"Most all the old quotations need fixing," said Joyce in tones forbidding dispute. "For instance, the guy that alluded to marriages germinating in heaven certainly got off on the wrong foot. He meant pardnerships. The same works ain't got capacity for both, no more'n you can build a split-second stop-watch in a stone quarry. No, sir! A true pardnership is the sanctifiedest relation that grows, is, and has its beans, while any two folks of opposite sect can marry and peg the game out some way. Of course, all pardnerships ain't divine. To every one that's heaven borned there's a thousand made in ----. There goes them cussed dogs again!"
He dove abruptly at the tent flap, disappearing like a palmed coin, while our canvas structure reeled drunkenly at his impact. The sounds of strife without rose shrilly into blended agony, and the yelps of Keno melted away down the gulch in a rapid and rabid diminuendo.
Inasmuch as I had just packed out from camp in a loose pair of rubber boots, and was nursing two gall blisters, I did not feel called upon to emulate this energy of arbitration, particularly in bare feet.
"That black malamoot is a walking delegate for strife," he remarked, returning. "Sometime I'll lose my temper--and that's the kind of pardners me and Justus Morrow was."
Never more do I interrupt the allegory of my mate, no matter how startling its structure. He adventures orally when and in the manner the spirit calls, without rote, form, or tone production. Therefore I kicked my blistered heels in the air and grunted aimless encouragement.
"I was prospectin' a claim on Caribou Creek, and had her punched as full of holes as a sponge cake, when the necessity of a change appealed to me. I was out of everything more nourishing than hope and one slab of pay-streaked bacon, when two tenderfeet 'mushed' up the gulch, and invited themselves into my cabin to watch me pan. It's the simplest thing known to science to salt a tenderfoot, so I didn't have no trouble in selling out for three thousand dollars.
"You see, they couldn't kick, 'cause some of us 'old timers' was bound to get their money anyhow--just a question of time; and their inexperience was cheap at the price. Also, they was real nice boys, and I hated to see 'em fall amongst them crooks at Dawson. It was a short-horned triumph, though. Like the Dead Sea biscuits of Scripture, it turned to ashes in my mouth. It wasn't three days later that they struck it; right in my last shaft, within a foot of where I quit diggin'. They rocked out fifty ounces first day. When the news filtered to me, of course, I never made no holler. I couldn't--that is, honestly--but I bought a six hundred dollar grub stake, loaded it aboard a dory, and--having instructed the trader regarding the disposition of my mortal, drunken remains, I fanned through that camp like a prairie fire shot in the sirloin with a hot wind.
"Of course, it wasn't such a big spree; nothing gaudy or Swedelike; but them that should know, claimed it was a model of refinement. Yes, I have got many encomiums on its general proportions and artistic finish. One hundred dollars an hour for twenty-four hours, all in red licker, confined to and in me and my choicest sympathizers. I reckon all our booze combined would have made a fair sluice-head. Anyhow, I woke up considerable farther down the dim vistas of time and about the same distance down the Yukon, in the bottom of my dory, seekin' new fields at six miles an hour. The trader had follered my last will and testament scrupulous, even to coverin' up my legs.
"That's how I drifted into Rampart City, and Justus Morrow.
"This here town was the same as any new camp; a mile long and eighteen inches wide, consisting of saloons, dance-halls, saloons, trading-posts, saloons, places to get licker, and saloons. Might not have been so many dancehalls and trading-posts as I've mentioned, and a few more saloons.
"I dropped into a joint called The Reception, and who'd I see playing 'bank' but 'Single Out' Wilmer, the worst gambler on the river. Mounted police had him on the woodpile in Dawson, then tied a can on him. At the same table was a nice, tender Philadelphia squab, 'bout fryin' size, and while I was watching, Wilmer pulls down a bet belonging to it. That's an old game.
"'Pardon me,' says the broiler; 'you have my checks.'
"'What?' growls 'Single Out;' 'I knowed this game before you quit nursin', Bright Eyes. I can protect my own bets.'
"'That's right,' chimes the dealer, who I seen was 'Curly' Budd, Wilmer's pardner.
"'Lord!' thinks I, 'there's a pair to draw to.'
"'Do you really think you had ought to play this? It's a man's game,' says Wilmer nasty.
"I expected to see the youngster dog it. Nothin' of the kind.
