Part 2 out of 3
His saner thoughts brought back his caution. He went more slowly toward
the cabin, keeping in the deep shadows and stopping now and then to
listen. At the edge of the clearing he paused for a long time. There was
no sign of life about the cabin abandoned by Gregson and Thorne. It was
probable that the two men who had passed along the path had returned to
the camp by another trail, and still keeping as much within the shadows
as possible he went to the door and entered.
With his feet propped in front of the big box stove sat Jackpine. The
Indian rose as Howland entered, and something in the sullen gloom of his
face caused the young engineer to eye him questioningly.
"Any one been here, Jackpine?"
The old sledge-driver gave his head a negative shake and hunched his
shoulders, pointing at the same time to the table, on which lay a
carefully folded piece of paper.
"Thorne," he grunted.
Howland spread out the paper in the light of the lamp, and read:
"MY DEAR HOWLAND:
"I forgot to tell you that our mail sledge starts for Le Pas to-morrow
at noon, and as I'm planning on going down with it I want you to get
over as early as you can in the morning. Can put you on to everything in
the camp between eight and twelve. THORNE."
A whistle of astonishment escaped Howland's lips.
"Where do you sleep, Jackpine?" he asked suddenly.
"Cabin in edge of woods," replied the Indian.
"How about breakfast? Thorne hasn't put me on to the grub line yet."
"Thorne say you eat with heem in mornin'. I come early--wake you. After
heem go--to-morrow--eat here."
"You needn't wake me," said Howland, throwing off his coat. "I'll find
Thorne--probably before he's up. Good night."
Jackpine had half opened the door, and for a moment the engineer caught
a glimpse of his dark, grinning face looking back over his shoulder. He
hesitated, as if about to speak, and then with a mouthful of his
inimitable chuckles, he went out.
After bolting the door Howland lighted a small table lamp, entered the
sleeping room and prepared for bed.
"Got to have a little sleep no matter if things are going off like a
Fourth of July celebration," he grumbled, and rolled between the sheets.
In spite of his old habit of rising with the breaking of dawn it was
Jackpine who awakened him a few hours later. The camp was hardly astir
when he followed the Indian down among the log cabins to Thorne's
quarters. The senior engineer was already dressed.
"Sorry to hustle you so, Howland," he greeted, "but I've got to go down
with the mail. Just between you and me I don't believe the camp doctor
is much on his job. I've got a deuced bad shoulder and a worse arm, and
I'm going down to a good surgeon as fast as I can."
"Didn't they send Weston up with you?" asked Howland. He knew that
Weston was the best "accident man" in the company's employ.
"Yes--Weston," replied the senior, eying him sharply. "I don't mean to
say he's not a good man, Howland," he amended quickly. "But he doesn't
quite seem to take hold of this hurt of mine. By the way, I looked over
our pay-roll and there is no Croisset on it."
For an hour after breakfast the two men were busy with papers, maps and
drawings relative to the camp work. Howland had kept in close touch with
operations from Chicago and by the time they were ready to leave for
outside inspection he was confident that he could take hold without the
personal assistance of either Gregson or Thorne. Before that hour had
passed he was certain of at least one other thing--that it was not
incompetency that was taking the two senior engineers back to the home
office. He had half expected to find the working-end in the same
disorganized condition as its chiefs. But if Gregson and Thorne had been
laboring under a tremendous strain of some kind it was not reflected in
the company's work, as shown in the office records which the latter had
spread out before him.
"That's a big six months' work," said Thorne when they had finished.
"Good Lord, man, when we first came up here a jack-rabbit couldn't hop
through this place where you're sitting, and now see what we've got!
Fifty cabins, four mess-halls, two of the biggest warehouses north of
Winnipeg, a post-office, a hospital, three blacksmith shops and--a
"A ship-yard!" exclaimed Howland in genuine surprise.
"Sure, with a fifty-ton ship half built and frozen stiff in the ice. You
can finish her in the spring and you'll find her mighty useful for
bringing supplies from the head of the Wekusko. We're using horses on
the ice now. Had a deuced hard time in getting fifty of 'em up from Le
Pas. And besides all this, we've got six miles of road-bed built to the
south and three to the north. We've got a sub-camp at each working-end,
but most of the men still prefer to come in at night." He dragged
himself slowly and painfully to his feet as a knock sounded at the door.
"That's MacDonald, our camp superintendent," he explained. "Told him to
be here at eight. He's a corker for taking hold of things."
A little, wiry, red-headed man hopped in as Thorne threw open the door.
The moment his eyes fell on Howland he sprang forward with outstretched
hand, smiling and bobbing his head.
"Howland, of course!" he cried. "Glad to see you! Five minutes
late--awful sorry--but they're having the devil's own time over at a
coyote we're going to blow this morning, and that's what kept me."
From Howland he whirled on the senior with the sudden movement of a
"How's the arm, Thorne? And if there's any mercy in your corpus tell me
if Jackpine brought me the cigarettes from Le Pas. If he forgot them, as
the mail did, I'll have his life as sure--"
"He brought them," said Thorne. "But how about this coyote, Mac? I
thought it was ready to fire."
"So it is--now. The south ridge is scheduled to go up at ten o'clock.
We'll blow up the big north mountains sometime to-night. It'll make a
glorious fireworks--one hundred and twenty-five barrels of powder and
four fifty-pound cases of dynamite--and if you can't walk that far,
Thorne, we'll take you up on a sledge. Mustn't allow you to miss it!"
"Sorry, but I'll have to, Mac. I'm going south with the mail. That's why
I want you with Howland and me this morning. It will be up to you to get
him acquainted with every detail in camp."
"Bully!" exclaimed the little superintendent, rubbing his hands with
brisk enthusiasm. "Greggy and Thorne have done some remarkable things,
Mr. Howland. You'll open your eyes when you see 'em! Talk about building
railroads! We've got 'em all beat a thousand ways--tearing through
forests, swamps and those blooming ridge-mountains--and here we are
pretty near up at the end of the earth. The new Trans-continental isn't
in it with us! The--"
"Ring off, Mac!" exclaimed Thorne; and Howland found himself laughing
down into the red, freckled face of the superintendent. He liked this
man immensely from the first.
"He's a bunch of live wires, double-charged all the time," said Thorne
in a low voice as MacDonald went out ahead of them. "Always like
that--happy as a boy most of the time, loved by the men, but the very
devil himself when he's riled. Don't know what this camp would do
This same thought occurred to Howland a dozen times during the next two
hours. MacDonald seemed to be the life and law of the camp, and he
wondered more and more at Thorne's demeanor. The camp chiefs and gang
foremen whom they met seemed to stand in a certain awe of the senior
engineer, but it was at the little red-headed Scotchman's cheery words
that their eyes lighted with enthusiasm. This was not like the old
Thorne, who had been the eye, the ear and the tongue of the company's
greatest engineering works for a decade past, and whose boundless
enthusiasm and love of work had been the largest factors in the winning
of fame that was more than national. He began to note that there was a
strange nervousness about Thorne when they were among the men, an uneasy
alertness in his eyes, as though he were looking for some particular
face among those they encountered. MacDonald's shrewd eyes observed his
perplexity, and once he took an opportunity to whisper:
"I guess it's about time for Thorne to get back into civilization.
There's something bad in his system. Weston told me yesterday that his
injuries are coming along finely. I don't understand it."
A little later they returned with Thorne to his room.
"I want Howland to see this south coyote go up," said MacDonald. "Can
you spare him? We'll be back before noon."
"Certainly. Come and take dinner with me at twelve. That will give me
time to make memoranda of things I may have forgotten."
Howland fancied that there was a certain tone of relief in the senior's
voice, but he made no mention of it to the superintendent as they walked
swiftly to the scene of the "blow-out." The coyote was ready for firing
when they arrived. The coyote itself--a tunnel of fifty feet dug into
the solid rock of the mountain and terminating in a chamber packed with
explosives--was closed by masses of broken rock, rammed tight, and
MacDonald showed his companion where the electric wire passed to the
"It's a confounded mystery to me why Thorne doesn't care to see this
ridge blown up!" he exclaimed after they had finished the inspection.
"We've been at work for three months drilling this coyote, and the
bigger one to the north. There are four thousand square yards of rock to
come out of there, and six thousand out of the other. You don't see
shots like those three times in a lifetime, and there'll not be another
for us between here and the bay. What's the matter with Thorne?"
Without waiting for a reply MacDonald walked swiftly in the direction of
a ridge to the right. Already guards had been thrown out on all sides of
the mountain and their thrilling warnings of "Fire--Fire--Fire," shouted
through megaphones of birch-bark, echoed with ominous meaning through
the still wilderness, where for the time all work had ceased. On the top
of the ridge half a hundred of the workmen had already assembled, and as
Howland and the superintendent came among them they fell back from
around a big, flat boulder on which was stationed the electric battery.
MacDonald's face was flushed and his eyes snapped like dragonflies as he
pointed to a tiny button.
"God, but I can't understand why Thorne doesn't care to see this," he
said again. "Think of it, man--seven thousand five hundred pounds of
powder and two hundred of dynamite! A touch of this button, a flash
along the wire, and the fuse is struck. Then, four or five minutes, and
up goes a mountain that has stood here since the world began. Isn't it
glorious?" He straightened himself and took off his hat. "Mr. Howland,
will you press the button?"
With a strange thrill Howland bent over the battery, his eyes turned to
the mass of rock looming sullen and black half a mile away, as if
bidding defiance in the face of impending fate. Tremblingly his finger
pressed on the little white knob, and a silence like that of death fell
on those who watched. One minute--two--three--five passed, while in the
bowels of the mountain the fuse was sizzling to its end. Then there came
a puff, something like a cloud of dust rising skyward, but without
sound; and before its upward belching had ceased a tongue of flame
spurted out of its crest--and after that, perhaps two seconds later,
came the explosion. There was a rumbling and a jarring, as if the earth
were convulsed under foot; volumes of dense black smoke shot upward,
shutting the mountain in an impenetrable pall of gloom; and in an
instant these rolling, twisting volumes of black became lurid, and an
explosion like that of a thousand great guns rent the air. As fast as
the eye could follow, sheets of flame shot out of the sea of smoke,
climbing higher and higher, in lightning flashes, until the lurid
tongues licked the air a quarter of a mile above the startled
wilderness. Explosion followed explosion, some of them coming in hollow,
reverberating booms, others sounding as if in mid-air. The heavens were
filled with hurtling rocks; solid masses of granite ten feet square were
thrown a hundred feet away; rocks weighing a ton were hurled still
farther, as if they were no more than stones flung by the hand of a
giant; chunks that would have crashed from the roof to the basement of a
sky-scraper dropped a third and nearly a half a mile away. For three
minutes the frightful convulsions continued. Then the lurid lights died
out of the pall of smoke, and the pall itself began to settle. Howland
felt a grip on his arm. Dumbly he turned and looked into the white,
staring face of the superintendent. His ears tingled, every fiber in him
seemed unstrung. MacDonald's voice came to him strange and weird.
