, he thought better of his impulse, grunted once, then turned his back to the table and walked away.
"Missed him!" murmured the dealer, with no display of feeling; then to the group around him he announced, shamelessly: "You got to lead those birds; they fly fast."
One of Mr. Broad's boosters, he who had twice won for the Norseman's benefit, carelessly returned his winnings. "Sure!" he agreed. "They got a head like a turtle, them Swedes."
Mr. Broad carefully smoothed out the two bills and reverently laid them to rest in his bank-roll. "Yes, and they got bony mouths. You got to set your hook or it won't hold."
"Slow pickin's," yawned an honest miner with a pack upon his back. Attracted by the group at the table, he had dropped out of the procession in the street and had paused long enough to win a bet or two. Now he straightened himself and stretched his arms. "These Michael Strogoffs is hep to the old stuff, Lucky. I'm thinking of joining the big rush. They say this Klondike is some rich."
Inasmuch as there were no strangers in sight at the moment, the proprietor of the deadfall gave up barking; he daintily folded and tore in half a cigarette paper, out of which he fashioned a thin smoke for himself. It was that well-earned moment of repose, that welcome recess from the day's toil. Mr. Broad inhaled deeply, then he turned his eyes upon the former speaker.
"You've been thinking again, have you?" He frowned darkly. With a note of warning in his voice he declared: "You ain't strong enough for such heavy work, Kid. That's why I've got you packing hay."
The object of this sarcasm hitched his shoulders and the movement showed that his burden was indeed no more than a cunning counterfeit, a bundle of hay rolled inside a tarpaulin.
"Oh, I got a head and I've been doing some heavy thinking with it," the Kid retorted. "This here Dawson is going to be a good town. I'm getting readied up to join the parade."
"Are you, now?" the shell-man mocked. "I s'pose you got it all framed with the Canucks to let you through? I s'pose the chief of police knows you and likes you, eh? You and him is cousins, or something?"
"Coppers is all alike; there's always a way to square 'em—"
"Lay off that 'squaring' stuff," cautioned a renegade crook, disguised by a suit of mackinaws and a week's growth of beard into the likeness of a stampeder. "A thousand bucks and a ton of grub, that's what the sign says, and that's what it means. They wouldn't let you over the Line with nine hundred and ninety-nine fifty."
"Right!" agreed a third capper. "It's a closed season on broken stiffs. You can't monkey with the Mounted Police. When they put over an edict it lays there till it freezes. They'll make you show your 'openers' at the Boundary. Gee! If I had 'em I wouldn't bother to go 'inside.' What's a guy want with more than a thousand dollars and a ton of grub, anyhow?"
"All the same, I'm about set to hit the trail," stubbornly maintained the man with the alfalfa pack. "I ain't broke. When you boys get to Dawson, just ask for Kid Bridges' saloon and I'll open wine. These woollys can have their mines; me for a hootch-mill on Main Street."
Lucky addressed his bevy of boosters. "Have I nursed a serpent in my breast, or has the Kid met a banker's son? Gimme room, boys. I'm going to shuffle the shells for him and let him double his money. Keep your eye on the magic pea, Mr. Bridges. Three tiny tepees in a row—" There was a general laugh as Broad began to shift the walnut-shells, but Kid Bridges retorted, contemptuously:
"That's the trouble with all you wiseacres. You get a dollar ahead and you fall for another man's game. I never knew a faro-dealer that wouldn't shoot craps. No, I haven't met no banker's son and I ain't likely to in this place. These pilgrims have sewed their money in their underclothes, and they sleep with their eyes open. Seems like they'd go blind, but they don't. These ain't Rubes, Lucky; they're city folks. They've seen three-ringed circuses and three-shell games, and all that farmer stuff. They've been 'gypped,' and it's an old story to 'em."
"You're dead right," Broad acknowledged. "That's why it's good. D'you know the best town in America for the shells? Little old New York. If the cops would let me set up at the corner of Broad and Wall, I'd own the Stock Exchange in a week. Madison and State is another good stand; so's Market and Kearney, or Pioneer Square, down by the totem pole. New York, Chicago, 'Frisco, Seattle, they're all hick towns. For every city guy that's been stung by a bee there's a hundred that still thinks honey comes from a fruit. This rush is just starting, and the bigger it grows the better we'll do. Say, Kid, if you mush over to Tagish with that load of timothy on your spine, the police will put you on the wood-pile for the winter."
While Mr. Lucky Broad and his business associates were thus busied in discussing the latest decree of the Northwest Mounted Police, other townsmen of theirs were similarly engaged. Details of this proclamation—the most arbitrary of any, hitherto—had just arrived from the International Boundary, and had caused a halt, an eddy, in the stream of gold-seekers which flowed inland toward the Chilkoot Pass. A human tide was setting northward from the States, a tide which swelled and quickened daily as the news of George Carmack's discovery spread across the world, but at Healy & Wilson's log-store, where the notice above referred to had been posted, the stream slowed. A crowd of new-comers from the barges and steamers in the roadstead had assembled there, and now gave voice to hoarse indignation and bitter resentment. Late arrivals from Skagway, farther down the coast, brought word of similar scenes at that point and a similar feeling of dismay; they reported a similar increase in the general excitement, too. There, as here, a tent city was springing up, the wooded hills were awakening to echoes of unaccustomed life, a thrill and a stir were running through the wilderness and the odor of spruce fires was growing heavier with every ship that came.
Pierce Phillips emerged from the trading-post and, drawn by the force of gravitation, joined the largest and the most excited group of Argonauts. He was still somewhat dazed by his perusal of that Police edict; the blow to his hopes was still too stunning, his disappointment was still too keen, to permit of clear thought.
"A ton of provisions and a thousand dollars!" he repeated, blankly. Why, that was absurd, out of all possible reason! It would bar the way to fully half this rushing army; it would turn men back at the very threshold of the golden North. Nevertheless, there stood the notice in black and white, a clear and unequivocal warning from the Canadian authorities, evidently designed to forestall famine on the foodless Yukon. From the loud arguments round about him Phillips gathered that opinion on the justice of the measure was about evenly divided; those fortunate men who had come well provided commended it heartily, those less fortunate fellows who were sailing close-hauled were equally noisy in their denunciation of it. The latter could see in this precautionary ruling nothing except the exercise of a tyrannical power aimed at their ruin, and in consequence they voiced threats, and promises of violence the which Phillips put down as mere resentful mouthings of no actual significance. As for himself, he had never possessed anything like a thousand dollars at one time, therefore the problem of acquiring such a prodigious sum in the immediate future presented appalling difficulties. He had come north to get rich, only to find that it was necessary to be rich in order to get north. A fine situation, truly! A ton of provisions would cost at least five hundred dollars and the expense of transporting it across summer swamps and tundras, then up and over that mysterious and forbidding Chilkoot of which he had heard so much, would bring the total capital required up to impossible proportions. The prospect was indeed dismaying. Phillips had been ashore less than an hour, but already he had gained some faint idea of the country that lay ahead of him; already he had noted the almost absolute lack of transportation; already he had learned the price of packers, and as a result he found himself at an impasse.
One thousand dollars and two hundred pounds! It was enough to dash high hopes. And yet, strangely enough, Phillips was not discouraged. He was rather surprised at his own rebound after the first shock; his reasonless optimism vaguely amazed him, until, in contemplating the matter, he discovered that his thoughts were running somewhat after this fashion:
"They told me I couldn't make it; they said something was sure to happen. Well, it has. I'm up against it—hard. Most fellows would quit and go home, but I sha'n't. I'm going to win out, somehow, for this is the real thing. This is Life, Adventure. It will be wonderful to look back and say: 'I did it. Nothing stopped me. I landed at Dyea with one hundred and thirty-five dollars, but look at me now!'"
Thoughts such as these were in his mind, and their resolute nature must have been reflected in his face, for a voice aroused him from his meditations.
"It don't seem to faze you much, partner. I s'pose you came heeled?" Phillips looked up and into a sullen, angry face.
"It nearly kills me," he smiled. "I'm the worst-heeled man in the crowd."
"Well, it's a darned outrage. A ton of grub? Why, have you seen the trail? Take a look; it's a man-killer, and the rate is forty cents a pound to Linderman. It'll go to fifty now—maybe a dollar- -and there aren't enough packers to handle half the stuff."
"Things are worse at Skagway," another man volunteered. "I came up yesterday, and they're losing a hundred head of horses a day— bogging 'em down and breaking their legs. You can walk on dead carcasses from the Porcupine to the Summit."
