Chapter XIV
 

With 'Poleon Doret to be busy was to be contented, and these were busy times for him. His daily routine, with trap and gun, had made of him an early riser and had bred in him a habit of greeting the sun with a song. It was no hardship for him, therefore, to cook his breakfast by candle-light, especially now that the days were growing short. On the morning after his rescue of Sam Kirby and his daughter 'Poleon washed his dishes and cut his wood; then, finding that there was still an hour to spare before the light would be sufficient to run Miles Canon, he lit his pipe and strolled up to the village. The ground was now white, for considerable snow had fallen during the night; the day promised to be extremely short and uncomfortable. 'Poleon, however, was impervious to weather of any sort; his good humor was not dampened in the least.

Even at this hour the saloons were well patronized, for not only was the camp astir, but also the usual stale crowd of all-night loiterers was not yet sufficiently intoxicated to go to bed. As 'Poleon neared the first resort, the door opened and a woman emerged. She was silhouetted briefly against the illumination from within, and the pilot was surprised to recognize her as Rouletta Kirby. He was upon the point of speaking to her when she collided blindly with a man who had preceded him by a step or two.

The fellow held the girl for an instant and helped her to regain her equilibrium, exclaiming, with a laugh: "Say! What's the matter with you, sister? Can't you see where you're going?" When Rouletta made no response the man continued in an even friendlier tone, "Well, I can see; my eyesight's good, and it tells me you're about the best-looking dame I've run into to-night." Still laughing, he bent his head as if to catch the girl's answer. "Eh? I don't get you. Who d'you say you're looking for?"

'Poleon was frankly puzzled. He resented this man's tone of easy familiarity and, about to interfere, he was restrained by Rouletta's apparent indifference. What ailed the girl? It was too dark to make out her face, but her voice, oddly changed and unnatural, gave him cause for wonderment. Could it be--'Poleon's half-formed question was answered by the stranger who cried, in mock reproach: "Naughty! Naughty! You've had a little too much, that's what's the matter with you. Why, you need a guardeen." Taking Rouletta by the shoulders, the speaker turned her about so that the dim half-light that filtered through the canvas wall of the tent saloon shone full upon her face.

'Poleon saw now that the girl was indeed not herself; there was a childish, vacuous expression upon her face; she appeared to be dazed and to comprehend little of what the man was saying. This was proved by her blank acceptance of his next insinuating words: "Say, it's lucky I stumbled on to you. I been up all night and so have you. S'pose we get better acquainted. What?"

Rouletta offered no objection to this proposal; the fellow slipped an arm about her and led her away, meanwhile pouring a confidential murmur into her ear. They had proceeded but a few steps when 'Poleon Doret strode out of the gloom and laid a heavy hand upon the man.

"My frien'," he demanded, brusquely, "w'ere you takin' dis lady?"

"Eh?" The fellow wheeled sharply. "What's the idea? What is she to you?"

"She ain't not'in' to me. But I seen you plenty tams an'--you ain't no good."

Rouletta spoke intelligibly for the first time: "I've no place to go--no place to sleep. I'm very--tired."

"There you've got it," the girl's self-appointed protector grinned. "Well, I happen to have room for her in my tent." As Doret's fingers sank deeper into his flesh the man's anger rose; he undertook to shake off the unwelcome grasp. "You leggo! You mind your own business--"

"Dis goin' be my biznesse," 'Poleon announced. "Dere's somet'ing fonny 'bout dis--"

"Don't get funny with me. I got as much right to her as you have-- " 'Poleon jerked the man off his feet, then flung him aside as if he were unclean. His voice was hoarse with disgust when he cried:

"Get out! Beat it! By Gar! You ain't fit for touch decent gal. You spik wit' her again, I tear you in two piece!"

Turning to Rouletta he said, "Mam'selle, you lookin' for your papa, eh?"

Miss Kirby was clasping and unclasping her fingers, her face was strained, her response came in a mutter so low that 'Poleon barely caught it:

"Danny's gone--gone--Dad, he's--No use fighting it--It's the drink--and there's nothing I can do."

