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Frona Welse, Jack London's feminine ideal, returns to the desolate north of Canada and meets Vance Corliss. An adventure novel of the first order.
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Copyright © 2016 by Jack London
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
“ALL READY, MISS WELSE, though I’m sorry we can’t spare one of the steamer’s boats.”
Frona Welse arose with alacrity and came to the first officer’s side.
“We’re so busy,” he explained, “and gold-rushers are such perishable freight, at least—”
“I understand,” she interrupted, “and I, too, am behaving as though I were perishable. And I am sorry for the trouble I am giving you, but—but—” She turned quickly and pointed to the shore. “Do you see that big log-house? Between the clump of pines and the river? I was born there.”
“Guess I’d be in a hurry myself,” he muttered, sympathetically, as he piloted her along the crowded deck.
Everybody was in everybody else’s way; nor was there one who failed to proclaim it at the top of his lungs. A thousand gold-seekers were clamoring for the immediate landing of their outfits. Each hatchway gaped wide open, and from the lower depths the shrieking donkey-engines were hurrying the misassorted outfits skyward. On either side of the steamer, rows of scows received the flying cargo, and on each of these scows a sweating mob of men charged the descending slings and heaved bales and boxes about in frantic search. Men waved shipping receipts and shouted over the steamer-rails to them. Sometimes two and three identified the same article, and war arose. The “two-circle” and the “circle-and-dot” brands caused endless jangling, while every whipsaw discovered a dozen claimants.
“The purser insists that he is going mad,” the first officer said, as he helped Frona Welse down the gangway to the landing stage, “and the freight clerks have turned the cargo over to the passengers and quit work. But we’re not so unlucky as the Star of Bethlehem,” he reassured her, pointing to a steamship at anchor a quarter of a mile away. “Half of her passengers have pack-horses for Skaguay and White Pass, and the other half are bound over the Chilcoot. So they’ve mutinied and everything’s at a standstill.”
“Hey, you!” he cried, beckoning to a Whitehall which hovered discreetly on the outer rim of the floating confusion.
A tiny launch, pulling heroically at a huge tow-barge, attempted to pass between; but the boatman shot nervily across her bow, and just as he was clear, unfortunately, caught a crab. This slewed the boat around and brought it to a stop.
“Watch out!” the first officer shouted.
A pair of seventy-foot canoes, loaded with outfits, gold-rushers, and Indians, and under full sail, drove down from the counter direction. One of them veered sharply towards the landing stage, but the other pinched the Whitehall against the barge. The boatman had unshipped his oars in time, but his small craft groaned under the pressure and threatened to collapse. Whereat he came to his feet, and in short, nervous phrases consigned all canoe-men and launch-captains to eternal perdition. A man on the barge leaned over from above and baptized him with crisp and crackling oaths, while the whites and Indians in the canoe laughed derisively.
“Aw, g’wan!” one of them shouted. “Why don’t yeh learn to row?”
The boatman’s fist landed on the point of his critic’s jaw and dropped him stunned upon the heaped merchandise. Not content with this summary act he proceeded to follow his fist into the other craft. The miner nearest him tugged vigorously at a revolver which had jammed in its shiny leather holster, while his brother argonauts, laughing, waited the outcome. But the canoe was under way again, and the Indian helmsman drove the point of his paddle into the boatman’s chest and hurled him backward into the bottom of the Whitehall.
When the flood of oaths and blasphemy was at full tide, and violent assault and quick death seemed most imminent, the first officer had stolen a glance at the girl by his side. He had expected to find a shocked and frightened maiden countenance, and was not at all prepared for the flushed and deeply interested face which met his eyes.
“I am sorry,” he began.
But she broke in, as though annoyed by the interruption, “No, no; not at all. I am enjoying it every bit. Though I am glad that man’s revolver stuck. If it had not—”
“We might have been delayed in getting ashore.” The first officer laughed, and therein displayed his tact.
“That man is a robber,” he went on, indicating the boatman, who had now shoved his oars into the water and was pulling alongside. “He agreed to charge only twenty dollars for putting you ashore. Said he’d have made it twenty-five had it been a man. He’s a pirate, mark me, and he will surely hang some day. Twenty dollars for a half-hour’s work! Think of it!”
“Easy, sport! Easy!” cautioned the fellow in question, at the same time making an awkward landing and dropping one of his oars over-side. “You’ve no call to be flingin’ names about,” he added, defiantly, wringing out his shirt-sleeve, wet from rescue of the oar.
“You’ve got good ears, my man,” began the first officer.
“And a quick fist,” the other snapped in.
“And a ready tongue.”
“Need it in my business. No gettin’ ‘long without it among you sea-sharks. Pirate, am I? And you with a thousand passengers packed like sardines! Charge ‘em double first-class passage, feed ‘em steerage grub, and bunk ‘em worse ‘n pigs! Pirate, eh! Me?”
A red-faced man thrust his head over the rail above and began to bellow lustily.
“I want my stock landed! Come up here, Mr. Thurston! Now! Right away! Fifty cayuses of | mine eating their heads off in this dirty kennel of yours, and it’ll be a sick time you’ll have if you don’t hustle them ashore as fast as God’ll let you! I’m losing a thousand dollars a day, and I won’t stand it! Do you hear? I won’t stand it! You’ve robbed me right and left from the time you cleared dock in Seattle, and by the hinges of hell I won’t stand it any more! I’ll break this company as sure as my name’s Thad Ferguson! D’ye hear my spiel? I’m Thad Ferguson, and you can’t come and see me any too quick for your health! D’ye hear?”
