HE CAME up from the coast with the rush that started when gold was found on Ragged Creek, one hundred and eighty miles inland, a whale of a man with a gigantic body and calm blue eyes. Then, halfway to Eldorado, he stayed on the portage that leads from Black take to the Yukon River— and let the rush surge by.
To hundreds of excited men, and to the few hysterical woman in that breathless procession, the figure of Big John, fur thus he was known, stood out as the strangest thing in all that frost smitten land. He was within forty miles of treasure, but let others sweep past and take it. The strongest of them all was the most ineffectual, or. at least, had lost the final spark of ambition. Ragged Creek yielded stuff that ran two ounces to the pan, but that did not move him. And when more gold was found further on. Big John put a new' roof on his shack and stuck tighter than ever.
At the end of thefirst month he had earned six hundred dollars by packing loads across the portage. Like the Mormons who settled on the Overland trail to California, he took tribute from the stream of treasure seekers, who cared not what it cost to save an hour. Every foot of that rugged mile was imprinted on his brain. He traversed it methodically beneath a mountain of other men’s goods, the tump line drawn tight ox er his forehead, his sinews taut like steel, his x'ast lungs sending out vaporous exhalations like those of some prehistoric animal. Five dollars for all he could carry was the tariff—and he carried four hundred weight every trip.
That was for those who were making the journey in to Ragged Creek.
It Vas different for those who came out—if they came empty handed.
Big John could tell at a glance how fortune fared, and took no tribute from the defeated. His back and shoulders were at their serxdce w'ithout price. More than that, no man left the portage hungry, and many there were who passed that way, and went on with the bitterness of failure strangely assuaged, and memories of a soft, deep x-oice and a pair of quiet blue eyes, which helped to mitigate the blows of fate.
SO IT came about that in six months Big John was known throughout that wind-whipped district as something different from his fellows. Greed had not touched him, nor avarice, nor envy of his kind. The women who crossed the portage stared at him admiringly, wondered what mystery lay behind his calm gaze, then drifted down the Yukon with a feeling that they had left behind something x-ery like a hax-en of refuge. The original shack disappeared and was replaced by a workmanlike cabin of heaxy timber with neatly notched corners, and a big fireplace where the flames leaped at night, and John sat smoking while he pored over a month old number of the Seattle Tribune. Then one day a man and woman came out from Ragged Creek.
He knewthe minute he looked at them what the story was, but the quiet eyes changed not at all. The woman, he decided, wa3 the finest he had exrer seen, tall and straight, with full, red lips and hair like night. She moved with an easy' strength that curiously resembled the way he went about things himself. And if she was defeated, there was no sign of it in her proud, smooth face.
The man was otherwise, and John had an odd impression that he had seen him before. Small, with sloping shoulders, a thin face and evasive eyes that seemed not to look straight at anything. He coughed incessantly with a sharp, dry', barking sound, and staggered a little as he stepped out of the canoe. Then he sat down and stared helplessly at his dunnage. The woman felt in her pocket, and looked Big John full in the face.
“You help people over, don’t you?”
“What do you ask to move this load to Black Lake?”
“Nothing,” he said slowly, then, with a glance at the man “But it’s too late to start now.”
Her eyes travelled over the much used camping ground, from which all available firewood had been cut long since.
“We can’t stay here.”
John smiled. The little man had not spoken, nor did his companion seem to expect it.
“You needn’t. I’ve got plenty of room.”
She made an uncertain gesture, and he waited with a queer sense of unreality. Of all who had crossed Black Lake portage, there had been no woman like this, and he became suddenly aware that here was the one he had looked for ever since he was a boy. Slowly the thought possessed him. It explained so much he did not understand before. The little man gave vent to a strangling noise.
“Good business; we’ll stay.”
“We can’t afford it,” she said, the colour climbing to her cheek. “We’ve got to push on to outside.”
BIG JOHN was lashing the contents of the canoe into one huge bundle. He swung this on his back, then, stooping gingerly, picked up the canoe itself as though it were a feather, and balanced it upside down like a gigantic helmet.
