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Title: Snowdrift - A Story of the Land of the Strong Cold
Author: Hendryx, James B. (James Beardsley), 1880-1963
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Snowdrift - A Story of the Land of the Strong Cold" ***

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    SNOWDRIFT

    _A Story of the Land of the Strong Cold_

    By JAMES B. HENDRYX


    AUTHOR OF

    "The Gold Girl," "The Gun Brand," "The Texan,"
    "Prairie Flowers," "The Promise," etc.


        A.L. BURT COMPANY
    Publishers       New York

    Published by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons

    Printed in U.S.A.


    COPYRIGHT, 1922
    BY
    JAMES B. HENDRYX


    BY JAMES B. HENDRYX

    The Promise
    The Gun Brand
    The Texan
    North
    The Gold Girl
    Prairie Flowers
    Snowdrift
    Without Gloves
    At the Foot of the Rainbow

    This edition is issued under arrangement with the publishers
    G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS, NEW YORK AND LONDON

    The Knickerbocker Press, New York



CONTENTS


                                                 PAGE

    A PROLOGUE                                      3

    CHAPTER

         I.--COARSE GOLD                           41

        II.--ON DYEA BEACH                         60

       III.--AT THE MISSION                        72

        IV.--ACE-IN-THE-HOLE                       84

         V.--LUCK TURNS                            93

        VI.--THE DEALER AT STOELL'S               104

       VII.--"WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?"           120

      VIII.--THE PLOTTING OF CAMILLO BILL         132

        IX.--SNOWDRIFT RETURNS TO THE BAND        143

         X.--THE DINNER AT REEVES'                155

        XI.--JOE PETE                             170

       XII.--ON THE TRAIL                         184

      XIII.--THE CAMP ON THE COPPERMINE           198

       XIV.--IN THE BARRENS                       206

        XV.--MOONLIGHT                            223

       XVI.--CONFESSIONS                          243

      XVII.--IN THE CABIN OF THE "BELVA LOU"      260

     XVIII.--LOST                                 277

       XIX.--TRAPPED                              293

        XX.--"YOU ARE WHITE!"                     305

       XXI.--THE PASSING OF WANANEBISH            323

      XXII.--CLAW HITS FOR DAWSON                 339

     XXIII.--IN THE TOILS                         351

      XXIV.--THE FIGHT AT CUTER MALONE'S          364



SNOWDRIFT



A PROLOGUE


I

Murdo MacFarlane, the Hudson's Bay Company's trader at Lashing Water
post, laid aside his book and glanced across the stove at his wife who
had paused in her sewing to hold up for inspection a very tiny shirt of
soft wool.

"I tell you it's there! It's bound to be there," he announced with
conviction. "Just waitin' for the man that's man enough to go an' get
it."

Margot nodded abstractedly and deftly snipped a thread that dangled from
a seam of a little sleeve. She had heard this same statement many times
during the three years of their married life, and she smiled to herself
as Molaire, her father, who was the Company's factor at Lashing Water,
laid aside his well thumbed invoice with a snort of disgust. She knew
her two men well, did Margot, and she could anticipate almost word for
word the heated argument that was bound to follow. Without rising she
motioned to Tom Shirts, the Company Indian, to light the great swinging
lamp. And as the yellow light flooded the long, low trading room, she
resumed her sewing, while Molaire hitched his chair nearer the stove and
whittled a pipeful of tobacco from a plug.

"There ye go again with ye're tomrot an' ye're foolishness!" exploded
the old Frenchman, as he threw away his match and crowded the swelling
tobacco back into the bowl of his pipe. "Always babblin' about the gold.
Always wantin' to go an' find out for ye'reself it ain't there."

"But I'm tellin' you it _is_ there," insisted MacFarlane.

"Where is it, then? Why ain't it be'n got?"

"Because the right man ain't gone after it."

"An' ye're the right man, I suppose! Still lackin' of twenty-five years,
an' be'n four years in the bush; tellin' me that's be'n forty years in
the fur country, an' older than ye before ever I seen it. Ye'll do
better to ferget this foolishness an' stick to the fur like me. I've
lived like a king in one post an' another--an' when I'm old I'll retire
on my pension."

"An' when I'm old, if I find the gold, I'll ask pension of no man. It
ain't so much for myself that I want gold--it's for them--for Margot,
there, an' the wee Margot in yon." He nodded toward the door of the
living room where the year-old baby lay asleep.

Molaire shrugged: "Margot has lived always in the bush. She needs no
gold, an' the little one needs no gold. Gold costs lives. Come, Margot,
speak up! Would ye send ye're man to die in the barrens for the gold
that ain't there?"

Margot paused in her sewing and smiled: "I am not sending him into the
barrens," she said. "If he goes, I go, and the little Margot, too. If
one dies, we all die together. But there must be gold there. Has not
Murdo read it in books? And we have heard rumors of gold among the
Indians."

"Read it in books!" sniffed Molaire. "Rumors among Injuns! Ye better
stick to fur, boy. Ye take to it natural. There's no better judge of fur
in all the traders I've had. Before long the Company'll make ye a
factor."

As young Murdo MacFarlane filled and lighted his pipe, his eyes rested
with burning intensity upon his young wife. When finally he spoke it was
half to himself, half to Molaire: "When the lass an' I were married,
back yon, to the boomin' of the bells of Ste. Anne's, I vowed me a vow
that I'd do the best 'twas in me to do for her. An' I vowed it again
when, a year later, the bells of Ste. Anne's rang out at the christening
of the wee little Margot. Is it the best a man can do--to spend his life
in the buyin' of fur for a wage, when gold 'twould pay for a kingdom
lies hid in the sands for the takin'?"

Molaire's reply was interrupted by a sound from without, and the
occupants of the room looked at each other in surprise. For it was
February and the North lay locked in the iron grip of the strong cold.
Since mid-afternoon the north wind had roared straight out of the
Arctic, driving before it a blue-white smother of powder-dry snow
particles that cut and seared the skin like white-hot steel filings.
MacFarlane was half way across the floor when the door opened and a man,
powdered white from head to foot, stepped into the room in a swirl of
snow fine as steam. With his hip he closed the door against the push of
the wind, and advancing into the room, shook off his huge bear-skin
mittens and unwound the heavy woolen scarf that encircled his parka hood
and muffled his face to the eyes. The scarf, stiff with ice from his
frozen breath, crackled as it unwound, and little ice-chips fell to the
floor.

"Ha, it's Downey, who else? Lad, lad, what a night to be buckin' the
storm!" cried the trader.

Corporal Downey, of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, grinned as he
advanced to the stove. "It was buck the storm to Lashin' Water post, or
hole up in a black spruce swamp till it was over. She looks like a three
days' storm, an' I prefer Lashin' Water."

"Ye're well in time for supper, Corporal," welcomed Molaire, "and the
longer the storm lasts the better. For now we'll have days an' nights of
real whist. We've tried to teach Tom Shirts to play, but he knows no
more about it now than he knows about the ten commandments--an' cares
less. So we've be'n at it three-handed. But three-handed whist is like a
three-legged dog--it limps."

Neseka, the squaw, looked in from the kitchen to announce supper, and
after ordering Tom to attend to the Corporal's dogs, Molaire clapped his
hands impatiently to attract the attention of MacFarlane and Downey who
were beating the snow from the latter's moose hide parka. "Come,"
insisted the old man, "ye're outfit'll have plenty time to dry out. The
supper'll be cold, an' we're losin' time. We've wasted a hand of cards
already."

"Is the gold bug still buzzin' in your bonnet, Mac?" asked Downey, as
Molaire flourished the keen bladed carving knife over the roasted
caribou haunch.

"Aye," answered the young Scotchman. "An' when the rivers run free in
the spring, I'll be goin' to get it."

A long moment of silence followed the announcement during which the
carving knife of Molaire was held suspended above the steaming roast.
The old man's gaze centered upon his son-in-law's face, and in that
moment he knew that the younger man's decision had been made, and that
nothing in the world could change it. The words of Margot flashed
through his brain: "If he goes, I go, and the little Margot, too. If one
dies, we all die together." His little daughter, the light of his life
since the death of her mother years before--and the tiny wee Margot who
had snuggled her way into his rough old heart to cheer him in his old
age--going away--far and far away into the God-knows-where of bitter
cold and howling blizzard--and all on a fool's errand! The keen blade
bit the roast to the bone, raised, dripping red juice, and bit again.

"_Mon Dieu_, what a fool!" breathed the old man, and as if in final
appeal, turned to Corporal Downey, who had known him long, and who had
guessed what was passing in his mind. "Tell him, Downey, you know the
North beyond the barrens. Tell him he is a fool!"

And Downey who was not old in years but very wise in the ways of men,
smiled. He liked young Murdo MacFarlane, but he was a Scotchman himself
and he knew the hard-headedness of the breed.

"Well, a man ain't always a fool because he goes huntin' for gold.
That's accordin'. Where is this gold, Mac? An' how do you know it's
there?"

"It's there, all right--gold and copper, too. Didn't Captain Knight try
to find it? And Samuel Hearne?"

"Yes," broke in Molaire, "an' Knight's bones are bleachin' on Marble
Island with his ships on the bottom of the Bay, an' Hearne came back
empty handed."

"That's why the gold is still there," answered MacFarlane.

"Where 'bouts is it?" insisted Downey.

"Up in the Coppermine River country, to the north and east of Bear
Lake."

"How do you know?"

"The Injuns had chunks of it. That's what sent Knight and Hearne after
it."

"How long ago?"

"Captain Knight started in 1719, an' Hearne about fifty years later."

"Gosh!" exclaimed Downey. "Ain't that figurin' quite a ways back?"

"Gold don't rot. If it was there then, it's there now. It's never been
brought out."

"Yes--_if_ it was there. But, maybe it ain't there an' never was--what
then?"

"I talked with an Injun, a year back, that said he had seen an Injun
from the North that had seen some Eskimos that had dishes made of yellow
metal."

"He was prob'ly lyin'," observed Downey, "or the Injun that told him was
lyin'. I've be'n north to the coast a couple of times, an' I never seen
no Injuns nor Eskimos eatin' out of no gold dishes yet."

"Maybe it's because you've stuck to the Mackenzie, where the posts are.
Have you ever crossed the barrens straight north--between the Mackenzie
an' the Bay?"

"No," answered Downey, dryly, "an' I hope to God I don't never have to.
You've got a good thing here with the Company, Mac. If I was you I'd
stick to it, anyways till I seen an Injun with some gold. I never seen
one yet--an' I don't never expect to. An' speakin' of Injuns reminds me,
I passed a camp of 'em this forenoon."

"A camp of 'em!" exclaimed Molaire, in surprise. "Who were they? My
Injuns are all on the trap lines."

"These are from the North somewheres. I couldn't savvy their lingo. They
ain't much good I guess. They're non-treaty Injuns--wanderers. They
wanted to know where a post was, an' I told 'em. They'll prob'ly be in
to trade when the storm lets up."

That evening old Molaire played whist badly. His heart was not in the
game, for try as he would to keep his mind on the cards, in his ears was
the sound of the dull roar of the wind, and his thoughts were of the
future--of the long days and nights to come when his loved ones would be
somewhere far in the unknown North, and he would be left alone with his
Company Indians in the little post on Lashing Water.


II

All night the storm roared unabated and, as is the way of Arctic
blizzards, the second day saw its fury increased. During the morning the
four played whist. There had been no mention of gold, and old Molaire
played his usual game with the result that when Neseka called them to
dinner, he and MacFarlane held a three-game lead over Downey and Margot.
The meal over, they returned to the cards. The first game after dinner
proved a close one, each side scoring the odd in turn, while the old
Frenchman, as was his custom, analyzed each hand as the cards were
being shuffled for the next deal. Finally he scored a point and tied the
score. Then he glared at his son-in-law: "An' ye'd of finessed your
ten-spot through on my lead of hearts we'd of made two points an' game!"
he frowned.

"How was I to know?" MacFarlane paused abruptly in the midst of his deal
and glanced in surprise toward the door which swung open to admit four
Indians who loosened the blankets that covered them from head to foot
and beat the snow from them as they advanced toward the stove. Three of
them carried small packs of fur. The fourth was a young squaw, straight
and lithe as a panther, and as she loosened the moss-bag from her
shoulders, a thin wail sounded from its interior.

"A baby!" cried Margot, as MacFarlane made his way to the counter, his
eyes upon the packs of fur. She stooped and patted her own little one
who was rolling about upon a thick blanket spread on the floor. The
squaw smiled, and fumbling in the depths of the bag drew forth a tiny
brown-red mite which ceased crying and stared stolidly at the cluster of
strange white faces. "What a terrible day for a baby to be out!"
continued the white woman, as she pushed a chair near to the stove.
Again the squaw smiled and seating herself, turned her back upon the
occupants of the room and proceeded to nurse the tiny atom.

Meanwhile MacFarlane was trying by means of the Cree language to
question the three bucks who stood in solemn line before the counter,
each with his pack of fur before him. Downey tried them with the
Blackfoot tongue, and the Jargon, while old Molaire and Tom Shirts added
half a dozen dialects from nearer the Bay. But no slightest flicker of
comprehension crossed the face of any one of them. Presently the young
squaw arose and placed her baby upon the blanket beside the white child
where the two little mites sat and stared at each other in owlish
solemnity. As she advanced toward the counter MacFarlane addressed her
in Cree. And to the surprise of all she spoke to him in English: "We buy
food," she said, indicating the packs of fur.

"Where did you come from?" queried the trader. "An' how is it that you
talk English an' the rest of 'em can't talk nothin'?"

"We come from far to the northward," she answered. "I have been to
school at the mission. These are Dog Ribs. They have not been to school.
I am of the Yellow Knives. My man was drowned in a rapids. He was name
Bonnetrouge. He was a Dog Rib so I live with these."

"Why don't you trade at your own post?" asked MacFarlane, suspiciously.
"Is it because you have a debt there that you have not paid?"

"No. We have no debt at any post. We are only a small band. We move
about all the time. We do not like to stay in one place like the rest.
We see many new rivers, and many lakes, and we go to many places that
the others do not know. We have no debt at any post, we trade as we go
and pay with skins for what we buy."

"One of them wanderin' bands," observed Downey. "I've run across two or
three of 'em here an' there. They camp a while somewheres an' then,
seems like, they just naturally get restless an' move on."

The squaw nodded: "The police is right. We do not like to stay and trap
in one place. I have seen many new things, and many things that even the
oldest man has not seen."

MacFarlane opened the packs and examined their contents, fur by fur,
laying them in separate piles and paying for each as he appraised it in
brass tokens of made beaver. The three bucks looked on in stolid
indifference but MacFarlane noted that the eyes of the squaw followed
his every movement.

As a general rule the agents of the Hudson's Bay Company deal fairly
with the Indians in the trading of the common or standard skins, and
MacFarlane was no exception. It was in a spirit of fun, to see what the
squaw would do, that he counted out thirty made beaver in payment for a
large otter skin.

The Indian woman shook her head: "No, that is a good otter. He is worth
more." And with a smile the Scotchman counted ten additional tokens into
the pile, whereat the squaw nodded approval and the trading proceeded.
When at last it was finished the squaw took entire charge of the
purchasing, pausing only now and then, to consult one or the other of
the Indians in their own tongue, and in her selection of only the
essentials, MacFarlane realized that he was dealing with that rarest of
northern Indians, one who possessed sound common sense and the force of
character to reject the useless trinkets so dear to the Indian heart.

While the bucks were making up their packs the squaw plunged her hand
into the bottom of the moss-bag from which she had taken the baby, and
drew out a single skin. For a long time she stood holding the skin in
one hand while with the other she stroked its softly gleaming surface.
MacFarlane and Molaire gazed at the skin in fascination while Margot
rose from the blanket where she had been playing with the two babies,
and even Corporal Downey who knew little of skins crowded close to feast
his eyes on the jet black pelt whose hairs gleamed with silver radiance.
In all the forty years of his trading Molaire had handled fewer than a
dozen such skins--a true black fox, taken in its prime, so that the
silvered hairs seemed to emit a soft radiance of their own--a skin to
remember, and to talk about. Then the squaw handed the pelt to
MacFarlane and smiled faintly as she watched the trader examine it
almost hair by hair.

"Where did you get it?" he asked.

"I trapped it far to the northward, in the barren grounds, upon a river
that has no name. It is a good skin."

"Did you trap it yourself?"

"Yes. I am a good trapper. My man was a good trapper and he showed me
how. These are good trappers, too," she indicated the three Indians,
"And all the rest who are with us. There are thirty of us counting the
women and children. But we have not had good luck. That is all the fur
we have caught," she pointed to the skins MacFarlane had just bought,
"Those and the little black fox. When the storms stops we will go again
into the barren grounds, and we must have food, or, if we have bad luck
again, some of us will die."

"Why do you go to the barren grounds?" asked MacFarlane. "The trappin'
is better to the eastward, or to the westward."

The squaw shrugged: "My man he had been to school a little, but mostly
he had worked far to the westward along the coast of the sea--among the
white men who dig for gold. And he heard men talk of the gold that lies
in the barren grounds and northward to the coast of the frozen sea. So
he went back to the country of his people, far up on the Mackenzie, and
he told the men of the gold and how it was worth many times more than
the fur. But the old men would not believe him and many of the young men
would not, but some of them did, and these he persuaded to go with him
and hunt for the gold. It was when they were crossing through the
country of my people that I saw him and he saw me and we were married.
That was two years ago and since then we have traveled far and have seen
many things. Then my husband was drowned in a rapids, and I have taken
his place. I will not go back to my people. They were very angry when I
married Bonnetrouge, for the Yellow Knives hate the Dog Ribs. Even if
they were not angry I would not go back, for my husband said there is
gold in the barren grounds. He did not lie. So we will go and get the
gold."

"There's your chance, Mac," grinned Corporal Downey, "You better throw
in with 'em an' get in on the ground floor."

But MacFarlane did not smile. Instead, he spoke gravely to the woman:
"An' have you found any gold in the barrens?"

The squaw shrugged, and glanced down at the babies. When she looked up
again her eyes were upon the little fox skin. "How much?" she asked.

MacFarlane considered. Holding the pelt he stroked its glossy surface
with his hand. Here was a skin of great value. He had heard many traders
and factors boast of the black, and the silver grey fox skins they had
bought at ridiculously low price--and they were men who did not hesitate
to give full value for the common run of skins. Always, with the
traders, the sight of a rare skin arouses a desire to obtain it--and to
obtain it at the lowest possible figure. And MacFarlane was a trader.
He fixed upon a price in his mind. He raised his eyes, but the squaw
was not looking at him and he followed her glance to the blanket where
the two babies, the red baby and the white baby--his own baby and
Margot's, were touching each other gravely with fat pudgy hands.

He opened his lips to mention the price, but closed them again as a new
train of thought flashed through his mind. How nearly this woman's case
paralleled his own. The imagination of each was fired by the lure of
gold, and both were scoffed at by their people for daring to believe
that there was still gold in the earth to be had for the taking. Then,
there was the matter of the babies----

When finally MacFarlane spoke it was to mention a sum three times larger
than the one that he had fixed upon in his mind--a sum that caused old
Molaire to snort and sputter and to stamp angrily up and down the room.

The squaw nodded gravely: "You are a good man," she said, simply. "You
have dealt fairly. Sometime, maybe you will know that Wananebish does
not forget."

Two hours later, when the price of the pelt had been paid and the
supplies all made into packs and carried to the toboggans that had been
left before the door, the Indians wrapped their blankets about them and
prepared to depart.

As the Indian woman wrapped the baby in warm woolens, Margot urged her
to remain until the storm subsided, but the woman declined with a
smile: "No. These are my people. I will go with them. Where one goes,
all go."

"But the baby! This is a terrible storm to take a baby into."

"The baby is warm. She does not know that it storms. She is one of us.
Where we go, she goes, too."

As the Indians filed through the door into the whirling white smother
the young squaw stepped to the counter for a last look at her black fox
skin. She raised it in her hand, drew it slowly across her cheek,
stroked it softly, and then returned it to the counter, taking
deliberate care to lay it by itself apart from the other skins. Then she
turned and was swallowed up in the storm as MacFarlane closed the door
behind her.

"Ye could of bought it for half the price!" growled old Molaire, as his
son-in-law returned to the card table.

"Aye," answered the younger man as he resumed his cards. "But the
Company has still a good margin of profit. They're headin' for the
barrens, an' if, as she said, they have bad luck some of 'em would die.
An' you know who would be the first to go--it would be the babies. I'm
glad I done as I did. I'll sleep better nights."

"And I'm glad, too," added Margot, as she reached over and patted her
husband's hand, "And so is papa way down in his heart. But he loves to
have people think he is a cross old bear--and bears must growl."

Corporal Downey grinned at the twinkle that appeared in old Molaire's
eyes, and the game proceeded until Neseka called them to supper.
MacFarlane paused at the counter and raised the fox skin to the light.
And as he did so, a very small, heavy object rolled from its soft folds
and thudded upon the boards. Slowly MacFarlane laid down the skin and,
picking up the object, carried it close under the swinging lamp, where
he held it in his open palm. Curiously the others crowded about and
stared at the dull yellow lump scarcely larger than the two halves of a
split pea. For a long moment there was silence and then MacFarlane
turned to Corporal Downey: "What was it you said," he asked, "about
sticking to my job until I saw an Injun with some gold?"


III

The north wind moaned and soughed about the eaves of the low log trading
post on Lashing Water. Old Molaire rose from his place by the stove,
crossed the room, and threw open the door. Seconds passed as he stood
listening to the roar of the wind in the tree tops, heedless of the fine
powdering of stinging snow particles that glistened like diamond points
upon his silvery hair and sifted beneath his shirt collar. Then he
closed the door and returned to his chair beside the stove. Corporal
Downey watched in silence while the old man filled his pipe. He threw
away the match and raised his eyes to the officer: "It was a year ago,
d'ye mind, an' just such a storm--when that squaw came bringin' her
black fox skin, and her nugget of damned gold."

"It would be about a year," agreed Downey, gravely nodding his head. "I
made this patrol in February."

"It's just a year--the thirteenth of the month. I'll not be forgetting
it."

"An' have you had no word?"

The old factor shook his head: "No word. They left in May--with the
rivers not yet free of running ice. Two light canoes. Margot could
handle a canoe like a man."

"You'll prob'ly hear from 'em on the break-up this spring. Maybe they'll
give it up an' come back."

Molaire shook his head: "Ye don't know Murdo MacFarlane," he said,
"He'll never give up. He swore he would never return to Lashin' Water
without gold. He's Scotch--an' stubborn as the seven-year itch."

"I'm Scotch," grinned Downey, hoping to draw the old man into an
argument and turn his thoughts from the absent ones. But he would not be
drawn. For a long time he smoked in silence while outside the wind
howled and moaned and sucked red flames high into the stovepipe.

"She'd be two years old, now," Molaire said, "An' maybe talkin' a bit.
Maybe they've taught her to say grand-père. Don't you think she might be
talkin' a little?"

"I don't know much about 'em. Do they talk when they're two?"

The old factor pondered: "Why--it seems to me _she_ did--the other
Margot. But--it's a long time ago--yet it seems like yesterday. I'm
gettin' old an' my memory plays me tricks. Maybe it was three, instead
of two when she begun to say words. D'ye mind, Downey, a year ago we
played whist?"

"Two-handed cribbage is all right," suggested the Corporal. But the old
man shook his head and for a long, long time the only sound in the room
was the irregular tapping of contracting metal as the fire died down
unheeded in the stove. The old man's pipe went out and lay cold in his
hand. The bearded chin sagged forward onto the breast of his woolen
shirt and his eyes closed. Beyond the stove Corporal Downey drowsed in
his chair.

Suddenly the old man raised his head: "What was that?" he asked sharply.

Downey listened with his eyes on the other's face. "I hear nothing," he
answered, "but the booming of the wind."

The peculiar startled look died out of Molaire's eyes: "Yes," he
answered, "It is the wind. I must have be'n dozin'. But it sounded like
bells. I've heard the bells of Ste. Ann's boom like that--tollin'--when
some one--died." Stiffly he rose from his chair and fumbled upon the
counter for a candle which he handed to Downey. "We'll be goin' to bed,
now," he said, "It's late."


IV

Upon a bunk built against the wall of a tiny cabin of logs five hundred
miles to the northward of Lashing Water post the sick woman turned her
head feebly and smiled into the tear-dimmed eyes of the man who leaned
over her: "It's all right, Murdo," she murmured, "The pain in my side
seems better. I think I slept a little."

Murdo MacFarlane nodded: "Yes, Margot, you have been asleep for an hour.
In a few days, now, I'm thinkin' you'll be sittin' up, an' in a week's
time you'll be on your feet again."

The woman's eyes closed, and by the tightening of the drawn lips her
husband knew that she was enduring another paroxysm of the terrible
pain. Outside, the wind tore at the eaves, the sound muffled by its full
freighting of snow. And on the wooden shelf above the man's head the
little alarm clock ticked brassily.

Once more Margot's eyes opened and the muscles of the white pain-racked
face relaxed. The breath rushed in quick jerky stabs between the parted
lips that smiled bravely. "We are not children, Murdo--you and I," she
whispered. "We must not be afraid to face--this thing. We have found
much happiness together. That will be ours always. Nothing can rob us
of that. We have had it. And now you must face a great unhappiness. I am
going to die. In your eyes I have seen that you, too, know this--when
you thought I slept. To-day--to-night--not later than to-morrow I must
go away. I am not afraid to go--only sorry. We would have had many more
years of happiness, Murdo--you--and I--and the little one--" The low
voice faltered and broke, and the dark eyes brimmed with tears.

The man's hands clenched till the nails bit deep into the palms. A great
dry sob shook the drooped shoulders: "God!" he breathed, hoarsely, "An'
it's all my fault for bringin' you into this damned waste of snow an'
ice, an' bitter cold!"

"No, Murdo, it is not your fault. I was as anxious to come as you were.
I am a child of the North, and I love the North. I love its storms and
its sunshine. I love even the grim cruelty of it--its relentless
snuffing out of lives in the guarding of its secrets. Strong men have
gone to their death fighting it, and more men will go--why then should
not I, who am a woman, go also? But, it would have been the same if we
had stayed at Lashing Water. I know what this sickness is. I have seen
men die of it before--Nash, of the Mounted--and Nokoto, a Company
Indian. It is the appendicitis, and no doctor could have got to Lashing
Water in time, any more than he could have got here. They sent the
fastest dog-team on the river when Nash was sick, and before the doctor
came he was dead. It is not your fault, my husband. It is no one's
fault. There is a time when each of us must die. My time is now. That is
all." She ceased speaking, and with an effort that brought little beads
of cold sweat to her forehead, she raised herself upon her elbow and
pointed a faltering forefinger toward the little roughly made crib that
stood close beside the bunk. "Promise me, Murdo," she gasped, "promise
me upon your soul that you will see--that--she--_that she shall go to
school!_ More than I have gone, for there are many things I do not know.
I have read in books things I do not understand."

"Aye, girl," the deep voice of MacFarlane rumbled through the room as he
eased his wife back onto the pillow, "I promise."

The dark eyes closed, the white face settled heavily onto the pillow,
and as MacFarlane bent closer he saw that the breathing was peaceful and
regular. It was as though a great load had been lifted from her mind,
and she slept. With her hand still clasped in his the man's tired body
sagged forward until his head rested beside hers.

MacFarlane awoke with a start. Somewhere in the darkness a small voice
was calling: "Mamma! Daddy! I cold!" For a moment the man lay trying to
collect his befuddled senses. "Just a minute, baby," he called, "Daddy's
comin'." As he raised to a sitting posture upon the edge of the bunk his
fingers came in contact with his wife's hand--the hand that he suddenly
remembered had been clasped in his. Rapidly his brain cleared. He must
have fallen asleep. The fire had burned itself out in the stove and he
shivered in the chill air. Margot's hand must have slipped from his
clasp as they slept. It was too cold for her hand to lie there on top of
the blankets, and her arm protected only by the sleeve of her nightgown.
He would slip it gently beneath the covers and then build up a roaring
fire.

A low whimpering came from the direction of the crib: "Daddy, I cold."

"Just a minute, baby, till daddy lights the light." He reached for the
hand that lay beside him there in the darkness. As his fingers clutched
it a short, hoarse cry escaped him. The hand was icy cold--too cold for
even the coldness of the fireless room. The fingers yielded stiffly
beneath his palm and the arm lay rigid upon the blanket.

MacFarlane sprang to his feet and as he groped upon the shelf for
matches his body was shaken by great dry sobs that ended in low throaty
moans. Clumsily his trembling fingers held the tiny flame to the wick of
the candle, and as the light flickered a moment and then burned clear,
he crossed to the crib where the baby had partly wriggled from beneath
her little blankets and robes. Wrapping her warmly in a blanket, he drew
the rest of the covers over her.

"I want to get in bed with mamma," came plaintively from the small
bundle.

MacFarlane choked back a sob: "Don't, don't! little one," he cried, then
lowering his voice to a hoarse whisper, he bent low over the crib.
"S-h-s-h, don't disturb mamma. She's--asleep."

"I want sumpin' to eat. I want some gravy and some toast."

"Yes, you wait till daddy builds the fire an' then we'll be nice an'
warm, an' daddy'll get supper."

Silently MacFarlane set about his work. He kindled a fire, put the
teakettle on, and warmed some caribou gravy, stirring it slowly to
prevent its scorching while he toasted some bread upon the top of the
stove. Once or twice he glanced toward the bed. Margot's face was turned
away from him, and all he could see was a wealth of dark hair massed
upon the pillow. That--and the hand that showed at the end of the
nightgown sleeve. White as snow--and cold as snow it looked against the
warm red of the blanket. MacFarlane crossed and drew the blanket up over
the hand and arm, covering it to the shoulder. Bending over, he looked
long into the white face. The eyes were closed, MacFarlane was glad of
that, and the lips were slightly parted as though in restful slumber.
"Good bye--Margot--lass--" his voice broke thickly. He was conscious of
a gnawing pain in his throat, and two great scalding tears rolled down
his cheeks and dropped to the mass of dark hair where they glistened in
the steady glow of the single candle like tiny globes of fire. He raised
the blanket to cover the still face, lowered it again and crossed to
the table where he laid out a tincup for himself and a little thick
yellow bowl into which he crumbled the toast and poured the gravy over
it. Then he warmed a tiny blanket, wrapped the baby in it and, holding
her on his lap, fed her from a spoon. Between the slowly portioned
spoonfuls he drank great gulps of scalding tea. There were still several
spoonfuls left in the bowl when the tiny mite in his arms snuggled
warmly against him. "Tell me a 'tory," demanded the mite. MacFarlane
told the "'tory"--and another, and another. And then, in response to an
imperious demand, he sang a song. It was the first time MacFarlane had
ever sung a song. It was a song he had often heard Margot sing, and he
was surprised that he had unconsciously learned the words which fell
from his lips in a wailing monotone.

MacFarlane's heart was breaking--but he finished the song.

"I sleepy," came drowsily from the blanket. "I want to kiss mamma."

"S-h-s-h, mamma's asleep. Kiss daddy, and we'll go to bed."

"I want to kiss mamma," insisted the baby.

MacFarlane hesitated with tight-pressed lips. Then he rose and carried
the baby to the bedside. "See, mamma's asleep," he whispered, pointing
to the mass of dark hair on the pillow. "Just kiss her hair--and
we--won't--wake--her--up." He held the baby so that the little pursed
lips rested for a moment in the thick mass of hair, then he carried her
to her crib and tucked her in. She was asleep when he smoothed the robe
into place.

For a long time he stood looking down at the little face on the pillow.
Then he crossed to the table where he sat with his head resting upon his
folded arms while the minutes ticked into hours and the fire burned low.
As he sat there with closed eyes MacFarlane followed the thread of his
life from his earliest recollection. His childhood on the little
hillside farm, the long hours that he struggled with his books under the
eye of the stern-faced schoolmaster, his 'prenticeship in the shop of
the harness-maker in the small Scotch town, his year of work about the
docks at Liverpool, his coming to Canada and hiring out to the Hudson's
Bay Company, his assignment to Lashing Water as Molaire's clerk, his
meeting with Margot when she returned home from school at the
mission--and the wonderful days of that first summer together. Then--his
promotion to the position of trader, his marriage to Margot--step by
step he lived again that long journey from Lashing Water to Ste. Anne's.
For it was old Molaire's wish that his daughter should be married in the
old Gothic church where, years before, he had married her mother.

MacFarlane raised his head and listened, his wide-staring eyes fixed
upon the black square of the window--that sound--it was--only the moan
and the muffled roar of the wind--but, for a moment it had sounded like
the tone of a deep-throated bell--like the booming of the bells of Ste.
Anne's. Slowly the man lowered his head to his arms and groped for the
thread of his thought where he had left it. Lingeringly, he dwelt upon
the happiness that had been theirs, the coming of the little Margot--the
infinite love that welled in their hearts for this soft little helpless
thing, their delight in her unfolding--the gaining of a pound--the first
tooth--the first half-formed word--the first step. He remembered, too,
their distress at her tiny ills, real and fancied. Then, his own desire
to seek gold--not for himself, but that these two loved ones might enjoy
life in a fullness undreamed by the family of a fur trader. He
recollected Molaire's opposition, his arguments, his scoffing, and his
prediction that by the end of a year he would be back at Lashing Water
buying fur for the Company. And he recollected his own retort, that
without the gold he would never come back.

And here, in this little thick walled cabin far into the barren grounds,
he had come to the end of the long, long trail. MacFarlane raised his
head and stared at the crib. But, was it the end? He knew that it was
not, and he groped blindly, desperately to picture the end. If it were
not for her--for this little one who lay asleep there in the crib, the
end would be easy. The man's glance sought the rifle that rested upon
its pegs above the window. It was out of the question to think of
returning to Lashing Water, if he would--the baby could not stand five
hundred miles of gruelling winter-trail. He could not keep her here and
leave her alone while he prospected. He could not remain in the cabin
all winter and care for her--he must hunt to live--and game was scarce
and far afield. He shuddered at the thought of what might happen if he
were to leave her alone in the cabin with a fire in the stove--or worse,
of what might eventually happen if some accident befell him and he could
not return to the cabin.

MacFarlane sat bolt upright. He suddenly remembered that a few days
before, from a high hill some thirty miles to the westward, he had seen
an Indian village nestled against a spruce swamp at a wide bend of a
river. It was a small village of a dozen or more tepees, and he had
intended to visit it later. Why not take the baby over there and give
her into the keeping of some squaw. If he could find one like Neseka all
would be well, for Neseka's love for the little Margot was hardly less
than his own. And surely, in a whole village there must be at least one
like her.

MacFarlane replenished his fire, and groping upon the shelf, found a
leather covered note book and pencil. The guttered candle flared smokily
and he replaced it with another, and for an hour or more he wrote
steadily, filling page after page of the note book with fine lined
writing.

When he had finished he thrust the note book into his pocket and again
buried his face in his arms.


V

Toward morning the storm wore itself out, and before the belated winter
dawn had tinted the east MacFarlane set out for the Indian village. The
cold was intense so that his snowshoes crunched on the surface of the
flinty, wind-driven snow. Mile after mile he swung across the barrens
that lay trackless, and white, and dead, skirting towering rock ledges
and patches of scraggly timber. The sun came out and the barrens glared
dazzling white. MacFarlane had left his snow-goggles back in the cabin,
so he squinted his eyes and pushed on. Three times that day he stopped
and built a fire at the edge of a thicket and heated thick caribou gruel
which he fed by spoonfuls to the tiny robe-wrapped little girl that
snuggled warm in his pack sack. Darkness had fallen before he reached
the high hill from which he had seen the village. He scanned the sweep
of waste that lay spread before him, its shapes and distances distorted
and unreal in the feeble light of the glittering stars. He hardly
expected a light to show from a village of windowless tepees in the dead
of winter, and he strove to remember which of those vague splotchy
outlines was the black spruce swamp against which he had seen the
tepees. Suddenly the silence of the night was broken by the sharp jerky
yelp of a stricken dog. The sound issued from one of the dark blotches
of timber, and was followed by a rabble of growls and snarls. MacFarlane
judged the distance that separated him from the vague outline of the
swamp to be three or four miles, but the shrill sounds cut the frozen
air so distinctly that they seemed to issue from the foot of the hill
upon which he stood. A dull spot of light showed for a moment, rocketed
through the air, and disappeared amid a chorus of yelps and howls. An
Indian, disturbed by the fighting dogs, had thrown back the flap of his
tepee and hurled a lighted brand among them.

Swiftly MacFarlane descended the slope and struck out for the black
spruce swamp. An hour later he stood upon the snow-covered ice of the
river while barking, snarling and growling, the Indian dog pack crowded
about him. It seemed a long time that he stood there holding the dogs at
bay with a stout spruce club. At length dark forms appeared in front of
the tepees and several Indians advanced toward him, dispersing the dogs
with blows and kicks and commands in hoarse gutterals. MacFarlane spoke
to them in Cree, and getting no response, he tried several of the
dialects from about the Bay. He had advanced until he stood among them
peering from one to another of the flat expressionless faces for some
sign of comprehension. But they returned his glances with owlish
blinking of their smoke reddened eyes. MacFarlane's heart sank. These
were the people in whose care he had intended to leave his little
daughter! Suddenly, as a ray of starlight struck aslant one of the flat
bestial faces, a flash of recognition lighted MacFarlane's eyes. The man
was one of the four who had come to trade a year before at Lashing
Water.

"Where is the squaw?" he cried in English, grasping the man by the
shoulder and shaking him roughly, "Where is Wananebish?"

At the name, the Indian turned and pointed toward a tepee that stood
slightly apart from the rest, and a moment later MacFarlane stood before
its door. "Wananebish!" he called. And again, "Wananebish!"

"Yes," came the answer, "What does the white man want?"

"It is MacFarlane, the trader at Lashing Water. Do you remember a year
ago you sold me a black fox skin?"

"I remember. Did I not say that Wananebish would not forget? Wait, and I
will let you in, for it is cold." The walls of the tepee glowed faintly
as the squaw struck a light. He could hear her moving about inside and a
few minutes later she threw open the flap and motioned him to enter.
MacFarlane blinked in surprise as she fastened the flap behind him.
Instead of the filthy smoke-reeking interior he had expected, the tepee
was warm and comfortable, its floor covered thickly with robes, and
instead of the open fire in the center with its smoke vent at the apex
of the tepee, he saw a little Yukon stove in which a fire burned
brightly.

Without a word he removed his pack sack and tenderly lifting the
sleeping baby from it laid her on the robes. Then, seating himself
beside her he told her, simply and in few words what had befallen him.
The squaw listened in silence and for a long time after he finished she
sat staring at the flame of the candle.

"What would you have me do?" she asked at length.

"Keep the little one and care for her until I return," answered the man,
"I will pay you well."

The Indian woman made a motion of dissent. "Where are you going?"

"To find gold."

Was it fancy, or did the shadow of a peculiar smile tremble for an
instant upon the woman's lips? "And, if you do not return--what then?"

"If I do not return by the time of the breaking up of the rivers,"
answered the man, "You will take the baby to Lashing Water post to
Molaire, the factor, who is the father of her mother." As he spoke
MacFarlane drew from his pocket the leather notebook, and a packet
wrapped in parchment deer skin and tied with buckskin thongs. He handed
them to the squaw: "Take these," he said, "and deliver them to Molaire
with the baby. In the book I have instructed him to pay you for her
keep."

"But this Molaire is an old man. Suppose by the time of the breaking up
of the rivers he is not to be found at Lashing Water? He may be dead, or
he may have gone to the settlements."

"If he has gone to the settlements, you are to find him. If he is
dead--" MacFarlane hesitated: "If Molaire is dead," he repeated, "You
are to take care of the baby until she is old enough to enter the school
at some mission. I'm Scotch, an' no Catholic--but, her mother was
Catholic, an' if the priests an' the sisters make as good woman of her
as they did of her mother, I could ask no more. Give them the notebook
in which I have set down the story as I have told it to you. The packet
you shall open and take out whatever is due you for her keep. It
contains money. Keep some for yourself and give some to the priests to
pay for her education."

The squaw nodded slowly: "It shall be as you say. And, if for any
reason, we move from here before the breaking up of the rivers, I will
write our direction and place it inside the caribou skull that hangs
upon the great split stump beside the river."

MacFarlane rose; "May God use you as you use the little one," he said,
"I'll be going now, before she wakes up. It will be better so." He
stooped and gazed for a long time at the face of the sleeping baby. A
hot tear splashed upon the back of his hand, and he brushed it away and
faced the squaw in the door of the tepee: "Goodbye," he said, gruffly,
"Until the rivers break up in the spring."

The Indian woman shook her head: "Do not say it like that," she
answered, "For those were the words of my man when he, too, left to find
gold. And when the river broke up in the spring he did not come back to
me--for the grinding ice-cakes caught his canoe, and he was crushed to
death in a rapids."


VI

For four long nights and four short days MacFarlane worked at the
digging of a grave. It was a beautiful spot he chose to be the last
resting place of his young wife--a high, spruce-covered promontory that
jutted out into a lake. The cabin and its surroundings had grown
intolerable to him, so that he worked furiously, attacking the iron-hard
ground with fire, and ice-chisel, and spade. At last it was done and
placing the body of his wife in the rough pole coffin, he placed it upon
his sled and locking the dogs in the cabin, hauled it himself to the
promontory and lowered it into the grave. Then he shoveled back the
frozen earth, and erected a wooden cross upon which was burned deep her
name, and returning to the cabin, slept the clock around.

If MacFarlane had been himself he would have heeded the signs of
approaching storm. But he had become obsessed with desire to leave that
place with its haunting memories, where every mute object seemed to
whisper to him of his loved ones. He was talking and mumbling to himself
as he harnessed his dogs and headed into the North at the breaking of a
day.

Three hours after MacFarlane hit the trail he left the sparsely timbered
country behind and struck into a vast treeless plain whose glaring white
surface was cut here and there by rugged ridges of basalt which
terminated abruptly in ledges of bare rock.

At noon he made a fireless camp, ate some pilot bread, and caribou meat.
The air was still--ominously dead and motionless to one who knew the
North. But MacFarlane gave no heed, nor did he even notice that though
there were no clouds in the sky, the low-hung sun showed dull and
coppery through a steel-blue fog. He bolted his food and pressed on.
Before him was no guiding landmark. He laid his course by the compass
and held straight North across the treeless rock-ribbed plain. The man's
lean face looked pinched and drawn. For a week he had taken his sleep in
short fitful snatches, in his chair beside the cabin stove, or with his
back against a tree while he waited for the fire to bite a few inches
deeper into the frozen ground as he toiled at the lonely grave. On and
on he mushed at the head of his dogs, his eyes, glowing feverbright,
stared fixedly from between red-rimmed lids straight into the steel
blue fog bank that formed his northern horizon. And as he walked, he
talked incessantly--now arguing with old Molaire, who predicted dire
things, and refused to believe that there was gold in the North--now
telling Margot of his hopes and planning his future--and again, telling
stories to little Margot of Goldilocks and the three little bears, and
of where the caribou got their horns.

The blue fog thickened. From somewhere far ahead sounded a low
whispering roar--the roar of mightly wind, muffled by its burden of
snow. When the first blast struck, MacFarlane tottered in his tracks,
then lowering his head, leaned against it and pushed on. Following the
gust was a moment of calm. Behind him the dogs whimpered uneasily.
MacFarlane did not hear them, nor did he hear the roar of the onrushing
wind.

Around a corner of a rock ledge a scant two hundred yards ahead of him,
appeared a great grey shape, running low. The shape halted abruptly and
circled wide. It was followed by other shapes--gaunt, and grey, and
ugly, between whose back-curled lips white fangs gleamed. The wolf pack,
forty strong, was running before the storm, heading southward for the
timber. Whining with terror, MacFarlane's dogs crowded about his legs in
a sudden rush. The man went down and struggled to his feet, cursing, and
laying about him with clubbed rifle. Then the storm struck in all its
fury. MacFarlane gasped for air, and sucked in great gulps of powdery
snow that bit into his lungs and seared his throat with their stinging
cold. He choked and coughed and jerking off his mitten, clawed with bare
fingers at his throat and eyes. While behind him, down wind, the great
grey caribou wolves, stopped in their wild flight by the scent of meat,
crowded closer, and closer.

In a panic, MacFarlane's dogs whirled, and dragging the sled behind them
bolted. MacFarlane staggered a few steps forward and fell, then, on
hands and knees he crawled back, groping and pawing the snow for his
mitten and rifle. The sharp frenzied yelps as the dog team plunged into
the wolf-pack sounded faint and far. The man threw up his head. He
pulled off his cap to listen and the wind whipped it from his numbed
fingers--but MacFarlane did not know. Moments of silence followed during
which the man strained his ears to catch a sound that eluded him.

When the last shred of flesh had been ripped from the bones of the dogs
the gaunt grey leader of the pack raised his muzzle and sniffed the
wind. He advanced a cautious step or two and sniffed again, then seating
himself on his haunches he raised his long pointed muzzle to the sky and
gave voice to the long drawn cry of the kill--and the shapes left the
fang-scarred bits of bone and sniffed up-wind at the man-scent.

As the sound of the great wolf cry reached his ears above the roar of
the wind, MacFarlane's face lighted with a smile of infinite gladness:
"The bells," he muttered, "I heard them--d'you hear them, Margot--girl?
It's for us--the booming of the bells of Ste. Anne's!" And with the
words on his lips MacFarlane pillowed his head on the snow--and slept.


VII

Years afterward, after old Molaire had been gathered to his fathers and
laid in the little cemetery within the sound of the bells of Ste.
Anne's, Corporal Downey one day came upon a long deserted cabin far into
the barren grounds upon the shore of a nameless lake. He closed the
rotting door behind him, and methodically searching the ground, came at
length upon the solitary grave upon the high promontory that jutted into
the lake. Unconsciously he removed his hat as he read the simple
inscription burned deep into the little wooden cross. His lips moved:
"Margot--girl," he whispered, "if--if--" the whisper thickened and
choked him. He squared his shoulders and cleared his throat roughly. "Aw
hell!" he breathed, and turning, walked slowly back to his canoe and
shoved out onto the water.

And during the interval of the years the little band of non-treaty
Indians--the homeless and the restless ones--moved on--and on--and
on----



CHAPTER I

COARSE GOLD


As Carter Brent pushed through the swinging doors of "The Ore Dump"
saloon, the eyes of the head bartender swept with approval from the
soles of the high laced boots to the crown of the jauntily tilted
Stetson. "What'll it be this morning, Mr. Brent?" he greeted. "Little
eye-opener?"

The young man grinned as he crossed to the bar: "How did you guess it?"

The bartender set out decanter and glasses. "Well, after last night,
thought maybe you'd have a kind of fuzzy taste in your mouth."

"Fuzzy is right! My tongue is coated with fur--dark brown fur--thick and
soft. What time was it when we left here?"

"Must have been around two o'clock. But, how does it come you ain't on
the works this mornin'? Never knew you to lose a day on account of a
hang-over. Heard a couple of the S. & R.'s tunnels got flooded last
night."

Brent poured a liberal drink and downed it at a swallow: "Yes," he
answered, dryly, "And that's why I'm not on the works. I'm hunting a
job, and the S. & R. is hunting a new mining engineer."

"Jepson fired you, did he! Well, you should worry. I've heard 'em
talkin' in here, now an' then--some of the big guns--an' they all claim
you're one of the best engineers in Montana. They say if you'd buckle
down to business you'd have 'em all skinned."

"Buckle down to business, eh! The trouble with them is that when they
hire a man they think they buy him. It's none of their damn business
what I do evenings. If I'm sober when I'm on the job--and on the job six
days a week, and sometimes seven--they're getting all they're paying
for."

"They sure are," agreed the other with emphasis, "Have another shot," he
shoved the decanter toward the younger man and leaned closer: "Say Mr.
Brent, you ain't--er, you don't need a little change, do you? If you do
just say so, you're welcome to it." The man drew forth a roll of bills,
but Brent shook his head:

"No thanks. You can cash this check for me though. Jepson was square
enough about it--paid me in full to date and threw in a month's salary
in advance. I don't blame him any. We quit the best of friends. When he
hired me he knew I liked a little drink now and then, so I took the job
with the understanding that if the outfit ever lost a dollar because of
my boozing, I was through right then."

"What was it flooded the tunnels?"

"Water," grinned Brent.

"Oh," laughed the bartender, "I thought maybe it was booze."

"You'd have thought so all the more if you'd been there this morning to
hear the temperance lecture that old Jepson threw in gratis along with
that extra month's pay. About the tunnels--we get our power from
Anaconda, and something happened to the high tension wire, and the pumps
stopped, and there wasn't any light, and Number Four and Number Six are
wet tunnels anyway so they filled up and drowned two batteries of
drills. Then, instead of rigging a steam pump and pumping them out
through Number Four, one of the shift bosses rigged a fifteen inch
rotary in Number Six and started her going full tilt with the result
that he ran the water down against that new piece of railroad grade and
washed about fifty feet of it into the river and left the track hanging
in the air by the rails."

"The damn fool!"

"Oh, I don't know. He did the best he could. A shift boss isn't hired to
think."

"What did old Jepson fire _you_ for? He didn't think you clim up an' cut
the high tension wire did he? Or, did he expect you to set around nights
an' keep the juice flowin'?"

Brent laughed: "Not exactly. But they tried to find me and couldn't. So
when I showed up this morning old Jepson sent for me and asked me where
I was last night. I could have lied out of it easy enough. He would have
accepted any one of a half a dozen excuses--but lying's poor
business--so I told him I was out having a hell of a good time and wound
up about three in the morning with a pretty fair snootful."

"Bet he thinks a damn sight more of you than if you'd of lied, at that.
But they's plenty of jobs fer you. You've got it in your noodle--what
they need--an' what they've got to pay to get. You might drop around an'
talk to Gunnison, of the Little Ella. He was growlin' in here the other
night because he couldn't get holt of an engineer. Goin' to do a lot of
cross tunnel work or somethin'. Said he was afraid he'd have to send
back East an' get some pilgrim or some kid just out of college. Hold on
a minute there's a bird down there, among them hard rock men, that looks
like he was figgerin' on startin' somethin'. I'll just step down an' put
a flea in his ear."

Brent's eyes followed the other as he made his way toward the rear of
the long bar where three or four bartenders were busy serving drinks to
a crowd of miners. He noticed casually that the men were divided into
small groups and that they seemed to be talking excitedly among
themselves, and that the talk was mostly in whispers.

"The Ore Dump" was essentially a mining man's saloon. Its proprietor,
Patsy Kelliher, was an old time miner who, having struck it lucky with
pick and shovel, had started a modest little saloon, and later had
opened "The Ore Dump," in the fitting up of which he had gone the limit
in expensive furnishings. It was his boast that no miner had ever gone
out of his door hungry or thirsty, nor had any man ever lost a cent by
unfair means within his four walls. Rumor had it that Patsy had given
away thousands. Be that as it may, "The Ore Dump" had for years been the
mecca of the mining fraternity. Millionaire mine owners, managers,
engineers, and on down through the list to the humblest "hunk," were
served at its long bar, which had, by common usage become divided by
invisible lines of demarkation. The mine owners, the managers, the
engineers, and the independent contractors foregathered at the front end
of the bar; the hunks, and the wops, and the guineas at the rear end;
while the long space between was a sort of no-man's-land where drank the
shift bosses and the artisans of the mines--the hard-rock men, the
electricians, and the steam-fitters. Combinations of capital running
into millions had been formed at the front end, and combinations of
labor at the rear, while in no-man's-land great mines had been tied up
at the crooking of a finger.

On this particular morning Carter Brent was the only customer at the
front end of the bar. He poured another drink and watched it glow like a
thing of life with soft amber lights that played through the crystal
clear glass as a thin streak of sunlight struck aslant the bar. The
liquor in his stomach was taking hold. He felt warm, with a glowing,
tingling warmth that permeated to his finger tips. In his mind was a
vast sense of well being. The world was a great old place to live in. He
drank the whisky in his glass and refilled it from the cut glass
decanter. Poor old Jepson--fired the best engineer in Montana--that's
what his friend, the bartender, had just told him, and he got it from
the big guns. Well, it was Jepson's funeral--he and the S. & R. would
have to stagger along as best they could. He would go and see
Gunnison--no, to hell with Gunnison! Brent's fingers closed about the
roll of bills in his trousers pocket. He had plenty of money, he would
wait and pick out a job. He needn't worry. He always was sure of a good
job. Hadn't he had five in the two years since he graduated from
college? There were plenty of mines and they all needed good engineers.
Brent smiled as his thoughts drifted lazily back to his four years in
college. He wished some of the fellows would drop in. "They were a bunch
of damned good sports," he muttered to himself, "And we sure did roll
'em high! Speedy Bennet was always the first to go under--about two
drinks and we'd lay him on the shelf to call for when needed. Then came
McGivern, then Sullivan, and about that time little Morse would begin
flapping his arms around and proclaiming he could fly. Then, after a
while there wouldn't be anyone left but Morey and me--good old
Morey--they canned him in his senior year--and they've been canning me
ever since."

Brent paused in his soliloquy and regarded the men who had been
whispering among themselves toward the rear of the room. There were no
small groups now, and no whispering. With tense faces they were crowding
about a man who stood with hands palm down upon the bar. He wondered
what it was all about. From his position at the head of the bar he could
see the man's face plainly. Also he could see the faces of the
others--the lined, rugged faces of the hard rock and the vapid,
loose-lipped faces of the wops--and of all the faces only the face of
the man who stood with his hands on the bar betrayed nothing of tense
expectancy. Why were these others crowding about him, and why was he the
only man of them all who was not holding in check by visible effort some
pent up emotion? Brent glanced again into the weather-lined face with
its drooping sun-burned mustache, and its skin tanned to the color of
old leather--a strong face, one would say--the face of a man who had
battled long against odds, and won. Won what? He wondered. For an
instant the man's eyes met his own, and it seemed to Brent as though he
had read the question for surely, behind the long drooping mustache, the
lips twisted into just the shadow of a cynical grin.

