SHE cast off the lower flap-fastenings and entered. The man still blew into the stove, unaware of his company. Frona coughed, and he raised a pair of smoke-reddened eyes to hers.
“Certainly,” he said, casually enough. “Fasten the flaps and make yourself comfortable.” And thereat returned to his borean task.
“Hospitable, to say the least,” she commented to herself, obeying his command and coming up to the stove.
A heap of dwarfed spruce, gnarled and wet and cut to proper stove-length, lay to one side. Frona knew it well, creeping and crawling and twisting itself among the rocks of the shallow alluvial deposit, unlike its arboreal prototype, rarely lifting its head more than a foot from the earth. She looked into the oven, found it empty, and filled it with the wet wood. The man arose to his feet, coughing from the smoke which had been driven into his lungs, and nodding approval.
When he had recovered his breath, “Sit down and dry your skirts. I’ll get supper.”
He put a coffee-pot on the front lid of the stove, emptied the bucket into it, and went out of the tent after more water. As his back disappeared, Frona dived for her satchel, and when he returned a moment later he found her with a dry skirt on and wringing the wet one out. While he fished about in the grub-box for dishes and eating utensils, she stretched a spare bit of rope between the tent-poles and hung the skirt on it to dry. The dishes were dirty, and, as he bent over and washed them, she turned her back and deftly changed her stockings. Her childhood had taught her the value of well-cared feet for the trail. She put her wet shoes on a pile of wood at the back of the stove, substituting for them a pair of soft and dainty house-moccasins of Indian make. The fire had now grown strong, and she was content to let her under-garments dry on her body.
During all this time neither had spoken a word. Not only had the man remained silent, but he went about his work in so preoccupied a way that it seemed to Frona that he turned a deaf ear to the words of explanation she would have liked to utter. His whole bearing conveyed the impression that it was the most ordinary thing under the sun for a young woman to come in out of the storm and night and partake of his hospitality. In one way, she liked this; but in so far as she did not comprehend it, she was troubled. She had a perception of a something being taken for granted which she did not understand. Once or twice she moistened her lips to speak, but he appeared so oblivious of her presence that she withheld.
After opening a can of corned beef with the axe, he fried half a dozen thick slices of bacon, set the frying-pan back, and boiled the coffee. From the grub-box he resurrected the half of a cold heavy flapjack. He looked at it dubiously, and shot a quick glance at her. Then he threw the sodden thing out of doors and dumped the contents of a sea-biscuit bag upon a camp cloth. The sea-biscuit had been crumbled into chips and fragments and generously soaked by the rain till it had become a mushy, pulpy mass of dirty white.
“It’s all I have in the way of bread,” he muttered; “but sit down and we will make the best of it.”
“One moment—” And before he could protest, Frona had poured the sea-biscuit into the frying-pan on top of the grease and bacon. To this she added a couple of cups of water and stirred briskly over the fire. When it had sobbed and sighed with the heat for some few minutes, she sliced up the corned beef and mixed it in with the rest. And by the time she had seasoned it heavily with salt and black pepper, a savory steam was rising from the concoction.
“Must say it’s pretty good stuff,” he said, balancing his plate on his knee and sampling the mess avidiously. “What do you happen to call it?”
“Slumgullion,” she responded curtly, and thereafter the meal went on in silence.
Frona helped him to the coffee, studying him intently the while. And not only was it not an unpleasant face, she decided, but it was strong. Strong, she amended, potentially rather than actually. A student, she added, for she had seen many students’ eyes and knew the lasting impress of the midnight oil long continued; and his eyes bore the impress. Brown eyes, she concluded, and handsome as the male’s should be handsome; but she noted with surprise, when she refilled his plate with slumgullion, that they were not at all brown in the ordinary sense, but hazel-brown. In the daylight, she felt certain, and in times of best health, they would seem gray, and almost blue-gray. She knew it well; her one girl chum and dearest friend had had such an eye.
His hair was chestnut-brown, glinting in the candle-light to gold, and the hint of waviness in it explained the perceptible droop to his tawny moustache. For the rest, his face was clean-shaven and cut on a good masculine pattern. At first she found fault with the more than slight cheek-hollows under the cheek-bones, but when she measured his well-knit, slenderly muscular figure, with its deep chest and heavy shoulders, she discovered that she preferred the hollows; at least they did not imply lack of nutrition. The body gave the lie to that; while they themselves denied the vice of over-feeding. Height, five feet, nine, she summed up from out of her gymnasium experience; and age anywhere between twenty-five and thirty, though nearer the former most likely.
“Haven’t many blankets,” he said abruptly, pausing to drain his cup and set it over on the grub-box. “I don’t expect my Indians back from Lake Linderman till morning, and the beggars have packed over everything except a few sacks of flour and the bare camp outfit. However, I’ve a couple of heavy ulsters which will serve just as well.”
