As it was impossible to make out the course of the river from any distance, he had to defy the air currents in the rather hazardous light between the high river banks. It was far from the even flight made during the day in the sunlight, and again Norman could see his companion gripping the edge of the cockpit. There was little conversation, and in order to divert his companion, Norman manufactured a job for Paul by assigning to him the duty of watching the engine revolution gauge and the chronometer.
As Paul flashed the bulbs, throwing their little shaded lights on these instruments, and sang out the reading every few moments, Norman could not resist a smile. He read both instruments each time as quickly as his assistant.
About eleven thirty, the sun having now wholly disappeared, Norman's long-waiting ear caught the unmistakable roar of the head of the Grand Rapids. From this place, he had a compass bearing to Fort McMurray, and he could have predicted their arrival at the camp almost within minutes.
"You can take it easy now," he suggested to Paul. "We're practically home."
When the roar of the Rapids finally ceased, the river fog cleared somewhat and, with the help of the stars, the outline of the river became plainer below.
"How much longer?" asked Paul in a tired tone.
"We've been coming pretty slow," was Norman's cheery response. "We'll hit her up a bit. It's forty miles to the camp, but we'll save a little by cutting out the big bend. See if I ain't there in three-quarters of an hour."
"I'd think they'd have a light for us."
"If they're all asleep," answered Norman.
But they were not asleep. Some apprehension on the part of even Roy had kept him and the colonel wide awake. When it grew dark and the monoplane had not returned, he made a fire of cordwood and during the long evening renewed it constantly. At half past one the Gitchie Manitou concluded its second successful trip.
The answer brought to Colonel Howell, in response to his telegram, appeared to be highly satisfactory to that gentleman. As he read it in the light of Roy's poplar wood signal fire, he remarked:
"I told you young men that you didn't know how much you might be worth to me. If I hadn't made good on that option, there's no way to tell what I might have lost. I wouldn't let go the deal I made to-day for twenty-five thousand dollars."
"I'm sorry I didn't have anything to do with it," exclaimed the benumbed Paul, "but I'm glad I got a ride at last."
Colonel Howell opened his mouth as if to make reply and then checked himself with a smile. The words behind his lips were: "And a month ago you'd have probably spoiled any deal you had a finger in."
"You had as much to do with it as anyone," Norman suggested aloud. Then he laughed and added: "But you mustn't work so hard. Look at your hands."
Paul opened his yet clenched fingers and held them before the snapping blaze. The palm of each hand bore traces of blood.
"That's where I lifted her over the high places," he said with a laugh of his own. "But look, it's dry. I ain't been doing it for some time."
This night was the real beginning of the colder weather. When they were able, in late July, Ewen and Miller had sacrificed a few potatoes out of their store to plant a patch of this vegetable. During August the little garden had thriven and was at last in full bloom. But this night, to the keen disappointment of all, the creamy blossoms fell a victim to the first blighting frost. From now on, while the days were even sunnier and often quite warm, the nights rapidly grew colder and each morning there were increasing frosts.
For two weeks preliminary to the removal of the derrick to the better prospect, the arm of the drill pounded ceaselessly up and down all day. There were small accidents that frequently delayed the work, but no result other than dulled drills and the accumulation of promising-looking sand and rock.
The hunting trips also continued and moose now became very plentiful. Philip, the cook and hunter, did not always accompany the boys on shooting trips, as the half-breed had joined Ewen and Miller in the work on the well.
The airship was safely housed, as if for the winter. The third week in September came in with a lessening in the daily sunshine. A haze began to hang over the river valley and a murkiness now and then took the place of the keen and clear atmosphere. The evenings had grown so cool that considerable attention was being given the fire in the living room.
On an evening such as this, while Colonel Howell and his young assistants stood on the riverbank, watching the red sun turn to silver gray, Colonel Howell exclaimed:
"By our calendar, the fall's coming along a little early. And judging by the trees over there and the nip in the air, we're going to have some weather before long. Maybe not for several days, but it's on its way. Before it gets here, why not make another trip to the Landing and see if there's anything at the post office?"
"All letters ready at five in the morning," announced Norman impulsively. "Mail for Athabasca Landing, Edmonton, Calgary and points south leaves at that time."
"Better bring a little more beef this time," suggested the colonel with a laugh, "and anything else that looks tasty and you've got room for."
"I guess I've had all that's coming to me," suggested Paul. "Don't think I'm afraid. Whenever you want a helper," he went on, addressing Norman, "don't fail to call on me."
"I guess we won't make many more trips this season!" put in Roy, but in that he was mistaken. The trip made the next day was memorable, but two more that were to be made later were more than that, and the last one was certainly ample justification for Colonel Howell's daring introduction of the monoplane into these silent places of the North.
Shortly before five o'clock the next morning, in spite of an ominous gray sky and a new sound of the wind in the trees, Norman and Roy were off on their three hundred mile flight. They planned a short stay at the Landing and upon reaching camp again before the shortening day was at an end. They carried in the cockpit their Mackinaw jackets and their winter caps. Philip also prepared a cold luncheon to be eaten on the return trip, thus saving time at the Athabasca stop.
Early on their outward flight, for a time the red sun made an effort to get through the clouds, but after nine o'clock had wholly disappeared and the temperature began to fall. An almost imperceptible fine dry snow appeared, but it was not enough to interfere with the conduct of the machine. When a landing was finally made at the old place in the bend of the river, although the day was dreary enough, only the chill atmosphere and a few traces of snow gave premonition of possible storm.
This time Norman made the visit across the river and he was not gone much over an hour and a half. To facilitate the delivery of his stores, which were considerable, he pressed a horse and wagon into service and a little after twelve o'clock Roy was glad to see his companion reappear in the delivery wagon. The spitting snow had begun again. No time was lost in luncheon this day, but the fresh meat, eggs and butter and a few fresh vegetables were quickly stored in the rear of the cockpit.
There were no telegrams this time, but a larger quantity of mail with considerable for the boys, some of which Norman had examined. At twelve thirty o'clock everything was in readiness. On the wind-swept heights it was now cold. Before mounting into the cockpit the boys put on their winter caps, Mackinaw jackets and gauntlets.
Then, elevating the front protecting frame, they started the Gitchie Manitou on its return flight, the wind and snow already smiting its resonant sides in a threatening manner.
The young aviators had little to say concerning the situation. They were not alarmed and could not afford to be, as their surroundings were mild compared with the conditions that the unique monoplane had been made to overcome. And yet they were now beyond theorizing, and it looked as if before the day was done they were to prove the merits or weaknesses of their much-lauded craft.
"I'm glad of one thing," suggested Roy, a little later; "we're going to have daylight all the way back."
"I hope so," answered Norman, but not very confidently.
"We ought to be there by seven o'clock!" retorted Roy.
"That's all right," said Norman in turn, "but I've seen snow in the daytime so heavy that it might as well have been night."
"Anyway, as long as we don't lose the river," suggested Roy, "we can't go far wrong. And the compass ought to help some."
"A compass is all right to keep you in a general direction," answered Norman, "but the best of them, in a three hundred mile run, won't land you at any particular street number."
"I think," suggested Roy again, a little later, "that we might as well put up these shelters and have something to eat."
By this time the wind had died somewhat and the volume of the snow had increased. It was falling so heavily that the top of the car was white. Norman's silence giving approval, Roy managed to elevate the protecting sections, which in turn immediately began to be plastered with soft flakes. Almost at once part of the section on the lee side, which by good chance happened to be the one next to the river, was lowered again that the pilot might get a clear view. Then Roy opened Philip's bag of food.
The aviators had both tea and water, but they drank only the latter and made no attempt to use the heating apparatus.
At four o'clock the increasing snowfall was beginning to give the machine some trouble, and yet it was plowing its way steadily through the air and neither boy was more than apprehensive. Soon after this the snow ceased suddenly and the wind rose as quickly.
"We're losing some of our extra cargo anyway," announced Roy, as the first gusts tore some of the accumulated snow from the weighted planes.
"And we're losing some considerable gas," added Norman. "I hope we don't have to buck this wind very long—it's coming dead ahead." It was just then, the gloom merging into dark, that the alert Roy exclaimed:
"Look; a bunch o' deer!"
The car was crossing the snow-flecked river and flying low. Norman raised himself and made out, in the edge of the timber below them, a group of deer.
"Don't shoot," he protested. "What's the use?"
But his admonition was too late. Roy's twenty-two had already sounded. However, nothing but a bullet was lost. When the monoplane had passed swiftly on its way, the placid and apparently unmoved animals stood gazing after the airship.
