THE GOLD HUNTERS
A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds
BY JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
To the sweet-voiced, dark-eyed little half-Cree maiden at Lac-Bain, who is the Minnetaki of this story; and to "Teddy" Brown, guide and trapper, and loyal comrade of the author in many of his adventures, this book is affectionately dedicated.
THE PURSUIT OF THE HUDSON BAY MAIL
The deep hush of noon hovered over the vast solitude of Canadian forest. The moose and caribou had fed since early dawn, and were resting quietly in the warmth of the February sun; the lynx was curled away in his niche between the great rocks, waiting for the sun to sink farther into the north and west before resuming his marauding adventures; the fox was taking his midday slumber and the restless moose-birds were fluffing themselves lazily in the warm glow that was beginning to melt the snows of late winter.
It was that hour when the old hunter on the trail takes off his pack, silently gathers wood for a fire, eats his dinner and smokes his pipe, eyes and ears alert;—that hour when if you speak above a whisper, he will say to you,
"Sh-h-h-h! Be quiet! You can't tell how near we are to game. Everything has had its morning feed and is lying low. The game won't be moving again for an hour or two, and there may be moose or caribou a gunshot ahead. We couldn't hear them—now!"
And yet, after a time one thing detached itself from this lifeless solitude. At first it was nothing more than a spot on the sunny side of a snow-covered ridge. Then it moved, stretched itself like a dog, with its forefeet extended far to the front and its shoulders hunched low—and was a wolf.
A wolf is a heavy sleeper after a feast. A hunter would have said that this wolf had gorged itself the night before. Still, something had alarmed it. Faintly there came to this wilderness outlaw that most thrilling of all things to the denizens of the forest—the scent of man. He came down the ridge with the slow indifference of a full-fed animal, and with only a half of his old cunning; trotted across the softening snow of an opening and stopped where the man-scent was so strong that he lifted his head straight up to the sky and sent out to his comrades in forest and plain the warning signal that he had struck a human trail. A wolf will do this, and no more, in broad day. At night he might follow, and others would join him in the chase; but with daylight about him he gives the warning and after a little slinks away from the trail.
But something held this wolf. There was a mystery in the air which puzzled him. Straight ahead there ran the broad, smooth trail of a sled and the footprints of many dogs. Sometime within the last hour the "dog mail" from Wabinosh House had passed that way on its long trip to civilization. But it was not the swift passage of man and dog that held the wolf rigidly alert, ready for flight—and yet hesitating. It was something from the opposite direction, from the North, out of which the wind was coming. First it was sound; then it was scent—then both, and the wolf sped in swift flight up the sunlit ridge.
In the direction from which the alarm came there stretched a small lake, and on its farther edge, a quarter of a mile away, there suddenly darted out from the dense rim of balsam forest a jumble of dogs and sledge and man. For a few moments the mass of animals seemed entangled in some kind of wreck or engaged in one of those fierce battles in which the half-wild sledge-dogs of the North frequently engage, even on the trail. Then there came the sharp, commanding cries of a human voice, the cracking of a whip, the yelping of the huskies, and the disordered team straightened itself and came like a yellowish-gray streak across the smooth surface of the lake. Close beside the sledge ran the man. He was tall, and thin, and even at that distance one would have recognized him as an Indian. Hardly had the team and its wild-looking driver progressed a quarter of the distance across the lake when there came a shout farther back, and a second sledge burst into view from out of the thick forest. Beside this sledge, too, a driver was running with desperate speed.
The leader now leaped upon his sledge, his voice rising in sharp cries of exhortation, his whip whirling and cracking over the backs of his dogs. The second driver still ran, and thus gained upon the team ahead, so that when they came to the opposite side of the lake, where the wolf had sent out the warning cry to his people, the twelve dogs of the two teams were almost abreast.
Quickly there came a slackening in the pace set by the leading dog of each team, and half a minute later the sledges stopped. The dogs flung themselves down in their harness, panting, with gaping jaws, the snow reddening under their bleeding feet. The men, too, showed signs of terrible strain. The elder of these, as we have said, was an Indian, pure breed of the great Northern wilderness. His companion was a youth who had not yet reached his twenties, slender, but with the strength and agility of an animal in his limbs, his handsome face bronzed by the free life of the forest, and in his veins a plentiful strain of that blood which made his comrade kin.
In those two we have again met our old friends Mukoki and Wabigoon: Mukoki, the faithful old warrior and pathfinder, and Wabigoon, the adventurous half-Indian son of the factor of Wabinosh House. Both were at the height of some great excitement. For a few moments, while gaining breath, they gazed silently into each other's face.
"I'm afraid—we can't—catch them, Muky," panted the younger. "What do you think—"
He stopped, for Mukoki had thrown himself on his knees in the snow a dozen feet in front of the teams. From that point there ran straight ahead of them the trail of the dog mail. For perhaps a full minute he examined the imprints of the dogs' feet and the smooth path made by the sledge. Then he looked up, and with one of those inimitable chuckles which meant so much when coming from him, he said:
"We catch heem—sure! See—sledge heem go deep. Both ride. Big load for dogs. We catch heem—sure!"
"But our dogs!" persisted Wabigoon, his face still filled with doubt. "They're completely bushed, and my leader has gone lame. See how they're bleeding!"
The huskies, as the big wolfish sledge-dogs of the far North are called, were indeed in a pitiable condition. The warm sun had weakened the hard crust of the snow until at every leap the feet of the animals had broken through, tearing and wounding themselves on its ragged, knife-like edges. Mukoki's face became more serious as he carefully examined the teams.
"Bad—ver' bad," he grunted. "We fool—fool!"
"For not bringing dog shoes?" said Wabigoon. "I've got a dozen shoes on my sledge—enough for three dogs. By George—" He leaped quickly to his toboggan, caught up the dog moccasins, and turned again to the old Indian, alive with new excitement. "We've got just one chance, Muky!" he half shouted.
"Pick out the strongest dogs. One of us must go on alone!"
The sharp commands of the two adventurers and the cracking of Mukoki's whip brought the tired and bleeding animals to their feet. Over the pads of three of the largest and strongest were drawn the buckskin moccasins, and to these three, hitched to Wabigoon's sledge, were added six others that appeared to have a little endurance still left in them. A few moments later the long line of dogs was speeding swiftly over the trail of the Hudson Bay mail, and beside the sled ran Wabigoon.
Thus this thrilling pursuit of the dog mail had continued since early dawn. For never more than a minute or two at a time had there been a rest. Over mountain and lake, through dense forest and across barren plain man and dog had sped without food or drink, snatching up mouthfuls of snow here and there—always their eyes upon the fresh trail of the flying mail. Even the fierce huskies seemed to understand that the chase had become a matter of life and death, and that they were to follow the trail ahead of them, ceaselessly and without deviation, until the end of their masters was accomplished. The human scent was becoming stronger and stronger in their wolf-like nostrils. Somewhere on that trail there were men, and other dogs, and they were to overtake them!
Even now, bleeding and stumbling as they ran, the blood of battle, the excitement of the chase, was hot within them. Half-wolf, half-dog, their white fangs snarling as stronger whiffs of the man-smell came to them, they were filled with the savage desperation of the youth who urged them on. The keen instinct of the wild pointed out their road to them, and they needed no guiding hand. Faithful until the last they dragged on their burden, their tongues lolling farther from their jaws, their hearts growing weaker, their eyes bloodshot until they glowed like red balls. Now and then, when he had run until his endurance was gone, Wabigoon would fling himself upon the sledge to regain breath and rest his limbs, and the dogs would tug harder, scarce slackening their speed under the increased weight. Once a huge moose crashed through the forest a hundred paces away, but the huskies paid no attention to it; a little farther on a lynx, aroused from his sun bath on a rock, rolled like a great gray ball across the trail,—the dogs cringed but for an instant at the sight of this mortal enemy of theirs, and then went on.
Slower and slower grew the pace. The rearmost dog was now no more than a drag, and reaching a keen-edged knife far out over the end of the sledge Wabi severed his breast strap and the exhausted animal rolled out free beside the trail. Two others of the team were pulling scarce a pound, another was running lame, and the trail behind was spotted with pads of blood. Each minute added to the despair that was growing in the youth's face. His eyes, like those of his faithful dogs, were red from the terrible strain of the race, his lips were parted, his legs, as tireless as those of a red deer, were weakening under him. More and more frequently he flung himself upon the sledge, panting for breath, and shorter and shorter became his intervals of running between these periods of rest. The end of the chase was almost at hand. They could not overtake the Hudson Bay mail!
