The Unexpected by
It is a simple matter to see the obvious, to do the
expected. The tendency of the individual life is to be
static rather than dynamic, and this tendency is made into a
propulsion by civilization, where the obvious only is seen, and
the unexpected rarely happens. When the unexpected does
happen, however, and when it is of sufficiently grave import, the
unfit perish. They do not see what is not obvious, are
unable to do the unexpected, are incapable of adjusting their
well-grooved lives to other and strange grooves. In short,
when they come to the end of their own groove, they die.
On the other hand, there are those that make toward survival,
the fit individuals who escape from the rule of the obvious and
the expected and adjust their lives to no matter what strange
grooves they may stray into, or into which they may be
forced. Such an individual was Edith Whittlesey. She
was born in a rural district of England, where life proceeds by
rule of thumb and the unexpected is so very unexpected that when
it happens it is looked upon as an immorality. She went
into service early, and while yet a young woman, by rule-of-thumb
progression, she became a lady’s maid.
The effect of civilization is to impose human law upon
environment until it becomes machine-like in its
regularity. The objectionable is eliminated, the inevitable
is foreseen. One is not even made wet by the rain nor cold
by the frost; while death, instead of stalking about grewsome and
accidental, becomes a prearranged pageant, moving along a
well-oiled groove to the family vault, where the hinges are kept
from rusting and the dust from the air is swept continually
Such was the environment of Edith Whittlesey. Nothing
happened. It could scarcely be called a happening, when, at
the age of twenty-five, she accompanied her mistress on a bit of
travel to the United States. The groove merely changed its
direction. It was still the same groove and well
oiled. It was a groove that bridged the Atlantic with
uneventfulness, so that the ship was not a ship in the midst of
the sea, but a capacious, many-corridored hotel that moved
swiftly and placidly, crushing the waves into submission with its
colossal bulk until the sea was a mill-pond, monotonous with
quietude. And at the other side the groove continued on
over the land—a well-disposed, respectable groove that
supplied hotels at every stopping-place, and hotels on wheels
between the stopping-places.
In Chicago, while her mistress saw one side of social life,
Edith Whittlesey saw another side; and when she left her
lady’s service and became Edith Nelson, she betrayed,
perhaps faintly, her ability to grapple with the unexpected and
to master it. Hans Nelson, immigrant, Swede by birth and
carpenter by occupation, had in him that Teutonic unrest that
drives the race ever westward on its great adventure. He
was a large-muscled, stolid sort of a man, in whom little
imagination was coupled with immense initiative, and who
possessed, withal, loyalty and affection as sturdy as his own
“When I have worked hard and saved me some money, I will
go to Colorado,” he had told Edith on the day after their
wedding. A year later they were in Colorado, where Hans
Nelson saw his first mining and caught the mining-fever
himself. His prospecting led him through the Dakotas,
Idaho, and eastern Oregon, and on into the mountains of British
Columbia. In camp and on trail, Edith Nelson was always
with him, sharing his luck, his hardship, and his toil. The
short step of the house-reared woman she exchanged for the long
stride of the mountaineer. She learned to look upon danger
clear-eyed and with understanding, losing forever that panic fear
which is bred of ignorance and which afflicts the city-reared,
making them as silly as silly horses, so that they await fate in
frozen horror instead of grappling with it, or stampede in blind
self-destroying terror which clutters the way with their crushed
Edith Nelson met the unexpected at every turn of the trail,
and she trained her vision so that she saw in the landscape, not
the obvious, but the concealed. She, who had never cooked
in her life, learned to make bread without the mediation of hops,
yeast, or baking-powder, and to bake bread, top and bottom, in a
frying-pan before an open fire. And when the last cup of
flour was gone and the last rind of bacon, she was able to rise
to the occasion, and of moccasins and the softer-tanned bits of
leather in the outfit to make a grub-stake substitute that
somehow held a man’s soul in his body and enabled him to
stagger on. She learned to pack a horse as well as a
man,—a task to break the heart and the pride of any
city-dweller, and she knew how to throw the hitch best suited for
any particular kind of pack. Also, she could build a fire
of wet wood in a downpour of rain and not lose her temper.
In short, in all its guises she mastered the unexpected.
But the Great Unexpected was yet to come into her life and put
its test upon her.
The gold-seeking tide was flooding northward into Alaska, and
it was inevitable that Hans Nelson and his wife should he caught
up by the stream and swept toward the Klondike. The fall of
1897 found them at Dyea, but without the money to carry an outfit
across Chilcoot Pass and float it down to Dawson. So Hans
Nelson worked at his trade that winter and helped rear the
mushroom outfitting-town of Skaguay.
He was on the edge of things, and throughout the winter he
heard all Alaska calling to him. Latuya Bay called loudest,
so that the summer of 1898 found him and his wife threading the
mazes of the broken coast-line in seventy-foot Siwash
canoes. With them were Indians, also three other men.
