THE MISTAKE OF CREATION
"Whoa!" Smoke yelled at the dogs, throwing his weight back on the gee-pole to bring the sled to a halt.
"What's eatin' you now?" Shorty complained. "They ain't no water under that footing."
"No; but look at that trail cutting out to the right," Smoke answered. "I thought nobody was wintering in this section."
The dogs, on the moment they stopped, dropped in the snow and began biting out the particles of ice from between their toes. This ice had been water five minutes before. The animals had broken through a skein of ice, snow-powdered, which had hidden the spring water that oozed out of the bank and pooled on top of the three-foot winter crust of Nordbeska River.
"First I heard of anybody up the Nordbeska," Shorty said, staring at the all but obliterated track covered by two feet of snow, that left the bed of the river at right angles and entered the mouth of a small stream flowing from the left. "Mebbe they're hunters and pulled their freight long ago."
Smoke, scooping the light snow away with mittened hands, paused to consider, scooped again, and again paused. "No," he decided. "There's been travel both ways, but the last travel was up that creek. Whoever they are, they're there now--certain. There's been no travel for weeks. Now what's been keeping them there all the time? That's what I want to know."
"And what I want to know is where we're going to camp to-night," Shorty said, staring disconsolately at the sky-line in the southwest, where the mid-afternoon twilight was darkening into night.
"Let's follow the track up the creek," was Smoke's suggestion. "There's plenty of dead timber. We can camp any time."
"Sure we can camp any time, but we got to travel most of the time if we ain't goin' to starve, an' we got to travel in the right direction."
"We're going to find something up that creek," Smoke went on.
"But look at the grub! Look at them dogs!" Shorty cried. "Look at--oh, hell, all right. You will have your will."
"It won't make the trip a day longer," Smoke urged. "Possibly no more than a mile longer."
"Men has died for as little as a mile," Shorty retorted, shaking his head with lugubrious resignation. "Come on for trouble. Get up, you poor sore-foots, you--get up! Haw! You Bright! Haw!"
The lead-dog obeyed, and the whole team strained weakly into the soft snow.
"Whoa!" Shorty yelled. "It's pack trail."
Smoke pulled his snow-shoes from under the sled-lashings, bound them to his moccasined feet, and went to the fore to press and pack the light surface for the dogs.
It was heavy work. Dogs and men had been for days on short rations, and few and limited were the reserves of energy they could call upon. Though they followed the creek bed, so pronounced was its fall that they toiled on a stiff and unrelenting up-grade. The high rocky walls quickly drew near together, so that their way led up the bottom of a narrow gorge. The long lingering twilight, blocked by the high mountains, was no more than semi-darkness.
"It's a trap," Shorty said. "The whole look of it is rotten. It's a hole in the ground. It's the stampin'-ground of trouble."
Smoke made no reply, and for half an hour they toiled on in silence--a silence that was again broken by Shorty.
"She's a-workin'," he grumbled. "She's sure a-workin', an' I'll tell you if you're minded to hear an' listen."
"Go on," Smoke answered.
"Well, she tells me, plain an' simple, that we ain't never goin' to get out of this hole in the ground in days an' days. We're goin' to find trouble an' be stuck in here a long time an' then some."
"Does she say anything about grub?" Smoke queried unsympathetically. "For we haven't grub for days and days and days and then some."
"Nope. Nary whisper about grub. I guess we'll manage to make out. But I tell you one thing, Smoke, straight an' flat. I'll eat any dog in the team exceptin' Bright. I got to draw the line on Bright. I just couldn't scoff him."
"Cheer up," Smoke girded. "My hunch is working overtime. She tells me there'll be no dogs eaten, and, whether it's moose or caribou or quail on toast, we'll all fatten up."
Shorty snorted his unutterable disgust, and silence obtained for another quarter of an hour.
"There's the beginning of your trouble," Smoke said, halting on his snow-shoes and staring at an object that lay on one side of the old trail.
Shorty left the gee-pole and joined him, and together they gazed down on the body of a man beside the trail.
"Well fed," said Smoke.
"Look at them lips," said Shorty.
"Stiff as a poker," said Smoke, lifting an arm, that, without moving, moved the whole body.
"Pick 'm up an' drop 'm and he'd break to pieces," was Shorty's comment.
The man lay on his side, solidly frozen. From the fact that no snow powdered him, it was patent that he had lain there but a short time.
"There was a general fall of snow three days back," said Shorty.
