The punctuation and spelling from the original text have been faithfully preserved. Only obvious typographical errors have been corrected.
By James B. Hendryx
. ILLUSTRATED .
By James B. Hendryx
The Gun Brand
The Gold Girl
Connie Morgan in Alaska
Connie Morgan with the Mounted
Connie Morgan in the Lumber Camps
Connie Morgan in the Fur Country
CONNIE MORGAN IN THE FUR COUNTRY
BY JAMES B. HENDRYX AUTHOR OF "CONNIE MORGAN IN ALASKA," ETC.
G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS NEW YORK AND LONDON The Knickerbocker Press 1921
James B. Hendryx
Made in the United States of America
I.—DOG, OR WOLF? 1
II.—'MERICAN JOE 17
V.—THE PLAGUE FLAG IN THE SKY 76
VI.—AT THE END OF RENE'S TRAIL 95
VII.—AT FORT NORMAN 111
VIII.—BAIT—AND A BEAR 123
IX.—OUT ON THE TRAP LINE 138
X.—THE TRAIL OF THE CARCAJO 149
XI.—THE CARIBOU HUNT 168
XII.—THE TRAIL IN THE SNOW 184
XIII.—AT THE CAMP OF THE HOOCH-RUNNERS 200
XIV.—THE PASSING OF BLACK MORAN 216
XV.—SETTING THE FOX TRAPS 238
XVI.—THE VOICE FROM THE HILL 254
XVIII.—THE MAN IN THE CAVE 290
"FOR THERE, STANDING CLOSE BESIDE THE FIRE, HIS HEAD AND HUGE SHOULDERS THRUST INTO THE DOORWAY, HIS EYES GLEAMING LIKE LIVE COALS, STOOD THE GREAT GREY LEADER OF THE WOLF PACK" Frontispiece
"IN THE WHIRLING BLIZZARD, WITHOUT PROTECTION OF TIMBER, ONE PLACE WAS AS GOOD AS ANOTHER TO CAMP, AND WHILE THE INDIAN BUSIED HIMSELF WITH THE DOGS, CONNIE PROCEEDED TO DIG A TRENCH IN THE SNOW" 54
"THE THIRD DAY DAWNED COLD AND CLEAR, AND DAYLIGHT FOUND THE OUTFIT ON THE MOVE" 70
"IT WAS A TERRIBLE THING TO LOOK UPON TO THOSE TWO WHO KNEW ITS SIGNIFICANCE—THAT FLAG GLOWING LIKE A SPLOTCH OF BLOOD THERE IN THE BRAZEN SKY" 80
"THE SNARE WAS SET ONLY A FOOT OR TWO FROM THE STUFFED RABBIT SKIN AND STICKS AND BRUSH SO ARRANGED THAT IN ORDER TO REACH THE RABBIT THE LYNX MUST LEAP STRAIGHT INTO THE SNARE" 130
"'MERICAN JOE CLIMBED THE TREE AND A FEW MINUTES LATER CONNIE HEARD THE BLOWS OF HIS BELT AX AS HE HACKED AT THE LIMB THAT HELD THE CLOG" 156
"AS DARKNESS SETTLED OVER THE NORTH COUNTRY, A LITTLE FIRE TWINKLED IN THE BUSH, AND THE ODOUR OF SIZZLING BACON AND FRYING LIVER PERMEATED THE COZY CAMP" 182
"AS HE STEPPED THROUGH THE DOORWAY HE WAS SEIZED VIOLENTLY FROM BEHIND" 218
Connie Morgan in the Fur Country
DOG, OR WOLF?
In the little cabin on Ten Bow Waseche Bill laid his week-old newspaper aside, knocked the ashes from his pipe against the edge of the woodbox, and listened to the roar of the wind. After a few moments he rose and opened the door, only to slam it immediately as an icy blast, freighted with a million whirling flakes of snow, swept the room. Resuming his seat, he proceeded very deliberately to refill his pipe. This accomplished to his satisfaction, he lighted it, crammed some wood into the little air-tight stove, and tilted his chair back against the log wall.
"Well, son, what is it?" he asked, after a few moments of silence during which he had watched his young partner, Connie Morgan, draw rag after rag through the barrel of his rifle.
"What's what?" asked the boy, without looking up.
"What's on yo' mind? The last five patches yo've drug through that gun was as clean when they come out as when they went in. Yo' ain't cleanin' no rifle—yo' studyin' 'bout somethin'."
Connie rested the rifle upon his knees and smiled across the little oilcloth-covered table: "Looks like winter has come in earnest," he said. "Listen to her trying to tear the roof off. I've been wishing it would snow for a week."
"Snow fer a week?"
"No. Wishing for a week."
"Well, now it's come, what yo' goin' to do with it?"
"I'm going out and get that Big Ruff."
"Big Ruff! Yo' mean kill him?"
Connie shook his head: "No. I'm going to catch him. I want him."
Waseche laughed: "What in thunder do yo' want of him, even pervidin' he's a dog, which the chances is he ain't nothin' but a wolf. An' yo' don't even know they's any such brute rompin' the hills, nohow. Stories gits goin' that-a-way. Someone, mebbe, seen a dog or a wolf runnin' the ridge of Spur Mountain late in the evenin' so he looked 'bout half agin the size he was, an' they come along an' told it. Then someone else sees him, er another one, an' he recollects that he heard tell of a monstr'us big wolf er dog, he cain't recollect which, so he splits the difference an' makes him half-dog an' half-wolf, an' he adds a big ruff onto his neck fer good measure, an' tells it 'round. After that yo' kin bet that every tin-horn that gits within twenty mile of Spur Mountain will see him, an' each time he gits bigger, an' his ruff gits bigger. It's like a stampede. Yo' let someone pan out mebbe half a dozen ounces of dust on some crick an' by the time the news has spread a hundred mile, he's took out a fortune, an' it's in chunks as big as a pigeon's aig—they ain't nary one of them ever saw a pigeon's aig—but that's always what them chunks is as big as—an' directly the whole crick is staked an' a lot of men goes broke, an' some is killed, an' chances is, the only ones that comes out ahead is the ones that's staked an' sold out."
"But there are real wolf-dogs—I've seen plenty of 'em, and so have you. And there are real strikes—look at Ten Bow!"
"Yeh, look at it—but I made that strike myself. The boys down to Hesitation know'd that if I said they was colour heah it was heah. They didn't come a kihootin' up heah on the say-so of no tin-horn."
"Yes, and there's a big wolf-dog been over on Spur Mountain for a week, too. I didn't pay any attention when I first heard it. But, Dutch Henry saw him yesterday, and today when Black Jack Demeree came up with the mail he saw him, too."
Waseche appeared interested: "An' did they say he was as big as a cabin an' a ruff on him like the mainsail of a whaler?"
"No, but they said he was the biggest dog they ever saw, and he has got the big ruff, all right—and he was running with two or three wolves, and he was bigger than any of them."
"Well, if Dutch Henry an' Black Jack seen him," agreed Waseche with conviction, "he's there. But, what in time do yo' want of him? If he was runnin' with wolves he's buildin' him up a pack. He's a bad actor. You take them renegade dogs, an' they're worse than wolves an' worse than dogs—an' they're smarter'n most folks."
"That's why I want him. I want to make a leader out of him."
"You can't catch him—an' if you could, you couldn't handle him."
"I'll tell you more about that after I've had a try at him," grinned the boy.
"Who's going along?"
"No one. I don't want to divide him up with anyone, and anyone I could hire wouldn't be worth taking along."
"He'll eat you up."
"I hope he tries it! If he ever gets that close to me—he's mine!"
"Or yo'll be his'n," drawled Waseche Bill. "Howeveh, if I was bettin' I'd take yo' end of it, at that."
Connie rose, laid the rifle upon the table, and began to overhaul his gear. Waseche watched him for a few moments, and blew a cloud of blue smoke ceilingward: "Seems like yo' jest nach'lly cain't set by an' take things easy," he said; "heah's yo', with mo' money than yo' kin eveh spend, gittin' ready to hike out an' live like a Siwash in the bush when yo' c'd go outside fer the winteh, an' live in some swell hotel an' nothin' to do but r'ar back in one of them big leatheh chairs with yo' feet in the window an' watch the folks go by."
Connie flashed him a grin: "You've got as much as I have—and I don't notice you sitting around any swell hotels watching the folks go by."
Waseche's eyes twinkled: and he glanced affectionately at the boy: "No, son. This heah suits me betteh. But, yo' ain't even satisfied to stay heah in the cabin. When my laig went bad on me an' I had to go outside, you hit out an' put in the time with the Mounted, then last winteh, 'stead of taking it easy, you hit out fo' Minnesota an' handed that timbeh thievin' bunch what was comin' to 'em."
"Well, it paid, didn't it?"
"Sho' it paid—an' the work with the Mounted paid—not in money, but in what yo' learnt. But you don't neveh take things easy. Yo' pa was like that. I reckon it's bred in the bone."
Connie nodded: "Yes, and this winter I've got a trip planned out that will make all the others look piking. I'm going over and have a look at the Coppermine River country—over beyond the Mackenzie."
Waseche Bill stared at the boy in astonishment: "Beyond the Mackenzie!" he exclaimed, then his voice dropped into a tone softly sarcastic. "Yo' ought to have a right pleasant trip. It ain't oveh a thousan' miles oah so, an' only about fifteen er twenty mountain ranges to cross. The trail ought to be right nice an' smooth an' plain marked. An' when yo' git theah yo' sho' ought to enjoy yo'self. I caint' think of no place in the world a man had ought to keep away from worse than right theah. Why, son, they tell me that beyond the Mackenzie they ain't nothin'!"
"There's gold—and copper," defended the boy.
"Did Dutch Henry an' Black Jack Demeree tell yo' that, too?"
Connie laughed: "No, I read about it in a book."
Waseche snorted contemptuously, "Read it in a book! Look a heah, son, it don't stand to reason that if anyone know'd they was gold an' coppeh up theah they'd be foolin' away theah time writin' books about it, does it? No suh, they'd be be right up amongst it scoopin' it out of the gravel, that's wheah they'd be! Books is redic'lus."
