Half the time the wind blew a gale, and Smoke Bellew staggered against it along the beach. In the gray of dawn a dozen boats were being loaded with the precious outfits packed across Chilcoot. They were clumsy, home-made boats, put together by men who were not boat- builders, out of planks they had sawed by hand from green spruce trees. One boat, already loaded, was just starting, and Kit paused to watch.
The wind, which was fair down the lake, here blew in squarely on the beach, kicking up a nasty sea in the shallows. The men of the departing boat waded in high rubber boots as they shoved it out toward deeper water. Twice they did this. Clambering aboard and failing to row clear, the boat was swept back and grounded. Kit noticed that the spray on the sides of the boat quickly turned to ice. The third attempt was a partial success. The last two men to climb in were wet to their waists, but the boat was afloat. They struggled awkwardly at the heavy oars, and slowly worked off shore. Then they hoisted a sail made of blankets, had it carried away in a gust, and were swept a third time back on the freezing beach.
Kit grinned to himself and went on. This was what he must expect to encounter, for he, too, in his new role of gentleman's man, was to start from the beach in a similar boat that very day.
Everywhere men were at work, and at work desperately, for the closing down of winter was so imminent that it was a gamble whether or not they would 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 not find them stirring.
By a fire, under the shelter of a tarpaulin, squatted a short, thick man smoking 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 mister and the man, and he was sure of a hint of a twinkle in the corner of the eye.
"Well, I'm Doc Stine's man," the other went on. "I'm five feet two inches long, and my name's Shorty, Jack Short for short, and sometimes known as Johnny-on-the-Spot."
Kit put out his hand and shook.
"Were you raised on bear-meat?" he queried.
"Sure," was the answer; "though my first feedin' was buffalo-milk as near as I can remember. Sit down an' have some grub. The bosses ain't turned out yet."
And despite the one breakfast, Kit sat down under the tarpaulin and ate a second breakfast thrice as hearty. The heavy, purging toil of weeks had 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 he found voluble and pessimistic, and from him he received surprising tips concerning their bosses, and ominous forecasts of the expedition. Thomas Stanley Sprague was a budding mining engineer and the son of a millionaire. Doctor Adolph Stine was also the son of a wealthy father. And, through their fathers, both had been backed by an investing syndicate in the Klondike adventure.
"Oh, they're sure made of money," Shorty expounded. "When they hit the beach at Dyea, freight was seventy cents, but no Indians. There was a party from Eastern Oregon, real miners, that'd managed to get a team of Indians together at seventy cents. Indians had the straps on the outfit, three thousand pounds of it, when along comes Sprague and Stine. They offered eighty cents and ninety, and at a dollar a pound the Indians jumped the contract and took off their straps. Sprague and Stine came through, though it cost them three thousand, and the Oregon bunch is still on the beach. They won't get through till next year.
"Oh, they are real hummers, your boss and mine, when it comes to sheddin' the mazuma an' never mindin' other folks' feelin's. What did they do when they hit Linderman? The carpenters was just putting in the last licks on a boat they'd contracted to a 'Frisco bunch for six hundred. Sprague and Stine slipped 'em an even thousand, and they jumped their contract. It's a good-lookin' boat, but it's jiggered the other bunch. They've got their outfit right here, but no boat. And they're stuck for next year.
"Have another cup of coffee, and take it from me that I wouldn't travel with 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 a house in mourning if they needed it in their business. Did you sign a contract?"
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 to starve 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, but they can't work, or turn out of bed in the morning. We should have been loaded and started an hour ago. It's you an' me for the big work. Pretty soon you'll hear 'em shoutin' for their coffee--in bed, mind you, and they grown men. What d'ye know about boatin' on the water? I'm a cowman and a prospector, but I'm sure tender-footed on water, an' they don't know punkins. What d'ye know?"
"Search me," Kit answered, snuggling in closer under the tarpaulin as the snow whirled before a fiercer gust. "I haven't been on a small boat since a boy. But I guess we can learn."
