Chapter XXIII
 

"Wal, w'at I tol' you?" 'Poleon Doret exclaimed, cheerfully. "Me, I'm cut off for poor man. If one dose El Dorado millionaire' give me his pay-dump, all de gold disappear biffore I get him in de sluice-box. Some people is born Jonah." Despite this melancholy announcement 'Poleon was far from depressed. On the contrary, he beamed like a boy and his eyes were sparkling with the joy of again beholding his "sister."

He had returned from the hills late this evening and now he had come to fetch Rouletta from her work. This was his first opportunity for a word with her alone.

The girl was not unmoved by his tale of blighted expectations; she refused, nevertheless, to accept it as conclusive. "Nonsense!" she said, briskly. "You know very well you haven't prospected your claim for what it's worth. You haven't had time."

"I don' got to prospec' him," 'Poleon asserted. "Dat's good t'ing 'bout dat claim. Some Swede fellers above me cross-cut de whole dam' creek an' don' fin' so much as one color. Sapre! Dat's fonny creek. She 'ain't got no gravel." The speaker threw back his head and laughed heartily. "It's fac'! I'scover de only creek on all de Yukon wit'out gravel. Muck! Twenty feet of solid frozen muck! It's lucky I stake on soch bum place, eh? S'pose all winter I dig an' don' fin' 'im out?"

For a moment Rouletta remained silent; then she said, wearily:

"Everything is all wrong, all upside down, isn't it? The McCaskeys struck pay; so did Tom and Jerry. But you--why, in all your years in this country you've never found anything. Where's the justice-- "

"No, no! I fin' somet'ing more better as dem feller. I fin' a sister; I fin' you. By Gar! I don't trade you for t'ousan' pay- streak!" Lowering his voice, 'Poleon said, earnestly, "I don' know how much I love you, ma soeur, until I go 'way and t'ink 'bout it."

Rouletta smiled mistily and touched the big fellow's hand, whereupon he continued:

"All dese year I look in de mos' likely spot for gold, an' don' fin' him. Wal, I mak' change. I don' look in no more creek-bottom; I'm goin' hit de high spot!"

Reproachfully the girl exclaimed, "You promised me to cut that out."

With a grin the woodsman reassured her: "No, no! I mean I'm goin' dig on top de mountains."

"Not--really? Why, 'Poleon, gold is heavy! It sinks. It's deep down in the creek-beds."

"It sink, sure 'nough," he nodded, "but where it sink from, eh? I don' lak livin' in low place, anyhow--you don' see not'in'. Me, I mus' have good view."

"What are you driving at?"

"I tell you: long tam ago I know old miner. He's forever talk 'bout high bars, old reever-bed, an' soch t'ing. We call him 'High Bar.' He mak' fonny story 'bout reever dat used to was on top de mountain. By golly! I laugh at him! But w'at you t'ink? I'm crossin' dose hill 'bove El Dorado an' I see place where dose miner is shoot dry timber down into de gulch. Dose log have dug up de snow an' I fin'--what?" Impressively the speaker whispered one word, "Gravel!"

Much to his disappointment, Rouletta remained impassive in the face of this startling announcement. Vaguely she inquired: "What of it? There's gravel everywhere. What you want is gold--"

"Mon Dieu!" 'Poleon lifted his hands in despair. "You're worse as cheechako. Where gravel is dere you fin' gold, ain't you?"

"Why--not always."

With a shrug the woodsman agreed. "Of course, not always, but--"

"On top of a hill?"

"De tip top."

"How perfectly absurd! How could gold run uphill?"

"I don' know," the other confessed. "But, for dat matter, how she run downhill? She 'ain't got no legs. I s'pose de book hexplain it somehow. Wal! I stake two claim--one for you, one for me. It's dandy place for cabin! You look forty mile from dat spot. Mak' you feel jus' lak bird on top of high tree. Dere's plenty dry wood, too, an' down below is de Forks--nice town wit' saloon an' eatin'- place. You can hear de choppin' an' de win'lass creakin' and smell de smoke. It's fine place for singin' songs up dere."

"'Poleon!" Rouletta tried to look her sternest. "You're a great, overgrown boy. You can't stick to anything. You're merely lonesome and you want to get in where the people are."

"Lonesome! Don' I live lak bear when I'm trappin'? Some winter I don' see nobody in de least."

"Probably I made a mistake in bringing you down here to Dawson," the girl continued, meditatively. "You were doing well up the river, and you were happy. Here you spend your money; you gamble, you drink--the town is spoiling you just as it is spoiling the others."

"Um-m! Mebbe so," the man confessed. "Never I felt lak I do lately. If I don' come in town to-day I swell up an' bus'. I'm full of t'ing' I can't say."

