Though he denied it officially, Macdonald made a present to the public of the admission that the entries were irregular. Laws, he held, were made for men and should be interpreted to aid progress. Bad ones ought to be evaded.
The facts were simple enough. Macdonald was the original promoter of the Kamatlah coal-field. He had engaged dummy entrymen to take up one hundred and sixty acres each under the Homestead Act. Later he intended to consolidate the claims and turn them over to the Guttenchilds under an agreement by which he was to receive one eighth of the stock of the company formed to work the mines. The entries had been made, the fee accepted by the Land Office, and receipts issued. In course of time Macdonald had applied for patents.
Before these were issued the magazines began to pour in their broadsides, and since then the papers had been held up.
The conscience of Macdonald was quite clear. The pioneers in Alaska were building out of the Arctic waste a new empire for the United States, and he held that a fair Government could do no less than offer them liberal treatment. To lock up from present use vast resources needed by Alaskans would be a mistaken policy, a narrow and perverted application of the doctrine of conservation. The Territory should be thrown open to the world. If capital were invited in to do its share of the building, immigration would flow rapidly northward. Within the lives of the present generation the new empire would take shape and wealth would pour inevitably into the United States from its frozen treasure house.
The view held by Macdonald was one common to the whole Pacific Coast. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco were a unit in the belief that the Government had no right to close the door of Alaska and then put a padlock upon it.
Feminine voices drifted from the outer office. Macdonald opened the door to let in Mrs. Selfridge and Mrs. Mallory.
The latter lady, Paris-shod and gloved, shook hands smilingly with the Scotch-Canadian. "Of course we're intruders in business hours, though you'll tell us we're not," she suggested.
He was not a man to surrender easily to the spell of woman, but when he looked into her deep-lidded, smouldering eyes something sultry beat in his blood.
"Business may fly out of the window when Mrs. Mallory comes in at the door," he answered.
"How gallant of you, especially when I've come with an impertinent question." Her gay eyes mocked him as she spoke.
"Then I'll probably tell you to mind your own business," he laughed. "Let's have your question."
"I've just been reading the 'Transcontinental Magazine.' A writer there says that you are a highway robber and a gambler. I know you're a robber because all the magazines say so. But are you only a big gambler?"
He met her raillery without the least embarrassment.
"Sure I gamble. Every time I take a chance I'm gambling. So does everybody else. When you walk past the Flatiron Building you bet it won't fall down and crush you. We've got to take chances to live."
"How true, and I never thought of it," beamed Mrs. Selfridge. "What a philosopher you are, Mr. Macdonald."
The Scotchman went on without paying any attention to her effervescence. "I've gambled ever since I was a kid. I bet I could cross Death Valley and get out alive. That time I won. I bet it would rain once down in Arizona before my cattle died. I lost. Another time I took a contract to run a tunnel. In my bid I bet I wouldn't run into rock. My bank went broke that trip. When I joined the Klondike rush I was backing my luck to stand up. Same thing when I located the Kamatlah field. The coal might be a poor quality. Maybe I couldn't interest big capital in the proposition. Perhaps the Government would turn me down when I came to prove up. I was betting my last dollar against big odds. When I quit gambling it will be because I've quit living."
"And I suppose I'm a gambler too?" Mrs. Mallory demanded with a little tilt of her handsome head.
He looked straight at her with the keen eyes that had bored through her from the first day they had met, the eyes that understood the manner of woman she was and liked her none the less.
"Of all the women I know you are the best gambler. It's born in you."
"Why, Mr. Macdonald!" screamed Mrs. Selfridge in her high staccato. "I don't think that's a compliment."
Mrs. Mallory did not often indulge in the luxury of a blush, but she changed color now. This big, blunt man sometimes had an uncanny divination. Did he, she asked herself, know what stake she was gambling for at Kusiak?
"You are too wise," she laughed with a touch of embarrassment very becoming. "But I suppose you are right. I like excitement."
"We all do. The only man who doesn't gamble is the convict in stripes, and the only reason he doesn't is that his chips are all gone. It's true that men on the frontier play for bigger stakes. They back their bets with all they have got and put their lives on top for good measure. But kids in the cradle all over the United States are going to live easier because of the gamblers at the dropping-off places. That writer fellow hit the nail on the head about me. My whole life is a gamble."
She moved with slow grace toward the door, then over her shoulder flashed a sudden invitation at him. "Mrs. Selfridge and I are doing a little betting to-day, Big Chief Gambler. We're backing our luck that you two men will eat lunch with us at the Blue Bird Inn. Do we win?"
Macdonald reached for his hat promptly. "You win."
THE END OF THE PASSAGE
Wally Selfridge was a reliable business subordinate, even though he had slipped up in the matter of the appointment of Elliot. But when it came to facing the physical hardships of the North he was a malingerer. The Kamatlah trip had to be taken because his chief had ordered it, but the little man shirked the journey in his heart just as he knew his soft muscles would shrink from the aches of the trail.
His idea of work was a set of tennis on the outdoor wooden court of the Kusiak clubhouse, and even there his game was not a hard, smashing one, but an easy foursome with a girl for partner. He liked better to play bridge with attendants at hand to supply drinks and cigars. By nature he was a sybarite. The call of the frontier found no response in his sophisticated soul.
The part of the journey to be made by water was not so bad. Left to his own judgment, he would have gone to St. Michael's by boat and chartered a small steamer for the long trip along the coast through Bering Sea. But this would take time, and Macdonald did not mean to let him waste a day. He was to leave the river boat at the big bend and pack across country to Kamatlah. It would be a rough, heavy trail. The mosquitoes would be a continual torment. The cooking would be poor. And at the end of the long trek there awaited him monotonous months in a wretched coal camp far from all the comforts of civilization. No wonder he grumbled.
But though he grumbled at home and at the club and on the street about his coming exile, Selfridge made no complaints to Macdonald. That man of steel had no sympathy with the yearnings for the fleshpots. He was used to driving himself through discomfort to his end, and he expected as much of his deputies. Wherefore Wally took the boat at the time scheduled and waved a dismal farewell to wife and friends assembled upon the wharf.
Elliot said good-bye to the Pagets and Miss O'Neill ten days later. Diane was very frank with him.
"I hear you've been sleuthing around, Gordon, for facts about Colby Macdonald. I don't know what you have heard about him, but I hope you've got the sense to see how big a man he is and how much this country here owes him."
Gordon nodded agreement. "Yes, he's a big man."
"And he's good," added Sheba eagerly. "He never talks of it, but one finds out splendid things he has done."
The young man smiled, but not at all superciliously. He liked the stanch faith of the girl in her friend, even though his investigations had not led him to accept goodness as the outstanding quality of the Scotchman.
"I don't know what we would do without him," Diane went on. "Give him ten years and a free hand and Alaska will be fit for white people to live in. These attacks on him by newspapers and magazines are an outrage."
"It's plain that you are a partisan," charged Gordon gayly.
"I'm against locking up Alaska and throwing away the key, if that is what you mean by a partisan. We need this country opened up—the farms settled, the mines worked, the coal-fields developed, railroads built. It is one great big opportunity, the country here, and the narrow little conservation cranks want to shut it up tight from the people who have energy and foresight enough to help do the building."
"The Kusiak Chamber of Commerce ought to send you out as a lecturer to change public opinion, Diane. You are one enthusiastic little booster for freedom of opportunity," laughed the young man.
"Oh, well!" Diane joined in his laughter. It was one of her good points that she could laugh at herself. "I dare say I do sound like a real estate pamphlet, but it's all true anyhow."
Gordon left Kusiak as reluctantly as Wally Selfridge had done, though his reasons for not wanting to go were quite different. They centered about a dusky-eyed young woman whom he had seen for the first time a fortnight before. He would have denied even to himself that he was in love, but whenever he was alone his thoughts reverted to Sheba O'Neill.
At the big bend Gordon left the river boat for his cross-country trek. Near the roadhouse was an Indian village where he had expected to get a guide for the journey to Kamatlah. But the fishing season had begun, and the men had all gone down river to take part in it.
The old Frenchman who kept the trading-post and roadhouse advised Gordon not to attempt the tramp alone.
"The trail it ees what you call dangerous. Feefty-Mile Swamp ees a monster that swallows men alive, Monsieur. You wait one week—two week—t'ree week, and some one will turn up to take you through," he urged.
"But I can't wait. And I have an official map of the trail. Why can't I follow it without a guide?" Elliot wanted to know impatiently.
The post-trader shrugged. "Maybeso, Monsieur—maybe not. Feefty-Mile—it ees one devil of a trail. No chechakoes are safe in there without a guide. I, Baptiste, know."
"Selfridge and his party went through a week ago. I can follow the tracks they left."
"But if it rains, Monsieur, the tracks will vaneesh, n'est ce pas? Lose the way, and the little singing folk will swarm in clouds about Monsieur while he stumbles through the swamp."
Elliot hesitated for the better part of a day, then came to an impulsive decision. He knew the evil fame of Fifty-Mile Swamp—that no trail in Alaska was held to be more difficult or dangerous. He knew too what a fearful pest the mosquitoes were. Peter had told him a story of how he and a party of engineers had come upon a man wandering in the hills, driven mad by mosquitoes. The traveler had lost his matches and had been unable to light smudge fires. Day and night the little singing devils had swarmed about him. He could not sleep. He could not rest. Every moment for forty-eight hours he had fought for his life against them. Within an hour of the time they found him the man had died a raving maniac.
But Elliot was well equipped with mosquito netting and with supplies. He had a reliable map, and anyhow he had only to follow the tracks left by the Selfridge party. He turned his back upon the big river and plunged into the wilderness.
There came a night when he looked up into the stars of the deep, still sky and knew that he was hundreds of miles from any other human being. Never in all his life had he been so much alone. He was not afraid, but there was something awesome in a world so empty of his kind. Sometimes he sang, and the sound of his voice at first startled him. It was like living in a world primeval, this traverse of a land so void of all the mechanism that man has built about him.
