Chapter Twenty-Four
 

They took up the trail methodically, as though no hurry existed. At the usual time of the evening they camped. Dick was for pushing on an extra hour or so, announcing himself not in the least tired, and the dogs fresh, but Sam would have none of it.

"It's going to be a long, hard pull," he said. "We're not going to catch up with him to-day, or to-morrow, or next day. It ain't a question of whether you're tired or the dogs are fresh to-night; it's a question of how you're going to be a month from now."

"We won't be able to follow him a month," objected Dick.

"Why?"

"It'll snow, and then we'll lose th' trail. The spring snows can't be far off now. They'll cover it a foot deep."

"Mebbe," agreed Sam, inconclusively.

"Besides," pursued Dick, "he'll be with his own people in less than a month, and then there won't be any trail to follow."

Whereupon Sam looked a little troubled, for this, in his mind, was the chief menace to their success. If Jingoss turned south to the Lake Superior country, he could lose himself among the Ojibways of that region; and, if all remained true to him, the white men would never again be able to get trace of him. If all remained true to him:--on the chance of that Sam was staking his faith. The Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company has been established a great many years; it has always treated its Indians justly; it enjoys a tremendous prestige for infallibility. The bonds of race are strong, but the probabilities were good that in the tribes with whom Jingoss would be forced to seek sanctuary would be some members, whose loyalty to the Company would out-balance the rather shadowy obligation to a man they had never seen before. Jingoss might be betrayed. The chances of it were fairly good. Sam Bolton knew that the Indian must be perfectly aware of this, and doubted if he would take the risk. A single man with three dogs ought to run away from three pursuers with only four. Therefore, the old woodsman thought himself justified in relying at least on the meagre opportunity a stern chase would afford.

He did not know where the Indian would be likely to lead him. The checker-board of the wilderness lay open. As he had before reflected, it would be only too easy for Jingoss to keep between himself and his pursuers the width of the game. The Northwest was wide; the plains great; the Rocky Mountains lofty and full of hiding-places,--it seemed likely he would turn west. Or the deep forests of the other coast offered unlimited opportunities of concealment,--the east might well be his choice. It did not matter particularly. Into either it would not be difficult to follow; and Sam hoped in either to gain a sight of his prize before the snow melted.

The Indian, however, after the preliminary twists and turns of indecision, turned due north. For nearly a week Sam thought this must be a ruse, or a cast by which to gain some route known to Jingoss. But the forests began to dwindle; the muskegs to open. The Land of Little Sticks could not be far distant, and beyond them was the Barren Grounds. The old woodsman knew the defaulter for a reckless and determined man. Gradually the belief, and at last the conviction, forced itself on him that here he gamed with no cautious player. The Indian was laying on the table the stakes of life or death. He, too, had realised that the test must be one of endurance, and in the superbness of his confidence he had determined not to play with preliminary half measures, but to apply at once the supreme test to himself and his antagonists. He was heading directly out into the winter desert, where existed no game but the single big caribou herd whose pastures were so wide that to meet them would be like encountering a single school of dolphins in all the seven seas.

As soon as Sam discovered this, he called Dick's attention to it.

"We're in for it," said he, "he's going to take us out on the Barren Grounds and lose us."

"If he can," supplemented Dick.

"Yes, if he can," agreed Sam. After a moment he went on, pursuing his train of thought aloud, as was his habit.

"He's thinking he has more grub than we have; that's about what it amounts to. He thinks he can tire us out. The chances are we'll find no more game. We've got to go on what we have. He's probably got a sledge-load;--and so have we;--but he has only one to feed, and three dogs, and we have three and four dogs."

"That's all right; he's our Injun," replied Dick, voicing the instinct of race superiority which, after all, does often seem to accomplish the impossible. "It's too bad we have the girl with us," he added, after a moment.

"Yes, it is," agreed Sam. Yet it was most significant that now it occurred to neither of them that she might be abandoned.

The daily supply of provisions was immediately cut to a minimum, and almost at once they felt the effects. The north demands hard work and the greatest resisting power of the vitality; the vitality calls on the body for fuel; and the body in turn insists on food. It is astonishing to see what quantities of nourishment can be absorbed without apparent effect. And when the food is denied, but the vitality is still called upon, it is equally astonishing to see how quickly it takes its revenge. Our travellers became lean in two days, dizzy in a week, tired to the last fibre, on the edge of exhaustion. They took care, however, not to step over that edge.

Sam Bolton saw to it. His was not only the bodily labour, but the mental anxiety. His attitude was the tenseness of a helmsman in a heavy wind, quivering to the faintest indication, ready to give her all she will bear, but equally ready to luff this side of disaster. Only his equable mind could have resisted an almost overpowering impulse toward sporadic bursts of speed or lengthening of hours. He had much of this to repress in Dick. But on the other hand he watched zealously against the needless waste of even a single second. Every expedient his long woods life or his native ingenuity suggested he applied at once to the problem of the greatest speed, the least expenditure of energy to a given end, the smallest consumption of food compatible with the preservation of strength. The legitimate travel of a day might amount to twenty or thirty miles. Sam added an extra five or ten to them. And that five or ten he drew from the living tissues of his very life. They were a creation, made from nothing, given a body by the individual genius of the man. The drain cut down his nervous energy, made him lean, drew the anxious lines of an incipient exhaustion across his brow.

At first, as may be gathered, the advantages of the game seemed to be strongly in the Indian's favour. The food supply, the transportation facilities, and advantage of position in case game should be encountered were all his. Against him he need count seriously only the offset of dogged Anglo-Saxon grit. But as the travel defined itself, certain compensations made themselves evident.