The Indians landed them and their supplies in a lonely bight of
land a hundred miles or so beyond Latuya Bay, and returned to
Skaguay; but the three other men remained, for they were members
of the organized party. Each had put an equal share of
capital into the outfitting, and the profits were to be divided
equally. In that Edith Nelson undertook to cook for the
outfit, a man’s share was to be her portion.
First, spruce trees were cut down and a three-room cabin
constructed. To keep this cabin was Edith Nelson’s
task. The task of the men was to search for gold, which
they did; and to find gold, which they likewise did. It was
not a startling find, merely a low-pay placer where long hours of
severe toil earned each man between fifteen and twenty dollars a
day. The brief Alaskan summer protracted itself beyond its
usual length, and they took advantage of the opportunity,
delaying their return to Skaguay to the last moment. And
then it was too late. Arrangements had been made to
accompany the several dozen local Indians on their fall trading
trip down the coast. The Siwashes had waited on the white
people until the eleventh hour, and then departed. There
was no course left the party but to wait for chance
transportation. In the meantime the claim was cleaned up
and firewood stocked in.
The Indian summer had dreamed on and on, and then, suddenly,
with the sharpness of bugles, winter came. It came in a
single night, and the miners awoke to howling wind, driving snow,
and freezing water. Storm followed storm, and between the
storms there was the silence, broken only by the boom of the surf
on the desolate shore, where the salt spray rimmed the beach with
All went well in the cabin. Their gold-dust had weighed
up something like eight thousand dollars, and they could not but
be contented. The men made snowshoes, hunted fresh meat for
the larder, and in the long evenings played endless games of
whist and pedro. Now that the mining had ceased, Edith
Nelson turned over the fire-building and the dish-washing to the
men, while she darned their socks and mended their clothes.
There was no grumbling, no bickering, nor petty quarrelling in
the little cabin, and they often congratulated one another on the
general happiness of the party. Hans Nelson was stolid and
easy-going, while Edith had long before won his unbounded
admiration by her capacity for getting on with people.
Harkey, a long, lank Texan, was unusually friendly for one with a
saturnine disposition, and, as long as his theory that gold grew
was not challenged, was quite companionable. The fourth
member of the party, Michael Dennin, contributed his Irish wit to
the gayety of the cabin. He was a large, powerful man,
prone to sudden rushes of anger over little things, and of
unfailing good-humor under the stress and strain of big
things. The fifth and last member, Dutchy, was the willing
butt of the party. He even went out of his way to raise a
laugh at his own expense in order to keep things cheerful.
His deliberate aim in life seemed to be that of a maker of
laughter. No serious quarrel had ever vexed the serenity of
the party; and, now that each had sixteen hundred dollars to show
for a short summer’s work, there reigned the well-fed,
contented spirit of prosperity.
And then the unexpected happened. They had just sat down
to the breakfast table. Though it was already eight
o’clock (late breakfasts had followed naturally upon
cessation of the steady work at mining) a candle in the neck of a
bottle lighted the meal. Edith and Hans sat at each end of
the table. On one side, with their backs to the door, sat
Harkey and Dutchy. The place on the other side was
vacant. Dennin had not yet come in.
Hans Nelson looked at the empty chair, shook his head slowly,
and, with a ponderous attempt at humor, said: “Always
is he first at the grub. It is very strange. Maybe he
“Where is Michael?” Edith asked.
“Got up a little ahead of us and went outside,”
Dutchy’s face beamed mischievously. He pretended
knowledge of Dennin’s absence, and affected a mysterious
air, while they clamored for information. Edith, after a
peep into the men’s bunk-room, returned to the table.
Hans looked at her, and she shook her head.
“He was never late at meal-time before,” she
“I cannot understand,” said Hans.
“Always has he the great appetite like the
“It is too bad,” Dutchy said, with a sad shake of
They were beginning to make merry over their comrade’s
“It is a great pity!” Dutchy volunteered.
“What?” they demanded in chorus.
“Poor Michael,” was the mournful reply.
“Well, what’s wrong with Michael?” Harkey
“He is not hungry no more,” wailed Dutchy.
“He has lost der appetite. He do not like der
“Not from the way he pitches into it up to his
ears,” remarked Harkey.
“He does dot shust to be politeful to Mrs.
Nelson,” was Dutchy’s quick retort. “I
know, I know, and it is too pad. Why is he not here?
Pecause he haf gone out. Why haf he gone out? For der
defelopment of der appetite. How does he defelop der
appetite? He walks barefoots in der snow. Ach!
don’t I know? It is der way der rich peoples chases
after der appetite when it is no more and is running away.
