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A Strange Sourdough Arrives on Halfaday, and—

Black John Thinks Fast

James B. Hendryx

I

THE wind soughed and moaned about the eaves, and snow sifted in long slanting lines past the windows of Cushing's Fort, the isolated trading post and saloon that served the little community of outlawed men that had sprung up on Halfaday Creek close against the Yukon- Alaska border.

"Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, an' eight is twelve," announced Black John Smith, "an' I only needed ten to go out. That's another game on you, an' it makes a total of forty-one p'ints I'm ahead—an' at two bits a p'int it figgers ten dollars an' a quarter." He shoved his chair back from the card table and glanced toward the window. "She's settin' in like a real storm. Hope Corporal Downey made the Siwash village. He'll prob'ly hole up there till it's over."

"Yeah," agreed Old Cush, the somber-faced proprietor of the fort, as he gathered up the cards. "An' I hope he has good luck nickin' off that hooch-runner. Peddlin' hooch amongst the Siwashes is the lowest form of skullduggery there is. I wouldn't have no pity on a man that would do it. If we'd done like I wanted to, we'd went over there an' fetched him here an' called a miners' meetin' on him, an' hung him. It ain't only about twenty miles. Them Siwashes needs all the fur they kin ketch—it looks like we're goin' into a hard winter. But you belt out agin it."

"Shore I did," admitted Black John. "It wouldn't be ethical. You know damn well, Cush, that I don't favor sellin' hooch to Siwashes no more'n what you do. An' you know I'd enjoy hangin' any damn cuss that would do it, jest as much as you, but we've got our hands full keepin' Halfaday moral, without draggin' in any more cricks. This here case is a job fer the Mounted."

"Yeah, I s'pose it is. But jest the same, we're a damn sight apter to do a good thorough job of it, what with the police havin' to monkey around gittin' evidence, an' all—an' the hooch runner mebbe gittin' a few months in jail—an' then turned out to do it agin. Now when we know a man's guilty we hang him, an' to hell with the evidence! An' when we git him hung, he stays hung—an' he ain't back peddlin' more hooch in a couple of months."

"Shore—an' if he'd lived on Halfaday we'd had him hung before now. But the way it is, it's better the Mounted should handle the job."

"Mebbe," ventured Cush, hopefully, "if Downey can't git no evidence agin him, er if he only gits a short jail sentence, he'll move over here, figgerin' the police won't bother him on Halfaday—then we could go ahead an' hang him."

"It would be a pleasure," grinned Black John, "if he still persisted in peddlin' hooch to the Siwashes. But come on—give me credit fer that ten, twenty-five, an' then buy a drink. I've got to be gittin' home an' cook me up some dinner."

OLD CUSH rose, stoked the roaring cannon stove, and took his place behind the bar. "Them games was fer twos bits a p'int," he announced, as he made an entry in his book, "an' there wasn't nothin' said about the drinks. But there ain't no use in you goin' back to yer shack, what with the weather like it is, jest to cook dinner. I'll have the klooch fetch in an extry bowl of stew when she fetches mine."

"In that case," replied Black John, "I'll buy the drinks, an' after we've et, we kin git back to work on them cards."

"It seems kind of funny," said Cush, as he shoved the bottle across the bar, "that the Mounted would know about hooch peddlin' goin' on so fer back off the river. Them Stick Injuns never gits down to the Yukon, an' there ain't no white men over on their crick—except this one fella."

"Yeah," grinned Black John, "it does seem kind of funny, don't it? But you've got to remember, Cush, Corporal Downey's a pretty smart young fella. He's got ways of findin' out things."

"I'll bet you tipped him off, when you was down to Dawson, a while back."

"Who—me? You know damn well, Cush, that I don't make no practice of runnin' down to Dawson an' onloadin' the sins of my fella man onto the shoulders of the police. I rec'lect of talkin' to Downey—an' I suspect myself of doin' a little drinkin' when I was down there. It might be jest barely possible that my tongue got a little loose, an' I might of let slip a word er two that could of caused him to suspicion that there was somethin' wrong on that crick. The plight of them Siwashes weighed kind of heavy on my mind, bein' as that damn cuss wouldn't show up over here on Halfaday where we could hang him. 'In vino veritas,' you remember, Cush."

"I don't remember no sech a damn thing," growled Cush. "An' I don't even know what yer talkin' about—now you've called it to mind."

"It's an old Latin proverb," explained Black John, "an' reduced to its lowest terms, which seems to be the only terms you kin comprehend, it means that when a man's soused he's liable to spill his guts."

"Huh," grunted Cush, "it don't take no Latin fer a man to know that. All he's got to do is run a saloon."

II

A YOUNG Indian woman appeared and placed a bowl of steaming stew upon the bar. "Fetch in another fer John," ordered Cush, "an' see that you git plenty of that tough rump part in hisn. He fetched us this last quarter of moose, which must of been some old bull that died of hardenin' of the arteries. You can't cut the meat with nothin' short of an ax, an' it chaws like rubber, an' you could shingle a house with the gravy."

"Yeah," grinned Black John. "I couldn't seem to make no headway on the quarter I kep', so I give it to the dogs. I thought you could handle a quarter though, with them store teeth."

"Listen," said Cush, "someone's comin'. I heard him knockin' his snowshoes agin the side of the buildin'. Mebbe Downey turned back when the storm hit."

"No, he would of been fer enough along to keep on goin'. We won't see Downey till the day after she lets up."

The door opened abruptly, and a man stepped into the room amid a whirling cloud of finely powdered snow. He slammed the door behind him, loosened his cap, and proceeded to beat the clinging white particles from his clothing. Swinging the pack sack from his shoulders, he undid the lashing of a rabbit robe, freed it of snow, tossed it over a chair, and advanced to the bar, his fur mittens dangling from the sleeves of his parka.

"Hello, sourdough!" greeted Black John. "Step up an' let the house buy you a drink."

"How do you know?" smiled the man. "Mebbe I'm jest...

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