Rex Ellingwood Beach (September 1, 1877 – December 7, 1949)
REX ELLINGWOOD BEACHex - September 1, 1877 – December 7, 1949 - was an American novelist, playwright, and Olympic water polo player.
Rex Beach was born in Atwood, Michigan, but moved to Tampa, Florida with his family where his father was growing fruit trees.
Beach was educated at Rollins College, Florida (1891-6), the Chicago College of Law (1896-7), and Kent College of Law, Chicago (1899-1900). In 1900 he was drawn to Alaska at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush After five years of unsuccessful prospecting, he turned to writing.
His first novel, The Spoilers, was based on a true story of corrupt government officials stealing gold mines from prospectors, which he witnessed while he was prospecting in Nome, Alaska. The Spoilers became one of the best selling novels of 1906.
One such potboiler, The Silver Horde (1909), is set in Kalvik, a fictionalized community in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and tells the story of a down on his luck gold miner who discovers a greater wealth in Alaska's run of salmon (silver horde) and decides to open a cannery. To accomplish this he must overcome the relentless opposition of the "salmon trust," a fictionalized Alaska Packers' Association, which undercuts his financing, sabotages his equipment, incites a longshoremen's riot and bribes his fishermen to quit. The story line includes a love interest as the protagonist is forced to choose between his fiance, a spoiled banker's daughter, and an earnest roadhouse operator, a woman of "questionable virtue." Real life cannery superintendent Crescent Porter Hale has been credited with being the inspiration of The Silver Horde but it's unlikely Beach and Hale ever met.
After success in literature, many of his works were adapted into successful films; The Spoilers became a stage play, then was remade into movies five times from 1914 to 1955, with Gary Cooper and John Wayne each playing "Roy Glennister" in 1930 and 1942, respectively. The Silver Horde was twice made into a movie, as a silent film in 1920 starring Myrtle Stedman, Curtis Cooksey and Betty Blythe and directed by Frank Llyod; and a talkie in 1930 that starred Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Evelyn Brent and was directed by George Archainbaud.
Beach occasionally produced his films and also wrote a number of plays to varying success. In 1949, two years after the death of his wife Edith, Beach committed suicide in Sebring, Florinda at the age of 71.
In 2005, when the home Beach lived in was remodeled, a bullet was found in the wall, believed to be the bullet that ended his life.
Beach served as the first president of the Rollins College Alumni Association. He and his wife are buried in front of the Alumni house.
Beach, and his most famous novel, were commemorated in 2009 by the naming of a public pedestrian/bicycle trail in Dobbs Ferry, NY, a former place of residence. The trail is called "Spoilers Run" .
THE REAL AND THE MAKE-BELIEVE
On his way down-town Phillips stopped at a Subway news-stand and bought all the morning papers. He acknowledged that he was vastly excited. As he turned in at the stage door he thrilled at sight of the big electric sign over the theater, pallid now in the morning sunshine, but symbolizing in frosted letters the thing for which he had toiled and fought, had hoped and despaired these many years. There it hung, a dream come true, and it read, "A Woman's Thrall, By Henry Phillips."
The stage-door man greeted him with a toothless smile and handed him a bundle of telegrams, mumbling: "I knew it would go over, Mr. Phillips. The notices are swell, ain't they ?"
"They seem to be."
"I ain't seen their equal since 'The Music Master' opened. We'll run a year."
This differed from the feverish, half-hysterical praise of the evening before. Phillips had made allowances then for the spell of a first-night enthusiasm and had prepared himself for a rude awakening this morning he had seen too many plays fail, to put much faith in the fulsomeness of first-nighters, but the words of the doorman carried conviction. He had felt confident up to the last moment, to be sure, for he knew he had put his life's best work into this drama, and he believed he had written with a master's cunning; nevertheless, when his message had gone forth a sudden panic had seized him. He had begun to fear that his judgment was distorted by his nearness to the play, or that his absorption in it had blinded him to its defects. It was evident now, however, that these fears had been ill-founded, for no play could receive such laudatory reviews as these and fail to set New-Yorkers aflame.
Certain printed sentences kept dancing through his memory: "Unknown dramatist of tremendous power," "A love story so pitiless, so true, that it electrifies," "The deep cry of a suffering heart," "Norma Berwynd enters the galaxy of stars."
That last sentence was the most significant, the most wonderful of all. Norma Berwynd a star ! Phillips could scarcely credit it; he wondered if she had the faintest notion of how or why her triumph had been effected.
The property man met him, and he too was smiling.
"I just came from the office," he began. "Say ! they're raving. It's the biggest hit in ten years."
"Oh, come now ! It's too early for the afternoon papers"
"The papers be blowed ! It's the public that makes a play; the whole town knows about this one already. It's in and over, I tell you; we'll sell out tonight. Believe me, this is a knock-out, a regular bull's eye. It won't take no government bonds to bridge us over the next two weeks."
"Did you get the new props ?"
"Sure ! The electrician is working on the drop light for the first act; we'll have a better glass crash tonight, and I've got a brand-new dagger. That other knife was all right, but Mr. Francis forgot how to handle it."
"Nevertheless, it's dangerous. We came near having a real tragedy last evening. Don't let's take any more chances."
"It wasn't my fault, on the level," the property man insisted. "Francis always 'goes up' at an opening."
"Thank Heaven the papers didn't notice it."
"Huh ! We could afford to kill an actor for notices like them. It would make great advertising and please the critics. Say ! I knew this show was a hit."
Under the dim-lit vault of the stage Phillips found the third-act scenery set for the rehearsal he had called, then, having given his instructions to the wardrobe woman, he drew a chair up before a bunch light and prepared to read for a second time the morning reviews.
He had attempted to read them at breakfast, but his wife - The playwright sighed heavily at the memory of that scene.
