MYSTERY STORIES FOR BOYS
Lost in the Air
By ROY J. SNELL
I WHO IS THE MAJOR II THE STRANGE LANDING III IN THE MIDST OF THE PACK IV A MODERN BATTLE WITH CRIMINALS V AN INFERNAL MACHINE VI THE RACE IS ON VII A STRANGE PEOPLE VIII THE WALRUS HUNT IX FIGHTING THEIR WAY OUT X TO THE TREASURE CITY XI A BATTLE BENEATH THE ARCTIC MOON XII THE RUSSIAN TIGER XIII BRUCE AND THE BEAR XIV "BOMBED" XV THE MYSTERY CAVERN XVI WRECKED XVII "SO THIS IS THE POLE"
WHO IS THE MAJOR?
"Let's get a breath of fresh air." Bruce Manning yawned and stretched, then slid off his high stool at the bookkeeping desk. Barney Menter followed his example.
They had been together only a few days, these two, but already they were pals. This was not to be wondered at, for both had been discharged recently from army aviation service—Bruce in Canada and Barney in the United States. Each had served his country well. Now they were employed in the work of developing the wilds of Northern Canada near Hudson Bay. And there are no regions more romantic than this with all its half-gleaned history and its million secrets of wonder, wealth and beauty.
As they stood in the doorway, gazing at the forest-lined river and distant bluffs, hearing the clang of steel on steel, as construction work went forward, catching the roar of cataracts in Nelson River, and tingling with the keen air of the northern summer, life seemed a new creation, so different was it from the days of war.
"What's this?" Bruce was looking at a file containing bills-of-lading, a messenger had handed him.
"Car 564963, C. P. R., consigned to Major A. Bronson. Airplane and supplies." He read it aloud and whistled. Barney jumped to snatch it from him.
"Stand back! Give me air," Bruce gasped. "An airplane at the present end of the Hudson Bay Railroad! What's doing now? What are they up to? Going to quit construction here and use planes the rest of the way? Fancy freighting wheat, fish, furs and whale blubber by airplanes!" Both lads laughed at the idea.
"I don't wish his pilot any bad luck," said Barney. "But if he must die by breaking his neck, or something, I hope he does it before he reaches the Hudson Bay terminus. I'd like to take his place in that big air-bird. Say, wouldn't it be glorious!"
"You've stolen my thunder," replied Bruce, laughing. "I'm taking that job myself."
"Tell you what! I'll fight you for it. What weapons do you choose? Rope-handed spiking hammers or pick-axes?"
"Let's go down and see if it's here. Like as not it's a machine neither of us would risk his neck in; some old junk-pile the government's sold to the chap for a hundred and fifty or so."
That this idea was not taken seriously by either was shown by the double-quick at which they went down the line, and over the half-laid tracks to where the accommodation train was standing.
Thorough inspection of car numbers convinced them that No. 564963 C.P.R. had not arrived.
"Oh, well! Perhaps to-morrow she'll be in. Then we'll see what we see," yawned Bruce, as he turned back toward the roughly-built log shack where work awaited them.
"What's that?" Bruce, who was in the lead, stopped before the trunk of a scraggly spruce tree. On its barkless trunk a sheet of white paper had been tacked. The two boys read it eagerly:
To Trappers, Hunters, Campers and Prospectors.
$500 Reward Will be paid
To any person locating anywhere within the bounds of the Canadian Northlands at any point North of 55 North, a wireless station, operated without license or permit.
The notice, signed by the provincial authorities, was enough to quicken their keen minds.
"What do you suppose they want to know that for?" asked Barney. "The war's over."
"Perhaps further intrigue by our former enemy. Perhaps smugglers. Perhaps—well, do your own perhapsing. But say!" Bruce exclaimed, "wouldn't it be great to take packs, rifles and mosquito-bar netting and go hunting that fellow in that Northern wilderness?"
"Great sport, all right," grinned Barney. "But you'd have about as much chance of finding him as you would of locating German U boat M. 71 by walking the bottom of the Atlantic."
"That's true, all right," said Bruce thoughtfully. "But just think of that wilderness! Lakes no white man has seen; rivers no canoe has traveled; mountain tops no human ever looked from! Say! I've lived in Canada all my life and up to now I've been content to let that wilderness just be wild. But the war came and I guess it shook me out of myself. Now that wilderness calls to me, and, the first chance that offers, I'm going to turn explorer. The wireless station offers an excuse, don't you see?"
Barney grinned. He was a hard-headed, practical Yankee boy; the kind who count the cost and appraise the possible results.
"If you are talking of hunting, fishing, and a general good time in the woods, then I'm with you; but if you are talking of a search for that wireless, then, I say, give me some speedier way of travel than tramping. Give me—" he hesitated, then he blurted out: "Give me an airplane."
The boys stared at one another as if they had discovered a state secret. Then Bruce voiced their thoughts:
"Do you suppose this Major What-you-may-call-him is bringing up his plane for some commission like that?"
"I don't know," said Barney. "But if he is," he said the words slowly, "if he is, then all I've got to say is, that it's mighty important; something affecting the government."
"I believe you're right about that," said Bruce, "but what it is I haven't the least shadow of a notion. And what complicates it still more is, the Major comes from down in the States."
"Maybe it's something international," suggested Barney.
"Yes," grinned Bruce, suddenly awaking from these wild speculations, "and maybe he's just some sort of bloomin' sport coming up here to take moving pictures of caribou herds, or to shoot white whale in Hudson Bay! Guess we better get back to work."
"Ye'll pardon an old man's foolish questions?"
Both boys turned at the words. An old man with bent shoulders, sunken chest and trembling hand stood beside them. There was an eager, questioning look in his kindly eyes, as he said in quaint Scotch accent:
"Ye'll noo be goin' to the woods a' soon?"
"I don't know," said Bruce, in a friendly tone. He was puzzled by the old man's question, having recognized him as a second cook for the steel-laying gang.
"Fer if ye be," continued the man, "ye's be keepin' a lookout fer Timmie noo, wouldn't ye though?"
"Who's Timmie?" asked Bruce.
"Timmie? Hae ye never hearn o' Timmie? Timmie; the boy it was, seventeen he was then. But 'twas twelve years ago it was, lad. He'd be a man noo. I sent him fer the bag wi' the pay-roll in it, an' he never coom back. It was the money thet done it, fer mind ye, I'm tellin' ye, he was jest a boy, seventeen. He went away to the woods wi' it, and then was shamed to coom back, I know. So if ye'll be goin' to the woods ye'll be watchin' noo, won't ye?"
"Was he your boy?"
"No, not mine. But 'twas I was to blame; sendin' him fer th' pay; an' him so young. Five thousand seven hundred and twenty-four dollars it was, of the logging company's money; a month's pay fer the men. An' if ye see him tell him I was all to blame. Tell him to coom back; the Province'll fergive him."
"And the company?" asked Bruce.
"Partners both dead. Died poor. No. 'Twasn't the loss of thet money. They had many losses. Contractin's a fearfu' uncertain business; fearfu' uncertain." The old man shook his head slowly.
"Any heirs?" asked Bruce.
"Heirs? To the partners? Yes, one. A girl, noo. Ye'll be kenin' the lass thet helps in the boardin' shack where you and the bosses eat?" "La Vaune?" grinned Barney, poking Bruce in the ribs. "Do you know her?" La Vaune, the little black-eyed French Canadian, had taken quite a liking to her handsome young fellow-countryman, Bruce.
"Well, noo," said the old Scotchman. "Thet's the lass noo. An' should you find the money noo, it will all be hers. An' ye'll be lookin' fer it noo, won't ye? Many's the time I took a wee snack and a blanket an' made a wee pack an' gone into the woods to find him. But I hae never seen track o' him. He'll nae be by Lake Athapapukskow, fer there's folks there; not by Lake Weskusko neither, fer I been there, but som'ers in the woods Timmie is, an' if he's dead his shack'll be there an' the money, fer he never coom out o' th' woods again, thet shamed he was."
The boys promised to keep an eye out for Timmie, if ever they went into the unknown wilderness, and left the old man with a new hope shining in his eyes.
For a long time after reaching the office the boys worked in silence. At last Barney straightened his tired shoulders and glanced at Bruce. He was in a brown study.
"What's on your mind, Bruce?" he asked. "That money?"
"Thinking what it would do for La Vaune; five thousand seven hundred and twenty-four dollars." Bruce rolled the words out slowly. Though they said no more about it, the old man's story was the inspiration of many a wild plan. The truth is, it was destined to play an important part in shaping their future.
* * * * *
"He's here! She's—it's here!"
Bruce burst into the office all excitement and half out of breath.
"Who's he, she, it?" grinned Barney, slipping his pen behind his ear.
"The Major and the airplane! And the plane's a hummer!"