The tracks of the Selfridge party grew fainter after a night of rain. More rain fell, and they were obliterated altogether.
Gordon fished. He killed fresh game for his needs. Often he came on the tracks of moose and caribou. Sometimes, startled, they leaped into view quite close enough for a shot, but he used his rifle only to meet his wants. A huge grizzly faced him on the trail one afternoon, growled its menace, and went lumbering into the big rocks with awkward speed.
The way led through valley and morass, across hills and mountains. It wandered in a sort of haphazard fashion through a sun-bathed universe washed clean of sordidness and meanness. Always, as he pushed forward, the path grew more faint and uncertain. Elk runs crossed it here and there, so that often Gordon went astray and had to retrace his steps.
The maddening song of the mosquitoes was always with him. Only when he slept did he escape from it. The heavy gloves, the netting, the smudge fires were at best an insufficient protection.
It was the seventh night out that Elliot suspected he was off the trail. Rain sluiced down in torrents and next day continued to pour from a dun sky. His own tracks were blotted out and he searched for the trail in vain. Before the rain stopped, he was thoroughly disturbed in mind. It would be a serious business if he should be lost in the bad lands of the bogs. Even though he knew the general direction he must follow, there was no certainty that he would ever emerge from this swamp into which he had plunged.
Before he knew it he was entangled in Fifty-Mile. His map showed him the morass stretched for fifty miles to the south, but he knew that it had been charted hurriedly by a surveying party which had made no extensive explorations. A good deal of this country was terra incognita. It ran vaguely into a No Man's Land unknown to the prospector.
The going was heavy. Gordon had to pick his way through the mossy swamp, leading the pack-horse by the bridle. Sometimes he was ankle-deep in water of a greenish slime. Again he had to drag the animal from the bog to a hummock of grass which gave a spongy footing. This would end in another quagmire of peat through which they must plough with the mud sucking at their feet. It was hard, wearing toil. There was nothing to do but keep moving. The young man staggered forward till dusk. Utterly exhausted, he camped for the night on a hillock of moss that rose like an island in the swamp.
After he had eaten he fed his fire with green boughs that raised a dense smoke. He lay on the leeward side where the smoke drifted over him and fought mosquitoes till a shift of the wind lessened the plague. Toward midnight he rigged up a net for protection and crawled into his blankets. Instantly he fell sound asleep.
Elliot traveled next day by the compass. He had food for three days more, but he knew that no living man had the strength to travel for so long in such a morass. It was near midday when he lost his horse. The animal had bogged down several times and Gordon had wasted much time and spent a good deal of needed energy in dragging it to firmer footing. This time the pony refused to answer the whip. Its master unloaded pack and saddle. He tried coaxing; he tried the whip.
"Come, Old-Timer. One plunge, and you'll make it yet," he urged.
The pack-horse turned upon him dumb eyes of reproach, struggled to free its limbs from the mud, and sank down helplessly. It had traveled its last yard on the long Alaska trails.
After the sound of the shot had died away, Gordon struggled with the pack to the nearest hummock. He cut holes in a gunny-sack to fit his shoulders and packed into it his blankets, a saucepan, the beans, the coffee, and the diminished handful of flour. Into it went too the three slices of bacon that were left.
He hoisted the pack to his back and slipped his arms through the slits he had made. Painfully he labored forward over the quivering peat. Every weary muscle revolted at the demands his will imposed upon it. He drew on the last ounce of his strength and staggered forward. Sometimes he stumbled and went down into the oozing mud, minded to stay there and be done with the struggle. But the urge of life drove him to his feet again. It sent him pitching forward drunkenly. It carried him for weary miles after he despaired of ever covering another hundred yards.
With old, half-forgotten signals from the football field he spurred his will. Perhaps his mind was already beginning to wander, though through it all he held steadily to the direction that alone could save him.
He clapped his hands feebly and stooped for the plunge at the line of the enemy. "'Attaboy, Gord—'attaboy—nine, eleven, seventeen. Hit 'er low, you Elliot."
When at last he went down to stay it was in an exhaustion so complete that not even his indomitable will could lash him to his feet again. For an hour he lay in a stupor, never stirring even to fight the swarm of mosquitoes that buzzed about him.
Toward evening he sat up and undid the pack from his back. The matches, in a tin box wrapped carefully with oilskin, were still perfectly dry. Soon he had a fire going and coffee boiling in the frying-pan. From the tin cup he carried strung on his belt he drank the coffee. It went through him like strong liquor. He warmed some beans and fried himself a slice of bacon, sopping up the grease with a cold biscuit left over from the day before.
Again he slept for a few hours. He had wound his watch mechanically and it showed him four o'clock when he took up the trail once more. In Seattle and San Francisco people were still asleep and darkness was heavy over the land. Here it had been day for a long time, ever since the summer sun, hidden for a while behind the low, distant hills, had come blazing forth again in a saddle between two peaks.
Gordon had reduced his pack by discarding a blanket, the frying-pan, and all the clothing he was not wearing. His rifle lay behind him in the swamp. He had cut to a minimum of safety what he was carrying, according to his judgment. But before long his last blanket was flung aside. He could not afford to carry an extra pound, for he knew he was running a race, the stakes of which were life and death.
A cloud of mosquitoes moved with him. He carried in his hand a spruce bough for defense against them. His hands were gloved, his face was covered with netting. But in spite of the best he could do they were an added torture.
Afternoon found him still staggering forward. The swamps were now behind him. He had won through at last by the narrowest margin possible. The ground was rising sharply toward the mountains. Across the range somewhere lay Kamatlah. But he was all in. With his food almost gone, a water supply uncertain, reserve strength exhausted, the chances of getting over the divide to safety were practically none.
He had come, so far as he could see, to the end of the passage.
GID HOLT GOES PROSPECTING
As soon as Selfridge reached Kamatlah he began arranging the stage against the arrival of the Government agent. His preparations were elaborate and thorough. A young engineer named Howland had been in charge of the development work, but Wally rearranged his forces so as to let each dummy entryman handle the claim entered in his name. One or two men about whom he was doubtful he discharged and hurried out of the camp.
Selfridge had been given a free hand as to expenses and he oiled his way by liberal treatment of the men and by a judicious expenditure. He let them know pretty plainly that if the agent on his way to Kamatlah suspected corporate ownership of the claims, the Government would close down all work and there would be no jobs for them.
The company boarding-house became a restaurant, above which was suspended a newly painted sign with the legend, "San Francisco Grill, J. Glynn, Proprietor." The store also passed temporarily into the hands of its manager. Miners moved from the barracks that had been built by Macdonald into hastily constructed cabins on the individual claims. Wally had always fancied himself as a stage manager for amateur theatricals. Now he justified his faith by transforming Kamatlah outwardly from a company camp to a mushroom one settled by wandering prospectors.
Gideon Holt alone was outside of all these activities and watched them with suspicion. He was an old-timer, sly but fearless, who hated Colby Macdonald with a bitter jealousy that could not be placated and he took no pains to hide the fact. He had happened to be in the vicinity prospecting when Macdonald had rushed his entries. Partly out of mere perversity and partly by reason of native shrewdness, old Holt had slipped in and located one of the best claims in the heart of the group. Nor had he been moved to a reasonable compromise by any amount of persuasion, threats, or tentative offers to buy a relinquishment. He was obstinate. He knew a good thing when he had it, and he meant to sit tight.
The adherents of the company might charge that Holt was cracked in the upper story, but none of them denied he was sharp as a street Arab. He guessed that all this preparation was not for nothing. Kamatlah was being dressed up to impress somebody who would shortly arrive. The first thought of Holt was that a group of big capitalists might be coming to look over their investment. But he rejected this surmise. There would be no need to try any deception upon them.
Mail from Seattle reached camp once a month. Holt sat down before his stove to read one of the newspapers he had brought from the office. It was the "P.-I." On the fifth page was a little boxed story that gave him his clue.
ELLIOT TO INVESTIGATE MACDONALD COAL CLAIMS
The reopening of the controversy as to the Macdonald claims, which had been clear-listed for patent by Harold B. Winton, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, takes on another phase with the appointment of Gordon Elliot as special field agent to examine the validity of the holdings. The new field agent won a reputation by his work in unearthing the Oklahoma "Gold Brick" land frauds.
Elliot leaves Seattle in the Queen City Thursday for the North, where he will make a thorough investigation of the whole situation with a view to clearing up the matter definitely. If his report is favorable to the claimants, the patents will be granted without further delay.
This was too good to keep. Holt pulled on his boots and went out to twit such of the enemy as he might meet. It chanced that the first of them was Selfridge, whom he had not seen since his arrival, though he knew the little man was in camp.
"How goes it, Holt? Fine and dandy, eh?" inquired Wally with the professional geniality he affected.
The old miner shook his head dolefully. "I done bust my laig, Mr. Selfish," he groaned. It was one of his pleasant ways to affect a difficulty of hearing and a dullness of understanding, so that he could legitimately call people by distorted versions of their names. "The old man don't amount to much nowadays. Onct a man or a horse gits stove up I don't reckon either one pans out much pay dust any more."
"Nothing to that, Gid. You're younger than you ever were, judging by your looks."
"Then my looks lie to beat hell, Mr. Selfish."
"My name is Selfridge," explained Wally, a trifle irritated.
Holt put a cupped hand to his ear anxiously. "Shellfish, did you say? Tha' 's right. Howcome I to forget? The old man's going pretty fast, Mr. Shellfish. No more memory than a jackrabbit. Say, Mr. Shellfish, what's the idee of all this here back-to-the-people movement, as the old sayin' is?"
"I don't know what you mean. And my name is Selfridge, I tell you," snapped the owner of that name.
"'Course I ain't got no more sense than the law allows. I'm a buzzard haid, but me I kinder got to millin' it over and in respect to these here local improvements, as you might say, I'm doggoned if I sabe the whyfor." There was an imp of malicious deviltry in the black, beady eyes sparkling at Selfridge from between narrowed lids.
"Just some business changes we're making."
