The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
A certain romantic glamour attaches to all new countries, but not every man is responsive to it. To the person who finds enjoyment, preoccupation, in studying a ruin or in contemplating glories, triumphs, dramas long dead and gone, old buildings, old cities, and old worlds sound a resistless call. The past is peopled with impressive figures, to be sure; it is a tapestry into which are woven scenes of tremendous significance and events of the greatest moment, and it is quite natural, therefore, that the majority of people should experience greater fascination in studying it than in painting new scenes upon a naked canvas with colors of their own imagining. To them new countries are crude, uninteresting. But there is another type of mind which finds a more absorbing spell in the contemplation of things to come than of things long past; another temperament to which the proven and the tried possess a flat and tasteless flavor. They are restless, anticipative people; they are the ones who blaze trails. To them great cities, established order, the intricate structure of well-settled life, are both monotonous and oppressive; they do not thrive well thereunder. But put them out on the fringe of things, transplant them to wild soil, and the sap runs, they flower rankly.
To Pierce Phillips the new surroundings into which he had been projected were intensely stimulating; they excited him as he had never been excited, and each day he awoke to the sense of new adventures. Life, as he had known it, had always been good--and full, too, for that matter--and he had hugely enjoyed it; nevertheless, it had impressed upon him a sense of his own insignificance. He had been lost, submerged, in it. Here, on the threshold of a new world, he had begun to find himself, and the experience was delightful. By some magic he had been lifted to a common level with every other man, and no one had advantage over him. The momentous future was as much his as theirs and the God of Luck was in charge of things.
There was a fever in the very air he breathed, the food he ate, the water he drank. Life ran at a furious pace and it inspired in him supreme exhilaration to be swept along by it. Over all this new land was a purple haze of mystery--a sense of the Unknown right at hand. The Beyond was beckoning; it was as if great curtains had parted and he beheld vistas of tremendous promise. Keenest of all, perhaps, was his joy at discovering himself.
Appreciation of this miraculous rebirth was fullest when, at rare intervals, he came off the trail and back to Dyea, for then he renewed his touch with that other world, and the contrast became more evident.
Dyea throbbed nowadays beneath a mighty head of steam; it had grown surprisingly and it was intensely alive. Phillips never came back to it without an emotional thrill and a realization of great issues, great undertakings, in process of working out. The knowledge that he had a part in them aroused in him an intoxicating pleasure.
Dyea had become a metropolis of boards and canvas, of logs and corrugated iron. Stores had risen, there were hotels and lodging- houses, busy restaurants and busier saloons whence came the sounds of revelry by night and by day. It was a healthy revelry, by the way, like the boisterous hilarity of a robust boy. Dyea was just that--an overgrown, hilarious boy. There was nothing querulous or sickly about this child; it was strong, it was sturdy, it was rough; it romped with everybody and it grew out of its clothes overnight. Every house, every tent, in the town was crowded; supply never quite overtook demand.
Pack-animals were being imported, bridges were being built, the swamps were being hastily corduroyed; there was talk of a tramway up the side of the Chilkoot, but the gold rush increased daily, and, despite better means of transportation, the call for packers went unanswered and the price per pound stayed up. New tribes of Indians from down the coast had moved thither, babies and baggage, and they were growing rich. The stampede itself resembled the spring run of the silver salmon--it was equally mad, equally resistless. It was equally wasteful, too, for birds and beasts of prey fattened upon it and the outsetting current bore a burden of derelicts.
Values were extravagant; money ran like water; the town was wide open and it took toll from every new-comer. The ferment was kept active by a trickle of outgoing Klondikers, a considerable number of whom passed through on their way back to the States. These men had been educated to the liberal ways of the "inside" country and were prodigal spenders. The scent of the salt sea, the sight of new faces, the proximity of the open world, were like strong drink to them, hence they untied their mooseskin "pokes" and scattered the contents like sawdust. Their tales of the new El Dorado stimulated a similar recklessness among their hearers.
