Chapter Twenty-Five
 

The journey extended over a month. The last three weeks of it were starvation. At first this meant merely discomfort and the bearing of a certain amount of pain. Later it became acute suffering. Later still it developed into a necessity for proving what virtue resided in the bottom of these men's souls.

Perforce now they must make a choice of what ideas they would keep. Some things must be given up, just as some things had to be discarded when they had lightened the sledge. All the lesser lumber had long since gone. Certain bigger things still remained.

They held grimly to the idea of catching the Indian. Their natural love of life held tenaciously to a hope of return. An equally natural hope clung to the ridiculous idea that the impossible might happen, that the needle should drop from the haystack, that the caribou might spring into their view from the emptiness of space. Now it seemed that they must make a choice between the first two.

"Dick," said Bolton, solemnly, "we've mighty little pemmican left. If we turn around now, it'll just about get us back to the woods. If we go on farther, we'll have to run into more food, or we'll never get out."

"I knew it," replied Dick.

"Well?"

Dick looked at him astonished. "Well, what?" he inquired.

"Shall we give it up?"

"Give it up!" cried the young man. "Of course not; what you thinking of?"

"There's the caribou," suggested Sam, doubtfully; "or maybe Jingoss has more grub than he's going to need. It's a slim chance."

They still further reduced the ration of pemmican. The malnutrition began to play them tricks. It dizzied their brains, swarmed the vastness with hordes of little, dancing black specks like mosquitoes. In the morning every muscle of their bodies was stiffened to the consistency of rawhide, and the movements necessary to loosen the fibres became an agony hardly to be endured. Nothing of voluntary consciousness remained, could remain, but the effort of lifting the feet, driving the dogs, following the Trail; but involuntary consciousness lent them strange hallucinations. They saw figures moving across the snow, but when they steadied their vision, nothing was there.

They began to stumble over nothing; occasionally to fall. In this was added effort, but more particularly added annoyance. They had continually to watch their footsteps. The walking was no longer involuntary, but they had definitely to think of each movement necessary to the step, and this gave them a further reason for preoccupation, for concentration. Dick's sullenness returned, more terrible than in the summer. He went forward with his head down, refusing to take notice of anything. He walked: that was to him the whole of existence.

Once reverting analogously to his grievance of that time, he mentioned the girl, saying briefly that soon they must all die, and it was better that she die now. Perhaps her share of the pemmican would bring them to their quarry. The idea of return--not abandoned, but persistently ignored--thrust into prominence this other,--to come to close quarters with the man they pursued, to die grappled with him, dragging him down to the same death by which these three perished. But Sam would have none of it, and Dick easily dropped the subject, relapsing into his grim monomania of pursuit.

In Dick's case even the hope of coming to grapples was fading. He somehow had little faith in his enemy. The man was too intangible, too difficult to gauge. Dick had not caught a glimpse of the Indian since the pursuit began. The young man realised perfectly his own exhaustion; but he had no means of knowing whether or not the Indian was tiring. His faith waned, though his determination did not. Unconsciously he substituted this monomania of pursuit. It took the place of the faith he felt slipping from him--the faith that ever he would see the fata morgana luring him out into the Silent Places.

Soon it became necessary to kill another dog. Dick, with a remnant of his old feeling, pleaded for the life of Billy, his pet. Sam would not entertain for a moment the destruction of the hound. There remained only Claire, the sledge-dog, with her pathetic brown eyes, and her affectionate ways of the female dog. They went to kill her, and discovered her in the act of defending the young to which she had just given birth. Near at hand crouched Mack and Billy, their eyes red with famine, their jaws a-slaver, eager to devour the newborn puppies. And in the grim and dreadful sight Sam Bolton seemed at last to glimpse the face of his terrible antagonist.

They beat back the dogs, and took the puppies. These they killed and dressed. Thus Claire's life was bought for her by the sacrifice of her progeny.

But even that was a temporary respite. She fell in her turn, and was devoured, to the last scrap of her hide. Dick again intervened to save Billy, but failed. Sam issued his orders the more peremptorily as he felt his strength waning, and realised the necessity of economising every ounce of it, even to that required in the arguing of expedients. Dick yielded with slight resistance, as he had yielded in the case of the girl. All matters but the one were rapidly becoming unimportant to him. That concentration of his forces which represented the weapon of his greatest utility, was gradually taking place. He was becoming an engine of dogged determination, an engine whose burden the older man had long carried on his shoulders, but which now he was preparing to launch when his own strength should be gone.

At last there was left but the one dog, Mack, the hound, with the wrinkled face and the long, hanging ears. He developed unexpected endurance and an entire willingness, pulling strongly on the sledge, waiting in patience for his scanty meal, searching the faces of his masters with his wise brown eyes, dumbly sympathetic in a trouble whose entirety he could not understand.

The two men took turns in harnessing themselves to the sledge with Mack. The girl followed at the gee-pole.

May-may-gwan showed the endurance of a man. She made no complaint. Always she followed, and followed with her mind alert. Where Dick shut obstinately his faculties within the bare necessity of travel, she and her other companion were continually alive to the possibilities of expedient. This constituted an additional slight but constant drain on their vital forces.

Starvation gained on them. Perceptibly their strength was waning. Dick wanted to kill the other dog. His argument was plausible. The toboggan was now very light. The men could draw it. They would have the dog-meat to recruit their strength.

Sam shook his head. Dick insisted. He even threatened force. But then the woodsman roused his old-time spirit and fairly beat the young man into submission by the vehemence of his anger. The effort left him exhausted. He sank back into himself, and refused, in the apathy of weariness, to give any explanation.