"But the man that wrote the book didn't know where the gold is——"
"You bet he didn't! That's the way with these heah fellows that writes books. They don't know enough about gold to make 'em a livin' diggin' it—so they write a book about it. They's mo' ways than one to make a livin' out of gold—like sellin' fake claims, an' writin' books."
"I'm going to roll in, now, because I want to get an early start. It's that book up there on the shelf with the green cover. You read it, and when I come back with Big Ruff, we'll talk it over."
Again Waseche snorted contemptuously, but a few minutes later as he lay snuggled between his blankets, Connie smiled to himself to see his big partner take the book from the shelf, light his pipe, and after settling himself comfortably in his chair, gingerly turn its pages.
Spur Mountain is not really a mountain at all. It is a long sparsely timbered ridge only about seven hundred feet in height that protrudes into the valley of the Ten Bow, for all the world like a giant spur. The creek doubles sharply around the point of the spur which slants upward to a deep notch or pass in the range that separates the Ten Bow from the valley of the Tanana.
It was past noon when Connie Morgan swung his dogs from the creek-bed and headed back along the base of the spur toward the main range. He had covered the fifteen miles slowly, being forced almost constantly to break trail ahead of the dogs through the new-fallen snow.
He turned into a patch of timber that slanted obliquely upward to the crest of the ridge, and working his outfit halfway to the top, pitched his tent on a narrow ledge or shoulder, protected from every direction by the ridge itself, and by the thick spruce timber. The early darkness had settled when he finished making camp and as he ate his supper he watched the stars appear one by one in the heavens. After replenishing his fire, he removed his mukluks and mackinaw, and slipped into his sleeping bag.
Two hours later he opened his eyes and listened. From beyond the ridge—far down the valley of the Ten Bow, floated the long-drawn howl of a wolf. A moment of silence followed, and from across the valley sounded an answering call. Outside the little tent a dog whined softly. The boy smiled as his eyes rested for a moment upon the glowing coals of his fire. "What anybody wants to live in a city for when they can lie out in the timber and listen to that, is more than I know—I love it!" The next moment he was sitting bolt upright, his hands fighting his sleeping bag, as the hair of his scalp seemed to rise like the quills of an enraged porcupine, and a peculiar tickly chill ran down his spine. The silence of the night was shattered by a sound so terrible that his blood seemed to chill at the horror of it. It was a wolf cry—but unlike the cry of any wolf he had ever heard. There was a swift rush of dark bodies and Connie's four dogs dived into the tent, knocking him over in their haste, their feet scratching up a shower of snow which caused the glowing coals of the little fire to sizzle and smoke. The cry of the wolves had floated—but this new cry seemed to hurl itself through the night—a terrifying crescendo of noise that sounded at once a challenge and wail. For a full minute after the sound ceased the boy sat tense and motionless, staring wide-eyed beyond the fire, while behind him, in the farthest corner of the tent the malamutes huddled and whined. Then he shook himself and laughed. "Some howl!" he muttered, "I bet they heard that in Ten Bow. That's the Big Ruff, all right—and he ain't far away."
Hastily wriggling from his sleeping bag the boy drew on his mukluks and mackinaw and stepped from the tent. Overhead the stars glittered brilliantly, and he noted with satisfaction that objects were visible at a distance of several hundred yards against the background of new-fallen snow. Drawing a heavy parka over his mackinaw, he fastened on his snowshoes, caught up his rifle, and headed upward for the crest of the ridge. "Maybe I can get a look at him anyway," he thought. "He'll gather his wolves and the chances are that sometime before morning they'll run the ridge."
A half-hour later the boy slipped into a tangle of brush that marked the upper end of his patch of timber. The bare summit of the ridge stretched away in the half-light to merge in a mysterious blur with the indistinct valley of the Ten Bow. The wind was blowing gently from the ridge and the boy figured that if the wolf pack followed the summit as he hoped, they must pass within twenty yards of him. "If it don't go and cloud up before they get here I can see 'em plain as day," he thought, as he settled himself comfortably for his long wait. An hour passed and the boy was thankful he had thought to bring his parka. Mushing a hard trail, a man can dispense with his parka at twenty degrees below zero, but sitting still, even at zero, the heavy moosehide garment is indispensable. For another hour Connie divided his attention between watching the fantastic changes of pale aurora and scanning the distant reach of the ridge. He shifted his weight to his other hip to stretch a cramped leg; and suddenly became motionless as a stone. Far down the ridge his trained eye had caught a blur of motion. His fists clenched in anticipation as he stared into the dim distance. Yes, there it was again—something moving, like a swift shadow along the bald surface of the snow. Again the silent shadow shape vanished and again it appeared—nearer, now—near enough so that the boy could distinguish not one, but many shapes. In fascination he watched that silent run of the wolf pack. Nearer they swept, running easily and swiftly along the wind-swept ridge. Instinctively Connie reached for his rifle but withdrew his arm before his hand touched the weapon.
There were ten or twelve wolves in all, but his attention was riveted upon the leader. Never in his life had he seen such an animal. In the starlight his coat gleamed like molten silver in contrast with the dark tawny coats of the pack that ran at his heels. They reached a point nearly opposite to the boy's hiding place, and distant not more than fifty yards, when suddenly the huge leader halted in his tracks. So sudden was his action that the wolves running behind him were unable to stop until they had carried six or eight yards beyond. One or two jostled the leader in passing and were rewarded with swift, silent slashes of his great jaws. Luckily for themselves, the culprits escaped death by inches, and leaping swiftly aside, mingled with their companions, while the great grey leader stood squarely upon his feet sniffing the air.
Connie's heart raced wildly as he stared at the magnificent animal. It seemed incredible that the brute had caught his scent against the wind, and yet, if not, why had he halted so suddenly? And why did he stand there sniffing the air? The wolves settled upon their haunches with tongues a-loll and eyed their leader, or moved nervously back and forth in the background sniffing inquisitively. During this interval the boy took in every detail of the great brute he had set out to capture. More conspicuous even than his great size was the enormous ruff of long hair that covered the animal's neck and shoulders—a feature that accentuated immeasurably the ferocious appearance of the pointed wolfish muzzle and gleaming eyes. Every detail of coat, of muzzle, of eyes, of ears, or of legs bespoke the wolf breed—but there were other details—and the heart of the boy leaped as he noted them. The deep, massive chest, the peculiar poise of the head, and the over-curl of the huge brush of the tail showed unmistakably the breed of the dog. "I wonder what his heart is?" thought Connie. "Is it wolf, or dog, or part wolf and a part dog?" As these thoughts flashed through his mind the boy saw the great grey shape turn abruptly and trot toward the opposite side of the ridge at a right angle to his former course. The wolves followed at a respectful distance and as they disappeared over the crest Connie wriggled from his place of concealment and crawling to the top, peered down the slope.
The wolves had vanished completely. Nothing was in sight except the long white sweep of snow, with here and there a black patch of bushes and scrub. He was about to return to his camp when, from one of the patches of scrub burst a scattering of tawny shapes. Singly, and in groups of two or three, crowding each other in their mad haste, they fled into the open and ranging themselves in a semicircle, waited expectantly. Presently another wolf emerged from the thicket, dragging himself on his belly, ploughing the snow. As Connie watched curiously he noticed that the wide, flat trail left by the slowly crawling wolf showed broad, dark streaks and blotches. The waiting wolves knew the meaning of that darkened trail and the next moment they were upon him. Connie shifted his position for a better view of this midnight tragedy of the wild, when his foot caught under a root concealed by the snow and he pitched heavily forward. To save himself he grasped the dead branch of a stunted tree. The branch snapped with a report that rang through the silence of the night like an explosion and the boy pitched headforemost into the snow. The great grey leader shot from the scrub, and with the pack at his heels disappeared in the thicker timber at the base of the ridge.
When Connie regained his feet Spur Mountain was silent as the tomb, and for several moments he stood motionless gazing at the tawny shape that lay still at the end of the stained trail, and at the patch of scrub from which the shape had emerged. What was in that dark patch of brush? Why had the wolves burst from it in terror? Why had the great leader stayed until the snapping of the limb had frightened him away? And what had happened to the wolf that lay dead in the snow? Slowly the boy returned to his hiding place, picked up his rifle, and descended the slope toward the patch of scrub. He stooped to examine the body of the wolf. As he rolled it over his thoughts leaped to the great grey leader. "Maybe his heart's all wolf," he muttered thoughtfully, as he stared at the long slash that extended from the bottom of the flank upward almost to the backbone—a slash as clean as if executed with a sharp knife, and through which the animal's entrails had protruded and his life blood had gushed to discolour the snow. "What did he do it for?" wondered Connie as he turned from the carcass and proceeded cautiously into the scrub.
Ten yards in he stumbled over a snow-covered object. It was a sledge of curious design. "That's no Alaska sled," he muttered, as he stared about him, his eyes seeking to pierce the darker gloom of the scrub. A few feet from him was a curious white mound. Before the mound were many wolf tracks, and there it was that the blotched trail began. Moving cautiously, the boy examined the irregular snow-covered mound. At the point where the wolf tracks converged he noticed a small triangular patch of darkness close to the ground. Stooping he examined it closely and found to his surprise that it was the opening of a shelter tent or wikiup. Dropping upon his hands and knees he peered inside. In the darkness he could make out nothing. Throwing off his mittens, he lighted a match, and as the tiny flame threw its feeble light upon the interior he made out at the farther side a gruesome looking mound of blankets. The match burned his finger tips and the miserable shelter was once more plunged in blackness. Involuntarily Connie shuddered. His first inclination was to leave that place—to return to his camp and harness his dogs and hit the back trail for Ten Bow—then, tomorrow—Even with the thought his jaw stiffened: "If I do it'll be because I'm afraid," he sneered. "What would my dad have done? What would Waseche do? Or Dan McKeever? Or any of the boys? The very last thing in the world they would do would be to run away! And I won't either. The first thing is to find out who he is and how he comes to be lying dead way up here on Spur Mountain."