"Go to work somewhere."

"For wages? Me?" Doret shook his head positively. "I try him once- -cookin' for gang of rough-neck'--but I mak' joke an' I'm fire'. Dem feller kick 'bout my grub an' it mak' me mad, so one day I sharpen all de table-knife. I put keen edge on dem--lak razor." The speaker showed his white teeth in a flashing smile. "Dat's meanes' trick ever I play. Sapre! Dem feller cut deir mouth so fast dey mos' die of bleedin'. No, I ain't hired man for nobody. I mus' be free."

"Very well," Rouletta sighed, resignedly, "I won't scold you, for- -I'm too glad to see you." Affectionately she squeezed his arm, whereupon he beamed again in the frankest delight. "Now, then, we'll have supper and you can take me home."

The Rialto was crowded with its usual midnight throng; there was the hubbub of loud voices and the ebb and flow of laughter. From midway of the gambling-hall rose the noisy exhortations of some amateur gamester who was breathing upon his dice and pleading earnestly, feelingly, with "Little Joe"; from the theater issued the strains of a sentimental ballad. As Rouletta and her companion edged their way toward the lunch-counter in the next room they were intercepted by the Snowbird, whose nightly labors had also ended.

"All aboard for the big eats," the latter announced. "Mocha's buttoned up in a stud game where he dassen't turn his head to spit. He's good for all night, but I'm on the job."

"I'm having supper with 'Poleon," Rouletta told him.

The Snowbird paused in dismay. "Say! You can't run out on a pal," he protested. "You got to O.K. my vittles or they won't harmonize."

"But 'Poleon has just come in from the creeks and we've a lot to talk about."

"Won't it keep? I never seen talk spoil overnight." When Rouletta smilingly shook her head Mr. Ryan dangled a tempting bait before her. "I got a swell fairy-story for you. I bet you'd eat it up. It's like this: Once upon a time there was a beautiful Princess named Rouletta and she lived in an old castle all covered with ivy. It was smothered up in them vines till you'd vamp right by and never see it. Along came a busted Prince who had been spendin' his vacation and some perfectly good ten-dollar bills in the next county that you could scarcely tell from the real thing. He was takin' it afoot, on account of the jailer's daughter, who had slipped him a file along with his laundry, but she hadn't thought to put in any lunch. See? Well, it's a story of how this here hungry Prince et the greens off of the castle and discovered the sleepin' Princess. It's a knockout. I bet you'd like it."

"I'm sure I would," Rouletta agreed. "Save it for to-morrow night."

The Snowbird was reluctant in yielding; he eyed 'Poleon darkly, and there was both resentment and suspicion in his somber glance when he finally turned away.

Not until Rouletta and her companion were perched upon their high stools at the oilclothcovered lunch-counter did the latter speak; then he inquired, with a frown:

"Tell me, is any dese feller mak' love on you, ma soeur?"

"Why, no! They're perfectly splendid, like you. Why the terrible black look?"

"Gamblers! Sure-t'ing guys! Boosters! Bah! Better dey lef you alone, dat's all. You're nice gal; too nice for dem feller."

Rouletta smiled mirthlessly; there was an expression in her eyes that the woodsman had never seen. "'Too nice!' That's almost funny when you think about it. What sort of men would make love to me, if not gamblers, fellows like Ryan?"

'Poleon breathed an exclamation of astonishment at this assertion. "Wat you sayin'?" he cried. "If dat loafer mak' fresh talk wit' you I--pull him in two piece wit' dese fingers. Dere's plenty good man. I--you--" He paused uncertainly; then his tone changed to one of appeal. "You won't marry wit' nobody, eh? Promise me dat."

"That's an easy promise, under the circumstances."

"Bien! I never t'ink 'bout you gettin' married. By gosh! dat's fierce t'ing, for sure! Wat I'll do if--" 'Poleon shook his massive shoulders as if to rid himself of such unwelcome speculations.

"No danger!"

Rouletta's crooked smile did not go unnoticed. 'Poleon studied her face intently; then he inquired:

"Wat ail' you, li'l sister?"

"Why--nothing."

"Oh yes! I got eye lak fox. You seeck?"

"The idea!" Miss Kirby pulled herself together, but there was such genuine concern in her companion's face that her chin quivered. She felt the need of saying something diverting; then abruptly she turned away.

'Poleon's big hand closed over hers; in a voice too low for any but her ears he said: "Somet'ing is kill de song in your heart, ma petite. I give my life for mak' you happy. Sometam you care for tell me, mebbe I can he'p li'l bit."

The girl suddenly bowed her head; her struggling tears overflowed reluctantly; in a weary, heartsick murmur she confessed:

"I'm the most miserable girl in the world. I'm so--unhappy."

