THE LAST MATCH

Men of iron are these teamsters of the northern freight trails. Constant scourging of searing cold and instant hazard tries them to their very souls. Once in a long time, as in the case of Luke Snow, the test searches out a rotten spot.

JOHN BEAMES July 1 1926

THE LAST MATCH

Men of iron are these teamsters of the northern freight trails. Constant scourging of searing cold and instant hazard tries them to their very souls. Once in a long time, as in the case of Luke Snow, the test searches out a rotten spot.

JOHN BEAMES July 1 1926

THE LAST MATCH

Men of iron are these teamsters of the northern freight trails. Constant scourging of searing cold and instant hazard tries them to their very souls. Once in a long time, as in the case of Luke Snow, the test searches out a rotten spot.

JOHN BEAMES

IT WAS six o’clock on a January morning, and the long twilight that precedes the dawn in those latitudes would not begin for an hour yet. But the pale green dancing lights of the north still flickered faintly in the sky, and the snow had a ghostly light of its own, so that it was by no means pitch dark under the ranked spruces. Three teams came jingling slowly down the freight trail bound for the Hudson’s Bay Post at Heron Lake, a

hundred and sixty long, heart-breaking miles to the north.

First, came a team of rusty blacks, long-legged and wiry, old veterans of the trail. They drew a freight rack, three feet wide by fourteen feet long, piled high with miscellaneous boxes and bales; trade goods for the post. Behind it walked the driver, a man of gigantic proportions, clothed in a tattered, black cowhide coat, which hung to his knees, a greasy cloth cap with earflaps, and moccasins. There was a three weeks’ growth of grizzled beard on his weatherbeaten face; his frosty blue eyes were set in a network of humorous wrinkles. This was Bill Slater, old-timer, breaker of new trails in the wilderness, and the strongest man in all the North.

At his heels plodded a flea-bitten gray and a dark roan; short-bodied, powerful beasts, but a trifle too heavy for the work. They drew a heavy load of flour, precious stuff that, up under the Arctic Circle, costs fabulous price in prime fur. Their owner and driver, lean, cat-footed and tireless, was Duncan Ross, born in Dumfries, with the quaint dialect of his native heath still on his tongue, although he had lived twenty years in the land of the beaver. He wore a black tam-o’-shanter, and a worn fur coat of brown dog.

Last, came a team of chubby and pampered sorrels, with rolls of sleek, grass-fed fat on their ribs which the grim trail would soon sweat off them. Their load was light, and they played with it so easily, that their owner, little, pop-eyed Luke Snow, wondered why the teams ahead did not set a better pace. But he and his horses were new to the freight trail, and all three had much to learn. Luke’s corduroy sheekskin-lined coat was new. His cap was a jaunty affair of black lambskin.

The temperature was barely at zero, which is mild weather for January in the North. The sleighs purred softly to the snow, and the sleighbells rang out clear and musical. The three men stopped for dinner at Muskrat Portage, crossed Billycan Lake, and camped for the night on the farther shore.

Luke, who thought himself a wit, a delusion which had earned him bad friends in plenty in his short life,

gibed at his comrades incessantly. He compared their hard-bitten, ragged-looking horses with his own pudgy team, in terms that more than once roused the fiery Bill to the point of explosion. But the Scotchman listened to the offensive cackle with a resigned lift of his shoulders.

After supper, as they lay back on their blankets in the fire-light, Ross smoking his pipe and Bill expectorating tobacco juice into the flames, Luke resumed his raillery: “You old mossbacks thought you’d throw a scare into me with all your talk about hard trips. Ain’t much hard about this, is there? Fine weather, good trails, fat horses. Mine are, anyway. I guess you couldn’t get any fat on your old crowbaits if you tried.”

Weatherwise Bill Slater looked up at the cloudless, starlit sky, and shook his huge head. “Maybe so, maybe so,” he said quietly. “But it looks to me as if you’ll be wantin’ to crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after you in a few days’ time if this weather holds. Eh, Dune?” “Aye,” said the Scot, “I’m thinkin’ she’ll be cauld the morns’ morn.”

“Aw, tell that to Sweeney,” gibed Luke.

The others lapsed into silence.

