Mr. William Hyde was discharged from Deer Lodge Penitentiary a changed man. That was quite in line with the accepted theory of criminal jurisprudence, the warden's discipline, and the chaplain's prayers. Yes, Mr. Hyde was changed, and the change had bitten deep; his humorous contempt for the law had turned to abiding hatred; his sunburned cheeks were pallid, his lungs were weak, and he coughed considerably. Balanced against these results, to be sure, were the benefits accruing from three years of corrective discipline at the State's expense; the knack of conversing through stone walls, which Mr. Hyde had mastered, and the plaiting of wonderful horsehair bridles, which he had learned. Otherwise he was the same "Laughing Bill" his friends had known, neither more nor less regenerate.
Since the name of Montana promised to associate itself with unpleasant memories, Mr. Hyde determined at once to bury his past and begin life anew in a climate more suited to weak lungs. To that end he stuck up a peaceful citizen of Butte who was hurrying homeward with an armful of bundles, and in the warm dusk of a pleasant evening relieved him of eighty-three dollars, a Swiss watch with an elk's-tooth fob, a pearl-handled penknife, a key-ring, and a bottle of digestive tablets.
Three wasted years of industry had not robbed Mr. Hyde of the technique of his trade, hence there was nothing amateurish or uproarious about the procedure. He merely back-heeled the pedestrian against a bill-board, held him erect and speechless by placing his left hand upon his victim's shoulder and pressing his left forearm firmly across the gentleman's apple, the while with his own dexterous right mit he placed the eighty-three dollars in circulation. During the transaction he laughed constantly. An hour later he was en route for the sunny South, there being good and sufficient reasons why he preferred that direction to any other.
Arizona helped Mr. Hyde's lungs, for the random town which he selected was high and dry, but, unfortunately, so was Laughing Bill soon after his arrival, and in consequence he was forced to engage promptly in a new business enterprise. This time he raised a pay-roll. It was an easy task, for the custodian of the pay-roll was a small man with a kindly and unsuspicious nature. As a result of this operation Bill was enabled to maintain himself, for some six weeks, in a luxury to which of late he had been unaccustomed. At the end of this time the original bearer of the payroll tottered forth from the hospital and, chancing to overhear Mr. Hyde in altercation with a faro dealer, he was struck by some haunting note in the former's laughter, and lost no time in shuffling his painful way to the sheriff's office.
Seeing the man go, Laughing Bill realized that his health again demanded a change of climate, and since it lacked nearly an hour of train time he was forced to leave on horseback. Luckily for him he found a horse convenient. It was a wild horse, with nothing whatever to indicate that it belonged to any one, except the fact that it carried a silver-mounted saddle and bridle, the reins of which were fastened to a post in front of a saloon.
Mr. Hyde enjoyed the ride, for it kept him out in the open air. It grieved him to part with the horse, a few hours later, but being prodigal with personal property he presented the animal to a poor Mexican woman, leaving her to face any resulting embarrassments. Ten minutes later he swung himself under a west-bound freight, and in due time arrived in California, somewhat dirty and fatigued, but in excellent humor.
Laughing Bill's adventures and his aliases during his slow progress up the coast form no part of this story. It might be said, with a great deal of truth, that he was missed, if not mourned, in many towns. Finally, having found the climates of California, Oregon and Washington uniformly unsuited to one of his habits, force of circumstance in the shape of numerous hand-bills adorned with an unflattering half-tone of himself, but containing certain undeniably accurate data such as diameter of skull, length of nose, angle of ear, and the like, drove him still north and west. Bill was a modest man; he considered these statistics purely personal in character; to see them blazoned publicly on the walls of post-offices, and in the corridors of county buildings, outraged his finer feelings, so he went away from there, in haste, as usual.
Having never sailed the sea, he looked forward to such an experience with lively anticipation, only to be disappointed in the realization. It was rough off Flattery, and he suffered agonies strange and terrifying. In due time, however, he gained his sea legs and, being forever curious, even prying, he explored the ship. His explorations were interesting, for they took him into strange quarters--into the forecastle, the steerage, even into some of the first-class state-rooms, the doors of which had been left "on the hook" while their occupants were at meals. No small benefit accrued to Mr. Hyde from these investigations.
One day during the dinner-hour, as he was occupied in admiring the contents of a strange suit-case, a voice accosted him over his shoulder, and he looked up to discover a face in the cabin window. Bill realized that an explanation was due, for it was evident that the speaker had been watching him for some little time; but under the circumstances, even though the face in the window was round, youthful, good-humored, explanations promised to be embarrassing.
"How d'y?" said Mr. Hyde.
"What luck?" inquired the stranger.
Mr. Hyde sat back upon his heels and grinned engagingly. "Not much," he confessed. "Can't find it nowhere. This guy must be a missionary."
The new-comer opened the door and entered. He was a medium-sized, plump young man. "Oh, I say!" he protested. "Is it as bad as that?" Bill nodded vaguely, meanwhile carefully measuring the physical proportions of the interloper. The latter went on:
"I saw that you knew your business, and--I was hoping you'd manage to find something I had missed."
Mr. Hyde breathed deep with relief; his expression altered. "You been through ahead of me?" he inquired.
"Oh, several times; daily, in fact." The speaker tossed a bunch of keys upon the berth, saying: "Glance through the steamer-trunk while you're here and declare me in on anything-you find."
Mr. Hyde rose to his feet and retreated a step; his look of relief was replaced by one of dark suspicion. As always, in moments of extremity, he began to laugh.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"I? Why, I live here. That's my baggage. I've been through it, as I told you, but--" The young man frowned whimsically and lit a cigarette. "It doesn't diagnose. I can't find a solitary symptom of anything worth while. Sit down, won't you?"
Mr. Hyde's manner changed for a second time. He was embarrassed, apologetic, crestfallen. "Your cabin? Why, then--it's my mistake!" he declared. "I must 'a' got in the wrong flat. Mac sent me up for a deck of cards, but--Say, that's funny, ain't it?"
He began to see the joke upon himself, and the youth echoed his laughter.
"It is funny," the latter agreed. "For Heaven's sake, don't spoil it. Sit down and have a smoke; I'm not going to eat you."
"See here! You don't mean--? D'you think for a minute--?" Mr. Hyde began with rotund dignity, but the other waved his cigarette impatiently, saying:
"Oh, drop that stuff or I'll page your friend 'Mac' and show you up."
In assuming his air of outraged innocence Laughing Bill had arched his hollow chest and inhaled deeply. As a result he began to cough, whereupon his new acquaintance eyed him keenly, saying:
"That's a bad bark. What ails you?"
"Con," said Laughing Bill.
"Pardon me. I wouldn't have smoked if I'd known." The speaker dropped his cigarette and placed a heel upon it. "What are you doing here? Alaska's no place for weak lungs."
Gingerly seating himself upon the narrow settee Mr. Hyde murmured, wonderingly: "Say! You're a regular guy, ain't you?" He began to laugh again, but now there was less of a metallic quality to his merriment. "Yes sir, dam' if you ain't." He withdrew from his pocket a silver-mounted hair-brush and comb, and placed them carefully upon the washstand. "I don't aim to quit winner on a sport like you."
"Thanks, awfully!" smiled the young man. "I'd have fought you for that comb and brush. Girl stuff, you understand? That's she." He pointed to a leather-framed photograph propped against the mirror.
Laughing Bill leaned forward and studied the picture approvingly. "Some queen, all right. Blonde, I reckon."
"Sure. You like blondes?"
"Who, me? I ain't strong for no kind of women. You hate her, don't you?"
The young man smiled more widely, his whole face lit up. "I hate her so much that I kissed her good-by and sailed away to make a quick fortune. I hope Alaska's unhealthy."
"You see, I'm a doctor. I'm a good doctor, too, but it takes a long time to prove it, out in the States, and I can't wait a long time."
Mr. Hyde pondered briefly. "I don't see's you got much on me, Doc," he said. "I frisk 'em while they're good and healthy, and you 'take' 'em when they're feeble. I don't see no difference to speak of."
"It's an interesting viewpoint," the physician agreed, seriously enough, "and I respect every man's opinion. Tell me, how did you acquire that cough?"
"Livin' in a ground-floor apartment."
"What's your business?"
"Hm-m! You'll do well up here." The doctor was highly entertained. "I understand there's a horse at Nome."
"Alaska isn't a stock country."
Laughing Bill was genuinely surprised. "No horses!" he murmured. "How the hell do you get away?"
"You don't. You stay and face the music."
"Now what do you know about that?" There was a brief silence. "Well, I bet I'll turn my hand to something."
"No doubt. You impress me as a man of resource." The doctor's eyes twinkled and Bill smiled. A bond of friendly understanding had already sprung up between the two men. "Now then, I'm interested in your case. I've a notion to try to cure you."
"Nothing doin' on the fees. I'm a dead card."
"Oh, I won't charge you anything! I'm merely interested in obscure ailments, and, if I'm not mistaken, you suffer from more than one--well, disease. I think you need curing about as badly as any man I ever saw."
Now Laughing Bill was not skilled in subtleties, and his relief at extricating himself from a trying predicament banished any resentment he might have felt at the doctor's double meaning. Since the latter was a good-natured, harmless individual he decided to humor him, and so, after they had visited for an hour or more, Mr. Hyde discreetly withdrew. But, oddly enough, during the days immediately following, Laughing Bill grew to like the young fellow immensely. This in itself was a novel experience, for the ex-convict had been a "loner" all his-life, and had never really liked any one. Dr. Evan Thomas, however, seemed to fill some long-felt want in Hyde's hungry make-up. He fitted in smoothly, too, and despite the latter's lifelong habit of suspicion, despite his many rough edges, he could not manage to hold the young man at a distance.
