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   Chapter 1 THE PURSUIT OF THE HUDSON BAY MAIL

The Gold Hunters / A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 13179

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The deep hush of noon hovered over the vast solitude of Canadian forest. The moose and caribou had fed since early dawn, and were resting quietly in the warmth of the February sun; the lynx was curled away in his niche between the great rocks, waiting for the sun to sink farther into the north and west before resuming his marauding adventures; the fox was taking his midday slumber and the restless moose-birds were fluffing themselves lazily in the warm glow that was beginning to melt the snows of late winter.

It was that hour when the old hunter on the trail takes off his pack, silently gathers wood for a fire, eats his dinner and smokes his pipe, eyes and ears alert;-that hour when if you speak above a whisper, he will say to you,

"Sh-h-h-h! Be quiet! You can't tell how near we are to game. Everything has had its morning feed and is lying low. The game won't be moving again for an hour or two, and there may be moose or caribou a gunshot ahead. We couldn't hear them-now!"

And yet, after a time one thing detached itself from this lifeless solitude. At first it was nothing more than a spot on the sunny side of a snow-covered ridge. Then it moved, stretched itself like a dog, with its forefeet extended far to the front and its shoulders hunched low-and was a wolf.

A wolf is a heavy sleeper after a feast. A hunter would have said that this wolf had gorged itself the night before. Still, something had alarmed it. Faintly there came to this wilderness outlaw that most thrilling of all things to the denizens of the forest-the scent of man. He came down the ridge with the slow indifference of a full-fed animal, and with only a half of his old cunning; trotted across the softening snow of an opening and stopped where the man-scent was so strong that he lifted his head straight up to the sky and sent out to his comrades in forest and plain the warning signal that he had struck a human trail. A wolf will do this, and no more, in broad day. At night he might follow, and others would join him in the chase; but with daylight about him he gives the warning and after a little slinks away from the trail.

But something held this wolf. There was a mystery in the air which puzzled him. Straight ahead there ran the broad, smooth trail of a sled and the footprints of many dogs. Sometime within the last hour the "dog mail" from Wabinosh House had passed that way on its long trip to civilization. But it was not the swift passage of man and dog that held the wolf rigidly alert, ready for flight-and yet hesitating. It was something from the opposite direction, from the North, out of which the wind was coming. First it was sound; then it was scent-then both, and the wolf sped in swift flight up the sunlit ridge.

In the direction from which the alarm came there stretched a small lake, and on its farther edge, a quarter of a mile away, there suddenly darted out from the dense rim of balsam forest a jumble of dogs and sledge and man. For a few moments the mass of animals seemed entangled in some kind of wreck or engaged in one of those fierce battles in which the half-wild sledge-dogs of the North frequently engage, even on the trail. Then there came the sharp, commanding cries of a human voice, the cracking of a whip, the yelping of the huskies, and the disordered team straightened itself and came like a yellowish-gray streak across the smooth surface of the lake. Close beside the sledge ran the man. He was tall, and thin, and even at that distance one would have recognized him as an Indian. Hardly had the team and its wild-looking driver progressed a quarter of the distance across the lake when there came a shout farther back, and a second sledge burst into view from out of the thick forest. Beside this sledge, too, a driver was running with desperate speed.

The leader now leaped upon his sledge, his voice rising in sharp cries of exhortation, his whip whirling and cracking over the backs of his dogs. The second driver still ran, and thus gained upon the team ahead, so that when they came to the opposite side of the lake, where the wolf had sent out the warning cry to his people, the twelve dogs of the two teams were almost abreast.

Quickly there came a slackening in the pace set by the leading dog of each team, and half a minute later the sledges stopped. The dogs flung themselves down in their harness, panting, with gaping jaws, the snow reddening under their bleeding feet. The men, too, showed signs of terrible strain. The elder of these, as we have said, was an Indian, pure breed of the great Northern wilderness. His companion was a youth who had not yet reached his twenties, slender, but with the strength and agility of an animal in his limbs, his handsome face bronzed by the free life of the forest, and in his veins a plentiful strain of that blood which made his comrade kin.

In those two we have again met our old friends Mukoki and Wabigoon: Mukoki, the faithful old warrior and pathfinder, and Wabigoon, the adventurous half-Indian son of the factor of Wabinosh House. Both were at the height of some great excitement. For a few moments, while gaining breath, they gazed silently into each other's face.

"I'm afraid-we can't-catch them, Muky," panted the younger. "What do you think-"

He stopped, for Mukoki had thrown himself on his knees in the snow a dozen feet in front of the teams. From that point there ran straight ahead of them the trail of the dog mail. For perhaps a full minute he examined the imprints of the dogs' feet and the smooth path made by the sledge. Then he looked up, and with one of those inimitable chuckles which meant so much when coming from him, he said:

"We catch heem-sure! See-sledge heem go deep. Both ride. Big load for dogs. We catch heem-sure!"

"But our dogs!" persisted Wabigoon, his face still filled with doubt. "They're completely bushed, and my leader has gone lame. See how they're bleeding!"

The huskies, as the big wolfish sledge-dogs of the far North are called, were indeed in a pitiable condition. The warm sun had weakened the hard crust of the snow until at every leap the feet of the animals had broken through, tearing and wounding themselves on its ragged, knife-like edges. Mukoki's face became more serious as he carefully examined the teams.

"Bad-ver' bad," he grunted. "We fool-fool!"

"For not bringing dog shoes?" said Wabigoon. "I've got a dozen shoes on my sledge-enough for three dogs. By George-" He leaped quickly to his toboggan, caught up the dog moccasins, and turned again to the old Indian, alive with

new excitement. "We've got just one chance, Muky!" he half shouted.

