The Stampede To Squaw Creek
From: Smoke Bellew
Two months after Smoke Bellew and Shorty went after moose for a
grubstake, they were back in the Elkhorn saloon at Dawson. The
hunting was done, the meat hauled in and sold for two dollars and a
half a pound, and between them they possessed three thousand dollars
in gold dust and a good team of dogs. They had played in luck.
Despite the fact that the gold rush had driven the game a hundred
miles or more into the mountains, they had, within half that
distance, bagged four moose in a narrow canyon.
The mystery of the strayed animals was no greater than the luck of
their killers, for within the day four famished Indian families
reporting no game in three days' journey back, camped beside them.
Meat was traded for starving dogs, and after a week of feeding,
Smoke and Shorty harnessed the animals and began freighting the meat
to the eager Dawson market.
The problem of the two men now, was to turn their gold-dust into
food. The current price for flour and beans was a dollar and a half
a pound, but the difficulty was to find a seller. Dawson was in the
throes of famine. Hundreds of men, with money but no food, had been
compelled to leave the country. Many had gone down the river on the
last water, and many more with barely enough food to last, had
walked the six hundred miles over the ice to Dyea.
Smoke met Shorty in the warm saloon, and found the latter jubilant.
"Life ain't no punkins without whiskey an' sweetenin'," was Shorty's
greeting, as he pulled lumps of ice from his thawing moustache and
flung them rattling on the floor. "An' I sure just got eighteen
pounds of that same sweetenin'. The geezer only charged three
dollars a pound for it. What luck did you have?"
"I, too, have not been idle," Smoke answered with pride. "I bought
fifty pounds of flour. And there's a man up on Adam Creek says
he'll let me have fifty pounds more to-morrow."
"Great! We'll sure live till the river opens. Say, Smoke, them
dogs of ourn is the goods. A dog-buyer offered me two hundred
apiece for the five of them. I told him nothin' doin'. They sure
took on class when they got meat to get outside of; but it goes
against the grain feedin' dog-critters on grub that's worth two and
a half a pound. Come on an' have a drink. I just got to celebrate
them eighteen pounds of sweetenin'."
Several minutes later, as he weighed in on the gold-scales for the
drinks, he gave a start of recollection.
"I plum forgot that man I was to meet in the Tivoli. He's got some
spoiled bacon he'll sell for a dollar an' a half a pound. We can
feed it to the dogs an' save a dollar a day on each's board bill.
"So long," said Smoke. "I'm goin' to the cabin an' turn in."
Hardly had Shorty left the place, when a fur-clad man entered
through the double storm-doors. His face lighted at sight of Smoke,
who recognized him as Breck, the man whose boat he had run through
the Box Canyon and White Horse rapids.
"I heard you were in town," Breck said hurriedly, as they shook
hands. "Been looking for you for half an hour. Come outside, I
want to talk with you."
Smoke looked regretfully at the roaring, red-hot stove.
"Won't this do?"
"No; it's important. Come outside."
As they emerged, Smoke drew off one mitten, lighted a match, and
glanced at the thermometer that hung beside the door. He re-
mittened his naked hand hastily as if the frost had burnt him.
Overhead arched the flaming aurora borealis, while from all Dawson
arose the mournful howling of thousands of wolf-dogs.
"What did it say?" Breck asked.
"Sixty below." Kit spat experimentally, and the spittle crackled in
the air. "And the thermometer is certainly working. It's falling
all the time. An hour ago it was only fifty-two. Don't tell me
it's a stampede."
"It is," Breck whispered back cautiously, casting anxious eyes about
in fear of some other listener. "You know Squaw Creek?--empties in
on the other side the Yukon thirty miles up?"
"Nothing doing there," was Smoke's judgment. "It was prospected
"So were all the other rich creeks. Listen! It's big. Only eight
to twenty feet to bedrock. There won't be a claim that don't run to
half a million. It's a dead secret. Two or three of my close
friends let me in on it. I told my wife right away that I was going
to find you before I started. Now, so long. My pack's hidden down
the bank. In fact, when they told me, they made me promise not to
pull out until Dawson was asleep. You know what it means if you're
seen with a stampeding outfit. Get your partner and follow. You
ought to stake fourth or fifth claim from Discovery. Don't forget--
Squaw Creek. It's the third after you pass Swede Creek."
When Smoke entered the little cabin on the hillside back of Dawson,
he heard a heavy familiar breathing.
