THE CARIBOU STAND
BY ELIZABETH ROBINS
Hypertext edition by Joanne E. Gates
Based on the publication in Pall Mall Magazine 35 (1905). Pages 561-572. The story was originally conceived as part of The Magnetic North, the 1904 Robins novel which tracks these same characters, "The Boy" and "Kentucky" or "The Colonel," as they trek midwinter following the Yukon River from its mouth to Dawson. Cuts were made in the novel before publication. This story and "Monica's Village" were published separately but belong to the events of the novel. The experiences are based only loosely on the same trip that Elizabeth Robins's two brothers, Saxton and Raymond took. (Saxton was known under the alias Harry Earl, at Raymond's insistance.)
PERMISSIONS and CITATION FORMAT
THE usual two pardners bound for that goal no man in the North needed to specify in the winter following upon the Klondyke Rush. They had suffered the usual hardships, and some that were unusual. For certainly no white man had ever undertaken such a journey on the Yukon in the winter without dogs. In trying to learn the lesson of the North they found, as men do otherwhere, in the unteachableness of others, that kind of cruel help that only the failure of our fellows would seem to give us. They called their most significant object-lesson the Caribou Stand. They came upon it on the last stretch of the worst part of their journey.
The elder man, who was commonly called the Colonel, "because he as a Kentuckian," was near the end of his tether. "The Boy's" case was but little better. Worn, starving, filled with bitterness against each other, and a great horror of the probable end, they had seen below them in the moonlight, on the ledge of the ancient river-terrace, the first human sign in the unforgettable fortnight.
The dark scar upon the snow must be a burnt-out firethe long black shadow an Indian sled like the one they toiled with.
They turned and looked at one another with changed eyes.
It didn't matter in that moment whether white or native. Even if the speech were Ingalik, the heart would still be human. They had tested that.
So down the cliff, slipping, slidingin their overmastering fatigue falling, in their new courage recovering quicklythey worked round in front of the little riverward-looking camp. A hut hollowed in a drift, and only faced with timber. Held in place on the roof by the Indian sled, and pieces of flat shale, a curtain of dressed skin fell over the entrance like a veil over a marred and shrinking face. What behind?
Each of the men outside felt himself arrested by an overmastering dread of drawing the veil away. They hesitated, listening. No sound.
"Hello!" called the Colonel, and his shaking voice was fainter than he dreamed.
They waited. All still. Then this tongue they had come to hear speak comfort, Ingalik or English, was done with speech, and the only camp they had found was a gold-digger's grave.
But again the Colonel called: "Hello!"
A voice: "Who's there?"
They pushed the curtain aside, and the moonlight entered faintly. A man half rose up out of his blankets. No Indian. And now another faceghastly white, and young.
"Well!" said the man with the grey beard. "You're the first visitors we've had."
He came outside. Hardly looking at his visitors, he began to make the fire, for no man loses time in this country over introductory observations. As for the travellers,fire, food, and a human facewere not these enough?
There wasn't room for the new-comers in the little snow house with the driftwood lintel. What matter? After the first full meal they had had for four days, they spread the sleeping-bag between the deer-skin curtain and the dying fire, and crawled in.
All they knew of their host was that he was John Donaldson from northern New York, and the young man (who presumably had gone to sleep again) was Billy Curtisand they had plenty of grub.
"How far are you from the first settlement?"
"God knows. Maybe twenty, maybe forty miles."
"Can't possibly be so far."
"Glad you're so certain."
* * *
They slept till late the following afternoon. There was a camp fire crackling, and beside it, as the Boy pushed his wild head out of the sleeping-bag, he saw Donaldson's pardner on his knees, straightening a saucepan over the blaze. Curtis's beardless young face was wan and hopeless. Twice he winced as if under the touch of some intolerable pain. Ah, yes! his feet were wrapped in shapeless clouts, and he moved about on all fours. Donaldson came down the hill, and flung an armful of fuel by the fire.
"Hello!" he said gruffly to his guest.
"Hello!" answered the Boy.
At this exchange the Colonel came to the surface. When presently he untied the rope round the neck of his collapsed provision bag, "Don't!" said Donaldson: "I'm getting dinner for four."
"Well, I'm not sure that we ought to go walkin' into your stuff."
"Might as well. I'll have to leave a lot of good grub behind when I go on."
The young fellow with the bandaged feet had started slightly.
"Got a touch of frost in your toes?" inquired the Colonel.
