Chapter III. A Big Blazin' Laugh
 

"Fine sight that, sir."

Reynolds turned sharply at these words, and saw the old man with the long beard and flowing hair standing at his left. Although he himself was almost six feet in height, he seemed small by the side of this stranger, who was looking calmly out over the water toward the fog-bank, which had now lifted and was slowly dissolving.

"Ye don't see the likes of that often," he continued, "an' it ain't everyone who kin read its meanin', either."

"What do you see there?" Reynolds asked, more interested in hearing the man's deliberate drawl than the meaning of the fog-bank.

"Wall, it seems to me that a fog-bank hasn't a ghost of a chance fer life when the sun hits it good an' hard."

"That one hasn't, anyway," Reynolds replied, as he watched the cloud gradually thinning and drifting away.

"It's the same with all clouds, sir, an' it makes no difference whether they're hangin' over the water or over one's life. They're bound to disappear when the sun gits after 'em."

"Do you think so?"

"I sartinly do. Why, there isn't a cloud but'll gather up its skirts an' run when a good big blazin' laugh gits after it. An' that's what we want in this world to-day; more cheerfulness, more of the joy of life."

"Have you tried it?"

"Y'bet I have, an' it's allus worked like a charm. I could tell ye of many a squabble that's been settled by the means of a smilin' face an' a good hearty laugh. There's nuthin' like it."

"You're an optimist, I see," and Reynolds smiled for the first time in many a day. He could not help it, for this stranger radiated a stimulating influence of cheerfulness and goodwill.

"I try to be, sir, an' when I see a fog-bank hoverin' over people like that one did out yonder a little while ago, I consider it my duty to act like the sun an' drive it away. Then, there's good feelin' all around, 'specially among the ones who were under the cloud."

"I imagine it is that way with those men who have just been picked up. They must feel happy over the lifting of the fog at the right moment."

"That's jist what I mean. It meant much to them."

"Do you know who they are?"

"Miners, no doubt, who wish to go north. They've been prospecting mebbe, on some of the islands along the coast, an' started out to hail a passin' steamer. They do it at times."

"And the steamers always pick them up?"

"Sure; they wouldn't go by without takin' 'em on board, no matter who they are. It's the great Brotherhood of man, ye see, back of it all, an' ye'll find that spirit stronger the farther north ye go. It's different here from what it is in the big cities, an' the more ye preach of that the better."

"Preach! What do you mean?" Reynolds asked in amazement.

"You be one of them missionary chaps, ain't ye?"

Reynolds laughed. "What makes you think so?"

"Dunno, 'cept yer solemncoly face, an' the way yer dressed. Missionaries ginerally come north lookin' about as you do, to turn the sinner from the error of his way, an' to convart the heathen Injun. They're not overly pop'lar up thar."

"Why not?"

"Oh, they've too high an' mighty notions about the way men should live; that's the trouble."

"And so you think they should make themselves popular with the men, eh? In what way?"

"By bein' one of 'em, an' not bein' too hard on what they do."

"Do you think that their great Master ever said that they would be popular, and that they were to please all men?" Reynolds defensively asked.

"I dunno. Guess I can't recall anything He ever said about the matter," and the old man scratched his head in perplexity.

"Didn't He tell His first disciples that they would be hated of all men for His name's sake when He sent them forth to do His work?"

"I believe He did," was the reluctant assent. "But that was a long time ago. Things are different now."

"Only outwardly, remember. The heart is the same in all ages; you can't change that. If it is evil and full of vileness, it is bound to hate the good. Surely you know that."

"Then you really are one of them missionary chaps?" and the old man eyed Reynolds curiously.

"No, I am not," was the emphatic reply.

"But ye quote Scripter like a parson, though. I thought mebbe ye was."

"Is it necessary to be a parson to know something about the Bible? Isn't this a Christian land? Why shouldn't I know something about the greatest Book in the world? My mother taught it to me when I was a child, and I learned a great deal about it when I went to Sunday school. I did not value it so much then, but when over in France, with death on all sides, much of it came back to me, and I honestly confess it was a great comfort."

"An' so ye was over thar, young man? Wall, that's sartinly interestin'. Fer how long?"

"Nearly four years. I enlisted at the beginning of the war."