With a final cry of encouragement Wabi sprang from the sledge and plunged along at the head of the dogs, urging them on in one last supreme effort. Ahead of them was a break in the forest trail and beyond that, mile upon mile, stretched the vast white surface of Lake Nipigon. And far out in the glare of sun and snow there moved an object, something that was no more than a thin black streak to Wabi's blinded eyes but which he knew was the dog mail on its way to civilization. He tried to shout, but the sound that fell from his lips could not have been heard a hundred paces away; his limbs tottered beneath him; his feet seemed suddenly to turn into lead, and he sank helpless into the snow. The faithful pack crowded about him licking his face and hands, their hot breath escaping between their gaping jaws like hissing steam For a few moments it seemed to the Indian youth that day had suddenly turned into night. His eyes closed, the panting of the dogs came to him more and more faintly, as if they were moving away; he felt himself sinking, sinking slowly down into utter blackness.
Desperately he fought to bring himself back into life. There was one more chance—just one! He heard the dogs again, he felt their tongues upon his hands and face, and he dragged himself to his knees, groping out with his hands like one who had gone blind. A few feet away was the sledge, and out there, far beyond his vision now, was the Hudson Bay mail!
Foot by foot he drew himself out from among the tangle of dogs. He reached the sledge, and his fingers gripped convulsively at the cold steel of his rifle. One more chance! One more chance! The words—the thought—filled his brain, and he raised the rifle to his shoulder, pointing its muzzle up to the sky so that he would not harm the dogs. And then, once, twice, five times he fired into the air, and at the end of the fifth shot he drew fresh cartridges from his belt, and fired again and again, until the black streak far out in the wilderness of ice and snow stopped in its progress—and turned back. And still the sharp signals rang out again and again, until the barrel of Wabi's rifle grew hot, and his cartridge belt was empty.
Slowly the gloom cleared away before his eyes. He heard a shout, and staggered to his feet, stretching out his arms and calling a name as the dog mail stopped half a hundred yards from his own team.
With something between a yell of joy and a cry of astonishment a youth of about Wabi's age sprang from the second sleigh and ran to the Indian boy, catching him in his arms as for a second time, he sank fainting upon the snow.
"Wabi—what's the matter?" he cried. "Are you hurt? Are you—"
For a moment Wabigoon struggled to overcome his weakness.
"Rod—" he whispered, "Rod—Minnetaki—"
His lips ceased to move and he sank heavily in his companion's arms.
"What is it, Wabi? Quick! Speak!" urged the other. His face had grown strangely white, his voice trembled. "What about—Minnetaki?"
Again the Indian youth fought to bring himself back to life. His words came faintly,
"Minnetaki—has been captured—by—the—Woongas!"
Then even his breath seemed to stop, and he lay like one dead.
MINNETAKI IN THE HANDS OF THE OUTLAWS
For a brief time Roderick believed that life had indeed passed from the body of his young friend. So still did Wabi lie and so terrifying was the strange pallor in his face that the white boy found himself calling on his comrade in a voice filled with choking sobs. The driver of the dog mail dropped on his knees beside the two young hunters. Running his hand under Wabi's thick shirt he held it there for an instant, and said, "He's alive!"
Quickly drawing a small metal flask from one of his pockets he unscrewed the top, and placing the mouthpiece to the Indian youth's lips forced a bit of its contents down his throat. The liquor had almost immediate effect, and Wabigoon opened his eyes, gazed into the rough visage of the courier, then closed them again. There was relief in the courier's face as he pointed to the dogs from Wabinosh House. The exhausted animals were lying stretched upon the snow, their heads drooping between their forefeet. Even the presence of a rival team failed to arouse them from their lethargy. One might have thought that death had overtaken them upon the trail were it not for their panting sides and lolling tongues.
"He's not hurt!" exclaimed the driver, "see the dogs! He's been running—running until he dropped in his tracks!"
The assurance brought but little comfort to Rod. He could feel the tremble of returning life in Wabi's body now, but the sight of the exhausted and bleeding dogs and the memory of his comrade's last words had filled him with a new and terrible fear. What had happened to Minnetaki? Why had the factor's son come all this distance for him? Why had he pursued the mail until his dogs were nearly dead, and he himself had fallen unconscious in his tracks? Was Minnetaki dead? Had the Woongas killed Wabi's beautiful little sister?
Again and again he implored his friend to speak to him, until the courier pushed him back and carried Wabi to the mail sled.
"Hustle up there to that bunch of spruce and build a fire," he commanded. "We've got to get something hot into him, and rub him down, and roll him in furs. This is bad enough, bad enough!"
Rod waited to hear no more, but ran to the clump of spruce to which the courier had directed him. Among them he found a number of birch trees, and stripping off an armful of bark he had a fire blazing upon the snow by the time the dog mail drew up with its unconscious burden. While the driver was loosening Wabi's clothes and bundling him in heavy bearskins Rod added dry limbs to the fire until it threw a warm glow for a dozen paces around. Within a few minutes a pot of ice and snow was melting over the flames and the courier was opening a can of condensed soup.
The deathly pallor had gone from Wabi's face, and Rod, kneeling close beside him, was rejoiced to see the breath coming more and more regularly from between his lips. But even as he rejoiced the other fear grew heavier at his heart. What had happened to Minnetaki? He found himself repeating the question again and again as he watched Wabi slowly returning to life, and, so quickly that it had passed in a minute or two, there flashed through his mind a vision of all that had happened the last few months. For a few moments, as his mind traveled back, he was again in Detroit with his widowed mother; he thought of the day he had first met Wabigoon, the son of an English factor and a beautiful Indian princess, who had come far down into civilization to be educated; of the friendship that had followed, of their weeks and months together in school, and then of those joyous days and nights in which they had planned a winter of thrilling adventure at Wabi's home in the far North.
And what adventures there had been, when, as the Wolf Hunters, he and Wabi and Mukoki had braved the perils of the frozen solitudes! As Wabigoon's breath came more and more regularly he thought of that wonderful canoe trip from the last bit of civilization up into the wilds; of his first sight of moose, the first bear he had killed, and of his meeting with Minnetaki.
His eyes became blurred and his heart grew cold as he thought of what might have happened to her. A vision of the girl swept between him and Wabi's face, in which the glow of life was growing warmer and warmer, a vision of the little half-Indian maiden as he had first seen her, when she came out to meet them in her canoe from Wabinosh House, the sun shining on her dark hair, her cheeks flushed with excitement, her eyes and teeth sparkling in glad welcome to her beloved brother and the white youth of whom she had heard so much—the boy from civilization—Roderick Drew. He remembered how his cap had blown off into the water, how she had rescued it for him. In a flash all that passed after that came before him like a picture; the days that he and Minnetaki had rambled together in the forest, the furious battle in which, single-handed, he had saved her from those fierce outlaw Indians of the North, the Woongas; and after that he thought of the weeks of thrilling adventure they three—Mukoki, Wabigoon and himself—had spent in the wilderness far from the Hudson Bay Post, of their months of trapping, their desperate war with the Woongas, the discovery of the century-old cabin and its ancient skeletons, and their finding of the birch-bark map between the bones of one of the skeleton's fingers, on which, dimmed by age, was drawn the trail to a land of gold.
Instinctively, as for an instant this map came into his mental picture, he thrust a hand into one of his inside pockets to feel that his own copy of that map was there, the map which was to have brought him back into this wilderness a few weeks hence, when they three would set out on the romantic quest for the gold to which the skeletons in the old cabin had given them the key.
The vision left him as he saw a convulsive shudder pass through Wabigoon. In another moment the Indian youth had opened his eyes, and as he looked up into Rod's eager face he smiled feebly. He tried to speak, but words failed him, and his eyes closed again. There was a look of terror in Roderick's face as he turned to the courier, who came to his side. Less than twenty-four hours before he had left Wabigoon in the full strength of his splendid youth at Wabinosh House, a lithe young giant, hardened by their months of adventure, quivering with buoyant life, anxious for the spring that they might meet again to take up another trail into the unexplored North.
And now what a change! The glimpse he had caught of Wabi's bloodshot eyes, the terrible thinness of the Indian youth's face, the chilling lifelessness of his hands, made him shiver with dread. Was it possible that a few short hours could bring about that remarkable transformation? And where was Mukoki, the faithful old warrior from whose guardianship Wabigoon and Minnetaki were seldom allowed to escape?
It seemed an hour before Wabi opened his eyes again, and yet it was only a few minutes. This time Rod lifted him gently in his arms and the courier placed a cup of the hot soup to his lips. The warmth of the liquid put new life into the famished Indian youth. He drank slowly of it at first, then eagerly, and when he had finished the cup he made an effort to sit up.
