The Artful Forks
A BLOOMIN’—the older man paused to give weight to an entirely unprintable adjective— “fool ! That’s what I reckon a chap who takes the trail with the thermometer at anything below forty-five degrees; an’ when he calkilates on toddlin’ along on his lonesome an’ negotiatin’ them Artful
Forks—Well-” He let out a blast of
profanity that ought certainly to have raised the temperature even in the heart of the Yukon at midwinter.
“And why particularly the Artful Forks?” asked Chinnery, impatient to be off. He had lingered too long already helping old Pete Taylor, and he wanted to reach Lockhart’s Crossing before Nan Magary had left, and she was going back to I.enana to-morrow. If he wanted to see her (and he did want to see her badly), he must be there to-night. It could be done, even though the temperature was low.
“Them Artful Forks is deceivin’,” said Pete, turning over the quid in his cheek and spitting thoughtfully on the stove; “particlarly when the temperatoor.’ is low and there ain’t no sun. They got O’Rafferty. Bin on the trail longer nor any man in the Yukon, he had, but we picked him up jn March on all fours, a stiff un, up False Fork. An’ they done for Compton an’ O’Donnell, two of ’em together!”
“I’ve been along pretty often,” said Paul Chinnery, tying on his moccasins preparatory to setting out, “and I’ve never had any difficulty.”
THE Artful Forks had a sinister reputation among the scanty inhabitants of the district. Four rivers met there in a marshy, open space to form Lockhart’s
River, which eventually flowed into the Yukon; and the little frozen rivers, ir. the winter time, were the road9 into the in terioh One went down to Anderson’s claim, abandoned now; another, the one Paul Chinnery was on, led past old Pete Taylor’s cabin to the Lenana Mission station, where Daniel Clark and his niece, Nan Magary, ministered to the Indians.
A third, carefully followed, ran to another small Indian encampment r but it was the fourth that had the evil name. It went away into the northern wilderness beyond the ken of white men, and it was whispered there was something uncanny about the False Forks. It enticed men to their doom.
There was O’Rafferty, and he did not drink, so no man knew why he had gone up the False Fork, instead -of up the Little Fish to Pete Taylor’s and Lenana; and there were the two men Compton and O’Donnell, who, going down the river to Lockhart’s were still enticed into the False Fork and perished, leaving no word of the why and wherefore of their having turned from the righ road.
“You ain’t bin along it. son, w-ith a temperatoor* at fifty below an’ no sun. That’s when them Artful Forks does the trick.”
Paul Chinnery did not believe in the legend of the Artful Forks, but he had no doubt tor thé »rest that old Pete Taylor was right. It was not wise to travel, ánd to travel alone, with the temperature below forty-five degrees. »
But a girl’s word rang mocking in his ears.
“Slacker!” he heard she had said. “I call a man who does^not join up when his country wants him, a coward!” and
he felt that her mouth had shut with that determined air it wore when she was laying down the law to a email rebel in her class at the mission school.
Oh, Nan Magary was sweet and tender and charming, but she had a mind of her own, and he feltit bitterly that she should hold him up to acorn. He wondered 9he did not know that it was she who kept him in Alaska, and he wanted to tell her that it was only since the last mail had come in, that unexpected chance mail, that he had thoroughly realized the cay the Great War was making on the sons of the empire, realized that he ought to go.
HE HAD gone to Lenana to tell her so; and behold, she and her uncle were making a rare visit to Lockhart's Crossing. He felt if he started out in the great cold he had some chance of seeing her there, of spending the evening with her, of explaining and thrashing out the whole matter before they parted for perhaps— since he was going to the front—ever. He had left a letter for her, but he must gO.
What if it was cold? As long as thing» went well, the cold didn’t really matter. Nine hours to Lockhart’s Crossing, and his gear was already there. What could happen to him in nine hpprs with Nanook to keep him company: And as for the
sinister Artful Forks, he had hit the right trail so often he really did not see how he could go astray.
Anyhow, he was willing to risk it, and he tied the last string of his moccasins, pulled his parka over hia face, and whistled cheerily to his dog.
“So-loqg,” said he to Pete Taylor, and he and Nanook slipped out of the door and down onto the ice of the frozen stream.
Nanook waa a handsome silver-grey malemuit with a sharp black muzzle and a bushy tail, a little depressed now, as if he were not quite pleased at leaving the warmth of the fire and traveling ip such cold.
