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  • 1904
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“They’re no good, those claims, except to sell to some sucker, and we’re not in that business _yet_, sah.”

They had just done twenty miles in slush and mire, and their hearts were heavier than their heels. No, they would go to bed while the others did the jumpin’, and next day they would fill Keith’s wood-bin.

“So if work does turn up we won’t have to worry about usin’ up his firin’.” In the chill of the next evening they were cording the results of the day’s chopping, when Maudie, in fur coat, skirts to the knee, and high rubber boots, appeared behind Keith’s shack. Without deigning to notice the Boy, “Ain’t seen you all day,” says she to the Colonel.

“Busy,” he replied, scarcely looking up.

“Did you do any jumpin’ last night?”

“No.”

“_That’s_ all right.”

She seated herself with satisfaction on a log. She looked at the Boy impudently, as much as to say, “When that blot on the landscape is removed, I’ll tell you something.” The Boy had not the smallest intention of removing the blot.

Grudgingly he admitted to himself that, away from the unsavory atmosphere of the Gold Nugget, there was nothing in Maudie positively offensive. At this moment, with her shrewd little face peering pertly out from her parki-hood, she looked more than ever like an audacious child, or like some strange, new little Arctic animal with a whimsical human air.

“Look here, Colonel,” she said presently, either despairing of getting rid of the Boy or ceasing to care about it: “you got to get a wiggle on to-morrow.”

“What for?”

She looked round, first over one shoulder, then over the other. “Well, it’s on the quiet.”

The Kentuckian nodded. But she winked her blue eyes suspiciously at the Boy.

“Oh, _he’s_ all right.”

“Well, you been down to Little Minook, ain’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you seen how the pay pinches out above No. 10?”

“Yes.”

“Well, now, if it ain’t above No. 10, where is it?” No answer. “Where does it _go_?” she repeated severely, like a schoolmarm to a class of backward boys.

“That’s what everybody’d like to know.”

“Then let ’em ask Pitcairn.”

“What’s Pitcairn say?”

She got up briskly, moved to another log almost at the Colonel’s feet, and sat looking at him a moment as if making up her mind about something serious. The Colonel stood, fists at his sides, arrested by that name Pitcairn.

“You know Pitcairn’s the best all-round man we got here,” she asserted rather than asked.

The Colonel nodded.

“He’s an Idaho miner, Pitcairn is!”

“I know.”

“Well, he’s been out lookin’ at the place where the gold gives out on Little Minook. There’s a pup just there above No. 10–remember?”

“Perfectly.”

“And above the pup, on the right, there’s a bed of gravel.”

“Couldn’t see much of that for the snow.”

“Well, sir, that bed o’ gravel’s an old channel.”

“No!”

She nodded. “Pitcairn’s sunk a prospect, and found colours in his first pan.”

“Oh, colours!”

“But the deeper he went, the better prospects he got.” She stood up now, close to the Colonel. The Boy stopped work and leaned on the wood pile, listening. “Pitcairn told Charlie and me (on the strict q. t.) that the gold channel crossed the divide at No. 10, and the only gold on Little Minookust what spilt down on those six claims as the gold went crossin’ the gulch. The real placer is that old channel above the pup, and boys”–in her enthusiasm she even included the Colonel’s objectionable pardner–“boys, it’s rich as blazes!”

“I wonder—-” drawled the Colonel, recovering a little from his first thrill.

“I wouldn’t advise you to waste much time wonderin’,” she said with fire. “What I’m tellin’ you is scientific. Pitcairn is straight as a string. You won’t get any hymns out o’ Pitcairn, but you’ll get fair and square. His news is worth a lot. If you got any natchral gumption anywhere about you, you can have a claim worth anything from ten to fifty thousand dollars this time to-morrow.”

“Well, well! Good Lord! Hey, Boy, what we goin’ to do?”

“Well, you don’t want to get excited,” admonished the queer little Arctic animal, jumping up suddenly; “but you can bunk early and get a four a.m. wiggle on. Charlie and me’ll meet you on the Minookl. Ta-ta!” tad she whisked away as suddenly as a chipmunk.

They couldn’t sleep. Some minutes before the time named they were quietly leaving Keith’s shack. Out on the trail there were two or three men already disappearing towards Little Minook here was Maudie, all by herself, sprinting along like a good fellow, on the thin surface of the last night’s frost. She walked in native water-boots, but her snow-shoes stuck out above the small pack neatly lashed on her straight little shoulders. They waited for her.

She came up very brisk and businesslike. To their good-mornings she only nodded in a funny, preoccupied way, never opening her lips.

“Charlie gone on?” inquired the Colonel presently.

She shook her head. “Knocked out.”

“Been fightin’?”

“No; ran a race to Hunter.”

“To jump that claim?”

She nodded.

“Did he beat?”

She laughed. “Butts had the start. They got there together at nine o’clock!”

“Three hours before jumpin’ time?”

Again she nodded. “And found four more waitin’ on the same fool errand.”

“What did they do?”

“Called a meetin’. Couldn’t agree. It looked like there’d be a fight, and a fast race to the Recorder among the survivors. But before the meetin’ was adjourned, those four that had got there first (they were pretty gay a’ready), they opened some hootch, so Butts and Charlie knew they’d nothing to fear except from one another.”

On the top of the divide that gave them their last glimpse of Rampart she stopped an instant and looked back. The quick flash of anxiety deepening to defiance made the others turn. The bit they could see of the water-front thoroughfare was alive. The inhabitants were rushing about like a swarm of agitated ants.

“What’s happening?”

“It’s got out,” she exploded indignantly. “They’re comin’, too!”

She turned, flew down the steep incline, and then settled into a steady, determined gait, that made her gain on the men who had got so long a start. Her late companions stood looking back in sheer amazement, for the town end of the trail was black with figures. The Boy began to laugh.

“Look! if there isn’t old Jansen and his squaw wife.”

The rheumatic cripple, huddled on a sled, was drawn by a native man and pushed by a native woman. They could hear him swearing at both impartially in broken English and Chinook.

The Colonel and the Boy hurried after Maudie. It was some minutes before they caught up. The Boy, feeling that he couldn’t be stand-offish in the very act of profiting by her acquaintance, began to tell her about the crippled but undaunted Swede. She made no answer, just trotted steadily on. The Boy hazarded another remark–an opinion that she was making uncommon good time for a woman.

“You’ll want all the wind you got before you get back,” she said shortly, and silence fell on the stampeders.

Some of the young men behind were catching up. Maudie set her mouth very firm and quickened her pace. This spectacle touched up those that followed; they broke into a canter, floundered in a drift, recovered, and passed on. Maudie pulled up.

“That’s all right! Let ’em get good and tired, half-way. We got to save all the run we got in us for the last lap.”

The sun was hotter, the surface less good.

She loosened her shoulder-straps, released her snow-shoes, and put them on. As she tightened her little pack the ex-Governor came puffing up with apoplectic face.

“Why, she can throw the diamond hitch!” he gasped with admiration.

“S’pose you thought the squaw hitch would be good enough for me.”

“Well, it is for me,” he laughed breathlessly.

“That’s ’cause you’re an ex-Governor”; and steadily she tramped along.

In twenty minutes Maudie’s party came upon those same young men who had passed running. They sat in a row on a fallen spruce. One had no rubber boots, the other had come off in such a hurry he had forgotten his snow-shoes. Already they were wet to the waist.

“Step out, Maudie,” said one with short-breathed hilarity; “we’ll be treadin’ on your heels in a minute;” but they were badly blown.

Maudie wasted not a syllable. Her mouth began to look drawn. There were violet shadows under the straight-looking eyes.

The Colonel glanced at her now and then. Is she thinking about that four-year-old? Is Maudie stampedin’ through the snow so that other little woman need never dance at the Alcazar? No, the Colonel knew well enough that Maudie rather liked this stampedin’ business.

She had passed one of those men who had got the long start of her. He carried a pack. Once in a while she would turn her strained-looking face over her shoulder, glancing back, with the frank eyes of an enemy, at her fellow-citizens labouring along the trail.

“Come on, Colonel!” she commanded, with a new sharpness. “Keep up your lick.”

But the Colonel had had about enough of this gait. From now on he fell more and more behind. But the Boy was with her neck and neck.

“Guess you’re goin’ to get there.”

“Guess I am.”

Some men behind them began to run. They passed. They had pulled off their parkis, and left them where they fell. They threw off their caps now, and the sweat rolled down their faces. Not a countenance but wore that immobile look, the fixed, unseeing eye of the spent runner, who is overtaxing heart and lungs. Not only Maudie now, but everyone was silent. Occasionally a man would rouse himself out of a walk, as if out of sleep, and run a few yards, going the more weakly after. Several of the men who had been behind caught up.

Where was Kentucky?

If Maudie wondered, she wasted no time over the speculation. For his own good she had admonished him to keep up his lick, but of course the main thing was that Maudie should keep up hers.

