The Bungalow Boys North of Fifty-Three
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At about three o’clock, or shortly thereafter, the sun grew dim and low. Half an hour later only a pale twilight lingered about them, for at that time of year in the northern wilds the evening sets in early.
Above their heads, from the darkening canopy of the sky, the stars, a million pin points of light, began to shine. The snow turned a dull, steely blue as the light shut in. A slight breeze stirred in the hemlocks and spruces. It began to grow noticeably colder, too.
But as the daylight died another light, a wonderful mystic glory of radiance, began to glow in the northern sky. Against its wavering, shimmering, unearthly splendor every twig on every tree stood out as though carved in blackest ebony. The brush was shrouded in deepest sable, and the shadows lay upon the snow as black as a crow’s wing.
Everywhere was a deep, breathless hush, except where the light wind caused a huddled mass of snow on an interlaced branch to slip ground-ward. The great solitudes appeared to be composing themselves for sleep. On the hard, frozen surface the boys’ snowshoes creaked almost metallically as they pressed on, following in the dimming light the two parallel lines that had begun to burn themselves into their brains.
They knew when they set out that it was going to prove a stern chase; now they saw that unquestionably it was likewise to be a long one. How long they could not guess. They passed a small stream. In the silence they could hear the ice “crack-cracking!” with that startling sound that is one of the most mystic of the voices of the woods. It grew bitterly cold. Tom began to look anxiously about him. They must find a lodging for the night. The question of sleeping in the open did not bother him. Timber was plenty, and they could make an evergreen shelter and soon have a roaring fire to warm their blood. He was merely prospecting for a place that looked a likely one.
And then, suddenly, something happened that sent an involuntary chill running up and down the spines of both boys.
From the westward, through the long, melancholy aisles of straight-trunked trees, the sound had come. Out of the silence it was borne with a chilling forboding to them. It was a long-flung, indescribably forlorn sound, and seemed to fill the silences, coming from no definite spot after an instant’s listening.
It deepened and swelled, died away and rose like the sound of distant church bells. Then, while they stood listening, involuntarily brought to a swift, startled halt, it died out uncannily, sinkingly, and the silence shut down again.
“It’s the wolves!” said Tom in a low, rather awestruck voice.
The boy was right. The gray rangers of the big timbers were abroad seeking their meat from God.
CHAPTER VII – IN THE TRAPPER’S HUT
Now, to a reader who has never been a woodsman, who has never penetrated the silences that lie north of Fifty-three, the word “wolves” conveys a distinct impression of uneasiness.
The cold fact is that the northern woodsman stands rather in contempt of wolves.He has no use for them, but he does not fear them; and the wolves for their part – except in some startling exceptions – leave mankind alone.
The boys had been long enough in the Northland to share this feeling, and it was not fear that brought them to a halt at the long, melancholy ululation that told them of the “gray brothers” wishing each other “good hunting.” It was quite another feeling: the sense of their isolation, that the moaning cry had brought sharply home to them, the loneliness of the solitudes about them, the possibly dangerous nature of their quest.
“Wow! but that sound always makes me shiver,” said Jack, glancing about him, as if he expected to see a gray head pop out from behind the trees at any moment.
“Yes, it never sounded very good to me, even when we were lying snugly in our bunks on the good old Yukon Rover,” agreed Tom. “I wish we could find some trapper’s shack or hut hereabouts. I wouldn’t mind making a good camp with some company around, for to-night anyhow.”
“Why, you talk as if we might be a long time in the woods,” said Jack, in rather dismayed tones.
“And so we may be, for it is up to us now to keep on that trail till we find the man that made it, or else run it out.”
Jack did not make any reply to this. His spirits had been good all day, and he had looked upon the chase rather in the light of an enjoyable adventure than anything else.
But now the twilight desolation, the fading line of light in the west and the long howl of hunting wolves, which ever and anon swelled and died out in the distance as they stood there, combined to give him a sense of forboding and creepiness.
Tom’s cheery voice aroused him.
“We can push on a way yet, anyhow,” his elder brother was saying; “even half a mile farther will be better than nothing, and who knows that we may not come on some Indian camp or trapper’s shack, where we can get a hot supper and find, maybe, some news of our visitor.”
