THE GOLDEN SNARE
JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
AUTHOR OF KAZAN, THE DANGER TRAIL, THE COURAGE OF MARGE O'DOONE, THE GRIZZLY KING, ETC.
JTABLE 10 26 1
THE GOLDEN SNARE
Bram Johnson was an unusual man, even for the northland. He was, above all other things, a creature of environment—and necessity, and of that something else which made of him at times a man with a soul, and at others a brute with the heart of a devil. In this story of Bram, and the girl, and the other man, Bram himself should not be blamed too much. He was pathetic, and yet he was terrible. It is doubtful if he really had what is generally regarded as a soul. If he did, it was hidden—hidden to the forests and the wild things that had made him.
Bram's story started long before he was born, at least three generations before. That was before the Johnsons had gone north of Sixty. But they were wandering, and steadily upward. If one puts a canoe in the Lower Athabasca and travels northward to the Great Slave and thence up the Mackenzie to the Arctic he will note a number of remarkable ethnological changes. The racial characteristics of the world he is entering change swiftly. The thin-faced Chippewa with his alert movements and high-bowed canoe turns into the slower moving Cree, with his broader cheeks, his more slanting eyes, and his racier birchbark. And even the Cree changes as he lives farther north; each new tribe is a little different from its southernmost neighbor, until at last the Cree looks like a Jap, and the Chippewyan takes his place. And the Chippewyan takes up the story of life where the Cree left off. Nearer the Arctic his canoe becomes a skin kaiak, his face is still broader, Ms eyes like a Chinaman's, and writers of human history call him Eskimo.
The Johnsons, once they started, did not stop at any particular point. There was probably only one Johnson in the beginning of that hundred year story which was to have its finality in Bram. But there were more in time. The Johnson blood mixed itself first with the Chippewa, and then with the Cree—and the Cree-Chippewa Johnson blood, when at last it reached the Eskimo, had in it also a strain of Chippewyan. It is curious how the name itself lived. Johnson! One entered a tepee or a cabin expecting to find there a white man, and was startled when he discovered the truth.
Bram, after nearly a century of this intermixing of bloods, was a throwback—a white man, so far as his skin and his hair and his eyes went. In other physical ways he held to the type of his half-strain Eskimo mother, except in size. He was six feet, and a giant in strength. His face was broad, his cheek-bones high, his lips thick, his nose flat. And he was WHITE. That was the shocking thing about it all. Even his hair was a reddish blonde, wild and coarse and ragged like a lion's mane, and his eyes were sometimes of a curious blue, and at others—when he was angered—green like a cat's at night-time.
No man knew Bram for a friend. He was a mystery. He never remained at a post longer than was necessary to exchange his furs for supplies, and it might be months or even years before he returned to that particular post again. He was ceaselessly wandering. More or less the Royal Northwest Mounted Police kept track of him, and in many reports of faraway patrols filed at Headquarters there are the laconic words, "We saw Bram and his wolves traveling northward" or "Bram and his wolves passed us"—always Bram AND HIS WOLVES. For two years the Police lost track of him. That was when Bram was buried in the heart of the Sulphur Country east of the Great Bear. After that the Police kept an even closer watch on him, waiting, and expecting something to happen. And then—the something came. Bram killed a man. He did it so neatly and so easily, breaking him as he might have broken a stick, that he was well off in flight before it was discovered that his victim was dead. The next tragedy followed quickly—a fortnight later, when Corporal Lee and a private from the Fort Churchill barracks closed in on him out on the edge of the Barren. Bram didn't fire a shot. They could hear his great, strange laugh when they were still a quarter of a mile away from him. Bram merely set loose his wolves. By a miracle Corporal Lee lived to drag himself to a half-breed's cabin, where he died a little later, and the half-breed brought the story to Fort Churchill.
After this, Bram disappeared from the eyes of the world. What he lived in those four or five years that followed would well be worth his pardon if his experiences could be made to appear between the covers of a book. Bram—AND HIS WOLVES! Think of it. Alone. In all that time without a voice to talk to him. Not once appearing at a post for food. A loup-garou. An animal-man. A companion of wolves. By the end of the third year there was not a drop of dog-blood in his pack. It was wolf, all wolf. From whelps he brought the wolves up, until he had twenty in his pack. They were monsters, for the under-grown ones he killed. Perhaps he would have given them freedom in place of death, but these wolf-beasts of Bram's would not accept freedom. In him they recognized instinctively the super-beast, and they were his slaves. And Bram, monstrous and half animal himself, loved them. To him they were brother, sister, wife—all creation. He slept with them, and ate with them, and starved with them when food was scarce. They were comradeship and protection. When Bram wanted meat, and there was meat in the country, he would set his wolf-horde on the trail of a caribou or a moose, and if they drove half a dozen miles ahead of Bram himself there would always be plenty of meat left on the bones when he arrived. Four years of that! The Police would not believe it. They laughed at the occasional rumors that drifted in from the far places; rumors that Bram had been seen, and that his great voice had been heard rising above the howl of his pack on still winter nights, and that half-breeds and Indians had come upon his trails, here and there—at widely divergent places. It was the French half-breed superstition of the chasse-galere that chiefly made them disbelieve, and the chasse-galere is a thing not to be laughed at in the northland. It is composed of creatures who have sold their souls to the devil for the power of navigating the air, and there were those who swore with their hands on the crucifix of the Virgin that they had with their own eyes seen Bram and his wolves pursuing the shadowy forms of great beasts through the skies.
So the Police believed that Bram was dead; and Bram, meanwhile, keeping himself from all human eyes, was becoming more and more each day like the wolves who were his brothers. But the white blood in a man dies hard, and always there flickered in the heart of Bram's huge chest a great yearning. It must at times have been worse than death—that yearning to hear a human voice, to have a human creature to speak to, though never had he loved man or woman. Which brings us at last to the final tremendous climax in Bram's life—to the girl, and the other man.
The other man was Raine—Philip Raine.
To-night he sat in Pierre Breault's cabin, with Pierre at the opposite side of the table between them, and the cabin's sheet iron stove blazing red just beyond. It was a terrible night outside. Pierre, the fox hunter, had built his shack at the end of a long slim forefinger of scrub spruce that reached out into the Barren, and to-night the wind was wailing and moaning over the open spaces in a way that made Raine shiver. Close to the east was Hudson's Bay—so close that a few moments before when Raine had opened the cabin door there came to him the low, never-ceasing thunder of the under-currents fighting their way down through the Roes Welcome from the Arctic Ocean, broken now and then by a growling roar as the giant forces sent a crack, like a great knife, through one of the frozen mountains. Westward from Pierre's cabin there stretched the lifeless Barren, illimitable and void, without rock or bush, and overhung at day by a sky that always made Raine think of a terrible picture he had once seen of Dore's "Inferno"—a low, thick sky, like purple and blue granite, always threatening to pitch itself down in terrific avalanches. And at night, when the white foxes yapped, and the wind moaned—
"As I have hope of paradise I swear that I saw him—alive, M'sieu," Pierre was saying again over the table.
Raine, of the Fort Churchill patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, no longer smiled in disbelief. He knew that Pierre Breault was a brave man, or he would not have perched himself alone out in the heart of the Barren to catch the white foxes; and he was not superstitious, like most of his kind, or the sobbing cries and strife of the everlasting night-winds would have driven him away.
"I swear it!" repeated Pierre.
Something that was almost eagerness was burning now in Philip's face. He leaned over the table, his hands gripping tightly. He was thirty-five; almost slim as Pierre himself, with eyes as steely blue as Pierre's were black. There was a time, away back, when he wore a dress suit as no other man in the big western city where he lived; now the sleeves of his caribou skin coat were frayed and torn, his hands were knotted, in his face were the lines of storm and wind.
"It is impossible," he said. "Bram Johnson is dead!"
"He is alive, M'sieu."
In Pierre's voice there was a strange tremble.
"If I had only HEARD, if I had not SEEN, you might disbelieve, M'sieu," he cried, his eyes glowing with a dark fire. "Yes, I heard the cry of the pack first, and I went to the door, and opened it, and stood there listening and looking out into the night. UGH! they went near. I could hear the hoofs of the caribou. And then I heard a great cry, a voice that rose above the howl of the wolves like the voice of ten men, and I knew that Bram Johnson was on the trail of meat. MON DIEU—yes—he is alive. And that is not all. No. No. That is not all—"
His fingers were twitching. For the third or fourth time in the last three-quarters of an hour Raine saw him fighting back a strange excitement. His own incredulity was gone. He was beginning to believe Pierre.
"And after that—you saw him?"
