The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Having crossed the high barrens, Phillips and his companion dropped down to timber-line and soon arrived at Linderman, their journey's end. This was perhaps the most feverishly busy camp on the entire thirty-mile Dyea trail, but, unlike the coast towns, there was no merrymaking, no gaiety, no gambling here. Linderman's fever came from overwork, not from overplay. A tent village had sprung up at the head of the lake, and from dawn until dark it echoed to the unceasing sound of ax and hammer, of plane and saw. The air was redolent with the odor of fresh-cut spruce and of boiling tar, for this was the shipyard where an army of Jasons hewed and joined and fitted, each upon a bark of his own making. Half-way down the lake was the Boundary, and a few miles below that again was the customs station with its hateful red-jacketed police. Beyond were uncharted waters, quite as perilous, because quite as unknown, as those traversed by that first band of Argonauts. Deep lakes, dark canons, roaring rapids lay between Linderman and the land of the Golden Fleece, but the nearer these men approached those dangers the more eagerly they pressed on.
Already the weeding-out process had gone far and the citizens of Linderman were those who had survived it. The weak and the irresolute had disappeared long since; these fellows who labored so mightily to forestall the coming winter were the strong and the fit and the enduring--the kind the North takes to herself.
In spite of his light pack, Phillips' elderly trailmate was all but spent. He dragged his feet, he stumbled without reason, the lines in his face were deeply set, and his bearded lips had retreated from his teeth in a grin of exhaustion.
"Yonder's the tent," he said, finally, and his tone was eloquent of relief.
In and out among canvas walls and taut guy-ropes the travelers wound their way, emerging at length upon a gravelly beach where vast supplies of provisions were cached. All about, in various stages of construction, were skeletons of skiffs, of scows, and of barges; the ground was spread with a carpet of shavings and sawdust.
Pierce's companion paused; then, after an incredulous stare, he said: "Look! Is that smoke coming from my stovepipe?"
There could be no mistake about it; from the tent in question arose the plain evidence that a lively fire was burning inside.
"Well, I'll be darned!" breathed the elder man. "Somebody's jumped the cache."
"Perhaps your partner--"
"He's in Sheep Camp." The speaker laboriously loosened his pack and let it fall, then with stiff, clumsy fingers he undid the top buttons of his vest and, to Pierce's amazement, produced a large- calibered revolver, which he mechanically cocked and uncocked several times, the while his eyes remained hypnotically fixed upon the telltale streamer of smoke. Not only did his action appear to be totally uncalled for, but he himself had undergone a startling transformation and Phillips was impelled to remonstrate.
"Here! What the deuce--?" he began.
"Listen to me!" The old man spoke in a queer, suppressed tone, and his eyes, when he turned them upon his fellow-packer, were even smokier than usual. "Somebody's up to a little thievin', most likely, and it looks like I had 'em red-handed. I've been layin' for this!"
Pierce divested himself of his pack-harness, then said, simply, "If that's the case, I'll give you a hand."
"Better stand back," the other cautioned him. "I don't need any help--this is my line." The man's fatigue had fallen from him; of a sudden he had become surprisingly alert and forceful. He stole forward, making as little noise as possible, and Phillips followed at his back. They came to a pause within arm's-length of the tent flaps, which they noted were securely tied.
"Hello inside!" The owner spoke suddenly and with his free hand he jerked at one of the knots.
There came an answering exclamation, a movement; then the flaps were seized and firmly held.
"You can't come in!" cried a voice.
"Let go! Quick!" The old man's voice was harsh.
"You'll have to wait a minute. I'm undressed."
Phillips retreated a step, as did the other man; they stared at each other.
"A woman!" Pierce breathed.
"Lord!" The owner of the premises slowly, reluctantly sheathed his weapon under his left arm.
"I invited myself in," the voice explained--it was a deep-pitched contralto voice. "I was wet and nobody offered to let me dry out, so I took possession of the first empty tent I came to. Is it yours?"
"It is--half of it. I'm mighty tired and I ain't particular how you look, so hurry up." As the two men returned for their loads the speaker went on, irritably. "She's got her nerve! I s'pose she's one of these actresses. There's a bunch of 'em on the trail. Actresses!" He snorted derisively. "I bet she smells of cologne, and, gosh! how I hate it!"
