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   Chapter 11 ON THE DEAD MAN'S LONELY TRAIL

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 11931

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Connie Morgan pushed aside the flap of his sleeping bag and blinked sleepily into the blue-gray Arctic dawn. Far to the north-west, the thin rays of the belated winter sun pinked the edges of the ice god's chiselled peaks where the great white range guarded grimly the secrets of the man-feared Lillimuit.

The boy closed his eyes and pressed his face close against the warm fleece. Was it all a dream, he wondered vaguely-the crashing wall of the canyon-the trail of the white death-the blazing aurora-the search for the Tatonduk pass-the buried igloo, and the man who died? Were these things real? Or, was he still following the trail of Waseche Bill, with the unknown Lillimuit before him, and the men of Eagle behind?

Again his eyes opened and he chuckled aloud as he thought of the man called Joe, and Fiddle Face, and big Jim Sontag, and the others in the hotel at Eagle. It was not a dream. There, by the fire, was Waseche, the coffeepot was boiling with a low bubbly sound, and beyond was the round-topped igloo, its white side scarred by the sled-blocked entrance to the tunnel.

"What's so funny?" grinned Waseche as, frying pan in hand, he turned at the sound of the boy's laughter. "This heah mess we ah into ain't no joke, fah's I c'n see. Whateveh yo' laughin' at, anyhow?"

The boy wriggled from his sleeping bag and joined the man by the fireside, where the preparation of breakfast was well under way.

"Oh, nothing-I was just wondering what they thought, next morning-the men back in Eagle, who wouldn't let me come to you."

"Me'be it w'd be'n betteh if yo' hadn't of," answered the man, with a glance toward the towering snow peaks.

"Well, it wouldn't!" flashed the boy; "and, you bet, it would take more than just saying so to hold me back! You know you're glad I came-Anyway, I did come, and I'd rather be lost here, with you, than own the best claim on Ten Bow, and go it alone. You and I are going to beat the Lillimuit, pardner, and even Carlson couldn't do that!"

"No, he couldn't," agreed the man, eyeing the boy proudly. "An' theh's plenty othehs, too, that's tried it. Some come back-but, mostly, they didn't. Carlson, in theh-he was a man-he died huntin' up his pahdneh. I wondeh how much of a strike they made oveh on this heah Ignatook?"

"It must be something big. The notebook said there was lots and lots of gold--"

"Yeh-an' it said they was creeks that don't freeze-an' frozen fohests-an' things that come in the night-an' steam. Yo' see, kid, Carlson was too long alone. It's boun' to get a man-the big, white country is-if he stays too long from his kind. It gets 'em with its flashin', hissin' lights, an' the roah of shiftin' ice-but, most of all, with its silence-the dead, awful stillness of the land of frozen things. It gets 'em in heah"-he pointed significantly to his forehead. "Somethin' goes wrong, sometimes all of a sudden-sometimes gradual-but, it's all the same-they might betteh died.

"But, come on, let's eat, an' then hunt up Carlson's cache. I sho' hope he was all theah when he made that map, 'cause, if he wasn't, yo' an' me is in fo' a hahd winteh. Rampsin' th'ough the Lillimuit followin' a crazy man's map ain't no Sunday school picnic-not what yo' c'n notice-an' when we-all come to the end of the trail, we'll know we be'n somewheahs."

The cache was easily located near the centre of the thicket. It was a rude crotch and pole affair, elevated beyond reach of prowling animals. A couple of blows from Waseche's axe brought the structure crashing into the snow, and they proceeded to cut the lashings of the caribou skins that served as tarpaulins.

"Theah's meat a plenty wheah he come from. Look at them quahte's of caribou, an' the hides."

"He didn't need to go to so much trouble with his cache. There is nothing here to bother it."

"How about the foxes-an' wolves, too? Wheah theah's caribou theah's wolves. An' how about his dawgs?"

"That's so!" exclaimed Connie. "I wonder what became of the dogs? And where is his sled?"

"Sled's undeh the snow, somewheahs-dawgs, too, me'be-'less they pulled out. It's owin' to what kind they was. Malamutes would of tu'ned wolf, an' when they found they couldn't bust the cache, they'd of hit out fo' the caribou heahd. Hudson Bays an' Mackenzie Riveh dawgs w'd done sim'lah, only they'd stahved to death tryin' it. An' mongrels, they'd of jest humped up an' died wheah they happen' to be standin'."

In addition to several saddles of caribou venison, the cache contained coffee, flour, salt, a small bottle of saccharin, and three bags of fish for the dogs. Bound securely to the coffee bag was a rough map of the trail to the preceding cache, which Carlson had numbered 2, and they lost no time in comparing it with the notebook which Connie produced from his pocket.

"He wasn't plumb loco, anyhow," remarked Waseche, with a deep breath of relief. "His maps checks up all right, an' a crazy man couldn't make two maps hit out the same to save him, I don't reckon. Anyhow, I'm glad we found this otheh one. Neah's I c'n make out, it's three days to the next cache, an' me'be the'll be anotheh map to check up with."

The remainder of the forenoon was spent in packing the supplies to the camp, and at noon the two made a prodigious dinner of fresh caribou venison, thawed out and broiled over the smokeless larch coals.

"The dawgs is ga'nted up some consid'ble, s'pose we jest feed twict today. They be'n on half ration since we-all left the canyon. 'Tain't good policy to feed malamutes twict, an' if we don't hit it out right to the next cache, we'll wisht we hadn't, but, somehow, findin' that last map kind of clinched it with me. Whad'yo say, pahdneh?"