A corner of the tarpaulin tore loose, and Shorty received a jet of driven snow down the back of his neck.
"Oh, we can learn all right," he muttered wrathfully. "Sure we can. A child can learn. But it's dollars to doughnuts we don't even get started to-day."
It was eight o'clock when the call for coffee came from the tent, and nearly nine before the two employers emerged.
"Hello," said Sprague, a rosy-cheeked, well-fed young man of twenty- five. "Time we made a start, Shorty. You and--" Here he glanced interrogatively 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 followed by Doctor Stine, a slender, pallid young man.
Shorty looked significantly at his companion.
"Over a ton and a half of outfit, and they won't lend a hand. You'll see."
"I guess it's because we're paid to do the work," Kit answered cheerfully, "and we might as well buck in."
To move three thousand pounds on the shoulders a hundred yards was no slight task, and to do it in half a gale, slushing through the snow in heavy rubber boots, was exhausting. In addition, there was the taking down of the tent and the packing of small camp equipage. Then came the loading. As the boat settled, it had to be shoved farther and farther out, increasing the distance they had to wade. By two o'clock it had all been accomplished, and Kit, despite his two breakfasts, was weak with the faintness of hunger. His knees were shaking under him. Shorty, in similar predicament, foraged through the pots and pans, and drew forth a big pot of cold boiled beans in which were imbedded large chunks of bacon. There was only one spoon, a long-handled one, and they dipped, turn and turn about, into the pot. Kit was filled with an immense certitude that in all his life he had never tasted anything so good.
"Lord, man," he mumbled between chews, "I never knew what appetite was till 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 get started?"
Shorty dipped in turn, and passed the spoon to Kit. Nor did either speak till the pot was empty and the bottom scraped.
"Of course we ain't ben doin' nothing," Shorty said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "We ain't ben doin' nothing at all. And of course 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 of ours."
"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 might you be goin' about to get started?"
"By climbing aboard and shoving off. Come on."
They waded out, and the employers got on board, while Kit and Shorty shoved clear. When the waves lapped the tops of their boots they clambered in. The other two men were not prepared with the oars, and the boat swept back and grounded. Half a dozen times, with a great expenditure 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 two exchanged 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 he was wet to the waist.
"We've got to camp and build a fire," he said, as the boat grounded again. "I'm freezing."
"Don't be afraid of a wetting," Stine sneered. "Other men have gone off to-day wetter than you. Now I'm going to take her out."
This time it was he who got the wetting, and who announced with chattering teeth the need of a fire.
"A little splash like that," Sprague chattered spitefully. "We'll go on."
"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 no orders, 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 minutes longer. Then he surrendered.
"Get out my bag, Smoke," he ordered, "and lend a hand with that fire. We won't get off till the morning now."
Next day the gale still blew. Lake Linderman was no more than a narrow mountain gorge filled with water. Sweeping down from the mountains through this funnel, the wind was irregular, blowing great guns at times and 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, when all 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 was learning the discipline of it fast. Obediently and cheerfully he joined in various vain efforts to get clear of the beach.
"How would you go about it?" Sprague finally half-panted, half- whined at him.
"Sit down and get a good rest till a lull comes in the wind, and then buck in for all we're worth."
Simple as the idea was, he had been the first to evolve it; the first time it was applied it worked, and they hoisted a blanket to the mast and sped down the lake. Stine and Sprague immediately became cheerful. Shorty, despite his chronic pessimism, was always cheerful, and Kit was too interested to be otherwise. Sprague struggled with the steering sweep for a quarter of an hour, and then looked appealingly at Kit, who relieved him.
"My arms are fairly broken with the strain of it," Sprague muttered apologetically.
"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 simile.
Kit steered the length of Linderman, displaying an aptitude that caused both young men of money and disinclination for work to name him boat-steerer. Shorty was no less pleased, and volunteered to continue cooking and leave the boat work to the other.