Thomas was of a type strange to the wanderer, he was educated, he had unfamiliar airs and accomplishments, but he was human and natural withal. He was totally ignorant of much that Mr. Hyde deemed fundamental, and yet he was mysteriously superior, while his indifferent good nature, his mild amusement at the antics of the world about him covered a sincere and earnest nature. He knew his business, moreover, and he revolutionized Bill's habits of hygiene in spite of the latter's protests.
But the disease which ravaged Mr. Hyde's constitution had its toes dug in, and when the steamer touched at St. Michaels he suffered a severe hemorrhage. For the first time in his life Laughing Bill stood face to face with darkness. He had fevered memories of going over side on a stretcher; he was dimly aware of an appalling weakness, which grew hourly, then an agreeable indifference enveloped him, and for a long time he lived in a land of unrealities, of dreams. The day came when he began to wonder dully how and why he found himself in a freezing cabin with Doctor Thomas, in fur cap and arctic overshoes, tending him. Bill pondered the phenomenon for a week before he put his query into words.
"I've had a hard fight for you, old man," the doctor explained. "I couldn't leave you here to die."
"I guess I must 'a' been pretty sick."
"Right! There's no hospital here, so I took this cabin--borrowed it from the Company. We don't burn much fuel, and expenses aren't high."
"You been standin' off the landlord?"
There was a considerable silence, then Bill said, fervently: "You're a regular guy, like I told you! But you got your pill business to attend to. I'm all right now, so you better blow."
Thomas smiled dubiously. "You're a long way from all right, and there's no place to 'blow' to. The last boat sailed two weeks ago."
"Last boat for where?"
"For anywhere. We're here for the winter, unless the mail-carrier will take us to Nome, or up the Yukon, after the trails open."
"I bet you'll do a good business right here, when folks see what you done for me," Bill ventured.
"Just wait till you look at the town--deserted warehouses, some young and healthy watchmen, and a Siwash village. You're the only possible patient in all of St. Michaels."
Bill lay silent for an hour, staring through the open cabin window at a gray curtain of falling snowflakes; then he shook his head and muttered:
"Well, I be danged!"
"Anything you want?" Thomas inquired, quickly.
"I was just thinking about that gal." Bill indicated the leather-framed photograph which was prominently featured above the other bunk. "You ain't gettin' ahead very fast, are you?"
This time the young medical man smiled with his lips only--his eyes were grave and troubled. "I've written her all the circumstances, and she'll understand. She's that sort of a girl." He turned cheerfully back to his task. "I found that I had a few dollars left, so we won't starve."
Mr. Hyde felt impelled to confess that in his war-bag there was a roll of some seven hundred dollars, title to which had vested in him on the northward trip, together with certain miscellaneous objects of virtu, but he resisted the impulse, fearing that an investigation by his nurse might lead the latter to believe that he, Bill, was not a harness-maker at all, but a jewelry salesman. He determined to spring that roll at a later date, and to present the doctor with a very thin, very choice gold watch out of State-room 27. Bill carried out this intention when he had sufficiently recovered to get about.
Later, when his lungs had healed, Bill hired the mail-man to take him and his nurse to Nome. Since he was not yet altogether strong, he rode the sled most of the way, while the doctor walked. It was a slow and tiresome trip, along the dreary shores of Behring Sea, over timberless tundras, across inlets where the new ice bent beneath their weight and where the mail-carrier cautiously tested the footing with the head of his ax. Sometimes they slept in their tent, or again in road-houses and in Indian villages.
Every hour Laughing Bill grew stronger, and with his strength of body grew his strength of affection for the youthful doctor. Bill experienced a dog-like satisfaction in merely being near him; he suffered pangs when Thomas made new friends; he monopolized him jealously. The knowledge that he had a pal was new and thrilling; it gave Bill constant food for thought and speculation. Thomas was always gentle and considerate, but his little services, his unobtrusive sacrifices never went unnoticed, and they awoke in the bandit an ever-increasing wonderment. Also, they awoke a fierce desire to square the obligation.
The two men laid over at one of the old Russian towns, and Thomas, as was his restless custom, made investigation of the native village. Of course Bill went with him. They had learned by this time to enter Indian houses without knocking, so, therefore, when they finally came to a cabin larger and cleaner than the rest they opened the door and stepped inside, quite like experienced travelers.
A squaw was bent over a tub of washing, another stood beside the tiny frosted window staring out. Neither woman answered the greeting of the white men.
"Must be the chief's house," Thomas observed.
"Must be! I s'pose the old bird is out adding up his reindeer. 'Sapolio Sue' is prob'ly his head wife." Laughing Bill ran an interested eye over the orderly interior. "Some shack, but--I miss the usual smell."
Neither woman paid them the least attention, so they continued to talk with each other.
"I wonder what she is washing," Doctor Thomas said, finally.
The figure at the window turned, exposing the face of a comely young Indian girl. Her features were good, her skin was light. She eyed the intruders coolly, then in a well-modulated voice, and in excellent English, she said:
"She is washing a pair of sealskin pants."
Both men removed their caps in sudden embarrassment. Thomas exclaimed:
"I beg your pardon! We thought this was just an ordinary native house, or we wouldn't have intruded."
"You haven't intruded. This is 'Reindeer Mary's' house." The girl had again turned her back.
"Are you Reindeer Mary?"
"No, I am Ponatah. Mary befriended me; she lets me live with her."
"Allow me to introduce Mr. Hyde. I am Doctor Thomas. We were very rude--"
"Oh, everybody comes here." The men recognized instantly in the speaker's face, as well as in her voice, that education had set its stamp. "Will you sit down and wait for her?"
"You overwhelm us." After an awkward moment the physician queried, "How in the world did you learn to speak such good English?"
"A missionary took an interest in me when I was a little girl. He sent me to Carlisle."
Laughing Bill had been an attentive listener, now he ventured to say: "I know this Carlisle. He's a swell football player, or something."
Ponatah smiled, showing a row of small, white teeth. "Carlisle is an Indian school."
"What made you come back?" Thomas inquired, curiously.
Ponatah shrugged her shoulders. "There was an end to the money. What could I do? At first I thought I'd be able to help my people, but--I couldn't. They will learn from the white people, but not from one of their own kind."
"They died when I was a baby. Mary took me in." The girl spoke in a flat, emotionless tone.
"It must be tough to come back to this, now that you know what life really is," said Thomas, after a time.
Ponatah's eyes were dark with tragedy when she turned them to the speaker. "God!" she cried, unexpectedly, then abruptly she faced the window once more. It was a moment before she went on in fierce resentment:
"Why didn't they leave me as they found me? Why did they teach me their ways, and then send me back to this--this dirt and ignorance and squalor? Sometimes I think I can't stand it. But what can I do? Nobody understands. Mary can't see why I'm different from her and the others. She has grown rich, with her reindeer; she says if this is good enough for her it should be good enough for me. As for the white men who come through, they can't, or they won't, understand. They're hateful to me. Petersen, the mail-carrier, for instance! I don't know why I'm telling you this. You're strangers. You're probably just like Petersen."
"I know why you're telling us," Thomas said, slowly. "It's because I--because we're not like Petersen and the others; it's because I--we can help you."
"Help me?" sneered the girl. "How?"
"I don't know, yet. But you're out of place here. There's a place for you somewhere; I'll find it."
Ponatah shook her head wearily. "Mary says I belong here, with my people."
"No. You belong with white people--people who will treat you well."
This time the girl smiled bitterly. "They have treated me worse than my own people have. I know them, and--I hate them."
"Ain't you the sore-head, now?" Laughing Bill murmured. "You got a hundred-per-cent. grouch, but if the old medicine-man says he'll put you in right, you bet your string of beads he'll do it. He's got a gift for helpin' down-and-outers. You got class, Kid; you certainly rhinestone this whole bunch of red men. Why, you belong in French heels and a boodwar cap; that's how I dope you."
"There must be a chance for a girl like you in Nome," Thomas continued, thoughtfully. "You'd make a good hand with children. Suppose I try to find you a place as governess?"
"Would you?" Ponatah's face was suddenly eager. "Children? Oh yes! I'd work my fingers to the bone. I--I'd do anything--"
"Then I'll do what I can."
For some time longer the three of them talked, and gradually into the native girl's eyes there came a light, for these men were not like the others she had met, and she saw the world begin to unfold before her. When at last they left she laid a hand upon the doctor's arm and said, imploringly:
"You won't forget. You--promise?"
"I promise," he told her.
"He don't forget nothing," Bill assured her, "and if he does I'll see that he don't."
After they had gone Ponatah stood motionless for a long time, then she whispered, breathlessly:
"Children! Little white children! I'll be very good to them."
"She's a classy quilt," Laughing Bill said, on the way back to the road-house.
"She's as pretty as a picture, and little more than a child," the doctor admitted.
"You made a hit. She'd do 'most anything for you." The doctor muttered, absent-mindedly. "She's stood off Petersen and these red-necks, but she'd fall for you." Mr. Hyde was insinuating.
Thomas halted; he stared at his partner curiously, coldly. "Say! Do you think that's why I offered to help her?" he inquired.