"'That's my bet!' he says again, and I noticed something dry in his voice, like the rustle of silk.
"Single Out just looks black and snarls at the dealer.
"'Turn the cards!'
"'Oh, very well,' says the chechako, talking like a little girl.
"Somebody snickered and, thinks I 'there's sprightly doin's hereabouts. I'll tarry a while and see 'em singe the fowl. I like the smell of burning pin feathers; it clears my head.'
"Over in the far corner was another animal in knee panties, riggin' up one of these flash-light, snappy-shot, photograft layouts. I found afterwards that he done it for a living; didn't work none, just strayed around as co-respondent for an English newspaper syndicate, taking pictures and writing story things. I didn't pay much attention to him hiding under his black cloth, 'cause the faro-table was full of bets, and it's hard to follow the play. Well, bye-and-bye Wilmer shifted another stack belonging to the Easterner.
"The lad never begged his pardon nor nothin'. His fist just shot out and landed on the nigh corner of Wilmer's jaw, clean and fair, and 'Single Out' done as pretty a headspin as I ever see--considering that it was executed in a cuspidore. 'Twas my first insight into the amenities of football. I'd like to see a whole game of it. They say it lasts an hour and a half. Of all the cordial, why-how-do-you-do mule kicks handed down in rhyme and story, that wallop was the adopted daddy.
"When he struck, I took the end of the bar like a steeplechaser, for I seen 'Curly' grab at the drawer, and I have aversions to witnessing gun plays from the front end. The tenderfoot riz up in his chair, and snatchin' a stack of reds in his off mit, dashed 'em into 'Curly's' face just as he pulled trigger. It spoiled his aim, and the boy was on to him like a mountain lion, follerin' over the table, along the line of least resistance.
"It was like takin' a candy sucker from a baby. 'Curly' let go of that 'six' like he was plumb tired of it, and the kid welted him over the ear just oncet. Then he turned on the room; and right there my heart went out to him. He took in the line up at a sweep of his lamps:
"'Any of you gentlemen got ideas on the subject?' he says, and his eyes danced like waves in the sunshine.
"It was all that finished and genteel that I speaks up without thinkin', 'You for me pardner!'
"Just as I said it, there come a swish and flash as if a kag of black powder had changed its state of bein'. I s'pose everybody yelled and dodged except the picture man. He says, 'Thank you, gents; very pretty tableau.'
"It was the first flash-light I ever see, and all I recall now is a panorama of starin' eyeballs and gaping mouths. When it seen it wasn't torpedoed, the population begin crawlin' out from under chairs and tables. Men hopped out like toads in a rain.
"I crossed the boy's trail later that evening; found him watchin' a dance at the Gold Belt. The photografter was there, too, and when he'd got his dog-house fixed, he says:
"'Everybody take pardners, and whoop her up. I want this picture for the Weekly. Get busy, you, there!" We all joined in to help things; the orchestra hit the rough spots, and we went highfalutin' down the centre, to show the English race how our joy pained us, and that life in the Klondyke had the Newport whirl, looking like society in a Siwash village. He got another good picture.
"Inside of a week, Morrow and I had joined up. We leased a claim and had our cabin done, waiting for snow to fall so's to sled our grub out to the creek. He took to me like I did to him, and he was an educated lad, too. Somehow, though, it hadn't gone to his head, leaving his hands useless, like knowledge usually does.
"One day, just before the last boat pulled down river, Mr. Struthers, the picture man, come to us--R. Alonzo Struthers, of London and 'Frisco, he was--and showin' us a picture, he says:
"'Ain't that great? Sunday supplements! Full page! Big display! eh?'
"It sure was. 'Bout 9x9, and showing every detail of the Reception saloon. There was 'Single Out' analyzing the cuspidore and 'Curly' dozin', as contorted and well-done as a pretzel. There was the crowd hiding in the corners, and behind the faro-table stood the kid, one hand among the scattered chips and cards, the other dominating the layout with 'Curley's' 'six.' It couldn't have looked more natural if we'd posed for it. It was a bully likeness, I thought, too, till I seen myself glaring over the bar. All that showed of William P. Joyce, bachelor of some arts and plenty of science, late of Dawson, was the white of his eyes. And talkin' of white--say, I looked like I had washing hung out. Seemed like the draught had riz my hair up, too.
