BY ROY NORTON
ILLUSTRATED BY CONVERS WYETH
Captain Bill, who now makes his bow to the readers of Collier's, will appear again in these pages
IT was when Alaska was mostly a white spot on the maps, neglected, unknown, and inhabited by wolves, bears, natives, dogs, and traders, a fleabitten tribe in winter and a mosquito-ridden one in summer. Fort St. Michaels, so called because there was a worthless old cannon left behind by the Russians, was then but a collection of log huts on a high headland with a scattered Indian village farther along the bend of the bay. Father Barnum then fought for the souls of the natives in that pasture and hobnobbed at intervals with that other equally great and noble missionary, Dr. Prevost. They were men! Billy Blatch doled out tea, tobacco, sugar, matches, red prints and blue denims, and was a bear on the price of furs taken in exchange. And Captain Bill Smith, recruited from the headwaters of the Missouri River, ran the palatial trading steamboat Louisy Ann. White men of any sort were rarities. And those that did come were—just sorts. Twice a year the trading schooner came from outside bearing a few letters, an occasional adventurer, and more matches, tea, sugar, tobacco, prints, and pot metal axes. She took away fur. Fortunes in furs! Furs that were to grace My Lady of Fashion in the opera boxes of the world! Furs to keep her warm when she entered her carriage on the Champs Elysées, Bond Street, the Praterstrasse, Under den Linden, and Fifth Avenue! There was neither spring nor fall; nothing save summer, when the lolling days were long and daylight-ridden, and winter, when there was scarcely any day at all and the terrible twins of frost and snow slipped hither and yon intent on murder. To the north there was a thousand miles of waste; to the east a thousand miles of wilderness; to the west untenanted sea and a thousand miles of Siberia; to the south a thousand miles and more of water. So it was a thousand miles from anywhere.
It was a fine country for traders, because the natives were guileless; a fine place for missionaries, because if ever any souls needed saving it was those who adventured into that country, and a fine place for murderers, because there was no law and not the slightest inquisitiveness among those wanderers who dwelt and roved therein. So all were happy in their own ways; the missionaries because they were hopeful, the traders because they could trade, the adventurers because they had a vast unknown field for venture, the murderers because no one asked questions, the natives because they knew no better, the bears because there were dens, and the fleas because there were wolves and dogs. A very lovely country it was. Captain Bill often said so, and, having been graduated from the headwaters of the Missouri, been often in New Orleans, and often in jail, he should know. Captain Bill was not a murderer or a missionary. He said that also, but admitted to having once been a whaler and having carelessly destroyed a few men over the only things he said were worth fighting about, the same being women. He said that from a vast experience he had come to the conclusion that women were angelic devils and that the choice lay between Creoles and greasers; also that he never saw his own mother because she inadvertently left him in a garbage can at such an early date that his eyes were not yet open. He believed that he happened in St. Louis, but was not quite certain. It might have been Omaha or Sioux City; he was certain it wasn't in Fargo because there wasn't much of a Fargo then. He hoped it wasn't Council Bluffs because he never liked that town after he grew old enough to become acquainted with its police force. His two pet animosities were police and pikers.
"I'm what you call a whole-hog he-man," he was wont to explain when admonished for moral delinquencies; for of physical delinquencies he had none, being a nice six-foot specimen of the species, apparently skinny, but of unbounded sinews and strength, homely beyond words, with a digestion that could overcome anything from blubber to roasted dog, and a constitution that required no bathing during warm weather, because water was too easy to obtain, and none in winter, because it was too hard to get. Also, in warm mental moods his eyes were a washed-out gray — washed febrile, like indolent seas, and in cold moods they were pale and chill, like ice fields, frozen deep and very inhospitable.
Captain Bill's eyes were his sole attraction. There was fascination in them of that sort which renders one curious. If a somnolent tiger's eyes were ever of that pale gray, it would make the keeper wonder, as he scratched an ear, what color they might' be in a night of temper. And in the flaming period of tempest the same keeper would wonder what they might look like when hypnotized by a full belly and lots of clean straw.
"He's a nuisance when drunk and a devil when sober," was Billy Blatch's estimate.
"He's the biggest little man, or the littlest big man, I ever met," declared Dr. Prevost.
"He is a reproach to possibility," characterized Father Barnum.
