Trefethan emptied his glass and called for another.
“Boys, do you know what that girl did? She was twenty-two. She had spent her life over the dish-pan and she knew no more about the world than I do of the fourth dimension, or the fifth. All roads led to her desire. No; she didn’t head for the dance-halls. On the Alaskan Pan-handle it is preferable to travel by water. She went down to the beach. An Indian canoe was starting for Dyea – you know the kind, carved out of a single tree, narrow and deep and sixty feet long. She gave them a couple of dollars and got on board.
“‘Romance?’ she told me. ‘It was Romance from the jump. There were three families altogether in that canoe, and that crowded there wasn’t room to turn around, with dogs and Indian babies sprawling over everything, and everybody dipping a paddle and making that canoe go.’ And all around the great solemn mountains, and tangled drifts of clouds and sunshine. And oh, the silence! the great wonderful silence! And, once, the smoke of a hunter’s camp, away off in the distance, trailing among the trees. It was like a picnic, a grand picnic, and I could see my dreams coming true, and I was ready for something to happen ‘most any time. And it did.
“‘And that first camp, on the island! And the boys spearing fish in the mouth of the creek, and the big deer one of the bucks shot just around the point. And there were flowers everywhere, and in back from the beach the grass was thick and lush and neck-high. And some of the girls went through this with me, and we climbed the hillside behind and picked berries and roots that tasted sour and were good to eat. And we came upon a big bear in the berries making his supper, and he said “Oof!” and ran away as scared as we were. And then the camp, and the camp smoke, and the smell of fresh venison cooking. It was beautiful. I was with the night-born at last, and I knew that was where I belonged. And for the first time in my life, it seemed to me, I went to bed happy that night, looking out under a corner of the canvas at the stars cut off black by a big shoulder of mountain, and listening to the night-noises, and knowing that the same thing would go on next day and forever and ever, for I wasn’t going back. And I never did go back.’
“‘Romance! I got it next day. We had to cross a big arm of the ocean – twelve or fifteen miles, at least; and it came on to blow when we were in the middle. That night I was along on shore, with one wolf-dog, and I was the only one left alive.’
“Picture it yourself,” Trefethan broke off to say. “The canoe was wrecked and lost, and everybody pounded to death on the rocks except her. She went ashore hanging on to a dog’s tail, escaping the rocks and washing up on a tiny beach, the only one in miles.
“‘Lucky for me it was the mainland,’ she said. ‘So I headed right away back, through the woods and over the mountains and straight on anywhere. Seemed I was looking for something and knew I’d find it. I wasn’t afraid. I was night-born, and the big timber couldn’t kill me. And on the second day I found it. I came upon a small clearing and a tumbledown cabin. Nobody had been there for years and years. The roof had fallen in. Rotted blankets lay in the bunks, and pots and pans were on the stove. But that was not the most curious thing. Outside, along the edge of the trees, you can’t guess what I found. The skeletons of eight horses, each tied to a tree. They had starved to death, I reckon, and left only little piles of bones scattered some here and there. And each horse had had a load on its back. There the loads lay, in among the bones – painted canvas sacks, and inside moosehide sacks, and inside the moosehide sacks – what do you think?’”
She stopped, reached under a corner of the bed among the spruce boughs, and pulled out a leather sack. She untied the mouth and ran out into my hand as pretty a stream of gold as I have ever seen – coarse gold, placer gold, some large dust, but mostly nuggets, and it was so fresh and rough that it scarcely showed signs of water-wash.
“‘You say you’re a mining engineer,’ she said, ‘and you know this country. Can you name a pay-creek that has the color of that gold!’
“I couldn’t! There wasn’t a trace of silver. It was almost pure, and I told her so.
“‘You bet,’ she said. ‘I sell that for nineteen dollars an ounce. You can’t get over seventeen for Eldorado gold, and Minook gold don’t fetch quite eighteen. Well, that was what I found among the bones – eight horse-loads of it, one hundred and fifty pounds to the load.’
“‘A quarter of a million dollars!’ I cried out.
“‘That’s what I reckoned it roughly,’ she answered. ‘Talk about Romance! And me a slaving the way I had all the years, when as soon as I ventured out, inside three days, this was what happened. And what became of the men that mined all that gold? Often and often I wonder about it. They left their horses, loaded and tied, and just disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving neither hide nor hair behind them. I never heard tell of them. Nobody knows anything about them. Well, being the night-born, I reckon I was their rightful heir.’”
Trefethan stopped to light a cigar.
“Do you know what that girl did? She cached the gold, saving out thirty pounds, which she carried back to the coast. Then she signaled a passing canoe, made her way to Pat Healy’s trading post at Dyea, outfitted, and went over Chilcoot Pass. That was in ‘88 – eight years before the Klondike strike, and the Yukon was a howling wilderness. She was afraid of the bucks, but she took two young squaws with her, crossed the lakes, and went down the river and to all the early camps on the Lower Yukon. She wandered several years over that country and then on in to where I met her. Liked the looks of it, she said, seeing, in her own words, ‘a big bull caribou knee-deep in purple iris on the valley-bottom.’ She hooked up with the Indians, doctored them, gained their confidence, and gradually took them in charge. She had only left that country once, and then, with a bunch of the young bucks, she went over Chilcoot, cleaned up her gold-cache, and brought it back with her.