IN THE LAND OF CARIBOU, MOOSE AND MUSK OX
Within another hour, the first storm of the season had turned into a blizzard. With the provisions they had on hand the boys would have made a landing to get what protection they might from the blinding snow and the now-piercing wind had they dared. They had not yet changed the landing wheels of the monoplane for their novel snow runners and they realized that a new start in the rapidly increasing snow was practically hopeless.
Working directly ahead into the gale had so reduced their speed that Norman had adopted a series of long tacks. He did this in spite of the fact that for miles at a time it took him from the river valley, which he was now locating mainly by the wind eddies he had learned to know. There was no use turning on the searchlight, as it merely gave them a little longer view into the deep gray emptiness before them.
Thoroughly appreciating their danger, the boys also recognized that a panic of fear would not help them. If the car should become unmanageable, they would make the best landing they could and, half burying the monoplane in the snow, would await in the protected cockpit the breaking of the blizzard and a new day.
"Anyway," announced Roy at one time, "while I ain't exactly stuck on being here and it ain't as cheerful as I thought it would be, you got to say this, the Gitchie Manitou ain't falling down any."
No attention was given to supper and it did not get so cold but that the heavy clothing and enclosed cockpit—for they had long since been forced to put up all the sections—were ample protection for the young men. Seven o'clock, by which time they had expected to be in camp, came, as did eight and nine. It was now long after dark and, while the storm had abated somewhat, there was still a heavy wind and plenty of snow.
For hours the boys had been simply following the compass. They had not caught the roar of the Grand Rapids and felt themselves practically lost. By their calculation, and allowing for a head wind, they had concluded that they would have covered the three hundred miles by ten o'clock. If at that time they could make out no signal light, they had decided to come down on the upland and go into camp for the night.
Their calculation was purely a guess but it was not a bad one. Some time after half past nine both boys made out in the far eastern sky a soft glow.
"I thought it had to be a clear night for the Aurora Borealis," suggested Roy, conscious that his companion had also seen the same glow. For a time Norman made no response but he headed the machine directly toward the peculiar flare and ceased his tacking.
"That's no Aurora," he said at last. "I think the woods are on fire."
For ten minutes, through the thinning wind-tossed snowflakes, the Gitchie Manitou groaned its way forward.
"I wonder if it ain't a big signal fire for us," suggested Roy at last.
"It's a big blaze of some kind," answered Norman.
Through the obscuring snow, the nervous aviators had located the light many miles in the distance. Now it began to rise up so suddenly before them that they knew it had not been very far away. Yet they could not make up their mind that it was a signal fire. It did not at all resemble a blaze of that kind.
"Well, don't run into it, whatever it is," shouted Roy a few minutes later as a tall spire-like shaft of yellow light seemed almost to block their progress.
But Norman was already banking the machine, and the flying car responded while the wonder-struck boys gazed open-mouthed.
"It's the camp," Norman yelled just then as a little group of shadowy buildings seemed to rise up out of the snow.
"They've struck gas!" blurted Roy, as he sprang to his feet. "The men have struck gas and it's a gusher!"
Even as he yelled these words, the aviators heard a quick fusilade of shots and as the car darted onward were just able to catch sight of shadowy forms running about within the glare of the burning gas well. The sight was enough of a shock to Norman to throw him off his guard and the snow-weighted car careened wildly toward the earth. Roy attempted to spring to his companion's assistance and realized almost too late that this would be fatal. While the perspiration sprang to Roy's chilled face, Norman's presence of mind returned and he threw the car upward and into equilibrium again.
Then, straining every nerve, he made a wide detour but while his brain acted, the muscles of his hands and arms seemed suddenly paralyzed. The car dropped slowly and safely in the midst of the clearing, and when it touched the snow the landing chassis caught and the airship stopped as if in collision with a wall. Both boys lunged forward and when Roy got to his feet he found Norman curled up among the steering apparatus, cold and motionless.
It was a good half hour later when the young aviator had been revived. His first inquiry was about the Gitchie Manitou. When he learned that this was apparently little injured and had already been backed into the aerodrome, he gave more evidence of his all-day's strain by again relapsing into unconsciousness on the cot that had been improvised for him before the fire in the living room.
The more fortunate Roy was able to relate their adventures and hear the details of the gas gusher's discovery that night. Within the protected clearing, the storm had been more of a heavy downfall of snow and less of a blizzard. Anxious to move the derrick before winter was fully upon them, Colonel Howell and his two men had persisted in working the drill all day. When the gas vein was unexpectedly tapped late in the afternoon, the drill pipes had been blown out and the escaping gas, igniting from the near-by boiler, had consumed the derrick. Fortunately, the tubing and drills had been forced through the derrick and were saved.
The engine house had also caught fire, but this had been pulled down and it was thought that the engine and boiler were undamaged. These details were discussed while Roy ate a late supper and drank with more relish than ever before his tin of black tea. Norman was so improved by morning that he was early astir, eager for a view of the still roaring volume of gas. He found that Colonel Howell had also taken advantage of the first daylight to inventory the possible damage.
While the twisting yellow flame of the uncapped well was less inspiring as day broke, the roar of the escaping flame fascinated the young aviator.
"It's a gusher, and a dandy," explained Colonel Howell as he and Norman stood close by it in the melting snow. "But I think we're prepared for it and we'll try to cap it to-day."
All else, the clearing, the camp structures and the banks of the river, were peaceful and white under the untracked mantle of new-fallen snow. The wind had died out and the gas camp at Fort McMurray stood on the verge of the almost Arctic winter.
The excitement attendant upon the wonderful discovery and the attempt made at once to control the fiery shaft again interfered with Colonel Howell's real plans of active prospecting. For days the experienced oil men made futile efforts to extinguish the gusher and to cap the shaft. When they were of no assistance in this work, Norman and Roy overhauled the airship and substituted the ski-like runners in place of the aluminum-cased rubber-tired landing wheels.
It seemed as if every trader, trapper and prospector within fifty miles visited the camp. A week after the discovery, somewhat to the surprise of all, although apparently not so much to Ewen and Miller, the long missing Chandler appeared at the clearing late one evening. If he had any apology to make to Colonel Howell, the boys did not hear it. But he was sober enough this time and somewhat emaciated. He had come to settle with his old employer and explained his long delay in doing this by saying: "I knew my money was good any time," and that he had been trapping farther down the river.
He lounged about the camp the greater part of the day and even volunteered his services in the still unsuccessful attack of the flaming gas. But Colonel Howell seemed without any interest in his offers. The man was invited, however, to eat in the camp and spend the night there.
When the boys retired, Colonel Howell, the visitor, and Ewen and Miller were still smoking before the big fire. The next morning the boys slept late and when they responded to Philip's persistent call to breakfast, they found that Chandler had eaten and gone. Colonel Howell was awaiting the boys, Ewen and Miller being already at work on the blazing well, and he seemed to have something on his mind.
"Would there be any great danger," he began at once, addressing Norman, "in making a short flight in your airship in weather like this?"
"This isn't bad," volunteered Roy. "It's only a few degrees below zero. There's a good fall of snow for our runners and there hasn't been any wind since the blizzard."
"Well," resumed Colonel Howell, almost meditatively, "it seems a shame for us to be livin' here in what you might call luxury and folks starving all around us. Look at this," he went on, and he led the three boys near one of the windows where a large Department of the Interior map of northern Alberta was tacked to the wall. "Here's Fort McMurray and our camp," he began, pointing to a black spot on the almost uncharted white, where the McMurray River emptied into the Athabasca. Then he ran his finger northward along the wide blue line indicating the tortuous course of the Athabasca past Fort McKay and the Indian settlement described as Pierre au Calumet (marked "abandoned"), past the Muskeg, the Firebag and the Moose Rivers where they found their way into the giant Athabasca between innumerable black spots designated as "tar" islands, and at last stopped suddenly at the words "Pointe aux Tremble."
"That's an Indian town," went on Colonel Howell, "and it's about as far south as you ever find the Chipewyans. It isn't much over a hundred miles from here and Chandler says there ain't a man left in the village. Pretty soon, he thinks, there'll be no women and children left. Maybe he's making a pretty black picture but he says all the men have gone over toward the lake hunting. They've been gone over two weeks and the camp was starving when they left."
The colonel, with a peculiar look on his face, led the way back to the breakfast table.
