The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
The headwaters of the Dyea River spring from a giant's punch-bowl. Three miles above timber-line the valley bottom widens out into a flinty field strewn with boulders which in ages past have lost their footing on the steep hills forming the sides of the cup. Between these boulders a thin carpet of moss is spread, but the slopes themselves are quite naked; they are seamed and cracked and weather-beaten, their surfaces are split and shattered from the play of the elements. High up toward the crest of one of them rides a glacier--a pallid, weeping sentinel which stands guard for the great ice-caps beyond. Winter snows, summer fogs and rains have washed the hillsides clean; they are leached out and they present a lifeless, forbidding front to travelers. In many places the granite fragments which still encumber them lie piled one above another in such titanic chaos as to discourage man's puny efforts to climb over them. Nevertheless, men have done so, and by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. On this particular morning an unending procession of human beings was straining up and over and through the confusion. They lifted themselves by foot and by hand; where the slope was steepest they crept on all-fours. They formed an unbroken, threadlike stream extending from timberline to crest, each individual being dwarfed to microscopic proportions by the size of his surroundings. They flowed across the floor of the valley, then slowly, very slowly, they flowed up its almost perpendicular wall. Now they were lost to sight; again they reappeared clambering over glacier scars or toiling up steep, rocky slides; finally they emerged away up under the arch of the sky.
Looking down from the roof of the pass itself, the scene was doubly impressive, for the wooded valley lay outstretched clear to the sea, and out of it came that long, wavering line of ants. They did, indeed, appear to be ants, those men, as they dragged themselves across the meadow and up the ascent; they resembled nothing more than a file of those industrious insects creeping across the bottom and up the sides of a bath-tub, and the likeness was borne out by the fact that all carried burdens. That was in truth the marvel of the scene, for every man on the Chilkoot was bent beneath a back-breaking load.
Three miles down the gulch, where the upward march of the forests had been halted, there, among scattered outposts of scrubby spruce and wind-twisted willow, stood a village, a sprawling, formless aggregation of flimsy tents and green logs known as Sheep Camp. Although it was a temporary, makeshift town, already it bulked big in the minds of men from Maine to California, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, for it was the last outpost of civilization, and beyond it lay a land of mystery. Sheep Camp had become famous by reason of the fact that it was linked with the name of that Via Dolorosa, that summit of despair, the Chilkoot. Already it had come to stand for the weak man's ultimate mile-post, the end of many journeys.
The approach from the sea was easy, if twelve miles of boulder and bog, of swamp and nigger-head, of root and stump, can be called easy under the best of circumstances; but easy it was as compared with what lay beyond and above it. Nevertheless, many Argonauts had never penetrated even thus far, and of those who had, a considerable proportion had turned back at the giant pit three miles above. One look at the towering barrier had been enough for them. The Chilkoot was more than a mountain, more than an obstacle of nature; it was a Presence, a tremendous and a terrifying Personality which overshadowed the minds of men and could neither be ignored at the time nor forgotten later. No wonder, then, that Sheep Camp, which was a part of the Chilkoot, represented, a sort of acid test; no wonder that those who had moved their outfits thus far were of the breed the Northland loves--the stout of heart and of body.
Provisions were cached at frequent intervals all the way up from the sea, but in the open meadow beneath the thousand-foot wall an immense supply depot had sprung up. This pocket in the hills had become an open-air commissary, stocked with every sort of provender and gear. There were acres of sacks and bundles, of boxes and bales, of lumber and hardware and perishable stuffs, and all day long men came and went in relays. One relay staggered up and out of the canon and dropped its packs, another picked up the bundles and ascended skyward. Pound by pound, ton by ton, this vast equipment of supplies went forward, but slowly, oh, so slowly! And at such effort! It was indeed fit work for ants, for it arrived nowhere and it never ended. Antlike, these burden- bearers possessed but one idea--to fetch and to carry; they traveled back and forth along the trail until they wore it into a bottomless bog, until every rock, every tree, every landmark along it became hatefully familiar and their eyes grew sick from seeing them.
The character of then--labor and its monotony, even in this short time, had changed the men's characters--they had become pack- animals and they deported themselves as such. All labor-saving devices, all mechanical aids, all short cuts to comfort and to accomplishment, had been left behind; here was the wilderness, primitive, hostile, merciless. Every foot they moved, every ounce they carried, was at the cost of muscular exertion. It was only natural that they should take on the color of their surroundings.
