The Trail of '98'
(Registered in accordance with the Copyright Act by Robert W. Service. Canadian serial rights owned by The MacLean Publishing Company.)
Robert W. Service
ON either side of us were swift hills mottled with green and gold, ahead a curdle of snowcapped mountains, above a sky of robin’s-egg blue. The morning was lyric and set our hearts piping as we climbed the canyon. We breathed deeply of the heady air, exclaimed at sight of a big bee ranch, shouted as a mule team with jingling bells came swinging down the trail. With cries of delight we forded the little crystal stream wherever the trail plunged knee-deep through it. Higher and higher we climbed, mile after mile, our packs on our shoulders, our hearts very merry. I was as happy as a holiday schoolboy, willing this should go on forever, dreading to think of the grim-visaged toil that awaited us.
About mid-day we reached the end. Gangs of men were everywhere, ripping and tearing at the mountain-side. There was a roar of blasting, and rocks hurtled down on us. Bunkhouses of raw lumber sweated in the sun. Everywhere wTas the feverish activity of a construction camp.
We were assigned to a particular bunkhouse, and there was a great rush for places. It was floorless, doorless and in part roofless. Above the medley of voices I heard that of the Prodigal :
“Say, fellows, let’s find the softest side of this board ! Strikes me the company’s mighty considerate. All
kinds of ventilation. Good chance to study astronomy. Wonder if I couldn’t borrow a mattress somewhere? Ha! Good eye ! Watch me, fellows !”
We saw him make for a tent nearby where horses were stabled. He reconnoitred carefully, then darted inside to come out in a twinkling, staggering under a bale of hay.
“How’s that for rustling? I guess I’m slow—hev, what? Guess this is poor !”
He was wadding 'his bunk thickly with the hay, while the others looked on rather enviously. -/Then, as a bell rang, he left off.
“Hash is ready, boys ; last call to the dining-car. Come on and see the pigs get their heads in the trough.” We hurried to the cookhouse, where a tin plate, a tin cup, a tin spoon and a cast-iron knife were laid for each of us at a table of unplaned boards. A great mess of hash was ready, and excepting myself everyone ate voraciB
ously. I found something more to my taste, a can of honey and some soda crackers, on which I supped gratefully.
When I returned to the bunkhouse I found my bunk had been stuffed with nice soft hay, and my blankets spread on top. I looked over to the Prodigal. He was reading, a limp cigarette between his yellow-stained fingers. I went up to him.
“It’s very good of you to do this,”
“Oh, no! Not at all. Don’t mention it,” he answered with much politeness, never raising his eyes from the book.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve just got to thank you. And look here, let’s make it up. Don't let the business of that wretched money come between us. Can’t we be friends, anyway?”
He sprang up and gripped my hand.
“Sure! Nothing I want more. I’m sorry. Another time I'll make allowance for that shorter-catechism conscience of yours. Now let’s go over to that big fire they’ve made and chew the rag.”
So we sat by the crackling blaze of mesquite, sagebrush and live-oak limbs, while over us twinkled the friendly stars, and he told me many a strange story of his roving life.
“You know, the old man's all broke up to me, playing the damphool like this. He’s got a glue factory back in Massachusetts. Guess he stacks up about a million or so. Wanted me to go into the glue factory, begin at the bottom, stay with it, ‘Stick to glue, my boy,’ he says, ‘become the Glue King,’ and so on. But not with little Willie. Life’s too interesting a proposition to be turned down like that. I’m not repentant. I know the fatted calf’s waiting for me, getting fatter every day. One of these days I'll go back and sample it.”
It was he I first heard talk of the Great White Land, and it stirred me strangely.
“Every one’s crazy about it. They’re rushing in now in thousands, to get there before the winter begins. Next
spring there will be the biggest stampede the world has ever seen. Say, Scotty, I’ve the greatest notion to try it. Let’s go, you and I. I had a partner once, who’d been up there. It's a big, dark, grim land, but there’s the gold shining, shining, and it’s calling us to go. Somehow it haunts me, that soft, gleaming virgin gold there in the solitary rivers with not a soul to pick it up. I don't care one rip for the value of it. I can make all I want out of glue. But the adventure, the excitement, it’s that tha( makes me fit for the foolish house."