Smoke nodded, bending over the corpse, twisting it half up to face them, and pointing to a bullet wound in the temple. He glanced to the side and tilted his head at a revolver that lay on top of the snow.
A hundred yards farther on they came upon a second body that lay face downward in the trail. "Two things are pretty clear," Smoke said. "They're fat. That means no famine. They've not struck it rich, else they wouldn't have committed suicide."
"If they did," Shorty objected.
"They certainly did. There are no tracks besides their own, and each is powder-burned." Smoke dragged the corpse to one side and with the toe of his moccasin nosed a revolver out of the snow into which it had been pressed by the body. "That's what did the work. I told you we'd find something."
"From the looks of it we ain't started yet. Now what'd two fat geezers want to kill theirselves for?"
"When we find that out we'll have found the rest of your trouble," Smoke answered. "Come on. It's blowing dark."
Quite dark it was when Smoke's snow-shoe tripped him over a body. He fell across a sled, on which lay another body. And when he had dug the snow out of his neck and struck a match, he and Shorty glimpsed a third body, wrapped in blankets, lying beside a partially dug grave. Also, ere the match flickered out, they caught sight of half a dozen additional graves.
"B-r-r-r," Shorty shivered. "Suicide Camp. All fed up. I reckon they're all dead."
"No--peep at that." Smoke was looking farther along at a dim glimmer of light. "And there's another light--and a third one there. Come on. Let's hike."
No more corpses delayed them, and in several minutes, over a hard-packed trail, they were in the camp.
"It's a city," Shorty whispered. "There must be twenty cabins. An' not a dog. Ain't that funny!"
"And that explains it," Smoke whispered back excitedly. "It's the Laura Sibley outfit. Don't you remember? Came up the Yukon last fall on the Port Townsend Number Six. Went right by Dawson without stopping. The steamer must have landed them at the mouth of the creek."
"Sure. I remember. They was Mormons."
"No--vegetarians." Smoke grinned in the darkness. "They won't eat meat and they won't work dogs."
"It's all the same. I knowed they was something funny about 'em. Had the allwise steer to the yellow. That Laura Sibley was goin' to take 'em right to the spot where they'd all be millionaires."
"Yes; she was their seeress--had visions and that sort of stuff. I thought they went up the Nordensjold."
"Huh! Listen to that!"
Shorty's hand in the darkness went out warningly to Smoke's chest, and together they listened to a groan, deep and long drawn, that came from one of the cabins. Ere it could die away it was taken up by another cabin, and another--a vast suspiration of human misery. The effect was monstrous and nightmarish.
"B-r-r-r," Shorty shivered. "It's gettin' me goin'. Let's break in an' find what's eatin' 'em."
Smoke knocked at a lighted cabin, and was followed in by Shorty in answer to the "Come in" of the voice they heard groaning. It was a simple log cabin, the walls moss-chinked, the earth floor covered with sawdust and shavings. The light was a kerosene-lamp, and they could make out four bunks, three of which were occupied by men who ceased from groaning in order to stare.
"What's the matter?" Smoke demanded of one whose blankets could not hide his broad shoulders and massively muscled body, whose eyes were pain-racked and whose cheeks were hollow. "Smallpox? What is it?"
In reply, the man pointed at his mouth, spreading black and swollen lips in the effort; and Smoke recoiled at the sight.
"Scurvy," he muttered to Shorty; and the man confirmed the diagnosis with a nod of the head.
"Plenty of grub?" Shorty asked.
"Yep," was the answer from a man in another bunk. "Help yourself. There's slathers of it. The cabin next on the other side is empty. Cache is right alongside. Wade into it."
In every cabin they visited that night they found a similar situation. Scurvy had smitten the whole camp. A dozen women were in the party, though the two men did not see all of them. Originally there had been ninety-three men and women. But ten had died, and two had recently disappeared. Smoke told of finding the two, and expressed surprise that none had gone that short distance down the trail to find out for themselves. What particularly struck him and Shorty was the helplessness of these people. Their cabins were littered and dirty. The dishes stood unwashed on the rough plank tables. There was no mutual aid. A cabin's troubles were its own troubles, and already they had ceased from the exertion of burying their dead.
"It's almost weird," Smoke confided to Shorty. "I've met shirkers and loafers, but I never met so many all at one time. You heard what they said. They've never done a tap. I'll bet they haven't washed their own faces. No wonder they got scurvy."
"But vegetarians hadn't ought to get scurvy," Shorty contended. "It's the salt-meat-eaters that's supposed to fall for it. And they don't eat meat, salt or fresh, raw or cooked, or any other way."
