“If I was a man–” Her words were in themselves indecisive, but the withering contempt which flashed from her black eyes was not lost upon the men-folk in the tent.
Tommy, the English sailor, squirmed, but chivalrous old Dick Humphries, Cornish fisherman and erstwhile American salmon capitalist, beamed upon her benevolently as ever. He bore women too large a portion of his rough heart to mind them, as he said, when they were in the doldrums, or when their limited vision would not permit them to see all around a thing. So they said nothing, these two men who had taken the half-frozen woman into their tent three days back, and who had warmed her, and fed her, and rescued her goods from the Indian packers. This latter had necessitated the payment of numerous dollars, to say nothing of a demonstration in force–Dick Humphries squinting along the sights of a Winchester while Tommy apportioned their wages among them at his own appraisement. It had been a little thing in itself, but it meant much to a woman playing a desperate single-hand in the equally desperate Klondike rush of ’97. Men were occupied with their own pressing needs, nor did they approve of women playing, single-handed, the odds of the arctic winter. “If I was a man, I know what I would do.” Thus reiterated Molly, she of the flashing eyes, and therein spoke the cumulative grit of five American-born generations.
In the succeeding silence, Tommy thrust a pan of biscuits into the Yukon stove and piled on fresh fuel. A reddish flood pounded along under his sun-tanned skin, and as he stooped, the skin of his neck was scarlet. Dick palmed a three-cornered sail needle through a set of broken pack straps, his good nature in nowise disturbed by the feminine cataclysm which was threatening to burst in the storm-beaten tent.
“And if you was a man?” he asked, his voice vibrant with kindness. The three-cornered needle jammed in the damp leather, and he suspended work for the moment.
“I’d be a man. I’d put the straps on my back and light out. I wouldn’t lay in camp here, with the Yukon like to freeze most any day, and the goods not half over the portage. And you–you are men, and you sit here, holding your hands, afraid of a little wind and wet. I tell you straight, Yankee-men are made of different stuff. They’d be hitting the trail for Dawson if they had to wade through hell-fire. And you, you–I wish I was a man.”
“I’m very glad, my dear, that you’re not.” Dick Humphries threw the bight of the sail twine over the point of the needle and drew it clear with a couple of deft turns and a jerk.
A snort of the gale dealt the tent a broad-handed slap as it hurtled past, and the sleet rat-tat-tatted with snappy spite against the thin canvas. The smoke, smothered in its exit, drove back through the fire-box door, carrying with it the pungent odor of green spruce.
“Good Gawd! Why can’t a woman listen to reason?” Tommy lifted his head from the denser depths and turned upon her a pair of smoke-outraged eyes.
“And why can’t a man show his manhood?”
Tommy sprang to his feet with an oath which would have shocked a woman of lesser heart, ripped loose the sturdy reef-knots and flung back the flaps of the tent.
The trio peered out. It was not a heartening spectacle. A few water-soaked tents formed the miserable foreground, from which the streaming ground sloped to a foaming gorge. Down this ramped a mountain torrent. Here and there, dwarf spruce, rooting and grovelling in the shallow alluvium, marked the proximity of the timber line. Beyond, on the opposing slope, the vague outlines of a glacier loomed dead-white through the driving rain. Even as they looked, its massive front crumbled into the valley, on the breast of some subterranean vomit, and it lifted its hoarse thunder above the screeching voice of the storm. Involuntarily, Molly shrank back.
“Look, woman! Look with all your eyes! Three miles in the teeth of the gale to Crater Lake, across two glaciers, along the slippery rim-rock, knee-deep in a howling river! Look, I say, you Yankee woman! Look! There’s your Yankee-men!” Tommy pointed a passionate hand in the direction of the struggling tents. “Yankees, the last mother’s son of them. Are they on trail? Is there one of them with the straps to his back? And you would teach us men our work? Look, I say!”
Another tremendous section of the glacier rumbled earthward. The wind whipped in at the open doorway, bulging out the sides of the tent till it swayed like a huge bladder at its guy ropes. The smoke swirled about them, and the sleet drove sharply into their flesh. Tommy pulled the flaps together hastily, and returned to his tearful task at the fire-box. Dick Humphries threw the mended pack straps into a corner and lighted his pipe. Even Molly was for the moment persuaded.
