The way led steeply up through deep, powdery snow that was unmarred by sled-track or moccasin impression. Smoke, in the lead, pressed the fragile crystals down under his fat, short snow-shoes. The task required lungs and muscle, and he flung himself into it with all his strength. Behind, on the surface he packed, strained the string of six dogs, the steam-jets of their breathing attesting their labor and the lowness of the temperature. Between the wheel-dog and the sled toiled Shorty, his weight divided between the guiding gee-pole and the haul, for he was pulling with the dogs. Every half-hour he and Smoke exchanged places, for the snow-shoe work was even more arduous than that of the gee-pole.
The whole outfit was fresh and strong. It was merely hard work being efficiently done--the breaking of a midwinter trail across a divide. On this severe stretch, ten miles a day they called a decent stint. They kept in condition, but each night crawled well tired into their sleeping-furs. This was their sixth day out from the lively camp of Mucluc on the Yukon. In two days, with the loaded sled, they had covered the fifty miles of packed trail up Moose Creek. Then had come the struggle with the four feet of untouched snow that was really not snow, but frost-crystals, so lacking in cohesion that when kicked it flew with the thin hissing of granulated sugar. In three days they had wallowed thirty miles up Minnow Creek and across the series of low divides that separate the several creeks flowing south into Siwash River; and now they were breasting the big divide, past the Bald Buttes, where the way would lead them down Porcupine Creek to the middle reaches of Milk River. Higher up Milk River, it was fairly rumored, were deposits of copper. And this was their goal--a hill of pure copper, half a mile to the right and up the first creek after Milk River issued from a deep gorge to flow across a heavily timbered stretch of bottom. They would know it when they saw it. One-Eyed McCarthy had described it with sharp definiteness. It was impossible to miss it--unless McCarthy had lied.
Smoke was in the lead, and the small scattered spruce-trees were becoming scarcer and smaller, when he saw one, dead and bone-dry, that stood in their path. There was no need for speech. His glance to Shorty was acknowledged by a stentorian "Whoa!" The dogs stood in the traces till they saw Shorty begin to undo the sled-lashings and Smoke attack the dead spruce with an ax; whereupon the animals dropped in the snow and curled into balls, the bush of each tail curved to cover four padded feet and an ice-rimmed muzzle.
The men worked with the quickness of long practice. Gold-pan, coffee-pot, and cooking-pail were soon thawing the heaped frost-crystals into water. Smoke extracted a stick of beans from the sled. Already cooked, with a generous admixture of cubes of fat pork and bacon, the beans had been frozen into this portable immediacy. He chopped off chunks with an ax, as if it were so much firewood, and put them into the frying-pan to thaw. Solidly frozen sourdough biscuits were likewise placed to thaw. In twenty minutes from the time they halted, the meal was ready to eat.
"About forty below," Shorty mumbled through a mouthful of beans. "Say--I hope it don't get colder--or warmer, neither. It's just right for trail breaking."
Smoke did not answer. His own mouth full of beans, his jaws working, he had chanced to glance at the lead-dog, lying half a dozen feet away. That gray and frosty wolf was gazing at him with the infinite wistfulness and yearning that glimmers and hazes so often in the eyes of Northland dogs. Smoke knew it well, but never got over the unfathomable wonder of it. As if to shake off the hypnotism, he set down his plate and coffee-cup, went to the sled, and began opening the dried-fish sack.
"Hey!" Shorty expostulated. "What 'r' you doin'?"
"Breaking all law, custom, precedent, and trail usage," Smoke replied. "I'm going to feed the dogs in the middle of the day--just this once. They've worked hard, and that last pull to the top of the divide is before them. Besides, Bright there has been talking to me, telling me all untellable things with those eyes of his."
Shorty laughed skeptically. "Go on an' spoil 'em. Pretty soon you'll be manicurin' their nails. I'd recommend cold cream and electric massage--it's great for sled-dogs. And sometimes a Turkish bath does 'em fine."
"I've never done it before," Smoke defended. "And I won't again. But this once I'm going to. It's just a whim, I guess."
"Oh, if it's a hunch, go to it." Shorty's tones showed how immediately he had been mollified. "A man's always got to follow his hunches."
