by Elizabeth Robins
Robins conceived this story in 1901 as the first of her "Yukon Sketches." The episodes grew in scope to a full-length novel based on her brother Raymond's voyage up the Yukon River in the winter of 1897-8 to reach the gold fields in the Klondike. The story was thus part of her original plan for what became The Magnetic North (1904), the first novel she published under her own name. When she realized the book was too long for publication, she cut it drastically and removed this chapter, which was published separately in the May 1905 Century Magazine, pages 19-30, and reprinted in The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (1920).
Hypertext edition is copyrighted Joanne E. Gates and is based on the collected edition in The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1920). Pages 127-165.
Two men had lost their way in the Yukon trail, in a snow-storm. More serious still, the sun-dried salmon upon which they fed their dogs--in lean times like these, themselves, to boot--was well-nigh exhausted.
By ten o'clock on that wild March morning, the snow was falling so thick they couldn't see the river bank, even on the nearer side. But what they did see, about that time, was a couple of Indians, with rifles, coming down the river, bringing unconsciously a false ray of hope.
"How do!" called out the younger of the two white travellers. "Where you goin'?"
The answer unintelligible.
"Is this only a slough," asked the older man, "or is it the Yukon?"
The last word, at all events, conveyed something to the natives. They pointed in the direction from which they had come, uttering a string of explosive syllables.
"And where did you say you were goin'?"
They repeated gutturally those first clicking sounds, bristling with sharply aspirated k's.
"Where can we get fish--like this on your sled? Fish. Hey? Where get?"
Whether they understood or not, they nodded. One of them, pointing back the way they had come, added, after a volley of harsh consonants, a word that sounded like "Cut-off."
"Oh, that's the portage to their village. And what river's this?" The boy made a sweeping gesture up and down the frozen highway, saying hopefully: "Yukon?"
Simultaneously the Indians shook their heads, and exploded a reply.
"Hey? Wait! Not so fast! What's this river?"
Again the long word like a missile ending in "cóckett" and the Indians went on, looking back through the snow, nodding encouragingly as the white men took up their trail.
"Do you suppose it ever stops snowing in this country?" asked Burnet by and by.
"Begin to doubt it," said the elder man.
"If it goes on like this, in an hour we'll lose even this trail, which probably is the wrong trail."
"Any old trail's good enough for me."
Both had the highest opinion of it in that moment when it brought them in sight of an Indian village.
They had not wintered in Alaska without discovering that the inland aborigines, like the Eskimos of the coast, crave nothing so much at the hands of the white man as intoxicants, preferably "hootch," the deadly home-brewed liquor of the North. Nevertheless, Colonel Warren and young Burnet had hitherto encountered no insuperable difficulty in keeping their original trading staples, sugar and tea (the copper and small silver coin of the country), and tobacco, next in value in native eyes to the pure gold of gin. But at this particular village, in response to the white men's demand for moose meat or ptarmigan in exchange for tea, the native shook their heads, coughed, and whined "hootch," as if nothing else on earth would tempt them to part with even a portion of their game. The travellers cut short the parley by buying a small quantity of inferior fish, leaving the more important negotiation till they should have had some sort of meal, however frugal, and a night's rest in one of the miserable huts.
They woke to hear the fire crackling in front of the bearskin curtain that did duty for door, and to smell an agreeable mingling of the aroma of salmon and tea.
The brown men were finishing breakfast.
With the exception of one, who every now and then punctured his coughing by a feeble enquiry: "Hootch?" they manifested very
little interest in their guests, until Colonel Warren displayed his tobacco. Then their eagerness became rather painful, as eagerness on the part of the stolid is apt to be.
Yes, yes, they should all have some, said, the white man; let them bring out their meat, their game and flour.
He tried to supplement this demand by pantomime, but it seemed singularly difficult to make them understand. In addition to the winter stock of game in their caches, they must have trading-post supplies as well, for they were dressed in denim.
"What's the nearest white man's camp?" asked Warren.
"Where do you buy clothes?" How do you get this?" Young Burnet pointed to the frying-pan.
The master of the hut, frowning, took the pan up, and laid it down on its face as if it were somehow in disgrace.
"What's he mean by that?"
The others, crouched by the fire, devoured the tobacco with their eyes, but to the strangers' words and gestures having reference to provender in return, only blinked and were dumb.
"They're waiting till we bring out the whiskey, devil take them!" observed the elder man. He began to pack away the tea and tobacco in the sleeping-bag. The cough-
ing round the fire was punctuated by despairing grunts. An old squaw went out and came back with two little dried fish, for which she received a measure of tea and a leaf of tobacco, whereupon a man disappeared and returned with a single fish.
"But meat is what we want--caribou, moose, rabbits."
The entire company blinked, coughed, and waited.
"This is the stupidest lot I ever struck," said the younger of the travellers. "Let's go out and talk to the others."
Not snowing, for a wonder, but the clouds hung low and a heaviness was in the air. In the grey light of early morning the village looked even more desolate than in the evening shadows and the firelight.
