"Tell you what we′ll do; we′ll shake for it."
"That suits me," said the second man, turning, as he spoke, to the Indian that was mending snow-shoes in a corner of the cabin. "Here, you Billebedam, take a run down to Oleson′s cabin like a good fellow, and tell him we want to borrow his dice box."
This sudden request in the midst of a council on wages of men, wood, and grub surprised Billebedam. Besides, it was early in the day, and he had never known white men of the calibre of Pentfield and Hutchinson to dice and play till the day′s work was done. But his face was impassive as a Yukon Indian′s should be, as he pulled on his mittens and went out the door.
Though eight o′clock, it was still dark outside, and the cabin was lighted by a tallow candle thrust into an empty whisky bottle. It stood on the pine-board table in the middle of a disarray of dirty tin dishes. Tallow from innumerable candles had dripped down the long neck of the bottle and hardened into a miniature glacier. The small room, which composed the entire cabin, was as badly littered as the table; while at one end, against the wall, were two bunks, one above the other, with the blankets turned down just as the two men had crawled out in the morning.
Lawrence Pentfield and Corry Hutchinson were millionaires, though they did not look it. There seemed nothing unusual about them, while they would have passed muster as fair specimens of lumbermen in any Michigan camp. But outside, in the darkness, where holes yawned in the ground, were many men engaged in windlassing muck and gravel and gold from the bottoms of the holes where other men received fifteen dollars per day for scraping it from off the bedrock. Each day thousands of dollars′ worth of gold were scraped from bedrock and windlassed to the surface, and it all belonged to Pentfield and Hutchinson, who took their rank among the richest kings of Bonanza.
Pentfield broke the silence that followed on Billebedam′s departure by heaping the dirty plates higher on the table and drumming a tattoo on the cleared space with his knuckles. Hutchinson snuffed the smoky candle and reflectively rubbed the soot from the wick between thumb and forefinger.
"By Jove, I wish we could both go out!" he abruptly exclaimed. "That would settle it all."
Pentfield looked at him darkly.
"If it weren′t for your cursed obstinacy, it′d be settled anyway. All you have to do is get up and go. I′ll look after things, and next year I can go out."
"Why should I go? I′ve no one waiting for me—"
"Your people," Pentfield broke in roughly.
"Like you have," Hutchinson went on. "A girl, I mean, and you know it."
Pentfield shrugged his shoulders gloomily. "She can wait, I guess."
"But she′s been waiting two years now."
"And another won′t age her beyond recognition."
"That′d be three years. Think of it, old man, three years in this end of the earth, this falling-off place for the damned!" Hutchinson threw up his arm in an almost articulate groan.
He was several years younger than his partner, not more than twenty-six, and there was a certain wistfulness in his face that comes into the faces of men when they yearn vainly for the things they have been long denied. This same wistfulness was in Pentfield′s face, and the groan of it was articulate in the heave of his shoulders.
"I dreamed last night I was in Zinkand′s," he said. "The music playing, glasses clinking, voices humming, women laughing, and I was ordering eggs—yes, sir, eggs, fried and boiled and poached and scrambled, and in all sorts of ways, and downing them as fast as they arrived."
"I′d have ordered salads and green things," Hutchinson criticized hungrily, "with a big, rare, Porterhouse, and young onions and radishes,—the kind your teeth sink into with a crunch."
"I′d have followed the eggs with them, I guess, if I hadn′t awakened," Pentfield replied.
He picked up a trail-scarred banjo from the floor and began to strum a few wandering notes. Hutchinson winced and breathed heavily.
"Quit it!" he burst out with sudden fury, as the other struck into a gaily lifting swing. "It drives me mad. I can′t stand it"
Pentfield tossed the banjo into a bunk and quoted:-"Hear me babble what the weakest won′t confess - I am Memory and Torment—I am Town! I am all that ever went with evening dress!"
The other man winced where he sat and dropped his head forward on the table. Pentfield resumed the monotonous drumming with his knuckles. A loud snap from the door attracted his attention. The frost was creeping up the inside in a white sheet, and he began to hum:-"The flocks are folded, boughs are bare, The salmon takes the sea; And oh, my fair, would I somewhere Might house my heart with thee."