Between Linderman and Lake Bennet was a portage. The boat, lightly loaded, was lined down the small but violent connecting stream, and here Kit learned a vast deal more about boats and water. But when it came to packing the outfit, Stine and Sprague disappeared, and their men spent two days of back-breaking toil in getting the outfit across. And this was the history of many miserable days of the trip--Kit and Shorty working to exhaustion, while their masters toiled not and demanded to be waited upon.
But the iron-bound arctic winter continued to close down, and they were held back by numerous and avoidable delays. At Windy Arm, Stine arbitrarily dispossessed Kit of the steering-sweep and within the hour wrecked the boat on a wave-beaten lee shore. Two days were lost here in making repairs, and the morning of the fresh start, as they came down to embark, on stern and bow, in large letters, was charcoaled 'The Chechaquo.'
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 Chechaquo means tenderfoot, but my education never went high enough to learn me to spell a jaw-breaker like that."
Both employers looked daggers at Kit, for the insult rankled; nor did he mention that the night before, Shorty had besought him for the spelling of that particular word.
"That's 'most as bad as your bear-meat slam at 'em," Shorty confided later.
Kit chuckled. Along with the continuous discovery of his own powers had come an ever-increasing disapproval of the two masters. It was not so much irritation, which was always present, as disgust. He had got his taste of the meat, and liked it; but they were teaching him how not to eat it. Privily, he thanked God that he was not made as they. He came to dislike them to a degree that bordered on hatred. Their malingering bothered 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, "I could almost fetch them a rap over the head with an oar and bury them in the river."
"Same here," Shorty agreed. "They're not meat-eaters. They're fish-eaters, and they sure stink."
They came to the rapids, first, the Box Canyon, and, several miles below, the White Horse. The Box Canyon was adequately named. It was a box, a trap. Once in it, the only way out was through. On either side arose perpendicular walls of rock. The river narrowed to a fraction of its width, and roared through this gloomy passage in a madness of motion that heaped the water in the centre into a ridge fully eight feet higher than at the rocky sides. This ridge, in turn, was crested with stiff, upstanding waves that curled over, yet remained each in its unvarying place. The Canyon was well feared, for it had collected its toll of dead from the passing gold- rushers.
Tying to the bank above, where lay a score of other anxious boats, Kit and his companions went ahead on foot to investigate. They crept to the 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 an undertone:
"Cold feet. Dollars to doughnuts they don't go through."
Kit scarcely heard. From the beginning of the boat trip he had been learning the stubbornness and inconceivable viciousness of the elements, and this glimpse of what was below him acted as a challenge.
"We've got to ride that ridge," he said. "If we get off of 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 down into 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. He turned 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 been here for hours. The longer I look, the more afraid I am. I am not a boatman, and I have only my nephew with me, who is a young boy, and my wife. 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 his man.
"Sure," Shorty affirmed. "It was just that I was stopping to think about. 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 the steering sweep," Kit said quietly.
Sprague looked at Stine.
"I'm damned if I do," said that gentleman. "If you're not afraid to stand 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 a squabble.
"We can do without them," Kit said to Shorty. "You take the bow with a paddle, and I'll handle the steering sweep. All you'll have to do is just to keep her straight. Once we're started, you won't be able to hear me, so just keep on keeping straight."
They cast off the boat and worked out to middle in the quickening current. From the Canyon came an ever-growing roar. The river sucked in to the entrance with the smoothness of molten glass, and here, as the darkening walls received them, Shorty took a chew of tobacco, and dipped his paddle. The boat leaped on the first crests of the ridge, and they were deafened by the uproar of wild water that reverberated from the narrow walls and multiplied itself. They were half-smothered with flying spray. At times Kit could not see his comrade at the bow. It was only a matter of two minutes, in which time they rode the ridge three-quarters of 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- -and spoke.
"That was bear-meat," he exulted, "the real bear-meat. Say, we want a few, didn't we, Smoke, I don't mind tellin' you in confidence that before we started I was the gosh-dangdest scaredest man this side of the Rocky-Mountains. Now I'm a bear-eater. Come on an' we'll run that other boat through."