"Pick out the strongest dogs. One of us must go on alone!"

The sharp commands of the two adventurers and the cracking of Mukoki's whip brought the tired and bleeding animals to their feet. Over the pads of three of the largest and strongest were drawn the buckskin moccasins, and to these three, hitched to Wabigoon's sledge, were added six others that appeared to have a little endurance still left in them. A few moments later the long line of dogs was speeding swiftly over the trail of the Hudson Bay mail, and beside the sled ran Wabigoon.

Thus this thrilling pursuit of the dog mail had continued since early dawn. For never more than a minute or two at a time had there been a rest. Over mountain and lake, through dense forest and across barren plain man and dog had sped without food or drink, snatching up mouthfuls of snow here and there-always their eyes upon the fresh trail of the flying mail. Even the fierce huskies seemed to understand that the chase had become a matter of life and death, and that they were to follow the trail ahead of them, ceaselessly and without deviation, until the end of their masters was accomplished. The human scent was becoming stronger and stronger in their wolf-like nostrils. Somewhere on that trail there were men, and other dogs, and they were to overtake them!

Even now, bleeding and stumbling as they ran, the blood of battle, the excitement of the chase, was hot within them. Half-wolf, half-dog, their white fangs snarling as stronger whiffs of the man-smell came to them, they were filled with the savage desperation of the youth who urged them on. The keen instinct of the wild pointed out their road to them, and they needed no guiding hand. Faithful until the last they dragged on their burden, their tongues lolling farther from their jaws, their hearts growing weaker, their eyes bloodshot until they glowed like red balls. Now and then, when he had run until his endurance was gone, Wabigoon would fling himself upon the sledge to regain breath and rest his limbs, and the dogs would tug harder, scarce slackening their speed under the increased weight. Once a huge moose crashed through the forest a hundred paces away, but the huskies paid no attention to it; a little farther on a lynx, aroused from his sun bath on a rock, rolled like a great gray ball across the trail,-the dogs cringed but for an instant at the sight of this mortal enemy of theirs, and then went on.

Slower and slower grew the pace. The rearmost dog was now no more than a drag, and reaching a keen-edged knife far out over the end of the sledge Wabi severed his breast strap and the exhausted animal rolled out free beside the trail. Two others of the team were pulling scarce a pound, another was running lame, and the trail behind was spotted with pads of blood. Each minute added to the despair that was growing in the youth's face. His eyes, like those of his faithful dogs, were red from the terrible strain of the race, his lips were parted, his legs, as tireless as those of a red deer, were weakening under him. More and more frequently he flung himself upon the sledge, panting for breath, and shorter and shorter became his intervals of running between these periods of rest. The end of the chase was almost at hand. They could not overtake the Hudson Bay mail!

With a final cry of encouragement Wabi sprang from the sledge and plunged along at the head of the dogs, urging them on in one last supreme effort. Ahead of them was a break in the forest trail and beyond that, mile upon mile, stretched the vast white surface of Lake Nipigon. And far out in the glare of sun and snow there moved an object, something that was no more than a thin black streak to Wabi's blinded eyes but which he knew was the dog mail on its way to civilization. He tried to shout, but the sound that fell from his lips could not have been heard a hundred paces away; his limbs tottered beneath him; his feet seemed suddenly to turn into lead, and he sank helpless into the snow. The faithful pack crowded about him licking his face and hands, their hot breath escaping between their gaping jaws like hissing steam For a few moments it seemed to the Indian youth that day had suddenly turned into night. His eyes closed, the panting of the dogs came to him more and more faintly, as if they were moving away; he felt himself sinking, sinking slowly down into utter blackness.

Desperately he fought to bring himself back into life. There was one more chance-just one! He heard the dogs again, he felt their tongues upon his hands and face, and he dragged himself to his knees, groping out with his hands like one who had gone blind. A few feet away was the sledge, and out there, far beyond his vision now, was the Hudson Bay mail!

Foot by foot he drew himself out from among the tangle of dogs. He reached the sledge, and his fingers gripped convulsively at the cold steel of his rifle. One more chance! One more chance! The words-the thought-filled his brain, and he raised the rifle to his shoulder, pointing its muzzle up to the sky so that he would not harm the dogs. And then, once, twice, five times he fired into the air, and at the end of the fifth shot he drew fresh cartridges from his belt, and fired again and again, until the black streak far out in the wilderness of ice and snow stopped in its progress-and turned back. And still the sharp signals rang out again and again, until the barrel of Wabi's rifle grew hot, and his cartridge belt was empty.

Slowly the gloom cleared away before his eyes. He heard a shout, and staggered to his feet, stretching out his arms and calling a name as the dog mail stopped half a hundred yards from his own team.

With something between a yell of joy and a cry of astonishment a youth of about Wabi's age sprang from the second sleigh and ran to the Indian boy, catching him in his arms as for a second time, he sank fainting upon the snow.

"Wabi-what's the matter?" he cried. "Are you hurt? Are you-"

For a moment Wabigoon struggled to overcome his weakness.

"Rod-" he whispered, "Rod-Minnetaki-"

His lips ceased to move and he sank heavily in his companion's arms.

"What is it, Wabi? Quick! Speak!" urged the other. His face had grown strangely white, his voice trembled. "What about-Minnetaki?"

Again the Indian youth fought to bring himself back to life. His words came faintly,

"Minnetaki-has been captured-by-the-Woongas!"

Then even his breath seemed to stop, and he lay like one dead.

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