To Win or to Die, A Tale of the Klondike Gold Craze, by George Manville Fenn.
This is a tough tale about tough men. Right from the first chapter we are living with men who are fighting for survival, the enemy being as often as not other men who would rob them. Chapter after chapter leaves the heroes in some new desperate plight, which, when overcome, is almost at once replaced by yet another one.
It is not a very long book, and it is very well illustrated, but it is a breathless race from one peril to the next.
I cannot say that you should enjoy or be entertained by reading of other peoples' misfortunes, but the author intended that you should be so entertained, and you will be.
TO WIN OR TO DIE, A TALE OF THE KLONDIKE GOLD CRAZE, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"It's a lie! I don't and I won't believe it."
The speaker half whispered that, and then he shouted, "Do you hear?"
There was a pause, and then from the face of a huge white snow-cliff there came back the word "hear."
"Well done, echo!" cried the speaker.
"Echo," came back.
"Thankye; that's quite cheering; anything's better than that horrible silence. What do they say? When a man gets in the habit of talking to himself it's a sign that he is going mad? Once more, it's a lie! A man would go mad in this awful solitude if he didn't hear some one speaking. Snow, snow, snow, and rock and mountain; and ugh! how cold! Pull up, donkey! jackass! idiot! or you'll freeze to death."
The speaker was harnessed by a looped rope to a small, well-packed sledge, after the fashion of one who tracks about along the Thames; but how different here! No sunny river, no verdant flowing mead or hanging summer wood, but winter, stern winter in its wildest, and the heavy sledge, in answer to the tugging at the rope, now sticking fast amongst the heaped-up stones frozen together in a mass, now suddenly gliding down sharp slopes and tripping its owner up, so that again and again, during an awful day's tramp, he had fallen heavily. But only to struggle up, shake the snow from his fur-lined coat, and continue his journey onward towards the golden land where the nuggets lay in wondrous profusion waiting the bold adventurer's coming—heaped-up, almost fabulous riches that had lain undiscovered since the beginning of the world.
He, the toiler, dragging that sledge, in which were carefully packed his gun, ammunition, spare clothes, blankets, stores, and sleeping-bag of fur, had started at daylight that morning from the last outpost of civilisation—a miserable shanty at the top of the tremendous pass he had surmounted with the help of the men who occupied the shanty and called themselves guides; and then, after repacking his sledge and trusting to the landmarks ahead and a pocket compass, he had boldly set off, ready to dare every peril, for he was young, sanguine, well-armed, strong, and nerved by hope and the determination to succeed.
It was only a brave struggle over the mountains, and then down into the river valley beyond, to leave the winter behind with its pain and misery, and meet the welcome of the summer sunshine and—the gold.
That morning it was winter indeed; but the adventurer's heart was warm, and the way through the mountains was plain, while the exertion sent the blood tingling through his veins till he glowed as the rugged miles were mastered.
Then there was the halt and a seat on the sledge for a hasty meal upon the tough provisions; but how delicious every mouthful was!
Then forward again, refreshed for the journey onward, to some snugly sheltered spot where he could camp for the night and sleep in his fur bag, regardless of any number of degrees of frost.
But as the afternoon wore on, the sledge seemed to grow more heavy, the way wilder and more stern, and the stoppages frequent.
He unpacked and rested and refreshed himself. Then he grew cheery once more.
"Lightens the load and me too," he said with a laugh, as he thrust his head through the loop and tugged at the sledge; but it did not seem lighter. It grew more heavy, and the obstacles were terrible to surmount.
But he knew he was in the right track through the pathless waste of heaped-up snow. There was no mistaking that awful gorge, with the rocks piled up like Titanic walls on either side. He knew that he could not go wrong. All he had to do was to persevere, and he plodded on.
"Never mind if it's only yards instead of miles surmounted," he muttered. "They are so many yards nearer the winning post."
At last, as he fought his way on, with his unwonted exertions beginning to tell mentally and bodily, he broke out talking wildly to fight back the horrible sensation of depression, and was brought to a standstill, the sledge having jammed between two blocks of ice-covered rock; and he stood for some minutes gazing round hopelessly at the fast-dimming scene, which had looked picturesque in the morning, but appeared awful now.
"I ought to have had a companion," he muttered, "if it had only been a dog."
He stood still, staring at the precipices on either side, whose chasms were beginning to look black; then at his jammed-in sledge; and he felt that he must drag it out and go on again, for night was coming on, and he could not camp where he was.
Then as he was wearily and slowly stooping down to drag the sledge back, he made a sudden bound as if electrified, tried to run, tripped, and fell heavily.
For all at once there was a roar like thunder, a terrible rushing sound, the echoes of the mountains seemed to have been let loose, and his hair began to bristle, while a cold perspiration gathered on his face as he listened to the sounds dying away in rumbling whispers.
"Away up to the right," he said to himself as he gazed in that direction, realising that it was a snow-fall. Thousands of tons had gone down somewhere out of sight; but he was safe, and giving the sledge a jerk, he set it free, guided it over the snow, and prepared for another start.
But that avalanche had somewhat unnerved him, for he had been looking out for a place to camp, and it now seemed madness to think of coming to a halt there.
"Must find a safer place," he thought; and now fresh dangers began to suggest themselves. Would there be wolves in these mountains? Certainly there must be bears; and dragging off one of his big fur gloves, he took out and examined his revolver, before replacing it in its leather holster. He glanced, too, at his rifle in its woollen case, bound on the top of the loaded sledge.
"Bah! how cowardly one can turn!" he muttered. "Of course, there will be all those troubles to face. I'm fagged—that's what it is. Now, then, old fellow, gee up! I'll camp in the first sheltered nook I see; I'm sure to find one soon. Then supper in the warm bag and a good night's rest. Sleep? I could lie down and sleep here in the snow. Pull up! That's the way. I wonder how much gold I could drag on a sledge like this?"
For quite another hour he toiled on, and perhaps got over a quarter of a mile, always gazing anxiously ahead for a suitable shelter, but looking in vain.
Then he utterly broke down, catching his foot against a block which the darkness hid from his fast-dimming eyes; and with a sob of misery as he saved himself from striking his face, at the expense of a heavy wrench to one wrist, he lay perfectly still, feeling a strange drowsy sensation creeping over him.
"This will not do," he cried aloud in alarm, for he knew that giving way to such a feeling in the snow meant resigning himself to death; and he painfully rose to his knees, and then remained, staring wildly before him, wondering whether he was already dreaming. For not far away, flashing and quivering in reflections from the precipice wall on his left, there was a light which kept rising and falling.
No dream, but the reflected light of a camp fire. Others, bound upon the same mission as himself, must be close at hand; and staggering now to his feet, he placed his gloved hands to his lips and gave forth a loud echoing "Ahoy!"
The next moment his heart beat high with joy, and the horrible perils of frost and darkness in that unsheltered place faded away into nothingness, for his hail was answered from close at hand.
"Ahoy! Who is it?" came echoing back.
"Help!" shouted the adventurer; and then he sank upon his sledge with heart throbbing and a strange giddiness attacking him.
FALLEN AMONG THIEVES.
"Hullo, there!" cried a rough voice. "Why don't you come on?" and the next minute a couple of figures seemed to start out of the darkness.
"I'm fagged out. Can you lend me a hand?"
"Lend you a hand? Yes," said another voice. "Where's your mate?"
"Alone? No pal with you?"
"No, and my sledge has stuck fast. Will you help me as far as your fire?"
"Got a sled, hev you? All right, mate. Where's the line? Lay hold, Leggy, while I give it a hyste. That's your sort. Come on." It seemed like a dream, and as if all the peril and horror had passed away, as the two men dragged the sledge along and the adventurer staggered on beside them, till they halted in the ruddy light of a great fire, lit at the foot of a stupendous wall of glistening ice-covered rock. The fire of pine-boughs crackled and flashed, and lit up the face of a third man, a big red-bearded fellow, who was kneeling down tending the embers and watching a camp kettle slung from three sticks, the contents of which were beginning to steam.
"Here we are, Beardy," said one of the rescue party. "Comp'ny gent on his travels."
The kneeling man scowled at the speaker, and then put his hand behind him as if from instinct, but dropped it as the other said:
"It's all right, Beardy. Number four's empty, isn't it? Because if it aren't, you'll have to give up your room."
The big red-bearded man showed some prominent yellow teeth in a grin, nodded, and pushed a blazing brand under the kettle.
"Sit down, youngster," said the first speaker. "Maybe you'll jyne us at supper?"
"I shall be very glad."
"Right you are, and welcome! 'Aven't brought anything with you, I suppose?"
"Yes, I have some cake and bacon."
"Well done, young un. Get it out," said the red-bearded man, and, recovered somewhat by his warm reception, the young adventurer began to unlash the load upon the sledge, the two men who had come to his aid eagerly joining in, their eyes glistening as they examined the various objects that were set free.
"Going yonder after the yaller stuff?" said the owner of the red beard, as they squatted round the fire.
"And all alone, too?"
The traveller nodded, and held his half-numbed hands in the warm glow, as he furtively glanced round at his companions, whose aspect was by no means reassuring.
