The Trail of ’98
Robert W. Service
Author of “ The Songs of a Sourdough ” and “ Ballads of a Cheechako.”
Registered in accordance with the Copyright Act by Robert W. Service
Canadian serial rights owned by The MacLean Publishing Co.]
WE made McCrimmon comfortable. We kept no whiskey in the cabin, but we gave him some hot coffee, which he drank with great satisfaction. Then he twisted a cigarette, lit it, and looked at us keenly. On his brown flattish face were remarkable the impassivity of the Indian and the astuteness of the Scot. We were regarding him curiously. Jim had regained his calm, and was quietly watchful. The Prodigal seemed to have his ears cocked to listen. There was a feeling amongst us as if we had reached a crisis in our fortunes.
The halfbreed lost no time in coming to the point.
“I like you boys. You’re square and above-board. You’re workers, and you don’t drink—that’s the main thing.
“Well, to get right down to cases. I’m a bit of a mining man. I’ve mined at Cassiar and Caribou, and I know something of the business. Now I’ve got next to a good thing.—I don’t know how good yet, but I’ll swear to you it’s a tidy bit. There may be only ten thousand in it, and there may be one hundred and ten. It’s a gambling proposition, and I want pardners, pardners that’ll work like hell and keep their faces shut. Are you on?” “That’s got us kodaked,” said the Prodigal. “We’re that sort, and if the proposition looks good to us we’re with you. Anyway, we’re clams at keeping our foodtraps tight.”
“All right; listen. You know the Arctic Transportation Co. have claims on upper Bonanza—well, a month back I was working for them. We were down about twenty feet and were drifting in. They set me to work in the drift. The roof kept sloughing in on me, and it was mighty dangerous. So far we hadn’t got pay-dirt, but their mining manager wanted us to drift in a little further. If we didn’t strike good pay in a few more feet we were +o quit.
“Well, one morning I went down and cleaned away the ash of my fire. The first stroke of my pick cn the thawed face made me jump, stare, stand stock-still, thinking hard. For there, right in the hole I had made, was the richest pocket I ever seen.”
“You don't say! Are you sure?”
“Why, boys, as I’m alive there was nuggets in it as thick as raisins in a Christmas plum-duff. I could see the yellow gleam where the pick had grazed them, and the longer I looked the more could I see.”
“Good Lord! What did you do?”
“What did I do! I just stepped back and picked at the roof for all I was worth. A big bunch of muck came down, covering up the face. Then, like a crazy man, I picked wherever the dirt seemd loose all the way down the drift. Great heaps of dirt caved in on me. I was stunned, nearly buried, but I did the trick. There were tons of dirt between me and mv find.” c
We gasped with amazement.
“The rest was easy. I went up the shaft groaning and cursing. I pretended to faint. I told them the roof of the drift had fallen in on me. It was rotten stuff, anyway, and they knew it. They didn’t mind me risking my life. I cursed them, said I would sue the Company, and went off looking too sore for words. The manager was disgusted, he went down and took a look at things; said he would throw up the work at that place ; the ground was no good. He made that report to the company.”
The half-breed looked round triumphantly.
“Now, here’s the point. We can get a lay on that ground. One of you boys must apply for it. They mustn’t know I’m in with you, or they would suspect right away. They’re none too scrupulous themselves in their dealings.”
He paused impressively.
“You cinch that lay agreement. Get it signed right away. We’ll go in and work like the devil. We’ll make a big clean-up by spring. I’ll take you right to the gold. There’s thousands and thousands lying snug in the ground just waiting for us. It’s right in our mit. Oh, it’s a cinch, a cinch.”
The half-breed almost grew excited. Bending forward, he eyed us keenly. In a breathless silence we stared at each other.
“Well,” I objected, “seems to be putting up rather a job on the company.”
Jim was silent, but the Prodigal cut in sharply :
“Job nothing—it’s a square proposition. We don’t know for certain that gold’s there. Maybe it’s only a piffling pocket, and we’ll get souped for our pains. No, it seems to me it’s a fair gambling proposition. We’re taking all kinds of chances. It means devilish hard work ; it means privation and, maybe bitter disappointment. It’s a gamble, I tell you, and are we going to be such poor sports as turn it down? I for one am strongly in favor of it. What do you say? A big sporting chance—are you there, boys, are you there?”
He almost shouted in his excitement.
“Hush! Some one might hear you,” warned the halfbreed.
“Yes, that’s right. Well, it looks mighty good to me, and if you boys are willing we’ll just draw up papers and sign an agreement right away. Is it a
go?” . ,
We nodded, so he got ink and paper and drew up a form of partnership.
“Now,” said he, his eyes dancing, “now, to secure that lay before any one else cuts in on us. Gee ! but it’s getting dark and cold outdoors these days. Snow falling; well, I must mush to Dawson tonight.”
He hurried on some warm, yet light, clothing, all the time talking excitedly of the chance that fortune had thrown in our way, and gleeful as a schoolboy.
“Now, boys,” he says, “hope I’ll have good luck. Jim, put in a prayer for me. Well, see you all to-morrow. Good-bye.”
It was late next night when he returned. We were sitting in the cabin, anxious and expectant, when he threw open the door. He was tired, wet, dirty, but irrepressibly jubilant.
“Hurrah, boys!” he cried. “I’ve cinched it. I saw mister manager of the big company. He was very busy, very important, very patronising. I was the poor miner seeking a lay. I played the part well. He began by telling me he didn’t Avant to give any lays at present; just wanted to stand me off, you know; make me more keen. I spoke about some of their ground on Hunker. He didn’t seem enthusiastic. Then, at last, as if in despair, I mentioned this bit on Bonanza. I could see he Avas itching to let me have it, but he was too foxy to show it. He actually told me it was an extra rich piece of ground, AAThen all the time he kneAV his own mining engineer had condemned it.”