"It isn't a hunch, Shorty. Bright just sort of got on my imagination for a couple of twists. He told me more in one minute with those eyes of his than I could read in the books in a thousand years. His eyes were acrawl with the secrets of life. They were just squirming and wriggling there. The trouble is I almost got them, and then I didn't. I'm no wiser than I was before, but I was near them." He paused and then added, "I can't tell you, but that dog's eyes were just spilling over with cues to what life is, and evolution, and star-dust, and cosmic sap, and all the rest--everything."
"Boiled down into simple American, you got a hunch," Shorty insisted.
Smoke finished tossing the dried salmon, one to each dog, and shook his head.
"I tell you yes," Shorty argued. "Smoke, it's a sure hunch. Something's goin' to happen before the day is out. You'll see. And them dried fish'll have a bearin'."
"You've got to show me," said Smoke.
"No, I ain't. The day'll take care of itself an' show you. Now listen to what I'm tellin' you. I got a hunch myself out of your hunch. I'll bet eleven ounces against three ornery toothpicks I'm right. When I get a hunch I ain't a-scared to ride it."
"You bet the toothpicks, and I'll bet the ounces," Smoke returned.
"Nope. That'd be plain robbery. I win. I know a hunch when it tickles me. Before the day's out somethin' 'll happen, an' them fish'll have a meanin'."
"Hell," said Smoke, dismissing the discussion contemptuously.
"An' it'll be hell," Shorty came back. "An' I'll take three more toothpicks with you on them same odds that it'll be sure-enough hell."
"Done," said Smoke.
"I win," Shorty exulted. "Chicken-feather toothpicks for mine."
An hour later they cleared the divide, dipped down past the Bald Buttes through a sharp elbow-canyon, and took the steep open slope that dropped into Porcupine Creek. Shorty, in the lead, stopped abruptly, and Smoke whoaed the dogs. Beneath them, coming up, was a procession of humans, scattered and draggled, a quarter of a mile long.
"They move like it was a funeral," Shorty noted.
"They've no dogs," said Smoke.
"Yep; there's a couple of men pullin' on a sled."
"See that fellow fall down? There's something the matter, Shorty, and there must be two hundred of them."
"Look at 'em stagger as if they was soused. There goes another."
"It's a whole tribe. There are children there."
"Smoke, I win," Shorty proclaimed. "A hunch is a hunch, an' you can't beat it. There she comes. Look at her!--surgin' up like a lot of corpses."
The mass of Indians, at sight of the two men, had raised a weird cry of joy and accelerated its pace.
"They're sure tolerable woozy," commented Shorty. "See 'em fallin' down in lumps and bunches."
"Look at the face of that first one," Smoke said. "It's starvation--that's what's the matter with them. They've eaten their dogs."
"What'll we do? Run for it?"
"And leave the sled and dogs?" Smoke demanded reproachfully.
"They'll sure eat us if we don't. They look hungry enough for it. Hello, old skeeziks. What's wrong with you? Don't look at that dog that way. No cookin'-pot for him--savvy?"
The forerunners were arriving and crowding about them, moaning and plainting in an unfamiliar jargon. To Smoke the picture was grotesque and horrible. It was famine unmistakable. Their faces, hollow-cheeked and skin-stretched, were so many death's-heads. More and more arrived and crowded about, until Smoke and Shorty were hemmed in by the wild crew. Their ragged garments of skin and fur were cut and slashed away, and Smoke knew the reason for it when he saw a wizened child on a squaw's back that sucked and chewed a strip of filthy fur. Another child he observed steadily masticating a leather thong.
"Keep off there!--keep back!" Shorty yelled, falling back on English after futile attempts with the little Indian he did know.
Bucks and squaws and children tottered and swayed on shaking legs and continued to surge in, their mad eyes swimming with weakness and burning with ravenous desire. A woman, moaning, staggered past Shorty and fell with spread and grasping arms on the sled. An old man followed her, panting and gasping, with trembling hands striving to cast off the sled lashings, and get at the grub-sacks beneath. A young man, with a naked knife, tried to rush in, but was flung back by Smoke. The whole mass pressed in upon them, and the fight was on.
