James Oliver Curwood.

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evening in the smoking-room. Rather curious, he thought, that he should
now find it at his door.



CHAPTER IV

For a few minutes after finding the handkerchief at his door, Alan
experienced a feeling of mingled curiosity and disappointment - also a
certain resentment. The suspicion that he was becoming involved in spite
of himself was not altogether pleasant. The evening, up to a certain
point, had been fairly entertaining. It was true he might have passed a
pleasanter hour recalling old times with Stampede Smith, or discussing
Kadiak bears with the English earl, or striking up an acquaintance with
the unknown graybeard who had voiced an opinion about John Graham. But
he was not regretting lost hours, nor was he holding Mary Standish
accountable for them. It was, last of all, the handkerchief that
momentarily upset him.

Why had she dropped it at his door? It was not a dangerous-looking
affair, to be sure, with its filmy lace edging and ridiculous
diminutiveness. As the question came to him, he was wondering how even
as dainty a nose as that possessed by Mary Standish could be much
comforted by it. But it was pretty. And, like Mary Standish, there was
something exquisitely quiet and perfect about it, like the simplicity of
her hair. He was not analyzing the matter. It was a thought that came to
him almost unconsciously, as he tossed the annoying bit of fabric on
the little table at the head of his berth. Undoubtedly the dropping of
it had been entirely unpremeditated and accidental. At least he told
himself so. And he also assured himself, with an involuntary shrug of
his shoulders, that any woman or girl had the right to pass his door if
she so desired, and that he was an idiot for thinking otherwise. The
argument was only slightly adequate. But Alan was not interested in
mysteries, especially when they had to do with woman - and such an
absurdly inconsequential thing as a handkerchief.

A second time he went to bed. He fell asleep thinking about Keok and
Nawadlook and the people of his range. From somewhere he had been given
the priceless heritage of dreaming pleasantly, and Keok was very real,
with her swift smile and mischievous face, and Nawadlook's big, soft
eyes were brighter than when he had gone away. He saw Tautuk, gloomy as
usual over the heartlessness of Keok. He was beating a tom-tom that gave
out the peculiar sound of bells, and to this Amuk Toolik was dancing the
Bear Dance, while Keok clapped her hands in exaggerated admiration. Even
in his dreams Alan chuckled. He knew what was happening, and that out of
the corners of her laughing eyes Keok was enjoying Tautuk's jealousy.
Tautuk was so stupid he would never understand. That was the funny part
of it. And he beat his drum savagely, scowling so that he almost shut
his eyes, while Keok laughed outright.

It was then that Alan opened his eyes and heard the last of the ship's
bells. It was still dark. He turned on the light and looked at his
watch. Tautuk's drum had tolled eight bells, aboard the ship, and it was
four o'clock in the morning.

Through the open port came the smell of sea and land, and with it a
chill air which Alan drank in deeply as he stretched himself for a few
minutes after awakening. The tang of it was like wine in his blood, and
he got up quietly and dressed while he smoked the stub-end of a cigar he
had laid aside at midnight. Not until he had finished dressing did he
notice the handkerchief on the table. If its presence had suggested a
significance a few hours before, he no longer disturbed himself by
thinking about it. A bit of carelessness on the girl's part, that was
all. He would return it. Mechanically he put the crumpled bit of cambric
in his coat pocket before going on deck.

He had guessed that he would be alone. The promenade was deserted.
Through the ghost-white mist of morning he saw the rows of empty chairs,
and lights burning dully in the wheel-house. Asian monsoon and the
drifting warmth of the Japan current had brought an early spring to the
Alexander Archipelago, and May had stolen much of the flowering softness
of June. But the dawns of these days were chilly and gray. Mists and
fogs settled in the valleys, and like thin smoke rolled down the sides
of the mountains to the sea, so that a ship traveling the inner waters
felt its way like a child creeping in darkness.

Alan loved this idiosyncrasy of the Alaskan coast. The phantom mystery
of it was stimulating, and in the peril of it was a challenging lure. He
could feel the care with which the _Nome_ was picking her way northward.
Her engines were thrumming softly, and her movement was a slow and
cautious glide, catlike and slightly trembling, as if every pound of
steel in her were a living nerve widely alert. He knew Captain Rifle
would not be asleep and that straining eyes were peering into the white
gloom from the wheel-house. Somewhere west of them, hazardously near,
must lie the rocks of Admiralty Island; eastward were the still more
pitiless glacial sandstones and granites of the coast, with that deadly
finger of sea-washed reef between, along the lip of which they must
creep to Juneau. And Juneau could not be far ahead.

