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The Alaskan by James Oliver Curwood

Part 5 out of 5

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She waited. The ferocity of a mother defending her young filled her
soul, and she moaned in her grief and despair as the seconds passed. But
she did not fire blindly, for she knew she must kill John Graham. The
troublesome thing was a strange film that persisted in gathering before
her eyes, something she tried to brush away, but which obstinately
refused to go. She did not know she was sobbing as she looked over the
rifle barrel. The figures came swiftly, but she had lost sight of John
Graham. They reached the upheaval of shattered rock and began climbing
it, and in her desire to make out the man she hated she stood above the
rampart that had sheltered her. The men looked alike, jumping and
dodging like so many big tundra hares as they came nearer, and suddenly
it occurred to her that _all_ of them were John Grahams, and that she
must kill swiftly and accurately. Only the hiding fairies might have
guessed how her reason trembled and almost fell in those moments when
she began firing. Certainly John Graham and his men did not, for her
first shot was a lucky one, and a man slipped down among the rocks at
the crack of it. After that she continued to fire until the responseless
click of the hammer told her the gun was empty. The explosions and the
shock against her slight shoulder cleared her vision and her brain. She
saw the men still coming, and they were so near she could see their
faces clearly. And again her soul cried out in its desire to kill
John Graham.

She turned, and for an instant fell upon her knees beside Alan. His face
was hidden in his arm. Swiftly she tore his automatic from its holster,
and sprang back to her rock. There was no time to wait or choose now,
for his murderers were almost upon her. With all her strength she tried
to fire accurately, but Alan's big gun leaped and twisted in her hand as
she poured its fire wildly down among the rocks until it was empty. Her
own smaller weapon she had lost somewhere in the race to the kloof, and
now when she found she had fired her last shot she waited through
another instant of horror, until she was striking at faces that came
within the reach of her arm. And then, like a monster created suddenly
by an evil spirit, Graham was at her side. She had a moment's vision of
his cruel, exultant face, his eyes blazing with a passion that was
almost madness, his powerful body lunging upon her. Then his arms came
about her. She could feel herself crushing inside them, and fought
against their cruel pressure, then broke limply and hung a resistless
weight against him. She was not unconscious, but her strength was gone,
and if the arms had closed a little more they would have killed her.

And she could hear--clearly. She heard suddenly the shots that came
from up the kloof, scattered shots, then many of them, and after that
the strange, wild cries that only the Eskimo herdsmen make.

Graham's arms relaxed. His eyes swept the fairies' hiding-place with its
white sand floor, and fierce joy lit up his face.

"Martens, it couldn't happen in a better place," he said to a man who
stood near him. "Leave me five men. Take the others and help Schneider.
If you don't clean them out, retreat this way, and six rifles from this
ambuscade will do the business in a hurry."

Mary heard the names of the men called who were to stay. The others
hurried away. The firing in the kloof was steady now. But there were no
cries, no shouts--nothing but the ominous crack of the rifles.

Graham's arms closed about her again. Then he picked her up and carried
her back into the cavern, and in a place where the rock wall sagged
inward, making a pocket of gloom which was shut out from the light of
day, he laid her upon the carpet of sand.

Where the erosion of many centuries of dripping water had eaten its
first step in the making of the ragged fissure a fairy had begun to
climb down from the edge of the tundra. He was a swift and agile fairy,
very red in the face, breathing fast from hard running, but making not a
sound as he came like a gopher where it seemed no living thing could
find a hold. And the fairy was Stampede Smith.

From the lips of the kloof he had seen the last few seconds of the
tragedy below, and where death would have claimed him in a more
reasonable moment he came down in safety now. In his finger-ends was the
old tingling of years ago, and in his blood the thrill which he had
thought was long dead--the thrill of looking over leveled guns into the
eyes of other men. Time had rolled back, and he was the old Stampede
Smith. He saw under him lust and passion and murder, as in other days he
had seen them, and between him and desire there was neither law nor
conscience to bar the way, and his dream--a last great fight--was here
to fill the final unwritten page of a life's drama that was almost
closed. And what a fight, if he could make that carpet of soft, white
sand unheard and unseen. Six to one! Six men with guns at their sides
and rifles in their hands. What a glorious end it would be, for a
woman--and Alan Holt!

