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Title:  The Verdict of Faro Mountain
Author: Rex C. Beach
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Language: English
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The Verdict of Faro Mountain

by
Rex C. Beach

Published in Pearson’s Magazine (US) - February 1904

THIN, blue streamers of smoke were rising in the still air over the snow-covered “igloos” clustered around Chief Joe’s cabin, while on every roof curled shivering, husky dogs seeking the faint, welcome heat of the stove-pipes. Though the dazzling sunlight reflected from miles of stainless white was brighter than the eye could bear, yet the silent cold bit deep, and the snows creaked and complained under foot like the dry sand of the seashore.

Buckburst and Thomas had marked the strange architecture as the work of some stranded white or roving trader who, wintering here in years past, had built a house of logs as his forefathers did, and they lashed their bleeding dogs up the steep bank, pausing before the door.

Howling curs swarmed from the roofs, while out from the low tunnels crawled tattered, fur-clad Eskimo children and silent women. From the cabin a wrinkled old man tottered, speaking guttural words of welcome to the newcomers.

“Here’s a go, pal!” said Buckhurst, as be unlashed the bulging sled. “It’s all squaws and kids. I wonder where the bucks are.”

“Dunno, and what’s more, I don’t care!” replied Thomas, who had freed the last sore-footed dog from the harness, and with a kick sent it howling among the huts. “What I want is something to eat, and mighty quick, too. If this here old sport knows what’s good fer him, he’ll invite us into his house pretty pronto.”

In halting words and eloquent gestures the old chief explained that the men had gone hunting, and would not return for many days.

“He says the grub is gone and they’re all starving. It seems there ain’t any deer on the hills now, and the seals are gone, too. Now they’re killing the dogs, but they won’t last long.”

“Serves ’em right!” grumbled the other, as he strained at the heavy grub-box. “They’d ought to work summers and lay up a grub-stake. ’Spose now, they want to eat ours, that we’ve hauled three hundred miles. Well, we’ll fool ’em!”

As Buckhurst prepared the welcome meal within, willing hands brought wooden bowls of water from the distant hole, while old women, weak with hunger, mutely laid offerings of dried chips, grass, and drift-wood for the fire.

Round the mossy walls crouched hollow-eyed, patient squaws, sheltering wretched children, who gazed hungrily at the prodigal display before them. Strange, unknown dishes of the white men!

Weeks before hunger had stilled the childish laughter of the village, and teething babes sucked at rawhide thongs, while the elders gnawed on bits of bone and salmon fins which promised nourishment.

Thomas, knife in hand, sliced thin strips of bacon for the pan, while Chief Joe eagerly gathered the moldy rinds and apportioned them among the mothers, who muttered to the skin-clad infants in their arms.

Soon a fragrant steam of cooking food, of boiling coffee and frying meal, filled the low room. Children cried softly, while the squaws stirred uneasily and moistened their lips.

Unmindful of the hungry sounds, Buckhurst busied himself at the stove, while Thomas curiously examined the surroundings.

“Say, Chief, how much you sell ’em?” said he, indicating a handsome white-fox skin, hanging on the low ridge pole. Instantly three of the listening women slipped out, returning at once with other skins, which they shyly handed to the white man.

“No sell ’em, money!’’ answered the Chief as spokesman. “Grub—’at’s all! ‘Cow-Cow peluk!’ You plenty grub. Squaws hungry, by and by babies die. No sell ’em, money. Grub—’at’s all!”

“No; we ain’t got any more grub than we want. I’ll give you five dollars apiece, though. See!” and holding up five fingers, he made his meaning clear, producing from his “poke” some bright new cooper pennies.

After renewed entreaties for food rather than money, to which he turned a deaf ear, the shining yellow coins were accepted.

“Ain’t that easy?” he croaked, with a wink to his partner. “That’s not the first time I’ve worked off a new penny on an Eskimo for a five-dollar gold piece.”

