by Jack London
It was the end. Subienkow had travelled a long trail of bitterness
and horror, homing like a dove for the capitals of Europe, and here,
farther away than ever, in Russian America, the trail ceased. He sat
in the snow, arms tied behind him, waiting the torture. He stared
curiously before him at a huge Cossack, prone in the snow, moaning in
his pain. The men had finished handling the giant and turned him
over to the women. That they exceeded the fiendishness of the men,
the man's cries attested.
Subienkow looked on, and shuddered. He was not afraid to die. He
had carried his life too long in his hands, on that weary trail from
Warsaw to Nulato, to shudder at mere dying. But he objected to the
torture. It offended his soul. And this offence, in turn, was not
due to the mere pain he must endure, but to the sorry spectacle the
pain would make of him. He knew that he would pray, and beg, and
entreat, even as Big Ivan and the others that had gone before. This
would not be nice. To pass out bravely and cleanly, with a smile and
a jest--ah! that would have been the way. But to lose control, to
have his soul upset by the pangs of the flesh, to screech and gibber
like an ape, to become the veriest beast--ah, that was what was so
There had been no chance to escape. From the beginning, when he
dreamed the fiery dream of Poland's independence, he had become a
puppet in the hands of Fate. From the beginning, at Warsaw, at St.
Petersburg, in the Siberian mines, in Kamtchatka, on the crazy boats
of the fur-thieves, Fate had been driving him to this end. Without
doubt, in the foundations of the world was graved this end for him--
for him, who was so fine and sensitive, whose nerves scarcely
sheltered under his skin, who was a dreamer, and a poet, and an
artist. Before he was dreamed of, it had been determined that the
quivering bundle of sensitiveness that constituted him should be
doomed to live in raw and howling savagery, and to die in this far
land of night, in this dark place beyond the last boundaries of the
He sighed. So that thing before him was Big Ivan--Big Ivan the
giant, the man without nerves, the man of iron, the Cossack turned
freebooter of the seas, who was as phlegmatic as an ox, with a
nervous system so low that what was pain to ordinary men was scarcely
a tickle to him. Well, well, trust these Nulato Indians to find Big
Ivan's nerves and trace them to the roots of his quivering soul.
They were certainly doing it. It was inconceivable that a man could
suffer so much and yet live. Big Ivan was paying for his low order
of nerves. Already he had lasted twice as long as any of the others.
Subienkow felt that he could not stand the Cossack's sufferings much
longer. Why didn't Ivan die? He would go mad if that screaming did
not cease. But when it did cease, his turn would come. And there
was Yakaga awaiting him, too, grinning at him even now in
anticipation--Yakaga, whom only last week he had kicked out of the
fort, and upon whose face he had laid the lash of his dog-whip.
Yakaga would attend to him. Doubtlessly Yakaga was saving for him
more refined tortures, more exquisite nerve-racking. Ah! that must
have been a good one, from the way Ivan screamed. The squaws bending
over him stepped back with laughter and clapping of hands. Subienkow
saw the monstrous thing that had been perpetrated, and began to laugh
hysterically. The Indians looked at him in wonderment that he should
laugh. But Subienkow could not stop.
This would never do. He controlled himself, the spasmodic twitchings
slowly dying away. He strove to think of other things, and began
reading back in his own life. He remembered his mother and his
father, and the little spotted pony, and the French tutor who had
taught him dancing and sneaked him an old worn copy of Voltaire.
Once more he saw Paris, and dreary London, and gay Vienna, and Rome.
And once more he saw that wild group of youths who had dreamed, even
as he, the dream of an independent Poland with a king of Poland on
the throne at Warsaw. Ah, there it was that the long trail began.
Well, he had lasted longest. One by one, beginning with the two
executed at St. Petersburg, he took up the count of the passing of
those brave spirits. Here one had been beaten to death by a jailer,
and there, on that bloodstained highway of the exiles, where they had
marched for endless months, beaten and maltreated by their Cossack
guards, another had dropped by the way. Always it had been savagery-
-brutal, bestial savagery. They had died--of fever, in the mines,
under the knout. The last two had died after the escape, in the
battle with the Cossacks, and he alone had won to Kamtchatka with the
stolen papers and the money of a traveller he had left lying in the
It had been nothing but savagery. All the years, with his heart in
studios, and theatres, and courts, he had been hemmed in by savagery.
He had purchased his life with blood. Everybody had killed. He had
killed that traveller for his passports. He had proved that he was a
man of parts by duelling with two Russian officers on a single day.
He had had to prove himself in order to win to a place among the fur-
thieves. He had had to win to that place. Behind him lay the
thousand-years-long road across all Siberia and Russia. He could not
escape that way. The only way was ahead, across the dark and icy sea
of Bering to Alaska. The way had led from savagery to deeper
savagery. On the scurvy-rotten ships of the fur-thieves, out of food
and out of water, buffeted by the interminable storms of that stormy
sea, men had become animals. Thrice he had sailed east from
Kamtchatka. And thrice, after all manner of hardship and suffering,
the survivors had come back to Kamtchatka. There had been no outlet
for escape, and he could not go back the way he had come, for the
mines and the knout awaited him.
Again, the fourth and last time, he had sailed east. He had been
with those who first found the fabled Seal Islands; but he had not
returned with them to share the wealth of furs in the mad orgies of
Kamtchatka. He had sworn never to go back. He knew that to win to
those dear capitals of Europe he must go on. So he had changed ships
and remained in the dark new land. His comrades were Slavonian
hunters and Russian adventurers, Mongols and Tartars and Siberian
aborigines; and through the savages of the new world they had cut a
path of blood. They had massacred whole villages that refused to
furnish the fur-tribute; and they, in turn, had been massacred by
ships' companies. He, with one Finn, had been the sole survivor of
such a company. They had spent a winter of solitude and starvation
on a lonely Aleutian isle, and their rescue in the spring by another
fur-ship had been one chance in a thousand.
But always the terrible savagery had hemmed him in. Passing from
ship to ship, and ever refusing to return, he had come to the ship
that explored south. All down the Alaska coast they had encountered
nothing but hosts of savages. Every anchorage among the beetling
islands or under the frowning cliffs of the mainland had meant a
battle or a storm. Either the gales blew, threatening destruction,
or the war canoes came off, manned by howling natives with the war-
paint on their faces, who came to learn the bloody virtues of the
sea-rovers' gunpowder. South, south they had coasted, clear to the
myth-land of California. Here, it was said, were Spanish adventurers
who had fought their way up from Mexico. He had had hopes of those
Spanish adventurers. Escaping to them, the rest would have been
easy--a year or two, what did it matter more or less--and he would
win to Mexico, then a ship, and Europe would be his. But they had
met no Spaniards. Only had they encountered the same impregnable
wall of savagery. The denizens of the confines of the world, painted
for war, had driven them back from the shores. At last, when one
boat was cut off and every man killed, the commander had abandoned
the quest and sailed back to the north.
The years had passed. He had served under Tebenkoff when
Michaelovski Redoubt was built. He had spent two years in the
Kuskokwim country. Two summers, in the month of June, he had managed
to be at the head of Kotzebue Sound. Here, at this time, the tribes
assembled for barter; here were to be found spotted deerskins from
Siberia, ivory from the Diomedes, walrus skins from the shores of the
Arctic, strange stone lamps, passing in trade from tribe to tribe, no
one knew whence, and, once, a hunting-knife of English make; and
here, Subienkow knew, was the school in which to learn geography.
For he met Eskimos from Norton Sound, from King Island and St.
Lawrence Island, from Cape Prince of Wales, and Point Barrow. Such
places had other names, and their distances were measured in days.
It was a vast region these trading savages came from, and a vaster
region from which, by repeated trade, their stone lamps and that
steel knife had come. Subienkow bullied, and cajoled, and bribed.
Every far-journeyer or strange tribesman was brought before him.
Perils unaccountable and unthinkable were mentioned, as well as wild
beasts, hostile tribes, impenetrable forests, and mighty mountain
ranges; but always from beyond came the rumour and the tale of white-
skinned men, blue of eye and fair of hair, who fought like devils and
who sought always for furs. They were to the east--far, far to the
east. No one had seen them. It was the word that had been passed
It was a hard school. One could not learn geography very well
through the medium of strange dialects, from dark minds that mingled
fact and fable and that measured distances by "sleeps" that varied
according to the difficulty of the going. But at last came the
whisper that gave Subienkow courage. In the east lay a great river
where were these blue-eyed men. The river was called the Yukon.
South of Michaelovski Redoubt emptied another great river which the
Russians knew as the Kwikpak. These two rivers were one, ran the
Subienkow returned to Michaelovski. For a year he urged an
expedition up the Kwikpak. Then arose Malakoff, the Russian half-
breed, to lead the wildest and most ferocious of the hell's broth of
mongrel adventurers who had crossed from Kamtchatka. Subienkow was
his lieutenant. They threaded the mazes of the great delta of the
Kwikpak, picked up the first low hills on the northern bank, and for
half a thousand miles, in skin canoes loaded to the gunwales with
trade-goods and ammunition, fought their way against the five-knot
current of a river that ran from two to ten miles wide in a channel
many fathoms deep. Malakoff decided to build the fort at Nulato.
Subienkow urged to go farther. But he quickly reconciled himself to
Nulato. The long winter was coming on. It would be better to wait.
Early the following summer, when the ice was gone, he would disappear
up the Kwikpak and work his way to the Hudson Bay Company's posts.
Malakoff had never heard the whisper that the Kwikpak was the Yukon,
and Subienkow did not tell him.
Came the building of the fort. It was enforced labour. The tiered
walls of logs arose to the sighs and groans of the Nulato Indians.
The lash was laid upon their backs, and it was the iron hand of the
freebooters of the sea that laid on the lash. There were Indians
that ran away, and when they were caught they were brought back and
spread-eagled before the fort, where they and their tribe learned the
efficacy of the knout. Two died under it; others were injured for
life; and the rest took the lesson to heart and ran away no more.
The snow was flying ere the fort was finished, and then it was the
time for furs. A heavy tribute was laid upon the tribe. Blows and
lashings continued, and that the tribute should be paid, the women
and children were held as hostages and treated with the barbarity
that only the fur-thieves knew.
Well, it had been a sowing of blood, and now was come the harvest.
The fort was gone. In the light of its burning, half the fur-thieves
had been cut down. The other half had passed under the torture.
Only Subienkow remained, or Subienkow and Big Ivan, if that
whimpering, moaning thing in the snow could be called Big Ivan.
Subienkow caught Yakaga grinning at him. There was no gainsaying
Yakaga. The mark of the lash was still on his face. After all,
Subienkow could not blame him, but he disliked the thought of what
Yakaga would do to him. He thought of appealing to Makamuk, the
head-chief; but his judgment told him that such appeal was useless.
Then, too, he thought of bursting his bonds and dying fighting. Such
an end would be quick. But he could not break his bonds. Caribou
thongs were stronger than he. Still devising, another thought came
to him. He signed for Makamuk, and that an interpreter who knew the
coast dialect should be brought.
"Oh, Makamuk," he said, "I am not minded to die. I am a great man,
and it were foolishness for me to die. In truth, I shall not die. I
am not like these other carrion."
He looked at the moaning thing that had once been Big Ivan, and
stirred it contemptuously with his toe.
"I am too wise to die. Behold, I have a great medicine. I alone
know this medicine. Since I am not going to die, I shall exchange
this medicine with you."
"What is this medicine?" Makamuk demanded.
"It is a strange medicine."
Subienkow debated with himself for a moment, as if loth to part with
"I will tell you. A little bit of this medicine rubbed on the skin
makes the skin hard like a rock, hard like iron, so that no cutting
weapon can cut it. The strongest blow of a cutting weapon is a vain
thing against it. A bone knife becomes like a piece of mud; and it
will turn the edge of the iron knives we have brought among you.
What will you give me for the secret of the medicine?"
"I will give you your life," Makamuk made answer through the
Subienkow laughed scornfully.
"And you shall be a slave in my house until you die."
The Pole laughed more scornfully.
"Untie my hands and feet and let us talk," he said.
The chief made the sign; and when he was loosed Subienkow rolled a
cigarette and lighted it.
"This is foolish talk," said Makamuk. "There is no such medicine.
It cannot be. A cutting edge is stronger than any medicine."
The chief was incredulous, and yet he wavered. He had seen too many
deviltries of fur-thieves that worked. He could not wholly doubt.
"I will give you your life; but you shall not be a slave," he
"More than that."
Subienkow played his game as coolly as if he were bartering for a
"It is a very great medicine. It has saved my life many times. I
want a sled and dogs, and six of your hunters to travel with me down
the river and give me safety to one day's sleep from Michaelovski
"You must live here, and teach us all of your deviltries," was the
Subienkow shrugged his shoulders and remained silent. He blew
cigarette smoke out on the icy air, and curiously regarded what
remained of the big Cossack.
"That scar!" Makamuk said suddenly, pointing to the Pole's neck,
where a livid mark advertised the slash of a knife in a Kamtchatkan
brawl. "The medicine is not good. The cutting edge was stronger
than the medicine."
"It was a strong man that drove the stroke." (Subienkow considered.)
"Stronger than you, stronger than your strongest hunter, stronger
Again, with the toe of his moccasin, he touched the Cossack--a grisly
spectacle, no longer conscious--yet in whose dismembered body the
pain-racked life clung and was loth to go.
"Also, the medicine was weak. For at that place there were no
berries of a certain kind, of which I see you have plenty in this
country. The medicine here will be strong."
"I will let you go down river," said Makamuk; "and the sled and the
dogs and the six hunters to give you safety shall be yours."
"You are slow," was the cool rejoinder. "You have committed an
offence against my medicine in that you did not at once accept my
terms. Behold, I now demand more. I want one hundred beaver skins."
"I want one hundred pounds of dried fish." (Makamuk nodded, for fish
were plentiful and cheap.) "I want two sleds--one for me and one for
my furs and fish. And my rifle must be returned to me. If you do
not like the price, in a little while the price will grow."
Yakaga whispered to the chief.
"But how can I know your medicine is true medicine?" Makamuk asked.
"It is very easy. First, I shall go into the woods--"
Again Yakaga whispered to Makamuk, who made a suspicious dissent.
"You can send twenty hunters with me," Subienkow went on. "You see,
I must get the berries and the roots with which to make the medicine.
Then, when you have brought the two sleds and loaded on them the fish
and the beaver skins and the rifle, and when you have told off the
six hunters who will go with me--then, when all is ready, I will rub
the medicine on my neck, so, and lay my neck there on that log. Then
can your strongest hunter take the axe and strike three times on my
neck. You yourself can strike the three times."
Makamuk stood with gaping mouth, drinking in this latest and most
wonderful magic of the fur-thieves.
"But first," the Pole added hastily, "between each blow I must put on
fresh medicine. The axe is heavy and sharp, and I want no mistakes."
"All that you have asked shall be yours," Makamuk cried in a rush of
acceptance. "Proceed to make your medicine."
Subienkow concealed his elation. He was playing a desperate game,
and there must be no slips. He spoke arrogantly.
"You have been slow. My medicine is offended. To make the offence
clean you must give me your daughter."
He pointed to the girl, an unwholesome creature, with a cast in one
eye and a bristling wolf-tooth. Makamuk was angry, but the Pole
remained imperturbable, rolling and lighting another cigarette.
"Make haste," he threatened. "If you are not quick, I shall demand
In the silence that followed, the dreary northland scene faded before
him, and he saw once more his native land, and France, and, once, as
he glanced at the wolf-toothed girl, he remembered another girl, a
singer and a dancer, whom he had known when first as a youth he came
"What do you want with the girl?" Makamuk asked.
"To go down the river with me." Subienkow glanced over her
critically. "She will make a good wife, and it is an honour worthy
of my medicine to be married to your blood."
Again he remembered the singer and dancer and hummed aloud a song she
had taught him. He lived the old life over, but in a detached,
impersonal sort of way, looking at the memory-pictures of his own
life as if they were pictures in a book of anybody's life. The
chief's voice, abruptly breaking the silence, startled him
"It shall be done," said Makamuk. "The girl shall go down the river
with you. But be it understood that I myself strike the three blows
with the axe on your neck."
"But each time I shall put on the medicine," Subienkow answered, with
a show of ill-concealed anxiety.
"You shall put the medicine on between each blow. Here are the
hunters who shall see you do not escape. Go into the forest and
gather your medicine."
Makamuk had been convinced of the worth of the medicine by the Pole's
rapacity. Surely nothing less than the greatest of medicines could
enable a man in the shadow of death to stand up and drive an old-
"Besides," whispered Yakaga, when the Pole, with his guard, had
disappeared among the spruce trees, "when you have learned the
medicine you can easily destroy him."
"But how can I destroy him?" Makamuk argued. "His medicine will not
let me destroy him."
"There will be some part where he has not rubbed the medicine," was
Yakaga's reply. "We will destroy him through that part. It may be
his ears. Very well; we will thrust a spear in one ear and out the
other. Or it may be his eyes. Surely the medicine will be much too
strong to rub on his eyes."
The chief nodded. "You are wise, Yakaga. If he possesses no other
devil-things, we will then destroy him."
Subienkow did not waste time in gathering the ingredients for his
medicine, he selected whatsoever came to hand such as spruce needles,
the inner bark of the willow, a strip of birch bark, and a quantity
of moss-berries, which he made the hunters dig up for him from
beneath the snow. A few frozen roots completed his supply, and he
led the way back to camp.
Makamuk and Yakaga crouched beside him, noting the quantities and
kinds of the ingredients he dropped into the pot of boiling water.
"You must be careful that the moss-berries go in first," he
"And--oh, yes, one other thing--the finger of a man. Here, Yakaga,
let me cut off your finger."
But Yakaga put his hands behind him and scowled.
"Just a small finger," Subienkow pleaded.
"Yakaga, give him your finger," Makamuk commanded.
"There be plenty of fingers lying around," Yakaga grunted, indicating
the human wreckage in the snow of the score of persons who had been
tortured to death.
"It must be the finger of a live man," the Pole objected.
"Then shall you have the finger of a live man." Yakaga strode over
to the Cossack and sliced off a finger.
"He is not yet dead," he announced, flinging the bloody trophy in the
snow at the Pole's feet. "Also, it is a good finger, because it is
Subienkow dropped it into the fire under the pot and began to sing.
It was a French love-song that with great solemnity he sang into the
"Without these words I utter into it, the medicine is worthless," he
explained. "The words are the chiefest strength of it. Behold, it
"Name the words slowly, that I may know them," Makamuk commanded.
"Not until after the test. When the axe flies back three times from
my neck, then will I give you the secret of the words."
"But if the medicine is not good medicine?" Makamuk queried
Subienkow turned upon him wrathfully.
"My medicine is always good. However, if it is not good, then do by
me as you have done to the others. Cut me up a bit at a time, even
as you have cut him up." He pointed to the Cossack. "The medicine
is now cool. Thus, I rub it on my neck, saying this further
With great gravity he slowly intoned a line of the "Marseillaise," at
the same time rubbing the villainous brew thoroughly into his neck.
An outcry interrupted his play-acting. The giant Cossack, with a
last resurgence of his tremendous vitality, had arisen to his knees.
Laughter and cries of surprise and applause arose from the Nulatos,
as Big Ivan began flinging himself about in the snow with mighty
Subienkow was made sick by the sight, but he mastered his qualms and
made believe to be angry.
"This will not do," he said. "Finish him, and then we will make the
test. Here, you, Yakaga, see that his noise ceases."
While this was being done, Subienkow turned to Makamuk.
"And remember, you are to strike hard. This is not baby-work. Here,
take the axe and strike the log, so that I can see you strike like a
Makamuk obeyed, striking twice, precisely and with vigour, cutting
out a large chip.
"It is well." Subienkow looked about him at the circle of savage
faces that somehow seemed to symbolize the wall of savagery that had
hemmed him about ever since the Czar's police had first arrested him
in Warsaw. "Take your axe, Makamuk, and stand so. I shall lie down.
When I raise my hand, strike, and strike with all your might. And be
careful that no one stands behind you. The medicine is good, and the
axe may bounce from off my neck and right out of your hands."
He looked at the two sleds, with the dogs in harness, loaded with
furs and fish. His rifle lay on top of the beaver skins. The six
hunters who were to act as his guard stood by the sleds."
"Where is the girl?" the Pole demanded. "Bring her up to the sleds
before the test goes on."
When this had been carried out, Subienkow lay down in the snow,
resting his head on the log like a tired child about to sleep. He
had lived so many dreary years that he was indeed tired.
"I laugh at you and your strength, O Makamuk," he said. "Strike, and
He lifted his hand. Makamuk swung the axe, a broadaxe for the
squaring of logs. The bright steel flashed through the frosty air,
poised for a perceptible instant above Makamuk's head, then descended
upon Subienkow's bare neck. Clear through flesh and bone it cut its
way, biting deeply into the log beneath. The amazed savages saw the
head bounce a yard away from the blood-spouting trunk.
There was a great bewilderment and silence, while slowly it began to
dawn in their minds that there had been no medicine. The fur-thief
had outwitted them. Alone, of all their prisoners, he had escaped
the torture. That had been the stake for which he played. A great
roar of laughter went up. Makamuk bowed his head in shame. The fur-
thief had fooled him. He had lost face before all his people. Still
they continued to roar out their laughter. Makamuk turned, and with
bowed head stalked away. He knew that thenceforth he would be no
longer known as Makamuk. He would be Lost Face; the record of his
shame would be with him until he died; and whenever the tribes
gathered in the spring for the salmon, or in the summer for the
trading, the story would pass back and forth across the camp-fires of
how the fur-thief died peaceably, at a single stroke, by the hand of
"Who was Lost Face?" he could hear, in anticipation, some insolent
young buck demand, "Oh, Lost Face," would be the answer, "he who once
was Makamuk in the days before he cut off the fur-thief's head."
All lines had been cast off, and the Seattle No. 4 was pulling slowly
out from the shore. Her decks were piled high with freight and
baggage, and swarmed with a heterogeneous company of Indians, dogs,
and dog-mushers, prospectors, traders, and homeward-bound gold-
seekers. A goodly portion of Dawson was lined up on the bank, saying
good-bye. As the gang-plank came in and the steamer nosed into the
stream, the clamour of farewell became deafening. Also, in that
eleventh moment, everybody began to remember final farewell messages
and to shout them back and forth across the widening stretch of
water. Louis Bondell, curling his yellow moustache with one hand and
languidly waving the other hand to his friends on shore, suddenly
remembered something and sprang to the rail.
