FREDERICK B. WATT
A story of the airman's North and the loyalties by which men—and women —measure men
WILBUR DEAN raised his six-feet-three of massive body, glanced at the clock above the stone fireplace and then at the supper table set for four.
"I sometimes wish that girl was still young enough to spank,” he declared with a gruffness that was not entirely genuine. “I suppose she’s down in the snye watching Hale monkey with his machine. From the look of the table it seems she intends bringing him home for supper.”
Joe Crouch moved impatiently in his chair.
“Sure that’s where she is,” he confirmed sullenly. “I don’t know what she asked me up for unless it was to show off her pretty boy. What she sees in him ” "He’s a nice lad,” interrupted the trader sharply. "Smart fellow, too.”
"Too smart for her,” declared Crouch unpleasantly. "If she thinks she can play around with him until he clears out and then expect me still to be on the job, she’s crazy.”
Dean’s brow clouded in annoyance.
"Look here, Joe,” he said. "Any daughter of mine knows what she’s up to. Just because Wilma has been decent to you is no sign she figures on marrying you.
I might a3 well tell you that she never had any intention of it. She knows about the squaw you left at Blueknife. Some women wouldn’t worry much about a thing like that in this country, but Wilma’s spent too much time outside to overlook it.”
"It’s all a pack of lies set loose by someone who has a grudge against me,” shot the other, "and even if it was true it wouldn’t make any difference. She’s just developed some highbrow ideas since that kid breezed in here on his overgrown mosquito.”
"The overgrown mosquito is going to make the rest of us look like a crowd of snails,” announced Dean, eager to change the trend of the conversation. “Hale’s pulling out in the morning for Trout Creek. If there’s any truth in what old Conger has been spouting, he’ll have the pick of the claims staked a month before any of us get there. Judging from the samples, he’s going to make a big hit with his company. When are you starting?”
"Same time as the rest of you,” growled Crouch. "It all goes to show that a decent fellow hasn’t a chance when he runs into some smart Aleck from the South. Just like Conger to stumble in here with the news two wreeks before the break-up. A man couldn’t get halfway to the creek by dogs before the ice goes out. He'd be worse off then than if he’d never started. The only thing to do is to hang around until the river’s clear. In the meantime Hale just climbs aboard that buzzing tin pot of his and wanders in in a day’s time. There’s no fairness to it.”
“I suppose if you were the only man with a plane you’d refuse to move until everyone else had a decent start?” suggested the trader. "What do you think he’s
been working out cf here during all the winter for?” "To make cow-eyes at Wilma,” grunted the other.
nPHE crunch of mukluk-clad feet on the snow outside ended the discussion abruptly. A moment later the subjects of the argument burst into the room, bringing a great cloud of steam with them as the frigid air outside encountered the warmth of the house on the opening of the door.
Wilma Dean was in her early twenties. She was darkhaired and possessed much of her father’s strength of countenance, particularly about the eyes and chin. Her smooth, evenly tanned features, closely bobbed hair, and slender, athletic figure gave her the appearance of a good-looking boy. Only her beautifully formed, vivid lips answered with marked definiteness for her sex. The eyes of the waiting men fell on her eagerly, those of one with loving pride, the other’s with covetousness.
"What I want to know,” her father burst out, “is whether you’re mistress of my home or an employee of the Amalgamated Explorers?”
Larry Hale, as ready in speech as he was in action, answered for her.
“That’s what I’d like to know, sir,” he said boldly. "The Amalgamated Explorers are seeking her services as permanent assistant to one of their most brilliant pilots, but it’s turned out to be a devil of a job to get her name on the dotted line.”
The old trader scrutinized the strong young features of the boy critically, chuckled in grudging admiration, then turned to Wilma with soft, half melancholy eyes.