"Yes. I would not do again what I did then for all the foxes between the Athabasca and the Bay, M'sieu. It must have been—I don't know what. It dragged me out into the night. I followed. I found the trail of the wolves, and I found the snowshoe tracks of a man. Oui. I still followed. I came close to the kill, with the wind in my face, and I could hear the snapping of jaws and the rending of flesh—yes—yes—AND A MAN'S TERRIBLE LAUGH! If the wind had shifted—if that pack of devils' souls had caught the smell of me—tonnerre de dieu!" He shuddered, and the knuckles of his fingers snapped as he clenched and unclenched his hands. "But I stayed there, M'sieu, half buried in a snow dune. They went on after a long time. It was so dark I could not see them. I went to the kill then, and—yes, he had carried away the two hind quarters of the caribou. It was a bull, too, and heavy. I followed—clean across that strip of Barren down to the timber, and it was there that Bram built himself the fire. I could see him then, and I swear by the Blessed Virgin that it was Bram! Long ago, before he killed the man, he came twice to my cabin—and he had not changed. And around him, in the fire-glow, the wolves huddled. It was then that I came to my reason. I could see him fondling them. I could see their gleaming fangs. Yes, I could HEAR their bodies, and he was talking to them and laughing with them through his great beard—and I turned and fled back to the cabin, running so swiftly that even the wolves would have had trouble in catching me. And that—that—WAS NOT ALL!"
Again his fingers were clenching and unclenching as he stared at Raine.
"You believe me, M'sieu?"
"It seems impossible. And yet—you could not have been dreaming, Pierre."
Breault drew a deep breath of satisfaction, and half rose to his feet.
"And you will believe me if I tell you the rest?"
Swiftly Pierre went to his bunk and returned with the caribou skin pouch in which he carried his flint and steel and fire material for the trail.
"The next day I went back, M'sieu," he said, seating himself again opposite Philip. "Bram and his wolves were gone. He had slept in a shelter of spruce boughs. And—and—par les mille cornes du diable if he had even brushed the snow out! His great moccasin tracks were all about among the tracks of the wolves, and they were big as the spoor of a monster bear. I searched everywhere for something that he might have left, and I found—at last—a rabbit snare."
Pierre Breault's eyes, and not his words—and the curious twisting and interlocking of his long slim fingers about the caribou-skin bag in his hand stirred Philip with the thrill of a tense and mysterious anticipation, and as he waited, uttering no word, Pierre's fingers opened the sack, and he said:
"A rabbit snare, M'sieu, which had dropped from his pocket into the snow—"
In another moment he had given it into Philip's hands. The oil lamp was hung straight above them. Its light flooded the table between them, and from Philip's lips, as he stared at the snare, there broke a gasp of amazement. Pierre had expected that cry. He had at first been disbelieved; now his face burned with triumph. It seemed, for a space, as if Philip had ceased breathing. He stared—stared—while the light from above him scintillated on the thing he held. It was a snare. There could be no doubt of that. It was almost a yard in length, with the curious Chippewyan loop at one end and the double-knot at the other.
The amazing thing about it was that it was made of a woman's golden hair.
The process of mental induction occasionally does not pause to reason its way, but leaps to an immediate and startling finality, which, by reason of its very suddenness, is for a space like the shock of a sudden blow. After that one gasp of amazement Philip made no sound. He spoke no word to Pierre. In a sudden lull of the wind sweeping over the cabin the ticking of his watch was like the beating of a tiny drum. Then, slowly, his eyes rose from the silken thread in his fingers and met Pierre's. Each knew what the other was thinking. If the hair had been black. If it had been brown. Even had it been of the coarse red of the blond Eskimo of the upper Mackenzie! But it was gold—shimmering gold.
Still without speaking, Philip drew a knife from his pocket and cut the shining thread above the second knot, and worked at the finely wrought weaving of the silken filaments until a tress of hair, crinkled and waving, lay on the table before them. If he had possessed a doubt, it was gone now. He could not remember where he had ever seen just that colored gold in a woman's hair. Probably he had, at one time or another. It was not red gold. It possessed no coppery shades and lights as it rippled there in the lamp glow. It was flaxen, and like spun silk—so fine that, as he looked at it, he marveled at the patience that had woven it into a snare. Again he looked at Pierre. The same question was in their eyes.
"It must be—that Bram has a woman with him," said Pierre.
"It must be," said Philip. "Or—"
That final word, its voiceless significance, the inflection which Philip gave to it as he gazed at Pierre, stood for the one tremendous question which, for a space, possessed the mind of each. Pierre shrugged his shoulders. He could not answer it. And as he shrugged his shoulders he shivered, and at a sudden blast of the wind against the cabin door he turned quickly, as though he thought the blow might have been struck by a human hand.
"Diable!" he cried, recovering himself, his white teeth flashing a smile at Philip. "It has made me nervous—what I saw there in the light of the campfire, M'sieu. Bram, and his wolves, and THAT!"
He nodded at the shimmering strands.
"You have never seen hair the color of this, Pierre?"
"Non. In all my life—not once."
"And yet you have seen white women at Fort Churchill, at York Factory, at Lac la Biche, at Cumberland House, and Norway House, and at Fort Albany?"
"Ah-h-h, and at many other places, M'sieu. At God's Lake, at Lac Seul, and over on the Mackenzie—and never have I seen hair on a woman like that."
"And Bram has never been out of the northland, never farther south than Fort Chippewyan that we know of," said Philip. "It makes one shiver, eh, Pierre? It makes one think of—WHAT? Can't you answer? Isn't it in your mind?"
French and Cree were mixed half and half in Pierre's blood. The pupils of his eyes dilated as he met Philip's steady gaze.
"It makes one think," he replied uneasily, "of the chasse-galere and the loup-garou, and—and—almost makes one believe. I am not superstitious, M'sieu—non—non—I am not superstitious," he cried still more uneasily. "But many strange things are told about Bram and his wolves;—that he has sold his soul to the devil, and can travel through the air, and that he can change himself into the form of a wolf at will. There are those who have heard him singing the Chanson de Voyageur to the howling of his wolves away up in the sky. I have seen them, and talked with them, and over on the McLeod I saw a whole tribe making incantation because they had seen Bram and his wolves building themselves a conjuror's house in the heart of a thunder-cloud. So—is it strange that he should snare rabbits with, a woman's hair?"
"And change black into the color of the sun?" added Philip, falling purposely into the other's humor.
"If the rest is true—"
Pierre did not finish. He caught himself, swallowing hard, as though a lump had risen in his throat, and for a moment or two Philip saw him fighting with himself, struggling with the age-old superstitions which had flared up for an instant like a powder-flash. His jaws tightened, and he threw back his head.
"But those stories are NOT true, M'sieu," he added in a repressed voice. "That is why I showed you the snare. Bram Johnson is not dead. He is alive. And there is a woman with him, or—"
The same thought was in their eyes again. And again neither gave voice to it. Carefully Philip was gathering up the strands of hair, winding them about his forefinger, and placing them afterward in a leather wallet which he took from his pocket. Then, quite casually, he loaded his pipe and lighted it. He went to the door, opened it, and for a few moments stood listening to the screech of the wind over the Barren. Pierre, still seated at the table, watched him attentively. Philip's mind was made up when he closed the door and faced the half-breed again.
"It is three hundred miles from here to Fort Churchill," he said. "Half way, at the lower end of Jesuche Lake, MacVeigh and his patrol have made their headquarters. If I go after Bram, Pierre, I must first make certain of getting a message to MacVeigh, and he will see that it gets to Fort Churchill. Can you leave your foxes and poison-baits and your deadfalls long enough for that?"
A moment Pierre hesitated.
Then he said:
"I will take the message."
Until late that night Philip sat up writing his report. He had started out to run down a band of Indian thieves. More important business had crossed his trail, and he explained the whole matter to Superintendent Fitzgerald, commanding "M" Division at Fort Churchill. He told Pierre Breault's story as he had heard it. He gave his reasons for believing it, and that Bram Johnson, three times a murderer, was alive. He asked that another man be sent after the Indians, and explained, as nearly as he could, the direction he would take in his pursuit of Bram.
When the report was finished and sealed he had omitted just one thing.
Not a word had he written about the rabbit snare woven from a woman's hair.
The next morning the tail of the storm was still sweeping bitterly over the edge of the Barren, but Philip set out, with Pierre Breault as his guide, for the place where the half-breed had seen Bram Johnson and his wolves in camp. Three days had passed since that exciting night, and when they arrived at the spot where Bram had slept the spruce shelter was half buried in a windrow of the hard, shot like snow that the blizzard had rolled in off the open spaces.
From this point Pierre marked off accurately the direction Bram had taken the morning after the hunt, and Philip drew the point of his compass to the now invisible trail. Almost instantly he drew his conclusion.
"Bram is keeping to the scrub timber along the edge of the Barren," he said to Pierre. "That is where I shall follow. You might add that much to what I have written to MacVeigh. But about the snare, Pierre Breault, say not a word. Do you understand? If he is a loup-garou man, and weaves golden hairs out of the winds—"
"I will say nothing, M'sieu," shuddered Pierre.