"Well," continued the last speaker, "I dunno what Yankee Leggat thinks, and I dunno what Joey Bredge has got to say, but what I says is this. You're a-going to do what's about as silly a thing as a young man can do."
"Why?" said the man fiercely; "because you're going to try and do what no chap can do all alone. You've got a good kit and some money, I s'pose; but you don't think you're going to get to the gold stuff, do you?"
"Of course I do."
The man showed his yellow teeth in an unpleasant grin, and winked at his companions.
"And all alone, eh? 'Tain't to be done, lad. You'll be stuck up before you yet half-way there by Injuns, or some o' they Yankee shacks yonder, stripped o' everything you've got, and set adrift, eh, Joey?"
The man addressed nodded and grunted.
"What should you say he ought to do, Leggy?"
"Make his hay while the sun shines," said the other. "He's tumbled into a bit o' luck, and if he knows what he's about he'll just stop along with us. We don't want him, seeing as our party's made up, but we don't want to be hard on a lad as is a bit hign'rant o' what he's got to go through."
"That's so," put in the man addressed as Joey. "You can't do it, mate. Why, if it hadn't been for us you'd ha' been a hicicle afore morning, if the bears and wolves hadn't tucked you up warm inside. You've got to take a good offer. Now, Beardy, bring out the tins; that soup's done by this time."
The traveller made no reply, but leaned a little more over the fire, wishing that he had braved the dangers of the bitter frost and snow, and feeling that he had been too ready to break down at the first encounter with trouble. For the more he saw of his new companions the less he, liked them, and he was not long in making up his mind what to do.
By this time three big tin cups, which fitted one into the other, had been produced, and filled from the steaming contents of the kettle.
"We didn't expect company," said the cook, "so two of us'll have to do with one tin, and have it filled twice. You and me'll join, Joey, and let squire have my tin."
"No, thank you," was the reply, made quietly and firmly. "I will not intrude on your good nature farther. I was a bit done up, but the fire has set me right again, and I'm quite ready to take the risks of the journey alone."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" said the man gruffly.
"I'll get you to let me rest here by the fire for an hour to eat my bit of bread and meat, and then I'll camp near you and go on again as I came. I shall manage, I daresay."
"Are we going to stand this, mates?" cried the red-bearded man fiercely.
"No!" came in answer, as all sprang up as if by a preconcerted signal.
"You misunderstand me, gentlemen," said the adventurer quietly, though his heart beat fast with the knowledge that the suspicions which had haunted him were correct. "I am much obliged for your kindness, and I want to save you trouble, that is all."
"Hear that, lads? We aren't good enough for the likes of him. All right, then, off he goes."
"Our company aren't good enough, eh? Then off you goes."
"Very well," said the young man, rising quickly; "but there is no need for a quarrel. I will go at once, and I thank you for what you have done."
"But we haven't done yet," cried the man addressed as Leggy. "Now, boys."
There was a sudden rush, and in an instant the young fellow was seized and thrown upon his face; then, in spite of his desperate struggles, he was turned over, his weapon seized, and everything of value dragged from his pockets.
"Quiet!" snarled the leader in the attack, "or I'll soon quiet you."
"You dogs! You scoundrels! Help! Thieves!"
"Louder, my lad, louder. Call police: there's some over yonder in Canady. Haul off that fur coat, lads. It'll just fit me, and I'll have his cap and gloves. That's right. Now then, my whippersnapper, off you go!"
Set free, the young man, in spite of his bubbling rage, felt the madness of further resistance, and the uselessness of wasting breath; so he sprang to his sledge, to begin lashing it fast with the rope.
"Hands off there!" roared the chief scoundrel, taking aim at him. "Now then, run for it, and get yourself warm before we begin to shoot."
"I'm going," panted the victim, "but I must fasten up my traps."
"You ain't got no traps. They're ourn," cried the man. "We give you a chance for your life, so cut at once."
"What! Send me away like this?" cried the young man, aghast. "It's murder! Let me have my blankets, man."
"Run!" shouted the scoundrel, and he shook his pistol.
"You coward!" cried the victim.
"Run!" was roared again.
Feeling that the gang into whose hands he had fallen probably meant to hide their crime by silencing him for ever, the victim turned and ran for his life, and as he ran he felt a sharp pang in the arm.
A heavy fall checked the victim's panic flight, and as he lay panting and wet with the perspiration which had started from every pore, he realised that one of the bullets had taken effect, ploughing his left arm, which throbbed as if being seared with a red-hot iron.
But the bodily agony was as nothing to the mental anguish which he suffered. Death was before him if he lay there—death in a painless, insidious form, no doubt; but still, death in all its horror to one so young and strong.
He knew that he must rise and keep moving if he wished to prolong his existence, and he rose to his feet, raging now against the cowardly gang, and more against himself.
"I was a fool and a coward," he groaned. "Why didn't I fight for my life? Great heaven! What shall I do?"
He paused for a moment, meaning to turn back and make an attack upon his enemies.
But, unarmed as he was, he knew it was madness, and he tramped on through the darkness in the faint hope of finding help, but with his heart sinking as he grasped the fact that fate or the management of the gang had driven him onward farther into the defile, and away from the aid he might have found if he had made his way back to his morning's starting-place.
Fully satisfied that death would be his portion, he struggled on aimlessly till utterly exhausted; and then he paused, breathless, to go over once more the scene by the glowing fire, and ask himself whether he had not been to blame for displaying his distrust after the way in which he had been rescued. But he could only come back to his old way of thinking—that he had fallen among thieves of the worst type, and that he owed his life to the prompt way in which he had escaped.
Recovering his breath somewhat, he stood listening as he gazed back through the darkness; but all was still. There were no signs of pursuit, so, taking out his handkerchief, he folded it into a bandage, and with one hand and his teeth contrived to bind and tie it tightly round his wound so as to stop the bleeding, which was beginning to cause a strange sensation of faintness.
He had been hot with exertion when he stopped, but now the feeling of exhilaration caused by his escape died out as rapidly as the heat. A deadly chill attacked mind and body, for his position seemed crushing. It was horrible beyond bearing, and for the moment he was ready to throw himself down in his despair. The intense cold would, he knew, soon bring on a sensation of drowsiness, which would result in sleep, and there would be no pain—nothing but rest from which there would be no awakening; and then—
Then the coward feeling was driven back in a brave effort—a last struggle for life.
The cold was intense, the darkness thicker than ever, for the sides of the ravine had been closing in till only a narrow strip of faintly marked sky was visible, while at every few steps taken slowly the poor fellow stumbled over some inequality and nearly fell.
At times he struck himself heavily, but he was beyond feeling pain, and in his desperation these hindrances acted merely as spurs to fresh effort, for he was on the way to safety. At any minute he felt that he might catch sight of another gleam of light, the camp fire of some other adventurer, and he knew that some of those on the way to the great Eldorado must be men who would help and even protect a fellow-creature in his dire state of peril.
But he knew that this intense feeling of energy could not last, that he was rapidly growing weaker, and that ere many minutes had elapsed he would once more stumble and fall, and this time the power to rise again would have passed away.
Was it too late to return to his enemies and make an appeal for his life? he asked himself at last. They might show him mercy, and life was so sweet.
But as these thoughts flickered through his brain in the half delirium fast deadening his power of thinking coherently, he once more saw the scene by the fire, and the faces of the three scoundrels stood out clearly with that relentless look, that cruel bestial glare of the eye, which told him that an appeal would but hasten his end.
"Better fall into the hands of God than men like them," he groaned, and setting his teeth hard he tottered on a few yards farther, with the snow growing less deep, the ground more stony.
Then the end came sooner than he expected, for his feet caught against something stretched across his way, and he fell heavily, uttering a cry of horror as he struggled to his knees.
For it was no block of stone, no tree-trunk torn from some shelf in the precipice above; he grasped the fact in an instant that he had tripped over a sledge similar to his own, to fall headlong upon the ghastly evidence of what was to be his own fate; for stiff and cold in the shallow snow, his fingers had come upon the body of some unfortunate treasure-seeker, and as, half-wild with horror, he forced himself to search with his hands to discover whether some spark of life might yet be burning, it was to find that whoever it was must have laid calmly down in his exhaustion, clasping his companion to his breast to give and receive the warmth that might save both their lives.
Vain effort. The man's breast was still for ever, and the faithful dog that had nestled closely with his muzzle in his master's neck was stiff and stark.
"God help me!" groaned the adventurer, clasping his hands and letting them fall softly on the dead; "is this the ending of my golden dream?"
IN THE DARK.
The horrible chill of impending death, the bright light of reason, and the intense desire to live, roused the half-stunned adventurer to action.
Die? Like that? No!—when salvation was offered to him in this way.
It was horrible, but it was for life. There, close by him, slightly powdered with snow, was the unfortunate's sledge, and in an instant he was tearing at the rope which bound its load to the framework.
He could hardly believe his good fortune, for as the rope fell from the packages the first thing he set free was a fur-lined coat, possibly one which the dead man was too much exhausted to assume.