“Pirate; eh?” the boatman soliloquized. “Who? Me?”
Mr. Thurston waved his hand appeasingly at the red-faced man, and turned to the girl. “I’d like to go ashore with you, and as far as the store, but you see how busy we are. Good-by, and a lucky trip to you. I’ll tell off a couple of men at once and break out your baggage. Have it up at the store to-morrow morning, sharp.”
She took his hand lightly and stepped aboard. Her weight gave the leaky boat a sudden lurch, and the water hurtled across the bottom boards to her shoe-tops: but she took it coolly enough, settling herself in the stern-sheets and tucking her feet under her.
“Hold on!” the officer cried. “This will never do, Miss Welse. Come on back, and I’ll get one of our boats over as soon as I can.”
“I’ll see you in—in heaven first,” retorted the boatman, shoving off.
“Let go!” he threatened.
Mr. Thurston gripped tight hold of the gunwale, and as reward for his chivalry had his knuckles rapped sharply by the oar-blade. Then he forgot himself, and Miss Welse also, and swore, and swore fervently.
“I dare say our farewell might have been more dignified,” she called back to him, her laughter rippling across the water.
“Jove!” he muttered, doffing his cap gallantly. “There is a woman!” And a sudden hunger seized him, and a yearning to see himself mirrored always in the gray eyes of Frona Welse. He was not analytical; he did not know why; but he knew that with her he could travel to the end of the earth. He felt a distaste for his profession, and a temptation to throw it all over and strike out for the Klondike whither she was going; then he glanced up the beetling side of the ship, saw the red face of Thad Ferguson, and forgot the dream he had for an instant dreamed.
Splash! A handful of water from his strenuous oar struck her full in the face. “Hope you don’t mind it, miss,” he apologized. “I’m doin’ the best I know how, which ain’t much.”
“So it seems,” she answered, good-naturedly.
“Not that I love the sea,” bitterly; “but I’ve got to turn a few honest dollars somehow, and this seemed the likeliest way. I oughter ‘a ben in Klondike by now, if I’d had any luck at all. Tell you how it was. I lost my outfit on Windy Arm, half-way in, after packin’ it clean across the Pass—”
Zip! Splash! She shook the water from her eyes, squirming the while as some of it ran down her warm back.
“You’ll do,” he encouraged her. “You’re the right stuff for this country. Goin’ all the way in?”
She nodded cheerfully.
“Then you’ll do. But as I was sayin’, after I lost my outfit I hit back for the coast, bein’ broke, to hustle up another one. That’s why I’m chargin’ high-pressure rates. And I hope you don’t feel sore at what I made you pay. I’m no worse than the rest, miss, sure. I had to dig up a hundred for this old tub, which ain’t worth ten down in the States. Same kind of prices everywhere. Over on the Skaguay Trail horseshoe nails is just as good as a quarter any day. A man goes up to the bar and calls for a whiskey. Whiskey’s half a dollar. Well, he drinks his whiskey, plunks down two horseshoe nails, and it’s O.K. No kick comin’ on horseshoe nails. They use ‘em to make change.”
“You must be a brave man to venture into the country again after such an experience. Won’t you tell me your name? We may meet on the Inside.”
“Who? Me? Oh, I’m Del Bishop, pocket-miner; and if ever we run across each other, remember I’d give you the last shirt—I mean, remember my last bit of grub is yours.”
“Thank you,” she answered with a sweet smile; for she was a woman who loved the things which rose straight from the heart.
He stopped rowing long enough to fish about in the water around his feet for an old cornbeef can.
“You’d better do some bailin’,” he ordered, tossing her the can.
“She’s leakin’ worse since that squeeze.”
Frona smiled mentally, tucked up her skirts, and bent to the work. At every dip, like great billows heaving along the sky-line, the glacier-fretted mountains rose and fell. Sometimes she rested her back and watched the teeming beach towards which they were heading, and again, the land-locked arm of the sea in which a score or so of great steamships lay at anchor. From each of these, to the shore and back again, flowed a steady stream of scows, launches, canoes, and all sorts of smaller craft. Man, the mighty toiler, reacting upon a hostile environment, she thought, going back in memory to the masters whose wisdom she had shared in lecture-room and midnight study. She was a ripened child of the age, and fairly understood the physical world and the workings thereof. And she had a love for the world, and a deep respect.
For some time Del Bishop had only punctuated the silence with splashes from his oars; but a thought struck him.
“You haven’t told me your name,” he suggested, with complacent delicacy.
“My name is Welse,” she answered. “Frona Welse.”
A great awe manifested itself in his face, and grew to a greater and greater awe. “You—are—Frona—Welse?” he enunciated slowly. “Jacob Welse ain’t your old man, is he?”
“Yes; I am Jacob Welse’s daughter, at your service.”
He puckered his lips in a long low whistle of understanding and stopped rowing. “Just you climb back into the stern and take your feet out of that water,” he commanded. “And gimme holt that can.”
“Am I not bailing satisfactorily?” she demanded, indignantly.
