Chapter VII
 

Sam Kirby's outfit was one of the largest, one of the costliest, and one of the most complete that had ever been landed on the Dyea beach, for Kirby was a man who did things in a large way. He was a plunger; he had long since become case-hardened to risks and he knew how to weigh probabilities; hence the fact that he had staked his all upon one throw did not in the least disturb him. Many a time he had done the same and the dice had never failed to come out for him. Possessing a wide practical knowledge of new countries, he had shrewdly estimated the Klondike discovery at its true worth and had realized that the opportunity for a crowning triumph, a final clean-up, had come his way. This accounted for the energetic manner in which he had set about improving it.

Most men are successful in direct proportion to their ability to select and retain capable assistants. Fortune had favored Sam Kirby by presenting him with a daughter whose caution and good sense admirably supplemented his own best qualities, and he was doubly blessed in possessing the intense, nay, the ferocious, loyalty of one Danny Royal, a dependable retainer who had graduated from various minor positions into a sort of castellan, an Admirable Crichton, a good left hand to replace that missing member which Kirby had lost during the white-hot climax of a certain celebrated feud--a feud, by the way, which had added a notch to the ivory handle of Sam's famous six-shooter. This Danny Royal was all things. He could take any shift in a gambling-house, he was an accomplished fixer, he had been a jockey and had handled the Kirby string of horses. He was a miner of sorts, too, having superintended the Rouletta Mine during its brief and prosperous history; as a trainer he was without a peer. He had made book on many tracks; he it was who had brought out the filly Rouletta, Sam Kirby's best-known thoroughbred, and "mopped up" with her. Both mine and mare Danny had named after Kirby's girl, and under Danny's management both had been quick producers. All in all, Royal was considered by those who knew him best as a master of many trades and a Jack of none. He was an irreligious man, but he possessed a code which he lived up to strictly; epitomized it ran as follows, "Sam Kirby's will be done!" He believed in but one god, and that Rouletta Kirby was his profit.

Equipped with the allegiance of such a man as Royal, together with several tons of high-proof spirits, a stock of case-goods and cigars, some gambling paraphernalia, and a moderate bank roll with which to furnish the same, old Sam felt safe in setting out for any country where gold was mined and where the trails were new.

Of course he took his daughter with him. Sooner than leave her behind he would have severed his remaining hand. Rouletta and Agnes, they constituted the foundation upon which the Kirby fortunes rested, they were the rocks to which Sam clung, they were his assets and his liabilities, his adjuncts and his adornments. Agnes was his gun.

Having seen his freight safely ashore, Kirby left Royal in charge of it, first impressing upon him certain comprehensive and explicit instructions; then he and Rouletta and Agnes went up the trail and over the Chilkoot. Somehow, between the three of them, they intended to have a scow built and ready when Danny landed the last pound of merchandise at Linderman.

Mr. Royal was an energetic little person. He began an immediate hunt for packers, only to discover that another outfit was ahead of his and that no men were immediately available. He was resourceful, he was in the habit of meeting and overcoming obstacles, hence this one did not greatly trouble him, once he became acquainted with the situation.

Two days and nights enabled the Countess Courteau to strip the Northern Hotel, to assemble the movable appurtenances thereto, and to pack them into boxes, bales, and bundles, none of which weighed more than one hundred pounds. This lapse of time likewise enabled the Indians whom Pierce had hired to finish their contracts and return to the coast. In spite of the appalling amount of freight, Pierce believed he had enough men to move it in two trips, and when the hour came to start the Countess complimented him upon his thorough preparations. As swiftly as might be he formed his packers in line, weighed their burdens, and sent them on their journey. These preparations occasioned much confusion and a considerable crowd assembled. Among the onlookers was a bright- eyed, weazened little man who attached himself to the chief and engaged him in conversation.

When the last burden-bearer had departed the Countess directed Lucky Broad and Kid Bridges to stay in the hotel and stand guard over the remainder of her goods.

