Chapter XVII
 

Laure had no cause to repeat her admonition, for, in the days that followed, Pierce Phillips maintained toward the women members of the party an admirable attitude of aloofness. He was not rude, neither was he discourteous; he merely isolated himself from them and discouraged their somewhat timid advances toward friendship. This doubtless would have met with Laure's whole-hearted approval had he not treated her in precisely the same way. She had at first assumed a somewhat triumphant air of proprietorship toward him, but this quickly gave way to something entirely different. They began to know each other, to be sure; for hours upon end they were together, which could have resulted in nothing less than a thorough acquaintance; notwithstanding this, there lurked behind Phillips' friendly interest an emotional apathy that piqued the girl and put her on her mettle. She hid her chagrin under an assumption of carelessness, but furtively she studied him, for every hour he bulked bigger to her. He exercised a pronounced effect upon her; his voice, his laughter, brought a light and a sparkle to her eyes; she could not rest when he was out of her sight. His appeal, unconscious on his part, struck to the very core of her being. To discover that she lacked a similar appeal for him roused the girl to desperation; she lay awake nights, trying to puzzle out the reason, for this was a new experience to her. Recalling their meeting and the incidents of that first night at White Horse, she realized that here was a baffling secret and that she did not possess the key to it.

One night the truth came home to her. Best had made camp later than usual, and as a result had selected a particularly bad spot for it--a brushy flat running back from a high, overhanging bank beneath which ran a swirling eddy.

The tents were up, a big camp-fire was blazing brightly, when Pierce Phillips, burdened with a huge armful of spruce boughs and blinded by the illumination, stepped too close to the river's rim and felt the soil beneath him crumble away. Down he plunged, amid an avalanche of earth and gravel; the last sound he heard before the icy waters received him was Laure's affrighted scream. An instant later he had seized a "sweeper," to which he clung until help arrived. He was wet to the skin, of course; his teeth were chattering by the time he had regained the camp-fire. Of the entire party, Laure alone had no comment to make upon the accident. She stood motionless, leaning for support against a tent-pole, her face hidden in her hands. Best's song-birds were noisily twittering about Pierce; Best himself was congratulating the young man upon his ability to swim, when Laure spoke, sharply, imperiously:

"Somebody find his dry things, quickly. And you, Morris, get your whisky."

While one of the men ran for Pierce's duffle-bag, Best came hurrying with a bottle which he proffered to Pierce. The latter refused it, asserting that he was quite all right; but Laure exclaimed:

"Drink! Take a good one, then go into our tent and change as fast as you can."

"Sure!" the manager urged. "Don't be afraid of good liquor. There isn't much left. Drink it all."

A short time later, when Pierce reappeared, clad in dry garments, he felt none the worse for his mishap, but when he undertook to aid in the preparations for the night he suspected that he had taken his employer's orders too literally, for his brain was whirling. Soon he discovered that his movements were awkward and his hands uncertain, and when his camp-mates began to joke he desisted with a laughing confession that he had imbibed too much.

Laure drew him out of hearing, then inquired, anxiously, "Are you all right again?"

"Sure! I feel great."

"I--I thought I'd die when I saw you disappear." She shuddered and hid her face in her hands for a second time. It was quite dark where they stood; they were sheltered from observation.

"Served me right," he declared. "Next time I'll look where--" He halted in amazement. "Why, Laure, I believe you're crying!"

She lifted her face and nodded. "I'm frightened yet." She laid trembling, exploratory hands upon him, as if to reassure herself of his safety. "Pierce! Pierce!" she exclaimed, brokenly.

Suddenly Phillips discovered that this girl's concern affected him deeply, for it was genuine--it was not in the least put on. All at once she seemed very near to him, very much a part of himself. His head was spinning now and something within him had quickened magically. There was a new note in his voice when he undertook to reassure his companion. At his first word Laure looked up, startled; into her dark eyes, still misty with tears, there flamed a light of wonder and of gladness. She swayed closer; she took the lapels of his coat between her gloved fingers and drew his head down to hers; then she kissed him full upon the lips. Slowly, resolutely, his arms encircled her.