Holt showed his tobacco-stained teeth in a grin splenetic. "Oh. That's all. I didn't know but what you might be expecting a visitor."
Selfridge flashed a sharp sidelong glance at him. "What do you mean—a visitor?"
"I just got a notion mebbe you might be looking for one, Mr. Pelfrich. But I don't know sic' 'em. Like as not you ain't fixing up for this Gordon Elliot a-tall."
Wally had no come-back, unless it was one to retort in ironic admiration. "You're a wonder, Holt. Pity you don't start a detective bureau."
The old man went away cackling dryly.
If Selfridge had held any doubts before, he discarded them now. Holt would wreck the whole enterprise, were he given a chance. It would never do to let Elliot meet and talk with him. He knew too much, and he was eager to tell all he knew.
Macdonald's lieutenant got busy at once with plans to abduct Holt. That it was very much against the law did not disturb him much so long as his chief stood back of him. The unsupported word of the old man would not stand in court, and if he became obstreperous they could always have him locked up as a lunatic. The very pose of the old miner—the make-believe pretension that he was half a fool—would lend itself to such a charge.
"We'll send the old man off on a prospecting trip with some of the boys," explained Selfridge to Rowland. "That way we'll kill two birds. He's back on his assessment work. The time limit will be up before he returns and we'll start a contest for the claim."
Howland made no comment. He was an engineer and not a politician. In his position it was impossible for him not to know that a good deal about the legal status of the Macdonald claims was irregular. But he was a firm believer in a wide-open Alaska, in the use of the Territory by those who had settled it. The men back of the big Scotchman were going to spend millions in development work, in building railroads. It would help labor and business. The whole North would feel a healthful reaction from the Kamatlah activities. So, on the theory that the end sometimes justifies doubtful means, he shut his eyes to many acts that in his own private affairs he would not have countenanced.
"Better arrange it with Big Bill, then, but don't tell me anything about it. I don't want to know the details," he told Selfridge.
Big Bill Macy accepted the job with a grin. There was double pay in it both for him and the men he chose as his assistants. He had never liked old Holt anyhow. Besides, they were not going to do him any harm.
Holt was baking a batch of sour-dough bread that evening when there came a knock at the cabin door. At sight of Big Bill and his two companions the prospector closed the oven and straightened with alert suspicion. He was not on visiting terms with any of these men. Why had they come to see him? He asked point-blank the question in his mind.
"We're going prospecting up Wild-Goose Creek, and we want you to go along, Gid," explained Macy. "You're an old sour-dough miner, and we-all agree we'd like to have you throw-in with us. What say?"
The old miner's answer was direct but not flattering. "What do I want to go on a wild-goose mush with a bunch of bums for?" he shrilled.
Bill Macy scratched his hook nose and looked reproachfully at his host. At least Holt thought he was looking at him. One could not be sure, for Bill's eyes did not exactly track.
"That ain't no kind o' way to talk to a fellow when he comes at you with a fair proposition, Gid."
"You tell Selfridge I ain't going to leave Kamatlah—not right now. I'm going to stay here on the job till that Land Office inspector comes—and then I'm going to have a nice, long, confidential chat with him. See?"
"What's the use of snapping at me like a turtle? Durden says Wild-Goose looks fine. There's gold up there—heaps of it."
"Let it stay there, then. I ain't going. That's flat." Holt turned to adjust the damper of his stove.
"Oh, I don't know. I wouldn't say that," drawled Bill insolently.
The man at the stove caught the change in tone and turned quickly. He was too late. Macy had thrown himself forward and the weight of his body flung Holt against the wall. Before the miner could recover, the other two men were upon him. They bore him to the floor and in spite of his struggles tied him hand and foot.
Big Bill rose and looked down derisively at his prisoner. "Better change your mind and go with us, Holt. We'll spend a quiet month up at the headquarters of Wild-Goose. Say you'll come along."
"You'll go to prison for this, Bill Macy."
"Guess again, Gid, and mebbe you'll get it right this time." Macy turned to his companions. "George, you bring up the horses. Dud, see if that bread is cooked. Might as well take it along with us—save us from baking to-morrow."
"What are you going to do with me?" demanded Holt.
"I reckon you need a church to fall on you before you can take a hint. Didn't I mention Wild-Goose Creek three or four times?" jeered his captor.
"Every step you take will be one toward the penitentiary. Get that into your cocoanut," the old miner retorted sharply.
"Nothing to that idee, Gid."
"I'll scream when you take me out."
"Go to it. Then we'll gag you."
Holt made no further protest. He was furious, but at present quite helpless. However it went against the grain, he might as well give in until rebellion would do some good.
Ten minutes later the party was moving silently along the trail that led to the hills. The pack-horses went first, in charge of George Holway. The prisoner walked next, his hands tied behind him. Big Bill followed, and the man he had called Dud brought up the rear.
They wound up a rising valley, entering from it a canon with precipitous walls that shut out the late sun. It was by this time past eleven o'clock and dusk was gathering closer. The winding trail ran parallel with the creek, sometimes through thickets of young fir and sometimes across boulder beds that made traveling difficult and slow. They went in single file, each of them with a swarm of mosquitoes about his head.
Macy had released the hands of his prisoner so that he might have a chance to fight the singing pests, but he kept a wary eye upon him and never let him move more than a few feet from him. The trail grew steeper as it neared the head of the canon till at last it climbed the left wall and emerged from the gulch to an uneven mesa.
The leader of the party looked at his watch. "Past midnight. We'll camp here, George, and see if we can't get rid of the 'skeeters."
They built smudge fires of green wood and on the lee side of these another one of dry sticks. Dud made coffee upon this and cooked bacon to eat with the fresh bread they had taken from the oven of Holt. While George chopped wood for the fires and boughs of small firs for bedding, Big Bill sat with a rifle across his knees just back of the prisoner.
"Gid's a shifty old cuss, and I ain't taking any chances," he explained aloud to Dud.
Holt was beginning to take the outrage philosophically. He sat close to a smudge and smoked his pipe.
"I wouldn't either if I were you. Sometime when you ain't watching, I'm liable to grab that gun and shoot a hole in the place where your brains would be if you had any," countered the old man.
He slept peacefully while they took turns watching him. Just now there would be no chance to escape, but in a few days they would become careless. The habit of feeling that they had him securely would grow upon them. Then, reasoned Holt, his opportunity would come. One of the guards would take a chance. Perhaps he might even fall asleep on duty. It was not reasonable to suppose that in the next week or two he would not catch them napping once for a short ten seconds.
There was, of course, just the possibility that they intended to murder him, but Holt could not associate Selfridge with anything so lawless. The man was too soft of fiber to carry through such a programme, and as yet there was need of nothing so drastic. No, this little kidnapping expedition would not run to murder. He would be set free in a few weeks, and if he told the true story of where he had been his foes would spread the report that he was insane in his hatred of Macdonald and imagined all sorts of persecutions.
They followed Wild-Goose Creek all next day, getting always closer to its headwaters near the divide. On the third day they crossed to the other side of the ridge and descended into a little mountain park. They were in a country where prospectors never came, one deserted even by trappers at this season of the year.
The country was so much a primeval wilderness that a big bull moose stalked almost upon their camp before discovering the presence of a strange biped. Big Bill snatched up a rifle and took a shot which sent the intruder scampering.
From somewhere in the distance came a faint sound.
"What was that?" asked George.
"Sounded like a shot. Mebbe it was an echo," returned Dud.
"Came too late for an echo," Big Bill said.
Again faintly from some far corner of the basin the sound drifted. It was like the pop of a scarcely heard firecracker.
The men looked at one another and at their prisoner. Their eyes consulted once more.
"Think we better break camp and drift?" asked Dud.
"No. We're in a little draw here—as good a hiding-place as we'd be likely to find. Drive the horses into the brush, George. We'll sit tight."
"Got the criminals guessing," Holt contributed maliciously. "You lads want to take the hide offen Macy if he lands you in the pen through that fool shot of his. Wonder if I hadn't better yell."
"I'll stop your clock right then if you do," threatened Big Bill with a scowl.
Dud had been busy stamping out the camp-fire while Holway was driving the horses into the brush.
"Mebbe you had better get the camp things behind them big rocks," Macy conceded.
Even as he spoke there came the crack of a revolver almost at the entrance to the draw.
One of the men swore softly. The gimlet eyes of the old miner fastened on the spot where in another moment his hoped-for rescuers would appear.
A man staggered drunkenly into view. He reeled halfway across the mouth of the draw and stopped. His eyes, questing dully, fell upon the camp. He stared, as if doubtful whether they had played him false, then lurched toward the waiting group.
"Lost, and all in," Holway said in a whisper to Dud.
The other man nodded. Neither of them made a move toward the stranger, who stopped in front of their camp and looked with glazed eyes from one to another. His face was drawn and haggard and lined. Extreme exhaustion showed in every movement. He babbled incoherently.
"Seven—eighteen—ninety-nine. 'Atta-boy," he said thickly.
"Don't you see he's starving and out of his head?" snapped Holt brusquely. "Get him grub, pronto."
The old man rose and moved toward the suffering man. "Come, pard. Tha' 's all right. Sit down right here and go to it, as the old sayin' is." He led the man to a place beside Big Bill and made him sit down. "Better light a fire, boys, and get some coffee on. Don't give him too much solid grub at first."
The famished man ate what was given him and clamored for more.
"Coming up soon, pardner," Holt told him soothingly. "Now tell us howcome you to get lost."
The man nodded gravely. "Hit that line low, Gord. Hit 'er low. Only three yards to gain."
"Plumb bughouse," commented Dud, chewing tobacco stolidly.
"Out of his head—that's all. He'll be right enough after he's fed up and had a good sleep. But right now he's sure some Exhibit A. Look at the bones sticking through his cheeks," Big Bill commented.
"Come, Old-Timer. Get down in your collar to it. Once more now. Don't lie down on the job. All together now." The stranger clucked to an imaginary horse and made a motion of lifting with his hands.
