The Town-Site of Tra-Lee
by Jack London
Smoke and Shorty encountered each other, going in opposite directions, at the corner where stood the Elkhorn saloon. The former’s face wore a pleased expression, and he was walking briskly. Shorty, on the other hand, was slouching along in a depressed and indeterminate fashion.
“Whither away?” Smoke challenged gaily.
“Danged if I know,” came the disconsolate answer. “Wisht I did. They ain’t nothin’ to take me anywheres. I’ve set two hours in the deadest game of draw–nothing excitin’, no hands, an’ broke even. Played a rubber of cribbage with Skiff Mitchell for the drinks, an’ now I’m that languid for somethin’ doin’ that I’m perambulatin’ the streets on the chance of seein’ a dogfight, or a argument, or somethin’.”
“I’ve got something better on hand,” Smoke answered. “That’s why I was looking for you. Come on along.”
“Across the river to make a call on old Dwight Sanderson.”
“Never heard of him,” Shorty said dejectedly. “An’ never heard of no one living across the river anyway. What’s he want to live there for? Ain’t he got no sense?”
“He’s got something to sell,” Smoke laughed.
“Dogs? A gold-mine? Tobacco? Rubber boots?”
Smoke shook his head to each question. “Come along on and find out, because I’m going to buy it from him on a spec, and if you want you can come in half.”
“Don’t tell me it’s eggs!” Shorty cried, his face twisted into an expression of facetious and sarcastic alarm.
“Come on along,” Smoke told him. “And I’ll give you ten guesses while we’re crossing the ice.”
They dipped down the high bank at the foot of the street and came out upon the ice-covered Yukon. Three-quarters of a mile away, directly opposite, the other bank of the stream uprose in precipitous bluffs hundreds of feet in height. Toward these bluffs, winding and twisting in and out among broken and upthrown blocks of ice, ran a slightly traveled trail. Shorty trudged at Smoke’s heels, beguiling the time with guesses at what Dwight Sanderson had to sell.
“Reindeer? Copper-mine or brick-yard? That’s one guess. Bear-skins, or any kind of skins? Lottery tickets? A potato-ranch?”
“Getting near it,” Smoke encouraged. “And better than that.”
“Two potato-ranches? A cheese-factory? A moss-farm?”
“That’s not so bad, Shorty. It’s not a thousand miles away.”
“That’s as near as the moss-farm and the potato-ranch.”
“Hold on. Let me think. I got one guess comin’.” Ten silent minutes passed. “Say, Smoke, I ain’t goin’ to use that last guess. When this thing you’re buyin’ sounds like a potato-ranch, a moss-farm, and a stone-quarry, I quit. An’ I don’t go in on the deal till I see it an’ size it up. What is it?”
“Well, you’ll see the cards on the table soon enough. Kindly cast your eyes up there. Do you see the smoke from that cabin? That’s where Dwight Sanderson lives. He’s holding down a town-site location.”
“What else is he holdin’ down?”
“That’s all,” Smoke laughed. “Except rheumatism. I hear he’s been suffering from it.”
“Say!” Shorty’s hand flashed out and with an abrupt shoulder grip brought his comrade to a halt. “You ain’t telling me you’re buyin’ a town-site at this fallin’-off place?”
“That’s your tenth guess, and you win. Come on.”
“But wait a moment,” Shorty pleaded. “Look at it–nothin’ but bluffs an’ slides, all up-and-down. Where could the town stand?”
“Then you ain’t buyin’ it for a town?”
“But Dwight Sanderson’s selling it for a town,” Smoke baffled. “Come on. We’ve got to climb this slide.”
The slide was steep, and a narrow trail zigzagged up it on a formidable Jacob’s ladder. Shorty moaned and groaned over the sharp corners and the steep pitches.
“Think of a town-site here. They ain’t a flat space big enough for a postage-stamp. An’ it’s the wrong side of the river. All the freightin’ goes the other way. Look at Dawson there. Room to spread for forty thousand more people. Say, Smoke. You’re a meat-eater. I know that. An’ I know you ain’t buyin’ it for a town. Then what in Heaven’s name are you buyin’ it for?”
“To sell, of course.”
“But other folks ain’t as crazy as old man Sanderson an’ you.”
“Maybe not in the same way, Shorty. Now I’m going to take this town-site, break it up in parcels, and sell it to a lot of sane people who live over in Dawson.”
“Huh! All Dawson’s still laughing at you an’ me an’ them eggs. You want to make ’em laugh some more, hey?”
“I certainly do.”
“But it’s too danged expensive, Smoke. I helped you make ’em laugh on the eggs, an’ my share of the laugh cost me nearly nine thousan’ dollars.”
“All right. You don’t have to come in on this. The profits will be all mine, but you’ve got to help me just the same.”
“Oh, I’ll help all right. An’ they can laugh at me some more. But nary a ounce do I drop this time.
“What’s old Sanderson holdin’ it at? A couple of hundred?”
“Ten thousand. I ought to get it for five.”
“Wisht I was a minister,” Shorty breathed fervently.
“So I could preach the gosh-dangdest, eloquentest sermon on a text you may have hearn–to wit: a fool an’ his money.”
“Come in,” they heard Dwight Sanderson yell irritably, when they knocked at his door, and they entered to find him squatted by a stone fireplace and pounding coffee wrapped in a piece of flour-sacking.
“What d’ye want?” he demanded harshly, emptying the pounded coffee into the coffee-pot that stood on the coals near the front of the fireplace.
“To talk business,” Smoke answered. “You’ve a town-site located here, I understand. What do you want for it?”
“Ten thousand dollars,” came the answer. “And now that I’ve told you, you can laugh, and get out. There’s the door. Good-by.”