The young fellow nodded.
"More than a touch. He got his feet frozen some time back," said the elder man. "I had to drag Billy those last milesdrag him as well as all our provisions and bedding. Had to go three times over every inch we travelled."
Neither the Boy nor the Colonel had liked Donaldson's looks so well by daylightbut he was "a white man," after all.
"I walked all I could." The look on the wasted face of the one who had given out was a thing to make you turn away your eyes.
* * *
"Well, this is mighty comfortin'," the Colonel said, sitting back in his sheltered place and stretching out his plate for a third helping of beans; "but if the weather holds we've got to push onhey, Boy?"
"Sure . . . !" He stopped short at the sudden look in Billy Curtis's face.
It wasn't really very cold, but they all crowded into the snow-hut, and lit their pipes. Only the Colonel seemed inclined for talk; but Donaldson did say they had made friends with the Anvik missionary and his wife. They wanted Billy to stay on as assistant teacher in the native school. Pity he didn't!
"Yes, nice thing for a Klondyker!" said Billy angrily. "Teaching A B C to a lot of lousy Indians!"
When they talked of the trail Donaldson grew silent.
"I met a man once," said the Colonel, "who'd been with Pearyup yonder, huntin' for the Pole. He tried to give me an idea of what it was likebut Lord! no tellin' does it. The last week has done more explainin' than a library could."
Donaldson only nodded.
"Another funny thing about the trail is that you learn so much about yourself that you never knew before." The Colonel's look was sombre.
"What d'ye mean?" asked Donaldson, more surly than ever.
"Well,a . . . " The Colonel stared at his pipe, and then rubbed his eyes as if to rub some ugly vision off the retina. "In the way of gettin' used to things, I mean."
But nobody present seemed to have had any such experience. The Colonel felt a bit lonely.
"This man that was with Peary, he found it so. Told me when they ran out o' feed, it hurt him a lot to kill the first dog, though it was to keep the rest o' the team alivegot another man to do the slaughterin', and he simply couldn't skin it. But by-and-by he was thankful he had something to skin. And he ate dog himself, sah! Think o' that!" (No one seemed to care to.) "And the funny thing was," he went on, "the dogs, had just the same feelin's. It kind o' comforted him, he said, after lettin' the first one be killed, to see how some o' those hungry brute beasts went supperless rather than eat their companion."
"How long did that last?" said Donaldson harshly. "Till they got good and hungry?"
The Colonel nodded mournfully. "Yes, they got over their squeamishness, and the survivors would fight for the carcasseat him unskinned, smoking, hair and all."
His three companions sat and stared at their drawn-up knees. The Colonel was sorry that he had thought of that explorer fella. It wasn't the moment to tell such tales. "Pretty choky in here," he said, and crawled out. The others followed. "Lord! how light it is yet!"
"Yes," answered Donaldson, gloomily, "and the sun's beginning to rot the snow."
They stared about disconsolately. They had all heard of the six weeks between the rotting of the trail and the opening of navigation, when no man in the North may travel, however great his courage or his need.
"I think I'll take a look at the lay o' the land!" The Colonel had to use some persuasion to get Donaldson to show him the natural bridge over the ravinethe short cut to the top of the rocky spur that broke the sweep of the old river-terrace.
"From there you can see far up the valley." Ultimately Donaldson, still hesitating, asked the Boy to come along with themeven urged him. No, he hadn't any snowshoes.
"By Gracious! I
forgot: I've got to tinker up my own before I can go on."
He turned some twine and a knife out of his pocket. Then he sat considering, and idly looking after the two. Yes, sir. Kentucky was wonderfully freshened up. Queer codger, Donaldson! How his hip pocket bulged! Why, yes, he must be carryin' a
Of all the things the Boy had lost on his long journey, thought of the lost rifle preyed most. There was one thing more imperative even than need of snow-shoes. He must buy, borrow, beg . . .
"What sort of a rifle did you bring?" he asked.
"Aoh, a . . . " Billy, with knit brows, was thinking his own thoughts.
"Did you happen to have a revolver along too?"
"Me? Noonly my thirty-forty smokeless."
"Got any special use for it?" What the devil made the fella drop his eyes like that? "Let's have a look at her."
In a low preoccupied voice, Billy answered: "Left her in the snow somewhere"
"No shootin'-irons in the whole outfit?"
"Oh, he's got his derringer, Donaldson has."