He blessed the firing up the kloof which kept the men's faces turned
that way; he thanked God for the sound of combat, which made the
scraping of rock and the rattle of stones under his feet unheard. He was
almost down when a larger rock broke loose, and fell to the ledge. Two
of the men turned, but in that same instant came a more thrilling
interruption. A cry, a shrill scream, a woman's voice filled with
madness and despair, came from the depth of the cavern, and the five men
stared in the direction of its agony. Close upon the cries came Mary
Standish, with Graham behind her, reaching out his hands for her. The
girl's hair was flying, her face the color of the white sand, and
Graham's eyes were the eyes of a demon forgetful of all else but her. He
caught her. The slim body crumpled in his arms again while pitifully
weak hands beat futilely in his face.

And then came a cry such as no man had ever heard in Ghost Kloof before.

It was Stampede Smith. A sheer twenty feet he had leaped to the carpet
of sand, and as he jumped his hands whipped out his two guns, and
scarcely had his feet touched the floor of the soft pocket in the ledge
when death crashed from them swift as lightning flashes, and three of
the five were tottering or falling before the other two could draw or
swing a rifle. Only one of them had fired a shot. The other went down as
if his legs had been knocked from under him by a club, and the one who
fired bent forward then, as if making a bow to death, and pitched on
his face.

And then Stampede Smith whirled upon John Graham.

During these few swift seconds Graham had stood stunned, with the girl
crushed against his breast. He was behind her, sheltered by her body,
her head protecting his heart, and as Stampede turned he was drawing a
gun, his dark face blazing with the fiendish knowledge that the other
could not shoot without killing the girl. The horror of the situation
gripped Stampede. He saw Graham's pistol rise slowly and deliberately.
He watched it, fascinated. And the look in Graham's face was the cold
and unexcited triumph of a devil. Stampede saw only that face. It was
four inches--perhaps five--away from the girl's. There was only
that--and the extending arm, the crooking finger, the black mouth of the
automatic seeking his heart. And then, in that last second, straight
into the girl's staring eyes blazed Stampede's gun, and the four inches
of leering face behind her was suddenly blotted out. It was Stampede,
and not the girl, who closed his eyes then; and when he opened them and
saw Mary Standish sobbing over Alan's body, and Graham lying face down
in the sand, he reverently raised the gun from which he had fired the
last shot, and pressed its hot barrel to his thin lips.

Then he went to Alan. He raised the limp head, while Mary bowed her face
in her hands. In her anguish she prayed that she, too, might die, for in
this hour of triumph over Graham there was no hope or joy for her. Alan
was gone. Only death could have come with that terrible red blot on his
forehead, just under the gray streak in his hair. And without him there
was no longer a reason for her to live.

She reached out her arms. "Give him to me," she whispered. "Give him to

Through the agony that burned in her eyes she did not see the look in
Stampede's face. But she heard his voice.

"It wasn't a bullet that hit him," Stampede was saying. "The bullet hit
a rock, an' it was a chip from the rock that caught him square between
the eyes. He isn't dead, _and he ain't going to die!_"

How many weeks or months or years it was after his last memory of the
fairies' hiding-place before he came back to life, Alan could make no
manner of guess. But he did know that for a long, long time he was
riding through space on a soft, white cloud, vainly trying to overtake a
girl with streaming hair who fled on another cloud ahead of him; and at
last this cloud broke up, like a great cake of ice, and the girl plunged
into the immeasurable depths over which they were sailing, and he leaped
after her. Then came strange lights, and darkness, and sounds like the
clashing of cymbals, and voices; and after those things a long sleep,
from which he opened his eyes to find himself in a bed, and a face very
near, with shining eyes that looked at him through a sea of tears.

And a voice whispered to him, sweetly, softly, joyously, "Alan!"

He tried to reach up his arms. The face came nearer; it was pressed
against his own, soft arms crept about him, softer lips kissed his mouth
and eyes, and sobbing whispers came with their love, and he knew the end
of the race had come, and he had won.

This was the fifth day after the fight in the kloof; and on the sixth he
sat up in his bed, bolstered with pillows, and Stampede came to see him,
and then Keok and Nawadlook and Tatpan and Topkok and Wegaruk, his old
housekeeper, and only for a few minutes at a time was Mary away from
him. But Tautuk and Amuk Toolik did not come, and he saw the strange
change in Keok, and knew that they were dead. Yet he dreaded to ask the
question, for more than any others of his people did he love these two
missing comrades of the tundras.

It was Stampede who first told him in detail what had happened--but he
would say little of the fight on the ledge, and it was Mary who told
him of that.