He was silent a long time while my imagination conjured up terrible, fascinating pictures of the vast, unawakened land, and a longing came over me to dare its shadows.
As we said good-night, his last words were:
“Remember, Scotty, we’re both going to join the Big Stampede, you and I.”
I slept but fitfully, for the night air was nipping, and the bunkhouse nigh as open as a cage. A bonny morning it was, and the sun warmed me nicely, so that over breakfast I was in a cheerful humor. Afterwards I watched the gang laboring, and showed such an injudicious interest that that afternoon I, too, was put to work.
It was very simple. Running into the mountain there was a tunnel, which they were lining with concrete, and it was the task of I and another to push cars of the stuff from the outlet to the scene of operations. My partner was a Swede who had toiled from boyhood, while I had never done a day’s work in my life. It was as much as I could do to lift the loaded boxes into the car. Then we left the sunshine behind us, and for a quarter of a mile of darkness we strained in an uphill effort.
From the roof, which we stooped to avoid, sheets of water descended. Every now and then the heavy cars
would run off the rails, which were of scantling, worn and frayed by friction. Then my Swede would storm in Berserker rage and we would lift till the veins throbbed in my head. Never had time seemed so long. A convict working in the salt mines of Siberia did not revolt more against his task than I. The sweat blinded me; a bright steel pain throbbed in my head ; my heart seemed to hammer. Never so thankful was I as when we had made our last trip, and sick and dizzy I put on my coat to go home.
It was dark. There was a cable line running from the tunnel to the camp, and down this 'we shot in buckets two at a clip. The descent gave me a creepy sensation, but it saved a ten minutes’ climb down the mountain side, and I was grateful.
Tired, wet and dirty, how I envied the Prodigal lying warm and cosy on his fragrant hay. He was reading a novel. But the thought that I had earned a dollar comforted me. After supper he, with Ginger and Dutchy, played solo till near midnight, while I tossed on my bunk too weary and sore to sleep.
Next day was a repetition of the first, only worse, I ached as if I had been beaten. Stiff and sore I dragged myself to the tunnel again. I lifted, strained, tugged and shoved with a set and tragic face. Five hours of hell passed. It was noon. I nursed my strength for the after effort. Angrily I talked to myself, and once mo.e I pulled through. Weary and slimy with wet mud, I shot down the cable line. Snugly settled in his bunk, the Prodigal had read another two hundred pages of “Les Miserables.” Yet—I reflected somewhat sadly—I had made two dollars.
On the third day sheer obstinacy forced me to the tunnel. My self-respect goaded me on. I would not give in. I must hold this iob down, I must, I MUST. Then at the noon hour I fainted.
No one saw me, so I gritted my teeth and once more threw my weight
against the cars. Once more night found me waiting to descend in the bucket. Then as I stood there was a crash and shouts from below. The cable had snapped. My Swede and another lay among the rocks with sorely broken bones. Poor beggars ! how they must have suffered jolting down that boulder-strewn trail to the hospital.
Somehow that destroyed my nerve.
I blamed myself indeed. I flogged myself with reproaches, but it was of no avail. I would sooner beg my bread than face that tunnel once again. The world seemed to be divided into two parts, the rest of it and that tunnel. Thank God, I didn’t have to go into it again. I was exultantly happy that I didn’t. The Prodigal had finished his book, and was starting another. That night he borrowed some of my money to play solo with.
Next day I saw the foreman. I said: “I want to go. The work up there’s too hard for me.”
He looked at me kindly.
“All right, sonny,” says he. “don’t quit. I’ll put you in the gravel pit.” So next dav I found a more congenial task. There were four of us. We threw the gravel against a screen where the finer stuff that sifted through was used in making concrete.
The work was heartbreaking in its monotony. In the biting cold of the morning we made a start long before the sun peeped above the wall of mountain. We watched it crawl, snaillike, over the virgin sky. We panted in its heat. We saw it drop again behind the mountain wall, leaving the sky gorgeously barred with color from a tawny orange glow to an ice-pale green—a regular pousse cafe of a sunset. Then when the cold and the dark surged back, by the light of the evening star we straightened our weary spines, and throwing aside pick and shovel hurried to supper.
