- Transcriber's note: Inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. -
THE YUKON TRAIL
A Tale of the North
WILLIAM MacLEOD RAINE
Author of Wyoming, Bucky O'Connor, Etc.
With Illustrations by George Ellis Wolfe
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Copyright, 1917, by William MacLeod Raine All Rights Reserved Published May 1917
TO MY BROTHER EDGAR C. RAINE
who knew the Lights of Dawson when they were a magnet to the feet of those answering the call of Adventure, who mushed the Yukon Trail from its headwaters to Bering Sea, who still finds in the Frozen North the Romance of the Last Frontier.
I. Going "In" 1 II. Enter a Man 10 III. The Girl from Drogheda 23 IV. The Crevasse 34 V. Across the Traverse 49 VI. Sheba sings—and Two Men listen 58 VII. Wally gets Orders 71 VIII. The End of the Passage 82 IX. Gid Holt goes prospecting 93 X. The Rah-Rah Boy functions 109 XI. Gordon invites himself to Dinner—and does not enjoy it 125 XII. Sheba says "Perhaps" 137 XIII. Diane and Gordon differ 144 XIV. Genevieve Mallory takes a Hand 156 XV. Gordon buys a Revolver 170 XVI. Ambushed 181 XVII. "God save you kindly" 193 XVIII. Gordon spends a Busy Evening 201 XIX. Sheba does not think so 210 XX. Gordon finds himself Unpopular 217 XXI. A New Way of leaving a House 227 XXII. Gid Holt comes to Kusiak 232 XXIII. In the Dead of Night 241 XXIV. Macdonald follows a Clue 247 XXV. In the Blizzard 256 XXVI. Hard Mushing 268 XXVII. Two on the Trail 275 XXVIII. A Message from the Dead 286 XXIX. "Don't touch him! Don't you dare touch him!" 292 XXX. Holt frees his Mind 301 XXXI. Sheba digs 308 XXXII. Diane changes her Mind 318
Now he caught her by the shoulders Frontispiece "So you think I'm a 'fraid-cat, Mr. Elliot?" 44 The situation was piquant, even though it was at her expense 236 For him the beauty of the night lay largely in her presence 322
The Yukon Trail
The midnight sun had set, but in a crotch between two snow-peaks it had kindled a vast caldron from which rose a mist of jewels, garnet and turquoise, topaz and amethyst and opal, all swimming in a sea of molten gold. The glow of it still clung to the face of the broad Yukon, as a flush does to the soft, wrinkled cheek of a girl just roused from deep sleep.
Except for a faint murkiness in the air it was still day. There was light enough for the four men playing pinochle on the upper deck, though the women of their party, gossiping in chairs grouped near at hand, had at last put aside their embroidery. The girl who sat by herself at a little distance held a magazine still open on her lap. If she were not reading, her attitude suggested it was less because of the dusk than that she had surrendered herself to the spell of the mysterious beauty which for this hour at least had transfigured the North to a land all light and atmosphere and color.
Gordon Elliot had taken the boat at Pierre's Portage, fifty miles farther down the river. He had come direct from the creeks, and his impressions of the motley pioneer life at the gold-diggings were so vivid that he had found an isolated corner of the deck where he could scribble them in a notebook while still fresh.
But he had not been too busy to see that the girl in the wicker chair was as much of an outsider as he was. Plainly this was her first trip in. Gordon was a stranger in the Yukon country, one not likely to be over-welcome when it became known what his mission was. It may have been because he was out of the picture himself that he resented a little the exclusion of the young woman with the magazine. Certainly she herself gave no evidence of feeling about it. Her long-lashed eyes looked dreamily across the river to the glowing hills beyond. Not once did they turn with any show of interest to the lively party under the awning.
From where he was leaning against the deckhouse Elliot could see only a fine, chiseled profile shading into a mass of crisp, black hair, but some quality in the detachment of her personality stimulated gently his imagination. He wondered who she could be. His work had taken him to frontier camps before, but he could not place her as a type. The best he could do was to guess that she might be the daughter of some territorial official on her way in to join him.
A short, thick-set man who had ridden down on the stage with Elliot to Pierre's Portage drifted along the deck toward him. He wore the careless garb of a mining man in a country which looks first to comfort.
"Bound for Kusiak?" he asked, by way of opening conversation.
"Yes," answered Gordon.
The miner nodded toward the group under the awning. "That bunch lives at Kusiak. They've got on at different places the last two or three days—except Selfridge and his wife, they've been out. Guess you can tell that from hearing her talk—the little woman in red with the snappy black eyes. She's spillin' over with talk about the styles in New York and the cabarets and the new shows. That pot-bellied little fellow in the checked suit is Selfridge. He is Colby Macdonald's man Friday."
Elliot took in with a quickened interest the group bound for Kusiak. He had noticed that they monopolized as a matter of course the best places on the deck and in the dining-room. They were civil enough to outsiders, but their manner had the unconscious selfishness that often regulates social activities. It excluded from their gayety everybody that did not belong to the proper set.
"That sort of thing gets my goat," the miner went on sourly. "Those women over there have elected themselves Society with a capital S. They put on all the airs the Four Hundred do in New York. And who the hell are they anyhow?—wives to a bunch of grafting politicians mostly."
From the casual talk that had floated to him, with its many little allusions punctuating the jolly give-and-take of their repartee, Elliot guessed that their lives had the same background of tennis, dinners, hops, official gossip, and business. They evidently knew one another with the intimacy that comes only to the segment of a small community shut off largely from the world and forced into close social relations. No doubt they had loaned each other money occasionally, stood by in trouble, and gossiped back and forth about their shortcomings and family skeletons even as society on the outside does.
"That's the way of the world, isn't it? Our civilization is built on the group system," suggested Elliot.
"Maybeso," grumbled the miner. "But I hate to see Alaska come to it. Me, I saw this country first in '97—packed an outfit in over the Pass. Every man stood on his own hind legs then. He got there if he was strong—mebbe; he bogged down on the trail good and plenty if he was weak. We didn't have any of the artificial stuff then. A man had to have the guts to stand the gaff."
"I suppose it was a wild country, Mr. Strong."
The little miner's eyes gleamed. "Best country in the world. We didn't stand for anything that wasn't on the level. It was a poor man's country—wages fifteen dollars a day and plenty of work. Everybody had a chance. Anybody could stake a claim and gamble on his luck. Now the big corporations have slipped in and grabbed the best. It ain't a prospector's proposition any more. Instead of faro banks we've got savings banks. The wide-open dance hall has quit business in favor of moving pictures. And, as I said before, we've got Society."
"All frontier countries have to come to it."
"Hmp! In the days I'm telling you about that crowd there couldn't 'a' hustled meat to fill their bellies three meals. Parasites, that's what they are. They're living off that bunch of roughnecks down there and folks like 'em."
With a wave of his hand Strong pointed to a group of miners who had boarded the boat with them at Pierre's Portage. There were about a dozen of the men, for the most part husky, heavy-set foreigners. They had been drinking, and were in a sullen humor. Elliot gathered from their talk that they had lost their jobs because they had tried to organize an incipient strike in the Frozen Gulch district.
"Roughnecks and booze-fighters—that's all they are. But they earn their way. Not that I blame Macdonald for firing them, mind you," continued the miner.
"Were they working for Macdonald?"
"Yep. His superintendent up there was too soft. These here Swedes got gay. Mac hit the trail for Frozen Gulch. He hammered his big fist into the bread-basket of the ringleader and said, 'Git!' That fellow's running yet, I'll bet. Then Mac called the men together and read the riot act to them. He fired this bunch on the boat and was out of the camp before you could bat an eye. It was the cleanest hurry-up job I ever did see."
"From what I've heard about him he must be a remarkable man."
"He's the biggest man in Alaska, bar none."
This was a subject that interested Gordon Elliot very much. Colby Macdonald and his activities had brought him to the country.
"Do you mean personally—or because he represents the big corporations?"
"Both. His word comes pretty near being law up here, not only because he stands for the Consolidated, but because he's one man from the ground up. I ain't any too strong for that New York bunch of capitalists back of Mac, but I've got to give it to him that he's all there without leaning on anybody."
"I've heard that he's a domineering man—rides roughshod over others. Is that right, Mr. Strong?"
"He's a bear for getting his own way," grinned the little miner. "If you won't get out of his road he peels your hide off and hangs it up to dry. But I can't help liking him. He's big every way you take him. He'll stand the acid, Mac will."
"Do you mean that he's square—honest?"
"You've said two things, my friend," answered Strong dryly. "He's square. If he tells you anything, don't worry because he ain't put down his John Hancock before a notary. He'll see it through to a finish—to a fighting finish if he has to. Don't waste any time looking for fat or yellow streaks in Mac. They ain't there. Nobody ever heard him squeal yet and what's more nobody ever will."
"No wonder men like him."
"But when you say honest—Hell, no! Not the way you define honesty down in the States. He's a grabber, Mac is. Better not leave anything valuable around unless you've got it spiked to the floor. He takes what he wants."
"What does he look like?" asked Gordon.
"Oh, I don't know." Strong hesitated, while he searched for words to show the picture in his mind. "Big as a house—steps out like a buck in the spring—blue-gray eyes that bore right through you."
"Search me. You never think of age when you're looking at him. Forty-five, mebbe—or fifty—I don't know."
