The Winds of Chance by Rex Ellingwood Beach
It was a still, clear morning, but autumn was in the air and a pale sun lacked the necessary heat to melt a skin of ice which, during the night, had covered stagnant pools. The damp moss which carpets northern forests was hoary with frost and it crackled underfoot. Winter was near and its unmistakable approach could be plainly felt.
A saw-pit had been rigged upon a sloping hillside--it consisted of four posts about six feet long upon which had been laid four stringers, like the sills of a house; up to this scaffold led a pair of inclined skids. Resting upon the stringers was a sizable spruce log which had been squared and marked with parallel chalk- lines and into which a whip-saw had eaten for several feet. Balanced upon this log was Tom Linton; in the sawdust directly under him stood Jerry Quirk. Mr. Linton glared downward, Mr. Quirk squinted fiercely upward. Mr. Linton showed his teeth in an ugly grin and his voice was hoarse with fury; Mr. Quirk's gray mustache bristled with rage, and anger had raised his conversational tone to a high pitch. Both men were perspiring, both were shaken to the core.
"Don't shove!" Mr. Quirk exclaimed, in shrill irritation. "How many times d'you want me to tell you not to shove? You bend the infernal thing."
"I never shoved," Linton said, thickly. "Maybe we'd do better if you'd quit hanging your weight on those handles every time I lift. If you've got to chin yourself, take a limb--or I'll build you a trapeze. You pull down, then lemme lift--"
Mr. Quirk danced with fury. "Chin myself? Shucks! You're petered out, that's what ails you. You 'ain't got the grit and you've throwed up your tail. Lift her clean--don't try to saw goin' up, the teeth ain't set that way. Lift, take a bite, then leggo. Lift, bite, leggo. Lift, bite--"
"Don't say that again!" shouted Linton. "I'm a patient man, but--" He swallowed hard, then with difficulty voiced a solemn, vibrant warning, "Don't say it again, that's all!"
Defiance instantly flamed in Jerry's watery eyes. "I'll say it if I want to!" he yelled. "I'll say anything I feel like sayin'! Some folks can't understand English; some folks have got lignumvity heads and you have to tell 'em--"
"You couldn't tell me anything!"
"Sure! That's just the trouble with you--nobody can tell you anything!"
"I whip-sawed before you was born!"
Astonishment momentarily robbed Mr. Quirk of speech, then he broke out more indignantly than ever. "Why, you lyin' horse-thief, you never heard of a whip-saw till we bought our outfit. You was for tying one end to a limb and the other end to a root and then rubbin' the log up and down it."
"I never meant that. I was fooling and you know it. That's just like you, to--"
"Say, if you'd ever had holt of a whip-saw in all your useless life, the man on the other end of it would have belted you with the handle and buried you in the sawdust. I'd ought to, but I 'ain't got the heart!" The speaker spat on his hands and in a calmer, more business-like tone said: "Well, come on. Let's go. This is our last board."
Tom Linton checked an insulting remark that had just occurred to him. It had nothing whatever to do with the subject under dispute, but it would have goaded Jerry to insanity, therefore it clamored for expression and the temptation to hurl it forth was almost irresistible. Linton, however, prided himself upon his self- restraint, and accordingly he swallowed his words. He clicked his teeth, he gritted them--he would have enjoyed sinking them into his partner's throat, as a matter of fact--then he growled, "Let her whiz!"
In unison the men resumed their interrupted labors; slowly, rhythmically, their arms moved up and down, monotonously their aching backs bent and straightened, inch by inch the saw blade ate along the penciled line. It was killing work, for it called into play unused, under-developed muscles, yes, muscles which did not and never would or could exist. Each time Linton lifted the saw it grew heavier by the fraction of a pound. Whenever Quirk looked up to note progress his eyes were filled with stinging particles of sawdust. His was a tearful job: sawdust was in his hair, his beard, it had sifted down inside his neckband and it itched his moist body. It had worked into his underclothes and he could not escape it even at night in his bed. He had of late acquired the habit of repeating over and over, with a pertinacity intensely irritating to his partner, that he could taste sawdust in his food--a statement manifestly false and well calculated to offend a camp cook.