As they voraciously fell to, and noisily cleaned up dish after dish, a lonely little brown-faced girl sidled cautiously forward and, standing unobserved behind them, eagerly watched the unfamiliar proceedings.

Buckhurst had placed a half-eaten bread crust on the box edge, where it lay unheeded as he held a steaming plate of beans below his chin, and dexterously shoveled them into his cavernous mouth.

A small, dark hand stole out of the ragged parka toward the crust, then slowly dropped. Hunger spoke again, and the slender fingers curled over the morsel.

Instantly Buckhurst flipped his knife end for end, and grasping the blade, brought the steel handle swiftly down upon the child’s exposed knuckles with a cruel crack, and as she scurried, sobbing, to the shelter of her mother’s arms, he snarled, “D— you! I’ll teach you to steal!”

Thomas’ food-distended cheeks exploded into wet and noisy laughter, sprinkling the other with masticated crumbs and a mist of coffee, while low murmurs circled the room.

His mirth was cut short by a gust of cold air as the low door swung back to admit a stooping figure, which straightened up showing the tall form and clean-shaven features of a white man.

“How are you, gentlemen? White men’s laughter is a welcome sound after a month on the trail. I judged from your sled outside that there were strangers stopping here.

“All right, Matka!” he called through the door. “Unhook the dogs; we’ll lie over here till to-morrow.”

“Yes, Captain,” came back from outside.

‘‘Where ye from?” questioned Buckhurst, as the newcomer stamped the snow from his beaded mukluks and wriggled out from his parka.

“Just down from Dawson,” he replied, “and bound for the new strike at Faro Mountain. It’s a long trip, but I wanted to get in before the rush next spring.”

“That’s where we’re goin’,” said Thomas, as he gathered up the dishes. “We’re from St. Michaels.”

As the newcomer thawed his stiffened fingers at the puny stove while they questioned him, he tried to recall an incident when a hearty invitation to eat had not followed the first rough greeting to the trail-worn “musher.” He had not tasted food for two days, and his greedy eyes sought the grub-box with its wealth of food. There was a half-emptied pail of brown beans lazily steaming beside the frying-pan, in which were strips of crisp bacon afloat in hot grease. There was a long loaf of bread, real bread, too, made of yeast and free from dyspeptic baking powder, while the ample coffee-pot half concealed a full can of golden butter.

His stomach had shudderingly rebelled at its greasy fare of seal-oil and flour two days before, and the enticing sight nearly dragged him trembling from the stove. As though in mockery, the dishes were rapidly disappearing into the box as Thomas pursued his work.

He heard the surly tones of Buckhurst, “This thievin’ bunch of savages here think they’re starvin’. I caught one brat stealin’ our grub jest now. Guess she’ll nurse them knuckles for a spell.”

Captain beheld a sobbing bundle of furs caressing a tiny, swollen fist.

“Yes; and I come up with ‘em, too,” chuckled Thomas. “See them fox skins? Only cost me four new pennies.”

Matka entered at this moment from his care of the dogs, and with native words of greeting to his kindred, squatted on his haunches by the fire, and with famished face stared curiously at the vanishing food.

Captain cleared his throat uneasily. He had never asked for favors, and now was loath to begin. Evidently these men had overlooked the fact that he might be hungry.

“We had an accident down the coast,” he began; “Matka upset my sled in an ice crevice and lost all the outfit. Fortunately we saved a little flour and some seal-oil that I brought along for dog feed. We’ve traveled two hundred miles on that diet. Ugh! Ever try seal-oil flapjacks? The Indian can go it all right, but it’s past me. I went the limit day before yesterday, when I tried three times to keep it down. Then I had to quit—elevator service too prompt for me.” He laughed pleasantly.

Thomas as dishwasher clattered noisily, and Buckhurst, propped against the wall, puffed silently at his pipe.

“What did ye do with the savage?” he finally said.