"'Nothing like it ever seen,' continues Struthers. 'I'll call it 'The Winning Card,' or 'At Bay,' or something like that. Feature it as a typical Klondyke card game. I'll give you a two-page write-up. Why, it's the greatest thing I ever did!'
"'I'm sorry,' says Morrow, thoughtful, 'but you musn't run it.'
"'What! says he, and I thinks, 'Oh, Lord! There goes my only show to get perpetufied in ink.'
"'I can't let you use it. My wife might see it.'
"'Your wife!' says I. 'Are you married, pardner?'
"'Yes, I'm married,' and his voice sounded queer. 'I've got a boy--too, see.'
"He took a locket from his flannel shirt and opened it. A curly-headed, dimpled little youngster laughed out at me.
"'Well, I'm d----!' and then I took off my hat, for in the other side was a woman--and, gentlemen, she was a woman! When I seen her it made me feel blushy and ashamed. Gee! She was a stunner. I just stared at her till Struthers looked over my shoulder, and says, excited:
"'Why, it's Olive Troop, the singer!'
"'Not any more,' says Morrow, smiling.
"'Oh! So you're the fellow she gave up her art for? I knew her on the stage.'
"Something way deep down in the man grated on me, but the kid was lookin' at the picture and never noticed, while hunger peered from his face.
"'You can't blame me,' he says finally. 'She'd worry to death if she saw that picture. The likeness is too good. You might substitute another face on my shoulders; that can be done, can't it?'
"'Why, sure; dead easy, but I'll not run it at all if you feel that way,' says the artist.
"Then, Morrow resumes, 'You'll be in Denver this fall, Struthers, eh? Well, I want you to take a letter to her. She'll be glad to see an old friend like you, and to hear from me. Tell her I'm well and happy, and that I'll make a fortune, sure. Tell her, too, that there won't be any mail out of here till spring.'
"Now, I don't claim no second sight in the matter of female features: I ain't had no coachin'; not even as much as the ordinary, being raised on a bottle, but I've studied the ornery imprints of men's thoughts, over green tables and gun bar'ls, till I can about guess whether they've drawed four aces or an invite to a funeral. I got another flash from that man I didn't like, though his words were hearty. He left, soon after, on the last boat.
"Soon as ever the ground froze we began to sink. In those days steam thawers wasn't dreamed of, so we slid wood down from the hills, and burned the ground with fires. It's slow work, and we didn't catch bed-rock till December, but when we did we struck it right. Four feet of ten-cent dirt was what she averaged. Big? Well, I wonder! It near drove Morrow crazy.
"'Billy, old boy, this means I'll see her next summer!'
"Whenever he mentioned her name, he spoke like a man in church or out of breath. Somehow it made me feel like takin' off my cap--forty below at that, and my ears freeze terrible willing since that winter on the Porcupine.
"That evening, when I wasn't looking, he sneaked the locket out of his shirt and stared at it, famished. Then he kissed it, if you might rehabilitate such a scandalous, hold-fast-for-the-corner performance by that name.
"'I must let her know right away,' says he. 'How can I do it?'
"'We can hire a messenger, and send him to Dawson,' says I. 'Everybody in camp will pay five dollars a letter, and he can bring back the outside mail. They have monthly service from there to the coast. He'll make the trip in ninety days, so you'll get news from home by the first of March. Windy Jim will go. He'd leave a good job and a warm camp any time to hit the trail. Just hitch up the dogs, crack a whip, and yell 'Mush on!' and he'll get the snow-shoe itch, and water at the mouth for hardship.'
"Not being house-broke and tame myself, I ain't authority on the joys of getting mail from home, but, next to it, I judge, comes writing to your family. Anyhow, the boy shined up like new money, and there was from one to four million pages in his hurried note. I don't mean to say that he was grouchy at any time. No, sir! He was the nickel-plated sunbeam of the whole creek. Why, I've knowed him to do the cooking for two weeks at a stretch, and never kick--and wash the dishes, too,--which last, as anybody knows, is crucifyin'er than that smelter test of the three Jews in the Scripture. Underneath all of his sunshine, though, I saw hints of an awful, aching, devilish, starvation. It made me near hate the woman that caused it.