Smoke shook his head. "I know. And it's vegetable diet that cures scurvy. No drugs will do it. Vegetables, especially potatoes, are the only dope. But don't forget one thing, Shorty: we are not up against a theory but a condition. The fact is these grass-eaters have all got scurvy."
"Must be contagious."
"No; that the doctors do know. Scurvy is not a germ disease. It can't be caught. It's generated. As near as I can get it, it's due to an impoverished condition of the blood. Its cause is not something they've got, but something they haven't got. A man gets scurvy for lack of certain chemicals in his blood, and those chemicals don't come out of powders and bottles, but do come out of vegetables."
"An' these people eats nothin' but grass," Shorty groaned. "And they've got it up to their ears. That proves you're all wrong, Smoke. You're spielin' a theory, but this condition sure knocks the spots outa your theory. Scurvy's catchin', an' that's why they've all got it, an' rotten bad at that. You an' me'll get it too, if we hang around this diggin'. B-r-r-r!--I can feel the bugs crawlin' into my system right now."
Smoke laughed skeptically, and knocked on a cabin door. "I suppose we'll find the same old thing," he said. "Come on. We've got to get a line on the situation."
"What do you want?" came a woman's sharp voice.
"We want to see you," Smoke answered.
"Who are you?"
"Two doctors from Dawson," Shorty blurted in, with a levity that brought a punch in the short ribs from Smoke's elbow.
"Don't want to see any doctors," the woman said, in tones crisp and staccato with pain and irritation. "Go away. Good night. We don't believe in doctors."
Smoke pulled the latch, shoved the door open, and entered, turning up the low-flamed kerosene-lamp so that he could see. In four bunks four women ceased from groaning and sighing to stare at the intruders. Two were young, thin-faced creatures, the third was an elderly and very stout woman, and the fourth, the one whom Smoke identified by her voice, was the thinnest, frailest specimen of the human race he had ever seen. As he quickly learned, she was Laura Sibley, the seeress and professional clairvoyant who had organized the expedition in Los Angeles and led it to this death-camp on the Nordbeska. The conversation that ensued was acrimonious. Laura Sibley did not believe in doctors. Also, to add to her purgatory, she had wellnigh ceased to believe in herself.
"Why didn't you send out for help?" Smoke asked, when she paused, breathless and exhausted, from her initial tirade. "There's a camp at Stewart River, and eighteen days' travel would fetch Dawson from here."
"Why didn't Amos Wentworth go?" she demanded, with a wrath that bordered on hysteria.
"Don't know the gentleman," Smoke countered. "What's he been doing?"
"Nothing. Except that he's the only one that hasn't caught the scurvy. And why hasn't he caught the scurvy? I'll tell you. No, I won't." The thin lips compressed so tightly that through the emaciated transparency of them Smoke was almost convinced he could see the teeth and the roots of the teeth. "And what would have been the use? Don't I know? I'm not a fool. Our caches are filled with every kind of fruit juice and preserved vegetables. We are better situated than any other camp in Alaska to fight scurvy. There is no prepared vegetable, fruit, and nut food we haven't, and in plenty."
"She's got you there, Smoke," Shorty exulted. "And it's a condition, not a theory. You say vegetables cures. Here's the vegetables, and where's the cure?"
"There's no explanation I can see," Smoke acknowledged. "Yet there is no camp in Alaska like this. I've seen scurvy--a sprinkling of cases here and there; but I never saw a whole camp with it, nor did I ever see such terrible cases. Which is neither here nor there, Shorty. We've got to do what we can for these people, but first we've got to make camp and take care of the dogs. We'll see you in the morning, er--Mrs. Sibley."
"MISS Sibley," she bridled. "And now, young man, if you come fooling around this cabin with any doctor stuff I'll fill you full of birdshot."
"This divine seeress is a sweet one," Smoke chuckled, as he and Shorty felt their way back through the darkness to the empty cabin next to the one they had first entered.
It was evident that two men had lived until recently in the cabin, and the partners wondered if they weren't the two suicides down the trail. Together they overhauled the cache and found it filled with an undreamed-of variety of canned, powdered, dried, evaporated, condensed, and desiccated foods.
"What in the name of reason do they want to go and get scurvy for?" Shorty demanded, brandishing to the light packages of egg-powder and Italian mushrooms. "And look at that! And that!" He tossed out cans of tomatoes and corn and bottles of stuffed olives. "And the divine steeress got the scurvy, too. What d'ye make of it?"