“What if this is the great day of my life!” thought the Boy. “Shall I always look back to this? Why, it’s Sunday. Wonder if Kentucky remembers?” Never pausing, the Boy glanced back, vaguely amused, and saw the Colonel plunging heavily along in front of half a dozen, who were obviously out of condition for such an expedition–eyes bloodshot, lumbering on with nervous “whisky gait,” now whipped into a breathless gallop, now half falling by the way. Another of the Gold Nugget women with two groggy-looking men, and somewhere down the trail, the crippled Swede swearing at his squaw. A dreamy feeling came over the Boy. Where in the gold basins of the North was this kind of thing not happening–finished yesterday, or planned for to-morrow? Yes, it was typical. Between patches of ragged black spruce, wide stretches of snow-covered moss, under a lowering sky, and a mob of men floundering through the drifts to find a fortune. “See how they run!”–mad mice. They’d been going on stampedes all winter, and would go year in, year out, until they died. The prizes were not for such as they. As for himself–ah, it was a great day for him! He was going at last to claim that gold-mine he had come so far to find. This was the decisive moment of his life. At the thought he straightened up, and passed Maudie. She gave him a single sidelong look, unfriendly, even fierce. That was because he could run like sixty, and keep it up. “When I’m a millionaire I shall always remember that I’m rich because I won the race.” A dizzy feeling came over him. He seemed to be running through some softly resisting medium like water–no, like wine jelly. His heart was pounding up in his throat. “What if something’s wrong, and I drop dead on the way to my mine? Well, Kentucky’ll look after things.”

Maudie had caught up again, and here was Little Minook at last! A couple of men, who from the beginning had been well in advance of everyone else, and often out of sight, had seemed for the last five minutes to be losing ground. But now they put on steam, Maudie too. She stepped out of her snowshoes, and flung them up on the low roof of the first cabin. Then she ducked her head, crooked her arms at the elbow, and, with fists uplifted, she broke into a run, jumping from pile to pile of frozen pay, gliding under sluice-boxes, scrambling up the bank, slipping on the rotting ice, recovering, dashing on over fallen timber and through waist-deep drifts, on beyond No. 10 up to the bench above.

When the Boy got to Pitcairn’s prospect hole, there were already six claims gone. He proceeded to stake the seventh, next to Maudie’s. That person, with flaming cheeks, was driving her last location-post into a snow-drift with a piece of water-worn obsidian.

The Colonel came along in time to stake No. 14 Below, under Maudie’s personal supervision.

Not much use, in her opinion, “except that with gold, it’s where you find it, and that’s all any man can tell you.”

As she was returning alone to her own claim, behold two brawny Circle City miners pulling out her stakes and putting in their own. She flew at them with remarks unprintable.

“You keep your head shut,” advised one of the men, a big, evil-looking fellow. “This was our claim first. We was here with Pitcairn yesterday. Somebody’s took away our location-posts.”

“You take me for a cheechalko?” she screamed, and her blue eyes flashed like smitten steel. She pulled up her sweater and felt in her belt. “You–take your stakes out! Put mine back, unless you want—-” A murderous-looking revolver gleamed in her hand.

“Hold on!” said the spokesman hurriedly. “Can’t you take a joke?”

“No; this ain’t my day for jokin’. You want to put them stakes o’ mine back.” She stood on guard till it was done. “And now I’d advise you, like a mother, to back-track home. You’ll find this climate very tryin’ to your health.”

They went farther up the slope and marked out a claim on the incline above the bench.

In a few hours the mountain-side was staked to the very top, and still the stream of people struggled out from Rampart to the scene of the new strike. All day long, and all the night, the trail was alive with the coming or the going of the five hundred and odd souls that made up the population. In the town itself the excitement grew rather than waned. Men talked themselves into a fever, others took fire, and the epidemic spread like some obscure nervous disease. Nobody slept, everybody drank and hurrahed, and said it was the greatest night in the history of Minook. In the Gold Nugget saloon, crowded to suffocation, Pitcairn organized the new mining district, and named it the Idaho Bar. French Charlie and Keith had gone out late in the day. On their return, Keith sold his stake to a woman for twenty-five dollars, and Charlie advertised a half-interest in his for five thousand. Between these two extremes you could hear Idaho Bar quoted at any figure you liked.

Maudie was in towering spirits. She drank several cocktails, and in her knee-length “stampedin’ skirt” and her scarlet sweater she danced the most audacious jig even Maudie had ever presented to the Gold Nugget patrons. The miners yelled with delight. One of them caught her up and put her on the counter of the bar, where, no whit at a loss, she curveted and spun among the bottles and the glasses as lightly as a dragonfly dips and whirls along a summer brook. The enthusiasm grew delirious. The men began to throw nuggets at her, and Maudie, never pausing in the dance, caught them on the fly.

Suddenly she saw the Big Chap turn away, and, with his back to her, pretend to read the notice on the wall, written in charcoal on a great sheet of brown wrapping-paper:

“MINOOK, April 30.

“To who it may concern:

“Know all men by these presents that I, James McGinty, now of Minook (or Rampart City), Alaska, do hereby give notice of my intention to hold and claim a lien by virtue of the statue in such case—-“

He had read so far when Maudie, having jumped down off the bar with her fists full of nuggets, and dodging her admirers, wormed her way to the Colonel. She thrust her small person in between the notice and the reader, and scrutinised the tanned face, on which the Rochester burners shed a flood of light. “You lookin’ mighty serious,” she said.

“Am I?”

“M-hm! Thinkin’ ’bout home sweet home?”

“N-no–not just then.”

“Say, I told you ’bout–a–’bout me. You ain’t never told me nothin’.”

He seemed not to know the answer to that, and pulled at his ragged beard. She leaned back against McGinty’s notice, and blurred still more the smudged intention “by virtue of the statue.”

“Married, o’ course,” she said.

“No.”

“Widder?”

“No.”

“Never hitched up yet?”

He shook his head.

“Never goin’ to, I s’pose.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he laughed, and turned his head over his shoulder to the curious scene between them and the bar. It was suddenly as if he had never seen it before; then, while Maudie waited, a little scornful, a little kind, his eyes went through the window to the pink and orange sunrise. As some change came over the Colonel’s face, “She died!” said Maudie.

“No–no–she didn’t die;” then half to himself, half to forestall Maudie’s crude probing, “but I lost her,” he finished.

“Oh, you lost her!”

He stood, looking past the ugliness within to the morning majesty without. But it was not either that he saw. Maudie studied him.

“Guess you ain’t give up expectin’ to find her some day?”

“No–no, not quite.”

“Humph! Did you guess you’d find her here?”

“No,” and his absent smile seemed to remove him leagues away. “No, not here.”

“I could a’ told you—-” she began savagely. “I don’t know for certain whether any–what you call good women come up here, but I’m dead sure none stay.”

“When do you leave for home, Maudie?” he said gently.

But at the flattering implication the oddest thing happened. As she stood there, with her fists full of gold, Maudie’s eyes filled. She turned abruptly and went out. The crowd began to melt away. In half an hour only those remained who had more hootch than they could carry off the premises. They made themselves comfortable on the floor, near the stove, and the greatest night Minook had known was ended.

CHAPTER XVIII

A MINERS’ MEETING

“Leiden oder triumphiren Hammer oder Amboss sein.”–Goethe.

In a good-sized cabin, owned by Bonsor, down near the A. C., Judge Corey was administering Miners’ Law. The chief magistrate was already a familiar figure, standing on his dump at Little Minook, speculatively chewing and discussing “glayshal action,” but most of the time at the Gold Nugget, chewing still, and discussing more guardedly the action some Minook man was threatening to bring against another. You may treat a glacier cavalierly, but Miners’ Law is a serious matter. Corey was sitting before a deal table, littered with papers strewn round a central bottle of ink, in which a steel pen stuck upright. The Judge wore his usual dilapidated business suit of brown cheviot that had once been snuff-coloured and was now a streaky drab. On his feet, stretched out under the magisterial table till they joined the jury, a pair of moccasins; on his grizzled head a cowboy hat, set well back. He could spit farther than any man in Minook, and by the same token was a better shot. They had unanimously elected him Judge.

The first-comers had taken possession of the chairs and wooden stools round the stove. All the later arrivals, including Keith and his friends, sat on the floor.

“There’s a good many here.”

“They’ll keep comin’ as long as a lean man can scrouge in.”

“Yes,” said Keith, “everybody’s got to come, even if it’s only the usual row between pardners, who want to part and can’t agree about dividing the outfit.”

“Got to come?”

Keith laughed. “That’s the way everybody feels. There’ll be a debate and a chance to cast a vote. Isn’t your true-born American always itching to hold a meeting about something?”

“Don’t know about that,” said McGinty, “but I do know there’s more things happens in a minute to make a man mad in Alaska, than happens in a year anywhere else.” And his sentiment was loudly applauded. The plaintiff had scored a hit.

“I don’t know but two partnerships,” the ex-Governor was saying, “of all those on my ship and on the Muckluck and the May West–just two, that have stood the Alaska strain. Everyone that didn’t break on the boats, or in camp, went to smash on the trail.”

They all admitted that the trail was the final test. While they smoked and spat into or at the stove, and told trail yarns, the chief magistrate arranged papers, conferred with the clerk and another man, wrinkled deeply his leathery forehead, consulted his Waterbury, and shot tobacco-juice under the table.

“Another reason everybody comes,” whispered Keith, “is because the side that wins always takes the town up to the Nugget and treats to hootch. Whenever you see eighty or ninety more drunks than usual, you know there’s either been a stampede or else justice has been administered.”

