Chapter XV
 

It was afternoon when Lucky Broad and Kid Bridges came to 'Poleon Doret's tent and called its owner outside.

"We're hitched up and ready to say 'gid-dap,' but we came back to see how Letty's getting along," the former explained.

'Poleon shook his head doubtfully; his face was grave. "She's bad seeck."

"Does she know about old Sam?"

"She ain't know not'in'. She's crazee altogether. Poor li'l gal, she's jus' lak baby. I'm scare' as hell."

The confidence-men stared at each other silently; then they stared at Doret. "What we goin' to do about it?" the Kid inquired, finally.

'Poleon was at a loss for an answer; he made no secret of his anxiety. "De doctor say she mus' stay right here--"

"Here?"

"He say if she get cold once more--pouf! She die lak dat! Plenty fire, plenty blanket, medicine every hour, dat's all. I'm prayin' for come along some woman--any kin' of woman at all--I don' care if she's squaw."

"There ain't any skirts back of us. Best's outfit was the last to leave Linderman. There won't be any more till after the freeze- up."

"Eh bien! Den I s'pose I do de bes' I can. She's poor seeck gal in beeg, cold countree wit' no frien's, no money--"

"No money?" Broad was startled. "Why, Sam was 'fat'! He had a bank-roll--"

"He lose five t'ousan' dollar' playin' card las' night. Less 'n eighty dollar' dey lef' him. Eighty dollar' an'--dis." From the pocket of his mackinaw 'Poleon drew Kirby's revolver, that famous single-action six-shooter, the elaborate ivory grip of which was notched in several places. Broad and his partner eyed the weapon with intense interest.

"That's Agnes, all right!" the former declared. "And that's where old Sam kept his books." He ran his thumb-nail over the significant file-marks on the handle. "Looks like an alligator had bit it."

Bridges was even more deeply impressed by the announcement of Kirby's losses than was his partner. "Sam must of been easy pickin', drunk like that. He was a gamblin' fool when he was right, but I s'pose he couldn't think of nothin' except fresh meat for Agnes. Letty had him tagged proper, and I bet she'd of saved him if she hadn't of gone off her nut. D'you think she's got a chance?"

"For get well?" 'Poleon shrugged his wide shoulders. "De doctor say it's goin' be hard pull. He's goin' stay so long he can, den-- wal, mebbe 'noder doctor come along. I hope so."

"If she does win out, then what?" Broad inquired.

'Poleon considered the question. "I s'pose I tak' her back to Dyea an' send her home. I got some dog."

Lucky studied the speaker curiously; there was a peculiar hostile gleam in his small, colorless eyes. "Medicine every hour, and a steady fire, you say. You don't figger to get much sleep, do you?"

"Non. No. But me, I'm strong feller; I can sleep hangin' up by de ear if I got to."

"What's the big idea?"

"Eh?" Doret was frankly puzzled. "Wat you mean, 'beeg idea'?"

"What d'you expect to get out of all this?"

"M'sieu'!" The French Canadian's face flushed, he raised his head and met the gaze of the two men. There was an air of dignity about him as he said: "Dere's plenty t'ing in dis worl' we don' get pay' for. You didn't 'spect no pay yesterday when you run de W'ite 'Orse for save dis gal an' her papa, did you? No. Wal, I'm woodsman, river-man; I ain't dam' stampeder. Dis is my countree, we're frien's together long tam; I love it an' it loves me. I love de birds and hanimals, an' dey're frien's wit' me also. 'Bout spring-tam, w'en de grub she's short, de Canada jays dey come to visit me, an' I feed dem; sometam' I fin' dere's groun-squirrel's nest onder my tent, an' mebbe mister squirrel creep out of his hole, t'inkin' summer is come. Dat feller he's hongry; he steal my food an' he set 'longside my stove for eat him. You t'ink I hurt dose he'pless li'l t'ing? You s'pose I mak' dem pay for w'at dey eat?"

'Poleon was soaring as only his free soul could soar; he indicated the tent at his back, whence issued the sound of Rouletta Kirby's ceaseless murmurings.

"Dis gal--she's tiny snowbird wit' broken wing. Bien! I fix her wing de bes' I can. I mak' her well an' I teach her to fly again. Dat's all." Broad and Bridges had listened attentively, their faces impassive. Lucky was the first to speak.

"Letty's a good girl, y'understand. She's different to these others--"

'Poleon interrupted with a gesture of impatience. "It ain't mak' no difference if she's good or bad. She's seeck."