BILL was swiftly justified, for when he poked his nose out of warm blankets a little after five the next morning the horses were stamping with cold, and the frost darted sharp needles into his nostrils. He did not need to look at his watch, for, though it was still dark, he knew, by the instinct of the seasoned freighter, that it was time to get up.

Accordingly he took his fur coat, which he had used as a pillow, slipped it on, and standing up fully dressed, roused the echoes with his mellow roar:

“Daylight in the swamp, lads! This is the weather that grows whiskers on your grand-dad’s bald head!”

Ross was on his feet at once, struggling into his coat, but Luke did not stir. Bill nudged him, none too gently, with his toe, and he grunted sleepily, “wassa matter?” “Roll out there, you sawed-off little runt, and go tend your horses.”

Luke sat up. His narrow shoulders hunched themselves

as the cold smote them. “Ugh, it’s cold!” he gurgled with chattering teeth.

“Cold, nothin’!” answered the big freighter. “Wait till the smoke freezes before you begin to blat about the cold. This is just nice fall weather.”

Luke got up reluctantly, and stumbled off with Bill to feed the horses, while Ross lit the fire and prepared breakfast. They ate huge lumps of pork, fried and swimming in

its own grease: bannock, the flat, biscuit-like bread of the North; and drank a dark and pungent brew, tasting strongly of woodsmoke, and boiled in a sooty tin pail without a cover, which they called tea.

When the horses had been fed, they hitched up and crossed the portage, where Billycan Lake empties, by a series of short falls and rapids, into the Sucre River. Day was breaking as they swooped down the bank on to the Sucre. Bill turned to Luke.

“Here you are, old Mr. Know-it-all. Look at her. Cut banks, glare ice, rocks, and the damned water runnin' every which way. See if she don’t get in some dirty work before you’re through with her. I been over her ’bout a hundred times, and every last one of ’em she played some new hellery on me.”

“Aw, you can’t scare me,” replied the little man, though'he stared doubtfully at the uninviting prospect.

The Sucre is, perhaps, the meanest river in the North, and that is saying something. It is all of a hundred yards wide, but nowhere, save in the eddies, is it more than four feet deep. Indeed, it is so shallow that in places it freezes to the very bottom in severe weather. Then the imprisoned waters smash their way through with irresistible force and run wild on top of the ice, building ridges and hummocks of glare ice that are often hollow, and form deadly traps for the unwary.

But it is the only path through the wilderness. On either hand rise steep banks, and beyond them is a country of low, ragged hills, densely wooded, and strewn with ice-worn boulders of the glacial age. There is never a trail on the Sucre for long at a time, so that every party of freighters has to make its own.

Bill, by virtue of his expert knowledge of the treacherous stream, acted as guide. He led the party down the right bank for some miles, wmrking his way in and out among the rocks and ice hummocks. On their left the turbulent yellow current roared and tossed, sending up a light, chilling mist into the frozen atmosphere.

In time the water disappeared altogether under a bridge of ice, and Bill called a halt.

“We’ll have to get across some place,” he said, “unless she comes up again on the same side. Better camp, while I go down and see what she’s doin’.”

So they camped, built a fire, and ate, until Bill came back with the news that they must cross within the next three hundred yards, for the ice was rotten and full of open leads below that. He took a big drink of the scalding tea, ate some bannock and while the others hitched up, went back with his axe to sound the ice for a safe crossing.

It was perilous work, for k is dangerous to get wet when the temperature is thirty degrees below zero, and he went very cautiously, pecking at the ice in front of him at every step. He was half-way across, when, without warning, a large section of the flimsy arch collapsed almost under his feet. The water leaped into the air at once, crunching, and smashing and pounding at the wallowing floes until it had swept the channel clear; pushing the pieces under that portion of the bridge which still held, like so many playing cards.

Bill saved himself only by a backward leap, surprising in one of his bulk, and turned with a cheerful grin—

“Pretty near got a wash six months ahead of time!” he shouted back above the roar of the water, and turned unconcernedly to his task again.

Luke felt some of his assurance evaporate, and changed color, but Ross only grinned and nodded appreciatively.

Bill found what appeared to be a safe crossing, in time, and came back for his team. Luke was next in line, and prepared in fear and trembling to follow him over.