It was Barney's turn to get excited now. He jumped from his stool so suddenly that his pen went clattering.
"Let's have a look at her." He grabbed his cap and dashed out, Bruce at his heels.
Some Greek freight handlers were unloading the car when they reached the track. The work was being done under the direction of a rather tall man, erect and dignified. He, the boys felt sure, was the Major. His face bore some peculiar scars, not deep but wide, and as he walked he limped slightly.
"Might be he's lost some toes," muttered Barney. "Had a cousin who limped that way."
"The machine's a Handley-Page bombing plane, made over for some purpose or other," said Bruce, with a keen eye for every detail. "That's the plane that would have bombed Berlin if the war had lasted long enough. They're carrying mail from Paris to Rome in 'em now. Those machines carried four engines and developed a thousand horse-power. This one is a lighter model and carries two engines. One's a Rolls-Royce and one a Liberty motor. The fellow that planned the Major's trip for him has selected his equipment well. They don't make them any better."
"Just look at the sweep of the planes," exclaimed Barney. "They were made for high altitude work—up where the air's thin. No one would be coming up here for a high altitude test, would he?"
"Surely not; there's no particular advantage at this point for that."
The boys watched the unloading with eager and experienced eyes. As Barney put it, "Makes me feel like some shipwrecked gob on a desert island when he sees a launch coming ashore."
"Yes," grinned Bruce, "and soon you'll be feeling like your gob would when the launch came about and put out to sea again. No chance for you on that boat, Barney."
"Guess you're right," groaned Barney. "Little enough we'll have to do with that bird."
As he spoke several of the men recklessly jerked a plane to free it from its wrappings. The Major, his back to them, was superintending the unloading of the Liberty motor.
"Hey, you! Go easy there!" Barney sprang forward impulsively and showed the workmen how to handle the plane. When the job was done he stepped back with an apologetic air. The Major had turned and was watching him.
"You seem to understand such matters," he smiled.
"I've worked with them a bit," said Barney.
"Would you mind letting me know where you are located?" asked the Major. "My aviator and mechanic have disappointed me so far. You might be of some assistance to me."
"We're over at the bookkeeping shack—the office of the construction company," said Barney, red with embarrassment. "He—that is, my bunkie here, knows more about those boats than I do. Say, if we can be any help to you, we'll jump at the chance. Won't we, Bruce?"
"Surest thing," grinned Bruce, as they turned regretfully toward the dull office and duller work.
"Say, you don't suppose," exclaimed Barney that night at supper—"you remember those awful wide planes of the Major's? You don't suppose he's starting for—" Barney hesitated.
"You don't mean?—" Bruce hesitated in turn.
"Sure! The Pole; you don't suppose he'd try it?"
"Of course not," exclaimed Bruce, the conservative. "Who ever thought of going to the Pole in a plane through Canada?"
"Bartlett's got a plan of going to the Pole in a plane."
"But he's going from Greenland," said Bruce. "That's different."
"Steamboat. Farthest point of land north and everything."
"That's just it," exclaimed Barney disgustedly. "Steamboat and everything. You're not a real explorer unless some society backs you up with somebody's money to the tune of fifty thousand or so; till you've got together a group of scholars and seamen for the voyage. Then the proper thing to do is to get caught in the ice, you are all but lost. But—the ice clears at the crucial moment, you push on and on for two years; you live on seal meat and whale blubber. Half your seamen get scurvy and die; your dogs go mad; your Eskimos prove treacherous, you shoot one or more. You take long sled journeys, you freeze, you starve, you erect cairns at your farthest point north, or west, or whatever it is. Then, if you're lucky, you lose your ship in an ice-jam and walk home, ragged and emaciated. A man that does it that way gets publicity; writes a book, gets to be somebody.
"You see," he went on, "we've sort of got in the way of thinking that it takes a big expedition to do exploring. But, after all, what good does a big expedition do? Peary didn't need one. He landed at the Pole with two Eskimos and a negro. Well, now it ought to be easy as nothing for two or three men in a plane, like that one of the Major's, to go to the Pole from here. There's a fort and trading post on Great Bear Lake with, maybe, a power-boat and gasoline. Then, if there happened to be a whaler, or something, to give you a second lift, why there you are!"
"Sounds pretty good," admitted Bruce. "But nobody would ever attempt it."
"Of course not," retorted Barney. "It's too simple."
The two following days the boys found themselves taking morning and evening walks down the track to the airplane, which still lay piled in sections by the track. They were surprised to see that no effort was being made to assemble it. The reason for the delay was made clear to them by an unexpected encounter on the evening of the second day.
Finding the Major pacing up and down before the machine, his slight limp aggravated by his very evident irritation, they were about to pass as if they didn't know there was a plane within a hundred miles, when they were halted by the upraised hand of the Major.
Immediately both boys clicked heels and saluted. Then they felt foolish for saluting in "civies."
"I see you are military all right," smiled the Major. "But how much do you really know about airplanes?"
"Oh," said Barney, with exaggerated indifference, "Bruce, here, knows a little and I know a little, too. Between us we might be able to assemble your machine, if that's what you want." In spite of his heroic attempts at self-control, his voice betrayed his eagerness. Truth was, his fingers itched for pliers and wrenches.
"That's part of what I want, but not all," the Major said briskly. "I am not an aviator myself, and my man has failed me at the last moment; had a trifling smash which resulted in a dislocated thigh. Out of service for the season. I need an aviator and a good one. He says there's only one other not attached to military units that he could recommend—a Canadian. But the plague of it is, the man can't be located."
"Might I ask the nature of your proposed trip?" asked Bruce—then bit his lip a second too late.
"You might not" The Major snapped out the words. Then in a kindlier tone, "My secret is not entirely my own. I can say, however, that it is not an exceedingly long trip, nor a dangerous one, as aviation goes, but it is an important one, and besides, if it comes out well, and I believe it will, I might wish to go on a more hazardous journey. In that case, of course, you can see I should wish a veteran pilot at the wheel and one who will take a chance."
He turned to Bruce. "You are a Canadian, are you not?"
"Then perhaps you can tell me of the whereabouts of this young Canadian aviator. His name is—" the Major stopped to think. "His name is—ah! I have it! It's Manning—Bruce Manning."
Bruce's jaw dropped in astonishment. He was too surprised to speak. It was Barney who, almost shouting in his excitement, said:
"He's Bruce Manning, Major."
"What?" The Major stood back and looked at Bruce. "You? Oh come; you are hardly more than a boy!"
"Yes," said Barney, "he's hardly more than a boy, but some of the best flyers the Allies had were hardly more than boys. They were boys when they went into it over there, but the boys who went up after the Germans two or three times came down men, Major. Don't forget that."
"You're right—and I beg your pardon," said the Major, bowing to them. "I spoke thoughtlessly. So then I have the good fortune to be speaking to the very man I seek?" he went on, turning to Bruce. "Now I suppose the remaining questions are: Will you be at liberty to take up aviation again and—do you want to?"
"That," said Bruce, struggling to keep his voice steady, "will depend upon at least one thing: If you will answer one question now, we will promise you a definite answer to-morrow morning at seven o'clock."
"My friend here, Barney Menter, is quite as skilled an aviator as I am. If I go, he goes. What there is in it in pay or peril we will share equally."
Barney stepped forward to protest, but Bruce held him back and continued: "Your machine is equipped for two men besides yourself. Will you take us both?"
"Most certainly," said the Major heartily. "In case you decide to accompany me, I shall wire the mechanic not to come and you two may divide the work between you as you may see fit.
"I might say," he added, "that the pay will be double that which you are now receiving, and the journey will consume the remainder of the season. Should we decide on something more hazardous, the pay will be in proportion, and there is, besides, a substantial, I might even say a rich reward offered, for the successful completion of this latter task. However, enough of that for the present. You can give me your decision in the morning, and I hope you accept." He bowed and strode away.
"Now, why didn't you say 'Yes' on the spot?" demanded Barney, impatiently. "We are required to give only a week's notice to the company and the nights and mornings of that week we can use getting the machine together and taking a trial flight."
"I always sleep over a thing," answered Bruce. "It's a habit I inherited from my father." Long after, in quite different circumstances, Barney was to remember this remark, and bless Bruce's inheritance.
Mail had been delivered during their absence. Barney found a letter on his desk. He puzzled over the postmark, which was from some Pacific port. He tore the envelope open, glanced at the letter, then read it with sudden eagerness.
"Bruce," he exclaimed, "listen to this. It's from an old pal of mine, David Tower; entered the navy same time I did the army." And he read aloud:
"I'm off for somewhere far North; guess not the Pole, but pretty well up that way. Second officer on a U. S. Sub. She's loaned to a queer old chap they call Doctor. No particulars yet. Hope this finds you 'up in the air,' as per usual.
"DAVE." "That is a coincidence," said Bruce. "Perhaps we'll meet him up there somewhere among the icebergs."
