The Silver Horde by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Chapter VII. And Neptune Takes Another
Out of consideration for his companions, Emerson did not acquaint them with the evil tidings until the next morning; moreover, he was swallowed up in black despair, and had no heart left in him for any further exertion. He had allowed the Russian to show him to a bed, upon which he flung himself, half dressed, while the others followed suit. But he was too tired to sleep. His nerves had been filed to such a fine edge that slumber became a process which required long hours of coaxing, during which he tossed restlessly, a prey to those hideous nightmares that lurk on the border-land of dreams. His distorted imagination flung him again and again into the agonizing maelstrom of the last thirty-six hours, and in his waking moments the gaunt spectre of failure haunted him. This was no new apparition, but never before had it appeared so horrible as now. He was too worn out to rave, his strength was spent, and his mind wandered hither and thither like a rudderless ship. So he lay staring into the dark with dull, tragic eyes, utterly inert, his body racked by a thousand pains.
Nor did "Fingerless" Fraser meet with better fortune. He found little rest or sleep, and burdened the night with his groanings. His condition called for the frequent attendance of the trader, who ministered to his needs with the ease and certainty of long practice, rousing him now and then to give him nourishment, and redressing his frozen members when necessary. As for Balt, he slept like an Eskimo dog, wrapped in the senseless trance of complete physical relaxation. Being a creature of no imagination, he had taxed nothing beyond his body, which was capable of tremendous resistance, wherefore he escaped the nerve-racking torment and mental distress of the others.
As warmth and repose gradually adjusted the balance between mind and body, Emerson fell into a deep sleep, and it was late in the day when he awoke, every muscle aching, every joint stiff, every step attended with pain. He found his companions up and already breakfasted, Big George none the worse for his ordeal, while Fraser, bandaged and smarting, was his old shrewd self. Emerson's first inquiry was for the body of the guide.
"They brought him in this morning," answered the fisherman. "He's in cold storage at the church. When the priest comes over next month they'll bury him."
"He was a right nice feller," said Fraser, "but I'm glad I ain't in his mukluks. If you two hadn't stuck to me--well, him and me would have done a brother act at this church festival."
"How are your frost-bites?" Emerson asked, seating himself with painful care.
"Fine--all but the bum hook." He held up his crippled hand, which was well bandaged. "However, I guess I can save my gun-finger, so all is not lost."
"Have you heard about the mail-boat?"
"We've missed her."
"What d'you mean?" demanded Big George, blankly.
"I mean that the storm delayed us just long enough to ruin us."
"Why--er--let's wait till the next trip," offered the fisherman.
Emerson shook his head. "She may not be back here for eight weeks. No! We're done for."
Balt was like a big boy in distress. His face wrinkled as if he were about to burst into loud lamentations; then a thought seized him.
"I'll tell you what we'll do!" he cried, with a heavy attempt at meeting the problem. "We'll put off the scheme for a year. We'll take plenty of time, and open up a year from next spring."
"No," said Emerson, with a dejected shake of the head. "If I can't put it through on the flash, I can't do it at all. My time is up. I'm down and out. All our pretty plans have gone to smash. You'd better go back to Kalvik, George."
At this suggestion, Balt rose ponderously and began to rave. To see his vengeance slip from his grasp enraged him. He cursed shockingly, clinching his great fists above his head, and grinding forth imprecations which caused Fraser to quail and cry out aghast:
"Hey, you! Quit that! D'you want to hang a Jonah onto us?"
But the fisherman only goaded himself into a greater passion, during which Petellin, the storekeeper, entered, and forthwith began to cross himself devoutly. Observing this fervent pantomime, Balt turned upon the trader and directed his outburst at him:
"Where in hell is this steamer?"
"Out to the westward somewhere."
"Well, she's a mail-boat, ain't she? Then why don't she stop here coming back? Answer me!"
The rotund man shrugged his fat shoulders. "She's got to call at Uyak Bay going east."
Emerson looked up quickly, "Where is Uyak Bay?"
"Over on Kodiak Island," Big George answered; then turned again to vent his spleen on the trader.
"What right have them steamboat people got to cut out this place for an empty cannery? Why, there ain't nobody at Uyak. It's more of that damned Company business. They own this whole country, and run it to suit themselves."
"She ain't my boat," said Petellin. "You'd ought to have got here a few days sooner."
