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   Chapter 10 THE IGLOO IN THE SNOW

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 12471

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Now, kid," said Waseche Bill the following morning, "we got to make tracks fo' the Tatonduk. We got too many dogs, an' we got to cut down on the feed. I hate to do it-on the trail-but they's no two ways about it. Three or fo' days ort to put us at the divide. I made a cache the'h comin' in an' we'll be all right when we strike it."

The two stood in front of the cavern, breathing deeply of the clear, pure air. A stiff breeze was blowing from the south-west, and the day was warm and pleasant. The sun had not yet risen, and as the dogs swung into the trail Connie glanced at the little thermometer lashed firmly to the back of his sled. It registered twenty degrees below zero, an ideal temperature for trail travel and the boy cracked his whip and yelled aloud in the very joy of living.

At the mouth of the canyon they swerved in a north-westerly direction, toward the northernmost reach of the Ogilvie Range. All day they mushed across the wide caribou barrens and flat tundra that separated the great nameless range behind them from the high mountains to the westward that lay between them and Alaska. For, upon ascending the Tatonduk, they had passed out of Alaska into the unmapped Yukon district of sub-arctic Canada. Evening of the second day found them among the foothills of the mountains. Patches of stunted timber appeared and the lay of the land forced them to keep to the winding beds of frozen creeks and rivers. The end of the next day found them camped on the snow-covered ice of a small river. Waseche divided the few remaining fish, threw half of them to the dogs, and sat down beside the boy, who had prepared a meal of caribou charqui and coffee:

"Seems like this must be the creek-but I ain't sho'. I thought the one we tackled yeste'day was it, too-but it petered out on us."

"I don't know," replied Connie, "I thought I'd remember the back trail, but since the big snow everything looks different. And I was in an awful hurry to catch up with you, besides."

"Sho', kid, I know. I'd ort to took mo' pains myself, but I wasn't so pa'ticlah about gettin' back-then. Anyways, we'll try this one. We got to watch the grub now, fo' sho'. Them malamutes is hongry! Day afteh tomorrow, if we don't find the cache, we'll have to kill a dawg." Connie nodded.

"We'll find it, all right. This looks like the creek. Still, so do they all," he added reflectively.

The next day was a repetition of the day preceding. They followed the bed of the creek to its source in a narrow canyon which lost itself upon the steep side of a gigantic mountain. Wearily, they retraced their steps and once again among the foothills, turned to the northward.

"They's no dodgin' the truth, son," said Waseche gloomily, as they mushed on, scrutinizing the mouths of creeks in a vain endeavour to locate a landmark. "We're lost-jest na'chly plumb lost-like a couple of chechakos."

"The divide's somewhere," answered the boy, bravely. "We'll find it."

"Yes, it's somewhe'h. But how many thousan' of these creeks, all jest alike, do yo' reckon they is? An' how about grub?"

"I hate to kill a dog," the boy said.

"So do I, but the rest has got to eat. I know them wolf-dawgs; onct they get good an' hongry they'll begin tearin' one another up-then they'll lay fo' us-folks is meat, too, yo' know."

Night overtook them on a small wooded plateau and they camped in the shelter of a dense thicket of larch and stunted spruce. At the very edge of the thicket was a low white mound, its crown rising some three or four feet above the surrounding level. The sleds were drawn up at the foot of this mound, the dogs unharnessed, and, unslinging his axe, Waseche Bill went to the thicket for firewood, leaving Connie to unpack the outfit. The boy noted as he spread the robes that the mound was singularly regular, about twelve feet in diameter at the base and having evenly rounded sides-entirely different from the irregular ridges and spurs of the foothills.

"You're a funny little foothill," he murmured, "way off by yourself. You look lonesome. Maybe you're lost, too-in the big, white Lillimuit."

Waseche returned with the wood and lighted the fire while Connie tossed the last of the fish to the dogs. Supper was finished in silence, the fire replenished, and the two partners lay back on the robes and watched the little red sparks shower upward from among the crackling flames.

"We ain't the first that's camped heah," remarked Waseche, between noisy puffs at his pipe. "Yondeh in the thicket is stubs wheah fiahwood's be'n chopped-an' one place wheah consid'able poles has be'n cut. The axe mawks is weatheh-checked, showin' they was cut green. But it wasn't done this yeah-an' me'be not last."

"I wonder who it was? And what became of them? What did they want with poles?"

"Built a cache, me'be-mout of be'n a sled-but mo'n likely a cache. We'll projec' around a bit in the mo'nin'. Me'be we c'n find out who they was, an' wheah they was headin'. Me'be they'll be a trail map to some cache befo' this or to the divide."

"I hope we will find a cache. Then we wouldn't have to kill a dog."

Waseche's brow puckered judicially:

"Yes-we would. Yo' see, son, it's like this: We got mo' dawgs than is needful fo' a two-man outfit. If we was down to six dawgs, or even seven, an' one sled, an' they was weak or stahvin, then we could bust a fish cache-but to feed twenty-one dawgs-that ain't right. Likewise with ouah own grub-a man's supposed to take from anotheh man's cache jest so much as is needful fo' life; that is, what will get him to the neahest camp-not an ounce mo'. This is the unwritten law of the Nawth. An' a good law. Men's lives is staked on a cache-an' that's why when, onct in a while, a man's caught robbin' a cache-takin' mo'n what's needful fo' life, they ain't much time wasted. He gets-what's comin' to him."

The dogs had licked up the last crumbs of their scant ration and, burrowing into the snow, wrapped themselves snugly in their thick, bushy tails. Old Boris and Slasher dug their beds in the side of the mound near where Connie had spread his robes. The boy watched them idly as they threw the hard, dry snow behind them in volleys, and long after the o

ther dogs had curled up for the night, the sound of old Boris' claws rasping at the flinty snow could be heard at the fireside.

