The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
The story of the first trial at Sheep Camp is an old one, but it differs with every telling. In the hectic hurry of that gold-rush many incidents were soon forgotten and such salient facts as did survive were deeply colored, for those were colorful days. That trial marked an epoch in early Yukon history, for, although its true significance was unsensed at the time, it really signalized the dawn of common honesty on the Chilkoot and the Chilkat trails, and it was the first move taken toward the disruption of organized outlawry--a bitter fight, by the way, which ended only in the tragic death of Soapy Smith and the flight of his notorious henchmen. Although the circumstances of the Sheep Camp demonstration now seem shocking, they did not seem so at the time, and they served a larger purpose than was at first apparent; not only did theft become an unprofitable and an uninteresting occupation thereafter, but also the men who shaped a code and drew first blood in defense of it experienced a beneficial reaction and learned to fit the punishment to the crime--no easy lesson to learn where life runs hot and where might is right.
The meeting was in session and it had been harangued into a dangerous frame of mind when Pierce Phillips and the two McCaskeys were led before it. A statement by the leader of the posse, corroborated by the owner of the missing sack of rice, roused the audience to a fury. Even while these stories were being told there came other men who had identified property of theirs among the provision piles inside the McCaskey tent, and when they, too, had made their reports the crowd began to mill; there were demands for a speedy trial and a swift vengeance.
These demands found loudest echo among the outlaw element for which Lucky Broad had acted as mouthpiece. Although the members of that band were unknown--as a matter of fact, no man knew his neighbor--nevertheless it was plain that there was an organization of crooks and that a strong bond of understanding existed between them. Now, inasmuch as the eye of suspicion had been turned away from them, now that a herring had been dragged across the trail, their obstructive tactics ended and they, too, became noisy in their clamor that justice be done.
The meeting was quickly organized along formal lines and a committee of three was appointed to conduct the hearing. The chairman of this committee-he constituted himself chairman by virtue of the fact that he was first nominated--made a ringing speech in which he praised his honesty, his fairness, and his knowledge of the law. He complimented the miners for their acumen in selecting for such a position of responsibility a man of his distinguished qualifications. It was plain that he believed they had chosen wisely. Then, having inquired the names of his two committeemen, he likewise commended them in glowing terms, although of course he could not praise them quite as unstintedly as he had praised himself. Still, he spoke well of them and concluded by stating that so long as affairs were left in his hands justice would be safeguarded and the rights of this miserable, cringing trio of thieves would be protected, albeit killing, in his judgment, was too mild a punishment for people of their caliber.
"Hear! Hear!" yelled the mob.
Pierce Phillips listened to this speech with a keenly personal and yet a peculiarly detached interest. The situation struck him as unreal, grotesque, and the whole procedure as futile. Under other circumstances it would have been grimly amusing; now he was uncomfortably aware that it was anything but that. There was no law whatever in the land save the will of these men; in their hands lay life or death, exoneration or infamy. He searched the faces round about him, but could find signs neither of friendship nor of sympathy. This done, he looked everywhere for a glimpse of a woman's straw-colored hair and was relieved to discover that the Countess Courteau was not in the audience. Doubtless she had left for Dyea and was already some distance down the trail. He breathed easier, for he did not wish her to witness his humiliation, and her presence would have merely added to his embarrassment.
The prosecution's case was quickly made, and it was a strong one. Even yet the damning trickle of rice grains could be traced through the moss and mire directly to the door of the prisoners' tent, and the original package, identified positively by its owner, was put in evidence. This in itself was enough; testimony from the other men who had likewise recovered merchandise they had missed and mourned merely strengthened the case and further inflamed the minds of the citizens.
From the first there had never been a doubt in Phillips' mind that the McCaskeys were guilty. The facts offered in evidence served only to explain certain things which had puzzled him at various times; nevertheless, his indignation and his contempt for them were tempered with regrets, for he could not but remember that they had befriended him. It was of course imperative that he establish his own innocence, but he determined that in so doing he would prejudice their case as little as possible. That was no more than the merest loyalty.
When it came tune to hear the defense, the McCaskeys stared at Pierce coolly; therefore he climbed to the tent platform and faced his accusers.
