MoboReader> Literature > Connie Morgan in Alaska

   Chapter 9 THE WHITE DEATH

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 19237

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was yet dark when Waseche Bill opened his eyes and blinked sleepily into the small face that smiled down at him in the light of the flickering fire. The rich aroma of boiling coffee and the appetizing odour of bacon roused him to his senses and he grinned happily at the words of the boy:

"Come on, pardner, grub's ready! And you better fly at it, too. 'Cause if I know anything about it, we'll sure know we've done something by the time we get the outfit out of this hole."

Waseche glanced upward where the tiny stars winked coldly between the high walls of the gloomy gorge in which Sam Morgan's boy found himself held prisoner when the huge mass of ice detached itself from the side of the glacier and crashed into the canyon.

"Yo' sho's on the job, son-seem's if I jest got good an' asleep. What time is it?" he asked, as he crawled from beneath his robes.

"Six o'clock," answered the boy extending a cup of steaming coffee.

"Six o'clock! Sufferin' cats! Three hours till daylight-Ain't yo got no pity on the ol' man?"

"Old man, nothing!" grinned Connie over the rim of his tin cup. "But if you wait for daylight to come down into the bottom of this well, you will be an old man before you get out."

Breakfast over, the two packed the outfit and, without harnessing the dogs, pulled the sled to the foot of the barrier. Here it was unloaded and the pack made into bundles suitable for hoisting. The sled was the heaviest piece and the only one that offered a serious problem. It was decided that Connie should remain below and make the things fast, while Waseche climbed to the top and did the hoisting. A sling was rigged from a strip of old blanket, by means of which the dogs could be lifted, by passing it under their bellies and fastening it to the rope at their backs. When all was ready Waseche grasped the swaying babiche line, by means of which he had lowered himself the previous evening.

"Cain't grip nothin' with mittens on," he grumbled, as he bared his hands to the intense cold. Next moment he was pulling himself jerkily upward, hand over hand, while Connie Morgan stood below and watched the indistinct outline of the man who swayed and dangled above him, for all the world like a giant spider ascending a thread of invisible web.

The rope twitched violently as the man drew himself onto the top of the barrier, and a few minutes later the regular taps of his ice axe sounded, as Waseche chopped his "heel holts" as close to the edge as safety permitted. The tapping ceased and the voice of the man rolled and reverberated between the walls of the cistern-like chasm.

"All set, kid!"

"Haul away!" and immediately the bale containing the two sleeping bags swung clear of the snow and was drawn upward, spinning and bumping the ice wall. Other bales followed and soon there remained only the dogs and the sled. After many unsuccessful efforts to induce the wolf-dogs to submit to the unaccustomed sling, Connie hit upon the expedient of harnessing them to the sled, for even McDougall's finely trained dogs, like all malamutes, were wolves at heart and were trustworthy and tractable only in harness. This accomplished, they submitted readily enough and, beginning with the "wheel dogs," one at a time, Connie passed the sling about them and cast off the harness at the same time. Waseche hauled them, snarling and biting at the encircling band, up the face of the perpendicular wall. Old Boris and good-natured Mutt submitted without a growl of protest; but it was different with the untamed savage Slasher. During the whole unusual proceeding the suspicious wolf-dog had bristled and growled, and several times it was only by the narrowest margin that Connie succeeded in averting a tragedy, as Slasher leaped with flashing fangs toward a sled dog dangling helplessly from the rope's end. At last Slasher alone remained. The boy called him. He came, with hair abristle, stepping slowly and stiffly. His eyes glared red, and way back in his throat rumbled long, low growls.

"Come on! You can't bluff me-you old grouch, you!" laughed the boy, and stooping, slipped a heavy collar about his neck. Passing a running noose about the long pointed muzzle, he secured the free end to the collar, and to make assurance doubly sure, he tied a strip torn from the old blanket tightly about the dog's jaws, affixed the sling, and gave the signal.

It was not for his own protection that the boy thus muzzled Slasher. In all the Northland he was the only person who did not fear the wild, vicious brute, for he knew that rather than harm him the malamute would have allowed himself to be torn in pieces. But he feared for Waseche Bill when he came to release him. Despite the fact that he had lived with Waseche for a year, the dog treated him no whit differently than he treated the veriest stranger. To one person in all the world-and only one-the wolf-dog owed allegiance, and that person was Connie Morgan-the first and only creature of the hated man tribe who had used him with fairness.