"Oh, Fred!" he bawled. "Oh, Fred!
The "Fred" desired thrust a strapping pair of shoulders through the
forefront of the crowd on the bank and tried to catch Louis Bondell's
message. The latter grew red in the face with vain vociferation.
Still the water widened between steamboat and shore.
"Hey, you, Captain Scott!" he yelled at the pilot-house. "Stop the
The gongs clanged, and the big stern wheel reversed, then stopped.
All hands on steamboat and on bank took advantage of this respite to
exchange final, new, and imperative farewells. More futile than ever
was Louis Bondell's effort to make himself heard. The Seattle No. 4
lost way and drifted down-stream, and Captain Scott had to go ahead
and reverse a second time. His head disappeared inside the pilot-
house, coming into view a moment later behind a big megaphone.
Now Captain Scott had a remarkable voice, and the "Shut up!" he
launched at the crowd on deck and on shore could have been heard at
the top of Moosehide Mountain and as far as Klondike City. This
official remonstrance from the pilot-house spread a film of silence
over the tumult.
"Now, what do you want to say?" Captain Scott demanded.
"Tell Fred Churchill--he's on the bank there--tell him to go to
Macdonald. It's in his safe--a small gripsack of mine. Tell him to
get it and bring it out when he comes."
In the silence Captain Scott bellowed the message ashore through the
"You, Fred Churchill, go to Macdonald--in his safe--small gripsack--
belongs to Louis Bondell--important! Bring it out when you come!
Churchill waved his hand in token that he had got it. In truth, had
Macdonald, half a mile away, opened his window, he'd have got it,
too. The tumult of farewell rose again, the gongs clanged, and the
Seattle No. 4 went ahead, swung out into the stream, turned on her
heel, and headed down the Yukon, Bondell and Churchill waving
farewell and mutual affection to the last.
That was in midsummer. In the fall of the year, the W. H. Willis
started up the Yukon with two hundred homeward-bound pilgrims on
board. Among them was Churchill. In his state-room, in the middle
of a clothes-bag, was Louis Bondell's grip. It was a small, stout
leather affair, and its weight of forty pounds always made Churchill
nervous when he wandered too far from it. The man in the adjoining
state-room had a treasure of gold-dust hidden similarly in a clothes-
bag, and the pair of them ultimately arranged to stand watch and
watch. While one went down to eat, the other kept an eye on the two
state-room doors. When Churchill wanted to take a hand at whist, the
other man mounted guard, and when the other man wanted to relax his
soul, Churchill read four-months' old newspapers on a camp stool
between the two doors.
There were signs of an early winter, and the question that was
discussed from dawn till dark, and far into the dark, was whether
they would get out before the freeze-up or be compelled to abandon
the steamboat and tramp out over the ice. There were irritating
delays. Twice the engines broke down and had to be tinkered up, and
each time there were snow flurries to warn them of the imminence of
winter. Nine times the W. H. Willis essayed to ascend the Five-
Finger Rapids with her impaired machinery, and when she succeeded,
she was four days behind her very liberal schedule. The question
that then arose was whether or not the steamboat Flora would wait for
her above the Box Canon. The stretch of water between the head of
the Box Canon and the foot of the White Horse Rapids was unnavigable
for steamboats, and passengers were transhipped at that point,
walking around the rapids from one steamboat to the other. There
were no telephones in the country, hence no way of informing the
waiting Flora that the Willis was four days late, but coming.
When the W. H. Willis pulled into White Horse, it was learned that
the Flora had waited three days over the limit, and had departed only
a few hours before. Also, it was learned that she would tie up at
Tagish Post till nine o'clock, Sunday morning. It was then four
o'clock, Saturday afternoon. The pilgrims called a meeting. On
board was a large Peterborough canoe, consigned to the police post at
the head of Lake Bennett. They agreed to be responsible for it and
to deliver it. Next, they called for volunteers. Two men were
needed to make a race for the Flora. A score of men volunteered on
the instant. Among them was Churchill, such being his nature that he
volunteered before he thought of Bondell's gripsack. When this
thought came to him, he began to hope that he would not be selected;
but a man who had made a name as captain of a college football
eleven, as a president of an athletic club, as a dog-musher and a
stampeder in the Yukon, and, moreover, who possessed such shoulders
as he, had no right to avoid the honour. It was thrust upon him and
upon a gigantic German, Nick Antonsen.
While a crowd of the pilgrims, the canoe on their shoulders, started
on a trot over the portage, Churchill ran to his state-room. He
turned the contents of the clothes-bag on the floor and caught up the
grip, with the intention of entrusting it to the man next door. Then
the thought smote him that it was not his grip, and that he had no
right to let it out of his possession. So he dashed ashore with it
and ran up the portage changing it often from one hand to the other,
and wondering if it really did not weigh more than forty pounds.
It was half-past four in the afternoon when the two men started. The
current of the Thirty Mile River was so strong that rarely could they
use the paddles. It was out on one bank with a tow-line over the
shoulders, stumbling over the rocks, forcing a way through the
underbrush, slipping at times and falling into the water, wading
often up to the knees and waist; and then, when an insurmountable
bluff was encountered, it was into the canoe, out paddles, and a wild
and losing dash across the current to the other bank, in paddles,
over the side, and out tow-line again. It was exhausting work.
Antonsen toiled like the giant he was, uncomplaining, persistent, but
driven to his utmost by the powerful body and indomitable brain of
Churchill. They never paused for rest. It was go, go, and keep on
going. A crisp wind blew down the river, freezing their hands and
making it imperative, from time to time, to beat the blood back into
the numbed fingers.
As night came on, they were compelled to trust to luck. They fell
repeatedly on the untravelled banks and tore their clothing to sheds
in the underbrush they could not see. Both men were badly scratched
and bleeding. A dozen times, in their wild dashes from bank to bank,
they struck snags and were capsized. The first time this happened,
Churchill dived and groped in three feet of water for the gripsack.
He lost half an hour in recovering it, and after that it was carried
securely lashed to the canoe. As long as the canoe floated it was
safe. Antonsen jeered at the grip, and toward morning began to curse
it; but Churchill vouchsafed no explanations.
Their delays and mischances were endless. On one swift bend, around
which poured a healthy young rapid, they lost two hours, making a
score of attempts and capsizing twice. At this point, on both banks,
were precipitous bluffs, rising out of deep water, and along which
they could neither tow nor pole, while they could not gain with the
paddles against the current. At each attempt they strained to the
utmost with the paddles, and each time, with heads nigh to bursting
from the effort, they were played out and swept back. They succeeded
finally by an accident. In the swiftest current, near the end of
another failure, a freak of the current sheered the canoe out of
Churchill's control and flung it against the bluff. Churchill made a
blind leap at the bluff and landed in a crevice. Holding on with one
hand, he held the swamped canoe with the other till Antonsen dragged
himself out of the water. Then they pulled the canoe out and rested.
A fresh start at this crucial point took them by. They landed on the
bank above and plunged immediately ashore and into the brush with the
Daylight found them far below Tagish Post. At nine o'clock Sunday
morning they could hear the Flora whistling her departure. And when,
at ten o'clock, they dragged themselves in to the Post, they could
barely see the Flora's smoke far to the southward. It was a pair of
worn-out tatterdemalions that Captain Jones of the Mounted Police
welcomed and fed, and he afterward averred that they possessed two of
the most tremendous appetites he had ever observed. They lay down
and slept in their wet rags by the stove. At the end of two hours
Churchill got up, carried Bondell's grip, which he had used for a
pillow, down to the canoe, kicked Antonsen awake, and started in
pursuit of the Flora.
"There's no telling what might happen--machinery break down, or
something," was his reply to Captain Jones's expostulations. "I'm
going to catch that steamer and send her back for the boys."
Tagish Lake was white with a fall gale that blew in their teeth.
Big, swinging seas rushed upon the canoe, compelling one man to bale
and leaving one man to paddle. Headway could not be made. They ran
along the shallow shore and went overboard, one man ahead on the tow-
line, the other shoving on the canoe. They fought the gale up to
their waists in the icy water, often up to their necks, often over
their heads and buried by the big, crested waves. There was no rest,
never a moment's pause from the cheerless, heart-breaking battle.
That night, at the head of Tagish Lake, in the thick of a driving
snow-squall, they overhauled the Flora. Antonsen fell on board, lay
where he had fallen, and snored. Churchill looked like a wild man.
His clothes barely clung to him. His face was iced up and swollen
from the protracted effort of twenty-four hours, while his hands were
so swollen that he could not close the fingers. As for his feet, it
was an agony to stand upon them.
The captain of the Flora was loth to go back to White Horse.
Churchill was persistent and imperative; the captain was stubborn.
He pointed out finally that nothing was to be gained by going back,
because the only ocean steamer at Dyea, the Athenian, was to sail on
Tuesday morning, and that he could not make the back trip to White
Horse and bring up the stranded pilgrims in time to make the
"What time does the Athenian sail?" Churchill demanded.
"Seven o'clock, Tuesday morning."
"All right," Churchill said, at the same time kicking a tattoo on the
ribs of the snoring Antonsen. "You go back to White Home. We'll go
ahead and hold the Athenian."
Antonsen, stupid with sleep, not yet clothed in his waking mind, was
bundled into the canoe, and did not realize what had happened till he
was drenched with the icy spray of a big sea, and heard Churchill
snarling at him through the darkness:-
"Paddle, can't you! Do you want to be swamped?"
Daylight found them at Caribou Crossing, the wind dying down, and
Antonsen too far gone to dip a paddle. Churchill grounded the canoe
on a quiet beach, where they slept. He took the precaution of
twisting his arm under the weight of his head. Every few minutes the
pain of the pent circulation aroused him, whereupon he would look at
his watch and twist the other arm under his head. At the end of two
hours he fought with Antonsen to rouse him. Then they started. Lake
Bennett, thirty miles in length, was like a millpond; but, half way
across, a gale from the south smote them and turned the water white.
Hour after hour they repeated the struggle on Tagish, over the side,
pulling and shoving on the canoe, up to their waists and necks, and
over their heads, in the icy water; toward the last the good-natured
giant played completely out. Churchill drove him mercilessly; but
when he pitched forward and bade fair to drown in three feet of
water, the other dragged him into the canoe. After that, Churchill
fought on alone, arriving at the police post at the head of Bennett
in the early afternoon. He tried to help Antonsen out of the canoe,
but failed. He listened to the exhausted man's heavy breathing, and
envied him when he thought of what he himself had yet to undergo.
Antonsen could lie there and sleep; but he, behind time, must go on
over mighty Chilcoot and down to the sea. The real struggle lay
before him, and he almost regretted the strength that resided in his
frame because of the torment it could inflict upon that frame.
Churchill pulled the canoe up on the beach, seized Bondell's grip,
and started on a limping dog-trot for the police post.
"There's a canoe down there, consigned to you from Dawson," he hurled
at the officer who answered his knock. "And there's a man in it
pretty near dead. Nothing serious; only played out. Take care of
him. I've got to rush. Good-bye. Want to catch the Athenian."
A mile portage connected Lake Bennett and Lake Linderman, and his
last words he flung back after him as he resumed the trot. It was a
very painful trot, but he clenched his teeth and kept on, forgetting
his pain most of the time in the fervent heat with which he regarded
the gripsack. It was a severe handicap. He swung it from one hand
to the other, and back again. He tucked it under his arm. He threw
one hand over the opposite shoulder, and the bag bumped and pounded
on his back as he ran along. He could scarcely hold it in his
bruised and swollen fingers, and several times he dropped it. Once,
in changing from one hand to the other, it escaped his clutch and
fell in front of him, tripped him up, and threw him violently to the
At the far end of the portage he bought an old set of pack-straps for
a dollar, and in them he swung the grip. Also, he chartered a launch
to run him the six miles to the upper end of Lake Linderman, where he
arrived at four in the afternoon. The Athenian was to sail from Dyea
next morning at seven. Dyea was twenty-eight miles away, and between
towered Chilcoot. He sat down to adjust his foot-gear for the long
climb, and woke up. He had dozed the instant he sat down, though he
had not slept thirty seconds. He was afraid his next doze might be
longer, so he finished fixing his foot-gear standing up. Even then
he was overpowered for a fleeting moment. He experienced the flash
of unconsciousness; becoming aware of it, in mid-air, as his relaxed
body was sinking to the ground and as he caught himself together, he
stiffened his muscles with a spasmodic wrench, and escaped the fall.
The sudden jerk back to consciousness left him sick and trembling.
He beat his head with the heel of his hand, knocking wakefulness into
the numbed brain.
Jack Burns's pack-train was starting back light for Crater Lake, and
Churchill was invited to a mule. Burns wanted to put the gripsack on
another animal, but Churchill held on to it, carrying it on his
saddle-pommel. But he dozed, and the grip persisted in dropping off
the pommel, one side or the other, each time wakening him with a
sickening start. Then, in the early darkness, Churchill's mule
brushed him against a projecting branch that laid his cheek open. To
cap it, the mule blundered off the trail and fell, throwing rider and
gripsack out upon the rocks. After that, Churchill walked, or
stumbled rather, over the apology for a trail, leading the mule.
Stray and awful odours, drifting from each side of the trail, told of
the horses that had died in the rush for gold. But he did not mind.
He was too sleepy. By the time Long Lake was reached, however, he
had recovered from his sleepiness; and at Deep Lake he resigned the
gripsack to Burns. But thereafter, by the light of the dim stars, he
kept his eyes on Burns. There were not going to be any accidents
with that bag.
At Crater Lake, the pack-train went into camp, and Churchill,
slinging the grip on his back, started the steep climb for the
summit. For the first time, on that precipitous wall, he realized
how tired he was. He crept and crawled like a crab, burdened by the
weight of his limbs. A distinct and painful effort of will was
required each time he lifted a foot. An hallucination came to him
that he was shod with lead, like a deep-sea diver, and it was all he
could do to resist the desire to reach down and feel the lead. As
for Bondell's gripsack, it was inconceivable that forty pounds could
weigh so much. It pressed him down like a mountain, and he looked
back with unbelief to the year before, when he had climbed that same
pass with a hundred and fifty pounds on his back. If those loads had
weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, then Bondell's grip weighed five
The first rise of the divide from Crater Lake was across a small
glacier. Here was a well-defined trail. But above the glacier,
which was also above timber-line, was naught but a chaos of naked
rock and enormous boulders. There was no way of seeing the trail in
the darkness, and he blundered on, paying thrice the ordinary
exertion for all that he accomplished. He won the summit in the
thick of howling wind and driving snow, providentially stumbling upon
a small, deserted tent, into which he crawled. There he found and
bolted some ancient fried potatoes and half a dozen raw eggs.
When the snow ceased and the wind eased down, he began the almost
impossible descent. There was no trail, and he stumbled and
blundered, often finding himself, at the last moment, on the edge of
rocky walls and steep slopes the depth of which he had no way of
judging. Part way down, the stars clouded over again, and in the
consequent obscurity he slipped and rolled and slid for a hundred
feet, landing bruised and bleeding on the bottom of a large shallow
hole. From all about him arose the stench of dead horses. The hole
was handy to the trail, and the packers had made a practice of
tumbling into it their broken and dying animals. The stench
overpowered him, making him deadly sick, and as in a nightmare he
scrambled out. Half-way up, he recollected Bondell's gripsack. It
had fallen into the hole with him; the pack-strap had evidently
broken, and he had forgotten it. Back he went into the pestilential
charnel-pit, where he crawled around on hands and knees and groped
for half an hour. Altogether he encountered and counted seventeen
dead horses (and one horse still alive that he shot with his
revolver) before he found Bondell's grip. Looking back upon a life
that had not been without valour and achievement, he unhesitatingly
declared to himself that this return after the grip was the most
heroic act he had ever performed. So heroic was it that he was twice
on the verge of fainting before he crawled out of the hole.
By the time he had descended to the Scales, the steep pitch of
Chilcoot was past, and the way became easier. Not that it was an
easy way, however, in the best of places; but it became a really
possible trail, along which he could have made good time if he had
not been worn out, if he had had light with which to pick his steps,
and if it had not been for Bondell's gripsack. To him, in his
exhausted condition, it was the last straw. Having barely strength
to carry himself along, the additional weight of the grip was
sufficient to throw him nearly every time he tripped or stumbled.
And when he escaped tripping, branches reached out in the darkness,
hooked the grip between his shoulders, and held him back.
His mind was made up that if he missed the Athenian it would be the
fault of the gripsack. In fact, only two things remained in his
consciousness--Bondell's grip and the steamer. He knew only those
two things, and they became identified, in a way, with some stern
mission upon which he had journeyed and toiled for centuries. He
walked and struggled on as in a dream. As part of the dream was his
arrival at Sheep Camp. He stumbled into a saloon, slid his shoulders
out of the straps, and started to deposit the grip at his feet. But
it slipped from his fingers and struck the floor with a heavy thud
that was not unnoticed by two men who were just leaving. Churchill
drank a glass of whisky, told the barkeeper to call him in ten
minutes, and sat down, his feet on the grip, his head on his knees.
So badly did his misused body stiffen, that when he was called it
required another ten minutes and a second glass of whisky to unbend
his joints and limber up the muscles.
"Hey not that way!" the barkeeper shouted, and then went after him
and started him through the darkness toward Canyon City. Some little
husk of inner consciousness told Churchill that the direction was
right, and, still as in a dream, he took the canon trail. He did not
know what warned him, but after what seemed several centuries of
travelling, he sensed danger and drew his revolver. Still in the
dream, he saw two men step out and heard them halt him. His revolver
went off four times, and he saw the flashes and heard the explosions
of their revolvers. Also, he was aware that he had been hit in the
thigh. He saw one man go down, and, as the other came for him, he
smashed him a straight blow with the heavy revolver full in the face.
Then he turned and ran. He came from the dream shortly afterward, to
find himself plunging down the trail at a limping lope. His first
thought was for the gripsack. It was still on his back. He was
convinced that what had happened was a dream till he felt for his
revolver and found it gone. Next he became aware of a sharp stinging
of his thigh, and after investigating, he found his hand warm with
blood. It was a superficial wound, but it was incontestable. He
became wider awake, and kept up the lumbering run to Canyon City.
He found a man, with a team of horses and a wagon, who got out of bed
and harnessed up for twenty dollars. Churchill crawled in on the
wagon-bed and slept, the gripsack still on his back. It was a rough
ride, over water-washed boulders down the Dyea Valley; but he roused
only when the wagon hit the highest places. Any altitude of his body
above the wagon-bed of less than a foot did not faze him. The last
mile was smooth going, and he slept soundly.
He came to in the grey dawn, the driver shaking him savagely and
howling into his ear that the Athenian was gone. Churchill looked
blankly at the deserted harbour.
"There's a smoke over at Skaguay," the man said.
Churchill's eyes were too swollen to see that far, but he said:
"It's she. Get me a boat."
The driver was obliging and found a skiff, and a man to row it for
ten dollars, payment in advance. Churchill paid, and was helped into
the skiff. It was beyond him to get in by himself. It was six miles
to Skaguay, and he had a blissful thought of sleeping those six
miles. But the man did not know how to row, and Churchill took the
oars and toiled for a few more centuries. He never knew six longer
and more excruciating miles. A snappy little breeze blew up the
inlet and held him back. He had a gone feeling at the pit of the
stomach, and suffered from faintness and numbness. At his command,
the man took the baler and threw salt water into his face.
The Athenian's anchor was up-and-down when they came alongside, and
Churchill was at the end of his last remnant of strength.
"Stop her! Stop her!" he shouted hoarsely.
"Important message! Stop her!"
Then he dropped his chin on his chest and slept. When half a dozen
men started to carry him up the gang-plank, he awoke, reached for the
grip, and clung to it like a drowning man.
On deck he became a centre of horror and curiosity. The clothing in
which he had left White Horse was represented by a few rags, and he
was as frayed as his clothing. He had travelled for fifty-five hours
at the top notch of endurance. He had slept six hours in that time,
and he was twenty pounds lighter than when he started. Face and
hands and body were scratched and bruised, and he could scarcely see.
He tried to stand up, but failed, sprawling out on the deck, hanging
on to the gripsack, and delivering his message.
"Now, put me to bed," he finished; "I'll eat when I wake up."
They did him honour, carrying him down in his rags and dirt and
depositing him and Bondell's grip in the bridal chamber, which was
the biggest and most luxurious state-room in the ship. Twice he
slept the clock around, and he had bathed and shaved and eaten and
was leaning over the rail smoking a cigar when the two hundred
pilgrims from White Horse came alongside.
By the time the Athenian arrived in Seattle, Churchill had fully
recuperated, and he went ashore with Bondell's grip in his hand. He
felt proud of that grip. To him it stood for achievement and
integrity and trust. "I've delivered the goods," was the way he
expressed these various high terms to himself. It was early in the
evening, and he went straight to Bondell's home. Louis Bondell was
glad to see him, shaking hands with both hands at the same time and
dragging him into the house.
"Oh, thanks, old man; it was good of you to bring it out," Bondell
said when he received the gripsack.
He tossed it carelessly upon a couch, and Churchill noted with an
appreciative eye the rebound of its weight from the springs. Bondell
was volleying him with questions.
"How did you make out? How're the boys? What became of Bill
Smithers? Is Del Bishop still with Pierce? Did he sell my dogs?
How did Sulphur Bottom show up? You're looking fine. What steamer
did you come out on?"
To all of which Churchill gave answer, till half an hour had gone by
and the first lull in the conversation had arrived.
"Hadn't you better take a look at it?" he suggested, nodding his head
at the gripsack
"Oh, it's all right," Bondell answered. "Did Mitchell's dump turn
out as much as he expected?"
"I think you'd better look at it," Churchill insisted. "When I
deliver a thing, I want to be satisfied that it's all right. There's
always the chance that somebody might have got into it when I was
asleep, or something."
"It's nothing important, old man," Bondell answered, with a laugh.
"Nothing important," Churchill echoed in a faint, small voice. Then
he spoke with decision: "Louis, what's in that bag? I want to
Louis looked at him curiously, then left the room and returned with a
bunch of keys. He inserted his hand and drew out a heavy Colt's
revolver. Next came out a few boxes of ammunition for the revolver
and several boxes of Winchester cartridges.
