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   Chapter 4 PARTNERS

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 10355

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

For a long time Waseche Bill sat tilted back against the wall. His pipe went out unheeded and remained black and cold, gripped between his clenched teeth. At length he arose and, noiselessly crossing the room, stood looking down at the tousled yellow curls that shone dully in the lamp-light at the end of the roll of blankets. Making sure that the boy slept, he began silently to assemble his trail pack. Tent, blankets, grub, and rifle he bound firmly onto the strong dog-sled, and returning to the room, slid back a loose board from its place in the floor. From the black hole beneath he withdrew a heavy buckskin pouch and, pouring the contents onto a folded paper, proceeded to divide equally the pile of small glittering particles, and the flattened black nuggets of water-worn gold. One portion he stuffed into a heavy canvas money belt which he strapped about him, the other he placed in the pouch and returned to its hiding place under the floor. He fumbled in his pocket for the stub of a lead pencil and, with a sheet of brown paper before him, sat down at the table and began laboriously to write.

"Making sure that the boy slept, he began silently to assemble his trail pack."

Waseche Bill had never written a letter, nor had he ever received one. There was no one to write to, for, during an epidemic of smallpox in a dirty, twenty-two calibre town of a river State, he had seen his mother and father placed in long, black, pine boxes, by men who worked swiftly and silently, and wore strange-looking white masks with sponges at the mouth, and terrible straight, black robes which smelled strongly, like the open door of a drug store, and he had seen the boxes carried out at night and placed on a flat dray which drove swiftly away in the direction of the treeless square of sand waste, within whose white-fenced enclosure a few cheap marble slabs gleamed whitely among many wooden ones. All this he watched from the window, tearful, terrorized, alone, and from the same window watched the dray driven hurriedly back through the awful silence of the deserted street and stop before other houses where other black boxes were carried out by the strange, silent men dressed in their terrible motley.

The next day other men came and took him away to the "home." That is, the men called it a "home," but it was not at all like the home he had left where there was always plenty to eat, and where mother and father, no matter how tired and worried they were, always found time to smile or romp, and in the long evenings, to tell stories. But in this new home were a matron and a superintendent, instead of mother and father, and, except on visiting days, there was rarely enough to eat, and many rules to be obeyed, and irksome work to be done that tired small bodies. And instead of smiles and romps and stories there were frowns and whippings and quick, terrifying shakings and scoldings over hard lessons. He remembered how one day he stole out through an unlocked gate and hid until dark in a weed patch, and then trudged miles and miles through the long night and in the morning found himself in the bewildering outskirts of a great city-he was not Waseche Bill then, but just Willie Antrum, a small boy, who at the age of nine faced the great world alone.

The solving of the problem of existence had left scant time for book learning, and the man regretted the fact now when he was called upon for the first time to express himself in writing. He had never examined a letter; his brief excursions into the field of literature having been confined to the recording of claim papers, and the painful spelling out of various notices, handbills, and placards, which were posted from time to time in conspicuous places about trading posts or docks. He puzzled long over how to begin, and at each word paused to tug at his long moustache, and glower helplessly and gnaw the end of his stubby pencil. At last he finished, and weighting the paper with his own new, six-bladed jackknife crossed again to the bunk and stood for a long time looking down at the sleeping boy.

"I sho' do hate to go 'way an' leave yo' li'l' pa'd," he murmured. "Feels like pullin' teeth in yere." The big fingers pressed the front of his blue flannel shirt. "But it cain't neveh be tole how Waseche Bill done helt his pa'dneh to a bad ba'gain afteh his own claim run out-an' him only a kid. Ef yo' was a man 'twould be dif'ent, but yo' ain't, an' when you' grow'd up yo' might think I tuk advantage of yo'."

"Sam Mo'gan unlucky!" he exclaimed, under his breath, "Why ef yo' was my reg'lar own boy, pa'd, I'd be the luckiest man in Alaska-if I neveh struck coleh. Unlucky, sho'!" And with a suspicious winking of the eyes, and a strange lump in his throat, Waseche Bill blew out the lamp, closed the door softly behind him, harnessed his dogs, and swung out onto the moonlit trail which gleamed white and cold between low-lying ridges of stunted spruce.

Connie Morgan awoke next morning with a feeling that all was not well. It was dark in the cabin, but his ears could detect no sound of heavy breathing from the direction of his partner's bunk. Hastily he slipped from und

er his blankets and lighted the tin reflector lamp. As the yellow light flooded the room the boy's heart almost stopped beating and there was a strange sinking feeling at the pit of his stomach, like that day at Anvik when the little Yukon steamer churned noisily away from the log pier. For Waseche Bill's bunk was empty and his blankets were gone, and so was the tent that had lain in a compact bale in the corner, and Waseche Bill's rifle was missing from its pegs over the window.

