Mystery Stories for Boys
By ROY J. SNELL
The Reilly & Lee Co. Chicago 1920
I THE DEN OF DISGUISES II THE MYSTERIOUS RUSSIAN III TREACHERY OUT OF THE NIGHT IV A NARROW ESCAPE V "FRIEND? ENEMY?" VI "NOW I SHALL KILL YOU" VII SAVED FROM THE MOB VIII WHEN AN ESKIMO BECOMES A JAP IX JOHNNY'S FREE-FOR-ALL X THE JAP GIRL IN PERIL XI A FACE IN THE NIGHT XII "GET THAT MAN" XIII BACK TO OLD CHICAGO XIV THE MYSTERY OF THE CHICAGO RIVER XV THE CAT CRY OF THE UNDERWORLD XVI CIO-CIO-SAN BETRAYED XVII A THREE-CORNERED BATTLE XVIII HANADA'S SECRET XIX "I SEEN IT—A SUBMARINE!" XX AT THE BOTTOM OF THE RIVER XXI THE OWNER OF THE DIAMONDS
THE DEN OF DISGUISES
As Johnny Thompson stood in the dark doorway of the gray stone court-yard he shivered. He was not cold, though this was Siberia—Vladivostok—and a late winter night. But he was excited.
Before him, slipping, sliding, rolling over and over on the hard packed snow of the narrow street, two men were gripped in a life and death struggle. They had been struggling thus for five minutes, each striving for the upper hand. The clock in the Greek Catholic church across the way told Johnny how long they had fought.
He had been an accidental and entirely disinterested witness. He knew neither of the men; he had merely happened along just when the row began, and had lingered in the shadows to see it through. Twelve, yes, even six months before, he would have mixed in at once; that had always been his way in the States. Not that he was a quarrelsome fellow; on the contrary he was fond of peace, was Johnny, in spite of the fact that he carried on his person various medals for rather more-than-good feather-weight fighting. He loved peace so much that he was willing to lick almost anyone in order to make them stop fighting. That was why he had joined the American army, and allowed himself to be made part of the Expeditionary force that went to the Pacific coast side of Siberia.
But twelve months in Siberia had taught him many things. He had learned that he could not get these Russians to stop quarreling by merely whipping them. Therefore, since these men were both Russians, he had let them fight.
The tall, slender man had started it. He had rushed at the short, square shouldered one from the dark. The square shouldered one had flashed a knife. This had been instantly knocked from his grasp. By some chance, the knife had dropped only an arm's length from the doorway into which Johnny had dodged. Johnny now held the knife discreetly behind his back.
Yes, Johnny trembled. There was a reason for that. The tall, slender man had gained the upper hand. He was stretched across the prone form of his antagonist, his slim, horny hands even now gliding toward the other's throat. And, right there, Johnny had decided to draw the line. He was not going to allow himself to witness the strangling of a man. That wasn't his idea of fighting. He would end the fight, even at the expense of being mussed up a bit himself, or having certain of his cherished plans interfered with by being dragged before a "Provo" as witness or participant.
He was counting in a half-audible whisper, "Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three." It was a way he had when something big was about to happen. The hand of the slender man was at the second button on the other's rough coat when Johnny reached fifty. At sixty it had come to the top button. At sixty-five his long finger-tips were doubling in for the fatal, vice-like grip. Noiselessly, Johnny laid the knife on a cross bar of the door. Knives were too deadly. Johnny's "wallop" was quite enough; more than enough, as the slender one might learn to his sorrow.
But before Johnny could move a convulsion shot through the prostrate fighter. He was again struggling wildly. At the same instant, Johnny heard shuffling footsteps approaching around the corner. He was sure he did not mistake the tread of Japanese military police who were guarding that section of the city. For a moment he studied the probabilities of the short one's power of endurance, then, deciding it sufficient to last until the police arrived, he gripped the knife behind his back and darted toward an opposite corner where was an alley offering safety. There were very definite reasons why Johnny did not wish to figure even as a witness in any case in Vladivostok that night.
In a doorway off the alley, he paused, listening for sounds of increased tumult. They came quickly enough. There was a renewed struggle, a grunt, a groan; then the scuffling ceased.
Suddenly, a figure darted down the alley. Johnny caught a clear view of the man's face. The fugitive was the shorter man with broad shoulders and sharp chin; the man who the moment before had been the under dog. He was followed closely by another runner, but not his antagonist in the street fight. This man was a Japanese; and Johnny saw to his surprise that the Jap did not wear the uniform of the military police; in fact, not any uniform at all.
"Evidently, that stubby Russian with the queer chin is wanted for something," Johnny muttered. "I wonder what. Anyway, I've got his knife."
At that he tucked the weapon beneath his squirrel-lined coat and, dropping out of his corner, went cautiously on his way.
So eager was he to attend to other matters that the episode of the street fight was soon forgotten. Dodging around this corner, then that, giving a wide berth to a group of American non-coms, dashing off a hasty salute to three Japanese officers, he at last turned up a narrow alley, and, with a sigh of relief, gave three sharp raps, then a muffled one, at a door half hidden in the gloom.
The door opened a crack, and a pair of squint eyes studied him cautiously.
"Ow!" said the yellow man, opening the door wider, and then closing it almost before Johnny could crowd himself inside.
To one coming from the outer air, the reeking atmosphere within this low ceilinged, narrow room was stifling. There was a blend of vile odors; opium smoke, not too ancient in origin, mixed with smells of cooking, while an ill-defined but all-pervading odor permeated the place; such an odor as one finds in a tailor's repair shop, or in the place of a dealer in second-hand clothing.
Second-hand clothing, that was Wo Cheng's line. But it was a rather unusual shop he kept. Being a Chinaman, he could adapt himself to circumstances, at least within his own realm, which was clothes. His establishment had grown up out of the grim necessity and dire pressure of war. Not that the pressure was on his own person; far from that. Somewhere back in China this crafty fellow was accumulating a fortune. He was making it in this dim, taper-lighted, secret shop, opening off an alley in Vladivostok.
In these times of shifting scenes, when the rich of to-day were the poor of to-morrow, or at least were under the necessity of feigning poverty, there were many people who wished to change their station in life, and that very quickly. It was Wo Cheng's business to help them make this change. Many a Russian noble had sought this noisome shop to exchange his "purple and fine linen" for very humble garb, and just what he took from the pockets of one and put in the pockets of the other suit, Wo Cheng had a way of guessing, though he appeared not to see at all.
Johnny had known Wo Cheng for some time. He had discovered his shop by accident when out scouting for billets for American soldiers. He had later assisted in protecting the place from a raid by Japanese military police.
"You wanchee somsling?" The Oriental grinned, as Johnny seated himself cross-legged on a grass mat.
"Yep," Johnny grinned in return, "wanchee change." He gripped the lapel of his blouse, as if he would remove it and exchange for another.
"You wanchee clange?" The Chinaman squinted at him with an air of incredulity.
Then a light of understanding seemed to over-spread his face. "Ow!" he exclaimed, "no can do, Mellican officer, not any. No can do."
"Wo Cheng, you no savvy," answered Johnny, glancing about at the tiers of costumes which hung on either side of the wall.
"Savvy! Savvy!" exclaimed Wo Cheng, bounding away to return with the uniform of an American private. "Officer, all same," he exclaimed. "No can do."
"No good," said Johnny, starting up. "You no savvy. Mebby you no wanchee savvy. No wanchee uniform. Wanchee clothes, fur, fur, plenty warm, you savvy? Go north, north, cold, savvy?"
"Ow!" exclaimed the Chinaman, scratching his head.
"Wo Cheng!" said Johnny solemnly, "long time my see you. Allatime, my see you. Not speak American Major; not speak Japanese police."
Wo Cheng shivered.
"Now," said Johnny, "my come buy."
"Ow!" grunted Wo Cheng, ducking from sight and reappearing quickly with a great coat of real seal, trimmed with sea otter, a trifle which had cost some noble of other days a king's ransom.
"No wanchee," Johnny shook his head.
"Ow!" Wo Cheng shook his head incredulously. This was his rarest offering. "You no got cumshaw, money?" he grinned. "All wite, my say."
"No wanchee my," Johnny repeated.
The Chinaman took the garment away, and returned with a similar one, less pretentious. This, too, was waved aside.
By this time Johnny had become impatient. Time was passing. A special train was to go north at four o'clock. It was going for reindeer meat, rations for the regiment that was Johnny's, or, at least, had been Johnny's. He could catch a ride on that train. A five hundred mile lift on a three thousand mile jaunt was not to be missed just because this Chink was something of a blockhead.
Pushing the proprietor gently to one side, Johnny made his way toward the back of the room. Scrutinizing the hangers as he went, and giving them an occasional fling here and there, as some garment caught his eye, he came presently upon a solid square yard of fur. With a grunt of satisfaction, he dragged one of the garments from its place and held it before the flickering yellow taper.
The thing was shaped like a middy-blouse, only a little longer and it had a hood attached. It was made of the gray squirrel skins of Siberia, and was trimmed with wolf's skin. As Johnny held it against his body, it reached to his knees. It was, in fact, a parka, such as is worn by the Eskimos of Alaska and the Chukches, aborigines of North Siberia.
