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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Yukon Trail - Chapter 2. Enter A Man
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The Yukon Trail - Chapter 2. Enter A Man Post by :pbonds Category :Long Stories Author :William Macleod Raine Date :May 2012 Read :629

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The Yukon Trail - Chapter 2. Enter A Man

CHAPTER II. ENTER A MAN

The whistle of the Hannah blew for the Tatlah Cache landing while Strong and Elliot were talking. Wally Selfridge had just bid three hundred seventy and found no help in the widow. He pushed toward each of the other players one red chip and two white ones.

"Can't make it," he announced. "I needed a jack of clubs."

The men counted their chips and settled up in time to reach the deck rail just as the gangplank was thrown out to the wharf. The crew transferred to the landing a pouch of mail, half a ton of sacked potatoes, some mining machinery, and several boxes containing provisions and dry goods.

A man came to the end of the wharf carrying a suitcase. He was well-set, thick in the chest, and broad-shouldered. He came up the gangplank with the strong, firm tread of a man in his prime. Looking down from above, Gordon Elliot guessed him to be in the early thirties.

Mrs. Mallory was the first to recognize him, which she did with a drawling little shout of welcome. "Oh you, Mr. Man. I knew you first. I speak for you," she cried.

The man on the gangplank looked up, smiled, and lifted to her his broad gray Stetson in a wave of greeting.

"How do you do, Mrs. Mallory? Glad to see you."

The miners from Frozen Gulch were grouped together on the lower deck. At sight of the man with the suitcase a sullen murmur rose among them. Those in the rear pushed forward and closed the lane leading to the cabins. One of the miners was flung roughly against the new passenger. With a wide, powerful sweep of his arm the man who had just come aboard hurled the miner back among his companions.

"Gangway!" he said brusquely, and as he strode forward did not even glance in the direction of the angry men pressing toward him.

"Here. Keep back there, you fellows. None of that rough stuff goes," ordered the mate sharply.

The big Cornishman who had been tossed aside crouched for a spring. He launched himself forward with the awkward force of a bear. The suitcase described a whirling arc of a circle with the arm of its owner as the radius. The bag and the head of the miner came into swift impact. Like a bullock which has been pole-axed the man went to the floor. He turned over with a groan and lay still.

The new passenger looked across the huge, sprawling body at the group of miners facing him. They glared in savage hate. All they needed was a leader to send them driving at him with the force of an avalanche. The man at whom they raged did not give an inch. He leaned forward slightly, his weight resting on the balls of his feet, alert to the finger tips. But in his eyes a grim little smile of derisive amusement rested.

"Next," he taunted.

Then the mate got busy. He hustled his stevedores forward in front of the miners and shook his fist in their faces as he stormed up and down. If they wanted trouble, by God! it was waiting for 'em, he swore in apoplectic fury. The Hannah was a river boat and not a dive for wharf rats. No bunch of roughnecks could come aboard a boat where he was mate and start anything. They could not assault any passengers of his and make it stick.

The man with the suitcase did not wait to hear out his tirade. He followed the purser to his stateroom, dropped his baggage beside the berth, and joined the Kusiak group on the upper deck.

They greeted him eagerly, a little effusively, as if they were anxious to prove themselves on good terms with him. The deference they paid and his assured acceptance of it showed him to be a man of importance. But apart from other considerations, he dominated by mental and physical virility the circle of which he instantly became the center. Only Mrs. Mallory held her own, and even she showed a quickened interest. Her indolent, half-disdainful manner sheathed a soft sensuousness that held the provocation of sex appeal.

"What was the matter?" asked Selfridge. "How did the trouble start?"

The big man shrugged his shoulders. "It didn't start. Some of the outfit thought they were looking for a row, but they balked on the job when Trelawney got his." Turning to Mrs. Mallory, he changed the subject abruptly. "Did you have a good time down the river?"

Gordon, as he watched from a little distance, corrected earlier impressions. This man had passed the thirties. Salt and pepper sprinkled the temples of his strong, lean head. He had the thick neck and solid trunk of middle life, but he carried himself so superbly that his whole bearing denied that years could touch his splendid physique. The suit he wore was a wrinkled corduroy, with trouser legs thrust into high-laced boots. An outdoor tan had been painted upon his face and neck, from the point where the soft flannel shirt fell away to show the fine slope of the throat line to the shoulders.

