Chapter VI. Wherein Boreas Takes a Hand
 

All that day the men busied themselves in preparation for the start. Balt was ferociously exultant, Emerson was boiling with impatience, while Fraser, whose calm nothing disturbed, slept most of the time, observing that this was his last good bed for a while, and therefore he wished to make it work.

Beneath her quiet cheerfulness, Cherry nursed a forlorn heart; for when these men were gone she would be left alone and friendless again, buried in the heart of an inaccessible wilderness, given over to her fears and the intrigues of her enemies. She had eyes mainly for Emerson, and although in her glance there was good-fellowship, in her heart was hot resentment--first at him because he had awakened in her the warm interest she felt for him, and, second, at herself for harboring any such interest. Why should this self-centred youth, wrapped up in his own affairs to her own utter exclusion, give her cause to worry? Why should she allow him to step into her quiet life and upset her well-ordered existence?

"How do you like him?" she asked Balt, once.

"He's my style, all right," said the big man. "He's desp'rate, and he'll fight; that's what I want--somebody that won't blench at anything when the time comes." He ground his teeth, and his red eyes flamed, reflecting the sense of injury that seared his brain. "What he don't know about the business, I do, and we'll make it win. But, say, ain't he awful at asking questions? My head aches and my back is lame from answering him. Seems like he remembers it all, too."

Goaded by the wrong he had suffered, and almost maniacal in his eagerness for the coming struggle, the giant's frenzy told Cherry that the fight would be an unrelenting one, and again a vague tremor of regret at having drawn this youth into the affair crept over her and sharpened the growing pain at her heart.

During the evening Emerson left the two other men in the store, and, seeking her out in the little parlor, asked her to play for him. She consented gladly, and, as on their first evening together, he sang with her. Again the blending of their voices brought them closer, his aloofness wore off, and he became an agreeable, accomplished companion whose merry wit and boyish sympathy stirred emotions in the girl that threatened her peace of mind. This had been the only companionship with her own kind she had enjoyed for months, and with his melting mood came a softening of her own nature, in which she appeared before him gracious and irresistible. Banteringly, and rising out of his elation, he tried to please her, and, in the same spirit that calls the bird to its mate, she responded. It was their last hour together before embarking on his perilous journey in search of the Golden Fleece, and his starved affections clamored for sympathy, while the iron in his blood felt the magnetic propinquity of sex. When he said good-night it was with a wholly new conception of his hostess, and of her power to charm as well as manage men and affairs; but he could well have dispensed with an uncomfortable feeling that came over him as he reviewed the events of the evening over a last pipe, that he had been playing with fire. For her part, she lay awake far into the morning hours, now blissfully floating on the current of half-formed desires, now vaguely fearing some dread that clutched her.

The good-byes were brief and commonplace; there was time for nothing more, for the dogs were straining to be off and the December air bit fiercely. But Cherry called Emerson aside, and in a rather tremulous voice begged him again to consider well this enterprise before finally committing himself to it. "If this were any other country, if there were any law up here or any certainty of getting a square deal, I'd never say a word, I'd urge you to go the limit. But--"

He was about to laugh off her fears as he had done before, when the plaintive wrinkle between her brows and the forlorn droop of her lips stayed him. Without thought of consequences, and prompted largely by his leaping spirits, he stooped and, before she could divine his purpose, kissed her.

"Good-bye!" he laughed, with dancing eyes. "That's my answer!" and the next second was at the sled. The dogs leaped at his shout, and the cavalcade was in motion.

The others had not observed his leave-taking, and now cried a final farewell; but the girl stood without sound or gesture, bareheaded under the wintry sky, a startled, wondering light in her eyes which did not fade until the men were lost to view far up the river trail. Then she breathed deeply and turned into the house, oblivious to Constantine and the young squaw, who held the sick baby up for her inspection.

The hazards of winter travel in the North are manifold at best, but the country which Emerson and his companions had to traverse was particularly perilous, owing to the fact that their course led them over the backbone of the great Alaskan Range, that desolate, skyscraping rampart which interposes itself between the hate of the Arctic seas and the tossing wilderness of the North Pacific. This range forms a giant, ice-armored tusk thrust out to the westward and curved like the horn of an African rhino, its tip pointed eight hundred miles toward the Asiatic coast, its soaring peaks veiled in perpetual mist and volcanic fumes, its slopes agleam with lonely ice-fields. It is a saw-toothed ridge, for the most part narrow, unbroken, and cruel, and the rival winter gales roar over it in a never-ceasing war. On the north lies the Forgotten Land, to the south are the tempered reaches of the Pacific. In summer the stern sweep of rock and tundra is soaked with weeping rains, and given over to the herding caribou or the great grass-eating bear; but when from the polar regions the white hand of winter stretches forth, the grieving seas lift themselves, the rain turns to bitter, hail-burdened hurricanes that charge and retreat in a death-dealing conflict, sheathing the barrier anew, and confounding the hearts of men on land and sea. The coast is unlighted and badly mapped, hence the shore is a graveyard for ships, while through the guts, which at intervals penetrate the range, the blizzards screech until travellers burrow into drifts to avoid their fury or lie out in stiff sleeping-bags exposed to their anger. It is a region of sudden storms, a battle-ground of the elements, which have swept it naked of cover in ages past, and it is peopled scantily by handfuls of coughing natives, whose igloos are hidden in hollows or chained to the ground with cables and ship's gear.