Jack, thus admonished, roused himself. By an effort he put aside his gloomy thoughts. Side by side through the trees the two young adventurers forged ahead. But Jack soon began to sag behind. It was plain that he was beginning to get fagged. It was small wonder. They had come thirty-five miles that day, as Tom’s speedometer showed, which is a fair journey for a grown man, let alone boys. A seasoned woodsman can make fifty miles a day on snowshoes and pull up with no feeling but a huge appetite. But, although the boys were well muscled and used to following the trail, they could not hope to compete with the lifelong rangers of the forest in endurance.
Tom was just thinking of making camp right where they then were, in a grove of hemlocks and stunted spruces, when he gave a sudden cry of joy.
“Hurray! Jack, old boy! Talk about luck!”
“Don’t you know yet?”
“I do not.”
“Then you are a worse woodsman than I thought you.”
“You might explain. Have you gone crazy?”
“Not just yet. Don’t you smell anything?”
“Um – a-h-h-h! Yes, I do. Smoke.”
“Wood smoke, Jack, and wood smoke means a fire, and fire means a human being.”
“Yes, and a human being may – mean – may mean – ”
“A human being that may make us a lot of trouble; for instance, the man who stole that skin!”
“Cracky! It may be he! Wait right here till I creep ahead a little.”
Dodging here and there behind tree trunks, Tom stole cautiously forward. He made not a sound as he went except when now and again the snow creaked under his feet. As he moved, he was doing some rapid thinking.
All day long they had been striving with all their strength to get near the man of the long trail who had stolen their black fox skin. Yet now that he might be at hand, almost within earshot of them, Tom found his heart pounding in a most uncomfortable way. What kind of a man might he be? Perhaps some desperado who could easily overpower them. Perhaps there were even a gang of them.
All these discomforting thoughts kept popping into Tom’s mind as he made his way onward as cautiously as a scout. But suddenly, as he bent forward, his rifle that he carried slung by a bandolier over his shoulders bumped his back. It was like a dose of magic elixir and brought his courage back in a flash.
“Well,” he thought, “if that rascal wants trouble, he can – ”
He came to a quick halt.
“Here’s the end of the trail!” he gasped.
Before him, not ten rods away and just over a slight rise, which had prevented his seeing it before, was a small log hut.
It stood on the brink of a little lake, the latter, of course, frozen many inches thick. About it was a clearing where the logs to build it had been felled. But what brought Tom up with a round turn was the sight of sleigh tracks leading up to the door.
From the chimney a thin wisp of bluish smoke was curling, undoubtedly the subtle aroma they had sensed at a distance. Tom stood as still as a graven image for a minute, listening intently. Over everything about him hung the hush of the wilderness at nightfall.
For a space he stood thus, and then, giving his rifle a quick hitch so that it would be in readiness to his hand, he strode forward on his snowshoes with long, certain strides.
CHAPTER VIII – THE GHOSTLY CRY
There was a big wood pile at one side of the hut, from which the owner evidently drew for his fuel supply. Tom used this as a sort of screen to conceal his advance, and, slipping behind it, gained a place where, through a chink in the logs, he could gaze into the interior. It was deserted. Of that he was sure immediately after his first glance, for the shack consisted only of the one room.
Having made sure of this, he continued his way around to the front of the place, and then discovered to his astonishment that the sled tracks went straight onward through the snow. It was easy for him to guess that the man they were pursuing had camped for a short time in the hut, cooked himself a meal and left the fire in the stove burning. When he saw several brown-paper cigarette butts lying scattered on the snow in front of the place, the identity of the visitor to the lonely hut became a certainty.
The problem of a place to pass the night was thus solved, for it is the rule of the waste places that the benighted traveler may make himself at home whenever he happens to come across a shelter. Tom gave a loud “Hullo!” and there came back an answering hail from Jack. In a few minutes the younger of the Bungalow Boys was at Tom’s side.
“Well, here’s our hotel, all ready and fixed up for us, even the fire lighted in readiness for us,” laughed Tom as Jack came up.
“But what does the owner say about it?”
“Not being at home just at present, he hasn’t anything to say; however, our friend of the black fox skin stopped here, rested his bones, fed his dogs, to judge from all the litter around, and then passed on.”
“But isn’t there a chance that he may come back?”
Jack spoke rather timidly. He was tired and a little nervous, and the thought that the fellow who had robbed them might be prowling about somewhere rather scared him.
“No danger of that. I wish he would. Then we could end this thing up right here.”
“Been inside yet?” asked Jack, by way of changing the subject.
“No; I waited for you. Come on, let’s go in and see what sort of a place it is and who lives in it. I guess it belongs to a trapper, all right, from the looks of it.”