“Yep. You’re doin’ all right; but, but, you are—are—”
“Just what I was before you knew who I was. Now you go on rowing,—that’s your share of the work; and I’ll take care of mine.”
“Oh, you’ll do!” he murmured ecstatically, bending afresh to the oars.
“And Jacob Welse is your old man? I oughter ‘a known it, sure!”
When they reached the sand-spit, crowded with heterogeneous piles of merchandise and buzzing with men, she stopped long enough to shake hands with her ferryman. And though such a proceeding on the part of his feminine patrons was certainly unusual, Del Bishop squared it easily with the fact that she was Jacob Welse’s daughter.
“Remember, my last bit of grub is yours,” he reassured her, still holding her hand.
“And your last shirt, too; don’t forget.”
“Well, you’re a—a—a crackerjack!” he exploded with a final squeeze.
Her short skirt did not block the free movement of her limbs, and she discovered with pleasurable surprise that the quick tripping step of the city pavement had departed from her, and that she was swinging off in the long easy stride which is born of the trail and which comes only after much travail and endeavor. More than one gold-rusher, shooting keen glances at her ankles and gray-gaitered calves, affirmed Del Bishop’s judgment. And more than one glanced up at her face, and glanced again; for her gaze was frank, with the frankness of comradeship; and in her eyes there was always a smiling light, just trembling on the verge of dawn; and did the onlooker smile, her eyes smiled also. And the smiling light was protean-mooded,—merry, sympathetic, joyous, quizzical,—the complement of whatsoever kindled it. And sometimes the light spread over all her face, till the smile prefigured by it was realized. But it was always in frank and open comradeship.
And there was much to cause her to smile as she hurried through the crowd, across the sand-spit, and over the flat towards the log-building she had pointed out to Mr. Thurston. Time had rolled back, and locomotion and transportation were once again in the most primitive stages. Men who had never carried more than parcels in all their lives had now become bearers of burdens. They no longer walked upright under the sun, but stooped the body forward and bowed the head to the earth. Every back had become a pack-saddle, and the strap-galls were beginning to form. They staggered beneath the unwonted effort, and legs became drunken with weariness and titubated in divers directions till the sunlight darkened and bearer and burden fell by the way. Other men, exulting secretly, piled their goods on two-wheeled go-carts and pulled out blithely enough, only to stall at the first spot where the great round boulders invaded the trail. Whereat they generalized anew upon the principles of Alaskan travel, discarded the go-cart, or trundled it back to the beach and sold it at fabulous price to the last man landed. Tenderfeet, with ten pounds of Colt’s revolvers, cartridges, and hunting-knives belted about them, wandered valiantly up the trail, and crept back softly, shedding revolvers, cartridges, and knives in despairing showers. And so, in gasping and bitter sweat, these sons of Adam suffered for Adam’s sin.
Frona felt vaguely disturbed by this great throbbing rush of gold-mad men, and the old scene with its clustering associations seemed blotted out by these toiling aliens. Even the old landmarks appeared strangely unfamiliar. It was the same, yet not the same. Here, on the grassy flat, where she had played as a child and shrunk back at the sound of her voice echoing from glacier to glacier, ten thousand men tramped ceaselessly up and down, grinding the tender herbage into the soil and mocking the stony silence. And just up the trail were ten thousand men who had passed by, and over the Chilcoot were ten thousand more. And behind, all down the island-studded Alaskan coast, even to the Horn, were yet ten thousand more, harnessers of wind and steam, hasteners from the ends of the earth. The Dyea River as of old roared turbulently down to the sea; but its ancient banks were gored by the feet of many men, and these men labored in surging rows at the dripping tow-lines, and the deep-laden boats followed them as they fought their upward way. And the will of man strove with the will of the water, and the men laughed at the old Dyea River and gored its banks deeper for the men who were to follow.
The doorway of the store, through which she had once run out and in, and where she had looked with awe at the unusual sight of a stray trapper or fur-trader, was now packed with a clamorous throng of men. Where of old one letter waiting a claimant was a thing of wonder, she now saw, by peering through the window, the mail heaped up from floor to ceiling. And it was for this mail the men were clamoring so insistently. Before the store, by the scales, was another crowd. An Indian threw his pack upon the scales, the white owner jotted down the weight in a note-book, and another pack was thrown on. Each pack was in the straps, ready for the packer’s back and the precarious journey over the Chilcoot. Frona edged in closer. She was interested in freights. She remembered in her day when the solitary prospector or trader had his outfit packed over for six cents,—one hundred and twenty dollars a ton.
The tenderfoot who was weighing up consulted his guide-book. “Eight cents,” he said to the Indian. Whereupon the Indians laughed scornfully and chorused, “Forty cents!” A pained expression came into his face, and he looked about him anxiously. The sympathetic light in Frona’s eyes caught him, and he regarded her with intent blankness. In reality he was busy reducing a three-ton outfit to terms of cash at forty dollars per hundred-weight. “Twenty-four hundred dollars for thirty miles!” he cried. “What can I do?”
Frona shrugged her shoulders. “You’d better pay them the forty cents,” she advised, “else they will take off their straps.”