Money lost its value a mile above Sheep Camp said became a thing of weight, a thing to carry. The standard of value was the pound, and men thought in hundredweights or in tons. Yet there was no relief, no respite, for famine stalked in the Yukon and the Northwest Mounted were on guard, hence these unfortunates were chained to their grub-piles as galley-slaves are shackled to their benches.
Toe to heel, like peons rising from the bowels of a mine, they bent their backs and strained up that riven rock wall. Blasphemy and pain, high hopes and black despair, hearts overtaxed and eyes blind with fatigue, that was what the Chilkoot stood for. Permeating the entire atmosphere of the place, so that even the dullest could feel it, was a feverish haste, an apprehensive demand for speed, more speed, to keep ahead of the pressing thousands coming on behind.
Pierce Phillips breasted the last rise to the Summit, slipped his pack-straps, and flung himself full length upon the ground. His lungs felt as if they were bursting, the blood surged through his veins until he rocked, his body streamed with sweat, and his legs were as heavy as if molded from solid iron. He was pumped out, winded; nevertheless, he felt his strength return with magic swiftness, for he possessed that marvelous recuperative power of youth, and, like some fabled warrior, new strength flowed into him from the earth. Round about him other men were sprawled; some lay like corpses, others were propped against their packs, a few stirred and sighed like the sorely wounded after a charge. Those who had lain longest rose, took up their burdens, and went groaning over the sky-line and out of sight. Every moment new faces, purple with effort or white with exhaustion, rose out of the depths--all were bitten deep with lines of physical suffering. On buckled knees their owners lurched forward to find resting- places; in their eyes burned a sullen rage; in their mouths were foul curses at this Devil's Stairway. There were striplings and graybeards in the crowd, strong men and weak men, but here at the Summit all were alike in one particular--they lacked breath for anything except oaths.
Here, too, as in the valley beneath, was another great depot of provision piles. Near where Phillips had thrown himself down there was one man whose bearing was in marked contrast to that of the others. He sat astride a bulging canvas bag in a leather harness, and in spite of the fact that the mark of a tump-line showed beneath his cap he betrayed no signs of fatigue. He was not at all exhausted, and from the interest he displayed it seemed that he had chosen this spot as a vantage-point from which to study the upcoming file rather than as a place in which to rest. This he did with a quick, appreciative eye and with a genial smile. In face, in dress, in manner, he was different. For one thing, he was of foreign birth, and yet he appeared to be more a piece of the country than any man Pierce had seen. His clothes were of a pattern common among the native packers, but he wore them with a free, unconscious grace all his own. From the peak of his Canadian toque there depended a tassel which bobbed when he talked; his boots were of Indian make, and they were soft and light and waterproof; a sash of several colors was knotted about his waist. But it was not alone his dress which challenged the eye--there was something in this fellow's easy, open bearing which arrested attention. His dark skin had been deepened by windburn, his well- set, well-shaped head bore a countenance both eager and intelligent, a countenance that fairly glowed with confidence and good humor.
Oddly enough, he sang as he sat upon his pack. High up on this hillside, amid blasphemous complaints, he hummed a gay little song:
"Chante, rossignol, chante! Toi qui a le coeur gai! Tu as le coeur a rire Mai j'l'ai-t-a pleurer,"
ran his chanson.
Phillips had seen the fellow several times, and the circumstances of their first encounter had been sufficiently unusual to impress themselves upon his mind. Pierce had been resting here, at this very spot, when the Canuck had come up into sight, bearing a hundred-pound pack without apparent effort. Two flour-sacks upon a man's back was a rare sight on the roof of the Chilkoot. There were not many who could master that slope with more than one, but this fellow had borne his burden without apparent effort; and what was even more remarkable, what had caused Pierce Phillips to open his eyes in genuine astonishment, was the fact that the man climbed with a pipe in his teeth and smoked it with relish. On that occasion the Frenchman had not stopped at the crest to breathe, but had merely paused long enough to admire the scene outspread beneath him; then he had swung onward. Of all the sights young Phillips had beheld in this new land, the vision of that huge, unhurried Canadian, smoking, had impressed him deepest. It had awakened his keen envy, too, for Pierce was beginning to glory in his own strength. A few days later they had rested near each other on the Long Lake portage. That is, Phillips had rested; the Canadian, it seemed, had a habit of pausing when and where the fancy struck him. His reason for stopping there had been the antics of a peculiarly fearless and impertinent "camp-robber." With a crust of bread he had tolled the bird almost within his reach and was accepting its scolding with intense amusement. Having both teased and made friends with the creature, he finally gave it the crust and resumed his journey.