"Come clean!" The invalid winked meaningly. "You're a long ways from home, and I've knew fellers to do a lot worse. You can grab her, easy. And if you do--"
Thomas grunted angrily. "I've put up with a lot from you," he said, then he strode on.
"And if you do," the other resumed, falling into step with him, "I'll bust you right where you're thickest."
"I'll bust you wide open. Oh, me 'n' that gal in the leather frame had a long talk while I was sick in St. Mikes, and she asked me to keep you in the middle of the trail. Well, I'm the little guy that can do it."
"Bill!" Evan Thomas's eyes were twinkling. "I believe I'm going to cure you, after all," said he.
Late that afternoon Mr. Hyde disappeared; he did not show up until after dark.
"I been to see Lo, the poor squaw," he readily confessed. "She ain't the pure domestic leaf, she's a blend--part Rooshian, or something. Seems there was a gang of Rooshians or Swedes or Dagoes of some sort used to run this country. She says they horned into some of the best Injun families, and she's one of the 'overs.'"
"They were Russians."
"Rooshians is a kind of white people, ain't they? Well, that's how she come so light-complected. You remember she said our folks had treated her bad? It's a fact, Doc. She spilled the story, and it made a mouthful. It's like this: when Nome was struck a Swede feller she had knew staked her a claim, but she couldn't hold it, her bein' a squab--under age, savvy? There's something in the law that prevents Injuns gettin' in on anything good, too; I don't rightly recollect what it is, but if it's legal you can bet it's crooked. Anyhow, Uncle Sam lets up a squawk that she's only eighteen, goin' on nineteen, and a noble redskin to boot, and says his mining claims is reserved for Laps and Yaps and Japs and Wops, and such other furrin' slantheads of legal age as declare their intention to become American citizens if their claims turn out rich enough so's it pays 'em to do so.
"Well, Ponatah's Swede friend gets himself froze, somehow, so she has to pass the buck. Naturally, she turns to her pals, the missionaries. There's a he-missionary here--head mug of the whole gang. He's a godly walloper, and he tears into Satan bare-handed every Sunday. He slams the devil around something shameful, and Ponatah thinks he's a square guy if ever they come square, so she asks him to re-locate her claim, on shares, and hold it for the joint account. Old Doctor M.E. Church agrees to split fifty-fifty, half to her and half to heaven, then he vamps to Nome and chalks his monaker over the Kid's. Now get me: the claim turns out good, and Ponatah's heavenly pilot makes a Mexican divvy--he takes the money and gives her his best wishes. He grabs everything, and says he never knew nobody by the name of Ponatah--he gets so he can't even pronounce it. He allows her face is familiar, but he can't place her, and the partnership idea allus was repugnant to him. He never was partners with nobody, understand? He blows the show; he bows out and leaves the Kid flat. He forsakes the Milky Way for the Great White one, and he's out there now, smokin' Coronas and wearin' a red vest under his black coat, with a diamond horseshoe in his tie. It looks to me like the James boys could 'a' learned something from this gospel hold-up."
"Do you believe her story?" Thomas inquired.
"She don't know enough to lie, and you can't trust a guy that wears his collar backwards."
"She should go to court."
Mr. Hyde shook his head. "I been there, often, but I never picked up a bet. Somehow or other courts is usually right next to jails, and you got to watch out you don't get in the wrong place. You can't win nothing in either one. I thought I'd tell you the story, so if you ever meet up with this shave-tail preacher and he wants a headache pill you can slip him some sugar-coated arsenic."
In the days immediately following Doctor Thomas's arrival at Nome he was a busy man, but he did not forget Ponatah. He was allowed no opportunity of doing so, for Bill frequently reminded him of her, and as a result it was not long before he found a place for his charge, in the home of a leading merchant. Arrangements made, Bill went in search of the mail-carrier.
Petersen was drinking with two friends at the bar of the Last Chance, and he pressed his late passenger to join them. But alcoholism was not one of Mr. Hyde's weaknesses. The best of Bill's bad habits was much worse than drink; he had learned from experience that liquor put a traitor's tongue in his head, and in consequence he was a teetotaler.
"I got a job for you, Pete," he announced. "I got you another sled-load for your next trip. You know Ponatah?"
"Ponatah? Sure Aye know 'im." Petersen. spoke with enthusiasm.
"Well, bring her along when you come. Me 'n' the little Doc will settle."
"Dat's good yob for me, all right. Vot mak' you tank she'll come? Aye ask her plenty tams, but she ant like me."
"You slip her this billy-ducks and she'll come."
Petersen pocketed the letter which Bill handed him; his eyes brightened; the flush in his face deepened. "You bet your gum boots Aye bring her. She's svell, ant she, Bill? She's yust some svell like white voman."
"Who's this?" queried one of Petersen's companions.
"Ponatah. She's jung sqvaw. Aye got eyes on dat chicken long tam now." The burly mail-man laughed loudly and slapped his friend on the shoulder.
Mr. Hyde appeared to share in the general good nature. Carelessly, smilingly he picked up Petersen's dog-whip, which lay coiled on the bar; thoughtfully he weighed it. The lash was long, but the handle was short and thick, and its butt was loaded with shot; it had much the balance of a black-jack--a weapon not unknown to Mr. Hyde.
"Pretty soft for you mail-men." The former speaker grinned.
"Ja! Pretty soft. Aye bet Aye have good tam dis trip. Yust vait. You don't know how purty is Ponatah. She--"
Petersen's listeners waited. They are waiting yet, for the mail-man never completed his admiring recital of the Indian girl's charms, owing to the fact that the genial Mr. Hyde without warning tapped his late friend's round head with the leather butt of the dog-whip. Had it not been for the Norseman's otter cap it is probable that a new mail-carrier would have taken the St. Michaels run.
Petersen sat down upon his heels, and rested his forehead against the cool brass foot-rail; the subsequent proceedings interested him not at all. Those proceedings were varied and sudden, for the nearest and dearest of Petersen's friends rushed upon Mr. Hyde with a roar. Him, too, Bill eliminated from consideration with the loaded whip handle. But, this done, Bill found himself hugged in the arms of the other man, as in the embrace of a bereaved she-grizzly. Now even at his best the laughing Mr. Hyde was no hand at rough-and-tumble, it being his opinion that fisticuffs was a peculiarly indecisive and exhausting way of settling a dispute. He possessed a vile temper, moreover, and once aroused half measures failed to satisfy it.
After Mr. Hyde's admirable beginning those neutrals who had seen the start of the affray were prepared to witness an ending equally quick and conclusive. They were surprised, therefore, to note that Bill put up a very weak struggle, once he had come to close quarters. He made only the feeblest resistance, before permitting himself to be borne backward to the floor, and then as he lay pinned beneath his opponent he did not even try to guard the blows that rained upon him; as a matter of fact, he continued to laugh as if the experience were highly diverting.
Seeing that the fight was one-sided, the bartender hastened from his retreat, dragged Petersen's champion to his feet, and flung him back into the arms of the onlookers, after which he stooped to aid the loser. His hands were actually upon Bill before he understood the meaning of that peculiar laughter, and saw in Mr. Hyde's shaking fingers that which caused him to drop the prostrate victim as if he were a rattlesnake.
"God'l'mighty!" exclaimed the rescuer. He retreated hurriedly whence he had come.
Bill rose and dusted himself off, then he bent over Petersen, who was stirring.
"Just give her that billy-ducks and tell her it's all right. Tell her I say you won't hurt her none." Then, still chuckling, he slipped into the crowd and out of the Last Chance. As he went he coughed and spat a mouthful of blood.
Once the mail-carrier had been apprised of the amazing incidents which had occurred during his temporary inattention, he vowed vengeance in a mighty voice, and his threats found echo in the throats of his two companions. But the bartender took them aside and spoke guardedly:
"You better lay off of that guy, or he'll fatten the graveyard with all three of you. I didn't 'make' him at first, but I got him now, all right."
"What d'you mean? Who is he?"
"His name's Hyde, 'Laughing Bill.'"
"'Laughing Bill' Hyde!" One of Petersen's friends, he who had come last into the encounter, turned yellow and leaned hard against the bar. A sudden nausea assailed him and he laid tender hands upon his abdomen. "'Laughing Bill' Hyde! That's why he went down so easy! Why, he killed a feller I knew--ribboned him up from underneath, just that way--and the jury called it self-defense." A shudder racked the speaker's frame.
"Sure! He's a cutter--a reg'lar gent's cutter and fitter. He'd 'a' had you all over the floor in another minute; if I hadn't pried you apart they'd 'a' sewed sawdust up inside of you like you was a doll. He had the old bone-handled skinner in his mit; that's why I let go of him. Laughing Bill! Take it from me, boys, you better walk around him like he was a hole in the ice."
It may have been the memory of that heavy whip handle, it may have been the moral effect of stray biographical bits garnered here and there around the gambling-table, or it may have been merely a high and natural chivalry, totally unsuspected until now, which prompted Petersen to treat Ponatah with a chill and formal courtesy when he returned from St. Michaels. At any rate, the girl arrived in Nome with nothing but praise for the mail-man. Pete Petersen, so she said, might have his faults, but he knew how to behave like a perfect gentleman.
Ponatah took up her new duties with enthusiasm, and before a month had passed she had endeared herself to her employers, who secretly assured Doctor Thomas that they had discovered a treasure and would never part with her. She was gentle, patient, sweet, industrious; the children idolized her. The Indian girl had never dreamed of a home like this; she was deliriously happy.
