A Thousand a Plate
A Thousand a Plate
AND why," said McNicol, the storekeeper at the Portage, eying "Skookum" Bill Hutchins and his partner, old Sam Dobbs, coldly, "why should I give ye a winter's grubstake on credit? What have ye done with the bag of dust ye washed out of yon bar on the Kachika?"
Skookum Bill, standing on the floor scales, slid the weight along the beam until it balanced. "Two hundred and seventeen I weigh," he said with satisfaction, for he was proud of his big, hard body and the tremendous strength which had earned him his sobriquet. "What did we do with that dust, McNicol? Why, we blowed it. How long d'you expect one little poke to last two growed-up men? She wasn't no Bonanza nor Forty Mile, that bar. Come on, McNicol! You know us. We're good for it. We ain't out to do you."
"Ye'll no doubt know the proverb concernin' good intentions and the Pit," said McNicol skeptically. "I'll not grubstake ye to lie in idleness all winter, so that ye may strike me for a spring outfit on the same terrums."
"You got an awful suspicious mind, McNicol," said Skookum Bill in injured tones. "I s'pose, bein' Scotch, you can't help it. But you wrong us."
"1 couldn't," snapped McNicol. "I'm under no delusions whatever respectin' the pair of ye."
Which was so true that old Dobbs interposed diplomatically.
"Bill didn't mean nothin', McNicol," said he. "He'd orter told you what we're goin' to do. We don't aim to hole up for the winter. We want to git us an outfit and trap."
"Ye might have said so at first," said the trader. "And where will ye trap?"
Dobbs hesitated and shook his head.
"We'd tell you if we told any one, but we ain't givin' that away," he said with an air of honest regret. "We know a district that's simply crawlin' with fur, and don't look like it's never been trapped. Only she's a long, hard trail; and as there ain't no comin' out in the winter we want a pretty fair outfit, and we want to start right away."
McNicol looked him in the eye, but Dobbs met his gaze squarely. He was a hard old bird was Dobbs, lean and cunning; and though the chickens of a sinful youth and prime were beginning to roost upon his bald head and stooping shoulders—to say nothing of certain internal pains perhaps attributable to their scratching claws—he was still able to keep the pace which was set by his partner, Bill Hutchins. And Skookum Bill, in a land of hard men, was noted for strength, activity, endurance, and especially "cussedness." McNicol suddenly shifted his gaze to the face of the latter.
"That's right," Bill corroborated. "She's a long trip, like Sam says."
"Pick out what ye want," said McNicol. "But remember if there are no furs to show for it ye'll never get another dollar of credit from me."
And so, when Hutchins and Dobbs emerged from the store they were the possessors of sufficient general supplies to last until the next spring; which, considering that they were flat broke and had reputations that would ignite safety matches, was a striking testimony to the elastic credit of the country.
"Easier'n I thought!" grinned Skookum Bill, as he sliced tobacco from a huge new plug.
"What did you want to make that crack about him bein' Scotch for?" Sam remonstrated.
"Well, he is," Bill replied.
"That ain't no reason for remindin' him of it," said Dobbs, "'specially when you want credit."
"Why, Scotchmen is mostly proud of just bein' Scotch" said Bill. "But darned if I could ever see why," he added.
"Nor me," Dobbs said. "Anyway, you near queered the deal. If I hadn't jumped in right then he'd have turned us down."
"You're a good offhand liar," his partner conceded frankly. "But what are we goin' to do with all them traps? Course, we might trade them off for something we want."
"What's the matter with usin' them ourselves?" Dobbs suggested.
"Who? Us?" said Bill in amazement. "Traps?"
"Sure," said Dobbs. "Why not?"
"No reason why not," Bill returned, "only I hadn't thought of it. I ain't trapped for a good while, and I was thinkin' we'd put in an easy winter. Fur's scarce around here, and I ain't goin' to kill myself for a few skins."
"Course not," Dobbs agreed, "but here's the proposition, Bill: We've made the bluff to McNicol, and you heard what he said. We may need him to stake us again. We've sure got to show him some fur in the spring. Now we've allus wanted to git up into that country around the headwaters of the Frances early in the year when the water in the creeks was low, so's we could wash gravel from the bars. We've allus figgered they was gold there. We can hit there before freeze-up and winter, all right, and have a look around. Likely there's as much fur there as they is anywhere. And, anyway, when you ain't got no money for the winter, it's just as well to go some place where you won't need none."
Now Hutchins and Dobbs were prospectors—or rather gold seekers—first, last, and all the time. The uncertain game held them in the grip of its fascination, and though they cursed and grumbled at the life, they loved it. Occasionally they were forced to turn their versatile hands to other things, and had even, when times were very hard, indeed, descended and condescended to regular employment for wages; which they considered a degradation to be excused only by stern necessity. But their hearts were in the hills and valleys and basins and nameless creeks where a man might chance upon yellow fortune among the sand and gravel; albeit the chance was less than one in ten thousand. No rumor was too will-o'-the-wisp for them to chase; and on the well-known theory that far-away fields are the greenest they were continually making long, hard trips into unknown country, whence they usually returned cursing bitterly and outrageously, only to try again elsewhere with little better success. And so Skookum Bill found his partner's suggestion alluring.
"That's so," he said. "You're right about them creeks. I'll bet there's bars that'd pay big if they could be got at And as you say we have to winter somewheres. Might as well do it there, and be in for the spring low water."
Neither mentioned nor, indeed, thought of the circumstance that the district referred to was in the very heart of a frozen wilderness; that it was hard to get into even when the waterways were open and practically impossible to get out of when these were closed by frost; and that in the event of sickness or accident a man must depend principally upon Providence and his own constitution to pull him through. Neither Bill nor Sam leaned very strongly upon Providence—though Sam, when drunk, exhibited religious tendencies, or rather a tendency to mourn his lack of them through life—but each had a well-founded and abiding faith in his own physical powers, and so neither saw anything out of the way in the prospect of a winter of remote loneliness.
A couple of days later they left the Portage in a sixteen-foot Peterboro, loaded to within two inches of the gunwale, and so almost as unstable as a floating log. But since both were used to the vagaries of such craft, they felt as secure as if it had been a York boat, and paddled up the long reaches without undue exertion, camping when it suited them, and living royally on fish, flesh, and fowl, aided by a supply of rum so much overproof that it would almost have floated a horseshoe. But this luxury was also in the nature of medical stores, and in the long winter ahead contingencies might arise in which it would prove very valuably indeed.
"No more after to-night," said Bill, at the end of a week, pouring a frugal portion into a tin cup "No more till Thanksgiving, bar accidents."
"That goes," Dobbs agreed, regretfully, duplicating the action. "But anyhow, Bill, here's to accidents!"
But though at first their rate of progress was slow and its manner indolent, as the days went by a change came upon them, especially noticeable in the younger man, Skookum Bill.
This manifested itself in stiffer thrusts of paddle against the current, in a gradually increasing tension of body and mind against the natural obstacles to their progress, in later goings ashore at night to camp, in earlier uprisings. They were, in fact, in the grip of the long trail, and Bill Hutchins' magnificent muscles seemed to string themselves to meet an added demand.