“Bide a wee,” said the canny Scot, laying a hand on his arm. “Maybe he’ll fa’ in and droon.”

“My God, is it as dangerous as that?” gasped Luke.

“Ye canna’ tell what’ll happen on the Sucre,” was the cautious reply.

Luke watched the slowly moving sleigh in breathless suspense. The ice cracked under the weight with reports like pistol shots, and in one place it sank until the water bubbled up and over the runners, but still it bore. And then with a crash, as of a thousand pieces of glass shattered at a blow, the rear end of the rack disappeared in a smother of foam. Bill leaped sideways from the doubletrees and landed on firm ice.

Not for a moment did he lose his presence of mind. They could hear his thunderous voice bellowing encouragement to his straining team.

“Steady, boys! Howk her out! Both together now! Steady!”

The force of the current held the sleigh as in a vise for a minute, but the seasoned old blacks, finding firm footing under them, laid themselves sturdily into their collars and hung. Inch by inch they drew the load up out of the water until it was safe, and then Bill checked the blown beasts, and went to their heads with rewarding words of praise and affectionate pats and caresses.

“Now, what’re we goin’ to do?” asked Luke, with a woeful glance at the ribbon of tossing foam that separated them from their companion.

“Aweel, sin’ Bill’s no drooned, we’ll see if we can mak’ it too, wi’oot gettin’ oor feet wat,” answered Ross coolly, and turned to his horses—

“Donald! Rod! Coom awa’ wi’ ye!”

They worked down river until they found a place where the ice bore. Ross got safely across, and called back to Luke to

follow. But the little man was in misery’ “I’m scared,” he wailed.

“A’ richt,” cried the Scot. “If ye’r feared, ye’d best get awa’ hame. Bill and me’s for Heron Lake.”

He clucked to his team.

“Wait,” yelled Luke. “I’m coming.” He put his fat sorrels at the bridge on the run, lashing them with the free ends of the lines, and screaming: “Get up, get up, get up!”

He had the lightest team and the lightest load of the three men, and his danger was negligible, yet, in spite of the cold, the sweat was pouring down his j forehead when he reached the other side. Ross gave him a contemptuous grin, and without a word headed his horses in Bill’s direction.

As they approached they could hear the big man addressing the Deity in connection with the grub-box, over which the ever hungry Sucre was at the moment licking its chops and chuckling in derision.

“By the bald-headed, old, blue-eyed, pink-whiskered Moses,” spluttered Bill. “All the tea, all the sugar, all the butter, half the bannock, and a big chunk of pork, all gone to— Stinkin’ fish—and the matches!” Then, catching sight of Luke’s dejected countenance:

“Cheer up, pie-faced Pete, the human doughnut, the coyotes’ll get you yet.”

Luke was strangely subdued, and answered never a word, but Ross took the news with philosophic calm. “Aye,” he said, “it’s bad. But it micht have been worse.”

THEY camped three miles down and Bill took up a match collection. Ross was able to produce eight, while Bill, who chewed but did not smoke, could only dig up four that looked as if they would light. Luke, who did not use tobacco in any form, swore that he had not a match on him.

“Now you see what not usin’ tobacco does to a man,” said Bill, sententiously. “If we was all like you, we’d be headed for j hell right now, with frost on our whiskers.”

He put the twelve precious matches ! carefully away in an inside pocket. Luke’s | lip curled in an ugly snarl, but he said j nothing.

They missed the grub-box keenly, for now they had nothing but their jack-knives to eat with, and their only remaining utensils were the skillet and the billy can. Next to the matches their heaviest loss was the tea. Anybody who has had to drink melted snow, knows what a flat, insipid, disgusting liquid it is.

“For the love of Pete,” groaned Bill, taking a mouthful of the stuff and spitting it out, “this hog swill ’ll kill me. Somebody put mud in it to make it look ! like tea, anyway.”

The temperature had been falling steadily all day, and there was now no question of camping comfortably for the night. The horses suffered cruelly with the cold as soon as they cooled off, in spite of two heavy blankets apiece. Unless the weather broke, which was unlikely for two or three days, they would have to pull and camp, pull and camp, day and night alike, until they reached their destination.