"Me 'n' the Kid have done some heavy thinkin', an' we'd about decided to get a high stool and take turns lookin' out Letty's game, just to see that her bets went as they laid, but I got a hunch you're a square guy. What d'you think, Kid?"

Mr. Bridges nodded his head slowly. "I got the same hunch. The point is this," he explained. "We can't very well throw the Countess--we got some of her outfit--and, anyhow, we'd be about as handy around an invalid as a coupla cub bears. I think we'll bow out. But, Frenchy"--the gambler spoke with intense earnestness-- "if ever we hear a kick from that gal we'll--we'll foller you like a track. Won't we, Lucky?"

"We'll foller him to hell!" Mr. Broad feelingly declared.

Gravely, ceremoniously, the callers shook hands with Doret, then they returned whence they had come. They went their way; Rouletta's delirium continued; 'Poleon's problem increased daily; meanwhile, however, the life of the North did not slacken a single pulse-beat.

Never since their earliest associations had Tom Linton and Jerry Quirk found themselves in such absolute accord, in such complete harmony of understanding, as during the days that immediately followed their reconciliation. Each man undertook to outdo the other in politeness; each man forced himself to be considerate, and strove at whatever expense to himself to lighten the other's burdens; all of their relations were characterized by an elaborate, an almost mid-Victorian courtesy. A friendly rivalry in self-sacrifice existed between them; they quarreled good-naturedly over the dish-washing, that disgusting rite which tries the patience of every grown man; when there was wood to be cut they battled with each other for the ax.

But there is a limit to politeness; unfailing sunshine grows tedious, and so does a monotonous exercise of magnanimity.

While it had been an easy matter to cut their rowboat in two, the process of splicing it together again had required patience and ingenuity, and it had resulted in delay. By the time they arrived at Miles Canon, therefore, the season was far advanced and both men, without knowing it, were in a condition of mind to welcome any sort of a squall that would serve to freshen the unbearably stagnant atmosphere of amiability in which they were slowly suffocating.

Here for the first time the results of their quarrel arose to embarrass them; they could find no pilot who would risk his life in a craft so badly put together as theirs. After repeated discouragements the partners took counsel with each other; reluctantly they agreed that they were up against it.

"Seems like I've about ruined us," Mr. Quirk acknowledged, ruefully.

"You? Why, Jerry, it was my fault we cut the old ship in two," Mr. Linton declared.

The former speaker remonstrated, gently. "Now, Tom, it's just like you to take the blame, but it was my doin's; I instigated that fratricidal strife."

Sweetly but firmly Linton differed with his partner. "It ain't often that you're wrong, Jerry, old boy--it ain't more than once or twice in a lifetime--but you're wrong now. I'm the guilty wretch and I'd ought to hang for it. My rotten temper--"

"Pshaw! You got one of the nicest dispositions I ever see--in a man. You're sweeter 'n a persimmon. I pecked at you till your core was exposed. I'm a thorn in the flesh, Tom, and folks wouldn't criticize you none for doin' away with me."

"You're 'way off. I climbed you with my spurs--"

"Now, Tom!" Sadly Mr. Quirk wagged his gray head. "I don't often argue with anybody, especially with you, but the damnable idea of dividin' our spoils originated in my evil mind and I'm goin' to pay the penalty. I'll ride this white-pine outlaw through by myself. You ear him down till I get both feet in the stirrups, then turn him a-loose; I'll finish settin' up and I won't pull leather."

"How you talk! Boats ain't like horses; it'll take a good oarsman to navigate these rapids--"

"Well?" Quirk looked up quickly. "I'm a good oarsman." There was a momentary pause. "Ain't I?"

Mr. Linton hastily remedied his slip of the tongue. "You're a bear!" he asserted, with feeling. "I don't know as I ever saw a better boatman than you, for your weight and experience, but-- there's a few things about boats that you never had the chance to pick up, you being sort of a cactus and alkali sailor. For instance, when you want a boat to go 'gee' you have to pull on the 'off' oar. It's plumb opposite to the way you steer a horse."

"Sure! Didn't I figger that out for the both of us? We 'most had a runaway till I doped it out."

Now this was a plain perversion of fact, for it was Tom who had made the discovery. Mr. Linton was about to so state the matter when he reflected that doubtless Jerry's intentions were honest and that his failing memory was to blame for the misstatement. It was annoying to be robbed of the credit for an important discovery, of course, but Tom swallowed his resentment.