“But I don’t want to laugh. I know plenty of funnier things to do than to climb up this cliff of yours. I want to buy your town-site.”
“You do, eh? Well, I’m glad to hear sense.” Sanderson came over and sat down facing his visitors, his hands resting on the table and his eyes cocking apprehensively toward the coffee-pot. “I’ve told you my price, and I ain’t ashamed to tell you again–ten thousand. And you can laugh or buy, it’s all one to me.”
To show his indifference he drummed with his knobby knuckles on the table and stared at the coffee-pot. A minute later he began to hum a monotonous “Tra-la-loo, tra-la-lee, tra-la-lee, tra-la-loo.”
“Now look here, Mr. Sanderson,” said Smoke. “This town-site isn’t worth ten thousand. If it was worth that much it would be worth a hundred thousand just as easily. If it isn’t worth a hundred thousand–and you know it isn’t–then it isn’t worth ten cents.”
Sanderson drummed with his knuckles and hummed, “Tra-la-loo, tra-la-lee,” until the coffee-pot boiled over. Settling it with a part cup of cold water, and placing it to one side of the warm hearth, he resumed his seat. “How much will you offer?” he asked of Smoke.
Again came an interval of drumming and of tra-loo-ing and tra-lee-ing.
“You ain’t no fool,” Sanderson announced to Smoke. “You said if it wasn’t worth a hundred thousand it wasn’t worth ten cents. Yet you offer five thousand for it. Then it IS worth a hundred thousand.”
“You can’t make twenty cents out of it,” Smoke replied heatedly. “Not if you stayed here till you rot.”
“I’ll make it out of you.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Then I reckon I’ll stay an’ rot,” Sanderson answered with an air of finality.
He took no further notice of his guests, and went about his culinary tasks as if he were alone. When he had warmed over a pot of beans and a slab of sour-dough bread, he set the table for one and proceeded to eat.
“No, thank you,” Shorty murmured. “We ain’t a bit hungry. We et just before we come.”
“Let’s see your papers,” Smoke said at last. Sanderson fumbled under the head of his bunk and tossed out a package of documents. “It’s all tight and right,” he said. “That long one there, with the big seals, come all the way from Ottawa. Nothing territorial about that. The national Canadian government cinches me in the possession of this town-site.”
“How many lots you sold in the two years you’ve had it?” Shorty queried.
“None of your business,” Sanderson answered sourly. There ain’t no law against a man living alone on his town-site if he wants to.”
“I’ll give you five thousand,” Smoke said. Sanderson shook his head.
“I don’t know which is the craziest,” Shorty lamented. “Come outside a minute, Smoke. I want to whisper to you.”
Reluctantly Smoke yielded to his partner’s persuasions.
“Ain’t it never entered your head,” Shorty said, as they stood in the snow outside the door, “that they’s miles an’ miles of cliffs on both sides of this fool town-site that don’t belong to nobody an’ that you can have for the locatin’ and stakin’?”
“They won’t do,” Smoke answered.
“Why won’t they?”
“It makes you wonder, with all those miles and miles, why I’m buying this particular spot, doesn’t it?”
“It sure does,” Shorty agreed.
“And that’s the very point,” Smoke went on triumphantly. “If it makes you wonder, it will make others wonder. And when they wonder they’ll come a-running. By your own wondering you prove it’s sound psychology. Now, Shorty, listen to me; I’m going to hand Dawson a package that will knock the spots out of the egg-laugh. Come on inside.”
“Hello,” said Sanderson, as they re-entered. “I thought I’d seen the last of you.”
“Now what is your lowest figure?” Smoke asked.
“I’ll give you ten thousand.”
“All right, I’ll sell at that figure. It’s all I wanted in the first place. But when will you pay the dust over?”
“To-morrow, at the Northwest Bank. But there are two other things I want for that ten thousand. In the first place, when you receive your money you pull down the river to Forty Mile and stay there the rest of the winter.”
“That’s easy. What else?”
“I’m going to pay you twenty-five thousand, and you rebate me fifteen of it.”
“I’m agreeable.” Sanderson turned to Shorty. “Folks said I was a fool when I come over here an’ town-sited,” he jeered. “Well, I’m a ten thousand dollar fool, ain’t I?”
“The Klondike’s sure full of fools,” was all Shorty could retort, “an’ when they’s so many of ’em some has to be lucky, don’t they?”
Next morning the legal transfer of Dwight Sanderson’s town-site was made–“henceforth to be known as the town-site of Tra-Lee,” Smoke incorporated in the deed. Also, at the Northwest Bank, twenty-five thousand of Smoke’s gold was weighed out by the cashier, while half a dozen casual onlookers noted the weighing, the amount, and the recipient.
In a mining-camp all men are suspicious. Any untoward act of any man is likely to be the cue to a secret gold strike, whether the untoward act be no more than a hunting trip for moose or a stroll after dark to observe the aurora borealis. And when it became known that so prominent a figure as Smoke Bellew had paid twenty-five thousand dollars to old Dwight Sanderson, Dawson wanted to know what he had paid it for. What had Dwight Sanderson, starving on his abandoned town-site, ever owned that was worth twenty-five thousand? In lieu of an answer, Dawson was justified in keeping Smoke in feverish contemplation.
By mid-afternoon it was common knowledge that several score of men had made up light stampeding-packs and cached them in the convenient saloons along Main Street. Wherever Smoke moved, he was the observed of many eyes. And as proof that he was taken seriously, not one man of the many of his acquaintance had the effrontery to ask him about his deal with Dwight Sanderson. On the other hand, no one mentioned eggs to Smoke. Shorty was under similar surveillance and delicacy of friendliness.