Heigh-ho! what a life it was. Resting, eating, sleeping, negative pleasures became positive ones. Lite’s great principle of compensation work-
ed on our be'half, and to lie at ease, reading an old paper, seemed an exquisite enjoyment.
I was much troubled about the Prodigal. He complained of muscular rheumatism, and except to crawl to meals was unable to leave his bunk. Every day came the foreman to inquire anxiously if he was fit to go to work, but steadily he grew worse. Yet he bore his suffering with great spirit, and, among that nondescript crew, he was a thing of joy and brightness, a link with that other world which was mine own. They nicknamed him “Happy,” his cheerfulness was so invincible. He played cards on every chance, and he must have been unlucky, for he borrowed the last of my small hoard.
One morning I woke about six, and found, pinned to my blanket, a note from my friend.
“I grieve to leave you thus, but the cruel foreman insists on me working off my ten days’ board. Racked with pain as I am, there appears to be no alternative but flight. Accordingly I fade away once more into the unknown. Will write you general delivery, Los Angeles. Good luck and good-bye. Yours to a cinder.
There was a hue and cry after him, but he was gone, and a sudden disgust for the place came over me. For two more days I worked, crushed by a gloom that momentarily intensified. Clamant and imperative in me was the voice of change. I could not become toil-broken, so I saw the foreman.
“Why do you want to go?” he asked reproachfully.
“Well, sir, the work’s too monotonous.”
“Monotonous! Well, that’s the rummest reason I ever heard a man give for quitting. But every man knows his own business best. I’ll give you a time-cheque.”
While he was making it out I wondered if, indeed, I did know my own business best ; but if it had been the greatest folly in the world, I was bound to get out of that canyon.
Treasuring the slip of paper representing my labor, I sought one of the bosses, a sour, stiff man of dyspeptic tendencies. With a smile of malicious sweetness he returned it to me.
“All right, take it to our Oakland office, and you’ll get the cash.”
Expectantly I had been standing there, thinking to receive my money, the first I had ever earned (and to me so distressfully earned, at that.) Now I gazed at him very sick at heart : for was not Oakland several hundred miles away, and I was penniless.
“Couldn't you cash it here?” I faltered at last.
“No!” (very sourly.)
“Couldn’t you discount it then?” “No!” (still more tartly.)
I turned away, crestfallen and smarting. 'When I told the other boys they were indignant, and a good deal alarmed on their own accounts. I made my case against the Company as damning as I could, then, slinging my blanket on my back, set off once more down the canyon.
I was gaining in experience, and as I hurried down the canyon and the morning burgeoned like a rose, my spirits mounted invincibly. It was the joy of the open road and the carefree heart. Like some hideous nightmare was the memory of the tunnel and the gravel pit. The bright blood in me rejoiced; my muscles tensed with pride in their toughness ; I gazed insolently at the world.
So, as I made speed to get the sooner to the orange groves, I almost set heel on a large blue envelope which lay face up on the trail. I examined it and, finding it contained plans and specifications of the work we had been at, I put it in my pocket.
Presently came a rider, who reined up by me.
“Say, young man, you haven’t seen a blue envelope, have you”
Something in the man’s manner aroused in me instant resentment. I was the toiler in mud-stiffened overalls, he arrogant and supercilious in broadcloth and linen.
“No,” I said sourly, and, going on my way, heard him clattering up the canyon.
It was about evening when I came onto a fine large plain. Behind me was the canyon, gloomy like the lair of some evil beast, while before me the sun was setting, and made the valley like a sea of golden glaze. I stood, knight-errantwise, on the verge of one of those enchanted lands of precious memory, seeking the princess of my dreams; but all I saw was a man coming up the trail. He was reeling homeward, with under one arm a live turkey, and swinging from the other a demijohn of claret.