“Ain’t Bonsor late?” asked someone.

“No, it’s a quarter of.”

“Why do they want Bonsor?”

“His case on the docket–McGinty v. Burt Bonsor, proprietor of the Gold Nugget.”

“If they got a row on—-“

“If they got a row? Course they got a row. Weren’t they pardners?”

“But McGinty spends all his time at the Gold Nugget.”

“Well, where would he spend it?”

“A Miners’ Meetin’s a pretty poor machine,” McGinty was saying to the ex-Governor, “but it’s the best we got.”

“—-in a country bigger than several of the nations of Europe put together,” responded that gentleman, with much public spirit.

“A Great Country!”

“Right!”

“You bet!”

“—-a country that’s paid for its purchase over and over again, even before we discovered gold here.”

“Did she? Good old ‘laska.”

“—-and the worst treated part o’ the Union.”

“That’s so.”

“After this, when I read about Russian corruption and Chinese cruelty, I’ll remember the way Uncle Sam treats the natives up—-“

“—-and us, b’gosh! White men that are openin’ up this great, rich country fur Uncle Sam—-“

“—-with no proper courts–no Government protection–no help–no justice–no nothin’.”

“Yer forgittin’ them reindeer!” And the court-room rang with derisive laughter.

“Congress started that there Relief Expedition all right,” the josher went on, “only them blamed reindeer had got the feed habit, and when they’d et up everything in sight they set down on the Dalton Trail–and there they’re settin’ yit, just like they was Congress. But I don’t like to hear no feller talkin’ agin’ the Gover’ment.”

“Yes, it’s all very funny,” said McGinty gloomily, “but think o’ the fix a feller’s in wot’s had a wrong done him in the fall, and knows justice is thousands o’ miles away, and he can’t even go after her for eight months; and in them eight months the feller wot robbed him has et up the money, or worked out the claim, and gone dead-broke.”

“No, sir! we don’t wait, and we don’t go trav’lin’. We stay at home and call a meetin’.”

The door opened, and Bonsor and the bar-tender, with great difficulty, forced their way in. They stood flattened against the wall. During the diversion McGinty was growling disdainfully, “Rubbidge!”

“Rubbidge? Reckon it’s pretty serious rubbidge.”

“Did you ever know a Miners’ Meetin’ to make a decision that didn’t become law, with the whole community ready to enforce it if necessary? Rubbidge!

“Oh, we’ll hang a man if we don’t like his looks,” grumbled McGinty; but he was overborne. There were a dozen ready to uphold the majesty of the Miners’ Meetin’.

“No, sir! No funny business about our law! This tribunal’s final.”

“I ain’t disputin’ that it’s final. I ain’t talkin’ about law. I was mentionin’ Justice.”

“The feller that loses is always gassin’ ’bout Justice. When you win you don’t think there’s any flies on the Justice.”

“Ain’t had much experience with winnin’. We all knows who wins in these yere Meetin’s.”

“Who?” But they turned their eyes on Mr. Bonsor, over by the door.

“Who wins?” repeated a Circle City man.

“The feller that’s got the most friends.”

“It’s so,” whispered Keith.

“—-same at Circle,” returned the up-river man.

McGinty looked at him. Was this a possible adherent?

“You got a Push at Circle?” he inquired, but without genuine interest in the civil administration up the river. “Why, ‘fore this yere town was organised, when we hadn’t got no Court of Arbitration to fix a boundary, or even to hang a thief, we had our ‘main Push,’ just like we was ‘Frisco.” He lowered his voice, and leaned towards his Circle friend. “With Bonsor’s help they ‘lected Corey Judge o’ the P’lice Court, and Bonsor ain’t never let Corey forgit it.”

“What about the other?” inquired a Bonsorite, “the shifty Push that got you in for City Marshal?”

“What’s the row on to-night?” inquired the Circle City man.

“Oh, Bonsor, over there, he lit out on a stampede ’bout Christmas, and while he was gone a feller by the name o’ Lawrence quit the game. Fanned out one night at the Gold Nugget. I seen for days he was wantin’ to be a angil, and I kep’ a eye on ‘im. Well, when he went to the boneyard, course it was my business, bein’ City Marshal, to take possession of his property fur his heirs!”

There was unseemly laughter behind the stove-pipe.

“Among his deeds and traps,” McGinty went on, unheeding, “there was fifteen hundred dollars in money. Well, sir, when Bonsor gits back he decides he’d like to be the custodian o’ that cash. Mentions his idee to me. I jest natchrally tell him to go to hell. No, sir, he goes to Corey over there, and gits an order o’ the Court makin’ Bonsor administrator o’ the estate o’ James Lawrence o’ Noo Orleens, lately deceased. Then Bonsor comes to me, shows me the order, and demands that fifteen hundred.”

“Didn’t he tell you you could keep all the rest o’ Lawrence’s stuff?” asked the Bonsorite.

McGinty disdained to answer this thrust.

“But I knows my dooty as City Marshal, and I says, ‘No,’ and Bonsor says, says he, ‘If you can’t git the idee o’ that fifteen hundred dollars out o’ your head, I’ll git it out fur ye with a bullet,’ an’ he draws on me.”

“An’ McGinty weakens,” laughed the mocker behind the stove-pipe.

“Bonsor jest pockets the pore dead man’s cash,” says McGinty, with righteous indignation, “and I’ve called this yer meetin’ t’ arbitrate the matter.”

“Minook doesn’t mind arbitrating,” says Keith low to the Colonel, “but there isn’t a man in camp that would give five cents for the interest of the heirs of Lawrence in that fifteen hundred dollars.”

A hammering on the clerk’s little table announced that it was seven p.m.

The Court then called for the complaint filed by McGinty v. Bonsor, the first case on the docket. The clerk had just risen when the door was flung open, and hatless, coatless, face aflame, Maudie stood among the miners.

“Boys!” said she, on the top of a scream, “I been robbed.”

“Hey?”

“Robbed?”

“Golly!”

“Maudie robbed?” They spoke all together. Everybody had jumped up.

“While we was on that stampede yesterday, somebody found my–all my—-” She choked, and her eyes filled. “Boys! my nuggets, my dust, my dollars–they’re gone!”

“Where did you have ’em?”

“In a little place under–in a hole.” Her face twitched, and she put her hand up to hide it.

“Mean shame.”

“Dirt mean.”

“We’ll find him, Maudie.”

“An’ when we do, we’ll hang him on the cottonwood.”

“Did anybody know where you kept your—-“

“I didn’t think so, unless it was—-No!” she screamed hysterically, and then fell into weak crying. “Can’t think who could have been such a skunk.”

“But who do you suspect?” persisted the Judge.

“How do I know?” she retorted angrily. “I suspect everybody till–till I know.” She clenched her hands.

That a thief should be “operating” in Minook on somebody who wasn’t dead yet, was a matter that came home to the business and the bosoms of all the men in the camp. In the midst of the babel of speculation and excitement, Maudie, still crying and talking incoherently about skunks, opened the door. The men crowded after her. Nobody suggested it, but the entire Miners’ Meeting with one accord adjourned to the scene of the crime. Only a portion could be accommodated under Maudie’s roof, but the rest crowded in front of her door or went and examined the window. Maudie’s log-cabin was a cheerful place, its one room, neatly kept, lined throughout with red and white drill, hung with marten and fox, carpeted with wolf and caribou. The single sign of disorder was that the bed was pulled out a little from its place in the angle of the wall above the patent condenser stove. Behind the oil-tank, where the patent condensation of oil into gas went on, tiers of shelves, enamelled pots and pans ranged below, dishes and glasses above. On the very top, like a frieze, gaily labelled ranks of “tinned goods.” On the table under the window a pair of gold scales. A fire burned in the stove. The long-lingering sunlight poured through the “turkey-red” that she had tacked up for a half-curtain, and over this, one saw the slouch-hats and fur caps of the outside crowd.

Clutching Judge Corey by the arm, Maudie pulled him after her into the narrow space behind the head-board and the wall.

“It was here–see?” She stooped down.

Some of the men pulled the bed farther out, so that they, too, could pass round and see.

“This piece o’ board goes down so slick you’d never know it lifted out.” She fitted it in with shaking hands, and then with her nails and a hairpin got it out. “And way in, underneath, I had this box. I always set it on a flat stone.” She spoke as if this oversight were the thief’s chief crime. “See? Like that.”

She fitted the cigar-box into unseen depths of space and then brought it out again, wet and muddy. The ground was full of springs hereabouts, and the thaw had loosed them.

“Boys!” She stood up and held out the box. “Boys! it was full.”

Eloquently she turned it upside down.

“How much do you reckon you had?” She handed the muddy box to the nearest sympathiser, sat down on the fur-covered bed, and wiped her eyes.

“Any idea?”

“I weighed it all over again after I got in from the Gold Nugget the night we went on the stampede.”

As she sobbed out the list of her former possessions, Judge Corey took it down on the back of a dirty envelope. So many ounces of dust, so many in nuggets, so much in bills and coin, gold and silver. Each item was a stab.