“Makes me feel like I’d killed somebody, or had smallpox, the way they watch me an’ seem afraid to speak,” Shorty confessed, when he chanced to meet Smoke in front of the Elkhorn. “Look at Bill Saltman there acrost the way–just dyin’ to look, an’ keepin’ his eyes down the street all the time. Wouldn’t think he’d knowed you an’ me existed, to look at him. But I bet you the drinks, Smoke, if you an’ me flop around the corner quick, like we was goin’ somewheres, an’ then turn back from around the next corner, that we run into him a-hikin’ hell-bent.”
They tried the trick, and, doubling back around the second corner, encountered Saltman swinging a long trail-stride in pursuit.
“Hello, Bill,” Smoke greeted. “Which way?”
“Hello. Just a-strollin’,” Saltman answered, “just a-strollin’. Weather’s fine, ain’t it?”
“Huh!” Shorty jeered. “If you call that strollin’, what might you walk real fast at?”
When Shorty fed the dogs that evening, he was keenly conscious that from the encircling darkness a dozen pairs of eyes were boring in upon him. And when he stick-tied the dogs, instead of letting them forage free through the night, he knew that he had administered another jolt to the nervousness of Dawson.
According to program, Smoke ate supper downtown and then proceeded to enjoy himself. Wherever he appeared, he was the center of interest, and he purposely made the rounds. Saloons filled up after his entrance and emptied following upon his departure. If he bought a stack of chips at a sleepy roulette-table, inside five minutes a dozen players were around him. He avenged himself, in a small way, on Lucille Arral, by getting up and sauntering out of the Opera House just as she came on to sing her most popular song. In three minutes two-thirds of her audience had vanished after him.
At one in the morning he walked along an unusually populous Main Street and took the turning that led up the hill to his cabin. And when he paused on the ascent, he could hear behind him the crunch of moccasins in the snow.
For an hour the cabin was in darkness, then he lighted a candle, and, after a delay sufficient for a man to dress in, he and Shorty opened the door and began harnessing the dogs. As the light from the cabin flared out upon them and their work, a soft whistle went up from not far away. This whistle was repeated down the hill.
“Listen to it,” Smoke chuckled. “They’ve relayed on us and are passing the word down to town. I’ll bet you there are forty men right now rolling out of their blankets and climbing into their pants.”
“Ain’t folks fools,” Shorty giggled back. “Say, Smoke, they ain’t nothin’ in hard graft. A geezer that’d work his hands these days is a–well, a geezer. The world’s sure bustin’ full an’ dribblin’ over the edges with fools a-honin’ to be separated from their dust. An’ before we start down the hill I want to announce, if you’re still agreeable, that I come in half on this deal.”
The sled was lightly loaded with a sleeping- and a grub-outfit. A small coil of steel cable protruded inconspicuously from underneath a grub-sack, while a crowbar lay half hidden along the bottom of the sled next to the lashings.
Shorty fondled the cable with a swift-passing mitten, and gave a last affectionate touch to the crowbar. “Huh!” he whispered. “I’d sure do some tall thinking myself if I seen them objects on a sled on a dark night.”
They drove the dogs down the hill with cautious silence, and when, emerged on the flat, they turned the team north along Main Street toward the sawmill and directly away from the business part of town, they observed even greater caution. They had seen no one, yet when this change of direction was initiated, out of the dim starlit darkness behind arose a whistle. Past the sawmill and the hospital, at lively speed, they went for a quarter of a mile. Then they turned about and headed back over the ground they had just covered. At the end of the first hundred yards they barely missed colliding with five men racing along at a quick dog-trot. All were slightly stooped to the weight of stampeding-packs. One of them stopped Smoke’s lead-dog, and the rest clustered around.
“Seen a sled goin’ the other way?” was asked.
“Nope,” Smoke answered. “Is that you, Bill?”
“Well, I’ll be danged!” Bill Saltman ejaculated in honest surprise. “If it ain’t Smoke!”
“What are you doing out this time of night?” Smoke inquired. “Strolling?”
Before Bill Saltman could make reply, two running men joined the group. These were followed by several more, while the crunch of feet on the snow heralded the imminent arrival of many others.
“Who are your friends?” Smoke asked. “Where’s the stampede?”
Saltman, lighting his pipe, which was impossible for him to enjoy with lungs panting from the run, did not reply. The ruse of the match was too obviously for the purpose of seeing the sled to be misunderstood, and Smoke noted every pair of eyes focus on the coil of cable and the crowbar. Then the match went out.
“Just heard a rumor, that’s all, just a rumor,” Saltman mumbled with ponderous secretiveness.
“You might let Shorty and me in on it,” Smoke urged.
Somebody snickered sarcastically in the background.
“Where are YOU bound?” Saltman demanded.
“And who are you?” Smoke countered. “Committee of safety?”
“Just interested, just interested,” Saltman said.
“You bet your sweet life we’re interested,” another voice spoke up out of the darkness.
“Say,” Shorty put in, “I wonder who’s feelin’ the foolishest?”
Everybody laughed nervously.
“Come on, Shorty; we’ll be getting along,” Smoke said, mushing the dogs.
The crowd formed in behind and followed.
“Say, ain’t you-all made a mistake?” Shorty gibed. “When we met you you was goin’, an’ now you’re comin’ without bein’ anywheres. Have you lost your tag?”
“You go to the devil,” was Saltman’s courtesy. “We go and come just as we danged feel like. We don’t travel with tags.”
And the sled, with Smoke in the lead and Shorty at the pole, went on down Main Street escorted by three score men, each of whom, on his back, bore a stampeding-pack. It was three in the morning, and only the all-night rounders saw the procession and were able to tell Dawson about it next day.