"Looks like his hawss bogged down in Fifty-Mile Swamp," suggested Holt.
"Looks like," agreed Dud.
The old miner said no more. But his eyes narrowed to shining slits. If this man had come through Fifty-Mile Swamp he must have started from the river. That probably meant that he had come from Kusiak. He was a young man, talking the jargon of a college football player. Without doubt he was, in the old phrasing of the North, a chechako. His clothing, though much soiled and torn, had been good. His voice held the inflections of the cultured world.
Gideon Holt's sly brain moved keenly to the possibility that he could put a name to this human derelict they had picked up. He began to see it as more than a possibility, as even a probability, at least as a fifty-fifty chance. A sardonic grin hovered about the corners of his grim mouth. It would be a strange freak of irony if Wally Selfridge, to prevent a meeting between him and the Government land agent, had sent him a hundred miles into the wilderness to save the life of Gordon Elliot and so had brought about the meeting that otherwise would never have taken place.
THE RAH-RAH BOY FUNCTIONS
Big Bill grumbled a good deal at the addition to the party. It would be decidedly awkward if this stranger should become rational and understand the status of the camp he had joined. The word of old Holt alone might be negligible, but supported by that of a disinterested party it would be a very different matter. Still, there was no help for it. They would have to take care of the man until he was able to travel. Perhaps he would go in with them as an additional guard. At the worst Big Bill could give him a letter to Selfridge explaining things and so pass the buck to that gentleman.
Gid Holt had, with the tacit consent of his guards, appointed himself as a sort of nurse to the stranger. He lit a smudge fire to the windward side of him, fed him small quantities of food at intervals, and arranged a sleeping-place for him with mosquito netting for protection.
Early in the evening the sick man fell into a sound sleep from which he did not awake until morning. George was away looking after the pack-horses, Dud was cooking breakfast, and Big Bill, his rifle close at hand, was chopping young firs fifty feet back of the camp. The cook also had a gun, loaded with buckshot, lying on a box beside him, so that they were taking no chances with their prisoner. He could not have covered twenty yards without being raked by a cross-fire.
The old miner turned from rearranging the boughs of green fir on the smudge to see that his patient was awake and his mind normal. The quiet, steady eyes resting upon him told that the delirium had passed.
"Pretty nearly all in, wasn't I?" the young man said.
The answer of Gid Holt was an odd one. "Yep. Seven—eleven—fifteen. Take 'er easy, old man," he said in his shrill, high voice as he moved toward the man in the blankets. Then, in a low tone, while he pretended to arrange the bedding over the stranger, he asked a quick question.
"Are you Elliot?"
"Don't tell them. Talk football lingo as if you was still out of your haid." Holt turned and called to Dud. "Says he wants some breakfast."
"On the way," the cook answered.
Holt seemed to be soothing the delirious man. What he really said was this. "Selfridge has arranged a plant for you at Kamatlah. The camp has been turned inside out to fool you. They've brought me here a prisoner so as to keep me from telling you the truth. Pst! Tune up now."
Big Bill had put down his axe and was approaching. He was not exactly suspicious, but he did not believe in taking unnecessary chances.
"I tell you I'm out of training. Played the last game, haven't we? Come through with a square meal, you four-flusher," demanded Elliot in a querulous voice. He turned to Macy. "Look here, Cap. Haven't I played the game all fall? Don't I get what I want now we're through?"
The voice of the young man was excited. His eyes had lost their quiet steadiness and roved restlessly to and fro. If Big Bill had held any doubts one glance dissipated them.
"Sure you do. Hustle over and help Dud with the breakfast, Holt. I'll look out for our friend."
Elliot and Holt found no more chance to talk together that morning. Sometimes the young Government official lay staring straight in front of him. Sometimes he appeared to doze. Again he would talk in the disjointed way of one not clear in the head.
An opportunity came in the afternoon for a moment.
"Keep your eyes skinned for a chance to lay out the guard to-night and get his gun," Holt said quickly.
Gordon nodded. "I don't know that I've got to do everything just as you say," he complained aloud for the benefit of George, who was passing on his way to the place where the horses were hobbled.
"Now—now! There ain't nobody trying to boss you," Holt explained in a patient voice.
"They'd better not," snapped the invalid.
"Some scrapper—that kid," said the horse wrangler with a grin.
Macy took the first watch that night. He turned in at two after he had roused Dud to take his place. The cook had been on duty about an hour when Elliot kicked Holt, who was sleeping beside him, to make sure that he was ready. The old man answered the kick with another.
Presently Gordon got up, yawned, and strolled toward the edge of the camp.
"Don't go and get lost, young fellow," cautioned Dud.
Gordon, on his way back, passed behind the guard, who was sitting tailor fashion before a smudge with a muley shotgun across his knees.
"This ain't no country for chechakoes to be wandering around without a keeper," the cook continued. "Looks like your folks would have better sense than to let their rah-rah boy—"
He got no farther. Elliot dropped to one knee and his strong fingers closed on the gullet of the man so tightly that not even a groan could escape him. His feet thrashed to and fro as he struggled, but he could not shake off the grip that was strangling him. The old miner, waiting with every muscle ready and every nerve under tension, flung aside his blanket and hurled himself at the guard. It took him less time than it takes to tell to wrest the gun from the cook.
He got to his feet just as Big Bill, his eyes and brain still fogged with sleep, sat up and began to take notice of the disturbance.
"Don't move," warned Holt sharply. "Better throw your hands up. You reach for the stars, too, Holway. No monkey business, do you hear? I'd as lief blow a hole through you as not."
Big Bill turned bitterly upon Elliot. "So you were faking all the time, young fellow. We save your life and you round on us. You're a pretty slick proposition as a double-crosser."
"And that ain't all," chirped up Holt blithely. "Let me introduce our friend to you, Mr. Big Bill Macy. This is Gordon Elliot, the land agent appointed to look over the Kamatlah claims. Selfridge gave you lads this penitentiary job so as I wouldn't meet Elliot when he reached the camp. If he hadn't been so darned anxious about it, our young friend would have died here on the divide. But Mr. Selfridge kindly outfitted a party and sent us a hundred miles into the hills to rescue the perishing, as the old sayin' goes. Consequence is, Elliot and me meet up and have that nice confidential talk after all. The ways of Providence is strange, as you might say, Mr. Macy."
"Your trick," conceded Big Bill sullenly. "Now what are you going to do with us?"
"Not a thing—going to leave you right here to prospect Wild-Goose Creek," answered Holt blandly. "Durden says there's gold up here—heaps of it."
Bill Macy condemned Durden in language profane and energetic. He didn't stop at Durden. Holt came in for a share of it, also Elliot and Selfridge.
The old miner grinned at him. "You'll feel better now you've got that out of your system. But don't stop there if you'd like to say a few more well-chosen words. We got time a-plenty."
"Cut it out, Bill. That line o' talk don't buy you anything," said Holway curtly. "What's the use of beefing?"
"Now you're shouting, my friend," agreed old Gideon. "I guess, Elliot, you can loosen up on the chef's throat awhile. He's had persuading enough, don't you reckon? I'll sit here and sorter keep the boys company while you cut the pack-ropes and bring 'em here. But first I'd step in and unload all the hardware they're packing. If you don't one of them is likely to get anxious. I'd hate to see any of them commit suicide with none of their friends here to say, 'Don't he look natural?'"
Elliot brought back the pack-ropes and cut them into suitable lengths. Holt's monologue rambled on. He was garrulous and affable. Not for a long time had he enjoyed himself so much.
"Better begin with Chief Big Bill," he suggested. "No, I wouldn't make that move if I was you, Mr. Macy. This old gun is liable to go off accidental in your direction and she spatters like hell. That's the idee. Be reasonable. Not that I give a hoot, but a man hadn't ought to let his impulses run away with his judgment, as the old sayin' is."
Gordon tied the hands of Big Bill behind him, then roped his feet together, after which he did the same for Holway. The old miner superintended the job and was not satisfied till he had added a few extra knots on his own behalf.
"That'll hold them for awhile, I shouldn't wonder. Now if you'll just cover friend chef with this sawed-off gat, Elliot, I'll throw the diamond hitch over what supplies we'll need to get back to Kamatlah. I'll take one bronch and leave the other to the convicts," said Holt cheerfully.
"Forget that convict stuff," growled Macy. "With Macdonald back of us and the Guttenchilds back of him, you'll have a hectic time getting anything on us."
"That might be true if these folks were back of you. But are they? Course I ain't any Sherlock Holmes, but it don't look to me like they'd play any such fool system as this."
Big Bill opened his mouth to answer—and said nothing. He had caught a look flashed at him by Holway, a look that warned him he was talking too much.
After Holt had packed one of the animals he turned to Elliot.
"I reckon we're ready."
Under orders from Elliot, Dud fixed up the smudges and arranged the mosquito netting over the bound men so as to give them all the protection possible.
"We're going to take Dud with us for a part of the trip. We'll send him back to you later in the day. You'll have to fast till he gets back, but outside of that you'll do very well if you don't roll around trying to get loose. Do that, and you'll jar loose the mosquito netting. You know what that means," explained Gordon.
"It ain't likely any grizzlies will come pokin' their noses into camp. But you never can tell. Any last words you want sent to relatives?" asked Gideon Holt.
The last words they heard from Big Bill as they moved down the draw were sulphuric.
"Macy he ain't wearin' any W. J. Bryan smile this glad mo'nin'," mused old Holt aloud.
It was three o'clock in the morning by the watch when they started. About nine they threw off for breakfast. By this time they were just across the divide and were ready to take the down trail.
"I think we'll let Dud go now," Elliot told his partner in the adventure.
"Better hold him till afternoon. Then they can't possibly reach us till we get to Kamatlah."
"What does it matter if they do? We have both rifles and have left them only one revolver. Besides, I don't like to leave two bound men alone in so wild a district for any great time. No, we'll start Dud on the back trail. That grizzly you promised Big Bill might really turn up."
