The Wit of Porportuk
by Jack London
El-Soo had been a Mission girl. Her mother had died when she was very small, and Sister Alberta had plucked El-Soo as a brand from the burning, one summer day, and carried her away to Holy Cross Mission and dedicated her to God. El-Soo was a full-blooded Indian, yet she exceeded all the half-breed and quarter-breed girls. Never had the good sisters dealt with a girl so adaptable and at the same time so spirited.
El-Soo was quick, and deft, and intelligent; but above all she was fire, the living flame of life, a blaze of personality that was compounded of will, sweetness, and daring. Her father was a chief, and his blood ran in her veins. Obedience, on the part of El-Soo, was a matter of terms and arrangement. She had a passion for equity, and perhaps it was because of this that she excelled in mathematics.
But she excelled in other things. She learned to read and write English as no girl had ever learned in the Mission. She led the girls in singing, and into song she carried her sense of equity. She was an artist, and the fire of her flowed toward creation. Had she from birth enjoyed a more favourable environment, she would have made literature or music.
Instead, she was El-Soo, daughter of Klakee-Nah, a chief, and she lived in the Holy Cross Mission where were no artists, but only pure- souled Sisters who were interested in cleanliness and righteousness and the welfare of the spirit in the land of immortality that lay beyond the skies.
The years passed. She was eight years old when she entered the Mission; she was sixteen, and the Sisters were corresponding with their superiors in the Order concerning the sending of El-Soo to the United States to complete her education, when a man of her own tribe arrived at Holy Cross and had talk with her. El-Soo was somewhat appalled by him. He was dirty. He was a Caliban-like creature, primitively ugly, with a mop of hair that had never been combed. He looked at her disapprovingly and refused to sit down.
“Thy brother is dead,” he said shortly.
El-Soo was not particularly shocked. She remembered little of her brother. “Thy father is an old man, and alone,” the messenger went on. “His house is large and empty, and he would hear thy voice and look upon thee.”
Him she remembered–Klakee-Nah, the headman of the village, the friend of the missionaries and the traders, a large man thewed like a giant, with kindly eyes and masterful ways, and striding with a consciousness of crude royalty in his carriage.
“Tell him that I will come,” was El-Soo’s answer.
Much to the despair of the Sisters, the brand plucked from the burning went back to the burning. All pleading with El-Soo was vain. There was much argument, expostulation, and weeping. Sister Alberta even revealed to her the project of sending her to the United States. El-Soo stared wide-eyed into the golden vista thus opened up to her, and shook her head. In her eyes persisted another vista. It was the mighty curve of the Yukon at Tana-naw Station. With the St. George Mission on one side, and the trading post on the other, and midway between the Indian village and a certain large log house where lived an old man tended upon by slaves.
All dwellers on the Yukon bank for twice a thousand miles knew the large log house, the old man and the tending slaves; and well did the Sisters know the house, its unending revelry, its feasting and its fun. So there was weeping at Holy Cross when El-Soo departed.
There was a great cleaning up in the large house when El-Soo arrived. Klakee-Nah, himself masterful, protested at this masterful conduct of his young daughter; but in the end, dreaming barbarically of magnificence, he went forth and borrowed a thousand dollars from old Porportuk, than whom there was no richer Indian on the Yukon. Also, Klakee-Nah ran up a heavy bill at the trading post. El-Soo re- created the large house. She invested it with new splendour, while Klakee-Nah maintained its ancient traditions of hospitality and revelry.
All this was unusual for a Yukon Indian, but Klakee-Nah was an unusual Indian. Not alone did he like to render inordinate hospitality, but, what of being a chief and of acquiring much money, he was able to do it. In the primitive trading days he had been a power over his people, and he had dealt profitably with the white trading companies. Later on, with Porportuk, he had made a gold- strike on the Koyokuk River. Klakee-Nah was by training and nature an aristocrat. Porportuk was bourgeois, and Porportuk bought him out of the gold-mine. Porportuk was content to plod and accumulate. Klakee-Nah went back to his large house and proceeded to spend. Porportuk was known as the richest Indian in Alaska. Klakee-Nah was known as the whitest. Porportuk was a money-lender and a usurer. Klakee-Nah was an anachronism–a mediaeval ruin, a fighter and a feaster, happy with wine and song.
El-Soo adapted herself to the large house and its ways as readily as she had adapted herself to Holy Cross Mission and its ways. She did not try to reform her father and direct his footsteps toward God. It is true, she reproved him when he drank overmuch and profoundly, but that was for the sake of his health and the direction of his footsteps on solid earth.
The latchstring to the large house was always out. What with the coming and the going, it was never still. The rafters of the great living-room shook with the roar of wassail and of song. At table sat men from all the world and chiefs from distant tribes–Englishmen and Colonials, lean Yankee traders and rotund officials of the great companies, cowboys from the Western ranges, sailors from the sea, hunters and dog-mushers of a score of nationalities.
El-Soo drew breath in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. She could speak English as well as she could her native tongue, and she sang English songs and ballads. The passing Indian ceremonials she knew, and the perishing traditions. The tribal dress of the daughter of a chief she knew how to wear upon occasion. But for the most part she dressed as white women dress. Not for nothing was her needlework at the Mission and her innate artistry. She carried her clothes like a white woman, and she made clothes that could be so carried.