The head bartender stepped to the back bar and, from beside a huge
gilded cash register, he lifted a set of tiny scales which he carried to
the bar and set down directly before the man with the sun-burned
mustache.

In front of the bar men crowded closer, craning their necks, and
elbowing one another, as their feet made soft shuffling sounds upon the
hardwood floor. One of the man's hands slipped into a side pocket of his
coat and when it came out something thudded heavily upon the bar. Brent
saw the object plainly as the bartender reached for it, a small buckskin
pouch, its surface glazed with the grease and soot of many campfires. He
had seen men carry their tobacco in just such pouches, but this pouch
held no tobacco, it had thumped the bar heavily and lay like a sack of
sand.

The bartender untied the strings and stood with the pouch poised above
the scales while his eyes roved over the eager, expectant faces of the
crowd. Then he placed a small weight upon the pan of the scales and
poured something slowly from the pouch into the small scoop upon the
opposite side. From his position Brent could see the delicate scales
oscillate and finally strike a balance. The bartender closed the pouch
and handed it back to the owner. Then he picked up the scales and
returned them to their place beside the cash register, while in front of
the bar men surged about the pouch owner clawing and shoving to get next
to him, and all talking at once, nobody paying the slightest attention
to the bartenders who were vainly trying to serve a round of drinks.

The head bartender returned to his position opposite Brent, and reaching
for the decanter, poured himself a drink. "Drink up and have one on the
stranger--he just set 'em up to the house."

Brent swallowed the liquor in his glass and refilled it: "What's the
excitement?" he asked, "A man don't ordinarily get as popular as he
seems to be just because he buys a round of drinks, does he?"

"Didn't you see it? It ain't the round of drinks, it's--wait--" He
stepped to the back bar and lifting the scoop from the scales set it
down in front of Brent, "That's what it is--_gold_! Yes sir, pure gold
just as she comes from the sand--nuggets and dust. It's be'n many a year
since any of that stuff has been passed over this bar for the drinks.
I've be'n here seven years and it's the first _I've_ took in, except now
and then a few colors that some _hombre's_ washed out of some dry coulee
or creek bed--fine dust that's cost him the shovelin' an' pannin' of
tons of gravel. Patsy keeps the scales settin' around for a
curiosity--that, an' because the old-timers likes to see 'em handy. Kind
of reminds 'em of the early days an' starts 'em gassin'. But this here's
the real stuff. Look at that boy." He poked with his finger at an
irregular nugget the size of a navy bean, "Looks like a chunk of
slag--an' that ain't all! He's got a bag full of 'em. I held it in my
hand, an' it weighed _pounds_!"

As Brent stood looking down at the grains of yellow metal in the little
scoop a strange uneasiness stirred deep within him. He picked up the
nugget and held it in the palm of his hand. One side of it was flat, as
though polished by a thousand years of water-wear, and the other side
was rough and fire-eaten as though fused by a mighty heat. Brent had
seen plenty of gold--coined gold, gold fashioned by the goldsmith's art,
and gold in bricks and ingots, in the production of which he himself had
been a factor. Yet never before had the sight of gold moved him. It had
been merely a valuable metal which it was his business to help extract
from certain rocks by certain processes of chemistry and expensive
machinery. Yet here in his hand was a new kind of gold--gold that seemed
to reach into the very heart of him with a personal appeal. Raw
gold--gold that had known the touch of neither chemicals nor machinery,
but that had been wrested by the bare hands of a man from some far place
where the fires of a glowing world and the glacial ice-drift had
fashioned it. The vague uneasiness that had stirred him at sight of the
yellow grains, flamed into a mighty urge at its touch. He, too, would go
and get gold--and he would get it not by process of brain, but by
process of brawn. Not by means of chemicals and machinery, but by
slashing into the sides of mountains, and ripping the guts out of
creeks! Carefully he returned the nugget to the scoop, and as he raised
his eyes to the bartender's, he moistened his lips with his tongue.

"Where did he get it?" he asked, huskily.

"God, man! If I know'd that I wouldn't be standin' here, would I?" He
jerked his thumb toward the rear of the room where men were frenziedly
crowding the stranger. "That's what they all want to know. Lord, if he'd
let the word slip what a stampede there'd be! Every man for himself an'
the devil take the hindmost. Out of every hundred that's in on a
stampede, about one makes a stake, an' ten gets their ante back, an' the
rest goes broke. They all know what they're going up against--but the
damned fools! Every one of 'em would stake all they've got, an' their
life throw'd in, to be in on it."

"It's the lure of gold," muttered Brent, "I've heard of it, but I never
felt it before. Are they damned fools? Wouldn't you?"

"Wouldn't I--what?"

"Wouldn't you go--along with the rest?"

"_Hell--yes!_ An' so would anyone else that had any red guts in 'em!"

Brent poured himself a drink, and shoved the decanter toward the other,
"Let's liquor," he said, "and then maybe if we can get that fellow away
from the crowd where we can talk----"

The bartender interrupted the thought before it was expressed; "No
chance. Take a look at him. Believe me, there's one _hombre_ that ain't
goin' to spill nothin' he don't want to. An' when a man makes a strike
like that he don't hang around bars runnin' off at the chin about
it--not what you could notice, he don't. Far as I can see we got just
one chance. It's a damn slim one, but you can't always tell what's
runnin' in these birds' heads. He asked me if Patsy Kelliher was runnin'
this dump, an' when I told him he was, he had me send for him. Said he
wanted to see him _pronto_. An' then he kind of throw'd his eyes around
over the faces of the boys an' he says: 'You're all friends of Patsy's?'
He seen in a minute how Patsy stood acehigh with them all, an' then he
says; 'Well, just kind of stick around 'till Patsy gets down here an' it
might be I'll explode somethin' amongst his friends that'll clean this
dump out.' Now, you might take that two ways, but he don't look like one
of these, what you might call, anarchists, does he? An' when he said
that he laughed, an' he says: 'Belly up to the bar an' I'll buy a little
drink--_an' I'll pay for it with coarse gold!_' Well, you seen how much
drinkin' they done, an'--Here's Patsy, now!"

Brent turned and nodded greeting as the proprietor of "The Ore Dump"
entered the door.

"Is it yersilf that sint fer me, Mister Brint, ye spalpeen?" he grinned,
"Bein' a gintleman yersilf, ye'll be knowin' Oi'd still be at me
newspaper an' seegar. Whut's on yer mind thot ye'll be dhraggin' a mon
from the bossom of his family befoor lunch?"

"It ain't him," explained the bartender, "It's the stranger, I told him
you didn't never show up till after dinner, but----"

"_Lunch! Damn it! Lunch!_" Kelliher's fist smote the bar, and as he
scowled into the face of his head bartender, Brent detected a twinkle in
the deep-set blue eyes. "Didn't the owld woman beat that same into me
own head a wake afther we'd moved into the big house? An' she done ut
wid a tree-calf concoordance to Shakspere wid gold edges thot sets on
the par--livin' room table? 'Tis a handy an' useful weapon--a worthy
substitute, as the feller says, to the pleebeen rollin' pin an' fryin'
pan. Thim tree calves has got a hide on 'em loike the bottom av a
sluice-box. Oi bet they could make anvils out av the hide av a
full-grow'd tree-bull. G'wan now an' trot out this ill-fared magpie that
must be at his chatterin' befoor the break av day!"

At a motion from the bartender the crowd parted to allow the stranger to
make his way to the front, surged together behind him, and followed,
ranging itself in a semicircle at a respectful distance. Thus with the
two principals, Brent found himself included within this semicircle of
excited faces.

The two eyed each other for a moment in silence, the stranger with a
smile half-veiled by his sun-burned mustache, and Kelliher with a
frankly puzzled expression upon his face as his thick fingers toyed with
the heavy gold chain that hung cable-like from pocket to pocket of his
gaily colored vest.

"I figured you wouldn't know me." The stranger's grin widened as he
noted the look of perplexity.

"An' no more I don't," retorted the other, unconsciously tilting his
high silk hat at an aggressive angle over his right eye. "Let's git the
cards on the table. Who are ye? An' what ye got in ye're head that ye
couldn't kape there till afther lunch?"

"I'm McBride."

Brent saw that the name conveyed nothing to the other, whose puzzled
frown deepened. "Ye're McBride!" The tone was good-naturedly sarcastic,
"Well, ye'd av still be'n McBride this afthernoon, av ye'd be'n let live
that long. But who the divil's McBride that Oi shud come tearin' down to
look into the ugly mug av um?"

The stranger laughed: "Nine years ago McBride was the night telegraph
operator over in the yards. That was before you moved up here. You was
still in the little dump over on Fagin street an' you done most of the
work yerself--used to open up mornings. There wasn't no big diamon's
shinin' in the middle of yer bald-face shirt them days--I doubt an' you
owned a bald-face shirt, except, maybe, for Sundays. Anyhow, you'd be
openin' up in the mornin' when I'd be goin off trick, an' I most
generally stopped in for a couple of drinks or so. An' one mornin' when
I'd downed three or four, I noticed you kind of givin' me the once-over.
There wasn't no one else in the place, an' you come over an' leaned yer
elbows on the bar, an' you says: 'Yer goin' kind of heavy on that stuff,
son,' you says.

"'What the hell's the difference?' I says, 'I ain't got only six months
to live an' I might's well enjoy what I can of it.'

"'Are they goin' to hang ye in six months?' you asks, 'Have ye got yer
sentence?'

"'I've got my sentence,' I says, 'But it ain't hangin'. The doctors
sentenced me. It's the con.'

"'To hell with the doctors,' you says, 'They don't know it all. We'll
fool 'em. All you need is to git out in the mountains--an' lay off the
hooch.'

"I laughed at you. 'Me go to the mountains!' I says, 'Why man I ain't
hardly got strength to get to my room an' back to the job again--an'
couldn't even make that if it wasn't for the hooch.'

"'That's right,' you says, 'From the job to the room, an' the room to
the job, ye'll last maybe six months--but I'm doubtin' it. But the
mountains is different.' An' then you goes on an talks mountains an'
gold till you got me interested, an' you offers to grub-stake me for a
trip into the Kootenay country. You claimed it was a straight business
proposition--fifty-fifty if I made a strike, an' you put up the money
against my time." The stranger paused and smiled as a subdued ripple of
whisperings went from man to man as he mentioned the Kootenay. Then he
looked Kelliher squarely in the face: "There wasn't no gold in the
Kootenay," he said simply, "Or leastwise I couldn't find none. I figured
someone had be'n stringin' you."

Patsy Kelliher shifted the hat to the back of his head and laughed out
loud as his little eyes twinkled with merriment. "I git ye now, son," he
said, "I moind the white face av ye, an' the chist bowed in like the
bottom av a wash bowl, an' yer shoulders stuck out befront ye loike the
horns av a cow." He paused as his eyes ran the lines of sinewy leanness
and came to rest upon the sun bronzed face: "So ye made a failure av the
trip, eh? A plumb clane failure--an' Oi'm out the couple av hundred it
cost me fer the grub stake----"

"It cost you more than five hundred," interrupted the other. "I was in
bad shape and there was things I needed that other men wouldn't of--that
I don't need--now."

"Well--foive hundred, thin. An' how long has ut be'n ago?"

"Nine years."

Kelliher laughed: "Who was roight--me or the damn doctors? Ye've lived
eighteen toimes as long as they was going to let ye live a'ready--an' av
me eyes deceive me roight, ye ain't ordered no coffin yet."

"No--I ain't ordered no coffin. I come here to hunt you up an' pay you
back."

Kelliher laughed: "There ain't nothin' to pay son. You don't owe me a
cent. A grub-stake's a grub-stake, an' no one iver yit said Patsy
Kelliher welched on a bargain. Besoides, Oi guess ye got all Oi sint ye
afther. I know'd damn well they wasn't no gold in the Kootenay--none
that a tenderfoot lunger cud foind."

McBride laughed: "Sure--I knew after I'd been there six months what you
done it for. I doped it all out. But, as you say, a grub-stake's a
grub-stake, an' no time limit on it, an' no one ever said Jim McBride
ever welched on a bargain, neither. I ain't never be'n just ready to
come back an' settle with you, till now. I drifted north, and farther
north, till I wound up in the Yukon country. I prospected around there
an' had pretty good luck. I'd got back my strength an' my health till
right now there ain't but damn few men in the big country that can hit
the trail with Jim McBride. But I wasn't never satisfied with what I was
takin' out. I know'd there was somethin' big somewheres up there. I
could _feel_ it, an' I played for the big stake. Others stuck by stuff
that was pannin' 'em out wages. I didn't. They called me a fool--an' I
let 'em. I struck up river at last an' they laughed--but they ain't
laughin' now. Me an' a squaw-man named Carmack hunted moose together
over on Bonanza. One day Carmack was scratchin' around the roots of a
big birch tree an' just fer fun he gets to monkeyin' with my pan." The
man paused and Brent could hear the suppressed breathing of the miners
who had crowded close. His eyes swept their faces and he saw that every
eye in the house was staring into the face of McBride as they hung upon
his every word. He realized suddenly that he himself was waiting in a
fever of impatience for the man to go on. "Then I come into camp, an' we
both fooled with the pan--but we didn't fool long. God, man! We was
shakin' it out of the grass roots! _Coarse gold!_ I stayed at it a
month--an' I've filed on every creek within ten miles of that lone birch
tree. Then I come outside to find you an' settle." He paused and his
eyes swept the room: "These men friends of yourn?" he asked. Kelliher
nodded. "Well then I'm lettin' 'em in. Right here starts the biggest
stampede the world ever seen. Some of the old timers that was already up
there are into the stuff now--but in the spring the whole world will be
gettin' in on it!"

Kelliher was the only self-possessed man in the room: "What'll she run
to the pan?" he asked.

"_Run to the pan!_ God knows! We thought she was _big_ when she hit an
ounce----"

"_An ounce to the pan!_" cried Kelliher, "Man ye're crazy!"

The other continued: "An' we thought she was _little_ when she run a
hundred dollars--two hundred! I've washed out six-hundred dollars to
the pan! An' I ain't to bed rock!"

And then he began to empty his pockets. One after another the little
buckskin sacks thudded upon the bar--ten--fifteen--twenty of them.
McBride spoke to Kelliher, who stared with incredulous, bulging eyes:
"That's your share of what I've took out. You're filed along with me as
full pardner in all the claims I've got. They's millions in them
claims--an' more millions fer the men that gets there first." He paused
and turned to the men of the crowd who stood silent, with tense white
faces, and staring eyes glued on the pile of buckskin sacks: "Beat it,
you gravel hogs!" he cried, "It's the biggest strike that ever was! Hit
fer Seattle, go by Dyea Beach an' over the Chilkoot, an' take a thousand
pounds of outfit--or you'll die. A hell of a lot of you'll die
anyhow--but some of you will win--an' win big. Over the Chilkoot, down
through the lakes, an' down the Yukon to Dawson--" A high pitched,
unnatural yell, animal-like in its nervous excitement broke from a
throat in the crowd, and the next instant pandemonium broke loose in
Kelliher's, and Carter Brent fought his way to the door through a
howling mass of mad men, and struck out for his boarding house at a
run.



CHAPTER II

ON DYEA BEACH


In a drizzle of cold rain forty men stood on Dyea beach and viewed with
disfavor the forty thousand pounds of sodden, mud-smeared outfit that
had been hurriedly landed from the little steamer that was already
plowing her way southward. Of the sixty-odd men who, two weeks before
had stood in Patsy Kelliher's "Ore Dump Saloon" and had seen Jim McBride
toss one after another upon the bar twenty buckskin pouches filled to
bursting with coarse gold in his reckoning with Kelliher, these forty
had accomplished the first leg of the long North trail. The next year
and the next, thousands, and tens of thousands of men would follow in
their footsteps, for these forty were the forerunners of the great
stampede from the "outside"--a stampede that exacted merciless toll in
the lives of fools and weaklings, even as it heaped riches with lavish
prodigality into the laps of the strong.

Jim McBride had said that each man must carry in a thousand pounds of
outfit. Well and good, they had complied. Each had purchased his
thousand pounds, had it delivered on board the steamer, and in due
course, had watched it dumped upon the beach from the small boats.
Despite the cold drizzle, throughout the unloading the forty had laughed
and joked each other and had liberally tendered flasks. But now, with
the steamer a vanishing speck in the distance and the rock-studded Dyea
Flats stretching away toward the mountains, the laughter and joking
ceased. Men eyed the trail, moved aimlessly about, and returned to their
luggage. The thousand pound outfits had suddenly assumed proportions.
Every ounce of it must be man-handled across a twenty-eight mile portage
and over the Chilkoot Pass. Now and then a man bent down and gave a
tentative lift at a bale or a sack. Muttered curses had taken the place
of laughter, and if a man drew a flask from his pocket, he drank, and
returned it to his pocket without tendering it to his neighbor.

When Carter Brent had reached the seclusion of his room after leaving
Kelliher's saloon, he slipped his hand into his pocket and withdrawing
his roll of bills, counted them. He found exactly three hundred and
seventy-eight dollars which he rightly decided was not enough to finance
an expedition to the gold country. He must get more--and get it quickly.
Returning the bills in his pocket he packed his belongings, left the
room, and a few minutes later was admitted upon signal to the gambling
rooms of Nick the Greek where selecting a faro layout, he bought a
stack of chips. At the end of a half-hour he bought another stack, and
thereafter he began to win. When his innings totaled one thousand
dollars he cashed in, and that evening at seven o'clock he stepped onto
a train bound for Seattle. He was mildly surprised that none of the
others from Kelliher's were in evidence. But when he arrived at his
destination he grinned as he saw them swarming from the day coaches
ahead.

And now on Dyea beach he stood and scowled as he watched the rain water
collect in drops and roll down the sides of his packages.

"He said they was Injuns would pack this here junk," complained a man
beside him, "Where'n hell be they?"

"Search me," grinned Brent, "How much can you carry?"

"Don't know--not a hell of a lot over them rocks--an' he said this here
Chilkoot was so steep you had to climb it instead of walk."

"Suppose we make a try," suggested Brent. "A man ought to handle a
hundred pounds----"

"_A hundred pounds!_ You're crazy as hell! I ain't no damn burro--me.
Not no hundred pounds no twenty-eight mile, an' part of it cat-climbin'.
'Bout twenty-five's more my size."

"You like to walk better than I do," shrugged Brent, "Have you stopped
to figure that a twenty-five-pound pack means four trips to the
hundred--forty trips for the thousand? And forty round trips of
twenty-eight miles means something over twenty-two hundred miles of
hiking."

"Gawd!" exclaimed the other, in dismay, "It must be hell to be
eggicated! If _I'd_ figgered that out, _I'd_ of stayed on the boat!
We're in a hell of a fix now, an' no ways to git back. That grub'll all
be et gittin' it over the pass, an' when we git there, we ain't
nowheres--we got them lakes an' river to make after that. Looks like by
the time we hit this here Bonanza place all the claims will be took up,
or the gold'll be rotted with old age."

"You're sure a son of gloom," opined Brent as he stooped and affixed his
straps to a hundred-pound sack of flour. "But I'm going to hit the
trail. So long."

As Brent essayed to swing the pack to his shoulders he learned for the
first time in his life that one hundred pounds is a matter not lightly
to be juggled. The pack did not swing to his shoulders, and it was only
after repeated efforts, and the use of other bales of luggage as a
platform that he was at length able to stand erect under his burden. The
other man had watched without offer of assistance, and Brent's wrath
flared as he noted his grin. Without a word he struck across the
rock-strewn flat.

"Hurry back," taunted the other, "You ort to make about four trips by
supper time."

Before he had covered fifty yards Brent knew that he could never stand
the strain of a hundred-pound pack. While not a large man, he was well
built and rugged, but he had never before carried a pack, and every
muscle of his body registered its aching protest at the unaccustomed
strain. Time and again it seemed as though the next step must be his
last, then a friendly rock would show up ahead and he would stagger
forward and sink against its side allowing the rock to ease the weight
from his shoulders. As the distance between resting places became
shorter, the periods of rest lengthened, and during these periods, while
he panted for breath and listened to the pounding of his heart's blood
as it surged past his ear drums, his brain was very active. "McBride
said a good packer could walk off with a hundred, or a hundred and fifty
pounds, and he'd seen 'em pack two hundred," he muttered. "And I've been
an hour moving one hundred pounds one mile! And I'm so near all in that
I couldn't move it another mile in a week. I wonder where those Indian
packers are that he said we could get?" His eyes travelled back across
the flats, every inch of which had caused him bodily anguish, and came
to rest upon the men who still moved aimlessly among the rain-sodden
bales, or stood about in groups. "Anyway I'm the only one that has made
a stab at it."

A sound behind him caused him to turn his head abruptly to see five
Indians striding toward him along the rock-strewn trail. Brent wriggled
painfully from his pack straps as the leader, a bigframed giant of a
man, halted at his side and stared stolidly down at him. Brent gained
his feet and thrust out his hand: "Hello, there, old Nick o' Time! Want
a job? I've got a thousand pounds of junk back there on the beach,
counting this piece, and all you gentlemen have got to do is to flip it
up onto your backs and skip over the Chilkoot with it--it's a snap, and
I'll pay you good wages. Do you speak English?"

The big Indian nodded gravely, "Me spik Eengliss. Me no nem Nickytam.
Nem Kamish--W'ite man call Joe Pete."

Brent nodded: "All right, Joe Pete. Now how much are you and your gang
going to charge me to pack this stuff up over the pass?"

The Indian regarded the sack of flour: "You _chechako_," he announced.

"Just as you say," grinned Brent, "I wouldn't take that from everybody,
whatever it means, but if you'll get that stuff over the pass you can
call me anything you want to."

"You Boston man."

"No--I'm from Tennessee. But we'll overlook even that. How much you pack
it over the pass." Brent pointed to the flour and held up ten fingers.

The Indian turned to his followers and spoke to them in guttural jargon.
They nodded assent, and he turned to Brent: "Top Chilkoot fi' cent
poun'--hondre poun', fi' dolla. Lak Lindermann, three cent poun'
mor'--hondre poun' all way, eight dolla."

"You're on!" agreed Brent, "Thousand pounds, eighty dollars--all the
way."

The Indian nodded, and Brent produced a ten dollar gold piece which he
handed to the man, indicated that he would get the rest when they
reached Lake Lindermann.

The Indian motioned to the smallest of his followers and pointing to the
sack of flour, mumbled some words of jargon, whereupon the man stepped
to the pack, removed Brent's straps and producing straps of his own
swung the burden to his back and started off at a brisk walk.

As Brent led the way back to the beach at the head of his Indians he
turned more than once to glance back at the solitary packer, but as far
as he could see him, the man continued to swing along at the same brisk
pace at which he had started, whereat he conceived a sudden profound
respect for his hirelings. "The littlest runt of the bunch has got me
skinned a thousand miles," he muttered, "But I'll learn the trick. A
year from now I'll hit the trail with any of 'em."

Back at the beach the Indians were surrounded by thirty-nine clamoring,
howling men who pushed and jostled one another in a frenzied attempt to
hire the packers.

"No, you don't!" cried Brent, "These men are working for me. When I'm
through with them you can have them, and not before."

Ugly mutterings greeted the announcement. "Who the hell do you think
you are?" "Divide 'em up!" "Give someone else a chanct." Others advanced
upon the Indians and shook sheaves of bills under their noses, offering
double and treble Brent's price. But the Indians paid no heed to the
paper money, and inwardly Brent thanked the lucky star that guided him
into exchanging all his money into gold before leaving Seattle.

Despite the fact that he was next to useless as a packer Brent was no
weakling. Ignoring the mutterings he led the Indians to his outfit and
while they affixed their straps, he faced the crowding men.

"Just stay where you are, boys," he said. "This stuff here is my stuff,
and for the time being the ground it's on is my ground."

The man who had sneered at his attempt to pack the flour crowded close
and quick as a flash, Brent's left fist caught him square on the point
of the chin and he crashed backward among the legs of the others.
Brent's voice never changed tone, nor by so much as the flutter of an
eye lash did he betray any excitement. "Any man that crosses that line
is going to find trouble--and find it damned quick."

"He's bluffin'," cried a thick voice from the rear of the crowd, "Let me
up there. I'll show the damn dude!" A huge hard-rock man elbowed his way
through the parting crowd, his whiskey-reddened eyes narrowed to slits.
Three paces in front of Brent he halted abruptly and stared into the
muzzle of the blue steel gun that had flashed into the engineer's hand.

"Come on," invited Brent, "If I'm bluffing I won't shoot. You're twice
as big as I am. I wouldn't stand a show in the world in a
rough-and-tumble. But, I'm not bluffing--and there won't be any
rough-and-tumble."

For a full half minute the man stared into the unwavering muzzle of the
gun.

"You would shoot a man, damn you!" he muttered as he backed slowly away.
And every man in the crowd knew that he spoke the truth.

Three of the Indians had put their straps to a hundred pounds apiece and
were already strung out on the trail. Brent turned to see Joe Pete
regarding him with approval, and as he affixed his straps to a fifty
pound pack, the big Indian stooped and swung an extra fifty pounds on
top of the hundred already on his back and struck out after the others.
At the end of a half-mile Brent was laboring heavily under his load,
while Joe Pete had never for an instant slackened his pace. "What's he
made of? Don't he ever rest?" thought Brent, as he struggled on. The
blood was pounding in his ears, and his laboring lungs were sucking in
the air in great gulps. At length his muscles refused to go another
step, and he sagged to the ground and lay there sick and dizzy without
energy enough left at his command to roll the pack from his shoulders.
After what seemed an hour the pack was raised and the Indian who had
gone ahead with his first pack swung the fifty pounds to his own
shoulders and started off. Brent scrambled to his feet and followed.

A mile farther on they came to the others lying on the ground smoking
and resting. The packs lay to one side, and Brent made mental note of
the fact that these packers carried much of the weight upon a strap that
looped over their foreheads, and that instead of making short hauls and
then resting with their packs on they made long hauls and took long
rests with their packs thrown off. They were at least three miles from
the beach, and it was nearly an hour before they again took the trail.
In the meantime Joe Pete had rigged a tump-line for Brent, and when he
again took the trail he was surprised at the difference the shifting of
part of the load to his head made in the ease with which he carried it.

Two miles farther on they came upon the sack of flour where the Indian
had left it and Joe Pete indicated that this would be their first day's
haul. Six hundred pounds of Brent's thousand had been moved five miles,
and leaving the small Indian to make camp, the others, together with
Brent returned for the remaining four hundred.

This time they were not molested by the men on the beach, many of whom
they passed on the trail laboring along under packs which for the most
part did not exceed fifty pounds weight.

On the return Brent insisted on packing his fifty pounds and much to his
delight found that he was able to make the whole distance of three miles
to the resting place. Joe Pete nodded grave approval of this feat and
Brent, in whose veins flowed the bluest blood of the South, felt his
heart swell with pride because he had won the approbation of this dark
skinned packer of the North.

Into this rest camp came the erstwhile head barkeeper at Kelliher's, and
to him Brent imparted the trail-lore he had picked up. Also he exchanged
with him one hundred dollars in gold for a like amount in bills, and
advised Joe Pete that when his present contract was finished this other
would be a good man to work for.

Day after day they packed, and upon the last day of trail Brent made
four miles under one hundred pounds with only one rest--much of the way
through soft muskeg. And he repeated the performance in the afternoon.
At Lindermann Joe Pete found an Indian who agreed to run Brent and his
outfit down through the lakes and the river to Dawson in a huge freight
canoe.

The first stampeders from the outside bought all available canoes and
boats so that by the time of the big rush boats had to be built on the
shore of the lake from timber cut green and whip-sawed into lumber on
the spot. Also, the price of packing over the Chilkoot jumped from five
cents a pound to ten, to twenty, to fifty, to seventy, and even a
dollar, as men fought to get in before the freeze up--but that was a
year and a half after Brent floated down the Yukon in his big birch
canoe.



CHAPTER III

AT THE MISSION


Far in the Northland, upon the bank of a great river that disgorges into
the frozen sea, stands a little Roman Catholic Mission. The mission is
very old--having had its inception in the early days of the fur trade.
Its little chapel boasts a stained glass window--a window fashioned in
Europe, carried across the Atlantic to Hudson Bay in a wooden sailing
vessel, and transported through three thousand miles of wilderness in
canoes, York boats, and scows, and over many weary miles of portage upon
the backs of sweating Indians. Upon its walls hang paintings--works of
real merit, the labor of priestly hands long dead. A worthy monument,
this mission, to the toil and self sacrifice of the early Fathers, and a
living tribute to the labor of the grave Grey Nuns.

The time was July--late evening of a July day. The sun still held high
above the horizon, and upon the grassed plateau about the buildings of
the mission children were playing. They were Indian children, for the
most part, thick bodied and swarthy faced but among them here and there,
could be seen the lighter skin of a half breed. Near the door of one of
the buildings sat a group of older Indian girls sewing. In the doorway
the good Father Ambrose stood with his eyes upon the up-reach of the
river.

Like a silent grey shadow Sister Mercedes glided from the chapel and
seated herself upon a wooden bench drawn close beside the door. Her eyes
followed the gaze of the priest. "No sign of the brigade?" she asked.
"They have probably tied up for the night. Tomorrow maybe--or the day
after, they will come." Ensued a long pause during which both studied
the river. "I think," continued the Nun, "that when the scows return
southward we will be losing Snowdrift."

"Eh?" The priest turned his head quickly and regarded Sister Mercedes
with a frown. "Henri of the White Water? Think you he has----"

The Sister interrupted: "No, no! To school. She is nineteen, now. We can
do nothing more for her here. In the matter of lessons, as you well
know, she has easily outstripped all others, and books! She has already
exhausted our meagre library."

The priest nodded. The frown still puckered his brow but his lips
smiled--a smile that conveyed more of questioning than of mirth.
Intensely human himself, Father Ambrose was no mean student of human
nature, and he spoke with a troubled mind: "To us here at the mission
have been brought many children, both of the Indians and of the Metis.
And, having absorbed to their capacity our teachings, the Indians have
gone stolidly back to their tepees, and to their business of hunting and
trapping, carrying with them a measure of useful handicraft, a
smattering of letters, and the precepts of the Word." The smile had
faded from the clean-cut lips of the priest, and Sister Mercedes noted a
touch of sadness in the voice, as she watched a slanting ray of sunlight
play for a moment upon the thinning, silvery hair. "I have grown old in
the service of God here at this mission, and it is natural that I have
sought diligently among my people for the outward and visible signs of
the fruit of my labor. And I have found, with a few notable exceptions
that in one year, or two, or three, the handicraft is almost forgotten,
the letters are but a dim blur of memory, and the Word?" He shrugged,
"Who but God can tell? It is the Metis who are the real problem. For it
is in their veins that civilization meets savagery. The clash and the
conflict of races--the antagonism that is responsible for the wars of
the world--is inherent in the very blood that gives them life. And the
outcome is beyond the ken or the conjecture of man. I have seen, I
think, every conceivable combination of physical and mental condition,
save the one most devoutly to be hoped for--a blending of the best that
is in each race. That I have not seen. Unless it be that we are to see
it in Snowdrift."

Sister Mercedes smiled: "I do not believe that Snowdrift is a half
breed. I believe she is a white child."

Father Ambrose smiled tolerantly: "Still of that belief? But, it is
impossible. I know her mother. She, too, was a child of this
mission--long before your time. She is one of the few Indians who did
not forget the handicraft nor the letters." The old man paused and shook
his head sadly, "And until she brought this child here I believed that
she had not forgotten the Word. For she continued to profess her belief,
and among her people she waged war upon the rum-runners. Later, I,
myself, married her to a Dog Rib, a man who was the best of his tribe.
Then they disappeared and I heard nothing from her until she brought
this child, Snowdrift, to us here at the mission. She told me that her
husband had been drowned in a rapid, and then she told me--not in
confessional, for she would not confess, that this was her child and
that her father was a white man, but that he was not her husband."

"She may have lied. Loving the child, she may have feared that we would
take her away, or institute a search for her people."

"She loves the child--with the mother love. But she did not lie. If she
had lied, would she not have said that after the death of her husband
she had married this white man? I would have believed her. But,
evidently the idea of truth is more firmly implanted in her heart
than--other virtues--so she told the truth--knowing even as she did so
the light in which she would stand before men, and also the standing of
her daughter."

"Oh, it is a shame!" cried the Nun, "But, still I do not believe it! I
cannot believe it! Snowdrift's skin, where the sun and the wind have not
turned it, is as white as mine."

"But her hair and eyes are the dark hair and eyes of the Indian. And
when she was first brought here, have you forgotten that she fought like
a little wild cat, and that she ran away and trailed her band to its
encampment? Could a white child have done that?"

"But after she had been brought back, and had begun to learn she fought
just as hard against returning to the tribe for a brief vacation. She is
a dreamer of dreams. She loves music and appreciates its beauty, and the
beauty of art and the poets."

"She can trail an animal through country that would throw many an Indian
at fault."

"She hates the sordid. She hates the rum-runners, and the greasy
smoke-blackened tepees of the Indians. In her heart there has been an
awakening. She longs for something better--higher. She has consented to
go to the convent."

"And at the same time we are in mortal dread lest she marry that prince
of all devils, Henri of the White Water. Why she even dresses like an
Indian--the only one of the older girls who does not wear the clothing
of white women."

"That is because of her artistic temperament. She loves the ease and
comfort of the garments. And she realizes their beauty in comparison to
the ugliness of the coarse clothing and shoes with which we must provide
them."

"Where is she now?"

"Hunting."

Father Ambrose laughed: "And I predict that she will not return until
she has brought down her caribou, or her moose. Would your white maiden
of nineteen be off hunting alone in the hills with her rifle? No. By our
very contentions we have established the dual nature of her. In her the
traits of civilization and savagery are not blended, but each in turn
dominate and order her thoughts and actions. Hers is what one might term
an alternating ego. And it is a thing that troubles me sore. What will
happen down there--down at the convent, where they will not understand
her, and where there is no hunting? To what end will this marvelous
energy exert itself? For, it will not remain pent up within her breast.
It will seek outlet. And then?"

"Who can tell?" answered the Nun, thoughtfully. "At least, I shall be
glad indeed to know that she will be far from the baleful influence of
Henri of the White Water. For, devil that he is, there is no gainsaying
the fact that there is something attractive about him, with his bold
free manner, and his handsome face, and gay clothing. He is a figure
that might well attract a more sophisticated woman than our little
Snowdrift. As yet, though, I think he has failed to rouse in her more
than a passing interest. If she cared for him she would not be away
hunting while everyone else is eagerly watching for the brigade."

Father Ambrose shrugged: "'Tis past understanding--the way of a maid
with a man. But see, here she comes, now." Both watched the lithe form
that swung across the clearing from the bush. The girl was hatless, her
mass of black hair, caught up and held in place by an ingenious twist of
bark. Her face and full rounded throat that rose gracefully from the
open collar of a buckskin hunting shirt showed a rich hazel brown in the
slanting rays of the sun. Buckskin gloves protected her hands from the
ever present mosquitoes. A knee-length skirt of heavy cloth, a pair of
deer skin leggings tanned with the hair on, and Indian moccasins
completed her costume.

"What luck?" greeted the priest.

The girl paused before them and flashing a smile, disclosed a set of
teeth that gleamed like wet pearls: "Good luck," she answered, "A young
bull caribou, and two wolves that were just closing in on a cow with a
young calf. Every bullet went true. I shot three times. Has the brigade
passed?"

The priest shook his head: "No, not yet. They will have camped before
this for the night." As he spoke the girl's eyes strayed to the river,
and at the extreme reach of glistening water, they held: "Look!" she
cried, "They are coming, now!" Around the bend into view shot a scow,
and another, and another, until the whole surface of the river seemed
black with the scows. The playing children had seen them too, and with
wild whoops of delight they were racing for the bank, followed by the
older Indian girls, and by Father Ambrose. For the annual coming of the
brigade is an event in the North, bringing as it does the mail and the
supplies for the whole year to these lonely dwellers of the far
outlands.

Sister Mercedes remained seated upon her bench and standing her rifle
against the wall, Snowdrift sat down beside her, and in silence the two
watched the scows swing shoreward in response to the strokes of the
heavy steering sweeps, and listened to the exchange of shouted
greetings.

Of all the rivermen, the bravest figure was that of Henri of the White
Water. The two women could see him striding back and forth issuing
orders regarding the mooring of scows and the unloading of freight. They
saw him pause suddenly in his restless pacing up and down, and eagerly
scan the faces of the assembled group. Then, his glance travelled back
from the river and rested upon the two silent figures beside the door,
and with a wave of his hand, he tossed the sack of mail to the waiting
priest, and stepping past him strode rapidly up the bank in the
direction of the mission.

The face of Sister Mercedes hardened as she noted the flaunting air of
the approaching man, his stocking cap of brilliant blue, his snow-white
_capote_ thrown open to reveal the flannel shirt of vivid red and black
checks.

With a royal bow, he swept the blue stocking cap from his head and
saluted the two upon the bench: "Ah-ha, greetings, _ma chères_! From
Henri of the White Water to the fairest flower of the North, and
her--ah, guardian angel--_non_?" His lips flashed a smile, and he
continued: "But, there are times when even a guardian angel is not
desired to be. Come with me, Snowdrift, and we will walk yonder to the
edge of the bank, where we will still be within sight of the ever
watching eye of the church, but well out of hearing of its ever
listening ear. You see, Sister _religieuse_, I am a respecter of your
little laws!" He laughed aloud, "Ah, yes Henri of the White Water is a
great respecter of laws, _voila_!"

Seating themselves upon the high bank of the river the two watched the
sun dip slowly behind the scrub timber. And, as the twilight deepened,
the man talked rapidly and earnestly, while the girl listened in
silence. "And so," he concluded, "When the scows return, in one month
from now, you shall leave this place forever. We shall go away and be
married, and we will journey far, far up the rivers to the cities of the
white men, and only upon occasion will we make flying trips into the
North--to the trade."

"It is said that you trade hooch," said the girl, "I will not marry any
man who trades hooch. I hate the traders of hooch."

"Ah-ha! _Ma chère!_ Yes, I have now and then traded hooch. You see, I do
not deny. Henri of the White Water must have adventure. But upon my
soul, if you do not want me to trade hooch, I shall never trade another
drop--_non_."

"When the scows return in a month, I shall go with them," answered the
girl dispassionately, "But, not to be married. I am going to school----"

"To school! _Mon Dieu!_ Have you not had enough of school? It is time
you were finished with such foolishness. You, who are old enough to be
the mother of children, talking of going to school! Bah! It is to laugh!
And where would you go--to school?"

"To the convent, at Montreal."

"The devil take these meddlers!" cried the man, rising and pacing
rapidly up and down before the girl. Then suddenly he paused and looking
down upon her, laughed aloud. "Ha, ha! You would go to Montreal! And
what will you do when you get there? What will you say when they ask you
who is your father? Eh, what will you tell them?"

The girl looked at him in wide-eyed surprise. "Why, what do you mean? I
shall tell them the truth--that my father is dead. Why should I not tell
them that my father is dead. He was a good man. My mother has told me."

Again the man laughed, his laugh of cruel derision: "Such innocence! It
is unbelievable! They will have nothing to do with you in the land of
the white men. They will scorn you and look down upon you. You never had
a father----"

The girl was upon her feet, now, facing him with flashing eyes: "It is a
lie! I did have a father! And he was a good man. He was not like the
father of you, old Boussard, the drunken and thieving old hanger-on
about the posts!"

"Aye, I grant you that the old devil is nothing to brag of. I do not
point to him with the finger of pride, but he is nevertheless a
produceable father. He and my Indian mother were married. I at least am
no _enfant natural_--no _batarde_! No one can poke at me the finger of
scorn, and draw aside in the passing, as from a thing unclean!"

The girl's face flamed red, and tears of rage welled from her eyes: "I
do not know what you mean!" she cried, "But I do know that I hate you! I
will find out what you mean--and then maybe I will kill you." In her
rage she sprang at the man's throat with her bare hands, but he easily
thrust her aside, and sobbing she ran toward the mission.

It was long after midnight that Snowdrift emerged from the room of
Sister Mercedes. The girl had gone straight to the Nun and asked
questions, nor would she be denied their answers. And so explaining,
comforting, as best she could, the good Sister talked till far into the
night. Snowdrift had gone into the room an unsophisticated girl--she
came out from it a woman--but, a woman whose spirit, instead of being
crushed and broken by the weight of her shame, rose triumphant and
defiant above that shame. For in her heart was bitter hatred against the
white men, whose code of ethics brought shame upon the innocent head of
one whose very existence was due to the lust of a man of their own race.

Silently the girl crossed the clearing to the building in which was her
room, and very silently she made up a pack of her belongings. Then,
taking the pack, and her rifle, she stole silently out the door and
crossing the broad open space, entered the bush. At the edge of the
clearing she turned, and stood for a long time looking back at the
mission with its little buildings huddled together in the moonlight. And
then, with a choking sob that forced itself past her tight-pressed lips,
she turned and plunged into the timber.



CHAPTER IV

ACE-IN-THE-HOLE


On the outskirts of Dawson, city of the tents and log buildings, Brent
pitched his own tent, paid off his Indian canoeman, and within the hour
was sucked into the mad maelstrom of carousal that characterized the
early days of the big gold camp.

It was the city of men gone mad. The saloon was the center of
activity--and saloons there were aplenty; Dick Stoell's Place, which was
"the big game" of Dawson; "The Nugget" of uproarious fame; Cuter
Malone's "Klondike Palace," where, nightly, revel raged to the _n_th
power--where bearded men and scarlet women gave over to debauch
magnificent in its wild abandon; and many others, each with its wheels
of chance, its cards, its music, and its women.

And into the whirl of it Carter Brent plunged with a zest born of youth
and of muscles iron-hard from the gruelling trail. And into it he fitted
as though to the manner born. No invisible lines of demarkation divided
the bars of Dawson as they had divided Kelliher's bar. Millionaires in
blanket coats and mukluks rubbed shoulders with penniless watery-eyed
squaw-men. Sourdoughs who spilled coarse gold from the mouths of sacks,
misfit _chechakos_, and painted women, danced, and sang, and cursed, and
gambled, the short nights through.

The remnant of Brent's thousand dollars was but a drop in the bucket,
and he was glad when it was gone three days after his arrival. Not that
he particularly wanted to be "broke." But in the spending of it, men had
taken his measure--the bills and the coined gold had branded him as a
man from the "outside," a _chechako_--a tenderfoot.

An hour after he had tossed his last yellow disk upon the bar in payment
for a round of drinks he had hired out to Camillo Bill Waters to sluice
gravel at an ounce a day. An ounce was sixteen dollars. Thereafter for
the space of a month he was seen no more in Dawson.

Then one day he returned. He presented a slip of paper signed by Camillo
Bill to the bartender at Stoell's and received therefor thirty ounces of
gold--raw gold, in dust and nuggets. He bought a round of drinks
glorying in the fact that at last he, too, was spending coarse gold. He
bet ten ounces on an Indian foot race, and won. More drinks, and an hour
later he bet his pile on a seven, a ten-spot, a deuce, and a king in a
game of stud poker. Two players called the bet and he flipped over his
hole card--it was a seven-spot and again he won.

He quit the game and danced for an hour, and between dances he drank
whiskey. He got the hunch that this was his lucky day and that he could
win, but the hunch called for quick big bets, and not for long continued
play. He rode his hunch, and at Cuter Malone's wheel he tossed fifty
ounces on Number 21. The ivory ball rolled slower and slower, hesitated
on the 10 and then with a last turn settled into 21. He pocketed
twenty-eight thousand dollars with a grin. The news of the bet spread
swiftly and Brent became a man of sorts. Four times more that night he
placed big bets--and three of the times he won.

One of these plays also in a game of stud earned him the name by which
he became known in the North. With a king, and a queen, showing in his
own hand he mercilessly raised an exposed pair of Jacks. Of the six
other players in the game five dropped out. The holder of the Jacks
stayed for the last draw and checked the bet. Brent laid fifty thousand
dollars on his cards, a king, a queen, an eight spot and a four spot.
The other stared at the hand for a long time. He was a man known for his
nerve and his high play, and he knew that Brent knew this. Whispers of
the big bet had gone about the room and men and women crowded the table.
At length the other turned down his cards in token of surrender, and
with a laugh Brent turned his hole card face up. It was the Ace of
Diamonds, and an audible gasp hissed from twenty throats. Thereafter
Brent was known as Ace-In-The-Hole.

The next morning he deposited one hundred and thirty thousand dollars in
Dick Stoell's safe, and his pockets still bulged with dust. For two days
and nights he drank and danced, but not a card did he touch, nor did he
lay any bet. When questioned he answered that his hunch was not working.
The sourdoughs respected him and treated him as an equal. He spent dust
lavishly but he did not throw it away.

Then suddenly he bought an outfit and disappeared. When the first snow
flew he was back, and into Dick Stoell's safe went many sacks of raw
gold. He drank harder than ever and spent gold more freely. His fame
spread to other camps, and three men came up from Circle to relieve him
of his pile. He was gambling regularly now, and in a game of stud he
caught them at the trick by means of which they had won forty thousand
dollars from him. Many miners, among them a goodly sprinkling of old
timers, were watching the play, and many of them had already detected
the swindle, but after the custom of the country they held their peace.
Brent never batted an eye upon discovering the trick, but when a few
moments later it was repeated, things happened in Stoell's--and they
happened with the rapidity of light. One minute after the trouble
started there was an ominous silence in the room. A circle of men stood
and stared at the wreck of a table, across which sagged the body of a
man killed with his own gun. Another man with his jaw shattered lay on
the floor, and a third lay white and still across him with a wide red
mark on his forehead where a sack of gold dust had caught him fair. And
over all stood Brent with one leg jammed through the rungs of a broken
chair.

The incident placed Ace-In-The-Hole in the foremost ranks of the big men
of the North. He was regarded as the equal of such men as Old Bettles,
Camillo Bill Waters, Swiftwater Bill, and McMann. Sourdoughs sought his
acquaintance and _chechakos_ held him in awe. When the snow lay deep he
bought the best string of dogs he could find, hired an Indian musher,
and again disappeared. He was back at Christmas for a two weeks
carousal, and when he hit the trail again he carried with him several
gallons of whiskey. The sourdoughs shook their heads and exchanged
glances at this, but a man's business is his own. In July he sent his
Indian down for ten men to work his sluices and much whiskey. In
September he came down himself and he brought with him a half million in
gold.

Others had cleaned up big during the summer, and that winter saw
Dawson's highest peak of wild orgies and wild spending. Riding a hunch
when he first hit town Brent doubled and trebled his pile, and then with
Jimmie the Rough, McMann, Camillo Bill and a few others they inaugurated
such a campaign of reckless spending as the North had never seen and
never again did see.

Brent was never sober, now--and men said he never slept. He was the
youngest and by far the strongest of the spenders, the urge of the game
was in his blood, and he rode it as he rode his hunches--to the limit of
his endurance. All men liked him--open hearted, generous to the fault,
and square as a die in his dealings, he spent his money like a prince.
And where the men liked him the painted women worshipped him--but they
worshipped from afar. For despite the utmost blandishments of the most
intriguing of them, he treated all alike--even Kitty, whom men called
"The Queen of the Yukon," failed to hold him in thrall. This dancing
girl who had taken the North by storm, who was the North's darling and
beautiful plaything, whose boast it was that she had never sought any
man, fell violently in love with Brent. Men saw it and marvelled, for it
was known in the camps that she had spurned men who had laid fortunes at
her feet. It was not that he feared women, rather he sought them. He
danced with them, frolicked with them--and then promptly forgot them.
His one real passion was gambling. Any game or device whereupon big bets
could be laid found him an enthusiastic devotee. And his luck became a
byword in the North.

"Sometime your luck will change," warned the dancing girl as the two sat
one evening in the early fall at a little table in Stoell's and drank
champagne which cost Brent fifty dollars the quart. "And then you'll be
broke and----"

Brent who had been idly toying with the rings upon her fingers returned
the slender hand to the table. "It can't change. It's a part of me. As
long as I'm me, I'll be lucky. Look, I'll show you! You want to marry
me--you've told me so. Well, I don't want to marry you, or anyone
else--wouldn't know what to do with you if I did marry you. You want me
to go back on the claim--well, here's a bargain--just to show you that I
can't lose." He pulled a buckskin sack full of gold from his pocket and
held it before the girl's eyes. "See this sack. It isn't very big. It
can't cover many numbers. I'm going to stand up in this chair and toss
it onto the roulette table over there, and play every number it touches.
If I lose I lose the dust--Stoell will get that. But that isn't all I'll
lose--I'll lose myself--to you. If one of the numbers that this sack
falls on don't win, I marry you tonight, and we hit for the claim
tomorrow."

The girl stared at him, fascinated: "Do you mean that--you'll quit
gambling--and you'll sober up and--and live with me?"

Again Brent laughed: "Yes, I'll quit gambling, and sober up, and live
with you till--how does it go--till death us do part."

"Toss it!" The words of the girl came short, with a curious indrawing of
the breath, and her fingers clutched at the edge of the table till the
knuckles whitened. The men who were crowded about the wheel glanced
toward the table at the sound, and standing in his chair Brent waved
them to fall back. Then he told them of his bet--while the dancing girl
sat with parted lips, her eyes fastened upon his face. The men at the
wheel surged back to give room. The proposition caught their fancy.
Ace-In-The-Hole, prince of gamblers, was betting himself--with the odds
against him! And every man and woman in the room knew that if he lost he
would keep his word to the last letter.

Carefully measuring the distance, Brent balanced the sack in his hand,
then with a slow movement of his arm, tossed it onto the table. It
struck almost squarely in the center, covering Numbers 13, 14, 16, 17,
19, and 20. The croupier spun the wheel, and sent the ivory ball
spinning on its way. The men who had been playing, and the men from the
bar, crowded close, their eyes on the whirling wheel. Brent sat down in
his chair, lighted a cigarette, and filled the two empty champagne
glasses from the bottle. He glanced across at Kitty. She was leaning
forward with her face buried in her arms. Her shoulders were heaving
with quick, convulsive sobs. In Brent's heart rose sudden pity for this
girl. What to him had been a mere prank, a caprice of the moment, was to
her a thing of vital import. The black fox fur had fallen away from
about her neck exposing a bare shoulder that gleamed white in the light
of the swinging lamp. She looked little and helpless, and Brent felt a
desire to take her in his arms and comfort her. He leaned toward her,
half rose from his chair and then, at a sound from the table, he settled
back.

"Number 13 wins," announced the croupier, and the room was suddenly
filled with the voices of many men. The croupier scribbled a notation
upon a piece of paper and together with the sack of dust laid it upon
the table between Brent and the girl. A moment later she raised her head
and stared, dry eyed into Brent's face.

"Here, little girl," he said gently. "Forgive me. I didn't know you
really felt--that way. Here, this is all yours--take it. The bet paid
six to one. The weigher will cash this slip at the bar."

With a swift motion of her hand the girl swept sack and slip to the
floor. "Oh, I--I hope you _die_!" she cried hysterically, and gathering
her wrap about her, she sped from the room.



CHAPTER V

LUCK TURNS


Before the advent of the tin-horns, who invaded the Yukon at the time of
the big rush, a "limit" in a poker game was a thing unknown. "Table
stakes" did not exist, nor did a man mention the amount he stood to lose
when he sat in a game. When a player took his seat it was understood
that he stood good for all he possessed of property, whatever or
wherever it might be. If the play on any hand ran beyond his "pile" all
he had to do was to announce the fact and the other players would either
draw down to it, or if they wished to continue the play, the pot,
including the amount of the "short" player's last bet was pushed aside
until the last call was made, the "short" player only participating in
the portion of the pot so set aside. If, in the final show-down his hand
was the highest he raked in this pot and the next high hand collected
the subsequent bets.

Stud poker was the play most favored by Brent, and when he sat in a game
the table soon became rimmed with spectators. Other games would break
up that the players might look on, and they were generally rewarded by
seeing plenty of action. It was Brent's custom to trail along for a
dozen hands or more, simply calling moderate bets on good hands, or
turning down his cards at the second or third card. Then, suddenly, he
would shove out an enormous bet, preferably raising a pair when his own
hand showed nothing. If this happened on the second or third card dealt
it invariably gave the other players pause, for they knew that each
succeeding bet would be higher than the first, and that if they stayed
for the final call they would stand to lose heavily if not be actually
wiped out. But they knew also that the bet was as apt to be made on
nothing as on a good hand, and should they drop out they must pass up
the opportunity to make a killing. Another whim of Brent's was always to
expose his hole card after the play, a trick that aggravated his
opponents as much as it amused the spectators.

The result was that many players had fallen into the habit of dropping
out of a game when Ace-In-The-Hole sat in--not because they disliked him
personally, but because, as they openly admitted, they were afraid of
his play. Many of these spent hours watching his cards. Not a man among
them but knew that he was as square as a die, but every man among them
knew that his phenomenal luck must sometime desert him, and when that
time came they intended to be in at the killing. For only Brent himself
believed that his luck would hold--believed it was as much a part of
himself as the color of his hair or his eyes.

Among those who refused to play was Johnny Claw, from whom Brent had won
ten thousand dollars a month before on three successive hands--two cold
bluffs, and a club in the hole with four clubs showing, against Claw's
king in the hole with two kings showing. Unlike the others who had lost
to him, Claw nursed a bitter and secret hatred for him, and he
determined that when luck did turn he would profit to the limit of his
pile.

Johnnie Claw was one of the few old timers whom men distrusted. He was a
squaw-man who had trapped and traded in the country as far back as any
man could remember. With the coming of more white men, and the
establishment of saloons along the river, Claw had ceased his trapping,
and had confined his trading to the illicit peddling of hooch, for the
most part among the Indians of the interior, and to that uglier, but
more profitable traffic that filled the brothels and the dance halls of
the Yukon with painted women from the "outside." So Claw moved among his
compeers as a man despised, yet accepted, because he was of the North,
and of the civilization thereof a component part.