The two men struck the headwaters of Wild-Goose Creek about noon and followed the stream down. They traveled steadily without haste. So long as they kept a good lookout there was nothing to be feared from the men they had left behind. They had both a long start and the advantage of weapons.
If Elliot had advertised for a year he could not have found a man who knew more of Colby Macdonald's past than Gideon Holt. The old man had mushed on the trail with him in the Klondike days. He had worked a claim on Frenchman Creek with him and had by sharp practice—so at least he had come to believe—been lawed out of his rights by the shrewd Scotchman. For seventeen years he had nursed a grudge against Macdonald, and he was never tired of talking about him. He knew many doubtful things charged to the account of the big man as he had blazed a way to success over the failures of less fortunate people. One story in particular interested Gordon. It came out the second day, as they were getting down into the foothills.
"There was Farrell O'Neill. He was a good fellow, Farrell was, but he had just one weakness. There was times when he liked the bottle too well. He'd let it alone for months and then just lap the stuff up. It was the time of the stampede to Bonanza Creek. Men are just like sheep. They wear wool on their backs like them and have their habits. You can start 'em any fool way for no cause a-tall. Don't you know it? Well, the news of the strike on Bonanza reached Dawson and we all burnt up the trail to get to the new ground first. O'Neill was one of the first. He got in about twenty below discovery, if I remember. Mac wasn't in Dawson, but he got there next mo'nin' and heard the news. He lit out for Bonanza pronto."
The old miner stopped, took a chew of tobacco, and looked down into the valley far below where Kamatlah could just be seen, a little huddle of huts.
"Well?" asked Elliot. It was occasionally necessary to prompt Holt when he paused for his dramatic effects. He would pretend to forget that he was telling a yarn which might interest his hearer.
"Mac draps in and joins O'Neill at night. They knew each other, y' understand, so o' course it was natural Mac would put up at his camp. O'Neill had a partner and they had located together. Fellow named Strong."
"Not Hanford Strong, a little, heavy-set man somewhere around fifty?" Gordon asked quickly.
"You've tagged the right man. Know him?"
"I've met him."
"Well, I never heard anything against Han Strong. Anyway, he was off that night packing grub up while Farrell held down the claim. Mac had a jug of booze with him. He got Farrell tanked up. You know Mac—how he can put it across when he's a mind to. He's a forceful devil, and he can be a mighty likable one."
Elliot nodded understanding. "He's always the head of the table no matter where he sits. And there is something wonderfully attractive about him."
"Sure there is. But when he is friendliest you want to watch out he don't slip an upper cut at you that'll put you out of biz. He done that to Farrell—and done it a-plenty."
"O'Neill got mellowed up till he thought Mac was his best friend. He was ready to eat out of his hand. So Mac works him up to sign a contract—before witnesses too; trust Mac for that—exchanging his half-interest in the claim for five hundred dollars in cash and Mac's no-'count lease on Frenchman Creek. Inside of a week Mac and Strong struck a big pay streak. They took over two hundred thousand from the spring clean-up."
"It was nothing better than robbery."
"Call it what you want to. Anyhow, it stuck. O'Neill kicked, and that's all the good it did him. He consulted lawyers at Dawson. Finally he got so discouraged that he plumb went to pieces—got on a long bat and stayed there till his money ran out. Then one bitter night he starts up to Bonanza to have it out with Mac. The mercury was so low it had run into the ground a foot. Farrell slept in a deserted cabin without a fire and not enough bedding. He caught pneumony. By the time he reached the claim he was a mighty sick man. Next week he died. That's all Mac done to O'Neill. Not a thing that wasn't legal either."
Gordon thought of Sheba O'Neill as she sat listening to the tales of Macdonald in Diane's parlor and his gorge rose at the man.
"But Mac had fell on his feet all right," continued Holt. "He got his start off that claim. Now he's a millionaire two or three times over, I reckon."
They reached the outskirts of Kamatlah about noon of the third day. Gordon left Holt at his cabin after they had eaten and went in alone to look the ground over. He met Selfridge at the post-office. That gentleman was effusive in his greeting.
"This is a pleasant surprise, Mr. Elliot. When did you get in? Had no idea you were coming or I'd have asked you for the pleasure of your company. I'm down on business, of course. No need to tell you that—nobody would come to this hole for any other reason. Howland and his wife are the only possible people here. Hope you play bridge."
Elliot played it, but he did not say so. It was his business not to be drawn into entangling alliances.
"Of course you'll put up with me as my guest," Selfridge flowed on. "I've wanted to meet you again ever since we were on the Hannah together."
This was a little too cheeky. Gordon recalled with some amusement how this tubby little man and his friends had ignored the existence of Sheba O'Neill and himself for several days.
He answered genially. "Pleasant time we had on the river, didn't we? Thanks awfully for your invitation, but I've already made arrangements for putting up."
"Where? There's no decent place in camp except at Howland's. He keeps open house for our friends."
"I couldn't think of troubling him," countered Gordon.
"No trouble at all. We'll send for your things. Where are they?"
The land agent let him have it right between the eyes. "At Gideon Holt's. I'm staying with him on his claim."
Wally had struck a match to light a cigarette, but this simple statement petrified him. His jaw dropped and his eyes bulged. Not till the flame burned his fingers did he come to life.
"Did you say you were staying—with Gid Holt?" he floundered weakly.
Gordon noticed that his florid face had lost its color. The jaunty cock-sureness of the man had flickered out like the flame of the charred match.
"Yes. He offered to board me," answered the young man blandly.
"But—I didn't know he was here—seems to me I had heard—somewhere—that he was away."
"He was away. But he has come back." Gordon gave the information without even a flash of mirth in his steady eyes.
Selfridge could not quite let the subject alone. "Seems to me I heard he went prospecting."
"He did. Up Wild-Goose Creek, with Big Bill Macy and two other men. But I asked him to come back with me—and he did."
Feebly Wally groped for the clue without finding it. Had Big Bill sold him out? And how had Elliot got into touch with him?
"Just so, Mr. Elliot. But really, you know, Howland can make you a great deal more comfortable than Holt. His wife is a famous cook. I'll have a man go get your traps."
"It's very good of you, but I think I won't move."
"Oh, but you must. Holt's nutty—nobody at home, you know. Everybody knows that."
"Is he? The old man struck me as being remarkably clear-headed. By the way, I want to thank you for sending a relief party out to find me, Mr. Selfridge. Except for your help I would have died in the hills."
This was another facer for Wally. What the devil did the fellow mean? The deuce of it was that he knew all the facts and Wally did not. He talked as if he meant it, but behind those cool eyes there might lie either mockery or irony. One thing alone stood out to Selfridge like a sore thumb. His plans had come tumbling down like a house of cards. Either Big Bill had blundered amazingly, or he had played traitor. In either case Wally could guess pretty shrewdly whose hide Macdonald would tan for the failure. The chief wanted results. He did not ask of his subordinates how they got them. And this was the second time in succession that Selfridge had come to grief.
GORDON INVITES HIMSELF TO DINNER—AND DOES NOT ENJOY IT
Big Bill and his companions reached Kamatlah early next day. They reported at once to Selfridge. It had been the intention of Wally to vent upon them the bad temper that had been gathering ever since his talk with Elliot. But his first sarcastic question drew such a snarl of anger that he reconsidered. The men were both sullen and furious. They let him know roundly that if Holt made them any trouble through the courts, they would tell all they knew.
The little man became alarmed. Instead of reproaches he gave them soft words and promises. The company would see them through. It would protect them against criminal procedure. But above all they must stand pat in denial. A conviction would be impossible even if the State's attorney filed an indictment against them. Meanwhile they would remain on the company pay-roll.
Gordon Elliot was a trained investigator. Even without Holt at his side he would probably have unearthed the truth about the Kamatlah situation. But with the little miner by his side to tell him the facts, he found his task an easy one.
Selfridge followed orders and let him talk with the men freely. All of them had been drilled till they knew their story like parrots. They were suspicious of the approaches of Elliot, but they had been warned that they must appear to talk candidly. The result was that some talked too much and some not enough. They contradicted themselves and one another. They let slip admissions under skillful examination that could be explained on no other basis than that of company ownership.
Both Selfridge and Howland outdid themselves in efforts to establish close social relations. But Gordon was careful to put himself under no obligations. He called on the Howlands, but he laughingly explained why he could not accept the invitations of Mrs. Howland to dinner.
"I have to tell things here as I see them, and may not have your point of view. How can I accept your hospitality and then report that I think your husband ought to be sent up for life?"
She was a good, motherly woman and she laughed with him. But she did wish this pleasant young fellow could be made to take the proper view of things.
Within two weeks Elliot had finished his work at Kamatlah.
"Off for Kusiak to-morrow," he told Holt that night.
The old miner went with him as a guide to the big bend. Gordon had no desire to attempt again Fifty-Mile Swamp without the help of some one who knew every foot of the trail. Holt had taken the trip a dozen times. With him to show the way the swamp became merely a hard, grueling mush through boggy lowlands.
Weary with the trail, they reached the river at the end of a long day. An Indian village lay sprawled along the bank, and through this the two men tramped to the roadhouse where they were to put up for the night.
Holt called to the younger man, who was at the time in the lead.
"Wait a minute, Elliot."
Gordon turned. The old Alaskan was offering a quarter to a little half-naked Indian boy. Shyly the four-year-old came forward, a step at a time, his finger in his mouth. He held out a brown hand for the coin.
"What's your name, kid?" Holt flashed a look at Elliot that warned him to pay attention.
"Colmac," the boy answered bashfully.
His fist closed on the quarter, he turned, and like a startled caribou he fled to a comely young Indian woman standing near the trail.
With gleaming eyes Holt turned to Elliot. "Take a good look at the squaw," he said in a low voice.
Elliot glanced at the woman behind whose skirts the youngster was hiding. He smiled and nodded pleasantly to her.
"She's not bad looking if that's what you mean," he said after they had taken up the trail again.
"You ain't the only white man that has thought that," retorted the old miner significantly.