"I'll take another," he said faintly. "It's mighty good!"
He drank the second cup with even greater relish. Then he sat bolt upright, stretched out his arms, and with his companion's assistance staggered to his feet. His bloodshot eyes burned with a strange excitement as he looked at Rod.
"I was afraid—I wouldn't—catch you!"
"What is it, Wabi? What has happened? You say—Minnetaki—"
"Has been captured by the Woongas. Chief Woonga himself is her captor, and they are taking her into the North. Rod, only you can save her!"
"Only—I—can—save—her?" gasped Rod slowly. "What do you mean?"
"Listen!" cried the Indian boy, clutching him by the arm. "You remember that after our fight with the Woongas and our escape from the chasm we fled to the south, and that the next day, while you were away from camp hunting for some animal that would give us fat for Mukoki's wound, you discovered a trail. You told us that you followed the sledge tracks, and that after a time the party had been met by others on snow-shoes, and that among the imprints in the snow was one that made you think of Minnetaki. When we reached the Post we learned that Minnetaki and two sledges had gone to Kenegami House and at once concluded that those snow-shoe trails were made by Kenegami people sent out to meet her. But they were not! They were made by Woongas!
"One of the guides, who escaped with a severe wound, brought the news to us last night, and the doctor at the Post says that his hurt is fatal and that he will not live another day. Everything depends on you. You and the dying guide are the only two who know where to find the place where the attack was made. It has been thawing for two days and the trail may be obliterated. But you saw Minnetaki's footprints. You saw the snow-shoe trails. You—and you alone—know which way they went!"
Wabi spoke rapidly, excitedly, and then sank down on the sledge, weakened by his exertion.
"We have been chasing you with two teams since dawn," he added, "and pretty nearly killed the dogs. As a last chance we doubled up the teams and I came on alone. I left Mukoki a dozen miles back on the trail."
Rod's blood had turned cold with horror at the knowledge that Minnetaki was in the clutches of Woonga himself. The terrible change in Wabi was no longer a mystery. Both Minnetaki and her brother had told him more than once of the relentless feud waged against Wabinosh House by this bloodthirsty savage and during the last winter he had come into personal contact with it. He had fought, had seen people die, and had almost fallen a victim to Woonga's vengeance.
But it was not of these things that he thought just now. It was of the reason for the feud, and something rose in his throat and choked him until he made no effort to speak. Many years before, George Newsome, a young Englishman, had come to Wabinosh House, and there he had met and fallen in love with a beautiful Indian princess, who loved him in turn, and became his wife. Woonga, chief of a warlike tribe, had been his rival, and when the white man won in the battle for love his fierce heart blazed with the fire of hatred and revenge. From that day the relentless strife against the people of Wabinosh House began. The followers of Woonga turned from trappers and hunters to murderers and outlaws, and became known all over that wilderness country as the Woongas. For years the feud had continued. Like a hawk Woonga watched his opportunities, killing here, robbing there, and always waiting a chance to rob the factor of his wife or children. Only a few weeks before Rod had saved Minnetaki in that terrible struggle in the forest. And now, more hopelessly than before, she had fallen into the clutches of her enemies, and alone with Woonga was being carried into the far North country, into those vast unexplored regions from which she would probably never return!
Rod turned to Wabi, his hands clenched, his eyes blazing.
"I can find the trail, Wabi! I can find the trail—and we'll follow it to the North Pole if we have to! We beat the Woongas in the chasm—we'll beat them now! We'll find Minnetaki if it takes us until doomsday!"
From far back in the forest there came the faint pistol-like cracks of a whip, the distant hallooing of a voice.
For a few moments the three stood listening.
The voice came again.
"It's Mukoki," said Wabigoon, "Mukoki and the other dogs!"
ON THE TRAIL OF THE WOONGAS
The cries came nearer, interspersed with the cracking of Mukoki's whip as he urged on the few lagging dogs that Wabi had left with him upon the trail. In another moment the old warrior and his team burst into view and both of the young hunters hurried to meet him. A glance showed Rod that a little longer and Mukoki would have dropped in his tracks, as Wabi had done. The two led their faithful comrade to the heap of bearskins on the mail sled and made him sit there while fresh soup was being made.
"You catch heem," grinned Mukoki joyously. "You catch heem—queek!"
"And pretty nearly killed himself doing it, Muky," added Rod. "Now—" he glanced from one to the other of his companions, "what is the first thing to be done?" "We must strike for the Woonga trail without a moment of unnecessary delay," declared Wabi. "Minutes are priceless, an hour lost or gained may mean everything!"
"But the dogs—"
"You can take mine," interrupted the courier. "There are six of them, all good heavy fellows and not overly bushed. You can add a few of your own and I'll take what's left to drive on the mail. I would advise you to rest for an hour or so and give them and yourselves a good feed. It'll count in the long run."
Mukoki grunted his approval of the driver's words and Rod at once began gathering more fuel for the fire. The temporary camp was soon a scene of the liveliest activity. While the courier unpacked his provisions, Mukoki and Wabigoon assembled the teams and proceeded to select three of the best of their own animals to put in harness with those of the Hudson Bay mail. The dogs from Wabinosh House were wildly famished and at the sight and odor of the great piece of meat which the courier began cutting up for them they set up a snarling and snapping of jaws, and began fighting indiscriminately among themselves until the voices of their human companions were almost drowned in the tumult. A full pound of the meat was given to each dog, and other pieces of it were suspended over beds of coals drawn out from the big fire. Meanwhile Rod was chopping through the thick ice of the lake in search of water.
After a little Wabi came down to join him.
"Our sledge is ready," he said, as Rod stopped to rest for a moment. "We're a little short on grub for nine dogs and three people, but we've got plenty of ammunition. We ought to find something on the trail."
"Rabbits, anyway," suggested Rod, resuming his chopping. A few more strokes, and water gushed through. Filling two pails the boys returned to camp.
The shadows from the sharp pointed cedars of the forest were falling far out upon the frozen lake when the meal was finished, and the sun, sinking early to its rest beyond the homeless solitudes, infused but little warmth as the three hunters prepared to leave. It was only three o'clock, but a penetrating chill was growing in the air. Half an hour more and only a reddish glow would be where the northern sun still shone feebly. In the far North winter night falls with the swiftness of wings; it enshrouds one like a palpable, moving thing, a curtain of gloom that can almost be touched and felt, and so it came now, as the dogs were hitched to their sledge and Rod, Mukoki and Wabigoon bade good-by to the driver of the Hudson Bay mail.
"You'll make the other side in four hours," he called, as Mukoki's cries sent the dogs trotting out upon the lake. "And then—I'd camp!"
Running on ahead Mukoki set the pace and marked the trail. Wabi took the first turn on the sledge, and Rod, who was fresher than either of his comrades, followed close behind. After a little he drew up beside the young Indian and placed a hand on his shoulder as he ran.
"We will reach our old camp—in the plain—to-morrow?" he questioned, between breaths.
"To-morrow," affirmed Wabi. "Mukoki will show us the shortest cut to it. After that, after we reach the camp, everything will depend upon you."
Rod fell behind in the path made by the sledge, and saved his breath. His mind was working as never before in his life. When they reached the camp in which the wounded Mukoki had lain after their escape from the Woongas, could he find the old trail where he had seen Minnetaki's footprints? He was quite sure of himself, and yet he was conscious of an indefinable something growing in him as he noticed more and more what the sun had done that day. Was it nervousness, or fear? Surely he could find the trail, even though it was almost obliterated! But he wished that it had been Mukoki or Wabigoon who had discovered it, either of whom, with the woodcraft instinct born in them, would have gone to it as easily as a fox to the end of a strong trail hidden in autumn leaves. If he did fail—He shuddered, even as he ran, as he thought of the fate that awaited Minnetaki. A few hours before he had been one of the happiest youths in the world. Wabi's lovely little sister, he had believed, was safe at Kenegami House; he had bade adieu to his friends at the Post; every minute after that had taken him nearer to that far city in the South, to his mother, and home. And now so suddenly that he had hardly come to realize the situation he was plunged into what gave promise of being the most thrilling and tragic adventure of his life. A few weeks more, when spring had come, he would have returned to his friends accompanied by his mother, and they three—Mukoki, Wabigoon and he—would have set out on their romantic quest for the lost gold-mine that had been revealed to them by the ancient skeletons in the old cabin. Even as these visions were glowing in his brain there had come the interruption, the signal shots on the lake, the return of the dog mail, and now this race to save the life of Minnetaki!