Suddenly his glance was arrested by the scrap of paper upon the table, where the rays of light glinted on the backs of the polished blades. He snatched up the paper and holding it close to the light, spelled out, with difficulty, the scrawling lines:


dere Pard an' to Whom it may consern

this here is to Notissfy that me W. Bill [he never could remember how to spell Waseche, and the name of Antrum had long been forgotten] has quit pardners with C. Morgan. him to hev both claims which mine aint no good no moar it havin Petered Out an sloped off into hissen. i, W. BILL done tuk wat grub i nead an 1/2 the dust which was ourn, leavin hissen into the poke which i hid as per always him noin whar its at-an also to hev the cabin an geer.

SINED an SWORE TO befor ME OKT. 3 at ten Bow camp. so long. Kep the jack nife Kid fer to rember me with. do like i tole yo an dont drink no booz nor buck faro layouts like yer daddy never done an sum day yull be like him barrin his heft which he was a big man but mebe yull gro which ef yo dont dont wory none. ive saw runty size men for now which they was good men like Peat Moar down to rapid City. play the game squr an tak adviz offen Mak Doogle an Duch Henery an Scotty an D colton but not othes til yo no em wel. I aimed to see yo thru but things turnin out as they done i caint. but the boys will hand it to yo strate-thems GOOD MEN yurse troole W. bill.

The boy finished reading and, dropping his head in his folded arms, sobbed as if his heart would break.

Big McDougall was aroused in the early grey of the cold Alaska dawn by an insistent pounding upon his door.

"Come in, can't ye! D'ye want to break doon the hoose?" And as Connie Morgan burst into the room, he sat upon the edge of his bunk and grinned sleepily.

"What's ailin' ye lad, ye look flustered?"

"Waseche's gone!" cried the boy, in a choking voice, as he thrust the paper into the great hairy hand.

"Gone?" questioned the man, and began slowly to decipher the scrawl. At length he glanced at the boy who stood impatiently by.

"Weel?" the Scotchman asked.

"I want your dogs!"

The man scratched his head.

"What'll ye be up to wi' the dogs?"

"I'm going to find Waseche, of course. He's my pardner, and I'm going to stay by him!" McDougall slowly drew on his boots, and when he looked up his bearded face was expressionless.

"D'ye onderstan' that Waseche's claim's no gude? It sloped off shallow rock onto yourn, an' it's worked out a'ready. Waseche, he's gone, an' ye're full owner o' the best claim on the Ten Bow. You ain't got no pardner to divide up wi'-it's all yourn."

The boy regarded him with blazing eyes:

"What do you mean, I have no pardner? Waseche is my pardner, and you bet he'll find that out when I catch him! I'll stick by him no matter what he says, and if he won't come back, I won't either! Of course I've got the best claim on Ten Bow, but Waseche put me onto it, and gave me old Boris, and-" his voice broke and the words came choking between dry sobs-"and that day in Anvik he said he owed my father a hundred dollars, and the others all chipped in-I thought it was true then-but I know now-and I shut up about it because they thought I never knew!

"I don't want the claim, I want Waseche! And I'll stick by him if I have to abandon the claim. Pardners are pardners! and when I catch that old tillicum I'll-I'll bring him back if I have to beat him up! My dad licked British Kronk at Candle-and British was bigger! He's got to come back!" The small fists were doubled and the small voice rang shrill and high with righteous indignation. Suddenly Big McDougall's hand shot out and gripped the little fist, which he wrung in a mighty grip.

"Ah, laddie, fer all yer wee size, ye're a mon! Run ye the noo, an' pack the sled whilst I harness the dogs. Wi' that ten-team ye'll come up wi' Waseche anent Ragged Falls Post." Twenty minutes later the boy appeared with his own dogs unleashed.

"McDougall's prize malamutes shot out on the trail."

"Mush! Boris, find Waseche! Mush!" And the old dog, in perfect understanding, uttered a low whine of eagerness, and headed northward at a run. The next instant the boy threw himself belly-wise onto the sled and McDougall's prize malamutes shot out on the trail of the old lead dog, with big Mutt and the red-eyed Slasher running free in their wake.

Standing in his doorway, the Scotchman watched them dwindle in the distance, while distinctly to his ears, through the still, keen air, was borne the sharp creak of runners and the thin shouts of the boy as he urged the dogs over the hard-packed trail:

"Hi! Hi! Mush-u! Mush-u! Chook-e-e-e!"

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