“Humph! I know what I’d done,” sniffed his partner. “I’d a-thrown his dummed carcass in after it.”

Captain paused.

“If it isn’t asking too much, gentlemen,” he said, “I’d like to buy enough of your grub to last me and my boy here to Faro Mountain. I’m simply famishing for something to eat.”

There was no laugh in his voice now. Thomas went to the door and flung the dishwater viciously over a shivering dog crouched in the entrance.

The bubbling nicotine in the other’s pipe sounded in the silent cabin.

Finally the former coughed slightly and, glancing at his companion for support, said, “We ain’t got any more grub than we want.”

Yes,” echoed Buckhurst, “we’ve hauled this grub clear from St. Michaels, and we want what there is of it ourselves. Seems to me like if you’d made it so far, you could last through to Faro.”

A strangely gentle mood seemed to settle over the hungry newcomer. He smiled a frank ingenuous smile, while his voice took on a tone as soft as that of the mother who quieted the weeping child in her lap.

Matka rose from beside the stove and spoke in his native tongue:

“Behold the big man. He makes talk like a woman. Soon you will see strange things. Perhaps the gun will speak, and then the men will shake and grow sick in their bellies.”

Captain continued,

“Gentlemen, you don’t seem to realize what it is to hit the trail on an empty stomach. I haven’t eaten for two days, and this cold bites hard. Name your price. You can get more grub at Faro, and—”

“No! I don’t know what it is to go hungry, and don’t intend to learn, either!” roughly interjected Buckhurst, emboldened by the other’s apparent timidity. Then he paused abruptly.

A big black six-shooter had leaped to the stranger’s hand and lay carelessly therein, with hammer viciously curled like the head of a striking adder, while his fingers toyed nervously with the trigger.

To Buckhurst’s widening eyes the weapon was foreshortened till there appeared only a horrid black hole surrounded by others, gleaming full of leaden death.

With a sharp gasp of incredulity Thomas had instinctively shoved his hands roofwards till his heels left the floor. In one hand glistened the wet frying-pan, while from the other the dish-rag dripped greasy water.

Buckhurst, pipe in hand, with gaping jaws rose stiffly, back to the wall.

“Fortunately I am not a quick-tempered man,” purred he of the dulcet tones, “or I’d injure you curs! Don’t try any quick movements. This gun has the easiest trigger I ever saw, and I was born with the gift of marksmanship. For instance, your pipe is going—” His last words were drowned in the roar of a double discharge.

With a startled cry Buckhurst snatched at the fingers of his left hand, from which the pipe had shivered, while the skillet rang clattering from the hands of Thomas, pierced by a ragged hole.

The frowning weapon smoked angrily, still unmoved, from the stranger’s wrist.

Small brown faces peeped fearfully from behind the women’s forms, flattened against the walls, while the weeping child clasped her injured knuckles and solemnly eyed the trio.

“Face the wall, both of you,” he commanded. “Hands up! Now, Matka, divide that grub. Half and half, you savvy? Two piles, all same.”

With an alacrity born of hunger the guide obeyed.

Now Buckhurst found his voice: ‘‘Ye ain’t goin’ to hold us up, are ye? Man, this is plain robbery!”

“If you’d said you was so all-fired hungry, we’d a-let you have something,” whimpered Thomas. “You wouldn’t take half of all we’ve got? Jest take what you need to get to Faro, and we won’t say anything about price,” he insinuated.

“Oh! I don’t intend to take more than enough to last me through,” said Captain; then, at the sigh of relief, “I’ll give the rest to these friends of yours. Shut up!” as they attempted to interrupt. “And, as you suggested, we won’t consider price at all.”

“Matka, tell the squaws to hitch up the strangers’ dogs; they’re going to leave in a few minutes.”