"He was a wise one, too. I've seen him stirring dog-feed with one hand and spouting 'Gray's Elegy' with the other. I picked up a heap of knowledge from him, for he had American history pat. One story I liked particular was concerning the origin of placer mining in this country, about a Greaser, Jason Somebody, who got the gold fever and grub-staked a mob he called the Augerknots--carpenters, I judge, from the mess they made of it. They chartered a schooner and prospected along Asy Miner, wherever that is. I never seen any boys from there, but the formation was wrong, like Texas, probably, 'cause they sort of drifted into the sheep business. Of course, that was a long ways back, before the '49 rush, but the way he told it was great.
"Well, two weeks after Windy left we worked out of that rich spot and drifted into barren ground. Instead of a fortune, we'd sunk onto the only yellow spot in the whole claim. We cross-cut in three places, and never raised a colour, but we kept gophering around till March, in hopes.
"'Why did I write that letter?' he asked one day. 'I'd give anything to stop it before it gets out. Think of her disappointment when she hears I'm broke!'
"'Nobody can't look into the ground,' says I. 'I don't mind losin' out myself, for I've done it for twenty years and I sort of like it now, but I'm sorry for the girl.'
"'It means another whole season,' he says. 'I wanted to see them this summer, or bring them in next fall.'
"'Sufferin' sluice-boxes! Are you plumb daffy? Bring a woman into the Yukon--and a little baby.'
"'She'd follow me anywhere. She's awful proud; proud as a Kentucky girl can be, and those people would make your uncle Lucifer look like a cringing cripple, but she'd live in an Indian hut with me.'
"'Sure! And follerin' out the simile, nobody but a Siwash would let her. If she don't like some other feller better while you're gone, what're you scared about?'
"He never answered; just looked at me pityfyin', as much as to say, 'Well, you poor, drivelin, old polyp!'
"One day Denny, the squaw-man, drove up the creek:
"'Windy Jim is back with the mail,' says he, and we hit for camp on the run. Only fifteen mile, she is, but I was all in when we got there, keepin' up with Justus. His eyes outshone the snow-glitter and he sang--all the time he wasn't roasting me for being so slow--claimed I was active as a toad-stool. A man ain't got no license to excite hisself unless he's struck pay dirt--or got a divorce.
"'Gi'me my mail, quick!' he says to Windy, who had tinkered up a one-night stand post-office and dealt out letters, at five dollars per let.'
"'Nothing doing,' says Windy.
"'Oh, yes there is,' he replies, still smiling; 'she writes me every week.'
"'I got all there was at Dawson,' Windy give back, 'and there ain't a thing for you!'
"I consider the tragedy of this north country lies in its mail service. Uncle Sam institutes rural deliveries, so the bolomen can register poisoned arrowheads to the Igorrotes in exchange for recipes to make roulade of naval officer, but his American miners in Alaska go shy on home news for eight months every year.
"That was the last mail we had till June.
"When the river broke we cleaned up one hundred and eighty-seven dollars' worth of lovely, yellow dust, and seven hundred and thirty-five dollars in beautiful yellow bills from the post.
"The first boat down from Dawson brought mail, and I stood beside him when he got his. He shook so he held on to the purser's window. Instead of a stack of squares overrun with female chiropody, there was only one for him--a long, hungry sport, with indications of a law firm in the northwest corner. It charmed him like a rattler. He seemed scared to open it. Two or three times he tried and stopped.
"'They're dead,' thinks I; and, sure enough, when he'd looked, I knew it was so, and felt for his hand. Sympathy don't travel by word of mouth between pardners. It's the grip of the hand or the look of the eye.
"'What cause?' says I.
"He turned, and s'help me, I never want to see the like again. His face was plumb grey and dead, like wet ashes, while his eyes scorched through, all dry and hot. Lines was sinkin' into it as I looked.
"'It's worse,' says he, 'unless it's a joke.' He handed me the dope: 'In re Olive Troop Morrow vs. Justus Morrow,' and a letter stating that out of regard for her feelings, and bein' a gentleman, he wasn't expected to cause a scandal, but to let her get the divorce by default. No explanation; no word from her; nothing.
"God knows what that boy suffered the next few weeks, but he fought it out alone. She was proud, but he was prouder. Her silence hurt him the worst, of course; but what could he do? Go to her? Fine! Both of us broke and in debt. Also, there's such a thing as diggin' deep enough to scrape the varnish off of a man's self-respect, leavin' it raw and shrinking. No! He done like you or me--let her have her way. He took off the locket and hid it, and I never heard her name mentioned for a year.