The short winter day was almost at an I end when they set out again. And now [ they found the Sucre had played them one of the meanest of its many mean tricks. Half a mile from their last camp they | came on a gray-blue expanse of ice-jelly | that covered the river from bank to bank. The water was oozing up through cracks in the ice, freezing as it came, and the j resulting slush was from three inches to a j foot in depth. Over it hung a clammy, choking fog, to a height of eight or ten feet.

Swearing soulfully, Bill and Ross climbed onto their racks, and the two veteran teams squashed steadily ahead ! into the mist. But Luke’s untried sorrels balked and he whimpered that he could not get them to go on.

“Come on or go back, or go to blazes,” ! roared Bill. “We got no time to be drynursin’ you and your pussy-footed shoats.”

The fog shut down behind him.

“Wait, for God’s sake wait!” wailed Luke, and the sorrels, like their master, afraid and lonely, whinnied plaintively. One of Ross’ beasts answered them out of the mist, and forgetting their fear of the slush, they plunged in and soon caught up.

The going was better than might have been expected. The sleighs slipped easily through the sludge, and the water, coming up comparatively warm from below, kept the horses’ feet from freezing. Whenever they reached dry ice, though, the men had to jump off and run to wipe the horses’ legs, to keep the ice from caking on their fetlocks.

But there was deadly danger, nevertheless. In the dark and the fog the men could see nothing distinctly, and Bill wisely gave his sage old blacks their heads. Once they swung sharply to the right, and the sleigh slid past a black and bubbling hole in the ice from which the water boiled with a low hissing noise.

The horses refused a firm-looking piece of glare ice, and when Luke, thinking himself wiser than they, tried to put his team upon it, the treacherous stuff shivered at the first touch of a hoof, and all but let the sorrels in for a ducking. Luke followed his leader very faithfully after that.

All through that awful night, they pulled over alternate fields of sluch and glare-ice, camping twice for three-hour periods. Daybreak found them, men and horses alike, all but worn out, and coated with white frost from head to foot where the mist had frozen on them.

But at last the river trail came to an end, and they prepared to pull up the bank on their way across the long portage that runs from the Sucre, to the head of the long chain of swamps and meres that are all lumped under the name of Heron Lake.

Even with two teams on each sleigh it was all the jaded horses could do to climb out of the riverbed.

And now they found themselves on a different kind of trail, just as bad in its way as the Sucre. Down there it had been glare-ice, holes, fog and slush; up here were hairpin twists, among rocks and trees, with short climbs that were like the side of a house. These were followed by downward pitches, where the sleighs tried to overrun the horses. Moreover, the trail was so narrow that the racks were perpetually scraping on one side or the other, and in instant danger of being wrecked.

About four in the afternoon, on the very edge of night, they reached the height of land and Bill checked his team.

“One at a time,” he said. “She’s half-amile straight down and a hell-bender of a curve at the bottom. We’ll camp at the bubbling spring that’s a little piece down the trail after you hit the level. You, Luke, you never been over this trail before, so mind what I tell you. Hold ’em all you know goin’ down, and get ready to ‘gee’ like hell when she swings. If you don’t she’ll cut off and bust the rack, and maybe your head too, on the big stump.”

Luke gazed down the twisting white ribbon that glimmered pale between the trees, and his heart grew sick within him. Bill looked carefully to the breeching of his team before he climbed into his place, braced his feet against the runners, and whistled to his horses. They started off cautiously, toeing in like the wise oldtimers they were and keeping their quarters well under them. But half-way down the strain proved too much and they began to trot. The last Luke saw of them was a black blot dropping like a plummet. The high scream of the tortured runners floated back to him, mingled with the mad clashing of the sleighbells. Sound and sight failed together, and the brooding hush of the midwinter wild came down like a blanket. Luke shivered.

“Do you think he made it?” he asked. “I’m awa’ doon tae see,” answered the Scot noncommitally. “Don’t ye crowd J me, and mind what Bill telled ye aboot ! geein’ when ye get tae the turn.” Then, | he, too, swept down into the night and { the silence.

Luke waited for many long minutes ¡ after the last faint jingle of the bells had died away. He was cold; he was tired; he j was frightened. Big tears of self-pity gathered in his prominent blue eyes, and ! froze upon his grimy cheeks. He was for | giving up and sitting down to die. But his team was of another mind, and, whinnying shrilly, they began to move off down the slope.