“Come on,” he said over his shoulder, and strode down the trail.
That was the coming of Mary Eden to Black Lake portage. So far as concerned Henry Eden, it seemed they had reached there just in time, for after he had eaten he lay in the spare bunk and began to talk unintelligibly in a high-pitched, wandering voice. It was during the inter-
vals when he lay quiet that Big John learned the story—or part of it. The woman told it while the firelight made a glory in her eyes and face.
“We camé up from San Francisco four months ago. Mÿ husband had a small business there, but got the prospecting fever and sold it. He bad never been in the north before. We went into Ragged Valley with the rush, but it was no use. Everything was taken up.”
The voice trailed out, and he nodded understandingly. He knew enough of the game to visualize it all, but at the moment there was no picture of the new camp in bis mind. He watched the turn of her neck, and the masses of dark hair that had fallen loose.
“I wonder you didn’t go in,” she said presently. “You’d have doné well.”
He shook his great head. “I’ve done enough of that to last me out. A man doesn’t want more than so much, and I’ve made that here.”
She sent him a brilliant smile. “You’ve been carrying other people’s burdens, but you couldn’t have made much at what you asked from me. Did you ever hear of the giant, Christopher?”
Big John looked puzzled. “Who was that?”
“A man stronger even than you, who carried strangers across a ford. One day a child came to the river bank, and asked to be taken over. In the middle of the river the giant felt the burden become almost more than he could support, but made his way across with great effort. Then he asked the child why this could be, and was told that he had been carrying Christ and the sins of the world. So after that he was called Christopher. Don’t you like that story?”
JOHN gave a nod.
Here was something else that explained matters, and he knew now why he had never charged an unsuccessful man for help on Black Lake portage. He would remember that story when his pack was heavy and the trail bad. Then his thoughts were jerked back to the woman herself.
“Where are you heading for now?” She looked suddenly forlorn and
helpless. “I don’t know. There’s no business now to go back to, and,” she hesitated, glancing uncertainly toward the bunk, “he will never be able to build up another. Friends—I suppose we’ll go to friends for a while first.”
“Where?” he persisted, with curious interest.
“Anywhere,” she whispered, then put her face between her hands.
Big John did not move. He felt within him the first heat of strange fires, new and deep. He had conquered the bitter north, so far as he cared to conquer it, carved out a home and found peace and plenty. The amazing strength that flowed to his finger tips had found its appointed work. He could laugh at fatigue, and smile at everything save distress. Now that this woman had come there was an end to serenity, and he felt strangely resentful. Then he glanced at the drooping shoulders, and had a vast desire to put his arm around them.
“You’ve got a friend here on Black Lake portage, he muttered.
Something of his meaning drifted into the dulled ears of the little man in the bunk, and he began to murmur in his weakness of phantom friends, and gold on Ragged Creek. Hundreds of friends, thousands of ounces of gold, the voice lifted shrilly, boasting that he had them all. John strode over, and looked down at him. Then with a certain magnificent simplicity, he looked at Mary Eden.
“You’ll stay here till he’s better. There’s no hurry.’
“We can’t,” she protested swiftly. “We haven’t money enough.” „
“There’s three thousand dollars under that bunk, he said easily, “and that ought to last for a while.”
“Three thousand dollars,” babbled the sick man, “that’s a good clean up. Look at it, Mary, look at it.
Two hundred ounces. I told you we’d strike it, but think of finding it under a bunk!”
She put a cool hand on the hot brow, and sent John an extraordinary glance in which were both gratitude and apprehension.
“I’d like to do as much for you some day,” she said under her breath, “but that day will never come.”