He made known his name, his birthplace, the ship which had borne him north. He told how he had landed at Dyea, how he had lost his last dollar at the gambling-table, how he had appealed to the McCaskey boys, and how they had given him shelter. That chance association, he took pains to explain, had continued, but had never ripened into anything more, anything closer; it was in no wise a partnership; he had nothing to do with them and they had nothing to do with him. Inasmuch as the rice had been stolen during the previous night, he argued that he could have had no hand in the theft, for he had spent the night in Linderman, which fact he offered to prove by two witnesses.
"Produce them," ordered the chairman.
"One of them is still at Linderman, the other was here in Sheep Camp an hour ago. She has probably started for Dyea by this time."
"Yes, sir. I brought her across."
"What is her name?"
Phillips hesitated. "The Countess Courteau," said he. There was a murmur of interest; the members of the committee conferred with one an other.
"Do you mean to tell us that you've got a titled witness?" the self-appointed spokesman inquired. His face wore a smile of disbelief; when the prisoner flushed and nodded he called out over the heads of the crowd:
"Countess Courteau!" There was no answer. "Do any of you gentlemen know the Countess Courteau?" he inquired.
His question was greeted by a general laugh.
"Don't let him kid you," cried a derisive voice.
"Never heard of her, but I met four kings last night," yelled another.
"Call the Marquis of Queensberry," shouted still a third.
"Countess Courteau!" repeated the chairman, using his hands for a megaphone.
The cry was taken up by other throats. "Countess Courteau! Countess Courteau!" they mocked. "Come, Countess! Nice Countess! Pretty Countess!" There was a ribald note to this mockery which caused Phillips' eyes to glow.
"She and the count have just left the palace. Let's get along with the hangin'," one shrill voice demanded.
"You won't hang me!" Phillips retorted, angrily.
"Be not so sure," taunted the acting judge. "Inasmuch as your countess appears to be constituted of that thin fabric of which dreams are made; inasmuch as there is no such animal--"
"Hol' up!" came a peremptory challenge. "M'sieu Jodge!" It was the big French Canadian whom Pierce had met on the crest of the divide; he came forward now, pushing his resistless way through the audience. "Wat for you say dere ain't nobody by dat name, eh?" He turned his back to the committee and addressed the meeting. "Wat for you hack lak dis, anyhow? By gosh! I heard 'bout dis lady! She's ol'-timer lak me."
"Well, trot her out! Where is she?"
"She's on her way to Dyea," Pierce insisted. "She can't be far--"
'Poleon Doret was angry. "I don' listen to no woman be joke 'bout, you hear? Dis boy spik true. He was in Linderman las' night, for I seen him on top of Chilkoot yesterday myse'f, wit' pack on his back so beeg as a barn."
"Do you know the accused?" queried the spokesman.
'Poleon turned with a shrug. "Non! No! But--yes, I know him li'l bit. Anybody can tell he's hones' boy. By Gar! She's strong feller, too--pack lak hell!"
Pierce Phillips was grateful for this evidence of faith, inconclusive as it was in point of law. He was sorry, therefore, to see the Frenchman, after replying shortly, impatiently, to several senseless cross-questions, force his way out of the crowd and disappear, shaking his head and muttering in manifest disgust at the temper of his townsmen.
But although one friend had gone, another took his place--a champion, by the way, whom Pierce would never have suspected of being such. Profiting by the break in the proceedings, Lucky Broad spoke up.
"Frenchy was right--this kid's on the square," he declared. "I'm the gentleman who gathered his wheat at Dyea--he fairly fed it to me, like he said--so I guess I'm acquainted with him. We're all assembled up to mete out justice, and justice is going to be met, but, say! a sucker like this boy wouldn't know enough to steal!"
It was doubtful if this witness, well-intentioned as he was, carried conviction, for, although his followers took their cue from him and applauded loudly, their very manifestations of faith aroused suspicion among the honest men present.
One of the latter, a red-faced, square-shouldered person, thrust a determined countenance close to Broad's and cried, angrily: "Is that so? Well, I'm for hangin' anybody you boost!"
This sentiment met with such instantaneous second that the confidence-man withdrew precipitately. "Have it your own way," he gave in, with an airy gesture. "But take it from me you're a bunch of boobs. Hangin' ain't a nice game, and the guy that hollers loudest for it is usually the one that needs it worst."
It took some effort on the part of the chairman to bring the meeting to order so that the hearing could be resumed.
