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   Chapter 19 ON THE KANDIK

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 12060

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


To the conqueror of far places comes disaster in many guises-to the sailor who sails the uncharted seas, and to the adventurer who pushes past the outposts into the unmapped land of the long snow trails. For the lone, drear lands are lands of primal things-lands rugged and grim, where life is the right of the strongest and only the fit survive.

Men die when ships, in the grip of the fierce hurricane, are buried beneath crashing waves or dashed against the rocks of a towering cliff; and men die in blizzards and earthquakes and in the belching fire of volcanoes and amid the roar and smoke of burning forests-but these men expect to die. They match their puny strength against the mighty fury of the elements and meet death gladly-or win through to glory in the adventure. Such battles with the giants of nature strike no horror to the hearts of men-they are recounted with a laugh. Not so the death that lurks where nature smiles. Calm waters beneath their sparkling surface conceal sharp fangs of rock that rip the bottom from an unsuspecting ship; a beautiful mirage paints upon the shimmering horizon a picture of cool, green shade and crystal pools, and thirst-choked men are lured farther into the springless desert; the smooth, velvety surface of quicksand pits and "soap-holes" beguiles the unsuspecting feet of the weary traveller; and the warm Chinook wind softens the deep snow beneath a smiling winter sky. In all these things is death-a sardonic, derisive death that lurks unseen and unsuspected for its prey. But the claws of the tiger are none the less sharp because concealed between soft pads. And the men who win through the unseen death never recount their story with a laugh. These men are silent. Or, if they speak at all, it is in low, tense tones, with clenched fists, and many pauses between the words, and into their eyes creeps the look of unveiled horror.

Connie Morgan, Waseche Bill, and O'Brien laboriously worked the outfit down the steep trail that led from the divide to the snow-buried surface of the Kandik. The distance, in an air line, was possibly three miles-by the steep and winding caribou trail it was ten. And each mile was a mile of gruelling toil with axe and shovel and tail-rope and brake-pole, for the snow lay deep upon the trail which twisted and doubled interminably, narrowing in places to a mere shelf high upon the side of a sheer rock wall. At such spots Connie and O'Brien took turns with axe and shovel, heaving the snow into the canyon; for to venture upon the drifts, high-piled upon the edge of the precipice, would have been to invite instant disaster.

Waseche Bill, despite the pain of his broken leg, insisted upon being propped into position to brake his own sled. It was the heavier sled, double-freighted by reason of the stampede of Waseche's dogs, that caused Connie and O'Brien the hardest labour; for its loss meant death by exposure and starvation.

Night overtook them with scarce half the distance behind them, and they camped on a small plateau overlooking a deep ravine.

Morning found them again at their work in the face of a stiff gale from the south-west. The sun rose and hung low in the cloudless sky above the sea of gleaming white peaks. The mercury expanded in the tube of the thermometer and the wind lost its chill. Connie and O'Brien removed their heavy parkas, and Waseche Bill threw back his hood and frowned uneasily:

"Sho' wisht this heah Chinook w'd helt off about ten days mo'," he said. "I ain't acquainted through heah, but I reckon nine oah ten days had ort to put us into Eagle if the snow holds."

"It's too early for the break-up!" exclaimed Connie.

"Yeh, fo' the break-up, it is. But these heah Chinooks yo' cain't count on. I've saw three foot of snow melt in a night an' a day-an' then tuhn 'round an' freeze up fo' two months straight. If this heah wind don't shift oah die down again tomorrow mo'nin', we ah goin' to have to hole up an' wait fo' a freeze."

"The grub won't hold out long," ventured Connie, eyeing the sled. "But there must be game on this side of the divide."

"They betteh be! I sho' do hate it-bein' crippled up this-a-way an' leavin' yo'-all to do the wo'k."

"Niver 'yez moind about that!" exclaimed O'Brien. "Sur-re, we'd all be wor-rkin' as har-rd as we could an-nyways, an' ut w'dn't make ut no aisyer f'r us bekase ye was wor-rkin', too. Jist set ye by an' shmoke yer poipe, an' me an' th' b'y'll have us on th' river be noon."

By dint of hard labour and much snubbing and braking, O'Brien's prediction was fulfilled and the midday meal was eaten upon the snow-covered ice of the Kandik.

"All aboard for Eagle!" cried Connie, as he cracked his long-lashed whip and led out upon the broad river trail. And McDougall's big malamutes as though they understood the boy's words, humped to the pull and the heavily loaded sled slipped smoothly over the surface of the softening snow. Upon the trail from the divide, protected from wind and sun by high walls, the snow had remained stiff and hard, but here on the river the sled runners left deep ruts behind them, and not infrequently slumped through, so that Connie and O'Brien were forced to stop and pry them out, and also to knock the balls of packed snow from the webs of their rackets.

"Saints be praised, ut's a house!" called O'Brien, as toward evening he halted at a sharp bend of the river and pointed toward a tiny cabin that nestled in a grove of balsam at the edge of the high cut-bank.

"Ut's th' fur-rst wan Oi've seed in six year-barrin' thim haythen igloos av' dhrift-wood an' shnow blocks! We'll shtay th' night wid um, whoiver they ar-re-an' happy Oi'll be wid a Christian roof over me head wanst more!"

The outfit was headed for the cabin and a quarter of an hour later they swung into the small clearing before the door.

"Them dawgs has be'n heah," remarked Waseche Bill, as he eyed the trodden snow. "Don't reckon nobody's to home." O'Brien pushed open the door and entered, closely follo

wed by Connie.

