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The Jack-pot

From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

As Uncle Bill Griswold came breathless from the raging whiteness outside
with an armful of bark and wood, the two long icicles hanging from the
ends of his mustache made him look like an industrious walrus. He drew
the fuel beside the tiny, sheet-iron camp stove, and tied fast the flap
of the canvas tent.

"We're in a jack-pot, all right."

He delivered the commonplace pronunciamento in a tone which would have
conveyed much to a mountain man. To Mr. Sprudell it meant only that he
might expect further annoyance. He demanded querulously:

"Did you find my shirt?"

Uncle Bill rolled his eyes with a droll grimace of despair toward the
mound of blankets in the corner whence came the muffled voice. The
innocence of a dude was almost pitiful. He answered dryly:

"I wouldn't swear to it--I wouldn't go so far as to make my affadavvy to
it, but I think I seen your shirt wavin' from a p'int a rock about
seventy mile to the south'ard--over t'ward the Thunder Mountain


"Gone"--mournfully--"where the woodbine twineth."

"And my trousers?"

"Where the wangdoodle mourneth fer his lost love. Blowed off. I got your
union suit out'n the top of a pine tree. You've no more pants than a
rabbit, feller. Everything went when the guy-ropes busted--I warned you
to sleep in your clothes."

"But what'll I do?" Sprudell quavered.

"Nothin'." His tone was as dry as punk. "You kin jest as well die in
them pink pajammers as anything else."

"Huh?" excitedly. The mound began to heave.

"I say we're in for it. There's a feel in the air like what the Injuns
call 'The White Death.' It hurt my lungs like I was breathin' darnin'
needles when I cut this wood. The drifts is ten feet high and gittin'
higher." Laconically: "The horses have quit us; we're afoot."

"Is that so? Well, we've got to get out of here--I refuse to put in
another such night. Lie still!" he commanded ferociously. "You're letting
in a lot of cold air. Quit rampin' round!" From which it may be gathered
that Mr. Sprudell, for purposes of warmth and protection, was sleeping
with the Chinese cook.

"Three in a bed is crowded," Uncle Bill admitted, with a grin.
"To-night you might try settin' up."

A head of tousled white hair appeared above the edge of the blankets,
then a pair of gleaming eyes. "I propose to get out of here to-day," Mr.
Sprudell announced, with hauteur.

"Indeed?" inquired Uncle Bill calmly. "Where do you aim to go?"

"I'm going back to Ore City--on foot, if need be--I'll walk!"

Uncle Bill explained patiently:

"The trail's wiped out, the pass is drifted full of snow, and the cold's
a fright. You'd be lost inside of fifteen yards. That's loco talk."

"I'm going to get up." There was offended dignity in Mr. Sprudell's

"You can't," said the old man shortly. "You ain't got no pants, and your
shoes is full of snow. I doubts if you has socks till I takes a stick
and digs around where your tepee was."

"Tsch! Tsch!" Mr. Sprudell's tongue clicked against his teeth in the
extreme of exasperation at Uncle Bill. By some process of reasoning he
blamed him for their present plight.

"I'm hungry!" he snapped, in a voice which implied that the fact was a
matter of moment.

"So am I," said Uncle Bill; "I'm holler to my toes."

"I presume"--in cold sarcasm--"there's no reason why we shouldn't
breakfast, since it's after ten."

"None at all," Uncle Bill answered easily, "except we're out of grub."


"I explained that to you four days ago, but you said you'd got to get a
sheep. I thought I could eat snowballs as long as you could. But I
didn't look for such a storm as this."

"There's nothing?" demanded Sprudell, aghast.

"Oh, yes, there's somethin'," grimly. "I kin take the ax and break up
a couple of them doughnuts and bile the coffee grounds again. To-night
we'll gorge ourselves on a can of froze tomatoes, though I hates to eat
so hearty and go right to bed. There's a pint of beans, too, that by
cookin' steady in this altitude ought to be done by spring. We'd 'a' had
that sheep meat, only it blowed out of the tree last night and
somethin' drug it off. Here's your doughnut."

Mr. Sprudell snatched eagerly at it and retired under the covers, where
a loud scrunching told of his efforts to masticate the frozen tidbit.

