Pierre "Feroce" showed disapproval in his every attitude as plainly as disgust peered from the seams in his dark face; it lurked in his scowl and in the curl of his long rawhide that bit among the sled dogs. So at least thought Willard, as he clung to the swinging sledge.
They were skirting the coast, keeping to the glare ice, wind-swept and clean, that lay outside the jumbled shore pack. The team ran silently in the free gait of the grey wolf, romping in harness from pure joy of motion and the intoxication of perfect life, making the sled runners whine like the song of a cutlass.
This route is dangerous, of course, from hidden cracks in the floes, and most travellers hug the bluffs, but he who rides with Pierre "Feroce" takes chances. It was this that had won him the name of "Wild" Pierre--the most reckless, tireless man of the trails, a scoffer at peril, bolting through danger with rush and frenzy, overcoming sheerly by vigour those obstacles which destroy strong men in the North.
The power that pulsed within him gleamed from his eyes, rang in his song, showed in the aggressive thrust of his sensual face.
This particular morning, however, Pierre's distemper had crystallized into a great contempt for his companion. Of all trials, the most detestable is to hit the trail with half a man, a pale, anemic weakling like this stranger.
Though modest in the extent of his learning, Pierre gloated in a freedom of speech, the which no man dared deny him. He turned to eye his companion cynically for a second time, and contempt was patent in his gaze. Willard appeared slender and pallid in his furs, though his clear-cut features spoke a certain strength and much refinement.
"Bah! I t'ink you dam poor feller," he said finally. "'Ow you 'goin' stan' thees trip, eh? She's need beeg mans, not leetle runt like you."
Amusement at this frankness glimmered in Willard's eyes.
"You're like all ignorant people. You think in order to stand hardship a man should be able to toss a sack of flour in his teeth or juggle a cask of salt-horse."
"Sure t'ing," grinned Pierre. "That's right. Look at me. Mebbe you hear 'bout Pierre 'Feroce' sometime, eh?"
"Oh, yes; everybody knows you; knows you're a big bully. I've seen you drink a quart of this wood alcohol they call whisky up here, and then jump the bar from a stand, but you're all animal--you haven't the refinement and the culture that makes real strength. It's the mind that makes us stand punishment."
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed the Canadian. "Wat a fonny talk. She'll take the heducate man for stan' the col', eh? Mon Dieu!" He roared again till the sled dogs turned fearful glances backward and bushy tails drooped under the weight of their fright. Great noise came oftenest with great rage from Pierre, and they had too frequently felt the both to forget.
"Yes, you haven't the mentality. Sometime you'll use up your physical resources and go to pieces like a burned wick."
Pierre was greatly amused. His yellow teeth shone, and he gave vent to violent mirth as, following the thought, he pictured a naked mind wandering over the hills with the quicksilver at sixty degrees.
"Did you ever see a six-day race? Of course not; you barbarians haven't sunk to the level of our dissolute East, where we joy in Roman spectacles, but if you had you'd see it's will that wins; it's the man that eats his soul by inches. The educated soldier stands the campaign best. You run too much to muscle--you're not balanced."
"I t'ink mebbe you'll 'ave chance for show 'im, thees stout will of yours. She's goin' be long 'mush' troo the mountains, plentee snow, plentee cold."
Although Pierre's ridicule was galling, Willard felt the charm of the morning too strongly to admit of anger or to argue his pet theory.
The sun, brilliant and cold, lent a paradoxical cheerfulness to the desolation, and, though never a sign of life broke the stillness around them, the beauty of the scintillant, gleaming mountains, distinct as cameos, that guarded the bay, appealed to him with the strange attraction of the Arctics; that attraction that calls and calls insistently, till men forsake God's country for its mystery.
He breathed the biting air cleaned by leagues of lifeless barrens and voids of crackling frost till he ached with the exhilaration of a perfect morning on the Circle.
