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The Troth

by Newton. A. Fuessle

TROTHS, under the cold heaven of the North, are usually between men. It is the great love of man for man which obtains, born as it is out of common travail and endless battle with the ice-god. And when it comes to pass that a man, a strong man, spends wakeful nights in musing on the sound of a girlish laugh, the touch of a hand, the depth of an eye, there is a struggle—and a tale to be told.

Two men, one bending over a ledger and the other over a snow-shoe he was webbing, were sitting on opposite sides of a little cabin. It was the Sergeant's cabin, twenty miles out of Dawson on the great Linderman trail. They were in the Queen's Service, in the North, and the year was ninety-nine. These things mean much to those who know.

The Sergeant, bending over the book which lay across his knees, was angry. Anger peered as plainly from the dark seams of his face as it showed in the curl of his close-cropped iron-gray mustache and in the song of the pen that traveled with staccato jerks across the wide page.

He was a Scotchman, dour and curt, exiled for twenty years at an obscure station among the headwaters of the Mackenzie, and now the terror of those who came, lawless and gold-mad, into Alaska. In the Queen's books at home he was John McFergus, but here men called him Mac. He was known in every mining-camp from Fort Selkirk to Dawson, and criminals, when they heard his name, started with instinctive fear. McFergus was surly of speech and manner, but the young man, as he glanced up occasionally from his work to steal a furtive look at the other's face, realized for the first time how much he loved him.

Presently the Sergeant grunted, and the other, looking up, met the boring steel of a pair of eyes. "So you're goin', eh?" said McFergus, not unkindly. "How soon?" he added after a moment.

"In a week, I expect," returned the other, lowering his gaze.

The Scotchman's pen resumed its song. A minute passed. Then he continued: "I can't understand it, Charlie—no, I don't seem to see it at all. But I guess it's because it's so different with me."

There was a break in the usual reserve of the Sergeant. He seldom spoke to his subordinates at any length, save to give instructions. "I've seen a lot of them just like you—chaps that would quit all kinds of jobs fer women. But hang it, Charlie, this is different. You're in the Service, man, in the Service—the Queen's Service—and you're with me, with me, McFergus—my right-hand man! I reckon there's a hundred chaps up to Dawson right now who'd sell their souls to the devil in a second fer the job you're throwin' away. An' as game a lot as ever pulled a trigger."

McFergus paused. Charlie Graves said never a word. Once more the pen began its song, and the young man, studying the wrinkles in the other's boot, fell to musing. His thoughts traveled back past his cache, past Lost River, and thence down to Jean Valesque's little road-house. She would be waiting, the girl at the road-house—Jean's daughter. He could see her now—the lips, the eyes, the hair, the hands. Another week and he would join her. He had given his promise. He had sealed the troth with a kiss.

"Women," resumed Mac presently, "women, and in the North at that—ye wouldn't leave the North, would ye? Think of it, man! Cooped up in a road-house, afraid to hit the trail—you might not come back, she'll say. There'll be kids an' a terrible hankering fer the trail, fer the dogs, fer a record run through a blizzard, fer a fight. Curse you, boy! can't you see? I've talked to a lot of them. It'll be worse for you—lots worse. You've been used to it all the time—to the trail, to an occasional scrap, to the worst men in Alaska, to the drag of the snow-shoes—and then a rest, a warm, warm bunk, an' good grub a-plenty. But I reckon it's no use. Who is she? Good? Straight?"

"You're ——— right, Mac," returned the young man gravely.

There was a noise outside the cabin; the door opened. It was Pierre, the Indian runner from the Fort. His face was stiff with the cold; he grunted stolidly as he produced a piece of crumpled paper.

"I guess something's the matter," muttered McFergus as he surveyed the Indian. "Kind of winded, eh? You must 'a' piked some!"

Presently the Sergeant gave a long-drawrn whistle. "It's from the old man," he said, speaking to Graves. "Red Curtis has turned up. He's hidin' in Fetzger's cabin, just a piece below our cache. 'Get him alive or dead,' says the old man. 'Send Graves.'" The Sergeant paused. Through his yellow teeth came a reflective oath. Then he went on: "There's a big reward up, ain't there? Along in the thousands. Wait, there's two rewards up—one for Red an' one for that side-kicker of his, Bond."