Churchill took the gripsack and looked into it. Then he turned it
upside down and shook it gently.
"The gun's all rusted," Bondell said. "Must have been out in the
"Yes," Churchill answered. "Too bad it got wet. I guess I was a bit
He got up and went outside. Ten minutes later Louis Bondell went out
and found him on the steps, sitting down, elbows on knees and chin on
hands, gazing steadfastly out into the darkness.
TO BUILD A FIRE
Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man
turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-
bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the
fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath
at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It
was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was
not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an
intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the
day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not
worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days
since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass
before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-
line and dip immediately from view.
The man flung a look back along the way he had come. The Yukon lay a
mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice
were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle
undulations where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed. North
and south, as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save
for a dark hair-line that curved and twisted from around the spruce-
covered island to the south, and that curved and twisted away into
the north, where it disappeared behind another spruce-covered island.
This dark hair-line was the trail--the main trail--that led south
five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and
that led north seventy miles to Dawson, and still on to the north a
thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering Sea, a
thousand miles and half a thousand more.
But all this--the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the
absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness
and weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man. It was not
because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a
chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was
that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the
things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.
Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such
fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all.
It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of
temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live
within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it
did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's
place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of
frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of
mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees
below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That
there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that
never entered his head.
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp,
explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in
the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He
knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this
spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than
fifty below--how much colder he did not know. But the temperature
did not matter. He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of
Henderson Creek, where the boys were already. They had come over
across the divide from the Indian Creek country, while he had come
the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out
logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon. He would be in to
camp by six o'clock; a bit after dark, it was true, but the boys
would be there, a fire would be going, and a hot supper would be
ready. As for lunch, he pressed his hand against the protruding
bundle under his jacket. It was also under his shirt, wrapped up in
a handkerchief and lying against the naked skin. It was the only way
to keep the biscuits from freezing. He smiled agreeably to himself
as he thought of those biscuits, each cut open and sopped in bacon
grease, and each enclosing a generous slice of fried bacon.
He plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A
foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over, and he
was glad he was without a sled, travelling light. In fact, he
carried nothing but the lunch wrapped in the handkerchief. He was
surprised, however, at the cold. It certainly was cold, he
concluded, as he rubbed his numbed nose and cheek-bones with his
mittened hand. He was a warm-whiskered man, but the hair on his face
did not protect the high cheek-bones and the eager nose that thrust
itself aggressively into the frosty air.
At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper
wolf-dog, grey-coated and without any visible or temperamental
difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed
by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling.
Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the
man's judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty
below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It
was seventy-five below zero. Since the freezing-point is thirty-two
above zero, it meant that one hundred and seven degrees of frost
obtained. The dog did not know anything about thermometers.
Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition
of very cold such as was in the man's brain. But the brute had its
instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that
subdued it and made it slink along at the man's heels, and that made
it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if
expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build
a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to
burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.
The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine
powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes
whitened by its crystalled breath. The man's red beard and moustache
were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form
of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled.
Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his
lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled
the juice. The result was that a crystal beard of the colour and
solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin. If he fell
down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments.
But he did not mind the appendage. It was the penalty all tobacco-
chewers paid in that country, and he had been out before in two cold
snaps. They had not been so cold as this, he knew, but by the spirit
thermometer at Sixty Mile he knew they had been registered at fifty
below and at fifty-five.
He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles,
crossed a wide flat of nigger-heads, and dropped down a bank to the
frozen bed of a small stream. This was Henderson Creek, and he knew
he was ten miles from the forks. He looked at his watch. It was ten
o'clock. He was making four miles an hour, and he calculated that he
would arrive at the forks at half-past twelve. He decided to
celebrate that event by eating his lunch there.
The dog dropped in again at his heels, with a tail drooping
discouragement, as the man swung along the creek-bed. The furrow of
the old sled-trail was plainly visible, but a dozen inches of snow
covered the marks of the last runners. In a month no man had come up
or down that silent creek. The man held steadily on. He was not
much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to
think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six
o'clock he would be in camp with the boys. There was nobody to talk
to and, had there been, speech would have been impossible because of
the ice-muzzle on his mouth. So he continued monotonously to chew
tobacco and to increase the length of his amber beard.
Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold
and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he
rubbed his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand.
He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as
he would, the instant he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the
following instant the end of his nose went numb. He was sure to
frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that
he had not devised a nose-strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps.
Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But
it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit
painful, that was all; they were never serious.
Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and
he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-
jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet. Once,
coming around a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse,
curved away from the place where he had been walking, and retreated
several paces back along the trail. The creek he knew was frozen
clear to the bottom--no creek could contain water in that arctic
winter--but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out
from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of
the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs,
and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps. They hid pools
of water under the snow that might be three inches deep, or three
feet. Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and
in turn was covered by the snow. Sometimes there were alternate
layers of water and ice-skin, so that when one broke through he kept
on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the
That was why he had shied in such panic. He had felt the give under
his feet and heard the crackle of a snow-hidden ice-skin. And to get
his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger. At the
very least it meant delay, for he would be forced to stop and build a
fire, and under its protection to bare his feet while he dried his
socks and moccasins. He stood and studied the creek-bed and its
banks, and decided that the flow of water came from the right. He
reflected awhile, rubbing his nose and cheeks, then skirted to the
left, stepping gingerly and testing the footing for each step. Once
clear of the danger, he took a fresh chew of tobacco and swung along
at his four-mile gait.
In the course of the next two hours he came upon several similar
traps. Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied
appearance that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a
close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go
on in front. The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man
shoved it forward, and then it went quickly across the white,
unbroken surface. Suddenly it broke through, floundered to one side,
and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its forefeet and legs,
and almost immediately the water that clung to it turned to ice. It
made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in
the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the
toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain
would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the
mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being.
But the man knew, having achieved a judgment on the subject, and he
removed the mitten from his right hand and helped tear out the ice-
particles. He did not expose his fingers more than a minute, and was
astonished at the swift numbness that smote them. It certainly was
cold. He pulled on the mitten hastily, and beat the hand savagely
across his chest.
At twelve o'clock the day was at its brightest. Yet the sun was too
far south on its winter journey to clear the horizon. The bulge of
the earth intervened between it and Henderson Creek, where the man
walked under a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow. At half-past
twelve, to the minute, he arrived at the forks of the creek. He was
pleased at the speed he had made. If he kept it up, he would
certainly be with the boys by six. He unbuttoned his jacket and
shirt and drew forth his lunch. The action consumed no more than a
quarter of a minute, yet in that brief moment the numbness laid hold
of the exposed fingers. He did not put the mitten on, but, instead,
struck the fingers a dozen sharp smashes against his leg. Then he
sat down on a snow-covered log to eat. The sting that followed upon
the striking of his fingers against his leg ceased so quickly that he
was startled, he had had no chance to take a bite of biscuit. He
struck the fingers repeatedly and returned them to the mitten, baring
the other hand for the purpose of eating. He tried to take a
mouthful, but the ice-muzzle prevented. He had forgotten to build a
fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness, and as he
chuckled he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers.
Also, he noted that the stinging which had first come to his toes
when he sat down was already passing away. He wondered whether the
toes were warm or numbed. He moved them inside the moccasins and
decided that they were numbed.
He pulled the mitten on hurriedly and stood up. He was a bit
frightened. He stamped up and down until the stinging returned into
the feet. It certainly was cold, was his thought. That man from
Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes
got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That
showed one must not be too sure of things. There was no mistake
about it, it was cold. He strode up and down, stamping his feet and
threshing his arms, until reassured by the returning warmth. Then he
got out matches and proceeded to make a fire. From the undergrowth,
where high water of the previous spring had lodged a supply of
seasoned twigs, he got his firewood. Working carefully from a small
beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice
from his face and in the protection of which he ate his biscuits.
For the moment the cold of space was outwitted. The dog took
satisfaction in the fire, stretching out close enough for warmth and
far enough away to escape being singed.
When the man had finished, he filled his pipe and took his
comfortable time over a smoke. Then he pulled on his mittens,
settled the ear-flaps of his cap firmly about his ears, and took the
creek trail up the left fork. The dog was disappointed and yearned
back toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly all the
generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold,
of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point. But the
dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.
And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such fearful cold.
It was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow and wait for a
curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face of outer space whence
this cold came. On the other hand, there was keen intimacy between
the dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and
the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-
lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the
whip-lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension
to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was
for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire. But the man
whistled, and spoke to it with the sound of whip-lashes, and the dog
swung in at the man's heels and followed after.
The man took a chew of tobacco and proceeded to start a new amber
beard. Also, his moist breath quickly powdered with white his
moustache, eyebrows, and lashes. There did not seem to be so many
springs on the left fork of the Henderson, and for half an hour the
man saw no signs of any. And then it happened. At a place where
there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to
advertise solidity beneath, the man broke through. It was not deep.
He wetted himself half-way to the knees before he floundered out to
the firm crust.
He was angry, and cursed his luck aloud. He had hoped to get into
camp with the boys at six o'clock, and this would delay him an hour,
for he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear. This
was imperative at that low temperature--he knew that much; and he
turned aside to the bank, which he climbed. On top, tangled in the
underbrush about the trunks of several small spruce trees, was a
high-water deposit of dry firewood--sticks and twigs principally, but
also larger portions of seasoned branches and fine, dry, last-year's
grasses. He threw down several large pieces on top of the snow.
This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from
drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he
got by touching a match to a small shred of birch-bark that he took
from his pocket. This burned even more readily than paper. Placing
it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass
and with the tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger.
Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the
twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the
twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly
to the flame. He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-
five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a
fire--that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he
fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his
circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be
restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how
fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.
All this the man knew. The old-timer on Sulphur Creek had told him
about it the previous fall, and now he was appreciating the advice.
Already all sensation had gone out of his feet. To build the fire he
had been forced to remove his mittens, and the fingers had quickly
gone numb. His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping
blood to the surface of his body and to all the extremities. But the
instant he stopped, the action of the pump eased down. The cold of
space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that
unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of
his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and
like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the
fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped
that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now it ebbed away and
sank down into the recesses of his body. The extremities were the
first to feel its absence. His wet feet froze the faster, and his
exposed fingers numbed the faster, though they had not yet begun to
freeze. Nose and cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all
his body chilled as it lost its blood.
But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would be only touched by
the frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. He was
feeding it with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute he
would be able to feed it with branches the size of his wrist, and
then he could remove his wet foot-gear, and, while it dried, he could
keep his naked feet warm by the fire, rubbing them at first, of
course, with snow. The fire was a success. He was safe. He
remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled.
The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no
man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here
he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved
himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he
thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all
right. Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was
surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were
freezing. And he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so
short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely make them
move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote from his body
and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether
or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between
him and his finger-ends.
All of which counted for little. There was the fire, snapping and
crackling and promising life with every dancing flame. He started to
untie his moccasins. They were coated with ice; the thick German
socks were like sheaths of iron half-way to the knees; and the
mocassin strings were like rods of steel all twisted and knotted as
by some conflagration. For a moment he tugged with his numbed
fingers, then, realizing the folly of it, he drew his sheath-knife.
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own
fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire
under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it
had been easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them
directly on the fire. Now the tree under which he had done this
carried a weight of snow on its boughs. No wind had blown for weeks,
and each bough was fully freighted. Each time he had pulled a twig
he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree--an imperceptible
agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to
bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its
load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This
process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It
grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man
and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was
a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own
sentence of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where
the fire had been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old-timer on
Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail-mate he would
have been in no danger now. The trail-mate could have built the
fire. Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this
second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would
most likely lose some toes. His feet must be badly frozen by now,
and there would be some time before the second fire was ready.
Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them. He was
busy all the time they were passing through his mind, he made a new
foundation for a fire, this time in the open; where no treacherous
tree could blot it out. Next, he gathered dry grasses and tiny twigs
from the high-water flotsam. He could not bring his fingers together
to pull them out, but he was able to gather them by the handful. In
this way he got many rotten twigs and bits of green moss that were
undesirable, but it was the best he could do. He worked
methodically, even collecting an armful of the larger branches to be
used later when the fire gathered strength. And all the while the
dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes,
for it looked upon him as the fire-provider, and the fire was slow in
When all was ready, the man reached in his pocket for a second piece
of birch-bark. He knew the bark was there, and, though he could not
feel it with his fingers, he could hear its crisp rustling as he
fumbled for it. Try as he would, he could not clutch hold of it.
And all the time, in his consciousness, was the knowledge that each
instant his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a
panic, but he fought against it and kept calm. He pulled on his
mittens with his teeth, and threshed his arms back and forth, beating
his hands with all his might against his sides. He did this sitting
down, and he stood up to do it; and all the while the dog sat in the
snow, its wolf-brush of a tail curled around warmly over its
forefeet, its sharp wolf-ears pricked forward intently as it watched
the man. And the man as he beat and threshed with his arms and
hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that
was warm and secure in its natural covering.
After a time he was aware of the first far-away signals of sensation
in his beaten fingers. The faint tingling grew stronger till it
evolved into a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man
hailed with satisfaction. He stripped the mitten from his right hand
and fetched forth the birch-bark. The exposed fingers were quickly
going numb again. Next he brought out his bunch of sulphur matches.
But the tremendous cold had already driven the life out of his
fingers. In his effort to separate one match from the others, the
whole bunch fell in the snow. He tried to pick it out of the snow,
but failed. The dead fingers could neither touch nor clutch. He was
very careful. He drove the thought of his freezing feet; and nose,
and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches.
He watched, using the sense of vision in place of that of touch, and
when he saw his fingers on each side the bunch, he closed them--that
is, he willed to close them, for the wires were drawn, and the
fingers did not obey. He pulled the mitten on the right hand, and
beat it fiercely against his knee. Then, with both mittened hands,
he scooped the bunch of matches, along with much snow, into his lap.
Yet he was no better off.
After some manipulation he managed to get the bunch between the heels
of his mittened hands. In this fashion he carried it to his mouth.
The ice crackled and snapped when by a violent effort he opened his
mouth. He drew the lower jaw in, curled the upper lip out of the
way, and scraped the bunch with his upper teeth in order to separate
a match. He succeeded in getting one, which he dropped on his lap.
He was no better off. He could not pick it up. Then he devised a
way. He picked it up in his teeth and scratched it on his leg.
Twenty times he scratched before he succeeded in lighting it. As it
flamed he held it with his teeth to the birch-bark. But the burning
brimstone went up his nostrils and into his lungs, causing him to
cough spasmodically. The match fell into the snow and went out.
The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of
controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should
travel with a partner. He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any
sensation. Suddenly he bared both hands, removing the mittens with
his teeth. He caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands.
His arm-muscles not being frozen enabled him to press the hand-heels
tightly against the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his
leg. It flared into flame, seventy sulphur matches at once! There
was no wind to blow them out. He kept his head to one side to escape
the strangling fumes, and held the blazing bunch to the birch-bark.
As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His
flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface
he could feel it. The sensation developed into pain that grew acute.
And still he endured it, holding the flame of the matches clumsily to
the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands
were in the way, absorbing most of the flame.
At last, when he could endure no more, he jerked his hands apart.
The blazing matches fell sizzling into the snow, but the birch-bark
was alight. He began laying dry grasses and the tiniest twigs on the
flame. He could not pick and choose, for he had to lift the fuel
between the heels of his hands. Small pieces of rotten wood and
green moss clung to the twigs, and he bit them off as well as he
could with his teeth. He cherished the flame carefully and
awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish. The withdrawal of
blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and
he grew more awkward. A large piece of green moss fell squarely on
the little fire. He tried to poke it out with his fingers, but his
shivering frame made him poke too far, and he disrupted the nucleus
of the little fire, the burning grasses and tiny twigs separating and
scattering. He tried to poke them together again, but in spite of
the tenseness of the effort, his shivering got away with him, and the
twigs were hopelessly scattered. Each twig gushed a puff of smoke
and went out. The fire-provider had failed. As he looked
apathetically about him, his eyes chanced on the dog, sitting across
the ruins of the fire from him, in the snow, making restless,
hunching movements, slightly lifting one forefoot and then the other,
shifting its weight back and forth on them with wistful eagerness.
The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered
the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and
crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog
and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of
them. Then he could build another fire. He spoke to the dog,
calling it to him; but in his voice was a strange note of fear that
frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such
way before. Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature
sensed danger,--it knew not what danger but somewhere, somehow, in
its brain arose an apprehension of the man. It flattened its ears
down at the sound of the man's voice, and its restless, hunching
movements and the liftings and shiftings of its forefeet became more
pronounced but it would not come to the man. He got on his hands and
knees and crawled toward the dog. This unusual posture again excited
suspicion, and the animal sidled mincingly away.
The man sat up in the snow for a moment and struggled for calmness.
Then he pulled on his mittens, by means of his teeth, and got upon
his feet. He glanced down at first in order to assure himself that
he was really standing up, for the absence of sensation in his feet
left him unrelated to the earth. His erect position in itself
started to drive the webs of suspicion from the dog's mind; and when
he spoke peremptorily, with the sound of whip-lashes in his voice,
the dog rendered its customary allegiance and came to him. As it
came within reaching distance, the man lost his control. His arms
flashed out to the dog, and he experienced genuine surprise when he
discovered that his hands could not clutch, that there was neither
bend nor feeling in the lingers. He had forgotten for the moment
that they were frozen and that they were freezing more and more. All
this happened quickly, and before the animal could get away, he
encircled its body with his arms. He sat down in the snow, and in
this fashion held the dog, while it snarled and whined and struggled.
But it was all he could do, hold its body encircled in his arms and
sit there. He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no
way to do it. With his helpless hands he could neither draw nor hold
his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal. He released it, and it
plunged wildly away, with tail between its legs, and still snarling.
It halted forty feet away and surveyed him curiously, with ears
sharply pricked forward. The man looked down at his hands in order
to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It
struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order
to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back
and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides. He did this
for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood up to
the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was
aroused in the hands. He had an impression that they hung like
weights on the ends of his arms, but when he tried to run the
impression down, he could not find it.
A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear
quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere
matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and
feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances
against him. This threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up
the creek-bed along the old, dim trail. The dog joined in behind and
kept up with him. He ran blindly, without intention, in fear such as
he had never known in his life. Slowly, as he ploughed and
floundered through the snow, he began to see things again--the banks
of the creek, the old timber-jams, the leafless aspens, and the sky.
The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe, if he
ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough,
he would reach camp and the boys. Without doubt he would lose some
fingers and toes and some of his face; but the boys would take care
of him, and save the rest of him when he got there. And at the same
time there was another thought in his mind that said he would never
get to the camp and the boys; that it was too many miles away, that
the freezing had too great a start on him, and that he would soon be
stiff and dead. This thought he kept in the background and refused
to consider. Sometimes it pushed itself forward and demanded to be
heard, but he thrust it back and strove to think of other things.
It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen
that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the
weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the
surface and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had
once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he
felt when skimming over the earth.
His theory of running until he reached camp and the boys had one flaw
in it: he lacked the endurance. Several times he stumbled, and
finally he tottered, crumpled up, and fell. When he tried to rise,
he failed. He must sit and rest, he decided, and next time he would
merely walk and keep on going. As he sat and regained his breath, he
noted that he was feeling quite warm and comfortable. He was not
shivering, and it even seemed that a warm glow had come to his chest
and trunk. And yet, when he touched his nose or cheeks, there was no
sensation. Running would not thaw them out. Nor would it thaw out
his hands and feet. Then the thought came to him that the frozen
portions of his body must be extending. He tried to keep this
thought down, to forget it, to think of something else; he was aware
of the panicky feeling that it caused, and he was afraid of the
panic. But the thought asserted itself, and persisted, until it
produced a vision of his body totally frozen. This was too much, and
he made another wild run along the trail. Once he slowed down to a
walk, but the thought of the freezing extending itself made him run
And all the time the dog ran with him, at his heels. When he fell
down a second time, it curled its tail over its forefeet and sat in
front of him facing him curiously eager and intent. The warmth and
security of the animal angered him, and he cursed it till it
flattened down its ears appeasingly. This time the shivering came
more quickly upon the man. He was losing in his battle with the
frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides. The thought of
it drove him on, but he ran no more than a hundred feet, when he
staggered and pitched headlong. It was his last panic. When he had
recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his
mind the conception of meeting death with dignity. However, the
conception did not come to him in such terms. His idea of it was
that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a
chicken with its head cut off--such was the simile that occurred to
him. Well, he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take
it decently. With this new-found peace of mind came the first
glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to
death. It was like taking an anaesthetic. Freezing was not so bad
as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.
He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found
himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself.
And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found
himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more,
for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and
looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his
thought. When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what
real cold was. He drifted on from this to a vision of the old-timer
on Sulphur Creek. He could see him quite clearly, warm and
comfortable, and smoking a pipe.
"You were right, old hoss; you were right," the man mumbled to the
old-timer of Sulphur Creek.
Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable
and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and
waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight.
There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the
dog's experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and
make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the
fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet,
it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of
being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later, the
dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and
caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back
away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that
leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned
and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where
were the other food-providers and fire-providers.
I don't think much of Stephen Mackaye any more, though I used to
swear by him. I know that in those days I loved him more than my own
brother. If ever I meet Stephen Mackaye again, I shall not be
responsible for my actions. It passes beyond me that a man with whom
I shared food and blanket, and with whom I mushed over the Chilcoot
Trail, should turn out the way he did. I always sized Steve up as a
square man, a kindly comrade, without an iota of anything vindictive
or malicious in his nature. I shall never trust my judgment in men
again. Why, I nursed that man through typhoid fever; we starved
together on the headwaters of the Stewart; and he saved my life on
the Little Salmon. And now, after the years we were together, all I
can say of Stephen Mackaye is that he is the meanest man I ever knew.
We started for the Klondike in the fall rush of 1897, and we started
too late to get over Chilcoot Pass before the freeze-up. We packed
our outfit on our backs part way over, when the snow began to fly,
and then we had to buy dogs in order to sled it the rest of the way.
That was how we came to get that Spot. Dogs were high, and we paid
one hundred and ten dollars for him. He looked worth it. I say
LOOKED, because he was one of the finest-appearing dogs I ever saw.
