SHE WAS WORTH A MILLION
A fortune seemed certain when a rock half filled with silver jammed Mackay in the ribs.
IF YOU drop one leg of a compass into Fish Falls on the headwaters of the Ottawa River and swing the other leg
in a hundred-mile circle, that circle will intersect the middle of Loon Lake. And Loon Lake, as all the world knows, is so
called on account of those large, sleek and wary birds which make it a favorite haunt in a season of the year and fill the starlit nights with their weird and ghostly laughter. For the rest of it the shores are wrapped in an unbroken stretch of pine forest, where the ground hemlock grows thick amongst the upthrusting rocks and the black bear hibernates through the months of bitter weather.
It fell on an evening when Loon Lake was one long streak of molten silver, that a wrinkle like a tiny arrow head appeared in the purple distance, and at the point of it a canoe moved slowly, as moves a dry leaf before the ghost of a little wind. It was a bark canoe, fashioned from the skin of the birch tree, light as a feather and tawny as the maple leaf in autumn. In it sat a small wrinkled man, whose bright blue eyes rested in a steady stare on the changing panorama of the timbered shore. There was peace in the gaze, and a vast contentment. His lean face was tanned a mahogany brown, between his teeth he gripped a short and battered pipe and with every dawdling stroke of his dipping paddle he sent forth a tiny jet of smoke. The general effect was that of a bronze automaton, clad in nondescript dress and vitalized by some inward and intermittent fire.
It is written that the wilderness sets her seal upon her own. You may read it not only in the silent places, but also in the cities of men when you mark the stranger who walks lightly, and leans a little forward as he walks, whose eyes are quiet and seem to be fixed on things a long way off and on whose face is the odd suggestion that there is much in the world of no importance whatever. If you know him personally you will observe that he is dignified without being stiff, strong and yet gentle, and exhibits a quizzical amusement when other folk are nervous and impatient. He can be swift as lightning in action and ada-
mant in endurance.
And all this is because from a thousand speechless and hidden sources he has drawn fortitude and courage.
Sweet airs have breathed on him while he slept and his body has absorbed the secret vitality of forests.
Now if you had attempted to explain this to old Billinger he would have shifted his pipe to the other corner with a sidelong twist of his lips, spat into the stainless surface of Loon Lake and remarked “Hell” with a kind of contemptuous pity.
Further, if you asked him why he had spent forty years prospecting with no real luck at all, he would demand in unscriptural language if you knew any dodgasted better kind of life that a man could lead. If you were wise, you would hastily say . you did not. But for all of this Billinger loved the woods, and for innumerable weeks was content to scratch the moss from in numerable rocks
on the off chance of making his one big strike. And it came to him every evening of his life that he would do this very thing the very next day. That conviction is the vital spark of every prospector.
LOON LAKE was engulfed in purple obscurity when, rounding a little point, he discerned at some distance the red and blinking eye of a camp fire. Were Billinger new to the woods he had forthwith given a shout and paddled straight forward, but, instead, his dipping blade dipped even more noiselessly and he slid on like a spirit of the night to see what manner of camp this was.
Half an hour later he peered from darkness into light. The fire was a few yards from the shore. Beside it sat a large black haired man busily occupied in breaking fragments of rock with a hammer. A little further back a cluster of spruce trees had been freshly blazed, the naked wood standing out like pink white columns in the firelight. On one side was a shed tent. A canoe lay bottom up close to the water. There was no sound save the clink of the hammer, an occasional ejaculation and the lisp of the sleepy lake in its stony cradle.
Billinger leaned forward, being instantly aware of several things. First, he knew the man, whose reputation on the Upper Ottawa was lurid—even for that country. Second, he had only arrived within the last day or two —this being evident from the appearance of the camp.
Third, he had made a strike and staked it. Fourth, he was traveling alone and had expected to go much further. Fifth, the indications were that he would be starting hot foot at sunrise for the Recorder’s office at Fish Falls.
The little man chewed at all this as he floated only a hundred yards away, and his pipe went out in the process. He had a queer feeling that Black Mackay had struck high-grade stuff. If so, it was reasonable to assume there was more of it, in which case Loon Lake would be alive with man in a week. Meantime there were two things Billinger might do. He could camp out of sight till Mackay had pushed on, or he could land now and take the chance of getting valuable information. Deciding on the latter, he knocked his paddle sharply on the gunwale and made for shore. Mackay sat up stiffly and shaded his eyes.
