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   Chapter 20 THE DESERTER

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 14534

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Connie Morgan opened his eyes and blinked sleepily. Then, instantly he became wide awake, with a strange, indescribable feeling that all was not well. Waseche Bill stirred uneasily in his sleep and through the cracks about the edges of the blanket-hung window and beneath the door a dull grey light showed. The boy frowned as he tossed back his robes and drew on his mukluks. This was the day they were to hit the trail and O'Brien should have had the fire going and called him early. Suddenly the boy paused and stared hard at the cold stove, and then at the floor beside the stove-at the spot where O'Brien's blankets and robes should have shown an untidy heap in the dull light of morning. Lightning-like, his glance flew to the place at the base of the wall where the Irishman kept his gold-but the blankets and robes were gone, and the gold was gone, and O'Brien-? Swiftly the boy flew to the door-the big sled was missing, the harness, and McDougall's dogs were gone, and O'Brien was nowhere to be seen!

For a long, long time the boy stood staring out over the dim trail of the river and then with clenched fists he stepped again into the room. A hurried inspection of the pack showed that the man had taken most of the remaining fish and considerable of the food, also Waseche Bill's rifle was missing from its place in the far corner. With tight-pressed lips, Connie laid the fire in the little stove and watched dumbly as the tiny yellow sparks shot upward past the holes in the rusty pipe. Vainly the mind of the boy strove to grasp the situation, but his lips formed only the words which he repeated over and over again, as if seeking their import:

"He's gone-he's gone-O'Brien's gone." He could not understand it. Among the dwellers in the great white land the boy had known only men whose creed was to stick together until the end. From the hour he first set foot upon the dock at Anvik, to this very moment, with the single exception of the little rat-faced man at Ten Bow, the boy had learned to love the big men of the North-men whose vices were rugged vices-flaunting and unashamed and brutish, perhaps-but men, any one of whom would face privation, want, and toil-death itself-with a laugh in his teeth for the privilege of helping a friend-and who would fight to divide his last ounce of bacon with his enemy. For not by rule of life-but life itself men live upon the edges of the world, where little likes and hates are forgotten, and all stand shoulder to shoulder against their common enemy-the North! These were the men the boy had known. And now, for the first time, he was confronted by another kind of man-a man so yellow that, rather than face the perils and hardships of the trail, he had deserted those who had rescued him from a band of savages-and not only deserted, but had taken with him the only means by which the others could hope to reach civilization, and had left a wounded man and a little boy to die in the wilderness-bushed!

The dull soul-hurt of the boy flashed into swift anger and, flinging open the door, he shook a small fist toward the south.

"My dad followed British Kronk eight hundred miles through the snow before he caught him-and then-you just wait."

"You cur!" he shouted. "You dirty cur! You piker! You think you've fixed us-but you wait! They say my dad followed British Kronk eight hundred miles through the snow before he caught him-and then-you just wait! You tried to starve Waseche!"

"Heah! Heah! What's all this?" asked the man, who had raised himself to his elbow upon the bunk. The boy faced him:

"He's beat it!" he choked. "He swiped Mac's dogs and breezed!" for a moment the man stared uncomprehendingly:

"Yo' mean O'Brien-he's gone?"

"Yes, he's gone! And so are the dogs, and the sled, and your rifle, and his robes, and his gold!"

"How about the grub?" asked Waseche. "Did he take that, too?"

"Only about a third of it-he's travelling light." For a fleeting instant the boy caught the gleam of Waseche's eyes, and then the gleam was gone and the man's lips smiled.

"Sho', now," he drawled. "Sho', now." The drawl was studied, and the voice was low and very steady-too low and steady, thought the boy-and shivered.

"Neveh yo' mind, son. We-all ah all right. Jest yo' keep on a huntin' an' a fetchin' in rabbits an' ptarmigan, an' such like, an' now the snow's hahdened, me'be yo'll get a crack at a moose oah a caribou. The heahd ort to pass somewhehs neah heah soon. We'll jest lay up heah an' wait fo' the break-up, an' then we'll build us a raft an' go akitin' down to the Yukon-an' then-" The voice suddenly hardened, and again the gleam was in the grey eyes, but the man ceased speaking abruptly.

"And then-what?" asked Connie, as he studied his partner's face. The man laughed.