"No-o." Hanford Strong nodded in the direction of the Kusiak circle. "They say he's going to marry Mrs. Mallory. She's the one with the red hair."
It struck young Elliot that the miner was dismissing Mrs. Mallory in too cavalier a fashion. She was the sort of woman at whom men look twice, and then continue to look while she appears magnificently unaware of it. Her hair was not red, but of a lustrous bronze, amazingly abundant, and dressed in waves with the careful skill of a coiffeur. Half-shut, smouldering eyes had met his for an instant at dinner across the table and had told him she was a woman subtle and complex. Slightest shades of meaning she could convey with a lift of the eyebrow or an intonation of the musical voice. If she was already fencing with the encroaching years there was little evidence of it in her opulent good looks. She had manifestly specialized in graceful idleness and was prepared to meet with superb confidence the competition of debutantes. The elusive shadow of lost illusions, of knowledge born of experience, was the only betrayal of vanished youth in her equipment.
ENTER A MAN
The whistle of the Hannah blew for the Tatlah Cache landing while Strong and Elliot were talking. Wally Selfridge had just bid three hundred seventy and found no help in the widow. He pushed toward each of the other players one red chip and two white ones.
"Can't make it," he announced. "I needed a jack of clubs."
The men counted their chips and settled up in time to reach the deck rail just as the gangplank was thrown out to the wharf. The crew transferred to the landing a pouch of mail, half a ton of sacked potatoes, some mining machinery, and several boxes containing provisions and dry goods.
A man came to the end of the wharf carrying a suitcase. He was well-set, thick in the chest, and broad-shouldered. He came up the gangplank with the strong, firm tread of a man in his prime. Looking down from above, Gordon Elliot guessed him to be in the early thirties.
Mrs. Mallory was the first to recognize him, which she did with a drawling little shout of welcome. "Oh you, Mr. Man. I knew you first. I speak for you," she cried.
The man on the gangplank looked up, smiled, and lifted to her his broad gray Stetson in a wave of greeting.
"How do you do, Mrs. Mallory? Glad to see you."
The miners from Frozen Gulch were grouped together on the lower deck. At sight of the man with the suitcase a sullen murmur rose among them. Those in the rear pushed forward and closed the lane leading to the cabins. One of the miners was flung roughly against the new passenger. With a wide, powerful sweep of his arm the man who had just come aboard hurled the miner back among his companions.
"Gangway!" he said brusquely, and as he strode forward did not even glance in the direction of the angry men pressing toward him.
"Here. Keep back there, you fellows. None of that rough stuff goes," ordered the mate sharply.
The big Cornishman who had been tossed aside crouched for a spring. He launched himself forward with the awkward force of a bear. The suitcase described a whirling arc of a circle with the arm of its owner as the radius. The bag and the head of the miner came into swift impact. Like a bullock which has been pole-axed the man went to the floor. He turned over with a groan and lay still.
The new passenger looked across the huge, sprawling body at the group of miners facing him. They glared in savage hate. All they needed was a leader to send them driving at him with the force of an avalanche. The man at whom they raged did not give an inch. He leaned forward slightly, his weight resting on the balls of his feet, alert to the finger tips. But in his eyes a grim little smile of derisive amusement rested.
"Next," he taunted.
Then the mate got busy. He hustled his stevedores forward in front of the miners and shook his fist in their faces as he stormed up and down. If they wanted trouble, by God! it was waiting for 'em, he swore in apoplectic fury. The Hannah was a river boat and not a dive for wharf rats. No bunch of roughnecks could come aboard a boat where he was mate and start anything. They could not assault any passengers of his and make it stick.
The man with the suitcase did not wait to hear out his tirade. He followed the purser to his stateroom, dropped his baggage beside the berth, and joined the Kusiak group on the upper deck.
They greeted him eagerly, a little effusively, as if they were anxious to prove themselves on good terms with him. The deference they paid and his assured acceptance of it showed him to be a man of importance. But apart from other considerations, he dominated by mental and physical virility the circle of which he instantly became the center. Only Mrs. Mallory held her own, and even she showed a quickened interest. Her indolent, half-disdainful manner sheathed a soft sensuousness that held the provocation of sex appeal.
"What was the matter?" asked Selfridge. "How did the trouble start?"
The big man shrugged his shoulders. "It didn't start. Some of the outfit thought they were looking for a row, but they balked on the job when Trelawney got his." Turning to Mrs. Mallory, he changed the subject abruptly. "Did you have a good time down the river?"
Gordon, as he watched from a little distance, corrected earlier impressions. This man had passed the thirties. Salt and pepper sprinkled the temples of his strong, lean head. He had the thick neck and solid trunk of middle life, but he carried himself so superbly that his whole bearing denied that years could touch his splendid physique. The suit he wore was a wrinkled corduroy, with trouser legs thrust into high-laced boots. An outdoor tan had been painted upon his face and neck, from the point where the soft flannel shirt fell away to show the fine slope of the throat line to the shoulders.
Strong had stepped to the wharf to talk with an old acquaintance, but when the boat threw out a warning signal he made a hurried good-bye and came on board. He rejoined Elliot.
"Well, what d'you think of him? Was I right?"
The young man had already guessed who this imperious stranger was. "I never saw anybody get away with a hard job as easily as he did that one. You could see with half an eye that those fellows meant fight. They were all primed for it—and he bluffed them out."
"Bluffed them—huh! If that's what you call bluffing. I was where I could see just what happened. Colby Macdonald wasn't even looking at Trelawney, but you bet he saw him start. That suitcase traveled like a streak of light. You'd 'a' thought it weighed about two pounds. That ain't all either. Mac used his brains. Guess what was in that grip."
"The usual thing, I suppose."
"You've got another guess—packed in among his socks and underwear was about twenty pounds of ore samples. The purser told me. It was that quartz put Trelawney to sleep so thorough that he'd just begun to wake up when I passed a minute ago."
The young man turned his eyes again upon the big Canadian Scotchman. He was talking with Mrs. Mallory, who was leaning back luxuriously in a steamer chair she had brought aboard at St. Michael's. It would have been hard to conceive a contrast greater than the one between this pampered heiress of the ages and the modern business berserk who looked down into her mocking eyes. He was the embodiment of the dominant male,—efficient to the last inch of his straight six feet. What he wanted he had always taken, by the sheer strength that was in him. Back of her smiling insolence lay a silken force to match his own. She too had taken what she wanted from life, but she had won it by indirection. Manifestly she was of those women who conceive that charm and beauty are tools to bend men to their wills. Was it the very width of the gulf between them that made the appeal of the clash in the sex duel upon which they had engaged?
The dusky young woman with the magazine was the first of those on the upper deck to retire for the night. She flitted so quietly that Gordon did not notice until she had gone. Mrs. Selfridge and her friends disappeared with their men folks, calling gay good-nights to one another as they left.
Macdonald and Mrs. Mallory still talked. After a time she too vanished.
The big promoter leaned against the deck rail, where he was joined by Selfridge. For a long time they talked in low voices. The little man had most to say. His chief listened, but occasionally interrupted to ask a sharp, incisive question.
Elliot, sitting farther forward with Strong, judged that Selfridge was making a report of his trip. Once he caught a fragment of their talk, enough to confirm this impression.
"Did Winton tell you that himself?" demanded the Scotchman.
The answer of his employee came in a murmur so low that the words were lost. But the name used told Gordon a good deal. The Commissioner of the General Land Office at Washington signed his letters Harold B. Winton.
Strong tossed the stub of his cigarette overboard and nodded good-night. A glance at his watch told Elliot that it was past two o'clock. He rose, stretched, and sauntered back to his stateroom.
The young man had just taken off his coat when there came the hurried rush of trampling feet upon the hurricane deck above. Almost instantly he heard a cry of alarm. Low voices, quick with suppressed excitement, drifted back to him. He could hear the shuffling of footsteps and the sound of heavy bodies moving.
Some one lifted a frightened shout. "Help! Help!" The call had come, he thought, from Selfridge.
Gordon flung open the door of his room, raced along the deck, and took the stairs three at a time. A huddle of men swayed and shifted heavily in front of him. So close was the pack that the motion resembled the writhing of some prehistoric monster rather than the movements of individual human beings. In that half-light tossing arms and legs looked like tentacles flung out in agony by the mammoth reptile. Its progress was jerky and convulsive, sometimes tortuous, but it traveled slowly toward the rail as if by the impulsion of an irresistible pressure.
Even as he ran toward the mass, Elliot noticed that the only sounds were grunts, stertorous breathings, and the scraping of feet. The attackers wanted no publicity. The attacked was too busy to waste breath in futile cries. He was fighting for his life with all the stark energy nature and his ancestors had given him.
Two men, separated from the crowd, lay on the deck farther aft. One was on top of the other, his fingers clutching the gullet of his helpless opponent. The agony of the man underneath found expression only in the drumming heels that beat a tattoo on the floor. The spasmodic feet were shod in Oxford tans of an ultra-fashionable cut. No doubt the owner of the smart footwear had been pulled down as he was escaping to shout the alarm.
The runner hurdled the two in his stride and plunged straight at the struggling tangle. He caught one man by the shoulders from behind and flung him back. He struck hard, smashing blows as he fought his way to the heart of the melee. Heavy-fisted miners with corded muscles landed upon his face and head and neck. The strange excitement of the battle lust surged through his veins. He did not care a straw for the odds.