“There’s my clothes,” she half-whimpered, the feminine for the moment prevailing. “They’re right at the top of the cache, and they’ll be ruined! I tell you, ruined!”
“There, there,” Dick interposed, when the last quavering syllable had wailed itself out. “Don’t let that worry you, little woman. I’m old enough to be your father’s brother, and I’ve a daughter older than you, and I’ll tog you out in fripperies when we get to Dawson if it takes my last dollar.”
“When we get to Dawson!” The scorn had come back to her throat with a sudden surge. “You’ll rot on the way, first. You’ll drown in a mudhole. You–you–Britishers!”
The last word, explosive, intensive, had strained the limits of her vituperation. If that would not stir these men, what could? Tommy’s neck ran red again, but he kept his tongue between his teeth. Dick’s eyes mellowed. He had the advantage over Tommy, for he had once had a white woman for a wife.
The blood of five American-born generations is, under certain circumstances, an uncomfortable heritage; and among these circumstances might be enumerated that of being quartered with next of kin. These men were Britons. On sea and land her ancestry and the generations thereof had thrashed them and theirs. On sea and land they would continue to do so. The traditions of her race clamored for vindication. She was but a woman of the present, but in her bubbled the whole mighty past. It was not alone Molly Travis who pulled on gum boots, mackintosh, and straps; for the phantom hands of ten thousand forbears drew tight the buckles, just so as they squared her jaw and set her eyes with determination. She, Molly Travis, intended to shame these Britishers; they, the innumerable shades, were asserting the dominance of the common race.
The men-folk did not interfere. Once Dick suggested that she take his oilskins, as her mackintosh was worth no more than paper in such a storm. But she sniffed her independence so sharply that he communed with his pipe till she tied the flaps on the outside and slushed away on the flooded trail.
“Think she’ll make it?” Dick’s face belied the indifference of his voice.
“Make it? If she stands the pressure till she gets to the cache, what of the cold and misery, she’ll be stark, raving mad. Stand it? She’ll be dumb-crazed. You know it yourself, Dick. You’ve wind-jammed round the Horn. You know what it is to lay out on a topsail yard in the thick of it, bucking sleet and snow and frozen canvas till you’re ready to just let go and cry like a baby. Clothes? She won’t be able to tell a bundle of skirts from a gold pan or a tea-kettle.”
“Kind of think we were wrong in letting her go, then?”
“Not a bit of it. So help me, Dick, she’d ‘a’ made this tent a hell for the rest of the trip if we hadn’t. Trouble with her she’s got too much spirit. This’ll tone it down a bit.”
“Yes,” Dick admitted, “she’s too ambitious. But then Molly’s all right. A cussed little fool to tackle a trip like this, but a plucky sight better than those pick-me-up-and-carry-me kind of women. She’s the stock that carried you and me, Tommy, and you’ve got to make allowance for the spirit. Takes a woman to breed a man. You can’t suck manhood from the dugs of a creature whose only claim to womanhood is her petticoats. Takes a she-cat, not a cow, to mother a tiger.”
“And when they’re unreasonable we’ve got to put up with it, eh?”
“The proposition. A sharp sheath-knife cuts deeper on a slip than a dull one; but that’s no reason for to hack the edge off over a capstan bar.”
“All right, if you say so, but when it comes to woman, I guess I’ll take mine with a little less edge.”
“What do you know about it?” Dick demanded.
“Some.” Tommy reached over for a pair of Molly’s wet stockings and stretched them across his knees to dry.
Dick, eying him querulously, went fishing in her hand satchel, then hitched up to the front of the stove with divers articles of damp clothing spread likewise to the heat.
“Thought you said you never were married?” he asked.
“Did I? No more was I–that is–yes, by Gawd! I was. And as good a woman as ever cooked grub for a man.”
“Slipped her moorings?” Dick symbolized infinity with a wave of his hand.
“Childbirth,” he added, after a moment’s pause.