"He has a woman's heart, the tongue of truth, and the blow of the lightning," asserted the natives. "When he gets angry the river stops running, the trees bend to their knees, and the mountains shake. When he smiles the flowers bloom, fish climb out on the beach to be smoked, the caribou run south to be killed in thousands, the Indian's cache is full, and there are looking-glasses and alarm clocks on the barabara floors. But when he gets drunk the whole world wabbles like his legs!"
SO it can be readily seen in this age of analysis and time when historians write of impossible Malemute dogs endowed with godlike affection, discretion, speech, and wisdom; of "silent, grim" men who talk all the time and grin; of puny, tender, refined gentlemen from Eastern universities who do their hundred miles a day with a ton-weight pack on their backs, and of beautiful Siwash maidens with eyes like a doe and "golden hairs ahangin' down their backs," how difficult is the task to decide exactly what kind of a person Bill, captain of the Louisy Ann, really was. Anyhow, he was the real captain of the real trading steamboat Louisy Ann, and knew better than to steer the boat when he could hire a Yukon native citizen for a yard of red calico, a pound of "sheep-dip" tobacco, and a small bottle of pain killer to perform that same arduous labor. At times he had been tempted to resign his lordly position of King of the Yukon River and join that band of nomads that had struggled into the new camp called Circle City, but was deterred therefrom by the fact that, so far, none of the light-hearted gentlemen of Circle had discovered enough gold to make it worth while; also because, having passed all his life on river packets, it was like leaving home where there were three square meals a day.
ON this blithe day in June, Captain Bill's steamboat was being loaded down until her clumsy stern wheel was biting deeply into the water. Natives were hurrying the stuff aboard to load her still deeper. Everybody was excited, save Captain Bill, who was distressfully drunk and sitting with his back propped up against a hut back of the pelt house and playing "Turkey in the straw" on a jew's-harp, now and then missing a note when his hand failed to connect with the tongue of steel. He was disturbed by long-drawn shouts of "Steamboo-o-oat!" the yowling of many dogs, a ragged salvo of firearms, and a general hubbub. Sober, he would have joined therein; comfortably full, he merely paused with the harp suspended, grinned, said aloud: "Ice's gone out of Unimak Pass and—here sh'is!" and resumed the tuneful lay at the exact place he had left off.
The first boat of the season, from the "outside," the most important event of the season, could not disturb his musical ecstasy. He thought it over sleepily, then quietly curled over on his side, pulled his battered old white hat over his eyes, and went to sleep.
The steam schooner South Coast made her way into the harbor as far as she dared, dropped anchor, and St. Michaels hummed. Her skipper landed and, up in the offices of the trading company, retailed the news of the outside world to a breathless, questioning group who had heard nothing whatever for the preceding eight months and wanted to know who was now President. Captain Bill missed it all.
An hour later there was a second period of excitement. The revenue cutter Bear had arrived, and two ships in the harbor at one time was an event. Lieutenant Jarvis landed and fraternized. Captain Bill missed that also. In the third hour a clumsy, whipsawed river skiff, with a patched sail made from pieces of denim, old canvas bags, and a towel or two, gained the beach, and there was more excitement when her two passengers brought the announcement that "some of the boys" at Circle had struck good pay dirt during the winter and that they, the voyageurs, were among them and were now "going outside" to spend it. Proudly they exhibited some well-filled "pokes" and passed out several nuggets as souvenirs. Captain Bill, with red eyelids and a foolish grin, arrived in time to hear this news and to shake hands. They invited him to drink.
"Nope! Got enough for this time," he remarked, and Billy Blatch smiled to himself with great satisfaction, glad to know that Captain Bill had come back to a state of competency and would thus remain until his return from up the river, after which, just as sure as the sun shone. Captain Bill would again celebrate. Moreover, the news of the increased find at Circle meant a change in programs, because now it was certain that the Louisy Ann must depart with a cargo at once, wheeze and steam as hard as she could be driven straight up the river to Circle, double-back down the river posthaste, and do the trip over again, stopping at riverside trading posts. The possibility of an inrush of many hungry prospectors to Circle City must not be overlooked. Blatch said as much to Captain Bill, punctuating his remarks with a clenched fist banged on the pine countertop at intervals, and a finger shaken under Captain Bill's very prominent and bony nose.
"I've got an extra gang on ever since we heard the news, and out you go! To-night! Not to-morrow! To-night! Want some bromo?"
