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Tom believed that Beresford's delirious words had condemned them both to death. He could not nurse his friend, watch West night and day, keep the camp supplied with food, and cover the hundreds of miles of bleak snow fields which stretched between them and the nearest settlement. He did not think that any one man lived who was capable of succeeding in such a task.
Yet his first feeling was of immediate relief. The horrible duty that had seemed to be laid upon him was not a duty at all. He saw his course quite simply. All he had to do was to achieve the impossible. If he failed in it, he would go down like a soldier in the day's work. He would have, anyhow, no torturings of conscience, no blight resting upon him till the day of his death.
"You're reprieved, West," he announced simply.
The desperado staggered to the sled and leaned against it faintly. His huge body swayed. The revulsion was almost too much for him.
"I--I--knowed you couldn't treat an old pardner thataway, Tom," he murmured.
Morse took the man out to a fir tree. He carried with him a blanket, a buffalo robe, and a part of the dog harness.
"Whad you aimin' to do?" asked West uneasily. He was not sure yet that he was out of the woods.
"Roll up in the blankets," ordered Morse.
The fellow looked at his grim face and did as he was told. Tom tied him to the tree, after making sure that his hands were fast behind him.
"I'll freeze here," the convict complained.
The two officers were lean and gaunt from hard work and insufficient nourishment, but West was still sleek and well padded with flesh. He had not missed a meal, and during the past weeks he had been a passenger. All the hard work, the packing at portages, the making of camp, the long, wearing days of hunting, had fallen upon the two whose prisoner he was. He could stand a bit of hardship, Tom decided.
"No such luck," he said brusquely. "And I wouldn't try to break away if I were you. I can't kill you, but I'll thrash you with the dog-whip if you make me any trouble."
Morse called Cuffy and set the dog to watch the bound man. He did not know whether the St. Bernard would do this, but he was glad to see that the leader of the train understood at once and settled down in the snow to sleep with one eye watchful of West.
Tom returned to his friend. He knew he must concentrate his efforts to keep life in the battered body of the soldier. He must nurse and feed him judiciously until the fever wore itself out.
While he was feeding Win broth, he fell asleep with the spoon in his hand. He jerkily flung back his head and opened his eyes. Cuffy still lay close to the prisoner, evidently prepared for an all-night vigil with short light naps from which the least movement would instantly arouse him.
"I'm all in. Got to get some sleep," Morse said to himself, half aloud.
He wrapped in his blankets. When his eyes opened, the sun was beating down from high in the heavens. He had slept from one day into the next. Even in his sleep he had been conscious of some sound drumming at his ears. It was the voice of West.
"You gonna sleep all day? Don't we get any grub? Have I gotta starve while you pound yore ear?"
Hurriedly Tom flung aside his wraps. He leaped to his feet, a new man, his confidence and vitality all restored.
The fire had died to ashes. He could hear the yelping of the dogs in the distance. They were on a private rabbit hunt of their own, all of them but Cuffy. The St. Bernard still lay in the snow watching West.
Beresford's delirium was gone and his fever was less. He was very weak, but Tom thought he saw a ghost of the old boyish grin flicker indomitably into his eyes. As Tom looked at the swathed and bandaged head, for the first time since the murderous attack he allowed himself to hope. The never-say-die spirit of the man and the splendid constitution built up by a clean outdoor life might pull him through yet.
"West was afraid you never were going to wake up, Tom. It worried him. You know how fond of you he is," the constable said weakly.
Morse was penitent. "Why didn't you wake me, Win? You must be dying of thirst."
"I could do with a drink," he admitted. "But you needed that sleep. Every minute of it."
Tom built up the fire and thawed snow. He gave Beresford a drink and then fed more of the broth to him. He made breakfast for the prisoner and himself.
Afterward, he took stock of their larder. It was almost empty. "Enough flour and pemmican for another mess of rubaboo. Got to restock right away or our stomachs will be flat as a buffalo bull's after a long stampede."
He spoke cheerfully, yet he and Beresford both knew a hunt for game might be unsuccessful. Rabbits would not do. He had to provide enough to feed the dogs as well as themselves. If he did not get a moose, a bear, or caribou, they would face starvation.
Tom redressed the wounds of the trooper and examined the splints on the arm to make sure they had not become disarranged during the night in the delirium of the sick man.
"Got to leave you, Win. Maybe for a day or more. I'll have plenty of wood piled handy for the fire--and broth all ready to heat. Think you can make out?"
The prospect could not have been an inviting one for the wounded man, but he nodded quite as a matter of course.