"Seeress," Smoke corrected.
"Steeress," Shorty reiterated. "Didn't she steer 'em here to this hole in the ground?"
Next morning, after daylight, Smoke encountered a man carrying a heavy sled-load of firewood. He was a little man, clean-looking and spry, who walked briskly despite the load. Smoke experienced an immediate dislike.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked.
"Nothing," the little man answered.
"I know that," Smoke said. "That's why I asked you. You're Amos Wentworth. Now why under the sun haven't you the scurvy like all the rest?"
"Because I've exercised," came the quick reply. "There wasn't any need for any of them to get it if they'd only got out and done something. What did they do? Growled and kicked and grouched at the cold, the long nights, the hardships, the aches and pains and everything else. They loafed in their beds until they swelled up and couldn't leave them, that's all. Look at me. I've worked. Come into my cabin."
Smoke followed him in.
"Squint around. Clean as a whistle, eh? You bet. Everything shipshape. I wouldn't keep those chips and shavings on the floor except for the warmth, but they're clean chips and shavings. You ought to see the floor in some of the shacks. Pig-pens. As for me, I haven't eaten a meal off an unwashed dish. No, sir. It meant work, and I've worked, and I haven't the scurvy. You can put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"You've hit the nail on the head," Smoke admitted. "But I see you've only one bunk. Why so unsociable?"
"Because I like to be. It's easier to clean up for one than two, that's why. The lazy blanket-loafers! Do you think that I could have stood one around? No wonder they got scurvy."
It was very convincing, but Smoke could not rid himself of his dislike of the man.
"What's Laura Sibley got it in for you for?" he asked abruptly.
Amos Wentworth shot a quick look at him. "She's a crank," was the reply. "So are we all cranks, for that matter. But Heaven save me from the crank that won't wash the dishes that he eats off of, and that's what this crowd of cranks are like."
A few minutes later, Smoke was talking with Laura Sibley. Supported by a stick in either hand, she had paused in hobbling by his cabin.
"What have you got it in for Wentworth for?" he asked, apropos of nothing in the conversation and with a suddenness that caught her off her guard.
Her green eyes flashed bitterly, her emaciated face for the second was convulsed with rage, and her sore lips writhed on the verge of unconsidered speech. But only a splutter of gasping, unintelligible sounds issued forth, and then, by a terrible effort, she controlled herself.
"Because he's healthy," she panted. "Because he hasn't the scurvy. Because he is supremely selfish. Because he won't lift a hand to help anybody else. Because he'd let us rot and die, as he is letting us rot and die, without lifting a finger to fetch us a pail of water or a load of firewood. That's the kind of a brute he is. But let him beware! That's all. Let him beware!"
Still panting and gasping, she hobbled on her way, and five minutes afterward, coming out of the cabin to feed the dogs, Smoke saw her entering Amos Wentworth's cabin.
"Something rotten here, Shorty, something rotten," he said, shaking his head ominously, as his partner came to the door to empty a pan of dish-water.
"Sure," was the cheerful rejoinder. "An' you an' me'll be catchin' it yet. You'll see."
"I don't mean the scurvy."
"Oh, sure, if you mean the divine steeress. She'd rob a corpse. She's the hungriest-lookin' female I ever seen."
"Exercise has kept you and me in condition, Shorty. It's kept Wentworth in condition. You see what lack of exercise has done for the rest. Now it's up to us to prescribe exercise for these hospital wrecks. It will be your job to see that they get it. I appoint you chief nurse."
"What? Me?" Shorty shouted. "I resign."
"No, you don't. I'll be able assistant, because it isn't going to be any soft snap. We've got to make them hustle. First thing, they'll have to bury their dead. The strongest for the burial squad; then the next strongest on the firewood squad (they've been lying in their blankets to save wood); and so on down the line. And spruce-tea. Mustn't forget that. All the sour-doughs swear by it. These people have never even heard of it."
"We sure got ourn cut out for us," Shorty grinned. "First thing we know we'll be full of lead."
"And that's our first job," Smoke said. "Come on."
In the next hour, each of the twenty-odd cabins was raided. All ammunition and every rifle, shotgun, and revolver was confiscated.
"Come on, you invalids," was Shorty's method. "Shootin'-irons--fork 'em over. We need 'em."
"Who says so?" was the query at the first cabin.
"Two doctors from Dawson," was Shorty's answer. "An' what they say goes. Come on. Shell out the ammunition, too."