A band of lean and mangy curs, occasionally pausing to give battle, were being chased about by the white men's wolf-dogs.
In the huts, forlorn figures, hardly human, huddled round the fires.
"Hootch?" enquired one or two, as the strangers looked in. But they asked for supreme happiness much as other men do, hardly expecting it, and meaning to take a lesser if it come.
Colonel Warren drew some "Black Jack" out of his pocket. No one was sick, or so old, or so young, that the eye did not brighten at the sight of "tabak." But, when asked about
something besides fish to put in the belly, they returned only the same grim looks and slow head-shakings.
It was then that the travellers, out of patience, marched boldly on the caches--climbed up, looked in, stopped aghast. Empty--all empty! It was from famine, then, that those Indians on the trail were fleeing. And these had stayed behind only because they had not strength to go. Famine and Disease were masters of the camp.
The white men stopped to examine a sled, but, like the others lying about, this was as dilapidated as their own. Only the birchbark canoes, lifted high on crossed poles, seemed in decent condition. These boatracks, and the raised platforms where the natives kept their harness, fishing-tackle, and skins, were all together, off to one side, a stone's throw from the huts.
The white men, ready to start, but still debating in which direction, strolled over to look at a three-holed bidarki, laid keel up, on the biggest of the driftwood platforms.
"These people have been prosperous enough before this winter."
"Lots can say the same," was the dejected answer, as Burnet moved farther away to look at the only kyak he remembered seeing up the river. This one was evidently old, but ingeniously ornamented with beluga teeth, and bits of ivory carved into crows' heads.
"How they can live in such wretchedness--fellas who can turn out a piece o' work like this?" The Colonel was still examining the admirably made bidarki. Not rivet, not a scrap of metal, in the whole adroit combination of wood and hide and sinew. Here and there, half-buried in the snow about the platforms, were rude wooden masks, such as are worn at native feasts. Was it possible that such a people had ever danced? Perhaps their fathers had; and these, their sorrowful children, in sight of the evidence of better days, stood with heavy looks and down-hung heads, as if rebuked by the memory of the skill and the merry-making of their sires.
The white man has not even set these people on his map, but they shivered in the white man's cheap cotton, having bartered their costly furs. White traders and prospectors have slaughtered caribou by the heard, and left them to rot on the hills. Those that escape are scared away by the white man's steamers. Very necessary that some of the Indians should find their way to the nearest trading post. Lacking the wild meat their fathers flourished on, they would buy or beg a little flour, and come back here to die. There is no commoner story in the North.
On the same platform with the bidarki, half under the snow, was a long narrow roll, wrapped in a finely woven grass mat and a bit of old sail; beyond that--
"A sled! Yes, sir, a tip-topper!" It was overlaid with paddles, boat-hooks, throwing-stick, etc., but they pulled it down, dumped out what snow the wind had left along with fishing tackle, floats, decoys, and various unknown objects, joyfully agreeing there was "nothing the matter with this sled, anyhow."
"Did you notice what was wrapped in the long bundle?" enquired the Colonel, briskly. As Burnet laid his hand on the crisply frozen grass mat, a commotion in the camp made him turn his head. Several Indians were running towards the white men with sharp cries and angry gesticulations.
The strangers stared. "It's all right," they called out, "whatever we take, we pay!"
"Heap tabak," Burnet assured them.
But it was obvious that by means of a telegraphy invisible, some stirring news had spread. Other groups were converging toward the first; even the sick and old came running as if for life. The very dogs forgot fish and private feuds, and followed their masters, howling. The little huts yawned, and out came more people than they could hold--like a thousand yards of ribbon from a conjurer's hat. On they came, screaming, crying, catching up sticks on the way, menacing the white men as they gathered round.
"What the devil's the matter with you?"
But they only seized hold of the sled,
feverishly pulling it away from the white man's reluctant hands, pushing the strangers back from the platform, and screaming abuse above the howling of the dogs.
"They've gone clean crazy," said the Colonel. He pulled out some Black Jack, and waved it over their heads; but the Black Jack spell was broken.
The white men, trying to resist the pressure without aggravating it to the pitch of actual violence, had worked round the bidarki platform rather than away from it. At the bow of the big boat they lifted up their eyes and understood. Under the woven mat the sail-cloth wrapping on the bundle by the bidarki was weather-worn, worm-eaten, rotted; a tuft of coarse black hair stirred in the sluggish wind. The bidarki platform was a grave.
"We didn't know--"
But it was no use. With looks of unappeased horror, the stronger of the natives pushed the strangers farther away, and more roughly now as they saw no resistance was offered. Others, still chattering abuse, restored the sled to the corpse, and carefully put back the floats, decoys, and things. Then they joined the rest in chasing the white men out of camp.
* * * *
The winter dark had yielded. No matter
now if the snow would not bear at midday. It was light enough to keep the trail at any hour, if only they could find it, and each night's newly iced-over surface made splendid going. Instead of the eight or ten miles a day they had made at the beginning, nightly now they could cover from thirty to forty miles. So they refused to lose heart.