"What do you think of that, Howland?" The two men gripped hands, and
when they looked again they saw dimly through dust and smoke only torn
and shattered masses of rock where had been the giant ridge that barred
the path of the new road to the bay.
Howland talked but little on their way back to camp. The scene that he
had just witnessed affected him strangely; it stirred once more within
him all of his old ambition, all of his old enthusiasm, and yet neither
found voice in words. He was glad when the dinner was over at Thorne's,
and with the going of the mail sledge and the senior engineer there came
over him a still deeper sense of joy. Now _he_ was in charge, it was
_his_ road from that hour on. He crushed MacDonald's hand in a grip that
meant more than words when they parted. In his own cabin he threw off
his coat and hat, lighted his pipe, and tried to realize just what this
all meant for him. He was in charge--in charge of the greatest railroad
building job on earth--_he_, Jack Howland, who less than twenty years
ago was a barefooted, half-starved urchin peddling papers in the streets
where he was now famous! And now what was this black thing that had come
up to threaten his chances just as he had about won his great fight? He
clenched his hands as he thought again of what had already happened--the
cowardly attempt on his life, the warnings, and his blood boiled to
fever heat. That night--after he had seen Meleese--he would know what to
do. But he would not be driven away, as Gregson and Thorne had been
driven. He was determined on that.
The gloom of night falls early in the great northern mid-winter, and it
was already growing dusk when there came the sound of a voice outside,
followed a moment later by a loud knock at the door. At Howland's
invitation the door opened and the head and shoulders of a man appeared.
"Something has gone wrong out at the north coyote, sir, and Mr.
MacDonald wants you just as fast as you can get out there," he said. "He
sent me down for you with a sledge."
"MacDonald told me the thing was ready for firing," said Howland,
putting on his hat and coat. "What's the matter?"
"Bad packing, I guess. Heard him swearing about it. He's in a terrible
sweat to see you."
Half an hour later the sledge drew up close to the place where Howland
had seen a score of men packing bags of powder and dynamite earlier in
the day. Half a dozen lanterns were burning among the rocks, but there
was no sign of movement or life. The engineer's companion gave a sudden
sharp crack of his long whip and in response to it there came a muffled
halloo from out of the gloom.
"That's MacDonald, sir. You'll find him right up there near that second
light, where the coyote opens up. He's grilling the life out of half a
dozen men in the chamber, where he found the dynamite on top of the
powder instead of under it."
"All right!" called back Howland, starting up among the rocks. Hardly
had he taken a dozen steps when a dark object shot out behind him and,
fell with crushing force on his head. With, a groaning cry he fell
forward on his face. For a few moments he was conscious of voices about
him; he knew that he was being lifted in the arms of men, and that after
a time they were carrying him so that his feet dragged on the ground.
After that he seemed to be sinking down--down--down--until he lost all
sense of existence in a chaos of inky blackness.
THE HOUR OF DEATH
A red, unwinking eye staring at him fixedly from out of impenetrable
gloom--an ogreish, gleaming thing that brought life back into him with a
thrill of horror--was Howland's first vision of returning consciousness.
It was dead in front of him, on a level with his face--a ball of yellow
fire that seemed to burn into his very soul. He tried to cry out, but no
sound fell from his lips; he strove to move, to fight himself away, but
there was no power of movement in his limbs. The eye grew larger. He saw
that it was so bright it cast a halo, and the halo widened before his
own staring eyes until the dense gloom about it seemed to be melting
away. Then he knew. It was a lantern in front of him, not more than ten
feet away. Consciousness flooded him, and he made another effort to cry
out, to free his arms from an invisible clutch that held him powerless.
At first he thought this was the clutch of human hands; then as the
lantern-light revealed more clearly the things about him and the
outlines of his own figure, he saw that it was a rope, and he knew that
he was unable to cry out because of something tight and suffocating
about his mouth.
The truth came to him swiftly. He had come up to the coyote on a sledge.
Some one had struck him. He remembered that men had half-dragged him
over the rocks, and these men had bound and gagged him, and left him
here, with the lantern staring him in the face. But where was he? He
shifted his eyes, straining to penetrate the gloom. Ahead of him, just
beyond the light, there was a black wall; he could not move his head,
but he saw where that same wall closed in on the left. He turned his
gaze upward, and it ended with that same imprisoning barrier of rock.
Then he looked down, and the cry of horror that rose in his throat died
in a muffled groan. The light fell dimly on a sack--two of
them--three--a tightly packed wall of them.
He knew now what had happened. He was imprisoned in the coyote, and the
sacks about him were filled with powder. He was sitting on something
hard--a box--fifty pounds of dynamite! The cold sweat stood out in beads
on his face, glistening in the lantern-glow. From between his feet a
thin, white, ghostly line ran out until it lost itself in the blackness
under the lantern. It was the fuse, leading to the box of dynamite on
which he was sitting!
Madly he struggled at the thongs that bound him until he sank exhausted
against the row of powder sacks at his back. Like words of fire
the last warning of Meleese burned in his brain--"You must go,
to-morrow--to-morrow--or they will kill you!" And this was the way in
which he was to die! There flamed before his eyes the terrible spectacle
which he had witnessed a few hours before--the holocaust of fire and
smoke and thunder that had disrupted a mountain, a chaos of writhing,
twisting fury, and in that moment his heart seemed to cease its beating.
He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. Was it possible that there
lived men so fiendish as to condemn him to this sort of death? Why had
not his enemies killed him out among the rocks? That would have been
easier--quicker--less troublesome. Why did they wish to torture him?
What terrible thing had he done? Was he mad--mad--and this all a
terrible nightmare, a raving find unreal contortion of things in his
brain? In this hour of death question after question raced through his
head, and he answered no one of them. He sat still for a time, scarcely
breathing. There was no sound, save the beating of his own heart. Then
there came another, almost unheard at first, faint, thrilling,
It was the beating of his watch. A spasm of horror seized him.
What time was it? The coyote was to be fired at nine o'clock. It was
four when he left his cabin. How long had he been unconscious? Was it
time now--now? Was MacDonald's finger already reaching out to that
little white button which would send him into eternity?
He struggled again, gnashing furiously at the thing which covered his
mouth, tearing the flesh of his wrists as he twisted at the ropes which
bound him, choking himself with his efforts to loosen the thong about
his neck. Exhausted again, he sank back, panting, half dead. As he lay
with closed eyes a little of his reason asserted itself. After all, was
he such a coward as to go mad?
His watch was beating at a furious rate. Was something wrong with it?
Was it going too fast? He tried to count the seconds, but they raced
away from him. When he looked again his gaze fell on the little yellow
tongue of flame in the lantern globe. It was not the steady, unwinking
eye of a few minutes before. There was a sputtering weakness about it
now, and as he watched the light grew fainter and fainter. The flame was
going out. A few minutes more and he would be in darkness. At first the
significance of it did not come to him; then he straightened himself
with a jerk that tightened the thong about his neck until it choked him.
Hours must have passed since the lantern had been placed on that rock,
else the oil would not be burned out of it now!
For the first time Howland realized that it was becoming more and more
difficult for him to get breath. The thing about his neck was
tightening, slowly, inexorably, like a hot band of steel, and suddenly,
because of this tightening, he found that he had recovered his voice.
"This damned rawhide--is pinching--my Adam's apple--"
Whatever had been about his mouth had slipped down and his words sounded
hollow and choking in the rock-bound chamber. He tried to raise his
voice in a shout, though he knew how futile his loudest shrieks would
be. The effort choked him more. His suffering was becoming excruciating.
Sharp pains darted like red-hot needles through his limbs, his back
tortured him, and his head ached as though a knife had cleft the base of
his skull. The strength of his limbs was leaving him. He no longer felt
any sensation in his cramped feet. He measured the paralysis creeping up
his legs inch by inch, driving the sharp pains before it--and then a
groan of horror rose to his lips.
The light had gone out!
As if that dying of the little yellow flame were the signal for his
death, there came to his ears a sharp hissing sound, a spark leaped up
into the blackness before his eyes, and a slow, creeping glow came
toward him over the rock at his feet.
The hour--the minute--the second had come, and MacDonald had pressed the
little white button that was to send him into eternity! He did not cry
out now. He knew that the end was very near, and in its nearness he
found new strength. Once he had seen a man walk to his death on the
scaffold, and as the condemned had spoken his last farewell, with the
noose about his neck, he had marveled at the clearness of his voice, at
the fearlessness of this creature in his last moment on earth.
Now he understood. Inch by inch the fuse burned toward him--a fifth of
the distance, a quarter--now a third. At last it reached a half--was
almost under his feet. Two minutes more of life. He put his whole
strength once again in an attempt to free his hands. This time his
attempt was cool, steady, masterful---with death one hundred seconds
away. His heart gave a sudden bursting leap into his throat when he felt
something give. Another effort--and in the powder-choked vault there
rang out a thrilling cry of triumph. His hands were free! He reached
forward to the fuse, and this time a moaning, wordless sob fell from
him, faint, terrifying, with all the horror that might fill a human
soul in its inarticulate note. He could not reach the fuse because of
the thong about his neck!
He felt for his knife. He had left it in his room. Sixty seconds
more--forty--thirty! He could see the fiery end of the fuse almost at
his feet. Suddenly his groping fingers came in contact with the cold
steel of his pocket revolver and with a last hope he snatched it forth,
stretching down his pistol arm until the muzzle of the weapon was within
a dozen inches of the deadly spark. At his first shot the spark leaped,
but did not go out. After the second there was no longer the fiery,
creeping thing on the floor, and, crushing his head back against the
sacks, Howland sat for many minutes as if death had in reality come to
him in the moment of his deliverance. After a time, with tedious
slowness, he worked a hand into his trousers' pocket, where he carried a
pen-knife. It took him a long time to saw through the rawhide thong
about his neck. After that he cut the rope that bound his ankles.