Also before him undulated the grandest string of dogs the Coast had known. Seven there were, tall and grey, with tails like plumes, whom none but Pierre could lay hand upon, fierce and fearless as their master. He drove with the killing cruelty of a stampeder, and they loved him.
"You say you have grub cached at the old Indian hut on the Good Hope?" questioned Willard.
"Sure! Five poun' bacon, leetle flour and rice. I cache one gum-boot too, ha! Good thing for make fire queeck, eh?"
"You bet; an old rubber boot comes handy when it's too cold to make shavings."
Leaving the coast, they ascended a deep and tortuous river where the snow lay thick and soft. One man on snow-shoes broke trail for the dogs till they reached the foothills. It was hard work, but infinitely preferable to that which followed, for now they came into a dangerous stretch of overflows. The stream, frozen to its bed, clogged the passage of the spring water beneath, forcing it up through cracks till it spread over the solid ice, forming pools and sheets covered with treacherous ice-skins. Wet feet are fatal to man and beast, and they made laborious detours, wallowing trails through tangled willows waist deep in the snow smother, or clinging precariously to the overhanging bluffs. As they reached the river's source the sky blackened suddenly, and great clouds of snow rushed over the bleak hills, boiling down into the valley with a furious draught. They flung up their flimsy tent, only to have it flattened by the force of the gale that cut like well-honed steel. Frozen spots leaped out white on their faces, while their hands stiffened ere they could fasten the guy strings.
Finally, having lashed the tent bottom to the protruding willow tops, by grace of heavy lifting they strained their flapping shelter up sufficiently to crawl within.
"By Gar! She's blow hup ver' queeck," yelled Pierre, as he set the ten-pound sheet-iron stove, its pipe swaying drunkenly with the heaving tent.
"Good t'ing she hit us in the brush." He spoke as calmly as though danger was distant, and a moment later the little box was roaring with its oil-soaked kindlings.
"Will this stove burn green willow tops?" cried Willard.
"Sure! She's good stove. She'll burn hicicles eef you get 'im start one times. See 'im get red?"
They rubbed the stiff spots from their cheeks, then, seizing the axe, Willard crawled forth into the storm and dug at the base of the gnarled bushes. Occasionally a shrub assumed the proportions of a man's wrist--but rarely. Gathering an armful, he bore them inside, and twisting the tips into withes, he fed the fire. The frozen twigs sizzled and snapped, threatening to fail utterly, but with much blowing he sustained a blaze sufficient to melt a pot of snow. Boiling was out of the question, but the tea leaves became soaked and the bacon cauterized.
Pierre freed and fed the dogs. Each gulped its dried salmon, and, curling in the lee of the tent, was quickly drifted over. Next he cut blocks from the solid bottom snow and built a barricade to windward. Then he accumulated a mow of willow tops without the tent-fly. All the time the wind drew down the valley like the breath of a giant bellows.
"Supper," shouted Willard, and as Pierre crawled into the candle-light he found him squatted, fur-bundled, over the stove, which settled steadily into the snow, melting its way downward toward a firmer foundation.
The heat was insufficient to thaw the frozen sweat in his clothes; his eyes were bleary and wet from smoke, and his nose needed continuous blowing, but he spoke pleasantly, a fact which Pierre noted with approval.
"We'll need a habeas corpus for this stove if you don't get something to hold her up, and I might state, if it's worthy of mention, that your nose is frozen again."
Pierre brought an armful of stones from the creek edge, distributing them beneath the stove on a bed of twisted willows; then swallowing their scanty, half-cooked food, they crawled, shivering, into the deerskin sleeping-bags, that animal heat might dry their clammy garments.
Four days the wind roared and the ice filings poured over their shelter while they huddled beneath. When one travels on rations delay is dangerous. Each morning, dragging themselves out into the maelstrom, they took sticks and poked into the drifts for dogs. Each animal as found was exhumed, given a fish, and became straightway reburied in the whirling white that seethed down from the mountains.
On the fifth, without warning, the storm died, and the air stilled to a perfect silence.
