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   Chapter 3 ON THE TRAIL OF THE WOONGAS

The Gold Hunters / A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 16863

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The cries came nearer, interspersed with the cracking of Mukoki's whip as he urged on the few lagging dogs that Wabi had left with him upon the trail. In another moment the old warrior and his team burst into view and both of the young hunters hurried to meet him. A glance showed Rod that a little longer and Mukoki would have dropped in his tracks, as Wabi had done. The two led their faithful comrade to the heap of bearskins on the mail sled and made him sit there while fresh soup was being made.

"You catch heem," grinned Mukoki joyously. "You catch heem-queek!"

"And pretty nearly killed himself doing it, Muky," added Rod. "Now-" he glanced from one to the other of his companions, "what is the first thing to be done?" "We must strike for the Woonga trail without a moment of unnecessary delay," declared Wabi. "Minutes are priceless, an hour lost or gained may mean everything!"

"But the dogs-"

"You can take mine," interrupted the courier. "There are six of them, all good heavy fellows and not overly bushed. You can add a few of your own and I'll take what's left to drive on the mail. I would advise you to rest for an hour or so and give them and yourselves a good feed. It'll count in the long run."

Mukoki grunted his approval of the driver's words and Rod at once began gathering more fuel for the fire. The temporary camp was soon a scene of the liveliest activity. While the courier unpacked his provisions, Mukoki and Wabigoon assembled the teams and proceeded to select three of the best of their own animals to put in harness with those of the Hudson Bay mail. The dogs from Wabinosh House were wildly famished and at the sight and odor of the great piece of meat which the courier began cutting up for them they set up a snarling and snapping of jaws, and began fighting indiscriminately among themselves until the voices of their human companions were almost drowned in the tumult. A full pound of the meat was given to each dog, and other pieces of it were suspended over beds of coals drawn out from the big fire. Meanwhile Rod was chopping through the thick ice of the lake in search of water.

After a little Wabi came down to join him.

"Our sledge is ready," he said, as Rod stopped to rest for a moment. "We're a little short on grub for nine dogs and three people, but we've got plenty of ammunition. We ought to find something on the trail."

"Rabbits, anyway," suggested Rod, resuming his chopping. A few more strokes, and water gushed through. Filling two pails the boys returned to camp.

The shadows from the sharp pointed cedars of the forest were falling far out upon the frozen lake when the meal was finished, and the sun, sinking early to its rest beyond the homeless solitudes, infused but little warmth as the three hunters prepared to leave. It was only three o'clock, but a penetrating chill was growing in the air. Half an hour more and only a reddish glow would be where the northern sun still shone feebly. In the far North winter night falls with the swiftness of wings; it enshrouds one like a palpable, moving thing, a curtain of gloom that can almost be touched and felt, and so it came now, as the dogs were hitched to their sledge and Rod, Mukoki and Wabigoon bade good-by to the driver of the Hudson Bay mail.

"You'll make the other side in four hours," he called, as Mukoki's cries sent the dogs trotting out upon the lake. "And then-I'd camp!"

Running on ahead Mukoki set the pace and marked the trail. Wabi took the first turn on the sledge, and Rod, who was fresher than either of his comrades, followed close behind. After a little he drew up beside the young Indian and placed a hand on his shoulder as he ran.

"We will reach our old camp-in the plain-to-morrow?" he questioned, between breaths.

"To-morrow," affirmed Wabi. "Mukoki will show us the shortest cut to it. After that, after we reach the camp, everything will depend upon you."

Rod fell behind in the path made by the sledge, and saved his breath. His mind was working as never before in his life. When they reached the camp in which the wounded Mukoki had lain after their escape from the Woongas, could he find the old trail where he had seen Minnetaki's footprints? He was quite sure of himself, and yet he was conscious of an indefinable something growing in him as he noticed more and more what the sun had done that day. Was it nervousness, or fear? Surely he could find the trail, even though it was almost obliterated! But he wished that it had been Mukoki or Wabigoon who had discovered it, either of whom, with the woodcraft instinct born in them, would have gone to it as easily as a fox to the end of a strong trail hidden in autumn leaves. If he did fail-He shuddered, even as he ran, as he thought of the fate that awaited Minnetaki. A few hours before he had been one of the happiest youths in the world. Wabi's lovely little sister, he had believed, was safe at Kenegami House; he had bade adieu to his friends at the Post; every minute after that had taken him nearer to that far city in the South, to his mother, and home. And now so suddenly that he had hardly come to realize the situation he was plunged into what gave promise of being the most thrilling and tragic adventure of his life. A few weeks more, when spring had come, he would have returned to his friends accompanied by his mother, and they three-Mukoki, Wabigoon and he-would have set out on their romantic quest for the lost gold-mine that had been revealed to them by the ancient skeletons in the old cabin. Even as these visions were glowing in his brain there had come the interruption, the signal shots on the lake, the return of the dog mail, and now this race to save the life of Minnetaki!