They watched the others dropping down into the ravine. Billy turned sharply: "When you cached your traps up yonder did you noticewas there anything on Donaldson's sled?"
"Nothing else? Nothing underneath?"
"Don't think so." The Boy took up his sorry-looking show-shoes.
"Well, I'd be awfully obliged if you'd get up on the roof and look."
The Boy threw down the tattered birch-bark. "Say, Billy, what'll you take for your snow-shoes?"
The owner seemed not to hear. "You don't have to unlash the cover. Just feel, will you?"
The Boy climbed up and inspected the situation, calling down, first, "Nop!" then "Yep! little flat pack"
"Shut up! Come down. It's all right."
Billy was staring at the ravine. Two figures were in sight, mounting the crag. "Needn't say anything about it," he added, as the boy scrambled down; "I only wanted to know if it was packed."
"Thinkin' of makin' a start soon?"
"N-no. But it's packed," he said lamely, "ready for when a start is made."
"Why, there isn't grub enough on that sled to last a couple o' fellas three days."
"Guess it'd last one man to the first village."
"One man?" Was is possible that he thought he would soon be able to travel?
"I s'pose that's your sled up there?"
Billy shook his head. "My sled's down on the trail somewhere."
The two on the crag had turned and were coming back.
"Did that owl keep you awake last night?" asked Billy, looking up at the
dead evergreen near the camp. "I'd like to have a shot at him."
"Borrow the derringer."
"He ain't fond o' lendin' his derringer. See here: I'll give you my snow-shoes if you'll lend me your revolver till we meet in Dawson." The last words came tumbling out feverishly. He leaned forward. "Lend me your gun! Hey?"
"Sorryleft it down the trail."
Billy drew back. Night had fallen on his face.
The other two were coming up out of the ravine. Now they could hear the Colonel saying, "Let's all start to-morrow, then," and Donaldson answering, "Don't you wait. It's no country to wait for anybody in."
Billy had leaned forward as if to reach a branch of dead spruce for the fire. His long lank hair swept the Boy's shoulder, as he said very low: "Don't go tomorrowf' God's sake don't go!" Then he straightened himself, and began to chop at the dead branch.
Donaldson, as he came up, glanced sharply at the two who had stayed behind. "I suppose you'd like to pack your grub to-nighthey?" He went on briskly into the snow hut. He dragged out a gunny sack and returned for a broached side of bacon, and a saw. "Help yourselves," he said, undoing the sack.
Billy had crawled up behind the strangers and knelt there, looking on. There was that in his face that made the Colonel say, "I wish you two were coming along with us!"
"Can't you see he isn't able to travel?" Donaldson asked harshly.
The Boy fixed him with a bold eye: "What's your plan, then?"
"Oh, I thought we could hang on till the steamers run."
As Donaldson moved about, the keen scrutiny that every now and then he bestowed upon Billy and the Boy was not lost on either. But neither gave a sign. It was as if the elder man expected to surprise some secret understanding. Whether by design or chance, he gave the Boy no opportunity for a word alone with the Colonel; but he was most zealous in helping to make everything ready. He was quite severe on Billy for his selfish refusal to sell his snow-shoes, when he couldn't use them himself. Notwithstanding Billy's sorrowful and enigmatic looks, the Boy was "pretty mad" about the snow-shoe matter, till suddenly it flashed across him: "He thinks if I don't have snow-shoes I can't go. Why is he so anxious?"
When all was in order for the early start, "Now we'll have a bite," says Donaldson, like one with a weight off his mind.
The Boy was very sleepy. "I'll talk to Kentucky when we're in the bag," he thought, as the others still sat pouring down hot tea. He got up and spread the bed in the same place, between the deer-skin curtain and the camp-fire. He would have liked to be farther away to-night, but he felt that to move would be to show his hand.
Half in, half out of the bag, he ostentatiously yawned and stretched. But Donaldson, the silent, had grown talkative.
While the Boy was promising himself to keep awake till the story was ended, he fell asleep, and never knew when the Colonel joined him.
Why, that must be Billy's owl. The Boy undid the flap, pulled himself up, and pushed the flap down as well as he could between his own knee and his companion' s head.
