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The ice was running when McGill arrived. Had he been two hours later he might have fared badly, for the ramparts above Ophir choke the river down into a narrow chute through which it hurries, snarling, and the shore ice was widening at the rate of a foot an hour. Early in the day the recorder from Alder Creek had tried to come ashore, but had broken through, losing his skiff and saving his life by the sheer good luck that favors fools and drunken men. It was October; the last mail had gone out a fortnight previous; the wiseacres were laying odds that the river would be closed in three days, so it was close running that McGill made—six hundred miles in an open whip-sawed dory.
They heard him calling, once he saw the lights, and, getting down to the water-level, they could make out his boat crunching along through the thin ice at the outer edge. He was trying to force his way inward to a point where the current would not move him, but the Yukon spun him like a top, and it looked as if he would go past. Fortunately, however, there happened to be a man in the crowd who had learned tricks with a lariat back in Oklahoma; a line was put out, and McGill came ashore with his bedding under one arm and a sheet-iron stove under the other. Stoves were scarce that winter, and McGill was no tenderfoot.
They obtained their first good look at him when he lined up with the crowd at Hopper's bar, ten minutes later, by which time it was known who he was. He had a great big frame, with a great big face on top of it, and, judging from his reputation, he had a great big heart to match them both. Some of the late-comers recalled a tale of how he had lifted the gunwales out of a poling-boat that was wedged in a timber-jam above White Horse, and from the looks of his massive hands and shoulders the tale seemed true. He was not handsome—few strong men are—but he had level, blue eyes, rather small and deep set, and a jaw that made people think twice before angering him, while his voice carried the rumbling bass note one hears at the edge of a spring freshet when the boulders are shifting.
"I missed the last boat from Circle," he explained, "so I took a chance with the skiff."
"Looks like you'd be the last arrival before the trails open," offered Hopper. "I don't guess there's nobody behind you?"
"I didn't pass anybody," said McGill, and it was plain from his smile that he had made good time.
"Aim to winter here, Dan?"
"I do. Minook told me, four summers ago, that he'd found a prospect near here, and I've always figgered on putting some holes down. But it looks like I'm late."
"Oh, there's plenty of ground open. You've got as good a chance as the balance of us."
"Any grub in camp?"
"Nope. Ophir was struck too late in the fall."
McGill laughed. "I didn't think there would be; but that's nothing new."
"Didn't you bring none?"
"Nary a pound. There's women and children at the Circle, and there wasn't more than enough for them, so I pulled out."
"There's plenty below," Hopper assured him.
"We don't know yet. There's a boat-load of 'chekakos' bound for Dawson somewhere between here and Cochrane's Landing. They'll be froze in now, and tenderfeet always has grub. Soon's we get some more snow we'll do some freightin'."
Before he retired that night McGill had bought a town lot, and a week later there was a cabin on it, for he was a man who knew how to work. Then, during the interval between the close of navigation and the opening of winter travel he looked over the country and staked some claims. He did not locate at random, but used a discrimination based upon ten years' experience in the arctics, and when cold weather set in he felt satisfied with his work. Men with half his holdings reckoned their fortunes at extravagant figures; transfers of unproved properties for handsome terms were common; millions were made daily, on paper.
Soon after the winter had settled, two strangers "mushed" in from down-river. For ten days they had pulled their own sled through the first dry, trackless snow of the season, and they were well spent, but they brought news that the steamboat was in winter quarters a hundred and fifty miles below. They assured McGill, moreover, that there was plenty of food aboard, so, a day later, he set off on their back trail with his dog-team. By now the melancholy autumn was gone, the air was frozen clean of every taint, the frost made men's blood gallop through their veins. It changed McGill into a boy again. His lungs ached from the throbbing power within them, his loping stride was as smooth as that of a timber-wolf, his loud, deep laughter caused the dogs to yelp in answer.
When he finally burst out of the silence and into the midst of the gold-seekers with tidings of the new camp only a hundred and fifty miles away they shook off their lethargy and awoke to a great excitement. He told all he honestly knew about Ophir, and with nimble fancies they added two words of their own to every one of his. They stopped work upon their winter quarters and made ready to push on afoot—on hands and knees, if necessary. Here was a man who had made a fortune in one short autumn, for with the customary ignorance of tenderfeet they perceived no distinction between a mining claim and a mine. A gold-mine, they reasoned, was worth anything one wished to imagine, from a hundred thousand to a million; thirty gold-mines were worth thirty millions—figure it out for yourself. The conservative ones cut the result in half and were well satisfied with it. They were glad they had come.
