'AWKINS’ CORNER

HENRY HOLT April 1 1923

'AWKINS’ CORNER

HENRY HOLT April 1 1923

'AWKINS’ CORNER

HENRY HOLT

BRING a child into the world under the stars of Yukon; leave him motherless at the age of five; at ten, on the fringe of a mining camp, let him be the only mourner of a rum-soaked father, and you mustn't expect him to develop into a creature with supreme faith in his fellow men, especially if he spends the next two score years scratching the skin of the earth for gold. This was big Jim Conley's record. By the time he was thirty-five and had never made the coup for which every gold miner hopes, he decided to try his luck further afield; and so for years after that he scratched the earth in Northern Ontario. The ’flu nearly carried him off there, and left him with a permanent legacy in the form of defective sight. Without the thiek tense» he wore in a steel frame, everything looked bturred. but through glasses he could see well enough to carry on the only work he knew. The self-reliance which life, as he knew it,had instilled into him, now became a very valuable commodity, for he did not lose confidence in himself. And anyone who goes alone into the great Laurentian wilderness dependent solely upon his glasses for sight, needs all the self-reliance that circumstances will permit.

BIG JIM was tramping through the bush when his eyes fell on the figure of a man lying either dead or unconscious at the foot of a pine tree. Jim grunted and walked near, touching the body more or less reverently with his toe. Instantly the prone form became animated. A pair of large, wondering blue eyes opened, and a voice,

strangely steady for one apparently dead, exclaimed: “Blimy!”

“Thought maybe you were dead,” Jim grinned, whereupon the other man, realizingthathewasnot dreaming. leaped to his feet and wrung Jim’s hand in ecstasy.

"Blimy! Blimy!” he reiterated. “I made sure I was done for. Got off the track some ’ow, days ago. Got any grub? I’m perishin’ of ’unger.”

Jim gave the man a large slice of uncooked bacon and a chunk tom off a loaf of bread, which he devoured greedily.

“You’re no woodsman, evidently,” said the Canadian. “Where d’you come from?”

“London bred and bom. I’m what they call a Cockney. My name's 'Awkins.”

“Orkins?” Jim repeated mechanically.

“Yus. 'Awkins, only you spell it with a haich. H-a-wk-i-n-s—'Awkins, see?”

"And you got bushed, eh?” said Jim. “ ’Tis kind of bewildering, among these rocky hills till you get used to it.”

Hawkins shuddered.

“I’m no kid.” he said, “but I don’t mind tellin’ you I’m afraid of this 'ere bush. Some men gets used to it. Some don't. I’m one of them as don’t. If I had lived among these rocks and trees for fifty years I wouldn’t know one direction from another, if I once got lost. I’m frightened of it. and I don’t mind ownin’ up. I always ’ave been frightened of it, ever since I first clapped my eyes on the blinkin’ bush. I wouldn’t ’ave got lost this time but while I was takin' a short cut, I started thinkin’ about the old country. Then I lost my bearin’s, got scared and turned back to 'Omepayne.but I only seem to ’ave got further into these perishin’ trees. P’raps I’ve got some distance away from ’Ornepayne now. ’Ow far is it? I’ve been walkin’ for three days, but it seems more like three blinkin’ months.”

“Hornepayne’s about twenty miles off,” replied Jim, pointing away to the southeast, “but I guess you’ve been wandering back on to your own tracks. They most generally do in the bush, when they don’t know how to keep straight on.”

He sat on a log and filled his pipe thoughtfully. A walk to Hornepayne and back—full forty miles on the round trip—in order to put this figurative infant back in the cradle was not a feat the Canadian had anticipated. To leave the fellow there was also out of the question. Jim spat contemplatively.

“Can you cook?” he asked.

"Pretty fair. Why?”

“I’ll be in the woods another couple o’ weeks prospectin'. Come ’long if you like.” The invitation was uttered casually enough, but it cost Jim a pang, because he much preferred to go prospecting alone. Partners, experience had taught him, were more inclined to become a handicap than a blessing. Also Jim had grown accustomed to

loneliness in vast solitudes, and he did not take kindly to the notion of listening to another being’s interminable prattle. But, much to Jim’s relief, the Cockney did not prattle. He seemed to sense the fact that the Canadian was not of the communicative order; and so, to please the man who had saved his life, Hawkins fell in with his ways. Not that he understood Big Jim thoroughly.