Midway back, on foot, they encountered their employers, who had watched the passage from above.
"There comes the fish-eaters," said Shorty. "Keep to win'ward."
After running the strangers' boat through, whose name proved to be Breck, Kit and Shorty met his wife, a slender, girlish woman whose blue eyes were moist with gratitude. Breck himself tried to hand Kit fifty dollars, and then attempted it on Shorty.
"Stranger," was the latter's rejection, "I come into this country to make money outa the ground an' not outa my fellow critters."
Breck rummaged in his boat and produced a demijohn of whiskey. Shorty's hand 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 worse than 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 to look at the bad water. The river, which was a succession of rapids, was here deflected toward the right bank by a rocky reef. The whole body of water, rushing crookedly into the narrow passage, accelerated its speed frightfully, and was upflung unto huge waves, white and wrathful. This was the dread Mane of the White Horse, and here an even heavier toll of dead had been exacted. On one side of the Mane was a corkscrew curl-over and suck-under, and on the opposite side was the big whirlpool. To go through, 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 a large boat, fully thirty feet long, laden with several tons of outfit and handled by six men. Before it reached the Mane it was plunging and leaping, at times almost hidden by the foam and spray.
Shorty shot a slow, sidelong glance at Kit, and said:
"She's fair smoking, and she hasn't hit the worst. They've hauled the oars in. There she 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 smother between crests. The next moment, in the thick of the Mane, the boat leaped up a crest and into view. To Kit's amazement he saw the whole long bottom clearly outlined. The boat, for the fraction of an instant, was in the air, the men sitting idly in their places, all save one in the stern who stood at the steering sweep. Then came the downward plunge into the trough and a second disappearance. Three times the boat leaped and buried itself, then those on the bank saw its nose take the whirlpool as it slipped off the Mane. The steersman, vainly opposing with his full weight on the steering- gear, surrendered to the whirlpool and helped the boat to take the circle.
Three times it went around, each time so close to the rocks on which Kit and 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. The only way out of the whirlpool was by the Mane, and on the round the boat entered the Mane obliquely at its upper end. Possibly out of fear of the draw of the whirlpool, the steersman did not attempt to straighten out quickly enough. When he did, it was too late. Alternately in the air and buried, the boat angled the Mane and sucked into and down through the stiff wall of the corkscrew on the opposite side of the river. A hundred feet below, boxes and bales began to float up. Then appeared the bottom of the boat and the scattered heads of six men. Two managed 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 current around 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 if I stay here any longer."
"We'll smoke some," Kit grinned at him.
"And you'll sure earn your name," was the rejoinder. Shorty turned to their employers. "Comin'?" he queried.
Perhaps the roar of the water prevented them from hearing the invitation.
Shorty and Kit tramped back through a foot of snow to the head of the rapids 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; the other, likewise a spur, was the knowledge that old Isaac Bellew, and all the other Bellews, had done things like this in their westward march of empire. What they had done, he could do. It was the meat, the strong meat, and he knew, as never before, that it required strong men to eat such meat.
"You've sure got to keep the top of the ridge," Shorty shouted at him, the plug tobacco lifting to his mouth, as the boat quickened in the quickening current and took the head of the rapids.
Kit nodded, swayed his strength and weight tentatively on the steering oar, and headed the boat for the plunge.
Several minutes later, half-swamped and lying against the bank in the eddy below the White Horse, Shorty spat out a mouthful of tobacco juice and 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 little distance. Kit shook his hand.
"I'm afraid your boat can't make it," he said. "It is smaller than ours and 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, gray twilight was falling, it was turning colder, and the landscape seemed taking on a savage bleakness.
"It ain't that," Shorty was saying. "We don't want your money. Wouldn't touch it nohow. But my pardner is the real meat with boats, and when he says yourn ain't safe I reckon he knows what he's talkin' about."