He would have me drink. He represented the Christmas spirit, and his accent was Scotch, so I uptilted his demijohn gladly enough. Then, for he was very merry, he would have it that we sing, “Auld Lang Syne.” So there, on the heath, in the golden dance of the light, we linked our hands and lifted our voices like two daft folk. Yet, for that it was Christmas Eve, it seemed not to be so mad after all.
There was my first orange grove. I ran to it eagerly, and pulled four of the largest fruit I could see. They were green-like of rind and bitter sour, but I heeded not, eating the last before I was satisfied. Then I went on my way.
As I entered the town my spirits fell. I remembered I was quite without money and had not yet learned to be gracefully penniless. However, I bethought me of the time-cheque, and entering a saloon asked the proprietor if he would cash it. He was a German of jovial face that seemed to say:— “Welcome, my friend,” and cold,
beady eyes that queried: “How much can I get of your wad?” It was his eyes I noticed.
“No, I dond touch dot. I haf before been schvindled. Py Gott, no ! You take him avay.”
I sank into a chair. Catching a glimpse of my face in a bar mirror,
I wondered if that hollow-cheeked weary-looking lad was I. The place was crowded with revellers of the Christmastide, and geese were being diced for. There were three that pattered over the floor, while in the corner the stage-driver and a red-haired man were playing freeze-out for one of them.
I drowsed quietly. Wafts of barfront conversation came to me. “Envelope . . . lost plans . . . great delay.” Suddenly I sat up, remembering the package I had found.
“Were you looking for some lost plans?” I asked.
“Yes,” said one man eagerly, “did you find them?”
“I didn’t say I did, but if I could get them for you, would you cash this time-cheque for me?”
“Sure,” he says, “one good turn deserves another. Deliver the goods and I’ll cash your time-cheque.”
His face wras frank and jovial. I drew out the envelope and handed it over. He hurriedly ran through the contents and saw that all were there.
“Ha! This saves a trip to Frisco,” he said, gay with relief.
He turned to the bar and ordered a round of drinks. They all had a drink on him, while he seemed to forget about me. I waited a little, then pressed forward with my time-cheque. “Oh, that,” said he, “I won’t cash that. I was only joshing.”
A feeling of bitter anger welled up within me. I trembled like a leaf.
“You won’t go back on your wmrd ' I said.
He became flustered.
“Well, I can’t do it anyway. I’ve got no loose cash.”
What I would have said or done I know not, for I was nigh desperate; but at this moment the stage-driver,
flushed with his victory at freeze-out, snatched the paper from my hand.
“Here, I’ll discount that for you. I’ll only give you five dollars for it, though.”
It called for fourteen, but by this time I was so discouraged I gladly accepted the five-dollar gold-piece he 'held out to tempt me.
Thus were my fortunes restored. It was near midnight and I asked the German for a room. He replied that he was full up, but as I had my blankets there was a nice dry shed at the back I could use. Alas ! it was also used by his chickens. They roosted just over my head, and I lay on the filthy floor at the mercy of innumerable fleas. To complete my misery the green oranges I had eaten gave me agonizing cramps. Glad, indeed, was I when day dawned, and once more I got afoot, with my face turned toward Los Angeles.
Los Angeles will always be written in golden letters in the archives of my memory. Crawling, sore and sullen, from the clutch of toil, I revelled in a lotus life of ease and idleness. There was infinite sunshine, and the quiet of a public library through whose open windows came the fragrance of magnolias. Living was incredibly cheap. For seventy-five cents a week I had a little sunlit attic, and for ten cents I could dine abundantly. There was soup, fish, meat, vegetables, salad, pudding and a bottle of wine. So reading, dreaming and roaming the streets, I spent my days in a state of beatitude.
But even five dollars will not last for ever, and the time came when once more the grim face of toil confronted me. I must own that I had now little stomach for hard labor, yet I made several efforts to obtain it. However, I had a bad manner, being both proud and shy, and one rebuff in a day always was enough. I lacked that self-confidence that readily finds
employment, and again I found myself mixing with the spineless resL duum of the employment bureau.
