THE STRENGTH OF MEN
There was the scent of battle in the air. The whole of Porcupine City knew that it was coming, and every man and woman in its two hundred population held their breath in anticipation of the struggle between two men for a fortune—and a girl. For in some mysterious manner rumor of the girl had got abroad, passing from lip to lip, until even the children knew that there was some other thing than gold that would play a part in the fight between Clarry O’Grady and Jan Larose. On the surface it was not scheduled to be a fight with fists or guns. But in Porcupine City there were a few who knew the “inner story”—the story of the girl, as well as the gold, and those among them who feared the law would have arbitrated in a different manner for the two men if it had been in their power. But law is law, and the code was the code. There was no alternative. It was an unusual situation, and yet apparently simple of solution. Eighty miles north, as the canoe was driven, young Jan Larose had one day staked out a rich “find” at the headwaters of Pelican Creek. The same day, but later, Clarry O’Grady had driven his stakes beside Jan’s. It had been a race to the mining recorder’s office, and they had come in neck and neck. Popular sentiment favored Larose, the slim, quiet, dark-eyed half Frenchman. But there was the law, which had no sentiment. The recorder had sent an agent north to investigate. If there were two sets of stakes there could be but one verdict. Both claims would be thrown out, and then—
All knew what would happen, or thought that they knew. It would be a magnificent race to see who could set out fresh stakes and return to the recorder’s office ahead of the other. It would be a fight of brawn and brain, unless—and those few who knew the “inner story” spoke softly among themselves.
An ox in strength, gigantic in build, with a face that for days had worn a sneering smile of triumph, O’Grady was already picked as a ten-to-one winner. He was a magnificent canoeman, no man in Porcupine City could equal him for endurance, and for his bow paddle he had the best Indian in the whole Reindeer Lake country. He stalked up and down the one street of Porcupine City, treating to drinks, cracking rough jokes, and offering wagers, while Jan Larose and his long-armed Cree sat quietly in the shade of the recorder’s office waiting for the final moment to come.
There were a few of those who knew the “inner story” who saw something besides resignation and despair in Jan’s quiet aloofness, and in the disconsolate droop of his head. His face turned a shade whiter when O’Grady passed near, dropping insult and taunt, and looking sidewise at him in a way that only he could understand. But he made no retort, though his dark eyes glowed with a fire that never quite died—unless it was when, alone and unobserved, he took from his pocket a bit of buckskin in which was a silken tress of curling brown hair. Then his eyes shone with a light that was soft and luminous, and one seeing him then would have known that it was not a dream of gold that filled his heart, but of a brown-haired girl who had broken it.