"What do you want them for?"
"To stand off a war-party of canned beef comin' down the canyon. And I'm givin' you fair warnin' of a spruce-tea invasion. Come across."
And this was only the beginning of the day. Men were persuaded, coaxed, bullied or dragged by main strength from their bunks and forced to dress. Smoke selected the mildest cases for the burial squad. Another squad was told off to supply the wood by which the graves were burned down into the frozen muck and gravel. Still another squad had to chop firewood and impartially supply every cabin. Those who were too weak for outdoor work were put to cleaning and scrubbing the cabins and washing clothes. One squad brought in many loads of spruce-boughs, and every stove was used for the brewing of spruce-tea.
But no matter what face Smoke and Shorty put on it, the situation was grim and serious. At least thirty fearful and impossible cases could not be taken from the beds, as the two men, with nausea and horror, learned; while one, a woman, died in Laura Sibley's cabin. Yet strong measures were necessary.
"I don't like to wallop a sick man," Shorty explained, his fist doubled menacingly. "But I'd wallop his block off if it'd make him well. And what all you lazy bums needs is a wallopin'. Come on! Out of that an' into them duds of yourn, double quick, or I'll sure muss up the front of your face."
All the gangs groaned, and sighed, and wept, the tears streaming and freezing down their cheeks as they toiled; and it was patent that their agony was real. The situation was desperate, and Smoke's prescription was heroic.
When the work-gangs came in at noon, they found decently cooked dinners awaiting them, prepared by the weaker members of their cabins under the tutelage and drive of Smoke and Shorty.
"That'll do," Smoke said at three in the afternoon. "Knock off. Go to your bunks. You may be feeling rotten now, but you'll be the better for it to-morrow. Of course it hurts to get well, but I'm going to get you well."
"Too late," Amos Wentworth sneered pallidly at Smoke's efforts. "They ought to have started in that way last fall."
"Come along with me," Smoke answered. "Pick up those two pails. You're not ailing."
From cabin to cabin the three men went, dosing every man and woman with a full pint of spruce-tea. Nor was it easy.
"You might as well learn at the start that we mean business," Smoke stated to the first obdurate, who lay on his back, groaning through set teeth. "Stand by, Shorty." Smoke caught the patient by the nose and tapped the solar-plexus section so as to make the mouth gasp open. "Now, Shorty! Down she goes!"
And down it went, accompanied with unavoidable splutterings and stranglings.
"Next time you'll take it easier," Smoke assured the victim, reaching for the nose of the man in the adjoining bunk.
"I'd sooner take castor oil," was Shorty's private confidence, ere he downed his own portion. "Great jumpin' Methuselem!" was his entirely public proclamation the moment after he had swallowed the bitter dose. "It's a pint long, but hogshead strong."
"We're covering this spruce-tea route four times a day, and there are eighty of you to be dosed each time," Smoke informed Laura Sibley. "So we've no time to fool. Will you take it or must I hold your nose?" His thumb and forefinger hovered eloquently above her. "It's vegetable, so you needn't have any qualms."
"Qualms!" Shorty snorted. "No, sure, certainly not. It's the deliciousest dope!"
Laura Sibley hesitated. She gulped her apprehension.
"Well?" Smoke demanded peremptorily.
"I'll--I'll take it," she quavered. "Hurry up!"
That night, exhausted as by no hard day of trail, Smoke and Shorty crawled into their blankets.
"I'm fairly sick with it," Smoke confessed. "The way they suffer is awful. But exercise is the only remedy I can think of, and it must be given a thorough trial. I wish we had a sack of raw potatoes."
"Sparkins he can't wash no more dishes," Shorty said. "It hurts him so he sweats his pain. I seen him sweat it. I had to put him back in the bunk, he was that helpless."
"If only we had raw potatoes," Smoke went on. "The vital, essential something is missing from that prepared stuff. The life has been evaporated out of it."
"An' if that young fellow Jones in the Brownlow cabin don't croak before morning I miss my guess."
"For Heaven's sake be cheerful," Smoke chided.
"We got to bury him, ain't we?" came the indignant snort. "I tell you that boy's something awful--"
"Shut up," Smoke said.
And after several more indignant snorts, the heavy breathing of sleep arose from Shorty's bunk.
In the morning, not only was Jones dead, but one of the stronger men who had worked on the firewood squad was found to have hanged himself. A nightmare procession of days set in. For a week, steeling himself to the task, Smoke enforced the exercise and the spruce-tea. And one by one, and in twos and threes, he was compelled to knock off the workers. As he was learning, exercise was the last thing in the world for scurvy patients. The diminishing burial squad was kept steadily at work, and a surplus half-dozen graves were always burned down and waiting.
