Connie morgan in alaska, p.6
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       Connie Morgan in Alaska, p.6

           Herbert Strang
 
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  CHAPTER V

  ON THE TRAIL OF WASECHE

  Waseche Bill loved the North. The awful grandeur of the naked peakstowering above wooded heights, the wide sweep of snow valleys, the chillof the thin, keen air, and the mystic play of the aurora never failed tocast their magic spell over the heart of the man as he answered the callof the long white trails. And, until Connie Morgan came into his life,he had loved _only_ the North.

  Accustomed to disappointment--that bitter heritage of the men who seekgold--he took the trail from Ten Bow as he had many times taken othertrails, and from the moment the dogs strung out at the crack of hislong-lashed whip, his mind was busy with plans for the future.

  "Reckon I'll pass up Ragged Falls. The's nothin' theh--Coal Creek'sstaked, an' Dog Creek, an' Tanatat's done wo'ked out. Reckon I'll jestdrift up Eagle way an git holt of some mo' dogs an' a new outfit, an'me'be take on a pa'dner an' make a try fo' the Lillimuit." Mile aftermile he covered, talking aloud to himself, as is the way of the men ofthe silent places, while the smooth-worn runners of the sled slippedover the well-packed trail.

  Overhead the sky was brilliant with the shifting, many-hued lights ofthe aurora borealis, which threw a weird, flickering glow over the drearlandscape. It was the kind of a night Waseche loved, when the cold, hardworld lay veiled in the half-light of mystery. But his mind was not uponthe wild beauty of his surroundings. His heart was heavy, and a strangesense of loneliness lay like a load upon his breast. For, not until hefound himself alone upon the trail, did he realize how completely hislittle partner had taken possession of his rough, love-starved heart.Yet, not for an instant did he regret his course in the abandonment ofthe claim.

  "It's all in a lifetime," he murmured, "an' I didn't do so bad, at that.I 'speck theh's clost to ten thousan' in my poke right now--but theboy's claim! Gee Whiz! Fust an' last it ort to clean up a million! But,'taint leavin' all that gold in the gravel that's botherin' me.It's--it's--I reckon it's jest the boy _hisself_. Li'l ol' sourdough!

  "Hayr, yo' One Ear, yo'! Quit yo' foolin'! I'm talkie' like a woman.Mush on!"

  At daybreak, when he struck the wide trail of the big river, WasecheBill halted for breakfast, fed and rested his dogs, and swung upstreamon the long trail for Eagle.

  * * * * *

  McDougall's ten _malamutes_ were the pride of McDougall and the envy ofthe Yukon. As they disappeared in the distance bearing Connie Morgan onthe trail of his deserting "pardner," the big Scotchman turned andentered his cabin.

  "He's a braw lad," he rumbled, as he busied himself about the stove. "ToWaseche's mind the lad's but a wee lad; an' the mon done what few menw'd done when ut come to the test. But, fer a' his sma' size the lad'suncanny knowin', an' the heart o' um's the heart o' a _tillicum_.

  "He'll fetch Waseche back, fer he'll tak' na odds--an' a gude job ut'llbe--fer, betwixt me an' mesel', the ain needs the ither as much as theither needs the ain. 'Tis the talk o' the camp that ne'er a nicht sin'Ten Bow started has Waseche darkened the door o' Dog Head Jake's saloon,an' they aint a sourdough along the Yukon but what kens when things wasdifferent wi' Waseche Bill."

  Out on the trail, Connie urged the dogs forward. Like Waseche Bill, he,too, had learned to love the great White Country, but this day he hadeyes only for the long sweep of the trail and the flying feet of the_malamutes_.

  "I must catch him! I've _got_ to catch him!" he kept repeating tohimself, as the flying sled shot along hillsides and through longstretches of stunted timber. "He'll make Ragged Falls Post tonight, andI'll make it before morning."

  Darkness had fallen before the long team swept out onto the Yukon.Overhead the stars winked coldly upon the broad surface of the frozenriver whose snow reefs and drifts, between which wound the trail, laylike the marble waves of a sculptured ocean.

  Old Boris, running free in the lead, paused at the junction of thetrails, sniffed at the place where Waseche had halted early in themorning, and loped unhesitatingly up the river. The old lead dog wasseveral hundred yards in advance of the team, and cut off from sight bythe high-piled drifts; so that when Connie reached the spot he swung the_malamutes_ downstream in the direction of Ragged Falls Post, never foran instant suspecting that his partner had taken the opposite trail.