"I'd been up creek for a whip-saw one day, and as I came back I heard voices in the cabin. 'Some musher out from town,' thinks I, till something in their tones made me stop in my tracks.
"I could hear the boy's voice, hoarse and throbbing, as though he dragged words out bleeding, then I heard the other one laugh--a nasty, sneering laugh that ended in a choking rattle, like a noose had tightened on his throat.
"I jumped for the door, and rounding the corner, something near took me off my feet; something that shot through the air, all pretty and knickerbockery, with a two-faced cap, and nice brown leggin's. Also, a little camera was harnessed to it by tugs. It arose, displaying the face of R. Alonzo Struthers, black and swollen, with chips stickin' in it where he'd hit the woodpile. He glared at Morrow, and his lips foamed like a crab out of water.
"'I hope I'm not intrudin', I ventures.
"When the kid seen me, he says, soft and weak, like something ailed his palate:
"'Don't let me kill him, Billy.'"
"Struthers spit, and picked splinters forth from his complexion.
"'I told you for your own good. It's common gossip,' says he. 'Everybody is laughing at you, an--'
"Then I done a leap for life for the kid, 'cause the murder light blazed up white in his face, and he moved at the man like he had something serious in view.
"'Run, you idiot!' I yells to Struthers as I jammed the youngster back into the cabin. All of a sudden the gas went out of him and he broke, hanging to me like a baby.
"'It can't be,' he whispers. 'It can't be.' He throwed hisself on to a goods' box, and buried his face in his hands. It gripes me to hear a man cry, so I went to the creek for a pail of water.
"I never heard what Struthers said, but it don't take no Nick Carter to guess.
"That was the fall of the Fryin' Pan strike--do you mind it? Shakespeare George put us on, so me and the kid got in ahead of the stampede. We located one and two above discovery, and by Christmas we had a streak uncovered that was all gold. She was coarse, and we averaged six ounces a day in pick-ups. Man, that was ground! I've flashed my candle along the drift face, where it looked like gold had been shot in with a scatter-gun.
"We was cleaned up and had our 'pokes' at the post when the first boat from Dawson smoked 'round the bend.
"Now, in them days, a man's averdupoise was his abstract of title. There was nothing said about records and patentees as long as you worked your ground; but, likewise, when you didn't work it, somebody else usually did. We had a thousand feet of as good dirt as ever laid out in the rain; but there was men around drulin' to snipe it, and I knowed it was risky to leave. However, I saw what was gnawin' at the boy, and if ever a man needed a friend and criminal lawyer, that was the time. According to the zodiac, certain persons, to the complainant unknown, had a mess of trouble comin' up and I wanted to have the bail money handy.
"We jumped camp together. I made oration to the general gnat-bitten populace, from the gang-plank, to the effect that one William P. Joyce, trap, crap, and snap shooter was due to happen back casual most any time, and any lady or gent desirous of witnessing at first hand, a shutzenfest with live targets, could be gratified by infestin' in person or by proxy, the lands, tenements, and hereditaments of me and the kid.
"'Well, we hit the Seattle docks at a canter, him headed for the postal telegraph, me for a fruit-stand. I bought a dollar's worth of everything, from cracker-jack to cantaloupe, reserving the local option of eatin' it there in whole or in part, and returning for more. First fresh fruit in three years. I reckon my proudest hour come when I found, beyond peradventure, that I hadn't forgot the 'Georgy Grind.' What? 'Georgy Grind' consists of feeding rough-hewed slabs of watermelon into your sou' sou'east corner, and squirting a stream of seeds out from the other cardinal points, without stopping or strangling.
"I et and et, and then wallered up to the hotel, sweatin' a different kind of fruit juice from every pore. Not wishing to play any favourites, I'd picked up a basket of tomatoes, a gunny-sack of pineapples, and a peck of green plums on the way. Them plums done the business. I'd orter let bad enough alone. They was non-union, and I begin having trouble with my inside help. Morrow turned in a hurry-up call for the Red Cross, two medical colleges, and the Society of Psycolic Research. Between 'em they diagnosed me as containing everything from 'housemaid's knee' to homesickness of the vital organs, but I know. I swallered a plum pit, and it sprouted.