The Prodigal’s eyes danced delightedly.
“Well, Ave sparred round a bit like two fake fighters. My ! but he Avas Avily, that old JeAv. Finally he agreed to let me have it on a fifty-per-cent, basis. Don’t faint, boys. Fifty per cent., I said. I’m sorry. It was the best I could do, and you know I’m not SIOAV. That means they get half of all Ave take out. Oh, the old shark! the robber! I tried to beat him doAvn, but he stood pat; Avouldn’t budge. So I gave in, and we signed the lay agreement, and noAV everything’s in shape. Gee
whiz! didn’t I give a sigh of relief when I got outside. He thinks I’m the fall guy, and went off chuckling.”
He raised his voice triumphantly.
“And now, boys, we’ve got the ground cinched, so get action on yourselves. Here’s where we make our first real stab at fortune. Here’s where we even up on the hard jabs she’s handed us in the past; here’s where we score a bull’s-eye, or I miss my guess. The gold’s there, boys, you can bank on that; and the harder we work, the more we’re going to get of it. Now, we’re going to work hard. We’re going to make ordinary hard work look like a summer vacation. We’re going to work for all we’re worth—and then some. Are vou there, bovs, are vou there?”
There was no time to lose. Every hour for us meant so much more of that precious pay-dirt that lay under the frozen surface. The winter leapt on us with a swoop, a harsh, unconciliating winter, that made out-door work an unmitigated hardship. But there was the hope of fortune nerving and bracing us, till we lost in it all thought of self. Nothing short of desperate sickness, death even, would drive us from our posts. It was with this dauntless spirit we entered on the task before us.
And, indeed, it was one that called for all in a man of energy and self-sacrifice. There was wood to get for the thawing of the ground ; there was a cabin to build on the claim ; and lastly, there was a vast dump to be taken out of the ground for the spring sluicing. We planned things so that no man would be idle for a moment, and so that every ounce of strength expended would show its result.
The half-breed took charge, and we, recognizing it was his show, obeyed him implicitly. He decided to put down two holes to bed-rock, and, after much deliberation, selected the places. This was a matter for the greatest judgment and experience, and we were satisfied that he had both.
We ran up a little cabin and banked it nearly to the low eaves with snow. Byand-bve the snow fell on the roof to the depth of three feet, so that the place seem-
ed like a huge white hummock. Only in front could you recognize it as a cabin by the low doorway, where we had always to stoop on entering. Within were our bunks, a tiny stove, a few boxes to sit on, a few dishes, our grub; that was all. Often we regretted our big cabin on the hill, with its calico-lined “den” and its separate kitchen. But in this little box of a home we were to put in many weary months.
Not that the time seemed long to us; we were too busy for that. Indeed, often we wished it were twice as long. Snow had fallen in September, and by December we were in an arctic world of uncompromising harshness. Day after day the glass stood between forty and fifty degrees below zero. It was hatefully, dangerously cold. It seemed as if the frost-fiend had a cruel grudge against us. It made us grim—and careful. We didn’t talk much in those days. We just worked, worked, worked, and when we did talk it was of our work, our ceaseless work.
Would we strike it rich? It was all a gamble, the most exciting gamble in the world. It thrilled our day hours with excitement; it haunted our sleep; it lent strength to the pick-stroke and vigor to the windlass-crank. It made us forget the bitter cold, till some one would exclaim, and gently knead the fresh snow on our faces. The cold burned our cheeks a fierce brick-red, and a frost-bite showed on them like a patch of white putty. The old scars, never healing, were like patches of lamp-black.
But neither cold nor fatigue could keep ILS away from the shaft and the drift. We had gone down to bed-rock, and were tunnelling in to meet the hole the halfbreed had covered up. So far we had found nothing. Every day we panned samples of the dirt, always getting colors, sometimes a fifty-cent pan, but never what we dreamed of, hoped for.
“Wait, boys, till we get a two-hundreddollar pan, then we’ll begin to whoop it up some.”
Once the company manager came down on a dog-team. He looked over our shaft. He wore a coon coat, with a cap of beaver, and huge fur mits hung by a cord around his neck. He was massive and imposing. Spiky icicles bristled around his mouth.
“What luck, boys?” His breath came like steam.
“None, so far,” we told him, and off he went into the frozen gloom, saying he hoped we would strike it before long.
“Wait a while.”
We were working two men to a shaft, burning our ground over night. The Prodigal and I manned the windlasses, while the old miners went down the drifts. It was a cold, cold job standing there on that rugged platform turning the windlass-crank. Long before it was fairly light we got to our posts, and lowered our men into the hole. The air was warmer down there in the drift ; but the work was harder, more difficult and dangerous.
At noon there was no sunshine, only a wan, ashen light that suffused the sky. A deathlike stillness lay on the valley, not a quiver or movement in leaf or blade. The snow was a shroud, smooth save where the funeral pines pricked through. In that intensity of cold, that shivering agony of desolation, it seemed as if nature was laughing at us—the Cosmic Laugh.
Our meals were hurriedly cooked and bolted. We grudged every moment of our respite from toil. At night we often were far too weary to undress. We lost our regard for cleanliness; we neglected ourselves. Always we talked of the result of the day’s panning and the chances of to-morrow. Surely we would strike it soon.
“Wait a while.”