"These Indians are nothing to me," he went on at last, "and all Indians are starving pretty much all the time, but they die just the same. But somehow, with plenty of pork and flour here and this great invention here right at hand from which nobody's benefitting, it seems to me we must be pretty hard-hearted to sit in comfort, stuffing ourselves, while little babies are dying for scraps that we're throwing in the river. I——"
"Colonel," exclaimed Roy at once, "you've said enough. Get up what you can spare and we'll have bannocks baking in that settlement before noon."
"I don't want to get you into another blizzard," began the colonel, yet his satisfaction was apparent.
"Don't you worry about that," broke in Norman. "I think we feel a good deal the same way about this. Besides, aren't we working for you?"
"Nothing like that!" expostulated the oil prospector. "This isn't an order."
"I'll help get the stuff ready," began Paul, "for I know that's all I can do. Is this Chandler trapping near there?" he went on, as he gulped down the last of his tea.
"Says he's been helping them," explained Colonel Howell, "but he couldn't have done much, judging by his appearance."
"Is he going back there?" asked Roy curiously.
"He didn't say," answered Colonel Howell slowly. "But he's got his money now and I imagine he won't go much farther than Fort McMurray. I don't care for him and I don't like him around the camp. He's too busy talking when the men ought to be at work."
It was an ideal winter's day, the atmosphere clear and the temperature just below zero. There was no cause for delay and while Norman made a tracing and a scale of the route, Paul and Roy drew the Gitchie Manitou into the open. Colonel Howell and the half-breed cook had been busy in the storehouse, arranging packets of flour and cutting up sides of fat pork. Small packages of tea were also prepared, together with sugar, salt and half a case of evaporated fruit. The only bread on hand was the remainder of Philip's last baking of bannock.
"See how things are," suggested Colonel Howell, when these articles were passed up to Roy, "and if they're as bad as Chandler says, we'll have to send Philip out for a moose. These things'll carry 'em along for a few days at least."
The look on the young Count's face was such that Norman was disturbed.
"Paul, old man," he said, "I know you'd like to go with us and we'd like to have you. But we've got more than the weight of a third man in all this food. I hope you don't feel disappointed."
"Well, I do, in a way," answered Paul, with a feeble attempt at a smile, "but it isn't just from curiosity. I envy you fellows. You're always helping and I never find anything to do."
"You can help me to-day," laughed Colonel Howell. "I'm going to cap that gas well or bust it open in a new place. I'll give you a job that may make both of us sit up and take notice."
"Come on," exclaimed Paul, seeming instantly to forget the mission of the machine. "I've been wanting a finger in that pie from the start."
"Good luck to you," called out Norman, as he sprang aboard the monoplane, and the colonel caught Paul laughingly by the arm and held him while Norman threw the big propeller into sizzling revolution.
The powerful car slid forward for the first time on its wooden snowshoes. As it caught the impulse of the great propeller, it sprang into the air and then dropped to the snow again with the wiggling motion of an inexperienced skater. Then, suddenly responding again to the propeller, it darted diagonally toward a menacing tree stump; but Norman was too quick for it. Before harm could result, the planes lifted and the airship, again in its native element, hurled itself skyward steadily and true.
It was an exhilarating flight. For the first time the boys got a bird's-eye view of Fort McMurray and were surprised to find that the main settlement drifted down to the river in a long-drawn-out group of cabins. Few people were in sight, however, and all the world spread out beneath them as if frozen into silence. The big river continued its course between the same high hills and, as the last cabin disappeared, the boys headed the Gitchie Manitou directly for the top of the hills, where the plains began that led onward and onward until the sparse forests finally disappeared in the broken land of the Barren Grounds. And on these, not much farther to the North, they knew that caribou and moose roamed in herds of thousands, and that the musk ox, the king of the Northland big game, made his Arctic home.
IN THE CABIN OF THE PARALYZED INDIAN
No sooner had the monoplane begun to disappear over the northern hills than the impatient Paul demanded the attention of Colonel Howell.
"Colonel," he began, "I'm almost ashamed to even make the suggestion, but I've been watching the men at work on the gusher. They don't seem able to get a plug into the pipe or to put a cap on the end of it, even with the rigging they've managed to set up."
"We seem to be at the end of our string," laughed Colonel Howell. "But laymen frequently make suggestions that never occur to professionals. Have you an idea?"
"Not much of a one," answered Paul diffidently, "but I learned one thing in school—I think it was in what you call 'Physics.'"
"Speak out," laughed Colonel Howell. "We've utilized all our own ideas; that is, all but one, and I don't like that. I suppose we can dig a pit around the pipe and smother the blaze. But that's goin' to be quite a job, and I'm not sure it would work."
"A pit!" exclaimed Paul. "Now I've got it. They used to tell me, when you strike a force you can't handle, try to break it up into parts."
Colonel Howell looked up quickly.
"We don't need a pit," went on Paul, "but something like a trench. Let's dig down alongside the pipe until we're ten or fifteen feet beneath the ground and then tap the tube and let some of the gas out where it won't do any harm. If we can't drill a hole, we can rig up a long-handled chisel and punch an opening. When the gas rushes out, down there in the trench, maybe it won't catch fire for a few minutes and it's sure to shut off a good deal of the pressure at the mouth of the tube. If it does, maybe we can get the cap and the regulator on the top. Then we can plug the opening below. It'll leak, of course, but the regulator'll fix things so we can use the gas at least."
Colonel Howell thought a moment and then slapped the young man on the back. Without a word, he hurried to the two workmen and in a few moments Ewen and Miller had begun digging into the frozen ground. Colonel Howell's orders were for them to make a trench about four feet wide and extending toward the river about twenty feet. It was to be twenty feet deep alongside the pipe and in the form of a triangle, the long side to incline toward the river. This was to facilitate the removal of the gravel and dirt and to afford a path to the deep side of the trench where it touched the gas tubing.
"Five feet from the bottom," explained the enthusiastic Paul, "we'll put a shelf across the trench and we'll work from this, so that when a hole is made in the pipe no one will be in danger from the rush of gas."
"That's right," added Colonel Howell. "All the gas can't get out through the new opening, but enough of it ought to escape to make it possible to work on the top opening. But we'll hardly finish the ditch before the boys get back?"
"Hardly," smiled the happy Paul. "They ought to be here before dark."
While Ewen and Miller were busy with picks and shovels, Colonel Howell and Paul devoted themselves to improvising the long wooden handle for the chisel to be used in cutting the pipe. But the workmen had not finished the trench when night came and, to the surprise of Colonel Howell and Paul, the Gitchie Manitou had not returned. This fact especially disturbed Colonel Howell and Paul because soon after noon the bright day had ended and the afternoon had passed with lowering clouds and other evidences, including a decided drop in the temperature, that a bad night was approaching.
The northward flight of the aviators had been made without any premonition of this change. After the monoplane had reached the high ground, Norman could not resist a temptation to make his way some miles back from the river, where the boys could see that the sparse timber grew very much thinner and that within five miles of the river the timberland disappeared altogether in a wide prairie or plain. Still farther to the east, they could make out irregular elevations on the plain, which appeared to be treeless ridges.
"I wish we had time to go over there," remarked Roy, "for we may never get back this way and I'd like to have had one good look at the caribou lands."
But the general nature of this treeless, barren waste had been ascertained and Norman brought the swift car back on its flight toward the river. Colonel Howell had explained to them that the Indian village they were seeking was one hundred miles from the gas camp. As it was not certain that Pointe aux Tremble could be easily made out from a distance, it was necessary to keep careful watch of the chronometer and the propeller revolution gauge.
The flight over the picturesque banks of the great river was now getting to be an old story to the boys and protected as they were in the inclosed cockpit, the journey proceeded with only occasional comment. They had left the camp at nine twenty-five o'clock, having set the engines at fifty miles, and, allowing for their detour, at a quarter after eleven o'clock Roy arose and began to use his binoculars. But either the reputed distance or the boys' calculations were wrong, for it was not until a quarter of twelve o'clock that they caught sight of a few cabins scattered along the riverbank within a fringe of poplar trees.
It was necessary to find a suitable landing place and both aviators busied themselves in this respect with no great result. What clearing there was seemed to be full of tree stumps and large brush. The car, having passed over the few cabins of what seemed to be a deserted village, with no living thing in sight, it was necessary to make a turn to look for a landing place in the vicinity. In doing this, Norman made a wide swing.
The only naturally open place was some distance to the east. Without consulting Roy, he made for this white glare of snow. As the monoplane dropped toward the wide opening, Roy made a desperate dive toward the floor of the cockpit and, before Norman learned the situation, his chum was pulling its new mooseskin jacket from the .303 rifle.