Leontine had been very unjust, as usual. Her temper had run away with her again and had forced him to leave the house with his splendid triumph spoiled, his first taste of victory like ashes in his mouth. He was, in a way, accustomed to these endless, senseless rows, but their increasing frequency was becoming more and more trying, and he was beginning to doubt his ability to stand them much longer. It seemed particularly nasty of Leontine to seize upon this occasion to vent her open dislike of him, their relations were already sufficiently strained.
Marriage, all at once, assumed a very lopsided aspect to the playwright; he had given so much and received so little.
With an effort he dismissed the subject from his mind and set himself to the more pleasant task of looking at his play through the eyes of the reviewers.
They had been very fair, he decided at last. Their only criticism was one which he had known to be inevitable, therefore he felt no resentment.
"Norma Berwynd was superb," he read; "she combined with rare beauty a personality at once bewitching and natural. She gave life to her lines; she was deep, intense, true; she rose to her emotional heights in a burst of power which electrified the audience. We cannot but wonder why such an artist has remained so long undiscovered."
The dramatist smiled; surely that was sufficient praise to compensate him for the miserable experience he had just undergone. He read further:
"Alas, that the same kind things cannot be said of Irving Francis, whose name is blazoned forth in letters of fire above the theater. He has established himself as one of America's brightest stars; but the role of John Danton does not enhance his reputation. In his lighter scenes he was delightful, but his emotional moments did not ring true. In the white-hot climax of the third act, for instance, which is the big scene of the play, he was stiff, unnatural, unconvincing. Either he saw Miss Berwynd taking the honors of stardom away from him and generously submerged his own talent in order to enhance her triumph, or it is but another proof of the statement that husband and wife do not make convincing lovers in the realm of the make-believe. It was surely due to no lack of opportunity on his part"
So the writer thought Irving Francis had voluntarily allowed his wife to rival him. Phillips smiled at this. Some actors might be capable of such generosity, but hardly Irving Francis. He recalled the man's insistent demands during rehearsals that the 'script be changed to build up his own part and undermine that of his wife; the many heated arguments which had even threatened to prevent the final performance of the piece. Irving's egotism had blinded him to the true result of these quarrels, for although he had been given more lines, more scenes, Phillips had seen to it that Norma was the one to really profit by the changes. Author and star had been upon the verge of rupture more than once during that heartbreaking period of preparation, but Phillips was supremely glad now that he had held himself in control. Leontine's constant nagging had borne fruit, after all, in that it had at least taught him to bite down on his words, and to smile at provocation.
Yes ! Norma Berwynd was a star in spite of herself, in spite of her husband. She was no longer merely the wife of Irving Francis, the popular idol. Phillips was glad that she did not know how long it had taken him to effect her independence, nor the price he had paid for it, since, under the circumstances, the truth could help neither of them.
He was aroused from his abstraction by the rustle of a woman's garments, and leaped to his feet with a glad light in his eyes, only to find Leontine, his wife, confronting him.
"Oh !" he said; then with an effort, "What is the matter ?"
"I didn't know you were coming down-town."
"Whom were you expecting ?" Leontine mocked, with that slight accent which betrayed her Gallic origin.
She regarded him with fixed hostility. "I came down to see your rehearsal. You don't object, I hope ?"
"Why should I object ?" Phillips turned away with a shrug. "I'm surprised, that's all after what you said this morning. Isn't your interest in the play a trifle tardy ?"
"No ! I've been greatly interested in it all the time. I read it several times in manuscript."
"Indeed ! I didn't know that. It won't be much of a rehearsal this morning; I'm merely going to run over the third act with Mr. and Mrs. Francis."
"You can rehearse her forty years and she'll never play the part."
"The critics don't agree with you; they rave over her. If Francis himself "
Mrs. Phillips uttered an exclamation of anger.
"Oh, of course, she is perfect ! You wouldn't give me the part, would you ? No. You gave it to her. But it's mine by rights; I have the personality."
"I wrote it for her," said the husband, after a pause. "I can't see you in it."
"Naturally," she sneered. "Well, I can, and it's not too late to make the change. I'll replace her. My name will help the piece."
"Leontine !" he exclaimed, in amazement. "What are you talking about ? The play is a tremendous success as it is, and Miss Berwynd is a big hit. I'd be crazy to make a change."
"You won't give me the part ?"
"Certainly not. You shouldn't ask it."
"Doesn't Leontine Murat mean more to the public than Norma Berwynd ?" she demanded.
"Until last night, yes. Today, well, no. She has created this role. Besides, you couldn't play the part."
"And why not, if you please ?"
"I don't want to hurt your feelings, Leontine."
"Go on !" she commanded, in a voice roughened by passion.
"In the first place you're not young enough." The woman quivered. "In the second place, you've grown heavy. Then, too, your accent "
She broke out at him furiously.
"So ! I'm old and fat and foreign. I've lost my beauty. You think so, eh ? Well, other men don't. I'll show you what men think of me"
"This is no time for threats," he interrupted, coldly.
"Bah ! I don't threaten." Seizing him by the arm, she swung him about, for she was a large woman and still in the fullest vigor of her womanhood.
"Listen ! You can't fool me. I know why you wrote this play. I know why you took that girl and made a star of her. I've known the truth all along."
"You have no cause to "
"Don't lie !" she stormed at him. "I can read you like a book. But I won't stand for it." She flung his arm violently from her and turned away.
"I think you'd better go home," he told her. "You'll have the stage hands talking in a minute."
She laughed disagreeably, ignoring his words.
"I watched you write this play ! I have eyes, even if Irving Francis is blind. It's time he knew what is going on."
"There is nothing going on," Phillips cried, heatedly; but his wife merely shrugged her splendid shoulders and, opening her gold vanity case, gave her face a deft going over with a tiny powder puff. After a time the man continued:
"I could understand your attitude if you cared for me, but some years ago you took pains to undeceive me on that point."