A third stranger, evidently one of the well-provided few, laughed carelessly. "If you boys can't stand the strain you'd better stay where you are," said he. "Grub's sky-high in Dawson, and mighty short. I knew what I was up against, so I came prepared. Better go home and try it next summer."
The first speaker, he of the sullen visage, turned his back, muttering, resentfully: "Another wise guy! They make me sick! I've a notion to go through anyhow."
"Don't try that," cautioned the man from Skagway. "If you got past the Police they'd follow you to hell but what they'd bring you back. They ain't like our police."
Still meditating his plight, Pierce Phillips edged out of the crowd and walked slowly down the street. It was not a street at all, except by courtesy, for it was no more than an open waterfront faced by a few log buildings and a meandering line of new white tents. Tents were going up everywhere and all of them bore painful evidence of their newness. So did the clothes of their owners for that matter—men's garments still bore their price-tags. The beach was crowded with piles of merchandise over which there was much wrangling, barges plying regularly back and forth from the anchored ships added hourly to the confusion. As outfits were dumped upon the sand their owners assembled them and bore them away to their temporary camp sites. In this occupation every man faced his own responsibilities single-handed, for there were neither drays nor carts nor vehicles of any sort.
As Phillips looked on at the disorder along the water's edge, as he stared up the fir-flanked Dyea valley, whither a steady stream of traffic flowed, he began to feel a fretful eagerness to join in it, to be up and going. 'Way yonder through those hills towered the Chilkoot, and beyond that was the mighty river rushing toward Dawson City, toward Life and Adventure, for that was what the gold-fields signified to Phillips. Yes, Life! Adventure! He had set out to seek them, to taste the flavor of the world, and there it lay—his world, at least—just out of reach. A fierce impatience, a hot resentment at that senseless restriction which chained him in his tracks, ran through the boy. What right had any one to stop him here at the very door, when just inside great things were happening? Past that white-and-purple barrier which he could see against the sky a new land lay, a radiant land of promise, of mystery, and of fascination; Pierce vowed that he would not, could not, wait. Fortunes would reward the first arrivals; how, then, could he permit these other men to precede him? The world was a good place—it would not let a person starve.
To the young and the foot-free Adventure lurks just over the hill; Life opens from the crest of the very next divide. It matters not that we never quite come up with either, that we never quite attain the summit whence our promises are realized; the ever- present expectation, the eager straining forward, is the breath of youth. It was that breath which Phillips now felt in his nostrils. It was pungent, salty.
He noted a group of people gathered about some center of attraction whence issued a high-pitched intonation.
"Oh, look at the cute little pea! Klondike croquet, the packer's pastime. Who'll risk a dollar to win a dollar? It's a healthy sport. It's good for young and old—a cheeild can understand it. Three Eskimo igloos and an educated pill!"
"A shell-game!" Pierce Phillips halted in his tracks and stared incredulously, then he smiled. "A shell-game, running wide open on the main street of the town!" This WAS the frontier, the very edge of things. With an odd sense of unreality he felt the world turn back ten years. He had seen shell-games at circuses and fairgrounds when he was much younger, but he supposed they had long since been abandoned in favor of more ingenious and less discreditable methods of robbery. Evidently, however, there were some gulls left, for this device appeared to be well patronized. Still doubting the evidence of his ears, he joined the group.
"The gentleman wins and the gambler loses!" droned the dealer as he paid a bet. "Now then, we're off for another journey. Who'll ride with me this time?"
Phillips was amazed that any one could be so simple-minded as to squander his money upon such a notoriously unprofitable form of entertainment. Nevertheless, men were playing, and they did not seem to suspect that the persons whom the dealer occasionally paid were his confederates.
The operator maintained an incessant monologue. At the moment of Pierce's arrival he was directing it at an ox-eyed individual, evidently selected to be the next victim. The fellow was stupid, nevertheless he exercised some caution at first. He won a few dollars, then he lost a few, but, alas! the gambling fever mounted in him and greed finally overcame his hesitation. With an eager gesture he chose a shell and Phillips felt a glow of satisfaction at the realization that the man had once more guessed aright. Drawing forth a wallet, the fellow laid it on the table.
"I'll bet the lump," he cried.
The dealer hesitated. "How much you got in that alligator valise?"
"Two hundred dollars."
"Two hundred berries on one bush!" The proprietor of the game was incredulous. "Boys, he aims to leave me cleaner than a snow-bird." Seizing the walnut-shell between his thumb and forefinger, he turned it over, but instead of exposing the elusive pellet he managed, by an almost imperceptible forward movement, to roll it out from under its hiding-place and to conceal it between his third and fourth fingers. The stranger was surprised, dumfounded, at sight of the empty shell. He looked on open-mouthed while his wallet was looted of its contents.
"Every now and then I win a little one," the gambler announced as he politely returned the bill-case to its owner. He lifted another shell, and by some sleight-of-hand managed to replace the pellet upon the table, then gravely flipped a five-dollar gold piece to one of his boosters.
Phillips's eyes were quick; from where he stood he had detected the maneuver and it left him hot with indignation. He felt impelled to tell the victim how he had been robbed, but thought better of the impulse and assured himself that this was none of his affair. For perhaps ten minutes he looked on while the sheep- shearing proceeded.
After a time there came a lull and the dealer raised his voice to entice new patrons. Meanwhile, he paused to roll a cigarette the size of a wheat straw. While thus engaged there sounded the hoarse blast of a steamer's whistle in the offing and he turned his head. Profiting by this instant of inattention a hand reached across the table and lifted one of the walnut-shells. There was nothing under it.
"Five bucks on this one!" A soiled bill was placed beside one of the two remaining shells, the empty one.
Thus far Phillips had followed the pea unerringly, therefore he was amazed at the new better's mistake.
The dealer turned back to his layout and winked at the bystanders, saying, "Brother, I'll bet you ten more that you've made a bad bet." His offer was accepted. Simultaneously Phillips was seized with an intense desire to beat this sharper at his own game; impulsively he laid a protecting palm over the shell beneath which he knew the little sphere to lie.
"I'll pick this one," he heard himself say.
"Better let me deal you a new hand," the gambler suggested.
"Nothing of the sort," a man at Phillips' shoulder broke in. "Hang on to that shell, kid. You're right and I'm going down for the size of his bankroll." The speaker was evidently a miner, for he carried a bulky pack upon his shoulders. He placed a heavy palm over the back of Phillips' hand, then extracted from the depths of his overalls a fat roll of paper money.
The size of this wager, together with the determination of its owner, appeared briefly to nonplus the dealer. He voiced a protest, but the miner forcibly overbore it:
"Say, I eat up this shell stuff!" he declared. "It's my meat, and I've trimmed every tinhorn that ever came to my town. There's three hundred dollars; you cover it, and you cover this boy's bet, too." The fellow winked reassuringly at Phillips. "You heard him say the sky was his limit, didn't you? Well, let's see how high the sky is in these parts!"
There was a movement in the crowd, whereupon the speaker cried, warningly: "Boosters, stand back! Don't try to give us the elbow, or I'll close up this game!" To Pierce he murmured, confidentially: "We've got him right. Don't let anybody edge you out." He put more weight upon Phillips' hand and forced the young man closer to the table.
Pierce had no intention of surrendering his place, and now the satisfaction of triumphing over these crooks excited him. He continued to cover the walnut-shell while with his free hand he drew his own money from his pocket. He saw that the owner of the game was suffering extreme discomfort at this checkmate, and he enjoyed the situation.
"I watched you trim that farmer a few minutes ago," Phillips' companion chuckled. "Now I'm going to make you put up or shut up. There's my three hundred. I can use it when it grows to six."
"How much are you betting?" the dealer inquired of Phillips.
Pierce had intended merely to risk a dollar or two, but now there came to him a thrilling thought. That notice at Healy
"Business appears to be picking up," murmured the proprietor of the game.
Phillips' neighbor continued to hold the boy's hand in a vicelike grip. Now he leaned forward, saying:
"Look here! Are you going to cover our coin or am I going to smoke you up?"
"The groans of the gambler is sweet music in their ears!" The dealer shrugged reluctantly and counted out four hundred and thirty-five dollars, which he separated into two piles.
A certain shame at his action swept over Phillips when he felt his companion's grasp relax and heard him say, "Turn her over, kid."
This was diamond cut diamond, of course; nevertheless, it was a low-down trick and—
Pierce Phillips started, he examined the interior of the walnut- shell in bewilderment, for he had lifted it only to find it quite empty.