"It's a moose!" shouted Roy, "and a dandy. Gi' me a shot at it. I've got to shoot something from the machine."
"I thought there wasn't any game around here," answered Norman, trying in vain to get his eyes above the cockpit.
"I guess the hunters have all gone too far," answered Roy breathlessly. "Anyway, there's a dandy bull right out there in the open. Give me a shot at it."
As he spoke, he dropped one of the front sections and pointed to one side of the basin-like opening among the spruce trees. The moment Norman caught sight of the animal, which stood with its forefeet together, its head erect, and its immense spread of antlers reared almost defiantly, he brought the machine directly toward the animal. There was a heavy discharge from Roy's rifle, but no sign that his shot had gone home.
"Try him again," laughed Norman. "He's big as a barn."
But while Roy pumped a new shell into place, the erect animal suddenly stumbled and then with a snort whirled and sprang toward the trees. This time when the rifle sounded the great antlers seemed to rise higher and then the moose lunged forward on its head and began kicking in the snow. Norman, gazing at the struggling animal, brought the monoplane to the wide drifts of snow.
"You get out and finish him," he exclaimed as the Gitchie Manitou came to a jolting stop. "It's getting colder. I'm going to put some alcohol an' glycerine in the radiator. This isn't a very good place to freeze up."
"Why not wait till we get over to the camp?" asked Roy as he dropped one of the side sections.
"We've got enough of a load now," answered Norman as he began to prowl around among the extra supplies. "There isn't much snow among the trees. We'll take all we can carry of this fresh meat and go to the camp on foot. There's no place to land there, anyway."
Closing the machine, the two boys soon quartered the moose, and leaving a part of the carcass in the lower limbs of a spruce tree, shouldered the remainder and made their way toward the Indian village. The snow and their heavy load made this a panting task and in the mile walk they paused to rest several times.
When they finally reached the edge of the Indian settlement and broke their way through the last of the trees, they found before them a picture that had escaped them from the airship. In the distance lay the deserted looking cabins but, nearer by and as if seeking protection among the scrub spruce, rose a single tepee. Before it stood two men and two squaws.
"They must have seen us," panted Roy, as he and Norman advanced, bending low under their burdens. "They seem to be watchin' for us."
In fact, one of the men had his arms outstretched. The cheerless group was made even more so by a small, almost blazeless fire, in the thin smoke of which was suspended a black kettle.
"No wonder they let a moose almost stick his nose in camp," was Norman's comment. "The men seem to be as old as Methuselah."
There was nothing dramatic in the arrival of the boys, for the Indians spoke no English and gave not the least sign of gratitude when the quarters of the moose were thrown on the ground. Both the women sank on their knees and one of them eagerly bit into the raw flesh. After vainly attempting to talk to the men, Norman pointed to a knife in the belt of one of them and then at the freezing flesh on the ground.
While the boys watched them, this aged and emaciated Chipewyan also dropped on his knees and hastily cut off four strips of flesh. Without any attempt at cooking these the starving group attacked them voraciously in their raw condition. After a few moments, the boys took the other quarter and, motioning toward the other cabins, started toward them. They decided, if they found no younger men, to take the two old men back to the monoplane and deliver to them their other provisions.
Having reached the first cabin, the boys at once discovered that Chandler had not overstated the camp condition. Neither in this filthy structure, nor in any but one of the other half dozen did they find anyone but women and children. In each cabin there was heat in plenty, but signs of food were wholly missing. In each place the air was foul, and half-clad children made the situation pitiable. In one fortunate cabin, the children were chewing shreds of skin.
Still unable to find anyone who could speak English, the boys continued their work of rescue by cutting off a generous piece of moose and then continuing their investigation. Having reached the last cabin, which differed in no respect from the others, Norman and Roy came across a surprise that was a shock to them. Swinging open the door, without warning, they entered a chill interior that was reeking with new odors. A small fire burned in one corner and before it, on a pallet of worn and greasy blankets, lay the distorted figure of a man. He was the sole occupant of the almost dark room.
While the boys hesitated, choking with the rancid and stifling odors about them, they saw the figure turn its head with an effort. Then they saw that it was a man of about middle age, who was almost completely paralyzed. He could move neither his legs nor his body, but with the use of his elbows, he was just able to turn the upper part of his body.
He did not resent the intrusion but he did not give the young men the least sign of welcome. In his left hand rested a charred stick. With this he was able to reach the little fire at his side, in front of which was piled a heap of small sticks and branches—his firewood.
The fireplace and chimney, which was also inside the cabin, were made of clay and occupied the corner of the uninviting apartment. Near the fire stood a smoke-begrimed frying pan in which there was a piece of black meat of some kind. On the dirty clay hearth was a tin basin, in which were a few ounces of soiled looking meal or flour.
"The man's paralyzed," remarked Norman in an undertone. "But at that he seems better off than the rest."
"He ain't starvin', at least," answered Roy. "But we'd better give him his share of moose."
He spoke to the man and was surprised to receive a grin in return. It meant that the invalid did not understand. But the moment they offered the meat to the almost-helpless man, they were glad to see that he had the full use of his arms and fingers. Reaching for a knife that lay under him, he began to cut off pieces of fat with celerity. These he ate without cooking.
The close cabin was so crowded with articles of various kinds that the boys could not resist an examination before they took their leave.
"Somebody's been livin' here besides this man," exclaimed Roy at once. He pointed to the opposite corner of the cabin where there were indications that some one had had a bunk. Then in the other end of the room they found the cause of the heavy odors. Hanging from the rafters were several dozen skins, stretched tightly on trappers' boards, and in various states of curing. There was also a collection of steel traps, a dog sled and a jumbled mass of dog harness.
Curing skins was not exactly a novelty to either of the boys but they knew a valuable skin from an ordinary one and they could not resist the temptation to look for a possible silver fox. They soon decided that the trapper who might have collected these furs was one of no great experience. Roy pointed to the skins, then made signs to the Indian as if to ask if the skins belonged to him. The man grinned in silence and punched up his little fire. Roy was examining one of the stretched hides when he suddenly called to Norman and pointed to a name written with indelible pencil near the bottom of the board.
"Well, what do you think of that?" exclaimed the astonished Norman.
The two boys were looking at the scrawl which was plainly "E. O. Chandler."
"There you are!" exclaimed Roy. "Here's where our friend made his headquarters. No wonder he knew that the Indians were starving."
There was a light tapping on the floor and the paralyzed and speechless Indian pointed toward the corner of the room where there were signs of a bunk. In the gloom the boys went to this place. But they noticed nothing in particular until the prostrate Indian again lifted his stick upward. And then, shoved in a crevice between the logs, they saw a soiled and crumpled envelope. Taking it to the window, they read plainly enough the address—"E. O. Chandler, Fort McMurray." There was no postmark but in the upper left hand corner was this printing—"Hill Howell, Contractor, Centralia, Kansas."
"It's one of the envelopes that Colonel Howell has down in camp," exclaimed Roy.
"Yes," answered Norman slowly, "and I'll bet you it's a message that either Ewen or Miller wrote to Chandler after he left us."
"Do you think we ought to read it?" asked Roy, his fingers grasping the greasy envelope as if itching to extract the enclosure.
"I reckon it's none of our business," answered Norman, as if with some regret, "but I'll bet it concerns Colonel Howell and I believe we ought to take it to him."
Roy turned toward the Indian and made signs of putting the letter in his pocket. If this meant anything to the helpless man, he gave no sign other than the same peculiar grin. Roy put the envelope in his pocket and, making signs of farewell, the two boys left the cabin.
A LETTER GOES WRONG
The conditions that the young aviators had just encountered had not sharpened their appetites. But again in the fresh air, they decided to use speed and complete their mission and, incidentally, to have a little tea and some bannock at the airship.
At two of the cabins where they had seen the strongest women, they stopped and made signs for the squaws to follow them. At the tepee in the edge of the woods they found the two old men and the two women huddled around a fire on the inside of the tepee, with every sign of having gorged themselves upon the food given them. In the kettle outside, chunks of the moose were stewing under a now brisk fire. This entire party was also enlisted and Norman and Roy made their way back to the snow basin in the woods. Without delay they passed out all the supplies to the Indians who had accompanied them, showed them the remainder of the moose and made signs that these should be distributed equally among all. With every expression of pleasure, but none of gratitude, the six Indians took instant departure.
"It's three o'clock," announced Norman, when this had been done. "Now for a little camp fire out here in the snow, some tea and a piece of bannock, and we'll make a record trip back home."