'T'HUS began a week which Big John spent almost entirely on the trail. When the tide of travellers ebbed, he made work for himself till nightfall, not daring to see too much of Mary Eden. Men came and went, some with lack lustre eyes, others in which the light of success burned with a quick, bright flame. These latter hastened to the nearest city to squander that for which they^ had paid so dearly, knowing well that soon the irresistible call would sound again, and they would take to the trail once more in the hunt for gold. John said nothing, helped where he could and took toll where he might take it with mercy. But always before his eyes was the figure of Mary Eden as she bent over the man who now gathered strength day by day. The inward fire was burning more fiercely, and he knew it would never be extinguished. On the evening of the last day, Mary came along the trail like a spirit of the woods, and he trembled when he saw her.
“I wanted just to say thank you out here,” she said uncertainly, and held out a slim hand.
_ He stared first at the keen edge of his axe, then raised his eyes. There was that in her face that took his breath away, as though he had been given a glimpse . into Paradise as the gates closed. Beyond her the trail stretched its weary, familiar mile, but he saw it not.
“Don’t go,” he said.
Silence fell in the forest, an encompassing silence that seemed to bring them closer. She made a little gesture of helplessness, and her eyes were like stars seen through summer mist.
“You—you don’t want to be thanked?”
He shook his head.
“But I can’t thank you any other way,” she said faintly.
“I know—that’s what’s the matter.”
She swayed a little as she spoke and Big John’s arms turned to rigid steel. Had he taken her in them then, he knew she would never have left them. Between them was the unwritten law that guards all women in the wilderness where only he may take who has the right.
“You’ve saved a man’s life,” she whispered. “That means something.”
“Don’t go,” he said again.
“Can I stay?” she put out a hand and touched his arm like a child in trouble. “You know I must not stay!”
He grappled with that, and his mighty fingers clinched round the axe handle. It was quite true. He knew she could not stay, but he did not know how to let her go. Fixed stars cannot be displaced. He wondered why she ever came this way at all, then reflected mutely that she could not help it, there being no other way. But then he could not help it either. He probed his brain for the meaning of all this—and found none. It was the beginning and end of the world.
“I’ll come too,” he said after a long pause. “There’s nothing to keep me here.”
Again that gesture which moved him so much. It meant that she could not prevent it—but what was the use? The dark eyes clouded, as though visioning what his protection would mean. It was strange to think of being actually protected.
“Dear friend,” she answered shakily, “the trail divides tomorrow, but I shall never forget.”
AT THAT his spirit seemed to burst into flame, fed with the unconsumed fuel of unloving years. He had rather be forgotten than remembered. It hurt too much. His fingers tingled, and the axe leaped into life. The edge of it grazed her shoulder, her head, her arm, circling in swift, invisible curves, playing about her like a thing of incarnate vitality, weaving a hissing shroud of death, enveloped in which she stood motionless, her eyes looking full into his own. And through his vast body flowed a wild Berserker joy that he had found one valiant soul that understood. Then he flung back his shoulders, and the axe soared, whistling, over the treetops. Big John came back to himself and stared after it.
“At sunrise,” he said.
There was little talk in'the cabin that night. Henry Eden, now that he was fit to travel, seemed more p ossessed with anxiety for the future than with any desire to appear grateful to the man who had saved him. His mind wandered from one possibility to another, suggesting that he had tried many things, and succeeded at none. Big John watched Mary’s
face, putting away the picture in his mind with voiceless determination, while she spoke hardly at all. Presently she went out and walked a little way down the trail. He did not follow, knowing that if he had they would never return.' Her eyes thanked him when she came back.
THAT night he lay awake listening to the drone of the wind, and to a small reiterant voice in his own breast. The moon was casting a cold light across the rough floor, when the little man put his head out of the top bunk immediately above Big John, and peered cautiously down. Seeing only the giant’s closed lids, he swung one leg over the side board and descended like a cat. Then he stood for a moment staring anxiously at the big frame.
John felt that stare, and lay still.
Apparently satisfied that he was safe,
Eden crept over to the other bunk where his wife slept in utter exhaustion. Here there followed the same minute scrutiny. Pressently he stooped, and from beneath the bunk drew noiselessly the packsack in which were three thousand dollars, the price of sweating on Black Lake portage.
Abstracting the packet of money with nervous haste, he thrust it in his pocket, and stood looking again at his wife as though it was for her sake he had done this thing.