"Aw, go to bed," Shorty mumbled, as Smoke shook his shoulder. "I'm
not on the night shift," was his next remark, as the rousing hand
became more vigorous. "Tell your troubles to the bar-keeper."
"Kick into your clothes," Smoke said. "We've got to stake a couple
Shorty sat up and started to explode, but Smoke's hand covered his
"Ssh!" Smoke warned. "It's a big strike. Don't wake the
neighbourhood. Dawson's asleep."
"Huh! You got to show me. Nobody tells anybody about a strike, of
course not. But ain't it plum amazin' the way everybody hits the
trail just the same?"
"Squaw Creek," Smoke whispered. "It's right. Breck gave me the
tip. Shallow bedrock. Gold from the grass-roots down. Come on.
We'll sling a couple of light packs together and pull out."
Shorty's eyes closed as he lapsed back into sleep. The next moment
his blankets were swept off him.
"If you don't want them, I do," Smoke explained.
Shorty followed the blankets and began to dress.
"Goin' to take the dogs?" he asked.
"No. The trail up the creek is sure to be unbroken, and we can make
better time without them."
"Then I'll throw 'em a meal, which'll have to last 'em till we get
back. Be sure you take some birch-bark and a candle."
Shorty opened the door, felt the bite of the cold, and shrank back
to pull down his ear-flaps and mitten his hands.
Five minutes later he returned, sharply rubbing his nose.
"Smoke, I'm sure opposed to makin' this stampede. It's colder than
the hinges of hell a thousand years before the first fire was
lighted. Besides, it's Friday the thirteenth, an' we're goin' to
trouble as the sparks fly upward."
With small stampeding packs on their backs, they closed the door
behind them and started down the hill. The display of the aurora
borealis had ceased, and only the stars leaped in the great cold,
and by their uncertain light made traps for the feet. Shorty
floundered off a turn of the trail into deep snow, and raised his
voice in blessing of the date of the week and month and year.
"Can't you keep still?" Smoke chided. "Leave the almanac alone.
You'll have all Dawson awake and after us."
"Huh! See the light in that cabin? And in that one over there?
An' hear that door slam? Oh, sure Dawson's asleep. Them lights?
Just buryin' their dead. They ain't stampedin', betcher life they
By the time they reached the foot of the hill and were fairly in
Dawson, lights were springing up in the cabins, doors were slamming,
and from behind came the sound of many moccasins on the hard-packed
snow. Again Shorty delivered himself.
"But it beats hell the amount of mourners there is."
They passed a man who stood by the path and was calling anxiously in
a low voice: "Oh, Charley; get a move on."
"See that pack on his back, Smoke? The graveyard's sure a long ways
off when the mourners got to pack their blankets."
By the time they reached the main street a hundred men were in line
behind them, and while they sought in the deceptive starlight for
the trail that dipped down the bank to the river, more men could be
heard arriving. Shorty slipped and shot down the thirty-foot chute
into the soft snow. Smoke followed, knocking him over as he was
rising to his feet.
"I found it first," he gurgled, taking off his mittens to shake the
snow out of the gauntlets.
The next moment they were scrambling wildly out of the way of the
hurtling bodies of those that followed. At the time of the freeze-
up, a jam had occurred at this point, and cakes of ice were up-ended
in snow-covered confusion. After several hard falls, Smoke drew out
his candle and lighted it. Those in the rear hailed it with
acclaim. In the windless air it burned easily, and he led the way
"It's a sure stampede," Shorty decided. "Or might all them be
"We're at the head of the procession at any rate," was Smoke's
"Oh, I don't know. Mebbe that's a firefly ahead there. Mebbe
they're all fireflies--that one, an' that one. Look at 'em.
Believe me, they is whole strings of processions ahead."
It was a mile across the jams to the west bank of the Yukon, and
candles flickered the full length of the twisting trail. Behind
them, clear to the top of the bank they had descended, were more
"Say, Smoke, this ain't no stampede. It's a exode-us. They must be
a thousand men ahead of us an' ten thousand behind. Now, you listen
to your uncle. My medicine's good. When I get a hunch it's sure
right. An' we're in wrong on this stampede. Let's turn back an'
hit the sleep."
"You'd better save your breath if you intend to keep up," Smoke
"Huh! My legs is short, but I slog along slack at the knees an'
don't worry my muscles none, an' I can sure walk every piker here
off the ice."
And Smoke knew he was right, for he had long since learned his
comrade's phenomenal walking powers.
"I've been holding back to give you a chance," Smoke jeered.