“Yes, all that–all that!” she jumped up wildly, “and it’s gone! But we got to find it. What you hangin’ round here for? Why, if you boys had any natchral spunk you’d have the thief strung up by now.”

“We got to find him fust.”

“You won’t find him standin’ here.”

They conferred afresh.

“It must have been somebody who knowed where you kept the stuff.”

“N-no.” Her red eyes wandered miserably, restlessly, to the window. Over the red half-curtain French Charlie and Butts looked in. They had not been to the meeting.

Maudie’s face darkened as she caught sight of the Canadian.

“Oh, yes, you can crow over me now,” she shouted shrilly above the buzz of comment and suggestion. The Canadian led the way round to the door, and the two men crowded in.

“You just get out,” Maudie cried in a fury. “Didn’t I turn you out o’ this and tell you never—-“

“Hol’ on,” said French Charlie in a conciliatory tone. “This true ’bout your losin’—-“

“Yes, it’s true; but I ain’t askin’ your sympathy!”

He stopped short and frowned.

“Course not, when you can get his.” Under his slouch-hat he glowered at the Colonel.

Maudie broke into a volley of abuse. The very air smelt of brimstone. When finally, through sheer exhaustion, she dropped on the side of the bed, the devil prompted French Charlie to respond in kind. She jumped up and turned suddenly round upon Corey, speaking in a voice quite different, low and hoarse: “You asked me, Judge, if anybody knew where I kept my stuff. Charlie did.”

The Canadian stopped in the middle of a lurid remark and stared stupidly. The buzz died away. The cabin was strangely still.

“Wasn’t you along with the rest up to Idaho Bar?” inquired the Judge in a friendly voice.

“Y-yes.”

“Not when we all were! No!” Maudie’s tear-washed eyes were regaining a dangerous brightness. “I wanted him to come with me. He wouldn’t, and we quarrelled.”

“We didn’t.”

“You didn’t quarrel?” put in the Judge.

“We did,” said Maudie, breathless.

“Not about that. It was because she wanted another feller to come, too.” Again he shot an angry glance at the Kentuckian.

“And Charlie said if I gave the other feller the tip, he wouldn’t come. And he’d get even with me, if it took a leg!”

“Well, it looks like he done it.”

“Can’t you prove an alibi? Thought you said you was along with the rest to Idaho Bar?” suggested Windy Jim.

“So I was.”

“I didn’t see you,” Maudie flashed.

“When were you there?” asked the Judge.

“Last night.”

“Oh, yes! When everybody else was comin’ home. You all know if that’s the time Charlie usually goes on a stampede!”

“You—-“

If words could slay, Maudie would have dropped dead, riddled with a dozen mortal wounds. But she lived to reply in kind. Charlie’s abandonment of coherent defence was against him. While he wallowed blindly in a mire of offensive epithet, his fellow-citizens came to dark conclusions. He had an old score to pay off against Maudie, they all knew that. Had he chosen this way? What other so effectual? He might even say most of that dust was his, anyway. But it was an alarming precedent. The fire of Maudie’s excitement had caught and spread. Eve the less inflammable muttered darkly that it was all up with Minook, if a person couldn’t go on a stampede without havin’ his dust took out of his cabin. The crowd was pressing Charlie, and twenty cross-questions were asked him in a minute. He, beside himself with rage, or fear, or both, lost all power except to curse.

The Judge seemed to be taking down damning evidence on the dirty envelope. Some were suggesting:

“Bring him over to the court.”

“Yes, try him straight away.”

No-Thumb-Jack was heard above the din, saying it was all gammon wasting time over a trial, or even–in a plain case like this–for the Judge to require the usual complaint made in writing and signed by three citizens.

Two men laid hold of the Canadian, and he turned ghastly white under his tan.

“Me? Me tief? You–let me alone!” He began to struggle. His terrified eyes rolling round the little cabin, fell on Butts.

“I don’ know but one tief in Minook,” he said wildly, like a man wandering in a fever, and unconscious of having spoken, till he noticed there was a diversion of some sort. People were looking at Butts. A sudden inspiration pierced the Canadian’s fog of terror.

“You know what Butts done to Jack McQuestion. You ain’t forgot how he sneaked Jack’s watch!” The incident was historic.

Every eye on Butts. Charlie caught up breath and courage.

“An’ t’odder night w’en Maudie treat me like she done”–he shot a blazing glance at the double-dyed traitor–“I fixed it up with Butts. Got him to go soft on ‘er and nab ‘er ring.”

“You didn’t!” shouted Maudie.

With a shaking finger Charlie pointed out Jimmie, the cashier.

“Didn’t I tell you to weigh me out twenty dollars for Butts that night?”

“Right,” says Jimmie.

“It was to square Butts fur gittin’ that ring away from Maudie.”

“You put up a job like that on me?” To be fooled publicly was worse than being robbed.

Charlie paid no heed to her quivering wrath. The menace of the cotton-wood gallows outrivalled even Maudie and her moods.

“Why should I pay Butts twenty dollars if I could work dat racket m’self? If I want expert work, I go to a man like Butts, who knows his business. I’m a miner–like the rest o’ yer!”

The centre of gravity had shifted. It was very grave indeed in the neighbourhood of Mr. Butts.

“Hold on,” said the Judge, forcing his way nearer to the man whose fingers had a renown so perilous. “‘Cause a man plays a trick about a girl’s ring don’t prove he stole her money. This thing happened while the town was emptied out on the Little Minook trail. Didn’t you go off with the rest yesterday morning?”

“No.”

“Ha!” gasped Maudie, as though this were conclusive–“had business in town, did you?”

Mr. Butts declined to answer.

“You thought the gold-mine out on the gulch could wait–and the gold-mine in my cabin couldn’t.”

“You lie!” remarked Mr. Butts.

“What time did you get to Idaho Bar?” asked Corey.

“Didn’t get there at all.”

“Where were you?”

“Here in Rampart.”

“What?”

“Wait! Wait!” commanded the Judge, as the crowd rocked towards Butts: “P’raps you’ll tell us what kept you at home?”

Butts shut his mouth angrily, but a glance at the faces nearest him made him think an answer prudent.

“I was tired.”

The men, many of them ailing, who had nearly killed themselves to get to Idaho Bar, sneered openly.

“I’d been jumpin’ a claim up at Hunter.”

“So had Charlie. But he joined the new stampede in the afternoon.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Why, even the old cripple Jansen went on this stampede.”

“Can’t help that.”

“Mr. Butts, you’re the only able-bodied white man in the district that stayed at home.” Corey spoke in his, most judicial style.

Mr. Butts must have felt the full significance of so suspicious a fact, but all he said was:

“Y’ ought to fix up a notice. Anybody that don’t join a stampede will be held guilty o’ grand larceny.” Saying this Butts had backed a step behind the stove-pipe, and with incredible quickness had pulled out a revolver. But before he had brought it into range, No-Thumb-Jack had struck his arm down, and two or three had sprung at the weapon and wrested it away.

“Search him!”

“No tellin’ what else he’s got!”

“—-and he’s so damned handy!”

“Search him!”

Maudie pressed forward as the pinioned man’s pockets were turned out. Only tobacco, a small buckskin bag with less than four ounces of dust, a pipe, and a knife.

“Likely he’d be carrying my stuff about on him!” said she, contemptuous of her own keen interest.

“Get out a warrant to search Butts’ premises,” said a voice in the crowd.

“McGinty and Johnson are down there now!”

“Think he’d leave anything layin’ round?”

Maudie pressed still closer to the beleaguered Butts.

“Say, if I make the boys let you go back to Circle, will you tell me where you’ve hid my money?”

“Ain’t got your money!”

“Look at ‘im,” whispered Charlie, still so terrified he could hardly stand.

“Butts ain’t borrowin’ no trouble.”

And this formulating of the general impression did Butts no good. As they had watched the calm demeanour of the man, under suspicion of what was worse, in their eyes, than murder, there had come over the bystanders a wave of that primitive cruelty that to this hour will wake in modern men and cry as loud as in Judean days, or in the Saga times of Iceland, “Retribution! Let him suffer! Let him pay in blood!” And here again, on the Yukon, that need of visible atonement to right the crazy injustice of the earth.

Even the women–the others had crowded in–were eager for Butts’ instant expiation of the worst crime such a community knows. They told one another excitedly how they’d realised all along it was only a question of time before Butts would be tryin’ his game up here. Nobody was safe. Luckily they were on to him. But look! He didn’t care a curse. It would be a good night’s job to make him care.

Three men had hold of him, and everybody talked at once. Minnie Bryan was sure she had seen him skulking round Maudie’s after that lady had gone up the trail, but everybody had been too excited about the stampede to notice particularly.

The Judge and Bonsor were shouting and gesticulating, Butts answering bitterly but quietly still. His face was pretty grim, but it looked as if he were the one person in the place who hadn’t lost his head. Maudie was still crying at intervals, and advertising to the newcomers that wealth she had hitherto kept so dark, and between whiles she stared fixedly at Butts, as conviction of his guilt deepened to a rage to see him suffer for his crime.

She would rather have her nuggets back, but, failing that–let Butts pay! He owed her six thousand dollars. Let him pay!

The miners were hustling him to the door–to the Court House or to the cotton-wood–a toss-up which.