It was 'Poleon's turn to take the girl by the shoulders and wheel her about for a better look at her face. A moment later he led her back into the saloon. She was so oddly obedient, so docile, so unquestioning, that he realized something was greatly amiss. He laid his hand against her flushed cheek and found it to be burning hot, whereupon he hastily consulted the nearest bystanders. They agreed with him that the girl was indeed ill--more than that, she was half delirious.

"Sacre! Wat's she doin' roun' a saloon lak dis?" he indignantly demanded. "How come she's gettin' up biffore daylight, eh?"

It was the bartender who made plain the facts: "She 'ain't been to bed at all, Frenchy. She's been up all night, ridin' herd on old Sam Kirby. He's drinkin', understand? He tried to get some place for her to stay, along about midnight, but there wasn't any. She's been settin' there alongside of the stove for the last few hours and I been sort of keepin' an eye on her for Sam's sake."

Doret breathed an oath. "Dat's nice fader she's got! I wish I let 'im drown."

"Oh, he ain't exactly to blame. He's on a bender--like to of killed a feller in here. Somebody'd ought to take care of this girl till he sobers up."

During this conference Rouletta stood quivering, her face a blank, completely indifferent to her surroundings. 'Poleon made her sit down, and but for her ceaseless whispering she might have been in a trance.

Doret's indignation mounted as the situation became plain to him.

"Fine t'ing!" he angrily declared. "Wat for you fellers leave dis seeck gal settin' up, eh? Me, I come jus' in tam for catch a loafer makin' off wit' her." Again he swore savagely. "Dere's some feller ain't wort' killin'. Wal, I got good warm camp; I tak' her dere, den I fin' dis fader."

"Sam won't be no good to you. What she needs is a doctor, and she needs him quick," the bartender averred.

"Eh bien! I fin' him, too! Mam'selle"--'Poleon turned to the girl- -"you're bad seeck, dat's fac'. You care for stop in my tent?" The girl stared up at him blankly, uncomprehendingly; then, drawn doubtless by the genuine concern in his troubled gaze, she raised her hand and placed it in his. She left it there, the small fingers curling about his big thumb like those of a child. "Poor li'l bird!" The woodsman's brow puckered, a moisture gathered in his eyes. "Dis is hell, for sure. Come, den, ma petite, I fin' a nes' for you." He raised her to her feet; then, removing his heavy woolen coat, he placed it about her frail shoulders. When she was snugly buttoned inside of it he led her out into the dim gray dawn; she went with him obediently.

As they breasted the swirling snowflakes Doret told himself that, pending Sam Kirby's return to sanity, this sick girl needed a woman's care quite as much as a doctor's; naturally his thoughts turned to the Countess Courteau. Of all the women in White Horse, the Countess alone was qualified to assume charge of an innocent child like this, and he determined to call upon her as soon as he had summoned medical assistance.

When, without protest, Rouletta followed him into his snug living- quarters, Doret thought again of the ruffian from whom he had rescued her and again he breathed a malediction. The more fully he became aware of the girl's utter helplessness the angrier he grew, and the more criminal appeared her father's conduct. White Horse made no pretense at morality; it was but a relay station, a breathing-point where the mad rush to the Klondike paused; there was neither law nor order here; the women who passed through were, for the most part, shameless creatures; the majority of the men were unruly, unresponsive to anything except an appeal to their animal appetites. Sympathy, consideration, chivalry had all but vanished in the heat of the great stampede. That Sam Kirby should have abandoned his daughter to such as these was incredible, criminal. Mere intoxication did not excuse it, and 'Poleon vowed he would give the old man a piece of his mind at the first opportunity.

His tent was still warm; a few sticks of dry spruce caused the little stove to grow red; he helped Rouletta to lie down upon his bed, then he drew his blankets over her.

"You stay here li'l while, eh?" He rested a comforting hand upon her shoulder. "'Poleon goin' find your papa now. Bimeby you goin' feel better."