Half an hour later, the hill was climbed and the dogs unharnessed at the cabin door, the sixty stampeders grimly attendant.
“Good-night, fellows,” Smoke called, as he closed the door.
In five minutes the candle was put out, but before half an hour had passed Smoke and Shorty emerged softly, and without lights began harnessing the dogs.
“Hello, Smoke!” Saltman said, stepping near enough for them to see the loom of his form.
“Can’t shake you, Bill, I see,” Smoke replied cheerfully. “Where’re your friends?”
“Gone to have a drink. They left me to keep an eye on you, and keep it I will. What’s in the wind anyway, Smoke? You can’t shake us, so you might as well let us in. We’re all your friends. You know that.”
“There are times when you can let your friends in,” Smoke evaded, “and times when you can’t. And, Bill, this is one of the times when we can’t. You’d better go to bed. Good-night.”
“Ain’t goin’ to be no good-night, Smoke. You don’t know us. We’re woodticks.”
Smoke sighed. “Well, Bill, if you WILL have your will, I guess you’ll have to have it. Come on, Shorty, we can’t fool around any longer.”
Saltman emitted a shrill whistle as the sled started, and swung in behind. From down the hill and across the flat came the answering whistles of the relays. Shorty was at the gee-pole, and Smoke and Saltman walked side by side.
“Look here, Bill,” Smoke said. “I’ll make you a proposition. Do you want to come in alone on this?”
Saltman did not hesitate. “An’ throw the gang down? No, sir. We’ll all come in.”
“You first, then,” Smoke exclaimed, lurching into a clinch and tipping the other into deep snow beside the trail.
Shorty hawed the dogs and swung the team to the south on the trail that led among the scattered cabins on the rolling slopes to the rear of Dawson. Smoke and Saltman, locked together, rolled in the snow. Smoke considered himself in gilt-edged condition, but Saltman outweighed him by fifty pounds of clean, trail-hardened muscle and repeatedly mastered him. Time and time again he got Smoke on his back, and Smoke lay complacently and rested. But each time Saltman attempted to get off him and get away, Smoke reached out a detaining, tripping hand that brought about a new clinch and wrestle.
“You can go some,” Saltman acknowledged, panting at the end of ten minutes, as he sat astride Smoke’s chest. “But I down you every time.”
“And I hold you every time,” Smoke panted back. “That’s what I’m here for, just to hold you. Where do you think Shorty’s getting to all this time?”
Saltman made a wild effort to go clear, and all but succeeded. Smoke gripped his ankle and threw him in a headlong tumble. From down the hill came anxious questioning whistles. Saltman sat up and whistled a shrill answer, and was grappled by Smoke, who rolled him face upward and sat astride his chest, his knees resting on Saltman’s biceps, his hands on Saltman’s shoulders and holding him down. And in this position the stampeders found them. Smoke laughed and got up.
“Well, good-night, fellows,” he said, and started down the hill, with sixty exasperated and grimly determined stampeders at his heels.
He turned north past the sawmill and the hospital and took the river trail along the precipitous bluffs at the base of Moosehide Mountain. Circling the Indian village, he held on to the mouth of Moose Creek, then turned and faced his pursuers.
“You make me tired,” he said, with a good imitation of a snarl.
“Hope we ain’t a-forcin’ you,” Saltman murmured politely.
“Oh, no, not at all,” Smoke snarled with an even better imitation, as he passed among them on the back-trail to Dawson. Twice he attempted to cross the trailless icejams of the river, still resolutely followed, and both times he gave up and returned to the Dawson shore. Straight down Main Street he trudged, crossing the ice of Klondike River to Klondike City and again retracing to Dawson. At eight o’clock, as gray dawn began to show, he led his weary gang to Slavovitch’s restaurant, where tables were at a premium for breakfast.
“Good-night fellows,” he said, as he paid his reckoning.
And again he said good-night, as he took the climb of the hill. In the clear light of day they did not follow him, contenting themselves with watching him up the hill to his cabin.
For two days Smoke lingered about town, continually under vigilant espionage. Shorty, with the sled and dogs, had disappeared. Neither travelers up and down the Yukon, nor from Bonanza, Eldorado, nor the Klondike, had seen him. Remained only Smoke, who, soon or late, was certain to try to connect with his missing partner; and upon Smoke everybody’s attention was centered. On the second night he did not leave his cabin, putting out the lamp at nine in the evening and setting the alarm for two next morning. The watch outside heard the alarm go off, so that when, half an hour later, he emerged from the cabin, he found waiting for him a band, not of sixty men, but of at least three hundred. A flaming aurora borealis lighted the scene, and, thus hugely escorted, he walked down to town and entered the Elkhorn. The place was immediately packed and jammed by an anxious and irritated multitude that bought drinks, and for four weary hours watched Smoke play cribbage with his old friend Breck. Shortly after six in the morning, with an expression on his face of commingled hatred and gloom, seeing no one, recognizing no one, Smoke left the Elkhorn and went up Main Street, behind him the three hundred, formed in disorderly ranks, chanting: “Hay-foot! Straw-foot! Hep! Hep! Hep!”
“Good-night, fellows,” he said bitterly, at the edge of the Yukon bank where the winter trail dipped down. “I’m going to get breakfast and then go to bed.”
The three hundred shouted that they were with him, and followed him out upon the frozen river on the direct path he took for Tra-Lee. At seven in the morning he led his stampeding cohort up the zigzag trail, across the face of the slide, that led to Dwight Sanderson’s cabin. The light of a candle showed through the parchment-paper window, and smoke curled from the chimney. Shorty threw open the door.