An inspection of the big room inside proved the correctness of Tom’s surmise. Traps of all sorts and sizes were littered about the room or hanging on nails. A rough table, chairs formed out of boxes, the stove, whose smoke had first caught their attention, and some pots, pans and other equipment completed the furnishings. In one corner was a rough bunk containing dirty bedding.
One thing caught Tom’s eye immediately, and that was a barrel in one corner of the place. All about it several small skins such as beaver, marten and weasel were scattered on the floor. Closer inspection showed that the barrel contained some more of the same kind of pelts. It looked as if somebody had hastily rummaged through the barrel of skins and selected what he wanted.
“I’ll bet that rascal who stole the black fox has been on a raiding expedition here, too,” cried Tom indignantly. “What a shame!”
“Yes, looks as if he’d helped himself,” agreed Jack, unstrapping his pack and taking off his snowshoes.
They spread their provisions out on the table, got in plenty of wood and water, and lighted a coal-oil lamp which they found on a shelf. When the door was shut and secured by a big wooden bar which was adjusted from within, they set about getting supper. In the yellow lamplight, with the kettle singing on the stove and some jerked meat bubbling in a sort of stew Tom had fixed up, the place looked quite cosy and homelike.
“Wonder how poor old Sandy is getting along?” said Jack, as they sat down to eat.
“Oh, he’ll be all right,” replied Tom. “Of course, he’ll be lonesome and all that, but he’s quite safe unless some other fellow takes it into his head to come a-raiding.”
“Well, lightning never strikes twice in the same place,” responded Jack, “and it is hardly likely that a second thief would come along so soon.”
“Just what I think,” agreed Tom.
Having finished their supper, they washed up the dishes and set about preparing to make everything snug for the night. From time to time they could hear the distant howling of the wolves, bur that only made the hut seem more snug and secure.
“I wonder what the owner would say if he found us making ourselves so very much at home?” said Jack, as he inspected the none too clean bedding.
“Oh, he would be glad to see us, I guess,” replied Tom. “Visitors are welcome in this wilderness, and as for making ourselves at home that is the right of every traveler in the woods when he needs hospitality and the host happens to be out.”
“Still, I don’t imagine the hospitality includes helping yourself to skins, like that rascal we’re trailing did.”
“I hardly should think so,” rejoined Tom dryly. “Fellows like that don’t have a bed of roses when they are caught. It is as bad as horse stealing in the West.”
“I know I can think of a good many punishments fitting for the rascal who stole our black fox.”
“So can I, without straining my imaginative powers, either.”
Both lads were thoroughly exhausted by their labors of the day, and after a little more talk they made up a good roaring fire to keep the hut warm through the night, and turned into the bunk. For some little time they lay awake, listening to the crackling of the blaze and the sighing of the wind which was stirring outside.
From time to time, too, they could still hear the howling of the wolf pack, and occasionally the night air would ring with the sharp cry of some small animal pounced upon by a great snow owl or a weasel. But both lads were well used to these sounds of the northern night, and it was not long before their senses began to swim and they dropped off into sound and refreshing sleep.
Just what time it was when they both awakened together they did not know, but the cause of their sudden arousing was a startling one. Borne to their ears there had come a strange sound, a long, low, howling sort of moan.
That is about as nearly as the sound can be indicated in print.
Both boys sat bolt upright, wide-eyed with alarm. Jack felt the skin on the back of his scalp tighten as he listened. The lamp had been left alight, although it was turned low, and in the dim light each lad could read fear and perplexity in the other’s countenance.
“Wh-wh-what is it?” gasped out Jack.
“I der-der-don’t know,” stuttered Tom, equally at a loss and almost as badly disturbed by the weird nature of the wailing cry.
CHAPTER IX – TOM CALMS JACK’S FEARS
Again came the cry, punctuating the night in the same ghastly, unaccountable manner.
“Is it wer-wer-wer-wolves?” stammered Jack.
Tom shook his head.
“Nothing like them. It beats me what it can be. I never heard such a sound.”
“It gives me cold shivers,” confessed Jack.
“Maybe it is only a wildcat,” said Tom, regaining his nerve which had been badly shaken by his sudden awakening and the ghastly cries.
“Doesn’t sound much like one,” objected Jack; “it sounds more like – more like – ”
He broke off short, for now something occurred that made each boy feel as if his hair was standing on end and ice water being poured in liberal quantities down his spine.
“There is death in the snows, death-death-death-to-all-who-brave-the-trail!”