When he and Pierce returned they were admitted promptly enough, and any lingering suspicions of the trespasser's intent were instantly dissipated. The woman was clad in a short, damp underskirt which fell about to her knees; she had drawn on the only dry article of apparel in sight, a man's sweater jacket; she had thrust her bare feet into a pair of beaded moccasins; on a line attached to the ridgepole over her head sundry outer garments were steaming. Phillips' first thought was that this woman possessed the fairest, the whitest, skin he had ever seen; it was like milk. But his first impressions were confused, for embarrassment followed quickly upon his entrance and he felt an impulse to withdraw. The trespasser was not at all the sort of person he had expected to find, and her complete self-possession at the intrusion, her dignified greeting, left him not a little chagrined at his rudeness. She eyed both men coolly from a pair of ice-blue eyes--eyes that bespoke her nationality quite as plainly as did her features, her dazzling complexion, and her head of fine, straight flaxen hair. She was Scandinavian, she was a Norsewoman; that much was instantly apparent. She appeared to derive a certain malicious pleasure now from the consternation her appearance evoked; there was a hint of contempt, of defiance, in her smile. In a voice so low-pitched that its quality alone saved it from masculinity, she said:
"Pray don't be distressed; you merely startled me, that's all. My Indians managed to get hold of some hootch at Tagish and upset our canoe just below here. It was windy and of course they couldn't swim--none of them can, you know--so I had hard work to save them. I've already explained how I happened to select this particular refuge. Your neighbors--" her lip curled disdainfully, then she shrugged. "Well, I never got such a reception as they gave me, but I suppose they're cheechakos. I'll be off for Dyea early in the morning. If you can put me up for the night I'll pay you well."
During this speech, delivered in a matter-of-fact, business-like tone, the owner of the tent had managed to overcome his first surprise; he removed his hat now and began with an effort:
"I'm a bad hand at begging pardons, miss, but you see I've been suffering the pangs of bereavement lately over some dear, departed grub. I thought you were a thief and I looked forward to the pleasure of seeing you dance. I apologize. Would you mind telling me where you came from?"
"From Dawson." There was a silence the while the flaxen-haired woman eyed her interrogator less disdainfully. "Yes, by poling- boat and birch-bark. I'm not fleeing the law; I'm not a cache- robber."
The woman nodded. "Can you stow me away for the night? You may name your own price."
"The price won't cripple you. I'm sorry there ain't some more women here at Linderman, but--there ain't. We had one--a doctor's wife, but she's gone."
"I met her at Lake Marsh."
"We've a lot more coming, but they're not here. My name is Linton. The more-or-less Christian prefix thereto is Tom. I've got a partner named Jerry. Put the two together, and drink hearty. This young man is Mr.--" The speaker turned questioningly upon Phillips, who made himself known. "I'm a family man. Mr. Phillips is a--well, he's a good packer. That's all I know about him. I'm safe and sane, but he's about the right age to propose marriage to you as soon as he gets his breath. A pretty woman in this country has to expect that, as you probably know."
The woman smiled and shook hands with both men, exchanging a grip as firm and as strong as theirs. "I am the Countess Courteau," said she.
"The--which?" Mr. Linton queried, with a start.
The Countess laughed frankly. "It is French, but I'm a Dane. I think my husband bought the title--they're cheap in his country. He was a poor sort of count, and I'm a poor sort of countess. But I'm a good cook--a very good cook indeed--and if you'll excuse my looks and permit me to wear your sweater I'll prepare supper."
Linton's eyes twinkled as he said, "I've never et with the nobility and I don't know as I'd like their diet, for a steady thing, but--the baking-powder is in that box and we fry with bacon grease."
Wood and water were handy, the Countess Courteau had a quick and capable way, therefore supper was not long delayed. The tent was not equipped for housekeeping, hence the diners held their plates in their laps and either harpooned their food from the frying-pan or ladled it from tin cans, but even so it had a flavor to-night so unaccustomed, so different, that both men grasped the poignant fact that the culinary art is mysteriously wedded to female hands. Mr. Linton voiced this thought in his own manner.
"If a countess cooks like this," he observed, "I'd sure love to board with a duke." Later, while the dishes were being washed and when his visitor had shown no intention of explaining her presence in further detail, he said, whimsically: "See here, ma'am, our young friend has been watching you like he was afraid you'd disappear before he gets an eyeful, and it's plain to be seen that he's devoured by curiosity. As for me, I'm totally lacking in that miserable trait, and I abhor it in others; but all the same, if you don't see fit to tell us pretty quick how you came to pole up from Dawson and what in Heaven's name a woman like you is doing here, a lone and without benefit of chaperon, I shall pass away in dreadful agony."
"It's very simple," the Countess told him. "I have important business 'outside.' I couldn't go down the river, for the Yukon is low, the steamers are aground on the flats, and connections at St. Michael's are uncertain at best. Naturally I came up against the stream. I've been working 'up-stream' all my life." She flashed him a smile at this latter statement. "As for a chaperon--I've never felt the need of one. Do you think they're necessary in this country?"