Again the line was lowered and Connie, making his own line fast to the sled, grasped the loose end, seated himself in the loop of Waseche's, and gave the signal. Up, up, he rose, fending off from the wall with feet and hands. At length he reached the top and the strong arms of Waseche helped him over the edge. After a brief rest, both laid hold of the remaining line and hauled away at the sled. The pull taxed their combined strength to the utmost, but the heavy sled was up at last, and they stood free upon the top of the barrier.

Their labours had consumed the greater part of the day, and it was well after noon when they sat down to a hasty lunch of caribou charqui and suet.

"I would never have made it!" exclaimed the boy, thoughtfully, as his eyes travelled over the perpendicular walls of the yawning chasm. "Put her there, pardner," he said, gravely extending his hand toward Waseche. The man grasped the small, mittened hand and wrung it hard:

"Sho' now! Sho' now!" he protested hastily. "Yo' mout of." But the boy noticed that Waseche turned from the place with a shudder.

The work of packing the outfit down into the canyon occupied the remainder of the day and that night they camped at the foot of the barrier, where Waseche had left his own outfit.

"Now for Ten Bow! I sure do love every log and daub of chinking in that cabin. When fellows own their own home-like we do-when they built it with their own hands, you know-a fellow gets homesick when he's away-'specially if he's all alone. Didn't you get homesick, too, pardner?"

Waseche Bill dropped the harness he was untangling, and stepping to the boy's side, laid a big hand upon the small shoulder:

"Yes, kid," he answered, in a soft voice, "I be'n homesick every minute I be'n gone. An' that night-jest befo' I left, I was homesickest of all. I thought it was the squa'h thing to do-but I've learnt a heap since, that I didn't know then. Tell me, son, if yo' love the cabin so, why did yo' come away? The claim was yo'n. I wrote it out that way a purpose." The clear grey eyes of the boy looked up into the man's face.

"Why-why, after you were gone, it-it wasn't the same any more. I-I hated the place. Maybe it's because I'm only a boy--"

"Yes," interrupted the man, speaking slowly, as if to himself. "Yo' only a boy-jest a little boy-an' yet-" his voice became suddenly husky, and he turned away: "Folks calls Sam Mo'gan unlucky!" He cleared his throat loudly, and again the big hand rested on the boy's shoulder:

"Listen, kid, I've had cabins befo' now-a many a one, on big creeks an' little-an' I've come off an' left 'em all, an' neveh a onct was I homesick. But this time I was-it was diffe'nt. Shucks, kid, don't yo' see? It takes mo'n jest a cabin to make-home."

Soon the outfits were ready for the trail.

"We sho' got dawgs enough," grinned Waseche, as he eyed the two teams; "McDougall's ten, eight of mine, an' them three of yo'n-we betteh mush, too, 'cause it takes a sight of feed fo' twenty-one dawgs. I 'lowed to run acrost meat befo' now-caribou, or moose, or sheep-but this heah Lillimuit's as cold an' dead as the outeh voids that the lecture felleh was tellin' about in Dawson. I got right int'rested in the place-till I come to find out it was too fah off to botheh about, bein' located way oveh back of the sun somewheahs."

At a crack of the whip, Waseche's dogs sprang into the lead, and McDougall's malamutes, with Connie trotting beside them, swung in behind. There was no wind, and in the narrow canyon sounds were strangely magnified. The squeak of sled runners on the hard, dry snow sounded loud and sharp as the creak of a windlass, and, as they passed the foot of the snow-covered sheep trail, the voice of Waseche boomed and reverberated unnaturally:

"Yondeh's the ol' sheep trail wheah I got out of the canyon. Neah's I c'n make out it ain't be'n used fo' mo'n a month. I tell yo' what-times is sho' hawd when the sheep pulls out of a country."

It was very cold. Toward midday the windings of the canyon allowed them occasional glimpses of the low-hung sun. It had a strange unfamiliar appearance, like a huge eye of polished brass, glaring coldly in a bright white light not its own. As each turn of the trail cut off his view, the boy glanced furtively at his partner and was quick to note the man's evident uneasiness. Mile after mile they mushed in silence. The fragmentary conversation of the earlier hours ceased, and each experienced a growing sense of exhaustion. The motionless air hung heavy and dead about them

. Its vitality was wanting, so that they were forced to breathe rapidly and concentrate their minds upon the simple act of keeping up with the dogs. Each was conscious of a growing lethargy that sapped his strength. Even the dogs were affected, and plodded mechanically forward with lowered heads and drooping tails.

