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Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 13954

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Waseche Bill and his little partner followed blindly the directions upon Carlson's map, which led them across snow as trackless and unscarred as the day it fell.

"Fr. C 3 N 3d. to FLAT MT. C 2 on rock-ledge at flagpole," read the directions on the map found in the cache, which was the exact reverse of the directions in the notebook which read: "Fr. FLAT MT. C 2. S 3d. to C 3. in spruce grove at igloo." The man had carefully mapped his trail as he proceeded, and then reversed the notes for the benefit of any chance backtrailer.

So far, the trail of Carlson was but a projection of their own trail in search of the Tatonduk divide, and for two days they mushed steadily northward, skirting the great range that lay to the westward. To the north-east and east, as far as the eye could reach, stretched vast level snow barrens, and to the southward rolled the low-lying foothills toward the glacier-studded range which was still visible, its jagged peaks flashing blue-white in the distance. Hour after hour they threaded in and out among the foothills, avoiding the deeper ravines, and with tail rope and gee pole working the outfit across coulees.

Toward evening of the third day, both Connie and Waseche scanned the range eagerly for a glimpse of the flat mountain, but the early winter darkness settled about them without the sight of a mountain that could, by any stretch of imagination, be called "flat."

"Prob'ly we-all ah mushin' sloweh than what he done," ventured Waseche, as he peered into the gloom from the top of a rounded hill. "I hate to camp, an' I hate to mush on an' pass the landmahk in the dahk. It's mo' or less guesswo'k, followin' a cold trail. Landmahks change some, an' even if they don't, the time of yeah makes a diffe'nce, an' then, things looks diffe'nt to one man from what they look to anotheh. Likewise, things looks diffe'nt nights, than daytimes. Of co'se, a flat mountain couldn't hahdly look like nothin' else but a flat mountain nohow, but yo' cain't tell--"

"I'm sure we haven't passed it," interrupted the boy.

"No, we ain't passed it. What's pestehin' me is, did Carlson know whetheh he mushed three days or ten? An' whetheh he c'd tell a flat mountain from a peaked one? I've saw fog hang so that eveh' mountain yo' seen looked flat-cut right squah acrost in the middle."

"Let's mush on for a couple of hours. There is light enough to see the mountains, and we might as well be lost one place as another." The man grinned at the philosophical suggestion.

"All right, kid. Keep yo' eyes peeled, an' when yo' get enough jest yelp an' we 'll camp."

Hour after hour they pushed northward among the little hills. The sled runners slipped smoothly over the hard, dry snow, and overhead a million stars glittered in cold brilliance against the blue-black pall of the night sky. And in all the vast solitude of the great white world the only living things were the fur-clad man and boy and the shaggy-coated dogs that drew the sleds steadily northward. Gradually it grew lighter and the stars paled before the increasing glow of the aurora. Broad banners flashed and waned in the heavens, and thin streamers of changing lights writhed and twisted sinuously, illuminating the drear landscape with a dull, uncanny light in which objects appeared strangely distorted and unreal.

Was it possible that other eyes had looked upon these cold, dead mountains? That other feet had trodden the snows of this forsaken world-waste? It seemed to the tired boy that they had passed the uttermost reach of men, and gazed for the first time upon a new and lifeless land.

They eased out of a ravine on a long slant, and at the top Connie halted McDougall's malamutes and waited for Waseche Bill, whose sled had nosed deep into the soft snow of a huge drift. The man wrenched it free and urged on his dogs, which humped to the pull and clawed their way to the top, sending little showers of flinty snow rustling into the ravine. As the boy started the big ten-team, the light grew suddenly brighter. The whole North seemed bathed in a weird, greenish glow. Directly before him a broad banner flashed and blazed, and in the bright flare of light, upon the very edge of the vast frozen plain, loomed a great white mountain whose top seemed sheared by a single stroke of a giant sword! The boy's heart leaped with joy.

"The flat mountain! It's here! It's here!" he cried, and up over the rim of the ravine rushed Waseche Bill, and in silence they gazed upon the welcome sight until the light disappeared in a final blaze of glory-and it was night.

