THE RULING INSTINCT
The news instinct is an odd thing^to the man who possesses it, it is both a gift and a curse. Billy Danvers had it, hated its shackles and fled from it. But—well, the news instinct is an odd thing.
I’M THROUGH!” Billy Danvers almost spat out the woRD.
Foster, news editor of the Northtown Daily Capitol, raised his eyes from the pile of copy before him and gazed with mild curiosity at the man who had accompanied his curt announcement with a bang on the news desk.
"I’m through,” Danvers repeated. “Through. Fed up. The end of the week sees me heading north. Away from this grind.”
He paused. The dull rumbling of presses below eased as their speed slackened. A last tremor of the flooring as the machines ceased. Then stillness within, offset only by the muffled beat of the city traffic without.
The news editor moistened his lips, and questioned with
“How long nave you been in this beastly rut, Foster?” Danvers tone softened as he leaned across the desk.
“Me? Oh, thirty years, I guess. Thirty years next Christmas.”
Danvers snorted. “Thirty years. And what’s it got you? Forty a week, and what else? Who knows you or cares about you? Nobody who matters a hoot. Thirty years on the street and tied to a desk and you’re still Jack Foster, good scout inside the office and, outside it, a name in the ’phone book. Great Caesar!”
Foster nodded his head. It was a weary nod.
“Well, what else is there?” he asked quietly. “At least, there’s steam heat in the winter. You don’t get that up North. And you’re getting your thirty bucks regularly every week, aren’t you? You’re better off than any store clerk or office man in this burg.”
The other laughed bitterly. “Yes. Thirty bucks! And to hold my job I’ve got to know more than a railroad president, a ship’s captain and a political boss combined. Not for me, Foster. I’m through. Give me a team of dogs and a bit of moose meat. At least that’s living.”
The news editor shook his head.
“Oh, I know. You can’t see it,” Danvers went on. “It isn’t in your blood, that’s all. Why, man, I was bom in a log cabin, away North. I was born to it. And look at this—” With a sweep of his arm he encompassed the paper-littered room. “Look at this. I don’t belong. That’s all. I just don’t belong. I’m through.”
The news editor nodded again. “What about that Rate murder?” he asked. “Then there’s that chap Ferguson of the railway down at the hotel. Maybe worth a yarn. Going to do that show to-night?”
The reporter turned, put on his coat, and went.
THE Capitol had gone to press on the following Saturday afternoon when Danvers again approached his chief, this time with sprightly step.
“Well, Foster,” he announced, “I’m off Monday.” “Monday! You mean you are quitting?
“Yes, sir. Fixed up a quick trip down river with Billy Hinchcliffe, friend of mine. Interested in mines. He’s taking two engineers in to Fort Fond du Lac by motor boat. Happened to be room for one more. So I’m going along as far as Chipewyan.
From there I’ll take a scow to Norman.”
On a great city daily, from its very bigness and lack of personal touch among the workers, a man’s passing goes almost unnoticed, without causing comment. But here, in Northtown, the relations between man and desk were close, friendly; and to Foster there had come a particular fondness for the departing reporter, now his star man. But, seeing the joy that was in Danvers’ face, he did not utter the protest that rose to his lips. Instead— after the fashion of some men when they feel most deeply—he rose, extended a careless hand, and, as he gave the other a farewell shake, said perfunctorily: “Well, so long, Billy, and take care of yourself.”
UROM Northtown to Fort Norman, on Mack" enzie River, as the crow flies, is perhaps nine hundred miles. By water—by way of the Peace, Slave, and Mackenzie Rivers, or the Athabasca, Slave, and Mackenzie—it is a good fifteen hundred. As Hinchcliffe and his party were going to Fond du Lac, Danvers, perforce, went the Athabasca route. The first hundred miles of this way they traveled in semi-comfortable style by rail, to the end of the line at Landing, on the banks of the mighty Athabasca River.
Arriving here early on Monday afternoon, the little party spent the remainder of the day unloading and transporting a forty-five foot motor boat from a flat car to the river front. The slow-falling dusk of an August evening saw everything aboard for an early start, and by nine the next morning Landing lay many miles behind, while a four-milean-hour current, coupled with a powerful propeller, carried Danvers even farther from that civilization! of which, for fourteen years, he had been a part.
It was during a few hours’ wait at Fort McMurray, five days later, while Hinchcliffe made some necessary repairs to the launch, that Danvers came first upon a remembered scene of the past in an old trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, lying on the level stretch back from the river. Here, fourteen years before, on his way to the outside, following his father’s death, he had spent a night. As the son of one of the great company’s oldest factors, and as one travelling under their care to the outside to be educated, Danvers had been royally entertained.
As he walked about the settlement, he was greeted presently with the sight of poles and wires, the latter running into a square log shack. Moving close he read upon the new signboard “Government Telegraph.” It impressed him oddly that even away out here—in summer a week’s travel by water to civilization, in winter a month by dog train—the world could still be brought so near by those thin, coppery strands. Impelled by the thought, he went within and sent a ten-word message to Foster—a last farewell.
He paid the dollar fee with a strange good will—it seemed a wonderful thing to be so linked with the outside world. But after he had taken a few steps away, he was anxious to be gone.
Eagerly he hurried to the wharf to see if the launch was mended. It was not; but during the next two hours’ wait he kept close aboard, restless, nervously anxious to be off.
