The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
"Looked kind of salty for a spell, didn't it?" The grizzled leader of the posse, he who had effected the capture of the thieves, was speaking to Pierce. "Well, I'm due for a private apology. I hope you cherish no hard feelings. Eh?"
"None whatever, sir. I'm only too glad to get out whole and get my money back. It was quite an experience." Already Phillips' mind had ranged the events of the last crowded hour into some sort of order; his fancy had tinged them with a glamour already turning rosy with romance, and he told himself that his thrills had been worth their price.
"Lucky that woman showed up. Who is she?" Phillips shook his head. In his turn he inquired, "What are you going to do with the McCaskeys?"
The elder man's face hardened. "I don't know. This talk about hangin' makes me weary. I'd hang 'em; I'd kick a bar'l out from under either of 'em. I've done such things and I never had any bad dreams."
But it was plain that the sentiment favoring such extreme punishment had changed, for a suggestion was made to flog the thieves and send them out of the country. This met with instant response. A motion was put to administer forty lashes and it was carried with a whoop.
Preparations to execute the sentence were immediately instituted. A scourge was prepared by wiring nine heavy leather thongs to a whip-handle, the platform was cleared, and a call was issued for a man to administer the punishment. Some delay ensued at this point, but finally a burly fellow volunteered, climbed to the stage, and removed his canvas coat.
Since the younger McCaskey appeared to be still somewhat dazed from the rough handling he had suffered, his brother was thrust forward. The latter was stripped to the waist, his wrists were firmly bound, then trussed up to one of the stout end-poles of the tent-frame which, skeleton-like, stood over the platform. This done, the committee fell back, and the wielder of the whip stepped forward.
The crowd had watched these grim proceedings intently; it became quite silent now. The hour was growing late, the day had been overcast, and a damp chill that searched the marrow was settling as the short afternoon drew to a close. The prisoner's naked body showed very white beneath his shock of coal-black hair; his flesh seemed tender and the onlookers stared at it in fascination.
Joe McCaskey was a man of nerve; he held himself erect; there was defiance in the gaze which he leveled at the faces below him. But his brother Jim was not made of such stern, stuff--he was the meaner, the more cowardly of the pair--and these methodical preparations, the certainty of his own forthcoming ordeal, bred in him a desperate panic. The sight of his brother's flesh bared to the bite of the lash brought home to him the horrifying significance of a flogging, and then, as if to emphasize that significance, the executioner gave his cat-o'-nine-tails a practice swing. As the lashes hissed through the air the victim at the post stiffened rigidly, but his brother, outside the inclosure, writhed in his tracks and uttered a faint moan. Profiting by the inattention of his captors, Jim McCaskey summoned his strength and with an effort born of desperation wrenched himself free. Hands grasped at him as he bolted, bodies barred his way, but he bore them down; before the meaning of the commotion had dawned upon the crowd at large he had fought his way out and was speeding down the street. But fleet-footed men were at his heels, a roar of rage burst from the mob, and in a body it took up the chase. Down the stumpy, muddy trail went the pursuit, and every command to halt spurred the fleeing man to swifter flight. Cabin doors opened; people came running from their tents; some tried to fling themselves in the way of the escaping criminal; packers toiling up the trail heard the approaching clamor, shook off their burdens and endeavored to seize the figure that came bounding ahead of it. But Jim dodged them all. Failing in their attempt to intercept him, these newcomers joined the chase, and the fugitive, once the first frenzy of excitement had died in him, heard their footsteps gaining on him. He was stark mad by now; black terror throttled him. Then some one fired a shot; that shot was followed by others; there came a scattered fusillade, and with a mighty leap Jim McCaskey fell. He collapsed in midair; he was dead when his pursuers reached him.
Mob spirit is a peculiar thing; its vagaries are difficult to explain or to analyze. Some trivial occurrence may completely destroy its temper, or again merely serve to harden it and give it edge. In this instance the escape, the flight, the short, swift pursuit and its tragic ending, had the effect, not of sobering the assembled citizens of Sheep Camp, not of satisfying their long- slumbering rage, but of inflaming it, of intoxicating them to a state of insane triumph. Like the Paris mobs that followed shouting, in the wake of the tumbrels bound for the guillotine, these men came trooping back to the scene of execution, and as they came they bellowed hoarsely and they waved their arms.