"I'll suggest it!" exclaimed Barney, reaching for his pen.
"Dear Dave," he wrote. "Am thinking of a little trip North myself. Our ship's a 500 HP Handley-Page. Bring your guitar and oboe along. My partner and I are bringing saxophone and mandolin. We'll have a little jazz. Till we meet, as ever,
If the boy had known under what strange conditions this particular jazz performance would be given, he might have felt queer sensations creeping up his spinal column.
"I say!" exclaimed Bruce suddenly, "who's this Major chap, anyway? I've a notion he's something rather big, maybe the biggest—"
"You don't mean?—"
"I'm not saying anything," protested Bruce, "but this other man I'm thinking of left a toe or two in the Arctic, and his face has freeze scars on it. His name's—well, you know it as well as I do."
"Shucks! It couldn't be," exclaimed Barney. "He wouldn't be up here alone this way."
"No, I guess not," sighed Bruce. "But it would be great sport if it were he, after all."
Ten days later, a girl in her late teens stood shading her eyes watching a tiny object against the sky. It might have been a hawk, but it was not; it was an airplane—the Handley-Page, with the two young pilots and the Major on board. The girl was La Vaune. She stood there watching till the plane had dwindled to a dot, and the dot had disappeared. Holding her apron to her eyes to hide her tears, she walked blindly into the house.
The adventurers were well on their way.
THE STRANGE LANDING
"I don't like the way the Rolls-Royce is acting," Bruce grumbled through his telephone to Barney, for, though they were not four feet apart, not a word could they hear, so great was the din of their two powerful engines.
"Same here," answered Barney. "Old Major ought to have given us more time to try 'em out. Brand new."
"Barren Lands far away. Forced to land in tree-tops. Good-night!"
After that there came only the monotonous roar of the engines. The Major's orders had been "Due north by west," and now, though they had put fully two hundred miles between themselves and the last sign of civilization, they were still holding to their course. They also had been directed to fly as low as was safe. Three times the Major had barked an order into the receiver; always to circle some spot, while he swept the earth with a binocular as powerful as could be used in an airplane. Three times he had given a second order to resume their course.
"He seems to be looking for something," Barney said to himself, and at once he began wondering what it could be. Mines of fabulous wealth were said to be hidden away in the hills and forests over which they were passing—rich outcroppings of gold, silver and copper. Perhaps the Major was trying to locate them from the air. Here and there they passed over broad stretches of prairie, the grass of which would feed numberless herds of cattle. Perhaps, too, the Major was examining these with an eye to future gain. Then, again Barney thought of the illegal wireless station and he idly speculated on how it could be so important now that the war was over. There was little to do but think as they scudded away, now racing a cloud, then plunging through the masses of vapor, to reappear suddenly in the sunshine beyond. Barney had always keenly enjoyed watching the land slip by beneath him as he flew, but on this journey there was the added joy of sailing over lands unknown. His reflections were suddenly cut short by a strange jarring rattle from the Rolls-Royce. Instantly the thunder was cut in half, as also was their power. Bruce had stopped the big motor. If now something went wrong with the Liberty, they must make a forced landing. This, with the level stretches of prairie giving place to rough, rolling swells covered with scrub timber, was not a pleasant thing to think of and even less pleasant to attempt.
The sun, sending a last yellow glow across the land, sank from sight, and soon the moon, with silvery light and black bands of shadow, was playing strange tricks with the stolid world beneath them.
All day, when duties permitted, Bruce had kept an eye open for a cabin hidden among the pines. Now he shouted through the telephone to Barney;
"What'll I do if I catch a square of light below?"
Barney knew he was thinking of the boy, Timmie, and La Vaune's money he carried into the woods. A square of light, of course, would have been a cabin window.
"Kill your engine if you see a chance to light, and explain later," he shouted back.
But no square of light appeared, and soon the thought of it was driven from their minds, for, of a sudden, the plane shuddered like a man with a chill. It was the second engine. Bruce threw off the power. Then, with a sput-sput-sput, started it again. Once more came the shudder. Again he tried with no better results. Half its power was gone; something was seriously wrong. He turned to the other engine. It would not start at all. Here was trouble. They were passing over ridge after ridge, and all were roughly timbered. Surely, here was no landing-place. And if the second engine stopped altogether,—Bruce's heart lost a beat at thought of it.
He gave the engine more gas and headed the plane upward. She climbed slowly, sluggishly, like a tired bird, but at length the keener air told him they were a safer distance above the earth.
"Better chance to pick a landing-place from here," thought Barney.
They had scarcely reached this higher level when the engine stopped. No efforts of the pilot availed to start it. His companions silently watched Bruce's mute struggles. The Major, a perfect sport, sat stoically in his place. Barney, knowing that suggestions were useless, also was silent. So they volplaned slowly downward, every eye strained for a safe landing-place. They knew what a crash would mean at such a place. Loss of life perhaps; a wrecked plane at least, then a struggle through the woods till starvation ended it. They were four hundred miles from the last trace of white man's habitation.
They had come down to three thousand feet when it became evident that only rough ridges lay beneath them. No landing-place here, certainly. They could only hang on as long as possible in the hope the ridges would give way to level ground. Bruce thanked their luck for the wide-spreading wings which would impede their fall.
A moment later he groaned, for just ahead of them he saw a rocky ridge higher than any they had passed over. Here then was the end, he thought. But the tricky moonlight had deceived him. They cleared those rocks by a hundred feet and just beyond Bruce gasped and looked again.
"A miracle!" murmured Barney.
"Or a mirage," whispered Bruce.
Before them lay a square of level land, green,—in the moonlight. All about the square the land was black with trees, but there was a landing place. It was as if their trip had been long planned, their coming anticipated, and that a level field was cleared for them.
It was only a matter of moments till they were bumping along over the ground. Soon they were standing free from their harnesses and silently shaking hands.
Barney was the first to speak.
"Say, do you know," he said, "we're in somebody's wheat-field!"
"Impossible!" exclaimed the Major.
"See for yourself," The boy held before their astonished eyes a handful of almost ripened heads of wheat.
"Then what's happened?" demanded the Major. "Have you gone due south by west instead of north by west?"
"Unless my compass lied, and it has never done so before, we have gone north by west since we started, and we are—or ought to be at this moment—four hundred miles from what the white man calls civilization."
"Well," said the Major, "since we are here, wherever that is, I suggest that we unpack our blankets and get out of the man's wheat-field, whoever he may be. The mystery will keep until morning."
This they proceeded to do.
A clump of stubby, heavy-stemmed spruce trees offered them shelter from the chill night wind, and there, rolled in blankets, they prepared to sleep.
But Bruce could not sleep. Driving a plane through clouds, mist and sunshine for hours had made every nerve alert. And the strain of that last sagging slide through the air was not to be relieved instantly. So he lay there in his blankets, a tumult of ideas in his mind. This wheat-field now? Had he really been misdirected by the compass on the plane? To prove that he had not, he drew from his pocket a small compass, and placing it in a spot of moonlight, took the relative direction of the last ridge over which they had passed and the plane in the wheat-field. He was right; the compass had been true. They were four hundred miles northwest of the last mile of track laid on the Hudson Bay Railroad, deep in a wilderness, over which they had traveled for hours without sighting a single sign of white man's habitation. Yet, here they were at the edge of a wheat-field.
What was the answer? Had some Indian tribe taken to farming? With the forests alive with game, the streams with fish, this seemed impossible. Of a sudden, the boy started. It was, of course—
The sudden snapping of a twig in the underbrush brought his mind back with a jerk to their present plight. He wished they had brought the rifles from the plane. Some animal was lurking there in the shadows. Wolves, grizzlies, some unknown terror, perhaps?
Then, in another second his eyes bulged. In an open space, between two spruce trees, where the moon shone brightly, had appeared for a moment a patch of white. Then, amid the crashing of small twigs, the thing was gone. In childhood, Bruce had been told many stories of ghosts and goblins by his Irish nurse. He had never overcome his dread of them. But it was with the utmost difficulty that he suppressed a shout. Then he laughed softly, for the crackling twigs told him he had seen a creature of flesh and blood, no ghost. He chuckled again and far in the dark a hoot-owl seemed to answer him and his company was a source of comfort.
Yet, here was, after all, another problem: What was this white-coated creature? Of all the wild things of the forest, none was white save the Arctic wolf. It was doubtful if he roamed so far south, especially in summer, and besides, this creature was too large and heavy to be a wolf. Bruce thought of all the animals he knew and gave it up. It might have been a cow. Cows in this wilderness did not seem more improbable than a wheat-field, but the creature had been too light of tread for that. Could it have been an Indian dressed in white, tanned deerskin? He was inclined to take this for the right solution, and wondered if he should awaken his companions. He could not tell what danger threatened. Finally he decided to let them sleep. He would keep watch. The three of them could do no more.