Again the Sergeant's thumb followed the lines of the note as he perused it once more; and as he read he swore. "You're goin' to quit in a week, eh? " he went on. " Fetzger's shanty is eighty miles up the north trail. Let's see; you ought to be back inside of five days. That'll give you two days to rest up."

Charlie Graves sat silent; a half-smile played around the corners of his mouth. "Send Graves" was the word from the Fort. It would be his last capture, his last fight in the Queen's Service, he reflected—his last and his greatest. If he succeeded, his name would live long in the Yukon country, for on Red Curtis's head there long had been a price.

Curtis wras a claim-jumper, murderer, renegade; talked of from Seattle to Behring Straits, and demi-god in the eyes of the lawless; gambling, stealing, killing—with his daring reenforced by luck which was the marvel of all Alaska; eluding the police with patient vigilance; turning up in Dawson when reported at bay in Thief River; and justice, slow, but quite as patient, trailed him like a hound.

"Well?" queried McFergus.

"I'm on," said Graves, rising.

GRAVES urged his dog-team into the trail and swung along behind his sledge. His face, fringed with the flaps of his great parka cap, wore a happy look, and his thoughts, speeding now onward to Fetzger's cabin and now along the back trail to the little road-house and a girl, mingled joy with sorrow, for this was his last assignment in the Service. He called to his dogs and sent the tip of his long lash stinging among them. And the animals knew from the bite of the rawhide that they must make a record run.

The trail was well packed and hard; the load on the sledge was trifling, for Graves traveled with swiftness; and the runners speeding over the ice-veneer of the trail, gave forth a merry sound like the singing voice of a cutlass. He could reach the shanty by the next evening.

Reflecting on the past and looking forward into the future, the man felt strange misgivings at conflict under his arctic shirt. He fell to musing on the words of McFergus. Perhaps Mac was right after all. Perhaps his love for the girl would not prove stronger than his passion for the trail, for active service. His love had been threefold, embracing McFergus, the capture of criminals, and trials of endurance.

A year ago he would have scoffed at any other love. But that was before Jean Valesque had sent to the States for his daughter. McFergus had never loved, nor the old man at the Fort, nor the rest. That was why they laughed their little, quizzical, angering laughs when they heard. Men in Alaska soon forget what a woman is. They see only the creatures in the concert-halls and gambling-houses of Dawson—females, but not feminine. Mac had asked with a grin if the girl were good, whether she were straight, reflected Graves. He had told him with an oath that she was. Instinct told him that she was good, the instinct he had brought from the South.

Twilight, falling swiftly, closed in upon the short day. There was a menace in the wind that came in angry crescendo out of the north, and Graves drew his parka cap closer as the sting of driving snow-flakes cut his features. Spring was coming on; he had not looked for a storm. But to stop meant deeper snow in the morning, and slower going—and Charlie Graves must travel fast.

The long night wore on. By morning the team was staggering through great drifts, making slow headway and giving little desperate, wearied, worn-out yelps. The driver calculated that forty miles of the trail lay behind. Evening would see them at the cabin, and then—a smile fought with the cold that numbed his features, and in his heart was gladness. The snow on the trail was getting deeper, and the wind stung like a needle as it blew. In the distance clouds of snow raced madly. Instinct kept the dogs in the trail, and beside it snow-shrouded pines, towering high and specter-like, seemed to nag at the procession as it staggered onward.

Graves, fighting fatigue, felt strange thoughts harassing him. His mind kept wandering back to the girl, Jean Valesque's daughter. In a week he would join her, he panted, and the small smile struggled once more with his stiffened lips. Came presently the face of McFergus, displacing the other. And now he saw them side by side, both beckoning him, both calling. He had been with Mac for many years, and knew that the old man loved him. Then there came another thought as he swung wearily from foot to foot. He was breaking the greatest tie in all the North—the bond which ties the strong. He was breaking the troth of men.

TOWARD evening the wind howled out of the north like an animal, but the play of the lash-tip kept trace and harness taut. All day Graves had fought the weariness which dragged behind Knowing that if he faltered, the malamoots would bolt, or lie down to die in their weariness. All day the vision of Red Curtis hovered before him—with blue-gray eyes, the curl of cunning lips, the arrogant chin, the long red hair, a handsome face. Graves, intent on the vision, forgot ache of muscle and fatigue of mind.