“Look here!” cried out the Colonel; “McGinty and Johnson haven’t got back!”

Nobody listened. Justice had been sufficiently served in sending them. They had forced Butts out across the threshold, the crowd packed close behind. The only men who had not pressed forward were Keith, the Colonel, and the Boy, and No-Thumb-Jack, still standing by the oil-tank.

“What are they going to do with him?” The Colonel turned to Keith with horror in his face.

Keith’s eyes were on the Boy, who had stooped and picked up the block of wood that had fitted over the treasure-hole. He was staring at it with dilated eyes. Sharply he turned his head in the direction where No-Thumb-Jack had stood. Jack was just making for the door on the heels of the last of those pressing to get out.

The Boy’s low cry was drowned in the din. He lunged forward, but the Colonel gripped him. Looking up, he saw that Kentucky understood, and meant somehow to manage the business quietly.

Jack was trying, now right, now left, to force his way through the congestion at the door, like a harried rabbit at a wattled fence. A touch on the shoulder simultaneously with the click of a trigger at his ear brought his face round over his shoulder. He made the instinctive pioneer motion to his hip, looked into the bore of the Colonel’s pistol, and under Keith’s grip dropped his “gun-hand” with a smothered oath.

Or was it that other weapon in the Colonel’s left that bleached the ruddy face? Simply the block of wood. On the under side, dried in, like a faint stain, four muddy finger-prints, index joint lacking. Without a word the Colonel turned the upper side out. A smudge?–no–the grain of human skin clean printed–a distorted palm without a thumb. Only one man in Minook could make that sign manual!

The last of the crowd were over the threshold now, and still no word was spoken by those who stayed behind, till the Colonel said to the Boy:

“Go with ’em, and look after Butts. Give us five minutes; more if you can!”

He laid the block on a cracker-box, and, keeping pistol and eye still on the thief, took his watch in his left hand, as the Boy shot through the door.

Butts was making a good fight for his life, but he was becoming exhausted. The leading spirits were running him down the bank to where a crooked cotton-wood leaned cautiously over the Never-Know-What, as if to spy out the river’s secret.

But after arriving there, they were a little delayed for lack of what they called tackle. They sent a man off for it, and then sent another to hurry up the man. The Boy stood at the edge of the crowd, a little above them, watching Maudie’s door, and with feverish anxiety turning every few seconds to see how it was with Butts.

Up in the cabin No-Thumb-Jack had pulled out of the usual capacious pockets of the miner’s brown-duck-pockets that fasten with a patent snap–a tattered pocket-book, fat with bills. He plunged deeper and brought up Pacific Coast eagles and five-dollar pieces, Canadian and American gold that went rolling out of his maimed and nervous hand across the tablet to the scales and set the brass pans sawing up and down.

Keith, his revolver still at full cock, had picked up a trampled bit of paper near the stove. Corey’s list. Left-handedly he piled up the money, counting, comparing.

“Quick! the dust!” ordered the Colonel. Out of a left hip-pocket a long, tight-packed buckskin bag. Another from a side-pocket, half the size and a quarter as full.

“That’s mine,” said Jack, and made a motion to recover.

“Let it alone. Turn out everything. Nuggets!”

A miner’s chamois belt unbuckled and flung heavily down. The scales jingled and rocked; every pocket in the belt was stuffed.

“Where’s the rest?”

“There ain’t any rest. That’s every damned pennyweight.”

“Maybe we ought to weigh it, and see if he’s lying?”

“‘Fore God it’s all! Let me go!” He had kept looking through the crack of the door.

“Reckon it’s about right,” said Keith.

“‘Tain’t right! There’s more there’n I took. My stuff’s there too. For Christ’s sake, let me go!”

“Look here, Jack, is the little bag yours?”

Jack wet his dry lips and nodded “Yes.”

The Colonel snatched up the smaller bag and thrust it into the man’s hands. Jack made for the door. The Colonel stopped him.

“Better take to the woods,” he said, with a motion back towards the window. The Colonel opened the half-closed door and looked out, as Jack pushed aside the table, tore away the red curtain, hammered at the sash, then, desperate, set his shoulder at it and forced the whole thing out. He put his maimed hand on the sill and vaulted after the shattered glass.

They could see him going like the wind up towards his own shack at the edge of the wood, looking back once or twice, doubling and tacking to keep himself screened by the haphazard, hillside cabins, out of sight of the lynchers down at the river.

“Will you stay with this?” the Colonel had asked Keith hurriedly, nodding at the treasure-covered table, and catching up the finger-marked block before Jack was a yard from the window.

“Yes,” Keith had said, revolver still in hand and eyes on the man Minook was to see no more. The Colonel met the Boy running breathless up the bank.

“Can’t hold ’em any longer,” he shouted; “you’re takin’ it pretty easy while a man’s gettin’ killed down here.”

“Stop! Wait!” The Colonel floundered madly through the slush and mud, calling and gesticulating, “I’ve got the thief!”

Presto all the backs of heads became faces.

“Got the money?” screamed Maudie, uncovering her eyes. She had gone to the execution, but after the rope was brought, her nerve failed her, and she was sobbing hysterically into her two palms held right over her eyes.

“Oh, you had it, did you?” called out McGinty with easy insolence.

“Look here!” The Colonel held up the bit of flooring with rapid explanation.

“Where is he?”

“Got him locked up?”

Everybody talked at once. The Colonel managed to keep them going for some moments before he admitted.

“Reckon he’s lit out.” And then the Colonel got it hot and strong for his clumsiness.

“Which way’d he go?”

The Colonel turned his back to the North Pole, and made a fine large gesture in the general direction of the Equator.

“Where’s my money?”

“Up in your cabin. Better go and count it.”

A good many were willing to help since they’d been cheated out of a hanging, and even defrauded of a shot at a thief on the wing. Nobody seemed to care to remain in the neighbourhood of the crooked cotton-wood. The crowd was dispersing somewhat sheepishly.

Nobody looked at Butts, and yet he was a sight to see. His face and his clothes were badly mauled. He was covered with mud and blood. When the men were interrupted in trying to get the noose over his head, he had stood quite still in the midst of the crowd till it broke and melted away from him. He looked round, passed his hand over his eyes, threw open his torn coat, and felt in his pockets.

“Who’s got my tobacco?” says he.

Several men turned back suddenly, and several pouches were held out, but nobody met Butts’ eyes. He filled his pipe, nor did his hand shake any more than those that held the tobacco-bags. When he had lit up, “Who’s got my Smith and Wesson?” he called out to the backs of the retiring citizens. Windy Jim stood and delivered. Butts walked away to his cabin, swaying a little, as if he’d had more hootch than he could carry.

“What would you have said,” demanded the Boy, “if you’d hung the wrong man?”

“Said?” echoed McGinty. “Why, we’d ‘a’ said that time the corpse had the laugh on us.” A couple of hours later Keith put an excited face into his shack, where the Colonel and the Boy were just crawling under their blankets.

“Thought you might like to know, that Miners’ Meeting that was interrupted is having an extra session.”

They followed him down to the Court through a fine rain. The night was heavy and thick. As they splashed along Keith explained:

“Of course, Charlie knew there wasn’t room enough in Alaska now for Butts and him; and he thought he’d better send Butts home. So he took his gun and went to call.”

“Don’t tell me that poor devil’s killed after all.”

“Not a bit. Butts is a little bunged up, but he’s the handier man, even so. He drew the first bead.”

“Charlie hurt?”

“No, he isn’t hurt. He’s dead. Three or four fellows had just looked in, on the quiet, to kind of apologise to Butts. They’re down at Corey’s now givin’ evidence against him.”

“So Butts’ll have to swing after all. Is he in Court?”

“Yes–been a busy day for Butts.”

A confused noise came suddenly out of the big cabin they were nearing. They opened the door with difficulty, and forced their way into the reeking, crowded room for the second time that night. Everybody seemed to be talking–nobody listening. Dimly through dense clouds of tobacco-smoke “the prisoner at the Bar” was seen to be–what–no! Yes–shaking hands with the Judge.

“Verdict already?”

“Oh, that kind o’ case don’t take a feller like Corey long.”

“What’s the decision?”

“Prisoner discharged. Charlie Le Gros committed suicide.”

“Suicide!”

“–by goin’ with his gun to Butts’ shack lookin’ f trouble.”

CHAPTER XIX

THE ICE GOES OUT

“I am apart of all that I have seen.”

It had been thawing and freezing, freezing and thawing, for so long that men lost account of the advance of a summer coming, with such balked, uncertain steps. Indeed, the weather variations had for several weeks been so great that no journey, not the smallest, could be calculated with any assurance. The last men to reach Minook were two who had made a hunting and prospecting trip to an outlying district. They had gone there in six days, and were nineteen in returning.

The slush was waist-deep in the gulches. On the benches, in the snow, holes appeared, as though red-hot stones had been thrown upon the surface. The little settlement by the mouth of the Minook sat insecurely on the boggy hillside, and its inhabitants waded knee-deep in soaking tundra moss and mire.

