Big Jim's Renunciation
Big Jim s Renunciation
Illustrated by Arthur G. Dove
Hwas an enormous man, a clean six feet two in his moccasins, and built in fine sturdy proportion. He was smoothly shaven, with a face almost like that of a Sioux warrior, with high cheek-bones and a grim, closely shut mouth. Beyond that the Indian resemblance ended, for his eyes, which stared directly out from beneath overhanging brows, were a clear, cool gray, and his hair was of that indefinite shade known as “tow.”
He was a gambler by profession, and for fifteen years had been known to the camps of the far frontier as such. He was designated far and wide as Big Jim, and it is doubtful if many of his friends and acquaintances were aware that he had once been christened under the sober patronymic of James Paul Werner. Many of those who knew him as Big Jim had paid well for even that limited knowledge.
He had no record save that of being a game man, ready to shoot or to be shot, as the vicissitudes of his calling might demand; and his only pride was that, no matter what his luck might be, he played “a square game with unstacked cards.” This much was to his credit. And, it may be further remarked, his calling in itself was not such as would impair his public standing in the West which he knew and which knew him. It may be that at times he had questioned whether there might not be better occupations for a man who was inherently honest, but such introspection had not shown him any other means of a livelihood to which he might turn his hand with equal gain. He was of that class of men who are always playing for a stake which, large or small, is never quite realized.
It had remained for him to have his self-respect wounded to the quick, away up there on the banks of the Yukon River, in the heart of Alaska, the last place on earth where it might reasonably be expected that such an awakening would be given. This much at least might one good woman do.
It wasn’t a question of love, because he had neither sought nor craved the affections of that woman or of any woman.
She was not handsome, not even pretty. Nor was she in her youth, having reached that indefinite time which caused one to wonder whether she might be as young as twenty-five years or as old as thirty-five. But about her was the charm of cleanliness of person and mind, of honesty and independence.
When she came to the already established camp, purchased a cabin and opened a restaurant it caused some comment, for women of her kind were scarce in that far-away speck in the wilderness.
Big Jim had been her first customer. The long counter with its clumsy slab stools had barely been placed when he thrust his head through the door and said, “Good morning.” He had been given a courteous reply and had scanned the place for a full minute before making any other remark.
“Restaurant?” he queried.
“Pork and beans?”
“Guess I’ll take a few.”
That had been the whole of their first conversation; and from then on he had been a steady patron. Patience and politeness had given her prosperity, but patience and politeness on his part had not given him her warmer friendship. And this too had aroused the obstinacy within him. But the occurrence which brought him humiliation was, as he tersely put it, due to his “chippin’ into a brace game to save a sucker.”
It was in the days of the first rush, when innocents were plenty and the lure of the new camp had brought not only them and the hardened adventurers of the earth, but also those who, in divers forms, prey on quick prosperity. There had come among them in the first rush a chekako—tenderfoot—a man not versed in the lore of the hills, or familiar with the ways of the frontier, and he had worked for other men. This in itself was not calculated to make those other dwellers on the outskirts of the world, free lances in everything, respect him. To toil for oneself, no matter what the recompense, was no disgrace; but to accept day-wages for the efforts of one’s hands and shoulders smacked of servitude. Prospectors, though broke, were admittedly on a plane with millionaires, but no man might cleanly hold his head erect if he permitted any other human being to give him orders and dictate his goings and comings.
It was on a day when a little steamboat, bound up-river, had shoved her snub nose against the clay bank and dumped off, for a few hours, a throng of gold-seekers that the chekako came to grief. The trading-post was crowded with men seeking to add to their outfits of northern garb, to buy sealskin boots, or to replenish their tobacco supply.
Big Jim had gravely watched the landing and indifferently noted the scramble at the big log post. It was nothing to him. He had seen such rushes of tenderfeet before, and, besides, they were not grist for his mill. It was the outgoing man who had been lucky that he wanted to meet, the one who played big stakes and suffered no serious setback if relieved of part of his gleanings.
