It had snowed during the night, but toward morning it had grown cold; now the sled-runners complained and the load dragged heavily. Folsom, who had been heaving at the handle-bars all the way up the Dexter Creek hill, halted his dogs at the crest and dropped upon the sled, only too glad of a breathing spell. His forehead was wet with sweat; when it began to freeze in his eyebrows he removed his mittens and wiped away the drops, then watched them congeal upon his fingers. Yes, it was all of thirty below, and a bad morning to hit the trail, but–Folsom’s face set itself–better thirty below in the open than the frigid atmosphere of an unhappy home.
Harkness, who had led the way up the hill, plodded onward for a time before discovering that his companion had paused; then, through the ring of hoar frost around his parka hood, he called back:
“I’ll hike down to the road-house and warm up.”
Folsom made no answer, he did not even turn his head. Taciturnity was becoming a habit with him, and already he was beginning to dislike his new partner. For that matter he disliked everybody this morning.
Below him lay the level tundra, merging indistinguishably with the white anchor-ice of Behring Sea; beyond that a long black streak of open water, underscoring the sky as if to emphasize the significance of that empty horizon, a horizon which for many months would remain unsmudged by smoke. To Folsom it seemed that the distant stretch of dark water was like a prison wall, barring the outside world from him and the other fools who had elected to stay “inside.”
Fools? Yes; they were all fools!
Folsom was a “sour-dough.” He had seen the pranks that Alaskan winters play with men and women, he had watched the alteration in minds and morals made by the Arctic isolation, and he had considered himself proof against the malice that rides the north wind–the mischief that comes with the winter nights. He had dared to put faith in his perfect happiness, thinking himself different from other men and Lois superior to other wives, wherefore he now called himself a fool!
Sprawled beside the shore, five miles away, was Nome, its ugliness of corrugated iron, rough boards, and tar paper somewhat softened by the distance. From the jumble of roofs he picked out one and centered his attention upon it. It was his roof–or had been. He wondered, with a sudden flare of wrathful indignation, if Lois would remember that fact during his absence. But he banished this evil thought. Lois had pride, there was nothing common about her; he could not believe that she would affront the proprieties. It was to spare that very pride of hers, even more than his own, that he had undertaken this adventure to the Kobuk; and now, as he looked back upon Nome, he told himself that he was acting handsomely in totally eliminating himself, thus allowing her time and freedom in which to learn her heart. He hoped that before his return she would have chosen between him and the other man.
It was too cold to remain idle long. Folsom’s damp body began to chill, so he spoke to his team and once more heaved upon the handle-bars.
Leaving the crest of the ridge behind, the dogs began to run; they soon brought up in a tangle at the road-house door. When Harkness did not appear in answer to his name Folsom entered, to find his trail-mate at the bar, glass in hand.
“Put that down!” Folsom ordered, sharply.
Harkness did precisely that, then he turned, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. He was a small, fox-faced man; with a grin he invited the new-comer to “have one.”
“Don’t you know better than to drink on a day like this?” the latter demanded.
“Don’t worry about me. I was raised on ‘hootch,'” said Harkness.
“It’s bad medicine.”
“Bah! I’ll travel further drunk than” Harkness measured his critic with an insolent eye “than some folks sober.” He commenced to warm himself at the stove, whereupon the other cried, impatiently:
“Come along. We can’t stop at every cabin.”
But Harkness was in no hurry, he consumed considerable time. When he finally followed Folsom out into the air the latter, being in a peculiarly irritable mood, warned him in a voice which shook with anger:
“We’re going to start with an understanding. If you take another drink during the daytime I’ll leave you flat.”
“Rats! How you aim to get to the Kobuk without me?” asked Harkness.
“I’ll manage somehow.”
The smaller man shot a startled glance at the speaker, then his insolence vanished. “All right, old top,” he said, easily. “But don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Remember, I promised if you’d stick to me you’d wear gold-beaded moccasins.” He set off at a trot, with the dogs following.