Brent's luck held until the night before Thanksgiving, then the
inevitable happened--he began to lose. At the roulette wheel and the
faro table he lost twenty-five thousand dollars, and later, in a game
of stud, he dropped one hundred thousand more. The loss did not worry
him any, he drank a little more than usual during the play, and his
plunges came a little more frequently, but the cards were not falling
his way, and when they did fall, he almost invariably ran them up
against a stronger hand.

Rumor that the luck of Ace-In-The-Hole had changed at last spread
rapidly through the camp, and late in the afternoon of Thanksgiving day,
when the play was resumed, spectators crowded the table ten deep. Men
estimated Brent's winnings at anywhere from one to five millions and
there was an electric thrill in the air as the players settled
themselves in their chairs and counted their stacks of chips. The game
was limited to eight players, and Camillo Bill Waters arriving too late
to be included, promptly bought the seat of a prospector named Troy,
paying therefor twenty-thousand dollars in dust. "We're after yer hide,"
he grinned good-naturedly at Brent, "an' I'm backin' the hunch that
we're a-goin' to hang it on the fence this day."

"Come and get it!" laughed Brent. "But I'll give you fair warning that I
wear it tight and before you rip it off someone's going to get hurt."
Cards in hand he glanced at the tense faces around the board. "I've got
a hunch that this game is going to make history on the Yukon," he
smiled, "And it better be opened formally with a good stiff round of
drinks." While they waited for the liquor his eye fell upon the face of
Johnny Claw, who sat at the table, the second man from his right. "I
thought you wouldn't sit in a game with me," he said, truculently.

"An' I wouldn't, neither, while yer luck was runnin'--but, it's
different, now. Yer luck's busted--an' you'll be busted. An' I'm right
here to git my money back, an' some of yourn along with it."

Brent laughed: "You won't be in the game an hour, Claw. I don't like
you, and I don't like your business, and the best thing you can do is to
cash in right now before the game starts."

A moment of tense silence followed Brent's words, for among the men of
the Yukon, open insult must be wiped out in blood. But Claw made no move
except to reach out and finger a stack of chips, while men shot sidewise
glances into each other's faces. The stack of chips rattled upon the
cloth under the play of his nervous fingers, and Kitty, who had taken
her position directly behind Brent with a small slippered foot upon a
rung of his chair, tittered. Claw took his cue from the sound and
laughed loudly: "I'll play my cards, an' you play yourn, an' I'll do my
cashin' in later," he answered. "An' here's the drinks, so le's liquor
an' git to goin'." He downed his whiskey at a gulp, the bartender
removed the empty glasses, and the big game was on.

The play ran rather cautiously at first, even more cautiously than
usual. But there was an unwonted tenseness in the atmosphere. Each man
had bought ten thousand dollars worth of chips, with the white chips at
one hundred dollars, the reds at five hundred, and blues at a
thousand--and each man knew that his stack was only a shoestring.

After five or six deals Camillo Bill, who sat directly across the table
from Brent tossed in a red chip on his third card which was a queen.
Claw stayed, the next man folded, and Brent, who showed a seven and a
nine-spot raised a thousand. The others dropped, and Camillo Bill saw
the raise. Claw, whose exposed cards were a ten-spot and a jack,
hesitated for a moment and tossed in a blue chip. Camillo Bill's next
card was an ace, Claw paired his jack and Brent drew a six-spot. With a
grin at Brent, Claw pushed in a blue chip, and without hesitation Brent
dropped in four blue ones, raising Claw three thousand. Camillo Bill
studied the cards, tilted his hole card and glanced at its corner, and
raised Brent two thousand. Claw, also surveyed the cards:

"Yer holdin' a four-straight damn high," he snarled at Brent, "but I've
got mine--my pair of jacks has got anything you've got beat, an' Camillo
hain't got no pair of queens or he'd of boosted yer other bet. I'd ort
to raise, but I'll jest stay." And he dropped five blue chips into the
pot. Camillo Bill paired his ace with the last card, Claw drew a deuce,
and Brent a ten spot. Camillo Bill bet a white chip, Claw stared at
Brent's cards for a few moments and merely called, and Brent laughed:

"Here's your white chip, Bill, and I'll just lift it ten thousand--I'm
that much light in the pot for a minute."

Camillo Bill called after a moment's deliberation, and Claw sat staring
at the pot. He had just two blue chips left before him. "I ain't got ten
thousan'," he whined, "I figger I've got about five thousan' outside
this here stack, an' if I call fer that an' lose I'm busted flat." His
hand pushed the two blue chips toward the pot, hesitated, and was
quickly withdrawn. "Damned if I do!" he snarled, "My jacks-up ain't
worth it--not agin luck like yourn." He turned over his hole card which
was a deuce, and again Brent laughed and flipped his hole card over. It
was the king of spades.

"I haven't got a damned thing, and I never did have. What have you got
buried, Bill, another ace?"

Camillo Bill grinned and shook his head: "Nope, my down card's a king,
too. All I got is them pair of aces. Where's yer guts, Claw?"

Claw glared at Brent as the latter bought a new stack of chips,
scribbled an I.O.U. for ten thousand upon a scrap of paper, and tossed
it across to Camillo Bill. Then clutching his two chips he rose from the
table: "You jest done that to git me!" he growled, "I ain't got no show
in this game--if you can't beat me yerself you'll run me up agin a
better hand till I'm busted, if you lose money doin' it!"

"You've got it doped right, Claw," said Brent, evenly. "I told you you
wouldn't last an hour, and if you'd have listened to me you'd have been
eight thousand better off. Your hour isn't up yet, we've got plenty of
time to get the rest of it."

"You'll raise hell gittin' the rest of it!" muttered the man, and as he
walked toward the bar, Troy, who had sold his seat to Camillo Bill,
slipped into the vacated chair.

The incident served to liven the game up, and thereafter red and blue
chips outnumbered the white ones in nearly every pot.

There was no thought of stopping for supper, and when the game broke up
long past midnight Brent had lost three hundred thousand dollars. He
turned to Kitty, who had never left her post at the back of his chair:
"Come on, girl, let's go find something to eat and some fuzzy water," he
smiled. "They sure had my number, tonight, but I'll go after them
tomorrow."

Brent ordered and drank three glasses of whiskey, while waiting for the
meal to be served, and after it was over, the girl leaned back in her
chair and studied him as she sipped her champagne.

"You're different than you were a year ago," she said.

Brent laughed: "Sure, I was a poor man, then----"

The girl straightened in her chair and interrupted him abruptly, "And
you'll never amount to a _damn_ until you're a poor man again!" she
exclaimed, with such feeling that Brent stared at her in surprise.

"What! What do you mean?"

"I mean just what I said. A year ago you were _some man_. Folks say
you're a mining engineer--educated in a college. What are you now?
You're a gam., that's what you are, and the hooch is putting its mark on
you, too--and it's a shame."

"What in the world is the matter with you, Kitty?" The man stared at her
in surprise, "The hooch don't hurt me any--and I only play for the fun
of the game----"

"No you don't! You play because its got into your blood, and you can't
help playing. And you'll keep on playing till you're busted and it'll be
a good thing when you are! Your luck has changed now, and they'll get
you."

"I'm still playing on their money," retorted Brent a little nettled at
the girl's attack. "If they clean me out, all right. They'll only win
the half million I took out of my two claims--the rest of it I took away
from them. Anyway, whose business is it?" he asked sullenly.

"It ain't nobody's business, but yours. I--I wish to God it was mine.
Everybody knows the hooch is getting you--and that is just what they all
say--it's a shame--but it's his own business. I'm the only one that
could say anything to you, and I'm--I'm sorry I did."

"They're right--it's my business, and no one else's. If they think I'm
so damned far gone let them come and get my pile--I'll still have the
claims, and I'll go out and bring in another stake and go after them
harder than ever!"

"No you won't--they'll get the claims, too. And you won't have the
nerve, nor the muscles to go out and make another strike. When you once
bust, you'll be a bum--a has-been--_right_."

"I suppose," sneered Brent, thoroughly angry now: "that I should marry
you and hit out for the claim so we could keep what's left in the
family--and you'd be the family."

The girl laughed, a trifle hysterically: "No--I wouldn't marry you on a
bet--now. I was foolish enough to think of it, once--but not now. I've
done some thinking since that night you tossed that sack of dust on the
board. If you married me and did go back to where you were--if you quit
the cards and the hooch and got down to be what you ought to be--where
would I stand? Who am I, and what am I? You would stick by your
bargain--but you wouldn't want me. You could never go back outside--with
_me_. And if you wouldn't quit the cards and the hooch, I wouldn't have
_you_--not like you are now--flabby, and muddy-eyed, an' your breath so
heavy with rot-gut you could light it with a match. No, that dream's
busted and inside of a week you'll be busted, too." Setting down her
glass the girl quitted the table abruptly, leaving Brent to finish the
bottle of champagne alone, after which he sauntered down to Cuter
Malone's "Klondike Palace" and made a night of it, drinking and dancing.

The week that followed was a week of almost unbroken losses for Brent.
In vain, he plunged, betting his cards more wildly, and more recklessly
than ever before, in an effort to force his luck. But it only hastened
the end, which came about midnight upon the Thursday following
Thanksgiving Day, at the moment he looked into the eyes of Camillo Bill
Waters and called a bet of fifty-thousand: "That's good," he announced,
as Bill showed Aces-up. "And that just finishes me--I held the claims at
a million--and that's the last of it."



CHAPTER VI

THE DEALER AT STOELL'S


On the morning after the final game of stud in which he had slipped the
last dollar of his fortune across the green cloth, Brent threw back his
blankets and robes and sat upon the edge of his bunk. He had long since
discarded his tent for a cabin and his eyes took in the details of the
rough furnishings in the grey light that filtered through the heavily
frosted window panes. He drew on his shirt and trousers and glanced at
his watch. It was ten o'clock. He built a roaring fire, broke the ice
that had formed upon the surface of a huge pail of water, filled his
coffee-pot, and set his wash pan beside it upon the stove. Then he
returned to his bunk and, feeling beneath his pillow, withdrew a flat
quart bottle and took a long drink. When the water had warmed in the
pan, he shaved before a small mirror that hung above his rude wash
stand. Twice during the process he returned to the bottle for a swallow
of liquor.

"Kitty was right," he confided to his reflection in the glass, "My luck
did turn--and now, I'm broke."

He finished shaving and, as he was about to turn from the wash stand
paused, and thrusting his face close to the mirror, subjected it to
careful scrutiny.

"Eyes _are_ a little muddy," he grudgingly admitted, "And face a little
pouchy and red, but, hell, it isn't the hooch!--I don't drink enough to
hurt me any. It's being indoors so much, and the smoke. Two days on the
trail will fix that. I've got to slip out and make another strike. And
when I come back--that bunch will be in for an awful cleaning."

He threw a handful of coffee into the pot, and sliced some bacon into a
frying pan, and when the grease ran, he broke a half-dozen eggs and
scrambled them with the bacon.

"She said I wouldn't have the nerve nor the muscles to hit out and
locate another claim," he grinned as he swallowed a draught of scalding
coffee. "I'll show her!"

He finished his meal, washed the dishes, and drew on his mukluks and
blanket coat. As he opened the door he was met by a blast of wind-driven
snow that fairly took his breath, and drawing back into the room he shut
the door.

"I thought it was pretty dark in here for this time of day--some
blizzard!"

He drew down the ear-flaps of his fur cap, hunted up his heavy mittens,
and once more opening the door, pushed out into the storm.

Twenty minutes later he entered Stoell's place, and as he stamped the
snow from his garments, and beat it from his cap and mittens, Camillo
Bill greeted him from the bar.

"Hello, Ace-In-The-Hole! I'm buyin' a drink." The room was deserted
except for the bartender who promptly set out bottle and glasses. "Let's
go over here," suggested Camillo Bill, when the empty glasses had been
returned to the bar. He led the way to a small table.

"Bring the bottle and glasses!" called Brent over his shoulder, and
Camillo Bill seconded the order with a nod.

"Now," he began, as Brent filled his glass, "Let's get this here deal
straightened out. In the first place, is them two claims of yourn worth
a million?"

Brent flushed, hotly, but Camillo Bill forestalled his reply. "Hold on,
now. I didn't mean what you're thinkin' about--an' you ort to know me
well enough to know I didn't. When you said them two claims was worth a
million, not me, nor no one else questioned your word, did we? Well,
what I'm gettin' at is are they worth more than a million, 'n' how much
more?"

Brent laughed: "They're worth more than a million. How much more I don't
know. I took out a half a million last summer, and I don't think I'm
half way to bed-rock at the deepest."

Camillo Bill nodded: "All right, that's what I wanted to know. You see,
there's five or six of us holds your slips an' markers that totals a
million over an' above what was in Stoell's safe. I'll jest cash them
slips an' markers, an' take over the claims."

Brent shrugged, "Go ahead. It don't make any difference to me how you
divide them up."

Camillo Bill grinned: "It does make a hell of a lot of difference to you
how we divide 'em up," he said. "It's like this: I like your style.
You're a _tillicum_--a natural borned sourdough. You're white clean
through. When you said there's so and so much in Stoell's safe, the dust
was there. An' when you know'd yer claims was worth more than a million,
you says a million instead of stretchin' it to two million, an' maybe
stickin' some one. Now when I cash them markers that's out agin the
claims, an' figger in the slips an' markers I hold myself, I'll have a
million invested, won't I? An', that's what I won--a million--not a
million an' a half, or two million--just a million. Well, when I get
that million back--you get the claims back--see?"

Brent stared at the man in amazement: "What do you mean? I lost the
claims--lost them fair and square----"

"No you didn't," interrupted the other, "You lose just what yer slips
an' markers says you lose--an' not a damn cent more. The claims was only
a sort of security for the dust. C'latteral the banks would call it. Am
I right, or wrong?"

Brent drank the whiskey in his glass and refilling it, shoved the bottle
toward Camillo Bill, but the man shook his head. "No more for me. Too
much of that stuff ain't no good. But about them claims--am I right, or
wrong?"

"You're the whitest damned white man that walks on two legs, if that's
what you mean," answered Brent, in a low voice. "I'll make the claims
over to you, now."

"Don't say that," replied Camillo Bill, "they was five or six of us that
figgered out this play--all friends of yourn. We all of us agreed to do
what I'm doin'--it was only a question of who could afford to carry the
load till next fall. I kin. Right's right--an' wrong ain't deuce-high,
nowheres. A million's a million--an' it ain't two million. An' you don't
need to make over them claims to me, neither. Jest you sign a paper
givin' me the right to go into 'em an' take out a million, an' we'll
tear up them slips an' markers."

"But what if there isn't a million in them. I believe there is--much
more than a million. But, what if they're 'spotted,' and I just happened
to hit the spots, or what if bed-rock shows a lot shallower than I think
it will----"

"What if! What if! To hell with what if! If the claims peter out I ain't
no better off if I hold title to 'em, am I? If they ain't good for the
million, what the hell difference does it make who owns 'em? I'd ruther
someone else holds a bum claim than me, any day," he added with a grin.
"An' now that's settled, what you goin' to do, while I'm gettin' out my
dust?"

Brent drank his liquor, and reached for the bottle: "Why, I'm going to
hit out and locate another strike," he said, a trifle thickly.

Camillo Bill regarded him thoughtfully: "Where at?"

"Why I don't know. There are plenty of
creeks--Eldorado--Ophir--Doolittle----"

The other laughed: "Listen here," he said, "While you be'n here in town
rollin' 'em high an' soppin' up hooch, they's be'n a hell of a change on
the creeks. Ain't you stopped to notice that Dawson's more'n twict as
big as she was in August, an' that the country is gittin full of
tin-horns, an' _chechakos_. Well it is--an' every creek's filed that's
worth a damn--an' so's every one that ain't. They ain't a claim to be
took up no more on Bonanza, nor Ophir, nor Siwash, nor Eldorado, nor
Alhambra, nor Sulphur, nor Excelsis, nor Christo, nor Doolittle, nor not
hardly none on no pup nor dry wash that runs into 'em."

"All right, I'll go farther, then," retorted Brent, pouring more liquor
into his glass. "I'll go beyond the last creek that's staked. And, by
God, I'll find gold!"

Camillo Bill shook his head: "Look a here, you ain't in no shape to hit
out on no long trip. You've laid up too long to tackle it, an' you've
drunk too much of that damned hooch. It ain't none of my business what
you do, or what you don't do--maybe you ain't drinkin' enough of it, I
don't know. But that there's damn poor stuff to train on for a long
trail in winter--an' I'm tellin' it to you that winter's sure hit these
diggin's an' hit 'em hard. Tell you what I'll do. I've be'n nosin'
'round buyin' claims while you be'n layin' abed daytimes sleepin' off
the hooch. I've got more'n what I kin 'tend to alone. I'll give you two
thousand a month to help me look after 'em, an' you can sort of ease off
the hooch, an' get broke in easy agin. If you sleep nights, an' keep out
doors daytimes, an' lay off the cards an' the hooch, you'll be good as
ever agin spring."

"Not on your life," flared Brent, "I'm as good a man right now as I ever
was! And a damn sight too good a man to be anybody's pensioner. You know
damned well that you don't need me at two thousand a month, or any other
figure, except at an ounce a day, the same as anyone else gets. What the
hell's the matter with everybody?" A querulous note crept into Brent's
voice, "I tell you I'm as good a man as I ever was! Kitty told me the
same thing--that I'm drinking too much! Whose business is it if I am?
But, I'm not, and I'll hit the trail tomorrow and show you all!"

"So long," said Camillo Bill as he rose from his chair. "I told you it
wasn't no one's business but yourn, so they ain't no argyment there.
Only, jest you remember that I'm a friend of yourn, an' so is
Kitty--an' a man might have a damn sight worse friend than her, at
that."

Later in the day Stoell accosted Brent as he stood drinking alone at the
bar. "They romped right up your middle, didn't they, the last week or
so?"

Brent nodded: "They cleaned me out. I played them too high for the cards
I was holding."

"What you figuring on doing now?"

"Going to hit out and locate another claim when this storm lets up."

"You've got a long trip ahead. Everything's staked."

"So they say, but I guess I'll find something, somewhere."

"Why don't you take an inside job this winter. Hell of a lot of grief
out there in the snow with only a tent and a bunch of huskies."

"What kind of a job?"

"I'm figuring on starting up a new layout--faro. How'd you like to deal?
Just till spring when the weather lets up a little. You can't tell what
you're staking under ten foot of snow anyhow."

"I never dealt faro."

"It won't take you long to learn. I only run one big game now because I
can't trust no one to deal another--but I could get plenty of play on
one if I had it goin'. I figure that the boys all like you, an' you'd be
a good card. They all know you're square an' I'd get a good play on your
layout. What do you say? It's a damn sight better than mushin' out
there in the cold."

"What will you pay?"

"Well, how would five hundred a month, an' five percent of the winnings
of the layout do? You wouldn't need to come on till around nine in the
evening, and stay till the play was through. I'll throw in your supper,
and dinner at midnight, and we won't keep any bar tab. You're welcome to
what drinks you want--only you've got to keep sober when you're on
shift."

Brent did not answer immediately. A couple of men came through the door
in a whirl of flying snow, and he shivered slightly, as the blast of
cold air struck him. Stoell was right, there would be a hell of a lot of
grief out there on the long snow trail. "I guess I'll take you up on
that," he said, "When do I start?"

"It'll take me a day or so to get rigged up. Let's make it day after
tomorrow night. Meantime you can do your eating and drinking here--just
make yourself at home. The boys'll be tickled when they hear the
news--it'll spread around the camp pretty lively that you're dealing
faro at Stoell's, and we'll get good play--see."

During the next two days Brent spent much time in Stoell's, drinking at
the bar, and watching the preparation of the new layout over which he
was to preside. And to him there, at different times came eight or ten
of the sourdoughs of the Yukon, each with a gruff offer of assistance,
but carefully couched in words that could give no offense. "You'll be on
yer feet agin, 'fore long. If you need any change in the meantime, just
holler," imparted one. Said another: "Here, jest slip this poke in yer
jeans. I ain't needin' it. Somethin'll turn up d'rectly, an' you can
slip it back then." But Brent declined all offers, with thanks. And to
each he explained that he had a job, and each, when he learned the
nature of the job, either answered rather evasively, or congratulated
him in terms that somehow seemed lacking in enthusiasm. Old Bettles was
the only man to voice open disapproval: "Hell," he blurted, "Anyone c'n
deal faro. Anyone c'n gamble with another man's money, an' eat another
man's grub, an' drink another man's hooch. But, it's along the cricks
an' the gulches you find the reg'lar he-man sourdoughs."

At the words of this oldest settler on the Yukon, Brent strangely took
no offense. Rather he sought to excuse his choice of profession: "I'm
only doing it till spring, then I'm going to hit into the hills, and
when I come back we'll play them higher than ever," he explained. "I'm a
little soft now and don't feel quite up to tackling the winter trail."

"Humph," grunted Bettles, "You won't be comin' back--because you ain't
never goin' to go. If yer soft now, you'll be a damn sight softer agin
spring. Dealin' from a box an' lappin' up hooch ain't a-goin' to put you
in shape for to chaw moose-meat an' wrestle a hundred pound pack. It'll
sap yer guts." But Brent laughed at the old man's warning, and the next
evening took his place behind the layout with the cards spread before
him.

As Stoell had predicted, Brent proved to be a great drawing card for the
gambling house. Play at his layout ran high, and the table was always
crowded. But nearly all the players were _chechakos_--men new to the
country, who had struck it lucky and were intent upon making a big
splash. Among these tin-horns and four-flushers, Ace-In-The-Hole was a
deity. For among petty gamblers he was a prince of gamblers. Rumors and
fantastic lies were rife at all the bars concerning his deeds. "He had
cleaned up ten million in a summer on a claim." "He killed three men
with three blows of his fist." "The Queen of the Yukon was all caked in
on him, and he wouldn't have her. He tossed her a slip for half a
million that he had won on a single bet at the wheel, and because she
was sore at him, she ground it into the floor with her foot." "He had
bet a million on an ace in the hole--hence his name. He had gambled away
twenty million in a week." And so it went. Men fell over themselves to
make his acquaintance that they might ostentatiously boast of that
acquaintance at the bars. One would casually mention that
"Ace-In-The-Hole says to me, the other day, he says--" Or, "I was
tellin' Ace-In-The-Hole about one time I an' a couple of tarts down in
'Frisco--" Or, "Me an' Ace-In-The-Hole was eatin' supper the other
night, an' he says to me--" When he was off duty, men crowded to stand
next to him at the bar, they plied him with drinks, and invited him to
dine. All of which meant increased business for Stoell. So that upon
several occasions when Brent was too drunk to attend to business, Stoell
himself dealt his game and said nothing.

It was inevitable that this sudden popularity should in a measure turn
Brent's head. Personally, he detested the loud-mouthed fawning
_chechakos_, but as his association with them grew, his comradery with
the real sourdoughs diminished. They did not openly or purposely cut
him. They still greeted him as an equal, they drank with him, and
occasionally they took a fling at his game. But there was a difference
that Brent was quick to notice, and quick to resent, but powerless to
dispel. He was a professional gambler, now--and they were mining
men--that was all.

Only once since he had taken up his new vocation had he seen Kitty. She
had come into Stoell's one evening, and slipping behind the table stood
at his elbow until the end of the deal. As he shuffled the cards
preparatory to returning them into the box, she placed her lips close to
his ear: "Who are all your friends?" she whispered indicating the
tin-horns and _chechakos_ that rimmed the table. Brent flushed,
slightly, and answered nothing. "So this is what you meant by hitting
the trail when they broke you, is it? Well, take it from me, it's a
short trail, and a steep grade slanting down, and when you're on the
toboggan it ain't going to take long to hit the bottom--with a bump."
And before Brent could reply she had slipped away and lost herself in
the crowd.

Night after night, although his eyes sought the crowd, he never saw her
again, nor did he find her upon his excursions to "The Nugget," or to
Cuter Malone's "Klondike Palace." If she were purposely avoiding him,
she was succeeding admirably.

Along in February, Brent was surprised one day to receive, in his own
cabin, a visit from Johnny Claw. "What do you want?" he asked as the man
stood in the doorway.

Claw entered, closing the door behind him. He removed his cap and
mittens, and fumbling beneath his parka, produced a sealed bottle of
whiskey which he set upon the table: "Oh, jest dropped in fer a little
visit. Been 'outside.' Try a shot of this hooch--better'n anything
Stoell's got."

Brent sat down upon the edge of his bunk and motioned the man to a
chair: "Didn't know you were so damned friendly with me that you would
lug me in a bottle of hooch from the outside," he said, "What's on your
chest?"

Claw produced a corkscrew and opened the bottle, then he poured a
half-tumbler into each of two glasses. "Le's liquor," he said, offering
one to Brent. "Good stuff, ain't it?"

Brent nodded: "Damned good. But what's the idea?"

"Idee is jest this," announced Claw, eyeing him shrewdly, "You damn near
busted me, but I ain't holdin' that agin' you." He paused and Brent, who
knew that he was lying, waited for him to proceed. "You told me right
plain out that you didn't like the business I was in! That's all right,
too. I s'pose it ain't no hell of a good business, but someone's got to
bring 'em in or you bucks wouldn't have nobody to dance with. But,
layin' all that aside, you're dealin' the big game for Stoell."

"Yup."

"Well, listen: You're hittin' the hooch too hard fer to suit Stoell. At
the end of the month you're out of a job--see? He's goin' to let you
out, 'cause yer showin' up too reg'lar with a bun on. Says it's got to
where yer crocked so often he might's well be dealin' the game hisself."

"Who did he tell this to--you?"

The other leered: "Naw, not to me. He don't like me no more'n what you
do. But, I happened to hear him tellin' it to Old Bettles an' Camillo
Bill. 'That's right,' says Bettles, 'fire him, an' maybe we kin git him
into the hills.' 'I'm 'fraid not,' says Camillo Bill. 'Leastways not
till spring. An' at the rate he's goin', by that time he'll be countin'
bees.' 'It's a shame,' says Bettles, 'There's a damn good man gone
wrong.' 'He is a damn good man,' says Stoell, 'They ain't many I'd trust
to deal that big game. He's square as hell--but, the hooch has got
him.'"

"The hell it has," said Brent, with a short laugh. "They're damned
fools! I don't drink enough to hurt me any. I'm as good a man as I ever
was!"

"Sure you be," assented Claw. "What little you drink wouldn't hurt no
one. What's it any of their business? You don't need no guardeen to tell
you when to take a drink," he paused and refilled Brent's glass. "'Yer
square as hell,'" says Stoell--"but what's it gittin' you? He's goin' to
fire you, ain't he?"

"Well?"

"Well--why not git even with him, an' at the same time clean up big fer
yerself? They ain't no chanct to git caught."

"What do you mean?" Brent's voice rasped a trifle harshly, but Claw did
not notice.

"I got it all doped out. Cold deck him--an' I'll play agin the fixed
deck an' make a cleanin'--an' we'll split."

"You mean----"

"I mean this. Me an' you will fix up a deck, an' I'll copy off how the
cards lays. Then you slip 'em into the box an' start the deal, an' I'll
lay the bets. Of course, knowin' how they'll fall, I kin win whenever I
want to. No one'll ever b'lieve it's a frame-up, 'cause they know you're
square, an' likewise they know you hate me, an' they wouldn't figger
we'd git together. I'll make the play strong by comin' in fer a night
er two before we spring it an' braggin' that I've got a system. Then
I'll have my slip of paper an' I'll look at it, an' make bets, an' of
course I'll lose--'cause they ain't no system. An' the next night I'll
do the same an' the third night we'll slip in the fixed deck--an' then
my system'll win. An' all the time I'll be sneerin' at you, like I hated
yer guts----"

The sentence was never finished. In a blind rage Brent hurled himself
upon the man, and both crashed to the floor together. The fight was fast
and furious while it lasted. But, flabby, and with his brain befuddled
with liquor, Brent was no match for the other, who a year before, he
could have killed with his bare hands. He got in several good blows at
the start, which slowed up his antagonist, and rendered him incapable of
inflicting serious damage later, when Brent winded and gasping, was
completely at his mercy. A referee would unhesitatingly have declared it
Claw's fight, for when he slipped from the cabin it was to leave Brent
nursing two half-closed and rapidly purpling eyes, with nose and lips to
match.

When, four days later he showed up at Stoell's, the latter called him
aside and weighing out what was coming to him in dust, informed him that
his services were no longer required.



CHAPTER VII

"WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?"


From Stoell's Brent drifted to "The Nugget," where for a month, he dealt
faro on percentage in a "limit" game--for with the tin-horns and the
_chechakos_ had come also "limits" and "table stakes."

Here, "The Queen of the Yukon" passed and repassed his layout a dozen
times in an evening on her way to and from the dance-hall in the rear,
but never by even so much as a look did she admit that she recognized
him.

On the afternoon of his first payday, he sat in a "table stakes" game of
stud and a run of luck netted him seven hundred dollars. Whereupon he
promptly went on a spree that lasted three days and when he again showed
up for duty another dealer was presiding over his layout.

The next day Cuter Malone called him into a little back room and sounded
him out. "Hear how yer out of a job," quoth Cuter, as he set two glasses
and a bottle upon the little table between them. Brent nodded, and the
other continued: "Want to keep on dealin'?"

"Why yes, I guess so. I'm going to hit the trail right after the
break-up, but until that comes I might as well be doing something."

"Sure. Well I got a good percent proposition fer you. You'll draw quite
a little trade--you done it at Stoell's, an' then swung the heft of it
over to 'The Nugget.'"

"Is it a limit game?" asked Brent. "What percentage will you pay?"

Malone filled the glasses from the bottle, and having drank combed at
his black beard with his fingers: "W-e-e-l, that's accordin'. This here
game I'm figgerin' on is a sure thing--that is, o' course, lots o' turns
has got to lose, but in the long run she wins big."

"What do you mean--a sure thing?"

Cuter grinned craftily: "D'ye ever hear tell of a double-slotted box?
Well, I've got one, an'----"

Brent interrupted him with a short laugh: "What you mean is that because
I've got the reputation for being square, you want to use me for a
decoy, and when they come in, rob them on a percentage."

"Well, that's--er--talkin' it out kind of plain----"

"You can go to hell!" exclaimed Brent, "and that's talking it out kind
of plain, too."

Cuter laughed: "Don't git sore about it. Business is business, an' I'm
into it to git the money, one way an' another. If you don't want to
deal, how about goin' behind the bar? That's a square enough game." He
paused and grinned. "An' I wouldn't mind fer onct havin' someone
handlin' my dust that I wouldn't feel like friskin' every time he went
out the door to see how much of it had stuck to him."

And so Brent began tending bar in the notorious "Klondike Palace," and
Kitty, as she faced him for the first time with her dancing partner and
called for a drink, addressed him in words that to her partner meant
nothing: "Your toboggan is going good, now--ain't it, Ace-In-The-Hole?
You're most there, now--most to the bump that lays at the end of the
trail." And Brent served the drinks, and answered nothing.

The "Klondike Palace" was the wildest and most notorious of all the
dives of the big camp. Unlike Stoell's and "The Nugget," everything
downstairs was in one big room. The bar occupied a whole side, the
gambling tables and devices were in the rear, and the remainder of the
wide floor space was given over to dancing. At the rear of the bar a
flight of stairs led upward to the rooms of the painted women.

And it was concerning one of these painted women that, three weeks
later, Brent had his first "run in" with Cuter Malone. It was bitter
cold and snowing thickly, and Brent, with lowered head, was boring
through the white smother on his way to work. He paused in the light
that shone dully through the heavily frosted windows of Malone's and was
about to push open the door, when from the thick darkness around the
side of the building he heard a woman scream. It was a sharp, terrible
scream, that ended in a half-muffled shriek. And without an instant's
hesitation, Brent dashed around the corner. The "Klondike Palace" was
located well upon the edge of the big camp, beyond it being only a few
scattered cabins. Scarcely fifty feet from the street he came upon a man
standing over a woman who was cowering in the snow. Neither saw him, and
even as he looked the man struck with a coiled dog whip. Again the woman
screamed, and the man jumped upon her and started to kick her first with
one foot then with the other as she lay in the snow. Like an avalanche
Brent hurled himself upon the man, his fist catching him squarely upon
the side of the head and sending him sprawling. Without waiting for him
to get up, Brent jerked the woman to her feet and pushed her toward the
street. He saw then that she was one of the girls who roomed over
Malone's, and that she was clad in the thinnest of silk stockings, and
the flimsiest of semi-transparent gowns. One of her high-heeled slippers
had been lost in the snow. Scarce able to stand, the girl staggered
whimpering toward the light. Turning upon the man who had regained his
feet Brent found himself looking into the muzzle of a forty-five. So
close was the man that even in the darkness he could see his face. It
was Johnnie Claw, and Brent saw that the recognition was mutual. Claw's
thick lips writhed back in a grin of hate, and Brent could hear his
breath sucking heavily between his clenched teeth. Eye to eye they
stared as Brent's lips moved in a sneer: "Well--you--damned--pimp--why
don't you shoot?" To his intense surprise, the gun wavered, dropped to
the man's side and, jamming it into the pocket of his fur coat, Claw
pushed past him toward the street, mumbling thick curses.

Later, that night, when business was a little slack during a dance
Malone motioned him aside: "Say, what the hell be you buttin' in on
other folks business fer?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean. What did you go knockin' Johnnie Claw down fer,
when he was givin' that damn Violet what was comin' to her, fer holdin'
out on him?"

"Giving her what was coming! My God, man, he would have kicked her to
death there in the snow--that's what he would have done!"

"Well, what if he did--she's hisn, ain't she?"

A surge of swift anger almost overcame Brent. His fists clenched, and it
was with difficulty that he refrained from striking Malone down where he
stood. Instead, he leaned a trifle closer to the man: "Just let this
stick to you, Malone," he said, "What passes between me and Claw, or me
and anyone else, when it isn't on your premises and on your time, is my
business--see?"

Malone laughed, shortly, and with a shrug, turned away, while Brent
served drinks to a couple who had left the dance and sauntered to the
bar. The couple were Kitty, and a strapping young _chechako_ called
Moosehide Charlie, the name referring to an incident that had occurred
early in the winter when he had skinned out a moose and, finding himself
far from camp and no blankets, had wrapped himself in the green hide and
gone to sleep. In the morning he awoke to find himself encased in an
iron-hard coffin of frozen moosehide unable to move hand or foot.
Luckily a party of hunters found him and spent half a day thawing him
out over a roaring fire.

Said Kitty to Moosehide Charlie, as she sipped at the liquid that by
courtesy was called port wine: "That's Johnnie Claw over there by the
door. He's one-two-three with Cuter Malone--some say they're pardners."

Her companion swallowed his liquor and glanced indifferently toward the
object of the girl's remarks. "It ain't worryin' me none who he's
pardners with. I don't like the looks of him, nohow."

"Sh-sh-sh," warned Kitty, "What a man learns in this country don't hurt
him any. I was just telling you so if you ever happened to run foul of
Claw, you'd know enough to keep your eye on Malone, too."

"Guess I ain't goin' to run foul of him. Come on, let's dance."

Kitty had not even favored him by so much as a glance, but as Brent
removed the glasses from the bar, he smiled.

The days were rapidly lengthening on the Yukon. At noon each day the sun
was higher in the heavens and its increased heat was heralded by little
streams of snow water that trickled over the ice of the creeks.

One evening when the grip of winter had broken and the feel of spring
was in the air, Moosehide Charlie stood at the bar drinking with Johnnie
Claw. It was too early for the dancers and three or four of the girls
sat idly along the opposite wall. As Brent served the drinks, he noticed
that Claw appeared to be urging the younger man into a deal of some
kind--he, caught a word now and then, of reference to dumps, slucings,
and water heads. Moosehide seemed to be holding out. He was a man who
drank little, and after two drinks he turned from the bar shaking his
head. "Come on," urged Claw, "Have another."

"No, two or three's my limit. I don't aim to git drunk."

"Drunk, hell!" laughed Claw, "I don't nuther. You've only had two. Make
it three, an' I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll throw off a leetle on
that claim. I ain't got time to fool with it, noways."

Moosehide returned to the bar: "Well, one more, then, an' that's all.
But you'll have to throw off more'n just a little on that property, fer
me to touch it."

Claw filled his glass and pushed the bottle toward the other and as
Moosehide Charlie measured his liquor, out of the tail of his eye, Brent
saw Claw pour something from a small vial into his own glass and return
the vial swiftly to his pocket. The next moment he was talking earnestly
to Moosehide who, as he listened, toyed with his glass, rubbing into
patterns the few drops of liquor he had spilled upon the bar.

Cuter Malone had himself carried a tray of drinks to be served at one of
the poker tables in the rear, and just at this moment, tray and glasses
struck the floor with a loud crash. Moosehide Charlie turned quickly at
the sound, and as he did so Brent saw Johnnie Claw deftly switch the
glasses upon the bar. Malone returned, grumbling at his clumsiness, for
another tray of drinks, and Claw raised his glass. "I guess we kin deal,
all right. Le's drink, an' then we'll slip into the back room there an'
figger it out."

As Moosehide picked up the glass before him, Brent reached out swiftly
and took it from his fingers. He looked into it for a second and tossed
its contents onto the floor. "Better fill her up again," he said, "There
was a fly in it." A fly on the Yukon, with the rivers still frozen, and
the sodden snow three feet deep on the ground! Moosehide stared, and
before Brent could move, Cuter Malone had floored him with a blow from a
heavy bottle. The truth flashed upon Moosehide Charlie. One blow of his
fist settled Claw, while with his other hand he reached across the bar
and jerked a gun from the hand of Cuter Malone. The poker players rose
from their chairs and started for the bar, but Moosehide motioned them
back with the gun. "Jest go on with yer game, boys," he said meaningly.
"Don't mind me." And as they settled into their places he stepped around
the bar, keeping Malone covered. Kitty, who had been chatting with the
girls on the opposite side of the room, darted across the floor and
brushing past Moosehide, knelt beside Brent. "Jest raise up his head,
girl, an' throw some water in his face," ordered Moosehide, "An' pour a
little licker down his throat. If he can't swaller it, it'll make him
gag an' bring him to." Then he turned to Malone: "An' you, you damn
crook! You git busy an' weigh out what's comin' to him. An' weigh it
damn quick--an' weigh it right. 'Cause if it ain't right, I'm a-comin'
back here with about forty or ninety of my friends an' I'm tellin' it to
you, we'll gut this damn joint--an' you along with it!"

Brent only partially revived under the water and choking whiskey, and
between them they managed to get him out the door and onto Moosehide's
sled. Then they hauled him to his cabin and put him to bed, where he lay
for two weeks, delirious with fever, while Kitty stayed day and night
at his side and nursed him. Another week passed, during which the girl
came daily and cooked his meals, and made him get up for a little while
each day while she aired and rearranged his blankets. At length came a
day when he rose and dressed himself and stayed up till evening.

"You won't be needing me any more," said the girl, simply, as she stood
in the doorway late in the afternoon. She pointed to two small buckskin
sacks which she had laid upon the table. "There's your pay that was
coming to you from Cuter Malone, and a sack that Moosehide Charlie left
for you."

"Moosehide Charlie? He don't owe me anything."

"Says he owes you a whole lot, and he wanted me to give you that. He's
gone off on a trip up Indian River."

Brent picked up the sack, which was a dozen times the weight of the
other, and extended it toward the girl: "Give this back to him," he said
shortly. "I don't need it."

Kitty did not take it: "You do too need it," she said, "How long will
that pinch of dust last you? And what are you going to do when it's
gone?"

"It don't make any difference what I do when it's gone. Whatever I do, I
won't live on charity." And he tossed the sack past her through the
doorway where it buried itself in the snow.

"You're a fool, Ace-In-The-Hole," she said, quietly, "A _damn fool_."

The man nodded, slowly: "That's right, I reckon. Anyway we won't quarrel
about it. Will you do me just one more favor?"

"What is it?"

"Take this dust and get me a bottle of hooch--a quart bottle--two of
them."

"No, I won't!"

Brent rose to his feet: "I'll have to go myself, then," he said, as he
cast his eyes about for his hat.

"You ain't able! You're weak as a cat, and you'd fall down in the snow."

"I'll get up again, then." He found the hat and put it on.

"I'll go," the words were hurled at him, and he handed her Cuter
Malone's sack. "Never mind that--"

"Take it! Or I won't touch the hooch."

Reluctantly, she took it and in half an hour she was back and without a
word deposited two quart bottles upon the table.

"Will you drink with me?" Brent asked, as he drew the cork.

"No! I'm going, now."

Brent rose to his feet and held out his hand: "Good bye, Kitty," he
said, gravely. "I know what you've done for me--and I won't forget it.
You'll come to see me--sometimes?"

"No. I hate you! An' if you could see yourself the way I see
you--knowing what you are, and what you ought to be--you'd hate
yourself!"

Brent flushed under the sting of the words: "I'm as good a man as I ever
was," he muttered, defiantly.

The girl sneered: "You are--like hell! Why, you ain't even got a
job--now. You're a bum! You hit the bump that I told you was at the end
of your trail--now, where do you go from here?" And before Brent could
reply she was gone.

"Where do I go from here?" he repeated slowly, as he sank into a chair
beside his table, and swallowed a stiff drink of whiskey. And, "Where do
I go from here?" he babbled meaninglessly, three hours later when, very
drunk, his head settled slowly forward upon his folded arms, and he
slept.



CHAPTER VIII

THE PLOTTING OF CAMILLO BILL


With the rapidly lengthening days the sodden snow thawed and was carried
away by the creeks which were running waist-deep on top of the ice. New
snow fell, lay dazzling white for a day or two, and then under the ever
increasing heat of the sun, it, too, turned sodden, and sullen, and
grey, and added its water to the ever increasing torrent of the creeks.
Bare patches of ground showed upon south slopes. The ice in the creeks
let go, and was borne down by the torrents in grinding, jamming floes.
Then, the big river broke up. Wild geese and ducks appeared heading
northward. Wild flowers in a riot of blazing color followed up the
mountain sides upon the heels of the retreating snow-banks. And with
bewildering swiftness, the Yukon country leaped from winter into summer.

From his little cabin Carter Brent noted the kaleidoscopic change of
seasons, and promised himself that as soon as the creeks receded into
their normal beds he would hit the gold trail. He ate little, drank
much, and spent most of his days in reading from some books left him by
a wandering Englishman who had come in overland from the North-west
territories, where for a year or more he had prowled aimlessly among the
Hudson's Bay posts, and the outposts of the Mounted. The books were, for
the most part, government reports, geological, and geodetical, upon the
Canadian North.

"She said I am a bum," he muttered to himself one evening as he laid
aside his book, and in the gathering darkness walked to the door and
watched the last play of sunlight upon the distant glittering peaks.
"But, I'll show her--I'll show her where I'll go from here. I'm as good
a man as I ever was." This statement that he had at first made to
others, he now found necessary to make to himself. A dozen times a day
he would solemnly assure himself that he was as good a man as he ever
was, and that when he got ready to hit the trail he would show them.

The sunlight faded from the peaks, and as he turned from the doorway,
his eyes fell upon his pack straps that hung from their peg on the wall.
Reaching for his hat, he stepped to the door and peered out to make sure
that no one was watching. Then he stooped and fixed his straps to a
half-sack of flour which he judged would weigh about fifty pounds. After
some difficulty he got the pack onto his back and started for the bank
of the river, a quarter of a mile away. A hundred yards from the cabin
he stopped for breath. His shoulders ached, and the muscles of his neck
felt as though they were being torn from their moorings as he pushed his
forehead against the tump-line. With the sweat starting from every pore
he essayed a few more steps, stumbled, and in clumsily catching his
balance, his hat fell off. As he stooped to recover it, the weight of
the pack forced him down and down until he was flat on his belly with
his face in the mud. For a long time he lay, panting, until the
night-breeze chilled the sweat on his skin, and he shivered. Then he
struggled to rise, gained his hands and knees and could get no farther.
Again and again he tried to rise to his feet, but the weight of the pack
held him down. He remembered that between the Chilkoot and Lake
Lindermann he had risen out of the mud with a hundred pounds on his
shoulders, and thought nothing of it. He wriggled from the straps and
carrying, and resting, staggered back to his cabin and sank into a
chair. He took a big drink and felt better. "It's the fever," he assured
himself, "It left me weak. I'll be all right in a day or so. I'm as good
a man as I ever was--only, a little out of practice."

After that Brent stayed closer than ever to his cabin until the day came
when there was not enough dust left in his little buckskin sack to pay
for a quart of hooch. He bought a pint, and as he drank it in his cabin,
decided he must go to work, until he got strong enough to hit the
trail. Houses were going up everywhere, houses of boards that were
taking the place of the tents and the cabins of the previous year. Work
there was a plenty, and the laborers were few. _Chechakos_ were pouring
in by the thousands and staking clear to the mountain tops. But, none of
them would work. Crazed by the lure of gold they pitted the hillsides
and valleys and mucked like gnomes in their wild scramble for riches.
Brent worked for a week in a sawmill, and then quit, bought some hooch
and some necessary food, and retired to his cabin to reread his reports
and laugh at the efforts of the hillside miners.

The old timers were scattered out in the hills, and the tin-horns and
_chechakos_ who had worshiped at his shrine were dispersed, or had
forgotten him. Life moved swiftly in the big camp. Yesterday's hero
would be forgotten tomorrow. And the name of Ace-In-The-Hole meant
nothing to the newcomers. Occasionally he met one of the old timers, who
would buy him a drink, and hurry on about his business.

Spasmodically Brent worked at odd jobs. He fired a river steamboat on a
round trip to Fort Gibbon. Always he promised himself pretty soon, now,
he would be ready to hit the trail. Stampedes were of almost daily
occurrence, but Brent was never in on them and so the summer wore on and
still he had not hit the trail. "I'll just wait now, for snow," he
decided late in August. "Then I'll get a good dog team together, and
make a real rush. There's no use hitting out with a poling boat, the
creeks are all staked, and back-packing is too hard work for a white
man. I'm as good a man as I ever was, and when the snow comes I'll show
them."

Brent's wardrobe was depleted until it consisted of a coarse blue jumper
and ragged overalls drawn over underclothing, laced and tied together in
a dozen places. He had not shaved for a month.

Later in October Camillo Bill came to his cabin. He stood in the doorway
and stared into the dirty interior where Brent, with the unwashed dishes
of his last meal shoved back, sat reading.

"Hello, Camillo," greeted the owner of the cabin as he rose to his feet
and extended his hand, "Come in and sit down."

Camillo Bill settled himself into a chair: "Well I'll be damned!" he
exclaimed under his breath.

Brent rinsed a couple of murky glasses in the water pail, and reached
for a bottle that sat among the dirty dishes: "Have a drink," he
invited, extending a glass to his visitor.

Camillo Bill poured a taste of liquor into the glass and watched Brent,
with shaking hand, slop out a half a tumblerful, and drink it down as
one would drink water. He swallowed the liquor and returned the glass to
the table.

"Take some more," urged Brent, "I've got another quart under the bunk."

"No thanks," refused the other, curtly, "I heard you was down an' out,
but--by God, I wasn't lookin' for this!"

"What's the matter?" asked Brent, flushing beneath his stubby beard,
"What do you mean?"

Righteous indignation blazed from Camillo Bill's eyes. "Mean! You know
damn well what I mean!" he thundered. "Look around this shack! Look in
the lookin' glass up there! You're livin' here worse'n a dog lives!
You're worse'n a--a squaw-man!"

Brent rose to his feet, and drew himself proudly erect. Ragged and
unshaven as he was, the effect was ludicrous, but Camillo Bill saw
nothing of humour as he stared at the wreck of his friend. Brent spoke
slowly, measuring his words: "No man--not even you can insult me and get
away with it. I'm as good a man as I ever was, and I'll prove it if
you'll step outside."

"You couldn't prove nothin' to nobody, noway. Kitty told me you'd gone
to hell--but, I didn't know you'd gone on plumb through."

Brent sank weakly into his chair and began to whimper: "I'm as good a
man as I ever was," he sniveled.

"Shut up!" Camillo Bill's fist struck the table, "It makes me mad to
look at you! You're a hell of a lookin' object. You won't winter
through. They'll find you froze some mornin' half ways between here an'
some saloon."

"I won't be here when winter comes. I'm going to hit the trail when
snow flies, with a dog outfit."

"Where do you aim to go?"

"Over beyond the Mackenzie. Over in the Coppermine River country.
There's gold over there, and there aren't a million _chechakos_ gouging
for it."

Camillo Bill roared with laughter: "Over beyond the Mackenzie! Picked
you out the roughest an' the furtherest place to go there is. An'
nuthin' there when you get there--only you'd never get there. You ain't
got the strength nor the guts to cross Indian River--let alone the
Mackenzie. An' besides, where do you aim to get your outfit?"

"I'll work in the sawmill till I get enough, or anyone will grub-stake
me--you will."

"I will--like hell! An' no one else won't, neither. You'd never buy
nothin' but hooch if they did."

A gleam of hope flashed into Brent's eyes: "Say," he asked, "How about
my claims? You must have taken out your million by this time."

Camillo Bill smiled and his eyes never wavered as they met Brent's gaze:
"Petered plumb out," he said, "That's what I come to tell you about.
They ain't an ounce left in 'em."

"Did you get yours?" asked Brent dully. "If you didn't, just let me know
how much you are shy, and I'll make it good--when I make my strike, over
beyond the Mackenzie."

This time the other did not laugh. His fists clenched, and he muttered
under his breath: "All gone to hell--puffed an' bloated, an' rotten
with hooch--an' still square as a brick school house!" For a long time
he sat silent, staring at the floor.

Brent poured himself another drink: "How much are you shy?" he repeated.

The words roused Camillo Bill from a brown study: "Huh?" he asked.

"I said, how much are you shy of that million?"

"Oh, I don't know yet. I ain't cleaned up the tailin' of the dump. It
ain't goin' to be so far off, though. I'll let you know later." He got
up and crossed to the door. "So long," he said, and without waiting for
Brent's adieu, struck out at a fast walk for Stoell's where he found old
Bettles and Swiftwater Bill drinking at the bar with Moosehide Charlie,
who was telling of a fresh strike on a nameless creek to the westward.

Camillo Bill motioned the three to a small table, and when they were
seated he ordered the drinks: "We got a job to do," he announced,
plunging straight into his subject, "An' we got to do it thorough."

"Meanin' which?" asked Bettles.

"Meanin' to kidnap a man, an' hide him out fer a year, an' make him work
like hell every minute he ain't sleepin' or eatin'."

"That sounds like a hell of a contrack," opined Swiftwater Bill. "Who's
goin' to keep him workin', an' what at, an' what for?"

"For the good of his soul," grinned Camillo, "The spark of a man's
there yet--an' a damn good man. But if we all don't git down an' blow
like hell the spark's goin' out."

"Clear as mulligan," grinned Moosehide Charlie.

Camillo Bill looked into the faces of his companions: "Anyone saw
Ace-In-The-Hole, lately?" he asked.

Bettles shook his head, and Swiftwater Bill spoke up: "I seen him about
a month ago--bought him a drink. He's on the toboggan."

Moosehide Charlie broke in: "I ain't seen him since spring when he saved
me from gettin' doped in Cuter Malone's. Cuter floored him with a bottle
an' Kitty an' I got him home an' she looked after him till he got
better. I give her a sack of dust to give him, but he wouldn't take
it--throw'd it out in the snow, an' Kitty dug it out an' brung it back.
If you all is figgerin' on gettin' up a stake fer him, let me in I'll go
as high as the next."

Camillo Bill shook his head: "Nothin' doin' on the stake stuff. He
wouldn't take it, an' if he did it would be the worst thing we could do
to him. He'd blow it all in fer hooch. I went over to his cabin just now
to turn back his claims. I've took out my million, an' only worked one
of 'em. An' it ain't worked half out. They must be two or three million
in 'em yet. Kitty told me the hooch had got him right--but she didn't
tell it strong enough. He's in a hell of a shape, an' thinks he's as
good a man as he ever was. He's dirty, an' ragged, an' bloated with
hooch an' broke--an' yet, by God--he's a man! When I seen how things
was, I decided not to say anything about the claims because if he got
holt of 'em now, he'd blow 'em in as fast as he could get out the dust.
But, after a while he asked me, an' I told him they'd petered out. He
never batted an eye, but he says, 'Did you get out your million?
'Cause,' he says, 'if you didn't just tell me how much you're shy, an'
I'll make it good!' He thinks he's goin' somewhere over beyond the
Mackenzie when the snow comes--but, hell--he ain't in no shape to go
nowheres. What we got to do is jest na'chelly steal him, an' put him in
a cabin somewheres way out in the hills, an' hire a couple of guards for
him, an' keep him workin' for a whole damn year. It'll nearly kill him
at first, but it'll put him back where he was, if it don't kill him--an'
if it does, it's better to die workin' than to freeze to death drunk
like McMann did."

"I got the place to put him," said Swiftwater, "The claim's no good, but
it's way to hell an' gone from here, an' there's a cabin on it."

"Just the ticket," agreed Camillo.

"We better send out quite a bunch of hooch. So he can kind of taper
off," suggested Moosehide Charlie.

"Taper--hell!" cried Bettles, "If you taper off, you taper on agin. I
know. The way to quit is to quit."

"We'll figger that out," laughed Camillo, "The best way is to ask the
doc. I'll tend to that, an' I'll get a guard hired, an' see about grub
an' tools and stuff. We'll meet here a week from tonight an' pull the
deal off, an' Swiftwater he can go along fer guide--only you don't want
to let him see you. I'll get guards that he don't know, an' that don't
know him. We'll have to pay 'em pretty good, but it's worth it."

Old Bettles nodded: "He was a damn good man, onct."

"An' he'll be agin'!" exclaimed Camillo, "If he lives through it. His
heart's right."

And so they parted, little thinking that when they would gather for the
carrying out of their scheme, Brent would have disappeared as completely
as though the earth had swallowed him up.



