Chapter Seventeen
 

In the starlit, bitter cold of a north country morning the three packed their sledge and harnessed their dogs. The rawhide was stubborn with the frost, the dogs uneasy. Knots would not tie. Pain nipped the fingers, cruel pain that ate in and in until it had exposed to the shock of little contacts every tightened nerve. Each stiff, clumsy movement was agony. From time to time one of the three thrust hand in mitten to beat the freezing back. Then a new red torture surged to the very finger-tips. They bore it in silence, working hastily, knowing that every morning of the long, winter trip this fearful hour must come. Thus each day the North would greet them, squeezing their fingers in the cruel hand-clasp of an antagonist testing their strength.

Over the supplies and blankets was drawn the skin envelope laced to the sledge. The last reluctant knot was tied. Billy, the leader of the four dogs, casting an intelligent eye at his masters, knew that all was ready, and so arose from his haunches. Dick twisted his feet skilfully into the loops of his snow-shoes. Sam, already equipped, seized the heavy dog-whip. The girl took charge of the gee-pole with which the sledge would be guided.

"Mush!--Mush on!" shouted Sam.

The four dogs leaned into their collars. The sledge creaked free of its frost anchorage and moved.

First it became necessary to drop from the elevation to the river-bed. Dick and May-may-gwan clung desperately. Sam exercised his utmost skill and agility to keep the dogs straight. The toboggan hovered an instant over the edge of the bank, then plunged, coasting down. Men hung back, dogs ran to keep ahead. A smother of light snow settled to show, in the dim starlight, the furrow of descent. And on the broad, white surface of the river were eight spot of black which represented the followers of the Long Trail.

Dick shook himself and stepped ahead of the dogs.

"Mush! Mush on!" commanded Sam again.

Dick ran on steadily in the soft snow, swinging his entire weight now on one foot, now on the other, passing the snow-shoes with the peculiar stiff swing of the ankle, throwing his heel strongly downward at each step in order to take advantage of the long snow-shoe tails' elasticity. At each step he sank deep into the feathery snow. The runner was forced to lift the toe of the shoe sharply, and the snow swirled past his ankles like foam. Behind him, in the trail thus broken and packed for them, trotted the dogs, their noses low, their jaws hanging. Sam drove with two long-lashed whips; and May-may-gwan, clinging to the gee-pole, guided the sledge.

In the absolute and dead stillness of a winter morning before the dawn the little train went like ghosts in a mist of starlight. The strange glimmering that seems at such an hour to disengage from the snow itself served merely to establish the separate bulks of that which moved across it. The bending figure of the man breaking trail, his head low, his body moving in its swing with the regularity of a pendulum; the four wolf-like dogs, also bending easily to what was not a great labour, the line of their open jaws and lolling tongues cut out against the snow; another human figure; the low, dark mass of the sledge; and again the bending figure at the rear,--all these contrasted in their half-blurred uncertainty of outline and the suggested motion of their attitude with the straight, clear silhouette of the spruce-trees against the sky.

Also the sounds of their travelling offered an analogous contrast. The dull crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow-shoes, the breathing of the living beings, the glither and creak of the sledge came to the ear blurred and confused; utterly unlike the cameo stillness of the winter dawn.

Ten minutes of the really violent exertion of breaking trail warmed Dick through. His fingers ceased their protest. Each breath, blowing to steam, turned almost immediately to frost. He threw back the hood of his capote, for he knew that should it become wet from the moisture of his breath, it would freeze his skin, and with his violent exertions exposure to the air was nothing. In a short time his eyebrows and eyelashes became heavy with ice. Then slowly the moisture of his body, working outward through the wool of his clothing, frosted on the surface, so that gradually as time went on he grew to look more and more like a great white-furred animal.

The driving here on the open river was comparatively easy. Except occasionally, the straight line could be adhered to. When it became necessary to avoid an obstruction, Sam gave the command loudly, addressing Billy as the lead dog.

"Hu, Billy!" he would cry.