Unaware of the disastrous discovery they were soon to make the two boys took a leisurely rest.
"It's the only time I miss a pipe," remarked Roy as he sat behind a snow bank with his feet toward the cheery blaze.
"Well, if ever I begin," said Norman in turn, "I'll never try to manipulate any of this plug smokin' stuff. I'll go to the States for a mixture of some kind and not try to shave down the brick of hydraulic-pressed tobacco that the half-breeds use."
After a long loaf before the fire the boys made preparations to return.
"Looks a little like the blizzard day," remarked Roy, "and it's certainly getting some colder. I hope the wind won't come up. If it does, I hope it comes out of the north."
While he spoke, the two boys took hold of the frame of the monoplane to pull it out onto the smooth snow and head it south. The airship had been resting upon what seemed to be a little ridge. Pulling the chassis from this rise in the snow, they were both astounded to find the body of the car shift to one side and sink into the snow.
Both sprang to that side of the car and Norman, running his hand along the wooden landing ski, gasped with astonishment when he found the long runner broken sharply in the middle.
"That's fine!" he shouted. "This runner's out of business!"
Roy ran to the rear where the car had stopped and found underneath the snow a rocky ledge.
"She hit this!" he exclaimed. "Can't we tie her up?"
Norman was plainly in doubt but they cleared away the surrounding snow and found that, instead of a single break, a section of the runner had been shattered. Two jagged ends of wood extended into the soft snow.
"If you'll find any way to fix them," exclaimed Norman, "maybe we can get a start. But it looks to me as if we'd have to make a new runner."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Roy, beating his numbing hands together. "We can fix 'er."
The two boys made this attempt and, as often as they thought they had patched up the shattered ski and mounted into the car in attempts to make a start, the patched strip of wood would part and the chassis would lunge again into the snow.
After a half hour of attempts of this kind, Roy recalled the dog sled in the distant hut of the paralyzed Indian and, in desperation, after four o'clock, for it was now getting desperately cold, he secured Norman's consent to a trip back to the Indian's cabin and the securing of at least a part of the sled to patch up their machine.
The winter days were now growing short and when Roy hurried away into the gray woods night was fast coming on. Nor did he find an easy task before him. In the end it was necessary to pay the paralytic twenty-five dollars before he could secure possession of the sled. As he made his way back to his waiting companion, he had to stick to the trails that they had previously made, for in the woods darkness had already come.
At the airship camp he found Norman had put in his waiting time in collecting a pile of fallen timber. It was now so cold that this served a double purpose—they needed the warmth and it served to illuminate the vicinity.
The benumbed Roy also found tea ready and, better yet, a generous piece of moose meat frying in the edge of the fire. These, with some broken bannock heated in the fat of the meat, gave the boys a welcome supper. Then, piling new wood on the fire, they began again the task of repairing the chassis. Here they were handicapped by the darkness, as they were afraid to get the monoplane and its reservoirs of gasoline too near the blazing camp fire.
Finally they solved this difficulty by starting the engine and using one of their adjustable light bulbs, which they hung over the side of the car. Yet the cold had become so intense, although it was a dry Arctic cold, that the work went forward only by stages, the boys being forced to stop and warm their hands from time to time at the camp fire.
When the new moon showed through the dark border of spruce trees and the brilliant northern stars pierced the black sky, the young aviators were ready for another trial. It was eight o'clock. This time they packed the snow for a hundred yards in front of the chassis of the car, and then, arranging their few blankets in the cockpit and refreshing themselves with some newly-made hot tea, exhausted and nervous, they climbed aboard. Putting on all their power and holding their runners steadily to the packed snow, they again started the Gitchie Manitou.
While the runners were yet gliding over the evenly-packed snow drifts, there came an ominous jar on the side of the repaired ski and Norman instantly threw the planes upward. It was a chance for, if the car settled again, the new runner would probably give away. In its gathering momentum, the airship drifted snowward again while both boys gulped. Then as if guiding itself, it sprang upward once more.
"It's all right!" shouted Roy, "but we had a close call. If we have to come down again we'll never get up."
"When we land again," added Norman, his mouth dry, "it'll be in the gas camp."
In a few minutes the airship was over the Athabasca River again, which was now vaporless and white beneath them.
"It's cold, all right," was Roy's comment at this moment. "I think there's ice on the river."
In spite of the increasing coldness, the Gitchie Manitou made its way without trouble toward the distant camp. There was no wind and, although the boys computed the temperature outside at not less than twenty below zero, the interior of the little cockpit soon became cozy enough. The heating appliances had been connected with the dynamo and Norman at times even complained of the heat. After the first hour of flight, both boys began looking for the flare of the gas well. When this at last came in sight, the car was headed directly for it. At that time both boys agreed that the river beneath was covered with ice from shore to shore.
"Anyway," said Norman, as the gas well came into full view, "looks as if Paul didn't succeed in capping the gusher to-day."
To warn their friends of their arrival, the boys threw on their searchlight, and the arrival back of the aerodrome was unmarked, except by the vociferous welcome accorded by the alarmed occupants of the camp.
Another supper was awaiting the relief expedition and for some time all were busy with the cause of the delay and the details of the condition of the Indian encampment. Unquestionably there would have to be another visit to the camp to ascertain at least the result of the hunting expedition.
Strangely enough, before the matter of Chandler's letter was reached, the discussion reached the work on the gas well that day. When Roy suddenly recalled the episode of the discovery in the paralyzed Indian's cabin he started to produce the letter, but hesitated because both Ewen and Miller were present. In his discussion with Norman on the way back, it had been decided that the letter had probably been written by one or the other of these men and that its appearance might cause embarrassment. Both Ewen and Miller had been very curious about the settlement at Pointe aux Tremble, but they had asked no questions that connected Chandler with the place.
When the hour grew late and Colonel Howell proposed retiring to the bunk room where the iron stove was red hot, since neither Ewen nor Miller gave signs of turning in, Roy put off the matter of the letter until later. When the three boys sought their bunks, Ewen and Miller still lingered in the big room, and Colonel Howell was asleep.
"Time enough in the morning," suggested Norman.
In the morning, however, Colonel Howell and Paul with Ewen and Miller were up and at work before Norman and Roy were astir. The weather had not moderated but Colonel Howell was anxious to bring the work on the gusher to a close. Ewen and Miller attacked the frost hardened ground before breakfast and this work had now reached the point where Paul could help in removing the heavy clods.
When the young aviators joined their friends at breakfast, Ewen and Miller were present again and the letter was not exhibited. Then all hurried out to complete the work of attempting to control the gusher. The regulator and the ordinary apparatus to connect it with the mouth of the pipe, together with the smaller tubes and their valves that were to be attached above the regulator, were all in place. In the end, Colonel Howell proposed, with still smaller pipes, to lead part of the gas into the fireplace and the bunk house stove.
At eleven o'clock the perspiring men in the trench announced this part of the work completed. Then it required only a few minutes to brace a narrow platform about five feet above the bottom of the trench, next to the tube, and all paused for a short rest before making the final experiment. At last the men took their places near the roaring gusher and, at Paul's request, he was given the opportunity to use his well-muscled arms in swinging the sledge, Colonel Howell taking his place on the platform in charge of a long-handled chisel.
The duties of Norman and Roy were to assist the two workmen in manipulating the chain pulley, by which the first tap was to be forced on the open end of the pipe. This of course was pierced with holes, so that the pressure beneath it might not be altogether shut off. This was to be forced down upon the steel drill tube, after which the regulator was to be similarly attached to the threads of the preliminary cap. The situation was hazardous for all. There was danger that the out-rushing gas in the trench below might explode when it rose and came in contact with the roaring blaze above. But it was hoped that the work might be done so quickly that this would not result.
When Ewen had laid out his apparatus about the mouth of the tube with all the care of a surgeon preparing for a hasty operation, and Paul and Colonel Howell had taken their position on the scaffold far below, Ewen suddenly shouted:
A heavy blow resounded in the narrow pit. Then another, and another, and a new roar broke out below. Dropping their tools, Colonel Howell and Paul fled up their improvised ladder and when they reached the surface they saw the workmen and Norman and Roy, their faces distorted with effort and their clothes almost scorching, bend to the task before them. The escaping gas was still roaring and the flames were leaping sideways.
Norman and Roy were almost flat on the ground, hanging on to the pulley chain. The first cap was in place and, with a long wrench, Ewen was twisting it onto the thread. A new volume of gas was already rolling from the pit, while from the incline opposite the mouth of the new opening, gravel and clods of earth were shooting riverward like the sparks of a Bessemer furnace. Paul threw himself on the ground with the other boys and added his strength to theirs in holding the cap in place. All seemed to forget the possibility of a new explosion.
