The Bungalow Boys North of Fifty-Three
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There was no answer from the man lying under the shabby skin rug.
Old Joe began to find his task becoming more and more difficult. If only the man would say something, make some aggressive move, he would have no difficulty in letting loose his long bottled-up rage. But as it was, he felt almost as helpless as the recumbent figure on the ground.
“Why you no answer, you – you Pod!” he exclaimed. “I want know. Comprenez-vous? Joe Picquet wan’ know wha’ for you break in his skeen keg an’ take un-deux-trois nice skeen?”
Again there was silence. Old Joe rose and came close to the man. This time he shook a finger in his face.
“Attendez, you leetle coyote! You do worse as zees. You steal from two gar?ons one black fox skeen. Where dose skeens? We come to get dem.”
The little man blinked as the finger was shaken in his face, but he made no other sign that he had heard. Old Joe’s eyes began to blaze. This was sheer obstinacy.
“You answer pret’ queeck or we load you on sled an’ take you Red Fox trading pos’. Have you give up to zee jail. Now you talk.”
The little man made a peevish face and waved his arms about feebly. “I dunno nuthin’ 'bout yer skins,” he said. “What’s the matter with you?”
This time it was Joe who did not answer. Near the head of the man, half under the sacks that served him as pillows, Joe had seen some skins sticking out. With scant regard for “Pod’s” comfort, he began pulling at these.
For the first time, Pod began to grow restless.
“Them’s all mine,” he insisted, “t’aint no use your lookin’. Ain’t none of yours thar, mister.”
“Where are dey, den? Where is dat black fox skeen you take from les gar?ons on zee Porc’pine Riviere?”
“I dunno, I’m telling you. I ain’t never been near the Porcupine River. Dunno whar’ it is.”
“You don’t, eh? Boosh! Let me tell you, mon ami, you tell one beeg story! Zee two gar?ons, dey trail you all zee way from dere, you beeg teef. You’ snowshoes make different track, an’ see zee cigareette stumps!” Several of the yellow paper wrappings were littered about the tent. “Now do you say you are not zee same man?”
“Stranger, honest to mackerel, I dunno what yer talkin’ erbout.”
Joe turned to the pile of skins once more.
“We search every corner dees tent, den,” he said, with finality.
But as he was stooping over the skins, throwing them out one by one, and scanning the pile the while with eager eyes for his own and the boys’ property, some subtle sixth sense made him suddenly wheel.
Out of the corner of his eye he had seen the little man’s hands make a sudden move. He was on him with a bound. In a flash he had both the little gray man’s hands pinioned in his own powerful grip, one over and one under the shabby covering.
Then, with a swift movement, he yanked the skin blanket down. He disclosed a hand holding a wicked looking revolver of heavy caliber. It was fully loaded and cocked.
Pod was not the harmless individual he had appeared to be.
CHAPTER XXII – “THE WOLF’S” TEETH
“Boosh! So you would try keel me, eh, mon brave?” puffed old Joe, wresting the weapon from the hand of the little gray man and hurling it across the room.“Vous etes one fine fellow, n’est-ce pas?”
Leaving him for an instant, old Joe fairly slid across the tent and did something which, but for his excitement, he would have accomplished in the first place. He “broke” the pistol and extracted the six cartridges.
The little man under the tattered blanket watched with glittering eyes. Then Joe Picquet turned to him once more.
“Where ees zee black fox skeen, you beeg rascal?”
The old trapper felt like pouncing upon the other and shaking the truth out of him, especially following his discovery of the little man’s weapon. But the fellow appeared to be genuinely sick and he throttled down his anger.
The man remained silent. Old Joe thought he resembled a little glittering-eyed weasel as he lay there watching the old trapper with furtive eyes, that though they appeared averted followed old Joe’s every move. But he did not speak in rejoinder to Joe’s direct command. He merely grinned in a sickly fashion, showing a double row of yellow, uneven teeth. Seen thus, he looked more like some little wicked animal than ever. The sympathy that Joe had felt for him began to evaporate.
“See here, you, you no play ’possum weez old Joe Picquet,” he said roughly, putting on an appearance of ferocity. “He no stand for monkey-doodle business. Non, mon ami.”
The man lay in silence for a space. Then he moved and spoke.
“Look in that sack yonder,” he said, indicating a bulging gunny-bag in a corner near the sled.
Old Joe lost no time in ripping open the deerskin fastenings of the bag and dragging out its contents. These he dumped in a heap on the floor. There were marten skins, ermine skins and weasel skins galore, but none of his skins nor so much as a hair of a black fox pelt.
Joe turned angrily on the other.