She took pride in discharging her obligations; she did not forget the men who had made this wonder possible. They had rented a little cabin, and, after the fashion of men, they make slipshod efforts at keeping house. Since it was Ponatah's nature to serve, she found time somehow to keep the place tidy and to see to their comfort.
Laughing Bill was a hopeless idler; he had been born to leisure and was wedded to indigence, therefore he saw a good deal of the girl on her visits. He listened to her stories of the children, he admired her new and stylish clothes, he watched her develop under the influence of her surroundings. Inasmuch as both of them were waifs, and beholden to the bounty of others, thy had ties in common--a certain mutuality--hence they came to know each other intimately.
Despite the great change in her environment, Ponatah remained in many ways quite aboriginal. For instance, she was embarrassingly direct and straightforward; she entirely lacked hypocrisy, and that which puzzled or troubled her she boldly put into words. There came a time when Bill discovered that Ponatah's eyes, when they looked at him, were more than friendly, that most of the services she performed were aimed at him.
Then one day she asked him to marry her.
There was nothing brazen or forward about the proposal; Ponatah merely gave voice to her feelings in a simple, honest way that robbed her of no dignity.
Bill laughed the proposal off. "I wouldn't marry the Queen of Sheby," said he.
"I ain't that kind of a bird, that's why."
"What kind of a bird are you?" Ponatah eyed him with grave curiosity. "All men marry. I'm reading a great many books, and they're all about love and marriage. I love you, and I'm pretty. Is it because I'm an Indian--?"
"Hell! That wouldn't faze me, Kiddo. You skin the white dames around this village. But you better cut out them books."
"I'd make you a good wife."
"Sure! You're aces. But I'd make a bum husband. I ain't got the breath to blow out a candle." Mr. Hyde chuckled; the idea of marriage plainly amused him. "How you know I ain't got a covey of wives?" he inquired.
"Oh, I know!" Ponatah was unsmiling. "I'm simple, but I can see through people. I can tell the good ones and the bad ones. You're a good man, Billy."
Now this praise was anything but agreeable to Mr. Hyde, for above all things he abhorred so-called "good" people. Good people were suckers, and he prided himself upon being a wise guy, with all that was meant thereby.
"You lay off of me, Kid," he warned, darkly, "and you muffle them wedding bells. You can't win nothing with that line of talk. If I was fifty inches around the chest, liked to work, and was fond of pas'ment'ries I'd prob'ly fall for you, but I ain't. I'm a good man, all right--to leave alone. I'll be a brother to you, but that's my limit." The subject was embarrassing, so he changed it. "Say! I been thinking about that claim of yours. Didn't you get no paper from that missionary?"
"Then his word's as good as yours."
"That's what the lawyer told me. I offered to give him half, but he wouldn't touch the case."
"It was a dirty deal, but you better forget it."
"I'll try," the girl promised. "But I don't forget easily."
Laughing Bill's rejection of Ponatah's offer of marriage did not in the least affect their friendly relations. She continued to visit the cabin, and not infrequently she reverted to the forbidden topic, only to meet with discouragement.
Doctor Thomas had opened an office, of course, but business was light and expenses heavy. Supplies were low in Nome and prices high; coal, for instance, was a hundred dollars a ton and, as a result, most of the idle citizens spent their evenings---but precious little else--around the saloon stoves. When April came Laughing Bill regretfully decided that it was necessary for him to go to work. The prospect was depressing, and he did not easily reconcile himself to it, for he would have infinitely preferred some less degraded and humiliating way out of the difficulty. He put up a desperate battle against the necessity, and he did not accept the inevitable until thoroughly convinced that the practice of medicine and burglary could not be carried on from the same residence without the risk of serious embarrassment to his benefactor.
However, to find employment in a community where there were two men to one job was not easy, but happily--or unhappily--Bill had a smattering of many trades, and eventually there came an opening as handy-man at a mine. It was a lowly position, and Bill had little pride in it, for he was put to helping the cook, waiting on table, washing dishes, sweeping cabins, making beds, and the like. He had been assured that the work was light, and so it was, but it was also continuous. He could summon not the slightest interest in it until he discovered that this was the very claim which rightfully belonged to Ponatah. Then, indeed, he pricked up his ears.
The Aurora Borealis, as the mine was now called, had been working all winter, and gigantic dumps of red pay-dirt stood as monuments to the industry of its workmen. Rumor had it that the "streak" was rich, and that Doctor Slayforth, the owner, would be in on the first boat to personally oversee the clean-ups. The ex-missionary, Bill discovered, had the reputation of being a tight man, and meanly suspicious in money matters. He reposed no confidence in his superintendent, a surly, saturnine fellow known as Black Jack Berg, nor in Denny Slevin, his foreman. So much Laughing Bill gathered from camp gossip.
It soon became evident that Black Jack was a hard driver, for sluicing began with the first trickle of snow water--even while the ditches were still ice-bound--and it continued with double shifts thereafter. A representative of Doctor Slayforth came out from Nome to watch the first clean-up, and Bill, in his capacity as chambermaid, set up a cot for him in the cabin shared by Black Jack and Denny. While so engaged the latter discovered him, and gruffly ordered him to remove the cot to the bunk-house.
"Put him in with the men," growled Slevin. "Serves the dam' spy right."
"Spy? Is he a gum-shoe?" Mr. Hyde paused, a pillow slip between his teeth.
"That's what! Me and Jack was honest enough to run things all winter, but we ain't honest enough to clean up. That's like old Slayforth--always lookin' to get the worst of it. I'm square, and so's Jack. Makes me sick, this spyin' on honest folks. Everybody knows we wouldn't turn a trick."
Now it was Laughing Bill's experience that honesty needs no boosting, and that he who most loudly vaunts his rectitude is he who is least certain of it.
"The boss must be a good man, him being a sort of psalm-singer," Bill ventured, guilelessly.
Denny snorted: "Oh, sure! He's good, all right. He's 'most too good--to be true. Billy, my boy, when you've seen as many crooks as I have you'll know 'em, no matter how they come dressed."
As he folded the cot Mr. Hyde opined that worldly experience must indeed be a fine thing to possess.
"You go gamble on it!" Slevin agreed. "Now then, just tell that Hawkshaw we don't want no dam' spies in our house. We're square guys, and we can't stomach 'em."
That evening Black Jack called upon the handy-man to help with the clean-up, and put him to tend the water while he and Denny, under the watchful eye of the owner's representative, lifted the riffles, worked down the concentrates, and removed them from the boxes.
Bill was an experienced placer miner, so it was not many days before he was asked to help in the actual cleaning of the sluices. He was glad of the promotion, for, as he told himself, no man can squeeze a lemon without getting juice on his fingers. It will be seen, alas! that Mr. Hyde's moral sense remained blunted in spite of the refining influence of his association with Doctor Thomas. But Aurora dust was fine, and the handy-man's profits were scarcely worth the risks involved in taking them.
One morning while Bill was cleaning up the superintendent's cabin he noticed a tiny yellow flake of gold upon the floor in front of Slevin's bed. Careful examination showed him several "colors" of the same sort, so he swept the boards carefully and took up the dust in a "blower." He breathed upon the pile, blowing the lighter particles away. A considerable residue of heavy yellow grains remained. With a grin Bill folded them in a cigarette paper and placed them in his pocket. But it puzzled him to explain how there came to be gold on the cabin floor. His surprise deepened when, a few days later, he found another "prospect" in the same place. His two sweepings had yielded perhaps a pennyweight of the precious metal--enough to set him to thinking. It seemed queer that in the neighborhood of Black Jack's bunk he could find no pay whatever.
Slevin had left his hip boots in the cabin, and as Laughing Bill turned down their tops and set them out in the wind to dry his sharp eye detected several yellow pin-points of color which proved, upon closer investigation, to be specks of gold clinging to the wet lining.
"Well, I be danged!" said Mr. Hyde. Carefully, thoughtfully, he replaced the boots where he had found them. The knowledge that he was on a hot trail electrified him.
At the next clean-up Laughing Bill took less interest in his part of the work and more in Denny Slevin's. When the riffles were washed, and the loose gravel had been worked down into yellow piles of rich concentrates, Slevin, armed with whisk broom, paddle, and scoop, climbed into the sluices. Bill watched him out of a corner of his eye, and it was not long before his vigilance was rewarded. The hold-up man turned away with a feeling of genuine admiration, for he had seen Slevin, under the very nose of the lookout, "go south" with a substantial amount of gold.
The foreman's daring and dexterity amazed Bill and deepened his respect. Slevin's work was cunning, and yet so simple as to be almost laughable. With his hip boots pulled high he had knelt upon one knee in the sluice scooping up the wet piles of gold and black iron sand, while Berg held a gold pan to receive it. During the process Black Jack had turned to address the vigilant owner's representative, and, profiting by the brief diversion, Bill had seen Denny dump a heaping scoop-load of "pay" into the gaping pocket-like top of his capacious rubber boot.
"The sons-of-a-gun!" breathed Laughing Bill. "The double-crossing sons-of-a-gun! Why, it begins to look like a big summer for me."
Bill slept well that night, for now that he knew the game which was going on he felt sure that sooner or later he would take a hand in it. Just how or when the hand would fall he could not tell, but that did not worry him in the least, inasmuch as he already held the trumps. It seemed that a kindly fortune had guided him to the Aurora; that fate had decreed he should avenge the wrongs of Ponatah. The handy-man fell asleep with a smile upon his lips.
