John Goldfrap.

The Bungalow Boys North of Fifty-Three





It was bitterly cold, but to the north the famous Lights flashed and burned against the sky, shedding a softly luminous radiance on the white covering of the earth.

Ugh! shivered Jack under his breath, isnt it cold, though!

Hoot! grunted Sandy disgustedly, if it hadna been for you and your false alarms, we might ha been in our beds the noo instead of trapsing around oot here like a lot of gloom-croons.

Hush! breathed Tom impatiently; whats the matter with you fellows? Cant you move quietly?

Oh, aye! rejoined Sandy. In my opeenion, yon noise was nought but a pack o bogles.

Then theyre the first ghosts I ever heard of that carried hatchets, retorted Tom sharply, although in a low whisper. Hark at that!

They all paused just within the doorway of the Yukon Rovers deck-house, into which they had withdrawn, and listened intently.

Over against the hill there could be made out in the faint glow of the Northern Lights a number of dark blotches sharply outlined by their white background. These blotches they knew were the fox cages. In other words, the safes containing the four-footed wealth they had been set to guard.

Can you see anything? asked Jack under his breath.

Im not sure, just a minute, yes! Look there!

Where? demanded Jack, his eyes burning and his heart giving a violent thump.

Right by the last cage.

The one that the black fox is in?

Yes.

By hookey, I do! Its its

A man!

Holy smoke! Whatll we do now?

Get after him, of course. Come on!

Clutching his rifle in his gloved hands Tom started forward, but before he could move another step he stopped short. From over by the black foxs cage there came a shot and a blinding flash.

Hes shooting! cried Sandy in real alarm.

Yes, but not at us, rejoined Tom excitedly, springing forward once more, its the black fox he is after. Weve got to head him off in that little game.

CHAPTER IV THE TRACKS IN THE SNOW

As they ran across the bridge of planks connecting the Yukon Rover with the shore, the boys saw something else. Standing by the cages in such a position that they had not seen it before was a dog-sled.

Even as they were still on the gangway the form of a man glided through the darkness toward the sled. In his arms he held a bundle of some sort.

Stop where you are! cried Tom, guessing with a catch at the heart what it was the man was carrying.

There was no reply. The man had reached the sled and bent swiftly over it an instant.

Crack!

Jack gave a jump. The man was not shooting. It was the sharp crack of his dog-whip, sounding like the report of a pistol on the frozen air, that had startled the boy.

The dogs started forward. The sled creaked on the hard, packed snow. It began to glide off through the night like a phantom.

Stop or well fire! shouted Jack excitedly.

He raised his rifle but Tom sternly grasped his arm.

None of that, ordered the elder Dacre boy sternly.

But but hes a robber, or at least attempted to be one, sputtered Jack indignantly.

That makes no difference.

We dont want any shooting.

Hoosh! exclaimed Sandy disgustedly, youre going to let him get clear away.

Before Tom could check him, the Scotch boy had leveled his rifle and fired in the direction of the sled, which could now only be made out as a dark object gliding swiftly off over the snow.

From that direction there floated back to them a laugh. It was a derisive sound that made Toms blood boil, but he kept his head.

You do anything like that again, Sandy, he said, turning on the Scotch lad, and youll have me to settle with.

But we cant let him get away like that without raising a finger, hoosh! exclaimed Sandy indignantly.

Lets first see if he has really done any harm, said Tom, he may have only intended it and we have frightened him off.

But although he spoke hopefully, Toms inner senses told him that the daring marauder had done more than merely alarm them. In the first place, there was the shot coming from the direction of the black foxs cage. To Tom that could mean only one thing and that was that the intruder had killed the occupant of the cage. In fact, that was the only way that he could have secured his prey, for the foxes were wild and savage to a degree, and it would have been impossible for anyone to abstract them alive.

All these thoughts and conclusions flitted through his mind while Jack and Sandy, at his orders, were getting a lantern. When it arrived, the three boys in any but enviable frames of mind made their way as quickly as possible to the fox cages.

The animals were excited and frightened, and through the darkness their anxious eyes glowed like jewels as the lantern light struck them. This showed Tom that at least six of the cages still held their occupants. But the seventh, the one that had been used to hold the black fox, was apparently empty.

When they reached the pen in question even Tom could not refrain from exclamations of anger, for the cage had been ripped open and the black fox was indeed gone.