IT waa cold. It smote Paul CHinnery in the face and took his breath away. But though he paused for a moment, he took the trail, the narrow, dark trail that curled and twisted and ran in and out and up and down across the gentle, snowwhite undulations around him.
It was all dead white far as the eye could see. Overhead was the clear sky
without a cloud, but the light was soft and gray and subdued. There was no sign of sun—there would be no sun. This mitigated daylight was all he could hope for on the 20th of December so far north.
Oh, and it was cold! The ice was forming on his lips and stiffening them: there were icicles on his eyebrows, and the hair of his parka was frozen by his moist breath against his cheeks. Again and again he put up his mittened hand to brush away the ice, and again it formed. Over Nanook’s head was a little misty cloud.
Well, he was bound to go if it was seventy-five degrees below, and he was glad he was traveling light. He musn’t come to grief, though, that was certain ;
for there would be no one out on the trail to help; and hav ing come to that comfortable, conclusion, he tried to whistle ofceerily to Nanook. anc laughed when he found he could not. His beard and mus tache were frozen into a shee: of glass. Clearly he must avoid accidents. And ther* was no need to whistle u Nanook. He wás trottini along very soberly beside him his gay tail, that usually curl * ed defiantly over his back lowered despondently.
It occurred to him for th* first time that the dog didn’t like the weather.
“Cheer up. Nanoox,” and he put out a mittened hand and Datted his head: “We’re not likely to come to grief, you and me.’’ And again he look ed round on the white waste in the subdued light, and thought a poor lookout for him it would be if he did.
TWO hour*—three hoursthe going was good. H* was nearing the Forks. He would stop there and build a firej and rest by it and eat his noonday meal, the biscuit and bacon that he carried inside his jacket, with just a little titbit to make the noontide halt pleasant for Nanook, and show him that be was not forgotten.
The cold against his bare face was painful, and even hi9 hands inside his mittens, for all his brisk exercise were tingling. Forty-five degrees below—perhaps it wa* more than, forty-five, and he spat because he had read somewhere that spittle would crackle as it hit the ground at fifty degrees below. There was a sharp little snap almost under his nose, and he stood still for a second.
It had cracked in the air! What did that mean? Nanook looked up at him gravely, questionably. And Paul Chinnery slapped his mittened hand against his thigh. If it meant anything, it meant that the temperature was Considerably below fifty degrees, more than eighty-two degrees of frost!
“Nan. Nan,” he said aloud, and his voice sounded strange and lonely and feeble in the cold stillness, eighty-two degrees of frost. At ieast I can’t be called a slacker any more,” and even as he spoke the ice gave way and he sprang back hastily.
There were springs in this stream that never froze, even when the river was solid to the bottom as it was now, and to get into one of them would necessitate a stop and a fire to dry himself. They were not easily seen, for the top was frozen, and over that again lay a thin coating of snow. He had evidently hit one of them. “That was a near shave.” he said, and his voice seemed smaller and lonelier than ever; and to counteract the feeling he sank his mittened right hand into Nanook's thick fur and. turning, scrambled up the bank and looked around. Seeing the danger of the springs, perhaps, it would be better if he kept off the river.
D UT IT was impossible. Àway, away stretched the snowy landscape, grey white, subdued, soft, with every angle rounded, every rough corner smoothed; away till it mingled with the sky in one toneless blend of gray whitneas that threatened—yes, threatened.
The sun would have made it dazzling; every snowflake would have glinted and reflected hia rays like a jewel r but there wa» no sun, and the white grayness under the twilight sky was sinister. It was *o still, too; nothing moved; there was ho sound of bird or beast, and it seemed to him that his own footsteps and those of the dog in the heavy, dry snow were trespassing on the silence of the secret places that waa indefensible and inexcusable.
And the snow was everywhere. It covered all the driftwood piled along the banks. The stunted spruce and willow were half buried in it; their branches were heavily weighted with it, and beyond the timber it covered up all the inequalities of the earth. Before he had taken half a dozen steps he knew, as he had known all along, that the only possible going was on the little river. It would be impossible to make Lockhart's Crossing any other way, and he turned back almost with a' sigh of thankfulness.
The. loneliness was not 90 impressive, •o overwhelming down on the river. The stream stood between him and an empty world.
He stood on the bank for a moment, looked over his shoulder with a faint shudder, patted Nanook between his prick ears with a strange sense of thankfulness for his presence, and then, because the bank was a little steeper here, swung himself down onto the ice and—went in up to his knees.