They shook hands, and parted in silence. Philip set his face to the west, and a few moments later, looking back, he could no longer see Pierre. For an hour after that he was oppressed by the feeling that he was voluntarily taking a desperate chance. For reasons which he had arrived at during the night he had left his dogs and sledge with Pierre, and was traveling light. In his forty-pound pack, fitted snugly to his shoulders, were a three pound silk service-tent that was impervious to the fiercest wind, and an equal weight of cooking utensils. The rest of his burden, outside of his rifle, his Colt's revolver and his ammunition, was made up of rations, so much of which was scientifically compressed into dehydrated and powder form that he carried on his back, in a matter of thirty pounds, food sufficient for a month if he provided his meat on the trail. The chief article in this provision was fifteen pounds of flour; four dozen eggs he carried in one pound of egg powder; twenty-eight pounds of potatoes in four pounds of the dehydrated article; four pounds of onions in a quarter of a pound of the concentration, and so on through the list.
He laughed a little grimly as he thought of this concentrated efficiency in the pack on his shoulders. In a curious sort of way it reminded him of other days, and he wondered what some of his old-time friends would say if he could, by some magic endowment, assemble them here for a feast on the trail. He wondered especially what Mignon Davenport would say—and do. P-f-f-f! He could see the blue-blooded horror in her aristocratic face! That wind from over the Barren would curdle the life in her veins. She would shrivel up and die. He considered himself a fairly good judge in the matter, for once upon a time he thought that he was going to marry her. Strange why he should think of her now, he told himself; but for all that he could not get rid of her for a time. And thinking of her, his mind traveled back into the old days, even as he followed over the hidden trail of Bram. Undoubtedly a great many of his old friends had forgotten him. Five years was a long time, and friendship in the set to which he belonged was not famous for its longevity. Nor love, for that matter. Mignon had convinced him of that. He grimaced, and in the teeth of the wind he chuckled. Fate was a playful old chap. It was a good joke he had played on him—first a bit of pneumonia, then a set of bad lungs afflicted with that "galloping" something-or-other that hollows one's cheeks and takes the blood out of one's veins. It was then that the horror had grown larger and larger each day in Mignon's big baby-blue eyes, until she came out with childish frankness and said that it was terribly embarrassing to have one's friends know that one was engaged to a consumptive.
Philip laughed as he thought of that. The laugh came so suddenly and so explosively that Bram could have heard it a hundred yards away, even with the wind blowing as it was. A consumptive! Philip doubled up his arm until the hard muscles in it snapped. He drew in a deep lungful of air, and forced it out again with a sound like steam escaping from a valve. The NORTH had done that for him; the north with its wonderful forests, its vast skies, its rivers, and its lakes, and its deep snows—the north that makes a man out of the husk of a man if given half a chance. He loved it. And because he loved it, and the adventure of it, he had joined the Police two years ago. Some day he would go back, just for the fun of it; meet his old friends in his old clubs, and shock baby-eyed Mignon to death with his good health.
He dropped these meditations as he thought of the mysterious man he was following. During the course of his two years in the Service he had picked up a great many odds and ends in the history of Bram's life, and in the lives of the Johnsons who had preceded him. He had never told any one how deeply interested he was. He had, at times, made efforts to discuss the quality of Bram's intelligence, but always he had failed to make others see and understand his point of view. By the Indians and half-breeds of the country in which he had lived, Bram was regarded as a monster of the first order possessed of the conjuring powers of the devil himself. By the police he was earnestly desired as the most dangerous murderer at large in all the north, and the lucky man who captured him, dead or alive, was sure of a sergeantcy. Ambition and hope had run high in many valiant hearts until it was generally conceded that Bram was dead.
Philip was not thinking of the sergeantcy as he kept steadily along the edge of the Barren. His service would shortly be up, and he had other plans for the future. From the moment his fingers had touched the golden strand of hair he had been filled with a new and curious emotion. It possessed him even more strongly to-day than it had last night. He had not given voice to that emotion, or to the thoughts it had roused, even to Pierre. Perhaps he was ridiculous. But he possessed imagination, and along with that a great deal of sympathy for animals—and some human beings. He had, for the time, ceased to be the cool and calculating man-hunter intent on the possession of another's life. He knew that his duty was to get Bram and take him back to headquarters, and he also knew that he would perform his duty when the opportunity came—unless he had guessed correctly the significance of the golden snare.
And had he guessed correctly? There was a tremendous doubt in his mind, and yet he was strangely thrilled. He tried to argue that there were many ways in which Bram might have secured the golden hairs that had gone into the making of his snare; and that the snare itself might long have been carried as a charm against the evils of disease and the devil by the strange creature whose mind and life were undoubtedly directed to a large extent by superstition. In that event it was quite logical that Bram had come into possession of his golden talisman years ago.
In spite of himself, Philip could not believe that this was so. At noon, when he built a small fire to make tea and warm his bannock, he took the golden tress from his wallet and examined it even more closely than last night. It might have come from a woman's head only yesterday, so bright and shimmery was it in the pale light of the midday sun. He was amazed at the length and fineness of it, and the splendid texture of each hair. Possibly there were half a hundred hairs, each of an equal and unbroken length.
He ate his dinner, and went on. Three days of storm had covered utterly every trace of the trail made by Bram and his wolves. He was convinced, however, that Bram would travel in the scrub timber close to the Barren. He had already made up his mind that this Barren—the Great Barren of the unmapped north—was the great snow sea in which Bram had so long found safety from the law. Beaching five hundred miles east and west, and almost from the Sixtieth degree to the Arctic Ocean, its un-peopled and treeless wastes formed a tramping ground for him as safe as the broad Pacific to the pirates of old. He could not repress a shivering exclamation as his mind dwelt on this world of Bram's. It was worse than the edge of the Arctic, where one might at least have the Eskimo for company.
He realized the difficulty of his own quest. His one chance lay in fair weather, and the discovery of an old trail made by Bram and his pack. An old trail would lead to fresher ones. Also he was determined to stick to the edge of the scrub timber, for if the Barren was Bram's retreat he would sooner or later strike a trail—unless Bram had gone straight out into the vast white plain shortly after he had made his camp in the forest near Pierre Breault's cabin. In that event it might be weeks before Bram would return to the scrub timber again.
That night the last of the blizzard that had raged for days exhausted itself. For a week clear weather followed. It was intensely cold, but no snow fell. In that week Philip traveled a hundred and twenty miles westward.
It was on the eighth night, as he sat near his fire in a thick clump of dwarf spruce, that the thing happened which Pierre Breault, with a fatalism born of superstition, knew would come to pass. And it is curious that on this night, and in the very hour of the strange happening, Philip had with infinite care and a great deal of trouble rewoven the fifty hairs back into the form of the golden snare.
The night was so bright that the spruce trees cast vivid shadows on the snow. Overhead there were a billion stars in a sky as dear as an open sea, and the Great Dipper shone like a constellation of tiny suns. The world did not need a moon. At a distance of three hundred yards Philip could have seen a caribou if it had passed. He sat close to his fire, with the heat of it reflected from the blackened face of a huge rock, finishing the snare which had taken him an hour to weave. For a long time he had been conscious of the curious, hissing monotone of the Aurora, the "music of the skies," reaching out through the space of the earth with a purring sound that was at times like the purr of a cat and at others like the faint hum of a bee. Absorbed in his work he did not, for a time, hear the other sound. Not until he had finished, and was placing the golden snare in his wallet, did the one sound individualize and separate itself from the other.
He straightened himself suddenly, and listened. Then he jumped to his feet and ran through fifty feet of low scrub to the edge of the white plain.
It was coming from off there, a great distance away. Perhaps a mile. It might be two. The howling of wolves!
It was not a new or unusual sound to him. He had listened to it many times during the last two years. But never had it thrilled him as it did now, and he felt the blood leap in sudden swiftness through his body as the sound bore straight in his direction. In a flash he remembered all that Pierre Breault had said. Bram and his pack hunted like that. And it was Bram who was coming. He knew it.
He ran back to his tent and in what remained of the heat of the fire he warmed for a few moments the breech of his rifle. Then he smothered the fire by kicking snow over it. Returning to the edge of the plain, he posted himself near the largest spruce he could find, up which it would be possible for him to climb a dozen feet or so if necessity drove him to it. And this necessity bore down upon him like the wind. The pack, whether guided by man or beast, was driving straight at him, and it was less than a quarter of a mile away when Philip drew himself up in the spruce. His breath came quick, and his heart was thumping like a drum, for as he climbed up the slender refuge that was scarcely larger in diameter than his arm he remembered the time when he had hung up a thousand pounds of moose meat on cedars as thick as his leg, and the wolves had come the next night and gnawed them through as if they had been paper. From his unsteady perch ten feet off the ground he stared out into the starlit Barren.
