Some old ancestral instinct in the bank cashier rose out of his panic to destroy him. He wanted to lie down quietly in a faint. But his mind asserted its mastery over the weakling body. In spite of his terror, of his flaccid will, he had to keep the faith. He was guardian of the bank funds. At all costs he must protect them.
His forearm came up with a jerk. Two shots rang out almost together. The cashier sagged back against the wall and slowly slid to the floor.
* * * * *
The guests of Mrs. Selfridge danced well into the small hours. The California champagne that Wally had brought in stimulated a gayety that was balm to his wife's soul. She wanted her dinner-dance to be smart, to have the atmosphere she had found in the New York cabarets. If everybody talked at once, she felt they were having a good time. If nobody listened to anybody else, it proved that the affair was a screaming success.
Mrs. Wally was satisfied as she bade her guests good-bye and saw them pass into the heavy snow that was again falling. They all assured her that there had not been so hilarious a party in Kusiak. One old-timer, a trifle lit up by reason of too much hospitality, phrased his enjoyment a little awkwardly.
"It's been great, Mrs. Selfridge. Nothing like it since the days of the open dance hall."
Mrs. Mallory hastily suppressed an internal smile and stepped into the breach. "How do you do it?" she asked her hostess enviously.
"My dear, if you say it was a success—"
"What else could one say?"
Genevieve Mallory always preferred to tell the truth when it would do just as well. Now it did better, since it contributed to her own ironic sense of amusement. Macdonald had once told her that Mrs. Selfridge made him think of the saying, "Monkey sees, monkey does." The effervescent little woman had never had an original idea in her life.
Most of those who had been at the dance slept late. They were oblivious of the fact that the storm had quickened again into a howling gale. Nor did they know the two bits of news that were passing up and down the main street and being telephoned from house to house. One of the items was that the stage for Katma had failed to reach the roadhouse at Smith's Crossing. The message had come over the long-distance telephone early in the morning. The keeper of the roadhouse added his private fears that the stage, crawling up the divide as the blizzard swept down, must have gone astray and its occupants perished. The second bit of news was local. For the first time since Robert Milton had been cashier the bank had failed to open on the dot. The snow had not been cleared from the walk in front and no smoke was pouring from the chimney of the building.
MACDONALD FOLLOWS A CLUE
Macdonald was no sluggard. It was his habit not to let the pleasure of the night before interfere with the business of the morning after. But in the darkness he overslept and let the town waken before him. He was roused by the sound of knocking on his door.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"It's me—Jones—Gopher Jones. Say, Mac, the bank ain't open and we can't rouse Milton. Thought I'd come to you, seeing as you're president of the shebang."
The mine-owner got up and began to dress. "Probably overslept, same as I did."
"That's the point. We looked through the window of his bedroom and his bed ain't been slept in."
In three minutes Macdonald joined the marshal and walked down with him to the bank. He unlocked the front door and turned to the little crowd that had gathered.
"Better wait here, boys. Gopher and I will go in. I expect everything is all right, but we'll let you know about that as soon as we find out."
The bank president opened the door, let the officer enter, and followed himself.
The sun had not yet risen and the blinds were down. Macdonald struck a match and held it up. The wood burned and the flame flickered out.
"Bank's been robbed," he announced quietly.
"Looks like," agreed Jones. His voice was uneven with excitement.
The Scotch-Canadian lit another match. In the flare of it they saw that the steel grill cutting off the alcove was open and that the door had been blown from the safe. It lay on the floor among a litter of papers, silver, fragments of steel, and bits of candle.
The marshal clutched at the arm of the banker. "Did you see—that?" he whispered.
His finger pointed through the darkness to the other end of the room. In the faint gray light of coming day Macdonald could see a huddled mass on the floor.
"There has been murder done. I'll get a light. Don't move from here, Jones. I want to look at things before we disturb them. There's no danger. The robbers have been gone for hours."
Gopher had as much nerve as the next man—when the sun was shining and he could see what danger he was facing. But there was something sinister and nerve-racking here. He wanted to throw open the door and shout the news to those outside.
By the light of another match the mine-owner crossed the room into the sitting-room of the cashier. Presently he returned with a lamp and let its light fall upon the figure lying slumped against the wall. A revolver lay close to the inert fingers. The head hung forward grotesquely upon the breast.
The dead man was Milton. His employer saw nothing ridiculous in the twisted neck and sprawling limbs. The cashier had died to save the money entrusted to his care.
Macdonald handed the lamp to the marshal and picked up the revolver. Every chamber was loaded.
"They beat him to it. They were probably here when he reached home. My guess is he heard them right away, got his gun, and came in. He's still wearing his dress suit. That gives us the time, for he left the club about midnight. Soon as they saw him they dropped him. Likely they heard him and were ready. I wouldn't have had this happen for all the money in the safe."
"How much was there in it?"
"I don't know exactly. The books will show. I'll send Wally down to look them over."
"Shot right spang through the heart, looks like," commented Jones, following with his eye the course of the wound.
"Wish I'd been here instead of him," Macdonald said grimly. His eyes softened as he continued to look down at the employee who had paid with his life for his faithfulness. "It wasn't an even break. Poor old fellow! You weren't built for a job like this, Robert Milton, but you played your hand out to a finish. That's all any man can do."
He turned abruptly away and began examining the safe. The silver still stood sacked in one large compartment. The bank-notes had escaped the hurried search of the robbers, but the gold was practically all gone. One sack had been torn by the explosion and single pieces of gold could be found all over the safe.
Macdonald glanced over the papers rapidly. The officer picked up one of dozens scattered over the floor. It was a mortgage note made out to the bank by a miner. He collected the others. Evidently the bandits had torn off the rubber, glanced over one or two to see if they had any cash value, and tossed the package into the air as a disgusted gambler does a pack of cards.
The bank president stepped to the door and threw it open. He explained the situation in three sentences.
"I can't let you in now, boys, until the coroner has been here," he went on to tell the crowd. "But there is one way you can all help. Keep your eyes open. If you have seen any suspicious characters around, let me know. Or if any one has left town in a hurry—or been seen doing anything during the night that you did not understand at the time. Men can't do a thing like this without leaving some clue behind them even though the snow has wiped away their trail."
A man named Fred Tague pushed to the front. He kept a feed corral near the edge of town. "I can tell you one man who mushed out before five o'clock this morning—and that's Gid Holt."
The eyes of Macdonald, cold and hard as jade, fastened to the man. "How do you know?"
"That dog team he bought from Tim Ryan—Well, he's been keeping it in my corral. When I got there this morning it was gone. The snow hadn't wiped out the tracks of the runners yet, so he couldn't have left more than fifteen minutes before."
"What time was it when you reached the corral?"
"Might have been six—maybe a little later."
"You don't know that Holt took the team himself?"
"Come to that, I don't. But he had a key to the barn where the sled was. Holt has been putting up at the hotel. I reckon it is easy to find out if he's still there."
Macdonald's keen brain followed the facts as the nose of a bloodhound does a trail. Holt, an open enemy of his, had reached town only two days before. He had bought one of the best and swiftest dog teams in the North and had let slip before witnesses the remark that Macdonald would soon find out what he wanted with the outfit. The bank had been robbed after midnight. To file open the grill and to blow up the safe must have taken several hours. Before morning the dogs of Holt had taken the trail. If their owner were with them, it was a safe bet that the sled carried forty thousand dollars in Alaska gold dust.
So far the mind of the Scotchman followed the probabilities logically, but at this point it made a jump. There were at least two robbers. He was morally sure of that, for this was not a one-man job. Now, if Holt had with him a companion, who of all those in Kusiak was the most likely man? He was a friendless, crabbed old fellow. Since coming to Kusiak old Gideon had been seen constantly with one man. Together they had driven out the day before and tried his new team. They had been with each other at dinner and had later left the hotel together. The name of the man who had been so friendly with old Holt was Gordon Elliot—and Elliot not only was another enemy of Macdonald, but had very good reasons for getting out of the country just now.
The strong jaw of the mine-owner stood out saliently as he gave short, sharp orders to men in the crowd. One was to get the coroner, a second Wally Selfridge, another the United States District Attorney. He divided the rest into squads to guard the roads leading out of town and to see that nobody passed for the present.
As soon as the men he had sent for arrived, Macdonald went over the scene of the crime with them. It was plain that the dynamiting had been done by an old-time miner who knew his business, but there had been brains in the planning of the robbery.
"There is no ivory above the ears of the man who bossed this job," Macdonald told the others. "He picks a night when we're all at the club, more than half a mile from here, a stormy night when folks are not wandering the streets. He knows that the wind will deaden the sound of the dynamite and that the snow will wipe out any tracks that might help to identify him and his pal or show which way they have gone."