“I geev you one chance,” he said; “you fool me no more. You tell me where dat skeen ees or les gar?ons go to Red Fox for zee autarkies.”
The sick man grinned again, showing his yellow molars, that looked like stumps protruding from the sands at low tide.
“I tole yer, yer wouldn’t find it, Frenchy,” said he, “an’ I reckon you won’t. I ain’t got it, an’ that’s the truth.”
Joe’s jaw closed with a click. His teeth clenched and his old eyes flashed.
“Ver’ well den, mon ami. I search your blankets.”
It might have been fancy, but Joe thought that he saw the man on the ground turn a shade paler. Old Joe approached the bed. In the dim light his face looked as ferocious as the countenance of a wolf. Perhaps something warned Peabody Dolittle that it was no use to evade the question of his guilt any longer.
“It’s under the lower blanket,” he said weakly.
Old Joe thrust his hand under and then, for the second time, he looked up just in the nick of opportunity. As he stooped low, the sick man had raised himself on his bed, and now had a knife poised above the old French-Canadian’s back.
With a shout of rage, the trapper struck the upraised arm and sent the blade halfway across the tent. It fell ringingly to the ground. At the same instant, the boys, who had heard Joe’s shout, came running into the tent, their arms full of wood.
“Aloons, mes enfants!” cried the angry old man. “Do not give good wood to such as dis man. Twice he try to keel me. Once weez pistol, once weez knife. Let heem freeze in zee snows if he weel. We weel help heem no more.”
He thrust a hand under the man’s blankets where the latter had indicated. Then, with a shout of triumph, he drew out a beautiful skin. A black fox pelt, shimmering, glossy, beautiful!
The boys gave a cry. It was theirs beyond a doubt, the skin of the fine black fox that they had last seen barking and howling for his liberty, and whom the two partners in the fox-raising enterprise had set such store by. They were still looking at the skin, petrified, when old Joe uttered another cry of triumph.
This time, from beneath the blankets he drew out the skins the thief had filched from his own cabin. His rage knew no bounds. He appeared angrier now that he had found the skins than he was before. He shook his fist at the sick man and upbraided him unmercifully.
“You are one skunk! One homme mechant!” he roared. “You first rob and den try to keel. Above all, you lie. Boosh! I have for you no use.”
“Well, you’ve got yer skins now, ain’t ye?” asked the man on the ground, in a feeble voice. “What more d’ye want?”
“A good deal more,” struck in Tom. “How did you come to know of the foxes on the Porcupine River?”
“I overhearn two fellers at the tradin’ post talkin’ about ’em,” whimpered the crest-fallen Pod.
“You did, eh?” exclaimed Jack. “What sort of looking fellows?”
The man lying stretched out there with an abject, fawning look on his face turned a beseeching glance on them. But they knew of the cowardly crime he had tried to perpetrate and hardened themselves toward him. In his high-pitched, plaintive voice, Pod gave a description of the two men he had declared were responsible for his knowledge of the fox kennels on the Porcupine.
When he concluded his description Tom and Jack exchanged astonished glances.
“Uncle Dacre!” cried Jack.
“Mr. Chillingworth!” cried Tom. “I’ll bet they were talking business and this fellow here crept up and listened.”
Although they were both very angry, somehow the thought that they had succeeded in the hard task they had set out to accomplish, made them less disturbed than they might have been.
“What did you do it for?” asked Tom.
“I can’t tell yer now,” was the rejoinder. “It was fer many reasons. Some day perhaps you’ll know. Now I can’t say nothin’.”
“At least, tell us if it was you that tried to frighten us by howling through a birch-bark megaphone?” asked Tom.
The little man grinned.
“Yes, I did it, all right,” he said, with the same soft, foolish smile. “I calcerlated to shake you off’n my trail. But I didn’t do it. It was jes’ a plum foolish joke, that’s all, and – ”
“Stand right where you are!”
The order came from a voice behind the boys and old Joe, who had been bending over the stricken little gray fellow.
They all wheeled like a flash. In the doorway stood three figures – tall, rough-looking men dressed in the ordinary garb of the trail. All three were armed and each had assigned himself to “take care of” one of our adventurers.
The “sick” man broke into a shrill laugh.
“He! he! he! Thought you’d fooled Wolf Ericsen, didn’t you? Well, by the eternal, you’ve got another guess coming, I reckon. Dick! Sarsen! Flem! keep ’em covered while I get up.”
CHAPTER XXIII – SANDY ALONE
The day following the departure of Tom and Jack from the camp of the Yukon Rover, Sandy decided that he would take a stroll along the trap line for some little distance to see if any of the smaller traps, interspersed with the big box traps for catching the live foxes, had caught anything. Before he departed he carefully fed the animals in the “kennels.”
