Part I - Chapter II
BREAKFAST EATEN AND the slim camp-outfit lashed to the sled, the men turned their backs on the cheery fire and launched out into the darkness. At once began to rise the cries that were fiercely sad—cries that called through the darkness and cold to one another and answered back. Conversation ceased. Daylight came at nine o'clock. At midday the sky to the south warmed to rose-color, and marked where the bulge of the earth intervened between the meridian sun and the northern world. But the rose-color swiftly faded. The gray light of day that remained lasted until three o'clock, when it, too, faded, and the pall of the Arctic night descended upon the lone and silent land.
As darkness came on, the hunting-cries to right and left and rear drew closer—so close that more than once they sent surges of fear through the toiling dogs, throwing them into short-lived panics.
At the conclusion of one such panic, when he and Henry had got the dogs back in the traces, Bill said:
“I wisht they'd strike game somewheres, an' go away an' leave us alone.”
“They do get on the nerves horrible,” Henry sympathized.
They spoke no more until camp was made.
Henry was bending over and adding ice to the bubbling pot of beans when he was startled by the sound of a blow, an exclamation from Bill, and a sharp snarling cry of pain from among the dogs. He straightened up in time to see a dim form disappearing across the snow into the shelter of the dark. Then he saw Bill, standing amid the dogs, half triumphant, half crestfallen, in one hand a stout club, in the other the tail and part of the body of a sun-cured salmon.
“It got half of it,” he announced; “but I got a whack at it jes' the same. D'ye hear it squeal?”
“What'd it look like?” Henry asked.
“Couldn't see. But it had four legs an' a mouth an' hair an' looked like any dog.”
“Must be a tame wolf, I reckon.”
“It's damned tame, whatever it is, comin' in here at feedin' time an' gettin' its whack of fish.”
That night, when supper was finished and they sat on the oblong box and pulled at their pipes, the circle of gleaming eyes drew in even closer than before.
“I wisht they'd spring up a bunch of moose or somethin', an' go away an' leave us alone,” Bill said.
Henry grunted with an intonation that was not all sympathy, and for a quarter of an hour they sat on in silence, Henry staring at the fire, and Bill at the circle of eyes that burned in the darkness just beyond the firelight.
“I wisht we was pullin' into McGurry right now,” he began again.
“Shut up your wishin' an' your croakin',” Henry burst out angrily. “Your stomach's sour. That's what's ailin' you. Swallow a spoonful of sody, an' you'll sweeten up wonderful an' be more pleasant company.”
In the morning, Henry was aroused by fervid blasphemy that proceeded from the mouth of Bill. Henry propped himself up on an elbow and looked to see his comrade standing among the dogs beside the replenished fire, his arms raised in objurgation, his face distorted with passion.
“Hello!” Henry called. “What's up now?”
“Frog's gone,” came the answer.
“I tell you yes.”
Henry leaped out of the blankets and to the dogs. He counted them with care, and then joined his partner in cursing the powers of the Wild that had robbed them of another dog.
“Frog was the strongest dog of the bunch,” Bill pronounced finally.
“An' he was no fool dog neither,” Henry added.
And so was recorded the second epitaph in two days.
A gloomy breakfast was eaten, and the four remaining dogs were harnessed to the sled. The day was a repetition of the days that had gone before. The men toiled without speech across the face of the frozen world. The silence was unbroken save by the cries of their pursuers, that, unseen, hung upon their rear. With the coming of night in the mid-afternoon, the cries sounded closer as the pursuers drew in according to their custom; and the dogs grew excited and frightened, and were guilty of panics that tangled the traces and further depressed the two men.
“There, that'll fix you fool critters,” Bill said with satisfaction that night, standing erect at completion of his task.
Henry left his cooking to come and see. Not only had his partner tied the dogs up, but he had tied them, after the Indian fashion, with sticks. About the neck of each dog he had fastened a leather thong. To this, and so close to the neck that the dog could not get his teeth to it, he had tied a stout stick four or five feet in length. The other end of the stick, in turn, was made fast to a stake in the ground by means of a leather thong. The dog was unable to gnaw through the leather at his own end of the stick. The stick prevented him from getting at the leather that fastened the other end.