Colder it grew and colder. Our kerosene flowed like mush. The water froze solid in our kettle. Our bread was full of icy particles. Everything had to be thawed out continually. It was tiresome, exasperating, when we were in such a devil of a hurry. It kept us back; it angered us, this pest of a cold. Our tempers began to suffer. We were short, taciturn. The strain was beginning to tell on us.
“Wait a while.”
Then, one afternoon, the Something happened. It was Jim who was the chosen one. About three o’clock he signalled to be hoisted up, and when he appeared he was carrying a pan of dirt. “Call the others,” he said.
All together in the little cabin we stood round, while Jim washed out the pan in snow-water melted over our stove. I will never forget how eagerly we watched the
gravel, and the whirling, dexterous movements of the old man. We could see gleams of yellow in the muddy water. Thrills of joy and hope went through us. We had got the thing, the big thing, at last.
“Hurry, Jim,” I said, “or I’ll die of
Patiently he went on. There it was at last in the bottom of the pan. Sweeter to our eyes than to a woman the sight of her first-born, there it lay, glittering, gleaming gold, fine gold, coarse gold, nuggety gold.
“Now, boys, you can whoop it up,” said Jim quietly; “for there’s many and many a pan like it down there in the drift.”
But never a whoop. What was the matter with us? When the fortune we had longed for so eagerly came at last, we did not greet it even with a cheer. Oh, we were painfully silent.
Solemnly we shook hands all round.
“Now to weigh it,” said the Prodigal.
On the tiny pair of scales we turned it out—ninety-five dollars’ worth.
Well, it was a good start, and we were all possessed with a frantic eagerness to go down in the drift. I crawled along the tunnel. There, in the face of it, I could see the gold shining, and the longer I looked the more I seemed to see. It was rich, rich. I picked out and burnished a nugget as large as a filbert. There were lots of others like it. It was a strike. The question was: how much was there of it? The half breed soon settled our doubts on that score.
“It stands to reason the pay runs between where I first found it and where we’ve struck it now. That alone means a tidy stake for each of us. Say, boys,_ if you were to cover all that distance with twenty-dollar gold-pieces six feet wide, and packed edge to edge, I wouldn’t take them for our interest in that bit of ground. I see a fine big ranch in Manitoba for my share; ay, and hired help to run it. The only thing that sticks in my gullet is that fifty per cent, to the company.”
“Well, we can’t kick,” I said; “we’d never have got the lay if they’d had a hunch. My! won’t they be sore.”
Sure enough, in a few days, the news leaked out, and the manager came posthaste.
“Hear you’ve struck it rich, boys.”
“So rich that I guess we’ll have to pack down gravel from the benches to mix in before we can sluice it,” said the Prodigal.
“You don’t say. Well, I’ll have a man on the ground to look after our interests.” “All right. It means a good thing for you.”
“Yes, but it would have meant a better if we had worked it ourselves. However, you boys deserve your luck. Hello, the devil-”
He turned round and saw the halfbreed. He gave a long whistle and went away, looking pensive.
It was the night of the discovery when the Prodigal made us an address.
“Look here, boys; do you know what this means? It means victory; it means freedom, happiness, the things we want, the life we love. To me it means travel, New York, Paris, evening dress, the opera. To McCrimmon here it means his farm. Each according to his notion, it means the ‘Things That Matter.’
“Now, we’ve just begun. The hardest part is to come, is to get out the fortune that’s right under our feet. We’re going to get every cent of it, boys. There’s a little over three months to do it in, leaving about a month to make sluice-boxes and clean up the dirt. Now we’ve got to work like men at a burning barn. We’ve worked hard, but we’ve got to go some yet. For my part, I’m willing to do stunts that will make my previous record look like a plugged dime. I guess you boys all feel the same way.”
“You bet we do.”
“Well, nuf sed; let’s get busy.”
So, once more, with redoubled energy, we resumed our tense, unremitting round of toil. Now, however, it was vastly different. Every bucket of dirt meant money in our pockets, every stroke of the pick a dollar. Not that it was all like the first rich pocket we had struck. It proved a most erratic and puzzling paystreak—one day rich beyond our dreams, another too poor to pay for the panning. We swung on a pendulum of hope and despair. Perhaps this made it all the more exciting,
and stimulated us unnaturally, and always we cursed that primitive method of mining that made every bucket of dirt the net result of infinite labor.
Every day our two dumps increased in size (for we had struck pay on the other shaft) and every day our assurance and elation increased correspondingly. It was bruited around that we had one of the richest bits of ground in the country, and many came to gaze at us. It used to lighten my labors at the windlass to see their looks of envy and to hear their awestricken remarks.
“That’s one of them,” they would say; “one of the lucky four, the lucky laymen.”
So, as the facts, grossly exaggerated, got noised abroad, they came to call us the “Lucky Laymen.”
Looking back, there will always seem to me something weird and incomprehensible in those twilight days, an unreality, a vagueness like some dreary, feverish dream. For three months I did not see my face in a mirror. Not that I wanted to, but I mention this just to show how little wre thought of ourselves.
In like manner, never did I have a moment’s time to regard my inner self in the mirror of consciousness. No mental analysis now; no long hours of retrospection, no tete-a-tete interviews with my soul. At times I felt as if I had lost my identity. The gold-lust had dispossessed me of myself. I was a slave of the genii Gold, releasing it from its prison in the frozen bowels of the earth. I was an automaton turning a crank in the frozen stillness of the long, long night.
It was a life despotically objective, and now, as I look back, it seems as if I had never lived it at all. I seem to look down a long, dark funnel and see a little machine-man bearing my semblance, patiently, steadily, wearily turning the handle of the windlass in the clear lancinating cold of those sombre, silent days.