The sudden attack of Elliot had opened the pack. The man battling against a dozen was Colby Macdonald. The very number of his foes had saved him so far from being rushed overboard or trampled down. In their desire to get at him they hindered each other, struck blows that found the wrong mark. His coat and shirt were in rags. He was bruised and battered and bleeding from the chest up. But he was still slogging hard.
They had him pressed to the rail. A huge miner, head down, had his arms around the waist of the Scotchman and was trying to throw him overboard. Macdonald lashed out and landed flush upon the cheek of a man attempting to brain him with a billet of wood. He hammered home a short-arm jolt against the ear of the giant who was giving him the bear grip.
The big miner grunted, but hung on like a football tackler. With a jerk he raised Macdonald from the floor just as three or four others rushed him again. The rail gave way, splintered like kindling wood. The Scotchman and the man at grips with him went over the side together.
Clear and loud rang the voice of Elliot. "Man overboard!"
The wheelsman had known for some minutes that there was trouble afoot. He signaled to the engine room to reverse and blew short, sharp shrieks of warning. Already deckhands and officers, scantily clad, were appearing from fore and aft.
"Men overboard—two of 'em!" explained Elliot in a shout from the boat which he was trying to lower.
The first mate and another man ran to help him. The three of them lowered and manned the boat. Gordon sat in the bow and gave directions while the other two put their backs into the stroke. Quite casually Elliot noticed that the man in the waist had a purple bruise on his left cheek bone. The young man himself had put it there not three minutes since.
Across the water came a call for help. "I'm sinking—hurry!"
The other man in the river was a dozen yards from the one in distress. With strong, swift, overhand strokes he shot through the water.
"All right," he called presently. "I've got him."
The oarsmen drew alongside the swimmer. With one hand Macdonald caught hold of the edge of the boat. The other clutched the rescued man by the hair of his head.
"Look out. You're drowning him," the mate warned.
"Am I?" Macdonald glanced with mild interest at the head that had been until that moment submerged. "Shows how absent-minded a man gets. I was thinking about how he tried to drown me, I expect."
They dragged the miner aboard.
"Go ahead. I'll swim down," Macdonald ordered.
"Better come aboard," advised the mate.
"No. I'm all right."
The Scotchman pushed himself back from the boat and fell into an easy stroke. Nevertheless, there was power in it, for he reached the Hannah before the rescued miner had been helped to the deck.
A dozen passengers, crowded on the lower deck, pushed forward eagerly to see. Among them was Selfridge, his shirt and collar torn loose at the neck and his immaculate checked suit dusty and disheveled. He was wearing a pair of up-to-date Oxford tans.
The Scotch-Canadian shook himself like a Newfoundland dog. He looked around with sardonic amusement, a grin on his swollen and disfigured face.
"Quite a pleasant welcome home," he said ironically, his cold eyes fixed on a face that looked as if it might have been kicked by a healthy mule. "Eh, Trelawney?"
The Cornishman glared at him, and turned away with a low, savage oath.
"Are you hurt, Mr. Macdonald?" asked the captain.
"Hurt! Not at all, Captain. I cut myself while I was shaving this morning—just a scratch," was the ironic answer.
"There's been some dirty work going on. I'll see the men are punished, sir."
"Forget it, Captain. I'll attend to that little matter." His jaunty, almost insolent glance made the half-circle again. "Sorry you were too late for the party, gentlemen,—most of you. I see three or four of you who were 'among those present.' It was a strictly exclusive affair. And now, if you don't mind, I'll say good-night."
He turned on his heel, went up the stairway to the deck above, and disappeared into his stateroom.
The rescued miner, propped against the cabin wall where he had been placed, broke into sudden excited protest. "Ach! He tried to drown me. Mein head—he hold it under the water."
"Ain't that just like a Swede?" retorted the mate in disgust. "Mac saves his life. Then the roughneck kicks because he got a belly full of Yukon. Sure Mac soused him some. Why shouldn't he?"
"I ain't no Swede," explained the big miner sullenly.
The mate did not think it worth his while to explain that "Swede" was merely his generic term of contempt for all foreigners.
THE GIRL FROM DROGHEDA
Gordon Elliot was too much of a night owl to be an early riser, but next morning he was awakened by the tramp of hurried feet along the deck to the accompaniment of brusque orders, together with frequent angry puffing and snorting of the boat. From the quiver of the walls he guessed that the Hannah was stuck on a sandbar. The mate's language gave backing to this surmise. Divided in mind between his obligation to the sleeping passengers and his duty to get the boat on her way, that officer spilled a good deal of subdued sulphurous language upon the situation.
"All together now. Get your back into it. Why are you running around like a chicken without a head, Reeves?" he snapped.
Evidently the deck hands were working to get the Hannah off by poling.
Elliot tried to settle back to sleep, but after two or three ineffectual efforts gave it up. He rose and did one or two setting-up exercises to limber his joints. The first of these flashed the signal to his brain that he was stiff and sore. This brought to mind the fight on the hurricane deck, and he smiled. His face was about as mobile as if it were in a plaster cast. It hurt every time he twitched a muscle.
The young man stepped to the looking-glass. Both eyes were blacked, his lip had been cut, and there was a purple weal well up on his left cheek. He stopped himself from grinning only just in time to save another twinge of pain.
"Some party while it lasted. I never saw more willing mixers. Everybody seemed anxious to sit in except Mr. Wally Selfridge," he explained to his reflection. "But Macdonald is the class. He's there with both right and left. That uppercut of his is vicious. Don't ever get in the way of it, Gordon Elliot." He examined his injuries more closely in the glass. "Some one landed a peach on my right lamp and the other is in mourning out of sympathy. Oh, well, I ain't the only prize beauty on board this morning." The young man forgot and smiled. "Ouch! Don't do that, Gordon. Yes, son. 'There's many a black, black eye, they say, but none so bright as mine.' Now isn't that the truth?"
He bathed, dressed, and went out on the deck.
Early though he was, one passenger at least was up before him. The young woman he had noticed last evening with the magazine was doing a constitutional. A slight breeze was stirring, and as she moved against it the white skirt clung first to one knee and then the other, moulding itself to the long lines of her limbs with exquisite grace of motion. It was as though her walk were the expression of a gallant and buoyant personality.
Irish he guessed her when the deep-blue eyes rested on his for an instant as she passed, and fortified his conjecture by the coloring of the clear-skinned face and the marks of the Celtic race delicately stamped upon it.
The purser came out of his room and joined Elliot. He smiled at sight of the young man's face.
"Your map's a little out of plumb this morning, sir," he ventured.
"But you ought to see the other fellow," came back Gordon boyishly.
"I've seen him—several of him. We've got the best collection of bruises on board I ever clapped eyes on. I've got to give it to you and Mr. Macdonald. You know how to hit."
"Oh, I'm not in his class."
Gordon Elliot meant what he said. He was himself an athlete, had played for three years left tackle on his college eleven. More than one critic had picked him for the All-America team. He could do his hundred in just a little worse than ten seconds. But after all he was a product of training and of the gymnasiums. Macdonald was what nature and a long line of fighting Highland ancestors had made him. His sinewy, knotted strength, his massive build, the breadth of shoulder and depth of chest—mushing on long snow trails was the gymnasium that had contributed to these.
The purser chuckled. "He's a good un, Mac is. They say he liked to have drowned Northrup after he had saved him."
Elliot was again following with his eyes the lilt of the girl's movements. Apparently he had not heard what the officer said. At least he gave no answer.
With a grin the purser opened another attack. "Don't blame you a bit, Mr. Elliot. She's the prettiest colleen that ever sailed from Dublin Bay."
The young man brought his eyes home. They answered engagingly the smile of the purser.
"Who is she?"
"The name on the books is Sheba O'Neill."
"From Dublin, you say."
"Oh, if you want to be literal, her baggage says Drogheda. Ireland is Ireland to me."
"Where is she bound for?"
The young woman passed them with a little nod of morning greeting to the purser. Fine and dainty though she was, Miss O'Neill gave an impression of radiant strength.
"Been with you all the way up the river?" asked Elliot after she had passed.
"Yep. She came up on the Skagit from Seattle."
"What is she going to do at Kusiak?"
Again the purser grinned. "What do they all do—the good-looking ones?"
"Get married, you mean?"
"Surest thing you know. Girls coming up ask me what to bring by way of outfit. I used to make out a long list. Now I tell them to bring clothes enough for six weeks and their favorite wedding march."
"Is this girl engaged?"
"Can't prove it by me," said the officer lightly. "But she'll never get out of Alaska a spinster—not that girl. She may be going in to teach, or to run a millinery store, or to keep books for a trading company. She'll stay to bring up kiddies of her own. They all do."
Three children came up the stairway, caught sight of Miss O'Neill, and raced pell-mell across the deck to her.
The young woman's face was transformed. It was bubbling with tenderness, with gay and happy laughter. Flinging her arms wide, she waited for them. With incoherent cries of delight they flung themselves upon her. Her arms enveloped all three as she stooped for their hugs and kisses.
The two oldest were girls. The youngest was a fat, cuddly little boy with dimples in his soft cheeks.
"I dwessed myself, Aunt Sheba. Didn't I, Gwen?"
"Not all by yourself, Billie?" inquired the Irish girl, registering a proper amazement.