"You couldn't have selected a worse place for a camp," Smoke told Laura Sibley. "Look at it--at the bottom of a narrow gorge, running east and west. The noon sun doesn't rise above the top of the wall. You can't have had sunlight for several months."
"But how was I to know?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't see why not, if you could lead a hundred fools to a gold-mine."
She glared malevolently at him and hobbled on. Several minutes afterward, coming back from a trip to where a squad of groaning patients was gathering spruce-boughs, Smoke saw the seeress entering Amos Wentworth's cabin and followed after her. At the door he could hear her voice, whimpering and pleading.
"Just for me," she was begging, as Smoke entered. "I won't tell a soul."
Both glanced guiltily at the intruder, and Smoke was certain that he was on the edge of something, he knew not what, and he cursed himself for not having eavesdropped.
"Out with it," he commanded harshly. "What is it?"
"What is what?" Amos Wentworth asked sullenly. And Smoke could not name what was what.
Grimmer and grimmer grew the situation. In that dark hole of a canyon, where sunlight never penetrated, the horrible death list mounted up. Each day, in apprehension, Smoke and Shorty examined each other's mouths for the whitening of the gums and mucous membranes--the invariable first symptom of the disease.
"I've quit," Shorty announced one evening. "I've been thinkin' it over, an' I quit. I can make a go at slave-drivin', but cripple-drivin's too much for my stomach. They go from bad to worse. They ain't twenty men I can drive to work. I told Jackson this afternoon he could take to his bunk. He was gettin' ready to suicide. I could see it stickin' out all over him. Exercise ain't no good."
"I've made up my mind to the same thing," Smoke answered. "We'll knock off all but about a dozen. They'll have to lend a hand. We can relay them. And we'll keep up the spruce-tea."
"It ain't no good."
"I'm about ready to agree with that, too, but at any rate it doesn't hurt them."
"Another suicide," was Shorty's news the following morning. "That Phillips is the one. I seen it comin' for days."
"We're up against the real thing," Smoke groaned. "What would you suggest, Shorty?"
"Who? Me? I ain't got no suggestions. The thing's got to run its course."
"But that means they'll all die," Smoke protested.
"Except Wentworth," Shorty snarled; for he had quickly come to share his partner's dislike for that individual.
The everlasting miracle of Wentworth's immunity perplexed Smoke. Why should he alone not have developed scurvy? Why did Laura Sibley hate him, and at the same time whine and snivel and beg from him? What was it she begged from him and that he would not give?
On several occasions Smoke made it a point to drop into Wentworth's cabin at meal-time. But one thing did he note that was suspicious, and that was Wentworth's suspicion of him. Next he tried sounding out Laura Sibley.
"Raw potatoes would cure everybody here," he remarked to the seeress. "I know it. I've seen it work before."
The flare of conviction in her eyes, followed by bitterness and hatred, told him the scent was warm.
"Why didn't you bring in a supply of fresh potatoes on the steamer?" he asked.
"We did. But coming up the river we sold them all out at a bargain at Fort Yukon. We had plenty of the evaporated kinds, and we knew they'd keep better. They wouldn't even freeze."
Smoke groaned. "And you sold them all?" he asked.
"Yes. How were we to know?"
"Now mightn't there have been a couple of odd sacks left?--accidentally, you know, mislaid on the steamer?"
She shook her head, as he thought, a trifle belatedly, then added, "We never found any."
"But mightn't there?" he persisted.
"How do I know?" she rasped angrily. "I didn't have charge of the commissary."
"And Amos Wentworth did," he jumped to the conclusion. "Very good. Now what is your private opinion--just between us two. Do you think Wentworth has any raw potatoes stored away somewhere?"
"No; certainly not. Why should he?"
"Why shouldn't he?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
Struggle as he would with her, Smoke could not bring her to admit the possibility.
"Wentworth's a swine," was Shorty's verdict, when Smoke told his suspicions.
"And so is Laura Sibley," Smoke added. "She believes he has the potatoes, and is keeping it quiet, and trying to get him to share with her."
"An' he won't come across, eh?" Shorty cursed frail human nature with one of his best flights, and caught his breath. "They both got their feet in the trough. May God rot them dead with scurvy for their reward, that's all I got to say, except I'm goin' right up now an' knock Wentworth's block off."