"The point is this," he said, with a resumption of geniality. "You'd get all wet in them rapids, Jerry, and--you know what that means. I'd rather take a chance on drowning myself than to nurse you through another bad cold."

It was a perfectly sincere speech--an indirect expression of deep concern that reflected no little credit upon the speaker's generosity. Tom was exasperated, therefore, when Jerry, by some characteristic process of crooked reasoning, managed to misinterpret it. Plaintively the latter said:

"I s'pose I am a handicap to you, Tom. You're mighty consid'rate of my feelin's, not to throw it up to me any oftener than you do."

"I don't throw it up to you none. I never did. No, Jerry, I'll row the boat. You go overland and keep your feet dry."

"A lot of good that would do." Mr. Quirk spoke morosely. "I'd starve to death walkin' around if you lost the grub."

This struck Tom Linton as a very narrow, a very selfish way of looking at the matter. He had taken no such view of Jerry's offer; he had thought less about the grub than about his partner's safety. It was an inconsiderate and unfeeling remark. After a moment he said:

"You know I don't throw things up to you, Jerry. I ain't that kind." Mr. Quirk stirred uneasily. "You didn't mean to say that, did you?"

What Jerry would have answered is uncertain, for his attention at the moment was attracted by a stranger who strode down the bank and now accosted him and his partner jointly.

"Bonjour, m'sieu's!" said the new-comer. "I'm lookin' for buy some lemon'. You got some, no?"

Mr. Quirk spoke irritably. "Sure. We've got a few, but they ain't for sale."

The stranger--Quirk remembered him as the Frenchman, Doret, whom he had seen at Sheep Camp--smiled confidently.

"Oh yes! Everyt'ing is for sale if you pay 'nough for him," said he.

Now this fellow had broken the thread of a conversation into which a vague undertone of acrimony was creeping--a conversation that gave every indication of developing into an agreeable and soul- satisfying difference of opinion, if not even into a loud and free-spoken argument of the old familiar sort. To have the promise of an invigorating quarrel frustrated by an idiotic diversion concerning lemons caused both old men to turn their pent-up exasperation upon the speaker.

"We've got use for our lemons and we're going to keep them," said Tom. "We're lemon-eaters--full of acid--that's us."

"We wouldn't give lemon aid to nobody." Jerry grinned in malicious enjoyment of his own wit.

"You got how many?" 'Poleon persisted.

"Oh, 'bout enough! Mebbe a dozen or two."

"I buy 'em. Dere's poor seeck lady--"

Tom cut in brusquely. "You won't buy anything here. Don't tell us your troubles. We've got enough of our own, and poverty ain't among the number."

"W'at trouble you got, eh? Me, I'm de trouble man. Mebbe I fix 'em."

Sourly the partners explained their difficulty. When 'Poleon understood he smiled again, more widely.

"Good! I mak' bargain wit' you, queeck. Me, I'm pilot of de bes' an' I tak' your boat t'rough for dose lemon'."

The elderly men sat up; they exchanged startled glances.

"D'you mean it?"

"I'm goin' have dose lemon'."

"Can't you buy any in the saloons?"

"No. Wal, w'at you say?"

Tom inquired of his partner, "Reckon you can get along without 'em, Jerry?"

"Why, I been savin' 'em for you."

"Then it's a go!"

"One t'ing you do for me, eh?" 'Poleon hesitated momentarily. "It's goin' tak' tam for fin' dam' fool to he'p me row dat bateau, but--I fin' him. Mebbe you set up wit' li'l seeck gal while I'm gone. What?" In a few words he made known the condition of affairs at his camp, and the old men agreed readily enough. With undisguised relief they clambered stiffly out of their boat and followed the French Canadian up the trail. As they toiled up the slope 'Poleon explained:

"De doctor he's go to Dawson, an' t'ree day dis gal been layin' seeck--crazee in de head. Every hour medicine, all de tam fire in de stove! Sapre! I'm half 'sleep."

"We'll set up with her as long as you want," Tom volunteered. "Being a family man myself, I'm a regular nurse."

"Me, too," Jerry exclaimed. "I never had no family, but I allus been handy around hosses, and hosses is the same as people, only bigger--"

Mr. Linton stifled a laugh at this remark. "That'll show you!" said he. "You leave it to me, Jerry."

"Well, ain't they?"

"No."