I say “bearing my outward semblance,” and yet I sometimes wonder if that rough-bearded figure in heavy woolen clothes looked the least like me. I wore heavy sweaters, mackinaw trousers, thick German socks and moccasins. From frequent freezing my cheeks were corroded. I was miserably thin, and my eyes had a wild, staring expression through the pupils
dilating in the long darkness. Yes, mentally and physically I was no more like myself than a convict enduring out his life in the soulless routine of a prison.
The days were lengthening marvellously. We noted the fact with dull joy. It meant more light, more time, more dirt in the dump. So it came about that, from ten hours of toil, we went to twelve, to fourteen ; then, latterly, to sixteen, and the tension of it was wearing us down to skin and bone.
We were all feeling wretched, overstrained, ill-nourished, and it was only voicing the general sentiment when, one day, the Prodigal remarked:
“I guess I’ll have to let up for a couple of days. My teeth are all on the bum. I’m going to town to see a dentist.”
“Let me look at them,” said the halfbreed.
He looked. The gums were sullen, unwholesome-looking.
“Why, it’s a touch of scurvy, lad; a little while, and you’d be spitting out your teeth like orange pips; your legs would turn black, and when you squeezed your fingers into the flesh the hole would stay. You’d get rotten, then you’d mortify and die. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to cure. Nothing responds to treatment so readily.”
He made a huge brew of green-spruce tea, of which we all partook, and in a few days the Prodigal was fit again.
It was mid-March when we finished working out our ground. We had done well. Not so well, perhaps, as we laid hoped for, but still magnificently well. Never had men worked harder, never fought more desperately for success. There were our two dumps, pyramids of gold-permeated dirt at whose value we could only guess. We had wrested our treasure from the icy grip of the eternal frost. Now it remained — and 0, the sweetness of it—to glean the harvest of our toil.
“The water’s beginning to run, boys,” said the half-breed. “A few more days and we’ll be able to start sluicing.”
The news was like a flood of sunshine to us. For days we had been fixing up the boxes and getting everything in readiness. The sun beat strongly on the snow,
which almost visibly seemed to retreat before it. The dazzling white surface was crisp and flaky, and around the tree boles curving hollows had formed. Here and there brown earth peered nakedly through. Every day the hillside runnels grew in strength.
We were working at the mouth of a creek down which ran a copious little stream all through the spring-time. We tapped it some distance above us, and ran part of it down our long line of sluiceboxes. These boxes went between our two dumps, so that it was easy to shovel in from both sides. Nothing could have been more convenient.
At last, after a day of hot sunshine, we found quite a freshet of water coming down the boxes, leaping and dancing in the morning light. I remember how I threw in the first shovelful of dirt, and how good it was to see the bright stream discolor as our friend the water began his magic work. For three days we shovelled in, and on the fourth we made a cleanup.
“I guess it’s time,” said Jim, “or those riffles will be gettin’ choked up.”
. And, sure enough, when we ran off the water, there were some of them almost full of the yellow metal, wet and shiny, gloriously agleam in the morning light.
“There’s ten thousand dollars if there’s an ounce,” said the company’s man, and the weigh-up proved he was right. So the gold was packed in two long buckskin pokes and sent into town to be deposited in the bank.
Day after day we went on shovelling in, and about twice a week we made a cleanup. The month of May was half over when we had only a third of our dirt run through the boxes. We were terribly afraid of the water failing us, and worked harder than ever. Indeed, it was difficult to tell when to leave off. The nights were never dark now; the daylight was over twenty hours in duration. The sun described an ellipse, rising a little east of north and setting a little west of north. We shovelled in till we were too exhausted to lift another ounce. Then we lay down in our clothes and slept as soon as we touched the pillow.
“There’s eighty thousand to our credit in the bank, and only a third of our
dump’s gone. Hooray, boys!” said the Prodigal.
About one o'clock in the morning the birds began to sing, and the sunset glow had not faded from the sky ere the sunrise quickened it with life once more. Who that has lived in the North will ever forget the charm, the witchery of those midnight skies, where the fires of the sun are banked and never cold. Surely long after all else is forgotten will linger the memory of those mystic nights with all their haunting spell of weird, disconsolate solitude.
One afternoon I was working on the dump, intent on shovelling in as much dirt as possible before supper, when, on looking up, who should greet me but Locaste. Since our la^t interview in town I had not seen him, and, somehow, this sudden sight of him came as a kind of a shock. Yet the manner of the man as he approached me was hearty in the extreme. He held out his great hand to me, and as I had no desire to antagonise him, I gave him my own.
He was riding. His big, handsome face was bronzed, his black eyes clear and sparkling, his white teeth gleamed like mammoth ivory. He certainly was a dashing, dominant figure of a man, and, in spite of myself, I admired him.
His manner in his salutation was cordial, even winning.
“I’ve just been visiting some of my creek properties,” he said. “I heard you fellows had made a good strike, and I thought I’d come down and congratulate you. It is pretty good, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said; “not quite so good as we expected, but we ll all have a tidy sum.”
“I’m glad. Well, I suppose you’ll go outside this fall.”
“iSo, I think I’ll stay in. You see, we’ve the Gold Hill property, which looks promising; and then we have two claims on Ophir.”
“Oh, Ophir. Y ell, I don’t think you’ll ever take a fortune out of Ophir. I bought a claim there the other day. The man pestered me, so I gave him five thousand for it, just to get rid of him. It’s eight below.”
“Why,” I said, “that’s the claim I staked and got beaten out of.”
“You don’t sav so. Well, now, that’s too bad. I bought it from a man named
Spankiller; his brother’s a clerk in the gold office. Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you have it for the five thousand I gave for it.”
“No,” I said, “1 don’t think I want it now.”