He weighed sixty pounds, and he had all the lines of a good sled
animal. We never could make out his breed. He wasn't husky, nor
Malemute, nor Hudson Bay; he looked like all of them and he didn't
look like any of them; and on top of it all he had some of the white
man's dog in him, for on one side, in the thick of the mixed yellow-
brown-red-and-dirty-white that was his prevailing colour, there was a
spot of coal-black as big as a water-bucket. That was why we called
He was a good looker all right. When he was in condition his muscles
stood out in bunches all over him. And he was the strongest-looking
brute I ever saw in Alaska, also the most intelligent-looking. To
run your eves over him, you'd think he could outpull three dogs of
his own weight. Maybe he could, but I never saw it. His
intelligence didn't run that way. He could steal and forage to
perfection; he had an instinct that was positively gruesome for
divining when work was to be done and for making a sneak accordingly;
and for getting lost and not staying lost he was nothing short of
inspired. But when it came to work, the way that intelligence
dribbled out of him and left him a mere clot of wobbling, stupid
jelly would make your heart bleed.
There are times when I think it wasn't stupidity. Maybe, like some
men I know, he was too wise to work. I shouldn't wonder if he put it
all over us with that intelligence of his. Maybe he figured it all
out and decided that a licking now and again and no work was a whole
lot better than work all the time and no licking. He was intelligent
enough for such a computation. I tell you, I've sat and looked into
that dog's eyes till the shivers ran up and down my spine and the
marrow crawled like yeast, what of the intelligence I saw shining
out. I can't express myself about that intelligence. It is beyond
mere words. I saw it, that's all. At times it was like gazing into
a human soul, to look into his eyes; and what I saw there frightened
me and started all sorts of ideas in my own mind of reincarnation and
all the rest. I tell you I sensed something big in that brute's
eyes; there was a message there, but I wasn't big enough myself to
catch it. Whatever it was (I know I'm making a fool of myself)--
whatever it was, it baffled me. I can't give an inkling of what I
saw in that brute's eyes; it wasn't light, it wasn't colour; it was
something that moved, away back, when the eyes themselves weren't
moving. And I guess I didn't see it move either; I only sensed that
it moved. It was an expression--that's what it was--and I got an
impression of it. No; it was different from a mere expression; it
was more than that. I don't know what it was, but it gave me a
feeling of kinship just the same. Oh, no, not sentimental kinship.
It was, rather, a kinship of equality. Those eyes never pleaded like
a deer's eyes. They challenged. No, it wasn't defiance. It was
just a calm assumption of equality. And I don't think it was
deliberate. My belief is that it was unconscious on his part. It
was there because it was there, and it couldn't help shining out.
No, I don't mean shine. It didn't shine; it MOVED. I know I'm
talking rot, but if you'd looked into that animal's eyes the way I
have, you'd understand. Steve was affected the same way I was. Why,
I tried to kill that Spot once--he was no good for anything; and I
fell down on it. I led him out into the brush, and he came along
slow and unwilling. He knew what was going on. I stopped in a
likely place, put my foot on the rope, and pulled my big Colt's. And
that dog sat down and looked at me. I tell you he didn't plead. He
just looked. And I saw all kinds of incomprehensible things moving,
yes, MOVING, in those eyes of his. I didn't really see them move; I
thought I saw them, for, as I said before, I guess I only sensed
them. And I want to tell you right now that it got beyond me. It
was like killing a man, a conscious, brave man, who looked calmly
into your gun as much as to say, "Who's afraid?"
Then, too, the message seemed so near that, instead of pulling the
trigger quick, I stopped to see if I could catch the message. There
it was, right before me, glimmering all around in those eyes of his.
And then it was too late. I got scared. I was trembly all over, and
my stomach generated a nervous palpitation that made me seasick. I
just sat down and looked at the dog, and he looked at me, till I
thought I was going crazy. Do you want to know what I did? I threw
down the gun and ran back to camp with the fear of God in my heart.
Steve laughed at me. But I notice that Steve led Spot into the
woods, a week later, for the same purpose, and that Steve came back
alone, and a little later Spot drifted back, too.
At any rate, Spot wouldn't work. We paid a hundred and ten dollars
for him from the bottom of our sack, and he wouldn't work. He
wouldn't even tighten the traces. Steve spoke to him the first time
we put him in harness, and he sort of shivered, that was all. Not an
ounce on the traces. He just stood still and wobbled, like so much
jelly. Steve touched him with the whip. He yelped, but not an
ounce. Steve touched him again, a bit harder, and he howled--the
regular long wolf howl. Then Steve got mad and gave him half a
dozen, and I came on the run from the tent.
I told Steve he was brutal with the animal, and we had some words--
the first we'd ever had. He threw the whip down in the snow and
walked away mad. I picked it up and went to it. That Spot trembled
and wobbled and cowered before ever I swung the lash, and with the
first bite of it he howled like a lost soul. Next he lay down in the
snow. I started the rest of the dogs, and they dragged him along
while I threw the whip into him. He rolled over on his back and
bumped along, his four legs waving in the air, himself howling as
though he was going through a sausage machine. Steve came back and
laughed at me, and I apologized for what I'd said.
There was no getting any work out of that Spot; and to make up for
it, he was the biggest pig-glutton of a dog I ever saw. On top of
that, he was the cleverest thief. There was no circumventing him.
Many a breakfast we went without our bacon because Spot had been
there first. And it was because of him that we nearly starved to
death up the Stewart. He figured out the way to break into our meat-
cache, and what he didn't eat, the rest of the team did. But he was
impartial. He stole from everybody. He was a restless dog, always
very busy snooping around or going somewhere. And there was never a
camp within five miles that he didn't raid. The worst of it was that
they always came back on us to pay his board bill, which was just,
being the law of the land; but it was mighty hard on us, especially
that first winter on the Chilcoot, when we were busted, paying for
whole hams and sides of bacon that we never ate. He could fight,
too, that Spot. He could do everything but work. He never pulled a
pound, but he was the boss of the whole team. The way he made those
dogs stand around was an education. He bullied them, and there was
always one or more of them fresh-marked with his fangs. But he was
more than a bully. He wasn't afraid of anything that walked on four
legs; and I've seen him march, single-handed into a strange team,
without any provocation whatever, and put the kibosh on the whole
outfit. Did I say he could eat? I caught him eating the whip once.
That's straight. He started in at the lash, and when I caught him he
was down to the handle, and still going.
But he was a good looker. At the end of the first week we sold him
for seventy-five dollars to the Mounted Police. They had experienced
dog-drivers, and we knew that by the time he'd covered the six
hundred miles to Dawson he'd be a good sled-dog. I say we KNEW, for
we were just getting acquainted with that Spot. A little later we
were not brash enough to know anything where he was concerned. A
week later we woke up in the morning to the dangdest dog-fight we'd
ever heard. It was that Spot come back and knocking the team into
shape. We ate a pretty depressing breakfast, I can tell you; but
cheered up two hours afterward when we sold him to an official
courier, bound in to Dawson with government despatches. That Spot
was only three days in coming back, and, as usual, celebrated his
arrival with a rough house.
We spent the winter and spring, after our own outfit was across the
pass, freighting other people's outfits; and we made a fat stake.
Also, we made money out of Spot. If we sold him once, we sold him
twenty times. He always came back, and no one asked for their money.
We didn't want the money. We'd have paid handsomely for any one to
take him off our hands for keeps'. We had to get rid of him, and we
couldn't give him away, for that would have been suspicious. But he
was such a fine looker that we never had any difficulty in selling
him. "Unbroke," we'd say, and they'd pay any old price for him. We
sold him as low as twenty-five dollars, and once we got a hundred and
fifty for him. That particular party returned him in person, refused
to take his money back, and the way he abused us was something awful.
He said it was cheap at the price to tell us what he thought of us;
and we felt he was so justified that we never talked back. But to
this day I've never quite regained all the old self-respect that was
mine before that man talked to me.
When the ice cleared out of the lakes and river, we put our outfit in
a Lake Bennett boat and started for Dawson. We had a good team of
dogs, and of course we piled them on top the outfit. That Spot was
along--there was no losing him; and a dozen times, the first day, he
knocked one or another of the dogs overboard in the course of
fighting with them. It was close quarters, and he didn't like being
"What that dog needs is space," Steve said the second day. "Let's
We did, running the boat in at Caribou Crossing for him to jump
ashore. Two of the other dogs, good dogs, followed him; and we lost
two whole days trying to find them. We never saw those two dogs
again; but the quietness and relief we enjoyed made us decide, like
the man who refused his hundred and fifty, that it was cheap at the
price. For the first time in months Steve and I laughed and whistled
and sang. We were as happy as clams. The dark days were over. The
nightmare had been lifted. That Spot was gone.
Three weeks later, one morning, Steve and I were standing on the
river-bank at Dawson. A small boat was just arriving from Lake
Bennett. I saw Steve give a start, and heard him say something that
was not nice and that was not under his breath. Then I looked; and
there, in the bow of the boat, with ears pricked up, sat Spot. Steve
and I sneaked immediately, like beaten curs, like cowards, like
absconders from justice. It was this last that the lieutenant of
police thought when he saw us sneaking. He surmised that there were
law-officers in the boat who were after us. He didn't wait to find
out, but kept us in sight, and in the M. & M. saloon got us in a
corner. We had a merry time explaining, for we refused to go back to
the boat and meet Spot; and finally he held us under guard of another
policeman while he went to the boat. After we got clear of him, we
started for the cabin, and when we arrived, there was that Spot
sitting on the stoop waiting for us. Now how did he know we lived
there? There were forty thousand people in Dawson that summer, and
how did he savve our cabin out of all the cabins? How did he know we
were in Dawson, anyway? I leave it to you. But don't forget what I
said about his intelligence and that immortal something I have seen
glimmering in his eyes.
There was no getting rid of him any more. There were too many people
in Dawson who had bought him up on Chilcoot, and the story got
around. Half a dozen times we put him on board steamboats going down
the Yukon; but he merely went ashore at the first landing and trotted
back up the bank. We couldn't sell him, we couldn't kill him (both
Steve and I had tried), and nobody else was able to kill him. He
bore a charmed life. I've seen him go down in a dogfight on the main
street with fifty dogs on top of him, and when they were separated,
he'd appear on all his four legs, unharmed, while two of the dogs
that had been on top of him would be lying dead.
I saw him steal a chunk of moose-meat from Major Dinwiddie's cache so
heavy that he could just keep one jump ahead of Mrs. Dinwiddie's
squaw cook, who was after him with an axe. As he went up the hill,
after the squaw gave up, Major Dinwiddie himself came out and pumped
his Winchester into the landscape. He emptied his magazine twice,
and never touched that Spot. Then a policeman came along and
arrested him for discharging firearms inside the city limits. Major
Dinwiddie paid his fine, and Steve and I paid him for the moose-meat
at the rate of a dollar a pound, bones and all. That was what he
paid for it. Meat was high that year.
I am only telling what I saw with my own eyes. And now I'll tell you
something also. I saw that Spot fall through a water-hole. The ice
was three and a half feet thick, and the current sucked him under
like a straw. Three hundred yards below was the big water-hole used
by the hospital. Spot crawled out of the hospital water-hole, licked
off the water, bit out the ice that had formed between his toes,
trotted up the bank, and whipped a big Newfoundland belonging to the
In the fall of 1898, Steve and I poled up the Yukon on the last
water, bound for Stewart River. We took the dogs along, all except
Spot. We figured we'd been feeding him long enough. He'd cost us
more time and trouble and money and grub than we'd got by selling him
on the Chilcoot--especially grub. So Steve and I tied him down in
the cabin and pulled our freight. We camped that night at the mouth
of Indian River, and Steve and I were pretty facetious over having
shaken him. Steve was a funny cuss, and I was just sitting up in the
blankets and laughing when a tornado hit camp. The way that Spot
walked into those dogs and gave them what-for was hair-raising. Now
how did he get loose? It's up to you. I haven't any theory. And
how did he get across the Klondike River? That's another facer. And
anyway, how did he know we had gone up the Yukon? You see, we went
by water, and he couldn't smell our tracks. Steve and I began to get
superstitious about that dog. He got on our nerves, too; and,
between you and me, we were just a mite afraid of him.
The freeze-up came on when we were at the mouth of Henderson Creek,
and we traded him off for two sacks of flour to an outfit that was
bound up White River after copper. Now that whole outfit was lost.
Never trace nor hide nor hair of men, dogs, sleds, or anything was
ever found. They dropped clean out of sight. It became one of the
mysteries of the country. Steve and I plugged away up the Stewart,
and six weeks afterward that Spot crawled into camp. He was a
perambulating skeleton, and could just drag along; but he got there.
And what I want to know is, who told him we were up the Stewart? We
could have gone to a thousand other places. How did he know? You
tell me, and I'll tell you.
No losing him. At the Mayo he started a row with an Indian dog. The
buck who owned the dog took a swing at Spot with an axe, missed him,
and killed his own dog. Talk about magic and turning bullets aside--
I, for one, consider it a blamed sight harder to turn an axe aside
with a big buck at the other end of it. And I saw him do it with my
own eyes. That buck didn't want to kill his own dog. You've got to
I told you about Spot breaking into our meat cache. It was nearly
the death of us. There wasn't any more meat to be killed, and meat
was all we had to live on. The moose had gone back several hundred
miles and the Indians with them. There we were. Spring was on, and
we had to wait for the river to break. We got pretty thin before we
decided to eat the dogs, and we decided to eat Spot first. Do you
know what that dog did? He sneaked. Now how did he know our minds
were made up to eat him? We sat up nights laying for him, but he
never came back, and we ate the other dogs. We ate the whole team.
And now for the sequel. You know what it is when a big river breaks
up and a few billion tons of ice go out, jamming and milling and
grinding. Just in the thick of it, when the Stewart went out,
rumbling and roaring, we sighted Spot out in the middle. He'd got
caught as he was trying to cross up above somewhere. Steve and I
yelled and shouted and ran up and down the bank, tossing our hats in
the air. Sometimes we'd stop and hug each other, we were that
boisterous, for we saw Spot's finish. He didn't have a chance in a
million. He didn't have any chance at all. After the ice-run, we
got into a canoe and paddled down to the Yukon, and down the Yukon to
Dawson, stopping to feed up for a week at the cabins at the mouth of
Henderson Creek. And as we came in to the bank at Dawson, there sat
that Spot, waiting for us, his ears pricked up, his tail wagging, his
mouth smiling, extending a hearty welcome to us. Now how did he get
out of that ice? How did he know we were coming to Dawson, to the
very hour and minute, to be out there on the bank waiting for us?
The more I think of that Spot, the more I am convinced that there are
things in this world that go beyond science. On no scientific
grounds can that Spot be explained. It's psychic phenomena, or
mysticism, or something of that sort, I guess, with a lot of
Theosophy thrown in. The Klondike is a good country. I might have
been there yet, and become a millionaire, if it hadn't been for Spot.
He got on my nerves. I stood him for two years altogether, and then
I guess my stamina broke. It was the summer of 1899 when I pulled
out. I didn't say anything to Steve. I just sneaked. But I fixed
it up all right. I wrote Steve a note, and enclosed a package of
"rough-on-rats," telling him what to do with it. I was worn down to
skin and bone by that Spot, and I was that nervous that I'd jump and
look around when there wasn't anybody within hailing distance. But
it was astonishing the way I recuperated when I got quit of him. I
got back twenty pounds before I arrived in San Francisco, and by the
time I'd crossed the ferry to Oakland I was my old self again, so
that even my wife looked in vain for any change in me.
Steve wrote to me once, and his letter seemed irritated. He took it
kind of hard because I'd left him with Spot. Also, he said he'd used
the "rough-on-rats," per directions, and that there was nothing
doing. A year went by. I was back in the office and prospering in
all ways--even getting a bit fat. And then Steve arrived. He didn't
look me up. I read his name in the steamer list, and wondered why.
But I didn't wonder long. I got up one morning and found that Spot
chained to the gate-post and holding up the milkman. Steve went
north to Seattle, I learned, that very morning. I didn't put on any
more weight. My wife made me buy him a collar and tag, and within an
hour he showed his gratitude by killing her pet Persian cat. There
is no getting rid of that Spot. He will be with me until I die, for
he'll never die. My appetite is not so good since he arrived, and my
wife says I am looking peaked. Last night that Spot got into Mr.
Harvey's hen-house (Harvey is my next-door neighbour) and killed
nineteen of his fancy-bred chickens. I shall have to pay for them.
My neighbours on the other side quarrelled with my wife and then
moved out. Spot was the cause of it. And that is why I am
disappointed in Stephen Mackaye. I had no idea he was so mean a man.
FLUSH OF GOLD
Lon McFane was a bit grumpy, what of losing his tobacco pouch, or
else he might have told me, before we got to it, something about the
cabin at Surprise Lake. All day, turn and turn about, we had spelled
each other at going to the fore and breaking trail for the dogs. It
was heavy snowshoe work, and did not tend to make a man voluble, yet
Lon McFane might have found breath enough at noon, when we stopped to
boil coffee, with which to tell me. But he didn't. Surprise Lake?
it was Surprise Cabin to me. I had never heard of it before. I
confess I was a bit tired. I had been looking for Lon to stop and
make camp any time for an hour; but I had too much pride to suggest
making camp or to ask him his intentions; and yet he was my man,
lured at a handsome wage to mush my dogs for me and to obey my
commands. I guess I was a bit grumpy myself. He said nothing, and I
was resolved to ask nothing, even if we tramped on all night.
We came upon the cabin abruptly. For a week of trail we had met no
one, and, in my mind, there had been little likelihood of meeting any
one for a week to come. And yet there it was, right before my eyes,
a cabin, with a dim light in the window and smoke curling up from the
"Why didn't you tell me--" I began, but was interrupted by Lon, who
"Surprise Lake--it lies up a small feeder half a mile on. It's only
"Yes, but the cabin--who lives in it?"
"A woman," was the answer, and the next moment Lon had rapped on the
door, and a woman's voice bade him enter.
"Have you seen Dave recently?" she asked.
"Nope," Lon answered carelessly. "I've been in the other direction,
down Circle City way. Dave's up Dawson way, ain't he?"
The woman nodded, and Lon fell to unharnessing the dogs, while I
unlashed the sled and carried the camp outfit into the cabin. The
cabin was a large, one-room affair, and the woman was evidently alone
in it. She pointed to the stove, where water was already boiling,
and Lon set about the preparation of supper, while I opened the fish-
bag and fed the dogs. I looked for Lon to introduce us, and was
vexed that he did not, for they were evidently old friends.
"You are Lon McFane, aren't you?" I heard her ask him. "Why, I
remember you now. The last time I saw you it was on a steamboat,
wasn't it? I remember . . . "
Her speech seemed suddenly to be frozen by the spectacle of dread
which, I knew, from the tenor I saw mounting in her eyes, must be on
her inner vision. To my astonishment, Lon was affected by her words
and manner. His face showed desperate, for all his voice sounded
hearty and genial, as he said -
"The last time we met was at Dawson, Queen's Jubilee, or Birthday, or
something--don't you remember?--the canoe races in the river, and the
obstacle races down the main street?"
The terror faded out of her eyes and her whole body relaxed. "Oh,
yes, I do remember," she said. "And you won one of the canoe races."
"How's Dave been makin' it lately? Strikin' it as rich as ever, I
suppose?" Lon asked, with apparent irrelevance.
She smiled and nodded, and then, noticing that I had unlashed the bed
roll, she indicated the end of the cabin where I might spread it.
Her own bunk, I noticed, was made up at the opposite end.
"I thought it was Dave coming when I heard your dogs," she said.
After that she said nothing, contenting herself with watching Lon's
cooking operations, and listening the while as for the sound of dogs
along the trail. I lay back on the blankets and smoked and watched.
Here was mystery; I could make that much out, but no more could I
make out. Why in the deuce hadn't Lon given me the tip before we
arrived? I looked at her face, unnoticed by her, and the longer I
looked the harder it was to take my eyes away. It was a wonderfully
beautiful face, unearthly, I may say, with a light in it or an
expression or something "that was never on land or sea." Fear and
terror had completely vanished, and it was a placidly beautiful face-
-if by "placid" one can characterize that intangible and occult
something that I cannot say was a radiance or a light any more than I
can say it was an expression.
Abruptly, as if for the first time, she became aware of my presence.
"Have you seen Dave recently?" she asked me. It was on the tip of my
tongue to say "Dave who?" when Lon coughed in the smoke that arose
from the sizzling bacon. The bacon might have caused that cough, but
I took it as a hint and left my question unasked. "No, I haven't," I
answered. "I'm new in this part of the country--"
"But you don't mean to say," she interrupted, "that you've never
heard of Dave--of Big Dave Walsh?"
"You see," I apologised, "I'm new in the country. I've put in most
of my time in the Lower Country, down Nome way."
"Tell him about Dave," she said to Lon.
Lon seemed put out, but he began in that hearty, genial manner that I
had noticed before. It seemed a shade too hearty and genial, and it
"Oh, Dave is a fine man," he said. "He's a man, every inch of him,
and he stands six feet four in his socks. His word is as good as his
bond. The man lies who ever says Dave told a lie, and that man will
have to fight with me, too, as well--if there's anything left of him
when Dave gets done with him. For Dave is a fighter. Oh, yes, he's
a scrapper from way back. He got a grizzly with a '38 popgun. He
got clawed some, but he knew what he was doin'. He went into the
cave on purpose to get that grizzly. 'Fraid of nothing. Free an'
easy with his money, or his last shirt an' match when out of money.
Why, he drained Surprise Lake here in three weeks an' took out ninety
thousand, didn't he?" She flushed and nodded her head proudly.
Through his recital she had followed every word with keenest
interest. "An' I must say," Lon went on, "that I was disappointed
sore on not meeting Dave here to-night."
Lon served supper at one end of the table of whip-sawed spruce, and
we fell to eating. A howling of the dogs took the woman to the door.
She opened it an inch and listened.
"Where is Dave Walsh?" I asked, in an undertone.
"Dead," Lon answered. "In hell, maybe. I don't know. Shut up."