As Fort McMurray dropped behind, Danvers breathed a sigh of relief. All at once, the wondrous Northern air seemed cleaner, sharper, its invigorating tang more biting than before.
Under the spell of these emotions, the dreary little post of Chipewyan, with its scattered line of whitewashed log shacks on the barren shore of Lake Athabasca, was a marvelous spot of beauty to him, when two days later, he bade good-by to Hinchcliffe and his party.
From Fort Chipewyan to Fort Norman is a long thirteen hundred miles. Over this stretch Danvers was fortunate, striking in with a scow-boat party of five prospectors bound for the Dease River country, going by Norman, the Bear River, and around the Great Bear Lake beyond.
Though it was only late in September when Danvers sprang ashore at Fort Norman, the scum ice was beginning, already, to thicken on the Mackenzie. A moment he watched the scow swing on down the river; then, with a queer quickening of his pulses, he stared about him.
Up the steeply sloping bank, a hundred feet above, on the lower plateau of the “ramparts,” the log shacks of the trading companies showed, dwarfed and small, against the farther, rising cliffs, which reared themselves steeply behind for another five hundred feet to a treeless crest. Downriver, “Old Bear Rock” stood, a lonely sentinel, unchanged, the same awesome guardian of the place that he had looked upon so often as a child, and beyond, the mountains gleamed, a blurred line of blue in the dying light.
For a moment the utter desolation of the scene—the mile-wide river, deep, swift-flowing, cold; the treeless ramparts, austere and bare; the squatting shacks, so tiny beside the towering heights—oppressed him. A longing came for the white-clustered electric globes on their orderly row of posts down long, winding Jasper Avenue.
But it passed quickly. The grip of the wilderness upon him was firm. So he moved up the bank to the post above.
TT HAD been Danvers’ intention to leave Fort Norman
by dog team, following the first snow, and proceed into the country along the north shore of Great Bear Lake till he found a suitable site for permanent winter quarters. His plans, however, were very vague, and the welcome of old Donald Fraser and Tommy Cameron, Fort Norman’s solitary white men, was so warm and pressing, that half of November slipped away before Danvers finally swung his newly purchased team of five Mackenzie River huskies onto the trail for the inland country.
But it was time well spent. He learned many things. Into the lonely lives of the two grizzled fur men, Danvers’ coming had been a welcome break in the monotony of their days. Fresh from the outside, lively, glad to talk, he answered unweariedly their thousand trivial questions. At least they had seemed trivial to him, who knew not as yet the weight of the wilderness. And when he had unfolded his plan of launching out as an independent trader, they had listened gravely. When he had finished, just as gravely had they pointed out the folly of it.
“Ye want to be as yer father was,” old Fraser had said sagely. “But that ye canna be, for he was always o’ the lan’, and he was a company factor. Ye can’t buck the company.”
Seeing Danvers had been anxious to argue the point, he had waved his hand for silence and gone on to explain: “Ye can’t buck the company, because every native for three hunner’ mile aboot is in their debt. They know the company’ll always be here, so, no matter if ye do offer them a little higher price for their fur, they wullna take it. You’ll only be here once, they figure, and they wullna reesk sellin’ to you for fear of gettin’ in bad wi’ us.”
Pausing, and seeing Danvers still unconvinced he had gone on: “Even grantin’ ye did get some fur, which I’m no denyin’, as ithers have done it, it wudna be much, yer outfit bein’ so light, and the company’s steamer wudna carry it out for ye.”
“But that’s not right. They wouldn’t dare refuse,” Danvers had protested hotly
“Oh,wud they no’?” Cameron had chimed in, in high glee. “Just try them next summer, when the first boat comes up.”
The upshot of it all was that Danvers, greatly crestfallen, yet still determined on making the wild his future home, compromised. Instead of going on as a free trader, he drove north looking for a good site to build a cabin and settle down for the winter’s trapping.
If he could not be a trader, he could at least he a trapper. This, at least, the great company could not bar him from.
From Fort Norman he drove ten days steadily almost direct northeast, through a rolling, treedotted plain. During the three months of fierce, sub-arctic summer, this was a wonderful wilderness, a marvelous, unbelievable, flowery vista in an icy land. But now, under the spell of the frost, it lay a land forgotten. An illimitable and lonely waste of snow, these barrens stretched away, monotonously the same; over them Danvers was the only human form that moved.
Early in the afternoon of the tenth day, as he mushed along, Danvers was almost startled by the sight of a log shack looming into view dead ahead. The cabin lay back among a thick clump of stunted jack pine, and a step distant from a small stream.
Drawing nearer, Danvers noted that though the latch-string hung down, no smoke escaped from the chimney. The place was so pleasing that a sudden hope sprang up that it might be deserted, thus offering to him a ready-built home for his winter’s stay. Crossing easily the low banks of the frozen stream, he fastened the lead dog securely to a jack-pine trunk to prevent any possibility of the team attacking the sledload in his absence while he was making first survey of the shack. _ Then he swung the door open. Half through the portal, he halted, remained staring, motionless with horror at what met his gaze. The room was full of dead men. On the single bunk and around the floor, five forms lay sprawled—ghastly, emaciated bodies of men who had died the slow death of starvation.
Following the first terror of the sight, Danvers stepped eagerly forward, for the face of the man lying nearest him, long-bearded, frozen, and gaunt as it was, seemed strangely familiar. Kneeling beside the body, he stared keenly at it.
Then he remembered. It was Deffanson, the worldrenowned explorer, lost these many months, and for news of whom the world was crying.
