II. THE MEAT
Half the time the wind blew a gale, and Smoke Bellew staggered againstit along the beach. In the gray of dawn a dozen boats were being loadedwith the precious outfits packed across Chilkoot. They were clumsy,home-made boats, put together by men who were not boat-builders, out ofplanks they had sawed by hand from green spruce-trees. One boat, alreadyloaded, was just starting, and Kit paused to watch.
The wind, which was fair down the lake, here blew in squarely on thebeach, kicking up a nasty sea in the shallows. The men of the departingboat waded in high rubber boots as they shoved it out toward deeperwater. Twice they did this. Clambering aboard and failing to row clear,the boat was swept back and grounded. Kit noticed that the spray on thesides of the boat quickly turned to ice. The third attempt was a partialsuccess. The last two men to climb in were wet to their waists, but theboat was afloat. They struggled awkwardly at the heavy oars, and slowlyworked off shore. Then they hoisted a sail made of blankets, had itcarry away in a gust, and were swept a third time back on the freezingbeach.
Kit grinned to himself and went on. This was what he must expect toencounter, for he, too, in his new role of gentleman's man, was to startfrom the beach in a similar boat that very day.
Everywhere men were at work, and at work desperately, for the closingdown of winter was so imminent that it was a gamble whether or not theywould get across the great chain of lakes before the freeze-up. Yet,when Kit arrived at the tent of Messrs. Sprague and Stine, he did notfind them stirring.
By a fire, under the shelter of a tarpaulin, squatted a short, thick mansmoking a brown-paper cigarette.
"Hello," he said. "Are you Mister Sprague's new man?"
As Kit nodded, he thought he had noted a shade of emphasis on the MISTERand the MAN, and he was sure of a hint of a twinkle in the corner of theeye.
"Well, I'm Doc Stine's man," the other went on. "I'm five feet twoinches long, and my name's Shorty, Jack Short for short, and sometimesknown as Johnny-on-the-Spot."
Kit put out his hand and shook. "Were you raised on bear-meat?" hequeried.
"Sure," was the answer; "though my first feedin' was buffalo-milk asnear as I can remember. Sit down an' have some grub. The bosses ain'tturned out yet."
And despite the one breakfast, Kit sat down under the tarpaulin and atea second breakfast thrice as hearty. The heavy, purging toil of weekshad given him the stomach and appetite of a wolf. He could eat anything,in any quantity, and be unaware that he possessed a digestion. Shorty hefound voluble and pessimistic, and from him he received surprising tipsconcerning their bosses and ominous forecasts of the expedition.Thomas Stanley Sprague was a budding mining engineer and the son of amillionaire. Doctor Adolph Stine was also the son of a wealthy father.And, through their fathers, both had been backed by an investingsyndicate in the Klondike adventure.
"Oh, they're sure made of money," Shorty expounded. "When they hit thebeach at Dyea, freight was seventy cents, but no Indians. There was aparty from Eastern Oregon, real miners, that'd managed to get a team ofIndians together at seventy cents. Indians had the straps on the outfit,three thousand pounds of it, when along comes Sprague and Stine. Theyoffered eighty cents and ninety, and at a dollar a pound the Indiansjumped the contract and took off their straps. Sprague and Stine camethrough, though it cost them three thousand, and the Oregon bunch isstill on the beach. They won't get through till next year.
"Oh, they are real hummers, your boss and mine, when it comes tosheddin' the mazuma an' never mindin' other folks' feelin's. What didthey do when they hit Linderman? The carpenters was just putting inthe last licks on a boat they'd contracted to a 'Frisco bunch for sixhundred. Sprague and Stine slipped 'em an even thousand, and they jumpedtheir contract. It's a good-lookin' boat, but it's jiggered the otherbunch. They've got their outfit right here, but no boat. And they'restuck for next year.
"Have another cup of coffee, and take it from me that I wouldn't travelwith no such outfit if I didn't want to get to Klondike so blamed bad.They ain't hearted right. They'd take the crape off the door of ahouse in mourning if they needed it in their business. Did you sign acontract?"
Kit shook his head.
"Then I'm sorry for you, pardner. They ain't no grub in the country,and they'll drop you cold as soon as they hit Dawson. Men are going tostarve there this winter."
"They agreed--" Kit began.
"Verbal," Shorty snapped him short. "It's your say-so against theirs,that's all. Well, anyway, what's your name, pardner?"
"Call me Smoke," said Kit.
"Well, Smoke, you'll have a run for your verbal contract just the same.This is a plain sample of what to expect. They can sure shed mazuma, butthey can't work, or turn out of bed in the morning. We should have beenloaded and started an hour ago. It's you an' me for the big work. Prettysoon you'll hear 'em shoutin' for their coffee--in bed, mind you, andthem grown men. What d'ye know about boatin' on the water? I'm a cowmanand a prospector, but I'm sure tenderfooted on water, an' they don'tknow punkins. What d'ye know?"
