The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Joe McCaskey was not a coward, neither was he a superstitious man, but he had imagination. The steady strain of his and Frank's long flight, the certainty of pursuit close behind, had frayed his nerve and rendered him jumpy. For a man in his condition to be awakened out of a trancelike sleep by an intruder at once invisible, dumb; to feel the presence of that mysterious visitor and actually to see him--it--bulked dim and formless among the darting shadows cast by a blazing match--was a test indeed. It was too much for Joe.
As for Frank, he had actually seen nothing, heard nothing except his brother's voice, and then--that sigh. For that very reason his terror was, if anything, even greater than his brother's.
During what seemed an age there was no sound except the stertorous breathing of the McCaskeys themselves and the stir of the dogs outside. The pale square of the single window, over which a bleached-out cotton flour-sack had been tacked, let in only enough light to intensify the gloom. Within the cabin was a blackness thick, tangible, oppressive; the brothers stared into it with bulging eyes and listened with ear-drums strained to the point of rupture. Oddly enough, this utter silence augmented their agitation. Unable finally to smother the evidence of his steadily growing fright, Frank uttered a half-audible moan. Joe in the next bunk put it down as a new and threatening phenomenon. What sort of thing was it that sighed and moaned thus? As evidence of the direction Joe's mind was taking, he wondered if these sounds could be the complaint of Courteau's unshriven spirit. It was a shocking thought, but involuntarily he gasped the dead man's name.
A guilty conscience is a proven coward-maker; so, too, is a quick, imaginative mind. It took only a moment or two to convince Joe that this nocturnal interloper was not a creature of flesh and blood, but some enormous, unmentionable, creeping thing come out of the other world--out of the cold earth--to visit punishment upon him for his crime. He could hear it stirring, finally, now here, now there; he could make out the rustle of its grave- clothes. There is no doubt that the cabin was full of half- distinguishable sounds--so is any warm habitation--but to Joe's panicky imagination the nature of these particular sounds indicated that they could not come from any normal, living being. There was, for instance, a slow, asthmatic wheezing, like the breath of a sorely wounded man; a stretching and straining as of a body racked with mortal agony; even a faint bubbling choke like a death-rattle heard in an adjoining chamber. These and others as horribly suggestive. Joe's wild agitation distorted all of them, no matter whether they came from his brother Frank, from the poorly seasoned pole rafters overhead, or from the sleepy dogs outside, and 'Poleon Doret, with a grim internal chuckle, took advantage of the fact.
When finally the elder McCaskey heard his own name whispered, the last shred of self-control left to him was whipped away; his wits went skittering, and for a second time he groped with frantic, twitching fingers for his revolver. He raised it and, with a yell, fired at random into the blackness, meanwhile covering his eyes with his left arm for fear of beholding in the sulphurous flash that bloodless, fleshless menace, whatever it might be.
Somehow he managed to get out of bed and to place his back against the wall, and there he cowered until he heard his brother's body threshing about the floor. As a matter of fact, that shot had sent Frank sprawling from his bunk, and he was striving to kick off the hampering folds of his sleeping-bag, nothing more; but the thumping of his knees and elbows bore a dreadful significance to the terrified listener. Evidently the Thing had closed in--had grappled with Frank. Its hands, damp with death sweat, even now were groping for him, Joe. The thought was unbearable.
Blindly the elder brother thrust his revolver at full length in front of him and pulled the trigger; Frank shrieked, but again and again Joe fired, and when the last cartridge was spent he continued to snap the weapon. He desisted only when he heard a voice, faint, but hoarse with agony, crying:
"O God! You've shot me, Joe! You've shot me!"
Then and not until then, did a sort of sanity come to the wretch. The revolver slipped from his fingers; he felt his bones dissolving into water; a horror ten times greater than he had previously suffered fell upon him. He tried to speak, to throw off this hideous nightmare, but his voice came only as a dry, reedy whisper.
Frank was still now; he did not respond to his brother's incoherencies except with a deep groaning that momentarily became more alarming.