“Well, until you serve me notice, young lady,” he announced. "I expect you to see to the health of your doddering father. I doubt very much if I’ll survive the night after being starved for so long. Supper in five minutes or you’re fired. Off with your parkee, Hale, and Joe will give you his place by the fire. Must be a cold
job puttering about with an engine in this weather.” ‘‘A bit,” admitted the aviator, examining a set of frostbitten fingers.
Wilma, flashing an expressive smile at Larry, disappeared into the kitchen with the silent grace of a doe. Hale expertly shed his outer covering of caribou hide and stood with his hands held out to the crackling spruce logs. Crouch, with poor grace, offered him his chair, but the airman motioned him down with a quick movement.
“I’ve caused you enough inconvenience as it is,” he apologized, “though I swear I tried to urge Wilma to trot home an hour ago. Any other time I could have knocked off and come along myself, but I had to have things shipshape for the morning. It’s going to be a leng hop over country where I can’t very well afford a forced landing.”
“It won’t make a lot of us very mad if you have one,” announced Crouch frankly.
Larry laughed, half embarrassed.
“I don’t doubt it,” he agreed. “It hardly seems fair that I should get such a jump on the rest of you. It’s straight business, though, and the company doesn’t pay my wages for pleasure. However, if it’s any comfort to you, I haven’t much faith in Conger’s story. He’s one of the old school; the sort of chap who goes into hysterics if he catches a glimpse of gold in a man’s bridgework. For all you know, I’m probably saving the lot of you from a long, expensive wild-goose chase. There are a hundred false alarms for every genuine strike.”
“There’s a lot to that,” admitted Dean. “Unless the rumor is spiked, though, I’ll bet there’ll be a big rush from the South.”
“Not for a while,” said Hale definitely. “No one will attempt to make Aklavik or Simpson until after the break-up, and the word can’t get abroad until it reaches either of those wireless stations. Of course, I could fly to Simpson and get in touch with my company, but I don’t want to get them all excited over an unconfirmed rumor.”
“You haven’t gas enough left to go into Trout Creek and fly to Simpson after you get back,” declared Crouch with dark satisfaction.
“Been snooping, eh?” suggested the airman coldly.
“The drums are there to count,” the trader reminded him.
“That’s true enough,” conceded Larry. “As far as that goes, I’m making no bones about it. However, as long as I’ve fuel enough to get back here after I’ve looked the creek over and staked the best of it, my worries are at an end.”
“How about taking back what you said about me snooping?” shot Crouch.
“The only reason I mentioned it,” said Hale directly, his eyes on the other with no particular liking, “is that Sykes, my mechanic, came on someone monkeying with our cache last night shortly after Conger had set the post on its ear with his report. The top of one of the drums had been unscrewed and the barrel upset. Five minutes later it would have been empty and we would have been completely out of luck. If you should happen to know who the fellow was that Sykes scared away, you might tell him that the two of us have been standing watch over the machine and the cache ever since-—and will be until I leave in the morning. Incidentally, we’re both very fair shots with a rifle.”
Crouch rose from his chair in a bound, glaring at the younger man.
“If you’re suggesting . . . ” he began explosively.
“All right,” came Wilma’s voice from the kitchen. “Let the lions -feed.”
Dean placed his bulk between the ill-assorted guests and eased them to the table.
IT WAS not a conversational meal. Hale and Crouch ignored each other stolidly, and Wilma, her eyes continually seeking Larry, was strangely silent. Dean did his best to introduce a note of joviality into the gathering, but, realizing that almost any subject was liable to arouse the open enmity of the other men, found himself badly hampered.
With a curt word of thanks, Crouch got up when the last of the food had disappeared, pulled on his parka and strode into the night. The trader rose shortly afterward. He stood in the doorway a moment, appraising the couple before him.
“I’ve some work to do at the store,” he said in a tone that was a rough benediction. “Best of luck, boy, if I shouldn’t see you before you leave.”
“Thank you, sir,” answered Larry gratefully. “I think I’ll need it. I’m going to make her see sense, though, if I have to—”
“I’m referring to your flight tomorrow, you young pirate,” roared Dean, banging the door behind him to hide the whimsical grin that crept to his lips.