After they had sawed for a while Jerry cried: "Hey! She's runnin' out again." He accompanied this remark by an abrupt cessation of effort. As a result the saw stopped in its downward course and Tom's chin came into violent contact with the upper handle.
The man above uttered a cry of pain and fury; he clapped a hand to his face as if to catch and save his teeth.
Jerry giggled with a shameless lack of feeling. "Spit 'em out," he cackled. "They ain't no more good to you than a mouthful of popcorn." He was not really amused at his partner's mishap; on the contrary, he was more than a little concerned by it, but fatigue had rendered him absurdly hysterical, and the constant friction of mental, spiritual, and physical contact with Tom had fretted his soul as that sawdust inside his clothes had fretted his body. "He, he! Ho, ho!" he chortled. "You don't shove. Oh no! All the same, whenever I stop pullin' you butt your brains out."
"I didn't shove!" The ferocity of this denial was modified and muffled by reason of the fact that a greater part of the speaker's hand was inside his mouth and his fingers were taking stock of its contents.
"All right, you didn't shove. Have it your own way. I said she was runnin' out again. We ain't cuttin' wedges, we're cuttin' boat- seats."
"Well, why don't you pull straight? I can't follow a line with you skinning the cat on your end."
"My fault again, eh?" Mr. Quirk showed the whites of his eyes and his face grew purple. "Lemme tell you something, Tom. I've studied you, careful, as man and boy, for a matter of thirty years, but I never seen you in all your hideousness till this trip. I got you now, though; I got you all added up and subtracted and I'll tell you the answer. It's my opinion, backed by figgers, that you're a dam'--" He hesitated, then with a herculean effort be managed to gulp the remainder of his sentence. In a changed voice he said: "Oh, what's the use? I s'pose you've got feelin's. Come on, let's get through."
Linton peered down over the edge of the log. "It's your opinion I'm a what?" he inquired, with vicious calmness.
"Nothing. It's no use to tell you. Now then, lift, bite, leg--Why don't you lift?"
"I am lifting. Leggo your end!" Mr. Linton tugged violently, but the saw came up slowly. It rose and fell several times, but with the same feeling of dead weight attached to it. Tom wiped the sweat out of his eyes and once again in a stormy voice he addressed his partner: "If you don't get off them handles I'll take a stick and knock you off. What you grinnin' at?"
"Why, she's stuck, that's all. Drive your wedge--" Jerry's words ended in an agonized yelp; he began to paw blindly. "You did that a-purpose."
"Kicked sawdust in my eyes. I saw you!"
Mr. Linton's voice when he spoke held that same sinister note of restrained ferocity which had characterized it heretofore. "When I start kicking I won't kick sawdust into your eyes! I'll kick your eyes into that sawdust. That's what I'll do. I'll stomp 'em out like a pair of grapes."
"You try it! You try anything with me," Jerry chattered, in a simian frenzy. "You've got a bad reputation at home; you're a malo hombre--a side-winder, you are, and your bite is certain death. That's what they say. Well, ever see a Mexican hog eat a rattler? That's me--wild hog!"
"'Wild hog.' What's wild about you?" sneered the other. "You picked the right animal but the wrong variety. Any kind of a hog makes a bad partner."
For a time the work proceeded in silence, then the latter speaker resumed: "You said I was a dam' something or other. What was it?" The object of this inquiry maintained an offensive, nay an insulting, silence. "A what?" Linton persisted.
Quirk looked up through his mask of sawdust. "If you're gettin' tired again why don't you say so? I'll wait while you rest." He opened his eyes in apparent astonishment, then he cried: "Hello! Why, it's rainin'."
"It ain't raining," Tom declared.
"Must be--your face is wet." Once more the speaker cackled shrilly in a manner intended to be mirthful, but which was in reality insulting beyond human endurance. "I never saw moisture on your brow, Tom, except when it rained or when you set too close to a fire."