While the Boy stared sleepily among the sparse, down-slanting branches for a shadow that might be the owl, his hood fell back again and heaviness descended on his eyelids. Sleep strikes the trailman like a club. He drops with hardly a struggle. But to have your frost-bitten cheek come down hard on a log of driftwoodprojection of the snow hut's door-sillwill rouse even a trailman. He started up again and felt for the rag he called his handkerchief to lay against his bleeding face. Whispering? He looked round. Why, that was Billy's weak and husky pipe sounding close to his ear. Of course, behind the deerskin. And the muffled voice of the other man from farther back. Fogged and faintly into the Boy's drowsy ear came the words:
"If that fellow says any more about it in the morning, you've got to tell him that you simply can't travel. See?"
"It's a funny thing you've forgotten, yourself, how you suffered."
"Oh, I haven't forgottenanything."
An edge was in the last word, an agony,
that cut the veil of sleep from top to bottom, and the Boy opened clear eyes upon the moon.
Softly Donaldson cleared his throat: "Haven't I done all I could for you?" he whispered.
"Youyou've done a lot." Hastily the frightened words fell out"helped me to buy my outfit, and"
"I'm not talking about money. Haven't I done all man can do to get you to the Klondyke?"
"You've done a frightful lot."
"I can't get you new feet. Can't haul you and food and bedding eleven hundred miles, can I?"
"And don't you run away with the notion that anybody else can. These outsiders coming in make things look different, but"
"Yes, things did look different." There was hope, even courage, struggling in the tone.
"But they aren't any different. There isn't one of them would drag his pardner the miles I've hauled you."
"I s'pose not."
"You've got to promise to let them go about their business in the morning."
"Oh, I can't prevent their going. But I begin to see it all better since these others came," Billy whispered.
"I've kept you back long enough. Why don't you go on in the morning with them? Leave me toto wait for the steamer."
"Who's going to pay for the passage? I've put every damn' dollar I've got in the world into this"
"I knowI know."
"You don't know. You don't know the condition your feet are in."
"Guess I know they're givin' me hell."
"Yes, but you don't know it's hopeless. They won't get any betterthey'll only get worse: that is"he caught himself up"they will if you go on the trail." A long pause. "So, if you've been entertaining that idea you'd better give it up."
"Oh, I've given up most things,"the low voice was sick with despair,"but it's this fog we seem to be in, that I can't stand. For so long you've been saying one thing to me and meaning another. You say, 'I can't leave you,' but you are thinking all the time that your business is to go on as long as you can stand. You talk about Aunt Julia and the children,you mean that a man of family oughtn't to sacrifice himself"
"Now you are getting morbid again."
"But all the time you are thinking: suppose you stay here and nurse me, nurse me till I die. Provisions gone, no moneythere'd be nothing left, you think, but a bullet through your head."
A horrible eloquence in the only stressed word.
"When you look at me, I can see in your face just about how long you think I'll last." Donaldson tried to interrupt. "Just as before we quit the trail, when you pulled me past those blow-holes in the river, you couldn't help coasting the very edge. And I saw how you thought I might fall in."
"No, Uncle Donaldson, I don't lie. I've tried to think you don't know what these fellows coming meant to mebut you do know."
"I know you're out of your head."
"I wish I were! I wish I were! Then maybeI wouldn't realise. . . . Do go on with them to-morrow. I'll explain it. I'll say I begged you to."
"When these men came you were all ready to go."
"ready to go alone."
"What kept you, Uncle Donaldson? If you don't go to-morrow I shall know."
A breathless pause.
"You needn't be afraid to leave me my little chance of life. It isn't only dead men who tell no tales." The low words were clear.
"No, I can't be hushed up this time"suddenly the voice rose hysterical"for I know what'll happen if I let these men go, and leave you and me here alone"
"Hush, I say!"
The deerskin moved.
"When they're gone you'll cure me! Same way you cured the last dog when he fell and broke his back."
There was sudden movement in the snow hut, and the words, no longer whispered, came in muffled agony, as if from under blankets. "Uncle! I'd rather you shot me. . . . Uncle!"
The Boy was out of the hampering bag
in a flash, his hand almost on the deerskin, arrested in the act of bursting in upon Donaldsonhearing him whisper: "If I didn't know you were half crazy I wouldn't forgive you that."
"Oh! please forgive meforgive me!"
"Well, don't wake the others, that's all."
"Nono: I must have been a little crazy. That's what I've been afraid of. I knew as long as I could keep my mouth shutO Lord! the pain!"
For awhile everything was still as death on the other side of the curtain. The Boy dared hardly breathe. The ghostly moon drooped nearer, below the forlorn branches, down-bent and bare, as if the very dead in nature, sapless tree and burntout planet, leaned closer, listening.
