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   Chapter 13 O'BRIEN

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 16206

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Surprise held Connie Morgan and Waseche Bill spellbound as they stood ankle-deep in the glittering frost spicules that carpeted the surface of the ice-locked river, and gazed speechless into the face that stared at them over the top of the rime-crusted rock.

The spell broke. From behind other rocks appeared other faces surmounted by odd beaver-skin caps, edged with the feathers of the blue, and snow goose, and of the great white Arctic owl. The partners glanced from one to the other of these strange, silent faces that regarded them through wide-set, in-slanting eyes. The faces were white-or rather, through the winter's accumulation of grease and blubber soot, they showed a light brownish yellow that, in comparison with the faces of other Indians, would easily pass for white. And they were so nearly alike that a stranger would have been at his wits' end to have distinguished one from another-all except the first one, the man whose face appeared so suddenly almost at Waseche Bill's side. He was taller than the others, his nose longer and thinner, and his whole lower face was concealed behind a luxurious growth of flaming red whiskers, while through the soot and grease his skin showed ruddy, rather than yellow, and his small, deep-set eyes were of a peculiar greenish hue.

"Japs an' Irish!" exclaimed Waseche Bill. "Carlson was right-even to his frozen fohest an' white Injuns!"

He addressed the company with a comprehensive wave of his arm:

"Good evenin', gents. How they comin'?"

His words were greeted with stony-faced stares as meaningless and void of expression as the stare of a frozen fish. Waseche tried again:

"It's a right smaht spell o' weatheh we're havin', ain't it? An' how's all the folks? Don't all talk to onct, now, till I get through welcomin' yo' into me an' the kid's midst-oah else tellin' yo' how glad we-all ah to find ouhselves amongst yo'-owin' to who's givin' the pahty." He glanced from face to face, but, as before, all were stolid as graven images. Suddenly he turned upon the bewhiskered one of the green eyes:

"Hey, yo' red chinchilly! Cain't yo' talk none? An' cain't yo' yelleh perils, heah, ondehstand no language? I cain't talk no laundry, myself, but besides American, I'm some fluent in Chinook, Metlakat', Tlinkit, an' Athapascan. As fo' yo', yo' look to me like the Tipperary section of a Patrick's Day parade! Come on, now-loosen up! If yo' an' Injun, so'm I-only I've done moulted my feathehs, an' washed my face since the Fo'th of July!"

Directly addressed, the man stepped from behind his rock, and the lid of the left green eye dropped in a decided wink. The others immediately followed, crowding close about the newcomers. Squat, full-bodied men, they were, fur-clad from top to toe, and all armed with short, copper-tipped harpoons which they leaned upon as they stared. Waseche grinned into their wide, flat faces, as he of the red whiskers elbowed to the fore and spoke in a singsong voice with a decided Hibernian accent:

"Which me name's O'Brien," he began, "an' ut's both sorry an' glad Oi am to see ye. But, phwere's th' shtampede?" He glanced anxiously up the river.

"What stampede?" asked Waseche, in surprise.

"Phy, th' shtampede! Th' shtampede to th' Ignatook, th' creek yondher-th' creek that biles."

"Sea'ch me! Me an' the kid's all theah is-an' yo' wouldn't hahdly call us a stampede."

"But, Car-rlson! An' th' breed, Pete Mateese! Didn't they nayther wan git t'rough? Ilse, how'd ye come to be follyin' th' back thrail?" The man's anxiety increased, and he waited impatiently for an answer.

"No. Carlson didn't get through. We come onto his last camp about ten days back. He died huntin' the Tatonduk divide. But, how come yo'-all to be heah? Who's yo' friends? An' wheah's ouh outfit?"

"Hivin hilp th' bunch av us!" wailed the Irishman. "No shtampede, afther all-an' we'll all be dead befoor we live to git out av this!" The man gazed far out into the gathering gloom, wringing his hands and muttering to himself. Suddenly his eyes lighted, and he questioned the two eagerly:

"D'yez know about Flor-ridy?" he asked, "phwere they say a man kin be war-rum? An' how man-ny quar-rts av nuggits w'd ut take f'r th' car-r-fare, an' to buy, me'be ut's a bit av a tobaccy shtor-re on th' sunny soide av th' shtrate, wid a bit av a gar-rdin behint, an' a pig in his pin in th' yar-rud?

