James Oliver Curwood.

The Alaskan online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryJames Oliver CurwoodThe Alaskan → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


E-text prepared by Charles Aldarondo, Charlie Kirschner, and the Project
Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team



Note: Project Gutenberg also has an HTML version of this
file which includes the original illustrations.
See 11867-h.htm or 11867-h.zip:
(http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/1/1/8/6/11867/11867-h/11867-h.htm)
or
(http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/1/1/8/6/11867/11867-h.zip)





THE ALASKAN

A Novel of the North

By JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD

With Illustrations by Walt Louderback






To the strong-hearted men and women of Alaska, the new empire rising
in the North, it is for me an honor and a privilege to dedicate
this work.

JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD

Owosso, Michigan August 1, 1923




THE ILLUSTRATIONS

It was as if the man was deliberately insulting her (Frontispiece).

The long, black launch nosed its way out to sea.

The man wore a gun ... within reach of his hand.

Mary sobbed as the man she loved faced winged death.





CHAPTER I

Captain Rifle, gray and old in the Alaskan Steamship service, had not
lost the spirit of his youth along with his years. Romance was not dead
in him, and the fire which is built up of clean adventure and the
association of strong men and a mighty country had not died out of his
veins. He could still see the picturesque, feel the thrill of the
unusual, and - at times - warm memories crowded upon him so closely that
yesterday seemed today, and Alaska was young again, thrilling the world
with her wild call to those who had courage to come and fight for her
treasures, and live - or die.

Tonight, with the softly musical throb of his ship under his feet, and
the yellow moon climbing up from behind the ramparts of the Alaskan
mountains, something of loneliness seized upon him, and he said simply:

"That is Alaska."

The girl standing beside him at the rail did not turn, nor for a moment
did she answer. He could see her profile clear-cut as a cameo in the
almost vivid light, and in that light her eyes were wide and filled
with a dusky fire, and her lips were parted a little, and her slim body
was tense as she looked at the wonder of the moon silhouetting the
cragged castles of the peaks, up where the soft, gray clouds lay like
shimmering draperies.

Then she turned her face a little and nodded. "Yes, Alaska," she said,
and the old captain fancied there was the slightest ripple of a tremor
in her voice. "Your Alaska, Captain Rifle."

Out of the clearness of the night came to them a distant sound like the
low moan of thunder. Twice before, Mary Standish had heard it, and now
she asked: "What was that? Surely it can not be a storm, with the moon
like that, and the stars so clear above!"

"It is ice breaking from the glaciers and falling into the sea. We are
in the Wrangel Narrows, and very near the shore, Miss Standish. If it
were day you could hear the birds singing. This is what we call the
Inside Passage. I have always called it the water-wonderland of the
world, and yet, if you will observe, I must be mistaken - for we are
almost alone on this side of the ship. Is it not proof? If I were right,
the men and women in there - dancing, playing cards, chattering - would be
crowding this rail. Can you imagine humans like that? But they can't see
what I see, for I am a ridiculous old fool who remembers things. Ah, do
you catch that in the air, Miss Standish - the perfume of flowers, of
forests, of green things ashore? It is faint, but I catch it."

"And so do I."

She breathed in deeply of the sweet air, and turned then, so that she
stood with her back to the rail, facing the flaming lights of the ship.

The mellow cadence of the music came to her, soft-stringed and sleepy;
she could hear the shuffle of dancing feet. Laughter rippled with the
rhythmic thrum of the ship, voices rose and fell beyond the lighted
windows, and as the old captain looked at her, there was something in
her face which he could not understand.

She had come aboard strangely at Seattle, alone and almost at the last
minute - defying the necessity of making reservation where half a
thousand others had been turned away - and chance had brought her under
his eyes. In desperation she had appealed to him, and he had discovered
a strange terror under the forced calm of her appearance. Since then he
had fathered her with his attentions, watching closely with the wisdom
of years. And more than once he had observed that questing, defiant
poise of her head with which she was regarding the cabin windows now.

She had told him she was twenty-three and on her way to meet relatives
in Nome. She had named certain people. And he had believed her. It was
impossible not to believe her, and he admired her pluck in breaking all
official regulations in coming aboard.