"But you just said that you expected to meet him here to-night," I
"Oh, shut up, can't you," was Lon's reply, in the same cautious
The woman had closed the door and was returning, and I sat and
meditated upon the fact that this man who told me to shut up received
from me a salary of two hundred and fifty dollars a month and his
Lon washed the dishes, while I smoked and watched the woman. She
seemed more beautiful than ever--strangely and weirdly beautiful, it
is true. After looking at her steadfastly for five minutes, I was
compelled to come back to the real world and to glance at Lon McFane.
This enabled me to know, without discussion, that the woman, too, was
real. At first I had taken her for the wife of Dave Walsh; but if
Dave Walsh were dead, as Lon had said, then she could be only his
It was early to bed, for we faced a long day on the morrow; and as
Lon crawled in beside me under the blankets, I ventured a question.
"That woman's crazy, isn't she?"
"Crazy as a loon," he answered.
And before I could formulate my next question, Lon McFane, I swear,
was off to sleep. He always went to sleep that way--just crawled
into the blankets, closed his eyes, and was off, a demure little
heavy breathing rising on the air. Lon never snored.
And in the morning it was quick breakfast, feed the dogs, load the
sled, and hit the trail. We said good-bye as we pulled out, and the
woman stood in the doorway and watched us off. I carried the vision
of her unearthly beauty away with me, just under my eyelids, and all
I had to do, any time, was to close them and see her again. The way
was unbroken, Surprise Lake being far off the travelled trails, and
Lon and I took turn about at beating down the feathery snow with our
big, webbed shoes so that the dogs could travel. "But you said you
expected to meet Dave Walsh at the cabin," trembled on the tip of my
tongue a score of times. I did not utter it. I could wait until we
knocked off in the middle of the day. And when the middle of the day
came, we went right on, for, as Lon explained, there was a camp of
moose hunters at the forks of the Teelee, and we could make there by
dark. But we didn't make there by dark, for Bright, the lead-dog,
broke his shoulder-blade, and we lost an hour over him before we shot
him. Then, crossing a timber jam on the frozen bed of the Teelee,
the sled suffered a wrenching capsize, and it was a case of make camp
and repair the runner. I cooked supper and fed the dogs while Lon
made the repairs, and together we got in the night's supply of ice
and firewood. Then we sat on our blankets, our moccasins steaming on
upended sticks before the fire, and had our evening smoke.
"You didn't know her?" Lon queried suddenly. I shook my head.
"You noticed the colour of her hair and eyes and her complexion,
well, that's where she got her name--she was like the first warm glow
of a golden sunrise. She was called Flush of Gold. Ever heard of
Somewhere I had a confused and misty remembrance of having heard the
name, yet it meant nothing to me. "Flush of Gold," I repeated;
"sounds like the name of a dance-house girl." Lon shook his head.
"No, she was a good woman, at least in that sense, though she sinned
greatly just the same."
"But why do you speak always of her in the past tense, as though she
"Because of the darkness on her soul that is the same as the darkness
of death. The Flush of Gold that I knew, that Dawson knew, and that
Forty Mile knew before that, is dead. That dumb, lunatic creature we
saw last night was not Flush of Gold."
"And Dave?" I queried.
"He built that cabin," Lon answered, "He built it for her . . . and
for himself. He is dead. She is waiting for him there. She half
believes he is not dead. But who can know the whim of a crazed mind?
Maybe she wholly believes he is not dead. At any rate, she waits for
him there in the cabin he built. Who would rouse the dead? Then who
would rouse the living that are dead? Not I, and that is why I let
on to expect to meet Dave Walsh there last night. I'll bet a stack
that I'd a been more surprised than she if I HAD met him there last
"I do not understand," I said. "Begin at the beginning, as a white
man should, and tell me the whole tale."
And Lon began. "Victor Chauvet was an old Frenchman--born in the
south of France. He came to California in the days of gold. He was
a pioneer. He found no gold, but, instead, became a maker of bottled
sunshine--in short, a grape-grower and wine-maker. Also, he followed
gold excitements. That is what brought him to Alaska in the early
days, and over the Chilcoot and down the Yukon long before the
Carmack strike. The old town site of Ten Mile was Chauvet's. He
carried the first mail into Arctic City. He staked those coal-mines
on the Porcupine a dozen years ago. He grubstaked Loftus into the
Nippennuck Country. Now it happened that Victor Chauvet was a good
Catholic, loving two things in this world, wine and woman. Wine of
all kinds he loved, but of woman, only one, and she was the mother of
Here I groaned aloud, having meditated beyond self-control over the
fact that I paid this man two hundred and fifty dollars a month.
"What's the matter now?" he demanded.
"Matter?" I complained. "I thought you were telling the story of
Flush of Gold. I don't want a biography of your old French wine-
Lon calmly lighted his pipe, took one good puff, then put the pipe
aside. "And you asked me to begin at the beginning," he said.
"Yes," said I; "the beginning."
"And the beginning of Flush of Gold is the old French wine-bibber,
for he was the father of Marie Chauvet, and Marie Chauvet was the
Flush of Gold. What more do you want? Victor Chauvet never had much
luck to speak of. He managed to live, and to get along, and to take
good care of Marie, who resembled the one woman he had loved. He
took very good care of her. Flush of Gold was the pet name he gave
her. Flush of Gold Creek was named after her--Flush of Gold town
site, too. The old man was great on town sites, only he never landed
"Now, honestly," Lon said, with one of his lightning changes, "you've
seen her, what do you think of her--of her looks, I mean? How does
she strike your beauty sense?"
"She is remarkably beautiful," I said. "I never saw anything like
her in my life. In spite of the fact, last night, that I guessed she
was mad, I could not keep my eyes off of her. It wasn't curiosity.
It was wonder, sheer wonder, she was so strangely beautiful."
"She was more strangely beautiful before the darkness fell upon her,"
Lon said softly. "She was truly the Flush of Cold. She turned all
men's hearts . . . and heads. She recalls, with an effort, that I
once won a canoe race at Dawson--I, who once loved her, and was told
by her of her love for me. It was her beauty that made all men love
her. She'd 'a' got the apple from Paris, on application, and there
wouldn't have been any Trojan War, and to top it off she'd have
thrown Paris down. And now she lives in darkness, and she who was
always fickle, for the first time is constant--and constant to a
shade, to a dead man she does not realize is dead.
"And this is the way it was. You remember what I said last night of
Dave Walsh--Big Dave Walsh? He was all that I said, and more, many
times more. He came into this country in the late eighties--that's a
pioneer for you. He was twenty years old then. He was a young bull.
When he was twenty-five he could lift clear of the ground thirteen
fifty-pound sacks of flour. At first, each fall of the year, famine
drove him out. It was a lone land in those days. No river
steamboats, no grub, nothing but salmon bellies and rabbit tracks.
But after famine chased him out three years, he said he'd had enough
of being chased; and the next year he stayed. He lived on straight
meat when he was lucky enough to get it; he ate eleven dogs that
winter; but he stayed. And the next winter he stayed, and the next.
He never did leave the country again. He was a bull, a great bull.
He could kill the strongest man in the country with hard work. He
could outpack a Chilcat Indian, he could outpaddle a Stick, and he
could travel all day with wet feet when the thermometer registered
fifty below zero, and that's going some, I tell you, for vitality.
You'd freeze your feet at twenty-five below if you wet them and tried
to keep on.
"Dave Walsh was a bull for strength. And yet he was soft and easy-
natured. Anybody could do him, the latest short-horn in camp could
lie his last dollar out of him. 'But it doesn't worry me,' he had a
way of laughing off his softness; 'it doesn't keep me awake nights.'
Now don't get the idea that he had no backbone. You remember about
the bear he went after with the popgun. When it came to fighting
Dave was the blamedest ever. He was the limit, if by that I may
describe his unlimitedness when he got into action, he was easy and
kind with the weak, but the strong had to give trail when he went by.
And he was a man that men liked, which is the finest word of all, a
"Dave never took part in the big stampede to Dawson when Carmack made
the Bonanza strike. You see, Dave was just then over on Mammon Creek
strikin' it himself. He discovered Mammon Creek. Cleaned eighty-
four thousand up that winter, and opened up the claim so that it
promised a couple of hundred thousand for the next winter. Then,
summer bein' on and the ground sloshy, he took a trip up the Yukon to
Dawson to see what Carmack's strike looked like. And there he saw
Flush of Gold. I remember the night. I shall always remember. It
was something sudden, and it makes one shiver to think of a strong
man with all the strength withered out of him by one glance from the
soft eyes of a weak, blond, female creature like Flush of Gold. It
was at her dad's cabin, old Victor Chauvet's. Some friend had
brought Dave along to talk over town sites on Mammon Creek. But
little talking did he do, and what he did was mostly gibberish. I
tell you the sight of Flush of Gold had sent Dave clean daffy. Old
Victor Chauvet insisted after Dave left that he had been drunk. And
so he had. He was drunk, but Flush of Gold was the strong drink that
made him so.
"That settled it, that first glimpse he caught of her. He did not
start back down the Yukon in a week, as he had intended. He lingered
on a month, two months, all summer. And we who had suffered
understood, and wondered what the outcome would be. Undoubtedly, in
our minds, it seemed that Flush of Gold had met her master. And why
not? There was romance sprinkled all over Dave Walsh. He was a
Mammon King, he had made the Mammon Creek strike; he was an old sour
dough, one of the oldest pioneers in the land--men turned to look at
him when he went by, and said to one another in awed undertones,
'There goes Dave Walsh.' And why not? He stood six feet four; he
had yellow hair himself that curled on his neck; and he was a bull--a
yellow-maned bull just turned thirty-one.
"And Flush of Gold loved him, and, having danced him through a whole
summer's courtship, at the end their engagement was made known. The
fall of the year was at hand, Dave had to be back for the winter's
work on Mammon Creek, and Flush of Gold refused to be married right
away. Dave put Dusky Burns in charge of the Mammon Creek claim, and
himself lingered on in Dawson. Little use. She wanted her freedom a
while longer; she must have it, and she would not marry until next
year. And so, on the first ice, Dave Walsh went alone down the Yukon
behind his dogs, with the understanding that the marriage would take
place when he arrived on the first steamboat of the next year.
Now Dave was as true as the Pole Star, and she was as false as a
magnetic needle in a cargo of loadstone. Dave was as steady and
solid as she was fickle and fly-away, and in some way Dave, who never
doubted anybody, doubted her. It was the jealousy of his love,
perhaps, and maybe it was the message ticked off from her soul to
his; but at any rate Dave was worried by fear of her inconstancy. He
was afraid to trust her till the next year, he had so to trust her,
and he was pretty well beside himself. Some of it I got from old
Victor Chauvet afterwards, and from all that I have pieced together I
conclude that there was something of a scene before Dave pulled north
with his dogs. He stood up before the old Frenchman, with Flush of
Gold beside him, and announced that they were plighted to each other.
He was very dramatic, with fire in his eyes, old Victor said. He
talked something about 'until death do us part'; and old Victor
especially remembered that at one place Dave took her by the shoulder
with his great paw and almost shook her as he said: 'Even unto death
are you mine, and I would rise from the grave to claim you.' Old
Victor distinctly remembered those words 'Even unto death are you
mine, and I would rise from the grave to claim you.' And he told me
afterwards that Flush of Gold was pretty badly frightened, and that
he afterwards took Dave to one side privately and told him that that
wasn't the way to hold Flush of Gold--that he must humour her and
gentle her if he wanted to keep her.
"There is no discussion in my mind but that Flush of Gold was
frightened. She was a savage herself in her treatment of men, while
men had always treated her as a soft and tender and too utterly-utter
something that must not be hurt. She didn't know what harshness was
. . . until Dave Walsh, standing his six feet four, a big bull,
gripped her and pawed her and assured her that she was his until
death, and then some. And besides, in Dawson, that winter, was a
music-player--one of those macaroni-eating, greasy-tenor-Eye-talian-
dago propositions--and Flush of Gold lost her heart to him. Maybe it
was only fascination--I don't know. Sometimes it seems to me that
she really did love Dave Walsh. Perhaps it was because he had
frightened her with that even-unto-death, rise-from-the-grave stunt
of his that she in the end inclined to the dago music-player. But it
is all guesswork, and the facts are, sufficient. He wasn't a dago;
he was a Russian count--this was straight; and he wasn't a
professional piano-player or anything of the sort. He played the
violin and the piano, and he sang--sang well--but it was for his own
pleasure and for the pleasure of those he sang for. He had money,
too--and right here let me say that Flush of Gold never cared a rap
for money. She was fickle, but she was never sordid.
"But to be getting along. She was plighted to Dave, and Dave was
coming up on the first steamboat to get her--that was the summer of
'98, and the first steamboat was to be expected the middle of June.
And Flush of Gold was afraid to throw Dave down and face him
afterwards. It was all planned suddenly. The Russian music-player,
the Count, was her obedient slave. She planned it, I know. I
learned as much from old Victor afterwards. The Count took his
orders from her, and caught that first steamboat down. It was the
Golden Rocket. And so did Flush of Gold catch it. And so did I. I
was going to Circle City, and I was flabbergasted when I found Flush
of Gold on board. I didn't see her name down on the passenger list.
She was with the Count fellow all the time, happy and smiling, and I
noticed that the Count fellow was down on the list as having his wife
along. There it was, stateroom, number, and all. The first I knew
that he was married, only I didn't see anything of the wife . . .
unless Flush of Gold was so counted. I wondered if they'd got
married ashore before starting. There'd been talk about them in
Dawson, you see, and bets had been laid that the Count fellow had cut
"I talked with the purser. He didn't know anything more about it
than I did; he didn't know Flush of Gold, anyway, and besides, he was
almost rushed to death. You know what a Yukon steamboat is, but you
can't guess what the Golden Rocket was when it left Dawson that June
of 1898. She was a hummer. Being the first steamer out, she carried
all the scurvy patients and hospital wrecks. Then she must have
carried a couple of millions of Klondike dust and nuggets, to say
nothing of a packed and jammed passenger list, deck passengers
galore, and bucks and squaws and dogs without end. And she was
loaded down to the guards with freight and baggage. There was a
mountain of the same on the fore-lower-deck, and each little stop
along the way added to it. I saw the box come aboard at Teelee
Portage, and I knew it for what it was, though I little guessed the
joker that was in it. And they piled it on top of everything else on
the fore-lower-deck, and they didn't pile it any too securely either.
The mate expected to come back to it again, and then forgot about it.
I thought at the time that there was something familiar about the big
husky dog that climbed over the baggage and freight and lay down next
to the box. And then we passed the Glendale, bound up for Dawson.
As she saluted us, I thought of Dave on board of her and hurrying to
Dawson to Flush of Gold. I turned and looked at her where she stood
by the rail. Her eyes were bright, but she looked a bit frightened
by the sight of the other steamer, and she was leaning closely to the
Count fellow as for protection. She needn't have leaned so safely
against him, and I needn't have been so sure of a disappointed Dave
Walsh arriving at Dawson. For Dave Walsh wasn't on the Glendale.
There were a lot of things I didn't know, but was soon to know--for
instance, that the pair were not yet married. Inside half an hour
preparations for the marriage took place. What of the sick men in
the main cabin, and of the crowded condition of the Golden Rocket,
the likeliest place for the ceremony was found forward, on the lower
deck, in an open space next to the rail and gang-plank and shaded by
the mountain of freight with the big box on top and the sleeping dog
beside it. There was a missionary on board, getting off at Eagle
City, which was the next step, so they had to use him quick. That's
what they'd planned to do, get married on the boat.
"But I've run ahead of the facts. The reason Dave Walsh wasn't on
the Glendale was because he was on the Golden Rocket. It was this
way. After loiterin' in Dawson on account of Flush of Gold, he went
down to Mammon Creek on the ice. And there he found Dusky Burns
doing so well with the claim, there was no need for him to be around.
So he put some grub on the sled, harnessed the dogs, took an Indian
along, and pulled out for Surprise Lake. He always had a liking for
that section. Maybe you don't know how the creek turned out to be a
four-flusher; but the prospects were good at the time, and Dave
proceeded to build his cabin and hers. That's the cabin we slept in.
After he finished it, he went off on a moose hunt to the forks of the
Teelee, takin' the Indian along.
"And this is what happened. Came on a cold snap. The juice went
down forty, fifty, sixty below zero. I remember that snap--I was at
Forty Mile; and I remember the very day. At eleven o'clock in the
morning the spirit thermometer at the N. A. T. & T. Company's store
went down to seventy-five below zero. And that morning, near the
forks of the Teelee, Dave Walsh was out after moose with that blessed
Indian of his. I got it all from the Indian afterwards--we made a
trip over the ice together to Dyea. That morning Mr. Indian broke
through the ice and wet himself to the waist. Of course he began to
freeze right away. The proper thing was to build a fire. But Dave
Walsh was a bull. It was only half a mile to camp, where a fire was
already burning. What was the good of building another? He threw
Mr. Indian over his shoulder--and ran with him--half a mile--with the
thermometer at seventy-five below. You know what that means.
Suicide. There's no other name for it. Why, that buck Indian
weighed over two hundred himself, and Dave ran half a mile with him.
Of course he froze his lungs. Must have frozen them near solid. It
was a tomfool trick for any man to do. And anyway, after lingering
horribly for several weeks, Dave Walsh died.
"The Indian didn't know what to do with the corpse. Ordinarily he'd
have buried him and let it go at that. But he knew that Dave Walsh
was a big man, worth lots of money, a hi-yu skookum chief. Likewise
he'd seen the bodies of other hi-yu skookums carted around the
country like they were worth something. So he decided to take Dave's
body to Forty Mile, which was Dave's headquarters. You know how the
ice is on the grass roots in this country--well, the Indian planted
Dave under a foot of soil--in short, he put Dave on ice. Dave could
have stayed there a thousand years and still been the same old Dave.
You understand--just the same as a refrigerator. Then the Indian
brings over a whipsaw from the cabin at Surprise Lake and makes
lumber enough for the box. Also, waiting for the thaw, he goes out
and shoots about ten thousand pounds of moose. This he keeps on ice,
too. Came the thaw. The Teelee broke. He built a raft and loaded
it with the meat, the big box with Dave inside, and Dave's team of
dogs, and away they went down the Teelee.
"The raft got caught on a timber jam and hung up two days. It was
scorching hot weather, and Mr. Indian nearly lost his moose meat. So
when he got to Teelee Portage he figured a steamboat would get to
Forty Mile quicker than his raft. He transferred his cargo, and
there you are, fore-lower deck of the Golden Rocket, Flush of Gold
being married, and Dave Walsh in his big box casting the shade for
her. And there's one thing I clean forgot. No wonder I thought the
husky dog that came aboard at Teelee Portage was familiar. It was
Pee-lat, Dave Walsh's lead-dog and favourite--a terrible fighter,
too. He was lying down beside the box.
"Flush of Gold caught sight of me, called me over, shook hands with
me, and introduced me to the Count. She was beautiful. I was as mad
for her then as ever. She smiled into my eyes and said I must sign
as one of the witnesses. And there was no refusing her. She was
ever a child, cruel as children are cruel. Also, she told me she was
in possession of the only two bottles of champagne in Dawson--or that
had been in Dawson the night before; and before I knew it I was
scheduled to drink her and the Count's health. Everybody crowded
round, the captain of the steamboat, very prominent, trying to ring
in on the wine, I guess. It was a funny wedding. On the upper deck
the hospital wrecks, with various feet in the grave, gathered and
looked down to see. There were Indians all jammed in the circle,
too, big bucks, and their squaws and kids, to say nothing of about
twenty-five snarling wolf-dogs. The missionary lined the two of them
up and started in with the service. And just then a dog-fight
started, high up on the pile of freight--Pee-lat lying beside the big
box, and a white-haired brute belonging to one of the Indians. The
fight wasn't explosive at all. The brutes just snarled at each other
from a distance--tapping at each other long-distance, you know,
saying dast and dassent, dast and dassent. The noise was rather
disturbing, but you could hear the missionary's voice above it.
"There was no particularly easy way of getting at the two dogs,
except from the other side of the pile. But nobody was on that side-
-everybody watching the ceremony, you see. Even then everything
might have been all right if the captain hadn't thrown a club at the
dogs. That was what precipitated everything. As I say, if the
captain hadn't thrown that club, nothing might have happened.
"The missionary had just reached the point where he was saying 'In
sickness and in health,' and 'Till death us do part.' And just then
the captain threw the club. I saw the whole thing. It landed on
Pee-lat, and at that instant the white brute jumped him. The club
caused it. Their two bodies struck the box, and it began to slide,
its lower end tilting down. It was a long oblong box, and it slid
down slowly until it reached the perpendicular, when it came down on
the run. The onlookers on that side the circle had time to get out
from under. Flush of Gold and the Count, on the opposite side of the
circle, were facing the box; the missionary had his back to it. The
box must have fallen ten feet straight up and down, and it hit end
"Now mind you, not one of us knew that Dave Walsh was dead. We
thought he was on the Glendale, bound for Dawson. The missionary had
edged off to one side, and so Flush of Gold faced the box when it
struck. It was like in a play. It couldn't have been better
planned. It struck on end, and on the right end; the whole front of
the box came off; and out swept Dave Walsh on his feet, partly
wrapped in a blanket, his yellow hair flying and showing bright in
the sun. Right out of the box, on his feet, he swept upon Flush of
Gold. She didn't know he was dead, but it was unmistakable, after
hanging up two days on a timber jam, that he was rising all right
from the dead to claim her. Possibly that is what she thought. At
any rate, the sight froze her. She couldn't move. She just sort of
wilted and watched Dave Walsh coming for her! And he got her. It
looked almost as though he threw his arms around her, but whether or
not this happened, down to the deck they went together. We had to
drag Dave Walsh's body clear before we could get hold of her. She
was in a faint, but it would have been just as well if she had never
come out of that faint; for when she did, she fell to screaming the
way insane people do. She kept it up for hours, till she was
exhausted. Oh, yes, she recovered. You saw her last night, and know
how much recovered she is. She is not violent, it is true, but she
lives in darkness. She believes that she is waiting for Dave Walsh,
and so she waits in the cabin he built for her. She is no longer
fickle. It is nine years now that she has been faithful to Dave
Walsh, and the outlook is that she'll be faithful to him to the end."
Lon McFane pulled down the top of the blankets and prepared to crawl
"We have her grub hauled to her each year," he added, "and in general
keep an eye on her. Last night was the first time she ever
recognized me, though."
"Who are the we?" I asked.
