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   Chapter 17 THE SNOW TRAIL

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 17075

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The situation faced by Connie Morgan, Waseche Bill, and O'Brien when they headed westward across the snow-ridden bench of the Lillimuit, was anything but encouraging. Before them, they knew, lay Alaska. But how many unmapped miles, and what barriers of frozen desert and insurmountable mountains interposed, they did not know; nor did they know the location of the Kandik, the river by which Carlson had returned to the land of men. For Carlson's trail map lay hidden in the pocket of O'Brien's discarded trousers in an igloo in the village of the White Indians, and upon their own worth must the three win-or die.

There was no turning back now. No returning to the Ignatook to face starvation and the melting of the snow, for the solitary Indian who witnessed their departure had dashed to the village, bearing the information to his tribe.

If O'Brien were right in his conjecture that the Indians would not venture into the open in a storm, there would, in all probability, be several days in which to escape, for Arctic storms are rarely of short duration. This seeming advantage, however, was offset by the fact that, at best, the storm would seriously impede their own progress, and at worst-well, if the worst happened, it would make no smallest particle of difference whether the White Indians picked up their trail soon, or late.

After the first fierce rush had passed, the storm lulled and settled into a steady drive of wind-hurled pellets that cut the thick air in long, stinging slants. The dry, shot-like particles burned and bit at the faces of the three, and danced and whirled merrily across the hard surface of the snow to drift deep against obstructions. The dogs were in fine condition, well fed, and thoroughly rested during the days of inactivity, and they strung out to the pull with a will. The trail was fast. The hard crust of the old snow gave excellent footing and the three heavily loaded sleds slipped smoothly and steadily in the wake of Waseche Bill, who piloted the expedition at a long, swinging trot, with Connie and O'Brien running beside their respective sleds.

It was well past noon when the start was made, and the thick gloom of a starless night settled upon the storm-swept bench as the little cavalcade reached O'Brien's "bit av a mountain," and swung into the shelter of the thicket upon its lee side. The dogs were unharnessed and fed, a fire lighted, and a snug camp sprang into existence under the deft movements of the experienced tillicums.

"'Tis a foine shtar-rt we've made," said O'Brien, as he poured melted suet over the caribou steak upon his tin plate, "but they'll be lookin' f'r us here, f'r they've dhrug me out av th' scrub on this hill a full dozen av toimes."

"We'll hit the trail at daylight," answered Waseche Bill.

"Ut slues to th' Narth a bit from here. Oi've thr-ravelled th' nixt tin moile or so, but beyant that Oi've niver be'n able to git."

All night the hard, dry snow fell, and all night the wind swept out of the North with a low, monotonous roar. By the light of the flaring fire they breakfasted, and at the first hint of dawn again took the trail. A dreary scene confronted the little party that pulled heavily out of the sheltered thicket. All about them was the whirling, driving whiteness, and beneath their feet the loose, dry snow shifted and they sank ankle deep into the yielding mass. The sleds pulled hard, so that the dogs clawed for footing, and the snowshoes were placed conveniently upon the top of the packs, for soon the rackets would be necessary in the fast deepening snow.

O'Brien insisted that the trail "slued to the Narth a bit," and as there was nothing for it but to follow the Irishman's vague direction, Waseche changed the course, a proceeding that added materially to the discomfort of the journey, as it forced them to travel more nearly into the teeth of the wind. At noon a halt was made for luncheon and a brief rest in the shelter of the close-drawn sleds. During the last hour the character of the storm had changed and the wind whipped upon them in veering gusts that struck furiously from every point of the compass at once. The snow, too, changed, and the hard, dry pellets gave place to a fine, powdery snow-dust that filled the eyes and nostrils and worked uncomfortably beneath the clothing. Snow-shoes were fastened on, and with lowered heads and muffled faces the three headed again into the unknown.

With the coming of darkness, they camped at the fork of a frozen river where a sparse growth of stunted willow gave promise of firewood and scant shelter. They were in a new world, now-a world, trackless and unknown, for during the afternoon they had passed beyond O'Brien's farthest venture and the Irishman was as ignorant of what lay before them as were Connie and Waseche Bill, who knew only that they were in the midst of a trackless void of seething snow, with the White Indians behind them and Alaska before-and all about them, death, grim and silent, and gaunt-death that stalked close, ready on the instant to take its toll, as it had taken its toll from other men who had braved the Lillimuit and never again returned.

"She's a reg'lah blizzahd, now," remarked Waseche, as he lighted his pipe with a brand from the camp-fire. "Any otheh time, we'd lay by an' wait fo' it to weah down-but, we dastn't stop."

"The Indians will never pick up our trail when this storm quits," ventured Connie.

"No-'ceptin' they're wise that we-all tuck out this-away, havin' followed O'Brien almost this fah befo'."

"Aye-her-re, or her-re abouts," assented the Irishman, "we nade an-nyways wan mor-re day av thrailin' before we hole up, an' me'be be that toime th' star-rm will be wor-re out."