Then came the other sound. It was the swift chug, chug, chug of galloping feet—of hoofs breaking through the crust of the snow. A shape loomed up, and Philip knew it was a caribou running for its life. He drew an easier breath as he saw that the animal was fleeing parallel with the projecting finger of scrub in which he had made his camp, and that it would strike the timber a good mile below him. And now, with a still deeper thrill, he noted the silence of the pursuing wolves. It meant but one thing. They were so close on the heels of their prey that they no longer made a sound. Scarcely had the caribou disappeared when Philip saw the first of them—gray, swiftly moving shapes, spread out fan-like as they closed in on two sides for attack, so close that he could hear the patter of their feet and the blood-curdling whines that came from between their gaping jaws. There were at least twenty of them, perhaps thirty, and they were gone with the swiftness of shadows driven by a gale.
From his uncomfortable position Philip lowered himself to the snow again. With its three or four hundred yard lead he figured that the caribou would almost reach the timber a mile away before the end came. Concealed in the shadow of the spruce, he waited. He made no effort to analyze the confidence with which he watched for Bram. When he at last heard the curious ZIP—ZIP—ZIP of snowshoes approaching his blood ran no faster than it had in the preceding minutes of his expectation, so sure had he been that the man he was after would soon loom up out of the starlight. In the brief interval after the passing of the wolves he had made up his mind what he would do. Fate had played a trump card into his hand. From the first he had figured that strategy would have much to do in the taking of Bram, who would be practically unassailable when surrounded by the savage horde which, at a word from him, had proved themselves ready to tear his enemies into pieces. Now, with the wolves gorging themselves, his plan was to cut Bram off and make him, a prisoner.
From his knees he rose slowly to his feet, still hidden in the shadow of the spruce. His rifle he discarded. In his un-mittened hand he held his revolver. With staring eyes he looked for Bram out where the wolves had passed. And then, all at once, came the shock. It was tremendous. The trickery of sound on the Barren had played an unexpected prank with his senses, and while he strained his eyes to pierce the hazy starlight of the plain far out, Bram himself loomed up suddenly along the edge of the bush not twenty paces away.
Philip choked back the cry on his lips, and in that moment Bram stopped short, standing full in the starlight, his great lungs taking in and expelling air with a gasping sound as he listened for his wolves. He was a giant of a man. A monster, Philip thought. It is probable that the elusive glow of the night added to his size as he stood there. About his shoulders fell a mass of unkempt hair that looked like seaweed. His beard was short and thick, and for a flash Philip saw the starlight in his eyes—eyes that were shining like the eyes of a cat. In that same moment he saw the face. It was a terrible, questing face—the face of a creature that was hunting, and yet hunted; of a creature half animal and half man. So long as he lived he knew that he would never forget it; the wild savagery of it, the questing fire that was in the eyes, the loneliness of it there in the night, set apart from all mankind; and with the face he would never forget that other thing that came to him audibly—the throbbing, gasping heartbeat of the man's body.
In this moment Philip knew that the time to act was at hand. His fingers gripped tighter about the butt of his revolver as he stepped forward out of the shadow.
Bram would have seen him then, but in that same instant he had flung back his head and from his throat there went forth a cry such as Philip had never heard from man or beast before. It began deep in Bram's cavernous chest, like the rolling of a great drum, and ended in a wailing shriek that must have carried for miles over the open plain—the call of the master to his pack, of the man-beast to his brothers. It may be that even before the cry was finished some super-instinct had warned Bram Johnson of a danger which he had not seen. The cry was cut short. It ended in a hissing gasp, as steam is cut off by a valve. Before Philip's startled senses had adjusted themselves to action Bram was off, and as his huge strides carried him swiftly through the starlight the cry that had been on his lips was replaced by the strange, mad laugh that Pierre Breault had described with a shiver of fear.
Without moving, Philip called after him:
"Bram—Bram Johnson—stop! In the name of the King—"
It was the old formula, the words that carried with them the majesty and power of Law throughout the northland. Bram heard them. But he did not stop. He sped on more swiftly, and again Philip called his name.
The laugh came back again. It was weird and chuckling, as though Bram was laughing at him.
In the starlight Philip flung up his revolver. He did not aim to hit. Twice he fired over Bram's head and shoulders, so close that the fugitive must have heard the whine of the bullets.
"Bram—Bram Johnson!" he shouted a third time.
His pistol arm relaxed and dropped to his side, and he stood staring after the great figure that was now no more than a shadow in the gloom. And then it was swallowed up entirely. Once more he was alone under the stars, encompassed by a world of nothingness. He felt, all at once, that he had been a very great fool. He had played his part like a child; even his voice had trembled as he called out Bram's name. And Bram—even Bram—had laughed at him.
Very soon he would pay the price of his stupidity—of his slowness to act. It was thought of that which quickened his pulse as he stared out into the white space into which Bram had gone. Before the night was over Bram would return, and with him would come the wolves.
With a shudder Philip thought of Corporal Lee as he turned back through the scrub to the big rock where he had made his camp.
The picture that flashed into his mind of the fate of the two men from Churchill added to the painful realization of his own immediate peril—a danger brought upon himself by an almost inconceivable stupidity. Philip was no more than the average human with good red blood in his veins. A certain amount of personal hazard held a fascination for him, but he had also the very great human desire to hold a fairly decent hand in any game of chance he entered. It was the oppressive conviction that he had no chance now that stunned him. For a few minutes he stood over the spot where his fire had been, a film of steam rising into his face, trying to adjust his mind to some sort of logical action. He was not afraid of Bram. He would quite cheerfully have gone out and fought open-handedly for his man, even though he had seen that Bram was a giant. This, much he told himself, as he fingered the breech of his rifle, and listened.
But it was not Bram who would fight. The wolves would come. He probably would not see Bram again. He would hear only his laugh, or his great voice urging on his pack, as Corporal Lee and the other man had heard it.
That Bram would not return for vengeance never for a moment entered his analysis of the situation. By firing after his man Philip had too clearly disclosed his identity and his business; and Bram, fighting for his own existence, would be a fool not to rid himself of an immediate and dangerous enemy.
And then, for the first time since he had returned from the edge of the Barren, Philip saw the man again as he had seen him standing under the white glow of the stars. And it struck him, all at once, that Bram had been unarmed. Comprehension of this fact, slow as it had been, worked a swift and sudden hope in him, and his eyes took in quickly the larger trees about him. From a tree he could fight the pack and kill them one by one. He had a rifle and a revolver, and plenty of ammunition. The advantage would lay all with him. But if he was treed, and Bram happened to have a rifle—
He put on the heavy coat he had thrown off near the fire, filled his pockets with loose ammunition, and hunted for the tree he wanted. He found it a hundred yards from his camp. It was a gnarled and wind-blown spruce six inches in diameter, standing in an open. In this open Philip knew that he could play havoc with the pack. On the other hand, if Bram possessed a rifle, the gamble was against him. Perched in the tree, silhouetted against the stars that made the night like day, he would be an easy victim. Bram could pick him off without showing himself. But it was his one chance, and he took it.
An hour later Philip looked at his watch. It was close to midnight. In that hour his nerves had been keyed to a tension that was almost at the breaking point. Not a sound came from off the Barren or from out of the scrub timber that did not hold a mental and physical shock for him. He believed that Bram and his pack would come up quietly; that he would not hear the man's footsteps or the soft pads of his beasts until they were very near. Twice a great snow owl fluttered over his head. A third time it pounced down upon a white hare back in the shrub, and for an instant Philip thought the time had come. The little white foxes, curious as children, startled him most. Half a dozen times they sent through him the sharp thrill of anticipation, and twice they made him climb his tree.
After that hour the reaction came, and with the steadying of his nerves and the quieter pulse of his blood Philip began to ask himself if he was going to escape the ordeal which a short time before he had accepted as a certainty. Was it possible that his shots had frightened Bram? He could not believe that. Cowardice was the last thing he would associate with the strange man he had seen in the starlight. Vividly he saw Bram's face again. And now, after the almost unbearable strain he had been under, a mysterious SOMETHING that had been in that face impinged itself upon him above all other things. Wild and savage as the face had been, he had seen in it the unutterable pathos of a creature without hope. In that moment, even as caution held him listening for the approach of danger, he no longer felt the quickening thrill of man on the hunt for man. He could not have explained the change in himself—the swift reaction of thought and emotion that filled him with a mastering sympathy for Bram Johnson.