This fellow Harkness had come with the first snow into Nome, bearing news of a strike on the Kobuk, and despite his braggadocio he had made rather a good impression. That luck which favors fools and fakers had guided him straight to Folsom. He had appeared at a psychological moment in the latter’s affairs, two disastrous seasons having almost broken Folsom and rendered him eager to grasp at anything which promised quick returns; moreover, the latter had just had a serious quarrel with his wife. Harkness had offered a half interest in his Kobuk claims for a grubstake and a working partner, and, smarting under the unaccustomed sting of domestic infelicity, the other had accepted, feeling sure in his own mind that Lois would not let him leave her when the time came to go. But the time had come, and Lois had offered no objection. She had acted strangely, to be sure, but she had made no effort to dissuade him. It seemed as if the proposal to separate for the winter had offended rather than frightened her. Well, that was the way with women; there was no pleasing them; when you tried to do the decent thing by them they pretended to misunderstand your motives. If you paid them the compliment of utter confidence they abused it on the pretext that you didn’t love them; if you allowed your jealousy to show, they were offended at your lack of trust.
So ran the husband’s thoughts. He hoped that six months of widowhood would teach Lois her own mind, but it hurt to hit the trail with nothing more stimulating than a listless kiss and a chill request to write when convenient. Now that he was on his way he began to think of the pranks played by malicious nature during the long, dark nights, and to wonder if he had acted wisely in teaming up with this footless adventurer. He remembered the malice that rides the winter winds, the mischief that comes to Arctic widows, and he grew apprehensive.
The travelers put up that night at the Tin Road-house, a comfortless shack sheathed with flattened kerosene cans, and Folsom’s irritation at his new partner increased, for Harkness was loud, boastful, and blatantly egotistical, with the egotism that accompanies dense ignorance.
The weather held cold, the snow remained as dry as sand, so they made slow progress, and the husband had ample time to meditate upon his wrongs, but the more he considered them the less acutely they smarted him and the gentler became his thoughts of Lois. The solitudes were healing his hurt, the open air was cooling his anger.
At Kougarok City, a miserable huddle of cottonwood cabins, Harkness escaped his partner’s watchful eye and got drunk. Folsom found the fellow clinging to the bar and entertaining a crowd of loafers with his absurd boastings. In a white fury he seized the wretch, dragged him from the room, and flung him into his bunk, then stood guard over him most of the night.
It was during the quieter hours when the place rumbled to snores that Folsom yielded to his desire to write his wife, a desire which had been growing steadily. He was disgusted with Harkness, disappointed with the whole Kobuk enterprise, and in a peculiarly softened mood, therefore, he wrote with no attempt to conceal his yearning, homesick tenderness.
But when he read the letter in the morning it struck him as weak and sentimental, just the sort of letter he would regret having written if it should transpire that Lois did not altogether share his feelings. So he tore it up.
Those were the days of faint trails and poor accommodations; as yet the road to the Arctic was little traveled and imperfectly known, so Harkness acted as guide. He had bragged that he knew every inch of the country, but he soon proved that his ideas of distance were vague and faulty a serious shortcoming in a land with no food, no shelter, and no firewood except green willows in the gulch-bottoms. Folsom began to fear that the fellow’s sense of direction was equally bad, and taxed him with it, but Harkness scoffed at the idea.
Leaving the last road-house behind them, they came into a hilly section of great white domes, high hog-backs, and ramifying creeks, each one exactly like its neighbor; two days’ travel through this, according to Harkness, should have brought them to the Imnachuck, where there was food and shelter again. But when they pitched camp for the second night Folsom felt compelled to remind his partner that they were behind their schedule, and that this was the last of their grub.
“Are you sure you’re going right?” he inquired.
“Sure? Of course I’m sure. D’you think I’m lost?”
Folsom fed some twisted willow-tops into the sheet-iron stove. “I wouldn’t recommend you as a pathfinder,” said he. “You said we’d sleep out one night. This is two, and to-morrow we’ll walk hungry.”
“Well, don’t blame me!” challenged the other. “I’m going slow on your account.”
Now nothing could have galled Folsom more than a reflection upon his ability to travel. His lips whitened, he was upon the point of speaking his mind, but managed to check himself in time. Harkness’s personality rasped him to the raw, and he had for days struggled against an utterly absurd but insistent desire to seize the little coxcomb by the throat and squeeze the arrogance out of him as juice is squeezed out of a lemon. There is flesh for which one’s fingers itch.
“I notice you’re ready to camp when I am,” the larger man muttered. “Understand, this is no nice place to be without grub, for it’s liable to storm any hour, and storms last at this season.”