"Oh," was the answer, "the Count and old Victor Chauvet and me. Do
you know, I think the Count is the one to be really sorry for. Dave
Walsh never did know that she was false to him. And she does not
suffer. Her darkness is merciful to her."
I lay silently under the blankets for the space of a minute.
"Is the Count still in the country?" I asked.
But there was a gentle sound of heavy breathing, and I knew Lon
McFane was asleep.
THE PASSING OF MARCUS O'BRIEN
"It is the judgment of this court that you vamose the camp . . . in
the customary way, sir, in the customary way."
Judge Marcus O'Brien was absent-minded, and Mucluc Charley nudged him
in the ribs. Marcus O'Brien cleared his throat and went on -
"Weighing the gravity of the offence, sir, and the extenuating
circumstances, it is the opinion of this court, and its verdict, that
you be outfitted with three days' grub. That will do, I think."
Arizona Jack cast a bleak glance out over the Yukon. It was a
swollen, chocolate flood, running a mile wide and nobody knew how
deep. The earth-bank on which he stood was ordinarily a dozen feet
above the water, but the river was now growling at the top of the
bank, devouring, instant by instant, tiny portions of the top-
standing soil. These portions went into the gaping mouths of the
endless army of brown swirls and vanished away. Several inches more,
and Red Cow would be flooded.
"It won't do," Arizona Jack said bitterly. "Three days' grub ain't
"There was Manchester," Marcus O'Brien replied gravely. "He didn't
get any grub."
"And they found his remains grounded on the Lower River an' half
eaten by huskies," was Arizona Jack's retort. "And his killin' was
without provocation. Joe Deeves never did nothin', never warbled
once, an' jes' because his stomach was out of order, Manchester ups
an' plugs him. You ain't givin' me a square deal, O'Brien, I tell
you that straight. Give me a week's grub, and I play even to win
out. Three days' grub, an' I cash in."
"What for did you kill Ferguson?" O'Brien demanded. "I haven't any
patience for these unprovoked killings. And they've got to stop.
Red Cow's none so populous. It's a good camp, and there never used
to be any killings. Now they're epidemic. I'm sorry for you, Jack,
but you've got to be made an example of. Ferguson didn't provoke
enough for a killing."
"Provoke!" Arizona Jack snorted. "I tell you, O'Brien, you don't
savve. You ain't got no artistic sensibilities. What for did I kill
Ferguson? What for did Ferguson sing 'Then I wisht I was a little
bird'? That's what I want to know. Answer me that. What for did he
sing 'little bird, little bird'? One little bird was enough. I
could a-stood one little bird. But no, he must sing two little
birds. I gave 'm a chanst. I went to him almighty polite and
requested him kindly to discard one little bird. I pleaded with him.
There was witnesses that testified to that.
"An' Ferguson was no jay-throated songster," some one spoke up from
O'Brien betrayed indecision.
"Ain't a man got a right to his artistic feelin's?" Arizona Jack
demanded. "I gave Ferguson warnin'. It was violatin' my own nature
to go on listening to his little birds. Why, there's music sharps
that fine-strung an' keyed-up they'd kill for heaps less'n I did.
I'm willin' to pay for havin' artistic feelin's. I can take my
medicine an' lick the spoon, but three days' grub is drawin' it a
shade fine, that's all, an' I hereby register my kick. Go on with
O'Brien was still wavering. He glanced inquiringly at Mucluc
"I should say, Judge, that three days' grub was a mite severe," the
latter suggested; "but you're runnin' the show. When we elected you
judge of this here trial court, we agreed to abide by your decisions,
an' we've done it, too, b'gosh, an' we're goin' to keep on doin' it."
"Mebbe I've been a trifle harsh, Jack," O'Brien said apologetically--
"I'm that worked up over those killings; an' I'm willing to make it a
week's grub." He cleared his throat magisterially and looked briskly
about him. "And now we might as well get along and finish up the
business. The boat's ready. You go and get the grub, Leclaire.
We'll settle for it afterward."
Arizona Jack looked grateful, and, muttering something about "damned
little birds," stepped aboard the open boat that rubbed restlessly
against the bank. It was a large skiff, built of rough pine planks
that had been sawed by hand from the standing timber of Lake
Linderman, a few hundred miles above, at the foot of Chilcoot. In
the boat were a pair of oars and Arizona Jack's blankets. Leclaire
brought the grub, tied up in a flour-sack, and put it on board. As
he did so, he whispered--"I gave you good measure, Jack. You done it
"Cast her off!" Arizona Jack cried.
Somebody untied the painter and threw it in. The current gripped the
boat and whirled it away. The murderer did not bother with the oars,
contenting himself with sitting in the stern-sheets and rolling a
cigarette. Completing it, he struck a match and lighted up. Those
that watched on the bank could see the tiny puffs of smoke. They
remained on the bank till the boat swung out of sight around the bend
half a mile below. Justice had been done.
The denizens of Red Cow imposed the law and executed sentences
without the delays that mark the softness of civilization. There was
no law on the Yukon save what they made for themselves. They were
compelled to make it for themselves. It was in an early day that Red
Cow flourished on the Yukon--1887--and the Klondike and its populous
stampedes lay in the unguessed future. The men of Red Cow did not
even know whether their camp was situated in Alaska or in the North-
west Territory, whether they drew breath under the stars and stripes
or under the British flag. No surveyor had ever happened along to
give them their latitude and longitude. Red Cow was situated
somewhere along the Yukon, and that was sufficient for them. So far
as flags were concerned, they were beyond all jurisdiction. So far
as the law was concerned, they were in No-Man's land.
They made their own law, and it was very simple. The Yukon executed
their decrees. Some two thousand miles below Red Cow the Yukon
flowed into Bering Sea through a delta a hundred miles wide. Every
mile of those two thousand miles was savage wilderness. It was true,
where the Porcupine flowed into the Yukon inside the Arctic Circle
there was a Hudson Bay Company trading post. But that was many
hundreds of miles away. Also, it was rumoured that many hundreds of
miles farther on there were missions. This last, however, was merely
rumour; the men of Red Cow had never been there. They had entered
the lone land by way of Chilcoot and the head-waters of the Yukon.
The men of Red Cow ignored all minor offences. To be drunk and
disorderly and to use vulgar language were looked upon as natural and
inalienable rights. The men of Red Cow were individualists, and
recognized as sacred but two things, property and life. There were
no women present to complicate their simple morality. There were
only three log-cabins in Red Cow--the majority of the population of
forty men living in tents or brush shacks; and there was no jail in
which to confine malefactors, while the inhabitants were too busy
digging gold or seeking gold to take a day off and build a jail.
Besides, the paramount question of grub negatived such a procedure.
Wherefore, when a man violated the rights of property or life, he was
thrown into an open boat and started down the Yukon. The quantity of
grub he received was proportioned to the gravity of the offence.
Thus, a common thief might get as much as two weeks' grub; an
uncommon thief might get no more than half of that. A murderer got
no grub at all. A man found guilty of manslaughter would receive
grub for from three days to a week. And Marcus O'Brien had been
elected judge, and it was he who apportioned the grub. A man who
broke the law took his chances. The Yukon swept him away, and he
might or might not win to Bering Sea. A few days' grub gave him a
fighting chance. No grub meant practically capital punishment,
though there was a slim chance, all depending on the season of the
Having disposed of Arizona Jack and watched him out of sight, the
population turned from the bank and went to work on its claims--all
except Curly Jim, who ran the one faro layout in all the Northland
and who speculated in prospect-holes on the sides. Two things
happened that day that were momentous. In the late morning Marcus
O'Brien struck it. He washed out a dollar, a dollar and a half, and
two dollars, from three successive pans. He had found the streak.
Curly Jim looked into the hole, washed a few pans himself, and
offered O'Brien ten thousand dollars for all rights--five thousand in
dust, and, in lieu of the other five thousand, a half interest in his
faro layout. O'Brien refused the offer. He was there to make money
out of the earth, he declared with heat, and not out of his fellow-
men. And anyway, he didn't like faro. Besides, he appraised his
strike at a whole lot more than ten thousand.
The second event of moment occurred in the afternoon, when Siskiyou
Pearly ran his boat into the bank and tied up. He was fresh from the
Outside, and had in his possession a four-months-old newspaper.
Furthermore, he had half a dozen barrels of whisky, all consigned to
Curly Jim. The men of Red Cow quit work. They sampled the whisky--
at a dollar a drink, weighed out on Curly's scales; and they
discussed the news. And all would have been well, had not Curly Jim
conceived a nefarious scheme, which was, namely, first to get Marcus
O'Brien drunk, and next, to buy his mine from him.
The first half of the scheme worked beautifully. It began in the
early evening, and by nine o'clock O'Brien had reached the singing
stage. He clung with one arm around Curly Jim's neck, and even
essayed the late lamented Ferguson's song about the little birds. He
considered he was quite safe in this, what of the fact that the only
man in camp with artistic feelings was even then speeding down the
Yukon on the breast of a five-mile current.
But the second half of the scheme failed to connect. No matter how
much whisky was poured down his neck, O'Brien could not be brought to
realize that it was his bounden and friendly duty to sell his claim.
He hesitated, it is true, and trembled now and again on the verge of
giving in. Inside his muddled head, however, he was chuckling to
himself. He was up to Curly Jim's game, and liked the hands that
were being dealt him. The whisky was good. It came out of one
special barrel, and was about a dozen times better than that in the
other five barrels.
Siskiyou Pearly was dispensing drinks in the bar-room to the
remainder of the population of Red Cow, while O'Brien and Curly had
out their business orgy in the kitchen. But there was nothing small
about O'Brien. He went into the bar-room and returned with Mucluc
Charley and Percy Leclaire.
"Business 'sociates of mine, business 'sociates," he announced, with
a broad wink to them and a guileless grin to Curly. "Always trust
their judgment, always trust 'em. They're all right. Give 'em some
fire-water, Curly, an' le's talk it over."
This was ringing in; but Curly Jim, making a swift revaluation of the
claim, and remembering that the last pan he washed had turned out
seven dollars, decided that it was worth the extra whisky, even if it
was selling in the other room at a dollar a drink.
"I'm not likely to consider," O'Brien was hiccoughing to his two
friends in the course of explaining to them the question at issue.
"Who? Me?--sell for ten thousand dollars! No indeed. I'll dig the
gold myself, an' then I'm goin' down to God's country--Southern
California--that's the place for me to end my declinin' days--an'
then I'll start . . . as I said before, then I'll start . . . what
did I say I was goin' to start?"
"Ostrich farm," Mucluc Charley volunteered.
"Sure, just what I'm goin' to start." O'Brien abruptly steadied
himself and looked with awe at Mucluc Charley. "How did you know?
Never said so. Jes' thought I said so. You're a min' reader,
Charley. Le's have another."
Curly Jim filled the glasses and had the pleasure of seeing four
dollars' worth of whisky disappear, one dollar's worth of which he
punished himself--O'Brien insisted that he should drink as frequently
as his guests.
"Better take the money now," Leclaire argued. "Take you two years to
dig it out the hole, an' all that time you might be hatchin' teeny
little baby ostriches an' pulling feathers out the big ones."
O'Brien considered the proposition and nodded approval. Curly Jim
looked gratefully at Leclaire and refilled the glasses.
"Hold on there!" spluttered Mucluc Charley, whose tongue was
beginning to wag loosely and trip over itself. "As your father
confessor--there I go--as your brother--O hell!" He paused and
collected himself for another start. "As your frien'--business
frien', I should say, I would suggest, rather--I would take the
liberty, as it was, to mention--I mean, suggest, that there may be
more ostriches . . . O hell!" He downed another glass, and went on
more carefully. "What I'm drivin' at is . . . what am I drivin' at?"
He smote the side of his head sharply half a dozen times with the
heel of his palm to shake up his ideas. "I got it!" he cried
jubilantly. "Supposen there's slathers more'n ten thousand dollars
in that hole!"
O'Brien, who apparently was all ready to close the bargain, switched
"Great!" he cried. "Splen'd idea. Never thought of it all by
myself." He took Mucluc Charley warmly by the hand. "Good frien'!
Good 's'ciate!" He turned belligerently on Curly Jim. "Maybe
hundred thousand dollars in that hole. You wouldn't rob your old
frien', would you, Curly? Course you wouldn't. I know you--better'n
yourself, better'n yourself. Le's have another: We're good frien's,
all of us, I say, all of us."
And so it went, and so went the whisky, and so went Curly Jim's hopes
up and down. Now Leclaire argued in favour of immediate sale, and
almost won the reluctant O'Brien over, only to lose him to the more
brilliant counter-argument of Mucluc Charley. And again, it was
Mucluc Charley who presented convincing reasons for the sale and
Percy Leclaire who held stubbornly back. A little later it was
O'Brien himself who insisted on selling, while both friends, with
tears and curses, strove to dissuade him. The more whiskey they
downed, the more fertile of imagination they became. For one sober
pro or con they found a score of drunken ones; and they convinced one
another so readily that they were perpetually changing sides in the
The time came when both Mucluc Charley and Leclaire were firmly set
upon the sale, and they gleefully obliterated O'Brien's objections as
fast as he entered them. O'Brien grew desperate. He exhausted his
last argument and sat speechless. He looked pleadingly at the
friends who had deserted him. He kicked Mucluc Charley's shins under
the table, but that graceless hero immediately unfolded a new and
most logical reason for the sale. Curly Jim got pen and ink and
paper and wrote out the bill of sale. O'Brien sat with pen poised in
"Le's have one more," he pleaded. "One more before I sign away a
hundred thousan' dollars."
Curly Jim filled the glasses triumphantly. O'Brien downed his drink
and bent forward with wobbling pen to affix his signature. Before he
had made more than a blot, he suddenly started up, impelled by the
impact of an idea colliding with his consciousness. He stood upon
his feet and swayed back and forth before them, reflecting in his
startled eyes the thought process that was taking place behind. Then
he reached his conclusion. A benevolent radiance suffused his
countenance. He turned to the faro dealer, took his hand, and spoke
"Curly, you're my frien'. There's my han'. Shake. Ol' man, I won't
do it. Won't sell. Won't rob a frien'. No son-of-a-gun will ever
have chance to say Marcus O'Brien robbed frien' cause frien' was
drunk. You're drunk, Curly, an' I won't rob you. Jes' had thought--
never thought it before--don't know what the matter 'ith me, but
never thought it before. Suppose, jes' suppose, Curly, my ol'
frien', jes' suppose there ain't ten thousan' in whole damn claim.
You'd be robbed. No, sir; won't do it. Marcus O'Brien makes money
out of the groun', not out of his frien's."
Percy Leclaire and Mucluc Charley drowned the faro dealer's
objections in applause for so noble a sentiment. They fell upon
O'Brien from either side, their arms lovingly about his neck, their
mouths so full of words they could not hear Curly's offer to insert a
clause in the document to the effect that if there weren't ten
thousand in the claim he would be given back the difference between
yield and purchase price. The longer they talked the more maudlin
and the more noble the discussion became. All sordid motives were
banished. They were a trio of philanthropists striving to save Curly
Jim from himself and his own philanthropy. They insisted that he was
a philanthropist. They refused to accept for a moment that there
could be found one ignoble thought in all the world. They crawled
and climbed and scrambled over high ethical plateaux and ranges, or
drowned themselves in metaphysical seas of sentimentality.
Curly Jim sweated and fumed and poured out the whisky. He found
himself with a score of arguments on his hands, not one of which had
anything to do with the gold-mine he wanted to buy. The longer they
talked the farther away they got from that gold-mine, and at two in
the morning Curly Jim acknowledged himself beaten. One by one he led
his helpless guests across the kitchen floor and thrust them outside.
O'Brien came last, and the three, with arms locked for mutual aid,
titubated gravely on the stoop.
"Good business man, Curly," O'Brien was saying. "Must say like your
style--fine an' generous, free-handed hospital . . . hospital . . .
hospitality. Credit to you. Nothin' base 'n graspin' in your make-
up. As I was sayin'--"
But just then the faro dealer slammed the door.
The three laughed happily on the stoop. They laughed for a long
time. Then Mucluc Charley essayed speech.
"Funny--laughed so hard--ain't what I want to say. My idea is . . .
what wash it? Oh, got it! Funny how ideas slip. Elusive idea--
chasin' elusive idea--great sport. Ever chase rabbits, Percy, my
frien'? I had dog--great rabbit dog. Whash 'is name? Don't know
name--never had no name--forget name--elusive name--chasin' elusive
name--no, idea--elusive idea, but got it--what I want to say was--O
Thereafter there was silence for a long time. O'Brien slipped from
their arms to a sitting posture on the stoop, where he slept gently.
Mucluc Charley chased the elusive idea through all the nooks and
crannies of his drowning consciousness. Leclaire hung fascinated
upon the delayed utterance. Suddenly the other's hand smote him on
"Got it!" Mucluc Charley cried in stentorian tones.
The shock of the jolt broke the continuity of Leclaire's mental
"How much to the pan?" he demanded.
"Pan nothin'!" Mucluc Charley was angry. "Idea--got it--got leg-
hold--ran it down."
Leclaire's face took on a rapt, admiring expression, and again he
hung upon the other's lips.
" . . . O hell!" said Mucluc Charley.
At this moment the kitchen door opened for an instant, and Curly Jim
shouted, "Go home!"
"Funny," said Mucluc Charley. "Shame idea--very shame as mine. Le's
They gathered O'Brien up between them and started. Mucluc Charley
began aloud the pursuit of another idea. Leclaire followed the
pursuit with enthusiasm. But O'Brien did not follow it. He neither
heard, nor saw, nor knew anything. He was a mere wobbling automaton,
supported affectionately and precariously by his two business
They took the path down by the bank of the Yukon. Home did not lie
that way, but the elusive idea did. Mucluc Charley giggled over the
idea that he could not catch for the edification of Leclaire. They
came to where Siskiyou Pearly's boat lay moored to the bank. The
rope with which it was tied ran across the path to a pine stump.
They tripped over it and went down, O'Brien underneath. A faint
flash of consciousness lighted his brain. He felt the impact of
bodies upon his and struck out madly for a moment with his fists.
Then he went to sleep again. His gentle snore arose on the air, and
Mucluc Charley began to giggle.
"New idea," he volunteered, "brand new idea. Jes' caught it--no
trouble at all. Came right up an' I patted it on the head. It's
mine. 'Brien's drunk--beashly drunk. Shame--damn shame--learn'm
lesshon. Trash Pearly's boat. Put 'Brien in Pearly's boat. Casht
off--let her go down Yukon. 'Brien wake up in mornin'. Current too
strong--can't row boat 'gainst current--mush walk back. Come back
madder 'n hatter. You an' me headin' for tall timber. Learn 'm
lesshon jes' shame, learn 'm lesshon."
Siskiyou Pearly's boat was empty, save for a pair of oars. Its
gunwale rubbed against the bank alongside of O'Brien. They rolled
him over into it. Mucluc Charley cast off the painter, and Leclaire
shoved the boat out into the current. Then, exhausted by their
labours, they lay down on the bank and slept.
Next morning all Red Cow knew of the joke that had been played on
Marcus O'Brien. There were some tall bets as to what would happen to
the two perpetrators when the victim arrived back. In the afternoon
a lookout was set, so that they would know when he was sighted.
Everybody wanted to see him come in. But he didn't come, though they
sat up till midnight. Nor did he come next day, nor the next. Red
Cow never saw Marcus O'Brien again, and though many conjectures were
entertained, no certain clue was ever gained to dispel the mystery of
Only Marcus O'Brien knew, and he never came back to tell. He awoke
next morning in torment. His stomach had been calcined by the
inordinate quantity of whisky he had drunk, and was a dry and raging
furnace. His head ached all over, inside and out; and, worse than
that, was the pain in his face. For six hours countless thousands of
mosquitoes had fed upon him, and their ungrateful poison had swollen
his face tremendously. It was only by a severe exertion of will that
he was able to open narrow slits in his face through which he could
peer. He happened to move his hands, and they hurt. He squinted at
them, but failed to recognize them, so puffed were they by the
mosquito virus. He was lost, or rather, his identity was lost to
him. There was nothing familiar about him, which, by association of
ideas, would cause to rise in his consciousness the continuity of his
existence. He was divorced utterly from his past, for there was
nothing about him to resurrect in his consciousness a memory of that
past. Besides, he was so sick and miserable that he lacked energy
and inclination to seek after who and what he was.
It was not until he discovered a crook in a little finger, caused by
an unset breakage of years before, that he knew himself to be Marcus
O'Brien. On the instant his past rushed into his consciousness.
When he discovered a blood-blister under a thumb-nail, which he had
received the previous week, his self-identification became doubly
sure, and he knew that those unfamiliar hands belonged to Marcus
O'Brien, or, just as much to the point, that Marcus O'Brien belonged
to the hands. His first thought was that he was ill--that he had had
river fever. It hurt him so much to open his eyes that he kept them
closed. A small floating branch struck the boat a sharp rap. He
thought it was some one knocking on the cabin door, and said, "Come
in." He waited for a while, and then said testily, "Stay out, then,
damn you." But just the same he wished they would come in and tell
him about his illness.
But as he lay there, the past night began to reconstruct itself in
his brain. He hadn't been sick at all, was his thought; he had
merely been drunk, and it was time for him to get up and go to work.
Work suggested his mine, and he remembered that he had refused ten
thousand dollars for it. He sat up abruptly and squeezed open his
eyes. He saw himself in a boat, floating on the swollen brown flood
of the Yukon. The spruce-covered shores and islands were unfamiliar.
He was stunned for a time. He couldn't make it out. He could
remember the last night's orgy, but there was no connection between
that and his present situation.