"An' I'm plum troddin' on your heels. If you can't do better, let
me go ahead and set pace."
Smoke quickened, and was soon at the rear of the nearest bunch of
"Hike along, you, Smoke," the other urged. "Walk over them unburied
dead. This ain't no funeral. Hit the frost like you was goin'
Smoke counted eight men and two women in this party, and before the
way across the jam-ice was won, he and Shorty had passed another
party twenty strong. Within a few feet of the west bank, the trail
swerved to the south, emerging from the jam upon smooth ice. The
ice, however, was buried under several feet of fine snow. Through
this the sled-trail ran, a narrow ribbon of packed footing barely
two feet in width. On either side one sank to his knees and deeper
in the snow. The stampeders they overtook were reluctant to give
way, and often Smoke and Shorty had to plunge into the deep snow,
and by supreme efforts flounder past.
Shorty was irrepressible and pessimistic. When the stampeders
resented being passed, he retorted in kind.
"What's your hurry?" one of them asked.
"What's yours?" he answered. "A stampede come down from Indian
River yesterday afternoon an' beat you to it. They ain't no claims
"That being so, I repeat, what's your hurry?"
"WHO? Me? I ain't no stampeder. I'm workin' for the government.
I'm on official business. I'm just traipsin' along to take the
census of Squaw Creek."
To another, who hailed him with: "Where away, little one? Do you
really expect to stake a claim?" Shorty answered:
"Me? I'm the discoverer of Squaw Creek. I'm just comin' back from
recordin' so as to see no blamed chechaquo jumps my claim."
The average pace of the stampeders on the smooth going was three
miles and a half an hour. Smoke and Shorty were doing four and a
half, though sometimes they broke into short runs and went faster.
"I'm going to travel your feet clean off, Shorty," Smoke challenged.
"Huh! I can hike along on the stumps an' wear the heels off your
moccasins. Though it ain't no use. I've ben figgerin'. Creek
claims is five hundred feet. Call 'em ten to the mile. They's a
thousand stampeders ahead of us, an' that creek ain't no hundred
miles long. Somebody's goin' to get left, an' it makes a noise like
you an' me."
Before replying, Smoke let out an unexpected link that threw Shorty
half a dozen feet in the rear.
"If you saved your breath and kept up, we'd cut down a few of that
thousand," he chided.
"Who? Me? If you's get outa the way I'd show you a pace what is."
Smoke laughed, and let out another link. The whole aspect of the
adventure had changed. Through his brain was running a phrase of
the mad philosopher--"the transvaluation of values." In truth, he
was less interested in staking a fortune than in beating Shorty.
After all, he concluded, it wasn't the reward of the game but the
playing of it that counted. Mind, and muscle, and stamina, and
soul, were challenged in a contest with this Shorty, a man who had
never opened the books, and who did not know grand opera from rag-
time, nor an epic from a chilblain.
"Shorty, I've got you skinned to death. I've reconstructed every
cell in my body since I hit the beach at Dyea. My flesh is as
stringy as whipcords, and as bitter and mean as the bite of a
rattlesnake. A few months ago I'd have patted myself on the back to
write such words, but I couldn't have written them. I had to live
them first, and now that I'm living them there's no need to write
them. I'm the real, bitter, stinging goods, and no scrub of a
mountaineer can put anything over on me without getting it back
compound. Now, you go ahead and set pace for half an hour. Do your
worst, and when you're all in I'll go ahead and give you half an
hour of the real worst."
"Huh!" Shorty sneered genially. "An' him not dry behind the ears
yet. Get outa the way an' let your father show you some goin'."
Half-hour by half-hour they alternated in setting pace. Nor did
they talk much. Their exertions kept them warm, though their breath
froze on their faces from lips to chin. So intense was the cold
that they almost continually rubbed their noses and cheeks with
their mittens. A few minutes cessation from this allowed the flesh
to grow numb, and then most vigorous rubbing was required to produce
the burning prickle of returning circulation.
Often they thought they had reached the lead, but always they
overtook more stampeders who had started before them. Occasionally,
groups of men attempted to swing in behind to their pace, but
invariably they were discouraged after a mile or two, and
disappeared in the darkness to the rear.
"We've been out on trail all winter," was Shorty's comment. "An'
them geezers, soft from laying around their cabins, has the nerve to
think they can keep our stride. Now, if they was real sour-doughs
it'd be different. If there's one thing a sour-dough can do it's
Once, Smoke lighted a match and glanced at his watch. He never
repeated it, for so quick was the bite of the frost on his bared
hands, that half an hour passed before they were again comfortable.
