Chapter XVIII
 

Rouletta Kirby was awakened by the sound of chopping; in the still, frosty morning the blows of the ax rang out loudly. For a moment she lay staring upward at the sloping tent-roof over her bed, studying with sleepy interest the frost-fringe formed by her breath during the night. This fringe was of intricate design; it resembled tatters of filmy lace and certain fragments of it hung down at least a foot, a warning that the day was to be extremely cold. But Rouletta needed no proof of that fact beyond the evidence of her nose, the tip of which was like ice and so stiff that she could barely wrinkle it. She covered it now with a warm palm and manipulated it gently, solicitously.

There was a damp, unpleasant rime of hoar-frost standing on the edge of her fur robe, and this she gingerly turned back. Cautiously she freed one arm, then raised herself upon her elbow. Reaching up, she struck the taut canvas roof a sharp blow; then with a squeak, like the cry of a frightened marmot, she dodged under cover just in time to avoid the frosty shower.

The chopping abruptly ceased. 'Poleon's voice greeted her gaily: "Bon jour, ma soeur! By golly! You gettin' be de mos' lazy gal! I'spect you sleep all day only I mak' beeg noise."

"Good morning!" Rouletta's voice was muffled. As if repeating a lesson, she ran on: "Yes, I feel fine. I had a dandy sleep; didn't cough and my lungs don't hurt. And no bad dreams. So I want to get up. There! I'm well."

"You hongry, too, I bet, eh?"

"Oh, I'm dying. And my nose--it won't work."

Doret shouted his laughter. "You wait. I mak' fire queeck an' cook de breakfas', den--you' nose goin' work all right. I got beeg s'prise for dat li'l nose to-day."

The top of Rouletta's head, her eyes, then her mouth, came cautiously out from hiding.

"What is it, 'Poleon? Something to eat?"

"Sapre! What I tol' you? Every minute 'eat, eat'! You' worse dan harmy of Swede'. I ain't goin' tol' you what is dis s'prise-- bimeby you smell him cookin'."

"Moose meat!" Rouletta cried.

"No'" 'Poleon vigorously resumed his labor every stroke of the ax was accompanied by a loud "Huh!" "I tol' you not'in'!" he declared; then after a moment he voiced one word, "Caribou!"

Again Rouletta uttered a famished cry.

Soon the tent strings were drawn and the axman pushed through the door, his arms full of dry spruce wood. He stood smiling down at the face framed snugly in the fox fur; then he dropped his burden and knelt before the stove. In a moment there came a promising crackle, followed quickly by an agreeable flutter which grew into a roar as the stove began to draw.

"Caribou!" Rouletta's eyes were bright with curiosity and an emotion far more material. "Where in the world--?"

"Some hinjun hunter mak' beeg kill. I got more s'prise as dat, too. By golly! Dis goin' be regular Chris'mas for you."

Rouletta stirred. There was stubborn defiance in her tone when she said: "I'm going to get up and I'm--going--outdoors--clothes or no clothes. I'll wrap the robe around me and play I'm a squaw." She checked 'Poleon's protest. "Oh, I'm perfectly well, and the clothes I have are thick enough."

"Look out you don' froze yourse'f. Dat pretty dress you got is give you chillsblain in Haugust." The speaker blew upon his fingers and sat back upon his heels, his eyes twinkling, his brown face wreathed in smiles.

"Then I can do it? You'll let me try?" Rouletta was all eagerness.

"We'll talk 'bout dat bimeby. First t'ing we goin' have beeg potlatch, lak Siwash weddin'."

"Goody! Now run away while I get up."

But the man shook his head. "Don' be soch hurry. Dis tent warm slow. Las' night de reever is froze solid so far you look. Pretty queeck people come."

"Do you think they'll have extra clothes--something warm that I can wear?"

