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   Chapter 6 THE MEN OF EAGLE

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 18216

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Waseche Bill jogged along the main street of Eagle, past log cabins, board shacks, and the deceiving two-story fronts of one-story stores. Now and then an acquaintance hailed him from the wooden sidewalk, and he recognized others he knew, among the small knots of men who stood about idly discussing the meagre news of the camp. At the Royal Palm Hotel, a long, low, log building with a false front of boards, he swung in and, passing around to the rear, turned his dogs into the stockade.

In the office, seated about the stove, were a dozen or more men, most of whom Waseche knew. They greeted him loudly as he entered, and plied him with a volley of questions.

"Where ye headed?"

"Thought ye'd struck it rich on Ten Bow?"

"D'ye hear about Camaron Creek?"

The newcomer removed his heavy parka and joined the group, answering a question here, and asking one there.

"How's Sam Morgan's boy comin' on? We heard how you an' him was pardners an' had a big thing over on Ten Bow," inquired a tall man whose doleful length of sallow countenance had earned him the nickname of Fiddle Face. As he talked, this man gnawed the end of his prodigiously long mustache. Waseche's eyes lighted at the mention of the boy.

"He's the finest kid eveh was, I reckon. Sma't as a steel trap, an' they ain't nawthin' he won't tackle. C'n cook a meal o' vittles that'd make yo' mouth wateh, an' jest nach'lly handles dogs like an ol' tillicum."

"How come ye ain't workin' yer claim?" asked someone.

"It's this-a-way," answered Waseche, addressing the group. "Mine's Discovery, an' his'n's One Below, an' we th'ow'd in togetheh. 'Bout ten foot down, mine sloped off into his'n-run plumb out. An' I come away so's the kid'll have the claim cleah." A silence followed Waseche's simple statement-a silence punctuated by nods of approval and low-voiced mutterings of "Hard luck," and "Too bad." Fiddle Face was first to speak.

"That's what I call a man!" he exclaimed, bringing his hand down on Waseche's shoulder with a resounding whack.

"Won't ye step acrost to Hank's place an' have a drink?" invited a large man, removing his feet from the fender of the big stove, and settling the fur cap more firmly upon his head.

"No thanks, Joe. Fact is, I ain't took a drink fo' quite a spell. Kind o' got out o' the notion, somehow."

"Well, sure seems funny to hear you refusin' a drink! Remember Iditarod?" The man smiled.

"Oh, sure, I recollect. An' I recollect that it ain't neveh got me nawthin' but misery an' an empty poke. But, it ain't so much that. It's-well, it's like this: Sam Mo'gan, he ain't heah no mo' to look afteh the kid, an'-yo' see, the li'l scamp, he's kind o' got it in his head that they ain't no one jest like me-kind o' thinks I really 'mount to somethin', an' what I say an' do is 'bout right. It don't stand to reason I c'n make him b'lieve 'taint no good to drink licker, an' then go ahead an' drink it myself-does it, now?"

"Sure don't!" agreed the other heartily. "An' that's what I call a man!" And the whack that descended upon Waseche's shoulder out-sounded by half the whack of Fiddle Face.

After supper the men drifted out by twos and threes for their nightly rounds of the camp's tawdry places of amusement. Waseche Bill, declining their invitations, sat alone by the stove, thinking. The man was lonely. Until this night he had had no time to realize how much he missed his little partner, and his thoughts lingered over the long evenings when they talked together in the cabin, and the boy would read aloud from the illustrated magazines.

A chair was drawn up beside his, and the man called Joe laid a large hand upon his knee.

"This here Sam Morgan's boy-does he favour Sam?" he asked.

"Like as two bullets-barrin' size," replied Waseche, without raising his eyes.

"I s'pose you talked it over with the kid 'fore you come away?" Waseche looked up.

"Why, no! I done left a lettah, an' come away while he was sleepin'."

"D'ye think he'll stand fer that?"

"I reckon he's got to. Course, it'll be kind o' hard on him, fust off, me'be. Same as me. But it's bettah fo' him in the end. Why, his claim's good fo' a million! An' the boys up to Ten Bow, they'll see him through-McDougall, an' Dutch Henry, an' the rest. They-all think as much of the boy as what I do." The big man at Waseche's side shook his head doubtfully.