Michael haf sixteen hundred dollars. He is rich
peoples. He haf no appetite. Derefore, pecause, he is
chasing der appetite. Shust you open der door und you will
see his barefoots in der snow. No, you will not see der
appetite. Dot is shust his trouble. When he sees der
appetite he will catch it und come to preak-fast.”
They burst into loud laughter at Dutchy’s
nonsense. The sound had scarcely died away when the door
opened and Dennin came in. All turned to look at him.
He was carrying a shot-gun. Even as they looked, he lifted
it to his shoulder and fired twice. At the first shot
Dutchy sank upon the table, overturning his mug of coffee, his
yellow mop of hair dabbling in his plate of mush. His
forehead, which pressed upon the near edge of the plate, tilted
the plate up against his hair at an angle of forty-five
degrees. Harkey was in the air, in his spring to his feet,
at the second shot, and he pitched face down upon the floor, his
“My God!” gurgling and dying in his throat.
It was the unexpected. Hans and Edith were
stunned. They sat at the table with bodies tense, their
eyes fixed in a fascinated gaze upon the murderer. Dimly
they saw him through the smoke of the powder, and in the silence
nothing was to be heard save the drip-drip of Dutchy’s
spilled coffee on the floor. Dennin threw open the breech
of the shot-gun, ejecting the empty shells. Holding the gun
with one hand, he reached with the other into his pocket for
He was thrusting the shells into the gun when Edith Nelson was
aroused to action. It was patent that he intended to kill
Hans and her. For a space of possibly three seconds of time
she had been dazed and paralysed by the horrible and
inconceivable form in which the unexpected had made its
appearance. Then she rose to it and grappled with it. She
grappled with it concretely, making a cat-like leap for the
murderer and gripping his neck-cloth with both her hands.
The impact of her body sent him stumbling backward several
steps. He tried to shake her loose and still retain his
hold on the gun. This was awkward, for her firm-fleshed
body had become a cat’s. She threw herself to one
side, and with her grip at his throat nearly jerked him to the
floor. He straightened himself and whirled swiftly.
Still faithful to her hold, her body followed the circle of his
whirl so that her feet left the floor, and she swung through the
air fastened to his throat by her hands. The whirl
culminated in a collision with a chair, and the man and woman
crashed to the floor in a wild struggling fall that extended
itself across half the length of the room.
Hans Nelson was half a second behind his wife in rising to the
unexpected. His nerve processed and mental processes were
slower than hers. His was the grosser organism, and it had
taken him half a second longer to perceive, and determine, and
proceed to do. She had already flown at Dennin and gripped
his throat, when Hans sprang to his feet. But her coolness
was not his. He was in a blind fury, a Berserker
rage. At the instant he sprang from his chair his mouth
opened and there issued forth a sound that was half roar, half
bellow. The whirl of the two bodies had already started,
and still roaring, or bellowing, he pursued this whirl down the
room, overtaking it when it fell to the floor.
Hans hurled himself upon the prostrate man, striking madly
with his fists. They were sledge-like blows, and when Edith
felt Dennin’s body relax she loosed her grip and rolled
clear. She lay on the floor, panting and watching.
The fury of blows continued to rain down. Dennin did not
seem to mind the blows. He did not even move. Then it
dawned upon her that he was unconscious. She cried out to
Hans to stop. She cried out again. But he paid no
heed to her voice. She caught him by the arm, but her
clinging to it merely impeded his effort.
It was no reasoned impulse that stirred her to do what she
then did. Nor was it a sense of pity, nor obedience to the
“Thou shalt not” of religion. Rather was it
some sense of law, an ethic of her race and early environment,
that compelled her to interpose her body between her husband and
the helpless murderer. It was not until Hans knew he was
striking his wife that he ceased. He allowed himself to be
shoved away by her in much the same way that a ferocious but
obedient dog allows itself to be shoved away by its master.
The analogy went even farther. Deep in his throat, in an
animal-like way, Hans’s rage still rumbled, and several
times he made as though to spring back upon his prey and was only
prevented by the woman’s swiftly interposed body.
Back and farther back Edith shoved her husband. She had
never seen him in such a condition, and she was more frightened
of him than she had been of Dennin in the thick of the
struggle. She could not believe that this raging beast was
her Hans, and with a shock she became suddenly aware of a
shrinking, instinctive fear that he might snap her hand in his
teeth like any wild animal. For some seconds, unwilling to
hurt her, yet dogged in his desire to return to the attack, Hans
dodged back and forth. But she resolutely dodged with him,
until the first glimmerings of reason returned and he gave
Both crawled to their feet. Hans staggered back against
the wall, where he leaned, his face working, in his throat the
deep and continuous rumble that died away with the seconds and at
last ceased. The time for the reaction had come.
Edith stood in the middle of the floor, wringing her hands,
panting and gasping, her whole body trembling violently.