"Sure! I fix all dat." Still smiling, 'Poleon rose and went stooping out of the tent, tying the flaps behind him. A few rods distant was another shelter which he had pitched for himself; in front of it, on a pole provision-cache, were two quarters of frozen caribou meat, and seated comfortably in the snow beneath, eyes fixed upon the prize, were several "husky" dogs of unusual size. At 'Poleon's appearance they began to caper and to fawn upon him.

"Ho, you ole t'iefs!" he cried, sternly. "You lak steal dose meat, I bet! Wal, I eat you 'live." Stretching on tiptoe, he removed one of the quarters and bore it into his tent. The dogs gathered just outside the door; cautiously they nosed the canvas aside; and as 'Poleon set to work with hatchet and hunting-knife their bright eyes followed his every move.

"Non!" he exclaimed, with a ferocious frown. "You don't get so much as li'l smell. You t'ink ma soeur goin' hongry to feed loafer' lak you?" Bushy gray tails began to stir, the heads came farther forward, there was a most unmannerly licking of chops. "By Gar! You sound lak' miner-man eatin' soup. Wat for you'spect nice grub? You don' work none." 'Poleon removed a layer of fat, divided it, and tossed a portion to each animal. The morsels vanished with a single gulp, with one wolfish click of sharp white teeth, "No, I give you not'in'."

For no reason whatever the speaker broke into loud laughter; then, to further relieve his bubbling joyousness, he began to hum a song. As he worked his song grew louder, until its words were audible to the girl in the next tent.

"Oh, la voix du beau Nord qui m'appelle, Pour benir avec lui le jour, Et desormais toute peine cruelle Fuira devant mon chant d'amour. D'amour, d'amour." ("Oh, the voice of the North is a- calling me, To join in the praise of the day, So whatever the fate that's befalling me, I'll sing every sorrow away. Away, away.")

The Yukon stove was red-hot now, and Rouletta Kirby's tent was warm. She seated herself before a homely little dresser fashioned from two candle-boxes, and began to arrange her hair. Curiously she examined the comb and brush. They were, or had been, 'Poleon's; so was the pocket-mirror hanging by a safety-pin to the canvas wall above. Rouletta recalled with a smile the flourish of pride with which he had presented to her this ludicrous bureau and its fittings. Was there ever such a fellow as this Doret? Was there ever a heart so big, so kind? A stranger, it seemed to the girl that she had known him always. There had been days--days interminable--when he had seemed to be some dream figure; an indistinct, unreal being at once familiar and unfamiliar, friendly and forbidding; then other days during which he had gradually assumed substance and actuality and during which she had come to know him. Following her return to sanity, Rouletta had experienced periods of uncertainty and of terror, then hours of embarrassment the mere memory of which caused her to shrink and to hide her head. Those were times of which, even yet, she could not bear to think. Hers had been a slow recovery and a painful, nay a tragic, awakening, but, as she had gained the strength and the ability to understand and to suffer, 'Poleon, with a tact and a thoughtfulness unexpected in one of his sort, had dropped the character of nurse and assumed the role of friend and protector. That had been Rouletta's most difficult ordeal, the most trying time for both of them, in fact; not one man in ten thousand could have carried off such an awkward situation at a cost so low to a woman's feelings. It was, of course, the very awkwardness of that situation, together with 'Poleon's calm, courageous method of facing it, that had given his patient the strength to meet him half-way and that had made her convalescence anything less than a torture.

And the manner in which he had allowed her to learn all the truth about herself--bit by bit as her resistance grew--his sympathy, his repression, his support! He had to know just how far to go; he had spared her every possible heartache, he had never permitted her to suffer a moment of trepidation as to herself. No. Her first conscious feeling, now that she recalled it, had been one of implicit, unreasoning faith in him. That confidence had increased with every hour; dismay, despair, the wish to die had given place to resignation, then to hope, and now to a brave self-confidence. Rouletta knew that her deliverance had been miraculous and that this man, this total stranger, out of the goodness of his heart, had given her back her life. She never ceased pondering over it.