NOW the entry of one prospector into the camp of another is, when done according to Hoyle, something of an art. There is a brief greeting on both sides —but no questions on either side. Any display of curiosity only rouses suspicion. No special notice must be taken of anything in camp unless it is offered for notice. The talk is impersonal. It deals with the last prospecting regulations, bush fires, the thickness of the ice the preceding winter, notable journeys through the wilderness and the time in which they were made, recent smelter returns from well-known mines—but never, never with the immediate object of either party to the talk. Thus it happened that nearly an hour passed before Black Mackay picked up a bit of rock from the little heap at his side, tossed it across and asked with assumed diffidence what the new comer thought of that.
Billinger balanced it in his horny palm and gulped at the weight of it. The lump was half silver. Such ore would run ten thousand ounces to the ton. And it was oxidised ore from the surface, tinged with the exquisite purple and pink of weathered cobalt.
“Came from the bottom level of the La Rose, didn’t
it?” he said calmly. The La Rose was one of the richest mines in the district.
“La Rose be damned,” chuckled Mackay. “It came from just a hundred feet behind where you’re sitting. Six solid inches wide, and I’ve stripped her for over two hundred feet. Ever see the beat of it?” Billinger did not answer at once. He knew this was truth. The other man’s voice held a new note. He was usually lying, but this was not his usual tone. The heavy face became suddenly triumphant, and the furtive eyes took on a strange gleam.
“The way claims are selling further south is a hundred thousand for each inch of width a hundred feet long. Say, Bill, on that reckoning this lode is worth more than a million. Do you get me?”
Billinger nodded, speech being superfluous.
“Know how I found her?” went on Mackay deliberately. “Well I slept right on top of the darned +hing last night,
and there was a point of rock that jammed into my ribs so I got up and knocked it off in the dark. It was lying beside me next morning—half silver. No one’s ever landed here before—wasn’t a sign of any kind!”
DILLINGER pushed out his lips and felt oddly suspicious. That last remark seemed out of place, for a man could easily land and leave no sign. His eyes traveled from the shifty face to the smoldering fire, and he noted casually a half burned stake of which three sides were charred away. Now why should any man bum a stake when there was plenty of dead wood close at hand? Then something flickered through his brain. He got up and stretched himself.
“I guess I’ll turn in.”
Mackay nodded. “Me too. Say, I’ll show you that lode in the morning.”
“Sure—I’d like to see it. Mebbe I’d better put out that fire. Country’s pretty dry.”
He went to the water’s edge, filled a bucket and emptied it on the hissing coals. Came a little cloud of vapor and the pungent smell of hot charcoal. On top of this he heaped some damp moss.
“Might as well have a bit of a smudge. Flies are likely to be bad to-night.”
Mackay grunted and brought out a black bottle, whereat Billinger shook his head. “Thanks just the same, but I don’t do any drinking when I’m prospecting.”
Mackay got between his blankets with the bottle within reach and pulled a fold over his face. Billinger chose a soft spot under a nearby spruce, shut his eyes and to all appearances went to sleep like a child. An owl hooted melodiously and presently from the middle of Loon Lake came the wild laughter of its guardian spirits as their black and white bodies flashed in and out of the brown waters. Mackay snored, choked a little, took a pull at the bottle and drifted off into stertorous slumber. It was perhaps an hour later when Billinger lifted himself gently on one arm and looked about. Nothing could have been more silent than the camp of Black Mackay.
Billinger got up on tiptoes and approached the extinguished fire. The moon was clear, and he could see Mackay’s forehead. The bottle was empty on its side. The little man’s lips tightened as he stooped and, lifting the steaming moss, pulled forth the charred stake. The fourth side was blackened, but, quite sharply, he could read a name carved deep, followed by the number of a miner’s license and a date. His heart quickened when he noted that the latter was only three days previously. And the name he read was not Mackay’s.
He stood for a moment, then stepped noiselessly to the shore and thrust the stake into the bow of his canoe. This done, he went back, stared fixedly at the stupefied Mackay, and moved on to the obscurity of the bush. Only about a hundred feet away he found the lode, where six inches of native silver gleamed nakedly in the moonlight. He had never seen anything like this before. A million, yes, it was worth that if the entire Cobalt district was worth a cent. He tried to think of Mackay with a million. The other name came to him then. Birkett, the biggest hearted, best natured and unluckiest man in the silver country—Birkett, who was always emptying his pockets to help the other fellow— Birkett who burned the hair off his head saving a farmer’s child in the bush-fire at Porcupine. So it was Birkett’s strike, and Mackay was a claim jumper.
Now in the north country there is nothing so despicable in the human line as the claim jumper, and nothing even in the way of animals unless indeed it be Carcajou, the wolverine. The claim jumper has no courage and no bowels. He lives on what he steals. He is crooked and slothful. He robs the poor and toadies to the rich. He is apt to travel by night, and, in fear of pursuit, his ear is always to the ground. To honest men he is outcast beyond all possibility of redemption.
