IN CRAG HART could be encountered all the elemental units which entitled him to be rightfully termed the King of the Alaskan. dog-punchers. He was the breathing, implacable. Indian-like embodiment of that sacred crew of Arctic spartans. tabulated and indexed as the “outpost” mai! carriers.
Hart’s regular run lay between the Kaltag portage station on the lower Yukon, and the Northern terminal point of the three thousand mile route, at Nome. It was about the toughest, most, deceitful stretch of three hundred m.ies in all the known Northland. It is yet. for that matter, for, until some profound geological change occurs, or sumfc distinct alteration of the North setting sea currents is brought about, the Norton Sound winter trail will always continue to be. •the most prolific of the Behring graveyards. *
. Cross-cutting or skirting this treacherous bit of the trail ir. the ordinary routine of duty, had sluiced away the youthlike contours of Crag Hart’s face, and had left .in their pi%ce. gouged caverns and rocklike angles. These granite features were marked with a white gash that extended from the lobe of his left ear to the cleft of his chin, straight across the ja*.
He-was the senior mail carrier in the Northland, a human spring of vitalized energy, set in a steel-knit frame. Hart, on each of his schedule trips, shook old grim'Death by the hand and snarled defiance into his very face.
N OW HE was “summerin’ with the dogs.” With his team pack he was indolently resting the summer away. The open season was the trailmar/s play spell. Drowsily leaning against the sun-soaked front of “Jourdan’s Rest” Crag dreamed of the world beyond the southern horizon and wondered if ever he would break the link that kept him chained to. this heartless man-breaking country, that had no use for any living thing except to crush and grind it beneath a merciless heel.
At his feet, stretched in majestic repose. lay the inseparable companion of all his pleasures and pains—the famed wolfbred leader malamute—Grey Cloud. The dog was enjoying his “Ock-tu-chin-icktuc”—the big sleep—to which he was justly entitled, after a winter of the most severe trail service he had as yet endured.
It is barely possible that the wolf leader was at the moment living over the event .from which be had come forth knighted pin the eyes of all northern dogs and men. In his deep sleep he gave a faraway sort of wild call, and Crag from the meditations of what awaited him across the seas —fell to stroking the livid crease along his chin-line.
Before his eyes swam an incessant parade of the summer season arrivals but recently depoaited on the beach and all alive to make of the ninety day s daylight one long active period. It was to Hart a myriad-hued whirl which made* him stroke more determinedly the still fresh scar on his face. As he did 90 he edged his foot out* under the ribs of the dog so
ato feel the oerp t>rt*atr.:r g oí the nea.-t. He felt Grey Cloud, too. would .ike to know.'even though sleeping. tna: the ore thir.g he adored above lift wu? right b\ hss side. Tms master never withheld ar\ evidence of affectior from his cog.
The milling crowds seemed to spin tiefore Hart’sAryes. They took shape ir. his revene a? the blir.dirg whiteness of the srows ir that' fiercest blizzard of the year. The bright splotches of color that flashed across his brain resolved to ar interminable streak of fighting red—the crimson ruide posp set by his government to hold the Sound voyagers to the true trail in thick going.
“How did it all come ar d get by ar.d over with so quickly?" he pondered. Crag 1 had really not quite retrieved k:? bearing? —there-was a mystic unrarr.tr ess that he could not rid himself of—it wathe upending of»the ice that staggered him now a? he again tried to figure it all out. The flash of white, ar.d the human cry from Grey Cloud as his tusk? m.s^ec Crag’? drill parka ar.d instead found a hold m his jaw—there was nothing indefinable about tha’l Ah. ho. He — Crag—wahere! He wa? breathing warm air. He saw the procession of his feliowmen. Ard why wa? that? The answer lay a pulsating, adoring servant at his feet, taking his rest, not his pay—Grey Cloud’? pay was the commission laid before h.m for execution, at command of his ma.-ter!
“Don’t take any chan^fc on bating the break-up. Crag.". These were the words that Corbersier. the fiver relay man. had spoken a? he delivered the mail pouches.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me what to do on this playground of mine.” Crag had returned good humoredly.
“I certainly got a chill or two when I left Nula to yesterday. Crag. The old river was growling and seemed like to me that she just wánted to buckle up ar.d blast the ice all over the Yukon valley. It just made me think of you ar.d this stretch across the Sound that you have to make to-day. So you don’t mir.d old pa! if I sort of get it off my chest?’’
Crag knew the kindliness ar.d concern behind Corbersier’? warning. Besides he knew the significance of the Yukon signs. The trail spoke to these, lier sons. Her language, although mysterious, was readily understood by the dogmen and seldom went unheeded. Crag had had hi? message the day before while or. the run from Chief Isaac’s Point to Shaktolik.
AND HE had hardly started on his run acros? the Sound when it came to him with unmistakable meaning from his head malamute Grey Cloud.
The dog, although holding true to the trail stakes, was ever for throwing his head toward the open sea and sniffing the sharp air as though it contained some menace from which he must fly. He called to the team dogs for further action. “Race with me mates!” That’s what it appeared he wanted to impress upon the string.
