Each storm that tore the Island produced a different effect on the beach. When they rounded the bluff this morning, instead of finding piles of seaweed and gravel tossed up as they had after the first great gale, they were surprised at vast areas of bedrock from which every vestige of sand had been swept away. Tiny rills of water, drainage from the tundra banks above the beachline, flowed down the shallow crevices of the clayey, hard substance.
Jean, who had never seen a nugget in its native state, was excitedly searching for pieces of gold. Ellen smiled to see her, with Loll at her heels, running hither and thither, expecting any moment to come upon large, brassy-looking lumps resting like eggs on the hardpan.
Boreland skirted the edges of the bedrock.
They had reached the vicinity of Bear Paw Lake when abruptly he dropped to his knees and looked keenly at the formation beneath him. In an instant they were all running toward him.
He raised his face transfigured with an eager joy.
"Gosh all hemlock!" he exclaimed. "Here it is at last! Ruby sand—kon klayu! Look, El! Jean!"
At the edge of the bedrock dark beach sand was mixed with minute garnet-like particles that imparted to it a tinge of ruby. A first glance revealed nothing but rills of water running down through the sand carrying it through the depression in the bedrock. Like live things the atoms crawled slowly along the seam. Suddenly each watcher caught her breath. Amid the shifting flow there came a glint—then another. A second later, in the roughened surface of the bedrock lay flakes of virgin gold!
No thrill that gold can buy ever equals the wild ecstasy experienced by those who find it. Jean threw her arms successively about her happy sister and brother-in-law, and finished by capering over the bedrock with Loll as a willing partner.
When the first excitement had spent itself, Boreland sent the boy to Kayak Bill and Harlan with word to bring shovels and the wheelbarrow. It was necessary to gather and convey the pay-sand to a place of safety before the next tide covered it, as the surf of Kon Klayu was too heavy to permit surf-mining. Marking the spot with a piece of drift Boreland continued down the beach with the others.
They followed the shore as far as the site of the West Camp looking for further patches of ruby sand, but found none.
Having learned that by the aid of a hairpin and Boreland's knife they could pick up the colors of gold that were caught in the crevices, Ellen and Jean were on their knees examining the seams in the bedrock when Kayak and Harlan arrived. The particles of gold were extraordinarily flat and thin, and the largest flakes only could be seen with the naked eye. There were few of these, but no miner was ever prouder of his spring clean-up than was Jean of the ten colors she collected in her drinking cup.
Harlan could hardly credit his eyesight when he beheld the yellow flakes Jean showed to him. . . . Gold on the Island of Kon Klayu after all! . . . Then he recalled that on that memorable night of the Potlatch dance the White Chief had admitted there was gold, but while the tides occasionally uncovered pay-sand rich beyond most placers, there would follow months when not a single color showed up in the sands of Kon Klayu. It was not a paying proposition. This deposit of ruby sand must be what Kayak Bill called a mere "flash in the pan." Though he tried not to let his co-workers become aware of it, Harlan was filled with doubts.
All that day, while the tide permitted, the men wheeled pay-sand to a place of safety above the high-tide line and the following morning, the cart, speeding before a spanking breeze, carried all the mining outfit, including Loll's rocker, down to the pay-dirt. Ellen, because of household duties was the only one to remain at the cabin.
Once more the night-tide had shifted the sands, and they found no trace of any gold-carrier. The bedrock that had been bare the day before now lay under several feet of gravel. The complete change in the topography of the shore was almost weird. It filled them with wondering and a strange respect for the mysterious workings of the sea.
The rockers were set up on the beach just below Bear Paw Lake, and with a flume made of a series of boards nailed together in a V-shape, water was conveyed to the hopper of the rocker. Jean and Loll, before beginning their own preparations, watched while Boreland and his two helpers rocked out the first gold. After glints of yellow began to appear in the nap of the cloth apron, they turned to their own outfit.
Harlan solved their water problem by digging a hole below the large rocker and catching the waste after it had done its work above. Long before the pool was completed he and Jean were on terms of laughing friendliness. This was the first time he had been with her, without being uncomfortably aware of the watchful and disapproving eye of Ellen. He felt a distinct exhilaration.
He poured sand into the hopper while Jean rocked and Loll, detailing much little-boy wisdom, dipped up the water from the hole beside them.
Though it was her first year in the North, Jean, he thought, had fallen into the ways of the country with the natural ability that marks the young sea-gull launching out on the deep. Evidently she had dressed hastily that morning. Her khaki-flannel shirt, belted loosely with green leather and worn like a Russian blouse, lay open at the throat. Her mass of dark hair was tucked under a green tam o' shanter perched at an unconsciously rakish angle. Unframed by her hair her face had a piquant, boyish look, and her wide-set hazel eyes seemed larger than usual. There was a ghost of a golden freckle or two on the bridge of her straight little nose. From her green tam to her stout leather boots Harlan could find no evidence of a single feminine artifice—not a thing, perhaps, that might have appealed to him a year ago,—yet he was conscious of a stir of pleasure as he looked at her.
He placed a shovel of sand in the hopper, spilling half of it on Lollie who was at the same moment pouring in water. The girl laughed at his clumsiness, as she loosened her hold on the rocker handle and straightened, tossing her head so that the tam assumed a different but equally alluring angle. Her sleeves were rolled to the elbow. She had the lithe slimness, and the greens and browns that suggested the outdoors. When she turned away from him presently to look out over the sun-lit sea, Harlan rested his shovel in the sand to watch her.
"I wonder where my Kobuk is this morning?" The remark came from Loll squatting at the edge of the water-hole, waiting for it to fill again.
Neither answered him.
"Have you noticed how clearly, on days like this, one can see the mainland, though it is ninety miles away?" Jean asked, her mind apparently intent on the far horizon. "There seems to be something in the atmosphere that brings it nearer."
"I whisht I knew where my Kobuk is, I do!" murmured Loll plaintively. The youngster was evidently getting tired of work. He was filling the pail listlessly, emptying the contents over his own red little hand.
Jean's eyes roaming out over the shining ocean spaces, rested upon a spot in the northwest. Very low on the rim of the sea lay a mountain range, its purple and white ethereal in the distance.
"I said I whisht I knew where my Kobuk is!" There was a slight belligerent tone in Lollie's voice which Jean, doubtless, failed to catch, for she mused on:
"Though I know that coast over there is practically uninhabited it always gives me a feeling of being closer to people when I can see it—and a sense of delightful unknown things lying just there beyond the range." She paused as if contemplating some illusive thought.
Harlan, looking at her profile, became aware that her chin, while of an engaging firmness, had that impalpably soft texture that suggests the powdered wing of a creamy butterfly. He was surprised that he had never noticed it before. The tam slanted obligingly to the other side and left exposed the lobe of a small ear that was as rosy in tint as the delicate tiny clam shells he occasionally marveled at on the beach. The curve at the back of her neck had the look that invites kisses in a very little girl who has her curls knotted up on the top of her head. . . . He found mining a distinctly agreeable occupation.
"You are like a soft, cool breeze from the sea, after a hot day in the city," he was astonished to find himself saying. But his statement was lost in a verbal explosion from the enraged Lollie.
"Gosh darn it! Nobody 'll notice me!" The little fellow was looking up at Jean with petulant indignation. "I'm going to find Kobuk!"
He flung his pail to the sand as if casting all thought of fickle woman from him and ran off down the beach toward the cabin, deigning not to hear Jean as she called to him.
"The poor little man!" The girl's voice was sympathetic as she looked after the flying figure of her nephew. "I know he must feel lonely sometimes with no one of his own age to play with."
"It's a feeling he shares, then, with some of us older ones."
Jean glanced at Harlan quickly. "Then why—" she began, and checked herself.
She wanted to ask him why, if this were so, he had buried himself in the isolated post of Katleean. She wanted to know why he, young, educated, brave, with the world of opportunity before him had immersed himself in the lazy, dreamy life of an Alaskan trading post. Was he of the stuff that Silvertip was made—Silvertip who was content to do odd bits of work for the White Chief at Katleean, for which he took his pay in tobacco or some other luxury necessary to his own comfort, while the energetic Senott kept his house, gathered and chopped his wood, salted fish, canned berries, dried clams and put down sea-gulls eggs in salt for the winter? Was this good-looking young creature a squaw-man at heart, if not in reality.
A squaw-man! She was intensely interested in those strange members of the white race who go native. She had not the contempt for them that Ellen felt. She had only a kindly desire to understand their point of view. In a way she could account for the White Chief. Katleean was his wilderness kingdom where he ruled white and native alike by sheer strength of arm and will. Silvertip, ignorant, lazy, weak, she could also understand vaguely. But there were others. She recalled a day on the beach at the trading-post when she had met a tall, blond man. He was sitting on the edge of his canoe nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, while his Indian wife and four little half-breed children dug clams a few feet away. One minute he had talked to her of the effect on character of the geographical aspect of the country, sprinkling his remarks with "Schopenhauer maintains" and "Nietzsche says." In the next breath he had informed her proudly that he and his children were of the eagle totem—claiming it by reason of his Thlinget wife's clan.
The incident remained vivid in her mind, setting up never ceasing queries of "Why?" "How?" Neither Ellen or Shane encouraged her attempts to discuss these conditions. . . .
Jean's thoughts wandered on. It occurred to her that Ellen seemed to be changing, too. There was not the old freedom of speech between them that had always existed prior to their coming to Kon Klayu. Perhaps it was her own fault, for lately, especially since the day at the bluff, she had resented Ellen's attitude toward herself and Gregg Harlan. There were many things she wished she might talk over with the young man. Her interest in squaw-men, for instance—but of course that would be impossible, she reminded herself. She had nearly forgotten—there had been that Indian girl, Naleenah.
As if in answer to her unspoken thought, Harlan turned to her impulsively.
"There's something I want to tell you, Miss Wiley, about—about that little Indian girl—" He stopped, his tanned face flushing. It was as if he had no words to express himself in terms that she would understand. "You see I—I——"
"Ahoy, there, Gregg! Jean! A ship! Look, it must be the Hoonah!" Boreland's joyous call broke in on them. He had run down from his own rocker and was pointing far out where the sunlight fell on the sails of a vessel heading directly for the Island of Kon Klayu. It was the first sail sighted since the schooner went away.