“All right; think it over, anyway. If you should change your mind, let me know. Well, I must go. I’ve got to get into town to-night. * That’s my muletrain back there on the trail. I’ve got pretty nearly ten thousand ounces over there.”
I looked and saw the mules with the gold-packs slung over their backs. There were four men to guard them, and it seemed to me that in one of these men I saw the little wizened figure of the Worm.
“Yes, I’ve done pretty well,” he continued; “but it don’t make any difference. I spend it as fast as I get it. A month ago I didn’t have enough ready cash to pay my cigar bill, yet I could have gone to the bank and borrowed a hundred thousand. It was there in the dump. Oh, it’s a rum business this mining. Well, goodbye.”
He was turning to go when, suddenly, he stopped.
“Oh, by the way, I saw a friend of yours before I left. No need to mention names, you lucky dog. When’s the big thing coming off? Well, I must congratulate you again. She looks sweeter than ever. By-by.”
He was off, leaving a very sinister impression on my mind. In his parting smile there was a trace of mockery that gravely disquieted me. I had thought much of Berna during the past few months, but as the gold fever took hold of me I put her more and more from mv mind. I told myself that all this struggle was for her. In the thought that she was safe I calmed all anxious fear. Sometimes by not thinking so much of dear ones, one can be more thoughtful of them. So it was with me. I knew that all my concentration of effort was for her sake, and would bring her nearer to me. Yet at Locasto’s words all my old longing and heartache vehemently resurged.
In spite of myself, I was the prey of a growing uneasiness. Things seemed vastly different, now success had come to me.
I could not bear to think of her working
in that ambiguous restaurant, rubbing shoulders with its unspeakable habitués. I wondered how I had ever deceived myself into thinking it was all right. I began to worry, so that I knew only a trip into Dawson would satisfy me. Accordingly, I hired a big Swede to take my place at the shovel, and set out once more on the hillside trail for town.
I found the town more animated than ever, the streets more populous, the gayety more unrestrained. Everywhere were flaunting signs of a plethoric wealth. The anxious Cheechako had vanished from the scene, and the victorious miner masqueraded in his place. He swaggered along in the glow of the spring sunshine, a picture of perfect manhood, bronzed and lean and muscular. He was brimming over with the exuberance of health. He had come into town to “live” things, to transmute this yellow dust into happiness, to taste the wine of life, to know the lips of flame.
It was the day of the Man with the Poke. He was King. The sheer animalism of him overflowed in midnight rovsterings, in bacchanalian revels, in debauches among the human débris of the tenderloin.
Every one was waiting for him, to fleece him, rob him, strip him. It was also the day of the man behind the bar, of the gambler, of the harpy.
My strange, formless fears for Berna were soon set at rest. She was awaiting me. She looked better than I had ever seen her, and she welcomed me with an eager delight that kindled me to rapture.
“Just think of it,” she said, “only two weeks, and we’ll be together for always. It seems too good to be true. Oh, my dear, how can I ever love you enough? How happy we are going to be, aren’t we?”
“We’re going to be happier than any two people ever were before,” I assured her.
We crossed the Yukon to the green glades of North Dawson, and there, on a little rise, we sat down, side by side. How I wish I could put into words the joy that filled my heart. Never was lad so happy as I. I spoke but little, for love’s silences are sweeter than all words. Well, well, I mind me how she looked: just like a
picture, her hands clasped on her lap, her eyes star-bright, angel-sweet, mothertender. From time to time she would give me a glance so full of trust and love my heart would leap to her, and wave on wave of passionate tenderness come sweeping over me.
It may be there was something humble in my stintless adoration ; it may be I was like a child for the pleasure of her nearness; it may be my eyes told all too well of the fire that burned within me, but 0, the girl was kind, gentler than forgiveness, sweeter than all heaven. Caressingly she touched my hair. I kissed her fingers, kissed them again and again; and then she lifted my hand to her lips, and I felt her kiss fall upon it. How wondrously I tingled at the touch. My hand seemed mine no longer—a consecrated thing. Proud, happy me!
“Yes,” she went on, “doesn’t it seem as if we were dreaming? You know, I always thought it was a dream, and now it’s coming true. You’ll take me away from this place, won’t you, boy?—far, far away from this hideous life. I’ll tell you now, dear, I’ve borne it all for your sake, but I don’t think I could bear it any longer. I would rather die than sink in the mire, and yet you can’t imagine how this life affects one. It’s sad, sad, but I don’t get shocked at things in the wav I used to. You know, I sometimes think a girl, no matter how good, sweet, modest to begin with, placed in such surroundings could fall gradually.”
I agreed with her. Too well I knew I was becoming calloused to the evils around me. Such was the insiduous corruption of the gold-camp. I now regarded with indifference things, when a year ago I would have shrunk from with disgust.
“Well, it will be all over very soon, won’t it dear? I don’t know what I’d have done if it hadn’t been for the rough miners. They’ve been so kind to me. When they saw I was straight and honest they couldn’t be good enough. They shielded me in every way, and kept back the other kind of men. Even the women have been my friends and helped me.”
She looked at me archly.
“And, you know, I’ve had ever so many offers of marriage, too, from honest,
rough, kindly men — and I’ve refused them ever so gracefully.”
“Has Locasto ever made any more overtures?”
Her face grew grave.
“Yes, about a month ago he besieged me, gave me no rest, made all kinds of proposals and promises. He wanted to divorce his ‘outside’ wife and marry me. He wanted to settle a hundred thousand dollars on me. He tried everything in his power to force me to his will. Then, when he saw it was no use, he turned round and begged me to let him be my friend. He spoke so nicely of you. He said he would help us in any way he could. He’s everything that’s kind to me now. He can’t do enough for me. Yet, somehow, 1 don’t trust him.”