"Can you eat a little somethin', Toy? Is your rheumatiz a-hurtin' pretty

"Hiyu lumatiz," a faint voice answered, "plitty bad."

The look of gravity on the man's face deepened as he stood rubbing his
hands over the red-hot stove, which gave out little or no heat in the
intense cold.

The long hours of that day dragged somehow, and the next. When the third
day dawned, the tent was buried nearly to the ridgepole under snow.
Outside, the storm was roaring with unabated fury, and Uncle Bill's
emergency supply of wood was almost gone. He crept from under the
blankets and boiled some water, making a few tasteless pancakes with a
teacupful of flour.

Sprudell sat up suddenly and said, with savage energy:

"Look here--I'll give you a thousand dollars to get me out of this!"

Uncle Bill looked at him curiously. A thousand dollars! Wasn't that like
a dude? Dudes thought money could do anything, buy anything.

Uncle Bill would rather have had a sack of flour just then than all the
money Sprudell owned.

"Your check's no more good than a bunch of dried leaves. It's endurance
that's countin' from now on. We're up against it right, I tell you, with
Toy down sick and all."

Sprudell stared.

"Toy?" Was that why Griswold would not leave? "What's Toy got to do with
it?" he demanded.

It was the old man's turn to stare.

"What's Toy got to do with it?" He looked intently at Sprudell's small
round eyes--hard as agate--at his selfish, Cupid's mouth. "You don't
think I'd quit him, do you, when he's sick--leave him here to die
alone?" Griswold flopped a pancake in the skillet and added, in a
somewhat milder voice: "I've no special love for Chinks, but I've known
Toy since '79. He wouldn't pull out and leave me if I was down."

"But what about me?" Sprudell demanded furiously.

"You'll have to take your chances along with us. It may let up in a day
or two, and then again it mayn't. Anyway, the game goes; we stop eatin'
altogether before to-morry night."

"You got me into this fix! And what am I paying you five dollars a day
for, except to get me out and do as you are told?"

"I got you into this fix? I did?" The stove lids danced with the
vigor with which Uncle Bill banged down the frying pan. The mild old man
was stirred at last. "I sure like your nerve! And, say, when you talk to
me, jest try and remember that I don't wear brass buttons and a
uniform." His blue eyes blazed. "It's your infernal meanness that's to
blame, and nothin' else. I warned you--I told you half a dozen times
that you wasn't gittin' grub enough to come into the hills this time of
year. But you was so afraid of havin' six bits' worth left over that you
wouldn't listen to what I said. I don't like you anyhow. You're the
kind of galoot that ought never to git out of sight of a railroad. Now,
blast you--you starve!"

Incredible as the sensation was, Sprudell felt small. He had to remind
himself repeatedly who he was before he quite got back his poise, and no
suitable retort came to him, for his guide had told the truth. But the
thought that blanched his pink face until it was only a shade less white
than his thick, white hair was that he, T. Victor Sprudell, president of
the Bartlesville Tool Works, of Bartlesville, Indiana, was going to
starve! To freeze! To die in the pitiless hills like any penniless
prospector! His check-book was as useless as a bent weapon in his hand,
and his importance in the world counted for no more than that of the
Chinaman, by his side. Mr. Sprudell lay down again, weak from an
overwhelming sense of helplessness.

Sprudell had not realized it before; but now he knew that always in the
back of his head there had been a picture of an imposing cortege, blocks
long, following a wreath-covered coffin in which he reposed. And later,
an afternoon extra in which his demise was featured and his delicate,
unostentatious charities described--not that he could think of any, but
he presumed that that was the usual thing.

But this--this miserable finality! Unconsciously Sprudell groaned. To
die bravely in the sight of a crowd was sublime; but to perish alone,
unnoted, side by side with the Chinese cook and chiefly for want of
trousers in which to escape, was ignominious. He snatched his cold feet
from the middle of the cook's back.

Another wretched day passed, the event of which was the uncovering of
Sprudell's fine field boots in a drift outside. That night he did not
close his eyes. His nervousness became panic, and his panic like unto
hysteria. He ached with cold and his cramped position, and he was now
getting in earnest the gnawing pangs of hunger. What was a Chinaman's
life compared to his? There were millions like him left--and there was
only one Sprudell! In the faint, gray light of the fourth day, Griswold
felt him crawling out.