' I 'HIS and much more was in Billinger’s mind as he -*■ stood in the moonlight. He noted Mackay’s blazes, and noted also that two spruce trees had been cut down close to the lode. The trees had disappeared, which meant that they had carried Birkett’s blazes. Then, traveling carefully, he found the corner posts. These had been shaved down from former and larger dimensions, and among the shavings he discovered traces of deeply cut letters, Gathering up this further and damning evidence, he worked back to the camp, swearing under his breath as he stumbled over fallen logs in the thick bush. The whole inspection had occupied something like three hours.
L>LACK MACKAY lay motionless, and, as he stared, plan after plan raced through the little man’s mind. He could not obliterate the claim jumper’s blazes, for the stroke of an axe would arouse him instantly. Billinger had but small chance in a fight. He knew that Birkett was no doubt on the way to Fish Falls, where Billinger had just journeyed, and the two must have passed each other a few hours previously. The former might hurry—and he might not. If he did not. the odds were
that Mackay would record the discovery first, and what the outcome would be no man could tell. The first filing of the claim was all important.
It came to Billinger that he might take Mackay’s canoe and sink it in deep water, or even tow it round the nearest point and hide it in the bush, but there is a certain unwritten law of the wilderness that bids one fight fair, even with the crooked. So he put that out of his mind. He might start a bit of a fire, as prospectors sometimes do to bare the ground, but the woods were dry and the fire might run anywhere with disastrous results to others. No—think as hard as he could—there was but one decent chance. And this was to light out at once, push toward Fish Falls as fast as possible, and trust to luck to finding Birkett before it was too late. At that Billinger nodded approvingly, gathered his dunnage as one might pick feathers from a pillow and launched his canoe as lightly as a wild pigeon lands in the top of a white birch.
LIE COVERED the sixteen miles to the toe of Loon -*■ Lake in a shade over four hours, which is good going for one paddle. The thing was not to use himself up on the first lap. On the way across the portage he chewed at a bit of bacon rind, then settled down for the next leg of ten miles across Duck Lake. At the end of that another portage, and, ere he reached it, he caught the smoke of a camp fire just at the land-place. There was no tent up. He was breathing hard when the bow of his canoe touched the sand. Beside the fire lay a man whose posture was so unnatural that Billinger’s pulse quickened. The man turned his head. Billinger saw that it was Birkett. He jerked up the nose of his canoe, and knelt beside him.
Birkett groaned. “Hell’s own luck. I’ve twisted my back on the portage. Had the canoe up and stumbled. I tried to straighten up, and something cracked in my spine. I was making for Fish Falls, and, God, Bill, I’ve got to get there somehow. I managed to start a fire, but since that I can’t feel anything.”
“Reckon mebbe you were going to record a claim?” Billinger had no time to waste on sympathy.
The other man looked up into the brown face as though for reassurance before he spoke. He must have found what he sought, for he made a gesture at his packsack that lay close by. “Open it.”
Billinger obeyed. On the top, wrapped in a towel as dirty as only a prospector’s towel can be, he found three lumps the size of his fist. They were mostly native silver, freshly broken, the silver flattened here and there beneath the hammer. Then he felt Birkett’s eyes.
“I reckon she’s worth a million, Bill. And she’s mine.”
“That’s exactly what Black Mackay said last night,” murmured Billinger quietly.
Birkett propped himself on an elbow, and groaned with the effort. “What in Sam Hill are you talking about?”
The answer was peculiar—and effective. The little man stepped to his canoe, and, taking out a charred stake and a handful of shavings placed them in a neat little heap. Using few words but missing nothing essential, he told the story. It was punctuated with blasphemous interludes supplied by Birkett. Then Birkett plucked at Billinger’s shirt sleeve and offered him a half interest in the claim if he would see this thing through.
“But I ain’t asking for any interest. I’m just trying to think what I can do to stop Mackay. I ain’t big enough to fight him, and I dassent shoot him—though I’d like to, and he’s as good in a canoe as I am and a sight stronger with a paddle, and you’re a dead weight if I take you as cargo, and he’s liable to be along here in about seven hours or I miss my guess, and anyway you look at it we’re seventy-five miles from Fish Falls. Now it’s your say.”
Birkett took a long and painful breath. “It’s only fifty by Cat Creek,” he said slowly.