"Search me," Kit answered, snuggling in closer under the tarpaulin asthe snow whirled before a fiercer gust. "I haven't been on a small boatsince a boy. But I guess we can learn."
A corner of the tarpaulin tore loose, and Shorty received a jet ofdriven snow down the back of his neck.
"Oh, we can learn all right," he muttered wrathfully. "Sure we can. Achild can learn. But it's dollars to doughnuts we don't even get startedto-day."
It was eight o'clock when the call for coffee came from the tent, andnearly nine before the two employers emerged.
"Hello," said Sprague, a rosy-cheeked, well-fed young man oftwenty-five. "Time we made a start, Shorty. You and--" Here he glancedinterrogatively at Kit. "I didn't quite catch your name last evening."
"Well, Shorty, you and Mr. Smoke had better begin loading the boat."
"Plain Smoke--cut out the Mister," Kit suggested.
Sprague nodded curtly and strolled away among the tents, to be followedby Doctor Stine, a slender, pallid young man.
Shorty looked significantly at his companion. "Over a ton and a half ofoutfit, and they won't lend a hand. You'll see."
"I guess it's because we're paid to do the work," Kit answeredcheerfully, "and we might as well buck in."
To move three thousand pounds on the shoulders a hundred yards was noslight task, and to do it in half a gale, slushing through the snow inheavy rubber boots, was exhausting. In addition, there was the takingdown of the tent and the packing of small camp equipage. Then came theloading. As the boat settled, it had to be shoved farther and fartherout, increasing the distance they had to wade. By two o'clock it had allbeen accomplished, and Kit, despite his two breakfasts, was weak withthe faintness of hunger. His knees were shaking under him. Shorty, insimilar predicament, foraged through the pots and pans, and drew fortha big pot of cold boiled beans in which were imbedded large chunks ofbacon. There was only one spoon, a long-handled one, and they dipped,turn and turn about, into the pot. Kit was filled with an immensecertitude that in all his life he had never tasted anything so good.
"Lord, man," he mumbled between chews, "I never knew what appetite wastill I hit the trail."
Sprague and Stine arrived in the midst of this pleasant occupation.
"What's the delay?" Sprague complained. "Aren't we ever going to getstarted?"
Shorty dipped in turn, and passed the spoon to Kit. Nor did either speaktill the pot was empty and the bottom scraped.
"Of course we ain't been doin' nothing," Shorty said, wiping his mouthwith the back of his hand. "We ain't been doin' nothing at all. And ofcourse you ain't had nothing to eat. It was sure careless of me."
"Yes, yes," Stine said quickly. "We ate at one of the tents--friends ofours."
"Thought so," Shorty grunted.
"But now that you're finished, let us get started," Sprague urged.
"There's the boat," said Shorty. "She's sure loaded. Now, just how mightyou be goin' a
bout to get started?"
"By climbing aboard and shoving off. Come on."
They waded out, and the employers got on board, while Kit and Shortyshoved clear. When the waves lapped the tops of their boots theyclambered in. The other two men were not prepared with the oars, andthe boat swept back and grounded. Half a dozen times, with a greatexpenditure of energy, this was repeated.
Shorty sat down disconsolately on the gunwale, took a chew of tobacco,and questioned the universe, while Kit baled the boat and the other twoexchanged unkind remarks.
"If you'll take my orders, I'll get her off," Sprague finally said.
The attempt was well intended, but before he could clamber on board hewas wet to the waist.
"We've got to camp and build a fire," he said, as the boat groundedagain. "I'm freezing."
"Don't be afraid of a wetting," Stine sneered. "Other men have gone offto-day wetter than you. Now I'm going to take her out."
This time it was he who got the wetting and who announced withchattering teeth the need of a fire.
"A little splash like that!" Sprague chattered spitefully. "We'll goon."
"Shorty, dig out my clothes-bag and make a fire," the other commanded.
"You'll do nothing of the sort," Sprague cried.
Shorty looked from one to the other, expectorated, but did not move.
"He's working for me, and I guess he obeys my orders," Stine retorted."Shorty, take that bag ashore."
Shorty obeyed, and Sprague shivered in the boat. Kit, having received noorders, remained inactive, glad of the rest.
"A boat divided against itself won't float," he soliloquized.
"What's that?" Sprague snarled at him.
"Talking to myself--habit of mine," he answered.
His employer favoured him with a hard look, and sulked several minuteslonger. Then he surrendered.
"Get out my bag, Smoke," he ordered, "and lend a hand with that fire. Wewon't get off till morning now."
Next day the gale still blew. Lake Linderman was no more than a narrowmountain gorge filled with water. Sweeping down from the mountainsthrough this funnel, the wind was irregular, blowing great guns at timesand at other times dwindling to a strong breeze.
"If you give me a shot at it, I think I can get her off," Kit said, whenall was ready for the start.
"What do you know about it?" Stine snapped at him.
"Search me," Kit answered, and subsided.
It was the first time he had worked for wages in his life, but he waslearning the discipline of it fast. Obediently and cheerfully he joinedin various vain efforts to get clear of the beach.