He closed his eyes and held his aching head in his hands. What had
happened? Slowly the dreadful thought arose in his mind. He fought
against it, strove to drive it away, but it persisted: he had killed
somebody. That alone could explain why he was in an open boat
drifting down the Yukon. The law of Red Cow that he had so long
administered had now been administered to him. He had killed some
one and been set adrift. But whom? He racked his aching brain for
the answer, but all that came was a vague memory of bodies falling
upon him and of striking out at them. Who were they? Maybe he had
killed more than one. He reached to his belt. The knife was missing
from its sheath. He had done it with that undoubtedly. But there
must have been some reason for the killing. He opened his eyes and
in a panic began to search about the boat. There was no grub, not an
ounce of grub. He sat down with a groan. He had killed without
provocation. The extreme rigour of the law had been visited upon
For half an hour he remained motionless, holding his aching head and
trying to think. Then he cooled his stomach with a drink of water
from overside and felt better. He stood up, and alone on the wide-
stretching Yukon, with naught but the primeval wilderness to hear, he
cursed strong drink. After that he tied up to a huge floating pine
that was deeper sunk in the current than the boat and that
consequently drifted faster. He washed his face and hands, sat down
in the stern-sheets, and did some more thinking. It was late in
June. It was two thousand miles to Bering Sea. The boat was
averaging five miles an hour. There was no darkness in such high
latitudes at that time of the year, and he could run the river every
hour of the twenty-four. This would mean, daily, a hundred and
twenty miles. Strike out the twenty for accidents, and there
remained a hundred miles a day. In twenty days he would reach Bering
Sea. And this would involve no expenditure of energy; the river did
the work. He could lie down in the bottom of the boat and husband
For two days he ate nothing. Then, drifting into the Yukon Flats, he
went ashore on the low-lying islands and gathered the eggs of wild
geese and ducks. He had no matches, and ate the eggs raw. They were
strong, but they kept him going. When he crossed the Arctic Circle,
he found the Hudson Bay Company's post. The brigade had not yet
arrived from the Mackenzie, and the post was completely out of grub.
He was offered wild-duck eggs, but he informed them that he had a
bushel of the same on the boat. He was also offered a drink of
whisky, which he refused with an exhibition of violent repugnance.
He got matches, however, and after that he cooked his eggs. Toward
the mouth of the river head-winds delayed him, and he was twenty-four
days on the egg diet. Unfortunately, while asleep he had drifted by
both the missions of St. Paul and Holy Cross. And he could sincerely
say, as he afterward did, that talk about missions on the Yukon was
all humbug. There weren't any missions, and he was the man to know.
Once on Bering Sea he exchanged the egg diet for seal diet, and he
never could make up his mind which he liked least. In the fall of
the year he was rescued by a United States revenue cutter, and the
following winter he made quite a hit in San Francisco as a temperance
lecturer. In this field he found his vocation. "Avoid the bottle"
is his slogan and battle-cry. He manages subtly to convey the
impression that in his own life a great disaster was wrought by the
bottle. He has even mentioned the loss of a fortune that was caused
by that hell-bait of the devil, but behind that incident his
listeners feel the loom of some terrible and unguessed evil for which
the bottle is responsible. He has made a success in his vocation,
and has grown grey and respected in the crusade against strong drink.
But on the Yukon the passing of Marcus O'Brien remains tradition. It
is a mystery that ranks at par with the disappearance of Sir John
THE WIT OF PORPORTUK
El-Soo had been a Mission girl. Her mother had died when she was
very small, and Sister Alberta had plucked El-Soo as a brand from the
burning, one summer day, and carried her away to Holy Cross Mission
and dedicated her to God. El-Soo was a full-blooded Indian, yet she
exceeded all the half-breed and quarter-breed girls. Never had the
good sisters dealt with a girl so adaptable and at the same time so
El-Soo was quick, and deft, and intelligent; but above all she was
fire, the living flame of life, a blaze of personality that was
compounded of will, sweetness, and daring. Her father was a chief,
and his blood ran in her veins. Obedience, on the part of El-Soo,
was a matter of terms and arrangement. She had a passion for equity,
and perhaps it was because of this that she excelled in mathematics.
But she excelled in other things. She learned to read and write
English as no girl had ever learned in the Mission. She led the
girls in singing, and into song she carried her sense of equity. She
was an artist, and the fire of her flowed toward creation. Had she
from birth enjoyed a more favourable environment, she would have made
literature or music.
Instead, she was El-Soo, daughter of Klakee-Nah, a chief, and she
lived in the Holy Cross Mission where were no artists, but only pure-
souled Sisters who were interested in cleanliness and righteousness
and the welfare of the spirit in the land of immortality that lay
beyond the skies.
The years passed. She was eight years old when she entered the
Mission; she was sixteen, and the Sisters were corresponding with
their superiors in the Order concerning the sending of El-Soo to the
United States to complete her education, when a man of her own tribe
arrived at Holy Cross and had talk with her. El-Soo was somewhat
appalled by him. He was dirty. He was a Caliban-like creature,
primitively ugly, with a mop of hair that had never been combed. He
looked at her disapprovingly and refused to sit down.
"Thy brother is dead," he said shortly.
El-Soo was not particularly shocked. She remembered little of her
brother. "Thy father is an old man, and alone," the messenger went
on. "His house is large and empty, and he would hear thy voice and
look upon thee."
Him she remembered--Klakee-Nah, the headman of the village, the
friend of the missionaries and the traders, a large man thewed like a
giant, with kindly eyes and masterful ways, and striding with a
consciousness of crude royalty in his carriage.
"Tell him that I will come," was El-Soo's answer.
Much to the despair of the Sisters, the brand plucked from the
burning went back to the burning. All pleading with El-Soo was vain.
There was much argument, expostulation, and weeping. Sister Alberta
even revealed to her the project of sending her to the United States.
El-Soo stared wide-eyed into the golden vista thus opened up to her,
and shook her head. In her eyes persisted another vista. It was the
mighty curve of the Yukon at Tana-naw Station. With the St. George
Mission on one side, and the trading post on the other, and midway
between the Indian village and a certain large log house where lived
an old man tended upon by slaves.
All dwellers on the Yukon bank for twice a thousand miles knew the
large log house, the old man and the tending slaves; and well did the
Sisters know the house, its unending revelry, its feasting and its
fun. So there was weeping at Holy Cross when El-Soo departed.
There was a great cleaning up in the large house when El-Soo arrived.
Klakee-Nah, himself masterful, protested at this masterful conduct of
his young daughter; but in the end, dreaming barbarically of
magnificence, he went forth and borrowed a thousand dollars from old
Porportuk, than whom there was no richer Indian on the Yukon. Also,
Klakee-Nah ran up a heavy bill at the trading post. El-Soo re-
created the large house. She invested it with new splendour, while
Klakee-Nah maintained its ancient traditions of hospitality and
All this was unusual for a Yukon Indian, but Klakee-Nah was an
unusual Indian. Not alone did he like to render inordinate
hospitality, but, what of being a chief and of acquiring much money,
he was able to do it. In the primitive trading days he had been a
power over his people, and he had dealt profitably with the white
trading companies. Later on, with Porportuk, he had made a gold-
strike on the Koyokuk River. Klakee-Nah was by training and nature
an aristocrat. Porportuk was bourgeois, and Porportuk bought him out
of the gold-mine. Porportuk was content to plod and accumulate.
Klakee-Nah went back to his large house and proceeded to spend.
Porportuk was known as the richest Indian in Alaska. Klakee-Nah was
known as the whitest. Porportuk was a money-lender and a usurer.
Klakee-Nah was an anachronism--a mediaeval ruin, a fighter and a
feaster, happy with wine and song.
El-Soo adapted herself to the large house and its ways as readily as
she had adapted herself to Holy Cross Mission and its ways. She did
not try to reform her father and direct his footsteps toward God. It
is true, she reproved him when he drank overmuch and profoundly, but
that was for the sake of his health and the direction of his
footsteps on solid earth.
The latchstring to the large house was always out. What with the
coming and the going, it was never still. The rafters of the great
living-room shook with the roar of wassail and of song. At table sat
men from all the world and chiefs from distant tribes--Englishmen and
Colonials, lean Yankee traders and rotund officials of the great
companies, cowboys from the Western ranges, sailors from the sea,
hunters and dog-mushers of a score of nationalities.
El-Soo drew breath in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. She could speak
English as well as she could her native tongue, and she sang English
songs and ballads. The passing Indian ceremonials she knew, and the
perishing traditions. The tribal dress of the daughter of a chief
she knew how to wear upon occasion. But for the most part she
dressed as white women dress. Not for nothing was her needlework at
the Mission and her innate artistry. She carried her clothes like a
white woman, and she made clothes that could be so carried.
In her way she was as unusual as her father, and the position she
occupied was as unique as his. She was the one Indian woman who was
the social equal with the several white women at Tana-naw Station.
She was the one Indian woman to whom white men honourably made
proposals of marriage. And she was the one Indian woman whom no
white man ever insulted.
For El-Soo was beautiful--not as white women are beautiful, not as
Indian women are beautiful. It was the flame of her, that did not
depend upon feature, that was her beauty. So far as mere line and
feature went, she was the classic Indian type. The black hair and
the fine bronze were hers, and the black eyes, brilliant and bold,
keen as sword-light, proud; and hers the delicate eagle nose with the
thin, quivering nostrils, the high cheek-bones that were not broad
apart, and the thin lips that were not too thin. But over all and
through all poured the flame of her--the unanalysable something that
was fire and that was the soul of her, that lay mellow-warm or blazed
in her eyes, that sprayed the cheeks of her, that distended the
nostrils, that curled the lips, or, when the lip was in repose, that
was still there in the lip, the lip palpitant with its presence.
And El-Soo had wit--rarely sharp to hurt, yet quick to search out
forgivable weakness. The laughter of her mind played like lambent
flame over all about her, and from all about her arose answering
laughter. Yet she was never the centre of things. This she would
not permit. The large house, and all of which it was significant,
was her father's; and through it, to the last, moved his heroic
figure--host, master of the revels, and giver of the law. It is
true, as the strength oozed from him, that she caught up
responsibilities from his failing hands. But in appearance he still
ruled, dozing, ofttimes at the board, a bacchanalian ruin, yet in all
seeming the ruler of the feast.
And through the large house moved the figure of Porportuk, ominous,
with shaking head, coldly disapproving, paying for it all. Not that
he really paid, for he compounded interest in weird ways, and year by
year absorbed the properties of Klakee-Nah. Porportuk once took it
upon himself to chide El-Soo upon the wasteful way of life in the
large house--it was when he had about absorbed the last of Klakee-
Nah's wealth--but he never ventured so to chide again. El-Soo, like
her father, was an aristocrat, as disdainful of money as he, and with
an equal sense of honour as finely strung.
Porportuk continued grudgingly to advance money, and ever the money
flowed in golden foam away. Upon one thing El-Soo was resolved--her
father should die as he had lived. There should be for him no
passing from high to low, no diminution of the revels, no lessening
of the lavish hospitality. When there was famine, as of old, the
Indians came groaning to the large house and went away content. When
there was famine and no money, money was borrowed from Porportuk, and
the Indians still went away content. El-Soo might well have
repeated, after the aristocrats of another time and place, that after
her came the deluge. In her case the deluge was old Porportuk. With
every advance of money, he looked upon her with a more possessive
eye, and felt bourgeoning within him ancient fires.
But El-Soo had no eyes for him. Nor had she eyes for the white men
who wanted to marry her at the Mission with ring and priest and book.
For at Tana-naw Station was a young man, Akoon, of her own blood, and
tribe, and village. He was strong and beautiful to her eyes, a great
hunter, and, in that he had wandered far and much, very poor; he had
been to all the unknown wastes and places; he had journeyed to Sitka
and to the United States; he had crossed the continent to Hudson Bay
and back again, and as seal-hunter on a ship he had sailed to Siberia
and for Japan.
When he returned from the gold-strike in Klondike he came, as was his
wont, to the large house to make report to old Klakee-Nah of all the
world that he had seen; and there he first saw El-Soo, three years
back from the Mission. Thereat, Akoon wandered no more. He refused
a wage of twenty dollars a day as pilot on the big steamboats. He
hunted some and fished some, but never far from Tana-naw Station, and
he was at the large house often and long. And El-Soo measured him
against many men and found him good. He sang songs to her, and was
ardent and glowed until all Tana-naw Station knew he loved her. And
Porportuk but grinned and advanced more money for the upkeep of the
Then came the death table of Klakee-Nah.
He sat at feast, with death in his throat, that he could not drown
with wine. And laughter and joke and song went around, and Akoon
told a story that made the rafters echo. There were no tears or
sighs at that table. It was no more than fit that Klakee-Nah should
die as he had lived, and none knew this better than El-Soo, with her
artist sympathy. The old roystering crowd was there, and, as of old,
three frost-bitten sailors were there, fresh from the long traverse
from the Arctic, survivors of a ship's company of seventy-four. At
Klakee-Nah's back were four old men, all that were left him of the
slaves of his youth. With rheumy eyes they saw to his needs, with
palsied hands filling his glass or striking him on the back between
the shoulders when death stirred and he coughed and gasped.
It was a wild night, and as the hours passed and the fun laughed and
roared along, death stirred more restlessly in Klakee-Nah's throat.
Then it was that he sent for Porportuk. And Porportuk came in from
the outside frost to look with disapproving eyes upon the meat and
wine on the table for which he had paid. But as he looked down the
length of flushed faces to the far end and saw the face of El-Soo,
the light in his eyes flared up, and for a moment the disapproval
Place was made for him at Klakee-Nah's side, and a glass placed
before him. Klakee-Nah, with his own hands, filled the glass with
fervent spirits. "Drink!" he cried. "Is it not good?"
And Porportuk's eyes watered as he nodded his head and smacked his
"When, in your own house, have you had such drink?" Klakee-Nah
"I will not deny that the drink is good to this old throat of mine,"
Porportuk made answer, and hesitated for the speech to complete the
"But it costs overmuch," Klakee-Nah roared, completing it for him.
Porportuk winced at the laughter that went down the table. His eyes
burned malevolently. "We were boys together, of the same age," he
said. "In your throat is death. I am still alive and strong."
An ominous murmur arose from the company. Klakee-Nah coughed and
strangled, and the old slaves smote him between the shoulders. He
emerged gasping, and waved his hand to still the threatening rumble.
"You have grudged the very fire in your house because the wood cost
overmuch!" he cried. "You have grudged life. To live cost overmuch,
and you have refused to pay the price. Your life has been like a
cabin where the fire is out and there are no blankets on the floor."
He signalled to a slave to fill his glass, which he held aloft. "But
I have lived. And I have been warm with life as you have never been
warm. It is true, you shall live long. But the longest nights are
the cold nights when a man shivers and lies awake. My nights have
been short, but I have slept warm."
He drained the glass. The shaking hand of a slave failed to catch it
as it crashed to the floor. Klakee-Nah sank back, panting, watching
the upturned glasses at the lips of the drinkers, his own lips
slightly smiling to the applause. At a sign, two slaves attempted to
help him sit upright again. But they were weak, his frame was
mighty, and the four old men tottered and shook as they helped him
"But manner of life is neither here nor there," he went on. "We have
other business, Porportuk, you and I, to-night. Debts are
mischances, and I am in mischance with you. What of my debt, and how
great is it?"
Porportuk searched in his pouch and brought forth a memorandum. He
sipped at his glass and began. "There is the note of August, 1889,
for three hundred dollars. The interest has never been paid. And
the note of the next year for five hundred dollars. This note was
included in the note of two months later for a thousand dollars.
Then there is the note--"
"Never mind the many notes!" Klakee-Nah cried out impatiently. "They
make my head go around and all the things inside my head. The whole!
The round whole! How much is it?"
Porportuk referred to his memorandum. "Fifteen thousand nine hundred
and sixty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents," he read with careful
"Make it sixteen thousand, make it sixteen thousand," Klakee-Nah said
grandly. "Odd numbers were ever a worry. And now--and it is for
this that I have sent for you--make me out a new note for sixteen
thousand, which I shall sign. I have no thought of the interest.
Make it as large as you will, and make it payable in the next world,
when I shall meet you by the fire of the Great Father of all Indians.
Then the note will be paid. This I promise you. It is the word of
Porportuk looked perplexed, and loudly the laughter arose and shook
the room. Klakee-Nah raised his hands. "Nay," he cried. "It is not
a joke. I but speak in fairness. It was for this I sent for you,
Porportuk. Make out the note."
"I have no dealings with the next world," Porportuk made answer
"Have you no thought to meet me before the Great Father!" Klakee-Nah
demanded. Then he added, "I shall surely be there."
"I have no dealings with the next world," Porportuk repeated sourly.
The dying man regarded him with frank amazement.
"I know naught of the next world," Porportuk explained. "I do
business in this world."
Klakee-Nah's face cleared. "This comes of sleeping cold of nights,"
he laughed. He pondered for a space, then said, "It is in this world
that you must be paid. There remains to me this house. Take it, and
burn the debt in the candle there."
"It is an old house and not worth the money," Porportuk made answer.
"There are my mines on the Twisted Salmon."
"They have never paid to work," was the reply.
"There is my share in the steamer Koyokuk. I am half owner."
"She is at the bottom of the Yukon."
Klakee-Nah started. "True, I forgot. It was last spring when the
ice went out." He mused for a time while the glasses remained
untasted, and all the company waited upon his utterance.
"Then it would seem I owe you a sum of money which I cannot pay . . .
in this world?" Porportuk nodded and glanced down the table.
"Then it would seem that you, Porportuk, are a poor business man,"
Klakee-Nah said slyly. And boldly Porportuk made answer, "No; there
is security yet untouched."
"What!" cried Klakee-Nah. "Have I still property? Name it, and it
is yours, and the debt is no more."
"There it is." Porportuk pointed at El-Soo.
Klakee-Nah could not understand. He peered down the table, brushed
his eyes, and peered again.
"Your daughter, El-Soo--her will I take and the debt be no more. I
will burn the debt there in the candle."
Klakee-Nah's great chest began to heave. "Ho! ho!--a joke. Ho! ho!
ho!" he laughed Homerically. "And with your cold bed and daughters
old enough to be the mother of El-Soo! Ho! ho! ho!" He began to
cough and strangle, and the old slaves smote him on the back. "Ho!
ho!" he began again, and went off into another paroxysm.
Porportuk waited patiently, sipping from his glass and studying the
double row of faces down the board. "It is no joke," he said
finally. "My speech is well meant."
Klakee-Nah sobered and looked at him, then reached for his glass, but
could not touch it. A slave passed it to him, and glass and liquor
he flung into the face of Porportuk.
"Turn him out!" Klakee-Nah thundered to the waiting table that
strained like a pack of hounds in leash. "And roll him in the snow!"
As the mad riot swept past him and out of doors, he signalled to the
slaves, and the four tottering old men supported him on his feet as
he met the returning revellers, upright, glass in hand, pledging them
a toast to the short night when a man sleeps warm.
It did not take long to settle the estate of Klakee-Nah. Tommy, the
little Englishman, clerk at the trading post, was called in by El-Soo
to help. There was nothing but debts, notes overdue, mortgaged
properties, and properties mortgaged but worthless. Notes and
mortgages were held by Porportuk. Tommy called him a robber many
times as he pondered the compounding of the interest.
"Is it a debt, Tommy?" El-Soo asked.
"It is a robbery," Tommy answered.
"Nevertheless, it is a debt," she persisted.
The winter wore away, and the early spring, and still the claims of
Porportuk remained unpaid. He saw El-Soo often and explained to her
at length, as he had explained to her father, the way the debt could
be cancelled. Also, he brought with him old medicine-men, who
elaborated to her the everlasting damnation of her father if the debt
were not paid. One day, after such an elaboration, El-Soo made final
announcement to Porportuk.
"I shall tell you two things," she said. "First I shall not be your
wife. Will you remember that? Second, you shall be paid the last
cent of the sixteen thousand dollars--"
"Fifteen thousand nine hundred and sixty-seven dollars and seventy-
five cents," Porportuk corrected.
"My father said sixteen thousand," was her reply. "You shall be
"I know not how, but I shall find out how. Now go, and bother me no
more. If you do"--she hesitated to find fitting penalty--"if you do,
I shall have you rolled in the snow again as soon as the first snow
This was still in the early spring, and a little later El-Soo
surprised the country. Word went up and down the Yukon from Chilcoot
to the Delta, and was carried from camp to camp to the farthermost
camps, that in June, when the first salmon ran, El-Soo, daughter of
Klakee-Nah, would sell herself at public auction to satisfy the
claims of Porportuk. Vain were the attempts to dissuade her. The
missionary at St. George wrestled with her, but she replied--Only the
debts to God are settled in the next world. The debts of men are of
this world, and in this world are they settled."
Akoon wrestled with her, but she replied, "I do love thee, Akoon; but
honour is greater than love, and who am I that I should blacken my
father?" Sister Alberta journeyed all the way up from Holy Cross on
the first steamer, and to no better end.
"My father wanders in the thick and endless forests," said El-Soo.
"And there will he wander, with the lost souls crying, till the debt
be paid. Then, and not until then, may he go on to the house of the
"And you believe this?" Sister Alberta asked.
"I do not know," El-Soo made answer. "It was my father's belief."
Sister Alberta shrugged her shoulders incredulously.
"Who knows but that the things we believe come true?" El-Soo went on.
"Why not? The next world to you may be heaven and harps . . .
because you have believed heaven and harps; to my father the next
world may be a large house where he will sit always at table feasting
"And you?" Sister Alberta asked. "What is your next world?"
El-Soo hesitated but for a moment. "I should like a little of both,"
she said. "I should like to see your face as well as the face of my
The day of the auction came. Tana-naw Station was populous. As was
their custom, the tribes had gathered to await the salmon-run, and in
the meantime spent the time in dancing and frolicking, trading and
gossiping. Then there was the ordinary sprinkling of white
adventurers, traders, and prospectors, and, in addition, a large
number of white men who had come because of curiosity or interest in
It had been a backward spring, and the salmon were late in running.
This delay but keyed up the interest. Then, on the day of the
auction, the situation was made tense by Akoon. He arose and made
public and solemn announcement that whosoever bought El-Soo would
forthwith and immediately die. He flourished the Winchester in his
hand to indicate the manner of the taking-off. El-Soo was angered
thereat; but he refused to speak with her, and went to the trading
post to lay in extra ammunition.
The first salmon was caught at ten o'clock in the evening, and at
midnight the auction began. It took place on top of the high bank
alongside the Yukon. The sun was due north just below the horizon,
and the sky was lurid red. A great crowd gathered about the table
and the two chairs that stood near the edge of the bank. To the fore
were many white men and several chiefs. And most prominently to the
fore, rifle in hand, stood Akoon. Tommy, at El-Soo's request, served
as auctioneer, but she made the opening speech and described the
goods about to be sold. She was in native costume, in the dress of a
chief's daughter, splendid and barbaric, and she stood on a chair,
that she might be seen to advantage.