"Every now and then I win a little one," the dealer intoned, gravely pocketing his winnings. "It only goes to show you that the hand—"
"Damnation!" exploded the man at Phillips' side. "Trimmed for three hundred, or I'm a goat!"
As Pierce walked away some one fell into step with him; it was the sullen, black-browed individual he had seen at the trading-post.
"So they took you for a hundred and thirty-five, eh? You must be rolling in coin," the man observed.
Even yet Pierce was more than a little dazed. "Do you know," said he, "I was sure I had the right shell."
"Why, of course you had the right one." The stranger laughed shortly. "They laid it up for you on purpose, then Kid Bridges worked a shift when he held your hand. You can't beat 'em."
Pierce halted. "Was he—was THAT fellow with the pack a booster?"
"Certainly. They're all boosters. The Kid carries enough hay on his back to feed a team. It's his bed. I've been here a week and I know 'em." The speaker stared in surprise at Phillips, who had broken into a hearty laugh. "Look here! A little hundred and thirty-five must be chicken feed to you. If you've got any more to toss away, toss it in my direction."
"That's what makes it so funny. You see, I haven't any more. That was my last dollar. Well, it serves me right. Now I can start from scratch and win on my own speed."
The dark-browed man studied Phillips curiously. "You're certain'y game," he announced. "I s'pose now you'll be wanting to sell some of your outfit. That's why I've been hanging around that game. I've picked up quite a bit of stuff that way, but I'm still short a few things and I'll buy—"
"I haven't a pound of grub. I came up second-class."
"Huh! Then you'll go back steerage."
"Oh no, I won't! I'm going on to Dawson." There was a momentary silence. "You say you've been here a week? Put me up for the night—until I get a job. Will you?"
The black-eyed man hesitated, then he grinned. "You've got your nerve, but—I'm blamed if I don't like it," said he. "My brother Jim is cooking supper now. Suppose we go over to the tent and ask him."
The headwaters of the Dyea River spring from a giant's punch-bowl. Three miles above timber-line the valley bottom widens out into a flinty field strewn with boulders which in ages past have lost their footing on the steep hills forming the sides of the cup. Between these boulders a thin carpet of moss is spread, but the slopes themselves are quite naked; they are seamed and cracked and weather-beaten, their surfaces are split and shattered from the play of the elements. High up toward the crest of one of them rides a glacier—a pallid, weeping sentinel which stands guard for the great ice-caps beyond. Winter snows, summer fogs and rains have washed the hillsides clean; they are leached out and they present a lifeless, forbidding front to travelers. In many places the granite fragments which still encumber them lie piled one above another in such titanic chaos as to discourage man's puny efforts to climb over them. Nevertheless, men have done so, and by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. On this particular morning an unending procession of human beings was straining up and over and through the confusion. They lifted themselves by foot and by hand; where the slope was steepest they crept on all-fours. They formed an unbroken, threadlike stream extending from timberline to crest, each individual being dwarfed to microscopic proportions by the size of his surroundings. They flowed across the floor of the valley, then slowly, very slowly, they flowed up its almost perpendicular wall. Now they were lost to sight; again they reappeared clambering over glacier scars or toiling up steep, rocky slides; finally they emerged away up under the arch of the sky.
Looking down from the roof of the pass itself, the scene was doubly impressive, for the wooded valley lay outstretched clear to the sea, and out of it came that long, wavering line of ants. They did, indeed, appear to be ants, those men, as they dragged themselves across the meadow and up the ascent; they resembled nothing more than a file of those industrious insects creeping across the bottom and up the sides of a bath-tub, and the likeness was borne out by the fact that all carried burdens. That was in truth the marvel of the scene, for every man on the Chilkoot was bent beneath a back-breaking load.
Three miles down the gulch, where the upward march of the forests had been halted, there, among scattered outposts of scrubby spruce and wind-twisted willow, stood a village, a sprawling, formless aggregation of flimsy tents and green logs known as Sheep Camp. Although it was a temporary, makeshift town, already it bulked big in the minds of men from Maine to California, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, for it was the last outpost of civilization, and beyond it lay a land of mystery. Sheep Camp had become famous by reason of the fact that it was linked with the name of that Via Dolorosa, that summit of despair, the Chilkoot. Already it had come to stand for the weak man's ultimate mile-post, the end of many journeys.
The approach from the sea was easy, if twelve miles of boulder and bog, of swamp and nigger-head, of root and stump, can be called easy under the best of circumstances; but easy it was as compared with what lay beyond and above it. Nevertheless, many Argonauts had never penetrated even thus far, and of those who had, a considerable proportion had turned back at the giant pit three miles above. One look at the towering barrier had been enough for them. The Chilkoot was more than a mountain, more than an obstacle of nature; it was a Presence, a tremendous and a terrifying Personality which overshadowed the minds of men and could neither be ignored at the time nor forgotten later. No wonder, then, that Sheep Camp, which was a part of the Chilkoot, represented, a sort of acid test; no wonder that those who had moved their outfits thus far were of the breed the Northland loves—the stout of heart and of body.
Provisions were cached at frequent intervals all the way up from the sea, but in the open meadow beneath the thousand-foot wall an immense supply depot had sprung up. This pocket in the hills had become an open-air commissary, stocked with every sort of provender and gear. There were acres of sacks and bundles, of boxes and bales, of lumber and hardware and perishable stuffs, and all day long men came and went in relays. One relay staggered up and out of the canon and dropped its packs, another picked up the bundles and ascended skyward. Pound by pound, ton by ton, this vast equipment of supplies went forward, but slowly, oh, so slowly! And at such effort! It was indeed fit work for ants, for it arrived nowhere and it never ended. Antlike, these burden- bearers possessed but one idea—to fetch and to carry; they traveled back and forth along the trail until they wore it into a bottomless bog, until every rock, every tree, every landmark along it became hatefully familiar and their eyes grew sick from seeing them.
The character of then—labor and its monotony, even in this short time, had changed the men's characters—they had become pack- animals and they deported themselves as such. All labor-saving devices, all mechanical aids, all short cuts to comfort and to accomplishment, had been left behind; here was the wilderness, primitive, hostile, merciless. Every foot they moved, every ounce they carried, was at the cost of muscular exertion. It was only natural that they should take on the color of their surroundings.
Money lost its value a mile above Sheep Camp said became a thing of weight, a thing to carry. The standard of value was the pound, and men thought in hundredweights or in tons. Yet there was no relief, no respite, for famine stalked in the Yukon and the Northwest Mounted were on guard, hence these unfortunates were chained to their grub-piles as galley-slaves are shackled to their benches.
Toe to heel, like peons rising from the bowels of a mine, they bent their backs and strained up that riven rock wall. Blasphemy and pain, high hopes and black despair, hearts overtaxed and eyes blind with fatigue, that was what the Chilkoot stood for. Permeating the entire atmosphere of the place, so that even the dullest could feel it, was a feverish haste, an apprehensive demand for speed, more speed, to keep ahead of the pressing thousands coming on behind.
Pierce Phillips breasted the last rise to the Summit, slipped his pack-straps, and flung himself full length upon the ground. His lungs felt as if they were bursting, the blood surged through his veins until he rocked, his body streamed with sweat, and his legs were as heavy as if molded from solid iron. He was pumped out, winded; nevertheless, he felt his strength return with magic swiftness, for he possessed that marvelous recuperative power of youth, and, like some fabled warrior, new strength flowed into him from the earth. Round about him other men were sprawled; some lay like corpses, others were propped against their packs, a few stirred and sighed like the sorely wounded after a charge. Those who had lain longest rose, took up their burdens, and went groaning over the sky-line and out of sight. Every moment new faces, purple with effort or white with exhaustion, rose out of the depths—all were bitten deep with lines of physical suffering. On buckled knees their owners lurched forward to find resting- places; in their eyes burned a sullen rage; in their mouths were foul curses at this Devil's Stairway. There were striplings and graybeards in the crowd, strong men and weak men, but here at the Summit all were alike in one particular—they lacked breath for anything except oaths.