"Four o'clock," he said, as he pulled on his mittens, "and we've
already passed three hundred."
"Three hundred and thirty-eight," Shorty corrected. "I ben keepin'
count. Get outa the way, stranger. Let somebody stampede that
knows how to stampede."
The latter was addressed to a man, evidently exhausted, who could no
more than stumble along, and who blocked the trail. This, and one
other, were the only played-out men they encountered, for they were
very near to the head of the stampede. Nor did they learn till
afterwards the horrors of that night. Exhausted men sat down to
rest by the way, and failed to get up. Seven were frozen to death,
while scores of amputations of toes, feet, and fingers were
performed in the Dawson hospitals on the survivors. For of all
nights for a stampede, the one to Squaw Creek occurred on the
coldest night of the year. Before morning, the spirit thermometers
at Dawson registered seventy degrees below zero. The men composing
the stampede, with few exceptions, were new-comers in the country
who did not know the way of the cold.
The other played-out man they found a few minutes later, revealed by
a streamer of aurora borealis that shot like a searchlight from
horizon to zenith. He was sitting on a piece of ice beside the
"Hop along, sister Mary," Shorty gaily greeted him. "Keep movin'.
If you sit there you'll freeze stiff."
The man made no response, and they stopped to investigate.
"Stiff as a poker," was Shorty's verdict. "If you tumbled him over
"See if he's breathing," Smoke said, as, with bared hands, he sought
through furs and woollens for the man's heart.
Shorty lifted one ear-flap and bent to the iced lips.
"Nary breathe," he reported.
"Nor heart-beat," said Smoke.
He mittened his hand and beat it violently for a minute before
exposing it to the frost to strike a match. It was an old man,
incontestably dead. In the moment of illumination, they saw a long
grey beard, massed with ice to the nose, cheeks that were white with
frost, and closed eyes with frost-rimmed lashes frozen together.
Then the match went out.
"Come on," Shorty said, rubbing his ear. "We can't do nothing for
the old geezer. An' I've sure frosted my ear. Now all the blamed
skin'll peel off and it'll be sore for a week."
A few minutes later, when a flaming ribbon spilled pulsating fire
over the heavens, they saw on the ice a quarter of a mile ahead two
forms. Beyond, for a mile, nothing moved.
"They're leading the procession," Smoke said, as darkness fell
again. "Come on, let's get them."
At the end of half an hour, not yet having overtaken the two in
front, Shorty broke into a run.
"If we catch 'em we'll never pass 'em," he panted. "Lord, what a
pace they're hittin'. Dollars to doughnuts they're no chechaquos.
They're the real sour-dough variety, you can stack on that."
Smoke was leading when they finally caught up, and he was glad to
ease to a walk at their heels. Almost immediately he got the
impression that the one nearer him was a woman. How this impression
came, he could not tell. Hooded and furred, the dark form was as
any form; yet there was a haunting sense of familiarity about it.
He waited for the next flame of the aurora, and by its light saw the
smallness of the moccasined feet. But he saw more--the walk; and
knew it for the unmistakable walk he had once resolved never to
"She's a sure goer," Shorty confided hoarsely. "I'll bet it's an
"How do you do, Miss Gastell," Smoke addressed.
"How do you do," she answered, with a turn of the head and a quick
glance. "It's too dark to see. Who are you?"
She laughed in the frost, and he was certain it was the prettiest
laughter he had ever heard.
"And have you married and raised all those children you were telling
me about?" Before he could retort, she went on. "How many
chechaquos are there behind?"
"Several thousand, I imagine. We passed over three hundred. And
they weren't wasting any time."
"It's the old story," she said bitterly. "The new-comers get in on
the rich creeks, and the old-timers who dared and suffered and made
this country, get nothing. Old-timers made this discovery on Squaw
Creek--how it leaked out is the mystery--and they sent word up to
all the old-timers on Sea Lion. But it's ten miles farther than
Dawson, and when they arrive they'll find the creek staked to the
skyline by the Dawson chechaquos. It isn't right, it isn't fair,
such perversity of luck."
"It is too bad," Smoke sympathized. "But I'm hanged if I know what
you're going to do about it. First come, first served, you know."
"I wish I could do something," she flashed back at him. "I'd like
to see them all freeze on the trail, or have everything terrible
happen to them, so long as the Sea Lion stampede arrived first."
