The storm broke at Salmon Lake, and we ran for Slisco's road-house. It whipped out from the mountains, all tore into strips coming through the saw-teeth, lashing us off the glare ice and driving us up against the river banks among the willows. Cold? Well, some! My bottle of painkiller froze slushy, like lemon punch.
There's nothing like a warm shack, with a cache full of grub, when the peaks smoke and the black snow-clouds roar down the gulch.
Other "mushers" were ahead of us at the road-house, freighters from Kougarok, an outfit from Teller going after booze, the mail-carrier, and, who do you reckon?--Annie Black. First time I had seen her since she was run out of Dawson for claim jumping.
Her and me hadn't been essential to one another since I won that suit over a water right on Eldorado.
"Hello, Annie," says I, clawing the ice out of my whiskers; "finding plenty of claims down here to relocate?"
"Shut up, you perjured pup," says she, full of disappointing affabilities; "I don't want any dealings with a lying, thieving hypocrite like you, Billy Joyce."
Annie lacks the sporting instinct; she ain't got the disposition for cup-racing. Never knew her to win a case, and yet she's the instigatress of more emotional activities than all the marked cards and home distilled liquor in Alaska.
"See here," says I, "a prairie dog and a rattler can hole up together, but humans has got to be congenial, so, seein' as we're all stuck to live in the same room till this blizzard blizzes out, let's forget our troubles. I'm as game a Hibernian as the next, but I don't hibernate till there's a blaze of mutual respect going."
"Blaze away," says she, "though I leave it to the crowd if you don't look and act like a liar and a grave robber." Her speech is sure full of artless hostilities.
Ain't ever seen her? Lord! I thought everybody knew Annie Black. She drifted into camp one day, tall, slab-sided, ornery to the view, and raising fifty or upwards; disposition uncertain as frozen dynamite. Her ground plans and elevations looked like she was laid out for a man, but the specifications hadn't been follered. We ain't consumed by curiosity regarding the etymology of every stranger that drifts in, and as long as he totes his own pack, does his assessments, and writes his location notices proper, it goes. Leastways, it went till she hit town. In a month she had the brotherly love of that camp gritting its teeth and throwing back twisters. 'Twas all legitimate, too, and there never was a pennyweight of scandal connected with her name. No, sir! Far's conduct goes, she's always been the shinin' female example of this country; but them qualities let her out.
First move was to jump Bat Ruggles's town lot. He had four courses of logs laid for a cabin when "Scotty" Bell came in from the hills with $1800 in coarse gold that he'd rocked out of a prospect shaft on Bat's Moose's Creek claim.
Naturally Bat made general proclamation of thirst, and our town kinder dozed violently into a joyful three days' reverie, during which period of coma the recording time on Bat's lot ran out.
He returns from his "hootch-hunt" to complete the shack, and finds Annie overseeing some "Siwashes" put a pole roof on it. Of course he promotes a race-war immediate, playing the white "open" and the red to lose, so to speak, when she up an' spanks his face, addressing expurgated, motherly cuss-words at him like he'd been a bad boy and swallered his spoon, or dug an eye out of the kitten. Bat realizes he's against a strange system and draws out of the game.
A week later she jumps No. 3, Gold Bottom, because Donnelly stuck a pick in his foot and couldn't stay to finish the assessment.
"I can't throw her off, or shoot her up," says he, "or even cuss at her like I want to, 'cause she's a lady." And it appeared like that'd been her graft ever since--presumin' on her sex to make disturbances. In six months we hated her like pizen.
There wasn't a stampede in a hundred miles where her bloomers wasn't leading, for she had the endurance of a moose; and between excitements she prospected for trouble in the manner of relocations.
I've heard of fellers speakin' disrespectful to her and then wandering around dazed and loco after she'd got through painting word pictures of 'em. It goes without saying she was generally popular and petted, and when the Commissioner invited her to duck out down the river, the community sighed, turned over, and had a peaceful rest--first one since she'd come in.
I hadn't seen her from that time till I blowed into Slisco's on the bosom of this forty mile, forty below blizzard.