And now, down on the Never-Know-What, water was beginning to run on the marginal ice. Up on the mountains the drifted snow was honey-combed. Whole fields of it gave way and sunk a foot under any adventurous shoe. But although these changes had been wrought slowly, with backsets of bitter nights, when everything was frozen hard as flint, the illusion was general that summer came in with a bound. On the 9th of May, Minook went to bed in winter, and woke to find the snow almost gone under the last nineteen hours of hot, unwinking sunshine, and the first geese winging their way up the valley–sight to stir men’s hearts. Stranger still, the eight months’ Arctic silence broken suddenly by a thousand voices. Under every snow-bank a summer murmur, very faint at first, but hourly louder–the sound of falling water softly singing over all the land.

As silence had been the distinguishing feature of the winter, so was noise the sign of the spring. No ear so dull but now was full of it. All the brooks on all the hills, tinkling, tumbling, babbling of some great and universal joy, all the streams of all the gulches joining with every little rill to find the old way, or to carve a new, back to the Father of Waters.

And the strange thing had happened on the Yukon. The shore-edges of the ice seemed sunken, and the water ran yet deeper there. But of a certainty the middle part had risen! The cheechalkos thought it an optical illusion. But old Brandt from Forty-Mile had seen the ice go out for two-and-twenty years, and he said it went out always so–“humps his back, an’ gits up gits, and when he’s a gitten’, jest look out!” Those who, in spite of warning, ventured in hip-boots down on the Never-Know-What, found that, in places, the under side of the ice was worn nearly through. If you bent your head and listened, you could plainly hear that greater music of the river running underneath, low as yet, but deep, and strangely stirring–dominating in the hearer’s ears all the clear, high clamour from gulch and hill.

In some men’s hearts the ice “went out” at the sound, and the melting welled up in their eyes. Summer and liberty were very near.

“Oh, hurry, Yukon Inua; let the ice go out and let the boats come in.”

But the next few days hung heavily. The river-ice humped its back still higher, but showed no disposition to “git.” The wonder was it did not crack under the strain; but Northern ice ahs the air of being strangely flexile. Several feet in depth, the water ran now along the margin.

More geese and ducks appeared, and flocks of little birds–Canada jays, robins, joined the swelling chorus of the waters.

Oh, hurry, hurry Inua, and open the great highway! Not at Minook alone: at every wood camp, mining town and mission, at every white post and Indian village, all along the Yukon, groups were gathered waiting the great moment of the year. No one had ever heard of the ice breaking up before the 11th of May or later than the 28th. And yet men had begun to keep a hopeful eye on the river from the 10th of April, when a white ptarmigan was reported wearing a collar of dark-brown feathers, and his wings tipped brown. That was a month ago, and the great moment could not possibly be far now.

The first thing everybody did on getting up, and the last thing everybody did on going to bed, was to look at the river. It was not easy to go to bed; and even if you got so far it was not easy to sleep. The sun poured into the cabins by night as well as by day, and there was nothing to divide one part of the twenty-four hours from another. You slept when you were too tired to watch the river. You breakfasted, like as not, at six in the evening; you dined at midnight. Through all your waking hours you kept an eye on the window overlooking the river. In your bed you listened for that ancient Yukon cry, “The ice is going out!”

For ages it had meant to the timid: Beware the fury of the shattered ice-fields; beware the caprice of the flood. Watch! lest many lives go out with the ice as aforetime. And for ages to the stout-hearted it had meant: Make ready the kyaks and the birch canoes; see that tackle and traps are strong–for plenty or famine wait upon the hour. As the white men waited for boats to-day, the men of the older time had waited for the salmon–for those first impatient adventurers that would force their way under the very ice-jam, tenderest and best of the season’s catch, as eager to prosecute that journey from the ocean to the Klondyke as if they had been men marching after the gold boom.

No one could settle to anything. It was by fits and starts that the steadier hands indulged even in target practice, with a feverish subconsciousness that events were on the way that might make it inconvenient to have lost the art of sending a bullet straight. After a diminutive tin can, hung on a tree, had been made to jump at a hundred paces, the marksman would glance at the river and forget to fire. It was by fits and starts that they even drank deeper or played for higher stakes.

The Wheel of Fortune, in the Gold Nugget, was in special demand. It was a means of trying your luck with satisfactory despatch “between drinks” or between long bouts of staring at the river. Men stood in shirt-sleeves at their cabin doors in the unwinking sunshine, looking up the valley or down, betting that the “first boat in” would be one of those nearest neighbours, May West or Muckluck, coming up from Woodworth; others as ready to back heavily their opinion that the first blast of the steam whistle would come down on the flood from Circle or from Dawson.

The Colonel had bought and donned a new suit of “store clothes,” and urged on his companion the necessity of at least a whole pair of breeches in honour of his entrance into the Klondyke. But the Boy’s funds were low and his vanity chastened. Besides, he had other business on his mind.

After sending several requests for the immediate return of his dog, requests that received no attention, the Boy went out to the gulch to recover him. Nig’s new master paid up all arrears of wages readily enough, but declined to surrender the dog. “Oh, no, the ice wasn’t thinkin’ o’ goin’ out yit.”

“I want my dog.”

“You’ll git him sure.”

“I’m glad you understand that much.”

“I’ll bring him up to Rampart in time for the first boat.”

“Where’s my dog?”

No answer. The Boy whistled. No Nig. Dread masked itself in choler. He jumped on the fellow, forced him down, and hammered him till he cried for mercy.

“Where’s my dog, then?”

“He–he’s up to Idyho Bar,” whimpered the prostrate one. And there the Boy found him, staggering under a pair of saddle-bags, hired out to Mike O’Reilly for a dollar and a half a day. Together they returned to Rampart to watch for the boat.

Certainly the ice was very late breaking up this year. The men of Rampart stood about in groups in the small hours of the morning of the 16th of May; as usual, smoking, yarning, speculating, inventing elaborate joshes. Somebody remembered that certain cheechalkos had gone to bed at midnight. Now this was unprecedented, even impertinent. If the river is not open by the middle of May, your Sour-dough may go to bed–only he doesn’t. Still, he may do as he lists. But your cheechalko–why, this is the hour of his initiation. It was as if a man should yawn at his marriage or refuse to sleep at his funeral. The offenders were some of those Woodworth fellows, who, with a dozen or so others, had built shacks below “the street” yet well above the river. At two in the morning Sour-dough Saunders knocked them up.

“The ice is goin’ out!”

In a flash the sleepers stood at the door.

“Only a josh.” One showed fight.

“Well, it’s true what I’m tellin’ yer,” persisted Saunders seriously: “the ice is goin’ out, and it’s goin’ soon, and when you’re washed out o’ yer bunks ye needn’t blame me, fur I warned yer.”

“You don’t mean the flood’ll come up here?”

“Mebbe you’ve arranged so she won’t this year.”

The cheechalkos consulted. In the end, four of them occupied the next two hours (to the infinite but masked amusement of the town) in floundering about in the mud, setting up tents in the boggy wood above the settlement, and with much pains transporting thither as many of their possessions as they did not lose in the bottomless pit of the mire.

When the business was ended, Minook self-control gave way. The cheechalkos found themselves the laughing-stock of the town. The others, who had dared to build down on the bank, but who “hadn’t scared worth a cent,” sauntered up to the Gold Nugget to enjoy the increased esteem of the Sour-doughs, and the humiliation of the men who had thought “the Yukon was goin’ over the Ramparts this year–haw, haw!”

It surprises the average mind to discover that one of civilization’s most delicate weapons is in such use and is so potently dreaded among the roughest frontier spirits. No fine gentleman in a drawing-room, no sensitive girl, shrinks more from what Meredith calls “the comic laugh,” none feels irony more keenly than your ordinary American pioneer. The men who had moved up into the soaking wood saw they had run a risk as great to them as the fabled danger of the river–the risk of the josher’s irony, the dire humiliation of the laugh. If a man up here does you an injury, and you kill him, you haven’t after all taken the ultimate revenge. You might have “got the laugh on him,” and let him live to hear it.

While all Minook was “jollying” the Woodworth men, Maudie made one of her sudden raids out of the Gold Nugget. She stood nearly up to the knees of her high rubber boots in the bog of “Main Street,” talking earnestly with the Colonel. Keith and the Boy, sitting on a store box outside of the saloon, had looked on at the fun over the timid cheechalkos, and looked on now at Maudie and the Colonel. It crossed the Boy’s mind that they’d be putting up a josh on his pardner pretty soon, and at the thought he frowned.

Keith had been saying that the old miners had nearly all got “squawed.” He had spoken almost superstitiously of the queer, lasting effect of the supposedly temporary arrangement.

“No, they don’t leave their wives as often as you’d expect, but in most cases it seems to kill the pride of the man. He gives up all idea of ever going home, and even if he makes a fortune, they say, he stays on here. And year by year he sinks lower and lower, till he’s farther down in the scale of things human than his savage wife.”

“Yes, it’s awful to think how the life up here can take the stiffening out of a fella.”

He looked darkly at the two out there in the mud. Keith nodded.

“Strong men have lain down on the trail this winter and cried.” But it wasn’t that sort of thing the other meant. Keith followed his new friend’s glowering looks.

“Yes. That’s just the kind of man that gets taken in.”

“What?” said the Boy brusquely.

“Just the sort that goes and marries some flighty creature.”