In many ways she was companionable and sweet. Yet out of his experience,
he gathered the fact that she was under a tension. He knew that in some
way she was making a fight, but, influenced by the wisdom of three and
sixty years, he did not let her know he had guessed the truth.

He watched her closely now, without seeming to do so. She was very
pretty in a quiet and unusual way. There was something irresistibly
attractive about her, appealing to old memories which were painted
clearly in his heart. She was girlishly slim. He had observed that her
eyes were beautifully clear and gray in the sunlight, and her
exquisitely smooth dark hair, neatly coiled and luxuriant crown of
beauty, reminded him of puritanism in its simplicity. At times he
doubted that she was twenty-three. If she had said nineteen or twenty he
would have been better satisfied. She puzzled him and roused speculation
in him. But it was a part of his business to see many things which
others might not see - and hold his tongue.

"We are not quite alone," she was saying. "There are others," and she
made a little gesture toward two figures farther up the rail.

"Old Donald Hardwick, of Skagway," he said. "And the other is Alan
Holt."

"Oh, yes."

She was facing the mountains again, her eyes shining in the light of the
moon. Gently her hand touched the old captain's arm. "Listen," she
whispered.

"Another berg breaking away from Old Thunder. We are very near the
shore, and there are glaciers all the way up."

"And that other sound, like low wind - on a night so still and calm! What
is it?"

"You always hear that when very close to the big mountains, Miss
Standish. It is made by the water of a thousand streams and rivulets
rushing down to the sea. Wherever there is melting snow in the
mountains, you hear that song."

"And this man, Alan Holt," she reminded him. "He is a part of these
things?"

"Possibly more than any other man, Miss Standish. He was born in Alaska
before Nome or Fairbanks or Dawson City were thought of. It was in
Eighty-four, I think. Let me see, that would make him - "

"Thirty-eight," she said, so quickly that for a moment he was
astonished.

Then he chuckled. "You are very good at figures."

He felt an almost imperceptible tightening of her fingers on his arm.

"This evening, just after dinner, old Donald found me sitting alone. He
said he was lonely and wanted to talk with someone - like me. He almost
frightened me, with his great, gray beard and shaggy hair. I thought of
ghosts as we talked there in the dusk."

"Old Donald belongs to the days when the Chilkoot and the White Horse
ate up men's lives, and a trail of living dead led from the Summit to
Klondike, Miss Standish," said Captain Rifle. "You will meet many like
him in Alaska. And they remember. You can see it in their faces - always
the memory of those days that are gone."

She bowed her head a little, looking to the sea. "And Alan Holt? You
know him well?"

"Few men know him well. He is a part of Alaska itself, and I have
sometimes thought him more aloof than the mountains. But I know him. All
northern Alaska knows Alan Holt. He has a reindeer range up beyond the
Endicott Mountains and is always seeking the last frontier."

"He must be very brave."

"Alaska breeds heroic men, Miss Standish."

"And honorable men - men you can trust and believe in?"

"Yes."

"It is odd," she said, with a trembling little laugh that was like a
bird-note in her throat. "I have never seen Alaska before, and yet
something about these mountains makes me feel that I have known them a
long time ago. I seem to feel they are welcoming me and that I am going
home. Alan Holt is a fortunate man. I should like to be an Alaskan."

"And you are - "

"An American," she finished for him, a sudden, swift irony in her voice.
"A poor product out of the melting-pot, Captain Rifle. I am going
north - to learn."

"Only that, Miss Standish?"

His question, quietly spoken and without emphasis, demanded an answer.
His kindly face, seamed by the suns and winds of many years at sea, was
filled with honest anxiety as she turned to look straight into his eyes.

"I must press the question," he said. "As the captain of this ship, and
as a father, it is my duty. Is there not something you would like to
tell me - in confidence, if you will have it so?"

For an instant she hesitated, then slowly she shook her head. "There is
nothing, Captain Rifle."

"And yet - you came aboard very strangely," he urged. "You will recall
that it was most unusual - without reservation, without baggage - "

"You forget the hand-bag," she reminded him.

"Yes, but one does not start for northern Alaska with only a hand-bag
scarcely large enough to contain a change of linen, Miss Standish."

"But I did, Captain Rifle."

"True. And I saw you fighting past the guards like a little wildcat. It
was without precedent."

"I am sorry. But they were stupid and difficult to pass."