He leaned over the rail, puffing at the stub of his cigar. He was eager
for his work. Juneau, Skagway, and Cordova meant nothing to him, except
that they were Alaska. He yearned for the still farther north, the wide
tundras, and the mighty achievement that lay ahead of him there. His
blood sang to the surety of it now, and for that reason he was not sorry
he had spent seven months of loneliness in the States. He had proved
with his own eyes that the day was near when Alaska would come into her
own. Gold! He laughed. Gold had its lure, its romance, its thrill, but
what was all the gold the mountains might possess compared with this
greater thing he was helping to build! It seemed to him the people he
had met in the south had thought only of gold when they learned he was
from Alaska. Always gold - that first, and then ice, snow, endless
nights, desolate barrens, and craggy mountains frowning everlastingly
upon a blasted land in which men fought against odds and only the
fittest survived. It was gold that had been Alaska's doom. When people
thought of it, they visioned nothing beyond the old stampede days, the
Chilkoot, White Horse, Dawson, and Circle City. Romance and glamor and
the tragedies of dead men clung to their ribs. But they were beginning
to believe now. Their eyes were opening. Even the Government was waking
up, after proving there was something besides graft in railroad building
north of Mount St. Elias. Senators and Congressmen at Washington had
listened to him seriously, and especially to Carl Lomen. And the beef
barons, wisest of all, had tried to buy him off and had offered a
fortune for Lomen's forty thousand head of reindeer in the Seward
Peninsula! That was proof of the awakening. Absolute proof.

He lighted a fresh cigar, and his mind shot through the dissolving mist
into the vast land ahead of him. Some Alaskans had cursed Theodore
Roosevelt for putting what they called "the conservation shackles" on
their country. But he, for one, did not. Roosevelt's far-sightedness had
kept the body-snatchers at bay, and because he had foreseen what
money-power and greed would do, Alaska was not entirely stripped today,
but lay ready to serve with all her mighty resources the mother who had
neglected her for a generation. But it was going to be a struggle, this
opening up of a great land. It must be done resourcefully and with
intelligence. Once the bars were down, Roosevelt's shadow-hand could not
hold back such desecrating forces as John Graham and the syndicate he
represented.

Thought of Graham was an unpleasant reminder, and his face grew hard in
the sea-mist. Alaskans themselves must fight against the licensed
plunderers. And it would be a hard fight. He had seen the pillaging work
of these financial brigands in a dozen states during the past
winter - states raped of their forests, their lakes and streams robbed
and polluted, their resources hewn down to naked skeletons. He had been
horrified and a little frightened when he looked over the desolation of
Michigan, once the richest timber state in America. What if the
Government at Washington made it possible for such a thing to happen in
Alaska? Politics - and money - were already fighting for just that thing.

He no longer heard the throb of the ship under his feet. It was _his_
fight, and brain and muscle reacted to it almost as if it had been a
physical thing. And his end of that fight he was determined to win, if
it took every year of his life. He, with a few others, would prove to
the world that the millions of acres of treeless tundras of the north
were not the cast-off ends of the earth. They would populate them, and
the so-called "barrens" would thunder to the innumerable hoofs of
reindeer herds as the American plains had never thundered to the beat of
cattle. He was not thinking of the treasure he would find at the end of
this rainbow of success which he visioned. Money, simply as money, he
hated. It was the achievement of the thing that gripped him; the passion
to hew a trail through which his beloved land might come into its own,
and the desire to see it achieve a final triumph by feeding a half of
that America which had laughed at it and kicked it when it was down.

The tolling of the ship's bell roused him from the subconscious struggle
into which he had allowed himself to be drawn. Ordinarily he had no
sympathy with himself when he fell into one of these mental spasms, as
he called them. Without knowing it, he was a little proud of a certain
dispassionate tolerance which he possessed - a philosophical mastery of
his emotions which at times was almost cold-blooded, and which made some
people think he was a thing of stone instead of flesh and blood. His
thrills he kept to himself. And a mildly disturbing sensation passed
through him now, when he found that unconsciously his fingers had twined
themselves about the little handkerchief in his pocket. He drew it out
and made a sudden movement as if to toss it overboard. Then, with a
grunt expressive of the absurdity of the thing, he replaced it in his
pocket and began to walk slowly toward the bow of the ship.