"Hurrah boy! She's coming with the provisions!" Boreland tossed his cap into the air. "Jean, run down to the cabin and tell Ellen the glorious news!"
The girl looked at the approaching ship a moment. Happy as she was at the sight she could not help wishing that Boreland had discovered it a few minutes later. She leaned toward Harlan.
"Tell me some other time," she said softly, and with a word to Shane started for the cabin.
She found Ellen, who never threw anything away that might later be used for food, rolling some hard, sea-soaked lumps of flour beneath the rolling-pin trying to crush them fine enough to use.
"O, angel child, you won't have to save that stuff now!" Jean shouted, bursting in upon her. "The Hoonah's coming! We sighted her!" She caught Ellen about the waist and whirled her madly over the floor, releasing her suddenly to dash out the door with a "Come on, sis!"
The two arrived breathless on the point of the bluff from whence the ship was visible, and whence the men had gathered. Jean began eagerly pointing out the sail, but even as she did so, she faltered. She turned and caught the sickening look of disappointment on the faces about her. A thin line of smoke was now trailing out behind the vessel. It was not the Hoonah, but a steamer. Also it had swerved in its course and now, broadside to the Island, it was headed south.
"O-o-o!" With a world of hopelessness in her voice Jean uttered the sound and threw her arm about Ellen's waist. Together they watched the departing vessel with that desperation of heart that hopes, even while the brain knows there is no hope. A quarter of an hour passed, but the ship did not change its course.
They turned from the sea to find that the men had begun to gather up the tools and the clean-up from the sand.
"It's a cannery steamer, El, with the sail up, going to the States for the winter," Boreland said, dully. "The salmon run is over."
Ellen was not listening. She had taken her eyes from the fast vanishing steamer and was looking anxiously down the empty beach toward the far away rockers.
"Shane . . . Shane . . ." she faltered now. There was a queer, frightened tone in her voice that sent a chill to the hearts of her listeners. "Where is Lollie?"
Boreland wheeled about.
"Why, he went home to you two hours ago, El! Haven't you seen him?"
"No!" Ellen's alarmed gaze sought his. Forgotten was the ship, the gold, the people about them; forgotten was everything else in the world but the soul-gripping parental fear they saw reflected in each other's face.
"The grizzly!" The mother's white lips whispered the words the father dared not utter. "O, Shane, come! Quick! We must find him!"
Boreland and Kayak Bill searched the beach below the cabin for footprints while Harlan took the trail across the Island toward his Hut. Ellen and her sister hoping that the boy had returned during their absence, ran home to look into every nook and corner. . . . The silence drove them once more into the open.
Ellen, her throat tightening with unshed tears, stood on the porch and called:
"L-o-l-l-i-e! . . . S-o-n!"
The only answer was the mocking cry of a gull floating high in the sunlight. . . .
Boreland came hurriedly up the trail from the beach.
"There are no tracks in the sand toward Sunset Point, El, but Kayak is going along Skeleton Rib toward the cliffs."
At the stricken look in the mother's face, Jean turned quickly to her brother-in-law.
"He must have found Kobuk and gone off adventuring again, Shane. . . . But he can't have gone far with the dog so crippled. Perhaps he's picking flowers," she suggested hopefully.
Ellen had started down toward the dilapidated hut where Loll had surprised the swallows on his first morning exploration. Lying on the doorsill she found some fragrant spikes of late-blooming orchis tied with a grass blade. Calling to the others she picked up the flowers. Boreland answered her with a gesture and after running back into the cabin for his rifle, followed.
"He loved the yellow flowers best, Jean," Ellen said thoughtfully. "Perhaps he has gone to the gulch where they grow thickest."
Toward the steep depression in the hillside some two hundred yards distant the coarse grass of the tundra was flattened in spots as if something had passed that way. The women seized upon this clue and eagerly followed the signs.
Where the land sloped upward toward the hill they came upon a grave. It was old, so old that the Greek cross at the head was moss-grown, broken and decayed. Once before Ellen and her son had stood there, touched with the gentle speculative melancholy that a wilderness grave always brings. Before leaving they had placed a cluster of flowers upon it in memory of the bold Russian sailor of long ago, whose body lay beneath. Now there was a fresh bunch of blossoms at the foot of the cross. . . . At the sight of them quick, hot tears welled up in Ellen's eyes. It hurt her to remember Loll's quaint way of talking to the flowers he had picked.
Boreland, rifle in hand, overtook them just as they entered the gully that ran upward to the flat top of the Island.
During the rainy season the gulch undoubtedly cradled a small stream of water but now it was only slightly damp, and on each side, untouched yet by frost, grew a golden profusion of flowers. Here and there freshly broken stems indicated that Ellen had not been amiss in her surmise as to the boy's route.
Halfway up they came upon Loll's cap swinging from a dried celery blossom. With a cry Ellen caught at it and clasped it to her breast while she called his name again and again. Jean joined her; then Boreland took up the name. . . .
There was no answer.
When the voices died away at last it seemed strangely, ominously still in the sunny, flower-scented hollow. . . . With a sickening fear that she might never hear her boy's call again Ellen continued to stand straining her ears for the sound of it. On either side of her a wall of yellow bloom arose, shutting her in. A breath of air stirred the fragrance of it,—clean, sweet. Suddenly, on its scent, there flashed before her baby-pictures from the realm of her mother-memories—Loll, curly-headed, grey-eyed and laughing, holding out chubby arms as he took his first unsteady steps; Loll's plump, diminutive legs, dancing "tippy-toe" with comical baby joyousness before he would consent to be buttoned into his nightie; Loll asleep, his little tousled head on the pillow beside that of "Shut-eye" an absurd and dilapidated doll dear to his infant heart. . . . And once, when she had impatiently slapped his fat little hand as it closed on a forbidden object, Loll's baby face looking up at her with hurt, astonished eyes and quivering chin. . . . This last bought stabbed her with poignant regret wounding her heart with such anguish and self-reproach and longing that she burst into sobs as she climbed blindly to the top of the gulch.
On the crest of the hill all three stopped for a moment, out of breath from the steep ascent.
Spread out like a vast beautiful meadow the top of the Island lay flat as the palm of a hand. The tundra, softly green and brown, was splashed with the yellow and rose and purple of late-blooming wild flowers. Small brown pools of water bordered with moss were sunk here and there. To the north and east not a tree or bush broke the level but southward the tundra rose gently toward the top of the cliffs a mile or more away, where the air was thick with seabirds. A narrow path, suggestive of heavy padded feet, ran from north to south along the edge of the hill.
Despite this gentleness, this softness of contour characteristic of the tundra meadows of the North, there was a feeling of wind-swept spaces. The air was exquisitely pure. Jean, looking about her, involuntarily drew a deep, long breath. Midway between her and the edge of the distant cliffs stood the one lone tree of Kon Klayu—a small gnarled spruce, its branches all growing from one side of the trunk, bearing mute testimony to the velocity of the prevailing gales. There was about this tree an air of almost human loneliness and—waiting. On the brow of the hill it faced the sea like a woman with long, wind-blown hair. Near it rose a dome-shaped mound like an Eskimo hut in form but many times larger.
As the girl's eyes followed the trail south she suddenly became aware of a small, slowly-moving object, . . . then another.
"Oh, Ellen!" There was glad relief in her voice. "There he is! There they are—Loll and Kobuk! See! Their heads are bobbing just above the grass toward the tree!"
At the first exclamation Boreland had started hurriedly along the trail. The two women followed him calling to the boy as they ran. But Loll, evidently deeply interested in his own small adventures, did not hear their shouts. Kobuk was now hobbling on ahead and despite his bandaged leg, was tacking hither and thither woofing in the manner of the huskie when he wishes to bark. As Loll neared the tree they saw him branch off the trail and a few minutes later disappear around the hummock.
But Kobuk did not follow.
With short staccato woofs he was limping forward toward the crest of the hill and back again. There was a strange note in the sound. Presently he stood still, his long nose raised, wolf-like, as if to catch a scent.
At this point Boreland stopped in the trail.
"El," he said hurriedly, "you and Jean stay right here. I'm going to make a short-cut to the hummock. I'll bring Loll back. Mind what I tell you, stay here!"
He started swiftly across the deceptively smooth-looking tundra, his face drawn and ashen. While Jean watched him, he slipped his rifle to the hollow of his arm. The movement brought the thought of the bear to the girl. Her heart thumped against her side. She glanced at Ellen, but her sister was standing with hand-shaded eyes following the progress of Shane who had covered nearly half the distance to the mound. Jean turned again to the crest of the hill where Kobuk had been. He was hobbling toward her. Even as she looked the dog stopped, glanced behind him, then stiffened, every hair along his neck bristling. He stood as if sniffing the wind which was blowing toward her. Then he came on.
"Kobuk, what's the matter, Kobuk——"
The girl broke off with a gasp of terror. In a fascination of fright her gaze became fastened on a spot beyond the advancing Kobuk.
Out of the bushes that crowned the edge of the hill a great, hairy head was slowly rising. Followed the massive arches of shoulders, the whole powerful body. An instant later the vast bulk of a Kodiak bear, with low-hung swinging head, was outlined against the growth behind. A moment it stood, looming huge, brown, fearful—the most dangerous beast that roams the Alaskan wilderness. Then deliberately it came to its haunches, its immense paws dangling in front, its monstrous head and neck turning from side to side. . . . Dropping to earth again it slouched heavily in the direction of the hummock where Lollie had disappeared.
Jean turned swiftly to see if Boreland were aware of the proximity of the creature, now making for the opening to its den on the other side of the mound—a den which Loll no doubt was at that moment exploring. Her brother-in-law was preparing to spring across one of the little brown pools. . . . Then, to her despair, he stumbled, and one leg went down in the soft muck of the farther edge. As he fell, he tried to throw his rifle to the bank, but the heavy, metal-stayed butt jammed against his hand.
