Chapter Twenty-Six

By now it was the first week in March. The weather began to assume a new aspect. During the winter months it had not snowed, for the moisture had all been squeezed from the air, leaving it crisp, brilliant, sparkling. Now the sun, long hesitant, at last began to swing up the sky. Far south the warmer airs of spring were awakening the Kansas fields. Here in the barren country the steel sky melted to a haze. During the day, when the sun was up, the surface of the snow even softened a little, and a very perceptible warmth allowed them to rest, their parkas thrown back, without discomfort.

The men noticed this, and knew it as the precursor of the spring snow-fall. Dick grew desperately uneasy, desperately anxious to push on, to catch up before the complete obliteration of the trail, when his resources would perforce run out for lack of an object to which to apply them. He knew perfectly well that this must be what the Indian had anticipated, the reason why he had dared to go out into the barren grounds, and to his present helpless lack of a further expedient the defaulter's confidence in the natural sequence seemed only too well justified. Sam remained inscrutable.

The expected happened late one afternoon. All day the haze had thickened, until at last, without definite transition, it had become a cloud covering the entire sky. Then it had snowed. The great, clogging flakes sifted down gently, ziz-zagging through the air like so many pieces of paper. They impacted softly against the world, standing away from each other and from the surface on which they alighted by the full stretch of their crystal arms. In an hour three inches had fallen. The hollows and depressions were filling to the level; the Trail was growing indistinct.

Dick watched from the shelter of a growing despair. Never had he felt so helpless. This thing was so simple, yet so effective; and nothing he could do would nullify its results. As sometimes in a crisis a man will give his whole attention to a trivial thing, so Dick fastened his gaze on a single snow-shoe track on the edge of a covered bowlder. By it he gauged the progress of the storm. When at last even his imagination could not differentiate it from the surface on either side, he looked up. The visible world was white and smooth and level. No faintest trace of the Trail remained. East, west, north, south, lay uniformity. The Indian had disappeared utterly from the face of the earth.

The storm lightened and faint streaks of light shot through the clouds.

"Well, let's be moving," said Sam.

"Moving where?" demanded Dick, bitterly. But the old man led forward the hound.

"Remember the lake where we lost the track of that Chippewa?" he inquired. "Well, a foot of light snow is nothing. Mush on, Mack!"

The hound sniffed deep, filling his nostrils with the feather snow, which promptly he sneezed out. Then he swung off easily on his little dog-trot, never at fault, never hesitant, picking up the turns and twistings of the Indian's newer purpose as surely as a mind-reader the concealed pin.

[Illustration: The hound sniffed deep, filling his nostrils with the feather snow]

For Jingoss had been awaiting eagerly this fall of snow, as this immediate change of direction showed. He was sure that now they could no longer follow him. It was for this he had lured them farther and farther into the wilderness, waiting for the great enemy of them all to cover his track, to throw across his vanishing figure her ultimate denial of their purposes. At once, convinced of his safety, he turned to the west and southwest.

At just what moment he discovered that he was still followed it was impossible to determine. But very shortly a certain indecision could be read in the signs of his journeying. He turned to the south, changed his mind, doubled on his tracks like a rabbit, finally, his purpose decided, he shot away on the direct line again for the frozen reaches of desolation in the north.

The moment's flicker of encouragement lighted by the success of the dog, fell again to blackness as the three faced further incursion into the land of starvation. They had allowed themselves for a moment to believe that the Indian might now have reached the limit of his intention; that now he might turn toward a chance at least of life. But this showed that his purpose, or obstinacy or madness remained unchanged, and this newer proof indicated that it possessed a depth of determination that might lead to any extreme. They had to readjust themselves to the idea. Perforce they had to extend their faith, had to believe in the caribou herds. From every little rise they looked abroad, insisting on a childish confidence in the existence of game. They could not afford to take the reasonable view, could not afford to estimate the chances against their encountering in all that vastness of space the single pin-point where grazed abundance.

From time to time, thereafter, the snow fell. On the mere fact of their persistence it had litle effect; but it clogged their snow-shoes, it wore them down. A twig tripped them; and the efforts of all three were needed to aid one to rise. A dozen steps were all they could accomplish without rest; a dozen short, stumbling steps that were, nevertheless, so many mile-posts in the progress to their final exhaustion. When one fell, he lay huddled, unable at once to rally his vital forces to attempt the exertion of regaining his feet. The day's journey was pitifully short, pitifully inadequate to the imperious demands of that onward-leading Trail, and yet each day's journey lessened the always desperate chance of a return to the game country. In spite of that, it never again crossed their minds that it might be well to abandon the task. They might die, but it would be on the Trail, and the death clutch of their fingers would still be extended toward the north, where dwelt their enemy, and into whose protective arms their quarry had fled.

As his strength ebbed Dick Herron's energies concentrated more and more to his monomania of pursuit. The round, full curves of his body had shrunken to angles, the fresh tints of his skin had turned to leather, the flesh of his cheeks had sunken, his teeth showed in the drawing back of his lips. All these signs spoke of exhaustion and of ultimate collapse. But as the case grew more desperate, he seemed to discover in some unsuspected quality of his spirit, or perhaps merely of his youth, a fitful and wonderful power. He collapsed from weakness, to be sure; but in a moment his iron will, apparently angered to incandescence, got him to his feet and on his way with an excess of energy. He helped the others. He urged the dog. And then slowly the fictitious vigour ran out. The light, the red, terrible glare of madness, faded from his eye; it became glazed and lifeless; his shoulders dropped; his head hung; he fell.