"What was it you wanted to call me and was scared to?" Mr. Linton urged, venomously. "A dam' what?"
"Oh, I forget the precise epithet I had in mind. But a new one rises to my lips 'most every minute. I think I aimed to call you a dam' old fool. Something like that."
Slowly, carefully, Mr. Linton descended from the scaffold, leaving the whip-saw in its place. He was shaking with rage, with weakness, and with fatigue.
"'Old'? Me old? I'm a fool, I admit, or I wouldn't have lugged your loads and done your work the way I have. But, you see, I'm strong and vigorous and I felt sorry for a tottering wreck like you--"
"'Lugged my loads'?" snorted the smaller man. "Me a wreck? My Gawd!"
"--I did your packing and your washing and your cooking, and mine, too, just because you was feeble and because I've got consideration for my seniors. I was raised that way. I honored your age, Jerry. I knew you was about all in, but I never called you old. I wouldn't hurt your feelings. What did you do? You set around on your bony hips and criticized and picked at me. But you've picked my last feather off and I'm plumb raw. Right here we split!"
Jerry Quirk staggered slightly and leaned against a post for support. His knees were wobbly; he, too, ached in every bone and muscle; he, too, had been goaded into an insane temper, but that which maddened him beyond expression was this unwarranted charge of incompetency.
"Split it is," he agreed. "That'll take a load off my shoulders."
"We'll cut our grub fifty-fifty, then I'll hit you a clout with the traces and turn you a-loose."
Jerry was still dazed, for his world had come to an end, but he pretended to an extravagant joy and managed to chirp: "Good news-- the first I've had since we went pardners. I'll sure kick up my heels. What'll we do with the boat?"
"Cut her in two."
"Right. We'll toss up for ends. We'll divide everything the same way, down to the skillet."
"Every blame' thing," Linton agreed.
Side by side they set off heavily through the woods.
Quarrels similar to this were of daily occurrence on the trail, but especially common were they here at Linderman, for of all the devices of the devil the one most trying to human patience is a whip-saw. It is a saying in the North that to know a man one must eat a sack of flour with him; it is also generally recognized that a partnership which survives the vexations of a saw-pit is time and weather proof--a predestined union more sacred and more perfect even than that of matrimony. Few indeed have stood the test.
It was in this loosening of sentimental ties, in the breach of friendships and the birth of bitter enmities, where lay the deepest tragedy of the Chilkoot and the Chilkat trails. Under ordinary, normal circumstances men of opposite temperaments may live with each other in harmony and die in mutual accord, but circumstances here were extraordinary, abnormal. Hardship, monotony, fatigue score the very soul; constant close association renders men absurdly petulant and childishly quarrelsome. Many are the heartaches charged against those early days and those early trails.
Of course there was much less internal friction in outfits like Kirby's or the Countess Courteau's, where the men worked under orders, but even there relations were often strained. Both Danny Royal and Pierce Phillips had had their troubles, their problems-- nobody could escape them--but I on the whole they had held their men together pretty well and had made fast progress, all things considered. Royal had experience to draw upon, while Phillips had none; nevertheless, the Countess was a good counselor and this brief training in authority was of extreme value to the younger man, who developed some of the qualities of leadership. As a result of their frequent conferences a frank, free intimacy had sprung up between Pierce and his employer, an intimacy both gratifying and disappointing to him. Just how it affected the woman he could not tell. As a matter of fact he made little effort to learn, being for the moment too deeply concerned in the great change that had come over him.
Pierce Phillips made no effort to deceive himself: he was in love, yes, desperately in love, and his infatuation grew with every hour. It was his first serious affair and quite naturally its newness took his breath. He had heard of puppy love and he scorned it, but this was not that kind, he told himself; his was an epic adoration, a full-grown, deathless man's affection such as comes to none but the favored of the gods and then but once in a lifetime. The reason was patent--it lay in the fact that the object of his soul-consuming worship was not an ordinary woman. No, the Countess was cast in heroic mold and she inspired love of a character to match her individuality; she was one of those rare, flaming creatures the like of whom illuminate the pages of history. She was another Cleopatra, a regal, matchless creature.