"How would you go about it?" Sprague finally half panted, half whined athim.
"Sit down and get a good rest till a lull comes in the wind, and thenbuck in for all we're worth."
Simple as the idea was, he had been the first to evolve it; the firsttime it was applied it worked, and they hoisted a blanket to the mastand sped down the lake. Stine and Sprague immediately became cheerful.Shorty, despite his chronic pessimism, was always cheerful, and Kitwas too interested to be otherwise. Sprague struggled with thesteering-sweep for a quarter of an hour, and then looked appealingly atKit, who relieved him.
"My arms are fairly broken with the strain of it," Sprague mutteredapologetically.
"You never ate bear-meat, did you?" Kit asked sympathetically.
"What the devil do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing; I was just wondering."
But behind his employer's back Kit caught the approving grin of Shorty,who had already caught the whim of his metaphor.
Kit steered the length of Linderman, displaying an aptitude thatcaused both young men of money and disinclination for work to name himboat-steerer. Shorty was no less pleased, and volunteered to continuecooking and leave the boat work to the other.
Between Linderman and Lake Bennett was a portage. The boat, lightlyloaded, was lined down the small but violent connecting stream, and hereKit learned a vast deal more about boats and water. But when it came topacking the outfit, Stine and Sprague disappeared, and their men spenttwo days of back-breaking toil in getting the outfit across. And thiswas the history of many miserable days of the trip--Kit and Shortyworking to exhaustion, while their masters toiled not and demanded to bewaited upon.
But the iron-bound arctic winter continued to close down, and theywere held back by numerous and unavoidable delays. At Windy Arm, Stinearbitrarily dispossessed Kit of the steering-sweep and within the hourwrecked the boat on a wave-beaten lee shore. Two days were lost here inmaking repairs, and the morning of the fresh start, as they came downto embark, on stern and bow, in large letters, was charcoaled "TheChechako."
Kit grinned at the appropriateness of the invidious word.
"Huh!" said Shorty, when accused by Stine. "I can sure read and spell,an' I know that chechako means tenderfoot, but my education never wenthigh enough to learn me to spell a jaw-breaker like that."
Both employers looked daggers at Kit, for the insult rankled; nor did hemention that the night before, Shorty had besought him for the spellingof that particular word.
"That's 'most as bad as your bear-meat slam at 'em," Shorty confidedlater.
Kit chuckled. Along with the continuous discovery of his own powers hadcome an ever-increasing disapproval of the two masters. It was not somuch irritation, which was always present, as disgust. He had got histaste of the meat, and liked it; but they were teaching him how not toeat it. Privily, he thanked God that he was not made as they. He cameto dislike them to a degree that bordered on hatred. Their malingeringbothered him less than their helpless inefficiency. Somewhere in him,old Isaac Bellew and all the rest of the hardy Bellews were making good.
"Shorty," he said one day, in the usual delay of getting started, "Icould almost fetch them a rap over the head with an oar and bury them inthe river."
"Same here," Shorty agreed. "They're not meat-eaters. They'refish-eaters, and they sure stink."
They came to the rapids; first, the Box Canyon, and, several milesbelow, the White Horse. The Box Canyon was adequately named. It was abox, a trap. Once in it, the only way out was through. On either sidearose perpendicular walls of rock. The river narrowed to a fraction ofits width and roared through this gloomy passage in a madness of motionthat heaped the water in the center into a ridge fully eight feet higherthan at the rocky sides. This ridge, in turn, was crested with stiff,upstanding waves that curled over yet remained each in its unvaryingplace. The Canyon was well feared, for it had collected its toll of deadfrom the passing goldrushers.
Tying to the bank above, where lay a score of other anxious boats, Kitand his companions went ahead on foot to investigate. They crept tothe brink and gazed down at the swirl of water. Sprague drew back,shuddering.
"My God!" he exclaimed. "A swimmer hasn't a chance in that."
Shorty touched Kit significantly with his elbow and said in anundertone:
"Cold feet. Dollars to doughnuts they don't go through."
Kit scarcely heard. From the beginning of the boat trip he had beenlearning the stubbornness and inconceivable viciousness of the elements,and this glimpse of what was below him acted as a challenge. "We've gotto ride that ridge," he said. "If we get off it we'll hit the walls."
"And never know what hit us," was Shorty's verdict. "Can you swim,Smoke?"
"I'd wish I couldn't if anything went wrong in there."
"That's what I say," a stranger, standing alongside and peering downinto the Canyon, said mournfully. "And I wish I were through it."
"I wouldn't sell my chance to go through," Kit answered.
He spoke honestly, but it was with the idea of heartening the man. Heturned to go back to the boat.
"Are you going to tackle it?" the man asked.
"I wish I could get the courage to," the other confessed. "I've beenhere for hours. The longer I look, the more afraid I am. I am not aboatman, and I have with me only my nephew, who is a young boy, and
mywife. If you get through safely, will you run my boat through?"
Kit looked at Shorty, who delayed to answer.
"He's got his wife with him," Kit suggested. Nor had he mistaken hisman.
