The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
As though these words were a signal, Mack, the hound, who had up to now rested as motionless as though frozen to his place, raised himself on his haunches and gazed earnestly to the north.
In the distance Dick seemed to make out an object moving. As he had so often done before, by an effort he brought his eyes to focus, expecting, as also had happened so often before, that the object would disappear. But it persisted, black against the snow. Its outlines could not be guessed; its distance could not be estimated, its direction of travel could not be determined. Only the bare fact of its existence was sure. Somewhere out in the waste it, moving, antithesised these other three black masses on the whiteness, the living man, the living animal, the dead girl.
Dick variously identified it. At one moment he thought it a marten near at hand; then it became a caribou far away; then a fox between the two. Finally, instantaneously, as though at a bound it had leaped from indeterminate mists to the commonplace glare of every day, he saw it was a man.
The man was moving painfully, lifting each foot with an appearance of great effort, stumbling, staggering sideways from time to time as though in extreme weakness. Once he fell. Then he recovered the upright as though necklaced with great weights. His hands were empty of weapons. In the uncertainty of his movements he gradually approached.
Now Dick could see the great emaciation of his features. The bones of his cheeks seemed to press through his skin, which was leathery and scabbed and cracked to the raw from much frosting. His lips drew tight across his teeth, which grinned in the face of exhaustion like the travesty of laughter on a skull. His eyes were lost in the caverns of their sockets. His thin nostrils were wide, and through them and through the parted lips the breath came and went in strong, rasping gasps, audible even at this distance of two hundred paces. One live thing this wreck of a man expressed. His forces were near their end, but such of them as remained were concentrated in a determination to go on. He moved painfully, but he moved; he staggered, but he always recovered; he fell, and it was a terrible labour to rise, but always he rose and went on.
Dick Herron, sitting there with the dead girl across his knees, watched the man with a strange, detached curiosity. His mind had slipped back into its hazes. The world of phantasms had resumed its sway. He was seeing in this struggling figure a vision of himself as he had been, the self he had transcended now, and would never again resume. Just so he had battled, bringing to the occasion every last resource of the human spirit, tearing from the deeps of his nature the roots where life germinated and throwing them recklessly before the footsteps of his endeavour, emptying himself, wringing himself to a dry, fibrous husk of a man that his Way might be completed. His lips parted with a sigh of relief that this was all over. He was as an old man whose life, for good or ill, success or failure, is done, and who looks from the serenity of age on those who have still their youth to spend, their years to dole out day by day, painfully, in the intense anxiety of the moral purpose, as the price of life. In a spell of mysticism he sat there waiting.
The man plodded on, led by some compelling fate, to the one spot in the white immensity where were living creatures. When he had approached to within fifty paces, Dick could see his eyes. They were tight closed. As the young man watched, the other opened them, but instantly blinked them shut again as though he had encountered the searing of a white-hot iron. Dick Herron understood. The man had gone snow-blind.
And then, singularly enough for the first time, it was borne in on him who this man was, what was the significance of his return. Jingoss, the renegade Ojibway, the defaulter, the maker of the dread, mysterious Trail that had led them so far into this grim land, Jingoss was blind, and, imagining himself still going north, still treading mechanically the hopeless way of his escape, had become bewildered and turned south.
Dick waited, mysteriously held to inaction, watching the useless efforts of this other from the vantage ground of a wonderful fatalism,--as the North had watched him. The Indian plodded doggedly on, on, on. He entered the circle of the little camp. Dick raised his rifle and pressed its muzzle against the man's chest.
"Stop!" he commanded, his voice croaking harsh across the stillness.
The Indian, with a sob of mingled emotion, in which, strangely enough, relief seemed the predominant note, collapsed to the ground. The North, insistent on the victory but indifferent to the stake, tossed carelessly the prize at issue into the hands of her beaten antagonist.
And then, dim and ghostly, rank after rank, across the middle distance drifted the caribou herds.