“Whoa!” cried Luke. “Whoa there!”

But they only broke into a trot.

With a despairing bleat, he plunged after them. Racing madly, he clutched at the tail of the rack and dragged himself on board. Then he began to crawl cautiously forward, while the sleigh leaped madly under him and the sorrels galloped for dear life. Lying flat on his stomach, he got his hands on the lines and hauled with all his might. But all he was able to do was to bring the horses back on their haunches, and even that hardly checked their way. In a cloud of powdery snow, ! with the horses tobogganning on their tails and the sleigh trying to run up their backs, they reached the bend.

Luke caught a glimpse of a huge figure gesticulating through the enveloping whirl of snow; heard a thunderous shout j of : “Gee there! Gee!” Immediately after came a splintering crash and he was hurled into the air.

The sleigh had cut off the trail at the turn, as Bill had predicted, and the rear end of the rack had been snapped off against a stump. The horses were piled in a struggling heap, and Luke, after looping the loop gracefully, came to rest on his head in four feet of snow. Bill ¡ promptly dived in after him, while Ross threw himself on the plunging team.

“Are you hurt?” cried Bill, hauling | Luke to his feet.

“I—I don’t think so,” stammered Luke. ¡

“Huh!” grunted Bill. “Drunk men I and fools never do get hurt; I might have | knowed that.

“They got away on me,” whined Luke, | “I couldn’t hold ’em.”

“Oh, go away and sit down!” snapped Bill. “Now we got to turn to and fix up some kind of rack, and you’d only be in the road.”

By this time Ross had got the sorrels on their feet, and the party moved down the road to where a cheerful fire crackled beside a spring that remained unfrozen in the coldest weather. Here they found the off-sorrel had a cut below the knee, | but otherwise the team seemed none the worse for their tumble.

They ate. Then Bill bade Luke keep a good fire and bring the horses as close to it \ as possible, while he and Ross went back ¡ to patch up the old rack or build a new one, as occasion might require. As it | happened, they had practically to make a new rack, and that under the most unfavorable conditions.

Yet, though they worked with numb and fumbling hands in the dark and the intense cold, their only light a flickering fire, by two o’clock in the morning the two veterans had contrived something that would at least carry a load, and had piled Luke’s scattered freight upon it.

Both men were in that condition of j intense irritability which follows close on | great fatigue when they got back to the horses; only to find Luke placidly asleep under all the blankets he could find; the fire almost out; and the horses stamping j and shivering with the cold. Then and J there, Ross’ long-suffering patience | snapped, and he went to work on Luke j with speed and certainty.

The little man woke to find an iron hand on the back of his neck and his face | being rubbed in the snow. He opened his mouth to howl and found it filled with ( snow. Feeling himself in the very jaws of | death, he began to fight with the desperate fury of a cornered rat. Freeing himself ) with a final frantic twist, he sprang to his feet and vanished in the darkness with a bubbling howl, while Bill collapsed in a limp heap and bayed the vault of heaven with Homeric laughter. But Ross’ nostrils were twitching and there was no mirth in his eyes.

“Man,” he growled. “It’s nae laughin’ matter. Yon’s no guid eneuch to be hanged, and I’ll dae him a mischief yet if he’s no verra carefu’.”

“What’s eatin’ him?” whimpered Luke in the shadow. “What was the use of me stayin’ up? The fire isn’t out.”

Ross growled deep in his throat, but Bill cried:

“Oh, come on to the fire, you poor yellow pup. He won’t hurt you now.” “He better not try it,” sniffed Luke, and sidled up on the far side of the fire, with a wary eye on the Scot, who disdained to notice him.

They ate again, for a man is always hungry on the freight trail, and then Bill said he must have a couple of hours sleep or go mad. So he and Ross curled up in their blankets, taking the precaution to appropriate Luke’s too, leaving him to tend the fire. Bill admonished him, with blood-curdling threats, to keep it roaring all the time, and to waken them at six sharp. It was the cold glint in the Scot’s eye that made Luke obey his orders to the letter, for a really angry man of that nationality is cousin to the earthquake and half-brother to the cyclone.