In the stern of the low-laden canoe his paddle swished steadily and powerfully, with thrust of straight, stiff upper arm backed by a twisting swing of the body from the waist, and with every stroke the little craft leaped as if a giant hand had shoved her forward. In the bow old Dobbs fought the stream cunningly, twisting the nose into eddies and backwaters, taking advantage when he could of set of current, and when he could not, paddling doggedly, not so powerfully, perhaps, as his partner, but with equal steadiness.
And so in due course they approached the destination. The nights were now cold, gemmed with a multitude of bright stars, uncanny with the querulous wail of coyotes and the occasional deep voices of wolves. In the mornings hoar-frost lay thick upon the ground, and thin ice formed in currentless shallows and overlay the muskrat runways. In the sloughs and ponds the rush-and-mud houses of these little workers were bound solidly. Along the river freshly felled and barked trees told of the activity of beaver, and in slow current and in eddies the tops of their winter's food supply lay like submerged brush fences projecting above the surface. Day by day the trees became barer and the stream was littered with yellow, wind-stripped leaves. Geese passed overhead, and wild fowl from the breeding grounds of the farther North wisped along the lonely waterway. Plainly winter was at hand.
"Just as well we started when we did," said Bill. "No tellin' when she'll tighten up."
"May do it any time," Sam agreed.
They turned up the Frances where the water was shallow and swift. Creeks were numerous and timber was plentiful. On either hands were hills and more hills, in waves of unknown ranges, seamed by swift waterways, notched by passes. And here the adventurers went ashore, unloaded, turned their canoe bottom up in the shelter of thick brush, and cached their supplies temporarily on a pole scaffold, out of reach of prowling depredators.
They had never been in that precise country before, and they had not the least idea of the surrounding topography save that it seemed to have considerable ups and downs, but, nevertheless, they felt quite satisfied and at home.
"For fur," said Dobbs, "we ort to get back in them hills. There's better timber, and if there's pay in the creeks she'll be higher up."
"All right," Bill acquiesced. "We'll take a couple of blankets and some grub and nanitch round for a couple of days till we find a place to suit us."
Carrying light packs they left camp at daylight the next morning. Trails there were none; but they followed the general course of a small creek, crossed a divide, and dipped down into a beautifully timbered valley watered by a swift, large creek of almost riverlike dimensions. They were thus between the first range of hills and the second, and much higher up than where they had landed. Looking to right and left from the summit, before they had begun the descent, the valley had lain as far as they could see in thick timber and open, natural meadows, and they could see, also, gaps in the hills, probably indicating tributary streams.
"Looks good to me," said Bill. "We'll just go up her to-morrow, and see what we can find. There ort to be fur here."
Now, fur-bearing animals are the shyest of living things, and one may very easily wander for days in their natural habitat and see none of them. And yet most of the time one will be under the observation of beady, little eyes and twitching, pointed noses and small, furred ears. It is one thing to be morally certain that one is in an excellent fur district and quite another to prove it, apart from actual results in trapping. Beaver and rats have visible habitations, and their fecundity is their chief guarantee against extinction. But the fox, the marten, the mink, the otter, the lynx, and the weasel do not advertise their abodes. For the most part their habits are nocturnal, and their trails, before the snow, usually invisible. Now and then an odd member of the clans may be seen for an instant; but, as a rule, the would-be trapper, cruising for a good district, draws general conclusions from the lie of the land, the timber, the streams, and its remoteness or otherwise as bearing on the likelihood of its having been trapped before.
But Skookum Bill and old Sam, although they were primarily gold seekers, knew the angles of the trapping game very well, and in a couple of days' cruising up and down the valley they found sufficient sign to render them jubilant.
"Course it's mighty hard to tell till we've put out a few traps," said the former, "but it looks to me like we've struck it lucky."
"You bet," Dobbs agreed. "I don't believe this here valley ever was trapped. We ain't come across no sign of any old camp—not so much as a blazed tree. I wouldn't wonder if we was the only white men that ever was in here—or Injuns, either. I'll bet we'll take out a canoeload of prime fur. Marten ort to be dark in here among this timber."
"She'll be some chore packin' the outfit in over that summit," Bill observed. "There's snow there now, but there ain't enough for a toboggan. And then she's blame steep. We'll have to pack it on our backs. Two trips ort to do."
"Well"—old Dobbs clawed his beard dubiously—"I'm gettin' a leetle short in the wind, Bill, with a load. They's times when my back don't feel right. I can't pack like I could twenty years ago. or ten—nor even five."
"I can," said Skookum Bill, with the proud confidence of wonderful and undiminished strength. "I ain't never hit my limit yet. I could pack three hundred in over that summit if I could get it to set right. Course, though. I ain't goin' to try for no records. We'll both go over, and you take what you can pack easy, and I'll take a good load, and we'll both come back. Then I'll fetch over the outfit in two or three trips while you're buildin' a cabin. We'll build her right here. This'll be our home camp. If we have to we'll string two or three line camps up or down as we need 'em."
They returned from their canoe heavily laden, and Dobbs set about building a cabin in a sheltered spot near the creek. His tools were an ax and an auger. The sides of the building were of small logs, chinked with grass and moss, and the roof was of shakes split from straight-grained wood. Having no stove, they were forced to depend for heat on a fireplace made of sticks laid in clay. Dobbs added two bunks, a table, and two stools, and surveyed his work with some pride.
"She'll do," he said.
"Good enough for a millionaire," Skookum Bill agreed. "And now let her snow and be durned!"
But for a time "she" refused to snow. Day after day was bright and breathless, the air dry and clear. Ever the nights grew colder. The ponds were skinned over with new ice, clear and tough, which rang musically to the impact of a blow as a thin goblet rings when tapped gently with the knife blade. The ground was a carpet of leaves, rustling noisily beneath the softest foot But Bill killed a blacktail, and so they had meat. Fish were plentiful. And so with the larder full they waited for the snow; for until it should come, revealing the telltale trails and runways of the furred peoples, it would be waste of time to set many traps.
This waiting was of a deadly monotony. Skookum Bill, full of restless, tireless energy when on the trail, now passed to the other extreme. He slept like a dog, sixteen hours a day, rising to eat and smoke, and then falling back in his bunk, where he coiled himself very much like a hibernating bear. He was stupid with sleep, drugged with it, and he did absolutely nothing, leaving all the work to his partner.
Dobbs, whose advancing years had diminished his capacity for sleep, did not grumble, even inwardly. He was accustomed to his partner's extremes, of sloth, of action, and of dissipation. And he knew that sooner or later the big man would do much more than his share of work. And so he cooked and cut wood and washed up and played solitaire and lay sleepless for hours in his bunk. It would be very pleasant and strictly conventional to state that in these hours of darkness and sleeplessness his mind reverted to the days of bis innocent childhood, and that he sighed bitterly over the years of his misspent life. In fact, however, he did nothing of the sort. If he had ever had an innocent childhood he had forgotten all about it. Save when drunk, he was unsentimental, unrepentant, and irreligious. And instead of regretting his somewhat lurid past he occupied himself in building air castles which should have been promptly closed by the air police.