At last the morning came when twenty-five cents was all that remained to me in the world. I had just been seeking a position as a dish-washer, and had been rather sourly rejected. Sitting solitary on the bench in that dreary place, I soliloquized :
“And so it has come to this, that I, Athol Meldrum, of gentle birth and Highland breeding, must sue in vain to understudy a scullion in a third-rate hash joint. I am, indeed, fallen. What mad folly is this that sets me lower than a menial? Here I might be snug in the Northwest raising my own fat sheep. A letter home would bring me instant help. Yet what would it mean? To own defeat; to lose my self-esteem ; to call myself a failure. No, I won’t. Come what may, I will play the game.”
At that moment the clerk wrote :—
“Man wanted to carry banner.”
“How much do you want for that job?” I asked.
“Oh, two bits will hold you,” he said carelessly.
“Any experience required?” I asked again.
“No, I guess even you’ll do for that,” he answered cuttingly.
So I parted with my last quarter and was sent to a Sheeny store in Broadway. Here I was given a vociferous banner announcing:
“Great retiring sale,” and so forth.
With this hoisted I sallied forth at first very conscious and not a little ashamed. Yet by and by this feeling wore off, and I wandered up and down with no sense of my employment, which, after all, was one adapted to philosophic thought. I might have gone through the day in this blissful coma of indifference had not a casual glance at my banner thrilled me with horror. There it was in hideous, naked letters of red.
“Retir ein g sale.”
I reeled under the shock. I did not mind packing a banner, but a misspelt one—
I hurried back to the store, resolved to throw up my position. Luckily the day was well advanced, and as I had served my purpose I was given a silver dollar.
On this dollar I lived for a month. Not every one has done that, yet it is easy to do. This is how I managed:
In the first place I told the old lady who rented me my room that I could not pay her until I got work, and I gave her my blankets as security. There remained only the problem of food. This I solved by buying every day or so five cents’ worth of stale bread, which I ate in my room, washing it down with pure spring water. A little imagination and lo ! my bread was beef, my water wine. Thus breakfast and dinner. For supper there was the Pacific Gospel Hall, where we gathered nightly one hundred strong, bawled hymns, listened to sundry good people and presently were given mugs of coffee and chunks of bread. How good the fragrant coffee tasted and how sweet the fresh bread!
At the end of the third week I got work as an orange-picker. It was a matter of swinging long ladders into fruit-flaunting trees, of sunshiny days and fluttering leaves, of golden branches plundered, and boxes filled from sagging sacks. There is no more ideal occupation. I revelled in it. The others were Mexicans ; I was “El Gringo.” But on an average I only made fifty cents a day. On one day, when the fruit was unusually large, I made seventy cents.
Possibly I would have gone on, contentedly enough, perched on a ladder, high up in the sunlit sway of treetops, had not the work come to an end. I had been something of a financier on a picayune scale, and when I counted my savings and found that I had four hundred and ninetyfive cents, such a feeling of affluence came over me that I resolved to gratify my taste for travel. Accordingly I purchased a ticket for San Diego, and once more found myself Southward bound.
A few days in San Diego reduced my small capital to the vanishing point, yet it was with a light heart I turned North again and took the AllTie route for Los Angeles. If one of the alluring conditions of a walking tour is not to be overburdened with cash surely I fulfilled it, for I was absolutely penniless. The Lord looks after his children, said I, and when I became too inexorably hungry I asked for bread, emphasizing my willingness to do a stunt on the woodpile. Perhaps it was because I was young and notably a novice in vagrancy, but people were very good to me.
The railway track skirts the ocean side for many a sonorous league. The mile-long waves roll in majestically, as straight as if drawn with a ruler, and crash in thunder on the sandy beach. There were glorious sunsets and weird storms, with underhanded lightning stabs at the sky. I built little huts of discarded railway ties, and lit camp-fires, for I was fearful of the crawling things I saw by day. The coyote called from the hills. Uneasy rustlings came from the sagebrush. My teeth a-chatter with cold kept me awake, till I cinched a handkerchief around my chin. Yet, drenched with night-dews, half-starved and travel-worn, I seemed to grow every day stronger and more fit. Between bondage and vagabondage I did not hesitate to choose.
