James Oliver Curwood.

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inclination to her head as she passed. When she had gone, he could not
resist looking into the salon. As he expected, Rossland was seated in a
chair next to the one she had occupied, and was calmly engaged in
looking over the breakfast card.

All this was rather interesting, Alan conceded, if one liked puzzles.
Personally he had no desire to become an answerer of conundrums, and he
was a little ashamed of the curiosity that had urged him to look in upon
Rossland. At the same time he was mildly elated at the freezing
reception which Miss Standish had evidently given to the dislikable
individual who had jostled him in passing.

He went on deck. The sun was pouring in an iridescent splendor over the
snowy peaks of the mountains, and it seemed as if he could almost reach
out his arms and touch them. The _Nome_ appeared to be drifting in the
heart of a paradise of mountains. Eastward, very near, was the mainland;
so close on the other hand that he could hear the shout of a man was
Douglas Island, and ahead, reaching out like a silver-blue ribbon was
Gastineau Channel. The mining towns of Treadwell and Douglas were
in sight.

Someone nudged him, and he found Stampede Smith at his side.

"That's Bill Treadwell's place," he said. "Once the richest gold mines
in Alaska. They're flooded now. I knew Bill when he was worrying about
the price of a pair of boots. Had to buy a second-hand pair an' patched
'em himself. Then he struck it lucky, got four hundred dollars
somewhere, and bought some claims over there from a man named French
Pete. They called it Glory Hole. An' there was a time when there were
nine hundred stamps at work. Take a look, Alan. It's worth it."

Somehow Stampede's voice and information lacked appeal. The decks were
crowded with passengers as the ship picked her way into Juneau, and Alan
wandered among them with a gathering sense of disillusionment pressing
upon him. He knew that he was looking with more than casual interest for
Mary Standish, and he was glad when Stampede bumped into an old
acquaintance and permitted him to be alone. He was not pleased with the
discovery, and yet he was compelled to acknowledge the truth of it. The
grain of dust had become more than annoying. It did not wear away, as he
had supposed it would, but was becoming an obsessive factor in his
thoughts. And the half-desire it built up in him, while aggravatingly
persistent, was less disturbing than before. The little drama in the
dining-room had had its effect upon him in spite of himself. He liked
fighters. And Mary Standish, intensely feminine in her quiet prettiness,
had shown her mettle in those few moments when he had seen her flashing
eyes and blazing cheeks after leaving Rossland. He began to look for
Rossland, too. He was in a humor to meet him.

Not until Juneau hung before him in all its picturesque beauty,
literally terraced against the green sweep of Mount Juneau, did he go
down to the lower deck. The few passengers ready to leave the ship
gathered near the gangway with their luggage. Alan was about to pass
them when he suddenly stopped. A short distance from him, where he could
see every person who disembarked, stood Rossland. There was something
grimly unpleasant in his attitude as he fumbled his watch-fob and eyed
the stair from above. His watchfulness sent an unexpected thrill through
Alan. Like a shot his mind jumped to a conclusion. He stepped to
Rossland's side and touched his arm.

"Watching for Miss Standish?" he asked.

"I am." There was no evasion in Rossland's words. They possessed the
hard and definite quality of one who had an incontestable authority
behind him.

"And if she goes ashore?"

"I am going too. Is it any affair of yours, Mr. Holt? Has she asked you
to discuss the matter with me? If so - "

"No, Miss Standish hasn't done that."

"Then please attend to your own business. If you haven't enough to take
up your time, I'll lend you some books. I have several in my cabin."

Without waiting for an answer Rossland coolly moved away. Alan did not
follow. There was nothing for him to resent, nothing for him to
imprecate but his own folly. Rossland's words were not an insult. They
were truth. He had deliberately intruded in an affair which was
undoubtedly of a highly private nature. Possibly it was a domestic
tangle. He shuddered. A sense of humiliation swept over him, and he was
glad that Rossland did not even look back at him. He tried to whistle as
he climbed back to the main-deck; Rossland, even though he detested the
man, had set him right. And he would lend him books, if he wanted to be
amused! Egad, but the fellow had turned the trick nicely. And it was
something to be remembered. He stiffened his shoulders and found old
Donald Hardwick and Stampede Smith. He did not leave them until the
_Nome_ had landed her passengers and freight and was churning her way
out of Gastineau Channel toward Skagway. Then he went to the
smoking-room and remained there until luncheon hour.