At last the snow came, on the wings of a northwest wind which had switched suddenly from southerly gales. Old Dobbs, lying in his bunk, noted the short lull in the whining, straining aeolian notes and their recommencement from another quarter. Later he found himself cold, and drew another blanket over him. In the morning it was still blowing great guns, and when he had made up the fire he opened the door on a world of swirling, wind-driven whiteness. Whereat he cackled joyously and informed his comatose partner that it was snowing like perdition; a simile which, though possibly inaccurate, according to accepted authorities, was fairly descriptive of weather conditions.
Skookum Bill opened gummed eyes, and profanely commanded him to shut the door. He stretched, yawned profoundly, heaved himself out of his bunk, and dressed himself, a process which was confined to and completed by the drawing on of trousers and moccasins. After which he ate a huge breakfast of flapjacks and venison, lit his pipe, and had a look at the weather.
"Blizzard," he announced. "Can't do nothin' till she stops." And having stated this obvious fact he lay down, and went to sleep again.
For two days the storm raged; and when it ceased and the sun shone again, they seemed to be in a new world, dazzlingly white, wiped clean of familiar landmarks. The swift river was frozen across. The cabin itself was no more than a mound in the snow. Traveling thenceforth must be done on the webs.
But with the snow, trails before invisible would be plain to read. And so they loaded themselves with traps, bait, blankets, and started to lay out their line. They had brought a good supply of steel traps of assorted sizes, but they used also the old-fashioned, primitive deadfall which, though it takes time to construct, is just as effective and much more humane, though the latter consideration did not operate on their minds at all.
As they progressed they found sign in abundance. The trails of the fur bearers, from the huge, muffled pads of the lynx to the dainty, mouselike fleet of the weasel, were everywhere. Never had either of them seen the like.
"Fur!" exclaimed Skookum Bill. "It's here to burn!"
"A reg'lar Garden of Eden!" said old Dobbs, whose scriptural recollections were somewhat misty. "Don't look like it's ever been trapped, and nobody knows of it but us. We'd orter make a clean-up."
"It'll beat prospectin'," said Bill. And it did. In the weeks that followed they gathered store of fur, not only in quantity, but in quality beyond their wildest dreams. And when one day they took a veritable black fox from a trap, they felt that at last fortune was treating them according to their deserts. The animal was large, his coat perfect, and they skinned him carefully and reverently; and that night they celebrated fittingly in the precious rum.
"That there black dog." said Skookum Bill, nodding at the stretching skin, "don't know his own luck. He's due to wind himself round the neck of an empress or a princess or a dancer or somethin', and have her rub her cheek onto his hide. And that's a durn sight more than you or me will ever have, Sam."
"I don't want none of 'em rubbin' up to me." said old Dobbs virtuously. "1 don't go none on them European she high-rollers, nor noovo rich. I ruther have a klootch that can cook."
"I never had one that could, and I've had sev'ral," Bill stated judicially. "And their ideas of what's grub is a lot too liberal for me, and 1 ain't got no tender stummick, nuther. I've saw a klootchman build a mulligan out of stuff that would poison a white man's dog."
"Never watch the cook," said Dobbs solemnly, "'specially when it's a mulligan she's makin'. And about them klootchmen of yourn, Bill, you're my partner, and I think a lot of you; but it's my duty to tell you you ain't lived a moral life a-tall."
Bill's comment on this obvious truth was not verbal. He picked up the rum, shot the cork tight with a blow of his fist, and placed it behind his bunk.
"What you doin'?" Dobbs asked. "I want another drink."
"You won't get it," Bill replied, with finality. "You're drunk."
"I ain't!" Dobbs denied indignantly. "Me? Why, I ain't said a word about religion yet. I guess I know my own stages by this time."
"When an old rooster like you gets to talkin' about a moral life it's time he quit drinkin'," Bill observed. "And, anyway, we ain't goin' to mop up all we got. We want to save some for Thanksgiving, and in case of sickness."
"We're both healthy," Dobbs urged.
"That's all right," said Bill. "Some time you come in wet and froze and played out; and the first thing you know you got a shakin' chill and a pain in your chest and the makin's of pneumonia. What you goin' to do if you haven't any liquor?"
"Chr[shun Science!" said old Dobbs resourcefully.
"Christian blazes!" snorted Bill.
"Don't talk back to me. I got you siwashed right now. Go to bed and sober off!"
It was a week after the taking of the black fox that Skookum Bill, on a short exploring trip a few miles west of their cabin, came across a deadfall which held a dead marten. He took the marten, and. when he returned, said to Dobbs:
"I didn't know you'd built any deadfalls in the timber past the big draw?"
"I haven't," said Dobbs.
"Hey!" Bill exclaimed. "Sure you have. That's where I got this marten."
"Can't help it," Dobbs returned. "I ain't got a trap there. I ain't been in that timber a-tall."
"Somebody has," Bill stated flatly. "There's the marten, and I seen snow-shoe tracks. Course I thought they was yours."
"Well, they ain't," Dobbs said positively.
"Then," Bill declared, with an oath, "somebody's trapping on our ground."
The first statement was obviously true, though the partners' proprietary rights might be open to doubt. But custom has arranged a trapper's modus vivendi by which a man's right is ordinarily recognized to the territory covered by his traps; and such right is jealously guarded. Seemingly here was an intruder who was violating custom. Moreover, the partners had come to look upon this exceedingly rich district as their exclusive property. And so their indignation was extreme.
"The low-down, ornery cuss!" said Dobbs. "The nerve of him, crowdin' in on us, just as if there wasn't lots of other places for him to go!"
"I sh'd say* so!" Bill concurred. "Here we go to all the trouble of findin' a new district where we won't interfere with no one, and this blasted wolverine comes in and sets his traps right on top of us. Well, he's got to roll his blankets, that's all. There's some things I won't stand."
"Sure," said Dobbs, "he ain't actin' right. There's plenty of men been shot for less."
"So there has," Bill agreed. "Only we don't want to shoot him unless we have to. It's got so lately that there's trouble about such things. Same time we ain't goin' to let him keep on stealin' fur from us. To-morrow we'll go and run him to his hole, and find out whether he's a Nitche or a white man."
Early in the morning they shouldered light packs, took their rifles, crossed the big draw, and entered the timber where was the deadfall.
"It ain't mine," said Dobbs positively. "I never notched a stick that way in my life. And look at them snowshoe tracks. They're longer 'n' narrower than mine, and the webbin's different."
Proof conclusive. And so they took up the stranger's trail. It led west, and when darkness fell they had not reached its end. On the way they found half a dozen traps, which they destroyed. That night they slept out uncomfortably. And he next day about noon they found a cabin very similar to their own, standing in the shelter of thick spruce. There was no smoke, and Bill's hail met with no response. They lifted the wooden latch and peered in. The owner was not at home, though the cabin was evidently occupied.