This done, he wrapped himself up as warmly as possible in a thick parkee, heavy lumbermen’s boots and a cap that came down over his ears. Before leaving he took care to write a note and leave it on the table in the cabin, informing the two partners briefly where he had gone and what had taken place during their absence, in case they should return before he got back again.
When all this had been attended to, Sandy filled a haversack with food and packed a small aluminum kettle and set out on snowshoes on his solitary travels. He wondered what his companions were doing and what success they had had in their pursuit of the thief. The boy felt lonesome without his chums, but as he made his way over the crunching snow the keen air brightened him up and raised his spirits considerably.
Since Tom and Jack had left, nothing to cause alarm had occurred, and although Sandy had passed an anxious night, he had seen nothing to indicate that any further harm was meditated to the valuable live things now left in his sole care.
The traps were strung in a regular line, whose general direction was marked by blazed trees and here and there some piled rocks. Near to the Yukon Rover’s mooring place there were no box traps. These were stationed far back in the remoter districts, for the valuable foxes they were after were wild, shy creatures, seldom coming within miles of a spot where they could detect the presence of human kind.
At the first trap Sandy found a white weasel. The bait, the head of a hare, was intact. The luckless weasel had not even had the satisfaction of a meal.
Sandy placed the little creature in his pocket, not without disappointment. The Bungalow Boys’ traps, the steel ones, that is, were set for food, such as hares and rabbits. They did not care to capture weasels and ermine particularly, although red foxes, which have a habit of scaring away the more valuable varieties, were welcome to their traps.
Tom and Jack, as we know, had already encountered the track of a wolverine. It was now Sandy’s turn to come across the funny, bear-like imprints of one of these destructive creatures.
“Whist!” he exclaimed, as he saw it, “no more animals in the traps the noo! A wolverine has a bigger appetite than a cormorant. They’re the real game hogs, all right.”
As he had expected, the next trap showed plentiful evidences of the wolverine’s visit. All that was left of the marten that had been caught in it was some bits of skin and about an inch of the tail. Bloodstains on the snow around the trap showed where the wolverine had enjoyed a meal at the expense of the young trappers.
“Pretty expensive feeder,” mused Sandy to himself. “So far this glutton’s meals have cost about thirty dollars in the value of skins destroyed. Nothing cheap about him.”
The boy trudged along over the snow, the creaking of his shoes as he advanced being the only sound that broke the oppressive stillness of the frozen wilderness. In spite of himself the boy felt the vast silence and loneliness like a weight laid upon his mind. So far as he knew, he was the only human being within miles. It made him feel very tiny, almost ant-like, to think of the minute speck his body must make as he toiled onward amidst the white desolation spread all about him.
At noon he paused, and seating himself under a tall “Rampick” that upreared its gaunt form blackly against the snow, he ate the lunch he had brought with him. Then he resumed his journey, intending to turn back again and make for camp after about an hour’s more travel. He figured that this would bring him back to the camp by nightfall.
As he followed up the traps he noticed that beside the ravages of the wolverine other tracks began to appear in the snow, telling of the presence of animals only less welcome.
Tracks that the boy recognized as the footprints of wolves were plentiful about the traps devastated by the wolverine, or perhaps by the wolves themselves.
The sight sent a thrill through him in spite of himself. Sandy had never gotten over his dread of wolves. He would never forget his first sight of the gaunt, gray creatures that he had seen hunting in a pack some weeks before. Even in dreams he could still see their foamy fangs, gaunt flanks and lean, active bodies with their sharp, avid heads and blazing yellow eyes.
At the sight of the tracks, which were apparently recent, an uneasy feeling possessed him. The wolves were abroad, possibly in his immediate vicinity. He glanced around him. About half a mile away, at the summit of a snow-covered rise, was a big pile of rocks heaped up as if they had been some giant’s playthings left in jumbled confusion. Beyond lay a dark little wood of balsam and fir. Sandy was still looking at this latter and meditating whether or not to visit the traps he knew were set in under the shadows of the somber-looking trees, when his ear was arrested by a sudden sound.
It rang through the silence like a clarion. He recognized it instantly and his nerves thrilled as he heard.
It was the cry of a wolf pack coming from the timber patch. Sandy half turned, uncertain whether to keep on or make a retreat.
As he hesitated, from the wood there issued several lean-flanked, gray creatures, whose forms he knew only too well.
They were the leaders of the pack. Behind them, helter-skelter, came a tumbling, racing-mass of open-fanged creatures.
The leaders spied the boy, halted an instant and then, with fierce, short barks, headed straight for him.