Big John controlled his twitching muscles, for the same thought had come to him. If it was for her sake, it was all right. The idea brought with it a curious unction, and when the little man had climbed noiselessly back, the giant lay with an odd smile on his brown face. The trail was good for another three thousand, and he knew now what he must do in the morning to put the thing right for her.
In the morning he did it.
Standing beside the canoe at the far end of the portage he looked straight in Henry Eden’s face and thrust a small parcel into his hand, but he dared not look at Eden’s wife.
“Take this till you strike something,” he said huskily, then pushed them off into deep yr
water. • _y
He went back to the labour y of the trail, but in twenty-four hours found it intolerable.
Black Lake portage was now haunted. At daybreak he stuck a notice on the rough cabin wall that this was “Travellers’ Rest” for those who wanted it, cut a pile of firewood, put fresh meadow hay in the bunks, loaded his own canoe, and squatting Indian fashion in the middle, struck off down the Yukon. He did not yet know where he was going, but he would know soon.
A WEEK later he decided that Ragged Creek was poor ground, and-disappeared up country. The strength of the man, his wisdom in the wilderness and the urging force that seemed to drive him on made labour
thing of small account. He traversed the creeks like a grizzly bear, rooting along the shores, scattering sand and gravel and plucking up trees to see what lay beneath. Always he scanned the surrounding ridges with insatiable hunger to know whither they led.
Now it is written that the north is like some magnificent and mysterious woman, terrible at times to those who fear her, but lavishing an opulent bounty on others who enter with courage into her baffling moods. A mistress of men, she receives their endless offerings of life and strength brought from the ends of the earth, and, as fancy takes her, repays either with treasure or pain and a long forgetfulness. But, payment or no payment, always that stream of offerings continues.
Thus it was that Big John, who feared nothing but. loved much, found on the banks of a nameless creek a. patch of gravel shot through with coarse yellow dustblack sand that ran two ounces to the pan. And then ; fever took him.
/^\F THE next few weeks he remembered little, save that he fought frost with fire, and his eyeballs burned from lack of sleep. He became one who moved as in a dream, snatching food at unnoted intervals. It seemed that he had been tilting a gold pan ever since Creation dawned. When he worked through the richest of the top sands, he rigged up a sluice and riffle, dammed the creek a little higher up and shovelled till he dropped on his treasure house. Always there hung over him the fear that winter might lay her stiff finger on the stream, and he laboured the more mightily, taking on the aspect of the . earth himself, with rag-.
' ged clothes, tawny skin,
rv long hair and great, hard
hands. Then winter-
Continued on page 61
Continued from page 19
came with grey skies, and a drone of north wind and a few dancing flakes.
He kicked a hole in the dam which the spring ice would destroy in any case, left the sluice standing, and carved on it an inscription to the effect that there was good stuff still left for anyone who had the sense to look for it, shouldered three hundred pounds of gold dust and a hundred weight of outfit, and struck along the shore of Lost River toward the Yukon. It took six days to reach it, during which he reflected grimly that Christopher never carried a bigger load. He did not want the stuff for himself, but there was something he could do with it if he found the trail of Mary Eden. This picture of himself, spoiling the Subarctics and laying gold at her feet, seemed an attractive thing. Eden did not matter. She could not help that. Probably she was in need at this very moment.
He camped on the banks of the Yukon till there passed a Siwash Indian, _ in whose canoe he shortly embarked, having bought it on sight. Two days later he took the trail for Skagway, having given back the canoe with a few ounces of dust. On this route there was no need to pack an outfit, so his . load lightened by a hundred weight. It was then that he heard of a new strike in an unexpected spot, one in which a man called Eden was part owner.
L Leaving his dust in a safe place, he went to see it, having bought the canoe again from the Siwash, who cared nothing for the whims of crazy white men so long as they meant profit. At the new diggings his eyes opened wide. He got the story from the other partner.