Kit nodded affirmation, and chanced to glance at Mrs Breck. Her eyes were fixed upon him, and he knew that if ever he had seen prayer in a woman's eyes he was seeing it then. Shorty followed his gaze and saw what 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 the trail that led to the head of the rapids. They had not gone a hundred yards 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 step I'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 in your blankets and manicure your finger-nails? Come on, Smoke. They don't dast fire us. Besides, we've got agreements. It they fire us they've got to divvy up grub to last us through the winter."
Barely had they shoved Breck's boat out from the bank and caught the first rough water, when the waves began to lap aboard. They were small waves, but it was an earnest of what was to come. Shorty cast back a quizzical glance as he gnawed at his inevitable plug, and Kit felt a strange rush of warmth at his heart for this man who couldn't swim and who couldn't back out.
The rapids grew stiffer, and the spray began to fly. In the gathering darkness, Kit glimpsed the Mane and the crooked fling of the current into it. He worked into this crooked current, and felt a glow of satisfaction as the boat hit the head of the Mane squarely in the middle. After that, in the smother, leaping and burying and swamping, he had no clear impression of anything save that he swung his weight on the steering oar and wished his uncle were there to see. They emerged, breathless, wet through, and filled with water almost to the gunwale. Lighter pieces of baggage and outfit were floating inside the boat. A few careful strokes on Shorty's part worked the boat into the draw of the eddy, and the eddy did the rest till the boat softly touched against the bank. Looking down from above was Mrs Breck. Her prayer had been answered, 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 boat dipped one gunwale under and righted again.
"Damn the money," said Shorty. "Fetch out that whiskey. Now that it's over 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 to start. Breck, despite his boating inefficiency, and with only his wife and nephew for crew, had broken camp, loaded his boat, and pulled out at the first streak of day. But there was no hurry in Stine and Sprague, who seemed incapable of realizing that the freeze-up might come at any time. They malingered, got in the way, delayed, and doubted the work of Kit and Shorty.
"I'm sure losing my respect for God, seein' as he must a-made them two mistakes in human form," was the latter's blasphemous way of expressing his disgust.
"Well, you're the real goods at any rate," Kit grinned back at him. "It makes me respect God the more just to look at you."
"He was sure goin' some, eh?" was Shorty's fashion of overcoming the embarrassment of the compliment.
The trail by water crossed Lake Le Barge. Here was no fast current, but a tideless stretch of forty miles which must be rowed unless a fair wind blew. But the time for fair wind was past, and an icy gale blew in their teeth out of the north. This made a rough sea, against which it was almost impossible to pull the boat. Added to their troubles was driving snow; also, the freezing of the water on their oar-blades kept one man occupied in chopping it off with a hatchet. Compelled to take their turn at the oars, Sprague and Stine patently loafed. Kit had learned how to throw his weight on an oar, but he noted that his employers made a seeming of throwing their weights and that they dipped their oars at a cheating angle.
At the end of three hours, Sprague pulled his oar in and said they would run 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 continually arriving boats from White Horse made a flotilla of over two hundred. Each day forty or fifty arrived, and only two or three won to the north-west short of the lake and did not come back. Ice was now forming in the eddies, and connecting from eddy to eddy in thin lines around the points. The freeze-up was very imminent.
"We could make it if they had the souls of clams," Kit told Shorty, as they 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's work would have fetched that west shore. They're--they're babes in the woods."
"Sure," Shorty agreed. He turned his moccasin to the flame and debated a moment. "Look here, Smoke. It's hundreds of miles to Dawson. If we don't want 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 plum babes. If we're goin' to Dawson, we got to take charge of this here outfit."
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 in to it! We're goin' to make a start!"
Grumbling and complaining, Stine and Sprague were forced to get under way two hours earlier than ever before. If anything, the gale was stiffer, and in a short time every man's face was iced up, while the oars were heavy with ice. Three hours they struggled, and four, one man steering, one chopping ice, two toiling at the oars, and each taking his various turns. The north-west shore loomed nearer and nearer. The gale blew even harder, and at last Sprague pulled in his oar in token of surrender. 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 going to turn back."