One by one, Johnny dragged similar garments from their hangers. Coming at last upon one made of the brown summer skins of reindeer, and trimmed with wolverine, he seemed satisfied, for, tossing the others into a pile, he had drawn off his blouse and was about to throw the parka over his head, when something fell with a jangling rattle to the floor.
"O-o-ee!" grunted the Chinaman, as he stared at the thing. It was the knife which had belonged to the Russian of the broad shoulders and sharp chin. As Johnny's eyes fell upon it now, he realized that it was an altogether unusual weapon. The blade was of blue steel, and from its ring it appeared to be exceptionally well tempered. The handle was of strangely carved ivory.
Quickly thrusting the knife beneath his belt, Johnny again took up the parka. This time, as he drew the garment down over his head, he appeared to experience considerable difficulty in getting his left arm into the sleeve. This task accomplished, he stretched himself this way and that. He smoothed down the fur thoughtfully, pulled the hood about his ears, and back again, twisted himself about to test the fit, then, with a sigh of content, turned to examine a pile of fur trousers.
At that instant there came a low rap at the door—three raps, to be accurate—then a muffled thud.
Johnny started. Someone wanted to enter. He was not exactly in a condition to be seen, especially if the person should prove to be an American officer. His fur parka, topping those khaki trousers and puttees of his, would seem at least to tell a tale, and might complicate matters considerably. Quickly seizing his blouse, he crowded his way far back into the depths of a furry mass of long coats.
"Wo Cheng!" he whispered, "my wanchee you keep mouth shut. Allatime shut!"
"O-o-ee," grunted the Chinaman.
The next moment he had opened the door a crack.
The squint eyes of the Chinaman surveyed the person without for a long time, so long, in fact, that Johnny began to wonder what sort of person the newcomer could be. Wo Cheng was keen of wit. To many he refused entrance. But he was also a keen trader. All manner of men and women came to him; some for a permanent change of costume, some for a night's exchange only. Peasants, grown suddenly and strangely rich, bearing passports and tickets for other lands, came to buy the cast-off finery of the one time nobility. Russian, Japanese, American soldiers and officers came to Wo Cheng for a change, most of them for a single twelve hours, that they might revel in places forbidden to men in uniform. But some came for a permanent change. Wo Cheng never inquired why. He asked only "Cumshaw, money," and got it.
Was this newcomer Russian, Japanese, Chinaman or American?
The door at last opened half way, then closed quickly. The person who stood blinking in the light was not a man, but a woman, a short and slim young woman, with the dark round face of a Japanese.
"You come buy?" solicited Wo Cheng.
For answer, the woman drew off her outer garment of some strange wool texture and trimmed with ermine. Then, as if it were an everyday occurrence, she stepped out of her rich silk gown, and stood there in a suit of deep purple pajamas.
She then stared about the place until her eyes reached the fur garments which Johnny had recently examined. With a laugh and a spring, lithe as a panther, she seized upon one of these, then discarding it with a fling, delved deeper until she came upon some smaller garments, which might better fit her slight form. Comparing for a moment one of squirrel skin with one of fawn skin, she finally laid aside the latter. Then she attacked the pile of fur trousers. At the bottom she came upon some short bloomers, made also of fawn skin. With another little gurgle of laughter, she stepped into these. Next she drew the spotted fawn skin parka over her head, and stood there at last, the picture of a winsome Eskimo maid.
This done, woman-like, she plumed herself for a time before a murky mirror. Then, turning briskly, she slipped out of the garments and back into her own.
"You wanchee cumshaw?" she asked, handing the furs to the Chinaman to be wrapped.
The Chinaman grinned.
From somewhere on her person she extracted bills, American bills. Johnny was not surprised at that, for in these uncertain times, American money had come to be an undisputed medium of exchange. It was always worth as much to-day as yesterday—very often more. The thing that did surprise Johnny was the size of the bills she left with the dealer. She was buying those garments, there could be no question about that. But why? No one in this region would think of wearing them. They were seldom seen five hundred miles north. And this woman was a Japanese. There were no Japanese men at Khabarask, five hundred miles north, let alone Japanese women; Johnny knew that.
But the door had closed. The American looked at his watch. It was one o'clock. The train went at four. He must hurry.
He was about to move out from among the furs, when again there came a rap, this time loud and insistent, as if coming from one who was accustomed to be obeyed.
"American officer!" Johnny stifled a groan, as he slid back into hiding.
"Wo Cheng!" he cautioned again in a whisper, "my wanchee you keep mouth shut; you savvy?"
"O-o-ee," mumbled Wo Cheng, his hand on the latch.
THE MYSTERIOUS RUSSIAN
Johnny's jaw dropped, and he barely checked a gasp, as through his screen of furs he saw the man who now entered Wo Cheng's den of disguises. He was none other than the man of the street fight, the short one of the broad shoulders and sharp chin. Johnny was surprised in more ways than one; surprised that the man was here at all; that it could have been he who had given that authoritative signal at the door, and most of all, surprised that Wo Cheng should have admitted him so readily, and should be treating him with such deference.
"Evidently," Johnny thought to himself, "this fellow has been here before."
Although unquestionably a Russian, the newcomer appeared quite equal to the task of making his wants known in Chinese, for after a moment's conversation the two men made their way toward the back of the room.
Johnny had his second shock when he saw the garments the Russian began to examine. They were no other than those which had twice before in the last hour been examined by customers, the clothing for the Far North. This was too much. Again, he barely checked a gasp. Was the entire population of the city about to move to the polar regions? He would ask Wo Cheng. In the meantime, Johnny prayed that the Russian might make his choice speedily, since the time of departure of his train was approaching.
The Russian made his selections, apparently more from a sense of taste than with an eye to warmth and service. This final choice was a suit of squirrel skin and boots of deer skin.
Into Wo Cheng's beady, squinting eyes, as he addressed this word to the Russian, there came a look of malignant cunning which Johnny had not seen there before. It sent chills racing up and down his spine. It almost seemed to him that the Chinaman's hand was feeling for his belt, where his knife was hidden.
For a moment the Russian turned his back to Wo Cheng, and so faced Johnny. Behind his screen, the "Yank" could observe his actions without himself being seen.
From an inner pocket the Russian extracted a long, thick envelope. Unwrapping the cord at the top of this, he shook from it three shining particles.
"Diamonds!" Johnny's eyes were dazzled with the lustre of the jewels.
The Russian, selecting one, dropped the others back into the envelope.
"Bet he's got a hundred more," was Johnny's mental comment. Then he noticed a peculiarity of the envelope. There was a red circle in the lower, left hand corner, as if a seal had been stamped there. He would remember that envelope should he ever see it again.
But at this instant his attention was drawn to the men again. The Russian had turned and handed the gem to Wo Cheng. Wo Cheng stepped to the light and examined it.
"No need cumshaw my," he murmured.
The Russian bowed gravely, and turned toward the door.
It was then that the face of the Chinaman underwent a rapid change. The look of craftiness, treachery, and greed swept over it again. This time the yellow man's hand unmistakably reached for the knife.
Then he appeared to remember Johnny, for his hand dropped, and he half turned with an air of guilt.
The door closed with a little swish. The Russian was gone. With him went the stifling air of treachery, murder and intrigue, yet it left Johnny wondering. Why was every man's hand lifted against the sharp-chinned Russian? Had Wo Cheng been actuated by hate, or by greed? Johnny could not but wonder if some of Russia's former noblemen did not rest in shallow graves beneath Wo Cheng's cellar floor. But there was little time for speculation. In two hours the special train that Johnny wanted to take would be on its way north.
Springing nimbly from his place of hiding, Johnny recovered his blouse, and having secured from it certain papers, which were of the utmost importance to him, he pinned them in a pocket of his shirt. He next selected a pair of wolf skin trousers, a pair of corduroy trousers, one pair of deer skin boots and two of seal skin.
"Cumshaw?" he grinned, facing Wo Cheng, as he completed his selection.
The yellow man shrugged his shoulders, as if to say it made little difference to him in this case.
Johnny peeled a bill from his roll of United States currency and handed it to him.
"Wo Cheng," he said slowly, "go north, Jap woman? Go north, that Russian? Why?"
The Chinaman's face took on a mask-like appearance.
"No can do," he muttered. "Allatime keep mouth shut my."
"Tell me," commanded Johnny, advancing in a threatening manner, with his hand near the Russian's knife.
"No can do," protested the Chinaman cringing away. "Allatime keep mouth shut my. No ask my. No tell my. Allatime buy, sell my. No savvy my."
It was evident that nothing was to be learned here of the intentions of the two strangers; so, grasping his bundle, Johnny lifted the latch and found himself out in the silent, deserted alley.
The air was kind to his heated brow. As he took the first few steps his costume troubled him. He was wearing the parka and the corduroy trousers. He felt no longer the slight tug of puttees about his ankles. His trousers flapped against his legs at every step. The hood heated the back of his neck. The fur trousers and the skin boots were in the bundle under his arm. His soldier's uniform he had left with the keeper of the hidden clothes shop. He hardly thought that anyone, save a very personal acquaintance, would recognize him in his new garb, and there was little chance of such a meeting at this hour of the night. However, he gave three American officers, apparently returning from a late party of some sort, a wide berth, and dodging down a narrow street, made his way toward the railway yards where he would find the drowsy comforts of the caboose of the "Reindeer Special."
* * * * *
"American, ain't y'?" A sergeant of the United States army addressed this question to Johnny.