Gradually in the transition period between the darkness of winter and the coming of spring the world took on an unearthly aspect. It became an inferno of light without corresponding warmth, of blinding, flaring, intolerable light reflected from the snow. It became luminous, as though the ghosts of the ancient days of incandescence had revisited the calendar. It was raw, new, huge, uncouth, embryonic, adapted to the production of tremendous monsters, unfit for the habitation of tiny men with delicate physical and mental adjustments. Only to the mind of a Caliban could it be other than terrifying. Things grew to a size out of all reason. The horizon was infinitely remote, lost in snow-mists, fearful with the large-blown mirages of little things. Strange and indeterminate somethings menaced on all sides, menaced in greater and greater threat, until with actual proximity they mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind them as a blind to conceal their real identity such small matters as a stunted shrub, an exposed rock, the shadow of a wind-rift on the snow. And low in the sky danced in unholy revel the suns, sometimes as many as eight of them, gazing with the abandoned red eyes of debauchees on the insignificant travellers groping feebly amid phantasmagoria.

The great light, the dazzle, the glitter, the incessant movement of the mirages, the shining of the mock suns, all these created an impression of heat, of light, of the pleasantness of a warmed land. Yet still persisted, only modified by the sun, the cold of the northern winter. And this denial of appearance sufficed to render unreal all the round globe, so that at any moment the eye anticipated its crumbling like a dust apple, with its cold, its vastness, its emptiness, its hunger, its indecently many suns, leaving the human soul in the abyss of space. The North threw over them the power of her spell, so that to them the step from life to death seemed a short, an easy, a natural one to take.

Nevertheless their souls made struggle, as did their bodies. They fought down the feeling of illusion just as they had fought down the feelings of hunger, of weariness, and of cold. Sam fashioned rough wooden spectacles with tiny transverse slits through which to look, and these they assumed against the snow-blindness. They kept a sharp watch for freezing. Already their faces were blackened and parched by the frost, and cracked through the thick skin down to the raw. Sam had frozen his great toe, and had with his knife cut to the bone in order to prevent mortification. They tried to talk a little in order to combat by unison of spirit the dreadful influence the North was bringing to bear. They gained ten feet as a saint of the early church gained his soul for paradise.

Now it came to the point where they could no longer afford to eat their pemmican. They boiled it, along with strips of the rawhide dog-harness, and drank the soup. It sufficed not at all to appease the pain of their hunger, nor appreciably did it give them strength, but somehow it fed the vital spark. They endured fearful cramps. So far had their faculties lost vigour that only by a distinct effort of the will could they focus their eyes to the examination of any object.

Their obsessions of mind were now two. They followed the Trail; they looked for the caribou herds. After a time the improbability became tenuous. They actually expected the impossible, felt defrauded at not obtaining it, cried out weakly against their ill fortune in not encountering the herd that was probably two thousand miles away. In its withholding the North seemed to play unfairly. She denied them the chances of the game.

And the Trail! Not the freezing nor the starvation nor the illusion were so potent in the deeper discouragement of the spirit as that. Always it led on. They could see it; they could see its direction; that was all. Tireless it ran on and on and on. For all they knew the Indian, hearty and confident in his wilderness strength, might be watching them at every moment, laughing at the feeble thirty feet their pain bought them, gliding on swiftly in an hour farther than they could travel in a day. This possibility persisted until, in their minds, it became the fact. They endowed their enemy with all they themselves lacked; with strength, with swiftness, with the sustenance of life. Yet never for a moment did it occur to them to abandon the pursuit.

Sam was growing uncertain in his movements; Dick was plainly going mad. The girl followed; that was all one could say, for whatever suffering she proved was hidden beneath race stolidity, and more nobly beneath a great devotion.

And then late one afternoon they came to a bloody spot on the snow. Here Jingoss had killed. Here he had found what had been denied them, what they needed so sorely. The North was on his side. He now had meat in plenty, and meat meant strength, and strength meant swiftness, and swiftness meant the safety of this world for him and the certainty of the next for them. The tenuous hope that had persisted through all the psychological pressure the North had brought to bear, the hope that they had not even acknowledged to themselves, the hope based merely on the circumstance that they did not know, was routed by this one fact. Now they could no longer shelter behind the flimsy screen of an ignorance of their enemy's condition. They knew. The most profound discouragement descended on them.

But even yet they did not yield to the great antagonist. The strength of meat lacked them: the strength of despair remained. A rapid dash might bring them to grapples. And somewhere in the depths of their indomitable spirits, somewhere in the line of their hardy, Anglo-Saxon descent, they knew they would find the necessary vitality.

Stars glittered like sparks on polished steel. On the northwest wind swooped the chill of the winter's end, and in that chill was the breath of the North. Sam Bolton, crushed by the weight of a great exhaustion, recognised the familiar menace, and raised his head, gazing long from glazed eyes out into the Silent Places.

"Not yet!" he said aloud.