“Come on in, Smoke,” he greeted. “Breakfast’s ready. Who-all are your friends?”
Smoke turned about on the threshold. “Well, good-night, you fellows. Hope you enjoyed your pasear!”
“Hold on a moment, Smoke,” Bill Saltman cried, his voice keen with disappointment. “Want to talk with you a moment.”
“Fire away,” Smoke answered genially.
“What’d you pay old Sanderson twenty-five thousan’ for? Will you answer that?”
“Bill, you give me a pain,” was Smoke’s reply. “I came over here for a country residence, so to say, and here are you and a gang trying to cross-examine me when I’m looking for peace an’ quietness an’ breakfast. What’s a country residence good for, except for peace and quietness?”
“You ain’t answered the question,” Bill Saltman came back with rigid logic.
“And I’m not going to, Bill. That affair is peculiarly a personal affair between Dwight Sanderson and me. Any other question?”
“How about that crowbar an’ steel cable then, what you had on your sled the other night?”
“It’s none of your blessed and ruddy business, Bill. Though if Shorty here wants to tell you about it, he can.”
“Sure!” Shorty cried, springing eagerly into the breach. His mouth opened, then he faltered and turned to his partner. “Smoke, confidentially, just between you an’ me, I don’t think it IS any of their darn business. Come on in. The life’s gettin’ boiled outa that coffee.”
The door closed and the three hundred sagged into forlorn and grumbling groups.
“Say, Saltman,” one man said, “I thought you was goin’ to lead us to it.”
“Not on your life,” Saltman answered crustily. “I said Smoke would lead us to it.”
“An’ this is it?”
“You know as much about it as me, an’ we all know Smoke’s got something salted down somewheres. Or else for what did he pay Sanderson the twenty-five thousand? Not for this mangy town-site, that’s sure an’ certain.”
A chorus of cries affirmed Saltman’s judgment.
“Well, what are we goin’ to do now?” someone queried dolefully.
“Me for one for breakfast,” Wild Water Charley said cheerfully. “You led us up a blind alley this time, Bill.”
“I tell you I didn’t,” Saltman objected. “Smoke led us. An’ just the same, what about them twenty-five thousand?”
At half-past eight, when daylight had grown strong, Shorty carefully opened the door and peered out. “Shucks,” he exclaimed. “They-all’s hiked back to Dawson. I thought they was goin’ to camp here.”
“Don’t worry; they’ll come sneaking back,” Smoke reassured him. “If I don’t miss my guess you’ll see half Dawson over here before we’re done with it. Now jump in and lend me a hand. We’ve got work to do.”
“Aw, for Heaven’s sake put me on,” Shorty complained, when, at the end of an hour, he surveyed the result of their toil–a windlass in the corner of the cabin, with an endless rope that ran around double logrollers.
Smoke turned it with a minimum of effort, and the rope slipped and creaked. “Now, Shorty, you go outside and tell me what it sounds like.”
Shorty, listening at the closed door, heard all the sounds of a windlass hoisting a load, and caught himself unconsciously attempting to estimate the depth of shaft out of which this load was being hoisted. Next came a pause, and in his mind’s eye he saw the bucket swinging short to the windlass. Then he heard the quick lower-away and the dull sound as of the bucket coming to abrupt rest on the edge of the shaft. He threw open the door, beaming.
“I got you,” he cried. “I almost fell for it myself. What next?”
The next was the dragging into the cabin of a dozen sled-loads of rock. And through an exceedingly busy day there were many other nexts.
“Now you run the dogs over to Dawson this evening,” Smoke instructed, when supper was finished. “Leave them with Breck. He’ll take care of them. They’ll be watching what you do, so get Breck to go to the A. C. Company and buy up all the blasting-powder–there’s only several hundred pounds in stock. And have Breck order half a dozen hard-rock drills from the blacksmith. Breck’s a quartz-man, and he’ll give the blacksmith a rough idea of what he wants made. And give Breck these location descriptions, so that he can record them at the gold commissioner’s to-morrow. And finally, at ten o’clock, you be on Main Street listening. Mind you, I don’t want them to be too loud. Dawson must just hear them and no more than hear them. I’ll let off three, of different quantities, and you note which is more nearly the right thing.”
At ten that night Shorty, strolling down Main Street, aware of many curious eyes, his ears keyed tensely, heard a faint and distant explosion. Thirty seconds later there was a second, sufficiently loud to attract the attention of others on the street. Then came a third, so violent that it rattled the windows and brought the inhabitants into the street.
“Shook ’em up beautiful,” Shorty proclaimed breathlessly, an hour afterward, when he arrived at the cabin on Tra-Lee. He gripped Smoke’s hand. “You should a-saw ’em. Ever kick over a ant-hole? Dawson’s just like that. Main Street was crawlin’ an’ hummin’ when I pulled my freight. You won’t see Tra-Lee to-morrow for folks. An’ if they ain’t some a-sneakin’ acrost right now I don’t know minin’ nature, that’s all.”
Smoke grinned, stepped to the fake windlass, and gave it a couple of creaking turns. Shorty pulled out the moss-chinking from between the logs so as to make peep-holes on every side of the cabin. Then he blew out the candle.
“Now,” he whispered at the end of half an hour.
Smoke turned the windlass slowly, paused after several minutes, caught up a galvanized bucket filled with earth and struck it with slide and scrape and grind against the heap of rocks they had hauled in. Then he lighted a cigarette, shielding the flame of the match in his hands.
“They’s three of ’em,” Shorty whispered. “You oughta saw ’em. Say, when you made that bucket-dump noise they was fair quiverin’. They’s one at the window now tryin’ to peek in.”