The latter was curled up half asleep in a corner of the caboose of the "Reindeer Special" which had been bumping over the rails for some time.
"Ya-a," he yawned.
"Going north to trade, I s'pose?"
Johnny was tempted not to answer. Still, he was not yet out of the woods.
"Yep," he replied cheerfully. "Red fox, white fox, mink, squirrel, ermine, muskrat. Mighty good price."
"Where's your pack?" The sergeant half grinned.
Johnny sat up and stared. No, it was not that he had had a pack and lost it. It was that he had never had a pack. And traders carried packs. Why to be sure; things to trade for furs.
"Pack?" he said confusedly. "Ah-er, yes. Why, yes, my pack, of course, why I left it; no—hang it! Come to think of it, I'm getting that at the end of this line, Khabarask, you know."
Johnny studied the old sergeant through narrowing eyelids. He had given him a ten spot before the train rattled from the yards. Was that enough? Would any sum be enough? Johnny shivered a little. The man was an old regular, a veteran of many battles not given in histories. Was he one of those who took this motto: "Anything's all right that you can get away with?" Johnny wondered. It might be, just might be, that Johnny would go back on this same train to Vladivostok; and that, Johnny had no desire to do.
The sergeant's eyes closed for a wink of sleep. Johnny looked furtively about the car. The three other occupants were asleep. He drew a fat roll of American bills from his pocket. From the very center he extracted a well worn one dollar bill. Having replaced the roll, he smoothed out the "one spot" and examined it closely. Across the face of it was a purple stamp. In the circle of this stamp were the words, "Wales, Alaska." A smile spread over Johnny's shrewd, young face.
"Yes sir, there you are, li'l ol' one-case note," he whispered. "You come all the way from God's country, from Alaska to Vladivostok, all by yourself. I don't know how many times you changed hands before you got here, but here you are, and it took you only four months to come. Stay with me, little old bit of Uncle Sam's treasure, and I'll take you home; straight back to God's country."
He folded the bill carefully and stowed it in an inner pocket, next to his heart.
If the missionary postmistress at Cape Prince of Wales, on Behring Strait, had realized what homesick feelings she was going to stir up in Johnny's heart by impressing her post office stamp on that bill before she paid it to some Eskimo, perhaps she would not have stamped it, and then again, perhaps she would.
A sudden jolt as they rumbled on to a sidetrack awoke the sergeant, who seemed disposed to resume the conversation where he had left off.
"S'pose it's mighty dangerous tradin' on this side?"
"Uh-huh," Johnny grunted.
"S'pose it's a long way back to God's country this way?"
"Lot of the boys mighty sick of soldiering over here. Lot of 'em 'ud try it back to God's country 'f 'twasn't so far."
"Would, huh?" Johnny yawned.
"Ye-ah, and then the officers are mighty hard on the ones they ketch—ketch desertin', I mean—officers are; when they ketch 'em, an' they mostly do."
"Do what?" Johnny tried to yawn again.
"Ketch 'em! They're fierce at that."
There was a knowing grin on the sergeant's face, but no wink followed. Johnny waited anxiously for the wink.
"But it's tough, now ain't it?" observed the sergeant. "We can't go home and can't fight. What we here for, anyway?"
"Ye-ah," Johnny smiled hopefully.
"Expected to go home long ago, but no transportation, not before spring; not even for them that's got discharges and papers to go home. It's tough! You'd think a lot of 'em 'ud try goin' north to Alaska, wouldn't you? Three days in God's country's worth three years in Leavenworth; you'd think they'd try it. And they would, if 't'wasn't so far. Gad! Three thousand miles! I'd admire the pluck of the fellow that dared."
This time the wink which Johnny had been so anxiously awaiting came; a full, free and frank wink it was. He winked back, then settled down in his corner to sleep.
A train rattled by. The "Reindeer Special" bumped back on the main track and went crashing on its way. It screeched through little villages, half buried in snow. It glided along between plains of whiteness. It rattled between narrow hills, but Johnny was unconscious of it all. He was fast asleep, storing up strength for the morrow, and the many wild to-morrows which were to follow.
TREACHERY OUT OF THE NIGHT
Johnny moved restlessly beneath his furs. He had been dreaming, and in his dream he had traveled far over scorching deserts, his steed a camel, his companions Arabs. In his dream he slept by night on the burning sand, with only a silken canopy above him. In his dream he had awakened with a sense of impending danger. A prowling tiger had wandered over the desert, an Arab had proved treacherous—who knows what? The feeling, after all, had been only of a vague dread.
The dream had wakened him, and now he lay staring into utter darkness and marveling that the dream was so much like the reality. He was traveling over barren wastes with a caravan; had been for three days. But the waste they crossed was a waste of snow. His companions were natives—who like the Arabs, lived a nomadic life. Their steeds the swift footed reindeer, their tents the igloos of walrus and reindeer skins, they roamed over a territory hundreds of miles in extent. To one of these "fleets of the frozen desert," Johnny had attached himself after leaving the train.
It had been a wonderful three days that he had spent in his journeying northward. These Chukches of Siberia, so like the Eskimos of Alaska that one could distinguish them only by the language they spoke, lived a romantic life. Johnny had entered into this life with all the zest of youth. True, he had found himself very awkward in many things and had been set aside with a growled, "Dezra" (that is enough), many times but he had persevered and had learned far more about the ways of these nomads of the great, white north than they themselves suspected.
During those three days Johnny's eyes had been always on the job. He had not traveled a dozen miles before he had made a thorough study of the reindeer equipment. This, indeed, was simple enough, but the simpler one's equipment, the more thorough must be one's knowledge of its handling. The harness of the deer was made of split walrus skin and wood. Simple wooden hames, cut to fit the shoulders of the deer and tied together with a leather thong, took the place of both collar and hames of other harnesses. From the bottom of these hames ran a broad strap of leather. This, passing between both the fore and hind legs of the deer, was fastened to the sled. A second broad strap was passed around the deer's body directly behind the fore legs. This held the pulling strap above the ground to prevent the reindeer from stepping over his trace. In travel, in spite of this precaution, the deer did often step over the trace. In such cases, the driver had but to seize the draw strap and give it a quick pull, sending the sled close to the deer's heels. This gave the draw straps slack and the deer stepped over the trace again to his proper place.
The sleds were made of a good quality of hard wood procured from the river forests or from the Russians, and fitted with shoes of steel or of walrus ivory cut in thin strips. The sleds were built short, broad and low. This prevented many a spill, for as Johnny soon learned, the reindeer is a cross between a burro and an ox in his disposition, and, once he has scented a rich bed of mosses and lichens, on which he feeds, he takes on the strength and speed of an ox stampeding for a water hole in the desert, and the stubbornness of a burro drawn away from his favorite thistle.
The deer were driven by a single leather strap; the old, old jerk strap of the days of ox teams. Johnny had demanded at once the privilege of driving but he had made a sorry mess of it. He had jerked the strap to make the deer go more slowly. This really being the signal for greater speed, the deer had bolted across the tundra, at last spilling Johnny and his load of Chukche plunder over a cutbank. This procedure did not please the Chukches, and Johnny was not given a second opportunity to drive. He was compelled to trot along beside the sleds or, back to back with one of his fellow travelers, to ride over the gleaming whiteness that lay everywhere.
It was at such times as these that Johnny had ample opportunity to study the country through which they passed. Lighted as it was by a glorious moon, it presented a grand and fascinating panorama. To the right lay the frozen ocean, its white expanse cut here and there by a pool of salt water pitchy black by contrast with the ice. To the left lay the mountains extending as far as the eye could see, with their dark purple shadows and triangles of light and seeming but another sea, that tempest-tossed and terrible had been congealed by the bitter northern blasts.
When twelve hours of travel had been accomplished, and it had been proposed that they camp for the night, Johnny had been quite free to offer his assistance in setting up the tents. In this he had been even less successful than in his performance with the reindeer. He had set the igloo poles wrong end up and, when these had been righted, had spread the long haired deerskin robes, which were to serve as the inner lining of the shelters, hair side out, which was also wrong. He had once more been relegated to the background. This time he had not cared, for it gave him an opportunity to study his fellow travelers. They were for the most part a dark and sullen bunch. Not understanding Johnny's language, they did not attempt to talk with him, but certain gloomy glances seemed to tell him that, though his money had been accepted by them, there was still some secret reason why he might have been traveling in safer company.
This, however, was more a feeling than an idea based on any overt act of the natives, and Johnny tried to shake it off. That he might do this more quickly, he gave himself over to the study of these strange nomads. Their dress was a one-piece suit made of short haired deer skins. Men, women and children dressed alike, with the exception that very small children were sewed into their garments, hands, feet and all and were strapped on the sleds like bundles.
The food was strange to the American. One needed a good appetite to enjoy it. Great twenty-five pound white fish were produced from skin bags and sliced off to be eaten raw. Reindeer meat was stewed in copper kettles. Hard tack was soaked in water and mixed with reindeer suet. Tea from the ever present Russian tea kettle and seal oil from a sewed up seal skin took the place of drink and relish. The tea was good, the seal oil unspeakable, a liquid not even to be smelled of by a white man, let alone tasted.