In his eagerness he ran ahead of the sledge and urged Mukoki into a faster pace. Every ten minutes the one who rode exchanged place with one of the runners, so that there were intervals of rest for each two times an hour. Quickly the red glow over the southwestern forests faded away; the gloom grew thicker; far ahead, like an endless sheet losing itself in a distant smother of blackness, stretched the ice and snow of Lake Nipigon. There was no tree, no rock for guidance over the trackless waste, yet never for an instant did Mukoki or Wabigoon falter. The stars began burning brilliantly in the sky; far away the red edge of the moon rose over this world of ice and snow and forest, throbbing and palpitating like a bursting ball of fire, as one sees it now and then in the glory of the great northern night.

Tirelessly, mile after mile, hour after hour, broken only by the short intervals of rest on the sledge, continued the race across Lake Nipigon. The moon rose higher; the blood in it paled to the crimson glow of the moose flower, and silvered as it climbed into the sky, until the orb hung like a great golden-white disk. In the splendor of it the solitude of ice and snow glistened without end. There was no sound but the slipping of the sledge, the pattering of the dogs' moccasined feet, and now and then a few breathless words spoken by Rod or his companions. It was a little after eight o'clock by Rod's watch when there came a change in the appearance of the lake ahead of them. Wabi, who was on the sledge, was the first to notice it, and he shouted back his discovery to the white youth.

"The forest! We're across!"

The tired dogs seemed to leap into new life at his words, and the leader replied with a whining joyous cry as the odors of balsam and fir came to him. The sharp pinnacles of the forest, reaching up into the night's white glow, grew more and more distinct as the sledge sped on, and five minutes later the team drew up in a huddled, panting bunch on the shore. That day the men and dogs from Wabinosh House had traveled sixty miles.

"We'll camp here!" declared Wabi, as he dropped on the sledge. "We'll camp here-unless you leave me behind!"

Mukoki, tireless to the last, had already found an ax.

"No rest now," he warned, "Too tired! You rest now-build no camp.

Build camp-then rest!"

"You're right, Muky," cried Wabi, jumping to his feet with forced enthusiasm. "If I sit down for five minutes I'll fall asleep. Rod, you build a fire. Muky and I will make the shelter."

In less than half an hour the balsam bough shelter was complete, and in front of it roared a fire that sent its light and heat for twenty paces round

. From farther back in the forest the three dragged several small logs, and no sooner had they been added to the flames than both Mukoki and Wabigoon wrapped themselves in their furs and burrowed deep into the sweet-scented balsam under the shelter. Rod's experience that day had not been filled with the terrible hardships of his companions, and for some time after they had fallen asleep he sat close to the fire, thinking again of the strangeness with which his fortunes had changed, and watching the flickering firelight as it played in a thousand fanciful figures in the deeper and denser gloom of the forest. The dogs had crept in close to the blazing logs and lay as still as though life no longer animated their tawny bodies. From far away there came the lonely howl of a wolf; a great white man-owl fluttered close to the camp and chortled his crazy, half-human "hello, hello, hello;" the trees cracked with the tightening frost, but neither wolf howl nor frost nor the ghostly visitant's insane voice aroused those who were sleeping.

An hour passed and still Rod sat by the fire; his rifle lying across his knees. His imagination had painted a thousand pictures in that time. Never for an instant had his mind ceased to work. Somewhere in that great wilderness there was another camp-fire that night, and in that camp Minnetaki was a captive. Some indefinable sensation seemed to creep into him, telling him that she was awake, and that she was thinking of her friends. Was it a touch of sleep, or that wonderful thing called mental telepathy, that wrought the next picture in his brain? It came with startling vividness. He saw the girl beside a fire. Her beautiful hair, glistening black in the firelight, hung in a heavy braid over her shoulder; her eyes were staring wildly into the flames, as if she were about to leap into them, and back of her so close that he might have touched her, was a figure that sent a chill of horror through him. It was Woonga, the outlaw chief! He was talking, his red face was fiendish, he stretched out a hand!

With a cry that startled the dogs Rod sprang to his feet. He was shivering as if in a chill. Had he dreamed? Or was it something more than a dream? He thought of the vision that had come to him weeks before in the mysterious chasm, the vision of the dancing skeletons, and which had revealed the secret of the old cabin and the lost gold. In vain he tried to shake off his nervousness and his fear. Why had Woonga reached out his hands for Minnetaki? He worked to free himself of the weight that had fallen on him, stirred the fire until clouds of sparks shot high up into the gloom of the trees, and added new fuel.