In his eagerness he ran ahead of the sledge and urged Mukoki into a faster pace. Every ten minutes the one who rode exchanged place with one of the runners, so that there were intervals of rest for each two times an hour. Quickly the red glow over the southwestern forests faded away; the gloom grew thicker; far ahead, like an endless sheet losing itself in a distant smother of blackness, stretched the ice and snow of Lake Nipigon. There was no tree, no rock for guidance over the trackless waste, yet never for an instant did Mukoki or Wabigoon falter. The stars began burning brilliantly in the sky; far away the red edge of the moon rose over this world of ice and snow and forest, throbbing and palpitating like a bursting ball of fire, as one sees it now and then in the glory of the great northern night.
Tirelessly, mile after mile, hour after hour, broken only by the short intervals of rest on the sledge, continued the race across Lake Nipigon. The moon rose higher; the blood in it paled to the crimson glow of the moose flower, and silvered as it climbed into the sky, until the orb hung like a great golden-white disk. In the splendor of it the solitude of ice and snow glistened without end. There was no sound but the slipping of the sledge, the pattering of the dogs' moccasined feet, and now and then a few breathless words spoken by Rod or his companions. It was a little after eight o'clock by Rod's watch when there came a change in the appearance of the lake ahead of them. Wabi, who was on the sledge, was the first to notice it, and he shouted back his discovery to the white youth.
"The forest! We're across!"
The tired dogs seemed to leap into new life at his words, and the leader replied with a whining joyous cry as the odors of balsam and fir came to him. The sharp pinnacles of the forest, reaching up into the night's white glow, grew more and more distinct as the sledge sped on, and five minutes later the team drew up in a huddled, panting bunch on the shore. That day the men and dogs from Wabinosh House had traveled sixty miles.
"We'll camp here!" declared Wabi, as he dropped on the sledge. "We'll camp here—unless you leave me behind!"
Mukoki, tireless to the last, had already found an ax.
"No rest now," he warned, "Too tired! You rest now—build no camp. Build camp—then rest!"
"You're right, Muky," cried Wabi, jumping to his feet with forced enthusiasm. "If I sit down for five minutes I'll fall asleep. Rod, you build a fire. Muky and I will make the shelter."
In less than half an hour the balsam bough shelter was complete, and in front of it roared a fire that sent its light and heat for twenty paces round. From farther back in the forest the three dragged several small logs, and no sooner had they been added to the flames than both Mukoki and Wabigoon wrapped themselves in their furs and burrowed deep into the sweet-scented balsam under the shelter. Rod's experience that day had not been filled with the terrible hardships of his companions, and for some time after they had fallen asleep he sat close to the fire, thinking again of the strangeness with which his fortunes had changed, and watching the flickering firelight as it played in a thousand fanciful figures in the deeper and denser gloom of the forest. The dogs had crept in close to the blazing logs and lay as still as though life no longer animated their tawny bodies. From far away there came the lonely howl of a wolf; a great white man-owl fluttered close to the camp and chortled his crazy, half-human "hello, hello, hello;" the trees cracked with the tightening frost, but neither wolf howl nor frost nor the ghostly visitant's insane voice aroused those who were sleeping.
An hour passed and still Rod sat by the fire; his rifle lying across his knees. His imagination had painted a thousand pictures in that time. Never for an instant had his mind ceased to work. Somewhere in that great wilderness there was another camp-fire that night, and in that camp Minnetaki was a captive. Some indefinable sensation seemed to creep into him, telling him that she was awake, and that she was thinking of her friends. Was it a touch of sleep, or that wonderful thing called mental telepathy, that wrought the next picture in his brain? It came with startling vividness. He saw the girl beside a fire. Her beautiful hair, glistening black in the firelight, hung in a heavy braid over her shoulder; her eyes were staring wildly into the flames, as if she were about to leap into them, and back of her so close that he might have touched her, was a figure that sent a chill of horror through him. It was Woonga, the outlaw chief! He was talking, his red face was fiendish, he stretched out a hand!
With a cry that startled the dogs Rod sprang to his feet. He was shivering as if in a chill. Had he dreamed? Or was it something more than a dream? He thought of the vision that had come to him weeks before in the mysterious chasm, the vision of the dancing skeletons, and which had revealed the secret of the old cabin and the lost gold. In vain he tried to shake off his nervousness and his fear. Why had Woonga reached out his hands for Minnetaki? He worked to free himself of the weight that had fallen on him, stirred the fire until clouds of sparks shot high up into the gloom of the trees, and added new fuel.
Then he sat down again, and for the twentieth time since leaving Wabinosh House drew from his pocket the map that was to have led them on their search for gold when he returned with his mother. It was a vision that had guided him to the discovery of this precious map, and the knowledge of it made him more uneasy now. A few moments before he had seen Minnetaki as plainly as though she had been with him there beside the fire; he fancied that he might almost have sent a bullet through the Indian's chief face as he reached out his long arms toward the girl.
He stirred the fire again, awakened one of the dogs to keep him company, and then went in to lie down between Mukoki and Wabigoon in an attempt at slumber. During the hours that followed he secured only short snatches of sleep. He dreamed, dreamed constantly of Minnetaki whenever he lost consciousness. Now he saw her before the fire, as he had seen her in his vision; again, she was struggling in the Woonga's powerful grasp. At one time the strife between the two—the young girl and the powerful savage—became terrible for him to behold, and at last he saw the Indian catch her in his arms and disappear into the blackness of the forest.
This time when he wakened Rod made no further effort to sleep. It was only a little past midnight. His companions had obtained four hours of rest. In another hour he would arouse them. Quietly he began making preparations for breakfast, and fed the dogs. At half-past one o'clock he shook Wabigoon by the shoulder.
"Get up!" he cried, as the Indian youth sat erect. "It's time to go!"
He tried to suppress his nervousness when Mukoki and Wabi joined him beside the fire. He determined not to let them know of his visions, for there was gloom enough among them as it was. But he would hurry. He was the first to get through with breakfast, the first to set to work among the dogs, and when Mukoki started out at the head of the team through the forest he was close beside him, urging him to greater speed by his own endeavors.
"How far are we from the camp, Mukoki?" he asked.
"Four hour—twent' mile," replied the old pathfinder.
"Twenty miles. We ought to make it by dawn."
Mukoki made no answer, but quickened his pace as the cedar and balsam forest gave place to an open plain which stretched for a mile or two ahead of them. For an hour longer the moon continued to light up the wilderness; then, with its descent lower and lower into the west, the gloom began to thicken, until only the stars were left to guide the pursuers. Even these were beginning to fade when Mukoki halted the panting team on the summit of a mountainous ridge, and pointed into the north.
For several minutes the three stood silent, gazing out into the gloom of the vast solitudes that swept unbroken to Hudson Bay. Again Rod's blood was thrilled with the romance of what lay at his feet and far beyond, thrilled with the romance and mystery of that land of the wild which reached for hundreds of miles into the North, and into which the foot of the white man had as yet scarce left its imprint.
Before him, enveloped now in the deep gloom of the northern night, slept a vast unexplored world, a land whose story the passing of ages had left unrevealed. What tragedies of nature had its silent fastnesses beheld? What treasure did they hold? Half a century or more ago the men whose skeletons they had found in the old cabin had braved the perils of those trackless solitudes, and somewhere hundreds of miles out in that black gloom they had found gold, the gold that had fallen as an inheritance to them in the discovery of the old birch-bark map. And somewhere, somewhere out there was Minnetaki!
Across the plain at their feet the three adventurers had raced for their lives from the bloodthirsty Woongas only a week or so before; now they crossed it a second time and at even greater speed, for then they had possessed no dogs. At the end of another hour Mukoki no longer traveled faster than a walk. His eyes were constantly on the alert. Occasionally he would stop the dogs and strike off to the right or the left of the trail alone. He spoke no word to his companions, and neither Rod nor Wabigoon offered a suggestion. They knew, without questioning, that they were approaching their old camp, and just as the experienced hunter makes no sign or sound while his dog is nosing out a half-lost trail so they held back while Mukoki, the most famous pathfinder in all those regions, led them slowly on. The last of the stars went out. For a time the blackness of the night grew deeper; then, in the southeast, came the first faint streak of dawn. Day is born as suddenly as it dies in these regions, and it was soon light enough for Mukoki to resume his trail at a trot. A few minutes more and a clump of balsam and spruce loomed up out of the plain ahead of them. Neither Rod nor Wahigoon recognized it until the old warrior halted the dogs close in its shadows and they saw the look of triumph in his face.
"The camp!" breathed Wabi.
Trembling, his voice quivering with suppressed excitement, the Indian youth turned to Roderick Drew.