Once more his mind turned to the problem of the wheat. What was it that he had just concluded? Oh, yes, Timmie! Why might not Timmie have camped here and planted this wheat? But twelve years? How had he lived? Whence had come the seed wheat? There were a hundred questions connected with such a solution. Ah, well, morning would tell. There would be a cabin somewhere on the edge of the field and they would eat. Eat? For the first time Bruce realized that he had not eaten for hours; was very hungry. Securing some malted-milk tablets, carried for emergency rations, he dissolved them in his mouth. A wonderfully soothing effect they had. Propping himself against the trees, he closed his eyes for a second, and before he could pry them open again, he, too, was fast asleep.
When he awoke it was broad daylight and his companions were already astir.
"Did you fellows wake up last night?" he asked, rubbing his eyes sleepily.
Barney and the Major shook their heads.
"Then you didn't see it?"
"The white thing."
Barney stared. The Major's face was noncommittal.
Bruce told them of his experience.
"He's been seeing a ghost," declared Barney, with a laugh.
"On the contrary," said the Major slowly, "I think he hasn't. There are white creatures in the Arctic; just such ones as he has described. I have seen them myself. No, not white bears, either. But I have never seen them this far South. I will not say now what I think Bruce saw but I will say I do not think it was an Indian."
"Look!" exclaimed Barney suddenly in a whisper.
He pointed to a thin column of smoke that was rising over the tree-tops, to the left of the wheat-field.
"Listen!" whispered Bruce. "Somebody's chopping wood." The freshening wind brought the sound of the axe plainly to their ears. A second later they heard the distant laugh of a child.
"Come on," said the Major, throwing his roll of blankets at the foot of a tree. "Where there's children there's no danger. Maybe they'll have hot-cakes for breakfast!"
A moment later found the three of them stealing silently through the forest.
What they saw as they peered into the clearing brought them up standing. A man wielded an axe before a cabin. He was tall and strong, smooth-shaven and clean. No Indian, but a white man. His clothing was of white-tanned buckskin. The cabin was of logs, but large, with a comfortable porch and several windows. The panes of the windows seemed near-glass. It was impossible to tell, from where they stood, whether the two laughing children who played by the door were white or half-breeds. The appearance at that door of a neatly-dressed Indian woman seemed to settle that question.
The three men had gone half-way across the narrow clearing, before the man, looking up from his work, saw them. Instantly his face blanched. With a quick step backward, he reached for a rifle that stood by the door. Then the arm fell limp by his side.
"Well, you've come!" he said in a lifeless tone. "I could have killed you, one or two of you, but I won't. I may be a thief, but not a murderer. Besides, there are probably more of you back there in the trees."
"On the contrary," smiled the Major, "we are only three. We are not armed. So you see you might easily kill us all. But why you should want to, and why you expected us, when the last thing we thought to do was to land in your wheat-field last night, is more than I can guess."
"Landed?" The man's face showed his bewilderment.
"I know," exclaimed Bruce impulsively, "I'll explain. You're Timmie—Timmie—" he hesitated. "Well, anyway, that's your first name. I know all about you—"
Again the man's trembling hand half-reached for the rifle.
"Then—then you have—come for me," he choked.
Bruce, realizing his mistake, hastened to correct it.
"You're mistaken," he said quickly. "We haven't come for you in the way you mean. You won't need to go a step with us unless that is your wish. Timmie, we're here to help you; to tell you that you were forgiven long ago."
"Is—is that true?" The man faltered. "The logging company?"
"The partners are dead. Their only heir, La Vaune, forgives you." "And the Province, the Red Riders?"
"The Province forgot the case years ago."
"Thank—thank God!" The man choked, then turned to hide his face. He faced them again in a moment and spoke steadily. "I've got the money here in the cabin, every cent of it. God knows I didn't mean to do it. But the temptation was too great. And—and once I had done it, I was afraid to go back. I would have died in prison. How did you come? Are you going back? Will you take the money to the little girl, La Vaune?"
"We're going farther," smiled Bruce, happy in the realization of what all this meant to the maid in the camp. "We're going on. We flew here and will fly back—or try to." "And we'll be more than glad to return the money," he wished to add, but remembering that he would not have that to decide, he ended, "La Vaune is no little girl now, but quite a young lady. She needs the money, too. And—and," he laughed sheepishly, "she's rather a good friend of mine."
Timmie drew his hand across his eyes, as if to brush away the vision of long years. Then, with a smile, he said briskly:
"Of course, you'll have breakfast? We're having hot-cakes."
"What did I tell you?" chuckled the Major, slapping Barney on the back.
Eager as the visitors were to hear the strange story of this man of the wilderness, they were willing that breakfast should come first.
As they stepped upon the porch, the keen eye of the Major fell on some white and spotted skins hanging over a beam. A close observer might have noticed a slight nod of his head, as if he said, "I thought so." But the boys were following the scent of browning griddle-cakes and saw neither the skins nor the Major's nod.
But Barney, missing a familiar pungent odor that should go with such a breakfast in a wilderness, hurried back to the plane to return with a coffee pot and a sack of coffee.
Within the cabin they found everything scrupulously clean. Strange cooking utensils of copper and stone caught their eye, while the translucent window-panes puzzled them. But all this was forgotten when they sat down to a polished table of white wood, and attacked a towering stack of cakes which vied with cups of coffee in sending a column of steam toward the rafters.
With memories stirred by draughts of long untasted coffee, it was not difficult for Timmie to tell his Story.
"When I left the settlement," he began, as he turned his mooseskin, hammock-like chair toward the open fireplace, and invited his guests to do likewise, "I struck straight into the wilderness. I had a little food, a small rifle and fishing-tackle. To me a summer in the woods with such equipment was no problem at all. I meant to go northwest for, perhaps, two hundred miles, camp there for the summer, then work my way back by going southwest. I would then be far from my crime and would be safe. That is what I meant to do. But once in the silent woods, I began to think of the wrong I had done. I would have given worlds to be back. But it was too late. I had to keep going. Fording rivers, creeping through underbrush, climbing ridges, crossing swampy beaver-meadows, fighting the awful swarms of mosquitoes, I got through the summer, living on fish, game and berries. You see, I had become terribly afraid of the Red Riders—the mounted police. I had heard that sooner or later they always got a man. I was determined they would not get me.
"At last, snow-fall warned me to prepare for winter. I was in this valley that day, and I've been here ever since. If I had ever got any pleasure from that stolen money, which I haven't, I would have paid for that pleasure a hundred times that first winter. Fortune favored me in one thing: the caribou came by in great droves, and, before my ammunition was exhausted, I had secured plenty of meat. But at that, I came near dying before I learned that one who lives upon a strictly meat diet must measure carefully the proportions of lean and fat. Someway, I learned. And somehow, starving, freezing, half-mad of lonesomeness, I got through the winter, but I am glad you did not see me when the first wild geese came north. If ever there was a wild man, dressed in skins and dancing in the sun, it was I."
"But the wheat?" asked Barney. "How did that happen?"
"I am coming to that," smiled his host. "Early that spring," he continued, passing his hand across his forehead, as if to brush away the memory of that terrible winter, "the Indians came. They came from the Dismal Lake region. Driven south by forest fires, they were starving. I had a little caribou meat and shared it with them; that made them my everlasting friends."
"And you got the wheat from them?" interposed Barney.
"Hardly. I doubt if they had ever seen a grain of wheat.
"Well, we lived together that summer. But I am getting ahead of my story. Shortly before they arrived, I noticed some strange-looking caribou in the clearing. I had no ammunition, so could not shoot them. Anyway, they were skin-poor and would be of little use to me. But they seemed strangely tame, coming close to my cabin at night. They were company, and I was careful not to frighten them away. One night, in the moonlight, I caught a glistening flash from the ear of the oldest doe. Then, too, I noticed that one of them had unnaturally short antlers. A closer look told me that these antlers had been cut off.
"Then came the wonderful discovery: these were not caribou, but reindeer escaped from some herd in Alaska.
"Right then I decided to capture and use them. I would put them in pound until their rightful owners came for them, which would be never." He smiled.
"Well, I tried making a lasso of caribou skin. For a long time I could not come near enough to reach them with the lasso. But one night, while they rested, I crept up to them and my lasso caught one by the antlers. Then there was a battle, and all the while I was thinking that now I should have milk, butter and cheese, meat and clothing. And then there was a snap; the skin-rope broke and away went the reindeer—and my hopes.
"I then hit on the plan of building a corral and driving them into it. This was a pretty big job for one man, but with trees lining both sides of a narrow run, where the deer went to drink, I managed to weave willow branches into the spruce trees and make a stout barrier. Well—one morning, I found myself with six reindeer in pound—a bull, three does, a yearling and an old sled-deer. Not long after, the herd was increased by four fawns.