The first ship arrived that very evening, and the next day Doctor Slayforth in person appeared at the Aurora. He was a thin, restless man with weak and shifting eyes; he said grace at dinner, giving thanks for the scanty rations of hash and brown beans over which his hungry workmen were poised like cormorants. The Aurora had won the name of a bad feeder, but its owner seemed satisfied with his meal. Later Bill overheard him talking with his superintendent.
"I'm disappointed with the clean-ups," Slayforth confessed. "The pay appears to be pinching out."
"She don't wash like she sampled, that's a fact," said Black Jack.
"I'm afraid we shall have to practise economies--"
"Look here! If you aim to cut down the grub, don't try it," counseled Berg. "It's rotten now."
"Indeed? There appeared to be plenty, and the quality was excellent. I fear you encourage gluttony, and nothing so interferes with work. We must effect a saving somehow; there is too great a variation between theoretical and actual values."
"Huh! You better try feeding hay for a while," sourly grumbled the superintendent. "If you ain't getting what you aimed to get it's because it ain't in the cards."
This conversation interested Bill, for it proved that the robbers had helped themselves with a liberal hand, but how they had managed to appropriate enough gold to noticeably affect the showing of the winter's work intensely mystified him; it led him to believe that Black Jack and Denny were out for a homestake.
That such was indeed the case and that Slevin was not the only thief Bill soon discovered, for after the next clean-up he slipped away through the twilight and took stand among the alders outside the rear window of the shack on the hill. From his point of concealment he could observe all that went on inside.
It was a familiar scene. By the light of an oil lamp Black Jack was putting the final touches to the clean-up. Two gold pans, heaped high with the mingled black sand and gold dust, as it came out of the sluices, were drying on the Yukon stove, and the superintendent was engaged in separating the precious yellow particles from the worthless material which gravity had deposited with it. This refining process was slow, painstaking work, and was effected with the help of a flat brass scoop--a "blower." By shaking this blower and breathing upon its contents the lighter grains of iron sand were propelled to the edge, as chaff is separated from wheat, and fell into a box held between the superintendent's knees. The residue, left in the heel of the blower after each blowing process, was commercial "dust," ready for the bank or the assay office. Doctor Slayforth, with his glasses on the end of his nose, presided at the gold scales, while Denny Slevin looked on. As the dust was weighed, a few ounces at a time, it was dumped into a moose-skin sack and entered upon the books.
Black Jack had the light at his back, he was facing the window, therefore Laughing Bill commanded an unobstructed view of his adept manipulations. It was not long before the latter saw him surreptitiously drop a considerable quantity of gold out of the scoop and into the box between his knees, then cover it up with the black sand. This sleight-of-hand was repeated several times, and when the last heap of gold had been weighed Bill estimated that Doctor Slayforth was poorer by at least a hundred ounces--sixteen hundred dollars. There was no question about it now; these were not common thieves; this was becoming a regular man's game, and the stakes were assuming a size to give Laughing Bill a tingling sensation along his spine. Having discovered the modus operandi of the pair, and having read their cards, so to speak, he next set himself to discover where they banked their swag. But this was by no means easy. His utmost vigilance went unrewarded by so much as a single clue.
Berg and Slevin had a habit of riding into town on Saturday nights, and the next time they left the claim Bill pleaded a jumping toothache and set out afoot for medical attention.
It was late when he arrived at Nome, nevertheless a diligent search of the Front Street saloons failed to locate either man. He was still looking for them when they came riding in.
With their delayed arrival Bill's apprehensions vanished, as likewise did his imaginary toothache. He had feared that they were in the habit of bringing the gold to Nome, there perhaps to bank it with some friend; but now he knew that they were too cautious for that, and preferred instead to cache it somewhere in the hills. This simplified matters immensely, so Bill looked up his little doctor for a sociable visit.
Thomas was in his office; he greeted Bill warmly.
"Say! Pill-rolling must be brisk to keep you on the job till midnight," the latter began.
"Business is rotten!" exclaimed the physician. "And it's a rotten business."
"Nobody sick? That's tough. Open a can of typhoid germs, and I'll put 'em in the well. Anything to stir up a little trade."
"I've just balanced my books and--I've just heard from Alice."
"Do the books balance?"
"Oh, perfectly--nothing equals nothing--it's a perfect equilibrium. Alice wants me to come home and start all over, and I'm tempted to do so."
"Ain't going to throw up your tail, are you?"
"I can't get along without her." Thomas was plainly in the depths; he turned away and stared moodily out into the dim-lit street. It was midnight, but already the days were shortening, already there was an hour or two of dusk between the evening and the morning light.
"Of course you can't get along without her," the ex-bandit agreed. "I seen that when I looked at her picture. Why don't you bring her in?"
"Bring her in--here?" Thomas faced about quickly. "Humph! Not much."
"Well, this ain't no doll's village, that's a fact. It's full of wicked men, and the women ain't wuth braggin' over. S'pose we go out and marry her?"
"We?" Thomas smiled for the first time.
"Sure. I'll stick to the bitter finish."
"I'm broke, Bill."
"Pshaw, now! Don't let that worry you. I got money."
"You?" The doctor was surprised. "Where did you get it?"
"Well, I got it! That's the main thing. It was--left to me."
"What d'you mean, 'honestly'?"
"I dunno, exactly. You see, I ain't got it actually in my mit--"
"But I'll have it, all righto. It's just waiting for me to close down on it. I reckon there must be a thousand gold buzzards in the stack, mebby more. It's all yours."
"Thanks!" said the physician, unimpressed.
"Look me in the eye." Bill spoke earnestly. "Twenty thousand iron men ain't so bad. It'll buy a lot of doll's clothes. We can have a big party--I ain't kidding!" Then reading amused incredulity in his friend's face he demanded: "How you know I ain't got a rich uncle that raised me from a colt and that broke his heart at me runnin' away and turning out wild, and has had lawyers gunnin' for me ever since he knew he was gettin' old and going to croak? How you know that, eh?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything about you, Bill. That's one of the most interesting features of our friendship."
"Well, pay a little attention to me. Now then, I figger it like this: I got lungs like a grasshopper, and the money won't do me no good, so I'll stake you and Miss Alice to it."
Doctor Thomas eyed the speaker curiously. "I believe you would," said he, after a moment.
"Would I? Say! You ever seen a feather bed tied up with a rope? You sit tight and I'll slip you a roll just that size."
"Of course you know I wouldn't take it?"
"Why not? It's more'n likely it'll get me into evil company or gimme some bad habit, and I'll gargle off before I've had a chance to spend it. I ain't strong."
"I'll earn what I get, Billy."
"All right. If you feel like that I'll bet it for you on a crap game, and you can take the winnings--"
"Nothing doing. I want honest money--money that I can look in the face."
Mr. Hyde was out of patience. "All money's honest, after you get it!" he cried. "It's gettin' it that draws blood. I never knew the silver bird to fly off a dollar and scratch a guy, did you?"
"I want to make money--that's why I came up to this God-forsaken place--but--when your uncle's draft arrives you cash it."
"Ain't you the champeen bone-dome?" muttered Bill. Such an attitude seemed to him both senseless and quixotic, for he had never attached the least sentiment to money. Money was an elemental necessity, therefore he looked upon it with practical, unromantic eyes, and helped himself to it as he helped himself to such elemental necessities as air or water. Most of life's necessaries had fallen into monopolistic hands and were used to wring tribute from unfortunate mortals who had arrived too late to share in the graft, as witness, for instance, Standard Oil. So ran Bill's reasoning when he took the trouble to reason at all. Men had established arbitrary rules to govern their forays upon one another's property, to be sure, but under cover of these artificial laws they stole merrily, and got away with it. Eagles did not scruple to steal from one another, horses ate one another's fodder; why human beings should not do likewise had always puzzled Mr. Hyde. The basic principle held good in both cases, it seemed to him, and Doctor Thomas's refusal to share in the coming legacy struck him as silly; it was the result of a warped and unsound philosophy. But argue as he would he could not shake his friend's opinion of the matter.
One evening, not long after his visit to town, Bill's toothache returned again to plague him. He raised groans and hoarse profanities, and then, while the crew was still at supper, he abandoned his work and set out in search of relief. But he did not go to Nome. Once out of sight of the mine he doubled back and came out behind the superintendent's cabin. A moment later he was stretched out in the narrow, dark space beneath Black Jack's bunk. Dust irritated Bill's lungs, therefore he had carefully swept out the place that morning; likewise he had thoughtfully provided himself with a cotton comforter as protection to his bones. He had no intention of permitting himself to be taken at a disadvantage, and knowing full well the painful consequences of discovery he opened his bone-handled pocket-knife and tested its keen edge with his thumb. In the interests of peace and good-fellowship, however, he hoped he could go through the night without coughing.
Slevin was the first to return from supper. He went directly to his bunk, drew a bottle of whisky from beneath his pillow, poured himself a drink, and replaced the bottle. When Berg entered he went through a similar procedure, after which a fire was built, the men kicked off their boots, lit their pipes, and stretched out upon their beds.
"I've been thinking it over," the superintendent began, "and you can't do it."
"Why not?" queried Slevin. "I told his nibs I was sick of the grub."
"Foremen don't quit good jobs on account of the grub. You've got to stick till fall; then we'll both go. We'll strike the old man for a raise--"
"Humph! He'll let us go, quick enough, when we do that. Let's strike him now. I'm through."