Setting around the fire that night I found that she'd just lost another of her famous lawsuits--claimed she owned a fraction 'longside of No. 20, Buster Creek, and that the Lund boys had changed their stakes so as to take in her ground. During the winter they'd opened up a hundred and fifty feet of awful rich pay right next to her line, and she'd raised the devil. Injunctions, hearings and appeals, and now she was coming back, swearing she'd been "jobbed," the judge had been bought, and the jury corrupted.
"It's the richest strike in the district," says she. "They've rocked out $11,000 since snow flew, and there's 30,000 buckets of dirt on the dump. They can bribe and bulldoze a decision through this court, but I'll have that fraction yet, the robbers."
"Robbers be cussed," speaks up the mail man. "You're the cause of the trouble yourself. If you don't get a square deal, it's your own fault--always looking for technicalities in the mining laws. It's been your game from the start to take advantage of your skirts, what there is of 'em, and jump, jump, jump. Nobody believes half you say. You're a natural disturber, and if you was a man you'd have been hung long ago."
I've heard her oral formations, and I looked for his epidermis to shrivel when she got her replications focused. She just soared up and busted.
"Look out for the stick," thinks I.
"Woman, am I," she says, musical as a bum gramophone under the slow bell. "I take advantage of my skirts, do I? Who are you, you mangy 'malamoot,' to criticise a lady? I'm more of a man than you, you tin-horn; I want no favours; I do a man's work; I live a man's life; I am a man, and I'm proud of it, but you--; Nome's full of your kind; you need a woman to support you; you're a protoplasm, a polyp. Those Swedes changed their stakes to cover my fraction. I know it, they know it, and if it wasn't Alaska, God would know it, but He won't be in again till spring, and then the season's only three months long. I've worked like a man, suffered like a man--"
"Why don't ye' lose like a man?" says he.
"I will, and I'll fight like one, too," says she, while her eyes burned like faggots. "They've torn away the reward of years of work and agony, and they forget I can hate like a man."
She was stretched up to high C, where her voice drowned the howl of the storm, and her seamed old face was a sight. I've seen mild, shrinky, mouse-shy women 'roused to hell's own fury, and I felt that night that here was a bad enemy for the Swedes of Buster Creek.
She stopped, listening.
"What's that? There's some one at the door."
"Nonsense," says one of the freighters. "You do so much knocking you can hear the echo."
"There's some one at that door," says she.
"If there was, they'd come in," says Joe.
"Couldn't be, this late in this storm," I adds.
She came from behind the stove, and we let her go to the door alone. Nobody ever seemed to do any favours for Annie Black.
"She'll be seein' things next," says Joe, winking. "What'd I tell you? For God's sake close it--you'll freeze us."
Annie opened the door, and was hid to the waist in a cloud of steam that rolled in out of the blackness. She peered out for a minute, stooped, and tugged at something in the dark. I was at her side in a jump, and we dragged him in, snow-covered and senseless.
"Quick--brandy," says she, slashing at his stiff "mukluks." "Joe, bring in a tub of snow." Her voice was steel sharp.
"Well, I'm danged," says the mail man. "It's only an Injun. You needn't go crazy like he was a white."
"Oh, you fool" says Annie. "Can't you see? Esquimaux don't travel alone. There's white men behind, and God help them if we don't bring him to."
She knew more about rescustications than us, and we did what she said, till at last he came out of it, groaning--just plumb wore out and numb.
"Talk to him, Joe; you savvy their noise," says I.
The poor devil showed his excitement, dead as he was.
"There's two men on the big 'Cut-off,'" Joe translates. "Lost on the portage. There was only one robe between 'em, so they rolled up in it, and the boy came on in the dark. Says they can't last till morning."
"That lets them out," says the mail carrier. "Too bad we can't reach them to-night."
"What!" snaps Annie. "Reach 'em? Huh! I said you were a jellyfish. Hurry up and get your things on, boys."
"Have a little sense," says Joe. "You surely ain't a darn fool. Out in this storm, dark as the inside of a cow; blowin' forty mile, and the 'quick' froze. Can't be done. I wonder who they are?"
He "kowtowed" some more, and at the answer of the chattering savage we looked at Annie.
"Him called Lund," shivered the Siwash.
I never see anybody harder hit than her. I love a scrap, but I thinks "Billy, she's having a stiffer fight than you ever associated with."