He turned his back, as though he did not expect a reply, and untied a rubber-covered roll of blankets. Then he drew the two ulsters from a clothes-bag and threw them down on the bedding.
“Vaudeville artist, I suppose?”
He asked the question seemingly without interest, as though to keep the conversation going, and, in fact, as if he knew the stereotyped answer beforehand. But to Frona the question was like a blow in the face. She remembered Neepoosa’s philippic against the white women who were coming into the land, and realized the falseness of her position and the way in which he looked upon her.
But he went on before she could speak. “Last night I had two vaudeville queens, and three the night before. Only there was more bedding then. It’s unfortunate, isn’t it, the aptitude they display in getting lost from their outfits? Yet somehow I have failed to find any lost outfits so far. And they are all queens, it seems. No under-studies or minor turns about them,—no, no. And I presume you are a queen, too?”
The too-ready blood sprayed her cheek, and this made her angrier than did he; for whereas she was sure of the steady grip she had on herself, her flushed face betokened a confusion which did not really possess her.
“No,” she answered, coolly; “I am not a vaudeville artist.”
He tossed several sacks of flour to one side of the stove, without replying, and made of them the foundation of a bed; and with the remaining sacks he duplicated the operation on the opposite side of the stove.
“But you are some kind of an artist, then,” he insisted when he had finished, with an open contempt on the “artist.”
“Unfortunately, I am not any kind of an artist at all.”
He dropped the blanket he was folding and straightened his back. Hitherto he had no more than glanced at her; but now he scrutinized her carefully, every inch of her, from head to heel and back again, the cut of her garments and the very way she did her hair. And he took his time about it.
“Oh! I beg pardon,” was his verdict, followed by another stare. “Then you are a very foolish woman dreaming of fortune and shutting your eyes to the dangers of the pilgrimage. It is only meet that two kinds of women come into this country. Those who by virtue of wifehood and daughterhood are respectable, and those who are not respectable. Vaudeville stars and artists, they call themselves for the sake of decency; and out of courtesy we countenance it. Yes, yes, I know. But remember, the women who come over the trail must be one or the other. There is no middle course, and those who attempt it are bound to fail. So you are a very, very foolish girl, and you had better turn back while there is yet a chance. If you will view it in the light of a loan from a stranger, I will advance your passage back to the States, and start an Indian over the trail with you to-morrow for Dyea.”
Once or twice Frona had attempted to interrupt him, but he had waved her imperatively to silence with his hand.
“I thank you,” she began; but he broke in,—
“Oh, not at all, not at all.”
“I thank you,” she repeated; “but it happens that—a—that you are mistaken. I have just come over the trail from Dyea and expect to meet my outfit already in camp here at Happy Camp. They started hours ahead of me, and I can’t understand how I passed them—yes I do, too! A boat was blown over to the west shore of Crater Lake this afternoon, and they must have been in it. That is where I missed them and came on. As for my turning back, I appreciate your motive for suggesting it, but my father is in Dawson, and I have not seen him for three years. Also, I have come through from Dyea this day, and am tired, and I would like to get some rest. So, if you still extend your hospitality, I’ll go to bed.”
“Impossible!” He kicked the blankets to one side, sat down on the flour sacks, and directed a blank look upon her.
“Are—are there any women in the other tents?” she asked, hesitatingly. “I did not see any, but I may have overlooked.”
“A man and his wife were, but they pulled stakes this morning. No; there are no other women except—except two or three in a tent, which—er—which will not do for you.”
“Do you think I am afraid of their hospitality?” she demanded, hotly. “As you said, they are women.”
“But I said it would not do,” he answered, absently, staring at the straining canvas and listening to the roar of the storm. “A man would die in the open on a night like this.
“And the other tents are crowded to the walls,” he mused. “I happen to know. They have stored all their caches inside because of the water, and they haven’t room to turn around. Besides, a dozen other strangers are storm-bound with them. Two or three asked to spread their beds in here to-night if they couldn’t pinch room elsewhere. Evidently they have; but that does not argue that there is any surplus space left. And anyway—”
He broke off helplessly. The inevitableness of the situation was growing.
“Can I make Deep Lake to-night?” Frona asked, forgetting herself to sympathize with him, then becoming conscious of what she was doing and bursting into laughter.
“But you couldn’t ford the river in the dark.” He frowned at her levity. “And there are no camps between.”
“Are you afraid?” she asked with just the shadow of a sneer.
“Not for myself.”
“Well, then, I think I’ll go to bed.”
“I might sit up and keep the fire going,” he suggested after a pause.
“Fiddlesticks!” she cried. “As though your foolish little code were saved in the least! We are not in civilization. This is the trail to the Pole. Go to bed.”
He elevated his shoulders in token of surrender. “Agreed. What shall I do then?”