"I know'd Sam Morgan well," he said, fixing the other with his eyes. "He done me a good turn onct an' he never asked no odds off'en no one. Now, if the kid's jes' like him-s'pose he follers ye?"

"Cain't. He ain't got the dogs to."

The other smiled and dropped the subject.

"Where ye headin' fer, Waseche?" he asked, after a few moments of silence.

"I aim to make a try fo' the Lillimuit."

"The Lillimuit!" exclaimed Joe. "Man, be ye crazy?"

"No. They's gold theh. I seen the nuggets Sven Carlson fetched back two ye'rs ago."

"Yes! An' where's Sven Carlson now?"

"I don'no."

"An' no one else don't know, neither. He's dead-that's where he is! Leastwise, he ain't never be'n heerd from after he started back fer the Lillimuit."

"Want to go 'long?" asked Waseche, ignoring the other's statement.

"Who? Me! Not on yer life I don't-not to the Lillimuit! Not fer all the gold in the world."

"Oh, I reckon 'tain't so bad as folks claim."

"Claim! Folks ain't in no shape to claim! They ain't no one ever come back, 'cept Carlson-an' he was loco, an' went in agin-an' that's the last of Carlson."

"What ails the country?" asked Waseche.

"They's talk of white Injuns, an' creeks that don't freeze, an'-well, they don't no one really know, but Carlson." The man shrugged and glanced over his shoulder. "If I was you, I'd hit the back trail. They's a plenty fer two in the Ten Bow claim an' pardners is pardners."

Waseche ignored the suggestion:

"I'll be pullin' fer the Lillimuit in the mo'nin'. Sorry ye won't jine me. I'll be rollin' in, now. Good-night."

"So long! An' good luck to ye. I sure hate to see ye go."

Early in the evening of the fourth day after Waseche Bill's departure for the unknown Lillimuit Connie Morgan swung McDougall's ten-dog team into Eagle.

The boy, heeding the advice of Black Jack Demaree, had curbed his impatience and religiously held himself to a ten-hour schedule, and the result was easily apparent in the way the dogs dashed up the steep trail and swung into the well-packed street of the big camp.

In front of a wooden building marked "Post Office," he halted. A large man, just emerging from the door, stared in amusement at the tiny parka-clad figure that confronted him.

"Hello, son!" he called. "Where might you be headin' fer?"

"I'm hunting for Waseche Bill," the youngster replied. "Have you seen him?"

"That'll be Scotty McDougall's team," observed the man.

"Yes, but have you seen Waseche?"

"You'll be Sam Morgan's boy," the man continued.

"Yes, sir."

"Well, come on along up to the hotel."

"Is Waseche there?" eagerly inquired the boy.

"Well, no, he ain't jes' right there, this very minute," replied the man, evasively.

"Where has he gone?" asked the boy, with a sudden fear in his heart.

"Oh, jes' siyou'd out on a little prospectin' trip. Come on, I'll give ye a hand with the dogs-supper'll be about ready."

That evening Connie Morgan found himself the centre of an interested group of miners-rough, kindly men, who welcomed him warmly, asked the news of Ten Bow, and recounted in awkward, hesitating sentences stories of his father. Before turning into the bunk assigned to him, the boy sought out the proprietor of the hotel, who sat in the centre of an interested group, discussing local politics with a man from Circle.

"I'll pay my bill now, because I want to hit the trail before breakfast," he said, producing the well-filled pouch that Black Jack Demaree had thrust into his hand. Big Jim Sontag chuckled way back in his beard as he regarded his littlest guest.

"Go 'long, yo', sonny! Shove yo' poke in yo' pocket. Yo' welcome to stop undeh my roof long as yo' want to. Why, if I was to cha'ge yo' fo' boa'd an' lodgin' afteh what yo' pap done fo' me, up on Tillimik-hope the wolves'll eat me, hide an' taller!"

The man called Joe came around the stove and stood looking down at the boy.

"Look here, son, where you aimin' to hit fer so early in the mornin'?"

"Why, to find Waseche, of course!" The boy seemed surprised at the question.

"To the Lillimuit!" someone gasped, but Joe silenced him.