"One white man." said Bill, after a brief inspection. "Out on his line, I s'pose, and there's no tellin' when he'll be back. So we won't wait. We'll just serve notice on him."
The ultimatum which Bill indited, and which they jointly and severally subscribed, was succinct, lucid, and peremptory, and read:
S. Dobbs, Esq.
Leaving this on the table weighted with a stick of firewood they returned to their own camp. Having thus declared themselves, they considered it up to the intruder. And so they were not surprised when he appeared at their camp two days later.
He proved to be a somewhat hard-faced gentleman of about Dobbs' age, with a cold eye and a bent mouth. He carried a rifle of a recent model, and it was noticeable that every loop of his cartridge belt contained a shell. Without preliminaries he introduced himself as Jake Flint.
"I s'pose," said Mr. Flint morosely, "you're the two pelicans that put it up I can't trap east of that washout creek?"
"And you s'pose dead right," said Skookum Bill truculently. "That's our ground."
"Homestead?" queried Mr. Flint, with elaborate irony. "When do you prove up?"
"Right away—for you!" Bill retorted. "That's our ground because we're trappin' that district, and we ain't goin' to stand for no one else there."
"And so," said Mr. Flint, "you go and bust up my traps."
"You bet we do!" Bill replied. "And what you goin' to do about it, hey?"
The older man eyed him for a moment bale fully. "I'm goin' to set 'em again," he replied, "and don't you touch 'em. I'm goin' to trap where I durn please. There's two of you, but you don't bluff me out, not any."
"Bluff, hey?" said Skookum Bill. "If you got her sized up for a bluff, go ahead. But don't holler at the showdown. What we said in that notice goes."
"I'm goin' ahead," Flint stated calmly. "I wasn't born in the woods to be scared by no horned owl. You go lookin' for trouble round my illahee, and you're durn apt to get it. And that's all I got to say to you."
With which flat declaration he departed. Three days afterward the partners discovered traps which were not theirs east of the washout creek which was the dead line. These they destroyed, with curses and threats. But to their vast indignation a short time after a like fate befell a dozen of their own traps. Thus it was evident that Flint was not afraid to play even.
"And that settles it," said Bill wrathfully. "He's callin' for a show-down, and he'll sure get it. I'm goin' to nanitch down around his illahee. You keep camp. I may be away some nights."
"What you goin' to do?" Dobbs asked.
"I ain't goin' to shoot him." Bill replied. "I'm just goin' to give him a sorter hint to move out."
Without further explanation he departed, and did not return till the end of the third day.
"Well?" Dobbs asked somewhat anxiously.
"Well—what?" Bill growled.
"What did you do?"
"Burned him out."
"Gosh!" old Dobbs exclaimed in awe, for in that remote wilderness such a deed was little less than murder. "Not—not the whole jing-bang, Bill? You left him something?"
"I was fool enough to," Skookum Bill admitted. "I waited till he was out on his line, 'cause I didn't want to shoot him. I held him out some grub and his bed and all the matches he had. He has part of a deer hung up, so he has lots of meat, and he has a little toboggan with him. With luck he ought to make somewheres if he starts right away. I could."
"You're young and stronger'n a moose," Dobbs pointed out. "Durned if I believe I could make it alone, and he's about as old as me."
"He's got a chance," his partner replied doggedly. "He had fair warning. Lots of men would have shot him. An Injun would, in a holy minute."
"That's so.," said Dobbs, "but now he'll go on the prod. He's just the kind to lay for us and shoot us."
"Not him," said Bill. "He'll figger we're watchin' for him. And as there's two of us hell beat it for the outside."
The next two days brought no sign of Flint; and when a week passed uneventfully they began to relax their watchfulness.
"What'd I tell you?" said Bill. "The old wolverine was tryin' to run a blazer on us. All he needed was to be showed we meant business. And he can't make no trouble for us when he gets out, 'cause our two words are better'n his."
And so they went about their business once more in comfortable security, quite untroubled by thought of the lone refugee toiling through the deep snows toward the abodes of men. As they looked at it he was lucky to have the chance which had been vouchsafed him; for they knew those who would not have given it at all. Their consciences were quite easy, and they enjoyed once more the feeling of sole ownership.
"Only we got to rip the heart out of her this season," Dobbs pointed out, as they sat one night before the fire. "'Cause if Flint makes the riffle, even though he don't raise no war yell on us, next year he gets him a partner, and if we want to trap in here we got to do it in the smoke. And I ain't that fond of trappin'."
"Nor me," Bill admitted. "It ain't our business. We'll just take what we can get and quit. We ought to have enough right now to pay McNicol and live for a year, with some fun throwed in."
"We'll get more and better fur after Thanksgiving," said Dobbs. Suddenly an idea seemed to strike him. He got up, stirred the fire, and inspected a line of cryptic marks upon the wall. "Say," he said, "do you know what day this is?"
"Wednesday or Sunday or s'm' other day," Bill replied indifferently.
"Twenty-fourth of November," said Dobbs.
"Well, what about it?"
"Thanksgiving eve!" Dobbs told him.
"And what about that?" Bill asked. "You ain't figgerin' on nuts and turkey, are you? 'Cause I'm afraid you'll be disappointed."
Dobbs licked his old lips sinfully, and his jaws waggled like those of a cat which sees a bird almost within springing distance.
"Thanksgiving eve," he repeated. "We was to have a leetle celebration Thanksgiving eve." And he added somewhat anxiously: "You ain't forgot about that, Bill? It's an awful long time since we had a drink."
"Last time you had too many," Skookum Bill reminded him.
"What if I had?" Dobbs asked, in injured tones. "I get durn little fun in life, and I'm gettin' old. About the only time I feel good and like I used to is when I'm tanked up. Wait twenty years and you'll know."
"Oh, all right," said his partner, somewhat apprehensively, for he had the horror of the young and absolutely healthy for the dismal forebodings and outlook of age. "I dunno but I feel like a drink or two myself. And as you say we was goin' to celebrate a little. Only we'll go light on the stuff, 'cause as I told you before we want to have a little left in case of sickness."
Dobbs agreed hypocritically. For weeks his whole being had craved liquor. Once he had furtively helped himself to a drink; and had shaken in his shoes lest his partner's nostrils should detect the strong-odored rum. In which event he would have had a severe manhandling, for Skookum Bill brooked no infraction of the camp rules which he laid down.
But as it happened that night Bill was in a more or less free and unbelted mood. Also, but in a lesser degree than his partner, he craved alcohol; not so much physically, for his nerves were as yet quite untouched, but mentally, as a change from the monotony of their existence.
Now the rum, as has been said, was criminally overproof, and they had had no intoxicants for a long time. And so a couple of stiff drinks produced a beautiful and generous expansion of soul. The mean cabin became larger, the fire warmer and more cheerful, and life generally of a more roseate hue. They began to feel the prodigal Thanksgiving spirit, and to regret their limited opportunities for satisfying it.