The beans bubbled rowdily on the front lid, and he pushed the pot back to a cooler surface. After that he investigated the biscuits, tested them with a splinter of wood, and placed them aside under cover of a damp cloth. Dick, after the manner of his kind, stifled his interest and waited silently. “A different woman to Molly. Siwash.”
Dick nodded his understanding.
“Not so proud and wilful, but stick by a fellow through thick and thin. Sling a paddle with the next and starve as contentedly as Job. Go for’ard when the sloop’s nose was more often under than not, and take in sail like a man. Went prospecting once, up Teslin way, past Surprise Lake and the Little Yellow-Head. Grub gave out, and we ate the dogs. Dogs gave out, and we ate harnesses, moccasins, and furs. Never a whimper; never a pick-me- up-and-carry-me. Before we went she said look out for grub, but when it happened, never a I-told-you-so. ‘Never mind, Tommy,’ she’d say, day after day, that weak she could bare lift a snow- shoe and her feet raw with the work. ‘Never mind. I’d sooner be flat-bellied of hunger and be your woman, Tommy, than have a potlach every day and be Chief George’s klooch.’ George was chief of the Chilcoots, you know, and wanted her bad.
“Great days, those. Was a likely chap myself when I struck the coast. Jumped a whaler, the Pole Star, at Unalaska, and worked my way down to Sitka on an otter hunter. Picked up with Happy Jack there–know him?”
“Had charge of my traps for me,” Dick answered, “down on the Columbia. Pretty wild, wasn’t he, with a warm place in his heart for whiskey and women?”
“The very chap. Went trading with him for a couple of seasons– hooch, and blankets, and such stuff. Then got a sloop of my own, and not to cut him out, came down Juneau way. That’s where I met Killisnoo; I called her Tilly for short. Met her at a squaw dance down on the beach. Chief George had finished the year’s trade with the Sticks over the Passes, and was down from Dyea with half his tribe. No end of Siwashes at the dance, and I the only white. No one knew me, barring a few of the bucks I’d met over Sitka way, but I’d got most of their histories from Happy Jack.
“Everybody talking Chinook, not guessing that I could spit it better than most; and principally two girls who’d run away from Haine’s Mission up the Lynn Canal. They were trim creatures, good to the eye, and I kind of thought of casting that way; but they were fresh as fresh-caught cod. Too much edge, you see. Being a new-comer, they started to twist me, not knowing I gathered in every word of Chinook they uttered.
“I never let on, but set to dancing with Tilly, and the more we danced the more our hearts warmed to each other. ‘Looking for a woman,’ one of the girls says, and the other tosses her head and answers, ‘Small chance he’ll get one when the women are looking for men.’ And the bucks and squaws standing around began to grin and giggle and repeat what had been said. ‘Quite a pretty boy,’ says the first one. I’ll not deny I was rather smooth-faced and youngish, but I’d been a man amongst men many’s the day, and it rankled me. ‘Dancing with Chief George’s girl,’ pipes the second. ‘First thing George’ll give him the flat of a paddle and send him about his business.’ Chief George had been looking pretty black up to now, but at this he laughed and slapped his knees. He was a husky beggar and would have used the paddle too.
“‘Who’s the girls?’ I asked Tilly, as we went ripping down the centre in a reel. And as soon as she told me their names I remembered all about them from Happy Jack. Had their pedigree down fine–several things he’d told me that not even their own tribe knew. But I held my hush, and went on courting Tilly, they a-casting sharp remarks and everybody roaring. ‘Bide a wee, Tommy,’ I says to myself; ‘bide a wee.’
“And bide I did, till the dance was ripe to break up, and Chief George had brought a paddle all ready for me. Everybody was on the lookout for mischief when we stopped; but I marched, easy as you please, slap into the thick of them. The Mission girls cut me up something clever, and for all I was angry I had to set my teeth to keep from laughing. I turned upon them suddenly.
“‘Are you done?’ I asked.
“You should have seen them when they heard me spitting Chinook. Then I broke loose. I told them all about themselves, and their people before them; their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers– everybody, everything. Each mean trick they’d played; every scrape they’d got into; every shame that’d fallen them. And I burned them without fear or favor. All hands crowded round. Never had they heard a white man sling their lingo as I did. Everybody was laughing save the Mission girls. Even Chief George forgot the paddle, or at least he was swallowing too much respect to dare to use it.