"My God! I'm sorry we waited at the Pass," said Emerson. "The weather couldn't have been any worse that first day than it was when we came across."
Detecting in this remark a criticism of his caution, Big George turned about and faced the speaker; but as he met Emerson's eye he checked the explosion, and, seizing his cap, bolted out into the cold to walk off his mad rage.
"When is the boat due at Uyak?" Emerson asked.
"'Most any time inside of a week."
"How far is that from here?"
"It ain't so far--only about fifty miles." Then, catching the light that flamed into the miner's eyes, Petellin hastened to observe: "But you can't get there. It's across the Straits--Shelikof Straits."
"What of that! We can hire a sail-boat, and--"
"I ain't got any sail-boat. I lost my sloop last year hunting sea-otter."
"We can hire a small boat of some sort, can't we, and get the natives to put us across? There must be plenty of boats here."
"Nothing but skin boats, kyaks, and bidarkas--you know. Anyhow, you couldn't cross at this time of year--it's too stormy; these Straits is the worst piece of water on the coast. No, you'll have to wait."
Emerson sank back into his chair, and stared hopelessly at the fire.
"Better have some breakfast," the trader continued; but the other only shook his head. And after a farewell squint of curiosity, the fat man rolled out again in pursuit of his duties.
"I've heard tell of these Shelikof Straits," Fraser remarked. "I bunked with a bear-hunter from Kodiak once, and he said they was certainly some hell in winter." When Emerson made no reply, the fellow's colorless eyes settled upon him with a trace of solicitude, and he resumed: "I'm doggone sorry you lost out, pal, but mebbe something'll turn up yet." Then, seeing that the young man was deaf to his condolence, he muttered: "So, you've got 'em again, eh? Um!" As usual on such occasions, he fell into his old habit of reading aloud, as it were, an imaginary scene to himself:
"'Yes, I've got 'em again,' says Mr. Emerson, always eager to give entertainment with the English language. 'I am indeed blue this afternoon. Won't you talk to me? I feel that the sound of a dear friend's voice will drive dull care away.'
"'Gladly,' says I; 'I am a silent man by birth and training, and my thoughts is jewels, but for you, I'll scatter them at large, and you can take your pick. Now, this salmon business ain't what it's cracked up to be, after all. It's a smelly proposition, no matter how you take it, and a fisherman ain't much better than a Reub; ask any wise guy. I'd rather see you in some profesh that don't stink so, like selling scented soap. There was a feller at Dyea who done well at it. What think you?'
"'It's a dark night without,' says Mr. Emerson, 'and I fear some mischief is afoot!'
"'But what of yonder beauteous--'"
Unheeding this chatter, the disheartened man got up at this juncture, as if a sudden thought impelled him, and followed Balt out into the cold. He turned down the bank to the creek, however, and made a careful examination of all the canoes that went with the village. Fifteen minutes later he had searched out the disgruntled fisherman, and cried, excitedly:
"I've got it! We'll catch that boat yet!"
"How?" growled the big man, sourly.
"There's a large open skin-boat, an oomiak, down on the beach. We'll hire a crew of Indians to put us across to Uyak."
"Can't be done," said Big George, still gruffly. "It's the wrong season. You know the Shelikof Straits is a bad place even for steamships at this time of year. They're like that Pass up yonder, only worse."
"But it's only fifty miles across."
"Fifty miles of that kind of water in an open canoe may be just as bad as five hundred--unless you're lucky. And I ain't noticed anything so damned lucky about us."
"Well, it's that or nothing. It's our only chance. Are you game?"
"Come on," cried Big George, "let's find Petellin!"
When that worthy heard their desire, he uttered a shriek of denial.
"In summer, yes, but now--you can't do it. It has been tried too often. The Straits is always rough, and the weather is too cold to sit all day in an oomiak, you'd freeze."
"We'll chance it."
"No, no, NO! If it comes on to storm, you'll go to sea. The tides are strong; you can't see your course, and--"
"We'll use a compass. Now, you get me enough men to handle that oomiak, that's a good fellow. I'll attend to the rest."
"But they won't go," declared the little fat man. "They know what it means. Why--"
"Call them in. I'll do the talking." And accordingly the storekeeper went in search of the village chief, shaking his head and muttering at the madness of these people.