Suffering keenly from the cold, this was put on at once; and then, continuing the search, it was to find that a rifle was bound along one side, balanced by tools on the other. Then there were blankets and stores similar, as far as he could judge, to those with which his own sledge had been laden.
The warmth afforded by the thick garment and the exertion increased the thrill of returning energy. For he was no longer helpless to continue his journey. It could be no act of injustice to the dead to take possession of the means of saving his own life; and now all thought of giving up without making a desperate struggle was completely gone.
Soon after a fresh thrill of returning energy swept through him, and, turning quickly back to where the dead were lying, he knelt there, hesitating for a few moments before, with his determination increasing, he softly thrust the dog aside, and felt about the dead man's waist.
He shuddered as his hands came in contact with the icy feeling of cold, but it was for life, and a feeling of joy shot through him, for it was as he had hoped. In a few minutes he had unfastened a buckle, turned the body over slightly, and that which he sought to obtain yielded to the steady pull he gave.
He had drawn free the dead man's belt, bringing with it his revolver in its little holster and the pouchful of cartridges.
That seemed to give new life to him as he buckled the belt about his waist. Then, taking out the pistol, he felt it in the dark, to find that it was loaded in every chamber, and that the lock worked easily and well.
The pistol replaced in the belt, the young man remained thinking, with all his energy seeming to have returned. What was he to do next? There was food of some kind on the sledge, and he must eat. There were blankets, and with them and the sledge for shelter he must rest and sleep.
There was the dead man and his faithful dog, but their near presence brought no feeling of horror. He felt that he could kneel down by the poor fellow and offer up a prayer for His mercies, and then lie down to sleep in perfect trust of awakening at daybreak, for he was no longer suffering from exhaustion, and hardly felt the cold.
"But not yet—not yet," he muttered, and a faint sound broke the silence as he stood there, his teeth grinding softly together, while his next words, uttered half aloud, told the direction his thoughts had taken.
"The cowardly dogs!" he exclaimed. "Three to one, and him unarmed. But not now—not now."
A brief search brought his hands in contact with a canvas satchel-bag, in which were ship's biscuits, and one of these he took. It would suffice.
Breaking it and beginning to eat, he set off at once on the back track to execute his daring project, one which made him glow to his finger-tips.
"Better go on," he said with a mocking laugh. "Yes, but not yet. They're cowards—such scoundrels always are—and the darkness will magnify the number of the attack.
"Bah! talking to myself again; but I'm not going mad. I can't go on without letting them taste something of what they have given me."
He tramped on slowly, but the return journey seemed less difficult, and he wondered now that he should feel so fresh and glowing with a spreading warmth. It was as dark as ever, but he had no fear of not finding his way; and sooner than he expected, and just as he was finishing the last scrap of hard biscuit, he caught sight of the faint light of the fire from which he had been driven.
The sight of it sent fresh vigour through his limbs, and his plan was soon made. He would keep on till there was the risk of being heard, and then creep closer till well within shot, and his sleeping enemies thrown up by the fire, which they had evidently made up well before settling themselves down for the night.
He felt sure that at the first report they would spring up and run for their lives, and he meant to fire at each if he had time, and scare them, for he felt disposed to show as much mercy as he would to a pack of savage wolves.
But matters were not to fall out exactly as he had calculated. He tramped steadily on, with the fire growing brighter, and at last he took out the revolver to examine it by touch once more, as he walked on more swiftly now, meaning to go forward a hundred yards or so and then proceed more cautiously, so as to make sure the enemy was asleep.
All at once he stopped short, startled.
The enemy was not asleep, for he saw a dark shadow pass before the glowing light.
The adventurer stopped short for a few moments, but not in hesitation. It was merely to alter his plan of attack; but the next minute all planning was cast to the winds, for there rang out on the night air a wild cry for help—such an appeal as he had himself uttered so short a time before.
The cry was repeated, sending a thrill of excitement through the listener, and telling its own tale. To the hearer it was as plain as if he had been told that the gang of ruffians had waylaid another unfortunate, who was about to share his own fate.
He rushed forward at once, and as he ran and stumbled he could see that a desperate struggle was going on, figures in fierce contention passing in front of and once trampling through the fire, whose embers were kicked and scattered in all directions.
Suddenly two figures stepped aside into the full light, leaving two others wrestling together; and this was the opportunity needed. Their first victim could see plainly that the former were enemies, and stopping short when about twenty yards away, he fired. Both turned to gaze in the direction from which the flash and report had come.
They were in time to see another flash. Another report raised the echoes, and they turned and fled.
Then the struggle ceased, and the adventurer saw another figure disappearing into the darkness after his two companions.
As he dashed off the young fellow rushed up in time to seize the victim, who staggered helplessly, trampling among the burning embers, among which he would have fallen but for the willing hands which dragged him aside, and lowered him down, before their owner began to kick about and scatter the fire, which hissed and smoked and steamed, as snow was heaped over, and raised a veil to hide the pair from their enemies while the bright light was dying out.
The next act was to find out whether the enemy were yet in the vicinity. The adventurer advanced for some distance into the darkness, but all was still.
Satisfied that he could not be seen, the young man went on for some little distance; but it was evident that the sudden attack had done its work, and the party had fled for their lives.
"The question is, will they recover themselves and come back?" he muttered. "Well, we must be on our guard. Two in the right against three in the wrong. Those are fair odds. Two in the right! Suppose it is only one."
He hurried back towards the scene of the encounter, guided by the faintly glowing embers lying here and there, and the dark, blinding wood-smoke which was borne towards him by the light icy wind which came down the defile.
"Suppose they have killed him!"
"Who are you? But whoever you are," came in a hoarse whisper, "if it hadn't been for you those ruffians would have settled me."
"Thank heaven, then, I was in time. Can you help me trample out the rest or this fire?"
"Hadn't we better escape? You might help me drag my sled into a place of safety."
"There is no place of safety near," was the reply; "and it's cold enough to freeze us to death. We had better stay here."
"But we dare not light a fire; they would see us, and come and pick us off."
"I don't think the cowardly hounds will dare to come back."
"But they might, and I dare not risk it."
"Are you hurt?"
"Not seriously, but wrenched and strained in the struggle. Can you understand what I say? I don't know my own voice."
"Yes, I can hear you. What is it—a cold?"
"No; I was right enough an hour ago. That red-bearded dog caught me by the throat. He was trying to strangle me. I fired at random, and then my senses were going, but I heard your shots. He has quite taken away my voice. Where is your hand, sir?"
"Here: what do you want?"
"Just to make mine speak to it in a friendly grip. God bless you, sir! you've saved my life. I can't say more now."
"Don't. There: we have no light to betray us now."
"But hadn't we better go on?"
"No: warmth is everything here. The ground is hot where the fire was, and we'll camp there till morning. I saw you had a sledge. We'll drag that to one side for shelter."
"And there is theirs, too," was said huskily.
"Mine!" was the reply. "The scoundrels inveigled me into staying with them, and I had a narrow escape."
"Hah! Just as they served me. I saw their light and came up, and they professed to be friends. I didn't like the look of them, but one can't pick one's company out here, and a good fire was very tempting."
The warning was followed by the clicking of pistol locks, after which the pair listened patiently for some minutes.
"Nothing. Here, let's get the two sledges one on either side of the hot ground. One will be a shelter, the other a breastwork to fire over if the scoundrels come back. Besides, the breastwork will keep in the heat. We are bound to protect ourselves."
"All right," was the reply, in an answering whisper, and the pair dragged the two sledges into position, and then, allowing for the dank odour of the quenched wood, found that they had provided themselves with a snugly warm shelter, adding to their comfort by means of blankets and a waterproof sheet, which they spread beneath them.
This took time, for every now and then they paused to listen or make a reconnaissance in search of danger; but at last all was done, and the question was who should keep the first watch.
"I'll do that," said the last comer. "I couldn't lie down to sleep if I tried; my throat gives me so much pain. It feels swollen right up. I'll take the first watch—listen, one ought to say. Why, I can't even see my hand."
"It is terribly dark here in this gulch," was the whispered reply. "The mountains run up perpendicularly on either side. But I couldn't sleep after all I've gone through to-night. My nerves are all on the jar. I'll watch with you."
"Well, listen, then. Watch with our ears. Can you hear me when I whisper?"
"But they will not come back, I'm sure."
"So much the better for them; but I hope that the miserable, treacherous hounds will meet their reward. So they attacked you just in the same way?"
"Not till I told them I would not stay; and I was sorry afterwards, feeling that perhaps I had insulted them by my suspicions. Of course, I did not know their character then."
"No. Well, we know it now. It is a specimen, I suppose, of the scum we shall find yonder."
"I am afraid so."
"You are going after gold, of course?"
"Who would be here if he were not?"
"Exactly. I hope the game is going to be worth the candle. Suppose we two stick together. You won't try to choke me the first time you see me nodding off to sleep for the sake of my sledge and stores?"
"Oh, I'll promise you that."
"It was a startler. I was dog tired."
"I was dog tired, and dropping off in the warmth of the fire into a golden dream of being where the nuggets were piled up all around me; and I was just going to pick up one, when a great snake darted at me and coiled itself round my throat. Then I was awake, to find it was a real devil snake in the shape of that red-bearded ruffian."