“Now don’t get cold feet.” Harkness could be maddeningly patronizing when he chose. “Leave it to me. I’ll take you a short cut, and we’ll eat lunch in a cabin to-morrow noon.”
But noon of the next day found Harkness still plodding up the river with the dogs close at his heels. The hills to the northward were growing higher, and Folsom’s general knowledge of direction told him that they were in danger of going too far.
“I think the Imnachuck is over there,” said he.
Harkness hesitated, then he nodded: “Right-o! It’s just over that low saddle.” He indicated a sweeping hillside ahead, and a half-mile further on he left the creek and began to climb. This was heavy work for the dogs, and mid-afternoon came before the partners had gained the summit only to discover that they were not upon a saddleback after all, but upon the edge of a vast rolling tableland from which a fanlike system of creeks radiated. In all directions was a desolate waste of barren peaks.
Folsom saw that the sky ahead was thick and dark, as if a storm impended, and realizing only too well the results of the slightest error in judgment he called to Harkness. But the latter pretended not to hear, and took advantage of the dogs’ fatigue to hurry out of earshot. It was some time before the team overhauled him.
“Do you know where you are?” Folsom inquired.
“Certainly.” Harkness studied the panorama spread before him. “That blue gulch yonder is the Imnachuck.” He pointed to a valley perhaps four miles away.
A fine snow began to sift downward. The mountain peaks to the northward became obscured as by thin smoke, the afternoon shortened with alarming swiftness. Night, up here with a blizzard brewing, was unthinkable, so after a while the driver called another halt.
“Something informs me that you’re completely lost,” he said, mildly.
“Who, me? There she is.” Harkness flung out a directing hand once more.
Folsom hesitated, battling with his leaping desires, and upon that momentary hesitation hinged results out of all proportions to the gravity of the situation issues destined to change the deepest channels of his life. Folsom hesitated, then he yielded to his impulse, and the luxury of yielding made him drunk. He walked around the sled, removing his mittens with his teeth as he went. Without a word he seized his companion by the throat and throttled him until his eyes protruded and his face grew black and bloated. He relaxed his stiff fingers finally, then he shook the fellow back to consciousness.
“Just as I thought,” he cried, harshly. “That’s not the gulch you pointed out before. You’re lost and you won’t admit it.”
Harkness pawed the air and fought for his breath. There was abject terror in his eyes. He reeled away, but saw there was no safety in flight.
“Own up!” Folsom commanded.
“You said this was the way,” the pathfinder whimpered. “You made me turn off” Folsom uttered a growl and advanced a step, whereupon his victim gurgled: “D-don’t touch me! That’s the Imnachuck, so help me God! I’m almost sure it is.”
“Almost!” The speaker stooped for his mittens and shook the snow out of them; he was still struggling to control himself. “Look here, Mr. Know-It-All, I’ve never been here before, and you have; somewhere in your thick skull there must be some faint remembrance of the country. You got us into this fix, and I’m going to give you one more chance to get us out of it. Don’t try to think with your head, let your feet think for you, and maybe they’ll carry you to the right gulch. If they don’t” Folsom scanned the brooding heavens and his lips compressed. “We’re in for a storm and we’ll never weather it. Take one look while there’s light to see by, then turn your feet loose and pray that they lead you right, for if they don’t, by God, I’ll cut you loose!”
It soon proved that memory lay neither in Harkness’s head nor in his feet; when he had veered aimlessly about for half an hour, evidently fearing to commit himself to a definite course, and when the wind came whooping down, rolling a twilight smother ahead of it, Folsom turned his dogs into the nearest depression and urged them to a run. The grade increased, soon brittle willow-tops brushed against the speeding sled: this brush grew higher as the two men, blinded now by the gale, stumbled onward behind the team. They emerged from the gulch into a wider valley, after a while, and a mile further on the dogs burst through a grove of cottonwoods and fetched up before a lighted cabin window.
Harkness pulled back his parka hood and cried, boastfully: “What did I tell you? I knew where I was all the time.” Then he went in, leaving his partner to unhitch the team and care for it.
Friendships ripen and enmities deepen quickly on the trail, seeds of discord sprout and flourish in the cold. Folsom’s burst of temper had served to inflame a mutual dislike, and as he and Harkness journeyed northward that dislike deepened into something akin to hatred, for the men shared the same bed, drank from the same pot, endured the same exasperations. Nothing except their hope of mutual profit held them together. In our careless search for cause and effect we are accustomed to attribute important issues to important happenings, amazing consequences to amazing deeds; as a matter of fact it is the trivial action, the little thing, the thing unnoticed and forgotten which bends our pathways and makes or breaks us.