They woke up that second afternoon after their ignominious exit from the last settlement, to find it still clear and warm.
"Well, it is April, all but a day or two."
"Oh, but like April down below--in God's country."
The Colonel got a fire going, and, just as they were sitting down to a meal, four men with a dog-team came labouring along last night's trail.
Young Burnet shouted out such a welcome that the Colonel nearly dropped the fish in the fire.
"Somebody you know?"
"No," said Burnet; "but I'm glad, good and plenty, all the same."
"Oh, yes," agreed the Colonel, shielding his eyes from the snow-glare, and watching the approach. "It's queer how brotherly you feel towards any old white man you meet in this blasted country."
"Where is this?"
"Where is what?"
"This camp o' yours?"
"Ask me an easy one."
The two white men in advance looked blank; the cordiality of their greeting faded.
"Do you mean you don't know where you are?"
"That's about the size of it."
"And we've been plodding along your trail only to--"
"To help us eat a fish dinner," said the Colonel. "Walk in, and make yourselves miserable."
"Give us the fish for our dogs. We've run out. But we've got moose." Indeed, their larder was nothing short of princely, in a trailman's eyes, and all they lacked was fish. The Indians of the party were coast natives, who had come up the river with a trader last season, and were fabled to know the trail. They had lost that article some time before, and hoped they had found it at last.
"No, Suh. You've only found two other fellas who've lost it."
When the dogs were satisfied--no, no husky worthy of the name is ever satisfied--but after each of the new dogs was given his fish, masters and Indians sat down together, and ate as only men on the trail are able. And the white men made friends, and told,
man-fashion, the exterior and comparatively unimportant facts of their history, and talked about the country and its prospects, meaning their own.
Nathan Black, the elder of the two white strangers, believed there was a great future for Minook, as behoved a newly appointed A.C. agent for Rampart City. He was on his way, with a couple of natives, from that point to St. Michaels, for the purpose of reporting to the Company and arranging for supplies. His young cheechako friend was also on his was on his way to St. Michaels, for the purpose of taking the first boat back to the States. He had come in ("in" is always the frozen North; "out" is just the rest of the world)--he had come in with a middle-aged partner, who, like himself, had left a good salaried position in Washington, hoping to gratify the ambition of a wife and daughters, "who wanted to go to Europe!" said the young Washingtonian with scorn unlimited. "I was with poor Steele when he bought his ticket. He turned to me, and, says he: 'I feel as if this is really their passage across the Atlantic that I'm buying!' It was really his own across the Styx, poor devil. They may not get to Europe, but he's got to heaven."
The young man nodded.
"Under the snow, on a hillside at Rampart.
And his wife and daughters think he's digging out gold by the bucketful, and are deciding what they'll wear to go to Court in."
It was agreed they could not travel till night, so they stretched themselves on the A.C. agent's magnificent furs, and lit their pipes.
"I'd like to take home some skins if I can get anything as good as this," said the Colonel.
"Hard to find in these times. The Indians are getting so almighty greedy."
"What did this cost you?"
"Ah, this happens to be a bargain." He laughed. "You couldn't get this in the States for two hundred dollars. I got it from a squaw who'd taken a fancy to a golf cap I was wearing. But, as a rule, they make you pay. Think what it must have been in the old Russian days! Why, a man could make a fortune in a single summer's trading."
"Swoppin' old caps for two-hundred dollar bearskins?" But the agent was proof against the edge in the Colonel's voice.
"Yes, caps, and beads, and knives, and rum, and guns. But, even in the early A.C. days, only twenty years ago, a beaver skin was the standard of value. One 'made beaver' was worth two shillings, or four bits, or two marten skins. Think of it! And you got the very finest kind of otter for a bunch of Chersatsky tobacco. The store-
houses up here were literally bursting with valuable furs that cost next to nothing. But it's mere chance nowadays whether you can pick up a really good thing for--"
"For a golf cap--ye-es."
The agent was absorbed in some amusing recollection. "I did know a fellow once, up on Kotzebue, who got twenty silver foxes for ten of those little tin tags they fasten on plug tobacco." He chuckled delightedly, and then fell grave. "But, Lord! the times are changed. You're lucky now if they don't palm off marmot on you for pup-wolf."
Young Burnet had jumped up to look for matches. No, he waved away the agent's offer; he'd find his own box. During the hunt a girl's photograph fell out upon the snow. The agent grinned.
"That's my sister."
He laughed the more, and they fell to talking about woman forsooth, much as though each sat in the cavernous comfort of any armchair at the club, with leisure and luxury to tempt them to unprofitable themes.
The Colonel and the A.C. agent, being men of experience, spoke with less confidence than the young man from Washington, who dealt somewhat haughtily with the Sex.
"In civilisation," said he, "we forget or we pretend we forget that woman is really an inferior creature."
"Oh, oh!" interrupted the Colonel, who in another age would have been a knight-errant.
"What has Woman ever done?" demanded the young gentleman from the capital.