"I told you not to call me that."
"I forgotI haven't done it before these fellows."
"I can't have outsiders mixing up in my private affairs. Do you here?" Then, almost kindly, "Their coming hasn't changed anything. Hardly a day but you've kept on hintinghintingyou'd 'better be dead,' and all that. And I've always shut you up, haven't I? Haven't I?
"Yes, but I saw you didn't mean what you said."
Silence for a moment. Speaking in the strained voice of one trying to keep himself in hand: "Then why," demanded Donaldson, "wouldn't I give you my revolver?"
"Because...you weren't sure . . . which way I'd point it."
The words were very low, but Donaldson must have heard them.
A long, long silence in the hut.
The Boy grew very cold, but he felt he couldn't bury himself in the bag againyou can hear nothing, see nothing; you are snuffed out in a sleeping bag. Well, it would do no one any good that he should freeze to death. So by-and-by down he crept into the warmth. Reaching back a stiff hand after the flap, he heard a movement, turned sharply, and saw the curtain tremble.
He left the flap thrown back, dropped his head on it and seemed to sleep. He heard breathing and the swish of native boots on the frozen snow. Not Billy, then.
He felt Donaldson's eyes boring into
him through the gloom. A long time the silent presence stood there. A soft pad of the feet, a crackling of the frosty curtain, and when cautiously the Boy opened one eye, there was no sign of any one having been and gone. He shivered, drew the flap hurriedly over his head, and slipped down beside the Colonel. But he had not shut Donaldson out. Through the dark and the silence he was penetrated by the man's presence, pricked by his suspicion, menaced by his eyes. Nor had Donaldson left him outside.
Neither in snow hut nor in wolf-skin bed did any speak or stiryet all the time was one of those silent duels going on, which, every day the old earth turns about, is deciding by inaudible content some question of human fate. In his worn-out, frightened mind Donaldson was saying: "You out thereit's no use your pretending you're asleep."
BOY: Oh, yes; I'm asleep.
DONALDSON: You think I don't know you overheard?
BOY: Well, it's no wonder you can't sleep.
DONALDSON: My business needn't keep you awake.
BOY: This is any white man's business.
DONALDSON: It'll be the worse for you if you interfere.
BOY: Your only chance is to let on you don't know I'm interferin'. See?
And, in the dark, Uncle Donaldson, saw.
The Boy said to himself he must evolve a plan. It was no matter for bungling.
The next thing he knew he was alone in the bag, and there were voices round a crackling fire. A pretty sort of fellow, he, to help anybody! Full of chagrin, he got up, and joined the others as if nothing had happened.
"Let's go up on the cliff, before breakfast, Colonel, and take a look at things," suggested the Boy.
"I did that yesterday."
"Oh, come on."
"I'm helpin' Donaldson."
The Boy came round and sat on his heels by Billy. Donaldson's attention fastened leech-like on him. But he pretended not to see. "How's your feet?" he said to Billy.
"Just the same."
"Come in the hut and let's see."
"Billy's got to make the tea."
The Boy jumped up desperate, but with an air of accepting the incorrigibility of the situation. He walked off whistling, hands muffled in parki. He stopped in front of the deerskin curtain with knit brows. Suddenly he pushed it aside, and disappeared in the hut. Donaldson, holding the bean-pan, full of snow, over the fire, looked after him with obvious disquiet. "Take this!" He gave the pan to Billy, marched over to the snow house, arriving just as the Boy came out, a smile on his lips but fight in his eyes.
He took no notice of Donaldson, but climbed nimbly up on the driftwood roof and began to lower his own sled. The other man returned to the fire, partly reassured.
"Look here! Donaldson!" called the Boy. Donaldson turned to see his enemy standing astride his host's sledthe cover pulled off, the meagre cargo plain to every eye.
"See here!" He stood with wide-apart legs, straddling Donaldson's tell-tale pack, wearing the old tense look in his face that the Colonel knew meant business.
"Where's the rest o' your provisions?"
"What's that to you?"
"They ain't inside. I've looked."
"Why, we haven't got any more," said Billy, staring at the apparition on the roof, in worn fur parki, weather-stained buckskins, broken, twine-mended boots, face darkened and aged by the shadow of the young beard and marred by ugly frost-bites. But the long-absent fire flashed out of the brilliant eyes.
"You haven't got any more, hey? Then do you know what's happened, Colonel?"