They pulled out before seven in a temperature that was somewhere around sixty below zero, and, until the dawn, swayed and bumped over the unspeakable trail. They camped, a little after sunrise, on the margin of one of the out-lying arms of Heron Lake, a reedy swamp, full of muskrat houses, and ringed about with mournful black spruce trees.

Bill found that they now had only seven matches, and shock his head over them.

“These’ll never last us to the post,” he said. “We got seventy good miles to go, and the horses is so played out we can’t pull more’n five miles at a time without campin’. We’ll have to take and punch holes in Luke’s pail, and make a fire bucket.”

Luke had maintained a sullen silence since they broke camp that morning, but now he spoke up in sullen rancor.

“I’ll be damned if you do! Use your own pail or Dune’s. What do you always want to pick on me for? You done nothin’ else, both of you, since we started. I wouldn’t give neither of you a drink of dirty water if you was dyin’ for it. That’s all the chance you got of gettin’ my pail.” “He’s a generous laddie, yon,” said Ross with a dry chuckle.

“Well, why don’t you use your own pail for a fire bucket?” snapped Luke.

“Sure, put a fire in our wooden pails,” agreed Bill softly. “They’d make dandy fire buckets—while they lasted.”

“Well, you ain’t goin’ to have mine,” said Luke obstinately. “I ain’t the one what drowned the grub-box.”

Bill’s weather-beaten face flushed a brick-red, and his eyes glinted dangerously. But Ross interposed.

“Let be,” he said. “The lad was born a fule, and canna’ help himsel’.”

“That’s a fact,” agreed Bill, and turned his back on Luke.

As the day drew on, the pale sunshine seemed to moderate the cold although it gave little real warmth. The trail followed the shore line closely, and they were able to pull in to the bank every few miles, to rest and eat. But the night came all too swiftly, and then they crept, like creatures in a nightmare, across the frozen waste.

WHEN they prepared to break camp a little before midnight, only four matches were left and Bill asked Luke a second time for his pail. A second time he was flatly refused.

“All right,” said Bill. “I won’t take your pail this time, but I’m goin’ to have it next stop, if I have to break your worthless neck to get it.”

The lake had now widened considerably and the trail led straight out across the ice, not to touch the shore again for some five miles.

The weather gave signs of breaking, for a few tiny wisps of cloud trailed slowly across the sky. A dying moon, low down on the horizon, sent a few pale rays across the level, gray-white expanse, and a razor-edged wind rose and wandered aimlessly about, smiting like a fanged snake at the exposed faces of the men. It seemed to them that the ice tilted and

rolled under them in long, sickening heaves. All about them was an absolute stillness. Not even a coyote howled or an owl hooted. In some curious way the sleighbells seemed to have fallen mute, and the cold damped the noise of the runners on the gritty snow to a feeble whining and cheeping.

Every hundred yards or so the tired horses would cometo a stop with drooping heads. Then the cold would bite mercilessly through their frost covered coats, and they would wince and move on. Bill’s grand old blacks set the pace, for they were the strongest. Ross’ fleabitten gray was dragging a hind foot on account of a tender hock, and Luke’s lame sorrel stumbled pitifully.

The men walked, keeping in the lee of their tracks, to avoid the wind as much as possible.

Three-fifths of the way across, Bill noticed that Luke’s team had not moved on with the others. He shouted, but getting no reply, turned back to see what was the matter. The sorrels were standing shoulder to shoulder, their hanging heads nearly touching the snow; Luke was not in sight. Bill shouted again, and stared about him until his eyes rested upon a black blot in the snow a few yards away. It was Luke, lying upon his face like one already dead.

Bill, with fear in his heart, bent down and shook him.

“Leave me alone,” mumbled Luke. “I want to go to sleep. I’ve quit.”

This was serious, for when a man lies down in the snow and gives up, the end is usually not far off. But Bill was a man of resource.

“Get up,” he roared, and jarred the still figure with a hearty kick. Luke groaned and rolled over, only to receive another kick.

“Here! hi! don’t you do that again,” he protested, sitting up. “Why can’t you leave me alone? I’m warm now, and sleepy; my God, I’m sleepy. Leave me be. I’m goin’ to sleep, if I never wake up.”