In her way she was as unusual as her father, and the position she occupied was as unique as his. She was the one Indian woman who was the social equal with the several white women at Tana-naw Station. She was the one Indian woman to whom white men honourably made proposals of marriage. And she was the one Indian woman whom no white man ever insulted.
For El-Soo was beautiful–not as white women are beautiful, not as Indian women are beautiful. It was the flame of her, that did not depend upon feature, that was her beauty. So far as mere line and feature went, she was the classic Indian type. The black hair and the fine bronze were hers, and the black eyes, brilliant and bold, keen as sword-light, proud; and hers the delicate eagle nose with the thin, quivering nostrils, the high cheek-bones that were not broad apart, and the thin lips that were not too thin. But over all and through all poured the flame of her–the unanalysable something that was fire and that was the soul of her, that lay mellow-warm or blazed in her eyes, that sprayed the cheeks of her, that distended the nostrils, that curled the lips, or, when the lip was in repose, that was still there in the lip, the lip palpitant with its presence.
And El-Soo had wit–rarely sharp to hurt, yet quick to search out forgivable weakness. The laughter of her mind played like lambent flame over all about her, and from all about her arose answering laughter. Yet she was never the centre of things. This she would not permit. The large house, and all of which it was significant, was her father’s; and through it, to the last, moved his heroic figure–host, master of the revels, and giver of the law. It is true, as the strength oozed from him, that she caught up responsibilities from his failing hands. But in appearance he still ruled, dozing, ofttimes at the board, a bacchanalian ruin, yet in all seeming the ruler of the feast.
And through the large house moved the figure of Porportuk, ominous, with shaking head, coldly disapproving, paying for it all. Not that he really paid, for he compounded interest in weird ways, and year by year absorbed the properties of Klakee-Nah. Porportuk once took it upon himself to chide El-Soo upon the wasteful way of life in the large house–it was when he had about absorbed the last of Klakee- Nah’s wealth–but he never ventured so to chide again. El-Soo, like her father, was an aristocrat, as disdainful of money as he, and with an equal sense of honour as finely strung.
Porportuk continued grudgingly to advance money, and ever the money flowed in golden foam away. Upon one thing El-Soo was resolved–her father should die as he had lived. There should be for him no passing from high to low, no diminution of the revels, no lessening of the lavish hospitality. When there was famine, as of old, the Indians came groaning to the large house and went away content. When there was famine and no money, money was borrowed from Porportuk, and the Indians still went away content. El-Soo might well have repeated, after the aristocrats of another time and place, that after her came the deluge. In her case the deluge was old Porportuk. With every advance of money, he looked upon her with a more possessive eye, and felt bourgeoning within him ancient fires.
But El-Soo had no eyes for him. Nor had she eyes for the white men who wanted to marry her at the Mission with ring and priest and book. For at Tana-naw Station was a young man, Akoon, of her own blood, and tribe, and village. He was strong and beautiful to her eyes, a great hunter, and, in that he had wandered far and much, very poor; he had been to all the unknown wastes and places; he had journeyed to Sitka and to the United States; he had crossed the continent to Hudson Bay and back again, and as seal-hunter on a ship he had sailed to Siberia and for Japan.
When he returned from the gold-strike in Klondike he came, as was his wont, to the large house to make report to old Klakee-Nah of all the world that he had seen; and there he first saw El-Soo, three years back from the Mission. Thereat, Akoon wandered no more. He refused a wage of twenty dollars a day as pilot on the big steamboats. He hunted some and fished some, but never far from Tana-naw Station, and he was at the large house often and long. And El-Soo measured him against many men and found him good. He sang songs to her, and was ardent and glowed until all Tana-naw Station knew he loved her. And Porportuk but grinned and advanced more money for the upkeep of the large house.
Then came the death table of Klakee-Nah.
He sat at feast, with death in his throat, that he could not drown with wine. And laughter and joke and song went around, and Akoon told a story that made the rafters echo. There were no tears or sighs at that table. It was no more than fit that Klakee-Nah should die as he had lived, and none knew this better than El-Soo, with her artist sympathy. The old roystering crowd was there, and, as of old, three frost-bitten sailors were there, fresh from the long traverse from the Arctic, survivors of a ship’s company of seventy-four. At Klakee-Nah’s back were four old men, all that were left him of the slaves of his youth. With rheumy eyes they saw to his needs, with palsied hands filling his glass or striking him on the back between the shoulders when death stirred and he coughed and gasped.
It was a wild night, and as the hours passed and the fun laughed and roared along, death stirred more restlessly in Klakee-Nah’s throat. Then it was that he sent for Porportuk. And Porportuk came in from the outside frost to look with disapproving eyes upon the meat and wine on the table for which he had paid. But as he looked down the length of flushed faces to the far end and saw the face of El-Soo, the light in his eyes flared up, and for a moment the disapproval vanished.
Place was made for him at Klakee-Nah’s side, and a glass placed before him. Klakee-Nah, with his own hands, filled the glass with fervent spirits. “Drink!” he cried. “Is it not good?”
And Porportuk’s eyes watered as he nodded his head and smacked his lips.
“When, in your own house, have you had such drink?” Klakee-Nah demanded.
“I will not deny that the drink is good to this old throat of mine,” Porportuk made answer, and hesitated for the speech to complete the thought.
“But it costs overmuch,” Klakee-Nah roared, completing it for him.