"I--I--didn't--Christ! I didn't shoot you ... Frank! ... Answer me! Say something. ..." Even yet the dread of that hobgoblin presence lay like ice upon the elder brother; he feared to move lest he encounter it, lest he touch it and it enfold him; but when Frank's twitching body became still he fell to his knees and went groping forward on all-fours in search of it. Death was here now. He had slain his brother and there was no light!
Joe began to sob and to chatter in a maudlin hysteria of fright and apprehension. He succeeded in finding Frank by the sound of his breathing, and he was pawing at him and wildly calling his name when at his back a match was struck.
The sound, the flare, brought a scream from his throat. He cringed and cowered; the pallid face he raised was slack-jawed, his gaze was that of a crazy man.
Slowly, very slowly his dementia left him. His eyes were still distended, to be sure, but into them sanity, recognition, began to creep. He stared dazedly about him, and at last he managed to speak Doret's name.
"Wh-what you doing--here?" he breathed.
"Me? I come to tak' you back." Joe shook his head weakly. "You can't. We're across--safe." His eyes dropped to the prostrate body beside which he knelt, and a new thought swiftly flooded his vacant mind. "Look! You--Now I understand. You did it! You shot him. I never--by God!" The fellow's insane vehemence, the panting eagerness with which he undertook to absolve himself from the hideous results of his deed, argued that he loved his brother. He rose slowly to his feet, his countenance flaming, his gaze fixed in an arresting expression of mingled rage and horror upon the woodsman's face. "You did it, damn you! Shot him, in the dark, asleep! Now you want me ... Take me back, eh? You can't do it. I'm safe ... safe ... !"
'Poleon uttered a grunt. He leaned his carbine against the wall behind him, and from his pocket he drew a thin cotton sled-rope. With this in his hand he advanced upon the slayer.
McCaskey retreated. Weakly at first he fought off his captor; then, as fear overwhelmed him, he became possessed of a phrenetic energy and struggled with the strength of two men. He struck, he bit, he clawed, he kicked. It was like the battle of a man with a beast--ferocious, merciless--while it lasted. They rocked about the cabin, heedless of the wounded man; the stove came crashing down and they trampled the pipe under their feet.
But McCaskey collapsed as suddenly as he had flown to action. When 'Poleon trussed him up he had neither strength nor spirit either for resistance or for resentment. He was as spineless as a wet sack. With anguished eyes he watched his captor lift Frank into a bunk and then proceed to do what remained to be done. Bleak of face, lifeless of voice, hopeless of expression, he answered the questions put to him and made no feeblest effort at concealment. He was, in fact, no longer capable of any resistance, mental or physical.
Frank died as the first ashen streaks of dawn came through the window and lit the sickly face of the brother who had slain him. There was no longer need of the rope; in fact, Joe implored his captor with such earnestness not to leave him alone that 'Poleon untied his hands, feeling sure that he was impotent. Joe followed him outside, and stood near by while he harnessed the dogs; he accompanied every step the woodsman took--wild horses could not have dragged him away in his present frame of mind--and finally, when they set out back toward the Canadian Line, he shambled along ahead of the team with head down and eyes averted from the gruesome bundle that lay in the sled. His punishment had overtaken him and he was unequal to it.
Dawson was in ferment, for the news of another "strike" had come in and a stampede was under way. Discoveries of gold, or rumors of them, had been common. The camp had thrilled to many Arabian Nights tales, but this one was quite the most sensational of all. So amazing, so unbelievable was it, in truth, that those who had been too often fooled laughed at it and declared it impossible on its face. Some woodcutters on the hills above El Dorado had been getting out dry timber for the drift fires, so ran the report, and in shooting the tree-trunks down into the valley they had discovered a deposit of wash gravel. One of them, possessed of the prospector's instinct, had gophered a capful of the gravel from off the rim where the plunging tree-trunks had dug through the snow and exposed the outcropping bedrock, and, to satisfy his curiosity, had taken it down to camp for a test. He had thawed and panned it; to his amazement, he had discovered that it carried an astonishing value in gold--coarse, rough gold--exactly like that in the creek pay-streak, except with less signs of abrasion and erosion. Rumor placed the contents of that first prospect at ten dollars. Ten cents would have meant the riches of Aladdin, but-- ten dollars! No wonder the wiseacres shook their heads. Ten dollars to the pan, on a hilltop! Absurd! How did metal of that specific gravity get up there? How could there be wash gravel on the crest of a mountain? There was no sense to such a proposition.