For a moment the inmates of the room regarded one another silently.
“Everyone seems to be taking a good deal for granted,” advanced Wilma finally. “You in particular. Why, I haven’t even admitted that I like you.”
“Well,” announced Larry confidently, “you’ve just half an hour to find out that it amounts to more than a liking. I’m going to relieve Sykes until midnight in keeping an eye on the ship. Suppose you make a snap decision. It’s hardly a place to waste time.”
“I hate abrupt people,” said the girl sharply.
Hale reached her in a single bound, swept her into his arms and kissed her full on the lips.
“You love this one,” he declared with fierce tenderness.
“I—I—” she protested, attempting to force him away. Then she became suddenly submissive to his embrace. “I—I think I do, at that.”
rT'WENTY-FIVE minutes of the precious half hour -lhad passed when Dean again invaded the house. Crouch was at his heels. The couple before the fire sprang half guiltily to their feet. Wilma faced her father with a flushed smile, then became suddenly grave as she caught the expression of his Dee. Dean’s great shoulders were drooping and he swayed from side to side like a wounded lion.
“Father!” exclaimed the girl, running to him.
“It’s your brother,” muttered Dean, refusing to meet her anxious gaze. “Three of the boys just heard it over the radio. He’s down with an acute appendix and the Loucheux has been wirelessing in the hope that a doctor can be rushed out in time.”
“Oh,” moaned Wilma.
“There’s only one thing to be done,” pressed Crouch.” “It’s lucky Doc Whistler is in the fort and that Hale has his bus here. He can fly the doc out tomorrow and get there in time.”
Larry’s brow was corrugated.
“Let me get this straight,” he ordered.
Wilma glided to him.
“It’s Bob—my brother,” she said tremulously. “He’s with the Loucheux, frozen in at Weird Bay. If you’ve enough gas to get to Trout Creek you’ve enough to get you to the coast and back.”
“I see,” said the airman absently. He turned sharply on Crouch. “Who heard this radio report?”
“I did,” stated the other, “and the Seward boys as well.”
“Birds of a feather, eh?” muttered Hale.
“What’s that?” demanded Crouch, his fists clenching.
“Unless you can produce someone whom I can believe,” said Larry slowly, “I will remain convinced that the whole thing is a set-up job All you want me to do
is burn up my gas so that it will be impossible for me to make the hop in to Trout Creek.”
“Larry!” cried the girl, aghast.
“I didn’t expect you’d do it,” sneered Crouch. “What’s a boy’s life compared to the cash investment of a moneygrabbing company?”
“If I was on my own,” said Larry tensely, “I’d allow myself to be hoodwinked for the satisfaction of proving you a liar and knocking the tar out of you when I came back. It is the company’s machine, though, and it’s the company’s gas. As far as that goes, I’m the company’s man. It’s not a situation where I can play about.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” appealed Wilma, agony in her voice. “You—you—”
“He’s perfectly within his rights,” Dean corrected her in dead tones. The old trader deliberately turned his back on the airman and left the room.
“I’d suggest that you transfer your operations to some other territory after this gets abroad,” snarled Crouch. “The North will be a mighty unhealthy place for you. Only men get along here.”
“You’ve managed it,” replied Larry, a subtle threat in the calmness of his voice, “so I guess I can afford to take a chance.”
Crouch avoided his eyes and turned to the girl.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Wilma,” he said. “If there was anything I could do ... ”
“Thanks, Joe,” she replied. “I know I can count on you.”
Crouch left, throwing Hale a malevolent glance over his shoulder. As he went out the door Dr. Whistler entered, breathing hard from tingling atmosphere
“What time do we leave, Hale?” he asked. “Daylight?”
“We’re not going,” stated Larry woodenly.
“But—” stuttered the doctor.
“He means it,” confirmed Wilma, her words as brittle as icicles as they slipped from between her white lips.