"Son," he said, speaking slowly, "Waseche Bill's struck out fer the Lillimuit-the country where men don't come back from. Waseche's a man-an' a good one. He knows what he's up agin', an' if he wants to take a chanct that's his business. But, jes' between us, Waseche won't come back." The boy's small shoulders stiffened and his eyes flashed, as the little face uptilted to look into the man's eyes.

"If Waseche don't come back, then I don't come back either!" he exclaimed. "He's my pardner! I've got to find him!"

"That's what I call a man!" yell

ed Fiddle Face, bringing his fist down upon the table with a bang.

"Jes' the same, sonny," continued Joe, firmly, "we can't let ye go. We owes it to you, an' we owes it to Sam Morgan. They's too many a good man's bones layin' somewhere amongst them fiendish peaks an' passes, now. No, son, you c'n stay in Eagle as long as you like, an' welcome. Or, you c'n hit the trail fer Ten Bow. But you can't strike out fer the Lillimuit-an' that goes!" There was finality in the man's tone, and one swift glance into the faces of the others told the boy that they were of the same mind, to a man. For the first time in his life, Connie Morgan faced the opposition of men. Instinctively he knew that every man in the room was his friend, but never in his life had he felt so helplessly alone. What could one small boy do in the face of the ultimatum of these men of the North? Tears rushed to his eyes and, for a moment, threatened to overflow upon his cheeks, but, in that moment, there arose before him the face of Waseche Bill-his "pardner." The little fists clenched, the grey eyes narrowed, forcing back the hot tears, and the tiny jaw squared to the gritting of his teeth.

"What could one small boy do in the face of the ultimatum of these men of the North?"

"Good-night," he said, and selecting a candle from among the many on top of the rude desk, disappeared down the dark corridor between the rows of stall-like rooms.

"Jes' fo' all the wo'ld like Sam Mo'gan," drawled big Jim Sontag. "I've saw his eyes squinch up, an' his jaw clamp shut, that-a-way, a many a time-an' nary time but somethin' happened. We've shore got to keep an eye on that young un, 'cause he aims to give us the slip in the mo'nin'."

"Ye said somethin', then, Jim," agreed Fiddle Face, gnawing at his mustache. "The kid's got sand, an' he's game plumb through, an' when he starts somethin' he aims to finish it-which like his dad used to."

Connie Morgan, for all his tender years, knew men. He knew, when he left the group about the stove, that they would expect him to try to slip out of Eagle, and that if he waited until morning he would have no chance in the world of eluding their vigilance. Minutes counted, for he also knew that once on the trail, he need have no fear of pursuit; for no team in the Yukon country, save only Dutch Henry's Hudson Bays, could come anywhere near the trail record of McDougall's ten gaunt malamutes.

Pausing only long enough in the little room with its scrawling "No. 27" painted on the door to wriggle into his parka and snatch his cap from the bunk, he stole cautiously down the narrow passage leading to the rear of the ell, where a small door opened directly into the stockade. With feverish haste he harnessed the dogs and opened the gate. In the shadow of the building he paused and peered anxiously up and down the street. No one was in sight and, through the heavily frosted windows of the buildings, dull squares of light threw but faint illumination upon the deserted thoroughfare.

"Mush! Mush!" he whispered, swinging the long team out onto the hard-packed snow.

As he passed a store the door opened and a man stood outlined in the patch of yellow light. Connie's heart leaped to his throat, but the man only stared in evident surprise that any one would be hitting the trail at that time of night, and then the door closed and the boy breathed again. He wished that he could stop and lay in a supply of grub, but dared not risk it. Better pay twice the price to some prospector, or trapper, than risk being stopped.

Silently the sled glided over the smooth trail and slanted out onto the river with Boris, Mutt, and Slasher capering in its wake.

Connie had only a vague notion as to the location of the unknown Lillimuit. He knew that it lay somewhere among the unmapped headwaters of Peel River, and that he must head up the Tatonduk and cross a divide. Toward morning he halted at the mouth of a river that flowed in from the north-east. A little-used trail was faintly discernible and the boy called the old lead dog.

"Go find Waseche, Boris!" he cried, "go find him!" Notwithstanding the fact that Waseche's trail was nearly five days old, the old dog sniffed at the snow and, with a joyous yelp, headed up the smaller river.