"I wisht we was somewheres," said Bill. "Look at all them skins and think of what they'd buy. And what good are they to us here?" Rising, he searched out the pelt of the black fox, held it up, and stroked the glossy coat lovingly. "What's this black dog worth, Sam?"
"Whatever you can get," Dobbs replied bitterly. "We never get nothing like what they're worth. But this here is a beauty. I don't s'pose there's a better pelt in the world, or ever has been. McNicol will get near twenty-five hundred if he holds out. And we ort to hold out for two thousand."
"You bet we will," Bill affirmed. "If I had my share of that to-night down in Vancouver or Seattle, things'd move some."
"They sure would." Dobbs agreed. "I remember once I hit Seattle with a little stake, and——" He embarked on a lurid narrative of his deeds on that historic occasion.
Bill piled wood on the fire with a prodigal hand and took up the tale. Later he essayed song, roaring forth unprintable ballads in a tremendous, harsh bass which drowned his partner's sadly cracked tenor. By this time his determination to "go light" on the rum was quite forgotten, and Dobbs, who had never in all his long and sinful life denied himself anything which was ready to his hand, was not the man to remind him, even if he, Dobbs, had not reached a composite condition which may be described as the sentimental-philosophical-religious-despondent, in which a corresponding variety of mental kinks became evident.
"'S funny world," he announced solemnly, "when you size her up. Some folks allus has the best of it, 'n' according, others gets the worst. 'S logic, and you can't beat it. Me, I allus got the worst. 'S the Scripture says I ask for bread and I get the laugh, like the Prodigal Son."
"You don't know your own luck," said Bill. "What you kickin' at? Here you got a fire and blankets and booze and eats. You're blame lucky, if you ask me. How'd you like to be mushin' along in the snow, campin' under a tree somewheres like that durn old wolverine, Flint?"
"Proves what I was savin'," Dobbs argned. "He gets the worst of it. I ain't sure we done right about that, Bill. The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. An' we're wicked—we're good 'n' wicked. If it was to do over again I'd say shoot him tenderly. It'd be safer."
"He can't do nothin'," Bill asserted.
"Something might happen to him and he'd die—in the snow." said Dobbs tearfully. "'S 'n' awful death, Bill! I'm 'fraid of it. An' he's old, like me. He won't never make it. He'll freeze 'n' die. Shockin'. But then he won't never tell nobody how he was burnt out, nor get a chance to play even on us. So it's all for th' best, an' we shouldn't doubt 'n inscrutable Providence. But 's 'n awful thing to kill a fellow bein' Bill!"
"Not when he needs it," Bill said grimly.
"I killed a fellow bein' once—with an ax," his partner whimpered. "He needed it; too. He knifed me an' I near died. Promise you won't let me die in the snow, Bill!"
Thereafter he became unintelligibly maudlin, and staggered to his bunk. Skookum Bill sat alone, bit head singing with raw rum, the prey of a thousand devils of desire which he could not satisfy. The happy stage had passed. He was morose, sour of temper as an old bull. In any companionship he would have picked a quarrel, fought, and thus worked off his ill temper. But as there was no one to tight with he merely drank and scowled. Being cold he threw more wood on the fire recklessly. As it blazed the heat working on the alcohol made him sleepy. He blinked drunkenly at his bunk, but lacked the energy to rise to get to it. Instead he leaned forward and laid his head on his folded arms which rested on the table beside the skin of the black fox. In a moment he was asleep.
How long he slept thus he never knew. He awoke gasping, choking, in an atmosphere which bit his throat and lungs and stung his eyes. In his ears was an ominous crackling and snapping, and a glare met his sight from which he shrank like a frightened animal. For a moment his sodden senses refused to comprehend, but instinctively he sprang for the door.
With its opening, and the admission of fresh air, the interior of the cabin leaped into flame. Red tongues ran up the heat-dried resinous walls and roof. Smoke billowed out at him through the door.
The break into the air of the winter's night was like a plunge into ice water. He sobered suddenly. He was not overly intelligent, hut all his life he had been accustomed to dangers, to emergencies which must be met by instant bodily action. And so he did not hesitate. Drawing his great lungs full of pure air. he plunged back into the smoke, dragged his stupefied partner from his bunk, and flung him out in the snow.
Thereafter his actions were of the whirlwind variety. He made no useless attempt to fight the fire. Whatever he could lay hands on in the choking smoke he flung through the door, and finally emerged with racked lungs, blinded eyes, and scorched hair and flesh. Gasping and cursing he watched the flames burst through the roof, and roar, wind-driven, in a mighty, licking tongue which seemed to reach out toward him hungrily.
But in a moment the frost nipped at him. Immediately he pounced upon his prostrate partner and shook him violently.
"Lemme 'lone!" Dobbs muttered. And Bill cuffed him with the earnestness of a she-bear admonishing a cub.
"Wake up, you old stiff," he shouted, "or you'll wake up somewhere that's not heaven!" And Dobbs, catching the concluding words, opened uncomprehending and dazed eyes upon a red glare and smoke which eddied around him and soaring sparks.
"Not in heaven," he croaked, "jus' 's I've allus expected! An' Bill's along, too, 'n' I ain't s'prised at that!"
"You ain't hey!" growled his partner, and shook him again so that his old head snapped to and fro perilously. "Lemme tell you any place is tame to this. We're burnt out—burnt out, d'ye hear! And if you don't wake up and get your blood to movin', you'll freeze so solid you'll never thaw!" And he smote him again.
"Burnt out!" Dobbs repeated stupidly. "Burnt out?"
"You got it!" snapped Skookum Bill, and hauled him to his feet. "Get some more clothes on you. I don't know what I pitched out yet. I hadn't no time to be partic'lar."
Luckily they had been fully clad, even to their moccasins, and Bill had rescued their heavy outer garments which had hung near the door. Dobbs got into his coat, shivering with cold.
"How'd she start?" he queried.
"I dunno," his partner replied sullenly. "Hot coal, I s'pose, or chimbley. I had on a big fire when I dropped asleep."
"This is what we get for burnin' Flint out!" whined Dobbs. "You shouldn't have did that, Bill. It's a judgment!"
"Aw, shut up!" growled his partner. "You make me sick. Judgment my neck! There ain't no such thing!"
"Yes, there is," Dobbs insisted. "This proves it."
"Cut it out!" roared Skookum Bill, in sudden fury. "Another word out of you, and I'll throw you on that fire!"
Dobbs, cowed and shaken, wisely refrained from further observations. They passed the remainder of the night miserably, and with daylight they took stock of their belongings.
These were few. There was a rifle with but three shells in the magazine, and these constituted their entire stock of ammunition. There were two blankets stripped from the bunks, part of a sack of flour, and a box of matches. Their snowshoes and ax and a light toboggan had been outside, and so were uninjured. Unfortunately they were low in venison, part of a quarter only remaining. And last, but of little immediate value, was the skin of the black fox, which had been lying on the table. All the other pelts were gone. It was a very scanty outfit, indeed, and they regarded it gloomily.
"There's only one thing to do," Skookum Bill observed, "and that's to beat it for the outside. Sooner we start the better."