Then he sat down again, and for the twentieth time since leaving Wabinosh House drew from his pocket the map that was to have led them on their search for gold when he returned with his mother. It was a vision that had guided him to the discovery of this precious map, and the knowledge of it made him more uneasy now. A few moments before he had seen Minnetaki as plainly as though she had been with him there beside the fire; he fancied that he might almost have sent a bullet through the Indian's chief face as he reached out his long arms toward the girl.

He stirred the fire again, awakened one of the dogs to keep him company, and then went in to lie down between Mukoki and Wabigoon in an attempt at slumber. During the hours that followed he secured only short snatches of sleep. He dreamed, dreamed constantly of Minnetaki whenever he lost consciousness. Now he saw her before the fire, as he had seen her in his vision; again, she was struggling in the Woonga's powerful grasp. At one time the strife between the two-the young girl and the powerful savage-became terrible for him to behold, and at last he saw the Indian catch her in his arms and disappear into the blackness of the forest.

This time when he wakened Rod made no further effort to sleep. It was only a little past midnight. His companions had obtained four hours of rest. In another hour he would arouse them. Quietly he began making preparations for breakfast, and fed the dogs. At half-past one o'clock he shook Wabigoon by the shoulder.

"Get up!" he cried, as the Indian youth sat erect. "It's time to go!"

He tried to suppress his nervousness when Mukoki and Wabi joined him beside the fire. He determined not to let them know of his visions, for there was gloom enough among them as it was. But he would hurry. He was the first to get through with breakfast, the first to set to work among the dogs, and when Mukoki started out at the head of the team through the forest he was close beside him, urging him to greater speed by his own endeavors.

"How far are we from the camp, Mukoki?" he asked.

"Four hour-twent' mile," replied the old pathfinder.

"Twenty miles. We ought to make it by dawn."

Mukoki made no answer, but quickened his pace as the cedar and balsam forest gave place to an open plain which stretched for a mile or two ahead of them. For an hour longer the moon continued to light up the wilderness; then, with its descent lower and lower into the west, the gloom began to thicken, until only the stars were left to guide the pursuers. Even these were beginning to fade when Mukoki halted the panting team on the summit of a mountainous ridge, and pointed into the north.

"The plains!"

For several minutes the three stood silent, gazing out into the gloom of the vast solitudes that swept unbroken to Hudson Bay. Again Rod's blood was thrilled with the romance of what lay at his feet and far beyond, thrilled with the romance and mystery of that land of the wild which reached for hundreds of miles into the North, and into which the foot of the white man had as yet scarce left its imprint.

Before him, enveloped now in the deep gloom of the northern night, slept a vast unexplored world, a land whose story the passing of ages had left unrevealed. What tragedies of nature had its silent fastnesses beheld? What treasure did they hold? Half a century or more ago the men whose skeletons they had found in the old cabin had braved the perils of those trackless solitudes, and somewhere hundreds of miles out in that black gloom they had found gold, the gold that had fallen as an inheritance to them in the discovery of the old birch-bark map. And somewhere, somewhere out there was Minnetaki!

Across the plain at their feet the three adventurers had raced for their lives from the bloodthirsty Woongas only a week or so before; now they crossed it a second time and at even greater speed, for then they had possessed no dogs. At the end of another hour Mukoki no longer traveled faster than a walk. His eyes were constantly on the alert. Occasionally he would stop the dogs and strike off to the right or the left of the trail alone. He spoke no word to his companions, and neither Rod nor Wabigoon offered a suggestion. They knew, without questioning, that they were approaching their old camp, and just as the experienced hunter makes no sign or sound while his dog is nosing out a half-lost trail so they held back while Mukoki, the most famous pathfinder in all those regions, led them slowly on. The last of the stars went out. For a time the blackness of the night grew deeper; then, in the southeast, came the first faint streak of dawn. Day is born as suddenly as it dies in these regions, and it was soon light enough for Mukoki to resume his trail at a trot. A few minutes more and a clump of balsam and spruce loomed up out of the plain ahead of them. Neither Rod nor Wahigoon recognized it until the old warrior halted the dogs close in its shadows and they saw the look of triumph in his face.

"The camp!" breathed Wabi.

"The camp!"

Trembling, his voice quivering with suppressed excitement, the Indian youth turned to Roderick Drew.

"Rod-it's all up to you!"

Mukoki, too, had come close to his side.

"There-camp!" he whispered. "Now-where Minnetaki's trail?"

The old warrior's eyes were blazing.

"Where?"

A dozen paces away was the balsam shelter they had built. But that was all. Not a track was left in the snow. The warm sun had obliterated every sign of their presence of a short time before!

If their own trail was gone what could he hope to find of Minnetaki's dainty foot-prints?

Deep down in his heart Rod prayed for guidance in this moment of terrible doubt.

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