Methodically the boy kicked the snow back from the door of the low shelter tent, and gathering some dry branches built a fire. Then he crawled inside, and by the light of the crackling flames proceeded to examine the interior. One glance told the story. A battered aluminum kettle, a small frying pan, and a canvas bag which contained nothing but a small handful of tea, and the blankets he was wrapped in, constituted the man's whole outfit. There was no grub—no weapon of any kind with which to procure grub. He laid a hand on the blanket to roll the man toward the light—and started so violently that he sent the frying pan rattling against the kettle. For, instead of the rigid corpse of solid ice he had expected to find, the blanket yielded beneath the pressure of his hand! Either the man was alive, or had died so recently that his body had not had time to freeze! Recovering himself instantly, Connie ran his hand beneath the blanket. Yes, he was alive—there was heat there—not much—but enough body-warmth to show that he still lived. Scooping up a kettle of snow the boy set it upon the fire and, as it melted, without uncovering the man, he fell to beating him with his fists, to stimulate the lagging circulation. Heating the frying pan he thrust it into the canvas bag and slipped it under the blankets and went on with his beating. When the water began to boil, he withdrew the bag and threw the tea into the kettle. Then he removed the outer blanket and succeeded in rolling the unconscious form nearer to the fire. When he uncovered the face he saw that the man was an Indian—a young buck of twenty-five or thirty, and he wondered the more at his plight. Removing the kettle from the fire, he set it beside him and succeeded in propping the Indian's head upon his knees. With a tin cup, he dipped some scalding tea from the kettle and allowing it to cool a little, dropped a small quantity between the man's lips. At the third dose, the Indian shuddered slightly, his lips moved, and he swallowed feebly. The next time he swallowed as much as a spoonful, and then, double that amount. After that his recovery was rapid. Before the cup was half empty he had opened his eyes and blinked foolishly into Connie's face. He gulped eagerly at the hot liquid, but the boy would allow him only a mouthful at a time. When the cup was empty Connie refilled it. The Indian's lips moved. He seemed to be trying to speak.
"Talk English?" encouraged the boy with a smile.
The other nodded: "Yes—kloshe wawa—me spik good."
"What's your name—kahta mika nem?"
The Indian seemed delighted to find that the boy could speak the jargon. He smiled: "Nika nem 'Merican Joe." And having imparted the information, plunged into a rabble of jargon that the boy was at his wit's end to follow.
He stopped him in the middle of it: "Look here, 'Merican Joe, you talk English—she best to talk. You know all 'bout English?"
"Well, you talk it then. Listen—I've got a camp over across the ridge. Plenty grub. I go get grub. You stay here. Half an hour I come back. We eat big."
The Indian nodded vigorously, and as Connie turned toward the door he recoiled, and involuntarily drew the knife from his belt. For there, standing close beside the fire, his head and huge shoulders thrust into the doorway, his eyes gleaming like live coals, stood the great grey leader of the wolf pack!
'Merican Joe struggled to his elbow and stretched his hand toward the superb brute: "Ah, come Leloo! Nika skookum tkope leloo!" (My big white wolf). With a bound the great animal was at the Indian's side, nuzzling, rooting at him, licking his hands and face with his long red tongue. Connie sat fascinated at the sight, as the Indian tugged playfully at the pointed ears and buried his hand in the long shimmering hair of the enormous ruff. Then the great brute settled down close against the blanket and, raising his head, eyed Connie indifferently, and as if to emphasize his indifference he opened his huge jaws in a prodigious yawn—a yawn that exposed the interior of his cavernous mouth with its wealth of gleaming fangs.
The Indian thumped the brute on the ribs and pointed to the boy. "Skookum tillicum." Leloo rose, stalked to the boy, deliberately sniffed him over from top to toe, and resumed his place.
"Is he yours?" asked Connie eagerly. "Where did you get him? Have you got any more of 'em?"
'Merican Joe laughed: "No—no more! No more lak heem een de worl'. Leloo you frien', now. You com' een de daytam—een de night—Leloo no hurt."
"I hope you're right," laughed the boy, "I'm going after that grub now." And throwing some more wood on the fire, he slipped from the scrub. As he did so, there was a scattering of tawny shapes, and where the carcass of the dead wolf had been, there were only gnawed fragments of bones.
When he returned Leloo met him at the edge of the scrub, eyed him for a moment, and turning deliberately, led the way to the shelter tent.
Connie viewed 'Merican Joe's attack on the food with alarm. In vain he cautioned the Indian to go slow—to eat lightly at first—but his only answer was a grin, and a renewed attack on the grub. The boy had brought with him from the camp, three cans of baked beans, a bag of pilot bread, and several pounds of pemmican, and not until the last vestige of food was consumed, did 'Merican Joe even pause. Then he licked his fingers and asked for more. Connie told him that in the morning they would break camp and hit for Ten Bow. Also, that when they crossed the ridge he could have all the grub he wanted, and with that the Indian had to content himself. While 'Merican Joe ate the boy cooked up some fish for Leloo, who accepted it from his hand and then settled himself beside him upon the blanket.
"Where did you come from? And where are you are going? And how did you come to be out of grub?" asked Connie, when 'Merican Joe had lighted a villainous looking black pipe.
"Me—I'm com' far," he pointed toward the east. "I'm goin' to Kuskokwim. A'm liv' on Kuskokwim—be'n gon' t'ree year. I'm los' my outfit w'en de ice brek on Charley River, 'bout ten day 'go."
"And you kept on for the Kuskokwim without any grub, and with no rifle!"
"Yes—I'm lucky I'm hav' my blankets an' kettle on de front of de sled—de ice no ketch."
"But where did you get the dog—or wolf—or whatever Leloo is?"
"I'm git heem ver' far—" again he paused and pointed to the east.
"Beyond the big mountains?"
"Beyond the big river—the Mackenzie?"
"Yes. I'm desert from de whaler wan year 'go. I com' on de—w'at you call Innuit. I liv' wit dem long tam. All tam snow. All tam ice. All tam col'. 'Cross de big water—de sea—" he pointed north. "Cross on ice. Com' on de lan'—beeg lan', all rock, an' snow an' ice. We hunt de musk ox. T'ree, four day we mush nort'. Spose bye-m-bye we fin' ol' igloo. Woof! Out jomp de beeg white wolf! Mor' bigger as any wolf I ever seen. I take my rifle an' shoot heem, an' w'en de shot mak' de beeg noise, out com' anudder wan. She aint' so beeg—an' she ain' white lak de beeg wolf. She ron an' smell de dead wolf. She look on us. She look on our sled dogs. She com' close. Den she run off agin. An' she mak' all de tam de leetle whine. She ain' no wolf—she dog! Bye-m-bye she ron back in igloo. Ol' Sen-nick him say dat bad medicine—but me, I ain' care 'bout de Innuit medicine, an' I fol' de dog. I start to crawl een de igloo an' dat dog she growl lak she gon eat me oop. I com' back an' mak' de snare an' pull her out, an' I gon' on een, an' I fin' wan leetle pup. He ees de gran pup. Him look lak de beeg white wolf an' I ketch um. Een de snow w'ere de roof cave een sticks out som' seal-skin mukluks. Lays a dead man dere. I tak hol' an' try to pull um out but she too mooch froze. So I quit try an' lef' heem dere."
"Was it a white man?" cried Connie.
'Merican Joe shook his head: "I ain' know—I can't pull heem out. Dat good plac' to lef' heem anyhow. He frooze lak' de iron. I hont roun' an' he ain' lef' no grub. Him starve an' freeze, an' hees dogs is all dead but wan, an' she mate oop wit' de beeg white wolf. I giv' ol' Sen-nick de dog an' I kep' de pup. See, Leloo ees de pup. Mos' two year ol'—an' de bes' sled dog een all de worl'!"
As Connie watched 'Merican Joe refill his pipe he thought how near history had come to repeating itself. The boy studied Leloo as he lay quiet upon the edge of the blanket. He had heard of the great white wolves that inhabit the drear lone lands that lie beyond the arctic coast—larger even than the grey caribou wolves of the barren lands. He knew, now, that these stories were true.
"You called Leloo a dog," he said, "but he's only half dog, and sometime he may turn wolf."
'Merican Joe shrugged: and eyed the great wolf-dog sombrely: "No, him ain' never turn wolf—Leloo. Him half-wolf—half-dog, but de wolf an' de dog ain' separat', lak de front legs, an' de hin' legs. De wolf an' de dog is mix', lak de color een de hair. You savvy? Leloo ain' never all wolf—an' he ain' never all dog. All de tam' he wolf an' dog mix'."
Connie nodded eagerly. "I see!" he answered, and his thoughts flew to the great brute he had seen only a few hours before running at the head of the wolf pack. No hint of the dog in that long-drawn wolf-howl that had brought him tensely erect in his tent and started the hair roots to prickling along his scalp, and no hint of the dog in the silent slashes with which he had resented the crowding of the pack. And yet a few moments later he had defended his helpless master from that same wolf pack—and in defending him with the devotion of the dog, he had ripped with the peculiar flank-slash that is the death thrust of the wolf. Later, in the tent, he had fawned dog-like upon his master—but, wolf-like, the fawning had been soundless.
"You know Leloo well," he said.
'Merican Joe smiled: "I raised heem from de pup. I learn heem to pull. He ees de gran' leader. I train heem to hont de caribou—de moose—de deer. I show you som' tam. He kin fight—kill any dog—any wolf. He ain' never git tire. He work all day lak de dog—an' all night mebbe-so he ron wit' de wolf-pack."
"You say you've been over east of the Mackenzie; is there gold over there?"
"I ain' see no gold."
"I'm going over there."
"W'en you go?"
"Just as soon as I can get an outfit together."
"Me—I'm goin' 'long."
"Going along! Will you go?"
'Merican Joe nodded: "You skookum tillicum. 'Merican Joe, she dead—she starve—she froze—you com' 'long, mak' de fire—give de grub—I ain' dead no mor'. I go 'long."
"Do you think there's a good chance to prospect over there? What's the formation?"
"I ain' know mooch 'bout dat, w'at you call, fo'mation. Plent' riv—plent' crick. Mebbe-so plent' gol'—I ain' know. But, on de barrens is Injuns. W'en I com' way from de Innuit, I fin' um. Dey got plent' fur. Eef you got nuff stake for tradin' outfit you mak' de beeg money—you ain' care eef de gol' aint' dere."