"An', shpykin' av tobaccy, hav' yez a bit to shpare? Ut's niver a shmoke Oi've had in goin' on six year-an' kin ye lind me th' loan av a match?"

Waseche tossed the man his tobacco and eyed him sharply as he lighted the short, black cutty pipe that he produced from a pocket of his thick caribou-hide shirt.

"They've took th' outfit to th' village," O'Brien said. "But, about Flor-ridy, now--"

"We'll talk that oveh lateh. Let's be mushin', I don't want them sleds too fah in th' lead."

"Sur-re, they'll not be far-r. 'Tis ondly ar-round th' bind av th' r-river." He spoke a few harsh, guttural syllables to one of the fur-clad men, who wore across his shoulders the skin of a beautiful black fox.

"'Tis a foine language, ain't ut? An' to think Oi've hur-rd no other f'r six years past!"

"What do yo' call it?" asked Waseche, as they followed in the wake of the natives, who had started northward at the Irishman's words.

"Call ut! How sh'uld Oi know? Oi c'd be ar-rested in an-ny town in Oirland f'r phwat Oi've called ut! But, Oi've got used to ut, now-same as th' raw fish, an' blubber. How man-ny cans av nuggits did ye say? Wan quar-rt tomatty cans, wid a rid label, haypin' full-an' is ut raylly hot in Flor-ridy, or ondly middlin' war-rum, loike Kildare in th' summer?"

"Florida's hot," ventured Connie. "I learned about it in school. And there's oranges, and alligators that eat you when you go in swimming."

"Shwimmin'! Sur-re, Oi ain't bin shwimmin' in, Oi don't know phwin. Phy, Oi ain't seen me hide in six years!"

They proceeded a short distance, with O'Brien muttering and chuckling in the rear, and upon rounding a sharp bend, came in sight of the village, a group of some fifteen or twenty snow igloos, situated upon a plateau or terrace overlooking the river. In front of an igloo somewhat larger than the others, stood the dog-teams with their loaded sleds surrounded by a crowd of figures that differed in no single particular from the dozen or so who mushed along in advance. Old Boris, Mutt, and Slasher, the three unharnessed dogs that had accompanied Connie and Waseche to the top of the high plateau from which they had obtained the view of the creek of the steam and the white forest, now trotted close to the heels of the boy.

"I don't quite like the looks of things, kid," whispered Waseche, as they approached the trail that slanted upward to the village. "O'Brien's touched a little in his uppeh stohy, but he may be smaht enough in some things. He ain't wild-eyed, an' me'be he'll be all right now. I reckon he's jest be'n thinkin' of them wahm countries till he's a bit off. We got to keep ouh eyes peeled an' get out of this heah fix the best way we can. Me'be the Irishman'll help, an' me'be he'll hindeh. These heah Jap-faced Injuns don't appeah to be much hostyle, an' we betteh lay low an' get the hang of things fo' a couple of days befo' we go makin' any break."

"We'll take him with us," said Connie. "Just think of a white man living up here for six years!"

"We sho' will!" agreed Waseche. "I hope them heathens ain't cleaned out Carlson's camp. Raw fish an' blubber don't sound good to me-theah's some things a man don't want to get use' to. Heah we ah; we got to hold ouh nehve, an' keep ouh eyes open."

"How man-ny cans av nuggits did ye say?" interrupted O'Brien, as he overtook them at the rise of the trail. "They're heavy."

"Why, they're all men!" exclaimed Connie, as they reached the spot where the entire village stood grouped about the sleds.

"Indade, an' they ain't!" refuted O'Brien. "They's fifty-seven av um all towld, incloodin' mesilf, an' th' half av us is wimmin-ondly ye can't tell th' dif

ference nayther in looks nor-r dhress. An' a homlier-r, mor-re ill-favour-red crew niver wuz let be born, bein', near-r as Oi kin figger, half Injun, half Eskimo, an' half Chinee-an' they'll ate an-nything they kin chaw!"