Porportuk winced at the laughter that went down the table. His eyes burned malevolently. “We were boys together, of the same age,” he said. “In your throat is death. I am still alive and strong.”
An ominous murmur arose from the company. Klakee-Nah coughed and strangled, and the old slaves smote him between the shoulders. He emerged gasping, and waved his hand to still the threatening rumble.
“You have grudged the very fire in your house because the wood cost overmuch!” he cried. “You have grudged life. To live cost overmuch, and you have refused to pay the price. Your life has been like a cabin where the fire is out and there are no blankets on the floor.” He signalled to a slave to fill his glass, which he held aloft. “But I have lived. And I have been warm with life as you have never been warm. It is true, you shall live long. But the longest nights are the cold nights when a man shivers and lies awake. My nights have been short, but I have slept warm.”
He drained the glass. The shaking hand of a slave failed to catch it as it crashed to the floor. Klakee-Nah sank back, panting, watching the upturned glasses at the lips of the drinkers, his own lips slightly smiling to the applause. At a sign, two slaves attempted to help him sit upright again. But they were weak, his frame was mighty, and the four old men tottered and shook as they helped him forward.
“But manner of life is neither here nor there,” he went on. “We have other business, Porportuk, you and I, to-night. Debts are mischances, and I am in mischance with you. What of my debt, and how great is it?”
Porportuk searched in his pouch and brought forth a memorandum. He sipped at his glass and began. “There is the note of August, 1889, for three hundred dollars. The interest has never been paid. And the note of the next year for five hundred dollars. This note was included in the note of two months later for a thousand dollars. Then there is the note–“
“Never mind the many notes!” Klakee-Nah cried out impatiently. “They make my head go around and all the things inside my head. The whole! The round whole! How much is it?”
Porportuk referred to his memorandum. “Fifteen thousand nine hundred and sixty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents,” he read with careful precision.
“Make it sixteen thousand, make it sixteen thousand,” Klakee-Nah said grandly. “Odd numbers were ever a worry. And now–and it is for this that I have sent for you–make me out a new note for sixteen thousand, which I shall sign. I have no thought of the interest. Make it as large as you will, and make it payable in the next world, when I shall meet you by the fire of the Great Father of all Indians. Then the note will be paid. This I promise you. It is the word of Klakee-Nah.”
Porportuk looked perplexed, and loudly the laughter arose and shook the room. Klakee-Nah raised his hands. “Nay,” he cried. “It is not a joke. I but speak in fairness. It was for this I sent for you, Porportuk. Make out the note.”
“I have no dealings with the next world,” Porportuk made answer slowly.
“Have you no thought to meet me before the Great Father!” Klakee-Nah demanded. Then he added, “I shall surely be there.”
“I have no dealings with the next world,” Porportuk repeated sourly.
The dying man regarded him with frank amazement.
“I know naught of the next world,” Porportuk explained. “I do business in this world.”
Klakee-Nah’s face cleared. “This comes of sleeping cold of nights,” he laughed. He pondered for a space, then said, “It is in this world that you must be paid. There remains to me this house. Take it, and burn the debt in the candle there.”
“It is an old house and not worth the money,” Porportuk made answer.
“There are my mines on the Twisted Salmon.”
“They have never paid to work,” was the reply.
“There is my share in the steamer Koyokuk. I am half owner.”
“She is at the bottom of the Yukon.”
Klakee-Nah started. “True, I forgot. It was last spring when the ice went out.” He mused for a time while the glasses remained untasted, and all the company waited upon his utterance.
“Then it would seem I owe you a sum of money which I cannot pay . . . in this world?” Porportuk nodded and glanced down the table.
“Then it would seem that you, Porportuk, are a poor business man,” Klakee-Nah said slyly. And boldly Porportuk made answer, “No; there is security yet untouched.”
“What!” cried Klakee-Nah. “Have I still property? Name it, and it is yours, and the debt is no more.”
“There it is.” Porportuk pointed at El-Soo.
Klakee-Nah could not understand. He peered down the table, brushed his eyes, and peered again.
“Your daughter, El-Soo–her will I take and the debt be no more. I will burn the debt there in the candle.”
Klakee-Nah’s great chest began to heave. “Ho! ho!–a joke. Ho! ho! ho!” he laughed Homerically. “And with your cold bed and daughters old enough to be the mother of El-Soo! Ho! ho! ho!” He began to cough and strangle, and the old slaves smote him on the back. “Ho! ho!” he began again, and went off into another paroxysm.
Porportuk waited patiently, sipping from his glass and studying the double row of faces down the board. “It is no joke,” he said finally. “My speech is well meant.”
Klakee-Nah sobered and looked at him, then reached for his glass, but could not touch it. A slave passed it to him, and glass and liquor he flung into the face of Porportuk.
“Turn him out!” Klakee-Nah thundered to the waiting table that strained like a pack of hounds in leash. “And roll him in the snow!”
As the mad riot swept past him and out of doors, he signalled to the slaves, and the four tottering old men supported him on his feet as he met the returning revellers, upright, glass in hand, pledging them a toast to the short night when a man sleeps warm.
It did not take long to settle the estate of Klakee-Nah. Tommy, the little Englishman, clerk at the trading post, was called in by El-Soo to help. There was nothing but debts, notes overdue, mortgaged properties, and properties mortgaged but worthless. Notes and mortgages were held by Porportuk. Tommy called him a robber many times as he pondered the compounding of the interest.