Leontine's lip curled, and she made no answer.
"This play is a fine piece of property; it will bring us a great deal of money; it is the thing for which I have worked years."
"I am going to tell Francis the truth about you and his wife !" she said.
"But there's nothing to tell," the man insisted, with an effort to restrain himself. "Besides, you must know the result if you start a thing like that. He'll walk out and take his wife with him. That would ruin"
"Give me her part."
"I won't be coerced," he flared up, angrily. "You are willing to ruin me, out of pique, I suppose, but I won't permit it. This is the biggest thing I ever did, or ever will do, perhaps; it means honor and recognition, and you're selfish enough to spoil it all. I've never spoken to Norma Berwynd in any way to which her husband or you could object. Therefore I resent your attitude."
"My attitude ! I'm your wife."
He took a turn across the stage, followed by her eyes. Pausing before her at length, he said, quietly:
"I've asked you to go home and now I insist upon it. If you are here when I return I shall dismiss the rehearsal. I refuse to allow our domestic relations to interfere with my business."
He strode out to the front of the house and then paced the dark foyer, striving to master his emotions. A moment later he saw his wife leave the stage and assumed that she had obeyed his admonitions and gone home.
The property-man appeared with an armful of draperies and mechanical appliances, interrupting his whistling long enough to call out.
"Here's the new hangings, Mr. Phillips, and the Oriental rugs. I've got the dagger, too." He held a gleaming object on high. "Believe me, it's some Davy Crockett. There's a newspaper guy out back and he wants your ideas on the American drama. I told him they were great. Will you see him ?"
"Not now. Tell him to come back later."
"Say ! That John Danton is some character. Why don't you let him have the gal ?"
"Because, well, because it doesn't happen in real life, and I've tried to make this play real, more than anything else."
When Norma Berwynd and her husband arrived Phillips had completely regained his composure, and he greeted them cordially.
The woman seemed awed, half-frightened, by her sudden rise to fame. She seemed to be walking in a dream, and a great wonder dwelt in her eyes. As for Francis, he returned the author's greeting curtly, making it plain that he was in no agreeable temper.
"I congratulate you, Phillips," he said. "You and Norma have become famous overnight."
The open resentment in his tone angered the playwright and caused him to wonder if their long-deferred clash was destined to occur this morning. He knew himself to be overwrought, and he imagined Francis to be in no better frame of mind; nevertheless, he answered, pacifically:
"If that is so we owe it to your art."
"Not at all. I see now what I failed to detect in reading and rehearsing the piece, and what you neglected to tell me, namely, that this is a woman's play. There's nothing in it for me. There's nothing in my part."
"Oh, come now ! The part is tremendous; you merely haven't got the most out of it as yet."
Francis drew himself up and eyed the speaker coldly.
"You're quoting the newspapers. Pray be more original. You know, of course, how I stand with these penny-a-liners; they never have liked me, but as for the part" He shrugged. "I can't get any more out of it than there is in it."
"Doubtless that was my fault at rehearsals. I've called this one so we can fix up the weak spot in the third act."
"Well ! We're on time. Where are the others ?" Francis cast an inquiring glance about.
"I'll only rehearse you and Mrs. Francis."
The former speaker opened his mouth for a cutting rejoinder, but changed his mind and stalked away into the shadowy depths of the wings.
"Please make allowances for him," Norma begged, approaching Phillips in order that her words might not be overheard. "I've never seen him so broken up over anything. He is always unstrung after an opening, but he is terrible, this morning."
There was trouble, timidity, and another indefinable expression in the woman's eyes as they followed the vanishing figure of her husband; faint lines appeared at the corners of her mouth, lines which had no place in the face of a happily married woman. She was trembling, moreover, as if she had but recently played some big, emotional role, and Phillips felt the old aching pity for her tugging at his heart. He wondered if those stories about Francis could be true.
"It has been a great strain on all of us," he told her. "But you ? How do you feel after all this ?" He indicated the pile of morning papers, and at sight of them her eyes suddenly filled with that same wonder and gladness he had noticed when she first arrived.
"Oh-h ! I...I'm breathless. Something clutches me here." She laid her hand upon her bosom. "It's so new I can't express it yet, except well, all of my dreams came true in a night. Some fairy waved her wand and, lo ! poor ugly little me"
She laughed, although it was more like a sob.
"I had no idea my part was so immense. Had you ?"
"I had. I wrote it that way. My dreams, also, came true."
"But why ?" A faint flush stole into her cheeks. "There are so many women who could have played the part better than I. You had courage to risk your piece in my hands, Mr. Phillips."
"Perhaps I knew you better than you knew yourself." She searched his face with startled curiosity. "Or better at least than the world knew you. Tell me, there is something wrong ? I'm afraid he resents your "
"Oh no, no !" she denied, hastily, letting her eyes fall, but not before he had seen them fill again with that same expression of pain and bewilderment. "He's not himself, that's all. You won't irritate him ? Please ! He has such a temper."
Francis came out of the shadows scowling.
"Well, let's get at it," said he.
Phillips agreed. "If you don't mind we'll start with your entrance. I wish you would try to express more depth of feeling, more tenderness, if you please, Mr. Francis. Remember, John Danton has fought this love of his for many years, undertaking to remain loyal to his wife. He doesn't dream that Diane returns his love, for he has never spoken, never even hinted of his feelings until this instant. Now, however, they are forced into expression. He begins reluctantly, frightened at the thing which makes him speak, then when she responds the dam breaks and his love over-rides his will power, his loyalty, his lifelong principles; it sweeps him onward and it takes her with him. The truth appals them both. They recognize its certain consequences and yet they respond freely, fiercely. You can't overplay the scene, Mr. Francis."
"Certainly I can overplay it," the star declared. "That's the danger. My effects should come from repression."