He made an effort to rise, but no sooner had he gained his feet than his
paralyzed limbs gave way under him and he dropped in a heap on the
floor. Very slowly the blood began finding its way through his choked
veins again, and with the change there came over him a feeling of
infinite restfulness. He stretched himself out, with his face turned to
the black wall above, realizing only that he was saved, that he had
outwitted his mysterious enemies again, and that he was comfortable. He
made no effort to think--to scheme out his further deliverance. He was
with the powder and the dynamite, and the powder and the dynamite could
not be exploded until human hands came to attach a new fuse. MacDonald
would attend to that very soon, so he went off into a doze that was
almost sleep. In his half-consciousness there came to him but one
sound--that dreadful ticking of his watch. He seemed to have listened
to it for hours when there arose another sound--the ticking of
He sat up, startled, wondering, and then he laughed happily as he heard
the sound more distinctly. It was the beating of picks on the rock
outside. Already MacDonald's men were at work clearing the mouth of the
coyote. In half an hour he would be out in the big, breathing
The thought brought him to his feet. The numbness was gone from his
limbs and he could walk about. His first move was to strike a match and
look at his watch.
He spoke the words aloud, thinking of Meleese. In an hour and a half he
was to meet her on the trail. Would he be released in time to keep the
tryst? How should he explain his imprisonment in the coyote so that he
could leave MacDonald without further loss of time? As the sound of the
picks came nearer his brain began working faster. If he could only evade
explanations until morning--and then reveal the whole dastardly
business to MacDonald! There would be time then for those explanations,
for the running down of his murderous assailants, and in the while he
would be able to keep his appointment with Meleese.
He was not long in finding a way in which this scheme could be worked,
and gathering up the severed ropes and rawhide he concealed them between
two of the powder sacks so that those who entered the coyote would
discover no signs of his terrible imprisonment. Close to the mouth of
the tunnel there was a black rent in the wall of rock, made by a
bursting charge of dynamite, in which he could conceal himself. When the
men were busy examining the broken fuse he would step out and join them.
It would look as though he had crawled through the tunnel after them.
Half an hour later a mass of rock rolled down close to his feet, and a
few moments after he saw a shadowy human form crawling through the hole
it had left. A second followed, and then a third;--and the first voice
he heard was that of MacDonald.
"Give us the lantern, Bucky," he called back, and a gleam of light shot
into the black chamber. The men walked cautiously toward the fuse, and
Howland saw the little superintendent fall on his knees.
"What in hell!" he heard him exclaim, and then there was a silence. As
quietly as a cat Howland worked himself to the entrance and made a
clatter among the rocks. It was he who responded to the voice.
"What's up, MacDonald?"
He coolly joined the little group. MacDonald looked up, and when he saw
the new chief bending over him his eyes stared in unbounded wonder.
"Howland!" he gasped.
It was all he said, but in that one word and in the strange excitement
in the superintendent's face Howland read that which made him turn
quickly to the men, giving them his first command as general-in-chief of
the road that was going to the bay.
"Get out of the coyote, boys," he said. "We won't do anything more until
To MacDonald, as the men went out ahead of them, he added in a low
"Guard the entrance to this tunnel with half a dozen of your best men
to-night, MacDonald. I know things which will lead me to investigate
this to-morrow. I'm going to leave you as soon as I get outside. Spread
the report that it was simply a bad fuse. Understand?"
He crawled out ahead of the superintendent, and before MacDonald had
emerged from the coyote he had already lost himself in the starlit gloom
of the night and was hastening to his tryst with the beautiful girl,
who, he believed, would reveal to him at least a part of one of the
strangest and most diabolical plots that had ever originated in the
brain of man.
It still lacked nearly an hour of the appointed time when Howland came
to the secluded spot in the trail where he was to meet Meleese.
Concealed in the deep shadows of the bushes he seated himself on the end
of a fallen spruce and loaded his pipe, taking care to light it with the
flare of the match hidden in the hollow of his hands. For the first time
since his terrible experience in the coyote he found himself free to
think, and more than ever he began to see the necessity of coolness and
of judgment in what he was about to do. Gradually, too, he fought
himself back into his old faith in Meleese. His blood was tingling at
fever heat in his desire for vengeance, for the punishment of the human
fiends who had attempted to blow him to atoms, and yet at the same time
there was no bitterness in him toward the girl. He was sure that she
was an unwilling factor in the plot, and that she was doing all in her
power to save him. At the same time he began to realize that he should
no longer be influenced by her pleading. He had promised--in return for
her confidence this night--to leave unpunished those whom she wished to
shield. He would take back that promise. Before she revealed anything to
him he would warn her that he was determined to discover those who had
twice sought to kill him.
It was nearly midnight when he looked at his watch again. Was it
possible that Meleese would not come? He could not bring himself to
believe that she knew of his imprisonment in the coyote--of this second
attempt on his life. And yet--if she did--
He rose from the log and began pacing quickly back and forth in the
gloom, his thoughts racing through his brain with increasing
apprehension. Those who had imprisoned him had learned of his escape an
hour ago. Many things might have happened in that time. Perhaps they
were fleeing from the camp. Frightened by their failure, and fearing the
punishment which would be theirs if discovered, it was not improbable
that even now they were many miles from the Wekusko, hurrying deeper
into the unknown wilderness to the north. And Meleese would be
Suddenly he heard a step, a light, running step, and with a recognizing
cry he sprang out into the starlight to meet the slim, panting,
white-faced figure that ran to him from between the thick walls of
"Meleese?" he exclaimed softly.
He held out his arms and the girl ran straight into them, thrusting her
hands against his breast, throwing back her head so that she looked up
into his face with great, staring, horror-filled eyes.
"Now--now--" she sobbed, "_now_ will you go?"
Her hands left his breast and crept to his shoulders; slowly they
slipped over them, and as Howland pressed her closer, his lips silent,
she gave an agonized cry and dropped her head against his shoulder, her
whole body torn in a convulsion of grief and terror that startled him.
"You will go?" she sobbed again and again. "You will go--you will go--"
He ran his fingers through her soft hair, crushing his face close to
"No, I am not going, dear," he replied in a low, firm voice. "Not after
what happened to-night."
She drew away from him as quickly as if he had struck her, freeing
herself even from the touch of his hands.
"I heard--what happened--an hour ago," she said, her voice choking her.
"I overheard--them--talking." She struggled hard to control herself.
"You must leave the camp--to-night."
In the gloom she saw Howland's teeth gleaming. There was no fear in his
smile; he laughed gently down into her eyes as he took her face between
his hands again.
"I want to take back the promise that I gave you last night, Meleese. I
want to give you a chance to warn any whom you may wish to warn. I shall
not return into the South. From this hour begins the hunt for the
cowardly devils who have tried to murder me. Before dawn every man on
the Wekusko will be in the search, and if we find them there shall be no
mercy. Will you help me, or--"
She struck his hands from her face, springing back before he had
finished. He saw a sudden change of expression; her lips grew tense and
firm; from the death whiteness of her face there faded slowly away the
look of soft pleading, the quivering lines of fear. There was a
strangeness in her voice when she spoke--something of the hard
determination which Howland had put in his own, and yet the tone of it
lacked his gentleness and love.
"Will you please tell me the time?" The question was almost startling.
Howland held the dial of his watch to the light of the stars.
"It is a quarter past midnight."
The faintest shadow of a smile passed over the girl's lips.
"Are you certain that your watch is not fast?" she asked.
In speechless bewilderment Howland stared at her.
"Because it will mean a great deal to you and to me if it is not a
quarter past midnight," continued Meleese, a growing glow in her eyes.
Suddenly she approached him and put both of her warm hands to his face,
holding down his arms with her own. "Listen," she whispered. "Is there
nothing--nothing that will make you change your purpose, that will take
you back into the South--to-night?"
The nearness of the sweet face, the gentle touch of the girl's hands,
the soft breath of her lips, sent a maddening impulse through Howland
to surrender everything to her. For an instant he wavered.
"There might be one--just _one_ thing that would take me away to-night,"
he replied, his voice trembling with the great love that thrilled him.
"For you, Meleese, I would give up everything--ambition, fortune, the
building of this road. If I go to-night will you go with me? Will you
promise to be my wife when we reach Le Pas?"
A look of ineffable tenderness came into the beautiful eyes so near to
"That is impossible. You will not love me when you know what I am--what
I have done--"
He stopped her.
"Have you done wrong--a great wrong?"
For a moment her eyes faltered; then, hesitatingly, there fell from her
lips, "I--don't--know. I believe I have. But it's not that--it's
"Do you mean that--that I have no right to tell you I love you?" he
asked. "Do you mean that it is wrong for you to listen to me?
I--I--took it for granted that you were a--girl--that--"
"No, no, it is not that," she cried quickly, catching his meaning. "It
is not wrong for you to love me." Suddenly she asked again, "Will you
please tell me what time it is--now?"
He looked again.
"Twenty-five minutes after midnight."
"Let us go farther up the trail," she whispered. "I am afraid here."
She led the way, passing swiftly beyond the path that branched out to
his cabin. Two hundred yards beyond this a tree had fallen on the edge
of the trail, and seating herself on it Meleese motioned for him to sit
down beside her. Howland's back was to the thick bushes behind them. He
looked at the girl, but she had turned away her face. Suddenly she
sprang from the log and stood in front of him.
"Now!" she cried. "Now!" and at that signal Howland's arms were seized
from behind, and in another instant he was struggling feebly in the
grip of powerful arms which had fastened themselves about him like wire
cable, and the cry that rose to his lips was throttled by a hand over
his mouth. For an instant he caught a glimpse of the girl's white face
as she stood in the trail; then strong hands pulled him back, while
others bound his wrists and still others held his legs. Everything had
passed in a few seconds. Helplessly bound and gagged he lay on his back
in the snow, listening to the low voices that came faintly to him from
beyond the bushes. He could understand nothing that they said--and yet
he was sure that he recognized among them the voice of Meleese.