"You meaning trading with the Indians—free trading?"
"Yes—de free traders skin 'em—dey cheat 'em—an' sell de hooch——"
"But—the Hudson's Bay Company! How about them?"
"De H.B.C. all right—but dey ain' go out after de Injun. Dey got de reg'lar post. De Injun got to mush mebbe-so mor' as hondre mile—two hondre. Spose de free traders ketch um firs'. De Injun never git to de post. You got nuff for de stake?"
Connie laughed: "Yes, I've got enough for the stake, all right. But I'm not so keen for the trading outfit. We can take along some traps, though, and if there isn't any gold—we'll take out some fur. And, you'll sure go with me? When can you start?"
The Indian glanced out of the low door. "It daylight—le's go."
"But, how about the Kuskokwim?"
'Merican Joe shrugged. "Kuskokwim kin wait. She ain' no good. Me—I'm stay 'long wit' you. You pay me wages w'at you want. I good man—me. You wait—I show you. You good man, too. I seen plent' good man—plent' bad man—I know—me."
The Indian reached out his hand, and Connie shook it—and thus was the bargain struck.
"Will you sell Leloo?" asked the boy.
The Indian shook his head: "No!"
"Five hundred dollars?"
"No! Fi' hondre dolla—fi't'ousan' dolla—no!" The Indian crawled out the door followed by Connie and Leloo. Going to the sled, 'Merican Joe picked up a loop of babiche line and threw it about Leloo's neck. He handed the end of the line to Connie. "Leloo heem you dog," he said.
"What!" cried the boy.
"Heem b'long you—I giv' heem——"
"No! No! Let me buy him."
The Indian drew himself erect: "I ain' sell Leloo. You giv' me my life—I giv' you Leloo. Me—'Merican Joe good man. You good man. Wan good man wit' anodder. It ees frien's."
So Connie Morgan took the line from the hand of 'Merican Joe and as his eyes rested upon the superb lines of the great silver brute, his heart thrilled with the knowledge that he was the possessor of the greatest wolf-dog in all the North.
On the morning after Connie Morgan had hit the trail for the avowed purpose of capturing the huge wolf-dog that had been reported on Spur Mountain, his big partner, Waseche Bill, lighted his pipe and gazed thoughtfully through the window of the little log office which was situated on the bank of Ten Bow Creek, overlooking the workings. His eyes strayed from the intricate system of pipes and flumes to the cloud of white vapour that rose from the shaft house where the never-tiring steam-point drills forced their way slowly down, down, down into the eternal frost.
"Jest three years ago since me and the kid staked this valley," he mused. "An' now we're rich—an' I'm an 'office miner' with a game laig, an' more gold than I could spend if I lived to be as old as Methooslum."
His glance strayed to the modern building across the creek with its iron roof, and white painted siding. In this building, erected a month before, were the general offices of the partners, the construction and hydraulic engineers, the chemist, the purchasing agent, the paymaster, the bookkeeper, and a score of clerks and stenographers.
There, also, Waseche Bill had had his own office, as general manager of the mine, but after an uncomfortable four weeks of hardwood floors, ground glass doors, and polished desk tops, he moved his office into the one-roomed log cabin across the creek, and upon this, the first day of his installation in his new quarters, he grinned happily out of the window as he watched Cain, the construction engineer, wallow through the new-fallen snow and climb the slippery bank, on his first trip of consultation. And Waseche's grin widened as he heard the engineer endeavouring to remove the snow and sticky mud from his boots before entering.
"Stomp 'em off inside, Cain," he called. "The floor's solider, an' you'll have better luck."
"Beastly place for an office!" growled the engineer, as he unrolled a blue print, spread it upon the rough pine desk, and glanced with disapproval about the room. "Your office in the main building was so much more convenient."
"Yup," answered Waseche. "That was the trouble. About every five minutes in would pop one of you birds an' pester me with some question or 'nother. What I hire you-all for is to get results. What do I care whether you use a double-jointed conniption valve, or a reverse English injector on the donkey engine, so you get the water into them sluices? Or what do I care whether the bookkeeper keeps all the accounts separate, or adds gum-boots, an' cyanide, an' sandpaper, an' wages all up in one colyumn? Or whether the chemist uses peroxide of magentum, or sweet spirits of rawhide, so he gits the gold? The way it is now, you-all's goin' to do a little figgerin' fer yourself before you'll wade through the water an' mud, or waller through the snow, to git over here. An' besides I cain't think right without I can rare back with my feet on the table an' my back ag'in' a good solid log wall."
Cain, who understood and loved his employer, chuckled heartily. A few minutes later he rolled up the blue print and buttoned his mackinaw. "By the way, Waseche," he said, with his hand in the door latch, "I'm sending you over a stenographer——"
"Me one!" cried Waseche Bill in alarm.
"Yes, you need one. Be reasonable, and let me talk for a minute. Here you are, one of the gold magnates of Alaska, and a lot of the correspondence that comes in you've got to handle yourself. You know your spelling and Mr. Webster's don't always agree, and your handwriting is almost illegible in pencil—and worse in ink——"
"Well, ain't we got a half dozen stenographers now?"
"Yes, but they're all up to their ears in work, and we've been paying them overtime to transcribe your scrawls into readable English. So I heard of this fellow in Fairbanks, and sent for him. He came in yesterday, with Black Jack Demeree's mail team." Cain's eyes twinkled as he paused and grinned. "He's only been in the country a few weeks—a rank chechako—but try to put up with him, because stenographers are hard to get and he seems to be a good one. I'll send him over with a couple of men to carry his outfit. I thought I ought to break the news to you——"
"An' I ort to break your neck," growled Waseche. "But send him along—mebbe my spellin' an', as the fellow says, chiropody, aint what it ort to be—anyway we'll try him."
A few minutes later the door opened and a couple of miners entered with a chair and a table, upon which they deposited a typewriter. Waseche glared as the miners withdrew, and a young man of twenty-one or-two stepped into the room. He was a tall, pale young man with store clothes and nose glasses. Waseche continued to glare as the newcomer addressed him:
"Is this Mr. Antrim? I'm the new stenographer. You were expecting me, sir?"
Waseche eyed him from top to toe, and shook his head in resignation. "Well—almost, from what Cain said—but not quite. Was you born in servitude?"
The newcomer shifted his weight to the other foot. "Sir?" he asked, doubtfully.
Waseche deliberately filled his pipe and, tilting his chair against the wall, folded his arms. "Yup—that's what I meant—that 'sir,' an' the 'Mister Antrim.' I ain't no Englishman. I'm an American. I ain't no 'sir,' nor likewise 'mister.' My name's Waseche Bill. It's a good name—good enough to live by, an' to be called by—an' good enough to write at the bottom of a check. What's yourn?"
"Percival Lafollette," repeated Waseche, gravely rolling the name upon his tongue. "'Was you in the original Floradora Sextette?"
"Why, no, sir——"
"No—no—" stammered Percival, in confusion.
"That's it—no!—just plain no! When you've got that said, you're through with that there partic'lar train of thought."
"No—they were girls—the Floradora Sextette."
"So they was," agreed Waseche, solemnly. "Did you bring the mail over?"
"Yes, s—yes, here it is." He placed a handful of letters on the pine table that served as Waseche's desk.
"All right, just take off your cloak an' bonnet, an' pry the lid off that there infernal machine, an' we'll git to work."
A few minutes later the new stenographer stood at attention, notebook in hand. Waseche Bill, who had been watching him closely, noted that he shivered slightly, as he removed his overcoat, and that he coughed violently into a handkerchief. Glancing into the pale face, he asked abruptly: "Sick—lunger?"
Percival nodded, and Waseche motioned him close, and when he stood at his side reached out and unbuttoned his vest, then his thin shirt, and took his undershirt between his thumb and finger. Then he snorted in disgust. "Look a-here, young fellow, you an' me might's well have it out. I aint' a-goin' to have no lunger workin' fer me!"
At the words, the other turned a shade paler, buttoned his clothing, and reached for his overcoat.
"Come back here! Where you goin'?"
"You ain't hired to think. I've got a shanty full of thinkers over acrost the crick. You're hired to spell. An' after a while you'll learn that you'll know more about what I'm sayin' if you wait till I git through. In the first place, fire that there book an' pencil over in the corner, an' put on your coat an' hat an' hit over to Scotty MacDougall's store an' tell him to give you a reg'lar man's outfit of clothes. No wonder you're a lunger; dressin' in them hen-skins! Git plenty of good thick flannel underwear, wool socks, mukluks, a couple of pairs of good britches, mackinaw, cap, mittens, sheep-lined overcoat—the whole business, an' charge 'em up to me. You didn't come through from Fairbanks in them things?"
"Yes, Mr. Demeree——"
"You mean Black Jack?"
"Yes, Black Jack loaned me a parka."
"Well, git now—an' put them new duds on, an' come back here, pausin' only long enough to stick them hen-skins in the stove—shoes, overcoat, an' the whole mess. You're in a man's country, now, son," continued Waseche in a kindly tone. "An' you've got to look like a man—an' act like a man—an' be a man. You've got a lot to live down—with a name like that—an' a woman's job—an' a busted lung—an' a servant's manners. I never seen anyone quite so bad off to start with. What you'll be in a year from now is up to you—an' me. I guarantee you'll have good lungs, an' a man's name—the rest is fer you to do. Git, now—an' hurry back."
The young man opened his lips, but somehow the words would not come, and Waseche interrupted him. "By the way, did you tell anyone your name around here?" he asked.
The other shook his head, and as he turned to get his overcoat a commotion drew both to the window. A dog team was climbing the creek bank. Connie Morgan was driving, urging the dogs up the deep slope, and on the sled was an Indian wrapped in blankets. Neither Connie nor the Indian received more than a passing glance, for in the lead of the team, sharp pointed muzzle low to the ground and huge shoulders heaving into the harness, was the great wolf-dog that Connie had found guarding the unconscious form of his master from the attack of the wolf pack. A cry escaped the stenographer's lips and even Waseche gasped as he took in the details of the superb animal.