I_I E WAS out again in a moment, but * the thing was done. He sprang for the bank again, and as he scrambled up he felt the icy cold gripping his feet and ankles in a vice. And then, before he had gathered together a pile of dry grasses and driftwood on the snow to make a bed for the fire, all feeling had died out and the numbness was creeping upward.
"My God!" he cried in alarm. Who would have thought the cold could have been so quick? His instincts had been right. Terror did brood over the gray loneliness, and he hastily tossed together the driftwood and the grass under a willow tree and felt in his pocket for the tobacco box in which he carried some strips of rag well soaked in kerosene to serve as tinder.
He got it out, but the tin top stuck and his hands in hi9 mittens were too clumsy to unfasten it He dragged off a mitten, and the tin box-lid stuck to his fingers— and even as he looked he saw his hand grow white and dead-looking, felt it numbing.
He hastily tore the box away, beat his hand back to tingling life again, and thrust it inside hi9 jacket and shirt against his flesh.
And now he could no longer feel his feet He was standing there certainly; but he had to look down to make sure he was standing on his own feet All sensation had gone. Nanook settled himself down with his big bushy tail like a blan-
ket drawn over his nose and paws and his wise little eyes looked out approvingly.
His master was going to light a fire. That is what he thought he ought to do. That is what by his drooping tail he had lieen trying to convey to him was the proper course. But the fire was not lighting, and he looked up with a little friendly remonstrant whimper. *
And Paul suddenly felt desperate. He must get that fire, must get it, even at the cost of frozen fingers. If he lost his fingers and toes fo.e might yet save his life. He snatched out his hand again, ripped off the mitten, got the matches, and struck one. The little yellow flame wa9 strangely friendly in the dim gray sameness. He applied it to the nearest bunch of dry grass.
It was too close under the tree, it was too far from the little platform he had made for the fire, but he had no time to choose, and it flared up cheerfuJlyA
But bis hand was frozen again.
He thrust it inside his jacket, and with the other still mittened he flung on small branches and dried «twigs. It was imperative he get off his moccasins. The firelight wa9 leaping and dancing, and Nanook uncoiled himself and aat up straight looking into the flames.
P EVERISHLY Paul worked. He was ^ numb past hi's knees now, and one hand was helpless, but he must get the fire so big there would be no fear of its being quenched by the melting snow.
There wa9 grave danger of that here among the timber. The little trees were laden with it, and^ven if he had had the time he had not the power to carry the life-giving flame beyond their range.. If he would save his feet he must act quickly. He stooped to unlace his moccasins.
The cords were stiff wires, the leather was cast-iron, and a9 far as his sensations were concerned his feet were not inside them. One hand he kept inside his shirt, beating it feebly against his body in the vain hope that he could thaw it, and the other in the mitten was clumsy beyond words. He went closer, closer to the dancing flames, and a glow of thankfulness came to his heart when he found the hard leather of his moccasins growing moist and soft. Now surely-
Something stirred, something else moved, there was another sound beside the crackling of the flames. He looked over his shoulder with a strange feeling of dread, and before he could even think how he was to safeguard himself he saw that all the snow-laden little tree beneath which he had built his fire was moving.
He looked at it, dazed with the feeling that he ought to do something to save his precious fire, his life-giving fire. Something might be done he was sure if he were only quick enough, but he felt tied and hound as in an evil dream, and the snow’, w’ith a soft, slurring sound, melted underneath by the heat of the fire, slipped from the branches, for a second little by little and then with a great rush, and all his dancing flames, the flames that just made the difference between life and death, were-gone, buried beneath a miniature avalanche.
It w’as so small, so pitifully small, but it did the trick for him. The friendly yellow flames were gone, and the grayness and the still silence of a midwinter day beyond the Arctic Circle settled on the scene once more.
It spelled death—death. He knew it. Death. That was what threatened him when he looked out just beyond here. And Nan Magary was not so very far away, but he was well on the road-
He would not die! He would not/ It only wanted a fire to save him. He had matches, he had tinder, he had fuel heaped up. and by the armful! Why should be be conquered by the cold?
L_I E TOOK, dut his frozen hand and * * looked at it as if it belonged to some one else. He put it back in his furs. His feet were like logs, but his left hand was still good, and he piled up with it small branches and dried grass, and in the midst he put the tin box full of kerosene rags that he could not open, and then he got out his matches again.
But to strike a match with one hand helpless and the other in a for mitten is well-nigh impossible. He tried to pnt it in his mouth, but because of the fringe of icicles he could not get it there.