The coroner took charge of the body and Wally of the bank. The mine-owner and the district attorney walked up to the hotel together. As soon as they had explained what they wanted, the landlord got a passkey and took them to the room Holt had used.
Apparently the bed had been slept in. In the waste-paper basket the district attorney found something which he held up in a significant silence. Macdonald stepped forward and took from him a small cloth sack.
"One of those we keep our gold in at the bank," said the Scotchman after a close examination. "This definitely ties up Holt with the robbery. Now for Elliot."
"He left the hotel with Holt about five this morning the porter says." This was the contribution of the landlord.
The room of Gordon Elliot was in great disorder. Garments had been tossed on the bed and on every chair and had been left to lie wherever they had chanced to fall. Plainly their owner had been in great haste.
Macdonald looked through the closet where clothes hung. "His new fur coat is not here—nor his trail boots. Looks to me as though Mr. Gordon had hit the trail with his friend Holt."
This opinion was strengthened when it was learned from a store-owner in town that Holt and Elliot had routed him out of bed in the early morning to sell them two weeks' supplies. These they had packed upon the sled outside the store.
"It's a cinch bet that Elliot took the trail with him," the lawyer conceded.
All doubt of this was removed when a prospector reached town with the news that he had met Holt and Elliot traveling toward the divide as fast as they could drive the dogs.
The big Scotchman ordered his team of Siberian wolf-hounds made ready for the trail. As he donned his heavy furs, Colby Macdonald smiled with deep satisfaction. He had Elliot on the run at last.
Just as he closed the door of his room, Macdonald heard the telephone bell ring. He hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders and strode out into the storm. If he had answered the call he would have learned from Diane, who was at the other end of the line, that the stage upon which Sheba had started for Katma had not reached the roadhouse at Smith's Crossing.
Five minutes later the winners of the great Alaska Sweepstakes were flying down the street in the teeth of the storm. Armed with a rifle and a revolver, their owner was mushing into the hills to bring back the men who had robbed his bank and killed the cashier. He traveled alone because he could go faster without a companion. It never occurred to him that he was not a match for any two men he might face.
IN THE BLIZZARD
"Swiftwater" Pete, the driver of the stage between Kusiak and Katma, did not like the look of the sky as his ponies breasted the long uphill climb that ended at the pass. It was his habit to grumble. He had been complaining ever since they had started. But as he studied the heavy billows of cloud banked above the peaks and in the saddle between, there was real anxiety in his red, apoplectic face.
"Gittin' her back up for a blizzard, looks like. Doggone it, if that wouldn't jest be my luck," he murmured fretfully.
Sheba hoped there would be one, not, of course, a really, truly blizzard such as Macdonald had told her about, but the tail of a make-believe one, enough to send her glowing with exhilaration into the roadhouse with the happy sense of an adventure achieved. The girl had got out to relieve the horses, and as her young, lissom body took the hill scattering flakes of snow were already flying.
To-day she was buoyed up by a sense of freedom. For a time, at least, she was escaping Macdonald's driving energy, the appeal of Gordon Elliot's warm friendliness, and the unvoiced urging of Diane. Good old Peter and the kiddies were the only ones that let her alone.
She looked back at the horses laboring up the hill. Swiftwater had got down and was urging them forward, his long whip crackling about the ears of the leaders. He waddled as he walked. His fat legs were too short for the round barrel body. A big roll of fat bulged out over the collar of his shirt. Whenever he was excited—and he always was on the least excuse—he puffed and snorted and grew alarmingly purple.
"Fat chance," he exploded as soon as he got within hearing. "Snow in those clouds—tons of it. H'm! And wind. Wow! We're in for an honest-to-God blizzard, sure as you're a foot high."
Swiftwater was worried. He would have liked to turn and run for it. But the last roadhouse was twenty-seven miles back. If the blizzard came howling down the slope they would have a sweet time of it reaching safety. Smith's Crossing was on the other side of the divide, only nine miles away. They would have to worry through somehow. Probably those angry clouds were half a bluff.
The temperature was dropping rapidly. Already snow fell fast in big thick flakes. To make it worse, the wind was beginning to rise. It came in shrill gusts momentarily increasing in force.
The stage-driver knew the signs of old and cursed the luck that had led him to bring the stage. It was to have been the last trip with horses until spring. His dogs were waiting for him at Katma for the return journey. He did not blame himself, for there was no reason to expect such a storm so early in the season. None the less, it was too bad that his lead dog had been ailing when he left the gold camp eight days before.
Miss O'Neill knew that Swiftwater Pete was anxious, and though she was not yet afraid, the girl understood the reason for it. The road ran through the heart of a vast snow-field, the surface of which was being swept by a screaming wind. The air was full of sifted white dust, and the road furrow was rapidly filling. Soon it would be obliterated. Already the horses were panting and struggling as they ploughed forward. Sheba tramped behind the stage-driver and in her tracks walked Mrs. Olson, the other passenger.
Through the muffled scream of the storm Swiftwater shouted back to Sheba. "You wanta keep close to me."
She nodded her head. His order needed no explanation. The world was narrowing to a lane whose walls she could almost touch with her fingers. A pall of white wrapped them. Upon them beat a wind of stinging sleet. Nothing could be seen but the blurred outlines of the stage and the driver's figure.
The bitter cold searched through Sheba's furs to her soft flesh and the blast of powdered ice beat upon her face. The snow was getting deeper as the road filled. Once or twice she stumbled and fell. Her strength ebbed, and the hinges of her knees gave unexpectedly beneath her. How long was it, she asked herself, that Macdonald had said men could live in a blizzard?
Staggering blindly forward, Sheba bumped into the driver. He had drawn up to give the horses a moment's rest before sending them plunging at the snow again.
"No chance," he called into the young woman's ear. "Never make Smith's in the world. Goin' try for miner's cabin up gulch little way."
The team stuck in the drifts, fought through, and was blocked again ten yards beyond. A dozen times the horses gave up, answered the sting of the whip by diving head first at the white banks, and were stopped by fresh snow-combs.
Pete gave up the fight. He began unhitching the horses, while Sheba and Mrs. Olson, clinging to each other's hands, stumbled forward to join him. The words he shouted across the back of a horse were almost lost in the roar of the shrieking wind.
"... heluvatime ... ride ... gulch," Sheba made out.
He flung Mrs. Olson astride one of the wheelers and helped Sheba to the back of the right leader. Swiftwater clambered upon its mate himself.
The girl paid no attention to where they were going. The urge of life was so faint within her that she did not greatly care whether she lived or died. Her face was blue from the cold; her vitality was sapped. She seemed to herself to have turned to ice below the hips. Outside the misery of the moment her whole attention was concentrated on sticking to the back of the horse. Numb though her fingers were, she must keep them fastened tightly in the frozen mane of the animal. She recited her lesson to herself like a child. She must stick on—she must—she must.
Whether she lost consciousness or not Sheba never knew. The next she realized was that Swiftwater Pete was pulling her from the horse. He dragged her into a cabin where Mrs. Olson lay crouched on the floor.
"Got to stable the horses," he explained, and left them.
After a time he came back and lit a fire in the sheet-iron stove. As the circulation that meant life flooded back into her chilled veins Sheba endured a half-hour of excruciating pain. She had to clench her teeth to keep back the groans that came from her throat, to walk the floor and nurse her tortured hands with fingers in like plight.
The cabin was empty of furniture except for a home-made table, rough stools, and the frame of a bed. The last occupant had left a little firewood beside the stove, enough to last perhaps for twenty-four hours. Sheba did not need to be told that if the blizzard lasted long enough, they would starve to death. In the handbag left in the stage were a box of candy and an Irish plum pudding. She had brought the latter from the old country with her and was taking it and the chocolates to the Husted children. But just now the stage was as far from them as Drogheda.
Like many rough frontiersmen, Swiftwater Pete was a diamond in the raw. He had the kindly, gentle instincts that go to the making of a good man. So far as could be he made a hopeless and impossible situation comfortable. His judgment told him that they were caught in a trap from which there was no escape, but for the sake of the women he put a cheerful face on things.
"Lucky we found this cabin," he growled amiably. "By this time we'd 'a' been up Salt Creek if we hadn't. Seeing as our luck has stood up so far, I reckon we'll be all right. Mighty kind of Mr. Last Tenant to leave us this firewood. Comes to a showdown we've got one table, four stools, and a bed that will make first-class fuel. We ain't so worse off."
"If we only had some food," Mrs. Olson suggested.