Percival instinctively drew closer. "It's—it's—the great wolf we saw on the trail! Black Jack Demeree said he'd never seen his like. Oh, he can't get in here, can he?"
Waseche shook the speaker roughly by the shoulder. "Yes—he can," he answered. "He'll be in here in just about a minute—an' here's where you start bein' a man. Don't you squinch back—if he eats you up! The next ten minutes will make or break you, for good an' all." And hardly were the words out of his mouth than the door burst open and Connie entered the office, closely followed by the Indian and Leloo, the great ruffed wolf-dog.
"I got him, Waseche!" he cried. "He's mine! I'll tell you all about it later—this is 'Merican Joe."
The Indian nodded and grinned toward the boy.
"Skookum tillicum," he grunted.
"You bet!" assented Waseche, and as Connie led the great dog to him, the man laid his hand on the huge ruff of silvered hair.
"Some dog, son," he said. "The best I ever seen." He flashed a swift glance at Percival who stood at his side, and saw that his face was white as death, that his lips were drawn into a thin, bloodless line, and that little beads of sweat stood out like dew on the white brow. But even as he looked, the stenographer stretched out his hand and laid it on the great dog's head, and he, too, stroked the silvery hair of the great ruff.
Waseche, noticing that Connie cast an inquiring glance at the newcomer, introduced him, abruptly: "Son, this here's Roarin' Mike O'Reilly, from over on the Tanana. He's our new stenographer, an' while he goes an' gits on his reg'lar clothes, you an' me an' the Injun will knock off fer noon, an' go over to the cabin."
During the preparation of the midday meal Connie told Waseche of how he had found 'Merican Joe, starved and unconscious in his little snow-covered shelter tent, and of how, out of gratitude, the Indian had presented him with Leloo. Waseche eyed the great ruffed animal sombrely, as Connie dwelt upon his curiously mixed nature—how he ran the ridges at night at the head of the wolf pack, and of how, ripping and slashing, he had defended his helpless master against the fangs of those same wolves.
"Well, son," he drawled, when the boy had concluded, "he's the finest brute I ever seen—barrin' none. But keep your eye on him. If he ever gits his dates mixed—if he ever turns wolf when he'd ort to be dog—good-night!"
"I'll watch him," smiled the boy. "And, Waseche, where do you think 'Merican Joe came from?"
"Well," grinned his big partner, "fetchin' such a lookin' brute-beast as that along with him—I'd hate to say."
"He came from beyond the Mackenzie! He knows the country."
"That's prob'ly why he come away," answered Waseche, dryly.
"But he's going back—he's going with me. We're going to hit the trail for Dawson tomorrow, and hit across the mountains by way of Bonnet Plume Pass, and outfit at Fort Norman on the Mackenzie, and then strike out for the eastern end of Great Bear Lake, and the barren grounds. We're going to trap the rest of the winter and next summer we're going to prospect and figure on starting a trading post. We've got it all worked out."
"Oh, jest like that, eh? It ort to be right smart of a little ja'nt. With nothin' between Dawson an' Fort Norman—an' nothin' beyond."
"We might make another strike. And if we don't we can trap."
"Yup, that's a great idee—that trappin'. If you both work like a dog all winter out in them there barren lands, an' freeze an' starve, an' have good luck with your traps, you'd ort to clean up as much as two dollars a day."
"But look at the country we'd see! And the fun we'd have!"
"Ain't they country enough to see here in Alaska? An' as fer fun—some folks idee of humour gits me! Who ever heard of anyone goin' 'leven hundred miles into nowheres for to have fun? I tell you, son, I've know'd stampedes to start on mighty slim information, but never as slim as what you've got. I read your book, an' all them old parties had to go on was the stories of some Injuns—an' the whole mess of 'em's be'n dead most two hundred years! An' I think the book's a fake, anyhow—'cause I don't believe gold's been invented that long! No, sir, take it from me, it's the dog-gonedest wild goose chase ever undertook by anyone—but, at that—if it wasn't for this game laig of mine, I b'lieve I'd go 'long!"
After dinner Connie started to overhaul his trail outfit while Waseche looked on. After a while the man rose, and put on his mackinaw.
"I've got to go back to the office," he said. "Me an' Roarin' Mike O'Reilly has got to tackle that mail."
Connie shot his big partner a long, sidewise glance. "He must be some rough bird to earn a name like that over on the Tanana."
"Rough as pig iron," answered Waseche solemnly. "He eats 'em alive, Roarin' does."
"Yup—pancakes, an' grizzlies. Roarin' Mike, he takes 'em as they come. Didn't you see him lay holt of your wolf-dog?"
"Yes," answered the boy, as solemn as an owl. "And I don't like folks to be so rough with Leloo."
"He promised he wouldn't hurt your dog when we seen you comin' up the hill."
"It's a good thing you've got him where you can keep your eye on him. If he ever gets loose he's liable to run the crew off the works."
"Yup. I'll watch out for that. He's a stenographer. It's claimed he kin spell—better'n what I kin. An' when he gits a letter wrote down, it kin be read without a jury."
"I think you've picked a winner, at that, Waseche. I was watching him when he put out his hand to touch Leloo. He would rather have shoved it into the fire. There's something to him, even if the names did get mixed on the package when they shipped him in. I suppose that somewhere over on the Tanana there's a big, red-eyed, double-fisted roughneck charging around among the construction camps packing a name like 'Nellie.'"
Waseche grinned. "Percival Lafollette, to be exact. I furnished the Roarin' Mike O'Reilly part, along with a full an' complete outfit of men's wearin' apparel. When he gets to where he can live up to the Roarin' Mike name, he can discard it an' take back his own. Might's well give the boy a chanct. Cain thought he'd put it over on me, 'count of my movin' my office where he'd have to waller acrost the crick to it. But I'll fool him good an' proper. The kid's a lunger, an' the first thing to do is to git him started in to feelin' like a man. I figured they was somethin' to him when I first seen him. If they wasn't, how did he get up here in the middle of Alaska an' winter comin' on—an' nothin' between him an' freezin' but them hen-skin clothes? An' I was watchin', too, when he laid his hand on the dog's head. He was so scairt that the sweat was jest a-bubblin' out of him—an' yet, he retch out an' done like I done—an' believe me, I wasn't none too anxious to fool with that brute, myself. I done it to see if he would. I'm goin' to take holt an' make a reg'lar man out of him. I figger we kin git through the office work by noon every day. If we don't, them birds over in the thinkers' shack is in for more overtime. In the afternoons I'm goin' to keep him out in the air—that's all a lunger needs—plenty air, an' good grub. We'll tromp around the hills and hunt. We'll be a pair to draw to—him with his busted lungs, an' me with my game laig. We was all chechakos onct. They's two kinds of chechakos—the ones with nerve an' the ones with brass. The ones with the real nerve is the kind that stays in the big country. But the other kind of chechakos—the ones with brass—the bluff an' bluster—the counterfeit nerve that don't fool no one but theirself—the luckiest thing that can happen to them is they should live long enough to git back to the outside where they come from—an' most of 'em's lucky if they live long enough to starve to death."
"I guess he's the first kind," opined Connie. "When I come back I expect he'll be a regular sourdough."
"When you're gone I reckon I'll jest have him move his traps up here. I won't be so lonesome, an' I can keep cases on him——"
"But—" interrupted Connie.
Waseche divined his thoughts and shook his head. "No, they ain't no danger. My lungs is made of whang leather, an' besides, he ain't no floor spitter—I watched him in the office. Even if he was it wouldn't take mor'n about a minute to break him of that."
By nightfall Connie and 'Merican Joe had the outfit all ready for the trail, and the following morning they departed at daylight, with half of Ten Bow waving good-bye, as the great silver wolf-dog swung out onto the long snow trail at the head of the team.
It was high noon, just two weeks from the day Connie Morgan and 'Merican Joe pulled out of Ten Bow, and the two halted their dogs on the summit of Bonnet Plume Pass and gazed out over the jumbled mass of peaks and valleys and ridges that lay to the eastward. The first leg of the long snow trail, from Ten Bow to Dawson, had been covered over a well-travelled trail with road houses at convenient intervals. Over this trail with Connie's team of seven big malamutes, headed by the great ruffed wolf-dog, they had averaged forty miles a day.
At Dawson they outfitted for the trip to Fort Norman, a distance of about five hundred miles. Connie was fortunate in being able to purchase from a prospector eight Mackenzie River dogs which he presented to 'Merican Joe, much to the Indian's surprise and delight. The Alaska sled was replaced by two toboggans, and 'Merican Joe nodded approval at Connie's selection of supplies. For from now on there would be no road houses and, for the most of the way, no trail. And their course would thread the roughest country on the whole continent. Therefore, the question of outfitting was a problem to be taken seriously. Too little grub in the sub-arctic in winter means death—horrible, black-tongued, sunken-eyed death by starvation and freezing. And too much outfit means overstrain on the dogs, slower travel, and unless some of it is discarded or cached, it means all kinds of trouble for the trail mushers.
The surest test of a sourdough is his outfit. Connie figured the trip should take thirty-five days, which should put them into Fort Norman on the fifth of November. But Connie had been long enough in the North to take that word "should" none too literally. He knew that under very favourable conditions the trip might be made in twenty days, and he knew also that it might take fifty days. Therefore although the month was November, a very favourable month for hunting, and the country to be traversed was good game country, he did not figure his rifle for a single pound of meat. If meat were killed on the journey, well and good. But if no meat were killed, and if they lost their way, or encountered blizzard after howling blizzard, and their journey lengthened to fifteen or twenty days beyond the estimated time, Connie was determined that it should also be well and good.
He remembered men who had been found in the spring and buried—chechakos, most of them who had disregarded advice, and whose outfits had been cut down to a minimum that allowed no margin of safety for delay. But some of them had been sourdoughs who had taken a chance and depended on their rifles for food—it had been the same in the end. In the spring the men who buried them read the whole story of the wilderness tragedy in visiting their last few camps. Each day the distance between them shortened, here a dog was killed and eaten, here another, and another, until at the very last camp, half buried in the sodden ashes of the last fire, would be found the kettle with its scraps of moccasins and bits of dog harness shrivelled and dried—moccasin soup, the very last hopeless expedient of the doomed trail musher. And generally the grave was dug beside this fire—never far beyond it.