"We're going on," said Shorty. "Chop ice. An' when you feel better you can spell me."
It was heart-breaking toil, but they gained the shore, only to find it composed 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 the forbidding shore. Sometimes they gained no more than a foot to the stroke, and there were times when two or three strokes no more than enabled them to hold their own. He did his best to hearten the two weaklings. He pointed out that the boats which had won to this shore had never come back. Perforce, he argued, they had found a shelter somewhere ahead. Another hour they laboured, and a second.
"If you fellows put into your oars some of that coffee you swig in your blankets, we'd make it," was Shorty's encouragement. "You're just goin' 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 commit murder, 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, and the 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 and pull."
It is in moments of exhaustion that men lose all their reserves of civilization, and such a moment had come. Each man had reached the breaking-point. Sprague jerked off a mitten, drew his revolver, and turned it on his steersman. This was a new experience to Kit. He had never 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 the world.
"If you don't put that gun up," he said, "I'll take it away and rap you over 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 behind Sprague.
"Go on an' shoot," said Shorty, wiggling the hatchet. "I'm just aching for 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 with your pardner, you little hog-wallopin' snooper, you."
"Sprague," Kit said, "I'll give you just thirty seconds to put away that gun 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 edge of 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 narrow opening, not twenty feet wide, which led into a land-locked inclosure where the fiercest gusts scarcely flawed the surface. It was the haven gained 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 Shorty pitched 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 came on clear and cold. A cup of coffee, set aside to cool and forgotten, a few minutes later was found coated with half an inch of ice. At eight o'clock, when Sprague and Stine, already rolled in their blankets, were sleeping 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 over the whole pond already."
"What are you going to do?"
"There's only one thing. The lake of course freezes first. The rapid current of the river may keep it open for days. This time to- morrow any boat caught in Lake Le Barge 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, as he began casting off the guy-ropes of the tent.
The other two awoke, groaning with the pain of stiffened muscles and the pain of rousing from exhausted sleep.
"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's freezin'. We got to get acrost."
Stine sat up, his face bitter and wrathful.
"Let it freeze. We're not going to stir."
"All right," said Shorty. "We're goin' on with the boat."
"You were engaged--"
"To take you to Dawson," Shorty caught him up. "Well, we're takin' you, ain't we?"
He punctuated his query by bringing half the tent down on top of them.
They broke their way through the thin ice in the little harbour, and came out on the lake, where the water, heavy and glassy, froze on their oars with every stroke. The water soon became like mush, clogging the stroke of the oars and freezing in the air even as it dripped. Later the surface began to form a skin, and the boat proceeded slower and slower.
Often, afterwards, when Kit tried to remember that night and failed to bring up aught but nightmare recollections, he wondered what must have been the sufferings of Stine and Sprague. His one impression of himself was that he struggled through biting frost and intolerable exertion for a thousand years more or less.
Morning found them stationary. Stine complained of frosted fingers, and Sprague of his nose, while the pain in Kit's cheeks and nose told him that he, too, had been touched. With each accretion of daylight they could see farther, and far as they could see was icy surface. The water of the lake was gone. A hundred yards away was the shore of the north end. Shorty insisted that it was the opening of the river and that he could see water. He and Kit alone were able to work, and with their oars they broke the ice and forced the boat along. And at the last gasp of their strength they made the suck of the rapid river. One look back showed them several boats which had fought through the night and were hopelessly frozen in; then they whirled around a bend in a current running six miles an hour.