In June, two years previously, Danvers had interviewed Deffanson, then on a short visit to Northtown before leaving for Nome, where the schooner Mukluk, with a full crew, and well stocked with provisions, awaited his coming. A month later, Deffanson had sailed northward in search of a new polar continent.
Then, in July, two years after his sailing, a whaling schooner had picked up, in Prince Albert Sound, quantities of wreckage of the ill-fated Mukluk and the world rang with the news of the loss of the expedition. A few weeks later, a band of Eskimo hunters, coming out from the country along Coronation Gulf to the Mounted Police post at Herschel Island, had brought papers taken from the bodies of seven men, which proved conclusively that at least part of the Mukluk's crew had crossed from the floe ice to the mainland. Then because of the vastness of the country, the world began to hope for Deffanson’s ultimate reappearance.
All these things were comparatively fresh in Danvers’ brain. Now he remembered reading, shortly before leaving Northtown, a long article by a noted artic explorer on the subject. According to the writer’s deductions, Deffanson and his party had landed somewhere along the shore of Coronation Gulf; and Deffanson, being well acquainted with the Northland, would strike across country from there, through the Dease River country, and on around Bear Lake in an endeavor to make one of the many trading posts on the Mackenzie River.
How close had been these calculations, Danvers thought, as he stood staring upon the wasted figures, speaking so eloquently of the long, terrible struggle against the wilderness. Then his eyes centred upon the rough-board table, left by the previous inhabitant. Lying open upon it, with a pencil near, was a mediumsized notedbook.
Seized with a burning curiosity, so great that the horror of the situation faded, Danvers crossed to the table, dropped on the rude bench beside it, and, taking up the book, began eagerly reading.
It was a breathless tale that those pencil-written lines revealed; a tale beyond the wildest fiction Danvers had ever perused.
Caught and frozen in beyond the “tide crack,” the ship had been broken to pieces by the grinding floes. But not before the crew had been able to get away. Scantily armed and provisioned, two parties, fifty and thirty strong, had reached the mainland. Dividing here, they had struck out separately for the Mackenzie River.
The story of all this Danvers read—the details, day by day, recounting the awful march of the larger band of fifty. Every line was heroic, and grew more so with each passing day, as, one by one, the men dropped out.
At last he came to the final page—recent entries, between the fourth and fourteenth of November—-and read: November 4th: Only about two pounds of caribou left. Everybody very weak. Made five miles to-day. Country barren of game.
November 5th: Monroe went through an air hole covering a little creek. Feet badly frozen. We left him revolver, and half a mile farther on heard its report. Poor Monroe! We must surely reach Mackenzie River soon.
November 6th: Made about five miles. Last of meat gone. Not a sign of a living thing.
November 7th: Jorgeson and Anderson dropped out. November 8th: About sundown sighted cabin. Were all exhausted, but crawling on hands and knees made the half mile to it.
The entries ceased until the fourteenth; and then— widely sprawled, the characters hardly legible—the last words were:
November 14th: All gone but me . must go soon the cold is numbing me . . too weak to hunt hurts even to move . . . good-by all . Deffan
The shaking hand had failed to complete the signature; the man had sunk to the floor. These five, the fittest, had nearly won through!
CLOSING the book, Danvers stared upon the still forms with a respect inspired by reading the words of this simple diary, words which had stirred him as no printed page had ever done before.
Then he was seized with that strange fever which comes to every true newspaper man when he suddenly comes into the possession of a big, exclusive story. Away out here, infinitely remote, alone, a solitary dot of humanity amid interminable snow wastes, he was as excited as if the news room lay but around the corner.
“What a story!” he breathed, almost in reverence.
Here was the biggest story of his life—world news! A tale a thousand newspapers over all the wide American continent and Europe would blazon forth in heavyleaded extras.
Newspaper offices were impossibly distant, yet the “lead” of this great story began shaping; a torrent of words leaped and roared through his brain, demanding insistently to be given to the waiting world.
Swayed by a sudden resolve, Danvers took the book up again. Finding a blank page, he began figuring rapidly. For many minutes he calculated mileage, then added up the appalling total. The vastness of the proposition was strangely depressing. He thought over the long, winding, winter trail that he must cover afoot—long, Northern miles, hard, hostile, and cold. Truly the distance was terribly far. To cover it would cost money; all he had.
But this exclusive news, which was his, was worth money; lots of it.
With this thought, the commercial instinct, seldom strong in any newspaper man, was fanned to life. Yes, he must go; he must give out the news. But in so doing he would, too, reap a reward commensurate with his endeavors.
Again he went over his reckoning, hopeful that perhaps in the hasty figuring he had taken on too much mileage. From post to post he checked it. No, he had made no mistake. But wait—the thought suddenly struck him—he need not travel all that way * to give the world the news; into his head flashed the recollection of the recently installed telegraph at Fort McMurray— a saving of a few hundred miles.
All at once, even with this small reduction, the way seemed short, easier to cover. Danvers leaped to his feet to depart, taking the diary in his hand. Halfway to the door, he halted; then, turning back, he went methodically through the men’s clothes and piled their varied possessions upon the table. Four hundred dollars in money, a dozen rolls of exposed films—carried hopefully even with death so near—and a miscellany of watches, compasses, and letters. These Danvers rolled into a bundle and took with him, fastening the door securely against the inroads of possible passing animals.