"Why, several things," said the Colonel--"not to mention bringing you here."
"Yes," said the A.C. agent, "she manages to put through the little job of keeping the race going."
"Oh, that," answered the young stranger; "that's the last achievement she takes any stock in. What with her rights, and her colleges, and her clothes, and her caprices--ah! I've longed many a time since I came up here for one or two spoiled darlings I know of--"
"Oh, oh, he longs for spoiled darlings!"
"That's all a man means when he rails against woman."
When he could make himself heard above their laughter, he said:
"I've longed to have one or two of them--"
"--who think men are made for them to wipe their feet on--I'd just like 'em to come out to the Yukon, and see what woman is really like--primitive woman, before we set her up on a pedestal and pretended she was as good as we are."
"Well, I'd like 'em to see how the noble red man looks at the matter. No nonsense about the equality of woman when you get down to the bed-rock of nature. For men who lead the life of nature, woman is the proper person to fetch, and carry, and do the dirty work, while the nobler animal cultivates manly sports, and sits in council around the Kachime fire, when he isn't making war on other men. Now, hang sentiment! Isn't that the fact?"
"Indian women often have a bad time," admitted the Colonel; "but, then, so do Indian men."
"Keep to the point. All I'm saying is that the natural man looks down on woman, and treats her accordingly. No natural woman ever dreams of making a protest. She knows she is inferior, and she accepts the lower lot. When I think of the monstrous pretensions of our women--" His thoughts seems to beggar language; he stared frowning at the blue smoke curling up from the fire.
"You, too!" mused the Colonel, smiling, but without further explaining himself.
"The Indian," pursued the young gentleman, "even the converted Indian, can't believe his wife's got a soul. With us, the women seem to think the men haven't."
"I reckon you've been pretty hard hit," said the Colonel.
The A.C. agent stretched his cramped legs, and gave it as his opinion that: "Anyhow, our women have got more gumption about some things than we have."
"What, for instance?"
"They know when they're well off. They've got the sense to stay at home."
"Not all of them," said the Colonel.
"Not a bit of it," pursued the young man from Washington." That, too--that same 'home keeping'--is fast becoming an antique virtue, fading out of use."
"Well," protested the agent, "they've got more sense than to go on the trail."
The Colonel shook his head. "The difference seems to be that when once a woman goes on the trail, she doesn't come back. Now I shall go back. We'll all of us--bar accidents--go back. I shall settle down on the farm there, in Jefferson County, Kentucky, and raise stock, just as my grandfather did. Yes," he said quite low to Burnet, as the two guests sprang up to thrash their dogs for stealing fish--"yes, Boy, that's the difference. I shall go back. I don't believe she ever will."
"Reckon you'll find her, down there in Kentucky, when you go back next summer with your Klondyke gold mine."
The Colonel shook his head: "She's lived in foreign places ten years, now--Paris, Vienna, Rome. No, she won't ever come
back to the Blue Grass Country. They don't--not the women."
* * * *
The travellers were a good deal disgusted when, as they were breaking camp that evening, it came on to snow again, and they had to put in another night where they were. The chief anxiety was that the dog-fish had given out.
The following evening was clear, and, although the day had been too warm for the thawed and soppy snow to harden quickly into a good surface, the going was possible to dogs thoroughly rested and sharp-set for supper. Besides, it was bound to get better as the dusk came on. The party had not gone two miles when they saw moving along the ridge above, nearly parallel with them, a welcome spectacle--three human figures and a dog-team. They shouted and signalled, left their own dogs to rest, and toiled up the steep.
Two Indians, and, oddly enough, a squaw, young, and not ill-looking, stood waiting their approach.
"Where you goin'?" the white men asked.
"Goin' Monica's Village."
"You Monica?" Burnet asked the Indian girl. Whereat she laughed, and shook her head, and looked at her two companions as if they must appreciate a notion so droll.
"Who is Monica?"
"Oh--Monica--" The elder of the men looked serious, but unequal to so great a task of elucidation.
They pointed over the ridge. "Six miles," said one.
"You belong there?"
"Where you been?"
He pointed back, vaguely.
"Huntin' caribou, settin' traps?"
The Indian nodded.
He shook his head.
What you got there?
"I see; left over. We'll take it."
"No, no take--"
"Oh, yes, we pay; good price."
"No, you come Monica's Village."
"We are coming Monica's Village. We buy heap fish there, too."
But the Indians were moving on.
"Stop! I want that fish." It would be absurd to repeat their last mistake and let fish pass them on the trail. Burnet pointed down the slope. "Dogs hungry."
The Indians shook their heads, and told their own well-conditioned beasts to "mush,"calling back: "No far Monica's Village."
For all the white men could do in the way of showing big silver dollars and threatening looks, nothing would make the Indians wait till the white men could bring up their team, or make them part with the good store of fish they were willfully carrying back to a well-stocked camp. Horrible thought! Was there famine in Monica's Village?
"No, no; Monica got heap fish," they called back.
It was a mystery.