He nodded his head slowly and solemnly up and down. "Honeth to goodness."
Sheba stooped and held him off to admire. "All by yourself—just think of that."
"We helped just the teeniest bit on the buttons," confessed Janet, the oldest of the small family.
"And I tied his shoes," added Gwendolen, "after he had laced them."
"Billie will be such a big man Daddie won't know him." And Sheba gave him another hug.
Gwendolen snuggled close to Miss O'Neill. "You always smell so sweet and clean and violety, Aunt Sheba," she whispered in confidence.
"You're spoiling me, Gwen," laughed the young woman. "You've kissed the blarney stone. It's a good thing you're leaving the boat to-day."
Miss Gwen had one more confidence to make in the ear of her friend. "I wish you'd come too and be our new mamma," she begged.
A shell-pink tinge crept into the milky skin of the Irish girl. She was less sure of herself, more easily embarrassed, than the average American of her age and sex. Occasionally in her manner was that effect of shyness one finds in the British even after they have escaped from provincialism.
"Are all your things gathered ready for packing, Janet?" she asked quietly.
The purser gave information to Elliot. "They call her Aunt Sheba, but she's no relative of theirs. The kids are on their way in to their father, who is an engineer on one of the creeks back of Katma. Their mother died two months ago. Miss O'Neill met them first aboard the Skagit on the way up and she has mothered them ever since. Some women are that way, bless 'em. I know because I've been married to one myself six months. She's back there at St. Michael's, and she just grabs at every baby in the block."
The eyes of Elliot rested on Miss O'Neill. "She loves children."
"She sure does—no bluff about that." An imp of mischief sparkled in the eye of the supercargo. "Not married yourself, are you, Mr. Elliot?"
That was all he said, but Gordon felt the blood creep into his face. This annoyed him, so he added brusquely,—
"And not likely to be."
When the call for breakfast came Miss O'Neill took her retinue of youngsters with her to the dining-room. Looking across from his seat at an adjoining table, Elliot could see her waiting upon them with a fine absorption in their needs. She prepared an orange for Billie and offered to the little girls suggestions as to ordering that were accepted by them as a matter of course. Unconsciously the children recognized in her the eternal Mother.
Before they had been long in the dining-room Macdonald came in carrying a sheaf of business papers. He glanced around, recognized Elliot, and made instantly for the seat across the table from him. On his face and head were many marks of the recent battle.
"Trade you a cauliflower ear for a pair of black eyes, Mr. Elliot," he laughed as he shook hands with the man whose name he had just learned from the purser.
The grip of his brown, muscular hand was strong. It was in character with the steady, cool eyes set deep beneath the jutting forehead, with the confident carriage of the deep, broad shoulders. He looked a dynamic American, who trod the way of the forceful and fought for his share of the spoils.
"You might throw in several other little souvenirs to boot and not miss them," suggested Elliot with a smile.
Macdonald nodded indifferently. "I gave and I took, which was as it should be. But it's different with you, Mr. Elliot. This wasn't your row."
"I hadn't been in a good mix-up since I left college. It did me a lot of good."
"Much obliged, anyhow." He turned his attention to a lady entering the dining-room. "'Mornin', Mrs. Selfridge. How's Wally?"
She threw up her hands in despair. "He's on his second bottle of liniment already. I expect those ruffians have ruined his singing voice. It's a mercy they didn't murder both him and you, Mr. Macdonald. When I think of how close you both came to death last night—"
"I don't know about Wally, but I had no notion of dying, Mrs. Selfridge. They mussed us up a bit. That was all."
"But they meant to kill you, the cowards. And they almost did it too. Look at Wally—confined to his bed and speaking in a whisper. Look at you—a wreck, horribly beaten up, almost drowned. We must drive the villains out of the country or send them to prison."
Mrs. Selfridge always talked in superlatives. She had an enthusiasm for the dramatics of conversation. Her supple hands, her shrill, eager voice, the snapping black eyes, all had the effect of startling headlines to the story she might be telling.
"Am I a wreck?" the big Scotchman wanted to know. "I feel as husky as a well-fed malamute."
"Oh, you talk. But we all know you—how brave and strong you are. That's why this outrage ought to be punished. What would Alaska do if anything happened to you?"
"I hadn't thought of that," admitted Macdonald. "The North would have to go out of business, I suppose. But you're right about one thing, Mrs. Selfridge. I'm brave and strong enough at the breakfast table. Steward, will you bring me a double order of these shirred eggs—and a small steak?"
"Well, I'm glad you can still joke, Mr. Macdonald, after such a terrible experience. All I can say is that I hope Wally isn't permanently injured. He hasn't your fine constitution, and one never can tell about internal injuries." Mrs. Selfridge sighed and passed to her place.
The eyes of the big man twinkled. "Our little fracas has been a godsend to Mrs. Selfridge. Wally and I will both emerge as heroes of a desperate struggle. You won't even get a mention. But it's a pity about Wally's injuries—and his singing voice."
The younger man agreed with a gravity back of which his amusement was apparent. The share of Selfridge in the battle had been limited to leg work only, but this had not been good enough to keep him from being overhauled and having his throat squeezed.
Elliot finished breakfast first and left Macdonald looking over a long typewritten document. He had it propped against a water-bottle and was reading as he ate. The paper was a report Selfridge had brought in to him from a clerk in the General Land Office. The big Canadian and the men he represented were dealing directly with the heads of the Government departments, but they thought it the part of wisdom to keep in their employ subordinates in the capacity of secret service agents to spy upon the higher-ups.
For an hour before the Hannah reached Katma Miss O'Neill was busy getting her little brood ready. In that last half-day she was a creature of moods to them. They, too, like Sheba herself, were adventuring into a new world. Somehow they represented to her the last tie that bound her to the life she was leaving. Her heart was tender as a Madonna to these lambs so ill-fitted to face a frigid waste. Their mother had been a good woman. She could tell that. But she had no way of knowing what kind of man their father might be.
Sheba gave Janet advice about where to keep her money and when to wear rubbers and what to do for Billie's cold. She put up a lunch for them to take on the stage. When they said their sniffling good-byes at Katma she was suspiciously bright and merry. Soon the children were laughing again with her.
One glance at their father, who introduced himself to Miss O'Neill as John Husted, relieved her mind greatly. His spontaneous delight at seeing them again and his choking gratitude to her for having looked after them were evidence enough that this kind-eyed man meant to be both father and mother to his recovered little folks. His emotion was too poignant for him to talk about his wife, but Sheba understood and liked him better for it.
Her temporary family stood on the end of the wharf and called good-byes to the girl.
"Tum soon and see us, Aunt Sheba," Billie shouted from his seat on the shoulder of his father.
The children waved handkerchiefs as long as she could be distinguished by them. When they turned away she went directly to her room.
Elliot was passing forward when Miss O'Neill opened her stateroom door to go in. The eyes of the young woman were blind with tears and she was biting her lip to keep back the emotion that welled up. He knew she was very fond of the motherless children, but he guessed at an additional reason for her sobs. She too was as untaught as a child in the life of this frontier land. Whatever she found here—how much of hardship or happiness, of grief or woe—she knew that she had left behind forever the safe harborage of quiet waters in which her life craft had always floated.
It came on to rain in the afternoon. Heavy clouds swept across from the mountains, and the sodden sky opened like a sluice-box. The Kusiak contingent, driven indoors, resorted to bridge. Miss O'Neill read. Gordon Elliot wrote letters, dawdled over magazines, and lounged alternately in the ladies' parlor and the smoking-room, where Macdonald, Strong, a hardware merchant from Fairbanks, and a pair of sour-dough miners had settled themselves to a poker game that was to last all night and well into the next day.
Of the two bridge tables all the players were old-timers except Mrs. Mallory. Most of them were young enough in years, but they had been of the North long enough to know the gossip of the country and its small politics intimately. They shared common hopes of the day when Alaska would be thrown open to industry and a large population.
But Mrs. Mallory had come in over the ice for the first time last winter. The other women felt that she was a bird of passage, that the frozen Arctic could be no more than a whim to her. They deferred a little to her because she knew the great world—New York, Vienna, London, Paris. Great names fell from her lips casually and carelessly. She referred familiarly to princes and famous statesmen, as if she had gossiped with them tete-a-tete over the teacups. She was full of spicy little anecdotes about German royalty and the British aristocracy. It was no wonder, Gordon Elliot thought, that she had rather stunned the little social set of Kusiak.
Through Northrup and Trelawney a new slant on Macdonald was given to Gordon. He had fallen into casual talk with them after dinner on the fore deck. It was still raining, but all three were equipped with slickers or mackintoshes. To his surprise the young man discovered that they bore him no grudge at all for his interference the night before.
"But we ain't through with Colby Macdonald yet," Trelawney explained. "Mind, I don't say we're going to get him. Nothing like that. He knocked me cold with that loaded suitcase of his. By the looks of him I'm even for that. Good enough. But here's the point. We stand for Labor. He stands for Capital. See? Things ain't what they used to be in Alaska, and it's because of Colby Macdonald and his friends. They're grabbers—that's what they are. They want the whole works. A hell of a roar goes up from them when the Government stops their combines, but all the time they're bearing down a little harder on us workingmen. Understand? It's up to us to fight, ain't it?"
Later Elliot put this viewpoint before Strong.