"That was the one the others called Beardy. But don't you talk so much: your voice is growing worse."
"Can't help it, old fellow. I must talk. I'm so excited. Feel the cold?"
"Oh, no. I'm quite warm with the glow which comes up through the sheet. A good idea, that was, of bringing it on your sledge."
"Yes, but it's heavy. I say, though, what an experience this is, here in the pitchy darkness. Ah! Look out!"
The pistols clicked again, for from somewhere close at hand there was a faint rustling sound, followed by a heavy thud, as if some one had stumbled and fallen in the snow.
The pair listened breathlessly in the black darkness, straining their eyes in the direction from whence the sound had come; but all was perfectly still.
They listened again minute after minute, and there was a dull throbbing sound which vibrated through them; but it was only the heavy beating of their own hearts.
Then they both started violently, for there was another dull heavy thud, and some one hissed as if drawing in his breath to suppress the strong desire to utter a cry of pain.
It was horrible in that intense blackness to crouch there with pistols held ready directed towards the spot where whoever it was had fallen, for there could be no doubt whatever. There had been the fall, not many yards from where they knelt, and they listened vainly for the rustling that must accompany the attempt to get up again.
At last the faint rustling came, and the temptation to fire was almost too strong to be resisted. But they mastered it, and waited, both determined and strung up with the desire to mete out punishment to the cowardly miscreants who sought for their own gain to destroy their fellow-creatures.
"Don't fire till you are sure it is they," each of the two young men thought. "It is impossible to take aim in this darkness."
And they waited till the rustling ended in a sort of whisper.
Once more all was silent, and the suspense grew maddening, as they waited minutes which seemed like hours.
But the enemy was evidently astir, for there was another whisper, and another—strange warning secretive whispers—and a sigh as of one in pain.
At this one of the listeners thrust out a hand, and the other joined in an earnest grip, which told of mutual trust and determination to stand by each other to the death, making them feel that the terrible emergency had made them, not acquaintances of an hour's length, but staunch friends, both strong and tried. Then they loosened the warm, manly grip, and were ready for the worst.
For there was no longer any doubt: the enemy was close at hand, waiting the moment for the deadly rush. The only question was whether they should fire at once—not with the thought of hitting, but to teach the scoundrels how thoroughly they were on the alert, and in the hope of driving them into taking to flight once more.
But they doubted. A few shots had done this once, but now that the miscreants had had time to recover from their panic, would it answer again?
Thud! thud! in front, and then a far heavier one behind them. They could not hold out much longer. The enemy was creeping towards them.
At this moment there was a tremendous crack, a hissing roar, and a terrific concussion, the defenders of the tiny fort being struck down behind their little breastwork.
But this onslaught was not from the enemy they awaited. The ever-gathering snow from far above, loosened by the hot current of air ascending from the fire, had come down in one awful charge, and the marauders' camp was buried in an instant beneath thousands of tons of snow.
HAND IN HAND.
There was the sense of a terrible weight pressing the sufferers down, with their chests against the soft load bound upon the sledge in front; and utterly stunned, they lay for a time motionless, and almost breathless.
Then one began to struggle violently, striving to draw himself back, and after a tremendous effort succeeding, to find that beneath him the snow was loose, there being a narrow space along by the side of the sledge, and that though his breath came short he could still breathe.
He had hardly grasped this fact when the movement on his right told of a similar action going on, and he began to help his companion in misfortune, who directly after crouched down beside him, panting heavily, in the narrow space, which their efforts had, however, made wider.
"Horrible!" panted the second at last. "An avalanche. Surely this does not mean death."
There was no reply, and in the awful darkness a hand was stretched out and an arm grasped.
"Why don't you say something?" whispered the speaker hoarsely.
"What can I say, man? God only knows."
"But it is only snow. We must burrow our way out. Wait a moment. This way is towards the open valley."
"No, no; this. Beyond you is the wall of rock. Let me try."
For the next ten minutes there was the sound of one struggling to get through the snow, and then it ended with the hoarse panting of a man lying exhausted with his efforts.
"Let me come and try now," came in smothered accents.
"It is of no use. The snow was loose at first, but farther on it is pressed together hard like ice. Try your way."
The scuffling and tearing commenced now to the right.
"Yes; it's quite loose now, and falls down. Ah! no good; here is the solid rock running up as far as I can reach."
"I can hardly breathe. It is growing hotter every moment."
"No; it is cooler here. I can reach right up and stand against the rock."
The speaker's companion in the terrible peril crept over the snow to his side and rose to his feet, to find the air purer; and, like a drowning man who had raised his head for the moment above water, he drank in deep draughts of the cold, sweet air.
"Hah!" he gasped at last hoarsely, after reaching up as high as he could, "the rock has saved us for the moment. The snow slopes away from it like the roof of a shed."
"Yes; if we had been a few feet farther from it we should have been crushed to death. Let's try and tear a way along by the foot of the rock."
They tried hard in turn till they were utterly exhausted and lay panting; but the only result was that the loose snow beneath them became trampled down. No, not the only result; they increased the space within what was fast becoming a snow cavern, one of whose walls was the solid rocky side of the ravine.
"Are we to die like this?"
"Is this to be the end of all our golden hopes? Oh, heaven help us! What shall we do? The air is growing hotter; we have nearly exhausted it all, and suffocation is coming on fast. I can't, I won't die yet. Help! help! help!"
Those three last words came in a hoarse faint wail that sounded smothered and strange.
"Hush!" cried the other; "be a man. You are killing yourself. The air is not worse. I can breathe freely still."
There was a horrible pause, and then, in pitiful tones: "I am fighting down this fearful feeling of cowardice, but it is so hard—so hard to die so soon. Not twenty yet, and the bright world and all its hopeful promise before one. How can you keep like that? Are you not afraid to die?"
"Yes," came in a low, sad whisper; "but we must not die like this. Tell me you can breathe yet?"
"Yes," came in the husky, grating tones; "better and better now I am still."
"Then there is hope. We are on the track; others will come after a time, and we may be dug out."
"Hah! I dare not think it. I say."
"Do you think those wretches have been caught by the fall as well?"
"If they were near they must have been."
"Yes, and we heard them."
"No, no," sighed the other; "those were patches of snow falling that we heard."
There was silence then, save that twice over a soft whisper was heard, and then a low, deep sigh.
"I feel sure that air must come to us. I can breathe quite easily still."
"Then we must try and bear it for a time. I'm going to believe that we may be dug out. Shall we try to sleep, and forget our horrible position?"
"Impossible, my lad. For me, that is. You try."
"No; you are right. I couldn't sleep. But, yes, I can breathe better still. There must be air coming in from up above. Well, why don't you speak? Say something, man."
"I cannot talk."
"You must—you shall, so as to keep from thinking of our being—oh, help! help! help!"
"Man, man! don't cry out in that horrible way;" and one shook the other fiercely, till he sobbed out, "Yes; go on. I am a coward; but the thought came upon me, and seemed to crush me."
"What thought? That we must die?"
"No, no," groaned the other in his husky voice; "that we are buried alive."
Once more there was silence, during which the elder and firmer grasped the hand of his brother in adversity. "Yes, yes," he whispered, "it is horrible to think of; but for our manhood's sake keep up, lad. We are not children, to be frightened of being in the dark."
"No; you are right."
"Here, help me sweep away the snow from under us. No, no. Here is the waterproof sheet. We can drag it out—yes, I can feel the sledges. Let's drag out those blankets."
"No, no, don't stir; you may bring down the snow roof upon our heads. I mean, yes. I'll try and help you."
They worked busily for a few minutes, and then knelt together upon what felt like a soft couch.
"There's food, and the snow for water; it would be long before we should starve. Why are you so silent now? Come, we must rest, and then try to cut our way out when the daylight comes."
"The daylight!" said the other, with a mocking laugh.
"Yes; we may see a dim dawn to show us which way to tunnel."
"Ah, of course!"
"Could you sleep now?"
"No, no; we must talk, or I shall go off my head. That brute hurt me so, it has made me rather strange. Yes, I must talk. I say: God bless you, old fellow! You saved my life from those wretches, and now you're keeping me from going mad. I say! The air is all right."
"Yes; I can breathe freely, and I am not cold."
"I am hot. I say, let's talk. Tell me how you came to be here."
"Afterwards; the words would not come now. You tell me how you came."
"Yes; it will keep off the horrors; it's like a romance, and now it does not seem to be true. And yet it is, and it happened just as if it were only yesterday. I never thought of coming out here. I was going to be a soldier."
He spoke in a hurried, excited way, and the listener heard him draw his breath sharply through his teeth from time to time, as if he shivered from nervous dread.
"I was not fit for a soldier. Fate knows best. See what a coward I am."
"I thought you brave."
"For the way in which you have fought and mastered the natural dread; but go on."
"Oh, no; it seems nonsense to talk about my troubles at a time like this."
"It is not. Go on, if you can without hurting yourself more."
"I'll go on because it will hurt me more. It will give me something else to think of. Can you understand my croaking whisper?"
"An uncle of mine brought me up after father and mother died."