But such old California placer miners as chanced to hear of it lost no time in hitting the trail. They were familiar with high bars, prehistoric riverbeds, and they went as fast as their old legs would carry them.
More faith was put in the story when it became known that the diggings were being deserted and that the men of El Dorado and Bonanza were quitting their jobs, actually leaving their thawed drifts to freeze while they scattered over the domes and saddles round about, staking claims. That settled matters, so far as Dawson was concerned; men who had dogs hitched them up, those who had none rolled their packs; soon the trail up the Klondike was black and the recorder's office prepared for riotous activity.
Those who had set out thus late met excited travelers hastening townward, and from them obtained confirmation. Yes, the story was true, more than true! The half had not been told as yet. Gold lay under the grass roots where anybody could see it; it was more plentiful than in the creeks--this was the richest thing ever known. "Frenchman's Hill," the discovery had been named, but all the ground for miles round about had been already staked and now men were going even further afield. It was well to hurry.
A frenzy took possession of the hearers, and they pressed on more rapidly. This was like the rush of the autumn previous, from Dyea to the Chilkoot, only here dogs flew under snapping lashes; pedestrians, when shouldered aside, abandoned their burdens and sacrificed all to speed. At the Forks the new arrivals scattered up over the hills, and that night road-houses, cabins, tents, were crowded; men slept on chairs, on floors; they stood around open fires.
Dawson awoke, on the second morning, to behold a long queue of fur-clad miners waiting outside the Gold Commissioner's office; the town took on an electric liveliness. This signified big things; it gave permanence; it meant that Dawson was to be the world's first placer camp. Business picked up, the saloons became thronged, on every corner knots of gossiping men assembled. There began a considerable speculation in claims on Frenchman's Hill; merchants planned larger stocks for the next season; the price of town lots doubled.
Late that afternoon through the streets ran a cry that took every foot-free man hurrying to the river-front. "Rock was coming!" In a jiffy the vantage-points were crowded. Sure enough, far down the Yukon two teams were approaching; with the smoke of Dawson in their nostrils they were coming on the run, and soon the more keen-eyed spectators announced that they could make out 'Poleon Doret. The lieutenant himself, however, was not in evidence. Instantly speculation became rife. Here was a sensation indeed, and when the second runner was identified beyond question as Joe McCaskey, excitement doubled. Where was Rock? Where was the other fugitive? What, in the name of all that was unexpected, had occurred?
A shout of relief issued from the crowd when the teams drew in under the bank and Rock sat up, waving a mittened hand; the shout was quickly hushed as the lookers-on saw what sort of burden Joe McCaskey was driving.
Up into the main street came the cavalcade. The crowd fell in alongside and ran with it to the Barracks, clamoring for details, pouring questions upon the returning travelers. Joe McCaskey, of course, was speechless, this ordeal proving, as a matter of fact, scarcely less trying than that other one at Sheep Camp when he had run the gauntlet. As for Rock and the French Canadian, neither had much to say, and as a result sensational stories soon spread through the resorts. The Mounted Policeman had got his men, as usual, but only after a desperate affray in which Frank McCaskey had fallen and the officer himself had been wounded--so ran the first account. Those who had gone as far as the Barracks returned with a fanciful tale of a siege in the snow and of Rock's single- handed conquest of the two fugitives. These conflicting reports were confusing and served to set the town so completely agog that it awaited fuller details with the most feverish impatience. One thing only was certain--the lieutenant had again made himself a hero; he had put a new feather in his cap. Men lifted glasses to him and to the Force. Such efficiency as this commanded their deepest respect and admiration.