“Is it a debt, Tommy?” El-Soo asked.
“It is a robbery,” Tommy answered.
“Nevertheless, it is a debt,” she persisted.
The winter wore away, and the early spring, and still the claims of Porportuk remained unpaid. He saw El-Soo often and explained to her at length, as he had explained to her father, the way the debt could be cancelled. Also, he brought with him old medicine-men, who elaborated to her the everlasting damnation of her father if the debt were not paid. One day, after such an elaboration, El-Soo made final announcement to Porportuk.
“I shall tell you two things,” she said. “First I shall not be your wife. Will you remember that? Second, you shall be paid the last cent of the sixteen thousand dollars–“
“Fifteen thousand nine hundred and sixty-seven dollars and seventy- five cents,” Porportuk corrected.
“My father said sixteen thousand,” was her reply. “You shall be paid.”
“I know not how, but I shall find out how. Now go, and bother me no more. If you do”–she hesitated to find fitting penalty–“if you do, I shall have you rolled in the snow again as soon as the first snow flies.”
This was still in the early spring, and a little later El-Soo surprised the country. Word went up and down the Yukon from Chilcoot to the Delta, and was carried from camp to camp to the farthermost camps, that in June, when the first salmon ran, El-Soo, daughter of Klakee-Nah, would sell herself at public auction to satisfy the claims of Porportuk. Vain were the attempts to dissuade her. The missionary at St. George wrestled with her, but she replied–Only the debts to God are settled in the next world. The debts of men are of this world, and in this world are they settled.”
Akoon wrestled with her, but she replied, “I do love thee, Akoon; but honour is greater than love, and who am I that I should blacken my father?” Sister Alberta journeyed all the way up from Holy Cross on the first steamer, and to no better end.
“My father wanders in the thick and endless forests,” said El-Soo. “And there will he wander, with the lost souls crying, till the debt be paid. Then, and not until then, may he go on to the house of the Great Father.”
“And you believe this?” Sister Alberta asked.
“I do not know,” El-Soo made answer. “It was my father’s belief.”
Sister Alberta shrugged her shoulders incredulously.
“Who knows but that the things we believe come true?” El-Soo went on. “Why not? The next world to you may be heaven and harps . . . because you have believed heaven and harps; to my father the next world may be a large house where he will sit always at table feasting with God.”
“And you?” Sister Alberta asked. “What is your next world?”
El-Soo hesitated but for a moment. “I should like a little of both,” she said. “I should like to see your face as well as the face of my father.”
The day of the auction came. Tana-naw Station was populous. As was their custom, the tribes had gathered to await the salmon-run, and in the meantime spent the time in dancing and frolicking, trading and gossiping. Then there was the ordinary sprinkling of white adventurers, traders, and prospectors, and, in addition, a large number of white men who had come because of curiosity or interest in the affair.
It had been a backward spring, and the salmon were late in running. This delay but keyed up the interest. Then, on the day of the auction, the situation was made tense by Akoon. He arose and made public and solemn announcement that whosoever bought El-Soo would forthwith and immediately die. He flourished the Winchester in his hand to indicate the manner of the taking-off. El-Soo was angered thereat; but he refused to speak with her, and went to the trading post to lay in extra ammunition.
The first salmon was caught at ten o’clock in the evening, and at midnight the auction began. It took place on top of the high bank alongside the Yukon. The sun was due north just below the horizon, and the sky was lurid red. A great crowd gathered about the table and the two chairs that stood near the edge of the bank. To the fore were many white men and several chiefs. And most prominently to the fore, rifle in hand, stood Akoon. Tommy, at El-Soo’s request, served as auctioneer, but she made the opening speech and described the goods about to be sold. She was in native costume, in the dress of a chief’s daughter, splendid and barbaric, and she stood on a chair, that she might be seen to advantage.
“Who will buy a wife?” she asked. “Look at me. I am twenty years old and a maid. I will be a good wife to the man who buys me. If he is a white man, I shall dress in the fashion of white women; if he is an Indian, I shall dress as”–she hesitated a moment–“a squaw. I can make my own clothes, and sew, and wash, and mend. I was taught for eight years to do these things at Holy Cross Mission. I can read and write English, and I know how to play the organ. Also I can do arithmetic and some algebra–a little. I shall be sold to the highest bidder, and to him I will make out a bill of sale of myself. I forgot to say that I can sing very well, and that I have never been sick in my life. I weigh one hundred and thirty-two pounds; my father is dead and I have no relatives. Who wants me?”
She looked over the crowd with flaming audacity and stepped down. At Tommy’s request she stood upon the chair again, while he mounted the second chair and started the bidding.
Surrounding El-Soo stood the four old slaves of her father. They were age-twisted and palsied, faithful to their meat, a generation out of the past that watched unmoved the antics of younger life. In the front of the crowd were several Eldorado and Bonanza kings from the Upper Yukon, and beside them, on crutches, swollen with scurvy, were two broken prospectors. From the midst of the crowd, thrust out by its own vividness, appeared the face of a wild-eyed squaw from the remote regions of the Upper Tana-naw; a strayed Sitkan from the coast stood side by side with a Stick from Lake Le Barge, and, beyond, a half-dozen French-Canadian voyageurs, grouped by themselves. From afar came the faint cries of myriads of wild-fowl on the nesting- grounds. Swallows were skimming up overhead from the placid surface of the Yukon, and robins were singing. The oblique rays of the hidden sun shot through the smoke, high-dissipated from forest fires a thousand miles away, and turned the heavens to sombre red, while the earth shone red in the reflected glow. This red glow shone in the faces of all, and made everything seem unearthly and unreal.