"Dear old fellow! He and aunt quite took my old people's place; and their boy, my cousin, always seemed like my brother."
The listener made a quick movement.
"What is it? Hear anything?"
"No; go on."
"They were such happy times. I never knew what trouble was, till one day poor uncle was brought home on a gate. His horse had thrown him."
There was a pause, and then the speaker continued in an almost inaudible whisper:
"He was dead."
The listener uttered a strange ejaculation.
"Yes, it was horrible, wasn't it? And there was worse to come. It nearly killed poor dear old aunt, and when she recovered a bit it was to hear the news from the lawyers. I don't quite understand how it was even now—something about a great commercial smash—but all uncle's money was gone, and aunt was left penniless."
"Great heavens!" came in a strange whisper.
"You may well say that. Bless her! She had been accustomed to every luxury, and we boys had had everything we wished. My word! it was a knockdown for poor old Dal."
"Who was poor old Dal?" said the listener, almost inaudibly.
"Cousin Dallas—Dallas Adams. I thought the poor chap would have gone mad. He was just getting ready for Cambridge. But after a bit he pulled himself together, and 'Never mind, Bel,' he said—I'm Bel, you know; Abel Wray—'Never mind,' he said, 'now's the time for a couple of strong fellows like we are to show that we've got some stuff in us. Bel,' he said, 'the dear old mother must never know what it is to want.'"
It was the other's turn to draw in his breath with a low hissing sound, and the narrator's voice sounded still more husky and strange, as if he were touched by the sympathy of his companion, as he went on:
"I said nothing to Dal, but I thought a deal about how easy it was to talk, but how hard for fellows like us to get suitable and paying work. But if I said nothing, I lay awake at nights trying to hit on some plan, till the idea came—ah! is that the snow coming down?"
"No, no! It was only I who moved."
"But what—what are you doing? Why, you've turned over on your face."
"Yes, yes; to rest a bit."
"I'm trying you with all this rigmarole about a poor, unfortunate beggar."
"No, no!" cried the other fiercely. "Go on—go on."
The narrator paused for a few moments.
"Thank you, old fellow," he whispered softly, and he felt for and grasped the listener's hand, to press it hard. "I misjudged you. It's pleasant to find a bit of sympathy like this. I've often read how fellows in shipwrecks, and wounded men after battles, are drawn together and get to be like brothers, and it makes one feel how much good there is in the world, after all. I expect you and I will manage to keep alive for a few days, old chap, and then we shall have to make up our minds to die—like men. I won't be so cowardly any more. I feel stronger, and till we do go to sleep once and for all we'll make the best of it, like men."
"Yes, yes, yes! Go on—go on!"
A STRANGE MADNESS.
It was some time, though, before the narrative was continued, and then it was with this preface.
"Don't laugh at me, old chap. The shock of all this has made me as weak and hysterical as a girl. I say, I'm jolly glad it's so dark."
"Laugh at you!"
"I say, if you speak in that way I shall break down altogether. That fellow choked a lot of the man out of me, and then the excitement, and on the top of it this horrible burying alive—it has all been too much for me."
"Go on—go on."
"Yes, yes, I will. I told you the idea came, but I didn't say a word to my cousin for fear he should think it mad; and as to hinting at such a thing to the dear old aunt, I felt that it would half kill her. I made up my mind that she should not know till I was gone.
"Well, I went straight to the 'Hard Nut'—that's Uncle Morgan. We always called him the nut that couldn't be cracked—the roughest, gruffest old fellow that ever breathed, and he looked so hard and sour at me that I wished I hadn't gone, and was silent. 'Well,' he said, 'I suppose you two boys mean to think about something besides cricket and football now. You've got to work, sir, work!'"
"Hah!" sighed the listener.
"'Yes, uncle,' I said, 'and I want to begin at once.'
"'Humph!' he said. 'Well, that's right. But what do you want with me?'
"'I want you to write me a cheque for a hundred pounds.'
"'Oh,' he said, in the harsh, sneering way in which he always spoke to us boys; for he didn't approve of us being educated so long. He began work early, and made quite a fortune. 'Oh,' he said, 'do you? Hadn't I better make it five?'
"'No,' I said. 'I've thought it all out. One hundred will do exactly.'
"'What for?' he said with a snap.
"'I'm off to Klondike.'
"'Off to Jericho!' he snarled.
"'No, to Klondike, to make a fortune for the poor old aunt.'
"'Humph!' he grunted, 'and is Dallas going with you to make the second fool in the pair?'
"'No, uncle,' I said; 'one fool's enough for that job. Dal will stop with his mother, I suppose, and try to keep her. I'm nobody, and I'll take all risks and go.'
"'Yes, one fool's enough, sir,' he said, 'for a job like that. But I don't believe there is any gold there.'
"'Oh, yes, there is, sir,' I said.
"'What does Dallas say?'
"'Nothing. He doesn't know, and he will not know till aunt gets my letter, and she tells him.'
"'As if the poor old woman hadn't enough to suffer without you going off, sir,' he said.
"'But I can't stop and live upon her now, uncle.'
"'Of course you can't, sir. But what about the soldiering, and the scarlet and gold lace?'
"'Good-bye to it all, sir,' I said with a gulp, for it was an awful knockdown to a coxcomb of a chap like I was, who had reckoned on the fine feathers and spurs and the rest of it.
"'Humph!' he grunted, 'and you think I am going to give—lend you a hundred pounds to go on such a wild goose chase?'
"'I hope so, uncle,' I said.
"'Hope away, then; and fill yourself with the unsatisfactory stuff, if you like. No, sir; if you want to go gold-digging, shoulder your swag and shovel, pick and cradle, and tramp there.'
"'How?' I said, getting riled, for the old nut seemed harder than ever. 'I can't tramp across three thousand miles of ocean. I could hardly tramp over three thousand miles of land, and when I did reach the Pacific, if I could, there's the long sea journey from Vancouver up to Alaska, and another tramp there. No, uncle,' I said, 'it isn't to be done. I've gone into it all carefully, and cut it as fine as I might, it will take fifty pounds for outfit and carriage to get to Klondike.'
"'Fifty! Why, you said a hundred,' he growled. 'That's coming down. Want the other fifty to play billiards and poker?'
"'No, I don't,' I said, speaking as sharply as he did; 'I want that fifty pounds to leave with poor old aunt. I can't and won't go and leave her penniless.'"
"Ah!" sighed the listener—almost groaned.
"Well, wouldn't you have done the same?"
"Yes, yes. Go on—go on."
"There isn't much more to tell. I'm pretty close to the end. What do you think the old boy said?"
"I know—I know," came back in a whisper.
"That you don't," cried the narrator, who, in spite of their horrible position, burst out into a ringing laugh. "He just said 'Bah!' and came at me as if he were going to bundle me out of the door, for he clapped his hands on my shoulders and shook me fiercely. Then he banged me down into a chair, and went to one of those old, round-fronted secretary desks, rolled up the top with a rush, took a cheque-book out of a little drawer, dashed off a cheque, signed and blotted it, and thrust it into my hand.
"'There, it's open,' he said. 'You can get it cashed at the bank, and send your aunt the fifty as soon as you're gone. Be off at once, and don't say a word to a soul. Here; give me back that cheque.'
"I gave it back to him.
"'Now, swear you won't tell a soul I lent you that money, nor that you are going off!'
"'I give you my word of honour, uncle.'
"'That'll do,' he said. 'Catch hold, and be off. It's a loan, mind. You bring back a couple of sacks full of nuggets, and pay me again.'
"'I will, uncle,' I said, 'if I live.'
"'If you live!' he said, staring at me. 'Of course you'll live. I'm seventy, and not near done. You're not a score. Be off.'
"And I came away and never said a word."
"But you sent the fifty pounds to your poor old aunt?"
"Why, of course I did; but I shall never pay old 'Hard Nut with the Sweet Kernel' his money back. God bless him, though, and I hope he'll know the reason why before he dies."
"God bless him! yes," said the listener, in a deep, low voice that sounded very strange, and as if the speaker could hardly trust himself to speak.
Then they lay together in the darkness and silence for a time, till Abel Wray made an effort and said in his harsh, husky voice:
"There, that's all. Makes a fellow feel soft. Think it's midnight yet?"
"No, no," was whispered.
"I'll strike a match and see."
"No. We want every mouthful of air to breathe, or I should have struck one long ago."
"Of course. I never thought of it once. Sleepy?"
"Then fair play. Tell me your story now."
"There is no need. But tell me this; am I awake? Have you told me all this, or have I dreamed it?"
"I've told you it all, of course."
"Am I sane, or wandering in my head? It can't be true. I must be mad."
"Then I am, too. Bah! as Uncle Morgan said. Come, play fair; tell me how you came here?"
"The same way as you did, and to get gold."
"Well, so I supposed. There, just as you like. I will not press you to tell me."
"I tell you there is no need. For your story is mine. We thought as brothers with one brain; we made the same plan; we travelled with the same means; we supplied the dear old aunt and mother from the same true-hearted source. Bel, old lad, don't you know me? It is I, Dal, and we meet like this!"