"Naw! Don't want nothin' but some silence, and not too much of that," acridly remarked Captain Bill as he made his way to a water pail, slowly got his six feet down on hands and knees, and ducked his head therein while the overflowing water swashed overboard and made wet trails and puddles as it sought to escape through the cracks of the slab floor.
HE got up and eyed the pail and grinned as he rubbed his head with a convenient gunny sack.
"Look at that water, Billy," he said. "Tak' a look at it. It's boilin', by Jiminy, because my top works was so hot!"
"How many times do I have to tell you to take that bucket outside when you perform that acrobatic stunt of yours?" was all the response he got; but, heedless of the trader's remonstrances, he shook himself like a big Newfoundland coming out of the water, said: "Whoopee! Now I'm ready for business again. What was that you said about shovin' the old tub up to Circle?"
Captain Bill, with scarcely a headache, so tough and seasoned was his constitution, was King of the River again.
At eight o'clock that evening, with a few extra Eskimos, a King's Islander or two, a wandering Koyukuk,and a couple of Tananaws pouring a steady stream of firewood into her boilers, the Louisy Ann pulled out with Captain Bill at the wheel, standing as steadily as if he had never heard the word in temperance. Blatch and a group stood on the head land by the old cannon and saw the sparks throwing out of her stack like a small trail of comets and shooting stars, and heard the increased slap of her paddle wheel.
"He's sure pumpin' her boilers as full of hot wine as he knows how, Capt'n Bill is, ain't he?" said one of the men from upriver, and the other predicted that he would make a record run if he didn't "blow her to Hades and back!"
BEFORE morning the Louisy Ann had crossed the arm of the Bering Sea, surged toward the fresh water in the river mouth that none less expert than Captain Bill could have found, and Tim Sullivan the engineer, coming out to stare through the morning's dusk, shook his head doubtfully and hurried back to "stand by" for a bell from the texas. Usually she lay to at that hour waiting for high tide to cover the bar that was always a menace and where since then many a steamboat has come to grief
No bell jangled, and the steamboat still plowed ahead at full speed. The engineer became alarmed. They must be drawing more than four feet of water, and at this hour of the tide there might not be more than three feet over the bar. He jumped to the tin speaking tube, and, distending his cheeks and pursing his lips, sent a blast up it that could be heard above the roar of his boilers.
"Say, Captain Bill, what's wrong?" he bawled into the receiver.
Promptly he heard a stentorian reply:
"Nothin'! Don't bother me ! I got orders to shove her for all we're worth. Goin' to do it if we have to jump her over the bar. When I want you to slow down I'll tell you! Who's runnin' this scow—you or me?"
They scraped a little as they crossed, slithered sidewise, heard the hogchains groan, and the Louisy Ann did a half turn, a scramble, paused, tried again, drove forward, and cleared. The engineer wiped the sweat from his forehead and cursed his native fireman by way of relief. The tube whistle in the engine room did a shrill whistle and the engineer, still gasping with nervous tension, applied his greasy ear to it.
"Yah! Did it! Give her all she'll stand!" was all he heard, and turned away to express volubly his opinion of Captain Bill, the steamboat, the Yukon River, and life in general. And then, remembering other escapades of Captain Bill's when they steamboated together on the Illinois River, he shook his head and grinned, for deep in his affections was this same reckless Bill.
They tied up at nights only when necessary to blow out the boilers of the creaking, overstrained Louisy Ann and to take on wood. They drove her ceaselessly. Once, above the ramparts, whose restricted torrents they had bucked after tying down the safety valve and gathering steam until the chocks beneath the boilers trembled and vibrated like crawling, living things trying to escape disaster that seemed imminent, Tim got a bell to slow down, the first on that memorable trip. He flipped his throttle back along the slide, heard it click, glanced at the steam gauge, and thanked Heaven that they were through the swift water of that precipice-sided race, and hastened to the big open side door, where he looked out, wondering what could have occasioned the pause in those days of crowding. He heard Captain Bill's voice from the pilot house and saw that two men in a skiff had signaled the steamboat.
"Well, what d'yuh want?"
"Heard the news? Good strike up at Circle. Jack and Dan've got three-dollar dirt, and—"
"Heard that a month ago! Got no time to tell you what you'll learn down at St. Mikes."
And then the bell jangled for full speed again, and Tim caught a flash of the astonished faces of the men in the skiff, who never before had received such curt treatment from Captain Bill—usually glad to loiter and talk for at least an hour.