Phillips went on with his story and told of spending the night with Tom Linton, then of his return to Sheep Camp to learn that he had been robbed of all his savings. Corroboration of this misfortune he left to the oral testimony of the two brothers McCaskey and to the circumstantial evidence of Jim's bandaged head.
While it seemed to him that he had given a simple, straightforward account of himself which would establish his innocence, so far, at least, as it applied to the theft of the sack of rice, he was uncomfortably aware that evidence of systematic pilfering had been introduced and that evidence he had not met except indirectly. His proof seemed good so far as it went, but it did not go far, and he believed it all too likely that his hearers still considered him an accomplice, at the best.
Jim McCaskey was next called and Pierce made way for him. The younger brother made a poor start, but he warmed up to his own defense, gaining confidence and ease as he talked.
In the first place, both he and Joe were innocent of this outrageous charge--as innocent as unborn babes--and this air of suspicion was like to smother them. This Jim declared upon his honor. The evidence was strong, he admitted, but it was purely circumstantial, and he proposed to explain it away. He proposed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; letting the blame fall where it would and leaving the verdict entirely up to his hearers. Joe would substantiate his every statement.
It was quite true that he and his brother had been Good Samaritans; they had opened their doors and had taken in this young man when he was hungry and homeless, but that was their habit. They had fed him, they had shared their blankets with him, they had helped him in a thousand ways, not without serious inconvenience to themselves. Why, only on the day before the speaker himself had volunteered to take the young man's earnings to Dyea for safekeeping, thereby letting himself in for an unmerciful mauling, and suffering a semi-fractured skull, the marks of which would doubtless stay with him for a long time.
Phillips had left camp early the previous morning, to be sure, and he had not come home until an hour or two ago, but where he had gone, how he had occupied himself during his absence, where he had spent the night, of course the speaker had no way of knowing. Phillips was often absent at night; he came and he went at all hours, and neither Joe nor the witness ever questioned him, believing his statements that he was packing for hire. Neither his brother nor he had ever seen that sack of rice antil it was uncovered by the posse, and as for the other plunder, it was all part and parcel of an outfit which their guest had been assembling for some time. They supposed, of course, that he had bought it, bit by bit, with his earnings.
Pierce Phillips listened in speechless amazement, scarcely believing his own ears, the while Jim McCaskey struck the fetters from his own and his brother's limbs and placed them upon his. It seemed impossible that such a story could carry weight, but from all indications it did. When Joe McCaskey took the center of the stage and glibly corroborated his brother's statements Pierce interrupted him savagely, only to be warned that he'd better be silent.
"That's all we've got to say," concluded the elder of the precious pair when he had finished. "You can judge for yourselves who did the stealing. Jim and I've got all the grub we want; this fellow hasn't any."
"Have you anything to say for yourself?" The chairman addressed himself to Phillips.
"I have." Pierce again took the stand. "You're making a great mistake," he said, earnestly. "These men have lied; they're trying to save themselves at my expense. I've told you everything, now I demand that you wait to hear the Countess Courteau or Mr. Linton. They'll prove where I spent last night, at least."
"Mr. Chairman!" A stranger claimed general attention. "I've listened to the evidence and it's strong enough for me. The grub didn't get up and walk away by itself; somebody took it. Grub is more than grub in this country; it's more than money; it's a man's life, that's what it is. Now, then, the McCaskeys had an outfit when they landed; they didn't need to steal; but this fellow, this dirty ingrate, he hadn't a pound. I don't swallow his countess story and I don't care a hoot where he was last night. Let's decide first what punishment a thief gets, then let's give it to him."
"Hear! Hear!" came the cry.
"Hanging is good enough for thieves!" shouted the choleric individual who had so pointedly made known his distrust of Lucky Broad. "I say stretch 'em."
"Right! Let's make an example!"
"Hang him!" There rose a hoarse chorus of assent to this suggestion, whereupon the chairman stepped forward.
"All those in favor of hanging--" he began. But again he was interrupted by 'Poleon Doret, who once more bored his way into the crowd, crying:
"Wait! I got somet'ing to say." He was breathing heavily, as if from a considerable exertion; perspiration stood upon his face; his eyes were flashing. He vaulted lightly to the platform, then flung out his long arms, crying: "You hack lak crazee mans. Wat talk is dis 'bout hangin'? You ain't wild hanimals!"