Leaving the sea, I came to a country of grass and she-oaks very pretty to see, like an English park. I passed horrible tule swamps, and reached a cattle land with corrals and solitary cowboys. There was a quaint old Spanish Mission that lingers in my memory, then once again I came into the land of the orange-groves and the irrigating ditch. Here I fell in with two of the hobo fraternity, and we walked many mile together. One night we slept in a refrigerator-car. where I felt as if icicles were forming on my spine. But walking: was not much in
their line, so next morning they jumped a train and we separated. I was very thankful, as they did not look over-clean, and I had a wholesome horror of “seam-squirrels.”
On arriving in Los Angeles I went to the post office. There was a letter from the Prodigal dated New York, and inclosing fourteen dollars, the amount he owed me. He said :
“I returned to the paternal roof, weary of my role. The fatted calf awaited me. Nevertheless, I am sick again for the unhallowed swine-husks. Meet me in Frisco about the end of February, and I will a glorious proposition unfold. Don’t fail. I must have a partner and I want you. Look for a letter in the general delivery."
There was no time to lose, as February was nearly over. I took a steerage passage to San Francisco, resolving that I would mend my fortunes. It is so easy to drift. I was already in the social slough, a hobo and an outcast. I saw that as long as I remained friendless and unknown nothing but degraded toil was open to me. Surely I could climb up, but was it worth while? A snug farm in the Northwest awaited me. I would work my way back there, and arrive decently clad. Then none would know of my humiliation. I bad been wayward and foolish, but I had learned something.
The men who toiled, endured and suffered were kind and helpful, their masters mean and rapacious. Everywhere was the same sordid grasping for the dollar. With my ideals and training nothing but discouragement and defeat would be my portion. Oh, it is so easy to drift!
I was sick of the whole business.
What with steamer fare and a few small debts to settle, I found when I landed in San Francisco that once more I was flatly broke. I was arrestively seedy, literally on my uppers, for owing to my long tramp my boots
were barely holding together. There was no letter for me, and perhaps it was on account of my disappointment, perhaps on account of my extreme shabbiness, but I found I had quite lost heart. Looking as I did, I would not ask any one for work. So I tightened my belt and sat in Portsmouth Square, cursing myself for ttie many nickels I had squandered in riotous living.
Two days later I was still drawing in my belt. All I had1 eaten was one meal, which I had earned by peeling half a sack of potatoes for a restaurant. I slept beneath the floor of an empty house out the Presidio way.
On this day I was drowsing on my bench when some one addressed me.
“Say, young fellow, you look pretty well used up.”
I saw an elderly grey-haired man.
“Oh, no!” I said, “Pm not. That’s just my acting. Pm a millionaire in disguise, studying sociology.”
He came and sat by me.
“Come, buck up, kid, you're pretty near down and out. I’ve been studyin’ you them two days.”
“Two days,” I echoed drearily. “It seems like two years.” Then, with sudden fierceness :
“Sir, I am a stranger to you. Never in my life before have I tried to borrow money. It is asking a great deal of you to trust me, but it will be a most Christian act. I am starving. If you have ten cents that isn’t working lend it to me for the love of God. I’ll pay you back if it takes me ten years.”
“All right, son,” he said cheerfully; “let’s go and feed.”
He took me to a restaurant where he ordered a dinner that made my head swim. I felt near to fainting, but after I had had some brandy, I was able to go on with the business of eating. By the time I got to the coffee I was as much excited by the food as if I had been drinking wine. I now took an opportunity to regard my benefactor.
He was rather under medium height, but so square and solid you
felt he was a man to be reckoned with. His skin was as brown as an Indian’s, but his eyes were light-blue and brightly cheerful, as from some inner light. His mouth was firm and his chin square and resolute. Altogether his face was a curious blend of benevolence and ruthless determination.
Now he was regarding me in a manner entirely benevolent.
“Feel better, son? Well, go ahead and tell me as much of your story as you want to.”
I gave an account of all that had happened to me since I had set foot on the new land.
“Huh!” he ejaculated when I had finished. “That’s the worst of your old-country boys. You haven’t got the get-up and nerve to rustle a job. You go to a boss and tell him you've no experience, but you’ll do your best. An American boy says : “I can do anything. Give me the job and I'll just show you.’ Who’s goin’ to be hired? Well, I think I can get you a job helpin’ a gardener out Alameda way.”