Hans looked at nothing, but Edith’s eyes wandered wildly
from detail to detail of what had taken place. Dennin lay
without movement. The overturned chair, hurled onward in
the mad whirl, lay near him. Partly under him lay the
shot-gun, still broken open at the breech. Spilling out of
his right hand were the two cartridges which he had failed to put
into the gun and which he had clutched until consciousness left
him. Harkey lay on the floor, face downward, where he had
fallen; while Dutchy rested forward on the table, his yellow mop
of hair buried in his mush-plate, the plate itself still tilted
at an angle of forty-five degrees. This tilted plate
fascinated her. Why did it not fall down? It was
ridiculous. It was not in the nature of things for a
mush-plate to up-end itself on the table, even if a man or so had
She glanced back at Dennin, but her eyes returned to the
tilted plate. It was so ridiculous! She felt a
hysterical impulse to laugh. Then she noticed the silence,
and forgot the plate in a desire for something to happen.
The monotonous drip of the coffee from the table to the floor
merely emphasized the silence. Why did not Hans do
something? say something? She looked at him and was about
to speak, when she discovered that her tongue refused its wonted
duty. There was a peculiar ache in her throat, and her
mouth was dry and furry. She could only look at Hans, who,
in turn, looked at her.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a sharp, metallic
clang. She screamed, jerking her eyes back to the
table. The plate had fallen down. Hans sighed as
though awakening from sleep. The clang of the plate had
aroused them to life in a new world. The cabin epitomized
the new world in which they must thenceforth live and move.
The old cabin was gone forever. The horizon of life was
totally new and unfamiliar. The unexpected had swept its
wizardry over the face of things, changing the perspective,
juggling values, and shuffling the real and the unreal into
“My God, Hans!” was Edith’s first
He did not answer, but stared at her with horror. Slowly
his eyes wandered over the room, for the first time taking in its
details. Then he put on his cap and started for the
“Where are you going?” Edith demanded, in an agony
His hand was on the door-knob, and he half turned as he
answered, “To dig some graves.”
“Don’t leave me, Hans, with—” her eyes
swept the room—“with this.”
“The graves must be dug sometime,” he said.
“But you do not know how many,” she objected
desperately. She noted his indecision, and added,
“Besides, I’ll go with you and help.”
Hans stepped back to the table and mechanically snuffed the
candle. Then between them they made the examination.
Both Harkey and Dutchy were dead—frightfully dead, because
of the close range of the shot-gun. Hans refused to go near
Dennin, and Edith was forced to conduct this portion of the
investigation by herself.
“He isn’t dead,” she called to Hans.
He walked over and looked down at the murderer.
“What did you say?” Edith demanded, having caught
the rumble of inarticulate speech in her husband’s
“I said it was a damn shame that he isn’t
dead,” came the reply.
Edith was bending over the body.
“Leave him alone,” Hans commanded harshly, in a
She looked at him in sudden alarm. He had picked up the
shot-gun dropped by Dennin and was thrusting in the shells.
“What are you going to do?” she cried, rising
swiftly from her bending position.
Hans did not answer, but she saw the shot-gun going to his
shoulder. She grasped the muzzle with her hand and threw it
“Leave me alone!” he cried hoarsely.
He tried to jerk the weapon away from her, but she came in
closer and clung to him.
“Hans! Hans! Wake up!” she
cried. “Don’t be crazy!”
“He killed Dutchy and Harkey!” was her
husband’s reply; “and I am going to kill
“But that is wrong,” she objected.
“There is the law.”
He sneered his incredulity of the law’s potency in such
a region, but he merely iterated, dispassionately, doggedly,
“He killed Dutchy and Harkey.”
Long she argued it with him, but the argument was one-sided,
for he contented himself with repeating again and again,
“He killed Dutchy and Harkey.” But she could
not escape from her childhood training nor from the blood that
was in her. The heritage of law was hers, and right
conduct, to her, was the fulfilment of the law. She could
see no other righteous course to pursue. Hans’s
taking the law in his own hands was no more justifiable than
Dennin’s deed. Two wrongs did not make a right, she
contended, and there was only one way to punish Dennin, and that
was the legal way arranged by society. At last Hans gave in
“All right,” he said. “Have it your
own way. And to-morrow or next day look to see him kill you
She shook her head and held out her hand for the
shot-gun. He started to hand it to her, then hesitated.
“Better let me shoot him,” he pleaded.
Again she shook her head, and again he started to pass her the
gun, when the door opened, and an Indian, without knocking, came
in. A blast of wind and flurry of snow came in with
him. They turned and faced him, Hans still holding the
shot-gun. The intruder took in the scene without a
quiver. His eyes embraced the dead and wounded in a
sweeping glance. No surprise showed in his face, not even
curiosity. Harkey lay at his feet, but he took no notice of
him. So far as he was concerned, Harkey’s body did
“Much wind,” the Indian remarked by way of
salutation. “All well? Very well?”