"I'll be all right. Take your time. Don't spoil your hunt worrying about me."
Yet it was with extreme reluctance Tom had made up his mind to go. He would take the dog-train with him--and West, unarmed, of course. He had to take him on Beresford's account, because he dared not leave him. But as he looked at his friend, all the supple strength stricken out of him, weak and helpless as a sick child, he felt a queer tug at the heart. What assurance had he that he would find him still alive on his return?
Beresford knew what he was thinking. He smiled, the gentle, affectionate smile of the very ill. "It's all right, old fellow. Got to buck up and carry on, you know. Look out--for West. Don't give him any show at you. Never trust him--not for a minute. Remember he's--a wolf." His weak hand gripped Tom's in farewell.
The American turned away hurriedly, not to show the tears that unexpectedly brimmed his lids. Though he wore the hard surface of the frontier, his was a sensitive soul. He was very fond of this gay, gallant youth who went out to meet adventure as though it were a lover with whom he had an appointment. They had gone through hell together, and the fires of the furnace had proved the Canadian true gold. After all, Tom was himself scarcely more than a boy in years. He cherished, deep hidden in him, the dreams and illusions that long contact with the world is likely to dispel. At New Haven and Cambridge lads of his age were larking beneath the elms and playing childish pranks on each other.
West drove the team. Tom either broke trail or followed. He came across plenty of tracks, but most of them were old ones. He recognized the spoor of deer, bear, and innumerable rabbits. Toward noon fresh caribou tracks crossed their path. The slot pointed south. Over a soft and rotting trail Morse swung round in pursuit.
They made heavy going of it. He had to break trail through slushy snow. His shoes broke through the crust and clogged with the sludgy stuff so that his feet were greatly weighted. Fatigue pressed like a load on his shoulders. The dogs and West wallowed behind.
By night probably the trail would be much better, but they dared not wait till then. The caribou would not stop to suit the convenience of the hunters. This might be the last shot in the locker. Every dragging lift of the webs carried Morse farther from camp, but food had to be found and in quantity.
It was close to dusk when Tom guessed they were getting near the herd. He tied the train to a tree and pushed on with West. Just before nightfall he sighted the herd grazing on muskeg moss. There were about a dozen in all. The wind was fortunately right.
Tom motioned to West not to follow him. On hands and knees the hunter crept forward, taking advantage of such cover as he could find. It was a slow, cold business, but he was not here for pleasure. A mistake might mean the difference between life and death for him and Win Beresford.
For a stalker to determine the precise moment when to shoot is usually a nice decision. Perhaps he can gain another dozen yards on his prey. On the other hand, by moving closer he may startle them and lose his chance. With so much at stake Tom felt for the second time in his life the palsy that goes with buck fever.
A buck flung up his head and sniffed toward the hidden danger. Tom knew the sign of startled doubt. Instantly his trembling ceased. He aimed carefully and fired. The deer dropped in its tracks. Again he fired--twice--three times. The last shot was a wild one, sent on a hundredth chance. The herd vanished in the gathering darkness.
Tom swung forward exultant, his webs swishing swiftly over the snow. He had dropped two. A second buck had fallen, risen, run fifty yards, and come to earth again. The hunter's rifle was ready in case either of the caribou sprang up. He found the first one dead, the other badly wounded. At once he put the buck out of its pain.
West came slouching out of the woods at Tom's signal. Directed by the officer, he made a fire and prepared for business. The stars were out as they dressed the meat and cooked a large steak on the coals. Afterward they hung the caribou from the limb of a spruce, drawing them high enough so that no prowling wolves could reach the game.
With the coming of night the temperature had fallen and the snow hardened. The crust held beneath their webs as they returned to the sled. West wanted to camp where the deer had been killed. He protested, with oaths, in his usual savage growl, that he was dead tired and could not travel another step.
But he did. Beneath the stars the hunters mushed twenty miles back to camp. They made much better progress by reason of the frozen trail and the good meal they had eaten.
It was daybreak when Morse sighted the camp-fire smoke. His heart leaped. Beresford must have been able to keep it alive with fuel. Therefore he had been alive an hour or two ago at most.
Dogs and men trudged into camp ready to drop with fatigue.
Beresford, from where he lay, waved a hand at Tom. "Any luck?" he asked.
"Good. I'll be ready for a steak to-morrow."
Morse looked at him anxiously. The glaze had left his eyes. He was no longer burning up with fever. Both voice and movements seemed stronger than they had been twenty-four hours earlier.
"Bully for you, Win," he answered.
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