“All they’re looking for is bags enough to hold the gold they’re going to pick up,” he muttered with a half grin, as he turned away up the trail back of the traders, and then he came to a stop. Alongside the trail, seated on a log and bathed in tears, was the chekako. The gambler always felt a little sorry for a man in tears, although they were unknown to his own make-up.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. The chekako explained that he had been looted. It had been a day off for him, and he had mingled with the throng at the landing and in the post and had paid for his curiosity by losing a poke containing all his savings. And the worst of it, so he told Big Jim in his simple way, was that it was all needed for the support of a family out in the States.
Big Jim listened with a grin up to this point, then his face took on a frown. The frown grew when the chekako asserted that he could not have lost it, no not even when, on his way to the camp, he had stopped for a drink of water at the crossing of Manook Creek, three miles away. Big Jim sympathized with him but could offer no better advice than another search along the trail. Other men’s carelessness annoyed him, and he turned back to the river front, being out of mood for the big birch forests on the hill. As he came round the corner of a cabin his attention was attracted to a furtive-looking individual who, in some haste to board, was crossing the gangplank of the steamer.
“Whe-e-ew!” whistled the gambler. “That’s Slippers Smith, sure! Wonder what he’s doing up here!” He stood with his hands in his pockets and ruminated for a full minute, his look fixed abstractedly on the steamer in the hollows of which Slippers had disappeared. “If he ain’t quit picking pockets for a living, it’s a cinch he’s got that little feller’s poke,” he said to himself, and thereupon abruptly plunged down the river bank and up over the deserted gangplank.
He climbed to the saloon, on each side of which were staterooms, and seated himself in a chair until a door opened and Slippers emerged.
“Hello, Slippers!” he called, and the other recognized him and came forward. Before he could do more than put out his hand the gambler had assumed an air of great secrecy.
“Slippers,” he said, “I got something to say to you. Guess you better take me to your stateroom where folks can’t hear.”
Once inside, he turned with a chilly grin. “How many of your gang’s on this boat?”
“None. I’m playing a lone hand.”
Big Jim looked through the window across the river where the sun cast reflections of light on the ripples, then peeped out of the door into the empty saloon. When he turned there was a wicked-looking gun in his hand, and even the semblance of good humor was gone from his face.
“Slippers, you took a poke off a friend of mine up there in the trading-post. I’ve come to get it.”
It was a bold guess and a steady bluff, but it worked. Slippers retreated slowly until his back was against the frame of the tiny window. The light was shining full on the gambler’s face and brought out no sign of uncertainty or of mercy. Slippers read danger-signals, and, knowing the man, feared delay would prove dangerous.
“Put up your gun, Jim,” he quavered, in an attempt at friendly surrender. “I don’t want nothing from no friend of yours. Why didn’t you say so sooner?”
He dived into his berth and from beneath the matting pulled a moose-skin bag of gold dust, which he tendered. Big Jim took it and slipped it into his pocket.
“I ain’t going to say nothing to anybody, Slippers,” he remarked, “because you’re in the wrong country. They hang men like you here, so I don’t reckon it’s a healthy place for you. Besides hanging there’s fevers and other things to take a man off. That’s why I don’t think it good for you to get off the boat again before she leaves. I’m dead sure it would be unhealthy for you if I saw you. Good-by, my boy, good-by. Stay aboard the boat till she gets you to some place where you’ve got friends.”
The door slammed behind him, and in a minute the gangplank shook beneath his feet as he retraced his steps to where he had left the forlorn chekako; but the latter was gone. Big Jim found him in the restaurant where held forth the woman.
“Hello,” he said by way of greeting, and the woman, who had been listening to the tale of woe, ended her attempt at condolence. The gambler nodded to her, looked around the place until satisfied that no one else was present, and then threw the poke down on the counter. The chekako stared at it a moment in open-mouthed amazement and then hugged it to his breast in both hands. Big Jim stopped his voluble thanks.
“I found it out there on the bank of the creek,” he said, “and brung it to you. Mighty careless of you to lug your poke around with you. Better put it in the trading company’s safe.”
