Chapter XIX
 

Every new and prosperous mining-camp has an Arabian Nights atmosphere, characteristic, peculiar, indescribable. Especially noticeable was this atmosphere in the early Arctic camps, made up as they were of men who knew little about mining, rather less about frontier ways, and next to nothing about the country in which they found themselves. These men had built fabulous hopes, they dwelt in illusion, they put faith in the thinnest of shadows. Now the most practical miner is not a conservative person; he is erratic, credulous, and extravagant; reasonless optimism is at once his blessing and his curse. Nevertheless, the "old-timers" of the Yukon were moderate indeed as compared with the adventurous holiday-seekers who swarmed in upon their tracks. Being none too well balanced themselves, it was only natural that the exuberance of these new arrivals should prove infectious and that a sort of general auto-intoxication should result. That is precisely what happened at Dawson. Men lost all caution, all common sense; they lived in a land of rosy imaginings; hard-bought lessons of experience were forgotten; reality disappeared; fancy took wing and left fact behind; expectations were capitalized and no exaggeration was too wild to challenge acceptance. It became a City of Frenzy.

It was all very fine for an ardent youth like Pierce Phillips; it set him ablaze, stirring a fever in his blood. Having won thus far, he made the natural mistake of believing that the race was his; so he wasted little time in the town, but very soon took to the hills, there to make his fortune and be done with it.

Here came his awakening. Away from the delirium of the camp, in contact with cold reality, he began to learn something of the serious, practical business of gold-mining. Before he had been long on the creeks he found that it was no child's play to wrest treasure from the frozen bosom of a hostile wilderness, and that, no matter how rich or how plentiful the treasure, Mother Earth guarded her secrets jealously. He began to realize that the obstacles he had so blithely overcome in getting to the Klondike were as nothing to those in the way of his further success. Of a sudden his triumphal progress slowed down and he came to a pause; he began to mark time.

There was work in plenty to be had, but, like most of the new- comers, he was not satisfied to take fixed wages. They seemed paltry indeed compared with the drunken figures that were on every lip. In the presence of the uncertain he could not content himself with a sure thing. Nevertheless, he was soon forced to the necessity of resorting to it, for through the fog of his misapprehensions, beneath the obscurity of his ignorance, he began to discover the true outline of things and to understand that his ideas were impractical.

To begin with, every foot of ground in the proven districts was taken, and even when he pushed out far afield he found that the whole country was plastered with locations: rivers, creeks and tributaries, benches and hillsides, had been staked. For many miles in every direction blazed trees and pencil notices greeted him--he found them in places where it seemed no foot but his had ever trod. In Dawson the Gold Commissioner's office was besieged by daily crowds of claimants; it would have taken years of work on the part of a hundred thousand men to even prospect the ground already recorded on the books.

Back and forth Phillips came and went, he made trips with pack and hand-sled, he slept out in spruce forests, in prospectors' tents, in new cabins the sweaty green logs of which were still dripping, and when he had finished he was poorer by a good many dollars and richer only in the possession of a few recorder's receipts, the value of which he had already begun to doubt.

Disappointed he was, but not discouraged. It was all too new and exciting for that. Every visit to Bonanza or El Dorado inspired him. It would have inspired a wooden man. For miles those valleys were smoky from the sinking fires, and their clean white carpets were spotted with piles of raw red dirt. By day they echoed to blows of axes, the crash of falling trees, the plaint of windlasses, the cries of freighters; by night they became vast caldrons filled with flickering fires; tremendous vats, the vapors from which were illuminated by hidden furnaces. One would have thought that here gold was being made, not sought--that this was a region of volcanic hot springs where every fissure and vent-hole spouted steam. It was a strange, a marvelous sight; it stirred the imagination to know that underfoot, locked in the flinty depths of the frozen gravel, was wealth unmeasured and unearned, rich hoards of yellow gold that yesterday were ownerless.

A month of stampeding dulled the keen edge of Pierce's enthusiasm, so he took a breathing-spell in which to get his bearings.