Men react powerfully to environment; they put on rough ways with rough clothes. Smooth pavements, soap and hot water, safety- razors, are strong civilizing agents, but a man begins to revert in the time it takes his beard to grow. These fellows had left the world they knew behind them; they were in a world they knew not. Old standards had fallen, new standards had been reared, new values had attached to crime, therefore they demanded that the business in hand go on. Such was the spirit of the Chilkoot trail.
At the first stroke of the descending whip a howl went up--a merciless howl, a howl of fierce exultation. Joe McCaskey rocked forward upon the balls of his feet; his frame was racked by a spasm of agony; he strained at his thongs until his shoulder muscles swelled. The flesh of his back knotted and writhed; livid streaks leaped out upon it, then turned crimson and began to trickle blood.
"One!" roared the mob.
The wielder of the scourge swung his weapon again; again the leather strips wrapped around the victim's ribs and laid open their defenseless covering.
McCaskey lunged forward, then strained, backward; the tent-frame creaked as he pulled at it. His head was drawn far back between his shoulders, his face was convulsed, and his gums were bared in a skyward grin. If he uttered any sound it was lost in the uproar.
It was a frightful punishment. The man's flesh was being stripped from his bones.
The count went on monotonously, for the fellow with the whip swung slowly, putting his whole strength behind every blow. When it had climbed to eight the prisoner's body was dripping with blood, his trousers-band was sodden with it. When it had reached ten he hung suspended by his wrists and only a fierce involuntary muscular reaction answered the caress of the nine lashes.
Forty stripes had been voted as the penalty, but 'Poleon Doret vaulted to the platform, seized the upraised whip, and tore it from the executioner's hand. He turned upon the crowd a countenance white with fury and disgust.
"Enough!" he shouted. "By Gar! You keel him next! If you mus' w'ip somebody, w'ip me; dis feller is mos' dead." He strode to the post and with a slash of his hunting-knife cut McCaskey down. This action was greeted by an angry yell of protest; there was a rush toward the platform, but 'Poleon was joined by the leader of the posse, who scrambled through the press and ranged himself in opposition to the audience. The old man was likewise satiated with this torture; his face was wet with sweat; beneath his drooping gray mustache his teeth were set.
"Back up, you hyenas!" he cried, shrilly. "The show's over. The man took his medicine and he took it like a man. He's had enough."
"Gimme the whip. I'll finish the job," some one shouted.
The former speaker bent forward abristle with defiance.
"You try it!" he spat out. "You touch that whip, and by God, I'll kill you!" He lent point to this threat by drawing and cocking his six-shooter. "If you men ain't had enough blood for one day, I'll let a little more for you." His words ended in a torrent of profanity. "Climb aboard!" he shrilled. "Who's got the guts to try?"
Doret spoke to him shortly, "Dese men ain't goin' mak' no trouble, m'sieu'." With that he turned his back and, heedless of the clamor, began to minister to the bleeding man. He had provided himself with a bottle of lotion, doubtless some antiseptic snatched from the canvas drugstore down the street, and with this he wet a handkerchief; then he washed McCaskey's lacerated back. A member of the committee joined him in this work of mercy; soon others came to their assistance, and gradually the crowd began breaking up. Some one handed the sufferer a drink of whisky, which revived him considerably, and by the time he was ready to receive his upper garments he was to some extent master of himself.
Joe McCaskey accepted these attentions without a word of thanks, without a sign of gratitude. He appeared to be numbed, paralyzed, by the nervous shock he had undergone, and yet he was not paralyzed, for his eyes were intensely alive. They were wild, baleful; his roving glance was like poison to the men it fell upon.
"You're due to leave camp," he was told, "and you're going to take the first boat from Dyea. Is there anything you want to say. anything you want to do, before you go?"