Whistler gazed confusedly from one to the other.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally. “If you should change your mind, though, let me know immediately. If I don’t hear from you I’m leaving by dogs down river with the first light. It’s too late in the season for me to be losing any time.”
He received no answer and bewilderedly made his departure.
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“Please don’t worry,” Larry appealed. “It’s so obviously a set-up—though I don’t suppose you can escape being tortured by doubts. I’ve half a mind to trim that beast, Crouch, without waiting for justification.”
“I’d like you to leave me—at once,” whispered Wilma, her pale face ghastly in its very impassiveness.
Hale pulled on his parka.
“I appreciate the futility of attempting to argue writh you,” he said unsteadily. “I imagine it seems that I’m being a rotten coward, acting as I am. I’d be a greater one, though, if I did otherwise. I’m certain your brother’s life isn’t at stake, but I’m fully aware that our love is.”
“Go away,” she repeated in a barely audible voice.
WITH the first grey streak of dawn Doc W’histler drove past the snye where Hale’s plane was located. The airman and his mechanic were warming the engine with blow torches as he came to a stop and joined the angrily-muttering crowd of men from the fort who surrounded the machine. A Mounted Policeman, taking no chances of physical violence being done, lounged in the foreground.
"Changed your mind, Hale?” demanded the doctor.
The flyer shook his head. Whistler made no attempt to argue but turned abruptly and snapped his whip over the dog train. He disappeared into the dusk at a bend in the river.
It was more than an hour later that the engine of the plane gave voice. The cluster of angry humanity still surrounded Hale and his companion. Larry turned and slapped Sykes on the shoulder.
“Sorry I can’t take you, old boy,” he said, “but the lighter I go the longer the gas will last. Better hang around with the Mountie for a day or so until the mob gets over its peeve. Well, see you soon.”
He climbed into the cockpit. As he did so a voice cried out, “Bad luck to you, you yellow skunk. Better keep clear of here from now on.”
Larry turned, pushed back his goggles and grinned. It was the grin of a wolf pulling back his lips over strong, white teeth.
“I’ll come back, right enough, Crouch, if it’s only to make you swallow your words,” he shouted.
He opened the throttle, slewed the ship around and drove a blizzard of j snow and ice particles into the faces of I the crowd with his slipstream. Vengeful men blundered forward into the smother, intent on doing the plane damage, but when the white cloud had settled the craft was revealed a quarter of a mile away, skimming swiftly over the pallid face of the river. A moment later its skis cleared the ice, and, like a great blue and silver bird, it climbed skyward. In less than half a minute it was lost in the poor light. The drone of its motor grew fainter and fainter, finally to die altogether in the white silences to the north.
A WEEK later Hale returned, droning over the fort late in the afternoon to examine the smoke rising from the chimneys for the direction of the wind. He banked about sharply and came down without loss of time, sideslipping steeply until he levelled off for the landing. Sykes, whose sharp ears had caught the sound of the engine before the ship itself appeared, was out on the ice of the snye by the time the plane skimmed up to a halt. He was bursting with news, climbing up on the
ski pedestal to impart it before Larry had time to switch off.
"You guessed it right,” he cried exultantly. "Young Seward got hopped up last night and spilled the works. It was too good for a drunk man to keep. He and his brother and Crouch made the thing up out of whole cloth, knowing that nothing would come through over the radio to contradict them. They’re the laughingstock of the fort now.”
Hale expressed no surprise. His face was anything but humorous, however.
“Some people have a queer sense of fun,” was all he said.
“How’s Trout Creek?” asked Sykes eagerly.
“A washout,” answered Larry. “The hot springs Conger raved about are there all right, but his ore was like most great discoveries —fool’s gold. I didn’t bother to stake a square inch of it. Going to leave it up to you to look after the ship, Sykes. I’m tired and half frozen.”
He climbed from the cockpit wearily and walked into the settlement. Men who had cursed him on his departure approached him sheepishly declaring, “Well you certainly showed Crouch up in great style, boy. Glad you did. What’s the news from the creek?”