"Rod—it's all up to you!"
Mukoki, too, had come close to his side.
"There—camp!" he whispered. "Now—where Minnetaki's trail?"
The old warrior's eyes were blazing.
A dozen paces away was the balsam shelter they had built. But that was all. Not a track was left in the snow. The warm sun had obliterated every sign of their presence of a short time before!
If their own trail was gone what could he hope to find of Minnetaki's dainty foot-prints?
Deep down in his heart Rod prayed for guidance in this moment of terrible doubt.
ROD FOLLOWS THE MAN-FOOTED BEAR
"I must wait until it is lighter," he said. He tried to control himself, to fortify himself with the assurance which he no longer felt.
"We will have breakfast," suggested Wabi. "We have cold meat and there will be no need of a fire."
Finishing before the others, Rod grasped his rifle and walked out from among the trees. Wabi made a movement as if to follow, but Mukoki held him back. There was a shrewd light in his eyes.
"He do better—alone," he warned.
The red glow of the sun was rising above the forest and Rod could now see far about him. He had come out from the cedars, like this, on the afternoon that he had gone to hunt and had found Minnetaki's trail. A mile away he saw the snow-covered ridge where he had hunted for moose. That ridge was his first guide, and he hurried toward it while Mukoki and Wabigoon followed far behind him with the dogs and the sledge. He was breathless when he reached the top. Eagerly he gazed into the North. It was in that direction he had gone on the afternoon of his discovery of the strange trail. But nothing that he recognized met his eyes now, no familiar landmark or tree to guide him again over his wandering footsteps of that day. Vainly he sought along the ridge for some slight sign of his former presence there. But everything was gone. The sun had destroyed his last hope.
He was glad that Mukoki and Wabigoon were at the foot of the ridge, for he knew that his despair almost brought tears to his eyes, Minnetaki's fate was in his hands—and he had failed. He dreaded to tell his companions, to let them see his face. For once in his life, though he was as courageous a youth as ever lived, Roderick Drew almost wished that he was dead.
Suddenly, as in their hopeless search for some familiar object Rod's eyes traveled again over the endless waste of snow, he saw, far away, something that glittered in the morning sun like a pane of glass, and from his lips there fell a low exultant cry. He remembered now that he had seen that strange gleam before, that he had gone straight to it from the ridge and had found it to be a sheet of crystal ice frozen to the side of a rock from above which the water of a spring gushed forth. Without waiting for his companions he hurried down the ridge and sped like a deer across the narrow plain at its foot. A five-minute run brought him to the rock, and for a moment he paused, his heart almost choking him in its excitement. Just beyond this he had first encountered the strange trail. There were no signs of it left in the snow, but he saw other things which led him on: a huge rock thrusting itself out of the chaos of white, a dead poplar which stood in his path, and at last, half a mile ahead, the edge of a dense forest.
He turned and waved his arms wildly to Mukoki and Wabigoon, who were far behind. Then he ran on, and when he reached the forest he waved his arms again, and his joy was flung back in a thrilling shout to his comrades. There was the log on which Minnetaki had been forced to sit while awaiting the pleasure of her savage captors; he found the very spot where her footprint had been in the snow, close to a protruding stub! The outlaw Indians and their captives had rested here for a brief spell, and had built a fire, and so many feet had beaten the snow about it that their traces still remained.
He pointed to these signs as Mukoki and Wabigoon joined him.
For several minutes no one of the three spoke a word. Crouched over until his eyes were within a foot of the snow the old pathfinder examined every inch of the little clearing in which the Woongas had built their fire, and when at last he drew himself erect his face betrayed the utmost astonishment.
The boys saw that in those faint marks in the snow he had discovered something of unusual if not startling significance.
"What is it, Muky?" asked the young Indian.
Mukoki made no reply, but returning to the charred remains of the fire he again fell upon his hands and knees and repeated his strange scrutiny of the snow even more closely than before. When he arose a second time the astonishment had grown deeper in his face.
"Only six!" he exclaimed. "Two guides from Post—four Woongas!"
"But the wounded driver told us that there were at least a dozen Woongas in the attacking party," said Wabi.
The old warrior chuckled, and for a moment his face twisted itself into a ludicrous grimace.
"Driver lie!" he declared. "He run when fight begin. Shot in back while heem run!"
He pointed into the cold depths of the forest.
"No sun there! Follow trail easy!"
There was no uneasiness in Mukoki's manner now. His eyes gleamed, but it was with the fire of battle and resolution, not with excitement. Once before Rod had seen that look in the old warrior's face, when they two had fought to save Wabigoon's life as they were now about to fight to save Minnetaki. And he knew what it meant. Cautiously they penetrated the forest, their eyes and ears alert, and, as Mukoki had predicted, the trail of the retreating savages was quite distinct. They had taken both of the captured sledges, and Rod knew that on one of these Minnetaki was being carried. Hardly had the three progressed a hundred paces when Mukoki, who was in the lead, stopped short with a huge grunt. Squarely across the trail lay the body of a dead man. A glance at the upturned face showed that it was one of the two drivers from Wabinosh House.
"Head split," said Mukoki, as he led the team around the body. "Shot, mebby—then killed with ax."
The dogs sniffed and cringed as they passed the slain man, and Rod shuddered. Involuntarily he thought of what might have happened to Minnetaki, and he noticed that after passing this spectacle of death Mukoki doubled his speed. For an hour the pursuit continued without interruption. The Woongas were traveling in a narrow trail, single file, with the two sledges between their number. At the end of that hour the three came upon the remains of another camp-fire near which were built two cedar-bough shelters. Here the tracks in the snow were much fresher; in places they seemed to have been but lately made. Still there were no evidences of the captured girl. The boys could see that Mukoki himself had found no explanation for the sudden freshness of the trail and for the absence of Minnetaki's footprints among the tracks. Again and again the shrewd old pathfinder went over the camp. Not a sign escaped his eyes, not a mark or a broken stick but that was examined by him. Rod knew that Minnetaki's capture must have occurred at least three days before, and yet the tracks about this camp were not more than a day old, if they were that. What did it mean?
The very mystery of the thing filled him with a nameless fear. Why had not the outlaw Woongas continued their flight? Why this delay so near the scene of their crime? He glanced at Wabi, but the Indian youth was as bewildered as himself. In his eyes, too, there was the gleam of a fear which he could not have named.
Mukoki was beside the charred remains of the fire. He had buried his hand deep among them, and when he rose be made a sign toward Rod's watch.
"Eight o'clock, Mukoki."
"Woonga here las' night," declared the old Indian slowly. "Leave camp four hour ago!"
What did it mean?
Had Minnetaki been hurt, so dangerously hurt that her captors had not dared to move her?
Rod asked himself no more questions. But he was trembling. And Mukoki and Wabigoon went on with strange, unnatural faces and breathed not the whisper of a word between them. The mystery was beyond them all. But one thing they realized, whatever had happened they were close upon the heels of the savages. And each step brought them nearer, for with every mile the freshness of the trail increased. Then came another great surprise.
The trail divided!
At the edge of a small opening the Indians had separated themselves into two parties. The trail of one sledge led into the northeast, that of the other into the northwest!
With which sledge was Minnetaki? They looked at one another in bewilderment.
Mukoki pointed to the trail into the northeast.
"We must fin' sign—sign of Minnetaki. You take that—I take this!"
Rod started off at a dog trot over the easternmost trail. At the farther side of the opening, where the sledge had plunged into a clump of hazel, he suddenly stopped, and for a second time that morning a thrilling cry escaped his lips. On a projecting thorny twig, glistening full in the sun, there fluttered a long, silken strand of hair. He reached out for it, but Wabi caught his hand, and in another moment Mukoki had joined them. Gently he took the raven tress between his fingers, his deep-set eyes glaring like red coals of fire. It was a strand of Minnetaki's beautiful hair, not for a moment did one of them doubt that; but what held them most, what increased the horror in their eyes, was the quantity of it! Suddenly Mukoki gave it a gentle pull and the tress slipped free of the twig.
In the next breath he uttered the only expression of supreme disgust in his vocabulary a long-drawn, hissing sound which he used only in those moments when his command of English was entirely inadequate to the situation.
"Minnetaki on other sledge!"
He showed the end of the strand to his young companions.
"See—hair been cut! No pulled out by, twig. Woonga hang heem there—make us think wrong."