"Next day, when I come out of it, Justus had heard from Denver. His wife had been gone a year, destination unknown. Somebody thought she went to California, so, two days later, we registered at the Palace, and the 'Frisco police begin dreaming of five thousand dollar rewards.
"It was no use, though. One day I met Struthers on Market Street, and he was scared stiff to hear that Morrow was in town. It seems he was night editor of one of the big dailies.
"'Do you know where the girl is?' says I.
"'Yes, she's in New York,' he answers, looking queer, so I hurried back to the hotel.
"As I was explaining to Morrow, a woman passed us in the hall with a little boy. In the dimness, the lad mistook Justus.
"'Oh, papa, papa!" he yells, and grabs him by the knees, laughing and kicking.
"'Ah-h!' my pardner sighs, hoarse as a raven, and quicker'n light he snatched the little shaver to him, then seeing his mistake, dropped him rough. His face went grey again, and he got wabbly at the hinges, so I helped him into the parlour. He had that hungry, Yukon look, and breathed like he was wounded.
"'You come with me,' says I, 'and get your mind off of things. The eastern limited don't leave till midnight. Us to the theatre!'
"It was a swell tepee, all right. Variety house, with moving pictures, and actorbats, and two-ton soubrettes, with Barrios diamonds and hand-painted socks.
"First good show I'd seen in three years, and naturally humour broke out all over me. When joy spreads its wings in my vitals, I sound like a boy with a stick running past a picket-fence. Not so Morrow. He slopped over the sides of his seat, like he'd been spilled into the house.
"Right after the sea-lions, the orchestra spieled some teetery music, and out floats a woman, slim and graceful as an antelope. She had a big pay-dump of brown hair, piled up on her hurricane deck, with eyes that snapped and crinkled at the corners. She single-footed in like a derby colt, and the somnambulists in the front row begin to show cause. Something about her startled me, so I nudged the kid, but he was chin-deep in the plush, with his eyes closed. I marked how drawed and haggard he looked; and then, of a sudden he raised half on to his feet. The girl had begun to sing. Her voice was rich and low, and full of deep, still places, like a mountain stream. But Morrow! He sunk his fingers into me, and leaned for'rad, starin' as though Paradise had opened for him, while the sweat on his face shone like diamond chips.
"It was the girl of the locket, all right, on the stage again--in vaudeville.
"Her song bubbled along, rippling over sandy, sunlit gravel bars, and slidin' out through shadowy trout pools beneath the cool, alder thickets, and all the time my pardner sat burning his soul in his eyes, his breath achin' out through his throat. Incidental, his digits was knuckle-deep into the muscular tissue of William P., the gent to the right.
"When she quit, I had to jam him back.
"For an encore she sang a reg'lar American song, with music to it. When she reached the chorus she stopped. Then away up in the balcony sounded the tiny treble of a boy's soprano, sweet as the ring of silver. The audience turned, to a man, and we seen, perched among the newsboys, the littlest, golden-haired youngster, 'bout the size of your thumb, his eyes glued to the face of his mother on the stage below, pourin' out his lark song, serious and frightened. Twice he done it, while by main stren'th I held his father to the enjoyments of a two-dollar orchestra chair.
"'Let us in,' we says, three minutes later, to the stranger at the stage door, but he looked upon us with unwelcome, like the seven-headed hydrant of Holy Writ.
"'It's agin' the rules,' says he. 'You kin wait in the alley with the other Johnnies.'
"I ain't acclimated to the cold disfavour of a stage door, never having soubretted along the bird and bottle route. I was for the layin' on of hands. Moreover, I didn't like the company we was in, 'Johnnies,' by designations of the Irish terrier at the wicket. They smoked ready-made cigarettes, and some of 'em must have measured full eight inches acrost the chest.
"'Let us stroll gently but firmly into, over, and past the remains of this party, to the missus,' says I, but Morrow got seized with the shakes, of a sudden.
"'No, no. We'll wait here.'
"At last she come out, steppin' high. When she moved she rustled and rattled like she wore sandpaper at the ankles.
"Say, she was royal! She carried the youngster in her arms, sound asleep, and it wasn't till she stepped under the gaslight that she seen us.
"'Oh!' she cried, and went white as the lace of her cloak. Then she hugged the kiddie clost to her, standing straight and queenly, her eyes ablaze, her lips moist, and red, and scornful.
"God, she was grand--but him? He looked like a barnacle.