He tramped out of the room, while the chekako and the woman looked at each other. A little clock above them ticked busily. The chekako glanced at it and then back at her.
“Says he found it on the creek. Three miles there and three miles back make six miles. And when he got there he must have walked up and down the bank some. Well, I sha’n’t say nothing, because I’ve got it back, but it’s been just half an hour since I told him about it.”
The woman was annoyed at the chekako’s ingratitude, but worse than that was the knowledge that the gambler had undoubtedly lied. He was beneath contempt.
The river took on its coating of ice, the snows fell, and the camp was locked in its long winter isolation. The woman prospered, and fortune played up and down with the gambler. He still made attempts to win the woman’s regard, but now she barely spoke to him. He was attracted more by this than by her previous politeness. He wanted to know her better because she was of a different world than he had known since he came West, and she reminded him of women he had known in his boyhood—good, God-fearing women. He pondered over her coolness when he sat alone before his layout, and always felt a well-defined pity for her in the struggle which he knew must be so hard for one evidently accustomed to better things.
Day by day he went to her cabin door and into the restaurant where he could watch and study her patient struggle to be self-supporting- and gain independence. He wished that he could be received with as much friendliness as the prospectors who came. He made clumsy efforts to assist her, and when the first hunters came with sledges laden with moose-meat he bought their load and sent it to her. He knew that it must be a godsend to her, but also realized that if she had learned who the donor was it would have been instantly declined.
One day when he was the sole customer, he made a bolder attempt to gain an understanding. “Miss Martin,” he said, boldly plunging in, “I want to talk to you.”
She turned upon him in surprise, looking him steadily in the eyes and with a certain little haughtiness in the poise of her head.
“I think a heap more of you than you’ll probably believe,” he went on.
She started to speak, but he forbade her with a gesture and continued: “I’m a square man, and there ain’t anyone living can say I ever turned a crooked card or done a dirty little trick. Maybe I ain’t never done anything good, and maybe I ain’t got much, but I’m not any worse than the worst man in camp. You might at least treat me as well as the others, because I want you to like me; but you won’t. What’s the reason? Come, let’s have it out!”
The woman came directly opposite him on her side of the rough slab counter before which he sat. “You want to know the reason? Well, I’ll tell you. When I first came here, I don’t know that I particularly disliked you. First, I learned that you were a gambler. That was enough to keep us from being friends, but that wasn’t the worst.”
She had been speaking quietly, but now she rested her hands on the edge of the counter and leaned toward him, talking with intensity. Her eyes glittered and were opened wide.
“You’re not only a gambler, but a thief—a common cutpurse! You robbed the chekako of his gold, then—God knows why—gave it back to him under the pretext that you had found it in a place which you couldn’t possibly have reached, let alone return from, in the time you said. You lied about it to cover your theft.”
Big Jim had straightened up as she spoke, until he towered above her, his cheeks crimson and his brow drawn into a scowl that would have portended death had his accuser been a man. There was an instant’s silence, broken by the sound of bells from outside, as a dog-team strained at its ropes over the frozen snow, and the cracking of the driver’s whip.
“You believe that?” he said. “You believe that—of me—of Jim Werner, who never stole a cent in his life?”
His tone carried such a tragic note that she started back, repentant and wondering. It was inexplicable that this man should be a thief. She was sorry that she had accused him. She noted for the first time the look of cold honesty that was in his eyes, and somehow he seemed masterful. It broke her a little.
“It doesn’t matter about the gold dust anyway,” she said decisively. Her hands came together in a convulsive clasp, and there Was a little indefinable note of pleading in her voice as she resumed, still fearlessly: “Why don’t you give it up, Jim Werner? They say you are brave, and every one but me believes you honest. I’m not prepared to admit either. It doesn’t matter what else you may be, you are that which no honest man respects, a gambler—a man who, even if he plays fairly, yet depends on his skill to take from other men that which they have worked for and gathered with honest hands. And maybe I wouldn’t care for them even. It might serve them right; but don’t you understand, can’t you understand, that when you take it away from them you may be robbing some poor women or helpless little children out in the States who are dependent on them and their work? I don’t suppose you would rob a child or a woman directly, but that’s what you are doing perhaps every day of your life.”