"I never heard of their _________ village," said the A.C. agent, "but then, I'm new to these parts. So are my men; they can't even speak the up-river language."
"It doesn't sound a natural name for any Indian village. They're trying to jolly us!" said Burnet, and his hand travelled under his parki round to his pistol pocket. "I've a notion to hold 'em up."
The Colonel stayed his action, and called after the Indians: "Is this village of yours on the Yukon?"
"No, on, the Koyukuk Slough."
"Ah, that accounts for it--thought it must be off the highway. Funny name, though."
The white men went down and brought the hungry dogs as quickly as they could up to the Indians' trail; but the three natives were out of sight.
The young gentleman from Washington,
remembering the account of the Nulato Massacre of half a century before, had doubts about the wisdom of going to Monica's in the land of the Koyukuks. But the others guyed him, and he relapsed into silence, after quoting the dark saying of the old chief, whose second daughter had been decoyed from home by a Russian official: "The salmon shall have blood to drink before they go back to the sea."
Keeping to the fresh trail, they heard by and by in the dusk the howling of dogs, that invariable chorus announcing a native settlement. Instead of pushing on to the Kachime, the travellers stopped at the first little hut on the outskirts of the village, walked in, and demanded to buy fish; for, although tired enough with wading through the sticky, clogging snow, and hungry as a pack of huskies, men up here don't eat before they feed their dogs.
A smoke-dried, wrinkled squaw, looking like a painfully thin and aged monkey, was squatting over a fire, warming a heterogeneous mess in an old lard can. There were some children huddled on one side of the fire, and the air as usual was nauseous. The old hag signed to the white men to sit down.
"No, no, buy fish."
She shook her head.
"Yes, buy fish; dogs hungry."
"Go Monica," said the crone, seeming to mean to bear them company.
"But you sell fish."
"Yes," she repeated, not seeming, as they thought, to understand: "go Monica."
"Blow Monica! You got plenty fish here," pointing to the bunches hung up, dried, and blackened. She shook her head, muttering, "Monica." Just then the pot-au-feu boiled over, and she rushed to the rescue. Her visitors turned away in a rage, jingling their unavailing silver, and expecting she would run after them; but, as they looked back, before crouching to get out, they saw her, imperturbable, stirring the mess in the lard can with a stick, while the brown children scrambled out of their corner knowing the blissful moment had arrived. The white men knew, too, by experience, that they might have shared in it had they the desire--and the courage. But first of all, fish for the famished dogs. They drove them into the village. It was more of a place than any native settlement they had seen.
"It can't be an Indian village," said Burnet, remembering the squalid settlements they had passed, and that last one, worst of all, where the sick and starving kept watch by the dead.
"No. More like a trading post."
Near a little group of log cabins a young Indian was unharnessing his team.
Before the Colonel recognised him he called out: "You sell fish?"
"Yes. Now?" enquired the Indian.
"Yes; now!" roared the Colonel, seeing it was the man who had refused them in the afternoon.
"All right; you come." He adjusted the harness, and began to drive the dogs farther up the village.
"What the hell are you up to?"
"You've got it there!"
"Monica no like I sell. Come," he beckoned vigorously; "no far."
"Hungry as I am, I'd defer dinner for the pleasure of wringing Monica's neck," remarked Burnet. "I say, Colonel, you and the others go on to the Kachime, and hustle the grub. I'll go with this beggar and see about the fish."
"See about Monica, too, while you're about it."
"Trust me!" said Burnet.
He caught up with the Indian, and then stopped in a sudden surprise before a double log-house, solidly built, of workmanlike finish, and with a light of unusual brilliancy, for this country, flashing from its windows.
"Windows! Glass! Whew!" Burnet whistled. "Big chief live there?" he asked, expecting to hear: "No, white trader."
But the Indian answered: "Monica, she live here."
Ah, ha! Monica at last! Pricked on by
his sense of accumulated injury, Burnet forestalled his slow-moving guide, and sprang forward to open the door as is everywhere the custom here, without knock or preamble.
But, behold! Monica had not only light and glass windows. She had something still more strange to come upon in an Indian village--a lock or bar to her door!
Burnet's anger at her blazed anew. The idea of a squaw setting up style like this! And he indulged much the same scorn that his grandfather would have manifested, catching one of his plantation niggers wearing a silk dress with a court train.
He knocked at the barred door loudly--knocked as youth knocks when it is out of patience. But not instantly was Monica's door thrown wide. He pounded with his sealskin mittened fists, and stamped with cold, or anger, or both, on the log before the door.
"Heap hurry! Heap cold!" he cried to the squaw within. "You no mush. I no wait--buy heap fish!" Again he battered with his fists. "Mush, Monica! Mush!"
The door was unbarred.
He caught his breath. A tall woman stood there, with an air of majesty that struck his impatience silent. He lifted his eyes from the stunted level of the squaw he had expected to the unusual height of this figure, slight, erect, holding up a candle, whose rays
fell on a mass of heavy white hair, and turned it, glittering, to silver--fell on the abashed face of the traveller as he stammered:
"I . . . I want buy dog-fish."