"Take six-hour shifts," she told them. "I'll hold you responsible for what's here."

"It's as safe as wheat," Broad assured her.

"I'll camp at the Scales with the stuff that has gone forward, and Pierce will bring the Indians back."

"D'you think you can ride herd on it?" Bridges inquired. "I understand there's a lawless element at large."

The Countess smiled. "I'm sort of a lawless element myself when I start," she said. Her eyes twinkled as she measured Mr. Bridges' burly proportions. "You're going to miss your alfalfa bed before I get you to Linderman."

The Kid nodded seriously. "I know," said he. "Serves me right for quittin' a profession for a trade, but I got to look over this Dawson place. They say it's soft pickin'. Lucky is taking his stock in trade along, all three of 'em, so maybe we'll tear off a penny or two on the way."

Pierce's pack consisted of a tent for the Countess, some bedding, and food; with this on his back he and his employer set out to overtake their train. This they accomplished a short distance below the first crossing of the river. Already the white packers, of whom there were perhaps a score, had drawn together; the Indians were following them in a long file. Having seen his companion safely across the stream, Pierce asked her, somewhat doubtfully:

"Do you think Broad and his partner are altogether trustworthy?"

"Nobody is that," she told him. "But they're at least intelligent. In this kind of a country I prefer an intelligent crook to an honest fool. Most people are honest or dishonest when and as they think it is to their advantage to be so. Those men want to get to Dawson, and they know the Police would never let them across the Line. I'm their only chance. They'll stand assay."

It was mid-forenoon when the Countess halted Pierce, who was a short distance ahead of her, saying: "Wait! Didn't you hear somebody calling us?"

They listened. They were about to move onward when there came a faint hallo, and far down the trail behind them they saw a figure approaching. After a moment of scrutiny Pierce declared:

"Why, it's Broad!"

"Something has happened!" The Countess stepped upon a fallen log and through her cupped palms sent forth an answering call. Mr. Broad waved his hat and broke into a run. He was wet with sweat, he was muddy and out of breath, when he finally overtook them.

"Whew!" he panted. "Thought I'd never run you down ... Well, set yourselves."

"What's wrong?" demanded the woman.

"Plenty. You've been double-crossed, whip-sawed. Your noble red men have quit you; they dumped your stuff at the river and made a deal at double rates to move Sam Kirby's freight. They're back in Dyea now, the whole works."

The Countess Courteau exploded with a man's oath. Her face was purple; her eyes were blazing.

"Danny Royal, Kirby's man, done it. Sam's gone on to Linderman to build a boat. I saw Danny curled up on the chief's ear while you were loading. After you'd gone him and the old pirate followed. Me 'n' Bridges never thought anything about it until by and by back came the whole party, empty. Danny trooped 'em down to the beach and begun packin' 'em. I know him, so I asked him what the devil. 'Hands off!' says he. 'Sam Kirby's got a rush order in ahead of yours, and these refreshments is going through by express. I've raised your ante. Money no object, understand? I'll boost the price again if I have to, and keep on boosting it.' Then he warned me not to start anything or he'd tack two letters onto the front of my name. He'd do it, too. I took it on the run, and here I am."

"Sam Kirby, eh?" The Countess' flaming rage had given place to a cool, calculating anger.

Pierce protested violently. "I hired those Indians. We agreed on a price and everything was settled."

"Well, Danny unsettled it. They're workin' for him and he intends to keep 'em."

"What about our white packers?" the woman inquired of Broad.

"They must have crossed before Danny caught up, or he'd have had them, too. 'Money no object,' he said. I'm danged if I'd turn a trick like that."

"Where's our stuff?"

"At the Crossing."

The Countess turned back down the trail and Pierce followed her. "I'll settle this Royal," he declared, furiously.

"Danny's a bad boy," Lucky Broad warned, falling into step. "If old Sam told him to hold a buzz-saw in his lap he'd do it. Maybe there wouldn't be much left of Danny, but he'd of hugged it some while he lasted."