Cache number two was easily located upon a shelf of rock before which a wind-whipped piece of cloth fluttered dejectedly at the top of a sapling firmly embedded in the snow. In spite of the increased confidence in Carlson's map, it was not without some trepidation that the partners set out the following day upon the second lap of the dead man's lonely trail.

"Fr. FLAT MT. C 2. DUE E 4d C 1 STONE CAIRN RT. BANK FORK OF RIV. FOL. RIV. N-E." were the directions upon the trail map pinned with a sliver to a caribou haunch. It had been well enough to skirt the great mountain range beyond which, to the westward, lay Alaska. It was quite another thing, however, to turn their backs upon this range and strike due east across the vast snow-covered plain which stretched, far as the eye could reach, as level as the surface of a frozen sea. For four days they must mush eastward across this white expanse, without so much as a hill or a thicket to guide-must hold, by compass alone, a course so true that it would bring them, at the end of four days, to a certain solitary rock cairn at the fork of an unnamed river. Even the hardened old tillicum, Waseche Bill, hesitated as the dogs stood harnessed, awaiting the word of command, and glanced questioningly into the upturned face of the small boy:

"It's a long shot, son, what do yo' say?" His answer was the thin whine of the boy's long-lashed dog whip that ended in a vicious crack at the ears of McDougall's leaders:

"Mush-u, mush-u, hi!" and the boy whirled the long ten-team away from the mountains, straight into the heart of the Lillimuit.

The crust of the snow that lay deep over the frozen muskeg and tundra was ideal for sled-travel and, of course, rendered unnecessary the use of snowshoes. All day long the steel-blue, cold fog hung in the north, obliterating the line of the flat horizon. The bitter wind that whipped and tore out of the Arctic died down at nightfall and, for the first time in their lives, the two felt the awful depression of the real Arctic silence. Mountain men, these, used to the mighty uproar of frost-tortured nature. The silence they knew was punctuated by the long crash of snow cornices as they tore loose from mountain crags and plunged into deep valleys to the roar of a riven forest; by the sudden boom of exploding trees; and the wild bellowing of lake ice, split from

shore to wooded shore in the mighty grip of the frost king.

But here, on the frozen muskeg, was no sound-only the dead, unearthly silence that pressed upon them like an all-pervading thing. Closer and closer it pressed, until their lungs breathed, not air-but silence-the dreaded, surcharged silence of the void-the uncanny silence that has caused strong men to leap, screaming and shrieking, upon it and, bare-handed, seek to wring its awful secrets from its heart-and then to fall back upon the snow and maunder and laugh at the blood stains where the claw-like nails have bitten deep into their palms-but they feel no pain and gloat foolishly-for to their poor, tortured brains this blood is the heart's blood of the Silence of the North.

On the fourth day the ground rose slightly from the low level of the muskeg. All day they traversed long, low hills-which were not hills at all, but the roll of the barren ground, and in the evening came upon the bank of the river, but whether above or below the fork they could not tell.

"We'll follow it down-nawthwahd-fo' that's what the map says, an' if we do miss the cache, we'll strike the Ignatook camp in two mo' days. We got grub enough if a stawm don't hit us. I sho' am glad we-all didn't get catched out yondeh." The man's eyes swept the wide expanse of barrens that lay between them and the distant peaks. "It's a good hund'ed an' fifty mile acrost them flats-we sho' was lucky!"

The ice-locked river upon which they found themselves was a stream of considerable size which flowed north, with a decided trend to the eastward. The muskeg and tundra had given place to the rocky formation of the barren lands which cropped out upon the banks of the river in rock reefs and ledges. Scrub trees and bushes in sickly patches fringed the banks, their leafless branches rattling in the wind.

An hour's travel on the snow-covered ice of the river brought them to a sharp bend where a river flowed in from the eastward, and there, almost at the confluence of the two streams, stood the solitary rock cairn, a monument some seven feet in height and five feet in diameter at its base.