He was not sure that she understood him, for she continued to mutter under her breath and began to roll her head as if in pain. Then he summoned all the persuasiveness he could. "Dere now, you're safe in 'Poleon's house; he mak' you well dam' queeck."

A good many people were stirring when the pilot climbed once more to the stumpy clearing where the village stood, and whomsoever he met he questioned regarding Sam Kirby; it did not take him long to discover the latter's whereabouts. But 'Poleon's delay, brief as it had been, bore tragic consequences. Had he been a moment or two earlier he might have averted a catastrophe of far-reaching effect, one that had a bearing upon many lives.

The Gold Belt Saloon had enjoyed a profitable all-night patronage; less than an hour previously Morris Best had rounded up the last of his gay song-birds and put an end to their carnival. The poker game, however, was still in progress at the big round table. Already numerous early risers were hurrying in to fortify themselves against the raw day just breaking, and among these last-named, by some evil whim of fate, chanced to be the man for whom Sam Kirby had so patiently waited. The fellow had not come seeking trouble--no one who knew the one-armed gambler's reputation sought trouble with him--but, learning that Kirby was still awake and in a dangerous mood, he had entered the Gold Belt determined to protect himself in case of eventualities.

Doret was but a few seconds behind the man, but those few seconds were fateful. As the pilot stepped into the saloon he beheld a sight that was enough to freeze him motionless. The big kerosene lamps, swung from the rafter braces above, shed over the interior a peculiar sickly radiance, yellowed now by reason of the pale morning light outside. Beneath one of the lamps a tableau was set. Sam Kirby and the man he had struck the night before were facing each other in the center of the room, and Doret heard the gambler cry:

"I've been laying for you!"

Kirby's usually impassive face was a sight; it was fearfully contorted; it was the countenance of a maniac. His words were loud and uncannily distinct, and the sound of them had brought a breathless hush over the place. At the moment of Doret's entrance the occupants of the saloon seemed petrified; they stood rooted in their tracks as if the anger in that menacing voice had halted them in mid-action. 'Poleon, too, turned cold, for it seemed to him that he had opened the door upon a roomful of wax figures posed in theatric postures. Then in the flash of an eye the scene dissolved into action, swift and terrifying.

What happened was so unexpected, it came with such a lack of warning, that few of the witnesses, even though they beheld every move, were able later to agree fully upon details. Whether Kirby actually fired the first shot, or whether his attempt to do so spurred his antagonist to lightning quickness, was long a matter of dispute. In a flash the room became a place of deafening echoes. Shouts of protest, yells of fright, the crash of overturning furniture, the stamp of fleeing feet mingled with the loud explosion of gunshots--pandemonium.

Fortunately the troupe of women who had been here earlier were gone and the tent was by no means crowded. Even so, there were enough men present to raise a mighty turmoil. Some of them took shelter behind the bar, others behind the stove and the tables; some bolted headlong for the door; still others hurled themselves bodily against the canvas walls and ripped their way out.

The duel was over almost as quickly as it had begun. Sam Kirby's opponent reeled backward and fetched up against the bar; above the din his hoarse voice rose:

"He started it! You saw him! Tried to kill me!"

He waved a smoking pistol-barrel at the gambler, who had sunk to his knees. Even while he was shouting out his plea for justification Kirby slid forward upon his face and the fingers of his outstretched hand slowly unloosed themselves from his gun.

It had been a shocking, a sickening affair; the effect of it had been intensified by reason of its unexpectedness, and now, although it was over, excitement gathered fury. Men burst forth from their places of concealment and made for the open air; the structure vomited its occupants out into the snow.

'Poleon Doret had been swept aside, then borne backward ahead of that stampede, and at length found himself wedged into a corner. He heard the victor repeating: "You saw him. Tried to kill me!" The speaker turned a blanched face and glaring eyes upon those witnesses who still remained. "He's Sam Kirby. I had to get him or he'd have got me." He pressed a hand to his side, then raised it; it was smeared with blood. In blank stupefaction the man stared at this phenomenon.