Little more was said during the swift return to the river. It was not a pleasant journey, for the trail was miserable, the mud was deep, and there was a steady upward flow of traffic which it was necessary to stem. There were occasional interruptions to this stream, for here and there horses were down and a blockade had resulted. Behind it men lay propped against logs or tree-trunks, resting their tired frames and listening apathetically to the profanity of the horse-owners. Rarely did any one offer to lend a helping hand, for each man's task was equal to his strength. In one place a line of steers stood belly deep in the mire, waiting the command to plow forward.

Broken carts, abandoned vehicles of various patterns, lined the way; there were many swollen carcasses underfoot, and not infrequently pedestrians crossed mud-holes by stepping from one to another, holding their breaths and battling through swarms of flies. Much costly impedimenta strewed the roadside--each article a milestone of despair, a monument to failure. There were stoves, camp furniture, lumber, hardware, boat fittings. The wreckage and the wastage of the stampede were enormous, and every ounce, every dollar's worth of it, spoke mutely of blasted hopes. Now and then one saw piles of provisions, some of which had been entirely abandoned. The rains had ruined most of them.

When the Countess came to her freight she paused. "You said Royal was loading his men when you left?" She faced Broad inquiringly.

"Right!"

"Then he'll soon be along. We'll wait here." Of Phillips she asked, "Do you carry a gun?"

Pierce shook his head. "What are you going to do?" He could see that she was boiling inwardly, and although his own anger had increased at every moment during the return journey, her question caused him genuine apprehension.

Avoiding a direct answer, the woman said: "If Royal is with the Indians, you keep your eye on him. I want to talk to them."

"Don't inaugurate any violent measures," Mr. Broad cautioned, nervously. "Danny's a sudden sort of a murderer. Of course, if worse comes to worst, I'll stick, but--my rating in the community ain't A 1. There's a lot of narrow-minded church members would like to baptize me at high tide. As if that would get their money back!"

A suggestion of a smile crept to the Countess' lips and she said, "I knew you'd stick when I hired you." Then she seated herself upon a box.

Danny Royal did accompany his packers. He did so as a precaution against precisely such a coup as he himself had engineered, and in order to be doubly secure he brought the head Indian with him. The old tribesman had rebelled mildly, but Royal had been firm, and in consequence they were the first two to appear when the procession came out of the woods.

The chief halted at sight of Phillips, the man who had hired him and his people, but at a word from Royal he resumed his march. He averted his eyes, however, and he held his head low, showing that this encounter was not at all to his liking. Royal, on the contrary, carried off the meeting easily. He grinned at Lucky Broad and was about to pass on when the Countess Courteau rose to her feet and stepped into the trail.

"Just a minute!" she said. Of Royal's companion she sternly demanded, "What do you mean by this trick?"

The old redskin shot her a swift glance; then his face became expressionless and he gazed stolidly at the river.

"What do you mean?" the woman repeated, in a voice quivering with fury.

"Him people--" the chief began, but Royal spoke for him. Removing his hat, he made a stiff little bow, then said, courteously enough:

"I'm sorry to hold you up, ma'am, but--"

"You're not holding me up; I'm holding you up," the woman broke in. "What do you take me for, anyhow?" She stared at the white man so coldly, there was such authority and such fixity of purpose in her tone and her expression, that his manner changed.

"I'm on orders," said he. "There's no use to argue. I'd talk plainer to you if you was a man."

But she had turned her eyes to the chief again. "You lying scoundrel!" she cried, accusingly. "I made a straight deal with you and your people and I agreed to your price. I'm not going to let you throw me down!"

The wooden-faced object of her attack became inexplicably stupid; he strove for words. "Me no speak good," he muttered. "Me no savvy--"

"Perhaps you'll savvy this." As the Countess spoke she took from her pocket a short-barreled revolver, which she cocked and presented in a capable and determined manner so close to the old native's face that he staggered backward, fending off the attack. The woman followed him.