But Bill only plied his feet the harder. They were well muffled in socks and moccasins, so that his kicks broke no bones, but each one rattled every tooth in Luke’s head. He scrambled to his feet. The amazed Ross beheld the pair coming swiftly toward him, Luke at a staggering run, while Bill, his ragged fur coat flying out behind him, progressed in a series of grotesque hops, assisting his victim onward with frequent applications of his good right foot.

“What like o’ a game are ye playin’ wi’ the laddie?” he inquired, as Luke darted behind him for shelter, and Bill came to a breathless stop.

“The yellow pup,” gasped Bill. “Ahitrin’ the hay—way out on the lake. Been a stranger in hell, for breakfast, if I hadn’t booted the daylights outer him.”

Luke leaned against a rack, and wept unashamed.

“I can’t go on, I can’t go on,” he sobbed. “Let me lie down and die.”

“Not by a jugful,” growled Bill. “We ain’t packin’ no stiffs this trip. Wait till you get back home, then you can die an’ welcome. What you want is exercise. Here, take this axe, beat it along to the point and build a fire. We’ll bring your team along. Wait!”

He removed his heavy mitt, fumbled in his clothing, and brought out a single match.

“Now you take mighty good care of this match, and hustle right along, so you’ll warm up. If I find you layin’ down on the trail again I’ll boot you till your nose bleeds.”

Luke took the match and his axe, and shuffled off, sniveling, while the others got the horses under way again, and followed.

As they drew in to the point they could hear his axe going steadily, but no friendly twinkle of light beckoned to them from the shore. They unhitched on the edge of the lake, blanketed the horses, piled hay before them, and went to see what Luke was doing.

“Where’s the fire?” cried Bill.

“My hands was too cold, the match went out on me,” replied Luke sullenly.

Bill sniffed scornfully, and dived into his wrappings for the remaining matches. He brought out the three priceless little slivers of wood, and handpd one to Ross.

“You try, Dune,” he said. “My hands ain’t got no feelin’ to ’em.”

“I’m no sae sure I hae ony hands,” said the Scot with a wry grin.

He took the match clumsily between thumb and palm, for his fingers were useless, and attempted to strike it. At the second attempt it flared up, and he bent to apply it to a thin roll of birchbark. But the flame scorched through the numb cuticle of his palm, and woke a sleeping nerve to sharp agony.

Before he well knew what he did, he had jerked his hand back, the match flying into the snow a yard away. He stared stupidly at his burnt hand for a moment, sighed heavily, and rose with his head hanging in shame.

“Well, it’s up to me now, I guess,” said Bill quickly, to cover his friend’s mortification. He knelt to the little pile of sticks and birchbark which Luke had gathered. They watched him anxiously, as he first beat his hand against his chest to warm them, and then picked up a match.

Once he struck—twice he struck—a third time he struck, a thought too hard. The blazing head snapped off short and fell between the sticks into the snow beneath. The three drew in their breath so sharply that it was almost a sob.

“The last match,” said Bill solemnly, holding it to view. “If it goes, we’re done. It’d be cornin’ to Luke if it did—the lousy little shoat. Him and his damned pail.” But a change had come over Luke. The wood chopping had put a little warmth in his frozen blood. He sneered covertly as he watched Bill.

The big man’s hand trembled a little, as he rubbed the match on his trousers to warm it, so that it would strike easily. Then he drew it swiftly and steadily down the inside of his leg. It flared up bravely. The birchbark caught with a greasy crackle. Bill sprang to his feet with an exultant bellow, struck his head smartly against an overhanging, snow-laden bough and in a second their last hope was quenched in a miniature avalanche.

Bill stared dumbly at the ruin he had wrought, then turned contritely to Ross.

“I didn’t go to do it, Dune,” he said huskily. “Will you forgive me?”

“Man, it was no your fault,” was the ready reply, and the Scot’s hand went out. They gripped hands in silence, for they were both strong men.

Luke said nothing.

“We’ll take the horses and hit for the post,” said Bill, after a moment. “It’s our only show. It’s my fault for drownding the grub box and puttin’ the fire out, and I’m willin’ to take my medicine, but it’s tough on you and Luke. I didn’t oughter ’ve brought the kid out on this trip, and him so green.”