The man thanked her, but instead of taking heed went on with his haggling. One of the Indians stepped up and proceeded to unfasten his pack-straps. The tenderfoot wavered, but just as he was about to give in, the packers jumped the price on him to forty-five cents. He smiled after a sickly fashion, and nodded his head in token of surrender. But another Indian joined the group and began whispering excitedly. A cheer went up, and before the man could realize it they had jerked off their straps and departed, spreading the news as they went that freight to Lake Linderman was fifty cents.
Of a sudden, the crowd before the store was perceptibly agitated. Its members whispered excitedly one to another, and all their eyes were focussed upon three men approaching from up the trail. The trio were ordinary-looking creatures, ill-clad and even ragged. In a more stable community their apprehension by the village constable and arrest for vagrancy would have been immediate. “French Louis,” the tenderfeet whispered and passed the word along. “Owns three Eldorado claims in a block,” the man next to Frona confided to her. “Worth ten millions at the very least.” French Louis, striding a little in advance of his companions, did not look it. He had parted company with his hat somewhere along the route, and a frayed silk kerchief was wrapped carelessly about his head. And for all his ten millions, he carried his own travelling pack on his broad shoulders. “And that one, the one with the beard, that’s Swiftwater Bill, another of the Eldorado kings.”
“How do you know?” Frona asked, doubtingly.
“Know!” the man exclaimed. “Know! Why his picture has been in all the papers for the last six weeks. See!” He unfolded a newspaper. “And a pretty good likeness, too. I’ve looked at it so much I’d know his mug among a thousand.”
“Then who is the third one?” she queried, tacitly accepting him as a fount of authority.
Her informant lifted himself on his toes to see better. “I don’t know,” he confessed sorrowfully, then tapped the shoulder of the man next to him. “Who is the lean, smooth-faced one? The one with the blue shirt and the patch on his knee?”
Just then Frona uttered a glad little cry and darted forward. “Matt!” she cried. “Matt McCarthy!”
The man with the patch shook her hand heartily, though he did not know her and distrust was plain in his eyes.
“Oh, you don’t remember me!” she chattered. “And don’t you dare say you do! If there weren’t so many looking, I’d hug you, you old bear!
“And so Big Bear went home to the Little Bears,” she recited, solemnly.
“And the Little Bears were very hungry. And Big Bear said, ‘Guess what
I have got, my children.’ And one Little Bear guessed berries, and one
Little Bear guessed salmon, and t’other Little Bear guessed porcupine.
Then Big Bear laughed ‘Whoof! Whoof!’ and said, ‘A Nice Big Fat
As he listened, recollection avowed itself in his face, and, when she had finished, his eyes wrinkled up and he laughed a peculiar, laughable silent laugh.
“Sure, an’ it’s well I know ye,” he explained; “but for the life iv me
I can’t put me finger on ye.”
She pointed into the store and watched him anxiously.
“Now I have ye!” He drew back and looked her up and down, and his expression changed to disappointment. “It cuddent be. I mistook ye. Ye cud niver a-lived in that shanty,” thrusting a thumb in the direction of the store.
Frona nodded her head vigorously.
“Thin it’s yer ownself afther all? The little motherless darlin’, with the goold hair I combed the knots out iv many’s the time? The little witch that run barefoot an’ barelegged over all the place?”
“Yes, yes,” she corroborated, gleefully.
“The little divil that stole the dog-team an’ wint over the Pass in the dead o’ winter for to see where the world come to an ind on the ither side, just because old Matt McCarthy was afther tellin’ her fairy stories?”
“O Matt, dear old Matt! Remember the time I went swimming with the
Siwash girls from the Indian camp?”
“An’ I dragged ye out by the hair o’ yer head?”
“And lost one of your new rubber boots?”
“Ah, an’ sure an’ I do. And a most shockin’ an’ immodest affair it was! An’ the boots was worth tin dollars over yer father’s counter.”
“And then you went away, over the Pass, to the Inside, and we never heard a word of you. Everybody thought you dead.”
“Well I recollect the day. An’ ye cried in me arms an’ wuddent kiss yer old Matt good-by. But ye did in the ind,” he exclaimed, triumphantly, “whin ye saw I was goin’ to lave ye for sure. What a wee thing ye were!”
“I was only eight.”
“An’ ‘tis twelve year agone. Twelve year I’ve spint on the Inside, with niver a trip out. Ye must be twinty now?”
“And almost as big as you,” Frona affirmed.
“A likely woman ye’ve grown into, tall, an’ shapely, an’ all that.” He looked her over critically. “But ye cud ‘a’ stood a bit more flesh, I’m thinkin’.”
“No, no,” she denied. “Not at twenty, Matt, not at twenty. Feel my arm, you’ll see.” She doubled that member till the biceps knotted.
“‘Tis muscle,” he admitted, passing his hand admiringly over the swelling bunch; “just as though ye’d been workin’ hard for yer livin’.”
“Oh, I can swing clubs, and box, and fence,” she cried, successively striking the typical postures; “and swim, and make high dives, chin a bar twenty times, and—and walk on my hands. There!”
“Is that what ye’ve been doin’? I thought ye wint away for book-larnin’,” he commented, dryly.
“But they have new ways of teaching, now, Matt, and they don’t turn you out with your head crammed—”
“An’ yer legs that spindly they can’t carry it all! Well, an’ I forgive ye yer muscle.”
“But how about yourself, Matt?” Frona asked. “How has the world been to you these twelve years?”