The short, winter’s day was now drawing fast to a close but, afire to reach that distant goal, Danvers swung the dogs onto the track, urging them with voice and whip to a speed never before reached in the past days of leisurely travelling.
Five days later, just as the three o’clock arctic sun was setting, Danvers’ dog team, limping and weary, came to a stop before the door of the trading post at Fort Norman. Equally worn, the driver turned them loose, allowing the wondering Cameron and Fraser to carry the toboggan’s load within, while he tumbled into the nearest bunk and instantly fell fast asleep.
Stiff and sore, but refusing to heed the factor’s protests that he rest longer, Danvers, early the next day, swung his rested dog team onto the ice of the Mackenzie River.
Hour after hour he drove at top speed, enforcing fierce-voiced commands to hurry, with his merciless, swinging whip. Most of the time he rode, for the sleigh— loaded now with only unused snowshoes, his rifle, blanket roll, grub, and ax, and enough dog feed to last to Wrigley —allowed fastest pace.
Travelling on the unobstructed river ice, but lightly covered with snow and sometimes bare for long stretches, Danvers averaged fifty miles a day, making Wrigley on the afternoon of the fifth day after leaving Fort Norman. Here, for two of his dogs and twenty dollars in addition, he secured a new wheeler and another mameluke to replace those of his team that had weakened under the strain.
All of the animals’ pads were already badly worn. So, though the loss of a day fretted Danvers’ nerves, anxious as he was to make every minute count, he laid over an extra twelve hours to permit of cutting out dog moccasins from soft but durable caribou hide.
When he once more headed for the outside, the team showed the value of the footgear and the delay. Remembering, too, Cameron’s parting admonition, “When travellin’ hard, feed them well!” Danvers carried sixty pounds of inconnu, a coarse, salmon-like fish, the best dog feed in the land. This allowed three pounds per dog for four days’ travelling, in which time he hoped to make Simpson.
So far, everything had been in his favor. The snowfall of the Mackenzie River region, usually light, was this year more so than ever; and never once, since leaving that house of death beyond Fort Norman, had the weather dropped lower than twenty degrees below zero, permitting fast and uninterrupted travel.
But Danvers did not make Simpson on schedule. The second night out of Wrigley, a savage attack of three of his first team upon the new wheeler, left that animal so badly torn that he was forced to shoot it. The other participants in the battle royal had not escaped unscarred either, and their varied wounds made for slower travelling.
Berating his luck, the man accepted the lessened speed, but a baleful light shone in his eyes, from hot anger at the murderous impulses of these savage brutes upon whom his success depended.
With the passing days, the grip of his desire took firmer hold. Through hour after hour of monotonous moving, as he rode or ran behind the toboggan, he constructed and reconstructed his story, sometimes mumbling aloud snatches of well-formed sentences. From this he would again fall to counting the miles and the time they would occupy. He had Left Fort Norman on December 2nd, and, calculating the journey on the basis of recently established distances, he figured to reach Fort McMurray by New Year’s Day.
He arrived at Simpson on the fifteenth, two days late, to find the post barren of salable dog feed. Two precious days, and forty miles of a side trip over heavy snow up the Nahanni River to an Indian camp, were necessary to replenish his store. Warned by this of the possibility of similar scarcity at Providence, Danvers overloaded to the extent of two hundred and fifty pounds. To counteract this, he added two dogs to the string. The last of his money had gone for dog feed at Wrigley, but, with the conviction of profits soon to be reaped, he borrowed from the dead men’s roll to pay the bill.
With dogs unduly tired from moving the heavy load over a bad trail, Danvers whipped out of Simpson late on the morning of the eighteenth.
The unvarying miles of river ice; the eternal sameness of frozen landscape; the awful silence of the winter wilderness, had already begun to work strange effects upon his senses, long trained to other sights and sounds. As the days went by, Danvers sang no longer as he rode; instead, a heavy sullenness crept upon him. Through the dead, unchanging hours he brooded; at times his thoughts a chaos of storied words, and again a tangle of figures involving pounds of dog feed, of days and miles and money. The increasing gap in his schedule angered him unreasonably, and he vented it on his dogs, driving harder, sticking to the trail from first streak of gray dawn till far into the aurora-borealis-lighted night.
Even with more dogs, the way between Simpson and Providence took six days; but the load was ever lightening. By a masterful cruelty, Danvers made up a little of his calculated lost time on the ice of Great Slave Lake, reaching Resolution on the thirty-first, an average of fifty miles a day. But the dogs, in every lean line of their sinewy forms, screamed the story of their condition; showed utterly their unfitness for going farther on.
Danvers came to Resolution just at the wrong time to get dogs. Ordinarily this lake post is a very haven for canines; but a recent government-survey party, bound inland to beyond Fort Rae, and a prospecting outfit intent on making the Liard country by “break-up,” had cleared the place bare of available ones. Danvers besieged every one, from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s factor to the missionary priest, without avail.
The few good dogs left at the post were extra valuable now, and Danvers’ animals were so utterly done up, that even when he offered to supplement them with a good cash bonus, the white men shook their heads, emphatically refusing the proffered trade. After two futile days, he was about to start out, even with his worn out team, when Johnny Loutit jingled in, with his five-dog team, prize huskies of all the Northland. They were fresh after a light trip of thirty miles from Loutit’s camp.
Before he could unharness, Danvers pounced upon him in a frenzy of eagerness. It was a most unwise move, for Loutit, despite his Indian looks, was half Scotch, a born trader, sharp, keen, shrewd. Beside him the reporter, unlearned to the ways of trade, was a mere baby. And he wanted dogs, and quick! Therefore, Loutit, true to age-old instinct, took his toll.