“Eden—yes that’s the name, a little man with a wife. Blew in here about two months ago with three thousand bucks. Offered him a half interest for twenty-five hundred, and damned if he didn’t take it, being a tenderfoot. That was two days before I struck this stuff.” The man fingered a pinch of black sand, and gave a hoarse laugh. “That twentyfive hundred is bringing him a thousand a day now, and next year he’ll get more. He’s my partner, but he’s a skunk too and I hate to see him get it. If it wasn’t for his wife he’d never have seen the place.”
“How’s that?” said Big John curiously.
“She told me herself that some high minded Samaritan gave them that money when they were all in. Great little story, isn’t it, but I’m busted if I don’t believe it.”
“Where do they live now?”
“Frisco—where else? Want to go down one of these pits and see what we’ve got? It will do any man good. When Eden came along there was only an inch deep of sand showing in one place, and now there’s two feet of it—lousy with gold.”
BIG JOHN looked about. The place was alive with men, working desperately against the advance of winter. Washing had stopped, but piles of the precious sand were accumulating at the mouths of a dozen pits. There was a whining of windlasses and muffled shouts from invisible diggers. A thousand a day for five months meant a hundred and fifty thousand a year. He had bought this for her with the sweat of the trail, but what was left that he could do now? “No, I reckon I won’t go down.”
The other man scanned the massive shoulders and powerful arms. “Want a job? Had any luck yourself?”
“Frisco?” said John slowly. Whereabouts in Frisco?”
“I guess the name is pretty well known down there by now,” the answer came with a laugh. “I’m thinking of pulling out myself as soon as I can get someone to take hold here.” He looked hard into Big John’s blue eyes. “Sure you don’t fancy a job? The pay is most anything to the right man. Seems now I think of it I passed you once near Black Lake portage. There’s no others of your size hereabouts. Now I’ve got it, ain’t you the fellow that packed six hundred for a solid mile?”
“I’d like the job if you hadn’t a skunk for a partner. So long.” He moved off, towering above the rest, his lips tight. And there was that in his face which made men look but once, then turn hastily away.
He landed in San Francisco two weeks later, strode through the streets with three hundred pounds of dust on his back, dumped it on the floor of the nearest bank and got a receipt. There was nothing he could do for her now, but something he wanted to do for himself which was to see and be near, but remain invisible. He gave no thought to his appearance, but though the folk of San Francisco were used to the sight of strange men from the north, there was an opening of eyes and twisting of heads as he passed mountainously along the crowded thoroughfares. Women stared at him, wondered and perceived the romance that went with him. Men noted the amazing strength of his body, and were conscious of their own slack muscles. The smell of the city was in his nostrils, and he held his head high.
THE Eden house was across the bay in Berkeley. On the ferry he heard that Eden had died a fortnight before, just as the stream of wealth was reaching its height. Big John must have crossed the news on his way down from Skagway. In a curious fashion he was not surprised. The skunk had passed on, but the woman of all desire was now beyond touch, barricaded with gold beside which the tribute of Lost River was negligible. His mind pitched back to Black Lake portage, and the familar sweat-stained mile. It called to him. But he must see her once before he want.
He moved up the ordered streets of Berkeley, and crossed the road ere reaching the house, a large white wooden place with great trees and wide verandahs. It took more than three hundred pounds of dust to buy that, and never before had he known anyone who lived in such a place. It made him the more timid. Then he leaned against a eucalyptus trunk and gazed till he saw a straight slim figure come out and walk slowly toward the gates. And at that all strength seemed to leave him.
Suddenly her eyes were drawn towards him, and she stood with her hand on her breast as once she stood in the shadows of a memorable trail. Seeing her approach, he drew back, conscious of raggedness, and that a man like himself had no standing in surroundings like these. Compared to her, he was poor, would always be poor. Birth and breeding —he had never thought of them before, but now—! She made the little gesture he could never forget.
“You, my friend, and where do you come from?”
He jerked his chin toward the north. “Just passing through. I came round this way because—”
The lie died on his lips, and she smiled wistfully as though she understood.