On the following morning Laure asked Morris Best for a bottle of whisky. The evenings were growing cold and some of the girls needed a stimulant while camp was being pitched, she explained. The bottle she gave to Pierce, with a request to stow it in his baggage for safekeeping, and that night when they landed, cramped and chilly, she prevailed upon him to open it and to drink. The experiment worked. Laure began to understand that when Pierce Phillips' blood flowed warmly, when he was artificially exhilarated, then he saw her with the eyes of a lover. It was not a flattering discovery, but the girl contented herself, for by now she was desperate enough to snatch at straws. Thenceforth she counted upon strong drink as her ally.

The closing scenes of the great autumn stampede to Dawson were picturesque, for the rushing river was crowded with boats all racing with one another. 'Neath lowering skies, past ghostly shores seen dimly through a tenuous curtain of sifting snowflakes, swept these craft; they went by ones and by twos, in groups and in flotillas; hourly the swirling current bore them along, and as the miles grew steadily less the spirits of the crews mounted. Loud laughter, songs, yells of greeting and encouragement, ran back and forth; a triumphant joyfulness, a Jovian mirth, animated these men of brawn, for they had met the North and they had bested her. Restraint had dropped away by now, and they reveled in a new-found freedom. There was license in the air, for Adventure was afoot and the Unknown beckoned.

Urged on by oar and sweep, propelled by favoring breezes, the Argonauts pressed forward exultantly. At night their roaring camp- fires winked at one another like beacon lights along some friendly channel. Unrolling before them was an endless panorama of spruce and birch and cottonwood, of high hills white with snow, of unexplored valleys dark with promise. As the Yukon increased in volume it became muddy, singing a low, hissing song, as if the falling particles of snow melted on its surface and turned to steam.

Out of all the traffic that flowed past the dance-hall party, among all the boats they overhauled and left behind, Pierce Phillips nowhere recognized the Countess Courteau's outfit. Whether she was ahead or whether they had outdistanced her he did not know and inquiry rewarded him with no hint.

During this journey a significant change gradually came over the young man. Familiarity, a certain intimacy with his companions, taught him much, and in time he forgot to look upon them as pariahs. Best, for instance, proved to be an irritable but good- hearted little Hebrew; he developed a genuine fondness for Pierce, which he took every occasion to show, and Pierce grew to like him. The girls, too, opened their hearts and made him feel their friendship. For the most part they were warm, impulsive creatures, and Pierce was amazed to discover how little they differed from the girls he had known at home. Among their faults he discovered unusual traits of character; there was not a little kindliness, generosity, and of course much cheerfulness. They were free-handed with what they had; they were ready with a smile, a word of encouragement or of sympathy; they were absurdly grateful, too, for the smallest favor or the least act of kindness. Moreover, they behaved themselves extremely well.

They were an education to Phillips; he acknowledged that he had gravely misjudged them, and he began to suspect that they had taught him something of charity.

As for Laure, he knew her very well by now and she knew him--even better. This knowledge had come to them not without cost--wisdom is never cheap--but precisely what each of them had paid or was destined to pay for their better understanding of each other they had not the slightest idea. One thing the girl by this time had made sure of, viz., when Pierce was his natural self he felt her appeal only faintly. On the other hand, the moment he was not his natural self, the moment his pitch was raised, he saw allurements in her, and at such times they met on common ground. She made the most of this fact.

Dawson City burst into view of the party without warning, and no El Dorado could have looked more promising. Hounding a bend of the river, they beheld a city of logs and canvas sprawled between the stream and a curving mountain-side. The day was still and clear, hence vertical pencil-markings of blue smoke hung over the roofs; against the white background squat dwellings stood out distinctly, like diminutive dolls' houses. Upon closer approach the river shore was seen to be lined with scows and rowboats; a stern- wheeled river steamer lay moored abreast of the town. Above it a valley broke through from the north, out of which poured a flood of clear, dark water. It was the valley of the Klondike, magic word.

The journey was ended. Best's boats were unloaded, his men had been paid off, and now his troupe had scattered, seeking lodgings. As in a dream Pierce Phillips joined the drifting current of humanity that flowed through the long front streets and eddied about the entrances of amusement places. He asked himself if he were indeed awake, if, after all, this was his Ultima Thule? Already the labor, the hardship, the adventure of the trip seemed imaginary; even the town itself was unreal. Dawson was both a disappointment and a satisfaction to Pierce. It was not what he had expected and it by no means filled the splendid picture he had painted in his fancy. Crude, raw, unfinished, small, it was little more than Dyea magnified. But in enterprise it was tremendous; hence it pleased and it thrilled the youth. He breathed its breath, he drank the wine of its intoxication, he walked upon air with his head in the clouds.