“But the girls. ‘Oh, don’t, Tommy,’ they cried, the tears running down their cheeks. ‘Please don’t. We’ll be good. Sure, Tommy, sure.’ But I knew them well, and I scorched them on every tender spot. Nor did I slack away till they came down on their knees, begging and pleading with me to keep quiet. Then I shot a glance at Chief George; but he did not know whether to have at me or not, and passed it off by laughing hollowly.
“So be. When I passed the parting with Tilly that night I gave her the word that I was going to be around for a week or so, and that I wanted to see more of her. Not thick-skinned, her kind, when it came to showing like and dislike, and she looked her pleasure for the honest girl she was. Ay, a striking lass, and I didn’t wonder that Chief George was taken with her.
“Everything my way. Took the wind from his sails on the first leg. I was for getting her aboard and sailing down Wrangel way till it blew over, leaving him to whistle; but I wasn’t to get her that easy. Seems she was living with an uncle of hers–guardian, the way such things go–and seems he was nigh to shuffling off with consumption or some sort of lung trouble. He was good and bad by turns, and she wouldn’t leave him till it was over with. Went up to the tepee just before I left, to speculate on how long it’d be; but the old beggar had promised her to Chief George, and when he clapped eyes on me his anger brought on a hemorrhage.
“‘Come and take me, Tommy,’ she says when we bid good-by on the beach. ‘Ay,’ I answers; ‘when you give the word.’ And I kissed her, white-man-fashion and lover-fashion, till she was all of a tremble like a quaking aspen, and I was so beside myself I’d half a mind to go up and give the uncle a lift over the divide.
“So I went down Wrangel way, past St. Mary’s and even to the Queen Charlottes, trading, running whiskey, turning the sloop to most anything. Winter was on, stiff and crisp, and I was back to Juneau, when the word came. ‘Come,’ the beggar says who brought the news. ‘Killisnoo say, “Come now.”‘ ‘What’s the row?’ I asks. ‘Chief George,’ says he. ‘Potlach. Killisnoo, makum klooch.’
“Ay, it was bitter–the Taku howling down out of the north, the salt water freezing quick as it struck the deck, and the old sloop and I hammering into the teeth of it for a hundred miles to Dyea. Had a Douglass Islander for crew when I started, but midway up he was washed over from the bows. Jibed all over and crossed the course three times, but never a sign of him.”
“Doubled up with the cold most likely,” Dick suggested, putting a pause into the narrative while he hung one of Molly’s skirts up to dry, “and went down like a pot of lead.”
“My idea. So I finished the course alone, half-dead when I made Dyea in the dark of the evening. The tide favored, and I ran the sloop plump to the bank, in the shelter of the river. Couldn’t go an inch further, for the fresh water was frozen solid. Halyards and blocks were that iced up I didn’t dare lower mainsail or jib. First I broached a pint of the cargo raw, and then, leaving all standing, ready for the start, and with a blanket around me, headed across the flat to the camp. No mistaking, it was a grand layout. The Chilcats had come in a body–dogs, babies, and canoes–to say nothing of the Dog-Ears, the Little Salmons, and the Missions. Full half a thousand of them to celebrate Tilly’s wedding, and never a white man in a score of miles.
“Nobody took note of me, the blanket over my head and hiding my face, and I waded knee deep through the dogs and youngsters till I was well up to the front. The show was being pulled off in a big open place among the trees, with great fires burning and the snow moccasin-packed as hard as Portland cement. Next me was Tilly, beaded and scarlet-clothed galore, and against her Chief George and his head men. The shaman was being helped out by the big medicines from the other tribes, and it shivered my spine up and down, the deviltries they cut. I caught myself wondering if the folks in Liverpool could only see me now; and I thought of yellow- haired Gussie, whose brother I licked after my first voyage, just because he was not for having a sailor-man courting his sister. And with Gussie in my eyes I looked at Tilly. A rum old world, thinks I, with man a-stepping in trails the mother little dreamed of when he lay at suck.