Today Mary Standish was ahead of him at the table. She was seated with
her back toward him as he entered, so she did not see him as he came up
behind her, so near that his coat brushed her chair. He looked across at
her and smiled as he seated himself. She returned the smile, but it
seemed to him an apologetic little effort. She did not look well, and
her presence at the table struck him as being a brave front to hide
something from someone. Casually he looked over his left shoulder.
Rossland was there, in his seat at the opposite side of the room.
Indirect as his glance had been, Alan saw the girl understood the
significance of it. She bowed her head a little, and her long lashes
shaded her eyes for a moment. He wondered why he always looked at her
hair first. It had a peculiarly pleasing effect on him. He had been
observant enough to know that she had rearranged it since breakfast, and
the smooth coils twisted in mysterious intricacy at the crown of her
head were like softly glowing velvet. The ridiculous thought came to
him that he would like to see them tumbling down about her. They must be
even more beautiful when freed from their bondage.

The pallor of her face was unusual. Possibly it was the way the light
fell upon her through the window. But when she looked across at him
again, he caught for an instant the tiniest quiver about her mouth. He
began telling her something about Skagway, quite carelessly, as if he
had seen nothing which she might want to conceal. The light in her eyes
changed, and it was almost a glow of gratitude he caught in them. He had
broken a tension, relieved her of some unaccountable strain she was
under. He noticed that her ordering of food was merely a pretense. She
scarcely touched it, and yet he was sure no other person at the table
had discovered the insincerity of her effort, not even Tucker, the
enamored engineer. It was likely Tucker placed a delicate halo about her
lack of appetite, accepting daintiness of that sort as an
angelic virtue.

Only Alan, sitting opposite her, guessed the truth. She was making a
splendid effort, but he felt that every nerve in her body was at the
breaking-point. When she arose from her seat, he thrust back his own
chair. At the same time he saw Rossland get up and advance rather
hurriedly from the opposite side of the room. The girl passed through
the door first, Rossland followed a dozen steps behind, and Alan came
last, almost shoulder to shoulder with Tucker. It was amusing in a way,
yet beyond the humor of it was something that drew a grim line about the
corners of his mouth.

At the foot of the luxuriously carpeted stair leading from the dining
salon to the main deck Miss Standish suddenly stopped and turned upon
Rossland. For only an instant her eyes were leveled at him. Then they
flashed past him, and with a swift movement she came toward Alan. A
flush had leaped into her cheeks, but there was no excitement in her
voice when she spoke. Yet it was distinct, and clearly heard
by Rossland.

"I understand we are approaching Skagway, Mr. Holt," she said. "Will you
take me on deck, and tell me about it?"

Graham's agent had paused at the foot of the stair and was slowly
preparing to light a cigarette. Recalling his humiliation of a few hours
before at Juneau, when the other had very clearly proved him a meddler,
words refused to form quickly on Alan's lips. Before he was ready with
an answer Mary Standish had confidently taken his arm. He could see the
red flush deepening in her upturned face. She was amazingly unexpected,
bewilderingly pretty, and as cool as ice except for the softly glowing
fire in her cheeks. He saw Rossland staring with his cigarette half
poised. It was instinctive for him to smile in the face of danger, and
he smiled now, without speaking. The girl laughed softly. She gave his
arm a gentle tug, and he found himself moving past Rossland, amazed but
obedient, her eyes looking at him in a way that sent a gentle thrill
through him.

At the head of the wide stair she whispered, with her lips close to his
shoulder: "You are splendid! I thank you, Mr. Holt."

Her words, along with the decisive relaxing of her hand upon his arm,
were like a dash of cold water in his face. Rossland could no longer see
them, unless he had followed. The girl had played her part, and a second
time he had accepted the role of a slow-witted fool. But the thought did
not anger him. There was a remarkable element of humor about it for him,
viewing himself in the matter, and Mary Standish heard him chuckling as
they came out on deck.

Her fingers tightened resentfully upon his arm. "It isn't funny," she
reproved. "It is tragic to be bored by a man like that."