This was a land where brawn was glorified; the tales told oftenest around the stoves at Sheep Camp had to do with feats of strength or endurance, they were stories of mighty men and mighty packs, of long marches and of grim staying powers. Already the names of certain "old-timers" like Dinsmore and McDonald and Peterson and Stick Jim had become famous because of some conspicuous exploit. Dinsmore, according to the legend, had once lugged a hundred and sixty pounds to the Summit; McDonald had bent a horseshoe in his hands; Peterson had lifted the stem-piece out of a poling-boat lodged on the rocks below White Horse; Stick Jim had run down a moose and killed it with his knife.
From what Phillips had seen of this French Canadian it was plain that he, too, was an "old-timer," one of that Jovian band of supermen who had dared the dark interior and robbed the bars of Forty Mile in the hard days before the El Dorado discovery. Since this was their first opportunity of exchanging speech, Phillips ventured to address the man.
"I thought I had a load this morning, but I'd hate to swap packs with you," he said.
The Frenchman flashed him a smile which exposed a row of teeth snow-white against his tan. "Ho! You're stronger as me. I see you plenty tams biffore."
This was indeed agreeable praise, and Pierce showed his pleasure. "Oh no!" he modestly protested. "I'm just getting broken in."
"Look out you don' broke your back," warned the other. "Dis Chilkoot she's bad bizness. She's keel a lot of dese sof' fellers. Dey get seeck in de back. You hear 'bout it?"
"Spinal meningitis. It's partly from exposure."
"Dat's him! Don' never carry too moch; don' be in soch hurry."
Phillips laughed at this caution. "Why, we have to hurry," said he. "New people are coming all the time and they'll beat us in if we don't look out."
His comrade shrugged. "Mebbe so; but s'posin' dey do. Wat's de hodds? She's beeg countree; dere's plenty claims."
"Are there, really?" Phillips' eyes brightened. "You're an old- timer; you've been 'inside.' Do you mean there's plenty of gold for all of us?"
"Dere ain't 'nuff gold in all de worl' for some people."
"I mean is Dawson as rich as they say it is?"
"Um--m! I don' know."
"Didn't you get in on the strike?"
"I hear 'bout 'im, but I'm t'inkin' 'bout oder t'ings."
Phillips regarded the speaker curiously. "That's funny. What business are you in?"
"My bizness? Jus' livin'." The Canadian's eyes twinkled. "You don' savvy, eh--? Wal, dat's biccause you're lak dese oder feller-- you're in beeg hurry to be reech. Me--?" He shrugged his brawny shoulders and smiled cheerily. "I got plenty tam. I'm loafer. I enjoy myse'f--"
"So do I. For that matter, I'm enjoying myself now. I think this is all perfectly corking, and I'm having the time of my young life. Why, just think, over there"--Pierce waved his hand toward the northward panorama of white peaks and purple valleys-- "everything is unknown!" His face lit up with some restless desire which the Frenchman appeared to understand, for he nodded seriously. "Sometimes it scares me a little."
"Wat you scare' 'bout, you?"
"Myself, I suppose. Sometimes I'm afraid I haven't the stuff in me to last."
"Dat's good sign." The speaker slipped his arms into his pack- harness and adjusted the tumpline to his forehead preparatory to rising. "You goin' mak' good 'sourdough' lak me. You goin' love de woods and de hills wen you know 'em. I can tell. Wal, I see you bimeby at Wite 'Orse."
"White Horse? Is that where you're going?"
"Yes. I'm batteau man; I'm goin' be pilot."
"Isn't that pretty dangerous work? They say those rapids are awful."
"Sure! Everybody scare' to try 'im. W'en I came up dey pay me fifty dollar for tak' one boat t'rough. By gosh! I never mak' so moch money--tree hondred dollar a day. I'm reech man now. You lak get reech queeck? I teach you be pilot. Swif' water, beeg noise! Plenty fun in dat!" The Canadian threw back his head and laughed loudly. "W'at you say?"
"I wouldn't mind trying it," Pierce confessed, "but I have no outfit. I'm packing for wages. I'll be along when I get my grub- stake together."
"Good! I go purty queeck now. W'en you come, I tak' you t'rough de canyon free. In one day I teach you be good pilot. You ask for 'Poleon Doret. Remember?"
"I say!" Phillips halted the cheerful giant as he was about to rise. "Do you know, you're the first man who has offered to do me a favor; you're the only one who hasn't tried to hold me back and climb over me. You're the first man I've seen with--with a smile on his face."