Here, too, as in the valley beneath, was another great depot of provision piles. Near where Phillips had thrown himself down there was one man whose bearing was in marked contrast to that of the others. He sat astride a bulging canvas bag in a leather harness, and in spite of the fact that the mark of a tump-line showed beneath his cap he betrayed no signs of fatigue. He was not at all exhausted, and from the interest he displayed it seemed that he had chosen this spot as a vantage-point from which to study the upcoming file rather than as a place in which to rest. This he did with a quick, appreciative eye and with a genial smile. In face, in dress, in manner, he was different. For one thing, he was of foreign birth, and yet he appeared to be more a piece of the country than any man Pierce had seen. His clothes were of a pattern common among the native packers, but he wore them with a free, unconscious grace all his own. From the peak of his Canadian toque there depended a tassel which bobbed when he talked; his boots were of Indian make, and they were soft and light and waterproof; a sash of several colors was knotted about his waist. But it was not alone his dress which challenged the eye—there was something in this fellow's easy, open bearing which arrested attention. His dark skin had been deepened by windburn, his well- set, well-shaped head bore a countenance both eager and intelligent, a countenance that fairly glowed with confidence and good humor.
Oddly enough, he sang as he sat upon his pack. High up on this hillside, amid blasphemous complaints, he hummed a gay little song:
"Chante, rossignol, chante! Toi qui a le coeur gai! Tu as le coeur a rire Mai j'l'ai-t-a pleurer,"
ran his chanson.
Phillips had seen the fellow several times, and the circumstances of their first encounter had been sufficiently unusual to impress themselves upon his mind. Pierce had been resting here, at this very spot, when the Canuck had come up into sight, bearing a hundred-pound pack without apparent effort. Two flour-sacks upon a man's back was a rare sight on the roof of the Chilkoot. There were not many who could master that slope with more than one, but this fellow had borne his burden without apparent effort; and what was even more remarkable, what had caused Pierce Phillips to open his eyes in genuine astonishment, was the fact that the man climbed with a pipe in his teeth and smoked it with relish. On that occasion the Frenchman had not stopped at the crest to breathe, but had merely paused long enough to admire the scene outspread beneath him; then he had swung onward. Of all the sights young Phillips had beheld in this new land, the vision of that huge, unhurried Canadian, smoking, had impressed him deepest. It had awakened his keen envy, too, for Pierce was beginning to glory in his own strength. A few days later they had rested near each other on the Long Lake portage. That is, Phillips had rested; the Canadian, it seemed, had a habit of pausing when and where the fancy struck him. His reason for stopping there had been the antics of a peculiarly fearless and impertinent "camp-robber." With a crust of bread he had tolled the bird almost within his reach and was accepting its scolding with intense amusement. Having both teased and made friends with the creature, he finally gave it the crust and resumed his journey.
This was a land where brawn was glorified; the tales told oftenest around the stoves at Sheep Camp had to do with feats of strength or endurance, they were stories of mighty men and mighty packs, of long marches and of grim staying powers. Already the names of certain "old-timers" like Dinsmore and McDonald and Peterson and Stick Jim had become famous because of some conspicuous exploit. Dinsmore, according to the legend, had once lugged a hundred and sixty pounds to the Summit; McDonald had bent a horseshoe in his hands; Peterson had lifted the stem-piece out of a poling-boat lodged on the rocks below White Horse; Stick Jim had run down a moose and killed it with his knife.
From what Phillips had seen of this French Canadian it was plain that he, too, was an "old-timer," one of that Jovian band of supermen who had dared the dark interior and robbed the bars of Forty Mile in the hard days before the El Dorado discovery. Since this was their first opportunity of exchanging speech, Phillips ventured to address the man.
"I thought I had a load this morning, but I'd hate to swap packs with you," he said.
The Frenchman flashed him a smile which exposed a row of teeth snow-white against his tan. "Ho! You're stronger as me. I see you plenty tams biffore."
This was indeed agreeable praise, and Pierce showed his pleasure. "Oh no!" he modestly protested. "I'm just getting broken in."
"Look out you don' broke your back," warned the other. "Dis Chilkoot she's bad bizness. She's keel a lot of dese sof' fellers. Dey get seeck in de back. You hear 'bout it?"
"Spinal meningitis. It's partly from exposure."
"Dat's him! Don' never carry too moch; don' be in soch hurry."
Phillips laughed at this caution. "Why, we have to hurry," said he. "New people are coming all the time and they'll beat us in if we don't look out."
His comrade shrugged. "Mebbe so; but s'posin' dey do. Wat's de hodds? She's beeg countree; dere's plenty claims."
"Are there, really?" Phillips' eyes brightened. "You're an old- timer; you've been 'inside.' Do you mean there's plenty of gold for all of us?"
"Dere ain't 'nuff gold in all de worl' for some people."
"I mean is Dawson as rich as they say it is?"
"Um—m! I don' know."
"Didn't you get in on the strike?"
"I hear 'bout 'im, but I'm t'inkin' 'bout oder t'ings."
Phillips regarded the speaker curiously. "That's funny. What business are you in?"
"My bizness? Jus' livin'." The Canadian's eyes twinkled. "You don' savvy, eh—? Wal, dat's biccause you're lak dese oder feller— you're in beeg hurry to be reech. Me—?" He shrugged his brawny shoulders and smiled cheerily. "I got plenty tam. I'm loafer. I enjoy myse'f—"
"So do I. For that matter, I'm enjoying myself now. I think this is all perfectly corking, and I'm having the time of my young life. Why, just think, over there"—Pierce waved his hand toward the northward panorama of white peaks and purple valleys— "everything is unknown!" His face lit up with some restless desire which the Frenchman appeared to understand, for he nodded seriously. "Sometimes it scares me a little."
"Wat you scare' 'bout, you?"
"Myself, I suppose. Sometimes I'm afraid I haven't the stuff in me to last."
"Dat's good sign." The speaker slipped his arms into his pack- harness and adjusted the tumpline to his forehead preparatory to rising. "You goin' mak' good 'sourdough' lak me. You goin' love de woods and de hills wen you know 'em. I can tell. Wal, I see you bimeby at Wite 'Orse."
"White Horse? Is that where you're going?"
"Yes. I'm batteau man; I'm goin' be pilot."
"Isn't that pretty dangerous work? They say those rapids are awful."
"Sure! Everybody scare' to try 'im. W'en I came up dey pay me fifty dollar for tak' one boat t'rough. By gosh! I never mak' so moch money—tree hondred dollar a day. I'm reech man now. You lak get reech queeck? I teach you be pilot. Swif' water, beeg noise! Plenty fun in dat!" The Canadian threw back his head and laughed loudly. "W'at you say?"
"I wouldn't mind trying it," Pierce confessed, "but I have no outfit. I'm packing for wages. I'll be along when I get my grub- stake together."
"Good! I go purty queeck now. W'en you come, I tak' you t'rough de canyon free. In one day I teach you be good pilot. You ask for 'Poleon Doret. Remember?"
"I say!" Phillips halted the cheerful giant as he was about to rise. "Do you know, you're the first man who has offered to do me a favor; you're the only one who hasn't tried to hold me back and climb over me. You're the first man I've seen with—with a smile on his face."
The speaker nodded. "I know! It's peety, too. Dese poor feller is scare', lak' you. Dey don' onderstan'. But bimeby, dey get wise; dey learn to he'p de oder feller, dey learn dat a smile will carry a pack or row a boat. You remember dat. A smile and a song, she'll shorten de miles and mak' fren's wid everybody. Don' forget w'at I tell you."
"Thank you, I won't," said Pierce, with a flicker of amusement at the man's brief sermon. This Doret was evidently a sort of backwoods preacher.
"Adieu!" With another flashing smile and a wave of his hand the fellow joined the procession and went on over the crest.
It had been pleasant to exchange even these few friendly words, for of late the habit of silence had been forced upon Pierce Phillips. For weeks now he had toiled among reticent men who regarded him with hostility, who made way for him with reluctance. Haste, labor, strain had numbed and brutalized them; fatigue had rendered them irritable, and the strangeness of their environment had made them both fearful and suspicious. There was no good- fellowship, no consideration on the Chilkoot. This was a race against time, and the stakes went to him who was most ruthless. Phillips had not exaggerated. Until this morning, he had received no faintest word of encouragement, no slightest offer of help. Not once had a hand been outstretched to him, and every inch he had gained had been won at the cost of his own efforts and by reason of his own determination.
He was yet warm with a wordless gratitude at the Frenchman's cheer when a figure came lurching toward him and fell into the space Doret had vacated. This man was quite the opposite of the one who had just left; he was old and he was far from robust. He fell face downward and lay motionless. Impulsively Phillips rose and removed the new-comer's pack.
"That last lift takes it out of you, doesn't it?" he inquired, sympathetically.
After a moment the stranger lifted a thin, colorless face overgrown with a bushy gray beard and began to curse in a gasping voice.
The youth warned him. "You're only tiring yourself, my friend. It's all down-hill from here."