It was thither the travellers were bound, headed toward Katmai Pass, which is no more than a gap between peaks, through which the hibernal gales suck and swirl. This pass is even balder than the surrounding barrens, for it forms a funnel at each end, confining the winds and affording them freer course. Notwithstanding the fact that it had an appalling death-list and was religiously shunned, Emerson would hearken to no argument for a safer route, insisting that they could spare no time for detours. Nothing dampened his spirits, no hardship daunted him; he was tireless, ferocious in his haste.

A week of hard travel found them camped in the last fringe of cottonwood that fronted the glacial slopes, their number augmented now by a native from a Russian village with an unpronounceable name, who, at the price of an extortionate bribe, had agreed to pilot them through. For three days they lay idle, the taut walls of their tent thrumming to an incessant fusillade of ice particles that whirled down ahead of the blast, while Emerson fumed to be gone.

The fourth morning broke still and quiet; but, after a careful scrutiny of the peaks, the Indian shook his head and spoke to Balt, who nodded in agreement.

"What's the matter?" growled Emerson. "Why don't we get under way?" But the other replied:

"Not to-day. Them tips are smoking, see!" He indicated certain gauzy streamers that floated like vapor from the highest pinnacles. "That's snow, dry snow, and it shows that the wind is blowing up there. We dassent tackle it."

"Do you mean we must lie here waiting for an absolutely calm day?"

"Exactly."

"Why, it may be a week!"

"It may be two of them; then, again, it may be all right to-morrow."

"Nonsense! That breeze won't hurt anybody."

"Breeze!" Balt laughed. "It's more like a tornado up yonder. No, we've just got to take it easy till the right moment comes, and then make a dash. It's thirty miles to the nearest stick of timber; and once you get into the Pass, you can't stop till you're through."

Still unconvinced, and surly at the delay, Emerson resigned himself, while Bait saw to their sled, tended the dogs, and made final preparations. "Fingerless" Fraser lay flat on his back and nursed a pair of swollen tendons that had been galled by his snowshoe thongs, reviling at the fortune that had cast him into such inhospitable surroundings, heaping anathemas upon the head of him who had invented snowshoes, complaining of everything in general, from the indigestible quality of baking-powder bread to the odor of the guide who crouched stolidly beside the stove, feeding it with green willows and twisted withes.

The next dawn showed the mountain peaks limned like clean-cut ivory against the steel-blue sky, and as they crept up through the defiles the air was so motionless that the smoke of their pipes hung about their heads, while the creak of their soles upon the dry surface of the snow roused echoes from the walls on either side. At first their progress was rapid, but in time the drifts grew deeper, and they came to bluffs where they were forced to notch footholds, unpack their load and relay it to the top, then free the dogs, and haul the sled up with a rope, hand over hand. These labors, besides being intensely fatiguing, delayed them considerably, added to which the higher altitudes were covered with a soft eider-down that reached nearly to their knees and shoved ahead of the sled in great masses. Thus they dragged their burden through instead of over it.

By mid-day they had gained the summit, and found themselves in the heart of a huge desolation, hedged in by a chaos of peaks and pinnacles, the snows unbroken by twig or bush, untracked by living sign. Here and there the dark face of some white-cowled rock or cliff scowled at them, and although they were drenched with sweat and parched from thirst, nowhere was there the faintest tinkle of running water, while the dry powder under foot scratched their throats like iron filings when they turned to it for relief. All were jaded and silent, save Emerson, who urged them on incessantly.

It was early in the afternoon when the Indian stopped and began testing the air; Balt also seemed suddenly to scent a change in the atmospheric conditions.

"What's wrong now?" Emerson asked, gruffly.