At first Smoke and Shorty shoved and thrust and threw back. Then they used the butt of the dog-whip and their fists on the food-mad crowd. And all this against a background of moaning and wailing women and children. Here and there, in a dozen places, the sled-lashings were cut. Men crawled in on their bellies, regardless of a rain of kicks and blows, and tried to drag out the grub. These had to be picked up bodily and flung back. And such was their weakness that they fell continually, under the slightest pressures or shoves. Yet they made no attempt to injure the two men who defended the sled.
It was the utter weakness of the Indians that saved Smoke and Shorty from being overborne. In five minutes the wall of up-standing, on-struggling Indians had been changed to heaps of fallen ones that moaned and gibbered in the snow, and cried and sniveled as their staring, swimming eyes focused on the grub that meant life to them and that brought the slaver to their lips. And behind it all arose the wailing of the women and children.
"Shut up! Oh, shut up!" Shorty yelled, thrusting his fingers into his ears and breathing heavily from his exertions. "Ah, you would, would you!" was his cry as he lunged forward and kicked a knife from the hand of a man who, bellying through the snow, was trying to stab the lead-dog in the throat.
"This is terrible," Smoke muttered.
"I'm all het up," Shorty replied, returning from the rescue of Bright. "I'm real sweaty. An' now what 'r' we goin' to do with this ambulance outfit?"
Smoke shook his head, and then the problem was solved for him. An Indian crawled forward, his one eye fixed on Smoke instead of on the sled, and in it Smoke could see the struggle of sanity to assert itself. Shorty remembered having punched the other eye, which was already swollen shut. The Indian raised himself on his elbow and spoke.
"Me Carluk. Me good Siwash. Me savvy Boston man plenty. Me plenty hungry. All people plenty hungry. All people no savvy Boston man. Me savvy. Me eat grub now. All people eat grub now. We buy 'm grub. Got 'm plenty gold. No got 'm grub. Summer, salmon no come Milk River. Winter, caribou no come. No grub. Me make 'm talk all people. Me tell 'em plenty Boston man come Yukon. Boston man have plenty grub. Boston man like 'm gold. We take 'm gold, go Yukon, Boston man give 'm grub. Plenty gold. Me savvy Boston man like 'm gold."
He began fumbling with wasted fingers at the draw-string of a pouch he took from his belt.
"Too much make 'm noise," Shorty broke in distractedly. "You tell 'm squaw, you tell 'm papoose, shut 'm up mouth."
Carluk turned and addressed the wailing women. Other bucks, listening, raised their voices authoritatively, and slowly the squaws stilled, and quieted the children near to them. Carluk paused from fumbling the draw-string and held up his fingers many times.
"Him people make 'm die," he said.
And Smoke, following the count, knew that seventy-five of the tribe had starved to death.
"Me buy 'm grub," Carluk said, as he got the pouch open and drew out a large chunk of heavy metal. Others were following his example, and on every side appeared similar chunks. Shorty stared.
"Great Jeminey!" he cried. "Copper! Raw, red copper! An' they think it's gold!"
"Him gold," Carluk assured them confidently, his quick comprehension having caught the gist of Shorty's exclamation.
"And the poor devils banked everything on it," Smoke muttered. "Look at it. That chunk there weighs forty pounds. They've got hundreds of pounds of it, and they've carried it when they didn't have strength enough to drag themselves. Look here, Shorty. We've got to feed them."
"Huh! Sounds easy. But how about statistics? You an' me has a month's grub, which is six meals times thirty, which is one hundred an' eighty meals. Here's two hundred Indians, with real, full-grown appetites. How the blazes can we give 'm one meal even?"
"There's the dog-grub," Smoke answered. "A couple of hundred pounds of dried salmon ought to help out. We've got to do it. They've pinned their faith on the white man, you know."
"Sure, an' we can't throw 'm down," Shorty agreed. "An' we got two nasty jobs cut out for us, each just about twicet as nasty as the other. One of us has got to make a run of it to Mucluc an' raise a relief. The other has to stay here an' run the hospital an' most likely be eaten. Don't let it slip your noodle that we've been six days gettin' here; an' travelin' light, an' all played out, it can't be made back in less 'n three days."
For a minute Smoke pondered the miles of the way they had come, visioning the miles in terms of time measured by his capacity for exertion. "I can get there to-morrow night," he announced.
"All right," Shorty acquiesced cheerfully. "An' I'll stay an' be eaten."