They were approaching the cavern in which Connie had sought refuge from the blizzard. For several miles the boy had been wondering whether Waseche would camp at the cave. He hoped that he would. He was growing terribly sleepy and it was only by constant effort that he kept his eyes open, although they had been scarcely five hours on the trail. His head felt strangely light and hollow, and white specks danced before his eyes. He closed his eyes and the specks were red. They danced in the darkness, writhing and twisting like fiery snakes. He opened his eyes and held doggedly to his place beside the team. His mind dwelt longingly upon the soft, warm feel of his sleeping bag. The boy's nerves were tense and strained, so that his lips and eyelids twitched spasmodically, with a sting as of extreme cold.

As they drew nearer the mouth of the cavern he felt that he would scream aloud if Waseche did not halt. His gaze became fixed upon the broad back of his partner as he mushed beside his dogs, and he noted that the man walked with quick, jerky steps. He wondered vaguely at this, for it was not Waseche's way. This passing thought vanished, and again his mind reverted to the all-important question: would Waseche camp? He would ask him. He filled his lungs-then, suddenly the thought flashed through his brain: "I'm a piker! I won't ask him-I'll drop in my tracks first." The deep breath stung his lungs and he coughed-a sharp, dry cough that rasped his throat. The man turned at the sound and eyed him sharply.

"Keep yo' mouth shut! An' hurry-hurry!" The man's voice was low and hard, and he, too, coughed.

At the mouth of the cavern the dogs stopped of their own accord and lay down in harness. The boy noted this, and also that instead of waiting alert, with cocked ears and watchful eyes for a word of command, they lay with their pointed muzzles pressed close against the hard snow, as if fearing to move.

Swiftly and silently Waseche began to remove the harness from the dogs and Connie followed his example. As soon as a dog was released, instead of rolling about and ploughing and rooting his snout into the snow, he slunk quickly into the cave. The hitches were cast loose and sleeping bags, robes, grub, and frozen fish for the dogs were carried into the cavern. Waseche made another trip into the canyon while the boy sank down upon his rolled sleeping bag and stared stupidly at the dogs huddled together in the farther end of the cave, their eyes gleaming greenly in the darkness. A quarter of an hour later the man returned with a huge armful of gnarled, grubby brushwood that he had hacked from the crevices of the rocks. Near the entrance he built a small fire, filled the coffeepot with snow, and thawed some pemmican in the frying pan. He filled his pipe, threw a handful of coffee into the pot, and turned toward Connie. The boy had fallen asleep with his back against the ice wall. Waseche shook him gently:

"Wake up, son! Grub pile!" He stirred uneasily and opened his eyes.

"Let me alone," he muttered, sleepily, "I'm not hungry."

"Yo' got to eat. Heah's some hot coffee-jest climb outside of this, an' then yo' c'n sleep long as yo' like."

The hot liquid revived the boy and he ate some pemmican and bannock. Having finished, he spread his robes and unrolled his sleeping bag. Before turning in, however, he stepped to the door and looked out. He was surprised that it was yet daylight and the sun hung just above the shoulder of a sharp, naked peak. Again the white spots danced before his eyes, and he turned quickly:

"Look! Look at the sun!" he cried in a sudden panic. "One, two, three, four-look Waseche, I can't count 'em."

"Come away, kid," said the man at his side, pulling at his sleeve.

"But the suns! Look! Can you count them?"

"No, kid, we cain't count 'em." The man's voice was very low.

"But what is the matter? There is only one real sun! Where do they come from?"

"I do'no, I do'no. It's-we got to camp heah till-" He was interrupted by the boy:

"It's what?" he asked, bewildered.

"It's-I neveh seen it befo'-but I've hea'd tell-It's the white death. Heah, in the Lillimuit, an' some otheh places-nawth of the Endicotts, some say. Tonight-the flashin' lights, an' the blood-red aurora-tomorrow, a thousan' suns in the sky. They ain't no wind, an' the air is dead-dead, an' so cold yo' lungs'll crackle an' split if yo'r caught on the trail. We got to keep out of it, an' then-" His voice trailed into silence.

