Chapter Twenty-Three

The silence of the grave lay over the white world. Deep in the forest a tree detonated with the frost. There by the cold last night's camp the four human figures posed, motionless as a wind that has died. Only the dogs, lolling, stretching, sending the warm steam of their breathing into the dead air, seemed to stand for the world of life, and the world of sentient creatures. And yet their very presence, unobtrusive in the forest shadows, by contrast thrust farther these others into the land of phantoms and of ghosts.

Then quietly, as with one consent, the three living ones turned away. The older woodsman stepped into the trail, leading the way for the dogs; the younger woodsman swung in behind at the gee-pole; the girl followed. Once more; slowly, as though reluctant, the forest trees resumed their silent progress past those three toiling in the treadmill of the days. The camp dropped back; it confused itself in the frost mists; it was gone, gone into the mystery and the vastness of the North, gone with its tragedy and its symbol of the greatness of human passion, gone with its one silent watcher staring at the sky, awaiting the coming of day. The frost had mercifully closed again about its revelation. No human eye would ever read that page again.

Each of the three seemed wrapped in the splendid isolation of his own dream. They strode on sightless, like somnambulists. Only mechanically they kept the trail, and why they did so they could not have told. No coherent thoughts passed through their brains. But always the trees, frost-rimed, drifted past like phantoms; always the occult influences of the North loomed large on their horizon like mirages, dwindled in the actuality, but threatened again in the bigness of mystery when they had passed. The North was near, threatening, driving the terror of her tragedy home to the hearts of these staring mechanical plodders, who now travelled they knew not why, farther and farther into the depths of dread.

But the dogs stopped, and Billy, the leader, sniffed audibly in inquiry of what lay ahead. Instantly, in the necessity for action, the spell broke. The mystery which had lain so long at their horizon, which but now had crept in, threatening to smother them, rolled back to its accustomed place. The north withheld her hand.

Before them was another camp, one that had been long used. A conical tepee or wigwam, a wide space cleared of snow, much debris, racks and scaffolds for the accommodation of supplies, all these attested long occupancy.

Sam jerked the cover from his rifle, and cast a hasty glance at the nipple to see if it was capped. Dick jumped forward and snatched aside the opening into the wigwam.

"Not at home!" said he.

"Gone," corrected Sam, pointing to a fresh trail beyond.

At once the two men turned their attention to this. After some difficulty they established the fact of a three-dog team. Testing the consistency of the snow they proved a heavy load on the toboggan.

"I'm afraid that means he's gone for good," said Sam.

[Illustration: Dick jumped forward and snatched aside the opening into the wigwam]

A further examination of camp corroborated this. The teepee had been made double, with the space between the two walls stuffed with moss, so evidently it had been built as permanent winter quarters. The fact of its desertion at this time of year confirmed the reasoning as to the identity of its occupant and the fact of his having been warned by the dead Chippewa. Skulls of animals indicated a fairly prosperous fur season. But the skulls of animals, a broken knife, a pile of balsam-boughs, and the deserted wigwam were all that remained. Jingoss had taken with him his traps, his pelts, his supplies.

"That's a good thing," concluded Sam, "a mighty good thing. It shows he ain't much scared. He don't suspect we're anywhere's near him; only that it ain't very healthy to spend the winter in this part of the country. If he'd thought we was close, he wouldn't have lugged along a lot of plunder; he'd be flying mighty light."

"That's right," agreed Dick.

"And in that case he isn't travelling very fast. We'll soon catch up."

"He only left this morning," supplemented Dick, examining the frost-crystals in the new-cut trail.

Without wasting further attention, they set out in pursuit. The girl followed. Dick turned to her.

"I think we shall catch him very soon," said he, in Ojibway.

The girl's face brightened and her eyes filled. The simple words admitted her to confidence, implied that she, too, had her share in the undertaking, her interest in its outcome. She stepped forward with winged feet of gladness.

Luckily a light wind had sprung up against them. They proceeded as quietly and as swiftly as they could. In a short time they came to a spot where Jingoss had boiled tea. This indicated that he must have started late in the morning to have accomplished only so short a distance before noon. The trail, too, became fresher.