But Smoke stood out for diplomacy. That night, when the camp groaned and slept, or groaned and did not sleep, he went to Wentworth's unlighted cabin.
"Listen to me, Wentworth," he said. "I've got a thousand dollars in dust right here in this sack. I'm a rich man in this country, and I can afford it. I think I'm getting touched. Put a raw potato in my hand and the dust is yours. Here, heft it."
And Smoke thrilled when Amos Wentworth put out his hand in the darkness and hefted the gold. Smoke heard him fumble in the blankets, and then felt pressed into his hand, not the heavy gold-sack, but the unmistakable potato, the size of a hen's egg, warm from contact with the other's body.
Smoke did not wait till morning. He and Shorty were expecting at any time the deaths of their worst two cases, and to this cabin the partners went. Grated and mashed up in a cup, skin, and clinging specks of the earth, and all, was the thousand-dollar potato--a thick fluid, that they fed, several drops at a time, into the frightful orifices that had once been mouths. Shift by shift, through the long night, Smoke and Shorty relieved each other at administering the potato juice, rubbing it into the poor swollen gums where loose teeth rattled together and compelling the swallowing of every drop of the precious elixir.
By evening of the next day the change for the better in the two patients was miraculous and almost unbelievable. They were no longer the worst cases. In forty-eight hours, with the exhaustion of the potato, they were temporarily out of danger, though far from being cured.
"I'll tell you what I'll do," Smoke said to Wentworth. "I've got holdings in this country, and my paper is good anywhere. I'll give you five hundred dollars a potato up to fifty thousand dollars' worth. That's one hundred potatoes."
"Was that all the dust you had?" Wentworth queried.
"Shorty and I scraped up all we had. But, straight, he and I are worth several millions between us."
"I haven't any potatoes," Wentworth said finally. "Wish I had. That potato I gave you was the only one. I'd been saving it all the winter for fear I'd get the scurvy. I only sold it so as to be able to buy a passage out of the country when the river opens."
Despite the cessation of potato-juice, the two treated cases continued to improve through the third day. The untreated cases went from bad to worse. On the fourth morning, three horrible corpses were buried. Shorty went through the ordeal, then turned to Smoke.
"You've tried your way. Now it's me for mine."
He headed straight for Wentworth's cabin. What occurred there, Shorty never told. He emerged with knuckles skinned and bruised, and not only did Wentworth's face bear all the marks of a bad beating, but for a long time he carried his head, twisted and sidling, on a stiff neck. This phenomenon was accounted for by a row of four finger-marks, black and blue, on one side of the windpipe and by a single black-and-blue mark on the other side.
Next, Smoke and Shorty together invaded Wentworth's cabin, throwing him out in the snow while they turned the interior upside down. Laura Sibley hobbled in and frantically joined them in the search.
"You don't get none, old girl, not if we find a ton," Shorty assured her.
But she was no more disappointed than they. Though the very floor was dug up, they discovered nothing.
"I'm for roastin' him over a slow fire an' make 'm cough up," Shorty proposed earnestly.
Smoke shook his head reluctantly.
"It's murder," Shorty held on. "He's murderin' all them poor geezers just as much as if he knocked their brains out with an ax, only worse."
Another day passed, during which they kept a steady watch on Wentworth's movements. Several times, when he started out, water-bucket in hand, for the creek, they casually approached the cabin, and each time he hurried back without the water.
"They're cached right there in his cabin," Shorty said. "As sure as God made little apples, they are. But where? We sure overhauled it plenty." He stood up and pulled on his mittens. "I'm goin' to find 'em, if I have to pull the blame shack down a log at a time."
He glanced at Smoke, who, with an intent, absent face, had not heard him.
"What's eatin' you?" Shorty demanded wrathfully. "Don't tell me you've gone an' got the scurvy!"
"Just trying to remember something, Shorty."
"I don't know. That's the trouble. But it has a bearing, if only I could remember it."
"Now you look here, Smoke; don't you go an' get bug-house," Shorty pleaded. "Think of me! Let your think-slats rip. Come on an' help me pull that shack down. I'd set her afire, if it wa'n't for roastin' them spuds."
"That's it!" Smoke exploded, as he sprang to his feet. "Just what I was trying to remember. Where's that kerosene-can? I'm with you, Shorty. The potatoes are ours."
"What's the game?"
"Watch me, that's all," Smoke baffled. "I always told you, Shorty, that a deficient acquaintance with literature was a handicap, even in the Klondike. Now what we're going to do came out of a book. I read it when I was a kid, and it will work. Come on."