"Fingerless" Fraser, noticing the change in Balt and Emerson when they re- entered the store, questioned them as to what had happened; and in reply to his inquiry, Big George said:
"We're going to tackle the Straits in a small boat."
"What! Not on your life! Why, that's the craziest stunt I ever heard of. Don't you know--"
"Yes, we know," Emerson shut him up, brusquely. "You don't have to go with us."
"Well, I should say not. Hunh! Do I look like I'd do a thing like that? If I do, it's because I'm sick. I just got this far by a gnat's eyelash, and hereinafter I take the best of it every time."
"You can wait for the mail-boat."
"I certainly can, and, what's more, I will. And I'll register myself, too. There ain't goin' to be any accidents to me whatever."
Although the two men were pleased at the remote chance of catching the steamer, their ardor received a serious set-back when the trader came in with the head man of the village and a handful of hunters, for Emerson found that money was quite powerless to tempt them. Using the Russian as interpreter, he coaxed and wheedled, increasing his offer out of all proportion to the exigencies of the occasion; and still finding them obdurate, in despair he piled every coin he owned upon the counter. But the men only shook their heads and palavered among themselves.
"They say it's too cold," translated Petellin. "They will freeze, and money is no good to dead men." Another native spoke: "'It is very stormy this month,' they say. 'The waves would sink an open boat.'"
"Then they can put us across in bidarkas," insisted Emerson, who had noted the presence of several of these smaller crafts, which are nothing more than long walrus-hide canoes completely decked over, save for tiny cockpits wherein the paddlers sit. "They don't have to come back that way; they can wait at Uyak for the next trip of the steamer. Why, I'm offering them more pay than they can make in ten years."
"Better get them to do it," urged Big George. "You'll get the coin all back from them; they'll have to trade here." But Petellin's arguments were as ineffective as Emerson's, and after an hour's futile haggling the natives were about to leave when Emerson said:
"Ask them what they'll take to sell me a bidarka."
"One hundred dollars," Petellin told him, after an instant's parley.
Emerson turned to George. "Will you tackle it alone with me?"
The fisherman hesitated. "Two of us couldn't make it. Get a third man, and I'll go you." Accordingly Emerson resumed the subject with the Indians, but now their answer was short and decisive. Not one of them would venture forth unless accompanied by one of his own kind, in whose endurance and skill with a paddle he had confidence. It seemed as if fate had laid one final insurmountable obstacle in the path of the two white men, when "Fingerless" Fraser, who had been a silent witness of the whole scene, spoke up, in his voice a bitter complaint:
"Well, that puts it up to me, I suppose. I'm always the fall guy, damn it!"
"You! You go!" cried Emerson, astounded beyond measure at this offer, and still doubting. The fellow had so consistently shirked every hardship, and so systematically refused every hazard, no matter how slight!
"Well, I don't want to," Fraser flared up, "you can just lay a bet on that. But these Siwashes won't stand the gaff, they're too wise; so I've got to, ain't I?" He glared belligerently from one to the other.
"Can you handle a boat?" demanded Big George.
"Can I handle a--Hunh!" sniffed the fellow. "Say, just because you've got corns on your palms as big as pancakes, you needn't think you're the only human that ever pulled an oar. I was the first man through Miles Canon. During the big rush in '98 I ran the rapids for a living. I got fifty dollars a trip, and it only took me three minutes by the watch. That was the only easy money I ever picked up. Why, them tenderfeet used to cry like babies when they got a peek at them rapids. Can I handle a b----Yes, and I wish I was back there right now instead of hitched up with a pair of yaps that don't know when they're well off."
"But, look here, Fraser," Emerson spoke up, "I don't think you are strong enough for this trip. It may take us forty-eight hours of constant paddling against wind and tide to make Uyak. George and I are fit enough, but you know you aren't--"
"Fingerless" Fraser turned violently upon the speaker.
"Now, for Heaven's sake, cut that out, will you? Just because you happened to give me a little lift on this cussed Katmai Pass, I s'pose you'll never get done throwing it up to me. My feet were sore; that's why I petered out. If it hadn't been for my bum 'dogs' I'd have walked both of you down; but they were sore. Can't you understand? My feet were sore."