Jean held her breath. For a long moment he did not move. Had he broken his leg? Had he—? She sobbed with relief. He was beginning to struggle out; but, even in her excitement, she noticed that he did not use his right hand. It hung limply from the wrist.
Ellen must have seen the beast as soon as Jean for as her husband fell she was dashing away across the tundra to him. Jean's mind wrestled with the situation. With his right hand useless, Boreland, good shot though he was, could never send the single bullet that must kill the grizzly. They could risk no fight at close range with a wounded and infuriated Kodiak bear. Jean remembered her sister's unusual skill at target practice on the Hoonah. Jean herself was a good shot but Ellen could, unfailing, hit a bull's eye at twenty paces, though she could never be persuaded to shoot at a living thing. Would she have the courage, the coolness, to face the monster in that critical moment which meant life or death to her son? Would she be in time?
Now the bear had traversed more than half the distance to the hummock and was still lumbering along. She must stop him, must at least delay him—she and Kobuk—so that Ellen might reach the other side of the mound before him.
She ran to meet the dog. Snatches of hunting tales Kayak Bill had told came to her—tales of northern huskies hamstringing wild beasts. She did not know what the term meant, but Kobuk could do it. Kobuk, the powerful, the swift, the beautiful. . . . Then she remembered—Kobuk's right foreleg was crippled and still tightly bandaged. . . . Kobuk crippled stood no chance against a Kodiak bear!
She came up to him. At her approach, as though reinforced by her presence, the dog turned clumsily on three legs to face the beast. Low, savage growls issued from his throat. His lips curled away from his sharp fangs; spasms serrulated his nose; the hair along his spine rose and fell.
Jean patted his side. Sick at heart she urged him forward. She pointed desperately to the monster.
"Mush, Kobuk! Sick 'im, old boy!" She forced enthusiasm into her tones. "Go head him off!"
The dog limped a few feet. He looked back at her, his ferocious look softened. His crippled leg hung useless. He raised clear, questioning eyes to her face.
"Oh, Kobuk, darling, I know—I know—" the girl's voice broke. She knelt and threw her arms about him. "But you must do something! Kobuk, you must!" She pleaded with him as if he were human.
Once more the dog looked at her, his dark, intelligent eyes fearful and sad. He gave a half-hearted little woof, shifted on his three legs and rested his head a moment against her knee.
She sprang up and ran a short distance ahead of him. Again she pointed to the bear.
"Mush, Kobuk! Oh, go after him, boy!"
He started. Once more his hair bristled ferociously. Then suddenly, to Jean's dismay, he turned and instead of heading the bear off, began to make a detour behind it. Forgetful of all else but the necessity of delaying the beast, she ran after the dog shouting encouragement.
As he left her behind he gathered speed. He swerved, making straight for the back of the bear. His woofing sounds had ceased now. He was grimly silent. The instincts of his wolf ancestors at the sight of quarry must have awakened in his heart making him forget his bodily pain, for as he sped on in his desire to maim and kill, he put his bandaged leg to the ground with increasing frequency. By the time he reached the animal, gone was the friendly, gentle Kobuk Jean had always known. In his place rushed a new and terrible Kobuk—a snarling, leaping devil-dog, with blazing eyes, white fangs gleaming in a dripping mouth, little ears laid back against a lean, wolf-like head.
He attacked the bear from behind, nipping it slightly. The huge beast stopped and whirled in clumsy astonishment. For a moment it looked almost curiously at the white-fanged fury leaping away. Then turning lumbered on again toward the mound. The monster had lived so long on Kon Klayu undisturbed by man or beast that it was apparently indifferent to both.
But Kobuk, cripple though he was, would not be ignored. Again he dashed at the bear, seeking to nip it from the rear. Again he retreated. Repeating his maneuvers he kept on, until suddenly Jean saw the beast whirl viciously. Its cumbersome bulk stiffened, its little eyes gleamed with rage. It rose on its hind feet, its monster head swaying from side to side. Then the girl stopped, horrified, dazed at the unequal battle that ensued.
She had a confused memory of a huge upstanding creature laying about it like a fiend with great furry arms. She saw her dog, crippled, but dauntless, ever dodging, wheeling, leaping, circling and attacking from behind the moment the bear's back was toward him. She saw Kobuk catch glancing blows from the mighty claw-barbed paws and roll five feet, ten feet. She saw him battered, bleeding, panting, struggling to his feet again and again to renew his losing fight. Backward and forward over the tundra they fought, swiftly, savagely, yet despite it all ever nearing the mound. Then all in a moment—they disappeared around the edge of the hummock. To the girl it was as if the earth had swallowed them. She stood for a moment bewildered. But remembering, she turned to where she had last seen Ellen and Shane. Her sister was not in sight, but Boreland was limping around the opposite end of the mound. He carried no gun. Then he, too, disappeared. . . . A second later a shot rang out—then another. After that was silence.
The sound of the rifle galvanized the girl into action. With wildly thumping heart she sped toward the scene of the shooting, dreading what she might find there. Rounding the hummock she stopped, staring at the scene before her.
A few feet from the cave-like opening in the hillock, lay the great bear dead, but with limbs still twitching. It had been shot fairly through the shoulder and into the heart. Ellen, the rifle at her feet, stood sobbing against her husband's breast. His sound hand patted her back mechanically, but his eyes were fixed on something beyond.
Jean's followed them.
Loll was sitting flat on the ground beside the prostrate body of Kobuk, holding the dog's head on his knees. Kobuk's great dark eyes, swimming in tears of pain, were raised to the child's face, in a look so sad, and withal so full of love that Jean started forward, a cry breaking from her heart. From shoulder to thigh the dog was a bleeding horror where one whole side of his faithful body had been raked by the iron claws of the bear.
"Oh, my Kobuk! My dear doggie!" The little boy sobbed and laid his cheek against Kobuk's head.
The dog moved slightly, and his pink tongue went out weakly to lick his small comrade's face.
"I won't let him hurt you no more now, Kobuk," crooned Lollie, protectingly.
Jean sank on her knees beside him.
"Kobuk—dear old—Kobuk—" she murmured brokenly, stroking a limp, hot paw.
The dog's dimming senses must have caught the sound of his name, for his tail moved feebly as if, with the last beat of his brave heart he was trying to wag goodbye. . . . He lifted his head, . . . a shudder passed through him. Then he lay still, his wide, glazing eyes fixed on the little boy's face.
Jean buried her head in her arms oblivious to everything but the wild grief that shook her. But Lollie, not realizing that Kobuk was dead, sat patting the relaxed bandaged leg, while he whispered childish words of comfort in the unheeding ears.
AT THE LONE TREE
That evening they buried Kobuk on the brow of the hill near the lone tree of Kon Klayu.
At sunset time Loll sat by himself on the cabin steps. His chin was in his hand and his wide, grey eyes were fixed on the clear rose of the western sky. It was the first time that death had come near to him and the mystery and loneliness of it filled him with strange, new thoughts.
For a long time he looked into the fading glow. Then he shook his head slowly, reproachfully.
"God," he said, in the uncanny way he had of seeming to converse with Deity. "God, how can you smile so, when my Kobuk is dead?"
The purple dust of twilight sifted down on land and sea, . . . At last, awed by the unanswerable mystery of life and death, the little questioner turned in to the cabin, where his mother sat sewing in the soft, yellow light of the shaded lamp. . . .
Breakfast the next morning was an event. Harlan had accepted Ellen's invitation to be present, and as he entered the cabin, the air was permeated with the delicious smell of frying steak. With the exception of ducks the party had eaten no fresh meat for a month before coming to the Island, and the recent daily breakfasts of musty oatmeal and hotcakes was becoming monotonous. Despite the tragedy of Kobuk, it was a grateful family that gathered about the big platter of bear meat and steaming cups of black coffee.
"This ought to tide us over nicely until the Hoonah comes," said Boreland helping himself to another piece. "A fine breakfast, El! Upon my word, it couldn't be better if we were in the States. . . . Still—I'd like a bit of butter—real, honest-to-God cow's butter—on my hotcakes!"
"Wall," mumbled Kayak with his mouth full of steak. "Sugar and like sweetenin' hits me where I live. I used to think if they took away my sugar I'd just as lief die. But now that there ain't any, I'm scratchin' along tolerable wall. But—I'd give my hat for somethin' tasty to smear on these here sourdoughs!"
"Go on with you, Kayak! With El's sourdoughs you don't need sweetening." Boreland laughed. "We can use bear fat instead of butter now, for that old devil certainly was fat. We'll try some of it out. Of course we won't need much, for the schooner will be in any day now. We'll smoke part of it and put the rest down in salt." He leaned back in his chair and drew contentedly on his pipe.
"By h-hen, a smoke does taste mighty good after high-toned grub like this," drawled Kayak, surrounding himself with a cloud.
"You men smoke too much," Ellen broke in. "Sometimes I'm convinced that pipes bear the same relation to men that pacifiers do to babies. At the rate you three are going, you'll be out of tobacco in no time. If the Hoonah doesn't——"
"Holy mackinaw, El! You're eternally seeing the hole in the doughnut lately!" her husband interrupted somewhat testily. "Of course she will be along right away. No man would leave us on this island long without provisions. It wouldn't be human. And about smoking"—he waved an airy hand—"why I can quit any time I want to and never miss it."
"Same here." Kayak puffed out another tobacco-scented cloud. "I'll tell a man no measly habit ever got a strangle holt on me."
Harlan said nothing.
After breakfast the clean-up from the rockers was panned and freed from sand. Boreland weighed the dust in the new gold scales.
"Four ounces," he announced, as they balanced. "That ought to bring us about sixty dollars. Not bad for one day's work. If we can only find enough of that sand we'll make a stake here, boys. Gad, I wish the Hoonah would get here so we could establish ourselves permanently." Boreland had been trying to induce Kayak to remain with him on the Island.
The remainder of the day was spent in getting the bear meat to the cabin and preparing it for preservation. The Indian hut where Loll had surprised the swallows was cleaned out and fitted up as a smoke house. Harlan cut and brought in several back-loads of alder to furnish hard-wood smoke to cure the meat. The women were busy indoors trying out the fat.
After the fire in the smoke-house had been going some time, Kayak Bill sauntered in with a can full of ashes.