"Food!" Pete looked at her in assumed surprise. "Huh! What about all that live stock I got in the stable? I've heard tell, ma'am, that broncho tenderloin is a favorite dish with them there French chiefs that do the cooking. They kinder trim it up so's it's 'most as good as frawgs' legs."
Sheba had never before slept on bare boards with a sealskin coat for a sleeping-bag. But she was very tired and dropped off almost instantly. Twice she woke during the night, disturbed by the stiffness and the pain of her body. It seemed to her that the hard, whipsawed planks were pushing through the soft flesh to the bones. She was cold, too, and crept closer to the stout Swedish woman lying beside her. Presently she fell asleep again to the sound of the blizzard howling outside. When she wakened for the third time it was morning.
In the afternoon the blizzard died away. As far as she could see, Sheba looked out upon a waste of snow. Her eyes turned from the desolation without to the bare and cheerless room in which they had found shelter. In spite of herself a little shiver ran down the spine of the girl. Had she come into this Arctic solitude to find her tomb?
Resolutely she brushed the gloomy thought from her mind and began to chat with Mrs. Olson. In a corner of the cabin Sheba had found a torn and disreputable copy of "Vanity Fair." The covers and the first forty pages were gone. A splash of what appeared to be tobacco juice defiled the last sheet. But the fortunes of Becky and Amelia had served to make her forget during the morning that she was hungry and likely to be much hungrier before another day had passed.
As soon as the storm had moderated enough to let him go out with safety, Swiftwater Pete had taken one of the horses for an attempt at trail-breaking.
"Me, I'm after that plum pudding. I gotta get a feed of oats from the stage for my bronchs too. The scenery here is sure fine, but it ain't what you would call nourishing. Huh! Watch our smoke when me and old Baldface git to bucking them drifts."
He had been gone two hours and the early dusk was already descending over the white waste when Sheba ventured out to see what had become of the stage-driver. But the cold was so bitter that she soon gave up the attempt to fight her way through the drifts and turned back to the cabin.
Sometime later Swiftwater Pete came stumbling into their temporary home. He was fagged to exhaustion but triumphant. Upon the table he dropped from the crook of his numbed arm two packages.
"The makings for a Christmas dinner," he said with a grin.
After he had taken off his mukluks and his frozen socks they wrapped him in their furs while he toasted before the stove. Mrs. Olson thawed out the pudding and the chocolates in the oven and made a kind of mush out of some oats Pete had saved from the horse feed. They ate their one-sided meal in high spirits. The freeze had saved their lives. If it held clear till to-morrow they could reach Smith's Crossing on the crust of the snow.
Swiftwater broke up the chairs for fuel and demolished the legs of the table, after which he lay down before the stove and fell at once into a sodden sleep.
Presently Mrs. Olson lay down on the bed and began to snore regularly. Sheba could not sleep. The boards tired her bones and she was cold. Sometimes she slipped into cat naps that were full of bad dreams. She thought she was walking on the snow-comb of a precipice and that Colby Macdonald pushed her from her precarious footing and laughed at her as she slid swiftly toward the gulf below. When she wakened with a start it was to find that the fire had died down. She was shivering from lack of cover. Quietly the girl replenished the fire and lay down again.
When she wakened with a start it was morning. A faint light sifted through the single window of the shack. Sheba whispered to the older woman that she was going out for a little walk.
"Be careful, dearie," advised Mrs. Olson. "I wouldn't try to go too far."
Sheba smiled to herself at the warning. It was not likely that she would go far enough to get lost with all these millions of tons of snow piled up around her in every direction.
She had come out because she was restless and was tired of the dingy and uncomfortable room. Without any definite intentions, she naturally followed the trail that Swiftwater had broken the day before. No wind stirred and the sky was clear. But it was very cold. The sun would not be up for half an hour.
As she worked her way down the gulch Sheba wondered whether the news of their loss had reached Kusiak. Were search parties out already to rescue them? Colby Macdonald had gone out into the blizzard years ago to save her father. Perhaps he might have been out all night trying to save her father's daughter. Peter would go, of course,—and Gordon Elliot. The work in the mines would stop and men would volunteer by scores. That was one fine thing about the North. It responded to the unwritten law that a man must risk his own life to save others.
But if the wires had come down in the storm Kusiak would not know they had not got through to Smith's Crossing. Swiftwater Pete spoke cheerfully about mushing to the roadhouse. But Sheba knew the snow would not bear the horses. They would have to walk, and it was not at all certain that Mrs. Olson could do so long a walk with the thermometer at forty or fifty below zero.
From a little knoll Sheba looked down upon the top of the stage three hundred yards below her, and while she stood there the promise of the new day was blazoned on the sky. It came with amazing beauty of green and primrose and amethyst, while the stars flickered out and the heavens took on the blue of sunrise. In a crotch between two peaks a faint golden glow heralded the sun. A circle of lovely rose-pink flushed the horizon.
Sheba had this much of the poet in her, that every sunrise was still a miracle. She drew a deep, slow breath of adoration and turned away. As she did so her eyes dilated and her body grew rigid.
Across the snow waste a man was coming. He was moving toward the cabin and must cross the trench close to her. The heart of the girl stopped, then beat wildly to make up the lost stroke. He had come through the blizzard to save her.
At that very instant, as if the stage had been set for it, the wonderful Alaska sun pushed up into the crotch of the peaks and poured its radiance over the Arctic waste. The pink glow swept in a tide of delicate color over the snow and transmuted it to millions of sparkling diamonds. The Great Magician's wand had recreated the world instantaneously.
Elliot and Holt left Kusiak in a spume of whirling, blinding snow. They traveled light, not more than forty pounds to the dog, for they wanted to make speed. It was not cold for Alaska. They packed their fur coats on the sled and wore waterproof parkas. On their hands were mittens of moosehide with duffel lining, on their feet mukluks above "German" socks. Holt had been a sour-dough miner too long to let his partner perspire from overmuch clothing. He knew the danger of pneumonia from a sudden cooling of the heat of the body.
Old Gideon took seven of his dogs, driving them two abreast. Six were huskies, rangy, muscular animals with thick, dense coats. They were in the best of spirits and carried their tails erect like their Malemute leader. Butch, though a Malemute, had a strong strain of collie in him. It gave him a sense of responsibility. His business was to see that the team kept strung out on the trail, and Butch was a past-master in the matter of discipline. His weight was ninety-three fighting pounds, and he could thrash in short order any dog in the team.
The snow was wet and soft. It clung to everything it touched. The dogs carried pounds of it in the tufts of hair that rose from their backs. An icy pyramid had to be knocked from the sled every half-hour. The snowshoes were heavy with white slush. Densely laden spruce boughs brushed the faces of the men and showered them with unexpected little avalanches.
They took turns in going ahead of the team and breaking trail. It was heavy, muscle-grinding work. Before noon they were both utterly fatigued. They dragged forward through the slush, lifting their laden feet sluggishly. They must keep going, and they did, but it seemed to them that every step must be the last.
Shortly after noon the storm wore itself out. The temperature had been steadily falling and now it took a rapid drop. They were passing through timber, and on a little slope they built with a good deal of difficulty a fire. By careful nursing they soon had a great bonfire going, in front of which they put their wet socks, mukluks, scarfs, and parkas to dry. The toes of the dogs had become packed with little ice balls. Gordon and Holt had to go carefully over the feet of each animal to dig these out.
The old-timer thawed out a slab of dried salmon till the fat began to frizzle and fed each husky a pound of the fish and a lump of tallow. He and Gordon made a pot of tea and ate some meat sandwiches they had brought with them to save cooking until night.
When they took the trail again it was in moccasins instead of mukluks. The weather was growing steadily colder and with each degree of fall in the thermometer the trail became easier.
"Mushing at fifty below zero is all right when it is all right," explained Holt in the words of the old prospector. "But when it isn't right it's hell."
"It is not fifty below yet, is it?"
"Nope. But she's on the way. When your breath makes a kinder crackling noise she's fifty."
Travel was much easier now. There was a crust on the snow that held up the dogs and the sled so that trail-breaking was not necessary. The little party pounded steadily over the barren hills. There was no sign of life except what they brought with them out of the Arctic silence and carried with them into the greater silence beyond. A little cloud of steam enveloped them as they moved, the moisture from the breath of nine moving creatures in a waste of emptiness.
Each of the men wrapped a long scarf around his mouth and nose for protection, and as the part in front of his face became a sheet of ice shifted the muffler to another place.