To a boy like Pierce Phillips, in whom the spirit of youth was a flaming torch, all this spelled glorious abandon, a supreme riot of Olympic emotions.
Precisely what reason he had for coming to town this morning he did not know; nevertheless, he was drawn seaward as by a mighty magnet. He told himself that ordinary gratitude demanded that he thank the Countess Courteau for her service to him, but as a matter of fact he was less interested in voicing his gratitude than in merely seeing her again. He was not sure but that she would resent his thanks; nevertheless, it was necessary to seek her out, for already her image was nebulous, and he could not piece together a satisfactory picture of her. She obsessed his thoughts, but his intense desire to fix her indelibly therein had defeated its purpose and had blurred the photograph. Who was she? What was she? Where was she going? What did she think of him? The possibility that she might leave Dyea before answering those questions spurred him into a gait that devoured the miles.
But when he turned into the main street of the town his haste vanished and a sudden embarrassment overtook him. What would he say to her, now that he was here? How would he excuse or explain his obvious pursuit? Would she see through him? If so, what light would kindle in those ice-blue eyes? The Countess was an unusual woman. She knew men, she read them clearly, and she knew how to freeze them in their tracks. Pierce felt quite sure that she would guess his motives, therefore he made up his mind to dissemble cunningly. He decided to assume a casual air and to let chance arrange their actual meeting. When he did encounter her, a quick smile of pleased surprise on his part, a few simple words of thanks, a manly statement that he was glad she had not left before his duties permitted him to look her up, and she would be completely deceived. Thereafter fate would decree how well or how badly they got acquainted. Yes, that was the way to go about it.
Having laid out this admirable program, he immediately defied it by making a bee-line for the main hotel, a big board structure still in process of erection. His feet carried him thither in spite of himself. Like a homing-pigeon he went, and instinct guided him unerringly, for he found the Countess Courteau in the office.
She was dressed as on the day before, but by some magic she had managed to freshen and to brighten herself. In her hand she held her traveling-bag; she was speaking to the proprietor as Pierce stepped up behind her.
"Fifteen thousand dollars as it stands," he heard her say. "That's my price. I'll make you a present of the lumber. The Queen leaves in twenty minutes."
The proprietor began to argue, but she cut him short: "That's my last word. Three hundred per cent, on your money."
"Think it over!" Her tone was cool, her words were crisp. "I take the lighter in ten minutes." She turned to find Phillips at her shoulder.
"Good morning!" Her face lit up with a smile; she extended her hand, and he seized it as a fish swallows a bait. He blushed redly.
"I'm late," he stammered. "I mean I--I hurried right in to tell you--"
"So they didn't hang you?"
"No! You were wonderful! I couldn't rest until I had told you how deeply grateful--"
"Nonsense!" The Countess shrugged her shoulders. "I'm glad you came before I left."
"You're not--going away?" he queried, with frank apprehension.
"In ten minutes."
"See here!" It was the hotel proprietor who addressed the woman. "You can't possibly make it before snow flies, and the boats are overloaded coming north; they can't handle the freight they've got."
"I'll be back in three weeks," the Countess asserted, positively. "I'll bring my own pack-train. If something should delay me, I'll open up here and put you out of business. This town will be good for a year or two."
"You can't threaten me," the fellow blustered. "Twenty thousand is my price."
"Good-by!" The Countess turned once more to Pierce.
"Are you leaving for good?" he inquired, despondently, unable to dissemble.
"Bless you, no! I'll probably die in this country. I'm going out on business, but I'll be back in Dawson ahead of the ice. You'll be going across soon, I dare say. Come, walk down to the beach with me."
Together they left the building and found their way to the landing-place, where a lighter was taking on passengers for the steamship Queen.
"I suppose you know how sorry I am for what happened yesterday," Pierce began.