THE first few days Jim, though he tried to hide the fact, showed that he was not particularly pleased at having a companion forced upon him; and Hawkins would gladly have gone his own way, but to do so would have meant certain death, and, also, a particularly unpleasant death. Before a week had passed, however, the miner warmed slightly toward the cheerful little Cockney who trudged on without a murmur when, as Jim well knew, he was aching in every limb. Finally, with odd shyness, Jim began to question Hawkins, who told him his story, such as it was. He had never been further afield from the Mile End Road than Epsom Downs until, in his eighteenth year, he developed a desire to see more of the world. A big ship took him to Canada, where the streets are not paved with diamonds, and the souls of men are laid bare. He starved and slaved from Montreal to Winnipeg for seven long years, sometimes picking up the rudiments of gold mining in Northern Ontario, and sometimes making a bare living in eastern towns and cities. He had, as a matter of fact, led a dog’s life during those seven years, but either he did not realize it, or else it was his natural optimism which always brought him smiling out of difficulty. He had no set scheme in life, no earthly idea of how to look after himself, either in the woods or out of it, and no particular ambition. He was willing, intelligent in a shrewd way, and ever inclined to make a jest of hardship; and before the two weeks were up Big Jim had begun to grow distinctly attached to the little Cockney.

Much to his own surprise, Jim found himself actually looking forward with displeasure to the moment when he and Hawkins were to part, and it took him hours to frame the suggestion that they should stick together as partners. Hawkins agreed to that suggestion, however, readily enough, partly because there was nothing else at hand for him to do, partly because he liked the Canadian. And for two years therefrom Big Jim and Hawkins shared joy and sorrow together winter and summer under the eternal canopy of the northern stars.

All Jim had in the world was hope. Even failure had not been able to rob him of that. It is the sole stock-intrade of your natural bred-in-the bone gold miner. It is the chain with which he keeps himself fettered to his task. It is his first thought on awakening three hundred and sixty five days in the year. It is the only thing between heaven and earth that keeps him going, decade after decade, sometimes tantalizingly near yet just always beyond reach of elusive fortune. But at the age of forty

the gold miner who has never made strike worth mentioning, needs something to stimulate enthusiasm.

iasm.

There were times when Big Jim had grown morose, embittered by a life-long search for the unattainable. A miner he would always be, for that was the only thing he knew, but in another ten years he would become as mechanical as a quartz crusher. And Hawkins, without knowing it, stimulated Big Jim’s hope. The man from Yukon had never had anything definite to work for, nothing to feed, nothing dependent upon him. There was nothing clinging or dog-like about the Cockney, but after the first few months he ceased to wonder at this great, silent tawny-haired creature, and worshipped him instead.

“Blimy, ain’t yer, never afraid of breakin’ yer glawses?” he asked one day, while padding along like a bantam by the side of an elephant.

“They’re too thick to break,” replied Jim indifferently. He had grown so accustomed to his spectacles that he took them as a matter of course.

Sometimes Jim and his partner were moderately fortunate, finding enough gold to live in comparative luxury for a while; sometimes they landed back to semi-civilization starving and without a drachm of that yellow metal before which the whole world bows. There were moments when the grim Canadian veteran wondered how long the Cockney would stick by him. ,

He became haunted by a vague fear that Hawkins, who after all was only a

gold-miner by chance and not by instinct or by heredity, would weary of the life and go back to the big cities. In his own rough way he sounded the Cockney on the subject. Hawkins, not quite understanding, only laughed, as was his way; and Jim’s mental reservations on the subject grew more pronounced. He had not the faintest doubt that somewhere, some day, somehow, he would strike rich gold, and the half of it would, naturally, go to Hawkins if Hawkins were still with him. But, curiously enough, Jim now began to realize that a subtle change had taken place in its own motives. As long back as he could remember, self, pure and unadulterated, had been the only underlying cause for which he labored. He had known no other cause. His mode of life had presented no alternatives. He had always been generous to any man down on his luck, as a matter of course, willing to share his last penny according to the code of the gold fields. But when it came to earning money, to the struggle for gold, every man had to look out for himself, and the devil could, and generally did, take the hindmost.

