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Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 13019

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Speak desolation. What does it mean to you? What picture rises before your eyes? A land laid waste by the ravages of war? A brain picture of sodden, trampled fields, leaning fences, grey piles of smoking ashes which are the ruins of homes, flanking a long, white, unpeopled highway strewn with litter, broken wagons, abandoned caissons, and, here and there, long fresh-heaved ridges of brown earth that cover the men who were? Isn't that the picture? And isn't it the evening of a dull grey day, just at the time when the gloom of twilight shades into the black pall of night, and way toward the edge of the world, on the indistinct horizon, a lurid red glow tints the low-hung clouds-no flames-only the dull, illusive glow that wavers and fades in the heavens above other burning homes? Yes, that is desolation. And, yet-men have been here-everything about you speaks the presence of people. Here people lived and loved and were happy; and here, also, they were heartbroken and sad. The whole picture breathes humanity-and the inhumanity of men. And, as people have lived here, instinctively you know that people will live here again; for this is man-made desolation.

Only those to whom it has been given to know the Big North-the gaunt, white, silent land beyond the haunts of men-can realize the true significance of desolation.

Stand surrounded by range upon towering range of unmapped mountains whose clean-cut peaks show clear and sharp through the keen air-air so dry and thin that the slanting rays of the low-hung midday sun gleam whitely upon the outlines of ice crags a hundred miles away. Stand there alone, enveloped by the solitude of the land where men never lived-nor ever will live-where the silence is a thing, pressing closer and closer about you-smothering you-so that, instinctively, you throw out your hands to push it away that you may breathe-then you begin to know desolation-the utter desolation of the frozen wilderness, the cold, dead land of mystery.

The long howl of the great grey wolf as he lopes over the hunger trail is an eerie sound; so is the cackling, insane laughter of a pack of coyotes in the night-time, and the weird scream of the loup-cervier; but of all sounds, the most desolate, the sound that to the ears of man spells the last word of utter solitude and desolation, is the short, quick, single bark of the Arctic fox as he pads invisible as a phantom in his haunts among the echoing rim-rocks. Amid these surroundings, brains give way. Not soften into maudlin idiocy, but explode in a frenzy of violence, so that men rush screaming before the relentless solitude; or fight foolishly and to the death against the powers of cold amid the unreal colours of the aurora borealis whose whizzing hiss roars in their ears when, at the last, they pitch forward into the frozen whiteness-bushed!

This was the scene of desolation that confronted Connie Morgan as McDougall's straining malamutes jerked the sled from the ice-cavern that had served as a shelter through all the days of the great blizzard, when the wind-lashed snow, fine as frozen fog, eddied and whirled across the surface of the glacier which towered above him, and drifted deep in the narrow pass.

The sled runners squeaked loudly in the flinty snow, and Connie halted the dogs and surveyed the forbidding landscape. Never in his life had he been so utterly alone. For twenty days he had followed the trail of Waseche Bill, and now he stood at the end of the trail-worse than that, for the high piled drifts that buried the trail of Waseche covered his own back trail, completely wiping out the one slender thread that connected him with the land of men. He stood alone in the dreaded Lillimuit! Before him rose a confusion of mountains-tier after tier of naked peaks clear and sharp against the blue sky. Fresh as he was from the great Alaska ranges, the boy was strangely awed by the vastness of it all. It was unreal. He missed the black-green of the timber belt that relieved the long sweep of his own mountains, for here, from rounded foothill to topmost pinnacle, the mountains were as bare of vegetation as floating icebergs. The very silence was unnatural and the boy's lips pressed tightly together as thoughts of Ten Bow crowded his brain: the windlass-capped shafts, the fresh dumps that showed against the white snow of the valley; the red flash and glow of the fires in the night that thawed out the gravel for the next day's digging; the rough log cabins ranged up and down the gulch in two straggling rows-he could almost hear the good-natured banter which was daily exchanged across the frozen creek bed between the rival residents of Broadway and "Fiff Avenue," as the two irregular "streets" of the camp were named. He thought of his own cabin and the long evenings with his big partner, Waseche Bill, sitting close to the roaring little "Yukon stove," puffing contentedly upon his black pipe, which he removed now and then from between his lips to judiciously comment upon the stories that the boy read from the man-thumbed, coverless magazines of other years, which had been passed from hand to hand by the big men of the frozen places.

A lump came in his throat and he swallowed hard, and as he looked, the naked peaks blurred and swam together; and two hot, salty tears stung his eyes. At the sting of the tears the little form stiffened and the boy glanced swiftly about him as, with a mittened hand, he dashed the moisture from his eyes. The small fingers clenched hard about the handle of the long-lashed, walrus hide dog whip, and he stepped quickly to the gee-pole of the sled.

"I'm a piker!" he cried, "a chechako and a kid and a tin-horn and a piker! Crying like a girl because I'm homesick! Bah! What would Waseche say if he could see me now? And Dad? There was a man! Sam Morgan!" The little arms extended impulsively toward the great white peaks and the big blue eyes glowed proudly:

"Oh, Dad! Dad! They call you unlucky! But I'd rather have the big men back there think of me like they talk of you, than to have all the gold in the world!" He leaped suddenly beyond the sled and shook a tiny clenched fist toward the glittering crags.

"I'm not a piker!" he cried, fiercely. "I couldn't be a piker, and be Sam Morgan's boy! I got here in spite of the men of Eagle! And I'll find Waseche, too! I'm not afraid of you! You cold, white Lillimuit-with your big, bare, frozen mountains, and your glaciers, and your stillness! You can't bluff me! You m

ay get me-but you can't turn me! I'm game!"