He wondered, as he noted the lifting of the fog, what he would have been
had he possessed a sister like Mary Standish. Or any family at all, for
that matter - even an uncle or two who might have been interested in him.
He remembered his father vividly, his mother a little less so, because
his mother had died when he was six and his father when he was twenty.
It was his father who stood out above everything else, like the
mountains he loved. The father would remain with him always, inspiring
him, urging him, encouraging him to live like a gentleman, fight like a
man, and die at last unafraid. In that fashion the older Alan Holt had
lived and died. But his mother, her face and voice scarcely remembered
in the passing of many years, was more a hallowed memory to him than a
thing of flesh and blood. And there had been no sisters or brothers.
Often he had regretted this lack of brotherhood. But a sister.... He
grunted his disapprobation of the thought. A sister would have meant
enchainment to civilization. Cities, probably. Even the States. And
slavery to a life he detested. He appreciated the immensity of his
freedom. A Mary Standish, even though she were his sister, would be a
catastrophe. He could not conceive of her, or any other woman like her,
living with Keok and Nawadlook and the rest of his people in the heart
of the tundras. And the tundras would always be his home, because his
heart was there.

He had passed round the wheel-house and came suddenly upon an odd figure
crumpled in a chair. It was Stampede Smith. In the clearer light that
came with the dissolution of the sea-mist Alan saw that he was not
asleep. He paused, unseen by the other. Stampede stretched himself,
groaned, and stood up. He was a little man, and his fiercely bristling
red whiskers, wet with dew, were luxuriant enough for a giant. His head
of tawny hair, bristling like his whiskers, added to the piratical
effect of him above the neck, but below that part of his anatomy there
was little to strike fear into the hearts of humanity. Some people
smiled when they looked at him. Others, not knowing their man, laughed
outright. Whiskers could be funny. And they were undoubtedly funny on
Stampede Smith. But Alan neither smiled nor laughed, for in his heart
was something very near to the missing love of brotherhood for this
little man who had written his name across so many pages of
Alaskan history.

This morning, as Alan saw him, Stampede Smith was no longer the swiftest
gunman between White Horse and Dawson City. He was a pathetic reminder
of the old days when, single-handed, he had run down Soapy Smith and his
gang - days when the going of Stampede Smith to new fields meant a
stampede behind him, and when his name was mentioned in the same breath
with those of George Carmack, and Alex McDonald, and Jerome Chute, and
a hundred men like Curley Monroe and Joe Barret set their compasses by
his. To Alan there was tragedy in his aloneness as he stood in the gray
of the morning. Twenty times a millionaire, he knew that Stampede Smith
was broke again.

"Good morning," he said so unexpectedly that the little man jerked
himself round like the lash of a whip, a trick of the old gun days. "Why
so much loneliness, Stampede?"

Stampede grinned wryly. He had humorous, blue eyes, buried like an
Airedale's under brows which bristled even more fiercely than his
whiskers. "I'm thinkin'," said he, "what a fool thing is money. Good
mornin', Alan!"

He nodded and chuckled, and continued to chuckle in the face of the
lifting fog, and Alan saw the old humor which had always been Stampede's
last asset when in trouble. He drew nearer and stood beside him, so that
their shoulders touched as they leaned over the rail.

"Alan," said Stampede, "it ain't often I have a big thought, but I've
been having one all night. Ain't forgot Bonanza, have you?"

Alan shook his head. "As long as there is an Alaska, we won't forget
Bonanza, Stampede."

"I took a million out of it, next to Carmack's Discovery - an' went
busted afterward, didn't I?"

Alan nodded without speaking.

"But that wasn't a circumstance to Gold Run Creek, over the Divide,"
Stampede continued ruminatively. "Ain't forgot old Aleck McDonald, the
Scotchman, have you, Alan? In the 'wash' of Ninety-eight we took up
seventy sacks to bring our gold back in and we lacked thirty of doin'
the job. Nine hundred thousand dollars in a single clean-up, and that
was only the beginning. Well, I went busted again. And old Aleck went
busted later on. But he had a pretty wife left. A girl from Seattle. I
had to grub-stake."