"There's something in it," the miner agreed. "Wages have gone down, and it's partly because the big fellows are consolidating interests. Alaska ain't a poor man's country the way it was. But Mac ain't to blame for that. He has to play the game the way the cards are dealt out."
The sky was clear again when the Hannah drew in to the wharf at Moose Head to unload freight, but the mud in the unpaved street leading to the business section of the little frontier town was instep deep. Many of the passengers hurried ashore to make the most of the five-hour stop. Macdonald, with Mrs. Mallory and their Kusiak friends, disappeared in a bus. Elliot put on a pair of heavy boots and started uptown.
At the end of the wharf he passed Miss O'Neill. She wore no rubbers and she had come to a halt at the beginning of the mud. After a momentary indecision she returned slowly to the boat.
The young man walked up into the town, but ten minutes later he crossed the gangplank of the Hannah again with a package under his arm. Miss O'Neill was sitting on the forward deck making a pretense to herself of reading. This was where Elliot had expected to find her, but now that the moment of attack had come he had to take his fear by the throat. When he had thought of it first there seemed nothing difficult about offering to do her a kindness, yet he found himself shrinking from the chance of a rebuff.
He moved over to where she sat and lifted his hat. "I hope you won't think it a liberty, Miss O'Neill, but I've brought you some rubbers from a store uptown. I noticed you couldn't get ashore without them."
Gordon tore the paper wrapping from his package and disclosed half a dozen pairs of rubbers.
The girl was visibly embarrassed. She was not at all certain of the right thing to do. Where she had been brought up young men did not offer courtesies of this sort so informally.
"I—I think I won't need them, thank you. I've decided not to leave the boat," she answered shyly.
Elliot had never been accused of being a quitter. Having begun this, he proposed to see it out. He caught sight of the purser superintending the discharge of cargo and called to him by name. The officer joined them, a pad of paper and a pencil in his hand.
"I'm trying to persuade Miss O'Neill that she ought to go ashore while we're lying here. What was it you told me about the waterfall back of the town?"
"Finest thing of its kind in Alaska. They're so proud of it in this burg that they would like to make it against the law for any one to leave without seeing it. Every one takes it in. We won't get away till night. You've plenty of time if you want to see it."
"Now, will you please introduce me to Miss O'Neill formally?"
The purser went through the usual formula of presentation, adding that Elliot was a government official on his way to Kusiak. Having done his duty by the young man, the busy supercargo retired.
"I'm sure it would do you good to walk up to the waterfall with me, Miss O'Neill," urged Elliot.
She met a little dubiously the smile that would not stay quite extinguished on his good-looking, boyish face. Why shouldn't she go with him, since it was the American way for unchaperoned youth to enjoy itself naturally?
"If they'll fit," the girl answered, eyeing the rubbers.
Gordon dropped to his knee and demonstrated that they would.
As they walked along the muddy street she gave him a friendly little nod of thanks. "Good of you to take the trouble to look out for me."
He laughed. "It was myself I was looking out for. I'm a stranger in the country and was awfully lonesome."
"Is it that this is your first time in too?" she asked shyly.
"You're going to Kusiak, aren't you? Do you know anybody there?" replied Elliot.
"My cousin lives there, but I haven't seen her since I was ten. She's an American. Eleven years ago she visited us in Ireland."
"I'm glad you know some one," he said. "You'll not be so lonesome with some of your people living there. I have two friends at Kusiak—a girl I used to go to school with and her husband."
"Are you going to live at Kusiak?"
"No; but I'll be stationed in the Territory for several months. I'll be in and out of the town a good deal. I hope you'll let me see something of you."
The fine Irish coloring deepened in her cheeks. He had a way of taking in his stride the barriers between them, but it was impossible for her to feel offended at this cheery, vigorous young fellow with the winning smile and the firm-set jaw. She liked the warmth in his honest brown eyes. She liked the play of muscular grace beneath his well-fitting clothes. The sinuous ease of his lean, wide-shouldered body stirred faintly some primitive instinct in her maiden heart. Sheba did not know, as her resilient muscles carried her forward joyfully, that she was answering the call of youth to youth.
Gordon respected her shyness and moved warily to establish his contact. He let the talk drift to impersonal topics as they picked their way out from the town along the mossy trail. The ground was spongy with water. On either side of them ferns and brakes grew lush. Sheba took the porous path with a step elastic. To the young man following she seemed a miracle of supple lightness.
The trail tilted up from the lowlands, led across dips, and into a draw. A little stream meandered down and gurgled over rocks worn smooth by ages of attrition. Alders brushed the stream and their foliage checkered the trail with sunlight and shadow.
They were ascending steadily now along a pathway almost too indistinct to follow. The air was aromatic with pine from a grove that came straggling down the side of a gulch to the brook.
"Do you know, I have a queer feeling that I've seen all this before," the Irish girl said. "Of course I haven't—unless it was in my dreams. Naturally I've thought about Alaska a great deal because my father lived here."
"I didn't know that."
"Yes. He came in with the Klondike stampeders." She added quietly: "He died on Bonanza Creek two years later."
"Was he a miner?"
"Not until he came North. He had an interest in a claim. It later turned out worthless."
A bit of stiff climbing brought them to a boulder field back of which rose a mountain ridge.
"We've got off the trail somehow," Elliot said. "But I don't suppose it matters. If we keep going we're bound to come to the waterfall."
Beyond the boulder field the ridge rose sharply. Gordon looked a little dubiously at Sheba.
"Are you a good climber?"
As she stood in the sunpour, her cheeks flushed with exercise, he could see that her spirit courted adventure.
"I'm sure I must be," she answered with a smile adorable. "I believe I could do the Matterhorn to-day."
Well up on the shoulder of the ridge they stopped to breathe. The distant noise of falling water came faintly to them.
"We're too far to the left—must have followed the wrong spur," Elliot explained. "Probably we can cut across the face of the mountain."
Presently they came to an impasse. The gulch between the two spurs terminated in a rock wall that fell almost sheer for two hundred feet.
The color in the cheeks beneath the eager eyes of the girl was warm. "Let's try it," she begged.
The young man had noticed that she was as sure-footed as a mountain goat and that she could stand on the edge of a precipice without dizziness. The surface of the wall was broken. What it might be beyond he could not tell, but the first fifty feet was a bit of attractive and not too difficult rock traverse.
Now and again he made a suggestion to the young woman following him, but for the most part he trusted her to choose her own foot and hand holds. Her delicacy was silken strong. If she was slender, she was yet deep-bosomed. The movements of the girl were as certain as those of an experienced mountaineer.
The way grew more difficult. They had been following a ledge that narrowed till it ran out. Jutting knobs of feldspar and stunted shrubs growing from crevices offered toe-grips instead of the even foothold of the rock shelf. As Gordon looked down at the dizzy fall beneath them his judgment told him they had better go back. He said as much to his companion.
The smile she flashed at him was delightfully provocative. It served to point the figure she borrowed from Gwen. "So you think I'm a 'fraid-cat, Mr. Elliot?"
His inclination marched with hers. It was their first adventure together and he did not want to spoil it by undue caution. There really was not much danger yet so long as they were careful.
Gordon abandoned the traverse and followed an ascending crack in the wall. The going was hard. It called for endurance and muscle, as well as for a steady head and a sure foot. He looked down at the girl wedged between the slopes of the granite trough.
She read his thought. "The old guard never surrenders, sir," was her quick answer as she brushed in salute with the tips of her fingers a stray lock of hair.
The trough was worse than Elliot had expected. It had in it a good deal of loose rubble that started in small slides at the least pressure.
"Be very careful of your footing," he called back anxiously.
A small grassy platform lay above the upper end of the trough, but the last dozen feet of the approach was a very difficult bit. Gordon took advantage of every least projection. He fought his way up with his back against one wall and his knees pressed to the other. Three feet short of the platform the rock walls became absolutely smooth. The climber could reach within a foot of the top.
"Are you stopped?" asked Sheba.
"Looks that way."
A small pine projected from the edge of the shelf out over the precipice. It might be strong enough to bear his weight. It might not. Gordon unbuckled his belt and threw one end over the trunk of the dwarf tree. Gingerly he tested it with his weight, then went up hand over hand and worked himself over the edge of the little plateau.
"All right?" the girl called up.
"All right. But you can't make it. I'm coming down again."
"I'm going to try."
"I wouldn't, Miss O'Neill. It's really dangerous."
"I'd like to try it. I'll stop if it's too hard," she promised.
The strength of her slender wrists surprised him. She struggled up the vertical crevasse inch by inch. His heart was full of fear, for a misstep now would be fatal. He lay down with his face over the ledge and lowered to her the buckled loop of his belt. Twice she stopped exhausted, her back and her hands pressed against the walls of the trough angle for support.
"Better give it up," he advised.
"I'll not then." She smiled stubbornly as she shook her head.
Presently her fingers touched the belt.
Gordon edged forward an inch or two farther. "Put your hand through the loop and catch hold of the leather above," he told her.
She did so, and at the same instant her foot slipped. The girl swung out into space suspended by one wrist. The muscles of Elliot hardened into steel as they responded to the strain. His body began to slide very slowly down the incline.
In a moment the acute danger was past. Sheba had found a hold with her feet and relieved somewhat the dead pull upon Elliot.
She had not voiced a cry, but the face that looked up into his was very white.
"Take your time," he said in a quiet, matter-of-fact way.