And promptly Billy would turn to the right. Or:

"Chac, Billy!" he would cry.

And Billy would turn to the left, with always in mind the thought of the long whip to recall his duty to man.

Then the other dogs turned after him. Claire, for her steadiness and sense, had been made sledge-dog. Always she watched sagaciously to pull the end of the sledge strongly away should the deviation not prove sufficient. Later, in the woods, when the trail should become difficult, much would depend on Claire's good sense.

Now shortly, far to the south, the sun rose. The gray world at once became brilliant. The low frost haze,--invisible until now, to be invisible all the rest of the day,--for these few moments of the level beams worked strange necromancies. The prisms of a million ice-drops on shrubs and trees took fire. A bewildering flash and gleam of jewels caught the eye in every direction. And, suspended in the air, like the shimmer of a soft and delicate veiling, wavered and floated a mist of vapour, tinted with rose and lilac, with amethyst and saffron.

As always on the Long Trail, our travellers' spirits rose with the sun. Dick lengthened his stride, the dogs leaned to their collars, Sam threw back his shoulders, the girl swung the sledge tail with added vim. Now everything was warm and bright and beautiful. It was yet too early in the day for fatigue, and the first discomforts had passed.

But in a few moments Dick stopped. The sledge at once came to a halt. They rested.

At the end of ten minutes Sam stepped to the front, and Dick took the dog-whip. The young man's muscles, still weak from their long inaction, ached cruelly. Especially was this true of the ligaments at the groin--used in lifting high the knee,--and the long muscles along the front of the shinbone,--by which the toe of the snow-shoe was elevated. He found himself very glad to drop behind into the beaten trail.

The sun by now had climbed well above the horizon, but did little to mitigate the cold. As long as the violent movement was maintained a warm and grateful glow followed the circulation, but a pause, even of a few moments, brought the shivers. And always the feathery, clogging snow,--offering slight resistance, it is true, but opposing that slight resistance continuously, so that at last it amounted to a great deal. A step taken meant no advance toward easier steps. The treadmill of forest travel, changed only in outward form, again claimed their dogged patience.

At noon they paused in the shelter of the woods. The dogs were anchored by the simple expedient of turning the sledge on its side. A little fire of dried spruce and pine branches speedily melted snow in the kettle, and that as speedily boiled tea. Caribou steak, thawed, then cooked over the blaze, completed the meal. As soon as it was swallowed they were off again before the cold could mount them.

The inspiration and uplift of the morning were gone; the sun was sinking to a colder and colder setting. All the vital forces of the world were running down. A lethargy seized our travellers. An effort was required merely to contemplate treading the mill during the three remaining hours of daylight, a greater effort to accomplish the first step of it, and an infinite series of ever-increasing efforts to make the successive steps of that long afternoon. The mind became weary. And now the North increased by ever so little the pressure against them, sharpening the cold by a trifle; adding a few flakes' weight to the snow they must lift on their shoes; throwing into the vista before them a deeper, chillier tone of gray discouragement; intensifying the loneliness; giving to the winds of desolation a voice. Well the great antagonist knew she could not thus stop these men, but so, little by little, she ground them down, wore away the excess of their vitality, reduced them to grim plodding, so that at the moment she would hold them weakened to her purposes. They made no sign, for they were of the great men of the earth, but they bent to the familiar touch of many little fingers pushing them back.

Now the sun did indeed swing to the horizon, so that there remained scant daylight.

"Chac, Billy!" cried Sam, who again wielded the whip.

Slowly, wearily, the little party turned aside. In the grove of spruce the snow clung thick and heavy. A cold blackness enveloped them like a damp blanket. Wind, dying with the sun, shook the snow from the trees and cried mournfully in their tops. Gray settled on the landscape, palpable, real, extinguishing the world. It was the second dreadful hour of the day, the hour when the man, weary, discouraged, the sweat of travel freezing on him, must still address himself to the task of making a home in the wilderness.

