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   Chapter 5 ON THE TRAIL OF WASECHE

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 14529

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Waseche Bill loved the North. The awful grandeur of the naked peaks towering above wooded heights, the wide sweep of snow valleys, the chill of the thin, keen air, and the mystic play of the aurora never failed to cast their magic spell over the heart of the man as he answered the call of the long white trails. And, until Connie Morgan came into his life, he had loved only the North.

Accustomed to disappointment-that bitter heritage of the men who seek gold-he took the trail from Ten Bow as he had many times taken other trails, and from the moment the dogs strung out at the crack of his long-lashed whip, his mind was busy with plans for the future.

"Reckon I'll pass up Ragged Falls. The's nothin' theh-Coal Creek's staked, an' Dog Creek, an' Tanatat's done wo'ked out. Reckon I'll jest drift up Eagle way an git holt of some mo' dogs an' a new outfit, an' me'be take on a pa'dner an' make a try fo' the Lillimuit." Mile after mile he covered, talking aloud to himself, as is the way of the men of the silent places, while the smooth-worn runners of the sled slipped over the well-packed trail.

Overhead the sky was brilliant with the shifting, many-hued lights of the aurora borealis, which threw a weird, flickering glow over the drear landscape. It was the kind of a night Waseche loved, when the cold, hard world lay veiled in the half-light of mystery. But his mind was not upon the wild beauty of his surroundings. His heart was heavy, and a strange sense of loneliness lay like a load upon his breast. For, not until he found himself alone upon the trail, did he realize how completely his little partner had taken possession of his rough, love-starved heart. Yet, not for an instant did he regret his course in the abandonment of the claim.

"It's all in a lifetime," he murmured, "an' I didn't do so bad, at that. I 'speck theh's clost to ten thousan' in my poke right now-but the boy's claim! Gee Whiz! Fust an' last it ort to clean up a million! But, 'taint leavin' all that gold in the gravel that's botherin' me. It's-it's-I reckon it's jest the boy hisself. Li'l ol' sourdough!

"Hayr, yo' One Ear, yo'! Quit yo' foolin'! I'm talkie' like a woman. Mush on!"

At daybreak, when he struck the wide trail of the big river, Waseche Bill halted for breakfast, fed and rested his dogs, and swung upstream on the long trail for Eagle.

McDougall's ten malamutes were the pride of McDougall and the envy of the Yukon. As they disappeared in the distance bearing Connie Morgan on the trail of his deserting "pardner," the big Scotchman turned and entered his cabin.

"He's a braw lad," he rumbled, as he busied himself about the stove. "To Waseche's mind the lad's but a wee lad; an' the mon done what few men w'd done when ut come to the test. But, fer a' his sma' size the lad's uncanny knowin', an' the heart o' um's the heart o' a tillicum.

"He'll fetch Waseche back, fer he'll tak' na odds-an' a gude job ut'll be-fer, betwixt me an' mesel', the ain needs the ither as much as the ither needs the ain. 'Tis the talk o' the camp that ne'er a nicht sin' Ten Bow started has Waseche darkened the door o' Dog Head Jake's saloon, an' they aint a sourdough along the Yukon but what kens when things was different wi' Waseche Bill."

Out on the trail, Connie urged the dogs forward. Like Waseche Bill, he, too, had learned to love the great White Country, but this day he had eyes only for the long sweep of the trail and the flying feet of the malamutes.

"I must catch him! I've got to catch him!" he kept repeating to himself, as the flying sled shot along hillsides and through long stretches of stunted timber. "He'll make Ragged Falls Post tonight, and I'll make it before morning."

Darkness had fallen before the long team swept out onto the Yukon. Overhead the stars winked coldly upon the broad surface of the frozen river whose snow reefs and drifts, between which wound the trail, lay like the marble waves of a sculptured ocean.

Old Boris, running free in the lead, paused at the junction of the trails, sniffed at the place where Waseche had halted early in the morning, and loped unhesitatingly up the river. The old lead dog was several hundred yards in advance of the team, and cut off from sight by the high-piled drifts; so that when Connie reached the spot he swung the malamutes downstream in the direction of Ragged Falls Post, never for an instant suspecting that his partner had taken the opposite trail.

