The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
To the early Klondikers, Chilkoot Pass was a personality, a Presence at once sinister, cruel, and forbidding. So, too, only in greater measure, was Miles Canon. The Chilkoot toyed with men, it wore them out, it stripped them of their strength and their manhood, it wrecked their courage and it broke their hearts. The canon sucked them in and swallowed them. This canon is nothing more nor less than a rift in a great basaltic barrier which lies athwart the river's course, the entrance to it being much like the door in a wall. Above it the waters are dammed and into it they pour as into a flume; down it they rage in swiftly increasing fury, for it is steeply pitched, and, although the gorge itself is not long, immediately below it are other turbulent stretches equally treacherous. It seems as if here, within the space of some four miles, Nature had exhausted her ingenuity in inventing terrors to frighten invaders, as if here she had combined every possible peril of river travel. The result of her labors is a series of cataclysms.
Immediately below Miles Canon itself are the Squaw Rapids, where the torrent spills itself over a confusion of boulders, bursting into foam and gyrating in dizzy whirlpools, its surface broken by explosions of spray or pitted by devouring vortices resembling the oily mouths of marine monsters. Below this, in turn, is the White Horse, worst of all. Here the flood somersaults over a tremendous reef, flinging on high a gleaming curtain of spray. These rapids are well named, for the tossing waves resemble nothing more than runaway white horses with streaming manes and tails.
These are by no means all the dangers that confronted the first Yukon stampeders--there are other troublesome waters below--for instance, Rink Rapids, where the river boils and bubbles like a kettle over an open fire, and Five Fingers, so-called by reason of a row of knobby, knuckled pinnacles that reach up like the stiff digits of a drowning hand and split the stream into divergent channels--but those three, Miles Canon, the Squaw, and White Horse, were the worst and together they constituted a menace that tried the courage of the bravest men.
In the canon, where the waters are most narrowly constricted, they heap themselves up into a longitudinal ridge or bore, a comb perhaps four feet higher than the general level. To ride this crest and to avoid the destroying fangs that lie in wait on either side is a feat that calls for nerve and skill and endurance on the part of boatmen. The whole four miles is a place of many voices, a thundering place that numbs the senses and destroys all hearing. Its tumult is heard afar and it covers the entire region like a blanket. The weight of that sound is oppressive.
Winter was at the heels of the Courteau party when it arrived at this point in its journey; it brought up the very tail of the autumn rush and the ice was close behind. The Countess and her companions had the uncomfortable feeling that they were inside the jaws of a trap which might be sprung at any moment, for already the hills were dusted with gray and white, creeks and rivulets were steadily dwindling and shelf ice was forming on the larger streams, the skies were low and overcast and there was a vicious tingle to the air. Delays had slowed them up, as, for instance, at Windy Arm, where a gale had held them in camp for several days; then, too, their boats were built of poorly seasoned lumber and in consequence were in need of frequent attention. Eventually, however, they came within hearing of a faint whisper, as of wind among pine branches, then of a muffled murmur that grew to a sullen diapason. The current quickened beneath them, the river- banks closed in, and finally beetling cliffs arose, between which was a cleft that swallowed the stream.
Just above the opening was a landing-place where boats lay gunwale to gunwale, and here the Courteau skiffs were grounded. A number of weather-beaten tents were stretched among the trees. Most of them were the homes of pilots, but others were occupied by voyagers who preferred to chance a winter's delay as the price of portaging their goods around rather than risk their all upon one throw of fortune. The great majority of the arrivals, however, were restowing their outfits, lashing them down and covering them preparatory to a dash through the shouting chasm. There was an atmosphere of excitement and apprehension about the place; every face was strained and expectant; fear lurked in many an eye.
On a tree near the landing were two placards. One bore a finger pointing up the steep trail to the top of the ridge, and it was marked:
"This way--two weeks."
The other pointed down directly into the throat of the roaring gorge. It read:
"This way--two minutes."
Pierce Phillips smiled as he perused these signs; then he turned up the trail, for in his soul was a consuming curiosity to see the place of which he had heard so much.
Near the top of the slope he met a familiar figure coming down--a tall, upstanding French-Canadian who gazed out at the world through friendly eyes.
'Poleon Doret recognized the new-comer and burst into a boisterous greeting.
"Wal, wal!" he cried. "You 'ain't live' to be hung yet, eh? Now you come lookin' for me, I bet."
"Yes. You're the very man I want to see."