The sufferer regarded Phillips from a pair of hard, smoky-blue eyes in which there lurked both curiosity and surprise.
"I say!" he panted. "You're the first white man I've met in two weeks."
Pierce laughed. "It's the result of a good example. A fellow was decent to me just now."
"This is the kind of work that gives a man dead babies," groaned the stranger. "And these darned trail-hogs!" He ground his teeth vindictively. "'Get out of the way!' 'Hurry up, old man!' 'Step lively, grandpa!' That's what they say. They snap at your heels like coyotes. Hurry? You can't force your luck!" The speaker struggled into a sitting posture and in an apologetic tone explained: "I dassent lay down or I'll get rheumatism. Tough guys- -frontiersmen—Pah!" He spat out the exclamation with disgust, then closed his eyes again and sank back against his burden. "Coyotes! That's what they are! They'd rob a carcass, they'd gnaw each other's bones to get through ahead of the ice."
Up out of the chasm below came a slow-moving file of Indian packers. Their eyes were bent upon the ground, and they stepped noiselessly into one another's tracks. The only sound they made came from their creaking pack-leathers. They paused briefly to breathe and to take in their surroundings, then they went on and out of sight.
When they had disappeared the stranger spoke in a changed tone. "Poor devils! I wonder what they've done. And you?" he turned to Phillips. "What sins have you committed?"
"Oh, just the ordinary ones. But I don't look at it that way. This is a sort of a lark for me, and I'm having a great time. It's pretty fierce, I'll admit, but—I wouldn't miss it for anything. Would you?"
"WOULD I? In a minute! You're young, I'm old. I've got rheumatism and—a partner. He can't pack enough grub for his own lunch, and I have to do it all. He's a Jonah, too—born on Friday, or something. Last night somebody stole a sack of our bacon. Sixty pounds, and every pound had cost me sweat!" Again the speaker ground his teeth vindictively. "Lord! I'd like to catch the fellow that did it! I'd take a drop of blood for every drop of sweat that bacon cost. Have you lost anything?"
"I haven't anything to lose. I'm packing for wages to earn money enough to buy an outfit."
After a brief survey of Phillips' burden, the stranger said, enviously: "Looks like you wouldn't have to make more than a trip or two. I wish I could pack like you do, but I'm stove up. At that, I'm better than my partner! He couldn't carry a tune." There was a pause. "He eats good, though; eats like a hired man and he snores so I can't sleep. I just lie awake nights and groan at the joints and listen to him grow old. He can't even guard our grub- pile."
"The Vigilantes will put a stop to this stealing," Pierce ventured.
"Think so? Who's going to keep an eye on them? Who's going to strangle the Stranglers? Chances are they're the very ones that are lifting our grub. I know these citizens' committees." Whatever the physical limitations of the rheumatic Argonaut, it was plain that his temper was active and his resentment strong.
Phillips had cooled off by this time; in fact, the chill breath of the snow-fields had begun to penetrate his sodden clothing, therefore he prepared to take up his march.
"Going through to Linderman?" queried the other man. "So am I. If you'll wait a second I'll join you. Maybe we can give each other a hand."
The speaker's motive was patent; nevertheless, Phillips obligingly acceded to his request, and a short time later assisted him into his harness, whereupon they set out one behind the other. Pierce's pack was at least double the weight of his companion's, and it gave him a pleasurable thrill to realize that he was one of the strong, one of the elect; he wondered pityingly how long this feeble, middle-aged man could last.
Before they had tramped far, however, he saw that the object of his pity possessed a quality which was lacking in many of the younger, stronger stampeders—namely, a grim determination, a dogged perseverance—no poor substitute, indeed, for youth and brawn. Once the man was in motion he made no complaint, and he managed to maintain a very good pace.
Leaving the crest of Chilkoot behind them, the travelers bore to the right across the snowcap, then followed the ridge above Crater Lake. Every mile or two they rested briefly to relieve their chafed and aching shoulders. They exchanged few words while they were in motion, for one soon learns to conserve his forces on the trail, but when they lay propped against their packs they talked.
Phillips' abundant vigor continued to evoke the elder man's frank admiration; he eyed the boy approvingly and plied him with questions. Before they had traveled many miles he had learned what there was to learn, for Pierce answered his questions frankly and told him about the sacrifice his family had made in order to send him North, about the trip itself, about his landing at Dyea, and all the rest. When he came to the account of that shell-game the grizzled stranger smiled.
"I've lived in wide-open countries all my life," said the latter, "but this beats anything I ever saw. Why, the crooks outnumber the honest men and they're running things to suit themselves. One of 'em tried to lay me. ME!" He chuckled as if the mere idea was fantastically humorous. "Have you heard about this Soapy Smith? He's the boss, the bell-cow, and he's made himself mayor of Skagway. Can you beat it? I'll bet some of his men are on our Citizens' Committee at Sheep Camp. They need a lot of killing, they do, and they'll get it. What did you do after you lost your money?"
"I fell in with two brothers and went to packing."
"Went partners with them?'
"No, they—" Phillips' face clouded, he hesitated briefly. "I merely lived with them and helped them with their outfit from time to time. We're at Sheep Camp now, and I share their tent whenever I'm there. I'm about ready to pull out and go it alone." "Right! And don't hook up with anybody." The old man spoke with feeling. "Look at me. I'm nesting with a dodo—darned gray-whiskered milliner! He's so ornery I have to hide the ax every time I see him. I just yearn to put him out of his misery, but I dassent. Of course he has his points—everybody has; he's a game old rooster and he loves me. That's all that saves him."
Phillips was greatly interested to learn that two men so unfitted for this life, this country, should have essayed the hardships of the Chilkoot trail. It amazed him to learn that already most of their outfit was at Linderman.
"Do you mean to say that you have done all the packing for yourself and your partner?" he inquired.
"N—no. Old Jerry totters across with a package of soda-crackers once in a while. You must have heard him; he creaks like a gate. Of course he eats up all the crackers before he gets to Linderman and then gorges himself on the heavy grub that I've lugged over, but in spite of that we've managed to make pretty good time." After a moment of meditation he continued: "Say! You ought to see that old buzzard eat! It's disgusting, but it's interesting. It ain't so much the expense that I care about as the work. Old Jerry ought to be in an institution—some place where they've got wheel- chairs and a big market-garden. But he's plumb helpless, so I can't cut him loose and let him bleach his bones in a strange land. I haven't got the heart."
They were resting at the Long Lake outlet, some time later, when the old man inquired:
"I presume you've got a camp at Linderman, eh?"
"No. I have some blankets cached there and I sleep out whenever I can't make the round trip."
"Round trip? Round trip in one day? Why, that's thirty miles!"
"Real miles, too. This country makes a man of a fellow. I wouldn't mind sleeping out if I were sure of a hot meal once in a while, but money is no good this side of the Summit, and these people won't even let a stranger use their stoves."
"You can't last long at that, my boy."
Phillips smiled cheerfully. "I don't have to last much longer. I sent a thousand dollars to Dyea this morning by Jim McCaskey, one of the fellows I live with. He's going to put it in Healy he's altogether different to us tenderfeet. He made me rather ashamed of myself."
The elderly man nodded. "Most pioneers are big-calibered. I'm a sort of pioneer myself, but that infernal partner of mine has about ruined my disposition. Take it by and large, though, it pays a man to be accommodating."
Having crossed the high barrens, Phillips and his companion dropped down to timber-line and soon arrived at Linderman, their journey's end. This was perhaps the most feverishly busy camp on the entire thirty-mile Dyea trail, but, unlike the coast towns, there was no merrymaking, no gaiety, no gambling here. Linderman's fever came from overwork, not from overplay. A tent village had sprung up at the head of the lake, and from dawn until dark it echoed to the unceasing sound of ax and hammer, of plane and saw. The air was redolent with the odor of fresh-cut spruce and of boiling tar, for this was the shipyard where an army of Jasons hewed and joined and fitted, each upon a bark of his own making. Half-way down the lake was the Boundary, and a few miles below that again was the customs station with its hateful red-jacketed police. Beyond were uncharted waters, quite as perilous, because quite as unknown, as those traversed by that first band of Argonauts. Deep lakes, dark canons, roaring rapids lay between Linderman and the land of the Golden Fleece, but the nearer these men approached those dangers the more eagerly they pressed on.
Already the weeding-out process had gone far and the citizens of Linderman were those who had survived it. The weak and the irresolute had disappeared long since; these fellows who labored so mightily to forestall the coming winter were the strong and the fit and the enduring—the kind the North takes to herself.