"Ain't there no grub in the line camp?"
"Not a smell. This is the outfit right here, and it ain't much."
"You're right, it ain't," said Dobbs. "I was sayin' I didn't believe I could make the outside, and now I'll have a chance to see."
"Sure you'll make it," said Bill, who knew the importance of a stout heart on a long, hard trail. "We'll travel along easy, and make good camps."
"We ain't got enough grub to take it easy," Dobbs pointed out. "And just when you need meat is the time you don't see it."
Which was so true that Skookum Bill went to loading the toboggan without reply. This done he adjusted the loops of his snowshoes and dropped the line of the sled over his shoulders.
"All set?" he asked.
"Gimme a rope of the toboggan."
"I will when I get tired," said Bill.
Day after day they plodded steadily in a white wilderness. By day the hard exercise kept them warm. But camping in the snow under even the most favorable conditions is not fun, and when one is short of food and blankets it is miserable. In spite of all they could do in the way of shelters, and no matter how cunningly they arranged their reflecting backlogs and fires, they shivered from dark to dawn. Thus they had little real rest. The very exercise which kept them warm by day burned up the food which they ate and demanded more. Not getting it, it consumed the body tissues. They grew gaunt and haggard and sunken of eye, but there could be no rest.
As Dobbs had feared they found no red meat. At any other time they would have chanced on deer or moose. But now, in their necessity, they saw neither. It seemed an off year for rabbits. They caught two in snares, and had the luck to kill three grouse with sticks, for they were reluctant to waste their precious cartridges on such small game. These eked out the small supply of venison and flour, but the time came when they were forced to cut down their scanty daily rations.
"It's a case," said Bill. "It's twelve days, givin' ourselves the best of it, to the Portage, and it looks like there was a hoodoo on us for meat. We got to cut right down."
And then a piece of the worst possible luck befell. Dobbs, descending a steep place, caught the toe of his snow-shoe in brush, tripped, and fell twenty feet, bringing up among rocks sticking out of the snow. When he tried to rise he sank back, stifling a groan.
"You ain't hurt yourself?" cried Bill.
"Leg," said Dobbs briefly. "She got a bad crack and a twist. I—I can't walk on her, Bill!"
"We'll camp and have a look at her," said Bill quietly. "A little rest will do us good."
He made a fire, and, stripping his partner's leg, examined it. It was already swollen and discoloring, and just above the ankle it was painful to the touch.
"Looks to me like the little bone's bust," said Bill, referring to the fibula. "You sure can't walk on her." He was silent for a moment. "The devil!" he added justifiably.
Into Dobbs' old eyes came the expression of a stricken animal. But he said nothing, waiting. Bill scowled at the fire.
"Hard luck, but it can't be helped," he said, at length. "I'll fix it up the best I can with splints. We won't go no farther to-day."
"If it's broke I won't be able to walk to-morrow," Dobbs ventured.
"You won't be able to walk for weeks," his partner told him. "I'll haul you on the toboggan."
"You can't—not in this soft snow," said Dobbs. "It's white of you, Bill, but it's too much."
"I never quit a partner yet," the big man announced. "I ain't no smear heel. I can do it, all right. I'm skookum, and I ain't never struck my limit yet." He stretched his great body with a sudden, rippling heave of muscle and sinew. "Don't you worry 'bout me old-timer. We'll pull through somehow."
He cut a thick bough bed, and splints from a straight-grained sapling with which he bound his partner's leg, but not too tightly lest the impeded circulation should cause the foot to freeze. And in the morning he made him as comfortable as possible on the toboggan, looped the line over his shoulders, and started.
Though Dobbs was lean his weight in that soft snow made a heavy load. Bill was forced to pick his way carefully. Now and then on crust the going was good, and he made better time; but on the whole, progress was alarmingly slow. Even on downward slopes it was a pull; up them it was a strain. The exertion wrung the sweat from his hard body. Now and then he was forced to rest.
"I'm too durn heavy," said Dobbs sadly.
"No, you ain't," 'his partner replied. "You're lighter than I thought. Wait till we get down along the river, where the snow is packed, and we'll just burn up the trail."
Magnificent lying, and Dobbs knew it. He could tell by the sinking of his partner's webs in the snow, by his heavy breathing, by the heave of his chest, and the running sweat when he halted. A good judge of distance and pace, he knew that the miles of a day's march were being cut in less than half. Which meant that instead of being twelve days from the Portage they were, in fact, more than twenty- four. And even on rations reduced to the starvation point they had enough food only for six. Over these things Dobbs brooded, sitting helpless on the toboggan watching the pistonlike, tireless, driving stride of the magnificent human mechanism in front of him. And one night he looked at his scanty meal with a tolerable imitation of repulsion.
"I don't want no supper," said he.
"You ain't feelin' sick?" asked Bill apprehensively.
"No, not sick," Dobbs assured him. "I just ain't hungry. I guess my stummick's sorter turned against this grub. It'll do me good to go without a meal or two." Which was uttered with the best intentions, but was a distinct overplay of his hand.
"You old liar!" said Bill. "I'm onto you bigger'n a house. You eat that grub!"
And Dobbs, finding his scheme detected, gave up the pretense.
"I won't," he said. "You're doin' all the work, while I'm just settin' still. You need the grub, and I don't. I don't have to keep strong, and you do. You've got to have it to pull me. Besides," he added, with a brave attempt at humor, "the less I eat, the lighter I'll get, and that'll help some."
"And that'll be all from you," said Bill. "Think I'm goin' to see a partner with a busted leg starve himself? Not much. Eat it, or I'll ram it down you."
And so Dobbs ate unwillingly, while his partner predicted a change of luck which should give them meat. Sooner or later, he maintained, they were bound to find deer.
But the only change was one of weather, which had been fine, though cold. Now a blizzard descended on them, driven by a wind from the arctic wastes, which cut the skin like a knife. Skookum Bill battled with it for two hours before he gave up, with frost spots on his face and his lungs aching from the thirty-below air that he had pumped into them, which was yet insufficient for his exertions.
They camped in the thickest spruce they could find, and the blizzard raged two days, which reduced their stock of food to the vanishing point. Also it made new, fresh snow, and harder going than ever.
"But, anyhow," said Bill, "we've had a good rest. Now watch me hit her."
And he did "hit her," tearing along in a knee-high flurry of snow, while Dobbs watched him with hollow-eyed, bitter longing, and self-reproach. The next day the grub gave out!
"Bill," said the older man, "it's no use. You can't get me to the Portage, and you'll have an awful job gettin' there alone. Still, you got a chance, Right here we split the blankets."
"Guess again," said Bill.
"I don't need to," said Dobbs. "I've seen this comin' from the first, and now it's here. When luck sets against you, you can't change it. You can't make the Portage with me. You've done more than any two men could do already. There ain't no sense in both of us dyin', and I'm elected. I'm an old dog, and my time's mighty nigh up, anyhow, so it don't matter so much."