CHAPTER IX

SNOWDRIFT RETURNS TO THE BAND


As Snowdrift plodded mile after mile, in her flight from the mission,
her brain busied itself with her problem, and the first night beside her
little campfire she laid her plans for the future. In her heart was no
bitterness against old Wananebish--only compassion that resolved itself
into an intense loyalty and a determination to stay with her and to
lighten the burden that the years were heaping upon her. For she knew of
the old woman's intense love for her, and the hardships she willingly
endured to keep her in school at the mission. The blame was the white
man's blame--the blame of the man who was her father.

Her face burned hot and her eyes flashed as her hatred of white men grew
upon her. Gladly would she have opened her veins and let out the last
drop of white blood that coursed the length of them. At least she could
renounce the white man's ways--his teachings, and his very language.
From now on she was Indian--and yet, again came that fleeting, elusive
_memory_--always, ever since she had been a little girl there had been
the _memory_, and when it came she would close her eyes, and press her
hands to her head and try and try in vain to grasp it--to bring the
picture clean-cut to her mind. Then the _memory_ would fade away--but it
would return again, in a month--a year--always it would return--a log
cabin--wind-tossed waters--a beautiful white woman who held her close--a
big man with a beard upon his face like McTavish, the factor. At first
she had told Wananebish of the _memory_, but she had laughed and said
that it was the wives of the different factors and traders at the posts
who were wont to make much of the little girl when the band came to
trade. The explanation never quite satisfied Snowdrift, but she accepted
it for want of a better. Was it a flash of memory from another
existence? There was the book she had borrowed from Father Ambrose, the
peculiar book that she did not understand, and that Father Ambrose said
he did not understand, and did not want to understand, for it was all
about some heathenish doctrine. She wondered if it could not be possible
that people lived over and over again, as the book said, and if so, why
couldn't they remember? Maybe last time she had been a white girl, and
this time she was a half-breed, and the next time she would be an
Indian--she wouldn't wait till next time! She was an Indian now. She
hated the white men.

And so it went as hour on hour she worked her plans for the future. She
knew that Wananebish was getting old, that she was losing her grip on
the band. Many of the older ones had died, and many of the younger ones
had deserted, and those who were left were dissatisfied, and always
grumbling. There were only eighteen or twenty of them all told, now, and
they preferred to hang about along the rivers, trapping just enough fur
to make a scanty living and pay for the hooch that the free-traders
brought in. They were a degenerate lot and old Wananebish had grown
weary in trying to get them back into the barrens where there was gold.
They scoffed at the gold. There had been so little of it found in so
many years of trying--yet she had not been able to get them to leave the
vicinity of the river. But, now, to the river had come news of the great
gold strike beyond the mountains to the westward. Snowdrift reasoned
that if there were gold to the westward there would be gold also to the
eastward, especially as Wananebish knew that it was there--had even
found some of it long years ago. Maybe they would go, now--far back into
the barrens, far, far away from Henri of the White Water.

Upon the fourth day after her departure from the mission, the girl
walked into the camp of the little band of non-treaty Indians. Straight
to the tepee of Wananebish, she went--to the only mother she had ever
known. The old squaw received her with open arms, and with much
wondering, for upon her last visit to the mission the good Sister
Mercedes had told her that Snowdrift would go and continue her studies
at the great convent in the far away land of the white man. It was the
thing she had most feared to hear, yet, by not so much as the flicker of
an eyelash did she betray her soul-hurt. All the long years of
deception, during which MacFarlane's note book had lain wrapped in its
waterproof wrappings and jealously guarded in the bottom of the moss bag
had gone for naught. For it was to guard against the girl's going to the
land of the white man that the deception had been practiced. None but
she knew that no drop of Indian blood coursed through the veins of the
girl, and she knew that once firmly established among her own people she
would never return to the North. At that time she had almost yielded to
the impulse to tell the truth to them, and to spread the proofs before
them--almost, but not quite, for as long as the girl believed herself to
be half Indian there was a chance that she would return, and so the
squaw had held her peace, and now here was the girl herself--here in the
tepee, and she had brought her all her belongings. Wananebish plied her
with questions, but the girl's answers were brief, and spoken in the
Indian tongue, a thing that greatly surprised and troubled the old
woman, for since babyhood, the girl had despised the speech of the
Indians.

The two prepared supper in silence, and in silence they ate it. And for
a long time they sat close together and silent beside the mosquito
smudge of punk and green twigs. The eyes of the old squaw closed and she
crooned softly from pure joy, for here beside her was the only being in
the world that she loved. Her own baby, the tiny red mite she had
deposited that day upon the blanket in the far away post at Lashing
Water, had died during that first winter. The crooning ceased abruptly,
and the black, beady eyes flashed open. But why was she here? And for
how long? She must know. Why did not the girl speak? The silence became
unbearable even to this woman who all her life had been a creature of
silence. Abruptly she asked the question: "Are you not going to the land
of the white men?"

And quick as a flash came the answer in the Indian tongue: "_I hate the
white men!_" The suppressed passion behind the words brought a low
inarticulate cry to the lips of the squaw. She reached for the sheath
knife at her belt, and the sinews upon the back of the hand that grasped
it stood out like whip cords. The black eyes glittered like the eyes of
a snake, and the lips curled back in a snarl of hate, so that the yellow
fangs gleamed in the wavering light of a tiny flame that flared from the
smouldering fire.

Words came in a hoarse croak: "Who is he? I will cut his heart out!"

Then the hand of the girl was laid soothingly upon her arm, and again
she spoke words in the Indian tongue: "No, no, not that."

The old squaw's muscles relaxed as she felt the arm of the girl steal
about her shoulders. The knife slipped back into its sheath, as her body
was drawn close against the girl's. For a long time they sat thus in
silence, and then the girl rose, for she was very tired. At the door of
the tepee she paused: "There are some good white men," she said, "Tell
me again, was my father a good white man?"

Still seated beside the fire the old squaw nodded slowly, "A good white
man--yes. He is dead."

The eyes of the girl sought with penetrating glance the face beside the
fire. Was there veiled meaning in those last words? Snowdrift thought
not, and entering the tepee she crept between her blankets.

When the sound of the girl's breathing told that she slept old
Wananebish stole noiselessly into the tepee and, emerging a moment later
with the old moss bag, she poked at the fire with a stick, and threw on
some dry twigs, and seated herself in the light of the flickering
flames. She thrust her hand into the bag and withdrew a packet from
which she undid the wrappings. Minutes passed as she sat staring at the
notebook of MacFarlane, and at the package of parchment deer-skin still
secure in its original wrapping. For never had the squaw touched a
dollar of the money left in her care for the maintainance and education
of the girl. Poor as she was Wananebish had kept Snowdrift in school,
had clothed and fed her solely by her own efforts, by the fruits of her
hunting and trapping. All during the years she had starved, and saved,
and driven shrewd bargains that the girl might receive education, even
as she herself had received education.

And, now, tonight, she knew that the girl had been suddenly made to
realize that she was one of those born out of wedlock, and the shame of
it was heavy upon her. The old woman's heart beat warm as she realized
that the girl held no blame for her--only an intense hatred for the
white men, one of whose race had wrought the supposed wrong.

For a long time Wananebish sat beside the fire her heart torn by
conflicting emotions. She knew right from wrong. She had not the excuse
of ignorance of the ethics of conduct, for she, too, had been an apt
pupil at the mission school. And for nearly nineteen years she had been
living a lie. And during those years right had struggled against love a
thousand times--and always love had won--the savage, selfish love that
bade her keep the object of her affections with her in the Northland.
Upon the death of her baby soon after the visit of MacFarlane, her whole
life centered upon the tiny white child. In the spring when the band
moved, she had left false directions in the caribou skull beside the
river, and instead of heading for Lashing Water to deliver the babe to
old Molaire, she had headed northward, and upon the third day had come
upon the remains of a sled, and a short distance farther on, a rifle,
and a sheath knife--the same that now swung at her own belt, and which
bore upon its inside surface, the legend "Murdo MacFarlane." A thousand
times she had been upon the point of telling the girl of her parentage,
and turning over to her the packet, but always the fear was upon her
that she would forsake the North, and seek the land of her own people.
Years before, when she had entered the girl at the mission, she had
smothered the temptation to tell all, and to deliver the packet to the
priest. But instead, she invented the story of her illegitimate birth
and accepted the shame. She knew from the first that Sister Mercedes
doubted the tale, that she believed the girl to be white, but she
stoutly held to her story, nor deviated from it so much as a hair's
breadth, during years of periodical questioning.

But now? What should she do now that the girl herself was suffering
under the stigma of her birth? Should she tell her the truth and deliver
to her the packet of her father? If she did would not the girl turn upon
her with hatred, even as she had turned against the people of her own
race? Should she remain silent, still living the lie she had lived all
these years, and thus keep at her side the girl she loved with the
savage mother love of a wild beast? Was it not the girl's right to know
who she was, and if she so willed, to go among her own people, and to go
among them with unsullied name? Clearly this was her right. Wananebish
admitted the right, and the admission strengthened her purpose. Slowly
she rose from the fire and with the packet and the notebook in her hand,
stepped to the door of the tepee and stood listening to the breathing of
the sleeping girl. She would slip the packet beneath the blankets, and
then--and then--she, herself would go away--and stay until the girl had
gone out of the North. Then she would come back to her people. Her eyes
swept the group of tepees that showed dimly in the starlight--back to
her people! A great wave of revulsion and self-pity swept over her as
she saw herself, old and unheeded, working desperately for the
betterment of the little band of degenerates, waging almost single
handed the losing battle against the whiskey runners. Suddenly she
straightened, and the hand clutched tightly the packet. If Snowdrift
stayed, might not the band yet be saved? What is it the white men say
when they seek excuse for their misdeeds? Ah, yes, it is that the end
justifies the means. As she repeated the old sophistry a gleam of hope
lighted her eyes and she returned again to the fire. At least, the girl
would remain at her side, and would care for her in her old age--only a
few more years, and then she would die, and after that-- Carefully she
rewrapped the packet and returned it to the moss bag. As always before
the savage primal love triumphed over the ethics, and with a great
weight lifted from her mind, the old squaw sought her blankets.

Heart and soul, during the remaining days of the summer, Snowdrift threw
herself into the work of regenerating the little band of Indians. News
of the great gold strike on the Yukon had reached the Mackenzie and
these rumors the girl used to the utmost in her arguments in favor of a
journey into the barrens. At first her efforts met with little
encouragement, but her enthusiasm for the venture never lagged and
gradually the opposition weakened before the persistence of her
onslaughts.

When the brigade passed northward, Henri of the White Water had promised
the Indians he would return with hooch, and it was in anticipation of
this that the young men of the band were holding back. When, in August,
word drifted up the river that a patrol of the mounted from Fort Simpson
had come upon a certain _cache_, and that Henri of the White Water was
even then southward bound under escort, the last of the opposition
vanished. Without hooch one place was as good as another and if they
should find gold--why they could return and buy much hooch, from some
other whiskey runner. But, they asked, how about debt? Already they were
in debt to the company, and until the debt was paid they could expect
nothing, and a long trip into the barrens would call for much in the way
of supplies.

McTavish, the bearded trader at Fort Good Hope, listened patiently until
the girl finished her recital, and then his thick fingers toyed with the
heavy inkstand upon his desk.

"I do' no' what to say, to ye, lass," he began, "The Company holds me to
account for the debt I give, an' half the band is already in my debt.
Ye're mither, auld Wananebish is gude for all she wants an' so are you,
for ye're a gud lass. Some of the others are gud too, but theer be some
amongst them that I wad na trust for the worth of a buckshot. They've
laid around the river too lang. They're a worthless, hooch-guzzlin'
outfit. They're na gude."

"But that's just why I want debt," cried the girl, "To get them away
from the river. There's no hooch here now, and they will go. I, myself,
will stand responsible for the debt."

The Scotchman regarded the eager face gravely: "Wheer wad ye tak them?"
he asked.

"Way to the eastward, beyond Bear Lake, there is a river. The trapping
is good there, and there is gold----"

"The Coppermine," interrupted McTavish, "Always theer has been talk of
gold on the Coppermine--but na gold has been found theer. However, as ye
say, the trappin' should be gude. Yer Injuns be na gude along the river.
They're lazy an' no account, an' gettin' worse. Theer's a bare chance ye
can save 'em yet if ye can get 'em far into the barrens. I'm goin' to
give ye that chance. If ye'll guarantee the debt, I'll outfit 'em--no
finery an' frippery, mind ye--just the necessities for the winter in the
bush. Bring 'em along, lass, an' the sooner ye get started the better,
for 'tis a lang trail ye've set yerself--an' may gude luck go with ye."

And so it was that upon the first day of September, the little band of
Indians under the leadership of Snowdrift and Wananebish, loaded their
goods into canoes and began the laborious ascent of Hare Indian River.



CHAPTER X

THE DINNER AT REEVES'


With the rush of the _chechakos_ had come also the vanguard of big
business--keen-eyed engineers and bespectacled metallurgists,
accompanied by trusted agents of Wall Street, who upon advice of the
engineers and the metallurgists paid out money right and left for
options.

First over the pass in the spring came Reeves and Howson who struck into
the hills and, passing up the rich "gold in the grass roots" claims,
concentrated upon a creek of lesser promise. By the first of July, their
findings upon this creek justified the report to their principals in the
states that roused those officials of the newly organized Northern
Dredge Company from their stupor of watchful waiting into a cauldron of
volcanic activity.

Fowler, the little purchasing agent sat at his desk and for fourteen
straight hours dictated telegrams, pausing only to refer to pages of
neatly typed specifications, with the result that within twenty-four
hours upon many railroads carloads of freight began to move toward a
certain dock in Seattle at which was moored a tramp steamer waiting to
receive her cargo. A sawmill from the Washington forests, steel rails
and a dinky engine from Pittsburg, great dredges from Ohio, tools, iron,
cement from widely separated States and the crowning item of all, a
Mississippi River steamboat jerked bodily from the water and dismantled
ready to be put together in a matter of hours at the mouth of the Yukon.

Late in August that same steamboat, her decks and two barges piled high
with freight, nosed into the bank at Dawson and threw out her mooring
lines, while down her plank swarmed the Northern Company's skilled
artisans--swarmed also into the waiting arms of her husband, Reba
Reeves, wife of the Northern Dredge Company's chief engineer and general
manager of operation. Reeves led his wife to the little painted house
that he had bought and furnished, and turned his attention to the
problem of transporting his heavy outfit to the creek of his selection.

For a month thereafter he was on the works night and day, snatching his
sleep where he could, now and then at home, but more often upon the pile
of blankets and robes that he had thrown into a corner of the little
slab office on the bank of the creek. Early in October, upon one of his
flying visits, his wife reminded him that he had promised to send a man
down to bank the house for the winter.

"Don't see how I can spare a man right now, little girl," he answered,
"I'm hiring every man I can find that will handle a pick or a shovel, or
drive a nail, or carry a board. I've still got three miles of flume to
put in, and half a mile of railroad grade to finish--and the snow will
hit us any time now."

"You can't work your old dredges in the winter, anyhow, why don't you
wait till spring."

"When spring comes I want to be in shape to begin throwing out the
gravel the minute the ground thaws, and I don't want to be bothered
building flume and railroad."

"But, dearest, the floor is so cold. We can't live in this house in the
winter unless it is banked. All the neighbors have their houses banked
three or four feet high, and if the ground freezes we'll never get it
done."

Reeves' brow puckered into a frown: "That's right," he admitted, "Tell
you what I'll do, I'll come down Saturday afternoon and stay over Sunday
and bank it myself. Maybe I can find someone to help me. There's an old
tramp that lives in a cabin a piece back from the river. One of my
foremen has hired him three or four times, but he's no good--won't work
more than two or three days at a stretch--he's a drunkard, and can't
stay away from booze. Maybe, though, if I stay right on the job with him
till it's finished I can get a day's work out of him--anyway I'll try."

Of the books left by the Englishman, the one that interested Brent most
was a volume from which the title page had long since disappeared as had
the lettering upon its back, if indeed any had ever existed. It
contained what appeared to be semi-official reports upon the mineral
possibilities of the almost unexplored territory lying between the
Mackenzie and Back's Fish River, but more particularly upon the
Coppermine River and its tributaries. To these reports was added a
monograph which treated exhaustively of the expeditions of Hearne into
the North in search of gold, and also of the illfated expedition of old
Captain Knight. This book held a peculiar fascination for Brent, and he
read and reread it, poring over its contents by the hour as he dreamed
his foolish dreams of some day carrying on Hearne's explorations to
ultimate success.

Upon the night following the visit of Camillo Bill, Brent sat beside his
dirty table, with his stinking oil lamp drawn near, and his favorite
book held close to catch the sullen light that filtered through its
murky, smoke blackened chimney. This night the book held a new interest
for him. All along he had cherished the hope that when Camillo Bill
should turn back his claims, there would still be a goodly amount of
gold left in the gravel. But Camillo Bill said that the claims had
petered out--and Camillo Bill was square. All that was left for him to
do then was to hit for the Coppermine, and not so much for himself, for
he stood in honor bound to see that Camillo Bill lost nothing through
cashing those slips and markers upon his assurance that the claims were
worth a million.

The book settled slowly to Brent's lap, he poured a drink, and idly
turned its pages, as his drunken imagination pictured himself mushing at
the head of a dog team through those unknown wastes, and at the end of
the long trail finding gold, gold, gold. He turned to the inside of the
front cover and stared idly at the name penned many years ago. The ink
was faded and brown and the name almost illegible so that he had to turn
it aslant to follow the faint tracery. "Murdo MacFarlane, Lashing
Water," he read, "I wonder where Lashing Water is? And who was this
Murdo MacFarlane? And where is he now? Did he find Hearne's lost gold?
Or, did he--did he--?" A loud knock upon the door roused Brent from his
dreamy speculation.

"Come in!" he called, and turned to see Reeves standing in the doorway.

"Hello," greeted the intruder, plunging straight into the object of his
visit, "I'm up against it, and I wonder if you won't help me out." He
paused, and Brent waited for him to proceed, "I'm Reeves, of the
Northern Dredge Company, and I've got every available man in Dawson out
there on the works trying to finish three miles of flume and a half mile
of railroad before snow flies. I can't spare a man off the works, but
I've got to bank my house, so I decided to stay home myself tomorrow and
tackle it. If you'll help me, and if we get a good early start, I think
we can finish the job by night. I wouldn't care a rap if it were not for
my wife, she's from the South, and I'm afraid of those cold floors. What
do you say, will you do it? I'll pay you well."

"Yes," answered Brent, and he noticed that the other's eyes had strayed
in evident surprise to the pile of books upon the table among the dirty
dishes.

"All right, that's fine! What time can I expect you?"

"Daylight," answered Brent, "Will you have a drink?" he indicated the
bottle that stood beside the pile of books, but Reeves shook his head:

"No, thanks, I've got to tackle some work tonight that I've been putting
off for weeks. See you in the morning."

Seated once more in his chair with his book, Brent poured himself a
drink, "From the South," he whispered, and raising the murky glass to
his lips swallowed the liquor. His eyes closed and into his brain
floated a picture, dim and indistinct, at first, but gradually taking
definite form--a little town of wide, tree-shaded streets, a
weather-stained brick courthouse standing in the centre of a grassed
square, and facing it across the street a red brick schoolhouse. The
schoolhouse doors swung open and out raced a little boy swinging his
books on the end of a strap. He was a laughing, cleareyed little boy,
and he wore buckled slippers and black velvet nickers, and a wide collar
showed dazzling white against the black of the velvet jacket.

Other children followed, barefooted little boys whose hickory shirts,
many sizes too large for the little bodies, bulged grotesquely about
their "galluses," and little boys shod in stiff hot looking black shoes
and stockings, and little girls with tight-braided pig-tails hanging
down their backs, and short starched skirts, who watched with envious
eyes as the velvet clad boy ran across to the "hitch-rail" that flanked
the courthouse sidewalk, and mounted a stocky little "calico" Shetland
pony, and rode down the tree-shaded street at a furious gallop. On the
outskirts of the town the pony swerved of its own accord between two
upstanding stone posts and into a broad avenue that swept in graceful
curves between two rows of huge evergreens that led from the white
turnpike to a big brick house, the roof of whose broad gallery was
supported upon huge white pillars. Up the avenue raced the pony and up
the dozen steps that led to the gallery, just at the moment that the
huge bulk of a round-eyed colored "mammy" blocked the doorway of the
hall.

"Hyah, yo' rascal, yo'!" cried the outraged negress flourishing her
broom, "Git yo' circus hoss offen my clean gallery flo', fo' I bus' him
wide open wif dis, broom! Lawd sakes, efen Miss Callie see yo' hyah, she
gwine raise yo' ha'r fo' sho'! Yo' Ca'teh Brent, yo' _git_!" The broom
swished viciously--and Brent opened his eyes with a jerk. The first
fitful gusts of a norther were whipping about the eaves of his cabin,
and shivering slightly, he crawled into his bunk.

All the forenoon the two men worked side by side with pick and shovel
and wheelbarrow, piling the earth high above the baseboards of Reeves'
white painted house. Brent spoke little and he worked as, it seemed to
him, he had never worked before. The muscles of his back and arms and
fingers ached, and in his vitals was the gnawing desire for drink. But
he had brought no liquor with him, and he fought down the desire and
worked doggedly, filling the wheelbarrows as fast as Reeves could dump
them. At noon Reeves surveyed the work with satisfaction: "We've got
it!" he exclaimed, "We're a little more than half through, and none too
soon." The wind had blown steadily from the north, carrying with it
frequent flurries of snow. "We'll knock off now. Just step into the
house."

Brent shook his head, "No, I'll slip over to the cabin. I'll be back by
the time you're through dinner."

Reeves, who had divined the man's need, stepped closer, "Come in, won't
you. I've got a little liquor that I brought from the outside. I think
you'll like it."

Without a word Brent followed him into the kitchen where Reeves set out
the bottle and a tumbler: "Just help yourself," he said, "I never use
it," and passed into the next room. Eagerly Brent poured himself half a
tumblerful and gulped it down, and as he returned the glass to the
table, he heard the voice of Reeves: "You don't mind if he eats with us
do you? He's worked mighty hard, and--" the sentence was interrupted by
a woman's voice:

"Why, certainly he will eat with us. See, the table's all set. I saw you
coming so I brought the soup in. Hurry before it gets cold." At the
man's words Brent's eyes had flashed a swift glance over his
disreputable garments. His lips had tightened at the corners, and as he
had waited for the expected protest, they had twisted into a cynical
smile. But at the woman's reply, the smile died from his lips, and he
took a furtive step toward the door, hesitated, and unconsciously his
shoulders stiffened, and a spark flickered for a moment in his muddy
eyes. Why not? It had been many a long day since he had sat at a table
with a woman--that kind of a woman. Like a flash came Reeves' words of
the night before. "She's from the South." If the man should really ask
him to sit at his table, why not accept--and carry it through in his own
way? The good liquor was taking hold. Brent swiftly dashed some more
into the glass and downed it at a swallow. Then Reeves stepped into the
room.

"You are to dine here," he announced, "we both of us need a good hot
meal, and a good smoke, and my wife has your place all laid at the
table."

"I thank you," answered Brent, "May I wash?" Reeves, who had expected an
awkward protest started at the words, and indicated the basin at the
sink. As Brent subjected his hands and face to a thorough scrubbing, and
carefully removed the earth from beneath his finger nails, Reeves eyed
him quizzically. Brent preceded his host into the dining room where Mrs.
Reeves waited, standing beside her chair.

Reeves stepped forward: "My wife, Mr.----," his voice trailed purposely,
but instead of mumbling a name, and acknowledging the introduction with
an embarrassed bob of the head, Brent smiled:

"Let us leave it that way, please. Mrs. Reeves, allow me," and stepping
swiftly to her chair he seated her with a courtly bow. He looked up to
see Reeves staring in open-mouthed amazement. Again, he smiled, and
stepped to his own place, not unmindful of the swift glance of surprise
that passed between husband and wife. After that surprises came fast.
Surprise at the ease and grace of manner with which he comported
himself, gave place to surprise and admiration at his deft maneuvering
of the conversation to things of the "outside"--to the literary and
theatrical successes of a few years back, and to the dozen and one
things that make dinner small talk. The Reeves' found themselves
consumed with curiosity as to this man with the drunkard's eye, the
unkempt beard, and the ragged clothing of a tramp, whose jests and quips
kept them in constant laughter. All through the meal Mrs. Reeves studied
him. There was something fine in the shape of the brow, in the thin,
well formed nose, in the occasional flash of the muddy eyes that held
her.

"You are from the South, aren't you?" she asked, during a pause in the
conversation.

Brent smiled. "Yes, far from the South--very far."

"I am from the South, too, and I love it," continued the woman, her eyes
upon the man's face. "From Plantersville, Tennessee--I've lived there
all my life." At the words Brent started perceptibly, and the hand that
held his coffee cup trembled violently so that part of the contents
splashed onto his napkin. When he returned the cup to its saucer it
rattled noisily.

The woman half rose from her chair: "_Carter Brent_!" she cried. And
Reeves, staring at his wife in astonishment, saw that tears glistened in
her eyes.

The next moment Brent had pulled himself together: "You win," he smiled,
regarding her curiously, "But, you will pardon me I'm sure. I've been
away a long time, and I'm afraid----"

"Oh, you wouldn't recognize me. I was only sixteen or seventeen when you
left Plantersville. You had been away at college, and you came home for
a month. I'm Reba Moorhouse----"

"Indeed I do remember you," laughed Brent, "Why you did me the honor to
dance with me at Colonel Pinkney's ball. But, tell me, how are your
mother and father and Fred and Emily? I suppose Doctor Moorhouse still
shoots his squirrels square in the eye, eh!"

"Mother died two years ago, and dad has almost given up his practice,"
she smiled, "So he'll have more time to shoot squirrels. Fred is in
college, and Emily married Charlie Harrow, and they bought the old
Melcher place out on the pike."

Brent hesitated a moment: "And--and--my father--have you seen him
lately?"

"Yes, indeed! General Brent and Dad are still the greatest of cronies.
He hasn't changed a bit since I can first remember him. Old Uncle Jake
still drives him to the bank at nine o'clock each morning, he still eats
his dinners at the Planter's Hotel, and then makes his rounds of the
lumber yard, and the coal yard, and the tobacco warehouse, or else Uncle
Jake drives him out to inspect some of his farms, and back home at four
o'clock. No, to all appearances, the General hasn't changed--but, dad
says there is a change in the last two or three years. He--he--would
give everything he owns just to hear from--you."

Brent was silent for a moment: "But, he must not hear--yet. I'll make
another strike, one of these days--and then-----"

"Did you make a strike?" asked Reeves.

Brent nodded. "Yes, I was on the very peak of the first stampede. Did
you, by chance, ever hear of Ace-In-The-Hole?"

Reeves smiled: "Yes--notorious gambler, wasn't he? Were you here when he
was? Made a big strike, somewhere, and then gambled away ten or twenty
million, didn't he, and then--I never did hear what became of him."

Brent smiled: "Yes, he made a strike. Then, I suppose, he was just what
you said--a notorious gambler--his losses were grossly exaggerated, they
were not over two millions at the outside."

"A mere trifle," laughed Reeves, "What ever became of him."

"Just at this moment he is seated at a dining table, talking with a
generous host, and a most charming hostess----"

"Are _you_ Ace-In-The-Hole?"

"So designated upon the Yukon," smiled Brent.

Mrs. Reeves leaned suddenly forward: "Oh, why don't you--why don't you
brace up? Let liquor alone, and----"

Brent interrupted her with a wave of the hand: "Theoretically a very
good suggestion," he smiled, "But, practically--it won't work.
Personally, I do not think I drink enough to hurt me any--but we will
waive that point--if I do, it is my own fault." He was about to add that
he was as good a man as he ever was, but something saved him that
sophistry, and when he looked into the face of his hostess his muddy
eyes twinkled humorously. "At least," he said, "I have succeeded in
eliminating one fault--I have not gambled in quite some time."

"And you never will gamble again?"

Brent laughed: "I didn't say that. However I see very little chance of
doing so in the immediate future."

"Promise me that you never will?" she asked, "You might, at least,
promise me that, if you won't give up the other."

"What assurance would you have that I would keep my promise?" parried
the man.

Quick as a flash came the reply, "The word of a Brent!"

Unconsciously the man's shoulders straightened: He hesitated a moment
while he regarded the woman gravely: "Yes," he said, "I will promise you
that, if it will please you, 'Upon the word of a Brent.'" He turned
abruptly to Reeves, "We had better be getting at that job again, or we
won't finish it before dark," he said, and with a bow to Mrs. Reeves,
"You will excuse us, I know." The woman nodded and as her husband was
about to follow Brent from the room she detained him.

"Who is he?" asked Reeves, as the door closed behind him.

"Who is he!" exclaimed his wife, "Why he's Carter Brent! The very last
of the Brents! Anyone in the South can tell you what that means. They're
the bluest of the blue bloods. His father, the old General, owns the
bank, and about everything else that's worth owning in Plantersville,
and half the county besides! And oh, it's a shame! A shame! We've got
to do something! You've got to do something! He's a mining engineer,
too. I recognized him before he told me, and when I mentioned
Plantersville, did you see his hand tremble? I was sure then. Oh, can't
you give him a position?"

Reeves considered: "Why, yes, I could use a good mining engineer.
But--he's too far gone. He couldn't stay away from the booze. I don't
think there's any use trying."

"There is, I tell you! The blood is there--and when the blood is there
it is _never_ too late! Didn't you notice the air with which he gave me
his promise not to gamble 'Upon the word of a Brent.' He would die
before he would break that promise--you see."

"But--he wouldn't promise to let liquor alone. The gambling--in his
circumstances is more or less a joke."

"But, when he gets on his feet again it won't be a joke!" she insisted.
"You mark my words, he is going to make good. I can _feel_ it. And that
is why I got him to promise not to gamble. If you can make him promise
to let liquor alone you can depend on it he will let it alone. You'll
try--won't you dear?"

"Yes, little girl, I'll try," smiled Reeves, kissing his young wife,
"But I'll tell you beforehand, you are a good deal more sanguine of
success than I am." And he passed out and joined Brent who was busily
loading a wheelbarrow.



CHAPTER XI

JOE PETE


Several times during the afternoon as they worked side by side, Reeves
endeavored to engage Brent in conversation, but the latter's replies
were short to the verge of curtness, and Reeves gave it up and devoted
his energy to the task in hand. The fitful snow flurries of the forenoon
settled into a steady fall of wind-driven flakes that cut the air in
long horizontal slants and lay an ever-thickening white blanket upon the
frozen surface of the ground. Darkness fell early, and the job was
finished by lantern light. When the last barrow of earth had been
placed, the two made a tour of inspection which ended at the kitchen
door.

"Snug and tight for the winter!" exclaimed Reeves, "And just in time!"

"Yes," answered Brent, "Winter is here."

The door opened and the face of Mrs. Reeves was framed for a moment in
the yellow lamp light: "Supper is ready!" she called, cheerily.

"Come in," invited Reeves, heartily, "We'll put that supper where it
will do the most good, and then we'll----"

Brent interrupted him: "Thank you, I'll go home."

"Oh, come, now!" insisted the other. "Mrs. Reeves is expecting you. She
will be really disappointed if you run off that way."

"Disappointed--_hell_!" cried Brent, so fiercely that Reeves stared at
him in surprise. "Do you think for a minute that it was easy for me to
sit at a table--the table of a southern lady--in these rags? Would you
care to try it--to try and play the rôle of a gentleman behind a six
weeks' growth of beard, and with your hair uncut for six months? It
would have been an ordeal at any table, but to find out suddenly--at a
moment when you were straining every nerve in your body to carry it
through, that your hostess was one you had known--in other days--and who
had known you--I tell you man it was hell! What I've got to have is not
food, but whiskey--enough whiskey to make me drunk--very drunk. And the
hell I've gone through is not a circumstance to the hell I've got to
face when that same whiskey begins to die out--lying there in the bunk
staring wide-eyed into the thick dark--seeing things that aren't
there--hearing voices that were, and are forever stilled, and voices
that never were--the voices of the damned--taunting, reviling, mocking
your very soul, asking you what you have done with your millions? And
where do you go from here? And your hands shaking so that you can't draw
the cork from the bottle to drown the damned voices and still them till
you have to wake up again, hoping when you do it will be daylight--it's
easier in daylight. I tell you man that's _hell_! It isn't the hell that
comes after he dies a man fears--it's the hell that comes in the dark. A
hell born of whiskey, and only whiskey will quench the fires of it--and
more whiskey--and more----"

Reeves grasped his hand in a mighty grip: "I think I understand, old
man--a little," he said. "I'll make excuse to Mrs. Reeves."

"Tell her the truth if you want to," growled Brent, turning away, "We'll
never meet again."

"You've forgotten something," called Reeves as he extended a hand which
held a crisp bill.

Brent examined it. It was a twenty. "What is this--wages or charity?" he
asked.

"Wages--and you've earned every cent of it."

"Shoveling dirt, or play acting?" There was a sneer in the man's voice,
which Reeves was quick to resent.

"Shoveling dirt," he replied, shortly.

"Men shovel dirt in this camp now for eight or ten."

"I think I am quite capable of judging what a man's services are worth
to me," answered Reeves, "Good bye." He turned to the door, and Brent
crumpled the bill into his pocket and disappeared in the whirling snow.

Arriving at his cabin he carefully deposited two quarts of liquor upon
the table, lighted his smoky lamp, and built a roaring fire in the
stove. Seating himself in a chair, he carefully removed the cork from
the bottle and took a long, long drink. He realized suddenly that the
unwonted physical exercise had made him very tired and hungry. The
greater part of a link of bologna sausage lay upon the table, a remnant
of a previous meal. He took the sausage in his hand and devoured it,
pausing now and then to drink from the bottle. When the last fragment
had been consumed he settled himself in his chair and, with the bottle
at his elbow, stared for a long time at the log wall. "Winter is here,"
he muttered, at length, "And I've got to hit the trail." He took a
drink, and carefully replaced the bottle upon the table, and again for a
long time he stared at the logs. A knock on the door startled him.

"Come in," he called. He felt better now. The liquor was taking hold.

Reeves stamped the snow noisily from his feet and closed the door behind
him. Brent rose and motioned for the man to draw the other chair closer
to the stove. He turned up the murky lamp a trifle, then turned it down
again because it smoked.

Reeves seated himself, and fumbling in his pocket, produced two cigars,
one of which he tendered to Brent. "I came, partly on my own account,
and partly at the earnest solicitation of my wife." He smiled, "I hardly
know how to begin."

"If it's a sermon, begin about three words from the end; but if it is a
drinking bout, begin at the beginning, but you will have to pardon me
for beginning in the middle, for I have already consumed half a quart."
He indicated the bottle and Reeves noted that his lips were smiling, and
that there was a sparkle in the muddy eyes.

"Not guilty on either count," he laughed, "I neither preach nor drink.
What brings me here is a mere matter of business."

"Business? Sure you haven't got your dates mixed. I have temporarily
withdrawn from the business world."

Reeves was relieved to see that the fierce mood of a few hours before
had given place to good humour. "No, it is regarding the termination of
this temporary withdrawal that I want to see you. I understand you're a
mining engineer."

"Colorado School of Mines--five good jobs within two years in
Montana--later, placer miner, 'notorious gambler,' and--" he included
himself and the interior of the cabin in an expressive gesture.

"Do you want another good job?"

"What kind of a job?"

"An engineering job. How would you like to be my assistant in the
operation of this dredging proposition?"

Brent shook his head: "It wouldn't work."

"Why not?"

Brent smiled: "Too close to Dawson. I like the hooch too well. And,
aside from that, you don't need me. You will be laying off men now. Not
hiring them."

"Laying off laborers, yes. But there is plenty of work along that creek
this winter for the right man--for me, and for you, if you will assume
it."

Again Brent shook his head: "There is another reason," he objected, "I
have got to make another strike--and a good one. I have an obligation to
meet--an obligation that in all probability will involve more money than
any salary I could earn."

"Small chance of a rich strike, now. The whole country is staked."

"Around here, yes. But not where I'm going."

"Where is that?"

"Over beyond the Mackenzie. In the Coppermine River country."

"Beyond the Mackenzie!" cried Reeves, "Man are you crazy!"

"No, not crazy, only, at the moment, comfortably drunk. But that has
nothing whatever to do with my journey to the Coppermine. I will be cold
sober when I hit the trail."

"And when will that be? How do you expect to finance the trip?"

"Ah, there's the rub," grinned Brent, "I have not the least idea in the
world of how I am going to finance it. When that detail is arranged, I
shall hit the trail within twenty-four hours."

Reeves was thinking rapidly. He did not believe that there was any gold
beyond the Mackenzie. To the best of his knowledge there was nothing
beyond the Mackenzie. Nothing--no towns--no booze! If Brent would be
willing to go into a country for six months or a year in which booze was
not obtainable--"There's no booze over there," he said aloud, "How much
would you have to take with you?"

"Not a damned drop!"

"What!"

Brent rose suddenly to his feet and stood before Reeves. "I have been
fooling myself," he said, in a low tense voice, "Do you know what my
shibboleth has been? What I have been telling myself and telling
others--and expecting them to believe? I began to say it, and honestly
enough, when I first started to get soft, and I kept it up stubbornly
when the softness turned to flabbiness, and I maintained it doggedly
when the flabbiness gave way to pouchiness: 'I am as good a man as I
ever was!' That's the damned lie I've been telling myself! I nearly told
it at your table, and before your wife, but thank God I was spared that
humiliation. Just between friends, I'll tell the truth--I'm a damned
worthless, hooch-guzzling good-for-naught! And the hell of it is, I
haven't got the guts to quit!" He seized the bottle from the table and
drank three or four swallows in rapid succession, "See that--what did I
tell you?" He glared at Reeves as if challenging a denial. "But, I've
got one chance."

He straightened up and pointed toward the eastward. "Over beyond the
Mackenzie there is no hooch. If I can get away from it for six months I
can beat it. If I can get my nerve back--get my _health_ back, By God, I
_will_ beat it! If there's enough of a Brent left in me, for that girl,
your wife, to recognize through this disguise of rags and hair and dirt,
there's enough of a Brent, sir, to put up one hell of a fight against
booze!"

Reeves found himself upon his feet slapping the other on the back.
"You've said it man! You've said it! I will arrange for the financing."

"You! How?"

"On your own terms."

Brent was silent for a moment: "Take your pick," he said, "Grub-stake
me, or loan me two thousand dollars. If I live I'll pay you back--with
interest. If I don't--you lose."

Reeves regarded him steadily: "I lose, only in case you die--you promise
me that--on the word of a Brent? And I don't mean the two thousand--you
understand what I mean, I think."

Brent nodded, slowly: "I understand. And I promise--on the word of a
Brent. But," he hastened to add, "I am not promising that I will not
drink any more hooch--now or any other time--I have here a quart and a
half of liquor. In all probability between now and tomorrow morning I
shall get very drunk."

"You said you would leave within twenty-four hours," reminded Reeves.

"And so I will."

"How do you want the money?"

"How do I want it? I'll tell you. I want it in dust, and I want it
inside of an hour. Can you get it?"

"Yes," answered Reeves, and drawing on cap and mittens, pushed out into
the storm.

Hardly had the door closed behind him, than it opened again and Brent
also disappeared in the storm.

In a little shack upon the river bank, an Indian grunted sleepily in
answer to an insistent banging upon his door: "Hey, Joe Pete, come out
here! I want you!"

A candle flared dully, and presently the door opened, and a huge Indian
stood in the doorway rubbing his eyes with his fist.

"Come with me," ordered Brent, "To the cabin."

Silently the Indian slipped into his outer clothing and followed, and
without a word of explanation, Brent led the way to his cabin. For a
half hour they sat in silence, during which Brent several times drank
from his bottle. Presently Reeves entered and laid a pouch upon the
table. He looked questioningly at the Indian who returned the scrutiny
with a look of stolid indifference.

"Joe Pete, this is Mr. Reeves. Reeves, that Injun is Joe Pete, the best
damned Injun in Alaska, or anywhere else. Used to pack over the
Chilkoot, until he made so much money he thought he'd try his hand at
the gold--now he's broke. Joe Pete is going with me. He and I understand
each other perfectly." He picked up the sack and handed it to the
Indian: "Two thousand dolla--_pil chikimin_. Go to police, find out
trail to Mackenzie--Fort Norman. How many miles? How many days? Buy grub
for two. Buy good dogs and sled. Buy two outfits clothes--plenty tabac.
Keep rest of _pil chikimin_ safe until two days on trail, then give it
to me. We hit the trail at eight o'clock tomorrow morning."

Without a word the Indian took the sack and slipped silently out the
door, while Reeves stared in astonishment:

"You've got a lot of confidence in that Indian!" he exclaimed. "I
wouldn't trust one of them out of my sight with a dollar bill!"

"You don't know Joe Pete," grinned Brent. "I've got more confidence in
him than I have in myself. The hooch joints will be two days behind me
before I get my hands on that dust."

"And now, what?" asked Reeves.

"Be here at eight o'clock tomorrow morning and witness the start,"
grinned Brent, "In the meantime, I am going to make the most of the
fleeting hours." He reached for the bottle, and Reeves held up a warning
hand:

"You won't be in any shape to hit the trail in the morning, if you go
too heavy on that."

Brent laughed: "Again, I may say, you don't know Joe Pete."

At seven o'clock in the morning Reeves hurried to Brent's cabin. The
snow about the door lay a foot deep, trackless and unbroken. Reeves'
heart gave a bound of apprehension. There was no dog team nor sled in
evidence, nor was there any sign that the Indian had returned. A dull
light glowed through the heavily frosted pane and without waiting to
knock Reeves pushed open the door and entered.

Brent greeted him with drunken enthusiasm: "H'l'o, Reeves, ol' top! Glad
to she you. S'down an' have a good ol' drink! Wait'll I shave. Hell of a
job to shave." He stood before the mirror weaving back and forth, with a
razor in one hand and a shaving brush in the other, and a glass half
full of whiskey upon the washstand before him, into which he gravely
from time to time dipped the shaving brush, and rubbing it vigorously
upon the soap, endeavored to lather the inch-long growth of beard that
covered his face. Despite his apprehension as to what had become of the
paragon, Joe Pete, Reeves was forced to laugh. He laughed and laughed,
until Brent turned around and regarded him gravely: "Wash matter? Wash
joke? Wait a minuit lesh have a li'l drink." He reached for the bottle,
that sat nearly empty upon the table, and guzzled a swallow of the
liquor. "Damn near all gone. Have to get nosher one when Joe Pete
comes."

"When Joe Pete comes!" cried Reeves, "You'll never see Joe Pete again!
He's skipped out!"

"Skipped out? Washa mean skipped out?"

"I mean that it's a quarter past seven and he hasn't showed up and you
told him you would start at eight."

Brent laid his razor upon the table: "Quar' pasht seven? Quar pasht
seven isn't eight 'clock. You don' know Joe Pete."

"But, man, you're not ready. There's nothing packed. And you're as drunk
as a lord!"

"Sure, I'm drunk's a lord--drunker'n two lords--lords ain't so damn'
drunk. If I don't get packed by eight 'clock I'll have to go wishout
packin'. You don' know Joe Pete."

At a quarter of eight there was a commotion before the door, and the
huge Indian entered the room, dressed for the trail. He stood still,
gave one comprehensive look around the room, and silently fell to work.
He examined rapidly everything in the cabin, throwing several articles
into a pile. Brent's tooth brush, comb, shaving outfit, and mirror he
made into a pack which he carried to the sled, returning a moment later
with a brand new outfit of clothing. He placed it upon the chair and
motioned Brent to get into it. But Brent stood and stared at it
owlishly. Whereupon, without a word, the Indian seized him and with one
or two jerks stripped him to the skin and proceeded to dress him as one
would dress a baby. Brent protested weakly, but all to no purpose.
Reeves helped and soon Brent was clothed for the winter trail even to
moose hide parka. He grinned foolishly, and drank the remaining liquor
from the bottle. "Whad' I tell you?" he asked solemnly of Reeves. "You
don't know Joe Pete."

The Indian consulted a huge silver watch, and returning it to his
pocket, sat upon the edge of the bunk, and stared at the wall. Brent
puttered futilely about the room, and addressed the Indian. "We got to
get a bottle of hooch. I got to have jus' one more drink. Jus' one more
drink, an' then to hell wish it."

The Indian paid not the slightest heed, but continued to stare at the
wall. A few minutes later he again consulted his watch, and rising,
grasped Brent about the middle and carried him, struggling and
protesting out the door and lashed him securely to the sled.

Reeves watched the proceeding in amazement, and almost before he
realized what was happening, the Indian had taken his place beside the
dogs. He cracked his whip, shouted an unintelligible command, and the
team started. Upon the top of the load, Brent wagged a feeble farewell
to Reeves: "Sho long, ol' man--she you later--I got to go now. You don'
know Joe Pete."

The outfit headed down the trail to the river. Reeves, standing beside
the door of the deserted cabin, glanced at his watch. It was eight
o'clock. He turned, closed the door and started for home chuckling. The
chuckle became a laugh, and he smote his thigh and roared, until some
laborers going to work stopped to look at him. Then he composed himself
and went home to tell his wife.



CHAPTER XII

ON THE TRAIL


At noon Joe Pete swung the outfit into the lee of a thicket, built a
fire, and brewed tea. Brent woke up and the Indian loosened the
_babiche_ line that had secured him, coiled the rope carefully, and
without a word, went on with his preparation of the meal. Brent
staggered and stumbled about in the snow in an effort to restore
circulation to his numbed arms and legs. His head ached fiercely, and
when he could in a measure control his movements, he staggered to the
fire. Joe Pete tendered him a cup of steaming tea. Brent smelled of the
liquid with disgust: "To hell with tea!" he growled thickly, "I want
hooch. I've got to have it--just one drink."

Joe Pete drank a swallow of tea, and munched unconcernedly at a piece of
pilot bread.

"Give me a drink of hooch! Didn't you hear me? I need it," demanded
Brent.

"Hooch no good. Tea good. Ain' got no hooch--not wan drink."

"No hooch!" cried Brent, "I tell you I've got to have it! I thought I
could get away with it, this trailing without hooch--but, I can't. How
far have we come?"

"Bout 'leven mile."

"Well, just as soon as you finish eating you turn that dog team around.
We're going back." Brent was consumed by a torturing thirst. He drank
the tea in great gulps and extended his cup for more. He drank a second
and a third cup, and the Indian offered him some bread. Brent shook his
head:

"I can't eat. I'm sick. Hurry up and finish, and hit the back-trail as
fast as those dogs can travel."

Joe Pete finished his meal, washed the cups, and returned the cooking
outfit to its appointed place on the load.

"You goin' ride?" he asked.

"No, I'll walk. Got to walk a while or I'll freeze."

The Indian produced from the pack a pair of snowshoes and helped Brent
to fasten them on. Then he swung the dogs onto the trail and continued
on his course.

"Here you!" cried Brent, "Pull those dogs around! We're going back to
Dawson."

Joe Pete halted the dogs and walked back to where Brent stood beside the
doused fire: "Mebbe-so we goin' back Dawson," he said, "But, firs' we
goin' Fo't Norman. You tak hol' tail-rope, an' mush."

A great surge of anger swept Brent. His eyes, red-rimmed and swollen
from liquor, and watery from the glare of the new fallen snow, fairly
blazed. He took a step forward and raised his arm as though to strike
the Indian: "What do you mean? Damn you! Who is running this outfit?
I've changed my mind. I'm not going to Fort Norman."

Joe Pete did not even step back from the up-lifted arm. "You ain' change
_my_ min' none. You droonk. I ain' hear you talk. Bye-m-bye, you git
sober, Joe Pete hear you talk. You grab tail-rope now or I tie you oop
agin."

Suddenly Brent realized that he was absolutely in this man's power. For
the first time in his life he felt utterly helpless. The rage gave place
to a nameless fear: "How far is it to Fort Norman?" he asked, in an
unsteady voice.

"'Bout fi' hondre mile."

"Five hundred miles! I can't stand the trip, I tell you. I'm in no
condition to stand it. I'll die!"

The Indian shrugged--a shrug that conveyed to Brent more plainly than
words that Joe Pete conceded the point, and that if it so happened, his
demise would be merely an incident upon the trail to Fort Norman. Brent
realized the futility of argument. As well argue with one of the eternal
peaks that flung skyward in the distance. For he, at least, knew Joe
Pete. In the enthusiasm of his great plan for self redemption he had
provided against this very contingency. He had deliberately chosen as
his companion and guide the one man in all the North who, come what
may, would deviate no hair's breadth from his first instructions. And
now, he stood there in the snow and cursed himself for a fool. The
Indian pointed to the tail-rope, and muttering curses, Brent reached
down and picked it up, and the outfit started.

So far they had fairly good going. The course lay up Indian River,
beyond the head reaches of which they would cross the Bonnet Plume pass,
and upon the east slope of the divide, pick up one of the branches of
the Gravel and follow that river to the Mackenzie. Joe Pete traveled
ahead, breaking trail for the dogs, and before they had gone a mile
Brent was puffing and blowing in his effort to keep up. His grip
tightened on the tail-rope. The dogs were fairly pulling him along. At
each step it was becoming more and more difficult to lift his feet. He
stumbled and fell, dragged for a moment, and let go. He lay with his
face in the snow. He did not try to rise. The snow felt good to his
throbbing temples. He hoped the Indian would not miss him for a long,
long time. Better lie here and freeze than endure the hell of that long
snow trail. Then Joe Pete was lifting him from the snow and carrying him
to the sled. He struggled feebly, and futilely he cursed, but the effort
redoubled the ache in his head, and a terrible nausea seized him, from
which he emerged weak and unprotesting while the Indian bound him upon
the load.

At dark they camped. Brent sitting humped up beside the fire while Joe
Pete set up the little tent and cooked supper. Brent drank scalding tea
in gulps. Again he begged in vain for hooch--and was offered pilot bread
and moose meat. He tried a piece of meat but his tortured stomach
rejected it, whereupon Joe Pete brewed stronger tea, black, and bitter
as gall, and with that Brent drenched his stomach and assuaged after a
fashion his gnawing thirst. Wrapped in blankets he crept beneath his
rabbit robe--but not to sleep. The Indian had built up the fire and
thrown the tent open to its heat. For an hour Brent tossed about, bathed
in cold sweat. Things crawled upon the walls of the tent, mingling with
the shadows of the dancing firelight. He closed his eyes, and buried his
head in his blankets, but the things were there too--twisting, writhing
things, fantastic and horrible in color, and form, and unutterably
loathsome in substance. And beyond the walls of the tent--out in the
night--were the voices--the voices that taunted and tormented. He threw
back his robe, and crawled to the fireside, where he sat wrapped in
blankets. He threw on more wood from the pile the Indian had placed
ready to hand, so that the circle of the firelight broadened, and
showers of red sparks shot upward to mingle with the yellow stars.

But, it was of no use. The crawling, loathsome shapes writhed and
twisted from the very flames--laughed and danced in the lap and the lick
of the red flames of fire. Brent cowered against his treetrunk and
stared, his red-rimmed eyes stretched wide with horror, while his blood
seemed to freeze, and his heart turned to water within him. From the
fire, from beyond the fire, and from the blackness of the forest behind
him crept a _thing_--shapeless, and formless, it was, of a substance
vicious and slimy. It was of no color, but an unwholesome luminosity
radiated from its changing outlines--an all encompassing ever
approaching thing of horror, it drew gradually nearer and nearer,
engulfing him--smothering him. He could reach out now and touch it with
his hands. His fingers sank deep in its slime and--with a wild shriek,
Brent leaped from his blankets, and ran barefooted into the forest. Joe
Pete found him a few minutes later, lying in the snow with a rapidly
swelling blue lump on his forehead where he had crashed against a tree
in his headlong flight. He picked him up and carried him to the tent
where he wrapped him in his blankets and thrust him under the robe with
a compress of snow on his head.

In the morning, Brent, babbling for whiskey, drank tea. And at the noon
camp he drank much strong tea and ate a little pilot bread and a small
piece of moose meat. He walked about five miles in the afternoon before
he was again tied on the sled, and that night he helped Joe Pete set up
the tent. For supper he drank a quart of strong bitter tea, and ate more
bread and meat, and that night, after tossing restlessly till midnight,
he fell asleep. The shapes came, and the voices, but they seemed less
loathsome than the night before. They took definite concrete shapes,
shapes of things Brent knew, but of impossible color. Cerese lizards and
little pink snakes skipped lightly across the walls of the tent, and
bunches of luminous angleworms writhed harmlessly in the dark corners.
The skipping and writhing annoyed, disgusted, but inspired no terror, so
Brent slept.

The third day he ate some breakfast, and did two stretches on snowshoes
during the day that totaled sixteen or eighteen miles, and that night he
devoured a hearty meal and slept the sleep of the weary.

The fourth day he did not resort to the sled at all. Nor all during the
day did he once ask for a drink of hooch. Day after day they mushed
eastward, and higher and higher they climbed toward the main divide of
the mountains. As they progressed the way became rougher and steeper,
the two alternated between breaking trail and work at the gee-pole. With
the passing of the days the craving for liquor grew less and less
insistent. Only in the early morning was the gnawing desire strong upon
him, and to assuage this desire he drank great quantities of strong tea.
The outward manifestation of this desire was an intense irritability,
that caused him to burst into unreasoning rage at a frozen guy rope or a
misplaced mitten, and noting this, Joe Pete was careful to see that
breakfast was ready before he awakened Brent.

On the tenth day they topped the Bonnet Plume pass and began the long
descent of the eastern slope. That night a furious blizzard roared down
upon them from out of the North, and for two days they lay snowbound,
venturing from the tent only upon short excursions for firewood. Upon
the first of these days Brent shaved, a process that, by reason of a
heavy beard of two months' growth, and a none too sharp razor, consumed
nearly two hours. When the ordeal was over he regarded himself for a
long time in the little mirror, scowling at the red, beefy cheeks, and
at the little broken veins that showed blue-red at the end of his nose.
He noted with approval that his eyes had cleared of the bilious yellow
look, and that the network of tiny red veins were no longer visible upon
the eyeballs. With approval, too, he prodded and pinched the hardening
muscles in his legs and arms.