Some instinct of delicacy prompted the woodsman to refrain from speaking. In the same listless monotone Rouletta continued:

"I've always been a lucky gambler, but--the cards have turned against me. I've been playing my own stakes and I've lost."

"You been playing de bank?" he queried, in some bewilderment.

"No, a gambler never plays his own game. He always bucks the other fellow's. I've been playing--hearts."

'Poleon's grasp upon her hand tightened. "I see," he said. "Wal, bad luck is boun' to change."

In Rouletta's eyes, when she looked up, was a vision of some glory far beyond the woodsman's sight. Her lips had parted, her tears had dried. "I wonder--" she breathed. "Father's luck always turned. 'Don't weaken; be a thoroughbred!' That's what he used to tell me. He'd be ashamed of me now, wouldn't he? I've told you my troubles, 'Poleon, because you're all I have left. Forgive me, please, big brother."

"Forgive? Mon Dieu!" said he.

Their midnight meal was set out; to them it was tasteless, and neither one made more than a silent pretense of eating it. They were absorbed in their own thoughts when the sound of high voices, a commotion of some sort at the front of the saloon, attracted their attention. Rouletta's ears were the first to catch it; she turned, then uttered a breathless exclamation. The next instant she had slid down from her perch and was hurrying away. 'Poleon strode after her; he was at her back when she paused on the outskirts of a group which had assembled near the cashier's cage.

Pierce Phillips had left his post behind the scales; he, Count Courteau, and Ben Miller, the proprietor, were arguing hotly. Rock, the Police lieutenant, was listening to first one then another. The Count was deeply intoxicated; nevertheless, he managed to carry himself with something of an air, and at the moment he was making himself heard with considerable vehemence.

"I have been drinking, to be sure," he acknowledged, "but am I drunk? No. Damnation! There is the evidence." In his hand he was holding a small gold-sack, and this he shook defiantly under the officer's nose. "Do you call that eight hundred dollars? I ask you. Weigh it! Weigh it!"

Rock took the little leather bag in his fingers; then he agreed. "It's a lot short of eight hundred, for a fact, but--"

In a strong voice Phillips cried: "I don't know what he had. That's all there was in the sack when he paid his check."

The Count lurched forward, his face purple with indignation. "For shame!" he cried. "You thought I was blind. You thought I was like these other--cattle. But I know to a dollar--" He turned to the crowd. "Here! I will prove what I say. McCaskey, bear me out."

With a show of some reluctance Frank, the younger and the smaller of the two brothers, nodded to the Police lieutenant. "He's giving you the straight goods. He had eight hundred and something on him. when he went up to the cage."

Rock eyed the speaker sharply. "How do you know?" said he.

"Joe and I was with him for the last hour and a half. Ain't that right, Joe?" Joe verified this statement. "Understand, this ain't any of our doings. We don't want to mix up in it, but the Count had a thousand dollars, that much I'll swear to. He lost about a hundred and forty up the street and he bought two rounds of drinks afterward. I ain't quick at figures--"

Pierce uttered a threatening cry. He moved toward the speaker, but Rock laid a hand on his arm and in a tone of authority exclaimed: "None of that, Phillips. I'll do all the fighting."

Ben Miller, who likewise had bestirred himself to forestall violence, now spoke up. "I'm not boosting for the house," said he, "but I want more proof than this kind of chatter. Pierce has been weighing here since last fall, and nobody ever saw him go south with a color. If he split this poke he must have the stuff on him. Let Rock search you, Pierce."

Phillips agreed readily enough to this suggestion, and assisted the officer's search of his pockets, a procedure which yielded nothing.

"Dat boy's no t'ief," 'Poleon whispered to Rouletta. "M'sieu' le Comte has been frisk' by somebody." The girl did not answer. She was intently watching the little drama before her.

During the search Miller forced his way out of the ring of spectators, unlocked the gate of the cashier's cage, and passed inside. "We keep our takin's in one pile, and I'll lay a little eight to five that they'll balance up with the checks to a pennyweight," said he. "Just wait till I add up the figgers and weigh--" He paused; he stooped; then he rose with something he had picked up from the floor beneath his feet.

"What have you got, Ben?" It was Rock speaking.

"Dam' if I know! There it is." The proprietor shoved a clean, new moose-skin gold-sack through the wicket.

Rock examined the bag, then he lifted an inquiring gaze to Pierce Phillips. There was a general craning of necks, a shifting of feet, a rustle of whispers.

"Ah!" mockingly exclaimed Courteau. "I was dreaming, eh? To be sure!" He laughed disagreeably.

"Is this 'house' money?" inquired the redcoat.