Pierce Phillips, of course, was the most eager member of that welcoming throng. At the earliest moment he bore 'Poleon away to his cabin, and there, when the last morbid curiosity-seeker had been shaken off and the dogs had been attended to, he heard the story.
"You don' got no more worry," 'Poleon told him, with a smile. "Joe keel' de Count."
"He confessed? Really?"
"Rouletta figger' it out jus' right. By golly! Dat's de smartes' gal!"
"She is indeed. But Frank? What happened? How did you manage--?"
'Poleon hesitated. There was a reason why he did not wish the details of that affair on the upper Forty Mile to become public. Joe McCaskey was beginning to talk loudly about his outraged rights, his citizenship, international law, and such incomprehensible things--but stronger by far than any fear of consequences to himself, remote at best, 'Poleon felt a desire to help his friend, the Police lieutenant. Rock was deeply humiliated at his weak failure in living up to his reputation; he felt that he had cut a very sorry figure indeed; and, although he had undertaken to conceal that feeling from 'Poleon, the latter had read him like a book and had secretly made up his mind to give full credit to the officer, eliminating himself as much as possible. There was no reason why the actual facts should be made public, so far as he could see, and, once an artfully colored account of the exploit had gained currency, Rock could not well contradict it. He might, undoubtedly would, make a truthful report to his superiors, but 'Poleon determined that in the eyes of the hero-worshiping people of Dawson the fellow should still remain a hero and stand for one hundred per cent. efficiency. That was quite as it should be.
It was not difficult to distort the story enough to reverse the roles he and the officer had played, and, when he had finished, Pierce was loud in his praise of the Mounted Policeman.
"Well, things happened here, too," the youth declared. Succinctly he told the story of Laure's delayed confession proving that he had been the victim of a deliberate conspiracy. "Believe me, I'm glad it has all come out so well," he said. "People didn't actually accuse me, but I was conscious of their suspicion, their doubt. I had talked too much. Then, too, there was that beastly rumor about the Countess and me. It was fierce! Appearances were strong. I'd--have gone on the stampede, only I didn't have the heart. You've heard about that, of course? The new strike?" When 'Poleon shook his head the young man's eyes kindled. "Why, man," he broke out, "the town's crazy! dippy! It's the biggest thing ever! Frenchman's Hill, it's called. Get that? Frenchman's Hill!"
"Some French feller mak' lucky strike, eh?" 'Poleon was not greatly interested. "Where de place is? Who dis Frenchman?"
"It's a high bar somewhere above El Dorado--a mountain of pay gravel--an old river-bed or something. They say it's where all the gold came from, the mother lode. You can see it right at the grass roots--"
'Poleon started and his mouth opened; then he shook his head.
"By Gar! Dat's fonny! I seen gravel up dere, but me--I'm onlucky. Never I quite get not'in'; always I'm close by when 'noder feller mak' strike."
Pierce still managed to control himself enough to explain: "They were shooting dead timber down into the gulch and they wore the snow off where the rim cropped out. It happened to be staked ground right there." Pierce's excitement, the odd light in his dancing eyes, bore to 'Poleon a significance. "Some Frenchman had taken it up, so they called it Frenchman's Hill."
Doret's blank, confounded stare caused the speaker finally to blurt out: "Good Heavens! man, wake up! I'm trying to break the news gently that you're a millionaire--the Frenchman of Frenchman's Hill. I don't want you to faint. First time in history a miner ever left his claim and another fellow came along--"
Doret uttered a feeble cry and rose to his feet. "Ma soeur!" he exclaimed. "She's got claim up dere--I stake it for her. For me, I don' care if I lose mine--plenty tam I come jus' so close as dis; but if dem feller jump her groun'--"
"Wait, wait! There's no question of anything like that. Nobody has jumped your claim, or hers, either. The law wouldn't let 'em. I wonder if she knows--Why, she can't know! I left her not two hours ago--"
"She don' know?"
Pierce shook his head. "She doesn't dream. I wish I'D known. I'd have loved to tell her."