"Great heaven!" gasped Abel, in his low, husky whisper. "It has turned his brain. Impossible! Yes, that is it; the air is turning hot and strange at last, and this has driven me mad. It is all a wandering dream."
"It is no wandering dream, Bel. I tell you I seem to have been inspired to do exactly the same as you did, and I went to Uncle Morgan, who treated me just as he treated you."
"Yes, a dream—off my head," said Abel Wray, in his harsh whisper.
"No, no, old fellow," cried Dallas; "it is all true. Uncle was never so strange to me before. It was because you had been to him first. It is wonderful. Your voice is so changed I did not know it, and in the darkness I never saw your face."
"Yes—delirious," croaked Abel. "They say it is so before death."
"Nonsense, nonsense, lad! I came back just in time to save you, and now we have been saved, too, from a horrible death. After a bit we shall be stronger, and shall be able to see which way to begin tunnelling our way out to life again. Cheer up; we have got through the worst, and as soon as we are free we'll join hands and work together, so that we can show them at home that we have not come out in vain. How are you now?"
A low rumbling utterance was the reply, and Dallas leaned towards him, feeling startled.
"Don't you hear me?" he cried. "Why don't you answer?"
"Dear old Dal—to begin dreaming of him now," came in a low muttering.
"No, no; I tell you that it is all true."
"All right, uncle," croaked Abel. "Not an hour longer than it takes to scrape together enough. Ha, ha, ha! and I thought you so hard and brutal to me. Eh? But you're not. It was a dreadful take in. I say!"
"Yes, yes, old fellow. What?"
"Don't say a word to dear old Dal. Let him stop and take care of aunt, and let them think I've shuffled out of the trouble. I'll show them when I come back."
"Bel, old fellow," cried Dallas, seizing his cousin's hand, "what is it? Don't talk in that wild way."
"That's right, uncle," croaked Abel. "We two used to laugh about you and call you the Hard Nut. So you are; but there's the sweet white kernel inside, and I swear I'll never lie down to sleep again without saying a word first for you. I say, one word," cried the poor fellow, grasping his cousin's hand hard: "you'll do something for old Dal, uncle? I'll pay you again. I don't want to see him roughing it as I shall out there for the gold—yes, for the gold—the rich red gold. Ah, that's cool and nice."
For in his horror and alarm Dallas had laid a hand upon his cousin's temples, to find them burning: but the poor fellow yielded to the gentle pressure, and slowly subsided on to the rough couch they had made, and there he lay muttering for a time, but starting at intervals to cough, as if his injured throat troubled him with a choking sensation, till his ravings grew less frequent, and he sank into a deep sleep.
"This is worse than all!" groaned Dallas. "Had I not enough to bear? His head is as if it were on fire. Fever—fever from his injury and the shock of all he has gone through. I thought he was talking wildly towards the last."
As he spoke he was conscious of a sharp throbbing pang in his shoulder, and he laid a hand upon the place that he had forgotten; while now he woke to the fact that when he tried to think what it would be best to do for his cousin, the effort was painful, and the sensation came back that all this must be a feverish dream.
He clapped his hands to his face. It and his brow were burning hot, and he knew that he was growing confused; so much so that he rose to his knees, then to his feet, and took a step or two, to stand wondering, for his senses left him for a moment or two, and then a strange thing befell him. A black veil seemed to have fallen in front of his eyes, and he was lost, utterly lost, and he had not the least idea where he was or what had been taking place during the past twenty-four hours.
He stretched out his hands and touched the compressed snow, which was dripping with moisture; but that gave him no clue, for his mind seemed to be a perfect blank, and with a horrible feeling of despair he leaned forward to try and escape from the black darkness, when his burning brow came in contact with the icy wall of his prison, and it was like an electric shock.
His position came back in a flash. Self was forgotten, and he sank upon his knees to feel for his cousin, horror-stricken now by the great dread that the poor fellow might die with him by his side quite unable to help.
He forgot that but a short time back he was advocating a brave meeting of their fate. For since he had awakened to the fact that his boyhood's companion was with him, hope had arisen, and with it the determination to wait patiently till morning and then fight their way back to the light. Now all seemed over. Abel was terribly injured, fever had supervened, and he would die for want of help; while he, who would freely have given his life that Abel might live, was utterly helpless, and there was that terrible sensation of being lost coming on again.
He pressed his head against the snow, but there was no invigorating sense of revival again—nothing but a curious, worrying feeling. Then he was conscious for a few moments that Abel was muttering loudly, but the injury to his shoulder was graver than he had imagined, and the feverish symptoms which follow a wound were increasing, so that before long he too had sunk into a nightmare-like sleep, conscious of nothing but the strange, bewildering images which haunted his distempered brain; and these were divided between his vain efforts to flee from some terrible danger, and to drag the heavily laden hand-sledge between two ice-covered rocks too close together to allow it to pass.
THE FIGHT FOR LIFE.
"Yes! Yes! What is it?" Somebody had spoken in the black darkness, but it was some minutes before Dallas Adams could realise the fact that the words came from his own lips.
Then he heard a faint whisper from somewhere close by, and he was this time wide awake, and knew that he was answering that whisper.
"Where am I? What place is this?"
The question had come to him in his sleep, and for a few moments, so familiar were the sounds, he felt that he must have the tubes of a phonograph to his ears, and he listening to the thin, weird, wiry tones of his cousin's voice.
Then, like a flash, all came back, and he knew not only that he had been asleep, but everything that had happened some time before.
"Bel, old lad," he said huskily, and he winced with pain as he tried to stretch out his left hand.
"Ah!" came again in the faint whisper, "That you, Dal?"
"Yes, yes. How are you now?"
"Then it isn't all a delirious dream?"
"No, no; we have been brought together almost miraculously."
"Thank God—thank God!" came feebly. "I thought I had been off my head. Have I been asleep?"
"Yes, and I fell asleep too. My wound made me feverish, and we must have been lying here ever so long in the dark."
"Your wound, Dal?"
"Yes; I had almost forgotten it in what we had to go through, but one of the scoundrels shot me. It is only a scratch, but my arm seems set fast."
"Ah! Do you think they were buried alive too?" came in an eager whisper.
"Who can say, old fellow? But never mind that. How do you feel? Think you can help me?"
"Tie up your wound?"
"No, no. Help me try and dig our way out."
"I think so. My head feels a bit light, but it's my throat that is bad—all swollen up so that I can only whisper."
"Never mind your throat so long as you can use your arms."
"Think we can dig our way out?"
Dallas uttered a little laugh.
"Why not?" he said. "There is a pick and shovel on my sledge."
"Ah, yes, and on mine too."
"We were out of heart last night," continued Dallas, encouragingly, "and in the scare thought we were done for. But we can breathe; we shall not suffer for want of food; the melted snow will give us drink; and once we can determine which way to dig, what is to prevent our finding our way to daylight again?"
"Our position," said Abel, in his faint whisper. "Where are we to put the snow we dig out?"
Dallas was silent for a few moments.
"Yes," he said at last; "that will be a difficulty, for we must not fill up this place. But never mind that for the present. We must eat and drink now, for we shall want all our strength. Pressed snow is almost like ice. Ah, here is the sledge—mine or yours. My head is too thick to tell which. Bel, lad, we are going to dig our way out, if it takes us a month."
"Yes," came rather more strongly; and the next minute Dallas Adams was feeling about the sledge for the tin which held the traveller's food.
It was hard work fumbling there in the dark, for parts of the sledge were pressed and wedged down by snow that was nearly as hard as ice; but others were looser, and by degrees he managed to get part of the tin free, when he started, for something touched his arm.
"Can I help you, Dal?"
"How you made me jump, lad! I don't know. Feel strong enough?"
"I think so; but I want to work. It's horrible lying there fancying the top of this hole is going to crumble down every time you move some of the snow."
"Lay hold here, then, and let's try and drag this tin out."
They took hold of it as well as their cramped position would allow, and tugged and tugged, feeling the tin case bend and grow more and more out of shape; but it would not come.
"No good," said Dallas. "I'll cut through the tin with my knife."
"But it's looser now. Let's have one more try."
"Very well.—Got hold?—Now then, both together."
They gave a sudden jerk, and fell backward with the once square tin case upon them, lying still and horrified, for there was a dull creaking and crushing noise as if the snow was being pressed down to fill up the vacancy they had made, and then crick, crack, sharply; there was the sound of breaking, as portions of the sledge gave way from the weight above.
Abel caught his cousin's hand to squeeze it hard, fully expecting that their last moments had come; but after a minute's agony the sounds ceased, and the prisoners breathed more freely.
"It's all right, Bel," said Dallas; "but it did sound rather creepy."
"Hah!" ejaculated Abel. "I thought—"
"Yes, so did I, old fellow; but it's a mistake to think at a time like this. We only frighten ourselves. Now then, let's see what we've got."
"See?" said Abel bitterly.
"Yes, with the tips of our fingers. It's all right, I tell you; rats and mice and rabbits don't make a fuss about being in burrows."
"They're used to it, Dal; we're not."