By gradual stages, however, Jim had come to regard little Hawkins as a factor in his motives. Perhaps if Jim had been the father of ten hungry children he would have toiled unceasingly to feed them and been one of those folk who count the toil a pleasure for the sake of the ten hungry children.

But Jim never had ten children. He never had even a dog. And little Hawkins was the only human being so far who had even responded to a vague yearning in the breast of the Yukon giant.

SO IT was when Hawkins struck up a friendship with one Pete Stevens, Jim felt a queer bitterness which he was unable to analyse, and which he disliked exceedingly. Hawkins first met Stevens while the partners were staying in Schrieber, a small town on the transcontinental railway. Stevens talked of Toronto and Montreal, of gaiety, of crowds; and the Cockney listened intently. Some day he was going to see the bright lights again. Meanwhile Stevens wanted Hawkins to go with him to Montreal and see life. Jim saw the Cockney shake his head. The Canadian would not have put obstacles in the youngster s way, but if the Cockney had deserted him, Jim s faith in human nature would have come down a peg, or perhaps several pegs, because he was leaning on Hawkins more and more now, to keep the fires of hope burning.

A week later Big Jim and his partner struck pay dirt not thirty miles away from Hornepayne, and foi a time they were filled with enthusiasm. The gold was in a little gulch on the side of a hill, and Jim promptly christened the spot “ ’Awkins’ Corner.” Then the discovery became peculiarly baffling. After a minute inspection of the locality, Jim declared that, judging by appearances, ’Awkins’ Corner ought to end his life’s search. But the gold petered out. The two persevered for a month, and built a rude shack as a temporary dwelling. 0ccasionally

another trace of pay dirt rewarded their efforts, but it was only a trace. At last the Canadian gave it up in despair. .

“There's gold around here somewhere,,Cockney,” he declared, “but we’re up the wrong street. Maybe it’s within a foot of where we’ve been digging, and maybe it’s half a mile off. You keep on at that spot for a while an’ I’ll try further along the hill. Maybe we’ll strike it.”

And so-the Cockney toiled on at ’Awkins’ Corner while the Canadian prospected elsewhere in the neighborhood with meagre success. He found gold, but not in paying quantity. The location was tempting. It might before long become the seething centre of a “rush” if nature’s hoard could only be tapped.

At this stage Pete Stevens appeared on the scene. ’Awkins’ Corner was near a winding trail that led from Hornepayne to a chain of lakes over the height of land north. Stevens while passing on this trail happened to hear voices, and, bush fashion, stopped for sociability’s sake.

“Well, old stick-in-the-mud,” he said to Hawkins. “Had enough of this yet? I’m off up to Montreal this week, for good. Why n’cher come along? I’ll be back this way in a day or two.”

Though Stevens did not know it, this was, to the Cockney, like waving a red rag at a bull. His very soul craved for those places where a man’s pulse beats more quickly than in the bush. Trees, trees and then trees! Not only was Hawkins in mortal terror of this nightmare of trees in which he worked and ate and slept, but he had grown to hate the very sight of the bush. Jim, puffing away at an empty pipe, listened and looked on from beneath shaggy eye-brows.

“Maybe I will, some day,” replied the Cockney. And t his time Jim noticed that he didn’t laugh.

NEXT afternoon the Canadian, convinced that they were now wasting time at that spot, announced his i ntention of moving on.

“Blime, I’m just gettin’ to feel at ’ome diggin’ in this ’ole at ’Awkins’ Corner,” said the Cockney with a humorous grin. “If I ’adn’t got the blinkin’ toothache I’d be as ’appy as a dog with two tails. Let’s stick it for a bit longer.”

“Aw right,” agreed Jim. “You keep on where you are, an’ I’ll go prospectin’ further afield. I’ll camp out tonight an’ come back sundown to-morrow.”