“‘And here I be, stranger,’ she concluded her yarn, ‘and here’s the most precious thing I own.’
“She pulled out a little pouch of buckskin, worn on her neck like a locket, and opened it. And inside, wrapped in oiled silk, yellowed with age and worn and thumbed, was the original scrap of newspaper containing the quotation from Thoreau.
“‘And are you happy… satisfied?’ I asked her. ‘With a quarter of a million you wouldn’t have to work down in the States. You must miss a lot.’
“‘Not much,’ she answered. ‘I wouldn’t swop places with any woman down in the States. These are my people; this is where I belong. But there are times – and in her eyes smoldered up that hungry yearning I’ve mentioned – ‘there are times when I wish most awful bad for that Thoreau man to happen along.’
“‘Why?’ I asked.
“‘So as I could marry him. I do get mighty lonesome at spells. I’m just a woman – a real woman. I’ve heard tell of the other kind of women that gallivanted off like me and did queer things – the sort that become soldiers in armies, and sailors on ships. But those women are queer themselves. They’re more like men than women; they look like men and they don’t have ordinary women’s needs. They don’t want love, nor little children in their arms and around their knees. I’m not that sort. I leave it to you, stranger. Do I look like a man?’
“She didn’t. She was a woman, a beautiful, nut-brown woman, with a sturdy, health-rounded woman’s body and with wonderful deep-blue woman’s eyes.
“‘Ain’t I woman?’ she demanded. ‘I am. I’m ‘most all woman, and then some. And the funny thing is, though I’m night-born in everything else, I’m not when it comes to mating. I reckon that kind likes its own kind best. That’s the way it is with me, anyway, and has been all these years.’
“‘You mean to tell me – ’ I began.
“‘Never,’ she said, and her eyes looked into mine with the straightness of truth. ‘I had one husband, only – him I call the Ox; and I reckon he’s still down in Juneau running the hash-joint. Look him up, if you ever get back, and you’ll find he’s rightly named.’
“And look him up I did, two years afterward. He was all she said – solid and stolid, the Ox – shuffling around and waiting on the tables.
“‘You need a wife to help you,’ I said.
“‘I had one once,’ was his answer.
“‘Yep. She went loco. She always said the heat of the cooking would get her, and it did. Pulled a gun on me one day and ran away with some Siwashes in a canoe. Caught a blow up the coast and all hands drowned.’”
Trefethan devoted himself to his glass and remained silent.
“But the girl?” Milner reminded him.
“You left your story just as it was getting interesting, tender. Did it?”
“It did,” Trefethan replied. “As she said herself, she was savage in everything except mating, and then she wanted her own kind. She was very nice about it, but she was straight to the point. She wanted to marry me.
“‘Stranger,’ she said, ‘I want you bad. You like this sort of life or you wouldn’t be here trying to cross the Rockies in fall weather. It’s a likely spot. You’ll find few likelier. Why not settle down! I’ll make you a good wife.’
“And then it was up to me. And she waited. I don’t mind confessing that I was sorely tempted. I was half in love with her as it was. You know I have never married. And I don’t mind adding, looking back over my life, that she is the only woman that ever affected me that way. But it was too preposterous, the whole thing, and I lied like a gentleman. I told her I was already married.
“‘Is your wife waiting for you?’ she asked.
“I said yes.
“‘And she loves you?’
“I said yes.
“And that was all. She never pressed her point… except once, and then she showed a bit of fire.
“‘All I’ve got to do,’ she said, ‘is to give the word, and you don’t get away from here. If I give the word, you stay on… But I ain’t going to give it. I wouldn’t want you if you didn’t want to be wanted… and if you didn’t want me.’
“She went ahead and outfitted me and started me on my way.
“‘It’s a darned shame, stranger,” she said, at parting. ‘I like your looks, and I like you. If you ever change your mind, come back.’
“Now there was one thing I wanted to do, and that was to kiss her good-bye, but I didn’t know how to go about it nor how she would take it. – I tell you I was half in love with her. But she settled it herself.
“‘Kiss me,’ she said. ‘Just something to go on and remember.’
“And we kissed, there in the snow, in that valley by the Rockies, and I left her standing by the trail and went on after my dogs. I was six weeks in crossing over the pass and coming down to the first post on Great Slave Lake.”
The brawl of the streets came up to us like a distant surf. A steward, moving noiselessly, brought fresh siphons. And in the silence Trefethan’s voice fell like a funeral bell:
“It would have been better had I stayed. Look at me.”
We saw his grizzled mustache, the bald spot on his head, the puff-sacks under his eyes, the sagging cheeks, the heavy dewlap, the general tiredness and staleness and fatness, all the collapse and ruin of a man who had once been strong but who had lived too easily and too well.