"Then let's get used to it, lad. I say, suppose we were getting gold here, instead of a biscuit-tin; we shouldn't make a fuss about being buried. Why, it's just what we should like."
"I suppose so," replied Abel.
"It's what we shall have to do, perhaps, by-and-by. This is a sort of lesson, and it will make the rest easy."
"If we get out."
"Get out? Pish! We shall get out soon. The sun and the rain will thaw us out if we don't dig a way. Hullo! The lid's off the tin, and the biscuits are half of them in the snow. Never mind. Set to work and eat, while I pick up all I can find. I'm hungry. Peck away, lad, and think you're a squirrel eating your winter store. I say, who would think one could be so warm and snug surrounded by snow?"
Abel made no reply, but tried to eat, as he heard the cracking and crunching going on at his side. It was hard work, though, and he went on slowly, for the effort to swallow was accompanied by a good deal of pain, and he ceased long before Dallas gave up.
"How are you getting on?" the latter said in an encouraging tone.
"Yes, they are dry; but wait till we get our gold. We'll have a banquet to make up for this. By Jove!"
"What is it?"
"I forgot about your throat. It hurts?"
"Horribly. But I can manage."
Dallas said no more, but thought a great deal; and after placing the tin aside he turned to the sledge to try whether he could not get at the shovel bound to it somewhere, for the package was pressed all on one side by the snow.
After a long search he found one corner of the blade, and drawing his big sharp knife, he set to work chipping and digging with the point, with the result that in about an hour he dragged out the tool.
"Now," he said, "we can get to work turn and turn. The thing is, where to begin, for I have not seen the slightest glimmer of light."
"No; we must be buried very deep."
"Say pretty deep. Which way shall we try?"
"Up by the rock, and slope upward where the air seems to come."
"That's right. Just what I thought. And, look here, Bel, there's room for a couple of cartloads of snow or more about us here, and my plan is this: one will dig upward, and of course the snow will fall down of its own weight. As it comes down the other must keep filling that biscuit-tin and carrying it to the far end yonder and emptying it."
"And bury the sledge and the food."
"No: we can get a great deal disposed of before we come to that. Look here—I mean, feel here. We have plenty of room to stand up where we are. Well, that means that we can raise the floor. So long as we have room to lie down, that is all we want."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"After a while we must get out all the food we want and take it with us in the tunnel we make higher and higher as we go."
"Yes, that sounds reasonable," said Abel thoughtfully. "We shall be drawing the snow down and trampling it hard beneath our feet."
"And, I believe, be making a bigger chamber about us as we work up towards the light."
"Keeping close to the face of the rock, too," said Abel, "will ensure our having one side of our sloping tunnel safe. That can never cave in."
"Well done, engineer!" cried Dallas laughingly. "Here were we thinking last night of dying. Why, the very remembrance of the way in which animals burrow has quite cheered me up."
"That and the thought that we may have to mine underground for our gold," replied Abel. "Shall I begin?"
"No; you're weak yet, and it will be easier to clear away my workings."
Without another word the young man felt his way to the end of their little hole, tapped the rock with the shovel, and then stood perfectly still.
"What is it?" asked Abel.
"I was trying to make out where the air comes from, and I think I have hit it. I shall try and slope up here."
Striking out with the shovel and trying to cut a square passage for his ascent, he worked away for the next hour, the snow yielding to his efforts much more freely than he had anticipated; and as he worked Abel tried hard to keep up with him, filling the tin, bearing it to the other end beyond the sledges, and piling up the snow, trampling down the loads as he went on.
Twice over he offered to take his cousin's place; but Dallas worked on, hour after hour, till both were compelled to give up from utter exhaustion, and they lay down now in their greatly narrowed cave to eat.
This latter had its usual result, and almost simultaneously they fell asleep.
How long they had been plunged in deep slumber, naturally, they could not tell. Night and day were the same to them; and as Dallas said, from the hunger they felt they might have been hibernating in a torpid state for a week, for aught they knew.
They ate heartily of the biscuits, Abel's throat being far less painful, and once more the dull sound of the shovel began in a hollow, muffled way.
A couple of hours must have passed, at the end of which time so much snow had accumulated at the foot of the sloping shaft that Dallas was compelled to descend and help his fellow-prisoner.
"This will not do," he said. "We must get out some more provisions before we bury the sledges entirely."
"There is enough biscuit to keep us alive for a couple of days," replied Abel. "Let us chance getting out, and not stop to encumber ourselves with more provisions."
"It is risky, but I fancy that I am getting nearer the air. Go up and try yourself."
Abel went up the sloping tunnel to the top with ease, Dallas having clipped steps out of the ice, and after breathing hard for a few minutes the younger man came down.
"You must be getting nearer the top. I can breathe quite freely there."
"Yes, and the snow is not so hard."
"Chance it, then, and go on digging," said Abel eagerly. "I will get the snow away. I can manage so much more easily if I may put it down anywhere. It gets trampled with my coming and going."
Dallas crept up to his task once more and toiled away, till, utterly worn out, both made another meal and again slept.
Twice over this was repeated, and all idea of time was lost; still they worked on, cheered by the feeling that they must be nearing liberty. However, the plan arranged proved impossible in its entirety, the rock bulging out in a way which drove the miner to entirely alter the direction of his sap. But the snow hour after hour grew softer, and the difficulty of cutting less, till all at once, as Dallas struck with his spade, it went through into a cavity, and a rush of cool air came into the sloping tunnel.
"Heavenly!" cried the worker, breathing freely now. "I'll slip down, Bel. You must come up and have a mouthful of this."
He descended to the bottom, and Abel took the spade and went to his place.
"The shovel goes through quite easily here," he said excitedly.
"Yes, and what is beyond?" shouted Dallas. "Can you see daylight?"
"No; all is black as ink. It must be a hole in the snow. We must get into it, for the air comes quite pure and fresh, and that means life and hope."
In his excitement he struck out with the shovel twice, and had drawn it back to strike again, when there was a dull heavy crack, and he felt himself borne sidewise and carried along, with the snow rising up and covering his face.
The next minute, as he vainly strove to get higher, the movement ceased, and he felt himself locked in the embrace of the snow, while his breathing stopped.
Only for a moment, before the hardening crystal which surrounded his head dropped away, and a rush of pure air swept over him and seemed to bring back life.
Then the sliding movement entirely ceased, and he wildly shouted his cousin's name.
His voice echoed from somewhere above, telling him that, though a prisoner, he was free down to the shoulders, though his arms were pinned.
But there was no other reply to the call, and he turned sick and faint with the knowledge that Dallas must be once more buried deep, and far below.
Around all was black darkness, and in his agony another desperate effort was made; but the snow had moulded itself around him nearly to the neck, and he could not stir a limb.
The fit of delirium which once more attacked Abel Wray was merciful, inasmuch as it darkened his intellect through the long hours of that terrible night, and he awoke at last with the level rays of the sun showing him his position in a hollow of a tremendous waste of snow, while fifty yards away the sides of the rocky valley towered up many hundred feet above his head.
But it was daylight, and instead of the ravine seeming a place of horror and darkness, the snow-covered mountains flashed gloriously in the bright sunshine, whose warm glow brought with it hope and determination, in spite of the terrible sense of imprisonment, and the inability to move from the icy bonds. The great suffering was not bodily, but mental, and not selfish, for the constantly recurring question was, how was it with Dallas?
But the sunshine was laden with hope. Dallas was shut in again, but he had the tools and provisions with him, and he would be toiling hard to tunnel a way out, if—
Yes, there was that terrible "if." But Abel kept it back; for it was quite possible that he might still be getting a sufficient supply of air to keep him alive.
How to lend him help?
There was the face of the vast cliff some fifty yards away, and it was close up to it that they had been first buried, the fresh collapse, when the snow had fallen away and borne him with it, having taken him the above distance. It was probable, then, that Dallas would not be now very far below the glittering surface of the snow.
How to get at him?
Abel's first thought was to free one arm. If he could do that he might possibly be able to get at his knife, dragging it from the sheath at his waist. Then the work would be comparatively easy, for he could dig away the partly consolidated snow in which he was cased, and throw it from him.
He set to, struggling hard, but without effect, for it seemed to him that he was only working with his will, his muscles refusing to help; and by degrees the full truth dawned upon him, that the absence of pain was due to the fact that his body was quite benumbed, and a horrible sensation of fear came over him, with the belief that all beneath the snow must be frozen, and that he could do absolutely nothing to save his life.
Even as he thought this the benumbed sensation seemed to be rising slowly towards his brain.
"In a short time all will be over," he groaned aloud, "and poor Dal will be left there, buried, thinking I have escaped and have left him to his fate. Is there no way to escape from this icy prison?"
He wrenched his head round as far as he could, first on one side, and then on the other; but it was always the same—the narrow valley with its stupendous walls, no longer black and horrible with its unseen horrors in the darkness of the night, but a wondrous way to a city of towers and palaces gorgeous to behold. His eyes ached with the flashing beauties of the scene. It was not the golden Klondike of his dreams, but a land of silver, whose turrets and spires and minarets were jewelled with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds; whose shadows were of sapphire blue or darker amethyst; and whose rays flashed and mingled till he was fain to close his eyes and ask himself whether what he saw was part of some dazzling dream.