“Say, Jim,” the Cockney observed, fumbling among his little collection of earthly possessions, “I gotcher these at the general store last time we was in ’Ornepayne. You been kickin’ like ’ell about that blinkin’ pipe o’ yours for a month, an’ you ain’t got a pair o’ socks to yer nantie an’ yer alius perishin’ cold abart the feet at nights when it’s colder weather.” t

It happened to be Jim’s birthday, and Jim hadn’t had a birthday present since the days when he needed a cradle to lie in, and he took the knitted woolen socks and pipe awkwardly. He sat still, stuffing tobacco into the new bowl for several minutes, wondering what it was that he wanted to say, why it seemed hard to say anything, and why in the name of hades he had such a quéer feeling in the throat.

Then he applied a match to the tobacco, puffed at it, and, finally:

“Much ’bliged, Cockney,” he said.

Jim was ten miles away before he made his coffee that night and rolled himself into his blanket, and he tramped another twenty miles next day before he came back to their shack at sundown. There was no sign of his partner. He threw his head back and shouted for hfs companion.

“Hi, Cockney; Ki-yi! Ki-yi!” The Indian bush call rang through the silent trees, but there came no answer. Jim turned into the shack, and he saw a sheet of paper pinned up where it would catch his eye. He read:—

Dere Jim, don’t get mad i’ve gone with Pete Stevens

The message was scrawled in pencil in large letters.

Jim blinked at the thing and read it again. He did not think quickly, like city folk. It was several minutes before the significance of what he had read sank in. Then his expression hardened. He had become almost humanized in the last two years. Lines that had long disappeared quickly crept back to his face. He was alone. Doubly alone, now that he had learned what it was not to be alone. He felt almost nauseated. He didn’t curse the youngster. In a way, he didn’t blame him for going, though he would have had him go differently. Perhaps Cockney had even thought this would be easiest for both of them. Jim pushed back his hat and scratched his head in a perplexed fashion. Because Hawkins had left him, the thoughts of Yukon mining camps suddenly became strangely pleasing to Jim. The life was even wilder there, perhaps, but it was different from life in the Laurentians. The Laurentian hills were full of tricks. They had tricked men ever since men had gone into them. They had tricked him—tricked him out of nine years of his life, and given him nothing in return but this! Yukon was his country. Why shouldn’t he go back to the Yukon?

HE ONLY slept in snatches that night. The Yukon was calling him.

With the coming of dawn he made up his pack and headed for Hornepayne. Jim steered through the bush with the aid of the tiny compass he always carried, making a bee-line for the railway village instead of going round by the long winding trail that ran close to their shack. The going was not much harder straight through the bush, for the winding “winter” trail was of the roughest, and Jim could unerringly find his way. He had

travelled ten miles in a straight line when he took off his spectacles to clean them, but they slipped from his fingers.

“Ouch!” he exclaimed, instinctively sticking out his knee to break their fall. The springy metal, bounding off his knee, shot through the air.

“Huh!” Jim grunted, momentarily nonplussed by the suddenness with which it had happened. He was standing there to all intents and purposes blind. He couldn’t

see the glasses. Everything was a blur. He stooped and felt on the ground, and then, realizing that his kneee might have knocked the pesky spectacles some distance, advanced a little, patting the ground carefully before taking the risk of treading on them.

“Well, I’ll be dog-gonned!” he muttered aloud, a full minute later, while still groping about. “Now, who’d have ever thought they’d go so far!”

Then, thinking perhaps he had been fumbling in the wrong direction, he took four steps back, apparently to the place where he had first started from, but was equally unsuccessful. He set his teeth, and started all over afresh. In five minutes it began to dawn on him that this wras getting serious. Without his glasses he would be as hopelessly lost in the woods as the youngest tenderfoot who ever stepped into the trees. No, he would not be so well off, for even the tenderfoot, if he has a grain of sense, can guide himself roughly by looking up into the tops of the trees and seeing which direction the sunlight comes from. But though Jim glanced upward, he couldn’t see a thing. It was all out of focus. Then fear gripped him—fear that perhaps instead of circling around the spot where the glasses lay, he had unconsciously been moving further away from it. He stood still and tried to think exactly what movements he had made, but he could not be sure.