He waited for no reply, but darted back to the other trail, with Wabi and Rod close behind him. A quarter of a mile farther on the old pathfinder paused and pointed in exultant silence at a tiny footprint close beside the path of the sledge. At almost regular intervals now there appeared this sign of Minnetaki's moccasin. Her two guards were running ahead of the sledge, and it was apparent to the pursuers that Wabi's sister was taking advantage of her opportunities to leave these signs behind for those whom she knew would make an attempt at her rescue. And yet, as they left farther and farther behind them the trail which ran into the northeast, an inexplicable feeling of uneasiness began to steal over Rod. What if Mukoki had made a mistake? His confidence in the old warrior's judgment and sagacity was usually absolute, but it occurred to him, like an ugly humor to stir up his fears, that if the Woongas could cut off a bit of the girl's hair they could also take off one of her shoes! Several times he was on the point of giving audible voice to his suspicions but refrained from doing so when he saw the assurance with which both Wabi and Mukoki followed the trail.
Finally he could hold himself no longer.
"Wabi, I'm going back," he cried softly, forging alongside his companion. "I'm going back and follow the other trail. If I don't find anything in a mile or so I'll return on the double-quick and overtake you!"
Wabi's efforts to dissuade him were futile, and a few minutes later Rod was again at the clearing. What presentiment was it that caused his heart to beat faster and his breath to come in tense excitement as he stole through the bushes where they had found the silken tress of hair? What something was it, away down in his soul, that kept urging him on and on, even after he had gone a mile, and then two miles, in fruitless search? Rod could not have answered these questions had he stopped to ask them of himself. He was not superstitious. He did not believe in dreams. And yet each moment, without apparent reason added to his conviction that Mukoki had made a mistake, and that Minnetaki was on the sledge ahead of him.
The country into which he was penetrating grew wilder. Rocky ridges rose before him, split by rifts and gullies through which the water must have rushed in torrents in the spring. He listened, and proceeded more cautiously; and through his mind there flashed a memory of his thrilling exploration of the mysterious chasm of a few weeks before, when, in his lonely night camp, he had dreamed of the skeletons. He was thinking of this when he came around the end of a huge rock which lay as big as a house in his path. Upon the snow, almost at his feet, was a sight that froze the blood in his veins. For the second time that day he gazed upon the distorted features of a dead man. Squarely across the trail, as the other had lain, was the body of an Indian, his arms outstretched, his twisted face turned straight up to the clear sky, the snow about his head glistening a sickening red in the sun. For a full minute Rod gazed in silent horror on the scene. There was no sign of a struggle, there were no footprints in the snow. The man had been killed while upon the sledge, and the only mark he had made was when he had fallen off.
Who had killed him?
Had Minnetaki saved herself by taking her captor's life?
For a moment Rod was almost convinced that this was so. He examined the stains in the snow and found that they were still damp and unfrozen. He was sure that the tragedy had occurred less than an hour before. More cautiously, and yet swifter than before, he followed the trail of the sledge, his rifle held in readiness for a shot at any moment. The path became wilder and in places it seemed almost inaccessible. But between the tumbled mass of rock the sledge had found its way, its savage driver not once erring in his choice of the openings ahead. Gradually the trail ascended until it came to the summit of a huge ridge. Hardly had Rod reached the top when another trail cut across that of the sledge.
Deeply impressed in the softening snow were the footprints of a big bear!
The first warm sunshine, thought Rod, had aroused the beast from his winter sleep, and he was making a short excursion from his den. From where the bear had crossed the trail the sledge turned abruptly in the direction from which the bear had come.
Without giving a thought to his action, Rod began his descent of the ridge in the trail made by the bear, at the same time keeping his eyes fixed upon the sledge track and the distant forest. At the foot of the ridge the great trunk of a fallen tree lay in his path, and as he went to climb over it he stopped, a cry of amazement stifling itself in his throat. Over that tree the bear had scrambled, and upon it, close to the spot where the animal had brushed off the snow in his passage, was the imprint of a human hand!
For a full minute Rod stood as motionless as if he had been paralyzed, scarcely breathing in his excitement. The four fingers and thumb of the hand had left their impressions with startling clearness. The fingers were long and delicately slender, the palm narrow. The imprint had assuredly not been made by the hand of a man!
Recovering himself, Rod looked about him. There were no marks in the snow except those of the bear. Was it possible that he was mistaken? He scrutinized the mysterious handprint again. As he gazed an uncanny chill crept through him, and when he raised his head he knew that he was trembling in spite of his efforts to control himself. Turning about he swiftly followed the trail to the top of the ridge, recrossed the sledge track, and descended again into the wildness of the gorge on the other side. He had not progressed twenty rods when without a sound he dropped behind a rock. He had seen no movement ahead of him. He had heard nothing. Yet in that moment he was thrilled as never before in his life.
For the bear trail had ceased.
And ahead of him, instead of the tracks of a beast, there continued the footprints of a man!
ROD'S FIGHT FOR LIFE
It was some time before Roderick moved from his concealment behind the rock. It was not fear that held him there, but a knowledge within him that he needed to think, to collect his senses as he would have expressed it if Wabi had been with him. For a brief spell he was stunned by the succession of surprises which he had encountered, and he felt that now, if ever in his life, he needed control of himself. He did not attempt to solve the mystery of the trail beyond the fact that it was not made by a bear and that the handprint on the log was not made by a man. But he was certain of one thing. In some way Minnetaki was associated with both.
When he continued his pursuit he made his way with extreme caution. At each new turn in the trail he fell behind some rock or clump of bushes and scanned the gorge as far as he could see ahead of him. But each moment these distances of observation became shorter. The ridge on his left became almost a sheer wall; on his right a second ridge closed in until the gorge had narrowed to a hundred feet in width, choked by huge masses of rock thrown there in some mighty upheaval of past ages. It was very soon apparent to Rod that the mysterious person whom he was pursuing was perfectly at home in the lonely chasm. As straight as a drawn whip-lash his trail led from one break in the rocky chaos to another. Never did he err. Once the tracks seemed to end squarely against a broad face of rock, but there the young hunter found a cleft in the granite wall scarcely wider than his body, through which he cautiously wormed his way. Where this cleft opened into the chasm again the fugitive had rested for a few moments, and had placed some burden upon the snow at his feet. A single glance disclosed what this burden had been, for in the snow was that same clearly-defined impression of a human hand!
There was no longer a doubt in Roderick's mind. He was on the trail of Minnetaki's captor, and the outlaw was carrying his victim in his arms! Minnetaki was injured! Perhaps she was dead. The fear gripped at his heart until he looked again at the imprint in the snow—the widely spread fingers, the flat, firm palm. Only a living hand would have left its mark in that manner.
As on that autumn day in the forest, when he had fought for Minnetaki's life, so now all hesitation and fear left him. His blood leaped with anticipation rather than excitement, and he was eager for the moment when he would once more throw his life in the balance in behalf of Wabi's sister. He was determined to take advantage of the Woonga fighting code and fire upon his enemy from ambush if the opportunity offered, but at the same time he had no dread at the thought of engaging in a closer struggle if this should be necessary. He looked well to his rifle, loosened his big army revolver in its holster, and saw that his hunting-knife did not stick in its scabbard. A short distance from the cleft in the wall of rock the outlaw had rested again; and this time, when he continued his flight, Minnetaki had walked beside him.
A peculiarity in the new trail struck Rod, and for some moments he was at a loss to account for it. One of the girl's dainty feet left its moccasin imprint very distinctly; the mark of the other was no more than a formless blotch in the snow. Then the youth thought of the footprints that were leading on Mukoki and Wabigoon, and despite his desperate situation he could not repress a smile. He had been right. The Woongas had taken off one of Minnetaki's moccasins and were using it to make a false trail into the northwest. Those formless tracks ahead of him meant that one of the Indian maiden's feet was wrapped with a bit of cloth or fur to protect it from the cold.
Rod soon perceived that the flight of the outlaw and his captive was now much more rapid, and he quickened his own pace. The chasm grew wilder. At times it appeared impassable, but always the trail of the fugitives led straight to some hidden cleft through which the boy followed, holding his breath in tense expectancy of what might happen at any instant.
Suddenly Rod stopped. From ahead of him he was sure that he had heard a sound. He scarcely breathed while he listened. But there came no repetition of the noise. Had some animal, a fox or a wolf, perhaps, set a stone rolling down one of the precipitous walls of the chasm? He went on slowly, listening, watching. A few paces more and he stopped again. There was a faint, suspicious odor in the air; a turn around the end of a huge mass of rock and his nostrils were filled with it, the pungent odor of smoke mingled with the sweet scent of burning cedar!
There was a fire ahead of him. More than that, it was not a gunshot away!