"An' come through all right?"

"Look," and Reynolds bared his left arm, showing a great scar. "I have several more on my body, some worse than that."

"Ye don't tell! My, I'm glad I've met ye. Got some medals, I s'pose."

Reynolds made no reply, as he already felt ashamed of himself for having told this much. It was not his nature to speak about himself, especially to a stranger, and he was determined to say nothing about the medals he had received for conspicuous bravery, and which he carried in his breast pocket.

"Do you smoke?" he suddenly asked.

"Yes; an old hand at it. Good fer the nerves."

"Well, suppose we go and have a smoke now. I am just in the mood for one myself."

Together they made their way to the smoking-room, which was situated well aft. It was partly filled with men, smoking, chatting, and playing cards. The air was dense with various brands of tobacco, making it impossible to see clearly across the room. No one paid any heed to the two as they entered, sat down in one corner of the room, filled and lighted their pipes. Reynolds noted that his companion became suddenly silent, and seemed to be deeply interested in four men playing cards at a small table a short distance from where they were sitting.

"Do you play?" Reynolds asked, thinking that the old man might be fond of cards.

"No," was the brief and absent-minded reply.

Reynolds said no more, but watched the four men. His attention was chiefly centered upon one who was facing him, and who was doing most of the talking. He was a young man, with a dark moustache and black curly hair. He played with keen interest and in a lofty dominating manner. Reynolds did not like his appearance, and the more he studied him the stronger became his repugnance. It was not only the low brutal face that compelled this feeling, but the coarse language that reeked from his lips. This so disgusted Reynolds that he was about to leave the room, when in an instant a commotion took place among the players. They sprang to their feet, and a miniature babel ensued.

"You're cheating."

"I'm not."

"You're a liar."

These were some of the terms hurled forth in sharp rasping sentences, and it seemed as if blood must surely be shed ere the confusion ended. As the word "liar" rang out, a sudden silence followed, and at once hands rested upon butts of revolvers concealed in four hip-pockets. But before they were drawn a peculiar noise broke the stillness, which caused Reynolds to start, for the sound came from the old prospector's lips.

"Me-o-o-o-ow. Me-o-o-o-ow. Bow-wow-wow. Bow-wow-wow."

So unexpected was this interruption that all in the room stared in amazement, and even the four angry men turned to see whence the sound came. So perfect was the imitation, and so humorous the expression upon the face of the old man, that the onlookers burst into a hearty laugh, which caused the four inflamed players to shuffle uneasily, and to look sheepishly at one another. Then their mouths expanded into a grin, and the storm was over.

The curly-haired man at once left his place and strode over to where the prospector was sitting.

"Frontier Samson!" he exclaimed, gripping him firmly by the hand. "Is it really you?"

"Sure, it's me, all right, Curly. Who else did ye think it was; me ghost?"

"Not when I heard that cat-call, an' the bow-wow."

"Heard 'em before, eh? Guess this isn't the first scrape I've got ye out of, is it?"

"Should say not. But where in h---- did ye drop from, Sam? I didn't know ye were on board."

"Oh, I'm jist on a visit from the outside. An' it's mighty lucky that I'm here, or else I don't know what 'ud have happened. Better leave cards alone, Curly, if ye can't play without fightin'. They make people act like a bunch of kids."

"It was those d---- fools' fault, though, Sam."

"Thar, now, don't make excuses an' blame others, Curly. That's jist what kids allus do. An' cut out them unholy words. There might be a parson around."

Curly flung himself down upon a seat, and lighted a cigarette. He cast a furtive glance at Reynolds, thinking that perhaps he might be the "parson."

"What have ye been doin', Curly?" the old man asked. "An' why was ye driftin' out under that fog-bank? Ye nearly got left, let me tell ye that."

"I know we did, and I thought that d----, excuse me, Sam," he apologized, as he again glanced toward Reynolds. "I mean, I thought that the fog-bank would never lift. We've been doing some of the islands for several months."

"Strike anything?"

"Nothing, an' nearly starved in the bargain. If it hadn't been fer an Indian mission, we wouldn't be alive now."

"Then missionaries are of some use after all, Curly. You was allus hard on 'em, if I remember right."