Silence fell and was not again broken till Billebedam arrived and threw the dice box on the table.
"Um much cold," he said. "Oleson um speak to me, um say um Yukon freeze last night."
"Hear that, old man!" Pentfield cried, slapping Hutchinson on the shoulder. "Whoever wins can be hitting the trail for God′s country this time tomorrow morning!"
He picked up the box, briskly rattling the dice.
"What′ll it be?"
"Straight poker dice," Hutchinson answered. "Go on and roll them out."
Pentfield swept the dishes from the table with a crash and rolled out the five dice. Both looked tragedy. The shake was without a pair and five-spot high.
"A stiff!" Pentfield groaned.
After much deliberating Pentfield picked up all the five dice and put them in the box.
"I′d shake to the five if I were you," Hutchinson suggested.
"No, you wouldn′t, not when you see this," Pentfield replied, shaking out the dice.
Again they were without a pair, running this time in unbroken sequence from two to six.
"A second stiff!" he groaned. "No use your shaking, Corry. You can′t lose."
The other man gathered up the dice without a word, rattled them, rolled them out on the table with a flourish, and saw that he had likewise shaken a six-high stiff.
"Tied you, anyway, but I′ll have to do better than that," he said, gathering in four of them and shaking to the six. "And here′s what beats you!"
But they rolled out deuce, tray, four, and five—a stiff still and no better nor worse than Pentfield′s throw.
"Couldn′t happen once in a million times," said.
"Nor in a million lives," Pentfield added, catching up the dice and quickly throwing them out. Three fives appeared, and, after much delay, he was rewarded by a fourth five on the second shake. Hutchinson seemed to have lost his last hope.
But three sixes turned up on his first shake. A great doubt rose in the other′s eyes, and hope returned into his. He had one more shake. Another six and he would go over the ice to salt water and the States.
He rattled the dice in the box, made as though to cast them, hesitated, and continued rattle them.
"Go on! Go on! Don′t take all night about it!" Pentfield cried sharply, bending his nails on the table, so tight was the clutch with which he strove to control himself.
The dice rolled forth, an upturned six meeting their eyes. Both men sat staring at it. There was a long silence. Hutchinson shot a covert glance at his partner, who, still more covertly, caught it, and pursed up his lips in an attempt to advertise his unconcern.
Hutchinson laughed as he got up on his feet. It was a nervous, apprehensive laugh. It was a case where it was more awkward to win than lose. He walked over to his partner, who whirled upon him fiercely:-
"Now you just shut up, Corry! I know all you′re going to say—that you′d rather stay in and let me go, and all that; so don′t say it. You′ve your own people in Detroit to see, and that′s enough. Besides, you can do for me the very thing I expected to do if I went out."
"And that is—?"
Pentfield read the full question in his partner′s eyes, and answered:-
"Yes, that very thing. You can bring her in to me. The only difference will be a Dawson wedding instead of a San Franciscan one."
"But, man alike!" Corry Hutchinson objected "how under the sun can I bring her in? We′re not exactly brother and sister, seeing that I have not even met her, and it wouldn′t be just the proper thing, you know, for us to travel together. Of course, it would be all right—you and I know that; but think of the looks of it, man!"
Pentfield swore under his breath, consigning the looks of it to a less frigid region than Alaska.
"Now, if you′ll just listen and not get astride that high horse of yours so blamed quick," his partner went on, "you′ll see that the only fair thing under the circumstances is for me to let you go out this year. Next year is only a year away, and then I can take my fling."
Pentfield shook his head, though visibly swayed by the temptation.
"It won′t do, Corry, old man. I appreciate your kindness and all that, but it won′t do. I′d be ashamed every time I thought of you slaving away in here in my place."
A thought seemed suddenly to strike him. Burrowing into his bunk and disrupting it in his eagerness, he secured a writing-pad and pencil, and sitting down at the table, began to write with swiftness and certitude.