"I must differ with you. Repressive methods are out of place here. You see, John Danton loses control of himself "
"Nonsense !" Francis declared, angrily.
"The effectiveness of the scene depends altogether upon its well, its savagery. It must sweep the audience off its feet in order that the climax shall appear logical."
"Nonsense again ! I'm not an old-school actor, and I can't chew scenery. I've gained my reputation by repressive acting, by intensity."
"This is not acting; this is real life."
Francis's voice rose a tone in pitch, and his eyes flashed at this stubborn resistance to his own set ideas.
"Great heavens, Phillips ! Don't try to tell me my own business. People don't behave that way in real life; they don't explode under passion not even jealousy or revenge; they are reserved. Reserve ! That's the real thing; the other is all make-believe."
Seeing that it was useless to argue with the man, Phillips said nothing more, so Francis and his wife assumed their positions and began their lines.
It was a long scene and one demanding great force to sustain. It was this, in fact, which had led to the choice of Irving Francis for the principal role, for he was a man of tremendous physical power. He had great ability, moreover, and yet never, even at rehearsals, had he been able to invest this particular scene with conviction. Phillips had rehearsed him in it time and again, but he seemed strangely incapable of rising to the necessary heights. He was hollow, artificial; his tricks and mannerisms showed through like familiar trade marks. Strangely enough, the girl also had failed to get the most out of the scene, and this morning, both star and leading woman seemed particularly cold and unresponsive. They lacked the spark, the uplifting intensity, which was essential, therefore, in desperation, Phillips finally tried the expedient of altering their "business," of changing positions, postures, and crosses; but they went through the scene for a second time as mechanically as before.
Knowing every line as he did, feeling every heart throb, living and suffering as John Danton was supposed to be living and suffering, Phillips was nearly distracted. To him this was a wanton butchery of his finest work. He interrupted, at last, in a heart-sick, hopeless tone which sorely offended the already irritated Francis.
"I'm afraid it's no use. You don't seem to get it."
"What is it I don't get ?" roughly demanded the actor.
"You're not genuine either of you. You don't seem to feel it."
"Humph ! We're married !" said the star, so brutally that his wife flushed painfully. "I tell you I get all it's possible to get out of the scene. You wrote it and you see a lot of imaginary values; but they're not there. I'm no superman no god ! I can't give you more than the part contains."
"Look at it in this light," Phillips argued, after a pause. "Diane is a married woman; she, too, is fighting a battle; she is restrained by every convention, every sense of right, every instinct of wifehood and womanhood. Now, then, you must sweep all that aside; your own fire must set her ablaze despite "
"I ? I must do all this ?" mocked the other, furiously. "Why must I do it all ? Make Norma play up to me. She underplays me all the time; she's not in my key. That's what's the matter and I'm damned tired of this everlasting criticism."
There was a strained silence, during which the two men faced each other threateningly, and a panic seized the woman.
She managed to say, uncertainly:
"Perhaps I should play up to you, Irving."
"On the contrary, I don't think the fault is yours," Phillips said, stiffly.
Again there was a dramatic silence, in which there was no element of the make-believe. It was the clash of two strong men who disliked each other intensely and whose masks were slipping. Neither they nor the leading woman detected a figure stealing out from the gloom, as if drawn by the magnetism of their anger.
"My fault, as usual," Francis sneered. "Understand this, Phillips, my reputation means something to me, and I won't be forced out of a good engagement by a well, by you or by any other stage manager."
Phillips saw that same fearful look leap into the woman's eyes, and it checked his heated retort. "I don't mean to find fault with you," he declared, evenly. "I have the greatest respect for your ability as an actor, but ..."
The star tossed his massive head in a peculiarly aggravating manner.
"Perhaps you think you can play the part better than I ?"
"Irving! Please !" breathed his wife.
"Show me how it should be done, if you feel it so strongly."
"Thank you, I will," Phillips answered, impulsively. "I'm not an actor, but I wrote this piece. What's more, I lived it before I wrote it. It's my own story, and I think I know how it should be played."
Francis smiled mockingly. "Good !" said he; "I shall learn something."
"Do you mind ?" The author turned to the real Diane, and she shook her head, saying, uncertainly:
"It's very good of you."
"Very well. If you will hold the manuscript, Mr. Francis, I'll try to show what I feel the scene lacks. However, I don't think I'll need any prompting. Now, then, we'll begin at John Danton's entrance."
With the mocking smile still upon his lips, Francis took the manuscript and seated himself upon the prompter's table.
It was by no means remarkable that Henry Phillips should know something about acting, for he had long been a stage manager, and in emergencies he has assumed a good many divergent roles. He felt no self-consciousness, therefore, as he exchanged places with Francis; only an intense desire to prove his contentions. He nerved himself to an unusual effort, but before he had played more than a few moments he forgot the hostile husband and began to live the part of John Danton as he had lived it in the writing, as he invariably lived it every time he read the play or saw it acted.
Nor, as he had said, did he need prompting, for the lines were not the written speeches of another which had been impressed upon his brain by the mechanical process of repetition; they were his own thoughts expressed in the simplest terms he knew, and they came forth unbidden, hot, eager. Once he began to voice them he was seized by that same mighty current which had drawn them from him in the first place and left them strewn upon paper like driftwood after a flood. He had acted every part of his play; he had spoken every line many times in solitude; but this was the first time he had faced the real Diane. He found himself mastered by a fierce exultation; he forgot that he was acting or that the woman opposite him was playing a role of his creation; he began to live his true life for the first time since he had met the wife of Irving Francis. Clothed in the make-believe, the real Henry Phillips spoke freely, feelingly. His very voice changed in timbre, in quality; it became rich, alive; his eyes caressed the woman and stirred her to a new response.
As for Irving Francis, he watched the transformation with astonishment. Grudgingly, resentfully, he acknowledged that this was indeed fine acting. He realized, too, that his blind egotism had served merely to prove the truth of the author's criticism and to emphasize his own shortcomings. The idea enraged him, but the spectacle held him enthralled.