"Only by chance did I happen to see it all, my child. Otherwise the
ship's regulations would have compelled me to send you ashore. You were
frightened. You can not deny that. You were running away from
something!"

He was amazed at the childish simplicity with which she answered him.

"Yes, I was running away - from something."

Her eyes were beautifully clear and unafraid, and yet again he sensed
the thrill of the fight she was making.

"And you will not tell me why - or from what you were escaping?"

"I can not - tonight. I may do so before we reach Nome. But - it is
possible - "

"What?"

"That I shall never reach Nome."

Suddenly she caught one of his hands in both her own. Her fingers clung
to him, and with a little note of fierceness in her voice she hugged the
hand to her breast. "I know just how good you have been to me," she
cried. "I should like to tell you why I came aboard - like that. But I
can not. Look! Look at those wonderful mountains!" With one free hand
she pointed.

"Behind them and beyond them lie the romance and adventure and mystery
of centuries, and for nearly thirty years you have been very near those
things, Captain Rifle. No man will ever see again what you have seen or
feel what you have felt, or forget what you have had to forget. I know
it. And after all that, can't you - won't you - forget the strange manner
in which I came aboard this ship? It is such a simple, little thing to
put out of your mind, so trivial, so unimportant when you look
back - and think. Please Captain Rifle - please!"

So quickly that he scarcely sensed the happening of it she pressed his
hand to her lips. Their warm thrill came and went in an instant, leaving
him speechless, his resolution gone.

"I love you because you have been so good to me," she whispered, and as
suddenly as she had kissed his hand, she was gone, leaving him alone
at the rail.



CHAPTER II

Alan Holt saw the slim figure of the girl silhouetted against the vivid
light of the open doorway of the upper-deck salon. He was not watching
her, nor did he look closely at the exceedingly attractive picture which
she made as she paused there for an instant after leaving Captain Rifle.
To him she was only one of the five hundred human atoms that went to
make up the tremendously interesting life of one of the first ships of
the season going north. Fate, through the suave agency of the purser,
had brought him into a bit closer proximity to her than the others; that
was all. For two days her seat in the dining-salon had been at the same
table, not quite opposite him. As she had missed both breakfast hours,
and he had skipped two luncheons, the requirements of neighborliness and
of courtesy had not imposed more than a dozen words of speech upon them.
This was very satisfactory to Alan. He was not talkative or
communicative of his own free will. There was a certain cynicism back of
his love of silence. He was a good listener and a first-rate analyst.
Some people, he knew, were born to talk; and others, to trim the
balance, were burdened with the necessity of holding their tongues. For
him silence was not a burden.

In his cool and causal way he admired Mary Standish. She was very
quiet, and he liked her because of that. He could not, of course, escape
the beauty of her eyes or the shimmering luster of the long lashes that
darkened them. But these were details which did not thrill him, but
merely pleased him. And her hair pleased him possibly even more than her
gray eyes, though he was not sufficiently concerned to discuss the
matter with himself. But if he had pointed out any one thing, it would
have been her hair - not so much the color of it as the care she
evidently gave it, and the manner in which she dressed it. He noted that
it was dark, with varying flashes of luster in it under the dinner
lights. But what he approved of most of all were the smooth, silky coils
in which she fastened it to her pretty head. It was an intense relief
after looking on so many frowsy heads, bobbed and marcelled, during his
six months' visit in the States. So he liked her, generally speaking,
because there was not a thing about her that he might dislike.

He did not, of course, wonder what the girl might be thinking of
him - with his quiet, stern face, his cold indifference, his rather
Indian-like litheness, and the single patch of gray that streaked his
thick, blond hair. His interest had not reached anywhere near
that point.

Tonight it was probable that no woman in the world could have interested
him, except as the always casual observer of humanity. Another and
greater thing gripped him and had thrilled him since he first felt the
throbbing pulse of the engines of the new steamship _Nome_ under his
feet at Seattle. He was going _home_. And home meant Alaska. It meant
the mountains, the vast tundras, the immeasurable spaces into which
civilization had not yet come with its clang and clamor. It meant
friends, the stars he knew, his herds, everything he loved. Such was his
reaction after six months of exile, six months of loneliness and
desolation in cities which he had learned to hate.