The guide, kneeling beside the box, rapidly divided the provisions. Half the beans he scooped into a wooden bowl; the bacon slab he bisected with a stroke of his knife; a ham fared likewise. With can in hand, like a chemist with his beaker, he impartially poured out half the precious sugar, returning a few pinches to the traveler’s cup, to restore the balance, as though weighing yellow dust. Finishing with each article, he licked his fingers clean for the next.

A new loaf of bread was hacked in two midway. Then, seizing the partially eaten loaf, he severed from the opposite end a piece equal to what was missing, fitting it to the other end to verify his judgment, then divided the remaining portion like-wise.

The can of butter offered more difficulties. but, tracing lines in the surface with his knife point, by dint of careful gouging he completed it to his satisfaction.

Other articles fared the same—tea, flour, lard, pepper, and finally a plug of precious T. & B., the sight of which brought a sweat of envy to the old Chief’s wrinkled brow. Without a word he replaced the remaining articles in the box, slammed the lid and, grasping the handles, hurried it on to the waiting sled, where he dexterously lashed it in place.

“Now get into your clothes,” commanded Captain, whose ill-humor had largely vanished at the sight of Matka in the role of the blind goddess.

“You can leave those skins here, too. If you think you’re going to be short of grub,” he added, “I’ll give you some seal oil, which I can recommend as being most nutritious. Really, I’d like to have you try—”

“It’s your turn now,” growled Buckhurst, glaring sullenly at him, “but if I don’t get ye some day, I hope I rot!”

The sled shot down the bank to the dim trail which wound like a thread along the gleaming coast, and without a look behind at the row of curious faces they plunged into the silent cold.

* * * * * * *

“I say again, we must maintain law and order during the early growth of our camp, if we wish it to bud and burst into the full bloom of a city as its riches develop.”

The Governor paused and gazed attentively at the bearded population of Faro Mountain, which in fur and mackinaw had assembled to a man at the Northern Saloon. He continued:

“These strangers, whose statements you have heard, lured hither by a laudable desire to share in the wealth which lurks in the hills about us, have been robbed of that which is more precious in this desolate country than gold—their food. Robbed at our very doors, too, by a desperado who will doubtless be among us in a few hours.

“Long ago we formed regulations governing this camp, which read, immediately following the section referring to the return of stray dogs, as follows: ‘Any person or persons convicted of stealing grub or provisions of any kind shall be publicly whipped at the post in front of  the A. C. Company’s store, and forced to leave camp within twelve hours thereafter.’

“The severity of this sentence is warranted by the conditions of this country, where an ounce of flour will often retain the spark of life which an untold weight of gold could not rekindle.

“On the frozen trails food is never refused the hungry traveler who asks; but this man, without requesting aid, held up our friends at the point of his weapon, while his vicious accomplice took the major portion of their precious supply, and wantonly threw it to the lazy Eskimos, leaving barely enough for them to reach the welcome of our midst.

“Therefore, as it is your pleasure to carry out the letter of our law, as chairman of this meeting I will appoint Mr. Barton, ‘Kid’ Sullivan, and Brocky Dick to execute the sentence upon the accused, if he should have the temerity to appear among us.

“The meeting is adjourned.”

As “Red,” the barkeeper, resumed his interrupted activities, speculation was rife regarding the stranger.

“I’ll tell you,” said Big Mike, “he’ll never show up in this camp. He’s no fool.”

“P’raps he thinks this is Arizony or New Mexico, and don’t realize what a hold-up means out here!” answered Jones, the dealer, as he slid his neatly shuffled cards into the faro-box, and making a turn pulled down a twenty-dollar bet of the Governor.

The committee had assembled in the rear of the hall and were conversing in low tones.

“I will not be a party to it,” Barton was saying. “I’ll help to expel him from the camp or I’ll fight him, if necessary, but I won’t help to lash the bare back of a shackled man. I couldn’t do it, if he were a murderer.”

Barton wore a large university letter on the front of his sweater, and his views were peculiarly effeminate.