Direct warfare was impossible to him. He possessed only a single-barrelled muzzle-loading gun of no great efficiency. In case of ambush he might, with luck, be able to kill one of his pursuers, but he would indubitably be captured by the other. He would be unable to approach them at night because of their dogs. His dog-team was stronger, but with it he had to break trail, which the others could utilise without further effort. Even should his position in advance bring him on game, without great luck, he would be unable to kill it, for he was alone and could not leave his team for long. And his very swiftness in itself would react against him, for he was continually under the temptation daily to exceed by a little his powers.

These considerations the white men at first could not see; and so, logically, they were more encouraged by them when at last they did appear. And then in turn, by natural reaction when the glow had died, the great discouragement of the barren places fell on their spirits. They plodded, seeing no further than their daily necessity of travel. They plodded, their eyes fixed to the trail, which led always on toward the pole star, undeviating, as a deer flies in a straight line hoping to shake off the wolves.

The dense forest growth was succeeded in time by the low spruce and poplar thickets; these in turn by the open reaches planted like a park with the pointed firs. Then came the Land of Little Sticks, and so on out into the vast whiteness of the true North, where the trees are liliputian and the spaces gigantic beyond the measures of the earth; where living things dwindle to the significance of black specks on a limitless field of white, and the aurora crackles and shoots and spreads and threatens like a great inimical and magnificent spirit.

The tendency seemed toward a mighty simplification, as though the complexities of the world were reverting toward their original philosophic unity. The complex summer had become simple autumn; the autumn, winter; now the very winter itself was apparently losing its differentiations of bushes and trees, hills and valleys, streams and living things. The growths were disappearing; the hills were flattening toward the great northern wastes; the rare creatures inhabiting these barrens took on the colour of their environment. The ptarmigan matched the snow,--the fox,--the ermine. They moved either invisible or as ghosts.

Little by little such dwindling of the materials for diverse observation, in alliance with the too-severe labour and the starving, brought about a strange concentration of ideas. The inner world seemed to undergo the same process of simplification as the outer. Extraneous considerations disappeared. The entire cosmos of experience came to be an expanse of white, themselves, and the Trail. These three reacted one on the other, and outside of them there was no reaction.

In the expanse of white was no food: their food was dwindling; the Trail led on into barren lands where no food was to be had. That was the circle that whirled insistent in their brains.

At night they sank down, felled by the sheer burden of weariness, and no matter how exhausted they might be the Trail continued, springing on with the same apparently tireless energy toward its unknown goal in the North. Gradually they lost sight of the ultimate object of their quest. It became obscured by the immediate object, and that was the following of the Trail. They forgot that a man had made it, or if for a moment it did occur to them that it was the product of some agency outside of and above itself, that agent loomed vaguely as a mysterious, extra-human power, like the winds or the cold or the great Wilderness itself. It did not seem possible that he could feel the need for food, for rest, that ever his vital forces could wane. In the north was starvation for them, a starvation to which they drew ever nearer day by day, but irresistibly the notion obsessed them that this forerunner, the forerunner of the Trail, proved no such material necessities, that he drew his sustenance from his environment in some mysterious manner not to be understood. Always on and on and on the Trail was destined to lead them until they died, and then the maker of it,--not Jingoss, not the Weasel, the defaulter, the man of flesh and blood and nerves and thoughts and the capacities for suffering,--but a being elusive as the aurora, an embodiment of that dread country, a servant of the unfriendly North, would return as he had done.

Over the land lay silence. The sea has its undertone on the stillest nights; the woods are quiet with an hundred lesser noises; but here was absolute, terrifying, smothering silence,--the suspension of all sound, even the least,--looming like a threatening cloud larger and more dreadful above the cowering imagination. The human soul demanded to shriek aloud in order to preserve its sanity, and yet a whisper uttered over against the heavy portent of this universal stillness seemed a profanation that left the spirit crouched beneath a fear of retribution. And then suddenly the aurora, the only privileged voice, would crackle like a silken banner.

At first the world in the vastness of its spaces seemed to become bigger and bigger. Again abruptly it resumed its normal proportions, but they, the observers of it, had been struck small. To their own minds they seemed like little black insects crawling painfully. In the distance these insects crawled was a disproportion to the energy expended, a disproportion disheartening, filling the soul with the despair of an accomplishment that could mean anything in the following of that which made the Trail.

Always they ate pemmican. Of this there remained a fairly plentiful supply, but the dog meat was running low. It was essential that the team be well fed. Dick or Sam often travelled the entire day a quarter of a mile one side or the other, hoping thus to encounter game, but without much success. A fox or so, a few plarmigan, that was all. These they saved for the dogs. Three times a day they boiled tea and devoured the little square of pemmican. It did not supply the bulk their digestive organs needed, and became in time almost nauseatingly unpalatable, but it nourished. That, after all, was the main thing. The privation carved the flesh from their muscles, carved the muscles themselves to leanness.

But in spite of the best they could do, the dog feed ran out. There remained but one thing to do. Already the sledge was growing lighter, and three dogs would be quite adequate for the work. They killed Wolf, the surly and stupid "husky." Every scrap they saved, even to the entrails, which froze at once to solidity. The remaining dogs were put on half rations, just sufficient to keep up their strength. The starvation told on their tempers. Especially did Claire, the sledge-dog, heavy with young, and ravenous to feed their growth, wander about like a spirit, whining mournfully and sniffing the barren breeze.