Henry nodded his head approvingly.
“It's the only contraption that'll ever hold One Ear,” he said. “He can gnaw through leather as clean as a knife an' jes' about half as quick. They all 'll be here in the mornin' hunkydory.”
“You jes' bet they will,” Bill affirmed. “If one of 'em turns up missin', I'll go without my coffee.”
“They jes' know we ain't loaded to kill,” Henry remarked at bed-time, indicating the gleaming circle that hemmed them in. “If we could put a couple of shots into 'em, they'd be more respectful. They come closer every night. Get the firelight out of your eyes an' look hard—there! Did you see that one?”
For some time the two men amused themselves with watching the movement of vague forms on the edge of the firelight. By looking closely and steadily at where a pair of eyes burned in the darkness, the form of the animal would slowly take shape. They could even see these forms move at times.
A sound among the dogs attracted the men's attention. One Ear was uttering quick, eager whines, lunging at the length of his stick toward the darkness, and desisting now and again in order to make frantic attacks on the stick with his teeth.
“Look at that, Bill,” Henry whispered.
Full into the firelight, with a stealthy, sidelong movement, glided a doglike animal. It moved with commingled mistrust and daring, cautiously observing the men, its attention fixed on the dogs. One Ear strained the full length of the stick toward the intruder and whined with eagerness.
“That fool One Ear don't seem scairt much,” Bill said in a low tone.
“It's a she-wolf,” Henry whispered back, “an' that accounts for Fatty an' Frog. She's the decoy for the pack. She draws out the dog an' then all the rest pitches in an' eats 'm up.”
The fire crackled. A log fell apart with a loud spluttering noise. At the sound of it the strange animal leaped back into the darkness.
“Henry, I'm a-thinkin',” Bill announced.
“I'm a-thinkin' that was the one I lambasted with the club”.
“Ain't the slightest doubt in the world,” was Henry's response.
“An' right here I want to remark,” Bill went on, “that that animal's familyarity with campfires is suspicious an' immoral.”
“It knows for certain more'n a self-respectin' wolf ought to know,” Henry agreed. “A wolf that knows enough to come in with the dogs at feedin' time has had experiences.”
“Ol' Villan had a dog once that run away with the wolves,” Bill cogitated aloud. “I ought to know. I shot it out of the pack in a moose pasture over on Little Stick. An' Ol' Villan cried like a baby. Hadn't seen it for three years, he said. Ben with the wolves all that time.”
“I reckon you've called the turn, Bill. That wolf's a dog, an' it's eaten fish many's the time from the hand of man.”
“An' if I get a chance at it, that wolf that's a dog'll be jes' meat,” Bill declared. “We can't afford to lose no more animals.”
“But you've only got three cartridges,” Henry objected.
“I'll wait for a dead sure shot,” was the reply.
In the morning Henry renewed the fire and cooked breakfast to the accompaniment of his partner's snoring.
“You was sleepin' jes' too comfortable for anythin',” Henry told him, as he routed him out for breakfast. “I hadn't the heart to rouse you.”
Bill began to eat sleepily. He noticed that his cup was empty and started to reach for the pot. But the pot was beyond arm's length and beside Henry.
“Say, Henry,” he chided gently, “ain't you forgot somethin'?”
Henry looked about with great carefulness and shook his head. Bill held up the empty cup.
“You don't get no coffee,” Henry announced.
“Ain't run out?” Bill asked anxiously.
“Ain't thinkin' it'll hurt my digestion?”
A flush of angry blood pervaded Bill's face.
“Then it's jes' warm an' anxious I am to be hearin' you explain yourself,” he said.
“Spanker's gone,” Henry answered.
Without haste, with the air of one resigned to misfortune, Bill turned his head, and from where he sat counted the dogs.
“How'd it happen?” he asked apathetically.
Henry shrugged his shoulders. “Don't know. Unless One Ear gnawed 'm loose. He couldn't a-done it himself, that's sure.”
“The darned cuss.” Bill spoke gravely and slowly, with no hint of the anger that was raging within. “Jes' because he couldn't chew himself loose, he chews Spanker loose.”