Finally she says, kind of slow and quiet: "Who knows where the 'Cut-off' starts?"
Nobody answers, and up speaks the U. S. man again.
"You've got your nerve, to ask a man out on such a night."
"If there was one here, I wouldn't have to ask him. There's people freezing within five miles of here, and you hug the stove, saying: 'It's stormy, and we'll get cold.' Of course it is. If it wasn't stormy they'd be here too, and it's so cold, you'll probably freeze. What's that got to do with it? Ever have your mother talk to you about duty? Thank Heaven I travelled that portage once, and I can find it again if somebody will go with me."
'Twas a blush raising talk, but nobody upset any furniture getting dressed.
"So I'm the woman of this crowd and I hide behind my skirts. Mr. Mail Man, show what a glorious creature you are. Throw yourself--get up and stretch and roar. Oh, you barn-yard bantam! Has it had its pap to-night? I've a grand commercial enterprise; I'll take all of your bust measurements and send out to the States for a line of corsets. Ain't there half a man among you?"
She continued in this vein, pollutin' the air, and, having no means of defence, we found ourselves follerin' her out into a yelling storm that beat and roared over us like waves of flame.
Swede luck had guided their shaft onto the richest pay-streak in seven districts, and Swede luck now led us to the Lund boys, curled up in the drifted snow beside their dogs; but it was the level head and cool judgment of a woman that steered us home in the grey whirl of the dawn.
During the deathly weariness of that night I saw past the calloused hide of that woman and sighted the splendid courage cached away beneath her bitter oratory and hosstyle syllogisms. "There's a story there," thinks I, "an' maybe a man moved in it--though I can't imagine her softened by much affection." It pleased some guy to state that woman's the cause of all our troubles, but I figger they're like whisky--all good, though some a heap better'n others, of course, and when a frail, little, ninety pound woman gets to bucking and acting bad, there's generally a two hundred pound man hid out in the brush that put the burr under the saddle.
During the next three days she dressed the wounds of them Scow-weegians and nursed them as tender as a mother.
The wind hadn't died away till along came the "Flying Dutchman" from Dugan's, twenty miles up, floatin' on the skirts of the blizzard.
"Hello, fellers. Howdy, Annie. What's the matter here?" says he. "We had a woman at Dugan's too--purty as a picture; different from the Nome bunch--real sort of a lady."
"Who is she?" says I, "an' what's she doin' out here on the trail?"
"Dunno, but she's all right; come clean from Dawson with a dog team; says she's looking for her mother."
I heard a pan clatter on the floor where Annie was washing dishes, and her face went a sickly grey. She leaned across, gripping the table and straining to ask something, but the words wouldn't come, while "Dutch" continues:
"Somethin' strange about it, I think. She says her ma's over in the Golden Gate district, workin' a rich mine. Of course we all laughed at her, and said there wasn't a woman in the whole layout, 'ceptin' some folks might misconstrue Annie here into a kind of a female. She stuck to it though, much as to say we was liars. She's comin' on--what's the matter, Annie--you ain't sore at me effeminatin' you by the gentle name of female, are you?"
She had come to him, and gripped his shoulder, till her long, bony fingers buried themselves in his mackinaw. Her mouth was twitching, and she hadn't got shed of that "first-aid-to-the-injured" look.
"What name? What name, Dutch? What name?" She shook him like a rat.
"Bradshaw--but you needn't run your nails through and clinch 'em. Ow! Le'go my white meat. You act like she was your long lost baby. What d'ye think of that idea, fellers? Ain't that a pleasin' conceit? Annie Black, and a baby. Ha! Ha! that's a hit. Annie and a daughter. A cow-thief and a calla-lily."
"Dutch," says I, "you ain't a-goin' to make it through to Lane's Landing if you don't pull your freight," and I drags the darn fool out and starts him off.
When I came in she was huddled onto a goods box, shaking and sobbing like any woman, while the boys sat around and champed their bits and stomped.
"Take me away, Billy," she says. "For God's sake take me away before she sees me." She slid down to the floor and cried something awful. Gents, that was sure the real distress, nothing soft and sloppy, but hard, wrenchy, deep ones, like you hear at a melodrayma. 'Twas only back in '99 that I seen an awful crying match, though both of the ladies had been drinking, so I felt like I was useder to emotion than the balance of the boys, and it was up to me to take a holt.