“Well, my precious,” I said, “all danger, doubt, despair, will soon be over. Locasto and the rest of them will be as shadows, never to haunt my little girl again. The Great, Black North will fade away, will dissolve into the land of sunshine and flowers and song. You will forget it.”
“The Great Black North.—I will never forget it, and I will always bless it. It has given me my love, the best love in all the world.”
“0, my darling, my Life, I’ll take you away from it all soon, soon. We’ll go to my home, to Garry, to Mother. They will love you as I love you.”
“I’m sure I will love them. What you have told me of them makes them seem very real to me. Will you not be ashamed of me?”
“I will be proud, proud of vou, mv girl.”
Ah, would I not? I looked at that flower-like face the sunshine glorified so, the pretty, bright hair falling away from her low brow in little waves, the lily throat, the delicately patrician features, the proud poise of her head. Who would not have been proud of her? She awoke all that was divine in me. I looked as one might look on a vision, scarce able to believe it real.
Suddenly she pointed excitedly.
“Look, dear, look at the rainbow. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it beautiful?”
. I gazed in rapt admiration. Across the river a shower had fallen, and the clouds, clearing away abruptly, had left there a
twin rainbow of matchless perfection. Its double arch was poised as accurately over the town as if it had been painted there. Each hoop was flawless in form, lovely in hue, tenderly luminous, exquisite in purity. Never had I seen the double iris so immaculate in coloring, and, with its bases resting on the river, it curved over the gold-born city like a frame of ethereal beauty.
“Does it not seem, dear, like an answer to our prayer, an omen of good hope, a promise for the future?”
“Yes, beloved, our future, yours and mine. The clouds are rolling away. All is bright with sunshine once again, and God sends his rainbow to cheer and comfort us. It will not be long now. On the first day of June, beloved, I will come to you, and we will be made man and wife. You will be waiting for me, will you not?”
“Yes, yes, waiting ever so eagerly, my lover, counting every hour, every minute.”
I kissed her passionately, and we held each other tightly for a moment. I saw come into her eyes that look which comes but once into the eyes of a maid, that look of ineffable self-surrender, of passionate abandonment. Life is niggard of such moments, yet can our lives be summed up in them.
She rested her head on my shoulder; her lips lay on mine, and they moved faintly.
“Yes, lover, yes, the first of June. Don’t fail me, honey, don’t fail me.”
We parted buoyant with hope, in an ecstasy of love. Yes, she was for me, this beautiful, tender girl, for me. And the time was nigh when she should be mine, mine to adore until the end. Always would she be by my side; daily could I plot and plan to give her pleasure; every hour by word and look and act could I lavish on her the exhaustless measure of my love. Ah! life would be too short for me. ^ Could aught in this petty purblind existence of ours redeem it and exalt it so: her love, this pure sweet girl’s, and mine. Let nations grapple, let Mammon triumph, let pestilence o’erwhelm : what matter, we love, we love, 0 proud, happy me!
I got back to the claim. Everything was going merrily, but I felt little desire to resume my toil. I was strangely tired, wearied, worn out somehow. Yet I took up my shovel again with a body that rebelled in every tissue. Never had I felt like this before. Something was wrong with me. I was weak. At night I sweated greatly. I cared not to eat.
I went down to the Forks to buy some kind of a tonic. In Dawson they used to say: “Well, this town of ours has got everything that ever was beaten for liveliness; but if you want to see real high life, go to the Forks. It’s the limit.”
And surely that little town at the junction of Bonanza and Eldorado was eternally the limit. Right in the heart of the treasure valley it was the first overbrimming outlet of that golden stream that inundated the larger city. Here vice was cruder, more untrammelled, without any redeeming feature of refinement. The sirens of San Francisco were the harpies of Dawson, and the harpies of Dawson were the harridans of the Forks, demireps of the most abandoned type. And the men, mad with success, crazed with liquor, insane with excitement, and lust, gave themselves up to the wildest orgies. It was a saturnalia of sin. I have seen the wine flowing over the thresholds of doors, sluicing out the gold that was in the sawdust of the saloon floors.
That night I saw something I will never forget, something that seemed to me to typify the whole hideous aftermath of the gold greed. I state it starkly and plainly.
It was in the Gold Hill Saloon. The place was crowded with drunken revellers. Gramophones were in full blast, men shouting, women singing. It was hell let loose.
Suddenly there was a vast roar, and every one cleared a space. Then into that fierce ferment of excited revelry there walked a drunken miner, a grey-haired old man. In each hand he held a poke of dust worth maybe about five thousand dollars, and hanging upon each arm was a naked woman. They paraded up and down the floor to the tune of a popular march, amid roars of laughter, hilarious merriment.
To me it has always seemed to sum up the whole situation, that drunken old
miner, the gold dust, the two naked harridans.
“Well,” said the Prodigal, “it’s all over but the shouting. From my calculations we’ve cleaned up two hundred and six thousand dollars. That’s a hundred and three between us four. It’s cost us about three to get out the stuff ; so there will be, roughly speaking, about twenty-five thousand for each of us.”
How jubilant every one was looking— every one but me. Somehow I felt as if money didn’t matter just then, for I was sick, sick, sick.
“Why, what’s the matter?” said the Prodigal, staring at me curiously. “You looke like a ghost.”
“I feel like one, too,” I answered. “I’m afraid I’m in for a bad spell. I want to lie down awhile, boys . . . I’m tired
. . . The first of June, I’ve got a
date on the first of June. I must keep it, I must . . . Don’t let me sleep too
long, boys. I mustn’t fail. It’s a matter of life and death. The first of June . .”