On the morning of the third day they again started in the dull grey of the dawn. Waseche, with lowered head, bored through the white smother that surrounded them like a wall of frozen fog. The dogs, still in good heart, humped bravely to the pull, and Connie and O'Brien, with hands clutching the tail-ropes of the sleds, followed blindly. On and on they plodded, halting at intervals only long enough to consult the compass, for with nothing to sight by, they held their course by the aid of the needle alone.

Suddenly Connie's sled stopped so abruptly that the boy tripped and sprawled at full length beside its canvas-covered pack, while behind him, Waseche's leaders, in charge of O'Brien, swerved sharply to avoid the savage fangs of Slasher-for the wolf-dog knew his kind-he knew that, once down, a man is meat, and the moment the boy fell helpless into the snow, the great, gaunt brute surged back in the traces, jerking old Boris and Mutt with him, and stood guard over the prostrate form of his master, where he growled defiance into the faces of the dogs of the following team. Scrambling hastily to his feet, Connie was joined by O'Brien and together they stumbled forward where McDougall's big ten-team had piled up in a growling, snapping tangle upon the very brink of a perpendicular precipice. For the leaders had leaped back from the edge so suddenly that they fouled the swing dogs which, with tooth and nail, and throaty growl, were protesting against the indignity.

"Where's Waseche!" The voice of the boy cut high and thin above the roar of the storm-choked wind, and O'Brien ceased abruptly his endeavour to straighten out the fighting malamutes. He stumbled hastily to the boy's side, but Waseche was no place to be seen, and upon the verge of the chasm, the overhanging snow-rim was gouged deep and fresh with a man-made scar.

The dogs were forgotten, and for a long moment the two stood peering over the edge, striving to penetrate the writhing whirl of snow-powder that filled the yawning abyss-but the opaque mass gave no hint of the depth or extent of the chasm. Again and again they shouted, but their voices were drowned in the bellow of the wind, and to their ears was borne no faintest answering call.

To Connie Morgan it seemed, at last, he had come to the end of the trail. A strange numbness overcame him that dulled his senses and paralyzed his brain. His mind groped uncertainly.... Waseche was gone! He had fallen over the edge of the cliff and was lying at the bottom-and they would find him there-the men who were to come-and himself and O'Brien they would find at the top-and the dogs were all tangled-and it would be better, now, to sleep. No-they must push on-they were on the trail.... Where were they going? Oh, yes, to Alaska-back to Te

n Bow, and the cabin, and the claim! But they couldn't go on.... This was the end.... They had come to the place where the world breaks off-and Waseche had fallen over the edge.

The boy gazed stupidly into the milky, eddying chaos. It looked soft, down there-like feathers, or the meringue on pie. It is a good place to fall, he thought, this place where the world stops-you could fall, and fall, and fall, and you wouldn't have to light-and it would be fun. The Lillimuit was a funny place, anyway-"the country where men don't come back from," Joe had said, that night-back there in the hotel at Eagle. Carlson didn't come back--

"Why, Carlson's dead!" he cried so sharply that, at his side, O'Brien started.

"Sur-re, b'y, he's dead-but-" The man's voice aroused him as from a dream. His brain cleared, and suddenly he realized that Waseche Bill was lost-was even then lying wounded-probably dead, at the bottom of the cliff. With a low, choking sob, the boy whirled on O'Brien, who jumped at the sharp word of command:

"Get the ropes! Quick! While I unharness the dogs!" The Irishman sprang to the rear sled where two forty-foot coils of babiche line lay ready for just such an emergency, while Connie sprang among McDougall's tangled malamutes, slashing right and left with his coiled whiplash. At the sudden attack the dogs ceased fighting and cowered whimpering while the boy slipped their collars, and by the time O'Brien returned with the lines, Connie was ready for the next move.

"Work the sled closer-crossways! Crossways-so she'll hold!" he cried, as he knotted the lines securely together and made an end fast about his body.

"Brace against the sled, now, and lower away!"

"Phwat ye goin' to do?" asked the man, eyeing the line.

"Do! I'm going after Waseche, of course--"

"But, ye don't know how daype ut is-an' th' rope moight bre'k!"

"What difference does that make?" cried the boy. "If the rope won't reach-we'll make it reach! We'll splice on the harness, and the blankets, and the tarps, and the robes, and whatever else we can lay our hands on-and if it don't reach then, we'll kill the dogs! I'll get my pardner out of there if I have to kill every dog in the outfit and use their hides. And if the rope breaks-I'll be where Waseche is, anyway!"

"Without waiting for a reply, Connie slipped softly over the edge."

Without waiting for a reply, the boy seated himself in the snow and slipped softly over the edge. Slowly he descended into the riot of whirling snow, while above him, O'Brien, with heels braced against the runners of the heavy sled, carefully paid out the line. Down, down, he went, scraping and bumping against the wall. It seemed to the impatient boy as though each moment he must reach the end of his rope-surely, he had descended eighty feet! But on he went, down, down, down-and then, when the suspense was becoming almost unbearable, his feet touched bottom, and he stood upright upon the snow. And, above, O'Brien felt the line go slack, and heaved a great sigh of relief as he glanced at the scant six feet of rope that remained.