Billy, the regular lead dog, on this occasion occupied his official position ahead, although, as has been pointed out, he was sometimes alternated with the hound, who now ran just behind him. Third trotted Wolf, a strong beast, but a stupid; then Claire, at the sledge, sagacious, alert, ready to turn the sledge from obstruction. For a long, time all these beasts, with the strange intelligence of animals much associated with man, had entertained a strong interest in the doings of their masters. Something besides the day's journey was in the wind. They felt it through their keen instinctive responsiveness to the moods of those over them; they knew it by the testimony of their bright eyes which told them that these investigations and pryings were not all in an ordinary day's travel. Investigations and pryings appeal to a dog's nature. Especially did Mack, the hound, long to be free of his harness that he, too, might sniff here and there in odd nooks and crannies, testing with that marvelously keen nose of his what his masters regarded so curiously. Now at last he understood from the frequent stops and examinations that the trail was the important thing. From time to time he sniffed of it deeply, saturating his memory with the quality of its effluvia. Always it grew fresher. And then at last the warm animal scent rose alive to his nostrils, and he lifted his head and bayed.

The long, weird sound struck against the silence with the impact of a blow. Nothing more undesirable could have happened. Again Mack bayed, and the echoing bell tones of his voice took on a strange similarity to a tocsin of warning. Rustling and crackling across the men's fancies the influences of the North moved invisible, alert, suddenly roused.

Dick whirled with an exclamation, throwing down and back the lever of his Winchester, his face suffused, his eye angry.

"Damnation!" exclaimed Bolton, anticipating his intention, and springing forward in time to strike up the muzzle of the rifle, though not soon enough to prevent the shot.

Against the snow, plastered on a distant tree, the bullet hit, scattering the fine powder; then ricochetted, shrieking with increasing joy as it mounted the upper air. After it, as though released by its passage from the spell of the great frost, trooped the voices and echoes of the wilderness. In the still air such a racket would carry miles.

Sam looked from the man to the dog.

"Well, between the two of you!" said he.

Dick sprang forward, lashing the team with his whip.

"After him!" he shouted.

They ran in a swirl of light snow. In a very few moments they came to a bundle of pelts, a little pile of traps, the unnecessary impediments discarded by the man they pursued. So near had they been to a capture.

Sam, out of breath, peremptorily called a halt.

"Hold on!" he commanded. "Take it easy. We can't catch him like this. He's travelling light, and he's one man, and he has a fresh team. He'll pull away from us too easy, and leave us with worn-out dogs." The old man sat and deliberately filled his pipe.

Dick fumed up and down, chafing at the delay, convinced that something should be done immediately, but at a loss to tell what it should be.

"What'll we do, then?" he asked, after a little.

"He leaves a trail, don't he?" inquired Sam. "We must follow it."

"But what good--how can we ever catch up?"

"We've got to throw away our traps and extra duffle. We've got to travel as fast as we can without wearing ourselves out. He may try to go too fast, and so we may wear him down. It's our only show, anyway. If we lose him now, we'll never find him again. That trail is all we have to go by."

"How if it snows hard? It's getting toward spring storms."

"If it snows hard--well--" The old man fell silent, puffing away at his pipe. "One thing I want you to understand," he continued, looking up with a sudden sternness, "don't you ever take it on yourself to shoot that gun again. We're to take that man alive. The noise of the shot to-day was a serious thing; it gave Jingoss warning, and perhaps spoiled our chance to surprise him. But he might have heard us anyway. Let that go. But if you'd have killed that hound as you started out to do, you'd have done more harm than your fool head could straighten out in a lifetime. That hound--why--he's the best thing we've got. I'd--I'd almost rather lose our rifles than him--" he trailed off again into rumination.

Dick, sobered as he always was when his companion took this tone, inquired why, but received no answer. After a moment Sam began to sort the contents of the sledge, casting aside all but the necessities.

"What's the plan?" Dick ventured.

"To follow."

"How long do you think it will be before we catch him?"

"God knows."

The dogs leaned into their harness, almost falling forward at the unexpected lightness of the load. Again the little company moved at measured gait. For ten minutes nothing was said. Then Dick:

"Sam," he said, "I think we have just about as much chance as a snowball in hell."

"So do I," agreed the old woodsman, soberly.