Chapter XVI
 

Once again Tom and Jerry's skiff had been halved, once again its owners smarted under the memory of insults unwarranted, of gibes that no apology could atone for. This time it had been old Jerry who cooked his supper over an open fire and old Tom who stretched the tarpaulin over his stove. Neither spoke; both were sulky, avoiding each other's eye; there was an air of bitter, implacable hostility.

Into this atmosphere of constraint came 'Poleon Doret, and, had it not been for his own anxieties, he would have derived much amusement from the situation. As it was, however, he was quite blind to it, showing nothing save his own deep feeling of concern.

"M'sieu's," he began, hurriedly, "dat gal she's gettin' more seeck. I'm scare' she's goin' die to-night. Mebbe you set up wit' me, eh?"

Tom quickly volunteered: "Why, sure! I'm a family man. I--"

"Family man!" Jerry snorted, derisively. "He had one head, mister, and he lost it inside of a month. I'm a better nurse than him."

"Bien! I tak' you both," said 'Poleon.

But Jerry emphatically declined the invitation. "Cut me out if you aim to make it three-handed--I'd Jim the deck, sure. No, I'll set around and watch my grub-pile."

Tom addressed himself to 'Poleon, but his words were for his late partner.

"That settles me," said he. "I'll have to stick close to home, for there's people I wouldn't trust near a loose outfit."

This was, of course, a gratuitous affront. It was fathered in malice; it had its intended effect. Old Jerry hopped as if springs in his rheumatic legs had suddenly let go; he uttered a shrill war-whoop--a wordless battle-cry in which rage and indignation were blended.

"If a certain old buzzard-bait sets up with you, Frenchy, count your spoons, that's all. I know him. A hundred dollars a dozen for lemons! He'd rob a child's bank. He'd steal milk out of a sick baby's bottle."

The pilot frowned. "Dis ain't no tam for callin' names," said he. "To-night dat gal goin' die or--she's goin' begin get well. Me, I'm mos' dead now. Mebbe you fellers forget yourse'f li'l while an' he'p me out."

Tom stirred uneasily. With apparent firmness he undertook to evade the issue, but in his eyes was an expression of uncertainty. Jerry, too, was less obdurate than he had pretended. After some further argument he avoided a weak surrender by muttering:

"All right. Take him along, so I'll know my grub's safe, and I'll help you out. I'm a good hand with hosses, and hosses are like humans, only bigger. They got more sense and more affection, too. They know when they're well off. Now if a hoss gets down you got to get him up and walk him around. My idea about this girl--"

Mr. Linton groaned loudly, then to 'Poleon he cried: "Lead the way. You watch the girl and I'll watch this vet'rinary."

That was an anxious and a trying night for the three men. They were unskilled in the care of the sick; nevertheless, they realized that the girl's illness had reached its crisis and that, once the crisis had passed, she would be more than likely to recover. Hour after hour they sat beside her, administering her medicine regularly, maintaining an even temperature in the tent, and striving, as best they could, to ease her suffering. This done, they could only watch and wait, putting what trust they had in her youth and her vitality. Their sense of helplessness oppressed the men heavily; their concern increased as the hours dragged along and the life within the girl flared up to a blaze or flickered down to a mere spark.

Doret was in a pitiable state, on the verge of exhaustion, for his vigil had been long and faithful; it was a nightmare period of suspense for him. Occasionally he dozed, but only to start into wakefulness and to experience apprehensions keener than before. The man was beside himself, and his anxiety had its effect upon Tom and Jerry. Their compassion increased when they learned how Sam Kirby had been taken off and how Rouletta had been brought to this desperate pass. The story of her devotion, her sacrifice, roused their deepest pity, and in the heat of that emotion they grew soft.

This mellowing process was not sudden; no spirit of forgiveness was apparent in either of the pair. Far from it. Both remained sullen, unrelenting; both maintained the same icy front. They continued to ignore each other's presence and they exchanged speech only with Doret. Nevertheless, their sympathy had been stirred and a subtle change had come over them.

This change was most noticeable in Linton. As the night wore on distressing memories, memories he considered long dead and gone, arose to harass him. It was true that he had been unhappily married, but tune had cured the sting of that experience, or so he had believed. He discovered now that such was not the case; certain incidents of those forgotten days recurred with poignant effect. He had experienced the dawn of a father's love, a father's pride; he lost himself in a melancholy consideration of what might have been had not that dawn been darkened. How different, how full, how satisfying, if--As he looked down upon the fair, fever- flushed face of this girl he felt an unaccustomed heartache, a throbbing pity and a yearning tenderness. The hand with which he stroked the hair back from her brow and rearranged her pillow was as gentle as a woman's.