"These here's hard-wood ashes, Lady," he told Ellen. "We ain't got no white man's antiseptic medicine now, and I reckon we better make some o' the Injine kind. Put warm water on these and let 'em stand overnight. You'll have an antiseptic then that'll be a ringtailed wonder, Lady."
As they worked about the house that morning Ellen and Jean discussed the shooting of the bear. It was the sight of the monster tearing her dog from shoulder to thigh that had calmed Ellen. Her fear was swallowed up in a gripping desire for revenge that made it possible for her to take careful aim and fire. Jean knew that Ellen had experienced none of the thrills that come to the hunter of big game. She was a domestic woman, a home maker, thrown by circumstances into situations where she was forced to do things she never dreamed she could do—things she shuddered over afterward. Even as she told of the incident it seemed to both women like a tragic and terrible dream—a dream whose influence would not leave them.
On this day the sisters were heartily sick of life on the Island of Kon Klayu.
Jean's depression continued all day long. The thought of Kobuk never left her. She found herself recalling his friendly, wagging ways; the feel of his muzzle nosing her hand; his soft eyes looking up at her from attentive, side-turned head. She found herself regretting that Kobuk was not there to share the fresh meat with them.
Several times during the day she stopped in her work to lift her head, listening. She kept fancying she heard Kobuk's husky woofing. Once she went to the door and looked out to convince herself that he was not there. Down at the smoke-house Lollie, whom she had expected to be loudly inconsolable at the death of the dog, was helping the men. He had his old revolver tied to his waist and was shouting lustily. Jean felt a pang of disappointment in her nephew. She would have had him come to her and talk of the dog. Womanlike, she wanted to comfort him for the loss and in so doing ease her own grief. Kobuk had been her dog and Loll's.
She stepped back into the living-room.
"I suppose it's the nature of the male to forget quickly," she said.
"Forget what?" Ellen asked, the word "male" causing her mind to fly at once to Harlan.
While the girl was doing up the supper dishes she heard Loll go whistling down the trail. When she had finished she took her violin from its case and stepped out on the porch. Kayak and Boreland were engaged in a close game of double solitaire. Ellen, with a headache, was lying down in Lollie's bunk. Harlan had gone across the Island to his Hut. It was very lonely.
She put down her violin.
"I'm going for a walk, Shane," she called through the open door.
Down past the smoke-house and the Russian sailor's grave she went; then up the gulch that led to the top of the hill. There were no animals to be afraid of now.
On the crest she turned her back on the flat lonesomeness of the tundra and looked down on the wide expanse of ocean spread below. The day was dying in soft flushes of amber and rose and lavender. Life on Kon Klayu was hard, but she never tired of the soothing beauty of its nights.
Her eyes followed the trail to the solitary tree facing the sea like a waiting woman with long, wind-blown hair. In the fading light its human aspect brought a sense of comfort to the girl. It made Kobuk's grave seem less lonely. She wished Loll were with her, she would go then and see how the men had left him. Poor Kobuk, with his dear, friendly ways! Everyone but her seemed to have forgotten him today—even Loll. Suddenly she decided she would go by herself.
She was startled by the sound of a step behind her. Glancing over her shoulder she saw Gregg Harlan coming from the north along the bear trail that skirted the bushes at the edge of the hill. She waited for him.
"I was headed for there, too," he said simply, indicating the tree down the trail.
They walked silently in single file along the narrow path. The sweetness of a long sunny day came up from the grass that brushed Jean's skirts. For many minutes the new mound they were approaching was screened by the tall growth, but when they saw it, Jean stopped abruptly, her finger on her lips. From the grave came to them a muffled sound.
Loll was there before them.
The little fellow, oblivious to everything but his loneliness and his loss, lay across the fresh turned earth. His bare head was buried in his outflung arms. One hand fiercely clutched a few bruised flowers and his small body shook with long, slow sobs.
Jean's throat tightened and tears of sympathy flooded her eyes. With outstretched arms she started impulsively forward to comfort him, but before she had taken a second step Harlan laid a detaining hand on her arm.
"Not now," he whispered. "Come."
He drew back along the trail. Wondering, she followed until they were out of earshot.
"We'll wait for him here at the top of the gulch, Jean." It was the first time he had called her that. Each was aware of a sudden, warming sense of comradeship—a sense of sharing something tender, sad.
They sat down on the crest of the hill, so close that only a single tundra daisy nodded between them in the deepening twilight.
"Why—why did you do that, Gregg?"
He did not answer at once. . . . Up from the sea came the susurrous voice of the reef whispering its eternal questions.
"Because—men, real men, bear their griefs silently, and alone," he said at last. "It is their way."
Jean thought of the little fellow, so childish in many ways, but silent all day on the subject of his loss. He had gone to cry out his grief, unseen, on Kobuk's grave. . . . Suddenly she loved him with a tenderness she had never known before, but . . . with it came a new loneliness. It was as if already his boyish hand and shut her, a woman, from that place in his heart that only men might know and understand.
She rested her elbows on her knees and cupped her chin in her hands.
"Oh—o—o," she said, reflectively. "I did not know. I did not dream . . . men were like that." . . . The hearts of men . . . it was strangely sweet to know what lay hidden in the hearts of men.
The faint, disembodied cry of a seabird keened across the dusk. Formless waters stretched away into the wide, beckoning dimness. The twilight wind was pungent with the strange awakening smell of the sea. Forgotten now was the depression of the day; it had no place in the romance, the mystery, the promise of the northern night. She became suddenly conscious that there was something sublimely beautiful in life that she had never yet experienced, something that unknowingly she had been waiting for; something that must come to her at last. . . . She wondered if the young man sitting so close to her were ever stirred by such rapturous, intangible thoughts. With quickened interest she turned to look at him, and met his deep eyes intent on her face.
Somewhat confused, he snapped off the head of the daisy between them.
"I—I was just wondering what you were thinking about, Jean."
"I was thinking about you," she answered candidly. "I was wondering——"
There came the sound of little running feet on the trail near them, and the girl rose hastily, calling Loll's name.
"Don't be afraid, honey. It's I—Jean!"
Breathless but relieved at the sight of them, the boy joined them and the three went slowly down the gulch toward the cabin.
Before the porch Harlan stopped.
"No, I won't go in now," he said in answer to her question.
They stood a moment, a sudden shy silence falling upon them. . . .
"Good-night, Jean." Slim and tall, he stood looking down at her holding out his hand. Hers went out to meet it and the pressure of his strong, slender fingers sent a thrill to her heart. She was stirred by the magic of his nearness.
"Good . . . night," she whispered wonderingly. She longed to linger there in the dusk with him, but—because of her desire—she turned and ran up the steps to the cabin. . . .
Ten minutes later she stood in the twilight on the bank below the cabin. The sea, the night, the world seemed to hold out loving arms to her. A feeling tremulously new and enchanting had come to her. . . . She tucked her violin beneath her chin and drew her bow softly across the strings. This night she could play as she had never played before. This night she must play.
The music floated up through the dusk with dreamy, questioning sweetness. . . . Time slipped by. . . . At last she drifted into the notes of her good-night. She felt that there was a special tenderness in the chords from her long-drawn singing bow tonight. Lost in the harmony of her own creating she hardly knew when the voice—his voice from the hilltop, took up the strain. So softly was it done that she was unsurprised. The words came down to her now clear, mellow, thrillingly masculine, and—did she only imagine there was something personal in them?
"In the West Sable night lulls the day on her breast. Sweet, good-night! . . . Love, good-night!"
The days passed. They were growing noticeably shorter now and provisions were getting low. The trail up the steep hillside behind the cabin became hardened by the feet of the watchers alert for the hourly expected arrival of the Hoonah. At the top which they all had come to call the Lookout, every hour of the day found some one of the party anxiously scanning the ocean toward Katleean.
Many cannery steamers and whalers on their way south were sighted, but all gave the Island a wide berth. The hundred reefs of Kon Klayu had no lure for sailors of the North Pacific.
Boreland, who never failed to patrol the beach daily, found one more patch of ruby sand, which the three men rocked out. He weighed the gold after the clean-up.
"This sand is richer than the other batch, El!" he exclaimed enthusiastically.
For a moment Ellen eyed the yellow gleam of the dust without interest, then she leaned over and dipped her fingers into the golden flakes, letting them fall slowly back into the scales.
"Shane, Shane"—she turned away and patted his arm maternally—"you are like a little boy playing with wooden money." What value had gold on the Island of Kon Klayu, she thought, where it could not buy an ounce of food?
To Ellen Boreland these were days of anguished conjecture, of harassed indecision. As they passed with no sign of the Hoonah she began to recall her last week at Katleean. On the screen of her mind appeared over and over again the White Chief's dark face, in her ears the voice of memory repeated his softly-spoken, enigmatic words: "Remember . . . you'll want me. . . . The pigeon loose, comes back . . . I will understand."
The Hoonah was overdue. . . . Was this then what he had meant? Was he now holding the schooner believing that in her anxiety for the safety of her loved ones she would release the bird? Was he trying to force her, at such a cost, to buy from him the lives of those dear to her? . . . Had he planned this thing from the beginning? Was he even now at the post waiting—certain that eventually she must release the pigeon? The picture unnerved her to the point of panic. And yet she tried to reassure herself. No man, however cruel and pitiless, could deliberately plan so monstrous a thing. She tried to find excuses for the non-arrival of the Hoonah. . . . Perhaps the fall steamer had not come in on time. . . . Perhaps some accident had happened and the White Chief was having the schooner repaired. Surely he would come, if only to ascertain the fate of his bookkeeper for whose safety Silvertip must account. But Silvertip—had the Swede told the truth? Might he not have said that young Harlan had preferred to stay behind and had been safely landed with the party? Then it occurred to her with a fearful knowledge that to the White Chief of Katleean the life of a man meant nothing.
While she went about her household duties there came to her again and again the sound of the white trader's sardonic: "I have presented your son with a pigeon." Not to her, nor to Jean had he given the bird, but deliberately he had made a present of it to her little boy that Loll might innocently love and care for the thing designed to be the symbol of his mother's shame!