The red-faced advocate of the noose who had spoken a moment before answered him in a loud voice:
"I paid hard money for my grub and I've packed every pound of it on my back. You can take a mark's life by stealing his matches the same as by shooting him. I want to see thieves on the end of a rope."
Doret bent down to him. "All right, m'sieu! You want blood; we give it to you. Bring on dat rope. I'll put it on dis boy's neck if you'll do de pullin'. For me, I ain't care 'bout killin' no- body, but you--you're brave man. You hang on tight w'ile dis boy he keeck, an' strangle, an' grow black in de face. It's goin' mak you feel good all over!"
"Rats! I won't do the trick, but--"
"Somebody mus' do de pullin'." 'Poleon grinned. "He ain't goin' hang himse'f. Mebbe you got pardner w'at lak give you hand, eh?" He raised his head and laughed at the crowd. "Messieurs, you see how 'tis. It tak' brave man to hang a feller lak dis. Some day policeman's goin' come along an' say: 'By Gar, I been lookin' for you long tarn. De new jodge at Dyea he tell me you murder a boy at Sheep Camp. S'pose you come wit' me an' do little hangin' yourse'f.' No, messieurs! We ain't Hinjuns; we're good sensible peoples, eh?"
A member of the committee, one who had hitherto acted a passive part, now stepped forward.
"Frenchy has put it right," he acknowledged. "We'll have courts in this country some day, and we'll have to answer to them. Miners' law is all right, so far as it goes, but I won't be a party to a murder. That's what this would be, murder. If you're going to talk hanging, you can take me off of your committee."
Lucky Broad uttered a yelp of encouragement. "Hangin' sounds better 'n it feels," he declared. "Think it over, you family men. When you make your stakes and go home, little Johnny's going to climb onto your knee and say, 'Papa, tell me why you hung that man at Sheep Camp,' and you'll say, 'Why, son, we hung him because he stole a sack of rice.' Like hell you will!"
'Poleon Doret regained public attention by saying, "Messieurs, I got s'prise for you." He lifted himself to his toes and called loudly over the heads of the assembled citizens, "Dis way, madame." From the direction he was looking there came a swiftly moving figure, the figure of a tall woman with straw-gold hair. Men gave way before her. She hurried straight to the tent platform, where 'Poleon leaned down, took her beneath her arms, and swung her lightly up beside him. "Madame de Countess Courteau," he announced; then with a flourish he swept off his knitted cap and bowed to the new-comer. To those beneath him he cried, sharply, "Tak' off dose hat or I knock dem off."
The Countess, too, had evidently made haste, for she was breathing deeply. She flashed a smile at Pierce Phillips, then said, so that all could hear:
"I understand you accuse this young man of stealing something last night. Well, he was in Linderman. He brought me over to-day."
"We don't care so much about the rice; this stealing has been going on for a long time," a bystander explained.
"True. But the rice was stolen last night, wasn't it? The man who stole it probably stole the other stuff."
"They're two to one," Pierce told her. "They're trying to saw it off on me."
The Countess turned and stared at the McCaskey brothers, who met her look defiantly. "Ban!" she exclaimed. "I haven't heard the evidence, for I was on my way to Dyea when Mr.--" She glanced inquiringly at 'Poleon.
He bowed again. "Doret," said he. "Napoleon Doret."
"--when Mr. Doret overtook me, but I'm willing to wager my life that this boy isn't a thief." Again she smiled at Phillips, and he experienced a tumult of conflicting emotions. Never had he seen a woman like this one, who radiated such strength, such confidence, such power. She stood there like a goddess, a splendid creature fashioned of snow and gold; she dominated the assembly. He was embarrassed that she should find him in this predicament, shamed that she should be forced to come to his assistance; nevertheless, he was thrilled at her ready response.
It was the elder McCaskey who next claimed attention. "We've made our spiel," he began; then he launched into a repetition of his former statement of facts.
The Countess stepped to Pierce's side, inquiring, quickly, "What is this, a joke?"
"I thought so at first, but it looks as if I'll be cutting figure eights on the end of a tent-rope."
"What makes them think you did the stealing?"
"The McCaskeys swear I did. You see, I had no outfit of my own--"
"Are you broke?"
"N--no! I wasn't yesterday. I am now." In a few sentences Pierce made known the facts of his recent loss, and pointed to Jim McCaskey's bandaged head.