On the snow were blood-stains in plenty, and enough mute evidence of the slaying and theft to enable them to reconstruct everything that had happened as well as if they had seen it all.

Oh! wow! Fifteen hundred dollars gone ker-plunk! wailed Jack.

Hoots-toots, clucked Sandy, clicking his tongue indignantly, the bonny black fox killed and taken by that gloomerin thief!

Tom alone was silent. The suddenness and completeness of the catastrophe had overwhelmed him. What could they say to Mr. Dacre and his partner when they returned from the settlement? What explanation could they make that would excuse their seeming carelessness?

As Tom stood there beside the empty cage with the blood-stained snow at his feet, he passed through some of the bitterest moments of his life. He was fairly at a standstill. In the dark it would be impossible to overtake the bold thief, and there was no means, of course, of sending out a warning as might have been done in a civilized region.

No; the thief had vanished and there appeared to be not the remotest chance of ever catching him. Any trader would be glad to buy the black fox skin, and with the proceeds the marauder could easily leave the country, leaving no trace behind him.

What will Uncle Dacre say?

It was Jack who voiced Toms gloomy thoughts. With his younger brothers words a sudden resolution came into Toms mind. Undoubtedly he, as the one in charge of the camp, was responsible for the loss of the black fox. It would never be seen alive again, of that he was sure.

But its skin? That was valuable. If he could only recover that, it would at least be partial restoration for what he, perhaps unjustly, felt was a neglect of his duty.

He came out of his reverie. Swiftly he set about examining the remainder of the cages. They had not been tampered with. No doubt the thief knew that he was not likely to have time to rob more than one cage undisturbed after the noise of his gun had aroused those who were undoubtedly on watch. With this in mind he had taken the most valuable of the lot.

Toms eyes fell on the tracks of the dog-sled on the hardly frozen snow. They lay there in the yellow lantern light as clean cut and conspicuous almost as parallel lines of a railroad.

The boy knew that the sled must be packed heavily, probably with all the paraphernalia of a traveling trapper. The question of how the man had come to find out about the valuable collection of foxes on the bank of the Porcupine River, Tom, of course, could not guess. But one thing he did know that the thief had left behind him a valuable trail which it would be as easy to follow as the red line on a map indicating a transcontinental railroad.

And that track Tom meant to follow before it grew cold. They had no dog sleds, but they knew that the man with his heavy load could not make very fast time. Before daylight, long before the first glimmerings of the brief winters day of the north, the boys arrangements had been completed.

Snow-shoes were looked over and thongs inspected, tea and provisions packed into provision bags secured with tump-lines, and everything put into readiness for the long trail that Tom and Jack (for his younger brother was to be his companion) were to strike. As the boys had been in the habit of going thus equipped over the long trap-line, and had become adepts on snow-shoes, these preparations did not take long.

Sandy was almost in tears when it was decided that he was to be left behind. But it was necessary for someone to be there to feed and guard the foxes, and to be on hand to meet Mr. Dacre and his partner on their return from the settlements and explain matters to them. Tom was not certain just when their elders would get back, but he entertained a vague hope that it might be possible to overtake the thief and secure the black fox pelt before that time.

As the two lads glided off in the dim gray light, moving swiftly along the thiefs trail on their snow-shoes, Sandy stood and watched them till they were almost out of ear-shot.

Good-luck! he shouted and saw them turn and wave, and then, feeling very depressed and alone, he turned back to the Yukon Rover and to the foxes which were already barking and whining for their fish.

CHAPTER V THE WILDERNESS TRAIL

It is a peculiarity of the wilderness, be it in the frozen north or under the blazing sun of the southwest, that it breeds in its dwellers and sojourners a stout and hardy independence and self-reliance that no other life can. In the midst of primitive solitudes, where man has to battle with nature for his means of life, every quality of hardiness and ingenuity that may have been dormant in civilization is called forth by that stern task-mistress, necessity.

Thus it was that, though only boys so far as years were concerned, their many adventures had made of Tom and Jack Dacre two woodsmen of unusual competence, considering that they had not been born and bred to the life. Brown as berries, with muscles like spring-steel, and in the pink of condition, the lads were as well equipped almost as veteran woodsmen to fight the battle of the wilds which lay before them.