"I said we'd make the Portage," said Bill, with an oath, "and we'll make it together or not at all. I wouldn't quit a partner while he's alive. I said I hadn't hit my limit, and I ain't hit her yet. When I do I'll tell you." And nothing that Dobbs could say shook his resolution.
But Dobbs was not deceived. He knew that his partner's strength was rapidly running out—that even his splendid muscles and wonderful endurance could not stand up much longer against the double strain of exertion and hunger. Now Dobbs was an old reprobate, hardened in wickedness, without noticeable conscience or principle; but nevertheless he had one soft spot in his heart, and that was for his partner. Also he had his peculiar ideas of honor, and finding argument unavailing he decided that it was up to him. And so, very gently, he lifted the rifle which lay on the toboggan beside him, levered a cartridge into the chamber with great care lest the crank of the magazine action should betray him, reversed the weapon, rested his forehead upon the muzzle, shut his eyes, and slid his hand down the barrel for the trigger.
But at that moment Skookum Bill chanced to look over his shoulder. He leaped backward, caught the groping hand, and snatched the weapon away.
"No, you don't!" he roared. "Think I've packed you all this way to have you blow the top of your head off now? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
Dobbs, after a futile attempt to regain the rifle, sank back, shaking, for at that moment he had fully intended and expected to be dead.
"I couldn't see no other way!" he whimpered, his nerve suddenly deserting him. "You said yourself you wouldn't leave me while we was both alive. I wanted to give you a show, Bill. What did you stop me for? I was all keyed up to it, and now I dunno's I can!"
"I know durn well you won't get the chance," said Skookum Bill, levering the shells from the magazine and putting them in his pocket. "So that was why! You blame' old stiff!" But his tone held a certain admiration and affection. "Don't try no such play again, for I'll pack you along livin' or dead, and so it won't do you no good. I'll copper it from the start."
Dobbs knew that he would do exactly as he had said.
"I won't," he promised, "but it means that we'll both die."
"Not a die!" said Bill doggedly. "We'll pull through, I tell you. Luck's goin' to change. I can feel it comin'." But for days they had been on starvation rations. Thus Bill in particular had almost exhausted his reserve of strength and vitality. Now, when food was cut off altogether, he weakened rapidly. The first day he held to the work, but he did so on his nerve alone. On the second day, in the afternoon, by a small, frozen stream, he stopped. "I've hit my limit at last," he said reluctantly. "There ain't another mile in me without grub or rest—but mostly grub. I'd eat my moccasins, only my feet would freeze, and I'd die, anyhow."
"Take mine!" said Dobbs eagerly. "Take mine, and go ahead alone. It won't make no difference to me, Bill."
"I won't," Bill refused. "I said we'd make the riffle together or not at all. If we only had something to hold us over till we could find meat! Any old chunk of hide would do." Suddenly he started. "Why didn't I think of it before? But maybe it's just as well I didn't. We got the skin of that black fox. We'll eat that!"
"Eat it!" Dobbs exclaimed. "But, Bill, it's worth from a thousand up!"
"Not here it ain't," said Skookum Bill, stating a fundamental economic principle. "Here it ain't worth a tinker's curse. Nothing is that ain't grub. We'll stew her up right here. You take a knife and sorter shave the fur off while I'm rustlin' wood."
And so, while he sought dry wood and split it and got water, old Dobbs cut away the priceless fur with the keen, small blade of his knife; and finally held up a scraped, parchmentlike, hideous hide in place of the glossy black robe which, had all gone well, would have adorned the beauty of some woman who had never known hunger or cold or privation in any form. Old Dobbs, starving as he was, almost wept at the sacrilege.
"Cut her into strips," said Skookum Bill practically. "She'll stew better, and be easier to chew on."
They boiled it for an hour, and then, their hunger driving them, ate, worrying it down to the last morsel. It was tough and springy, and tasted like carrion; but it was food, and their stomachs rejoiced thereat. At any rate, the evil hour was set back, and that was something.
"If we ever get out o' this," said Bill, "we can blow that we've et a meal that cost us a thousand a plate. And that's some high-priced muckamuck. I wonder what old McNicol would say if he knew!"
"He won't never know," said Dobbs despondently, "because we won't never get——"
He broke off, for his partner had bounded to his feet and dived for the rifle. Dobbs turned. Behind him, at a distance of perhaps two hundred yards, ran a buck, laboring in the snow. Evidently the animal had come upon them unaware, for it had turned off at a sharp angle.
"Shoot!" yelled old Dobbs rashly, beside himself at the sight of meat. "Shoot, Bill, shoot quick! He's gettin' away!"
Whereby Dobbs violated both etiquette and common sense. For quick, accurate shooting demands both confidence and concentration, and his frantic yell was destructive of both. Under ordinary circumstances Skookum Bill would have paid little attention. But he was exhausted, his nerves worn raw, and he was practically starving. And so he behaved like a novice instead of the veteran that he was.
Barely waiting to catch his sights he fired, and the bullet threw up a spray of snow ahead and to the left. Instantly he pumped another shell, and fired again, and again he missed; with his last cartridge he drew a fine sight, dwelt on his trigger, and consequently shot behind. From force of habit he pumped again, but the hammer clicked down on an empty chamber.
"Oh, Lord!" groaned Dobbs. "You missed him, Bill! He's got away!"
His partner whirled the useless rifle above his head and flung it far in the snow. He turned on him, his face black with rage.
"You made me miss!" he roared in fury. "You yelled in my ear when I was aimin'! Don't you know nothin'? Ain't you got no sense at all? I been haulin' you days and days, pumpin' the heart out of me to save your worthless old life, and here's what I get for it. All you had to do was to keep your fool mouth shut—and you wouldn't! You——" The remainder of his speech was fervid blasphemy, which seemed to crackle about Dobbs' miserable ears.
The latter made no attempt to reply or to palliate his offense. Under the torrent of bitter words his lips began to quiver. Suddenly he buried his face in his hands and sobbed, and the sound shocked Skookum Bill into sanity. He eyed the pitiful, old, broken figure for a moment, and the blaze of fury died from his eyes.
"Quit it, for goodness sake, and be a man!" he said. And Dobbs raised a face contorted with abject misery.
"I can't be, because I ain't," he whimpered. "I ain't a man no more. I'm just a poor, broken-legged old dog, starved and froze and kicked and cussed. An' I'm goin' to die an' be finished, an' it serves me right. Take 'n' hit me on the head with the ax, an' then you won't be bothered with me no more!"
His misery was so abject and his nerve so plainly broken that Skookum Bill repented of his hasty words.
"Brace up, Sam," he said. "I sorter flew off the handle, but you know how I am. I don't mean all I say."
"You meant it, and it was comin' to me," Dobbs mumbled sadly. "It don't matter, Bill. You'd orter let me use one of them ca'tridges on myself when I wanted to."
Bill, being somewhat of the same opinion, said nothing. For the first time he lost hope. Now it would avail them nothing to find deer. And without the chance of procuring meat vanished also the faint chance of making the Portage, even alone. The grisly vision of death in that frozen wilderness, which had stood half curtained in the back of his mind for days, now stalked boldly into the foreground.