In spite of his light pack, Phillips' elderly trailmate was all but spent. He dragged his feet, he stumbled without reason, the lines in his face were deeply set, and his bearded lips had retreated from his teeth in a grin of exhaustion.
"Yonder's the tent," he said, finally, and his tone was eloquent of relief.
In and out among canvas walls and taut guy-ropes the travelers wound their way, emerging at length upon a gravelly beach where vast supplies of provisions were cached. All about, in various stages of construction, were skeletons of skiffs, of scows, and of barges; the ground was spread with a carpet of shavings and sawdust.
Pierce's companion paused; then, after an incredulous stare, he said: "Look! Is that smoke coming from my stovepipe?"
There could be no mistake about it; from the tent in question arose the plain evidence that a lively fire was burning inside.
"Well, I'll be darned!" breathed the elder man. "Somebody's jumped the cache."
"Perhaps your partner—"
"He's in Sheep Camp." The speaker laboriously loosened his pack and let it fall, then with stiff, clumsy fingers he undid the top buttons of his vest and, to Pierce's amazement, produced a large- calibered revolver, which he mechanically cocked and uncocked several times, the while his eyes remained hypnotically fixed upon the telltale streamer of smoke. Not only did his action appear to be totally uncalled for, but he himself had undergone a startling transformation and Phillips was impelled to remonstrate.
"Here! What the deuce—?" he began.
"Listen to me!" The old man spoke in a queer, suppressed tone, and his eyes, when he turned them upon his fellow-packer, were even smokier than usual. "Somebody's up to a little thievin', most likely, and it looks like I had 'em red-handed. I've been layin' for this!"
Pierce divested himself of his pack-harness, then said, simply, "If that's the case, I'll give you a hand."
"Better stand back," the other cautioned him. "I don't need any help—this is my line." The man's fatigue had fallen from him; of a sudden he had become surprisingly alert and forceful. He stole forward, making as little noise as possible, and Phillips followed at his back. They came to a pause within arm's-length of the tent flaps, which they noted were securely tied.
"Hello inside!" The owner spoke suddenly and with his free hand he jerked at one of the knots.
There came an answering exclamation, a movement; then the flaps were seized and firmly held.
"You can't come in!" cried a voice.
"Let go! Quick!" The old man's voice was harsh.
"You'll have to wait a minute. I'm undressed."
Phillips retreated a step, as did the other man; they stared at each other.
"A woman!" Pierce breathed.
"Lord!" The owner of the premises slowly, reluctantly sheathed his weapon under his left arm.
"I invited myself in," the voice explained—it was a deep-pitched contralto voice. "I was wet and nobody offered to let me dry out, so I took possession of the first empty tent I came to. Is it yours?"
"It is—half of it. I'm mighty tired and I ain't particular how you look, so hurry up." As the two men returned for their loads the speaker went on, irritably. "She's got her nerve! I s'pose she's one of these actresses. There's a bunch of 'em on the trail. Actresses!" He snorted derisively. "I bet she smells of cologne, and, gosh! how I hate it!"
When he and Pierce returned they were admitted promptly enough, and any lingering suspicions of the trespasser's intent were instantly dissipated. The woman was clad in a short, damp underskirt which fell about to her knees; she had drawn on the only dry article of apparel in sight, a man's sweater jacket; she had thrust her bare feet into a pair of beaded moccasins; on a line attached to the ridgepole over her head sundry outer garments were steaming. Phillips' first thought was that this woman possessed the fairest, the whitest, skin he had ever seen; it was like milk. But his first impressions were confused, for embarrassment followed quickly upon his entrance and he felt an impulse to withdraw. The trespasser was not at all the sort of person he had expected to find, and her complete self-possession at the intrusion, her dignified greeting, left him not a little chagrined at his rudeness. She eyed both men coolly from a pair of ice-blue eyes—eyes that bespoke her nationality quite as plainly as did her features, her dazzling complexion, and her head of fine, straight flaxen hair. She was Scandinavian, she was a Norsewoman; that much was instantly apparent. She appeared to derive a certain malicious pleasure now from the consternation her appearance evoked; there was a hint of contempt, of defiance, in her smile. In a voice so low-pitched that its quality alone saved it from masculinity, she said:
"Pray don't be distressed; you merely startled me, that's all. My Indians managed to get hold of some hootch at Tagish and upset our canoe just below here. It was windy and of course they couldn't swim—none of them can, you know—so I had hard work to save them. I've already explained how I happened to select this particular refuge. Your neighbors—" her lip curled disdainfully, then she shrugged. "Well, I never got such a reception as they gave me, but I suppose they're cheechakos. I'll be off for Dyea early in the morning. If you can put me up for the night I'll pay you well."
During this speech, delivered in a matter-of-fact, business-like tone, the owner of the tent had managed to overcome his first surprise; he removed his hat now and began with an effort:
"I'm a bad hand at begging pardons, miss, but you see I've been suffering the pangs of bereavement lately over some dear, departed grub. I thought you were a thief and I looked forward to the pleasure of seeing you dance. I apologize. Would you mind telling me where you came from?"
"From Dawson." There was a silence the while the flaxen-haired woman eyed her interrogator less disdainfully. "Yes, by poling- boat and birch-bark. I'm not fleeing the law; I'm not a cache- robber."
The woman nodded. "Can you stow me away for the night? You may name your own price."
"The price won't cripple you. I'm sorry there ain't some more women here at Linderman, but—there ain't. We had one—a doctor's wife, but she's gone."
"I met her at Lake Marsh."
"We've a lot more coming, but they're not here. My name is Linton. The more-or-less Christian prefix thereto is Tom. I've got a partner named Jerry. Put the two together, and drink hearty. This young man is Mr.—" The speaker turned questioningly upon Phillips, who made himself known. "I'm a family man. Mr. Phillips is a—well, he's a good packer. That's all I know about him. I'm safe and sane, but he's about the right age to propose marriage to you as soon as he gets his breath. A pretty woman in this country has to expect that, as you probably know."
The woman smiled and shook hands with both men, exchanging a grip as firm and as strong as theirs. "I am the Countess Courteau," said she.
"The—which?" Mr. Linton queried, with a start.
The Countess laughed frankly. "It is French, but I'm a Dane. I think my husband bought the title—they're cheap in his country. He was a poor sort of count, and I'm a poor sort of countess. But I'm a good cook—a very good cook indeed—and if you'll excuse my looks and permit me to wear your sweater I'll prepare supper."
Linton's eyes twinkled as he said, "I've never et with the nobility and I don't know as I'd like their diet, for a steady thing, but—the baking-powder is in that box and we fry with bacon grease."
Wood and water were handy, the Countess Courteau had a quick and capable way, therefore supper was not long delayed. The tent was not equipped for housekeeping, hence the diners held their plates in their laps and either harpooned their food from the frying-pan or ladled it from tin cans, but even so it had a flavor to-night so unaccustomed, so different, that both men grasped the poignant fact that the culinary art is mysteriously wedded to female hands. Mr. Linton voiced this thought in his own manner.
"If a countess cooks like this," he observed, "I'd sure love to board with a duke." Later, while the dishes were being washed and when his visitor had shown no intention of explaining her presence in further detail, he said, whimsically: "See here, ma'am, our young friend has been watching you like he was afraid you'd disappear before he gets an eyeful, and it's plain to be seen that he's devoured by curiosity. As for me, I'm totally lacking in that miserable trait, and I abhor it in others; but all the same, if you don't see fit to tell us pretty quick how you came to pole up from Dawson and what in Heaven's name a woman like you is doing here, a lone and without benefit of chaperon, I shall pass away in dreadful agony."
"It's very simple," the Countess told him. "I have important business 'outside.' I couldn't go down the river, for the Yukon is low, the steamers are aground on the flats, and connections at St. Michael's are uncertain at best. Naturally I came up against the stream. I've been working 'up-stream' all my life." She flashed him a smile at this latter statement. "As for a chaperon—I've never felt the need of one. Do you think they're necessary in this country?"
"Does your husband, Count—"
"My husband doesn't count. That's the trouble." The speaker laughed again and without the faintest trace of embarrassment. "He has been out of the picture for years." She turned to Phillips and inquired, abruptly, "What is the packing price to Sheep Camp?"
"Fifty cents a pound, coming this way. Going back it is nothing," he told her, gallantly.
"I haven't much to carry, but if you'll take it I'll pay you the regular price. I'd like to leave at daylight."
"You seem to be in a rush," Mr. Linton hazarded, mildly.