As they glided along over the hard crust of the snow, always with the trail of the sled stretching before them, a sort of feeling that was almost exultation came over them. Both boys possessed a love of adventure, a delight in meeting with and conquering difficulties and asserting their manliness and grit, and surely if ever they had an opportunity before them for the exercise of these faculties they had it now.

Along with their heavy garments and thick hoods, the lads carried packs and their rifles, besides ammunition. In his belt each lad had a stout hunting knife and a serviceable hatchet. Stoutly laced leather boots encased their legs as far as the knees, and altogether, to anyone encountering them, they would have looked to the full the part of efficiency and capability demanded by the problems of the north woods.

As they ascended the valley and the tracks they were following began to leave the side of the river, they found themselves gliding through open woods of spruce and balsam. In these woods signs of animal life began to be plentiful. Everywhere the parallel lines of the thiefs sled were criss-crossed with tracks of martens, and scored deep with the runways of the big hares.

Sometimes they came on a spot where a pitiful little pile of bedraggled fur and scattered splashes of scarlet showed that a weasel or an ermine had made a banquet on some small woods creature.

It was when within a short distance of one of these mute evidences of a woodland feast that Tom, who was in advance, came to a stop. Jack also made a quick halt. Running parallel to the trail of the sled was another track, that of an animal.

Tom dropped his rifle butt on the ground and looked at Jack with quizzical eyes.

One of our old friends! he said with a short laugh.

The trail, which was somewhat like that of a small bear but much narrower in the feet, was a thoroughly familiar one to them. It was that of the most cunning creature to be found north of fifty-three, and one that is pretty well distributed throughout the wild regions of the north.

It was, in fact, the track of a wolverine, carcajou, or, to give him the trappers and woodsmans expressive title, the Glutton. No animal is so detested by the trappers. The wolverines hide is of little value, but one of his banquets, made invariably at some luckless trappers lure, may destroy a skin worth a hundred dollars or more.

Among his other talents, the Glutton is possessed of a sense of smell and wariness keener than that of a fox. No bait has yet been devised that will lure him into a trap, no poisoned meat, no matter how skillfully set out, has, except on rare occasions, been known to tempt him. And so the wolverine, low, black and snakey-eyed, with ferocious teeth and claws, roams the northern woods seeking what, of others capture, it may devour. Nor does it confine its depredations to the trap-lines.

Many a trapper on reaching one of his huts where he has carefully cached away his flour and bacon to serve in an emergency, has found that it has been raided in his absence by wolverines, who have spoiled what they could not destroy. The camp of our friends on the Porcupine River had been visited on several occasions by wolverines, but they had merely contented themselves with prowling about the fox-kennels and on one occasion ripping open a fish-pound and devouring all the supply of fox food contained therein.

Ill bet that fellow has smelled the blood of the black fox on that rascals sled and is on his track, exclaimed Tom, as the boys stood looking at the often anathemized footprints.

In that case he may get to the carcass before we do, remarked Jack.

Not very probable, said Tom; you can be sure that a man carrying a valuable skin like that would guard it day and night, and

He stopped short and his brown face grew confused. It had just occurred to him that to guard the black fox day and night was just what they ought to have done. Jack noticed his confusion.

Cheer up, old fellow, he struck in consolingly, it couldnt be helped, and

But dont you see that that is just what we cant explain to Uncle Dacre and Mr. Chillingworth? demanded Tom. How are we to get them to see that it couldnt be helped?

Jack looked rather helpless.

But well get it back, at least well get the skin, if we ever catch up with this chap, he insisted.

Yes, and that if looks as big as the Washington Monument to me right now, responded Tom, but come on. Hit up the trail again. I wonder how much ahead of us he is, anyhow?

Funny we havent struck any of his camps yet. He must have stopped to eat.

The very fact that he hasnt shows what a hurry he is in, but if he keeps on at this rate his dogs will give out.

And that will give us our chance?

Exactly. He must guess that we are on his track and is going to drive ahead like fury.

But he can get fresh dogs.

Not without entering a settlement, and I guess he wouldnt take a chance on doing that just yet.

If only we could get another dog team and a good guide, we could run him down without trouble.

Im not so certain of that, but anyhow Id rather have the dogs than the guide. A blind man could follow this trail.

After this they pushed on in silence, watching as they went the stealthy tracks of the wolverine following, like themselves, the unknown marauder of the night.