"You've certainly got it in for us, hard," he laughed.
"It isn't that," she said quickly. "Man by man, I know the crowd
from Sea Lion, and they are men. They starved in this country in
the old days, and they worked like giants to develop it. I went
through the hard times on the Koyokuk with them when I was a little
girl. And I was with them in the Birch Creek famine, and in the
Forty Mile famine. They are heroes, and they deserve some reward,
and yet here are thousands of green softlings who haven't earned the
right to stake anything, miles and miles ahead of them. And now, if
you'll forgive my tirade, I'll save my breath, for I don't know when
you and all the rest may try to pass dad and me."
No further talk passed between Joy and Smoke for an hour or so,
though he noticed that for a time she and her father talked in low
"I know'm now," Shorty told Smoke. "He's old Louis Gastell, an' the
real goods. That must be his kid. He come into this country so
long ago they ain't nobody can recollect, an' he brought the girl
with him, she only a baby. Him an' Beetles was tradin' partners an'
they ran the first dinkey little steamboat up the Koyokuk."
"I don't think we'll try to pass them," Smoke said. "We're at the
head of the stampede, and there are only four of us."
Shorty agreed, and another hour of silence followed, during which
they swung steadily along. At seven o'clock, the blackness was
broken by a last display of the aurora borealis, which showed to the
west a broad opening between snow-clad mountains.
"Squaw Creek!" Joy exclaimed.
"Goin' some," Shorty exulted. "We oughtn't to ben there for another
half hour to the least, accordin' to my reckonin'. I must a' ben
spreadin' my legs."
It was at this point that the Dyea trail, baffled by ice-jams,
swerved abruptly across the Yukon to the east bank. And here they
must leave the hard-packed, main-travelled trail, mount the jams,
and follow a dim trail, but slightly packed, that hovered the west
Louis Gastell, leading, slipped in the darkness on the rough ice,
and sat up, holding his ankle in both his hands. He struggled to
his feet and went on, but at a slower pace and with a perceptible
limp. After a few minutes he abruptly halted.
"It's no use," he said to his daughter. "I've sprained a tendon.
You go ahead and stake for me as well as yourself."
"Can't we do something?" Smoke asked.
Louis Gastell shook his head.
"She can stake two claims as well as one. I'll crawl over to the
bank, start a fire, and bandage my ankle. I'll be all right. Go
on, Joy. Stake ours above the Discovery claim; it's richer higher
"Here's some birch bark," Smoke said, dividing his supply equally.
"We'll take care of your daughter."
Louis Gastell laughed harshly.
"Thank you just the same," he said. "But she can take care of
herself. Follow her and watch her."
"Do you mind if I lead?" she asked Smoke, as she headed on. "I know
this country better than you."
"Lead on," Smoke answered gallantly, "though I agree with you it's a
darned shame all us chechaquos are going to beat that Sea Lion bunch
to it. Isn't there some way to shake them?"
She shook her head.
"We can't hide our trail, and they'll follow it like sheep."
After a quarter of a mile, she turned sharply to the west. Smoke
noticed that they were going through unpacked snow, but neither he
nor Shorty observed that the dim trail they had been on still led
south. Had they witnessed the subsequent procedure of Louis
Gastell, the history of the Klondike would have been written
differently; for they would have seen that old-timer, no longer
limping, running with his nose to the trail like a hound, following
them. Also, they would have seen him trample and widen the turn
they had made to the west. And, finally, they would have seen him
keep on the old dim trail that still led south.
A trail did run up the creek, but so slight was it that they
continually lost it in the darkness. After a quarter of an hour,
Joy Gastell was willing to drop into the rear and let the two men
take turns in breaking a way through the snow. This slowness of the
leaders enabled the whole stampede to catch up, and when daylight
came, at nine o'clock, as far back as they could see was an unbroken
line of men. Joy's dark eyes sparkled at the sight.
"How long since we started up the creek?" she asked.
"Fully two hours," Smoke answered.
"And two hours back makes four," she laughed. "The stampede from
Sea Lion is saved."
A faint suspicion crossed Smoke's mind, and he stopped and
"I don't understand," he said.
"You don't. Then I'll tell you. This is Norway Creek. Squaw Creek
is the next to the south."
Smoke was for the moment, speechless.
"You did it on purpose?" Shorty demanded.
"I did it to give the old-timers a chance."
She laughed mockingly. The men grinned at each other and finally
"I'd lay you across my knee an' give you a wallopin', if womenfolk
wasn't so scarce in this country," Shorty assured her.