He knew she was politely lying to anticipate the question he might ask,
and he wondered what would happen if he embarrassed her by letting her
know he had seen her alone with Rossland at midnight. He looked down at
her, and she met his scrutiny unflinchingly. She even smiled at him, and
her eyes, he thought, were the loveliest liars he had ever looked into.
He felt the stir of an unusual sentiment - a sort of pride in her, and he
made up his mind to say nothing about Rossland. He was still absurdly
convinced that he had not the smallest interest in affairs which were
not entirely his own. Mary Standish evidently believed he was blind,
and he would make no effort to spoil her illusion. Such a course would
undoubtedly be most satisfactory in the end.

Even now she seemed to have forgotten the incident at the foot of the
stair. A softer light was in her eyes when they came to the bow of the
ship, and Alan fancied he heard a strange little cry on her lips as she
looked about her upon the paradise of Taiya Inlet. Straight ahead, like
a lilac ribbon, ran the narrow waterway to Skagway's door, while on both
sides rose high mountains, covered with green forests to the snowy
crests that gleamed like white blankets near the clouds. In this melting
season there came to them above the slow throb of the ship's engines the
liquid music of innumerable cascades, and from a mountain that seemed to
float almost directly over their heads fell a stream of water a sheer
thousand feet to the sea, smoking and twisting in the sunshine like a
living thing at play. And then a miracle happened which even Alan
wondered at, for the ship seemed to stand still and the mountain to
swing slowly, as if some unseen and mighty force were opening a guarded
door, and green foothills with glistening white cottages floated into
the picture, and Skagway, heart of romance, monument to brave men and
thrilling deeds, drifted out slowly from its hiding-place. Alan turned
to speak, but what he saw in the girl's face held him silent. Her lips
were parted, and she was staring as if an unexpected thing had risen
before her eyes, something that bewildered her and even startled her.

And then, as if speaking to herself and not to Alan Holt, she said in a
tense whisper: "I have seen this place before. It was a long time ago.
Maybe it was a hundred years or a thousand. But I have been here. I have
lived under that mountain with the waterfall creeping down it - "

A tremor ran through her, and she remembered Alan. She looked up at him,
and he was puzzled. A weirdly beautiful mystery lay in her eyes.

"I must go ashore here," she said. "I didn't know I would find it so
soon. Please - "

With her hand touching his arm she turned. He was looking at her and saw
the strange light fade swiftly out of her eyes. Following her glance he
saw Rossland standing half a dozen paces behind them.

In another moment Mary Standish was facing the sea, and again her hand
was resting confidently in the crook of Alan's arm. "Did you ever feel
like killing a man, Mr. Holt?" she asked with an icy little laugh.

"Yes," he answered rather unexpectedly. "And some day, if the right
opportunity comes, I am going to kill a certain man - the man who
murdered my father."

She gave a little gasp of horror. "Your father - was - murdered - "

"Indirectly - yes. It wasn't done with knife or gun, Miss Standish. Money
was the weapon. Somebody's money. And John Graham was the man who
struck the blow. Some day, if there is justice, I shall kill him. And
right now, if you will allow me to demand an explanation of this man
Rossland - "

"_No_." Her hand tightened on his arm. Then, slowly, she drew it away.
"I don't want you to ask an explanation of him," she said. "If he should
make it, you would hate me. Tell me about Skagway, Mr. Holt. That will
be pleasanter."



CHAPTER VI

Not until early twilight came with the deep shadows of the western
mountains, and the _Nome_ was churning slowly back through the narrow
water-trails to the open Pacific, did the significance of that afternoon
fully impress itself upon Alan. For hours he had surrendered himself to
an impulse which he could not understand, and which in ordinary moments
he would not have excused. He had taken Mary Standish ashore. For two
hours she had walked at his side, asking him questions and listening to
him as no other had ever questioned him or listened to him before. He
had shown her Skagway. Between the mountains he pictured the wind-racked
cañon where Skagway grew from one tent to hundreds in a day, from
hundreds to thousands in a week; he visioned for her the old days of
romance, adventure, and death; he told her of Soapy Smith and his gang
of outlaws, and side by side they stood over Soapy's sunken grave as the
first somber shadows of the mountains grew upon them.