Harkness was a hare-brained, irresponsible person, incapable of steadiness in thought or action, too weak to cherish actual hatred, too changeable to nurse a lasting grudge. It is with such frail instruments that prankish fate delights to work, and, although he never suspected it, the luxury of yielding to that sudden gust of passion cost Folsom dear.
Arrived finally at the Kobuk the miner examined the properties covered by his option, and impressed by the optimism of the men who had made the gold discovery he paid Harkness the price agreed upon. The deal completed, he sent the fellow back to Candle Creek, the nearest post, for supplies. Folsom’s mood had altogether changed by now, so, strangling his last doubt of Lois, he wrote her as he had written at Kougarok City, and intrusted the letter to his associate.
Harkness, promptly upon his arrival at Candle, got drunk. He stayed drunk for three days, and it was not until he was well started on his way back to the Kobuk that he discovered Folsom’s letter still in his pocket.
Now, to repeat, the man was not malicious, neither was he bad, but as he debated whether he should back-track there came to him the memory of his humiliation on the Imnachuck divide.
So! His brains were in his feet, eh? Folsom had strangled him until he kicked, when, all the time, they had been on the right trail. Harkness felt a flash of rage, like the flare of loose gunpowder, and in the heat of it he tore the letter to atoms. It was a womanish, spiteful thing to do, and he regretted it, but later when he greeted the husband he lied circumstantially and declared he had given the missive into the hands of the mail-carrier on the very hour of his departure. By this time, doubtless, it was nearly to Nome. Soon thereafter Harkness forgot all about the incident.
Folsom was a fast worker. He hired men and cross-cut the most promising claim. Bed-rock was shallow, and he soon proved it to be barren, so he went on to the next property. When he had prospected this claim with no better results than before he wrote his wife confessing doubts of the district and voicing the fear that his winter’s work would be wasted. Again he let his pen run as it would; the letter he gave to a neighbor who was leaving for Candle Creek in the morning.
Folsom’s neighbor was a famous “musher,” a seasoned, self-reliant man, thoroughly accustomed to all the hazards of winter travel, but ten miles from his destination he crossed an inch-deep overflow which rendered the soles of his muk-luks slippery, and ten yards further on, where the wind had laid the glare-ice bare, he lost his footing. He fell and wrenched his ankle and came hobbling into Candle half an hour after the monthly mail for Nome had left.
Three weeks later Folsom wrote his wife for the third time, and again a month after that. All three letters joined company in Candle Creek; for meanwhile the mailman’s lead dog had been killed in a fight with a big malamute at Lane’s Landing, causing its owner to miss a trip. Now dog-fights are common; by no logic could one attribute weighty results to the loss of a sixty-pound leader, but in this instance it so happened that the mailcarrier’s schedule suffered so that his contract was canceled.
Meanwhile, a lonely woman waited anxiously in Nome, and as the result of a stranger’s spite, a wet mukluk, and a vicious malamute her anxiety turned to bitterness and distrust.
It is never difficult to forward mail in the north, for every “musher” is a postman. When news came to Candle Creek that the Government service had been discontinued the storekeeper, one end of whose bar served as post-office, sacked his accumulated letters and intrusted them to some friends who were traveling southward on the morrow. The trader was a canny man, but he loved to gamble, so when his friends offered to bet him that they could lower the record from Candle to Nome he went out into the night, sniffed the air and studied the stars, then laid them a hundred dollars that they could not.
Excited to recklessness by this wager the volunteer mail-men cut down their load. They left their stove and tent and grub-box behind, planning to make a road-house every night except during the long jump from the Imnachuck to Crooked River. They argued that it was worth a hundred dollars to sleep once under the open sky.
The fruits of that sporting enterprise were bitter; the trader won his bet, but he never cashed it in. Somewhere out on the high barrens a storm swooped down upon the travelers. To one who has never faced an Arctic hurricane it seems incredible that strong men have died within call of cozy cabins or have frozen with the lashings of their sleds but half untied. Yet it is true. The sudden awful cold, the shouting wind, the boiling, blinding, suffocating rush of snow; the sweaty clothes that harden into jointless armor; the stiff mittens and the clumsy hands inside these tell a tale to those who know.