The voices became fainter; he heard retreating footsteps, and at last
they died away entirely. Through a rift in the trees straight above him
the white, cold stars of the night gleamed down on him, and Howland
stared up at them fixedly until they seemed to be hopping and dancing
about in the skies. He wanted to swear--yell--fight. In these moments
that he lay on his back in the freezing snow a million demons were born
in his blood. The girl had betrayed him again! This time he could find
no excuse--no pardon for her. She had accepted his love--had allowed him
to kiss her, to hold her in his arms--while beneath that hypocrisy she
had plotted his downfall a second time. Deliberately she had given the
signal for attack, and now--
He heard again the quick, running step that he had recognized on the
trail. The bushes behind him parted, and in the white starlight Meleese
fell on her knees at his side, her glorious face bending over him in a
grief that he had never seen in it before, her eyes shining on him with
a great love. Without speaking she lifted his head in the hollow of her
arm and crushed her own down against it, kissing him, and softly
sobbing his name.
"Good-by," he heard her breathe. "Good-by--good-by--"
He struggled to cry out as she lowered his head back on the snow, to
free his hands, to hold her with him--but he saw her face only once
more, bending over him; felt the warm pressure of her lips to his
forehead, and then again he could hear her footsteps hurrying away
through the forest.
A RACE INTO THE NORTH
That Meleese loved him, that she had taken his head in her arms, and had
kissed him, was the one consuming thought in Howland's brain for many
minutes after she had left him bound and gagged on the snow. That she
had made no effort to free him did not at first strike him as
significant. He still felt the sweet, warm touch of her lips, the
pressure of her arms, the smothering softness of her hair. It was not
until he again heard approaching sounds that he returned once more to a
full consciousness of the mysterious thing that had happened. He heard
first of all the creaking of a toboggan on the hard crust, then the
pattering of dogs' feet, and after that the voices of men. The sounds
stopped on the trail a dozen feet away from him.
With a strange thrill he recognized Croisset's voice.
"You must be sure that you make no mistake," he heard the half-breed
say. "Go to the waterfall at the head of the lake and heave down a big
rock where the ice is open and the water boiling. Track up the snow with
a pair of M'seur Howland's high-heeled boots and leave his hat tangled
in the bushes. Then tell the superintendent that he stepped on the stone
and that it rolled down and toppled him into the chasm. They could never
find his body--and they will send down for a new engineer in place of
the lost M'seur."
Stupefied with horror, Howland strained his ears to catch the rest of
the cold-blooded scheme which he was overhearing, but the voices grew
lower and he understood no more that was said until Croisset, coming
nearer, called out:
"Help me with the M'seur before you go, Jackpine. He is a dead weight
with all those rawhides about him."
As coolly as though he were not more than a chunk of stovewood,
Croisset and the Indian came through the bushes, seized him by the head
and feet, carried him out into the trail and laid him lengthwise on
"I hope you have not caught cold lying in the snow, M'seur," said
Croisset, bolstering up the engineer's head and shoulders and covering
him with heavy furs. "We should have been back sooner, but it was
impossible. Hoo-la, Woonga!" he called softly to his lead-dog. "Get up
there, you wolf-hound!"
As the sledge started, with Croisset running close to the leader,
Howland heard the low snapping of a whip behind him and another voice
urging on other dogs. With an effort that almost dislocated his neck he
twisted himself so he could look back of him. A hundred yards away he
discerned a second team following in his trail; he saw a shadowy figure
running at the head of the dogs, but what there was on the sledge, or
what it meant, he could not see or surmise. Mile after mile the two
sledges continued without a stop. Croisset did not turn his head; no
word fell from his lips, except an occasional signal to the dogs. The
trail had turned now straight into the North, and soon Howland could
make out no sign of it, but knew only that they were twisting through
the most open places in the forests, and that the play of the Polar
lights was never over his left shoulder or his right, but always in
They had traveled for several hours when Croisset gave a sudden shrill
shout to the rearmost sledge and halted his own. The dogs fell in a
panting group on the snow, and while they were resting the half-breed
relieved his prisoner of the soft buckskin that had been used as a gag.
"It will be perfectly safe for you to talk now, M'seur, and to shout as
loudly as you please," he said. "After I have looked into your pockets I
will free your hands so that you can smoke. Are you comfortable?"
"Comfortable--be damned!" were the first words that fell from Howland's
lips, and his blood boiled at the sociable way in which Croisset
grinned down into his face. "So you're in it, too, eh?--and that
The smile left Croisset's face.
"Do you mean Meleese, M'seur Howland?"
Croisset leaned down with his black eyes gleaming like coals.
"Do you know what I would do if I was her, M'seur?" he said in a low
voice, and yet one filled with a threat which stilled the words of
passion which the engineer was on the point of uttering. "Do you know
what I would do? I would kill you--kill you inch by inch--torture you.
That is what I would do."
"For God's sake, Croisset, tell me why--why--"
Croisset had found Howland's pistol and freed his hands, and the
engineer stretched them out entreatingly.
"I would give my life for that girl, Croisset. I told her so back there,
and she came to me when I was in the snow and--" He caught himself,
adding to what he had left incomplete. "There is a mistake, Croisset. I
am not the man they want to kill!"
Croisset was smiling at him again.
"Smoke--and think, M'seur. It is impossible for me to tell you why you
should be dead--but you ought to know, unless your memory is shorter
than a child's."
He went to the dogs, stirring them up with the cracking of his whip, and
when Howland turned to look back he saw a bright flare of light where
the other sledge had stopped. A man's voice came from the farther gloom,
calling to Croisset in French.
"He tells me I am to take you on alone," said Croisset, after he had
replied to the words spoken in a patois which Howland could not
understand. "They will join us again very soon."
"They!" exclaimed Howland. "How many will it take to kill me, my dear
Croisset?" The half-breed smiled down into his face again.
"You may thank the Blessed Virgin that they are with us," he replied
softly. "If you have any hope outside of Heaven, M'seur, it is on that
As he went again to the dogs, straightening the leader in his traces,
Howland stared back at the firelit space in the forest gloom. He could
see a man adding fuel to the blaze, and beyond him, shrouded in the deep
shadows of the trees, an indistinct tangle of dogs and sledge. As he
strained his eyes to discover more there was a movement beyond the
figure over the fire and the young engineer's heart leaped with a sudden
thrill. Croisset's voice sounded in a shrill shout behind him, and at
that warning cry in French the second figure sprang back into the gloom.
But Howland had recognized it, and the chilled blood in his veins leaped
into warm life again at the knowledge that it was Meleese who was
trailing behind them on the second sledge! "When you yell like that
give me a little warning if you please, Jean," he said, speaking as
coolly as though he had not recognized the figure that had come for an
instant into the firelight. "It is enough to startle the life out
"It is our way of saying good-by, M'seur," replied Croisset with a
fierce snap of his whip. "Hoo-la, get along there!" he cried to the
dogs, and in half a dozen breaths the fire was lost to view.
Dawn comes at about eight o'clock in the northern mid-winter; beyond the
fiftieth degree the first ruddy haze of the sun begins to warm the
southeastern skies at nine, and its glow had already risen above the
forests before Croisset stopped his team again. For two hours he had not
spoken a word to his prisoner and after several unavailing efforts to
break the other's taciturnity Howland lapsed into a silence of his own.
When he had brought his tired dogs to a halt, Croisset spoke for the
"We are going to camp here for a few hours," he explained. "If you will
pledge me your word of honor that you will make no attempt to escape I
will give you the use of your legs until after breakfast, M'seur. What
do you say?"
"Have you a Bible, Croisset?"
"No, M'seur, but I have the cross of our Virgin, given to me by the
missioner at York Factory."
"Then I will swear by it--I will swear by all the crosses and all the
Bibles in the world that I will make no effort to escape. I am
paralyzed, Croisset! I couldn't run for a week!"
Croisset was searching in his pockets.
"_Mon Dieu!_" he cried excitedly, "I have lost it! Ah, come to think,
M'seur, I gave the cross to my Mariane before I went into the South, But
I will take your word."
"And who is Mariane, Jean? Will she also be in at the 'kill?'"
"Mariane is my wife, M'seur. Ah, _ma belle_ Mariane--_ma cheri_--the
daughter of an Indian princess and the granddaughter of a _chef de
bataillon_, M'seur! Could there be better than that? And she is
be-e-e-utiful, M'seur, with hair like the top side of a raven's wing
with the sun shining on it, and--"
"You love her a great deal, Jean."
"Next to the Virgin--and--it may be a little better."
Croisset had severed the rope about the engineer's legs, and as he
raised his glowing eyes Howland reached out and put both hands on his
"And in just that way I love Meleese," he said softly. "Jean, won't you
be my friend? I don't want to escape. I'm not a coward. Won't you think
of what your Mariane might do, and be a friend to me? You would die for
Mariane if it were necessary. And I would die for the girl back on
He had staggered to his feet, and pointed into the forests through which
they had come.
"I saw her in the firelight, Jean. Why is she following us? Why do they
want to kill me? If you would only give me a chance to prove that it is
all a mistake--that I--"
Croisset reached out and took his hand.
"M'seur, I would like to help you," he interrupted. "I liked you that
night we came in together from the fight on the trail. I have liked you
since. And yet, if I was in _their_ place, I would kill you even though
I like you. It is a great duty to kill you. They did not do wrong when
they tied you in the coyote. They did not do wrong when they tried to
kill you on the trail. But I have taken a solemn oath to tell you
nothing; nothing beyond this--that so long as you are with me, and that
sledge is behind us, your life is not in danger. I will tell you nothing
more. Are you hungry, M'seur?"
"Starved!" said Howland.
He stumbled a few steps out into the snow, the numbness in his limbs
forcing him to catch at trees and saplings to save himself from falling.
He was astonished at Croisset's words and more confused than ever at the
half-breed's assurance that his life was no longer in immediate peril.
To him this meant that Meleese had not only warned him but was now
playing an active part in preserving his life, and this conclusion added
to his perplexity. Who was this girl who a few hours before had
deliberately lured him among his enemies and who was now fighting to
save him? The question held a deeper significance for him than when he
had asked himself this same thing at Prince Albert, and when Croisset
called for him to return to the camp-fire and breakfast he touched once
more the forbidden subject.
"Jean, I don't want to hurt your feelings," he said, seating himself on
the sledge, "but I've got to get a few things out of my system. I
believe this Meleese of yours is a bad woman."
Like a flash Croisset struck at the bait which Howland threw out to him.