Several minutes later, under a pale-gleaming, greenish aurora borealis, the two men crept up to Amos Wentworth's cabin. Carefully and noiselessly they poured kerosene over the logs, extra-drenching the door-frame and window-sash. Then the match was applied, and they watched the flaming oil gather headway. They drew back beyond the growing light and waited.
They saw Wentworth rush out, stare wildly at the conflagration, and plunge back into the cabin. Scarcely a minute elapsed when he emerged, this time slowly, half doubled over, his shoulders burdened by a sack heavy and unmistakable. Smoke and Shorty sprang at him like a pair of famished wolves. They hit him right and left, at the same instant. He crumpled down under the weight of the sack, which Smoke pressed over with his hands to make sure. Then he felt his knees clasped by Wentworth's arms as the man turned a ghastly face upward.
"Give me a dozen, only a dozen--half a dozen--and you can have the rest," he squalled. He bared his teeth and, with mad rage, half inclined his head to bite Smoke's leg, then he changed his mind and fell to pleading. "Just half a dozen," he wailed. "Just half a dozen. I was going to turn them over to you--to-morrow. Yes, to-morrow. That was my idea. They're life! They're life! Just half a dozen!"
"Where's the other sack?" Smoke bluffed.
"I ate it up," was the reply, unimpeachably honest. "That sack's all that's left. Give me a few. You can have the rest."
"Ate 'em up!" Shorty screamed. "A whole sack! An' them geezers dyin' for want of 'em! This for you! An' this! An' this! An' this! You swine! You hog!"
The first kick tore Wentworth away from his embrace of Smoke's knees. The second kick turned him over in the snow. But Shorty went on kicking.
"Watch out for your toes," was Smoke's only interference.
"Sure; I'm usin' the heel," Shorty answered. "Watch me. I'll cave his ribs in. I'll kick his jaw off. Take that! An' that! Wisht I could give you the boot instead of the moccasin. You swine!"
There was no sleep in camp that night. Hour after hour Smoke and Shorty went the rounds, doling the life-renewing potato-juice, a quarter of a spoonful at a dose, into the poor ruined mouths of the population. And through the following day, while one slept the other kept up the work.
There were no more deaths. The most awful cases began to mend with an immediacy that was startling. By the third day, men who had not been off their backs for weeks crawled out of their bunks and tottered around on crutches. And on that day, the sun, two months then on its journey into northern declination, peeped cheerfully over the crest of the canyon for the first time.
"Nary a potato," Shorty told the whining, begging Wentworth. "You ain't even touched with scurvy. You got outside a whole sack, an' you're loaded against scurvy for twenty years. Knowin' you, I've come to understand God. I always wondered why he let Satan live. Now I know. He let him live just as I let you live. But it's a cryin' shame, just the same."
"A word of advice," Smoke told Wentworth. "These men are getting well fast; Shorty and I are leaving in a week, and there will be nobody to protect you when these men go after you. There's the trail. Dawson's eighteen days' travel."
"Pull your freight, Amos," Shorty supplemented, "or what I done to you won't be a circumstance to what them convalescents'll do to you."
"Gentlemen, I beg of you, listen to me," Wentworth whined. "I'm a stranger in this country. I don't know its ways. I don't know the trail. Let me travel with you. I'll give you a thousand dollars if you'll let me travel with you."
"Sure," Smoke grinned maliciously. "If Shorty agrees."
"WHO? ME?" Shorty stiffened for a supreme effort. "I ain't nobody. Woodticks ain't got nothin' on me when it comes to humility. I'm a worm, a maggot, brother to the pollywog an' child of the blow-fly. I ain't afraid or ashamed of nothin' that creeps or crawls or stinks. But travel with that mistake of creation! Go 'way, man. I ain't proud, but you turn my stomach."
And Amos Wentworth went away, alone, dragging a sled loaded with provisions sufficient to last him to Dawson. A mile down the trail Shorty overhauled him.
"Come here to me," was Shorty's greeting. "Come across. Fork over. Cough up."
"I don't understand," Wentworth quavered, shivering from recollection of the two beatings, hand and foot, he had already received from Shorty.
"That thousand dollars, d' ye understand that? That thousand dollars gold Smoke bought that measly potato with. Come through."
And Amos Wentworth passed the gold-sack over.
"Hope a skunk bites you an' you get howlin' hydrophoby," were the terms of Shorty's farewell.