CAPTAIN BILL was out for a record and was making it. Up in the pilot house he waved his hand at native villagers whose dogs barked on the beach and who were vastly chagrined and amazed because he didn't stop. Sometimes he bawled the comforting assurance to traders, his powerful voice sounding above the tired sough-sough of his escape pipes, that he would be back later, and always he shaved thin edges seeking still water. His native pilots decided he was insane, but dared not protest. The voyage was within eighteen hours of its end before they sighted another white man, and this one was alone and did not seem sorry that they pushed past him at a wide distance without stopping to exchange yarns. Captain Bill, harsh, driving, energetic, intent on making speed and constantly upbound, stopped his pacing of the hurricane deck long enough to light a cigarette and wonder at that.
"Looks like Three-Fingered Drake!" he said to himself. "Wonder what's eatin' him? 'Pears like he didn't want to talk to us. Humph!"
And then he rang the engine room to ask Sullivan politely if he had gone to sleep or if any of the native stokers had been lost overboard.
Tim thanked Heaven that by the following evening they would tie up at Circle City, but gleefully checked up the time and knew that the Louisy Ann had done the trip just three days quicker than it had ever been done before by anything afloat.
"A few more like that," he said to his only white stoker, "and I'd be buyin' a cemetery lot in the bottom of the river. Records are all right—for the feller that don't have to make 'em!"
They heard the sound of the dogs, the native yells, the white miners' fusillade before the log cabins, saloons, and trading post of Circle City were in sight, and slowly made their way into dead water while the white mate poised himself at the bow with his heaving line. The whole population—white men, bucks, squaws, dirty children, and dogs — were there to greet them. Captain Bill, at the wheel to make his landing, noted that there was a totally different air from any that he had ever before seen in that straggling camp on the river's rim: something of elation and excitement such as comes only when a camp has "struck it good" and is hopeful. Also it was made evident that his cargo was welcomed as much as the mail bag that was the first thing thrown off. Bettles, the trader, was there in person to open conversation before the boat's bow had nosed the mud. He was aboard almost before the lines had been seized by natives and rushed across to the nearest trees to warp the Louisy Ann to her mooring. He puffed up the steps to the pilot house and shook hands with Captain Bill.
"Hear you've got it," Bill said sententiously.
"Yes, some of it," said Bettles, wasting no more speech than was necessary, this being a rule that held all the Yukon in its spell. "Jack and Dan hit it up pretty strong. Kentucky Smith got good ground and—say, did you pass Three-Fingered Drake comin' up?"
His face had suddenly become perplexed and frowning. Captain Bill, lazily watching him, observed the change.
"By Jiminy! I think we did," he said. "Why? What's he wanted for? What's he done this time? Never did have much use for him."
BETTLES stopped to spit over the rail to stare at the natives who with vast pretense of effort were dragging the landing stage to land, and then faced the captain.
"I ain't sure that he's done anythin'," he said slowly, "but it looks mighty suspicious—since you passed him. Where was he?"
"Down below the flats. In a skiff. Didn't seem anxious for us to recognize him. That's why I noticed it. Was goin' down the river—out in the swift water, as if—as if he was in a sort of a hurry to get somewhere."
"That settles it! He was!" said Bettles savagely. "Goin' somewhere? He's goin' outside with about thirty thousand dollars' worth of dust, and he's left that squaw of his, Tananaw Lou, and his two kids, with nothin'. It's a cussed shame that a man with a white skin can be such a dirty dog!"
Captain Bill rolled a cigarette with the deftness of long training and lifted big lazy gray eyes upward to Bettles's troubled face as he wet the paper with his tongue. "Give Lou the rinky-dink, eh? Tied a can on his own tail so he could beat it fast and get away from her! Good squaw, Lou is. Plumb square. I've known her for goin' on seven years. Recollect how she looked when Father Barnum took her down to Holy Cross and taught her to stop cultivatin' her nose in polite sassiety. That was after her paw and maw had smallpox and kicked their candles out. She was sure some squaw. Most as good as white men and a whole lot better'n them known."
Bettles was staring over the river as fascinated by the braiding of its currents that tried forever to tangle themselves to patterns but never succeeded. He spoke his own memories.