THE little man stared at him. Cat Creek flows through a gorge that leads into the Ottawa waters. It is probably the worst stream in the silver district, being full of rocks, rapids and ugly backwater. Otherwise one could save twenty-five miles on the Loon Lake route. One does not save it. The easier and safer way is to go round by Lost Lake. It is said that an Indian once ran Cat Creek because an American tourist offered him a hundred dollars. But that was the only time on record. Billinger knew all this. A sort of thin fire began to run through his veins.
“She’s worth a million, if she’s worth a cent,” said Birkett shakily. That ribbon of native silver loomed larger in his mind than did Cat Creek with all its perils.
Billinger twisted his lips. “Reckon you’d have to come with me.”
He spoke as though thinking aloud, visioning Birkett on his back in the bottom of the canoe—inert—a helpless bulk—without a ghost of a chance if he got spilled into heavy water. That meant victory for Black Mackay.
There was no turning back once a man pushed off from the upper end of the gorge. On the other hand half a million hung in the balance, and a reputation that would live in the silver country. It was this last thought that decided him.
“I’ll take you through—or drown you,” he added parenthetically.
Birkett sent him a thankful grin. “When do we start?”
Preparations were few. Tents and dunnage cached behind a neighboring ridge, save only one blanket for Birkett to lie on. They took the silver samples, the charred stake, the handful of shavings and a spare paddle—in case. Billinger put the canoe over his head, trotted across the portage and came back for the other man. In half an hour he was headed for Cat Creek.
Birkett lay still, propped against a thwart, scribbling something in an old note book. There was no talk. The little man needed all his breath, also he experienced that strange silencing effect of the wilderness in virtue of which human speech seems at variance with one’s surroundings. Queer interludes, these, of communication without speech, while nature becomes vocal and converses in a myriad of liquid and mystical tongues to those who have ears to hear. Billinger had not got so far as to think this out, but he felt it. If one had burdened him with pointless chatter he would merely have asked why in hell one could not keep quiet. That meant the same thing.
The upper end of the gorge came in sight, its precipitous slopes dark with pine. The air was filled with a deep, soft tremor. Birkett twisted himself painfully and glanced ahead, while Billinger settled on his knees and seemed to grip the canoe with the entire lower pan of his body. Getting into the draw of Cat Creek, they slid forward without a stroke. The tremor grew louder, expanding into a sort of roar, such as made by a train passing over a trestle bridge. Birkett lifted his hand.
“So long, pilgrim, if we both don’t make it, but I guess you’re alright. If I stop in Cat Creek, you file the claim. Here’s the documents. She’s worth a million!” He tore a page from the notebook.
Billinger nodded, crumpled the paper and thrust it into his pocket. He wondered now why he had never learned to swim.
Cat Creek begins with a straight race and a current about seven miles an hour. There are a few rocks, big and easily avoided. Below this the gorge narrows to a series of jumps two or three feet high, separated by long pools streaked with tawny foam. Billinger took these much as a good horse takes a hedge, the thing being to take them fast so that one’s stern will not be engulfed at the foot of the jump. So far he had shipped but little water. Came a big eddy where he floated and caught his breath. Birkett nodded approvingly.
“That’s ten out of twenty-five, old horse.”
Billinger grunted, edged into the main stream and swept on. It was not so bad here, and he kept an eye ahead for fallen timber across Cat Creek. This was what he dreaded most. But the Creek was unbelievably clear.
AT FIFTEEN miles he approached the Gut, where - the waters flow as a drunken snake might travel— only faster. The banks are rugged—no escape there. The canoe went through the first swell, shaken like a rat in the jaws of a terrier. In front was a welter of white capped water in which were hidden emerald cellars where the stream dipped with sharp curves of high velocity into great holes in its rocky bed. At the lower edge of each cellar was a high and gathered wave that curled and broke upstream. One could not see the cellars, but only guess at them. In these brown caverns the life is battered out of a man in a few seconds. A canoe is reduced to matchwood. But between them lay a tortuous and hissing course of possible safety. Billinger picked this out a hundred feet at a time, smelling his way as much as seeing it. Such was his speed and the roughness of the water that he could do little more than attempt to keep near the middle of the lane between the cellars past which the canoe flashed like a yellow chip. He had just concluded that the worst was over when the bottom seemed to fall out of Cat Creek.