Jerry, too, altered in his peculiar way. As the hours lengthened, his wrinkled face became less vinegary, between his eyes there appeared a deepening frown of apprehension. More than once he opened his lips to ask Tom's opinion of how the fight progressed, but managed in time to restrain himself. Finally he could maintain silence no longer, so he spoke to Doret:

"Mister! It looks to me like she ain't doin' well."

'Poleon rose from his position beside the stove; he bent over the sick-bed and touched Rouletta's brow with his great hand. In a low voice he addressed her:

"Ma soeur! Ma petite soeur! It's 'Poleon spik to you."

Rouletta's eyes remained vacant, her ceaseless whispering continued and the man straightened himself, turning upon his elderly companions. Alarm was in his face; his voice shook.

"M'sieu's! W'at shall we do? Queeck! Tell me."

But Tom and Jerry were helpless, hopeless. Doret stared at them; his hands came slowly together over his breast, his groping fingers interlocked; he closed his eyes, and for a moment he stood swaying. Then he spoke again as a man speaks who suffers mortal anguish. "She mus' not die! She--mus' not die! I tell you somet'ing now: dis li'l gal she's come to mean whole lot for me. At firs' I'm sorry, de same lak you feel. Sure! But bimeby I get to know her, for she talk, talk--all tam she talk, lak crazee person, an' I learn to know her soul, her life. Her soul is w'ite, m'sieu's, it's w'ite an' beautiful; her life--I lit 'im together in little piece, lak broken dish. Some piece I never fin', but I save 'nough to mak' picture here and dere. Sometam I smile an' listen to her; more tam' I cry. She mak' de tears splash on my hand.

"Wal, I begin talk back to her. I sing her li'l song, I tell her story, I cool her face, I give her medicine, an' den she sleep. I sit an' watch her--how many day an' night I watch her I don' know. Sometam I sleep li'l bit, but when she stir an' moan I spik to her an' sing again until-she know my voice."

'Poleon paused; the old men watched his working face.

"M'sieu's," he went on, "I'm lonely man. I got no frien's, no family; I live in dreams. Dat's all I got in dis whole worl'--jus' dreams. One dream is dis, dat some day I'm going find somet'ing to love, somet'ing dat will love me. De hanimals I tame dey run away; de birds I mak' play wit' dey fly south when de winter come. I say, 'Doret, dis gal she's poor, she's frien'less, she's alone. She's very seeck, but you goin' mak' her well. She ain't goin' run away. She ain't goin' fly off lak dem birds. No. She's goin' love you lak a broder, an' mebbe she's goin' let you stay close by.' Dieu! Dat's fine dream, eh? It mak' me sing inside; it mak' me warm an' glad. I w'isper in her ear, 'Ma soeur! Ma petite soeur! It's your beeg broder 'Poleon dat spik. He's goin' mak' you well,' an' every tam she onderstan'. But now--"

A sob choked the speaker; he opened his tight-shut eyes and stared miserably at the two old men. "I call to her an' she don' hear. Wat I'm goin' do, eh?"

Neither Linton nor Quirk made reply. 'Poleon leaned forward; fiercely he inquired:

"Which one of you feller' is de bes' man? Which one is go to church de mos'?"

Tom and Jerry exchanged glances. It was the latter who spoke:

"Tom--this gentleman-knows more about churches than I do. He was married in one."

Mr. Linton nodded. "But that was thirty years ago, so I ain't what you'd call a regular attendant. I used to carry my religion in my wife's name, when I had a wife."

"You can pray?"

Tom shook his head doubtfully. "I'd be sure to make a mess of it."

Doret sank to a seat; he lowered his head upon his hands. "Me, too," he confessed. "Every hour I mak' prayer in my heart, but--I can't spik him out."

"If I was a good talker I'd take a crack at it," Jerry ventured, "but--I'd have to be alone."

Doret's lips had begun to move; his companions knew that he was voicing a silent appeal, so they lowered their eyes. For some moments the only sound in the tent was the muttering of the delirious girl.

Linton spoke finally; his voice was low, it was husky with emotion: "I've been getting acquainted with myself to-night--first time in a long while. Things look different than they did. What's the good of fighting, what's the use of hurrying and trampling on each other when this is the end? Gold! It won't buy anything worth having. You're right, Doret; somebody to love and to care for, somebody that cares for you, that's all there is in the game. I had dreams, too, when I was a lot younger, but they didn't last. It's bad, for a man to quit dreaming; he gets mean and selfish and onnery. Take me--I ain't worth skinning. I had a kid--little girl- -I used to tote her around in my arms. Funny how it makes you feel to tote a baby that belongs to you; seems like all you've got is wrapped up in it; you live two lives. My daughter didn't stay long. I just got started loving her when she went away. She was-- awful nice."