The two mail-carriers managed to get into their sleeping-bags, but the gale, instead of drifting them over with a protective mantle of snow, scoured the mountain-side bare to the brittle reindeer moss, and they began to freeze where they lay. Some twenty hours they stood it, then they rose and plunged ahead of the hurricane-like bewildered cattle. The strongest man gave up first and lay down, babbling of things to eat. His companion buried him, still alive, and broke down the surrounding willow-tops for a landmark, then he staggered on. By some miracle of good luck, or as a result of some unsuspected power of resistance, he finally came raving into the Crooked River Road-house. When the wind subsided they hurried him to Nome, but he was frightfully maimed and as a result of his amputations he lay gabbling until long after the spring break-up.
Folsom did not write again. In fact, when no word came from Lois, he bitterly regretted the letters he had written. He heard indirectly from her; new-comers from Nome told him that she was well, but that was all. It was enough. He did not wish to learn more.
Spring found him with barely enough money to pay his way back. He was blue, bitter, disheartened, but despite the certainty that his wife had forsaken him he still cherished a flickering hope of a reconciliation. Strangely enough he considered no scheme of vengeance upon the other man, for he was sane and healthy, and he loved Lois too well to spoil her attempt at happiness.
It so happened that the Arctic ice opened up later this spring than for many seasons; therefore the short summer was well underway before the first steam-schooner anchored off the Kobuk. Folsom turned his back upon the wreck of his high hopes, his mind solely engaged with the problem of how to meet Lois and ascertain the truth without undue embarrassment to her and humiliation to himself. The prospect of seeing her, of touching her, of hearing her voice, affected him painfully. He could neither eat nor sleep on the way to Nome but paced the deck in restless indecision. He had come to consider himself wholly to blame for their misunderstanding, and he wished only for a chance to win back her love, with no questions asked and no favors granted.
When there were less than fifty miles to go the steamer broke her shaft. There was no particular reason why that shaft should break, but break it did, and for eighteen hours eighteen eternities to Folsom the ship lay crippled while its engine-room crew labored manfully.
Folsom had been so long in the solitudes that Nome looked like a big city when he finally saw it. There were several ships in the roadstead, and one of them was just leaving as the Kobuk boat came to anchor. She made a splendid sight as she gathered way.
The returning miner went ashore in the first dory and as he stepped out upon the sand a friend greeted him:
“Hello there, old settler! Where you been all winter?”
“I’ve been to the Kobuk,” Folsom told him.
“Kobuk? I hear she’s a bum.”
“‘Bum’ is right. Maybe she’ll do to dredge someday.”
“Too bad you missed the Oregon; there she goes now.” The man pointed seaward.
“Sure! Don’t you know? Why Miz Folsom went out on her!”
Folsom halted; after a momentary pause he repeated, vaguely, “Went out?”
“Exactly. Didn’t you know she was going?”
“Oh yes of course! The Oregon!” Folsom stared at the fading plume of black smoke; there was a curious brightness in his eyes, his face was white beneath its tan. “She sailed on the Oregon and I missed her, by an hour! That broken shaft” He began to laugh, and turning his back upon the sea he plodded heavily through the sand toward the main street.
Folsom found no word from his wife, his house was empty, but he learned that “the man” had also gone to the States, and he drew his own conclusions. Since Lois had ordered her life as she saw fit there was nothing to do but wait and endure doubtless the divorce would come in time. Nevertheless, he could not think of that broken shaft without raving.
Being penniless he looked for work, and his first job came from a small Jewish merchant, named Guth, who offered him a hundred dollars to do the assessment work on a tundra claim. For twenty days Folsom picked holes through frozen muck, wondering why a thrifty person like Guth would pay good money to hold such unpromising property as this.
The claim was in sight of Nome, and as Folsom finished his last day’s labor he heard bells ringing and whistles blowing and discovered that the town was ablaze. He hurried in to find that an entire block in the business center of the city had been destroyed and with it Guth’s little store, including all its contents. He found the Jew in tears.
“What a misfortune!” wailed the merchant. “Ruined, absolutely and by a match! It started in my store my little girl, you understand? And now, all gone!” He tore his beard and the tears rolled down his cheeks.