"Sure," Shorty affirmed. "It was just what I was stopping to thinkabout. I knew there was some reason I ought to do it."
Again they turned to go, but Sprague and Stine made no movement.
"Good luck, Smoke," Sprague called to him. "I'll--er--" He hesitated."I'll just stay here and watch you."
"We need three men in the boat, two at the oars and one at thesteering-sweep," Kit said quietly.
Sprague looked at Stine.
"I'm damned if I do," said that gentleman. "If you're not afraid tostand here and look on, I'm not."
"Who's afraid?" Sprague demanded hotly.
Stine retorted in kind, and their two men left them in the thick of asquabble.
"We can do without them," Kit said to Shorty. "You take the bow witha paddle, and I'll handle the steering-sweep. All you'll have to do isjust to help keep her straight. Once we're started, you won't be able tohear me, so just keep on keeping her straight."
They cast off the boat and worked out to middle in the quickeningcurrent. From the Canyon came an ever-growing roar. The river sucked into the entrance with the smoothness of molten glass, and here, as thedarkening walls received them, Shorty took a chew of tobacco and dippedhis paddle. The boat leaped on the first crests of the ridge, and theywere deafened by the uproar of wild water that reverberated from thenarrow walls and multiplied itself. They were half-smothered with flyingspray. At times Kit could not see his comrade at the bow. It was only amatter of two minutes, in which time they rode the ridge three-quartersof a mile and emerged in safety and tied to the bank in the eddy below.
Shorty emptied his mouth of tobacco juice--he had forgotten to spit--andspoke.
"That was bear-meat," he exulted, "the real bear-meat. Say, we wanta few, didn't we? Smoke, I don't mind tellin' you in confidence thatbefore we started I was the gosh-dangdest scaredest man this side of theRocky Mountains. Now I'm a bear-eater. Come on an' we'll run that otherboat through."
Midway back, on foot, they encountered their employers, who had watchedthe passage from above.
"There comes the fish-eaters," said Shorty. "Keep to win'ward."
After running the stranger's boat through, whose name proved to beBreck, Kit and Shorty met his wife, a slender, girlish woman whose blueeyes were moist with gratitude. Breck himself tried to hand Kit fiftydollars, and then attempted it on Shorty.
"Stranger," was the latter's rejection, "I come into this country tomake money outa the ground an' not outa my fellow critters."
Breck rummaged in his boat and produced a demijohn of whiskey. Shorty'shand half went out to it and stopped abruptly. He shook his head.
"There's that blamed White Horse right below, an' they say it's worsethan the Box. I reckon I don't dast tackle any lightning."
Several miles below they ran in to the bank, and all four walked down tolook at the bad water. The river, which was a succession of rapids, washere deflected toward the right bank by a rocky reef. The whole body ofwater, rushing crookedly into the narrow passage, accelerated its speedfrightfully and was up-flung into huge waves, white and wrathful. Thiswas the dread Mane of the White Horse, and here an even heavier toll ofdead had been exacted. On one side of the Mane was a corkscrew curl-overand suck-under, and on the opposite side was the big whirlpool. To gothrough, the Mane itself must be ridden.
"This plum rips the strings outa the Box," Shorty concluded.
As they watched, a boat took the head of the rapids above. It was alarge boat, fully thirty feet long, laden with several tons of outfit,and handled by six men. Before it reached the Mane it was plunging andleaping, at times almost hidden by the foam and spray.
Shorty shot a slow, sidelong glance at Kit and said: "She's fairsmoking, and she hasn't hit the worst. They've hauled the oars in. Thereshe takes it now. God! She's gone! No; there she is!"
Big as the boat was, it had been buried from sight in the flying smotherbetween crests. The next moment, in the thick of the Mane, the boatleaped up a crest and into view. To Kit's amazement he saw the wholelong bottom clearly outlined. The boat, for the fraction of an instant,was in the air, the men sitting idly in their places, all save onein the stern, who stood at the steering-sweep. Then came the downwardplunge into the trough and a second disappearance. Three times the boatleaped and buried itself, then those on the bank saw its nose take thewhirlpool as it slipped off the Mane. The steersman, vainly opposingwith his full weight on the steering-gear, surrendered to the whirlpooland helped the boat to take the circle.
Three times it went around, each time so close to the rocks on which Kitand Shorty stood that either could have leaped on board. The steersman,a man with a reddish beard of recent growth, waved his hand to them. Theonly way out of the whirlpool was by the Mane, and on the third roundthe boat entered the Mane obliquely at its upper end. Possibly out offear of the draw of the whirlpool, the steersman did not attempt tostraighten out quickly enough. When he did, it was too late. Alternatelyin the air and buried, the boat angled the Mane and was sucked into anddown through the stiff wall of the corkscrew on the opposite side ofthe river. A hundred feet below, boxes and bales began to float up. Thenappeared the bottom of the boat and the scattered heads of six men. Twomanaged to make the bank in the eddy below. The others were drawn under,and the general flotsam was lost to view, borne on by the swift currentaround the bend.