The Yukon had closed and the human flotsam and jetsam it had borne thither was settling. Pierce could feel a metamorphic agency at work in the town; already new habits of life were crystallizing among its citizens; and beneath its whirlpool surface new forms were in the making. It alarmed him to realize that as yet his own affairs were in suspense, and he argued, with all the hot impatience of youth, that it was high time he came to rest. Opportunities were on every side of him, but he knew not where or how to lay hold of them to his best advantage. More than ever he felt himself to be the toy of circumstance, more than ever he feared the fallibility of his judgment and the consequences of a mistake. He was in a mood both dissatisfied and irresolute when he encountered his two trail friends, Tom Linton and Jerry Quirk. Pierce had seen them last at Linderman, engaged in prosecuting a stampeders' divorce; he was surprised to find them reunited.

"I never dreamed you'd get through," he told them, when greetings had passed. "Did you come in one boat or in two?"

Jerry grinned. "We sawed up that outlaw four times. We'd have split her end to end finally, only we run out of pitch to cork her up."

"That boat was about worn out with our bickerings," Tom declared. "She ain't over half the length she was--all the rest is sawdust. If the nail-holes in her was laid end to end they'd reach to Forty Mile. We were the last outfit in, as it was, and we'd of missed a landing if a feller hadn't run out on the shore ice and roped us. First town I ever entered on the end of a lariat. Hope I don't leave it the same way."

"Guess who drug us in," Jerry urged.

"I've no idea," said Pierce.

"Big Lars Anderson."

"Big Lars of El Dorado?"

"He's the party. He was just drunk enough to risk breakin' through. When he found who we was--well, he gave us the town; he made us a present of Dawson and all points north, together with the lands, premises, privileges, and hereditaments appurtenant thereto. I still got a kind of a hangover headache and have to take soda after my meals."

"Lars was a sheepman when we knew him," Tom explained. "Jerry and I purloined him from some prominent cow-gentlemen who had him all decorated up ready to hang, and he hasn't forgotten it. He got everybody full the night we landed, and wound up by buying all the fresh eggs in camp. Forty dozen. We had 'em fried. He's a prince with his money."

"He owns more property than anybody," said pierce.

"Right! And he gave us a 'lay.'"

Phillips' eyes opened. "A lay? On El Dorado?" he queried, in frank amazement.

"No. Hunker. He says it's a good creek. We're lookin' for a pardner."

"What kind of a partner?"

It was Linton who answered. "Well, some nice, easy-going, hard- working young feller. Jerry and I are pretty old to wind a windlass, but we can work underground where it's warm."

"'Easy-goin',' that's the word," Jerry nodded. "Tom and me get along with each other like an order of buckwheat cakes, but we're set in our ways and we don't want anybody to come between us."

"How would I do?" Pierce inquired, with a smile.

Tom answered promptly. "If your name was put to a vote I know one of us that wouldn't blackball you."

"Sure!" cried his partner. "The ballot-box would look like a settin' of pigeon eggs. Think it over and let us know. We're leavin' to-morrow."

A lease on Hunker Creek sounded good to Phillips. Big Lars Anderson had been one of the first arrivals from Circle City; already he was rated a millionaire, for luck had smiled upon him; his name was one to conjure with. Pierce was about to accept the offer made when Jerry said:

"Who d'you s'pose got the lay below ours? That feller McCaskey and his brother."

"McCaskey!"

"He's an old pal of Anderson's."

"Does Big Lars know he's a thief?"

Jerry shrugged. "Lars ain't the kind that listens to scandal and we ain't the kind that carries it."

Pierce meditated briefly; then he said, slowly, "If your lay turns out good so will McCaskey's." His frown deepened. "Well, if there's a law of compensation, if there's such a thing as retributive justice--you have a bad piece of ground."

"But there ain't any such thing," Tom quickly asserted. "Anyhow, it don't work in mining-camps. If it did the saloons would be reading-rooms and the gamblers would take in washing. Look at the lucky men in this camp--bums, most of 'em. George Carmack was a squaw-man, and he made the strike."

Pierce felt no fear of Joe McCaskey, only dislike and a desire to avoid further contact with him. The prospect of a long winter in close proximity to a proven scoundrel was repugnant. Balanced against this was the magic of Big Lars' name. It was a problem; again indecision rose to trouble him.