When the elder brother had concluded, the Countess again addressed the meeting. "You men take it for granted that Phillips did the stealing because he needed grub," said she. "As a matter of fact he wasn't broke, he had a thousand dollars, and--"
"Say! Who hired you to argue this case?" It was Jim McCaskey speaking. He had edged his way forward and was scowling darkly at the woman. "What's the idea, anyhow? Are you stuck on this kid?"
The Countess Courteau eyed her interrogator coolly, her cheeks maintained their even coloring, her eyes were as icy blue as ever. It was plain that she was in no wise embarrassed by his insinuation.
Very quietly she said: "I'll tell you whether I am if you'll tell me who got his thousand dollars. Was it your brother?" Jim McCaskey recoiled; his face whitened. "Who hit you over the head?" the woman persisted. "Did he?"
"That's none of your business," Jim shouted. "I want to know what you're doing in this case. You say the kid was in Linderman last night. Well, I say--you're a--! How d'you know he was there? How d'you know he didn't steal that rice before he left, for that matter?"
"I know he was in Linderman because I was with him."
"With him? All night?" The speaker grinned insultingly.
"Yes, all night. I slept in the same tent with him and--"
"Now I've got your number," the younger McCaskey cried, in triumph.
"Bah!" The Countess shrugged unconcernedly. "As for the rice being stolen before he--"
"'Countess.' Ha!" Jim burst forth again. "Swell countess you are! The Dyea dance-halls are full of 'countesses' like you--counting percentage checks. Boys, who are you going to believe? She slept all night--"
McCaskey got no further, for with a cry of rage Pierce Phillips set his muscles and landed upon him. It was a mighty blow and it found lodgment upon the side of its victim's face.
Jim McCaskey went down and his assailant, maddened completely by the feel of his enemy's flesh, lunged forward to stamp him beneath his heels. But stout arms seized him, bodies intervened, and he was hurled backward. A shout arose; there was a general scramble for the raised platform. There were yells of:
"Hang on to him!"
"Stretch him up!"
Phillips fought with desperation; his struggles caused the structure to creak and to strain; men piled over it and joined in the fight. He was whining and sobbing in his fury.
Meanwhile ready hands had rescued Jim from the trampling feet and now held his limp body erect.
It was the clarion call of the Countess Courteau which first made itself heard above the din. She had climbed to the railing and was poised there with one arm outflung, a quivering finger leveled at Jim McCaskey's head.
"Look!" she cried. "Look, men--at his head! There's proof that he's been lying!" The victim of the assault had lost his cap in the scuffle, and with it had gone the bandage. His head was bare now, and, oddly enough, it showed no matted hair, no cut, no bruise, no swelling. It was, in fact, a perfectly normal, healthy, well-preserved cranium.
Phillips ceased his struggles; he passed a shaking hand over his eyes to clear his vision; his captors released him and crowded closer to Jim McCaskey, who was now showing the first signs of returning consciousness.
"He told you he was held up--that his skull was cracked, didn't he?" The Countess threw back her head and laughed unrestrainedly. "My! But you men are fools! Now, then, who do you suppose got young Phillips' money? Use your wits, men."
There was a great craning of necks, a momentary hush, the while Jim McCaskey rolled his head loosely, opened his eyes, and stared wildly about.
The Countess bent down toward him, and now her cheeks had grown white, her blue eyes were flaming.
"Well, my man," she cried, in a shaking voice, "now you know what kind of a woman I am. 'Counting percentage checks,' eh?" She seemed upon the point of reaching out and throttling Jim with her long strong fingers. "Let's see you and your precious brother do a little counting. Count out a thousand dollars for this boy. Quick!"
It was 'Poleon Doret who searched the palsied victim. While other hands restrained the older brother he went through the younger one and, having done so, handed Pierce Phillips a bulky envelope addressed in the latter's handwriting.
"She's yours, eh?" 'Poleon inquired.
Phillips made a hasty examination, then nodded.
The Countess turned once more to the crowd. "I move that you apologize to Mr. Phillips. Are you game?" Her question met with a yell of approval. "Now, then, there's a new case on the docket, and the charge is highway robbery. Are you ready to vote a verdict?" Her face was set, her eyes still flashed.
"Guilty!" came with a roar.
"Very well. Hang the ruffians if you feel like it!"
She leaped down from her vantage-point, and without a word, without a glance behind her set out along the Dyea trail.