Pierce longed for some one to whom he could confide his feeling of triumph, but nowhere did he recognize a face. Finally he strolled into one of the larger saloons and gambling-houses, and was contentedly eying the scene when he felt a gaze fixed upon him. He turned his head, opened his lips to speak, then stiffened in his tracks. He could not credit his senses, for there, lounging at ease against the bar, his face distorted into an evil grin, stood Joe McCaskey!

Pierce blinked; he found that his jaw had dropped in amazement. McCaskey enjoyed the sensation he had created; he leered at his former camp-mate, and in his expression was a hint of that same venom he had displayed when he had run the gauntlet at Sheep Camp after his flogging, He broke the spell of Pierce's amazement and proved himself to be indeed a reality by uttering a greeting.

Pierce was inclined to ignore the salutation, but curiosity got the better of him and he answered:

"Well! This is a surprise. Do you own a pair of seven-league boots or--what?"

McCaskey bared his teeth further. In triumph he said: "Thought you'd lost me, didn't you? But I fooled you-fooled all of you. I jumped out to the States and caught the last boat for St. Michael, made connections there with the last up-river packet, and--here I am. I don't quit; I'm a finisher."

Pierce noted the emphasis with which Joe's last words were delivered, but as yet his curiosity was unsatisfied. He wondered if the fellow was sufficiently calloused to disregard his humiliating experience or if he proposed in some way to conceal it. Certainly he had not evaded recognition, nor had he made the slightest attempt to alter his appearance. From his bold insouciance it seemed evident that he was totally indifferent as to who recognized him. Either the man possessed moral courage of the extremest sort or else an unbelievable effrontery.

As for Pierce, he was deeply resentful of Joe's false accusation-- the memory of that was ineradicable--nevertheless, in view of the outcome of that cowardly attempt, he had no desire for further revenge. It seemed to him that the fellow had been sufficiently punished for his misdeed; in fact, he could have found it easy to feel sorry for him had it not been for the ill-concealed malice in Joe's present tone and attitude.

He was upon the point of answering Joe's indirect threat with a warning, when his attention was attracted to a short, thick-set, nervous man at his elbow. The latter had edged close and was staring curiously at him. He spoke now, saying:

"So you're Phillips, eh?"

It was Joe who replied: "Sure. This is him."

There was no need of an introduction. Pierce recognized the stranger as another McCaskey, for the family likeness was stamped upon his features. During an awkward moment the two men eyed each other, and Joe McCaskey appeared to gloat as their glances clashed.

"This is Frank," the latter explained, with a malicious grin. "He and Jim was pals. And, say! Here's another guy you ought to meet." He laid a hand upon still a second stranger, a man leaning across the bar in conversation with a white-aproned attendant. "Count, here's that fellow I told you about."

The man addressed turned, exposing a handsome, smiling blond face ornamented with a well-cared-for mustache. "I beg pardon?" he exclaimed, vacuously.

"Meet Phillips. He can give you some dope on your wife." Joe chuckled. Phillips flushed; then he paled; his face hardened.

"Ah! To be sure." Count Courteau bowed, but he did not extend his hand. "Phillips! Yes, yes. I remember. You will understand that I'm distracted for news of Hilda. She is with you, perhaps?"

"I left her employ at White Horse. If she's not here, she'll probably arrive soon."

"Excellent; I shall surprise her."

Pierce spoke dryly. "I'm afraid it won't be so much of a surprise as you think. She rather expects you." With a short nod and with what pretense of carelessness he could assume he moved on toward the rear of the building, whence came the sounds of music and the voice of a dance-hall caller.

For some time he looked on blindly at the whirling figures. Joe McCaskey here! And Count Courteau! What an astonishing coincidence! And yet there was really nothing so remarkable about it; doubtless the same ship had brought them north, in which event they could not well have avoided a meeting. Pierce remembered Hilda's prophecy that her indigent husband would turn up, like a bad penny. His presence was agitating--for that matter, so was the presence of Joe McCaskey's brother Frank, as yet an unknown quantity. That he was an enemy was certain; together, he and Joe made an evil team, and Pierce was at a loss just how to meet them.

Later, when he strolled out of the saloon, he saw the three men still at the bar; their heads were together; they were talking earnestly.