Hans, still grasping the gun, felt sure that the Indian
attributed to him the mangled corpses. He glanced
appealingly at his wife.
“Good morning, Negook,” she said, her voice
betraying her effort. “No, not very well. Much
“Good-by, I go now, much hurry,” the Indian said,
and without semblance of haste, with great deliberation stepping
clear of a red pool on the floor, he opened the door and went
The man and woman looked at each other.
“He thinks we did it,” Hans gasped, “that I
Edith was silent for a space. Then she said, briefly, in
a businesslike way:
“Never mind what he thinks. That will come
after. At present we have two graves to dig. But
first of all, we’ve got to tie up Dennin so he can’t
Hans refused to touch Dennin, but Edith lashed him securely,
hand and foot. Then she and Hans went out into the
snow. The ground was frozen. It was impervious to a
blow of the pick. They first gathered wood, then scraped
the snow away and on the frozen surface built a fire. When
the fire had burned for an hour, several inches of dirt had
thawed. This they shovelled out, and then built a fresh
fire. Their descent into the earth progressed at the rate
of two or three inches an hour.
It was hard and bitter work. The flurrying snow did not
permit the fire to burn any too well, while the wind cut through
their clothes and chilled their bodies. They held but
little conversation. The wind interfered with speech.
Beyond wondering at what could have been Dennin’s motive,
they remained silent, oppressed by the horror of the
tragedy. At one o’clock, looking toward the cabin,
Hans announced that he was hungry.
“No, not now, Hans,” Edith answered.
“I couldn’t go back alone into that cabin the way it
is, and cook a meal.”
At two o’clock Hans volunteered to go with her; but she
held him to his work, and four o’clock found the two graves
completed. They were shallow, not more than two feet deep,
but they would serve the purpose. Night had fallen.
Hans got the sled, and the two dead men were dragged through the
darkness and storm to their frozen sepulchre. The funeral
procession was anything but a pageant. The sled sank deep
into the drifted snow and pulled hard. The man and the
woman had eaten nothing since the previous day, and were weak
from hunger and exhaustion. They had not the strength to
resist the wind, and at times its buffets hurled them off their
feet. On several occasions the sled was overturned, and
they were compelled to reload it with its sombre freight.
The last hundred feet to the graves was up a steep slope, and
this they took on all fours, like sled-dogs, making legs of their
arms and thrusting their hands into the snow. Even so, they
were twice dragged backward by the weight of the sled, and slid
and fell down the hill, the living and the dead, the haul-ropes
and the sled, in ghastly entanglement.
“To-morrow I will put up head-boards with their
names,” Hans said, when the graves were filled in.
Edith was sobbing. A few broken sentences had been all
she was capable of in the way of a funeral service, and now her
husband was compelled to half-carry her back to the cabin.
Dennin was conscious. He had rolled over and over on the
floor in vain efforts to free himself. He watched Hans and
Edith with glittering eyes, but made no attempt to speak.
Hans still refused to touch the murderer, and sullenly watched
Edith drag him across the floor to the men’s
bunk-room. But try as she would, she could not lift him
from the floor into his bunk.
“Better let me shoot him, and we’ll have no more
trouble,” Hans said in final appeal.
Edith shook her head and bent again to her task. To her
surprise the body rose easily, and she knew Hans had relented and
was helping her. Then came the cleansing of the
kitchen. But the floor still shrieked the tragedy, until
Hans planed the surface of the stained wood away and with the
shavings made a fire in the stove.
The days came and went. There was much of darkness and
silence, broken only by the storms and the thunder on the beach
of the freezing surf. Hans was obedient to Edith’s
slightest order. All his splendid initiative had
vanished. She had elected to deal with Dennin in her way,
and so he left the whole matter in her hands.
The murderer was a constant menace. At all times there
was the chance that he might free himself from his bonds, and
they were compelled to guard him day and night. The man or
the woman sat always beside him, holding the loaded
shot-gun. At first, Edith tried eight-hour watches, but the
continuous strain was too great, and afterwards she and Hans
relieved each other every four hours. As they had to sleep,
and as the watches extended through the night, their whole waking
time was expended in guarding Dennin. They had barely time
left over for the preparation of meals and the getting of
Since Negook’s inopportune visit, the Indians had
avoided the cabin. Edith sent Hans to their cabins to get
them to take Dennin down the coast in a canoe to the nearest
white settlement or trading post, but the errand was
fruitless. Then Edith went herself and interviewed
Negook. He was head man of the little village, keenly aware
of his responsibility, and he elucidated his policy thoroughly in
“It is white man’s trouble,” he said,
“not Siwash trouble. My people help you, then will it
be Siwash trouble too. When white man’s trouble and
Siwash trouble come together and make a trouble, it is a great
trouble, beyond understanding and without end. Trouble no
good. My people do no wrong. What for they help you
and have trouble?”