He leaned a little forward, a hand quivering on his knife, his eyes
flashing fire. Involuntarily the engineer recoiled from that animal-like
crouch, from the black rage which was growing each instant in the
half-breed's face. Yet Croisset spoke softly and without excitement,
even while his shoulders and arms were twitching like a forest cat about
"M'seur, no one in the world must say that about my Mariane, and next to
her they must not say it about Meleese. Up there--" and he pointed still
farther into the north--"I know of a hundred men between the Athabasca
and the bay who would kill you for what you have said. And it is not for
Jean Croisset to listen to it here. I will kill you unless you take
"God!" breathed Howland. He looked straight into Croisset's face. "I'm
glad--it's so--Jean," he added slowly. "Don't you understand, man? I
love her. I didn't mean what I said. I would kill for her, too, Jean. I
said that to find out--what you would do--"
Slowly Croisset relaxed, a faint smile curling his thin lips.
"If it was a joke, M'seur, it was a bad one."
"It wasn't a joke," cried Howland. "It was a serious effort to make you
tell me something about Meleese. Listen, Jean--she told me back there
that it was not wrong for me to love her, and when I lay bound and
gagged in the snow she came to me and--and kissed me. I don't
Croisset interrupted him.
"Did she do that, M'seur?"
"I swear it."
"Then you are fortunate," smiled Jean softly, "for I will stake my hope
in the blessed hereafter that she has never done that to another man,
M'seur. But it will never happen again."
"I believe that it will--unless you kill me."
"And I shall not hesitate to kill you if I think that it is likely to
happen again. There are others who would kill you--knowing that it has
happened but once. But you must stop this talk, M'seur. If you persist I
shall put the rawhide over your mouth again."
"And if I object--fight?"
"You have given me your word of honor. Up here in the big snows the
keeping of that word is our first law. If you break it I will kill you."
"Good Lord, but you're a cheerful companion," exclaimed Howland,
laughing in spite of himself. "Do you know, Croisset, this whole
situation has a good deal of humor as well as tragedy about it. I must
be a most important cuss, whoever I am. Ask me who I am, Croisset?"
"And who are you, M'seur?"
"I don't know, Jean. Fact, I don't. I used to think that I was a most
ambitious young cub in a big engineering establishment down in Chicago.
But I guess I was dreaming. Funny dream, wasn't it? Thought I came up
here to build a road somewhere through these infernal---no, I mean these
beautiful snows--but my mind must have been wandering again. Ever hear
of an insane asylum, Croisset? Am I in a big stone building with iron
bars at the windows, and are you my keeper, just come in to amuse me for
a time? It's kind of you, Croisset, and I hope that some day I shall get
my mind back so that I can thank you decently. Perhaps you'll go mad
some day, Jean, and dream about pretty girls, and railroads, and
forests, and snows--and then I'll be your keeper. Have a cigar? I've got
just two left."
"_Mon Dieu!_" gasped Jean. "Yes, I will smoke, M'seur. Is that moose
"Fine. I haven't eaten a mouthful since years ago, when I dreamed that I
sat on a case of dynamite just about to blow up. Did you ever sit on a
case of dynamite just about to blow up, Jean?"
"No, M'seur. It must be unpleasant."
"That dream was what turned my hair white, Jean. See how white it
is--whiter than the snow!"
Croisset looked at him a little anxiously as he ate his meat, and at the
gathering unrest in his ayes Howland burst into a laugh.
"Don't be frightened, Jean," he spoke soothingly. "I'm harmless. But I
promise you that I'll become violent unless something reasonable occurs
pretty soon. Hello, are you going to start so soon?"
"Right away, M'seur," said Croisset, who was stirring up the dogs. "Will
you walk and run, or ride?"
"Walk and run, with your permission."
"You have it, M'seur, but if you attempt to escape I must shoot you. Run
on the right of the dogs--even with me. I will take this side."
Until Croisset stopped again in the middle of the afternoon Howland
watched the backward trail for the appearance of the second sledge, but
there was no sign of it. Once he ventured to bring up the subject to
Croisset, who did no more than reply with a hunch of his shoulders and a
quick look which warned the engineer to keep his silence. After their
second meal the journey was resumed, and by referring occasionally to
his compass Howland observed that the trail was swinging gradually to
the eastward. Long before dusk exhaustion compelled him to ride once
more on the sledge. Croisset seemed tireless, and under the early glow
of the stars and the red moon he still led on the worn pack until at
last it stopped on the summit of a mountainous ridge, with a vast plain
stretching into the north as far as the eyes could see through the white
gloom. The half-breed came back to where Howland was seated on
"We are going but a little farther, M'seur," he said. "I must replace
the rawhide over your mouth and the thongs about your wrists. I am
sorry--but I will leave your legs free."
"Thanks," said Howland. "But, really, it is unnecessary, Croisset. I am
properly subdued to the fact that fate is determined to play out this
interesting game of ball with me, and no longer knowing where I am, I
promise you to do nothing more exciting than smoke my pipe if you will
allow me to go along peaceably at your side."
"You will not attempt to escape--and you will hold your tongue?" he
Jean drew forth his revolver and deliberately cocked it.
"Bear in mind, M'seur, that I will kill you if you break your word. You
may go ahead."
And he pointed down the side of the mountain.
THE HOUSE OF THE RED DEATH
Half-way down the ridge a low word from Croisset stopped the engineer.
Jean had toggled his team with a stout length of babeesh on the mountain
top and he was looking back when Howland turned toward him. The sharp
edge of that part of the mountain from which they were descending stood
out in a clear-cut line against the sky, and on this edge the six dogs
of the team sat squat on their haunches, silent and motionless, like
strangely carved gargoyles placed there to guard the limitless plains
below. Howland took his pipe from his mouth as he watched the staring
interest of Croisset. From the man he looked up again at the dogs. There
was something in their sphynx-like attitude, in the moveless reaching of
their muzzles out into the wonderful starlit mystery of the still night
that filled him with an indefinable sense of awe. Then there came to his
ears the sound that had stopped Croisset--a low, moaning whine which
seemed to have neither beginning nor end, but which was borne in on his
senses as though it were a part of the soft movement of the air he
breathed--a note of infinite sadness which held him startled and without
movement, as it held Jean Croisset. And just as he thought that the
thing had died away, the wailing came again, rising higher and higher,
until at last there rose over him a single long howl that chilled the
blood to his very marrow. It was like the wolf-howl of that first night
he had looked on the wilderness, and yet unlike it; in the first it had
been the cry of the savage, of hunger, of the unending desolation of
life that had thrilled him. In this it was death. He stood shivering as
Croisset came down to him, his thin face shining white in the starlight.
There was no other sound save the excited beating of life in their own
bodies when Jean spoke.
"M'seur, our dogs howl like that only when some one is dead or about to
die," he whispered. "It was Woonga who gave the cry. He has lived for
eleven years and I have never known him to fail."
There was an uneasy gleam in his eyes.
"I must tie your hands, M'seur."
"But I have given you my word, Jean--"
"Your hands, M'seur. There is already death below us in the plain, or it
is to come very soon. I must tie your hands."
Howland thrust his wrists behind him and about them Jean twisted a thong
"I believe I understand," he spoke softly, listening again for the
chilling wail from the mountain top. "You are afraid that I will
"It is a warning, M'seur. You might try. But I should probably kill you.
As it is--" he shrugged his shoulders as he led the way down the
ridge--"as it is, there is small chance of Jean Croisset answering
"May those saints of yours preserve me, Jean, but this is all very
cheerful!" grunted Howland, half laughing in spite of himself. "Now that
I'm tied up again, who the devil is there to die--but me?"
"That is a hard question, M'seur," replied the half-breed with grim
seriousness. "Perhaps it is your turn. I half believe that it is."
Scarcely were the words out of his mouth when there came again the
moaning howl from the top of the ridge.
"You're getting on my nerves, Jean--you and that accursed dog!"
Out of the grim loneliness at the foot of the mountain there loomed a
shadow which at first Howland took to be a huge mass of rock. A few
steps farther and he saw that it was a building. Croisset gripped him
firmly by the arm.
"Stay here," he commanded. "I will return soon."
For a quarter of an hour Howland waited. Twice in that interval the dog
howled above him. He was glad when Croisset appeared out of the gloom.
"It is as I thought, M'seur. There is death down here. Come with me!"
The shadow of the big building shrouded them as they approached. Howland
could make out that it was built of massive logs and that there seemed
to be neither door nor window on their side. And yet when Jean hesitated
for an instant before a blotch of gloom that was deeper than the others,
he knew that they had come to an entrance. Croisset advanced softly,
sniffing the air suspiciously with his thin nostrils, and listening,
with Howland so close to him that their shoulders touched. From the top
of the mountain there came again the mournful death-song of old Woonga,
and Jean shivered. Howland stared into the blotch of gloom, and still
staring he followed Croisset--entered--and disappeared in it. About them
was the stillness and the damp smell of desertion. There was no visible
sign of life, no breathing, no movement but their own, and yet Howland
could feel the half-breed's hand clutch him nervously by the arm as they
went step by step into the black and silent mystery of the place. Soon
there came a fumbling of Croisset's hand at a latch and they passed
through a second door. Then Jean struck a match.
Half a dozen steps away was a table and on the table a lamp. Croisset
lighted it, and with a quiet laugh faced the engineer. They were in a
low, dungeon-like chamber, without a window and with but the one door
through which they had entered. The table, two chairs, a stove and a
bunk built against one of the log walls were all that Howland could see.
But it was not the barrenness of what he imagined was to be his new
prison that held his eyes in staring inquiry on Croisset. It was the
look in his companion's face, the yellow pallor of fear--a horror--that
had taken possession of it. The half-breed closed and bolted the door,
and then sat down beside the table, his thin face peering up through the
sickly lamp-glow at the engineer.
"M'seur, it would be hard for you to guess where you are."
"If you had lived in this country long, M'seur, you would have heard of
_la Maison de Mort Rouge_--the House of the Red Death, as you would call
it. That is where we are--in the dungeon room. It is a Hudson Bay post,
abandoned almost since I can remember. When I was a child the smallpox
plague came this way and killed all the people. Nineteen years ago the
red plague came again, and not one lived through it in this _Poste de
Mort Rouge._ Since then it has been left to the weasels and the owls. It
is shunned by every living soul between the Athabasca and the bay. That
is why you are safe here."
"Ye gods!" breathed Howland. "Is there anything more, Croisset? Safe
from what, man? Safe from what?"