The speaker nodded. "I know! It's peety, too. Dese poor feller is scare', lak' you. Dey don' onderstan'. But bimeby, dey get wise; dey learn to he'p de oder feller, dey learn dat a smile will carry a pack or row a boat. You remember dat. A smile and a song, she'll shorten de miles and mak' fren's wid everybody. Don' forget w'at I tell you."
"Thank you, I won't," said Pierce, with a flicker of amusement at the man's brief sermon. This Doret was evidently a sort of backwoods preacher.
"Adieu!" With another flashing smile and a wave of his hand the fellow joined the procession and went on over the crest.
It had been pleasant to exchange even these few friendly words, for of late the habit of silence had been forced upon Pierce Phillips. For weeks now he had toiled among reticent men who regarded him with hostility, who made way for him with reluctance. Haste, labor, strain had numbed and brutalized them; fatigue had rendered them irritable, and the strangeness of their environment had made them both fearful and suspicious. There was no good- fellowship, no consideration on the Chilkoot. This was a race against time, and the stakes went to him who was most ruthless. Phillips had not exaggerated. Until this morning, he had received no faintest word of encouragement, no slightest offer of help. Not once had a hand been outstretched to him, and every inch he had gained had been won at the cost of his own efforts and by reason of his own determination.
He was yet warm with a wordless gratitude at the Frenchman's cheer when a figure came lurching toward him and fell into the space Doret had vacated. This man was quite the opposite of the one who had just left; he was old and he was far from robust. He fell face downward and lay motionless. Impulsively Phillips rose and removed the new-comer's pack.
"That last lift takes it out of you, doesn't it?" he inquired, sympathetically.
After a moment the stranger lifted a thin, colorless face overgrown with a bushy gray beard and began to curse in a gasping voice.
The youth warned him. "You're only tiring yourself, my friend. It's all down-hill from here."
The sufferer regarded Phillips from a pair of hard, smoky-blue eyes in which there lurked both curiosity and surprise.
"I say!" he panted. "You're the first white man I've met in two weeks."
Pierce laughed. "It's the result of a good example. A fellow was decent to me just now."
"This is the kind of work that gives a man dead babies," groaned the stranger. "And these darned trail-hogs!" He ground his teeth vindictively. "'Get out of the way!' 'Hurry up, old man!' 'Step lively, grandpa!' That's what they say. They snap at your heels like coyotes. Hurry? You can't force your luck!" The speaker struggled into a sitting posture and in an apologetic tone explained: "I dassent lay down or I'll get rheumatism. Tough guys- -frontiersmen--Pah!" He spat out the exclamation with disgust, then closed his eyes again and sank back against his burden. "Coyotes! That's what they are! They'd rob a carcass, they'd gnaw each other's bones to get through ahead of the ice."
Up out of the chasm below came a slow-moving file of Indian packers. Their eyes were bent upon the ground, and they stepped noiselessly into one another's tracks. The only sound they made came from their creaking pack-leathers. They paused briefly to breathe and to take in their surroundings, then they went on and out of sight.
When they had disappeared the stranger spoke in a changed tone. "Poor devils! I wonder what they've done. And you?" he turned to Phillips. "What sins have you committed?"
"Oh, just the ordinary ones. But I don't look at it that way. This is a sort of a lark for me, and I'm having a great time. It's pretty fierce, I'll admit, but--I wouldn't miss it for anything. Would you?"
"Would I? In a minute! You're young, I'm old. I've got rheumatism and--a partner. He can't pack enough grub for his own lunch, and I have to do it all. He's a Jonah, too--born on Friday, or something. Last night somebody stole a sack of our bacon. Sixty pounds, and every pound had cost me sweat!" Again the speaker ground his teeth vindictively. "Lord! I'd like to catch the fellow that did it! I'd take a drop of blood for every drop of sweat that bacon cost. Have you lost anything?"
"I haven't anything to lose. I'm packing for wages to earn money enough to buy an outfit."
After a brief survey of Phillips' burden, the stranger said, enviously: "Looks like you wouldn't have to make more than a trip or two. I wish I could pack like you do, but I'm stove up. At that, I'm better than my partner! He couldn't carry a tune." There was a pause. "He eats good, though; eats like a hired man and he snores so I can't sleep. I just lie awake nights and groan at the joints and listen to him grow old. He can't even guard our grub- pile."
"The Vigilantes will put a stop to this stealing," Pierce ventured.
"Think so? Who's going to keep an eye on them? Who's going to strangle the Stranglers? Chances are they're the very ones that are lifting our grub. I know these citizens' committees." Whatever the physical limitations of the rheumatic Argonaut, it was plain that his temper was active and his resentment strong.