So Edith Nelson went back to the terrible cabin with its
endless alternating four-hour watches. Sometimes, when it
was her turn and she sat by the prisoner, the loaded shot-gun in
her lap, her eyes would close and she would doze. Always
she aroused with a start, snatching up the gun and swiftly
looking at him. These were distinct nervous shocks, and
their effect was not good on her. Such was her fear of the
man, that even though she were wide awake, if he moved under the
bedclothes she could not repress the start and the quick reach
for the gun.
She was preparing herself for a nervous break-down, and she
knew it. First came a fluttering of the eyeballs, so that
she was compelled to close her eyes for relief. A little
later the eyelids were afflicted by a nervous twitching that she
could not control. To add to the strain, she could not
forget the tragedy. She remained as close to the horror as
on the first morning when the unexpected stalked into the cabin
and took possession. In her daily ministrations upon the
prisoner she was forced to grit her teeth and steel herself, body
Hans was affected differently. He became obsessed by the
idea that it was his duty to kill Dennin; and whenever he waited
upon the bound man or watched by him, Edith was troubled by the
fear that Hans would add another red entry to the cabin’s
record. Always he cursed Dennin savagely and handled him
roughly. Hans tried to conceal his homicidal mania, and he
would say to his wife: “By and by you will want me to
kill him, and then I will not kill him. It would make me
sick.” But more than once, stealing into the room,
when it was her watch off, she would catch the two men glaring
ferociously at each other, wild animals the pair of them, in
Hans’s face the lust to kill, in Dennin’s the
fierceness and savagery of the cornered rat.
“Hans!” she would cry, “wake up!” and he
would come to a recollection of himself, startled and shamefaced
So Hans became another factor in the problem the unexpected
had given Edith Nelson to solve. At first it had been
merely a question of right conduct in dealing with Dennin, and
right conduct, as she conceived it, lay in keeping him a prisoner
until he could be turned over for trial before a proper
tribunal. But now entered Hans, and she saw that his sanity
and his salvation were involved. Nor was she long in
discovering that her own strength and endurance had become part
of the problem. She was breaking down under the
strain. Her left arm had developed involuntary jerkings and
twitchings. She spilled her food from her spoon, and could
place no reliance in her afflicted arm. She judged it to be
a form of St. Vitus’s dance, and she feared the extent to
which its ravages might go. What if she broke down?
And the vision she had of the possible future, when the cabin
might contain only Dennin and Hans, was an added horror.
After the third day, Dennin had begun to talk. His first
question had been, “What are you going to do with
me?” And this question he repeated daily and many times a
day. And always Edith replied that he would assuredly be
dealt with according to law. In turn, she put a daily
question to him,—“Why did you do it?” To
this he never replied. Also, he received the question with
out-bursts of anger, raging and straining at the rawhide that
bound him and threatening her with what he would do when he got
loose, which he said he was sure to do sooner or later. At
such times she cocked both triggers of the gun, prepared to meet
him with leaden death if he should burst loose, herself trembling
and palpitating and dizzy from the tension and shock.
But in time Dennin grew more tractable. It seemed to her
that he was growing weary of his unchanging recumbent
position. He began to beg and plead to be released.
He made wild promises. He would do them no harm. He
would himself go down the coast and give himself up to the
officers of the law. He would give them his share of the
gold. He would go away into the heart of the wilderness,
and never again appear in civilization. He would take his
own life if she would only free him. His pleadings usually
culminated in involuntary raving, until it seemed to her that he
was passing into a fit; but always she shook her head and denied
him the freedom for which he worked himself into a passion.
But the weeks went by, and he continued to grow more
tractable. And through it all the weariness was asserting
itself more and more. “I am so tired, so
tired,” he would murmur, rolling his head back and forth on
the pillow like a peevish child. At a little later period
he began to make impassioned pleas for death, to beg her to kill
him, to beg Hans to put him our of his misery so that he might at
least rest comfortably.
The situation was fast becoming impossible.
Edith’s nervousness was increasing, and she knew her
break-down might come any time. She could not even get her
proper rest, for she was haunted by the fear that Hans would
yield to his mania and kill Dennin while she slept. Though
January had already come, months would have to elapse before any
trading schooner was even likely to put into the bay. Also,
they had not expected to winter in the cabin, and the food was
running low; nor could Hans add to the supply by hunting.
They were chained to the cabin by the necessity of guarding their
Something must be done, and she knew it. She forced
herself to go back into a reconsideration of the problem.