He waited, and less and less grew his fear of the wolves. Even more clearly he saw Bram as the time passed; the hunted look in the man's eyes, even as he hunted—the loneliness of him as he had stood listening for a sound from the only friends he had—the padded beasts ahead. In spite of Bram's shrieking cry to his pack, and the strangeness of the laugh that had floated back out of the white night after the shots, Philip was convinced that he was not mad. He had heard of men whom loneliness had killed. He had known one—Pelletier, up at Point Fullerton, on the Arctic. He could repeat by heart the diary Pelletier had left scribbled on his cabin door. It was worse than madness. To Pelletier death had come at last as a friend. And Bram had been like that—dead to human comradeship for years. And yet—
Under it all, in Philip's mind, ran the thought of the woman's hair. In Pierre Breault's cabin he had not given voice to the suspicion that had flashed upon him. He had kept it to himself, and Pierre, afraid to speak because of the horror of it, had remained as silent as he. The thought oppressed him now. He knew that human hair retained its life and its gloss indefinitely, and that Bram might have had the golden snare for years. It was quite reasonable to suppose that he had bartered for it with some white man in the years before he had become an outlaw, and that some curious fancy or superstition had inspired him in its possession. But Philip had ceased to be influenced by reason alone. Sharply opposed to reason was that consciousness within him which told him that the hair had been freshly cut from a woman's head. He had no argument with which to drive home the logic of this belief even with himself, and yet he found it impossible not to accept that belief fully and unequivocally. There was, or HAD been, a woman with Bram—and as he thought of the length and beauty and rare texture of the silken strand in his pocket he could not repress a shudder at the possibilities the situation involved. Bram—and a woman! And a woman with hair like that!
He left his tree after a time. For another hour he paced slowly back and forth at the edge of the Barren, his senses still keyed to the highest point of caution. Then he rebuilt his fire, pausing every few moments in the operation to listen for a suspicious sound. It was very cold. He noticed, after a little, that the weird sound of the lights over the Pole had become only a ghostly whisper. The stars were growing dimmer, and he watched them as they seemed slowly to recede farther and farther away from the world of which he was a part. This dying out of the stars always interested him. It was one of the miracles of the northern world that lay just under the long Arctic night which, a few hundred miles beyond the Barren, was now at its meridian. It seemed to him as though ten thousand invisible hands were sweeping under the heavens extinguishing the lights first in ones and twos and then in whole constellations. It preceded by perhaps half an hour the utter and chaotic blackness that comes before the northern dawn, and it was this darkness that Philip dreaded as he waited beside his fire.
In the impenetrable gloom of that hour Bram might come. It was possible that he had been waiting for that darkness. Philip looked at his watch. It was four o'clock. Once more he went to his tree, and waited. In another quarter of an hour he could not see the tree beside which he stood. And Bram did not come. With the beginning of the gray dawn Philip rebuilt his fire for the third time and prepared to cook his breakfast. He felt the need of coffee—strong coffee—and he boiled himself a double ration. At seven o'clock he was ready to take up the trail.
He believed now that some mysterious and potent force had restrained Bram Johnson from taking advantage of the splendid opportunity of that night to rid himself of an enemy. As he made his way through the scrub timber along the edge of the Barren it was with the feeling that he no longer desired Bram as a prisoner. A thing more interesting than Bram had entered into the adventure. It was the golden snare. Not with Bram himself, but only at the end of Bram's trail, would he find what the golden snare stood for. There he would discover the mystery and the tragedy of it, if it meant anything at all. He appreciated the extreme hazard of following Bram to his long hidden retreat. The man he might outwit in pursuit and overcome in fair fight, if it came to a fight, but against the pack he was fighting tremendous odds.
What this odds meant had not fully gripped him until he came cautiously out of the timber half an hour later and saw what was left of the caribou the pack had killed. The bull had fallen within fifty yards of the edge of the scrub. For a radius of twenty feet about it the snow was beaten hard by the footprints of beasts, and this arena was stained red with blood and scattered thickly with bits of flesh, broken bones and patches of hide. Philip could see where Bram had come in on the run, and where he had kicked off his snowshoes. After that his great moccasin tracks mingled with those of the wolves. Bram had evidently come in time to save the hind quarters, which had been dragged to a spot well out of the red ring of slaughter. After that the stars must have looked down upon an amazing scene. The hungry horde had left scarcely more than the disemboweled offal. Where Bram had dragged his meat there was a small circle worn by moccasin tracks, and here, too, were small bits of flesh, scattered about—the discarded remnants of Bram's own feast.
The snow told as clearly as a printed page what had happened after that. Its story amazed Philip. From somewhere Bram had produced a sledge, and on this sledge he had loaded what remained of the caribou meat. From the marks in the snow Philip saw that it had been of the low ootapanask type, but that it was longer and broader than any sledge he had ever seen. He did not have to guess at what had happened. Everything was too clear for that. Far back on the Barren Bram had loosed his pack at sight of the caribou, and the pursuit and kill had followed. After that, when beasts and man had gorged themselves, they had returned through the night for the sledge. Bram had made a wide detour so that he would not again pass near the finger of scrub timber that concealed his enemy, and with a curious quickening of the blood in his veins Philip observed how closely the pack hung at his heels. The man was master—absolutely. Later they had returned with the sledge, Bram had loaded his meat, and with his pack had struck out straight north over the Barren. Every wolf was in harness, and Bram rode on the sledge.
Philip drew a deep breath. He was learning new things about Bram Johnson. First he assured himself that Bram was not afraid, and that his disappearance could not be called a flight. If fear of capture had possessed him he would not have returned for his meat. Suddenly he recalled Pierre Breault's story of how Bram had carried off the haunches of a bull upon his shoulders as easily as a child might have carried a toy gun, and he wondered why Bram—instead of returning for the meat this night—had not carried the meat to his sledge. It would have saved time and distance. He was beginning to give Bram credit for a deeply mysterious strategy. There was some definite reason why he had not made an attack with his wolves that night. There was a reason for the wide detour around the point of timber, and there was a still more inexplicable reason why he had come back with his sledge for the meat, instead of carrying his meat to the sledge. The caribou haunch had not weighed more than sixty or seventy pounds, which was scarcely half a burden for Bram's powerful shoulders.
In the edge of the timber, where he could secure wood for his fire, Philip began to prepare. He cooked food for six days. Three days he would follow Bram out into that unmapped and treeless space—the Great Barren. Beyond that it would be impossible to go without dogs or sledge. Three days out, and three days back—and even at that he would be playing a thrilling game with death. In the heart of the Barren a menace greater than Bram and his wolves would be impending. It was storm.
His heart sank a little as he set out straight north, marking the direction by the point of his compass. It was a gray and sunless day. Beyond him for a distance the Barren was a white plain, and this plain seemed always to be merging not very far ahead into the purple haze of the sky. At the end of an hour he was in the center of a vast amphitheater which was filled with the gloom and the stillness of death. Behind him the thin fringe of the forest had disappeared. The rim of the sky was like a leaden thing, widening only as he advanced. Under that sky, and imprisoned within its circular walls, he knew that men had gone mad; he felt already the crushing oppression of an appalling loneliness, and for another hour he fought an almost irresistible desire to turn back. Not a rock or a shrub rose to break the monotony, and over his head—so low that at times it seemed as though he might have flung a stone up to them—dark clouds rolled sullenly from out of the north and east.
Half a dozen times in those first two hours he looked at his compass. Not once in that time did Bram diverge from his steady course into the north. In the gray gloom, without a stone or a tree to mark his way, his sense of orientation was directing him as infallibly as the sensitive needle of the instrument which Philip carried.
It was in the third hour, seven or eight miles from the scene of slaughter, that Philip came upon the first stopping place of the sledge. The wolves had not broken their traveling rank, and for this reason he guessed that Bram had paused only long enough to put on his snowshoes. After this Philip could measure quite accurately the speed of the outlaw and his pack. Bram's snow-shoe strides were from twelve to sixteen inches longer than his own, and there was little doubt that Bram was traveling six miles to his four.
It was one o'clock when Philip stopped to eat his dinner. He figured that he was fifteen miles from the timber-line. As he ate there pressed upon him more and more persistently the feeling that he had entered upon an adventure which was leading toward inevitable disaster for him. For the first time the significance of Bram's supply of meat, secured by the outlaw at the last moment before starting out into the Barren, appeared to him with a clearness that filled him with uneasiness. It meant that Bram required three or four days' rations for himself and his pack in crossing this sea of desolation that reached in places to the Arctic. In that time, if necessity was driving him, he could cover a hundred and fifty miles, while Philip could make less than a hundred.
Until three o'clock in the afternoon he followed steadily over Bram's trail. He would have pursued for another hour if a huge and dome-shaped snowdrift had not risen in his path. In the big drift he decided to make his house for the night. It was an easy matter—a trick learned of the Eskimo. With his belt-ax he broke through the thick crust of the drift, using care that the "door" he thus opened into it was only large enough for the entrance of his body. Using a snowshoe as a shovel he then began digging out the soft interior of the drift, burrowing a two foot tunnel until he was well back from the door, where he made himself a chamber large enough for his sleeping-bag. The task employed him less than an hour, and when his bed was made, and he stood in front of the door to his igloo, his spirits began to return. The assurance that he had a home at his back in which neither cold nor storm could reach him inspirited him with an optimism which he had not felt at any time during the day.