Norma Berwynd was not slow to appreciate the truth. Accustomed thoroughly to every phase of the make-believe world in which she dwelt, she recognized unerringly in the new John Danton's words and actions something entirely unreal and apart from the theatrical. The conviction that Henry Phillips was not acting came to her with a blinding suddenness, and it threw her into momentary confusion, hence her responses were mechanical. But soon, without effort on her part, this embarrassment fell away and she in turn began to blaze. The flame grew as Phillips breathed upon it. She realized wildly that her heart had always hungered for words like these, and that, coming from his lips, they carried an altogether new and wondrous meaning; that they filled some long-felt, aching want of which she had been ignorant until this moment. The certainty that it was Phillips himself who spoke, and not a mere character of his creation, filled her with an exultant recklessness. She forgot her surroundings, her husband's presence, even the fact that the lines she spoke were not of her own making.
Never had the scene been played like this. It grew vital, it took on a tremendous significance. No one could have observed it and remained unresponsive. Francis let fall the manuscript and stared at the actors wonderingly. Since he was an actor, nothing was so real to him, nothing so thrilling, as the make-believe. He realized that this was indeed a magnificent exhibition of the artificial. With parted lips and pulse athrob he followed the wooing of that imaginary John Danton, in whom he could see no one but himself.
After a time he became conscious of a presence at his side, and heard some one breathing heavily. Turning with a start, he found Leontine Phillips at his shoulder. She, too, was aroused, but in her sneering visage was that which brought the actor abruptly out of his spell. She had emerged from the shadows noiselessly, and was leaning forward, her strong hands gripping the edge of the table littered with its many properties.
Mrs. Phillips had played emotional scenes herself, but never with such melodramatic intensity as she now unconsciously displayed. Her whole body shook as with an ague, her dark face was alive with a jealous fury which told Irving Francis the story he had been too dull to suspect. The truth, when it came home, smote him like a blow; his hatred for the author, which had been momentarily forgotten momentarily lost in his admiration of the artist rose up anew, and he recognized this occult spell which had held him breathless as the thrall of a vital reality, not, after all, the result of inspired acting. Instantly he saw past the make-believe, into the real, and what he saw caused him to utter a smothered cry.
Leontine turned her face to him. "You fool !" she whispered through livid lips.
Francis was a huge, leonine man; he rose now to his full height, as a cat rises. But the drama drew his gaze in spite of himself; he could not keep his eyes from his wife's face. Leontine plucked at his sleeve and whispered again:
"You fool !"
Something contorted the actor's frame bitterly, and he gasped like a man throttled. Leontine could feel his muscles stiffen.
But the two players were in Elysium. They had reached the climax of the scene; Danton had told his love as only a great, starved love can tell itself, and with swimming eyes and fluttering lids, with heart pounding beneath her folded hands, Diane swayed toward him and his arms enfolded her. Her body met his, yielded; her face was upturned; her fragrant, half-opened lips were crushed to his in a fierce, impassioned kiss of genuine ecstasy.
Up to this moment the intensity of Francis's rage had held him paralyzed, despite the voice which was whispering so constantly at his ear; but now, when he saw his wife swooning upon the breast of the man who had played his part, he awoke.
"She knows he loves her," Leontine was saying. "You let him tell her in front of your face. He has taken her away from you !"
Mrs. Phillips's eyes fell upon the working fingers of the man as they rested beside her own. They were opening and closing hungrily. She also saw the naked knife which lay upon the table, and she moved it forward cautiously until the eager fingers twined about it. Then she breathed, "Go !" and shoved him forward fiercely.
It was Irving Francis's cry of rage as he rushed upon them which aroused Norma Berwynd from her dream, from her intoxication. She saw him towering at Phillips's back, and with a scream she tried to save the latter.
The husband's blow fell, however; it was delivered with all the savage fury that lay in Irving Francis's body, and his victim was fairly driven to his knees beneath it. The latter rose, then staggered, and, half sliding through the woman's sheltering embrace, crumpled limply into a massive upholstered chair. He, too, was dazed by the sudden transition from his real world to his make-believe.
When his eyes cleared he saw Norma Berwynd struggling with her husband, interposing her own slender body in his path. Francis was cursing her foully for her unfaithfulness; his voice was thick and brutal.
"Yes ! It's true !" she cried, with hysterical defiance. "I never knew till now; but it's true ! It's true !"
"You've killed him !" Leontine chattered, shrilly, and emerged from the shadows, her dark features ashen, her eyes ringed with white. Mrs. Francis turned from her husband and flung her arms about the recumbent man, calling wildly to him.
The denouement had come with such swiftness that it left all four of them appalled at their actions. Seeing what his brief insanity had led him into, Francis felt his strength evaporate; his face went white, his legs buckled beneath him. He scanned the place wildly in search of means of escape.
"My God ! My God !" Leontine was repeating. "Why doesn't somebody come ?"
Now that his brain had cleared, and he knew what hand had smitten him, and why, Phillips was by far the calmest of the four. He saw the knife at his feet and smiled, for no steel could rob him of that gladness which was pulsing through his veins. He was still smiling when he stooped and picked up the weapon. He arose, lifting Norma to her feet; then his hand slid down and sought hers.
"You needn't worry," he said to Francis. "You see this is the new dagger I got for the end of the act."
He held it out in his open palm for all of them to see, and they noted that it was strangely shortened that the point of the sliding blade was barely exposed beneath the hilt.
Francis wiped his wet face, then shuddered and cursed weakly with relief, meanwhile groping at the prompter's table for support. "Sold ! A prop knife !" he cried.
"You, you're not really " Norma swayed forward with eyes closed.
"By God ! I meant it," the star exclaimed, uncertainly. "You can't deny " He gasped and tugged at his collar.