When the storm passed they pushed on, making heavy going in the loose
snow. The rejuvenation of Brent was rapid now. Each evening found him
less tired and in better heart, and each morning found him ready and
eager for the trail.

"To hell with the hooch," he said, one evening, as he and the Indian sat
upon their robes in the door of the tent and watched the red flames lick
at the firewood, "I wouldn't take a drink now if I had a barrel of it!"

"Mebbe-so not now, but in de morning you tak' de beeg drink--you bet,"
opined the Indian solemnly.

"The hell I would!" flared Brent, and then he laughed. "There is no way
of proving it, but if there were, I'd like to bet you this sack of dust
against your other shirt that I wouldn't." He waited for a reply, but
Joe Pete merely shrugged, and smoked on in silence.

Down on the Gravel River, with the Mackenzie only three or four days
away, the outfit rounded a bend one evening and came suddenly upon a
camp. Brent, who was in the lead, paused abruptly and stared at the fire
that flickered cheerfully among the tree trunks a short distance back
from the river. "We'll swing in just below them," he called back to Joe
Pete, "It's time to camp anyway."

As they headed in toward the bank they were greeted by a rabble of
barking, snarling dogs, which dispersed howling and yelping as a man
stepped into their midst laying right and left about him with a
long-lashed whip. The man was Johnnie Claw, and Brent noted that in the
gathering darkness he had not recognized him.

"Goin' to camp?" asked Claw.

Brent answered in the affirmative, and headed his dogs up the bank
toward a level spot some twenty or thirty yards below the fire.

Claw followed and stood beside the sled as they unharnessed the dogs:
"Where you headin'?" he asked.

"Mackenzie River."

"Well, you ain't got fer to go. Trappin'?"

Brent shook his head: "No. Prospecting."

"Where'd you come from?"

"Dawson."

"Dawson!" exclaimed Claw, and Brent, who had purposely kept his face
turned away, was conscious that the man was regarding him closely. Claw
began to speak rapidly, "This Dawson, it's way over t'other side the
mountains, ain't it? I heard how they'd made a strike over there--a big
strike."

Brent nodded: "Yes," he answered. "Ever been there?"

"Me? No. Me an' the woman lives over on the Nahanni. I trap."

Brent laughed: "What's the matter, Claw? I'm not connected with the
police. You don't need to lie to me. What have you got, a load of hooch
for the Injuns?"

The man stepped close and stared for a moment into Brent's face. Then,
suddenly, he stepped back: "Well, damn my soul, if it ain't you!"

He was staring at Brent in undisguised astonishment: "But, what in
hell's happened to you? A month ago you was----"

"A bum," interrupted Brent, "Going to hell by the hooch route--and not
much farther to go. But I'm not now, and inside of six months I will be
as good a man as I ever was."

"You used to claim you always was as good a man as you ever was,"
grinned Claw. "Well, you was hittin' it a little too hard. I'm glad you
quit. You an' me never hit it off like, what you might say, brothers.
You was always handin' me a jolt, one way an' another. But, I never laid
it up agin you. I allus said you played yer cards on top of the
table--an' if you ever done anything to a man you done it to his
face--an' that's more'n a hell of a lot of 'em does. There's the old
woman hollerin' fer supper. I'll come over after you've et, an' we'll
smoke a pipe 'er two." Claw disappeared and Brent and Joe Pete ate their
supper in silence. Now and again during the meal Brent smiled to himself
as he caught the eyes of the Indian regarding him sombrely.

After supper Claw returned and seated himself by the fire: "What you
doin' over on this side," he asked, "You hain't honest to God
prospectin' be you?"

"Sure I am. Everything is staked over there, and I've got to make
another strike."

"They ain't no gold on this side," opined Claw.

"Who says so?"

"Me. An' I'd ort to know if anyone does. I've be'n around here goin' on
twenty year, an' I spend as much time on this side as I do on t'other."
Brent remembered he had heard of Claw's long journeys to the
eastward--men said he went clear to the coast of the Arctic where he
carried on nefarious barter with the whalers, trading Indian and Eskimo
women for hooch, which he in turn traded to the Indians.

"Maybe you haven't spent much time hunting for gold," hazarded Brent.

"I'd tell a party I hain't! What's the use of huntin' fer gold where
they hain't none? Over on this side a man c'n do better at somethin'
else." He paused and leered knowingly at Brent.

"For instance?"

Claw laughed: "I hain't afraid to tell you what I do over here. They
hain't but damn few I would tell, but I know you won't squeal. You
hain't a-goin' to run to the Mounted an' spill all you know--some
would--but not you. I'm peddling hooch--that's what I'm doin'. Got two
sled-loads along that I brung through from Dawson. I thin it out with
water an' it'll last till I git to the coast--clean over on Coronation
Gulf, an' then I lay in a fresh batch from the whalers an' hit back fer
Dawson. It used to be I could hit straight north from here an' connect
up with the whalers near the mouth of the Mackenzie--but the Mounted got
onto me, an' I had to quit. Well, it's about time to roll in." The man
reached into his pocket and pulled out a bottle of liquor, "Glad you
quit hooch," he grinned, "But, I don't s'pose you'd mind takin' a little
drink with a friend--way out here it can't hurt you none, where you
can't git no more." He removed the cork and tendered the bottle. But
Brent shook his head: "No thanks, Claw," he said, "I'm off of it. And
besides, I haven't got but a few real friends--and you are not one of
them."

"Oh, all right, all right," laughed Claw as he tilted the bottle and
allowed part of the contents to gurgle audibly down his throat, "Of
course I know you don't like me none whatever, but I like you all right.
No harm in offerin' a man a drink, is they?"

"None whatever," answered Brent, "And no harm in refusing one when you
don't want it."

Claw laughed again: "Not none whatever--when you don't want it." And
turning on his heel, he returned to his own tent, chuckling, for he had
noted the flash that momentarily lighted Brent's eyes at the sight of
the liquor and the sound of it gurgling down his throat.

Early in the morning Brent awoke to see Claw standing beside his fire
while Joe Pete prepared breakfast. He joined the two and Claw thrust out
his hand: "Well, yer breakfast's ready an' you'll be pullin' out soon.
We've pulled a'ready--the old woman's mushin' ahead. So long--shake, to
show they's no hard feelin's--or, better yet, have a drink." He drew the
bottle from his pocket and thrust it toward Brent so abruptly that some
of the liquor spilled upon Brent's bare hand. The odor of it reached his
nostrils, and for a second Brent closed his eyes.

"Tea ready," said Joe Pete, gruffly.

"Damn it! Don't I know it?" snapped Brent, then his hand reached out for
the bottle. "Guess one won't hurt any," he said, and raising the bottle
to his lips, drank deeply.

"Sure it won't," agreed Claw, "I know'd you wasn't afraid of it. Take
it, or let it alone, whichever you want to--show'd that las' night."

Instantly the liquor enveloped Brent in its warm glow. The grip of it
felt good in his belly, and a feeling of vast well-being pervaded his
brain. Claw turned to go.

"What do you get for a quart of that liquor over here," asked Brent.

"Two ounces," answered Claw, "An' they ain't nothin' in it at that,
after packin' it over them mountains. I git two ounces fer it after it's
be'n weakened--but I'll let you have it, fer two the way it is."

"I'll take a quart," said Brent, and a moment later he paid Claw two
ounces "guess weight" out of the buckskin pouch, in return for a bottle
that Claw produced from another pocket. And as Brent turned into the
tent, Claw slipped back into the timber and joined his squaw who was
breaking trail at a right angle to the river over a low divide. And as
he mushed on in the trail of his sleds, Claw turned and leered evilly
upon the little camp beside the frozen river.



CHAPTER XIII

THE CAMP ON THE COPPERMINE


It was mid-afternoon when Brent drank the last of the liquor and threw
the bottle into the snow. He was very drunk, and with the utmost
gravity, halted the outfit and commanded the Indian to turn the dogs and
strike out on the trail of Claw. But Joe Pete merely shrugged, and
started the dogs, whereupon Brent faced about and started over the
back-trail. When he had proceeded a hundred yards the Indian halted the
dogs, and strode swiftly after Brent, who was making poor going of it on
his snowshoes. As Joe Pete understood his orders, the journey to the
Mackenzie called for no side trips after hooch, and he made this fact
known to Brent in no uncertain terms. Whereupon Brent cursed him
roundly, and showed fight. It was but the work of a few moments for the
big Indian to throw him down, tie him hand and foot and carry him,
struggling and cursing, back to the sled, where he rode for the
remainder of the day in a most uncomfortable position from which he
hurled threats and malediction upon the broad back of the Indian.

The following morning Brent awoke long before daylight. His head ached
fiercely and in his mouth was the bitter aftermath of dead liquor. In
vain he sought sleep, but sleep would not come. Remorse and shame
gripped him as it had never gripped him before. He writhed at the
thought that only a day or two ago he had laughed at hooch, and had
openly boasted that he was through with it and that he would not take a
drink if he possessed a barrel of it. And, at the very first
opportunity, he had taken a drink, and after that first drink, he had
paid gold that was not his to use for such purpose for more hooch, and
had deliberately drank himself drunk. The reviling and malediction which
he had hurled at Joe Pete from the sled were words of gentle endearment
in comparison with the terrible self-castigation that he indulged in as
he tossed restlessly between his blankets and longed for the light of
day. To be rid of the torture he finally arose, replenished the fire,
and brewed many cups of strong tea. And when Joe Pete stepped from the
tent in the grey of the morning it was to find breakfast ready, and
Brent busy harnessing the dogs. In silence the meal was eaten, and in
silence the two hit the trail. That day was a hard one owing to rough
ice encountered upon the lower Gravel River, and the two alternated
frequently between breaking trail and working at the gee-pole. The long
snow trail had worked wonders for Brent physically, and by evening he
had entirely thrown off the effects of the liquor. He ate a hearty
supper, and over the pipes beside the fire the two men talked of gold.
As they turned in, Brent slapped Joe Pete on the back: "Just forget what
I said yesterday--I was a damned fool."

The Indian shrugged: "The hooch, she all tam' mak' de damn fool. She no
good. I ain' care w'at de hooch talk 'bout. Som' tam' you queet de
hooch. Dat good t'ing. W'en you sober, you good man. You say, Joe Pete,
you do lak dis. I do it. W'en de hooch say, Joe Pete you do lak som'
nodder way. I say go to hell."

At Fort Norman, Brent bought an additional dog team and outfitted for
the trip to the Coppermine. Upon learning from Murchison, the factor,
that the lower Coppermine, from Kendall River northward to the coast,
had been thoroughly explored and prospected without finding gold, he
decided to abandon the usual route by way of Dease Bay, Dease River, the
Dismal Lakes, and the Kendall River, and swing southward to the eastern
extremity of Conjuror Bay of Great Bear Lake, and then head straight
across the barrens, to strike the upper reaches of the Coppermine in the
region of Point Lake.

Murchison expressed doubt that there was gold upon any part of the
Coppermine, "If there is," he added, "No one's ever got any of it. An'
I'm doubtin' if there's any gold east of the Mackenzie. I've been on the
river a good many years, an' I never saw any, except a few nuggets that
an old squaw named Wananebish found years ago."

"On the Coppermine?" asked Brent.

Murchison laughed: "I don't know--an' she don't either. She found 'em,
an' then her husband was drowned in a rapids and she pulled out of there
and she claims she ain't never be'n able to locate the place since, an'
she's spent years huntin' for it an' draggin' a little band of worthless
Injuns after her. They're over there now, somewhere. I heard they hit up
Hare Indian River, along about the first of September. McTavish at Good
Hope, give 'em debt to be rid of 'em. But I don't think they'll find any
gold. The formation don't seem to be right on this side of the river."

"Gold has been taken from the bottom of the sea, and from the tops of
mountains," reminded Brent, "You know the old saying, 'Gold is where you
find it.'"

"Aye," answered Murchison, with a smile, "But, east of the Mackenzie,
gold is where you don't find it."

The four hundred mile journey from Fort Norman to the Coppermine was
accomplished in sixteen days. A permanent camp-site was selected upon
the west bank of the river, and the two worked with a will in
constructing a tiny log cabin, well within the shelter of a thick clump
of spruce. Brent's eyes had lost the last trace of muddiness, the
bloated unhealthy skin had cleared, and his flabby muscles had grown
iron-hard so that he plunged into the work of felling and trimming
trees, and heaving at logs with a zest and enthusiasm that had not been
his for many a long day. He had not even thought of a drink in a week.
When the cabin was finished and the last of the chinking rammed into
place, he laughingly faced Joe Pete upon the trampled snow of the
dooryard. "Come on now, you old leather image!" he cried, "Come and take
your medicine! I owe you a good fall or two for the way you used me on
the trail. You're heap _skookum_, all right, but I can put you on your
back! Remember you didn't handle the butt ends of _all_ those logs!"

And thus challenged the big Indian, who was good for his two hundred
pound pack on a portage, sailed in with a grin, and for ten minutes the
only sounds in the spruce thicket were the sounds of scrapping _mukluks_
on the hard-trampled snow, and the labored breathing of the straining
men. Laughter rang loud as Brent twice threw the Indian, rolled him onto
his back, and rubbed snow into his face, and then, still laughing, the
two entered their cabin and devoured a huge meal of broiled caribou
steaks, and pilot bread.

Supper over, Joe Pete lighted his pipe and regarded Brent gravely: "On
de trail," he said, "I handle you lak wan leetle baby. Now, you _skookum
tillicum_. You de firs mans kin put Joe Pete on de back. De hooch, she
no good for hell!"

"You bet, she's no good!" agreed Brent, "Believe me, I'm through with
it. It's been a good while since I've even thought of a drink."

Joe Pete seemed unimpressed: "You ain't t'ink 'bout a drink cos you
ain't got non. Dat better you keep 'way from it, or you t'ink 'bout it
dam' queek." And Brent, remembering that morning on the trail when he
had said good bye to Claw, answered nothing.

For the next few days, while Joe Pete worked at the building of a cache,
Brent hunted caribou. Upon one of these excursions, while following up
the river, some three of four miles south of the cabin, he came suddenly
upon a snowshoe trail. It was a fresh trail, and he had followed it
scarcely a mile when he found other trails that crossed and recrossed
the river, and upon rounding a sharp bend, he came abruptly upon an
encampment. Three tiny log cabins, and a half-dozen tepees were visible
in a grove of scraggling spruce that gave some shelter from the sweep of
the wind. Beyond the encampment, the river widened abruptly into a lake.
An Indian paused in the act of hacking firewood from a dead spruce, and
regarded him stolidly. Brent ascended the bank and greeted him in
English. Receiving no response, he tried the jargon:

"_Klahowya, six?_"

The Indian glanced sidewise, toward one of the cabins, and muttered
something in guttural. Then, the door of the cabin opened and a girl
stepped out onto the snow and closed the door behind her. Brent stared,
speechless, as his swift glance took in the details of her moccasins,
deer-skin leggings, short skirt, white _capote_ and stocking cap. She
held a high-power rifle in her mittened hand. Then their eyes met, and
the man felt his heart give a bound beneath his tight-buttoned mackinaw.
Instantly, he realized that he was staring rudely, and as the blood
mounted to his cheeks, he snatched the cap from his head and stepped
forward with hasty apology: "I beg your pardon," he stammered, "You see,
I had no idea you were here--I mean, I had not expected to meet a lady
in the middle of this God-forsaken wilderness. And especially as I only
expected to find Indians--and I hadn't even expected them, until I
struck the trail on the river." The man paused, and for the first time
noted the angry flash of the dark eyes--noted, too, that the red lips
curled scornfully.

"_I_ am an Indian," announced the girl, haughtily, "And, now you have
found us--go!"

"An Indian!" cried Brent, "Surely, you are----"

"Go!" Repeated the girl, "Before I kill you!"

"Oh, come, now," smiled Brent, "You wouldn't do that. We are neighbors,
why not be friends?"

"Go!" repeated the girl, "and don't come back! The next time I shall not
warn you." The command was accompanied by a sharp click, as she threw a
cartridge into the chamber of her rifle, and another swift glance into
her eyes showed Brent that she was in deadly earnest. He returned the
cap to his head and bowed:

"Very well," he said gravely. "I don't know who you think I am, or why
you should want to kill me, but I do know that some day we shall become
better acquainted. Good bye--till we meet again."



CHAPTER XIV

IN THE BARRENS


Late that evening Brent and Joe Pete were surprised by a knock upon the
door of their cabin. Brent answered the summons and three Indians filed
solemnly into the room. Two of them stood blinking foolishly while the
third drew from a light pack a fox skin which he extended for Brent's
inspection. Brent handed the skin to Joe Pete: "What's all this?" he
asked, "What do they want?"

"Hooch," answered the Indian who had handed over the skin.

Brent shook his head: "No hooch here," he answered, "You've come to the
wrong place. You are the fellow I saw today in the camp up the river.
Tell me, who is the young lady that claims she's an Injun? And why is
she on the war-path?" The three stared stolidly at each other and at
Brent, but gave no hint of understanding a word he had uttered. He
turned to Joe Pete. "You try it," he said, "See if you can make 'em
talk." The Indian tried them in two or three coast dialects, but to no
purpose, and at the end of his attempt, the visitors produced two more
fox skins and added them to the first.

"They think we're holding out for a higher price," laughed Brent.

"No wonder these damned hooch-peddlers can afford to take a chance. What
are those skins worth?"

Joe Pete examined the pelts critically: "Dis wan she dark cross fox,
wort' mebbe-so, t'irty dolla. Dis wan, an' dis wan, cross fox, wort'
'bout twenty dolla."

"Seventy dollars for a bottle of hooch!" cried Brent, "It's robbery!"

He handed back the skins, and at the end of five minutes, during which
time he indicated as plainly as possible by means of signs, that there
was no hooch forthcoming, the Indians took their departure. The next
evening they were back again, and this time they offered six skins, one
of them a silver fox that Joe Pete said would bring eighty dollars at
any trading post. After much patient pantomime Brent finally succeeded
in convincing them that there was really no hooch to be had, and with
openly expressed disgust, the three finally took their departure.

Shortly after noon a week later, Brent drew the last bucket of gravel
from the shallow shaft, threw it onto the dump, and leaving Joe Pete to
look after the fire, took his rifle and struck off up the river in
search of caribou. "Go down the river," whispered the still small voice
of Common Sense, "There are no hunters there." But Brent only smiled,
and held his course. And as he swung over the snow trail his thoughts
were of the girl who had stepped from the cabin and angrily ordered him
from the village at the point of her rifle. Each day during the
intervening week he had thought of her, and he had lain awake at night
and tried in vain to conjure a reason for her strange behaviour. Alone
on the trail he voiced his thoughts: "Why should she threaten to shoot
me? Who does she think I am? Why should she declare she is an Injun? I
don't believe she's any more Injun than I am. Who ever heard of an Injun
with eyes like hers, and lips, yes, and a tip-tilted nose? Possibly, a
breed--but, never an Injun. And, I wonder if her warlike attitude
includes the whole white race, or a limited part of it, or only me? I'll
find out before this winter is over--but, I'll bet she can shoot! She
threw that shell into her rifle in a sort of off-hand _practiced_ way,
like most girls would powder their nose."

His speculation was cut short by a trail that crossed the river at a
right angle and headed into the scrub in a south-easterly direction. The
trail was only a few hours old and had been made by a small band of
caribou traveling at a leisurely pace. Abruptly, Brent left the River
and struck into the trail. For an hour he followed it through the
scraggly timber and across patches of open tundra and narrow beaver
meadows. The animals had been feeding as they traveled and it was
evident that they could not be far ahead. Cautiously topping a low
ridge, he sighted them upon a small open tundra, about two hundred yards
away. There were seven all told, two bulls, three cows, and two
yearlings. One of the bulls and two cows were pawing the snow from the
moss, and the others were lying down. Taking careful aim, Brent shot the
standing bull. The animals that had been lying down scrambled to their
feet, and three more shots in rapid succession accounted for a cow and
one of the yearlings, and Brent watched the remaining four plunge off
through the snow in the direction of the opposite side of the tundra
which was a mile or more in width. When they had almost reached the
scrub he was startled to see the flying bull suddenly rear high and
topple into the snow, the next instant one of the others dropped, and a
moment later a third. Then to his ears came the sound of four shots
fired in rapid succession. As Brent stepped out onto the tundra and,
sheath knife in hand, walked to his fallen caribou, he saw a figure from
the opposite scrub. An exclamation of surprise escaped him. It was the
girl of the Indian Village.

"Wonder if she needs any help?" he muttered as he slit the throat of his
third caribou. He glanced across the short open space to see the girl
bending over the carcass of the other bull. "Guess I'll take a chance,"
he grinned, "And go and see. I knew she could shoot--three out of four,
running shots--that's going some!" When he was half way across the open
he saw the girl rise and wipe the blade of her knife upon the hair of
the dead bull's neck. She turned and knife in hand, waited for him to
approach. Brent noted that her rifle lay within easy reach of her hand,
propped against the dead animal's belly. He noted also, that as he drew
near, she made no move to recover it.

Jerking at the strings of his cap, he removed it from his head: "That
was mighty good shooting," he smiled, "Those brutes were sure
traveling!"

"But, they were very close. I couldn't have missed. It took two shots
for the last one, but both bullets counted. You did good shooting, too.
Your shots were harder--they were farther away. Did all your bullets
count?"

Brent laughed aloud from pure joy. He hardly heard her words. The only
thing he could clearly comprehend was the fact that there was no hint of
anger in the dark eyes, and that the red lips were smiling. "I'm sure I
don't know," he managed to reply, "I didn't stop to look. I think very
likely I missed one shot."

"Why do you take your cap off?" she asked, and almost instantly she
smiled again: "Oh, yes, I know--I have read of it--but, they don't do it
here. Put it on please. It is cold."

Brent returned the cap to his head. "I'm glad I didn't know the other
day, how expert you are with your rifle," he laughed, "Or I wouldn't
have stayed as long as I did."

The girl regarded him gravely: "You are not angry with me?" she asked.

"Why, no, of course not! Why should I be angry with you? I knew that
there was no reason why you should shoot me. And I knew that things
would straighten out, somehow. I thought you had mistaken me for someone
else, and----"

"I thought you were a hooch-runner," interrupted the girl. "I did not
think any white man who is not a hooch-runner, or a policeman, would be
way over here, and I could see that you were not in the Mounted."

"No," answered Brent, "I am not in the Mounted, but, how do you know
that I am not a hooch-runner?"

"Because, three of our band went to your cabin that very night to buy
hooch, and they did not get it. And the next night they went again and
took more fox skins, and again they came away empty handed."

"You sent them then?"

"No, no! But, I knew that they would think the same as I did, that you
wanted to trade them hooch, so I followed them when they slipped out of
the village. Both nights I followed, and I pressed my ear close to the
door, so that I heard all you said."

Brent smiled: "I have some recollection of asking one of those wooden
images something about a certain warlike young lady----"

The girl interrupted him with a laugh: "Yes, I heard that, and I heard
you swear at the hooch traders, and tell the Indians there was no hooch
in the cabin, and I was glad."

The man's eyes sought hers in a swift glance: "Why--why were you glad?"
he asked.

"Because I--because you--because I didn't want to kill you. And I would
have killed you if you had sold them hooch."

"You wouldn't--really----"

"Yes, I would!" cried the girl, and Brent saw that the dark eyes
flashed, "I would kill a hooch-runner as I would a wolf. They are
wolves. They're worse than wolves! Wolves kill for meat, but they kill
for money. They take the fur that would put bread in the mouths of the
women and the little babies, and they make the men drunken and no good.
There used to be thirty of us in the band, and now there are only
sixteen. Two of the men deserted their families since we came here,
because they would not stay where there was no hooch." The girl ceased
speaking and glanced quickly upward: "Snow!" she cried, "It is starting
to snow, and darkness will soon be here. I must draw these caribou,
before they freeze." She drew the knife from her belt and stepped to the
carcass of the bull. But Brent took it from her hand.

"Let me do it," he said, eagerly, "You stand there and tell me how, and
we'll have it done in no time."

"Tell you how!" exclaimed the girl, "What do you mean?" Brent laughed:
"I'm afraid I'm still an awful _chechako_ about some things. I can shoot
them, all right, but there has always been someone to do the drawing,
and skinning, and cutting up. But, I'll learn quickly. Where do I
begin?"

Under the minute directions of the girl Brent soon had the big bull
drawn. The two smaller animals were easier and when the job was finished
he glanced apprehensively at the thickening storm. "We had better go
now," he said. "Do you know how far it is to your camp?"

"Nine or ten miles, I think," answered the girl, "We have only been here
since fall and this is the first time I have hunted in this direction.
But, first we must draw your caribou. If they freeze they cannot be
drawn and then they will not be fit for food."

"But, the snow," objected Brent. "It is coming down faster all the
time."

"The snow won't bother us. There is no wind. Hurry, we must finish the
others before dark."

"But, the wind might spring up at any moment, and if it does we will
have a regular blizzard."

"Then we can camp," answered the girl, and before the astounded man
could reply, she had led off at a brisk pace in the direction of the
other caribou.

The early darkness was already beginning to make itself felt and Brent
drove to his task with a will, and to such good purpose that the girl
nodded hearty approval. "You did learn quickly," she smiled, "I could
not have done it any better nor quicker, myself."

"Thank you," he laughed, "And that is a real compliment, for by the way
you can handle a rifle, and cover ground on snowshoes, I know you are
_skookum tillicum_."

"Yes," admitted the girl, "I'm _skookum tillicum_. But, I ought to be. I
was born in the North and I have lived in the woods and in the barrens,
and upon rivers, all my life."

Brent was about to reply when each glanced for a moment into the other's
face, and then both stared into the North. From out of the darkness came
a sullen roar, low, and muffled, and mighty, like the roar of surf on
the shore of a distant sea.

"It is the wind!" cried the girl, "Quick, take a shoulder of meat! We
must find shelter and camp."

"I can't cut a leg bone with this knife!"

"There are no bones! It is like this." She snatched the knife from
Brent's hand and with a few deft slashes severed a shoulder from the
yearling caribou. "Come, quick," she urged, and led the way toward a
dark blotch that showed in the scraggling timber a few hundred yards
away: "When the storm strikes, we shall not be able to see," she flung
over her shoulder, "We must make that thicket of spruce--or we're
bushed."

Louder and louder sounded the roar of the approaching wind. Brent
encumbered with his rifle and the shoulder of meat, found it hard to
keep up with the girl whose snowshoes fairly flew over the snow. They
gained the thicket a few moments before the storm struck. The girl
paused before a thick spruce, that had been broken off and lay with its
trunk caught across the upstanding butt, some four feet from the ground.
Jerking the ax from its sheath she set to work lopping branches from the
dead tree.

"Break some live branches for the roof of our shelter!" she commanded.
"This stuff will do for firewood, and in a minute you can take the ax
and I will build the wikiup." The words were snatched from her lips by
the roar of the storm. Full upon them, now, it bent and swayed the thick
spruces as if to snap them at the roots. Brent gasped for breath in the
first rush of it and the next moment was coughing the flinty dry
snow-powder from his lungs. No longer were there snow-flakes in the
air--the air itself was snow--snow that seared and stung as it bit into
lips and nostrils, that sifted into the collars of _capote_ and
mackinaw, and seized neck and throat in a deadly chill. Back and forth
Brent stumbled bearing limbs which he tore from the trunks of trees, and
as he laid them at her feet the girl deftly arranged them. The ax made
the work easier, and at the end of a half-hour the girl shouted in his
ear that there were enough branches. Removing their rackets, they stood
them upright in the snow, and stooping, the girl motioned him to follow
as she crawled through a low opening in what appeared to be a mountain
of spruce boughs. To his surprise, Brent found that inside the wikiup he
could breathe freely. The fine powdered snow, collecting upon the
close-lying needles had effectively sealed the roof and walls.

For another half hour, the two worked in the intense blackness of the
interior with hands and feet pushing the snow out through the opening,
and when the task was finished they spread a thick floor of the small
branches that the girl had piled along one side. Only at the opening
there were no branches, and there upon the ground the girl proceeded to
build a tiny fire. "We must be careful," she cautioned, "and only build
a small fire, or our house will burn down." As she talked she opened a
light packsack that Brent had noticed upon her shoulders, and drew from
its interior a rabbit robe which she spread upon the boughs. Then from
the pack she produced a small stew pan and a little package of tea. She
filled the pan with snow, and smiled up into Brent's face: "And, now, at
last, we are snug and comfortable for the night. We can live here for
days if necessary. The caribou are not far away, and we have plenty of
tea."

"You are a wonder," breathed Brent, meeting squarely the laughing gaze
of the dark eyes, "Do you know that if it had not been for you, I would
have been--would never have weathered this storm?"

"You were not born in the bush," she reminded, as she added more snow to
the pan. "I do not even know your name," she said, gravely, "And yet I
feel--" she paused, and Brent, his voice raised hardly above a whisper,
asked eagerly:

"Yes, you feel--how do you feel?"

"I feel as though--as though I had known you always--as though you were
my friend."

"Yes," he answered, and it was with an effort he kept the emotion from
his voice, "We have known each other always, and I am your friend. My
name is Carter Brent. And now, tell me something about yourself. Who are
you? And why did you tell me you were an Indian?"

"I am an Indian," she replied, quickly, "That is, I am a half-breed. My
father was a white man."

"And what is your name?"

"Snowdrift."

"Snowdrift!" he cried, "what an odd name! Is it your last name or your
first?"

"Why, it is the only name I have, and I never had any other."

"But your father--what was your father's name?"

There was a long moment of silence while the girl threw more snow into
the pan, and added wood to the fire. Then her words came slowly, and
Brent detected a peculiar note in her voice. He wondered whether it was
bitterness, or pain: "My father is dead," she answered, "I do not know
his name. Why is Snowdrift an odd name?"

"I think it a beautiful name!" cried Brent.

"Do you--really?" The dark eyes were regarding him with a look in which
happiness seemed to be blended with fear lest he were mocking her.

"Indeed I do! I love it. And now tell me more--of your life--of your
education."

"I went to school at the mission on the Mackenzie. I went there for a
good many years, and I worked hard, for I like to study. And books! I
love to read books. I read all they had, and some of them many times. Do
you love books?"

"Why yes," answered Brent, "I used to. I haven't read many since I came
North."

"Why did you come North?"

"I came for gold."

"For gold!" cried the girl, her eyes shining, "That is why we are here!
Wananebish says there is gold here in the barrens. Once many years ago
she found it--but we have tried to find the place again, and we cannot."

"Who is Wananebish?"

"Wananebish is my mother. She is an Indian, and she has tried to keep
the band together through many years, and to keep them away from the
hooch, but, they will not listen to her. It was hard work to persuade
them to come away from the river. And, have you found gold?"

"Yes," answered Brent, "Way over beyond the mountains that lie to the
westward of the Mackenzie, I found much gold. But I lost it."

"Lost it! Oh, that was too bad. Did it fall off your sled?"

"Well, not exactly," answered the man dryly. "In my case, it was more of
a toboggan."

"Couldn't you find it again?"

"No. Other men have it, now."

"And they won't give it back!"

"No, it is theirs. That part of it is all right--only I would give
anything in the world to have it--now."

"Why do you want it now? Can you not find more gold? I guess I do not
understand."

Brent shook his head: "No, you do not understand. But, sometime you will
understand. Sometime I think I shall have many things to tell you--and
then I want you to understand."

The girl glanced at him wonderingly, as she threw a handful of tea into
the pan. "You must sharpen some green sticks and cut pieces of meat,"
she said, "And we will eat our supper."

A silence fell upon them during the meal, a silence broken only by the
roar of the wind that came to them as from afar, muffled as it was by
its own freighting of snow. Hardly for a moment did Brent take his eyes
from the girl. There was a great unwonted throbbing in his breast, that
seemed to cry out to him to take the girl in his arms and hold her
tight against his pounding heart, and the next moment the joy of her was
gone, and in its place was a dull heavy pain.

"Now, I know why I like you," said the girl, abruptly, as she finished
her piece of venison.

"Yes?" smiled Brent, "And are you going to tell me?"

"It is because you are good." She continued, without noting the quick
catch in the man's breath. "Men who hunt for gold are good. My father
was good, and he died hunting for gold. Wananebish told me. It was years
and years ago when I was a very little baby. I know from reading in
books that many white men are good. But in the North they are bad.
Unless they are of the police, or are priests, or factors. I had sworn
to hate all white men who came into the North--but I forgot the men who
hunt gold."

"I am glad you remembered them," answered Brent gravely. "I hope you are
right."

"I am sleepy," announced the girl. "We cannot both sleep in this robe,
for we have only one, and to keep warm it is necessary to roll up in it.
One of us can sleep half the night while the other tends the fire, and
then the other will sleep."

"You go to sleep," said Brent. "I will keep the fire going. I am not a
bit sleepy. And besides, I have a whole world of thinking to do."

"I will wake up at midnight, and then you can sleep," she said, and,
taking off her moccasins, and leggings, and long woolen stockings she
arranged them upon sticks to dry and rolled up in the thick robe.

"Good night," called Brent, as she settled down.

"Good night, and may God keep you. You forgot that part," she corrected,
gravely, "We used to say that at the Mission."

"Yes," answered Brent, "May God keep you. I did forget that part."

Suddenly the girl raised her head: "Do you believe we have known each
other always?" she asked.

"Yes, girl," he answered, "I believe we have known each other since the
beginning of time itself."

"Why did you come way over here to find gold? I have heard that there is
much gold beyond the mountains to the westward."

It was upon Brent's tongue to say: "I came to find you," but, he
restrained the impulse. "All the gold claims that are any good are taken
up over there," he explained, "And I read in a book that a man gave me
that there was gold here."

"What kind of a book was that? I never read a book about gold."

"It was an old book. One that the man had picked up over in the Hudson
Bay country. Its title was torn off, but upon one of its pages was
written a man's name, probably the name of the former owner of the book.
I have often wondered who he was. The name was Murdo MacFarlane."

"Murdo MacFarlane!" cried the girl, sitting bolt upright, and staring at
Brent.

"Yes," answered the man, "Do you know him?"

The girl reached out and tossed her belt to Brent. "It is the name upon
the sheath of the knife," she answered, "It is Wananebish's knife. I
broke the point of mine."

Brent took the sheath and held it close to the light of the little fire.
"Murdo MacFarlane," he deciphered, "Yes, the name is the same." And long
after the girl's regular breathing told him she was sleeping, he
repeated the name again: "Murdo MacFarlane. I don't know who you were or
who you are, if you still live, but whoever you were, or whoever you
are--here's good luck to you--Murdo MacFarlane!"



CHAPTER XV

MOONLIGHT


The wind had died down, although the snow continued to fall thickly the
following morning, as Brent and Snowdrift crept from the wikiup and
struck out for the river. It was heavy going, even the broad webbed
snowshoes sinking deeply into the fluffy white smother that covered the
wind-packed fall of the night. Brent offered to break trail, but
Snowdrift insisted upon taking her turn, and as he labored in her wake,
the man marveled at the strength and the untiring endurance of the
slender, lithe-bodied girl. He marveled also at the unfailing sureness
of her sense of direction. Twice, when he was leading she corrected him
and when after nearly four hours of continuous plodding, they stood upon
the bank of the river, he realized that without her correction, his
course would have carried him miles to the southward.

"Good bye," he smiled, extending his bared hand, when at length they
came to the parting of the ways, "I don't want but one of the caribou I
shot. Divide the other two between the families of the Indians that
skipped out."

Slipping off her mitten, the girl took the proffered hand unhesitatingly
and an ecstatic thrill shot through Brent's heart at the touch of the
firm slender fingers that closed about his own--a thrill that
half-consciously, half-unconsciously, caused him to press the hand that
lay warm within his clasp.

"Yes," she answered, making no effort to release the hand, "They need
the meat. With the rabbits they can snare, it will keep them all winter.
I have not much fur yet--a few fox skins, and some _loup cervier_. I
will bring them to you tomorrow."

"Bring them to me!" cried Brent, "What do you mean? Why should you bring
them to me?"

"Why!" she exclaimed, regarding him curiously, "To pay for the meat, of
course. A caribou is worth a cross fox, and----"

Brent felt the blood mounting to his face. Abruptly, almost roughly he
released the girl's hand. "I did not offer to sell you the meat," he
answered, a trifle stiffly. "They need it, and they're welcome to it."

Snowdrift, too, had been thrilled by that handclasp, and the thrill had
repeated itself at the gentle pressure of the strong fingers, and she
was quick to note the change in the man's manner, and stood uncertainly
regarding her bared hand until a big snowflake settled upon it and
melted into a drop of water. Then she thrust the hand into her big fur
mitten, and as her glance met his, Brent saw that the dark eyes were
deep with concern: "I--I do not understand," she said, softly. "I have
made you angry. I do not want you to be angry with me. Do you mean that
you want to give them the meat? People do not give meat, excepting to
members of their own tribe when they are very poor. But you are not of
the tribe. You are not even an Indian. White men do not give Indians
meat, ever."

Already Brent was cursing himself for his foolish flare of pride. Again
his heart thrilled at the wonder of the girl's absolute
unsophistication. Swiftly his hand sought hers, but this time she did
not remove it from the mitten. "I am not angry with you, Snowdrift!" he
exclaimed, quickly, "I was a fool! It was I who did not understand. But,
I want you to understand that here is one white man who does give meat
to Indians. And I wish I were a member of your tribe. Sometime,
maybe----"

"Oh, no, no! You would not want to be one of us. We are very poor, and
we are Indians. You are a white man. Why should you want to live with
us?"

"Some day I will tell you why," answered the man, in a voice so low that
the dark eyes searched his face wonderingly. "And, now, won't you give
me your hand again? To show me that you are not angry with me."

The girl laughed happily: "Angry with you! Oh, I would never be angry
with you! You are good. You are the only good white man I have known
who was not a priest, or a factor, or a policeman--and even they do not
give the Indians meat." With a swift movement she slipped her hand from
the mitten and once more placed it within his, and this time there was
nothing unconscious in the pressure of Brent's clasp. He fancied that he
felt the slender hand tremble ever so lightly within his own, and
glanced swiftly into the girl's face. For an instant their eyes met, and
then the dark eyes dropped slowly before his gaze, and very gently he
released her hand.

"May I come and see you, soon?" he asked.

"Why, yes, of course! Why did you ask me that?" she inquired,
wonderingly, "You know the way to our camp, and you know that now I know
you are not a hooch trader."

"Why," smiled Brent, "I asked because--why, just because it seemed the
thing to do--a sort of formality, I reckon."

The girl's smile met his own: "I do not understand, I guess.
Formality--what is that? A custom of the land of the white man? But I
have not read of that in books. Here in the North if anybody wants to go
a place, he goes, unless he has been warned to stay away for some
reason, and then if he goes he will get shot. I will shoot the hooch
traders if they come to the camp. The first time I will tell them to
go--and if they come back I will kill them."

"You wouldn't kill them--really?" smiled Brent, amazed at the matter of
fact statement coming from this slip of a girl, whose face rimmed in its
snow-covered parka hood was, he told himself, the most beautiful face he
had ever looked upon. "Didn't they teach you in the mission that it is
wrong to kill?"

"It is wrong to kill in anger, or for revenge for a wrong, or so that
you may steal a man's goods. But it is not wrong to kill one who is
working harm in the world. You, too, know that this is true, because in
the books I have read of many such killings, and in some books it was
openly approved, and other books were so written that the approval was
made plain."

"But, there is the law," ventured Brent.

"Yes, there is the law. But the law is no good up here. By the time the
policemen would get here the hooch trader would be many miles away. And
even if they should catch him, the Indians would not say that he traded
them hooch. They would be afraid. No, it is much better to kill them.
They take all the fur in trade for hooch, and then the women have
nothing to eat, and the little babies die."

Brent nodded, thoughtfully; "I reckon you're right," he agreed, "But, I
wish you would promise me that if any hooch runners show up, you will
let me deal with them."

"Oh, will you?" cried the girl, her eyes shining, "Will you help me? Oh,
with a white man to help me! With _you_--" she paused, and as Brent's
glance met hers, the dark eyes drooped once more, and the man saw that
the cheeks were flushed through their tan.

"Of course I'll help you!" he smiled reassuringly, "I would love to, and
between us we'll make the Coppermine country a mighty unhealthy place
for the hooch runners."

"You will come to see me," reminded the girl, "And I will come to see
you, and we will hunt together, and you will show me how to find gold."

"Yes," promised Brent, "We will see each other often--very often. And we
will hunt together, and I will show you all I know about finding gold.
Good bye, and if you need any help getting the meat into camp, let me
know and Joe Pete and I will come down with the dogs."

"We won't need any help with the meat. There are plenty of us to haul it
in. That is squaw's work, Good bye."

The girl stood motionless and watched Brent until his form was hidden by
a bend of the river. Then, slowly, she turned and struck off up stream.
And as she plodded through the ever deepening snow her thoughts were all
of the man who had come so abruptly--so vitally into her life, and as
she pondered she was conscious of a strange unrest within her, an
awakening longing that she did not understand. Subconsciously she drew
off her heavy mitten and looked at the hand that had lain in his. And
then, she raised it to her face, and drew it slowly across her cheek.

In the cabin, she answered the questions of old Wananebish in
monosyllables, and after a hearty meal, she left the cabin abruptly and
entered another, where she lifted a very tiny red baby from its bed of
blankets and skins, and to the astonishment of the mite's mother, seated
herself beside the little stove, and crooned to it, and cuddled it,
until the short winter day came to a close.

Early the following day Snowdrift piloted a dozen squaws with their
sleds and dog teams to the place of the kill. One of Brent's three
caribou was gone, and the girl's eyes lighted with approval as she saw
that his trail was partially covered with new-fallen snow. "He came back
yesterday--he and his Indian, and they got the meat. He is strong," she
breathed to herself, "Stronger than I, for I was tired from walking in
the loose snow, and I did not come back."

Leaving the squaws to bring in the meat, the girl shouldered her rifle
and struck into the timber, her footsteps carrying her unerringly toward
the patch of scrub in which she and Brent had sought shelter from the
storm. She halted beside the little wikiup, snow-buried, now--even the
hole through which they had crawled was sealed with the new-fallen snow.
For a long time she stood looking down at the little white mound. As she
turned to go, her glance fell upon a trough-like depression, only half
filled with snow. The depression was a snowshoe trail, and it ended just
beyond the little mound.

"It is _his_ trail," she whispered, to a Canada jay that chattered and
jabbered at her from the limb of a dead spruce. "He came here, as I
came, to look at our little wikiup. And he went away and left it just as
it was." Above her head the jay flitted nervously from limb to limb with
his incessant scolding. "Why did he come?" she breathed, "And why did I
come?" And, as she had done upon the river, she drew her hand from her
mitten and passed it slowly across her cheek. Then she turned, and
striking into the half-buried trail, followed it till it merged into
another trail, the trail of a man with a dog-sled, and then she followed
the broader trail to the northwestward.

At nine o'clock that same morning Brent threw the last shovelful of the
eight-inch thawing of gravel from the shallow shaft, and leaving Joe
Pete to build and tend the new fire, he picked up his rifle, and under
pretense of another hunt, struck off up the river in the direction of
the Indian camp.

Joe Pete watched with a puzzled frown until he had disappeared. Then he
carried his wood and lighted the fire in the bottom of the shaft.

An hour and a half later Brent knocked at the door of the cabin from
which Snowdrift had stepped, rifle in hand, upon the occasion of their
first meeting. The door was opened by a wrinkled squaw, who looked
straight into his eyes as she waited for him to speak. There was
unveiled hostility in the stare of those beady black eyes, and it was
with a conscious effort that Brent smiled: "Is Snowdrift in?" he
inquired.

"No," the squaw answered, and as an after-thought, "She has gone with
the women to bring in the meat."

The man was surprised that the woman spoke perfect English. The Indians
who had come to trade, had known only the word "hooch." His smile
broadened, though he noticed that the glare of hostility had not faded
from the eyes: "She told you about our hunt, then? It was great sport.
She is a wonder with a rifle."

"No, she did not tell me." The words came in a cold, impersonal
monotone.

"Can't I come in?" Brent asked the question suddenly. "I must get back
to camp soon. I just came down to see--to see if I could be of any help
in bringing in the meat."

"The women bring in the meat," answered the woman, and Brent felt as
though he had been caught lying. But, she stepped aside and motioned him
to a rude bench beside the stove. Brent removed his cap and glanced
about him, surprised at the extreme cleanliness of the interior, until
he suddenly remembered that this was the home of the girl with the
wondrous dark eyes. Covertly he searched the face of the old squaw,
trying to discover one single feature that would proclaim her to be the
mother of the girl, but try as he would, no slightest resemblance could
he find in any line or lineament of the wrinkled visage.

She had seated herself upon the edge of the bunk beyond the little
stove.

"Can't we be friends?" he asked abruptly.

The laugh that greeted his question sounded in his ears like the snarl
of a wolf: "Yes, if you will let me kill you now--we can be friends."

"Oh, come," laughed Brent, "That's carrying friendship a bit too far,
don't you think?"

"I had rather you had traded hooch to the men," answered the woman,
sullenly, "For then she would even now hate you--as someday she will
learn to hate you!"

"Learn to hate me! What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean!" cried the squaw, her voice quivering with anger,
"You white men are devils! You come, and you stay a while, and then you
go your way, and you stop again, and your trail is a trail of misery--of
misery, and of father-less half-breed babies! I wish she had killed you
that day you stood out there in the snow! Maybe the harm has been
already done----"

"What do you mean?" roared Brent, overturning the bench and towering
above the little stove in his rage. "You can't talk to me like that! Out
with it! What do you mean?"

The squaw, also, was upon her feet, cowering at the side of the bunk, as
she hurled her words into Brent's face. "Where were you last night?
And, where was she?"

Two steps and Brent was before her, his face thrust to within a foot of
her own: "We were together," he answered in a voice that cut cold as
steel, "In a wikiup that we built in the blinding snow and the darkness
to protect us from the storm. Half of the night, while she slept upon
her robe, I sat and tended the fire, and then, because she insisted upon
it, she tended the fire while I slept." As the man spoke never for a
moment did the glittering eyes of the squaw leave his close-thrust,
blazing eyes, and when he finished, she sank to the bunk with an
inarticulate cry. For in the righteous wrath of the blazing eyes she had
read the truth--and in his words was the ring of truth.

"Can it be?" she faltered, "Can it be that there is such a white man?"

The anger melted from Brent's heart as quickly as it had come. He saw
huddled upon the bunk not a poison-tongued, snake-eyed virago, but a
woman whose heart was torn with solicitude for the welfare of her child.
But, was Snowdrift her child? Swiftly the thought flitted into Brent's
brain, and as swiftly flashed another. Her child, or another's--what
matter? One might well question her parentage--but never her love.

Gently his hand went out and came to rest upon the angular shoulder. And
when he spoke the tone of his voice, even more than his words,
reassured the woman. "There are many such white men," he said,
soothingly. "You need not fear. I am your friend, and the friend of
Snowdrift. I, like yourself, am here to find gold, and like yourself, I
too, hate the traders of hooch--and with reason." He stepped to the
stove, upturned the bench and recovered his cap. And as the old woman
rose to her feet, Brent saw that the look of intense hatred had been
supplanted by a look, which if not exactly of friendliness, was at least
one of passive tolerance. At the doorway he paused, hesitated for a
moment, and then, point blank, flashed the question that for days had
been uppermost in his mind: "Who is Snowdrift?"

Wananebish leaned against a stanchion of the bunk. Instinctively, her
savage heart knew that the white man standing before had spoken the
truth. Her eyes closed, and for a moment, in the withered breast raged a
conflict. Then her eyes opened, her lips moved, and she saw that the man
was straining eagerly toward her to catch the words: "Snowdrift is my
daughter," she said.

Brent hesitated. He had been quick to catch the flash of the eye that
had accompanied the words, a flash more of defiance than of anger. It
was upon his tongue to ask who was Murdo MacFarlane, but instead he
bowed: "I must go now. I shall be coming here often. I hope I shall not
be unwelcome."

The look of passive tolerance was once more in her eyes, and she
shrugged so noncommittally that Brent knew that for the present, if he
had not gained an ally, he had at least, eliminated an enemy.

As the man plodded down the river, his thoughts were all of the girl.
The stern implacability of her as she stood in the doorway of the cabin
and ordered him from the encampment. The swift assurance with which she
assumed leadership as the storm roared down upon them. The ingenuous
announcement that they must spend the night--possibly several nights in
the barrens. And the childlike naïvete of the words that unveiled her
innermost thoughts. The compelling charm of her, her beauty of face and
form, and the lithe, untiring play of her muscles as she tramped through
the new-fallen snow. Her unerring sense of direction. Her simple code of
morals regarding the killing of men. Her every look, and word and
movement was projected with vivid distinctness upon his brain. And then
his thoughts turned to the little cabin that was her home, and to the
leathern skinned old woman who told him she was the girl's mother.

"The squaw lied!" he uttered fiercely. "Never in God's world is
Snowdrift her daughter! But--who is she?"

He rounded the last bend of the river and brought up shortly. Joe Pete
was stoking the fire with wood, and upon the gravel dump, sat the girl
apparently very much interested in the operation.

Almost at the same instant she saw him, and Brent's heart leaped within
him at the glad little cry that came to him over the snow, as the girl
scrambled to her feet and hurried toward him. "Where have you been?" she
asked. "I came to hunt--and you were gone. So I waited for you to come,
and I watched Joe Pete feed the fire in the hole."

Brent's fingers closed almost caressingly over the slender brown hand
that was thrust into his and he smiled into the upraised eyes: "I, too,
went to hunt. I went to your cabin, and your--mother," despite himself,
the man's tongue hesitated upon the word, "told me that you had gone
with the women to bring in the meat."

"Oh, you have seen Wananebish!" cried the girl, "And she was glad to see
you?"

"Well," smiled Brent, "Perhaps not so awfully glad--right at first. But
Wananebish and I are good friends, now."

"I am glad. I love Wananebish. She is good to me. She has deprived
herself of many things--sometimes I think, even of food, that I might
stay in school at the mission. And now it is too late to hunt today, and
I am hungry. Let us go in the cabin and eat."

"Fine!" cried Brent, "Hey, Joe Pete, cut some caribou steaks, and I'll
build up the fire!" He turned again to the girl, "Come on," he laughed,
"I could eat a raw dog!"

"But, there is plenty of meat!" cried the girl, "And you'll need the
dogs! Only when men are starving will they eat their dogs--and not
_raw_!"

Brent laughed heartily into the dismayed face: "You need not be afraid,
we will save the dogs till we need them. That was only a figure of
speech. I meant that I am very hungry, and that, if I could find nothing
else to eat I should relish even raw dog meat."

Snowdrift was laughing, now: "I see!" she cried, "In books are many such
sayings. It is a metaphor--no, not a metaphor--a--oh, I don't remember,
but anyway I am glad you said that because I thought such things were
used only in the language of books--and maybe I can say one like that
myself, someday."

At the door of the cabin they removed their snowshoes, and a few moments
later a wood fire was roaring in the little stove. Joe Pete came in with
the frozen steaks, set them down upon the table, and moved toward the
door, but Brent called him back. "You're in on this feed! Get busy and
fry up those steaks while I set the table."

The Indian hesitated, glanced shrewdly at Brent as if to ascertain the
sincerity of the invitation, and throwing off his parka, busied himself
at the stove, while Brent and Snowdrift, laughing and chattering like
children, placed the porcelain lined plates and cups and the steel
knives and forks upon the uneven pole table.

The early darkness was gathering when they again left the cabin.
Snowdrift paused to watch Joe Pete throw wood into the flames that
leaped from the mouth of the shallow shaft: "Why do you have the fire
in the hole?" she asked of Brent, who stood at her side.

"Why, to thaw the gravel so we can throw it out onto the dump. Then in
the spring, we'll sluice out the dump and see what we've got."

"Do you mean for gold?" asked the girl in surprise, "We only hunt for
gold in the summer in the sand of the creeks and the rivers."

"This way is better," explained Brent. "In the summer you can only muck
around in the surface stuff. You can't sink a shaft because the water
would run in and fill it up. In most places the deeper you go the richer
the gravel. The very best of it is right down against bed-rock. In the
winter we keep a fire going until the gravel is thawed for six or eight
inches down, then we rake out the ashes and wait for the hole to cool
down so there will be air instead of gas in it, and then we throw out
the loose stuff and build up the fire again."

"And you won't know till spring whether you have any gold or not? Why,
maybe you would put in a whole winter's work and get nothing!"

"Oh, we kind of keep cases on it with the pan. Every day or so I scoop
up a panful and carry it into the cabin and melt some ice and pan it
out."

"And is there gold here? Have you found it?"

"Not yet. That is, not in paying quantities. The gravel shows just
enough color to keep us at it. I don't think it is going to amount to
much. So far we're making fair wages--and that's about all."

"What do you mean by fair wages?" smiled the girl. "You see, I am
learning all I can about finding gold."

"I expect we're throwing out maybe a couple of ounces a day--an ounce
apiece. If it don't show something pretty quick I'm going to try some
other place. There's a likely looking creek runs in above here."

"But an ounce of gold is worth sixteen dollars!" exclaimed the girl,
"And sixteen dollars every day for each of you is lots of money."

Brent laughed: "It's good wages, and that's about all. But I'm not here
just to make wages. I've got to make a strike."

"How much is a strike?"

"Oh, anywhere from a half a million up."

"A half a million dollars!" cried the girl, "Why, what could you do with
it all?"

Brent laughed: "Oh I could manage to find use for it, I reckon. In the
first place I owe a man some money over on the Yukon--two men. They've
got to be paid. And after that--" His voice trailed off into silence.

"And what would you do after that?" persisted the girl.

"Well," answered the man, as he watched the shower of sparks fly upward,
"That depends--But, come, it's getting dark. I'll walk home with you."

"Are you going because you think I am afraid?" she laughed.

"I am going because I want to go," he answered, and led off up the
river.