The Countess looked up from her abstracted contemplation of the scene; there was a faint inquiry in her face.
"Sorry? I should think you'd be about the happiest boy in Dyea."
"I mean what Jim McCaskey said. I'd have--killed him if I could. I tried to!"
"Oh!" The woman nodded; her teeth gleamed in a smile that was not at all pleasant. "I heard about the shooting this morning; I meant to ask you about it, but I was thinking of other things." She measured the burly frame of the young man at her side and the vindictiveness died out of her expression. Phillips was good to look at; he stood a full six feet in height, his close-cropped hair displayed a shapely head, and his features were well molded. He was a handsome, open lad, the Countess acknowledged. Aloud she said: "I dare say every woman loves to have a man fight for her. I do my own fighting, usually, but it's nice to have a champion." Her gaze wandered back to the hotel, then up the pine-flanked valley toward the Chilkoot; her abstraction returned; she appeared to weigh some intricate mathematical calculation.
With his hands in his pockets the hotel-keeper came idling down to the water's edge and, approaching his departing guest, said, carelessly:
"I've been thinking it over, ma'am. There isn't room for two of us here. I might make it seventeen thousand five hundred, if--"
"Fifteen! No more."
There came a signal from the steamer in the offing; the Countess extended her hand to Pierce.
"Good-by! If you're still here three weeks from now you may be able to help me." Then she joined the procession up the gang- plank.
But the hotel-keeper halted her. "Fifteen is a go!" he said, angrily.
The Countess Courteau stepped back out of the line. "Very well. Make out the bill of sale. I'll meet you at Healy & Wilson's in ten minutes."
A moment later she smiled at Pierce and heaved a sigh of relief.
"Well, I brought him to time, didn't I? I'd never have gone aboard. I'd have paid him twenty-five thousand dollars, as a matter of fact, but he hadn't sense enough to see it. I knew I had him when he followed me down here."
"What have you bought?"
"That hotel yonder--all but the lumber."
"All but the lumber! Why, there isn't much else!" Pierce was more than a little astonished.
"Oh yes, there is! Dishes, hardware, glass, beds, bedding, windows, fixtures--everything inside the building, that's what I bought. That's all I wanted. I'll have the place wrecked and the stuff packed up and on men's backs in two days. It cost--I don't know what it cost, and I don't care. The fellow was perfectly right, though; I haven't time to get to Seattle and back again. Know any men who want work?"
"I want it."
"Know any others?" Pierce shook his head. "Find some--the more the better. Carpenters first, if there are any." The speaker was all business now. "You're working for me from this minute, understand? Treat me right and I'll treat you right. I'll take you through to Dawson. I want carpenters, packers, boatmen; they must work fast. Long hours, long chances, big pay, that's what it will mean. That outfit must be in Dawson ahead of the ice. Such a thing has never been done; it can't be done! But I'll do it! Do you want to tackle the job?"
Phillips' eyes were dancing. "I'll eat it up!" he cried, breathlessly.
"Good! I think you'll do. Wait for me at the hotel." With a brisk nod she was off, leaving him in a perfect whirl of emotions.
Her man! She had called him that. "Fast work, long hours, long chances"; an impossible task! What happy impulse had sped him to town this morning? Ten minutes was the narrow margin by which he had won his opportunity, and now the door to the North had opened at a woman's touch. Inside lay--everything! She thought he'd do? Why, she must know he'd do. She must know he'd give up his life for her!
He pinched himself to ascertain if he were dreaming.
The Northern Hotel was less than three-quarters built, but within an hour after it had changed ownership it was in process of demolition. The Countess Courteau was indeed a "lightning striker"; while Phillips went through the streets offering double wages to men who could wield hammer and saw, and the possibility of transportation clear to Dawson for those who could handle an oar, she called off the building crew and set them to new tasks, then she cleared the house of its guests. Rooms were invaded with peremptory orders to vacate; the steady help was put to undoing what they had already done, and soon the premises were in tumult. Such rooms as had been completed were dismantled even while the protesting occupants were yet gathering their belongings together, Beds were knocked down, bedding was moved out; windows, door- knobs, hinges, fixtures were removed; dishes, lamps, mirrors, glassware were assembled for packing.