“Well,” said his pardner haughtily, “he could afford to marry ‘a flighty creature.’ The Colonel’s got both feet on the ground.” And Keith felt properly snubbed. But what Maudie was saying to the Colonel was:

“You’re goin’ up in the first boat, I s’pose?”

“Yes.”

“Looks like I’ll be the only person left in Minook.”

“I don’t imagine you’ll be quite alone.”

“No? Why, there’s only between five and six hundred expectin’ to board a boat that’ll be crowded before she gets here.”

“Does everybody want to go to Dawson?”

“Everybody except a few boomers who mean to stay long enough to play off their misery on someone else before they move on.”

The Colonel looked a trifle anxious.

“I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose there will be a race for the boat.”

“There’ll be a race all the way up the river for all the early boats. Ain’t half enough to carry the people. But you look to me like you’ll stand as good a chance as most, and anyhow, you’re the one man I know, I’ll trust my dough to.”

The Colonel stared.

“You see, I want to get some money to my kiddie, an’ besides, I got m’self kind o’ scared about keepin’ dust in my cabin. I want it in a bank, so’s if I should kick the bucket (there’ll be some pretty high rollin’ here when there’s been a few boats in, and my life’s no better than any other feller’s), I’d feel a lot easier if I knew the kiddie’d have six thousand clear, even if I did turn up my toes. See?”

“A–yes–I see. But—-“

The door of the cabin next the saloon opened suddenly. A graybeard with a young face came out rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He stared interrogatively at the river, and then to the world in general:

“What time is it?”

“Half-past four.”

“Mornin’ or evenin’?” and no one thought the question strange.

Maudie lowered her voice.

“No need to mention it to pardners and people. You don’t want every feller to know you’re goin’ about loaded; but will you take my dust up to Dawson and get it sent to ‘Frisco on the first boat?”

“The ice! the ice! It’s moving!”

“The ice is going out!”

“Look! the ice!”

From end to end of the settlement the cry was taken up. People darted out of cabins like beavers out of their burrows. Three little half-breed Indian boys, yelling with excitement, tore past the Gold Nugget, crying now in their mother’s Minook, now in their father’s English, “The ice is going out!” From the depths of the store-box whereon his master had sat, Nig darted, howling excitedly and waving a muddy tail like a draggled banner, saying in Mahlemeut: “The ice is going out! The fish are coming in.” All the other dogs waked and gave tongue, running in and out among the huddled rows of people gathered on the Ramparts.

Every ear full of the rubbing, grinding noise that came up out of the Yukon–noise not loud, but deep–an undercurrent of heavy sound. As they stood there, wide-eyed, gaping, their solid winter world began to move. A compact mass of ice, three-quarters of a mile wide and four miles long, with a great grinding and crushing went down the valley. Some distance below the town it jammed, building with incredible quickness a barrier twenty feet high.

The people waited breathless. Again the ice-mass trembled. But the watchers lifted their eyes to the heights above. Was that thunder in the hills? No, the ice again; again crushing, grinding, to the low accompaniment of thunder that seemed to come from far away.

Sections a mile long and half a mile wide were forced up, carried over the first ice-pack, and summarily stopped below the barrier. Huge pieces, broken off from the sides, came crunching their way angrily up the bank, as if acting on some independent impulse. There they sat, great fragments, glistening in the sunlight, as big as cabins. It was something to see them come walking up the shelving bank! The cheechalkos who laughed before are contented now with running, leaving their goods behind. Sour-dough Saunders himself never dreamed the ice would push its way so far.

In mid-channel a still unbroken sheet is bent yet more in the centre. Every now and then a wide crack opens near the margin, and the water rushes out with a roar. Once more the mass is nearly still, and now all’s silent. Not till the water, dammed and thrown back by the ice, not until it rises many feet and comes down with a volume and momentum irresistible, will the final conflict come.

Hour after hour the people stand there on the bank, waiting to see the barrier go down. Unwillingly, as the time goes on, this one, that one, hurries away for a few minutes to prepare and devour a meal, back again, breathless, upon rumour of that preparatory trembling, that strange thrilling of the ice. The grinding and the crushing had begun again.

The long tension, the mysterious sounds, the sense of some great unbridled power at work, wrought on the steadiest nerves. People did the oddest things. Down at the lower end of the town a couple of miners, sick of the scurvy, had painfully clambered on their roof–whether to see the sights or be out of harm’s way, no one knew. The stingiest man in Minook, who had refused to help them in their cabin, carried them food on the roof. A woman made and took them the Yukon remedy for their disease. They sat in state in sight of all men, and drank spruce tea.

By one o’clock in the afternoon the river had risen eight feet, but the ice barrier still held. The people, worn out, went away to sleep. All that night the barrier held, though more ice came down and still the water rose. Twelve feet now. The ranks of shattered ice along the shore are claimed again as the flood widens and licks them in. The cheechalkos’ cabins are flooded to the caves. Stout fellows in hip-boots take a boat and rescue the scurvy-stricken from the roof. And still the barrier held.

People began to go about their usual avocations. The empty Gold Nugget filled again. Men sat, as they had done all the winter, drinking, and reading the news of eight months before, out of soiled and tattered papers.

Late the following day everyone started up at a new sound. Again miners, Indians, and dogs lined the bank, saw the piled ice masses tremble, heard a crashing and grinding as of mountains of glass hurled together, saw the barrier give way, and the frozen wastes move down on the bosom of the flood. Higher yet the water rose–the current ran eight miles an hour. And now the ice masses were less enormous, more broken. Somewhere far below another jam. Another long bout of waiting.

Birds are singing everywhere. Between the white snowdrifts the Arctic moss shows green and yellow, white flowers star the hills.

Half the town is packed, ready to catch the boat at five minutes’ notice. With door barred and red curtain down, Maudie is doing up her gold-dust for the Colonel to take to Dawson. The man who had washed it out of a Birch Creek placer, and “blowed it in fur the girl”–up on the hillside he sleeps sound.

The two who had broken the record for winter travel on the Yukon, side by side in the sunshine, on a plank laid across two mackerel firkins, sit and watch the brimming flood. They speak of the Big Chimney men, picture them, packed and waiting for the Oklahoma, wonder what they have done with Kaviak, and what the three months have brought them.

“When we started out that day from the Big Chimney, we thought we’d be made if only we managed to reach Minook.”

“Well, we’ve got what we came for–each got a claim.”

“Oh, yes.”

“A good claim, too.”

“Guess so.”

“Don’t you know the gold’s there?”

“Yes; but where are the miners? You and I don’t propose to spend the next ten years in gettin’ that gold out.”

“No; but there are plenty who would if we gave ’em the chance. All we have to do is to give the right ones the chance.”

The Colonel wore an air of reflection.

“The district will be opened up,” the Boy went on cheerfully, “and we’ll have people beggin’ us to let ’em get out our gold, and givin’ us the lion’s share for the privilege.”

“Do you altogether like the sound o’ that?”

“I expect, like other people, I’ll like the result.”

“We ought to see some things clearer than other people. We had our lesson on the trail,” said the Colonel quietly. “Nobody ought ever to be able to fool us about the power and the value of the individual apart from society. Seems as if association did make value. In the absence of men and markets a pit full of gold is worth no more than a pit full of clay.”

“Oh, yes; I admit, till the boats come in, we’re poor men.”

“Nobody will stop here this summer–they’ll all be racing on to Dawson.”

“Dawson’s ‘It,’ beyond a doubt.”

The Colonel laughed a little ruefully.

“We used to say Minook.”

“I said Minook, just to sound reasonable, but, of course, I meant Dawson.”

And they sat there thinking, watching the ice-blocks meet, crash, go down in foam, and come up again on the lower reaches, the Boy idly swinging the great Katharine’s medal to and fro. In his buckskin pocket it has worn so bright it catches at the light like a coin fresh from the mint.

No doubt Muckluck is on the river-bank at Pymeut; the one-eyed Prince, the story-teller Yagorsha, even Ol’ Chief–no one will be indoors to-day.

Sitting there together, they saw the last stand made by the ice, and shared that moment when the final barrier, somewhere far below, gave way with boom and thunder. The mighty flood ran free, tearing up trees by their roots as it ran, detaching masses of rock, dissolving islands into swirling sand and drift, carving new channels, making and unmaking the land. The water began to fall. It had been a great time: it was ended.

“Pardner,” says the Colonel, “we’ve seen the ice go out.”

“No fella can call you and me cheechalkos after to-day.”

“No, sah. We’ve travelled the Long Trail, we’ve seen the ice go out, and we’re friends yet.”

The Kentuckian took his pardner’s brown hand with a gentle solemnity, seemed about to say something, but stopped, and turned his bronzed face to the flood, carried back upon some sudden tide within himself to those black days on the trail, that he wanted most in the world to forget. But in his heart he knew that all dear things, all things kind and precious–his home, a woman’s face–all, all would fade before he forgot those last days on the trail. The record of that journey was burnt into the brain of the men who had made it. On that stretch of the Long Trail the elder had grown old, and the younger had forever lost his youth. Not only had the roundness gone out of his face, not only was it scarred, but such lines were graven there as commonly takes the antique pencil half a score of years to trace.