"From those who wish to kill you, M'seur. You would not go into the
South, so _la belle_ Meleese has compelled you to go into the North,
For a moment Howland sat as if stunned.
"Do you understand, M'seur?" persisted Croisset, smiling.
"I--I--think I do," replied Howland tensely. "You mean--Meleese--"
Jean took the words from him.
"I mean that you would have died last night, M'seur, had it not been for
Meleese. You escaped from the coyote--but you would not have escaped
from the other. That is all I can tell you. But you will be safe here.
Those who seek your life will soon believe that you are dead, and then
we will let you go back. Is that not a kind fate for one who deserves to
be cut into bits and fed to the ravens?"
"You will tell me nothing more, Jean?" the engineer asked.
"Nothing--except that while I would like to kill you I have sympathy for
you. That, perhaps, is because I once lived in the South. For six years
I was with the company in Montreal, where I went to school."
He rose to his feet, tying the flap of his caribou skin coat about his
throat. Then he unbolted and opened the door. Faintly there came to
them, as if from a great distance, the wailing grief of Woonga, the dog.
"You said there was death here," whispered Howland, leaning close to his
"There is one who has lived here since the last plague," replied
Croisset under his breath. "He lost his wife and children and it drove
him mad. That is why we came down so quietly. He lived in a little cabin
out there on the edge of the clearing, and when I went to it to-night
there was a sapling over the house with a flag at the end of it. When
the plague comes to us we hang out a red flag as a warning to others.
That is one of our laws. The flag is blown to tatters by the winds.
He is dead."
"Of the smallpox?"
For a few moments they stood in silence. Then Croisset added, "You will
remain here, M'seur, until I return."
He went out, closing and barring the door from the other side, and
Howland seated himself again in the chair beside the table. Fifteen
minutes later the half-breed returned, bearing with him a good-sized
pack and a two-gallon jug.
"There is wood back of the stove, M'seur. Here is food and water for a
week, and furs for your bed. Now I will cut those thongs about
"Do you mean to say you're going to leave me here alone--in this
wretched prison?" cried Howland.
"_Mon Dieu_, is it not better than a grave, M'seur? I will be back at
the end of a week."
The door was partly open and for the last time there came to Howland's
ears the mourning howl of the old dog on the mountain top. Almost
threateningly he gripped Croisset's arm.
"Jean--if you don't come back--what will happen?"
He heard the half-breed chuckling.
"You will die, M'seur, pleasantly and taking your own time at it, which
is much better than dying over a case of dynamite. But I will come back,
Again the door was closed and bolted and the sound of Croisset's
footsteps quickly died away beyond the log walls. Many minutes passed
before Howland thought of his pipe, or a fire. Then, shiveringly, he
went to seek the fuel which Jean had told him was behind the stove. The
old bay stove was soon roaring with the fire which he built, and as the
soothing fumes of his pipe impregnated the damp air of the room he
experienced a sensation of comfort which was in strange contrast to the
exciting happenings of the past few days.
At last he was alone, with nothing to do for a week but eat, sleep and
smoke. He had plenty of tobacco and an inspection of the pack showed
that Croisset had left him well stocked with food. Tilted back in a
chair, with his feet on the table, he absorbed the cheerful heat from
the stove, sent up clouds of smoke, and wondered if the half-breed had
already started back into the South. What would MacDonald say when
Jackpine came in with the report that he had slipped to his death in the
waterfall? Probably his first move would be to send the most powerful
team on the Wekusko in pursuit of Gregson and Thorne. The departing
engineers would be compelled to return, and then--
He laughed aloud and began pacing back and forth across the rotted floor
of his prison as he pictured the consternation of the two seniors. And
then a flush burned in his face and his eyes glowed as he thought of
Meleese. In spite of himself she had saved him from his enemies, and he
blessed Croisset for having told him the meaning of this flight into the
North. Once again she had betrayed him, but this time it was to save his
life, and his heart leaped in joyous faith at this proof of her love
for him. He believed that he understood the whole scheme now. Even his
enemies would think him dead. They would leave the Wekusko and after a
time, when it was safe for him to return, he would be given his freedom.
With the passing of the hours gloomier thoughts shadowed these
anticipations. In some mysterious way Meleese was closely associated
with those who sought his life, and if they disappeared she would
disappear with them. He was convinced of that. And then--could he find
her again? Would she go into the South--to civilization--or deeper into
the untraveled wildernesses of the North? In answer to his question
there flashed through his mind the words of Jean Croisset: "M'seur, I
know of a hundred men between Athabasca and the bay who would kill you
for what you have said." Yes, she would go into the North. Somewhere in
that vast desolation of which Jean had spoken he would find her, even
though he spent half of his life in the search!
It was past midnight when he spread out the furs and undressed for bed.
He opened the stove door and from the bunk watched the faint flickerings
of the dying firelight on the log walls. As slumber closed his eyes he
was conscious of a sound--the faint, hungerful, wailing cry to which he
had listened that first night near Prince Albert. It was a wolf, and
drowsily he wondered how he could hear the cry through the thick log
walls of his prison. The answer came to him the moment he opened his
eyes, hours later. A bit of pale sunlight was falling into the room and
he saw that it entered through a narrow aperture close up to the
ceiling. After he had prepared his breakfast he dragged the table under
this aperture and by standing on it was enabled to peer through. A
hundred yards away was the black edge of the spruce and balsam forest.
Between him and the forest, half smothered in the deep snow, was a
cabin, and he shuddered as he saw floating over it the little red signal
of death of which Croisset had told him the night before.
With the breaking of this day the hours seemed of interminable length.
For a time he amused himself by searching every corner and crevice of
his prison room, but he found nothing of interest beyond what he had
already discovered. He examined the door which Croisset had barred on
him, and gave up all hope of escape in that direction. He could barely
thrust his arm through the aperture that opened out on the
plague-stricken cabin. For the first time since the stirring beginning
of his adventures at Prince Albert a sickening sense of his own
impotency began to weigh on Howland. He was a prisoner--penned up in a
desolate room in the heart of a wilderness. And he, Jack Howland, a man
who had always taken pride in his physical prowess, had allowed one man
to place him there.
His blood began to boil as he thought of it. Now, as he had time and
silence in which to look back on what had happened, he was enraged at
the pictures that flashed one after another before him. He had allowed
himself to be used as nothing more than a pawn in a strange and
mysterious game. It was not through his efforts alone that he had been
saved in the fight on the Saskatchewan trail. Blindly he had walked into
the trap at the coyote. Still more blindly he had allowed himself to be
led into the ambush at the Wekusko camp. And more like a child than a
man he had submitted himself to Jean Croisset!
He stamped back and forth across the room, smoking viciously, and his
face grew red with the thoughts that were stirring venom within him. He
placed no weight on circumstances; in these moments he found no excuse
for himself. In no situation had he displayed the white feather, at no
time had he felt a thrill of fear. His courage and recklessness had
terrified Meleese, had astonished Croisset. And yet--what had he done?
From the beginning--from the moment he first placed his foot in the
Chinese cafe--his enemies had held the whip-hand. He had been compelled
to play a passive part. Up to the point of the ambush on the Wekusko
trail he might have found some vindication for himself. But this
experience with Jean Croisset--it was enough to madden him, now that he
was alone, to think about it. Why had _he_ not taken advantage of Jean,
as Jackpine and the Frenchman had taken advantage of him?
He saw now what he might have done. Somewhere, not very far back, the
sledge carrying Meleese and Jackpine had turned into the unknown. They
two were alone. Why had he not made Croisset a prisoner, instead of
allowing himself to be caged up like a weakling? He swore aloud as there
dawned on him more and more a realization of the opportunity he had
lost. At the point of a gun he could have forced Croisset to overtake
the other sledge. He could have surprised Jackpine, as they had
surprised him on the trail. And then? He smiled, but there was no humor
in the smile. He at least would have held the whip-hand. And what would
Meleese have done?
He asked himself question after question, answering them quickly and
decisively in the same breath. Meleese loved him. He would have staked
his life on that. His blood leaped as he felt again the thrill of her
kisses when she had come to him as he lay bound and gagged beside the
trail. She had taken his head in her arms, and through the grief of her
face he had seen shining the light of a great love that had glorified it
for all time for him. She loved him! And he had let her slip away from
him, had weakly surrendered himself at a moment when everything that he
had dreamed of might have been within his grasp. With Jackpine and
Croisset in his power--
He went no further. Was it too late to do these things now? Croisset
would return. With a sort of satisfaction it occurred to him that his
actions had disarmed the Frenchman of suspicion. He believed that it
would be easy to overcome Croisset, to force him to follow in the trail
of Meleese and Jackpine. And that trail? It would probably lead to the
very stronghold of his enemies. But what of that? He loaded his pipe
again, puffing out clouds of smoke until the room was thick with it.
That trail would take him to Meleese--wherever she was. Heretofore his
enemies had come to him; now he would go to them. With Croisset in his
power, and with none of his enemies aware of his presence, everything
would be in his favor. He laughed aloud as a sudden thrilling thought
flashed into his mind. As a last resort he would use Jean as a decoy.
He foresaw how easy it would be to bring Meleese to him--to see
Croisset. His own presence would be like the dropping of a bomb at her
feet. In that moment, when she saw what he was risking for her, that he
was determined to possess her, would she not surrender to the pleading
of his love? If not he would do the other thing--that which had brought
the joyous laugh to his lips. All was fair in war and love, and theirs
was a game of love. Because of her love for him Meleese had kidnapped
him from his post of duty, had sent him a prisoner to this death-house
in the wilderness. Love had exculpated her. That same love would
exculpate him. He would make her a prisoner, and Jean should drive them
back to the Wekusko. Meleese herself had set the pace and he would
follow it. And what woman, if she loved a man, would not surrender after
this? In their sledge trip he would have her to himself, for not only an
hour or two, but for days. Surely in that time he could win. There would
be pursuit, perhaps; he might have to fight--but he was willing, and a
trifle anxious, to fight.