"Here," he said, thrusting the scrawled letter into his partner′s hand. "You just deliver that and everything′ll be all right."
Hutchinson ran his eye over it and laid it down.
"How do you know the brother will be willing to make that beastly trip in here?" he demanded.
"Oh, he′ll do it for me—and for his sister," Pentfield replied. "You see, he′s tenderfoot, and I wouldn′t trust her with him alone. But with you along it will be an easy trip and a safe one. As soon as you get out, you′ll go to her and prepare her. Then you can take your run east to your own people, and in the spring she and her brother′ll be ready to start with you. You′ll like her, I know, right from the jump; and from that, you′ll know her as soon as you lay eyes on her."
So saying he opened the back of his watch and exposed a girl′s photograph pasted on the inside of the case. Corry Hutchinson gazed at it with admiration welling up in his eyes.
"Mabel is her name," Pentfield went on. "And it′s just as well you should know how to find the house. Soon as you strike ′Frisco, take a cab, and just say, ′Holmes′s place, Myrdon Avenue′—I doubt if the Myrdon Avenue is necessary. The cabby′ll know where Judge Holmes lives.
"And say," Pentfield continued, after a pause, "it won′t be a bad idea for you to get me a few little things which a—er—"
"A married man should have in his business," Hutchinson blurted out with a grin.
Pentfield grinned back.
"Sure, napkins and tablecloths and sheets and pillowslips, and such things. And you might get a good set of china. You know it′ll come hard for her to settle down to this sort of thing. You can freight them in by steamer around by Bering Sea. And, I say, what′s the matter with a piano?"
Hutchinson seconded the idea heartily. His reluctance had vanished, and he was warming up to his mission.
"By Jove! Lawrence," he said at the conclusion of the council, as they both rose to their feet, "I′ll bring back that girl of yours in style. I′ll do the cooking and take care of the dogs, and all that brother′ll have to do will be to see to her comfort and do for her whatever I′ve forgotten. And I′ll forget damn little, I can tell you."
The next day Lawrence Pentfield shook hands with him for the last time and watched him, running with his dogs, disappear up the frozen Yukon on his way to salt water and the world. Pentfield went back to his Bonanza mine, which was many times more dreary than before, and faced resolutely into the long winter. There was work to be done, men to superintend, and operations to direct in burrowing after the erratic pay streak; but his heart was not in the work. Nor was his heart in any work till the tiered logs of a new cabin began to rise on the hill behind the mine. It was a grand cabin, warmly built and divided into three comfortable rooms. Each log was hand-hewed and squared—an expensive whim when the axemen received a daily wage of fifteen dollars; but to him nothing could be too costly for the home in which Mabel Holmes was to live.
So he went about with the building of the cabin, singing, "And oh, my fair, would I somewhere might house my heart with thee!" Also, he had a calendar pinned on the wall above the table, and his first act each morning was to check off the day and to count the days that were left ere his partner would come booming down the Yukon ice in the spring. Another whim of his was to permit no one to sleep in the new cabin on the hill. It must be as fresh for her occupancy as the square-hewed wood was fresh; and when it stood complete, he put a padlock on the door. No one entered save himself, and he was wont to spend long hours there, and to come forth with his face strangely radiant and in his eyes a glad, warm light.
In December he received a letter from Corry Hutchinson. He had just seen Mabel Holmes. She was all she ought to be, to be Lawrence Pentfield′s wife, he wrote. He was enthusiastic, and his letter sent the blood tingling through Pentfield′s veins. Other letters followed, one on the heels of another, and sometimes two or three together when the mail lumped up. And they were all in the same tenor. Corry had just come from Myrdon Avenue; Corry was just going to Myrdon Avenue; or Corry was at Myrdon Avenue. And he lingered on and on in San Francisco, nor even mentioned his trip to Detroit.
Lawrence Pentfield began to think that his partner was a great deal in the company of Mabel Holmes for a fellow who was going east to see his people. He even caught himself worrying about it at times, though he would have worried more had he not known Mabel and Corry so well. Mabel′s letters, on the other hand, had a great deal to say about Corry. Also, a thread of timidity that was near to disinclination ran through them concerning the trip in over the ice and the Dawson marriage. Pentfield wrote back heartily, laughing at her fears, which he took to be the mere physical ones of danger and hardship rather than those bred of maidenly reserve.