The bidding began slowly. The Sitkan, who was a stranger in the land and who had arrived only half an hour before, offered one hundred dollars in a confident voice, and was surprised when Akoon turned threateningly upon him with the rifle. The bidding dragged. An Indian from the Tozikakat, a pilot, bid one hundred and fifty, and after some time a gambler, who had been ordered out of the Upper Country, raised the bid to two hundred. El-Soo was saddened; her pride was hurt; but the only effect was that she flamed more audaciously upon the crowd.
There was a disturbance among the onlookers as Porportuk forced his way to the front. “Five hundred dollars!” he bid in a loud voice, then looked about him proudly to note the effect.
He was minded to use his great wealth as a bludgeon with which to stun all competition at the start. But one of the voyageurs, looking on El-Soo with sparkling eyes, raised the bid a hundred.
“Seven hundred!” Porportuk returned promptly.
And with equal promptness came the “Eight hundred” of the voyageur.
Then Porportuk swung his club again.
“Twelve hundred!” he shouted.
With a look of poignant disappointment, the voyageur succumbed. There was no further bidding. Tommy worked hard, but could not elicit a bid.
El-Soo spoke to Porportuk. “It were good, Porportuk, for you to weigh well your bid. Have you forgotten the thing I told you–that I would never marry you!”
“It is a public auction,” he retorted. “I shall buy you with a bill of sale. I have offered twelve hundred dollars. You come cheap.”
“Too damned cheap!” Tommy cried. “What if I am auctioneer? That does not prevent me from bidding. I’ll make it thirteen hundred.”
“Fourteen hundred,” from Porportuk.
“I’ll buy you in to be my–my sister,” Tommy whispered to El-Soo, then called aloud, “Fifteen hundred!”
At two thousand one of the Eldorado kings took a hand, and Tommy dropped out.
A third time Porportuk swung the club of his wealth, making a clean raise of five hundred dollars. But the Eldorado king’s pride was touched. No man could club him. And he swung back another five hundred.
El-Soo stood at three thousand. Porportuk made it thirty-five hundred, and gasped when the Eldorado king raised it a thousand dollars. Porportuk again raised it five hundred, and again gasped when the king raised a thousand more.
Porportuk became angry. His pride was touched; his strength was challenged, and with him strength took the form of wealth. He would not be ashamed for weakness before the world. El-Soo became incidental. The savings and scrimpings from the cold nights of all his years were ripe to be squandered. El-Soo stood at six thousand. He made it seven thousand. And then, in thousand-dollar bids, as fast as they could be uttered, her price went up. At fourteen thousand the two men stopped for breath.
Then the unexpected happened. A still heavier club was swung. In the pause that ensued, the gambler, who had scented a speculation and formed a syndicate with several of his fellows, bid sixteen thousand dollars.
“Seventeen thousand,” Porportuk said weakly.
“Eighteen thousand,” said the king.
Porportuk gathered his strength. “Twenty thousand.”
The syndicate dropped out. The Eldorado king raised a thousand, and Porportuk raised back; and as they bid, Akoon turned from one to the other, half menacingly, half curiously, as though to see what manner of man it was that he would have to kill. When the king prepared to make his next bid, Akoon having pressed closer, the king first loosed the revolver at his hip, then said:
“Twenty-four thousand,” said Porportuk. He grinned viciously, for the certitude of his bidding had at last shaken the king. The latter moved over close to El-Soo. He studied her carefully for a long while.
“And five hundred,” he said at last.
“Twenty-five thousand,” came Porportuk’s raise.
The king looked for a long space, and shook his head. He looked again, and said reluctantly, “And five hundred.”
“Twenty-six thousand,” Porportuk snapped.
The king shook his head and refused to meet Tommy’s pleading eye. In the meantime Akoon had edged close to Porportuk. El-Soo’s quick eye noted this, and, while Tommy wrestled with the Eldorado king for another bid, she bent, and spoke in a low voice in the ear of a slave. And while Tommy’s “Going–going–going–” dominated the air, the slave went up to Akoon and spoke in a low voice in his ear. Akoon made no sign that he had heard, though El-Soo watched him anxiously.
“Gone!” Tommy’s voice rang out. “To Porportuk, for twenty-six thousand dollars.”
Porportuk glanced uneasily at Akoon. All eyes were centred upon Akoon, but he did nothing.
“Let the scales be brought,” said El-Soo.
“I shall make payment at my house,” said Porportuk.
“Let the scales be brought,” El-Soo repeated. “Payment shall be made here where all can see.”
So the gold scales were brought from the trading post, while Porportuk went away and came back with a man at his heels, on whose shoulders was a weight of gold-dust in moose-hide sacks. Also, at Porportuk’s back, walked another man with a rifle, who had eyes only for Akoon.
“Here are the notes and mortgages,” said Porportuk, “for fifteen thousand nine hundred and sixty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents.”
El-Soo received them into her hands and said to Tommy, “Let them be reckoned as sixteen thousand.”