"Nothing stirring," Berg firmly declared. "We'll play out the string. I'm taking no chances."
"Hell! Ain't we takin' a chance every day we stay here? I'm getting so I don't sleep. I got enough to do me; I ain't a hog. I got a bully corner all picked out, Jack--best corner in Seattle for a gin-mill."
"It'll wait. Corners don't get up and move. No, I won't hold the bag for you or for anybody," declared the former speaker. "We'll go through, arm in arm. Once we're away clean you can do what you like. Me for the Argentine and ten thousand acres of long-horns. You better forget that corner. Some night you'll get stewed and spill the beans."
"Who, me?" Slevin laughed in disdain. "Fat chance!" There was a long silence during which the only sound was the bubbling of a pipe. "I s'pose I'll have to stick, if you say so," Denny agreed finally, "but I'm fed up. I'm getting jumpy. I got a hunch the cache ain't safe; I feel like something was goin' to happen."
Mr. Slevin's premonition, under the circumstances, was almost uncanny; it gave startling proof of his susceptibility to outside influences.
"You are rickety," Black Jack told him. "Why, there ain't any danger; nobody goes up there." Laughing Bill held his breath, missing not a word. "If they did we'd pick 'em up with the glasses. It's open country, and we'd get 'em before they got down."
"I s'pose so. But the nights are getting dark."
"Nobody's out at night, either, you boob. I ain't losing any slumber over that. And I ain't going to lose any about your quitting ahead of me. That don't trouble me none." Berg yawned and changed the subject. Half an hour later he rose, languidly undressed and rolled into his bed. Slevin followed suit shortly after, and the rapidity with which both men fell asleep spoke volumes for the elasticity of the human conscience.
Now, Laughing Bill had come prepared to spend the night, but his throat tickled and he had a distressing habit of snoring, therefore he deemed it the part of caution to depart before he dropped off into the land of dreams. He effected the manoeuver noiselessly.
Bill lingered at the spring hole on the following morning, and lost himself in an attentive study of the surrounding scenery. It was fairly impressive scenery, and he had a keen appreciation of nature's beauty, but Black Jack's words continued to puzzle him. "Nobody goes up there." Up where? The Aurora lay in a valley, therefore most of the country round about was "up"--it was open, too. The ridges were bold and barren, garbed only with shreds and patches of short grass and reindeer moss. "We'd pick 'em up with the glasses--we'd get 'em before they got down." Manifestly the cache was in plain sight, if one only knew where to look for it, but Mr. Hyde's sharp eyes took in ten thousand likely hiding-places, and he reasoned that it would be worse than folly to go exploring blindly without more definite data than he possessed.
It was clever of the pair to hide the swag where they could oversee it every hour of the day, and they had chosen a safe location, too, for nobody wasted the effort to explore those domes and hogbacks now that they were known to contain no quartz. There was Anvil Mountain, for instance, a bold schist peak crowned with a huge rock in the likeness of a blacksmith's anvil. It guarded the entrance to the valley, rising from the very heart of the best mining section; it was the most prominent landmark hereabouts, but not a dozen men had ever climbed it, and nowadays nobody did.
As Bill pondered the enigma, out from his bed in the willows came Don Antonio de Chiquito, a meek and lowly burro, the only member of the Aurora's working force which did not outrank in social importance the man-of-all-work. Don Antonio was the pet of the Aurora Borealis, and its scavenger. He ate everything from garbage to rubber boots--he was even suspected of possessing a low appetite for German socks. It was, in fact, this very democratic taste in things edible which caused him to remain the steadiest of Doctor Slayforth's boarders. Wisdom, patience, the sagacity of Solomon, lurked in Don Antonio's eyes, and Laughing Bill consulted him as a friend and an equal.
"Tony," said he, "you've done a heap of prospecting and you know the business. There's a rich pocket on one of them hills. Which one is it?"
Don Antonio de Chiquito had ears like sunbonnets; he folded them back, lifted his muzzle toward Anvil rock, and brayed loudly.
"Mebbe you're right," said the man. He fitted the Chinese yoke to his skinny shoulders, and took up his burden. The load was heavy, the yoke bruised his bones, therefore he was moved to complain: "The idea of me totin' water for the very guys that stole my uncle's money! It's awful--the darned crooks!"
It was a rainy evening when business next took Black Jack Berg and Denny Slevin to town. Having dined amply, if not well, they donned slickers, saddled a pair of horses, and set out down the creek. Few people were abroad, therefore they felt secure from observation when they swung off the trail where it bends around the foot of Anvil Mountain and bore directly up through the scattered alders. The grass was wet, the rain erased the marks of their horses' feet almost in the passing. Tethering their mounts in the last clump of underbrush the riders labored on afoot up a shallow draw which scarred the steep slope. The murk of twilight obscured them, but even in a good light they would have run small risk of discovery, for slow-moving human figures would have been lost against the dark background.
The climb was long and arduous; both men were panting when they breasted the last rise and looked down into the valley where lay the Aurora Borealis. This was a desolate spot, great boulders, fallen from the huge rock overhead, lay all about, the earth was weathered by winter snows and summer rains. Ghostly fingers of mist writhed over the peak; darkness was not far distant.
The robbers remained on the crest perhaps twenty minutes, then they came striding down. They passed within a hundred yards of Laughing Bill Hyde, who lay flat in the wet grass midway of their descent. He watched them mount and ride out of sight, then he continued his painful progress up the hillside.
Weak lungs are not suited to heavy grades and slippery footing. Bill was sobbing with agony when he conquered the last rise and collapsed upon his face. He feared he was dying, every cough threatened a hemorrhage; but when his breath came more easily and he missed the familiar taste of blood in his mouth he rose and tottered about through the fog. He could discover no tracks; he began to fear the night would foil him, when at last luck guided his aimless footsteps to a slide of loose rock banked against a seamy ledge. The surface of the bank showed a muddy scar, already half obliterated by the rain; brief search among the near-by boulders uncovered the hiding-place of a pick and shovel.
For once in his life Mr. Hyde looked upon these tools with favor, and energetically tackled the business end of a "Number 2." He considered pick-and-shovel work the lowest form of human endeavor; nevertheless he engaged in it willingly enough, and he had not dug deeply before he uncovered the side of a packing-case, labeled "Choice California Canned Fruits." Further rapid explorations showed that the box was fitted with a loose top, and that the interior was well-nigh filled with stout canvas and moose skin bags. Bill counted them; he weighed one, then he sat down weakly and his hard, smoke-blue eyes widened with amazement.
"Suffering cats!" he whispered. He voiced other expletives, too, even more forcefully indicative of surprise. He was not an imaginative man; it did not occur to him to doubt his sanity or to wonder if he were awake, nevertheless he opened one of the pokes and incredulously examined its contents. "I'm dam' if it ain't!" he said, finally. "I should reckon they was ready to quit. Argentine! Why, Jack'll bust the bottom out of a boat if he takes this with him. He'll drown a lot of innocent people." Mr. Hyde shook his head and smiled pityingly. "It ain't safe to trust him with it. It ain't safe--the thievin' devil! There's five hundred pounds if there's an ounce!" He began to figure with his finger on the muddy shovel blade. "A hundred thousand bucks!" he announced, finally. "Them boys is all right!"
Slowly, reluctantly, he replaced the gold sacks, reburied the box, and placed the tools where he had found them; then he set out for home.
Don Antonio de Chiquito was contentedly munching an empty oat sack, doubtless impelled thereto by the lingering flavor of its former contents, when on the following morning Bill accosted him.
"Tony, I got to hand it to you," the man said, admiringly. "You're some pocket miner, and you speak up like a gent when you're spoken to. I got some nice egg-shells saved up for you." Then his voice dropped to a confidential tone. "We're in with a passel of crooks, Tony. Evil associates, I call 'em. They're bound to have a bad influence over us--I feel it a'ready, don't you? Well, s'pose you meet me to-night at the gap in the hedge and we'll take a walk?"
Don Antonio appeared in every way agreeable to the proposal, but to make certain that he would keep his appointment Bill led him down into the creek bottom and tied him securely, after which he removed a pack-saddle and a bundle of hay from the stable. The saddle he hid in the brush, the hay he spread before his accomplice, with the generous invitation: "Drink hearty; it's on the house!" In explanation he went on: "It's this way, Tony; they left the elevator out of that Anvil skyscraper, and I can't climb stairs on one lung, so you got to be my six-cylinder oat-motor. We got a busy night ahead of us."
That evening Laughing Bill ascended Anvil Mountain for a second time, but the exertion did not wind him unduly, for he made the ascent at the end of Don Antonio's tail. He was back in camp for breakfast, and despite his lack of sleep he performed his menial duties during the day with more than his usual cheerfulness.
* * * * *
"Speed up, can't you?" Slevin paused midway of the steepest slope and spoke impatiently to his partner below.
"I'm coming," Black Jack panted. Being the heavier and clumsier of the two, the climb was harder for him. "You're so spry, s'pose you just pack this poke!" He unslung a heavy leather sack from his belt and gave it to Denny.
"We'd ought to 'a' got an early start," the latter complained. "The days are gettin' short and I had a rotten fall going down, last time."
Relieved of some fifteen pounds of dead, awkward weight--and nothing is more awkward to carry than a sizable gold sack--Berg made better speed, arriving at the cache in time to see Slevin spit on his hands and fall to digging.