Night fell in the middle of the afternoon, but they kept traveling. Not till they were well up toward the summit of the divide did they decide to camp. They drove into a little draw and unharnessed the weary dogs. It was bitterly cold, but they were forced to set up the tent and stove to keep from freezing. Their numbed fingers made a slow job of the camp preparations. At last the stove was going, the dogs fed, and they themselves thawed out. They fell asleep shortly to the sound of the mournful howling of the dogs outside.
Long before daybreak they were afoot again. Holt went out to chop some wood for the stove while Gordon made breakfast preparations. The little miner brought in an armful of wood and went out to get a second supply. A few moments later Elliot heard a cry.
He stepped out of the tent and ran to the spot where Holt was lying under a mass of ice and snow. The young man threw aside the broken blocks that had plunged down from a ledge above.
"Badly hurt, Gid?" he asked.
"I done bust my laig, son," the old man answered with a twisted grin.
"You mean that it is broken?"
"Tell you that in a minute."
He felt his leg carefully and with Elliot's help tried to get up. Groaning, he slid back to the snow.
"Yep. She's busted," he announced.
Gordon carried him to the tent and laid him down carefully. The old miner swore softly.
"Ain't this a hell of a note, boy? You'll have to get me to Smith's Crossing and leave me there."
It was the only thing to be done. Elliot broke camp and packed the sled. Upon the load he put his companion, well wrapped up in furs. He harnessed the dogs and drove back to the road.
Two miles farther up the road Gordon stopped his team sharply. He had turned a bend in the trail and had come upon an empty stage buried in the snow.
The fear that had been uppermost in Elliot's mind for twenty-four hours clutched at his throat. Was it tragedy upon which he had come after his long journey?
Holt guessed the truth. "They got stalled and cut loose the horses. Must have tried to ride the cayuses to shelter."
"To Smith's Crossing?" asked Gordon.
"Expect so." Then, with a whoop, the man on the sled contradicted himself. "No, by Moses, to Dick Fiddler's old cabin up the draw. That's where Swiftwater would aim for till the blizzard was over."
"Where is it?" demanded his friend.
"Swing over to the right and follow the little gulch. I'll wait till you come back."
Gordon dropped the gee-pole and started on the instant. Eagerness, anxiety, dread fought in his heart. He knew that any moment now he might stumble upon the evidence of the sad story which is repeated in Alaska many times every winter. It rang in him like a bell that where tough, hardy miners succumbed a frail girl would have small chance.
He cut across over the hill toward the draw, and at what he saw his pulse quickened. Smoke was pouring out of the chimney of a cabin and falling groundward, as it does in the Arctic during very cold weather. Had Sheba found safety there? Or was it the winter home of a prospector?
As he pushed forward the rising sun flooded the earth with pink and struck a million sparkles of color from the snow. The wonder of it drew the eyes of the young man for a moment toward the hills.
A tumult of joy flooded his veins. The girl who held in her soft hands the happiness of his life stood looking at him. It seemed to him that she was the core of all that lovely tide of radiance. He moved toward her and looked down into the trench where she waited. Swiftly he kicked off his snowshoes and leaped down beside her.
The gleam of tears was in her eyes as she held out both hands to him. During the long look they gave each other something wonderful to both of them was born into the world.
When he tried to speak his hoarse voice broke. "Sheba—little Sheba! Safe, after all. Thank God, you—you—" He swallowed the lump in his throat and tried again. "If you knew—God, how I have suffered! I was afraid—I dared not let myself think."
A live pulse beat in her white throat. The tears brimmed over. Then, somehow, she was in his arms weeping. Her eyes slowly turned to his, and he met the touch of her surrendered lips.
Nature had brought them together by one of her resistless and unpremeditated impulses.
TWO ON THE TRAIL
A stress of emotion had swept her into his arms. Now she drew away from him shyly. The conventions in which she had been brought up asserted themselves. Sheba remembered that they had been carried by the high wave of their emotion past all the usual preliminaries. He had not even told her that he loved her. An absurd little fear obtruded itself into her happiness. Had she rushed into his arms like a lovesick girl, taking it for granted that he cared for her?
"You—came to look for us?" she asked, with the little shy stiffness of embarrassment.
He could not take his eyes from her. It seemed to him that a bird was singing in his heart the gladness he could not express. He had for many hours pushed from his mind pictures of her lying white and rigid on the snow. Instead she stood beside him, her delicate beauty vivid as the flush of a flame.
"Did they telephone that we were lost?"
"Yes. I was troubled when the storm grew. I could not sleep. So I called up the roadhouse by long distance. They had not heard from the stage. Later I called again. When I could stand it no longer, I started."
"Not on foot?"
"No. With Holt's dog team. He is back there. His leg is broken. A snow-slide crushed him this morning where we camped."
"Bring him to the cabin. I will tell the others you are coming."
"Have you had any food?" he asked.
A tired smile lit up the shadows of weariness under her soft, dark eyes. "Boiled oats, plum pudding, and chocolates," she told him.
"We have plenty of food on the sled. I'll bring it at once."
She nodded, and turned to go to the cabin. He watched for a moment the lilt in her walk. An expression from his reading jumped to his mind. Melodious feet! Some poet had said that, hadn't he? Surely it must have been Sheba of whom he was thinking, this girl so virginal of body and of mind, free and light-footed as a caribou on the hills.
Gordon returned to the sled and drove the team up the draw to the cabin. The three who had been marooned came to meet their rescuer.
"You must 'a' come right through the storm lickitty split," Swiftwater said.
"You're right we did. This side pardner of mine was hell-bent on wrestling with a blizzard," Holt answered dryly.
"Sorry you broke your laig, Gid."
"Then there's two of us sorry, Swiftwater. It's one of the best laigs I've got."
Sheba turned to the old miner impulsively. "If you could be knowing what I am thinking of you, Mr. Holt,—how full our hearts are of the gratitude—" She stopped, tears in her voice.
"Sho! No need of that, Miss. He dragged me along." His thumb jerked toward the man who was driving. "I've seen better dog punchers than Elliot, but he's got the world beat at routin' old-timers out of bed and persuadin' them to kick in with him and buck a blizzard. Me, o' course, I'm an old fool for comin'—"
The dark eyes of the girl were like stars in a frosty night. "Then you're the kind of a fool I love, Mr. Holt. I think it was just fine of you, and I'll never forget it as long as I live."
Mrs. Olson had cooked too long in lumber and mining camps not to know something about bone-setting. Under her direction Gordon made splints and helped her bandage the broken leg. Meanwhile Swiftwater Pete fed his horses from the grain on the sled and Sheba cooked an appetizing breakfast. The aroma of coffee and the smell of frying bacon stimulated appetites that needed no tempting.
Holt, propped up by blankets, ate with the others. For a good many years he had taken his luck as it came with philosophic endurance. Now he wasted no time in mourning what could not be helped. He was lucky the ice slide had not hit him in the head. A broken leg would mend.
While they ate, the party went into committee of the whole to decide what was best to be done. Gordon noticed that in all the tentative suggestions made by Holt and Swiftwater the comfort of Sheba was the first thing in mind.
The girl, too, noticed it and smilingly protested, her soft hand lying for the moment on the gnarled one of the old miner.
"It doesn't matter about me. We have to think of what will be best for Mr. Holt, of how to get him to the proper care. My comfort can wait."
The plan at last decided upon was that Gordon should make a dash for Smith's Crossing on snowshoes, where he was to arrange for a relief party to come out for the injured man and Mrs. Olson. He was to return at once without waiting for the rescuers. Next morning he and Sheba would start with Holt's dog team for Kusiak.
Macdonald had taught Sheba how to use snowshoes and she had been an apt pupil. From her suitcase she got out her moccasins and put them on. She borrowed the snowshoes of Holt, wrapped herself in her parka, and announced that she was going with Elliot part of the way.
Gordon thought her movements a miracle of supple lightness. Her lines had the swelling roundness of vital youth, her eyes were alive with the eagerness that time dulls in most faces. They spoke little as they swept forward over the white snow-wastes. The spell of the great North was over her. Its mystery was stirring in her heart, just as it had been when her lips had turned to his at the sunrise. As for him, love ran through his veins like old wine. But he allowed his feelings no expression. For though she had come to him of her own accord for that one blessed minute at dawn, he could not be sure what had moved her so deeply. She was treading a world primeval, the wonder of it still in her soft eyes. Would she waken to love or to disillusion?
He took care to see that she did not tire. Presently he stopped and held out his hand to say good-bye.
"Will you come back this way?" she asked.
"Yes. I ought to get here soon after dark. Will you meet me?"