With his help she came close enough for him to reach her hand. After that it was only a moment before she knelt on the plateau beside him.
"Touch and go, wasn't it?" Sheba tried to smile, but the colorless lips told the young man she was still faint from the shock.
He knew he was going to reproach himself bitterly for having led her into such a risk, but he could not just now afford to waste his energies on regrets. Nor could he let her mind dwell on past dangers so long as there were future ones to be faced.
"You might have sprained your wrist," he said lightly as he rose to examine the cliff still to be negotiated.
Her dark eyes looked at him with quick surprise. "So I might," she answered dryly.
But his indifferent tone had the effect upon her of a plunge into cold water. It braced and stiffened her will. If he wanted to ignore the terrible danger through which she had passed, certainly she was not going to remind him of it.
Between where they stood and the summit of the cliff was another rock traverse. A kind of rough, natural stairway led down to a point opposite them. But before this could be reached thirty feet of granite must be crossed. The wall looked hazardous enough in all faith. It lay in the shade, and there were spots where a thin coating of ice covered the smooth slabs. But there was no other way up, and if the traverse could be made the rest was easy.
Gordon was mountaineer enough to know that the climb up is safer than the one back. The only possible way for them to go down the trough was for him to lower her by the belt until she found footing enough to go alone. He did not quite admit it to himself, but in his heart he doubted whether she could make it safely.
The alternative was the cliff face.
ACROSS THE TRAVERSE
Elliot took off his shoes and turned toward the traverse.
"Think I'll see if I can cross to that stairway. You had better wait here, Miss O'Neill, until we find out if it can be done."
His manner was casual, his voice studiously light.
Sheba looked across the cliff and down to the boulder bed two hundred feet below. "You can never do it in the world. Isn't there another way up?"
"No. The wall above us slopes out. I've got to cross to the stairway. If I make it I'm going to get a rope."
"Do you mean you're going back to town for one?"
Her eyes fastened to his in a long, unspoken question. She read the answer. He was afraid to have her try the trough again. To get back to town by way of their roundabout ascent would waste time. If he was going to rescue her before night, he must take the shortest cut, and that was across the face of the sheer cliff. For the first time she understood how serious was their plight.
"We can go back together by the trough, can't we?" But even as she asked, her heart sank at the thought of facing again that dizzy height. The moment of horror when she had thought herself lost had shaken her nerve.
"It would be difficult."
The glance of the girl swept again the face of the wall he must cross. It could not be done without a rope. Her fear-filled eyes came back to his.
"It's my fault. I made you come," she said in a low voice.
"Nonsense," he answered cheerfully. "There's no harm done. If I can't reach the stairway I can come back and go down by the trough."
Sheba assented doubtfully.
It had come on to drizzle again. The rain was fine and cold, almost a mist, and already it was forming a film of ice on the rocks.
"I can't take time to go back by the trough. The point is that I don't want you camped up here after night. There has been no sun on this side of the spur and in the chill of the evening it must get cold even in summer."
He was making his preparations as he talked. His coat he took off and threw down. His shoes he tied by the laces to his belt.
"I'll try not to be very long," he promised.
"It's God's will then, so it is," she sighed, relapsing into the vernacular.
Her voice was low and not very steady, for the heart of the girl was heavy. She knew she must not protest his decision. That was not the way to play the game. But somehow the salt had gone from their light-hearted adventure. She had become panicky from the moment when her feet had started the rubble in the trough and gone flying into the air. The gayety that had been the note of their tramp had given place to fears.
Elliot took her little hand in a warm, strong grip. "You're not going to be afraid. We'll work out all right, you know."
"It's not just the thing to leave a lady in the rain when you take her for a walk, but it can't be helped. We'll laugh about it to-morrow."
Would they? she wondered, answering his smile faintly. Her courage was sapped. She wanted to cry out that he must not try the traverse, but she set her will not to make it harder for him.
He turned to the climb.
"You've forgotten your coat," she reminded.
"I'm traveling light this trip. You'd better slip it on before you get chilled."
Sheba knew he had left it on purpose for her.
Her fascinated eyes followed him while he moved out from the plateau across the face of the precipice. His hand had found a knob of projecting feldspar and he was feeling with his right foot for a hold in some moss that grew in a crevice. He had none of the tools for climbing—no rope, no hatchet, none of the support of numbers. All the allies he could summon were his bare hands and feet, his resilient muscles, and his stout heart. To make it worse, the ice film from the rain coated every jutting inch of quartz with danger.
But he worked steadily forward, moving with the infinite caution of one who knows that there will be no chance to remedy later any mistake. A slight error in judgment, the failure in response of any one of fifty muscles, would send him plunging down.
Occasionally he spoke to Sheba, but she volunteered no remarks. It was her part to wait and watch while he concentrated every faculty upon his task. He had come to an impasse after crossing a dozen feet of the wall and was working up to get around a slab of granite which protruded, a convex barrier, from the surface of the cliff. It struck the girl that from a distance he must look like a fly on a pane of glass. Even to her, close as she was, that smooth rock surface looked impossible.
Her eye left him for an instant to sweep the gulf below. She gave a little cry, ran to his coat, and began to wave it. For the first time since Elliot had begun the traverse she took the initiative in speech.
"I see some people away over to the left, Mr. Elliot. I'm going to call to them." Her voice throbbed with hope.
But it was not her shouts or his, which would not have carried one tenth the distance, that reached the group in the valley. One of them caught a glimpse of the wildly waving coat. There was a consultation and two or three fluttered handkerchiefs in response. Presently they moved on.
Sheba could not believe her eyes. "They're not leaving us surely?" she gasped.
"That's what they're doing," answered Gordon grimly. "They think we're calling to them out of vanity to show them where we climbed."
"Oh!" She strangled a sob in her throat. Her heart was weighted as with lead.
"I'm going to make it. I think I see my way from here," her companion called across to her. "A fault runs to the foot of the stairway, if I can only do the next yard or two."
He did them, by throwing caution to the winds. An icy, rounded boulder projected above him out of reach. He unfastened his belt again and put the shoes, tied by the laces, around his neck. There was one way to get across to the ledge of the fault. He took hold of the two ends of the belt, crouched, and leaned forward on tiptoes toward the knob. The loop of the belt slid over the ice-coated boss. There was no chance to draw back now, to test the hold he had gained. If the leather slipped he was lost. His body swung across the abyss and his feet landed on the little ledge beyond.
His shout of success came perhaps ten minutes later. "I've reached the stairway, Miss O'Neill. I'll try not to be long, but you'd better exercise to keep up the circulation. Don't worry, please. I'll be back before night."
"I'm so glad," she cried joyfully. "I was afraid for you. And I'll not worry a bit. Good-bye."
Elliot made his way up to the summit and ran along a footpath which brought him to a bridge across the mountain stream just above the falls. The trail zigzagged down the turbulent little river close to the bank. Before he had specialized on the short distances Gordon had been a cross-country runner. He was in fair condition and he covered the ground fast.
About a mile below the falls he met two men. One of them was Colby Macdonald. He carried a coil of rope over one shoulder. The big Alaskan explained that he had not been able to get it out of his head that perhaps the climbers who had waved at his party had been in difficulties. So he had got a rope from the cabin of an old miner and was on his way back to the falls.
The three climbed to the falls, crossed the bridge, and reached the top of the cliff.
"You know the lay of the land down there, Mr. Elliot. We'll lower you," decided Macdonald, who took command as a matter of course.
Gordon presently stood beside Sheba on the little plateau. She had quite recovered from the touch of hysteria that had attacked her courage. The wind and the rain had whipped the color into her soft cheeks, had disarranged a little the crinkly, blue-black hair, wet tendrils of which nestled against her temples. The health and buoyancy of the girl were in the live eyes that met his eagerly.
"You weren't long," was all she said.
"I met them coming," he answered as he dropped the loop of the rope over her head and arranged it under her shoulders.
He showed her how to relieve part of the strain of the rope on her flesh by using her hands to lift.
"All ready?" Macdonald called from above.
"All ready," Elliot answered. To Sheba he said, "Hold tight."
The girl was swung from the ledge and rose jerkily in the air. She laughed gayly down at her friend below.
Gordon followed her a couple of minutes later. She was waiting to give him a hand over the edge of the cliff.
"Miss O'Neill, this is Mr. Macdonald," he said, as soon as he had freed himself from the rope. "You are fellow passengers on the Hannah."
Macdonald was looking at her straight and hard. "Your father's name—was it Farrell O'Neill?" he asked bluntly.
"I knew him."
The girl's eyes lit. "I'm glad, Mr. Macdonald. That's one reason I wanted to come to Alaska—to hear about my father's life here. Will you tell me?"
"Sometime. We must be going now to catch the boat—after I've had a look at the cliff this young man crawled across."
He turned away, abruptly it struck Elliot, and climbed down the natural stairway up which the young man had come. Presently he rejoined those above. Macdonald looked at Elliot with a new respect.
"You're in luck, my friend, that we're not carrying you from the foot of the cliff," he said dryly. "I wouldn't cross that rock wall for a hundred thousand dollars in cold cash."
"Nor I again," admitted Gordon with a laugh. "But we had either to homestead that plateau or vacate it. I preferred the latter."
Miss O'Neill's deep eyes looked at him. She was about to speak, then changed her mind.