"Umph! They're all right when one's starving. If they'd only leave the Gospel dope out, it wouldn't be so bad."

"Got a dose of it, eh?"

"Should say I did. Morning, noon an' night I had to go to church with the Indians. I've had enough to last me the rest of me life. Say, weren't we glad to get away!"

"Goin' north agin? I thought ye was through, up thar?"

"So did I. But we heard of the new strike at Big Draw, an' decided to try our luck once more."

"Think ye'll hit it this time?"

"I hope so. But it isn't altogether the gold that's taking me back. There's something more attractive."

"So I imagined."

"I thought you would understand." Curly's voice was eager now. "She'll not escape me this time. Gad, she's a beaut! But as wild as a hawk."

"An' so ye think ye'll corner her, eh?" There was a peculiar note in Samson's voice which Reynolds was quick to detect, but which Curly missed.

"Just you wait an' see," the latter reminded. "That old cuss thinks he's got a regular Gibraltar behind those hills with his lousy Indians. But I'll show him a thing or two."

"Ye've never been thar, have ye?" Samson queried.

"Never. But the bird comes out of her nest sometimes, ye know, an' then----"

"You'll be the hawk, is that it?" Samson asked as the other paused.

"Oh, I'll be around," Curly laughed. "One doesn't run across the likes of her every day, an' she's the gold I'm really after."

"Wall, all I kin say is this," the prospector replied, as he rose slowly to his feet, "that ye'd better be mighty keerful, young man. That Giberalter, as ye call it, is guarded by a lion that ain't to be fooled with. He's got claws that reach from sun-up to sun-down as several smarter ones than you have found out to their sorrow. Leave him alone, an' he'll bother nobody. But interfere with that lass of his, an' the hull north won't be big enough to hide ye. That's my warnin', an' if yer not a fool ye'll heed it."

Reynolds had a good long sleep that afternoon. He had been much disturbed the night before by several men in the next room, who shouted and sang until early morning. During the evening he went out upon deck, well forward, as he wished to be alone, and away from the men who were drinking and gambling in other parts of the steamer. It was a beautiful evening, with scarcely a ripple disturbing the surface of the water. The air was mild, and when the sun went down, the moon rose big and cheery above the dense dark forest away to the right. Reynolds thought over the conversation he had heard between Frontier Samson and the man known as "Curly." That the latter was a scoundrel he had not the slightest doubt. His face alone would have betrayed him even if he had not spoken a word. He was curious concerning the reference to "Gibraltar," the "lion," and the "lass."

As he thus sat and mused, listening to the zip-zip of the vessel as it cut through the water, his mind naturally drifted off to her of the street crossing incident. He wondered what had become of her. Why had she left the railing in such a hurry, and what was the cause of the sudden pallor that had come upon her face? Had Curly anything to do with her agitation, and was it possible that she was the girl to whom he referred? As this idea flashed into his mind, he sat bolt upright in his chair. It did seem reasonable when he considered it. In fact, it gave him a certain degree of pleasure as well. If his suspicions were true, then the girl needed protection from that brute, and was it not his duty to keep a sharp lookout, and if necessary to protect her from all harm?

And as he thought of this, the girl herself came upon deck, and walked at once toward the bow close to the tall flag-staff, which pointed upwards like a quivering slender needle. Reynolds could see her plainly as she stood looking straight before her. A cloak was thrown carelessly over her shoulders, and her head was bare. What a perfect picture of gracefulness she presented to the admiring young man as he watched her by the light of the full-orbed moon. How he longed to go forward, speak to her, and listen to her voice. But, no, he did not dare to do that. He must adore her at a distance and wonder what she was thinking about.

Presently an idea leaped into his mind that thrilled his entire being. He was pushing out into the Great Unknown, with all its dangers and uncertainties. But standing there before him was his guiding star, the one girl in all the world who unconsciously had inspired and stirred him to action. Was she really to be his guiding star? Anyway, the sight of her standing before him seemed to be a favorable portent of the future.

For almost half an hour the girl stood silently at the bow, apparently unconscious that anyone was near. Reynolds remained a long time after she had gone. It was good to be there on such a night, with no one to disturb him, alone with a fair vision before him, and a sweet peace in his soul.