I expressed my gratitude.
“That’s all right,” he said; “I’m glad by the grace of God I've been the means of givin’ you a hand-up. Better come to my room and stop with me till somethin’ turns up I’m goin’ North in three days.”
I asked if he was going to the Yukon.
“Yes, I’m goin’ to join this crazy rush to the Klondike. I’ve been minin’ for twenty years, Arizona, Colorado, all over, and now I am a-goin’ to see if the North hasn’t got a stake for me.”
Up in his room he told me of his life.
“I’m saved by the grace of God, but I’ve been a Bad Man. I’ve been everything from a city marshall to boss gambler. I have gone heeled for two years, thinking to get my pass to hell at any moment.”
“Ever killed any one?” I queried.
He was beginning to pace up and down the room.
“Glory to God, I haven’t, but I’ve shot. . . . There was a time when I could draw a gun and drive a nail in the wall. I was quick, but there was lots that could give me cards and spades. Quiet men, too, you would never think it of ’em. The quiet ones was the worst. Meek, friendly, decent men, to see them drinkin’ at a bar, but they didn’t know Fear, and every one of ’em had a dozen notches on his gun. I know lots of them, chummed with them, and princes they were, the finest in the land, would give the shirts off their backs for a friend. You’d like them—but, Lord be praised, I’m a saved man.”
I was deeply interested.
“I know I’m talking in a way I shouldn’t. It's all over now, and I’ve seen the evil of my ways, but I’ve got to talk once in a while. I’m Jim Hubbard, known as ‘Salvation Jim,’ and I know minin’ from Genesis to Revelation. Once I used to gamble and drink the limit. One morning I got up from the card-table after sitting there thirty-six hours. I’d lost five thousand dollars. I knew they’d handed me out ‘cold turkey,’ but I took my medicine.
“Right then I said I’d learn to be a crook too. I learned to play with marked cards. I could tell every card in the deck. I ran a stud-poker game, with a Jap and a Chinaman for partners. They were quicker to learn than white men, and less likely to lose their nerve. It was easy money, like taking candy from a kid. Often I would play on the square. No man can bluff strong without showing it. Maybe it’s just a quiver of the eyelash, maybe a shuffle of the foot. I’ve studied a man for a month till I found the sign that gave him away. Then I’ve raised and raised him till the sweat pricked through his brow. He was my meat. I went after the men that robbed me, and I went one better. Here, shuffle this deck.”
He produced a pack of cards from a drawer.
“I’ll never go back to the old trade. I’m saved. I trust in God, but just for diversion I keep my hand in.”
Talking to me, he shuffled the pack a few times.
“Here, I’m dealing; what do you want ? Three Kings ?”
He dealt four hands. In mine there were three Kings.
Taking up another he showed me three aces.
“I’m out of practice,” he said apologetically. “My hands are calloused. I used to keep them as soft as velvet.”
He showed me some false shuffles, dealing from under the deck, and other tricks.
“Yes, I got even with the ones that got my money. It was eat or be eaten. I went after the suckers. There was never a man did me dirt but I paid him with interest. Of course, it’s different now. The Good Book says : ‘Do good unto them that harm you.’ I guess I would, but I wouldn’t recommend any one to try and harm me. I might forget.”
The heavy, aggressive jaw shot forward; the eyes gleamed with a fearless ferocity, and for a moment the man took on an air that was almost tigerish. I could scarce believe my sight; yet the next instant it was the same cheerful, benevolent face, and I thought my eyes must have played me some trick.
Perhaps it was that sedate Puritan strain in me that appealed to him, but we became great friends. We talked of many things, and most of all, I loved to get him to tell of his early life. It was just like a story; thrown on the world while yet a child ; a shoeblack in New York, fighting for his stand; a lumber-jack in the woods of Michigan; lastly, a miner in Arizona. He told me of long months on the desert with only his pipe for company, talking to himself over the fire at night, and trying not to go crazy. He told me of the girl he married and worshipped, and of the man who broke up his home. Once more I save
that flitting tiger-look appear on his face and vanish immediately. He told me of his wild days.