There was a long minute of silence. Shorty was the first to speak.
"Come on," he said. "We might as well tackle it. My feet'll get cold ifI stay here any longer."
"We'll smoke some," Kit grinned at him.
"And you'll sure earn your name," was the rejoinder. Shorty turned totheir employers. "Comin'?" he queried.
Perhaps the roar of the water prevented them from hearing theinvitation.
Shorty and Kit tramped back through a foot of snow to the head of therapids and cast off the boat. Kit was divided between two impressions:one, of the caliber of his comrade, which served as a spur to him; theother, likewise a spur, was the knowledge that old Isaac Bellew, and allthe other Bellews, had done things like this in their westward marchof empire. What they had done, he could do. It was the meat, the strongmeat, and he knew, as never before, that it required strong men to eatsuch meat.
"You've sure got to keep the top of the ridge," Shorty shouted at him,the plug of tobacco lifting to his mouth, as the boat quickened in thequickening current and took the head of the rapids.
Kit nodded, swayed his strength and weight tentatively on thesteering-gear, and headed the boat for the plunge.
Several minutes later, half-swamped and lying against the bank in theeddy below the White Horse, Shorty spat out a mouthful of tobacco juiceand shook Kit's hand.
"Meat! Meat!" Shorty chanted. "We eat it raw! We eat it alive!"
At the top of the bank they met Breck. His wife stood at a littledistance. Kit shook his hand.
"I'm afraid your boat can't make it," he said. "It is smaller than oursand a bit cranky."
The man pulled out a row of bills.
"I'll give you each a hundred if you run it through."
Kit looked out and up the tossing Mane of the White Horse. A long, graytwilight was falling, it was turning colder, and the landscape seemedtaking on a savage bleakness.
"It ain't that," Shorty was saying. "We don't want your money. Wouldn'ttouch it nohow. But my pardner is the real meat with boats, and when hesays yourn ain't safe I reckon he knows what he's talkin' about."
Kit nodded affirmation, and chanced to glance at Mrs Breck. Her eyeswere fixed upon him, and he knew that if ever he had seen prayer in awoman's eyes he was seeing it then. Shorty followed his gaze and sawwhat he saw. They looked at each other in confusion and did not speak.Moved by the common impulse, they nodded to each other and turned to thetrail that led to the head of t
he rapids. They had not gone a hundredyards when they met Stine and Sprague coming down.
"Where are you going?" the latter demanded.
"To fetch that other boat through," Shorty answered.
"No, you're not. It's getting dark. You two are going to pitch camp."
So huge was Kit's disgust that he forebore to speak.
"He's got his wife with him," Shorty said.
"That's his lookout," Stine contributed.
"And Smoke's and mine," was Shorty's retort.
"I forbid you," Sprague said harshly. "Smoke, if you go another stepI'll discharge you."
"And you, too, Shorty," Stine added.
"And a hell of a pickle you'll be in with us fired," Shorty replied."How'll you get your blamed boat to Dawson? Who'll serve you coffee inyour blankets and manicure your finger-nails? Come on, Smoke. They don'tdast fire us. Besides, we've got agreements. If they fire us they've gotto divvy up grub to last us through the winter."
Barely had they shoved Breck's boat out from the bank and caught thefirst rough water, when the waves began to lap aboard. They were smallwaves, but it was an earnest of what was to come. Shorty cast back aquizzical glance as he gnawed at his inevitable plug, and Kit felt astrange rush of warmth at his heart for this man who couldn't swim andwho couldn't back out.
The rapids grew stiffer, and the spray began to fly. In the gatheringdarkness, Kit glimpsed the Mane and the crooked fling of the currentinto it. He worked into this crooked current, and felt a glow ofsatisfaction as the boat hit the head of the Mane squarely in themiddle. After that, in the smother, leaping and burying and swamping, hehad no clear impression of anything save that he swung his weight onthe steering-oar and wished his uncle were there to see. They emerged,breathless, wet through, the boat filled with water almost to thegunwale. Lighter pieces of baggage and outfit were floating inside theboat. A few careful strokes on Shorty's part worked the boat into thedraw of the eddy, and the eddy did the rest till the boat softly touchedthe bank. Looking down from above was Mrs. Breck. Her prayer had beenanswered, and the tears were streaming down her cheeks.
"You boys have simply got to take the money," Breck called down to them.
Shorty stood up, slipped, and sat down in the water, while the boatdipped one gunwale under and righted again.
"Damn the money," said Shorty. "Fetch out that whiskey. Now that it'sover I'm getting cold feet, an' I'm sure likely to have a chill."
In the morning, as usual, they were among the last of the boats tostart. Breck, despite his boating inefficiency, and with only his wifeand nephew for crew, had broken camp, loaded his boat, and pulled outat the first streak of day. But there was no hurrying Stine and Sprague,who seemed incapable of realizing that the freeze-up might come at anytime. They malingered, got in the way, delayed, and doubled the work ofKit and Shorty.