"And then what?" asked the boy, drowsily.

"I do'no, I do'no, kid-that depends."

Connie Morgan was awakened by the whimpering of dogs. In his ears was a strange sound like the hiss of escaping steam. He wondered, drowsily, how long he had slept, and lay for some moments trying to collect his senses. The sounds in the night terrified him-filled him with an unnamed dread. The strange hissing was not continuous, but broken and interrupted by a roaring crackle, like the sound of a burning forest. But there was no forest-only ice and snow, and the glittering peaks of ranges. With a trembling hand he raised the hood of his sleeping bag and peered cautiously out. To the boy's distorted imagination the whole world seemed on fire. The interior of the cave glowed dimly with a dull red light, while beyond the entrance the snow flashed brilliant lights of scarlet.

Connie Morgan "stared spellbound at the terrible splendour of the changing lights."

"Don't get scairt, son. It's only the aurora. It's like they said-Carlson, an' one or two mo' I've hea'd talk. The blood-red aurora in the night time, an' the thousan' suns in the day." Waseche's sleeping bag was close against his own, and the sound of his voice reassured the terrified boy. Together, in silence, they watched the awful spectacle. Red lights-scarlet, crimson, vermilion flashed upon the snow, and among the far-off peaks which stood out distinctly above the farther wall of the long stretch of canyon that their viewpoint commanded. Upon the green ice at the entrance to the cavern the lights showed violet and purple. The boy stared spellbound at the terrible splendour of the changing lights, while above the hiss and crackle of the aurora he could hear the whimpering and moaning of the terrified dogs. He shrank back into his sleeping bag, pulling the flap tight to keep out the awful sights and sounds, and lay for hours waiting for something to happen. But nothing did happen and when he awoke again it was day. The dogs had ceased to whine, and Waseche Bill was moving about in the cave. The man had hung a robe over the entrance, but around the edges Connie could see narrow strips of light. The air was oppressive and heavy. His head ached. The acrid smell of smoke permeated the interior of the cavern and Connie wriggled from his sleeping bag and, while Waseche busied himself with the coffee and bacon, he broke out a bale of fish for the dogs.

"Cut 'em down to half ration, son," warned the man, eyeing the scanty supply. "We got to get out of this heah Lillimuit-an' we got to get out on what we got with us. I don't reckon they's a livin' critteh in the whole blame country, 'cept us, an' we got to go easy on the grub."

"I heard a fox bark the other night," ventured the boy.

"Yo' won't get fat on fox bahks," grinned the man, "an' that's all the clost yo' even get to 'em. Outside of white goats, them foxes is about the hah'dest vahmint to get a shot at they is."

"Aren't we going to hit the trail?" asked the boy in evident surprise, when, after breakfast, instead of packing the outfit, Waseche lighted his pipe and stretched out on a robe.

"Not this day, we ain't," replied the man; "An' me'be not tomorrow-if the wind don't come. Do yo' know how fah we'd get today?"

"How far?"

"I do'no-a hund'ed steps, me'be-me'be half a mile-'twouldn't be fah."

"Tell me what's the matter, Waseche. What's going to happen? And why have you closed up the door?"

"It's the white death," answered the man in an awed tone. "Nothin' won't happen if we stay inside. I've hea'd it spoke of, only I somehow-I neveh believed it befo'. As fo' the robe-hold yo' breath an' peek out through that crack along the aidge. Hold yo' breath, mind-don't breathe that air!"

Connie filled his lungs and drew back the edge of the robe. Instantly his face seemed seared by the points of a million red-hot needles. He scarcely noticed the pain, for he was gazing in awestruck wonder where a thousand suns seemed dancing in the cloudless sky. As upon the previous day, the air was filled with dancing white specks, and the suns glared with a glassy, yellow brightness. They looked wet and shiny, but their light seemed no brighter than the light of a single sun. No blue sky was visible, and the mountain peaks, even the nearer ones, were nowhere to be seen. The whole world seemed enveloped in a thick haze of sickly yellow.

He let go the edge of the robe and drew back from the opening.

"Gee whiz! but it's cold," he exclaimed, rubbing his stinging cheeks. "How cold is it, pardner?" For answer Waseche shifted his position, reached swiftly beneath the bottom of the robe, and withdrew from the outside a small spirit thermometer which he held up for the boy's inspection. It was frozen solid!

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