Through all this din and clatter the Countess Courteau passed, spurring the wreckers on to speed. Yielding to Phillips' knowledge of transportation problems and limitations, she put him in general charge, and before he realized it he found that he was in reality her first lieutenant.
Toward evening a ship arrived and began to belch forth freight and passengers, whereupon there ensued a rush to find shelter.
Pierce was engaged in dismantling the office fixtures when a stranger entered and accosted him with the inquiry:
"Got any rooms?"
"No, sir. We're moving this hotel bodily to Dawson."
The new-comer surveyed the littered premises with some curiosity. He was a tall, gray-haired man, with a long, impassive face of peculiar ashen color. He had lost his left hand somewhere above the wrist and in place of it wore a metal hook. With this he gestured stiffly in the direction of a girl who had followed him into the building.
"She's got to have a bed," he declared. "I can get along somehow till my stuff is landed to-morrow."
"I'm sorry," Pierce told him, "but the beds are all down and the windows are out. I'm afraid nobody could get much sleep here, for we'll be at work all night."
"Any other hotels?"
"Some bunk-houses. But they're pretty full."
"Money no object, I suppose?" the one-armed man ventured.
The stranger turned to his companion. "Looks like we'd have to sit up till our tents come off. I hope they've got chairs in this town."
"We can stay aboard the ship." The girl had a pleasant voice--she was, in fact, a pleasant sight to look upon, for her face was quiet and dignified, her eyes were level and gray, she wore a head of wavy chestnut hair combed neatly back beneath a trim hat.
Alaska, during the first rush, was a land of pretty women, owing to the fact that a large proportion of those who came North did so for the avowed purpose of trading upon that capital, but even in such company this girl was noticeable and Pierce Phillips regarded her with distinct approval.
"You can have my part of that," the man told her, with a slight grimace. "This racket is music, to the bellow of those steers. And it smells better here. If I go aboard again I'll be hog-tied. Why, I'd rather sit up all night and deal casino to a mad Chinaman!"
"We'll manage somehow, dad." The girl turned to the door and her father followed her. He paused for a moment while he ran his eye up and down the busy street.
"Looks like old times, doesn't it, Letty?" Then he stepped out of sight.
When darkness came the wrecking crew worked on by the light of lamps, lanterns, and candles, for the inducement of double pay was potent.
Along about midnight Mr. Lucky Broad, the shell-man, picked his way through the bales and bundles and, recognizing Phillips, greeted him familiarly:
"Hello, kid! Where's her nibs, the corn-tassel Countess?"
"Gone to supper."
"Well, she sprung you, didn't she? Some gal! I knew you was all right, but them boys was certainly roily."
Pierce addressed the fellow frankly: "I'm obliged to you for taking my part. I hardly expected it."
"Why not? I got nothing against you. I got a sort of tenderness for guys like you--I hate to see 'em destroyed." Mr. Broad grinned widely and his former victim responded in like manner.
"I don't blame you," said the latter. "I was an awful knot-head, but you taught me a lesson."
"Pshaw!" The confidence-man shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "The best of 'em fall for the shells. I was up against it and had to get some rough money, but--it's a hard way to make a living. These pilgrims squawk so loud it isn't safe--you'd think their coin was soldered onto 'em. That's why I'm here. I understand her Grace is hiring men to go to Dawson."
"Well, take a flash at me." Mr. Broad stiffened his back, arched his chest, and revolved slowly upon his heels. "Pretty nifty, eh? What kind of men does she want?"
"Packers, boatmen--principally boatmen--fellows who can run white water."