For several minutes old Boris ran on with his nose to the snow, then, missing the sound of the scratching feet and the dry husk of the runners, he paused and listened with ears cocked and eyes in close scrutiny of the back trail. Surely, those were the sounds of the dog team-but why were they growing fainter in the distance? The old dog whimpered uneasily, and then, throwing back his head, gave voice to a long, bell-like cry which, floating out on the tingling air like the blast of a bugle, was borne to the ears of the boy on the flying dog sled, already a half-mile to the westward. At his sharp command, the well trained malamutes nearly piled up with the suddenness of their stop. The boy listened breathlessly and again it sounded-the long-drawn howl he knew so well. "Why has Boris left the trail," wondered the boy. "Had Waseche met with an accident and camped? Were the feet of his dogs sore? Was he hurt?" Connie glanced at his own two dogs, Mutt and Slasher, who, unharnessed, had followed in his wake. They, too, heard the call of their leader and had crouched in the snow, gazing backward. Quickly he swung the sled dogs and dashed back at a gallop. Passing the point where the Ten Bow trail slanted into the hills, he urged the dogs to greater effort. If something had happened and Waseche had camped, the quicker he found him the better. But, if Waseche had not camped, and old Boris was fooling him, it would mean nearly an hour lost in useless doubling. With anxious eyes he scanned the trail ahead, seeking to penetrate the gloom of the Arctic night. At length, as the sled shot from between two high-piled drifts, he made out a dark blotch in the distance, which quickly resolved itself into the figure of the old lead dog sitting upon his haunches with ears alert for the approaching sled. Connie whistled, a loud, peculiar whistle, and the old dog bounded forward with short, quick yelps of delight.

"Where is Waseche, Boris?" The boy had leaped from the sled and was mauling the rough coat playfully. "Find Waseche! Boris! Go find him!" With a sharp, joyful bark, the old dog leaped out upon the trail and the wolf-dogs followed. A mile slipped past-two miles-and no sign of Waseche! The boy called a halt. "Boris is fooling me," he muttered, with disappointment. "He couldn't have come this far and gotten back to the place I found him."

Connie had once accompanied Waseche Bill to Ragged Falls Post and when he took the trail it was with the idea that Waseche had headed for that point. Unconsciously, Scotty McDougall had strengthened the conviction when he told the boy he should overtake his partner at Ragged Falls. So now it never occurred to him that the man had taken the trail for Eagle, which lay four days to the south-east.

Disappointed in th

e behaviour of the old dog, upon whose sagacity he had relied, and bitterly begrudging the lost time, he whistled Boris in and tried to start him down the river. But the old dog refused to lead and continued to make short, whimpering dashes in the opposite direction. At last, the boy gave up in despair and headed the team for Ragged Falls, and Boris, with whimpered protests and drooping tail, followed beside Mutt and Slasher.

All night McDougall's malamutes mushed steadily over the trail, and in the grey of the morning, as they swept around a wide bend of the great river, the long, low, snow-covered roof of Ragged Falls Post, with its bare flagpole, appeared crowning a flat-topped bluff on the right bank.

Connie's heart bounded with relief at the sight. For twenty hours he had urged the dogs over the trail with only two short intervals of rest, and now he had reached his goal-and Waseche!

"Wonder what he'll say?" smiled the tired boy. "I bet he'll be surprised to see me-and glad, too-only he'll pretend not to be. Doggone old tillicum! He's the best pardner a man ever had!"

Eagerly the boy swung the dogs at the steep slope that led to the top of the bluff. A thin plume of smoke was rising above the roof; there was the sound of an opening door, and a man in shirt sleeves eyed the approaching outfit sleepily. Connie recognized him as Black Jack Demaree, the storekeeper. And then the boy's heart almost stopped beating, for the gate of the log stockade that served as a dog corral stood open, and upon the packed snow before the door was no sled.

"Hello, sonny!" called the man from the doorway. "Well, dog my cats! If it ain't Sam Morgan's boy! Them's Scotty McDougall's team, ain't it?"

"Where's Waseche Bill?" asked the boy, ignoring the man's greeting.

"Waseche Bill! Why, I ain't saw Waseche sense you an' him was down las' summer." The small shoulders drooped wearily, and the small head turned away, as, choking back the tears of disappointment, the boy stared out over the river. The man looked for a moment at the dejected little figure and, stepping to his side, laid a rough, kindly hand on the boy's arm.

"Come, sonny; fust off, we'll git the dawgs unharnessed an' fed, an' then, when we git breakfas' et, we c'n make medicine." The boy shook his head.

"I can't stop," he said; "I must find Waseche."

"Now, look a here, don't you worry none 'bout Waseche. That there ol' sourdough'll take care of hisself. Why, he c'n trail through a country where a wolf w'd starve to death!