For a space of sixty seconds he stood still, nerving himself for the final step. His resolution was made. He would creep upon the outlaw and shoot him down. There would be no warning, no quarter, no parley. Foot by foot he advanced, as stealthily as a fox. The odor of smoke came to him more plainly; over his head he saw thin films of it floating lazily up the chasm. It came from beyond another of those walls of rock which seemed to bar his way, creeping up over it as though the fire were just on the other side. With his rifle half to his shoulder Rod stole through the break in this wall. At its farther end he peered out cautiously, exposing his face an inch at a time. Wider and wider became his vision. There was no trail ahead. The outlaw and his captive were behind the rock!
With his rifle now full to his shoulder Rod stepped boldly forth and whirled to the left. Twenty feet away, almost entirely concealed among the tumbled masses of boulders, was a small cabin. About it there were no signs of life with the exception of a thin wreath of smoke rising like a ghostly spiral up the side of the chasm wall; from it there came no sound. Rod's index finger quivered on the trigger of his rifle. Should he wait—until the outlaw came forth? Half a minute he stood there, a minute, two minutes, and still he heard nothing, saw nothing. He advanced a step, then another, and still another, until he saw the open door of the cabin. And as he stood there, his rifle leveled, there came to him a faint, sobbing cry, a cry that reached out and caught him like a strong hand and brought him in a single desperate leap to the door itself.
Inside the cabin was Minnetaki, alone! She was crouched upon the floor, her beautiful hair tumbling in disheveled masses over her shoulders and into her lap, her face, as white as death, staring wildly at the youth who had appeared like an apparition before her.
In an instant Rod was at her side, upon his knees. For that brief moment he had lost his caution, and only a terrible cry from the girl turned him back again, half upon his feet, to the door. Standing there, about to spring upon him, was one of the most terrifying figures he had ever seen. In a flash he saw the huge form of an Indian, a terrible face, the gleam of an uplifted knife. In such a crisis one's actions are involuntary, machine-like, as if life itself, hovering by a thread, protects itself in its own manner without thought or reasoning on the part of the human creature it animates. Rod neither thought nor reasoned; without any motive on his own part, he flung himself face downward upon the cabin floor. And the move saved him. With a guttural cry the savage leaped toward him, struck out with his knife and missed, stumbled over the boy's prostrate form and fell beside him.
Months of hardship and adventure in the wilderness had made Rod as lithe as a forest cat, his muscles like steel. Without rising he flung himself upon his enemy, his own knife raised in gleaming death above the savage's breast. But the Woonga was as quick. Like a flash he struck up with one of his powerful arms and the force of the blow that was descending upon him fell to the earth floor. In another instant his free arm had encircled Rod's neck, and for a few brief moments the two were locked in a crushing embrace, neither being able to use the weapon in his hand without offering an advantage to the other.
In that respite, which only death could follow, Rod's brain worked with the swiftness of fire. He was lying face downward upon his enemy; the Woonga was flat upon his back, the latter's knife hand stretched out behind his head with Rod's knife hand locking it. For either to strike a blow both of their fighting hands must be freed. In the first instant of that freedom, the savage, with his arm already extended, could deliver a blow sooner than his antagonist, who would have to raise his arm as well as strike. In other words, by the time Rod's knife was poised his enemy's would be buried in his breast. With a curious thrill the white youth saw the fearful odds against him in their position. If he remained clutched in the Indian's embrace there would be only one end. He would die, and Minnetaki would be more than ever in the power of her captor.
There was only one chance now, and that was to break away, at least to free himself enough to get hold of his revolver. He was nerving himself for the strain when, turning his head a trifle sidewise, he saw Minnetaki. The girl had risen to her feet, and Rod saw that her hands were bound behind her. She, too, realized the disadvantage of Rod's position in the contest, and now with a thrilling cry she sprang to the outlaw's head and stepped with all her weight upon his extended arm.
"Quick, Rod—quick!" she cried. "Strike! Strike!"
With a terrible yell the powerful savage wrenched his arm free; in a last superhuman effort he swung his knife upward as Rod's blade sank to the hilt in his breast, and the blow fell with a sickening thud under Rod's arm. With a sharp cry the young hunter staggered to his feet, and the Indian's knife fell from him, red with blood. Making an effort to control himself he picked up the knife and loosed the captive girl's arms.
There came over him then a strange dizziness, a weakness in his limbs. He was conscious that his head was sinking, and he knew, too, that a pair of arms was about him, and that from what seemed to be a great, great distance a voice was calling to him, calling his name. And then he seemed to be sinking into a deep and painless sleep.
When he regained consciousness his eyes were first turned to the door, which was still open, and through which he caught the white gleam of the snow. A hand was pressed gently upon his face.
Minnetaki spoke in a whisper, a whisper that trembled with gladness, with relief. Rod smiled. Weakly he lifted a hand and touched the sweet, white face above him.
"I'm glad to see you—Minnetaki—" he breathed.
The girl quickly put a cup of cold water to his lips.
"You mustn't try to move," she said softly, her eyes glowing. "It isn't a very bad wound, and I've dressed it nicely. But you mustn't move—or talk—or it may begin bleeding again."
"But I'm so glad to see you, Minnetaki," persisted the youth. "You don't know how disappointed I was to find you gone when we returned to Wabinosh House from our hunting trip. Wabi and Mukoki—"
Minnetaki placed her hand upon his lips.
"You must keep quiet, Roderick. Don't you know how curious I am to know how you are here? But you must not tell me—now. Let me do the talking. Will you? Please!"
Involuntarily the young girl's eyes left his face, and Rod, weakly following her gaze, saw that a blanket had been spread over a huddled heap in the middle of the floor. He shuddered, and feeling the sudden tremor in his hand Minnetaki turned to him quickly, her cheeks whiter than before, but her eyes shining like stars.
"It is Woonga," she whispered. In her voice was a thrilling tremble. "It is Woonga, and he is dead!"
Rod understood the look in her face now. Woonga, the Nemesis of her people, the outlaw chief who had sworn vengeance on the house of Wabinosh, and whose murderous hand had hovered for years like a threatening cloud over the heads of the factor and his wife and children, was dead! And he, Roderick Drew, who once before had saved Minnetaki's life, had killed him. In his weakness and pain he smiled, and said,
"I am glad, Minne—"
He did not finish. There had come a stealthy, crumbling step to the door, and in another moment Mukoki and Wabigoon were in the little cabin.
THE SHADOW OF DEATH
Rod was hardly conscious of what passed during the next half-hour. The excitement of the sudden entrance of Minnetaki's brother and the old Indian set his head reeling, and he sank back upon the blankets, from which he had partly raised himself, fainting and weak. The last that he heard was Minnetaki's warning voice, and then he felt something cool upon his face. It seemed a long time before he heard sound again, and when he stirred himself, struggling toward consciousness, there came a whisper in his ear urging him to be quiet. It was Minnetaki, and he obeyed.
After a little he heard low voices, and then movement, and opened his eyes. He could feel Minnetaki's gentle hand stroking his face and hair, as if weaning him to sleep, and at his feet he saw Mukoki, the old warrior, crouching like a lynx, his beady eyes glaring at him. The glare fascinated Roderick. He had seen it in Mukoki's eyes before, when the Indian believed that injury had come to those he loved; and when the white boy saw it now, bent upon himself, he knew that he, too, had become more than a friend to this savage pathfinder of the wilderness. Minnetaki's caressing hand and the fearful anxiety in the crouching posture of the old hunter thrilled him, and two words fell from his lips before they knew that he had come back into life.
Instantly the old Indian was at his side, kneeling there silent, trembling, his face twitching with joy, his eyes gleaming, and where he had crouched a moment before there came Wabigoon, smiling down upon Rod in his own bursting happiness, which was only held in check by Minnetaki's hand and the almost inaudible "Sh-h-h-h!" that fell from her lips.
"You right—me wrong," the white boy heard Mukoki saying. "You save Minnetaki—kill Woonga. Very much dam'—dam'—dam'—brave man!"
Mukoki was pressed back by Wabi's sister before he could say more, and a cool drink of spring water was placed to Roderick's lips. He felt feverish and the water gave him new strength. He turned his face to Minnetaki, and she smiled at him. Then he saw that the dead outlaw had been removed from the cabin. When he made an effort to raise himself a little the girl helped him, and rolled a blanket under his shoulders.
"You're not so badly hurt as I thought you were, Rod," she said. "That is, you're not dangerously hurt. Mukoki has dressed your wound, and you will be better soon." Wabigoon, coming nearer, put both arms around his lovely little sister and kissed her again and again.
"Rod, you're a hero!" he cried softly, gripping his comrade's hand. "God bless you!"