Soon there came an appalling slowness of limb to answer the demands of the tyrant will. The reindeer thongs of his snow-shoes, cutting his swollen feet, sent sharp surges of pain throbbing through them. Sometimes the dogs would fall in the deep drifts, their feet painfully trapped in the harness, and then the driver would stumble forward to their aid, cursing them. He passed the cache without stopping for food. It was a race with cold and weakness. All day the fear of losing urged him on. Relentless pains bored his feet and lash-arm, and latterly there came a mind-weariness that was far worse than pain of body.

At last Graves' eye discerned a black speck far off across the white, and slowly the speck grew, blurring intermittently as snow-clouds swept the landscape. It was Fetzger's cabin. There was a sudden marshaling of strength, and Graves, forgetful of weariness, was glad with the prospect of battle.

Graves swore when he stopped at the door of the cabin. His oath was fervent, thanksgiving, prayerful, coming from the heart. The words came slowly; came with a strange snarl, half human, half bestial, through closed teeth and running slaver. The man-flame in Graves was flickering low. Men in Alaska are not always human. When the trail is long, they become beasts.

The door of the shanty swung open without noise at Graves' touch. It was almost dark, and Graves, fumbling for a match, shivered with the fear that Red Curtis might be gone. The match sputtered and then flamed bright. A man lay on the bunk sleeping. He stood for a second, hesitating, regarding him in the dim light—the murderer, the renegade, the prey of justice, but the under dog. Graves was conscious of the combat within him, as though he were watching it from a distance. It was a conflict between Beast and Man.

Only a second, and he was resolved.

"Curtis!" he cried sharply.

There was a movement on the bunk, a break in the slow rhythm of the breathing.

"Curtis!" he called again, and added after a pause: "It's Graves—of the Queen's Service!"

The eyes opened and fell upon the face of Graves, just as the match, flickering in a draft from the door, went out. But Curtis had seen the face and recognized it. Graves, standing in the darkness, heard a muffled cry, unhuman, like the noise of an animal. Neither man could see, but the lust of battle calls upon instinct in places where vision fails; and as the man leaped from the bunk Graves sprang forward to meet him. There was the clutch of straining hands, the gasp of quick intakes of breath, the stamp of pawing feet upon the floor, and then the snap of steel as the handcuffs closed with a click over the wrists.

And now Graves collapsed in a faint across the renegade, for even the beast-flame was flickering low. Again and again he tried to rise, and to ward off the kicks of his handcuffed prisoner. At length the flame flared brighter. Staggering to his feet, Charlie Graves of the Queen's Service struck a match, and then, with sheer tyranny of will, forced his tired hands to bind the prisoner with strips of raw-hide.

IT WAS daylight when Graves opened his eyes. Consciousness of bodily pain and soreness of joints brought recollection, and his eyes sought the figure on the floor. Curtis was gazing at him out of strange, frightened, bloodshot eyes. At length words came faltering through bloodless lips. "I guess I've got it, Graves," he began with a little laugh. The other understood and, bending over the shaking figure, raised the lips. The gums were livid, with great swollen blotches fringing the teeth. "My God!" he exclaimed.

"Scurvy, eh?" queried Red Curtis. "I reckon it is, all right," returned the other quietly.

"Felt it cornin' on," said Curtis. "Pains in the back an' legs—kind of all in fer about a week. That's why I couldn't mix it up—When the——was it? Last night? No, the night before. Say, got any potatoes or lemons?"

"Nothing but dried salmon," returned Graves. "The Sergeant's shanty is eighty miles back," he added.

"Never mind," said the other. "It's gone too far anyhow. I guess Red Curtis has led you fellers your last chase. But say, Graves, I was a heller while I lasted, wasn't I? What did they think about me back there?"

Graves was silent. There was something in the claim-jumper's coolness that compelled admiration. After a while he returned, "'Alive or dead' was the word." The gray eyes of the dying man were fixed hungrily on the other's lips as they shaped themselves for the words; while the look of old-time hauteur dominated the pinched features.

There was another pause, longer than before. Presently Curtis spoke. "Say, Graves, you won't leave me here to die all alone, will you? It's been a holy fright the last week. I was glad you came,——glad. You won't go away, will you, Charlie?"