But among it all, and through it all, she had asked him about _himself_.
And he had responded. Until now he did not realize how much he had
confided in her. It seemed to him that the very soul of this slim and
beautiful girl who had walked at his side had urged him on to the
indiscretion of personal confidence. He had seemed to feel her heart
beating with his own as he described his beloved land under the Endicott
Mountains, with its vast tundras, his herds, and his people. There, he
had told her, a new world was in the making, and the glow in her eyes
and the thrilling something in her voice had urged him on until he
forgot that Rossland was waiting at the ship's gangway to see when they
returned. He had built up for her his castles in the air, and the
miracle of it was that she had helped him to build them. He had
described for her the change that was creeping slowly over Alaska, the
replacement of mountain trails by stage and automobile highways, the
building of railroads, the growth of cities where tents had stood a few
years before. It was then, when he had pictured progress and
civilization and the breaking down of nature's last barriers before
science and invention, that he had seen a cloud of doubt in her
gray eyes.

And now, as they stood on the deck of the _Nome_ looking at the white
peaks of the mountains dissolving into the lavender mist of twilight,
doubt and perplexity were still deeper in her eyes, and she said:

"I would always love tents and old trails and nature's barriers. I envy
Belinda Mulrooney, whom you told me about this afternoon. I hate cities
and railroads and automobiles, and all that goes with them, and I am
sorry to see those things come to Alaska. And I, too, hate this
man - John Graham!"

Her words startled him.

"And I want you to tell me what he is doing - with his money - now." Her
voice was cold, and one little hand, he noticed, was clenched at the
edge of the rail.

"He has stripped Alaskan waters of fish resources which will never be
replaced, Miss Standish. But that is not all. I believe I state the case
well within fact when I say he has killed many women and little children
by robbing the inland waters of the food supplies upon which the natives
have subsisted for centuries. I know. I have seen them die."

It seemed to him that she swayed against him for an instant.

"And that - is all?"

He laughed grimly. "Possibly some people would think it enough, Miss
Standish. But the tentacles of his power are reaching everywhere in
Alaska. His agents swarm throughout the territory, and Soapy Smith was a
gentleman outlaw compared with these men and their master. If men like
John Graham are allowed to have their way, in ten years greed and graft
will despoil what two hundred years of Rooseveltian conservation would
not be able to replace."

She raised her head, and in the dusk her pale face looked up at the
ghost-peaks of the mountains still visible through the thickening gloom
of evening. "I am glad you told me about Belinda Mulrooney," she said.
"I am beginning to understand, and it gives me courage to think of a
woman like her. She could fight, couldn't she? She could make a
man's fight?"

"Yes, and did make it."

"And she had no money to give her power. Her last dollar, you told me,
she flung into the Yukon for luck."

"Yes, at Dawson. It was the one thing between her and hunger."

She raised her hand, and on it he saw gleaming faintly the single ring
which she wore. Slowly she drew it from her finger.

"Then this, too, for luck - the luck of Mary Standish," she laughed
softly, and flung the ring into the sea.

She faced him, as if expecting the necessity of defending what she had
done. "It isn't melodrama," she said. "I mean it. And I believe in it. I
want something of mine to lie at the bottom of the sea in this gateway
to Skagway, just as Belinda Mulrooney wanted her dollar to rest forever
at the bottom of the Yukon."

She gave him the hand from which she had taken the ring, and for a
moment the warm thrill of it lay in his own. "Thank you for the
wonderful afternoon you have given me, Mr. Holt. I shall never forget
it. It is dinner time. I must say good night."

He followed her slim figure with his eyes until she disappeared. In
returning to his cabin he almost bumped into Rossland. The incident was
irritating. Neither of the men spoke or nodded, but Rossland met Alan's
look squarely, his face rock-like in its repression of emotion. Alan's
impression of the man was changing in spite of his prejudice. There was
a growing something about him which commanded attention, a certainty of
poise which could not be mistaken for sham. A scoundrel he might be, but
a cool brain was at work inside his head - a brain not easily disturbed
by unimportant things, he decided. He disliked the man. As an agent of
John Graham Alan looked upon him as an enemy, and as an acquaintance of
Mary Standish he was as much of a mystery as the girl herself. And only
now, in his cabin, was Alan beginning to sense the presence of a real
authority behind Rossland's attitude.