"By good luck, just at this time, the Indians came. They were all for killing the reindeer, but I stopped that. We fed, as I said before, on my caribou meat, and then came the wild-fowl and the streams opened up for fishing.
"It was fortunate that the Indians came. They helped me to build corrals, big enough to give the reindeer plenty of pasturage and pretty soon they were fat and sleek."
"Pardon me," interrupted the Major, "but were some of the reindeer white?"
"Two of them were milk-white. And now I have many of them running free in the forest."
Barney grinned, and Bruce poked him in the ribs. "My ghost," he whispered.
"The wheat," said the host, "was no great mystery, after all. The bank cashier had put into the money-sack two samples of wheat and one of beans which he wanted to have tried in this north country. I have tried them; with what luck, you can see. I don't need to fence my reindeer now, for in winter when the moss is buried deep under the snow I turn them in on stacks of wheat hay. Finally when the Indians went back North the following winter they left me a wife, as you see." He smiled toward his dusky mate, who was industriously scouring a copper griddle.
There was silence for some time. Then the Major spoke:
"The thing that interests me is how you manage to keep up your standards of neatness and cleanliness."
"It is not so hard," said Timmie. "I came of a good old Scotch family. When I was a boy my mother taught me that 'cleanliness is next to godliness,' and I made up my mind that—well, that I would at least be clean. That was all there was left for me to be, you know."
"I think you may call yourself both," said the Major stoutly. "You have paid well for your mistake by twelve years of exile, and as for the money, we'll take that back with us."
Timmie smiled. "I'll be happy for the first time in twelve years when it's gone," he said.
"I say, Major," exclaimed Bruce, "I've been thinking of those white reindeer. Don't you suppose that solves the problem of Peary's white reindeer?"
There was a peculiar twinkle in the Major's eye, as he asked: "How do you make that out?"
"Well, there had been reindeer in Alaska for twenty-five years when Peary discovered his on the eastern coast of our continent. There are many white ones among the domestic herds, and they are constantly wandering away, or being driven away, by packs of wolves. If they wandered this far, might they not easily have gone on to the other side of the continent?"
"Possibly. Possibly," The twinkle in the Major's eye grew brighter, but he said no more. Presently he rose and stepped outside.
"Say!" exclaimed Barney, "I feel like turning right around and going back."
Bruce knew that he was thinking of La Vaune's money. "But we can't," he sighed. "It's not our plane nor our expedition. We're bound by agreement to go on. Besides, there's no real need of going back. La Vaune's all right for the winter. I arranged for her at my old college at Brandon; she will attend the academy and help in the dining-room."
"Well, then," said Barney, "I guess it's us for union-alls and at those engines."
They were soon at their task. But, as Bruce worked that day, he thought often of the mysterious twinkle he had seen in the Major's gray eyes, as he spoke of the white reindeer. Who was this Major, anyway? And where were they going? The Major alone could tell, and apparently he had no intention of doing so.
IN THE MIDST OF THE PACK
"I think," said the Major, on the third morning after their strange landing, "that we would make a great mistake to set out again at this time. We are not likely to have the luck of our last landing a second time. Then too, if we remain here until the lakes and rivers are frozen over, we can find a safe landing place every few miles.
"And now," the Major continued, stirring the fire thoughtfully, "now I think it would be right that I tell you something of the purpose of this journey."
The boys leaned forward, eager for the story.
"Even now," he said slowly, "I do not feel like confiding to you what I may consider my great secret plans—plans for which this journey is but a trial-trip into the frozen North. That may follow in good time. But, as for this present journey, you are perhaps aware that an illegal wireless station has been operating somewhere in these woods and hills?"
"Yes—yes; we saw the offer of reward!" exclaimed Barney.
"The reward is a small matter," smiled the Major. "Should we be so fortunate as to capture the culprit, or be able to certify to his death, I will gladly turn over the reward to you boys."
"Thanks," said Barney, who already had his share of the prize in his purse.
"First I shall tell you the purpose of that wireless and why it is so important to locate it," the Major went on. "It is one of the links in a chain around the world—a chain that threatens to bind civilization to a burning stake of sedition, anarchy and bloodshed. The operator is an anarchist, or, at least, belongs to an allied organization, and these, one and all, have for their purpose the destruction of the present order of things. Now, there is not one of us but believes that there are many evils possible—yes, and put in operation under the present order, but we do not believe that matters are going to be bettered by a world-revolution. We believe that in time justice will come very much nearer being done under the old system; therefore, we are fighting to maintain it. That is why I volunteered to attempt to hunt out and if possible destroy this powerful wireless station, which is relaying revolutionary messages direct from Russia to all important points in North America. My long experience in the North seemed to fit me for that task; and it is a task that I am determined to accomplish.
"It is my theory that this wireless is located on the shores of Great Bear Lake. In fact, I believe it is run by an independent trader operating at the east end of that lake, on Conjurer's Bay. A year ago he brought in a small electric plant, to light his trading post, he said. Now this plant is capable of producing an almost unlimited amount of electrical power, provided only time is given. Batteries of great power might easily be produced on the spot. Chemicals for producing acids are found in abundance; so also are copper and zinc for the plate. All he would have to do then would be to make wooden boxes for the chemicals, erect his wires—he could string them from spruce poles—and the thing is done. It was impossible to reach the station by water after I had guessed its location, and there was of course the possibility that I was wrong, that it was nearer civilization. In that case I might be able to locate it, providing I made the trip by plane."
"That explains why we circled three times during our first day's flight? You were looking—"
"For the wireless tower," smiled the Major.
"And now," he went on, "I think we will just rest easy on our wings for a few weeks. You will get the engines in shape; take a few trial flights, if you wish, but be careful to conserve gasoline. We must have enough to carry us to Great Bear Lake. There we will find a sufficient supply to carry us on any other journey we may decide on. The trader uses gasoline to run his electric plant and will have a supply. It will not be of very high test, but with two engines I think we will make it answer our purpose. If we find that my theory regarding the location of the tower is not correct, we will buy a supply from him, and if it is correct—" He did not finish, but smiled and poked the fire again.
"Take it all in all," said Barney to Bruce some time later, "I think our trip promises to be dangerous enough to satisfy even a bloodthirsty young savage from the Canadian army."
"Or a young Cherokee from the wilds of Boston Commons," laughed Bruce, heaving a wrench in the general direction of his companion.
But, though they went about their work in a playful mood, they did it with great care. After they had taken the two little Timmies for several rides, they declared the airship quite ready for further voyaging. "And as for gasoline," said Bruce, "we still have two hundred and forty gallons in the tank which will give us a-plenty for the trip, and several hours to spare; but coming back—that's another matter."
Barney realized that this was, indeed, another matter, and, though he shared the Major's hope of securing a supply at the trading station, his face grew grave at thought of being stranded more than a thousand miles from civilization at the beginning of winter, and with only a few days' supply of provisions. What if this trading station was one of those myths that float down from the North? Or, what if it had been abandoned?
Barney shook himself free from these thoughts, and seizing his mandolin, went to join Bruce and Timmie on saxophone and rudely-devised Indian kettledrums in a wild-woods symphony, while the children danced wild steps the boys had never seen.
* * * * *
"Well, we're off!" Barney said this, as he buckled on his harness and touched the starting lever. The wheels of the starting gear bumped over the thin-crusted snow and jolted through Timmie's wheat stubble, then the great bird began to rise.
Winter had set in. Now they glided over dark forests of spruce, and now swept above great stretches of barren lands. The air was biting cold. They were thankful enough for their face-protectors, their electric hand and foot warmers, their fur-lined leather union-alls. But best of all was the glorious freedom of it. Soaring on and on over untrodden wildernesses, with no thought of dangers known and unknown, made them feel like explorers of a new world. The engines worked in perfect harmony. A gentle breeze from the south urged them on their way. The sun soon set and a long night began, but what of that? The moon and snow lighted the earth as if by day, and with a silvery glory. And now the Northern Lights began to flicker, flash and shoot across the sky.
Now they passed over a wide expanse of white, which they knew to be Dismal Lake. This was frozen over; then surely Great Bear Lake, two hundred miles farther north, would be frozen, too. Their safe landing would be assured.
But as they neared their goal the boys' minds could scarcely escape misgivings. If the Major's suppositions were correct; if, indeed, this trader was the hired agent of a fanatical clan, would he not be armed and on the alert? Would he not, perhaps, have Indians and half-breeds hired to help guard his secret? They were but three. The enemy might number a score. As Barney thought of all this, he was thankful for one thing: by some strange chance, a small machine-gun and two thousand rounds of ammunition had been shipped north with the plane. Their first thought had been to leave this behind, but after a discussion, they had decided to bring it; and there it was now, hanging in its swivel before him. In an emergency there remained but to load it and go into action. But it was quite an unexpected emergency that soon made him bless that bit of equipment.