There was a hoarse shout from Ewen and the boys released the pulley chain while Miller slapped the regulator between the guide rods. As the three young men again threw themselves upon the chain and forced the regulator into place, the crucial moment had arrived. The controlling valve of the regulator was open, of course, and as the rushing gas was again concentrated into one stream, a new fiery jet shot upward. But the lateral streams had been controlled and again Ewen applied the wrench to thread the regulator to the first cap. Once he failed and then the threads caught. With a yell of victory the veteran gas man threw himself against the long wrench again.
"You've got 'er!" exclaimed Colonel Howell as he sprang to Ewen's side and joined him in screwing the regulator into place. Even before he spoke there was a renewed roar in the trench beneath and a new volume of gas poured upward.
"Fill 'er in!" shouted Paul. "The big rocks first." And then, while the newly confined gas still shot upward through the regulator in a screaming stream of fire, six pairs of hands, including those of the energetic Philip, hurled a collected heap of rocks to the bottom of the trench and around the new opening.
"This ain't goin' to stop the flow," explained Colonel Howell to Norman and Roy, as all panted in their work, "but it's Paul's idea, and I think he's put it over."
"Now for the dirt!" shouted Paul, who was leading in the work. With shovels and pieces of board, the excavated material was rapidly dumped into the trench. With each new shovelful of material, the escape of gas from the trench became less and the roar from the open regulator became more deafening. When at last only an odor of gas escaped from the newly packed trench, Paul exclaimed:
"Plenty of water dumped in here ought to make a solid cake of ice around the opening and that ought to fix us till spring anyway."
"The cleverest idea you've yet given us!" exclaimed Colonel Howell, as all paused for breath. "Now, go over and finish your job. Turn off the regulator."
Proudly enough, Paul sprang to the roaring gusher and gave the protected valve wheel a few quick turns. Instantly the flow was shut off and silence followed. The young Austrian had made good.
Many other mechanical details had to be seen to but the great problem had been solved and all were elated. The main work accomplished, Colonel Howell and the young men retired to the cabin, where, as soon as the excitement over Paul's victory had somewhat subsided, Roy produced the letter he had found in the cabin of the paralyzed Indian. Colonel Howell, having heard the explanation of the finding of the letter, without any hesitation and evidently without any qualms of conscience, drew out the enclosure. The letter was an illiterate scrawl.
"Mr. Chandler," it began, "we have decided our answer is this. Mebbe you are right and we three have done all the work here, but Colonel Howell has always been on the square. If you think you are intitled to go to Edmonton and make a claim for this property, we don't. It's been a perty hard job, but we been paid for it and don't think we have no claim fur a title to this claim. Besides, this ain't no time to try to go to Edmonton and get out papers. If we was goin, we'd wait till the river froze and take a dogsled. When you get your money you can go if you like. Like we promised you, we wont say nothin. So long as Colonel Howell treats us square we're goin to stick. So no more at present.
Ewen and Miller."
The message was dated August 10th and was evidently a reply to some proposition made by Chandler after he was kicked out of the camp. While Colonel Howell read it, his face was very sober. Then he read it aloud to the boys and tossed it on the table while he lit a new cigar. All sat in silence for some time and then Norman said:
"I guess Chandler must have changed his mind too. He was here yesterday morning."
"But the river's frozen now," suggested Roy quickly. "What does this mean, Colonel Howell?" went on Roy, his curiosity overcoming him.
The colonel took a long draw on his cigar and at last found his old-time smile.
ROY CONDUCTS A HUNT
"At first," he said, "it looked simple enough. So far as this letter is concerned, I'm not bothered. That is, I'm not afraid of Ewen and Miller. But Chandler's proposition is another matter. It's plain enough that he wanted our men to join him and go to Edmonton and file papers on this claim. But that isn't as ridiculous as it appears. You know," he said, "Mr. Zept asked me if I hadn't grubstaked these fellows. If they could make it appear that I had, then part of this claim would belong to them. And if they all got together and swore that I had, I don't know how I could prove that they were working for me on wages. Even if our own men would testify for me that this was my claim, if Chandler should happen to file his papers, this would cloud my title. Besides," went on the colonel, "Chandler is a naturalized Canadian and you know the mining laws up here are not made to favor the outsider. A foreigner such as I am, when he's working in these unsurveyed districts, can only stake out his claim, wait for the survey and then buy the property. Chandler would have it all over me if he set up the claim of a native, especially ahead of me."
"I don't think he's gone," suggested Paul, "for he ate breakfast here yesterday morning."
"And it's somewhere between two hundred and fifty and three hundred miles between here and the land office," exclaimed Norman.
"It would be interesting to know whether he has gone," answered Colonel Howell.
"Why not ask Miller or Ewen?" broke in Roy. "They might know something about him."
Colonel Howell shook his head: "They'd better know nothing about the letter," he answered at last. "It was written a long time ago."
"You mean they may have changed their minds?" asked Norman.
"I don't mean that," answered Colonel Howell, his face again sober, "but they had the matter under consideration once. I don't suspect them. I'll just keep my eyes open and say nothing. If they are all right they might get sore and leave me."
"Do you mind," asked Roy, "if I go out and do a little investigating? Chandler may be over to Fort McMurray."
The colonel thought a moment and then answered:
"That won't do any harm. All of you might go hunting this afternoon over in that direction—if it isn't too cold."
Eagerly enough the boys accepted the suggestion. Protected by their heavy clothing and carrying the camera and their skin-protected rifles, they found the trip to the settlement only exhilarating. At Fort McMurray the temperature, which was twenty-two below zero, did not give much trouble so long as the wind did not blow. To those whom they met, the boys talked of being on their way to the hills for moose. But later they determined not to venture upon the highlands, deciding to make a detour in the timber on their way back for a possible deer.
They had no trouble in getting trace of Chandler. In the cabin of a white prospector, where Chandler was well known, they picked up the latest town gossip. This was that Chandler, who yet seemed to have plenty of money, had hired Pete Fosseneuve, a half-breed, only two days before to take him back to his trapping camp at Pointe aux Tremble.
"He's been working there all fall," explained their informant, "and Fosseneuve has a team of six fine dogs. He paid Pete a lot of money to take him back to his camp night before last. They ought to be there to-morrow some time."
This statement allayed the suspicion directed against the dissolute Englishman and the young men made an early return to the camp.
"I'm glad I didn't say anything to Ewen and Miller," commented Colonel Howell, when he learned that Chandler had gone still further into the woods. "Now we'll get to work on our prospecting in earnest."
When the controlled gas had been piped into the cabin, in spite of the cold weather, Ewen and Miller at once went to work building a new derrick near the best prospect and sledging the boiler and engine to that location. In this work nearly a week went by, the boys finding little to do. The weather seemed settled into a cold spell in which the thermometer ranged at noonday about twenty below.
It was at this time that a long suppressed ambition of Norman and Roy came to the surface. They wanted a real hunting trip. The three young men were natural lovers of the open and curious about animal life in the wilderness. But, so far, none of the younger members of the camp had really had an opportunity to test himself amid the rigors of a northern winter.
Colonel Howell finally consented to their leaving on a hunting expedition that would give them at least one over-night camp in the snow. This was on the condition that Philip should accompany the shooting party and that it should not proceed over a day's march from camp.
The plan of the hunt was really Roy's. He prepared the provisions and was accepted as leader of the party.
"It wouldn't be any trouble to equip ourselves like tenderfeet," he explained to Colonel Howell, "and to make a featherbed trip of this. But we're going to travel like trappers."
The hunt was to be for caribou back over the hills in the direction of the Barren Lands. In the end Colonel Howell agreed that the party might advance two days' travel into the wilderness but that it must return to camp on the evening of the fourth day.
Less than an hour's preparation was necessary and when Philip and the three boys left camp one morning, the expedition had little appearance of the usual, heavily laden winter hunters. Each member of the party was on snowshoes, and behind them they drew a small sled containing their camp equipment. It was hardly more than a packload for a strong Indian but the sled was taken in the hope that it might bring in a return load of fresh meat.
Philip and Norman carried rifles carefully protected in mooseskin cases. Paul carried nothing but his camera and an automatic revolver. Roy took the first turn at the sled. The morning was fair but cold, and the bright sun had no effect upon the snow-laden trees.