"Boris is digging some bed!" exclaimed the boy, as he glanced toward the tunnel from which emerged spurts of sand-like snow.

"He ain't diggin' no bed," answered Waseche. "He smells somethin'." Even as he spoke the snow ceased to fly, and seemingly from the depths of the earth, came the sound of a muffled bark. Instantly Slasher was on his feet growling and snarling into the tunnel from which the voice of old Boris could be heard in a perfect bedlam of barking.

"Oh! It's a cave! A cave!" cried Connie, pushing aside the growling wolf-dog. "Maybe it's the cache!"

Waseche Bill finished twisting a spruce twig torch. He shook his head dubiously:

"Come heah, Boris!" he called, sharply, "come out of that!" The old dog appeared, barking joyously over his discovery. Waseche Bill lighted his torch at the fire, and pushing it before him, wriggled into the opening. After what, to the waiting boy, seemed an age, the man's head appeared at the entrance, and he pulled himself clear.

"What is it?" inquired the impatient boy. "What did you find?"

The man regarded him gravely for a moment, and then answered, speaking slowly:

"Waseche Bill attacked the hard-packed snow with his axe."

"It's an igloo, son-an igloo buried in the snow. An' the'h's a man in the'h."

"A man!" cried the astonished boy.

"Yes, kid-it's Carlson. He's dead."

Tired as they were after a hard day on the trail, the two partners were unwilling to sleep without first making a thorough examination of the buried igloo. More firewood was cut, and by the light of the leaping flames Waseche Bill attacked the hard-packed snow with his axe, while Connie busied himself in removing the cakes and loose snow from the excavation. At the end of an hour a squared passageway was completed and the two entered the igloo.

"He had a plenty grub, anyways," remarked Waseche, as he cast an appraising eye over the various bags of provisions piled upon the snow floor. "He didn't stahve, an' it wasn't the red death (smallpox)-I looked pa'tic'lah, fo' I went out of heah."

Connie glanced at the body which lay partially covered by a pile of robes. The man's features were calm and composed-one could have fancied him asleep, had it not been for the marble whiteness of the skin. One by one, they examined all the dead man's effects; the little Yukon stove, half filled with ashes, the bags of provisions, his "war-bag"-all were carefully scrutinized, but not a map-not even a pencil mark rewarded their search.

"He's met up with Eskimos, somewhe'h," said Waseche, examining a rudely shaped copper pan in which a bit of wicking made from frayed canvas protruded from a quantity of frozen blubber grease.

Finally the two turned to the body. The coarse woollen shirt was open at the throat, and about the man's neck, they noticed for the first time, was a thin caribou skin thong. Cutting the thong Waseche removed from beneath the shirt a flat pouch of oiled canvas. Connie lighted the wick in the copper pan and together the two sat upon a robe and, in the guttering flare of the smoky lamp, carefully unwrapped the canvas cover. The packet contained only a battered pocket notebook, upon whose worn leaves appeared a few rough sketches and many penciled words.

"Yo' read it, kid. I ain't no hand to read much," said Waseche, handing the book to Connie, and his eyes glowed with admiration as the boy read glibly from the tattered pages.

"Tu'n to the last page an' wo'k back," suggested Waseche.

"January tenth-" began Connie. "Why, that was nearly a year ago! He couldn't have been dead a year!" His eyes rested on the white face of Carlson.

"A yeah, or a hund'ed yeahs-it's all the same. He's froze solid as stone, an' he'll stay like that till the end of time," replied the man, gravely.

"It says," continued the boy, "'Growing weaker. For two days no fire. Too weak. Pain gone, but cannot breathe. To-day'-That's all, it ends there."

"Noomony," laconically remarked Waseche. The preceding pages were devoted almost entirely to a record of the progress of the disease. The first notation was January third. Under the date of January fifth he wrote:

"I am afraid my time has come. If so, tell Pete Mateese the claims are staked on Ignatook-mine and his. See map in lining of parka. Maybe Pete is dead. He has been gone a year. He tried to go out by the Tatonduk. I can't find him. I can't find the divide. The Lillimuit has got me! They said it would-but the gold! It is here-gold, gold, gold-yellow gold-and it is all mine-mine and Pete Mateese's. But the steam! The stillness! The white, frozen forest-and the creeks that don't freeze! After Pete left things came in the night. It is cold-yet my brain is on fire! I can't sleep!"

This proved to be the longest entry; the man seemed to grow rapidly weaker. When the boy finished Waseche Bill shuddered.

"The Lillimuit got him," he said slowly. "He went marihuana." On the next page, under the date of January sixth, the boy read:

"We'ah lost, kid. It's a cinch we cain't find the divide."

"Made a cache here in timber. Growing weaker. Tomorrow I will turn back. Mapped the back trail. 2 caches-then the claims on Ignatook, the creek of the stinking steam. I will go out by the Kandik. I mapped that trail. It is shorter, but I must find Pete Mateese. I must tell him-the claims."

"Who is Pete Mateese? And where is Ignatook?" inquired the boy.

"Sea'ch me!" exclaimed Waseche. "I ain't neveh hea'd tell of eitheh one, an' I be'n in Alaska goin' on fo'teen yeah."

For an hour they studied Carlson's map, which they found as he had directed, concealed in the lining of his parka. Finally Waseche Bill looked up:

"We'ah lost, kid. It's a cinch we cain't find the divide if Carlson couldn't-he know'd the country. The thing fo' us to do is to follow Carlson's map to his camp, an' then on out by the Kandik. Neah's I c'n make out, it means about three or fo' hund'ed miles of trail-but we got to tackle it. Tomorrow we'll rest an' hunt up the cache-Carlson's past needin' it now. We sho' got hea'h jest in time!"

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