"I believe there is nothing to deny," the author said, quietly. He looked first at his wife, then at his enemy, and then down at the quivering, white face upturned to his. "There is nothing to deny, is there ?" he inquired of Norma.
"Nothing !" she said. "I'm glad to know the truth, that's all."
Francis glared first at one, then at the other, and as he did so he began to realize the full cost of his action. When it came home to him in terms of dollars and cents, he showed his true character by stammering:
"I made a frightful mistake. I'm not myself; really, I'm not. It was your wife's fault." In a panic he ran on, unmindful of Leontine's scorn. "She did it, Mr. Phillips. She gave me the knife. She whispered things--she made me, I'm very sorry Mr. Phillips, and I'll play the part the way you want it. I will, indeed."
Leontine met her husband's look defiantly; hence it was as much to her as to the cringing actor that the playwright said:
"Your salary will go on as usual, under your contract, Mr. Francis that is, until the management supplies you with a new play; but I'm the real John Danton, and I shall play him tonight and henceforth."
"Then, I'm discharged ? Norma, d'you hear that ? We're canceled. Fired !"
"No, Miss Berwynd's name will go up in lights as the star, if she cares to stay," said Phillips. "Do you wish to remain ?" He looked down at the woman, and she nodded.
"Yes, oh yes !" she said. "I must stay. I daren't go back." That hunted look leaped into her eyes again, and Phillips recognized it now as fear, the abject physical terror of the weaker animal. "I want to go forward, not backward, if there is any way."
"I'll show you the way," he told her, gently. "We'll find it together."
He smiled reassuringly, and with a little gasping sigh she placed her hand in his.
LAUGHING BILL HYDE
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."
"A horse !"
"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."
"Your parents ?"
"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'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' ?"
"How much ?"
"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 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 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'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."
THE COLONEL AND THE HORSE-THIEF
Those marks on my arm ? Oh ! I got 'em playin' horse-thief. Yes, playin'. I wasn't a real one, you know. Well, I s'pose it was sort of a queer game. Came near bein' my last too, and if Black Hawk hadn't been the best horse in Texas the old Colonel would've killed me sure. He chased me six miles as it was me with one arm full of his buckshot and anxious to explain, and him strainin' to get in range again and not wishin' any further particulars.
That was way back in the sixties, when I was as wild a lad as ever straddled a pony.
You see five of us had gone over into the Crow Nation to race horses with the Indians, and it was on the way back that the old man and the bullet holes figger in the story.
At the beginnin' it was Jim Barrett's plan, and it had jest enough risk and devilment in it to suit a harum-scarum young feller like me; so we got five of the boys who had good horses, lumped together all of our money, and rode out to invade the reservation.
You know how an Indian loves to run horses ? Well, the Crows had a good deal of money then, and our scheme was to go over there, get up a big race, back our horses with all we had, and take down the wealth.
Takin' chances ? Don't you believe it. That's where the beauty of Jim's plan commenced to sort of shine through.
You see, as soon as the money was up and the horses started, every Indian would be watchin' the race and yellin' at the nags, then, in the confusion, our boys was to grab the whole pot, Indian's money and ours too, and we'd make our get away across the river back into Texas.
We figured that we could get a few minutes start of 'em, and, with the horses we had under us, there wasn't much danger of their gettin' in range before we crossed back to where they couldn't follow us.
Well, sir! I never see anything work out like that scheme did. Them Crows was dead anxious to run their ponies and seemed skeered that we wouldn't let 'em get all their money up.
As we was eatin' supper the night before the race, Donnelly says: "Boys, I'm sore that we didn't have more coin. If we'd worked 'em right they'd 'a' give us odds. We could 'a' got five to three anyhow, and maybe more."
"They shore have got a heap of confidence in them skates of their'n," says Kink Martin. "I never see anybody so anxious to play a race in my life. If it wasn't all planned out the way it is, I'd like to stick and see which hoss is the best. I'd back Black Hawk agin any hunk of meat in the Territory, with the Kid here in the saddle."
They'd ribbed it up for me to ride Martin's mare, Black Hawk, while a little feller named Hollis rode his own horse.
Donnelly's part was to stay in the saddle and keep the other horses close to Barrett and Martin. They was to stick next to the money, and one of 'em do the bearin' off of the booty while the other made the protection play.
We hoped in the excitement to get off without harmin' any of Uncle Sam's pets, but all three of the boys had been with the Rangers and I knew if it came to a show down, they wouldn't hesitate to "pot" one or two in gittin' away.
We rode out from camp the next mornin' to where we'd staked out a mile track on the prairie and it seemed as if the whole Crow Nation was there, and nary a white but us five.
They'd entered two pretty good-lookin' horses and had their jockeys stripped down to breech-clouts, while Hollis and me wore our whole outfits on our backs, as we didn't exactly figger on dressin' after the race, leastways, not on that side of the river.
Just before we lined up, Jim says: "Now you all ride like, and when you git to the far turn we'll let the guns loose and stampede the crowd. Then jest leave the track and make a break fer the river, everybody fer himself. We'll all meet at them cottonwoods on the other side, so we can stand 'em off if they try to swim across after us."
That would have been a sure enough hot race if we had run it out, for we all four got as pretty a start as I ever see and went down the line all together with a-bangin' of hoofs and Indian yells ringin' in our ears.
I had begun to work Black Hawk out of the bunch to get a clear start across the prairie at the turn, when I heard the guns begin snappin' like pop-corn.
"They've started already," yelled Hollis, and we turned the rearin' horses toward the river, three miles away, leavin' them two savages tearin' down the track like mad.