"But I'm going to take one fish each for the dogs," Smoke explained, "and one meal for myself."
"An' you'll sure need it if you make Mucluc to-morrow night."
Smoke, through the medium of Carluk, stated the program. "Make fires, long fires, plenty fires," he concluded. "Plenty Boston man stop Mucluc. Boston man much good. Boston man plenty grub. Five sleeps I come back plenty grub. This man, his name Shorty, very good friend of mine. He stop here. He big boss--savvy?"
Carluk nodded and interpreted.
"All grub stop here. Shorty, he give 'm grub. He boss--savvy?"
Carluk interpreted, and nods and guttural cries of agreement proceeded from the men.
Smoke remained and managed until the full swing of the arrangement was under way. Those who were able, crawled or staggered in the collecting of firewood. Long, Indian fires were built that accommodated all. Shorty, aided by a dozen assistants, with a short club handy for the rapping of hungry knuckles, plunged into the cooking. The women devoted themselves to thawing snow in every utensil that could be mustered. First, a tiny piece of bacon was distributed all around, and, next, a spoonful of sugar to cloy the edge of their razor appetites. Soon, on a circle of fires drawn about Shorty, many pots of beans were boiling, and he, with a wrathful eye for what he called renigers, was frying and apportioning the thinnest of flapjacks.
"Me for the big cookin'," was his farewell to Smoke. "You just keep a-hikin'. Trot all the way there an' run all the way back. It'll take you to-day an' to-morrow to get there, and you can't be back inside of three days more. To-morrow they'll eat the last of the dog-fish, an' then there'll be nary a scrap for three days. You gotta keep a-comin', Smoke. You gotta keep a-comin'."
Though the sled was light, loaded only with six dried salmon, a couple of pounds of frozen beans and bacon, and a sleeping-robe, Smoke could not make speed. Instead of riding the sled and running the dogs, he was compelled to plod at the gee-pole. Also, a day of work had already been done, and the freshness and spring had gone out of the dogs and himself. The long arctic twilight was on when he cleared the divide and left the Bald Buttes behind.
Down the slope better time was accomplished, and often he was able to spring on the sled for short intervals and get an exhausting six-mile clip out of the animals. Darkness caught him and fooled him in a wide-valleyed, nameless creek. Here the creek wandered in broad horseshoe curves through the flats, and here, to save time, he began short-cutting the flats instead of keeping to the creek-bed. And black dark found him back on the creek-bed feeling for the trail. After an hour of futile searching, too wise to go farther astray, he built a fire, fed each dog half a fish, and divided his own ration in half. Rolled in his robe, ere quick sleep came he had solved the problem. The last big flat he had short-cut was the one that occurred at the forks of the creek. He had missed the trail by a mile. He was now on the main stream and below where his and Shorty's trail crossed the valley and climbed through a small feeder to the low divide on the other side.
At the first hint of daylight he got under way, breakfastless, and wallowed a mile upstream to pick up the trail. And breakfastless, man and dogs, without a halt, for eight hours held back transversely across the series of small creeks and low divides and down Minnow Creek. By four in the afternoon, with darkness fast-set about him, he emerged on the hard-packed, running trail of Moose Creek. Fifty miles of it would end the journey. He called a rest, built a fire, threw each dog its half-salmon, and thawed and ate his pound of beans. Then he sprang on the sled, yelled, "Mush!" and the dogs went out strongly against their breast-bands.
"Hit her up, you huskies!" he cried. "Mush on! Hit her up for grub! And no grub short of Mucluc! Dig in, you wolves! Dig in!"
Midnight had gone a quarter of an hour in the Annie Mine. The main room was comfortably crowded, while roaring stoves, combined with lack of ventilation, kept the big room unsanitarily warm. The click of chips and the boisterous play at the craps-table furnished a monotonous background of sound to the equally monotonous rumble of men's voices where they sat and stood about and talked in groups and twos and threes. The gold-weighers were busy at their scales, for dust was the circulating medium, and even a dollar drink of whiskey at the bar had to be paid for to the weighers.