“So be. When the noise was loudest, walrus hides booming and priests a-singing, I says, ‘Are you ready?’ Gawd! Not a start, not a shot of the eyes my way, not the twitch of a muscle. ‘I knew,’ she answers, slow and steady as a calm spring tide. ‘Where?’ ‘The high bank at the edge of the ice,’ I whispers back. ‘Jump out when I give the word.’
“Did I say there was no end of huskies? Well, there was no end. Here, there, everywhere, they were scattered about,–tame wolves and nothing less. When the strain runs thin they breed them in the bush with the wild, and they’re bitter fighters. Right at the toe of my moccasin lay a big brute, and by the heel another. I doubled the first one’s tail, quick, till it snapped in my grip. As his jaws clipped together where my hand should have been, I threw the second one by the scruff straight into his mouth. ‘Go!’ I cried to Tilly.
“You know how they fight. In the wink of an eye there was a raging hundred of them, top and bottom, ripping and tearing each other, kids and squaws tumbling which way, and the camp gone wild. Tilly’d slipped away, so I followed. But when I looked over my shoulder at the skirt of the crowd, the devil laid me by the heart, and I dropped the blanket and went back.
“By then the dogs’d been knocked apart and the crowd was untangling itself. Nobody was in proper place, so they didn’t note that Tilly’d gone. ‘Hello,’ I says, gripping Chief George by the hand. ‘May your potlach-smoke rise often, and the Sticks bring many furs with the spring.’
“Lord love me, Dick, but he was joyed to see me,–him with the upper hand and wedding Tilly. Chance to puff big over me. The tale that I was hot after her had spread through the camps, and my presence did him proud. All hands knew me, without my blanket, and set to grinning and giggling. It was rich, but I made it richer by playing unbeknowing.
“‘What’s the row?’ I asks. ‘Who’s getting married now?’
“‘Chief George,’ the shaman says, ducking his reverence to him.
“‘Thought he had two klooches.’
“‘Him takum more,–three,’ with another duck.
“‘Oh!’ And I turned away as though it didn’t interest me.
“But this wouldn’t do, and everybody begins singing out, ‘Killisnoo! Killisnoo!’
“‘Killisnoo what?’ I asked.
“‘Killisnoo, klooch, Chief George,’ they blathered. ‘Killisnoo, klooch.’
“I jumped and looked at Chief George. He nodded his head and threw out his chest.
“She’ll be no klooch of yours,’ I says solemnly. ‘No klooch of yours,’ I repeats, while his face went black and his hand began dropping to his hunting-knife.
“‘Look!’ I cries, striking an attitude. ‘Big Medicine. You watch my smoke.’
“I pulled off my mittens, rolled back my sleeves, and made half-a- dozen passes in the air.
“‘Killisnoo!’ I shouts. ‘Killisnoo! Killisnoo!’
“I was making medicine, and they began to scare. Every eye was on me; no time to find out that Tilly wasn’t there. Then I called Killisnoo three times again, and waited; and three times more. All for mystery and to make them nervous. Chief George couldn’t guess what I was up to, and wanted to put a stop to the foolery; but the shamans said to wait, and that they’d see me and go me one better, or words to that effect. Besides, he was a superstitious cuss, and I fancy a bit afraid of the white man’s magic.
“Then I called Killisnoo, long and soft like the howl of a wolf, till the women were all a-tremble and the bucks looking serious.
“‘Look!’ I sprang for’ard, pointing my finger into a bunch of squaws–easier to deceive women than men, you know. ‘Look!’ And I raised it aloft as though following the flight of a bird. Up, up, straight overhead, making to follow it with my eyes till it disappeared in the sky.
“‘Killisnoo,’ I said, looking at Chief George and pointing upward again. ‘Killisnoo.’