"I'll not make the trip again - not for a whole winter - unless I'm sent
at the point of a gun," he said to Captain Rifle, a few moments after
Mary Standish had left the deck. "An Eskimo winter is long enough, but
one in Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York is longer - for me."

"I understand they had you up before the Committee on Ways and Means at
Washington."

"Yes, along with Carl Lomen, of Nome. But Lomen was the real man. He has
forty thousand head of reindeer in the Seward Peninsula, and they had to
listen to him. We may get action."

"May!" Captain Rifle grunted his doubt. "Alaska has been waiting ten
years for a new deck and a new deal. I doubt if you'll get anything.
When politicians from Iowa and south Texas tell us what we can have and
what we need north of Fifty-eight - why, what's the use? Alaska might as
well shut up shop!"

"But she isn't going to do that," said Alan Holt, his face grimly set in
the moonlight. "They've tried hard to get us, and they've made us shut
up a lot of our doors. In 1910 we were thirty-six thousand whites in the
Territory. Since then the politicians at Washington have driven out nine
thousand, a quarter of the population. But those that are left are
hard-boiled. We're not going to quit, Captain. A lot of us are Alaskans,
and we are not afraid to fight."

"You mean - "

"That we'll have a square deal within another five years, or know the
reason why. And another five years after that, we'll he shipping a
million reindeer carcasses down into the States each year. Within twenty
years we'll be shipping five million. Nice thought for the beef barons,
eh? But rather fortunate, I think, for the hundred million Americans who
are turning their grazing lands into farms and irrigation systems."

One of Alan Holt's hands was clenched at the rail. "Until I went down
this winter, I didn't realize just how bad it was," he said, a note hard
as iron in his voice. "Lomen is a diplomat, but I'm not. I want to fight
when I see such things - fight with a gun. Because we happened to find
gold up here, they think Alaska is an orange to be sucked as quickly as
possible, and that when the sucking process is over, the skin will be
worthless. That's modern, dollar-chasing Americanism for you!"

"And are you not an American, Mr. Holt?"

So soft and near was the voice that both men started. Then both turned
and stared. Close behind them, her quiet, beautiful face flooded with
the moon-glow, stood Mary Standish.

"You ask me a question, madam," said Alan Holt, bowing courteously. "No,
I am not an American. I am an Alaskan."

The girl's lips were parted. Her eyes were very bright and clear.
"Please pardon me for listening," she said. "I couldn't help it. I am an
American. I love America. I think I love it more than anything else in
the world - more than my religion, even. _America,_ Mr. Holt. And America
doesn't necessarily mean a great many of America's people. I love to
think that I first came ashore in the _Mayflower_. That is why my name
is Standish. And I just wanted to remind you that Alaska _is_ America."

Alan Holt was a bit amazed. The girl's face was no longer placidly
quiet. Her eyes were radiant. He sensed the repressed thrill in her
voice, and he knew that in the light of day he would have seen fire in
her cheeks. He smiled, and in that smile he could not quite keep back
the cynicism of his thought.

"And what do you know about Alaska, Miss Standish?"

"Nothing," she said. "And yet I love it." She pointed to the mountains.
"I wish I might have been born among them. You are fortunate. You should
love America."

"Alaska, you mean!"

"No, America." There was a flashing challenge in her eyes. She was not
speaking apologetically. Her meaning was direct.

The irony on Alan's lips died away. With a little laugh he bowed again.
"If I am speaking to a daughter of Captain Miles Standish, who came over
in the _Mayflower_, I stand reproved," he said. "You should be an
authority on Americanism, if I am correct in surmising your
relationship."

"You are correct," she replied with a proud, little tilt of her glossy
head, "though I think that only lately have I come to an understanding
of its significance - and its responsibility. I ask your pardon again for
interrupting you. It was not premeditated. It just happened."

She did not wait for either of them to speak, but flashed the two a
swift smile and passed down the promenade.

The music had ceased and the cabins at last were emptying themselves of
life.

"A remarkable young woman," Alan remarked. "I imagine that the spirit of
Captain Miles Standish may be a little proud of this particular
olive-branch. A chip off the old block, you might say. One would almost
suppose he had married Priscilla and this young lady was a definite
though rather indirect result."