"Every time we open her up I get a shiver," Denny confessed, with a laugh. "I'm scared to look."
"Humph! Think she's going to get up and walk out on us?" Berg seated himself, lit his pipe, and puffed in silence for a while. "We ain't never been seen," he declared, positively. "She's as safe as the Bank of England as long as you don't get drunk."
"Me drunk! Ha! Me and the demon rum is divorced forever." Slevin's shovel struck wood and he swiftly uncovered the box, then removed its top. He, stood for a full minute staring into its interior, then he cried, hoarsely, "Jack!"
Berg was on his feet in an instant; he strode to the excavation and bent over it. After a time he straightened himself and turned blazing eyes upon his confederate. Denny met his gaze with the glare of a man demented.
"Wha'd I tell you?" the latter chattered. "I told you they'd get it. By God! They have!"
He cast an apprehensive glance over his shoulder. Far below the lights of the valley were beginning to twinkle, in the direction of Nome the cross on the Catholic church gleamed palely against the steel-gray expanse of Behring Sea.
Berg was a man of violent temper; he choked and gasped; his face was bloated with an apoplectic rage. He began to growl curses deep in his throat. "Who got it?" he demanded. "Who d'you mean by 'they'?"
"'Sh-h!" Slevin was panic-stricken; he flung out a nervous, jerky hand. "Mebbe they're here--now. Look out!"
"Who d'you mean by 'they'?" the larger man repeated.
"I--God! I dunno! But there must 'a' been more'n one. Five hundred pounds! One man couldn't pack it!"
"You said 'they'!" Berg persisted in an odd tone.
Slevin's madly roving gaze flew back and settled upon the discolored visage thrust toward him, then his own eyes widened. He recoiled, crying:
"Look here! You don't think I--?" His words ended in a bark.
"I ain't said what I think, but I'm thinkin' fast. Nobody knew it but us--"
"How d'you know?"
Slowly Slevin settled himself. His muscles ceased jumping, his bullet head drew down between his shoulders. "Well, it wasn't me, so it must 'a' been--you!"
"Don't stall!" roared the larger man. "It won't win you anything. You can't leave here till you come through."
"That goes double, Jack. I got my gat, too, and you ain't going to run out on me."
"You wanted to quit. You weakened."
"You're a liar!"
The men stared fixedly at each other, heads forward, bodies tense; as they glared the fury of betrayal grew to madness.
"Where'd you put it?" Berg ground the words between his teeth.
"I'm askin' you that very thing," the foreman answered in a thin, menacing voice. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he widened the distance between himself and his accuser. It was not a retreat, he merely drew himself together defensively, holding himself under control with the last supreme effort of his will.
The tension snapped suddenly.
With a harsh, wordless cry of fury Black Jack tore his six-shooter from its resting-place. But Slevin's right hand stirred in unison and it moved like light. Owing to the fact that he carried his gun beneath his left armpit he was the first to fire, by the fraction of a second. It was impossible to miss at this distance. Berg went to his knees as if hit by a sledge. But he fired from that position, and his shot caught Slevin as the latter crow-hopped nimbly. Both men were down now. Slevin, however, seemed made of rubber; he was up again almost instantly, and zigzagging toward the shelter of the nearest rocks. Berg emptied his Colt at the running target, then a shout burst from his lips as he saw Denny pitch forward out of sight.
With shaking, clumsy fingers Black Jack reloaded his hot weapon. With his left hand pressed deep into his side he rose slowly to his feet and lurched forward.
"You rat!" he yelled. "Double-cross me, will yeh?" He heard the sound of a body moving over loose stones and halted, weaving in his tracks and peering into the gloom.
"Come out!" he ordered. "Come out and own up and I'll let yeh off."
There was a silence. "I see yeh!" He took unsteady aim at a shadow and fired. "Never mind, I'll get yeh!" After a little while he stumbled onward between the boulders, shouting a challenge to his invisible opponent. He had gone perhaps fifty feet when the darkness was stabbed by the blaze of Slevin's gun. Three times the weapon spoke, at little more than arm's-length, and Black Jack spun on his heels, then rocked forward limply. It was a long time before the sound of his loud, slow breathing ceased. Not until then did Denny Slevin move. With a rattle in his throat the foreman crept out from hiding and went down the mountain-side upon his hands and knees.
It occasioned considerable speculation at the Aurora Borealis when neither the superintendent nor the foreman appeared for breakfast. Later, a telephone message to Doctor Slayforth having elicited the startling intelligence that neither man had been seen in town during the night, there came a flicker of excitement. This excitement blazed to white heat when Slayforth rode up on a muddy horse, accompanied by the town marshal and the chief of police. Followed more telephoning and some cross-examination. But the men were gone. They had disappeared.
It was a mystery baffling any attempt at explanation, for there were no ships in the roadstead, and hence it was impossible for the pair to have taken French leave. While a search party was being organized there came word that the missing saddle-horses had been found on the slope of Anvil Mountain, and by the time Slayforth's party had reached the ground more news awaited them. Up near the head of the draw some one had discovered the body of Denny Slevin. There was a rush thither, and thence on up the trail Slevin had left, to the scene of the twilight duel, to Black Jack Berg and the cache in the slide.
The story told itself down to the last detail; it was the story of a thieves' quarrel and a double killing. Doctor Slayforth fell upon his bag of gold as a mother falls upon her babe; he voiced loud, hysterical condemnation of the deed; he wept tears of mingled indignation and thanksgiving; he gabbled scriptural quotations about the wages of sin. Then, remembering that the wages of his men were going on, he sent them back to their work, and determined to dock half their morning's pay.
The story of the tragedy was still the sensation of Nome when, a fortnight later, Laughing Bill Hyde showed up in town with the cheerful announcement that he had been fired. Ponatah was at the cabin when he arrived, and she did not try to conceal her joy at seeing him again.
"I've been so unhappy," she told him. "You've never been out of my thoughts, Billy."
"Ain't you got nothing better to think about than me?" he asked, with a smile. "Well, the psalm-shouter let me out--jerked the piller-slip from under me, you might say--and turned me adrift. He's got a high-chested, low-browed Swede in my place. It takes a guy with hair down to his eyebrows to be a buck chamber-maid."
"The old rascal!" Ponatah's face darkened with anger. "No wonder those men robbed him. I wish they had taken all his gold, and escaped."
"You're pretty sore on his heavenly nibs, ain't you?" Ponatah clenched her hands and her eyes blazed. "Well, you got this consolation, the Aurora ain't as rich as it was."
"It would have been rich enough for us."
"Yes. You'd marry me if I were rich, wouldn't you?"
"No, I wouldn't," Bill declared, firmly. "What's the use to kid you?"
"Why wouldn't you? Are you ashamed of me?"
Bill protested, "Say, what is this you're giving me, the third degree?"
"If I were as rich as--well, as Reindeer Mary, wouldn't you marry me?" Ponatah gazed at the unworthy object of her affections with a yearning that was embarrassing, and Laughing Bill was forced to spar for wind.
"Ain't you the bold Mary Ann--makin' cracks like that?" he chided. "I'm ashamed of you, honest. I've passed up plenty of frills in my time, and we're all better off for it. My appetite for marriage ain't no keener than it used to be, so you forget it. Little Doc, he's the marrying kind."
"Oh yes. He tells me a great deal about his Alice. He's very much discouraged. If--if I had the Aurora I wouldn't forget him; I'd give him half."
"Would you, now? Well, he's the one stiffneck that wouldn't take it. He's funny that way--seems to think money 'll bite him, or something. I don't know how these pullanthrofists get along, with proud people always spurning their gifts. He's got my nan. You take my tip, Kid, and cling to your coin. Salt it down for winter. That's what I'm doing with mine."
"Are you?" Ponatah was not amused, she was gravely interested. "I thought you were broke, Billy."
"Where'd you get that at?" he demanded. "I've always got a pinch of change, I have. I'm lucky that way. Now then, you run along and don't never try to feint me into a clinch. It don't go."
Laughing Bill enjoyed a good rest in the days that followed. He rested hard for several weeks, and when he rested he lifted his hand to absolutely nothing. He was an expert idler, and with him indolence was but a form of suspended animation. In spite of himself, however, he was troubled by a problem; he was completely baffled by it, in fact, until, without warning and without conscious effort, the solution presented itself. Bill startled his cabin mate one day by the announcement that he intended to go prospecting.
"Nonsense!" said Thomas, when the first shock of surprise had passed. "This country has been run over, and every inch is staked."
"I bet I'll horn in somewhere. All I want is one claim where I got room to sling myself."
"If that's all you want I'll give you a claim. It has twenty acres. Is that room enough?"
"Plenty. Where is it?"
"It's on Eclipse Creek, I believe. A patient gave it to me for a bill."
"He won't call for a new deal if I strike it rich?"
"No. I paid his fare out of the country. But why waste your valuable time? Your time is valuable, I presume?"
"Sure! I ain't got much left. You don't believe in hunches, do you? Well, I do. I've seen 'em come out. Look at Denny Slevin, for instance! I heard him say he had a hunch something unpleasant was going to happen to him, and it did. We'll go fifty-fifty on this Eclipse Creek."
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. "Suit yourself. Fresh air won't hurt you."
The first frosts of autumn had arrived before Laughing Bill returned to town with the announcement that he had struck a prospect. Doctor Thomas was at first incredulous, then amazed; finally, when the true significance of those tiny yellow grains came home to him, his enthusiasm burst all bounds. He was for at once closing his office and joining actively in his partner's work, but Bill would not hear to such a thing.