She gave him a quick, shy little nod, turned without shaking hands, and struck out for the cabin. All through the day happiness flooded her heart. While she waited on Holt or helped Mrs. Olson cook or watched Swiftwater while he put up the tent in the lee of the cabin, little snatches of song bubbled from her lips. Sometimes they were bits of old Irish ballads that popped into her mind. Once, while she was preparing some coffee for her patient, it was a stanza from Burns:—
"Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi' the sun: I will luve thee still, my dear, While the sands o' life shall run."
She caught old Gideon looking at her with a queer little smile on his weather-tanned face and she felt the color beat into her cheeks.
"I haven't bought a wedding present for twenty years," he told her presently, apropos of nothing that had been said. "I won't know what's the proper thing to get, Miss Sheba."
"If you talk nonsense like that I'll go out and talk to Mr. Swiftwater Pete," she threatened, blushing.
Old Gid folded his hands meekly. "I'll be good—honest I will. Let's see. I got to make safe and sane conversation, have I? Hm! Wonder when that lazy, long-legged, good-for-nothing horsethief and holdup that calls himself Gordon Elliot will get back to camp."
Sheba looked into his twinkling eyes suspiciously as she handed him his coffee. For a moment she bit her lip to keep back a smile, then said with mock severity,—
"Now, I am going to leave you to Mrs. Olson."
When sunset came it found Sheba on the trail. Swiftwater Pete had offered to go with her, but she had been relieved of his well-meant kindness by the demand of Holt.
"No, you don't, Pete. You ain't a-goin' off gallivantin' with no young lady. You're a-goin' to stay here and fix my game laig for me. What do you reckon Miss Sheba wants with a fat, lop-sided lummox like you along with her?"
Pete grew purple with embarrassment. He had not intended anything more than civility and he wanted this understood.
"Hmp! Ain't you got no sense a-tall, Gid? If Miss Sheba's hell-bent on goin' to meet Elliot, I allowed some one ought to go along and keep the dark offen her. 'Course there ain't nothin' going to harm her, unless she goes and gets lost—"
Sheba's smile cooled the heat of the stage-driver. "Which she isn't going to do. Good of you to offer to go with me. Don't mind Mr. Holt. Everybody knows he doesn't mean half of what he says. I'd be glad to have you come with me, but it isn't necessary at all. So I'll not trouble you."
Darkness fell quickly, but Sheba still held to the trail. There was no sign of Elliot, but she felt sure he would come soon. Meanwhile she followed steadily the tracks he had made earlier in the day.
She stopped at last. It was getting much colder. She was miles from the camp. Reluctantly she decided to return. Then, out of the darkness, he came abruptly upon her, the man whom she had come out to meet.
Under the magic of the Northern stars they found themselves again in each other's arms for that brief moment of joyful surprise. Then, as it had been in the morning, Sheba drew herself shyly away.
"They are waiting supper for us," she told him irrelevantly.
He did not shout out his happiness and tell her to let them wait. For Gordon, too, felt awed at this wonderful adventure of love that had befallen them. It was enough for him that they were moving side by side, alone in the deep snows and the biting cold, that waves of emotion crashed through his pulses when his swinging hand touched hers.
They were acutely conscious of each other. Excitement burned in the eyes that turned to swift, reluctant meetings. She was a woman, and he was her lover. Neither of them dared quite accept the fact yet, but it filled the background of all their thoughts with delight.
Sheba did not want to talk of this new, amazing thing that had come into her life. It was too sacred a subject to discuss just yet even with him. So she began to tell him odd fancies from childhood that lingered in her Celtic heart, tales of the "little folk" that were half memories and half imaginings, stirred to life by some odd association of sky and stars. She laughed softly at herself as she told them, but Gordon did not laugh at her.
Everything she did was for him divinely done. Even when his eyes were on the dark trail ahead he saw only the dusky loveliness of curved cheek, the face luminous with a radiance some women are never privileged to know, the rhythm of head and body and slender legs that was part of her individual, heaven-sent charm.
The rest had finished supper before Gordon and Sheba reached camp, but Mrs. Olson had a hot meal waiting for them.
"I fixed up the tent for the women folks—stove, sleeping-bags, plenty of wood. Touch a match to the fire and it'll be snug as a bug in a rug," explained Swiftwater to Gordon.
Elliot and Sheba were to start early for Kusiak and later the rescue party would arrive to take care of Holt and Mrs. Olson.
"Time to turn in," Holt advised. "You better light that stove, Elliot."
The young man was still in the tent arranging the sleeping-bags when Sheba entered. He tried to walk out without touching her, intending to call back his good-night. But he could not do it. There was something flamey about her to-night that went to his head. Her tender, tremulous little smile and the turn of the buoyant little head stirred in him a lover's rhapsody.
"It's to be a long trail we cover to-morrow, Sheba. You must sleep. Good-night."
There was a little flash of audacity in the whimsical twist of her mouth. It was the first time she had ever called him by his given name.
Elliot threw away prudence and caught her by the hands.
"My dear—my dear!" he cried.
She trembled to his kiss, gave herself to his embrace with innocent passion. Tendrils of hair, fine as silk, brushed his cheeks and sent strange thrills through him.
They talked the incoherent language of lovers that is compounded of murmurs and silences and the touch of lips and the meetings of eyes. There were to be other nights in their lives as rich in memories as this, but never another with quite the same delight.
Presently Sheba reminded him with a smile of the long trail he had mentioned. Mrs. Olson bustled into the tent, and her presence stressed the point.
"Good-night, neighbors," Gordon called back from outside the tent.
Sheba's "Good-night" echoed softly back to him.
The girl fell asleep to the sound of the light breeze slapping the tent and to the doleful howling of the huskies.
A MESSAGE FROM THE DEAD
Macdonald drove his team into the teeth of the storm. The wind came in gusts. Sometimes the gale was so stiff that the dogs could scarcely crawl forward against it; again there were moments of comparative stillness, followed by squalls that slapped the driver in the face like the whipping of a loose sail on a catboat.
High drifts made the trail difficult. Not once but fifty times Macdonald left the gee-pole to break a way through snow-waves for the sled. The best he could get out of his dogs was three miles an hour, and he knew that there was not another team or driver in the North could have done so well.
It was close to noon when he reached a division of the road known as the Fork. One trail ran down to the river and up it to the distant creeks. The other led across the divide, struck the Yukon, and pointed a way to the coast. White drifts had long since blotted out the track of the sled that had preceded him. Had the fugitives gone up the river to the creeks with intent to hole themselves up for the winter? Or was it their purpose to cross the divide and go out over the ice to the coast?
The pursuer knew that Gid Holt was wise as a weasel. He could follow blindfolded the paths that led to every creek in the gold-fields. It might be taken as a certainty that he had not plunged into such a desperate venture without having a plan well worked out beforehand. Elliot had a high grade of intelligence. Would they try to reach the coast and make their get-away to Seattle? Or would they dig themselves in till the heavy snows were past and come back to civilization with the story of a lucky strike to account for the gold they brought with them? Neither gold-dust nor nuggets could be identified. There would be no way of proving the story false. The only evidence against them would be that they had left at Kusiak and this was merely of a corroborative kind. There would be no chance of convicting them upon it.
But to strike for Seattle was to throw away all pretense of innocence. Fugitives from justice, they would have to disappear from sight in order to escape. The hunt for them would continue until at last they were unearthed.
One fork of the road led to comparative safety; the other went by devious windings to the penitentiary and perhaps the gallows. The Scotchman put himself in the place of the men he was trailing. Given the same conditions, he knew which path he would follow.
Macdonald took the trail that led down to the river, to the distant gold-creeks which offered a refuge from man-hunters in many a deserted cabin marooned by the deep snows.
Even the iron frame and steel muscles of the Scotch-Canadian protested against the task he had set them that day. It was a time to sit snugly inside by a stove and listen to the howling of the wind as it hurled itself down from the divide. But from daylight till dark Colby Macdonald fought with drifts and breasted the storm. He got into the harness with the dogs. He broke trail for them, cheered them, soothed, comforted, punished. Long after night had fallen he staggered into the hut of two prospectors, his parka so stiff with frozen snow that it had to be beaten with a hammer before the coat could be removed.
"How long since a dog team passed—seven huskies and two men?" was his first question.
"No dog team has passed for four days," one of the men answered.
"You mean you haven't seen one," Macdonald corrected.
"I mean none has passed—unless it went by in the night while we slept. And even then our dogs would have warned us."
Macdonald flung his ice-coated gloves to a table and stooped to take off his mukluks. His face was blue with the cold, but the bleak look in the eyes came from within. He said nothing more until he was free of his wet clothes. Then he sat down heavily and passed a hand over his frozen eyebrows.