'Poleon Doret gazed fixedly, curiously at the speaker. He nodded his head. A peculiar, set, hopeless look crept into his eyes; his broad shoulders sagged wearily. He had traveled far and swiftly on this young man's affairs; he had slept but little; and now a great fatigue mastered him. Oddly enough, too, that fierce, consuming desire to see Rouletta which had hourly gnawed at him was gone; all at once he felt that she was quite the last person he wished to face. This weakness, this smallness of spirit, was only temporary, he assured himself; it would soon pass, and then he would find the strength to go to her with his customary smile, his mask in place. Now, however, he was empty, cheerless, frightened by the portent of this new thing. It could have but one significance--it meant that he would lose his "sister," that she would have no further need of him.
Well, that was all right. It was something like this that he had worked for. Why cherish a mean envy of this happy boy? Why permit a narrow selfishness to mar this supreme moment?
Doret was not a grudging giver; he straightened himself finally, and into his tired eyes there came the gleam that Phillips had been waiting for.
"Bien!" he breathed. "My li'l bird goin' wear de plumage she deserve. She's goin' be reech an' happy all her life. By golly! Dat's nice, for fac'. I feel lak gettin' drunk."
"She'd never stand for that."
"I spec' you tol' her you an' me is pardners on dis Frenchman' Hill, eh? An' she's glad 'bout dat--"
"Oh, see here!" Pierce's tone changed abruptly. "Of course I didn't tell her. That's cold; it's off. D'you think I'd permit--" The boy choked and stammered. "D'you imagine for a minute that I'd let you go through with a proposition like that? I understand why you made it--to get me away from the life I've been leading. It was bully of you, but--well, hardly. I'm not that sort. No, I've laid off the old stuff, absolutely--straightened out. I've lived ten years in the last ten days. Wait and see. 'Poleon, I'm the happiest, the most deliriously happy man you ever saw. I only want one thing. That's work and lots of it--the harder the better, so long as it's honest and self-respecting. What d'you think of that?"
"W'at I t'ink?" the woodsman said, warmly. "I t'ink dat's de bes' news of all. Mon ami, you got reecher pay-streak in you as Frenchman' Hill, if only you work 'im hard. But you need pardner to get 'im out." He winked meaningly. "I guess mebbe you fin' dat pardner, eh?"
Pierce flushed; he nodded vigorously and laughed in the purest, frankest joy. "You're a good guesser. A partner--life partner! I-- She--Oh, my Lord! I'm overflowing! I'm--Funny thing, I've never said a word to her; she doesn't know--"
"Ho, ho!" cried the elder man.
"Oh, she does know, of course. If she didn't I wouldn't feel as I do, but we've never actually mentioned it. I've got to prove myself, understand? It came to me of a sudden, struck me all in a heap, I can tell you. I saw what a fool I'd made of myself. What a damnable thing chance is, anyhow! It makes you, breaks you; carries you along and leaves you stranded finally, then sweeps you on again. Fortunately, she's big enough to understand and make allowances. If she weren't, I'd die. I wouldn't want to live and not make good. It's ecstasy and it's--pain. I'm frightened, too, at my own unworthiness--" Abruptly the speaker's voice ceased and he bowed his head.
'Poleon wet his dry lips and essayed to speak, but he could find nothing to say. Of course Rouletta was big enough to understand and make allowance for any human shortcomings. She was the sanest, the most liberal, the most charitable of girls. And it was true, too, that love came unbidden. He had learned that, to his cost. It was pretty hard to stand quietly and lend a sympathetic ear to this lucky devil; it took an effort to maintain a smile, to keep a friendly gaze fixed upon Phillips' face. The big fellow was growing weary of forever fighting himself. It would be a relief to get away and to yield to his misery.
But with a lover's fatuous absorption in his own affairs Pierce resumed: "I've been thinking lately how I came to this country looking for Life, the big adventure. Everything that happened, good or bad, was part of a stage play. I've been two people in one--the fellow who did things and the fellow who looked on and applauded--actor and audience. It was tremendously interesting in an unreal sort of way, and I jotted everything down mentally. I was stocking up with experience. Understand? Well, the whole thing has suddenly become very different. I'm not in the gallery now, not in the theater at all, not acting. And I thank God for it. I don't imagine that I make myself plain in the least--"
Evidently he had not; evidently, too, his auditor's mind had strayed slightly, for the latter said:
"I s'pose you t'inkin' all at once 'bout gettin'--marry, eh?"