"Graham had over thirty men with him, and only ten got away," he said.
"We have buried sixteen and are caring for seven wounded at the corrals.
Now that Graham is dead, they're frightened stiff--afraid we're going to
hand them over to the law. And without Graham or Rossland to fight for
them, they know they're lost."

"And our men--my people?" asked Alan faintly.

"Fought like devils."

"Yes, I know. But--"

"They didn't rest an hour in coming from the mountains."

"You know what I mean, Stampede."

"Not many, Alan. Seven were killed, including Sokwenna," and he counted
over the names of the slain. Tautuk and Amuk Toolik were not among them.

"And Tautuk?"

"He is wounded. Missed death by an inch, and it has almost killed Keok.
She is with him night and day, and as jealous as a little cat if anyone
else attempts to do anything for him."

"Then--I am glad Tautuk was hit," smiled Alan. And he asked, "Where is
Amuk Toolik?"

Stampede hung his head and blushed like a boy.

"You'll have to ask _her_, Alan."

And a little later Alan put the question to Mary.

She, too, blushed, and in her eyes was a mysterious radiance that
puzzled him.

"You must wait," she said.

Beyond that she would say no word, though he pulled her head down, and
with his hands in her soft, smooth hair threatened to hold her until she
told him the secret. Her answer was a satisfied little sigh, and she
nestled her pink face against his neck, and whispered that she was
content to accept the punishment. So where Amuk Toolik had gone, and
what he was doing, still remained a mystery.

A little later he knew he had guessed the truth.

"I don't need a doctor," he said, "but it was mighty thoughtful of you
to send Amuk Toolik for one." Then he caught himself suddenly. "What a
senseless fool I am! Of course there are others who need a doctor more
than I do."

Mary nodded. "But I was thinking chiefly of you when I sent Amuk Toolik
to Tanana. He is riding Kauk, and should return almost any time now."
And she turned her face away so that he could see only the pink tip
of her ear.

"Very soon I will be on my feet and ready for travel," he said. "Then we
will start for the States, as we planned."

"You will have to go alone, Alan, for I shall be too busy fitting up the
new house," she replied, in such a quiet, composed, little voice that he
was stunned. "I have already given orders for the cutting of timber in
the foothills, and Stampede and Amuk Toolik will begin construction very
soon. I am sorry you find your business in the States so important,
Alan. It will be a little lonesome with you away."

He gasped. "Mary!"

She did not turn. "_Mary!_"

He could see again that little, heart-like throb in her throat when she
faced him.

And then he learned the secret, softly whispered, with sweet, warm lips
pressed to his.

"It wasn't a doctor I sent for, Alan. It was a minister. We need one to
marry Stampede and Nawadlook and Tautuk and Keok. Of course, you and I
can wait--"

But she never finished, for her lips were smothered with a love that
brought a little sob of joy from her heart.

And then she whispered things to him which he had never guessed of Mary
Standish, and never quite hoped to hear. She was a little wild, a little
reckless it may be, but what she said filled him with a happiness which
he believed had never come to any other man in the world. It was not her
desire to return to the States at all. She never wanted to return. She
wanted nothing down there, nothing that the Standish fortune-builders
had left her, unless he could find some way of using it for the good of
Alaska. And even then she was afraid it might lead to the breaking of
her dream. For there was only one thing that would make her happy, and
that was _his_ world. She wanted it just as it was--the big tundras, his
people, the herds, the mountains--with the glory and greatness of God
all about them in the open spaces. She now understood what he had meant
when he said he was an Alaskan and not an American; she was that, too,
an Alaskan first of all, and for Alaska she would go on fighting with
him, hand in hand, until the very end. His heart throbbed until it
seemed it would break, and all the time she was whispering her hopes and
secrets to him he stroked her silken hair, until it lay spread over his
breast, and against his lips, and for the first time in years a hot
flood of tears filled his eyes.

So happiness came to them; and only strange voices outside raised Mary's
head from where it lay, and took her quickly to the window where she
stood a vision of sweet loveliness, radiant in the tumbled confusion and
glory of her hair. Then she turned with a little cry, and her eyes were
shining like stars as she looked at Alan.

"It is Amuk Toolik," she said. "He has returned."

"And--is he alone?" Alan asked, and his heart stood still while he
waited for her answer.

Demurely she came to his side, and smoothed his pillow, and stroked back
his hair. "I must go and do up my hair, Alan," she said then. "It would
never do for them to find me like this."

And suddenly, in a moment, their fingers entwined and tightened, for on
the roof of Sokwenna's cabin the little gray-cheeked thrush was
singing again.

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