"I'll think it over," he said, finally.

Farther down the street Phillips' attention was arrested by an announcement of the opening of the Rialto Saloon and Theater, Miller & Best, proprietors. Challenged by the name of his former employer and drawn by the sounds of merriment from within, Pierce entered. He had seen little of Laure since his arrival; he had all but banished her from his thoughts, in fact; but he determined now to look her up.

The Rialto was the newest and the most pretentious of Dawson's amusement palaces. It comprised a drinking-place with a spacious gambling-room adjoining. In the rear of the latter was the theater, a huge log annex especially designed as the home of Bacchus and Terpsichore.

The front room was crowded; through an archway leading to the gambling-hall came the noise of many voices, and over all the strains of an orchestra at the rear. Ben Miller, a famous sporting character, was busy weighing gold dust at the massive scales near the door when Pierce entered.

The theater, too, was packed. Here a second bar was doing a thriving business, and every chair on the floor, every box in the balcony overhanging three sides of it, was occupied. Waiters were scurrying up and down the wide stairway; the general hubbub was punctuated by the sound of exploding corks as the Klondike spendthrifts advertised their prosperity in a hilarious contest of prodigality.

All Dawson had turned out for the opening, and Pierce recognized several of the El Dorado kings, among them Big Lars Anderson.

These new-born magnates were as thriftless as locusts, and in the midst of their bacchanalian revels Pierce felt very poor, very obscure. Here was the roisterous spirit of the Northland at full play; it irked the young man intensely to feel that he could afford no part in it. Laure was not long in discovering him. She sped to him with the swiftness of a swallow; breathlessly she inquired:

"Where have you been so long? Why didn't you let me know you were back?"

"I just got in. I've been everywhere." He smiled down at her, and she clutched the lapel of his coat, then drew him out of the crowd. "I dropped in to see how you were getting along."

"Well, what do you think of the place?"

"Why, it looks as if you'd all get rich in a night."

"And you? Have you done anything for yourself?"

Pierce shook his head; in a few words he recounted his goings and his comings, his efforts and his failures. Laure followed the recital with swift, birdlike nods of understanding; her dark ayes were warm with sympathy.

"You're going at it the wrong way," she asserted when he had finished. "You have brains; make them work. Look at Best, look at Miller, his new partner; they know better than to mine. Mining is a fool's game. Play a sure thing, Pierce. Stay here in town and live like a human being; here's where the money will be made."

"Do you think I want to go flying over hill and dale, like a tumbleweed? I haven't had warm feet in a week and I weep salt tears when I see a bed. But I'm no Croesus; I've got to hustle. I think I've landed something finally." He told of Tom and Jerry's offer, but failed to impress his listener.

"If you go out to Hunker Creek I'll scarcely ever see you," said she. "That's the first objection. I've nearly died these last three weeks. But there are other objections. You couldn't get along with those old men. Why, they can't get along with each other! Then there's Joe McCaskey to think of. Why run into trouble?"

"I've thought of all that. But Big Lars is on the crest of his wave; he has the Midas touch; everything he lays his hands on turns to gold. He believes in Hunker--"

"I'll find out if he does," Laure said, quickly. "He's drinking. He'll tell me anything. Wait!" With a flashing smile she was off.

She returned with an air of triumph. "You'll learn to listen to me," she declared. "He says Hunker is low grade. That's why he lets lays on it instead of working it himself. Lars is a fox."

"He said that?"

"The best there is in it is wages. Those were his very words. Would you put up with Linton and Quirk and the two McCaskeys for wages? Of course not. I've something better fixed up for you." Without explaining, she led Pierce to the bar, where Morris Best was standing.

Best was genuinely glad to see his former employee; he warmly shook Pierce's hand,

"I've got 'em going, haven't I?" he chuckled.

Laure broke out, imperiously: "Loosen up. Morris, and let's all have a drink on the house. You can afford it."