“Help me make my bed, of course. Sacks laid crosswise! Thank you, sir, but I have bones and muscles that rebel. Here— Pull them around this way.”
Under her direction he laid the sacks lengthwise in a double row. This left an uncomfortable hollow with lumpy sack-corners down the middle; but she smote them flat with the side of the axe, and in the same manner lessened the slope to the walls of the hollow. Then she made a triple longitudinal fold in a blanket and spread it along the bottom of the long depression.
“Hum!” he soliloquized. “Now I see why I sleep so badly. Here goes!” And he speedily flung his own sacks into shape.
“It is plain you are unused to the trail,” she informed him, spreading the topmost blanket and sitting down.
“Perhaps so,” he made answer. “But what do you know about this trail life?” he growled a little later.
“Enough to conform,” she rejoined equivocally, pulling out the dried wood from the oven and replacing it with wet.
“Listen to it! How it storms!” he exclaimed. “It’s growing worse, if worse be possible.”
The tent reeled under the blows of the wind, the canvas booming hollowly at every shock, while the sleet and rain rattled overhead like skirmish-fire grown into a battle. In the lulls they could hear the water streaming off at the side-walls with the noise of small cataracts. He reached up curiously and touched the wet roof. A burst of water followed instantly at the point of contact and coursed down upon the grub-box.
“You mustn’t do that!” Frona cried, springing to her feet. She put her finger on the spot, and, pressing tightly against the canvas, ran it down to the side-wall. The leak at once stopped. “You mustn’t do it, you know,” she reproved.
“Jove!” was his reply. “And you came through from Dyea to-day! Aren’t you stiff?”
“Quite a bit,” she confessed, candidly, “and sleepy.”
“Good-night,” she called to him several minutes later, stretching her body luxuriously in the warm blankets. And a quarter of an hour after that, “Oh, I say! Are you awake?”
“Yes,” his voice came muffled across the stove. “What is it?”
“Have you the shavings cut?”
“Shavings?” he queried, sleepily. “What shavings?”
“For the fire in the morning, of course. So get up and cut them.”
He obeyed without a word; but ere he was done she had ceased to hear him.
The ubiquitous bacon was abroad on the air when she opened her eyes. Day had broken, and with it the storm. The wet sun was shining cheerily over the drenched landscape and in at the wide-spread flaps. Already work had begun, and groups of men were filing past under their packs. Frona turned over on her side. Breakfast was cooked. Her host had just put the bacon and fried potatoes in the oven, and was engaged in propping the door ajar with two sticks of firewood.
“Good-morning,” she greeted.
“And good-morning to you,” he responded, rising to his feet and picking up the water-bucket. “I don’t hope that you slept well, for I know you did.”
“I’m going out after some water,” he vouchsafed. “And when I return I shall expect you ready for breakfast.”
After breakfast, basking herself in the sun, Frona descried a familiar bunch of men rounding the tail of the glacier in the direction of Crater Lake. She clapped her hands.
“There comes my outfit, and Del Bishop as shame-faced as can be, I’m sure, at his failure to connect.” Turning to the man, and at the same time slinging camera and satchel over her shoulder, “So I must say good-by, not forgetting to thank you for your kindness.”
“Oh, not at all, not at all. Pray don’t mention it. I’d do the same for any——”
He looked his reproach, but went on. “I don’t know your name, nor do I wish to know it.”
“Well, I shall not be so harsh, for I do know your name, MISTER VANCE CORLISS! I saw it on the shipping tags, of course,” she explained. “And I want you to come and see me when you get to Dawson. My name is Frona Welse. Good-by.”
“Your father is not Jacob Welse?” he called after her as she ran lightly down towards the trail.
She turned her head and nodded.
But Del Bishop was not shamefaced, nor even worried. “Trust a Welse to land on their feet on a soft spot,” he had consoled himself as he dropped off to sleep the night before. But he was angry—“madder ‘n hops,” in his own vernacular.
“Good-mornin’,” he saluted. “And it’s plain by your face you had a comfortable night of it, and no thanks to me.”
“You weren’t worried, were you?” she asked.
“Worried? About a Welse? Who? Me? Not on your life. I was too busy tellin’ Crater Lake what I thought of it. I don’t like the water. I told you so. And it’s always playin’ me scurvy—not that I’m afraid of it, though.”
“Hey, you Pete!” turning to the Indians. “Hit ’er up! Got to make Linderman by noon!”
“Frona Welse?” Vance Corliss was repeating to himself.
The whole thing seemed a dream, and he reassured himself by turning and looking after her retreating form. Del Bishop and the Indians were already out of sight behind a wall of rock. Frona was just rounding the base. The sun was full upon her, and she stood out radiantly against the black shadow of the wall beyond. She waved her alpenstock, and as he doffed his cap, rounded the brink and disappeared.