As the darkness settled the snow-covered surface of the river showed as
a narrow white lane that terminated abruptly at each bend in a wall of
intense blackness. Overhead a million stars glittered so brightly in the
keen air that they seemed suspended just above the serried skyline of
the bordering spruces. At the end of an hour it grew lighter. Through
the openings between the flanking spruce thickets long naked ridges with
their overhanging wind-carved snow-cornices were visible far back from
the river. As they came in sight of the encampment the girl, who was
traveling ahead, paused abruptly and with an exclamation of delight,
pointed toward a distant ridge upon the clean-cut skyline of which the
rim of the full moon showed in an ever widening segment of red. Brent
stood close by her side, and together, in wrapt silence they watched the
glowing orb rise clear of the ridge, watched its color pale until it
hung cold and clean-cut in the night sky like a disk of burnished brass.

"Isn't it beautiful?" she breathed, and by the gentle pressure that
accompanied the words, Brent suddenly knew that her bared hand was in
his own, and that two mittens lay upon the snow at their feet.

"Wonderful," he whispered, as his eyes swept the unending panorama of
lifeless barrens. "It is as if we two were the only living beings in
the whole dead world."

"Oh, I wish--I wish we were!" cried the girl, impulsively. And then: "No
that is wrong! Other people--thousands and thousands of them--men, and
women, and little babies--they all love to live."

"It is wonderful to live," breathed the man, "And to be standing
here--with you--in the moonlight."

"Ah, the moonlight--is it the moonlight that makes me feel so
strange--in here?" she raised her mittened hand and pressed it against
her breast, "So strange and restless. I want to go--I do not know
where--but, I want to do something big--to go some place--any place, but
to go, and go, and go!" Her voice dropped suddenly, and Brent saw that
her eyes were resting broodingly upon the straggling group of tepees and
cabins. A dull square of light glowed sullenly from her own cabin
window, and her voice sounded heavy and dull: "But, there is no place to
go, and nothing to do, but hunt, and trap, and look for gold. Sometimes
I wish I were dead. No I do not mean that--but, I wish I had never
lived."

"Nonsense, girl! You love to live! Beautiful, strong, young--why, life
is only just starting for--you." Brent had almost said "us."

"But, of what use is it all? Why should one love to live? I am an
Indian--yet I hate the Indians--except Wananebish. We fight the hooch
traders, yet the men get the hooch. It is no use. I learned to love
books at the mission--and there are no books. You are here--with you I
am happy. But, if you do not find a strike, you will go away. Or, if we
do not find gold, we will go. The Indians will return to the river and
become hangers-on at the posts. It is all--no use!"

Brent's arms were about her, her yielding body close against his, and
she was sobbing against the breast of his parka. The man's brain was a
chaos. In vain he strove to control the trembling of his muscles as he
crushed her to him. In an unsteady voice he was murmuring words: "There,
there, dear. I am never going away from you--never." Two arms stole
about his neck, and Brent's heart pounded wildly as he felt them tighten
in a convulsive embrace. He bent down and their lips met in a long,
lingering kiss, "Darling," he whispered, with his lips close to her ear,
"You are mine--mine! And I am yours. And we will live--live! Tell me
Snowdrift--sweetheart--do you love me?"

"I love you!" her lips faltered the simple words, and Brent saw that the
dark eyes that looked up into his own glowed in the moonlight like black
pools. "Now--I know--it was--not the moonlight--in here--it was love!"

"Yes, darling, it was love. I have loved you since the first moment I
saw you."

"And I have loved you--always!"



CHAPTER XVI

CONFESSIONS


Brent returned to the cabin with his brain in a whirl. "I'll make a
strike before spring! I've got to! Then we'll hit for Dawson, and we'll
stop at Fort Norman and be married. No--we'll go on through and be
married at the Reeves'! Married! A Brent married to an Indian!" He
halted in the trail and cursed himself for the thought.

"She's a damn sight too good for you! You're a hell of a Brent--nothing
left but the name! Gambler--notorious gambler, Reeves said--and a
barkeep in Malone's dive. You're a hooch hound, and you've got to keep
away from hooch to stay sober! You don't dare go back to Dawson--nor
anywhere else where there's a saloon! You're broke, and worse than
broke. You're right now living on Reeves' money--and you think of
marrying _her_!"

Furiously, next morning, he attacked the gravel at the bottom of the
shaft. When the loose muck was thrown out he swore at the slow progress,
and futilely attacked the floor of the shaft with his pick as though to
win down to bed-rock through the iron-hard frost. Then he climbed out
and, scooping up a pan from the dump, retired to the cabin, and washed
it out.

"Same thing," he muttered disgustedly, as he stared at the yellow
grains, "Just wages. I've got to make a strike! There's Reeves to
pay--and Camillo Bill--and I've got to have dust--and plenty of it--for
_her_. Damn this hole! I'm going to hit for the lower river. We'll cover
this shaft to keep the snow out and hit north. Hearne, and Franklin, and
Richardson all report native copper on the lower river--amygdaloid beds
that crop out in sheer cliffs. Gold isn't the only metal--there's
millions in copper! And, the river winding in and out among the trap and
basalt dykes, there's bound to be gold, too." He collected the few
grains of gold, threw out the gravel and water, and picking up his
rifle, stepped out the door. At the shaft he paused and called to Joe
Pete that he was going hunting and as the big Indian watched him
disappear up the river, his lips stretched in a slow grin, and he tossed
wood into the shaft.

A mile from the cabin Brent rounded a sharp bend and came face to face
with Snowdrift. There was an awkward silence during which both strove to
appear unconcerned. The girl was the first to speak, and Brent noticed
that she was blushing furiously: "I--I am hunting," she announced,
swinging her rifle prominently into view.

Brent laughed: "So am I hunting--for you."

"But really, I am hunting caribou. There are lots of mouths to feed, and
the men are not much good. They will spend hours slipping up onto a
caribou and then miss him."

"Come on, then, let's go," answered the man gaily. "Which way shall it
be?"

"I saw lots of tracks the other day on a lake to the eastward. It is six
or seven miles. I think we will find caribou there." Brent tried to take
her hand, but she eluded him with a laugh, and struck out through the
scraggling timber at a pace that he soon found hard to follow.

"Slow down! I'll be good!" he called, when they had covered a quarter of
a mile, and Snowdrift laughingly slackened her pace.

"You're a wonder!" he panted, as he closed up the distance that
separated them, "Don't you ever get tired?"

"Oh, yes, very often. But, not so early in the day. See, three caribou
passed this way only a few hours ago--a bull and two cows." They struck
into the trail, and two hours later Snowdrift succeeded in bring down
one of the cows with a long shot as the three animals trotted across a
frozen muskeg.

"And now we must kill one for you," announced the girl as Brent finished
drawing the animal.

"We needn't be in any hurry about it," he grinned. "We still have most
of the one we got the other day."

"Then, why are you hunting?"

"I told you. I found what I was hunting--back there on the river. How
about lunch? I'm hungry as a wolf."

The girl pointed to a sheltered spot in the lee of a spruce thicket, and
while Brent scraped back the snow, she produced food from her pack.

"You must have figured on getting pretty hungry," teased Brent, eying
the generous luncheon to which he had added his own.

Snowdrift blushed: "You brought more than I did!" she smiled,
"See--there is much more."

"Oh, I'll come right out with it--I put that up for two!"

"And mine is for two," she admitted, "But you are mean for making me say
it."

During the meal the girl was unusually silent and several times Brent
surprised a look of pain in the dark eyes, and then the look would fade
and the eyes would gaze pensively into the distance. Once he was sure
that her lip quivered.

"What's the matter, Snowdrift," he asked abruptly, "What is troubling
you? Tell me all about it. You might as well begin now, you
know--because----"

She hastened to interrupt him: "Nothing is the matter!" she cried, with
an obviously forced gaiety. "But, tell me, where did you come
from--before you came to the Yukon? All my life I have wanted to know
more of the land that lies to the southward--the land of the white man.
Father Ambrose and Sister Mercedes told me much--but it was mostly of
the church. And Henri of the White Water told me of the great stores in
Edmonton where one may buy fine clothes, of other stores where one may
sell hooch without fear of the police, and also where one may win money
with cards. But, surely, there are other things. The white men, and the
women, they do not always go to church and buy clothes, and drink hooch,
and gamble with cards. And are all the women beautiful like the pictures
in the books, and in the magazines?"

Brent laughed: "No, all the women are not beautiful. It is only once in
a great while that one sees a really beautiful woman, and you are the
most beautiful woman I have ever seen----"

"But I am not beautiful!" cried the girl, "Not like the pictures."

"The pictures are not pictures of real women, they are creations of an
artist's brain. The pictures are the artist's conception of what the
real women should be."

Snowdrift regarded him with a puzzled frown: "Is it all make-believe, in
the land of the white man? The books--the novels that tell of knights in
armor, and of the beautiful ladies with their clothes, and their rings
of the diamonds that sparkle like ice--and other novels that tell of
suffering, and of the plotting of men and women who are very bad--and of
the doings of men and women who are good--Sister Mercedes said they are
all lies--that they are the work of the brain of the man who wrote it
down. Is it all lies and make-believe? Do the white men use their brains
only to tell of the doings of people who have never lived, and to make
pictures of people and things that never were? Do you, too, live in the
make-believe? You have told me you love me. And just now you told me
that I was the most beautiful woman you have seen. Those are the words
of the books--of the novels. Always the man must tell the woman she is
the most beautiful woman in the world. And it is all make-believe, and
in the words is no truth!"

"No, no, dear! You do not understand. I don't know whether I can explain
it, but it is not all make-believe--by a long shot! Life down there is
as real as it is here. There are millions of people there and for them
all life is a struggle. Millions live in great cities, and other
millions live in the country and raise grain with which to feed
themselves, and the millions who live in the cities. And the people in
the cities work in great factories, and make the clothing, and the
tools, and guns, and everything that is used by themselves and by the
people who live outside the cities, and they build the ships and the
railroads which carry these goods to all parts of the world. But you
have read of all that in the books--and the books are not all lies and
make-believe, for they tell of life as it is--not as any one or a dozen
characters live it--but as thousands and millions live it. The comings
and goings of the characters are the composite comings and goings of a
thousand or a million living breathing people. And because each person
is too busy--too much occupied with his own particular life, he does not
know of the lives of the other millions. But he wants to know--so he
reads the books and the magazines, and the newspapers." The girl hung
absorbed upon his words, and for an hour Brent talked, describing,
explaining, detailing the little things and the great things, the
common-places, and the wonders of the far-off land to the southward. But
of all the things he described, the girl was most interested in the
libraries with their thousands and thousands of books that one might
read for the asking--the libraries, and the clothing of the women.

"All my life," she concluded, "I have wanted to go to the land of the
white man, and see these things myself. But, I never shall see them, and
I am glad you have told me more."

Brent laughed, happily, and before she could elude him his arms were
about her and he had drawn her close. "Indeed you shall see them!" he
cried. "You and I shall see them together. We'll be married at Dawson,
and we'll make a strike----"

With a low cry the girl freed herself from his arms, and drew away to
the other side of the fire: "No, no, no!" she cried, with a catch in her
voice, "I can never marry you! Oh, why must we love! Why must we
suffer, when the fault is not ours? They would hate me, and despise me,
and point at me with the finger of scorn!"

Brent laughed: "Hold on girl!" he cried, "Some of the best families in
the world have Indian blood in their veins--and they're proud of it! I
know 'em! They'll come a long way from hating you. Why, they'll pile all
over themselves to meet you--and a hundred years from now our
great-grand-children will be bragging about you!" Suddenly, he grew
serious, "But maybe you won't marry me, after all--when you've heard
what I've got to say. Maybe you'll despise me--and it'll be all right if
you do. It will be what I have earned. It isn't a pretty story, and it's
going to hurt to tell it--to you. But, you've got to know--so here goes.

"In the first place, you think I'm good. But, I'm not good--by most of
the ten commandments, and a lot of by-laws. I'm not going to do any
white-washing--I'm going to begin at the beginning and tell you the
truth, so you can see how far I've dropped. In the first place my family
tree is decorated with presidents, and senators, and congress-men, and
generals, and diplomats, and its branches are so crowded with colonels,
and majors and captains and judges, and doctors, that they have to prop
them up to keep them from breaking. Some were rich, but honest; and some
were poor, but not so honest, and a lot of them were half way between in
both wealth and honesty. But, anyway, you can't turn twenty pages of
United States history without running onto the trail of at least one man
that I can claim kin to. As for myself, I'm a college man, and a mining
engineer--that means I was fitted by family and education to be a big
man, and maybe get a chance to slip into history myself--I've made some,
over on the Yukon, but--it ain't fit to print.

"Hooch was at the bottom of the whole business. I couldn't handle hooch
like some men can. One drink always called for another, and two drinks
called for a dozen. I liked to get drunk, and I did get drunk, every
chance I got--and that was right often. I lost job after job because I
wouldn't stay sober--and later some others because I couldn't stay
sober. I heard of the gold on the Yukon and I went there, and I found
gold--lots of it. I was counted one of the richest men in the country.
Then I started out to get rid of the gold. I couldn't spend it all so I
gambled it away. Almost from the time I made my strike I never drew a
sober breath, until I'd shoved my last marker across the table. Then I
dealt faro--turned professional gambler for wages in the best place in
Dawson, but the hooch had got me and I lost out. I got another job in a
saloon that wasn't so good, but it was the same story, and in a little
while I was tending bar--selling hooch--in the lowest dive in town--and
that means the lowest one in the world, I reckon. That last place, The
Klondike Palace; with its painted women, who sell themselves nightly to
men, with the scum of the earth carousing in its dance-hall, and
playing at its tables, was the hell-hole of the Yukon. And I was part of
it. I stood behind its bar and sold hooch--I was the devil that kept the
hell-fires stoked and roaring. And I kept full of hooch myself, or I
couldn't have stood it. Then I lost out even there, on--what you might
call a technicality--and after that I was just a plain bum. Everybody
despised me--worst of all, I despised myself. I did odd jobs to get
money to buy hooch, and when I had bought it I crawled into my shack and
stayed there till it was gone. I was weak and flabby, and dirty. My
hands shook so I couldn't raise a glass of hooch to my lips, until I'd
had a stiff shot. I used to lap the first drink out of a saucer like a
dog. I dodged the men who had once been my friends. Only Joe Pete, who
had helped me over the Chilkoot, and who remembered that I was a good
man on the trail, and a girl named Kitty, would even turn their heads to
glance at the miserable drunkard that slunk along the street with his
bottle concealed in his ragged pocket.

"There is one more I thought was my friend. His name is Camillo Bill,
and he is square as a die, and he did me a good turn when he cleaned me
out, by holding my claims for only what he had coming when he could have
taken them all. But he came to see me one day toward the last. He came
to tell me that the claims had petered out. I wanted him to grub-stake
me, for a prospecting trip and he refused. That hurt me worse than all
the rest--for I thought he was my friend. He cursed me, and refused to
grub-stake me. Then I met a real friend--one I had never seen before,
and he furnished the gold for my trip to the Coppermine, and--here I
am."

Snowdrift had listened with breathless attention and when Brent
concluded she was silent for a long time. "This girl named Kitty?" she
asked at length, "Who is she, and why was she your friend? Did you love
this woman? Is she beautiful?"

"No," answered Brent, gravely, "I did not love her. She was not the kind
of a woman a man would love. She was beautiful after a fashion. She
might have been very beautiful had her life fallen in a different
groove. She was an adventuress, big hearted, keen of brain--but an
adventuress. Hers was a life distorted and twisted far from its original
intent. For it was plain to all that she had been cast in a finer mould,
and even the roughest and most brutal of the men treated her with a
certain respect that was not accorded to the others. She never spoke of
her past. She accepted the present philosophically, never by word or
look admitting that she had chosen the wrong road. Her ethics were the
ethics of the muck and ruck of the women of the dance halls. She
differed only in that she had imagination--and a certain pride that
prevented her from holding herself cheaply. Where others were careless
and slovenly, she was well groomed. And while they caroused and
shamelessly debauched themselves, she held aloof from the rabble.

"You asked why she was my friend. I suppose it was because she was quick
to see that I too, was different from the riff-raff of the dives. Not
that I was one whit better than they--for I was not. It was no credit to
me that I was inherently different. It was, I reckon, a certain innate
pride that kept me out of the filth of the mire, as it kept her out. To
me the painted slovens were physically loathsome, so I shunned them. She
was keener of brain than I--or maybe it was because she had a
perspective. But while I was still at the height of my success with the
claims and with the cards, she foresaw the end, and she warned me. But,
I disregarded the warning, and later, when I was rushing straight to the
final crash, she warned me again and again, and she despised me for the
fool I was.

"When, at the very bottom, I was taken suddenly sick, it was Kitty who
nursed me through. And then, when I was on my feet again she left me to
myself. I have not seen her since."

"And, if you make a strike again," asked the girl in a low voice, "Will
you go back to Dawson--to the cards and the hooch?"

"I will go back to Dawson," he answered, "And pay my debts. I will not
go back to the cards. I am through with gambling for good and all, for I
have promised. And when a Brent gives his word, he would die rather than
break it."

"But the hooch?" persisted Snowdrift. "Are you done with the hooch too?"

Brent was conscious that the eyes of the girl were fixed upon his in a
gaze of curious intentness, as though their deliberate calm suppressed
some mighty emotion. He groped for words: "I don't--that is, how can I
tell? I drink no hooch now--but there is none to drink. I hate it for I
know that what it did to me once it will do to me again. I hate it--and
I love it!" exclaimed the man. "Tell me, is hate stronger than love?"

The girl was silent for a moment, and by the clenching of her fists,
Brent knew that a struggle was raging within her. She ignored his
question, and when she spoke her voice was low, and the words fell with
a peculiar dullness of tone: "I, too, have a thing to tell. It is a
horrible thing. And when you have heard you will not want to marry me."
The girl paused, and Brent felt suddenly sick and weak. There was a dull
ache in his breast that was an actual physical pain, and when the cold
breeze fanned his forehead, it struck with a deadly chill. With a mighty
effort he recovered, leaned swiftly toward her and was vaguely conscious
that she winced at the grip of his fingers upon her arm.

"Tell me!" he cried hoarsely. For a single instant his eyes blazed into
hers, and then, as though anticipating her words, his fingers relaxed
their hold and he settled back with a half-articulate moan--"_Oh,
God!_"

"What you have told me," she continued, in the same dull tone, "Is
nothing. It is past and gone. It is dead, and its evil died with it. You
are a white man. The white man's thoughts are your thoughts, and his
standards are your standards. You work the harm, then unjustly you sit
in judgment. And the harm does not die with the deed. The shame of it is
a thing of the present, and of the future, and it is borne always by the
innocent.

"The thing I must tell you is this. I am a half-breed. But my father was
not the husband of Wananebish, who is my mother----"

Brent interrupted her with quick, glad cry: "Is that all?" The blood
surged hot through his veins. The ache in his breast became a wild
singing. And suddenly he realized the grip and the depth of the thing
that is called love, with its power to tear and to rend the very
foundations of his being. He felt an insane desire to leap and to
shout--and the next instant the girl was in his arms and he was crushing
her against his breast as he covered her face with hot kisses. And when
a few moments later, he released her, he laughed aloud--a laugh that was
clear and boyish, and altogether good to hear, while the girl gazed
half-fearfully--half-wonderingly into his eyes:

"I--I do not understand," she faltered, "I have known this only for a
short time. Henri of the White Water told me of it, and of the shame of
it--and then Sister Mercedes--and it is true, because years ago when I
was very small, Wananebish told it to Father Ambrose----"

"Damn Henri of the White Water! And damn Sister Mercedes and Father
Ambrose!" cried Brent, his eyes narrowing, "What did they tell you for?
What difference does it make?"

"Henri of the White Water told me because he was angry. I would not
marry him. I was going to a great convent school, and he said that in
the land of the white man I would be an object of scorn--that people
would shun me, and point me out with the finger of shame. I did not
believe him, so I went to Sister Mercedes, and she told me, also. And so
I would not go to the school, and that night I came away from the
mission--came back to the Indians." She paused, and as she raised her
eyes to his, Brent saw that in their depths a wondrous newborn hope
struggled against fear. Her lips moved: "You do not scorn me? You love
me--knowing that?"

Again she was in his arms, and his lips were upon hers: "Yes, I love
you--love you--love you! You are mine, darling--mine for all time!" She
did not resist his arms, and he felt her yielding body press close
against his own, as her shoulders heaved in short, quick sobs.

Softly, almost timidly, her arms stole about his neck, and her
tear-jeweled eyes raised to his: "And you would marry me, not knowing
who I am?"

"Yes, darling," reassured Brent, "Neither knowing nor caring who you
are. It is enough that you are the dearest, and most beautiful, and the
most lovable woman in the whole world of women. Why, girl, the wonder is
not that I love you--but that you could love me, after what I told you."

"It is the answer to your question," she smiled, "It means that love is
the strongest thing in all the world--stronger than hate, stronger than
race, or laws, or codes of ethics. Love is supreme!"

"And that means, then, that my love for hooch will conquer my hate for
it?"

"No!" breathed the girl, and Brent could feel her arms tighten about his
neck. "For your love for hooch has not only to overcome your hate for
it, but it must also overcome your love for me, and my love for you. I
am not afraid to fight it out with hooch for your love! If I cannot make
myself more to you than hooch ever can, I would not be worthy of your
love!"

"My darling," whispered Brent, his lips close to her ear, "You have won
already. I will promise----"

He was interrupted by her fingers upon his lips, shutting off the words.

"No--dear," she hesitated a second at the unfamiliar word, "You must not
promise--yet. It is easy to promise, out here in the barrens, where you
have me in your arms, and the hooch is far away. I ask no odds of hooch.
Wait till you have stood the test. I am not afraid. I have not much
learning, but some things I know. I know that, holding a promise in as
high regard as you hold one, if anything should happen--if you should
drink hooch just once, the promise would be broken--and never again
would a promise be just the same. We have a war with hooch--you and I.
And we are going to win. But, in the histories I have read of few wars
where every battle was won by the same army. Some of the battles we must
expect to lose--but the _war_ we will win."

"Not much learning," smiled Brent, looking into the depths of the dark
eyes, "But the concentrated wisdom of the ages--the wisdom that is the
heritage of woman, and which not one woman in a thousand learns to
apply."

For a long time the two sat beside their little fire, add in the gloom
of the early darkness, they made their way toward the river.



CHAPTER XVII

IN THE CABIN OF THE _BELVA LOU_


For two weeks Brent and Snowdrift were together each day from dawn until
dark. Leaving Joe Pete to work the claim on the Coppermine, they burned
into the gravel on a creek that gave promise, and while their fire
slowly thawed out the muck, they hunted. When at a depth of four feet
they had not struck a color, Brent gave it up.

"No use," he said, one day as he tossed the worthless pebbles from his
pan. "If there was anything here, we'd have found at least a trace. I'm
going to hit down the river and have a look at the Copper Mountains."

"Take me with you!" cried the girl, eagerly, "How long will you be
gone?"

"I wish I could," smiled Brent, "But Joe Pete and I will be gone two
weeks--a month--maybe longer. It depends on what we find. If we were
only married, what a great trip it would be! But, never mind,
sweetheart, we've got a good many trips coming--years and years of
them."

"But that isn't now," objected the girl, "What will I do all the while
you are gone? Each morning I hurry here as fast as I can, and each
evening I am sorry when the darkness comes and I must leave you."

The man drew her close, "Yes, darling," he whispered, "I understand. The
hours I spend away from you are long hours, and I count them one by one.
I do not want to go away from you, but it is for you that I must make a
strike."

"I would rather have you with me than have all the strikes in the
world!"

"I know--but we don't want to spend all our days in this God-forgotten
wilderness, fighting famine, and the strong cold. We want to go far away
from all this, where there is music, and books, and life! You've got it
coming, little girl--but first we must make a strike."

"And, we will not be married until you make your strike?" The dark eyes
looked wistfully into his, and Brent smiled:

"Strike or no strike, we will be married in the spring!" he cried, "and
if the strike has not been made, we'll make it together."

"Will we be married at the mission?"

"No--at Dawson."

"Dawson!" cried the girl, "And I shall really see Dawson? But, isn't it
very far?"

Brent laughed: "Yes, you will really see Dawson--and you won't see much
when you see it, in comparison with what you will see when we quit the
North and go back to the States. In the spring you and Wananebish, and
Joe Pete and I will take a month's vacation--and when we come back,
darling, we will have each other always."

"But, if you do not make a strike?" questioned the girl, "What then?
Would you be happy here in the North--with me?"

"Sweetheart," answered Brent, "If I knew to a certainty that I should
never make a strike--that I should always live in these barrens, I would
marry you anyway--and call the barrens blessed. But, I will make a
strike! It is for you--and I cannot fail! Oh, if I hadn't been such a
fool!"

The girl smiled into his eyes: "If you hadn't been such a--a fool, you
would never have come to the barrens. And I--I would always have been
just an Indian--hating the white man, hating the world, living my life
here and there, upon the lakes and the rivers, in cabins and tepees,
with just enough education to long for the better things, and with my
heart bursting with pain and bitterness in the realization that those
things were not for me."

"It is strange how everything works out for the best," mused Brent, "The
whys and the wherefores of life are beyond my philosophy. Sordid, and
twisted, and wrong as they were, my Dawson days, and the days of the
years that preceded them were all but the workings of destiny--to bring
you and me together up here on the rim of the Arctic.

"It was a great scheme, little girl," he smiled, suddenly breaking into
a lighter mood, "And the beauty of it is--it worked. But what I was
getting at is this: it don't seem reasonable that after going to all
that trouble to bring us together, and taking such liberties with my
reputation, Old Man Destiny is going to make us fill out the rest of the
time punching holes in gravel, and snaring rabbits, and hunting
caribou."

That evening they said good bye upon the edge of the clearing that
surrounded the Indian encampment, and as Brent turned to go he drew a
heavy bag from his pocket and handed it to the girl, "Keep this till I
come back," he said, "It's gold."

"Oh, it is heavy!" cried the girl in surprise.

Brent smiled, "Weighs up pretty big now. But when we make our strike it
won't be a shoestring. But come--one more good bye and I must be going.
I've got to pack my outfit for an early start."

One day a week later Brent stood with Joe Pete on the northernmost ridge
of the Copper Mountains and gazed toward the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
Almost at their feet, buried beneath snow and ice were the Bloody Falls
of the Coppermine and to the northward, only snow. Brent was surprised,
for he knew that the ridge upon which he was standing could not be more
than ten or twelve miles from the coast, but he also knew that he could
see for twenty miles or more, and that the only thing that met the eye
was a gently undulating plain of snow, unbroken by even so much as a
twig or a bush, or a hillock worthy the name. Never, he thought, as his
glance swept the barren, treeless waste, had eyes of mortal man beheld
its equal for absolute bleak desolation.

A cry from Joe Pete cause him to concentrate his gaze upon a spot toward
which the Indian pointed, where, dimly discernible, a dark object
appeared against the unbroken surface of the snow. The steel blue
haze--the "cold fog" of the North, obfuscated its outlines, as it
destroyed perspective so that the object may have been five miles away,
or twenty. It may have been the size of a dog, or the size of a
skyscraper. In vain the two strained their eyes in an endeavor to make
it out. In the first gloom of the early darkness it disappeared
altogether, and the two made their way to the frozen surface of the
river where, in the shelter of a perpendicular wall of rock, they made
their camp and kindled a tiny fire of twigs they had collected the day
before from the last timber on the Coppermine, at a creek that runs in
from the eastward.

For two days, holding to the surface of the river, the two had threaded
the transverse ridges that form the Copper Mountains. It was Brent's
idea to mush straight to the northernmost ridge and work back slowly,
stopping wherever practicable to prospect among the outcropping ledges.
He had planned, also, to burn into the gravel at intervals, but he had
not foreseen the fact that the mountains lay north of the timber line,
so the burning had to be abandoned.

At daylight they again climbed the ridge. The cold fog had disappeared
and as Joe Pete, who was in the lead, reached the summit, he gave voice
to a loud cry of surprise. For in place of the indiscernible object of
the day before, apparently only ten or twelve miles distant, and right
in the centre of the vast plain of snow was a ship--each mast and spar
standing out clean-cut as a cameo against its dazzling background. Brent
even fancied he could see men walking about her deck, and other men
walking to and fro among a group of snow mounds that clustered close
about the hulk.

"A whaler!" he exclaimed, "One of those that Johnnie Claw said wintered
up here."

For a long time Brent watched the ship, and covertly Joe Pete watched
Brent. At length the white man spoke. "Reckon we'll just mush over there
and call on 'em. Neighbors aren't so damned common up here that we can
afford to pass them by when we're in sight of 'em."

"Dat better, mebbe-so, we don' go w'ere we ain' got no business.
Mebbe-so dat Godam Johnnie Claw, she giv' you som' mor' hooch, eh? Dat
breed gal she dam' fine 'oman--she ain' lak dat."

Brent laughed, a trifle nervously: "I don't reckon there's any danger of
that," he answered, shortly. "Come on, we'll harness the dogs and pull
out there. I'd like to see what kind of an outfit they've got, and as
long as we're this near it would be too bad not to go to the very top of
the continent."

Joe Pete shrugged and followed Brent down to the river where they broke
camp, harnessed the dogs, and struck out over the plain. The wind-packed
snow afforded good footing and the outfit pushed rapidly northward.

Brent was surprised at the absence of a pressure ridge at the shore
line, but so flat was the snow-buried beach that it was with difficulty
that he determined where the land left off and the sea-ice began. The
whaler he judged to be frozen in at a distance of three or four miles
from shore.

The figures of men could be plainly seen, now, and soon it became
evident that their own presence had been noted, for three or four
figures were seen to range themselves along the rail, evidently studying
them through a glass.

While still a mile or two distant, the figures at the rail disappeared
below deck, but others moved about among the snow mounds in the shelter
of the vessel's hull.

Upon arriving at the mounds, which proved to be snow igloos such as are
used by the Eskimos, Brent halted the dogs, and advanced to where two
men, apparently oblivious to his presence, were cutting up blubber.

"Hello," he greeted, "Where's the captain?"

One of the men did not even look up. The other, presenting a villainous
hairy face, nodded surlily toward an ice-coated ladder.

"Wait here," said Brent, turning to Joe Pete, "Till I find out whether
this whole crew is as cordial to strangers as these two specimens."

At the words, the man who had directed Brent to the ladder, raised his
head and opened his lips as if to speak, but evidently thinking better
of it, he uttered a sneering laugh, and went on with his cutting of
blubber.

Brent climbed the ladder, and made his way across the snow-buried deck,
guided by a well packed path that led to a door upon which he knocked
loudly. While waiting for a response he noticed the name _Belva Lou_
painted upon the stern of a small boat that lay bottomside up upon the
deck. Knocking again, he called loudly, and receiving no reply, opened
the door and found himself upon a steep flight of stairs. Stepping from
the dazzling whiteness of the outside, the interior of the whaler was
black as a pocket, and he paused upon the stairs to accustom his eyes to
the change. As the foul air from below filled his lungs it seemed to
Brent that he could not go on. The stench nauseated him--the vile
atmosphere reeked of rancid blubber, drying furs, and the fumes of dead
cookery. A tiny lamp that flared in a wall pocket at the foot of the
stairs gave forth a stink of its own. Gradually, as his eyes accorded to
the gloom, Brent took cognizance of the dim interior. The steep short
flight of steps terminated in a narrow passage that led toward the
stern whence came the muffled sound of voices. Descending, he glanced
along the passage toward a point where, a few feet distant, another lamp
flared dimly. Just beyond this lamp was a door, and from beyond the door
came the sound of voices.

He groped his way to the door and knocked. There was a sudden hush, a
few gruffly mumbled words, and then a deep voice snarled: "Who's there?"

"Just a visitor," announced Brent, stifling a desire to turn and rush
from that fetid hole out into the clean air--but it was too late.

The voice beyond the door commanded thickly: "Come in, an' we'll look ye
over!"

For just an instant Brent hesitated, then his hand fumbled for the knob,
turned it, and the narrow door swung inward. He stepped into the
box-like apartment, and for a moment stood speechless as his eyes strove
to take in the details of the horrid scene.

The stinking air of the dank passage was purest ozone in comparison with
the poisonous fog of the overheated, unventilated room. He felt suddenly
sick and dizzy as he sucked the evil effluvia into his lungs--the thick,
heavy smoke of cheap tobacco, the stench of unbathed humans, the
overpowering reek of spilled liquor, the spent breath from rum-soaked
bodies, the gaseous fumes of a soft coal stove, and the odor from an
oil lamp that had smoked one side of its chimney black.

"Shut the door! Coal costs money. What the hell ye tryin' to do, heat
the hull Ar'tic? Who be ye, anyhow? An' wot d'ye want?"

Mechanically Brent closed the door behind him, as he glanced into the
leering eyes of the speaker, who sat, with two other men, and a
partially clad Eskimo woman, at a table upon which were set out a bottle
and several glasses.

Before Brent could reply, the man across the table from the speaker
leaped to his feet and thrust out his hand. Through the grey haze of
smoke, Brent recognized Johnnie Claw.

"Well, if it ain't my ol' friend Ace-In-The-Hole!" cried the hooch
runner. "'S all right Cap! Best sport on the Yukon!" Ignoring the fact
that Brent had refused the proffered hand, Claw leered into his face:
"Ace-In-The-Hole let me make you 'quainted with Cap Jinkins, Cap'n of
the _Belva Lou_--damn good sport, too--an' Asa Scroggs, mate. Both damn
good sports, _Belva Lou_ fetches out more oil an' bone 'n any of
'em--an' Cap ain't 'fraid to spend his money. Glad you come long.
Welcome to stay long as you like--ain't he Cap?"

The Captain lowered a glass from his lips, and cleansed his overhanging
mustache upon the back of a hairy hand: "Sure," he growled, surlily,
"Didn't know he was friend o' yourn. S'down." The room contained only
four chairs, and as he spoke, the man, with a sweep of his hand, struck
the klooch from her chair, and kicked it toward Brent, who sank into it
heavily, and stared dully at the klooch who crawled to a corner and
returned the stare with a drunken, loose-lipped grin upon her fat face.
Brent shifted his glance, and upon a bunk beyond the table he saw
another klooch, lying in a drunken stupor, her only garment, a grimy
wrapper of faded calico, was crumpled about her, exposing one brown leg
to the hip.

Schooled as he had been to sights of debauchery by his service with
Cuter Malone, Brent was appalled--sickened by the sottish degeneracy of
his surroundings.

With unsteady hand the mate slopped some liquor into a glass and shoved
it toward him: "Swaller that," he advised, with a grin, "Yer gittin'
white 'round the gills. Comin' right in out of the air, it might seem a
leetle close in here, at first."

The fumes arising from the freshly spilled liquor smelled _clean_--the
only hint of cleanliness in the whole poisoned atmosphere of the cabin.
He breathed them deeply into his lungs, and for an instant the dizziness
and sickness at his stomach seemed less acute. Maybe one drink--one
little sip would revive him--counteract the poison of the noisome air,
and stimulate him against the dull apathy that was creeping upon him.
Slowly, his hand stole toward the glass, his fingers closed about it,
and he raised it to his lips. Another deep inhalation of its fragrance
and he drained it at a gulp.

"Didn't know we had no neighbors," ventured the Captain, filling his own
glass. "What ye doin' up here?"

"Prospecting," answered Brent, "The Copper Mountains. I saw your vessel
from the ridge, and thought I would come over and see what a whaler
looks like." The strong liquor was taking hold. A warm glow gripped his
belly and diffused itself slowly through his veins. The nausea left him,
and the olid atmosphere seemed suddenly purged of its reek.

"Well," grinned the captain, "The _Belva Lou_ hain't what ye'd call no
floatin' palace, but she's ahead o' most whalers. An' after Johnnie gits
through hornin' round 'mongst the Husky villages an' fixes us up with a
wife apiece, we manage to winter through right comfortable. Me an' Asa
stays on board, an' the rest of the crew, builds 'em igloos. But, here's
me runnin' off at the head--an' you might spill it all to the Mounted."

"Not him," laughed Claw. "Him an' I ain't always pulled, what you might
say, together--but he's square--kill you in a minute, if he took a
notion--but he'd go to hell before he'd snitch. Have another drink,
Ace-In-The-Hole, 'twon't hurt you none--only rum--an' water-weak."

Before he knew it the glass was in his hand, and again Brent drank.

After that he took them as they came. The bottle was emptied and tossed
into the corner where the drunken klooch recovered it and holding it to
her lips, greedily sucked the few drops that remained in the bottom.
Another bottle was produced, and Brent, his brain fired by the raw
liquor, measured glasses, drink for drink, never noticing that the same
liquor served, in the glasses of the other three, for round after round
of libations.

"Wher's yer camp?" asked Claw, as he refilled the glasses.

"Bloody Falls," answered Brent, waxing loquacious. "Bloody Falls of the
Coppermine, where old Samuel Hearne's Indians butchered the Eskimos."

"Butchered the Eskimos!" exclaimed Claw, "What d'you mean--butchered? I
ain't heard 'bout no Huskies bein' killed, an' who in hell's Sam Hearne?
I be'n round here, off an' on, fer long while, an' I ain't never run
acrost no Sam Hearne. What be you handin' us? You ort to start a
noospaper."

Brent laughed uproariously: "No, Claw, I reckon you never ran across
him. This happened over a hundred years ago--1771--July 13th, to be
exact."

Asa Scroggs grinned knowingly: "Man kin lap up a hell of a lot of idees
out of a bottle of hooch," he opined, "Mostly it runs to ph'los'fy, er
fightin', er po'try, er singin', er religion, er women, er sad
mem'ries--but this here stale news idee is a new one. But, g'wan,
Ace-In-The-Hole, did the Mounted git Sam fer his murdersome massacres?"

"That was a hundred years before the Mounted was thought of," answered
Brent, eying Scroggs truculently, as his inflamed brain sought hidden
insult in the words.

"I always know'd I was born too late," laughed Claw, who, noting the
signs of approaching trouble, sought peace. "This here'd be a hell of a
fine country, if it wasn't fer the Mounted. But, say, Ace-In-The-Hole,
you doin' any good? Struck any color?"

Brent forgot Scroggs and turned to Claw: "No, not to speak of. Just
about made wages."

"Well," continued the hooch runner, "You had a pretty fair sack of dust
when you come in. What d'you say we start a little game of stud--jest
the four of us?"

"Nothing doing," answered Brent, shortly. "I'm off of stud."

"Off of stud!" exclaimed the other, "How in hell d'you ever expect to
git even? Stud owes you more dust than you kin pile on a sled!"

Brent drank a glass of rum: "The game can keep what it owes me. And
besides I left my dust in camp--except a couple of ounces, or so."

"Yer finger bet goes with me," assured Claw, "Everybody's wouldn't, by a
damn sight--but yourn does. What d'you say?"

"My word is good in a game, is it?" asked Brent.

"Good as the dust--in one, or out of one," promptly assured Claw.

"Well, then listen to this: I gave my word in the presence of the man
who staked me for this trip, that I would never gamble again. So I
reckon you know how much stud I'll play from now on."

"Gawd A'mighty!" breathed Claw, incredulously, "An' the game owin' you
millions. Well, have a drink on it, anyway."

Claw refilled Brent's glass, and thrust it into his hand, with a wink at
the captain, for he had been quick to note that the liquor and the hot
fetid air of the room was making Brent drowsy. His eyes had become dull
and heavy lidded, and his chin rested heavily upon the throat of his
parka. "Ain't happened to run onto a little bunch of Injuns, up the
river, have you?" asked the man, as Brent gagged at the liquor.

"No," answered Brent, drowsily, "No Injuns in Copper Mountains--nothing
in the mountains--nothing but snow." Gradually his eyes closed, and his
head rolled heavily to one side. The drunken klooch rose to her knees,
and with a maudlin giggle, seized Brent's half empty glass and drained
it.

With a curse, the captain kicked her into her corner, and turned to Claw
with a suggestive motion: "Slit his gullet, an' we'll slip him down a
seal hole with some scrap iron on his legs. He's prob'bly lyin' 'bout
leavin' the dust in camp."

Claw shook his head: "Not him," he opined, "Search him first."

The Captain and the mate subjected the unconscious man to a thorough
search, at the conclusion of which Scroggs tossed a small lean gold sack
upon the table. "Prob'ly all he's got left, anyhow," he growled in
disgust. "Le's jest weight him an' slip him through the ice the way he
is. 'Tain't so messy."

"Not by a damn sight!" objected Claw. "It's jest like I told you, when
we was watchin' him through the glass. He's got anyways clost to a
hundred ounces. I seen it, when he paid me fer the hooch, like I was
tellin' you."

"Well, we kin back-track him to his camp, an' if we can't find it we kin
put the hot irons to the Injun's feet till he squeals."

"The Injun don't know where it's at," argued Claw contemptuously, "He's
too damn smart to trust a Siwash. An' you bet he's got it _cached_ where
we couldn't find it. He wouldn't leave it round where the first bunch of
Huskies that come along could lift it, would he?"

"Well," growled the Captain, "Yer so damn smart, what's yer big idee?"

"We got to let him go. Put back his little two ounces, so he won't
suspicion nothin'. Then, when he wakes up, I'll slip him a bottle of
hooch fer a present, an' he'll hit fer camp and start in on it. It won't
last long, an' then you an' me an' Scroggs will happen along with more
hooch to sell him. When he digs up the dust to pay fer it, I'll tend to
him. You two git the Injun--but _he's_ mine. I've got a long score to
settle with him--an' I know'd if I waited long enough, my time would
come."



CHAPTER XVIII

LOST


Brent was conscious of a drone of voices. They came from a great
distance--from so great a distance that he could not distinguish the
words. He half-realized that somewhere, men were talking.

Befuddled, groping, his brain was struggling against the stupor that had
held him unconscious for an hour. Two months before, half the amount of
liquor he had taken into his system would have drugged him into a whole
night's unconsciousness, but the life in the open, and the hard work in
the gravel and on the trail, had so strengthened him physically that the
rum, even in the poisonous air of the cabin could not deaden him for
long. Gradually, out of the drone of voices a word was sensed by his
groping brain. Then a group of words. Where was he? Who were these men?
And why did they persist in talking when he wanted to sleep? His head
ached, and he was conscious of a dull pain in his cramped neck. He was
about to shift into an easier position, when suddenly he realized where
he was. He was drunk--in the filthy cabin of the _Belva Lou_--and the
voices were the voices of Claw, and the mate, and the Captain, who were
still at their liquor. A wave of sickening remorse swept him. He, Carter
Brent, couldn't keep away from the hooch. Even in the vile cabin of the
_Belva Lou_, he had fallen for it. It was no use. He would kill
himself--would blow his worthless brains out and be done with it, rather
than face--A sudden savage rage obsessed him. Kill himself, he would,
but first--he would rid the North of these vultures.

He was upon the point of leaping to his feet, and with his fists, his
chair--anything that came to hand, annihilating the brutish occupants of
the cabin, when the gruff voice of the Captain cut in upon Claw's
droning monotone.

"An' when we git him an' his Injun planted, me an' Asa'll take his dogs
an' hit back here, an' you kin strike east along the coast till you pick
up another woman. It's a damn outrage--that's what it is! Chargin' me
fifty dollars apiece fer greasy old pelters like them, that ain't worth
the grub they eat! What I want is a young one--good lookin' an' young."

"You had yer pick out of the eight," growled Claw.

"An' a hell of a pick it was! Why, I've went out an' rustled 'em myself,
an' fer a sack of flour, an' a half a dozen fish-hooks, an' mebbe a file
er two, I've got the pick of a hull village."

Brent's brain cleared gradually as he listened to the villainous
dialogue. Vaguely he sensed that it was himself and Joe Pete that the
Captain spoke of "planting." So they intended to murder him, did they?
And, when that detail had been attended to, they would go on with their
traffic in "winter wives." But, they did not intend to kill him here on
board the vessel. The Captain had spoken of coming back, after the deed
was done. Where would they take him? Brent suddenly found himself
possessed by curiosity. He decided to wait and see. And, when the time
came, he would give as good an account of himself as he could--and
then--what difference did it make? They were not fit to live. He would
kill them if he could--or maybe they would kill him. But he was not fit
to live either. He had sat at table with them--had fraternized with
them--drank liquor in the stinking cabin with the scum of the earth. He
was no better than they--he was one of them. The bottle scraped along
the table, and he could hear the audible gulping of liquor, the tap of
the returned glasses, and the harsh rasping of throats as they were
cleared of the fiery bite.

Then the voice of Claw: "You ain't had no pick of a village since the
Mounted begun patrolin' the coast."

"Damn the Mounted!"

"Yeh, that's what I say. But damnin' 'em don't git red of 'em. Facts is,
they're here, an' every year it's harder an' harder fer a man to make a
livin'. But listen, Cap, I've got one bet up my sleeve. But it'll cost
you more'n any fifty dollars--er a hundred, either. She ain't no
Husky--she's an Injun breed--an' damn near white. Her name's
Snowdrift--an' she's the purtiest thing in the North. I've had my eyes
on her fer a couple of years. She was in the mission over on the
Mackenzie. But she ain't there no more. She's way up the Coppermine,
with a band of about twenty Dog Ribs." Claw paused to pour a glass of
liquor, and Brent felt the blood pounding his eardrums in great surging
throbs. He felt the sweat break out on his forehead and the palms of his
hands, and it was only by a superhuman effort that he continued to feign
sleep. Surely, they would notice the flush on his face, the sweat
glistening on his forehead and the dryness of his lips--but, no--Claw
was speaking again:

"I tried to buy her once--last year it was, offen her mother--offered
her a thousan' dollars, cash money--an' 'fore I know'd what happened,
the damned old squaw had me about half killed. She's a hell cat. She
done it barehanded--clawed my eyes, an' clawed out a hull handful of
whiskers--you kin see that patch on my throat where they never grow'd
back. It was over near Good Hope, an' I didn't dast to make no holler,
nor kill her neither, on account of the Mounted--but I'll get her yet.
An' when I do, I'll learn her to pull folks whiskers out by the ruts
when they're tryin' to do the right thing by her!"

"You won't git no thousan' dollars from me!" exploded the Captain, "They
ain't no woman, white, red, brown, yaller, or black that's worth no
thousan' dollars o' my money!"

"Oh, ain't they?" sneered Claw, "Well you don't git her then. Fact is I
never figgered on sellin' her to you, nohow. I kin take her over to
Dawson an' make ten thousan' offen her in six months' time. They got the
dust over there, an' they ain't afraid to spend it--an' they know a good
lookin' woman when they see one. I'm a tellin' you they ain't no woman
ever hit the Yukon that kin anyways touch her fer looks--an' I've saw
'em all. The only reason I'm offerin' her to you is because I kin run
her up here a damn sight easier than I kin take her clean over to
Dawson--an' with a damn sight less risk, too."

"How old is she?" growled the Captain.

"Ain't a day over twenty. She's dirt cheap at a thousan'. You could have
her all winter, an' next summer you could slip into one of them coast
towns, Juneau, or Skagway, or even the ones farther north, an' make five
or ten times what you paid fer her."

"But s'pose she got spunky, an' I'd kill her, or knock out her teeth, er
an eye--then where'd my profits be? Women's hell to handle if they take
a notion."

"That's your lookout. It's your money that's invested, an' if you ain't
got sense enough to look after it, it's your funeral--not mine."

"How you goin' to git her here? How you goin' to git her away from the
Injuns? An' how do you know where she's at?"

"It's like this. Last summer she leaves the mission an' her an' the old
squaw talks the Dog Ribs into hittin' over onto the Coppermine to
prospect. They gits over there an' builds 'em a camp, an' starts in
trappin' an' prospectin'. But a couple of the bucks has got a thirst fer
hooch, an' they can't git none so they pulls out an' hits back fer the
Mackenzie. I run onto one of 'em an' he give me the dope--he's the one
that's here with me, an' he's goin' to guide me down to the village when
I git ready to go. That's why I asked Ace-In-The-Hole if he'd saw 'em. I
didn't want him buttin' in on the deal--the old squaw's bad enough, but
Gawd! I seen him kill three men in about a second in a saloon in Dawson
over a stud game--bare handed. They ain't no woman ever got her hooks
into him--not even The Queen of the Yukon--an' she done her
damndest--really loved him, an' all that sort of bunk. I know all about
women, an' she'd of run straight as hell if he'd of married her--some
says she's run straight ever sense she got caked in on him--even after
she seen it wasn't no use. He kind of sticks up fer 'em all. Anyways, he
knocked hell out of me one night when I was lacin' it to a gal I'd brung
into the country with a dog whip. He won't stand fer no rough stuff
when they's women mixed up in it, an' I'd ruther be in hell with my legs
cut off than have him find out what we was up to. I don't want none of
his meat--me!"

"Better go easy with yer jaw then," advised the Captain, "Mebbe he ain't
so damn dead to the world as he's lettin' on."

Claw laughed: "I've got him gauged. I've studied him 'cause I aimed to
git him sometime. He's a hooch-hound right. Half what he's drunk today
will put him dead fer hours. You could pull all his teeth an' he'd never
feel it. No, we ain't got to bother about him. He'll be out of the way
before I hit fer the Injun camp, anyhow. We'll wake him up after while,
an' I'll give him the bottle of hooch, like I said, so he'll stay soused
an' not move his camp, then we'll hit over there with more hooch, an'
when he uncovers his dust we'll git him an' the Injun both. Your share
of his dust will be half enough to pay fer the breed. But, before we
start out you fork over half the price--balance payable on delivery, an'
me an' the Injun'll hit on up the river an' fetch back the girl. It'll
cost you a keg of rum besides the thousan', 'cause the only way to git
her away from them Siwashes'll be to git 'em all tanked up. They'll be
right fer it, bein' off the hooch as long as they have. But, at that, I
better take along a man or two of the crew, to help me handle 'em."

"We won't bother none of the crew," rasped the Captain, harshly. "I'll
jest go 'long myself. With five hundred dollars of my dust in yer jeans
fer a starter after ye'd got her, ye might git to thinkin' o' them ten
thousan' you could make off her in Dawson--not that I wouldn't trust
you, you understand, but jest to save myself some worry while you was
gone, then, if she's as good lookin' as you say, I'd ruther be along
myself than let you an' some of the crew have her till you get here."

Brent's first sensation when he heard the name of Snowdrift upon Claw's
lips had been one of blind, unreasoning fury, but his brain cleared
rapidly as the man proceeded, and as he listened to the unspeakable
horror of the conversation, the blind fury gave place to a cold, deadly
rage. He realized that if he were to save the woman he loved from a fate
more horrible than he had ever conceived of, he must exert the utmost
care to make no false move. His heart chilled at the thought of what
would have happened to her had he yielded to the first blind impulse to
launch himself at the throats of the men there in the little cabin where
all the odds were against him. A pistol shot, a blow from behind, and
Snowdrift would have been left absolutely in the power of these fiends.

Cold sober, now, his one thought was to get out of the cabin, yet he
dared not move. Should he show signs of returning consciousness he knew
that suspicion would immediately fasten upon him, and that his life
would not be worth a penny. He must wait until they roused him, and
even then, he must not be easily roused. Claw had assured the Captain
that half the amount of liquor would deaden him for hours, therefore he
must play his part. But could he? Was it humanly possible to endure the
physical torture of his cramped position. Every muscle of his body ached
horribly. His head ached, he was consumed with torturing thirst, and his
mouth was coated with a bitter slime. Added to this was the brain
torture of suspense when his every instinct called for action. Suppose
they should change their minds. He dared not risk opening his eyes to
the merest slit, because he knew that Claw or the Captain might be
holding a knife to his ribs, or a pistol at his head. Any moment might
be his last--and then--Snowdrift--he dared not even shudder at the
thought. There was another danger, suppose he should over-play his part,
when they undertook to awaken him, or should under-play it? He knew to a
certainty that one false move would mean death without a chance to
defend himself, unarmed as he was and with the odds of three to one
against him.

An interminable period, during which the men talked and wrangled among
themselves, was interrupted by a loud knock upon the door.

"Who's there?" roared the Captain, "An' what d'ye want?"

"Dat me--Joe Pete," came a familiar voice from beyond the door. "An' I'm
t'ink dat tam we goin' back. She start to snow, an' I ain' lak we git
los'. Too mooch no trail."

"Might's well git 'em started now as anytime," whispered Claw. "_We_
don't want 'em to git lost, neither. What we want is fer 'em to git to
their camp an' then the snow an' the hooch'll hold 'em till we git
there."

"Next thing is to git him woke up," answered the Captain. Aloud, he
called to Joe Pete: "All right, come on in an' give us a hand, yer
pardner's stewed to the guards, an' it ain't goin' to be no cinch to
wake him up."

The door opened, and Brent's heart gave a leap as he felt the hand of
the big Indian upon his shoulder. If anything should go wrong now, at
least the odds against him were greatly reduced insofar as the occupants
of the cabin were concerned. But, there would still be the crew--they
could shoot from the cover of the igloos-- The hand was shaking him
roughly, and it was with a feeling of vast relief that Brent allowed his
head to roll about upon the stiffened muscles of his neck. A glass was
pressed to his lips, and there was nothing feigned in the coughing with
which he sought to remove the strangling liquor from his throat. His
eyes opened, and the next instant a dipper of cold water was dashed into
his face. The shaking continued, and he babbled feeble protest: "Lemme
'lone. G'way--le'me sleep!" The shaking was redoubled, and Brent blinked
stupidly, and feigned maudlin anger as the Indian slapped him with the
flat of his hand, first on one cheek and then on the other. "Who you
slappin'," he muttered, thickly, as he staggered to his feet and stood
swaying and holding to the table for support, "C'm on an' fight!" he
challenged, acting his part to a nicety, glaring owlishly about, "I c'n
lick y'all. Gi'me some water, I'm burnin' up." A dipper of water was
thrust into his hands and he drained it in huge gulps, "What's goin' on
here?" he asked, apparently revived a little by the water, "Gi'me some
hooch!"