They were now well into the Arctic. The air cut like a knife and chilled them to the marrow. Barney began to long for warmth, food and sleep. He held his electric glove to the glass of the small clock before him. When the frost had thawed he noted the hour.
"Twelve o'clock! Midnight!" he muttered. "And no landing in sight yet."
There remained but to "carry on."
But what was this? Far to the North there showed a small, red ball of light. And it was not the Aurora Borealis! They were traveling fast. The ball of fire seemed to roll toward them along the earth at terrific speed, growing larger and more lurid. And now, beside it, wafting from it, like the tail to a comet, they could discern a swirling cloud, black in the moonlight.
"It's a fire!" Bruce gasped through his mouthpiece.
"But what?—" began Barney.
Just at that moment he caught the faint white line that marked the shore of Great Bear Lake. They were, then, nearing their destination. Tilting the plane upward, that they might get a better panorama of the region, and so direct their course, Barney gave the great engine more gas. On they swept. Presently the outlines of bays and frozen streams, of scrub forests and barren lands were plainly visible. A map under glass was just before him. Brushing the frost from it, Barney examined it by the light of a small electric bulb. Then he looked away at the fire which was now clearly visible. His heart sank. The trading post was, indeed, a reality, or had been. At the present moment it was a ball of fire.
"It's the trading post!" He barked to the Major.
"'Fraid so," grumbled the Major, hoarsely.
"And the gasoline for our return—"
"There it goes," sang Bruce, with a note of despair.
At that instant the whole ball of fire seemed to rise in air to burst like some gigantic rocket. There was no question in the boys' minds but that the supply of gasoline had been reached by the flames.
After the great flash came blackness. The fire seemed for a time to have been extinguished. Gradually here and there, far below, bits of burning tinder gleamed, fiery stars in an inverted heaven. Soon the ruins were again blazing. They soared close, but high, avoiding the dangerous pockets of smoke gas. Did they see dark figures dancing about the ruins? Or was it merely the flickering shadows of posts and tree stumps.
"Indians!" murmured Barney.
Instantly his mind mirrored to him pictures he had seen in histories of painted savages burning a settler's cabin. His blood ran cold. Here they were, three men in the frozen wilderness, with little gasoline for their machine, with scant provisions and ammunition, and rushing toward perils they could not even guess. To kill and to escape would both be easy for these desperadoes.
"Go along down the lake and back again. Use as little gas as possible, but keep in the air. We better not land at present." The very steadiness of the Major's tone told Barney that this experienced man of the North expected the worst.
As they rushed down the white expanse, many thoughts raced through Barney's mind. It seemed that hunger and cold grew upon him with every whirl of the engine-shaft. He thought of Bruce and La Vaune. Would they ever return to La Vaune with the money which was rightfully hers? And Timmie? Would they ever be able to help him blot the stain from his name? Barney's friend, Dave Tower, who had gone North in a submarine on a mission as mysterious as their own; would they ever meet?
They had now turned and were making their way slowly back. The fire had burned down to a dull red glow. The forest about had escaped the flames, and this was fortunate. Should the Indians leave them unmolested, they might possibly find a means of sustaining life by hunting and trapping.
"When we get to the bay, might as well land," grumbled the Major. "It's mighty tough up here!"
Barney assured him that it certainly was tough. He was glad they were to land, being very sure that if an Indian did shoot him he would not feel it, so thoroughly benumbed was he with cold.
Then, suddenly, he gave a cry of surprise. They were nearing a point where Conjurer's Bay should appear. Instead of the bay he saw what appeared to be merely a broad shoulder of frozen water, and beyond that, perhaps two miles, was a small lake lined by the forest. It was on the edge of this small lake that the fire smouldered. The boy rubbed his eyes, then looked again. Had the cold benumbed his senses? Was he seeing things? Was he asleep and dreaming?
Apparently not, for from Bruce through the receiver came a groan, then;
"What's happened? The whole shape of the lake has changed within an hour!"
Barney shut off the engines. In the welcome silence which followed, as they drifted downward in a slow spiral, not a man spoke. Their eyes were focused upon the earth.
But now there came to their ears a sound like the distant rush of many waters. This grew rapidly louder, and finally divided itself into rattling and snapping sounds.
Presently the Major let out a roar of laughter.
"Caribou!" he exploded. "They pass south from the barren lands in herds of hundreds of thousands, so thick they look like land! Tip her nose up for another circle. See! There is the end of the herd away there in the distance. We'll be able to land where they have passed in fifteen minutes, an ideal landing-place—tramped hard."
With a grin Barney obeyed orders, and, as his engines began to revolve, felt himself shooting skyward.
"Now it's clear," roared the Major.
Barney did not respond on the instant. He was thinking of something he had read about the "camp-followers of the barren-ground caribou." A chill not of the wind and cold crept into his heart. But what was to be done? He felt that another hour aloft would so benumb his senses that a crash would be inevitable. To land at a point other than that trampled by the caribou involved great risk, for there was undoubtedly a thick coating of drifted snow on the lake's surface. So he stopped the engines and they spiraled once more toward the earth.
Now they were nearing the surface of the lake. The distance was a thousand feet; now eight hundred. Did he see shadows flitting across the ice? At five hundred feet he was sure that he did. He said nothing. So intent on landing was he that no risk seemed too great. At three hundred feet he saw them distinctly—gray streaks scooting across the trodden snow or resting on haunches, their shadows stretching before them.
"Great Scott!" he muttered, "must be hundreds of them! Oh well, they're cowards!" He tilted the machine for the final glide. There came a sudden exclamation from the Major, then from Bruce. They, too, had seen. It was too late now, for their landing wheels were almost touching the surface as they glided on. And now, strangely enough, some of the gray streaks began to chase the plane. As if imagining it a bird with flesh to eat and bones to gnaw, they came on. Then, all at once, Barney realized what they followed—the scent of fresh meat. Timmie had killed a reindeer in honor of their departure and had presented them with a hind-quarter. This was now roped on the fuselage behind the Major. They would have a fight. He knew that now. He thought of their weapons—two rifles. They were almost useless against five hundred gaunt, hungry wolves. And they were gaunt; he could see that as he flew by them. Evidently camp-following this year had not given them an over-abundant supply of food. The season's calves were fleet and strong by now, and every herd had its thousands of antlered bulls that formed bristling hedges to defend their own.
Bump! The plane struck the ice and bounded, then struck again. Barney's mind was now working fast. Yes, there were other weapons—the oxy-acetylene torch—yes, the machine-gun. He shouted to Bruce to get the torch, and, as soon as the plane slowed down, freed his hands from his gloves and began fumbling at the gun before him. The Major was unstrapping the two rifles. The wolf-pack was crowding around in a grinning circle. Barney caught his breath as his eyes swept the circle. Five hundred if one, dripping-jawed, red-eyed, gray creatures-of-prey, they waited, as ever, for the coward's chance to fight with great odds in their favor.
"Don't shoot until forced to," said Bruce, turning to the Major. "If you do you may bring the whole pack down upon us."
In this emergency, Bruce took the lead, and, assuredly, that was the wise plan; for, reared as he had been in the forests and plains of the Northland, he knew wolves. Just now he was dragging from their hiding-place in the fuselage two iron tubes, perhaps eighteen inches long and six in diameter. One tube contained oxygen, the other acetylene gas. The tubes were connected by a set of registering valves. To these, in turn, was fastened a wire-wound rubber hose with a long brass nozzle. Once the valves were turned, the acetylene gas forced out by a pressure of a thousand pounds and united with oxygen as an accelerator would produce a shooting flame that burned metals as if they were sun-dried pulp.
The machine stopped and the pack crowded in. With an electric flash lamp in one hand and the rubber hose in the other, Bruce stood watching. With aching, clumsy fingers and bleared eyes, Barney worked on the machine-gun that, with oil fairly frozen in its parts, seemed about to refuse to respond.
"Hurry!" exclaimed Bruce, as a gaunt form with patches of brown, and double nose, telling of mixed blood, sprang forward, eager to drag the fresh meat from the fuselage.
Instead of firing, the Major beat the beast over the head, and with a snarl he resumed his place in the ever-narrowing circle.
And now the time for concerted action on the part of the pack seemed to have come; for, with one savage snarl, the first row rushed straight on. There came a flash, then the hiss of a white-tongued fiery serpent. As the first wolf reared on his haunches, the smell of burning hair and roasting flesh halted the half-maddened pack, and, falling over one another, again they retreated.
It was a tense moment. Slapping his hands to warm them, Barney adjusted cartridges and swept the circle with an imaginary volley. What if the machine-gun jammed? There could be but one result. The torch would not long hold the beasts off. Besides, the gas would not last.
"Well, shoot if you can!" exclaimed Bruce. "This gas is precious stuff. We can't waste it."