Griswold watched him while he kneaded the hard leather of his boots to
soften it, and listened to the chattering of his teeth while he went
through the Chinaman's war bag for an extra pair of socks.

"The sizes in them Levi Strauss' allus run too small," Uncle Bill
observed suddenly, after Sprudell had squeezed into Toy's one pair of

"There's no sense in us all staying here to starve," said Sprudell
defiantly, as though he had been accused. "I'm going to Ore City before
I get too weak to start."

"I won't stop you if you're set on goin'; but, as I told you once,
you'll be lost in fifteen yards. There's just one chance I see,
Sprudell, and I'll take it if you'll say you'll stay with Toy. I'll try
to get down to that cabin on the river. The feller may be there, and
again he may have gone for grub. I won't say that I can make it, but
I'll do my best."

Sprudell said stubbornly:

"I won't be left behind! It's every man for himself now."

The old man replied, with equal obstinacy:

"Then you'll start alone." He added grimly: "I reckon you've never
wallered snow neck deep."

For the first time the Chinaman stirred, and raising himself painfully
to his elbow, turned to Uncle Bill.

"You go, I think."

Griswold shook his head.

"That 'every-man-for-himself' talk aint the law we know, Toy."

The Chinaman reiterated, in monotone:

"You go, I think."

"You heard what I said."

"You take my watch, give him Chiny Charley. He savvy my grandson, the
little Sun Loon. Tell Chiny Charley he write the bank in Spokane for
send money to Chiny to pay on lice lanch. Tell Chiny Charley--he savvy
all. I stay here. You come back--all light. You no come back--all light.
I no care. You go now." He lay down. The matter was quite settled in
Toy's mind.

While Sprudell stamped around trying to get feeling into his numb feet
and making his preparations to leave, Uncle Bill lay still. He knew that
Toy was sincere in urging him to go, and finally he said:

"I'll take you at your word, Toy; I'll make the break. If there's nobody
in the cabin, I don't believe I'll have the strength to waller back
alone; but if there is, we'll get some grub together and come as soon as
we can start. I'll do my best."

The glimmer of a smile lighted old Toy's broad, Mongolian face when
Griswold was ready to go, and he laid his chiefest treasure in
Griswold's hand.

"For the little Sun Loon." His oblique, black eyes softened with
affectionate pride. "Plitty fine kid, Bill, hiyu wawa."

"For the little Sun Loon," repeated Uncle Bill gravely. "And hang on as
long as you can." Then he shook hands with Toy and divided the matches.

The old Chinaman turned his face to the wall of the tent and lay quite
still as the two went out and tied the flap securely behind them.

It did not take Sprudell long to realize that Uncle Bill was correct in
his assertion that he would have been lost alone in fifteen yards. He
would have been lost in less than that, or as soon as the full force of
the howling storm had struck him and the wind-driven snow shut out the
tent. He had not gone far before he wished that he had done as Uncle
Bill had told him and wrapped his feet in "Californy socks." The strips
of gunny sacking which he had refused because they looked bunglesome he
could see now were an immense protection against cold and wet. Sprudell
almost admitted, as he felt the dampness beginning to penetrate his
waterproof field boots, that there might still be some things he could

He gasped like a person taking a long, hard dive into icy water when
they plunged into the swirling world which shut out the tent they had
called home. And the wind that took his breath had a curious, piercing
quality that hurt, as Uncle Bill had said, like breathing darning
needles. "The White Death!" Literally it was that. Panting and quickly
exhausted, as he "wallered snow to his neck," T. Victor Sprudell began
seriously to doubt if he could make it.