"Good! I tak' you t'rough."
Phillips smiled frankly. "I'm not sure I want to go through. I'm in charge of a big outfit and I'm looking for a pilot and a professional crew. I'm a perfect dub at this sort of thing."
'Poleon nodded. "Dere's no use risk it if you 'ain't got to, dat's fac'. I don' lost no boats yet, but--sometam's I bus' 'em up pretty bad." He grinned cheerily. "Dese new-comer get scare' easy an' forget to row, den dey say 'Poleon she's bum pilot. You seen de canon yet?" When Pierce shook his head the speaker turned back and led the way out to the rim.
It was an impressive spectacle that Phillips beheld. Perhaps a hundred feet directly beneath him the river whirled and leaped; cross-currents boiled out from projecting irregularities in the walls; here and there the waters tumbled madly and flung wet arms aloft, while up out of the gorge came a mighty murmur, redoubled by the echoing cliffs. A log came plunging through and it moved with the speed of a torpedo. Phillips watched it, fascinated.
"Look! Dere's a boat!" 'Poleon cried. In between the basalt jaws appeared a skiff with two rowers, and a man in the stern. The latter was braced on wide-spread legs and he held his weight upon a steering-sweep. Down the boat came at a galloping gait, threshing over waves and flinging spray head-high; it bucked and it dove, it buried its nose and then lifted it, but the oarsman continued to maintain it on a steady course.
"Bravo!" Doret shouted, waving his cap. To Pierce he said: "Dat's good pilot an' he knows swif' water. But dere's lot of feller here who ain't so good. Dey tak' chance for beeg money. Wal, w'at you t'ink of her? She's dandy, eh?"
"It's an--inferno," Phillips acknowledged. "You earn all the money you get for running it."
"You don' care for 'im, w'at?"
"I do not. I don't mind taking a chance, but--what chance would a fellow have in there? Why, he'd never come up."
Phillips stared at his companion curiously. "You must need money pretty badly."
The giant shook his head in vigorous denial. "No! Money? Pouf! She come, she go. But, you see--plenty people drowned if somebody don' tak' dem t'rough, so--I stay. Dis winter I build myse'f nice cabin an' do li'l trappin'. Nex' summer I pilot again."
"Aren't you going to Dawson?" Pierce was incredulous; he could not understand this fellow.
Doret's expression changed; a fleeting sadness settled in his eyes. "I been dere," said he. "I ain't care much for seein' beeg city. I'm lonesome feller." After a moment he exclaimed, more brightly: "Now we go, I see if I can hire crew to row your boats."
"How does she look to you?" Lucky Broad inquired, when Pierce and his companion appeared. He and Bridges had not taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with the canon, but immediately upon landing had begun to stow away their freight and to lash a tarpaulin over it.
"Better go up and see for yourself," the young man suggested.
Lucky shook his head. "Not me," he declared. "I can hear all I want to. Listen to it! I got a long life ahead of me and I'm going to nurse it."
Kid Bridges was of like mind, for he said: "Sure! We was a coupla brave guys in Dyea, but what's the good of runnin' up to an undertaker and giving him your measurements? He'll get a tape-line on you soon enough."
"Then you don't intend to chance it?" Pierce inquired.
Broad scowled at the questioner. "Say! I wouldn't walk down that place if it was froze."
"Nor me," the other gambler seconded. "Not for a million dollars would I tease the embalmer that way. Not for a million. Would you, Lucky?"
Broad appeared to weigh the figures carefully; then he said, doubtfully: "I'm a cheap guy. I might risk it once--for five hundred thousand, cash. But that's rock bottom; I wouldn't take a nickel less."
Doret had been listening with some amusement; now he said, "You boys got wide pay-streak, eh?"
Bridges nodded without shame. "Wider'n, a swamp, and yeller'n butter."
"Wal, I see w'at I can do." The pilot walked up the bank in search of a crew.
In the course of a half-hour he was back again and with him came the Countess Courteau. Calling Pierce aside, the woman said, swiftly: "We can't get a soul to help us; everybody's in a rush. We'll have to use our own men."
"Broad and Bridges are the best we have," he told her, "but they refuse."
"You're not afraid, are you?"
Now Pierce was afraid and he longed mightily to admit that he was, but he lacked the courage to do so. He smiled feebly and shrugged, whereupon the former speaker misread his apparent indifference and flashed him a smile.