HE THREW off his pack and his coat. They would at least form a definite land mark. Next he glanced at his compass. But though he could just discern the little thing if he held it close enough, he could not see in which direction the hands pointed. Then he dropped on all fours, and carefully examined the ground within a

circle all round the pack. To go further away from the pack was fraught with additional danger, for if' he once lost touch with his allprecious provisions, nothing could save him. And yet it was clear that in his wanderings he must have travelled further away from the lost spectacles than he had suspected. He sat still for a while to think. If he picked up his pack and stumbled on blindly it was r ’ possible that he might walk

foi a month, or even six months, without finding anything but bush, for, apart from the natural tendency of human beings in such circumstances to go round in a circle, the bush extended hundreds of miles in nearly every direction, and even if he happened to strike the trail to Hornepayne, he would probably pass straight across it without noticing it.

Suddenly a smile came to the miner’s lips and he began to unlace a shoe. He took off one of the knitted socks that Cockney had given him for a birthday present. With his knife he cut aw7ay a little of the top and plucked at it until the yarn began to unravel. He started to wind the w7ool into a ball. A line twenty feet long, he calculated, ought to be enough for his purpose, but as his life depended on its not breaking, he would use two strands. That made forty feet. Better call it sixty, and give it good measure. That w7ould allow him a radius of thirty feet, which ought to be enough.

He spent an hour constructing the line, knotting it every few inches to prevent it from becoming snarled. Then he tied one end to his pack and, crawding away, began to circle

around the pack, patting every inch of the ground with his hands as he went. He left his shoe on the ground to mark the place where the circle began, so that he might, on arriving there once more, let out a little more of the line. It was a slow, laborious process; still, he reflected grimly, it was sure. He described the first circle in a few minutes, but as the line increased in length it took him

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longer. Ten times he crawled round in vain—fifteen. He calculated that he must have been several hours at the task. It was drawing toward sundown when he estimated that he had twenty feet of line out, and then his fingers closed over the missing glasses.

“That’s the last time I’ll go prospectin’ without a spare pair of the darned things in my pocket,” he muttered, slipping them on and returning to his pack. By now he was desperately thirsty. He took a long, soothing draught at a nearby creek and lighted his pipe. It would be dark in another two hours. He had wasted practically all day on the search, and he had lost the mood to push on to the railway. With a jerk he flung the pack over his shoulder and headed doggedly back to the shack he had recently left. There were provisions aplenty there, and he would loaf for once.

THE light was fading when he struck the stream on the bank of which the shack was built. He stood still and frowned. There was a lamp burning in the shack. Some trapper must have stumbled upon the place. He moved nearer, and then called out.

Instantly the figure of Hawkins appeared.

“Blimy, Jim!” the Cockney cried, hurrying forward. “Where in ’ell ’ave you been? I made sure you’d got lost an’ was doin’ a perish somewhere!”

“Why, I went off yesterday, prospectin’,” replied Jim, wringing Hawkins’ hand in a way the Cockney never quite understood afterwards.

“Well, blimy! Didn’t yer see wot I wrote on a piece of paper fer yer?” asked the Cockney, picking up the letter he had left for Jim. The Canadian took it, and saw, for the first time, that the message was continued over-leaf. He now read the whole thing through:—

Dere Jim don’t get mad i’ve gone with Pete Stevens to Hornepayne to have a tooth pulled out. Its akeing somethin’ cruel but that don’t matter. There’s buckets of gold in Hawkins Corner. We’ve struck it rich awl right. I’ll be back termorrow sure A. E. Hawkins.

Jim took off his glasses, polished them carefully, and read it all once more.

“Do—do you mean that?” he asked huskily.

'“Look for yerself,” replied Hawkins, handing him a pouch containing several ounces of yellow metal. ‘T got that much yesterday and terday. It’s a blinkin’ Klondyke, that’s wot it is!”

“I guess we’ve struck it all right,” agreed Jim, stooping to tuck something into his shoe. It was a couple of feet of .woollen yarn that had been trailing behind him.