"I'm sure losing my respect for God, seein' as he must 'a' made them twomistakes in human form," was the latter's blasphemous way of expressinghis disgust.
"Well, you're the real goods, at any rate," Kit grinned back at him. "Itmakes me respect God the more just to look at you."
"He was sure goin' some, eh?" was Shorty's fashion of overcoming theembarrassment of the compliment.
The trail by water crossed Lake Labarge. Here was no fast current, buta tideless stretch of forty miles which must be rowed unless a fair windblew. But the time for fair wind was past, and an icy gale blew in theirteeth out of the north. This made a rough sea, against which it wasalmost impossible to pull the boat. Added to their troubles was drivingsnow; also, the freezing of the water on their oar-blades kept one manoccupied in chopping it off with a hatchet. Compelled to take their turnat the oars, Sprague and Stine patently loafed. Kit had learned howto throw his weight on an oar, but he noted that his employers made aseeming of throwing their weights and that they dipped their oars at acheating angle.
At the end of three hours, Sprague pulled his oar in and said they wouldrun back into the mouth of the river for shelter. Stine seconded him,and the several hard-won miles were lost. A second day, and a third,the same fruitless attempt was made. In the river mouth, the continuallyarriving boats from White Horse made a flotilla of over two hundred.Each day forty or fifty arrived, and only two or three won to thenorthwest shore of the lake and did not come back. Ice was now formingin the eddies, and connecting from eddy to eddy in thin lines around thepoints. The freeze-up was very imminent.
"We could make it if they had the souls of clams," Kit told Shorty, asthey dried their moccasins by the fire on the evening of the third day."We could have made it to-day if they hadn't turned back. Another hour'swork would have fetched that west shore. They're--they're babes in thewoods."
"Sure," Shorty agreed. He turned his moccasin to the flame and debated amoment. "Look here, Smoke. It's hundreds of miles to Dawson. If we don'twant to freeze in here, we've got to do something. What d'ye say?"
Kit looked at him, and waited.
"We've got the immortal cinch on them two babes," Shorty expounded."They can give orders an' shed mazuma, but as you say, they're plumbabes. If we're goin' to Dawson, we got to take charge of this hereoutfit."
They looked at each other.
"It's a go," said Kit, as his hand went out in ratification.
In the morning, long before daylight, Shorty issued his call. "Come on!"he roared. "Tumble out, you sleepers! Here's your coffee! Kick into it!We're goin' to make a start!"
Grumbling and complaining, Stine and Sprague were forced to get underway two hours earlier than ever before. If anything, the gale wasstiffer, and in a short time every man's face was iced up, while theoars were heavy with ice. Three hours they struggled, and four, one mansteering, one chopping ice, two toiling at the oars, and each taking hisvarious turns. The northwest shore loomed nearer and nearer. The galeblew ever harder, and at last Sprague pulled in his oar in token ofsurrender. Shorty sprang to it, though his relief had only begun.
"Chop ice," he said, handing Sprague the hatchet.
"But what's the use?" the other whined. "We can't make it. We're goingto turn back."
"We're going on," said Shorty. "Chop ice. An' when you feel better youcan spell me."
It was heart-breaking toil, but they gained the shore, only to find itcomposed of surge-beaten rocks and cliffs, with no place to land.
"I told you so," Sprague whimpered.
"You never peeped," Shorty answered.
"We're going back."
Nobody spoke, and Kit held the boat into the seas as they skirted theforbidding shore. Sometimes they gained no more than a foot to thestroke, and there were times when two or three strokes no more thanenabled them to hold their own. He did his best to hearten the twoweaklings. He pointed out that the boats which had won to this shore hadnever come back. Perforce, he argued, they had found a shelter somewhereahead. Another hour they labored, and a second.
"If you fellows'd put into your oars some of that coffee you swig inyour blankets, we'd make it," was Shorty's encouragement. "You're justgoin' through the motions an' not pullin' a pound."
A few minutes later, Sprague drew in his oar.
"I'm finished," he said, and there were tears in his voice.
"So are the rest of us," Kit answered, himself ready to cry or to commitmurder, so great was his exhaustion. "But we're going on just the same."
"We're going back. Turn the boat around."
"Shorty, if he won't pull, take that oar yourself," Kit commanded.
"Sure," was the answer. "He can chop ice."
But Sprague refused to give over the oar; Stine had ceased rowing, andthe boat was drifting backward.
"Turn around, Smoke," Sprague ordered.
And Kit, who never in his life had cursed any man, astonished himself.
"I'll see you in hell, first," he replied. "Take hold of that oar andpull."
It is in moments of exhaustion that men lose all their reserves ofcivilization, and such a moment had come. Each man had reached thebreaking-p
oint. Sprague jerked off a mitten, drew his revolver, andturned it on his steersman. This was a new experience to Kit. He hadnever had a gun presented at him in his life. And now, to his surprise,it seemed to mean nothing at all. It was the most natural thing in theworld.
"If you don't put that gun up," he said, "I'll take it away and rap youover the knuckles with it."