  For several minutes old Boris ran on with his nose to the snow, then,missing the sound of the scratching feet and the dry husk of therunners, he paused and listened with ears cocked and eyes in closescrutiny of the back trail. Surely, those were the sounds of the dogteam--but why were they growing fainter in the distance? The old dogwhimpered uneasily, and then, throwing back his head, gave voice to along, bell-like cry which, floating out on the tingling air like theblast of a bugle, was borne to the ears of the boy on the flying dogsled, already a half-mile to the westward. At his sharp command, thewell trained _malamutes_ nearly piled up with the suddenness of theirstop. The boy listened breathlessly and again it sounded--the long-drawnhowl he knew so well. "Why has Boris left the trail," wondered the boy."Had Waseche met with an accident and camped? Were the feet of his dogssore? Was he hurt?" Connie glanced at his own two dogs, Mutt andSlasher, who, unharnessed, had followed in his wake. They, too, heardthe call of their leader and had crouched in the snow, gazing backward.Quickly he swung the sled dogs and dashed back at a gallop. Passing thepoint where the Ten Bow trail slanted into the hills, he urged the dogsto greater effort. If something had happened and Waseche had camped, thequicker he found him the better. But, if Waseche had not camped, and oldBoris was fooling him, it would mean nearly an hour lost in uselessdoubling. With anxious eyes he scanned the trail ahead, seeking topenetrate the gloom of the Arctic night. At length, as the sled shotfrom between two high-piled drifts, he made out a dark blotch in thedistance, which quickly resolved itself into the figure of the old leaddog sitting upon his haunches with ears alert for the approaching sled.Connie whistled, a loud, peculiar whistle, and the old dog boundedforward with short, quick yelps of delight.

  "Where is Waseche, Boris?" The boy had leaped from the sled and wasmauling the rough coat playfully. "Find Waseche! Boris! Go find him!"With a sharp, joyful bark, the old dog leaped out upon the trail and thewolf-dogs followed. A mile slipped past--two miles--and no sign ofWaseche! The boy called a halt. "Boris is fooling me," he muttered,with disappointment. "He couldn't have come this far and gotten back tothe place I found him."

  Connie had once accompanied Waseche Bill to Ragged Falls Post and whenhe took the trail it was with the idea that Waseche had headed for thatpoint. Unconsciously, Scotty McDougall had strengthened the convictionwhen he told the boy he should overtake his partner at Ragged Falls. Sonow it never occurred to him that the man had taken the trail for Eagle,which lay four days to the south-east.

  Disappointed in the behaviour of the old dog, upon whose sagacity he hadrelied, and bitterly begrudging the lost time, he whistled Boris in andtried to start him down the river. But the old dog refused to lead andcontinued to make short, whimpering dashes in the opposite direction. Atlast, the boy gave up in despair and headed the team for Ragged Falls,and Boris, with whimpered protests and drooping tail, followed besideMutt and Slasher.

  All night McDougall's _malamutes_ mushed steadily over the trail, and inthe grey of the morning, as they swept around a wide bend of the greatriver, the long, low, snow-covered roof of Ragged Falls Post, with itsbare flagpole, appeared crowning a flat-topped bluff on the right bank.

  Connie's heart bounded with relief at the sight. For twenty hours he hadurged the dogs over the trail with only two short intervals of rest, andnow he had reached his goal--and Waseche!

  "Wonder what he'll say?" smiled the tired boy. "I bet he'll be surprisedto see me--and glad, too--only he'll pretend not to be. Doggone old_tillicum_! He's the best pardner a man ever had!"

  Eagerly the boy swung the dogs at the steep slope that led to the top ofthe bluff. A thin plume of smoke was rising above the roof; there wasthe sound of an opening door, and a man in shirt sleeves eyed theapproaching
outfit sleepily. Connie recognized him as Black JackDemaree, the storekeeper. And then the boy's heart almost stoppedbeating, for the gate of the log stockade that served as a dog corralstood open, and upon the packed snow before the door was no sled.

  "Hello, sonny!" called the man from the doorway. "Well, dog my cats! Ifit ain't Sam Morgan's boy! Them's Scotty McDougall's team, ain't it?"

  "Where's Waseche Bill?" asked the boy, ignoring the man's greeting.

  "Waseche Bill! Why, I ain't saw Waseche sense you an' him was down las'summer." The small shoulders drooped wearily, and the small head turnedaway, as, choking back the tears of disappointment, the boy stared outover the river. The man looked for a moment at the dejected littlefigure and, stepping to his side, laid a rough, kindly hand on the boy'sarm.

  "Come, sonny; fust off, we'll git the dawgs unharnessed an' fed, an'then, when we git breakfas' et, we c'n make medicine." The boy shook hishead.

  "I can't stop," he said; "I must find Waseche."

  "Now, look a here, don't you worry none 'bout Waseche. That there ol'sourdough'll take care of hisself. Why, he c'n trail through a countrywhere a wolf w'd starve to death!