She was now sitting motionless, comb and brush in hand, when 'Poleon came into the tent for a second time and aroused her from her abstraction. She hastily completed her toilette, and was sitting curled up on her bed when the aroma of boiling coffee and the sound of frying steak brought her to her feet. With a noisy clatter she enthusiastically arranged the breakfast dishes.

"How wonderful it is to have an appetite in the morning!" said she; then: "This is the last time you're going to cook. You may chop the wood and build the fires, but I shall attend to the rest. I'm quite able."

"Bien!" The pilot smiled his agreement. "Everybody mus' work to be happy--even dose dog. Wat you t'ink? Dey loaf so long dey begin fight, jus' lak' people." He chuckled. "Pretty queeck we hitch her up de sled an' go fly to Dyea. You goin' henjoy dat, ma soeur. Mebbe we meet dose cheechako' comin' in an' dey holler: 'Hallo, Frenchy! How's t'ing' in Dawson?' an' we say: 'Pouf! We don' care 'bout Dawson; we goin' home.'"

"Home!" Rouletta paused momentarily in her task.

"Sure! Now--voila,! Breakfas' she's serve in de baggage-car. "With a flourish he poured the coffee, saying, "Let's see if you so hongry lak you pretend, or if I'm goin' keep you in bed some more."

Rouletta's appetite was all--yes, more--than she had declared it to be. The liberality with which she helped herself to oatmeal, her lavish use of the sugar--spoon, and her determined attack upon the can of "Carnation" satisfied any lingering doubts in Doret's mind. Her predatory interest in the appetizing contents of the frying-pan--she eyed it with the greedy hopefulness of a healthy urchin--also was eloquent of a complete recovery and brought a thrill of pride to her benefactor.

"Gosh! I mak' bad nurse for hospital," he grinned. "You eat him out of house an' lot." He finished his meal, then looked on until Rouletta leaned back with regretful satisfaction; thereupon he broke out:

"Wal, I got more s'prise for you."

"You--you can't surprise a toad, and--I feel just like one. Isn't food good?"

Now Rouletta had learned much about this big woodsman's peculiarities; among other things she had discovered that he took extravagant delight in his so-called "s'prises." They were many and varied, now a titbit to tempt her palate, or again a native doll which needed a complete outfit of moccasins, cap, and parka, and which he insisted he had met on the trail, very numb from the cold; again a pair of rabbit-fur sleeping-socks for herself. That crude dresser, which he had completed without her suspecting him, was another. Always he was making or doing something to amuse or to occupy her attention, and, although his gifts were poor, sometimes absurdly simple, he had, nevertheless, the power of investing them with importance. Being vitally interested in all things, big or little, he stimulated others to share in that interest. Life was an enjoyable game, inanimate objects talked to him, every enterprise was tinted imaginary colors, and he delighted in pretense--welcome traits to Rouletta, whose childhood had been starved.

"What is my new s'prise?" she queried. But, without answering, 'Poleon rose and left the tent; he was back a moment later with a bundle in his hands. This bundle he unrolled, displaying a fine fur parka, the hood of which was fringed with a deep fox-tail facing, the skirt and sleeves of an elaborate checker-board pattern of multicolored skins. Gay squirrel-tail streamers depended from its shoulders as further ornamentation. Altogether it was a splendid specimen of Indian needlework and Rouletta gasped with delight.

"How wonderful!" she cried. "Is--it for me?" The pilot nodded. "Sure t'ing. De purtiest one ever I see. But look!" He called her attention to a beaver cap, a pair of beaded moose-hide mittens, and a pair of small fur boots that went with the larger garments-- altogether a complete outfit for winter travel. "I buy him from dose hinjun hunter. Put him on, queeck."

Rouletta slipped into the parka; she donned cap and mittens; and 'Poleon was in raptures.

"By golly! Dat's beautiful!" he declared. "Now you' fix for sure. No matter how col' she come, your li'l toes goin' be warm, you don' froze your nose--"

"You're good and true--and--" Rouletta faltered, then added, fervently, "I shall always thank God for knowing you."