A long silence fell. They sat by the remnants of the fire, looking at the trodden snow sprinkled with shreds of the fur of the black fox, heedless of the waning afternoon and the increasing cold.
Suddenly from upwind, from the direction in which the buck had vanished, there came a sound, and the heads of both men jerked upright as if actuated by one string sharply pulled. As their eyes met in unspoken query the sound was repeated. This time it was unmistakable, crisp, and clear, though far away—the smacking report of a rifle.
"A gun! Two shots!" Dobbs breathed. "Who d'you s'pose——?"
But Skookum Bill was shoving his feet into the loops of his snowshoes hurriedly.
"I'll find him," he said. "I'll bet he's got that buck. Keep the fire goin'."
He took the buck's trail at a run, for the prospect of aid in their dire need lent him energy. The trail led straight upwind. For a mile or more he followed it, and suddenly came to its end.
Before him, in an open space, lay the buck's body; and above it, knife in hand, a man was skinning busily.
Bill hailed, a hoarse, joyous shout, for here was both meat and human assistance, and ran toward him. But the stranger picked up a rifle from the snow, and Skookum Bill, as he faced him, recognized the forbidding features of Jake Flint.
"Don't come no nearer," Flint warned, his finger on the trigger. "I been lookin' for you for some time," he added.
"I'm here," said Bill. "And as I ain't got no gun you can calm down your nerves."
Flint eyed his wasted features tor a moment curiously.
"You fellers," he stated coldly, "burned down my cabin. What have you got to say about it?'
"That was a mistake," said Bill.
"You'll find it was," Flint returned grimly.
"Sure," said Bill. "The way it's turned out I ought to have shot you."
"You got a cold nerve," Flint commented, not without approval. "I s'pose you savvy I'm goin' to shoot you?"
"Of course," Bill admitted. "I figgered you would if you got the chance. I can take my medicine. Only Sam, my partner, he hadn't nothin' to do with it."
"He didn't, hey?" said Flint skeptically.
"Not a thing," Bill asserted. "It was me, and you know durn well there was only one set of tracks."
"I know that," Flint returned. "And there's only one set of tracks on this trail of yourn that I've been follerin', but there's been two men in camp."
"I'm packin' Sam on the toboggan because his leg's busted," Bill explained. "It's a hard deal on him to be shot for what I done, but, of course, he's durn near starved to death, anyway."
"You don't look as if bein' burned out 'agreed with you, either," said Flint.
"Never mind that," growled Skookum Bill. "Here's the proposition: Sam ain't done nothin' to be shot for, and he can't walk. You shoot me, and there ain't no one to haul him, without you do, and you c'n believe me when I say that pullin' a man in this snow ain't no cinch. Now, if you was to give us a hunk of that meat we could make the Portage, and any shootin' you wanted to do could come off afterward."
"Think you'd beat me to it, hey?" asked Flint.
"Naw!" said Bill, with some contempt. "Can't you get it through your head that I'm try in' to make a deal with you?"
"You mean you'd let me shoot you afterward?" said Flint incredulously. "Do you think I'd believe that?"
"All right," said Bill, "then you don't have to. I've put up my talk. You'll find Sam along my back trail. He ain't got no gun nor nothin'. And now you can get this shootin' over any time you're a mind to."
Flint and he looked each other in the eye. The former raised his rifle slowly.
Skookum Bill stared above the black ring down the line of the sights.
"Why don't you shoot?" he demanded. "Tryin' to raise a yellow streak in me? Well, you're wastin' time, for I ain't got one!"
And Flint, with an oath of reluctant admiration, lowered his rifle.
"I ought to, but I can't," he admitted. "If you'd weakened I would. And any time I can't play a thing the limit I don't play it at all. I'm willing to call this off—if you are."
"Am I?" said Bill. "What do you think? Shake on it!"
They shook, each knowing the other for a hard man and respecting him accordingly.
"I can say now," said Bill, "that I'm durn sorry I burnt your shack."
"Of course I should have moved my traps from east of that crick," Flint admitted, "but you come at me so bull-headed, smashin' them and warnin' me off, that it sorter put up my back hair. When I found the shack burnt I struck back a ways and built me a new one, I had some grub cached, and I was goin' to get even. That's how I didn't know you was burnt out for some days. Soon as I found out I loaded up and hit your trail. I sure intended to get both of you. Now I'm glad I didn't. We can trap that valley next winter. There's room for all of us, and we can do it friendly, like we should."
"We could—but we won't," Skookum Bill told him. "We'll make you a present of that valley. Me and Sam won't trap no more. It ain't our business."
McNicol, smoking a blackened clay comfortably beside the huge round stove in his stare at the Portage, stared at two scarecrows who entered to him, at first scarcely recognizing them. One living skeleton hobbled with the aid of a homemade crutch, and the other was merely a giant rack of bones. The black finger marks of the frost were on their faces, and their bearded cheeks were sunken, pasted in flatly against the teeth so that the cheek bones almost protruded through he stretched skin.
"Save us!" McNicol exclaimed. "So it's you!"
"It's us," Skookum Bill replied. And with his customary directness he added: "And we want another grubstake."
"Ye look as if ye did," McNicol commented sourly, recovering his accustomed poise and manner of speech. "I thought," he continued, "ye were goin' to a district that was fair crawlin' wi' fur, from which there was no comin' out in the winter."
"We was burnt out and we had to come," Bill told him. "We had the furs, too, but they was all burnt except one. We saved that."
"Very provident of ye," McNicol commented sardonically. "And that one'll no doubt be a muskrat. In the nature of things ye'd no save anything that would help pay what ye owe."
"It wasn't no muskrat," said Bill. "It was a black fox."
"A black fox!" MoNicol exclaimed. "Ye have the skin of a black fox?"
"Not now," Bill admitted sadly.
"What have ye done with it?" the trader demanded.
"We et it," Bill replied calmly.
"Ye—what?" McNicol almost shrieked.
"Et it," Bill repeated. "We was sorter hungry at the time."
"We was starvin'" said Dobbs.
"And so we ain't got no furs nor money nor nothin'," Bill pursued downrightly, "but, all the same, we got to have grub and things. We'll pay up in the spring, soon as we can wash some dirt we know of."
McNicol shook his head.
" 'The way of the transgressor is hard,'" said he. "Also all men are liars—at times. Ye'll admit the relevancy of the quotations, which ye'll scarce recognize, bein' from the Scriptures. Prove to me that ye ate the skin of a black fox, and I'll grubstake ye afresh. But not unless."
Skookum Bill walked over to the floor scales, and stepped upon the platform.
"You saw me weigh myself when I was in here last," he said. "Two hundred and seventeen I weighed. Well, look here!"
The two-hundred-pound weight was on the drop. Removing it he substituted the one hundred. Back and back he slid the balance weight on the beam. Even his face expressed surprise. The beam tipped, quivered, and balanced.
"Look!" said Skookum Bill.
"Gosh!" said old Dobbs.
"Pick out vour grubstake!" said McNicol.
The scales balanced at one hundred and twenty-nine pounds.