"Does your husband, Count--"
"My husband doesn't count. That's the trouble." The speaker laughed again and without the faintest trace of embarrassment. "He has been out of the picture for years." She turned to Phillips and inquired, abruptly, "What is the packing price to Sheep Camp?"
"Fifty cents a pound, coming this way. Going back it is nothing," he told her, gallantly.
"I haven't much to carry, but if you'll take it I'll pay you the regular price. I'd like to leave at daylight."
"You seem to be in a rush," Mr. Linton hazarded, mildly.
"I am. Now, then, if you don't mind I'll turn in, for I must be in Dyea to-morrow night."
Pierce Phillips had said little during the meal or thereafter, to be sure, nevertheless, he had thought much. He had indeed used his eyes to good purpose, and now he regretted exceedingly that the evening promised to be so short. The more he saw of this unconventional countess the more she intrigued his interest. She was the most unusual woman he had ever met and he was eager to learn all about her. His knowledge of women was peculiarly elemental; his acquaintance with the sex was extremely limited. Those he had known in his home town were one kind, a familiar kind; those he had encountered since leaving home were, for the most part, of a totally different class and of a type that awoke his disapproval. To a youth of his training and of his worldly experience the genus woman is divided into two species--old women and young women. The former are interesting only in a motherly way, and demand nothing more than abstract courtesy. They do not matter. The latter, on the contrary, separate themselves again into two families or suborders--viz., good women and bad women. The demarcation between the two branches of the suborder is distinct; there is nothing common to the two. Good women are good through and through--bad ones are likewise thoroughly bad. There are no intermediate types, no troublesome variations, no hybrids nor crosses.
The Countess Courteau, it seemed to him, was a unique specimen and extremely hard to classify, in that she was neither old nor young- -or, what was even more puzzling, in that she was both. In years she was not far advanced--little older than he, in fact--but in experience, in wisdom, in self-reliance she was vastly his superior; and experience, he believed, is what makes women old. As to the family, the suborder to which she belonged, he was at an utter loss to decide. For instance, she accepted her present situation with a sang-froid equaling that of a camp harpy, a few of whom Pierce had seen; then, too, she was, or had been, married to a no-account foreigner to whom she referred with a calloused and most unwifely flippancy; moreover, she bore herself with a freedom, a boldness, quite irreconcilable to the modesty of so- called "good women." Those facts were enough to classify her definitely, and yet despite them she was anything but common, and it would have taken rare courage indeed to transgress that indefinable barrier of decorum with which she managed to surround herself. There was something about her as cold and as pure as blue ice, and she gave the same impression of crystal clarity. All in all, hers was a baffling personality and Phillips fell asleep with the riddle of it unanswered. He awoke in the morning with it still upon his mind.
The Countess Courteau had been first to arise; she was fully dressed and the sheet-iron stove was glowing when her companions roused themselves. By the time they had returned from the lake she had breakfast ready.
"Old Jerry is going to be awful sore at missing this court function," Mr. Linton told her during the meal. "He's a great ladies' man, Old Jerry is."
"Perhaps I shall meet him."
"You wouldn't like him if you did; nobody likes him, except me, and I hate him." Linton sighed. "He's a handicap to a young man like me."
"Why don't you send him home?"
"Home? Old Jerry would die before he'd turn back. He'd lift his muzzle and bay at the very idea until some stranger terminated him. Well, he's my cross; I s'pose I've got to bear him."
"Who is Mr. Linton?" the Countess inquired, as she and Pierce left the village behind them.
"Just an ordinary stampeder, like the rest of us. I think."
"He's more than that. He's the kind who'll go through and make good. I dare say his partner is just like him."
Phillips approved of the Countess Courteau this morning even more thoroughly than he had on the evening previous, and they had not walked far before he realized that as a traveler she was the equal of him or of any man. She was lithe and strong and light of foot; the way she covered ground awoke his sincere admiration. She did not trouble to talk much and she dispensed with small talk in others; she appeared to be absorbed in her own affairs, and only when they rested did she engage in conversation. The more Phillips studied her and the better acquainted he became with her the larger proportions did she assume. Not only was she completely mistress of herself, but she had a forceful, compelling way with others; there was a natural air of authority about her, and she managed in some subtle manner to invest herself and her words with importance. She was quite remarkable.
Now, the trail breeds its own peculiar intimacy; although the two talked little, they nevertheless got to know each other quite well, and when they reached the Summit, about midday, Phillips felt a keen regret that their journey was so near its end.