"These dog bad froze," said Pierre, swearing earnestly as he harnessed. "I don' like eet much. They goin' play hout I'm 'fraid." He knelt and chewed from between their toes the ice pellets that had accumulated. A malamoot is hard pressed to let his feet mass, and this added to the men's uneasiness.
As they mounted the great divide, mountains rolled away on every hand, barren, desolate, marble-white; always the whiteness; always the listening silence that oppressed like a weight. Myriads of creek valleys radiated below in a bewildering maze of twisting seams.
"Those are the Ass's Ears, I suppose," said Willard, gazing at two great fangs that bit deep into the sky-line. "Is it true that no man has ever reached them?"
"Yes. The hinjun say that's w'ere hall the storm come from, biccause w'en the win' blow troo the Ass's Ear, look out! Somebody goin' ketch 'ell."
Dogs' feet wear quickly after freezing, for crusted snow cuts like a knife. Spots of blood showed in their tracks, growing more plentiful till every print was a crimson stain. They limped pitifully on their raw pads, and occasionally one whined. At every stop they sank in track, licking their lacerated paws, rising only at the cost of much whipping.
On the second night, faint and starved, they reached the hut. Digging away the drifts, they crawled inside to find it half full of snow--snow which had sifted through the crevices. Pierre groped among the shadows and swore excitedly.
"What's up?" said Willard.
Vocal effort of the simplest is exhausting when spent with hunger, and these were the first words he had spoken for hours.
"By Gar! she's gone. Somebody stole my grub!"
Willard felt a terrible sinking, and his stomach cried for food.
"How far is it to the Crooked River Road House?"
"One long day drive--forty mile."
"We must make it to-morrow or go hungry, eh? Well this isn't the first dog fish I ever ate." Both men gnawed a mouldy dried salmon from their precious store.
As Willard removed his footgear he groaned.
"Wat's the mattaire?"
"I froze my foot two days ago--snow-shoe strap too tight." He exhibited a heel, from which, in removing his inner sock, the flesh and skin had come away.
"That's all right," grinned Pierre. "You got the beeg will lef' yet. It take the heducate man for stan' the col', you know."
Willard gritted his teeth.
They awoke to the whine of a grey windstorm that swept the cutting snow in swirling clouds and made travel a madness. The next day was worse.
Two days of hunger weigh heavy when the cold weakens, and they grew gaunt and fell away in their features.
"I'm glad we've got another feed for the dogs," remarked Willard. "We can't let them run hungry, even if we do."
"I t'ink she's be hall right to-mor'," ventured Pierre. "Thees ain't snow--jus' win'; bimeby all blow hout. Sacre! I'll can eat 'nuff for 'ole harmy."
For days both men had been cold, and the sensation of complete warmth had come to seem strange and unreal, while their faces cracked where the spots had been.
Willard felt himself on the verge of collapse. He recalled his words about strong men, gazing the while at Pierre. The Canadian evinced suffering only in the haggard droop of eye and mouth; otherwise he looked strong and dogged.
Willard felt his own features had shrunk to a mask of loose-jawed suffering, and he set his mental sinews, muttering to himself.
He was dizzy and faint as he stretched himself in the still morning air upon waking, and hobbled painfully, but as his companion emerged from the darkened shelter into the crystalline brightness he forgot his own misery at sight of him. The big man reeled as though struck when the dazzle from the hills reached him, and he moaned, shielding his sight. Snow-blindness had found him in a night.
Slowly they plodded out of the valley, for hunger gnawed acutely, and they left a trail of blood tracks from the dogs. It took the combined efforts of both men to lash them to foot after each pause. Thus progress was slow and fraught with agony.
As they rose near the pass, miles of Arctic wastes bared themselves. All about towered bald domes, while everywhere stretched the monotonous white, the endless snow unbroken by tree or shrub, pallid and menacing, maddening to the eye.
"Thank God, the worst's over," sighed Willard, flinging himself onto the sled. "We'll make it to the summit next time; then she's down hill all the way to the road house."