I glanced back as I turned, but, instead of seein' the boys in the midst of a decent retreat, the crowd was swarmin' after 'em like a nest of angry hornets, while Donnelly, with his reins between his teeth, was blazin' away at three reds who were right at Barrett's heels as he ran for his horse. Martin was lashin' his jumpin' cayuse away from the mob which sputtered and spit angry shots after him. Bucks were runnin' here and there and hastily mountin' their ponies while an angry roar came to me, punctuated by the poppin' of the guns.
Hollis and I reached the river and swam it half a mile ahead of the others and their yellin' bunch of trailers, so we were able to protect 'em in their crossin'.
I could see from their actions that Bennett and Martin was both hurt and I judged the deal hadn't panned out exactly accordin' to specifications.
The Crows didn't attempt to cross in the teeth of our fire, however, being satisfied with what they'd done, and the horses safely brought our three comrades drippin' up the bank to where we lay takin' pot-shots at every bunch of feathers that approached the opposite bank.
We got Barrett's arm into a sling, and, as Martin's hurt wasn't serious, we lost no time in gettin' away.
"They simply beat us to it," complained Barrett, as we rode south. "You all had jest started when young Long Hair grabs the sack and ducks through the crowd, and the whole bunch turns loose on us at once. We wasn't expectin' anything so early in the game, and they winged me the first clatter. I thought sure it was oft with me when I got this bullet in the shoulder, but I used the gun in my left hand and broke for the nearest pony."
"They got me, too, before I saw what was up," added Martin; "but I tore out of there like a jack-rabbit. It was all done so cussed quick that the first thing I knew I'd straddled my horse and was makin' tracks. Who'd a thought them durned Indians was dishonest enough fer a trick like that ?"
Then Donnelly spoke up and says: "Boys, as fur as the coin goes, we're out an' injured; we jest made a 'Mexican stand-off' lost our money, but saved our lives and mighty lucky at that, from appearances. What I want to know now is, how we're all goin' to get home, clean across the State of Texas, without a dollar in the outfit, and no assets but our guns and the nags."
That was a sure tough proposition, and we had left it teetotally out of calculations. We'd bet every bean on that race, not seein' how we could lose. In them days there wasn't a railroad in that section, ranches were scatterin', and people weren't givin' pink teas to every stranger that rode up especially when they were as hard-lookin' as we were.
"We've got to eat, and so's the horses," says Hollis, "but no rancher is goin' to welcome with open arms as disreputable an outfit as we are. Two men shot up, and the rest of us without beddin', grub, money, or explanations. Them's what we need explanations. I don't exactly see how we're goin' to explain our fix to the honest hay-diggers, either. Everybody'll think some sheriff is after us, and two to one they'll put some officer on our trail, and we'll have more trouble. I believe I've had all I want for awhile."
"I'll tell you how we'll work it," I says. "One of us'll be the sheriff of Guadalupe County, back home, with three deputies, bringin' back a prisoner that we've chased across the State. We'll ride up to a ranch an' demand lodgin' for ourselves and prisoner in the name of the State of Texas and say that we'll pay with vouchers on the county in the morning."
"No, sir ! not fer me," says Martin. "I'm not goin' in fer forgery. It's all right to practice a little mild deception on our red brothers, as we figgered on doing, but I'm not goin' to try to flimflam the State of Texas. Our troubles 'd only be startin' if we began that game."
"Your plan's all right, Kid," says Bennett to me. "You be the terrible desperado that I'm bringin' home after a bloody fight, where you wounded Martin and me, and 'most escaped. You'll have ev'ry rancher's wife givin' you flowers and weepin' over your youth and kissin' you good-bye. In the mornin', when we're ready to go and I'm about to fix up the vouchers for our host, you break away and ride like the devil. We'll all tear off a few shots and foller in a hurry, leavin' the farmer hopin' that the villain is recaptured and the girls tearfully prayin' that the gallunt and misguided youth escapes."
It seemed to be about our only resort, as the country was full of bad men, and we were liable to get turned down cold if we didn't have some story, so we decided to try it on.
We rode up to a ranch 'bout dark, that night, me between the others, with my hands tied behind me, and Jim called the owner out.
"I want a night's lodgin' fer my deputies and our prisoner," he says. "I'm the sheriff of Guadalupe County, and I'll fix up the bill in the mornin'."
"Come in ! Come in !" the feller says, callin' a man for the horses. "Glad to accommodate you. Who's your prisoner ?"
"That's Texas Charlie that robbed the Bank of Euclid single-handed," answers Jim. "He give us a long run clean across the State, but we got him jest as he was settin' over into the Indian Territory. Fought like a tiger."
It worked fine. The feller, whose name was Morgan, give us a good layout for the night and a bully breakfast next morning.
That desperado game was simply great. The other fellers attended to the horses, and I jest sat around lookin' vicious, and had my grub brought to me, while the women acted sorrowful and fed me pie and watermelon pickles.
When we was ready to leave next morning, Jim says: "Now, Mr. Morgan, I'll fix up them vouchers with you," and givin' me the wink, I let out a yell, and jabbin' the spurs into Black Hawk, we cleared the fence and was off like a puff of dust, with the rest of 'em shootin' and screamin' after me like mad.
Say ! It was lovely and when the boys overtook me, out of sight of the house, Morgan would have been astonished to see the sheriff, his posse, and the terrible desperado doubled up in their saddles laughin' fit to bust.
Well, sir ! we never had a hitch in the proceedings for five days, and I was gettin' to feel a sort of pride in my record as a bank-robber, forger, horse-thief, and murderer, accordin' to the way Bennett presented it. He certainly was the boss liar of the range.
He had a story framed up that painted me as the bloodiest young tough the Lone Star had ever produced, and it never failed to get me all the attention there was in the house.
One night we came to the best lookin' place we'd seen, and, in answer to Jim's summons, out walked an old man, followed by two of the prettiest girls I ever saw, who joined their father in invitin' us in.