CHAPTER XXIV – THE PACK
Sandy’s first impulse was to run. Then he recalled what he had heard an old woodsman say, that to flee from a wolf pack is to invite almost certainly pursuit. Yet what other course was there for him to pursue? He had his rifle and some cartridges, but the pack was a large one and there was something in their appearance, even at that distance, that was strikingly sinister in its suggestion of unloosed savagery.
Behind the hesitating boy lay stretched a level snowfield without a tree or a rock showing above its surface for some distance. Ahead of him, and a little to his right, was the big rock pile already mentioned. The wolves were racing diagonally across the snow. If he did not act quickly the only refuge in sight, the heaped up pile of rocks, would be lost to him.
Hesitating no longer, Sandy put out every effort that was in him and started for the rocks. But as he flew over the snow with his heart beating as if it would burst his sides, he knew that if he won the race it would be only by a very narrow margin.
His feet felt leaden. Although he put forth every ounce of strength he possessed, it appeared to him that he hardly moved. He had experienced the same sensation in nightmares, when he seemed to be in the grip of peril without the power of crying out or moving a limb.
“I must make it! I must!” he kept saying to himself as he pushed forward.
But the space between himself and the wolves, who had seen his move and apparently divined the object of it, was growing terribly small. Racing at an angle to his line of progress, the creatures were swiftly closing up the gap which gave the boy his margin of safety.
The rocks, which he must reach to have even a fighting chance against the famished pack, appeared to his bursting eyes to be almost as far off as they had been when he started on his race for life. He saw that they were immense boulders with big, snow-filled crevasses between them. If only he could reach them he did not doubt but that there were innumerable natural fortresses among them from which he could safely defy the wolves.
But could he make it?
Life and death hinged on that question now, for there could be no doubt remaining but that he was the wolves’ quarry, the prey that they sought with dripping fangs and eager, blazing eyes.
The thought flashed through Sandy’s mind that the hunting must have been bad for the pack to make them pursue a human being, something which the savage but cowardly creatures rarely do unless driven to desperation by ferocious pangs of appetite. Hunger, as with most animals, will convert wolves, ordinarily despised by the northern woodsman, into beasts as dangerous as tigers.
Sandy had heard tales of the northern wolves when feed is scarce and the snow lies on the land. He was under no delusions as to his danger. But, strange to say, as he ran onward a sort of fierce pleasure in the race came over him.
At school Sandy had made some notable records on the track. But never had he had such an incentive to speed as now confronted him. He felt a savage determination to beat out those gray-flanked, drip-fanged creatures, if the life within him held out in the cruel test of speed and staying power.
The rocks loomed larger. He had crossed the line the pack was pursuing. A savage chorus of yelps arose as the leaders saw what had happened and swung their cohorts on a new tack.
And now the haven of refuge he was struggling for loomed up larger and closer. Only a few feet more and —
A rock concealed under the snow, an outcropping no doubt of the large, castle-like pile, caught Sandy’s foot. He plunged headlong into the snow. As he fell he could hear behind him the yelps of the pack. They thought that now the race was over beyond a doubt; that in a few seconds more their teeth would be tearing the helpless boy.
But Sandy, half stunned by the violence of his fall, managed to struggle to his feet in the nick of time. He could almost feel the breath of the leaders of the yapping pack at his neck when he found himself, he hardly knew how, on his legs once more and struggling with the last remaining ounces of his strength to reach the rocky cliffs, which alone held out a promise of safety.
Many things raced through his mind as he drove on. Thoughts of Tom and Jack, of his old school fellows and of his parents far away in Scotland, memories of old grudges and repented wrongs. Sandy had read of drowning people whose whole lives race before them in a dazzling film of realism in their last moments. He wondered if it was his end that was presaged by the vivid panorama of his career that was mirrored in his mind as he ran.
Behind him there arose a savage howl of disappointment. Cheated of their prey just when it appeared certain that it was within their grasp, the pack was giving vent to its feelings. The big, gaunt leaders gave forth a baying note, the hunting call of the pack.
Sandy set his teeth.
“I’ll beat you yet, you gloomeroons!” he muttered savagely.
He stumbled again; recovered his balance; went plunging half blindly on. His mind was now a blank to all but one thought: those rocks in front of him. He must reach them, he must, he must.
He stretched out his arms as if to try to grasp with his finger tips the rough surface of the foremost of the huge boulders. The wolves’ howls sounded more loudly behind him. His strength began to falter at their cries.
But by an effort he rallied his nerve and put forth another burst of speed.
The next instant he felt his hands touch the rocks in front of him. Almost simultaneously the leader of the wolves, a great, gaunt beast, fully shoulder high among his brethren, leaped at the boy.
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