She gulped a little as she turned away from him, and he, reading in her motion his dismissal, pulled his white hat down over his eyes and went out. He had made no attempt at explanation of the poke incident, nor had he contemplated it. In his code, to tell the story would have been impossible. Besides, it would but have added to her other accusations the certainty that his calling made him the acquaintance of thieves and crooks.
It gave him something to think about in the days that came, and he was moody and taciturn. He would sit for hours with his chair tilted back against the logs of the cabin wherein were a bar and many games of chance. At night, when the room was aglow with heat, and the smoke from the pipes curled up around the hooded tin lamps which sent little splotches of light on the green tables, and everywhere were the clash and clamor and speech of men from the mines and the high-pitched reckless laughter of hardened women of the camp, it came to him. He was awakening to the fact that there was a code of honor which he had never learned, and he began to have a disgust for all those things which he had known and a vague longing for something better. He was not as cool and hardened as he had been. He began to wonder whether the men who sat before him and lost their gold had wives and children at home. He owned his own layout and sometimes surprised those who were losing heavily by trying to dissuade them from spending their last ounce. He was in a constant struggle between business, as known to him, and conscience.
“He’s going crazy” was the comment of other gamblers; but, although he heard, he shut his teeth grimly and said nothing nor changed his ways. Day by day he went to the restaurant, because he could not deny himself this one chance of seeing the trim woman with the brown eyes, although no words passed between them other than those of necessity. And he found many ways of assisting her without her knowledge. Once a pack-driver from up the river made a coarse remark regarding her. Big Jim deliberately arose from his table, walked around to where the man sat, caught him by the throat, and fairly threw him through the cabin door. The man arose from the snow gasping and rubbing his throat, while the gambler stood above him.
“Pardner,” Big Jim drawled, “I’ve let you off easy. If I ever hear of you even whispering of that little woman again, I’ll kill you like a timber-wolf. Understand?” He gave the man a parting kick and went back into the cabin, where no one dared to speak of the incident, and calmly resumed the shuffling of the cards.
Daily his field of operations, despite the camp’s prosperity, became more limited. This was due to his more intimate knowledge of the men who came before him, for, strange as it might appear, he seemed to be drawing the line on those who had others dependent on them. It was unostentatiously done, but nevertheless excited remark, for which he cared nothing but went his way, grim, silent, and independent.
Spring came, the river was unlocked, ice-floes shoved themselves out in front of the floods of the headwaters, and the first steamer came from the Klondike. The camp was astir again and eager for news of the outer world. Prospectors looked forward to the summer’s exploration and exploitation, and those who had been particularly fortunate laid plans for a trip to that greater world known as “the outside.” Claims were for sale, and trade was brisk. The bars were patronized by men who rioted after a season’s work, and the days had grown suddenly long until at midnight the light was strong. The cries of the waterfowl seeking the breeding-grounds of the far North were heard throughout all hours, trees were taking on their buds of green, patches of the hills showed bare and bright, and cabin doors stood open to the sun.
Big Jim sat behind his table steadily dealing, paying out and taking in. He had been unusually quiet now for days, and his luck had been bad. One player only was before him, a stranger who had arrived by the steamboat whose wheel slowly revolved in the current as she lay tied to the bank in front of the trading-post. The man played with a recklessness that betokened but few sittings in front of the green cloth, while Big Jim was playing to win, steadily, remorselessly, and persistently. He was the wolf again and this his victim.
“I want poker,” the player suddenly exclaimed, and Big Jim, after hesitating a moment, closed the case rack, threw the box to one side, and opened a fresh deck of cards. Plainly he was out now for the money.
For two hours they shuffled, cut, and dealt in silence. The younger man lost steadily and was playing a game of wild desperation. Finally he laid his watch on the table, saying, with an oath, “I haven’t a dollar or an ounce left.”