The steamboat captain offered McGill a bed in his own cabin, for the log houses were not yet completed, and that night at supper the miner met the rest of the big family. Among them was a girl. Once McGill had beheld her, he could see none of the others; he became an automaton, directing his words at random, but focusing his soul upon her. He could not recall her name, for her first glance had driven all memory out of his head, and during the meal he feasted his hungry eyes upon her, feeling a yearning such as he had never before experienced. He did not pause to argue what it foretold; it is doubtful if he would have realized had he taken time to think, for he had never known women well, and ten years in the Yukon country had dimmed what youthful recollections he possessed. When he went to bed he was in a daze that did not vanish even when the captain, after carefully locking the doors and closing the cabin shutters, crawled under the bunk and brought forth a five-gallon keg of whisky, which he fondled like a mother her babe.
"Wait till you taste it," crooned the old man. "Nothing like it north of Vancouver. If I didn't keep it hid I'd have a mutiny."
He removed a steaming kettle from the stove, then, unearthing some sugar from the chart-case, mixed a toddy, muttering: "Just wait, that's all. You just wait!" With the pains of a chemist he divided the beverage into two equal portions, rolled the contents of his own glass under his tongue with a look of beatitude on his wrinkled features, then inquired, "What did I tell you?"
"It's great," McGill acknowledged. "First real liquor I've tasted for months." Then he fell to staring at the fire.
After a time he asked, "Who's the lady I was talking to?"
"The one with the red sweater?"
"Miss Andrews. Her first name is Alice."
"Alice!" McGill spoke it softly. "I—I s'pose she's married, of course?"
"No, Miss Andrews."
McGill started. "I thought she was the wife of that nice-looking feller, Barclay."
The captain grunted, and then after a moment added, "She's an actor of some kind."
McGill opened his eyes in genuine astonishment. He opened his mouth also, but changed his mind and fell to studying the flames once more. "She's plumb beautiful," he said at length.
"All actors is beautiful," the captain remarked, wisely.
McGill slept badly that night, which was unusual for him, but when he went to feed his dogs on the following morning he found Miss Andrews ahead of him.
"What splendid creatures!" she said, petting them.
"Do you like dogs?" he queried.
"I love them. You know, these are the first I have ever seen of this kind."
"Then you never rode behind a team?"
"No. I have only read about such things."
McGill summoned his courage and said, "Mebbe you'd like me to—give you a ride?"
"Would you? Oh, Mr. McGill!" She clapped her hands, and her eyes widened at the prospect.
He noted how the brisk air had brought the blood to her cheeks, but broke off the dangerous contemplation of her charms and fell to harnessing the team, his fingers stiff with embarrassment. He helped her into the basket-sled and then, at her request, tucked in the folds of her coat. It was a novel sensation and one he had never dreamed of having, for he would not have dared touch any woman without a command.
It was not much of a ride, for the trails were poor, but the girl seemed to enjoy it, and to McGill it was wonderful. He felt that he was making an awful spectacle of himself, however, and hoped no one had seen them leave; he was so big and so ungainly to be playing squire, and, above all, he was so old.
He could think of nothing to say on the excursion, but when she thanked him upon their return he was more than paid for his misery. As they drove up, Barclay was watching them from the high bank, and Miss Andrews waved a mitten at him. Later, when McGill had left for a moment, the young man began, sourly:
"Making a play for the old party, eh?"
"He isn't old," said Miss Andrews, carelessly.
"What's the idea?"
"I don't know that I have any idea. Why?"
"Humph! I'm interested—naturally."
"You needn't be. It's every one for himself up here, and you don't seem to be getting ahead very fast."
"I see. McGill's due to be a millionaire, and I'm down and out," Barclay sneered. "Well, we're neither of us children. If you can land him, more power to you."
"I wouldn't stand in your way," said Miss Andrews, coldly, "and I don't intend that you shall stand in mine."