To be sure, she was not at all the sort of woman he had expected to love, therefore he loved her the more; nor was she the sort he had chosen as his ideal. But it is this abandonment of old ideals and acceptance of new ones which marks development, which signalizes youth's evolution into maturity. She was a never-ending surprise to Pierce, and the fact that she remained a well of mystery, an unsounded deep that defied his attempts at exploration, excited his imagination and led him to clothe her with every admirable trait, in no few of which she was, of course, entirely lacking.
He was very boyish about this love of his. Lacking confidence to make known his feelings, he undertook to conceal them and believed he had succeeded. No doubt he had, so far as the men in his party were concerned--they were far too busy to give thought to affairs other than their own--but the woman had marked his very first surrender and now read him like an open page, from day to day. His blind, unreasoning loyalty, his complete acquiescence to her desires, his extravagant joy in doing her will, would have told her the truth even without the aid of those numerous little things which every woman understands. Now, oddly enough, the effect upon her was only a little less disturbing than upon him, for this first boy-love was a thing which no good woman could have treated lightly: its simplicity, its purity, its unselfishness were different to anything she had known--so different, for instance, to that affection which Count Courteau had bestowed upon her as to seem almost sacred--therefore she watched its growth with gratification not unmixed with apprehension. It was flattering and yet it gave her cause for some uneasiness.
As a matter of fact, Phillips was boyish only in this one regard; in other things he was very much of a man--more of a man than any one the Countess had met in a long time--and she derived unusual satisfaction from the mere privilege of depending upon him. This pleasure was so keen at times that she allowed her thoughts to take strange shape, and was stirred by yearnings, by impulses, by foolish fancies that reminded her of her girlhood days.
The boat-building had proceeded with such despatch thanks largely to Phillips, that the time for departure was close at hand, and inasmuch as there still remained a reasonable margin of safety the Countess began to feel the first certainty of success. While she was not disposed to quarrel with such a happy state of affairs, nevertheless one thing continued to bother her: she could not understand why interference had failed to come from the Kirby crowd. She had expected it, for Sam Kirby had the name of being a hard, conscienceless man, and Danny Royal had given proof that he was not above resorting to desperate means to gain time. Why, therefore, they had made no effort to hire her men away from her, especially as men were almost unobtainable here at Linderman, was something that baffled her. She had learned by bitter experience to put trust in no man, and this, coupled perhaps with the natural suspicion of her sex, combined to excite her liveliest curiosity and her deepest concern; she could not overcome the fear that this unspoken truce concealed some sinister design.
Feeling, this afternoon, a strong desire to see with her own eyes just what progress her rivals were making, she called Pierce away from his work and took him with her around the shore of the lake.
"Our last boat will be in the water to-morrow," he told her. "Kirby can't hold us up now, if he tries."
"I don't know," she said, doubtfully. "He is as short-handed as we are. I can't understand why he has left us alone so long."
Phillips laughed. "He probably knows it isn't safe to trifle with you."
The Countess shook her head. "I couldn't bluff him. He wouldn't care whether I'm a woman or not."
"Were you bluffing when you held up Royal? I didn't think so."
"I don't think so, either. There's no telling what I might have done--I have a furious temper."
"That's nothing to apologize for," the young man declared, warmly. "It's a sign of character, force. I hope I never have reason to feel it."
"You? How absurd! You've been perfectly dear. You couldn't be otherwise."
"Do you think so, really? I'm awfully glad."
The Countess was impelled to answer this boy's eagerness by telling him frankly just how well she thought of him, just how grateful she was for all that he had done, but she restrained herself.
"All the fellows have been splendid, especially those two gamblers," she said, coolly. After a moment she continued: "Don't stop when we get to Kirby's camp. I don't want him to think we're curious."