By the second day Johnny had found himself confining his associations to one person, who, to all appearances, was a fellow passenger, and not a member of the tribe. He had learned to pitch his own igloo and hers. Not five hours before he had hewn away a hard bank of snow and built there a shelf for his bed. When his igloo was completed he had erected a second not many feet away. This was for his fellow passenger. In case anything should happen he felt that he would like to be near her, and she had shown by many little signs that she shared his feelings in this.
"In case something happened," Johnny reflected drowsily. He had a feeling that, sooner or later, something was going to happen. There was something altogether mysterious about the actions of these Chukches, especially one great sullen fellow, who had come skulking about Johnny's igloo just before he had turned in.
These natives were supposed to be trustworthy, but Johnny had his misgivings and was on his guard. They had come in contact with Russians, perhaps also with Orientals, and had learned treachery.
"And yet," thought Johnny, "what could they want from me? I paid them well for my transportation. They sold their reindeer to the American army for a fat price. They would be more than greedy if they wanted more."
Nevertheless, the air of mystery hung about him like a dark cloud. He could not sleep. And not being able to sleep, he meditated.
He had already begun the eternal round of thoughts that will revolve through a fellow's brain at night, when he heard a sound—the soft crush of a skin boot in the snow it seemed. He listened and thought he heard it again, this time more distinctly, as if the person were approaching his igloo. A chill crept up and down his spine. His right hand involuntarily freed itself from the furs and sought the cold hilt of the Russian knife. He had his army automatic, but where there are many ears to hear a shot, a knife is better.
"What an ideal trap for treachery, this igloo! A villain need but creep through tent-flaps, pause for a breath, then stealthily lift the deer skin curtain. A stab or a shot, and all would be ended." These thoughts sped through Johnny's mind.
Scarcely breathing, he waited for other signs of life abroad at that hour of night—a night sixteen hours long. He heard nothing.
Finally, his mind took up again the endless chain of thought. He had arrived safely at Khabarask, the terminus of the Russian line. Here he had remained for three days, half in hiding, until the "Reindeer Special" had completed its loading and had started on its southern journey to the waiting doughboys. During those three days he had made two startling discoveries; the short Russian of the broad shoulders and sharp chin, he of the envelope of diamonds, was in Khabarask. Johnny had seen him in an eating place, and had had an opportunity to study him without being observed. The man, he concluded, although a total stranger in these parts, was a person of consequence, a leader of some sort, accustomed to being obeyed. There seemed a brutal certainty about the way he ordered the servants of the place to do his bidding. There was a constant wrinkle of a frown between his eyes. A man, perhaps without a sense of humor, he would force every issue to the utmost. Once given an idea, he would override all obstacles to carry it through, not stopping at death, or at many deaths. This had been Johnny's mental analysis of the character of the man, and at once he began to half hate and half admire him. He had lost sight of him immediately, and had not discovered him again. Whether the Russian had left town before the native band did, Johnny could not tell. But, if he had moved on, where did he go?
The other shock was similar in character. The woman who had bought furs for the North had also been in Khabarask. Whether she was a Japanese Johnny was not prepared to say, and that in spite of the fact that he had studied her carefully for five days. She might be a Chukche who, through some strange impulse, had been led south to seek culture and education. He doubted that. She might be an Eskimo from Alaska making her way north to cross Behring Strait in the spring. He doubted that also. Finally she might be a Japanese woman, but in that case, what could be the explanation of her presence here, some two hundred miles north of the last vestige of civilization?
Now, not ten feet from the spot where Johnny lay in an igloo assigned for her private use by the natives, that identical girl slept at this moment. Only four hours before, Johnny had bade her good night, after an enjoyable repast of tea, reindeer meat and hard bread prepared by her own hand over a small wood fire. It was she who was his fellow passenger, whose igloo he had erected, close to his own. Yes, there was mystery enough about the whole situation to keep any fellow awake; yet Johnny hated himself for not sleeping. He felt that the time was coming when he would need stored strength.
He had half dosed off when a sound very close at hand, within the walls of canvas he thought, started him again into wakefulness. His arm ready and free for action, he lay still. His breathing well regulated and even, as in sleep, he watched through narrow slit eyes the deer skin curtain rise, and a head appear. The ugly shaved head of a Chukche it was; and in the intruder's hand was a knife.
The knife startled Johnny. He could not believe his eyes. He thought he was seeing double; yet he did not move.
Slowly, silently the arm of the native rose until it hung over Johnny's heart. In a second it would—
In that second something happened. There came a deadly thwack. The native, without a cry, fell backward beyond the curtain. His knife shot outward too, and stuck hilt downward in the snow.
Johnny drew himself slowly from beneath the furs. Lifting the deer skin curtain cautiously, he looked out. Then he chuckled a cold, dry chuckle. His knuckles were bloody, for the only weapon he had used was that truly American weapon, a clenched fist. Johnny, as I have suggested before, was somewhat handy with his "dukes." His left was a bit out of repair just now, but his right was quite all right, as the crumpled heap of a man testified.
Johnny bent over the man and twisted his head about. No, his neck was not broken. Johnny was thankful for that. He hated to see dead people even when they richly deserved to die.
Then he turned to the knife. He started again, as he extricated the hilt from the snow. But there was no time for examining it. His ear caught a stifled cry, a woman's cry. It came, without a doubt, from the igloo of his fellow traveler, the woman. Hastily thrusting his knife in his belt, he threw back the tentflap and crossed the intervening snowpatch in three strides.
He threw back the canvas just in time to seize a second native by the hood of his deer skin parka. He whirled the man completely about, tossed him high in the air, then struck him as he was coming down; struck him in the same place he had hit the other, only harder, very much harder. He did not examine him later for a broken neck, either.
Turning, Johnny saw the woman staring at him. Evidently she had slept in her furs. As she stood there now, she seemed quite equal to the task of caring for herself. There was a muscular sturdiness about her which Johnny had failed to notice before. In her hand gleamed a wicked looking dagger with a twisted blade.
But that she had been caught unawares, there could be no question, and from the kindly flash in her eyes Johnny read the fact that she was grateful for her deliverance.
He threw one glance at the other igloos. Standing there casting dark, purple shadows, they were strangely silent. Apparently these two murderers had been appointed to accomplish the task alone. The others were asleep. For this Johnny was thankful.
Turning to the woman he said sharply:
"Gotta git outa here. You, me, savvy?"
"Savvy," she replied placidly.
Seizing her fur bag of small belongings, Johnny hastened before her to where the sled deer were tethered. Two sleds were still loaded, one with an unused igloo and deerskins, the other with food. To each of these Johnny hastily harnessed a reindeer. Then whipping out his knife, he cut the tether of all the other deer. They would follow; it was the way of reindeer.
Johnny smiled. These extra deer would spell the others and quicken travel. In case of need, they could be killed for food. Besides, if they had no deer, the treacherous natives could not follow. They would be obliged to return to the Russian town they had left and make a new start, and by that time—Johnny patted his chest where reposed the bill with the Alaskan stamp on it, and murmured:
"Stay with me li'l' ol' one-spot, and I'll take you home."
He cast one more glance toward the igloos. Not a soul had stirred.
"We're off," he exclaimed, leaping on his sled and slapping his reindeer on the thigh with the jerkstrap.
"Yes," the Jap girl smiled as she followed his example.
Johnny thought they were "off," but it took only an instant to tell that they were not. His deer cut a circle and sent him gliding away over the snows. Fortunately he held to his jerkstrap and at last succeeded in stopping the animal's mad rush.
The Jap girl smiled again as she took the jerkstrap from his hand and tied it down short to her own sled. Then she leaped upon her sled again and, with some cooing words spoke to her reindeer. The deer tossed his antlers and trotted quietly away, leaving Johnny to spring upon his own sled and ride in increasing wonderment over the long glistening miles.
When they had traveled for eight hours without a pause and without a balk, the Jap girl allowed her deer to stop. She loosened the draw strap and, turning the animal about, tied him by a long line to the sled, that he might paw moss from beneath the snow in a wide circle.
"How—how'd you know how to drive?" Johnny stammered.
"Never before so," she smiled.
"You mean you never drove a reindeer?"
"Before now, no. Hungry you?" The Jap girl smiled, as if to say, "Enough about that, let's eat."
It was a royal meal they ate together, those two there beneath the Arctic moon. This Jap girl was a wonder, Johnny felt that, and he was to learn it more certainly as the days passed.
Three days later he sat upon a robe of deer skin. The corners of the robe were drawn up over his shoulders. A shelter of deer skins and walrus skins, hastily improvised by him during the beginning of a terrible blizzard which came howling down from the north, was ample to keep the wind from driving the biting snow into their faces, but it could hardly keep out the cold. In spite of that, the Jap girl, buried in deer skins, with her back against his, was sleeping soundly. Johnny was sleeping bolt upright with one ear awake. His reindeer were picketed close to the improvised igloo. Other nights, they had taken turns watching to protect them from prowling wolves, but this night no one could long withstand the numbing cold of the blizzard. So he watched and half slept. Now he caught the rising howl of the wind, and now felt its lull as the deer skins sagged. But what was this? Was there a different note, a howl that was not of the wind?
Shaking himself into entire wakefulness, Johnny sat bolt upright and listened intently. Yes, there it was again. A wolf beyond doubt, as yet some distance away, but coming toward them with the wind.