"Why, then-then we-all c'n go back to Ten Bow-to home! But, come now, le's eat breakfast. We-all got to go light on the grub. Come on out of that, yo' li'l ol' tillicum, standin' theah in the do' shakin' yo' fist! Puts me in mind of a show I seen onct down to Skagway, in the opery house: Julia See's Ah, I rec'lect was the name of it, an' they was a lot of fist shakin' an' fancy speeches by the men, which they was Greasers oah Dagoes that woah sheets wropped around 'em, 'stead of pants an' shirts. They was one fellow, See's Ah, his name was-it was him the show was about. Neah as we-all c'd figgeh, he was a mighty good soht of a pahty, a king oah pres'dent, oah somethin', an' he had a friend, name of Brutish, that he'd done a heap fo', an' helped along, an' thought a heap of; an' anotheh friend name of Mahk Antony. Well, seems like this heah Brutish got soah at See's Ah, I didn't rightly get what fo'-but it don't make no dif'ence-anyhow, he got a fellow name of Cashus, an' a couple mo' scoundrels an' they snuck up on See's Ah when he worn't lookin' an' stabbed him in the back. It sho' made us mad, an' we-all yelled at See's Ah to look out, 'cause we seen 'em fingehin' theah knives in undeh theah sheets-but he didn't get what we was drivin' at, an' when he did look it was too late. We waited a spell while the show went on, to see what Mahk Antony, See's Ah's otheh friend, w'd do to Brutish an' his gang-but he jest hung around makin' fancy speeches an' such-like until we-all got plumb disgusted." Waseche Bill paused until Connie, who had been listening eagerly, grew impatient.

"Well, what did he do?"

"Nawthin'," replied the man. "We done it fo' him. Cou'se, it was only a show, an' they didn't really kill See's Ah, but we-all didn't like the idee, an' so when we seen Mahk didn't aim to do nawthin' but orate, we-all let a yell out of us an' run up the aisle an' clim' onto the stage an' grabbed Brutish an' Cashus an' Mahk Antony, too, an' run 'em down an' chucked 'em into the Lynn Canal. It was winteh, an' the wateh was cold, an' we soused 'em good an' propeh, an' when they got out they snuck onto theah boat an' we-all went back to the opery house an' got See's Ah, an' tuck him oveh to the hotel an' give him a rousin' big suppeh an' told him how we was all fo' him an' he c'd count on a squeah deal in Skagway every time. An' Grub Stake John Billin's give him a six-shooteh an' showed him how he c'd hide it in undeh his sheet an'

lay fo' 'em next time they snuck up on him that-a-way. See's Ah thanked us all an' we walked down to the boat with him in case Brutish an' his gang aimed to waylay him. An' then he made us a fine speech an' went on up the gangway laughin' an' chucklin' fit to kill at the way he'd suhprise them theah assinatehs next time they ondehtook to stick him in the back." Waseche Bill finished, and after a long pause Connie asked:

"And O'Brien reminds you of Brutish?"

"Yes, son. An' I was jest a wondehin' what the boys'll do to him down in Eagle when they see Mac's dawgs, an' ask him how come he to have 'em, an' wheah yo' an' me is at. Yo' see, son, Big Jim Sontag an' Joe an' Fiddle Face, an' a lot mo' of the boys was down to Skagway that night."

In the little cabin on the Kandik the days dragged slowly by. Waseche's leg mended slowly, and despite the boy's most careful attention, remained swollen and discoloured. Connie hunted during every minute of daylight that could be spared from his camp duties, but game was scarce, and although the boy tramped miles and miles each day, his bag was pitifully small. A snowbird or a ptarmigan now and then fell to his rifle and he found that it required the utmost care to keep from blowing his game to atoms with the high-power rifle. How he longed for a shotgun or a twenty-two calibre rifle as he dragged himself wearily over the hard crust of the snow. The cold weather had driven the ground squirrels into their holes and even the rabbits stuck close to cover. The boy set snares made from an old piece of fishline, but the night-prowling wolverines robbed them, as the line was too rotten for jerk snares.

The partners were reduced to one meal a day, now, and that a very scanty one. Day after day the boy circled into the woods, and day by day the circle shortened. He was growing weak, and was forced often to rest, and the buckle tongue of his belt rested in a knife slit far beyond the last hole.

Tears stood in Waseche Bill's eyes as each day he noted that the little face was thinner and whiter than upon the preceding day, and that the little shoulders drooped lower as the boy returned from his hunt and sat wearily down upon the floor to pluck the feathers from a small snowbird.

