The Silver Horde by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Chapter I. Wherein a Spiritless Man and a Rogue Appear
The trail to Kalvik leads down from the northward mountains over the tundra which flanks the tide flats, then creeps out upon the salt ice of the river and across to the village. It boasts no travel in summer, but by winter an occasional toil-worn traveller may be seen issuing forth from the Great Country beyond, bound for the open water; while once in thirty days the mail-team whirls out of the forest to the south, pauses one night to leave word of the world, and then is swallowed up in the silent hills. Kalvik, to be sure, is not much of a place, being hidden away from the main-travelled routes to the interior and wholly unknown except to those interested in the fisheries.
A Greek church, a Russian school with a cassocked priest presiding, and, about a hundred houses, beside the cannery buildings, make up the village. At first glance these canneries might convey the impression of a considerable city, for there are ten plants, in all, scattered along several miles of the river-bank; but in winter they stand empty and still, their great roofs drummed upon by the fierce Arctic storms, their high stacks pointing skyward like long, frozen fingers black with frost. There are the natives, of course, but they do not count, concealed as they are in burrows. No one knows their number, not even the priest who gathers toll from them.
Early one December afternoon there entered upon this trail from the timberless hills far away to the northward a weary team of six dogs, driven by two men. It had been snowing since dawn, and the dim sled-tracks were hidden beneath a six-inch fluff which rendered progress difficult and called the whip into cruel service. A gray smother sifted down sluggishly, shutting out hill and horizon, blending sky and landscape into a blurred monotone, playing strange pranks with the eye that grew tired trying to pierce it.
The travellers had been plodding sullenly, hour after hour, dispirited by the weight of the storm, which bore them down like some impalpable, resistless burden. There was no reality in earth, air, or sky. Their vision was rested by no spot of color save themselves, apparently swimming through an endless, formless atmosphere of gray.
"Fingerless" Fraser broke trail, but to Boyd Emerson, who drove, he seemed to be a sort of dancing doll, bobbing and swaying grotesquely, as if suspended by invisible wires. At times, it seemed to the driver's whimsical fancy as if each of them trod a measure in the centre of a colorless universe, something after the fashion of goldfish floating in a globe.
Fraser pulled up without warning and instantly the dogs stopped, straightway beginning to soothe their trail-worn pads and to strip the ice-pellets from between their toes. But the "wheelers" were too tired to make the effort, so Emerson went forward and performed the task for them, while Fraser floundered back and sank to a sitting posture on the sled.
"Whew!" he exclaimed, "this is sure tough. If I don't see a tree or something with enough color to bust this monotony I'll go dotty."
"Another day like this and we'd both be snow-blind," observed Emerson grimly, as he bent to his task. "But it can't be far to the river now."
"This fall has covered the trail till I have to feel it out with my feet," grumbled Fraser. "When I step off to one side I go in up to my hips. It's like walking a plank a foot deep in feathers, and I feel like I was a mile above the earth in a heavy fog." After a moment he continued: "Speaking of feathers, how'd you like to have a fried chicken a la Maryland?"
"Shut up!" said the man at the dogs, crossly.
"Well, it don't do any harm to think about it," growled Fraser, good- naturedly. He felt out a pipe from his pocket and endeavored unsuccessfully to blow through it, then complained:
"The damn thing is froze. It seems like a man can't practice no vices whatever in this country. I'm glad I'm getting out of it."
"So am I," agreed the younger man. Having completed his task, he came back to the sled and seated himself beside the other.
"As I was saying a mile back yonder," Fraser resumed, "whatever made you snatch me away from them blue-coated minions of the law, I don't know. You says it's for company, to be sure, but we visit with one another about like two deef-mutes. Why did you do it, Bo?"
"Well, you talk enough for both of us."
"Yes, but that ain't no reason why you should lay yourself liable to the 'square-toes.' You ain't the kind to take a chance just because you're lonesome."
"I picked you up because of your moth-eaten morals, I dare say. I was tired of myself, and you interested me. Besides," Emerson added, reflectively, "I have no particular cause to love the law, either."
"That's how I sized it," said Fraser, wagging his head with animation, "I knew you'd had some kind of a run-in. What was it? This is low down, see, and confidential, as between two crooks. I'll never snitch."