A shroudlike mist hung heaving and billowing between the ice and the spring--
: Hit sur. The tang of .-alt wa? ¿n the air to Crag, riding the supple birch sieign ra.l with his feet entwined in it? supporting standards, gave Cloud the “Homeward Ho” command that sent him on like a projectile from the cannon’s moutn. What Iky oefore the dog held no terror for him. Once for a brief instant the sui .broke through the vapor and showed fa mocking fire bail—it was dull blood-Ft-d ard sinister. To Crag it appeared as a scroll fraught with dreadful punishment.
Its weird light was a9 abruptly withdrawn as it had appeared, leaving a smokehke -haft of ghostly light where ;t had broker through the mist.
poK THREE hours Grey Cloud piung* -ed on with his lead line strung ou: taut ar.d infected every dog in the team with hi? indomitable spirit. There were time? that the guide posts were obliterated by the drifting snow, but the leader’s -er.se of direction never failed him. He caught up witr. and passed them with successive precision which rrfade fd| Crag the task of driving the dog? a matter of minimum effort. When Grey Cloud was giver, h.head, ne was the master-mind of the mail outfit. ’
What lay beyond the black shade that loomed liefere the lunging dog? was the thir.g that now caused Crag to shoot out hi? underjaw. The darkness of that cloud screen was as a battle line for the tra^il king?. They threw themselves against it. eager to grapple with the worst it held for them.
And then it threw itself against then:. They were picked up as though the entire outfit were but a speck of chaff and whirled out in the vortex of a titanic ice tornado. Grey Cloud squealed like a trapped wolf as he lurched blindly on. his ear? laid back close to his head, hi? tail double-screwed to his back so that his team could see that no matter what the elements had on their firing line still he-, the dog, was unafraid and defiant
There was no sign of a trail, there was nothing but the whistle and • screeching of the drift It seemed that great winged birds were also being blown about in that maelstrom, beating their wings about, muttering ghastly guttural moani. Crag, veteran of these ice highways, wás at the point of calling the “Come in’* çimmand. There is but one thing to do when the very God above shows nothing but a clenched fist; and that is to pull up and strike camp —to cover up; man and dogs huddled together; to be blanketed by the snows; and then to wait. No human being has a yet been successful in a battle against a .Norton Sound blizzard.
“When it’s time to lay down and quit, he’ll come in of his own accord. Wbat’s the use of me butting in on this business?” Thought Crag. “This is Cloud’s own game. He knows every angle of it. And what I know of the trail work, he has Taught me! But I’d like to know where the hell we are. just at this present minute. As far as I personally am concerned, we’re gone!"
These were the disturbing reflection?
that consumed the mai! carrier as he clutched the handle bars and shoved the sleigh along in whatever direction that Grey Cloud was leading them on. The snow lashed them viciously. It was wet a ndL sleet like. There were times that Crag was certain it wasn’t snow at all that whipped his face. It was spray! That’s what it wiis, ocean spray! They were not far from open water! And that’s w’hy Grey Cloud wouldn’t “come in” and suggest the h.ying to until the blizzard blew over.
Everything was a dull, indistinct lead color. Thej dog had absolutely nothing to guide hin ; on—nothing but a heavengiven instinct that Crag had long since come to raspect, as he did nothing else on earth. iOhce Crag started, and cried a high pitched “Hawr, boy!” Crag heard the splashing of great sea monsters. Every dog In the team heard it, too. And they heard the uncanny yawing-like cries of sea lior s—ogrooks,-we call them here in Alaska—as they sported in the blackness of the Sound waters. But the water they never did see. Grey Cloud came off the tack ujxm which he had been running and raced away from the swishing sounds frantically.
C UDDENLY «the dog found himself ^ thrash ng on in thick snow’ that walled up before him. It was like climbing a mountain of soft drift that gave no grip to his feet Then he broke through and felt the siciening waters about bis toes— slush it was, greasy, dangerous slush— half snow and half water. The dogs pressed hin dose now. They ware filled with the ear they could suppress no longer. T ieÿwhimpered their misgivings and snapped at each other. Then they shot down an incline like a toboggan dip. The ice had upheaved behind them and tossed the whole outfit into the trough of its break. Water surged aWbt them in a terrifying flood. Grey Cloud plunged at ‘.he wall which rose before him sheer and precipitous. He gained the crest of it i.nd gave tongue to a wild cry of conquest. As he did so rre jerked the whole team and sleigh with such abrupt force that C rag, who had been hanging to the handle hairs, felt them slip from his grasp. As hè fell back into the cairnlike crevice 1 he called to the dogs and frantically grappled with hands and feet to get some .Told that would lift him to the trail level, put. the more he endeavored to scale the folding snow, the deeper did he Sink. It Was like quicksand ; his efforts to free himsdlf from the maw of the snow cave accomplished nothing but tq more firmly embed him in its depths. Crag raised his eyes to the darkness that obscured the heavens and, breathed a few fervent w’ords to the'God w’ho had never deserted hint before.