But the long winter and tedious wait, following upon the two previous long winters, were telling upon him. The superintendence of the men and the pursuit of the pay streak could not break the irk of the daily round, and the end of January found him making occasional trips to Dawson, where he could forget his identity for a space at the gambling tables. Because he could afford to lose, he won, and "Pentfield′s luck" became a stock phrase among the faro players.
His luck ran with him till the second week in February. How much farther it might have run is conjectural; for, after one big game, he never played again.
It was in the Opera House that it occurred, and for an hour it had seemed that he could not place his money on a card without making the card a winner. In the lull at the end of a deal, while the game-keeper was shuffling the deck, Nick Inwood the owner of the game, remarked, apropos of nothing:-
"I say, Pentfield, I see that partner of yours has been cutting up monkey-shines on the outside."
"Trust Corry to have a good time," Pentfield had answered; "especially when he has earned it."
"Every man to his taste," Nick Inwood laughed; "but I should scarcely call getting married a good time."
"Corry married!" Pentfield cried, incredulous and yet surprised out of himself for the moment.
′Sure," Inwood said. "I saw it in the ′Frisco paper that came in over the ice this morning."
"Well, and who′s the girl?" Pentfield demanded, somewhat with the air of patient fortitude with which one takes the bait of a catch and is aware at the time of the large laugh bound to follow at his expense.
Nick Inwood pulled the newspaper from his pocket and began looking it over, saying:-
"I haven′t a remarkable memory for names, but it seems to me it′s something like Mabel—Mabel—oh yes, here it—′Mabel Holmes, daughter of Judge Holmes,′—whoever he is."
Lawrence Pentfield never turned a hair, though he wondered how any man in the North could know her name. He glanced coolly from face to face to note any vagrant signs of the game that was being played upon him, but beyond a healthy curiosity the faces betrayed nothing. Then he turned to the gambler and said in cold, even tones:-
"Inwood, I′ve got an even five hundred here that says the print of what you have just said is not in that paper."
The gambler looked at him in quizzical surprise. "Go ′way, child. I don′t want your money."
"I thought so," Pentfield sneered, returning to the game and laying a couple of bets.
Nick Inwood′s face flushed, and, as though doubting his senses, he ran careful eyes over the print of a quarter of a column. Then be turned on Lawrence Pentfield.
"Look here, Pentfield," he said, in a quiet, nervous manner; "I can′t allow that, you know."
"Allow what?" Pentfield demanded brutally.
"You implied that I lied."
"Nothing of the sort," came the reply. "I merely implied that you were trying to be clumsily witty."
"Make your bets, gentlemen," the dealer protested.
"But I tell you it′s true," Nick Inwood insisted.
"And I have told you I′ve five hundred that says it′s not in that paper," Pentfield answered, at the same time throwing a heavy sack of dust on the table.
"I am sorry to take your money," was the retort, as Inwood thrust the newspaper into Pentfield′s hand.
Pentfield saw, though he could not quite bring himself to believe. Glancing through the headline, "Young Lochinvar came out of the North," and skimming the article until the names of Mabel Holmes and Corry Hutchinson, coupled together, leaped squarely before his eyes, he turned to the top of the page. It was a San Francisco paper.
"The money′s yours, Inwood," he remarked, with a short laugh. "There′s no telling what that partner of mine will do when he gets started."
Then he returned to the article and read it word for word, very slowly and very carefully. He could no longer doubt. Beyond dispute, Corry Hutchinson had married Mabel Holmes. "One of the Bonanza kings," it described him, "a partner with Lawrence Pentfield (whom San Francisco society has not yet forgotten), and interested with that gentleman in other rich, Klondike properties." Further, and at the end, he read, "It is whispered that Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson will, after a brief trip east to Detroit, make their real honeymoon journey into the fascinating Klondike country."