A wolf, a single one, was not all menace. If he could be shot before his fangs tore at the flesh of a reindeer, there would be gain. He would be food, and at the present moment there was no food. The Jap girl did not know it, but Johnny did. Not a fish, not a hunk of venison, not a pilot biscuit was on their sled. They would soon be reduced to the necessity of killing and eating one of their deer, unless, unless—the howl came more plainly and strangely enough with it came the crack crack of hoofs.
Johnny sprang to his feet. What could that crack cracking of hoofs mean? Had one of his deer already broken his tether?
With automatic in hand, he was out in the storm in an instant. Even as he became accustomed to the dim light, he saw a skulking form drifting down with the wind. Dropping upon his stomach, he took deliberate aim and fired. There was a howl of agony but still the creature came on. Another shot and it turned over tearing at the whirling snow.
Johnny jumped to his feet. "Eats," he murmured.
But then there came that other sound again, the crack crack of hoofs. He peered through the swirling snow, counting his reindeer. They were all there. Here was a mystery. It was not long in solving. He had but to glance to the south of his reindeer to detect some dark object bulking large in the night.
"A deer!" he muttered. "A wild reindeer! What luck!"
It was true. The wolf had doubtless been stalking him. Creeping stealthily forward, foot by foot, Johnny was at last within easy range of the creature. His automatic cracked twice in quick succession and a moment later he was exulting over two hundred pounds of fresh meat, food for many days.
Twenty hours later, Johnny found himself sitting sleepily on the edge of one of the deer sleds. The reindeer, unhitched and tethered, were digging beneath the snow for moss. The storm had subsided and once more they had journeyed far. The Jap girl was buried deep beneath the furs on the other sled.
Johnny was puzzling his brain at this time over one thing. They had followed a half covered, ancient trail due north for two days. Then a fresh track had joined the old one. It was the track of a man with dog team and sled. This they had followed due north again, and two hours ago, while the deer were resting and feeding, Johnny had detected the Jap girl in the act of measuring the footprints of the man who drove the dog team.
She had appeared troubled and embarrassed when she knew that he had seen what she was doing. Notwithstanding the fact that there had been no sign of guilt or treachery in her frank brown eyes, Johnny had been perplexed. What secret was she hiding from him? What did she know, or seek to know, about this man whose trail had joined theirs at an angle? Could it be? No, Johnny dismissed the thought which came to his mind.
He had dismissed all his perplexities, and was about to abandon himself to three winks of sleep, when something on the horizon attracted his attention. A mere dot at first, it grew rapidly larger.
"Dog team or reindeer on our trail," he thought. "I wonder."
From beneath his parka he drew his long blue automatic. After examining its clip, he laid it down on the sled with two other clips beside it. Then he drew the two knives also from his belt; the one he had secured at the time of the street fight in Vladivostok, the other had belonged to the Chukche who had attacked him. For the twentieth time he noted that they were exactly alike, blade forging, hilt carving, and all. And again, this realization set him to speculating. How had this brace of knives got so widely separated? How had this one found its way to the heart of a Chukche tribe? Why had the Chukches attempted to murder the Japanese girl and himself? Had it been with the hope of securing wealth from their simple luggage, or had they been bribed to do it? Once more his brain was in a whirl.
But there was business at hand. The black spot had developed into a reindeer, driven by a man. How many were following this man Johnny could not tell.
A NARROW ESCAPE
As Johnny stood awaiting the arrival of the stranger, many wild misgivings raced through his mind. What if this man was but the forerunner of the whole Chukche tribe? Then indeed, for himself and the Japanese girl things were at an end.
The newcomer was armed with a rifle. Johnny would stand little show with him in a duel, good as his automatic was.
But the man came on with a jaunty swing that somehow was reassuring. Who could he be? As he came close, he dropped his rifle on his sled and approached with empty hands.
"I am Iyok-ok," he said in good English, at the same time thrusting out his hand. "I was an American soldier, an Eskimo. Now I am going back to my home at Cape Prince of Wales."
"You got your discharge easily," smiled Johnny.
"Not so easy, but I got it."
"Well, anyway, stranger," said Johnny gripping the other's hand, "I can give you welcome, comrade. We are traveling the same way."
The Eskimo looked at Johnny's regulation army shoes as he said the word comrade, but made no comment.
"Know anything about travel in such a country?" asked Johnny.
"Most things you need to know."
"Then you sure are welcome," Johnny declared. Then, as he looked at the Eskimo closely there came to him a feeling that they had met before but where and when he could not recall. He did not mention the fact, but merely motioned the stranger to a seat on the sled while he dug into his pack for a morsel of good cheer.
Many days later, Johnny lay sprawled upon a double thickness of long haired deer skins. He was reading a book. Two seal oil lamps sputtered in the igloo, but these were for heat, not for light. Johnny got his light in the form of a raggedly round patch of sunlight which fell straight down from the top where the poles of the igloo met.
Johnny was very comfortable physically, but not entirely at ease mentally. He had been puzzled by something that had happened five minutes before. Moreover, he was half angry at his enforced idleness here.
Yet he was very comfortable. The igloo was a permanent one. Erected at the base of a cliff, covered over with walrus skin, lined with deer skin, and floored with planks hewn from driftwood logs, it was perfect for a dwelling of its kind. It stood in a hunting village on the Siberian shore of Behring Sea. The Jap girl, Johnny and Iyok-ok had traveled thus far in safety.
Yes, they had come a long distance, many hundreds of miles. As Johnny thought of it now, he put his book aside (a dry, old novel, left here by some American seaman) and dreamed those days all through again.
Wonderful days had followed the addition of Iyok-ok to their party. From that hour they had wanted nothing of food or shelter. Reared as he apparently had been in such wilds as these, the native skillfully had sought out the best of game, the driest, most sheltered of camping spots, in fact, had done everything that tended to make life easy in such a land.
Johnny's reveries were cut short and he started suddenly to his feet. A pebble had dropped squarely upon the deer skin spread out before him. It had come through the hole in the peak of the igloo. He glanced quickly up, but saw nothing.
Then he grinned. "Just a case of nerves, I guess. Some kids playing on the cliff. Anyway, I'll investigate," he said to himself.
Throwing back the deerskin flap, he stepped outside. Did he see a boot disappear around the point of the cliff above the igloo? He could not tell. At any rate, there was no use wasting more time on the question. To see farther around the cliff, one must climb up its rough face, and by that time any mischief maker might have disappeared.
Yet Johnny stood there worried and puzzled. Twice in the last hour pebbles had rattled down upon the igloo, and now one had dropped inside. An old grievance stirred him: Why were not he and his strange companions on their way? With only four hundred miles to travel to East Cape, with a splendid trail, with reindeer well fed and rested, it seemed folly to linger in this native village. The reindeer Chukches, whose sled deer they had borrowed, might be upon them at any moment, and that, Johnny felt sure, would result in an unpleasant mixup. Yet he had been utterly unable to get the little Oriental girl and Iyok-ok to go on. Why? He could only guess. There were a great many other things he could only guess at. The little Oriental girl's reason for going so far into the wilderness was as much a secret as ever. He could only guess that it had to do with the following of that mysterious driver of a dog team. With unerring precision this man had pushed straight on northward toward East Cape and Behring Strait. And they had followed, not, so far as Johnny was concerned, because they were interested in him, but because he had traveled their way.
At times they had come upon his camp. Located at the edge of some bank or beside some willow clump, where there was shelter from the wind, these camps told little or nothing of the man who had made them. Everything which might tell tales had been carried on or burned. Once only Johnny had found a scrap of paper. Nothing had been written on it. From it Johnny had learned one thing only: it had originally come from some Russian town, for it had the texture of Russian bond. But this was little news.
Who was this stranger who traveled so far? Johnny had a feeling that he was at the moment hiding in this native village, and that this was the reason his two companions did not wish to proceed. There had grown up between these two, the Eskimo boy and the Japanese girl, a strange friendship. At times Johnny had suspicions that this friendship had existed before they had met on the tundra. However that might have been, they seemed now to be working in unison. Only the day before he had happened to overhear them conversing in low tones, and the language, he would have sworn, was neither Eskimo, English, nor Pidgen. Yet he did not question the boy's statement that he was an American Eskimo. Indeed there were times when the flash of his honest smile made Johnny believe that they had met somewhere in America. On his trip to Nome and Fairbanks before the war, Johnny had met many Eskimos, and had boxed and wrestled with some of the best of them.
"Oh, well," he sighed, and stretched himself, "'tain't that I've got a string on 'em, nor them on me. I'll have to wait or go on alone, that's all."
He entered the igloo, and tried again to become interested in his book, but his mind kept returning to the strange friendship which had grown up between the three of them, Iyok-ok, the Jap girl and himself. The Jap girl had proved a good sport indeed. She might have ridden all the time, but she walked as far in a day as they did. She cooked their meals cheerfully, and laughed over every mishap.
So they had traveled northward. Three happy children in a great white wilderness, they pitched their igloos at night, a small one for the girl, a larger one for the two men, and, burying themselves beneath the deer skins, had slept the dreamless sleep of children, wearied from play.
The Jap girl had appeared to be quite content to be going into an unknown wilderness. Only once she had seemed concerned. That was when a long detour had taken them from the track of the unknown traveler, but her cheerfulness had returned once they had come upon his track again. This had set Johnny speculating once more. Who was this stranger? Was he related to the girl in some way? Was he her friend or her foe? Was he really in this village at this time? If so, why did she not seek him out? If a friend, why did she not join him; and, if an enemy, why not have him killed? Surely, here they were quite beyond the law.