Donaldson flushed darkly, set the pan in the snow, and stood up to parry the shock.
"Well, sir," the orator on the roof continued, "we've gone and neatly packed up a good share o' the provisions o' two men a sight worse off than we are. Men who can't travel, and who haven't got enough to last till the ice goes out!"
"Oh yes, we have," mumbled Donaldson, a good deal taken aback at the unexpected form of the arraignment.
"I tell you, Colonel, there ain't enough grub in this outfit to last 'em six weeks, and it'll be twelve before the steamers run."
"Bless my soul!" observed the Colonel.
"We ain't such hogs as we look, Mr. Donaldson!" says the Boy, jumping down with eyes very shining and far from benevolent. "What I want to tell you is this, Billy Curtis: don't you give up hope. You wait till you get to Kaltag before you change cars for Kingdom Come."
"Kaltag?" began Donaldson scornfully.
"There might be a doctor or a missionary. People who live in this country know about frost-bite. A friend of ours, he saved the life of a Klondyker bybywell, the fella had to lose a footbut Gracious! there have been soldiers and people who've lost both feet, but they've gone on livin' just about as well as anybody. See? Can't think why you set such a frightful store by your feet! Now, if it was your head"
"There's only one thing to be done," said the Colonel gravely. "We must join forces and all push on together. We'll pack all the provisions we can carry on one sled, and we'll put Billy on the other. We three ought to be able to manage it."
Donaldson shook his head, and opened his lips to speak.
"There ain't any question about it," the Boy challenged him with a look. "It's got to be done."
It was done.
Curiously enough, a good deal of it was done by Donaldson. He was more than satisfactory, the first part of the day. Turn and turn about, he and the Boy pulled Billy's sled or pushed the heavier one the Colonel was dragging.
The trail had left off trying to cling to the skirts of the hill-range. It made its way far out towards the middle of the river, winding in and out among the piled and broken ice-hummocks.
The sleds could no longer be stolidly draggedthey had to be engineered, manoeuvred. Now they caught, and now they skiddedthey tipped, and one overturned. Only Billy's, by an infinity of pains and patient guiding, was kept right side up, and jarred as little as possible. Yet, even so, it was for him a ghastly journey.
Donaldson too! It was his first taste of the trail after days of comparative
inaction. It wouldn't do to break his back on the first march.
"Oh, nonsense," said the Colonel. "We can't camp in the middle o' the river."
"Where's the wood?"
"What do we want o' wood? We got some stuff cooked. Trust me 'bout this, Kentucky," the Boy whispered hurriedly, seeing Donaldson look back: "I can't tell you any more now."
The Colonel called a halt. They propped up the sleds, banked the snow, and with the two canvas covers made a shelter. Then they all sat close together and ate frozen bacon and beans.
"Hello! hear that?"
"Voices, sure's a gun!"
The Boy jumped up and mounted the nearest ice-hummock. Donaldson and the Colonel followed, jeering.
"I don't see anything," admitted the Boy, "but some Indian's mushin' a dog." He set off in the direction the sound had come from, and was soon blotted out in the falling snow.
"I hear voices," said Billy, straining forward,and then they all did; heard shouting and calling to dogs, and before they could collect their incredulous senses they saw the Boy coming back through the snow, talking and gesticulating to a traveller, followed by an Indian and a dog-team.
"It's Father Norris from Nulato, on his way to Holy Cross. This is Colonel Warren; this is Mr. Donaldson and Billy Curtis. Wonderful how much good it does you to meet a white man on the trail," the Boy wound up to Donaldson, with a conciliatory air. "You feel as if he was your brother and your sister, and your father and your mother, and the whole kit and boodle of your best relations. We felt like that when we found you at Snow Camp."
Donaldson was silent. How much had he told the Jesuit?
"How far have you come to-day, sir?" asked the Colonel.
"Only from the Indian village, up here."
"Yes. We didn't start till noon."
"By the Lord!"
"Have they got any good draught dogs there?" inquired Donaldson.
"Two, I believe."
"A lot of game was reported in the hills, and the bucks have taken their teams and gone after it."
"Only two left," murmured Donaldson thoughtfully.
The Colonel was helping the Indian to put up a tent.
"Have you frosted your feet?" asked Father Norris of Billy.
"You must let me look at them."
Some furs were spread on the tent's canvas floor. Billy crawled in and lay down.