Claw laid a conciliating hand upon his arm: "Listen, Ace-In-The-Hole,"
he purred, "Not no more hooch right now. It's startin' to snow, an' you
got to be hittin' fer camp. Look a here," he picked up a corked bottle
and extended it to Brent, "Here's a bottle fer you. Wait till you git to
camp, and then go to it. 'Twon't take you only a little while--but you
got to git goin'. If she thicks up on you before you git to the
mountains you'll be in a hell of a fix--but you got time to make it if
the Siwash will shove the dogs along. Better let him ride the sled," he
said, turning to Joe Pete, "You'll make better time."

Brent took the bottle and slipped it beneath his parka: "How much?" he
asked, fumbling clumsily for his sack.

"That's all right," assured Claw, "Tain't nothin' 't all. It's a present
from me an' Cap. Shows we know how to treat a friend. Come over an' see
us agin, when the storm lets up. Yer welcome to anything we got."

"Much 'blige, Claw," mumbled Brent, blinking with solemn gravity, as he
smothered an impulse to reach out and crush the man's wind-pipe in the
grip of his hand, "Didn't know you was good fren' of mine. Know
it--now--an' you, too, Cap--an' you, too, Snaggs."

"Scroggs," corrected the mate, "Asa Scroggs."

"Sure--Scroggs--'scuse me--mus' be little full. My name's Ace,
too--Ace-In-The-Hole--pair of aces, haw, haw, haw! Pair to draw to, I'll
say. Well, s'long. Tell you what," he said, as he turned to the door,
leaning heavily upon Joe Pete, "You come on over to my camp, when the
storm lets up. Right on the river--can't miss it--Bloody Falls--where
Old Hearne's Injuns butchered the poor Eskimos--damn shame! Bring over
plenty of hooch--I've got the dust to pay for it--bring dozen
bottles--plenty dust back there in camp--an' it'll be my treat."

"We'll come," the Captain hastened to accept, "Might's well be good
friends. Neighbors hain't none too thick in these parts. We'll come,
won't we Claw--an' we'll bring the hooch."

Stumbling and mumbling, Brent negotiated the narrow ally and the steep
flight of stairs in the wake of Joe Pete. At the head of the ladder that
led down the ship's side, he managed to stumble and land harmlessly in a
huge pile of snow that had been shoveled aside to make a path to the
igloos, and amid the jibes of the two sailors who were cutting blubber,
allowed Joe Pete to help him onto the sled.

The wind had risen to half a gale. Out of the northeast it roared,
straight across the frozen gulf from the treeless, snow-buried wastes of
Wollaston Land, driving before it flinty particles of snow that hissed
earthward in long cutting slants.

Heading the dogs southward, Joe Pete struck into the back-trail and,
running behind, with a firm grip on the tail-rope, urged them into a
pace that carried the outfit swiftly over the level snow-covered ice.

Upon the sled Brent lay thinking. Now that the necessity for absolute
muscle control no longer existed, the condition of cold hate into which
he had forced himself gave place to a surge of rage that drove his nails
into his palms, and curses from his lips, as he tried in his unreasoning
fury to plan extermination of the two fiends who had plotted the
soul-murder of his wonder woman. He would tear them to shreds with his
two hands. He would shoot them down from ambush without a chance to
protect themselves, as they searched for his camp among the rock-ridges
of Bloody Falls.

Gradually the fume of fury cooled and he planned more sanely. He was
conscious of a torturing thirst. The bottle of hooch pressed against his
side, and carefully so as not to disturb the covering robe, he drew it
from beneath his parka. He was cold sober, now. The shock of what he
had heard in the cabin of the _Belva Lou_ had completely purged his
brain of the effect of the strong liquor. But not so his body. Every
nerve and fibre of him called for more liquor. There was a nauseating
sickness in his stomach, a gnawing dryness in his throat, and a creeping
coldness in his veins that called for the feel of the warm glow of
liquor. Never in his life had the physical desire for drink been more
acute--but his brain was cold sober.

Nothing of the heart-sickening remorse of his first moments of
consciousness assailed him now. What was done was done. He knew that he
had yielded to his desire for drink, had weakly succumbed to the first
temptation, as he had always weakly succumbed--an act, in itself
contemptible. But with an ironical smile he realized that his very
weakness had placed him in a position to save from a fate a thousand
times more horrible than death, the girl who had become dearer to him
than life itself. But, with that realization, came also the realization
that only by the merest accident, had the good been born of evil, that
the natural and logical result of his act would have had its culmination
at Bloody Falls when he and Joe Pete would have sunk down dead upon the
snow at the moment he produced the gold to pay for more hooch. Claw had
laid his plans along the logical sequence of events. "He played me for a
drunkard, as he had a right to," muttered Brent. "And his scheme would
have worked except for one little mistake. He forgot to figure that
physically I'm a better man than I was back at Dawson. He thought he had
me gauged right, and so he talked. But--he over-played his hand. An hour
ago, I was a drunkard. Am I a drunkard now? It is the test," he
muttered, "The war is on," and with a grim tightening of the lips, he
thrust the bottle back under his parka.

Three times within the next two hours he withdrew the bottle. And three
times he returned it to its place. He thought of tossing it into the
snow--and a moment later, angrily dismissed the thought. "_She_ wouldn't
ask odds of the hooch and I won't either! I'll keep this bottle right
with me. I'll fight this fight like a man--like a Brent! And, by God,
when I win, it won't be because I couldn't get the hooch! It will be
because I wouldn't drink it when I had it!"

And, the next moment, to the utter astonishment of Joe Pete, he leaped
perfectly sober from the sled, and took his place at the tail-rope with
a laughing command to the Indian to take a rest on the robes.

An hour later, Brent halted the dogs and aroused Joe Pete. "We ought to
have hit shore by this time," he said, "I'm afraid something's wrong."

The snow had thickened, entirely obliterating the trail, and forming an
opaque wall through which the eye could penetrate but a short distance
beyond the lead dog.

The Indian noted the course, and the direction of the wind. "Mebbe-so
win' change," he opined, and even as he spoke the long sweeping lines of
snow were broken into bewildering zig-zags. A puff of wind coming at a
right angle from the direction of the driving gale was followed by
another blustering puff from the opposite direction, and they came thick
and fast from every direction, and seemingly from all directions at
once. The snow became powder-fine and, in a confusion of battering
blasts, the two men pushed uncertainly on.



CHAPTER XIX

TRAPPED


For three days the Arctic blizzard raged and howled, and drifted the
snow deep over the igloos that were grouped about the hulk of the _Belva
Lou_. On the morning of the fourth day Claw and the Captain made their
way across the snow-buried deck and gazed out toward the distant ridges
of the Copper Mountains.

"Might's well git started," opined Claw, "Have 'em load a week's grub
onto my sled, an' you an' me, an' the Dog Rib'll hit out."

"Will a week's grub be enough?" growled the Captain, "It's goin' to be a
hell of a trip. Mebbe we'd ort to wait a couple o' days an' see what the
weather'll do."

"Wait--hell!" cried Claw, "What's the use waitin'? The b'rom'ter's up,
an' you know damn well we ain't in fer no more storm fer a week er two.
What we want to do is to git over to Bloody Falls before Ace-In-The-Hole
takes a notion to break camp. An' what's the use of packin' more grub?
We'll have his won't we?"

"He ain't goin' to break camp till we come along with the hooch," argued
the other, "Couple days more an' this snow will be settled an' the
goin'll be easier."

"If you don't want to go, you kin stay here," retorted Claw, "Me--I
ain't goin' to take no chances. I an' the Dog Rib kin handle them two,
if you don't want none of it. An' then we'll shove on to the Injun camp
an' git the girl, an' I'll jest slip on over to Dawson with her--a
thousan' dollars is too cheap, anyhow. If I hadn't of b'n lit up I'd
never offered her to you fer no such figger."

"A trade's a trade," interrupted the Captain. "If yer so hell-bent on
goin', I'll go along." He shouted the necessary orders to the sailors
who were clearing the snow from the doorways of the igloos, and the two
turned to the cabin.

"I'll take that five hundred now, before we start, an' you kin give me
the balance when we git back with the girl," suggested Claw.

"Ye said there'd be five hundred apiece in Ace-In-The-Hole's sack,"
reminded the Captain, "I'll pay the first installment with that."

"You will, like hell! You'll pay me now. We ain't got that sack yet.
Come acrost."

"I'll give ye an order on----"

"You'll give me an order on no one! You'll count out five hundred, cash
money--dust, er bills, right here in this cabin, 'fore we budge an inch.
You've got it--come acrost!"

After much grumbling the Captain produced a roll of bills and counting
off five hundred dollars, passed the money reluctantly across the table
to Claw, who immediately stowed it away. "Don't forget to have 'em put a
keg of rum on the sled," he reminded, "We'll need it when we get to the
Injuns. Not half water, neither. What we want this trip is the strong
stuff that'll set 'em afire."

"You got to stand your half o' the rum. We're pardners on this."

"I stand nothin'. You put up the rum, an' the grub, an' a thousan'
dollars fer the girl. My contract is to git her, an' deliver her on
board the _Belva Lou_. The only thing we're pardners on is
Ace-In-The-Hole's dust. A trade's a trade--an' you got all the best of
it, at that."

Late that afternoon Claw and the Captain, and the renegade Dog Rib
reached the Bloody Falls of the Coppermine, and searched vainly for
Brent's camp.

"Pulled out!" cried the Captain, after an hour's search along the base
of the upstanding rock ledges.

Claw shook his head: "They never got here," he amended, "The storm got
bad before they hit the ridges, an' they're lost."

"Where's the camp, then?"

Claw indicated the high piled snow: "Tent was only pegged to the snow.
Wind blew it down, and the fresh snow buried it. We'll camp an' hang
around a couple of days. If they weathered the storm, they'll be along
by that time. If they didn't--well, they won't bother us none with the
girl."

"But, how about the dust?" asked the Captain, "If they don't come, we've
got to find the camp."

Claw laughed: "You'll have a hell of a time doin' it! With the snow
piled twenty foot deep along them ledges. If they don't show up, we'll
shove on to the Injuns. It's clost to a hundred an' fifty mile to the
camp, accordin' to the Dog Rib, an' it'll take us anyways a week to make
it, with the goin' as bad as it is."

"An' if we hang around here fer a couple o' days, that'll make nine
days, with a week's grub. What ye goin' to do 'bout that? I told ye we'd
ort to take more."

"Yer head don't hurt you none--the way you work it, does it?" sneered
Claw, "I s'pose we couldn't send the Dog Rib back fer some more grub
while we was awaitin'? An' while he's gone you kin git a belly full of
rootin' up the snow to find the camp."

For two days Claw laid in the tent and laughed at the Captain's sporadic
efforts to uncover Brent's camp. "If you'd help, 'stead of layin' around
laughin', we might find it!" flared the Captain.

"I don't want to find it," jeered Claw, "I'm usin' my head--me. The main
reason I come here was to kill Ace-In-The-Hole, so he couldn't butt in
on the other business. If the storm saved me the trouble, all right."

"But, the dust!"

"Sure--the dust," mocked Claw. "If we find the camp, an' locate the
dust, I divide it up with you. If we don't--I slip up here in the
spring, when you're chasin' whales, an' with the snow melted off all I
got to do is reach down an' pick it up--an' they won't be no dividin',
neither."

"What's to hinder me from slippin' in here long about that time? Two kin
play that game."

"Help yerself," grinned Claw, "Only, the Mounted patrol will be along in
the spring, an' they'll give you a chanct to explain about winterin'
them klooches on the _Belva Lou_. You've forgot, mebbe, that such
customs is frowned on."

"Ye damn double dealin' houn'!" cried the Captain, angrily.

"Double dealin', eh? I s'pose I'd ort to be out there breakin' my back
diggin' in the snow, so I could divvy up with you dust that I could have
all to myself, by takin' it easy. I offered to share the dust with you,
cause I figgered I needed yer help in bumpin' off them two. If you don't
help, you don't git paid, an' that's all there is to it."

The Indian returned with the provisions, and in the morning of the third
day they struck out up the Coppermine, with the Indian breaking trail
ahead of the dogs.

"I didn't expect 'em to show up," grinned Claw, as he trudged along
behind the Captain. "I figgered if they didn't make camp that first
stretch, they never would make it. Full of hooch, a man ain't fit to hit
the trail even in good weather. He thinks he kin stand anything--an' he
can't stand nothin'. The cold gits him. Here's what happened. The storm
gits thick, an' they git off the course. The Siwash is lost an' he tries
to wake up Ace-In-The-Hole. He finds the bottle of hooch--and that's the
end of the Siwash. Somewheres out on the sea-ice, or in under the snow
on the flats they's two frozen corpses--an' damn good reddence, I says."

Shortly after noon of the sixth day on the trail, the Dog Rib halted
abruptly and stood staring in bewilderment at a little log cabin, half
buried in the snow, that showed between the spruce trunks upon the right
bank of the stream. Claw hastened forward, and spoke to him in jargon.
The Indian shook his head, and by means of signs and bits of jargon,
conveyed the information that the cabin did not belong to the Indian
camp, and that it had not been there at the time he fled from the camp.
He further elucidated that the camp was several miles along.

"Must be some of 'em got sore at the rest, an' moved up here an' built
the shack," opined Claw, "Anyways, we got to find out--but we better be
heeled when we do it." He looked to his revolver, and stooping, picked
up a rifle from the sled. The Captain followed his example, and Claw
ordered the Indian to proceed. No one had appeared, and at the foot of
the ascent to the cabin, Claw paused to examine a snow-covered mound.
The Captain was about to join him when, with a loud yell of terror, he
suddenly disappeared from sight, and the next moment the welkin rang
with his curses, while Claw laughing immoderately at the mishap, stood
peering into Brent's brush-covered shaft. It was but the work of a few
moments to haul the discomfited Captain from the hole. "Shaft, an' an
ore dump," explained Claw. "This here's a white man's layout, an' he's
up to date, too. They ain't be'n burnin' in, even on the Yukon, only a
year or so. Wonder who he is?"

The two followed the Indian who had halted before the cabin, and stood
looking down at the snowshoe trail that led from the door.

"Off huntin', I guess. Er over to the Injun camp. Looks like them tracks
was made yesterday. He ain't done no work in the shaft though sence the
storm. We'll go in an' make ourself to home till he gits back, anyhow. I
don't like the idee of no white man in here. 'Cordin' to who it
is--but----"

"Mebbe it ain't a white man," ventured the Captain.

"Sure it's a white man. Didn't I jest tell you that burnin' in ain't no
Injun trick?"

"Dog Rib snowshoes," suggested the Indian in jargon, pointing to the
tracks.

"That don't prove nothin'," retorted Claw, "He could of got 'em from
the Injuns, couldn't he? They's two of 'em lives here," he added, from
the interior. "Unharness the dogs, while I build up a fire."

       *       *       *       *       *

From the moment of Brent's departure, Snowdrift bent all her energies
persuading the Indians to burn into the gravel for gold. At first her
efforts were unavailing. Even Wananebish refused to take any interest in
the proceeding, so the girl was forced to cut her own wood, tend her own
fire, and throw out her own gravel. When, however, at the end of a week
she panned out some yellow gold in the little cabin, as she had seen
Brent do, the old squaw was won completely over, and thereafter the two
women worked side by side, with the result that upon the test panning,
Snowdrift computed that they, too, were taking out almost an ounce a day
apiece. When the other Indians saw the gold they also began to scrape
away the snow, and to cut wood and to build their fires on the gravel.
Men and women, and even the children worked all day and took turns
tending the fire at night. Trapping and hunting were forgotten in the
new found craze for gold, and it became necessary for Snowdrift to tole
off hunters for the day, as the supply of meat shrank to an alarming
minimum.

By the end of another week interest began to flag. The particles of gold
collected in the test pannings were small in size, and few in number,
the work was hard and distasteful, and it became more and more
difficult for the girl to explain to them that these grains were not the
ultimate reward for the work, that they were only tests, and that the
real reward would not be visible until spring when they would clean up
the gravel dumps that were mounding up beside the shafts. The Indians
wanted to know how this was to be accomplished, and Snowdrift suddenly
realized that she did not know. She tried to remember what Brent had
told her of the sluicing out process, and realized that he had told very
little. Both had been content to let the details go until such time as
the sluicing should begin. Vaguely, she told the Indians of sluice boxes
and riffles, but they were quick to see that she knew not whereof she
spoke. In vain, she told them that Brent would explain it all when he
returned, but they had little use for this white man who had no hooch to
trade. At last, in desperation, she hit upon the expedient of showing
the Indians more gold. From Brent's sack she extracted quantities of
dust which she displayed with pride. The plan worked at first, but soon,
the Indians became dissatisfied with their own showing, and either
knocked off altogether, or ceased work on the shafts and began to
laboriously pan out their dumps, melting the ice for water, and carrying
the gravel, a pan at a time, to their cabins.

This too, was abandoned after a few days, and the Indians returned to
their traps, and to the snaring of rabbits. Only Snowdrift and old
Wananebish kept up to the work of cutting and hauling the wood, tending
the fires, and throwing out the gravel. Despite the grueling toil,
Snowdrift found time nearly every day to slip up and visit Brent's
cabin. Sometimes she would go only to the bend of the river and gaze at
it from a distance. Again she would enter and sit in his chair, or
moving softly about the room, handle almost reverently the things that
were his, wiping them carefully and returning them to their place. She
purloined a shirt from a nail above his bunk, and carrying it home used
it as a pattern for a wonderfully wrought shirt of buckskin and beads.
Each evening, she worked on the shirt, while Wananebish sat stolidly by,
and each night as she knelt beside her bunk she murmured a prayer for
the well-being of the big strong man who was hers.

But whether it was at the shaft, at her needle, at her devotions, or
upon her frequent trips to his cabin, her thoughts were always of Brent,
and her love for him grew with the passing of the days until her longing
for his presence amounted, at times, almost to a physical pain. One by
one, she counted the days of his absence, and mentally speculated upon
his return. After the second week had passed she never missed a day in
visiting his cabin. Always at the last bend of the river, she quickened
her steps, and always she paused, breathless, for some sign of his
return.

"Surely, he will come soon," she would mutter, when the inspection
showed only the lifeless cabin, or, "He will come tomorrow." When the
seventeenth and the eighteenth days had passed, with no sign of him, the
girl, woman like, began to conjure up all sort and manner of dire
accident that could have befallen him. He might have been drowned upon a
thinly crusted rapid. He might have become lost. Or frozen. Or, ventured
upon a snow cornice and been dashed to pieces upon the rocks below.
Every violent death known to the North she pictured for him, and as each
picture formed in her brain, she dismissed it, laughed at her fears, and
immediately pictured another.

On the nineteenth day she chopped wood until the early darkness drove
her from her tasks, then she returned to the cabin and, fastening on her
snowshoes, struck off down the river. "Surely, he will be here today,"
she murmured, "If he is not here today I will know something has
happened, and tomorrow I shall start out to find him. But, no--I am
foolish! Did he not say it would be two weeks--a month--maybe
longer--those were his very words. And it is only nineteen days, and
that is not a month. But, he will come sooner!" She flushed deeply, "He
will come to _me_--for he does love me, even as I love him. In his eyes
I have seen it--and in his voice--and in the touch of his hand."

The last bend was almost in sight and she quickened her pace. She knew
to an inch, the exact spot from which the first glimpse of the cabin was
to be had. She reached the spot and stared eagerly toward the spruce
thicket. The next instant a glad cry rang out upon the still Arctic air.
"Oh, he has come! He has come! The light is in his window! Oh, my
darling! My own, own man!"

Half laughing, half sobbing, she ran forward, urging her tired muscles
to their utmost, stumbling, recovering, hurrying on. Only a minute more
now! Up the bank from the river! And, not even pausing to remove her
snowshoes, she burst into the room with Brent's name upon her lips.

The next instant the blood rushed from her face leaving it deathly
white. She drew herself swiftly erect, and with a wild cry of terror
turned to fly from the room. But her snowshoes fouled, and she fell
heavily to the floor, just as Johnnie Claw, with a triumphant leer upon
his bearded face leaped to the door, banged it shut, and stood with his
back against it, leering and smirking down at her, while the Captain of
the _Belva Lou_ knelt over her and stared into her eyes with burning,
bestial gaze.



CHAPTER XX

"YOU ARE WHITE!"


"So! my beauty!" grinned the Captain, "Fer once in his life Claw didn't
lie. An' ye didn't wait fer us to go an' git ye--jest come right to us
nice as ye please--an' saved me a keg o' rum." He rose with an evil
leer. "An' now git up an' make yerself to home--an' long as ye do as I
say, an' don't git yer back up, you an' me'll git along fine."

Frantic with terror the girl essayed to rise, but her snowshoes impeded
her movements, so with trembling fingers she loosened the thongs and,
leaping to her feet, backed into a corner, and stared in wide-eyed
horror first at the Captain, then at Claw, the sight of whom caused her
to shrink still further against the wall.

The man sneered: "Know me, eh? Rec'lect the time, over to the mission I
tried to persuade you to make the trip to Dawson with me do you? Well, I
made up my mind I'd git you. Tried to buy you offen the squaw an' she
like to tore me to pieces. I'd of kidnapped you then, if it hadn't be'n
fer the Mounted. But I've got you now--got you an' sold you to him," he
grinned, pointing to the Captain. "An' yer lucky, at that. Let me make
you acquainted with Cap Jinkins. 'Tain't every breed girl gits to be
mistress of a ship like the _Belva Lou_."

Her eyes blazing with anger, she pointed a trembling finger at Claw:
"Stand away from that door! Let me go!"

"Oh, jest like that!" mocked the man. "If he says let you go, it's all
right with me, pervided he comes acrost with the balance of the dust."

The Captain laughed, and turning to the Dog Rib, he ordered: "Slip out
to the sled an' git a bottle o' rum, an' we'll all have a little drink."

For the first time Snowdrift noticed the presence of the Indian.
"Yondo!" she screamed, "This is your work! You devil!" and beside
herself with rage and terror, she snatched a knife from the table and
leaped upon him like a panther.

"Git back there!" cried Claw, leveling his revolver.

Quick as a flash, the Captain knocked up the gun, pinioned the girl's
arms from behind, and stood glaring over her shoulder at Claw: "Put up
that gun, damn ye! An' look out who yer pullin' it on!"

"By God, that's my Injun! I ain't through with him, yet, an' there ain't
no damn jade kin carve him up in under my nose."

"An' this here's my woman, too. An' there ain't no damn hooch runner kin
pull a gun on her, neither!"

"Ain't no harm done," conciliated Claw, "An' I guess they ain't no call
to fight over 'em. How about that drink?"

"Git it!" ordered the Captain, and as the cowering Dog Rib slunk from
the room, he snatched the knife from the pinioned hand of the girl and
hurled it under the bunk:

"An', now you hell-cat!" he rasped, pushing her from him, "You set to
an' git supper! An' don't go tryin' no more monkey business, er I'll
break ye in two! They seems to be grub enough here without usin' none of
my own," he added, eying the supplies ranged along the opposite wall,
"Who owns this shack, anyhow?"

"Carter Brent owns it," cried the girl, drawing herself erect and
glaring into the man's eyes. It was as though the very mention of his
name, nerved her to defiance. "And when he returns, he will kill you
both--kill you! Do you hear?"

"It's a lie!" roared Claw, then paused, abruptly. "I wonder--maybe it is
his shack. He come straight from the Yukon, an' that accounts fer the
burnin' in."

"Know him?" asked the Captain.

"Know him!" growled Claw, "Yes, I know him--an' so do you. That's
Ace-In-The-Hole's real name."

"The hell it is!" cried the Captain, and laughed uproariously. "So
that's the way the wind blows! An' the breed's be'n livin' here with
him! Things is sure comin' my way! That's most too good to be true--an'
you misrepresentin' her to be a virgin, fresh from a school--ho, ho,
ho!"

"What'd you mean?" snarled Claw, "How was I to know----"

"Whether ye know'd, er whether ye didn't, it didn't make no
difference--I win either way."

"What d'you mean?" Claw repeated.

"You know what I mean," sneered the Captain, truculently, "Secondhand
goods--half price--see?"

"You mean I don't git my other five hundred?" yelled Claw jerking the
revolver from his holster and levelling at the Captain's head, "Is that
what ye mean?"

Surprised at the suddenness of the action, the Captain was caught off
guard, and he stood blinking foolishly into the mouth of the gun:
"Well," he faltered, moistening his lips with his tongue, "Mebbe we
might kind o' talk it over."

"The only talkin' over you'll git out of me, is to come acrost with the
five hundred," sneered Claw.

"Ye know damn well I ain't got no five hundred with me. Wait till we git
to the _Belva Lou_."

"I'll wait, all right--but not till we git to the _Belva Lou_. Me an'
the girl will wait on shore, in sight of the _Belva Lou_, while you go
out an' git the money an' fetch it back--an' you'll come back _alone_
with it. An' what's more--you ain't ahead nothin' on the rum, neither.
'Cause I'm goin' to slip down to the Injun camp in about five minutes,
an' the rum goes along. I'll be back by daylight, an' instead of the
rum, I'll have all the fur--an' everything else them Dog Ribs has got.
An' I'll git square with that damn squaw fer jerkin' that handful of
whiskers out of me, too."

"That's all right, Johnnie," assured the Captain, still with his eyes on
the black muzzle of the gun. "Take the rum along--only, we'd ort to
split half an' half on that fur."

"Half an' half, hell! You got what you come after, ain't you? An' if I
kin pick up an honest dollar on the side, that ain't no reason I should
split it with you, is it? I'll jest leave you two to git acquainted
while I slip down to the camp."

"Go ahead," grinned the Captain, "An' don't hurry back, we'll wait."

"Yer damn right you'll wait!" retorted Claw, "I'll have the dogs." In
the doorway he paused, "An', by the way, Cap. Don't open that door till
I git out of range--see?"

The moment the door closed behind Claw, the Captain placed his back
against it and turned to the girl: "Git to work now an' git supper!
We're goin' to hit the back-trail inside an' hour. We kin pack what grub
we'll need, an' we'll git most a hull night's start, cause he'll be busy
with them Injuns till mornin'."

Snowdrift confronted him with blazing eyes: At the words her blood
seemed to freeze within her, leaving her cold and numb with horror. She
had heard of the coastal traffic in winter wives, but always it had
seemed to her a thing vague and unreal. But now the full hideousness of
it stood revealed to her. She herself, at that very moment stood
trapped, bought and sold--absolutely in the power of the two bearded
beasts, who in the very loathsomeness of their filthy minds, discussed
her as they would discuss a piece of merchandise, bargained and haggled
over the price of her living body! A single ray of hope had dawned in
her breast as the men began to quarrel. If they would only come to
blows, and to grip-lock in their rage, she might be able to seize a
weapon, or better still dash from the room. Once in the scrub, she could
easily elude them. But the hope died when Claw covered the Captain with
his gun. And with the hope died also the numbing terror. A strange,
unnatural calm took possession of her. There was still one way out--and
she would seek that way. As the two men stood facing each other, she had
caught a glimpse of the blade of the knife that lay where the Captain
had thrown it, beneath the edge of the bunk. Stealthily her moccasined
foot had reached out and slid it toward her, and as the door opened upon
Claw's departure, she had stooped swiftly and recovered it. She would
plunge the blade into her own heart--no, better, she would attack the
Captain now that they were alone, and either kill him, or by the very
fury of her onslaught, would force him to kill her. So with the knife
concealed by her folded arms, her eyes blazed defiance:

"I'll never cook your supper! You dog! You unspeakable devil! I'll kill
you first--or you'll kill me!"

"Kill ye, eh?" sneered the man, "Well, I might, at that, if I didn't
have five hundred good dollars tied up in ye. Guess they ain't much
danger of me killin' ye till I get my money back, one way er
another--an' I guess they ain't no one knows that no better'n what you
do. An' as fer killin' _me_," he laughed, "You look spunky 'nough
to--but I'm hard to kill--it's be'n tried."

"I've warned you!" cried the girl, "And I'll kill you!"

"Git to work! Damn ye!" snarled the Captain, "yer losin' time! You cook
that supper, er by God I'll make ye wisht I had killed ye! I'll tame ye!
I'll show ye who's boss! Mebbe you won't be so pretty when I git through
with ye--but ye'll be tame!"

The innermost thought of her brain found voice in words, "Oh, if he were
here!"

"Hollerin' fer yer man, eh," taunted the Captain, "Ye ain't his'n now,
yer mine--an' he won't come cause he's dead----"

"Dead!" The word shrieked from the lips of the tortured girl, "No, no,
no!"

"Yes, yes, yes," mocked the man, "He's dead an' froze hard as a capstan
bar, somewheres upon the sea ice, an' his Injun, too. Got dead drunk
upon the _Belva Lou_, an' started fer shore in the big storm--an' he
never got there. So ye might's well make the best of it with me. An'
I'll treat ye right if ye give me what I want. An' if ye don't give it,
I'll take it--an' it'll be the worse fer you."

The girl scarcely heard the words. Brent was dead. Her whole world--the
world that was just beginning to unfold its beauties and its
possibilities to her--to hold promise of the wondrous happiness of which
she had read and dreamed, but had never expected to realize--her whole
world had suddenly come crashing about her--Brent was dead, and--like a
flame of fire the thought flashed across her brain--the man responsible
for his death stood before her, and was even now threatening her with a
fate a thousand times worse than death.

With a wild scream, animal-like, terrifying in its fury, the girl sprang
upon the man like a tiger. He saw the flash of the knife blade in the
air, and warding off the blow with his arm, felt the bite and the hot
rip of it as it tore into his shoulder. With a yell of pain and rage he
struck blindly out, and his fist sent the girl crashing against the
table. The force of the impact jarred the chimney from the little oil
bracket-lamp, and the light suddenly dimmed to a red flaring half-gloom.
Like a flash the girl recovered herself, and again she flew at the man
whose hand gripped the butt of his revolver. Again he struck out to ward
the blow, and by the merest accident the barrel of the heavy gun struck
the wrist of the hand that held the knife hurling it from her grasp,
while at the same time his foot tripped her and she crashed heavily to
the floor. Before she could get up, the man was upon her, cursing,
panting hot fury. Kicking, striking out, clawing like a wild cat, the
girl managed to tear herself from his grasp, but as she regained her
feet, a huge hand fastened in the neck of her shirt. There was a moment
of terrific strain as she pulled to free herself, holding to the
stanchion of the bunk for support, then with a loud ripping sound the
garment, and the heavy woolen undershirt beneath gave way, and the girl,
stripped bare to the waist, stood panting with the table interposed
between herself and the man who rose slowly to his feet. At the sight of
her, half naked in the dimly wavering light of the flaring wick flame,
his look suddenly shifted from mad fury to bestial desire. Deliberately
he picked up the knife from the floor, and without taking his eyes from
the girl opened the door and tossed it out into the snow. Then he
returned the revolver to its holster and stared gloatingly at the white
breasts that rose and fell convulsively, as the breath sobbed from the
girl's lungs. And as she looked into his devouring eyes, abysmal terror
once more seized hold of her, for the loathsome desire in those eyes
held more of horror than had their blaze of fury.

The man moistened his thick lips, smacking them in anticipation, and as
he slowly advanced to the table, his foot struck an object that felt
soft and yielding to the touch, yet when he sought to brush it aside, it
was heavy. He glanced down, and the next instant stooped swiftly and
picked up Brent's sack of dust, which the girl had carried inside her
shirt. For an instant, greed supplanted the lust in his eyes, and he
laughed. Long and loud, he laughed, while the girl, pumping the air into
her lungs, gained strength with every second. "So here's where he left
his dust, is it? It's too good to be true! I pay five hundred fer the
girl instead of a thousan', an' all the dust, that Claw'll be up
scratchin' the gravel around Bloody Falls fer next summer. I guess
that's poor--five hundred clean cash profit, an' the girl besides!"

The sight of Brent's gold in the man's foul clutch was too much for
Snowdrift, and the next instant a billet of stovewood crashed against
the wall within an inch of his head. With a low growl, he dropped the
sack to the floor and started around the table. In vain the girl cast
wildly about for some weapon, as, keeping the table between them, she
milled round and round the room. In vain she tried each time she passed
it, to wrench open the door. But always the man was too quick for her,
and when finally, he pushed the table against it, she once more found
herself cornered this time without a weapon, and half dead from fatigue.
Slowly, deliberately, the man advanced upon her. When he reached out
and touched her bare arm with a thick fingered, hairy hand, she shrieked
aloud, and redoubled the fury of her attack, clawing and striking at his
face. But, her onslaught was futile. He easily warded off her tiring
efforts. Closer and closer he pressed, his eyes aglitter with the fever
of lust, his thick lips twisted into a gloating grin, until his arms
closed slowly about her waist and his body pressed hers backward onto
the bunk.

       *       *       *       *       *

Joe Pete wanted to camp, but Brent would have none of it. The storm
thickened. The wind increased in fury, buffeting them about, and causing
the dogs to whine and cringe in the harness until it became necessary to
fasten a leash to the leader to prevent their bolting. Hopelessly lost
though they were, Brent insisted upon pushing on. "The land lies this
way," he kept saying, "and we'll strike it somewhere along the coast."
Then he would appeal to the Indian who would venture no opinion
whatever, frankly admitting he was lost, and always counseling the
making of a camp. Finally, when darkness came they did camp, merely
digging into the snow; and tossing blanket and robes and a little food
into the pit, crawled in and drew the tarpaulin over them.

Brent slept little that first night. Over and over again he tried to
reason out the course, and between times he lay hugging tightly his
bottle of hooch. "I wouldn't lose you for a million," he muttered, as
each tortured nerve of his body cried out for stimulant, and the little
brain devils added their urge, and with sophistry and cunning excuse
sought to undermine his resolve. "Just one drink." "You need it." "Taper
off gradually." "It's medicine." But to the insidious suggestions of the
brain devils he turned a deaf ear, and with clenched teeth, gripped his
bottle. "I'll never want you--never need you any more than I do this
night," he whispered into the dark. "Right now I'd give half my life for
one big swig--but my life isn't mine to give now. It's hers--_hers_, do
you hear! It's her fight that I'm fighting, now--and, by God, she's
going to win!"

In the morning, despite the protest of Joe Pete, Brent pushed on. The
storm had increased in fury, and it was with difficulty they kept their
feet. Toward noon, both knew that they had gained land of some kind, for
the terrain became rolling, and in places even hilly.

"We ain' goin' right fer de mountaine," shouted the Indian, with his
lips close to Brent's ear. "Dey an' no leetle hill dere till we com' to
de ridge."

"I don't care," yelled Brent, "We're heading south, and that's the main
thing. We can hit for the river when the storm stops."

The third day was a repetition of the second, except that the hills
became higher and more numerous, but entirely unlike the ridge formation
of the Copper Mountains. That night the storm wore itself out, and the
morning of the fourth day dawned bright and clear, with a wind blowing
strongly.

"Well, where are we?" asked Brent, as he and Joe Pete ascended a nearby
hillock to take observation of their surroundings.

For a long time the Indian studied the horizon, nor did he speak until
every degree of the arc had been subjected to minute scrutiny.

"I'm t'ink, we com' too mooch far wes'," he observed, "I'm t'ink, we
better strike eas', 'bout wan day, tomor'."

"Tomorrow!" cried Brent. "Why not today--now?"

The Indian pointed to the dogs. "Too mooch tired out. Too mooch no good.
We got to res' today. Mebbe-so, travel tomor'!"

A glance at the dogs convinced Brent, anxious as he was to push on, that
it would be useless to try it, for the dogs were in a pitiable condition
from the three day fight with the storm. He wanted to make up a pack and
push on alone, but the Indian dissuaded him.

"S'pose com' nudder beeg snow? W'at you do den, eh? You git los'. You
trail git cover up. I kin no fin'. Dat better you wait." And wait they
did, though Brent fretted and chafed the whole day through.

The following morning they started toward the southeast, shaping their
course by a far-distant patch of timber that showed as a dark spot on
the dazzling snow. The ground was broken and hard to travel, and their
progress was consequently slow. At noon they cut a dog loose, and later
another, the released animals limping along behind as best they could.

At noon of their seventh day of travel, the eighth after the storm,
Brent, who was in the lead, halted suddenly and pointed to a small lake
that lay a mile or more to the southward.

"I know that lake!" he cried, "It's the one where Snowdrift killed a
caribou! The river is six or seven miles east of here, and we'll strike
it just below our cabin."

"You sure 'bout dat'?." asked the Indian. "De dogs, w'at you call, all
in. I ain' lak' we mak mor' travel we kin help."

"Yes--sure," exclaimed Brent, "I couldn't be mistaken. There is the
point where we ate lunch--that broken spruce leaning against those two
others."

"Dat good lan' mark," the Indian agreed, "I ain' t'ink you wrong now."

Joyously, Brent led off to the eastward. The pace was woefully slow, for
of the seven dogs, only three remained, and the men were forced to work
at pulling the sled. "We ought to make the cabin a little after dark,"
he figured, "And then--I'll grab a bite to eat and hit out for
Snowdrift. Wonder if she's looking for me yet? Wonder if she's been
thinking about me? It's--let's see--this is the nineteenth
day--nineteen days since I've seen her--and it seems like nineteen
years! I hate to tell her I didn't make a strike. And worst of all I
hate to tell her about--what happened on the _Belva Lou_. But, I'll come
clean. I will tell her--and I'll show her the bottle--and thank God I
didn't pull the cork! And I never will pull it, now. I learned something
out there in the snow--learned what a man can do." He grinned as he
thought of Claw and the Captain of the _Belva Lou_, searching the Copper
Mountains for his camp, so they could kill him and steal his dust. Then
the grin hardened into a straight-lipped frown as he planned the
vengeance that was to be his when they came after the girl.

"They won't be in any hurry about starting up river," he argued,
"They'll hunt for me for a week. Then, when they do come--I'll kill 'em
as I would kill so many mad dogs. I hate to shoot a man from ambush--but
there's two of 'em, and I don't dare to take a chance. If they should
get me--" he shuddered at the thought, and pressed on.

As he swung onto the river, a sharp cry escaped him and he stooped in
the darkness to stare at a trail in the snow.

The cry brought Joe Pete to his side. "Those tracks!" rasped Brent,
"When were they made? And who made 'em?"

The Indian stooped close and examined the trail. "Two--t'ree mans, an' a
team," he muttered, "An' wan man dat Godam Johnnie Claw!"

"How do you know?" cried Brent, "How old are they?" And leaping to the
sled, he cut the pack thongs with one sweep of his knife and grabbed up
his rifle.

"I know dem track--seen um on Mackenzie. B'en gon' 'bout two t'ree
hour!"

"Bring on the outfit!" Brent called over his shoulder, and the Indian
stared in surprise as he watched the man strike out on the trail in
great leaping strides.

The distance to the cabin was a scant mile, and Brent covered it without
slackening his pace. At the foot of the bank, he noted with relief that
the trail swung upward to his own cabin. If they had stopped, there was
yet time. His first glance had detected no light in the window, but as
he looked again, he saw that a peculiar dull radiance filtered through
the oiled parchment that served as a glass. Cautiously he maneuvered up
the bank, and made his way to the cabin, mentally debating with himself
whether to burst in upon the occupants and chance a surprise, or to lie
in wait till they came out. He stood in the shelter of the meat _cache_
weighing his chances, when suddenly from beyond the log walls came the
sound of a woman's scream--loud--shrill--terrible, it sounded, cutting
the black silence of the night. What woman? There could be only
one--with a low cry that sounded in his own ears like the snarl of a
beast, he dropped the rifle and sprang against the door. It flew inward
and for a second Brent could see nothing in the murky interior of the
room. There was a sound from the bunk and, through the smoke haze he
made out the face of the Captain of the _Belva Lou_. As the man sprang
erect, their bodies met with an impact that carried them to the floor.
Brent found himself on top, and the next instant his fingers were
twisting, biting into a hairy throat with a grip that crushed and tore.
In his blind fury he was only half-conscious that heavy fists were
battering at his face. Beneath him the body of the Captain lashed and
struggled. The man's tongue lolled from his open mouth, and from beneath
the curled lips came hoarse wheezing gasps, and great gulping strangling
gurgles. A wave of exultation seized Brent as he realized that the thing
that writhed and twisted in his grasp was the naked throat of a man.
Vaguely he became conscious that above him hovered a white shape, and
that the shape was calling his name, in strange quavering tones. He
tightened his grip. There was a wild spasmodic heaving of the form
beneath him--and the form became suddenly still. But Brent did not
release his grasp. Instead he twisted and ground his fingers deeper and
deeper into the flesh that yielded now, and did not writhe. With his
face held close, he glared like a beast into the face of the man beneath
him--a horrible face with its wide-sprung jaws exposing the slobbered
tongue, the yellow snag-like teeth, the eyes, back-rolled until only the
whites showed between the wide-staring lids, and the skin fast purpling
between the upper beard and the mottled thatch of hair.

A hand fell upon his shoulder, and glancing up he saw Snowdrift and
realized that she was urging him to rise. As in a dream he caught the
gleam of white shoulders, and saw that one bare arm clasped a fragment
of torn shirt to her breast. He staggered to his feet, gave one glance
into the girl's eyes, and with a wild, glad cry caught her to him and
pressed her tight against his pounding heart.

A moment later she struggled from his embrace. She flushed deeply as his
eyes raised from her shoulders to meet her own. He was speaking, and at
the words her heart leaped wildly.

"It's a lie!" he cried, "You are not a breed! I knew it! I knew it! My
darling--you are white--as white as I am! Old Wananebish is not your
mother! Do you hear? _You are white!_"



CHAPTER XXI

THE PASSING OF WANANEBISH


Stepping across to a duffle bag, Brent produced a shirt and an
undershirt which he tossed to the girl who, in the weakness of sudden
reaction had thrown herself sobbing upon the bunk.

"There, there, darling," he soothed, as with his back toward her, his
eyes roved about the room seeking to picture, in the wild disorder, the
terrific struggle that had taken place. "Put on those things, and then
you can tell me all about it. You're all right now, dear. I will never
leave you again."

"But--oh, if you had not come!" sobbed the girl.

"But, I did come, sweetheart--and everything is all right. Forget the
whole horrid business. Come, we will go straight to Wananebish. Not
another hour, nor a minute will we wait. And we will make her tell the
truth. I have never believed you were her daughter--and now I know!"

"But," faltered the girl, as she slipped into the warm garments, "If I
am not her daughter, who am I? Oh, it is horrible--not to know who you
are! If this is true--she must tell--she has got to tell me! I have the
right to know! And, my mother and my father--where are they? Who are
they?"

"We will know soon, darling," assured Brent, drawing her to him and
looking down into her up-lifted eyes, "But, first let me tell you
this--I don't care who you are. You are mine, now, dearest--the one
woman for me in all the world. And no matter who, or what your parents
were, you are mine, mine, mine!" His lips met hers, her arms stole about
his neck, and as she clung to him she whispered:

"Oh, everything seems all strange, and unreal, and up-side-down, and
horrible, and in all the world, darling, you are the one being who is
good, and sane and strong--oh, I love you so--don't ever leave me
again----"

"Never again," assured Brent, smiling down into the dark eyes raised so
pleadingly to his. "And, now, do you feel able to strike out for the
camp?"

"I feel able to go to the end of the earth, with you," she answered
quickly, and he noticed that her voice had assumed its natural buoyancy,
and that her movements were lithe and sure as she stooped to lace her
snowshoes, and he marveled at the perfect resiliency of nerves that
could so quickly regain their poise after the terrible ordeal to which
they had been subjected.

"Where is Claw?" he asked, abruptly, as he stooped and recovered his
gold sack from the floor where the Captain had dropped it.

"Come we must hurry!" cried the girl, who in the excitement had
forgotten his very existence, "He started for the camp, to trade hooch
to the Indians--and--oh, hurry!" she cried, as she plunged out into the
night. "He hates Wananebish, and he threatened to get even with her! If
he should kill her now--before--before she could tell us--" She was
already descending the bank to the river when Brent recovering his
rifle, hastened after her, and although he exerted himself to the
utmost, the flying figure gradually drew away from him. When it had all
but disappeared in the darkness, he called, and the girl waited,
whereupon Brent despite her protest, took the lead, and with his rifle
ready for instant use, hastened on up the river.

A half mile from the encampment, Brent struck into the scattered timber,
"He may watch the back-trail," he flung back over his shoulder, "and we
don't want to walk into a trap."

Rapidly they made their way through the scrub, and upon the edge of the
clearing, they paused. In the wide space before one of the cabins, brush
fires were blazing. And by the light of the leaping flames the Indians
could be seen crowding and fighting to get to the door of the cabin.
Brent drew Snowdrift into the shelter of a bush, from which point of
vantage they watched Claw, who stood in the doorway, glass in one hand,
six-gun in the other, dispensing hooch. Standing by his side, Yondo
received the skins from the crowding Indians, and tossed them into the
cabin. The process was beautifully simple--a drink for a skin. As Yondo
took a skin Claw passed out a drink to its erstwhile owner.

"Damn him!" muttered Brent, raising his rifle. But Snowdrift pushed it
aside.

"It is too dark," she whispered, "You can't see the sights, and you
might hit one of the Indians." Breaking off sharply, she pointed toward
her own cabin. The door had been thrown open and, rifle in hand old
Wananebish stepped out on the snow. She raised the rifle, and with loud
cries the Indians surged back from about the hooch runner. Before the
rifle could speak Claw fired, and dropping her gun, old Wananebish
staggered a few steps forward and pitched headlong into the snow.

With a yell of rage, Brent broke cover and dashed straight across the
clearing. As the cry reached him, Claw looked up, fired one hasty shot
at the approaching figure, and leaping straight through the throng of
Indians, disappeared in the scrub beyond the cabin, with Yondo close at
his heels.

Brent was aware that Snowdrift was at his side. "Go to her," panted the
girl, "I will try to handle the Indians." For an instant he hesitated,
then, realizing that the girl could deal with her own band better
without his presence, he hastened to the squaw who had raised herself to
an elbow and was vainly trying to rise. Picking her up bodily, Brent
carried her into the cabin and placed her upon the bunk.

"Where--is--she?" the woman gasped, as he tore open her shirt and
endeavored to staunch the flow of blood from a wound low down upon the
sunken chest.

"She's all right," assured the man, "Claw has gone, and she is trying to
quiet the Indians."

The old crone shook her head: "No use," she whispered the words with
difficulty, "Take her away--while--there--is--time.
They--are--crazy--for--hooch--and--they--will--sell--her--to--him." She
sank back gasping, and Brent held a cup of water to her lips as he
motioned her to be quiet.

"I am going to take her," he answered, "But, tell me--who is Snowdrift?"

The beady eyes fixed his with a long, searching stare. She was about to
speak when the door opened and Snowdrift herself burst into the room and
sank down beside the bunk.

With a laboring effort the old woman laid a clawlike hand upon the
girl's arm: "Forgive me," she whispered, and summoning all her fast
ebbing strength she gasped: "It is all a lie. You are not my child. You
are white. I loved you, and I was afraid you would go to your people." A
paroxysm of coughing seized her, and a gush of red blood welled from her
lips. "Look--in--the--moss--bag," she croaked, the words gurgling
through her blood-flooded throat. She fell heavily back upon the
blanket and the red torrent gushed afresh from between the stilled lips.

With a dry sob, Snowdrift turned to Brent: "We must go!" she faltered,
hurriedly, "I can do nothing with the Indians. I tried to reach the
hooch to destroy it, but they crowded me away. He has lied to them--won
them completely over by the promise of more hooch. He told them he has
plenty of hooch _cached_ in the scrub. Already they have sent runners to
bring him back, and when he comes," the girl paused and shuddered "They
will do anything he tells them to--for hooch, and you know what that
will be--come, we must go while we have time!"

"Can't we stay and fight him?" cried Brent, "Surely some of the Indians
will be with us."

"No--only a few of the squaws--and they would be no good. No, we must go
before they bring him back! My sled is beside the door. Hurry and load
it with supplies while I harness the dogs." As she talked, the girl's
hands searched beneath the blankets upon which lay the body of the squaw
and with a low cry she drew forth the moss-bag which she handed to
Brent. "Take it," she said, "and do not trust it to the sled. We have no
time to look into it now--but that little bag contains the secret of my
life----"

"And I will guard it with my own!" cried Brent, as he took the bag from
her hand. "Hurry, now and harness the dogs. I'll throw in some grub and
blankets and we will finish the outfit at my cabin where we'll pick up
Joe Pete."

While Brent worked at the lashings of the sled pack, Snowdrift slipped
silently into the cabin and, crossing to the bunk, bent low over the
still form of the squaw: "Good-by, Wananebish," she sobbed, as she
pressed her lips to the wrinkled forehead, "I don't know what you have
done--nor why you did it--but, I forgive you." She turned to see Brent
examining the two heavy crotches that were fixed, one on either side of
the doorway on the inside. "That is our lock," explained the girl. "See,
there is the bar that goes across the door, like the bar at the post at
Fort Norman. Wananebish made it. And every night when we were inside she
placed the bar in the crotches and no one could have got in without
smashing the door to pieces. Ever since I returned from the mission,
Wananebish has feared someone, and now I know it was Claw."

"If we could only drop the bar from the outside," mused Brent, "Maybe we
could gain a lot of time. I know Claw, and when he finds that he has all
the Indians with him, and that we are only two, he is not going to give
you up without a struggle. By George!" he exclaimed, suddenly, "I
believe I can do it!" He motioned the girl outside, and slipped the bar
into the crotch at the hinge side of the door, then driving a knife upon
the inside, he rested the bar upon it, and stepping outside, banged the
door shut. The knife held, and opening the door, he loosened the blade
a little and tried again. This time the banging of the door jarred the
knife loose. It fell to the floor, and the heavy bar dropped into place
and the man smiled with satisfaction as he threw his weight against the
door. "That will keep them busy for a while," he said, "They'll think
we're in there and they know we're armed, so they won't be any too
anxious to mix things up at close quarters."

Swiftly the dogs flew up the well packed trail toward Brent's cabin. The
night was dark, and the Indians were fighting over the rum cask that
Claw had abandoned. As they hurried down the river, the two cast more
than one glance over their shoulders toward the cabin where the Indians
milled about in the firelight.

At the first bend of the river, they paused and looked back. Shots were
being fired in scattering volleys, and suddenly Snowdrift grasped
Brent's arm: "Look!" she cried, "At our cabin!"

At first Brent could see nothing but the distant glow of the brush
fires, then from the direction of the cabin they had just left a tongue
of flame shot upward through the darkness. There were more shots, and
the flames widened and leaped higher.

"They're piling brush against the cabin," cried Brent. "They think
they'll burn us out. Come on, we haven't a minute to lose, for when Claw
learns that we are not in the cabin, he'll be on our trail."

At his own shack Brent tore the lashings from the sled, and began to
rearrange the pack, adding supplies from his stores. Joe Pete stared in
astonishment. "Come on here!" cried Brent, "Get to work! We're off for
Dawson! And we've got to take grub enough to last till we hit Fort
Norman."

"All day long you have been on the trail," cried the girl, "You are
tired! Can't we stand them off here until you are rested?"

Brent shook his head: "You saw what happened at the other cabin," he
answered. "And here it would be even worse. With the window and the door
on the same side, they could burn us out in no time."

"But they will trail us--and we must travel heavy," she pointed to the
loaded sled.

"We will take our chances in the open," said Brent grimly. "And if luck
favors us we will get a long lead. The Indians may get too drunk to
follow, or they may stop to loot my cabin, and even if they should
overtake us, we can give a good account of ourselves. We have three
rifles, and the Indians can't shoot, and Claw will not risk his own
hide. Strike out straight for Fort Norman, Joe Pete. We will take turns
breaking trail."

At daylight they camped upon the apex of a high ridge that commanded a
six or seven mile sweep of the back-trail, and all three noted with
relief that the stiff wind had filled their trail with the shifting
snow. All through the night they had avoided the timbered swamps and
the patches of scrub both for the purpose of allowing the wind full
sweep at their trail, and also to force their pursuers to expose
themselves to the open. It was decided that until danger of pursuit was
past they would travel only at night and thus eliminate in so far as
possible, the danger of a surprise attack.

Because the men had been on the trail almost constantly for twenty-four
hours, Snowdrift insisted upon standing first watch, and as Brent
unrolled his blankets, he removed the moss-bag from his shoulders and
handed it to the girl. Both he and Joe Pete were asleep the instant they
hit the blankets, and for a long time Snowdrift sat with the moss-bag
hugged close, and her eyes fixed upon the long sweep of back-trail. At
length she thrust her hand into the bag and withdrew the packet, secure
in its waterproof wrapping. Over and over she turned it in her hand as
she speculated, woman like, upon its contents. Time and again she
essayed to untie the thong that bound it but each time her fingers were
stilled before the knot was undone.

"Oh, I am afraid--afraid," she murmured, when her burning curiosity
urged her fingers to do their task. "Suppose he--my father was a man
like--like those two--suppose he was Claw, himself!" She shuddered at
the thought. "No, no!" she whispered, "Wananebish said that he was good.
My mother, then, who was she? Is some terrible stigma attached to her
name? Better never to know who I am, than to know _that_!" For a moment
she held the packet above the little flames of her fire as though she
would drop it in, but even as she held it she knew she would not destroy
it, for she decided that even to know the worst would be better than the
gnawing of life-long uncertainty. "He, too, has the right to know," she
murmured, "And we will open it together." And with a sigh, she replaced
the packet in the bag, and returned to her scrutiny of the back-trail.

Despite the agreement to divide equally the time of watching, the girl
resolved to let the men sleep until mid-day before calling Brent who was
to take the second watch.

At noon, Brent awoke of his own accord, and the girl was startled by the
sound of his voice in her ear: "Anything doing?"

"No," she answered, "Not even a wolf, or a caribou has crossed the
open."

"Have you explored that?" He indicated the moss-bag with a nod, and the
girl was quick to note the carefully suppressed eagerness of the words.

"No. I--waited. I wanted you--and--Oh, I was afraid!"