The little man’s grief was affecting, and so Folsom inquired more gently than he intended, “I’m sorry, of course, but how about my money for the Lulu assessment?”
“Money? There’s your money!” Guth pointed sadly into the smoldering ruins. “Go find it–you’re welcome to anything I have left. Gott! What a country! How can a man get ahead, with no insurance?”
Folsom laughed mirthlessly. His hard-luck was becoming amusing and he wondered how long it would last. He had counted on that hundred dollars to get away from Nome, hoping to shake misfortune from his heels, but a match in the hands of a child, like that broken propeller shaft, had worked havoc with his plans. Well, it was useless to cry.
To the despairing Hebrew he said: “Don’t lose your grip, old man. Buck up and take another start. You have your wife and your little girl, at least, and you’re the sort who makes good.”
“You think so?” Guth looked up, grateful for the first word of encouragement he had heard.
“It’s a cinch! Only don’t lose your courage.”
“I’ll do what’s right by you, Mr. Folsom,” declared the other. “I’ll deed you a half interest in the Lulu.”
But Folsom shook his head. “I don’t want it. There’s nothing there except moss and muck and salmonberries, and it’s a mile to bed-rock. No, you’re welcome to my share; maybe you can sell the claim for enough to make a new start or to buy grub for the wife and the kid. I’ll look for another job.”
For a month or more the lonesome husband “stevedored,” wrestling freight on the lighters, then he disappeared. He left secretly, in the night, for by now he had grown fanciful and he dared to hope that he could dodge his Nemesis. He turned up in Fairbanks, a thousand miles away, and straightway lost himself in the hills.
He had not covered his tracks, however, for bad luck followed him.
Now no man starves in Alaska, for there is always work for the able-bodied; but whatever Folsom turned his hand to failed, and by and by his courage went. He had been a man of consequence in Nome; he had made money and he had handled other men, therefore his sense of failure was the bitterer.
Meanwhile, somewhere in him there remained the ghost of his faith in Lois, the faintly flickering hope that someday they would come together again. It lay dormant in him, like an irreligious man’s unacknowledged faith in God and a hereafter, but it, too, vanished when he read in a Seattle newspaper, already three months old, the announcement of his wife’s divorce. He flinched when he read that it had been won on the grounds of desertion, and thereafter he shunned newspapers.
Spring found him broke, as usual. He had become bad company and men avoided him. It amused him grimly to learn that a new strike had been made in Nome, the biggest discovery in the camp’s history, and to realize that he had fled just in time to miss the opportunity of profiting by it. He heard talk of a prehistoric sea-beach line, a streak of golden sands which paralleled the shore and lay hidden below the tundra mud. News came of overnight fortunes, of friends grown prosperous and mighty. Embittered anew, Folsom turned again to the wilderness, and he did not reappear until the summer was over. He came to town resolved to stay only long enough to buy bacon and beans, but he had lost his pocket calendar and arrived on a Sunday when the stores were closed.
Even so little a thing as the loss of that calendar loomed big in the light of later events, for in walking the streets he encountered a friend but just arrived from the Behring coast.
The man recognized him, despite his beard and his threadbare mackinaws and they had a drink together.
“I supose you heard about that Third Beach Line?” the new-comer inquired. Folsom nodded. “Well, they’ve opened it up for miles, and it’s just a boulevard of solid gold. ‘Cap’ Carter’s into it big, and so are the O’Brien boys and Old Man Hendricks. They’re lousy with pay.”
“I did the work on a tundra claim,” said Folsom; “the Lulu”
“The Lulu!” Folsom’s friend stared at him. “Haven’t you heard about the Lulu? My God! Where you been, anyhow? Why, the Lulu’s a mint! Guth is a millionaire and he made it all without turning a finger.”
Folsom’s grip on the bar-rail tightened until his knuckles were white.
“I’m telling you right, old man; he’s the luckiest Jew in the country. He let a lay to McCarthy and Olson, and they took out six hundred thousand dollars, after Christmas.”
“Guth offered me a half interest in the Lulu when his store burned and I turned it down. He’s never paid me for that assessment work.”
The Nomeite was speechless with amazement. “The son-of-a-gun!” he said, finally. “Well, you can collect now. Say! That’s what he meant when he told me he wanted to see you. Guth was down to the boat when I left, and he says: ‘If you see Folsom up river tell him to come back. I got something for him.’ Those were his very words. That little Jew aims to pay you a rotten hundred so you won’t sue him for interest. By Gorry, I wouldn’t take it! I’d go back and make him do the right thing. I’d sue him. I’d bust him in the nose! A half interest in the Lulu! My God!” The speaker gulped his drink hastily.