"I am. Now, then, if you don't mind I'll turn in, for I must be in Dyea to-morrow night."
Pierce Phillips had said little during the meal or thereafter, to be sure, nevertheless, he had thought much. He had indeed used his eyes to good purpose, and now he regretted exceedingly that the evening promised to be so short. The more he saw of this unconventional countess the more she intrigued his interest. She was the most unusual woman he had ever met and he was eager to learn all about her. His knowledge of women was peculiarly elemental; his acquaintance with the sex was extremely limited. Those he had known in his home town were one kind, a familiar kind; those he had encountered since leaving home were, for the most part, of a totally different class and of a type that awoke his disapproval. To a youth of his training and of his worldly experience the genus woman is divided into two species—old women and young women. The former are interesting only in a motherly way, and demand nothing more than abstract courtesy. They do not matter. The latter, on the contrary, separate themselves again into two families or suborders—viz., good women and bad women. The demarcation between the two branches of the suborder is distinct; there is nothing common to the two. Good women are good through and through—bad ones are likewise thoroughly bad. There are no intermediate types, no troublesome variations, no hybrids nor crosses.
The Countess Courteau, it seemed to him, was a unique specimen and extremely hard to classify, in that she was neither old nor young- -or, what was even more puzzling, in that she was both. In years she was not far advanced—little older than he, in fact—but in experience, in wisdom, in self-reliance she was vastly his superior; and experience, he believed, is what makes women old. As to the family, the suborder to which she belonged, he was at an utter loss to decide. For instance, she accepted her present situation with a sang-froid equaling that of a camp harpy, a few of whom Pierce had seen; then, too, she was, or had been, married to a no-account foreigner to whom she referred with a calloused and most unwifely flippancy; moreover, she bore herself with a freedom, a boldness, quite irreconcilable to the modesty of so- called "good women." Those facts were enough to classify her definitely, and yet despite them she was anything but common, and it would have taken rare courage indeed to transgress that indefinable barrier of decorum with which she managed to surround herself. There was something about her as cold and as pure as blue ice, and she gave the same impression of crystal clarity. All in all, hers was a baffling personality and Phillips fell asleep with the riddle of it unanswered. He awoke in the morning with it still upon his mind.
The Countess Courteau had been first to arise; she was fully dressed and the sheet-iron stove was glowing when her companions roused themselves. By the time they had returned from the lake she had breakfast ready.
"Old Jerry is going to be awful sore at missing this court function," Mr. Linton told her during the meal. "He's a great ladies' man, Old Jerry is."
"Perhaps I shall meet him."
"You wouldn't like him if you did; nobody likes him, except me, and I hate him." Linton sighed. "He's a handicap to a young man like me."
"Why don't you send him home?"
"Home? Old Jerry would die before he'd turn back. He'd lift his muzzle and bay at the very idea until some stranger terminated him. Well, he's my cross; I s'pose I've got to bear him."
"Who is Mr. Linton?" the Countess inquired, as she and Pierce left the village behind them.
"Just an ordinary stampeder, like the rest of us. I think."
"He's more than that. He's the kind who'll go through and make good. I dare say his partner is just like him."
Phillips approved of the Countess Courteau this morning even more thoroughly than he had on the evening previous, and they had not walked far before he realized that as a traveler she was the equal of him or of any man. She was lithe and strong and light of foot; the way she covered ground awoke his sincere admiration. She did not trouble to talk much and she dispensed with small talk in others; she appeared to be absorbed in her own affairs, and only when they rested did she engage in conversation. The more Phillips studied her and the better acquainted he became with her the larger proportions did she assume. Not only was she completely mistress of herself, but she had a forceful, compelling way with others; there was a natural air of authority about her, and she managed in some subtle manner to invest herself and her words with importance. She was quite remarkable.
Now, the trail breeds its own peculiar intimacy; although the two talked little, they nevertheless got to know each other quite well, and when they reached the Summit, about midday, Phillips felt a keen regret that their journey was so near its end.
A mist was drifting up from the sea; it obscured the valley below and clung to the peaks like ragged garments. Up and out of this fog came the interminable procession of burden-bearers. The Countess paused to observe them and to survey the accumulation of stores which crowned the watershed.
"I didn't dream so many were coming," said she.
"It's getting worse daily," Pierce told her. "Dyea is jammed, and so is Skagway. The trails are alive with men."
"How many do you think will come?"
"There's no telling. Twenty, thirty, fifty thousand, perhaps. About half of them turn back when they see the Chilkoot."
"And the rest will wish they had. It's a hard country; not one in a hundred will prosper."
They picked their way down the drunken descent to the Scales, then breasted the sluggish human current to Sheep Camp.
A group of men were reading a notice newly posted upon the wall of the log building which served as restaurant and hotel, and after scanning it Pierce explained:
"It's another call for a miners' meeting. We're having quite a time with cache-robbers. If we catch them we'll hang them."
The Countess nodded. "Right! They deserve it. You know we don't have any stealing on the 'inside.' Now, then, I'll say good-by." She paid Pierce and extended her hand to him. "Thank you for helping me across. I'll be in Dyea by dark."
"I hope we'll meet again," he said, with a slight flush.
The woman favored him with one of her generous, friendly smiles. "I hope so, too. You're a nice boy. I like you." Then she stepped into the building and was gone.
"A nice boy!" Phillips was pained. A boy! And he the sturdiest packer on the pass, with perhaps one exception! That was hardly just to him. If they did meet again—and he vowed they would—he'd show her he was more than a boy. He experienced a keen desire to appear well in her eyes, to appear mature and forceful. He asked himself what kind of man Count Courteau could be; he wondered if he, Pierce Phillips, could fall in love with such a woman as this, an older woman, a woman who had been married. It would be queer to marry a countess, he reflected.
As he walked toward his temporary home he beheld quite a gathering of citizens, and paused long enough to note that they were being harangued by the confidence-man who had first initiated him into the subtleties of the three-shell game. Mr. Broad had climbed upon a raised tent platform and was presenting an earnest argument against capital punishment. Two strangers upon the fringe of the crowd were talking, and Pierce heard one of them say:
"Of course he wants the law to take its course, inasmuch as there isn't any law. He's one of the gang."
"The surest way to flush a covey of crooks is to whistle for old Judge Lynch," the other man agreed. "Listen to him!"
"Have they caught the cache-robbers?" Phillips made bold to inquire.
"No, and they won't catch them, with fellows like that on the committee. The crooks hang together and we don't. If I had my way that's just what they'd do—hang together. I'd start in by bending a limb over that rascal."
Phillips had attended several of these indignation meetings and, remembering that all of them bad proved purposeless, he went on toward the McCaskey brothers' tent. He and the McCaskeys were not the closest of friends, in spite of the fact that they had done him a favor—a favor, by the way. for which he had paid many times over—nevertheless, they were his most intimate acquaintances and he felt an urgent desire to tell them about his unusual experience. His desire to talk about the Countess Courteau was irresistible.
But when he entered the tent his greeting fell flat, for Joe, the elder McCaskey, addressed him sharply, almost accusingly:
"Say, it's about time you showed up!"
"What's the matter?" Pierce saw that the other brother was stretched out in his blankets and that his head was bandaged. "Hello!" he cried. "What ails Jim? Is he sick?"
"Sick? Worse than sick," Joe grumbled. "That money of yours is to blame for it. It's a wonder he isn't dead."
"My money? How?" Phillips was both mystified and alarmed.
Jim raised himself in his blankets and said, irritably: "After this you can run your own pay-car, kid. I'm through, d'you hear?"
"Speak out. What's wrong?"
"Jim was stuck up, that's what's wrong. That's enough, isn't it? They bent a six-gun over his head and grabbed your coin. He's got a dent in his crust the size of a saucer!"
Phillips' face whitened slowly. "My money! Robbed!" he gasped. "JIM! Who did it? How could you let them?"
The younger McCaskey fell back weakly; he waved a feeble gesture at his brother. "Joe'll tell you. I'm dizzy; my head ain't right yet."
"A stranger stopped him—asked him something or other—and another guy flattened him from behind. That's all he remembers. When he came to he found he'd been frisked. He was still dippy when he got home, so I put him to bed. He got up and moved around a bit this morning, but he's wrong in his head."
Phillips seated himself upon a candle-box. "Robbed!" he exclaimed, weakly. "Broke—again! Gee! That was hard money! It was the first I ever earned!"
Joe McCaskey's dark face was doubly unpleasant as he frowned down upon the youth. "Thinking about nothing except your coin, eh? Why don't you think about Jim? He did you a favor and 'most lost his life."