On the morning of the tenth day, Connie bravely shouldered his rifle and with a cheery "Good-bye, pardner" carefully closed the door behind him. Old Boris, Mutt, and Slasher had managed to eke out a scant living by running rabbits at night, but they were little more than skin and bones, at best, and during the day lay huddled together in the sunshine near the cabin. As the boy passed out into the cold, clear air he noticed that the dogs were gone from their accustomed place.

"That's funny," he thought. "I wonder if they pulled out, too?" And then, as if ashamed of the thought, he jerked his shoulders erect. "Not by a long shot! Those dogs will stick with us till the end! They are no pikers! They're tillicums!"

Suddenly, from far down the river, came a clear, bell-like howl, followed by a chorus of frantic yelps and savage growls.

"My dogs!" cried the boy and, gripping his rifle, made his way down the steep bank and out upon the hard crust of the river. On and on he ran, in the direction of the sounds that came from beyond a sharp, wooded bend. The ice was slippery but uneven, and studded with sharp points of frozen snow that cut cruelly into his feet through the holes of his worn mukluks. In his weakened condition the effort was a serious drain upon the boy's strength, but he kept on running, stumbling, slipping-and in more places than one his footsteps were marked by dark patches of red. Around the wooded bend he tore and there, upon the smooth ice of a backwater pool, stood a huge bull moose, which, with lowered antlers and bristling mane, fought off the savage attacks of the three dogs. Again and again the dogs charged the great animal, whose hoofs slipped clumsily upon the ice with each movement of the huge body. Round and round they circled, seeking a chance to dash in past those broad antlers, but with blazing eyes the moose faced them, turning swiftly but awkwardly, as upon an uncentred pivot, while the breath whistled through his distended nostrils and spread into frozen plumes. So intent was the great beast upon the attack of the dogs that he gave no heed to the small boy who gazed spellbound upon this battle of the wilds. For a long time Connie stood, entirely forgetful of the rifle that remained firmly clutched in his hands, and as he watched, a wave of admiration and sympathy swept over him for this huge monarch of the barren lands that, in his own fastnesses, stood at bay against the gleaming white fangs of his tormentors. Then into his brain leaped another thought-here was meat! Half a ton of good red meat that meant life to his starving partner, to himself, and to his three beloved dogs. Slowly and deliberately the boy dropped to his knee and raised his rifle. The sights wavered to the trembling of his hands and, summoning all the power that was in him, he concentrated upon the steadying of his aim.

Bang! The sound of the shot rang sharp and clear through the cold air, and the moose, with a loud snort, reared upward, whirled, and fell crashing upon his side, while his powerful legs, with their sharp hoofs, thrashed and clawed at the ice. Instantly Slasher was at his throat, and old Boris and Mutt rushed blindly in, snapping and biting at the great, hairy body. Hastily jamming a fresh cartridge into his barrel, Connie sprang forward, and with muzzle held close, placed a finishing shot low down behind the point of the shoulder. But the strain upon his poorly nourished body had been too great for the boy to stand. The long run down the river and the excitement of the kill had taxed his endurance to the limit. A strange weakness seemed dragging at his limbs, pulling him down, down, down into some vast, intangible depth. Mechanically he drew the knife from its sheath and dragged himself to the body of the moose, and then, suddenly, the world went dark, and he seemed to be whirling, easily and slowly, into a place of profound silence. And almost at the same moment, around another

"Mechanically he drew the knife from its sheath and dragged himself to the body of the moose."

bend of the river, from the direction of the Yukon, dashed a long, tawny dog team, and another, and another, and with a wild yell of joy, O'Brien, red whiskers ablaze in the sunlight, leaped from the foremost sled and gathered the unconscious form of the boy into his arms; while beside him, all talking at once and hampering each other's movements in their frantic efforts to revive the boy, were Fiddle Face, and Joe, and Big Jim Sontag, and others of the men of Eagle.

Slowly Connie Morgan opened his eyes and gazed, puzzled, into the bearded faces of the men of the North. His glance rested upon the face of O'Brien peering anxiously into his own, and strayed to the dogs of the leading team-McDougall's dogs-and to the sleds loaded with provisions, and then, with the tears streaming from his eyes, the boy struggled to his feet and a small hand shot out and grasped the rough, hairy hand of O'Brien-the deserter who came back!

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