As the voice of the boy thinned into the cold air, Slasher, the gaunt, red-eyed wolf-dog, that no man had ever tamed, ranged himself close at his side and, with bristling hair and bared fangs, added his rumbling, throaty growl to Connie Morgan's defiance of the North.

With a high-pitched whoop of encouragement and a loud crack of the whip, the boy swung the impatient ten-team to the westward and headed it down the canyon into the very heart of the Lillimuit. High mountains towered above him to the left, and to the right the sheer wall of the glacier formed an insurmountable barrier. The dry, hard-packed snow afforded excellent footing and McDougall's trained sled dogs made good time as they followed the lead of old Boris who, trotting in advance, unerringly picked the smoothest track between the detached masses of ice and granite that in places all but blocked the narrowing gorge, into which the trail of Waseche Bill had led on the first day of the great blizzard.

Mile after mile they covered, and as the walls drew closer together the light dimmed, for the slanting rays of the winter sun even at midday never penetrated to the floor of the narrow canyon. As he rounded a sharp bend, Connie halted the dogs in dismay for, a short distance in front of him, the ice-wall of the glacier slanted suddenly against the granite shoulder of a high butte. Wide eyed, he stared at the barrier. He was in a blind pocket-a cul-de-sac of the mountains! But where was Waseche? Weary and disappointed the boy seated himself on the sled to reason it out.

"There must be a way out," he argued. "I didn't camp till the snow got so thick I couldn't see, and he had to camp, too. If he doubled back I would have seen him." He started to his feet in a sudden panic. "I wonder if he did-while I slept?" Then, as his glance fell upon the dogs, he smiled. "You bet, he didn't!" he cried aloud, "not with thirteen wolf-dogs camped beside the trail. Slasher would growl and bristle up if a man came within half a mile of us, and Waseche could never get past old Boris." He remembered the words of Black Jack Demaree: "Never set up yer own guess agin' a good dog's nose." Connie Morgan was learning the North-he was trusting his dogs.

"There's a trail, somewhere," he exclaimed, "and it's up to me to find it!" He cracked his whip, but instead of leaping to the pull, the dogs crouched quivering in the snow. The ground trembled as in the throes of a mighty earthquake and the boy whirled in his tracks as the canyon reverberated to the crash of a thousand thunders. He dashed to the point where, a few minutes before, he had rounded the sharp angle of the trail and gasped at the sight that met his gaze. The weather-whitened ice of the glacier wall was rent and shivered in a broad, green scar, and in the canyon a mass of broken ice fifty feet high completely blocked the back trail. He was imprisoned! Not in a man-made jail of iron bars and concrete-but a veritable prison of the wilderness, whose impregnable walls of ice and granite seemed to touch the far-off sky. The boy's heart sank as he gazed upon the perpendicular wall that barred the trail. For just an instant his lip quivered and then the little shoulders stiffened and the blue eyes narrowed as they had narrowed that evening he faced the men of Eagle.

"You didn't get me, Lillimuit!" he shouted. "You'll have to shoot the other barrel!" His voice echoed hollow and thin between the gloomy walls, and he turned to the dogs. Old Boris, always in search of a trail, sniffed industriously about the base of the glacier. Big, lumbering Mutt, who in harness could out-pull any dog in the Northland, rolled about in the snow and barked foolishly in his excitement. Slasher, more wolf than dog, stood snarling his red-eyed hate in the face of the new-formed ice barrier. And McDougall's malamutes, wise in the ways of the snow trail, stood alert, with eyes on the face of the boy, awaiting his command.

Forty rods ahead, where the cul-de-sac terminated in a great moraine, Connie could discern a tangle of scrub growth and dead timber pushed aside by the glacier. The short, three-hour day was spent, and the gloomy walls of the narrow gorge intensified the mysterious semi-darkness of the long, sub-arctic night. The boy shouted to the dogs, and the crack of his long whiplash echoed in the chasm like a pistol shot. At the foot of the moraine he unharnessed and fed the dogs, spread his robes in the shelter of a bold-faced grey rock, and unrolled his sleeping bag. He built a fire and thawed out some bannock, over which he poured the grease from the pan of sizzling bacon. Connie was hungry and he devoured his solitary meal greedily, washing it down with great gulps of steaming black coffee. After supper, surrounded by the thirteen big dogs, he made a hasty inspection of the walls of his prison. The light was dim and he realized he would have to wait until daylight before making anything like a thorough examination; nevertheless, he was unwilling to sleep until he had made at least one effort to locate the trail to the outer world.

An hour later he crawled into his sleeping bag and lay a long time looking upward at the little stars that winked and glittered in cold, white brilliance where the narrow panel of black-blue showed between the towering walls of the canyon.

"I'll get out someway," he muttered bravely.

"My dad would have got out, and, you bet, so will I!"

"If I can't walk out, I'll crawl out, or climb out, or dig out! My dad would have got out, and, you bet, so will I! He wasn't afraid to tackle big things-he was ready for 'em. What got him was a little thing-just a little piece of loose ice on a smooth trail-he wasn't looking for it-that's all. But, at that, when he pitched head first into Ragged Falls canyon that day, he died like a man dies-in the big outdoors, with the mountains, and the pine trees, and the snow! And that's the way I'll die! If I never get out of this hole, when they find me they won't find me in this sleeping bag-'cause I'll work to the end of my grub. I'll dig, and chop, and hack a way out till my grub's gone, then I'll-I'll eat Mac's dogs-and when they're gone I'll-No! By Jimminy! I won't eat old Boris, nor Slasher, nor Mutt-I'll-I'll starve first!" He reached for the flap of his sleeping bag, and as he drew it over his head there came, faint and far from the rim-rocks, the short, sharp bark of a starving fox.

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