An hour later, with a new team for the old, and two hundred and fifty dollars poorer, Danvers hit the trail up the Slave River. Yet he was thrilled with a vast gladness. The dull anger of impotence, so heavy upon him with each added refusal these last two days, dropped away before the soft, rhythmical tune of the fast-gliding toboggan. Now his goal seemed very near.
Though his start was late leaving Resolution, he figured thirty miles as done when he made camp at dark. Distrustful of the recently acquired team, he unfastened a wire toboggan lashing and tethered each of the dogs short.
This he repeated for the next two nights then, on the third, satisfied that all danger of their turning back was past, he left them loose—and woke at dawn to find them gone.
WITH a cry that was hoarse and harsh, more like a stricken animal’s pain than that of man, Danvers crawled out from his sleeping bag, Hopeful that he had been mistaken, he stared all about. But so far as his eye could reach, there was no living thing. Then, for the first time in all these long, weary days, his iron will unbent. Dropping limply upon the snow, he buried his face in his hands; while tears of utter despair and rage welled from snow-tired eyes that had not since childhood’s days been guilty of weeping.
A moment later the agony of this latest blow gave way a little to the sense of cold. His momentarily uncovered ears suddenly nipped a warning. Pulling on ear-flapped cap, he rose; as he did so, he found his hands numb from this brief uncovering, and crusted with little balls of ice from fresh-dropped tears. Experience of past days told him that this was no thirty-below weather, but nearer fifty— a cold snap had come at last.
Scalding tea and hot bannock and bacon revived his spirits slightly. During the meal he calculated the distance from Fort Smith as only seventy miles. In the pride of his strength, and with that ceaseless urge pressing within, he decided he could walk it in two days.
Constructing pack straps from the discarded dog harness, Danvers swung his sleeping bag and grub upon his shoulders. As he was about to start, he halted; he stood several minutes contemplating the long, narrow snow-shoes. He had never needed them; did not need them now. Yet, moved by some instinct of caution, he at last added them to his load, and, rifle in hand, started off.
At Resolution, by reason of the tortuous windings of the river beyond, the winter trail leaves the Slave to swing southward overland to Fort Smith, thereby saving
no inconsiderable distance. Naturally Danvers had found this trail heavier; but, riding behind the dogs, he had not noticed it particularly. Now, afoot, he was amazed at the slowness of his movement, even when going at his quickest pace. By nightfall his legs felt like numb stumps. They rose and fell, rose and fell, in mere mechanical action; and at each forward step the hip bone hurt dully. His rifle, pack, and snowshoes, a featherweight at starting, had grown to an intolerable burden. Yet he plodded stolidly on so long as he could see the trail, to make camp at last under a sullen, threatening sky.
When, stiff and sore, he crawled out of his sleeping bag next morning, the snow was drifting down, a misty curtain of great, crisp flakes, stilly enshrouding all the world in a mantle of white. It brought a rising temperature.
Through the storm he moved slowly, all his faculties intent on holding the trail in such blinding weather. Night found him still upon it, and Fort Smith unreached.
When he broke camp again in the dawn of a new day, the snow had ceased. Shortly before noon his heart leaped at the sight of the clustered cabins of Fort Smith.
As he approached the Hudson’s Bay Company’s store, Danvers was conscious of a racking pain in his head, as if an ever-tightening band of steel were wrapping about it, while from within something pounded all around, like myriad pneumatic guns hammering home hot rivets.
Meeting Macdougal, the factor, a few minutes later, Danvers made an unsteady demand for dogs. He did not note the shakiness of his own tones, nor realize the strange figure that he cut, standing there hollow-eyed and gaunt, his face dirty brown from winter weather and many smoky camp fires.
Just as the factor was about to reply, the door swung open, and McGarry, the post doctor, came in with a cheery greeting. Absorbed upon his own pressing business, Danvers turned tired eyes upon him, nodding only a curt greeting.
The doctor, however, with the first glance into the stranger’s eyes, came quickly forward; without a word he took a firm grasp of Danvers’ wrist, while his fingers groped for the pulse beat.
Danvers, strangely docile, his brain all in a moment gone sluggish, permitted the handling without comment; and when the doctor bade him hold a clinical thermometer in his mouth, he obeyed unquestioningly.
“Just got here in time,” McGarry said, in a professional tone, as he read the temperature. “If you go to bed at once, you might beat it out; but I’m afraid you’re in for pneumonia.”
“Bed! Pneumonia!” Slowly, laboredly, Danvers repeated the words, and even to himself his voice sounded faint and far away, just as the doctor’s words had seemed the moment before. For what seemed an eternity, he stared at the man before him. Then, from within, seemingly the utterance of some one strange, infinitely removed from his real self, came a harsh laugh, a boastful articulation. “Bed! Pneumonia! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Through cracking lips the laughter came; yet in the uttermost depths of himself, Danvers felt no such desire.
After a moment, the memory of his mission returned, mastering this puzzling hysteria. Queer things still pounded in his head, yet he felt his senses clearing, as a man does, when oppressed with a feeling of impending danger. Stepping away, Danvers shook his head. “Say,” he said heavily, “Eve got no time to waste. I want dogs. Have you got them to sell?”
As he spoke, he was conscious of a dull tightening in his throat; a something that made speech dragging and difficult; and, though his whole being was afire with unnatural warmth, he gave way to momentary shivering.