"Get me something to eat and take care of my dogs. There is food for them on the sled," he said.
While he ate he told them of the bank robbery and the murder. Their resentment against the men who had done it was quite genuine. There could be no doubt they told the truth when they said no sled had preceded his. They were honest, reliable prospectors. He knew them both well.
The weary man slept like a log. He opened his eyes next morning to find one of his hosts shaking him.
"Six o'clock, Mr. Macdonald. Your breakfast is ready. Jim is looking out for the huskies."
Half an hour later the Scotchman gave the order, "Mush!" He was off again, this time on the back trail as far as the Narrows, from which point he meant to strike across to intersect the fork of the road leading to the divide.
The storm had passed and when the late sun rose it was in a blue sky. Fine enough the day was overhead, but the slushy snow, where it was worn thin on the river by the sweep of the wind, made heavy travel for the dogs. Macdonald was glad enough to reach the Narrows, where he could turn from the river and cut across to hit the trail of the men he was following. He had about five miles to go before he would reach the Smith Crossing road and every foot of it he would have to break trail for the dogs. This was slow business, since he had no partner at the gee-pole. Back and forth, back and forth he trudged, beating down the loose snow for the runners. It was a hill trail, and the drifts were in most places not very deep. But the Scotchman was doing the work of two, and at a killing pace.
Over a ridge the team plunged down into a little park where the snow was deeper. Macdonald, breaking trail across the mountain valley, found his feet weighted with packed ice slush so that he could hardly move them. When at last he had beaten down a path for his dogs he stood breathing deep at the summit of the slope. Before him lay the main road to Smith's Crossing, scarce fifty yards away. He gave a deep whoop of triumph, for along it ran the wavering tracks left by a sled. He was on the heels of his enemy at last.
As he turned back to his Siberian hounds, the eyes of Macdonald came to abrupt attention. On the hillside, not ten yards from him, something stuck out of the snow like a signpost. It was the foot of a man.
Slowly Macdonald moved toward it. He knew well enough what he had stumbled across—one of the tragedies that in the North are likely to be found in the wake of every widespread blizzard. Some unfortunate traveler, blinded by the white swirl, had wandered from the trail and had staggered up a draw to his death.
With a little digging the Alaskan uncovered a leg. The man had died where he had fallen, face down. Macdonald scooped away the snow and found a pack strapped to the back of the buried man. He cut the thongs and tried to ease it away. But the gunnysack had frozen to the parka. When he pulled, the rotten sacking gave way under the strain. The contents of the pack spilled out.
The eyes in the grim face of Macdonald grew hard and steely. He had found, by some strange freak of chance, much more than he had expected, to find. Using his snowshoe as a shovel, he dug the body free and turned it over. At sight of the face he gave a cry of astonishment.
"DON'T TOUCH HIM! DON'T YOU DARE TOUCH HIM!"
Gordon overslept. His plan had been to reach Kusiak at the end of a long day's travel, but that had meant getting on the trail with the first gleam of light. When he opened his eyes Mrs. Olson was calling him to rise.
He dressed and stepped out into the cold, crisp morning. From the hill crotch the sun was already pouring down a great, fanlike shaft of light across the snow vista. Swiftwater Pete passed behind him on his way to the stable and called a cheerful good-morning in his direction.
Mrs. Olson had put the stove outside the tent and Gordon lifted it to the spot where they did the cooking.
"Good-morning, neighbor," he called to Sheba. "Sleep well?"
The little rustling sounds within the tent ceased. A face appeared in the doorway, the flaps drawn discreetly close beneath the chin.
"Never better. Is my breakfast ready yet?"
"Come and help me make it. Mrs. Olson is waiting on Holt."
"When I'm dressed." The smiling face disappeared. "Dublin Bay" sounded in her fresh young voice from the tent. Gordon joined in the song as he lit the fire and sliced bacon from a frozen slab of it.
The howling of the huskies interrupted the song. They had evidently heard something that excited them. Gordon listened. Was it in his fancy only that the breeze carried to him the faint jingle of sleigh-bells? The sound, if it was one, died away. The cook turned to his job.
He stopped sawing at the meat, knife and bacon both suspended in the air. On the hard snow there had come to him the crunch of a foot behind him. Whose? Sheba was in the tent, Swiftwater at the stable, Mrs. Olson in the house. Slowly he turned his head.
What Elliot saw sent the starch through his body. He did not move an inch, still sat crouched by the fire, but every nerve was at tension, every muscle taut. For he was looking at a rifle lying negligently in brown, steady hands. They were very sure hands, very competent ones. He knew that because he had seen them in action. The owner of the hands was Colby Macdonald.
The Scotch-Canadian stood at the edge of a willow grove. His face was grim as the day of judgment.
"Don't move," he ordered.
Elliot laughed irritably. He was both annoyed and disgusted.
"What do you want?" he snapped.
"What's worrying you now? Do you think I'm jumping my bond?"
"You're going back to Kusiak with me—to give a life for the one you took."
"What's that?" cried Gordon, surprised.
"Just as I'm telling you. I've been on your heels ever since you left town. You and Holt are going back with me as my prisoners."
"But what for?"
"For robbing the bank and murdering Robert Milton, as you know well enough."
"Is this another plant arranged for me by you and Selfridge?" demanded Elliot.
Macdonald ignored the question and lifted his voice. "Come out of that tent, Holt,—and come with your hands up unless you want your head blown off."
"Holt isn't in that tent, you damned idiot. If you want to know—"
"Come now, if you expect to come alive," cut in the Scotchman ominously. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and covered the shadow thrown by the sun on the figure within.
Gordon flung out a wild protest and threw the frozen slab of bacon at the head of Macdonald. With the same motion he launched his own body across the stove. A fifth of a second earlier the tent flap had opened and Sheba had come out.
The sight of her paralyzed Macdonald and saved her lover's life. It distracted the mine-owner long enough for him to miss his chance. A bullet struck the stove and went off at a tangent through the tent canvas not two feet from where Sheba stood. A second went speeding toward the sun. For Gordon had followed the football player's instinct and dived for the knees of his enemy.
They went down together. Each squirming for the upper place, they rolled over and over. The rifle was forgotten. Like cave men they fought, crushing and twisting each other's muscles with the blind lust of primordials to kill. As they clinched with one arm, they struck savagely with the other. The impact of smashing blows on naked flesh sounded horribly cruel to Sheba.
She ran forward, calling on each by name to stop. Probably neither knew she was there. Their whole attention was focused on each other. Not for an instant did their eyes wander, for life and death hung on the issue. Chance had lit the spark of their resentment, but long-banked passions were blazing fiercely now.
They got to their feet and fought toe to toe. Sledge-hammer blows beat upon bleeding and disfigured faces. No thought of defense as yet was in the mind of either. The purpose of each was to bruise, maim, make helpless the other. But for the impotent little cries of Sheba no sound broke the stillness save the crunch of their feet on the hard snow, the thud of heavy fists on flesh, and the throaty snarl of their deep, irregular breathing.
Gid Holt, from the window of the cabin, watched the battle with shining eyes. He exulted in every blow of Gordon; he suffered with him when the smashing rights and lefts of Macdonald got home. He shouted jeers, advice, threats, encouragement. If he had had ten thousand dollars wagered on the outcome he could not have been more excited.
Swiftwater Pete, drawn by the cries of Sheba, came running from the stable. As he passed the window, Holt caught him by the arm.
"What are you aimin' to do, Pete? Let 'em alone. Let 'em go to it. They got to have it out. Stop 'em now and they'll get at it with guns."
Sheba ran up, wringing her hands. "Stop them, please. They're killing each other."
"Nothing of the kind, girl. You let 'em alone, Pete. The kid's there every minute, ain't he? Gee, that's a good one, boy. Seven—eleven—ninety-two. 'Attaboy!"
Macdonald had slipped on the snow and gone down to his hands and knees. Swift as a wildcat the younger man was on top of him. Hampered though he was by his parka, the Scotchman struggled slowly to his feet again. He was much the heavier man, and in spite of his years the stronger. The muscles stood out in knots on his shoulders and across his back, whereas on the body of his more slender opponent they flowed and rippled in rounded symmetry. Active as a heather cat, Elliot was far the quicker of the two.
Half-blinded by the hammering he had received, Gordon changed his method of fighting. He broke away from the clinch and sidestepped the bull-like rush of his foe, covering up as well as he could from the onset. Macdonald pressed the attack and was beaten back by hard, straight lefts and rights to the unprotected face.