Neither father nor daughter was in evidence when the visitors arrived at their destination, but Danny Royal was superintending the final work upon a stout scow the seams of which were being calked and daubed with tar. Mast and sweeps were being rigged; Royal himself was painting a name on the stern.
At sight of the Countess the ex-horseman dropped his brush and thrust his hands aloft, exclaiming, "Don't shoot, ma'am!" His grin was friendly; there was no rancor in his voice. "How you gettin' along down at your house?" he inquired.
"Very well," the Countess told him.
"We'll get loaded to-morrow," said Pierce.
"Same here," Royal advised. "Better come to the launching. Ain't she a bear?" He gazed fondly at the bluff-bowed, ungainly barge. "I'm goin' to bust a bottle of wine on her nose when she wets her feet. First rainy-weather hack we ever had in the family. Her name's Rouletta."
"I hope she has a safe voyage."
Royal eyed the speaker meditatively. "This trip has got my goat," he acknowledged. "Water's all right when it's cracked up and put in a glass, but--it ain't meant to build roads with. I've heard a lot about this canon and them White Horse Rapids. Are they bad?" When the Countess nodded, his weazened face darkened visibly. "Gimme a horse and I'm all right, but water scares me. Well, the Rouletta's good and strong and I'm goin' to christen her with a bottle of real champagne. If there's anything in good liquor and a good name she'll be a lucky ship."
When they were out of hearing the Countess Courteau repeated: "I don't understand it. They could have gained a week."
"We could, too, if we'd built one scow instead of those small boats," Pierce declared.
"Kirby is used to taking chances; he can risk all his eggs in one basket if he wants to, but--not I." A moment later the speaker paused to stare at a curious sight. On the beach ahead of her stood a brand-new rowboat ready for launching. Near it was assembled an outfit of gear and provisions, divided into two equal piles. Two old men, armed each with a hand-saw, were silently at work upon the skiff. They were sawing it in two, exactly in the middle, and they did not look up until the Countess greeted them.
"Hello! Changing the model of your boat?" she inquired.
The partners straightened themselves stiffly and removed their caps.
"Yep!" said Quirk, avoiding his partner's eyes.
"Changing her model," Mr. Linton agreed, with a hangdog expression.
"But--why? What for?"
"We've split," Mr. Quirk explained. Then he heaved a sigh. "It's made a new man of me a'ready."
"My end will look all right when I get her boarded up," Linton vouchsafed, "but Old Jerry drew the hind quarters." His shoulders heaved in silent amusement.
"'Old' Jerry!" snapped the smaller man. "Where'd you get the 'old' at? I've acted like a feeble-minded idiot, I'll admit--bein' imposed on so regular--but that's over and I'm breathin' free. Wait till you shove off in that front end; it 'ain't got the beam and you'll upset. Ha!" He uttered a malicious bark. "You'll drownd!" Mr. Quirk turned indignant eyes upon the visitors. "The idea of him callin' me 'old.' Can you beat that?"
"Maybe I will drown," Linton agreed, "but drowning ain't so bad. It's better than being picked and pecked to death by a blunt- billed buzzard. I'd look on it as a kind of relief. Anyhow, you won't be there to see it; you'll be dead of rheumatism. I've got the tent."
"Huh! The stove's mine. I'll make out."
"Have you men quarreled after all these years?" the Countess made bold to inquire.
Jerry answered, and it was plain that all sentiment had been consumed in the fires of his present wrath. "I don't quarrel with a dam' old fool; I give him his way."
Linton's smoky eyes were blazing when he cried, furiously: "Cut that 'old' out, or I'll show you something. Your mind's gone-- senile decay, they call it--but I'll--"
Quirk flung down his saw and advanced belligerently around the hull of the boat. He was bristling with the desire for combat.
"What'll you show me?" he shrilly challenged. "You're bigger than me, but I'll cut you down: I'll--"
The Countess stepped between the two men, crying, impatiently:
"Don't be silly. You're worn out and irritable, both of you, and you're acting like perfect idiots. You'll have everybody laughing at you."