To her harassed mind the bird came to have a hideous vitality. There was something uncanny in the way it thrived in its captivity—as though it fed on her distress. And almost like a conspiracy was the determination of her loved ones to preserve it. Loll was devoted to it, especially now since the death of Kobuk; it was his only playmate. Shane was particularly zealous in his care of it, exercising the bird by means of a long string, since Loll would permit no one to clip its wings. Even Kayak Bill was always bringing it green stuff to supplement its diet of rolled oats. Only Jean appeared indifferent to the bird—Jean, always tender of dumb things. She had remarked, once, that it's smoke-grey color reminded her unpleasantly of the eyes of the White Chief.
Sometimes, in a kind of fury, Ellen wondered if the pigeon bore a charmed life—if it could not die! Dead, her problem would be solved for her. . . . Yet she dared not let it die. . . not while there was a chance—! Standing before the cage day after day, Ellen would torment herself with a thought. If she should leave the door unlatched, so that it would jar open . . . if, of its own accord, the bird should fly away! Then, when the White Chief came she could disclaim all knowledge of its going. . . . But there was the lock of her hair, about which she had lied to her husband. It was still in possession of the trader who, secure in his power over everyone in his wilderness kingdom, was capable of any melodramatic folly, of any false tale. And Shane, hot-headed, protective—she shuddered. In her overwrought imagination she saw her husband's hands stained with another man's blood. . . . No, the bird was a kind of thing fastened upon her which she could not, must not in all conscience lose.
Torn by these conflicting emotions and sick with foreboding, she would turn away from the cage. Tomorrow—she would wait until tomorrow. Perhaps the Hoonah would come tomorrow. Perhaps it was even in sight now! With hope and longing so intense that it bordered on despair she would leave the cabin and climb to the Lookout to scan the empty sea.
One sunny afternoon she was standing there alone watching a dark streak of steamer-smoke move slowly southward. Below her, stretching away to the wide horizon lay the sea, its great, smooth swells heaving jade-green in the sunlight. Autumn color lay over the tundra moss, the rice-grass, the short alder bushes. Autumn, a soothing autumn was in the air, promising the northern world of growing things a long, snow-enfolded peace; but herself and her little family—what?
For some time she had half-consciously been aware of a strange encircling hush. She looked about her and realized that nowhere was a seabird of any kind. Then far out, a dark mass like a fallen cloud, challenged her attention. Even as she wondered it rose into the air and began to advance swiftly toward her, . . . it resolved itself into thousands of small black birds.
"The sea-parrots!" Ellen spoke aloud in her surprise. "They must be going south." She had not known that this would happen. She felt a dull regret that it should be so.
With crimson beaks pointed south they came nearer and nearer, until, flying directly overhead, they cast a shadow as if a cloud had passed over the sun. The sky was black with them. Noiseless on the wing, there was something ominous in the sea-parrot's silence during the quarter of an hour in which they flew steadfastly over the island on their course. Ellen watched them with an interest divided between wonder and awe.
Before they had passed an increasing wild chorus came to her ears. She turned to face the north again where another cloud—grey-white—was coming. She knew it to be composed of her noisiest neighbors, the gulls, bound also for southern shores.
Over the island these birds sailed with gay squawkings, their wide wings seeming to wave a contemptuous good-bye. It was as if they scorned, yet pitied the human creature below who must stay behind because she had no wings to bear her away.
The last call dimmed and died. Despite the lazy swash of the swells on the beach below the sunny afternoon was heavy with silence. Ellen's eyes swept the vast circle of the distance. The smoke of the south-bound steamer was no more. Far down the tundra toward the cliffs stood the one lone tree of Kon Klayu facing the sea like a waiting woman with long, wind-blown hair. . . . An appalling sense of loneliness flooded Ellen. A sudden, overwhelming need for human companionship swept her. . . . She turned hastily into the trail that led down to the cabin—then checked herself, as the sound of some one whistling came to her. She glanced back.
Walking briskly toward her along the tundra trail that led from his Hut to the Lookout came Gregg Harlan. He must recently have borrowed Shane's razor, for the soft, dark beard that had shadowed his face was gone. Bareheaded, he advanced swingingly, vigorously, his chin up, his whole figure the personification of youth, confidence, and a new strength. For the first time Ellen was glad to see him.
As she waited for him to approach she studied him with interest. He had changed much since his landing on Kon Klayu. Under the rigors of hardship, of physical labor, of abstinence, he had developed a clean-cut masculinity that was strangely reassuring. She remembered how unconsciously, during these past weeks, she had turned to him for the steadiness which others had lacked; how instinctively she had counted on him for a perception of the little things, the smaller needs, which are so often the greater ones. After all, she reminded herself, in the day by day stresses of life, it was this gift of understanding, of sympathy with the innate needs, that counted so tremendously.
She pictured Jean, with her warm emotions, her love of the finer beauties of life, thrown into the rough and changing currents of existence as the wife of a man older, sturdier, perhaps, than Gregg, but without his steadier gentleness. Ellen shrank instinctively from the thought. And Gregg had changed—of that there was no doubt. There was no longer a sign of his old subservience to the poisonous brew of Katleean; instead there was every evidence that he was not another man, but in a greater, stronger way, the man he had once been.
After all, Ellen thought, who was she to determine for Jean the sort of man the girl should choose—she who had permitted herself compromising entanglements with such a one as the White Chief! With Gregg Jean was safer at that moment than was she in her own tragic situation—safer and cleaner in her motives! . . . With something of appeal for the steadying power of his friendship in her need, whose eventualities would be as vital to Jean as to herself, Ellen turned with a new warmth in her manner to greet the young man. Discussing the phenomenon of the bird migration, she went with him down the trail to the cabin.
As they approached the house Lollie came rushing up from the beach, holding something tightly in his little hand. He was shouting excitedly and at his urging the family gathered curiously around him to find themselves electrified at the disclosure of what the youngster held. It was a nugget, fully an ounce in weight! He had found it, he explained, on the bedrock below Bear Paw Lake.
Boreland went off immediately to prospect with Kayak Bill and Harlan. Contrary to all previous experience, this gold had not been uncovered by a storm—there had been no storm. Then there must be a place where the yellow metal lay otherwise revealed. Somewhere on the Island must be a mine of gold. Harlan, who had spent an inattentive year at a school of mines before he was requested to leave, began to take an interest in the situation.
Shane returned that night long after the others, without having found another sign. Nor was he any more successful, when day after day he continued to patrol the beaches, though his faith in the sands of Kon Klayu remained unshaken.
Ellen and he were returning one afternoon, from Skeleton Rib where they had gone to look for pay-sand. He had recovered the use of his sprained wrist and had brought along the shotgun. Opposite the little lake in this vicinity they turned in from the beach. A drizzling rain had begun to fall. The dead yellow grass lay flat on the ground. The bare brown branches of the alders were hung with globules of water which fell, wetting Ellen as she brushed through them. Out on the lake she caught glimpses of a flock of belated mallards, but since there was now no upstanding vegetation it was difficult for the hunters to hide their approach. Crouching low behind an alder Ellen watched Shane creep up within shooting range. Since the gun was an old thing held together by copper wire, and went off at the slightest jar it was impossible to carry it loaded. Shane paused, inserted the shells, raised the piece and took careful aim. There came a loud report, a whirr of wings, and the next instant Shane fell backward, one hand flung upward to his head.
Ellen sprang to where he lay motionless, blood streaming down one side of his face. Even in her anguish she noted that the gun barrels had burst from the force of overloaded shells. Swiftly she plunged her handkerchief into the water and uttering incoherent entreaties and endearing names, began to bathe his face which already was beginning to swell.
For what seemed a long time Shane did not move. Frantically she tore a strip from her lawn chemise and bound up his head to stop the flow of blood. Then with all her strength she sought to raise him from the grass. His head fell limply back exposing his bare brown throat to the falling rain.
"Shane . . . Shane . . . O, help me, dear! Please!" Cold fear gripped her and made her voice tremble. She struggled once more to raise his heavy body. She was unable to lift him. Calling him, imploring him, she tried again and again, until at last he sat up slowly, groaning and putting both hands to the bloody bandage about his head.
"Come, dear—" her voice broke as her shaking hands tried to assist him. "We must go home, Shane. Come now." As if he were a child she coaxed and encouraged the stunned man until he rose painfully, swayed, and steadied himself against her. After a lurching step or two he managed to keep his feet and in silence that struck to her heart, he suffered her to lead him along through the soft, drizzling rain.
Ellen found only Harlan at the cabin. Without a question the young man sprang to her assistance. He helped Shane into the house and to bed.
The last of the antiseptic had been used for Kobuk. Ellen ran for the clear water from the hard-wood ashes—the Indian antiseptic which Kayak Bill had induced her to make, and while she held the basin Harlan washed the blood from her husband's face. The sight of the wound sickened her. Just below Shane's right eye was a livid gash two inches long.
What could she do? In some way stitches must be taken to draw the edges together, but how? She had nothing but ordinary needles and thread. She blamed herself bitterly for leaving Katleean without a medicine chest. A moment she thought of that one, ordered from the States, which was to arrive on the Hoonah. Then again she set her mind to the solution of the problem before her. . . . It came to her in a flash, one of Kayak Bill's tales of an Eskimo woman's ingenuity!
"Gregg!" She spoke firmly. "Hand me the scissors." She took the hairpins from her hair and it fell in a heavy coil to her waist. Harlan eyed her as though he feared she had suddenly gone insane when she cut a strand of hair and held it up to him.
"We'll boil this and some needles, Gregg," she continued quietly, "and when they are sterilized you must help me put the stitches in this wound." . . .
Half an hour later it was over. Shane lay back on his pillow. Ellen watched beside him stroking his hand which lay twitching on the coverlet. Something in the outline of her husband's long, still body under the blankets chilled her with foreboding. Heretofore the thought of hunger only had been with her. Now, should sickness or further accidents come upon them . . . Should Shane develop blood-poisoning . . .
Like one doomed Ellen's eyes sought the wall calendar. NOVEMBER 1 met her gaze with the force of a blow. The Hoonah was already two weeks overdue!