From the timber he had borne a precious bundle of finely split kindlings of pitch-filled spruce, and with a handful of these he built himself a tiny fire over which, on a longer stick brought for the purpose, he suspended his tea pail, packed with snow. The crackling of the flames set him whistling. Darkness was falling swiftly about him. By the time his tea was ready and he had warmed his cold bannock and bacon the gloom was like a black curtain that he might have slit with a knife. Not a star was visible in the sky. Twenty feet on either side of him he could not see the surface of the snow. Now and then he added a bit of his kindling to the dying embers, and in the glow of the last stick he smoked his pipe, and as he smoked he drew from his wallet the golden snare. Coiled in the hollow of his hand and catching the red light of the pitch-laden fagot it shone with the rich luster of rare metal. Not until the pitch was burning itself out in a final sputter of flame did Philip replace it in the wallet.
With the going of the fire an utter and chaotic blackness shut him in. Feeling his way he crawled through the door of his tunnel, over the inside of which he had fastened as a flap his silk service tent. Then he stretched himself out in his sleeping-bag. It was surprisingly comfortable. Since he had left Breault's cabin he had not enjoyed such a bed. And last night he had not slept at all. He fell into deep sleep. The hours and the night passed over him. He did not hear the wailing of the wind that came with the dawn. When day followed dawn there were other sounds which he did not hear. His inner consciousness, the guardian of his sleep, cried for him to arouse himself. It pounded like a little hand in his brain, and at last he began to move restlessly, and twist in his sleeping-bag. His eyes shot open suddenly. The light of day filled his tunnel. He looked toward the "door" which he had covered with his tent.
The tent was gone.
In its place was framed a huge shaggy head, and Philip found himself staring straight into the eyes of Bram Johnson.
Philip was not unaccustomed to the occasional mental and physical shock which is an inevitable accompaniment of the business of Law in the northland. But never had he felt quite the same stir in his blood as now—when he found himself looking down the short tunnel into the face of the man he was hunting.
There come now and then moments in which a curious understanding is impinged upon one without loss of time in reason and surmise—and this was one of those moments for Philip. His first thought as he saw the great wild face in the door of his tunnel was that Bram had been looking at him for some time—while he was asleep; and that if the desire to kill had been in the outlaw's breast he might have achieved his purpose with very little trouble. Equally swift was his observance of the fact that the tent with which he had covered the aperture was gone, and that his rifle, with the weight of which he had held the tent in place, had disappeared. Bram had secured possession of them before he had roused himself.
It was not the loss of these things, or entirely Bram's sudden and unexpected appearance, that sent through him the odd thrill, which he experienced. It was Bram's face, his eyes, the tense and mysterious earnestness that was in his gaze. It was not the watchfulness of a victor looking at his victim. In it there was no sign of hatred or of exultation. There was not even unfriendliness there. Rather it was the study of one filled with doubt and uneasiness, and confronted by a question which he could not answer. There was not a line of the face which Philip could not see now—its high cheek-bones, its wide cheeks, the low forehead, the flat nose, the thick lips. Only the eyes kept it from being a terrible face. Straight down through the generations Bram must have inherited those eyes from some woman of the past. They were strange things in that wild and hunted creature's face—gray eyes, large, beautiful. With the face taken away they would have been wonderful.
For a full minute not a sound passed between the two men. Philip's hand had slipped to the butt of his revolver, but he had no intention of using it. Then he found his voice. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should say what he did.
Only Bram's thick lips moved. His voice was low and guttural. Almost instantly his head disappeared from the opening.
Philip dug himself quickly from his sleeping-bag. Through the aperture there came to him now another sound, the yearning whine of beasts. He could not hear Bram. In spite of the confidence which his first look at Bram had given him he felt a sudden shiver run up his spine as he faced the end of the tunnel on his hands and knees, his revolver in his hand. What a rat in a trap he would be if Bram loosed his wolves! What sport for the pack—and perhaps for the master himself! He could kill two or three—and that would be all. They would be in on him like a whirlwind, diving through his snow walls as easily as a swimmer might cut through water. Had he twice made a fool of himself? Should he have winged Bram Johnson, three times a murderer, in place of offering him a greeting?
He began crawling toward the opening, and again he heard the snarl and whine of the beasts. The sound seemed some distance away. He reached the end of the tunnel and peered out through the "door" he had made in the crust.
From his position he could see nothing—nothing but the endless sweep of the Barren and his old trail leading up to the snow dune. The muzzle of his revolver was at the aperture when he heard Bram's voice.
"M'sieu—ze revolv'—ze knife—or I mus' keel yon. Ze wolve plent' hungr'—"
Bram was standing just outside of his line of vision. He had not spoken loudly or threateningly, but Philip felt in the words a cold and unexcited deadliness of purpose against which he knew that it would be madness for him to fight. Bram had more than the bad man's ordinary drop on him. In his wolves he possessed not only an advantage but a certainty. If Philip had doubted this, as he waited for another moment with the muzzle of his revolver close to the opening, his uncertainty was swept away by the appearance thirty feet in front of his tunnel of three of Bram's wolves. They were giants of their kind, and as the three faced his refuge he could see the snarling gleam of their long fangs. A fourth and a fifth joined them, and after that they came within his vision in twos and threes until a score of them were huddled straight in front of him. They were restless and whining, and the snap of their jaws was like the clicking of castanets. He caught the glare of twenty pairs of eyes fastened on his retreat and involuntarily he shrank back that they might not see him. He knew that it was Bram who was holding them back, and yet he had heard no word, no command. Even as he stared a long snakelike shadow uncurled itself swiftly in the air and the twenty foot lash of Bram's caribou-gut whip cracked viciously over the heads of the pack. At the warning of the whip the horde of beasts scattered, and Bram's voice came again.
"M'sieu—ze revolv'—ze knife—or I loose ze wolve—"
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when Philip's revolver flew through the opening and dropped in the snow.
"There it is, old man," announced Philip. "And here comes the knife."
His sheath-knife followed the revolver.
"Shall I throw out my bed?" he asked.
He was making a tremendous effort to appear cheerful. But he could not forget that last night he had shot at Bram, and that it was not at all unreasonable to suppose that Bram might knock his brains out when he stuck his head out of the hole. The fact that Bram made no answer to his question about the bed did not add to his assurance. He repeated the question, louder than before, and still there was no answer. In the face of his perplexity he could not repress a grim chuckle as he rolled up his blankets. What a report he would have for the Department—if he lived to make it! On paper there would be a good deal of comedy about it—this burrowing oneself up like a hibernating woodchuck, and then being invited out to breakfast by a man with a club and a pack of brutes with fangs that had gleamed at him like ivory stilettos. He had guessed at the club, and a moment later as he thrust his sleeping-bag out through the opening he saw that it was quite obviously a correct one. Bram was possessing himself of the revolver and the knife. In the same hand he held his whip and a club.
Seizing the opportunity, Philip followed his bed quickly, and when Bram faced him he was standing on his feet outside the drift.
His greeting was drowned in a chorus of fierce snarls that made his blood curdle even as he tried to hide from Bram any visible betrayal of the fact that every nerve up and down his spine was pricking him, like a pin. From Bram's throat there shot forth at the pack a sudden sharp clack of Eskimo, and with it the long whip snapped in their faces again.
Then he looked steadily at his prisoner. For the first time Philip saw the look which he dreaded darkening his face. A greenish fire burned in the strange eyes. The thick lips were set tightly, the flat nose seemed flatter, and with a shiver Philip noticed Bram's huge, naked hand gripping his club until the cords stood out like babiche thongs under the skin. In that moment he was ready to kill. A wrong word, a wrong act, and Philip knew that the end was inevitable.
In the same thick guttural voice which he used in his half-breed patois he demanded,
"Why you shoot—las' night!"
"Because I wanted to talk with you, Bram," replied Philip calmly. "I didn't shoot to hit you. I fired over your head."
"You want—talk," said Bram, speaking as if each word cost him a certain amount of effort. "Why—talk?"
"I wanted to ask you why it was that you killed a man down in the God's Lake country."
The words were out before Philip could stop them. A growl rose in Bram's chest. It was like the growl of a beast. The greenish fire in his eyes grew brighter.
"Ze poleece," he said. "KA, ze poleece—like kam from Churchill an' ze wolve keel!"
Philip's hand was fumbling in his pocket. The wolves were behind him and he dared not turn to look. It was their ominous silence that filled him with dread. They were waiting—watching—their animal instinct telling them that the command for which they yearned was already trembling on the thick lips of their master. The revolver and the knife dropped from Bram's hand. He held only the whip and the club.
Philip drew forth the wallet.
"You lost something—when you camped that night near Pierre Breault's cabin," he said, and his own voice seemed strange and thick to him. "I've followed you—to give it back. I could have killed you if I had wanted to—when I fired over your head. But I wanted to stop you. I wanted to give you—this."
He held out to Bram the golden snare.
It must have been fully half a minute that Bram stood like a living creature turned suddenly into dead stone. His eyes had left Philip's face and were fixed on the woven tress of shining hair. For the first time his thick lips had fallen agape. He did not seem to breathe. At the end of the thirty seconds his hand unclenched from about the whip and the club and they fell into the snow. Slowly, his eyes still fixed on the snare as if it held for him an overpowering fascination, he advanced a step, and then another, until he reached out and took from Philip the thing which he held. He uttered no word. But from his eyes there disappeared the greenish fire. The lines in his heavy face softened and his thick lips lost some of their cruelty as he held up the snare before his eyes so that the light played on its sheen of gold. It was then that Philip saw that which must have meant a smile in Bram's face.