Jerry diverted his fury to this intermediary. "Is that so?" he mocked. "Well, let 'em laugh; it'll do 'em good. You're a nice woman, but this ain't ladies' day at our club and we don't need no outside advice on how to run our party."
"Oh, very well!" The Countess shrugged and turned away, motioning Pierce to follow her. "Fight it out to suit yourselves."
Quirk muttered something about the insolence of strangers; then he picked up his saw. In silence the work was resumed, and later, when the boat had been divided, each man set about boarding up and calking the open end of his respective half. Neither of them was expert in the use of carpenter's tools, therefore it was supper- time before they finished, and the result of their labor was nothing to be proud of. Each now possessed a craft that would float, no doubt, but which in few other respects resembled a boat; Linton's was a slim, square-ended wedge, while Quirk's was a blunt barge, fashioned on the lines of a watering-trough. They eyed the freaks with some dismay, but neither voiced the slightest regret nor acknowledged anything but supreme satisfaction.
Without a word they gathered up their tools and separated to prepare their evening meals. Linton entered his tent, now empty, cold, and cheerless; Quirk set up his stove in the open and rigged a clumsy shelter out of a small tarpaulin. Under this he spread his share of the bedding. Engaged in this, he realized that his two blankets promised to be woefully inadequate to the weather and he cocked an apprehensive eye heavenward. What he saw did not reassure him, for the evening sky was overcast and a cold, fitful wind blew from off the lake. There was no doubt about it, it looked like rain--or snow--perhaps a combination of both. Mr. Quirk felt a shiver of dread run through him, and his heart sank at the prospect of many nights like this to come. He derived some scanty comfort from the sight of old Tom puttering wearily around a camp-fire, the smoke from which followed him persistently, bringing tears to his smarting eyes and strangling complaints from his lungs.
"He's tryin' to burn green wood," Jerry said, aloud, "the old fool!"
A similar epithet was upon his former partner's tongue. Linton was saying to himself, "Old Jerry's enjoying life now, but wait till his fire goes out and it starts to rain."
He chuckled maliciously and then rehearsed a speech of curt refusal for use when Quirk came to the tent and begged shelter from the weather. There would be nothing doing, Tom made up his mind to that; he tried several insults under his breath, then he offered up a vindictive prayer for rain, hail, sleet, and snow. A howling Dakota blizzard, he decided, would exactly suit him. He was a bit rusty on prayers, but whatever his appeal may have lacked in polish it made up in earnestness, for never did petition carry aloft a greater weight of yearning than did his.
Tom fried his bacon in a stewpan, for the skillet had been divided with a cold chisel and neither half was of the slightest use to anybody. After he had eaten his pilot-bread, after he had drunk his cup of bitter tea and crept into bed, he was prompted to amend his prayer, for he discovered that two blankers were not going to be enough for him. Even the satisfaction of knowing that Jerry must feel the want even more keenly than did he failed to warm him sufficiently for thorough comfort. Tom was tired enough to swoon, but he refused to close his eyes before the rain came--what purpose was served by retributive justice unless a fellow stayed on the job to enjoy it?
Truth to say, this self-denial cost him little, for the night had brought a chill with it and the tent was damp. Linton became aware, ere long, that he couldn't go to sleep, no matter how he tried, so he rose and put on extra clothes. But even then he shivered, and thereafter, of course, his blankets served no purpose whatever. He and Old Jerry were accustomed to sleeping spoon fashion, and not only did Tom miss those other blankets, but also his ex-partner's bodily heat. He would have risen and rekindled his camp-fire had it not been for his reluctance to afford Quirk the gratification of knowing that he was uncomfortable. Some people were just malicious enough to enjoy a man's sufferings.
Well, if he were cold here in this snug shelter, Jerry must be about frozen under his flapping fly. Probably the old fool was too stubborn to whimper; no doubt he'd pretend to be enjoying himself, and would die sooner than acknowledge himself in the wrong. Jerry had courage, that way, but--this would serve him right, this would cure him. Linton was not a little disappointed when the rain continued to hold off.