She looked keenly at the figure standing there, and, whether it was that most of the few white men knocking at that door were older or more graceless, certain it was the stern face softened. A slight inclination of the white-crowned head, and she turned away and set the candle down--on a dresser!
Burnet followed her in. He looked wondering at the only chest of drawers he had seen since leaving San Francisco, at the austere seemliness of a big room furnished with all needful things, carpeted with costly rugs, and lighted lavishly by candles burning in carved candlesticks of walrus ivory.
The Indian stood at the door, but deferentially, not entering. Burnet looked again at the tall woman, lost in wonder as to how a squaw came by those high Roman features and that imperial air. Half-breed, of course, he said to himself, and dropped with "Thank you" into the chair she motioned him to, by the fire, staring at her the while, with a frank curiosity. But when, seeming to resent, for some reason, the admiring wonder of the young stranger, the steely eyes turned sharply upon him, they forced, unexpectedly, an apology out.
"Heap tired," he said, to minimise the
rudeness of the assault on the door. He pulled off his sealskin mittens and held out his hands to the generous fire. "Me come Innuit country," he pointed westward. "Heap far--more than a moon--more than thirty sleeps away," and he held up the fingers of both his hands and dropped them three times, to indicate Indian fashion that he had been a month on the trail. "Dogs heap hungry."
"It's a bad time to travel," she said; "you should have started earlier or waited for the ice to go out."
Burnet stared. Her English was unimpeachable. Few white men in that country spoke as purely.
"Oh," he said frankly, "I--I didn't know. I ought to have known just to look at you."
"Come in, Antoshka," she said to the Indian, and added something in his own tongue. He came inside and shut the door, still standing over there, away from the fire. They held a short colloquy.
"He can let you have eight dog-salmon to-night for three dollars.
"Oh, no, that's too much."
"Too much fish?"
"Too much mun."
"It is not too much, she said, in a tone that made him ashamed of his slang; "it is fair."
"But we bought sixteen salmon at Kaltag for eighty cents."
"Very likely," and there was something curious in the low voice, and thereafter silence in the room. Then, piercing him with a sudden scrutiny, she said: "Would you rather trade?"
She shrugged. "Depends upon what you have; they need sugar here."
"I've come a long way. I've only got what I need now," he answered shortly. Silence again.
"You don't look like the sort of person who drifts into this country penniless."
Burnet flung up his head.
"I can afford to pay a reasonable price," he said, unreasonably angry, although he felt sure that, had he said he was "short," and had he made her believe it, he would get easier terms.
"We've never been asked more than forty cents apiece all along the river--and usually five. Why"--waxing indignant--" just below you here on the Yukon they gave my partner six king-salmon for a quid of tobacco."
"Yes," she assented, and her eyes were not pleasant to meet; "it's an old story for the white man to take advantage of the Indian."
"It wasn't taking advantage," he burst out, hot to his ear-tips; "he wanted the tobacco more than he did the fish. Now, look here, there are two parties of us and we
want a lot. I'll give five dollars for twenty full-sized salmon."
"This man can only sell you eight, and they will cost you three dollars."
"I don't think I'm goin' to pay more than I need."
"You can't buy for less in this village."
"How do you know?"
"Well, try." She turned away, and took a thief out of the nearest candle.
"Hm! Well, I'll buy enough at your price to feed our dogs to-night," said Burnet, reading aright the woman's unyielding aspect, "and I'll make better terms in the morning."
She said something to the Indian, who merely nodded.
"He will take the fish to the Kachime, if you like. Pay him here."
Burnet opened his eyes.
"Before he delivers the goods?"
"You can trust him," she said shortly.
"But he can't trust me, eh?" Burnet returned with a flash.
"The Indian has not always found the white man as good as his word."
"I've never taken advantage of him." The traveller lifted his head proudly. A peculiar expression crossed the fine, dark face in front of him, and the whole room seemed filled with the scorn of her unspoken words: "Never taken advantage, eh? Not even below me down on the Yukon, where for a quid of tobacco--"
But all she said was: "It is the custom to pay here."
He pulled out his buckskin bag, and counted the money under her vigilant eyes, the Indian never budging. "How much of it," thought Burnet, resentfully, "is her commission, confound her!"
With a movement of the white-crowned head, she summoned the Indian across the room--seemed to explain the transaction in his own tongue, and recounted, in uncouth syllables, the entire sum into his hands. The Indian grunted and went out, shutting the door.
Burnet stood stuffing his poke back into the packet of his tattered deerskin breeches, but his resentment had not altogether got the better of his curiosity. His sharp eyes roved the room, resting at last on a couple of shallow bowls on a table laid for a meal. They could not be thick china; no, they were delicately tinted, translucent.
"Polished stone?" he asked.
"Jade," answered the woman.
"Jade! Jehoshaphat!" exclaimed Burnet.
"Oh, there are mountains of it up here in the North."
He opened his eyes.
"Native copper, too?" he said, looking at the rude utensils hung by the fire.