"Yes, I remember her too. She is good, all right! When I was up on Tramway Bar, on the Koyukuk, he brought her there. They didn't have any kids then. When their dogs died she helped Three-Finger pull the sled. When he fell down a prospect hole and got his dirty hide burned she dragged him sixty miles on a sled to get help. She windlassed for him, above ground in the cold—cold, Jeehosaphat!—when it was so cold the mercury froze in December and didn't thaw out till May; while he took the warm end of the job down the shaft. She did all that, Lou did, and that ain't all! She stood for him here in Circle when Three-Finger, takin' out good dirt, gave Montana Nell a log chain of nuggets and built her a cabin, while Lou was in big luck to get an old squirrel parka for herself and a second-hand drill parka to make suits of clothes for their kids. Also he took to bustin' Lou's face occasionally, just for the fun of it. And now he's sold out to Pat Conolly and gone—gone down the river to get outside with all that he's made, while she can scratch herself and fish for grub for herself and the kids!"
AGAIN he spat disgustedly, while Captain Bill puffed and waved his hand in salutation to some one who had shouted to him from the river bank.
"He'll get outside all right if he gets a move on him," he drawled thoughtfully. "The South Coast was down there when I left. Umm-mh! Why didn't you put the kibosh on him—stop him when you seen he was plannin' to shake her and leave her flat busted?"
"Stop him?" growled Bettles. "We couldn't. They're married, you know. Father Barnum made him play fair that way after a mighty big effort. Besides, she was so faithful that she believed him when he told her he was goin' up the river to look for some likely saw logs and that she wasn't to tell anybody. I only heard that he'd sold out by accident when Pat leaked. That made me suspicious. I sent for her and found out she didn't know it, and also that he hadn't left any money floatin' about. That in itself was funny. I've got a big safe, and I keep most all the boys' take-in when it's as much as a few thousand dollars in dust. He never brought it to me. I asked her how much grub he left. She's got half a sack of flour, two AXC hams, and about a couple of pounds of oatmeal. Then I sent for Nell, and she sniffed her nose and said he was a piker; said all she'd gotten out of him wouldn't burn if it was melted and poured with a funnel into her ear; said she'd chucked him, but she knew he thought of goin' outside because he told her he was, and that if she'd come along he'd open up Seattle and make Frisco look like a busted red balloon. He told her he had thirty thousand, and she said that wasn't enough to open up Podunk, let alone a real live town. Said her idea of openin' up things wasn't exactly to make it beers on the water front, but to pull corks that popped!"
He stopped and then added a few uncomplimentary comments concerning Three-Fingered Drake's person, his characteristics, and traced him back to two generations of ancestors, while Captain Bill bent over, leaned his elbows on the dingy breast board of the pilot house, and seemed oblivious to those old-timers who hailed him from the bank. He suddenly straightened up, and the trader saw that his eves were lighted with the mocking, mischievous fires that were well known to those who enjoyed his friendship. "Got any torches or flares?" he asked irrelevantly.
"Got a few lanterns up at the post, and we could build fires on the bank," Bettles answered, wondering what this portended.
"Got any natives loafin' around?"
"Sure! Always got 'em."
Captain Bill suddenly became energetic. He put his hand on Bettles's shoulder and in a friendly way propelled him toward the texas stairs. "Get 'em, then! Get all of 'em you can! Get 'em quick. Sid, me and you's got to get this tub unloaded as quick as the Lord'll let us. I want to back out into the stream before mornin'. I'm goin' to catch Mister Shy-Fingered Drake and have a few moments' converse with him. Savvy?"
For an instant Bettles paused to gather his full meaning, and then grinned widely and sobered.
"Bill," he said, "it's up to you. I've got nothin' to do with it outside of gettin' this steamboat unloaded, and—plenty of wood aboard her, I take it?"
"Just that!" replied Captain Bill, smoothing the stubble on his red chin with the palm of his red hand and then tugging at his straggling red mustache that drooped down from the corners of his upper lip like the unkempt whiskers of a disconsolate tiger cat.
"Nothin' unlawful, Bill, I hope?" queried the trader slyly.
"Sure not! You know I'm peaceful as a pet seal. Nothin' worse than mayhem, arson, murder! All you know is that I'm in an all-fired hurry to get back downstream."
"Then here goes!"