"Is that the only way you look at it?" Barclay wore an ugly frown that seemed genuine. She met it with a mere shrug, causing him to exclaim, hotly, "If you don't care any more than that, I won't interfere." He turned and walked away.
Those were wonderful days for McGill. Instead of hurrying back to his work he loitered. With a splendid disregard of convention he followed the girl about hourly and was too drunk with her smiles to hear the comment his actions evoked. He had moments of despair when he saw himself as a great, awkward bear, more aptly designed to frighten than to woo a woman, but these periods of depression gave way to the keenest delight at some word of encouragement from Alice Andrews. He did not fully realize that he had asked her to marry him until it was all over, but she seemed to understand so fully what was in his heart that she had drawn it from him before he really knew what he was saying. And then the joy of her acceptance! It stunned him. When he had finally torn himself away from her side he went out and stood bareheaded under the northern lights to let it sink in. There were no words in his vocabulary, no thoughts in his mind, capable of expressing the marvel of it. The gorgeous colors that leaped from horizon to zenith were no more glorious than the riot that flamed within his soul. She loved him, Dan McGill, and she was a white woman! When he thought how beautiful and young she was his heart overflowed with a gentle tenderness which rivaled that of any mother.
Still in a dream, he related the miracle to the steamboat captain, who took the announcement in silence. This old man had wintered inside the circle and knew something of the woman-hunger that comes to strong men in solitude. He was observant, moreover, and had seen good girls made bad by the fires of the frontier, as well as bad women made good by marriage.
There being no priest nearer than Nulato, it was, perforce, a contract marriage. A lawyer in the party attended to the papers, and it pleased the woman to have Barclay sign as a witness. Then she and McGill set out for Ophir, a trip he never forgot. The sled was laden with things to make a bride comfortable, so they were forced to walk, but they might have been flying, for all he knew. Alice was very ignorant of northern ways, childishly so, and it afforded him the keenest delight to initiate her into the mysteries of trail life. And when night drew near and they made camp, what joy it was to hear her exclamations of wonder at his adeptness! She loved to see his ax sink to the eye in the frozen fir trunks and to join his shout when the tree fell crashing in a great upheaval of white. Then when their tiny tent, nestling in some sheltered grove, was glowing from the candle-light, and the red-hot stove had routed the cold, he would make her lie back on the fragrant springy couch of boughs while he smoked and did the dishes and told her shyly of the happiness that had come upon him. He waited upon her hand and foot; he stood between her and every peril of the wilds.
And while it was all delightfully bewildering to him, it was likewise very strange and exciting to his bride. The deathly silence of the bitter nights, illumined only by the awesome aurora borealis; the terrific immensity of the solitudes, with their white-burdened forests of fir that ran up and over the mountains and away to the ends of the world; the wild wolf-dogs that feared nothing except the voice of their master, and yet fawned upon him with a passion that approached ferocity—it all played upon the woman's fancy strangely. For the first time in her tempestuous career she was nearly happy. It was worth some sacrifice to possess the devotion of a man like McGill; it was worth even more to know that her years of uncertainty and strife were over. His gentleness annoyed her at times, but, on the other hand, she was grateful for the shyness that handicapped him as a lover. On the whole, however, it was a good bargain, and she was fairly well content.
As for McGill, he expanded, he effloresced, if such a nature as his could be said to bloom. He explored the hindermost recesses of his being, and brought forth his secrets for her to share. He told her all about himself, without the slightest reservation, and when he was done she knew him clear to his last, least thought. It was an unwise thing to do, but McGill was not a wise man, and the stories seemed to please her. Above all, she took an interest in his business affairs, which was gratifying. Time and again she questioned him shrewdly about his mining properties, which made him think that here was a woman who would prove a helpmate.
Their arrival at Ophir was the occasion for a rough, spontaneous welcome that further turned her head. McGill was loved, and, once his townsmen had recovered from their amazement, they did their best to show his wife courtesies, which all went to strengthen her belief in his importance and to add to her complacence.