Suddenly she bent and rested her head against the blankets, pressing her quivering lips fiercely, passionately against her husband's thin hand.
Tomorrow . . . Tomorrow she must—she would release the pigeon!
Six hours later Kon Klayu was cowering in the blasts of the most terrific storm yet experienced by the adventurers. The fearful velocity of the wind and rain made it impossible for Kayak Bill to keep his tent erected, and in the middle of the night he was forced to move his bedding into Jean's and Lollie's room, where the sisters helped him screen himself off by tacking up a tarpaulin.
After Jean had slipped back into her bunk she was surprised to hear her sister discussing, almost wildly she thought, the possibility of a bird's flying against such a gale; and after everyone else had settled down again for the night she could hear Ellen pacing the floor of the living-room. Poor Ellen, thought the girl, she was all unstrung over Shane's accident and frightened at the thought of blood poisoning.
But Shane was feeling much better next morning, though he kept to his bed all day and for several days after. He was unusually silent, realizing, perhaps for the first time, the gravity of the situation, for the storm did not blow itself out in three or six days, as storms had always done before. It lasted twelve days and increased in violence until near the end.
During this great gale Jean sought her bunk early each evening and lay there between sleep and wakefulness listening to the wind and sea. She was thankful that this was not a snow storm, since snowfall on Kon Klayu did not come until later, owing to the proximity of the Japan Current, but she found herself concerned for Harlan alone in his Hut on the other side of the Island. When it became apparent that Shane's cut was healing as it should, the girl found her thoughts lingering on Gregg. She missed him more than she cared to admit, even to herself.
Before Shane's accident with the shotgun it had fallen to Gregg's lot to hunt the ducks and geese which were by now an important part of their food. There was little ammunition and every shot must be made to tell. With the make-shift shotgun it was impossible to hit anything on the wing, and though it was evident that Harlan's sporting instincts revolted against slipping up and pot-shooting birds on the water, the scarcity of shells compelled him to do it. Kayak Bill flatly refused to handle anything but his .45, confessing to a casual scorn for what he termed a "shootin' iron that spewed its durned in'ards all over the range." In the growing anxiety over the non-arrival of the Hoonah, Ellen had relaxed somewhat, her vigilant attitude toward Harlan, and so Jean had come to join the young man on his hunting expeditions.
Recalling them now she glowed at the memory of those past October mornings, when, leaving the rest of the family sleeping she had slipped out of the cabin and met the waiting hunter. She had grown to love the hunt—the early sun sparkling on the yellow of frost-coated grass, the green of the ocean, the tonic of the sea air, and the swift, never-to-be-forgotten creak-creak-creak of flying wings close overhead. There was a thrill in the cautious creeping toward the lake wreathed in the gossamer mists of the autumn morning, and the wriggling through the stiffened yellow grass, and a pang of delighted wonder at coming so close to the wild, winged things, squattering and making soft duck-chatterings in the shadow of the reeds.
But duck-hunting days were over now, she reminded herself regretfully. The shotgun was useless.
Shane's wound continued to heal without complications, but still after everyone else had long been in bed, Jean could hear Ellen pacing the floor nearly every night. This increased the uneasiness that had been growing upon the girl. She wished Ellen would confide more in her. She was finding it very hard for her to understand her sister these days. Ellen had not been herself for weeks. The girl recalled her curious and changeable attitude toward the pigeon the White Chief had given Loll. From at first ignoring it, Ellen had suddenly begun to manifest a lively interest in its welfare. The best of the rolled oats went to feed it. Owing to the occasional frosts Ellen had moved the cage into the shed and she herself had solicitously covered it nightly with an old blanket. Sometimes she had stood for ten minutes at a time looking in at the smoke-grey bird.
One incident stood out clearly in Jean's mind. She had come upon Ellen musing thus beside the cage. Her sister had just washed her hair and it hung about her shoulders in lovely, golden-brown profusion. There was a look on her face—Jean, thinking of it, shook her head to banish the memory of that look. Presently Ellen had reached up and with a trembling hand gathered together the short tresses that marked the place where she had—foolishly, Jean thought—cut off the lock of hair in Katleean. Ellen's fingers slipped over the severed ends, then flattened themselves forcibly over the latch on the pigeon's cage. "No! No!" Passionately the words had escaped her as she turned her back on the cage. Meeting Jean's questioning eyes she had flushed and gone on into the house without speaking.
Always, at night, as Jean lay thinking, this incident drifted with curious insistency through her mind.
As the storm continued through dreary days, blowing always from the southwest, the strange, reverberating roll from the south cliffs came more loudly than ever before. Listening to it sometimes, Jean would shiver at the hint of the supernatural in its cadence.
The continual thundering of the surf on the beach and the trembling of the cabin in the rainy blasts of the gale finally began to tell on the nerves of those confined in such small quarters. Gradually the talk at the table grew less. Even Kayak Bill ceased his monologues. He and Shane smoked more than ever and buried themselves in the reading of the old magazines and papers. Ellen seemed more affected than any of them. Her face had become drawn and haggard. She was so inattentive to Loll's questions when the daily lessons were in progress that the little boy grew impatient and asked Jean to help him instead. Then, too, Ellen's strange solicitude for the pigeon increased until it was with difficulty that Shane could prevent her bringing the bird into the cabin during the gale.
One night Jean woke from a troubled doze. Everywhere was a strange, arresting stillness. She realized in a moment that the wind had gone down. The roar of the breakers which had been so loud and constant, now sounded muffled. Her first feeling was one of intense happiness and relief. The storm was over at last—the longest storm she had ever known. Surely, now, she thought, the Hoonah would come.
Though she knew it must be after midnight there was a murmur of voices in the living-room. A chair scraped along the floor. Then came Kayak Bill's tones, distinctly and with a gravity that sent a chill through her. He was evidently concluding some argument.
"But I'm a-tellin' you, Boreland, that there's nary a Injine or a white on the Alasky coast that'll venture nigh the Island o' Kon Klayu after November first——"
"Great God, Kayak!" Boreland's protest cut him short. "Kilbuck knows we haven't enough grub for the winter! He wouldn't leave us here to starve, especially two women and a child, after he has put us here himself! He's promised to bring us provisions! Given us his word! To go back on it would be a violation of the law of the cache! Why, the man has my schooner, and he hasn't paid for her yet! No, no, Kayak. Kilbuck will come. . . . By God, he's got to come!"
There was slow finality in Kayak Bill's answer.
"Boreland, he's waited too long. He can't come. It's the thirteenth o' November. No one can come to Kon Klayu now till the breakup o' the winter. . . . The White Chief's staked the cards on us, son. We're up against it."
After the great November storm was over, Ellen realized that her problem—for the present—had been taken out of her hands. Even if the pigeon were sent now, the White Chief would not risk bringing a schooner to the Island of Kon Klayu; there was no boat built that could make a landing on its reef-guarded shores during the winter season. It was too late. They were marooned until spring at least. She would keep the bird until then. Further than that she refused to think.
As she accepted the inevitable she felt a sense of peace settle upon her, and with it came new strength. As Kayak had said they were up against it, and knowing now what she had to fight, she was ready.
Her mind turned at once to the pitifully meager supply of provisions. With all the shrewdness of a general preparing to withstand an indeterminate siege, she planned her rations so that they might last the longest period of time. If the party could exist until spring, a cannery boat, a whaler, a ship of adventure, might call in and get them, even though the White Chief did not come. Ellen made a mental vow that they would live until spring.
On the fourteenth of November she made the entry in her log:
We have the following provisions on hand: Flour—damaged—enough for eight months Bacon, 1 slab Dried onions, 1 pound Beans, enough for five months if we have them once a week Rice—damaged—for five months, once a week Lemon Extract, 1 bottle Salt and Pepper Worcestershire sauce, 1 bottle Dried bear meat Bear fat, rancid Rolled oats—mouldy—four months Tea and Coffee Three boxes candles Two jars canned plums from mother's
That afternoon, on a pretense of his looking for pay-sand, she sent Loll down on the beach, and, calling the others together, summed up the problem that confronted them. She read her list of provisions and set forth her plan of rations. In conclusion she urged that each one take a turn hunting for sea-food on the rocks and stranded fish on the beach. If they could supplement their ration thus, they might, by confining themselves strictly to it, exist until some boat came in the spring. Harlan, she decided, must take his meals at the cabin.
"Jean and I will begin gathering shellfish tomorrow, while you men start to lay in a supply of firewood for the winter months," she finished. Even Shane agreed that existence, now, instead of gold, was their main concern on the Island of Kon Klayu, although his was the logic which still insisted that their desertion by Kilbuck could not be true simply because it seemed so intolerable.
Strange to say, after this frank facing of their difficulties every one of the party felt more cheerful. There came a letting down of the tension, a relaxation of the nerves, which had made their storm-bound days so trying.
The following morning found Ellen and her sister in hip rubber boots belonging to their men, headed for Sunset Point. They were equipped with pails and case knives.
The sun shone bright although there was little warmth in it. The air was sharp and exhilarating and wonderfully pure after the great wind. The thunder of surf on a hundred reefs spoke of the storm of yesterday.
They soon found themselves down among the great boulders amid tangles of brown seaweed, where the shallow pools left by the outgoing tide were alive with strange and interesting sea life. Here, more than in any other place on Kon Klayu they were conscious of the air, the sound, the whole enchanting spell of the sea. The bottoms of tiny sea-pools were dotted with red and yellow starfish. Entrancing rose and purple sea-anemones blossomed like thistles on the water-covered stones but at a touch, a sound, folded their delicate beauties into tight buttons hardly to be distinguished from the base to which they clung. Comical, tiny iridescent fish, with eyes of bulging astonishment, and thorns on their backs, darted about the women's feet and went into hiding under floating russet seaweed. The big boots lumbering into the shallow water caused sea-eggs of green and lavender to move solemnly on the bottom with raylike prickles erect.
"We'll try the sea-eggs later on," Ellen said, as she watched them. "Senott told me at Katleean that all natives eat them."