"Your father didn't sprain a tendon, but waited till we were out of
sight and then went on?" Smoke asked.
"And you were the decoy."
Again she nodded, and this time Smoke's laughter rang out clear and
true. It was the spontaneous laughter of a frankly beaten man.
"Why don't you get angry with me?" she queried ruefully. "Or--or
"Well, we might as well be starting back," Shorty urged. "My feet's
gettin' cold standin' here."
Smoke shook his head.
"That would mean four hours lost. We must be eight miles up this
Creek now, and from the look ahead Norway is making a long swing
south. We'll follow it, then cross over the divide somehow, and tap
Squaw Creek somewhere above Discovery." He looked at Joy. "Won't
you come along with us? I told your father we'd look after you."
"I--" She hesitated. "I think I shall, if you don't mind." She
was looking straight at him, and her face was no longer defiant and
mocking. "Really, Mr Smoke, you make me almost sorry for what I
have done. But somebody had to save the old-timers."
"It strikes me that stampeding is at best a sporting proposition."
"And it strikes me you two are very game about it," she went on,
then added with the shadow of a sigh: "What a pity you are not old-
For two hours more they kept to the frozen creek-bed of Norway, then
turned into a narrow and rugged tributary that flowed from the
south. At midday they began the ascent of the divide itself.
Behind them, looking down and back, they could see the long line of
stampeders breaking up. Here and there, in scores of places, thin
smoke-columns advertised the making of camps.
As for themselves, the going was hard. They wallowed through snow
to their waists, and were compelled to stop every few yards to
breathe. Shorty was the first to call a halt.
"We ben hittin' the trail for over twelve hours," he said. "Smoke,
I'm plum willin' to say I'm good an' tired. An' so are you. An'
I'm free to shout that I can sure hang on to this here pascar like a
starvin' Indian to a hunk of bear-meat. But this poor girl here
can't keep her legs no time if she don't get something in her
stomach. Here's where we build a fire. What d'ye say?"
So quickly, so deftly and methodically, did they go about making a
temporary camp, that Joy, watching with jealous eyes, admitted to
herself that the old-timers could not do it better. Spruce boughs,
with a spread blanket on top, gave a foundation for rest and cooking
operations. But they kept away from the heat of the fire until
noses and cheeks had been rubbed cruelly.
Smoke spat in the air, and the resultant crackle was so immediate
and loud that he shook his head.
"I give it up," he said. "I've never seen cold like this."
"One winter on the Koyokuk it went to eighty-six below," Joy
answered. "It's at least seventy or seventy-five right now, and I
know I've frosted my cheeks. They're burning like fire."
On the steep slope of the divide there was no ice, while snow, as
fine and hard and crystalline as granulated sugar, was poured into
the gold-pan by the bushel until enough water was melted for the
coffee. Smoke fried bacon and thawed biscuits. Shorty kept the
fuel supplied and tended the fire, and Joy set the simple table
composed of two plates, two cups, two spoons, a tin of mixed salt
and pepper, and a tin of sugar. When it came to eating, she and
Smoke shared one set between them. They ate out of the same plate
and drank from the same cup.
It was nearly two in the afternoon when they cleared the crest of
the divide and began dropping down a feeder of Squaw Creek. Earlier
in the winter some moose-hunter had made a trail up the canyon--that
is, in going up and down he had stepped always in his previous
tracks. As a result, in the midst of soft snow, and veiled under
later snow falls, was a line of irregular hummocks. If one's foot
missed a hummock, he plunged down through unpacked snow and usually
to a fall. Also, the moose-hunter had been an exceptionally long-
legged individual. Joy, who was eager now that the two men should
stake, and fearing that they were slackening pace on account of her
evident weariness, insisted on taking the lead. The speed and
manner in which she negotiated the precarious footing, called out
Shorty's unqualified approval.
"Look at her!" he cried. "She's the real goods an' the red meat.
Look at them moccasins swing along. No high-heels there. She uses
the legs God gave her. She's the right squaw for any bear-hunter."
She flashed back a smile of acknowledgment that included Smoke. He
caught a feeling of chumminess, though at the same time he was
bitingly aware that it was very much of a woman who embraced him in
that comradely smile.
Looking back, as they came to the bank of Squaw Creek, they could
see the stampede, strung out irregularly, struggling along the
descent of the divide.