"Yes, native copper, too. The fools rush
here for gold, but the men that make the most will make it out of other things."
"Make it chiefly out of the fools, eh?" They were becoming almost friendly.
"That market is always stocked," she said, and then, as though to divert her visitor from his renewed inspection of herself, she said: "The natives can't make anything as good as this Russian Chynik."
But his eyes, fascinated, seemed unable to leave her face. "You've come a long way, I reckon."
She looked up from the shining kettle, and he was instantly permeated by a sense of his boldness. But he grasped his courage in both hands and went on: "A man doesn't expect to find a woman--like you--up here in the arctic regions, off the main trail, too!"
She turned away and set the glowing copper down.
"I feel I ought to apologise for hammering on your door like that."
She bowed her head gravely, and seemed to wait now with dignified impatience for him to be gone.
"I rather think from the way you soften your r's,'' he said, drawing on his mittens, "that your home must be in the same part of the world that mine is."
"My home is here," she said, and held the door for him to pass out.
She seemed to him so wonderful, as she
stood there, with the flood of firelight and candlelight shining on her tanned face and milk-white hair, that still he lingered. "Will you let me come and see you to-morrow? I think we'd agree, after all, about the fish."
"You'll find the price here what I told you. Good night."
And he was out in the wet snow with Antoshka, and Monica's door was closed.
"I'll go back in the morning, sure as a gun! Look here, Antoshka, where did Monica come from?" Antoshka seemed to meditate.
"Some say"--he pointed significantly down--"some say"-- he hitched his head upward. "Me think"--again he lifted chin and eyes to the windy sky.
Burnet smiled. "How long she been here?"
"Oh-h-h--" Antoshka seemed lost in the mists of antiquity.
"Can't you remember?"
"Me? Oh, no."
"Was she here when you little chap?"
"Your father, he know when she came?"
"Monica no Indian?"
"Monica she white woman, eh?"
"What then, eh? No squaw, no white woman--what then?"
The Indian murmured in his own tongue some awestruck syllables, looked apprehensively over his shoulder, and quickened his pace.
At the Kachime he unloaded, paid over the fish, helped Burnet to feed the dogs, and crawled into the council house after the white man.
The usual group sat behind the fire; the usual grunts on the entrance of the stranger. The A.C. agent and the Colonel had "hustled" to some purpose. They had a supper fit for a king cooking at the Kachime fire--fried fish, caribou stew, backfat, beans, and tea, and, marvel of civilisation, bread!
"Where did you get that?" Burnet asked. But he didn't wait to hear; he broke and ate, and poured down draughts of fragrant tea, and told of his visit to Monica. His companions did not seem as surprised as he expected.
"Oh, we've been hearing all about her," said the young man from Washington, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder to the smoking, silent group of natives.
"Of course. They can tell us! I suppose she's taught you fellows English. How long she been here?"
"All the time," answered the oldest man there, a wizened creature with iron-grey hair.
"By George!" said Burnet to his com-
panions," she doesn't look older than that fellow!"
"He's younger than you think. You know they age early, and die early in this climate. You almost never see a really old man--except the Shamáns: they have a soft thing of it, and hang on."
"But what do they mean by saying she's always been here?"
"Well, as far as we can make out, Monica built this village. She came from a native settlement on the Yukon near the mouth of the Koyukuk."
"I'm sure she must be the one they say the old traders tell about. There used to be a half-breed woman up here."
"No, she's white," said Burnet.
"Well she may have been white," said the agent, as though it was a thing that could be outlived; "but this one I mean used long ago to be a river-pilot, of all things, and a damned good pilot, too. Before there was much traffic, long before the A.C. Co. built the big steamers and brought up Mississippi men to take charge, all the pilots on the Yukon were Indians, except, I've heard an old miner say, one woman up by Koyukuk, and she was the best of them all. Learnt it from the Indians, you know, and went 'em one better."
"Where did she come from?"
"Ask me another."
"What made her come here?"
"No feller knows, eh?" The A.C. agent appealed to the natives. They shook their heads and grunted in unison.
"Why did she leave the Yukon?"
"They say, plague about cleaned out the settlement," the A.C. man explained. "She nursed 'em and doctored 'em, and brought those that pulled through up here, and made 'em a new village."
"She seems to have the knack of getting some work out of the noble red lazy-bones," said the Colonel; "makes 'em cut and haul her wood, and bring her water; sends 'em out in squads to hunt and fish--isn't that what you said?" he called over his shoulder. The old fellow who seemed to know most English nodded gravely.
"Monica heap mad if no plenty fish--no plenty caribou."
"Sends 'em to a summer camp on the Yukon when the salmon begin to run, and sends 'em up yonder in the hills for moose, and makes 'em bring everything to her. You remember those big caches up behind the settlement?"
"They're Monica's--chock full o' grub, too. There's never been a famine in Monica's Village." Among the native settlements a rare distinction, as every man there knew."
"She knows something about medicine, as well, eh?" The Colonel appealed again to
the grey-haired native. Slowly he took his pipe out of his mouth, and said: "Yes, Monica cure all sick Indians. Monica take sick kids her house, make all well."