McGill was ashamed of his cabin at first, but she surprised him with the business-like manner in which she went about fixing it up. Before his admiring eyes she transformed it by a few deft touches into what seemed to him a paradise. Heretofore he had witnessed women's handiwork only from a distance, and had never possessed a real home, so this was another wonder that it took time to appreciate. Eventually he pulled himself together and settled down to his affairs, but in the midst of his tasks it would sometimes come over him with a blinding rush that he was married, that he had a wife who was no squaw, but a white woman, more beautiful than any dream-creature, and so young that he might have been her father. The amazing strangeness of it never left him.
But the adolescence of Ophir was short. It quickly outgrew its age of fictitious values, and its rapturous delusions vanished as hole after hole was put to bed-rock and betrayed no pay. Entire valleys that were formerly considered rich were abandoned, and the driving snows erased the signs of human effort. Men came in out of the hills cursing the luck that had brought them there. The gold-bearing area narrowed to a proved creek or two where the ground was taken and where there were ten men for every job; the saloons began to fill with idlers who talked much, but spent nothing. One day the camp awakened to the fact that it was a failure. There is nothing more ghastly than a broken mining-town, for in place of the first feverish exhilaration there is naught but the wreck of hopes and the ruin of ambitions.
McGill's wife was not the last to appreciate the truth; she saw it coming even earlier than the rest. Once she had lost the first glamour and fully attuned herself to the new life she was sufficiently perceptive to realize her great mistake. But McGill did not notice the change and saw nothing to worry about in the town's affairs. He had been poor most of his life, and his rare periods of opulence had ended briefly, therefore this failure meant merely another trial. Ophir had given him his prize, greater than all the riches of its namesake, and who could be other than happy with a wife like his? His very optimism, combined with her own fierce disappointment, drove the woman nearly frantic. She felt abused, she reasoned that McGill had betrayed her, and at last owned to the hunger she had been striving vainly to stifle for months past. Now that there was nothing to gain, why blind herself to the truth? She hated McGill, and she loved another! There had never been an instant when her heart had not called.
And then, to make matters worse, Barclay came. He had spent most of the long winter at the steamboat landing, being too angry to show himself in Ophir, but the woman-hunger had grown upon him, as upon all men in the North, and it finally drew him to her with a strength that would have snapped iron chains. Hearing, shortly after his arrival, that McGill was out on the creeks and never returned until dark, he went to the cabin. Alice opened the door at his knock, then fell back with a cry. He shut out the cold air behind him and stood looking at her until she gasped:
"Why have you come here?"
"Why? Because I couldn't stay away. You knew I'd have to come, didn't you?"
"McGill!" she whispered, and cast a frightened look over her shoulder.
"Does he know?"
She shook her head.
"I hear he's broke—like the rest." Barclay laughed mockingly, and she nodded. "Have you had enough?"
"Yes, yes! Oh yes!" she wailed, suddenly. "Take me away, Bob. Oh, take me away!"
She was in his arms with the words, her breast to his, her arms about his neck, her hot tears starting. She clutched him wildly, while he covered her face with kisses.
"Don't scold me," she sobbed. "Don't! I'm sorry, I'm sorry. You'll take me away, won't you?"
"Hush!" he commanded. "I can't take you away; there's no place to go to. That's the worst of this damned country. He'd follow—and he'd get us."
"You must, Bob! You must! I'll die here with him. I've stood it as long as I can—"
"Don't be a fool. You'll have to go through with it now until spring. Once the river is open—"
"No, no, no!" she cried, passionately.
"Do you want us to get killed?"
Mrs. McGill shivered as if some wintry blast had searched out her marrow, then freed herself from his embrace and said, slowly: "You're right, Bob. We must be very careful. I—I don't know what he might do."
That evening she met McGill with a smile, the first she had worn for some time, and she was particularly affectionate.
Instead of returning down-river, Barclay found lodgings and remained in Ophir. He was not the most industrious of men, and before long became a familiar figure around the few public places. McGill met him frequently, seeing which Barclay's fellow-passengers from below raised their eyebrows and muttered meaningless commonplaces; then, when the younger man took to spending more and more of his time at the miner's cabin, they ceased making any comment whatever. These are things that wise men avoid, and a loose tongue often leads to an early grave when fellows like McGill are about. Some of the old-timers who had wintered with the miner in the "upper country" shook their heads and acknowledged that young Barclay was a braver man than they gave him credit for being.