Smoke glowed his cigarette, and glanced at his watch.
“We’ve got to do this thing regularly,” he breathed. “We’ll haul up a bucket every fifteen minutes. And in the meantime–“
Through triple thicknesses of sacking, he struck a cold-chisel on the face of a rock.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” Shorty moaned with delight. He crept over noiselessly from the peep-hole. “They’ve got their heads together, an’ I can almost see ’em talkin’.”
And from then until four in the morning, at fifteen-minute intervals, the seeming of a bucket was hoisted on the windlass that creaked and ran around on itself and hoisted nothing. Then their visitors departed, and Smoke and Shorty went to bed.
After daylight, Shorty examined the moccasin-marks. “Big Bill Saltman was one of them,” he concluded. “Look at the size of it.”
Smoke looked out over the river. “Get ready for visitors. There are two crossing the ice now.”
“Huh! Wait till Breck files that string of claims at nine o’clock. There’ll be two thousand crossing over.”
“And every mother’s son of them yammering ‘mother-lode,'” Smoke laughed. “‘The source of the Klondike placers found at last.'”
Shorty, who had clambered to the top of a steep shoulder of rock, gazed with the eye of a connoisseur at the strip they had staked.
“It sure looks like a true fissure vein,” he said. “A expert could almost trace the lines of it under the snow. It’d fool anybody. The slide fills the front of it an’ see them outcrops? Look like the real thing, only they ain’t.”
When the two men, crossing the river, climbed the zigzag trail up the slide, they found a closed cabin. Bill Saltman, who led the way, went softly to the door, listened, then beckoned Wild Water Charley up to him. From inside came the creak and whine of a windlass bearing a heavy load. They waited at the final pause, then heard the lower-away and the impact of a bucket on rock. Four times, in the next hour, they heard the thing repeated. Then Wild Water knocked on the door. From inside came low furtive noises, then silences, and more furtive noises, and at the end of five minutes Smoke, breathing heavily, opened the door an inch and peered out. They saw on his face and shirt powdered rock-fragments. His greeting was suspiciously genial.
“Wait a minute,” he added, “and I’ll be with you.”
Pulling on his mittens, he slipped through the door and confronted the visitors outside in the snow. Their quick eyes noted his shirt, across the shoulders, discolored and powdery, and the knees of his overalls that showed signs of dirt brushed hastily but not quite thoroughly away.
“Rather early for a call,” he observed. “What brings you across the river? Going hunting?”
“We’re on, Smoke,” Wild Water said confidentially. “An’ you’d just as well come through. You’ve got something here.”
“If you’re looking for eggs–” Smoke began.
“Aw, forget it. We mean business.”
“You mean you want to buy lots, eh?” Smoke rattled on swiftly. “There’s some dandy building sites here. But, you see, we can’t sell yet. We haven’t had the town surveyed. Come around next week, Wild Water, and for peace and quietness, I’ll show you something swell, if you’re anxious to live over here. Next week, sure, it will be surveyed. Good-by. Sorry I can’t ask you inside, but Shorty–well, you know him. He’s peculiar. He says he came over for peace and quietness, and he’s asleep now. I wouldn’t wake him for the world.”
As Smoke talked he shook their hands warmly in farewell. Still talking and shaking their hands, he stepped inside and closed the door.
They looked at each other and nodded significantly.
“See the knees of his pants?” Saltman whispered hoarsely.
“Sure. An’ his shoulders. He’s been bumpin’ an’ crawlin’ around in a shaft.” As Wild Water talked, his eyes wandered up the snow-covered ravine until they were halted by something that brought a whistle to his lips. “Just cast your eyes up there, Bill. See where I’m pointing? If that ain’t a prospect-hole! An’ follow it out to both sides–you can see where they tramped in the snow. If it ain’t rim-rock on both sides I don’t know what rim-rock is. It’s a fissure vein, all right.”
“An’ look at the size of it!” Saltman cried. “They’ve got something here, you bet.”
“An’ run your eyes down the slide there–see them bluffs standin’ out an’ slopin’ in. The whole slide’s in the mouth of the vein as well.”
“And just keep a-lookin’ on, out on the ice there, on the trail,” Saltman directed. “Looks like most of Dawson, don’t it?”
Wild Water took one glance and saw the trail black with men clear to the far Dawson bank, down which the same unbroken string of men was pouring.
“Well, I’m goin’ to get a look-in at that prospect-hole before they get here,” he said, turning and starting swiftly up the ravine.
But the cabin door opened, and the two occupants stepped out.
“Hey!” Smoke called. “Where are you going?”
“To pick out a lot,” Wild Water called back. “Look at the river. All Dawson’s stampeding to buy lots, an’ we’re going to beat ’em to it for the choice. That’s right, ain’t it, Bill?”
“Sure thing,” Saltman corroborated. “This has the makin’s of a Jim-dandy suburb, an’ it sure looks like it’ll be some popular.”
“Well, we’re not selling lots over in that section where you’re heading,” Smoke answered. “Over to the right there, and back on top of the bluffs are the lots. This section, running from the river and over the tops, is reserved. So come on back.”
“That’s the spot we’ve gone and selected,” Saltman argued.
“But there’s nothing doing, I tell you,” Smoke said sharply.
“Any objections to our strolling, then?” Saltman persisted.
“Decidedly. Your strolling is getting monotonous. Come on back out of that.”
“I just reckon we’ll stroll anyways,” Saltman replied stubbornly. “Come on, Wild Water.”
“I warn you, you are trespassing,” was Smoke’s final word.
“Nope, just strollin’,” Saltman gaily retorted, turning his back and starting on.