HE dived down the steps, leaped to the bank, and began driving the natives, all the white men he could conscript and an occasional squaw, to the work. A solid file, pack-laden, jostled and crowded down the landing stage, while an empty-handed one swarmed like soldier ants up a gangplank that Captain Bill caused to be thrown ashore. The mate stormed and swore. The natives chatted and yelped. The dogs on the bank barked with excitement. The checkers lost count and were told by Bettles to do the best they could and let it go at that. And Tim Sullivan, who had washed up and changed his grease-stained jumper for shore-going garb, listened to what his old friend, Captain Bill, had to impart in the confidential quarter of the captain's cabin, then went below, donned the greasy jumpers again, and did his share by swearing at the natives who were bringing the cordwood aboard and piling it up in the bow, along the main-deck alley, and blocking up the boiler room. The unloading of the Louisy Ann on that date constitutes another Yukon record that still stands after nearly twenty years of gold-laden history.
At four o'clock in the morning, when the lazy haze had given way to the early sunlight and the still, wooded banks of the river looked like the back drop of a theatre curtain depicting primeval peace. Captain Bill crawled from the bunk where he had caught a few hours' sleep, saw that the lines were being cast off, that a part of Circle City was still asleep, that the dogs were not yapping from the banks, yawned, and called down the tube to see if Tim Sullivan or his understudy was in charge. It was Tim's voice that answered, and his speech was drowned by the muffled roar of the safety valve.
"I've figured it out, Tim," bawled Captain Bill. "He'll be about sixty hours ahead of us, because he's not losin' much time. So we'll turn her loose and drive her for all she can stand to catch him before he hits the lower river, where we might miss him. Let her go!"
By force of habit he jangled the bells and swung the blunt, shallow nose of the Louisy Ann out until his keen eye caught the main current, and then he grinned back at the camp in a confident way and said to it: "Circle, I've been to you oncet without settin' my No. 11 on your shores. But, by the Lord Almighty, when I come back I'll git off because I'll have somethin' to tell some of you, or know the reason whyas and whereis!"
Through the Yukon Flats, where the sand banks and channels were treacherous, he took the wheel himself to make certain of speed, although his native pilots were the best on the river; but after that he indulged in a long sleep. For fifty straight running hours he drove the Loiusy Ann before making inquiry, and then called the natives of a scattered, poverty-ridden village to the bank with his whistle, stopped the wheel, and drew close. He was fluent in the native tongue and asked information. "Has any white man passed down lately— white man in a skiff?"
A native who had been to Circle City as a fireman and was proud of it promptly answered. "Yes, the white miner you call Three-Finger Sharley. Four hours," he ticked off on his fingers to make certain, "No stop here."
CAPTAIN BILL heaved a twist of the terrible "sheep dip" ashore, jangled the bells for speed, and the steamboat resumed her journey, while he paced thoughtfully backward and forward on the texas and thought of the different cut-offs that a skiff might take. There could be but one or two sloughs, and he concluded that they would save so little that probably the fugitive would prefer to keep the main stream and swift water. Farther down toward the mouth, seeking a man in a skiff with a river steamboat would be like trying to pick a needle from a haymow with a pair of boxing gloves, and for reasons of his own he very much desired to overhaul Three-Fingered Charley before that slippery gentleman reached St. Michaels. He dared not run after dusk now, lest his prey be encamped for the night. Moreover, he dared not run at full speed because the river had widened until in places its distant shores were nothing more than hazy, billowy lines of solid green, making a boat inshore almost invisible. Captain Bill passed the time lolling about by the corners of the pilot house and scanning the river with an antiquated, battered brass spyglass that, having been won at cribbage from a whaling skipper, was his proudest possession.
It was almost noon, and the little waves of the river were throwing millions of tiny, evanescent spears of light upward, when, lazily leaning against the pilot house, he gave a grunt, straightened up, looked alert, and grinned broadly as he lowered his glass, collapsed it with a snap, and rang for half speed.
"Tim," he called down the tube, "we're overhaulin' him on the port side. Turn the sewin' machine over to Hank, and just be leanin' out of the port door kind of careless like, so's you can hear what's said. It might be handy for me to have all the white men witnesses I can get."
Then he leaned out of the pilot-house window, bawled for the mate and sent him to the bow on a fictitious mission, and told the native pilot to come slowly alongside the skiff that could be seen ahead. He went down the steps and loitered on the hurricane deck.
Three-Fingered Charley eyed the steamboat apprehensively, but saw nothing to indicate trouble. Apparently she was just dawdling her way down the stream, in no particular haste, with Captain Bill's lank form and broad shoulders lolled over a brace and surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke. The captain waved his hand and yelled: "Hello! That you, Charley? You're sure some wanderin'."