At the approach of the white men, the Indians drew back, forming a wide circle about the dog-teams. Into this circle stepped a very old man, who leaned heavily upon the shaft of his harpoon and blinked his watery, red-rimmed eyes. From the corners of his mouth long tufts of white hair grew downward until they extended below the angle of his jaw. These tufts, stiff with grease, gleamed whitely like the ivory tusks of a walrus. With a palsied arm he motioned to O'Brien, who stepped before him and spoke rapidly for several moments in the guttural jargon he had used on the river. The old man answered and, as he talked, his tongue clicked oddly against his teeth, which were worn to the level of his gums.

"What ails grandpa?" asked Waseche, when the old man had finished. "Was he sayin' somethin,' oah jest exehcisin' his mouth?"

"Sur-re, that's Metlutak, the owld chayfe; he's give over his job mostly to Annunduk, yondher, wid th' black fox shawl, but on mathers av impoortance th' owld wan has his say."

"I didn't get the drift of his ahgument-I neveh leahnt no blue jay."

"He says," began O'Brien, with a broad grin, "he says ye're welcome into the thribe. He'll set th' young min buildin' an igloo, an' he's glad ye've got so man-ny dogs f'r 'tis two moons befoor th' caribou move, an' th' fresh mayte will tasht good afther a winther av fish an' blubber."

"With a palsied arm he motioned to O'Brien, who stepped before him."

"Meat!" exclaimed Connie, with flashing eyes. "Does he think he's going to eat those dogs?"

"Ye don't see no dogs in th' village, do yez? An' nayther they ain't bin excipt th' six they shtole off Car-rlson an' Pete Mateese-an' they was into th' bilin' pot befoor they quit kickin'."

"Well, you can tell him he don't get any of these dogs to eat! And if any one lays a hand on a dog, I'll-I'll knock his block off!"

"Now, hold on, son," cautioned Waseche Bill, with his hand upon the boy's shoulder. "We got to kind of take it easy. This heah ain't no time fo' an uprisin' of the whites-the odds ain't right." He turned to the Irishman:

"O'Brien, yo' want to get out of this heah country, don't yo'?"

"Sur-re, an' Oi do!" eagerly exclaimed the man. "But, ut's six years Oi've throied ut, an' nar-ry a wanst hav' Oi done ut. Av ye kin make ut, Oi'm wid yez-but, av we don't save th' dogs, we'll niver do ut. They're good thrailers, th' punkin faced ejits, an' they've br-rung me back twinty-wan toimes, be th' clock. Car-rlson an' Pete Mateese had dogs, an' they got away."

"We-all can make it! Don't yo' worry none. I be'n in tight fixes befo'. Jest yo' listen to me, an' stall the ol' boy off fo' a day oah two. That'll give us a chanst to make medicine." O'Brien turned to the old walrus-faced shaman and there followed a half-hour of lively conversation, at the end of which the man reported to Waseche:

"They're gr-reat hands f'r to hav' dances, ut's par-rt av their haythen religion-that is, they call um dances, an' ut shtar-rts in that way-but ut woinds up loike a Donnybrook fair. 'Tis gr-rand fun-wid har-rpoon shafts cr-rackin' down on heads loike quarther-staves; f'r barrin' pick handles, wan av thim har-rpoons is th' besht club, nixt to a black thor-rn shelala, f'r a foight amongst frinds, an-ny day in th' wake.

"Oi towld um th' dogs wuz skin-poor fr-rom th' long thrail, an' not fit f'r to ate, but a couple av days wid plinty av fish in their bellies, would fat um up loike a young seal.

"'We'll have a big potlatch,' says he. 'We've more fish thin we nayde. Feed up th' dogs,' says he, 'an' in two shlapes, we'll hav' th' biggest potlatch in th' histhry av th' thribe. We'll dance all night, f'r Oi'm gittin' owld,' says he, 'an' ut may be me lasht.' Oi hope so, thinks Oi, but Oi don't say so. An-nyhow, we kin resht airy f'r a couple av days an' th' dogs'll be safe an' well fed. 'Twud be all a man's loife wuz wor-rth to har-rm wan till th' owld man gives th' wor-rd. Ye said ut wuz raylly hot in Flor-ridy, b'y? Hot enough, d'ye think, that a felly c'd set ar-round in his shir'rt shlaves, an' shmoke a bit av an avenin'?"