"Aire you comin'?" There was no sympathy, only impatience, in the call
which kept coming back with increasing frequency, and Sprudell was
longing mightily for sympathy. He had a quaint conceit concerning his
toes, not being able to rid himself of the notion that when he removed
his socks they would rattle in the ends like bits of broken glass; and
soon he was so cold that he felt a mild wonder as to how his heart
could go on pumping congealed blood through the auricles and ventricles.
It had annoyed him at first when chunks of snow dropped from overhanging
branches and lodged between his neck and collar, to trickle down his
spine; but shortly he ceased to notice so small a matter. In the start,
when he had inadvertently slipped off a buried log and found himself
entangled in a network of down timber, he had struggled frantically to
get out, but now he experienced not even a glimmer of surprise when he
stepped off the edge of something into nothing. He merely floundered
like a fallen stage horse to get back, without excitement or any sense
of irritation. After three exhausting hours or so of fighting snow, his
frenzy lest he lose sight of Uncle Bill gave place to apathy. When he
fell, he even lay there--resting.

Generally he responded to Griswold's call; if the effort was too great,
he did not answer, knowing the old man would come back. That he came
back swearing made no difference, so long as he came back. He had
learned that Griswold would not leave him.

When he stumbled into a drift and settled back in the snow, it felt
exactly like his favorite leather chair by the fire-place in the
Bartlesville Commercial Club. He had the same cozy sensation of
contentment. He could almost feel the crackling fire warming his knees
and shins, and it required no great stretch of the imagination to
believe that by simply extending his hand he could grasp a glass of
whisky and seltzer on the wide arm-rest.

"What's the matter? Aire you down ag'in?"

How different the suave deference of his friends Abe Cone and Y. Fred
Smart to the rude tone and manner of this irascible guide! Mr. Sprudell
fancied that by way of reply he smiled a tolerant smile, but as a matter
of fact the expression of his white, set face did not change.

"Great cats! Have I got to go back and git that dude?" The intervening
feet looked like miles to the tired old man.

Wiry and seasoned as he was, he was nearly exhausted by the extra steps
he had taken and the effort he had put forth to coax and bully, somehow
to drag Sprudell along. The situation was desperate. The bitter cold
grew worse as night came on. He knew that they had worked their way down
toward the river, but how far down? Was the deep canyon he had tried to
follow the right one? Somewhere he had lost the "squaw ax," and dry wood
was inaccessible under snow. If it were not for Sprudell, he knew that
he could still plod on.

His deep breath of exhaustion was a groan as he floundered back and
shook the inert figure with all his might.

"Git up!" he shouted. "You must keep movin'! Do you want to lay right
down and die?"

"Lemme be!" The words came thickly, and Sprudell did not lift his eyes.

"He's goin' to freeze on me sure!" Uncle Bill tried to lift him, to
carry him, to drag him somehow--a dead weight--farther down the canyon.

It was hopeless. He let him fall and yelled. Again and again he yelled
into the empty world about him. Not so much that he expected an answer
as to give vent to his despair. There was not a chance in a million that
the miner in the cabin would hear him, even if he were there. But he
kept on yelling, whooping, yodling with all his might.

His heart leaped, and he stopped in the midst of a breath. He listened,
with his mouth wide open. Surely he heard an answering cry! Faint it
was--far off--as though it came through thicknesses of blankets--but it
was a cry! A human voice!

"Hello! Hello!"

He was not mistaken. From somewhere in the white world of desolation,
the answer came again:

"Hello! Hello!"

Uncle Bill was not much given to religious allusions except as a matter
of emphasis, but he told himself that that far-off cry of reassurance
sounded like the voice of God.

"Help!" he called desperately, sunk to his armpits in the snow. "Help!
Come quick!"

Night was so near that it had just about closed down when Bruce came
fighting his way up the canyon through the drifts to Griswold's side.
They wasted no time in words, but between them dragged and carried the
unresisting sportsman to the cabin.

The lethargy which had been so nearly fatal was without sensation, but
after an hour or so of work his saviors had the satisfaction of hearing
him begin to groan with the pain of returning circulation.

"Git up and stomp around!" Uncle Bill advised, when Sprudell could
stand. "But," sharply, as he stumbled, "look where you're goin'--that's
a corp' over there."

The admonition revived Sprudell as applications of snow and ice water
had not done. He looked in wide-mouthed inquiry at Bruce.

Bruce's somber eyes darkened as he explained briefly:

"We had a fuss, and he went crazy. He tried to get me with the ax."