He was silent for a moment, caressing his damp whiskers, as he noted the
first rose-flush of the sun breaking through the mist between them and
the unseen mountain tops.

"Five times after that I made strikes and went busted," he said a little
proudly. "And I'm busted again!"

"I know it," sympathized Alan.

"They took every cent away from me down in Seattle an' Frisco," chuckled
Stampede, rubbing his hands together cheerfully, "an' then bought me a
ticket to Nome. Mighty fine of them, don't you think? Couldn't have been
more decent. I knew that fellow Kopf had a heart. That's why I trusted
him with my money. It wasn't his fault he lost it."

"Of course not," agreed Alan.

"And I'm sort of sorry I shot him up for it. I am, for a fact."

"You killed him?"

"Not quite. I clipped one ear off as a reminder, down in Chink
Holleran's place. Mighty sorry. Didn't think then how decent it was of
him to buy me a ticket to Nome. I just let go in the heat of the moment.
He did me a favor in cleanin' me, Alan. He did, so help me! You don't
realize how free an' easy an' beautiful everything is until
you're busted."

Smiling, his odd face almost boyish behind its ambush of hair, he saw
the grim look in Alan's eyes and about his jaws. He caught hold of the
other's arm and shook it.

"Alan, I mean it!" he declared. "That's why I think money is a fool
thing. It ain't _spendin'_ money that makes me happy. It's _findin'_
it - the gold in the mountains - that makes the blood run fast through my
gizzard. After I've found it, I can't find any use for it in particular.
I want to go broke. If I didn't, I'd get lazy and fat, an' some
newfangled doctor would operate on me, and I'd die. They're doing a lot
of that operatin' down in Frisco, Alan. One day I had a pain, and they
wanted to cut out something from inside me. Think what can happen to a
man when he's got money!"

"You mean all that, Stampede?"

"On my life, I do. I'm just aching for the open skies, Alan. The
mountains. And the yellow stuff that's going to be my playmate till I
die. Somebody'll grub-stake me in Nome."

"They won't," said Alan suddenly. "Not if I can help it. Stampede, I
want you. I want you with me up under the Endicott Mountains. I've got
ten thousand reindeer up there. It's No Man's Land, and we can do as we
please in it. I'm not after gold. I want another sort of thing. But I've
fancied the Endicott ranges are full of that yellow playmate of yours.
It's a new country. You've never seen it. God only knows what you may
find. Will you come?"

The humorous twinkle had gone out of Stampede's eyes. He was staring at
Alan.

"Will I _come?_ Alan, will a cub nurse its mother? Try me. Ask me. Say
it all over ag'in."

The two men gripped hands. Smiling, Alan nodded to the east. The last of
the fog was clearing swiftly. The tips of the cragged Alaskan ranges
rose up against the blue of a cloudless sky, and the morning sun was
flashing in rose and gold at their snowy peaks. Stampede also nodded.
Speech was unnecessary. They both understood, and the thrill of the life
they loved passed from one to the other in the grip of their hands.



CHAPTER V

Breakfast hour was half over when Alan went into the dining-room. There
were only two empty chairs at his table. One was his own. The other
belonged to Mary Standish. There was something almost aggressively
suggestive in their simultaneous vacancy, it struck him at first. He
nodded as he sat down, a flash of amusement in his eyes when he observed
the look in the young engineer's face. It was both envious and accusing,
and yet Alan was sure the young man was unconscious of betraying an
emotion. The fact lent to the eating of his grapefruit an accompaniment
of pleasing and amusing thought. He recalled the young man's name. It
was Tucker. He was a clean-faced, athletic, likable-looking chap. And an
idiot would have guessed the truth, Alan told himself. The young
engineer was more than casually interested in Mary Standish; he was in
love. It was not a discovery which Alan made. It was a decision, and as
soon as possible he would remedy the unfortunate omission of a general
introduction at their table by bringing the two together. Such an
introduction would undoubtedly relieve him of a certain responsibility
which had persisted in attaching itself to him.

So he tried to think. But in spite of his resolution he could not get
the empty chair opposite him out of his mind. It refused to be
obliterated, and when other chairs became vacant as their owners left
the table, this one straight across from him continued to thrust itself
upon him. Until this morning it had been like other empty chairs. Now it
was persistently annoying, inasmuch as he had no desire to be so
constantly reminded of last night, and the twelve o'clock tryst of Mary
Standish with Graham's agent, Rossland.