“So help me, Dick, the gammon worked. Half of them, at least, saw Tilly disappear in the air. They’d drunk my whiskey at Juneau and seen stranger sights, I’ll warrant. Why should I not do this thing, I, who sold bad spirits corked in bottles? Some of the women shrieked. Everybody fell to whispering in bunches. I folded my arms and held my head high, and they drew further away from me. The time was ripe to go. ‘Grab him,’ Chief George cries. Three or four of them came at me, but I whirled, quick, made a couple of passes like to send them after Tilly, and pointed up. Touch me? Not for the kingdoms of the earth. Chief George harangued them, but he couldn’t get them to lift a leg. Then he made to take me himself; but I repeated the mummery and his grit went out through his fingers.
“‘Let your shamans work wonders the like of which I have done this night,’ I says. ‘Let them call Killisnoo down out of the sky whither I have sent her.’ But the priests knew their limits. ‘May your klooches bear you sons as the spawn of the salmon,’ I says, turning to go; ‘and may your totem pole stand long in the land, and the smoke of your camp rise always.’
“But if the beggars could have seen me hitting the high places for the sloop as soon as I was clear of them, they’d thought my own medicine had got after me. Tilly’d kept warm by chopping the ice away, and was all ready to cast off. Gawd! how we ran before it, the Taku howling after us and the freezing seas sweeping over at every clip. With everything battened down, me a-steering and Tilly chopping ice, we held on half the night, till I plumped the sloop ashore on Porcupine Island, and we shivered it out on the beach; blankets wet, and Tilly drying the matches on her breast.
“So I think I know something about it. Seven years, Dick, man and wife, in rough sailing and smooth. And then she died, in the heart of the winter, died in childbirth, up there on the Chilcat Station. She held my hand to the last, the ice creeping up inside the door and spreading thick on the gut of the window. Outside, the lone howl of the wolf and the Silence; inside, death and the Silence. You’ve never heard the Silence yet, Dick, and Gawd grant you don’t ever have to hear it when you sit by the side of death. Hear it? Ay, till the breath whistles like a siren, and the heart booms, booms, booms, like the surf on the shore.
“Siwash, Dick, but a woman. White, Dick, white, clear through. Towards the last she says, ‘Keep my feather bed, Tommy, keep it always.’ And I agreed. Then she opened her eyes, full with the pain. ‘I’ve been a good woman to you, Tommy, and because of that I want you to promise–to promise’–the words seemed to stick in her throat–‘that when you marry, the woman be white. No more Siwash, Tommy. I know. Plenty white women down to Juneau now. I know. Your people call you “squaw-man,” your women turn their heads to the one side on the street, and you do not go to their cabins like other men. Why? Your wife Siwash. Is it not so? And this is not good. Wherefore I die. Promise me. Kiss me in token of your promise.’
“I kissed her, and she dozed off, whispering, ‘It is good.’ At the end, that near gone my ear was at her lips, she roused for the last time. ‘Remember, Tommy; remember my feather bed.’ Then she died, in childbirth, up there on the Chilcat Station.”
The tent heeled over and half flattened before the gale. Dick refilled his pipe, while Tommy drew the tea and set it aside against Molly’s return.
And she of the flashing eyes and Yankee blood? Blinded, falling, crawling on hand and knee, the wind thrust back in her throat by the wind, she was heading for the tent. On her shoulders a bulky pack caught the full fury of the storm. She plucked feebly at the knotted flaps, but it was Tommy and Dick who cast them loose. Then she set her soul for the last effort, staggered in, and fell exhausted on the floor.
Tommy unbuckled the straps and took the pack from her. As he lifted it there was a clanging of pots and pans. Dick, pouring out a mug of whiskey, paused long enough to pass the wink across her body. Tommy winked back. His lips pursed the monosyllable, “clothes,” but Dick shook his head reprovingly. “Here, little woman,” he said, after she had drunk the whiskey and straightened up a bit.
“Here’s some dry togs. Climb into them. We’re going out to extra-peg the tent. After that, give us the call, and we’ll come in and have dinner. Sing out when you’re ready.”
“So help me, Dick, that’s knocked the edge off her for the rest of this trip,” Tommy spluttered as they crouched to the lee of the tent.
“But it’s the edge is her saving grace.” Dick replied, ducking his head to a volley of sleet that drove around a corner of the canvas. “The edge that you and I’ve got, Tommy, and the edge of our mothers before us.”