SHEBA SINGS—AND TWO MEN LISTEN
Elliot did not see Miss O'Neill next morning until she appeared in the dining-room for breakfast. He timed himself to get through so as to join her when she left. They strolled out to the deck together.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked.
"After I fell asleep. It took me a long time. I kept seeing you on the traverse."
He came abruptly to what was on his mind. "I have an apology to make, Miss O'Neill. If I made light of your danger yesterday, it was because I was afraid you might break down. I had to seem unsympathetic rather than risk that."
She smiled forgiveness. "All you said was that I might have sprained my wrist. It was true too. I might have—and I did." Sheba showed a white linen bandage tied tightly around her wrist.
"Does it pain much?"
"Not so much now. It throbbed a good deal last night."
"Your whole weight came on it with a wrench. No wonder it hurt."
Sheba noticed that the Hannah was drawing up to a wharf and the passengers were lining up with their belongings. "Is this where we change?"
"Those of us going to Kusiak transfer here. But there's no hurry. We wait at this landing two hours."
Gordon helped Sheba move her baggage to the other boat and joined her on deck. They were both strangers in the land. Their only common acquaintance was Macdonald and he was letting Mrs. Mallory absorb his attention just now. Left to their own resources the two young people naturally drifted together a good deal.
This suited Elliot. He found his companion wholly delightful, not the less because she was so different from the girls he knew at home. She could be frank, and even shyly audacious on occasion, but she held a little note of reserve he felt bound to respect. Her experience of the world had clearly been limited. She was not at all sure of herself, of the proper degree of intimacy to permit herself with a strange and likable young man who had done her so signal a service.
Macdonald left the boat twenty miles below Kusiak with Mrs. Mallory and the Selfridges. A chauffeur with a motor-car was waiting on the wharf to run them to town, but he gave the wheel to Macdonald and took the seat beside the driver.
The little miner Strong grinned across to Elliot, who was standing beside Miss O'Neill at the boat rail.
"That's Mac all over. He hires a fellow to run his car—brings him up here from Seattle—and then takes the wheel himself every time he rides. I don't somehow see Mac sitting back and letting another man run the machine."
It was close to noon before the river boat turned a bend and steamed up to the wharf at Kusiak. The place was an undistinguished little log town that rambled back from the river up the hill in a hit-or-miss fashion. Its main street ran a tortuous course parallel to the stream.
Half of the town, it seemed, was down to meet the boat.
"Are you going to the hotel or direct to your cousin's?" Gordon asked Miss O'Neill.
"To my cousin's. I fancy she's down here to meet me. It was arranged that I come on this boat."
There was much waving of handkerchiefs and shouting back and forth as the steamer slowly drew close to the landing.
Elliot caught a glimpse of the only people in Kusiak he had known before coming in, but though he waved to them he saw they did not recognize him. After the usual delay about getting ashore he walked down the gangway carrying the suitcases of the Irish girl. Sheba followed at his heels. On the wharf he came face to face with a slender, well-dressed young woman.
"Diane!" he cried.
She stared at him. "You! What in Heaven's name are you doing here, Gordon Elliot?" she demanded, and before he could answer had seized both hands and turned excitedly to call a stocky man near. "Peter—Peter! Guess who's here?"
"Hello, Paget!" grinned Gordon, and he shook hands with the husband of Diane.
Elliot turned to introduce his friend, but she anticipated him.
"Cousin Diane," she said shyly. "Don't you know me?"
Mrs. Paget swooped down upon the girl and smothered her in her embrace.
"This is Sheba—little Sheba that I have told you so often about, Peter," she cried. "Glory be, I'm glad to see you, child." And Diane kissed her again warmly. "You two met on the boat, of course, coming in, I hope you didn't let her get lonesome, Gordon. Look after Sheba's suitcases, Peter. You'll come to dinner to-night, Gordon—at seven."
"I'm in the kind hands of my countrywoman," laughed Gordon. "I'll certainly be on hand."
"But what in the world are you doing here? You're the last man I'd have expected to see."
"I'm in the service of the Government, and I've been sent in on business."
"Well, I'm going to say something original, dear people," Mrs. Paget replied. "It's a small world, isn't it?"
While he was dressing for dinner later in the day, Elliot recalled early memories of the Pagets. He had known Diane ever since they had been youngsters together at school. He remembered her as a restless, wiry little thing, keen as a knife-blade. She had developed into a very pretty girl, alive, ambitious, energetic, with a shrewd eye to the main chance. Always popular socially, she had surprised everybody by refusing the catch of the town to marry a young mining engineer without a penny. Gordon was in college at the time, but during the next long vacation he had fraternized a good deal with the Peter Pagets. The young married people had been very much in love with each other, but not too preoccupied to take the college boy into their happiness as a comrade. Diane always had been a manager, and she liked playing older sister to so nice a lad. He had been on a footing friendly enough to drop in unannounced whenever he took the fancy. If they were out, or about to go out, the freedom of the den, a magazine, and good tobacco had been his. Then the Arctic gold-fields had claimed Paget and his bride. That had been more than ten years ago, and until to-day Gordon had not seen them since.
While Elliot was brushing his dinner coat before the open window of the room assigned him at the hotel, somebody came out to the porch below. The voice of a woman floated faintly to him.
"Seen Diane's Irish beauty yet, Ned?"
"Yes," a man answered.
The woman laughed softly. "Mrs. Mallory came up on the same boat with her." The inflection suggested that the words were meant not to tell a fact, but some less obvious inference.
"Oh, you women!" the man commented good-naturedly.
"She's wonderfully pretty, and of course Diane will make the most of her. But Mrs. Mallory is a woman among ten thousand."
"I'd choose the girl if it were me," said the man.
"But it isn't you. We'll see what we'll see."
They were moving up the street and Gordon heard no more. What he had heard was not clear to him. Why should any importance attach to the fact that Mrs. Mallory and Sheba O'Neill had come up the river on the same boat? Yet he was vaguely disturbed by the insinuation that in some way Diane was entering her cousin as a rival of the older woman. He resented the idea that the fine, young personality of the Irish girl was being cheapened by management on the part of Diane Paget.
Elliot was not the only dinner guest at the Paget home that evening. He found Colby Macdonald sitting in the living-room with Sheba. She came quickly forward to meet the newly arrived guest.
"Mr. Macdonald has been telling me about my father. He knew him on Frenchman Creek where they both worked claims," explained the girl.
The big mining man made no comment and added nothing to what she said. There were times when his face was about as expressive as a stone wall. Except for a hard wariness in the eyes it told nothing now.
The dinner went off very well. Diane and Peter had a great many questions to ask Gordon about old friends. By the time these had been answered Macdonald was chatting easily with Sheba. The man had been in many out-of-the-way corners of the world, had taken part in much that was dramatic and interesting. If the experience of the Irish girl had been small, her imagination had none the less gone questing beyond the narrow bars of her life upon amazing adventure. She listened with glowing eyes to the strange tales this man of magnificent horizons had to tell. Never before had she come into contact with any one like him.
The others too succumbed to his charm. He dominated that little dining-room because he was a sixty-horse-power dynamo. For all his bulk he was as lean as a panther and as sinewy. There was virility in the very economy of his motions, in the reticence of his speech. Not even a fool could have read weakness there. When he followed Sheba into the living-room, power trod in his long, easy stride.
Paget was superintendent of the Lucky Strike, a mine owned principally by Macdonald. The two talked business for a few minutes over their cigars, but Diane interrupted gayly to bring them back into the circle. Adroitly she started Macdonald on the account of a rescue of two men lost in a blizzard the year before. He had the gift of dramatizing his story, of selecting only effective details. There was no suggestion of boasting. If he happened to be the hero of any of his stories the fact was of no importance to him. It was merely a detail of the picture he was sketching.
Gordon interrupted with a question a story he was telling of a fight he had seen between two bull moose.
"Did you say that was while you were on the way over to inspect the Kamatlah coal-fields for the first time?"
The eyes of the young man were quick with interest.
"Four years ago last spring?"
Macdonald looked at him with a wary steadiness. Some doubt had found lodgment in his mind. Before he could voice it, if, indeed, he had any such intention, Elliot broke in swiftly,—
"Don't answer that question. I asked it without proper thought. I am a special agent of the General Land Office sent up to investigate the Macdonald coal claims and kindred interests."
Slowly the rigor of the big Scotchman's steely eyes relaxed to a smile that was genial and disarming. If this news hit him hard he gave no sign of it. And that it was an unexpected blow there could be no doubt.
"Glad you've come, Mr. Elliot. We ask nothing but fair play. Tell the truth, and we'll thank you. The men who own the Macdonald group of claims have nothing to conceal. I'll answer that question. I meant to say two years ago last spring."
His voice was easy and his gaze unwavering as he made the correction, yet everybody in the room except Sheba knew he was deliberately lying to cover the slip. For the admission that he had inspected the Kamatlah field just before his dummies had filed upon it would at least tend to aggravate suspicion that the entries were not bona-fide.
It was rather an awkward moment. Diane blamed herself because she had brought the men together socially. Why had she not asked Gordon more explicitly what his business was? Peter grinned a little uncomfortably. It was Sheba who quite unconsciously relieved the situation.
"But what about the big moose, Mr. Macdonald? What did it do then?"
