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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 20
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The Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 20 Post by :Ndoki Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :810

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The Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

In that way, with the beautiful world swimming in sunshine and golden tundra haze until foothills and mountains were like castles in a dream, Alan Holt set off with Tautuk and Amuk Toolik, leaving Stampede and Keok and Nawadlook at the corral bars, with Stampede little regretting that he was left behind to guard the range. For a mighty resolution had taken root in the prospector's heart, and he felt himself thrilled and a bit trembling at the nearness of the greatest drama that had ever entered his life. Alan, looking back after the first few minutes, saw that Keok and Nawadlook stood alone. Stampede was gone.

The ridge beyond the coulee out of which Mary Standish had come with wild flowers soon closed like a door between him and Sokwenna's cabin, and the straight trail to the mountains lay ahead, and over this Alan set the pace, with Tautuk and Amuk Toolik and a caravan of seven pack-deer behind him, bearing supplies for the herdsmen.

Alan had scarcely spoken to the two men. He knew the driving force which was sending him to the mountains was not only an impulse, but almost an inspirational thing born of necessity. Each step that he took, with his head and heart in a swirl of intoxicating madness, was an effort behind which he was putting a sheer weight of physical will. He wanted to go back. The urge was upon him to surrender utterly to the weakness of forgetting that Mary Standish was a wife. He had almost fallen a victim to his selfishness and passion in the moment when she stood at Nawadlook's door, telling him that she loved him. An iron hand had drawn him out into the day, and it was the same iron hand that kept his face to the mountains now, while in his brain her voice repeated the words that had set his world on fire.

He knew what had happened this morning was not the merely important and essential incident of most human lives; it had been a cataclysmic thing with him. Probably it would be impossible for even the girl ever fully to understand. And he needed to be alone to gather strength and mental calmness for the meeting of the problem ahead of him, a complication so unexpected that the very foundation of that stoic equanimity which the mountains had bred in him had suffered a temporary upsetting. His happiness was almost an insanity. The dream wherein he had wandered with a spirit of the dead had come true; it was the old idyl in the flesh again, his father, his mother--and back in the cabin beyond the ridge such a love had cried out to him. And he was afraid to return. He laughed the fact aloud, happily and with an unrepressed exultation as he strode ahead of the pack-train, and with that exultation words came to his lips, words intended for himself alone, telling him that Mary Standish belonged to him, and that until the end of eternity he would fight for her and keep her. Yet he kept on, facing the mountains, and he walked so swiftly that Tautuk and Amuk Toolik fell steadily behind with the deer, so that in time long dips and swells of the tundra lay between them.

With grim persistence he kept at himself, and at last there swept over him in its ultimate triumph a compelling sense of the justice of what he had done--justice to Mary Standish. Even now he did not think of her as Mary Graham. But she was Graham's wife. And if he had gone to her in that moment of glorious confession when she had stood at Nawadlook's door, if he had violated her faith when, because of faith, she had laid the world at his feet, he would have fallen to the level of John Graham himself. Thought of the narrowness of his escape and of the first mad desire to call her back from Nawadlook's room, to hold her in his arms again as he had held her in the cottonwoods, brought a hot fire into his face. Something greater than his own fighting instinct had turned him to the open door of the cabin. It was Mary Standish--her courage, the-glory of faith and love shining in her eyes, her measurement of him as a man. She had not been afraid to say what was in her heart, because she knew what he would do.

Mid-afternoon found him waiting for Tautuk and Amuk Toolik at the edge of a slough where willows grew deep and green and the crested billows of sedge-cotton stood knee-high. The faces of the herdsmen were sweating. Thereafter Alan walked with them, until in that hour when the sun had sunk to its lowest plane they came to the first of the Endicott foothills. Here they rested until the coolness of deeper evening, when a golden twilight filled the land, and then resumed the journey toward the mountains.

Midsummer heat and the winged pests of the lower lands had driven the herds steadily into the cooler altitudes of the higher plateaux and valleys. Here they had split into telescoping columns which drifted in slowly moving streams wherever the doors of the hills and mountains opened into new grazing fields, until Alan's ten thousand reindeer were in three divisions, two of the greatest traveling westward, and one, of a thousand head, working north and east. The first and second days Alan remained with the nearest and southward herd. The third day he went on with Tautuk and two pack-deer through a break in the mountains and joined the herdsmen of the second and higher multitude of feeding animals. There began to possess him a curious disinclination to hurry, and this aversion grew in a direct ratio with the thought which was becoming stronger in him with each mile and hour of his progress. A multitude of emotions were buried under the conviction that Mary Standish must leave the range when he returned. He had a grim sense of honor, and a particularly devout one when it had to do with women, and though he conceded nothing of right and justice in the relationship which existed between the woman he loved and John Graham, he knew that she must go. To remain at the range was the one impossible thing for her to do. He would take her to Tanana. He would go with her to the States. The matter would be settled in a reasonable and intelligent way, and when he came back, he would bring her with him.

But beneath this undercurrent of decision fought the thing which his will held down, and yet never quite throttled completely--that something which urged him with an unconquerable persistence to hold with his own hands what a glorious fate had given him, and to finish with John Graham, if it ever came to that, in the madly desirable way he visioned for himself in those occasional moments when the fires of temptation blazed hottest.

The fourth night he said to Tautuk:

"If Keok should marry another man, what would you do?"

It was a moment before Tautuk looked at him, and in the herdsman's eyes was a wild, mute question, as if suddenly there had leaped into his stolid mind a suspicion which had never come to him before. Alan laid a reassuring hand upon his arm.