Phillips paled; he uttered a panicky denial. "Not yet! Oh no--! That is, I've thought about it a good deal--can't think of anything else--but it's too early yet. I'm in no position; I must make good first."
"For why it's too early? Mebbe dis gal goin' tak' lot of fun in he'p you mak' good."
"Sure t'ing. All women is lak dat. You goin' t'ink of her after dis, not yourse'f. She's got money--"
"Oh yes. That makes it hard, still--"
"Wal, you ain't broke, my frien', not wit' half interes' in Discovery on Frenchman' Hill."
"Once and for all," Pierce protested, in extreme agitation, "I tell you I won't take it. My Lord! that's generous! You're a princely fellow, Doret, but--the most you can give me is a job. Work? Yes, I'll eat that up."
"All right. We talk 'bout dat 'noder tam. Now, mebbe so she lak hear de lates' news from you. Dere's plenty for tellin' her--'bout Joe McCaskey an' all de res'. You can spoke now, lak hones' man. Sapre! Don' you s'pose she's waitin' to hear you say you love her? An' how you goin' mak' big success? By Gar! I keeck you out dis cabin if you keep her waitin' some more!"
With a cry, half of trepidation, half of exultance, Phillips crushed his cap upon his head. "I--I've a notion to. I can almost say it; anyhow, I can say enough so she'll understand. Gad! I will! I just needed you to stiffen me up." Fiercely he wrung the woodsman's hand, and, forgetful of all else but his new determination, moved toward the door. "Thanks for all you've done for me, old man, and all you've offered to do."
"Frenchman' Hill is nice place for two nestin' doves--fine place for sing an' be happy," the other reminded him.
In a choking voice Pierce exclaimed: "You're a prince, Doret, and I won't forget! A prince!"
He was gone; the cabin door had slammed shut with a crash. 'Poleon sank to a seat and with a long sigh bowed his head.
It was over; he had done his bit. For a long while he remained there inert, his patient, haggard face bent, his eyes fixed upon the floor. He felt very old, very much used up, and the labor of thinking was unbearable. When the fire had died and a chill had crept into the room he roused himself to note that it had grown dark. Manifestly, this would not do; there was the problem of living still to face. Sooner or later this very evening he must go to Rouletta and pretend to a joyousness he could never again know. That meant more smiles, more effort; it would take all he had in him to carry it off, and, meanwhile, the more he let his mind dwell upon her the more unbearable became his thoughts. This solitude was playing tricks with him. Enough of it! He must get out into the lights; he must hear voices and regain the mastery of himself through contact with sane people. Perhaps in the saloons, the restaurants, he could absorb enough laughter to make safe the mockery he purposed; perhaps it would enable him to stamp a grin upon his features.
But his impulse was futile; in spite of himself he shrank from people and hid himself unobtrusively in a corner of the first place he entered. He was hurt, wounded, sick to death; he longed to creep away somewhere and be alone with his pain.
In order that he might the sooner be free to do so, he rose finally and slunk out upon the street. It would soon be time for Rouletta to go to work. He would get it over with.
Cap in hand, his heart beating heavily at the prospect of merely seeing her, he came on noiseless soles to her door. He could hear her stirring inside, so he took a deep breath and rapped softly.
She uttered a cry when she saw him standing there; then a sudden pallor crept into her cheeks, a queer constraint enveloped her. Nevertheless, she put both her hands in his and drew him across the threshold. She said something which neither of them understood.
'Poleon's ears were roaring, but after a few moments he discovered that she was gently chiding him. Where had he been? Why had he delayed so long, knowing all the time that she was dying to see him and to hear his story? He could not understand her embarrassment, her shyness, the fact that she seemed hurt.
"Wal, I'm tucker' out wit' travelin'," he declared. "Dat's hardes' trip ever I mak'. You hear 'bout 'im, eh?--'bout how McCaskey tell de truth?"