There was no need to warn Sprudell again to "look where he was goin',"
as he existed from that moment with his gaze alternating between the
gruesome bundle and the gloomy face of his black-browed host.
Incredulity and suspicion shone plainly in his eyes. Sprudell's
imagination was a winged thing, and now it spread its startled pinions.
Penned up with a murderer--what a tale to tell in Bartlesville, if by
chance he returned alive! The fellow had him at his mercy, and what,
after all, did he know of Uncle Bill? Even fairly honest men sometimes
took desperate chances for so fat a purse as his.

Sprudell saw to it that neither of them got behind him as they moved
about the room.

Casting surreptitious glances at the bookshelf, where he looked to see
the life of Jesse James, he was astonished and somewhat reassured to
discover a title like "Fossil Fishes of the Old Red Sandstone of the
British Isles." It was unlikely, he reasoned, that a man who voluntarily
read, for instance, "Contributions to the Natural History of the United
States," would split his skull when his back was turned. Yet they
smacked of affectation to Sprudell, who associated good reading with
good clothes.

"These are your books--you read them?" There was skepticism, a covert
sneer in Sprudell's tone.

"I'd hardly pack them into a place like this if I didn't," Bruce
answered curtly.

"I suppose not," he hastened to admit, and added, patronizingly; "Who
is this fellow Agassiz?"

Bruce turned as sharply as if he had attacked a personal friend. The
famous, many-sided scientist was his hero, occupying a pedestal that no
other celebrity approached. Sprudell had touched him on a tender spot.

"That 'fellow Agassiz,'" he answered in cold mimicry, "was one of the
greatest men who ever lived. Where do you stop when you're home that you
never heard of Alexander Agassiz? I'd rather have been Alexander Agassiz
than the richest man in America--than any king. He was a great
scientist, a great mining engineer, a successful business man. He
developed and put the Calumet and Hecla on a paying basis. He made the
University Museum in Cambridge what it is. He knew more about sea
urchins and coral reefs than men who specialize, and they were only side
issues with him. I met him once when I was a kid, in Old Mexico; he
talked to me a little, and it was the honor of my life. I'd rather walk
behind and pack his suitcase like a porter than ride with the president
of the road!"

"Is that so?" Sprudell murmured, temporarily abashed.

"Great cats!" ejaculated Uncle Bill, with bulging eyes. "My head would
git a hot-box if I knowed jest half of that."

When Sprudell stretched his stiff muscles and turned his head upon the
bear-grass pillow at daybreak, Bruce was writing a letter on the corner
of the table and Uncle Bill was stowing away provisions in a small
canvas sack. He gathered, from the signs of preparation, that the miner
was going to try and find the Chinaman. Outside, the wind was still
sweeping the stinging snow before it like powder-driven shot. What a
fool he was to attempt it--to risk his life--and for what?

It was with immeasurable satisfaction that Sprudell told himself that
but for his initiative they would have been there yet. These fellows
needed a leader, a strong man--the ignorant always did. His eyes caught
the suggestive outlines of the blanket on the floor, and, with a start,
he remembered what was under it. They had no sensibilities, these
Westerners--they lacked fineness; certainly no one would suspect from
the matter-of-factness of their manner that they were rooming with a
corpse. For himself, he doubted if he could even eat.

"Oh, you awake?" Uncle Bill glanced at him casually.

"My feet hurt."

Uncle Bill ignored his plaintive tone.

"They're good and froze. They'll itch like forty thousand fleabites
atter while--like as not you'll haf to have them took off. Lay still and
don't clutter up the cabin till Burt gits gone. I'll cook you somethin'

Sprudell writhed under the indifferent familiarity of his tone. He
wished old Griswold had a wife and ten small children and was on the pay
roll of the Bartlesville Tool Works some hard winter. He'd----Sprudell's
resentment found an outlet in devising a variety of situations conducive
to the disciplining of Uncle Bill.

Bruce finished his letter and re-read it, revising a little here and
there. He looked at Sprudell while he folded it reflectively, as though
he were weighing something pro and con.

Sprudell was conscious that he was being measured, and, egotist though
he was, he was equally aware that Bruce's observations still left him in
some doubt.

Bruce walked to the window undecidedly, and then seemed finally to make
up his mind.

"I'm going to ask you to do me a favor, stranger, but only in case I
don't come back. I intend to, but"--he glanced instinctively out of the
window--"it's no sure thing I will.