The factor, catching a wink from the doctor, and comprehending, replied soothingly: "Sure, we’ve got dogs. Rest yourself a while, and then Ell fix you up.”
But Danvers, too, had seen the surreptitious signal. Instantly, in the depths of his whirling brain, there came the suspicion that these men sought to bar his way. It woke the animal cunning within him, and suggested crafty action.
“All right,” he said, after a moment’s contemplation. “I’ll sit down awhile; you and your friend go rustle me some dogs.”
The doctor, pleased with such ready acquiescence from his half delirious patient, and anxious for a conference alone with Macdougal, started for his office, beckoning the factor to follow.
The minute the sound of their retreating footsteps died away, Danvers sprang up. Opening the outer door a little, he saw the two disappear within a cabin a hundred yards down the street. Satisfied, he turned his burning eyes around the storeroom, for he needed food, even if he could not get dogs. With ruthless haste, he slashed open a near-by sack, placed a portion of its flour contents within his own, then, picking up his burden, hurried out.
Turning the corner of the store, he started at a rapid pace toward the trail that led to the outside. Fear that they might attempt to overtake him lent speed to his steps, and quickly the little settlement dropped behind.
Back in the company store, ten minutes later, the doctor and the factor stared; amazed at the empty room and the little stream of powdery flour sifting down to the floor from the gashed canvas sack.
“He can’t go far,” the doctor said. “The distance to Mistaya’s camp will about finish him. But you’d better start after him as soon as the team gets in.”
The factor nodded assent. The company team, driven by his son, had gone to Smith’s Landing two days before, and was due back now at any minute.
FIVE miles up the trail, snuggling a little back from it, and half hidden among the trees, was the camp of Mistaya, Okimow of the Fort Smith Crees. The curling smoke from his cabin caught Danvers’ eyes some two hours later.
He halted. Smoke meant a habitation; a habitation spelled men, and very possibly dogs. Striding hurriedly, the reporter reached the door, knocked, was admitted.
For thirty dollars, the last of the roll he carried, and one of the dead men’s watches, Mistaya provided three mangy dogs, fifty pounds of feed, and a light carryall.
Once again Danvers swung his whip over the back of dogs, and moved upon the trail; but no thrill came with this last accomplishment. The dull pain in his head had spread downward till his whole body achea
With mind centered to the very uttermost atomic part on winning through; and will refusing to give way to bodily ills; with every nerve and fiber tensed to fulfill his desire, all Danvers’ being became the stronger wall against assaulting sickness. Thus, by plugging on, he won through this first incipient stage of pneumonia.
Presently he felt better. He head still ached, but the fever fire began slowly cooling.
Poor as his dogs were, he approached Smith’s Landing two hours after leaving the camp of Mistaya. The little post lay but eighteen miles from Fort Smith, and not having need of anything, Danvers decided to hurry through. Just as he drove in, an outward-bound team came dashing toward him. The driver of it, true to Northland custom, where strangers are few, yelled a greeting and called his dogs to halt. But Danvers, looking straight ahead and unanswering, flung his whiplash through the air, and his team, momentarily faltering, leaped back into its regular pace. Surprised at so odd an action, the other man stared after the retreating toboggan in a wondering surmise, which, three hours later, was to be confirmed by Mistaya when he told of the outward going of the mad white man.
The one hundred and twenty miles to Chipewyan consumed four days, landing Danvers in a little before noon on the fifteenth. Thirty pounds of dog feed still were on the sleigh. It was sufficient to reach McMurray, if their rations were cut to a pound and a half a day. So penniless now, Danvers did not tarry at the post, but swung out onto the ice of Lake Athabasca, on the last lap of the way.
A hundred and eighty-five miles was all that lay between. Ia a sudden frenzy at the thought, Danvers plied the whip as never before, till the mongrel brutes crouched low to the ice and raced under the pain of his driving blows.
Leaving the lake ice the next day, he
ran onto a trail, deep with recently fallen snow; soft, yielding, and held from blowing away by the close-ranked bush. The weather again turned colder; trees creaked; the earth cracked under the grip of the frost. Danvers judged it was between fifty and sixty below.
Two nights later as he cached his grub and dog feed upon a spruce limb out of the reach of the hungry, thieving team, his numb fingers failed to tie a perfect knot. While he slumbered, the hanging weight dragged loose the cord, and fish, flour and bacon came crashing down. Under the spell of the dead heavy sleep of physical exhaustion, Danvers did not hear. But the huskies did, and their tearing fangs quickly slashed away the flimsy sacking. On juicy bacon, powdery flour, and accustomed fish ration, they gorged themselves. By daylight only torn bits of cloth, and scattered tea marked the spot of their feasting.
Waking in the late dawn, Danvers, first conscious gaze instinctively flashed to the cache of the night before. Yet with instant realization of the disaster, there came none of the awful sinking horror that had been his time at his loss of his dogs previously. His senses were duller now. They absorbed each succeeding shock with less nervous reaction. He rose slowly, built a fire methodically. When thoroughly warmed, he shouldered his rifle and struck into the timber. Two minutes walk brought him in sight of a rabbit, which kicked its last from the tearing ball of his .303. Returning, he rudely broiled the hind quarters, making a poor breakfast of meat tasteless and dry from being poorly cooked while yet warm with animal heat.