He looked again, to see that it was no vision, but a scene of beauty growing more and more intense as the sun rose higher. The darkness had fled to display these wonders; there was not a chasm or gully that was not enlightened—everywhere save within the sufferer's darkened soul. There all was the blackness of despair.
But black despair cannot stay for long in the breast of youth. Hope began to chase it away, and inanimate though the body was, the brain grew more active, offering suggestion after suggestion as to how he might escape.
The sun was growing hotter minute by minute, and the reflections from the pure white ice almost painful. Already, too, its effects were becoming visible.
Just where the warm rays played on the edge of a gap whose lower portions were of an exquisite turquoise blue, tiny crystal-like drops were forming, and as Abel Wray gazed at them with straining eyes he saw two run together into one, which kept gradually increasing in size till it grew too heavy for its adhesion to last, and it fell out of sight.
Only a drop of water, but it was the end of May; the snows would be melting, and before long millions of such drops would have formed and run together to make trickling rivulets coursing along the snow; these would soon grow into rushing torrents, and the snow would fall away, and he would be free.
"What madness!" he groaned. "It will thaw rapidly till the sun is off, and then freeze once more, and perhaps another avalanche will come. Yes, I shall be thawed out some day, and some one may come along in the future and find my bones."
He shuddered, for it was getting black within once more, and a delirious feeling of horror began to master him, bringing with it thoughts of what might come.
Bears would be torpid in their snow-covered lairs; but wolves!
He felt as if he could shriek aloud, and he had to set his teeth hard as his eyes rolled round and up and down the gorge in search of some wandering pack that would scent him out at once, and in imagination he went through the brain-paralysing horror of seeing them approach, with their red, hungry, glaring eyes, their foam-slavered lips and glistening teeth.
There they were, five, seven, nine of them, gliding over the snow a hundred yards away, their shadows cast by the sun upon the dazzling white surface, and he uttered a hoarse cry and his head sank sideways as he closed his eyes in the reaction.
No wolves, only the few magnified shapes of a covey of snow grouse, the ryper of the Scandinavian land, which, after running for a while, rose and passed over him with whirring wings, seeking the lower part of the valley, where the snow was swept away.
Abel drew a long, deep breath, and then set his teeth once more as he upbraided himself for his cowardice.
For was he not on the highway—the main track to the golden land; and was it not a certainty that before long other adventurers would pass that way?
What was that?
The prisoner listened, with every nerve on the strain, and it was repeated.
So great was the tension, that as soon as the sound came for the second time the listener uttered a wild shriek of joy. It was hardly a cry. He had struggled to free himself from his icy bonds to go to his cousin's help, and awakened to the fact that he was helpless, and he had dared to despair, when all the time Dallas was alive and toiling hard to come and free him. The sensation of joy and delight was almost maddening, and he listened again.
There it was—a dull, low, indescribable sound which appealed to him all through, for he felt it more with his chest than with his ears. It was a kind of a jar which came through the snow, communicated from particle to particle, telegraphed to him by the worker below, and it told that Dallas was strong and well, and striving hard to get free.
How long would it take him to dig his way through? Not long, for he could not be so deep down now.
He waited, counting every stroke of the shovel, and a fresh joy thrilled the listener, for those light jars sent fresh hope in waves, telling him as they did that though he was so benumbed, his body must be full of sensation. It could not be deadened by the cold.
"Bah! I must naturally be a coward at heart," the poor fellow said to himself. "Dal's worth a dozen of me. I think of helping him? Pooh! it is always he who takes that role."
But his mind went back again to the one thought—How long would it take Dallas to dig his way out in spite of his wound? Not so very long—the strokes of the shovel came so regularly. But what an escape for both!
"Not free yet, though," muttered the prisoner. "That's right, work away, Dal. Your muscles were always stronger than mine. Get out and we'll reach the gold yet, and win the prize we came for.—I wonder whether he could hear me if I shouted!"
He bowed his head as far as he could, nearly touching the snow with his lips.
"Dal, ahoy! ahoy!" he shouted; and a few moments after came the answer, "Ahoy—ahoy-oy-oy!" from the icy rocks up the valley.
"Only the echoes," muttered Abel, as the sounds died away.
Then he started, for the hail came again, loud and clear, "Ahoy! Ahoy— ahoy-oy-oy!" and then once more the echoes.
But the hail was from down the narrow valley, and these echoes were from above.
"Hurrah! Help coming!" cried Abel wildly. "Ahoy, there! Help!"
He wrenched his head round to utter the cry, and was conscious of a heavy pang in his injured throat. But what of that at such a time, when the cry was answered by another? "Ahoy! ahoy!" No deceiving echo, for in addition came, "Where are yer?" and that was echoed too.
Abel's lips parted to reply, but a chill of despair shot through every nerve once more, and he uttered a bitter groan.
There they were—there could be no doubt of it. The three cowardly, treacherous ruffians had escaped, and he was calling them to his help. Not four hundred yards down the valley, plainly to be seen in the broad sunshine, all three of them, two dragging a heavily laden sledge, the other, the big-bearded ruffian, a short distance in front, in the act of putting his hands to his mouth to shout again:
"Where away, O?"
"Will they see me with just my head out like this? Yes, they are certain to, for they must come by here. Oh, Dal, Dal, old man, don't dig now. For heaven's sake, keep still: they're coming to finish their horrid work."
A HUMAN FOSSIL.
"You be blowed!" cried a bluff cheery voice. "Eckers be jiggered! Think I don't know the difference between a hecker an' a nail?"
"Don't I? I heered some one holloa, and as I don't believe in ghosts, I say some one must be here. Ahoy! where are you, mate?"
The speaker turned from his two companions, who were dragging the sledge up the slope of the snow-fall, and then smote one thigh heavily with the palm of his great hand.
"I'm blest!" he shouted, as he ran a few steps and dropped on one knee by Abel's head. "No, no; don't give in now, my lad. Hold up, and we'll soon have you out o' this pickle. Here, out with shovels and pecks, lads. Here's a director of the frozen meat company caught in his own trap. Specimen o' Horsestralian mutton froze hard and all alive O. Here, mate, take a sup o' this."
The speaker unscrewed the top of a large flask, and held it to Abel's lips, trickling a few drops between them as the head fell back and the poor fellow nearly swooned away.
"That's your sort. Never mind its being strong. I'd put some snow in it, but you've had enough of that. Coming round, you are. What's it been—a heavy 'lanche?"
"Yes, yes," gasped Abel; "but never mind me."
"What! Want to be cut out carefully as a curiosity—fly-in-amber sort of a fellow?"
"No, no—my cousin! Buried alive, man. Hark! you can hear him digging underground." The great sturdy fellow, who bore some resemblance to ruddy-haired Beardy, sufficient in the distance and under the circumstances of his excitement to warrant Abel's misapprehension, stared at the snow prisoner for a few moments as if he believed him to be insane.
"He's off his 'ead, mates, with fright," he said in a low voice to his companions, who were freeing the shovels; but Abel heard him.
"No, no," he cried wildly. "I know what I am saying. Listen."
The great, frank-looking fellow laid his ear to the snow, and leaped up again.
"He's right," he roared excitedly. "There's some one below—how many were with you, my lad?"
"Only my cousin—we were buried together—but don't talk—dig, dig!"
"Yes, both of you, slip into it. Just here," cried the big man, "while I get the pick and fetch this one out."
"No, no, not there," cried Abel frantically. "Dig yonder, there by the rock wall."
"What, right over yonder? Sound's here."
"Go and listen there," cried Abel.
"Can you hold out?"
"Yes, yes; hours now. Save my cousin; for heaven's sake, quick!"
One of the men had gone quickly to the rocky wall, knelt down and listened, and shouted back.
"He's right," cried this latter. "You can hear some one moleing away quite plain."
"Dig, dig!" shouted Abel, and two of the new-comers began at once, while the leader of the party went to their sledge and dragged a sharp-pointed miner's pick from where it was lashed on.
"No, no," cried Abel imploringly, as the man returned to his side; "save him."
"You keep quiet, my lad. I'm a-going to save you."
"But I can breathe," cried Abel.
"So can he, or he couldn't go on working. Two heavy chaps is quite enough to be tramping over his head. Don't want my sixteen stone to tread it hard. Have a drop more o' this 'fore I begin?"
"No, no! It is burning my mouth still."
"Good job too: put some life into you, just when you looked as if you was going to bye-bye for good. Now then, don't you be skeart. I know how to use a pick; been used to it in the Corn'll tin-mines. I could hit anywhere to half a shadow round you without taking the skin off. I'll soon have you out."
He began at once, driving the pick into the compressed snow; but after the first half-dozen strokes, seeing how the fragments flew, he took off his broad-brimmed felt hat and laid it against Abel's head as a screen. Then commencing again he made the chips fly in showers which glittered in the sunshine, as he walked backward, cutting a narrow trench with the sharp-pointed implement, taking the prisoner's head as a centre and keeping about thirty inches distant, and so on, round and round till the channel he cut was as deep as the arm of the pick, and quite clear.