“The place is untouched as far as the Amalgamated Explorers are concerned.” Larry answered. “There’s not a foot of it staked and you can go in and help yourselves. Just to show you I’m a good fellow, I’ll give you a better map than Conger made and a few samples I picked up around the hot springs. I don’t know where he got the rock he brought in here, but it’s a cinch it wasn’t from Trout Creek. I’m going to sue the old devil for false pretences and wasted gas. Guess he was only trying to put us off the track of where he really got the stuff. That’s usually the case.”
“It’s a good yarn, Hale,” declared one doubter, “but Conger isn’t the only one liable to lay a false trail. I’m going in as soon as the ice is out, no matter what you say. How much will you give me for every stake you’ve driven since you left?”
“Five thousand dollars apiece,” laughed Larry. “You can get that in writing if you want, too.”
THE gold fever that had raged in the fort for a week died away miserably. A few super-optimists still maintained that the airman was attempting to put something over, but their protestations were half-hearted ones.
Larry, utterly fagged, rolled in without bothering to eat and slept for a solid sixteen hours. He arose refreshed, ate ravenously, and enquired for the whereabouts of Joe Crouch. There was a¡ dangerous light in his eye.
“You’ll find him up at Dean’s probably,” Sykes informed him.
“You don’t mean that they still let him in?” exploded Hale.
“The old man would like to skin him alive,” said the mechanic, “but there’s no answering for women. The girl’s been thick with him ever since you left. They say her dad’s ready to throw her out over it.”
“I see,” muttered Larry.
He climbed the rise on which the big house of the free-trader stood, striding along at a pace that revealed grim purpose. His sharp knock brought Wilma to the door. As she recognized him she attempted to throw the barrier shut, but Larry’s foot intercepted her purpose. He threw his shoulder to the door and j knocked it aside, throwing Wilma back j several paces. Crouch, from his place by j the fire, sprang to his feet, his features twisted with alarm.
“Please get out,” ordered the girl, her
cheeks flaming and angry sparks glinting in her eyes.
“I didn’t call to see you,” Larry ignored her. “Crouch, I’d like to speak to you outside.”
“Yes?" drawled Joe shiftily.
Wilma stepped quickly in front of him.
“He’s not going,” she declared defiantly.
“I don’t know why you’re soiling yourself on such scum,” breathed the flyer, “but I want to see him just the same.”
“Scum, I think,” shot Wilma fiercely, “would describe a man who would choose a bit of dirt rather than a boy’s life.”
“Possibly,” answered Larry, “if it really was a case of life or death.”
“You were in no position, to know whether it was or not,” came the swaft retort. “Joe could see through you where I couldn’t. He tricked you just to open my eyes—and, oh, the cad that I saw when you came out in your true colors! I’m glad, glad, that after you made your choice you found you were only following a madman’s dream!”
“Yeah,” contributed Crouch. “Tough luck all around, eh, Hale?”
“Not particularly,” answered Larry. “It looks as though you’re taking the toughest part of it of! my hands.”
“Meaning Wilma,” demanded Joe threateningly.
“Meaning Wilma,” confirmed the other.
“You can’t get away with that,” gritted Crouch, advancing.
“I think I can,” Larry assured him.
I Hale had been the middleweight champion of his squadron in France. Crouch went down at the third blow— and stayed down.
“The strange part of it,” Larry addressed the trembling girl, “is that I still love you, even though you are a little fool. Look me up when you come to your senses.”
It was scarcely a diplomatic speech. The next day Wilma announced that she was going to marry Crouch in the spring. For a month Hale lounged about the fort, tight-lipped, and watched the warm weather assail the white landscape. The snow vanished on the high banks and the ice of the river grew rotten. The fort threw off the depression following the bursting of the gold bubble, and jubilantly looked forward to the opening of navigation and the enlivening visits of the river steamers. Larry shared none of the cheerfulness of the population, however. Apart from the job of having his ship hauled above the high water mark, he had little to do except to avoid contact with Wilma, a task the girl, with vindictive forethought, made a decidedly difficult one.