The walls of the room were of tiered logs, the bark still on, and the chinking between the logs, plainly visible, was arctic moss. Through the open door that led to the dance-room came the rollicking strains of a Virginia reel, played by a piano and a fiddle. The drawing of Chinese lottery had just taken place, and the luckiest player, having cashed at the scales, was drinking up his winnings with half a dozen cronies. The faro- and roulette-tables were busy and quiet. The draw-poker and stud-poker tables, each with its circle of onlookers, were equally quiet. At another table, a serious, concentrated game of Black Jack was on. Only from the craps-table came noise, as the man who played rolled the dice, full sweep, down the green amphitheater of a table in pursuit of his elusive and long-delayed point. Ever he cried: "Oh! you Joe Cotton! Come a four! Come a Joe! Little Joe! Bring home the bacon, Joe! Joe, you Joe, you!"
Cultus George, a big strapping Circle City Indian, leaned distantly and dourly against the log wall. He was a civilized Indian, if living like a white man connotes civilization; and he was sorely offended, though the offense was of long standing. For years he had done a white man's work, had done it alongside of white men, and often had done it better than they did. He wore the same pants they wore, the same hearty woolens and heavy shirts. He sported as good a watch as they, parted his short hair on the side, and ate the same food--bacon, beans, and flour; and yet he was denied their greatest diversion and reward; namely, whiskey. Cultus George was a money-earner. He had staked claims, and bought and sold claims. He had been grub-staked, and he had accorded grub-stakes. Just now he was a dog-musher and freighter, charging twenty-eight cents a pound for the winter haul from Sixty Mile to Mucluc--and for bacon thirty-three cents, as was the custom. His poke was fat with dust. He had the price of many drinks. Yet no barkeeper would serve him. Whiskey, the hottest, swiftest, completest gratifier of civilization, was not for him. Only by subterranean and cowardly and expensive ways could he get a drink. And he resented this invidious distinction, as he had resented it for years, deeply. And he was especially thirsty and resentful this night, while the white men he had so sedulously emulated he hated more bitterly than ever before. The white men would graciously permit him to lose his gold across their gaming-tables, but for neither love nor money could he obtain a drink across their bars. Wherefore he was very sober, and very logical, and logically sullen.
The Virginia reel in the dance-room wound to a wild close that interfered not with the three camp drunkards who snored under the piano. "All couples promenade to the bar!" was the caller's last cry as the music stopped. And the couples were so promenading through the wide doorway into the main room--the men in furs and moccasins, the women in soft fluffy dresses, silk stockings, and dancing-slippers--when the double storm-doors were thrust open, and Smoke Bellew staggered wearily in.
Eyes centered on him, and silence began to fall. He tried to speak, pulled off his mittens (which fell dangling from their cords), and clawed at the frozen moisture of his breath which had formed in fifty miles of running. He halted irresolutely, then went over and leaned his elbow on the end of the bar.
Only the man at the craps-table, without turning his head, continued to roll the dice and to cry: "Oh! you Joe! Come on, you Joe!" The gamekeeper's gaze, fixed on Smoke, caught the player's attention, and he, too, with suspended dice, turned and looked.
"What's up, Smoke?" Matson, the owner of the Annie Mine, demanded.
With a last effort, Smoke clawed his mouth free. "I got some dogs out there--dead beat," he said huskily. "Somebody go and take care of them, and I'll tell you what's the matter."
In a dozen brief sentences, he outlined the situation. The craps-player, his money still lying on the table and his slippery Joe Cotton still uncaptured, had come over to Smoke, and was now the first to speak.
"We gotta do something. That's straight. But what? You've had time to think. What's your plan? Spit it out."
"Sure," Smoke assented. "Here's what I've been thinking. We've got to hustle light sleds on the jump. Say a hundred pounds of grub on each sled. The driver's outfit and dog-grub will fetch it up fifty more. But they can make time. Say we start five of these sleds pronto--best running teams, best mushers and trail-eaters. On the soft trail the sleds can take the lead turn about. They've got to start at once. At the best, by the time they can get there, all those Indians won't have had a scrap to eat for three days. And then, as soon as we've got those sleds off we'll have to follow up with heavy sleds. Figure it out yourself. Two pounds a day is the very least we can decently keep those Indians traveling on. That's four hundred pounds a day, and, with the old people and the children, five days is the quickest time we can bring them into Mucluc. Now what are you going to do?"
"Take up a collection to buy all the grub," said the craps-player.