"'Olive!' says he, bull-froggy, and that's all. Just quit like a dog and ate her up by long-distance eyesight. Lord! Nobody would have knowed him for the same man that called the crookedest gamblers on the Yukon, and bolted newspaper men raw. He had ingrowing language. It oozed out through his pores till he dreened like a harvest hand. I'd have had her in my arms in two winks, so that all hell and a policeman couldn't have busted my holt till she'd said she loved me.
"She shrivelled him with a look, the likes of which ain't strayed over the Mason-Dixon line since Lee surrendered, and swept by us, invitin' an' horspitable as an iceberg in a cross sea. Her cab door slammed, and I yanked Morrow out of there, more dead than alive.
"'Let me go home,' says he wearily.
"'You bet!' I snorts. 'It's time you was tucked in. The dew is fallin' and some rude person might accost you. You big slob! There's a man's work to do to-night, and as I don't seem to have no competition in holding the title, I s'pose it's my lead.' I throwed him into a carriage. 'You'd best put on your nighty, and have the maid turn down your light. Sweet dreams, Gussie!' I was plumb sore on him. History don't record no divorce suits in the Stone Age, when a domestic inclined man allus toted a white-oak billy, studded with wire nails, according to the pictures, and didn't scruple to use it, both at home and abroad. Women was hairy, them days, and harder to make love, honour and obey; but principles is undyin'.
"I boarded another cab:
"'Drive me to number ----,' giving him the address I'd heard her use.
"'Who is it,' came her voice when I rang the bell.
"'Messenger boy,' I replies, perjuring my vocal cords.
"When she opened the door, I pushed through and closed it behind me.
"'What does this mean?' she cried. 'Help!'
"'Shut up! It means you're killing the best boy in the world, and I want to know why.'
"'Who are you?'
"'I'm Bill Joyce, your husband's pardner. Old Tarantula Bill, that don't fear no man, woman, or child that roams the forest. I'm here to find what ails you--'
"'Leave this house, sir!'
"'Well, not to any extent. You're a good girl; I knowed it when I first seen your picture. Now, I want you to tell me--'
"'Insolent! Shall I call the police?' Her voice was icy, and she stood as solid as stone.
"'Madam, I'm as gentle as a jellyfish, and peaceful to a fault, but if you raise a row before I finish my talk I'll claim no responsibility over what occurs to the first eight or ten people that intrudes,' and I drawed my skinnin' knife, layin' it on the planner. 'Philanthropy is raging through my innards, and two loving hearts need joining!'
"'I don't love him,' she quotes, like a phonograft, ignoring my cutlery.
"'I'll take exception to that ruling,' and I picks up a picture of Justus she'd dropped as I broke in. She never batted an eye.
"'I nursed that lad through brain fever, when all he could utter was your name.'
"'Has he been sick?' The first sign of spring lit up her peaks.
"'Most dead. Notice of the divorce done it. He's in bad shape yet.' Morrow never had a sick day in his life, but I stomped both feet on the soft pedal, and pulled out the tremulo stop.
"'Oh! Oh!' Her voice was soft, though she still stood like a birch.
"'Little girl,' I laid a hand on her shoulder. 'We both love that boy. Come, now, what is the matter?'
"She flashed up like powder.
"'Matter? I thought he was a gentleman, even though he didn't love me; that he had a shred of honour, at least. But no! He went to Alaska and made a fortune. Then he squandered it, drinking, fighting, gambling, and frittering it away on women. Bah! Lewd creatures of the dance-halls, too.'
"'Hold up! Your dope sheet is way to the bad. There's something wrong with your libretto. Who told you all that?'
"'Never mind. I have proof. Look at these, and you dare to ask me why I left him?'
"She dragged out some pictures and throwed 'em at me.
"'Ah! Why didn't I let the kid kill him?' says I, through my teeth.
"The first was the gambling-room of the Reception. There stood Morrow with the men under foot; there was the bottles and glasses; the chips and cards, and also the distressful spectacle of Tarantula Bill Joyce, a number twelve man, all gleaming teeth, and rolling eyeballs, inserting hisself into a number nine opening, and doing surprising well at it.
"'Look at them. Look at them well,' she gibed.