Y\ J ITU a great grinding and clashing Y V 0f jce pans hustling one another on to destruction, the river went out. For days the fort gazed down on an everquickening rout of the last forces of winter. One morning the river stretched below with its sleek, brown back clear in the sun, the only signs of ice being the pans stranded on the shores. For two days Hale paced the waterfront impatiently, his eyes on the southern sky. On the third day a distant drone heralded the arrival of two planes on pontoons, planes that bore the blue and silver of the Amalgamated Explorers.
A man with weathered features and crisp, grey hair was the first person to step ashore from the new arrivals. Hale greeted him on the beach, shaking him enthusiastically by the hand.
“You certainly didn’t lose any time getting in,” he said.
“We certainly did not,” agreed the newcomer. “We had some nasty stretches skirting Great Slave, and the upper river is still frozen. Plenty of dry spots.
However, your message was quite urgent.” “It’s a gamble,” said Larry, “but a good one, I think. If it’s agreeable to you, I’ll take one of the buses tomorrow and scout up the creek. It thaws earlier up there, and there should be the odd landing. If things are favorable, I’ll come right back and we can take the whole party in. Have you brought plenty of gas?”
“The cabin of the second machine is full of it,” he was assured.
LARRY walked up the rise to Dean’s that evening for the first time in weeks. Half way to his destination he encountered Wilma, more feminine, more lovely, more desirable in a light sports dress than she had ever been in her richest winter furs. They stopped simultaneously, surveying one another uncertainly but with ill-disguised eagerness.
“I was coming up to see you,” said Larry simply.
“I was looking for you,” she replied with no trace of hostility.
“I’m going away tomorrow,” he : offered.
“So I’ve heard,” answered Wilma. “I’ve something to tell you.”
“I’ve something to tell you, too.” “You’d better hear mine first,” she said quickly. “It will probably save you the trouble of saying anything to me. j It’s only this. I’m not going to marry Crouch. I don’t think I really had any intention of it, even when I was most hurt.”
“I didn’t think you would,” Larry burst out, his arms instinctively reachj ing for her.
She avoided him, though.
“That doesn’t remove the barrier bej tween us,” she reminded him; and there! was a genuine ring to her words. “I still love you. It would be easy for me to come to you—too easy. But it would be a temporary heaven, a thing of the moment. Always would be the thought ¡ of you letting me down, even though j the test grew out of falsehood. Probably I’m unreasonable—but I’m built that way. I couldn’t marry you, even though you still wanted me.”
“You’re sure of that?” he pressed.
She nodded unhappily.
“All right,” said Larry cheerfully, j “You might as well let me have my say, ! though, before we break company. I only wanted to tell you that when I flew North that day I didn’t cut off to Trout | Creek. I picked up Doc Whistler about | six miles down river and flew him . to Weird Bay. As I suspected, your brother was disgustingly healthy. We spent a couple of days on the Loucheux, which gave me time to make use of her broadcasting set and shoot a message through in code to headquarters. It was that wire that brought those two planes here today—three weeks sooner than they would have ordinarily arrived. I had barely enough gas to get me back after dropping the doc down river. I didn’t spread it around that I’d been to the Loucheux. I still owed it to the company to get into Trout Creek ahead of the rest, and the only way to guarantee that was to discourage anyone else from trying. And there you are. Well, I’ve a big day ahead of me tomorrow. Glad to have seen you again.”
He turned deliberately and started down the slope. Behind him he heard a tremulous “Larry!” Still he strode ahead. Light, pursuing footsteps followed and Wilma swung into stride alongside of him.
“Where are you going?”she demanded softly.
“Anywhere,” he answered, stopping abruptly in his tracks.
“I think I’d like to go with you,” said Wilma in a small voice.