Oh, yes, Johnny might get a dog team and go on up the coast alone, but Johnny liked his two traveling companions too well for that, and besides, Johnny dearly loved mysteries, and here was a whole nest of them. No, Johnny would wait.
The seal oil lamps imparted a drowsy warmth to the igloo. The deer skins were soft and comfortable. Johnny grew sleepy. Throwing the ragged old book in the corner, he stretched out full length on the skins, which lay in the irregular circle of light, and was soon fast asleep.
Just how long he slept he could not tell. When he awoke it was with a feeling of great peril tugging at his heart. His first conscious thought was that the aperture above him had, in some way, been darkened. Instantly his eyes sought that opening. What he saw there caused his heart to pause and his eyes to bulge.
Directly above him, seemingly poised for a drop, was a vicious looking hook. With a keen point and a barb fully three inches across, with a shaft of half-inch steel which was driven into a pole three inches in diameter and of indefinite length, it could drive right through Johnny's stomach, and pin him to the planks beneath. And, as his startled eyes stared fixedly at it, the thing shot downward.
Johnny Thompson, before he joined the army, had been considered one of the speediest men of the boxing ring. His brain worked like lightning, and every muscle in his body responded instantly to its call. Johnny had not lost any of his speed. It was well that he had not, for, like a spinning car-wheel, he rolled over twice before the hook buried itself to the end of its barb in the pungent plank on which he had reclined an instant before.
Nor did Johnny stop rolling then. He continued until he bumped against the skin wall of his abode. This was fortunate also, for he had not half regained his senses when two almost instantaneous explosions shook the igloo, tore the plank floor into shreds, shooting splinters about, and even through the double skin wall, and filling Johnny's eyes with powder smoke and dust.
Johnny sat up with one hand on his automatic. He was fully awake.
"Is that all?" he drawled. "Thanks! It's enough, I should say. Johnny Thompson exit." A wry grin was on his face. "Johnny Thompson killed by a falling whale harpoon; shot to death by a whale gun; blown to atoms by a whale bomb. Exit Johnny. They do it in the movies, I say!"
But that was not quite all. The blazing seal oil lamps had overturned. Splinters from the floor were catching fire. Johnny busied himself at beating these out. As soon as this had been accomplished, he stepped outside.
From an awe-struck ring of native women and children, who had been attracted by the explosion, the little Jap girl darted.
"Oh, Meester Thompsie!" she exclaimed, wringing her hands, "so terrible, awful a catastrophe! Are you not killed? So terrible!"
"Nope," he said, putting out a hand to console her. "I'm not killed, nor even blown to pieces. What I'd like to know is, who dropped that harpoon."
He looked from face to face of the silent circle. Not one showed a sign of any knowledge of the affair. They had heard the explosion and had run from their homes to see what had happened.
Turning toward the cliff, from which the harpoon had been dropped, Johnny studied it carefully. No trace of living creature was to be discovered there. Then he looked again at the circle of brown faces, seeking any recent arrival. There was none.
"Come!" he said to the Jap girl.
Taking her hand, he led her from house to house of the village. Beyond two to three old women, too badly crippled to walk, the houses were found to contain no one.
"Well, one thing is sure," Johnny observed, "the Chukche reindeer herders have not come. It was not they who did it."
"No," answered the Jap girl.
"Say!" exclaimed Johnny, in a tone more severe than he had ever used with his companion, "why in thunder can't we get out of this hole? What are we sticking here for?"
"Can't tell." The girl wrung her hands again. "Can't tell. Can't go, that's all. You go; all right, mebby. Can't go my. That's all. Mebby go to-morrow; mebby next day. Can't tell."
Johnny was half inclined to believe that she was in league with the treachery which hung over the place, and had shown itself in the form of loaded harpoons, but when he realized that she did not urge him to stay, he found it impossible to suspect her.
"Well, anyway, darn it!"
"What?" she smiled.
"Oh, nothing," he growled, and turned away.
Two hours later Johnny was lying on the flat ledge of the rocky cliff from which the harpoon had been dropped. He was, however, a hundred feet or more down toward the bay. He was watching a certain igloo, and at the same time keeping an eye on the shore ice. Iyok-ok had gone seal hunting. When he returned over the ice, Johnny meant to have a final confab with him in regard to starting north.
As to the vigil he kept on the igloo, that was the result of certain suspicions regarding the occupants of that particular shelter. There was a dog team which hung about the place. These dogs were larger and sleeker than the other animals of the village. Their fights with other dogs were more frequent and severe. That would naturally mark them as strangers. Johnny had made several journeys of a mile or two up and down the beach trail, and, as far as he could tell, the man of mystery whose trail they had followed to this village had not left the place.
"Of course," he had told himself, "he might have been one of the villagers returning to his home. But that doesn't seem probable."
From all this, Johnny had arrived at the conclusion that the watching of this house would yield interesting results.
It did. He had not been lying on the cliff half an hour, when the figure of a man came backing out of the igloo's entrance. Johnny whistled. He was sure he had seen that pair of shoulders before. And the parka the man wore; it was not of the very far north. There was a smoothness about the tan and something about the cut of it that marked it at once as coming from a Russian shop, such as Wo Cheng kept.
"And squirrel skin!" Johnny breathed.
He was not kept long in doubt as to the identity of the wearer. As the man turned to look behind him, Johnny saw the sharp chin of the Russian, the man of the street fight and the many diamonds. He had acquired something of a beard, but there was no mistaking those frowning brows, square shoulders and that chin.
"So," Johnny thought, "he is the fellow we have been trailing. The Jap girl wanted to follow him and so, perhaps, did Iyok-ok. I wonder why? And say, old dear," he whispered, "I wonder if it could have been you who dropped that harpoon. It's plain enough from the looks of you that you'd do it, once you fancied you'd half a reason. I've a good mind—" His hand reached for his automatic.
"No," he decided, "I won't do it. I don't really know that you deserve it; besides I hate corpses, and things like that. But I say!"
A new and wonderful thought had come to him. He felt that, at any rate, he owed this person something, and he should have it. Beside Johnny on the ledge, where some native had left it, out of reach of the dog's, was a sewed up seal skin full of seal oil. To the native of the north seal oil is what Limburger cheese is to a Dutchman. He puts it away in skin sacks to bask in the sun for a year or more and ripen. This particular sackful was "ripe"; it was over ripe and had been for some time. Johnny could tell that by the smooth, balloon-like rotundity of the thing. In fact, he guessed it was about due to burst. Once Johnny had taken a cup of this liquid for tea. He had it close enough to his face to catch a whiff of it. He could still recall the smell of it.
Now his right hand smoothed the bloated skin tenderly. He twisted it about, and balanced it in his hand. Yes, he could do it! The Russian was not looking up. There was a convenient ledge, some three feet above his head. There the sack would strike and burst. The boy smiled, in contemplation of that bursting.
"This for what you may have done," Johnny whispered, and balancing the sack in his hand, as if it had been a football, he gave it a little toss. Over the cliff it went to a sheer fall of fifteen feet. There followed a muffled explosion. It had burst! Johnny saw the Russian completely deluged with the vile smelling liquid. Then he ducked.
As he lay flat on the ledge, he caught a silvery laugh. Looking quickly about, he found himself staring into the eyes of the little Jap girl. She had been watching him.
"You—you—know him?" he stammered.
The girl shrugged her shoulders.
She shook her head vigorously.
"Enemy? Kill?" Johnny's hand sought his automatic.
"No! No! No!" she fairly screamed. "Not kill!" Her hand was on his arm with a frantic grip.
"No can tell. Only, not kill; not kill now. No! No! No! Mebby never!"
"Well, I'll be—" Johnny took his hand from his gun and peered over the ledge. The man was gone. It was a dirty trick he had played. He half wished he had not done it. And yet, the Jap girl had laughed. She knew what the man was. She had been close enough to have stopped him, had she thought it right. She had not done so. His conscience was clear.
They crept away in the gathering darkness, these two; and Johnny suddenly felt for this little Jap girl a comradeship that he had not known before. It was such a feeling as he had experienced in school days, when he was prowling about with boy pals.
Shortly after darkness had fallen, Johnny was seated cross-legged on a deer skin, staring gloomily at the ragged hole left by the whale harpoon bomb. He had not yet seen Iyok-ok. He was trying now to unravel some of the mysteries which the happenings of the day had served only to tangle more terribly. He had not meant to kill the Russian, even though the Jap girl had told him to; Johnny did not kill people, unless it was in defense of his country or his life. He had been merely trying the Jap girl out. He was obliged to admit now that he had got nowhere. She had laughed when he had played that abominable trick on the Russian; had denied that the stranger was her friend, yet had at once become greatly excited when Johnny proposed to kill him. What could a fellow make of all this? Who was this Jap girl anyway, and why had she followed this Russian so far? Somehow, Johnny could not help but feel that the Russian was a deep dyed plotter of some sort. He was inclined to believe that he had had much to do with that harpoon episode as well as the murder attempted by the reindeer Chukches.
"By Jove!" the American boy suddenly slapped his knee. "The knife, the two knives exactly alike. One he tried to use in the street fight at Vladivostok; the other he must have given to the reindeer Chukche to use on anyone who might follow him."