  "Ye've got to eat, son. An' yer dawgs has got to eat an' rest. I seeye're in a hurry, an' I won't detain ye needless. Mind ye, they worn'tno better man than Sam Morgan, yer daddy, an' he worn't above takin'advice off a friend." Without a word the boy fell to and helped the man,who was already unharnessing the dogs.

  "Now, son, 'fore ye turn in fer a few winks," said Black Jack Demaree,as he gulped down the last of his coffee and filled his pipe. "Jes'loosten up an' tell me how come you an' Waseche ain't up on Ten Bowworkin' yer claim?"

  The man listened attentively as the boy told how his partner's claim hadsloped off into his own and "petered out." And of how Waseche Bill hadtaken the trail in the night, so the boy would have an undividedinterest in the good claim. And, also, of how, when he woke up andfound his partner gone, he had borrowed McDougall's dogs and followed.And, lastly, of the way old Boris acted at the fork of the trails. Whenthe boy finished, the man sat for several minutes puffing slowly at hisshort, black pipe, and watching the blue smoke curl upward. Presently hecleared his throat.

  "In the first place, sonny, ye'd ort to know'd better'n to go contraryto the ol' dawg. In this here country it's as needful to know dawgs asit is to know men. That there's a lesson ye won't soon fergit--never setup yer own guess agin' a good dawgs nose. Course, ye've got to know yerdawg. Take a rankus pup that ain't got no sense yet, an' he's li'ble tocontankerate off on the wrong trail--but no one wouldn't pay no heed tohim, no more'n they would to some raw shorthorn that come ablustercatin' along with a sled load o' pyrites, expectin' to start astampede.

  "But, ye're only delayed a bit. It's plain as daylight, Waseche hit ferEagle, an' ye'll come up with him, 'cause, chances is, he'll projec'round a bit among the boys, an' if he figgers on a trip into the hillshe'll have to outfit fer it."

  "Thank you, Jack," said the boy, offering his small hand; "I'll sureremember what you told me. I think I'll take a little nap and thenmush."

  "That's the talk, son. Never mind unrollin' yer bed, jes' climb into mybunk, yonder. It's five days to Eagle, an' while ye're sleepin' I'lljes' run through yer outfit an' see what ye need, an' when ye wake upit'll be all packed an' ready fer ye."

  When Connie opened his eyes, daylight had vanished and Black Jack satnear the stove reading a paper-backed novel by the light of a tinreflector lamp.

  "What time is it?" asked the boy, as he fastened his _mukluks_.

  "'Bout 'leven G.M.," grinned the man.

  "Why, I've slept twelve hours!" exclaimed the boy in dismay.

  "When Connie opened his eyes, daylight had vanished."]

  "Well, ye needed it, er ye wouldn't of slep' it," remarked the man,philosophically.

  "But, look at the _time_ I've wasted. I might have been----"

  "Now, listen to me, son. Yere's another thing ye've got to learn, an'that is: In this here country a man's got to keep hisself fit--an' hisdawgs, too. Forcin' the trail means loosin' out in the long run. Eightor ten hours is a day's work on the trail--an' a good day. 'Coursethey's exceptions, like a stampede or a rush fer a doctor when a man c'nafford to take chances. But take it day in an' day out, eight or tenhours'll git ye further than eighteen or twenty.

  "It's the _chechakos_ an' the tin horns that excrootiates theirselvesan' their dawgs to a frazzle, an' when a storm hits 'em, er they miss acache, it's good-night! Take an ol' sourdough an' he'll jes' sagashitatealong, eat a plenty an' sleep a plenty an' do the like by his dawgs, an'when trouble comes he jes' tightens his belt a hole er two an' hits hisdawgs couple extra licks fer breakfas' an' exooberates along on hisnerve.

  "Eat yer supper, now, an' ye c'n hit the trail whenever ye like. Yersled's packed fer the trip an' a couple days to spare."

  "I came away in such a hurry I forgot to bring my dust," said the boy,ruefully.

  "Well, I guess ye're good fer it," laughed the man. "Wisht I had athousan' on my books with claims as good as yourn an' Waseche's."

  After supper they harnessed the dogs and the boy turned to bid hisfriend good-bye. The man extended a buckskin pouch.

  "Here's a poke with a couple hundred in it. Take it along. Ye mightn'tneed it, an' then agin ye might, an' if ye do need it, ye'll need itbad." The boy made a motion of protest.

  "G'wan, it's yourn. I got it all chalked up agin ye, an' I'd have tochange the figgers, an' if they's anything on earth I hate, it's tobookkeep. So long! When ye see Waseche Bill, tell him Black Jack Demareesays ye can't never tell by the size of a frog how fer he c'n jump."

 
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