"Who will buy a wife?" she asked. "Look at me. I am twenty years
old and a maid. I will be a good wife to the man who buys me. If he
is a white man, I shall dress in the fashion of white women; if he is
an Indian, I shall dress as"--she hesitated a moment--"a squaw. I
can make my own clothes, and sew, and wash, and mend. I was taught
for eight years to do these things at Holy Cross Mission. I can read
and write English, and I know how to play the organ. Also I can do
arithmetic and some algebra--a little. I shall be sold to the
highest bidder, and to him I will make out a bill of sale of myself.
I forgot to say that I can sing very well, and that I have never been
sick in my life. I weigh one hundred and thirty-two pounds; my
father is dead and I have no relatives. Who wants me?"
She looked over the crowd with flaming audacity and stepped down. At
Tommy's request she stood upon the chair again, while he mounted the
second chair and started the bidding.
Surrounding El-Soo stood the four old slaves of her father. They
were age-twisted and palsied, faithful to their meat, a generation
out of the past that watched unmoved the antics of younger life. In
the front of the crowd were several Eldorado and Bonanza kings from
the Upper Yukon, and beside them, on crutches, swollen with scurvy,
were two broken prospectors. From the midst of the crowd, thrust out
by its own vividness, appeared the face of a wild-eyed squaw from the
remote regions of the Upper Tana-naw; a strayed Sitkan from the coast
stood side by side with a Stick from Lake Le Barge, and, beyond, a
half-dozen French-Canadian voyageurs, grouped by themselves. From
afar came the faint cries of myriads of wild-fowl on the nesting-
grounds. Swallows were skimming up overhead from the placid surface
of the Yukon, and robins were singing. The oblique rays of the
hidden sun shot through the smoke, high-dissipated from forest fires
a thousand miles away, and turned the heavens to sombre red, while
the earth shone red in the reflected glow. This red glow shone in
the faces of all, and made everything seem unearthly and unreal.
The bidding began slowly. The Sitkan, who was a stranger in the land
and who had arrived only half an hour before, offered one hundred
dollars in a confident voice, and was surprised when Akoon turned
threateningly upon him with the rifle. The bidding dragged. An
Indian from the Tozikakat, a pilot, bid one hundred and fifty, and
after some time a gambler, who had been ordered out of the Upper
Country, raised the bid to two hundred. El-Soo was saddened; her
pride was hurt; but the only effect was that she flamed more
audaciously upon the crowd.
There was a disturbance among the onlookers as Porportuk forced his
way to the front. "Five hundred dollars!" he bid in a loud voice,
then looked about him proudly to note the effect.
He was minded to use his great wealth as a bludgeon with which to
stun all competition at the start. But one of the voyageurs, looking
on El-Soo with sparkling eyes, raised the bid a hundred.
"Seven hundred!" Porportuk returned promptly.
And with equal promptness came the "Eight hundred" of the voyageur.
Then Porportuk swung his club again.
"Twelve hundred!" he shouted.
With a look of poignant disappointment, the voyageur succumbed.
There was no further bidding. Tommy worked hard, but could not
elicit a bid.
El-Soo spoke to Porportuk. "It were good, Porportuk, for you to
weigh well your bid. Have you forgotten the thing I told you--that I
would never marry you!"
"It is a public auction," he retorted. "I shall buy you with a bill
of sale. I have offered twelve hundred dollars. You come cheap."
"Too damned cheap!" Tommy cried. "What if I am auctioneer? That
does not prevent me from bidding. I'll make it thirteen hundred."
"Fourteen hundred," from Porportuk.
"I'll buy you in to be my--my sister," Tommy whispered to El-Soo,
then called aloud, "Fifteen hundred!"
At two thousand one of the Eldorado kings took a hand, and Tommy
A third time Porportuk swung the club of his wealth, making a clean
raise of five hundred dollars. But the Eldorado king's pride was
touched. No man could club him. And he swung back another five
El-Soo stood at three thousand. Porportuk made it thirty-five
hundred, and gasped when the Eldorado king raised it a thousand
dollars. Porportuk again raised it five hundred, and again gasped
when the king raised a thousand more.
Porportuk became angry. His pride was touched; his strength was
challenged, and with him strength took the form of wealth. He would
not be ashamed for weakness before the world. El-Soo became
incidental. The savings and scrimpings from the cold nights of all
his years were ripe to be squandered. El-Soo stood at six thousand.
He made it seven thousand. And then, in thousand-dollar bids, as
fast as they could be uttered, her price went up. At fourteen
thousand the two men stopped for breath.
Then the unexpected happened. A still heavier club was swung. In
the pause that ensued, the gambler, who had scented a speculation and
formed a syndicate with several of his fellows, bid sixteen thousand
"Seventeen thousand," Porportuk said weakly.
"Eighteen thousand," said the king.
Porportuk gathered his strength. "Twenty thousand."
The syndicate dropped out. The Eldorado king raised a thousand, and
Porportuk raised back; and as they bid, Akoon turned from one to the
other, half menacingly, half curiously, as though to see what manner
of man it was that he would have to kill. When the king prepared to
make his next bid, Akoon having pressed closer, the king first loosed
the revolver at his hip, then said:
"Twenty-four thousand," said Porportuk. He grinned viciously, for
the certitude of his bidding had at last shaken the king. The latter
moved over close to El-Soo. He studied her carefully for a long
"And five hundred," he said at last.
"Twenty-five thousand," came Porportuk's raise.
The king looked for a long space, and shook his head. He looked
again, and said reluctantly, "And five hundred."
"Twenty-six thousand," Porportuk snapped.
The king shook his head and refused to meet Tommy's pleading eye. In
the meantime Akoon had edged close to Porportuk. El-Soo's quick eye
noted this, and, while Tommy wrestled with the Eldorado king for
another bid, she bent, and spoke in a low voice in the ear of a
slave. And while Tommy's "Going--going--going--" dominated the air,
the slave went up to Akoon and spoke in a low voice in his ear.
Akoon made no sign that he had heard, though El-Soo watched him
"Gone!" Tommy's voice rang out. "To Porportuk, for twenty-six
Porportuk glanced uneasily at Akoon. All eyes were centred upon
Akoon, but he did nothing.
"Let the scales be brought," said El-Soo.
"I shall make payment at my house," said Porportuk.
"Let the scales be brought," El-Soo repeated. "Payment shall be made
here where all can see."
So the gold scales were brought from the trading post, while
Porportuk went away and came back with a man at his heels, on whose
shoulders was a weight of gold-dust in moose-hide sacks. Also, at
Porportuk's back, walked another man with a rifle, who had eyes only
"Here are the notes and mortgages," said Porportuk, "for fifteen
thousand nine hundred and sixty-seven dollars and seventy-five
El-Soo received them into her hands and said to Tommy, "Let them be
reckoned as sixteen thousand."
"There remains ten thousand dollars to be paid in gold," Tommy said.
Porportuk nodded, and untied the mouths of the sacks. El-Soo,
standing at the edge of the bank, tore the papers to shreds and sent
them fluttering out over the Yukon. The weighing began, but halted.
"Of course, at seventeen dollars," Porportuk had said to Tommy, as he
adjusted the scales.
"At sixteen dollars," El-Soo said sharply.
"It is the custom of all the land to reckon gold at seventeen dollars
for each ounce," Porportuk replied. "And this is a business
El-Soo laughed. "It is a new custom," she said. "It began this
spring. Last year, and the years before, it was sixteen dollars an
ounce. When my father's debt was made, it was sixteen dollars. When
he spent at the store the money he got from you, for one ounce he was
given sixteen dollars' worth of flour, not seventeen. Wherefore,
shall you pay for me at sixteen, and not at seventeen." Porportuk
grunted and allowed the weighing to proceed.
"Weigh it in three piles, Tommy," she said. "A thousand dollars
here, three thousand here, and here six thousand."
It was slow work, and, while the weighing went on, Akoon was closely
watched by all.
"He but waits till the money is paid," one said; and the word went
around and was accepted, and they waited for what Akoon should do
when the money was paid. And Porportuk's man with the rifle waited
and watched Akoon.
The weighing was finished, and the gold-dust lay on the table in
three dark-yellow heaps. "There is a debt of my father to the
Company for three thousand dollars," said El-Soo. "Take it, Tommy,
for the Company. And here are four old men, Tommy. You know them.
And here is one thousand dollars. Take it, and see that the old men
are never hungry and never without tobacco."
Tommy scooped the gold into separate sacks. Six thousand dollars
remained on the table. El-Soo thrust the scoop into the heap, and
with a sudden turn whirled the contents out and down to the Yukon in
a golden shower. Porportuk seized her wrist as she thrust the scoop
a second time into the heap.
"It is mine," she said calmly. Porportuk released his grip, but he
gritted his teeth and scowled darkly as she continued to scoop the
gold into the river till none was left.
The crowd had eyes for naught but Akoon, and the rifle of Porportuk's
man lay across the hollow of his arm, the muzzle directed at Akoon a
yard away, the man's thumb on the hammer. But Akoon did nothing.
"Make out the bill of sale," Porportuk said grimly.
And Tommy made out the till of sale, wherein all right and title in
the woman El-Soo was vested in the man Porportuk. El-Soo signed the
document, and Porportuk folded it and put it away in his pouch.
Suddenly his eyes flashed, and in sudden speech he addressed El-Soo.
"But it was not your father's debt," he said, "What I paid was the
price for you. Your sale is business of to-day and not of last year
and the years before. The ounces paid for you will buy at the post
to-day seventeen dollars of flour, and not sixteen. I have lost a
dollar on each ounce. I have lost six hundred and twenty-five
El-Soo thought for a moment, and saw the error she had made. She
smiled, and then she laughed.
"You are right," she laughed, "I made a mistake. But it is too late.
You have paid, and the gold is gone. You did not think quick. It is
your loss. Your wit is slow these days, Porportuk. You are getting
He did not answer. He glanced uneasily at Akoon, and was reassured.
His lips tightened, and a hint of cruelty came into his face.
"Come," he said, "we will go to my house."
"Do you remember the two things I told you in the spring?" El-Soo
asked, making no movement to accompany him.
"My head would be full with the things women say, did I heed them,"
"I told you that you would be paid," El-Soo went on carefully. "And
I told you that I would never be your wife."
"But that was before the bill of sale." Porportuk crackled the paper
between his fingers inside the pouch. "I have bought you before all
the world. You belong to me. You will not deny that you belong to
"I belong to you," El-Soo said steadily.
"I own you."
"You own me."
Porportuk's voice rose slightly and triumphantly. "As a dog, I own
"As a dog you own me," El-Soo continued calmly. "But, Porportuk, you
forget the thing I told you. Had any other man bought me, I should
have been that man's wife. I should have been a good wife to that
man. Such was my will. But my will with you was that I should never
be your wife. Wherefore, I am your dog."
Porportuk knew that he played with fire, and he resolved to play
firmly. "Then I speak to you, not as El-Soo, but as a dog," he said;
"and I tell you to come with me." He half reached to grip her arm,
but with a gesture she held him back.
"Not so fast, Porportuk. You buy a dog. The dog runs away. It is
your loss. I am your dog. What if I run away?"
"As the owner of the dog, I shall beat you--"
"When you catch me?"
"When I catch you."
"Then catch me."
He reached swiftly for her, but she eluded him. She laughed as she
circled around the table. "Catch her!" Porportuk commanded the
Indian with the rifle, who stood near to her. But as the Indian
stretched forth his arm to her, the Eldorado king felled him with a
fist blow under the ear. The rifle clattered to the ground. Then
was Akoon's chance. His eyes glittered, but he did nothing.
Porportuk was an old man, but his cold nights retained for him his
activity. He did not circle the table. He came across suddenly,
over the top of the table. El-Soo was taken off her guard. She
sprang back with a sharp cry of alarm, and Porportuk would have
caught her had it not been for Tommy. Tommy's leg went out,
Porportuk tripped and pitched forward on the ground. El-Soo got her
"Then catch me," she laughed over her shoulder, as she fled away.
She ran lightly and easily, but Porportuk ran swiftly and savagely.
He outran her. In his youth he had been swiftest of all the young
men. But El-Soo dodged in a willowy, elusive way. Being in native
dress, her feet were not cluttered with skirts, and her pliant body
curved a flight that defied the gripping fingers of Porportuk.
With laughter and tumult, the great crowd scattered out to see the
chase. It led through the Indian encampment; and ever dodging,
circling, and reversing, El-Soo and Porportuk appeared and
disappeared among the tents. El-Soo seemed to balance herself
against the air with her arms, now one side, now on the other, and
sometimes her body, too, leaned out upon the air far from the
perpendicular as she achieved her sharpest curves. And Porportuk,
always a leap behind, or a leap this side or that, like a lean hound
strained after her.
They crossed the open ground beyond the encampment and disappeared in
the forest. Tana-naw Station waited their reappearance, and long and
vainly it waited.
In the meantime Akoon ate and slept, and lingered much at the
steamboat landing, deaf to the rising resentment of Tana-naw Station
in that he did nothing. Twenty-four hours later Porportuk returned.
He was tired and savage. He spoke to no one but Akoon, and with him
tried to pick a quarrel. But Akoon shrugged his shoulders and walked
away. Porportuk did not waste time. He outfitted half a dozen of
the young men, selecting the best trackers and travellers, and at
their head plunged into the forest.
Next day the steamer Seattle, bound up river, pulled in to the shore
and wooded up. When the lines were cast off and she churned out from
the bank, Akoon was on board in the pilot-house. Not many hours
afterward, when it was his turn at the wheel, he saw a small
birchbark canoe put off from the shore. There was only one person in
it. He studied it carefully, put the wheel over, and slowed down.
The captain entered the pilot-house. "What's the matter?" he
demanded. "The water's good."
Akoon grunted. He saw a larger canoe leaving the bank, and in it
were a number of persons. As the Seattle lost headway, he put the
wheel over some more.
The captain fumed. "It's only a squaw," he protested.
Akoon did not grunt. He was all eyes for the squaw and the pursuing
canoe. In the latter six paddles were flashing, while the squaw
"You'll be aground," the captain protested, seizing the wheel.
But Akoon countered his strength on the wheel and looked him in the
eyes. The captain slowly released the spokes.
"Queer beggar," he sniffed to himself.
Akoon held the Seattle on the edge of the shoal water and waited till
he saw the squaw's fingers clutch the forward rail. Then he
signalled for full speed ahead and ground the wheel over. The large
canoe was very near, but the gap between it and the steamer was
The squaw laughed and leaned over the rail.
"Then catch me, Porportuk!" she cried.
Akoon left the steamer at Fort Yukon. He outfitted a small poling-
boat and went up the Porcupine River. And with him went El-Soo. It
was a weary journey, and the way led across the backbone of the
world; but Akoon had travelled it before. When they came to the
head-waters of the Porcupine, they left the boat and went on foot
across the Rocky Mountains.
Akoon greatly liked to walk behind El-Soo and watch the movements of
her. There was a music in it that he loved. And especially he loved
the well-rounded calves in their sheaths of soft-tanned leather, the
slim ankles, and the small moccasined feet that were tireless through
the longest days.
"You are light as air," he said, looking up at her. "It is no labour
for you to walk. You almost float, so lightly do your feet rise and
fall. You are like a deer, El-Soo; you are like a deer, and your
eyes are like deer's eyes, sometimes when you look at me, or when you
hear a quick sound and wonder if it be danger that stirs. Your eyes
are like a deer's eyes now as you look at me."
And El-Soo, luminous and melting, bent and kissed Akoon.
"When we reach the Mackenzie, we will not delay," Akoon said later.
"We will go south before the winter catches us. We will go to the
sunlands where there is no snow. But we will return. I have seen
much of the world, and there is no land like Alaska, no sun like our
sun, and the snow is good after the long summer."
"And you will learn to read," said El-Soo.
And Akoon said, "I will surely learn to read." But there was delay
when they reached the Mackenzie. They fell in with a band of
Mackenzie Indians, and, hunting, Akoon was shot by accident. The
rifle was in the hands of a youth. The bullet broke Akoon's right
arm and, ranging farther, broke two of his ribs. Akoon knew rough
surgery, while El-Soo had learned some refinements at Holy Cross.
The bones were finally set, and Akoon lay by the fire for them to
knit. Also, he lay by the fire so that the smoke would keep the
Then it was that Porportuk, with his six young men, arrived. Akoon
groaned in his helplessness and made appeal to the Mackenzies. But
Porportuk made demand, and the Mackenzies were perplexed. Porportuk
was for seizing upon El-Soo, but this they would not permit.
Judgment must be given, and, as it was an affair of man and woman,
the council of the old men was called--this that warm judgment might
not be given by the young men, who were warm of heart.
The old men sat in a circle about the smudge-fire. Their faces were
lean and wrinkled, and they gasped and panted for air. The smoke was
not good for them. Occasionally they struck with withered hands at
the mosquitoes that braved the smoke. After such exertion they
coughed hollowly and painfully. Some spat blood, and one of them sat
a bit apart with head bowed forward, and bled slowly and continuously
at the mouth; the coughing sickness had gripped them. They were as
dead men; their time was short. It was a judgment of the dead.
"And I paid for her a heavy price," Porportuk concluded his
complaint. "Such a price you have never seen. Sell all that is
yours--sell your spears and arrows and rifles, sell your skins and
furs, sell your tents and boats and dogs, sell everything, and you
will not have maybe a thousand dollars. Yet did I pay for the woman,
El-Soo, twenty-six times the price of all your spears and arrows and
rifles, your skins and furs, your tents and boats and dogs. It was a
The old men nodded gravely, though their weazened eye-slits widened
with wonder that any woman should be worth such a price. The one
that bled at the mouth wiped his lips. "Is it true talk?" he asked
each of Porportuk's six young men. And each answered that it was
"Is it true talk?" he asked El-Soo, and she answered, "It is true."
"But Porportuk has not told that he is an old man," Akoon said, "and
that he has daughters older than El-Soo."
"It is true, Porportuk is an old man," said El-Soo.
"It is for Porportuk to measure the strength his age," said he who
bled at the mouth. "We be old men. Behold! Age is never so old as
youth would measure it."
And the circle of old men champed their gums, and nodded approvingly,
"I told him that I would never be his wife," said El-Soo.
"Yet you took from him twenty-six times all that we possess?" asked a
one-eyed old man.
El-Soo was silent.
"It is true?" And his one eye burned and bored into her like a fiery
"It is true," she said.
"But I will run away again," she broke out passionately, a moment
later. "Always will I run away."
"That is for Porportuk to consider," said another of the old men.
"It is for us to consider the judgment."
"What price did you pay for her?" was demanded of Akoon.
"No price did I pay for her," he answered. "She was above price. I
did not measure her in gold-dust, nor in dogs, and tents, and furs."
The old men debated among themselves and mumbled in undertones.
"These old men are ice," Akoon said in English. "I will not listen
to their judgment, Porportuk. If you take El-Soo, I will surely kill
The old men ceased and regarded him suspiciously. "We do not know
the speech you make," one said.
"He but said that he would kill me," Porportuk volunteered. "So it
were well to take from him his rifle, and to have some of your young
men sit by him, that he may not do me hurt. He is a young man, and
what are broken bones to youth!"
Akoon, lying helpless, had rifle and knife taken from him, and to
either side of his shoulders sat young men of the Mackenzies. The
one-eyed old man arose and stood upright. "We marvel at the price
paid for one mere woman," he began; "but the wisdom of the price is
no concern of ours. We are here to give judgment, and judgment we
give. We have no doubt. It is known to all that Porportuk paid a
heavy price for the woman El-Soo. Wherefore does the woman El-Soo
belong to Porportuk and none other." He sat down heavily, and
coughed. The old men nodded and coughed.
"I will kill you," Akoon cried in English.
Porportuk smiled and stood up. "You have given true judgment," he
said to the council, "and my young men will give to you much tobacco.
Now let the woman be brought to me."
Akoon gritted his teeth. The young men took El-Soo by the arms. She
did not resist, and was led, her face a sullen flame, to Porportuk.
"Sit there at my feet till I have made my talk," he commanded. He
paused a moment. "It is true," he said, "I am an old man. Yet can I
understand the ways of youth. The fire has not all gone out of me.
Yet am I no longer young, nor am I minded to run these old legs of
mine through all the years that remain to me. El-Soo can run fast
and well. She is a deer. This I know, for I have seen and run after
her. It is not good that a wife should run so fast. I paid for her
a heavy price, yet does she run away from me. Akoon paid no price at
all, yet does she run to him.
"When I came among you people of the Mackenzie, I was of one mind.
As I listened in the council and thought of the swift legs of El-Soo,
I was of many minds. Now am I of one mind again but it is a
different mind from the one I brought to the council. Let me tell
you my mind. When a dog runs once away from a master, it will run
away again. No matter how many times it is brought back, each time
it will run away again. When we have such dogs, we sell them. El-
Soo is like a dog that runs away. I will sell her. Is there any man
of the council that will buy?"
The old men coughed and remained silent
"Akoon would buy," Porportuk went on, "but he has no money.
Wherefore I will give El-Soo to him, as he said, without price. Even
now will I give her to him."
Reaching down, he took El-Soo by the hand and led her across the
space to where Akoon lay on his back.
"She has a bad habit, Akoon," he said, seating her at Akoon's feet.
"As she has run away from me in the past, in the days to come she may
run away from you. But there is no need to fear that she will ever
run away, Akoon. I shall see to that. Never will she run away from
you--this is the word of Porportuk. She has great wit. I know, for
often has it bitten into me. Yet am I minded myself to give my wit
play for once. And by my wit will I secure her to you, Akoon."
Stooping, Porportuk crossed El-Soo's feet, so that the instep of one
lay over that of the other; and then, before his purpose could be
divined, he discharged his rifle through the two ankles. As Akoon
struggled to rise against the weight of the young men, there was
heard the crunch of the broken bone rebroken.
"It is just," said the old men, one to another.
El-Soo made no sound. She sat and looked at her shattered ankles, on
which she would never walk again.
"My legs are strong, El-Soo," Akoon said. "But never will they bear
me away from you."
El-Soo looked at him, and for the first time in all the time he had
known her, Akoon saw tears in her eyes.
"Your eyes are like deer's eyes, El-Soo," he said.
"Is it just?" Porportuk asked, and grinned from the edge of the smoke
as he prepared to depart.
"It is just," the old men said. And they sat on in the silence.