"Look here!" Danny Royal exploded. He made a movement with his right hand, but Pierce Phillips and Lucky Broad stepped close to him. The former said, shortly:

"If you make a move I'll brain you!"

"That's me," seconded Mr. Broad. "Lift a finger, Danny, and we go to the mat."

Royal regarded the two men searchingly. "D'you think I'll let you people stick me up?" he queried.

"You're stuck up!" the Countess declared, shortly. "Make sure of this--I'm not bluffing. I'll shoot. Here--you!" she called to one of the packers at the rear of the line who had turned and was making off. "Get back where you were and stay there." She emphasized this command with a wave of her weapon and the Indian obeyed with alacrity. "Now then, Mr. Royal, not one pound of Sam Kirby's freight will these people carry until mine is over the pass. I don't recognize you in this deal in any way. I made a bargain with the chief and I'll settle it with him. You keep out. If you don't, my men will attend to you."

It was surprising what a potent effect a firearm had upon the aged shaman. His mask fell off and his knowledge of the English language was magically refreshed. He began a perfectly intelligible protest against the promiscuous display of loaded weapons, particularly in crowded localities. He was a peaceful man, the head of a peaceful people, and violence of any sort was contrary to his and their code. "This was no way in which to settle a dispute--"

"You think not, eh? Well, it's my way," stormed the Countess. "I'll drop the first man who tries to pass. If you think I won't, try me. Go ahead, try me!" Mr. Royal undertook to say something more, but without turning her head the woman told Phillips, "Knock him down if he opens his mouth."

"Will I?" Pierce edged closer to his man, and in his face there was a hunger for combat which did not look promising to the object of his attentions.

Lucky Broad likewise discouraged the ex-jockey by saying, "If you call her hand, Danny, I'll bust you where you're biggest."

The Countess still held the muzzle of her revolver close to the chief's body. Now she said, peremptorily: "You're going to end this joke right now. Order their packs off, quick!"

This colloquy had been short, but, brief as the delay had been, it had afforded time for newcomers to arrive. Amazed at the sight of a raging woman holding an army of red men at bay, several "mushers" dropped their burdens and came running forward to learn the meaning of it. The Countess explained rapidly, whereupon one exclaimed:

"Go to it, sister!"

Another agreed heartily. "When you shoot, shoot low. We'll see you through."

"I don't need any assistance," she told them. "They'll keep their agreement or they'll lose their head man. Give the word, Chief."

The old redskin raised his voice in expostulation, but one of the late-comers broke in upon him:

"Aw, shut up, you robber! You're gettin' what you need."

"I'm going to count three," the woman said, inflexibly. Her face had grown very white; her eyes were shining dangerously. "At four I shoot. One! Two--!"

The wrinkled Indian gave a sign; his tribesmen began to divest themselves of their loads.

"Pile it all up beside the trail. Now get under my stuff and don't let's have any more nonsense. The old price goes and I sha'n't raise it a penny." Turning to Danny Royal, she told him: "You could have put this over on a man, but women haven't any sense. I haven't a bit. Every cent I own is tied up in this freight and it's going through on time. I think a lot of it, and if you try to delay it again I'm just foolish enough to blow a hole in this savage--and you, too. Yes, and a miners' meeting would cheer me for doing it."

There was a silence; then Mr. Royal inquired: "Are you waiting for me to speak? Well, all I've got to say is if the James boys had had a sister they'd of been at work yet. I don't know how to tackle a woman."

"Are you going to keep hands off?"

"Sure! I'm licked. You went about it in the right way. You got me tied."

"I don't know whether you're lying or not. But just to make sure I'm going to have Lucky walk back to town with you to see that you don't get turned around."

Danny removed his hat and made a sweeping bow; then he departed in company with his escort. The Indians took up those burdens which they had originally shouldered, and the march to the Chilkoot was resumed. Now, however, the Countess Courteau brought up the rear of the procession and immediately in advance of her walked the head man of the Dyea tribe.