The boulders were encrusted with great, grey, open-mouthed barnacles. Periwinkles, like tiny purple snails, clustered on the weeds. These were so numerous that the sisters could not step without crushing them. The crunching sound at first filled Ellen with repugnance for her task, but necessity forced her on and before she had filled her pail with them she had become accustomed to it.
As they moved farther out to where the waves of the ebb tide were creaming against the rocks, the dark seamed sides were painted a delicate sea-pink by a lichen-like growth. Above their heads these boulders rose and all about them was the soft, seeping sound that sea things make when the tide is low.
Kayak Bill had often described what he called a "gumboot," remarking that the name was bestowed locally because of the toughness of this aquatic animal when cooked. From the old man's description Ellen had thought they might be limpets. Since there were no clams on the beach of Kon Klayu she had concluded to try them.
Now, suddenly, she came upon them, their cone-shaped shells adhering to the rocks. When she and Jean tried to pick the small creatures from their abiding places, the least touch or sound caused them to tighten to the boulders. It was impossible then to dislodge them without smashing the shell.
"We'll have to sneak up on them, El," whispered Jean, suiting her actions to her words, and with a sudden, swift movement sweeping half a dozen from their support. It was then that the sisters began to experience the thrill of anticipation, the fascination of uncertainty, that comes to those forced to hunt their food in wild places.
The tide came in flooding the pools in which they were standing and warning them that it was time to leave. With full pails they hastened to the cabin eager to try their new food.
Periwinkles, boiled, had not an unpleasant taste, but because of their likeness to worms, neither of the women could eat them. It fell to little Loll to extract them from their small shells by means of a pin. This was a slow process and after the novelty wore off, the youngster gave utterance to loud lamentations over Kayak Bill's fondness for periwinkles.
The "gumboots" were also boiled, and found to be as rubbery as the name implied. Chopping them fine Ellen made a hash of bread crumbs and fried the mixture in bear fat. Afterward she sometimes added a small bit of chopped bacon, considered a rare treat since the bacon was hoarded for flavoring beans which they were permitted but once a week.
In putting her family on rations Ellen noticed that each one's appetite increased tremendously. Only by exercising the most rigid self-control could she keep herself to the portions she had allotted. The sight of Lollie scraping his plate for the last morsel of food and then looking up at her expectantly, was the hardest thing she had to bear. She soon began, surreptitiously, to put aside a portion of her daily share for him.
For a time food was the all-absorbing topic of conversation. The men found a certain grim amusement in sitting about the table talking of the kind of "grub" they would order if they were in the States. They could go into such detail as to taste and smell of certain appetizing dishes eaten in the past that often Jean laughingly stopped them.
"By Jove!" Harlan would say. "I know a little place in San Francisco where you can get a beefsteak Bordelaise that would actually . . ."
"Um-m, yes," Shane would follow, "and don't you remember that little Italian dump on Columbus where they serve spaghetti with a gooey stuff filled with chicken livers and mushrooms—Oh . . . man!"
"One time up on the Kuskokwim I snared me a cut-throat," Kayak Bill would drawl, and then, with an angler's delight, proceed to describe every wiggle of that super-fish until he landed it, and every phase of camp-fire cooking, until, crisp and bacon-garnished, he ate it from the frying-pan.
Jean's longing for fruit, especially bananas, was so intense that she used to wake up at night thinking about them. She dreamed of bananas smothered in cream. When she closed her eyes sometimes during the day, bunches of the yellow fruit dangled enticingly in her mental vision. She tried to re-read Pickwick Papers. The hungry Fat Boy at first appealed to her, but Dickens' masterly descriptions of the nourishing food of old England filled her with such a hunger that she put the book aside.
December proved to be a month of snow and blizzards, but despite the faithful patrolling of the beach nothing in the way of pay-sand came to light. Whenever the weather permitted everyone sought shellfish among the rocks, as it had become necessary to gather a quantity sufficient to last during storms. The prickly sea-eggs were now added to the fare. Often however, when the wet snow was hurled unceasingly against the windows for days, the supply of sea-food gave out. Then, for hours, there was hunger in the little cabin on Kon Klayu.
Jean noticed that her nephew, in some manner, had come to know that it distressed his mother to speak of being hungry after he had eaten what she had to give him. It was seldom now that he mentioned it. His little mind appeared to be taken up with speculations as to Christmas.
Jean had often listened to Kayak Bill prefacing his tales with: "I'm a-tellin' o' you, you never can tell a speck about a man till you 'cabin' with him a-durin' o' one winter." She was beginning to understand what the old man meant by it now. She was growing to appreciate Shane's irrepressible Irish cheerfulness that always rose above hunger, accident and the nerve-trying confinement of the cabin in stormy weather. Because of him the storm-bound hours, despite the food situation, were for the most part, times of story telling and exchange of reminiscences. For Shane, with a strange faith, still clung to the thought that the White Chief might bring the Hoonah to the Island before the end of the year.
As Christmas drew nearer, however, with one storm succeeding another, a change came over him. He began to sit beside the table in silence, his head in his hands, his brown eyes looking off into space.
One night when the house trembled in the grip of a blizzard and the unexplained reverberating sound from the south cliffs came louder than usual, he sat thus while Kayak Bill played a game of solitaire on the opposite side of the table. Lollie had established himself in his mother's bed. While he turned the pages of a fairy tale book, he pointed out the pictures to Jean. That day there had been no shellfish to supplement the scanty allowance of food and the little fellow lingered hungrily on the colored pictures depicting bountiful tables of feasting kings; jolly fat cooks basting roasting ducks in the kitchens of queens; little Jack Horner pulled a ripe plum from a pie. Finally he turned a page which disclosed the Queen of Hearts holding out a pan of delicious, browny-crusted tarts. The crimson jelly at the centers seemed almost to quiver.
"Oh, mother, mother, I'm so hungry!" he burst out.
Ellen laid aside her sewing and going to the cupboard brought out a tiny dish of rice and gave it to him. Jean saw Boreland's eyes follow the movements of his wife. She wondered if he, like herself, suspected that the dish contained over half Ellen's portion for that day. There was a tenseness about his jaw, a smouldering light in his eye that sent a queer chill over the girl. A few minutes later he rose and climbed up into the loft. When he descended he held a revolver in his hand.
The weapon was one he had carried since boyhood. Its history belonged to an oldtime Indian scout, a friend of Boreland's father. On its handle were three notches. The last time the girl had heard the story of those three notches was at Katleean when Shane, pointing them out to the White Chief, had told him that each one stood for a man who deserved and met death at the hand that held the gun.
She grew inattentive to the questions of Loll as she watched her brother-in-law at the table oiling and polishing the old revolver. He spent much time at his task and when it was finished sat thoughtfully, his thin fingers slowly passing over the notches as if he were counting them for the first time. After some minutes he leaned across to Kayak Bill.
"Kayak," he said so softly that the girl could scarcely hear, "if I get back to Katleean in the spring—there will be four—" He tapped the notched handle of the revolver significantly.
A sudden chill of foreboding, doubly terrible because at first so vague and incomprehensible, swept her. She saw Kayak's eyes looking into Boreland's. They were tense, half-closed and glittered coldly, not at Shane, but at some vision induced by Shane's words. Then the old man nodded twice, slowly, approvingly, decisively. . . .
As the days of December went by everyone on the Island, with the exception of Loll, asserted often that of course there could be no Christmas. Despite this, however, as the date drew near the holiday spirit hovered persistently over the camp. Mysterious things were going on. Kayak Bill withdrew himself behind his curtain very early each day, and tantalizing sounds of whittling came from his corner; while Boreland and Harlan shut themselves up for hours in the shed.
The day before Christmas came white and still with great soft snowflakes falling until noon.
"Santa Claus weather! Santa Claus weather!" sang Lollie dancing up and down before the window. "He'll surely come now—if there is one," he added for Jean's benefit. The girl had tried to explain the spirit of Christmas to the youngster, but he still clung to his early conception of the good old saint.
There was a party that night on Kon Klayu. Jean had never admired her sister more than when she saw Ellen rise above the haunting fear of starvation and with the few pitiful things at her command create the cheer of Christmas Eve. And there was no lack of presents—home-made gifts that had cost their donors much thought and hours of labor—gifts, some of them smile-provoking, but bringing with them a sense of warmer friendliness, a touch of tenderness which enhances the spirit of fellowship that comes to those who share the hazards and adventures of the North.
Loll, with one lump of hoarded sugar, two full-rigged schooners, an Indian war canoe and a new blouse sewed by Ellen's fingers, was supremely happy. For the men were mittens made of a blanket, scarves knitted from the unraveled yarn of two old sweaters, and—even on Kon Klayu the male members could not escape the inevitable Christmas neck-tie, for Ellen had produced from the bottom of her trunk three brand new ones purchased for Shane before she sailed from the States.
Kayak Bill looked his over a few minutes and then disappeared behind his tarpaulin-screen in the next room. When he emerged it was with one hand holding aside his bushy beard. The new neck-tie, impaled with a large nugget pin, hung low on his blue flannel shirt.
"I ain't wore one o' these dude halters for ten yars, Lady," he drawled, hitching his shoulders with an air of being pleased with himself, "but I ain't forgot how they goes."
There were two beautiful caps for Ellen and Jean made of the iridescent necks of mallard drakes, carefully prepared and sewed by Kayak; a dust-pan made of a kerosene can; a calendar ruled off on the letter paper of the defunct life insurance company, and to their genuine delight, two paper knives carved from the tusks taken from the sea monster's head which Lollie had discovered. Adorned with the emblematic figures of the Thunderbird and the Wolf they were, in their way, works of art, and Ellen, reading the penciled greeting on the paper attached to her gift, could not keep the look of surprise from her face as she thanked Harlan for it. It occurred to her that this young man was continually and agreeably surprising her lately.
After the distribution of the gifts, and the old-time stories told in the candlelight, Jean, by the magic of her violin coaxed them all into singing the Yuletide songs fraught with memories of the homeland;—all that is with the exception of Kayak Bill. The old man, his high forehead shining from his recent ablutions, his bushy beard hiding his new tie, sat silent, even wistful, stroking the home-made gifts that lay upon his knees. Jean as she played, wondered what long-ago memories were misting his hazel eyes.