"I′ll be back again; keep my place for me," Pentfield said, rising to his feet and taking his sack, which meantime had hit the blower and came back lighter by five hundred dollars.
He went down the street and bought a Seattle paper. It contained the same facts, though somewhat condensed. Corry and Mabel were indubitably married. Pentfield returned to the Opera House and resumed his seat in the game. He asked to have the limit removed.
"Trying to get action," Nick Inwood laughed, as he nodded assent to the dealer. "I was going down to the A. C. store, but now I guess I′ll stay and watch you do your worst."
This Lawrence Pentfield did at the end of two hours′ plunging, when the dealer bit the end off a fresh cigar and struck a match as he announced that the bank was broken. Pentfield cashed in for forty thousand, shook hands with Nick Inwood, and stated that it was the last time he would ever play at his game or at anybody′s else′s.
No one knew nor guessed that he had been hit, much less hit hard. There was no apparent change in his manner. For a week he went about his work much as he had always done, when he read an account of the marriage in a Portland paper. Then he called in a friend to take charge of his mine and departed up the Yukon behind his dogs. He held to the Salt Water trail till White River was reached, into which he turned. Five days later he came upon a hunting camp of the White River Indians. In the evening there was a feast, and he sat in honour beside the chief; and next morning he headed his dogs back toward the Yukon. But he no longer travelled alone. A young squaw fed his dogs for him that night and helped to pitch camp. She had been mauled by a bear in her childhood and suffered from a slight limp. Her name was Lashka, and she was diffident at first with the strange white man that had come out of the Unknown, married her with scarcely a look or word, and now was carrying her back with him into the Unknown.
But Lashka′s was better fortune than falls to most Indian girls that mate with white men in the Northland. No sooner was Dawson reached than the barbaric marriage that had joined them was re- solemnized, in the white man′s fashion, before a priest. From Dawson, which to her was all a marvel and a dream, she was taken directly to the Bonanza claim and installed in the square-hewed cabin on the hill.
The nine days′ wonder that followed arose not so much out of the fact of the squaw whom Lawrence Pentfield had taken to bed and board as out of the ceremony that had legalized the tie. The properly sanctioned marriage was the one thing that passed the community′s comprehension. But no one bothered Pentfield about it. So long as a man′s vagaries did no special hurt to the community, the community let the man alone, nor was Pentfield barred from the cabins of men who possessed white wives. The marriage ceremony removed him from the status of squaw-man and placed him beyond moral reproach, though there were men that challenged his taste where women were concerned.
No more letters arrived from the outside. Six sledloads of mails had been lost at the Big Salmon. Besides, Pentfield knew that Corry and his bride must by that time have started in over the trail. They were even then on their honeymoon trip—the honeymoon trip he had dreamed of for himself through two dreary years. His lip curled with bitterness at the thought; but beyond being kinder to Lashka he gave no sign.
March had passed and April was nearing its end, when, one spring morning, Lashka asked permission to go down the creek several miles to Siwash Pete′s cabin. Pete′s wife, a Stewart River woman, had sent up word that something was wrong with her baby, and Lashka, who was pre-eminently a mother-woman and who held herself to be truly wise in the matter of infantile troubles, missed no opportunity of nursing the children of other women as yet more fortunate than she.
Pentfield harnessed his dogs, and with Lashka behind took the trail down the creek bed of Bonanza. Spring was in the air. The sharpness had gone out of the bite of the frost and though snow still covered the land, the murmur and trickling of water told that the iron grip of winter was relaxing. The bottom was dropping out of the trail, and here and there a new trail had been broken around open holes. At such a place, where there was not room for two sleds to pass, Pentfield heard the jingle of approaching bells and stopped his dogs.
A team of tired-looking dogs appeared around the narrow bend, followed by a heavily-loaded sled. At the gee-pole was a man who steered in a manner familiar to Pentfield, and behind the sled walked two women. His glance returned to the man at the gee-pole. It was Corry. Pentfield got on his feet and waited. He was glad that Lashka was with him. The meeting could not have come about better had it been planned, he thought. And as he waited he wondered what they would say, what they would be able to say. As for himself there was no need to say anything. The explaining was all on their side, and he was ready to listen to them.