She could not shake off the legacy of her race, the law that was
of her blood and that had been trained into her. She knew
that whatever she did she must do according to the law, and in
the long hours of watching, the shot-gun on her knees, the
murderer restless beside her and the storms thundering without,
she made original sociological researches and worked out for
herself the evolution of the law. It came to her that the
law was nothing more than the judgment and the will of any group
of people. It mattered not how large was the group of
people. There were little groups, she reasoned, like
Switzerland, and there were big groups like the United
States. Also, she reasoned, it did not matter how small was
the group of people. There might be only ten thousand
people in a country, yet their collective judgment and will would
be the law of that country. Why, then, could not one
thousand people constitute such a group? she asked herself.
And if one thousand, why not one hundred? Why not
fifty? Why not five? Why not—two?
She was frightened at her own conclusion, and she talked it
over with Hans. At first he could not comprehend, and then,
when he did, he added convincing evidence. He spoke of
miners’ meetings, where all the men of a locality came
together and made the law and executed the law. There might
be only ten or fifteen men altogether, he said, but the will of
the majority became the law for the whole ten or fifteen, and
whoever violated that will was punished.
Edith saw her way clear at last. Dennin must hang.
Hans agreed with her. Between them they constituted the
majority of this particular group. It was the group-will
that Dennin should be hanged. In the execution of this will
Edith strove earnestly to observe the customary forms, but the
group was so small that Hans and she had to serve as witnesses,
as jury, and as judges—also as executioners. She
formally charged Michael Dennin with the murder of Dutchy and
Harkey, and the prisoner lay in his bunk and listened to the
testimony, first of Hans, and then of Edith. He refused to
plead guilty or not guilty, and remained silent when she asked
him if he had anything to say in his own defence. She and
Hans, without leaving their seats, brought in the jury’s
verdict of guilty. Then, as judge, she imposed the
sentence. Her voice shook, her eyelids twitched, her left
arm jerked, but she carried it out.
“Michael Dennin, in three days’ time you are to be
hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
Such was the sentence. The man breathed an unconscious
sigh of relief, then laughed defiantly, and said, “Thin
I’m thinkin’ the damn bunk won’t be
achin’ me back anny more, an’ that’s a
With the passing of the sentence a feeling of relief seemed to
communicate itself to all of them. Especially was it
noticeable in Dennin. All sullenness and defiance
disappeared, and he talked sociably with his captors, and even
with flashes of his old-time wit. Also, he found great
satisfaction in Edith’s reading to him from the
Bible. She read from the New Testament, and he took keen
interest in the prodigal son and the thief on the cross.
On the day preceding that set for the execution, when Edith
asked her usual question, “Why did you do it?” Dennin
answered, “’Tis very simple. I was
But she hushed him abruptly, asked him to wait, and hurried to
Hans’s bedside. It was his watch off, and he came out
of his sleep, rubbing his eyes and grumbling.
“Go,” she told him, “and bring up Negook and
one other Indian. Michael’s going to confess.
Make them come. Take the rifle along and bring them up at
the point of it if you have to.”
Half an hour later Negook and his uncle, Hadikwan, were
ushered into the death chamber. They came unwillingly, Hans
with his rifle herding them along.
“Negook,” Edith said, “there is to be no
trouble for you and your people. Only is it for you to sit
and do nothing but listen and understand.”
Thus did Michael Dennin, under sentence of death, make public
confession of his crime. As he talked, Edith wrote his
story down, while the Indians listened, and Hans guarded the door
for fear the witnesses might bolt.
He had not been home to the old country for fifteen years,
Dennin explained, and it had always been his intention to return
with plenty of money and make his old mother comfortable for the
rest of her days.
“An’ how was I to be doin’ it on sixteen
hundred?” he demanded. “What I was after
wantin’ was all the goold, the whole eight
thousan’. Thin I cud go back in style. What ud
be aisier, thinks I to myself, than to kill all iv yez, report it
at Skaguay for an Indian-killin’, an’ thin pull out
for Ireland? An’ so I started in to kill all iv yez,
but, as Harkey was fond of sayin’, I cut out too large a
chunk an’ fell down on the swallowin’ iv it.
An’ that’s me confession. I did me duty to the
devil, an’ now, God willin’, I’ll do me duty to
“Negook and Hadikwan, you have heard the white
man’s words,” Edith said to the Indians.
“His words are here on this paper, and it is for you to
make a sign, thus, on the paper, so that white men to come after
will know that you have heard.”
The two Siwashes put crosses opposite their signatures,
received a summons to appear on the morrow with all their tribe
for a further witnessing of things, and were allowed to go.
Dennin’s hands were released long enough for him to sign
the document. Then a silence fell in the room. Hans
was restless, and Edith felt uncomfortable. Dennin lay on
his back, staring straight up at the moss-chinked roof.
“An’ now I’ll do me duty to God,” he
murmured. He turned his head toward Edith.