The next morning there was consternation in Eagle, and a half-dozen dog sleds hit the trail. About ten miles up the Tatonduk, the men of Eagle met a half-breed trapper with an empty sled.

"Any one pass ye, goin' up?" asked Joe.

The trapper grinned.

"Yeste'day," he answered, "white man papoose"; he held his hand about four feet from the snow. "Ten-dog team-Mush! Mush! Mush! Go like de wolf! Stop on my camp. Buy all de grub. Nev' min' de cost-hur' up! He try for catch white man, go by four sleeps ago." Joe cracked his whip and the dogs leaped forward.

"You no catch!" the half-breed shouted. "Papoose, him go! go! go! Try for mak' Lillimuit. Him no come back."

Disregarding the prediction of the half-breed, Joe, Fiddle Face, and big Jim Sontag continued their pursuit of the flying dog team, despite the fact that as they progressed the trail grew colder. After many days they came to the foot of the great white divide and camped beneath overcast skies, and in the morning a storm broke with unbelievable fury.

Every man, woman, and child in eastern Alaska remembers the great blizzard that whirled out of the north on the morning of the third of December and raged unabated for four days, ceased as suddenly as it started, and then, for four days more, roared terrifically into the north again.

On the ninth day, the three men burrowed from their shelter at the foot of a perpendicular cliff. The trail was obliterated, and on every hand they were confronted by huge drifts from ten to thirty feet in height, while above them, clinging precariously to the steep side of the mountain that divided them from the dreaded unknown, were vast ridges of snow that momentarily threatened to tear loose and bury them beneath a mighty avalanche.

Silently the men stared into each other's faces, and then-silently, for none dared trust himself to speak-these big men of the North harnessed their dogs and began the laborious homeward journey with heavy hearts.

And, at that very moment, a small boy, eighty miles beyond the impassable barrier of the snow-capped divide, tunnelled through a huge drift that sealed the mouth of an ice cavern in the side of an inland glacier, and looked out upon the bewildering tangle of gleaming peaks. Thanks to the unerring nose of old Boris, and the speed of McDougall's sled dogs, the trail of Waseche had each day become warmer, and the night before the storm, when Connie camped in the convenient ice-cavern, he judged his partner to be only a day ahead. When the storm continued day after day, he chafed at the delay, but comforted himself with the thought that Waseche must also camp.

As he stood at the mouth of his cave gazing at the unfamiliar mountains, towering range upon range, with their peaks glittering in the cold rays of the morning sun, old Boris crowded past him and plunged into the unbroken whiteness of the little valley. Round and round he circled with lowered head. Up and down the jagged ice wall of the glacier he ran, sniffing the snow and whining with eagerness to pick up the trail that he had followed for so many days. And as the boy watched him, a sudden fear clutched at his heart. For instead of starting off with short, joyous yelps of confidence, the old dog continued his aimless circling, and at length, as if giving up in despair, sat upon his haunches, pointed his sharp muzzle skyward, and lifted his voice in howl after quavering howl of disappointment.

"The trail is buried," groaned the boy, "and I had almost caught up with him!" He glanced hopelessly up and down the valley, realizing for the first time that the landmarks of the back trail were obliterated. His eyes narrowed and he gritted his teeth:

"I'll find him yet," he muttered. "My Dad always played in hard luck-but he never quit! I'll find Waseche-but, if I don't find him, the big men back there that knew Sam Morgan-they'll know Sam Morgan's boy was no quitter, either!" He turned away from the entrance and began to harness the dogs.

Way down the valley, high on the surface of the glacier, Waseche Bill stopped suddenly to listen. Faint and far, a sound was borne to his ears through the thin, cold air. He jerked back his parka hood and strained to catch the faint echo. Again he heard it-the long, bell-like howl of a dog-and as he listened, the man's face paled, and a strange prickling sensation started at the roots of his hair and worked slowly along his spine. For this man of the North knew dogs. Even in the white fastness of the terrible Lillimuit he could not be mistaken.

"Boris! Boris!" he cried, and whirling his wolf-dogs in their tracks, dashed over the windswept surface of the glacier in the direction of the sound.

"I can't be wrong! I can't be wrong!" he repeated over and over again, "I raised him from a pup!"

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