He was not curious. All his life he had lived too near the raw edge of
practical things to dissipate in gossipy conjecture. He cared nothing
about the relationship between Mary Standish and Rossland except as it
involved himself, and the situation had become a trifle too delicate to
please him. He could see no sport in an adventure of the kind it
suggested, and the possibility that he had been misjudged by both
Rossland and Mary Standish sent a flush of anger into his cheeks. He
cared nothing for Rossland, except that he would like to wipe him out of
existence with all other Graham agents. And he persisted in the
conviction that he thought of the girl only in a most casual sort of
way. He had made no effort to discover her history. He had not
questioned her. At no time had he intimated a desire to intrude upon her
personal affairs, and at no time had she offered information about
herself, or an explanation of the singular espionage which Rossland had
presumed to take upon himself. He grimaced as he reflected how
dangerously near that hazard he had been - and he admired her for the
splendid judgment she had shown in the matter. She had saved him the
possible alternative of apologizing to Rossland or throwing him
overboard!

There was a certain bellicose twist to his mind as he went down to the
dining salon, an obstinate determination to hold himself aloof from any
increasing intimacy with Mary Standish. No matter how pleasing his
experience had been, he resented the idea of being commandeered at
unexpected moments. Had Mary Standish read his thoughts, her bearing
toward him during the dinner hour could not have been more satisfying.
There was, in a way, something seductively provocative about it. She
greeted him with the slightest inclination of her head and a cool little
smile. Her attitude did not invite spoken words, either from him or from
his neighbors, yet no one would have accused her of deliberate reserve.

Her demure unapproachableness was a growing revelation to him, and he
found himself interested in spite of the new law of self-preservation he
had set down for himself. He could not keep his eyes from stealing
glimpses at her hair when her head was bowed a little. She had smoothed
it tonight until it was like softest velvet, with rich glints in it, and
the amazing thought came to him that it would be sweetly pleasant to
touch with one's hand. The discovery was almost a shock. Keok and
Nawadlook had beautiful hair, but he had never thought of it in this
way. And he had never thought of Keok's pretty mouth as he was thinking
of the girl's opposite him. He shifted uneasily and was glad Mary
Standish did not look at him in these moments of mental unbalance.

When he left the table, the girl scarcely noticed his going. It was as
if she had used him and then calmly shuttled him out of the way. He
tried to laugh as he hunted up Stampede Smith. He found him, half an
hour later, feeding a captive bear on the lower deck. It was odd, he
thought, that a captive bear should be going north. Stampede explained.
The animal was a pet and belonged to the Thlinkit Indians. There were
seven, getting off at Cordova. Alan observed that the two girls watched
him closely and whispered together. They were very pretty, with large,
dark eyes and pink in their cheeks. One of the men did not look at him
at all, but sat cross-legged on the deck, with his face turned away.

With Stampede he went to the smoking-room, and until a late hour they
discussed the big range up under the Endicott Mountains, and Alan's
plans for the future. Once, early in the evening, Alan went to his cabin
to get maps and photographs. Stampede's eyes glistened as his mind
seized upon the possibilities of the new adventure. It was a vast land.
An unknown country. And Alan was its first pioneer. The old thrill ran
in Stampede's blood, and its infectiousness caught Alan, so that he
forgot Mary Standish, and all else but the miles that lay between them
and the mighty tundras beyond the Seward Peninsula. It was midnight when
Alan went to his cabin.

He was happy. Love of life swept in an irresistible surge through his
body, and he breathed in deeply of the soft sea air that came in through
his open port from the west. In Stampede Smith he had at last found the
comradeship which he had missed, and the responsive note to the wild and
half-savage desires always smoldering in his heart. He looked out at the
stars and smiled up at them, and his soul was filled with an unspoken
thankfulness that he was not born too late. Another generation and there
would be no last frontier. Twenty-five years more and the world would
lie utterly in the shackles of science and invention and what the human
race called progress.

So God had been good to him. He was helping to write the last page in
that history which would go down through the eons of time, written in
the red blood of men who had cut the first trails into the unknown.
After him, there would be no more frontiers. No more mysteries of


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Online LibraryJames Oliver CurwoodThe Alaskan → online text (page 4 of 18)