He went to bed that night, and dreamed of things that were to happen. A
second day, a third night, and a third day came. With each hour grew his
anxiety for Jean's return. At times he was almost feverish to have the
affair over with. He was confident of the outcome, and yet he did not
fail to take the Frenchman's true measurement. He knew that Jean was
like live wire and steel, as agile as a cat, more than a match with
himself in open fight despite his own superior weight and size. He
devised a dozen schemes for Jean's undoing. One was to leap on him
while he was eating; another to spring on him and choke him into partial
insensibility as he knelt beside his pack or fed the fire; a third to
strike a blow from behind that would render him powerless. But there was
something in this last that was repugnant to him. He remembered that
Jean had saved his life, that in no instance had he given him physical
pain. He would watch for an opportunity, take advantage of the
Frenchman, as Croisset had taken advantage of him, but he would not hurt
him seriously. It should be as fair a struggle as Jean had offered him,
and with the handicap in his favor the best man would win.
On the morning of the fourth day Howland was awakened by a sound that
came through the aperture in the wall. It was the sharp yelping bark of
a dog, followed an instant later by the sharper crack of a whip, and a
Jean Croisset had returned!
With a single leap he was out of his bunk. Half dressed he darted to
the door, and crouched there, the muscles of his arms tightening, his
body tense with the gathering forces within him.
The spur of the moment had driven him to quick decision. His opportunity
would come when Jean Croisset passed through that door!
Beyond the door Howland heard Jean pause. There followed a few moments
silence, as though the other were listening for sound within. Then there
came a fumbling at the bar and the door swung inward.
"_Bon jour_, M'seur," called Jean's cheerful voice as he stepped inside.
"Is it possible you are not up, with all this dog-barking and--"
His eyes had gone to the empty bunk. Despite his cheerful greeting
Howland saw that the Frenchman's face was haggard and pale as he turned
quickly toward him. He observed no further than that, but flung his
whole weight on the unprepared Croisset, and together they crashed to
the floor. There was scarce a struggle and Jean lay still. He was flat
on his back, his arms pinioned to his sides, and bringing himself
astride the Frenchman's body so that each knee imprisoned an arm Howland
coolly began looping the babeesh thongs that he had snatched from the
table as he sprang to the door. Behind Howland's back Jean's legs shot
suddenly upward. In a quick choking clutch of steel-like muscle they
gripped about his neck like powerful arms and in another instant he was
twisted backward with a force that sent him half neck-broken to the
opposite wall. He staggered to his feet, dazed for a moment, and Jean
Croisset stood in the middle of the floor, his caribou skin coat thrown
off, his hands clenched, his eyes darkening with a dangerous fire. As
quickly as it had come, the fire died away, and as he advanced slowly,
his shoulders punched over, his white teeth gleamed in a smile. Howland
smiled back, and advanced to meet him. There was no humor, no
friendliness in the smiles. Both had seen that flash of teeth and deadly
scintillation of eyes at other times, both knew what it meant.
"I believe that I will kill you, M'seur," said Jean softly. There was
no excitement, no tremble of passion in his voice. "I have been thinking
that I ought to kill you. I had almost made up my mind to kill you when
I came back to this _Maison de Mort Rouge_. It is the justice of God
that I kill you!"
The two men circled, like beasts in a pit, Howland in the attitude of a
boxer, Jean with his shoulders bent, his arms slightly curved at his
side, the toes of his moccasined feet bearing his weight. Suddenly he
launched himself at the other's throat.
In a flash Howland stepped a little to one side and shot out a crashing
blow that caught Jean on the side of the head and sent him flat on his
back. Half-stunned Croisset came to his feet. It was the first time that
he had ever come into contact with science. He was puzzled. His head
rang, and for a few moments he was dizzy. He darted in again, in his
old, quick, cat-like way, and received a blow that dazed him. This time
he kept his feet.
"I am sure now that I am going to kill you, M'seur," he said, as coolly
There was something terribly calm and decisive in his voice. He was not
excited. He was not afraid. His fingers did not go near the weapons in
his belt, and slowly the smile faded from Howland's lips as Jean circled
about him. He had never fought a man of this kind; never had he looked
on the appalling confidence that was in his antagonist's eyes. From
those eyes, rather than from the man, he found himself slowly
retreating. They followed him, never taking themselves from his face. In
them the fire returned and grew deeper. Two dull red spots began to glow
in Croisset's cheeks, and he laughed softly when he suddenly leaped in
so that Howland struck at him--and missed. He knew what to expect now.
And Howland knew what to expect.
It was the science of one world pitted against that of another--the
science of civilization against that of the wilderness. Howland was
trained in his art. For sport Jean had played with wounded lynx; his was
the quickness of sight, of instinct--the quickness of the great north
loon that had often played this same game with his rifle-fire, of the
sledge-dog whose ripping fangs carried death so quickly that eyes could
not follow. A third and a fourth time he came within distance and
Howland struck and missed.
"I am going to kill you," he said again.
To this point Howland had remained cool. Self-possession in his science
he knew to be half the battle. But he felt in him now a slow, swelling
anger. The smiling flash in Jean's eyes began to irritate him; the
fearless, taunting gleam of his teeth, his audacious confidence, put him
on edge. Twice again he struck out swiftly, but Jean had come and gone
like a dart. His lithe body, fifty pounds lighter than Howland's, seemed
to be that of a boy dodging him in some tantalizing sport. The Frenchman
made no effort at attack; his were the tactics of the wolf at the heels
of the bull moose, of the lynx before the prongs of a cornered
buck--tiring, worrying, ceaseless.
Howland's striking muscles began to ache and his breath was growing
shorter with the exertions which seemed to have no effect on Croisset.
For a few moments he took the aggressive, rushing Jean to the stove,
behind the table, twice around the room--striving vainly to drive him
into a corner, to reach him with one of the sweeping blows which
Croisset evaded with the lightning quickness of a hell-diver. When he
stopped, his breath came in wind-broken gasps. Jean drew nearer,
smiling, ferociously cool.
"I am going to kill you, M'seur," he repeated again.
Howland dropped his arms, his fingers relaxed, and he forced his breath
between his lips as if he were on the point of exhaustion. There were
still a few tricks in his science, and these, he knew, were about his
last cards. He backed into a corner, and Jean followed, his eyes
flashing a steely light, his body growing more and more tense.
"Now, M'seur, I am going to kill you," he said in the same low voice. "I
am going to break your neck."
Howland backed against the wall, partly turned as if fearing the other's
attack, and yet without strength to repel it. There was a contemptuous
smile on Croisset's lips as he poised himself for an instant. Then he
leaped in, and as his fingers gripped at the other's throat Howland's
right arm shot upward in a deadly short-arm punch that caught his
antagonist under the jaw. Without a sound Jean staggered back, tottered
for a moment on his feet, and fell to the floor. Fifty seconds later he
opened his eyes to find his hands bound behind his back and Howland
standing at his feet.
"_Mon Dieu_, but that was a good one!" he gasped, after he had taken a
long breath or two. "Will you teach it to me, M'seur?"
"Get up!" commanded Howland. "I have no time to waste, Croisset." He
caught the Frenchman by the shoulders and helped him to a chair near the
table. Then he took possession of the other's weapons, including the
revolver which Jean had taken from him, and began to dress. He spoke no
word until he was done.
"Do you understand what is going to happen Croisset?" he cried then, his
eyes blazing hotly. "Do you understand that what you have done will put
you behind prison bars for ten years or more? Does it dawn on you that
I'm going to take you back to the authorities, and that as soon as we
reach the Wekusko I'll have twenty men back on the trail of these
friends of yours?"
A gray pallor spread itself over Jean's thin face.
"The great God, M'seur, you can not do that!"
"_Can not!_" Howland's fingers dug into the edge of the table. "By this
great God of yours, Croisset, but I will! And why not? Is it because
Meleese is among this gang of cut-throats and murderers? Pish, my dear
Jean, you must be a fool. They tried to kill me on the trail, tried it
again in the coyote, and you came back here determined to kill me.
You've held the whip-hand from the first. Now it's mine. I swear that if
I take you back to the Wekusko we'll get you all."
"And that 'if'--" Jean was straining against the table.
"It rests with you, Croisset. I will bargain with you. Either I shall
take you back to the Wekusko, hand you over to the authorities and send
a force after the others--or you shall take me to Meleese. Which
shall it be?"
"And if I take you to Meleese, M'seur?"
Howland straightened, his voice trembling a little with excitement.
"If you take me to Meleese, and swear to do as I say, I shall bring no
harm to you or your friends."
"And Meleese--" Jean's eyes darkened again, "You will not harm her,
"Harm _her_!" There was a laughing tremor in Howland's voice. "Good God,
man, are you so blind that you can't see that I am doing this because of
her? I tell you that I love her, and that I am willing to die in
fighting for her. Until now I haven't had the chance. You and your
friends have played a cowardly underhand game, Croisset. You have taken
me from behind at every move, and now it's up to you to square yourself
a little or there's going to be hell to pay. Understand? You take me to
Meleese or there'll be a clean-up that will put you and the whole bunch
out of business. _Harm her_--" Again Howland laughed, leaning his white
face toward Jean. "Come, which shall it be, Croisset?"
A cold glitter, like the snap of sparks from striking steels, shot from
the Frenchman's eyes. The grayish pallor went from his face. His teeth
gleamed in the enigmatic smile that had half undone Howland in
"You are mistaken in some things, M'seur," he said quietly. "Until
to-day I have fought for you and not against you. But now you have left
me but one choice. I will take you to Meleese, and that means--"
"Good!" cried Howland.
"La, la, M'seur--not so good as you think. It means that as surely as
the dogs carry us there you will never come back. _Mon Dieu,_ your death
Howland turned briskly to the stove.
"Hungry, Jean?" he asked more companionably. "Let's not quarrel, man.
You've had your fun, and now I'm going to have mine. Have you had
"I was anticipating that pleasure with you, M'seur," replied Jean with
"And then--after I had fed you--you were going to kill me, my dear
Jean," laughed Howland, flopping a huge caribou steak on the naked top
of the sheet-iron stove. "Real nice fellow you are, eh?"
"You ought to be killed, M'seur."
"So you've said before. When I see Meleese I'm going to know the reason
"Or what, M'seur?"
"Kill you, Jean. I've just about made up my mind that you ought to be
killed. If any one dies up where we're going, Croisset, it will be you
first of all."
Jean remained silent. A few minutes later Howland brought the caribou
steak, a dish of flour cakes and a big pot of coffee to the table. Then
he went behind Jean and untied his hands. When he sat down at his own
side of the table he cocked his revolver and placed it beside his tin
plate. Jean grimaced and shrugged his shoulders.