"Hold on there! I'm not a crook. I'm not sufficiently ingenious to be a member of your honorable profession."
"Well, I guess my profession is as honorable as most. I've tried all of them, and they're all alike. It's simply a question of how the other fellow will separate easiest." He stopped and tightened his snow-shoe thong, then rising, gazed curiously at the listless countenance of his travelling companion, feeling anew the curiosity that had fretted him for the past three weeks; finally he observed, with a trace of impatience:
"Well, if you ain't one of us, you'd ought to be. You've got the best poker face I ever see; it's as blind as a plastered wall. You ain't had a real expression on it since you hauled me off that ice-floe in Norton Sound."
He swung ahead of the dogs; they rose reluctantly, and with a crack of the whip the little caravan crawled noiselessly into the gray twilight.
An hour later they dropped from the plain, down through a gutter-like gully to the river, where they found a trail, glass-hard beneath its downy covering. A cold breath sucked up from the sea; ahead they saw the ragged ice up-ended by the tide, but their course was well marked now, so they swung themselves upon the sled, while the dogs shook off their lethargy and broke into their pattering, tireless wolf-trot.
At length they came to a point where the trail divided, one branch leading off at right angles from the shore and penetrating the hummocks that marked the tide limit. Evidently it led to the village which they knew lay somewhere on the farther side, hidden by a mile or more of sifting snow, so they altered their course and bore out upon the river.
The going here was so rough that both men leaped from their seats and ran beside the sled, one at the front, the other guiding it from the rear. Up and down over the ridges the trail led, winding through the frozen inequalities, the dogs never breaking their tireless trot. They mounted a swelling ridge and rushed down to the level river ice beyond, but as they did so they felt their footing sag beneath them, heard a shivering creak on every side, and, before they could do more than cry out warningly, saw water rising about the sled-runners. The momentum of the heavy sledge, together with the speed of the racing dogs, forced them out upon the treacherous ice before they could check their speed. Emerson shouted, the dogs leaped, but with a crash the ice gave way, and for a moment the water closed over him.
Clinging to the sled to save himself, his weight slowed it down, and the dogs stopped. "Fingerless" Fraser broke through in turn, gasping as the icy water rose to his armpits. Slowly at first the sled sank, till it floated half submerged, and this spot which a moment before had seemed so safe and solid became now a churning tangle of broken fragments, men and dogs struggling in a liquid that seemed dark as syrup contrasted with the surrounding whiteness. The lead animals, under whose feet the ice was still firm, turned inquiringly, then settled on their haunches with lolling tongues. The pair next ahead of the sledge paddled frantically, straining to reach the solid sheet beyond, but were held back by their harness. Emerson used the sled for a footing and endeavored to gain the ice at one side, but it broke beneath him and he lunged in up to his shoulders. Again he tried, but again the ice broke under his hand, more easily now.
Fraser struggled to get out in the opposite direction, each man aiming to secure an independent footing, but their efforts only enlarged the pool. The chill went through them like thin blades, and they chattered gaspingly, fighting with desperation, while the wheel dogs, involved in the harness, began to whine and cough, at which Emerson shouted:
"Cut the team loose, quick!" But the other spat out a mouthful of salt water and spluttered:
"I--I can't swim!"
Whereupon the first speaker half swam half dragged himself through the slush and broken debris to the forward end of the sled, and seeking out the sheath-knife from beneath his parka, cut the harness of the two distressed animals. Once free, they scrambled to safety, shook themselves, and rolled in the dry snow.
Emerson next attempted to lift the nose of the sled up on the ice, shouting at the remainder of the team to pull, but they only wagged their tails and whined excitedly at this unusual form of entertainment. Each time he tried to lift the sled he crashed through fresh ice, finally bearing the next pair of dogs with him, and then the two animals in the lead. All of them became hopelessly entangled.
He could have won his way back to the permanent ice as Fraser was doing, but there was no way of getting his team there and he would not sacrifice those dumb brutes now growing frantic. One of them pawed the sheath-knife from his hand. He had become almost numb with cold and despair when he heard the jingle of many small bells, and a sharp command uttered in a new voice.