"I--want something to--eat," Joe answered, hoarsely. "I'm hungry." These were the first words he had uttered; they met with astonishment; nevertheless he was led to the nearest restaurant. Surrounded by a silent, curious group, he crouched over the board counter and wolfed a ravenous meal. When he had finished he rose, turned, and stared questioningly at the circle of hostile faces; his eyes still glittered with that basilisk glare of hatred and defiance. There was something huge, disconcerting, about the man. Not once had he appealed for mercy, not once had he complained, not once had he asked about his brother; he showed neither curiosity nor concern over Jim's fate, and now he betrayed the utmost indifference to his own. He merely shifted that venomous stare from one face to another as if indelibly to photograph each and every one of them upon his mind.
But the citizens of Sheep Camp were not done with him yet. His hands were again bound, this time behind him; a blanket roll was roped upon his shoulders, upon his breast was hung a staring placard which read:
"I am a thief! Spit on me and send me along."
Thus decorated, he met his crowning indignity. Extending from the steps of the restaurant far down the street twin rows of men had formed, and this gauntlet Joe McCaskey was forced to run. He bore this ordeal as he had borne the other. Men jeered at him, they flung handfuls of wet moss and mud at him, they spat upon him, some even struck him, bound as he was.
Sickened at the sight, Pierce Phillips witnessed the final chapter of this tragedy into which the winds of chance had blown him. For one instant only did his eyes meet those of his former tentmate, but during that brief glance the latter made plain his undying hatred. McCaskey's gaze intensified, his upper lip drew back in a grimace similar to that which he had lifted to the sky when agony ran through his veins like fire; he seemed to concentrate the last ounce of his soul's energy in the sending of some wordless message. Hellish fury, a threat too baneful, too ominous, for expression dwelt in that stare; then a splatter of mire struck him in the face and blotted it out.
When the last jeer had died away, when the figure of Joe McCaskey had disappeared into the misty twilight, Phillips drew a deep breath. What a day this had been, what a tumult he had lived through, what an experience he had undergone! This was an adventure! He had lived, he had made an enemy. Life had come his way, and the consciousness of that fact caused him to tingle. This would be something to talk about; what would the folks back home say to this? And the Countess--that wonderful woman of ice and fire! That superwoman who could sway the minds of men, whose wit was quicker than light. Well, she had saved him, saved his good name, if not his neck, and his life was hers. Who was she? What mission brought her here? What hurry crowded on her heels? What idle chance had flung them into each other's arms? Or was it idle chance? Was there such a thing as chance, after all? Were not men's random fortunes all laid out in conformity with some obscure purpose to form a part of some intricate design? Dust he was, dust blown upon the breath of the North, as were these other human atoms which had been borne thither from the farthest quarters of the earth; but when that dust had settled would it not arrange itself into patterns mapped out at the hour of birth or long before? Somehow he believed that such would be the case.
As for the Countess, his way was hers, her way was his; he could not bear to think of losing her. She was big, she was great, she drew him by the spell of some strange magic.
The peppery old man who, with Doret's help, had defied the miners' meeting approached him to inquire:
"Say, why didn't old Tom come back with you from Linderman?"
"Sure! Old Tom Linton. We're pardners. I'm Jerry Quirk."
"He was tired out."
"Tired!" Mr. Quirk snorted derisively. "What tired him? He can't tote enough grub to satisfy his own hunger. Me, I'm double- trippin'--relayin' our stuff to the Summit and breakin' my back at it. I can't make him understand we'd ought to keep the outfit together; he's got it scattered like a mad woman's hair. But old Tom's in the sere and yellow leaf: he's onnery. like all old men. I try to humor him, but--here's a limit." The speaker looked Pierce over shrewdly. "You said you was packin' for wages. Well, old Tom ain't any help to me. You look strong. Mebbe I could hire you."
Phillips shook his head. "I don't want work just now," said he. "I'm going to Dyea in the morning."
Jim McCaskey was buried where he had fallen, and there beside the trail, so that all who passed might read and ponder, the men of Sheep Camp raised a board with this inscription:
"Here lies the body of a thief."