"Forgive me," she said, in a low voice. "I know you're not." She hurried down to the water's edge and addressed the two gamblers in a business-like tone: "We've no time to lose. Which one of you wants to lead off with Doret and Pierce?"
The men exchanged glances. It was Broad who finally spoke. "We been figuring it would please us better to walk," he said, mildly.
"Suit yourselves," the Countess told them, coolly. "But it's a long walk from here to Dawson." She turned back to Pierce and said: "You've seen the canon. There's nothing so terrible about it, is there?"
Phillips was conscious that 'Poleon Doret's eyes were dancing with laughter, and anger at his own weakness flared up in him. "Why, no!" he lied, bravely. "It will be a lot of fun."
Kid Bridges leveled a sour look at the speaker. "Some folks have got low ideas of entertainment," said he. "Some folks is absolutely depraved that way. You'd probably enjoy a broken arm-- it would feel so good when it got well."
The Countess Courteau's lip was curled contemptuously when she said: "Listen! I'm not going to be held up. There's a chance, of course, but hundreds have gone through. I can pull an oar. Pierce and I will row the first boat."
Doret opened his lips to protest, but Broad obviated the necessity of speech by rising from his seat and announcing: "Deal the cards! I came in on no pair; I don't aim to be raised out ahead of the draw-not by a woman."
Mr. Bridges was both shocked and aggrieved by his companion's words. "You going to tackle it?" he asked, incredulously.
Lucky made a grimace of intense abhorrence in Pierce's direction. "Sure! I don't want to miss all this fun I hear about."
"When you get through, if you do, which you probably won't," Bridges told him, with a bleak and cheerless expression, "set a gill-net to catch me. I'll be down on the next trip."
"Good for you!" cried the Countess.
"It ain't good for me," the man exclaimed, angrily. "It's the worst thing in the world for me. I'm grand-standing and you know it. So's Lucky, but there wouldn't be any living with him if he pulled it off and I didn't."
Doret chuckled. To Pierce he said, in a low voice: "Plenty feller mak' fool of demse'f on dat woman. I know all 'bout it. But she 'ain't mak' fool of herse'f, you bet."
"How do you mean?" Pierce inquired, quickly.
'Poleon eyed him shrewdly. "Wal, tak' you. You're scare', ain't you? But you sooner die so long she don't know it. Plenty oder feller jus' lak' dat." He walked to the nearest skiff, removed his coat, and began to untie his boots.
Lucky Broad joined the pilot, then looked on uneasily at these preparations. "What's the idea?" he inquired. "Are you too hot?"
'Poleon grinned at him and nodded. Very reluctantly Broad stripped off his mackinaw, then seated himself and tugged at his footgear. He paused, after a moment, and addressed himself to Bridges.
"It's no use, Kid. I squawk!" he said.
"Beginning to weaken, eh?"
"Sure! I got a hole in my sock-look! Somebody 'll find me after I've been drowned a week or two, and what'll they say?"
"Pshaw! You won't come up till you get to St. Michael's, and you'll be spoiled by that time." Kid Bridges tried to smile, but the result was a failure. "You'll be swelled up like a dead horse, and so'll I. They won't know us apart."
When Pierce had likewise stripped down and taken his place at the oars, Broad grumbled: "The idea of calling me 'Lucky'! It ain't in the cards." He spat on his hands and settled himself in his seat, then cried, "Well, lead your ace!"
As the little craft moved out into the stream, Pierce Phillips noticed that the Kirby scow, which had run the Courteau boats a close race all the way from Linderman, was just pulling into the bank. Lines had been passed ashore and, standing on the top of the cargo, he could make out the figure of Rouletta Kirby.
In spite of a strong steady stroke the rowboat seemed to move sluggishly; foam and debris bobbed alongside and progress appeared to be slow, but when the oarsmen lifted their eyes they discovered that the shores were running past with amazing swiftness. Even as they looked, those shores rose abruptly and closed in, there came a mounting roar, then the skiff was sucked in between high, rugged walls. Unseen hands reached forth and seized it, unseen forces laid hold of it and impelled it forward; it began to plunge and to wallow; spray flew and wave-crests climbed over the gunwales.
Above the tumult 'Poleon was urging his crew to greater efforts. "Pull hard!" he shouted. "Hi! Hi! Hi!" He swayed in unison to their straining bodies. "Mak' dose oar crack," he yelled. "By Gar, dat's goin' some!"