Of course McGill was the last to hear of it, for he was of the simple sort who have faith in God and women and such things, and he might have gone on indefinitely in ignorance but for Hopper, who did not care much for the Barclay person. The saloon-man, being himself uneducated and rough, like McGill, cherished certain illusions regarding virtue, and let drop a hint his friend could not help but heed. The husband paid for his drink, then went back to the rear of the room, where he sat for an hour or more. When he went home he was more gentle to his wife than ever. He brooded for a number of days, trying to down his suspicion, but the poison was sown, and he finally spoke to her.
"Barclay was here again this afternoon, wasn't he?"
She turned her face away to hide its pallor. "Yes. He dropped in."
"He was here yesterday, and the day before, too, wasn't he?"
"He'd ought to stay away; people are talking."
She turned on him defiantly. "What of it? What do I care? I'm lonesome. I want company. Mr. Barclay and I were good friends."
"You're my wife now."
"Your wife? Ha! ha! Your wife!" She laughed hysterically.
"Yes. Don't you love me any more, Alice?"
She said nothing.
"I've noticed a change, lately, and—I can't blame you none, but if you loved me just a little, if I had even that much to start on, I wouldn't mind. I'd take you away somewhere and try to make you love me more."
"You'd take me away, would you?" the woman cried, gaining confidence from his lack of heat. "Away, where I'd be all alone with you? Don't you see I'm dying of lonesomeness now? That's what's the matter. I'm half mad with the monotony. I want to see people, and live, and be amused. I'm young, and pretty, and men like me. You're old, McGill. You're old, and I'm young."
Her husband withered beneath her words; his whole big frame sagged together as if the life had ebbed out of it; he felt weary and sick and burned out. His brain held but one thought—Alice did not love him, because he was old.
"Don't go on this way," he said, finally, to check her. "I suppose it's true, but I've felt like a daddy and a mother to you, along with the other feeling, and I hoped you wouldn't notice it. I don't reckon any young man could care for you like that. You see, it's all the loves of my whole life wrapped up together, and I don't see, I don't see what we can do about it. We're married!" It was characteristic of him that he could devise no way out of the difficulty. A calamity had befallen them, and they must adjust themselves to it as best they could. In his eyes marriage was a holy thing, an institution of God, with which no human hands might trifle.
"No," he continued, "you're my wife, and so we've got to get along the best way we can. I know you couldn't do anything wrong—you ain't that kind." His eyes roved over the homely little nest and the evidences of their married intimacy. "No, you couldn't do that."
"Then you won't make it any harder for me than you can help?"
"No." He rose stiffly. "You're entitled to a fair show at anything you want. I don't like Barclay, but if you want him around, I won't object. Try to be as happy as you can, Alice; maybe it'll all come out right. Only—I wish you'd known it wasn't love before you married me." He put on his cap and went out into the cold.
During the ensuing week or two he devoted himself to his work, spending every daylight hour on his claim, in this way more than satisfying Barclay and the woman, who felt that a great menace had been removed. But Hopper determined that his friend should know all and not part of the truth, for good men are rare and weak women in the way, so he put on his parka and walked out to the place where McGill was working, and there, under a bleak March sky, with the snow-flurries wrapping their legs about, he told what he had learned. Hopper was a little man, but he had courage.
"I've heard it from half a dozen fellers," he concluded, "and they'd ought to know, because they come up on the same boat with them. Anyhow, you can satisfy yourself easy enough."
McGill moistened his lips and, thanking his informant, said, "Now you'd better hustle back to camp; we're due for a storm."
It was still early afternoon when he walked swiftly out of the gulch and into the straggling little town. On his way down from the claim the blizzard had broken, or so it seemed, for the narrow valley had suddenly become filled with a whirling smother through which he burst like a ship through a fog. When he emerged upon the flats he saw that it was no more than a squall and the wind was abating again.
His moccasins made no sound as he came up to his own house, and the first inkling of his presence that the two inside received was when the door opened and he stood before them. Something in his bearing caused his wife to clutch at the table for support, and Barclay to retreat with his back to the opposite wall, his hand inside his coat.
McGill never carried a weapon, having yet to feel the need of one. He spoke now in a harsh, cracked voice. "Take your hand off that gun, Barclay."