“There remains ten thousand dollars to be paid in gold,” Tommy said.
Porportuk nodded, and untied the mouths of the sacks. El-Soo, standing at the edge of the bank, tore the papers to shreds and sent them fluttering out over the Yukon. The weighing began, but halted.
“Of course, at seventeen dollars,” Porportuk had said to Tommy, as he adjusted the scales.
“At sixteen dollars,” El-Soo said sharply.
“It is the custom of all the land to reckon gold at seventeen dollars for each ounce,” Porportuk replied. “And this is a business transaction.”
El-Soo laughed. “It is a new custom,” she said. “It began this spring. Last year, and the years before, it was sixteen dollars an ounce. When my father’s debt was made, it was sixteen dollars. When he spent at the store the money he got from you, for one ounce he was given sixteen dollars’ worth of flour, not seventeen. Wherefore, shall you pay for me at sixteen, and not at seventeen.” Porportuk grunted and allowed the weighing to proceed.
“Weigh it in three piles, Tommy,” she said. “A thousand dollars here, three thousand here, and here six thousand.”
It was slow work, and, while the weighing went on, Akoon was closely watched by all.
“He but waits till the money is paid,” one said; and the word went around and was accepted, and they waited for what Akoon should do when the money was paid. And Porportuk’s man with the rifle waited and watched Akoon.
The weighing was finished, and the gold-dust lay on the table in three dark-yellow heaps. “There is a debt of my father to the Company for three thousand dollars,” said El-Soo. “Take it, Tommy, for the Company. And here are four old men, Tommy. You know them. And here is one thousand dollars. Take it, and see that the old men are never hungry and never without tobacco.”
Tommy scooped the gold into separate sacks. Six thousand dollars remained on the table. El-Soo thrust the scoop into the heap, and with a sudden turn whirled the contents out and down to the Yukon in a golden shower. Porportuk seized her wrist as she thrust the scoop a second time into the heap.
“It is mine,” she said calmly. Porportuk released his grip, but he gritted his teeth and scowled darkly as she continued to scoop the gold into the river till none was left.
The crowd had eyes for naught but Akoon, and the rifle of Porportuk’s man lay across the hollow of his arm, the muzzle directed at Akoon a yard away, the man’s thumb on the hammer. But Akoon did nothing.
“Make out the bill of sale,” Porportuk said grimly.
And Tommy made out the till of sale, wherein all right and title in the woman El-Soo was vested in the man Porportuk. El-Soo signed the document, and Porportuk folded it and put it away in his pouch. Suddenly his eyes flashed, and in sudden speech he addressed El-Soo.
“But it was not your father’s debt,” he said, “What I paid was the price for you. Your sale is business of to-day and not of last year and the years before. The ounces paid for you will buy at the post to-day seventeen dollars of flour, and not sixteen. I have lost a dollar on each ounce. I have lost six hundred and twenty-five dollars.”
El-Soo thought for a moment, and saw the error she had made. She smiled, and then she laughed.
“You are right,” she laughed, “I made a mistake. But it is too late. You have paid, and the gold is gone. You did not think quick. It is your loss. Your wit is slow these days, Porportuk. You are getting old.”
He did not answer. He glanced uneasily at Akoon, and was reassured. His lips tightened, and a hint of cruelty came into his face. “Come,” he said, “we will go to my house.”
“Do you remember the two things I told you in the spring?” El-Soo asked, making no movement to accompany him.
“My head would be full with the things women say, did I heed them,” he answered.
“I told you that you would be paid,” El-Soo went on carefully. “And I told you that I would never be your wife.”
“But that was before the bill of sale.” Porportuk crackled the paper between his fingers inside the pouch. “I have bought you before all the world. You belong to me. You will not deny that you belong to me.”
“I belong to you,” El-Soo said steadily.
“I own you.”
“You own me.”
Porportuk’s voice rose slightly and triumphantly. “As a dog, I own you.”
“As a dog you own me,” El-Soo continued calmly. “But, Porportuk, you forget the thing I told you. Had any other man bought me, I should have been that man’s wife. I should have been a good wife to that man. Such was my will. But my will with you was that I should never be your wife. Wherefore, I am your dog.”
Porportuk knew that he played with fire, and he resolved to play firmly. “Then I speak to you, not as El-Soo, but as a dog,” he said; “and I tell you to come with me.” He half reached to grip her arm, but with a gesture she held him back.
“Not so fast, Porportuk. You buy a dog. The dog runs away. It is your loss. I am your dog. What if I run away?”
“As the owner of the dog, I shall beat you–“
“When you catch me?”
“When I catch you.”
“Then catch me.”
He reached swiftly for her, but she eluded him. She laughed as she circled around the table. “Catch her!” Porportuk commanded the Indian with the rifle, who stood near to her. But as the Indian stretched forth his arm to her, the Eldorado king felled him with a fist blow under the ear. The rifle clattered to the ground. Then was Akoon’s chance. His eyes glittered, but he did nothing.
Porportuk was an old man, but his cold nights retained for him his activity. He did not circle the table. He came across suddenly, over the top of the table. El-Soo was taken off her guard. She sprang back with a sharp cry of alarm, and Porportuk would have caught her had it not been for Tommy. Tommy’s leg went out, Porportuk tripped and pitched forward on the ground. El-Soo got her start.