Big Jim shook his head. “I don’t play for anything but money,” he said.
“That’s right!” snarled the loser, shoving his chair back with a scrape so violent that it fell to the floor. “You take my last ounce and then won’t give me a chance to get on top again. You’re a——” He stopped suddenly, for there was a look in Big Jim’s steady gray eyes that forbade further speech.
Big Jim threw the deck on the table. “Shuffle those,” he said. “I’ll give you a chance. No man lives who can say I didn’t give him his chance. Now cut! The highest card wins, and I’ll lay a hundred against your ten-dollar watch.”
The loser, with trembling hand, reached out and turned a deuce spot, and Big Jim quietly turned a king. The young man staggered to his feet, wiped his hand across his eyes feverishly, and started away.
“Here,” called Big Jim. “I don’t want your watch,” but the man jammed his hat over his eyes and went out through the cabin door. Jim straightened up a minute and turned to those others in the room who had clustered around breathlessly watching the last turn.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I’ve no further use for gambling or for gamblers. You can all go your way, and I’ll go mine. You’ve called me ‘Big Jim, the gambler’ ever since you’ve known me, but after this you can drop the last half of that.”
He picked up the deck as he spoke, twisted the cards into a crumpled bunch of paper, then suddenly lifted them high above his head and with a vicious swing threw them to the floor, where they scattered, vivid patches of color in the dirt of many feet. With a quick sudden gesture he slammed his fist down on his layout. “Anybody who wants this can have it. I’ve turned my last card, and I’m going to be honest if I starve for it. By God, I am!”
They made way for him as he walked past them and went out through the door which had so lately seen the passing of his last victim. He paid no heed to the commotion behind. He was like a man in a dream of elation who has cast off a trying burden. He mentally reckoned his worth and knew that he had money enough now to buy a fraction of a claim which was very remote and unknown, but promising. He would take it, would go to it, and with his hands wrest from it a living, and then—and then!—he would come back to the woman. Would come, when he could, as other men who had injured none of their fellows or robbed women and children. He knew now that he wanted her more than anything on earth, that for her respect alone he would willingly give his life. To buy the claim and meet with success made all things possible. He threw his head back and took a long, full breath of the spring-laden air, then turned for a walk up the river bank where he could be alone and think.
As he came around a bend where alders swept their branches in the receding flood, a figure of despondency sat below him. There was something so hopeless in that quiet attitude, something so suggestive of despair, that he stopped and looked at it. Somehow he was stirred by it. He went toward the man, wondering what he could be doing there so close to the perilous edge of the flood which swirled at his feet.
The man turned, hearing the footsteps, and Big Jim recognized his victim. They looked at each other, one with despair in his eyes, the other with that new-born determination of honesty. Big Jim read deeply and understood. For an instant he gravely studied the other’s haggard face.
“Better not do it,” he said, voicing the thought.
“What business is it of yours?” the other answered without rising. “You’ve got everything I had in the world,” and again he turned his gaze on the waters below, as if fascinated by their summons.
“I won it fairly,” Big Jim answered. The man at his feet seemed very young, barely beyond boyhood. He waited for a reply.
“Yes, fairly enough,” came the answer. “No one ever accused you of being crooked. But I’m hard hit, just the same. I needed money—needed just five hundred more than I had before I could go back to her, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken a chance.” He spoke as if to himself, but his words reached the gambler.
“Look here, young fellow,” Big Jim said, seating himself by the boy’s side. “What do you mean by ‘her’? Come on and tell me. I’ve been called a wolf, and lots of other things, but I’ve got a heart. What do you mean by ‘her’?” He put his arm awkwardly over the boy’s shoulder, and the latter, overwrought, talked with trembling lips and tried to keep the tears from] creeping down his cheeks.
“We were to be married as soon as I could get money enough, and I had written her that I was coming, and she’s waiting. But it’s all right. It isn’t your fault, it isn’t your fault.”