THE boat gave no sign of stopping and slowly churned past, as if intent on going its lazy way. The fugitive gave a deep breath of relief and then cupped his hands and bawled back: "What's your rush, Bill? Wait a minute!"
Captain Bill shouted to the pilot to ring the engines down, and when the skiff came abreast said: "Well, what do you want? Anything I c'n do for you?"
"How about givin' me a lift down?"
"Down? How far you goin'?" Bill asked indifferently.
"Lord Almighty, Charley. You ain't goin' outside, are you? You don't mean to say you've hit it rich? If that's so, I'll have to trim you for a good fare."
The answer was just what the astute Captain Bill had hoped it might be, knowing that Three-Fingered Charley was never known to part with money if such an unpleasant parting could be avoided. He even expected the whine that followed.
"Hit nothin'! I'm plum disgusted and most busted. Got to go outside to raise some dough by sellin' a claim or two if I can. Got just about enough to pay a steerage out to Seattle. Had to leave all I had with the old woman and the kids up in Circle."
He was now hanging to the strake and drifting slowly with the steamboat, and was so close that Captain Bill could observe the play of his features. He saw that Three-Fingered Charley suddenly appeared to remember something and looked a trifle apprehensive.
"You ain't been as far as Circle, have you. Bill?" he asked with a fine pretense of carelessness. Evidently he was making a calculation on how long it had been since he had seen the steamboat pass him upward bound, and was puzzled by her unexpectedly quick return. For an instant he had Captain Bill in a corner, but the latter cheerfully arose to the occasion.
"Nope. Didn't get that far this trip. Just left a bunch of stuff along the line and for a new post up beyond the Flats. Goin' back to Circle direct, though, soon's I can get down to Michaels and load up."
Three-Fingered Charley appeared relieved and reassured. "Well, ain't you goin' to gimme a lift. Bill?"
"Reckon I'll have to if you ain't got no money to pay your fare, and you say you ain't got none," Captain Bill growled.
"You're right about that, pardner. If I had any money you could be dead sure I'd pay all right, all right; because I'm in a hurry. Don't want to miss the boat outside."
"That would be a shame! Reckon I'll have to take you on. Chuck your stuff aboard and—say—better just cast the skiff off. I ain't got time to waste either lashin' it or gettin' it aboard. Get a hustle on you!"
He saw with satisfaction that, although Three-Fingered Charley tried to toss his dunnage lightly to the deck, some of it was very heavy. He grinned and went below. Tim winked at him as he came past the boilers, and Bill whispered: "Put 'em all wise that I'll skin and eat the first one that lets him know we've been to Circle."
"I get you," was the mumbled response.
"We ain't got no passengers, Charley, and you might as well take one of the staterooms on the boiler deck above," Captain Bill said to his guest. "Tote your stuff up and chuck it in No. 2."
He saw the skiff cast off with a kick, climbed back to the pilot house and rang for power, and then cautioned his native pilots that under no circumstances must they admit they had been to Circle City. Early that evening he jammed the nose of the Louisy Ann into the mud below a woodpile, saw to the loading and measuring, saw to it that she was well moored, and announced that she would lie to that night to give Tim a chance to blow out his boilers. After that he devoted himself to his guest—devoted himself assiduously; so hospitably, in fact, that he brought to view a bottle of whisky that was about 100 per cent pure alcohol coupled up with red-hot fire.
Three-Fingered Charley would have been astounded had he been better acquainted with Captain Bill, who, with an evil shore reputation and a sober water one, never drank aboard. And then, breaking all discipline, Tim was invited to join this sociable party in the dining room and to assist in the festivities. The tin cuspidors were filled that night with whisky that Captain Bill and Tim Sullivan didn't drink; but there was not a drop there of all that deluge that was lavishly forced upon Three-Fingered Charley, the man who was getting a free ride. His—to his progressive loquacity, stupidity, and maudlinism, ending by his falling under the table—went inside his capacious throat.
It was nearly two o'clock in the afternoon of the following day when Captain Bill, contentedly leaning in a chair tilted back abaft the pilot house, listening to the rhythmic beat of the stern wheel smashing the water at full speed and watching the banks slide past, heard hasty steps coming up to the texas and lazily looked up at a wild-eyed, frowsy-headed man who was airily dressed in a red flannel undersuit and palpably excited.