"They are, too."

"Plumb different."

The argument waxed hot; it had reached its height when 'Poleon laid a finger upon his lips, commanding silence. On tiptoe he led the two men into his tent. When he had issued instructions and left in search of a boatman the partners seated themselves awkwardly, their caps in their hands. Curiously, apprehensively, they studied the fever-flushed face of the delirious girl.

"Purty, ain't she?" Jerry whispered.

Tom nodded. "She's sick, all right, too," he said in a similar tone; then, after a moment: "I've been thinking about them lemons. We're getting about a hundred dollars a dozen for 'em. Kind of a rotten trick, under the circumstances. I'm sorry you put it up to that feller the way you did."

Mr. Quirk stiffened, his eyes widened in astonishment.

"Me? I didn't put it up to him. You done it. They're your lemons."

"How d'you figure they're mine?"

"You bought 'em, didn't you?"

"I paid for 'em, if that's what you mean, but I bought 'em for you, same as I bought that liquor. You've et most of 'em, and you've drank most of the whisky. You needed it worse than I did, Jerry, and I've always considered--"

Now any reference, any reflection upon his physical limitations, however remote or indirect, aroused Jerry's instant ire. "At it again, ain't you?" he cried, testily. "I s'pose you'll forget about that whisky in four or five years. I hope so--"

"'Sh-h!" Tom made a gesture commanding silence, for Jerry had unconsciously raised his voice. "What ails you?" he inquired, sweetly.

"Nothin' ails me," Jerry muttered under his breath. "That's the trouble. You're allus talkin' like it did--like I had one foot in the grave and was gaspin' my last. I'm hard as a hickory-nut. I could throw you down and set on you."

Mr. Linton opened hia bearded lips, then closed them again; he withdrew behind an air of wounded dignity. This, he reflected, was his reward for days of kindness, for weeks of uncomplaining sacrifice. Jerry was the most unreasonable, the most difficult person he had ever met; the more one did for him the crankier he became. There was no gratitude in the man, his skin wouldn't hold it. Take the matter of their tent, for instance: how would the old fellow have managed if he, Tom, had not, out of pure compassion, taken pity on him and rescued him from the rain back there at Linderman? Had Jerry remembered that act of kindness? He had not. On the contrary, he had assumed, and maintained, an attitude of indulgence that was in itself an offense--yes, more than an offense. Tom tried to center his mind upon his partner's virtues, but it was a difficult task, for honesty compelled him to admit that Jerry assayed mighty low when you analyzed him with care. Mr. Linton gave up the effort finally with a shake of his head.

"What you wigwaggin' about?" Jerry inquired, curiously. Tom made no answer. After a moment the former speaker whispered, meditatively: "I'd have give him the lemons if he'd asked me for 'em. Sick people need lemons."

"Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," Mr. Linton whispered, shortly.

"Lemons is acid, and acid cuts phlegm."

"Lemons ain't acid; they're alkali."

This statement excited a derisive snort from Mr. Quirk. "Alkali! My God! Ever taste alkali?" Jerry had an irritating way of asserting himself in regard to matters of which he knew less than nothing; his was the scornful certainty of abysmal ignorance.

"Did you ever give lemons to sick folks?" Tom inquired, in his turn.

"Sure! Thousands."

Now this was such an outrageous exaggeration that Linton was impelled to exclaim:

"Rats! You never saw a thousand sick folks."

"I didn't say so. I said I'd given thousands of lemons--"

"Oh!" Tom filled his pipe and lit it, whereupon his partner breathed a sibilant warning:

"Put out that smudge! D'you aim to strangle the girl?"

With a guilty start the offender quenched the fire with his thumb.

"The idea of lightin' sheep-dip in a sick-room!" Mr. Quirk went on. With his cap he fanned violently at the fumes.

"You don't have to blow her out of bed," Tom growled. Clumsily he drew the blankets closer beneath the sick girl's chin, but in so doing he again excited his companion's opposition.

"Here!" Jerry protested. "She's burnin' up with fever. You blanket 'em when they've got chills." Gently he removed the covers from Rouletta's throat.

Linton showed his contempt for this ridiculous assertion by silently pulling the bedding higher and snugly tucking it in. Jerry promptly elbowed him aside and pulled it lower. Tom made an angry gesture, and for a third time adjusted the covers to suit himself, whereupon Jerry immediately changed them to accord with his ideas.