“Behold!” He spread his legs apart, threw his head back, and his chest out. “Ye now behold Mister Matthew McCarthy, a king iv the noble Eldorado Dynasty by the strength iv his own right arm. Me possessions is limitless. I have more dust in wan minute than iver I saw in all me life before. Me intintion for makin’ this trip to the States is to look up me ancestors. I have a firm belafe that they wance existed. Ye may find nuggets in the Klondike, but niver good whiskey. ‘Tis likewise me intintion to have wan drink iv the rate stuff before I die. Afther that ‘tis me sworn resolve to return to the superveeshion iv me Klondike properties. Indade, and I’m an Eldorado king; an’ if ye’ll be wantin’ the lind iv a tidy bit, it’s meself that’ll loan it ye.”
“The same old, old Matt, who never grows old,” Frona laughed.
“An’ it’s yerself is the thrue Welse, for all yer prize-fighter’s muscles an’ yer philosopher’s brains. But let’s wander inside on the heels of Louis an’ Swiftwater. Andy’s still tindin’ store, I’m told, an’ we’ll see if I still linger in the pages iv his mimory.”
“And I, also.” Frona seized him by the hand. It was a bad habit she had of seizing the hands of those she loved. “It’s ten years since I went away.”
The Irishman forged his way through the crowd like a pile-driver, and Frona followed easily in the lee of his bulk. The tenderfeet watched them reverently, for to them they were as Northland divinities. The buzz of conversation rose again.
“Who’s the girl?” somebody asked. And just as Frona passed inside the door she caught the opening of the answer: “Jacob Welse’s daughter. Never heard of Jacob Welse? Where have you been keeping yourself?”
SHE CAME OUT OF the wood of glistening birch, and with the first fires of the sun blazoning her unbound hair raced lightly across the dew-dripping meadow. The earth was fat with excessive moisture and soft to her feet, while the dank vegetation slapped against her knees and cast off flashing sprays of liquid diamonds. The flush of the morning was in her cheek, and its fire in her eyes, and she was aglow with youth and love. For she had nursed at the breast of nature,—in forfeit of a mother,—and she loved the old trees and the creeping green things with a passionate love; and the dim murmur of growing life was a gladness to her ears, and the damp earth-smells were sweet to her nostrils.
Where the upper-reach of the meadow vanished in a dark and narrow forest aisle, amid clean-stemmed dandelions and color-bursting buttercups, she came upon a bunch of great Alaskan violets. Throwing herself at full length, she buried her face in the fragrant coolness, and with her hands drew the purple heads in circling splendor about her own. And she was not ashamed. She had wandered away amid the complexities and smirch and withering heats of the great world, and she had returned, simple, and clean, and wholesome. And she was glad of it, as she lay there, slipping back to the old days, when the universe began and ended at the sky-line, and when she journeyed over the Pass to behold the Abyss.
It was a primitive life, that of her childhood, with few conventions, but such as there were, stern ones. And they might be epitomized, as she had read somewhere in her later years, as “the faith of food and blanket.” This faith had her father kept, she thought, remembering that his name sounded well on the lips of men. And this was the faith she had learned,—the faith she had carried with her across the Abyss and into the world, where men had wandered away from the old truths and made themselves selfish dogmas and casuistries of the subtlest kinds; the faith she had brought back with her, still fresh, and young, and joyous. And it was all so simple, she had contended; why should not their faith be as her faith—the faith of food and blanket? The faith of trail and hunting camp? The faith with which strong clean men faced the quick danger and sudden death by field and flood? Why not? The faith of Jacob Welse? Of Matt McCarthy? Of the Indian boys she had played with? Of the Indian girls she had led to Amazonian war? Of the very wolf-dogs straining in the harnesses and running with her across the snow? It was healthy, it was real, it was good, she thought, and she was glad.
The rich notes of a robin saluted her from the birch wood, and opened her ears to the day. A partridge boomed afar in the forest, and a tree-squirrel launched unerringly into space above her head, and went on, from limb to limb and tree to tree, scolding graciously the while. From the hidden river rose the shouts of the toiling adventurers, already parted from sleep and fighting their way towards the Pole.
Frona arose, shook back her hair, and took instinctively the old path between the trees to the camp of Chief George and the Dyea tribesmen. She came upon a boy, breech-clouted and bare, like a copper god. He was gathering wood, and looked at her keenly over his bronze shoulder. She bade him good-morning, blithely, in the Dyea tongue; but he shook his head, and laughed insultingly, and paused in his work to hurl shameful words after her. She did not understand, for this was not the old way, and when she passed a great and glowering Sitkan buck she kept her tongue between her teeth. At the fringe of the forest, the camp confronted her. And she was startled. It was not the old camp of a score or more of lodges clustering and huddling together in the open as though for company, but a mighty camp. It began at the very forest, and flowed in and out among the scattered tree-clumps on the flat, and spilled over and down to the river bank where the long canoes were lined up ten and twelve deep. It was a gathering of the tribes, like unto none in all the past, and a thousand miles of coast made up the tally. They were all strange Indians, with wives and chattels and dogs. She rubbed shoulders with Juneau and Wrangel men, and was jostled by wild-eyed Sticks from over the Passes, fierce Chilcats, and Queen Charlotte Islanders. And the looks they cast upon her were black and frowning, save—and far worse—where the merrier souls leered patronizingly into her face and chuckled unmentionable things.