“Tell me that you would not pass near here without seeing one for whom
you did so much. Do you know there’s only one now?”
‘T just heard that.”
“Then you know what it led to?”
“I heard that in the north.”
She looked at him strangely. “Come in with me.”
HE WALKED beside her, a dishevelled Titan, flouting the quiet perfection of her dress. People stared, but she saw them not. Across the wide lawn she moved toward the shady trees, and every moment she seemed more unattainable. Then, after a pause in which he felt her eyes upon him, she began to talk softly. And every word recreated that familiar trail.
“You never can know what your action meant to us. It was more than manna in the wilderness, and made me believe in God again. I had no chance to tell you anything, but before we came out to Skagway, and after my husband knew that all was well, we sent back to the portage, and found you had gone. When did you go?”
“Soon,” he said huskily. “Soon.” “The men came back and said the cabin was marked ‘Travellers’ Rest.’ Did you put that up?”
“It was like you. That’s what you were yourself. Tell me, did you do well in the north?”
He shook his head. No, he had not done well, having sighted Paradise, and lost it. Again she noted his toil-stained clothing.
“Presently you will tell me where I can send what you gave my husband, with something for the use of it, though we can never really repay you.”
“Don’t,” he said under his breath. “I don’t want it.”
If she heard him, she gave no sign, but in spite of his appearance she had expected him to say that. How much was there now in those torn pockets?
"I always think about you as one of those—nearly the only one—who put more, far more, into the north than he has taken out. How many hundreds crossed Black Lake portage and went on happier because of you!”
“It was my job,” he said dully. “I helped a few, maybe.”
“Was it your job to shelter and feed us who were down and out, and send us on with the price of your labour to find the road to fortune? When you put that money into my husband’s hand he could not even speak of it. I didn’t know what it was till that evening, when we camped at the end of the lake.”
Big John did not answer. He only knew that he must carry his secret to the grave, lest he cloud the skies in Paradise. She was so far from him, so far from the
thought of anything like this. Eden must lie in honoured ground, and the truth die with him. Then Eden’s wife would marry one of her own kind, and remain a fixed star.
“I didn’t do much,” he protested.
“The less you think of it, the more it is. Do you go north again soon?” Her voice took on a subtle change. ^
“To-morrow, I reckon.”
“Prospecting this time?”
He nodded. “There’s plenty of good things left. I never really went after them.”
“I know you didn’t. Do you want to go?”
“There’s something calling me up there,” he said slowly.
She turned away for a moment so that he could not see her face. It must seem queer, he thought, for a woman such as he now saw her to be, to talk like this to him. In the north he could hold his own with anyone, but here—!
“You haven’t told me where I can send that money,” she resumed unsteadily.
“Don’t send it.”
“Do you want to hurt me, my friend?”
He twisted his fingers, and gave the name of the bank near the landing-stage. “I left a little dust there. They know me.”
SHE smiled involuntarily at the thought of anyone forgetting. He saw the smile and the knife turned in his breast. But, he reasoned, why shouldn’t she smile if she wanted to. He hoped her face would always be like that. He must go now and fight the thing out on the way back to Skagway, or, better still, when he struck the trail. Then he got to his feet and looked down at her. The sün was in his eyes.
“I’m pulling out now. Glad to—to have seen you and know things are all right.”
‘‘When does the boat sail?” The whiteness of brow under the dark glory of hair seemed beautiful beyond words. How had Henry Eden dared to take a woman like this to the north? The wonder of it held him silent for a moment. Then her question came again, as though from a long way off.
“Mid-afternoon.” It was the boat on which he arrived. He put out a gigantic hand. “Goodbye, friend.”
She looked him straight in the face. The color mounted to her temples in a pulsing flood, and, receding, left them deathly pale'. Two small hands crept out and reached up to his huge, ragged shoulders.
“Bearer of other men’s burdens, do you know what this house is to be called?” Came a singing in his ears. “No,” he said thickly.
“‘Travellers’ Rest,’ Christopher,” she whispered. “Don’t go!”