The mine-owner shook the matted hair from his swollen eyes and rushed again. He caught an uppercut flush on the end of the chin. It did not even stop him. The weight of his body was in the blow he lashed up from his side.
The knees of Elliot doubled up under him like the blade of a jackknife. He sank down slowly, turned, got to his hands and knees, and tried to shake off the tons of weight that seemed to be holding him down.
Macdonald seized him about the waist and flung him to the ground. Upon the inert body the victor dropped, his knees clinching the torso of the unconscious man.
"Now, Pete. Go to him," urged Holt wildly.
But before Swiftwater could move, before the great fist of Macdonald could smash down upon the bleeding face upturned to his, a sharp blow struck the flesh of the raised forearm and for the moment stunned the muscles. The Scotch-Canadian lifted a countenance drunk with rage, passion-tossed.
Slowly the light of reason came back into his eyes. Sheba was standing before him, his rifle in her hand. She had struck him with the butt of it.
"Don't touch him! Don't you dare touch him!" she challenged.
He looked at her long, then let his eyes fall to the battered face of his enemy. Drunkenly he got to his feet and leaned against a willow. His forces were spent, his muscles weighted as with lead. But it was not this alone that made his breath come short and raggedly.
Sheba had flung herself down beside her lover. She had caught him tightly in her arms so that his disfigured face lay against her warm bosom. In the eyes lifted to those of the mine-owner was an unconquerable defiance.
"He's mine—mine, you murderer," she panted fiercely. "If you kill him, you must kill me first."
The man she had once promised to marry was looking at a different woman from the girl he had known. The soft, shy youth of her was gone. She was a forest mother of the wilds ready to fight for her young, a wife ready to go to the stake for the husband of her choice. An emotion primitive and poignant had transformed her.
His eyes burned at her the question his parched lips and throat could scarcely utter. "So you ... love him?"
But though it was in form a question he knew already the answer. For the first time in his life he began to taste the bitterness of defeat. Always he had won what he coveted by brutal force or his stark will. But it was beyond him to compel the love of a girl who had given her heart to another.
"Yes," she answered.
Her hair in two thick braids was flung across her shoulders, her dark head thrown back proudly from the rounded throat.
Macdonald smiled, but there was no mirth in his savage eyes. "Do you know what I want with him—why I have come to get him?"
"I've come to take him back to Kusiak to be hanged because he murdered Milton, the bank cashier."
The eyes of the woman blazed at him. "Are you mad?"
"It's the truth." Macdonald's voice was curt and harsh. "He and Holt were robbing the bank when Milton came back from the dance at the club. The cowards shot down the old man like a dog. They'll hang for it if it costs me my last penny, so help me God."
"You say it's the truth," she retorted scornfully. "Do you think I don't know you now—how you twist and distort facts to suit your ends? How long is it since your jackal had him arrested for assaulting you—when Wally Selfridge knew—and you knew—that he had risked his life for you and had saved yours by bringing you to Diane's after he had bandaged your wounds?"
"That was different. It was part of the game of politics we were playing."
"You admit that you and your friends lied then. Is it like you could persuade me that you're telling the truth now?"
The big Alaskan shrugged. "Believe it or not as you like. Anyhow, he's going back with me to Kusiak—and Holt, too, if he's here."
An excited cackle cut into the conversation, followed by a drawling announcement from the window. "Your old tillicum is right here, Mac. What's the use of waiting? Why don't you have your hanging-bee now?"
HOLT FREES HIS MIND
Macdonald whirled in his tracks.
Old Gid Holt was leaning on his elbow with his head out of the window. "You better come and beat me up first, Mac," he jeered. "I'm all stove up with a busted laig, so you can wollop me good. I'd come out there, but I'm too crippled to move."
"You're not too crippled to go back to Kusiak with me. If you can't walk, you'll ride. But back you go."
"Fine. I been worrying about how to get there. It's right good of you to bring one of these here taxis for me, as the old sayin' is."
"Where is the rest of the gold you stole?"
"I ain't seen the latest papers, Mac. What is this stuff about robbin' a bank and shootin' Milton?"
"You're under arrest for robbery and murder."
"Am I? Unload the particulars. When did I do it all?"
"You know when. Just before you left town."
Holt shook his head slowly. "No, sir. I can't seem to remember it. Sure it ain't some one else you're thinking about? Howcome you to fix on me as one of the bold, bad bandits?"
"Because you had not sense enough to cover your tracks. You might just as well have left a note saying you did it. First, you come to town and buy one of the fastest dog teams in Alaska. Why?"
"That's an easy one. I bought that team to win the Alaska Sweepstakes from you. And I'm goin' to do it. The team wasn't handled right or it would have won last time. I got to millin' it over and figured that old Gid Holt was the dog puncher that could land those huskies in front. See?"
"You bought it to make your getaway after the robbery," retorted Macdonald.
"It's a difference of opinion makes horse-races. What else have you got against us?"
"We found in your room one of the sacks that had held the gold you took from the bank."
"That's right. I took it from the bank in the afternoon, where I had had it on deposit, to pay for the team I bought. Milton's books will show that. But you didn't find any sack I took when your bank was robbed—if it was robbed," added the old man significantly.
"Of course, I knew you would have an alibi. Have you got one to explain why you left town so suddenly the night the bank was robbed? Milton was killed after midnight. Before morning you and your friend Elliot routed out Ackroyd and bought a lot of supplies from him for a hurry-up trip. You slipped around to the corral and hit the trail right into the blizzard. Will you tell me why you were in such a hurry to get away, if it wasn't to escape from the town where you had murdered a decent old fellow who never had harmed a soul?"
"Sure I'll tell you." The black eyes of the little man snapped eagerly. "I came so p. d. q. because that side pardner of mine Gordon Elliot wouldn't let me wait till mornin'. He had a reason for leavin' town that wouldn't wait a minute, one big enough to drive him right into the heart of the blizzard. Me, I tagged along."
"I can guess his reason," jeered the Scotchman. "But I'd like to hear you put a name to it."
Holt grinned maliciously and waved a hand toward the girl who was pillowing the head of her lover. "The name of his reason is Sheba O'Neill, but it's goin' to be Sheba Elliot soon, looks like."
The little miner took the words triumphantly out of his mouth. He leaned forward and threw them into the face of the man he hated. "I mean that while you was dancin' and philanderin' with other women, Gordon Elliot was buckin' a blizzard to save the life of the girl you both claimed to love. He was mushin' into fifty miles of frozen hell while you was fillin' up with potted grouse and champagne. Simultaneous with the lame goose and the monkey singlestep you was doin,' this lad was windjammin' through white drifts. He beat you at your own game, man. You're a bear for the outdoor stuff, they tell me. You chew up a blizzard for breakfast and throttle a pack of wolves to work up an appetite for dinner. It's your specialty. All right. Take your hat off to that chechacko who has just whaled you blind. He has outgamed you, Colby Macdonald. You don't run in his class. I see he is holding his haid up again. Give him another half-hour and he'd be ready to go to the mat with you again."
The big Alaskan pushed away a fear that had been lingering in his mind ever since he had stumbled on that body buried in the snow yesterday afternoon. Was his enemy going to escape him, after all? Could Holt be telling the true reason why they had left town so hurriedly? He would not let himself believe it.
"You ought to work up a better story than that," he said contemptuously. "You can throw a husky through the holes in it. How could Elliot know, for instance, that Miss O'Neill was not safe?"
"The same way you could' a' known it," snapped old Gideon. "He 'phoned to Smith's Crossin' and found the stage hadn't got in and that there was a hell of a storm up in the hills."
Macdonald set his face. "You're lying to me. You stumbled over the stage while you were making your getaway. Now you're playing it for an alibi."
Elliot had risen. Sheba stood beside him, her hand in his. She spoke quietly.
"It's the truth. Believe it or not as you please. We care nothing about that."
The stab of her eyes, the carriage of the slim, pliant figure with its suggestion of fine gallantry, challenged her former lover to do his worst.
On the battered face of Gordon was a smile. So long as his Irish sweetheart stood by him he did not care if he were charged with high treason. It was worth all it cost to feel the warmth of her brave, impulsive trust.
The deep-set eyes of Macdonald clinched with those of his rival. "You cached the rest of the gold, I suppose," he said doggedly.
With a lift of his shoulders the younger man answered lightly. "There are none so blind as those who will not see, Mr. Macdonald." He turned to Sheba. "Come. We must make breakfast."
"You're going to Kusiak with me," his enemy said bluntly.
"After we have eaten, Mr. Macdonald," returned Elliot with an ironic bow. "Perhaps, if you have not had breakfast yet, you will join us."
"We start in half an hour," announced the mine-owner curtly, and he turned on his heel.