“Hey! Stop in your tracks, Bill, or I’ll sure bore you!” Shorty thundered, drawing and leveling two Colt’s forty-fours. “Step another step in your steps an’ I let eleven holes through your danged ornery carcass. Get that?”
Saltman stopped, perplexed.
“He sure got me,” Shorty mumbled to Smoke. “But if he goes on I’m up against it hard. I can’t shoot. What’ll I do?”
“Look here, Shorty, listen to reason,” Saltman begged.
“Come here to me an’ we’ll talk reason,” was Shorty’s retort.
And they were still talking reason when the head of the stampede emerged from the zigzag trail and came upon them.
“You can’t call a man a trespasser when he’s on a town-site lookin’ to buy lots,” Wild Water was arguing, and Shorty was objecting: “But they’s private property in town-sites, an’ that there strip is private property, that’s all. I tell you again, it ain’t for sale.”
“Now we’ve got to swing this thing on the jump,” Smoke muttered to Shorty. “If they ever get out of hand–“
“You’ve sure got your nerve, if you think you can hold them,” Shorty muttered back. “They’s two thousan’ of ’em an’ more a-comin’. They’ll break this line any minute.”
The line ran along the near rim of the ravine, and Shorty had formed it by halting the first arrivals when they got that far in their invasion. In the crowd were half a dozen Northwest policemen and a lieutenant. With the latter Smoke conferred in undertones.
“They’re still piling out of Dawson,” he said, “and before long there will be five thousand here. The danger is if they start jumping claims. When you figure there are only five claims, it means a thousand men to a claim, and four thousand out of the five will try to jump the nearest claim. It can’t be done, and if it ever starts, there’ll be more dead men here than in the whole history of Alaska. Besides, those five claims were recorded this morning and can’t be jumped. In short, claim-jumping mustn’t start.”
“Right-o,” said the lieutenant. “I’ll get my men together and station them. We can’t have any trouble here, and we won’t have. But you’d better get up and talk to them.”
“There must be some mistake, fellows,” Smoke began in a loud voice. “We’re not ready to sell lots. The streets are not surveyed yet. But next week we shall have the grand opening sale.”
He was interrupted by an outburst of impatience and indignation.
“We don’t want lots,” a young miner cried out. “We don’t want what’s on top of the ground. We’ve come for what’s under the ground.”
“We don’t know what we’ve got under the ground,” Smoke answered. “But we do know we’ve got a fine town-site on top of it.”
“Sure,” Shorty added. “Grand for scenery an’ solitude. Folks lovin’ solitude come a-flockin’ here by thousands. Most popular solitude on the Yukon.”
Again the impatient cries arose, and Saltman, who had been talking with the later comers, came to the front.
“We’re here to stake claims,” he opened. “We know what you’ve did–filed a string of five quartz claims on end, and there they are over there running across the town-site on the line of the slide and the canyon. Only you misplayed. Two of them entries is fake. Who is Seth Bierce? No one ever heard of him. You filed a claim this mornin’ in his name. An’ you filed a claim in the name of Harry Maxwell. Now Harry Maxwell ain’t in the country. He’s down in Seattle. Went out last fall. Them two claims is open to relocation.”
“Suppose I have his power of attorney?” Smoke queried.
“You ain’t,” Saltman answered. “An’ if you have you got to show it. Anyway, here’s where we relocate. Come on, fellows.”
Saltman, stepping across the dead-line, had turned to encourage a following, when the police lieutenant’s voice rang out and stopped the forward surge of the great mass.
“Hold on there! You can’t do that, you know!”
“Can’t, eh?” said Bill Saltman. “The law says a fake location can be relocated, don’t it?”
“Thet’s right, Bill! Stay with it!” the crowd cheered from the safe side of the line.
“It’s the law, ain’t it?” Saltman demanded truculently of the lieutenant.
“It may be the law,” came the steady answer. “But I can’t and won’t allow a mob of five thousand men to attempt to jump two claims. It would be a dangerous riot, and we’re here to see there is no riot. Here, now, on this spot, the Northwest police constitute the law. The next man who crosses that line will be shot. You, Bill Saltman, step back across it.”
Saltman obeyed reluctantly. But an ominous restlessness became apparent in the mass of men, irregularly packed and scattered as it was over a landscape that was mostly up-and-down.
“Heavens,” the lieutenant whispered to Smoke. “Look at them like flies on the edge of the cliff there. Any disorder in that mass would force hundreds of them over.”
Smoke shuddered and got up. “I’m willing to play fair, fellows. If you insist on town lots, I’ll sell them to you, one hundred apiece, and you can raffle locations when the survey is made.” With raised hand he stilled the movement of disgust. “Don’t move, anybody. If you do, there’ll be hundreds of you shoved over the bluff. The situation is dangerous.”
“Just the same, you can’t hog it,” a voice went up. “We don’t want lots. We want to relocate.”
“But there are only two disputed claims,” Smoke argued. “When they’re relocated where will the rest of you be?”
He mopped his forehead with his shirt-sleeve, and another voice cried out:
“Let us all in, share and share alike!”
Nor did those who roared their approbation dream that the suggestion had been made by a man primed to make it when he saw Smoke mop his forehead.
“Take your feet out of the trough an’ pool the town-site,” the man went on. “Pool the mineral rights with the town-site, too.”
“But there isn’t anything in the mineral rights, I tell you,” Smoke objected.
“Then pool them with the rest. We’ll take our chances on it.”
“Fellows, you’re forcing me,” Smoke said. “I wish you’d stayed on your side of the river.”
But wavering indecision was so manifest that with a mighty roar the crowd swept him on to agreement. Saltman and others in the front rank demurred.