Aggressively, violently, but without words this time, the partners argued the matter. They were glaring at each other, they had almost come to blows when, with a start, Jerry looked at his watch. Swiftly he possessed himself of the medicine-glass and spoon; to Tom he whispered:

"Quick! Lift her up."

Linton refused. "Don't you know anything?" he queried. "Never move a sick person unless you have to. Give it to her as she lays."

"How you goin' to feed medicine out of a spoon to anybody layin' down?" the other demanded.

"Easy!" Tom took the glass and the teaspoon; together the two men bent over the bed.

But Linton's hands were shaky; when he pressed the spoon to Rouletta's lips he spilled its contents. The girl rolled her head restlessly.

"Pshaw! She moved."

"She never moved," Jerry contradicted. "You missed her." From his nostrils issued that annoying, that insulting, snort of derision which so sorely tried his partner's patience. "You had a fair shot at her, layin' down, Tom, and you never touched her."

"Maybe I'd have had better luck if you hadn't jiggled me."

"Hell! Who jiggled--?"

"'Sh--h!" Once more Mr. Quirk had spoken aloud. "If you've got to holler, go down by the rapids."

After several clumsy attempts both men agreed that their patient had doubtless received the equivalent of a full dose of medicine, so Tom replaced the glass and spoon. "I'm a little out of practice," he explained.

"I thought you done fine." Jerry spoke with what seemed to be genuine commendation. "You got it into her nose every time."

Tom exploded with wrath and it was Jerry's turn to command silence.

"Why don't you hire a hall?" the latter inquired. "Or mebbe I better tree a 'coon for you so you can bark as loud as you want to. Family man! Huh!" Linton bristled aggressively, but the whisperer continued:

"One head of children don't make a family any more 'n one head of heifers makes a herd."

Tom paled; he showed his teeth beneath his gray mustache. Leaning forward, he thrust his quivering bearded face close to the hateful countenance opposite him. "D'you mean to call my daughter a heifer?" he demanded, in restrained fury.

"Keep them whiskers to yourself," Jerry snapped. "You can't pick a row with me, Tom; I don't quarrel with nobody. I didn't call your daughter a heifer, and you know I didn't. No doubt she would of made a fine woman if she'd of grown up, but--Say! I bet I know why you lost her. I bet you poured so much medicine in her crib that she drownded." Jerry giggled at this thought.

"That ain't funny," the other rumbled. "If I thought you meant to call a member of my family a heifer--"

"You've called your wife worse 'n that. I've heard you."

"I meant everything I said. She was an old catamount and--"

"Prob'bly she was a fine woman." Jerry had a discourteous habit of interrupting. "No wonder she walked out and left you flat--she was human. No doubt she had a fine character to start with. So did I, for that matter, but there's a limit to human endurance."

"You don't have to put up with me any longer than you want to," Linton stormed, under his breath. "We can get a divorce easy. All it takes is a saw."

"You made that crack once before, and I called your bluff!" Jerry's angry face was now out-thrust; only with difficulty did he maintain a tone inaudible to the sick girl. "Out of pity I helped you up and handed you back your crutches. But this time I'll let you lay where you fall. A hundred dollars a dozen for lemons! For a poor little sick girl! You 'ain't got the bowels of a shark!"

"It was your proposition!"

"It wasn't!"

"It was!"

"Some folks lie faster 'n a goat can gallop."

"Meaning me?"

"Who else would I mean?"

"Why don't you call me a liar and be done with it?"

"I do. It ain't news to anybody but you!"

Having safely landed his craft below the rapids, 'Poleon Doret hurried back to his tent to find the partners sitting knee to knee, face to face, and hurling whispered incoherencies at each other. Both men were in a poisonous mood, both were ripe for violence. They overflowed with wrath. They were glaring; they shook their fists; they were racked with fury; insult followed abuse; and the sounds that issued from their throats were like the rustlings of a corn-field in an autumn gale. Nor did inquiry elicit a sensible explanation from either.

"Heifer, eh? Drowned my own child, did I?" Tom ground his teeth in a ferocious manner.

"Don't file your tusks for me," Jerry chattered; "file the saw. We're goin' to need it."

"You men goin' cut dat boat in two again?" 'Poleon inquired, with astonishment.

"Sure. And everything we've got."

It was Linton who spoke; there was a light of triumph in his eyes, his face was ablaze with an unholy satisfaction. "We've been drawing lots for twenty minutes, and this time--I got the stove!"