“It’s nae mon’s faut mair than anither,” said Ross, “and we’ll get the lad safe to the post if we hae to carry him.”

But it appeared that Luke had other ideas.

“I’m not goin’,” he said. “You can try for the post if you want to, but it’s all of forty mile, according to your say-so, and you’ve a fat chance of makin’ it.”

“But, damn it, you can’t stay here,” said Bill.

“I can so. If you make the post you can come back and get me, if I’m alive. If you don’t, I’ll be a lot better off’n what you’ll be. I’m goin’ to roll up warm in the blankets and get some sleep anyway. It don’t look good to me to crawl along on the ice till I fall down and die.”

There was reason in what he said. He stood at least an even chance, with them, of life—there was only faint hope for any of them.

“Have it your own way,” said Bill, after a pause. “We’ll take the horses, though.”

“Not mine, you won’t,” said Luke. “They’ll fall down and die on you, inside twenty miles, the way they are now.” There was truth in that, too, and the others acquiesced. They brought the bedding from the sleighs, and made a thick warm nest for Luke, displaying a solicitude for his comfort that was strangely pathetic in view of their own plight.

When they had him wrapped to the chin, first Bill, and then Ross, shook hands with him and wished him luck. But his hand remained limp in their grasp, and Ross, in particular, was struck by the malignancy of his glance.

LONG after each had mounted one of his tired horses, and, leading the other, struck out on their all but hopeless dash for the post, Ross puzzled over that look. There was hatred in it, and a kind of triumph, a cruel exultation.

Suddenly he swung his horse about. “Where’re you goin’?” cried Bill. “Back,” said Ross, between clenched teeth. “Yon hell-cat; I know now what he meant.”

The puzzled Bill swung his horse’s head obediently.

“But why?” he asked.

“I’ll show you,” said Ross, and urged on his horses.

They plodded along in silence, until they had rounded the point, and swung back to where the sleighs lay under the bank.

“Look,” said Ross, and pointed.

Bill looked and struck his heels into his horse’s side with a bellow of wrath, for the flickering light of a fire shone through the underbrush.

Luke had first denied his possession of matches from pure spite, but when he saw Bill’s last match extinguished, a vile thought had stirred in his soul. Without a qualm of pity he had sent his comrades, as he thought, to their death. Now he crouched over his fire and gloated over his revenge.

The heavy pounding of hoofs near at hand startled him from these pleasant musings. He sprang to his feet. Cowardice and hatred fought for mastery; but hatred was the stronger. Deliberately he began to kick snow over the fire.

He had not time to complete his task. Bill’s great black came charging up, and its rider hurled himself to the ground. Bill’s eyes were red and terrible, and his

huge muscles were knots of iron. With a mighty swing he knocked Luke flat, pounced on him, gripped him by the throat, and shook him as a terrier shakes a rat. For a moment Luke struggled feebly; the deadly grip on his throat, Then his body relaxed; his head fell back. In another instant he would have been a corpse. But Ross intervened. He grasped Bill’s wrist.

“Haud,” he cried. “Ye’ll kill him.”

Unwillingly Bill relazed his grip, and Luke dropped limply at his feet.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he growled.

“Because ye’ll hang for it, and he’s no worth it.”

“Perhaps I’ve killed him already,” said Bill, gazing down at the sprawling carcass with growing apprehension in his eyes.

But Luke stirred. Presently he was sitting up, feeling his sore throat tenderly, a defiant scowl on his face.

Bill’s eyes grew red again; he took a step forward.

Luke flung up his arms to protect his head, and cowered.

“Don’t you dare touch me,” he whimpered. “I’ll have you pinched. I didn’t tell you damned fools to hit for the post.”

Now it was the turn for the Scot’s eye to blaze.

“Shut your heid,” he rasped. “Yer lookin’ death in the ee.”

“What’ll we do to him?” asked Bill. “We got to do something.”

“Listen, ye whelp,” said Ross to Luke, after a moment’s consideration. “From now, until we get hame ye’ll licht every fire, ye’ll chop a’ the wood, ye’ll feed every horse. If ye dinna jump when the word’s gi’en, if ye open your heid, pray to your God for mercy in heaven, for there’ll be nane for ye on earth.”

And it was so.