"Good Lord, Charles!" drawled the captain. "You ain't got the jimjams from them few drinks you took last night, have yuh?"
"I've been robbed! Somebody's swiped sixteen hundred ounces of dust off 'n me! Last night when I was asleep!" The passenger bawled so loudly and in such an agonized voice that the banks of trees on the near-by shore took up the echo and whirled it back in jumbled yelps.
CAPTAIN BILL stared at him with his indolent gray eyes, then put his hands behind his head, yawned widely, and shook his head sadly.
"Charles," he said, "that's impossible! You've sure been drinkin' too much. You told us yourself when you come aboard that you didn't have nothin' on you—couldn't even pay your fare down this mighty Yukon ditch. My boy, the evils of intemprunce'll get you yet if you don't cut out this fiery devil that you puts in your mouth to steal away your brains. Go back, Charles. Go back to bed and sleep it off."
Three-Fingered Charley stood aghast for a moment, then made a mad lunge for Captain Bill's throat, but the latter saw it coming and was prepared. From the hogchains that vibrated on their side stanchions aft until they almost fell overboard, and from the stern forward to the back of the pilot house they danced and whirled and struck an howled—Three-Fingered Charley yelling venomously, Captain Bill whooping with gleeful vehemence—and then came to final stop because Charley was no longer in a position to continue, having been knocked flat on the deck and with Captain Bill cheerfully seated on his chest and pinioning him helplessly.
"Psho! Ain't that too bad now Who'd think a few drinks would give feller fishhooks in his noodle like that?" plaintively remarked Captain Bill.
HE wagged his red-thatched head with its disordered hair, and his pale eyes danced beneath their bushy sandy eyebrows. Then he raised his voice like the long-drawn, melancholy howl of a timber wolf crying for succor, and shouted to the pilot: "Get Tim Get the mate! Get a lot of folks to come up here and help me! This cross between a harpoon and a whale has got me scared plumb stiff. It's help I want. Quick. He's got the and is atryin' to murder me. Call 'em quick. We gotter lock him in the storeroom."
There were fervid shouts, the scuffling of many feet, the roaring oaths of the unmapped Alaska, and Three-Fingered Charley, still clad lightly in red, not supplied with either weapon for fight or matches with which to burn the Louisy Ann to the lapping water's edge, bruised, pummeled, and conquered, lay on his back in a secure room and stared around at the empty walls. The door opened once and his clothing was chucked in. It opened at intervals thereafter to supply him with a roll of blankets, food, and water. It opened last of all when Captain Bill and Tim solicitously dragged him out, and he discovered that there was a sea swell lightly cradling the Louisy Ann. He was lowered into a rowboat, looked around and saw that they were out in the Bering Sea, well past the three-mile limit, and that the black steam schooner South Coast was hove to within convenient reach. He surmised from the remarks passed between Captain Bill and the skipper of the schooner that some conversation had been exchanged between those two worthies before this moment.
"Better lock him up, Capt'n Diggs cautioned Captain Bill as they hoisted Three-Fingered Charley aboard the schooner. "He ain't so wild and woolly as he was, but you cain't tell about these lobs when they gets the jimjams. I sort of expect he'll be all right and quietlike before you get into Seattle. If he is, you c'n give him that package I handed you a while ago. If he ain't keep it and send him to the bughouse. So long! Good voyage to yuh!"
Three-Fingered Charley was much subdued when he was landed in Seattle and retired behind a pile of freight to see what his "package" contained.
There was a fairly heavy bag of dust and a letter, which he took time to read punctuating it with outspoken oaths:
You didnt have nothin when you come aboard the Louisy Ann and so youre a heap better off than when you come aboard because me and Tims makin you a present of about four or five thousand dollars worth of dust and when we go to Circle me and Tims goin to give a hole lot moren this to Lou and the kids you dirty mangy worthless skunk, mebbe shell get as much as twentyfive thousandworth of dust and she or nobody else aint goin to ever see you up here no more because you aint comin back you hog. Me and Tims goin to tell everybody in Alaska about you sos you do come back youll have about as much chance as a three legged ant tryin to run away from a herd of woodpeckers or a Siwash rakin out a boiler fire with a tallow candle. Yourn very respectfully, William Smith.
And Captain Bill's prognostication was proved, for Three-Fingered Charley never did come back.