"What's the matter with you?" the younger man questioned.
Mrs. McGill's eyes were wide with terror, her frame racked by apprehension, when her husband turned upon her and asked:
"Is it true? Do you love—him?" He jerked his head in Barclay's direction. "Answer me!" he rumbled, savagely, as she hesitated.
Her lips moved, and she nodded without removing her gaze from him.
"How long have you loved him?"
When she still could not master herself, he softened his voice: "You needn't be scared, Alice. I couldn't hurt you."
"A long—time," she said, finally.
McGill leveled a look at the other man.
"That's right," Barclay agreed. "You might as well know."
"They tell me that you and her had—" McGill ground his teeth, and his little eyes blazed—"that she didn't have no right to marry without—telling me something about you."
The former answered through white lips: "Well? Everybody knew it except you, and you could have found out. I'd have married her sometime, myself, if you hadn't come along."
McGill's fingers opened slowly, at which the woman burst forth:
"No, no! Don't—do that. You can't blame him, Dan. I did it. Don't you understand? I'm the one. I loved him in 'Frisco, long before I saw you, and I've loved him ever since. Take it out on me, if you want to, but don't hurt him."
"I don't reckon I'd have minded it much if I'd known the truth at the start," said McGill. "Most women have made mistakes at one time or another, at least most of those I've known have. No, it ain't that, but you married me knowing that you loved him all the time."
"I tried to quit," cried the wife. "I tried to, but I couldn't."
"And what's the rottenest of all"—McGill's voice was ugly again—"you made him best man at the wedding, or just the same. He stood up with us. Didn't you, Barclay?"
The wife flung herself into the breach once more with a self-sacrifice that wrenched her husband's heart. "He didn't want to, but I made him. I thought you had money, and I was mad at him for letting me go, so I tried to hurt him. I wanted him to marry me, but he wouldn't, and I took you. When it was over and I saw the kind of man you are I tried to love you—honestly I did, but I couldn't. You're so—I—I couldn't do it, that's all." She broke into a torrent of tears, holding herself on her feet by an effort. Her wretched sobbing was the only sound in the cabin for a time, then Barclay inquired:
"Well, what are you going to do?"
McGill turned to his wife, ignoring Barclay. "I guess I understand things pretty well now, and I'm beginning to see your side. Of course I never aimed to hurt you, Alice—I couldn't; but I aimed to kill this man, and I will if he stays here." Over his shoulder he flung out, quickly: "Oh, the gun won't help you none. You've got to go, Barclay."
"I'll go with him," cried Mrs. McGill, desperately. "If he goes, I'll go, too."
"That's exactly what you've got to do. You can't stay here now, neither of you. If he ain't able to take care of you, why, I will as long as I live, but you've both got to go."
"It's the best course under the circumstances," Barclay agreed, with relief. "We'll take the first boat—"
"You'll go to-day, now," said the husband, grimly, "before I have time to think it over."
"To hell! That's where you're headed."
"We can't go afoot," the woman cried in a panic.
"I've got dogs! And don't argue or I'll weaken. I'm letting him go because you seem to need him, Alice. Only remember one thing, both of you—there ain't no town big enough to hold all three of us. Now go, quick, before I change my mind, for if the sun ever goes down on Barclay and me together, so help me God! it won't rise on both of us. There ain't no place in the world that's big enough for him and me, no place in the world."
McGill stood on the river-bank and watched them vanish into the ghostly curtain that sifted slowly down from the heavens, and when they were finally lost to view he turned back to his empty cabin. Before entering he paused as usual to note the weather—it was a habit. He saw that the sky was strangely leaden and low, and in spite of the fact that the "quick" was falling rapidly, the air was lifeless and close. If McGill was any judge, that squall had been but a warning, and foretold more to follow. He sighed miserably at the thought of the night his wife would have to face.
He cooked his supper mechanically, then sat for hours staring at it. The wind rattling at his door finally roused him to the knowledge that his fire was out and the room chilly. Being unable longer to bear the silence and the mute evidences of her occupation that looked at him from every side, he slipped into his parka and went down to Hopper's place, where there were life and human voices at least.