When the enthusiastic hunters reached the Fort McMurray settlement just below the camp they left the river and struck inland. Within an hour they had passed through the pines and poplars fringing the river and had reached the summit of a "hog-back" range of hills beyond which there was known to be a little valley running at right angles to the course of the river.
When the four travelers reached the top of the "hog-back" and saw the frozen snow-covered valley before them, like children out for a lark, Philip no less active than the others, they coasted into the valley. Until the sun was high above them they made their way along the frozen creek toward the head of the wide defile. About noon, camp was made, tea was brewed and, partly behind the protection of a little frozen waterfall, bannock and cold meat were added to the hot tea. No time was lost in cooking.
With faces and ears protected by their heavy caps, and with heavy mittens to guard their fingers against frost bite, not one of the party complained of the intense cold.
"It's all right," explained Philip, "unless the wind comes up, and if it does we'll have to go into camp."
But in the valley no wind arose to make any trouble. The party set forward to reach the head of the valley before time to go into camp. They did this by three o'clock and then, mounting an elevation and passing through a thin fringe of dwarf pines, the boys found themselves on a wind-swept plateau where the snow clung with difficulty.
They had seen plenty of deer, rabbits and small game during the day but had done no shooting. They were after caribou or moose. The first look over the desolate plateau, where not even trees broke the landscape, was far from inviting. As the sun began to go down and little was to be seen other than a few rocky irregularities and a thin covering of snow with drifts here and there like white islands, camp prospects were not as inviting as they had seemed in the valley behind them.
"Come on," exclaimed Roy, as the party paused on the edge of the heights. "This begins to look like the real thing."
"Maybe some moose," was Philip's rejoinder. "No moose track on de valley below."
"Hear that?" exclaimed Roy. "Everybody get busy. I reckon we can't go any farther inland to-night than that heap o' rock way over there." He pointed to a barren elevation on the already darkening horizon. "You hunters," he added, indicating Norman and Philip, "ought to spread out and look for game tracks in the swales to the right and left. But don't go too far. Work your way in toward those rocks before night. You'll find us there. Come on, Paul," he added with unusual enthusiasm, considering that it was rapidly growing colder in the open country, "there's probably no wood over there. You and I'll get some here and meet the hunters at the rock pile."
While Norman and the Indian started out, Roy loosened the axe and drew the sled back into the pine scrub to look for fallen timber. This was a tedious process and it was even more of a task to load the firewood onto the sled.
"The tent'll fix us all right," explained Roy as he backed against the wind and began to dump his firewood on the snow. "But first we've got to make a camp site. Take off your snowshoes."
Where the wind had been cutting over the tops of the rocks a sort of vacuum had been formed behind the ridge and into this the snow had been piled up to a depth of four or five feet. With a snowshoe, each boy tackled this bank. Soon they had dug a pit in it about ten by ten feet. By throwing the loose snow around the edge of this they created a wall about seven feet high.
"Now I'll show you a trick I read about," exclaimed Roy.
From the pine grove on the edge of the plateau he had dragged the slender trunk of a poplar tree about twelve feet long. This he now threw over the opening in the snow, making a sort of a ridge pole, and then with Paul's assistance unrolled the tent and spread it across. While Paul held the edges of the somewhat awkward canvas in place on top of the snow wall Roy piled snow on the ends of the canvas and just as it was too dark to see more the excavation was thoroughly roofed except in one corner where the irregular canvas did not fit.
"We need that for a chimney opening anyway," exclaimed Roy.
Before a fire could be started, however, there was the sound of a rifle off to the south, to which Paul responded with a pistol shot. Then the camp makers carried their wood into the snow house and while Paul attended to their scanty food supply and arranged the sleeping bags as rugs on the crisp snow floor, Roy started a fire. The blaze emphasized the darkness without and, realizing that their companions had no signal, the two boys split up a torch with the axe and carried it outside where, while they could keep it alight, it might serve as a beacon.
But this was not necessary. Both the Indian and Norman came in, guided by Paul's revolver shot. Neither reported signs of game. Both were elated over the house which was already so warm within that the heavy coats and mittens could be discarded.
"I s'pose supper's all ready," exclaimed Norman after he had got his numbed limbs warmed.
"No," answered Roy, "I've just been waiting for you so we could have it all fresh and hot. I'm going to prepare it myself and everything's going to be in trapper style. It won't be much but it's all you need and it's according to the rules and regulations. I've already got my hot water. Now I'll get the bannocks ready."
"Didn't you bring those I made for you?" asked Philip, the camp cook and hunter.
"I prefer to make 'em myself," answered Roy, "just as the Indians make 'em in the woods."
Philip smiled and Norman and Paul looked somewhat disappointed but neither made objection.
"Here's my flour," explained Roy who had already rolled up his sweater sleeves and produced an old flour bag with a few pounds of flour in the bottom of it. "I mixed the baking powder with the flour before we left camp so as to save time," he explained.
"Seems to me we've got all night," interrupted Norman. "They don't do that to save time—you're mixed. They do that to save carrying the baking powder in a separate package."
"Anyway," retorted Roy, "it's the way real trappers do."
He had rolled the sides of the sack down to make a kind of receptacle at the bottom of which lay his flour. Then with a piece of wood he pried off the top of the tea kettle and was about to pour some boiling water onto the flour when Philip with a grunt stopped him.
"Non," exclaimed the Indian. "You spoil him."
Over Roy's feeble protest the Indian scooped up snow and deposited it in the boiling water until the fluid was somewhat cooler. Then he passed the kettle to the waiting Roy who began to mix his Indian bread. But had Philip allowed Roy to proceed in his generous application of water, his proposed bannocks would have resulted in flour paste. In the end, because Roy had to get his pork ready, the volunteer cook permitted Philip to finish the fashioning of a bannock as big as the frying pan,—the only cooking utensil that Roy had thought necessary to bring with them.
"Now," exclaimed Roy, as he deposited a generous piece of salt pork in the frying pan, "I'll show you how the hungry trapper makes a supper fit for a king."
As the pork began to sizzle in the pan those who were eagerly watching the amateur cook saw the piece separating into thin sections.
"You see, that's what we trappers always do," explained Roy rather proudly. "You can't slice pork when it's frozen solid. I sliced my pork before we left camp this morning."
By this time the rashers of pork were swimming about in the hot fat like doughnuts in bubbling lard.
"It certainly smells all right," exclaimed Paul, as the appetizing odor from the frying meat filled the snow cave. "Hurry up and give us a piece."
Roy made no reply but busied himself stirring the bits of meat with the point of his knife.
"Is the bread ready?" the cook asked, turning to Philip.
The Indian only pointed to the big ball of dough flattened out like a gigantic pancake and ready for the skillet.
There upon Roy seized the handle of his frying pan, shifted the skillet to one side and, resting it on the snow, began to flip the bits of salt pork onto the snow floor.
"Here, what are you doing?" shouted Norman.
"You don't eat those scraps," announced Roy positively. "The only good in pork is the fat and the fat's all in the skillet. We trappers give these scraps to the dogs—only we ain't got any dogs."
"Well I'll be a dog all right," exclaimed Norman and as fast as Roy flipped the brown rashers out with his knife point Norman and Paul grabbed them up.
"There ain't any need of doin' that," snorted Roy. "I tell you there ain't any good in those things and it's against all the rules anyhow. You'll get all the fat you want when our bannock's done."
"Well, then, why don't you start it?" asked Paul. "I suppose it'll take it an hour to cook. And your fat's getting cold anyway."
"That's where you show your ignorance," retorted Roy. "I suppose you fellows think I don't know my business. If I'd put that bannock right into this hot fat it would have fried like a doughnut. I've got to get this grease soaked up in my bread. That's why I'm lettin' the grease get cool."
With this he took the flat looking loaf from the Indian's hands and slipped it into the already nearly full frying pan. But Roy knew his limitations. As he lifted the pan back upon the coals and the grease began to sizzle and snap he knew that he had exhausted his culinary knowledge.
"Here," he said to the Indian, "you can watch this while it cooks."
With a smile the Indian took the handle of the pan, shook it deftly a few times, lifted the edge of the dough with skilled fingers and then settled the pan upon a bed of coals just outside the heart of the fire and, squatted by its side, carefully watched the baking. Meanwhile, Norman and Paul were crunching bacon scraps while Roy was mopping his perspiring brow with the sleeve of his sweater.
"If that's all we're going to have," broke in Norman, "I want to go home."