For a time he sat in deep thought. As he weighed the probabilities for and against this theory, he found himself doubting. There might be many knives of this pattern. The knife might have been stolen from him by the Chukche, or the Russian might have given it to the native as a reward for service, having no idea to what deadly purposes it would be put. And, again, if he were that type of plotter, would not the Jap girl know of it, and desire him killed?
The Japanese girl puzzled Johnny more and more. Her friendship for Iyok-ok, her eagerness to protect the Russian—what was to be made of all this? Were the three of them, after all, leagued together in deeds of darkness? And was he, Johnny, a pawn to be sacrificed at the proper moment?
And the Russian, why was he traveling so far north? What possible interests could he have here? Was he, too, planning to cross the Strait to America? Or was he in search of wealth hidden away in this frozen land?
"The furs! I'll bet that's it!" Johnny slapped his knee. "This Russian has come north to demand tribute for his government from the hunting Chukches. They're rich in furs—mink, ermine, red, white, silver gray and black fox. A man could carry a fortune in them on one sled. Yes, sir! That's his business up here."
But then, the diamonds? Again Johnny seemed to have reached the end of a blind alley in his thinking. Who could be so rash as to carry thousands of dollars' worth of jewels on such a trip? And yet, he was not certain the man had them now. He had seen them but once, and that in the disguise shop.
Further thoughts were cut short by a head thrust in at the flap of the igloo. It was Iyok-ok.
"Go soon," he smiled. "Mebby two hours."
"Eh-eh" (yes), he answered, lapsing into Eskimo.
The head disappeared.
"Well, anyway, my seal oil bath did some good," Johnny remarked to himself. "It jarred the old fox out of his lair and started him on his way."
He wondered a little about the Jap girl. Would she still travel with them? These musings were cut short when he carried his bundle to the deer sled. She was there to greet him with a broad smile. And so once more they sped away over the tundra in the moonlight.
They had not gone five miles before Johnny had assured himself that once more the Russian and his dog team had preceded them.
"NOW I SHALL KILL YOU"
Johnny Thompson was at peace with the world. He was engaged in the most delightful of all occupations, gathering gold. He had often dreamed of gathering gold. He had dreamed, too, of finding money strewn upon the street. But now, here he was, with one of these choice Russian knives, picking away at clumps of frozen earth and picking up, as they fell out, particles of gold. Some were tiny; many were large as a pea, and one had been the size of a hickory nut. Now and again he straightened up to swing a pick into the frozen gravel which lay within the circle of light made by his pocket flashlight. After a few strokes he would throw down the pick and begin breaking up the lumps. Every now and again, he would lift the small sack into which the lumps were dropped. It grew heavier every moment.
It was quite dark all about him; indeed, Johnny was nearly a hundred feet straight into the heart of a cut bank, and, to start on this straight ahead drift, he had been obliged to lower himself into a shaft as into a well, a drop of fifteen feet or more. That the mine had other drifts he knew, but this one suited him. That it had another occupant he also knew, but this did not trouble him. He was too much interested in the yellow glitter of real gold to think of danger. And he was half dazed by the realization that there could be a gold mine like this in Siberia. Alaska had gold, plenty of it, of course, and he was now less than two hundred miles from Alaska, but he had never dreamed that the dreary slopes of the Kamchatkan Peninsula could harbor such wealth. Someone had been mining it, too, but that must have been months, perhaps years, ago. The pick handles were rough with decay, the pans red with rust.
Curiosity had led Johnny to this spot, a half mile from the native village at the mouth of the Anadir River. He had been marooned again in that village. They had covered three hundred miles on their last journey, then had come another pause. This time, though he did not even see his dogs about the village, Johnny felt sure that the Russian had once more taken to hiding.
Having nothing else to do, Johnny had followed a narrow track up the river. The track had come to an end at the entrance to the mine. Thinking it merely a sort of crude cold storage plant for keeping meat fresh, he had let himself down to explore it. Increasing curiosity had led him on until he had discovered the gold. Now he had quite forgotten the person whose tracks led him to the spot.
He was shocked into instant and vivid realization of peril by a cold pressure on his temple and a voice which said in the preciseness of a foreigner:
"Now I have you, sir. Now I shall kill you, sir."
In that instant Johnny prepared himself for his final earthly sensation. He had recognized the voice of the Russian.
There came a click, then a snap. The next instant the revolver which had rested against his forehead struck the frozen roof of the mine. The weapon had missed fire and, between turns of the cylinder, Johnny's good right hand had struck out and up.
The light snapped out, and in the midnight darkness of that icy cavern the two grappled and fell.
Had Johnny been in possession of the full power of his left arm, the battle would have been over soon. As it was they rolled over and over, their bodies crushing frozen bits of pay-dirt, like twin rollers. They struggled for mastery. Each man realized that, unless some unforeseen power intervened, defeat meant death. The Russian fought with the stubbornness of his race; fought unfairly too, biting and kicking when opportunity permitted. Three times Johnny barely missed a blow on the head which meant unconsciousness, then death.
At last, panting, perspiring, bleeding and bruised, Johnny clamped his right arm about his antagonist's neck and, flopping his body across his chest, lay there until the Russian's muscles relaxed.
Sliding to a sitting position, the American began feeling about in the dark. At last, gripping a flashlight, he snapped it on. The face of the Russian revealed the fact that he was not unconscious. Johnny slid to a position which brought each knee down upon one of the Russian's arms. He would take no chances with that man.
Slowly Johnny flashed the light about, then, with a little exclamation, he reached out and gripped the handle of the Russian's revolver.
"Now," he mocked, "now I have you, sir. Now I shall kill you, sir."
He had hardly spoken the words when a body hurled itself upon him, knocking the revolver from his hand and extinguishing the light.
"So. There are others! Let them come," roared Johnny, striking out with his right in the dark.
"Azeezruk nucky." To his astonishment he recognized the voice of Iyok-ok. What he had said, in Eskimo, was, "It would be a bad thing to kill him," meaning doubtless the Russian.
"Azeezruk adocema" (he is a bad one), replied Johnny, throwing the light on the sullen face of the Eskimo.
"Eh-eh" (yes), the other agreed.
"Then what in thunder!" Johnny exclaimed, falling back on English. "He tried to kill me. Kill me! Do you understand? Why shouldn't I kill him?"
"No kill," said the Eskimo stubbornly.
Johnny sat and thought for a full three minutes. In that time, his blood had cooled. He was able to reason about the matter. In the army he had learned one rule: "If someone knows more about a matter than you do, follow his guidance, though, at the time, it seems dead wrong." Evidently Iyok-ok knew more about this Russian than Johnny did. Then the thing to do was to let the man go.
Before releasing him, he searched him carefully. Beyond a few uninteresting papers, a pencil, a cigaret case and a purse he found nothing. Evidently the revolver had been his only weapon.
As he searched the man, one peculiar question flashed through Johnny's mind; if the Russian had the envelope full of diamonds on his person, what should he do, take them or leave them? He was saved the necessity of a decision; they were not there.
"Now," said Johnny, seating himself on a rusty pan, as the Russian went shuffling out of the mine, "tell me why you didn't let me kill him."
"Can't tell," was Iyok-ok's laconic reply.
"Not now. Sometime, maybe. Not now."
"Look here," said Johnny savagely, "that man has tried to kill me or have me killed, three times, is it not so?"
Iyok-ok did not answer.
"First," Johnny went on, "he induces the reindeer Chukches to try to kill me and furnishes them the knife to do it with. Eh?"
"Second, he drops a harpoon into my igloo and tries to harpoon me and blow me up."
"And now he puts a revolver to my head and pulls the trigger. Still you say 'No kill.' What shall I make of that?"
"Canak-ti-ma-na" (I don't know), said the Eskimo. "No kill, that's all."
Johnny was too much astonished and perplexed to say anything further. The two sat there for some time in silence. At last the Eskimo rose and made his way toward the entrance.
Johnny flashed his light about the place. He was looking for his sack of gold. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation and put out his hand. What it grasped was the envelope he had seen in the Russian's pocket at Wo Cheng's shop, the envelope of diamonds. And the diamonds were still there; he could tell that by the feel of the envelope.
Hastily searching out his now insignificant treasure of gold, Johnny placed it with the envelope of diamonds in his inner pocket and hurried from the mine.
Darkness again found him musing over a seal oil lamp. He was not in a very happy mood. He was weary of orientalism and mystery. He longed for the quiet of his little old town, Chicago. Wouldn't it be great to put his feet under his old job and say, "Well, Boss, what's the dope to-day?" Wouldn't it, though? And to go home at night to doll up in his glad rags and call on Mazie. Oh, boy! It fairly made him sick to think of it.
But, at last, his mind wandered back to the many mysteries which had been straightened out not one bit by these events of the day. Here he was traveling with two companions, a Jap girl and an Eskimo. Eskimo? Right there he began to wonder if Iyok-ok, as he called himself, was really an Eskimo after all. What if he should turn out to be a Jap playing the part of an Eskimo? Only that day Johnny had once more come upon him suddenly to find him in earnest conversation with the Jap girl. And the language they had been using had sounded distinctly oriental. And yet, if he was a Jap, how did it come about that he spoke the Eskimo language so well?