As they drew in abreast, Corry recognized him and halted the dogs. With a "Hello, old man," he held out his hand.
Pentfield shook it, but without warmth or speech. By this time the two women had come up, and he noticed that the second one was Dora Holmes. He doffed his fur cap, the flaps of which were flying, shook hands with her, and turned toward Mabel. She swayed forward, splendid and radiant, but faltered before his outstretched hand. He had intended to say, "How do you do, Mrs. Hutchinson?"—but somehow, the Mrs. Hutchinson had choked him, and all he had managed to articulate was the "How do you do?"
There was all the constraint and awkwardness in the situation he could have wished. Mabel betrayed the agitation appropriate to her position, while Dora, evidently brought along as some sort of peacemaker, was saying:-
"Why, what is the matter, Lawrence?"
Before he could answer, Corry plucked him by the sleeve and drew him aside.
"See here, old man, what′s this mean?" Corry demanded in a low tone, indicating Lashka with his eyes.
"I can hardly see, Corry, where you can have any concern in the matter," Pentfield answered mockingly.
But Corry drove straight to the point.
"What is that squaw doing on your sled? A nasty job you′ve given me to explain all this away. I only hope it can be explained away. Who is she? Whose squaw is she?"
Then Lawrence Pentfield delivered his stroke, and he delivered it with a certain calm elation of spirit that seemed somewhat to compensate for the wrong that had been done him.
"She is my squaw," he said; "Mrs. Pentfield, if you please."
Corry Hutchinson gasped, and Pentfield left him and returned to the two women. Mabel, with a worried expression on her face, seemed holding herself aloof. He turned to Dora and asked, quite genially, as though all the world was sunshine:- "How did you stand the trip, anyway? Have any trouble to sleep warm?"
"And, how did Mrs. Hutchinson stand it?" he asked next, his eyes on Mabel.
"Oh, you dear ninny!" Dora cried, throwing her arms around him and hugging him. "Then you saw it, too! I thought something was the matter, you were acting so strangely."
"I—I hardly understand," he stammered.
"It was corrected in next day′s paper," Dora chattered on. "We did not dream you would see it. All the other papers had it correctly, and of course that one miserable paper was the very one you saw!"
"Wait a moment! What do you mean?" Pentfield demanded, a sudden fear at his heart, for he felt himself on the verge of a great gulf.
But Dora swept volubly on.
"Why, when it became known that Mabel and I were going to Klondike, EVERY OTHER WEEK said that when we were gone, it would be lovely on Myrdon Avenue, meaning, of course, lonely."
"I am Mrs. Hutchinson," Dora answered. "And you thought it was Mabel all the time—"
"Precisely the way of it," Pentfield replied slowly. "But I can see now. The reporter got the names mixed. The Seattle and Portland paper copied."
He stood silently for a minute. Mabel′s face was turned toward him again, and he could see the glow of expectancy in it. Corry was deeply interested in the ragged toe of one of his moccasins, while Dora was stealing sidelong glances at the immobile face of Lashka sitting on the sled. Lawrence Pentfield stared straight out before him into a dreary future, through the grey vistas of which he saw himself riding on a sled behind running dogs with lame Lashka by his side.
Then he spoke, quite simply, looking Mabel in the eyes.
"I am very sorry. I did not dream it. I thought you had married Corry. That is Mrs. Pentfield sitting on the sled over there."
Mabel Holmes turned weakly toward her sister, as though all the fatigue of her great journey had suddenly descended on her. Dora caught her around the waist. Corry Hutchinson was still occupied with his moccasins. Pentfield glanced quickly from face to face, then turned to his sled.
"Can′t stop here all day, with Pete′s baby waiting," he said to Lashka.
The long whip-lash hissed out, the dogs sprang against the breast bands, and the sled lurched and jerked ahead.
"Oh, I say, Corry," Pentfield called back, "you′d better occupy the old cabin. It′s not been used for some time. I′ve built a new one on the hill."