Strong had stepped to the wharf to talk with an old acquaintance, but when the boat threw out a warning signal he made a hurried good-bye and came on board. He rejoined Elliot.

"Well, what d'you think of him? Was I right?"

The young man had already guessed who this imperious stranger was. "I never saw anybody get away with a hard job as easily as he did that one. You could see with half an eye that those fellows meant fight. They were all primed for it--and he bluffed them out."

"Bluffed them--huh! If that's what you call bluffing. I was where I could see just what happened. Colby Macdonald wasn't even looking at Trelawney, but you bet he saw him start. That suitcase traveled like a streak of light. You'd 'a' thought it weighed about two pounds. That ain't all either. Mac used his brains. Guess what was in that grip."

"The usual thing, I suppose."

"You've got another guess--packed in among his socks and underwear was about twenty pounds of ore samples. The purser told me. It was that quartz put Trelawney to sleep so thorough that he'd just begun to wake up when I passed a minute ago."

The young man turned his eyes again upon the big Canadian Scotchman. He was talking with Mrs. Mallory, who was leaning back luxuriously in a steamer chair she had brought aboard at St. Michael's. It would have been hard to conceive a contrast greater than the one between this pampered heiress of the ages and the modern business berserk who looked down into her mocking eyes. He was the embodiment of the dominant male,--efficient to the last inch of his straight six feet. What he wanted he had always taken, by the sheer strength that was in him. Back of her smiling insolence lay a silken force to match his own. She too had taken what she wanted from life, but she had won it by indirection. Manifestly she was of those women who conceive that charm and beauty are tools to bend men to their wills. Was it the very width of the gulf between them that made the appeal of the clash in the sex duel upon which they had engaged?

The dusky young woman with the magazine was the first of those on the upper deck to retire for the night. She flitted so quietly that Gordon did not notice until she had gone. Mrs. Selfridge and her friends disappeared with their men folks, calling gay good-nights to one another as they left.

Macdonald and Mrs. Mallory still talked. After a time she too vanished.

The big promoter leaned against the deck rail, where he was joined by Selfridge. For a long time they talked in low voices. The little man had most to say. His chief listened, but occasionally interrupted to ask a sharp, incisive question.

Elliot, sitting farther forward with Strong, judged that Selfridge was making a report of his trip. Once he caught a fragment of their talk, enough to confirm this impression.

"Did Winton tell you that himself?" demanded the Scotchman.

The answer of his employee came in a murmur so low that the words were lost. But the name used told Gordon a good deal. The Commissioner of the General Land Office at Washington signed his letters Harold B. Winton.

Strong tossed the stub of his cigarette overboard and nodded good-night. A glance at his watch told Elliot that it was past two o'clock. He rose, stretched, and sauntered back to his stateroom.

The young man had just taken off his coat when there came the hurried rush of trampling feet upon the hurricane deck above. Almost instantly he heard a cry of alarm. Low voices, quick with suppressed excitement, drifted back to him. He could hear the shuffling of footsteps and the sound of heavy bodies moving.

Some one lifted a frightened shout. "Help! Help!" The call had come, he thought, from Selfridge.

Gordon flung open the door of his room, raced along the deck, and took the stairs three at a time. A huddle of men swayed and shifted heavily in front of him. So close was the pack that the motion resembled the writhing of some prehistoric monster rather than the movements of individual human beings. In that half-light tossing arms and legs looked like tentacles flung out in agony by the mammoth reptile. Its progress was jerky and convulsive, sometimes tortuous, but it traveled slowly toward the rail as if by the impulsion of an irresistible pressure.

Even as he ran toward the mass, Elliot noticed that the only sounds were grunts, stertorous breathings, and the scraping of feet. The attackers wanted no publicity. The attacked was too busy to waste breath in futile cries. He was fighting for his life with all the stark energy nature and his ancestors had given him.

Two men, separated from the crowd, lay on the deck farther aft. One was on top of the other, his fingers clutching the gullet of his helpless opponent. The agony of the man underneath found expression only in the drumming heels that beat a tattoo on the floor. The spasmodic feet were shod in Oxford tans of an ultra-fashionable cut. No doubt the owner of the smart footwear had been pulled down as he was escaping to shout the alarm.