"No?" Gordon had learned to let Holt tell things at his leisure. It usually took less time than to try to hurry him.
"Name of the kid mean anything to you?"
"Can't say it did."
"Hm! Named for his dad. First syllable of each of his names."
The land inspector stopped in his stride and wheeled upon Holt. His eyes asked eagerly a question. "You don't mean Colby Macdonald?"
"Why don't I?"
"But—Good Lord, he isn't a squawman, is he?"
"Not in the usual meaning of the word. She never cooked and kept house for him. Just the same, little Colmac is his kid. Couldn't you see it sticking out all over him? He's the spit'n' image of his dad."
"I see it now you've pointed it out. I was trying to think who he reminded me of. Of course it was Macdonald."
"Mac met up with Meteetse when he first scouted this country for coal five years ago. So far's I know he was square enough with the girl. She never claimed he made any promises or anything like that. He sends a check down once a quarter to the trader here for her and the kid."
But young Elliot was not thinking about Meteetse. His mind's eye saw another picture—the girl at Kusiak, listening spellbound to the tales of a man whose actions translated romance into life for her, a girl swept from the quiet backwaters of an Irish village to this land of the midnight sun with its amazing contrasts.
And all the way up on the boat she continued to fill his mind. The slowness of the steamer fretted him. He paced up and down the deck for hours at a time worried and anxious. Sometimes the jealousy in his heart flamed up like a prairie fire when it comes to a brush heap. The outrage of it set him blazing with indignation. Diane ought to be whipped, he told himself, for her part in the deception. It was no less than a conspiracy. What could an innocent young girl like Sheba know of such a man as Colby Macdonald? Her imagination conceived, no doubt, an idealized vision of him. But the real man was clear outside her ken.
Gordon set his jaw grimly. He would have it out with Diane. He would let her see she was not going to have it all her own way. By God, he would put a spoke in her wheel.
Sometimes, when the cool, evening breezes blew on his bare, fevered head, he laughed at himself for an idiot. How did he know that Macdonald wanted Sheba O'Neill. All the evidence he had was that he had once seen the man watch her while she sang a sentimental song. Whereas it was common talk that he would probably marry Mrs. Mallory, that for months he had been her almost daily companion. If the older woman had lost the sweet, supple slimness of her first youth, she had won in exchange a sophisticated grace, a seductive allure that made her the envy of all the women with whom she associated. She held at command a warm, languorous charm which had stirred banked fires in the hearts of many men. Why should not Macdonald woo her? Gordon himself admitted her attractiveness.
And why should he take it for granted that Sheba was ready to drop into the arms of the big Alaskan whenever he said the word? At the least he was twenty years older than she. Surely she might admire him without falling in love with the man. Was there not something almost insulting in the supposition that Macdonald had only to speak to her in order to win?
But in spite of reason he was on fire to come to his journey's end. No sooner had he reached his hotel than he called up Mrs. Paget. Quite clearly she understood that he wanted an invitation to dinner. Yet she hesitated.
"My 'phone can't be working well," Gordon told her gayly. "You must have asked me to dinner, but I didn't just hear it. Never mind. I'll be there. Seven o'clock, did you say?"
Diane laughed. "You're just as much a boy as you were ten years ago, Gord. All right. Come along. But you're to leave at ten. Do you understand?"
"No, I can't hear that. My 'phone has gone bad again. And if I had heard, I shouldn't think of doing anything so ridiculous as leaving at that hour. It would be an insult to your hospitality. I know when I'm well off."
"Then I'll have to withdraw my invitation. Perhaps some other day—"
"I'll leave at ten," promised Elliot meekly.
He could almost hear the smile in her voice as she answered. "Very well. Seven sharp. I'll explain about the curfew limit sometime."
Macdonald was with Miss O'Neill in the living-room when Gordon arrived at the Paget home.
Sheba came forward to greet the new guest. The welcome in her eyes was very genuine.
"You and Mr. Macdonald know each other, of course," she said after her handshake.
The Scotchman nodded his lean, grizzled head, looking straight into the eyes of the field agent. There was always a certain deliberation about his manner, but it was the slowness of strength and not of weakness.
"Yes, I know Mr. Elliot—now. I'm not so sure that he knows me—yet."
"I'm beginning to know you rather well, Mr. Macdonald," answered Gordon quietly, but with a very steady look.
If the Alaskan wanted to declare war he was ready for it. The field agent knew that Selfridge had sent reports detailing what had happened at Kamatlah. Up to date Macdonald had offered him the velvet glove. He wondered if the time had come when the fist of steel was to be doubled.
Paget was frankly pleased to see Gordon again. He was a simple, honest man who moved always in a straight line. He had liked Elliot as a boy and he still liked him. So did Diane, for that matter, but she was a little on her guard against him. She had certain plans under way that she intended to put through. She was not going to let even Gordon Elliot frustrate them.
"Did you have a successful trip, Mr. Elliot?" asked Sheba innocently.
Paget grinned behind his hand. The girl's question was like a match to powder, and every one in the room knew it but she. The engineer's interests and his convictions were on the side of Macdonald, but he recognized that Elliot had been sent in to gather facts for the Government and not to give advice to it. If he played fair, he could only tell the truth as he saw it.
The eyes of Diane held a spark of hostility as she leaned forward. The word had already been passed among the faithful that this young man was not taking the right point of view.
"Did you, Gordon?" echoed his hostess.
"I think so," he answered quietly.
"I hear you put up with old Gideon Holt. Is he as cracked as he used to be?" asked Macdonald.
"Was he cracked when you used to know him on Frenchman Creek?" countered the young man.
Macdonald shot a quick, slant look at him. The old man had been talking, had he?
"He was cracked and broke too," laughed the mine-owner hardily. "Cracked when he came, broke when he left."
"Yes, that was one of the stories he told me." Gordon turned to Sheba. "You should meet the old man, Miss O'Neill. He knew your father at Dawson and on Bonanza."
The girl was all eagerness. "I'd like to. Does he ever come to Kusiak?"
"Nonsense!" cut in Diane sharply. She flashed at Gordon a look of annoyance. "He's nothing but a daft old idiot, my dear."
The dinner had started wrong, and though Paget steered the conversation to safer ground, it did not go very well. At least three of those present were a little on edge. Even Sheba, who had missed entirely the point of the veiled thrusts, knew that Elliot was not in harmony with either Diane or Macdonald.
Gordon was ashamed of himself. He could not quite have told what were the impulses that had moved him to carry the war into the camp of the enemy. Perhaps, more than anything else, it had been a certain look of quiet assurance in the eyes of his rival when he looked at Sheba.
He rose promptly at ten.
"Must you go so soon?" Diane asked. She was smiling at him with bland mockery.
"I really must," answered Elliot.
His hostess followed him into the hall. She watched him get into his coat before saying what was on her mind.
"What did you mean by telling Sheba that old Holt knew her father? What is he to tell her if they meet—that her father died of pneumonia brought on by drink? Is that what you want?"
Gordon was honestly contrite. "I didn't think of that."
"No, you were too busy thinking of something mean to say to Mr. Macdonald."
He agreed, yet could not forbear one dig more. "I suppose I wanted Holt to tell her that Macdonald robbed her father and indirectly was the cause of his death."
"Absurd!" exploded Diane. "You're so simple that you accept as true the gossip of every crack-brained idiot—when it suits your purpose."
He smiled, boyishly, engagingly, as he held out his hand. "Don't let's quarrel, Di. I admit I forgot myself."
"All right. We won't. But don't believe all the catty talk you hear, Gordon."
"I'll try to believe only the truth." He smiled, a little ruefully. "And it isn't necessary for you to explain why the curfew law applies to me and not to Macdonald."
She was on her dignity at once. "You're quite right. It isn't necessary. But I'm going to tell you anyhow. Mr. Macdonald is going away to-morrow for two or three days and he has some business he wants to talk over with Sheba. He had made an appointment with her, and I didn't think it fair to let your coming interfere with it."
Gordon took this facer with his smile still working.
"I've got a little business I want to talk over with you, Di."
She had always been a young woman of rather a hard finish. Now she met him fairly, eye to eye. "Any time you like, Gordon."
Elliot carried away with him one very definite impression. Diane intended Sheba to marry Macdonald if she could bring it about. She had as good as served notice on him that the girl was spoken for.
The young man set his square jaw. Diane was used to having her own way. So was Macdonald. Well, the Elliots had a will of their own too.
SHEBA SAYS "PERHAPS"
Obeying the orders of the general in command, Peter took himself to his den with the excuse that he had blue-prints to work over. Presently Diane said she thought she heard one of the children crying and left to investigate.
The Scotchman strode to the fireplace and stood looking down into the glowing coals. He seemed in no hurry to break the silence and Sheba glanced at his strong, brooding face a little apprehensively. Her excitement showed in the color that was beating into her cheeks. She knew of only one subject that would call for so formal a private talk between her and Macdonald, and any discussion of this she would very much have liked to postpone.
He turned from the fire to Sheba. It was characteristic of him that he plunged straight at what he wanted to say.
"I've asked to see you alone, Miss O'Neill, because I want to make a confession and restitution—to begin with," he told her abruptly.
She had a sense of suddenly stilled pulses. "That sounds very serious." The young woman smiled faintly.
His face of chiseled granite masked all emotion. It kept under lock and key the insurgent impulses that moved him when he looked into the sloe eyes charged with reserve. Back of them, he felt, was the mystery of purity, of maidenhood. He longed to know her better, to find out and to appropriate for himself the woman that lay behind the fine veil of flesh. She seemed to him delicate as a flame and as vivid. There would come a day when her innocent, passional nature would respond to the love of a man as a waiting harp does to skillful fingers.
"My story goes away back to the Klondike days. I told you that I knew your father on Frenchman Creek, but I didn't say much about knowing him on Bonanza."
"Mr. Strong has told me something about the days on Bonanza, and I knew you would tell me more some day—when you wanted to speak about it." She was seated in a low chair and the white throat lifted toward him was round as that of a bird.