"Sure!" With a happy grin the proprietor ordered a quart bottle of wine. "I can afford more than that for a friend. We put it over, didn't we, kid?" He linked arms with Pierce and leaned upon him. "Oy! Such trouble we had with these girls, eh? But we got 'em here, and now I got Dawson going. I'll be one of these Rockyfeller magnets, believe me."

Pierce had not tasted liquor since his last farewell to Laure. Three weeks of hard work in the open air had effected a chemical change in his make-up, a purification of his tissues, and as a result Best's liquor mounted quickly to his head and warmed his blood. When he had emptied his glass Laure saw that it was promptly refilled.

"So you've cut out the stampeding," Morris continued. "Good! You've got sense. Let the rough-necks do it. This here Front Street is the best pay-streak in the Klondike and it won't pinch out. Why? Because every miner empties his poke into it." The speaker nodded, and leaned more intimately against Phillips. "They bring in their Bonanza dust and their El Dorado nuggets and salt our sluices. That's the system. It's simpler as falling down a log. What?"

"Come to the good news," Laure urged.

"This little woman hates you, don't she?" Best winked. "Just like she hates her right eye. You got her going, kid. Well, you can start work to-morrow."

"Start work? Where?" Pierce was bewildered.

"Miller's looking for a gold-weigher. We'll put you out in the saloon proper."

"'Saloon proper'?" Pierce shook his head in good-natured refusal. "I dare say it's the fault of my bringing-up, but--I don't think there's any such thing. I'm an outdoor person. I'm one of the rough-necks who salts your sluice-boxes. I think I'd better stick to the hills. It's mighty nice of you, though, and I'm much obliged."

"Are you going to take that other offer?" Laure inquired. When Pierce hesitated she laid hold of his other arm. "I won't let you go," she cried. "I want you here--"

"Nonsense!" he protested. "I can't do anything for you. I have nothing--"

"Have I ever asked you for anything?" she blazed at him. "I can take care of myself, but--I want you. I sha'n't let you go."

"Better think it over," Best declared. "We need a good man."

"Yes!" Laure clung to Pierce's hand. "Don't be in a hurry. Anyhow, stay and dance with me while we talk about it. We've never had a dance together. Please!"

The proprietor of the theater was in a genial mood. "Stick around," he seconded. "Your credit is good and it won't worry me none if you never take up your tabs. Laure has got the right idea; play 'em safe and sure, and let the other feller do the work. Now we'll have another bottle."

The three of them were still standing at the bar when the curtain fell on the last vaudeville act and the audience swarmed out into the gambling-room of the main saloon. Hastily, noisily, the chairs were removed from the dance floor, then the orchestra began a spirited two-step and a raucous-voiced caller broke into loud exhortations. In a twinkling the room had refilled, this time with whirling couples.

Laure raised her arms, she swayed forward into Pierce's embrace, and they melted into the throng. The girl could dance; she seemed to float in cadence with the music; she became one with her partner and answered his every impulse. Never before had she seemed so utterly and so completely to embody the spirit of pleasure; she was ardent, alive, she pulsated with enjoyment; her breath was warm, her dark, fragrant hair brushed Phillips' cheek; her olive face was slightly flushed; and her eyes, uplifted to his, were glowing. They voiced adoration, abandon, surrender.

The music ended with a crash; a shout, a storm of applause followed; then the dancers swarmed to the bar, bearing Pierce and his companion with them. Laure was panting. She clung fiercely, jealously, to Phillips' arm.

"Dance with me again. Again! I never knew what it was--" She trembled with a vibrant ecstasy.

Drinks were set before them. The girl spurned hers, but absent- mindedly pocketed the pasteboard check that went with it. While yet Pierce's throat was warm from the spirits there began the opening measures of a languorous waltz and the crowd swept into motion again. There was no refusing the invitation of that music.

Later in the evening Phillips found Tom and Jerry; his color was deeper than usual, his eyes were unnaturally bright.

"I'm obliged to you," he told them, "but I've taken a job as weigher with Miller & Best. Good luck, and--I hope you strike it rich."

When he had gone Tom shook his head. His face was clouded with regret and, too, with a vague expression of surprise.

"Too bad," he said. "I didn't think he was that kind."

"Sure!" Jerry agreed. "I thought he'd make good."