"Damn!" he said; and then recognizing his own helplessness, "O God! O God! help me!" and the numbness was creeping up his legs.
Yes, death had threatened. Dentil was more than threatening now. Yet if only he could get the fire, all might still be well. Nanook blinked at him out of his wise little eyes fringed with whits hoar frost that made him look like' an old, old dog; and then he sat up, listened, gave one long-drawn howl that sounded intensely mournful and lonely in the stillness, and settled down again with his tail arranged over his paws.
Ah, Nanook could afford to wait, but his master was desperate. And old Pete had warned him against the Artful Forica He thought of O'Rafferty, the man who had been found on all fours — **a stiff ’un" — and he put the matches back in ~his pocket and started to run. It was hopeless he had been told, but clearly it was equally hopeless to stand here fumbling with the matehes. If he took the mitten off his other hand, that would freeze, too. He must get a little warmth into his limbs before he attempted such a thing, and he dropped down onto the river again and began helplessly running on his way, abandoning the precious box with its tinder and the grass he had gathered for a fire.
HE KNEW he Was running, but how he was doing iá he did not know, for into his feet came not the smallest sensation. Still he moved on over the ice, and he might have been gliding in the air just fighting a little against a weight which dragged him down.
At first he ran madly, but*then he sobered down. If he must die, at least he would die decently. He must be more than ten miles from old Pete’s, and though he had still twenty-flve miles to go before he could reach Lockhart’s Crossing, he still went on. He could not reach old Pete’s unaided; that he knew. Still less could he reach Lockhart’s Crossing; but if there was going to be anybody on the trail—and he laughed a bitter laugh at the thought, no one wa^Qike1 y to be such a fool as he had been—it would be between the Artful Forks and Lockhart’s Crossing.
He thought of old Pete’s warning about the Artful Forks. Well, it couldn’t,make much difference to him which fork he turned up. It struck him he Vas going to end it here in the arilderness. The gray waste that threatened had him. had him fa^.
-He was nearing the forks, too. The stunted, snow-covered timber on the banks was evidently a little heavier, and the river was opening out.
And now he was going to die, he said to himself; he was going to die. Well, he had offered his life for his country. He was sorry it should be of no account; sorry that, perhaps, after all. Nan Magary would not understand.
THERE came to him the thought that he ’would not. die as O’Rafferty had« died, on all fours, and if he stumbled on like thia that is how it would end. He would atop and try once more to make a áre, and if he cpuld not, then he would lie down in the snow and wait for the end. It would be better, more dignified, and he derived a curious satisfaction from the thought that he would die in more dignified fashion than O’Rafferty had done.
He eould not have climbed high banks now, but here were no banka. In all probability during the brief summer it was all marsh, and he turned aside and sought feebly for grass and autumn leaves. Nanook came after him evidently interested. He yelped and whined, and when after the moet futile effort Paul sat down, the dog crept up to \pm and put his munie against hie cheek.
It comforted him in his loneliness, and he wondered pitifully what would, become of the dog when he was dead.Poor, faithful dog. There were so many men in Alaska who could not appreciate a good dog. If he could only have written and asked Nan Magary to take him. But hie right hand was dead, dead. He was beginning to feel sleepy, and if he slept— The deg was tugging at his jacket, tugging and lifting op his voice and yelping. 'So he knew his master was going, and Paul derived a certain strange satisfaction from being thus mourned before he was dead. It took away from the loneliness that was pressing in on him. He had dared the cold wastes of the north, and the north was demanding his life as a just and fitting sacrifice.
"Old chap!” he said, and again he felt how small a thing was his own voice, "old chap! Good dog!”
But the dog would not let him die in peace. He yelped, the yelp rose to a howl, and he rose up and ran a little way down the river, looking back over his shoulder as if inviting his master to follow. And for a moment Paul hesitated.
Surely he had done enough, suffered enough, and if the dog liked to desert him —and then because the loneliness was more terribly oppressive than ever without his companion, he made an effort and rose to his feet, and looked round, for the last time he felt, over the waste.
HE STOOD now just a little higher than the surface of the river, and he could see that he had arrived at the meet-
ing place of the waters. It was cold, cold and gray, the heaped-up snow that covered everything was gray, cold and gray, the surface of the river was cold and gray.
This was the Artful Fork* where four little streams met, and as he looked out drearily and hopelessly, his eyes following the dog, a darker mark on the frozen grayness, he felt he understood why men had taken the wrong turning and gone on into the wilderness. He was not sure, now, that he could hit the river that led to Lockhart’s Crossing.