Alas, on the first of June I lay in the hospital, raving and tossing in the clutches of typhoid fever.
I was lying in bed, and a heavy weight was pressing on me, so that, in spite of my struggles, I could not move. I was hot, insufferably hot. The blood ran boiling through my veins. My flesh was burning up. My brain would not work. It was all cobwebs, murky and stale as a charnelhouse. Yet at times were strange illuminations, full of terror and despair. Blood-red lights and purple shadows alternated in my vision. Then came the dreams.
* * * * * *
There was always Berna. Through a mass of grimacing, greed-contorted faces gradually there formed and lingered her sweet and pensive one. We were in a strange costume, she and I. It seemed like that of the early Georges. We were running away, fleeing from some one, I thought. For her sake a great fear and anxiety possessed me. We were eloping, I fancied.
There was a marsh to cross, a hideous quagmire, and our pursuers were close. We started over the quaking ground,
then, suddenly, I saw her sink. I rushed to aid her, and I, too, sank. We were to our necks in the soft ooze, and there on the bank, watching us, was the foremost of our hunters. He laughed at our struggles; he mocked us; he rejoiced to see us drown. And in my dream the face of the man seemed strangely like Locasto.
We were in a bower of roses, she and I. It was still further back in history. We seemed to be in the garden of a palace. I was in doublet and hose, and she wore a long, flowing kirtle. The air was full of fragrance and sunshine. Birds were singing. A fountain scattered a shower of glittering diamonds on the breeze. She was sitting on the grass, while I reclined by her side, my head lying on her lap. Above me I could see her face like a lily bending over me. With dainty fingers she crumpled a rose and let the petals snow down on me.
Then suddenly, I was seized, torn away from her by a man in black, who roughly choked her screams. I was dragged off, thrown into a foul cell, left many days. Then, one night, I was dragged forth and brought before a grim tribunal in a hall of gloom and horror. They pronounced my doom—Death. The chief Inquisitor raised his mask, and in those gloatingfeatures I recognized—Locasto.
Again it seemed as if I were still further back in history in some city under the Roman rule. Í was returning from the Temple with my bride. How fair and fresh and beautiful she was, garlanded with flowers and radiantly happy. Again it was Berna.
Suddenly there are shouts, the beating of drums, the clash of cymbals. The great Governor of the Province is coming. He passes with his retinue. Suddenly he catches sight of her whom I have but newly wed. He stops. He asks who is the maid. They tell him. He looks at me with haughty contempt. He gives a sign. His servants seize her and drag her screamingly away. I try to follow, to kill him. I, too, am seized, overpowered. They bind me, put out my eyes. The Roman sees them do it. He laughs as the red-hot iron kisses my eye-balls. He
mocks me, telling me what a dainty feast awaits him in my bride. Again I see Locasto.
Then came another phase of my delirium, in which I struggled to get to her. She wras waiting for me, wanting me, breaking her heart at my delay. O, Berna, my soul, my life, since the beginning of things we were fated. ’Tis no flesh love, but something deeper, something that has its source at the very core of being. It is not for your sweet face, your gentle spirit, my love, that you are dearer to me than all else: it is because —you are you. If all the world were to turn against you, flout you, stone you, then would I rush to your side, shield you, die with you. If you were attainted with leprosy, I would enter the lazarhouse for your sake.
“O Berna, I must see you, I must, I must. Let me go to her . . . now
. . . dear! She’s calling me. She’s in trouble. Oh, for the love of God, let me go . . . let me go, I say. . . . Damn you, I will. She’s in trouble. You can’t hold me. I’m stronger than you all when she calls . . . Let me ... let me. . . . Oh, oh, oh . you’re
hurting me so I’m weak, yes, weak as a baby. . . . Berna, my child, my poor little girl, I can do nothing. There’s a mountain weighing me down. There’s a slab of gold on my chest. They’re burning me up. My veins are on fire. I can’t
come. ... I can’t, dear.....
I’m tired. . . .”
Then the fever, the ravings, the wild threshing of my pillow, all passed away, and I was left limp, weak, helpless, resigned to my fate.
I was on the sunny slope of convalescence. The Prodigal had remained with me as long as I was in danger, but now, that I had turned the corner, he had gone back to the creeks, so that I was left alone with only my thoughts for company. As I turned and twisted on my narrow cot it seemed as if the time would never pass. All I wanted was to get better fast, and to get out again. Then, I thought, I would marry Berna and go “outside.” I was sick of the country, of everything.
As I was lying thinking over these things, I became conscious that the man in the cot to the right was trying to at-
tract my attention. He had been brought in that very morning, said to have been kicked by a horse. One of his ribs was broken, and his face was badly smashed. He was in great pain, but quite conscious, and he was making stealthy motions to
“Say, mate,” he said, “I piped you off soon’s I set my lamps on you. Don’t youse know me?”
I looked at the bandaged face wonderingly.
“Don’t you spot de man dat near let youse down de shaft?”
Then, with a great start, I saw it was the Worm.
“ ’Taint no horse done me up,” he said in a hoarse whisper; “ ’twas a man. You know de man, de worst devil in all Alaska, Black Jack. Bad luck to him! He knocked me down and give me de leather. But I’m goin’ to get even some day. I’m just laying for him. I wouldn’t be in his shoes for de richest claim in de Klondike.”
The man’s eyes glittered vengefully be • tween the white bandages.