"Madam," says I, and somehow the word didn't seem out of place any more--"Madam, why do you want to avoid this party?"
"Take me away," she says. "It's my daughter. She's going to find me this way, all rough and immodest and made fun of. But that's the worst you can say, isn't it? I'm a square woman--you know I am, don't you, boys?" and she looked at us fierce and pleadin'.
"Sure," says Joe. "We'll boost you with the girl all right."
"She thinks her father's dead, but he isn't--he ran away with a show woman--a year after we were married. I never told her about it, and I've tried to make a little lady of her."
We found out afterwards that she had put the girl in a boarding-school, but couldn't seem to make enough for both of them, and when the Klondyke was struck thought she saw a chance. She came north, insulted by deck hands and laughed at by the officers. At Skagway she nursed a man through typhoid, and when he could walk he robbed her. The mounted police took everything else she had and mocked at her. "Your kind always has money," they said.
That's how it had been everywhere, and that's why she was so hard and bitter. She'd worked and fought like a man, but she'd suffered like a woman.
"I've lied and starved and stolen for her," said Annie, "to make her think I was doing well. She said she was coming in to me, but I knew winter would catch her at Dawson, and I thought I could head her off by spring."
"Now, she's here; but, men, as your mothers loved you, save me from my little girl."
She buried her face, and when I looked at the boys, tears stood in Joe Slisco's eyes and the others breathed hard. Ole Lund, him that was froze worst about the hands, spoke up:
"Someboady tak de corner dat blanket an' blow may nose."
Then we heard voices outside.
"Hello, in there."
Annie stood up, clutching at her throat, and stepped behind the corner of the bunks as the door opened, framing the prettiest picture this old range rider ever saw.
'Twas a girl, glowing pink and red where the cold had kissed her cheeks, with yellow curlicues of hair wandering out under her yarn cap. Her little fox-trimmed parka quit at the knees, showing the daintiest pair of--I can't say it. Anyhow, they wasn't, they just looked like 'em, only nicer.
She stood blinking at us, coming from the bright light outside, as cute as a new faro box--then:
"Can you tell me where Mrs. Bradshaw lives? She's somewhere in this district. I'm her daughter--come all the way from the States to see her."
When she smiled I could hear the heart-strings of those ragged, whiskered, frost-bit "mushers" bustin' like banjo strings.
"You know her, don't you?" she says, turning to me.
"Know her, Miss? Well, I should snort! There ain't a prospector on the range that ain't proud and honoured to call her a friend. Leastways, if there is I'll bust his block," and I cast the bad eye on the boys to wise 'em up.
"Ain't I right, Joe?"
"Betcher dam life," says Joe, sort of over-stepping the conventions.
"Then tell me where her claim is. It's quite rich, and you must know it," says she, appealing to him.
Up against it? Say! I seen the whites of his eyes show like he was drownding, and he grinned joyful as a man kicked in the stummick.
"Er--er--I just bought in here, and ain't acquainted much," says he. "Have a drink," and, in his confusions, he sets out the bottle of alkalies that he dignifies by the alias of booze. Then he continues with reg'lar human intelligence.
"Bill, here, he can tell you where the ground is," and the whelp indicates me.
Lord knows my finish, but for Ole Lund. He sits up in his bunk, swaddled in Annie Black's bandages, and through slits between his frost bites, he moults the follering rhetoric:
"Aye tole you vere de claim iss. She own de Nomber Twenty fraction on Buster Creek, 'longside may and may broder. She's dam good fraction, too."
I consider that a blamed white stunt for Swedes; paying for their lives with the mine they swindled her out of.
Anyhow, it knocked us galley-west.
I'd formulated a swell climax, involving the discovery of the mother, when the mail man spoke up, him that had been her particular abomination, a queer kind of a break in his voice:
"Come out of that."
Mrs. Bradshaw moved out into the light, and, if I'm any judge, the joy that showed in her face rubbed away the bitterness of the past years. With an aching little cry the girl ran to her, and hid in her arms like a quail.
We men-folks got accumulated up into a dark corner where we shook hands and swore soft and insincere, and let our throats hurt, for all the world like it was Christmas or we'd got mail from home.