“Then catch me,” she laughed over her shoulder, as she fled away.
She ran lightly and easily, but Porportuk ran swiftly and savagely. He outran her. In his youth he had been swiftest of all the young men. But El-Soo dodged in a willowy, elusive way. Being in native dress, her feet were not cluttered with skirts, and her pliant body curved a flight that defied the gripping fingers of Porportuk.
With laughter and tumult, the great crowd scattered out to see the chase. It led through the Indian encampment; and ever dodging, circling, and reversing, El-Soo and Porportuk appeared and disappeared among the tents. El-Soo seemed to balance herself against the air with her arms, now one side, now on the other, and sometimes her body, too, leaned out upon the air far from the perpendicular as she achieved her sharpest curves. And Porportuk, always a leap behind, or a leap this side or that, like a lean hound strained after her.
They crossed the open ground beyond the encampment and disappeared in the forest. Tana-naw Station waited their reappearance, and long and vainly it waited.
In the meantime Akoon ate and slept, and lingered much at the steamboat landing, deaf to the rising resentment of Tana-naw Station in that he did nothing. Twenty-four hours later Porportuk returned. He was tired and savage. He spoke to no one but Akoon, and with him tried to pick a quarrel. But Akoon shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Porportuk did not waste time. He outfitted half a dozen of the young men, selecting the best trackers and travellers, and at their head plunged into the forest.
Next day the steamer Seattle, bound up river, pulled in to the shore and wooded up. When the lines were cast off and she churned out from the bank, Akoon was on board in the pilot-house. Not many hours afterward, when it was his turn at the wheel, he saw a small birchbark canoe put off from the shore. There was only one person in it. He studied it carefully, put the wheel over, and slowed down.
The captain entered the pilot-house. “What’s the matter?” he demanded. “The water’s good.”
Akoon grunted. He saw a larger canoe leaving the bank, and in it were a number of persons. As the Seattle lost headway, he put the wheel over some more.
The captain fumed. “It’s only a squaw,” he protested.
Akoon did not grunt. He was all eyes for the squaw and the pursuing canoe. In the latter six paddles were flashing, while the squaw paddled slowly.
“You’ll be aground,” the captain protested, seizing the wheel.
But Akoon countered his strength on the wheel and looked him in the eyes. The captain slowly released the spokes.
“Queer beggar,” he sniffed to himself.
Akoon held the Seattle on the edge of the shoal water and waited till he saw the squaw’s fingers clutch the forward rail. Then he signalled for full speed ahead and ground the wheel over. The large canoe was very near, but the gap between it and the steamer was widening.
The squaw laughed and leaned over the rail.
“Then catch me, Porportuk!” she cried.
Akoon left the steamer at Fort Yukon. He outfitted a small poling- boat and went up the Porcupine River. And with him went El-Soo. It was a weary journey, and the way led across the backbone of the world; but Akoon had travelled it before. When they came to the head-waters of the Porcupine, they left the boat and went on foot across the Rocky Mountains.
Akoon greatly liked to walk behind El-Soo and watch the movements of her. There was a music in it that he loved. And especially he loved the well-rounded calves in their sheaths of soft-tanned leather, the slim ankles, and the small moccasined feet that were tireless through the longest days.
“You are light as air,” he said, looking up at her. “It is no labour for you to walk. You almost float, so lightly do your feet rise and fall. You are like a deer, El-Soo; you are like a deer, and your eyes are like deer’s eyes, sometimes when you look at me, or when you hear a quick sound and wonder if it be danger that stirs. Your eyes are like a deer’s eyes now as you look at me.”
And El-Soo, luminous and melting, bent and kissed Akoon.
“When we reach the Mackenzie, we will not delay,” Akoon said later. “We will go south before the winter catches us. We will go to the sunlands where there is no snow. But we will return. I have seen much of the world, and there is no land like Alaska, no sun like our sun, and the snow is good after the long summer.”
“And you will learn to read,” said El-Soo.
And Akoon said, “I will surely learn to read.” But there was delay when they reached the Mackenzie. They fell in with a band of Mackenzie Indians, and, hunting, Akoon was shot by accident. The rifle was in the hands of a youth. The bullet broke Akoon’s right arm and, ranging farther, broke two of his ribs. Akoon knew rough surgery, while El-Soo had learned some refinements at Holy Cross. The bones were finally set, and Akoon lay by the fire for them to knit. Also, he lay by the fire so that the smoke would keep the mosquitoes away.
Then it was that Porportuk, with his six young men, arrived. Akoon groaned in his helplessness and made appeal to the Mackenzies. But Porportuk made demand, and the Mackenzies were perplexed. Porportuk was for seizing upon El-Soo, but this they would not permit. Judgment must be given, and, as it was an affair of man and woman, the council of the old men was called–this that warm judgment might not be given by the young men, who were warm of heart.
The old men sat in a circle about the smudge-fire. Their faces were lean and wrinkled, and they gasped and panted for air. The smoke was not good for them. Occasionally they struck with withered hands at the mosquitoes that braved the smoke. After such exertion they coughed hollowly and painfully. Some spat blood, and one of them sat a bit apart with head bowed forward, and bled slowly and continuously at the mouth; the coughing sickness had gripped them. They were as dead men; their time was short. It was a judgment of the dead.