Phillips had cooled off by this time; in fact, the chill breath of the snow-fields had begun to penetrate his sodden clothing, therefore he prepared to take up his march.
"Going through to Linderman?" queried the other man. "So am I. If you'll wait a second I'll join you. Maybe we can give each other a hand."
The speaker's motive was patent; nevertheless, Phillips obligingly acceded to his request, and a short time later assisted him into his harness, whereupon they set out one behind the other. Pierce's pack was at least double the weight of his companion's, and it gave him a pleasurable thrill to realize that he was one of the strong, one of the elect; he wondered pityingly how long this feeble, middle-aged man could last.
Before they had tramped far, however, he saw that the object of his pity possessed a quality which was lacking in many of the younger, stronger stampeders--namely, a grim determination, a dogged perseverance--no poor substitute, indeed, for youth and brawn. Once the man was in motion he made no complaint, and he managed to maintain a very good pace.
Leaving the crest of Chilkoot behind them, the travelers bore to the right across the snowcap, then followed the ridge above Crater Lake. Every mile or two they rested briefly to relieve their chafed and aching shoulders. They exchanged few words while they were in motion, for one soon learns to conserve his forces on the trail, but when they lay propped against their packs they talked.
Phillips' abundant vigor continued to evoke the elder man's frank admiration; he eyed the boy approvingly and plied him with questions. Before they had traveled many miles he had learned what there was to learn, for Pierce answered his questions frankly and told him about the sacrifice his family had made in order to send him North, about the trip itself, about his landing at Dyea, and all the rest. When he came to the account of that shell-game the grizzled stranger smiled.
"I've lived in wide-open countries all my life," said the latter, "but this beats anything I ever saw. Why, the crooks outnumber the honest men and they're running things to suit themselves. One of 'em tried to lay me. Me!" He chuckled as if the mere idea was fantastically humorous. "Have you heard about this Soapy Smith? He's the boss, the bell-cow, and he's made himself mayor of Skagway. Can you beat it? I'll bet some of his men are on our Citizens' Committee at Sheep Camp. They need a lot of killing, they do, and they'll get it. What did you do after you lost your money?"
"I fell in with two brothers and went to packing."
"Went partners with them?'
"No, they--" Phillips' face clouded, he hesitated briefly. "I merely lived with them and helped them with their outfit from time to time. We're at Sheep Camp now, and I share their tent whenever I'm there. I'm about ready to pull out and go it alone." "Right! And don't hook up with anybody." The old man spoke with feeling. "Look at me. I'm nesting with a dodo--darned gray-whiskered milliner! He's so ornery I have to hide the ax every time I see him. I just yearn to put him out of his misery, but I dassent. Of course he has his points--everybody has; he's a game old rooster and he loves me. That's all that saves him."
Phillips was greatly interested to learn that two men so unfitted for this life, this country, should have essayed the hardships of the Chilkoot trail. It amazed him to learn that already most of their outfit was at Linderman.
"Do you mean to say that you have done all the packing for yourself and your partner?" he inquired.
"N--no. Old Jerry totters across with a package of soda-crackers once in a while. You must have heard him; he creaks like a gate. Of course he eats up all the crackers before he gets to Linderman and then gorges himself on the heavy grub that I've lugged over, but in spite of that we've managed to make pretty good time." After a moment of meditation he continued: "Say! You ought to see that old buzzard eat! It's disgusting, but it's interesting. It ain't so much the expense that I care about as the work. Old Jerry ought to be in an institution--some place where they've got wheel- chairs and a big market-garden. But he's plumb helpless, so I can't cut him loose and let him bleach his bones in a strange land. I haven't got the heart."
They were resting at the Long Lake outlet, some time later, when the old man inquired:
"I presume you've got a camp at Linderman, eh?"
"No. I have some blankets cached there and I sleep out whenever I can't make the round trip."
"Round trip? Round trip in one day? Why, that's thirty miles!"
"Real miles, too. This country makes a man of a fellow. I wouldn't mind sleeping out if I were sure of a hot meal once in a while, but money is no good this side of the Summit, and these people won't even let a stranger use their stoves."
"You can't last long at that, my boy."
Phillips smiled cheerfully. "I don't have to last much longer. I sent a thousand dollars to Dyea this morning by Jim McCaskey, one of the fellows I live with. He's going to put it in Healy he's altogether different to us tenderfeet. He made me rather ashamed of myself."
The elderly man nodded. "Most pioneers are big-calibered. I'm a sort of pioneer myself, but that infernal partner of mine has about ruined my disposition. Take it by and large, though, it pays a man to be accommodating."