"I'll stand for the grub," Smoke began impatiently.
"Nope," the other interrupted. "This ain't your treat. We're all in. Fetch a wash-basin somebody. It won't take a minute. An' here's a starter."
He pulled a heavy gold-sack from his pocket, untied the mouth, and poured a stream of coarse dust and nuggets into the basin. A man beside him caught his hand up with a jerk and an oath, elevating the mouth of the sack so as to stop the run of the dust. To a casual eye, six or eight ounces had already run into the basin.
"Don't be a hawg," cried the second man. "You ain't the only one with a poke. Gimme a chance at it."
"Huh!" sneered the craps-player. "You'd think it was a stampede, you're so goshdanged eager about it."
Men crowded and jostled for the opportunity to contribute, and when they were satisfied, Smoke hefted the heavy basin with both hands and grinned.
"It will keep the whole tribe in grub for the rest of the winter," he said. "Now for the dogs. Five light teams that have some run in them."
A dozen teams were volunteered, and the camp, as a committee of the whole, bickered and debated, accepted and rejected.
"Huh! Your dray-horses!" Long Bill Haskell was told.
"They can pull," he bristled with hurt pride.
"They sure can," he was assured. "But they can't make time for sour apples. They've got theirs cut out for them bringing up the heavy loads."
As fast as a team was selected, its owner, with half a dozen aids, departed to harness up and get ready.
One team was rejected because it had come in tired that afternoon. One owner contributed his team, but apologetically exposed a bandaged ankle that prevented him from driving it. This team Smoke took, overriding the objection of the crowd that he was played out.
Long Bill Haskell pointed out that while Fat 0lsen's team was a crackerjack, Fat Olsen himself was an elephant. Fat Olsen's two hundred and forty pounds of heartiness was indignant. Tears of anger came into his eyes, and his Scandinavian explosions could not be stopped until he was given a place in the heavy division, the craps-player jumping at the chance to take out Olsen's light team.
Five teams were accepted and were being harnessed and loaded, but only four drivers had satisfied the committee of the whole.
"There's Cultus George," some one cried. "He's a trail-eater, and he's fresh and rested."
All eyes turned upon the Indian, but his face was expressionless, and he said nothing.
"You'll take a team," Smoke said to him.
Still the big Indian made no answer. As with an electric thrill, it ran through all of them that something untoward was impending. A restless shifting of the group took place, forming a circle in which Smoke and Cultus George faced each other. And Smoke realized that by common consent he had been made the representative of his fellows in what was taking place, in what was to take place. Also, he was angered. It was beyond him that any human creature, a witness to the scramble of volunteers, should hang back. For another thing, in what followed, Smoke did not have Cultus George's point of view--did not dream that the Indian held back for any reason save the selfish, mercenary one.
"Of course you will take a team," Smoke said.
"How much?" Cultus George asked.
A snarl, spontaneous and general, grated in the throats and twisted the mouths of the miners. At the same moment, with clenched fists or fingers crooked to grip, they pressed in on the offender.
"Wait a bit, boys," Smoke cried. "Maybe he doesn't understand. Let me explain it to him. Look here, George. Don't you see, nobody is charging anything. They're giving everything to save two hundred Indians from starving to death." He paused, to let it sink home.
"How much?" said Cultus George.
"Wait, you fellows! Now listen, George. We don't want you to make any mistake. These starving people are your kind of people. They're another tribe, but they're Indians just the same. Now you've seen what the white men are doing--coughing up their dust, giving their dogs and sleds, falling over one another to hit the trail. Only the best men can go with the first sleds. Look at Fat Olsen there. He was ready to fight because they wouldn't let him go. You ought to be mighty proud because all men think you are a number-one musher. It isn't a case of how much, but how quick."
"How much?" said Cultus George.
"Kill him!" "Bust his head!" "Tar and feathers!" were several of the cries in the wild medley that went up, the spirit of philanthropy and good fellowship changed to brute savagery on the instant.
In the storm-center Cultus George stood imperturbable, while Smoke thrust back the fiercest and shouted:
"Wait! Who's running this?" The clamor died away. "Fetch a rope," he added quietly.