"I don't mean she's going to, Tautuk," he laughed. "She loves you. I know it. Only you are so stupid, and so slow, and so hopeless as a lover that she is punishing you while she has the right--before she marries you. But if she _should marry someone else, what would you do?"

"My brother?" asked Tautuk.

"No."

"A relative?"

"No."

"A friend?"

"No. A stranger. Someone who had injured you, for instance; someone Keok hated, and who had cheated her into marrying him."

"I would kill him," said Tautuk quietly.

It was this night the temptation was strongest upon Alan. Why should Mary Standish go back, he asked himself. She had surrendered everything to escape from the horror down there. She had given up fortune and friends. She had scattered convention to the four winds, had gambled her life in the hazard, and in the end had come to him! Why should he not keep her? John Graham and the world believed she was dead. And he was master here. If--some day--Graham should happen to cross his path, he would settle the matter in Tautuk's way. Later, while Tautuk slept, and the world lay about him in a soft glow, and the valley below was filled with misty billows of twilight out of which came to him faintly the curious, crackling sound of reindeer hoofs and the grunting contentment of the feeding herd, the reaction came, as he had known it would come in the end.

The morning of the fifth day he set out alone for the eastward herd, and on the sixth overtook Tatpan and his herdsmen. Tatpan, like Sokwenna's foster-children, Keok and Nawadlook, had a quarter-strain of white in him, and when Alan came up to him in the edge of the valley where the deer were grazing, he was lying on a rock, playing Yankee Doodle on a mouth-organ. It was Tatpan who told him that an hour or two before an exhausted stranger had come into camp, looking for him, and that the man was asleep now, apparently more dead than alive, but had given instructions to be awakened at the end of two hours, and not a minute later. Together they had a look at him.

He was a small, ruddy-faced man with carroty blond hair and a peculiarly boyish appearance as he lay doubled up like a jack-knife, profoundly asleep. Tatpan looked at his big, silver watch and in a low voice described how the stranger had stumbled into camp, so tired he could scarcely put one foot ahead of the other; and that he had dropped down where he now lay when he learned Alan was with one of the other herds.

"He must have come a long distance," said Tatpan, "and he has traveled fast."

Something familiar about the man grew upon Alan. Yet he could not place him. He wore a gun, which he had unbelted and placed within reach of his hand on the grass. His chin was pugnaciously prominent, and in sleep the mysterious stranger had crooked a forefinger and thumb about his revolver in a way that spoke of caution and experience.

"If he is in such a hurry to see me, you might awaken him," said Alan.

He turned a little aside and knelt to drink at a tiny stream of water that ran down from the snowy summits, and he could hear Tatpan rousing the stranger. By the time he had finished drinking and faced about, the little man with the carroty-blond hair was on his feet. Alan stared, and the little man grinned. His ruddy cheeks grew pinker. His blue eyes twinkled, and in what seemed to be a moment of embarrassment he gave his gun a sudden snap that drew an exclamation of amazement from Alan. Only one man in the world had he ever seen throw a gun into its holster like that. A sickly grin began to spread over his own countenance, and all at once Tatpan's eyes began to bulge.

"Stampede!" he cried.

Stampede rubbed a hand over his smooth, prominent chin and nodded apologetically.

"It's me," he conceded. "I had to do it. It was give one or t'other up--my whiskers _or her_. They went hard, too. I flipped dice, an' the whiskers won. I cut cards, an' the whiskers won. I played Klondike ag'in' 'em, an' the whiskers busted the bank. Then I got mad an' shaved 'em. Do I look so bad, Alan?"

"You look twenty years younger," declared Alan, stifling his desire to laugh when he saw the other's seriousness.

Stampede was thoughtfully stroking his chin. "Then why the devil did they laugh!" he demanded. "Mary Standish didn't laugh. She cried. Just stood an' cried, an' then sat down an' cried, she thought I was that blamed funny! And Keok laughed until she was sick an' had to go to bed. That little devil of a Keok calls me Pinkey now, and Miss Standish says it wasn't because I was funny that she laughed, but that the change in me was so sudden she couldn't help it. Nawadlook says I've got a character-ful chin--"

Alan gripped his hand, and a swift change came over Stampede's face. A steely glitter shot into the blue of his eyes, and his chin hardened. Nature no longer disguised the Stampede Smith of other days, and Alan felt a new thrill and a new regard for the man whose hand he held. This, at last, was the man whose name had gone before him up and down the old trails; the man whose cool and calculating courage, whose fearlessness of death and quickness with the gun had written pages in Alaskan history which would never be forgotten. Where his first impulse had been to laugh, he now felt the grim thrill and admiration of men of other days, who, when in Stampede's presence, knew they were in the presence of a master. The old Stampede had come to life again. And Alan knew why. The grip of his hand tightened, and Stampede returned it.

"Some day, if we're lucky, there always comes a woman to make the world worth living in, Stampede," he said.

"There does," replied Stampede.

He looked steadily at Alan.

"And I take it you love Mary Standish," he added, "and that you'd fight for her if you had to."

"I would," said Alan.

"Then it's time you were traveling," advised Stampede significantly. "I've been twelve hours on the trail without a rest. She told me to move fast, and I've moved. I mean Mary Standish. She said it was almost a matter of life and death that I find you in a hurry. I wanted to stay, but she wouldn't let me. It's _you she wants. Rossland is at the range."

"_Rossland_!"

"Yes, Rossland. And it's my guess John Graham isn't far away. I smell happenings, Alan. We'd better hurry."

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