"Glad to be of assistance to you, Mr. Sheriff," he said. "My name is Purdy, sir ! Colonel Purdy, as you may have heard. In the Mexican War, special mention three times for distinguished conduct. These are my daughters, sir! Annabel and Marie." As we went in, he continued: "You say you had a hard time gettin' your prisoner ? He looks young for a criminal. What's he wanted for ?"
Somehow, when I saw those girls blushin' and bowin' behind their father, I didn't care to have my crimes made out any blacker'n necessary and I tried to give Jim the high-sign to let me off easy just make it forgery or arson but he was lookin' at the ladies, and evidently believin' in the strength of a good impression, he said:
"Well, yes ! He's young but they never was a old man with half his crimes. He's wanted for a good many things in different places, but I went after him for horse-stealin' and murder. Killed a rancher and his little daughter, then set fire to the house and ran off a bunch o' stock."
"Oh ! Oh ! How dreadful !" shuddered the girls, backin' off with horrified glances at me.
I tried to get near Jim to step on his foot, but the old man was glarin' at me somethin' awful.
"Come to observe him closely, he has a depraved face," says he. "He looks the thorough criminal in every feature, dead to every decent impulse, I s'pose."
I could have showed him a live impulse that would have surprised him about then.
In those days I was considered a pretty handsome feller too, and I knew I had Jim beat before the draw on looks, but he continues makin' matters worse.
"Yes, and he's desperate too. One of the worst I ever see. We had an awful fight with him up here on the line of the Territory. He shot Martin and me before we got him. Ye see, I wanted to take him alive, and so I took chances on gettin' hurt.
"Thank ye, Miss; my arm does ache considerable; of course, if you'd jest as soon dress it. Oh, no ! I'm no braver'n anybody else, I guess. Nice of ye to say so, anyhow," and he went grinnin' out into the kitchen with the girls to fix up his arm.
The old man insisted on havin' my feet bound together and me fastened to a chair, and said:
"Yes, yes, I know you can watch him, but you're in my house now, and I feel a share of the responsibility upon me. I've had experience with desperate characters and I'm goin' to be sure that this young reprobate don't escape his just punishment. Are you sure you don't need more help gettin' him home? I'll go with you if "
"Thank ye," interrupted Hollis. "We've chased the scoundrel four hundred miles, and I reckon, now we've got him, we can keep him."
At supper, Jim with his arm in a new sling, sat between the two girls who cooed over him and took turns feedin' him till it made me sick.
The old man had a nigger move my chair up to the foot of the table and bring me a plate of coarse grub after they all finished eatin'.
He had tied my ankles to the lower rung of the chair himself, and when I says to the nigger, "Those cords have plum stopped my circulation, just ease 'em up a little," he went straight up.
"Don't you touch them knots, Sam !" he roared. "I know how to secure a man, and don't you try any of your games in my house, either, you young fiend. I'd never forgive myself if you escaped."
I ate everything I could reach, which wasn't much, and when I asked for the butter he glared at me and said: "Butter's too good for horse-thieves; eat what's before you."
Every time I'd catch the eye of one of the girls and kind of grin and look enticing, she'd shiver and tell Jim that the marks of my depravity stood out on my face like warts on a toad.
Jim and the boys would all grin like idiots and invent a new crime for me. On the square, if I'd worked nights from the age of three I couldn't have done half they blamed me for.
They put it to the old man so strong that when he turned in he chained me to Sam, the cross-eyed nigger that stood behind me at supper, and made us sleep on the floor.
I told Sam that I cut a man's throat once because he snored, and that nigger never closed an eye all night. I was tryin' to get even with somebody.
After breakfast, when it came time to leave, Donnelly untied my feet and led me out into the yard, where the girls were hangin' around the Colonel and Jim, who was preparin' to settle up.
As we rode up the evening before, I had noticed that we turned in from the road through a lane, and that the fence was too high to jump, so, when I threw my leg over Black Hawk, I hit Donnelly a swat in the neck, and, as he did a stage-fall, I swept through the gate and down the lane.
The old man cut the halter off one of his Mexican war-whoops, and broke through the house on the run, appearin' at the front door with his shot-gun just as I checked up to make the turn onto the main road.
As I swung around, doubled over the horse's neck, he let drive with his old blunderbuss, and I caught two buckshot in my right arm where you see them marks.
I had sense enough to hang on and ride for my life, because I knew the old fire-eater would reckon it a pleasure to put an end to such a wretch as me, if he got half a chance.
I heard him howl, "Come on boys ! We'll get him yet," and, over my shoulder, I saw him jump one of his loose horses standin' in the yard and come tearin' down the lane, ahead of the befuddled sheriff and posse, his white hair streamin' and the shot-gun wavin' aloft, as though chargin' an army of greasers at the head of his regiment.
From the way he drew away from the boys, I wouldn't have placed any money that he was wrong either.
I've always wondered how the old man ever got through that war with only three recommendations to the government.
He certainly kept good horses too, for in five minutes we'd left the posse behind, and I saw him madly urgin' his horse into range, reloadin' as he came.
As I threw the quirt into the mare with my good arm, I allowed I'd had about all the horse-stealin' I wanted for a while.
The old devil finally saw he was losin' ground in spite of his best efforts, and let me have both barrels. I heard the shot patter on the hard road behind me, and hoped he'd quit and go home, but I'm blamed if he didn't chase me five miles further before turnin' back, in hopes I'd cast a shoe or something would happen to me.
I believe I was on the only horse in Texas that could have outrun the Colonel and his that mornin'.
About noon I stopped at a blacksmith's shop, half dead with pain, and had my arm dressed and a big jolt of whiskey.
As the posse rode up to me, sittin' in the sun by the lathered flanks of my horse and nursin' my arm, Jim yells out: "Here he is ! Surround him, boys ! You're our prisoner !"
"No ! I'm blamed if I am," I says. "You'll have to get another desperado. After this, I'm the sheriff !