Save for a rude bunk built against the wall, and a rusted sheet-iron stove, the cabin was empty, and despite the peculiar musty smell of an abandoned building, the travellers were glad to avail themselves of its shelter. Waseche Bill was made comfortable with robes and blankets, and while O'Brien unharnessed the dogs and rustled the firewood, Connie unloaded the outfit and carried it inside. The sun had long set, but with the withdrawal of its heat the snow had not stiffened and the wind held warm.

"Betteh let in the dawgs, tonight, son," advised Waseche, "I'm 'fraid we ah in fo' a thaw. Still it mout tuhn cold in the night an' freeze 'em into the snow."

"How long will it last-the thaw?" asked the boy, as he eyed the supply of provisions.

"Yo' cain't tell. Two days-me'be three-sometimes a week-then, anyway, one day mo', till she freezes solid."

"O'Brien and I will have to hunt then-grub's getting low."

"We'll see how it looks tomorrow. If it's like I think, yo' ain't a-goin' to be able to get fah to do no huntin'. The snow'll be like mush."

As O'Brien tossed the last armful upon his pile of firewood, Connie announced supper, and the three ate in silence-as hungry men eat.

Worn out by the long, hard day on the trail, all slept soundly, and when they awoke it was to find the depressions in the dirt floor filled with water which entered through a crack beneath the door.

"We-all ah sho' 'nough tied up, now," exclaimed Waseche, as he eyed the tiny trickle. "How much grub we got?" Connie explored the pack.

"Three or four days. We better cut the dogs to half-ration."

"Them an' us, both," replied the man in the bunk, and groaned as a hot pain shot through his injured leg.

Breakfast over, Connie picked up his rifle, fastened on his snowshoes, and stepped on the wind-softened snow. He had taken scarcely a half-dozen steps when he was forced to halt-anchored fast in the soggy snow. In vain he tried to raise first one foot and then the other-it was no use. The snow clung to his rackets in huge balls and after repeated efforts he loosened the thongs and stepped on the melting snow, into which he promptly sank to his middle. He freed his rackets, tossed them toward the cabin, and wallowed to the door.

"Back a'ready?" grinned Waseche. "How's the huntin'?" Connie laughed.

"You wait-I haven't started yet!"

"Betteh keep inside, son. Yo' cain't do no good out theah. They cain't no game move in a thaw like this."

"Rabbits and ground squirrels and ptarmigan can," answered the boy.

"Yeh-but yo' cain't!"

"I'm not going far. I'm wet now, and I'm not going to give up without trying." Three hours later he stumbled again through the door, bearing proudly a bedraggled ptarmigan and a lean ground squirrel, each neatly beheaded by a bullet from his high-power rifle. As he dried his clothing beside the rusty stove, the boy dressed his game, carefully dividing the offal between old Boris, Mutt, and Slasher, and the dogs greedily devoured it to the last hair and feather.

"Every little bit helps," he smiled. "But it sure is a little bit of meat for such a lot of work. I bet I didn't get a quarter of a mile away."

For three days the wind held, the sun shone, and the snow melted. Streams forced their way to the river and the surface of the Kandik became a raging torrent-a river on top of a river! Each day Connie hunted faithfully, sometimes in vain, but generally his efforts were rewarded by a ptarmigan, or a brace of lank snowshoe rabbits or ground squirrels, lured from their holes by the feel of the false spring.

On the fourth night it turned cold, and in the morning the snow was crusted over sufficiently to support a man's weight on the rackets. The countless tiny rills that supplied the river were dried and the flood subsided and narrowed to the middle of the stream, while upon the edges the slush and anchor-ice froze rough and uneven.

Waseche Bill's injured leg was much swollen and caused him great pain, but he bore it unflinchingly and laughed and joked gaily. But Connie was not deceived, for from the little fan of wrinkles at the corners of the man's eyes, and the hard, drawn look about his mouth, the boy knew that his big partner suffered intensely even while his lips smiled and his words fell lightly in droll banter.

Thanks to the untiring efforts of the boy, their supply of provisions remained nearly intact, his rifle supplying the meat for their frugal meals. For two days past, O'Brien had brooded in silence, sitting for hours at a time with his back against the log wall and his gaze fixed, now upon the wounded man, and again upon the boy, or the great shaggy malamutes that lay sprawled upon the floor. He did his full share of the work: chopped the firewood, washed the dishes, and did whatever else was necessary about the camp while Connie hunted. But when he had finished he lapsed into a gloomy reverie, during which he would speak no word.

With the return of cold weather, the dogs had been expelled from the cabin and had taken up their quarters close beside the wall at the back.

"Me'be tomorrow we c'n hit the trail," said Waseche, as he noticed that the sun of the fourth day failed to soften the stiffening crust.

"We ought to make good time, now!" exclaimed the boy. But Waseche shook his head.

"No, son, we won't make no good time the way things is. The trail is rough an' the sha'p ice'll cut the dawg's feet so they'll hate to pull. Likewise, yo'n an' O'Brien's-them mukluks won't last a day, an' the sleds'll be hahd to manage, sluein' sideways an' runnin' onto the dawgs. I've ice-trailed befo' now, an' it's wo'se even than soft snow. If yo' c'n travel light so yo' c'n ride an' save yo' feet an' keep the dawgs movin' fast, it ain't so bad-but mushin' slow, like we got to, an' sho't of grub besides-" The man shook his head dubiously and relapsed into silence, while, with his back against the wall, O'Brien listened and hugged closer his cans of gold.

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