Rod blushed, and to restrain further effusions closed his eyes. During the next quarter of an hour Minnetaki prepared some coffee and meat, while both Mukoki and Wabi cared for the sledge-dogs outside.
"To-morrow, if you are stronger, we're going to take you on to Kenegami House," the girl said to him. "Then you can tell me all about your adventures during the winter. Wabi has told me just enough about your battles with the Indians and about the old skeletons and the lost gold-mine to set me wild. Oh, I wish you would take me with you on your hunt for gold!"
"By George, I wish we could!" exclaimed Rod with enthusiasm. "Coax Wabi, Minnetaki—coax him hard."
"You'll coax him, too, won't you, Rod? But then, I don't suppose it will do any good. And father and mother wouldn't listen to it for a moment. All of them are so afraid that some harm is going to befall me. That's why they sent me from Wabinosh House just before you boys returned. You see the Indians were more hostile than ever, and they thought I would be safer at Kenegami House. How I do wish they'd let me go! I'd love to hunt bears, and wolves, and moose, and help you find the gold. Please coax him hard, Roderick!"
And that very day, when he was strong enough to sit up, Rod did plead with his half-Indian comrade that Minnetaki might be allowed to accompany them. But Wabi stanchly refused even to consider the proposition, and Mukoki, when he learned of the girl's desire, grinned and chuckled in his astonishment for the next half-hour.
"Minnetaki ver' brave—ver' brave girl," he confided to Rod, "but she die up there, I guess so! You want Minnetaki die?"
Rod assured him that he did not, and the subject was dropped.
That day and night in the old cabin was one of the pleasantest within Rod's memory, despite the youth's wound. A cheerful fire of dry pine and poplar burned in the stone fireplace, and when Minnetaki announced that the evening meal was ready Rod was for the first time allowed to leave his bunk. For the greater part of the day Wabi and Mukoki had searched in the chasm and along the mountains for signs of the outlaw Indian's band, but their search had revealed nothing to arouse their fears. As mysterious and unaccountable as the fact seemed, there was no doubt that the old cabin was a retreat known only to Woonga himself, and as the four sat in the warm glow of the fire, eating and drinking, the whole adventure was gone over again and again until there seemed no part of it left in doubt. Minnetaki described her capture and explained the slowness of their flight after the massacre. Woonga was ill and had refused to move far from the scene of the slaughter until he had fully regained his strength.
"But why did Woonga kill the Indian back on the trail?" asked Rod.
Minnetaki shuddered as she thought of the terrible scene that had been enacted before her eyes.
"I heard them quarreling," she said, "but I couldn't understand. I know that it was about me. We had gone but a short distance after the sledges separated when Woonga, who was ahead of me, turned about and shot the other in the breast. It was terrible! And then he drove on as coolly as though nothing had happened."
"I'm curious to know how he used the bear's feet," exclaimed Rod.
"They were huge pads into which he slipped his feet, moccasins and all," explained Minnetaki. "He told me that the dogs would go on to Kenegami House, and that if pursuers followed us they would follow the sledge trail and never give a thought to the bear tracks."
Mukoki chuckled deep down in his throat.
"He no fool Rod," he said. "Nobody fool Rod!"
"Especially when he's on Minnetaki's trail," laughed Wabi happily.
"Wasn't it Rod who discovered the secret of the lost gold, after you had given up all hope?" retorted Minnetaki.
The lost gold!
How those three words, falling clearly from the girl's lips, thrilled the hearts of Mukoki and the young adventurers. Night had closed in, and only the fitful flashes of the fire illumined the interior of the old cabin. The four had finished eating, and as they drew themselves close about the fire there fell a strange silence among them. The lost gold. Rod gazed across at Wabigoon, whose bronzed face was half hid in the dancing shadows, and then at Mukoki, whose wrinkled visage shone like dull copper as he stared like some watchful animal into the flame glow. But it was Minnetaki who sent the blood in a swift rush of joy and pride through his veins. He caught her eyes upon him, shining like stars from out of the gloom, and he knew that she was looking at him in that way because he was her hero.
For many minutes no one broke the stillness. The fire burned down, and with its slow dying away the gloom in the corners of the old cabin thickened, and the faces became more and more like ghostly shadows, until they reminded Rod of his first vision of the ancient skeletons in that other old cabin many miles away. Then came Wabigoon's voice, as he stirred the coals and added fresh fuel.
"Yes, it was Rod. This is the map he found, Minnetaki."
He kneeled close beside his sister and drew forth his copy of the precious secret which the skeletons had guarded. With a little cry of excitement the girl took the map in her hands, and step by step, adventure by adventure, was gone over the thrilling story of the Wolf Hunters, until the late hours of night had changed into the first of morning. Twice did Minnetaki insist on having repeated to her the story of Rod's wild adventure in the mysterious chasm, and when he came to the terrors of that black night and its strange sounds Rod felt a timid little hand come close to him, and as Wabigoon continued the narration, and told of the map in the skeleton hand, and of the tale of murder and tragedy it revealed, Minnetaki's breath came in quick, tense eagerness.
"And you are going back in the spring?" she asked.
"In the spring," replied Rod.
Again Wabigoon urged Rod, as he had done at the Post, to send down to civilization for his mother instead of going for her himself. Time would be saved, he argued. They could set out on their search for the gold within a few weeks. But Rod was firm.
"It would not be fair to mother," he declared. "I must go home first, even if I have to arrange for a special sledge at Kenegami House to take me down to civilization."
But even while he was stoutly declaring what it was his intention to do, fate was stealthily at work weaving another of her webs of destiny for Roderick Drew, and his friends' anxious eyes saw the first signs of it when they bade him good night. For fever had laid its hand on the white youth, the fever that foreshadows death unless a surgeon is near, the fever of a wound going bad. Even Mukoki, graduated by Nature, taught by half a century's battle with life in this great desolation of the North, knew that his own powers were now of no avail.
So Roderick was bundled in blankets, and the race for life to Kenegami House was begun. It was a race of which Rod could only guess the import, for he did not know that Death was running a fierce pursuit behind. Many days and nights of delirium followed. One morning he seemed to awaken from a terrible dream, in which he was constantly burning and roasting, and when he opened his eyes he knew for the first time that it was Minnetaki who sat close beside him, and that it was her hand that was gently stroking his forehead. From that day on he gained strength rapidly, but it was a month before he could sit up, and another two weeks before he could stand. And so it happened that it was full two months after he had made his assertion in the old cabin before Rod was in good health again.
One day Minnetaki had a tremendous surprise in store for him. Rod had never seen her look quite so pretty, or quite so timid, as she did on this particular morning.
"Will you forgive me for—for—keeping something from you, Rod?" she asked. She did not wait for the boy's reply, but went on. "When you were so sick, and we thought you might die, I wrote to your mother and we sent the letter down by a special sledge. And—and—oh, Rod, I just can't keep it in any longer, no matter if you do scold me! Your mother has come—and she is at Wabinosh House now!"
For a moment Rod stood like one struck dumb. Then he found his voice in a series of war-whoops which quickly brought Wabi in, only to see his friend dancing around Minnetaki like one gone crazy.
"Forgive you!" he shouted again and again. "Minnetaki, you're a brick—you certainly are a brick!"
As soon as Wabi was made acquainted with the cause of Roderick's excitement he also joined in the other's wild rejoicing, and their antics startled half the house of Kenegami. Mukoki shared their joy, and Wabi hugged and kissed his sister until her pretty face was like a wild rose.
"Hurrah!" shouted Wabi for the twentieth time. "That means we start on our hunt for the lost gold-mine within a fortnight!"
"It means—" began Roderick.
"It means—" interrupted Minnetaki, "it means that you're all happy but me—and I'm glad for Rod's sake, and I want to know his mother. But you're all going—and I'm to be left behind!"
There was no laughter in her voice, and Rod and Wabigoon became suddenly quiet as she turned away.
"I'm sorry," said Wabi. "But—we can't help it."
Mukoki broke the tension.
"How bright the sun shine!" he exclaimed. "Snow an' ice go. Spring—heem here!"
ON THE TRAIL OF GOLD
And each day thereafter the sun rose earlier, and the day was longer, and the air was warmer; and with the warmth there now came the sweet scents of the budding earth and the myriad sounds of the deep, unseen life of the forests, awakening from its long slumber in its bed of snow. The moose-birds chirped their mating songs and flirted from morning till night in bough and air, and the jays and ravens fluffed themselves in the sun, and the snowbirds, little black and white beauties that were wont to whisk about like so many flashing gems, became fewer and fewer, until they were gone altogether. The poplar buds swelled more and more in their joy, until they split like over-fat peas, and the partridges feasted upon them.