Miller shook his head in some bewilderment. "We don't keep two kitties. I'll weigh it and see if it adds up with the Count's--"

"Oh, it will add up!" Phillips declared, his face even whiter than before. "It's a plant, so of course it will add up."

Defiantly he met the glances that were fixed upon him. As his eyes roved over the faces turned upon him he became conscious for the first tune of 'Poleon's and Rouletta's presence, also that Laure had somehow appeared upon the scene. The latter was watching him with a peculiar expression of hostility frozen upon her features; her dark eyes were glowing, she was sneering faintly. Of all the bystanders, perhaps the two McCaskeys seemed the least inclined to take part in the affair. Both brothers, in fact, appeared desirous of effacing themselves as effectively as possible.

But Courteau's indignation grew, and in a burst of excitement he disclaimed the guilt implied in Pierce's words. "So! You plead innocence! You imply that I robbed myself, eh? Well, how did I place the gold yonder? I ask you? Am I a magician?" He waved his arms wildly, then in a tone of malevolence he cried: "This is not the first time you have been accused of theft. I have heard that story about Sheep Camp."

"Sheep Camp, yes!" Phillips' eyes ignored the speaker; his gaze flew to Joe McCaskey's face and to him he directed his next words: "The whole thing is plain enough to me. You tried something like this once before, Joe, and failed. I suppose your back is well enough now for the rest of those forty lashes. Well, you'll get 'em--"

The Count came promptly to the rescue of his friend. "Ho! Again you lay your guilt upon others. Those miners at Sheep Camp let you off easy. Well, a pretty woman can do much with a miners' meeting, but here there will be no devoted lady to the rescue--no skirt to hide behind, for--"

Courteau got no further. Ignoring Rock's previous admonition, Pierce knocked the fellow down with a swift, clean blow. He would have followed up his attack only for the lieutenant, who grappled with him.

"Here! Do you want me to put you in irons?"

Courteau raised himself with difficulty; he groped for the bar and supported himself dizzily thereon, snarling from the pain. With his free hand he felt his cheek where Pierce's knuckles had found lodgment; then, as a fuller realization of the indignity his privileged person had suffered came home to him, he burst into a torrent of frenzied abuse.

"Shut up!" the officer growled, unsympathetically. "I know as much about that trial at Sheep Camp as you do, and if Phillips hadn't floored you I would. That's how you stand with me. You, too!" he shot at the McCaskeys. "Let me warn you if this is a frame-up you'll all go on the woodpile for the winter. D'you hear me? Of course, if you want to press this charge I'll make the arrest, but I'll just take you three fellows along so you can do some swearing before the colonel, where it'll go on the records."

"Arrest? But certainly!" screamed the Count. "The fellow is a thief, a pig. He struck me. Me! You saw him. I--"

"Sure, I saw him!" the officer grinned. "I was afraid he'd miss you. Stop yelling and come along." With a nod that included the McCaskeys as well as the titled speaker he linked arms with Pierce Phillips and led the way out into the night.

"W'at fool biznesse!" Doret indignantly exclaimed. "Dat boy is hones' as church."

He looked down at the sound of Rouletta's voice; then he started. The girl's face was strained and white and miserable; her hands were clasped over her bosom; she was staring horrified at the door through which Phillips had been taken. She swayed as if about to fall. 'Poleon half dragged, half carried her out into the street; with his arm about her waist he helped her toward her hotel.

The walk was a silent one, for Rouletta was in a state bordering upon collapse; gradually she regained control of herself and stumbled along beside him.

"They're three to one," she said, finally. "Oh, 'Poleon! They'll swear it on him. The Police are strict; they'll give him five years. I heard the colonel say so."

"Dere's been good deal of short-weighin', but--" Doret shook his head. "Nobody goin' believe Courteau. And McCaskey is dam' t'ief."

"If--only I--could help him. You'll go to him, 'Poleon, won't you? Promise."

Silently the Canadian assented. They had reached the door of the hotel before he spoke again; then he said slowly, quietly:

"You been playin' 'hearts' wit' him, ma soeur? You--you love him? Yes?"

"Oh--yes!" The confession came in a miserable gasp.

"Bien! I never s'pect biff ore. Wal, dat's all right."

"The Police are swift and merciless," Rouletta persisted, fearfully. "They hate the Front Street crowd; they'd like to make an example."

"Go in your li'l bed an' sleep," he told her, gently. "Dis t'ing is comin' out all right. 'Poleon fix it, sure; he's dandy fixer."

For some time after the door had closed upon Rouletta the big fellow stood with bent head, staring at the snow beneath his feet. The cheer, the sympathy, had left his face; the smile had vanished from his lips; his features were set and stony. With an effort he shook himself, then, murmured:

"Poor li'l bird! Wal, I s'pose now I got to bus' dat jail!"