Connie glanced at the brutes lying about in the snow apparently uninterested in the saddles of venison and bags of fish piled near the camp fire. Only Mutt, the huge mongrel "wheel dog" of Connie's own team, whimpered and sniffed at the newly fou

nd food, for Mutt lacked the stoicism of the native dogs of the North, who knew that feed time was hours away. The boy regarded them with judicious eye and pondered his partner's proposition gravely.

"Well, we might try it, just this once. They do look a little gaunt and ribby," and the boy smiled broadly as he broke out a bag of fish; for the same thought had been in his own mind for an hour and he had been just on the point of broaching it to Waseche, at the risk of being thought a chicken-hearted chechako.

Connie returned to the fire as the dogs gnawed and snarled at their unexpected meal. There was plenty of coffee, now, and while the boy tossed the grounds onto the snow and refilled the pot, Waseche Bill whittled a pipe of tobacco, and stretched lazily upon his robe in the warmth of the crackling flames.

"We-all must bury him decent," he began, with a nod toward the igloo, as they sipped at the black coffee. "An' we must remembeh that name, Pete Mateese, the man he was huntin' fo'. If he's alive, he'd like to know. He was his pa'dneh, I reckon. Seems like, from what the book says, he neveh know'd about the strike." The man's eyes roved for a moment over the distant peaks, and he continued: "It's too bad we cain't dig no reg'lar grave fo' him, but it would take a good week to thaw out the ground, an' them fish ain't goin' to hold out only to the next cache. But I know anotheh way that's good, heah. The rock wall yondeh shades the igloo so it won't neveh melt; leastwise, it ain't apt to. Las' summeh's sun neveh fazed it 'cept to sog it down all the mo' solid. We'll give him a coffin of ice, an' his igloo fo' a tomb of snow. I'd a heap sooneh have it that-a-way than like them ol' king of Egyp's, that's buried in the stone pyramids out on the aidge of the desert, somewheahs. I seen one, onct, in the dime museum in Chicago. Ferry O'Tolliveh, his name was, I recollect, an' the man that run the place give a consid'able lecture about him. Seems like he was embalmed, they call it, which means he was spiced an' all wrapped up in, I think he said it was a mile an' three-quahtehs of bandages, anyhow, they was a raft of 'em, 'cause I counted mo'n a hund'ed layehs of cloth wheah they'd cut th'ough to get to his face. Which it must of be'n a heap of wo'k without they put him in a lathe; anyways, theah he was, afteh bein' dead mo'n two thousan' yeahs!

"The man said how the embalmin' of them ol' Egyp' undehtakehs is a lost aht, an' I reckon, afteh takin' a look at Mr. Ferry O'Tolliveh, fo'ks is glad it is. He looked like the bottom row of a kit of herring. The man said his mummy was theah, too, but I didn't stop fo' to look at her-I seen all I wanted of the O'Tollivehs from lookin' at Ferry, but him bein' the only king I eveh seen, I'm glad I done it, even if he hadn't kep' well.

"Now, with Carlson, heah, it will be diffe'nt. He'll be jest the same two thousan' yeahs from now as he is today, an' was the day he died. Ice is ice, an' if it don't melt it'll stay ice till the crack of doom."

The two set about the work with a will. The provisions were carried outside, the dead man's effects ranged about the base of the circular wall, and his robes spread in the centre of the igloo upon the hard-packed floor of snow. The body was wrapped in its blankets and laid upon the robes, and Connie Morgan and Waseche Bill gazed for the last time upon the face of Carlson, the intrepid man of the North who, like hundreds of others, lured by the call of gold, braved the unknown terrors of the silent land to pass for ever from the haunts of man. There was that in the strong, clean-cut features of the bearded face to make them pause. Here was a man! A man who, in the very strength and force of him, pushed beyond the barriers, defied the frozen desert, and from her ice-locked bosom tore the secret of the great white wilderness; and then, in the bigness of his heart, turned his back upon the goal of his heart's desire and faced death calmly in vain search for his absent partner.

"The boy's lips moved in prayer, the only one he had ever learned."

Instinctively, the small boy removed his cap and dropped to his knees beside the dead man, and opposite him, awkwardly, reverently, with bared head, knelt Waseche Bill. The boy's lips moved and in the cold, dead gloom of the snow igloo, his voice rang high and thin in the words of the only prayer he had ever learned:

"Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

"Amen."

"Amen," repeated Waseche Bill huskily, and together they left the igloo.

Blocks were cut from the surface of the hard crusted snow and packed closely about the body. Snow was melted at the fire and the blocks soaked with water, which froze almost instantly, cementing the whole into a solid mass of opaque ice. In the same manner, the igloo was sealed, and the body of Carlson was protected both from the fangs of prowling beasts and the ravages of time. From the trunk of a young spruce, Waseche Bill fashioned a rude cross, into which Connie burned deep the name:

SVEN CARLSON

DIED JAN. 10-19-.

The cross was planted firmly and, having completed the task to their satisfaction, the two ate supper in silence and sought their sleeping bags.

Dogs were harnessed next morning by the little light of the stars, and long before the first faint streak of the late winter dawn greyed the north-east, the outfit swung onto the trail-the year-old trail of Carlson, the man who found gold.

Before passing from sight around a point of the spruce thicket, they halted the sleds for a last look at the solitary igloo. There, in the shifting glow of the paling aurora, the little cross stood out sharp and black against its unending background of dead white snow, and below it showed the rounded outline of the low mound that was the fitting sepulchre of this man of the North.

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