Rouletta nodded, with a curious little smile upon her lips. "Yes. I heard all about it, the first thing--how Rock ran down those fellows--everything. The town was ringing with his name inside of an hour. Of course, I went to the Barracks, finally, looking for you. I'm just back. I saw the lieutenant and--he told me the true story."
'Poleon stirred uncomfortably.
"He swore at you roundly and said he'd take it out of your skin as soon as he was able--giving him the credit. He told me it was you who did it all--how you followed those men over the Line, alone, after he played out; how Joe McCaskey killed his own brother in trying to kill you. But the whole thing is public now. I heard it as I came back. You're quite a famous character in Dawson to- night, 'Poleon dear, what with this and with Frenchman's Hill."
"Ho! Dat Frenchman' Hill," the man broke out, hurriedly. "It's beeg s'prise for us, eh? Pierce told you 'bout dat?"
"Pierce?" The girl shook her head vaguely.
"You 'member I stake two claim', one for you, one for me. By golly! ma soeur, you're millionaire."
"I remembered, of course," Rouletta said, faintly. I--" She closed her eyes. "I couldn't believe it, however. At first I didn't understand where the strike had been made; then I couldn't credit it. I thought I was dreaming--"
"You dream as much as you can," 'Poleon said, warmly. "Dey all come true now. What? Everyt'ing come out nice, eh?"
Rouletta opened her eyes. They were shining; so, too, was her face. "Yes, my dream has come true--that is, my biggest, finest dream. I'm--the happiest girl in the world, 'Poleon."
"Ma soeur!" the man cried brokenly and with a depth of feeling that even Rouletta could not fathom. "I give my life to hear you say dose word', to see dat light in your eye. No price too high for dat."
A silence, throbbing, intense, fell between them, Rouletta felt her heart-beats swaying her. She opened her lips, but no sound issued. The figure before her was growing misty and she had to wink the tears back into place.
"'Ma soeur!'" she echoed, faintly. "I love to hear you say that, dear. It has grown to be a caress, a--kiss, when you say it. But I've something to tell you--"
"Something you don't know and would never guess. I've found another brother." When he stared at her in open bewilderment she repeated: "Yes, another brother. I took him for something altogether different, but--" She laughed happily. "What do you think of a girl who doesn't know her own mind? Who lets the one man, the real man, go away? She doesn't deserve much, does she?"
"Ma soeur! Ma soeur!" the big fellow cried, hoarsely. He had fallen all atremble now; he could have believed himself demented only for something in Rouletta's face. "You mean--him? Wat's dis you sayin'?"
"I mean him--you. Who else could I mean? He doesn't care for me, but for another, and I'm--oh, so glad!"
"Mon Dieu!" 'Poleon gasped. "For why you look at me lak dat? Don'- -don'--!" His cry was one of pain, of reproach; he closed his eyes the while he strove to still his working features. He opened them with a snap when a small, warm, tremulous hand closed over his.
"You wouldn't mind if he called me his sister, if--if you called me--something else, would you, dear?"
"Oh, ma soeur!" he whispered. "I'm poor, ignorant feller. I ain't no good. But you--de bes' man in all de worl' would love you."
"He does, but he won't say so," Rouletta declared. "Come, must I say it for him?"
One last protest the fellow voiced. "Me, I'm rough-neck man. I scarcely read an' write. But you--"
"I'm a gambler's daughter, nothing more--a bold and forward creature. But I'm done with dealing. I'm tired of the game and henceforth I'm going to be the 'lookout'--your 'lookout,' dear." With a choking little laugh the girl drew nearer, and, lifting his hands, she crept inside his arms. Then as life, vigor, fire succeeded his paralysis, she swayed closer, until her breast was against his.
With a wordless, hungry cry of ecstasy, so keen that it was akin to agony, 'Poleon Doret enfolded her in his great embrace. "Don' spoke no more," he implored her. "I'll be wakin' up too soon."
They stood so for a long time before she raised her dewy lips to his.