The runner hurdled the two in his stride and plunged straight at the struggling tangle. He caught one man by the shoulders from behind and flung him back. He struck hard, smashing blows as he fought his way to the heart of the melee. Heavy-fisted miners with corded muscles landed upon his face and head and neck. The strange excitement of the battle lust surged through his veins. He did not care a straw for the odds.

The sudden attack of Elliot had opened the pack. The man battling against a dozen was Colby Macdonald. The very number of his foes had saved him so far from being rushed overboard or trampled down. In their desire to get at him they hindered each other, struck blows that found the wrong mark. His coat and shirt were in rags. He was bruised and battered and bleeding from the chest up. But he was still slogging hard.

They had him pressed to the rail. A huge miner, head down, had his arms around the waist of the Scotchman and was trying to throw him overboard. Macdonald lashed out and landed flush upon the cheek of a man attempting to brain him with a billet of wood. He hammered home a short-arm jolt against the ear of the giant who was giving him the bear grip.

The big miner grunted, but hung on like a football tackler. With a jerk he raised Macdonald from the floor just as three or four others rushed him again. The rail gave way, splintered like kindling wood. The Scotchman and the man at grips with him went over the side together.

Clear and loud rang the voice of Elliot. "Man overboard!"

The wheelsman had known for some minutes that there was trouble afoot. He signaled to the engine room to reverse and blew short, sharp shrieks of warning. Already deckhands and officers, scantily clad, were appearing from fore and aft.

"Men overboard--two of 'em!" explained Elliot in a shout from the boat which he was trying to lower.

The first mate and another man ran to help him. The three of them lowered and manned the boat. Gordon sat in the bow and gave directions while the other two put their backs into the stroke. Quite casually Elliot noticed that the man in the waist had a purple bruise on his left cheek bone. The young man himself had put it there not three minutes since.

Across the water came a call for help. "I'm sinking--hurry!"

The other man in the river was a dozen yards from the one in distress. With strong, swift, overhand strokes he shot through the water.

"All right," he called presently. "I've got him."

The oarsmen drew alongside the swimmer. With one hand Macdonald caught hold of the edge of the boat. The other clutched the rescued man by the hair of his head.

"Look out. You're drowning him," the mate warned.

"Am I?" Macdonald glanced with mild interest at the head that had been until that moment submerged. "Shows how absent-minded a man gets. I was thinking about how he tried to drown me, I expect."

They dragged the miner aboard.

"Go ahead. I'll swim down," Macdonald ordered.

"Better come aboard," advised the mate.

"No. I'm all right."

The Scotchman pushed himself back from the boat and fell into an easy stroke. Nevertheless, there was power in it, for he reached the Hannah before the rescued miner had been helped to the deck.

A dozen passengers, crowded on the lower deck, pushed forward eagerly to see. Among them was Selfridge, his shirt and collar torn loose at the neck and his immaculate checked suit dusty and disheveled. He was wearing a pair of up-to-date Oxford tans.

The Scotch-Canadian shook himself like a Newfoundland dog. He looked around with sardonic amusement, a grin on his swollen and disfigured face.

"Quite a pleasant welcome home," he said ironically, his cold eyes fixed on a face that looked as if it might have been kicked by a healthy mule. "Eh, Trelawney?"

The Cornishman glared at him, and turned away with a low, savage oath.

"Are you hurt, Mr. Macdonald?" asked the captain.

"Hurt! Not at all, Captain. I cut myself while I was shaving this morning--just a scratch," was the ironic answer.

"There's been some dirty work going on. I'll see the men are punished, sir."

"Forget it, Captain. I'll attend to that little matter." His jaunty, almost insolent glance made the half-circle again. "Sorry you were too late for the party, gentlemen,--most of you. I see three or four of you who were 'among those present.' It was a strictly exclusive affair. And now, if you don't mind, I'll say good-night."

He turned on his heel, went up the stairway to the deck above, and disappeared into his stateroom.

The rescued miner, propped against the cabin wall where he had been placed, broke into sudden excited protest. "Ach! He tried to drown me. Mein head--he hold it under the water."

"Ain't that just like a Swede?" retorted the mate in disgust. "Mac saves his life. Then the roughneck kicks because he got a belly full of Yukon. Sure Mac soused him some. Why shouldn't he?"

"I ain't no Swede," explained the big miner sullenly.

The mate did not think it worth his while to explain that "Swede" was merely his generic term of contempt for all foreigners.

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