“As fur as whippin’ a helpless man goes, I ain’t lookin’ for none the best of it myself, but I hate a thief wuss’n a criminnial,” said Brocky Dick, whose distinctions were sometimes difficult.

“If he makes a gun-play, you jest beat him to it, and me’n the Kid’ll tend to the floggin’.”

A man opened the door, closed it carefully behind him, and said in a tense voice, “Here they come!”

“H—!” said Jones the gambler, and opening a drawer extracted a shining gun, cocked it, spun the long cylinder, rapidly laid it in his lap and resumed his monotonous dealing.

The committee filed to the bar and backed against it, while the eager crowd pressed forward along the walls and grouped themselves behind the tables, with curious eyes fixed upon the door.

Without there sounded the tinkle of sleigh-bells, a loud “Whoa!” followed by murmuring voices, as the dogs were unharnessed.

Within the silence was broken only by the shifting of moccasins on the board floor and the shuffling of the cards.

The door opened boldly and a man entered, followed by a native encumbered with rattling dog-harness and a roll of bedding, which he threw behind the door. He advanced to the crackling stove with a few brief words of greeting, bent forward and dragged the clinging parka over his head.

“Now’s yer chance,” whispered “Kid” Sullivan to Barton. “Cover him and we’ll get his gun” But the latter, at his first glimpse of the newcomer, had started forward and was poised eagerly as though about to rush his man.

As the stranger, freed from his garment, turned, Barton sprang toward him with a cry, and, grasping the other’s hand, wrung it fiercely.

“Why, Cap! Is it you, Cap? Where did you come from? Come here and let me look at you, Charley! The greatest tackle that ever wore the blue. This is a good sight!” and dragging the smiling visitor by the arm, he brought him toward the light, where the rest of the committee stood bewildered.

“Yes, I’m Charley, all right!” answered the other. “But who would expect to find you in this God-forsaken place? I’ve been in Dawson off and on for three years. Made my pile and lost it again. You know how.”

He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, while the pitted visage of Brocky Dick was thrust before his eves.

“Guess ye don’t remember ‘Brocky,’ do ye? Ye ain’t forgot that day at White Horse Rapids, when ye dragged me off them rocks half-drowned, have ye? Well, I ain’t! Put her there!” and turning to the indignant onlookers, he said: “Gents, they’s a vacancy on this here committee from now on.”

“Me, too!” cried Barton suddenly, returning from frosty days on the gridiron and the hoarse roar of football-maddened multitudes. “I resign my place!”

“What’s the trouble?” said Captain, scanning the angry faces surrounding him; then, spying the hairy front and sneering eyes of Buckhurst and Thomas,

“Ah! Looking for more trouble, are you?”

As he loosely hitched his belt to the fore, the objects of his remarks side-stepped quickly behind their companions, while Jones dropped his right hand into his lap and straightened in his chair.

“That’s him!” loudly proclaimed Buckhurst. “I want to know what this camp’s goin’ to do with this here strong-arm man.”

The Governor mounted a chair and began:

“Gentlemen, a miscarriage of justice seems imminent. Two of our committee have refused to act, and as chairman of the recent meeting, I will appoint in their places ‘Big Mike’ and Mr. Jones of Australia.”

“I seem to be involved in this trouble some way, and I want to know how?” questioned Captain.

“Why, these men say you held them up and took all their grub,” interposed Barton. “So they called a miners’ meeting and we’ve voted to whip you at the post and run you out of camp. That was before we knew who it was, Charley!”

“The inherent gravity of the crime renders a severe example necessary,” continued the Governor. “Is it the will of the meeting that the committee act immediately?”

“You bet! Yes! Yes!” answered many voices.

“Hold on!” said Captain. “Won’t you allow a man to speak in his own behalf?”

“There ain’t nothin’ to say,” cried Thomas, nervously. “He stuck us up and took our grub that we’d hauled three hundred miles, and gave it to a lot of d— Siwashes! Didn’t ye? Now we want justice.”