Now above all things Doret dreaded his "sister's" serious moods or any expression of her gratitude; he waved her words aside with an airy gesture and began in a hearty tone:

"We don't stop dis place no longer. To-morrow we start for Dyea. Wat you t'ink of dat, eh? Pretty queeck you be home." When his hearer displayed no great animation at the prospect he exclaimed, in perplexity: "You fonny gal. Ain't you care?"

"I have no home," she gravely told him.

"But your people--dey goin' be glad for see you?"

"I have no people, either. You see, we lived a queer life, father and I. I was all he had, outside of poor Danny Royal, and he--was all I had. Home was where we happened to be. He sold everything to come North; he cut all ties and risked everything on a single throw. That was his way, our way--all or nothing. I've been thinking lately; I've asked myself what he would have wished me to do, and--I've made up my mind."

"So?" 'Poleon was puzzled.

"I'm not going 'outside.' I'm going to Dawson. 'Be a thoroughbred. Don't weaken.' That's what he always said. Sam Kirby followed the frontier and he made his money there. Well, I'm his girl, his blood is in me. I'm going through."

'Poleon's brow was furrowed in deep thought; it cleared slowly. "Dawson she's bad city, but you're brave li'l gal and--badness is here," he tapped his chest with a huge forefinger. "So long de heart she's pure, not'in' goin' touch you." He nodded in better agreement with Rouletta's decision. "Mebbe so you're right. For me, I'm glad, very glad, for I t'ink my bird is goin' spread her wing' an' fly away south lak all de res', but now--bien! I'm satisfy! We go to Dawson."

"Your work is here," the girl protested. "I can't take you away from it."

"Fonny t'ing 'bout work," 'Poleon said, with a grin. "Plenty tam I try to run away from him, but always he catch up wit' me."

"You're a poor man. I can't let you sacrifice too much."

"Poor?" The pilot opened his eyes in amazement. "Mon Dieu! I'm reech feller. Anybody is reech so long he's well an' happy. Mebbe I sell my claim."

"Your claim? Have you a claim? At Dawson?"

The man nodded indifferently. "I stake him las' winter. He's pretty claim to look at--plenty snow, nice tree for cabin, dry wood, everyt'ing but gold. Mebbe I sell him for beeg price."

"Why doesn't it have any gold?" Rouletta was genuinely curious.

"Why? Biccause I stake him," 'Poleon laughed heartily. "Dose claim I stake dey never has so much gold you can see wit' your eye. Not one, an' I stake t'ousan'. Me, I hear dose man talk 'bout million dollar; I'm drinkin' heavy so I t'ink I be millionaire, too. But bimeby I'm sober ag'in an' my money she's gone. I'm res'less feller; I don' stop long no place."

"What makes you think it's a poor claim?"

'Poleon shrugged. "All my claim is poor. Me, I'm onlucky. Mebbe so I don' care enough for bein' reech. W'at I'll do wit' pile of money, eh? Drink him up? Gamble? Dat's fun for while. Every spring I sell my fur an' have beeg tam; two weeks I'm drunk, but--dat's plenty. Any feller dat's drunk more 'n two weeks is bum. No!" He shook his head and exposed his white teeth in a flashing smile. "I'm cut off for poor man. I mak' beeg soccess of dat."

Rouletta studied the speaker silently for a moment. "I know." She nodded her complete understanding of his type. "Well, I'm not going to let you do that any more."

"I don' hurt nobody," he protested. "I sing plenty song an' fight li'l bit. A man mus' got some fun." "Won't you promise--for my sake?"

'Poleon gave in after some hesitation; reluctantly he agreed. "Eh bien! Mos' anyt'ing I promise for you, ma soeur. But--she's goin' be mighty poor trip for me. S'pose mebbe I forget dose promise?"

"I sha'n't let you. I've seen too much drinking--gambling. I'll hold you to your pledge."

Again the man smiled; there was a light of warm affection in his eyes. "By Gar! It's nice t'ing to have sister w'at care for you. When we goin' start for Dawson, eh?"

"To-morrow."