“Read to me,” he said, “from the book;”
then added, with a glint of playfulness, “Mayhap
’twill help me to forget the bunk.”
The day of the execution broke clear and cold. The
thermometer was down to twenty-five below zero, and a chill wind
was blowing which drove the frost through clothes and flesh to
the bones. For the first time in many weeks Dennin stood
upon his feet. His muscles had remained inactive so long,
and he was so out of practice in maintaining an erect position,
that he could scarcely stand.
He reeled back and forth, staggered, and clutched hold of
Edith with his bound hands for support.
“Sure, an’ it’s dizzy I am,” he
A moment later he said, “An’ it’s glad I am
that it’s over with. That damn bunk would iv been the
death iv me, I know.”
When Edith put his fur cap on his head and proceeded to pull
the flaps down over his ears, he laughed and said:
“What are you doin’ that for?”
“It’s freezing cold outside,” she
“An’ in tin minutes’ time what’ll
matter a frozen ear or so to poor Michael Dennin?” he
She had nerved herself for the last culminating ordeal, and
his remark was like a blow to her self-possession. So far,
everything had seemed phantom-like, as in a dream, but the brutal
truth of what he had said shocked her eyes wide open to the
reality of what was taking place. Nor was her distress
unnoticed by the Irishman.
“I’m sorry to be troublin’ you with me
foolish spache,” he said regretfully. “I mint
nothin’ by it. ’Tis a great day for Michael
Dennin, an’ he’s as gay as a lark.”
He broke out in a merry whistle, which quickly became
lugubrious and ceased.
“I’m wishin’ there was a priest,” he
said wistfully; then added swiftly, “But Michael
Dennin’s too old a campaigner to miss the luxuries when he
hits the trail.”
He was so very weak and unused to walking that when the door
opened and he passed outside, the wind nearly carried him off his
feet. Edith and Hans walked on either side of him and
supported him, the while he cracked jokes and tried to keep them
cheerful, breaking off, once, long enough to arrange the
forwarding of his share of the gold to his mother in Ireland.
They climbed a slight hill and came out into an open space
among the trees. Here, circled solemnly about a barrel that
stood on end in the snow, were Negook and Hadikwan, and all the
Siwashes down to the babies and the dogs, come to see the way of
the white man’s law. Near by was an open grave which
Hans had burned into the frozen earth.
Dennin cast a practical eye over the preparations, noting the
grave, the barrel, the thickness of the rope, and the diameter of
the limb over which the rope was passed.
“Sure, an’ I couldn’t iv done better meself,
Hans, if it’d been for you.”
He laughed loudly at his own sally, but Hans’s face was
frozen into a sullen ghastliness that nothing less than the trump
of doom could have broken. Also, Hans was feeling very
sick. He had not realized the enormousness of the task of
putting a fellow-man out of the world. Edith, on the other
hand, had realized; but the realization did not make the task any
easier. She was filled with doubt as to whether she could
hold herself together long enough to finish it. She felt
incessant impulses to scream, to shriek, to collapse into the
snow, to put her hands over her eyes and turn and run blindly
away, into the forest, anywhere, away. It was only by a
supreme effort of soul that she was able to keep upright and go
on and do what she had to do. And in the midst of it all
she was grateful to Dennin for the way he helped her.
“Lind me a hand,” he said to Hans, with whose
assistance he managed to mount the barrel.
He bent over so that Edith could adjust the rope about his
neck. Then he stood upright while Hans drew the rope taut
across the overhead branch.
“Michael Dennin, have you anything to say?” Edith
asked in a clear voice that shook in spite of her.
Dennin shuffled his feet on the barrel, looked down bashfully
like a man making his maiden speech, and cleared his throat.
“I’m glad it’s over with,” he
said. “You’ve treated me like a Christian,
an’ I’m thankin’ you hearty for your
“Then may God receive you, a repentant sinner,”
“Ay,” he answered, his deep voice as a response to
her thin one, “may God receive me, a repentant
“Good-by, Michael,” she cried, and her voice
She threw her weight against the barrel, but it did not
“Hans! Quick! Help me!” she cried
She could feel her last strength going, and the barrel
resisted her. Hans hurried to her, and the barrel went out
from under Michael Dennin.
She turned her back, thrusting her fingers into her
ears. Then she began to laugh, harshly, sharply,
metallically; and Hans was shocked as he had not been shocked
through the whole tragedy. Edith Nelson’s break-down
had come. Even in her hysteria she knew it, and she was
glad that she had been able to hold up under the strain until
everything had been accomplished. She reeled toward
“Take me to the cabin, Hans,” she managed to
“And let me rest,” she added. “Just
let me rest, and rest, and rest.”
With Hans’s arm around her, supporting her weight and
directing her helpless steps, she went off across the snow.
But the Indians remained solemnly to watch the working of the
white man’s law that compelled a man to dance upon the