"The second was the Gold-Belt dance-hall, with the kid cavorting through a drunken orgy of painted ladies, like a bull in a pansy patch. But the other--it took my breath away till I felt I was on smooth ice, with cracks showing. It was the inside of a cabin, after a big 'pot-latch,' displaying a table littered up with fizz bottles and dishes galore. Diamond Tooth Lou stood on a chair, waving kisses and spilling booze from a mug. In the centre stood Morrow with another girl, nestling agin his boosum most horrible lovin'. Gee! It was a home splitter and it left me sparring for wind. The whole thing exhaled an air of debauchery that would make a wooden Indian blush. No one thing in particular; just the general local colour of a thousand-dollar bender.
"'Charming, isn't it?' she sneered.
"'I don't savvy the burro. There's something phony about it. I can explain the other two, but this one--.' Then it come to me in a flash. The man's face was perfect, but he wore knickerbockers! Now, to my personal knowledge, the only being that ever invaded Rampart City in them things was R. Alonzo Struthers.
"'There's secrets of the dark-room that I ain't wise to,' says I, 'but I feel that this is going to be a bad night for the newspaper enterprise of 'Frisco if it don't explain. I'll fetch the man that busted your Larrys and Peanuts.'
"'Our what?' says she.
"'Larrys and Peanuts--that's Roman. The kid told me all about 'em. They're sort of little cheap gods!'
"'Will you ever go?' she snapped. 'I don't need your help. Tell him I hate him!' She stamped her foot, and the iron come into her again till the pride of all Kentucky blazed in her eyes.
"She couldn't understand my explanations no more than I could, so I ducked. As I backed out the door, though, I seen her crumple up and settle all of a heap on the floor. She certainly did hate that man scandalous.
"I'm glad some editors work nights. Struthers wasn't overjoyed at my call, particular, as I strayed in with two janitors dangling from me. They said he was busy and couldn't be interrupted, and they seemed to insist on it.'
"'It's a bully night,' says I, by way of epigram, unhooking the pair of bouncers. "'You wouldn't like me to take you ridin' perhaps?'
"'Are you drunk, or crazy?' says he. 'What do you mean by breaking into my office? I can't talk to you; we're just going to press.'
"'I'd like to stay and watch it,' says I, 'but I've got a news item for you.' At the same time I draws my skinner and lays it on the back of his neck, tempting. Steel, in the lamp-light, is discouraging to some temperaments. One of the body-guards was took with urgent business, and left a streamer of funny noises behind him, while the other gave autumn-leaf imitations in the corner. Struthers looked like a dose of seasickness on a sour stomach.
"Get your hat. Quick!' I jobbed him, gentle and encouraging.
"Age allus commands respect. Therefore the sight of a six-foot, grizzled Klondiker in a wide hat, benevolently prodding the night editor in the short ribs and apple sauce, with eight bright and chilly inches, engendered a certain respect in the reportorial staff.
"'You're going to tell Mrs. Morrow all about the pretty pictures,' I says, like a father.
"'Let me go, damn you!' he frothed, but I wedged him into a corner of the cab and took off his collar--in strips. It interfered with his breathing, as I couldn't get a holt low enough to regulate his respiration. He kicked out two cab windows, but I bumped his head agin the woodwork, by way of repartee. It was a real pleasure, not to say recreation, experimenting with the noises he made. Seldom I get a neck I give a cuss to squeeze. His was number fifteen at first, by the feel; but I reduced it a quarter size at a time.
"When we got there I helped him out, one hand under his chin, the other back of his ears. I done it as much from regard of the neighbours as animosities to him, for it was the still, medium small hours. I tiptoed in with my treatise on the infamies of photography gurgling under my hand, but at the door I stopped. It was ajar; and there, under the light, I spied Morrow. In his arms I got glimpses of black lace and wavy, brown hair, and a white cheek that he was accomplishing wonders with. They wouldn't have heard a man-hole explosion.
"'He's still fitting to be my pardner,' I thinks, and then I heard Struthers's teeth chatter and grind. I looked at him, and the secret of the whole play came to me.
"Never having known the divine passion, it ain't for me to judge, but I tightened on his voice-box and whispered:
"'You've outlived your period of usefulness, Struthers, and it's time to go. Let us part friends, however.' So I bade him Godspeed from the top step.
"Looking back on the evening now, that adieu was my only mistake. I limped for a week--he had a bottle in his hip pocket."
Return to the Rex Ellingwood Beach library , or . . . Read the next short story; Running Elk