Not that it mattered. The death that had threatened had his hand on his shoulder, and Nanook had gone. He seemed to stand outside himself and to see himself pitifully watching the dog, his last friend, fleeing down Hie icebound river, deserting his master in his extremity.
It was cruel, cruel. It brought home to him the hardship of dying as nothing else could have done.
"Nanook! Nanook!” he called, and put all his failing strength into the shout so that it seemed to echo and re-echo through all the waste places, "Nanook!”
But Nanook the faithful, the obedient, never looked back, and he called again, “Nanook!”
It waa hopeless to overtake him, hopeless to think of moving now. Oh, the bitterness of being abandoned even by a dog!
He called once more, and felt he would never speak again. It was too awful calling into the gray desolation. "Nanook!”
A ND THERE came an answer. A weird, long-drawn call it seemed to him; a call that might have come from the very spirit of the frozen waste. To his failing senses it seemed not articulate, not of thii world.
It came again. A long-drawn-out cry-. With hit mittened hand he rubbed his eyes. It came from the north, from the False Fork.
Another cry, a little nearer. There was the way he had come, there was the way to Lockhart’s Crossing nearly due south, there was the river that led to Anderson’s old claim, and there was the False Fork leading straight into the desolate north— and the cry came from there.
He was going mad. He was! He rubbed his eyes again, and it seemed to him there was a sled drawn by six dogs and two people with it, and Nanook was bounding along beside them, leaping and dancing and running on ahead.
It was impossible— he was dreaming— he was dreaming—this was an illusion.
And the sled had drawn up. and Nanook, like a thing demented, had his paws on his master’s shoulders and Paul Chinnery was looking into the eyes of Daniel Clark, the missionary in charge of Lenana, and beyond—beyond—the eyes that looked out of the fur hood were surely the dancing brown eyes of Nan Magary!
"My God!” said the missionary, tak-
ing in the situation at a glance. ‘‘Just in time!” and without another word he felt in his pocket for a piece of dried birch-bark, and in two minutes a great fire was dancing and leaping on the snow, the girl was heaping on fuel, the dogs were lying blinking at it, and the mis sionary was stripping off Paul’s footgear.
‘‘Come and rub his hand. Nan Mauary,” he said. ‘‘We’re in time, I think, but only just. He’ll lose his toes.”
“But.” said Paul when he had gathered his wits together, “what were you doing on the False Forks?”
The missionary looked up from his rubbing, and Paui saw a scared look come into his eyes.
“The False Forks,” he repeated. “We were just scooting home quick as we could go because we got word last night little Arthur, the half-breed, was very sick, and Nan thinks they won’t take proper care of the poor child unless she’s there to look after him. And she’s about right, too. I don’t hold with traveling with the thermometer so low, but two of us—” and then he broke off. "The False Fork, did you say?” he repeated. “I guess it was lucky we saw the dog and
heard you call-”
"Indeed I’m grateful,” said Paul, and he felt the pain of returning Ufe in his feet, and his voice broke though he tried to make light of it "But I guess honors are easy. I’ve come down from old Pete Taylor’s just now along this river, the turning for Lenana’a—”
The girl broke down and hugged the frozen hand against her warm bosom.
"Oh, Uncle Dan! Uncle Dan! The Artful Forks were getting us after all! Oh, Uncle Dan! We’d just turned into the False Fork when Nanook came along! Oh, Paul Chinnery, if you hadn’t come along!”
GRAY, gray and desolate was the sunless world. Away to the north it threatened as it had threatened all the morning, but here, a miracle, was the —leaping, dancing firelight, and here, a greater miracle, surely, was the girl he loved looking at him with tender, love-lit eyes. Painfully the life was coming back to his limbs, and in his heart was the joy too great for words.
“A man’s a fool that travels with a temperature below forty-five degrees; alone or in company he’s a fool. I’ve always said it, and I ought to have stuck to it,” and Daniel Clark *poke low. He himself, an old-timer, had been rescued from the fatal False Fork.
But the girl bent forward and the look in her eyes was a caress. •
“We'll go back along the river te Lenana,” she said with a quiver in her voice, “and look after you properly there. Surely only the good God could have arranged we should meet at the Artful Forks in time to save each other from death.” And Nanook gave a joyful yelp. "Don’t forget my share in the business!” said he.
Four splendid short stories will appear in the June issue from Sir Gilbert Parker, Hopkins Moorhouse, A.C, Allenson and Arthur Beverly Baxter.