A mist was drifting up from the sea; it obscured the valley below and clung to the peaks like ragged garments. Up and out of this fog came the interminable procession of burden-bearers. The Countess paused to observe them and to survey the accumulation of stores which crowned the watershed.
"I didn't dream so many were coming," said she.
"It's getting worse daily," Pierce told her. "Dyea is jammed, and so is Skagway. The trails are alive with men."
"How many do you think will come?"
"There's no telling. Twenty, thirty, fifty thousand, perhaps. About half of them turn back when they see the Chilkoot."
"And the rest will wish they had. It's a hard country; not one in a hundred will prosper."
They picked their way down the drunken descent to the Scales, then breasted the sluggish human current to Sheep Camp.
A group of men were reading a notice newly posted upon the wall of the log building which served as restaurant and hotel, and after scanning it Pierce explained:
"It's another call for a miners' meeting. We're having quite a time with cache-robbers. If we catch them we'll hang them."
The Countess nodded. "Right! They deserve it. You know we don't have any stealing on the 'inside.' Now, then, I'll say good-by." She paid Pierce and extended her hand to him. "Thank you for helping me across. I'll be in Dyea by dark."
"I hope we'll meet again," he said, with a slight flush.
The woman favored him with one of her generous, friendly smiles. "I hope so, too. You're a nice boy. I like you." Then she stepped into the building and was gone.
"A nice boy!" Phillips was pained. A boy! And he the sturdiest packer on the pass, with perhaps one exception! That was hardly just to him. If they did meet again--and he vowed they would--he'd show her he was more than a boy. He experienced a keen desire to appear well in her eyes, to appear mature and forceful. He asked himself what kind of man Count Courteau could be; he wondered if he, Pierce Phillips, could fall in love with such a woman as this, an older woman, a woman who had been married. It would be queer to marry a countess, he reflected.
As he walked toward his temporary home he beheld quite a gathering of citizens, and paused long enough to note that they were being harangued by the confidence-man who had first initiated him into the subtleties of the three-shell game. Mr. Broad had climbed upon a raised tent platform and was presenting an earnest argument against capital punishment. Two strangers upon the fringe of the crowd were talking, and Pierce heard one of them say:
"Of course he wants the law to take its course, inasmuch as there isn't any law. He's one of the gang."
"The surest way to flush a covey of crooks is to whistle for old Judge Lynch," the other man agreed. "Listen to him!"
"Have they caught the cache-robbers?" Phillips made bold to inquire.
"No, and they won't catch them, with fellows like that on the committee. The crooks hang together and we don't. If I had my way that's just what they'd do--hang together. I'd start in by bending a limb over that rascal."
Phillips had attended several of these indignation meetings and, remembering that all of them bad proved purposeless, he went on toward the McCaskey brothers' tent. He and the McCaskeys were not the closest of friends, in spite of the fact that they had done him a favor--a favor, by the way. for which he had paid many times over--nevertheless, they were his most intimate acquaintances and he felt an urgent desire to tell them about his unusual experience. His desire to talk about the Countess Courteau was irresistible.
But when he entered the tent his greeting fell flat, for Joe, the elder McCaskey, addressed him sharply, almost accusingly:
"Say, it's about time you showed up!"
"What's the matter?" Pierce saw that the other brother was stretched out in his blankets and that his head was bandaged. "Hello!" he cried. "What ails Jim? Is he sick?"
"Sick? Worse than sick," Joe grumbled. "That money of yours is to blame for it. It's a wonder he isn't dead."
"My money? How?" Phillips was both mystified and alarmed.
Jim raised himself in his blankets and said, irritably: "After this you can run your own pay-car, kid. I'm through, d'you hear?"
"Speak out. What's wrong?"
"Jim was stuck up, that's what's wrong. That's enough, isn't it? They bent a six-gun over his head and grabbed your coin. He's got a dent in his crust the size of a saucer!"
Phillips' face whitened slowly. "My money! Robbed!" he gasped. "Jim! Who did it? How could you let them?"
The younger McCaskey fell back weakly; he waved a feeble gesture at his brother. "Joe'll tell you. I'm dizzy; my head ain't right yet."
"A stranger stopped him--asked him something or other--and another guy flattened him from behind. That's all he remembers. When he came to he found he'd been frisked. He was still dippy when he got home, so I put him to bed. He got up and moved around a bit this morning, but he's wrong in his head."
Phillips seated himself upon a candle-box. "Robbed!" he exclaimed, weakly. "Broke--again! Gee! That was hard money! It was the first I ever earned!"