When the singing came to an end, little Loll, without an invitation, rose and announced:
"Now, I'm going to speak my piece."
He walked to the middle of the room and made a low, circular bow. In the effort to recall that "piece" he had spoken the year previous in Sunday-school, his brow puckered and his grey eyes took on a look of intense thought. His emphasis fell in strange places:
"'Twas the night before Christmas An' all through the house Not-ta creature . . . was . . . Was stirring Not-teven a mouse . . . not-teven a mouse . . . Not-teven a mouse!"
All efforts to remember further having proved vain, Lollie, far from being embarrassed, bowed low again with the poise of one who has recited brilliantly, and took his seat amid the applause. . . .
Harlan rose at last to say goodnight. From Loll's bunk, where she was helping the sleepy boy to bed, Ellen called after him her Christmas wishes. Jean slipped into her coat and followed the young man out to the porch.
The night had turned wondrously clear, but it did not seem cold to the two who stood silently looking out on its beauty.
"Never was there such a night for Christmas carols, Gregg," said the girl after some minutes had gone by. "Wait."
She darted into the cabin and returned almost immediately with her violin tucked beneath her coat.
"I may never have a chance like this again. . . . I'm going up as far as the Lookout with you. Come."
They climbed up through the white, star-lit silence to the top of the hill. From the height they looked down through the weird half-light reflected from the snow. The formless waters kissed the ermine-wrapped shores of the Island. The sweet, hoarse voice of the sea had in it the cadence of happy child calls. There was an effect of illimitable space, of wonderful freedom. Up from the north into the night-blue bowl of the sky mystic lights unfurled themselves in pulsing, wreathing chiffon-like streamers of changing rose and violet, green and amber, red and gold—unfurled . . . trembled . . . rippled into opal splendor, and then swiftly and softly swept across the heavens and entangled themselves in the calm, friendly stars that looked down on Kon Klayu.
Jean caught her breath.
"The Christmas lights of God," she whispered. "I have never been so near to Him before." She lifted her violin to her shoulder and began the opening bars of Holy Night. Gregg's voice joined the instrument, reverent, worshipful.
As she played there beside him the girl knew that they were sharing something never to be forgotten by either—the magic of a moment of perfect accord, a moment of beauty that transcended earthly things and left them but two souls worshipping together beneath the softened glory of the Northern Lights.
It had taken Gregg Harlan some time to realize fully that mere existence on Kon Klayu was an all-absorbing problem! but when he did so the primitiveness of it stimulated, intoxicated him, not as liquor had once done, but with a freshness that cleared his brain and sent his blood racing through his veins. Every cell in his body tingled with life. He felt this exhilaration in his swinging stride, his up-lifting chin. By Christmas he was no more tormented by a craving for liquor. On the contrary he was nauseated at the memory of his stupid, sodden days at Katleean. Alaska, the Great Country, which either makes or breaks, had challenged him to prove himself a man—and he had accepted the challenge. Kon Klayu, Island of mystery and beauty had laid its charm upon him, for despite the hardships it was a place where romance and adventure were the realities of life.
For the first time in his twenty-five years he felt the spur of responsibility. He was filled with a desire to fight, to conquer, to do something to try his new strength and to earn favor in the eyes of Jean—and Ellen. He grinned boyishly to himself, sometimes, when this mighty urge to noble deeds resolved itself into the accomplishing of prosaic tasks such as getting in firewood and hunting shellfish.
In the matter of clothes, Boreland and Kayak were the only ones who were in any way prepared for the cold weather. Ellen had cut up a scarlet blanket to make Harlan and Loll winter coats. Jean had fashioned for herself an attractive mackinaw from a small white blanket, and the young man was not blind to the picture she made, red-cheeked, laughing, trotting along beside him on the beach as they looked for sea food.
One windy day Kayak Bill came in from the beach without his cherished sombrero.
"The gol durned breeze snatched it often my haid, and lit out with it for foreign parts," he drawled sadly as he smoothed down his wildly blown locks. Despite Ellen's anxious protests he went bareheaded after that, although he wound his scarf about his ears on extra cold days. His hair continued to grow unchecked also, for after watching Ellen earnestly manipulating an inverted bowl and a pair of scissors while she trimmed her protesting husband's hair, Kayak spoke with slow conviction:
"I hearn tell o' lady barbers down in the States, but I ain't no nature for 'em a-fussin' round my noggin. My kin folks drug me to the Methydist meetin' house once a-fore I stampeded from Texas, and the sarmon teched on a long-haired pugilist, Samson, what was trimmed by a lady barber by the name o' Dahlia." . . .
For some time Kayak and Boreland had been trying, as they put it, to "taper off" on their tobacco. Harlan, when he found that the Hoonah was not coming, had given up smoking so that the older men might longer enjoy what tobacco was left. After days of silent, mental wrestling with his desire, he reached the stage where he had successfully downed the craving, and he watched with grim amusement, and no little sympathy, his partners' vain efforts to limit themselves to one pipe after each meal.
There finally came a day when Kayak and Shane sat at the supper table lighting their farewell pipes.
"Goo' bye, lovely Lady Nicotine!" Airily Boreland waved a hand through the smoke. "I bid thee farewell without fear and without regret! . . . As a matter of fact, Bill, I've intended to quit right along, and this makes it easy. Filthy habit, anyway, and I don't want to set a bad example for Loll."
It was from Jean that Harlan learned the details of the following dismal day. It was so stormy that the men could not go out to work. After breakfast Shane and Kayak had risen from the table and, pipes in hand, instinctively sought the tobacco-box in the corner. Their fingers met on the bare tin bottom. With blank looks they faced each other.
"Hell, Kayak, I'd forgotten!" Boreland grinned sheepishly. "Now begins the battle of Nicotine! Buck up, pard!" He forced a cheerfulness into his tones as he slapped Kayak's shoulder.
Kayak Bill looked down at the empty pipe cupped lovingly in his hand. With a sound between a grunt and a groan he put it back into his pocket and dawdled dispiritedly off into the other room to his bunk behind the tarpaulin.
Shane thrust both hands deep into the pockets of his overalls and shifted his weight alternately from heel to toe. . . . Crossing over to the stove where his wife stood he bent upon her a wistful, little-lost-dog expression, so ridiculous in a man of his size that Ellen burst into laughter.
"Poor—little—thing!" she sympathized, patting his cheek. "It's lost its pacifier, it has!"
With a sickly grin Shane turned to the window and dully watched the slanting sleet blown by the gale. . . . Kayak's puffing snore came presently from the other room. Boreland wheeled about, glaring.
"By thunder! to think that old cuss can sleep at a time like this! . . . The man must have a heart of stone! For two cents I'd go in there and . . ."
He paced the floor, his hands fidgeting.
"Are you sure, El, you didn't save out a box of tobacco on us, just to give us a bit of a surprise now," he asked hopefully for the third time that morning.
In the days that followed Harlan could not make up his mind who suffered most during the "battle of Nicotine"—Shane or Kayak Bill, or Ellen. He grew to feel a bit sorry for Ellen. He found himself gradually assuming the duties neglected by the other two men during their period of misery. Boreland lost much of his good-natured cheerfulness. He was inclined to view the food situation with increased alarm. He often spoke sharply to Lollie, and sometimes to his wife. But invariably after an irritable outburst he sought to make up to the boy with some home-made toy, or a new story of adventure. With Ellen his method of apology was different. He would put his arm across her shoulders and look down at her whimsically.
"I swan to goodness, little fellow, if I wasn't an angel I couldn't live with you at all, at all, you're that peevish since I've stopped smoking." Then with his most wistful Irish look he would add, "Be patient with me El. I'm having a hell of a time."
As Harlan watched the struggles of his partners he grew to have a better opinion of his own power of self-control. Jean was responsible for this in a way. Sometimes on stormy days when it was impossible to go outside, the patience of the whole family would be sorely tried by the actions of the older men. They would research every nook and corner of the cabin, go into the pockets of every garment and even rip linings in their efforts to find some over-looked bit of tobacco. After just so much of this, Jean would turn on them scornfully and compare their childish actions with those of Harlan when he was undergoing the same deprivation. Undoubtedly this holding him up as a good example had the opposite effect to that hoped for by Jean, but it nevertheless caused a warm glow to encircle his heart.
One day Boreland made a great discovery: By pulverizing the old nicotine-laden pipes, of which there were over half a dozen, he found that the resultant mixture could be smoked. He and his partner in disgrace did no work that day. In disgust Ellen banished them to the woodshed to do their smoking. From this place of refuge Kayak Bill's drawling tones of immense satisfaction floated out at intervals:
"Honest to grandma, Shane, I'm a-feelin' like a new man."
By the time the corncobs had all been pulverized and consumed, and but one cannabalistic pipe, itself pared down until it held but a thimbleful, was left between them, all the other members of the party had arrayed themselves against the sufferers. By persisting even though sickness was often the penalty for smoking an extra strong pulverized pipe, they had forfeited the sympathy of all hands. Matters came to a crisis one afternoon, when Boreland, taking a candle, crawled up into the loft to make one more search among the provisions.
Suddenly there was heard a great commotion overhead—a beating and a floundering about.
"Hey! Get some water up here—quick!" came Shane's alarmed shout. "I've set the bloody place afire!"
Half an hour later the fire was out, thanks to the efforts of the bucket brigade which rushed water from the spring, but in the roof was a gapping hole, and much of the outfit stowed away in the loft was wet again.
Boreland came slowly down from above. He was besmudged, apologetic and sheepish. Ellen was waiting for him. She looked him over from head to foot, her blue eyes snapping, scorn and supreme disgust radiating from her. Next she turned to Kayak Bill and took him in with the same look.
"Now, men, listen to me," she said sternly, as they both started to slip toward the door. "I've reached the limit of my endurance." She emphasized her next remarks with a decisive finger. "The very next one of you who mentions tobacco inside this cabin will be banished to the smoke-house to live by himself. I mean every word I say!" With hang-dog looks the culprits turned away and disappeared through the door. Ellen, with business-like brevity, climbed up into the loft to investigate. Harlan followed.