“Well, Spanker's troubles is over, anyway; I guess he's digested by this time an' cavortin' over the landscape in the bellies of twenty different wolves,” was Henry's epitaph on this, the latest lost dog. “Have some coffee, Bill.”
But Bill shook his head.
“Go on,” Henry pleaded, elevating the pot.
Bill shoved his cup aside. “I'll be ding-dong-danged if I do. I said I wouldn't if ary dog turned up missin', an' I won't.”
“It's darn good coffee,” Henry said enticingly.
But Bill was stubborn, and he ate a dry breakfast, washed down with mumbled curses at One Ear for the trick he had played.
“I'll tie 'em up out of reach of each other to-night,” Bill said, as they took the trail.
They had travelled little more than a hundred yards, when Henry, who was in front, bent down and picked up something with which his snowshoe had collided. It was dark, and he could not see it, but he recognized it by the touch. He flung it back, so that it struck the sled and bounced along until it fetched up on Bill's snowshoes.
“Mebbe you'll need that in your business,” Henry said.
Bill uttered an exclamation. It was all that was left of Spanker—the stick with which he had been tied.
“They ate 'm hide an' all,” Bill announced. “The stick's as clean as a whistle. They've ate the leather offen both ends. They're damn hungry, Henry, an' they'll have you an' me guessin' before this trip's over.”
Henry laughed defiantly. “I ain't been trailed this way by wolves before, but I've gone through a whole lot worse an' kept my health. Takes more'n a handful of them pesky critters to do for yours truly, Bill, my son.”
“I don't know, I don't know,” Bill muttered ominously.
“Well, you'll know all right when we pull into McGurry.”
“I ain't feelin' special enthusiastic,” Bill persisted.
“You're off color, that's what's the matter with you,” Henry dogmatized. “What you need is quinine, an' I'm goin' to dose you up stiff as soon as we make McGurry.”
Bill grunted his disagreement with the diagnosis, and lapsed into silence. The day was like all the days. Light came at nine o'clock. At twelve o'clock the southern horizon was warmed by the unseen sun; and then began the cold gray of afternoon that would merge, three hours later, into night.
It was just after the sun's futile effort to appear, that Bill slipped the rifle from under the sled-lashings and said:
“You keep right on, Henry, I'm goin' to see what I can see.”
“You'd better stick by the sled,” his partner protested. “You've only got three cartridges, an' there's no tellin' what might happen.”
“Who's croakin' now?” Bill demanded triumphantly.
Henry made no reply, and plodded on alone, though often he cast anxious glances back into the gray solitude where his partner had disappeared. An hour later, taking advantage of the cut-offs around which the sled had to go, Bill arrived.
“They're scattered an' rangin' along wide,” he said; “keepin' up with us an' lookin' for game at the same time. You see, they're sure of us, only they know they've got to wait to get us. In the meantime they're willin' to pick up anythin' eatable that comes handy.”
“You mean they think they're sure of us,” Henry objected pointedly.
But Bill ignored him. “I seen some of them. They're pretty thin. They ain't had a bite in weeks I reckon, outside of Fatty an' Frog an' Spanker; an' there's so many of ‘em that that didn't go far. They're remarkable thin. Their ribs is like wash-boards, an’ their stomachs is right up against their backbones. They're pretty desperate, I can tell you. They'll be goin' mad, yet, an' then watch out.”
A few minutes later, Henry, who was now travelling behind the sled, emitted a low, warning whistle. Bill turned and looked, then quietly stopped the dogs. To the rear, from around the last bend and plainly into view, on the very trail they had just covered, trotted a furry, slinking form. Its nose was to the trail, and it trotted with a peculiar, sliding, effortless gait. When they halted, it halted, throwing up its head and regarding them steadily with nostrils that twitched as it caught and studied the scent of them.
“It's the she-wolf,” Bill whispered.
The dogs had lain down in the snow, and he walked past them to join his partner at the sled. Together they watched the strange animal that had pursued them for days and that had already accomplished the destruction of half their dog-team.