“Something has happened,” the Colonel said quite low. “We aren’t the same men who left the Big Chimney.”

“Right!” said the Boy, with a laugh, unwilling as yet to accept his own personal revelation, preferring to put a superficial interpretation on his companion’s words. He glanced at the Colonel, and his face changed a little. But still he would not understand. Looking down at the chaparejos that he had been so proud of, sadly abbreviated to make boots for Nig, jagged here and there, and with fringes now not all intentional, it suited him to pretend that the “shaps” had suffered most.

“Yes, the ice takes the kinks out.”

“Whether the thing that’s happened is good or evil, I don’t pretend to say,” the other went on gravely, staring at the river. “I only know something’s happened. There were possibilities–in me, anyhow–that have been frozen to death. Yes, we’re different.”

The Boy roused himself, but only to persist in his misinterpretation.

“You ain’t different to hurt. If I started out again tomorrow—-“

“The Lord forbid!”

“Amen. But if I had to, you’re the only man in Alaska–in the world–I’d want for my pardner.”

“Boy—-!” he wrestled with a slight bronchial huskiness, cleared his throat, tried again, and gave it up, contenting himself with, “Beg your pardon for callin’ you ‘Boy.’ You’re a seasoned old-timer, sah.” And the Boy felt as if some Sovereign had dubbed him Knight.

In a day or two now, from north or south, the first boat must appear. The willows were unfolding their silver leaves. The alder-buds were bursting; geese and teal and mallard swarmed about the river margin. Especially where the equisetae showed the tips of their feathery green tails above the mud, ducks flocked and feasted. People were too excited, “too busy,” they said, looking for the boats, to do much shooting. The shy birds waxed daring. Keith, standing by his shack, knocked over a mallard within forty paces of his door.

It was eight days after that first cry, “The ice is going out!” four since the final jam gave way and let the floes run free, that at one o’clock in the afternoon the shout went up, “A boat! a boat!”

Only a lumberman’s bateau, but two men were poling her down the current with a skill that matched the speed. They swung her in. A dozen hands caught at the painter and made fast. A young man stepped ashore and introduced himself as Van Alen, Benham’s “Upper River pardner, on the way to Anvik.”

His companion, Donovan, was from Circle City, and brought appalling news. The boats depended on for the early summer traffic, Bella, and three other N.A.T. and T. steamers, as well as the A.C.’s Victoria and the St. Michael, had been lifted up by the ice “like so many feathers,” forced clean out of the channel, and left high and dry on a sandy ridge, with an ice wall eighty feet wide and fifteen high between them and open water.

“All the crews hard at work with jackscrews,” said Donovan; “and if they can get skids under, and a channel blasted through the ice, they may get the boats down here in fifteen or twenty days.”

A heavy blow. But instantly everyone began to talk of the May West and the Muckluck as though all along they had looked for succour to come up-stream rather than down. But as the precious hours passed, a deep dejection fastened on the camp. There had been a year when, through one disaster after another, no boats had got to the Upper River. Not even the arrival from Dawson of the Montana Kid, pugilist and gambler, could raise spirits so cast down, not even though he was said to bring strange news from outside.

There was war in the world down yonder–war had been formally declared between America and Spain.

Windy slapped his thigh in humourous despair.

“Why hadn’t he thought o’ gettin’ off a josh like that?”

To those who listened to the Montana Kid, to the fretted spirits of men eight months imprisoned, the States and her foreign affairs were far away indeed, and as for the other party to the rumoured war–Spain? They clutched at school memories of Columbus, Americans finding through him the way to Spain, as through him Spaniards had found the way to America. So Spain was not merely a State historic! She was still in the active world. But what did these things matter? Boats mattered: the place where the Klondykers were caught, this Minook, mattered. And so did the place they wanted to reach–Dawson mattered most of all. By the narrowed habit of long months, Dawson was the centre of the universe.

More little boats going down, and still nothing going up. Men said gloomily:

“We’re done for! The fellows who go by the Canadian route will get everything. The Dawson season will be half over before we’re in the field–if we ever are!”

The 28th of May! Still no steamer had come, but the mosquitoes had–bloodthirsty beyond any the temperate climates know. It was clear that some catastrophe had befallen the Woodworth boats. And Nig had been lured away by his quondam master! No, they had not gone back to the gulch–that was too easy. The man had a mind to keep the dog, and, since he was not allowed to buy him, he would do the other thing.

He had not been gone an hour, rumour said–had taken a scow and provisions, and dropped down the river. Utterly desperate, the Boy seized his new Nulato gun and somebody else’s canoe. Without so much as inquiring whose, he shot down the swift current after the dog-thief. He roared back to the remonstrating Colonel that he didn’t care if an up-river steamer did come while he was gone–he was goin’ gunnin’.

At the same time he shared the now general opinion that a Lower River boat would reach them first, and he was only going to meet her, meting justice by the way.

He had gone safely more than ten miles down, when suddenly, as he was passing an island, he stood up in his boat, balanced himself, and cocked his gun.

Down there, on the left, a man was standing knee-deep in the water, trying to free his boat from a fallen tree; a Siwash dog watched him from the bank.

The Boy whistled. The dog threw up his nose, yapped and whined. The man had turned sharply, saw his enemy and the levelled gun. He jumped into the boat, but she was filling while he bailed; the dog ran along the island, howling fit to raise the dead. When he was a little above the Boy’s boat he plunged into the river. Nig was a good swimmer, but the current here would tax the best. The Boy found himself so occupied with saving Nig from a watery grave, while he kept the canoe from capsizing, that he forgot all about the thief till a turn in the river shut him out of sight.

The canoe was moored, and while trying to restrain Nig’s dripping caresses, his master looked up, and saw something queer off there, above the tops of the cottonwoods. As he looked he forgot the dog–forgot everything in earth or heaven except that narrow cloud wavering along the sky. He sat immovable in the round-shouldered attitude learned in pulling a hand-sled against a gale from the Pole. If you are moderately excited you may start, but there is an excitement that “nails you.”

Nig shook his wolf’s coat and sprayed the water far and wide, made little joyful noises, and licked the face that was so still. But his master, like a man of stone, stared at that long gray pennon in the sky. If it isn’t a steamer, what is it? Like an echo out of some lesson he had learned and long forgot, “Up-bound boats don’t run the channel: they have to hunt for easy water.” Suddenly he leaped up. The canoe tipped, and Nig went a second time into the water. Well for him that they were near the shore; he could jump in without help this time. No hand held out, no eye for him. His master had dragged the painter free, seized the oars, and, saying harshly, “Lie down, you black devil!” he pulled back against the current with every ounce he had in him. For the gray pennon was going round the other side of the island, and the Boy was losing the boat to Dawson.

Nig sat perkily in the bow, never budging till his master, running into the head of the island, caught up a handful of tough root fringes, and, holding fast by them, waved his cap, and shouted like one possessed, let go the fringes, caught up his gun, and fired. Then Nig, realising that for once in a way noise seemed to be popular, pointed his nose at the big object hugging the farther shore, and howled with a right goodwill.

“They see! They see! Hooray!”

The Boy waved his arms, embraced Nig, then snatched up the oars. The steamer’s engines were reversed; now she was still. The Boy pulled lustily. A crowded ship. Crew and passengers pressed to the rails. The steamer canted, and the Captain’s orders rang out clear. Several cheechalkos laid their hands on their guns as the wild fellow in the ragged buckskins shot round the motionless wheel, and brought his canoe ‘long-side, while his savage-looking dog still kept the echoes of the Lower Ramparts calling.

“Three cheers for the Oklahoma!”

At the sound of the Boy’s voice a red face hanging over the stern broke into a broad grin.

“Be the Siven! Air ye the little divvle himself, or air ye the divvle’s gran’fatherr?”

The apparition in the canoe was making fast and preparing to board the ship.

“Can’t take another passenger. Full up!” said the Captain. He couldn’t hear what was said in reply, but he shook his head. “Been refusin’ ’em right along.” Then, as if reproached by the look in the wild young face, “We thought you were in trouble.”

“So I am if you won’t—-“

“I tell you we got every ounce we can carry.”

“Oh, take me back to Minook, anyway!”

He said a few words about fare to the Captain’s back. As that magnate did not distinctly say “No”–indeed, walked off making conversation with the engineer–twenty hands helped the new passenger to get Nig and the canoe on board.

“Well, got a gold-mine?” asked Potts.

“Yes, sir.”

“Where’s the Colonel?” Mac rasped out, with his square jaw set for judgment.

“Colonel’s all right–at Minook. We’ve got a gold-mine apiece.”

“Anny gowld in ’em?”

“Yes, sir, and no salt, neither.”

“Sorry to see success has gone to your head,” drawled Potts, eyeing the Boy’s long hair. “I don’t see any undue signs of it elsewhere.”

“Faith! I do, thin. He’s turned wan o’ thim hungry, grabbin’ millionaires.”

“What makes you think that?” laughed the Boy, poking his brown fingers through the knee-hole of his breeches.

“Arre ye contint wid that gowld-mine at Minook? No, be the Siven! What’s wan gowld-mine to a millionaire? What forr wud ye be prospectin that desert oiland, you and yer faithful man Froyday, if ye wasn’t rooned intoirely be riches?”