At that, there came the staccato music of the machine-gun. With steady eye Barney swept the inner circle. They went down like grain before a gale. With strange wild snarls they bit at their wounds, at one another, at the snow. The gun swept again with its merciless fire. The furthermost members of the pack began to slink away. Then as Barney raised his gun and sent a rain of bullets pattering about them, the whole snarling pack fled in yelping confusion.
The battle was won. Bruce cut off the gas. Barney ceased his fire. The Major, loosing his harness, stood up and stretched himself. Then they looked at one another and laughed.
"Some fight!" exclaimed Barney.
"Some fight!" agreed Bruce.
"Some fight!" reechoed the Major. "And the next thing is to put the injured out of their misery. After that we must skin 'em and make a cache for the meat."
"Meat?" the boys questioned.
"Sure," smiled the Major. "Wolf meat isn't bad at all. You perhaps forget that we have not a hundred miles of gas in the tank. We may be here quite some time!"
A MODERN BATTLE WITH CRIMINALS
When Dave Tower, Barney Menter's one-time pal, received the letter suggesting a bit of "jazz" somewhere within the Arctic Circle, he was on twelve-hour shore leave. They were to start on that mysterious subsea journey at high-tide next day. He grinned as he showed the note to Ensign Blake, his commander. Then he went around the corner and purchased a second-hand guitar and an oboe.
"Look!" he exclaimed, pointing to a pair of battered kettledrums in the corner. "There's the original pair—made by the Adam and Eve of the South Sea Islands, or wherever kettledrums originated. I'll buy 'em and teach some gob to drum. We'll have a whole band when we arrive."
A few hours later found them aboard the snug, shapely hull of U boat N. 12 of the U.S.A. submarine fleet. The sub was a small one, patterned after the most recent British model, known as the "K" class. Fleet as a flying-fish, she made twenty-two knots on the surface and ten knots when submerged. She presented a rather odd appearance, having a short, square funnel, which was swung over into a recess in the deck when the craft submerged.
Her gun and torpedoes had been removed. The weight of those had been replaced by an additional supply of oil and by quantities of provisions. The provisions, together with bales of skin clothing, were packed into every available space.
She made splendid progress as she left the harbor and wound her way in and out among the islands of Puget Sound, to emerge finally round Cape Flattery and strike away into the open sea.
It became evident at once that this was no coastwise journey. Further than that, not even Ensign Blake knew its purpose.
The sub was registered at the Navy-yard as "off on detached duty." The crew of ten men were all volunteers for the trip. The expedition was under the direction of a doctor. A man past middle age, he sat in a wicker chair below, smoking innumerable cigars and saying nothing.
"Far's I can dope it out," Blake said to Dave, "the old fellow did some good service for the Government during the war. He's had plenty of experience in the North; has some theories he wants to work out about subs and the Arctic. The Government has some little trick they want pulled off up in that North country. The Doctor volunteers to lead the expedition, and here we are!"
"But what do you suppose—"
"Don't suppose a thing," said Blake, gazing astern at the last fading bit of land. "There's a lot of things that might be; but like as not none of my guesses is correct."
"Let's hear you guess."
"Well, first, you know, Uncle Sam has some valuable seal islands in the Aleutian group. Maybe, during the war the Japs or Russians have got careless about drifting around that way and carrying off a few hundred skins. Might be, you know.
"But I'm not saying that's it. A sub would be a mighty fine craft for watching that sort of game, though. And then, there's another thing I've thought of. There's gold in Russia, on the Kamchatkan peninsula; you know that, don't you?"
"No." Dave opened his eyes wide in surprise.
"Heaps of it. Tons and tons! Just waiting for the digging. And before we went into the war, when Russia was still with the Allies and needed money, our Government, or independent capitalists, I don't know which, furnished the Russians a lot of machinery for mining the gold; about a million dollars' worth, I guess. Then came the revolution in Russia. I doubt if a cent has been realized from the sale of machinery. Who's in possession of that peninsula at the present time? God alone knows. Japan would like to meddle there, I'm sure. Perhaps we're being sent up there to conduct an investigation.
"Those are my two guesses. Take 'em for what they're worth."
"You don't think," said Dave, "that we'd attempt the Pole?"
The ensign was silent for a time. "No," he said at last, "I don't. Of course, Stefansson has said that a 'sub' is the most practical way to go there; that ice-floes are never more than ten feet thick and twenty-five miles wide, and all that; but there are too many unsettled problems relating to such a trip."
"But say!" exclaimed Dave, "who is this doctor of ours, anyway?"
"Blamed if I know," said Blake, as he turned away to go below.
"Well, anyhow," Dave remarked, "whoever he is, he's going to take us where the white ice-floes are drifting. Look at the color of this craft; blue-white, like the ice itself."
The journey North, save for a storm, which they avoided by submerging, was uneventful until they found themselves in the company of scattered ice-cakes with the snow-capped ridges of the Aleutian Islands looming up before them.
In no time at all every man on the craft realized that on these islands was to be found one of the objects of their quest; for, once they had sighted the shores, the funnel was dropped, electric power applied, and watchers, dressed in white to match the color of the craft, set to scan the shores for signs of life. They stole through the water like some ghost craft.
"Believe it's that seal-fishery business?" asked Dave, as he and the ensign took their watch.
Dave was certain from the tone that the doctor had confided his secret to the ensign. He asked no more questions.
So they drifted on. The wind had dropped. The swell rolled their craft as it plowed along. Here and there a sea-lion thrust its ugly head from the water. Twice a seal attempted to climb upon the slippery hull for a rest, but, to the amusement of the boys, slid back into the water. An offer to assist the third one was not appreciated, and the ridiculously human-like head disappeared beneath the water with great alacrity.
Dave had been searching the hills with his binoculars for some time when he suddenly gave the glass to the ensign.
"What's that tangle above the cliffs there?" he asked.
The ensign studied the cliffs for some time. Then he touched a button with his foot and they turned silently shoreward.
"That's it!" He said with an air of finality.
"What?" asked Dave eagerly.
"The wireless." Then the ensign explained to Dave the purpose of their journey. They had been sent into the Arctic to locate a wireless station, supposed to be placed in the Aleutian Islands; a station run by radical propagandists, part of a world-federation, which proposed to wreck all organized society. Had Dave realized that the missions of sub and airplane were alike he would have been startled. As it was, his face took on a tense, expectant look, his cheeks burned hot with excitement.
The Doctor was called to the conning-tower. After studying the contour of the island for some time, he said:
"Their shack, built of rocks and driftwood logs, is at the base of the cliff. That is good. We will divide into two parties. Four of us will go up the cliff and get above them, while four others will skirt the cliff and, under cover, await my signal. Our supporting party will take ropes, rifles and a machine-gun. I will go with the party to the top of the cliff. We will carry only rifles and some special instruments of attack which I have stored in canvas sacks below. Two men must remain on board. Head in close to those rocks before us. They are out of sight of the shack and there is ice stranded there—a straggler will scarcely tell our craft from it. I have no doubt there are a number of them and that they are hardy ruffians. We must proceed with great care.
"Hark!" He put his hand to his ear. "They are sending messages now.
"In the future," continued the Doctor, as he handed Dave two strange-looking spheres, the size of a man's head, "the work of sheriffs, policemen and other officers of the law is not going to be quite so hazardous. When a criminal runs amuck, he will not kill a half-score of brave men before he is captured. The officers of the law will do what we will soon be doing, and a child can do the rest. Only," he continued, "watch your step going up that hill. It doesn't take much of a bump to get one of these funny little balls excited."
Dave had been detailed to assist the Doctor. Ensign Blake would lead the supporting party around the cliff, there to await the Doctor's signals.
Besides the sack in which Dave carried the large spheres, there was another carried by a seaman. This one gave forth a metallic clinking, as if it were full of iron eggs. With the Doctor and the other seaman carrying two rifles each, the four men made their way slowly around the rocky hillside and were soon advancing silently, single-file, up the surface of one of those perpetual snow-banks for which the islands are noted.
The rocks above were much larger than they had seemed from the sub. Twice, as he climbed over them, Dave's foot slipped and each time his heart was in his mouth. One stumbling misstep and all might be over for him. But he had the clear, cool head of a clean boy who had lived right, and an appreciation of the joy of living, which would take him far and keep him safe through many an adventure. So, safely, they reached the top of the cliff.
The Doctor motioned Dave to come back with him to a box-like edge of rock, which would give them a view of what lay some three hundred feet below. All was still. The moon, a great yellow ball, floated in the sky above and in the sea beneath. A lone sea-gull, awakened by the supporting party, sailed screaming away. Not a move, not a sound was to be detected below. Yet there, in a rocky cavern, were a number of world-criminals, and behind some crag were three jackies and their commander. Soon all this would be changed. Fighting, perhaps death, would end the quiet of that Arctic scene. Dave's hand trembled with excitement as he arranged the two sacks beside the Doctor. Even the Doctor's hand shook as he opened one sack and drew forth a number of small iron objects, the size and shape of a bicycle handle-bar grip. His face grew stern.