After a searching scrutiny, the animal trotted forward a few steps. This it repeated several times, till it was a short hundred yards away. It paused, head up, close by a clump of spruce trees, and with sight and scent studied the outfit of the watching men. It looked at them in a strangely wistful way, after the manner of a dog; but in its wistfulness there was none of the dog affection. It was a wistfulness bred of hunger, as cruel as its own fangs, as merciless as the frost itself.
It was large for a wolf, its gaunt frame advertising the lines of an animal that was among the largest of its kind.
“Stands pretty close to two feet an' a half at the shoulders,” Henry commented. “An' I'll bet it ain't far from five feet long.”
“Kind of strange color for a wolf,” was Bill's criticism. “I never seen a red wolf before. Looks almost cinnamon to me.”
The animal was certainly not cinnamon-colored. Its coat was the true wolf-coat. The dominant color was gray, and yet there was to it a faint reddish hue—a hue that was baffling, that appeared and disappeared, that was more like an illusion of the vision, now gray, distinctly gray, and again giving hints and glints of a vague redness of color not classifiable in terms of ordinary experience.
“Looks for all the world like a big husky sled-dog,” Bill said. “I wouldn't be s'prised to see it wag its tail.”
“Hello, you husky!” he called. “Come here, you whatever-your-name-is.”
“Ain't a bit scairt of you,” Henry laughed.
Bill waved his hand at it threateningly and shouted loudly; but the animal betrayed no fear. The only change in it that they could notice was an accession of alertness. It still regarded them with the merciless wistfulness of hunger. They were meat, and it was hungry; and it would like to go in and eat them if it dared.
“Look here, Henry,” Bill said, unconsciously lowering his voice to a whisper because of what he meditated. “We've got three cartridges. But it's a dead shot. Couldn't miss it. It's got away with three of our dogs, an' we oughter put a stop to it. What d'ye say?”
Henry nodded his consent. Bill cautiously slipped the gun from under the sled-lashing. The gun was on the way to his shoulder, but it never got there. For in that instant the she-wolf leaped sidewise from the trail into the clump of spruce trees and disappeared.
The two men looked at each other. Henry whistled long and comprehendingly.
“I might have knowed it,” Bill chided himself aloud, as he replaced, the gun. “Of course a wolf that knows enough to come in with the dogs at feedin' time, 'd know all about shooting-irons. I tell you right now, Henry, that critter's the cause of all our trouble. We'd have six dogs at the present time, 'stead of three, if it wasn't for her. An' I tell you right now, Henry, I'm goin' to get her. She's too smart to be shot in the open. But I'm goin' to lay for her. I'll bushwhack her as sure as my name is Bill.”
“You needn't stray off too far in doin' it,” his partner admonished. “If that pack ever starts to jump you, them three cartridges'd be wuth no more'n three whoops in hell. Them animals is damn hungry, an' once they start in, they'll sure get you, Bill.”
They camped early that night. Three dogs could not drag the sled so fast nor for so long hours as could six, and they were showing unmistakable signs of playing out. And the men went early to bed, Bill first seeing to it that the dogs were tied out of gnawing-reach of one another.
But the wolves were growing bolder, and the men were aroused more than once from their sleep. So near did the wolves approach, that the dogs became frantic with terror, and it was necessary to replenish the fire from time to time in order to keep the adventurous marauders at safer distance.
“I've hearn sailors talk of sharks followin' a ship,” Bill remarked, as he crawled back into the blankets after one such replenishing of the fire. “Well, them wolves is land sharks. They know their business better'n we do, an' they ain't a-holdin' our trail this way for their health. They're goin' to get us. They're sure goin' to get us, Henry.”
“They've half got you a'ready, a-talkin' like that,” Henry retorted sharply. “A man's half licked when he says he is. An' you're half eaten from the way you're goin' on about it.”
“They've got away with better men than you an' me,” Bill answered.
“Oh, shet up your croakin'. You make me all-fired tired.”
Henry rolled over angrily on his side, but was surprised that Bill made no similar display of temper. This was not Bill's way, for he was easily angered by sharp words. Henry thought long over it before he went to sleep, and as his eyelids fluttered down and he dozed off, the thought in his mind was: “There's no mistakin' it, Bill's almighty blue. I'll have to cheer him up to-morrow.”