Joe McCaskey's dark face was doubly unpleasant as he frowned down upon the youth. "Thinking about nothing except your coin, eh? Why don't you think about Jim? He did you a favor and 'most lost his life."
"Oh, I'm sorry--of course!" Phillips rose heavily and crossed to the bed. "I didn't mean to appear selfish. I don't blame you, Jim. I'll get a doctor for you, then you must describe the hold-ups. Give me a hint who they are and I'll go after them."
The younger brother rolled his head in negation and mumbled, sullenly: "I'm all right. I don't want a doctor."
Joe explained for him: "He never saw the fellows before and he don't seem to remember much about them. That's natural enough. Your money's gone clean, kid, and a yelp won't get you anything. The crooks are organized and if you set up a holler they'll get all of us. They'll alibi anybody you accuse--it's no trick to alibi a pal--"
"Isn't it?" The question was uttered unexpectedly; it came from the front of the tent and startled the occupants thereof, who turned to behold a stranger just entering their premises. He was an elderly man; he possessed a quick, shrewd eye; he had poked the tent flap aside with the barrel of a Colt's revolver. Through the door-opening could be seen other faces and the bodies of other men who had likewise stolen up unheard. During the moment of amazement following his first words these other men crowded in behind him.
"Maybe it 'll be more of a trick than you figure on." The stranger's gray mustache lifted in a grin that was not at all friendly.
"What the blazes--?" Joe McCaskey exploded.
"Go easy!" the intruder cautioned him. "We've been laying around, waiting for your pal to get back." With a movement of the revolver muzzle he indicated Phillips. "Now then, stretch! On your toes and reach high. You there, get up!" He addressed himself to Jim, who rose from his bed and thrust his hands over his bandaged head. "That's nice!" the stranger nodded approvingly. "Now don't startle me; don't make any quick moves or I may tremble this gun off-- she's easy on the trigger." To his friends he called, "Come in, gentlemen; they're gentle."
There were four of the latter; they appeared to be substantial men, men of determination. All were armed.
Pierce Phillips' amazement gave way to indignation. "What is this, an arrest or a hold-up?" he inquired.
"It's right smart of both," the leader of the posse drawled, in a voice which betrayed the fact that he hailed from somewhere in the far Southwest. "We're in quest of a bag of rice--a bag with a rip in it and 'W. K.' on the side. While I slap your pockets, just to see if you're ironed, these gentlemen are goin' to look over your outfit."
"This is an outrage!" Jim McCaskey complained. "I'm just getting over one stick-up. I'm a sick man."
"Sure!" his brother exclaimed, furiously. "You're a pack of fools! What d'you want, anyhow?"
"We want you to shut up! See that you do." The old man's eyes snapped. "If you've got to say something, tell us how there happens to be a trail of rice from this man's cache"--he indicated one of his companions--"right up to your tent."
The McCaskeys exchanged glances. Phillips turned a startled face upon them.
"It isn't much of a trail, but it's enough to follow."
For a few moments nothing was said, and meanwhile the search of the tent went on. When Pierce could no longer remain silent he broke out:
"There's some mistake. These boys packed this grub from Dyea and I helped with some of it."
"Aren't you partners?" some one inquired.
Joe McCaskey answered this question. "No. He landed broke. We felt sorry for him and took him in."
Joe was interrupted by an exclamation from one of the searchers. "Here it is!" said the man. He had unearthed a bulging canvas sack which he flung down for inspection. "There's my mark, 'W. K.,' and there's the rip. I knew we had 'em right!"
After a brief examination the leader of the posse turned to his prisoners, whose hands were still held high, saying:
"Anything you can think of in the way of explanations you'd better save for the miners' meeting. It's waitin' to welcome you. We'll put a guard over this plunder till the rest of it is identified. Now, then, fall in line and don't crowd. After you, gentlemen."
Pierce Phillips realized that it was useless to argue, for his words would not be listened to, therefore he followed the McCaskeys out into the open air. The odium of this accusation was hard to bear; he bitterly resented his situation and something told him he would have to fight to clear himself; nevertheless, he was not seriously concerned over the outcome. Public feeling was high, to be sure; the men of Sheep Camp were in a dangerous frame of mind and their actions were liable to be hasty, ill-considered- -their verdict was apt to be fantastic--but, secure in the knowledge of his innocence, Pierce felt no apprehension. Rather he experienced a thrill of excitement at the contretemps and at the ordeal which he knew was forthcoming.
The Countess Courteau had called him a boy. This wasn't a boy's business; this was a real man-sized adventure.
"Gee! What a day this has been!" he said to himself.