"Feels like wind," answered the big man, with a shake of his head. The native began to chatter excitedly, and as they stood there a chill draught fanned their cheeks. Glancing upward at the hillsides, they saw that the air was now thickened as if by smoke, and, dropping their eyes, they saw the fluff beneath their feet stir lazily. Little wisps of snow-vapor began to dance upon the ridges, whisking out of sight as suddenly as they appeared. They became conscious of a sudden fall in the temperature, and they knew that the cold of interstellar space dwelt in that ghostly breath which smote them. Before they were well aware of the ominous significance of these signs the storm was upon them, sweeping through the chute wherein they stood with rapidly increasing violence. The terrible, unseen hand of the Frozen North had unleashed its brood of furies, and the air rang with their hideous cries. It was Dante's third circle of hell let loose-- Cerberus baying through his wide, threefold throat, and the voices of tormented souls shrilling through the infernal shades. It came from behind them, lifting the fur on the backs of the wolf-dogs and filling it with powder, pelting their hides with sharp particles until they refused to stand before it, and turned and crouched with flattened ears in the shelter of the sled. In an instant the wet faces of the men were dried and their steaming garments hardened to shells, while their blood began to move more sluggishly.

Fraser shouted something, but Emerson's whipping garments drowned the words, and without waiting to ascertain what the adventurer had said the young man ran forward and cut the dogs loose, while Balt and the guide fell to unlashing the sled, the tails of their parkas meanwhile snapping like boat sails, their cap strings streaming. As they freed the last knot the hurricane ripped the edge of the tarpaulin from their clumsy fingers, and, seizing a loosely folded blanket belonging to the native, snatched it away. The fellow clutched wildly at it, but the cloth sailed ahead of the blast as if on wings, then, dropping to the surface of the snow, opened out, whereupon some twisting current bore it aloft again, and it swooped down the hill like a great bat, followed by a wail of despair from the owner. Other loose articles on the top of the load were picked up like chaff--coffee pot, frying pan, and dishes--then hurtled away like charges of canister, rolling, leaping, skipping down into the swale ahead, then up over the next ridge and out of sight. But the men were too fiercely beset by the confusion to notice their loss. There was no question of facing the wind, for it was more cruel than the fierce breath of an open furnace, searing the naked flesh like a flame.

All the morning the air had hung in perfect poise, but some change of temperature away out over one of the rival oceans had upset the aerostatic balance, and the wind tore through this gap like the torrent below a broken reservoir.

The contour of the surrounding hills altered, the whole country took on a different aspect, due to the rapid charging of the atmosphere, the limits of vision grew shorter and strangely distorted. Although as yet the snows were barely beginning to move, the men knew they would shortly be forced to grope their way through dense clouds that would blot out every landmark, and the touch of which would be like the stroke of a red-hot rasp.

Balt came close to Emerson, and bellowed into his ear:

"What shall we do? Roll up in the bedding or run for it?"

"How far is it to timber?"

"Twelve or fifteen miles."

"Let's run for it! We're out of grub, anyhow, and this may last for days."

There was no use of trying to secure additional clothing from the supply in the sled, so they abandoned their outfit and allowed themselves to be driven ahead of the storm, trusting to the native's sense of direction and keeping close together. The dogs were already well drifted over, and refused to stir.

Once they were gone a stone's throw from the sled there was no turning back, and although the wind was behind them progress was difficult, for they came upon chasms which they had to avoid; they crossed slippery slopes, where the storm had bared the hard crust and which their feet refused to grip. In such places they had to creep on hands and knees, calling to one another for guidance. They were numbed, blinded, choked by the rage of the blizzard; their faces grew stiff, and their lungs froze. At times they fell, and were skidded along ahead of the blasts. This forced them to crawl back again, for they dared not lose their course. At one place they followed a hog-back, where the rocks came to a sharp ridge like the summit of a roof, this they bestrode, inching along a foot at a time, wearing through the palms of their mittens and chafing their garments. No cloth could withstand the roughened surfaces, and in time the bare flesh of their hands became exposed, but there was little sensation, and no time for rest or means of relief. Soon they began to leave blood stains behind them.

All four men were old in the ways of the North, and, knowing their present extremity, they steeled themselves to suffering, but their tortures were intense, not the least of which was thirst. Exhaustion comes quickly under such conditions.

Much has been written concerning the red man's physical powers of endurance, but as a rule no Indian is the equal of his white brother, due as much perhaps to lack of mental force as to generations of insufficient clothing and inanition, so it was not surprising that as the long afternoon dragged to a close the Aleut guide began to weaken. He paused with more frequency, and it required more effort to start him; he fell oftener and rose with more difficulty, but the others were dependent upon his knowledge of the trail, and could not take the lead.