Charlie Graves of the Queen's Service started. A strange look had glimmered forth from the gray eyes, and the inner pattern of the famous criminal, which the other was busy piecing out, underwent rapid changes. He looked away. Queer emotions checked him. He sat repeating the words: "You won't go away, will you, Charlie?"—repeating them slowly, hardly comprehending. It took a long while for their meaning to become patent.

All the while the sunken eyes were fixed on him; he knew, but he dared not meet them. The girl came into Graves' mind—the girl back at Jean Valesque's road-house. She would be waiting for him; the time was near. He had promised, had given his troth, had sealed it with a kiss. He thought of old Valesque and of Mac. Mac would be waiting. In all these years his right-hand man had never failed him, had never failed to return to the cabin at the appointed time. And, besides, there was little salmon left in the canvas bag; and the cache was twenty miles away. Red Curtis might die in an hour, to-day, to-morrow—but, again, he might linger for a week. Men with scurvy die like cats. Graves knew; he had kept death-vigils before. And the promise—the troth! No—he could not stay. But this was Curtis—Red Curtis! This was different. Surely he would die soon—to-day perhaps. "Curtis," he mused, "Red Curtis, murderer, claim-jumper, renegade, the greatest in all Alaska, matchless!"

Presently Graves muttered: "I reckon I can stick around, Red, old man."

Then began a lonesome vigil beside the dying man. Graves placed him upon the bunk on one side of the shanty, and sat gazing at the wall of the cabin. A day passed; another dragged itself slowly by. Two of The Troth 721 the malamoots were dead, and Graves cut the rest out of harness and told them to mush. In ten hours they would reach McFergus's cabin. Graves could not see them die, and there was not enough grub for them and him. The dogs bolted up the back trail, and Graves returned to the death-watch.

Sometimes, looking up, he would catch the eyes of the other. The two seldom spoke. Men are silent when they wait for death. Graves nibbled sparingly at the thin strips of salmon that remained, calculating how long they and the man on the bunk would last. Sometimes the man with the scurvy would wander off into delirium, laughing wildly, talking of fights and poker-games and women. Then would come a lucid interval, and now these last were far apart. When they came he would ask the watcher if he were there, begging him not to go away.

Graves, almost famished, maddened by the talk of the dying man and by the eyes that stared and stared, felt his own mind wander. Days passed, dragging themselves out slowly to interminable length until he lost all count of them, and still the man on the bunk lived and talked and laughed and stared. Now he could stay no longer, Graves often told himself, for the girl was waiting; and then Curtis would beg him with tears and trembling not to leave him. And he stayed.

As Graves sat cowering in a corner of the cabin he thought and thought. It came back to him—the face of the Sergeant, the look in his eyes when he told him he was going to quit the Service. And then Curtis would laugh deliriously from the bunk, and the keeper of the long vigil prayed that he would die, and cursed him for living.

Once there came a day when Curtis talked for hours of Dawson City with its poker, its faro, its whisky, its women. He raved about a girl, fondling the air with ghastly words of affection, words that came uncertain and muffled from black lips, words that made Graves' blood run cold. He called her by name, and tears rolled down his cheeks as he called. Graves leaned forward listening intently, but the delirious words were only half-formed, and, though he bent over the dying figure until his ear almost touched the lips, he listened vainly.

Sometimes Curtis would raise himself on his elbow, gesticulate wildly, and demand her picture; and Graves, himself half delirious and frightened into momentary consciousness by the unearthly yells and eyes, shivering with a great fear, could only stare in frightened fascination while the other fumbled at the wall of the cabin.

A new light came at length into the eyes of the criminal, and Graves knew that this day would be his last. He beckoned Graves to his side, while whispered words dribbled weakly from his wasted lips. A thin hand stole falteringly across the front of his heavy Winter shirt. "It's here, it's here," he muttered faintly. After a while the hand drew out of the bosom a little cardboard. The lips moved, but there was no sound, for death had come.

Graves peered at the picture on the cardboard, trembling as he looked. He knew the eyes, the lips, the hair. It was the girl at Jean Valesque's road-house!

A mighty surge of pain, gathering at Graves' heart, swept his frame and sang through his half-closed teeth like a tempest. Seizing the picture, he crushed it between his fingers.

"My God, my God!" he moaned, and out of his eyes burned slowly the hottest of tears. "I told Mac she was straight—told him she was good!"

He remembered now how Mac and the rest had smiled whenever he had spoken of her. Swiftly knotting the thongs of his snow-shoes, he swung into the back trail, while the sun, casting a cold glamour upon the snows, chilled him like a poison.