Doret was the first to reach that motionless figure sprawled face down upon the floor; it was he who lifted the gray head and spoke Kirby's name. A swift examination was enough to make quite sure that the old man was beyond all help. Outside, curiosity had done its work and the human tide was setting back into the wrecked saloon. When 'Poleon rose with the body in his arms he was surrounded by a clamorous crowd. Through it he bore the limp figure to the cloth-covered card-table, and there, among the scattered emblems of Sam Kirby's calling, 'Poleon deposited his burden. By those cards and those celluloid disks the old gambler had made his living; grim fitness was in the fact that they should carpet his bier.

When 'Poleon Doret had forced his way by main strength out of the Gold Belt Saloon, he removed his cap and, turning his face to the wind, he breathed deeply of the cool, clean air. His brow was moist; he let the snowflakes fall upon it the while he shut his eyes and strove to think. Engaged thus, he heard Lucky Broad address him.

With the speaker was Kid Bridges; that they had come thither on the run was plain, for they were panting.

"What's this about Kirby?" Lucky gasped.

"We heard he's just been croaked!" the Kid exclaimed.

'Poleon nodded. "I seen it all. He had it comin' to him," and with a gesture he seemed to brush a hideous picture from before his eyes.

"Old Sam! Dead!"

Broad, it seemed, was incredulous. He undertook to bore his way into the crowd that was pressing through the saloon door, but Doret seized him.

"Wait!" cried the latter. "Dat ain't all; dat ain't de worst."

"Say! Where's Letty?" Bridges inquired. "Was she with him when it happened? Does she know--"

"Dat's w'at I'm goin' tell you." In a few words 'Poleon made known the girl's condition, how he had happened to encounter her, and how he had been looking for her father when the tragedy occurred. His listeners showed their amazement and their concern.

"Gosh! That's tough!" It was Broad speaking. "Me 'n' the Kid had struck camp and was on our way down to fix up our boat when we heard about the killin'. We couldn't believe it, for Sam--"

"Seems like it was a waste of effort to save that outfit," Bridges broke in. "Sam dead and Letty dyin'--all in this length of time! She's a good kid; she's goin' to feel awful. Who's goin' to break the news to her?"

"I don' know." 'Poleon frowned in deep perplexity. "Dere's doctor in dere now," he nodded toward the Gold Belt. "I'm goin' tak' him to her, but she mus' have woman for tak' care of her. Mebbe Madame la Comtesse--"

"Why, the Countess is gone! She left at daylight. Me 'n' the Kid are to follow as soon as we get our skiff fixed."

"Gone?"

"Sure!"

"Sacre! De one decent woman in dis place, Wal!" 'Poleon shrugged. "Dose dance-hall gal' is got good heart--"

"Hell! They pulled out ahead of our gang Best ran his boats through the White Horse late yesterday and he was off before it was light. I know, because Phillips told me. He's joined out with 'em--blew in early and got his war-bag. He left the Countess flat."

Doret was dumfounded at this news and he showed his dismay.

"But--dere's no more women here!" he stammered. "Dat young lady she's seeck; she mus' be nurse'. By Gar! Who's goin' do it, eh?"

The three of them were anxiously discussing the matter when they were joined by the doctor to whom 'Poleon had referred. "I've done all there is to do here," the physician announced. "Now about Kirby's daughter. You say she's delirious?" The pilot nodded. He told of Rouletta's drenching on the afternoon previous and of the state in which he had just found her. "Jove! Pneumonia, most likely. It sounds serious, and I'm afraid I can't do much. You see I'm all ready to go, but--of course I'll do what I can."

"Who's goin' nurse her?" 'Poleon demanded for a second time. "Dere ain't no women in dis place."

The physician shook his head. "Who indeed? It's a wretched situation! If she's as ill as you seem to think, why, we'll have to do the best we can, I suppose. She probably won't last long. Come!" Together he and the French Canadian hurried away.