Darkness found them staggering on, supporting him wherever possible. At length he became unable to guide them farther, and Balt, who had once made the trip, took his place, while the others dragged the poor creature along at the cost of their precious strength.

At one time he begged them to leave him, and both Balt and "Fingerless" Fraser agreed, but Emerson would have none of it.

"He'll die, anyhow," argued the fisherman.

"He's as good as dead now," supplemented Fraser, "and we may be ten miles from timber."

"I made him come, and I'll take him through," said Emerson, stubbornly; and so they crawled their weary way, sore beset with their dragging burden. Slow at best, their advance now became snail-like, for darkness had fallen, and threatened to blot them out. It betrayed them down declivities, up and out of which they had to dig their way. In such descents they were forced to let go the helpless man, whose body rolled ahead of them like a boneless sack; but these very mishaps helped to keep the spark of life in him, for at every disheartening pause the others rubbed and pounded him, though they knew that their efforts were hopeless, and would have been better spent upon themselves.

Fraser, never a strong man, gave out in time, and it looked as if he might overtax the powers of the other two, but Balt's strength was that of a bull, while Emerson subsisted on his nerve, fairly consuming his soul.

They grew faint and sick, and knew themselves to be badly frozen; but their leader spurred them on, draining himself in the effort. For the first time Emerson realized that the adventurer had been a drag on him ever since their meeting.

They had long since lost all track of time and place, trusting blindly to a downward course. The hurricane still harried them with unabated fury, when all at once they came to another bluff where the ground fell away abruptly. Without waiting to investigate whether the slope terminated in a drift or a precipice, they flung themselves over. Down they floundered, the two half-insensible men tangled together as if in a race for total oblivion, only to plunge through a thicket of willow tops that whipped and stung them. On they went, now vastly heartened, over another ridge, down another declivity, and then into a grove of spruce timber, where the air suddenly stilled, and only the tree-tops told of the rushing wind above.

It was well-nigh an hour before Balt and Emerson succeeded in starting a fire, for it was desperate work groping for dry branches, and they themselves were on the verge of collapse before the timid blaze finally showed the two more unfortunate ones huddled together.

Cherry had given Emerson a flask of liquor before starting, and this he now divided between Fraser and the guide, having wisely refused it to them until shelter was secured. Then he melted snow in Balt's tin cup and poured pints of hot water into the pair until the adventurer began to rally; but the Aleut was too far gone, and an hour before the laggard dawn came he died.

They walked Fraser around the fire all night, threshing his tortured body and fighting off their own deadly weariness, meanwhile absorbing the insufficient heat of the flames.

When daylight came they tried hard to lash the corpse into a spruce-top, but their strength was unequal to the task, and they were forced to leave the body to the mercy of the wolves as they turned their faces expectantly down the valley toward the village.

The day was well spent when they struggled into Katmai and plodded up to a half-rotted log store, the roof of which was protected from the winter gales by two anchor chains passed over the ridge and made fast to posts well buried in the ground. A globular, quarter-breed Russian trader, with eyes so crossed that he could distinguish nothing at a yard's distance, took them in and administered to their most crying needs, then dispatched an outfit for the guide's body.

The initial stage of the journey, Emerson realized with thanksgiving, was over. As soon as he was able to talk he inquired straightway concerning the mail-boat.

"She called here three days ago, bound west," said the trader.

"That's all right. She'll be back in about a week, eh?"

"No; she won't stop here coming back. Her contract don't call for it."

"What!" Emerson felt himself sickening.

"No, she won't call here till next month; and then if it's storming she'll go on to the westward, and land on her way back."

"How long will that be?"

"Maybe seven or eight weeks."

In his weakened condition the young man groped for the counter to support himself. So the storm's delay at the foot of the Pass had undone him! Fate, in the guise of Winter, had unfurled those floating snow-banners from the mountain peaks to thwart him once more! Instead of losing the accursed thing that had hung over him these past three years, it had merely redoubled its hold; that mocking power had held the bait of Tantalus before his eyes, only to hurl him back into hopeless despair; for, figuring with the utmost nicety, he had reckoned that there was just time to execute his mission, and even a month's delay would mean certain failure. He turned hopelessly toward his two companions, but Fraser had relapsed into a state of coma, while Big George was asleep beside the stove.

For a long time he stood silent and musing, while the fat storekeeper regarded him stupidly; then he fumbled with clumsy fingers at his breast, and produced the folded page of a magazine. He held it for a time without opening it; then crushed it slowly in his fist, and flung the crumpled ball into the open coals.

He sighed heavily, and turned upon the trader a frost-blackened countenance, out of which all the light had gone.

"Give us beds," he said; "we want to sleep."