But that was all they did have. The conscientious Roy, who had given the subject much consideration, had carefully refrained from bringing any luxuries other than tea and a little sugar. But by the time the bannock was done—and the Indian knew how to cook it—the three boys had become so hungry that the Indian bread was eaten ravenously. Then the party crept into their sleeping bags at an early hour and passed the night without discomfort.
Philip took charge of the camp in the morning and before the boys crept out of their bags he served each of them with a cup of hot tea. When the boys looked outside of their snow tent it seemed hardly dawn and yet it was after eight o'clock. Philip shook his head and announced prospects of bad weather. There was no sun and, although it was no colder than it had been the day before, there was a gloom over all that suggested a storm.
Not one of the boys would have suggested it but the Indian did not hesitate to warn them that they should return to the camp at once.
"I don't know how I would vote on this question," said Norman, "if we'd had proper provisions. But I don't propose to live three more days on the ghost of salt pork. And, besides, we've got plenty of moose meat in camp. I'm not so keen about going to the Barren Lands as I was."
This was why late that afternoon Colonel Howell was both surprised and glad to see his young friends trot into camp.
THE Gitchie Manitou WINS A RACE
Norman and Roy soon became restless and after a few days' idleness asked Colonel Howell for permission to make their delayed visit to the Pointe aux Tremble Indian camp. The day set for this second relief expedition promised a continuation of clear dry weather. Almost duplicating their last provisions, the monoplane got away at dawn. At the last moment, Paul was substituted for Roy, and he and Norman made an uneventful flight directly up the river. This time a landing was made at the foot of the bluff on the smooth ice of the river. The provisions were distributed and then the two boys visited the cabin of the paralytic Indian.
"Chandler probably will be out running his trap line," suggested Norman, "but he may be at home."
Within the cabin they found only the Indian. To Norman's surprise, the rusty traps still hung on the wall, with no sign of having been touched since he and Roy visited the cabin. Norman's observing eye at once examined the other parts of the room.
In the bunk corner there was absolutely no change. He would have sworn that Chandler had not slept in the place since he returned. A sudden suspicion coming into Norman's mind, he walked to the bunk corner of the room and pointed to the crevice from which they had taken the letter. The Indian grinned. Then Norman pointed to the curing boards, made motions with his hands to indicate a man of about Chandler's build and other pantomimes of inquiry. The Indian responded with his usual grin, then shook his head. Norman's jaw dropped.
"Paul," he exclaimed, "we're a lot of chumps. Chandler never came back to this camp. He hired the best dog team in this part of the world and while we were all asleep he's been hurrying to Edmonton. He's had seven days' start, and the way these dogs travel, he'll cover that distance in jig time. Come on," he almost shouted, "we've got something to do now besides feeding lazy Indians. The hunters are back, anyway, and there won't be any starving around here. We've got to get back to Colonel Howell as fast as the airship'll go."
Philip's supper was awaiting the return of the Gitchie Manitou, but its serving was long delayed. For an hour the conference that took place immediately upon the safe housing of the monoplane continued while each participant contributed his views. The conclusion was inevitable. Colonel Howell must proceed to Edmonton at once. There was a discussion as to whether this perilous flight should be made to Athabasca Landing, where Colonel Howell would have to make the last hundred miles of journey by train, or whether the trip through the Arctic skies should be made by compass directly to Edmonton.
Finally it was decided, in view of the comprehensive charts that they had of the intervening country, that the latter should be the program, even if it were necessary to make a landing on the way.
"The trains from Athabasca Landing," concluded Colonel Howell at last, "run only three times a week, and I'm not sure of the schedule."
"Then," announced Norman, "we'll do it by Air Line. We can make it, if you want to trust me."
"I think it's worth while," laughed the colonel.
"You haven't much time," broke in the excited Roy. "They've had good hard snow, and this half-breed's got a great team, I understand. If they made forty miles a day, and I've heard o' them doing that, you'll have to get a hustle on you."
"We leave to-night," announced Norman, springing to his feet. "Philip!" he called.
Colonel Howell, with a disturbed look on his face, interrupted:
"Couldn't we leave in the morning—early?" he suggested. "I think I'd rather ride by daylight."
"You'll feel more comfortable by night," laughed Paul, "and you don't need to miss your sleep. Norman won't have any use for you."
The discussion did not close for some time after this and when supper was finally served, the last detail had been arranged. The meal proceeded without any sign of the momentous event to follow. At its conclusion, Colonel Howell turned to Ewen and Miller and said, almost nonchalantly:
"Boys, I'm going to leave you for a few days. Your friend Chandler is on his way to Edmonton to make trouble for me."
Both men looked startled and Ewen exclaimed:
"The same thing he wanted you boys to do and in which you wouldn't join him."
"What do you mean?" Miller managed to ask.
"What you wrote him a letter about," answered Colonel Howell calmly. "I read that. But," he went on, as both men gave new signs of alarm, "I'm goin' to forget it. Do you men want to go on working for me as you have in the past?"
Flushed faces made any other answer unnecessary.
"All right," continued Colonel Howell, "then that's settled. But I want you to get Chandler out of your systems. You can stay here. To show you that I trust you, I'm going to leave you in the camp again."
Immediately, activity began; Norman and Roy working on the Gitchie Manitou, the half-breed preparing supplies, and Colonel Howell making notes and getting papers together on the still littered table.
On an air line, the young aviators estimated the distance across country at about two hundred and seventy miles. After a consultation it was decided to proceed at the rate of about thirty-five miles an hour. This meant eight hours in the air. As there was no need of reaching the distant city before eight o'clock, it was agreed to start at midnight. At seven o'clock, all preparations having been made, Norman turned in for a few hours' sleep.
Colonel Howell devoted some time to his private arrangements and spent the remainder of the evening discussing the flight with the other occupants of the cabin. Norman being sound asleep at twelve o'clock, the others agreed not to arouse him for another hour, considering the work he had done that day. But at one o'clock new activity began.
A match was again applied to the gas well and the monoplane was whirled out into the spectacular illumination. There could be only a brief handshake all around. Then, without a slip, the monoplane was off in the light of the waning moon.
Least of all did the voyagers suffer from the keen cold. With a plentiful store of gasoline, the heaters were at once started but in a short time Colonel Howell asked Norman to shut off one of them. The passenger had been assigned the duty of watching the engine gauge and recording it, together with the chronometer record. Norman did not find this necessary but it was a check upon his own observations and a safeguard against errors in noting their progress.
It was too dark for the colonel to feel any sense of apprehension. As there was no wind, the conditions were ideal for an aerial flight, and Norman having once shaped his course, the powerful car sped on its way as if sliding downhill. In time the monotonous whir of the propellers appeared to have its effect upon Colonel Howell, and Norman caught him dozing more than once. He then explained to his passenger that his observations were no longer necessary and persuaded Colonel Howell to wrap up in his blanket and go to sleep.
When the passenger aroused himself, about five o'clock, Norman asked him to make some tea and see what Philip had prepared in the way of food. It was his only way of relaxing under the strain and he ate heartily. Later, Colonel Howell again pulled his blankets about him and did not stir until the gray of the winter dawn was in the air. The moon had long since disappeared but the stars were brilliant.
When the land beneath came into view, the oil prospector took his place in front of the port section for his first view of the world from the clouds. Then day came and the east grew red. No settlement was yet in sight, but as the golden sun began to glisten on the snow-weighted trees, Colonel Howell gave an exclamation.
"There's the railroad!" he shouted. "We're crossing it."
"Just after eight o'clock," muttered Norman, as he craned his neck to make out the land beneath. "We're certainly this side o' the town and we'll take to the tracks."
With this, he brought the steady airship about and began to follow the rails, which were now plain enough below. For another quarter of an hour, the monoplane made its way steadily to the south and then a sudden blur broke the landscape in the distance.
"There she is," remarked Norman, almost casually. "Don't forget your packages and bundles."
At nine o'clock Colonel Howell and Norman were eating breakfast at the Royal George Hotel. At half past ten they were leaving the big new Provincial Capitol Building. The colonel had filed his claims and had his papers safely in his pocket. A little later, entering the busy hotel office once more, Norman hastily caught his patron's sleeve. Seated in front of the hotel fireplace, as if gratefully drinking in its warmth, was the worn and emaciated Chandler. By his side was Fosseneuve the half-breed, already far gone in intoxication.
Colonel Howell stepped forward, as if about to speak to the defeated man. Then he paused.
"Can't do any good," he exclaimed in an undertone to Norman. "We got there first. And he might have beaten us at that if he hadn't stopped here in the hotel too long. We'll take the afternoon train down to Calgary for a day's visit. Then, when you're ready, we'll go back to the boys."