He had a curious way of laughing without any more visible manifestation
of humor than spoken words. It was a quality in his voice which one
could not miss, and at times, when ironically amused, it carried a
sting which he did not altogether intend.

In another moment Mary Standish was forgotten, and he was asking the
captain a question which was in his mind.

"The itinerary of this ship is rather confused, is it not?"

"Yes - rather," acknowledged Captain Rifle. "Hereafter she will ply
directly between Seattle and Nome. But this time we're doing the Inside
Passage to Juneau and Skagway and will make the Aleutian Passage via
Cordova and Seward. A whim of the owners, which they haven't seen fit to
explain to me. Possibly the Canadian junket aboard may have something to
do with it. We're landing them at Skagway, where they make the Yukon by
way of White Horse Pass. A pleasure trip for flabby people nowadays,
Holt. I can remember - "

"So can I," nodded Alan Holt, looking at the mountains beyond which lay
the dead-strewn trails of the gold stampede of a generation before. "I
remember. And old Donald is dreaming of that hell of death back there.
He was all choked up tonight. I wish he might forget."

"Men don't forget such women as Jane Hope," said the captain softly.

"You knew her?"

"Yes. She came up with her father on my ship. That was twenty-five years
ago last autumn, Alan. A long time, isn't it? And when I look at Mary
Standish and hear her voice - " He hesitated, as if betraying a secret,
and then he added: " - I can't help thinking of the girl Donald Hardwick
fought for and won in that death-hole at White Horse. It's too bad she
had to die."

"She isn't dead," said Alan. The hardness was gone from his voice. "She
isn't dead," he repeated. "That's the pity of it. She is as much a
living thing to him today as she was twenty years ago."

After a moment the captain said, "She was talking with him early this
evening, Alan."

"Miss Captain Miles Standish, you mean?"

"Yes. There seems to be something about her that amuses you."

Alan shrugged his shoulders. "Not at all. I think she is a most
admirable young person. Will you have a cigar, Captain? I'm going to
promenade a bit. It does me good to mix in with the sour-doughs."

The two lighted their cigars from a single match, and Alan went his way,
while the captain turned in the direction of his cabin.

To Alan, on this particular night, the steamship _Nome_ was more than a
thing of wood and steel. It was a living, pulsating being, throbbing
with the very heart-beat of Alaska. The purr of the mighty engines was a
human intelligence crooning a song of joy. For him the crowded passenger
list held a significance that was almost epic, and its names represented
more than mere men and women. They were the vital fiber of the land he
loved, its heart's blood, its very element - "giving in." He knew that
with the throb of those engines romance, adventure, tragedy, and hope
were on their way north - and with these things also arrogance and greed.
On board were a hundred conflicting elements - some that had fought for
Alaska, others that would make her, and others that would destroy.

He puffed at his cigar and walked alone, brushing sleeves with men and
women whom he scarcely seemed to notice. But he was observant. He knew
the tourists almost without looking at them. The spirit of the north had
not yet seized upon them. They were voluble and rather excitedly
enthusiastic in the face of beauty and awesomeness. The sour-doughs were
tucked away here and there in shadowy nooks, watching in silence, or
they walked the deck slowly and quietly, smoking their cigars or pipes,
and seeing things beyond the mountains. Between these two, the newcomers
and the old-timers, ran the gamut of all human thrill for Alan, the
flesh-and-blood fiber of everything that went to make up life north of
Fifty-four. And he could have gone from man to man and picked out those
who belonged north of Fifty-eight.

Aft of the smoking-room he paused, tipping the ash of his cigar over the
edge of the rail. A little group of three stood near him, and he
recognized them as the young engineers, fresh from college, going up to
work on the government railroad running from Seward to Tanana. One of
them was talking, filled with the enthusiasm of his first adventure.

"I tell you," he said, "people don't know what they ought to know about
Alaska. In school they teach us that it's an eternal icebox full of
gold, and is headquarters for Santa Claus, because that's where reindeer
come from. And grown-ups think about the same thing. Why" - he drew in a
deep breath - "it's nine times as large as the state of Washington,
twelve times as big as the state of New York, and we bought it from
Russia for less than two cents an acre. If you put it down on the face
of the United States, the city of Juneau would be in St. Augustine,


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryJames Oliver CurwoodThe Alaskan → online text (page 1 of 18)