Cultus George shrugged his shoulders, his face twisting tensely in a sullen and incredulous grin. He knew this white-man breed. He had toiled on trail with it and eaten its flour and bacon and beans too long not to know it. It was a law-abiding breed. He knew that thoroughly. It always punished the man who broke the law. But he had broken no law. He knew its law. He had lived up to it. He had neither murdered, stolen, nor lied. There was nothing in the white man's law against charging a price and driving a bargain. They all charged a price and drove bargains. He was doing nothing more than that, and it was the thing they had taught him. Besides, if he wasn't good enough to drink with them, then he was not good enough to be charitable with them, nor to join them in any other of their foolish diversions.
Neither Smoke nor any man there glimpsed what lay in Cultus George's brain, behind his attitude and prompting his attitude. Though they did not know it, they were as beclouded as he in the matter of mutual understanding. To them, he was a selfish brute; to him, they were selfish brutes.
When the rope was brought, Long Bill Haskell, Fat Olsen, and the craps-player, with much awkwardness and angry haste, got the slip-noose around the Indian's neck and rove the rope over a rafter. At the other end of the dangling thing a dozen men tailed on, ready to hoist away.
Nor had Cultus George resisted. He knew it for what it was--bluff. The whites were strong on bluff. Was not draw-poker their favorite game? Did they not buy and sell and make all bargains with bluff? Yes; he had seen a white man do business with a look on his face of four aces and in his hand a busted straight.
"Wait," Smoke commanded. "Tie his hands. We don't want him climbing."
More bluff, Cultus George decided, and passively permitted his hands to be tied behind his back.
"Now it's your last chance, George," said Smoke. "Will you take out the team?"
"How much?" said Cultus George.
Astounded at himself that he should be able to do such a thing, and at the same time angered by the colossal selfishness of the Indian, Smoke gave the signal. Nor was Cultus George any less astounded when he felt the noose tighten with a jerk and swing him off the floor. His stolidity broke on the instant. On his face, in quick succession, appeared surprise, dismay, and pain.
Smoke watched anxiously. Having never been hanged himself, he felt a tyro at the business. The body struggled convulsively, the tied hands strove to burst the bonds, and from the throat came unpleasant noises of strangulation. Suddenly Smoke held up his hand.
"Slack away" he ordered.
Grumbling at the shortness of the punishment, the men on the rope lowered Cultus George to the floor. His eyes were bulging, and he was tottery on his feet, swaying from side to side and still making a fight with his hands. Smoke divined what was the matter, thrust violent fingers between the rope and the neck, and brought the noose slack with a jerk. With a great heave of the chest, Cultus George got his first breath.
"Will you take that team out?" Smoke demanded.
Cultus George did not answer. He was too busy breathing.
"Oh, we white men are hogs," Smoke filled in the interval, resentful himself at the part he was compelled to play. "We'd sell our souls for gold, and all that; but once in a while we forget about it and turn loose and do something without a thought of how much there is in it. And when we do that, Cultus George, watch out. What we want to know now is: Are you going to take out that team?"
Cultus George debated with himself. He was no coward. Perhaps this was the extent of their bluff, and if he gave in now he was a fool. And while he debated, Smoke suffered from secret worry lest this stubborn aborigine would persist in being hanged.
"How much?" said Cultus George.
Smoke started to raise his hand for the signal.
"Me go," Cultus George said very quickly, before the rope could tighten.
"An' when that rescue expedition found me," Shorty told it in the Annie Mine, "that ornery Cultus George was the first in, beatin' Smoke's sled by three hours, an' don't you forget it, Smoke comes in second at that. Just the same, it was about time, when I heard Cultus George a-yellin' at his dogs from the top of the divide, for those blamed Siwashes had ate my moccasins, my mitts, the leather lacin's, my knife-sheath, an' some of 'em was beginnin' to look mighty hungry at me--me bein' better nourished, you see.
"An' Smoke? He was near dead. He hustled around a while, helpin' to start a meal for them two hundred sufferin' Siwashes; an' then he fell asleep, settin' on his haunches, thinkin' he was feedin' snow into a thawin'-pail. I fixed him my bed, an' dang me if I didn't have to help him into it, he was that give out. Sure I win the toothpicks. Didn't them dogs just naturally need the six salmon Smoke fed 'em at the noonin'?"
Return to the Jack London library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Heathen