And so Connie added a safety margin to the regular sub-arctic standard of grub for the trail, and when the outfit pulled out of Dawson the toboggans carried three and one half pounds of grub apiece for each of the thirty-five days, which was a full half pound more than was needed, and this, together with their outfit of sleeping bags, clothing, utensils, and nine hundred pounds of dog food, totalled thirteen hundred and fifty pounds—ninety pounds to the dog, which with good dogs is a comfortable load.
The summit of the Bonnet Plume pass is a bleak place. And dreary and bleak and indescribably rugged is the country surrounding it. Connie and 'Merican Joe, seated in the lee of their toboggans, boiled a pot of tea over the little primus stove.
"We've made good time so far," said the boy. "About three hundred miles more and we'll hit Fort Norman."
'Merican Joe nodded. "Yes, but we got de luck. On dis side we ain' gon' hav' so mooch luck. Too mooch plenty snow—plenty win'. An' tonight, mor' comin'." He indicated the sky to the northward, where, beyond the glittering white peaks, the blue faded to a sullen grey.
"You're right," answered Connie, dropping a chunk of ice into his cup of scalding tea. "And I'd sure like to make a patch of timber. These high, bare canyons are rotten places to camp in a blizzard. If you camp in the middle of 'em you've got to tie yourself down or the wind might hang you on a rock somewhere, and if you camp out of the wind against a wall, a snow cornice might bust loose and bury you forty feet deep."
'Merican Joe grinned. "You sourdough—you know. I know you sourdough w'en I seen you han'le de dogs—an' I know w'en you buy de grub. But mos' I know w'en you pack de toboggan—you ain' put all de grub on wan toboggan an' all de odder stuff on de odder toboggan——"
Connie laughed. "Lots of men have made that mistake. And then if they get separated one dies of starvation, and the other freezes to death, or if they lose one toboggan they're in the same fix."
'Merican Joe returned the dishes and stove to the pack and glanced at the sky. "I ain' t'ink we mak' de timber tonight. She git dark queek now—seven, eight mile mor' we got to camp."
"Yes," assented Connie. "And the days are getting so short that from now on we'll quit camping at noon. We'll pull once and make a day of it—anyway till we get a moon."
To this plan the Indian readily agreed and a moment later struck out ahead as "forerunner" to break trail for the dogs. Despite the fact that there was more snow on the eastern slope, the two soon found it insufficient to check the toboggans upon the series of steep pitches and long slopes they now encountered. At the end of a mile a halt was made, Connie's dogs were turned loose to follow, both toboggans were hitched behind the Mackenzie River dogs, and while 'Merican Joe plodded ahead, Connie had all he could do at the tail rope. An hour later the wind suddenly changed and came roaring out of the north. The whole sky became overcast and stinging particles of flinty snow were driven against their faces. The storm increased in fury. The stinging particles changed to dry, powdery snow dust that whirled and eddied about them so thickly that Connie could not see the dogs from the rear of the toboggans. Covering their noses and mouths, the two bored on through the white smother—a slow moving, ghostly procession, with the snow powder matted thick into the hairy coats of the dogs and the clothing of the mushers. Not until darkness added to the impenetrability of the storm did 'Merican Joe halt. In the whirling blizzard, without protection of timber, one place was as good as another to camp, and while the Indian busied himself with the dogs Connie proceeded to dig a trench in the snow. This trench was as long as the toboggans, and wide enough to accommodate the two sleeping bags placed side by side. Three feet down the boy struck ice. The sleeping bags, primus stove, and part of the food were dumped into the trench. The loaded toboggans were tipped on edge, one along either side, and the heavy canvas shelter tarp was stretched over these and weighted down by doubling its edges under the toboggans. The open ends were blocked with snow, the dogs fed and left to make their own beds, and the two crawled into their snug quarters where by the light of a candle they prepared a good hot meal on the little stove and devoured it in warmth and comfort while the storm roared harmlessly over their heads.
For two days they were storm bound, venturing out only to feed the dogs and from time to time to relieve the tarp roof of its burden of snow. The third day dawned cold and clear, and daylight found the outfit on the move. They were following a creek bed, and the depth of the snow, together with the easing of the slope, permitted the use of both teams. No halt was made at noon and when they camped at dark they estimated they had made fifteen miles. Five days of fair cold weather followed and each night found them from fifteen to eighteen miles from the camp of the night before. No game had been sighted, but on two of the nights Leloo had left camp, and once, from some ridge far to the northward, they had heard his long-drawn howl of the kill.
On the sixth day another storm broke. They were following the snow-covered bed of a fair-sized river which Connie hoped would prove to be the head-waters of the Gravel, which empties into the Mackenzie some forty-five miles above Fort Norman. They had left the highest mountains behind, and patches of timber appeared at frequent intervals along the banks of the stream. As the storm thickened they camped, setting up their tent in the shelter of a thicket, and in the morning they pushed on despite the storm. It was nearly noon when Connie called to 'Merican Joe, and when the Indian made his way back, the boy pointed to Leloo. The great wolf-dog had halted in the traces and stood with nose up sniffing the air, while the huge ruff seemed to swell to twice its size, and the hair along its spine bristled menacingly.
They had stopped opposite a patch of timber taller than any they had passed, the tops of the trees being visible between the gusts of whirling snow. "Moose or a bear in there," ventured Connie. "Let's go get him."
'Merican Joe shook his head. "No. Leloo, he ketch de man scent. He ain' ac' lak dat for moose an' bear."
"Man scent! What would any men be doing up here?"
The Indian shrugged. "Hunt, trap, mebbe-so prospeck. Com' on, le's go. It ain' no good we go in dere." He paused and pointed to the dog. "Bad mans in dere—Leloo, he know. Bad mans smells one way—good mans smells anudder way. Leloo ain' git mad for good mans."
"We can't go away and leave them," Connie answered. "They may be out of luck—may need help."
Again 'Merican Joe shrugged, but offered no further objection, and releasing Leloo from his harness the two followed him into the timber. A short distance back from the edge they came upon a rude log cabin, glaringly the work of inexperienced builders. No tracks were seen about the door, and no smoke rose from the stovepipe that served as a chimney. 'Merican Joe pushed open the door.
"It's 'bout time you was comin'—an' me crippled," came a petulant voice from the bed. "But what do you care—" The voice ceased suddenly, and 'Merican Joe sprang back from the doorway so swiftly that he knocked Connie into the snow. As the boy picked up himself he again heard the voice. "Git out of here, you thievin' Injun or I'll blow yer head off!"
Ignoring the protest of 'Merican Joe, Connie thrust his head in at the doorway. "What's the matter with you?" he asked, sharply. "Are you crazy?"
The man in the bed stared a moment and with seeming reluctance lowered his rifle. "Who're you?" he asked, sullenly. "If you want grub y're out of luck. We ain't got none to spare—an' I got a rifle here that says you don't git none of it." Involuntarily, Connie's glance swept the supplies piled along the walls and upon the shelves, and estimated a four-man outfit.
"How many of you are there?" he asked. "And why haven't you got a fire?"
"They's two of us, an' I ain't got no fire 'cause my partner ain't showed up to build none. I'm crippled—sunk an ax in my foot a couple days back."
"Where is your partner?"
"I dunno. He went to look at the traps yesterday an' he ain't got back yet." He noticed the snow clinging to Connie's garments. "Is it snowin'?" he asked, in sudden alarm.
"Snowing!" exclaimed the boy. "Of course it's snowing—it's been snowing since yesterday noon."
The man's voice dropped into a whine. "The winders is frosted so you can't see out. I bet he's lost. Go find him, can't you? What're you standin' there fer?"
Righteous indignation succeeded the flash of disgust engendered by the man's first words. And Connie stepped closer. "Look here, who do you think you're talking to? I don't know who you are, and I don't want to. What I can't figure is how you ever got this far. If nobody else had bothered to knock some common sense and decency into you it's a wonder your partner hasn't. But I guess he don't know the difference between you and a man or he wouldn't be your partner." Connie turned on his heel and started for the door.
"Hey, where you goin'?" wailed the man on the bunk.
"I'm going out and tend to my dogs," answered the boy.
"Build a fire first, an' cook me some grub! I ain't had nothin' since yesterday."
"After the dogs," said Connie as he banged the door behind him.
"Le's mush," said 'Merican Joe, when they returned to the dogs.
Connie grinned. "No, we can't do that. I've seen some pretty raw chechakos, but never one like him. If we pulled out they'd probably both die."
'Merican Joe gave an expressive shrug. "S'pose we ain't got no grub. He ain' care we die."
"No, but we're men, and he——"
"He ain' so good lak Injun dog," interrupted 'Merican Joe.
"Just about—but we can't go off and leave him, at that."
Twenty minutes later Connie and the Indian entered the cabin.
"You took yer time about it," complained the man. "Hustle around now an' cook me up a meal of vittles."
"Where's your firewood?" asked the boy, smothering his wrath.
"Go out an' cut it, same as we do."
"Don't you keep any ahead, nor any kindlings?"
"Naw, it's bad enough to cut a little at a time."
Connie's glance sought the room. "Where's the ax?"
"Out in the brush, I guess. My partner cut the wood last. I don't know where he left it."
"Well, it's under about two feet of snow now," answered the boy dryly, as 'Merican Joe departed to get their own ax and cut some wood.
By the time the cabin was warmed and the man fed, the storm had ceased. "Let me have a look at your foot," said Connie. "I expect it had better be tended to." The man assented, and the boy turned back the covers and, despite much groaning and whining complaint, removed the bandage and replaced it with a clean one.
"Pretty bad gash," opined Connie. "How did it happen?"
"Cuttin' firewood—holdin' the stick with my foot an' the ax struck a knot."
"You've got to learn a lot, haven't you?"
"What d'you mean—learn? How you goin' to cut firewood without you hold it with yer foot?"