Big Jim talked in a very low and unusually kind voice. “You’re nothing but a boy,” he said, “and a big fool. I’m going to tell you something. It’s off suckers like you that gamblers live. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that you can beat a game, because you can’t. It was my business to make my living by winning. It’s professional skill, by men who know all about it, against the fellow who doesn’t understand what he’s up against. You lost your wad, and was about to jump into the river, just because you’d been a fool. You were going to be a bigger fool yet, and a coward as well, while the girl who believed in you would have waited, and waited, and waited, till her heart grew sick and there wasn’t nothing worth living for. And all because you’d been a fool and a coward. You’re young and ’ve got a lot to learn. I’m teaching you one thing, and I reckon you’re getting your lesson well, and it’s this: never, no matter what happens to you, never gamble on anything, for anything, or with anybody.”
The other sat as if ashamed of himself while Big Jim talked, then rose to his feet holding out his hand. “I’m obliged to you,” he said. “It would have been cowardly. Now I’m going back up the river to look for work and make another try.”
“No you’re not,” declared Big Jim. “I’m going to give you back your money and your watch, and you’re going to remember what I’ve told you and never gamble again, and you’re going right on out like a decent, clean, honest chap that keeps his word to the letter, and make that girl happy. Then you’ll stay away from a country like this where you don’t belong, and thank God for the chance to be what a man should, and that you’ve done no worse.”
He fished the heavy buckskin bag from his pocket and crowded it into the other’s hand and then shoved the watch after. “Good-by,” he called, and trudged steadily away up the river bank toward his cabin.
It was the end of his dream. He couldn’t buy the claim now, and he couldn’t win the respect of the woman with the brown eyes. But he was glad he had kept the boy from jumping into the river, and glad that he was done with gambling. It might come pretty tough for a while, but he would find a way, and, besides, he had a little property out in the States; but of course that wouldn’t help him away up here in Alaska. He could go prospecting on what he had, that much was sure.
For hours he pottered about his cabin, stowing things away and making up a huge pack to be fitted to his unaccustomed shoulders. It would be hard work, all right, but he was strong and not old by any means, and he was honest. There was a new feeling of freedom in that. His jaw shut hard, and he shook his fist in the air as if at an enemy he was to conquer and said, “And now I can look anyone in the eye, and know that I’m as good as he is.”
The camp was beginning to stir and the dawn was strong when he closed the cabin door and locked it with the big brass padlock. He was garbed for his new life, with a well-fitting blue-flannel shirt over his straight, broad shoulders, his belt drawn taut and new mukluks tied snugly around his sinewy calves. He leaned down on the door-step and fitted his arms into the big pack and swung away down the one-sided street of cabins which faced the river. There was none to bid him good-by nor to wish him luck, no one to give him Godspeed and hope for his speedy return. He was alone now, old associations cast behind, old habits dropped, and the hills to conquer.
As he came to the restaurant the door swung open, and the woman looked at him in amazement. He would have passed, but she called him, and he stepped to her door.
“I want to speak to you,” she said. “I am ashamed of what I said that time about your being a—” She hesitated and came to a stop; but he did not assist her and only looked deeply into her eyes. She twisted her hands together and continued: “That man Smith, who is up in Dawson, told about what you did for the chekako, and last night I learned the truth. And I’ve heard too about—about last night and that you aren’t going to gamble any more.”
He slipped the pack from his back and stood quietly before her, not realizing the full purport of her words.
“And I want to tell you, too,” she said, “that I know the boy whose money you took, and that you gave it back to him and have made a man of him, and—and—you asked once for my respect. I wanted to say before you went away that you already have it and that I hope we can be friends.”
He took a step toward her, and she retreated within the shadow of the open door, where he followed. His life had not been conventional, nor was his action when he put his arms around her, and she, smiling through her tears, welcomed their shelter and knew that from now on their ways were as one.
And outside the sun shone on a pack which would no longer be an unwelcome burden, but a trifling weight to be borne for a little while into the land of honest promise, clean achievement, and golden dreams.