Again the sledge was turned on its side. Dick and May-may-gwan removed their snow-shoes, and, using them as shovels, began vigorously to scrape and dig away the snow. Sam unstrapped the axe and went for firewood. He cut it with little tentative strokes, for in the intense cold the steel was almost as brittle as glass.

Now a square of ground flanked by high snow walls was laid bare. The two then stripped boughs of balsam with which to carpet all one end of it. They unharnessed the dogs, and laid the sledge across one end of the clear space, covering it with branches in order to keep the dogs from gnawing the moose-skin wrapper. It was already quite dark.

But at this point Sam returned with fuel. At once the three set about laying a fire nearly across the end of the cleared space opposite the sledge. In a moment a tiny flame cast the first wavering shadows against the darkness. Silently the inimical forces of the long day withdrew.

Shortly the camp was completed. Before the fire, impaled on sticks, hung the frozen whitefish thawing out for the dogs. Each animal was to receive two. The kettle boiled. Meat sizzled over the coals. A piece of ice, whittled to a point, dripped drinking-water like a faucet. The snow-bank ramparts were pink in the glow. They reflected appreciably the heat of the fire, though they were not in the least affected by it, and remained flaky to the touch. A comfortable sizzling and frying and bubbling and snapping filled the little dome of firelight, beyond which was the wilderness. Weary with an immense fatigue the three lay back waiting for their supper to be done. The dogs, too, waited patiently just at the edge of the heat, their bushy tails covering the bottoms of their feet and their noses, as nature intended. Only Mack, the hound, lacking this protection, but hardened to greater exposure, lay flat on his side, his paws extended to the blaze. They all rested quietly, worn out, apparently without the energy to move a single hair. But now Dick, rising, took down from its switch the first of the whitefish. Instantly every dog was on his feet. Their eyes glared yellow, their jaws slavered, they leaped toward the man who held the fish high above his head and kicked energetically at the struggling animals. Sam took the dog whip to help. Between them the food was distributed, two fish to a dog. The beasts took each his share to a place remote from the others and bolted it hastily, returning at once on the chance of a further distribution, or the opportunity to steal from his companions. After a little more roaming about, growling and suspicious sniffing, they again settled down one by one to slumber.

Almost immediately after supper the three turned in, first removing and hanging before the fire the duffel and moccasins worn during the day. These were replaced by larger and warmer sleep moccasins lined with fur. The warm-lined coverings they pulled up over and around them completely, to envelop even their heads. This arrangement is comfortable only after long use has accustomed one to the half-suffocation; but it is necessary, not only to preserve the warmth of the body, but also to protect the countenance from freezing. At once they fell into exhausted sleep.

As though they had awaited a signal, the dogs arose and proceeded to investigate the camp. Nothing was too trivial to escape their attention. Billy found a tiny bit of cooked meat. Promptly he was called on to protect his discovery against a vigorous onslaught from the hound and the other husky. Over and over the fighting dogs rolled, snorting and biting, awakening the echoes of the forest, even trampling the sleepers, who, nevertheless, did not stir. In the mean time, Claire, uninvolved, devoured the morsel. The trouble gradually died down. One after another the animals dug themselves holes in the snow, where they curled up, their bushy tails over their noses and their fore paws. Only Mack, the hound with the wrinkled face and long, pendent ears, unendowed with such protection, crept craftily between his sleeping masters.

Gradually the fire died to coals, then filmed to ashes. Hand in hand the cold and the darkness invaded the camp. As the firelight faded, objects showed dimly, growing ever more distinct through the dying glow--the snow-laden bushes, the pointed trees against a steel sky of stars. The little, artificial tumult of homely sound by which these men had created for the moment an illusion of life sank down under the unceasing pressure of the verities, so that the wilderness again flowed unobstructed through the forest aisles. With a last pop of coals the faint noise of the fire ceased. Then an even fainter noise slowly became audible, a crackling undertone as of silken banners rustling. And at once, splendid, barbaric, the mighty orgy of the winter-time aurora began.