He was the last at the table. Tucker, remaining until his final hope of
seeing Mary Standish was gone, rose with two others. The first two had
made their exit through the door leading from the dining salon when the
young engineer paused. Alan, watching him, saw a sudden change in his
face. In a moment it was explained. Mary Standish came in. She passed
Tucker without appearing to notice him, and gave Alan a cool little nod
as she seated herself at the table. She was very pale. He could see
nothing of the flush of color that had been in her cheeks last night. As
she bowed her head a little, arranging her dress, a pool of sunlight
played in her hair, and Alan was staring at it when she raised her eyes.
They were coolly beautiful, very direct, and without embarrassment.
Something inside him challenged their loveliness. It seemed
inconceivable that such eyes could play a part in fraud and deception,
yet he was in possession of quite conclusive proof of it. If they had
lowered themselves an instant, if they had in any way betrayed a shadow
of regret, he would have found an apology. Instead of that, his fingers
touched the handkerchief in his pocket.

"Did you sleep well, Miss Standish?" he asked politely.

"Not at all," she replied, so frankly that his conviction was a bit
unsettled. "I tried to powder away the dark rings under my eyes, but I
am afraid I have failed. Is that why you ask?"

He was holding the handkerchief in his hand. "This is the first morning
I have seen you at breakfast. I accepted it for granted you must have
slept well. Is this yours, Miss Standish?"

He watched her face as she took the crumpled bit of cambric from his
fingers. In a moment she was smiling. The smile was not forced. It was
the quick response to a feminine instinct of pleasure, and he was
disappointed not to catch in her face a betrayal of embarrassment.

"It is my handkerchief, Mr. Holt. Where did you find it?"

"In front of my cabin door a little after midnight."

He was almost brutal in the definiteness of detail. He expected some
kind of result. But there was none, except that the smile remained on
her lips a moment longer, and there was a laughing flash back in the
clear depths of her eyes. Her level glance was as innocent as a child's
and as he looked at her, he thought of a child - a most beautiful
child - and so utterly did he feel the discomfiture of his mental
analysis of her that he rose to his feet with a frigid bow.

"I thank you, Mr. Holt," she said. "You can imagine my sense of
obligation when I tell you I have only three handkerchiefs aboard the
ship with me. And this is my favorite."

She busied herself with the breakfast card, and as Alan left, he heard
her give the waiter an order for fruit and cereal. His blood was hot,
but the flush of it did not show in his face. He felt the uncomfortable
sensation of her eyes following him as he stalked through the door. He
did not look back. Something was wrong with him, and he knew it. This
chit of a girl with her smooth hair and clear eyes had thrown a grain of
dust into the satisfactory mechanism of his normal self, and the grind
of it was upsetting certain specific formulae which made up his life. He
was a fool. He lighted a cigar and called himself names.

Someone brushed against him, jarring the hand that held the burning
match. He looked up. It was Rossland. The man had a mere twist of a
smile on his lips. In his eyes was a coolly appraising look as
he nodded.

"Beg pardon." The words were condescending, carelessly flung at him over
Rossland's shoulder. He might as well have said, "I'm sorry, Boy, but
you must keep out of my way."

Alan smiled back and returned the nod. Once, in a spirit of sauciness,
Keok had told him his eyes were like purring cats when he was in a humor
to kill. They were like that now as they flashed their smile at
Rossland. The sneering twist left Rossland's lips as he entered the
dining-room.

A rather obvious prearrangement between Mary Standish and John Graham's
agent, Alan thought. There were not half a dozen people left at the
tables, and the scheme was that Rossland should be served tête-à-tête
with Miss Standish, of course. That, apparently, was why she had greeted
him with such cool civility. Her anxiety for him to leave the table
before Rossland appeared upon the scene was evident, now that he
understood the situation.

He puffed at his cigar. Rossland's interference had spoiled a perfect
lighting of it, and he struck another match. This time he was
successful, and he was about to extinguish the burning end when he
hesitated and held it until the fire touched his flesh. Mary Standish
was coming through the door. Amazed by the suddenness of her appearance,
he made no movement except to drop the match. Her eyes were flaming, and
two vivid spots burned in her cheeks. She saw him and gave the slightest


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Online LibraryJames Oliver CurwoodThe Alaskan → online text (page 3 of 18)