Still this strange man made no spoken sound as he coiled the silken thread around one of his great fingers and then placed it somewhere inside his coat. He seemed, all at once, utterly oblivious of Philip's presence. He picked up the revolver, gazed heavily at it for a moment, and with a grunt which must have reflected his mental decision hurled it far out over the plain. Instantly the wolves were after it in a mad rush. The knife followed the revolver; and after that, as coolly as though breaking firewood, the giant went to Philip's rifle, braced it across his knee, and with a single effort snapped the stock off close to the barrel.
"The devil!" growled Philip.
He felt a surge of anger rise in him, and for an instant the inclination to fling himself at Bram in the defense of his property. If he had been helpless a few minutes before, he was utterly so now. In the same breath it flashed upon him that Bram's activity in the destruction of his weapons meant that his life was spared, at least for the present. Otherwise Bram would not be taking these precautions.
The futility of speech kept his own lips closed. At last Bram looked at him, and pointed to his snowshoes where he had placed them last night against the snow dune. His invitation for Philip to prepare himself for travel was accompanied by nothing more than a grunt.
The wolves were returning, sneaking in watchfully and alert. Bram greeted them with the snap of his whip, and when Philip was ready motioned him to lead the way into the north. Half a dozen paces behind Philip followed Bram, and twice that distance behind the outlaw came the pack. Now that his senses were readjusting themselves and his pulse beating more evenly Philip began to take stock of the situation. It was, first of all, quite evident that Bram had not accepted him as a traveling companion, but as a prisoner; and he was equally convinced that the golden snare had at the last moment served in some mysterious way to save his life.
It was not long before he saw how Bram had out-generaled him. Two miles beyond the big drift they came upon the outlaw's huge sledge, from which Bram and his wolves had made a wide circle in order to stalk him from behind. The fact puzzled him. Evidently Bram had expected his unknown enemy to pursue him, and had employed his strategy accordingly. Why, then, had he not attacked him the night of the caribou kill?
He watched Bram as he got the pack into harness. The wolves obeyed him like dogs. He could perceive among them a strange comradeship, even an affection, for the man-monster who was their master. Bram spoke to them entirely in Eskimo—and the sound of it was like the rapid CLACK—CLACK—CLACK of dry bones striking together. It was weirdly different from the thick and guttural tones Bram used in speaking Chippewyan and the half-breed patois.
Again Philip made an effort to induce Bram to break his oppressive silence. With a suggestive gesture and a hunch of his shoulders he nodded toward the pack, just as they were about to start.
"If you thought I tried to kill you night before last why didn't you set your wolves after me, Bram—as you did those other two over on the Barren north of Kasba Lake? Why did you wait until this morning? And where—WHERE in God's name are we going?"
Bram stretched out an arm.
It was the one question he answered, and he pointed straight as the needle of a compass into the north. And then, as if his crude sense of humor had been touched by the other thing Philip had asked, he burst into a laugh. It made one shudder to see laughter in a face like Bram's. It transformed his countenance from mere ugliness into one of the leering gargoyles carven under the cornices of ancient buildings. It was this laugh, heard almost at Bram's elbow, that made Philip suddenly grip hard at a new understanding—the laugh and the look in Bram's eyes. It set him throbbing, and filled him all at once with the desire to seize his companion by his great shoulders and shake speech from his thick lips. In that moment, even before the laughter had gone from Bram's face, he thought again of Pelletier. Pelletier must have been like this—in those terrible days when he scribbled the random thoughts of a half-mad man on his cabin door.
Bram was not yet mad. And yet he was fighting the thing that had killed Pelletier. Loneliness. The fate forced upon him by the law because he had killed a man.
His face was again heavy and unemotional when with a gesture he made Philip understand that he was to ride on the sledge. Bram himself went to the head of the pack. At the sharp clack of his Eskimo the wolves strained in their traces. Another moment and they were off, with Bram in the lead.
Philip was amazed at the pace set by the master of the pack. With head and shoulders hunched low he set off in huge swinging strides that kept the team on a steady trot behind him. They must have traveled eight miles an hour. For a few minutes Philip could not keep his eyes from Bram and the gray backs of the wolves. They fascinated him, and at the same time the sight of them—straining on ahead of him into a voiceless and empty world—filled him with a strange and overwhelming compassion. He saw in them the brotherhood of man and beast. It was splendid. It was epic. And to this the Law had driven them!
His eyes began to take in the sledge then. On it was a roll of bear skins—Bram's blankets. One was the skin of a polar bear. Near these skins were the haunches of caribou meat, and so close to him that he might have reached out and touched it was Bram's club. At the side of the club lay a rifle. It was of the old breech-loading, single-shot type, and Philip wondered why Bram had destroyed his own modern weapon instead of keeping it in place of this ancient Company relic. It also made him think of night before last, when he had chosen for his refuge a tree out in the starlight.
The club, even more than the rifle, bore marks of use. It was of birch, and three feet in length. Where Bram's hand gripped it the wood was worn as smooth and dark as mahogany. In many places the striking end of the club was dented as though it had suffered the impact of tremendous blows, and it was discolored by suggestive stains. There was no sign of cooking utensils and no evidence of any other food but the caribou flesh. On the rear of the sledge was a huge bundle of pitch-soaked spruce tied with babiche, and out of this stuck the crude handle of an ax.
Of these things the gun and the white bear skin impressed Philip most. He had only to lean forward a little to reach the rifle, and the thought that he could scarcely miss the broad back of the man ahead of him struck him all at once with a sort of mental shock. Bram had evidently forgotten the weapon, or was utterly confident in the protection of the pack. Or—had he faith in his prisoner? It was this last question that Philip would liked to have answered in the affirmative. He had no desire to harm Bram. He had even a less desire to escape him. He had forgotten, so far as his personal intentions were concerned, that he was an agent of the Law—under oath to bring in to Divisional Headquarters Bram's body dead or alive. Since night before last Bram had ceased to be a criminal for him. He was like Pelletier, and through him he was entering upon a strange adventure which held for him already the thrill and suspense of an anticipation which he had never experienced in the game of man-hunting.
Had the golden snare been taken from the equation—had he not felt the thrill of it in his fingers and looked upon the warm fires of it as it lay unbound on Pierre Breault's table, his present relation with Bram Johnson he would have considered as a purely physical condition, and he might then have accepted the presence of the rifle there within his reach as a direct invitation from Providence.
As it was, he knew that the master of the wolves was speeding swiftly to the source of the golden snare. From the moment he had seen the strange transformation it had worked in Bram that belief within him had become positive. And now, as his eyes turned from the inspection of the sledge to Bram and his wolves, he wondered where the trail was taking him. Was it possible that Bram was striking straight north for Coronation Gulf and the Eskimo? He had noted that the polar bear skin was only slightly worn—that it had not long been taken from the back of the animal that had worn it. He recalled what he could remember of his geography. Their course, if continued in the direction Bram was now heading, would take them east of the Great Slave and the Great Bear, and they would hit the Arctic somewhere between Melville Sound and the Coppermine River. It was a good five hundred miles to the Eskimo settlements there. Bram and his wolves could make it in ten days, possibly in eight.
If his guess was correct, and Coronation Gulf was Bram's goal, he had found at least one possible explanation for the tress of golden hair.
The girl or woman to whom it had belonged had come into the north aboard a whaling ship. Probably she was the daughter or the wife of the master. The ship had been lost in the ice—she had been saved by the Eskimo—and she was among them now, with other white men. Philip pictured it all vividly. It was unpleasant—horrible. The theory of other white men being with her he was conscious of forcing upon himself to offset the more reasonable supposition that, as in the case of the golden snare, she belonged to Bram. He tried to free himself of that thought, but it clung to him with a tenaciousness that oppressed him with a grim and ugly foreboding. What a monstrous fate for a woman! He shivered. For a few moments every instinct in his body fought to assure him that such a thing could not happen. And yet he knew that it COULD happen. A woman up there—with Bram! A woman with hair like spun gold—and that giant half-mad enormity of a man!
He clenched his hands at the picture his excited brain was painting for him. He wanted to jump from the sledge, overtake Bram, and demand the truth from him. He was calm enough to realize the absurdity of such action. Upon his own strategy depended now whatever answer he might make to the message chance had sent to him through the golden snare.
For an hour he marked Bram's course by his compass. It was straight north. Then Bram changed the manner of his progress by riding in a standing position behind Philip. With his long whip he urged on the pack until they were galloping over the frozen level of the plain at a speed that must have exceeded ten miles an hour. A dozen times Philip made efforts at conversation. Not a word did he get from Bram in reply. Again and again the outlaw shouted to his wolves in Eskimo; he cracked his whip, he flung his great arms over his head, and twice there rolled out of his chest deep peals of strange laughter. They had been traveling more than two hours when he gave voice to a sudden command that stopped the pack, and at a second command—a staccato of shrill Eskimo accompanied by the lash of his whip—the panting wolves sank upon their bellies in the snow.