He was whining now, and this unexpected angle of the man's disposition completely confused the others and left them rather at a loss what to say. But before they could make any comment, he rose stiffly and blazed forth:
"But I won't start to-day. I hurt too much, and my mits is froze. If you want to wait till I'm healed up so I can die in comfort, why, go ahead and buy that fool-killer boat, and we'll all commit suicide together." He stumped indignantly out of the room, his friends too greatly dumfounded even to smile.
For the next two days the men rested, replenishing their strength; but Fraser developed a wolfish temper which turned him into a veritable chestnut burr. There was no handling him. His scars were not deep nor his hurts serious, however, so by the afternoon of the second day he announced, with surly distemper, that he would be ready to leave on the following morning, and the others accordingly made preparation for an early start. They selected the most seaworthy canoe, which at best was a treacherous craft, and stocked it well with water, cooked food, and stimulants.
Since their arrival at Katmai the weather had continued calm; and although the view they had through the frowning headlands showed the Straits black and angry, they prayed that the wind would hold off for another twenty- four hours. Again Petellin importuned them to forego this journey, and again they turned deaf ears to his entreaties and retired early, to awaken with the rickety log store straining at its cables under the force of a blizzard that had blotted out the mountains and was rousing the sea to fury. Fraser openly rejoiced, and Balt's heavy brows, which had carried a weight of trouble, cleared; but Emerson was plunged into as black a mood as that of the storm which had swallowed up the landscape. For three days the tempest held them prisoners, then died as suddenly as it had arisen; but the surf continued to thunder upon the beach for many hours, while Emerson looked on with hopeless, sullen eyes. When at last they did set out--a week, to a day, from their arrival at Katmai--it was to find such a heavy sea running outside the capes that they had hard shift to make it back to the village, drenched, dispirited, and well-nigh dead from the cold and fatigue. Although Fraser had fully recovered from his collapse, he nevertheless complained upon every occasion, and whined loudly at every ache. He voiced his tortures eloquently, and bewailed the fate that had brought his fortunes to such an ebb, burdening the air so heavily with his complaints that Big George broke out, in exasperation:
"Shut up! You don't have to go with us! I'd rather tackle it alone than listen to you!"
"That's right," agreed Emerson, whose patience was also worn out by the rogue's unceasing jeremiad. "We'll try it without him to-morrow."
"Oh, you will, will you?" snorted Fraser, indignantly. "So, after me getting well on purpose to make this trip, you want to dump me here with this fat man. I'll stand as much as anybody, but I won't stand for no deal like that. No, sir! You said I could go, and I'm going. Why, I'd rather drown than stick in this burgh with that greasy Russian porpoise. Gee! this is a shine village."
"Then take your medicine like a man, and quit kicking."
"If you prefer to swallow your groans, you do it. I like to make a fuss when I suffer. I enjoy it more that way."
Again Petellin called them at daylight, and they were off; this time with better success, for the waves had abated sufficiently for them to venture beyond the partial shelter of the bay. All three knew the desperate chance they were taking, and they spoke little as they made their way out into the Straits. Their craft was strange to them, and the positions they were forced to occupy soon brought on cramped muscles. The bidarka is a frail, narrow framework over which is stretched walrus skin, and it is so fashioned that the crew sits, one behind the other, in circular openings with legs straight out in front. To keep themselves dry each man had donned a native water garment--a loose, hooded shirt manufactured from the bladders of seals. These shirts--or kamlikas, as they are called--are provided with draw-strings at wrists, face, and bottom, so that when the skirt is stretched over the rim of the cockpit and corded tight, it renders the canoe well-nigh waterproof, even though the decks are awash.
The whole contrivance is peculiarly aboriginal and unsuited to the uses of white men; and, while unusually seaworthy, the bidarka requires more skill in the handling than does a Canadian birch bark, hence the wits of the three travellers were taxed to the utmost.