She was not frightened by this insolence, but angered; for it hurt her, and embittered the pleasurable home-coming. Yet she quickly grasped the significance of it: the old patriarchal status of her father’s time had passed away, and civilization, in a scorching blast, had swept down upon this people in a day. Glancing under the raised flaps of a tent, she saw haggard-faced bucks squatting in a circle on the floor. By the door a heap of broken bottles advertised the vigils of the night. A white man, low of visage and shrewd, was dealing cards about, and gold and silver coins leaped into heaping bets upon the blanket board. A few steps farther on she heard the cluttering whirl of a wheel of fortune, and saw the Indians, men and women, chancing eagerly their sweat-earned wages for the gaudy prizes of the game. And from tepee and lodge rose the cracked and crazy strains of cheap music-boxes.
An old squaw, peeling a willow pole in the sunshine of an open doorway, raised her head and uttered a shrill cry.
“Hee-Hee! Tenas Hee-Hee!” she muttered as well and as excitedly as her toothless gums would permit.
Frona thrilled at the cry. Tenas Hee-Hee! Little Laughter! Her name of the long gone Indian past! She turned and went over to the old woman.
“And hast thou so soon forgotten, Tenas Hee-Hee?” she mumbled. “And thine eyes so young and sharp! Not so soon does Neepoosa forget.”
“It is thou, Neepoosa?” Frona cried, her tongue halting from the disuse of years.
“Ay, it is Neepoosa,” the old woman replied, drawing her inside the tent, and despatching a boy, hot-footed, on some errand. They sat down together on the floor, and she patted Frona’s hand lovingly, peering, meanwhile, blear-eyed and misty, into her face. “Ay, it is Neepoosa, grown old quickly after the manner of our women. Neepoosa, who dandled thee in her arms when thou wast a child. Neepoosa, who gave thee thy name, Tenas Hee-Hee. Who fought for thee with Death when thou wast ailing; and gathered growing things from the woods and grasses of the earth and made of them tea, and gave thee to drink. But I mark little change, for I knew thee at once. It was thy very shadow on the ground that made me lift my head. A little change, mayhap. Tall thou art, and like a slender willow in thy grace, and the sun has kissed thy cheeks more lightly of the years; but there is the old hair, flying wild and of the color of the brown seaweed floating on the tide, and the mouth, quick to laugh and loth to cry. And the eyes are as clear and true as in the days when Neepoosa chid thee for wrong-doing, and thou wouldst not put false words upon thy tongue. Ai! Ai! Not as thou art the other women who come now into the land!”
“And why is a white woman without honor among you?” Frona demanded. “Your men say evil things to me in the camp, and as I came through the woods, even the boys. Not in the old days, when I played with them, was this shame so.”
“Ai! Ai!” Neepoosa made answer. “It is so. But do not blame them. Pour not thine anger upon their heads. For it is true it is the fault of thy women who come into the land these days. They can point to no man and say, ‘That is my man.’ And it is not good that women should he thus. And they look upon all men, bold-eyed and shameless, and their tongues are unclean, and their hearts bad. Wherefore are thy women without honor among us. As for the boys, they are but boys. And the men; how should they know?”
The tent-flaps were poked aside and an old man came in. He grunted to Frona and sat down. Only a certain eager alertness showed the delight he took in her presence.
“So Tenas Hee-Hee has come back in these bad days,” he vouchsafed in a shrill, quavering voice.
“And why bad days, Muskim?” Frona asked. “Do not the women wear brighter colors? Are not the bellies fuller with flour and bacon and white man’s grub? Do not the young men contrive great wealth what of their pack-straps and paddles? And art thou not remembered with the ancient offerings of meat and fish and blanket? Why bad days, Muskim?”
“True,” he replied in his fine, priestly way, a reminiscent flash of the old fire lighting his eyes. “It is very true. The women wear brighter colors. But they have found favor, in the eyes of thy white men, and they look no more upon the young men of their own blood. Wherefore the tribe does not increase, nor do the little children longer clutter the way of our feet. It is so. The bellies are fuller with the white man’s grub; but also are they fuller with the white man’s bad whiskey. Nor could it be otherwise that the young men contrive great wealth; but they sit by night over the cards, and it passes from them, and they speak harsh words one to another, and in anger blows are struck, and there is bad blood between them. As for old Muskim, there are few offerings of meat and fish and blanket. For the young women have turned aside from the old paths, nor do the young men longer honor the old totems and the old gods. So these are bad days, Tenas Hee-Hee, and they behold old Muskim go down in sorrow to the grave.”
“Ai! Ai! It is so!” wailed Neepoosa.
“Because of the madness of thy people have my people become mad,” Muskim continued. “They come over the salt sea like the waves of the sea, thy people, and they go—ah! who knoweth where?”
“Ai! Who knoweth where?” Neepoosa lamented, rocking slowly back and forth.
“Ever they go towards the frost and cold; and ever do they come, more people, wave upon wave!”
“Ai! Ai! Into the frost and cold! It is a long way, and dark and cold!” She shivered, then laid a sudden hand on Frona’s arm. “And thou goest?”
“And Tenas Hee-Hee goest! Ai! Ai! Ai!”