Day by day they floated down the swift river, and day by day the shore-ice extended farther out. When they made camp at nightfall, they chopped a space in the ice in which to lay the boat, and carried the camp outfit hundreds of feet to shore. In the morning, they chopped the boat out through the new ice and caught the current. Shorty set up the sheet-iron stove in the boat, and over this Stine and Sprague hung through the long, drifting hours. They had surrendered, no longer gave orders, and their one desire was to gain Dawson. Shorty, pessimistic, indefatigable, and joyous, at frequent intervals roared out the three lines of the first four-line stanza of a song he had forgotten. The colder 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 Little Salmon, they found these streams throwing mush-ice into the main Yukon. This gathered about the boat and attached itself, and at night they found themselves compelled to chop the boat out of the current. In the morning they chopped the boat back into the current.
The last night ashore was spent between the mouths of the White River and the Stewart. At daylight they found the Yukon, half a mile wide, running white from ice-rimmed bank to ice-rimmed bank. Shorty cursed the universe 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 half an hour, with axes, Kit and Shorty struggled to cut a way into the swift but solid stream. When they did succeed in clearing the shore-ice, the floating ice forced the boat along the edge for a hundred yards, tearing away half of one gunwale and making a partial wreck of it. Then they caught the current at the lower end of the bend that flung off-shore. They proceeded to work farther toward the middle. The stream was no longer composed of mush-ice but of hard cakes. In between the cakes only was mush-ice, that froze solidly as they looked at it. Shoving with the oars against the cakes, sometimes climbing out on the cakes in order to force the boat along, after an hour they gained the middle. Five minutes after they ceased their exertions, the boat was frozen in. The whole river was coagulating as it ran. Cake froze to cake, until at last the boat was the centre of a cake seventy-five feet in diameter. Sometimes they floated sidewise, sometimes stern-first, while gravity tore asunder the forming fetters in the moving mass, only to be manacled by faster-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 force the boat to shore, and through the darkness they swept helplessly onward.
"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 they caught occasional glimpses of the loom of mountains on either hand. At eleven o'clock, from below, came a dull, grinding roar. Their speed began to diminish, and cakes of ice to up-end and crash and smash about them. The river was jamming. One cake, forced upward, slid across their cake and carried one side of the boat away. It did not sink, for its own cake still upbore it, but in a whirl they saw dark water show for an instant within a foot of them. Then all movement ceased. At the end of half an hour the whole river picked itself up and began to move. This continued for an hour, when again it was brought to rest by a jam. Once again it started, running swiftly and savagely, with a great grinding. Then they saw lights ashore, and, when abreast, gravity and the Yukon surrendered, and the river ceased for six months.
On the shore at Dawson, curious ones gathered to watch the river freeze, 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 laboured, carrying the ton and a half of outfit from the middle of the river to the log-cabin Stine and Sprague had bought on the hill overlooking Dawson. This work finished, in the 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 in full. 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. You agreed--"
"I know of no agreement," Sprague interrupted. "Do you, Stine? We engaged 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 shrank away from him. He had never struck a man in anger in his life, and he felt so certain of his ability to thrash Sprague that he could not bring himself to do it.
Shorty saw his trouble and interposed.
"Look here, Smoke, I ain't travelin' no more with a ornery outfit like this. Right here's where I sure jump it. You an' me stick together. Savve? Now, you take your blankets an' hike down to the Elkhorn. Wait for me. I'll settle up, collect what's comin', an' give them what's comin'. I ain't no good on the water, but my feet's on terry-fermy now an' I'm sure goin' to make smoke."
. . . . .
Half an hour afterwards Shorty appeared at the Elkhorn. From his bleeding knuckles and the skin off one cheek, it was evident that he had given 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 'em shows up on the street for a week. An' now it's all figgered out for you an' me. Grub's a dollar an' a half a pound. They ain't no work for wages without you have your own grub. Moose- meat's sellin' for two dollars a pound 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 they ain't no moose, we go an' live with the Indians. But if we ain't got five thousand pounds of meat six weeks from now, I'll--I'll sure go back an' apologize to our bosses. Is it a go?"
Kit's hand went out and they shook. Then he faltered.
"I don't know anything about hunting," he said.
Shorty lifted his glass.
"But you're a sure meat-eater, an' I'll learn you."