CHAPTER VI STOPPING TO REST

Large natures are apt to take heavy blows more calmly, at any rate so far as outward appearances are concerned, than smaller ones. The Dacre boys, broadened and deepened by their adventurous lives, were not as cast down over the disaster that had befallen them as might have been many lads less used to meeting hardships and difficulties and fighting them as American boys should.

Therefore it was that, keen as was their interest in the stake that lay ahead of them, they yet found time to notice the sights about them and to talk as they moved along over the snow much as they might have done under quite ordinary circumstances.

If anything, Jack had shown his anger and chagrin more perceptibly than Tom when the blow had first fallen. But now he was in as perfect command of his faculties as his elder brother. He was able even to crack a joke now and then with seeming indifference to the object of their journey and the perils that might lie in front of them, perhaps just around the next turn of the trail, for all that they knew.

As for Tom, following the calm, almost stoical way with which he had met the discovery of their loss, he had become possessed of an unconquerable desire to find the man who had robbed them and if possible hand him over to the authorities. Failing this, Tom found himself possessed of a grim, bulldog determination to make the man give up the spoils. As for the man himself, he felt no wish to punish him under those circumstances. That was for the law to do. The main thing was to get back the black foxs skin, for he was sure the creature had been killed.

At about noontime Tom called a halt. Jack was for pressing right on without stopping to eat, but Tom would not allow this.

Its no use two fellows wearing themselves out, he said; we shall work all the better for having stopped to fire up.

Well, it looks to me like so much lost time, observed Jack, siting down, however, at the foot of a tree and loosening his snowshoe thongs. This was in itself a sign of weariness, but Tom pretended not to notice it.

He set Jack to work hacking fragments from a dead hemlock which was still upstanding, for, although there were plenty of fallen trees about, timber that has been lying on the ground is never such good kindling as upstanding deadwood, because it is almost sure to be damp. While Jack was about this task, Tom cleared a space in the snow, and then he drew from his pack a blackened pot, which had boiled tea on many a trail.

When Jack had the kindling and some stouter bits of wood for the permanency of the fire, Tom filled the pot with snow and then set a match to the pile of shavings. They had been raked together lightly and the heavier wood set up in somewhat the form of an Indians tepee.

The dry kindling caught as if it had been soaked in kerosene. Up shot the cheery red flames, and the blue smoke curled merrily away as the wood crackled joyously. There is magic in a fire in the woods. In a trice a match and dry timber can convert a cheerless camp into a place fit for human habitation and happiness.

The snow was melted by the time the kindling had died down and Tom could make a bed of red coals. In these he set the pot once more, this time with tea added to the boiling water. It was sweetened with some of a precious store of molasses, carried in a bottle and used as a special luxury. As for milk, even of the condensed variety, the Bungalow Boys on their trips along the trap line had long since learned to do without it.

With jerked deer meat, prepared the week before, and some soggy flapjacks baked in an aluminum oven, they made a satisfactory meal. By way of dessert, each boy stuffed some dried apricots into his mouth to chew as they moved along. Thus refreshed, thongs were tightened, duffle packed, and they were once more ready for the trail.

All that afternoon they followed along the man of mysterys track, but in no place could they find a spot where he had paused to camp. He must have eaten whatever refreshment he had while riding on his sled or while on foot, for no traces of a fire or a resting place could the boys eyes discover.

One clew alone the thief had left behind him, and that was in the form of numerous stubs of cigarettes which had been rolled by hand out of coarse yellow paper. But outside of this sign there was nothing but the sled marks to guide them. One thing about the trail that has not yet been mentioned is that the man was back-trailing. That is to say that, on leaving the boys camp, he had followed the same path by which he had come, and in places the two tracks could be seen where the sled had swung out a little.

After a time they found that a snow storm, which must have fallen in the vicinity during the night, had entirely wiped out the coming track, leaving only the fresh marks of the going trail.

From this fact the boys deduced that the man might have turned off somewhere on his journey to their camp, but they cared little for this. It was his fresh trail that they were following hot upon, like hounds upon the scent.

All the way, too, went the trail of the wolverine, and, judging from the tracks, the boys guessed that the animal had been traveling fast. This looked ominous, for the wolverine is not, as a rule, an energetic animal, and proved at least to Toms mind that the robber must be traveling very quickly.

He pointed this out to Jack, who agreed with him. But neither of the boys said a word about turning back. They were far too nervy for that, and, having started out, such an idea as quitting did not once enter their heads. All that afternoon they kept grimly on.





: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12