"Your father was among the first of those who stampeded to Bonanza. He and Strong took up a claim together. I bought out the interest of your father."
"You told me that."
His masterful eyes fastened to hers. "I didn't tell you that I took advantage of him. He was—not well. I used that against him in the bargaining. He wanted ready money, and I tempted him."
"Do you mean that you—wronged him?"
"Yes. I cheated him." He was resolved to gloss over nothing, to offer no excuses. "I didn't know there was gold on his claim, but I had what we call a hunch. I took his claim without giving value received."
It was her turn now to look into the fire and think. From the letters of her father, from talks with old-timers she knew how in the stampedes every man's hand had been for himself, how keen-edged had been the passion for gold, a veritable lust that corroded the souls of men.
"But—I don't understand." Her brave, steady eyes looked directly into those of Macdonald. "If he felt you had—done him a wrong—why did he come to you when he was ill?"
"He was coming to demand justice of me. On the way he suffered exposure and caught pneumonia. The word reached us, and Strong and I brought him to our cabin."
"You faced a blizzard to bring him in. Mr. Strong told me how you risked your life by carrying him through the storm—how you wouldn't give up and leave him, though you were weak and staggering yourself. He says it was a miracle you ever got through."
The big mine-owner brushed this aside as of no importance. "We don't leave sick men to die in a blizzard up North. But that's not the point."
"I think it has a bearing on the matter—that you saved him from the blizzard—and took him in—and nursed him like a brother till he died."
"I'm not heartless," said Macdonald impatiently. "Of course I did that. I had to do it. I couldn't do less."
"Or more," she suggested. "You may have made a hard bargain with him, but you wiped that out later."
"That's just what I didn't do. Don't think my conscience is troubling me. I'm not such a mush-brained fool. If it had not been for you I would never have thought of it again. But you are his daughter. What I cheated him out of belongs to you—and you are my friend."
"Don't use that word about what you did, please. He wasn't a child. If you got the best of him in a bargain, I don't think father would think of it that way."
The difficulty was that he could not tell her the truth about her father's weakness for drink and how he had played upon it. He bridged all explanations and passed to the thing he meant to do in reparation.
"The money I cleaned up from that claim belongs to you, Miss O'Neill. You will oblige me by taking it."
From his pocket he took a folded paper and handed it to her. Sheba opened it doubtfully. The paper contained a typewritten statement and to it was attached a check by means of a clip. The check was made out to her and signed by Colby Macdonald. The amount it called for was one hundred and eighty-three thousand four hundred and thirty-one dollars.
"Oh, I couldn't take this, Mr. Macdonald—I couldn't. It doesn't belong to me," she cried.
"It belongs to you—and you're going to take it."
"I wouldn't know what to do with so much."
"The bank will take care of it for you until you decide. So that's settled." He passed definitely from the subject. "There's something else I want to say to you, Miss O'Neill."
Some change in his voice warned her. The girl slanted a quick, shy glance at him.
"I want to know if you'll marry me, Miss O'Neill," he shot at her abruptly. Then, without giving her time to answer, he pushed on: "I'm older than you—by twenty-five years. Always I've lived on the frontiers. I've had to take the world by the throat and shake from it what I wanted. So I've grown hard and willful. All the sweet, fine things of life I've missed. But with you beside me I'm not too old to find them yet—if you'll show me the way, Sheba."
A wave of color swept into her face, but her eyes never faltered from his. "I'm not quite sure," she said in a low voice.
"You mean—whether you love me?"
She nodded. "I—admire you more than any man I ever met. You are a great man, strong and powerful,—and I am so insignificant beside you. I—am drawn to you—so much. But—I am not sure."
Afterward, when she thought of it, Sheba wondered at the direct ease of his proposal. In the romances she had read, men were shy and embarrassed and fearful of the issue. But Colby Macdonald had known what he wanted to say and had said it as coolly and as readily as if it had been a business detail. She was the one that had blushed and stammered and found a difficulty in expressing herself.
"I'm going away for two days. Perhaps when I come back you will know, Sheba. Take your time. Marriage is serious business. I want you to remember that my life has been very different from yours. You'll hear all sorts of things about me. Some of them are true. There is this difference between a man and a good woman. He fights and falls and fights again and wins. But a good woman is finer. She has never known the failure that drags one through slime and mud. Her goodness is born in her; she doesn't have to fight for it."
The girl smiled a little tremulously. "Doesn't she? We're not all angel, you know."
"I hope you're not. There will need to be a lot of the human in you to make allowances for Colby Macdonald," he replied with an answering smile.
When he said good-bye it was with a warm, strong handshake.
"I'll be back in two days. Perhaps you'll have good news for me then," he suggested.
The dark, silken lashes of her eyes lifted shyly to meet his.
"Perhaps," she said.
DIANE AND GORDON DIFFER
During the absence of Macdonald the field agent saw less of Sheba than he had expected, and when he did see her she had an abstracted manner he did not quite understand. She kept to her own room a good deal, except when she took long walks into the hills back of the town. Diane had a shrewd idea that the Alaskan had put his fortune to the test, and she not only let her cousin alone herself, but fended Gordon from her adroitly.
The third day after the dinner Elliot dropped around to the Pagets with intent to get Sheba into a set of tennis. Diane sat on the porch darning socks.
"Sheba is out walking with Mr. Macdonald," she explained in answer to a question as to the whereabouts of her guest.
"Oh, he's back, is he?" remarked Gordon moodily.
Mrs. Paget was quite cheerful on that subject. "He came back this morning. Sheba has gone up with him to see the Lucky Strike."
"You're going to marry her to that man if you can, aren't you?" he charged.
"If I can, Gordon." She slipped a darning-ball into one of little Peter's stockings and placidly trimmed the edges of the hole.
"It's what I call a conspiracy."
"Is it?" Diane smiled.
Gordon understood her smile to mean that he was jealous.
"Maybe I am. That's not the point," he answered, just as if she had made her accusation in words.
"Suppose you tell me what the point is," she suggested, both amused and annoyed.
"He isn't good enough for her. You know that perfectly well."
"Good enough!" She shrugged her shoulders. "What man is good enough for a nice girl if you come to that? There are other things beside sugary goodness. Any man who is strong can make himself good enough for the woman he loves."
"Generally speaking, yes. But Colby Macdonald is different."
"Thank Heaven he is," she retorted impatiently. Then added after a moment: "He isn't a Sunday-School superintendent if that's what you mean."
"That isn't what I mean at all. But there's such a thing as a difference between right and wrong, isn't there?"
"Oh, yes. For instance, Mr. Macdonald is right about the need of developing Alaska and the way to do it, and you are wrong."
He could not help smiling a little at the adroit way she tried to sidetrack him, even though he was angry at her. But he had no intention of letting her go without freeing his mind.
"I'm talking about essential right and wrong. Miss O'Neill is idealizing Macdonald. I don't suppose you've told her, for instance, that he made his first money in the North running a dance hall."
"No, I haven't told her any such thing, because it isn't true," she replied scornfully. "He owned an opera house and brought in a company of players. I dare say they danced. That's very different, as you'd know if you didn't have astigmatism of the mind."
"Not the way the story was told me. But let that pass. Does she know that Macdonald beat her father out of one of the best claims on Bonanza and was indirectly responsible for his death?"
"What's the use of talking nonsense, Gordon. You know you can't prove that," his friend told him sharply.
"I think I can—if it is necessary."
Diane looked across at him with an impudent little tilt of the chin. "I don't think I like you as well as I used to."
"Sorry, because I'd like you just as well, Diane, if you would stop trying to manage your cousin into a marriage that will spoil her life," he answered gravely.
"How dare you say that! How dare you, Gordon Elliot!" she flung back, furious at him. "I won't have you here talking that way to me. It's an insult."
The fearless, level eyes of her friend looked straight at her. "I say it because the happiness of Miss O'Neill is of very great importance to me."
"Do you mean—?" Wide-eyed, she looked her question straight at him.
"That's just what I mean, Diane."
She darned for a minute in silence. It had occurred to Diane before that perhaps Gordon might be in love with Sheba, but she had put the thought from her because she did not want to believe it.
"That's different, Gordon. It explains—and in a way excuses—your coming here and trying to bully me." She stopped her work to flash a question at him. "Don't you think that maybe it's only a fancy of yours? I remember you used—"
He shook his head. "No chance, Diane. I'm hard hit. She's the only girl I ever met that suited me. Everything she does is right. Every move she makes is wonderful."
The eyes with which she looked at him were softer, as those of women are wont to be for the true romance.
"You poor boy," she murmured, and let her hand for a moment rest on his.
"Meaning that I lose?" he asked quickly.
"I think you do. I'm not sure."
Elliot leaned forward impulsively. "Be a good sport, Diane. Let me have my chance too. Why do you make it easy for Macdonald and hard for me? Isn't it because the glamour of his millions blinds you?"
"He's a big, splendid man, but I don't like him any the less because he has the power to make life easy and comfortable for Sheba," she defended sturdily.
"Yet you turned down Arthur West, the best catch in your set, to marry Peter, who was the worst," he reminded her. "Have you ever been sorry for it?"
"That's different. Peter and I fit. It was one case out of a million." She gave him her old, friendly smile. "But I don't want to be hard on you, Gord. I'll be neutral. Come and see Sheba as often as she'll let you."
Gordon beamed as he shook hands with her. "That sounds like the Di Paget I used to know."
She recurred to the previous question. "Sheba knows more about Mr. Macdonald than you think. And about how he got her father's claim, for instance,—she has heard all that."
"You told her?"
"No. Colby Macdonald told her. He said he practically robbed her father, and he gave her a check for nearly two hundred thousand to cover the clean-up from the claim and interest."
"Bully for him." On the heel of this he flung a question at her. "Did Macdonald ask her to marry him the night of the dinner?"
A flash of whimsical amusement lit her dainty face. "You'd better ask him that. Here he comes now."