The fellow's teeth were gleaming, his face was alight with an exultant recklessness, he cast defiance at the approaching terrors. He was alert, watchful; under his hands the stout ash steering-oar bent like a bow; he flung his whole strength into the battle with the waters. Soon the roar increased until it drowned his shouts and forced him to pantomime his orders. The boat was galloping through a wild smother of ice-cold spray and the reverberating cliffs were streaming past like the unrolling scenery on a painted canvas panorama.
It was a hellish place; it echoed to a demoniac din and it was a tremendous sensation to brave it, for the boat did not glide nor slip down the descent; it went in a succession of jarring leaps; it lurched and twisted; it rolled and plunged as if in a demented effort to unseat its passengers and scatter its cargo. To the occupants it seemed as if its joints were opening, as if the boards themselves were being wrenched loose from the ribs to which they were nailed. The men were drenched, of course, for they traveled in a cloud of spume; their feet were ankle-deep in cold water, and every new deluge caused them to gasp.
How long it lasted Pierce Phillips never knew; the experience was too terrific to be long lived. It was a nightmare, a hideous phantasmagoria of frightful sensations, a dissolving stereopticon of bleak, scudding walls, of hydrophobic boulders frothing madly as the flood crashed over them, of treacherous whirlpools, and of pursuing breakers that reached forth licking tongues of destruction. Then the river opened, the cliffs fell away, and the torrent spewed itself out into an expanse of whirlpools--a lake of gyrating funnels that warred with one another and threatened to twist the keel from under the boat.
'Poleon swung close in to the right bank, where an eddy raced up against the flood; some one flung a rope from the shore and drew the boat in.
"Wal! I never had no better crew," cried the pilot. "Wat you t'ink of 'im, eh?" He smiled down at the white-lipped oarsmen, who leaned forward, panting and dripping.
"Is--that all of it?" Lucky Broad inquired, weakly.
"Mais non! Look! Dere's Wite 'Orse."
Doret indicated a wall of foam and spray farther down the river. Directly across the expanse of whirlpools stood a village named after the rapids. "You get plenty more bimeby."
"You're wrong. I got plenty right now," Broad declared.
"I'm glad the Countess didn't come," said Phillips.
When the men had wrung out their clothes and put on their boots they set out along the back trail over the bluffs.
Danny Royal was not an imaginative person. He possessed, to be sure, the superstitions of the average horseman and gambler, and he believed strongly in hunches, but he was not fanciful and he put no faith in dreams and portents. It bothered him exceedingly, therefore, to discover that he was weighed down by an unaccountable but extremely oppressive sense of apprehension. How or why it had come to obsess him he could not imagine, but for some reason Miles Canon and the stormy waters below it had assumed terrible potentialities and he could not shake off the conviction that they were destined to prove his undoing. This feeling he had allowed to grow until now a fatalistic apathy had settled upon him and his usual cheerfulness was replaced by a senseless irritability. He suffered explosions of temper quite as surprising to the Kirbys, father and daughter, as to himself. On the day of his arrival he was particularly ugly, wherefore Rouletta was impelled to remonstrate with him.
"What ails you, Danny?" she inquired. "You'll have our men quitting."
"I wish they would," he cried. "Boatmen! They don't know as much about boats as me and Sam."
"They do whatever they're told."
Royal acknowledged this fact ungraciously. "Trouble is we don't know what to tell 'em to do. All Sam knows is 'gee' and 'haw,' and I can't steer anything that don't wear a bridle. Why, if this river wasn't fenced in with trees we'd have taken the wrong road and been lost, long ago."
Rouletta nodded thoughtfully. "Father is just as afraid of water as you are. He won't admit it, but I can tell. It has gotten on his nerves and--I've had hard work to keep him from drinking."
"Say! Don't let him get started on that!" Danny exclaimed, earnestly. "That would be the last touch."
"Trust me. I--"
But Kirby himself appeared at that moment, having returned from a voyage of exploration. Said he: "There's a good town below. I had a chance to sell the outfit."
"Going to do it?" Danny could not conceal his eagerness.
The elder man shook his gray head. "Hardly. I'm no piker."
"I wish you and Danny would take the portage and trust the pilot to run the rapids," Rouletta said.
Kirby turned his expressionless face upon first one then the other of his companions. "Nervous?" he inquired of Royal.
The latter silently admitted that he was.
"Go ahead. You and Letty cross afoot--"
"Oh, I'm going to stick!" "Father--" the girl began, but old Sam shook his head.
"No. This is my case bet, and I'm going to watch it."