The speaker blinked, for his eyes were smarting. "I feel, somehow, as if she was here to-night--as if this girl was her and I was her daddy. She might have looked something like this young lady if she had lived. She would have made a big difference in me."

Tom felt a hand seek his. It was a bony, big-knuckled hand not at all like 'Poleon Doret's. When it gave his fingers a strong, firm, friendly pressure his throat contracted painfully. He raised his eyes, but they were blurred; he could distinguish nothing except that Jerry Quirk had sidled closer and that their shoulders all but touched.

Now Jerry, for all of his crabbedness, was a sentimentalist; he also was blind, and his voice was equally husky when he spoke:

"I'd of been her daddy, too, wouldn't I, Tom? We'd of shared her, fifty-fifty. I've been mean to you, but I'd of treated her all right. If you'll forgive me for the things I've said to you maybe the Lord will forgive me for a lot of other things. Anyhow, I'm goin' to do a little rough prayin' for this kid. I'm goin' to ask Him to give her a chance."

Mr. Quirk did pray, and if he made a bad job of it, as he more than suspected, neither of his earthly hearers noticed the fact, for his words were honest, earnest. When he had finished Tom Linton's arm was around his shoulders; side by side the old men sat for a long time. Their heads were bowed; they kept their eyes upon Rouletta Kirby's face. Doret stood over them, motionless and intense; they could hear him sigh and they could sense his suffering. When the girl's pain caused her to cry out weakly, he knelt and whispered words of comfort to her.

Thus the night wore on.

The change came an hour or two before dawn and the three men watched it with their hearts in their throats. Mutely they questioned one another, deriving deep comfort from each confirmatory nod and gesture, but for some time they dared not voice their growing hope. Rouletta's fever was breaking, they felt sure; she breathed more deeply, more easily, and she coughed less. Her discomfort lessened, too, and finally, when the candle-light grew feeble before the signs of coming day, she fell asleep. Later the men rose and stole out of the tent into the cold.

Doret was broken. He was limp, almost lifeless; there were deep lines about his eyes, but, nevertheless, they sparkled.

"She's goin' get well," he said, uncertainly. "I'm goin' teach dat li'l bird to fly again."

The partners nodded.

"Sure as shootin'," Jerry declared.

"Right-o!" Linton agreed. "Now then"--he spoke in an energetic, purposeful tone--"I'm going to put Jerry to bed while I nail that infernal boat together again."

"Not much, you ain't!" Jerry exclaimed. "You know I couldn't sleep a wink without you, Tom. What's more, I'll never try."

Arm in arm the two partners set off down the river-bank. 'Poleon smiled after them. When they were out of sight he turned his face up to the brightening sky and said, aloud:

"Bon Dieu, I t'ank you for my sister's life."

Pierce Phillips awoke from a cramped and troubled slumber to find himself lying upon a pile of baggage in the stern of a skiff. For a moment he remained dazed; then he was surprised to hear the monotonous creak of oars and to feel that he was in motion. A fur robe had been thrown over him; it was powdered with snowflakes, but it had kept him warm. He sat up to discover Laure facing him.

"Hello!" said he. "You here?"

The girl smiled wearily. "Where did you think I'd be? Have a good sleep?"

He shrugged and nodded, and, turning his eyes shoreward, saw that the forest was flowing slowly past. The boat in which he found himself was stowed full of impedimenta; forward of Laure a man was rowing listlessly, and on the seat beyond him were two female figures bundled to the ears in heavy wraps. They were the 'coon- shouting sisters whose song had drawn Pierce into the Gold Belt Saloon the evening before. In the distance were several other boats.

"You feel tough, I'll bet." Laure's voice was sympathetic.

After a moment of consideration Pierce shook his head. "No," said he. "I feel fine--except that I'm hungry. I could eat a log- chain."

"No headache?"

"None. Why?"

Laure's brown eyes widened in admiration and astonishment. "Jimminy! You're a hound for punishment. You must have oak ribs. Were you weaned on rum?"

"I never took a drink until last night. I'm a rank amateur."

"Really!" The girl studied him with renewed interest. "What set you off?"

Pierce made no answer. His face seemed fixed in a frown. His was a tragic past; he could not bear to think of it, much less could he speak of it. Noting that the oarsman appeared to be weary, Pierce volunteered to relieve him, an offer which was quickly accepted. As he seated himself and prepared to fall to work Laure advised him:

"Better count your money and see if it's all there."

He did as directed. "It's all here," he assured her.