They slipped down the bank to the creek bed. The stream, frozen
solidly to bottom, was from twenty to thirty feet wide and ran
between six- and eight-foot earth banks of alluvial wash. No recent
feet had disturbed the snow that lay upon its ice, and they knew
they were above the Discovery claim and the last stakes of the Sea
"Look out for springs," Joy warned, as Smoke led the way down the
creek. "At seventy below you'll lose your feet if you break
These springs, common to most Klondike streams, never ceased at the
lowest temperatures. The water flowed out from the banks and lay in
pools which were cuddled from the cold by later surface-freezings
and snow falls. Thus, a man, stepping on dry snow, might break
through half an inch of ice-skin and find himself up to the knees in
water. In five minutes, unless able to remove the wet gear, the
loss of one's foot was the penalty.
Though only three in the afternoon, the long grey twilight of the
Arctic had settled down. They watched for a blazed tree on either
bank, which would show the centre-stake of the last claim located.
Joy, impulsively eager, was the first to find it. She darted ahead
of Smoke, crying: "Somebody's been here! See the snow! Look for
the blaze! There it is! See that spruce!"
She sank suddenly to her waist in the snow.
"Now I've done it," she said woefully. Then she cried: "Don't come
near me! I'll wade out."
Step by step, each time breaking through the thin skin of ice
concealed under the dry snow, she forced her way to solid footing.
Smoke did not wait, but sprang to the bank, where dry and seasoned
twigs and sticks, lodged amongst the brush by spring freshets,
waited the match. By the time she reached his side, the first
flames and flickers of an assured fire were rising.
"Sit down!" he commanded.
She obediently sat down in the snow. He slipped his pack from his
back, and spread a blanket for her feet.
From above came the voices of the stampeders who followed them.
"Let Shorty stake," she urged
"Go on, Shorty," Smoke said, as he attacked her moccasins, already
stiff with ice. "Pace off a thousand feet and place the two centre-
stakes. We can fix the corner-stakes afterwards."
With his knife Smoke cut away the lacings and leather of the
moccasins. So stiff were they with ice that they snapped and
crackled under the hacking and sawing. The Siwash socks and heavy
woollen stockings were sheaths of ice. It was as if her feet and
calves were encased in corrugated iron.
"How are your feet?" he asked, as he worked.
"Pretty numb. I can't move nor feel my toes. But it will be all
right. The fire is burning beautifully. Watch out you don't freeze
your own hands. They must be numb now from the way you're
He slipped his mittens on, and for nearly a minute smashed the open
hands savagely against his sides. When he felt the blood-prickles,
he pulled off the mittens and ripped and tore and sawed and hacked
at the frozen garments. The white skin of one foot appeared, then
that of the other, to be exposed to the bite of seventy below zero,
which is the equivalent of one hundred and two below freezing.
Then came the rubbing with snow, carried on with an intensity of
cruel fierceness, till she squirmed and shrank and moved her toes,
and joyously complained of the hurt.
He half-dragged her, and she half-lifted herself, nearer to the
fire. He placed her feet on the blanket close to the flesh-saving
"You'll have to take care of them for a while," he said.
She could now safely remove her mittens and manipulate her own feet,
with the wisdom of the initiated, being watchful that the heat of
the fire was absorbed slowly. While she did this, he attacked his
hands. The snow did not melt nor moisten. Its light crystals were
like so much sand. Slowly the stings and pangs of circulation came
back into the chilled flesh. Then he tended the fire, unstrapped
the light pack from her back, and got out a complete change of foot-
Shorty returned along the creek-bed and climbed the bank to them.
"I sure staked a full thousan' feet," he proclaimed. "Number
twenty-seven and number twenty-eight, though I'd only got the upper
stake of twenty-seven, when I met the first geezer of the bunch
behind. He just straight declared I wasn't goin' to stake twenty-
eight. An' I told him . . . ."
"Yes, yes," Joy cried. "What did you tell him?"
"Well, I told him straight that if he didn't back up plum five
hundred feet I'd sure punch his frozen nose into ice-cream an'
chocolate eclaires. He backed up, an' I've got in the centre-stakes
of two full an' honest five-hundred-foot claims. He staked next,
and I guess by now the bunch has Squaw Creek located to head-waters
an' down the other side. Ourn is safe. It's too dark to see now,
but we can put out the corner-stakes in the mornin'."
When they awoke, they found a change had taken place during the
night. So warm was it, that Shorty and Smoke, still in their mutual
blankets, estimated the temperature at no more than twenty below.