"Nonsense, darling!" laughed the man, "I am not afraid! Give me the bag.
Again I swear to you, I do not care who you are. You are mine--and
nothing else matters!" Snowdrift slipped her hand into the bag and
withdrew the packet, and she handed it to Brent, he placed his arm about
her shoulders and drew her close against his side, and with her head
resting upon his shoulders, her eyes followed his every movement as his
fingers fumbled at the knot.

Carefully he unwrapped the waterproof covering and disclosed a small
leather note book, and a thick packet wound round with parchment deer
skin. On the fly leaf of the note book, in a round, clear hand was
written the name MURDO MACFARLANE, and below, Lashing Water.

"Murdo MacFarlane," cried Brent, "Why, that's the name in the book that
told of Hearne's lost mines--the book that brought me over here!"

"And the name on the knife--see, I have it here!" exclaimed the girl.
"But, go on! Who was MacFarlane, and what has he to do with me?"

Eagerly Brent read aloud the closely written pages, that told of the
life of Murdo MacFarlane; of his boyhood in Scotland, of his journey to
Canada, his service with the Hudson's Bay Company, his courtship of
Margot Molaire, and their marriage to the accompaniment of the booming
of the bells of Ste. Anne's, of the birth of their baby--the little
Margot, of his restless longing for gold, that his wife and baby need
not live out their lives in the outlands, of the visit of Wananebish and
her little band of Dog Ribs, of his venture into the barrens,
accompanied by his wife and little baby, of the cabin beside the
nameless lake and the year of fruitless search for gold in the barrens.

"Oh, that is it! That is it! The memory!" cried the girl.

"What do you mean? What memory?"

"Always I have had it--the memory. Time and time again it comes back to
me--but I can never seem to grasp it. A cabin, a beautiful woman who
leaned over me, and talked to me, and a big man who took me up in his
arms, a lake beside the cabin, and--that is all. Dim and elusive,
always, I have tried for hours at a time to bring it sharply into mind,
but it was no use--the memory would fade, and in its place would be the
tepee, or my little room at the mission. But, go on! What became of
Murdo MacFarlane, and Margot--of my father and my mother. And why have I
always lived with Wananebish?"

Brent read the closing lines with many a pause, and with many a catch in
his voice--the lines which told of the death of Margot, and of his
determination to take the baby and leave her with Wananebish until he
should return to her, of his leaving with the squaw all of his
money--five hundred pounds in good bank notes, with instructions to use
it for her keep and education in case he did not return. And so he came
to the concluding paragraph which read:

"In the morning I shall carry my wee Margot to the Indian woman. It is
the only thing I can do. And then I shall strike North for gold. But
first I must return to this cabin and bury my dead. God! Why did she
have to die? She should be buried beside her mother in the little
graveyard at Ste. Anne's. But it cannot be. Upon a high point that juts
out onto the lake, I will dig her grave--upon a point where we used
often to go and watch the sunset, she and I and the little one. And
there she will lie, while far below her the booming and the thunder of
the wind-lashed waters of the lake will rise about her like the sound of
bells--her requiem--like the tolling of the bells of Ste. Anne's."

"Oh, where is he now--my father?" sobbed the girl, as he concluded.

Brent's arm tightened about her shoulders, "He is dead," he whispered,
"He has been dead these many years, or he would have found you." He
swept his arm toward the barrens, "Somewhere in this great white land
your father met his death--and it was a man's death--the kind of death
he would have welcomed--for he was a man! The whole North is his grave.
And out of it, his spirit kept calling--calling. And the call was
heard--by a drunkard in a little cabin on the Yukon. I am that drunkard,
and into my keeping the spirit of Murdo MacFarlane has entrusted the
life of his baby--his wee Margot." Brent paused, and his voice suddenly
cut hard as steel, "And may God Almighty strike me dead if I ever
violate that trust!"

Slender brown fingers were upon his lips. "Don't talk like that, dear,
it scares me. See, I am not afraid. And you are _not_ a drunkard."

"I got drunk on the _Belva Lou_."

"Didn't I say we couldn't expect to win all the battles?"

"And, I carry my bottle with me." He reached into his blankets and drew
out the bottle of rum.

"And the cork has not been pulled," flashed the girl, "And you have
carried it ever since you left the whaler."

"Yes, darling," answered the man softly, "And I always shall keep it,
and I never will pull the cork. I can give you that promise, now. I can
promise you--on the word of a Brent that----"

"Not yet, sweetheart--please!" interrupted the girl, "Let us hold back
the promise, till we need it. That promise is our heavy artillery. This
is only the beginning of the war. And no good general would show the
enemy all he has got right in the beginning."

"You wonder woman!" laughed Brent, as he smothered the upraised eyes
with kisses, "But see, we have not opened the packet." Carefully he
unwound the parchment wrapping, and disclosed a closely packed pile of
bank notes. So long had they remained undisturbed that their edges had
stuck together so that it was with difficulty he succeeded in counting
them. "One hundred," he announced, at length, "One hundred five-pound
notes of the Bank of England."

"Why, Wananebish never used any of the money!" cried the girl.

Brent shook his head: "Not a penny has been touched. I doubt that she
ever even opened the packet."

"Poor old Wananebish," murmured the girl, "And she needed it so. But she
saved it all for me."

When darkness gathered, they again hit the trail. A last look from the
ridge disclosed no sign of pursuit, and that night they made twenty-five
miles. For three more nights they traveled, and then upon the shore of
Great Bear Lake, they gave up the night travel and continued their
journey by daylight.

Upon the evening of the eighteenth day they pulled in to Fort Norman,
where they outfitted for the long trail to the Yukon. Before she left,
Snowdrift paid the debt of a thousand skins that McTavish had extended
to the Indians, and the following morning the outfit pulled out and
headed for the mountains which were just visible far to the westward.



CHAPTER XXII

CLAW HITS FOR DAWSON


When Claw returned to the flame-lighted clearing, a scant half-hour
after he had fled from the avenging figure of Brent, it was to find his
keg of rum more than half consumed, and most of the Indians howling
drunk. Close about him they crowded, pressing skins upon him and
demanding more liquor. The man was quick to see that despite the
appearance of Brent and the girl, he held the upper hand. The Indians
would remain his as long as the rum held out.

"Ask 'em where the white man went--him an' the girl," he ordered Yondo.

The Indian pointed to the cabin of Wananebish, and a devilish gleam
leaped into Claw's eyes: "Tell 'em I'll give a hull keg of rum, er a
hundred dollars, cash money to the man that kills him!" he shouted, "an'
another keg to the one that brings me the girl!"

The drunken savages heard the offer with a whoop, and yelling like
fiends, they rushed to the cabin. The barred door held against their
attack, and with sinister singleness of purpose they rushed back to the
fires, and securing blazing fagots, began to pile brush against the wall
of the building.

With an evil grin on his face, Claw took up his position behind a stump
that gave unobstructed view of the door through which the two must rush
from the burning cabin, and waited, revolver in hand.

Louder roared the fire, and higher and higher shot the flames, but the
door remained closed. Claw waited, knowing that it would take some time
for the logs to burn through. But, when, at length, the whole cabin was
a mass of flames, and the roof caved in, his rage burst forth in a
tirade of abuse:

"They lied!" he shrilled, "They wasn't in there. Ace-In-The-Hole
wouldn't never stayed in there an' burnt up! The Injuns lied! An' he's
layin' to git me. Mebbe he's got a bead on me right now!" and in a
sudden excess of terror, the man started to burrow into the snow.

Yondo stopped, and in the bright light of the flames examined the trail
to the river. Then he pointed down the stream in the direction of
Brent's cabin, and Claw, too, examined the trail. "They've pulled out!"
he cried, "Pulled out for his shack! Tell 'em to come on! We'll burn 'em
out up there! I ain't a-goin' to let her git away from me now--an' to
hell with Cap Jinkins! I'll take her to Dawson, an' make real money
offen her. An' I'll git Ace-In-The-Hole too. I found that girl first!
She's mine--an' by God, I'll have her!" He started for the river. At
the top of the bank, he paused: "What's ailin 'em?" he roared, "Why
don't they come! Standin' there gogglin' like fools!"

"They say," explained Yondo, in jargon, "That they want to see the rum
first."

"Tell 'em I left it up to his shack!" roared the man, "Tell 'em
anything, jest so they come. Git my dogs an' come on. We'll lead out,
an' they'll foller if they think they's hooch in it."

Yondo headed the dogs down the trail, and Claw threw himself upon the
sled and watched the drunken Indians string out behind, yelling,
whooping, staggering and falling in their eagerness for more hooch.

When they came in sight of the cabin, Claw saw that it was dark. "You
slip up and see what you kin find out," he ordered Yondo, "An' I'll stay
here with the dogs an' handle the Injuns when they come along."

Five minutes later the Indian returned and reported that there was no
one in the cabin, and that the door was open. With a curse, Claw headed
the dogs up the bank, and pushed through the open door. Match in hand,
he stumbled and fell sprawling over the body of the Captain of the
_Belva Lou_, uttering a shriek of terror as his bare hand came in
contact with the hairy face. Scrambling to his feet, he fumbled for
another match, and with trembling fingers, managed to light the little
bracket lamp. "Choked him to death bare handed!" he cried in horror,
"And he'd of done me that way, too! But where be they? Look, they be'n
here!" The man pointed to the disordered supplies, that had been thrown
about in the haste of departure. "They've pulled out!" he cried. "Git
out there an' find their trail!"

Yondo returned, and pointed to the westward, holding up three fingers,
and making the sign of a heavily loaded sled.

"That'll be him, an' her, an' the Injun," said Claw, "an' they're
hittin' fer Fort Norman." Reaching down, he picked up a sack of flour
and carrying it out to the sled, ordered Yondo to help with the other
supplies. Suddenly, he sprang erect and gazed toward the west. "I wonder
if he would?" he cried aloud, "I'll bet he'll take her clean to Dawson!"
He laughed harshly, "An' if he does, she's mine--mine, an' no trouble
nor risk takin' her there! Onct back among the saloons, Ace-In-The-Hole
will start in on the hooch--an' then I'll git her."

From far up the river came the whoop-whoroo of the drunken Indians.
"Quick," cried Claw, "Git that pack throw'd together. When they git here
an' find out they ain't no more hooch, they'll butcher me an' you!" And
almost before the Indian had secured the lashings, Claw started the
dogs, and leaving the Indian to handle the gee-pole, struck out on the
trail of Brent.

It was no part of Claw's plan to overtake the trio. Indeed, it was the
last thing in the world he wanted to do. At midnight they camped with a
good ten miles between themselves and the drunken Dog Ribs. In the
morning they pushed on, keeping a sharp lookout ahead. Soon Brent's
trail began to drift full of snow, and by noon it was obliterated
altogether. Thereupon Claw ordered the Indian to shape his own course
for Fort Norman, and because of Yondo's thorough knowledge of the
country, arrived in sight of the post on the evening of the sixteenth
day.

When he learned from an Indian wood chopper, that no other outfit had
arrived, Claw pulled a mile up the river and waited.

Two days later, from the summit of a nearby hill, he saw the outfit pull
in, and with glittering eyes he watched it depart, knowing that Brent
would hit for the Yukon by way of the Bonnet Plume Pass.

Claw paid off Yondo and struck straight westward alone, crossing the
divide by means of a steep and narrow pass known only to a few. Thus,
shortening the trail by some four or five days, he showed up in Cuter
Malone's Klondike Palace at the height of an evening's hilarity.

Cuter greeted him from behind the bar: "Hello, Claw! Thought you was
over with the whalers!"

"Was," answered Claw, "Jest got back," he drained the glass Malone had
set before him, and with a sidewise quirk of the head, sauntered into a
little back room.

A few minutes later, Cuter followed, carefully closing and locking the
door after him: "What's on yer mind?" he asked, as he seated himself
beside the little table.

"They's aplenty on it. But mostly it's a girl."

"What's the matter? One git away from you?"

"She ain't yet, but she's damn near it. She'll be here in a few days,
an' she's the purtiest piece that ever hit the Yukon."

"Must be right pert then, cause that's coverin' quite a bit of
territory."

"Yes, an' you could cover twict as much an' still not find nothin' that
would touch her fer looks."

"Where is she?"

"She's comin'. Ace-In-The-Hole's bringin' her in."

"Ace-In-The-Hole! Yer crazy as hell! First place, Ace-In-The-Hole ain't
here no more. Folks says old R.E. Morse got him an' he drounded hisself
in the river. Camillo Bill an' that bunch he used to trot with, has
combed Dawson with a fine tooth comb fer him, an' they can't find him
nowheres."

"Drounded?--hell!" exclaimed Claw, "Ain't I be'n to his shack on the
Coppermine? Didn't he come up to the _Belva Lou_ an' git drunk, an' then
git lost, an' then find his way back to his shack an' choke the life out
of Cap Jinkins? Yes sir, bare handed! I looked at Cap's throat where he
lay dead on the floor an' it was damn near squose in two! An' he'd of
squose mine, if he could caught me!"

"What about the gal? What's he got to do with her? He wouldn't stand fer
no such doin's, an' you'd ort to know it. Didn't he knock you down fer
whalin' one with a dog whip!"

"Yes, an' I'll even up the score," growled Claw savagely, "An' me an'
you'll shove a heft of dust in the safe fer profits. It's like this.
She's his girl, an' he's bringin' her here."

"His girl! Say Claw, what you handin' me? Time was when Ace-In-The-Hole
could of had his pick of any of 'em. But that time's gone. They wouldn't
no _klooch_ look at him twict, now. He's that fer gone with the hooch.
He's a bum."

"You know a hell of a lot about it! Didn't you jest git through tellin'
me he was drounded? An' now he's a bum! Both of which they ain't neither
one right--by a damn sight. He's be'n out there where they ain't no
hooch, an' he's as good a man as he ever was--as long as he can't git
the hooch. But here in Dawson he kin git it--see? An' me an' you has got
to see that he does git it. An' we'll git the girl. I've figured it all
out, comin' over. Was goin' to fetch her myself, but it would of be'n a
hell of a job, an' then there's the Mounted. But this way we git her
delivered, C.O.D. right to our door, you might say. Startin' about day
after tomorrow, we'll put lookouts on the Klondike River, an' the Indian
River. They're comin' in over the Bonnet Plume. When they git here the
lookout will tell us where they go. Then we rig up some kind of excuse
to git him away, an' when we've got him paralysed drunk, we'll send a
message to the girl that he needs her, an' we'll bring her
here--an'--well, the middle room above the little dance hall up stairs
will hold her--it's helt 'em before."

Malone grinned: "Guess I didn't know what I was up to when I built that
room, eh? They kin yell their head off an' you can't hear 'em outside
the door. All right, Claw, you tend to the gittin' her here an' I'll
pass the word around amongst the live ones that's got the dust. We ain't
had no new ones in this winter, an' the boys'll 'preciate it."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was evening. Brent and Snowdrift had climbed from the little trail
camp at the edge of the timber line, to the very summit of the great
Bonnet Plume Pass to watch the sun sink to rest behind the high-flung
peaks of the mighty Alaskan ranges.

"Oh, isn't it grand! And wonderful!" cried the girl as her eyes swept
the vast panorama of glistening white mountains. "How small and
insignificant I feel! And how stern, and rugged, and hard it all looks."

"Yes, darling," whispered Brent, as his arm stole about her waist, "It
is stern, and rugged, and hard. But it is clean, and honest, and grand.
It is the world as God made it."

"I have never been in the mountains before," said the girl, "I have
seen them from the Mackenzie, but they were so far away they never
seemed real. We have always hunted upon the barrens. Tell me, is it all
like this? And where is the Yukon?"

Brent smiled at her awe of the vastness: "Pretty much all like this," he
answered. "Alaska is a land of mountains. Of course there are wide
valleys, and mighty rivers, and along the rivers are the towns and the
mining camps."

"I have never seen a town," breathed the girl, "What will we do when we
get there?"

"We will go straight to the Reeves," he answered, with a glad smile.
"Reeves is the man who staked me for the trip into the barrens, and his
wife is an old, old friend of mine. We were born and grew up in the same
town, and we will go straight to them."

"I wonder whether she will like me? I have known no white women except
Sister Mercedes."

"Darling, she will love you!" cried Brent, "Everyone will love you! And
we will be married in their house."

"But, what will he think when you tell him you have not made a strike?"

Brent laughed: "He will be the first to see that I have made a strike,
dear--the richest strike in all the North."

"And you didn't tell me!" cried the girl, "Tell me about it, now! Was it
on the Coppermine?"

"Yes, it was on the Coppermine. I made the great strike, one evening in
the moonlight--when the dearest girl in the world told me she loved me."

Snowdrift raised her wondrous dark eyes to his: "Isn't it wonderful to
love as we love?" she whispered, "To be all the world to each other? I
do not care if we never make a strike. All I want is to be with you
always. And if we do not make a strike we will live in our tepee and
snare rabbits, and hunt, and be happy, always."

Brent covered the upturned face with kisses: "I guess we can manage
something better than a tepee," he smiled. "I've got more than half of
Reeves' dust left, and I've been thinking the matter over. The fact is,
I don't think much of that Coppermine country for gold. I reckon we'll
get a house and settle down in Dawson for a while, and I'll take the job
Reeves offered me, and work till I get him paid off, and Camillo Bill,
and enough ahead for a grub-stake, and then we'll see what's to be done.
We'll have lots of good times, too. There's the Reeves' and--and----"

Brent paused, and the girl smiled, "What's the matter? Can't you think
of any more?"

"Well, to tell the truth, I don't know any others who--that is, married
folks, our kind, you know. The men I knew best are all single men. But,
lots of people have come in with the dredge companies. The Reeves will
know them."

"There is that girl you called Kitty," suggested Snowdrift.

"Yes--" answered Brent, a little awkwardly, "That's so. But, she's--a
little different."

"But I will like her, I am sure, because she nursed you when you were
sick. I know what you mean!" she exclaimed abruptly, and Brent saw that
the dark eyes flashed, "You mean that people point at her the finger of
scorn--as they would have pointed at me, had I been--as I thought I was.
But it is all wrong, and I will not do that! And I will hate those who
do! And I will tell them so!" she stamped her moccasined foot in anger,
and the man laughed:

"My goodness!" he exclaimed feigning alarm, "I can see from here where I
better get home to meals on time, and not forget to put the cat out."

"Now, you are making fun of me," she pouted, "But it is wrong, and you
know it is, and maybe the very ones who do the pointing are worse in
their hearts than she is."

"You said it!" cried Brent, "The ones that look down upon the frailties
of others, are the very ones who need watching themselves. And that is a
good thing to remember in picking out friends. And, darling, you can go
as far as you like with Kitty. I'm for you. She's got a big heart, and
there's a lot more to her than there is to most of 'em. But, come, it's
dark, and we must be getting back to camp. See the little fire down on
the edge of the timber line. It looks a thousand miles away."

And as they picked their way, side by side, down the long slope, Brent
was conscious that with the growing tenderness that each day's
association with his wonder woman engendered, there was also a growing
respect for her outlook upon life. Her years in the open had developed a
sense of perception that was keen to separate the dross from the pure
gold of human intent. "She's a great girl," he breathed, as he glanced
at her profile, half hidden in the starlight, "She deserves the best
that's in a man--and she'll get it!"



CHAPTER XXIII

IN THE TOILS


Late one afternoon, a dog sled, with Joe Pete in the lead, and Brent and
Snowdrift following swung rapidly down the Klondike River. A few miles
from Dawson, the outfit overtook a man walking leisurely toward town, a
rifle swung over his shoulder. Recognizing him as one Zinn, a former
hanger-on at Cuter Malone's, Brent called a greeting.

"Damned if it ain't Ace-In-The-Hole!" cried the man, in well simulated
surprise. "They'll be rollin' 'em high in Dawson tonight!"

Brent laughed, and hurried on. And behind him upon the trail Zinn
quickened his pace.

At the outskirts of town the three removed their snowshoes and, ordering
Joe Pete to take the outfit to his own shack, Brent and Snowdrift
hurried toward the Reeves'.

As they passed up the street Brent noticed that the dark eyes of the
girl were busily drinking in the details of the rows upon rows of low
frame houses. "At last you are in Dawson," he said, including with a
sweep of the arm the mushroom city that had sprung up in the shadow of
Moosehide Mountain, "Does it look like you expected it would? Are you
going to like it?"

The girl smiled at the eagerness in his voice: "Yes, dear, I shall love
it, because it will be our home. It isn't quite as I expected it to
look. The houses all placed side by side, with the streets running
between are as I thought they would be, but the houses themselves are
different. They are not of logs, or of the thin iron like the warehouse
of the new trading company on the Mackenzie, and they are not made of
bricks and stones and very tall like the pictures of cities in the
books."

Brent laughed: "No, Dawson is just half way between. Since the sawmills
came the town has rapidly outgrown the log cabin stage, although there
are still plenty of them here, but it has not yet risen to the dignity
of brick and stone."

"But the houses of brick and stone will come!" cried the girl,
enthusiastically, "And take the place of the houses of wood, and we
shall be here to see the building of another great city."

Brent shook his head: "I don't know," he replied, doubtfully, "It all
depends on the gravel. I wouldn't care to do much speculating in Dawson
real estate right now. The time for that has passed. The next two or
three years will tell the story. If I were to do any predicting, I'd say
that instead of the birth of a great city, we are going to witness the
lingering death of an overgrown town." He paused and pointed to a small
cabin of logs that stood deserted, half buried in snow. "Do you see that
shack over there? That's mine. It don't look like much, now. But, I gave
five thousand in dust for it when I made my first strike."

The girl's eyes sparkled as she viewed the dejected looking building,
"And that will be our home!" she cried.

"Not by a long shot, it won't!" laughed Brent, "We'll do better than
that. I never want to see the inside of the place again! Yes, I do--just
once. I want to go there and get a book--the book that lured me to the
Coppermine--the book in which is written the name of Murdo MacFarlane.
We will always keep that book, darling. And some day we will get it
bound in leather and gold."

Before a little white-painted house that stood back from the street, the
man paused: "The Reeves' live here," he announced, and as he turned into
the neatly shovelled path that led to the door, he reached down and
pressed the girl's hand reassuringly: "Mrs. Reeves is an old, old
friend," he whispered, "She will be a sister to you."

As Brent led the way along the narrow path his eyes rested upon the
slope of snow-buried earth that pitched sharply against the base of the
walls of the house, "Hardest work I ever did," he grinned, "Hope the
floor kept warm."

As he waited the answer to his knock upon the door, he noticed casually
that Zinn sauntered past and turned abruptly into the street that led
straight to Cuter Malone's. The next instant the door was opened and
Reba Reeves stood framed in the doorway. Brent saw that in the gloom of
early evening she did not recognize him. "Is Mr. Reeves home?" he asked.

"Yes, won't you step in? answered the woman, standing aside.

"Thank you. I think we will."

Something in the man's tone caused the woman to step quickly forward and
peer sharply into his face: "Carter Brent!" she cried, and the next
instant the man's hands were in both of hers, and she was pulling him
into the room. Like a flash Brent remembered that other time she had
called his name in a tone of intense surprise, and that there had been
tears in her eyes then, even as there were tears in her eyes now, but
this time they were tears of gladness. And then, from another room came
Reeves, and a pair of firm hands were laid upon his shoulders and he was
spun around to meet the gaze of the searching grey eyes that stared into
his own. Brent laughed happily as he noted the start of surprise that
accompanied Reeves' words: "Good Lord! What a change!" A hand slipped
from his shoulder and grasped his own.

A moment later, Brent freed the hand, and as Mrs. Reeves lighted the
lamp, turned and drew Snowdrift toward him. "And now I want you to
meet--Miss Margot MacFarlane. Within a very few hours she is going to
become Mrs. Carter Brent. You see," he added turning to Reba Reeves, "I
brought her straight to you. The hotel isn't----"

The sentence was never finished, already the two women were in each
other's arms, and Reba Reeves was smiling at him over the girl's
shoulder: "Carter Brent! If you had dared to even think of taking her to
the hotel, I'd never have spoken to you again! You just let me catch you
talking about hotels--when your _folks_ are living right here! And now
take off your things because supper is most ready. You'll find warm
water in the reservoir of the stove, and I'll make an extra lot of good
hot coffee, because I know you will be tired of tea."

Never in his life had Brent enjoyed a meal as he enjoyed that supper in
the dining room of the Reeves', with Snowdrift, radiant with happiness,
beside him, and his host and hostess eagerly plying him with questions.

"I think it is the most romantic thing I ever heard of!" cried Reba
Reeves, when Snowdrift had finished telling of her life among the
Indians, and at the mission, "It's easy enough to see why Carter chose
you, but for the life of me I can't see how you came to take an old
scapegrace like him!" she teased, and the girl smiled:

"I took him because I love him," she answered, "Because he is good, and
strong, and brave, and because he can be gentle and tender and--and he
understands. And he is not a scapegrace any more," she added, gravely,
"He has told me all about how he drank hooch until he became a--a
bun----"

"A what?"

"A bun--is it not that when a man drinks too much hooch?"

"A bum," supplied Brent, laughing.

"So many new words!" smiled the girl. "But I will learn them all.
Anyway, we will fight the hooch together, and we will win."

"You bet you'll win!" cried Reeves, heartily, "And if I'm any judge, I'd
say you've won already. How about it Brent?"

Deliberately--thoughtfully, Brent nodded: "She has won," he said.

"On the word of a Brent?" Reba Reeves' eyes were looking straight into
his own as she asked the question.

"Yes," he answered, "On the word of a Brent."

A moment's silence followed the words, after which he turned to Reeves:
"And, now--let's talk business. I have used about half the dust you
loaned me. There is nothing worth while on the Coppermine--now." He
smiled, as his eyes rested upon the girl, "So I have come back to take
that job you offered me. Eleven hundred miles, we came, under the
chaperonage of Joe Pete----"

"And a very capable chaperonage it was!" laughed Reeves, "Funniest thing
I ever saw in my life--there in your cabin the morning you started. It
was then I learned to know Joe Pete. But, go on."

"That's about all there is to it. Except that I'd like to keep the rest
of the dust, and pay you back in installments--that is, if the job is
still open. I've got to borrow enough for a start, somewhere--and I
reckon you're about the only friend I've got left."

"How about that fellow, Camillo Bill? I thought he was a friend of
yours."

"I thought so too, but--when I was down and out, and wanted a
grub-stake, he turned me down. He's all right though--square as a die."

"About that job," continued Reeves, gravely, "I'm a little afraid you
wouldn't just fill the bill."

For a moment Brent felt as though he had been slapped in the face. He
had counted on the job--needed it. The next instant he was smiling:
"Maybe you're right," he said, "I reckon I am a little rusty on
hydraulics and----"

"I'd take a chance on the hydraulics," laughed Reeves, "But--before we
go any further, what would you take for your title to those two claims
that Camillo Bill has been operating?"

"Depends on who wanted to buy 'em," grinned Brent.

"What will you sell them to me for?"

"What will you give?"

"How would ten thousand for the two of them strike you?"

Brent laughed: "Don't you go speculating on any claims," he advised,
"I'd be tickled to death to get ten thousand dollars--or ten thousand
cents out of those claims--but not from you. It would be highway
robbery."

"And if I did buy them from you at ten thousand, or a hundred thousand,
you would be only a piker of a robber, as compared to me."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that if anybody offers you a million for 'em--you laugh at 'em,"
exclaimed Reeves, "Because they're worth a whole lot more than that."

Brent stared at the man as though he had taken leave of his senses. "Who
has been stringing you?" he asked, "The fact is, those claims are a
liability, and not an asset. Camillo Bill took them over to try to get
the million I owed him out of 'em--and he couldn't do it. And when
Camillo Bill can't get the dust out, it isn't there."

"How do you know he couldn't do it?"

"Because he told me so."

"He lied."

Brent flushed: "I reckon you don't know Camillo Bill," he said gravely,
"As I told you, he wouldn't grub-stake me when I needed a grub-stake,
and I don't understand that. But, I'd stake my life on it that he never
lied about those claims--never tried to beat me out of 'em when I was
down and out! Why, man, he won them in a game of stud--and he wouldn't
take them!"

"But he lied to you, just the same," insisted Reeves, and Brent saw that
the man's eyes were twinkling. "And it was because he is one of the best
friends a man ever had that he did lie to you, and that he wouldn't
grub-stake you. You said a while ago that I was about the only friend
you had left. Let me tell you a little story, and then judge for
yourself.

"About a week after you had gone, inquiries began to float around town
as to your whereabouts. I didn't pay any attention to them at first, but
the inquiries persisted. They searched Dawson, and all the country
around for you. When I learned that the inquiries emanated from such men
as Camillo Bill, and Old Bettles, and Moosehide Charlie, and a few more
of the heaviest men in the camp, I took notice, and quietly sent for
Camillo Bill and had a talk with him. It seems that after he had taken
his million out of the claims, he went to you for the purpose of turning
them back. He had not seen you for some time, and he was--well, it
didn't take him but a minute to see what would happen if he turned back
the claims and dumped a couple of million dollars worth of property into
your hands at that time. So he told you they had petered out. Then he
hunted up a bunch of the real sourdoughs who are your friends, and they
planned to kidnap you and take you away for a year--keep you under guard
in a cabin, a hundred miles from nowhere, and keep you off the liquor,
and make you work like a nigger till you found yourself again. They
laid their plot, and when they came to spring it, you had disappeared."

Brent listened, with tight-pressed lips, and as Reeves finished, he
asked:

"And you say he got out his million, and there is still something left
in the gravel?"

Reeves laughed: "I would call it something! Camillo Bill says he only
worked one of the claims--and only about half of that. Yes, I would say
there was something left."

"I reckon a man don't always know his friends," murmured Brent, after a
long silence, "I wonder where I can find Camillo Bill?"

"He's in town, somewhere. I saw him this afternoon."

Brent turned to Snowdrift, who had listened, wide-eyed to the narrative:
"You wait here, dear," he said, "And I'll hunt up a parson, and a ring,
and Camillo Bill. I need a--a best man!"

"Oh, why don't you wait a week or so and give us time to get ready so we
can have a real wedding?" cried Mrs. Reeves.

Brent shook his head: "I reckon this one will be real enough," he
grinned, "And besides, we've waited quite a while, already."

As he turned into the street from the path leading from the door he
almost bumped into a man in the darkness:

"Hello! Is that you, Ace-In-The-Hole? Yer the man I'm huntin' fer.
Friend of yourn's hurt an' wants to see you."

"Who is it, Zinn? And how did he know I was in town?"

"It's Camillo Bill. I was tellin' I see'd you comin' in--an hour or so
back, in Stoell's. Then Camillo, he goes down to the sawmill to see
about some lumber, an' a log flies off the carriage an' hits him. He's
busted up pretty bad. Guess he's goin' to cash in. They carried him to a
shack over back of the mill an' he's hollerin' fer you."

"Come on then--quick!" cried Brent. "What the hell are you standin'
there for? Have they got a doctor?"

"Yup," answered Zinn, as he hurried toward the outskirts of the town,
"He'll be there by now."

Along the dark streets, and through a darker lumber yard, hurried Zinn,
with Brent close at his heels urging him to greater speed. At length
they passed around behind the sawmill and Brent saw that a light showed
dimly in the window of a disreputable log shack that stood upon the edge
of a deep ravine. The next moment he had pushed through the door, and
found himself in the presence of four as evil looking specimens as ever
broke the commandments. One of them he recognized as "Stumpy" Cooley, a
man who, two years before had escaped the noose only by prompt action of
the Mounted, after he had been duly convicted by a meeting of outraged
miners of robbing a _cache_.

"Where's Camillo Bill?" demanded Brent, his eyes sweeping the room.

"Tuk him to the hospital jest now," informed Stumpy.

"Hospital!" cried Brent.

"Yes--built one sence you was here. But, you don't need to be in no
hurry, 'cause he's out of his head, now." The man produced a bottle and
pulling the cork, offered it to Brent: "Might's well have a little
drink, an' we'll be goin'."

"To hell with your drinks!" cried Brent, "Where is this hospital?"
Suddenly he sensed that something was wrong. And whirling saw that two
of the men had slipped between himself and the door. He turned to Stumpy
to see an evil grin upon the man's face.

"When I ask anyone to drink with me, he most generally does it," he
sneered, "Or I know the reason why."

"There's the reason!" roared Brent, and quick as a flash his right fist
smashed into the man's face, the blow knocking him clean across the
room. The next instant a man sprang onto Brent's back and another dived
for his legs, while a third struck at him with a short piece of
scantling. Brent fought like a tiger, weaving this way and that, and
stumbling about the room in a vain effort to rid himself of the two men
who clung to him like leeches. Stumpy staggered toward him, and Brent
making a frenzied effort to release one of his pinioned arms, saw him
raise the heavy quart whiskey bottle. The next instant it descended with
a full arm swing. Brent saw a blinding flash of light, a stab of pain
seemed to pierce his very brain, his knees buckled suddenly and he was
falling, down, down, down, into a bottomless pit of intense blackness.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE FIGHT AT CUTER MALONE'S


The porter at Cuter Malone's Klondike Palace was lighting the huge oil
lamps as the girl called Kitty sauntered to the bar with her dancing
partner who loudly demanded wine. Cuter Malone himself, standing behind
the bar in earnest conversation with Johnnie Claw, set out the drinks
and as the girl raised her glass, a man brushed past her. She recognized
Zinn, one of Malone's despicable lieutenants, and was quick to note that
something unusual was in the air. A swift meaning glance passed between
Claw and Malone, and as Zinn stepped around the bar to deposit his
rifle, he whispered earnestly to the two who stepped close to listen.

Unperceived, Kitty managed to edge near, and the next instant she was
all attention. For from the detached words that came to her ears, she
made out, "Ace-In-The-Hole," and "the girl," and then Malone, whose
voice carried above the others issued an order, "The shack behind the
saw mill. Git him soused. Knock him out if you have to--but don't kill
him. Once we git the girl here me an' Claw--" the rest of the sentence
was lost as it blended with an added order of Claw's. "Ace-In-The-Hole!"
thought Kitty, "What did it mean? And who is 'The girl?' Ace-In-The-Hole
is dead. And, yet--" she glanced toward Claw whose beady eyes were
glittering with excitement. "He just came back from somewhere--maybe he
knows--something."

She saw Zinn cross the room and speak in a whisper to four men who were
playing solo at a table near the huge stove. She knew those men, Stumpy
Cooley, and his three companions. The men nodded, and went on with their
game, and Zinn returned and resumed his conversation with Malone and
Claw. But the girl could hear nothing more. The "professor" was loudly
banging out the notes of the next dance upon the piano, and her partner
was pulling at her arm.

For two hours Kitty danced, and between dances she drank wine at the
bar, and always her eyes were upon the four men at the solo table, and
upon Zinn, who loafed close by, and upon Malone and Claw, who she noted,
were drinking more than usual, as they hob-nobbed behind the bar.

The evening crowd foregathered. The music became faster, the talk
louder, the laughter wilder. At the conclusion of a dance, Kitty saw
Malone speak to Zinn, who immediately slipped out the door. The four men
at the table, threw down their cards, and sauntered casually from the
room and declining the next dance, the girl dashed up the stairway to
her room where she kicked off her high heeled slippers, pulled a pair of
heavy woolen stockings over her silk ones, and hurriedly laced her
moccasins. She jammed a cap over her ears and slipping into a heavy fur
coat, stepped out into the hall and came face to face with Johnnie Claw.
"Where do you think you're goin'?" asked the man with a sneer.

"It's none of your business!" snapped the girl, "I don't have to ask you
when I want to go anywhere--and I don't have to tell you where I'm
goin', either! You haven't got any strings on me!"

"Well--fergit it, 'cause you ain't goin' nowhere's--not right now."

"Get out of my way! Damn you!" cried the girl, "If I had a gun here, I'd
blow your rotten heart out!"

"But, you ain't got none--an' I have--so it's the other way around. Only
I ain't goin' to kill you, if you do like I say.

"Listen here, I seen you easin' over and tryin' to hear what me an'
Malone, an' Zinn was talkin' about. I don't know how much you heard, but
you heard enough, so you kep' pretty clost cases on all of us. G'wan
back in yer room, 'fore I put you there! What the hell do you care
anyhow? All we want is the girl. Onct we git her up in the strong room,
you kin have Ace-In-The-Hole. An' as long as she's around you ain't
nowhere with him. Why don't you use yer head?"

"You fool!" screamed the girl, in a sudden fury, and as she tried to
spring past him, Claw's fist caught her squarely in the chin and without
a sound she crashed backward across the door sill. Swiftly the man
reached down and dragged her into the room, removed the key from the
lock on the inside, closed and locked the door, and thrusting the key
into his pocket, turned and walked down stairs.

How long she lay there, Kitty did not know. Consciousness returned
slowly. She was aware of a dull ache in her head, and after what seemed
like a long time she struggled to her knees and drew herself onto the
bed where she lay trying to think what had happened. Faintly, from below
drifted the sound of the piano. So, they were still dancing, down there?
Then, suddenly the whole train of events flashed through her brain. She
leaped to her feet and staggered groggily to the door. It was locked. In
vain she screamed and beat upon the panels. She rushed to the window but
its double sash of heavily frosted panes nailed tight for the winter was
immovable. In a sudden frenzy of rage she seized a chair and smashed the
glass. The inrush of cold air felt good to her throbbing temples, and
wrenching a leg from the chair she beat away the jagged fragments until
only the frame remained. Leaning far out, she looked down. Her room was
at the side of the building, near the rear, and she saw that a huge
snowdrift had formed where the wind eddied around the corner. Only a
moment she hesitated, then standing upright on the sill, she leaped far
out and landed squarely in the centre of the huge drift. Struggling to
her feet she wallowed to the street, and ran swiftly through the
darkness in the direction of the sawmill. And, at that very moment, Zinn
was knocking upon the door of the Reeves home.

When the door had closed behind Brent, Mrs. Reeves had insisted upon
Snowdrift's taking a much needed rest upon the lounge in the living
room, and despatching Reeves upon an errand to a neighbor's, busied
herself in the kitchen. The girl lay back among the pillows wondering
when her lover would return when the sound of the knock sent her flying
to the door. She drew back startled when, instead of Brent she was
confronted by the man they had passed on the river.

"Is they a lady here name of Snowdrift?" asked the man.

A sudden premonition of evil shot through the girl's heart. She paled to
the lips. Where was Brent? Had something happened? "Yes, yes!" she
answered quickly, "I am Snowdrift. What has happened? Why do you want
me?"

"It's him--yer man--Ace-In-The-Hole," he answered.

"Oh, what is it?" cried the girl, in a frenzy of impatience, "has he
been hurt?"

"Well--not jest hurt, you might say. He's loadin' up on hooch. Some of
us friends of hisn tried to make him go easy--but it ain't no use. I
seen you an' him comin' in on the river, an' I figgered mebbe you could
handle him. We're afraid someone'll rob him when he gits good an'
drunk."

And not more than an hour ago he had given his promise--on the word of a
Brent--a promise that Mrs. Reeves had just finished telling her would
never be broken. A low sob that ended in a moan trembled upon the girl's
lips: "Wait!" she commanded, and slipping into the room, caught up her
cap and parka, and stepping out into the darkness, closed the door
noiselessly behind her.

"Take me to him--quickly!" she said, "Surely he will listen to me."

"That's what I figgered," answered the man, and turning led the way down
the dark street.

Presently the subdued light that filtered through the frosted windows of
the Klondike Palace came into view, and as they reached the place Zinn
led the way to the rear, and pushed open a door. Snowdrift found herself
in a dimly lighted hallway. Cuter Malone stepped forward with a smile:

"Jest a minute, lady. Better put this here veil over yer face. He's up
stairs, an' we got to go in through the bar. They's a lot of folks in
there, an' they ain't no use of you bein' gopped at. With this on, they
won't notice but what it's one of the women that lives here."

Snowdrift fastened the heavy veil over her face, and taking her arm,
Malone piloted her through the bar-room and up the stairs. Through the
mesh of the veil, Snowdrift caught a confused vision of many men
standing before a long bar, of other men, and women in gay colors
dancing upon a smooth stretch of floor, and her ears rang with the loud
crashing of the piano. Bewildered, confused, she tightened her grasp
upon Malone's arm. At the head of the stairs, the man paused and opened
a door. "You kin take off the veil, now," he said, as he locked the door
behind them, "They ain't no one up here."

A sudden terror possessed the girl, and she glanced swiftly into the
man's face. "But--where is he?"

"Oh, he's on up," he assured her, "This way." He led the way across the
room known as the small dance hall, and through a passage from which
doors opened on either side, to a flight of stairs in the rear. At the
head of the stairs the girl could see a light burning. He motioned her
to proceed, and as she gained the top, a man stepped out from the shadow
and seized her arms.

One look into his face and the girl gave a wild shriek of terror.

The man was Johnnie Claw.

The next moment she found herself thrust into a room lighted only by a
single candle. It was a bare, forbidding looking room, windowless and
with a door of thick planking, secured by a hasp and padlock upon the
outside. Its single article of furniture was a bed.

"So," leered Claw, "You thought you could git away from me did you?
Thought you was playin' hell when you an' Ace-In-The-Hole hit fer
Dawson, did you? Well, you played hell, all right--but not like you
figgered. Yer mine, now." Trembling so that her limbs refused to support
her, Snowdrift sank down upon the bed.

"Oh where is he?" she moaned.

Claw laughed: "Oh, he's all right," he mocked, "He's soused to the
guards by this time, an' after I an' some friends of mine git him to
sign a deed to a couple of claims he owns, we'll feed him to the fish."

The girl tried to rise, but her muscles refused to obey the dictates of
her brain, and she sank back upon the bed.

"You'll be all right here when you git used to it. The girls all have a
lot of fun. I'm goin' below now. You stay here an' think it over. Tain't
no use to holler--this room's built a purpose to tame the likes of you
in. Some of 'em that's be'n in here has walked out, an' some of 'em has
be'n carried out--but none of 'em has ever _got_ out. An' jest so you
don't take no fool notion to burn the house down, I'll take this candle
along. I got a horror of burnin'." Again he laughed harshly, and the
next moment Snowdrift found herself in darkness, and heard the padlock
rattle in the hasp.

Kitty drew swiftly into the intense blackness between two lumber piles.
She heard the sound of voices coming toward her, and a moment later she
could distinguish the words. "Damn him! He like to busted my jaw! Gawd,
what a wallop he's got! But I fixed him, when I smashed that quart over
his head!"

"Maybe he'll bleed to death," ventured another.

"Naw, he ain't cut bad. I seen the gash over his eye. He's bloody as
hell, but he looks worse'n he is. Say, you sure you tied him tight? He's
been out damn near an hour an' he'll be comin' to, 'fore long--an'
believe me----"

The men passed out of hearing and Kitty slipped from cover and sped
toward the shack the outline of which she could see beyond the corner of
the sawmill.

She made sure that all four of the men were together, so she pushed in
without hesitation. "Hello!" she called, softly. "Ace-In-The-Hole! You
here?" No answer, and she moved further into the room and stumbled over
the prostrate form of a man. Swiftly she dropped to her knees and
assured herself that his hands and feet were tied. Deftly her fingers
explored his pockets until they found his knife, and a moment later the
thongs that bound him were severed. Her hand rested for a second upon
his forehead, and with a low cry she withdrew it, wet and sticky with
blood. Leaping to her feet, she procured a handful of snow which she
dashed into his face. Again and again she repeated the performance, and
then he moved. He muttered, feebly, and received more snow. Then she
bent close to his ear:

"Listen, Ace-In-The-Hole--it's me--Kitty!"

"Kitty," murmured the man, uncertainly. "Snowdrift!"

"Yes I lit in a snowdrift all right when I jumped out the window--but
how did you know? Come--wake up! Is there a light here?"

"Where am I?"

"In the shack back of the sawmill."

"Where's Camillo Bill?"

"Camillo Bill--he's up to Stoell's, I guess. But listen, give me a
match."

Clumsily Brent fumbled in his pocket and produced a match. Kitty seized
it, and in the flare of its flame saw a candle upon the table. She held
the flame to the wick, and in the flickering light Brent sat up, and
glanced about him. The air was heavy with the reek of the whiskey from
the broken bottle. His head hurt, and he raised his hand and withdrew it
red with blood. Then, he leaped unsteadily to his feet: "Damn 'em!" he
roared, "It was a plant! What's their game?"

"I know what it is!" cried Kitty, "Quick--tell me--have you got a
girl--here in Dawson?"

"Yes, yes--at Reeves--her name is Snowdrift, and she----"

"Come then--we ain't got any time to lose! It's Cuter Malone and that
damned Johnnie Claw----"

"Johnnie Claw!" cried Brent. "Claw is a thousand miles from here--on the
Coppermine!"

"He's right this minute in the Klondike Palace--and your girl will be
there too, if you don't shake your legs! They framed this play to get
her--and I heard 'em--partly. If I'd known where she was, I'd have gone
there first--but I didn't know."

Already Brent was staggering from the room, and Kitty ran close beside
him. The cold air revived the man and he ran steadily when he reached
the street. "Tell me--" panted Kitty, at his side. "This girl--is--she
straight?"

"I'm going to marry her tonight!" cried the man.

"Then hurry--for Christ's sake!" sobbed Kitty, "Oh, hurry! Hurry!"

At a certain street corner Kitty halted suddenly, and Brent ran on. He
rushed into Reeves' house like a whirlwind. "Where's Snowdrift?" he
cried, as the Reeves' stared wide-eyed at the blood-soaked apparition.

"What has happened----?"

"Where is she?" yelled Brent, his eyes glaring like a mad man's.

"I--we don't know. I was in the kitchen, and--" but Brent had dashed
from the room, and when Reeves found his hat, the madman had disappeared
in the darkness.

Quite a group of old timers had foregathered at Stoell's, Moosehide
Charlie drifted in, and seeing Camillo Bill, Swiftwater Bill, and Old
Bettles standing at the bar, he joined them.

"What do you say we start a regular old he-man's game of stud?" he
asked. "We ain't had no real game fer quite a while."

Camillo Bill shook his head slowly: "No--not fer me. I'll play a
reasonable game--but do you know since Ace-In-The-Hole went plumb to
hell the way he done over the game--I kind of took a dislikin' to it."

"It was the hooch, more'n the stud," argued Bettles.

"Mebbe it was--but, damn it! It was 'em both. There was one hombre I
liked."

"Wonder if he'll come back?" mused Swiftwater Bill.

"Sure as hell!" affirmed Camillo.

"Will he have sense enough to lay off the hooch?"

"I don't know, but I got twenty thousan' dollars says he will."

Camillo Bill looked defiantly around.

"Take it!" cried Swiftwater Bill, "An' I hope to hell I lose!"

The door burst open and Kitty, gasping for breath hurtled into the room:
"Camillo Bill!" she screamed. "Quick! All of you! Hey you sourdoughs!"
her voice rose to a shriek, and men crowded from the tables in the rear,
"Come on! Ace-In-The-Hole needs us! He's back! An' he's brought a girl!
They're goin' to be married. But--Claw and Cuter Malone, framed it to
steal her! He's gone down there now!" she panted. "Come on! They hired a
gang to get Ace-In-The-Hole, and they damn near did!"

With a yell Camillo Bill reached clear over the bar and grabbed one of
Stoell's guns, and an instant later followed by a crowd of lesser lights
the big men of the Yukon rushed down the street, led by Kitty, and
Camillo Bill, and Stoell, himself, who another gun in hand, had vaulted
the bar without waiting to put on his coat or his cap.

"They'll take her up stairs--way up--" gasped Kitty as she ran,
"And--for God's sake--hurry!"

Bareheaded, his face covered with blood, a human cyclone burst through
the door of the Klondike Palace. Straight for the bar he rushed, bowling
men over like ten pins. Cuter Malone flashed one startled glance and
reached for his gun, but before he could grasp it the shape hurdled the
bar and the two went to the floor in a crash of glass. Brent's hand
first found the gun, and gripping it by the barrel he brought it
crashing down on Cuter's head. Leaping to his feet he fired, and the
bartender, bung-starter in hand, sprawled on top of his employer.

Across the room came a rush of men--Stumpy Cooley, Zinn, and others.
Again Brent fired, and Zinn crumpled slowly to the floor. Stumpy whirled
a chair above his head and Brent dodged as the missile crashed into the
mirror above the back bar. The bar-room was a pandemonium of noise. Men
crowded in from the dance hall bent upon overpowering the madman who had
interrupted their frolic. Screaming women rushed for the stairs.

Brent was lifted from his feet and rushed bodily half way across the
room, the very numbers of his assailants protecting him from a hundred
blows. Weaving--milling, the crowd surged this way and that, striking at
Brent, and hitting each other. They surged against the stove, and it
crashed upon its side, filling the room with smoke from the toppling
pipe, and covering the floor with blazing chunks of wood and live coals.

Suddenly through the doors swept a whirlwind of human shapes! The
surging crowd went down before the onrush, and Brent struggled madly to
free himself from the thrashing arms and legs. Revolvers barked, chairs
crashed against heads and against other chairs. Roulette and faro
layouts were splintered, and poker tables were smashed like kindling
wood, men seizing upon the legs for weapons. And above all rose the
sound of crashing glass and the shrill shrieks of women. The room filled
with choking smoke. Flames ate into the floor and shot up the wooden
walls.

The door at the head of the stairs opened suddenly and Brent caught
sight of the white face of Claw. He was afraid to shoot, for the
frenzied girls, instead of seeking safety in the street, had crowded
upon the stairs and were pouring through the door which Claw was vainly
trying to close. The smoke sucked upward, and the flames crackled more
loudly, fanned by the new formed draught. Struggling through the
fighting, surging men, Brent gained the foot of the stairs. He saw Claw
raise his gun, and the next instant a figure flashed between. The gun
roared, and the figure crumpled to the floor. It was Kitty. With an
oath, Brent sprang up the stairway, as the flames roared behind him.

He turned for an instant and as his eyes swept the room he saw Camillo
Bill stoop and gather Kitty into his arms, and stagger toward the front
door. Other men were helping the wounded from the room. Someone yelled
at Brent to come down and save himself. He glanced toward the speaker.
It was Bettles, and even as he looked the man was forced to retreat
before the flames and was lost to view. At the head of the stairs Brent
slammed the door shut. The little dance hall was full of girls huddled
together shrieking. Other girls were stumbling from their rooms, with
their belongings in their arms. From the narrow hallway that led to the
rear rushed Claw. The man seemed beside himself with terror. His eyes
were wide and staring and he made for a window, cursing shrilly as he
forced his way through the close-packed crowd of girls, striking them,
knocking them down and trampling on them. He did not see Brent and
seizing a chair drove it through the window. The floor was hot, and the
air thick with smoke. Claw was about to leap to safety when like a
panther Brent sprang upon him, and bore him to the floor. He reached out
swiftly and his fingers buried themselves in the man's throat as they
had buried themselves in the Captain's. He glared into the terror-wide
eyes of the worst man in the North, and laughed aloud. An unnatural,
maniacal laugh, it was, that chilled the hearts of the cowering girls.
"Kill him!" shrilled one hysterically. "Kill him!" "Kill him!" Others
took up the cry, Brent threw Claw onto his belly, placed his knees upon
the small of his back, locked the fingers of both hands beneath the
man's chin and pulled slowly and steadily upward. Backward came Claw's
head as he tore frantically at Brent's arms with his two hands.
Upward--and backward came the man's head and shoulders, and Brent
shortened his leverage by suddenly slipping his forearms instead of his
fingers beneath Claw's chin. Strangling sounds came gurgling from his
throat. Brent leaned backward, adding the weight of his body to the pull
of his arms. Claw's back was bent sharply upward just in front of the
knees that held him to the floor, and summoning all his strength Brent
surged backward, straining every muscle of his body until it seemed he
could not pull another pound.

Suddenly there was a dull audible snap--and Claw folded backward.

Brent released his grip and leaping to his feet rushed back through the
hallway, and up the stairs. A door of thick planking stopped him and
upon a hasp he saw a heavy padlock. Jerking the gun from his belt, he
placed the muzzle against the lock and pulled the trigger. There was a
deafening explosion and the padlock flew open and swung upon its staple.

Dashing into the room, Brent snatched Snowdrift into his arms, and
rushed down the stairs. Pausing at the window Claw had smashed, he stood
the girl upon her feet, and knocking the remaining glass from the sash
with the butt of the gun, he grabbed one of the screaming girls and
pitched her into the big snowdrift that ranged along the whole length of
the burning building.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was light as day, now, the flames were leaping high above the roof at
the front, and already tongues of red were showing around the doorway at
the head of the stairs. A great crowd had collected, and at the sight of
the girl's form hurtling through the air, they surged to the spot.
Spurts of smoke and tiny jet-like flames were finding their way through
the cracks of the floor. Brent realized there was no time to lose, and
seizing another girl, he pitched her out. Then he took them as they
came--big ones and little ones, fully dressed and half dressed,
screaming, fighting, struggling to get away--or to be taken next, he
pitched them out until only Snowdrift remained.

Lifting her to the window, he told her to jump, and watched to see her
light safely in the snow.

Smoke was pouring through the fast widening cracks in the floor. Brent
leaped to the window sill. As he stood poised, a section of the floor
between himself and Claw dropped through, and a rush of flames shot
upward. Suddenly he saw Claw's arms thrash wildly: "My Gawd!" the man
shrieked, "My back's broke! I'm burnin' up!" The whole floor let go and
a furnace of overpowering flame rushed upward as he jumped--almost into
the waiting arms of Camillo Bill.

"It's Ace-In-The-Hole, all right!" yelled the big man, as he grasped
Brent's shoulders, and rocked him back and forth, "An' by God! _He's as
good a man as he ever was!_"

"Where's Kitty?" asked Brent, when he could get his breath. "I saw her
go down. She stopped Claw's bullet that was meant for me! And I saw you
carry her out!"

"Kitty's all right," whispered Camillo Bill in his ear, and Brent
glanced quickly into the man's shining eyes. "Jest nicked in the
shoulder--an' say--I've always wanted her--but she wouldn't have
me--but--now you're out of the way--I told her all over again how I
stood--an' _damned if she didn't take me_!"


THE END



       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

Normalized punctuation,

Maintained dialect in it's original spelling and format.

Silently corrected a few obvious typesetting errors.





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