The new applicant was undoubtedly in a happy and confident mood, for he rolled his eyes upward, exclaiming, devoutly: "I'm a gift from heaven! Born in a batteau and cradled on the waves--that's me!"
The Countess herself appeared out of the night at this moment and Pierce somewhat reluctantly introduced the sharper to her. "Here's an able seaman in search of a job," said he.
"Able seaman?" The woman raised her brows inquiringly.
"He said it." Mr. Broad nodded affirmatively. "I'm a jolly tar, a bo'sun's mate, a salt-horse wrangler. I just jumped a full-rigged ship--thimble-rigged!" He winked at Phillips and thrust his tongue into his cheek. "Here's my papers." From his shirt pocket he took a book of brown rice-papers and a sack of tobacco, then deftly fashioned a tiny cigarette.
"Roll one for me," said the Countess.
"Why, sure!" Mr. Broad obliged instantly and with a flourish.
"Are you really a boatman?" the woman inquired. "Don't stall, for I'll find you out." Pierce undertook to get her eye, but she was regarding Broad intently and did not see his signal.
"I'm all of that," the latter said, seriously.
"I'm going to move this outfit in small boats, two men to a boat, double crews through the canon and in swift water. Can you get a good man to help you?"
"He's yours for the askin'--Kid Bridges. Ain't his name enough? He's a good packer, too; been packin' hay for two months. Pierce knows him." Again Mr. Broad winked meaningly at Phillips.
"Come and see me to-morrow," said the Countess.
Lucky nodded agreement to this arrangement. "Why don't you load the whole works on a scow?" he asked. "You'd save men and we could all be together--happy family stuff. That's what Kirby's going to do."
"Sam Kirby. 'One-armed' Kirby--you know. He got in to-day with a big liquor outfit. Him and his gal are down at the Ophir now, playing faro."
"No scow for mine," the Countess said, positively. "I know what I'm doing."
After the visitor had gone Pierce spoke his mind, albeit with some hesitancy. "That fellow is a gambler," said he, "and Kid Bridges is another. Bridges held my hand for a minute, the day I landed, and his little display of tenderness cost me one hundred and thirty-five dollars. Do you think you want to hire them?"
"Why not?" the Countess inquired. Then, with a smile, "They won't hold my hand, and they may be very good boatmen indeed." She dropped her cigarette, stepped upon it, then resumed her labors.
Phillips eyed the burnt-offering with disfavor. Until just now he had not known that his employer used tobacco, and the discovery came as a shock. He had been reared in a close home-circle, therefore he did not approve of women smoking; in particular he disapproved of the Countess, his Countess, smoking. After a moment of consideration, however, he asked himself what good reason there could be for his feeling. It was her own affair; why shouldn't a woman smoke if she felt like it? He was surprised at the unexpected liberality of his attitude. This country was indeed working a change in him; he was broadening rapidly. As a matter of fact, he assured himself, the Countess Courteau was an exceptional woman; she was quite different from the other members of her sex and the rules of decorum which obtained for them did not obtain for her. She was one in ten thousand, one in a million. Yes, and he was "her man."
While he was snatching a bit of midnight supper Pierce again heard the name of Kirby mentioned, and a reference to the big game in progress at the Ophir. Recalling Lucky Broad's words, he wondered if it were possible that Kirby and his girl were indeed the father and daughter who had applied at the Northern for shelter. It seemed incredible that a young woman of such apparent refinement could be a gambler's daughter, but if it were true she was not only the daughter of a "sporting man," but a very notorious one, judging from general comment. Prompted by curiosity, Pierce dropped in at the Ophir on his way back to work. He found the place crowded, as usual, but especially so at the rear, where the games were running. When he had edged his way close enough to command a view of the faro-table he discovered that Sam Kirby was, for a fact, the one-armed man he had met during the afternoon. He was seated, and close at his back was the gray-eyed, brown-haired girl with the pleasant voice. She was taking no active part in the game itself except to watch the wagers and the cases carefully. Now and then her father addressed a low-spoken word to her and she answered with a nod, a smile, or a shake of her head. She was quite at ease, quite at home; she was utterly oblivious to the close-packed ring of spectators encircling the table.