"If you don't turn the boat around, I'll shoot you," Sprague threatened.
Then Shorty took a hand. He ceased chopping ice and stood up behindSprague.
"Go on an' shoot," said Shorty, wiggling the hatchet. "I'm just achingfor a chance to brain you. Go on an' start the festivities."
"This is mutiny," Stine broke in. "You were engaged to obey orders."
Shorty turned on him. "Oh, you'll get yours as soon as I finish withyour pardner, you little hog-wallopin' snooper, you."
"Sprague," Kit said, "I'll give you just thirty seconds to put away thatgun and get that oar out."
Sprague hesitated, gave a short hysterical laugh, put the revolver away,and bent his back to the work.
For two hours more, inch by inch, they fought their way along the edgeof the foaming rocks, until Kit feared he had made a mistake. And then,when on the verge of himself turning back, they came abreast of a narrowopening, not twenty feet wide, which led into a land-locked enclosurewhere the fiercest gusts scarcely flawed the surface. It was the havengained by the boats of previous days. They landed on a shelving beach,and the two employers lay in collapse in the boat, while Kit and Shortypitched the tent, built a fire, and started the cooking.
"What's a hog-walloping snooper, Shorty?" Kit asked.
"Blamed if I know," was the answer; "but he's one just the same."
The gale, which had been dying quickly, ceased at nightfall, and it cameon clear and cold. A cup of coffee, set aside to cool and forgotten, afew minutes later was found coated with half an inch of ice. At eighto'clock, when Sprague and Stine, already rolled in their blankets, weresleeping the sleep of exhaustion, Kit came back from a look at the boat.
"It's the freeze-up, Shorty," he announced. "There's a skin of ice overthe whole pond already."
"What are you going to do?"
"There's only one thing. The lake of course freezes first. The rapidcurrent of the river may keep it open for days. This time to-morrow anyboat caught in Lake Labarge remains there until next year."
"You mean we got to get out to-night? Now?"
"Tumble out, you sleepers!" was Shorty's answer, couched in a roar, ashe began casting off the guy-ropes of the tent.
The other two awoke, groaning with the pain of stiffened muscles and thepain of rousing from the sleep of exhaustion.
"What time is it?" Stine asked.
"It's dark yet," was the objection.
Shorty jerked out a couple of guy-ropes, and the tent began to sag.
"It's not morning," he said. "It's evening. Come on. The lake'sfreezin'. We got to get acrost."
Stine sat up, his face bitter and wrathful. "Let it freeze. We're notgoing to stir."
"All right," said Shorty. "We're goin' on with the boat."
"You were engaged--"
"To take your outfit to Dawson," Shorty caught him up. "Well, we'retakin' it, ain't we?" He punctuated his query by bringing half the tentdown on top of them.
They broke their way through the thin ice in the little harbor, and cameout on the lake, where the water, heavy and glassy, froze on their oarswith every stroke. The water soon became like mush, clogging the strokeof the oars and freezing in the air even as it dripped. Later thesurface began to form a skin, and the boat proceeded slower and slower.
Often afterwards, when Kit tried to remember that night and failed tobring up aught but nightmare recollections, he wondered what must havebeen the sufferings of Stine and Sprague. His one impression of himselfwas that he struggled through biting frost and intolerable exertion fora thousand years, more or less.
Morning found them stationary. Stine complained of frosted fingers, andSprague of his nose, while the pain in Kit's cheeks and nose told himthat he, too, had been touched. With each accretion of daylight theycould see farther, and as far as they could see was icy surface. Thewater of the lake was gone. A hundred yards away was the shore of thenorth end. Shorty insisted that it was the opening of the river and thathe could see water. He and Kit alone were able to work, and with theiroars they broke the ice and forced the boat along. And at the last gaspof their strength they made the suck of the rapid river. One look backshowed them several boats which had fought through the night and werehopelessly frozen in; then they whirled around a bend in a currentrunning six miles an hour.
Day by day they floated down the swift river, and day by day theshore-ice extended farther out. When they made camp at nightfall, theychopped a space in the ice in which to lay the boat and carried the campoutfit hundreds of feet to shore. In the morning, they chopped theboat out through the new ice and caught the current. Shorty set upthe sheet-iron stove in the boat, and over this Stine and Sprague hungthrough the long, drifting hours. They had surrendered, no longer gaveorders, and their one desire was to gain Dawson. Shorty, pessimistic,indefatigable, and joyous, at frequent intervals roared out the threelines of the first four-line stanza of a song he had forgotten. Thecolder it got the oftener he sang:
"Like Argus of the ancient times, We leave this Modern Greece; Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum, To shear the Golden Fleece."
As they passed the mouths of the Hootalinqua and the Big and LittleSalmon, they found these streams throwing mush-ice into the main Yukon.This gathered about the boat and attached itself, and at night theyfound themselves compelled to chop the boat out of the current. In themorning they chopped the boat back into the current.