Out of the snow fog from the direction in which they were headed broke a team running full and free. At a word they veered to the right and came to a pause, avoiding the danger-spot. Even from his hasty glance Emerson marvelled at the outfit, having never seen the like in all his travels through the North, for each animal of the twelve stood hip-high to a tall man, and they were like wolves of one pack, gray and gaunt and wicked. The basket-sled behind them was long and light, and of a design that was new to him, while the furs in it were of white fox.
The figure wrapped up in them spoke again sharply, whereupon a tall Indian runner left the team and headed swiftly for the scene of the accident. As he approached, Emerson noted the fellow's flowing parka of ground-squirrel skins, from which a score of fluffy tails fell free, and he saw that this was no Indian, but a half-breed of peculiar coppery lightness. The man ran forward till he neared the edge of the opening where the tide had caused the floes to separate and the cold had not had time as yet to heal it; then flattening his body to its full length on the ice, he crawled out cautiously and seized the lead dog. Carefully he wormed his way backward to security, then leaned his weight upon the tugline.
It had been a ticklish operation, requiring nice skill and dexterity, but now that his footing was sure the runner exerted his whole strength, and as the dogs scratched and tore for firm foothold, the sled came crunching closer and closer through the half-inch skin of ice. Then he reached down and dragged Emerson out, dripping and nerveless from his immersion. Together they rescued the outfit.
The person in the sledge had watched them silently, but now spoke in a strange patois, and the breed gave voice to her words, for it was a woman.
"One mile you go--white man house. Go quick--you freeze." He pointed back whence the two men had come, indicating the other branch of the trail.
Fraser had emerged meanwhile and circled the water-hole, but even this brief exposure to the open air had served to harden his wet garments into a crackling armor. With rattling teeth, he asked:
"Ain't you got no dry clothes? Our stuff is soaked."
Again the Indian translated some words from the girl.
"No! You hurry and no stop here. We go quick over yonder. No can stop at all."
He hurried back to his mistress, cried once to the pack of gray dogs, "Oonah!" and they were off as if in chase. They left the trail and circled toward the shore, the driver standing erect upon the heels of the runners, guiding his team with wide-flung gestures and sharp cries, the rush of air fluttering the many squirrel-tails of his parka like fairy streamers.
As they dashed past, both white men had one fleeting glimpse of a woman's face beneath a furred hood, and then it was gone. For a moment they stood and stared after the fast-dwindling team, while the breath of the Arctic sea stiffened their garments and froze their boot-soles to the ice.
"Did you see?" Fraser ejaculated. "Good Lord, it's a woman! A blonde woman!"
Emerson stirred himself. "Nonsense! She must be a breed," said he.
"Breeds don't have yellow hair!" declared the other.
Swiftly they bent in the free dogs and lashed the team to a run. They felt the chill of death in their bones, and instead of riding they ran with the sled till their blood beat painfully. Their outer coverings were like shells, their underclothes were soaked, and although their going was difficult and clumsy, they dared not stop, for this is the extremest peril of the North.
Ten minutes later they swung over the river-bank and into the midst of great rambling frame buildings, seen dimly through the falling snow. Their trail led them to a high-banked cabin, from the stovepipe of which they saw heat-waves pouring. The dogs broke into cry, and were answered by many others conjured from their hiding-places. Both men were greatly distressed by now, and could handle themselves only with difficulty. Another mile would have meant disaster.
"Rout out the owner and tell him we're wet," said Emerson; "I'll free the dogs."
As Fraser disappeared, the young man ran forward to slip the harness from his animals, but found it frozen into their fur, the knots and buckles transformed into unmanageable lumps of ice, so he wrenched the camp axe from the sled and cut the thongs, then hacked loose the stiff sled- lashings, seized the sodden sleeping-bags, and made for the house. A traveller's first concern is for his dogs, then for his bedding.
Before he could reach the cabin the door opened and Fraser appeared, a strange, dazed look on his face. He was followed by a large man of coarse and sullen countenance, who paused on the threshold.
"Don't bother with the rest of the stuff," Emerson chattered.
"It's no use," Fraser replied; "we can't go in."
The former paused, forgetting the cold in his amazement.