The sight amazed Phillips. He was shocked; he was mildly angered and mildly amused at the false impression this young woman had given. It seemed that his judgment of female types was exceedingly poor.
"Who is Mr. Kirby?" he inquired of his nearest neighbor.
"Big sport. He's rich--or he was; I heard he just lost a string of race-horses. He makes a fortune and he spends it overnight. He's on his way 'inside' now with a big saloon outfit. That's Letty, his girl."
Another man laughed under his breath, saying: "Old Sam won't bet a nickel unless she's with him. He's superstitious."
"I guess he has reason to be. She's his rudder," the first speaker explained.
Mr. Kirby rapped sharply upon the table with the steel hook that served as his left hand, then, when a waiter cleared a passageway through the crowd, he mutely invited the house employees to drink. The dealer declined, the lookout and the case-keeper ordered whisky, and Kirby signified by a nod that the same would do for him. But his daughter laid a hand upon his arm. He argued with her briefly, then he shrugged and changed his order.
"Make it a cigar," he said, with a smile. "Boss's orders."
There was a ripple of laughter.
"Sam's a bad actor when he's drinking," one of Pierce's informants told him. "Letty keeps him pretty straight, but once in a while he gets away. When he does--oh, boy!"
Long after he had returned to his tasks the memory of that still- faced girl in the foul, tobacco-laden atmosphere of the gambling- hall remained to bother Pierce Phillips; he could not get over his amazement and his annoyance at mistaking her for a--well, for a good girl.
Early in the morning, when he wearily went forth in quest of breakfast and a bed, he learned that the game at the Ophir was still going on.
"I want you to hire enough packers to take this stuff over in one trip--two at the most. Engage all you can. Offer any price." The Countess was speaking. She had snatched a few hours' sleep and was now back at the hotel as fresh as ever.
"You must take more rest," Pierce told her. "You'll wear yourself out at this rate."
She smiled brightly and shook her head, but he persisted. "Go back to sleep and let me attend to the work. I'm strong; nothing tires me."
"Nor me. I'll rest when we get to Dawson. Have those packers here day after to-morrow morning."
There were numerous freighters in Dyea, outfits with animals, too, some of them, but inquiry developed the fact that none were free to accept a contract of this size at such short notice, therefore Pierce went to the Indian village and asked for the chief. Failing to discover the old man, he began a tent-to-tent search, and while so engaged he stumbled upon Joe McCaskey.
The outcast was lying on a bed of boughs; his face was flushed and his eyes were bright with fever. Evidently, in avoiding the town he had sought shelter here and the natives had taken him in without question.
Overcoming his first impulse to quietly withdraw, Pierce bent down to the fellow and said, with genuine pity: "I'm sorry for you, Joe. Is there anything I can do?"
McCaskey stared up at him wildly; then a light of recognition kindled in his black eyes. It changed to that baleful gleam of hatred. His hair lay low upon his forehead and through it he glared. His face was covered with a smut of beard which made him even more repellent.
"I thought you were Jim," he croaked. "But Jim's--dead."
"You're sick. Can I help you? Do you want money or--"
"Jim's dead," the man repeated. "You killed him!"
"I? Nonsense. Don't talk--"
"You killed him. You!" McCaskey's unblinking stare became positively venomous; he showed his teeth in a frightful grin. "You killed him. But there's more of us. Plenty more. We'll get you." He appeared to derive a ferocious enjoyment from this threat, for he dwelt upon it. He began to curse his visitor so foully that Pierce backed out of the tent and let the flap fall. It had been an unwelcome encounter; it left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.
As he went on in search of the village shaman he heard Joe muttering: "Jim's dead! Dead! Jim's dead!"