The meal concluded, he pulled the toboggan down from its standing position against the trunk of a tree and hustled the dogs into the harness. Finishing, he slapped his hands vigorously. Even well mittened as he was, the intense cold bit through. Every breath he took, drew his nostrils together with a frosty grip; a feeling only those of the icy places know— and knowing, heed. And had his experience with the Northland not been confined to the first twelve years of his life, he would not now have traveled in such weather. One gasp too much of that air could touch the lungs. But, dully incensed at his last set-back, and encouraged by the shortness of the way, Danvers pushed his dogs ahead. They whined as they took the trail, knowing from out of an age-old wisdom that this was a time when no beast should be stirring. Yet the lash of the master shot pain to their furry sides; the snarl of his harsh commands was constantly in their ears, driving them ceaselessly on.
As the miles lengthened, the level bush country gave way to great, rolling hills, and sharp ravines. Here the snowfall had been heavier. By afternoon the dogs were floundering deep in it, and not making a mile an hour.
Danvers halted them. They were no longer useful. From now on, as long as this depth of snow lasted, as doubtless it would into Fort McMurray, he could make faster time alone than breaking trail for them. So he cut them loose, with a ruthless carelessness for the harness. Then he unlashed the snowshoes he had carried so long. At last these were about to prove the wisdom of the decision made many days back.
Seated on their haunches, the dogs whimpering, watched him go. Half an hour later he saw one of their slinking forms following at a distance. Raising his rifle, Danvers took quick aim and fired; he saw the lean, gray form leap in the air, then fall over on its side. From out of the shadowy depths of the evergreens now leaped its companions, hastening to this new-laid feast. But evidently they understood the warning, for Danvers saw them no more.
Even with the first hour’s walking, the reporter was conscious of how great was the weariness which beset him. His whole frame was giving out under the strain of unremitting movement through a frozen world. As the short, gray day waned into night, his limbs seemed, with each freshtaken step, to be gripped to earth and were only raised by mightiest effort of his will.
He made camp early. After boiling the remainder of the rabbit in the tea pail for an hour, he drank the brew, saving the meat to be warmed up for breakfast.
With the dark, the cold deepened. Even lying in his hastily-made wind-break, which caught a lot of heat from hottest fire, he shivered in his sleeping bag.
At last the wan dawn crept slowly out of the frost-misted east, as though protesting against being ushered into so cold a world. Only by a vast effort did Danvers force himself to standing position. It was colder than he had ever known it. But the realization that McMurray could not be more than seventy miles away cheered a little. Finishing the warmed over rabbit, he donned his snowshoes to mush again upon this inexorable trail. By afternoon he moved very slowly, every step an agony, each breath a pain, the forward movement of his feet more like a quadruped dragging a wounded limb, than the step of a man. There was no sound. Neither bird nor animal stirred. Under the grip of the frost the wilderness slept, an interminable waste, lonely, desolate, without cheer.
Weariness and cold overcoming pangs of hunger, he made no attempt to hunt for supper. Instead, he built a great fire and sat close-crouched to the blaze. After a while he boiled some snow water, and the hot drink revived him a little. Piling all the dry wood, and topping it with two stout green sticks, he crawled within the soft caribou bag to sleep, as he always did now, insensate as a log.
Empty-bellied he struck the trail with the morning’s light. An hour later, irked by the overcoming weight of the rifle, he threw it from him with a reckless laugh, whose cadence betokened the shaken state of his mind.
It seemed to his dimming senses that he must have covered endless miles, but when at noon the trail once more swung back to the ice of the Athabasca, he realized that he still had a long way to go. Striking the ice he threw away his snowshoes, went ahead loaded with only his tea pail, hatchet and sleeping bag.
By night the hunger pangs had dulled. The maddening craving for food no longer possessed him. Instead, came a dull apathy. His head ached, increasing its sickening pain with the passing hours.
Once again he slept; to again press forward. He lost track of time; went on through a phantom-peopled world; slept when it grew dark; with returning day moved ahead, a blur, a blot, a solitary speck of fevered ferment, alone in a stark world. With feelings dead, his thoughts no longer coherent, he still staggered on like a ghastly automaton.
Again and again the flesh of him cried to rest, to lie down, to die. But deep within the unknowable, unplumbed crypts of his numbing brain, the news instinct still flared strong, commanding, urging on. And answering, the spirit of him, born of indomitable Anglo-Saxon fibrethat had made his race conquerors of many lands, lords and looters of high seas, masters and drivers of men—held up his staggering shell, drove ever forward the weary, stumbling feet upon the hard ice trail.
Sometimes as he walked he droned aloud “everything ends, . . . everything ends.” Over and over again, for long intervals he repeated the words; and then, all of a sudden, would alternate to: “I’ll get there . . . I’ll get there!” as if the very repetition was assurance of success.
SEVENTY-TWO hours after cutting loose from his dogs, Danvers was suddenly aroused a little from his deepening lethargy by a familiar sight. High up on a near-by crest of the river’s bank a lone pine stood out against the spotless sky. Its lower portion was shorn of limbs; the upper, remaining ones cut in such grotesque design as to catch the eye from far and near. It was a “lobstick”—a monumental Indian honor to some great one of the Northland.
It was not the mere sight of the lobstick that aroused him—for he had passed many during the preceding weeks—but it was the remembrance of this one’s particular locality. It lay but five miles downriver from Fort McMurray, and, from its extreme size and fantasy of design, had made a particular impression upon Danvers’ memory when leaving it behind on his northward journey.