"Understand Mill's grenades?" he asked.
"All right. When I say 'Go' drop ten of these as fast as you can release the pins. Drop 'em on their shack."
Dave's heart thumped violently. He had thrown Mill's grenades at manikin "enemies," but never had he hurled them where human flesh was the target. Slowly, mechanically, he arranged the ten grenades in a row.
"Go!" The word sang in his ears.
Ten seconds later from below came two sharp reports—his grenade and the Doctor's. They were off together. Crash followed crash in quick succession until the row was finished. Silence followed for a single second. Then came the cries and curses of men, as they staggered from their half-demolished shelter and began to scatter. Dave's heart thumped. There were fifteen, at least.
"Now!" exclaimed the Doctor, and lifting one of the large spheres he dropped it over the ledge's edge. Just as that instance Dave saw one of the rascals raise his rifle and fire. Immediately there came a cry of distress. Dave thought he recognized the voice and a lump rose in his throat.
But now there came a dull muffled explosion—the strange bomb. Instantly the men below began acting like madmen. Throwing away their rifles, they staggered about, tearing at their eyes, their throats, their clothing, and uttering wild cries of distress. At the same time three automatic pistols cracked, and Dave knew the doctor had given his signal.
To his surprise, he saw the three jackies emerge from hiding wearing gas masks. Quickly they overpowered the wild men, tied them and carried them around a point of land. As they did this the Doctor and his band kept guard above, rifles ready for any man who might, by some chance, recover sufficiently from the gas to shoot. But none did.
"It won't do them the least bit of harm," the Doctor said, as he noticed the look of surprise on Dave's face. "It's only chlorpicrin—a tear gas. It comes in liquid form, so must be associated with an explosive which transforms it into a gas and scatters it. You will see that our men are carrying them out of it as soon as they have them secured. It's a safe and harmless way of handling criminals. The war taught us that."
"But the ensign?" exclaimed Dave, as he saw the last ruffian in the hands of the jackies.
"Something must have happened to him," said the Doctor rising hastily.
"There was a shot," Dave reminded him.
Together they hastily made their way down the rough hillside. Slipping, sliding, falling, to rise again, they came to the lower surface and hurried around the point where the prisoners had been carried.
A strange scene awaited them. Sixteen men lying in a row, all tightly bound. And what a motley crew they were—Japs, Russians, Mexicans, Greeks, and even Americans, they had gathered here for a common purpose. But it is doubtful if one of them could have told what the next step would be, should their first task be accomplished.
Off to one side, lay Ensign Blake, white and still. One of the seamen was bending over him.
"Got an ugly one in the chest," he said simply. "Think we can save him?"
The Doctor bent over, and tearing away Blake's garments, made a thorough examination.
"He'll pull through," he said. "But we must get him to the mission hospital at Unalaska at once. Begin throwing those rascals aboard. There's a prison there for their accommodation."
At that moment the two other jackies appeared, carrying a moaning burden in the shape of a Jap radical.
"One's done in for good," the foremost man explained. "We searched the ruins. Maybe we can save this fellow."
"Take him aboard," said the Doctor. Then, turning, he directed the men who carried their fallen commander to the craft.
* * * * *
"Well, that about ends our present career in the Arctic." The Doctor was speaking to Dave, and emphasized his word with a sigh. "I had hoped we might do something really big, but Blake will not be out again this season. He'll get around again all right, but it's a slow process."
Dave sat thinking. Suddenly he jumped to his feet.
"Doctor," he said eagerly, "there's a gob on board who is sure a wonder at navigation. Don't you think—think, he and I might manage the sub for you—your trip?"
"H—m." The Doctor grew thoughtful, but a flash of hope gleamed in his eye.
"Tell you what," he said presently, "there's a considerable ice-floe between the islands; the north wind brought it down last night. Have your crew ready for a try-out in the morning."
With a heart that ached from pure joy of anticipation, Dave hurried to an ancient sealer's bunk-house where his men were housed. "A try-out, try-out, try-out," kept ringing in his ears. What did it mean if they were successful? Something big, wonderful, he was sure. Russian gold? Charting Northeast Passage? North Pole? He did not know, but nothing seemed too difficult for his daring young heart.
And the next day the try-out came. And such an ordeal as it was! Gobs had surely never been put to a test like that in any navy-yard training station! For five long hours they dived and rose and dived again. They rose suddenly, rose slowly; they tipped, glided, shot through the water. They passed for miles beneath the ice-floe, to emerge at last and bump a cake, or lift themselves toward a dark spot not larger than the sub itself—a patch of open water in the midst of the floe.
With mind all in a whirl, Dave gave the final command to make for port. It had been a great day.
That night, after "chow," the Doctor called Dave into his room at the hospital.
"Young man," he said, motioning the boy to a seat, "you and your crew have surprised me beyond belief. I feel that we shall be risking little in attempting what, to many, might seem the most difficult task ever undertaken by a submarine. I do not yet feel free to tell you what that trip will be; you'll have to take that on faith. I can only tell you that we will proceed from here directly to Nome, Alaska. There we will get more oil and provisions. We will then sail through Behring Strait due North."
For a time the two sat in silence. The Doctor's face grew mellow, then sad at recollections of years that had gone.
"I don't mind telling you," he said after awhile, "that I am an explorer, you almost might say 'by profession;' that some years ago another explorer and I sought the same goal. We went from different points; both claimed to have reached it. But he got the honors."
"And you really reached—"
"Doesn't matter now what I did in the past," interrupted the Doctor quickly. "What I am to do in the future is all that counts, and the immediate future is big with possibilities."
"The crew will be with you to a man," Dave assured him, as he rose to go.
As he stepped into the cool night air, Dave found that his face was hot with excitement. There was left in his mind not one doubt as to their final destination: it was to be a try for the Pole. Only one thought saddened him; that his good friend, Blake, would not continue as one of the party.
Two days later they crossed over to the island of the illicit wireless station. They found the apparatus in perfect condition, and the Doctor at once began sending messages.
"I'm letting the world know of our purpose," he explained. "At least, trying to. Sending messages by code to a friend of mine in Chicago. Hope Seattle will pick it up, and if not, perhaps that radical operator who is supposed to be relaying messages to Canada and the States from the north-central portion of the Continent will catch it, and, thinking it one of his own messages in a new code, pass it on."
Had the doctor known what kind of radicals were in control of the station on Great Bear Lake at that moment, perhaps he would have been more careful what messages he sent.
"If you don't mind," said Dave, "for the sake of my friends, and especially of my mother, I wish you'd include my name in the message."
"It's already done," smiled the Doctor.
AN INFERNAL MACHINE
When Bruce, Barney and the Major found themselves stranded on the shore of a vast frozen lake at the beginning of an Arctic winter, they at once took steps to conserve all resources. Building a cache between three scrub spruce trees, they piled upon it their wolf meat and skins. To Barney the thought of eating "dog meat," as he called it, was most repulsive, but necessity gives man little choice in the Arctic, so he munched his roast wolf's back that night in silence. But at the same time, he vowed that, sure as the caribou had not all passed, he would dine on caribou roast before long.
Once the cache was completed, they began scouting the woods near the ruins of the burned trading station. There they found plain signs of Indians. A circle of beaten tracks made certain a pow-wow had been held there.
"Doesn't look very good to me," admitted the Major. "These Indians of the Little Sticks are a fierce and cruel people, full of superstitions, and living up to the old law of 'blood revenge.' There's only one thing in our favor: they have a superstition about a giant creature, known as the Thunder-bird. The stories of this terrible bird are known to almost all Indian tribes, but the Little Sticks believe them literally. From the tracks I should judge that they left in great haste. What could cause this fright, save the sound and sight of our plane hovering over them? Since it is almost certain that they have never seen an airplane, it seems likely that they considered it to be old Thunder-bird come to carry them off. If that is true, I shall not look for them back in a hurry."
"What puzzles me is, where's the remains of the fellow's generator and wireless?" said Barney. "Don't see anything down there in the ruins, do you?"
Instantly all eyes were turned toward the smouldering piles of ashes.
"The place was wired all right," said the Major, pointing to a mass of tangled lighting wire.
"Say! What's that out in the center?" exclaimed Barney. "Looks like the bones of a man?"
"So it does," said the Major, "and surely is. Well, there can't be any further doubt about the rascal being burned in the ruins of his own house."
Then there came a shout from Barney. He had been tracing out the masses of blackened wire.
"Look!" he exclaimed. "Here's where the lead-wires go into the ground. Must be a separate power-house. Three lead-wires instead of two. What do you suppose that means?"