The Alaskan went back to his story. He was talking for Sheba alone, for the young girl with eager, fascinated eyes which flashed with sympathy as they devoured selected glimpses of his wild, turbulent career. Her clean, brave spirit was throwing a glamour over the man. She saw him with other eyes than Elliot's. The Government official admired him tremendously. Macdonald was an empire-builder. He blazed trails for others to follow in safety. But Gordon could guess how callously his path was strewn with brutality, with the effects of an ethical color-blindness largely selfish, though even he did not know that the man's primitive jungle code of wolf eat wolf had played havoc with Sheba's young life many years before.
Diane, satisfied that Macdonald had scored, called upon Sheba.
"I want you to sing for us, dear, if you will."
Sheba accompanied herself. The voice of the girl had no unusual range, but it was singularly sweet and full of the poignant feeling that expresses the haunting pathos of her race.
"It's well I know ye, Sheve Cross, ye weary, stony hill, An' I'm tired, och, I'm tired to be looking on ye still. For here I live the near side an' he is on the far, An' all your heights and hollows are between us, so they are. Och anee!"
Gordon, as he listened, felt the strange hunger of that homesick cry steal through his blood. He saw his own emotions reflected in the face of the Scotch-Canadian, who was watching with a tense interest the slim, young figure at the piano, the girl whose eyes were soft and dewy with the mysticism of her people, were still luminous with the poetry of the child in spite of the years that heralded her a woman.
Elliot intercepted the triumphant sweep of Diane's glance from Macdonald to her husband. In a flash it lit up for him the words he had heard on the hotel porch. Diane, an inveterate matchmaker, intended her cousin to marry Colby Macdonald. No doubt she thought she was doing a fine thing for the girl. He was a millionaire, the biggest figure in the Northwest. His iron will ran the town and district as though the people were chattels of his. Back of him were some of the biggest financial interests in the United States.
But the gorge of Elliot rose. The man, after all, was a law-breaker, a menace to civilization. He was a survivor by reason of his strength from the primitive wolf-pack. Already the special agent had heard many strange stories of how this man of steel had risen to supremacy by trampling down lesser men with whom he had had dealings, of terrible battles from which his lean, powerful body had emerged bloody and battered, but victorious. The very look of his hard, gray eyes was dominant and masterful. He would win, no matter how. It came to Gordon's rebel heart that if Macdonald wanted this lovely Irish girl,—and the young man never doubted that the Scotchman would want her,—he would reach out and gather in Sheba just as if she were a coal mine or a placer prospect.
All this surged through the mind of the young man while the singer was on the first line of the second stanza.
"But if 't was only Sheve Cross to climb from foot to crown, I'd soon be up an' over that, I'd soon be runnin' down. Then sure the great ould sea itself is there beyont the bar, An' all the windy wathers are between us, so they are. Och anee!"
The rich, soft, young voice with its Irish brogue died away. The little audience paid the singer the tribute of silence. She herself was the first to speak.
"'Divided' is the name of it. A namesake of mine, Moira O'Neill, wrote it," she explained.
"It's a beautiful song, and I thank ye for singing it," Macdonald said simply. "It minds me of my own barefoot days by the Tay."
Later in the evening the two dinner guests walked back to the hotel together. The two subjects uppermost in the minds of both were not mentioned by either. They discussed casually the cost of living in the North, the raising of strawberries at Kusiak, and the best way to treat the mosquito nuisance, but neither of them referred to the Macdonald coal claims or to Sheba O'Neill.
WALLY GETS ORDERS
Macdonald, from his desk, looked up at the man in the doorway. Selfridge had come in jauntily, a cigar in his mouth, but at sight of the grim face of his chief the grin fled.
"Come in and shut the door," ordered the Scotchman. "I sent for you to congratulate you, Wally. You did fine work outside. You told me, didn't you, that it was all settled at last—that our claims are clear-listed for patent?"
The tubby little man felt the edge of irony in the quiet voice. "Sure. That's what Winton told me," he assented nervously.
"Then you'll be interested to know that a special field agent of the Land Department sat opposite me last night and without batting an eye came across with the glad news that he was here to investigate our claims."
Selfridge bounced up like a rubber ball from the chair into which he had just settled. "What!"
"Pleasant surprise, isn't it? I've been wondering what you were doing outside. Of course I know you had to take in the shows and cabarets of New York. But couldn't you edge in an hour or two once a week to attend to business?"
Wally's collar began to choke him. The cool, hard words of the big Scotchman pelted like hail.
"Must be a bluff, Mac. The muckrake magazines have raised such a row about the Guttenchild crowd putting over a big steal on the public that the party leaders are scared stiff. I couldn't pick up a newspaper anywhere without seeing your name in the headlines. It was fierce." Selfridge had found his glib tongue and was off.
"I understand that, Wally. What I don't get is how you came to let them slip this over on you without even a guess that it was going to happen."
That phase of the subject Selfridge did not want to discuss.
"Bet you a hat I've guessed it right—just a grand-stand play of the Administration to fool the dear people. This fellow has got his orders to give us a clean bill of health. Sure. That must be it. I suppose it's this man Elliot that came up on the boat with us."
"Well, that's easy. If he hasn't been seen we can see him."
Macdonald looked his man Friday over with a scarcely veiled contempt. "You have a beautiful, childlike faith in every man's dishonesty, Wally. Did it ever occur to you that some people are straight—that they won't sell out?"
"All he gets is a beggarly two thousand or so a year. We can fix him all right."
"You've about as much vision as a breed trader. Unless I miss my guess Elliot isn't that kind. He'll go through to a finish. What I'd like to know is how his mind works. If he sees straight we're all right, but if he is a narrow conservation fanatic he might go ahead and queer the whole game."
"You wouldn't stand for that." The quick glance of Selfridge asked a question.
The lips of the Scotchman were like steel traps and his eyes points of steel. "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it. Our first move is to try to win him to see this thing our way. I'll have a casual talk with him before he leaves for Kamatlah and feel him out."
"What's he doing here at all? If he's investigating the Kamatlah claims, why does he go hundreds of miles out of his way to come in to Kusiak?" asked Selfridge.
Macdonald smiled sardonically. "He's doing this job right. Elliot as good as told me that he's on the job to look up my record thoroughly. So he comes to Kusiak first. In a few days he'll leave for Kamatlah. That's where you come in, Wally."
"How do you mean?"
"You're going to start for Kamatlah to-morrow. You'll arrange the stage before he gets there—see all the men and the foremen. Line them up so they'll come through with the proper talk. If you have any doubts about whether you can trust some one, don't take any chances. Fire him out of the camp. Offer Elliot the company hospitality. Load him down with favors. Take him everywhere. Show him everything. But don't let him get any proofs that the claims are being worked under the same management."
"But he'll suspect it."
"You can't help his suspicions. Don't let him get proof. Cover all the tracks that show company control."
"I can fix that," he said. "But what about Holt? The old man won't do a thing but tell all he knows, and a lot more that he suspects. You know how bitter he is—and crazy. He ought to be locked away with the flitter-mice."
"You mustn't let Elliot meet Holt."
"How the deuce can I help it? No chance to keep them apart in that little hole. It can't be done."
Something in the quiet voice rang a bell of alarm in the timid heart of Selfridge.
"A man who works for me as my lieutenant must have nerve, Wally. Have you got it? Will you take orders and go through with them?"
His hard eyes searched the face of the plump little man. This was a job he would have liked to do himself, but he could not get away just now. Selfridge was the only man about him he could trust with it.
Wally nodded. His lips were dry and parched. "Go to it. What am I to do?"
"Get Holt out of the way while Elliot is at Kamatlah."
"But, Good Lord, I can't keep the man tied up a month," protested the leading tenor of Kusiak.
"It isn't doing Holt any good to sit tight clamped to that claim of his! He needs a change. Besides, I want him away so that we can contest his claim. Run him up into the hills. Or send him across to Siberia on a whaler. Or, better still, have him arrested for insanity and send him to Nome. I'll get Judge Landor to hold him a while."
"That would give him an alibi for his absence and prevent a contest."
"That's right. It would."
"Leave it to me. The old man is going on a vacation, though he doesn't know it yet."
"Good enough, Wally. I'll trust you. But remember, this fight has reached an acute stage. No more mistakes. The devil of it is we never seem to land the knockout punch. We've beaten this bunch of reform idiots before Winton, before the Secretary of the Interior, before the President, and before Congress. Now they're beginning all over again. Where is it to end?"
"This is their last kick. Probably Guttenchild agreed to it so as to let the party go before the people at the next election without any apologies. Entirely formal investigation, I should say."
This might be true, or it might not. Macdonald knew that just now the American people, always impulsive in its thinking, was supporting strongly the movement for conservation. A searchlight had been turned upon the Kamatlah coal-fields. Magazines and newspapers had hammered it home to readers that the Guttenchild and allied interests were engaged in a big steal from the people of coal, timber, and power-site lands to the value of more than a hundred million dollars.
The trouble had originated in a department row, but it had spread until the Macdonald claims had become a party issue. The officials of the Land Office, as well as the National Administration, were friendly to the claimants. They had no desire to offend one of the two largest money groups in the country. But neither did they want to come to wreck on account of the Guttenchilds. They found it impossible to ignore the charge that the entries were fraudulent and if consummated would result in a wholesale robbery of the public domain. Superficial investigations had been made and the claimants whitewashed. But the clamor had persisted.