"He didn't cache no great sight of meat heah," observed Waseche as, one by one, they removed the stones of the cairn. "We got a plenty, but I counted on this fo' the dawgs." Even as he spoke, they came upon a flat stone midway of the pile, which required their combined strength to displace. With a harsh, grating sound it slid sidewise into the snow, disclosing a considerable cavity, in the centre of which lay, not the expected cache of caribou meat, but a human skull, whose fleshless jaws grinned into their startled faces in sardonic mockery. Beside the skull lay a leaf torn from Carlson's notebook, and in Carlson's handwriting the words:


"Ol' mine tunnel! White Injuns!" exclaimed Waseche. "I tell yo' what, son: so fah, Carlson's maps has hit out, but when he begins writin' about white Injuns an' ol' mine tunnels, an' cachin' skull bones, 'stead of meat! It's jest as I tol' yo'! We-all got to keep on now, but I sho' wisht we'd neveh found Carlson an' his crazy maps."

"Whose skull do you suppose it is? And why did he cache it, I wonder?" asked Connie, as he handled gingerly the gruesome object.

"Seahch me!" said the man, glancing at the weather blackened skull. "Come on, le's mush."

As they advanced the surface of the surrounding land became more broken and the river descended rapidly in a series of falls, enclosed by the freezing spray, in huge irregular masses of green-hued ice, which impeded their progress and taxed to the utmost the skill of the drivers and the tricks of the trail-wise dogs in preventing the sleds from being dashed to pieces upon the slope of the ice domes, from whose hollow interiors came the muffled roar of the plunging falls.

The dogs were again on half ration, and even this was a serious drain upon the supply of meat. The walls of the river became higher until, on the second day, they were threading a veritable canyon. At noon the light dimmed suddenly, and the two gazed in surprise at the sun which glowed with a sickly, vapoury glare, while all about them the air was filled with tiny glittering frost flakes, which lay thick and fluffy under their feet and collected in diamond flashing clusters on the rocks and bushes of the canyon walls.

"It's snowing!" cried Connie, excitedly. "Snowing at forty below!"

"'Tain't snow, son. It's frozen fog, an' I cain't sense it. I c'n see how it might thick up an' snow, even at forty below, but fog! Doggone it! It takes wahm weatheh to make fog-an' it ain't wahm!"

Toggling the lead dogs, they selected a spot where the wall of the canyon was riven by the deep gash of a small feeder and climbed laboriously to the top for a better view of the puzzling phenomenon.

Scarcely a quarter of a mile ahead a great bank of fog ascended, rolling and twisting toward the heavens. Slowly it rose from out of the snow, spreading into the motionless air like a giant mushroom of glittering diamond points which danced merrily earthward, converting the whole landscape into a mystic tinsel world. Far to the westward the bank extended, winding and twisting like some great living monster.

"It's the creek of the steam!" cried Waseche Bill. "It's theah wheah Carlson's camp is." But, so entranced was the boy with the weird beauty of the scene, that he scarcely heard. He pointed excitedly toward a low hill whose sides were wooded with the scrub timber of the country, where each stunted tree, each limb and spiney leaf curved gracefully under its weight of flashing rime. Towers, battlements, and spires glinted in the brilliant splendour, for, out of the direct line of the fog bank that hung above the course of the narrow creek, the sun shone as clear and bright as the low-hung winter sun of the sub-Arctic ever does shine, and its slanting rays flashed sharply from a billion tiny facets.

"It's the frozen forest that he wrote about!" exclaimed the delighted boy. "It's the most beautiful thing in the world! Now, aren't you glad you came?" But Waseche Bill shook his head dubiously, and began the descent to the canyon.

"Why! Where are the dogs!" cried the boy, who was first upon the surface of the river. Waseche hurried to his side; sure enough, neither dogs nor sleds were in sight and the man leaped forward to examine the thick carpet of rime.

"The two partners stared open-mouthed at the apparition. The face was white!"

"It's Injuns!" he announced. "Nine or ten of 'em, an' they headed nawth!" And, even as he spoke, a grotesquely feathered, beaver-topped head appeared above a frost-coated rock, almost at his elbow, and the two partners stared open-mouthed at the apparition. The face was white!

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