"Ye've got to eat, son. An' yer dawgs has got to eat an' rest. I see ye're in a hurry, an' I won't detain ye needless. Mind ye, they worn't no better man than Sam Morgan, yer daddy, an' he worn't above takin' advice off a friend." Without a word the boy fell to and helped the man, who was already unharnessing the dogs.

"Now, son, 'fore ye turn in fer a few winks," said Black Jack Demaree, as he gulped down the last of his coffee and filled his pipe. "Jes' loosten up an' tell me how come you an' Waseche ain't up on Ten Bow workin' yer claim?"

The man listened attentively as the boy told how his partner's claim had sloped off into his own and "petered out." And of how Waseche Bill had taken the trail in the night, so the boy would have an undivided interest in the good claim. And, also, of how, when he woke up and found his partner gone, he had borrowed McDougall's dogs and followed. And, lastly, of the way old Boris acted at the fork of the trails. When the boy finished, the man sat for several minutes puffing slowly at his short, black pipe, and watching the blue smoke curl upward. Presently he cleared his throat.

"In the first place, sonny, ye'd ort to know'd better'n to go contrary to the ol' dawg. In this here country it's as needful to know dawgs as it is to know men. That there's a lesson ye won't soon fergit-never set up yer own guess agin' a good dawgs nose. Course, ye've got to know yer dawg. Take a rankus pup that ain't got no sense yet, an' he's li'ble to contankerate off on the wrong trail-but no one wouldn't pay no heed to him, no more'n they would to some raw shorthorn that come a blustercatin' along with a sled load o' pyrites, expectin' to start a stampede.

"But, ye're only delayed a bit. It's plain as daylight, Waseche hit fer Eagle, an' ye'll come up with him, 'cause, chances is, he'll projec' round a bit among the boys, an' if he figgers on a trip into the hills he'll have to outfit fer it."

"Thank you, Jack," said the boy, offering his small hand; "I'll sure remember what you told me. I think I'll take a little nap and then mush."

"That's the talk, son. Never mind unrollin' yer bed, jes' climb into my bunk, yonder. It's five days to Eagle, an' while ye're sleepin' I'll jes' run through yer outfit an' see what ye need, an' when ye wake up it'll be all packed an' ready fer ye."

When Connie opened his eyes, daylight had vanished and Black Jack sat near the stove reading a paper-backed novel by the light of a tin reflector lamp.

"What time is it?" asked the boy, as he fastened his mukluks.

"'Bout 'leven G.M.," grinned the man.

"Why, I've slept twelve hours!" exclaimed the boy in dismay.

"When Connie opened his eyes, daylight had vanished."

"Well, ye needed it, er ye wouldn't of slep' it," remarked the man, philosophically.

"But, look at the time I've wasted. I might have been--"

"Now, listen to me, son. Yere's another thing ye've got to learn, an' that is: In this here country a man's got to keep hisself fit-an' his dawgs, too. Forcin' the trail means loosin' out in the long run. Eight or ten hours is a day's work on the trail-an' a good day. 'Course they's exceptions, like a stampede or a rush fer a doctor when a man c'n afford to take chances. But take it day in an' day out, eight or ten hours'll git ye further than eighteen or twenty.

"It's the chechakos an' the tin horns that excrootiates theirselves an' their dawgs to a frazzle, an' when a storm hits 'em, er they miss a cache, it's good-night! Take an ol' sourdough an' he'll jes' sagashitate along, eat a plenty an' sleep a plenty an' do the like by his dawgs, an' when trouble comes he jes' tightens his belt a hole er two an' hits his dawgs couple extra licks fer breakfas' an' exooberates along on his nerve.

"Eat yer supper, now, an' ye c'n hit the trail whenever ye like. Yer sled's packed fer the trip an' a couple days to spare."

"I came away in such a hurry I forgot to bring my dust," said the boy, ruefully.

"Well, I guess ye're good fer it," laughed the man. "Wisht I had a thousan' on my books with claims as good as yourn an' Waseche's."

After supper they harnessed the dogs and the boy turned to bid his friend good-bye. The man extended a buckskin pouch.

"Here's a poke with a couple hundred in it. Take it along. Ye mightn't need it, an' then agin ye might, an' if ye do need it, ye'll need it bad." The boy made a motion of protest.

"G'wan, it's yourn. I got it all chalked up agin ye, an' I'd have to change the figgers, an' if they's anything on earth I hate, it's to bookkeep. So long! When ye see Waseche Bill, tell him Black Jack Demaree says ye can't never tell by the size of a frog how fer he c'n jump."

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