Royal's weazened face puckered until it resembled more than ever a withered apple. "Then I'll stick, too," he declared. "I never laid down on you yet, Sam."
"How about you, Letty?"
The girl smiled. "Why, I wouldn't trust you boys out of my sight for a minute. Something would surely happen."
Kirby stooped and kissed his daughter's cheek. "You've always been our mascot, and you've always brought us luck. I'd go to hell in a paper suit if you were along. You're a game kid, too, and I want you to be like that, always. Be a thoroughbred. Don't weaken, no matter how bad things break for you. This cargo of rum is worth the best claim in Dawson, and it'll put us on our feet again. All I want is one more chance. Double and quit--that's us."
This was an extraordinarily long speech for "One-armed" Kirby; it showed that he was deeply in earnest.
"Double and quit?" breathed the girl. "Do you mean it, dad?"
He nodded: "I'm going to leave you heeled. I don't aim to take my eyes off this barge again till she's in Dawson."
Rouletta's face was transformed; there was a great gladness in her eyes--a gladness half obscured by tears. "Double and quit. Oh-- I've dreamed of--quitting--so often! You've made me very happy, dad."
Royal, who knew this girl's dreams as well as he knew his own, felt a lump in his throat. He was a godless little man, but Rouletta Kirby's joys were holy things to him, her tears distressed him deeply, therefore he walked away to avoid the sight of them. Her slightest wish had been his law ever since she had mastered words enough to voice a request, and now he, too, was happy to learn that Sam Kirby was at last ready to mold his future in accordance with her desires. Letty had never liked their mode of life; she had accepted it under protest, and with the passing years her unspoken disapproval had assumed the proportions of a great reproach. She had never put that disapproval into words--she was far too loyal for that--but Danny had known. He knew her ambitions and her possibilities, and he had sufficient vision to realize something of the injustice she suffered at her father's hands. Sam loved his daughter as few parents love a child, but he was a strange man and he showed his affection in characteristic ways. It pleased Royal greatly to learn that the old man had awakened to the wrong he did, and that this adventure would serve to close the story, as all good stories close, with a happy ending.
In spite of these cheering thoughts, Danny was unable wholly to shake off his oppressive forebodings, and as he paused on the river-bank to stare with gloomy fascination at the jaws of the gorge they returned to plague him. The sound that issued out of that place was terrifying, the knowledge that it frightened him enraged the little man.
It was an unpropitious moment for any one to address Royal; therefore, when he heard himself spoken to, he whirled with a scowl upon his face. A tall French-Canadian, just back from the portage, was saying:
"M'sieu', I ain't good hand at mix in 'noder feller's bizneses, but--dat pilot you got she's no good."
Royal looked the stranger over from head to foot. "How d'you know?" he inquired, sharply.
"Biccause--I'm pilot myse'f."
"Oh, I see! You're one of the good ones." Danny's air was surly, his tone forbidding.
"Hate yourself, don't you? I s'pose you want his job. Is that it? No wonder--five hundred seeds for fifteen minutes' work. Soft graft, I call it." The speaker laughed unpleasantly. "Well, what does a good pilot charge?"
"Me?" The Canadian shrugged indifferently. "I charge you one t'ousan' dollar."
Royal's jaw dropped. "The devil you say!" he exclaimed.
"I don't want de job--your scow's no good--but I toss a coin wit' you. One t'ousan' dollar or--free trip."
"Nothing doing," snapped the ex-horseman.
"Bien! Now I give you li'l ad-vice. Hol' hard to de right in lower end dis canon. Dere's beeg rock dere. Don't touch 'im or you goin' spin lak' top an' mebbe you go over W'ite 'Orse sideways. Dat's goin' smash you, sure."
Royal broke out, peevishly: "Another hot tip, eh? Everybody's got some feed-box information--especially the ones you don't hire. Well, I ain't scared--"
"Oh yes, you are!" said the other man. "Everybody is scare' of dis place."
"Anyhow, I ain't scared a thousand dollars' worth. Takes a lot to scare me that much. I bet this place is as safe as a chapel and I bet our scow goes through with her tail up. Let her bump; she'll finish with me on her back and all her weights. I built her and I named her."
Danny watched the pilot as he swung down to the stony shore and rejoined Pierce Phillips; then he looked on in fascination while they removed their outer garments, stepped into a boat with Kid Bridges, and rowed away into the gorge.
"It's--got my goat!" muttered the little jockey.