TWO men, one tossing in half delirium, and the other treading very softly whenever he had to cross the room, were listening to the patient tick of the little clock on the shelf. So it had been for many days. Sometimes the Sergeant would gaze long and anxiously while dream-images indexed themselves on the white face. Often, too, the figure would try vainly to raise itself and would break into unintelligible combinations of words. Latterly this had happened at much longer intervals, until one day when Charlie Graves opened his eyes the strange look was gone.

"Hello, Mac!" came to the hungry ears of the old Scotchman.

"Charlie!" he returned, laying his great hand on the other's.

"What day is it?"


"Then you found me yesterday?"

"Two weeks ago yesterday," returned the Sergeant. "After it was time for you to blow back, I hiked down the trail every day, tryin' to spot you. The seventh day I stumbled across you, stickin' out of a drift. I reckoned for a while that you'd sure pass 'em in. A feller came past yesterday an' brought word about Red. I guess the reward's yours, all right."

A smile hovered faintly on Graves' lips, but left them suddenly when the Sergeant went on: "You've got to get well quick now. Old Valesque's girl is waitin' fer you."

The Sergeant paused, not noting the other's change of expression. After a moment he resumed: "An' I want to take back the things I said about her. It was pretty low-down of me. I made some wild guesses when I said 'em, an' I hadn't ought to done it, but I hated to lose ye. I learned different later on. She's the gamest there is. But wait till I tell you.

"While you was hikin' down to Fetzger's shack on a hunt fer Red, who should turn up in these parts but his side-kicker, Bob Bond. Fie stopped for a snack back there at the road-house. Old man Valesque had run up to Dawson, an' the girl was there alone. She knew him in a second. The young devil tried to love her up, and the girl springs a game that wins me over in a second. She jerked out a gun, an' with the powder-devil starin' straight at Bond, she asks him to turn his back to her or get bit. Bond was wise an' done as he was told. In a second she has her snow-shoes on.

"'Now,' she says, 'you mush! An' never mind rubberin' around. I'm here, all right, cornin' right along. If you try to turn your noodle this way, the shootin'-iron talks. Forward, hike!'

"Late that night they landed here, her an' Bond. The next day the runner from the Fort blowed in, an' took Brother Bond along. There's a thousand bones in it for your girl."

During McFergus's recital, Charlie Graves lay silent, with stoic cast of countenance. McFergus had calculated that his story would set the young man on fire. He had been treasuring it impatiently until this day.

"Well," the Sergeant demanded, puzzled and disappointed, "ain't you satisfied? Eh? What do you want, anyhow? I tell you she's the gamest there is—you can take that for a tip. If you marry her, you won't have to quit the Service, man."

And still the young man was silent. The picture he had destroyed confronted him. Also, he could hear the delirious love-phrases as they fell weakly from the lips of Red Curtis. Then: "Did she say anything—the girl?"

"Say anything!" returned the Scotchman. "What could she say? I jollied her right, about a sartain young officer in the Queen's Service, an' she blushed real pretty. She was mighty tickled about the way she got Bond—said you'd be awful glad. Don't you tumble? She did it for you—for you! Sabe?"

"Did she say so?" questioned the man on the bunk.

"Say so!" roared the Sergeant. "Do I have to have an iceberg fall my way? With the exception of a little personal grudge she owed the Bond-Curtis combination, it was for you—to show you she was a game one, like the married wife of a Queen's Service man ought to be."

"Did she know Curtis?" demanded Graves.

"The infernal red-head stopped at the old man's road-house a year ago an' claim-jumped a picture of hers that was settin' on a shelf. It got her hot. It was the only one she had."

THE clock in the cabin had ticked out a day, three days, a week. Graves had recovered rapidly, hearing all day, in fancy, the ripple of a girl's laughter, and the quiet crooning of a voice. At night he saw the lines and curves and colors of her face. And all the while his heart beat loudly.

And now the clock, ticking impatiently, had measured the lapse of a fortnight. As Charlie Graves stood knotting the thongs of his snow-shoes, McFergus stood silently by. "You've made the luckiest strike in all Alasky," said the old man, "an' you won't have to quit the Service either," he added.

Graves strode out into the snows. He was keeping his double troth. And his path lay toward the light that hung shimmering in the south.