Philip jumped from the sledge, and Bram went immediately to the gun. He did not touch it, but dropped on his knees and examined it closely. Then he rose to his feet and looked at Philip, and there was no sign of madness in his heavy face as he said,
"You no touch ze gun, m'sieu. Why you no shoot when I am there—at head of pack?"
The calmness and directness with which Bram put the question after his long and unaccountable silence surprised Philip.
"For the same reason you didn't kill me when I was asleep, I guess," he said. Suddenly he reached out and caught Bram's arm. "Why the devil don't you come across!" he demanded. "Why don't you talk? I'm not after you—now. The Police think you are dead, and I don't believe I'd tip them off even if I had a chance. Why not be human? Where are we going? And what in thunder—"
He did not finish. To his amazement Bram flung back his head, opened his great mouth, and laughed. It was not a taunting laugh. There was no humor in it. The thing seemed beyond the control of even Bram himself, and Philip stood like one paralyzed as his companion turned quickly to the sledge and returned in a moment with the gun. Under Philip's eyes he opened the breech. The chamber was empty. Bram had placed in his way a temptation—to test him!
There was saneness in that stratagem—and yet as Philip looked at the man now his last doubt was gone. Bram Johnson was hovering on the borderland of madness.
Replacing the gun on the sledge, Bram began hacking off chunks of the caribou flesh with a big knife. Evidently he had decided that it was time for himself and his pack to breakfast. To each of the wolves he gave a portion, after which he seated himself on the sledge and began devouring a slice of the raw meat. He had left the blade of his knife buried in the carcass—an invitation for Philip to help himself. Philip seated himself near Bram and opened his pack. Purposely he began placing his food between them, so that the other might help himself if he so desired. Bram's jaws ceased their crunching. For a moment Philip did not look up. When he did he was startled. Bram's eyes were blazing with a red fire. He was staring at the cooked food. Never had Philip seen such a look in a human face before.
He reached out and seized a chunk of bannock, and was about to bite into it when with the snarl of a wild beast Bram dropped his meat and was at him. Before Philip could raise an arm in defense his enemy had him by the throat. Back over the sledge they went. Philip scarcely knew how it happened—but in another moment the giant had hurled him clean over his head and he struck the frozen plain with a shock that stunned him. When he staggered to his feet, expecting a final assault that would end him, Bram was kneeling beside his pack. A mumbling and incoherent jargon of sound issued from his thick lips as he took stock of Philip's supplies. Of Philip himself he seemed now utterly oblivious. Still mumbling, he dragged the pile of bear skins from the sledge, unrolled them, and revealed a worn and tattered dunnage bag. At first Philip thought this bag was empty. Then Bram drew from it a few small packages, some of them done up in paper and others in bark. Only one of these did Philip recognize—a half pound package of tea such as the Hudson's Bay Company offers in barter at its stores. Into the dunnage bag Bram now put Philip's supplies, even to the last crumb of bannock, and then returned the articles he had taken out, after which he rolled the bag up in the bear skins and replaced the skins on the sledge.
After that, still mumbling, and still paying no attention to Philip, he reseated himself on the edge of the sledge and finished his breakfast of raw meat.
"The poor devil!" mumbled Philip.
The words were out of his mouth before he realized that he had spoken them. He was still a little dazed by the shock of Bram's assault, but it was impossible for him to bear malice or thought of vengeance. In Bram's face, as he had covetously piled up the different articles of food, he had seen the terrible glare of starvation—and yet he had not eaten a mouthful. He had stored the food away, and Philip knew it was as much as his life was worth to contend its ownership.
Again Bram seemed to be unconscious of his presence, but when Philip went to the meat and began carving himself off a slice the wolf-man's eyes shot in his direction just once. Purposely he stood in front of Bram as he ate the raw steak, feigning a greater relish than he actually enjoyed in consuming his uncooked meal. Bram did not wait for him to finish. No sooner had he swallowed the last of his own breakfast than he was on his feet giving sharp commands to the pack. Instantly the wolves were alert in their traces. Philip took his former position on the sledge, with Bram behind him.
Never in all the years afterward did he forget that day. As the hours passed it seemed to him that neither man nor beast could very long stand the strain endured by Bram and his wolves. At times Bram rode on the sledge for short distances, but for the most part he was running behind, or at the head of the pack. For the pack there was no rest. Hour after hour it surged steadily onward over the endless plain, and whenever the wolves sagged for a moment in their traces Brain's whip snapped over their gray backs and his voice rang out in fierce exhortation. So hard was the frozen crust of the Barren that snowshoes were no longer necessary, and half a dozen times Philip left the sledge and ran with the wolf-man and his pack until he was winded. Twice he ran shoulder to shoulder with Bram.
It was in the middle of the afternoon that his compass told him they were no longer traveling north—but almost due west. Every quarter of an hour after that he looked at his compass. And always the course was west.
He was convinced that some unusual excitement was urging Bram on, and he was equally certain this excitement had taken possession of him from the moment he had found the food in his pack. Again and again he heard the strange giant mumbling incoherently to himself, but not once did Bram utter a word that he could understand.
The gray world about them was darkening when at last they stopped.
And now, strangely as before, Bram seemed for a few moments to turn into a sane man.
He pointed to the bundle of fuel, and as casually as though he had been conversing with him all the day he said to Philip:
"A fire, m'sieu."
The wolves had dropped in their traces, their great shaggy heads stretched out between their paws in utter exhaustion, and Bram went slowly down the line speaking to each one in turn. After that he fell again into his stolid silence. From the bear skins he produced a kettle, filled it with snow, and hung it over the pile of fagots to which Philip was touching a match. Philip's tea pail he employed in the same way.
"How far have we come, Bram?" Philip asked.
"Fift' mile, m'sieu," answered Bram without hesitation.
"And how much farther have we to go?"
Bram grunted. His face became more stolid. In his hand he was holding the big knife with which he cut the caribou meat. He was staring at it. From the knife he looked at Philip.
"I keel ze man at God's Lake because he steal ze knife—an' call me lie. I keel heem—lak that!"—and he snatched up a stick and broke it into two pieces.
His weird laugh followed the words. He went to the meat and began carving off chunks for the pack, and for a long time after that one would have thought that he was dumb. Philip made greater effort than ever to rouse him into speech. He laughed, and whistled, and once tried the experiment of singing a snatch of the Caribou Song which he knew that Bram must have heard many times before. As he roasted his steak over the fire he talked about the Barren, and the great herd of caribou he had seen farther east; he asked Bram questions about the weather, the wolves, and the country farther north and west. More than once he was certain that Bram was listening intently, but nothing more than an occasional grunt was his response.
For an hour after they had finished their supper they continued to melt snow for drinking water for themselves and the wolves. Night shut them in, and in the glow of the fire Bram scooped a hollow in the snow for a bed, and tilted the big sledge over it as a roof. Philip made himself as comfortable as he could with his sleeping bag, using his tent as an additional protection. The fire went out. Bram's heavy breathing told Philip that the wolf-man was soon asleep. It was a long time before he felt a drowsiness creeping over himself.
Later he was awakened by a heavy grasp on his arm, and roused himself to hear Bram's voice close over him.
"Get up, m'sieu."
It was so dark he could not see Bram when he got on his feet, but he could hear him a moment later among the wolves, and knew that he was making ready to travel. When his sleeping-bag and tent were on the sledge he struck a match and looked at his watch. It was less than a quarter of an hour after midnight.
For two hours Bram led his pack straight into the west. The night cleared after that, and as the stars grew brighter and more numerous in the sky the plain was lighted up on all sides of them, as on the night when Philip had first seen Bram. By lighting an occasional match Philip continued to keep a record of direction and time. It was three o'clock, and they were still traveling west, when to his surprise they struck a small patch of timber. The clump of stunted and wind-snarled spruce covered no more than half an acre, but it was conclusive evidence they were again approaching a timber-line.
From the patch of spruce Bram struck due north, and for another hour their trail was over the white Barren. Soon after this they came to a fringe of scattered timber which grew steadily heavier and deeper as they entered into it. They must have penetrated eight or ten miles into the forest before the dawn came. And in that dawn, gray and gloomy, they came suddenly upon a cabin.
Philip's heart gave a jump. Here, at last, would the mystery of the golden snare be solved. This was his first thought. But as they drew nearer, and stopped at the threshold of the door, he felt sweep over him an utter disappointment. There was no life here. No smoke came from the chimney and the door was almost buried in a huge drift of snow. His thoughts were cut short by the crack of Bram's whip. The wolves swept onward and Bram's insane laugh sent a weird and shuddering echo through the forest.