“I was always a fighter, and I never knew what fear meant. I never saw the man that could beat me in a roughand-tumble scrap. I was uncommon husky and' as quick as a cat, but it was my fierceness that won out for me. Get a man down and give him the leather. I’ve kicked a man’s face to a jelly. It was kick, bite and gouge in them days—anything went.
“Yes, I never knew fear. I’ve gone up unarmed to a man I knew was heeled to shoot me on sight, and I’ve dared him to do it. Just by the power of the eye I’ve made him take water. He thought I had a gun and could draw quicker’n him. Then, as the drink got hold of me, I got worse and worse. I’ve done things that would have landed me in the penitentiary, but I always played a lone hand. Time was when I would have robbed a bank and shot the man that tried to stop me. Glory to God ! I’ve seen the evil of my ways.”
“Are you sure you’ll never backslide?” I asked.
“Never! I’m born again. I don’t smoke, drink or gamble, and I’m as happy as the day’s long. There was the drink. I would go on the waterwagon for three months at a stretch, but day and night, wherever I went, the glass of whisky was there right between my eyes. Sooner or later it got the better of me. Then one night I went half-sober into a Gospel Hall. The glass was there, and I was in agony tryin’ to resist it. The speaker was callin’ sinners to come forward. I thought I’d try the thing anyway so I went forward to the penitents’ bench. When I got up the glass was gone. Of coure, it came back, but I got rid of it again in the same wav. Well, I had many a struggle and many a defeat, but in the end I won. It’s a divine miracle.”
I wish I could paint or act the man for you. Words cannot express his curious character. I came to have a great fondness for him, and certainly
owed him a huge debt of gratitude.
One day I was paying my usual visit to the post office, when some one gripped me by the arm.
“Hullo Scotty! By all that’s wonderful. I was just going to mail you a letter.”
It was the Prodigal, very well dressed and spruce-looking.
“Say, I’m so tickled I got you; we’re going to start in two days.”
“Start! Where?” I asked.
“Why, for the Golden North, for the land of the Midnight Sun, for the treasure troves of the Klondike Valley.”
“You may be,” I said soberly ; “but I can’t.”
“Yes you can, and you are, old sport. I fixed all that. Come on, I want to talk to you. I went home and did the returned prodigal stunt. The old man was mighty decent when I told him it was no good, I couldn’t go into the glue factory yet awhile. Told him I had the gold-bug awful bad and nothing but a trip up there would cure me. He was rather tickled with the idea. Staked me handsomely, and gave me a year to make good. So here I am, and you’re in with me. I’m going to grubstake you. Mind, it’s a business proposition. I’ve got to have some one, and when you make the big strike you’ve got to divvy up.”
I said something about having secured employment as an under-gardener.
“Shaw ! you’ll soon be digging goldnuggets instead of potatoes, Why, man, it’s the chance of a lifetime, and anybody else would jump at it. Of course, if you’re afraid of the hardships and so on—”
“No,” I said quickly, “I’ll go.”
“Ha !” he laughed, “you’re too much of a coward to be afraid. Well, we’re going to be blighted Argonauts, but we’ve got to get busy over our outfits. We haven’t got any too much time.”
So we hustled around. It seemed as if half of San Francisco was Klondike-crazy. On every hand was there speculation and excitement. All the merchants had their outfitting departments, and wild and vague were their notions as to what was required. We did not do so badly, though like every one else we bought much that was worthless and foolish. Suddenly I bethought me of Salvation Jim, and I told the Prodigal of my new friend.
“He’s an awfully good sort,” I said; “white all through, all kinds of experience ; and he’s going alone.”
“Why,” said the Prodigal, “that’s just the man we want. We’ll ask him to join us.”
I brought the two together, and it was arranged. So it came about that we three left San Francisco on the fourth day of March to seek our fortunes in the Frozen North.
(To be continued.)
He who loves the first time Is a God—tho’ he love in vain,
But a sorry fool is he Who loves in vain again.
Again, without being loved,
I love—for a fool am I;
Sun, moon, and stars are laughing :
I laugh with them—and die.