LJ E FEL?' that he was sinking slowly, * * deeper and deeper to the bottom of the suddenly-formed ice cave. How far it w’as to that bottom he*couldn’t tell—water covered it. It seemed to Crag that it must have been a tidal wave that rushed behind them and carried the ice before it as a river carries logs on the crest of its surging current. The w’ater was seeping up the snow in which he w’as now’ embedded. Crag found heart to thank his God that He hadn’t sent along a chilling temperature with the break-up storm. He prayed for the dogs too, and especially for Grey Cloud. How long W’ould the heroic leader
go on before he discovered that his master no longer rode to runners, or plunged along behind the sleigh hanging on to the handle bars?
Crag breathed deep and called his leader’s name at the top pitch of his lungs. It sounded to him as though the blizzard fiends mockingly took his cry and hurled it back to him in his cave. He tried a final move to gain freedom, but it cost him a few inches in distance tow’ard the inky water beneath him. He relaxed himself then and thoughts that embraced* long forgotten episodes in his life came to him —an endless phantasmagoria.
But king of the trailmen he still w’as, and even though he saw’ his life unfold before him and realization of what that meant at this moment—he again offered praise to the Almighty that he had lived a full and useful life. The world owed him nothing. But Grey Cloud, what would become of him? Who would take care of him? Where was he now? Crag fought back choking tears at the thought of the malamute mourning for his lost master.
T THAT very moment Grey Cloud was doing precious little mourning— he was piling back as fast as legs of lead w’ould permit, tow’ard the spot where last he had heard his owner’s voice. The dog remembered one call distinctly. It was just as the ice eruption occurred, but he had thought it a cheer to blend w’ith his own battle cry. He must have gone on a mile before he realized that the familiar chirp, or the encouraging “yip-yip" were missing in the screeching w’inds at his back. He stopped and cast a look at the sleigh to see that the beloved form was there no more. There was no interval of indecision in his next move. He fairly catapulted the string on the backtrack. Whiner, his gee-side sw’ing trailer, whimpered a plaintive remonstrance w’hich started the w’hole team crying in reluctance. It w’as just what the supreme leader required to bring all his fighting blood to a seething boil.
He plunged forw’ard dragging the entire six after him — bang into the on? slaught of the steel-splintèred snow. .Guided by nothing but his marvelous dog sense — or su persense — and fighting every malamute behind him, he dug on, calling upon every atom in his body for its last effort to get back to where his master now’ awaited him. The team dogs hung back—they (¿ragged—at least it so fçlt to Grey CJoud: but really, now, they were responding to their leader’s control over them and were doing their utmost. But that utmost w’as way below what the leader demanded just then. It was a snail’s pace for Grey Cloud.
A ND THEN it came to him. The voice of his master ahead—dead ahead! It sped to Grey Cloud on the howling blast of the south-wester. Like a powerful chord of deep music the W’ell-known ken-
nel call of Crag struck into his soul—and not only his—it also filled the rest of the dog’s with the lust to w’in speedily to their master’s aid. They all plow’ed on in desperation. They felt the sleigh careen and then turn over completely as they lunged into a mountainous obstacle of heaved-up ice and drift-snow. Its bowrunners shot into this opposing face and stuck the sleigh there like a barb—firmly anchored.
The wheeler team sprawled helplessly on the ridge of the upheaval, W'hile the rest of the team hung suspended below them in a mist-filled yawning pit. Grey Cloud, their leader, had recognized this spot the instant that it loomed before him and w ithout a thought for what may come behind him, he dived clear of its brink— in his nostrils the body scent of the only thing that existed in his world.
The lead malamute felt the impetus of his plunge suddenly checked—but not out of gripping reach of the all but obliterated form of his beloved master. Crag had sunk deeper—almost too deep. His head had dropped forward to his chest. He had about giver^up when through his glazed eyes he saw—or seemed to see— a fierce, w’ild-fooking thing of grey spring clear of the crater brim. Crag saw’ in that flashing fraction of time a fighting pair of ears laid flat against a wide wolf head, he saw four gleaming ivory tusks in a red mouth, and his ears were filled with Grey Cloud’s triumphant squeal as the beast volplaned to where he was.
Black, brilliant eyes shone into his dulled ones; Crag felt the hot breath of his incomparable trail dog on his cheek and then he knew the sharp pain of a cut that laid his jaw’ open as though jt had been slashed with a lance. The blood spurted from the wound and with its surge Çrag w'as brought back to a vivid t-ealization of thing? temporal. Grey Cloud’s fangs had missed his parka the first time. But his next grip held.
* * *
RAG felt a hand press his shoulder. ^ His memories slipped away and he opened his eyes to see Corbersier, the river man, standing before him.
“Hello, Crag,” said the bronzed mail carrier. “I’m over to see Ross aj>out raisin’ our pay. That last trip I made back to Nulato makes me think the work is worth more money. How did you make it across the Sound? All O.K. I hope. You found your playground a bit wet, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Corbersier, it was a bit wet, but the sport had its compensations,”, paid Crag reflectively as the other stalked; off.
Crag breathed deeply of the warm air.
“Gee, Cloud, this sun is wonderful,1* he whispered to the slumbering dog. “And God is God above all—and as for you, old boy, what dog words are there, th»t I can bark or howl, long enough, to tell you what you are!”