The tent-flap lifted, and Matt McCarthy peered in. “It’s yerself,
Frona, is it? With breakfast waitin’ this half-hour on ye, an’ old
Andy fumin’ an’ frettin’ like the old woman he is. Good-mornin’ to ye,
Neepoosa,” he addressed Frona’s companions, “an’ to ye, Muskim, though,
belike ye’ve little mimory iv me face.”
The old couple grunted salutation and remained stolidly silent.
“But hurry with ye, girl,” turning back to Frona. “Me steamer starts by mid-day, an’ it’s little I’ll see iv ye at the best. An’ likewise there’s Andy an’ the breakfast pipin’ hot, both iv them.”
FRONA WAVED HER HAND to Andy and swung out on the trail. Fastened tightly to her back were her camera and a small travelling satchel. In addition, she carried for alpenstock the willow pole of Neepoosa. Her dress was of the mountaineering sort, short-skirted and scant, allowing the greatest play with the least material, and withal gray of color and modest.
Her outfit, on the backs of a dozen Indians and in charge of Del Bishop, had got under way hours before. The previous day, on her return with Matt McCarthy from the Siwash camp, she had found Del Bishop at the store waiting her. His business was quickly transacted, for the proposition he made was terse and to the point. She was going into the country. He was intending to go in. She would need somebody. If she had not picked any one yet, why he was just the man. He had forgotten to tell her the day he took her ashore that he had been in the country years before and knew all about it. True, he hated the water, and it was mainly a water journey; but he was not afraid of it. He was afraid of nothing. Further, he would fight for her at the drop of the hat. As for pay, when they got to Dawson, a good word from her to Jacob Welse, and a year’s outfit would be his. No, no; no grub-stake about it, no strings on him! He would pay for the outfit later on when his sack was dusted. What did she think about it, anyway? And Frona did think about it, for ere she had finished breakfast he was out hustling the packers together.
She found herself making better speed than the majority of her fellows, who were heavily laden and had to rest their packs every few hundred yards. Yet she found herself hard put to keep the pace of a bunch of Scandinavians ahead of her. They were huge strapping blond-haired giants, each striding along with a hundred pounds on his back, and all harnessed to a go-cart which carried fully six hundred more. Their faces were as laughing suns, and the joy of life was in them. The toil seemed child’s play and slipped from them lightly. They joked with one another, and with the passers-by, in a meaningless tongue, and their great chests rumbled with cavern-echoing laughs. Men stood aside for them, and looked after them enviously; for they took the rises of the trail on the run, and rattled down the counter slopes, and ground the iron-rimmed wheels harshly over the rocks. Plunging through a dark stretch of woods, they came out upon the river at the ford. A drowned man lay on his back on the sand-bar, staring upward, unblinking, at the sun. A man, in irritated tones, was questioning over and over, “Where’s his pardner? Ain’t he got a pardner?” Two more men had thrown off their packs and were coolly taking an inventory of the dead man’s possessions. One called aloud the various articles, while the other checked them off on a piece of dirty wrapping-paper. Letters and receipts, wet and pulpy, strewed the sand. A few gold coins were heaped carelessly on a white handkerchief. Other men, crossing back and forth in canoes and skiffs, took no notice.
The Scandinavians glanced at the sight, and their faces sobered for a moment. “Where’s his pardner? Ain’t he got a pardner?” the irritated man demanded of them. They shook their heads. They did not understand English. They stepped into the water and splashed onward. Some one called warningly from the opposite bank, whereat they stood still and conferred together. Then they started on again. The two men taking the inventory turned to watch. The current rose nigh to their hips, but it was swift and they staggered, while now and again the cart slipped sideways with the stream. The worst was over, and Frona found herself holding her breath. The water had sunk to the knees of the two foremost men, when a strap snapped on one nearest the cart. His pack swung suddenly to the side, overbalancing him. At the same instant the man next to him slipped, and each jerked the other under. The next two were whipped off their feet, while the cart, turning over, swept from the bottom of the ford into the deep water. The two men who had almost emerged threw themselves backward on the pull-ropes. The effort was heroic, but giants though they were, the task was too great and they were dragged, inch by inch, downward and under.
Their packs held them to the bottom, save him whose strap had broken. This one struck out, not to the shore, but down the stream, striving to keep up with his comrades. A couple of hundred feet below, the rapid dashed over a toothed-reef of rocks, and here, a minute later, they appeared. The cart, still loaded, showed first, smashing a wheel and turning over and over into the next plunge. The men followed in a miserable tangle. They were beaten against the submerged rocks and swept on, all but one. Frona, in a canoe (a dozen canoes were already in pursuit), saw him grip the rock with bleeding fingers. She saw his white face and the agony of the effort; but his hold relaxed and he was jerked away, just as his free comrade, swimming mightily, was reaching for him. Hidden from sight, they took the next plunge, showing for a second, still struggling, at the shallow foot of the rapid.
A canoe picked up the swimming man, but the rest disappeared in a long stretch of swift, deep water. For a quarter of an hour the canoes plied fruitlessly about, then found the dead men gently grounded in an eddy. A tow-rope was requisitioned from an up-coming boat, and a pair of horses from a pack-train on the bank, and the ghastly jetsam hauled ashore. Frona looked at the five young giants lying in the mud, broken-boned, limp, uncaring. They were still harnessed to the cart, and the poor worthless packs still clung to their backs, The sixth sat in the midst, dry-eyed and stunned. A dozen feet away the steady flood of life flowed by and Frona melted into it and went on.