"My partner has a mother and a sister--here's the address, though it's
twelve years old. If anything happens to me, I want you to promise that
you'll hunt them up. Give them this old letter and the picture and this
letter, here, of mine. This is half the gold dust--our season's work."
He placed a heavy canvas sample sack in Sprudell's hand. "Say that Slim
sent it; that although they might not think it because he did not write,
that just the same he thought an awful lot of them.

"I've told them in my letter about the placer here--it's theirs, the
whole of it, if I don't come back. See that it's recorded; women don't
understand about such things. And be sure the assessment work's kept up.
In the letter, there, I've given them my figures as to how the samples
run. Some day there'll be found a way to work it on a big scale, and
it'll pay them to hold on. That's all, I guess." He looked deep into
Sprudell's eyes. "You'll do it?"

"As soon as I get out."

"I'd just about come back and haunt you if you lied."

There were no heroics when he left them; he simply fastened on his pack
and went.

"Don't try to hunt me if I stay too long," was all he said to Uncle Bill
at parting. "If there's any way of getting there, I can make it just as
well alone."

It was disappointing to Sprudell--nothing like the Western plays at
tragic moments; no long handshakes and heart-breaking speeches of
farewell from the "rough diamonds."

"S' long," said Uncle Bill.

He polished a place on the window-pane with his elbow and watched Burt's
struggle with the cold and wind and snow begin.

"Pure grit, that feller," when, working like a snowplow, Bruce had
disappeared. "He's man all through." The old voice trembled. "Say!" He
turned ferociously. "Git up and eat!"

Uncle Bill grew older, grayer, grimmer in the days of waiting, days
which he spent principally moving between window and door, watching,
listening, saying to himself monotonously: It can't storm forever;
some time it's got to stop.

But in this he seemed mistaken, for the snow fell with only brief
cessation, and in such intervals the curious fog hung over the silent
mountains with the malignant persistency of an evil spirit.

He scraped the snow away from beside the cabin, and Sprudell helped him
bury Slim. Then, against the day of their going, he fashioned crude
snow-shoes of material he found about the cabin and built a rough hand

"If only 'twould thaw a little, and come a crust, he'd stand a whole lot
better show of gittin' down." Uncle Bill scanned the sky regularly for a
break somewhere each noon.

"Lord, yes, if it only would!" Sprudell always answered fretfully.
"There are business reasons why I ought to be at home."

The day came when the old man calculated that even with the utmost
economy Bruce must have been two days without food. He looked pinched
and shrivelled as he stared vacantly at the mouth of the canyon into
which Bruce had disappeared.

"He might kill somethin', if 'twould lift a little, but there's nothin'
stirrin' in such a storm as this. I feel like a murderer settin' here."

Sprudell watched him fearfully lest the irresolution he read in his face
change to resolve, and urged:

"There's nothing we can do but wait."

Days after the most sanguine would have abandoned hope, Uncle Bill hung
on. Sprudell paced the cabin like a captive panther, and his broad hints
became demands.

"A month of this, and there would be another killin'; I aches to choke
the windpipe off that dude," the old man told himself, and ignored the
peremptory commands.

The crust that he prayed for came at last, but no sign of Bruce; then a
gale blowing down the river swept it fairly clear of snow.

"Git ready!" Griswold said one morning. "We'll start." And Sprudell
jumped on his frosted feet for joy. "We'll take it on the ice to Long's
Crossin'," he vouchsafed shortly. "Ore City's closest, but I've no heart
to pack you up that hill."

He left a note on the kitchen table, though he had the sensation of
writing to the dead; and when he closed the door he did so reverently,
as he would have left a mausoleum. Then, dragging blankets and
provision behind them on the sled, they started for the river, past the
broken snow and the shallow grave where the dead madman lay, past the
clump of snow-laden willows where the starving horses that had worked
their way down huddled for shelter, too weak to move. Leaden-hearted,
Uncle Bill went with reluctant feet. Before a bend of the river shut
from sight the white-roofed cabin from which a tiny thread of smoke
still rose, he looked over his shoulder, wagging his head.

"I don't feel right about goin'. I shorely don't."

Next: The Returned Hero

Previous: Self-defence

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