Pierre said nothing.
Away to the northward glimmered the Ass's Ears, and as the speaker eyed them carelessly he noted gauzy shreds and streamers veiling their tops. The phenomena interested him, for he knew that here must be wind--wind, the terror of the bleak tundra; the hopeless, merciless master of the barrens! However, the distant range beneath the twin peaks showed clear-cut and distinct against the sky, and he did not mention the occurrence to the guide, although he recalled the words of the Indians: "Beware of the wind through the Ass's Ears."
Again they laboured up the steep slope, wallowing in the sliding snow, straining silently at the load; again they threw themselves, exhausted, upon it. Now, as he eyed the panorama below, it seemed to have suffered a subtle change, indefinable and odd. Although but a few minutes had elapsed, the coast mountains no longer loomed clear against the horizon, and his visual range appeared foreshortened, as though the utter distances had lengthened, bringing closer the edge of things. The twin peaks seemed endlessly distant and hazy, while the air had thickened as though congested with possibilities, lending a remoteness to the landscape.
"If it blows up on us here, we're gone," he thought, "for it's miles to shelter, and we're right in the saddle of the hills."
Pierre, half blinded as he was, arose uneasily and cast the air like a wild beast, his great head thrown back, his nostrils quivering.
"I smell the win'," he cried. "Mon Dieu! She's goin' blow!"
A volatile pennant floated out from a near-bye peak, hanging about its crest like faint smoke. Then along the brow of the pass writhed a wisp of drifting, twisting flakelets, idling hither and yon, astatic and aimless, settling in a hollow. They sensed a thrill and rustle to the air, though never a breath had touched them; then, as they mounted higher, a draught fanned them, icy as interstellar space. The view from the summit was grotesquely distorted, and glancing upward they found the guardian peaks had gone a-smoke with clouds of snow that whirled confusedly, while an increasing breath sucked over the summit, stronger each second. Dry snow began to rustle slothfully about their feet. So swiftly were the changes wrought, that before the mind had grasped their import the storm was on them, roaring down from every side, swooping out of the boiling sky, a raging blast from the voids of sunless space.
Pierre's shouts as he slashed at the sled lashings were snatched from his lips in scattered scraps. He dragged forth the whipping tent and threw himself upon it with the sleeping-bags. Having cut loose the dogs, Willard crawled within his sack and they drew the flapping canvas over them. The air was twilight and heavy with efflorescent granules that hurtled past in a drone.
They removed their outer garments that the fur might fold closer against them, and lay exposed to the full hate of the gale. They hoped to be drifted over, but no snow could lodge in this hurricane, and it sifted past, dry and sharp, eddying out a bare place wherein they lay. Thus the wind drove the chill to their bones bitterly.
An unnourished human body responds but weakly, so, vitiated by their fast and labours, their suffering smote them with tenfold cruelty.
All night the north wind shouted, and, as the next day waned with its violence undiminished, the frost crept in upon them till they rolled and tossed shivering. Twice they essayed to crawl out, but were driven back to cower for endless, hopeless hours.
It is in such black, aimless times that thought becomes distorted. Willard felt his mind wandering through bleak dreams and tortured fancies, always to find himself harping on his early argument with Pierre: "It's the mind that counts." Later he roused to the fact that his knees, where they pressed against the bag, were frozen; also his feet were numb and senseless. In his acquired consciousness he knew that along the course of his previous mental vagary lay madness, and the need of action bore upon him imperatively.
He shouted to his mate, but "Wild" Pierre seemed strangely apathetic.
"We've got to run for it at daylight. We're freezing. Here! Hold on! What are you doing? Wait for daylight!" Pierre had scrambled stiffly out of his cover and his gabblings reached Willard. He raised a clenched fist into the darkness of the streaming night, cursing horribly with words that appalled the other.
"Man! man! don't curse your God. This is bad enough as it is. Cover up. Quick!"
Although apparently unmindful of his presence, the other crawled back muttering.