To Matka’s questioning eyes, the circle of stubborn faces boded trouble. He loosed his knife in its sheath, and taking his place beside Captain, watched with wary glances for a hostile sign.

“Yes! I held you up,” said Captain; “but I was starving, and you refused me grub—”

‘‘Don’t ye believe him!” yelled Buckhurst, while a murmur of disbelief sounded from the crowd. “He just walked in on us and took it.”

“You lie!” Captain’s voice cooed soft and clear.

At the words the crowd, dividing, scrambled hastily toward the walls out of range, leaving Captain and Buckhurst facing one another.

Buckhurst, perspiring violently, licked his lips, while his roving eyes gleamed appealingly toward the men pressed against the wall breathlessly awaiting the expected retort and shot.

After a pregnant moment of suspense, Jones whispered wonderingly:

“He’s goin’ to swallow them words.”

The blazing head of the bartender cautiously reappeared over the bar, while the Governor tactfully cleared his throat and began:

“Sir, you have admitted that you robbed these men at the point of a gun. That admission would seem to suffice. You can’t really expect us to believe that these gentlemen refused food to a hungry ‘musher.’ Such a thing is unheard of in this country, and does your ingenuity no credit.”

“Sure. That don’t go,” scoffed a bearded bystander. “I reckon you’ve about had your little say.”

“Well, I haven’t had my little say,” gently murmured Captain, “and I’ll advise your committee not to get busy until I stop.” His long fingers toyed with the belt fringe near his revolver. “I want you to hear the truth of this matter.”

“The truth!” said the former. “I don’t see why we’d ought to take your word any more than these other fellers. Who are ye, anyhow?”

“He’s Charley Captain,” chorused Barton and the “Kid.” “You’ve all heard of Captain, squarest man on the Yukon. On the All American Team four years,” vaguely added Barton. “You Dawson men remember the rescue of the Porcupine party, don’t ye?”

A murmur of surprise greeted the remarks, and men looked curiously at the hero of many wintry tales, while in a respectful silence he briefly told of his meeting with the two at the village.

“There’s not an old-timer in the country who doesn’t owe his life to Indians,” he continued. “They once dragged me raving mad from a raft on the Tanana; they fed me when their babies hungered. They found me snow-blind and frozen on the ice pack, and nursed me back to life and saved my hands and feet. They’re done more for others of you, too.”

“That’s right!” echoed voices.

“Chief Joe gave these men all he had, his hospitality, and they robbed the hungry squaws. That coward crushed the fingers of a starving baby who snatched a crust from him, then laughed at its sobs. They refused to sell their grub to me, a famished white man, and, gentlemen, I’m sorry I didn’t shoot to kill.”

No man doubted the words of this clear-eyed stranger, whose name had run from Skagway to the Straits, and from Katmai to the Arctic.

A yellow mackinaw gleamed above the crowd while the voice of Big Mike roared, “Meeting will come to order!”

“Governor, you’re chairman. Now, I move ye that the committee transfers its affectionate attenshun to them two ‘skunks’!” and he stretched a huge, piston-like arm toward the pair, who encountered a barrier of threatening looks which forever shut them out of Faro Mountain.

“Second the motion!” cried the camp as one voice.

“Carried!” shouted Mike, who still retained his footing on the chair and, drowning the protests of the Governor, who tugged vainly at a jaundiced coat-tail, he continued:

“As the Governor says, we’re goin’ to protect the law an’ order here durin’ the bloomin’ growth of our buddin’ camp, and we ain’t got room for fellers like you. See! You git! Meeting is adjourned.”

As he stepped down from his chair, he continued: “Well, Governor, maybe it ain’t accordin’ to Roberts’ ‘Rules and Parliament Practice,’ but it’s accordin’ to Alaska.”

“And Hoyle,’ added Jones, the dealer, while in the chorus of laughter the door closed on the figures of Buckhurst and Thomas.


THE END

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