The dark spruce-shrouded mountains drew close together in the Dyea Canyon, and the feet of men churned the wet sunless earth into mire and bog-hole. And when they had done this they sought new paths, till there were many paths. And on such a path Frona came upon a man spread carelessly in the mud. He lay on his side, legs apart and one arm buried beneath him, pinned down by a bulky pack. His cheek was pillowed restfully in the ooze, and on his face there was an expression of content. He brightened when he saw her, and his eyes twinkled cheerily.
“‘Bout time you hove along,” he greeted her. “Been waitin’ an hour on you as it is.”
“That’s it,” as Frona bent over him. “Just unbuckle that strap. The pesky thing! ‘Twas just out o’ my reach all the time.”
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
He slipped out of his straps, shook himself, and felt the twisted arm. “Nope. Sound as a dollar, thank you. And no kick to register, either.” He reached over and wiped his muddy hands on a low-bowed spruce. “Just my luck; but I got a good rest, so what’s the good of makin’ a beef about it? You see, I tripped on that little root there, and slip! slump! slam! and slush!—there I was, down and out, and the buckle just out o’ reach. And there I lay for a blasted hour, everybody hitting the lower path.”
“But why didn’t you call out to them?”
“And make ‘em climb up the hill to me? Them all tuckered out with their own work? Not on your life! Wasn’t serious enough. If any other man ‘d make me climb up just because he’d slipped down, I’d take him out o’ the mud all right, all right, and punch and punch him back into the mud again. Besides, I knew somebody was bound to come along my way after a while.”
“Oh, you’ll do!” she cried, appropriating Del Bishop’s phrase. “You’ll do for this country!”
“Yep,” he called back, shouldering his pack and starting off at a lively clip. “And, anyway, I got a good rest.”
The trail dipped through a precipitous morass to the river’s brink. A slender pine-tree spanned the screaming foam and bent midway to touch the water. The surge beat upon the taper trunk and gave it a rhythmical swaying motion, while the feet of the packers had worn smooth its wave-washed surface. Eighty feet it stretched in ticklish insecurity. Frona stepped upon it, felt it move beneath her, heard the bellowing of the water, saw the mad rush—and shrank back. She slipped the knot of her shoe-laces and pretended great care in the tying thereof as a bunch of Indians came out of the woods above and down through the mud. Three or four bucks led the way, followed by many squaws, all bending in the head-straps to the heavy packs. Behind came the children burdened according to their years, and in the rear half a dozen dogs, tongues lagging out and dragging forward painfully under their several loads.
The men glanced at her sideways, and one of them said something in an undertone. Frona could not hear, but the snicker which went down the line brought the flush of shame to her brow and told her more forcibly than could the words. Her face was hot, for she sat disgraced in her own sight; but she gave no sign. The leader stood aside, and one by one, and never more than one at a time, they made the perilous passage. At the bend in the middle their weight forced the tree under, and they felt for their footing, up to the ankles in the cold, driving torrent. Even the little children made it without hesitancy, and then the dogs whining and reluctant but urged on by the man. When the last had crossed over, he turned to Frona.
“Um horse trail,” he said, pointing up the mountain side. “Much better you take um horse trail. More far; much better.”
But she shook her head and waited till he reached the farther bank; for she felt the call, not only upon her own pride, but upon the pride of her race; and it was a greater demand than her demand, just as the race was greater than she. So she put foot upon the log, and, with the eyes of the alien people upon her, walked down into the foam-white swirl.
She came upon a man weeping by the side of the trail. His pack, clumsily strapped, sprawled on the ground. He had taken off a shoe, and one naked foot showed swollen and blistered.
“What is the matter?” she asked, halting before him.
He looked up at her, then down into the depths where the Dyea River cut the gloomy darkness with its living silver. The tears still welled in his eyes, and he sniffled.
“What is the matter?” she repeated. “Can I be of any help?”
“No,” he replied. “How can you help? My feet are raw, and my back is nearly broken, and I am all tired out. Can you help any of these things?”
“Well,” judiciously, “I am sure it might be worse. Think of the men who have just landed on the beach. It will take them ten days or two weeks to back-trip their outfits as far as you have already got yours.”
“But my partners have left me and gone on,” he moaned, a sneaking appeal for pity in his voice. “And I am all alone, and I don’t feel able to move another step. And then think of my wife and babies. I left them down in the States. Oh, if they could only see me now! I can’t go back to them, and I can’t go on. It’s too much for me. I can’t stand it, this working like a horse. I was not made to work like a horse. I’ll die, I know I will, if I do. Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?”
“Why did your comrades leave you?”
“Because I was not so strong as they; because I could not pack as much or as long. And they laughed at me and left me.”
“Have you ever roughed it?” Frona asked.
“You look well put up and strong. Weigh probably one hundred and sixty-five?”
“One hundred-and seventy,” he corrected.
“You don’t look as though you had ever been troubled with sickness.
Never an invalid?”
“And your comrades? They are miners?”
“Never mining in their lives. They worked in the same establishment with me. That’s what makes it so hard, don’t you see! We’d known one another for years! And to go off and leave me just because I couldn’t keep up!”
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