"Nex' tam dat better you hol' de chunk wit' you neck," advised 'Merican Joe.
"Is that so! Well, believe me, I ain't takin' no advise offen no Siwash, nor no kid, neither!"
Connie pulled his cap down over his ears and drew on his mackinaw and mittens. "We're wasting time here, the days are short and if we're going to find your partner we've got to get at it. How long is your trap line, and where does it run?"
"We got about twenty-five martin traps out. They're acrost the river up the first crick—strung along about three or four mile."
"Twenty-fi' trap! Three or four mile!" exclaimed 'Merican Joe. "How long you be'n here?"
"Just a month. What's the matter with that? We've got eight martin an' a wolverine an' a link!"
The Indian gave a snort of contempt. "Me—if I ain' set mor' trap as dat every day I ain' t'ink I done nuttin'." He followed Connie to the door.
"You might's well move yer junk in here if you got your own grub. You kin keep the fire goin' nights in case Tom don't show up, an' besides I ain't had no one to talk to fer goin' on two months except Tom, an' we don't git on none too good."
"Thanks," said Connie. "But we'll put up the tent when we come back—we're a little particular, ourselves."
"They ain't no use of both of you goin' out to hunt him. One of you stay here and tend the fire, an' cook supper in case the other one don't git back in time."
Connie glared at the man for a moment, and burst out laughing. "If you had a little more nerve and a whole lot less brass, there might be some hope for you yet," he opined. "Did your partner have any dogs with him?"
"Naw, we had six when we come in, but they was worked down skin pore when we got here, an' some of 'em died, an' the rest run off. They wasn't no good, nohow."
Connie banged the door in disgust and, taking Leloo with them, the two struck across the river. They found the creek without difficulty and had proceeded scarcely a mile when Leloo halted in his tracks and began sniffing the air. This time the hair of his neck and spine did not bristle, and the two watched him as he stood, facing a spruce-covered hill, his head moving slightly from side to side, as his delicate pointed nostrils quivered as if to pick up some elusive scent. "Go on, Leloo. Go git um!" urged 'Merican Joe, and the wolf-dog trotted into the spruce, followed by Connie and the Indian. Halfway up the slope the dog quickened his pace, and coming suddenly upon a mound in the new-fallen snow circled it several times and squatted upon his haunches. It took Connie and the Indian but a few moments to scrape away the snow and disclose the skinned carcass of a moose.
'Merican Joe pointed to the carcass. "It be'n snowin' quite a w'ile w'en he skin de moose. He ain' goin' carry dat hide far. She heavy. He ain' know nuttin' 'bout skinnin', an' lef' lot of meat stick to de hide. He start hom' an' git los'."
"Lost!" exclaimed Connie. "Surely he wouldn't get lost within a mile of his cabin!"
'Merican Joe nodded. "Him chechako—git los' anywheres. Git los' somtam w'en she snowin' bad, hondre steps from cabin. Me—I know. One git los' an' froze dead, wan tam, he go for water not so far you kin t'row de stone."
"Well, he's probably home by this time. If he was lost he'd camp, and he's had plenty of time since it stopped snowing."
The Indian was not so hopeful. "No, I'm t'ink he ain' got sense 'nough to camp. He walk an' git scare, an' den he mebbe-so run till he fall down."
"He won't do much running with that hide," grinned Connie. "Let's separate and hunt for him. Come, Leloo—go find him!"
The two continued to the top of the timbered slope. "I don't see how anyone could possibly get lost here. Surely he would know enough to go down hill to the creek, and follow it to the river, wouldn't he?"
"No, w'en dey git scairt dey don't know up an' down an' crossways."
As the two were about to separate both suddenly paused to listen. Faintly upon the air, seemingly from miles away, came the call of a human voice. Leloo heard it too, and with ears stiffly erect stood looking far out over the ridges. Raising his rifle, Connie fired into the air, and almost immediately the sound of the shot was answered by the faint call for help.
"That's funny," cried the boy. "Sound don't travel very fast. How could he possibly have answered as soon as that?"
Placing his hands to his mouth, 'Merican Joe launched a yell that seemed fairly to tear through the spaces, echoing and re-echoing across, the valley.
Again came the answering call, faintly, as from a great distance. Locating the direction of the sound which seemed to come from somewhere near the head of a parallel valley, they plunged straight down the opposite slope. At the bottom they paused again, and again the Indian sent his peculiar penetrating yell hurtling through the air. Again it was answered, but this time it came from up the slope. Faintly it reached their ears, seemingly farther away than before. The sound was repeated as the two stood looking at each other in bewilderment.
'Merican Joe's eyes seemed bulging from his head. "Tamahnawus," he whispered. "W'at you call, de ghos'. He git froze, an' hees ghos' run 'roun' de hills an' yell 'bout dat! Me—I'm gon'!" Abruptly the Indian turned and started as fast as his webs would let him in the direction of the river.
"Come back here!" cried Connie. "Don't be a fool! There ain't any tamahnawuses—and if there are, I've got the medicine that will lick 'em! I brought one in once that had run a whole tribe of Injuns off their hunting ground."
'Merican Joe, who had halted at the boy's command, looked dubious. "I ain' huntin' no tamahnawus—I ain' los' none!"
"You come with me," laughed the boy, "and I'll show you your tamahnawus. I've got a hunch that fellow has dropped into a cave or something and can't get out. And he can't be so very far off either."
With Connie in the lead they ascended the slope in the direction of the sound which came now from a point upstream from where they had descended. Once more Leloo paused and sniffed, the hair of his back bristling. Whatever the object of his attention, it seemed to lie beneath the outspreading branches of a large spruce. Connie peered beneath the branches where an oblong of snow appeared to have been disturbed from under the surface. Even as he looked the sound of a voice, plain enough now to distinguish the words, reached his ears.
"Git me out of here! Ain't you never comin'? Or be you goin' to leave me here 'cause I burnt them pancakes?"
"Come on out," called Connie. "What's the matter with you?"
"Come on out! How kin I? Who be you?"
Connie reached the man's side and proceeded to scrape away the snow, while 'Merican Joe stood at a respectful distance, his rifle at full cock. "Come on Joe!" the boy called, at length. "Here's your tamahnawus—and it's going to take two of us to get him out."
When the snow had been removed both Connie and the Indian stared in surprise. There lay the man closely wrapped in his moose skin, fur side in, and the heavy hide frozen to the hardness of iron!
"I'm all cramped up," wailed the man. "I can't move."
The man was wrapped, head and all, in the frozen hide. Fortunately, he had left an air space but this had nearly sealed shut by the continued freezing of his breath about its edges.
Rolling him over the two grasped the edge of the heavy hide and endeavoured to unroll it, but they might as well have tried to unroll the iron sheathing of a boiler.
"We've got to build a fire and thaw him out," said Connie.
"Tak' um to de cabin," suggested the Indian. "Kin drag um all same toboggan."
The plan looked reasonable but they had no rope for a trace line. Connie overcame the difficulty by making a hole with his hand ax in a flap of the hide near the man's feet, and cutting a light spruce sapling which he hooked by means of a limb stub into the hole.
By using the sapling in the manner of a wagon tongue, they started for the cabin, keeping to the top of the ridge where the snow was shallow and wind-packed.
All went well until they reached the end of the ridge. A mile back, where they had ascended the slope, the pitch had not been great, but as they neared the river the sides grew steeper, until they were confronted by a three hundred foot slope with an extremely steep pitch. This slope was sparsely timbered, and great rocks protruded from the snow. Connie was for retracing the ridge to a point where the ascent was not so steep, but 'Merican Joe demurred.
"It git dark queek, now. We git um down all right. Turn um roun' an' mak de pole lak de tail rope on de toboggan—we hol' um back easy." The early darkness was blurring distant outlines and the descent at that point meant the saving of an hour, so Connie agreed and for the first twenty yards all went well. Then suddenly the human toboggan struck the ice of a hillside spring and shot forward. The pole slipped from the snowy mittens of the two and, enveloped in a cloud of flying snow, the man in the frozen moose hide went shooting down the slope! Connie and 'Merican Joe barely saved themselves from following him, and, squatting low on their webs they watched in a fascination of horror as the flying body struck a tree trunk, shot sidewise, ploughed through the snow, struck a rock, bounded high into the air, struck another rock and, gaining momentum with every foot, shot diagonally downward—rolling, whirling, sliding—straight for the brink of a rock ledge with a sheer drop of twenty-five or thirty feet. Over the edge it shot and landed with a loud thud among the broken rock fragments of the valley floor.
"We ought to have gone back!" shuddered the boy. "He's dead by this time."
'Merican Joe shrugged. "Anyhow, dat com' queek. Dat better as if he lay back onder de tree an' froze an' starve, an' git choke to deat' w'en his air hole git froze shut. He got good strong coffin anyhow."
Relieved of their burden it was but the work of a few moments to gain the floor of the valley and hasten to the form wedged tightly between two upstanding boulders, where they were greeted by the voice of the man raised in whining complaint.
"Are you hurt?" eagerly asked Connie, kneeling at the man's side and looking at him closely.
"Naw, I ain't hurt but can't you pick out no smoother trail? I'm all jiggled up!" In his relief at finding the man unharmed, Connie laughingly promised a smoother trail, and as he and the Indian pried him from between the rocks with a young tree, the boy noted that the frozen moose hide had scarcely been dented by its contact with the trees and rocks.
In the cabin the stove was crammed with wood and the man laid upon the floor close beside it, but it was nearly daylight the following morning before the hide had thawed sufficiently for the combined efforts of Connie and the Indian to unroll it. All night the two tended the fire and listened to the petty bickering and quarrelling of the two helpless partners, the man in the bunk taunting the other with being a fool for wrapping up in a green moose hide, and being in turn called a fool for chopping his own foot. It was disgusting in the extreme to Connie but at last the humour of the situation got the better of his disgust, and he roared with laughter, all of which served to bring down the combined reviling of both men upon his head.
When at last the man was extricated from his prison and found to be little the worse for his adventure, he uttered no word of thanks to his rescuers. Indeed, his first words were in the nature of an indirect accusation of theft.