“Bill Saltman, here, and Wild Water don’t want you all in,” Smoke informed the crowd. “Who’s hogging it now?”
And thereat Saltman and Wild Water became profoundly unpopular.
“Now how are we going to do it?” Smoke asked. “Shorty and I ought to keep control. We discovered this town-site.”
“That’s right!” many cried. “A square deal!” “It’s only fair!”
“Three-fifths to us,” Smoke suggested, “and you fellows come in for two-fifths. And you’ve got to pay for your shares.”
“Ten cents on the dollar!” was a cry. “And non-assessable!”
“And the president of the company to come around personally and pay you your dividends on a silver platter,” Smoke sneered. “No, sir. You fellows have got to be reasonable. Ten cents on the dollar will help start things. You buy two-fifths of the stock, hundred dollars par, at ten dollars. That’s the best I can do. And if you don’t like it, just start jumping the claims. I can’t stand more than a two-fifths gouge.”
“No big capitalization!” a voice called, and it was this voice that crystallized the collective mind of the crowd into consent.
“There’s about five thousand of you, which will make five thousand shares,” Smoke worked the problem aloud. “And five thousand is two-fifths of twelve thousand, five hundred. Therefore The Tra-Lee Town-Site Company is capitalized for one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, there being twelve thousand, five hundred shares, hundred par, you fellows buying five thousand of them at ten dollars apiece. And I don’t care a whoop whether you accept it or not. And I call you all to witness that you’re forcing me against my will.”
With the assurance of the crowd that they had caught him with the goods on him, in the shape of the two fake locations, a committee was formed and the rough organization of the Tra-Lee Town-Site Company effected. Scorning the proposal of delivering the shares next day in Dawson, and scorning it because of the objection that the portion of Dawson that had not engaged in the stampede would ring in for shares, the committee, by a fire on the ice at the foot of the slide, issued a receipt to each stampeder in return for ten dollars in dust duly weighed on two dozen gold-scales which were obtained from Dawson.
By twilight the work was accomplished and Tra-Lee was deserted, save for Smoke and Shorty, who ate supper in the cabin and chuckled at the list of shareholders, four thousand eight hundred and seventy-four strong, and at the gold-sacks, which they knew contained approximately forty-eight thousand seven hundred and forty dollars.
“But you ain’t swung it yet,” Shorty objected.
“He’ll be here,” Smoke asserted with conviction. “He’s a born gambler, and when Breck whispers the tip to him not even heart disease would stop him.”
Within the hour came a knock at the door, and Wild Water entered, followed by Bill Saltman. Their eyes swept the cabin eagerly, coming to rest on the windlass elaborately concealed by blankets.
“But suppose I did want to vote twelve hundred shares,” Wild Water was arguing half an hour later. “With the other five thousand sold to-day it’d make only sixty-two hundred shares. That’d leave you and Shorty with sixty-three hundred. You’d still control.”
“But what d’ you want with all that of a town-site?” Shorty queried.
“You can answer that better ‘n me,” Wild Water replied. “An’ between you an’ me,” his gaze drifted over the blanket-draped windlass, “it’s a pretty good-looking town-site.”
“But Bill wants some,” Smoke said grudgingly, “and we simply won’t part with more than five hundred shares.”
“How much you got to invest?” Wild Water asked Saltman.
“Oh, say five thousand. It was all I could scare up.”
“Wild Water,” Smoke went on, in the same grudging, complaining voice, “if I didn’t know you so well, I wouldn’t sell you a single besotted share. And, anyway, Shorty and I won’t part with more than five hundred, and they’ll cost you fifty dollars apiece. That’s the last word, and if you don’t like it, good-night. Bill can take a hundred and you can have the other four hundred.”
Next day Dawson began its laugh. It started early in the morning, just after daylight, when Smoke went to the bulletin-board outside the A. C. Company store and tacked up a notice. Men gathered and were reading and snickering over his shoulder ere he had driven the last tack. Soon the bulletin-board was crowded by hundreds who could not get near enough to read. Then a reader was appointed by acclamation, and thereafter, throughout the day, many men were acclaimed to read in loud voice the notice Smoke Bellew had nailed up. And there were numbers of men who stood in the snow and heard it read several times in order to memorize the succulent items that appeared in the following order:
The Tra-Lee Town-Site Company keeps its accounts on the wall. This is its first account and its last.
Any shareholder who objects to donating ten dollars to the Dawson General Hospital may obtain his ten dollars on personal application to Wild Water Charley, or, failing that, will absolutely obtain it on application to Smoke Bellew.
MONEYS RECEIVED AND DISBURSED
From 4874 shares at $10.00………………………….$48,740.00
To Dwight Sanderson for Town-Site of Tra-Lee…………..10,000.00
To incidental expenses, to wit: powder, drills,
windlass, gold commissioner’s office, etc………….1,000.00
To Dawson General Hospital…………………………..37,740.00
From Bill Saltman, for 100 shares privately
purchased at $50.00……………………………$ 5,000.00
From Wild Water Charley, for 400 shares privately
purchased at $50.00…………………………….20,000.00
To Bill Saltman, in recognition of services as
volunteer stampede promoter………………………5,000.00
To Dawson General Hospital……………………………3,000.00
To Smoke Bellew and Jack Short, balance in full on
egg deal and morally owing………………………17,000.00
Shares remaining to account for 7126. These shares, held by Smoke Bellew and Jack Short, value nil, may be obtained gratis, for the asking, by any and all residents of Dawson desiring change of domicile to the peace and solitude of the town of Tra-Lee.
(Note: Peace and solitude always and perpetually guaranteed in town of Tra-Lee)
(Signed) SMOKE BELLEW, President.
(Signed) JACK SHORT, Secretary.