“Gracious!” gasped Jack; “it’s a ger-ger-ghost!”
“Nonsense,” said Tom sharply.
Although he was badly scared himself, he kept his nerve better than his younger brother, but the sepulchral voice made him shudder as he listened.
The uncanny sound of the wailing chant died out. Then fell a deep silence, broken only by the sighing of the night wind.
“But if it isn’t a ghost, what is it?” demanded Jack.
“I don’t know, but of one thing I’m certain, it isn’t a ghost. There are no such things, and only fools and kids believe in them.”
“Well, nobody else would be outside in the snow making such noises,” declared Jack. “It is a spirit or something, that’s what it is. Maybe somebody was murdered here and it is his – ”
“Say, if you talk any more nonsense, I’ll – I’ll – ” burst out Tom disgustedly, but just then came an interruption.
It was the sepulchral voice again.
The voice broke off in a terrifying scream that brought both boys out of the bunk and to their feet. Tom picked up his rifle.
“Maybe it is somebody lost in the woods,” suggested Jack, glad of any theory that might reasonably account for the alarming voice.
“Rubbish! Nobody lost in the snow would make that racket. Besides, there’s all that stuff about death!” Tom shuddered. “It’s got me guessing.”
“It’s aw-awful!” stammered poor Jack.
“But I mean to find out what it is.”
Tom compressed his lips and looked very determined. He began examining the lock of his repeating rifle, and then moved toward the doorway.
“What! You are going out there?” demanded Jack.
“I surely am. I mean to satisfy myself just what it is, or who it is, that is making that ghostly noise.”
“But it can’t be human,” urged Jack. And then, recollecting some ghost stories he had read, he continued: “It might ber-ber-blast you, or something.”
“Rubbish! I’ll blast it, if I can get hold of it!” declared Tom, who couldn’t help smiling, perplexed though he was, at Jack’s real alarm.
The boy’s hand was on the bar that held the door securely shut, when the voice arose once more. It was certainly not a little awe-inspiring. The mere facts that they could not tell with accuracy from just what direction it came, and also that they were the only living beings in that part of the country, made it all the more frightful. “Be-ware – be-ware-of-the-white-death-of-the-north!” came the voice. “Turn-back. Go-where-you-came-from. The-trail-leads-to-destruction-swift-and-terrible!”
Tom waited no longer. He flung open the door and rushed out into the darkness. Behind him came Jack, also armed, and trying desperately to keep his teeth from chattering. The Northern Lights were flashing and splashing the sky with their weird radiance, and the snow lay whitely all about the hut.
Had there been any man or animals within the cleared space, they must have been able to see their forms.
But nothing was to be seen.
The two alarmed boys standing there looking this way and that, like startled deer, were the only living things near the hut. Tom was badly mystified. The whole thing certainly flavored of the supernatural, and yet the boy’s better sense told him that it could be no such thing. There must be some way of accounting for that voice, but for the life of him Tom could not hit upon a solution of the mystery, try as he would.
At length, after making as thorough an examination of the space surrounding the hut as they could, the two lads were fain to go back again into the structure, and at least one of them was heartily and unfeignedly glad to be able to do so.
Tom felt that, had he been able to account for the strange and supernatural voice in any imaginable way, he would not have been so worried over it. It was the very fact that the whole thing was inexplicable in any ordinary way that made it more alarming.
The bar was secured in place and both boys got back into the bunk. But sleep did not visit them for a long time. They were under far too great a strain for that. They lay awake listening nervously for a repetition of the spectral voice, but none came.
“Perhaps in the morning we may find something that will throw some light on the matter,” said Tom, after a prolonged silence.
“Yes, I suppose we’ll find a phonograph or something out there,” scoffed Jack. “It’s no use talking, Tom, I tell you that nothing earthly made those sounds.”
“What do you think it was, then?”
“Just what I said: a ghostly warning to us not to go farther.”
“Very kind of the ghost, I’m sure. I didn’t know they were such benevolent creatures.”
“Oh, you needn’t laugh. I’ve read lots about ghosts giving warnings and so on. That voice was to tell us to beware how we proceed.”
“Rot! As if a ghost would care! I only know of one person who might be desirous of seeing us turn back.”
“Who is that?”
“The fellow that stole that black fox.”
“Then you think – ”
“I don’t think anything. Now try to get to sleep till morning.”
Jack lay awake long after Tom was asleep once more. But the voice did not come again, and at last his eyelids, too, closed, not to open till it was broad day.
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