Of the next moment he remembered but little save that he dropped into a sort of smooth and shining basin and the canoe darted up the side of it into a solid wall of water. He hung onto his paddle, but could see nothing. Birkett was blotted out, and he could feel the canoe laboring like an overburdened horse. The water hit him in the breast as might a great soft hammer, while a confused roaring sounded from a thousand miles away. He wasn’t frightened, but it was rotten luck for Birkett to have to take his medicine lying down. Then light dawned suddenly. The canoe gunwale was just awash, and Birkett submerged up to his middle. A little air, trapped in the pointed bow and stern, was keeping them afloat. They rolled sluggishly, and were swept into a wide pool bordered by a sand beach. The
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water here was only some four feet deep. Billinger leaned forward, both hands on the gunwale, worked his legs over the side and let himself down. Then, walking very carefully, he pushed the canoe ashore, tilted out half the water, lifted out the dripping Birkett and lay down flat on his back. Followed silence for ten minutes, when Billinger rolled over, unscrewed a vulcanite matchbox, unrolled a rubber pouch, revealing dry tobacco, blew the water from the stem of his pipe and began to smoke.
“When you’re ready, old son, we’ll start,” he said laconically.
They sped on without further speech, till, at five miles from the mouth of Cat Creek they saw ahead what is known as the Chute, a long steep incline, where the bed of the stream has been polished smooth by the sheer velocity of _ the ripping waters. At the end of this it hunches its back, darts between two opposing crags twenty feet apart and broadens out into a loitering flood that seems suddenly weary of its former riotous life. Billinger had never seen the place before, but there was talk of it round many a camp fire. Now, when he did see it, his pulse slowed. Birkett was staring, too. His eyes narrowed. He said not a word.
THEY went down the Chute like a bullet. Billinger’s muscles turned to steel while he held the canoe bow on the middle of the gap. Five feet on either side lay death, and, what was worse to them than death, the loss of a million. Unseen forces tugged at him, as though dripping devils were twisting him out of his course. Against them he pitted his ultimate strength, his small, lean body transformed into a half human instrument of straining bone and throbbing sinew. A hundred feet from the Chute, the bow swerved. Birkett shut his eyes, but Billinger wrenched it back in the nick of time. Then came the hump between the crags. On the top of this they balanced precariously for an endless second, the river beneath like a bucking broncho, and, above them a great leaning cedar just ready to fall. Finally a smooth, easy glide—and comparative silence—and the lower end of Cat Creek slipping quietly toward Ottawa waters.
“Jumping Moses,” said Birkett under his breach, “but you’ve done it.”
Billinger was unscrewing his matchbox. Presently he glanced up.
“Got a dry one? This leaks.”
At ten o’clock next morning a canoe might have been discerned some three miles from Fish Falls, moving very fast. In the middle sat Black Mackay, putting his back into his work. He had covered nearly a hundred miles in thirty hours, which is the limit for one paddle. Holding to the middle of the stream to get the full current, he noted with some astonishment that up either shore, and
as much as possible out of the current, pushed a procession of canoes, all heading in the direction whence he had come. He recognized some of the occupants. They were all prospectors—and obviously bent on urgent business. It was the outward and evident sign of a good strike upcountry. He had a spasm of misgiving—and dug his paddle deeper.
Running ashore at Fish Falls, he found the place deserted, save for women and children. There was not a canoe left, not a man in sight. He hurried along the row of wooden shacks till he came to the Recorder’s office, and, finding the door open, tramped in. The Recorder was at the wooden table that served for a desk. He looked up and nodded.
“I want to file a claim on Loon Lake.” Mackay did his best not to breathe hard. “Can I have a blank form?”
THERE was put in front of him the Government schedule of particulars of discovery which every prospector must fill u'p when filing a claim. Dates, location, district, area, miner’s license number—all must be attested. Then an affidavit that it is a genuine and original discovery. Mackay labored over the form till it was complete, and made his oath, glibly and falsely. The recorder turned to the table and began another form. This must be his end of it, and Mackay shuffled his feet impatiently. He had never known writing to be so deliberate. Presently something snapped in his brain and he felt horribly uncomfortable.
“When do I get that certificate?” he grunted.
“This isn’t a certificate—its a warrant.” The Recorder turned on Mackay a cold blue eye. “Step into the next room.”
Mackay moving forward as in a dream opened a door. Inside he saw another table on which lay a charred stake and a bundle of shavings. Beside the table stood a man with blue clothes, a lantern jaw and a badge. A voice sounded close behind.
“Officer, do your duty. Here is your authority.”
Mackay’s head began to swim. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and was propelled toward outer air. There was no time to think, or do anything except just go—and he went. Lounging in the sun near the front of the shack were two figures that had not been there before. He knew them both. These men glanced at him as though he were a total stranger, then stared casually across the Upper Ottawa. He had not been steered more than another thirty feet when there came to his ears quite distinctly a lazy, sleepy, contented drawl.
“I reckon she’s worth a million, Bill, if she’s worth a cent.”
And she was.