Out across the lonesome waste they journeyed, steadily creeping farther from the village, which of a sudden seemed a very safe and desirable place, with its snug store, its blazing fires, and its warm beds. The sea tossed them like a cork, coating their paddles and the decks of the canoe with ice, which they were at great pains to break off. It wet them in spite of their precautions, and its salt breath searched out their marrow, regardless of their unceasing labors; and these labors were in truth unceasing, for fifty miles of open water lay before them; fifty miles, which meant twelve hours of steady paddling. Gradually, imperceptibly, the mountain shores behind them shrank down upon the gray horizon. It seemed that for once the weather was going to be kind to them, and their spirits rose in consequence. They ate frequently, food being the great fuel of the North, and midday found them well out upon the heaving bosom of the Straits with the Kodiak shores plainly visible. Then, as if tired of toying with them, the wind rose. It did not blow up a gale--merely a frigid breath that cut them like steel and halted their progress. Had it sprung from the north it would have wafted them on their way, but it drew in from the Pacific, straight into their teeth, forcing them to redouble their exertions. It was not of sufficient violence to overcome their efforts, but it held them back and stirred up a nasty cross sea into which the canoe plunged and wallowed. In the hope that it would die down with the darkness, the boatmen held on their course, and night closed over them still paddling silently.
It was nearly noon on the following day when the watchman at the Uyak cannery beheld a native canoe creeping slowly up the bay, and was astonished to find it manned by three white men in the last stages of exhaustion--so stiff and cramped and numb that he was forced to help them from their places when at last they effected a landing. One of them, in fact, was unconscious and had to be carried to the house, which did not surprise the watchman when he learned whence they had come. He did marvel, however, that another of the travellers should begin to cry weakly when told that the mail boat had sailed for Kodiak the previous evening. He gave them stimulants, then prepared hot food for them, for both Bait and Emerson were like sleep-walkers; and Fraser, when he was restored to consciousness, was too weak to stand.
"Too bad you didn't get in last night," said the care-taker, sympathetically. "She won't be back now for a month or more."
"How long will she lie in Kodiak?" Big George asked.
"The captain told me he was going to spend Christmas there. Lefs see--to- day is the 22nd--she'll pull out for Juneau on the morning of the 26th; that's three days."
"We must catch her," cried Emerson, quickly. "If you'll land us in Kodiak on time I'll pay you anything you ask."
"I'd like to, but I can't," the man replied. "You see, I'm here all alone, except for Johnson. He's the watchman for the other plant."
"Then for God's sake get us some natives. I don't care what it costs."
"There ain't any natives here. This ain't no village. There's nothing here but these two plants, and Johnson or me dassent leave."
Emerson turned his eyes upon the haggard man who sprawled weakly in a chair; and Fraser, noting the appeal, answered, gamely, with a forced smile on his lips, though they were drawn and bloodless:
"Sure! I'll be ready to leave in the morning, pal!"
The old Russian village of Kodiak lies on the opposite side of the island from the canneries, a bleak, wind-swept relic of the country's first occupation, and although peopled largely by natives and breeds, there is also a considerable white population, to whom Christmas is a season of thanksgiving and celebration. Hence it was that the crew of the Dora were well content to pass the Yuletide there, where the girls are pretty and a hearty welcome is accorded to every one. There were drinking and dancing and music behind the square-hewn log walls, and the big red stoves made havoc with the salt wind. The town was well filled and the merrymaking vigorous, and inasmuch as winter is a time of rest, during which none but the most foolhardy trust themselves to the perils of the sea, it caused much comment when late on Christmas afternoon an ice-burdened canoe, bearing three strange white men, landed on the beach beside the dock--or were they white men, after all? Their faces were so blackened and split from the frost they seemed to be raw bleeding masks, their hands were cracked and stiff beneath their mittens. They were hollow-eyed and gaunt, their cheeks sunken away as if from a wasting illness, and they could not walk, but crept across the snow-covered shingle on hands and knees, then reaching the street hobbled painfully, while their limbs gave way as if paralyzed. One of them lacked strength even to leave the canoe, and when two sailors ran down and lifted him out, he gabbled strangely in the jargon of the mining camp and the gambling table. Of the other two, one, a great awkward shambling giant of a creature, stumbled out along the dock toward the ship, his head hung low and swinging from side to side, his shoulders drooping, his arms loose-hinged, his knees bending.
But the third voyager, who had with difficulty won his way up to the level of the street, presented the strangest appearance. There was something uncanny about him. As he gained the street, he waved back all proffered assistance, then paused, with his swaying body propped upon widespread legs, staring malignantly into the north. From their deep sockets his eyes glittered like live coals, while his blackened, swollen lips split in a grimace that bared his teeth. He raised his arms slowly and shook his clenched fists defiantly at the Polar skies, muttering unintelligible things, then staggered after his companions.