"Oh, I'm sorry—of course!" Phillips rose heavily and crossed to the bed. "I didn't mean to appear selfish. I don't blame you, Jim. I'll get a doctor for you, then you must describe the hold-ups. Give me a hint who they are and I'll go after them."
The younger brother rolled his head in negation and mumbled, sullenly: "I'm all right. I don't want a doctor."
Joe explained for him: "He never saw the fellows before and he don't seem to remember much about them. That's natural enough. Your money's gone clean, kid, and a yelp won't get you anything. The crooks are organized and if you set up a holler they'll get all of us. They'll alibi anybody you accuse—it's no trick to alibi a pal—"
"Isn't it?" The question was uttered unexpectedly; it came from the front of the tent and startled the occupants thereof, who turned to behold a stranger just entering their premises. He was an elderly man; he possessed a quick, shrewd eye; he had poked the tent flap aside with the barrel of a Colt's revolver. Through the door-opening could be seen other faces and the bodies of other men who had likewise stolen up unheard. During the moment of amazement following his first words these other men crowded in behind him.
"Maybe it 'll be more of a trick than you figure on." The stranger's gray mustache lifted in a grin that was not at all friendly.
"What the blazes—?" Joe McCaskey exploded.
"Go easy!" the intruder cautioned him. "We've been laying around, waiting for your pal to get back." With a movement of the revolver muzzle he indicated Phillips. "Now then, stretch! On your toes and reach high. You there, get up!" He addressed himself to Jim, who rose from his bed and thrust his hands over his bandaged head. "That's nice!" the stranger nodded approvingly. "Now don't startle me; don't make any quick moves or I may tremble this gun off— she's easy on the trigger." To his friends he called, "Come in, gentlemen; they're gentle."
There were four of the latter; they appeared to be substantial men, men of determination. All were armed.
Pierce Phillips' amazement gave way to indignation. "What is this, an arrest or a hold-up?" he inquired.
"It's right smart of both," the leader of the posse drawled, in a voice which betrayed the fact that he hailed from somewhere in the far Southwest. "We're in quest of a bag of rice—a bag with a rip in it and 'W. K.' on the side. While I slap your pockets, just to see if you're ironed, these gentlemen are goin' to look over your outfit."
"This is an outrage!" Jim McCaskey complained. "I'm just getting over one stick-up. I'm a sick man."
"Sure!" his brother exclaimed, furiously. "You're a pack of fools! What d'you want, anyhow?"
"We want you to shut up! See that you do." The old man's eyes snapped. "If you've got to say something, tell us how there happens to be a trail of rice from this man's cache"—he indicated one of his companions—"right up to your tent."
The McCaskeys exchanged glances. Phillips turned a startled face upon them.
"It isn't much of a trail, but it's enough to follow."
For a few moments nothing was said, and meanwhile the search of the tent went on. When Pierce could no longer remain silent he broke out:
"There's some mistake. These boys packed this grub from Dyea and I helped with some of it."
"Aren't you partners?" some one inquired.
Joe McCaskey answered this question. "No. He landed broke. We felt sorry for him and took him in."
Joe was interrupted by an exclamation from one of the searchers. "Here it is!" said the man. He had unearthed a bulging canvas sack which he flung down for inspection. "There's my mark, 'W. K.,' and there's the rip. I knew we had 'em right!"
After a brief examination the leader of the posse turned to his prisoners, whose hands were still held high, saying:
"Anything you can think of in the way of explanations you'd better save for the miners' meeting. It's waitin' to welcome you. We'll put a guard over this plunder till the rest of it is identified. Now, then, fall in line and don't crowd. After you, gentlemen."
Pierce Phillips realized that it was useless to argue, for his words would not be listened to, therefore he followed the McCaskeys out into the open air. The odium of this accusation was hard to bear; he bitterly resented his situation and something told him he would have to fight to clear himself; nevertheless, he was not seriously concerned over the outcome. Public feeling was high, to be sure; the men of Sheep Camp were in a dangerous frame of mind and their actions were liable to be hasty, ill-considered- -their verdict was apt to be fantastic—but, secure in the knowledge of his innocence, Pierce felt no apprehension. Rather he experienced a thrill of excitement at the contretemps and at the ordeal which he knew was forthcoming.
The Countess Courteau had called him a boy. This wasn't a boy's business; this was a real man-sized adventure.
"Gee! What a day this has been!" he said to himself.
The story of the first trial at Sheep Camp is an old one, but it differs with every telling. In the hectic hurry of that gold-rush many incidents were soon forgotten and such salient facts as did survive were deeply colored, for those were colorful days. That trial marked an epoch in early Yukon history, for, although its true significance was unsensed at the time, it really signalized the dawn of common honesty on the Chilkoot and the Chilkat trails, and it was the first move taken toward the disruption of organized outlawry—a bitter fight, by the way, which ended only in the tragic death of Soapy Smith and the flight of his notorious henchmen. Although the circumstances of the Sheep Camp demonstration now seem shocking, they did not seem so at the time, and they served a larger purpose than was at first apparent; not only did theft become an unprofitable and an uninteresting occupation thereafter, but also the men who shaped a code and drew first blood in defense of it experienced a beneficial reaction and learned to fit the punishment to the crime—no easy lesson to learn where life runs hot and where might is right.
The meeting was in session and it had been harangued into a dangerous frame of mind when Pierce Phillips and the two McCaskeys were led before it. A statement by the leader of the posse, corroborated by the owner of the missing sack of rice, roused the audience to a fury. Even while these stories were being told there came other men who had identified property of theirs among the provision piles inside the McCaskey tent, and when they, too, had made their reports the crowd began to mill; there were demands for a speedy trial and a swift vengeance.
These demands found loudest echo among the outlaw element for which Lucky Broad had acted as mouthpiece. Although the members of that band were unknown—as a matter of fact, no man knew his neighbor—nevertheless it was plain that there was an organization of crooks and that a strong bond of understanding existed between them. Now, inasmuch as the eye of suspicion had been turned away from them, now that a herring had been dragged across the trail, their obstructive tactics ended and they, too, became noisy in their clamor that justice be done.
The meeting was quickly organized along formal lines and a committee of three was appointed to conduct the hearing. The chairman of this committee-he constituted himself chairman by virtue of the fact that he was first nominated—made a ringing speech in which he praised his honesty, his fairness, and his knowledge of the law. He complimented the miners for their acumen in selecting for such a position of responsibility a man of his distinguished qualifications. It was plain that he believed they had chosen wisely. Then, having inquired the names of his two committeemen, he likewise commended them in glowing terms, although of course he could not praise them quite as unstintedly as he had praised himself. Still, he spoke well of them and concluded by stating that so long as affairs were left in his hands justice would be safeguarded and the rights of this miserable, cringing trio of thieves would be protected, albeit killing, in his judgment, was too mild a punishment for people of their caliber.
"Hear! Hear!" yelled the mob.
Pierce Phillips listened to this speech with a keenly personal and yet a peculiarly detached interest. The situation struck him as unreal, grotesque, and the whole procedure as futile. Under other circumstances it would have been grimly amusing; now he was uncomfortably aware that it was anything but that. There was no law whatever in the land save the will of these men; in their hands lay life or death, exoneration or infamy. He searched the faces round about him, but could find signs neither of friendship nor of sympathy. This done, he looked everywhere for a glimpse of a woman's straw-colored hair and was relieved to discover that the Countess Courteau was not in the audience. Doubtless she had left for Dyea and was already some distance down the trail. He breathed easier, for he did not wish her to witness his humiliation, and her presence would have merely added to his embarrassment.
The prosecution's case was quickly made, and it was a strong one. Even yet the damning trickle of rice grains could be traced through the moss and mire directly to the door of the prisoners' tent, and the original package, identified positively by its owner, was put in evidence. This in itself was enough; testimony from the other men who had likewise recovered merchandise they had missed and mourned merely strengthened the case and further inflamed the minds of the citizens.
From the first there had never been a doubt in Phillips' mind that the McCaskeys were guilty. The facts offered in evidence served only to explain certain things which had puzzled him at various times; nevertheless, his indignation and his contempt for them were tempered with regrets, for he could not but remember that they had befriended him. It was of course imperative that he establish his own innocence, but he determined that in so doing he would prejudice their case as little as possible. That was no more than the merest loyalty.
When it came tune to hear the defense, the McCaskeys stared at Pierce coolly; therefore he climbed to the tent platform and faced his accusers.