"What's wrong? Somebody sick?"
"I don't know what's the matter. This man just says 'nix,' that's all."
The fellow, evidently a watchman, nodded his head, and growled, "Yaas! Ay got no room."
"But you don't understand," said Emerson. "We're wet. We broke through the ice. Never mind the room, we'll get along somehow." He advanced with the tight-rolled sleeping-bags under his arm, but the man stood immovable, blocking the entrance.
"You can't come in har! You find anoder house t'ree mile furder."
The traveller, however, paid no heed to these words, but pushed forward, shifting the bundle to his shoulder and holding it so that it was thrust into the Swede's face. Involuntarily the watchman drew back, whereupon the unwelcome visitor crowded past, jostling his inhospitable host roughly, laughing the while, although in his laughter there rang a dangerous metallic note. Emerson's quick action gained him entrance and Fraser followed behind into the living-room, where a flat-nosed squaw withdrew before them. The young man flung down his burden, and addressed her peremptorily.
"Punch up that fire, and get us something to eat, quick!" Turning to the owner of the house, who lumbered in after them, he disregarded the fellow's scowl, and said:
"Why, you've got lots of room, old man! We'll pay our way. Now get some more firewood, will you? I'm chilled to the bone. That's a good fellow." His forceful heartiness forbade dispute, and the man obeyed, sourly.
The two new-comers stripped off their outer clothing, and in a trice the small room became littered and hung with steaming garments. They took possession of the house, and ordered the Swede and his squaw about with firm good nature, until the couple slunk into an inner room and began to talk in low tones.
Fraser had been watching the fellow, and now remarked to his companion:
"Say, what ails that ginney?"
The assumption of good-nature fell away from Boyd Emerson as he replied:
"I never knew anybody to refuse shelter to freezing men before. There's something back of this--he's got some reason for his refusal. I don't want any trouble, but--"
The inner door opened, and the watchman reappeared. Evidently his sluggish resolution had finally set itself.
"You can't stop har!" he said. "Ay got orders."
Emerson was at the fire, busy rubbing the cramps from his arms, and did not answer. When Fraser likewise ignored the Swede, he repeated his command, louder this time.
"Get out of may house, quick!"
Both men kept their backs turned and continued to ignore him, at which the fellow advanced heavily, and threatened them in a big, raucous voice, trembling with rage:
"By Yingo, Ay trow you out!"
He stooped and gathered up the garments nearest him, then stepped toward the outer door; but before he could make good his threat, Emerson whirled like a cat, his deep-set eyes dark with sudden fury, and seized his host by the nape of the neck. He jerked him back so roughly that the wet clothes flapped to the floor in four directions, whereat the Scandinavian let forth a bellow; but Emerson struck him heavily on the jaw with his open hand, then hurled him backward into the room so violently that he reeled, and his legs colliding with a bench, he fell against the wall. Before he could recover, his assailant stepped in between his wide-flung hands and throttled him, beating his head violently against the logs. The fellow undertook to grapple with him, at which Emerson wrenched himself free, and, stepping back, spoke in a quivering voice which Fraser had never heard before:
"I'm just playing with you now--I don't want to hurt you."
"Get out of my house! Ay got orders!" cried the watchman wildly, and made for him again. It was evident that the man was not lacking in stupid courage, but Emerson, driven to it, stepped aside, and swung heavily. The squaw in the doorway screamed, and the Swede fell full length. Again Boyd was upon him, the restraint of the past long weeks now unbridled, his temper unchecked. He dragged his victim through the store-room, grinding his face into the floor at every effort to rise. He forced him to his own door-sill, jerked the door open, and kicked him out into the snow; then barred the entrance, and returned to the warmth of the logs, his face convulsed and his lips working.
"Fingerless" Fraser gazed at him queerly, as if at some utterly strange phenomenon, then drawled, with a sly chuckle:
"Well, well, you're bloody gentle, I must say. I didn't think it was in you."
When the other vouchsafed no answer, he took his pipe from a pocket of his steaming mackinaw, and filled it from a tobacco-box on the window-sill; then, leaning back in his chair, he propped his feet up on the table and sighed luxuriously, as he murmured:
"These scenes of violence just upset me something dreadful!"