The rifle lay where Sheba had dropped it when she ran to gather her stricken lover into her arms. Macdonald picked it up and strode over the brow of the hill without a backward look. He was too proud to stay and watch them. It was impossible to escape him in the deep snow that filled the hill trails, and he was convinced they would attempt nothing of the kind.
The Scotchman felt for the first time in his life old and spent. Under tremendous difficulty he had mushed for two days and had at last run his men down. The lust of vengeance had sat on his shoulders every mile of the way and had driven him feverishly forward. But the salt that had lent a savor to his passion was gone. Even though he won, he lost. For Sheba had gone over to the enemy.
With the fierce willfulness of his temperament he tried to tread under foot his doubts about the guilt of Holt and Elliot. Success had made him arrogant and he was not a good loser. He hated the man who had robbed him of Sheba, but he could not escape respecting him. Elliot had fought until he had been hammered down into unconsciousness and he had crawled to his feet and stood erect with the smile of the unconquered on his lips. Was this the sort of man to murder in cold blood a kindly old gentleman who had never harmed him?
The only answer Macdonald found was that Milton had taken him and his partners by surprise. They had been driven to shoot the cashier to cover up their crime. Perhaps Holt or another had fired the actual shots, but Elliot was none the less guilty. The heart of the Scotchman was bitter within him. He intended to see that his enemies paid to the last ounce. He would harry them to the gallows if money and influence could do it.
None the less, his doubts persisted. If they had planned the bank robbery, why did they wait so long to buy supplies for their escape? Why had they not taken the river instead of the hill trail? The story that his enemies told hung together. It had the ring of truth. The facts supported it.
One piece of evidence in their favor Macdonald alone knew. It lay buried in the deep snows of the hills. He shut his strong teeth in the firm resolve that it should stay there.
The weather had moderated a good deal, but the trail was a protected forest one. The two teams now going down had come up, so that the path was packed fairly hard and smooth. Holt lay propped on his own sled against the sleeping-bags. Sheba mushed behind Gordon. She chatted with them both, but ignored entirely the existence of Macdonald, who followed with his prize-winning Siberian dogs.
Though she tried not to let her lover know it, Sheba was troubled at heart. Gordon was practically the prisoner of a man who hated him bitterly, who believed him guilty of murder, and who would go through fire to bring punishment home to him. She knew the power of Macdonald. With the money back of him, he had for two years fought against and almost prevailed over a strong public opinion in the United States. He was as masterful in his hatred as in his love. The dominant, fighting figure in the Northwest, he trod his sturdy way through opposition like a Colossus.
Nor did she any longer have any illusions about him. He could be both ruthless and unscrupulous when it suited his purpose. As the day wore toward noon, her spirits drooped. She was tired physically, and this reacted upon her courage.
The warmer weather was spoiling the trail. It became so soft and mushy that though snowshoes were needed, they could not be worn on account of the heavy snow which clung to them every time a foot was lifted. They wore mukluks, but Sheba was wet to the knees. The spring had gone from her step. Her shoulders began to sag.
For some time Gordon's eye had been seeking a good place for a day camp. He found it in a bit of open timber above the trail, and without a word he swung his team from the path.
"Where are you going?" demanded Macdonald.
"Going to rest for an hour," was Elliot's curt answer.
Macdonald's jaw clamped. He strode forward through the snow beside the trail. "We'll see about that."
The younger man faced him angrily. "Can't you see she is done, man? There is not another mile of travel in her until she has rested."
The hard, gray eyes of the Alaskan took in the slender, weary figure leaning against the sled. On a soft and mushy trail like this, where every footstep punched a hole in the loose snow, the dogs could not travel with any extra weight. A few miles farther down they would come to a main-traveled road and the going would be better. But till then she must walk. Macdonald gave way with a gesture of his hand and turned on his heel.
At the camp-fire Sheba dried her mukluks, stockings, caribou mitts, and short skirts. Too tired to eat, she forced herself to swallow a few bites and drank eagerly some tea. Gordon had brought blankets from the sled and he persuaded her to lie down for a few minutes.
"You'll call me soon if I should sleep," she said drowsily, and her eyes were closed almost before the words were off her lips.
When Macdonald came to order the start half an hour later, she was still asleep. "Give her another thirty minutes," he said gruffly.
Youth is resilient. Sheba awoke rested and ready for work.
While Gordon was untangling the dogs she was left alone for a minute with the mine-owner.
The hungry look in his eyes touched her. Impulsively she held out her hand.
"You're going to be fair, aren't you, Mr. Macdonald? Because you—don't like him—you won't—?"
He looked straight into the dark, appealing eyes. "I'm going to be fair to Robert Milton," he told her harshly. "I'm going to see his murderers hanged if it costs me every dollar I have in the world."
"None of us object to justice," she told him proudly. "Gordon has nothing to fear if only the truth is told."
"Then why come to me?" he demanded.
She hesitated; then with a wistful little smile, spoke what was in her heart. "I'm afraid you won't do justice to yourself. You're good—and brave—and strong. But you're very willful and set. I don't want to lose my friend. I want to know that he is all I have believed him—a great man who stands for the things that are fine and clean and just."
"Then it is for my sake and not for his that you want me to drop the case against Elliot?" he asked ironically.
"For yours and for his, too. You can't hurt him. Nobody can really be hurt from outside—not unless he is a traitor to himself. And Gordon Elliot isn't that. He couldn't do such a thing as this with which you charge him. It is not in his nature. He can explain everything."
"I don't doubt that. He and his friend Holt are great little explainers."
In spite of his bitterness Sheba felt a change in him. She seemed to have a glimpse of his turbid soul engaged in battle. He turned away without shaking hands, but it struck her that he was not implacable.
While they were at luncheon half a dozen pack-mules laden with supplies for a telephone construction line outfit had passed. Their small, sharp-shod hoofs had punched sink-holes in the trail at every step. Instead of a smooth bottom the dogs found a slushy bog cut to pieces.
At the end of an hour of wallowing Macdonald called a halt.
"There is a cutoff just below here. It will save us nearly two miles, but we'll have to break trail. Swing to the right just below the big willow," he told Elliot. "I'll join you presently and relieve you on the job. But first Miss O'Neill and I are going for a little side trip."
All three of them looked at him in sharp surprise. Gordon opened his lips to answer and closed them again without speaking. Sheba had flashed a warning to him.
"I hope this trip isn't very far off the trail," she said quietly. "I'm just a wee bit tired."
"It's not far," the mine-owner said curtly.
He was busy unpacking his sled. Presently he found the dog moccasins for which he had been looking, repacked his sled, and fitted the shoes to the bleeding feet of the team leader. Elliot, suspicious and uncertain what to do, watched him at work, but at a signal from Sheba turned reluctantly away and drove down to the cutoff.
Macdonald turned his dogs out of the trail and followed a little ridge for perhaps a quarter of a mile. Sheba trudged behind him. She was full of wonder at what he meant to do, but she asked no questions. Some wise instinct was telling her to do exactly as he said.
From the sled he took a shovel and gave it to the young woman. "Dig just this side of the big rock—close to the root of the tree," he told her.
Sheba dug, and at the second stroke of the spade struck something hard. He stooped and pulled out a sack.
"Open it," he said. "Rip it with this knife."
She ran the knife along the coarse weave of the cloth. Fifteen or twenty smaller sacks lay exposed. Sheba looked up at Macdonald, a startled question in her eyes.
He nodded. "You've guessed it. This is part of the gold for which Robert Milton was murdered."
"But—how did it get here?"
"I buried it there yesterday. Come."
He led her around the rock. Back of it lay something over which was spread a long bit of canvas. The heart of Sheba was beating wildly.
The Scotchman looked at her from a rock-bound face. "Underneath this canvas is the body of one of the men who murdered Milton. He died more miserably than the man he shot. Half the gold stolen from the bank is in that gunnysack you have just dug up. If you'll tell me who has the other half, I'll tell you who helped him rob the bank."
"This man—who is he?" asked Sheba, almost in a whisper. She was trembling with excitement and nervousness.
Macdonald drew back the cloth and showed the rough, hard face of a workingman.
"His name was Trelawney. I kicked him out of our camps because he was a trouble-maker."
"He was one of the men that robbed you later!" she exclaimed.
"Yes. And now he has tried to rob me again and has paid for it with his life."
Her mind flashed back over the past. "Then his partner in this last crime must have been the same man—what's his name?—that was with him last time."
"Northrup." He nodded slowly. "I hate to believe it, but it is probably true. And he, too, is lying somewhere in this park covered with snow—if our guess is right."