With the certainty at last that he was near the trail’s end, the man broke into a faster walk. Even that was but a pathetic crawl, a weirdly grotesque swaying forward like a wire-pulled manikin.
It was nearly dark when Danvers turned off the ice, where the Clearwater joins the Athabasca, and into the flat lands that lie about the settlement.
Presently the small signboard, announcing “Government Telegraph,” blazed like a beacon light upon his tiring brain, fast slipping into unconsciousness.
Into the little, boxlike telegraph office he stumbled. Standing within the doorway, he teetered as one weighed with an excessive, tottering age, then lurched forward, sprawled a moment across the little counter, and from it fell in a heap upon the floor.
But the great, white-light flame that had brought him thus far was not doused —only dimmed. Promptly following his entrance, the wondering operator put him to bed, then called in as aid, motherly Christine Gordon, a pioneering Scottish woman of forty odd summers, who was long trained in succoring trail-worn men.
Danvers slept the clock around, to wake with pangs of hunger at the smell of the operator’s cooking supper. But the reporter got none of that thick moose meat, but instead a bowl of broth prepared by Christine. When he had taken that, there came back a sense of strength, and then came that flooding fire of words, pent up for so many days.
Waving the protesting operator aside, Danvers crawled from bed. Clad in underclothes alone, he slumped upon a chair before the long table desk.
Hurriedly he wrote down the names of thirty of the leading newspapers in the United States and Canada, and under them the following query:
“Have story fate of Deffanson.
Exclusive your city for ten cents a
a word. How many?”
“Rush this,” he said, handing the paper to the operator, who, when he read it, became suddenly respectful, and sprang to the key.
Then Danvers turned to his story.
All through the long hours and days as he had marched, he had rehearsed it; planned again and again the “lead,” again and again thought out every line and word. It had been always with him—the predominating thing. Yet now, confronted with the power for its release, all the carefully molded sentences, the exact words, the master “lead,” fled.
Still the story came — differently worded, of course, but no less a thrilling tale, expressing in it all the horrors of the cold; the dragging days of endless travail on that forlorn traverse; the long battle with starvation, that these men had fought before they died. And because he himself had experienced their privations; because he had moved and starved through the same desolate land; because he was telling of things that were real and near and vital to himself, what he wrote made a realistic picture.
Under the spell of his enthusiasm, he wrote voluminously, adding from time to time extracts from Deffanson’s diary. On finishing, he made an estimate, and found he had written four thousand words. With the existing press rate, he concluded that this was too long; for Danvers was a small-town newspaper man, and even in possession of what he knew to be a matter of world interest, he had no conception to what lengths big papers would take such a great news story.
So he laid it aside, and, with occasional references to it, wrote a second, two thousand words long. It was a better news story—clear, concise, pithy, leaving nothing untold. Yet it lacked something. Danvers was conscious of this as he read it over, and presently realized that in the boiling down he had squeezed out all of the personal element which had made his first story seem so good to him.
Well, at any rate, it was news, and that was what he was going to be paid for. Believing that many of the lesser papers might want only brief accounts, and to be prepared against such a demand, he wrote three other stories, one thousand, five hundred, and two hundred words long. Each of these he placed on a separate hook. The number of these brought a smile. The lonely operator, sending an average of perhaps five messages a day from fur men, prospectors, the Mounted Police, or fire rangers in the vicinity, had still adorned the office with an imposing array of files that would have done duty in a head office of the Western Union.
Proudly Danvers eyed the pencilled sheets as he gave instructions as to their disposal when the replies to his queries should come in. Then he crawled back to bed, and lay staring at the stout log walls.
Suddenly, as he lay there, a poor, shaky mirthless laugh escaped his lips. Then, and then only, there came the realization that he had not needed to hurry so, to risk death in order that he might avoid delay. He alone had been in possession of the story. No one could scoop him. No one could rob him of it. Until it reached the outside world it was part of him, beyond the reach of another. The laugh re-echoed through the cabin. Then silence. Danvers slept.
He woke at last to the frenzied shakings of the operator. “Good heavens, you got to get up!” that worthy gasped, in an awed tone. Loosening his grasp, he passed his hand over his brow as one who has labored long. “I haven’t had a wink of sleep,” he went on. “There’s two hundred wires— most of them hollering for stories, the rest from relatives of some of the parties of the crew. Why, man, you’ve waked the world!”
Swayed a little by the sense of his sudden importance, Danvers sat up. “Well, didn’t you do as I told you— didn’t you file stories to all those papers that asked for it, the minute the replies came in, as I told you to?”
“Sure, I did,” the operator replied, a little nettled that he had been doubted. “But, man, they ain’t satisfied; they want more; they want full details of your trip, and half a dozen want you to wire the whole contents of the diary.”
In Danvers’ mind there arose a vision of the old news room of the Capitol, of scores of other news rooms. He heard the rumble of the presses, saw the bundles of freshly-inked papers shooting down the chutes, to be gathered and flung into panting trucks; heard the shrill cries of the newsboys. News! Even in that moment he found time to marvel that no matter how distant, remote or isolated the birthplace of an event, the story of it eventually must reach the outside. Always evident was that mysterious force of which he was now the centre of radius.
Danvers sprang from the bed. Seizing his pencil he wrote.
“Must be a great life, this newspaper game,” said the operator as he snatched the sheets. “Guess it kind o’ gets a fellow.”
“It’s got me, all right,” said Billy Danvers. He smiled wryly. But it was a smile.