After consideration, Folsom said: “He’ll do the right thing. Guth isn’t a bad sort.”
“No. But he’s a Jew; trust him to get his.”
“I wouldn’t ask him to do more than pay his debt. You see I refused his offer.”
“What of that? I’d give it a try, anyhow, and see if he wouldn’t settle. There’s lots of lawyers would take your case. But say, that’s the toughest tough-luck story I ever heard. You’ve sure got a jinx on you.”
“I’m going back, but I won’t sue Guth. I’m sick of Alaska; it has licked me. I’m going out to God’s country.”
Folsom indeed acknowledged himself beaten. The narrow margin by which he had missed reward for his work and his hardships bred in him such hatred for Alaska that he abruptly changed his plans. He had no heart, perversity had killed his courage. It exasperated him beyond all measure to recall what little things his luck had hinged upon, what straws had turned his feet. A moment of pique with Lois, a broken piece of steel, a match, a momentary whim when Guth offered him payment. It was well that he did not know what part had been played by his quarrel with Harkness, that wet mukluk, that vicious lead dog, and the storekeeper’s wager.
Folsom carried cord-wood to pay for a deck passage downriver. He discovered en route that Guth had really tried to get in touch with him, and in fact appeared greatly concerned over his failure to do so, for at Tanana he received another message, and again at St. Michaels. He was grimly amused at the little Jew’s craftiness, yet it sorely offended him to think that anyone should consider him such a welcher. He had no intention of causing trouble, for he knew he had no legal claim against the fellow, and he doubted if he possessed even a moral right to share in the Lulu’s riches. To play upon the Hebrew’s fears, therefore, savored of extortion. Nevertheless, he was in no agreeable frame of mind when he arrived at his destination and inquired for Guth.
The new-made millionaire was in his office; Folsom walked in unannounced. He had expected his arrival to create a scene, and he was not disappointed. But Guth’s actions were strange, they left the new arrival dazed, for the little man fell upon him with what appeared to be exuberant manifestations of joy.
“Mr. Folsom!” he cried. “You have come! You got my letters, eh? Well, I wrote you everywhere, but I was in despair, for I thought you must be dead. Nobody knew what had become of you.”
“I got your message in Fairbanks.”
“You heard about the Lulu, eh? Gott! She’s a dandy.”
“Yes. I can hardly believe it. So, you’re rich. Well, I congratulate you, and now I can use that hundred.”
Guth chuckled. “Ha! You will have your joke, eh? But the Lulu is no joke. Come, we will go to the bank; I want them to tell you how much she has yielded. You’ll blame me for leasing her, but how was I to know what she was?”
“I–Why should I blame” Folsom stared at the speaker. “It’s none of my business what the Lulu has yielded. In fact, I’ll sleep better if I don’t know.”
Little Guth paused and his mouth opened. After a moment he inquired, curiously: “Don’t you understand?” There was another pause, then he said, quietly, “I’m a man of my word.”
Folsom suddenly saw black, the room began to spin, he passed his hand across his eyes. “Wait! Let’s get this straight,” he whispered.
“It is all very simple,” Guth told him. “We are equal partners in the Lulu we have been, ever since the day my store burned. It was a little thing you said to me then, but the way you said it, the fact that you didn’t blame me, gave me a new heart. Did you think I’d renig?” When Folsom found no answer the other nodded slowly. “I see. You probably said, ‘That Guth is a Jew and he’ll do me up if he can.’ Well, I am a Jew, yes, and I am proud of it; but I am an honest man, too, like you.”
Folsom turned to the wall and hid his face in the crook of his arm, but with his other hand he groped for that of the Hebrew.
The story of the Lulu is history now; in all the north that mine is famous, for it made half a dozen fortunes. In a daze, half doubting the reality of things, Folsom watched a golden stream pour into his lap. All that winter and the next summer the Lulu yielded wondrously, but one of the partners was not happy, his thoughts being ever of the woman who had left him. Prosperity gave him courage, however, and when he discovered that Lois had not remarried he determined to press his luck as a gambler should.