"That's the way she's got her hold, you see. That's why people of all sorts bring her offerings, apart from what she exacts for the general store. I should think from what they say she probably has the finest collection of furs and ivory in the North. Gold, too, bucketsful hid away somewhere under her house, eh?" The Colonel appealed this time to a young buck sitting a little apart from his elders. The other natives grunted "No," and turned angry eyes on the youth in disgrace--for a previous indiscretion, it would seem.
"Bucketsful!" repeated the Washingtonian. "That's the way that kind of thing is always exaggerated."
"Yes," said the A.C. man--"when it isn't understated."
"I don't believe it; too far off the mines."
"I believe it," said Burnet.
"Why, did you see--"
"I saw gold scales on the table."
"There may be mines about here," said the A.C. man, sitting erect suddenly. "She would never tell." In a low voice he added: "The Indians, too, are getting to know--"
"Anyhow, the Birch Creek diggings can't be much farther one way than Kaltag is
another. When a miner has wandered off the trail, he'll empty out his sack o' dust quick enough to get a little grub."
"I didn't see any gold, but I saw a glorious Russian samovar," said Burnet, "and some copper things that shone like gold."
"Loot, very likely, from the Nulato massacre," said the young gentleman with the historic imagination.
"I can't find out," said the Colonel, "whether she teaches these people to be Christians."
"I guess, " said the agent, "she thinks she's got her hands full teachin' 'em to be men." He had been talking to the old native again. "They seem to have a vague idea of God, filtered through from Russian days, or imported, maybe, by some Indian strayed up here from the missions. Monica, they say--'she no like it when the old people and the children pray to her.'"
The Colonel looked shocked. "I wonder," said he, "how she got such a hold over them in the first place." Then turning to the group at the back: "Thought you bucks no think much of women?"
"Monica no woman."
"What is she then?"
Long silence, then one of the younger men in the group said something in his own tongue that reminded Burnet of the sounds Antoshka had made, under similar interrogation. The
natives exchanged glances and nodded. The white men looked at one another, and nodded, too, but with covert smiling.
"Well," said Burnet to the young gentleman from the Capital, " I'm afraid, after all, it wouldn't cure your 'spoiled darlings' of their high notions if they came to Monica's Village."
"They've just told you," he answered, "they don't obey her as a woman. In their eyes she's a sorceress."
"Every woman's a sorceress who doesn't too diligently explain away her mystery," said the Colonel, meditatively.
* * * *
The next morning the weather was pronounced too blizzardy still for men who had learned caution to hit the trail again. Burnet was delighted. The moment he had swallowed his breakfast he made off, and presented himself at Monica's door. He stood there in the howling wind, knocking discreetly, and discreetly waiting. Presently the old native with the grizzled hair came round from behind the house.
"I sell fish to-day," he said. "Come--"
"I want to see Monica."
"Monica no there."
"Where she gone?"
"Over--" he pointed northward.
"To the Jade Mountains," thought Burnet, smiling inwardly, "on a broomstick." Aloud he said: "She no walk?"
"No. Monica got heap good dog team."
"What she go for?"
"Metlahk's kid heap sick; Metlahk's kid die Monica no come."
"Monica gone to nurse a kid?"
The Indian nodded. "Gone with box."
"Oh, medicine. Does she often do that kind of thing?"
The native nodded.
"Man sick, squaw sick, anybody sick, Monica hitch up team, take box, and--" he motioned as if indeed she rode the air.
"When she be back?"
The Indian shook his head. "She get Metlahk's by moonrise."
"Not till to-night?"
"To-night, yes. Me no savvy how long kid sick."
"Monica stay till kid better?"
The man nodded--"Till kid better, or till kid--" he shut up his eyes and dropped his lean jaw, a hideous image of the common doom.
Burnet turned back towards the Kachime, bending before the sleet, but aware of it more for this strange old woman's sake--this Monica of unknown story. He turned an instant and looked back at her house, seeing through the slanting half-frozen snow a vivid vision of her, as she had stood at the door the night before, gaunt, forbidding, with that heavy drift of white hair on her head. Yes,
she belonged to the North now, as she had said, and the North had set its seal upon her. The arctic snows had fallen upon this daughter of the South for too many winters ever to melt or yield to any sun of heaven to the end of time. Yet she had spoken as the lettered speak--like the women far away.
What did it mean? What lay behind? What "old, unhappy, far-off things," what "battles long ago" had made this proud spirit a wanderer "on the trail"--one of those "who will never go home?" Whatever the story, whatever the original impulse that had driven this woman forth, out of her refusal to endure some lot so heavy and so evil that the hard life up here was easy by the side of it--at all events, out of the strange fierce battle that it must at first have been--had come for Monica peace with honour. For no woman on earth performs more faithfully the woman's task. Monica is healer, nurse, protector. Monica is prophetess, not foreseeing only, forestalling sickness, woe and famine. Monica is Mother of her People.
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