As the dim morning greyed the smother they rose and fought their way downward toward the valley. Long since they had lost their griping hunger, and now held only an apathetic indifference to food, with a cringing dread of the cold and a stubborn sense of their extreme necessity.
They fell many times, but gradually drew themselves more under control, the exercise suscitating them, as they staggered downward, blinded and buffeted, their only hope the road-house.
Willard marvelled dully at the change in Pierre. His face had shrivelled to blackened freezes stretched upon a bony substructure, and lighted by feverish, glittering, black, black eyes. It seemed to him that his own lagging body had long since failed, and that his aching, naked soul wandered stiffly through the endless day. As night approached Pierre stopped frequently, propping himself with legs far apart; sometimes he laughed. Invariably this horrible sound shocked Willard into a keener sense of the surroundings, and it grew to irritate him, for the Frenchman's mental wanderings increased with the darkness. What made him rouse one with his awful laughter? These spells of walking insensibility were pleasanter far. At last the big man fell. To Willard's mechanical endeavours to help he spoke sleepily, but with the sanity of a man under great stress.
"Dat no good. I'm goin' freeze right 'ere--freeze stiff as 'ell. Au revoir."
"Get up!" Willard kicked him weakly, then sat upon the prostrate man as his own faculties went wandering.
Eventually he roused, and digging into the snow buried the other, first covering his face with the ample parka hood. Then he struck down the valley. In one lucid spell he found he had followed a sled trail, which was blown clear and distinct by the wind that had now almost died away.
Occasionally his mind grew clear, and his pains beat in upon him till he grew furious at the life in him which refused to end, which forced him ever through this gauntlet of misery. More often he was conscious only of a vague and terrible extremity outside of himself that goaded him forever forward. Anon he strained to recollect his destination. His features had set in an implacable grimace of physical torture--like a runner in the fury of a finish--till the frost hardened them so. At times he fell heavily, face downward, and at length upon the trail, lying so till that omnipresent coercion that had frozen in his brain drove him forward.
He heard his own voice maundering through lifeless lips like that of a stranger: "The man that can eat his soul will win, Pierre."
Sometimes he cried like a child and slaver ran from his open mouth, freezing at his breast. One of his hands was going dead. He stripped the left mitten off and drew it laboriously over the right. One he would save at least, even though he lost the other. He looked at the bare member dully, and he could not tell that the cold had eased till the bitterness was nearly out of the air. He laboured with the fitful spurts of a machine run down.
Ten men and many dogs lay together in the Crooked River Road House through the storm. At late bedtime of the last night came a scratching on the door.
"Somebody's left a dog outside," said a teamster, and rose to let him in. He opened the door only to retreat affrightedly.
"My God!" he said. "My God!" and the miners crowded forward.
A figure tottered over the portal, swaying drunkenly. They shuddered at the sight of its face as it crossed toward the fire. It did not walk; it shuffled, haltingly, with flexed knees and hanging shoulders, the strides measuring inches only--a grisly burlesque upon senility.
Pausing in the circle, it mumbled thickly, with great effort, as though gleaning words from infinite distance:
"Wild Pierre--frozen--buried--in--snow--hurry!" Then he straightened and spoke strongly, his voice flooding the room:
"It's the mind, Pierre. Ha! ha! ha! The mind."
He cackled hideously, and plunged forward into a miner's arms.
It was many days before his delirium broke. Gradually he felt the pressure of many bandages upon him, and the hunger of convalescence. As he lay in his bunk the past came to him hazy and horrible; then the hum of voices, one loud, insistent, and familiar.
He turned weakly, to behold Pierre propped in a chair by the stove, frost-scarred and pale, but aggressive even in recuperation. He gesticulated fiercely with a bandaged hand, hot in controversy with some big-limbed, bearded strangers.
"Bah! You fellers no good--too beeg in the ches', too leetle in the forehead. She'll tak' the heducate mans for stan' the 'ardsheep--lak' me an' Meestaire Weelard."