The cold snap had broken. On top their blankets lay six inches of
"Good morning! how's your feet?" was Smoke's greeting across the
ashes of the fire to where Joy Gastell, carefully shaking aside the
snow, was sitting up in her sleeping furs.
Shorty built the fire and quarried ice from the creek, while Smoke
cooked breakfast. Daylight came on as they finished the meal.
"You go an' fix them corner-stakes, Smoke," Shorty said. "There's a
gravel under where I chopped ice for the coffee, an' I'm goin' to
melt water and wash a pan of that same gravel for luck."
Smoke departed, axe in hand, to blaze the stakes. Starting from the
down-stream centre-stake of 'twenty-seven,' he headed at right
angles across the narrow valley towards its rim. He proceeded
methodically, almost automatically, for his mind was alive with
recollections of the night before. He felt, somehow, that he had
won to empery over the delicate lines and firm muscles of those feet
and ankles he had rubbed with snow, and this empery seemed to extend
to all women. In dim and fiery ways a feeling of possession
mastered him. It seemed that all that was necessary was for him to
walk up to this Joy Gastell, take her hand in his, and say "Come."
It was in this mood that he discovered something that made him
forget empery over the white feet of woman. At the valley rim he
blazed no corner-stake. He did not reach the valley rim, but,
instead, he found himself confronted by another stream. He lined up
with his eye a blasted willow tree and a big and recognizable
spruce. He returned to the stream where were the centre stakes. He
followed the bed of the creek around a wide horseshoe bend through
the flat, and found that the two creeks were the same creek. Next,
he floundered twice through the snow from valley rim to valley rim,
running the first line from the lower stake of 'twenty-seven,' the
second from the upper stake of 'twenty-eight,' and he found that THE
UPPER STAKE OF THE LATTER WAS LOWER THAN THE LOWER STAKE OF THE
FORMER. In the gray twilight and half-darkness Shorty had located
their two claims on the horseshoe.
Smoke plodded back to the little camp. Shorty, at the end of
washing a pan of gravel, exploded at sight of him.
"We got it!" Shorty cried, holding out the pan. "Look at it! A
nasty mess of gold. Two hundred right there if it's a cent. She
runs rich from the top of the wash-gravel. I've churned around
placers some, but I never got butter like what's in this pan."
Smoke cast an incurious glance at the coarse gold, poured himself a
cup of coffee at the fire, and sat down. Joy sensed something wrong
and looked at him with eagerly solicitous eyes. Shorty, however,
was disgruntled by his partner's lack of delight in the discovery.
"Why don't you kick in an' get excited?" he demanded. "We got our
pile right here, unless you're stickin' up your nose at two-hundred-
Smoke took a swallow of coffee before replying.
"Shorty, why are our two claims here like the Panama Canal?"
"What's the answer?"
"Well, the eastern entrance of the Panama Canal is west of the
western entrance, that's all."
"Go on," Shorty said. "I ain't seen the joke yet."
"In short, Shorty, you staked our two claims on a big horseshoe
Shorty set the gold pan down in the snow and stood up.
"Go on," he repeated.
"The upper stake of twenty-eight is ten feet below the lower stake
"You mean we ain't got nothin', Smoke?"
"Worse than that; we've got ten feet less than nothing."
Shorty departed down the bank on the run. Five minutes later he
returned. In response to Joy's look, he nodded. Without speech, he
went over to a log and sat down to gaze steadily at the snow in
front of his moccasins.
"We might as well break camp and start back for Dawson," Smoke said,
beginning to fold the blankets.
"I am sorry, Smoke," Joy said. "It's all my fault."
"It's all right," he answered. "All in the day's work, you know."
"But it's my fault, wholly mine," she persisted. "Dad's staked for
me down near Discovery, I know. I'll give you my claim."
He shook his head.
"Shorty," she pleaded.
Shorty shook his head and began to laugh. It was a colossal laugh.
Chuckles and muffled explosions yielded to hearty roars.
"It ain't hysterics," he explained, "I sure get powerful amused at
times, an' this is one of them."
His gaze chanced to fall on the gold pan. He walked over and
gravely kicked it, scattering the gold over the landscape.
"It ain't ourn," he said. "It belongs to the geezer I backed up
five hundred feet last night. An' what gets me is four hundred an'
ninety of them feet was to the good . . . his good. Come on, Smoke.
Let's start the hike to Dawson. Though if you're hankerin' to kill
me I won't lift a finger to prevent."
Next: Shorty Dreams
Previous: The Taste Of The Meat