The night was yelling with a million voices when he stepped out. The bitter wind snapped his fur garment as if to rend it to ribbons, the whirling particles of snow rasped his face like the dry grains from a sand-blast. Boreas had loosed his demons, and they were lashing the night into chaos. McGill felt a sudden tender concern for the woman, a concern so great as almost to destroy his bitterness, but he reflected that he had seen to loading the sled himself, and among the other paraphernalia had included a tent and a stove. Unless Barclay was a fool, therefore, Alice was perfectly safe. There was wood aplenty, and the spruce forests offered shelter from the gale. The thought awakened a memory of those night camps he had made on that dreamlike wedding-journey and brought forth a groan. How old and spiritless he had become; he could scarcely stand against the wind!
Of course the story had gone broadcast, hours before, for other eyes than his had watched the man and woman take the outbound trail that afternoon, so when he came stumbling into Hopper's place a sudden silence fell. He went directly to the bar and called for straight "hootch," to drive the cold from his bones, but, although it warmed his flesh, his soul remained numb and frozen. Inside him was a great aching emptiness that even Hopper's kindly words could not reach.
"Looks like the worst night we've had this year," said the proprietor. "Better have a drink with me."
McGill's teeth rattled on the glass when he put it to his lips. "She's gone!" he whispered, staring across the bar, "and I didn't kill him. I couldn't—on her account."
Hopper nodded. "I'm awful sorry it came out this way, Dan."
McGill shivered and drew his head down between his gaunt shoulders. "Talk to me, will you?" he begged. "I'm hit hard."
His friend did as he was directed, but a few minutes later in the midst of his words the big man interrupted:
"There wasn't room for all of us here," he declared, fiercely. "I told her that, but she wanted him worse than her own life, so I had to give in."
They were still talking at midnight, after all but a few loiterers had gone home, when they heard a man's voice calling from outside. An instant later the front door burst open and a figure appeared; it was Cochrane, the trader from down-river.
"Here! Give me a hand!" he bellowed through his ice-burdened beard, then plunged back into the hurricane to reappear with a woman in his arms.
"I thought I'd never make it," he declared. "There's a man in the sled, too. Get some 'hootch' and send for a doctor, quick."
McGill uttered a cry, while the hand with which he gripped the bar went white at his pressure. "Where did you get them?" he questioned.
"Ten miles below," said Cochrane. "I was camped for the night when their dogs picked up my scent. They were half dead when they got to me, and he was in mighty bad shape, so I came through. I've been five hours on the road."
Two men brought in Barclay, at which McGill flung out a long arm and cried in a loud voice, "Is that man dead?"
No one answered, so he strode forward, only to have the weakened traveler raise his head and say:
"No, I'm not dead, McGill. But we had to come back."
The wife was calling to her husband, wretchedly: "Don't do it, Dan. We couldn't help it. We'll go to-morrow. We'll go. Please don't! We'll go."
The onlookers, knowing something of the tragedy, drew back, watching McGill, who still stared into the face of the man who had robbed him of everything.
"Do you remember what I told you?" he questioned, inflexibly.
Barclay nodded, and the woman shrilled again:
"Don't let him do it, men. Don't!"
"There ain't room for us here," went on McGill.
"Only to-night," supplicated his wife, the frost-bitten spots in her cheeks no more pallid than the rest of her countenance. "He can't go. Don't you see he isn't able? Wait, Dan; I'll go if you want me to"—she struggled forward. "I'll go, but he'll die if you send him out."
"It's always him, ain't it?" said the miner, slowly. "You seem to want him pretty bad, Alice. Well, you can have him. And you can stay, both of you." He drew his cap down over his grizzled hair and turned toward the door, but Hopper saw the light in his eye and intercepted him.
"I'll go home with you, Dan," said he.
"I ain't going home."
"There ain't room enough in Ophir for Barclay and me and the woman."
"My God, man, listen to that blizzard! It's suicide!"
But McGill only repeated, dully: "There ain't room, Hopper. There ain't room!" and with the gait of an old man shambled to the door. When he opened it the storm shrieked in glee and rushed in, wrapping him up to the middle in its embrace. He closed the door behind him, then went stumbling off into the night, and as he crept blindly forth upon the frozen bosom of the river the bellowing wind wiped out his footprints an arm's-length at his back.
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