They were coming down the walk together, Macdonald and Sheba. The young woman was absorbed in his talk, and she did not know that her cousin and Elliot were on the porch until she was close upon them. But at sight of the young man her eyes became warm and kind.
"I'm sorry I was out yesterday when you called," she told him.
"And you were out again to-day. My luck isn't very good, is it?"
He laughed pleasantly, but his heart was bitter. He believed Macdonald had won. Some hint of proprietorship in his manner, together with her slight confusion when she saw them on the porch, had weighted his heart with lead.
"We've had such a good walk." Sheba went on quickly. "I wish you could have heard Mr. Macdonald telling me how he once had a chance to save a small Esquimaux tribe during a hard winter. He carried food five hundred miles to them. It was a thrilling experience."
"Mr. Macdonald has had a lot of very interesting experiences. You must get him to tell you about all of them," answered Gordon quietly.
The eyes of the two men met. The steel-gray ones of the older man answered the challenge of his rival with a long, steady look. There was in it something of triumph, something of scornful insolence. If this young fellow wanted war, he did not need to wait long for it.
"Time enough for that, man. Miss O'Neill and I have the whole Arctic winter before us for stories."
The muscles in the lean jaws of Gordon Elliot stood out like steel ropes. He turned to Sheba. "Am I to congratulate Mr. Macdonald?"
The color in her cheeks grew warmer, but her shy glance met his fairly. "I think it is I that am to be congratulated, Mr. Elliot."
Diane took her cousin in her arms. "My dear, I wish you all the happiness in the world," she said softly.
The Irish girl fled into the house as soon as she could, but not before making an announcement.
"We're to be married soon, very quietly. If you are still at Kusiak we want you to be one of the few friends present, Mr. Elliot."
Macdonald backed her invitation with a cool, cynical smile. "Miss O'Neill speaks for us both, of course, Elliot."
The defeated man bowed. "Thanks very much. The chances are that I'll be through my business here before then."
As soon as his fiancee had gone into the house, the Scotchman left. Gordon sat down in a porch chair and stared straight in front of him. The suddenness of the news had brought his world tumbling about his ears. He felt that such a marriage would be an outrage against Sheba's innocence. But he was not yet far enough away from the blow to ask himself how much the personal hurt influenced his opinion.
Though she was sorry for him, Diane did not think it best to say so yet.
Presently he spoke thickly. "I suppose you have heard that he was a squawman."
His friend joined battle promptly with him. "That's ridiculous. Don't be absurd, Gordon."
"It's the truth. I've seen the woman. She was pointed out to me."
"By old Gideon Holt, likely," she flashed.
"One could get evidence and show it to Miss O'Neill," he said aloud, to himself rather than to her.
Diane put her point of view before him with heated candor. "You couldn't. Nobody but a cad would rake up old scandals about the man who has beaten him fairly for a woman's love."
"You beg the question. Has he won fairly?"
"Of course he has. Be a good sport, Gordon. Don't kick on the umpire's decision. Play the game."
"That's all very well. But what about her? Am I to sit quiet while she is sacrificed to a code of honor that seems to me rooted in dishonor?"
"She is not being sacrificed. I'm her cousin. I'm very fond of her. And I'd trust her with Colby Macdonald."
"Play fair, Diane. Tell her the truth about this Indian woman and let your cousin decide for herself. You can't do less, can you?"
Mrs. Paget was distinctly annoyed. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Gordon Elliot. You take all the gossip of a crack-brained old idiot for gospel truth just because you want to believe the worst about Mr. Macdonald. Don't you know that people will say anything about a man who succeeds? Colby Macdonald is too big and too aggressive not to have made hundreds of enemies. His life has been threatened dozens of times. But he pays no attention to it—goes right on building-up this country. Yet you'd think he had a cloven hoof to hear some people talk. I've no patience with them."
"The woman's name is Meteetse," Gordon said in an even voice, just as if he were answering a question. "She is young and good-looking for an Indian. Her boy is four or five years old. Colmac, they call him, and he looks just like Macdonald."
"People are always tracing resemblances. There's nothing to that. But suppose his life was irregular—years ago. This isn't Boston. It used to be the fringe of civilization. Men did as they pleased in the early days. We don't ask a man up here what he has been, but what he is. You ought to know that by this time."
"This wasn't in the early days. It was five years ago, when Macdonald was examining the Kamatlah coal-field. I'm told he sends a check down the river once a month for the woman."
"All the more credit to him if he does." Diane rose and looked stormily down at her friend. "You're about as broad as a clam, Gordon. Can't you see that even if it's true, all that is done with? It is a part of his past—and it's finished—trodden under foot. It hasn't a thing to do with Sheba."
"I don't agree with you. A man can't cut loose entirely from his past. It is a part of him—and Macdonald's past isn't good enough for Sheba O'Neill."
Diane tapped her little foot impatiently on the floor. "Do you know many men whose pasts are good enough for their wives? Are you a plaster-cast saint yourself? You know perfectly well that men trample down their pasts and begin again when they are married. Colby Macdonald is good enough for any woman alive if he loves her enough."
"You don't know him."
"I know him far better than you do. He is the biggest man I know, and now that he is in love with a good woman he'll rise to his chance."
"She ought to be told the truth about Meteetse and her boy," he insisted doggedly.
"I'm not going to disturb her with a lot of old maids' gossip. That's flat."
"But if I prove to you that it isn't gossip."
Mrs. Paget lost her temper completely. "Does the Government pay you to mind other people's business, Gordon?" she snapped.
"I wouldn't be working for the Government then, but for Sheba O'Neill."
"And for Gordon Elliot. You'd be doing underhand work for him too. Don't forget that. You can't do it. You're not that kind of a man. It isn't in you to go muckraking in the past of the man Sheba is going to marry."
Elliot rose and looked across at the blue-ribbed mountains. His square jaw was set when he turned it back toward Diane.
"She isn't going to marry him if I can help it," he said quietly.
He walked out of the gate and down the walk toward his hotel.
A message was waiting for him there from his chief in Seattle. It called him down the river on business.
GENEVIEVE MALLORY TAKES A HAND
Inside of an hour the news of the engagement of Macdonald was all over Kusiak. It was through a telephone receiver that the gossip was buzzed to Mrs. Mallory by a friend who owed her a little stab. The voice of Genevieve Mallory registered faint amusement, but as soon as she had hung up, her face fell into haggard lines. She had staked a year of her waning youth on winning the big mining man of Kusiak, together with all the money that she had been able to scrape up for a campaign outfit. Moreover, she liked him.
It was not in the picture that she should fall desperately in love with any man. A woman of the world, she was sheathed in the plate armor of selfishness. But she was as near to loving Macdonald as was possible for her. She had a great deal of admiration for his iron strength, for the grit of the man. No woman could twist him around her finger, yet it was possible to lead him a long way in the direction one wanted.
Mrs. Mallory sat down in the hall beside the telephone, her fingers laced about one crossed knee. She knew that if Sheba O'Neill had not come on the scene, Macdonald would have asked her to marry him. He had been moving slowly toward her for months. They understood each other and were at ease together. Between them was a strong physical affinity. Both were good-tempered and were wise enough to expect human imperfection.
Then Diane Paget had brought in this slim, young cousin of hers and Colby Macdonald had been fascinated by the mystery of her innocent youth. Mrs. Mallory was like steel beneath the soft and indolent surface. Swiftly she mapped her plan of attack. The Alaskan could not be moved, but it might be possible to startle the girl into breaking the engagement. Genevieve Mallory would have used the weapon at hand without scruple in any case, but she justified herself on the ground that such a marriage could result only in unhappiness.
But before she made any move Mrs. Mallory intended to be sure of her facts. It was like her to go to headquarters for information. She got Macdonald on the wire.
"I've just heard something nice about you. Do tell me it's true," she said, her voice warm with sympathy.
Macdonald laughed with an almost boyish embarrassment. "It's true, I reckon."
"I'm so glad. She's a lovely girl. The sweetest thing that ever lived. I'm sure you'll be happy. I always did think you would make a perfect husband. Of course, I'm simply green with envy of her."
Her little ripple of laughter was gay and care-free. The man at the other end of the line never had liked her better. Since he was not a fool he had guessed pretty closely how things stood with her. She was a game little sport, he told himself approvingly. It appealed to him immensely that she could take such a facer and come up smiling.
There were no signs of worry wrinkles on her face when the maid admitted a caller half an hour later. Oliver Dustin was the name on the card. He was a remittance man, a tame little parlor pet whose vocation was to fetch and carry for pretty women, and by some odd trick of fate he had been sifted into the Northland. Mrs. Mallory had tolerated him rather scornfully, but to-day she smiled upon him.
Propped up by pillows, she reclined luxuriously on a lounge. A thin spiral of smoke rose like incense to the ceiling from her lips. The slow, regular rise and fall of her breathing beneath the filmy lace of her gown accented the perfect fullness of bust and throat.
Dustin helped himself to a cigarette and made himself comfortable.
She set herself to win him. He was immensely flattered at her awakened interest. When she called him by his first name, he wagged all over like a pleased puppy.
It came to him after a time that she was considering him for a confidential mission. He assured her eagerly that there was no trouble too great for him to take if he could be of any service to her. She hesitated and doubted and at last as a special favor to him accepted his offer. Their heads were close in whispered talk for a few minutes, at the end of which Dustin left the room with his chin in the air. He was a knight errant in the employ of the most attractive woman north of fifty-three.
When Elliot took the down-river boat he found Oliver Dustin was a fellow passenger. The little man smoked an occasional cigar with the land agent and aired his views on politics and affairs social. He left the boat at the big bend. Without giving him much of his thought Gordon was a little surprised that the voluble remittance man had not told him where he was going.
Not till a week later did Elliot return up the river. He was asleep at the time the Sarah passed the big bend, but next morning he discovered that Selfridge and Dustin had come aboard during the night. In the afternoon he came upon a real surprise when he found Meteetse and her little boy Colmac seated upon a box on the lower deck where freight for local points was stored.