“And I paid for her a heavy price,” Porportuk concluded his complaint. “Such a price you have never seen. Sell all that is yours–sell your spears and arrows and rifles, sell your skins and furs, sell your tents and boats and dogs, sell everything, and you will not have maybe a thousand dollars. Yet did I pay for the woman, El-Soo, twenty-six times the price of all your spears and arrows and rifles, your skins and furs, your tents and boats and dogs. It was a heavy price.”
The old men nodded gravely, though their weazened eye-slits widened with wonder that any woman should be worth such a price. The one that bled at the mouth wiped his lips. “Is it true talk?” he asked each of Porportuk’s six young men. And each answered that it was true.
“Is it true talk?” he asked El-Soo, and she answered, “It is true.”
“But Porportuk has not told that he is an old man,” Akoon said, “and that he has daughters older than El-Soo.”
“It is true, Porportuk is an old man,” said El-Soo.
“It is for Porportuk to measure the strength his age,” said he who bled at the mouth. “We be old men. Behold! Age is never so old as youth would measure it.”
And the circle of old men champed their gums, and nodded approvingly, and coughed.
“I told him that I would never be his wife,” said El-Soo.
“Yet you took from him twenty-six times all that we possess?” asked a one-eyed old man.
El-Soo was silent.
“It is true?” And his one eye burned and bored into her like a fiery gimlet.
“It is true,” she said.
“But I will run away again,” she broke out passionately, a moment later. “Always will I run away.”
“That is for Porportuk to consider,” said another of the old men. “It is for us to consider the judgment.”
“What price did you pay for her?” was demanded of Akoon.
“No price did I pay for her,” he answered. “She was above price. I did not measure her in gold-dust, nor in dogs, and tents, and furs.”
The old men debated among themselves and mumbled in undertones. “These old men are ice,” Akoon said in English. “I will not listen to their judgment, Porportuk. If you take El-Soo, I will surely kill you.”
The old men ceased and regarded him suspiciously. “We do not know the speech you make,” one said.
“He but said that he would kill me,” Porportuk volunteered. “So it were well to take from him his rifle, and to have some of your young men sit by him, that he may not do me hurt. He is a young man, and what are broken bones to youth!”
Akoon, lying helpless, had rifle and knife taken from him, and to either side of his shoulders sat young men of the Mackenzies. The one-eyed old man arose and stood upright. “We marvel at the price paid for one mere woman,” he began; “but the wisdom of the price is no concern of ours. We are here to give judgment, and judgment we give. We have no doubt. It is known to all that Porportuk paid a heavy price for the woman El-Soo. Wherefore does the woman El-Soo belong to Porportuk and none other.” He sat down heavily, and coughed. The old men nodded and coughed.
“I will kill you,” Akoon cried in English.
Porportuk smiled and stood up. “You have given true judgment,” he said to the council, “and my young men will give to you much tobacco. Now let the woman be brought to me.”
Akoon gritted his teeth. The young men took El-Soo by the arms. She did not resist, and was led, her face a sullen flame, to Porportuk.
“Sit there at my feet till I have made my talk,” he commanded. He paused a moment. “It is true,” he said, “I am an old man. Yet can I understand the ways of youth. The fire has not all gone out of me. Yet am I no longer young, nor am I minded to run these old legs of mine through all the years that remain to me. El-Soo can run fast and well. She is a deer. This I know, for I have seen and run after her. It is not good that a wife should run so fast. I paid for her a heavy price, yet does she run away from me. Akoon paid no price at all, yet does she run to him.
“When I came among you people of the Mackenzie, I was of one mind. As I listened in the council and thought of the swift legs of El-Soo, I was of many minds. Now am I of one mind again but it is a different mind from the one I brought to the council. Let me tell you my mind. When a dog runs once away from a master, it will run away again. No matter how many times it is brought back, each time it will run away again. When we have such dogs, we sell them. El- Soo is like a dog that runs away. I will sell her. Is there any man of the council that will buy?”
The old men coughed and remained silent
“Akoon would buy,” Porportuk went on, “but he has no money. Wherefore I will give El-Soo to him, as he said, without price. Even now will I give her to him.”
Reaching down, he took El-Soo by the hand and led her across the space to where Akoon lay on his back.
“She has a bad habit, Akoon,” he said, seating her at Akoon’s feet. “As she has run away from me in the past, in the days to come she may run away from you. But there is no need to fear that she will ever run away, Akoon. I shall see to that. Never will she run away from you–this is the word of Porportuk. She has great wit. I know, for often has it bitten into me. Yet am I minded myself to give my wit play for once. And by my wit will I secure her to you, Akoon.”
Stooping, Porportuk crossed El-Soo’s feet, so that the instep of one lay over that of the other; and then, before his purpose could be divined, he discharged his rifle through the two ankles. As Akoon struggled to rise against the weight of the young men, there was heard the crunch of the broken bone rebroken.
“It is just,” said the old men, one to another.
El-Soo made no sound. She sat and looked at her shattered ankles, on which she would never walk again.
“My legs are strong, El-Soo,” Akoon said. “But never will they bear me away from you.”
El-Soo looked at him, and for the first time in all the time he had known her, Akoon saw tears in her eyes.
“Your eyes are like deer’s eyes, El-Soo,” he said.
“Is it just?” Porportuk asked, and grinned from the edge of the smoke as he prepared to depart.
“It is just,” the old men said. And they sat on in the silence.