"Bring some candles!" The Indian obeyed. He seemed to have everything, this priest. There was moose meat and rabbits, a case of instruments and medicines. He came out of the tent and looked gravely round.
"His only chance is amputation. If he's got strength enough left to stand it, instant surgery may"Again his eyes went round the circle. "I shall want you in there," he said to the Boy. Then suddenly to Donaldson, "Are you his pardner? Well, you can hold the candle." The three went into the little tent. The others stayed outside.
* * *
"Oh God, Colonel!"
Donaldson, too, stumbled blindly out of the tent. He looked like a man smitten by some sudden sickness.
* * *
The Colonel woke in the raw morning feeling half frozen. No wonder. One of the sled screens had fallen. He crawled out of the sleeping-bag to see after it, for the Yukon wind thinks nothing of carrying a sled miles away in a night and burying it till spring. He roused up the Boy.
"Have you told him?"
"No. Donaldson!" he called, and looked round. The Colonel and the Boy turned and stared into each other's faces.
Donaldson was gone.
The Boy went into the tent to see Billy.
"He's all right," said the priest. "No fever. Stood his operation like a Spartan. That young man will get well."
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At breakfast Donaldson was the theme.
"I wonder he didn't try to help himself to my dogs," said Father Norris calmly.
"Oh, he knows there's a couple waitin' for him at the village. That's why he went onto grab the dogs, and saddle us with Billy."
"He wants to go back with me," said the priest.
"Billy?" But you can't take him."
"Why not? I have seven dogs, a good outfit and a guide."
The Colonel and the Boy went in to tell Billy about Donaldson. He took it very calmly.
"After what he saw in here last night he thought I was going to die. He would never have gone if he hadn't."
"How you can stick up for such a"
Billy smiled faintly. "Hardly 'sticking up.' All I mean is he's only been waiting till he could see me safely dead. He didn't want me to go home."
* * *
"So you're going back to Holy Cross, Billy?"
"Only as far as Anvik, I think."
"Well, that's all O.K. But Great Cæsar, Billy, that uncle o' yours!"
"Uncle?" He looked scared for a moment, as if Donaldson might hear. "We don't say much about that. Fellows don't up herenot even if they're brothers."
"It's true," agreed Father Norris grimly, "and significant enough."
"Uncle Donaldson's all right when he's at home," said Billy.
"Pity he don't stay there, then."
"He's done a great deal for us all: sent me to school, and"
"I see. Just sufferin' from Klondicitis at present."
And they talked about Billy's future, and when the others went out the Boy lent him a hundred dollars. Billy turned over to his friend his excellent snow-shoes and a Norfolk jacket, for the triumphal entry into the Klondyke. And they parted with good cheer. Only nine miles! No snow, and the going first-rate.
* * *
They had covered about seven miles, when they sighted men and dogs.
"Lord! they're gettin' as thick as blackberries," said the Colonel.
Two white men this time: MacCallister and Vogel, young miners from Minook going to St. Michael's for supplies.
"Well, what about the new camp?"
"Minook? Well, we've just got a proposition we're not in any hurry to hand on."
"Yes, only a couple o' miles to the next Indian villageChrist! What's that?"
They all looked down into the dell between the two low hills skirting the trail.
A man sat in a kind of circular ditch with his back to the trail.
"Waitin' for the clouds to roll by," laughed the Boy. "Hello!" But the wind was strong the other way.
"What's he made that circle in the snow for?"
"He didn't make that. It's a caribou stand. When the wolves get inconvenient, the caribou round up, with their young and weak in the middle, and all round outside they dig that circular trench, set their fore-feet in it and stand heads down, horns out, ready for Mr. Wolf. Hello! hi!"
They all joined in the shout. The man in the caribou trench never stirred. The others looked at one another.
They all went over the ridge, and down into the sheltered place where the caribou had made a last stand, and maybe a man as well.
Beside a low rock the end of a sled looked outthe rest under snow. The Boy hurried on, crossed the half-filled trench and stopped shortface to face with the tired traveller taking his ease.
"It's Donaldson," he said.
He knew in his heart the man was dead, but he called out, "See here! Wake up!" and he touched his shoulder. His fingers seemed to fall on iron. Shuddering, he thrust his hand into the man's parki. The heart was stilled behind a breast of ice.
"That's what comes of travellin' without a pardner," said Vogel.
As they turned back to the trail the Colonel looked over his shoulder, and said in his heart, "But for the grace of God, there am I."
The same thought pricked his pardner's breast.
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