The last night ashore was spent between the mouths of the White Riverand the Stewart. At daylight they found the Yukon, half a mile wide,running white from ice-rimmed bank to ice-rimmed bank. Shorty cursed theuniverse with less geniality than usual, and looked at Kit.
"We'll be the last boat this year to make Dawson," Kit said.
"But they ain't no water, Smoke."
"Then we'll ride the ice down. Come on."
Futilely protesting, Sprague and Stine were bundled on board. For halfan hour, with axes, Kit and Shorty struggled to cut a way into the swiftbut solid stream. When they did succeed in clearing the shore-ice, thefloating ice forced the boat along the edge for a hundred yards, tearingaway half of one gunwale and making a partial wreck of it. Then, at thelower end of the bend, they caught the current that flung off-shore.They proceeded to work farther toward the middle. The stream was nolonger composed of mush-ice but of hard cakes. In between the cakes onlywas mush-ice, that froze solidly as they looked at it. Shoving with theoars against the cakes, sometimes climbing out on the cakes in order toforce the boat along, after an hour they gained the middle. Five minutesafter they ceased their exertions, the boat was frozen in. The wholeriver was coagulating as it ran. Cake froze to cake, until at last theboat was the center of a cake seventy-five feet in diameter. Sometimesthey floated sideways, sometimes stern-first, while gravity toreasunder the forming fetters in the moving mass, only to be manacled byfaster-forming ones. While the hours passed, Shorty stoked the stove,cooked meals, and chanted his war-song.
Night came, and after many efforts, they gave up the attempt to forcethe boat to shore, and through the darkness they swept helplesslyonward.
"What if we pass Dawson?" Shorty queried.
"We'll walk back," Kit answered, "if we're not crushed in a jam."
The sky was clear, and in the light of the cold, leaping stars theycaught occasional glimpses of the loom of mountains on either hand.At eleven o'clock, from below, came a dull, grinding roar. Their speedbegan to diminish, and cakes of ice to up-end and crash and smash aboutthem. The river was jamming. One cake, forced upward, slid across theircake and carried one side of the boat away. It
did not sink, for itsown cake still upbore it, but in a whirl they saw dark water show for aninstant within a foot of them. Then all movement ceased. At the end ofhalf an hour the whole river picked itself up and began to move. Thiscontinued for an hour, when again it was brought to rest by a jam. Onceagain it started, running swiftly and savagely, with a great grinding.Then they saw lights ashore, and, when abreast, gravity and the Yukonsurrendered, and the river ceased for six months.
On the shore at Dawson, curious ones, gathered to watch the riverfreeze, heard from out of the darkness the war-song of Shorty:
"Like Argus of the ancient times, We leave this Modern Greece; Tum-tum, tum-tum; tum-tum, tum-tum, To shear the Golden Fleece."
For three days Kit and Shorty labored, carrying the ton and a half ofoutfit from the middle of the river to the log-cabin Stine and Spraguehad bought on the hill overlooking Dawson. This work finished, inthe warm cabin, as twilight was falling, Sprague motioned Kit to him.Outside the thermometer registered sixty-five below zero.
"Your full month isn't up, Smoke," Sprague said. "But here it is infull. I wish you luck."
"How about the agreement?" Kit asked. "You know there's a famine here.A man can't get work in the mines even, unless he has his own grub. Youagreed--"
"I know of no agreement," Sprague interrupted. "Do you, Stine? Weengaged you by the month. There's your pay. Will you sign the receipt?"
Kit's hands clenched, and for the moment he saw red. Both men shrankaway from him. He had never struck a man in anger in his life, and hefelt so certain of his ability to thrash Sprague that he could not bringhimself to do it.
Shorty saw his trouble and interposed.
"Look here, Smoke, I ain't travelin' no more with a ornery outfit likethis. Right here's where I sure jump it. You an' me stick together.Savvy? Now, you take your blankets an' hike down to the Elkhorn. Waitfor me. I'll settle up, collect what's comin', an' give them what'scomin'. I ain't no good on the water, but my feet's on terry-fermy nowan' I'm sure goin' to make smoke."
. . . . .
Half an hour afterwards Shorty appeared at the Elkhorn. From hisbleeding knuckles and the skin off one cheek, it was evident that he hadgiven Stine and Sprague what was coming.
"You ought to see that cabin," he chuckled, as they stood at the bar."Rough-house ain't no name for it. Dollars to doughnuts nary one of 'emshows up on the street for a week. An' now it's all figgered out for youan' me. Grub's a dollar an' a half a pound. They ain't no work for wageswithout you have your own grub. Moose-meat's sellin' for two dollars apound an' they ain't none. We got enough money for a month's grub an'ammunition, an' we hike up the Klondike to the back country. If theyain't no moose, we go an' live with the Indians. But if we ain't gotfive thousand pounds of meat six weeks from now, I'll--I'll sure go backan' apologize to our bosses. Is it a go?"
Kit's hand went out, and they shook. Then he faltered. "I don't knowanything about hunting," he said.
Shorty lifted his glass.
"But you're a sure meat-eater, an' I'll learn you."