“Then I’m sorry for you, pardner. They ain’t no grub in the country, and they’ll drop you cold as soon as they hit Dawson. Men are going to starve there this winter.”
“They agreed – ” Kit began.
“Verbal,” Shorty snapped him short. “It’s your say-so against theirs, that’s all. Well, anyway, what’s your name, pardner?”
“Call me Smoke,” said Kit.
“Well, Smoke, you’ll have a run for your verbal contract just the same. This is a plain sample of what to expect. They can sure shed mazuma, but they can’t work, or turn out of bed in the morning. We should have been loaded and started an hour ago. It’s you an’ me for the big work. Pretty soon you’ll hear ‘em shoutin’ for their coffee – in bed, mind you, and them grown men. What d’ye know about boatin’ on the water? I’m a cowman and a prospector, but I’m sure tenderfooted on water, an’ they don’t know punkins. What d’ye know?”
“Search me,” Kit answered, snuggling in closer under the tarpaulin as the snow whirled before a fiercer gust. “I haven’t been on a small boat since a boy. But I guess we can learn.”
A corner of the tarpaulin tore loose, and Shorty received a jet of driven snow down the back of his neck.
“Oh, we can learn all right,” he muttered wrathfully. “Sure we can. A child can learn. But it’s dollars to doughnuts we don’t even get started to-day.”
It was eight o’clock when the call for coffee came from the tent, and nearly nine before the two employers emerged.
“Hello,” said Sprague, a rosy-cheeked, well-fed young man of twenty-five. “Time we made a start, Shorty. You and – ” Here he glanced interrogatively at Kit. “I didn’t quite catch your name last evening.”
“Well, Shorty, you and Mr. Smoke had better begin loading the boat.”
“Plain Smoke – cut out the Mister,” Kit suggested.
Sprague nodded curtly and strolled away among the tents, to be followed by Doctor Stine, a slender, pallid young man.
Shorty looked significantly at his companion. “Over a ton and a half of outfit, and they won’t lend a hand. You’ll see.”
“I guess it’s because we’re paid to do the work,” Kit answered cheerfully, “and we might as well buck in.”
To move three thousand pounds on the shoulders a hundred yards was no slight task, and to do it in half a gale, slushing through the snow in heavy rubber boots, was exhausting. In addition, there was the taking down of the tent and the packing of small camp equipage. Then came the loading. As the boat settled, it had to be shoved farther and farther out, increasing the distance they had to wade. By two o’clock it had all been accomplished, and Kit, despite his two breakfasts, was weak with the faintness of hunger. His knees were shaking under him. Shorty, in similar predicament, foraged through the pots and pans, and drew forth a big pot of cold boiled beans in which were imbedded large chunks of bacon. There was only one spoon, a long-handled one, and they dipped, turn and turn about, into the pot. Kit was filled with an immense certitude that in all his life he had never tasted anything so good.
“Lord, man,” he mumbled between chews, “I never knew what appetite was till I hit the trail.”
Sprague and Stine arrived in the midst of this pleasant occupation.
“What’s the delay?” Sprague complained. “Aren’t we ever going to get started?”
Shorty dipped in turn, and passed the spoon to Kit. Nor did either speak till the pot was empty and the bottom scraped.
“Of course we ain’t been doin’ nothing,” Shorty said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “We ain’t been doin’ nothing at all. And of course you ain’t had nothing to eat. It was sure careless of me.”
“Yes, yes,” Stine said quickly. “We ate at one of the tents – friends of ours.”
“Thought so,” Shorty grunted.
“But now that you’re finished, let us get started,” Sprague urged.
“There’s the boat,” said Shorty. “She’s sure loaded. Now, just how might you be goin’ about to get started?”
“By climbing aboard and shoving off. Come on.”
They waded out, and the employers got on board, while Kit and Shorty shoved clear. When the waves lapped the tops of their boots they clambered in. The other two men were not prepared with the oars, and the boat swept back and grounded. Half a dozen times, with a great expenditure of energy, this was repeated.
Shorty sat down disconsolately on the gunwale, took a chew of tobacco, and questioned the universe, while Kit baled the boat and the other two exchanged unkind remarks.
“If you’ll take my orders, I’ll get her off,” Sprague finally said.
The attempt was well intended, but before he could clamber on board he was wet to the waist.
“We’ve got to camp and build a fire,” he said, as the boat grounded again. “I’m freezing.”
“Don’t be afraid of a wetting,” Stine sneered. “Other men have gone off to-day wetter than you. Now I’m going to take her out.”
This time it was he who got the wetting and who announced with chattering teeth the need of a fire.
“A little splash like that!” Sprague chattered spitefully. “We’ll go on.”
“Shorty, dig out my clothes-bag and make a fire,” the other commanded.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Sprague cried.
Shorty looked from one to the other, expectorated, but did not move.
“He’s working for me, and I guess he obeys my orders,” Stine retorted. “Shorty, take that bag ashore.”
Shorty obeyed, and Sprague shivered in the boat. Kit, having received no orders, remained inactive, glad of the rest.
“A boat divided against itself won’t float,” he soliloquized.
“What’s that?” Sprague snarled at him.
“Talking to myself – habit of mine,” he answered.
His employer favoured him with a hard look, and sulked several minutes longer. Then he surrendered.
“Get out my bag, Smoke,” he ordered, “and lend a hand with that fire. We won’t get off till morning now.”
Next day the gale still blew. Lake Linderman was no more than a narrow mountain gorge filled with water. Sweeping down from the mountains through this funnel, the wind was irregular, blowing great guns at times and at other times dwindling to a strong breeze.
“If you give me a shot at it, I think I can get her off,” Kit said, when all was ready for the start.
“What do you know about it?” Stine snapped at him.
“Search me,” Kit answered, and subsided.
It was the first time he had worked for wages in his life, but he was learning the discipline of it fast. Obediently and cheerfully he joined in various vain efforts to get clear of the beach.