"It means business," said his captor warningly. "If at any time I think
you deserve it I shall shoot you in your tracks, Croisset, so don't
arouse my suspicions."
"I took your word of honor," said Jean sarcastically.
"And I will take yours to an extent," replied Howland, pouring the
coffee. Suddenly he picked up the revolver. "You never saw me shoot, did
you? See that cup over there?" He pointed to a small tin pack-cup
hanging to a nail on the wall a dozen paces from them. Three times
without missing he drove bullets through it, and smiled across
"I am going to give you the use of your arms and legs, except at night,"
"_Mon Dieu_, it is safe," grunted Jean. "I give you my word that I will
be good, M'seur."
The sun was up when Croisset led the way outside. His dogs and sledge
were a hundred yards from the building, and Howland's first move was to
take possession of the Frenchman's rifle and eject the cartridges while
Jean tossed chunks of caribou flesh to the huskies. When they were ready
to start Jean turned slowly and half reached out a mittened hand to
"M'seur," he said softly, "I can not help liking you, though I know that
I should have killed you long ago. I tell you again that if you go into
the North there is only one chance in a hundred that you will come back
alive. Great God, M'seur, up where you wish to go the very trees will
fall on you and the carrion ravens pick, out your eyes! And that
chance--that one chance in a hundred, M'seur--"
"I will take," interrupted Howland decisively.
"I was going to say, M'seur," finished Jean quietly, "that unless
accident has befallen those who left Wekusko yesterday that one chance
is gone. If you go South you are safe. If you go into the North you are
no better than a dead man."
"There will at least be a little fun at the finish," laughed the young
engineer. "Come, Jean, hit up the dogs!"
"_Mon Dieu_, I say you are a fool--and a brave man," said Croisset, and
his whip twisted sinuously in mid-air and cracked in sharp command over
the yellow backs of the huskies.
Behind the sledge ran Howland, to the right of the team ran Jean. Once
or twice when Croisset glanced back his eyes met those of the engineer.
He cracked his whip and smiled, and Howland's teeth gleamed back coldly
in reply. A mutual understanding flashed between them in these glances.
In a sudden spurt Howland knew that the Frenchman could quickly put
distance between them--but not a distance that his bullets could not
cover in the space of a breath. He had made up his mind to fire,
deliberately and with his greatest skill, if Croisset made the slightest
movement toward escape. If he was compelled to kill or wound his
companion he could still go on alone with the dogs, for the trail of
Meleese and Jackpine would be as plain as their own, which they were
following back into the South.
For the second time since coming into the North he felt the blood
leaping through his veins as on that first night in Prince Albert when
from the mountain he had heard the lone wolf, and when later he had seen
the beautiful face through the hotel window. Howland was one of the few
men who possess unbounded confidence in themselves, who place a certain
pride in their physical as well as their mental capabilities, and he was
confident now. His successful and indomitable fight over obstacles in a
big city had made this confidence a genuine part of his being. It was a
confidence that flushed his face with joyous enthusiasm as he ran after
the dogs, and that astonished and puzzled Jean Croisset.
"_Mon Dieu_, but you are a strange man!" exclaimed the Frenchman when he
brought the dogs down to a walk after a half mile run. "Blessed saints,
M'seur, you are laughing--and I swear it is no laughing matter."
"Shouldn't a man be happy when he is going to his wedding, Jean?"
puffed Howland, gasping to get back the breath he had lost.
"But not when he's going to his funeral, M'seur."
"If I were one of your blessed saints I'd hit you over the head with a
thunderbolt, Croisset. Good Lord, what sort of a heart have you got
inside of your jacket, man? Up there where we're going is the sweetest
little girl in the whole world. I love her. She loves me. Why shouldn't
I be happy, now that I know I'm going to see her again very soon--and
take her back into the South with me?"
"The devil!" grunted Jean.
"Perhaps you're jealous, Croisset," suggested Howland. "Great Scott, I
hadn't thought of _that!_"
"I've got one of my own to love, M'seur; and I wouldn't trade her for
all else in the world."
"Damned if I can understand you," swore the engineer. "You appear to be
half human; you say you're in love, and yet you'd rather risk your life
than help out Meleese and me. What the deuce does it mean?"
"That's what I'm doing, M'seur--helping Meleese. I would have done her a
greater service if I had killed you back there on the trail and stripped
your body for those things that would be foul enough to eat it. I have
told you a dozen times that it is God's justice that you die. And you
are going to die--very soon, M'seur."
"No, I'm not going to die, Jean. I'm going to see Meleese, and she's
going back into the South with me. And if you're real good you may have
the pleasure of driving us back to the Wekusko, Croisset, and you can be
my best man at the wedding. What do you say to that?"
"That you are mad--or a fool," retorted Jean, cracking his whip
The dogs swung sharply from the trail, heading from their southerly
course into the northwest.
"We will save a day by doing this," explained Croisset at the other's
sharp word of inquiry. "We will hit the other trail twenty miles west of
here, while by following back to where they turned we would travel sixty
miles to reach the same point. That one chance in a hundred which you
have depends on this, M'seur. If the other sledge has passed--"
He shrugged his shoulders and started the dogs into a trot.
"Look here," cried Howland, running beside him. "Who is with this other
"Those who tried to kill you on the trail and at the coyote, M'seur," he
Howland fell half a dozen paces behind. By the end of the first hour he
was compelled to rest frequently by taking to the sledge, and their
progress was much slower. Jean no longer made answer to his occasional
questions. Doggedly he swung on ahead to the right and a little behind
the team leader, and Howland could see that for some reason Croisset was
as anxious as himself to make the best time possible. His own
impatience increased as the morning lengthened. Jean's assurance that
the mysterious enemies who had twice attempted his life were only a
short distance behind them, or a short distance ahead, set a new and
desperate idea at work in his brain. He was confident that these men
from the Wekusko were his chief menace, and that with them once out of
the way, and with the Frenchman in his power, the fight which he was
carrying into the enemy's country would be half won. There would then be
no one to recognize him but Meleese.
His heart leaped with joyous hope, and he leaned forward on the sledge
to examine Croisset's empty gun. It was an automatic, and Croisset,
glancing back over the loping backs of the huskies, caught him smiling.
He ran more frequently now, and longer distances, and with the passing
of each mile his determination to strike a decisive blow increased. If
they reached the trail of Meleese and Jackpine before the crossing of
the second sledge he would lay in wait for his old enemies; if they had
preceded them he would pursue and surprise them in camp. In either case
he would possess an overwhelming advantage.
With the same calculating attention to detail that he would have shown
in the arrangement of plans for the building of a tunnel or a bridge, he
drew a mental map of his scheme and its possibilities. There would be at
least two men with the sledge, and possibly three. If they surrendered
at the point of his rifle without a fight he would compel Jean to tie
them up with dog-traces while he held them under cover. If they made a
move to offer resistance he would shoot. With the automatic he could
kill or wound the three before they could reach their rifles, which
would undoubtedly be on the sledge. The situation had now reached a
point where he no longer took into consideration what these men might be
As they continued into the northwest Howland noted that the thicker
forest was gradually clearing into wide areas of small banskian pine,
and that the rock ridges and dense swamps which had impeded their
progress were becoming less numerous. An hour before noon, after a
tedious climb to the top of a frozen ridge, Croisset pointed down into a
vast level plain lying between them and other great ridges far to
"That is a bit of the Barren Lands that creeps down between those
mountains off there, M'seur," he said. "Do you see that black forest
that looks like a charred log in the snow to the south and west of the
mountains? That is the break that leads into the country of the
Athabasca. Somewhere between this point and that we will strike the
trail. Mon Dieu, I had half expected to see them out there on
"Who? Meleese and Jackpine, or--"
"No, the others, M'seur. Shall we have dinner here?"
"Not until we hit the trail," replied Howland. "I'm anxious to know
about that one chance in a hundred you've given me hope of, Croisset. If
they have passed--"
"If they are ahead of us you might just as well stand out there and let
me put a bullet through you, M'seur."
He went to the head of the dogs, guiding them down the rough side of the
ridge, while Howland steadied the toboggan from behind. For
three-quarters of an hour they traversed the low bush of the plain in
silence. From every rising snow hummock Jean scanned the white
desolation about them, and each time, as nothing that was human came
within his vision, he turned toward the engineer with a sinister shrug
of his shoulders. Once three moving caribou, a mile or more away,
brought a quick cry to his lips and Howland noticed that a sudden flush
of excitement came into his face, replaced in the next instant by a look
of disappointment. After this he maintained a more careful guard over
the Frenchman. They had covered less than half of the distance to the
caribou trail when in a small open space free of bush Croisset's voice
rose sharply and the team stopped.
"What do you think of it, M'seur?" he cried, pointing to the snow.
"What do you think of that?"
Barely cutting into the edge of the open was the broken crust of two
sledge trails. For a moment Howland forgot his caution and bent over to
examine the trails, with his back to his companion. When he looked up
there was a curious laughing gleam in Jean's eyes.
"_Mon Dieu_, but you are careless!" he exclaimed. "Be more careful,
M'seur. I may give myself up to another temptation like that."
"The deuce you say!" cried Howland, springing back quickly. "I'm much
obliged, Jean. If it wasn't for the moral effect of the thing I'd shake
hands with you on that. How far ahead of us do you suppose they are?"
Croisset had fallen on his knees in the trail.
"The crust is freshly broken," he said after a moment. "They have been
gone not less than two or three hours, perhaps since morning. See this
white glistening surface over the first trail, M'seur, like a billion
needle-points growing out of it? That is the work of three or four
days' cold. The first sledge passed that long ago."
Howland turned and picked up Croisset's rifle. The Frenchman watched him
as he slipped a clip full of cartridges into the breech.
"If there's a snack of cold stuff in the pack dig it out," he commanded.
"We'll eat on the run, if you've got anything to eat. If you haven't,
we'll go hungry. We're going to overtake that sledge sometime this
afternoon or to-night--or bust!"
"The saints be blessed, then we are most certain to bust, M'seur,"
gasped Jean. "And if we don't the dogs will. Non, it is impossible!"
"Is there anything to eat?"
"A morsel of cold meat--that is all. But I say that it is impossible.
Howland interrupted him with an impatient gesture.
"And I say that if there is anything to eat in there, get it out, and be
quick about it, Croisset. We're going to overtake those precious
friends of yours, and I warn you that if you make any attempt to lose
time something unpleasant is going to happen. Understand?"