Dismissing this question, his mind dwelt upon the events of the past few days. Twice he had been begged not to kill the Russian. This last time he most decidedly would have been justified in putting a bullet into the rascal's brain. He had been prevented from doing so by Iyok-ok. Why?
"Anyway," he said to himself, yawning, "I'm glad I didn't do it. It's nasty business, this killing people. I couldn't very well tell such a thing to Mazie; you can't tell such things to a woman, and I want to tell her all about things over here. It's been a hard old life, but so far I haven't done a single thing that I wouldn't be proud to tell her about. No, sir, not one! I can say: 'Mazie, I did this and I did that,' and Mazie'll say, 'Oh, Johnny! Wasn't that gr-ran-nd?'"
Johnny grinned as the thought of it and felt decidedly better. After all, what was the use of living if one was to live on and on and on and never have any adventures worth the telling?
For some time he lay sprawled out before the lamp in silent reflection, then he sat up suddenly and pounded his knee.
"By Jove! I'll bet that's it!" he exclaimed.
He had happened upon a new theory regarding the Russian. It seemed probable to him that this man, knowing of this gold mine, perhaps being owner of it, had come north to determine its value and the advisability of opening it for operation in the spring. In these days, when the money market of the world was gold hungry, that glittering, yellow metal was of vast importance, especially to the warring factions of Russia. Surely, this seemed a plausible explanation. And if it was true then he could hurry on up the coast, with or without his companions and make his way home.
"But then," he said, perplexed again. He reached his hand into his pocket to draw out the envelope he had found in the mine. "But then, there's the diamonds. Would a man coming on such a journey bring such treasure with him? He couldn't trade them to the natives. They know money well enough, but not diamonds."
Johnny opened the envelope and shook it gently. Three stones fell into his hand. They were of purest blue white, perfect stones and perfectly cut. A glance at the envelope showed him that it was divided into four narrow compartments and that each compartment was filled with diamonds wrapped in tissue paper. Only these three were unwrapped.
Running his fingers down the outside of the compartments, he counted the jewels.
"One hundred and four," he breathed. "A king's ransom. Forty or fifty thousand dollars worth, anyway. Whew!"
Then he stared and his hand shook. His eye had fallen upon the stamp of the seal in the corner of the envelope. He knew that secret mark all too well; had learned it from Wo Cheng. It was the stamp of the biggest and worst society of Radicals in all the world.
"So!" Johnny whispered to himself. "So, Mr. Russian, you are a Radical, a red, a Nihilist, a communist, an anything-but-society-as-it-is guy. You want the world to cough up its dough and own nothing, and yet here you are carrying round the price of a farm in your vest pocket." He chuckled. "Some reformer, I'd say!"
But his next thought sobered him. What was he to do with all that wealth? One of those stones would make Mazie happy for a lifetime. But it wasn't his. He had no right to it. He could not do a thing he'd be ashamed to tell Mazie and his old boss about.
But, if they didn't belong to him, perhaps the diamonds didn't belong to the Russian either. At any rate, the latter's disloyalty to his nation had forfeited his right to own property.
Even should this Russian be the rightful owner, Johnny could not very well hunt him up and say: "Here, mister. You tried to kill me yesterday. Here are your diamonds. I found them in the mine. Please count them and see if they are all there."
Johnny grinned as he thought of that. There seemed to be nothing to do but keep the stones, for the time being at least.
"Anyway," he said to himself as he rolled up in his deer skins. "I'll bet I have discovered something. I'll bet he's one of the big ones, perhaps the biggest of them all. And he's trying to make his way across to America to stir things up over there."
SAVED FROM THE MOB
"What do you know about that gold mine?" Johnny asked, turning an inquiring eye on Iyok-ok, whom Johnny now strongly suspected of being a Japanese and a member of the Mikado's secret service as well.
"Which mine?" Iyok-ok smiled good-naturedly as he blinked in the sunlight. It was the morning after Johnny's battle with the Russian.
"Are there others?"
"Seven! And all of them rich as the one we were in yesterday?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
"Some much richer," he declared.
"How long has the world known of this wealth?"
"Never has known. A few men know, that's all. The old Czar, he knew, but would let no one work the mines. Just at the last he said 'Yes.' Then they hurried much machinery over here, but it was too late. The Czar—well, you know he is dead now, but they have their machinery here still."
"Who are 'they'?" asked Johnny with curiosity fully aroused.
"American. I know. Can't tell. Worked for them once. Promise never tell."
Johnny wrinkled his brow but did not press the matter.
"But this Russia, the Kamchatkan Peninsula?" Iyok-ok continued. "Whom does it belong to now? Can you tell me that?"
Johnny shook his head.
"Neither can They tell. If They knew, and if They knew it was safe to come back and mine here, when the world has so great need of gold, you better believe They would come and mine, But They do not know; They do not know." The boy pronounced the last words with an undertone of mystery. "Sometime I will know. Then I—I will tell you, perhaps."
"Where's the machinery?" asked Johnny.
"Up the river. Wanta see it?"
They hurried away up the frozen river and in fifteen minutes came upon a row of low sheds. The doors were locked, but to his great surprise Johnny discovered that his companion had the keys.
They were soon walking through dark aisles, on each side of which were piled parts of mining machines of every description, crushers, rollers, smelters and various accessories connected with quartz mining. Mingled with these were picks, pans, steam thawers, windlasses, and great piles of sluice timber. All these last named were for mining placer gold.
"Quartz too?" asked Johnny.
"Plenty of quartz," grinned Iyok-ok. "Come out here, I will show you."
They stepped outside. The boy locked the door, then led his companion up a steep slope until they were on a low point commanding a view of the village below and a rocky cliff above.
"See that cliff?" asked Iyok-ok. "Plenty of gold there. Pick it out with your pen knife. Rich! Too rich."
"Then this Peninsula is as rich as Alaska?"
"Alaska?" Iyok-ok grinned. "Alaska? What shall I say? Alaska, it is a joke. Think of the great Lena River! Great as the Yukon. Who knows what gold is deposited in the beds and banks of that mighty stream? Who knows anything about this wonderful peninsula? The Czar, he has kept it locked. But now the Czar is dead. The key is lost. Who will find it? Sometime we will see."
The boy was interrupted by wild shouts coming from the village. As their eyes turned in that direction, Johnny and Iyok-ok beheld a strange sight. The entire village had apparently turned out to give chase to one man. And, down to the last child, they were armed. But such strange implements of warfare as they carried! All were relics of by-gone days; lances, walrus harpoons, bows and arrows, axes, hammers and many more.
As Johnny watched them, he remembered having been told by an old native that during and after the great war these people had been unable to procure a sufficient supply of ammunition and had been obliged to resort to ancient methods of hunting. These were the bow and arrow, the lance and the harpoon. Powerful bows, of some native wood, shot arrows tipped with cunningly tempered bits of steel. The drawn and tempered barrel of a discarded rifle formed a point for the long-shafted lance. The harpoon, most terrible of all weapons, both for man and beast, was a long wooden shaft with a loose point attached to a long skin rope. Once five or six of these had been thrown into the body of a great white bear or some offending human he was doomed to die a death of agonizing torture; his body being literally torn to pieces by the drag upon the strong skin ropes, fastened to the steel points imbedded in his flesh.
Now it seemed evident that for some misdeed one member of the tribe had been condemned to die. As Johnny stood there staring, the whole affair seemed so much like things he had seen done on the screen, that he found it difficult to realize that this was an actual tragedy, being enacted before his very eyes.
"They do it in the movies," he said.
"Yes," his companion agreed, "but here they will kill him. We must hurry to help him."
"Who is he?"
"Don't you see? The Russian."
"Oh!" sighed Johnny. "Let 'em have him. He deserves as much from me, probably deserves more from them."
"No! No! No!" Iyok-ok protested, now very much excited. "That will never do. We must save him. They think he's from the Russian Government. Think he will demand their furs and carry them away. They mistake. They will kill him. Your automatic! We must hurry. Come."
Johnny found himself being dragged down the hill. As he looked below, he realized that his companion was right. The man was doomed unless they interfered. Already skillful archers were pausing to shoot and their arrows fell dangerously near the fugitive.
"Now, from here," panted Iyok-ok. "Your automatic. Shoot over their heads. They will stop. I will tell them. They will not kill him."
Johnny's hand went to his automatic, but there it rested. These natives? What did he have against them that he should interrupt them in the chase? And this Russian, what claim did he have on him that he should save his life? None, the answer was plain. And yet, here was this boy, to whom he had grown strangely attached, begging him to help save the Russian. A strange state of affairs, for sure.
Toward them, as he ran, the Russian turned a white, appealing face. To them came ever louder and more appalling the cry of the excited natives. Now an arrow fell three feet short of its mark. And now, a stronger arm sent one three yards beyond the man, but a foot to one side. The whole scene, set as it was in the purple shadows and yellow lights of the north-land, was fascinating.
But the time had come to act.
"Well, then," Johnny grunted, whipping out his automatic, "for your sake I'll do it."
Three times the automatic barked its vicious challenge. The mob paused and waited silently.
Out of this silence there came a voice. It was the voice of Iyok-ok by Johnny's side. Through cupped hands, he was speaking calmly to the natives. His words were a jumble of Eskimo, Chukche and pidgen-English, but Johnny knew they understood, for, as the speech went on, he saw them drop their weapons, then one by one pick them up again to go shuffling away.