Jagged rock-slivers protruded from the snow, here and there, at the base of the cliff, and Connie shuddered as he gazed about him. Suddenly he cried out, and plunged to the end of his line, for there, close beside a huge block of stone, he made out a dark blur on the white surface of the snow-it was the back of a fur parka!

The next instant, the boy was kneeling beside the inert form of Waseche Bill. Frantically he pulled and hauled at the man until at length he succeeded in turning him upon his back, and then it was he noticed the leg doubled curiously beneath him. Very gently Connie laid hold of the foot and drew it into position beside the other, and as the leg straightened out he could feel the grating rasp of bone on bone-the leg was broken!

His first thought was to arouse the unconscious man, but instead he began swiftly to remove the rope from about his own body and fasten it firmly under Waseche's armpits.

"If I wake him up now, it will hurt like thunder when O'Brien hauls him up," he muttered, as he gave the three quick jerks to the line that had been the agreed signal to "haul away." The next moment the rope went taut, and slowly, very slowly, the inanimate form lifted and swung clear of the snow.

O'Brien was a big man-and a strong one. But for the next few minutes he had his work cut out.

"He's found um!" he panted, as he paused to rest, with the rope wrapped tightly about his arm. "Sur-re, th' b'y's niver as heavy as that-an', be jabbers! Oi belayve th' two av thim's cumin' up to wanst."

At length Waseche's body wedged against the edge of the cliff and O'Brien, making the line fast to the heavy sled, dragged the unconscious form clear, and weighting the line with an ice ax, lowered it into the chasm. Five minutes later the boy scrambled over the rim, and dropped to his knees beside the inert form in the snow.

"Get up the shelter tarp-quick!" he ordered, as he scraped the loose snow from a wide space near the sled and, rummaging in his pack, produced a quantity of grease-soaked moss and a bundle of dry firewood.

"His leg's broken, and we've got to set it," he explained, as a tiny flame flared in the shelter of the wide tarpaulin, and he proceeded to remove the man's mukluk and heavy socks.

"Ye'll fr-reeze his leg!" exclaimed O'Brien, in alarm.

"Can't help it-we've got to take a chance. He'll die, or be crippled for life if we don't set it-so here goes!"

The foot was badly swollen, and midway between the ankle and the knee was a great bluish-green bruise where the leg had struck the rock at the foot of the cliff. The blow had broken both bones, and the overlapping ends made an unsightly bunch upon the side of the leg. Deftly and skilfully the boy's fingers explored the hurt.

"We've got to pull 'em by and snap 'em into place," he explained. "I know how-we set Newt Boyer's legs, in Ten Bow, when a log rolled on him."

Again they made the line fast beneath the man's shoulders, and bound him firmly to the loaded sled. O'Brien seized hold of the foot and, bracing himself in the snow, pulled for all he was worth, while Connie pressed against the bone ends with his palms.

"Pull! Pull-can't you!" urged the boy. "Only a quarter of an inch more and they'll click-and the job will be done!" But O'Brien was pulling, and although he strained and tugged to the very limit of his strength, the ends still overlapped. Suddenly the boy leaped to his feet.

"Swing those dogs in here!" he cried, pointing to Waseche's team that remained still harnessed. "A little farther! Woah! That'll do-now, wait!" Swiftly he stooped, and with a few quick turns, bound the injured foot tightly to the back of the sled.

"Now, pull up-easy, at first-don't jerk! That's right!" he cried, as the leg stretched taut, "now, make 'em pull!"

Again the boy dropped to his knees and worked rapidly with his fingers, while under O'Brien's urging Waseche's malamutes humped and clawed as they pulled. There was a slight click, as the bone-ends snapped into place, and the Irishman heard the delighted voice of the boy:

"Woah! She's set! She's set! Ease off, now, and hand me the splints!"

The splints, rudely split from pieces of firewood, were applied and held in place by strips torn from the tarp, a blanket was wrapped about the injured member, and the patient made as comfortable as possible beside the fire in the lee of the shelter tarp. But it was an hour later before Waseche Bill opened his eyes and gazed inquiringly about him.

"What happened?" he asked, as a sharp pain caused him to stare in surprise toward his blanket-swathed leg.

"Sur-re, ye walked over th' edge av a clift, an' lit on th' rocks, a mather av siventy feet below-an' th' b'y, here, wuz over an' afther yez befoor ye lit. Yer leg's bruk squar-re in two, but th' lad set ut loike an-ny docther c'd done-an' bether thin most."

"O'Brien helped!" interrupted Connie.

"Aye, a bit. An' so did the dogs. But, th' b'y-he wuz th' captain. Ye sh'd o' seed um shlip over th' edge on th' ind av his thread av a loine, into th' whirlin' scather av shnow, when ye c'd see nayther bottom nor soides. 'Oi'm a-goin afther Waseche!' he says-An' he done so."

"O'Brien pulled you up," said the boy, as Waseche leaned over and grasped the small hand in his own big one. He spoke no word, but in the pressure of the mighty hand-grasp the boy read the man-sign of tillicums.

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