She flashed him a smile, then crept into the place he had vacated and drew up the robe snugly. Pierce wondered why she eyed him with that peculiar intentness. Not until she had fallen asleep did he suspect with a guilty start that the robe was hers and that she had patiently waited for him to finish his sleep while she herself was drooping with fatigue. This suspicion gave him a disagreeable shock; he began to give some thought to the nature of his new surroundings. They were of a sort to warrant consideration; for a long time he rowed mechanically, a frown upon his brow.

In the first place, he was amazed to find how bravely he bore the anguish of a breaking heart, and how little he desired to do away with himself. The world, strangely enough, still remained a pleasant place, and already the fret for new adventure was stirring in him. He was not happy--thoughts of Hilda awoke real pain, and his sense of injury burned him like a brand-- nevertheless, he could not make himself feel so utterly hopeless, so blackly despondent as the circumstances plainly warranted. He was, on the whole, agreeably surprised at his powers of resistance and of recuperation, both physical and emotional. For instance, he should by all means experience a wretched reaction from his inebriety; as a matter of fact, he had never felt better in his life; his head was clear, he was ravenously hungry. Then, too, he was not altogether hopeless; it seemed quite probable that he and Hilda would again meet, in which event there was no telling what might happen. Evidently liquor agreed with him; in his case it was not only an anodyne, but also a stimulus, spurring him to optimistic thought and independent action. Yes, whisky roused a fellow's manhood. It must be so, otherwise he would never have summoned the strength to snap those chains which bound him to the Countess Courteau, or the reckless courage to embark upon an enterprise so foreign to his tastes and to his training as this one.

His memory of the later incidents of the night before was somewhat indistinct, as was his recollection of the scene when he had served his notice upon the Countess. Of this much he felt certain, however, he had done the right thing in freeing himself from a situation that reflected discredit upon his manhood. Whether he had acted wisely by casting in his lot with Morris Best's outfit was another matter altogether. He was quite sure he had not acted wisely, but there is a satisfaction at certain times in doing what we know to be the wrong thing.

Pierce was no fool; even his limited experience in the North had taught him a good deal about the character of dance-hall women and of the men who handled them; he was in no wise deceived, therefore, by the respectability with which the word "theatrical" cloaked this troupe of wanderers; it gave him a feeling of extreme self-consciousness to find himself associated with such folk; he felt decidedly out of place.

What would his people think? And the Countess Courteau? Well, it would teach her that a man's heart was not a football; that a man's love was not to be juggled with. He had made a gesture of splendid recklessness; he would take the consequences.

In justice to the young man, be it said he had ample cause for resentment, and whatever of childishness he displayed was but natural, for true balance of character is the result of experience, and as yet he had barely tasted life.

As for the girl Laure, she awoke no real interest in him, now that he saw her in the light of day; he included her in his general, vague contempt for all women of her type. There was, in fact, a certain contamination in her touch. True, she was a little different from the other members of the party-greatly different from Pierce's preconceived ideas of the "other sort"--but not sufficiently different to matter. It is the privilege of arrogant youth to render stern and conclusive judgment.

Best waved his party toward the shore shortly before dusk. A landing-place was selected, tents, bedding, and paraphernalia were unloaded; then, while the women looked on, the boatmen began pitching camp. The work had not gone far before Phillips recognized extreme inefficiency in it. Confusion grew, progress was slow, Best became more and more excited. Irritated at the general ineptitude, Pierce finally took hold of things and in a short time had made all snug for the night.

Lights were glowing in the tents when he found his way through the gloom to the landing in search of his own belongings. Seated on the gunwale of a skiff he discovered Laure.

"I've been watching you," she said. "You're a handy man."

He nodded. "Is this the way Best usually makes camp?"

"Sure. Only it usually takes him much longer. I'll bet he's glad he hired you."

Pierce murmured something.

"Are you glad he did?"

"Why, yes--of course."

"What do you think of the other girls?"

"I haven't paid much attention to them," he told her, frankly.

There was a moment's pause; then Laure said:

"Don't!"

"Eh?"

"I say, don't!"

Phillips shrugged. In a world-weary, cynical tone he asserted, "Women don't interest me."

"What ails you to-day?" Laure inquired, curiously.

"Nothing. I'm not much of a ladies' man, that's all."

"Yes, you are. Anyhow, you were last night."

"I was all tuned up, then," he explained. "That's not my normal pitch."

"Don't you like me as well as you did?"

"Why--certainly."

"Is there another woman?"

"'Another'?" Pierce straightened himself. "There's not even one. What difference would it make if there were?"

"Oh, none." Laure's teeth flashed through the gloom. "I was just curious. Curiosity killed a cat, didn't it? Will you help me up the bank?"

Pierce took the speaker's arm; together they climbed the gravelly incline toward the illumination from the cook fire. In the edge of the shadows Laure halted and her hand slipped down over Pierce's.

"Remember!" she said, meaningly. "Don't--or you'll hear from me."