"Whur's my marten?" he asked, eying them with suspicion.
"What marten? We didn't see any marten," answered the boy.
"Well, I hed one. Tuk it out of a trap just before I seen the moose. It's funny you didn't see it." Connie answered nothing, and as the man devoured a huge breakfast without asking his rescuers to join him, he continued to mutter and growl about his lost marten. Daylight was breaking and Connie, bottling his wrath behind tight-pressed lips, rose abruptly, and prepared to depart.
"Whur you goin'?" asked the man, his cheeks distended with food. "You lay around here soakin' up heat all night; looks like you could anyways cut a little wood an' help worsh these dishes! An', say, don't you want to buy some moose meat? I'll sell you all you want fer two-bits a pound, an' cut it yerself."
For a moment Connie saw red. His fists clenched and he swallowed hard but once more his sense of humour asserted itself, and looking the man squarely in the eye he burst into a roar of laughter, while 'Merican Joe, who possessed neither Connie's self-restraint nor his sense of humour, launched into an unflattering tirade of jumbled Indian, English, and jargon, that, could a single word of it have been understood, would have goaded even the craven chechakos to warfare.
Two hours later, as they sat in their cozy tent, pitched five miles down the river, and devoured their breakfast, Connie grinned at his companion.
"Big difference in men—even in chechakos, ain't there, Joe?"
"Humph," grunted the Indian.
"No one else within two hundred miles of here—his partner crippled so he never could have found him if he tried, and he never would have tried—a few more hours and he would have been dead—we come along and find him—and he not only don't offer us a meal, but accuses us of stealing his marten—and offers to sell us moose meat—at two-bits a pound! I wish some of the men I know could have the handling of those birds for about a month!"
"Humph! If mos' w'ite men I know got to han'le um dey ain' goin' live no mont'—you bet!"
"Anyway," laughed the boy, "we've sure learned the difference between nerve and brass!"
THE PLAGUE FLAG IN THE SKY
It was nearly noon of the day following the departure of Connie Morgan and 'Merican Joe from the camp of the two chechakos.
The mountains had been left behind, and even the foothills had flattened to low, rolling ridges which protruded irregularly into snow-covered marshes among which the bed of the frozen river looped interminably. No breath of air stirred the scrub willows along the bank, upon whose naked branches a few dried and shrivelled leaves still clung.
'Merican Joe was travelling ahead breaking trail for his dogs and the boy saw him raise a mittened hand and brush at his cheek. A few minutes later the Indian thrashed his arms several times across his chest as though to restore circulation of the blood against extreme cold. But it was not cold. A moment later the boy brushed at his own cheek which stung disagreeably as though nipped by the frost. He glanced at the tiny thermometer that he kept lashed to the front of his toboggan. It registered zero, a temperature that should have rendered trailing even without the heavy parkas uncomfortably warm. Connie glanced backward toward the distant mountains that should have stood out clean-cut and distinct in the clear atmosphere, but they had disappeared from view although the sun shone dazzlingly bright from a cloudless sky. A dog whimpered uneasily, and Connie cracked his whip above the animal's head and noted that instead of the sharp snap that should have accompanied the motion, the sound reached his ears in a dull pop—noted, too, that the dogs paid no slightest heed to the sound, but plodded on methodically—slowly, as though they were tired. Connie was conscious of a growing lassitude—a strange heaviness that hardly amounted to weariness but which necessitated a distinct effort of brain to complete each muscle move.
Suddenly 'Merican Joe halted and, removing his mitten, drew his bare hand across his eyes. Connie noticed that the air seemed heavy and dead, and that he could hear his own breathing and the breathing of the dogs which had crouched with their bellies in the snow whimpering uneasily. Wild-eyed, the Indian pointed aloft and Connie glanced upward. There was no hint of blue in the cloudless sky. The whole dome of the heavens glared with a garish, brassy sheen from which the sun blazed out with an unwholesome, metallic light that gleamed in glints of gold from millions of floating frost spicules. Even as the two stood gazing upward new suns formed in the burnished sky—false suns that blazed and danced and leaped together and re-formed.
With a cry of abject terror 'Merican Joe buried his face in his arms and stood trembling and moaning, "Hyas skookum kultus tamahnawus—mesahchee tamahnawus!" (a very strong bad spirit—we are bewitched). The words puled haltingly from lips stiff with fright. The next moment the boy was beside him, thumping him on the back and choking him roughly:
"Tamahnawus nothing!" he cried. "Buck up! Don't be a fool! I've seen it before. Three years ago—in the Lillimuit, it was. It's the white death. Waseche and I hid in an ice cave. Tonight will come the strong cold."
The boy's voice sounded strangely toneless and flat, and when he finished speaking he coughed. 'Merican Joe's hands had dropped to his side and he stood dumbly watching as Connie loosened the heavy woollen muffler from his waist and wound it about the lower half of his face. "Cover your mouth and don't talk," the boy commanded. "Breathe through your muffler. We can still travel, but it will be hard. We will be very tired but we must find shelter—a cave—a cabin—a patch of timber—or tonight we will freeze—Look! Look!" he cried suddenly, pointing to the northward, "a mirage!"
Both stared awe-struck as the picture formed rapidly before their eyes and hung inverted in the brassy sky just above the horizon foreshortened by the sweep of a low, snow-buried ridge. Both had seen mirages before—mirages that, like a faulty glass, distorted shapes and outlines, and mirages that brought real and recognizable places into view like the one they were staring at in spell-bound fascination. So perfect in detail, and so close it hung in the heavy, dead air that it seemed as though they could reach out and touch it—a perfect inverted picture of what appeared to be a two or three mile sweep of valley, one side sparsely wooded, and the other sloping gently upward into the same low-rolling ridge that formed their own northern horizon. Each stunted tree showed distinctly, and in the edge of the timber stood a cabin, with the smoke rising sluggishly from the chimney. They could see the pile of split firewood at its corner and even the waterhole chopped in the ice of the creek, with its path leading to the door. But it was not the waterhole, or the firewood, or the cabin itself that held them fascinated. It was the little square of scarlet cloth that hung limp and motionless and dejected from a stick thrust beneath the eave of the tiny cabin. It was a horrible thing to look upon for those two who knew its significance—that flag glowing like a splotch of blood there in the brazen sky with the false suns dancing above it.
"The plague flag!" cried Connie.
And almost in the same breath 'Merican Joe muttered:
"De red death!"
Even as they spoke the cabin door opened and a man stepped out. His features were indistinguishable, but both could see that he was a large man, for his bulk had filled the doorway. He swung a heavy pack to a toboggan which stood waiting before the door with the dogs in harness. The next moment the form of a woman appeared in the doorway. She evidently called to the man, for he halted abruptly and faced about, shook his fist at her and, turning, resumed his course, while with an appealing gesture the woman stretched out her arms toward him.
Then rapidly as it had formed, the picture faded and the two awe-struck watchers stood gazing at the frost spicules that glittered brassily in the unwholesome light of the false suns.
Once more the Indian buried his face in his arms and muffled, moaning words fell from his lips: "De red death—de white death! It is mesahchee tamahnawus! We die! We die!"
Again Connie shook him roughly, and meeting with no response, beat his arms from his face with the loaded butt of his dog whip.
"You're a crazy fool!" cried the boy, with his lips close to the Indian's ear. "We're not going to die—anyway, not till we've had a run for our money! We're going to mush! Do you hear? Mush! And we're going to keep on mushing till we find that cabin! And if you hang back or quit, I'm going to wind this walrus hide whip around you till I cut you in strips—do you get it?" And, without another word, the boy turned, whipped the dogs to their feet, and leaving the river abruptly, led off straight into the north across the low, snow-covered ridge.
* * * * *
Of the two brothers Bossuet, Victor, the elder, was loved in the North; and Rene was hated. And the reason for this lay in the men themselves. Both were rivermen—good rivermen—and both laboured each year during the long days of the summer months, together with many other rivermen, in working the Hudson's Bay brigade of scows down the three great connecting rivers to the frozen sea. For between Athabasca Landing and Fort McPherson lie two thousand miles of wilderness—a wilderness whose needs are primitive but imperative, having to do with life and death. And the supplies for this vast wilderness must go in without fail each year by the three rivers, the Athabasca, the Slave, and the Mackenzie. These are not gentle rivers flowing smoothly between their banks, but are great torrents of turbulent waters that rush wildly into the North in miles upon miles of foaming white water, in sheer cascades, and in boiling, rock-ribbed rapids. So that the work of the rivermen is man's work requiring skill and iron nerve, and requiring also mighty muscles for the gruelling portages where cargoes must be carried piece by piece over rough foot trails, and in places even the heavy scows themselves must be man-hauled around cascades.
Seeing the two brothers together, the undiscriminating would unhesitatingly have picked Rene, with his picturesque, gaudy attire, his loud, ever-ready laughter, his boisterous, bull-throated chansons, and his self-confident air, as the typical man of the North. For beside him Victor, with faded overalls, his sockless feet thrust into worn shoes, his torn shirt, and his old black felt hat, cut a sorry figure.
But those who know recall the time that old Angus Forgan, the drunken trader of Big Stone, fell out of a scow at the head of the Rapids of the Drowned. They will tell you that of the twenty rivermen who witnessed the accident only two dared to attempt a rescue, and those two were Rene and Victor Bossuet. And that Rene, being the stronger, reached the struggling man first and, twisting his fingers into his collar, struck out for a flat shelf of rock that edged the first suck of the rapids. They will tell you how he reached the rock and, throwing an arm upon its flat surface, endeavoured to pull himself up; but the grip of the current upon the two bodies was strong and after two or three attempts Rene released his grip on the drowning man's collar and clambered to safety. Then they will tell you how Victor, who had managed to gain shore when he saw Rene reach the rock, plunged in again, straight into the roaring chute, of how he reached Forgan in the nick of time, of how the two bodies disappeared completely from view in the foaming white water, and of how a quarter of a mile below, by means of Herculean effort and a bit of luck, Victor managed to gain the eddy of a side channel where he and his unconscious burden whirled round and round until the rivermen running along the bank managed to throw a rope and haul them both to safety.