"Stick to the pills and powders, Doc," he counseled. "You know that game and I know this. It's my strike and I don't want no amachoors butting in. I got options on the whole creek--she's eclipsed for fair--'cause I don't like neighbors. You shut your trap till spring and sit tight, then we'll roll our packs, stomp on the fire, and call the dog. Old Home Week for us."
"But, Billy, we can't work out that claim in one winter," protested the physician.
"How d'you know we can't? Mebbe it's just a pocket."
"We'll find other pockets. We have the whole creek--"
"Say, how much d'you need to satisfy you?" Bill inquired, curiously.
"I--don't know. A hundred thousand dollars, perhaps."
"A hundred thousand! Whew! You got rich tastes! This ain't no bonanza."
"But if it's any good at all it will net us that much, probably more."
Bill considered briefly, then he announced: "All right, bo, I got your idea. When I hand you a hundred thousand iron men we quit--no questions, no regrets; Is that it? But you've hiked the limit on me; I dunno's I'll make good."
By the time snow flew the tent on Eclipse Creek had been replaced by a couple of warm shacks, provisions had been bought, and a crew hired. Work commenced immediately, and it continued throughout the winter with Bill in charge. The gravel was lean-looking stuff, but it seemed to satisfy the manager, and whenever Thomas came out from town he received encouraging reports from his partner. Hyde ceased playing solitaire long enough to pan samples in his tub of snow water. Now had the younger man been an experienced placer miner he might have noted with suspicion that whenever Bill panned he chewed tobacco--a new habit he had acquired--and not infrequently he spat into the tub of muddy water. But Thomas was not experienced in the wiles and artifices of mine-salters, and the residue of yellow particles left in the pan was proof positive that the claim was making good. It did strike him as strange, however, that when he selected a pan of dirt and washed it unassisted he found nothing. At such times Bill explained glibly enough that no pay dump carried steady values, and that an inexperienced sampler was apt to get "skunked" under the best of circumstances. Concentrates lay in streaks and pockets, he declared. Then to prove his assertions Bill would help his partner pan, and inasmuch as he wore long finger-nails, underneath which colors of gold could be easily concealed, it was not surprising that he succeeded in finding a prospect where the doctor had failed. For fear Thomas should still entertain some lingering doubts, Bill occasionally sent him down into the shaft alone, to sample the pay streak, but in each instance he took pains to go down beforehand with a shot-gun and some shells of his own loading and to shoot a few rounds into the face of the thawed ground.
The winter passed quickly enough, Bill's only concern arising from the fact that his strike had become common knowledge, and that men were clamoring to buy or to lease a part of the creek. It was a tiny creek, and he had it safely tied up under his options, therefore he was in a position to refuse every offer. By so doing he gained the reputation of being a cautious, cagey man and difficult to deal with.
Bill paid off his crew out of the first spring cleanup, from the dust he had managed to dump into the sluices at night. Thereafter he sent the gold to town by Doctor Thomas, who came after it regularly. When he closed down the works, in June, he and his partner held bank deposit slips for a trifle over one hundred thousand dollars. Rumor placed their profits at much more.
Bill saw little of Ponatah after his return to Nome, for the girl avoided him, and when he did see her she assumed a peculiar reserve. Her year and a half of intimate association with cultured people had in reality worked an amazing improvement in her, and people no longer regarded her as an Indian, but referred to her now as "that Russian governess," nevertheless she could retreat behind a baffling air of stolidity--almost of sullenness--when she chose, and that was precisely the mask she wore for Bill. In reality she was far from stolid and anything but sullen.
For his part he made no effort to break down the girl's guard; he continued to treat her with his customary free good nature.
Notwithstanding the liberal margin of profit on his winter's operations, Bill realized that he was still shy approximately half of the sum which Doctor Thomas had set as satisfactory, and when the latter began planning to resume work on a larger scale in the fall Mr. Hyde was stricken with panic. Fearing lest his own lack of enthusiasm in these plans and his indifference to all affairs even remotely concerning Eclipse Creek should awaken suspicion, he determined to sell out his own and his partner's interests in accordance with their original understanding. Without consulting Thomas he called upon Doctor Slayforth.
The pious mine-owner was glad to see him; his manner was not at all what it had been when Bill worked for him. His words of greeting fairly trickled prune juice and honey.
"Say, Doc, I got a load on my chest! I'm a strayed lamb and you being a sort of shepherd I turns to you," Bill began.
"I trust you have not come in vain." The ex-missionary beamed benignly. "It has been my duty and my privilege to comfort the afflicted. What troubles you, William?"
"There's a school of sharks in this village, and I don't trust 'em. They're too slick for a feller like me,"
"It is an ungodly place," the doctor agreed. "I have felt the call to work here, but my duties prevent. Of course I labor in the Lord's vineyard as I pass through, but--I am weak."
"Me, too, and getting weaker daily." Bill summoned a hollow cough. "Listen to that hospital bark,' I gotta blow this place, Doc, or they'll button me up in a rosewood overcoat. I gotta sell Eclipse Creek and beat it." Again he coughed.
"I am distressed. But why do you come here?"
"I aim to sell out to you."
"What is your price, William?"
"A hundred and fifty thousand, cash."
Slayforth lifted protesting palms. "My dear man--"
"That's cheaper'n good advice, and you know it. I took out 'most that much last winter with a scowegian gang of six. Here's the bank's O.K. But I ain't got use for a lot of money, Doc. I wouldn't know how to run a vineyard like you do. All I want is a nice little corner saloon or a cattle ranch."
"It is a large sum of money you ask. There is always an element of uncertainty about placer mining." Doctor Slayforth failed to conceal the gleam of avarice in his eyes.
"Doc, take it from me; there ain't a particle of uncertainty about Eclipse Creek," Bill earnestly assured his hearer. "If I told you what's there you wouldn't believe me. But Thomas, he's got a gal and I got a cough. They both need attention, and he's the only guy that can give it. We're willing to hand you Eclipse Creek if you'll take it."
There was considerable conversation, and a visit to Eclipse Creek, but the doctor, it proved, was willing to take any good bargain, and a few days later the transfer was made. When the larger part of Slayforth's winter's clean-up had changed hands the two partners adjourned to Thomas's little office.
"Well!" The physician heaved a deep sigh of relief. "It's all over, and--I feel as if I were dreaming."
"The Oregon sails to-morrow. It's time to stomp on the fire."
"I--I wonder if we were wise to sell out at that price," the doctor mused, doubtfully.
"You lay a bet on it, bo. Something tells me that soul-saver will go bust on Eclipse Creek. I got a hunch that way." Mr. Hyde's seamy face wrinkled into a broad grin.
"Well, I've more faith in your hunches than I used to have. You've been a good friend, Bill, and a square one." The speaker choked, then wrung his partner's hand. "I've cabled Alice to meet us. I want you to know her and--I want her to see that I cured you, after all."
"I'd admire to meet her, but my taste has allus run more to brunettes," said Mr. Hyde. Then, since he abhorred emotional display, he continued, briskly: "Now call the dog. I'm off to buy our duckets."
Laughing Bill purchased three tickets instead of two, then he went in search of Ponatah. It so chanced that he found her alone. Now neither he nor any other man had ever called upon her, therefore she was dumfounded at his coming.
"Well, Kid," he announced, "me 'n' the Doc have sold Eclipse Creek, and we bow out tomorrow on the big smoke."
Ponatah opened her lips, but no sound issued. She possessed a strong young body, but the strength, the life, seemed suddenly to go out of it, leaving her old and spiritless.
"Got a kind word for us?" the man inquired, with a twinkle.
"I'm glad you struck it rich," she murmured, dully. "You--you'll take care of yourself, Billy?"
"Who, me? I don't s'pose so. I don't know how to take care of nothing." There was a moment of silence. "Like me?" he asked.
Ponatah turned away blindly, but as she did so Laughing Bill put his hand gently upon her shoulder, saying:
"Cheer up, Kid. You're going to join the troupe. I've come to get you."
There was amazement, incredulity, in the girl's face as she lifted it to his. "What do you--mean?" she quavered. "Are you going to--marry me?"
"You guessed it!" he laughed. "I been aiming to put up that job on you for a long time, but I had a lot of deals on my hands. I was a sort of power-of-attorney for a coupla simps, and it kept me busy. If you think the two of us can do with three lungs, why, we'll grab a psalm-shouter and--"
"Billy! Billy!" Ponatah clung to him fiercely, hungrily. "Oh, Billy--I'll make you well. We'll go to Arizona, Colorado, Montana--where it is high and dry--"
"I been to them places," he told her, dubiously, "and I 'most stopped breathing altogether."
"New Mexico, then. You won't be ashamed of me there."
"Say, Kid! I wouldn't be ashamed of a harelip and warts in New Mexico. But you got me wrong; I'm plumb proud of you, and just to prove it I aim to make you carry our bank-roll in your name. That's how she stands at the bank, and that's how she's goin' to stand. From time to time you can gimme a check for what you think I'm wuth. Now then, do with me as you will; grab your lid; we'll join hands and be soldered up."
Laughing Bill stared after the girl as she hurried away; musingly he said: "The little Doc got in on no pair, for it was all her coin, of course. But she'd 'a' had to split, fifty-fifty, with a lawyer, so it ain't a bad deal all around."