“ ’Twas all on account of de little girl he done it. You know de girl I mean. Black Jack’s dead stuck on her, an’ de furder she stands him off, de more set he is to get her. Youse dpn’t know dat man. He’s never had de '
“Tell me what’s the matter, lui uuu s
“Well, when youse didn’t come, de little girl she got worried. I used to be doin’ chores round de restaurant, an’ she asks me to take a note up to you. So I said I would. But I got on a drunk dat day, and for a week after I didn’t draw a sober breath. When I gets around again I told her I’d seen you and’ given you de note an’ you was cornin’ in right away.”
“Heaven forgive you for that,” I said.
“Yep, dat’s what I say now. But it’s all too late. Well, a week went on an’ you never showed up, an’ meantime Locasto was pesterin’ her cruel. She got mighty peaked like, pale as a ghost, an’ I could see she cried most all her nights. Den she gives me anudder note. She gives me a hundred dollars to take dat note to you. I said she could lay on me dis time. I was de hurry-up kid. an’ I starts off. But Black Jack must have cottoned on, for he meets me back
of de town and taxes me wid takin’ a message. Den he sets on me like a wild beast and does me up good and proper. But I’ll fix him yet.”
“Where are the notes?” I cried.
“In the pocket of me coat. Tell de nurse to fetch in me clothes, an’ I’ll give dem to youse.”
The nurse brought the clothes, but the little man was too sore to move.
“Feel in de inside pocket.”
There were the notes, folded very small, and written in pencil. There was a strange faintness at my heart, and my fingers trembled as I opened them. Fear, fear was clutching me, compressing me in an agonizing grip.
Here was the first.
“MY DARLING BOY: Why didn’t you come? I was all ready for you.
0, it was such a terrible disappointment. I’ve cried myself to sleep every nignt since. Has anything happened to you, dear? For Heaven’s sake write or send a message. I can’t bear the suspense.
Blankly, dully, almost mechanically, I read the second.
“0, come, my dear, at once. I’m in serious danger. He’s grown desperate. Swears if he can’t get me by fair means he’ll have me by foul. I’m terribly afraid. Why ar’n’t you here to protect me? Why have you failed me? 0, my darling, have pity on your poor little girl. Come quickly before it is too late.”
It was unsigned.
Heavens! I must go to her at once. I was well enough. I was all right again. Why would they not let me go to her? I would crawl on my hands and knees if need be. I was strong, so strong now.
Ah! there were the Worm’s clothes. ^ It was after midnight, The nurse had just finished her rounds. All was quiet in the ward.
Dizzily I rose and slipped into the frayed and greasy garments. There were the hospital slippers. I must wear them. Never mind a hat.
I was out in the street. I shuffled along, and people stared at me, but no one delayed me. I was at the restaurant now. She wasn’t there. Ah! the cabin on the hill.
I was weaker than I had thought. Once or twice in a half-faiting condition I stopped and steadied myself by holding a sapling tree. Then the awful thought of her danger possessed me, and gave me fresh strength. Many times I stumbled, cutting myself on the sharp boulders. Once I lay for a long time half-unconscious, wondering if ever I would be able to rise. I reeled like a drunken man. The way seemed endless, yet stumbling, staggering on, there was the cabin at last.
A light was burning in the front room. Some one was at home at all events. Only a few steps more, yet once again I fell. I remember striking my face against a sharp rock. Then, on my hands and knees, I crawled to the door.
I raised myself and hammered with clenched fists. There was silence within, then an agitated movement. I knocked again. I wondered if the door was ever going to be opened, but at last it was, with a suddenness that precipitated me inside the room.
The madam was standing over me where I had fallen. At sight of me she screamed. Surprise, fear, rage, struggled for mastery on her face. “It’s him,” she cried, “him.” Peering over her shoulder, with ashy, horrified face, I saw her trembling husband.
“Berna,”1 gasped hoarsely. “Where is she? I want Berna. What are you doing to her, you devils? Give her to me. She’s mine, my promised bride. Let me go to her, I say.”
The woman barred the way. Suddenly, from the darkness of the inner room, I saw a face, the fiendish rage-distorted face of my dreams. It was Locasto.
Then all at once I realized that the air was heavy with a strange odor, the odor of chloroform, and at the same instant
I heard a low moan of agony.'
Merciful Christ ! what were they doing to her? What horrible thing was happening? Frenzied with fear, I rushed forward.
Then the Amazon roused herself. With a cry of rage she struck me. Savagely both of them came for me. I struggled, I fought ; but, weak as I was, they carried me before them and threw me from the door. I heard the lock shoot; I was outside; I was impotent. Yet behind those log walls I knew a ghastly outrage was being done to the one I loved best on earth. Oh, it was horrible! horrible! Could such things be in God’s world? And I could do nothing.
I was stronger once more. I ran round to the back of the cabin. She was in there, I knew. I rushed at the wdndow and threw myself against it. The storm frame had not been taken off. Crash! I burst through both sheets of glass. I was cruelly cut, bleeding in a dozen places, yet I was half into the room.
There, in the dirty, drab light, I could see a little limp, unconscious figure lying on the bed, and, standing by her, Locasto.
He turned at the crash. He saw me. His face was devilish in its rage. With a curse he came at me. Then, as I hung half in, half ou> of the window, he clutcn ed -TV* ' ’ throat. Using all his
strengtn,’ ne raised me further into the room, then he hurled me ruthlessly out onto the rocks outside.
I rose, reeling, covered with blood, blind, sick, speechless. Weakly 1 staggered to the window. My strength was leaving me. “0 God, sustain me! Help me to save her.”
Then I felt the world go blank. I swayed: I clutched at the walls; I fell.
There I lay in a ghastly, unconscious heap.
I had lost ! I hd lost !
(To be Continued.)