O'Brien offered to share his igloo with Connie and Waseche Bill, but they declined with thanks after one look into the smoky interior that fairly reeked with the stench of rancid blubber and raw skin bedding.

Hardly had the dogs been unharnessed before four Indians appeared with huge armfuls of frozen fish, and while the gaunt malamutes gnawed ravenously at the food, the whole village looked on, men and women licking their chops in anticipation of the coming potlatch, pointing out the choicest of the dogs, and gesticulating and jabbering over the division of the spoils.

The light shelter tent, robes, and sleeping bags were removed from the sleds, and O'Brien offered to help.

"Set ut up clost ag'in' th' igloo," he said, "an' Oi'll tunnel a hole t'rough th' soide, an' tonight we kin lay an' plot loike Fenians, an' th' ar-risthocracy here'll think we're sound ashlape dhreamin' av malamute mulligan, an' dog's liver fried in ile."

The tent was quickly set up and Connie was about to loosen the lashings of the grub pack.

"How much grub hav' ye got?" asked the Irishman.

"We got a right smaht of grub, except fo' th' dawgs," answered Waseche.

"Don't uncover ut, thin," warned O'Brien. "Jist tilt yer tarp a bit an' pull out enough f'r th' suppher. They won't bother-r th' outfit none-th' owld man towld um to lave hands off an' they'd divide the whole shebang afther th' dance."

"Yo' don't say," drawled Waseche. "Grandpa's a generous heahted ol' pahty, ain't he! D'yo' reckon we-all w'd be in on th' divvy, oah do we jest furnish the outfit?"

O'Brien grinned:

"Ye'd fare same as th' rist," he said. "Sharre an' shar-re aloike is th' rule here. Sur-re, they're socialists-ondly they don't know ut."

"Yo' say they won't let yo' get away from heah? What do they want of yo'-an' what do they want of us? Afteh they've et the dawgs an' divided the outfit, looks like they'd be glad to get rid of us."

O'Brien filled his pipe and noisily blew great clouds of smoke into the air:

"'Tis a thing Oi've niver found out. Six years Oi've bin hilt pr-risoner. They've thrayted me same as theirsilves. Oi do no mor-re wor-rk thin an-ny man av thim, an' av they're glutted wid grub so'm Oi, an' av they're hungr-ry, Oi'm hungr-ry, too. Near-r as Oi kin make out Oi'm jist a kapesake-loike ye're grandfayther's swor-rd, or a canary."

"How did Carlson an' Pete Mateese get away?"

"Sur-re, they niver wuz caught! They got to the Ignatook; that's phwat these haythen call th' creek av th' bilin' wather-an' they fear-r ut. Niver a man av thim will go into ut's valley. They say ut's divil-ha'nted. Th' wather's black an' bilin'-an' ut stinks. Ut's pizen, too; av ye dhrink ut ye'll die. They's a pile av bones, an' man-ny a skull ar-round th' owld copper mine. 'Twuz wan av thim Oi shlipped into th' rock cairn, back yondher, hopin' to warn th' fur-rst av th' shtampede to wait f'r th' rist, phwin th' Injuns robbed th' cache.

"Av we kin git to th' Ignatook wid th' dogs, we're safe. Oi've hid there a dozen toimes, but Oi niver c'd make th' outside f'r lack av dogs. They's sixteen hunder' pounds av caribou mate in th' tunnel, an' sixty percers av fish.

"They've an eye on us, an' Oi'm fear-red they'll misthrust we're plottin'. Wait till tonight, an' Oi'll go now an' make up a fairy shtor-ry that'll satisfy th' owld chayfe about our long palaver-r."

O'Brien started toward the old shaman, but turned and retraced his steps:

"How man-ny quar-rts av nuggits did ye say?" he asked, as a far-away look crept into his eyes. Waseche Bill answered softly:

"I don't rightly know what nuggets is fetchin' a quaht. But, offhand, I'd say a quaht oah two w'd be a plenty to take yo' clean around the wohld."

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