When the second season’s sluicing was over and the ground had frozen he went outside.
The day after he sailed Lois arrived in Nome, on the last boat. She was older, graver; she had heard of the Lulu, but it was not that which had brought her back. She had returned in spite of the Lulu to solve an aching mystery and to learn the why of things. Her husband’s riches she still considered him her husband merely made the task more trying.
Advised that Folsom had passed almost within hailing distance of her, she pressed her lips together and took up her problem of living. The prospect of another lonely Alaskan winter frightened her, and yet because of the Lulu she could not return by the ship she had come on. Now that Folsom was a Croesus she could not follow him too closely he might misunderstand. After all, she reflected, it mattered little to her where she lived.
Guth called at her cabin, but she managed to avoid seeing him, and somehow continued to avoid a meeting.
Late in December some travelers from Candle Creek, while breaking a short cut to the head of Crooked River, came upon an abandoned sled and its impedimenta. Snow and rain and the summer sun had bleached its wood, its runners were red streaks of rust, its rawhide lashings had been eaten off, but snugly rolled inside the tarpaulin was a sack of mail. This mail the travelers brought in with them, and the Nome newspapers, in commenting upon the find, reprinted the story of that tragic fight for life in the Arctic hurricane, now almost forgotten.
Folsom’s three letters reached their destination on Christmas Day. They were stained and yellow and blurred in places, for they were three years old, but the woman read them with eyes wide and wondering, and with heart-beats pounding, for it seemed that dead lips spoke to her. Ten minutes later she was standing at Guth’s door, and when he let her in she behaved like one demented. She had the letters hidden in her bosom, and she would not let him see them, but she managed to make known the meaning of her coming.
“You know him,” she cried, hysterically. “You made him rich. You’ve lived alongside of him. Tell me then, has he has he changed? These letters are old. Does he still care, or does he hate me, as he should?”
Guth smiled; he took her shaking hands in his, his voice was gentle. “No, no! He doesn’t hate you. He has never mentioned your name to me, or to anyone else, so far as I know, but his money hasn’t satisfied him. He is sad, and he wants you. That is what took him to the States, I’m sure.”
Lois sank into a chair, her face was white, her twisting fingers strained at each other. “I can’t understand. I can’t make head or tail of it,” she moaned. “It seems that I wronged him, but see what ruin he has made for me! Why? Why?”
“Who can understand the ‘why’ of anything?” inquired the little Hebrew. “I’ve heard him curse the perversity of little things, and rave at what he called the ‘malice of the north wind.’ I didn’t dare to ask him what he meant, but I knew he was thinking of the evil which had come between you two. Who was to blame, or what separated you, he never told me. Well, his bad luck has changed, and yours, too; and I’m happy. Now then, the wireless. You can talk to him. Let us go.”
An hour later a crackling message was hurled into the empty Christmas sky, a message that pulsed through the voids, was relayed over ice and brine and drifted forests to a lonely, brooding man three thousand miles away.
The answer came rushing back:
“Thank God! Am starting north tomorrow. Love and a million kisses. Wait for me.”
Folsom came. Neither ice nor snow, neither winter seas nor trackless wastes, could daunt him, for youth was in his heart and fire ran through his veins. North and west he came by a rimy little steamer, as fast as coal could drive her, then overland more than fifteen hundred miles. His record stands unbroken, and in villages from Katmai to the Kuskokwim the Indians tell of the tall white man with the team of fifteen huskies who raced through as if a demon were at his heels; how he bored headlong into the blizzards and braved January’s fiercest rage; how his guides dropped and his dogs died in their collars. That was how Folsom came.
He was thin and brown, the marks of the frost were bitten deep into his flesh when, one evening in early March, he drove into Nome. He had covered sixty miles on the last day’s run, and his team was staggering. He left the dogs in their harnesses, where they fell, and bounded through the high-banked streets to Lois’s cabin.
It was growing dark, a light gleamed from her window; Folsom glimpsed her moving about inside. He paused to rip the ice from his bearded lips, then he knocked softly, three times.
As he stood there a gentle north wind fanned him. It was deadly cold, but it was fresh and clean and vastly invigorating. There was no malice in it.
At his familiar signal he heard the clatter of a dish, dropped from nerveless fingers, he heard a startled voice cry out his name, then he pressed the latch and entered, smiling.
Written by Rex Ellingwood Beach