A story of the Far North and the Demon Fear that makes men less than men
THE five-ton Peterhead boat nosed alongside the wharf and Wolf Brady clambered ashore, carrying the mail sack and a case of eggs. The Eskimo population of Consolation Harbor received him with guttural shouts and laughter—for it was ship-time, season of feasting and presents. He bellowed chimo in general salutation.
“The sickness is gone from him,” said Ak-put, the sage, to a group of cronies. “See, he laughs, and before it was like this—” He pulled down the corners of his mouth in imitation of a man suffering from melancholia.
A woman edged her way into the group. “It was the coming of the curly-headed-one-from-nowhere that changed him. Aiee, but the curly-headed-one is a great conjuror. Before that, he was too much alone.
It is not good for these foreigners to be alone; they think all the time.”
She nodded her head wisely. “He laughs again; it is good. This year there will be great rejoicings and we shall be swollen with food as we were in the year that Umiuk slew a bear with his hands.”
Wolf surrendered his load to Netilak, the post servant, and turned back to the boat.
“Hi, Ken,” he yelled. “No need for you to stay. Leave the natives fix it an’ c’mon up to the shack for grub. We won’t unload until after supper.”
The face of a youth appeared above the engine-room hatch—a cheerful face, generously smudged with black and surmounted by a mop of tousled hair. The youth struck a match on the deck and lighted the butt of a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth.
“Lemme fix this carburetor, Wolf. Looks as if you been running the old barge on treacle . .An’ I like mine fried,” he added as an afterthought. “Six of ’em, with bacon.”
Wolf nodded and turned toward the shack which had been his home ever since the Nanook, his fifty-ton trading schooner, had been driven ashore on Consolation Point.
The building, starkly square against a background of rugged, rock-strewn hills, looked dismally uninviting. It was a roomy enough place, built of deck planking from the wreck, but its weathered sides were unpainted, its windows were small; it was squat, shapeless, ugly.
Off to the right was the native camp—a dozen untidy tents made from caribou skins supported on clumsy frames of driftwood. Seedy-looking huskies loped between the tent lines searching for scraps of filth. Beyond was the blubber shed, and the pungent smell of putrid seal fat was everywhere.
Wolf came to the house and unlatched the door. Nana, the Eskimo housekeeper, was waiting for him. She grinned toothlessly
“ Aiee! It is good you are back again. And the curlyheaded-one-who-laughs-all-the-time, is he with you?” “Yes, and he is hungry. Light the stove, Nana, and set the table.”
After slipping off his sealskin mukluks he entered the living room. Nana had forgotten to open the windows and the place smelt musty as a cave. But that didn’t matter—he was home, and home felt good, even though he had been away for less than a month.
He stood by the table and took stock of the room familiarly. Most of the furniture was home made; the pictures had been culled from illustrated papers; there was a makeshift air about everything. But it was comfortable; that was the word—comfortable.
The color scheme of the room was modernisticaccording to Ken. The walls were painted a canary yellow with a bright red dado round the top. The ceiling was a battleship grey. Maybe it wasn’t artistic, but he had salvaged the paint from the Nanook, and there had been no opportunity of choosing colors.
“Now that I’ve got me a partner,” he said aloud, the habit of loneliness strong in him, “I’ll order some paint by the winter packet. Likely he’ll know what to choose.”
He smiled as he thought of this kid partner of his— the curly-headed-one-from-nowhere. His coming had
been pretty nearly providential. It was eight years since the Nanook' had piled up on Consolation Point, and eight years of loneliness had begun to “get” him. He had felt himself growing morose, cantankerous, in need of companionship.
He had been on the point of quitting when the miraculous happened. Kenuk brought word of a white man coming up the coast in a whale boat. Two days later the boat itself was sighted from the point and in due course it put in at Consolation.
The white man proved to be a curly-headed youth of twenty. “The name is Kenneth Smith,” he told Wolf as he shook hands. “Destination—points north. Present requirements—a shave, a cigarette and a cup of tea.” He fingered the fluff on his chin pridefully.
“You’re lucky,” Wolf said when they reached the shack. “Ice went out less than a week ago. You’ll run into it fifteen-twenty miles north. Trading?”
Smith nodded. “The game’s new to me, but I got a special reason why I want to take a crack at it an’ make good.”
“Why tackle it alone?” Woff had asked.
And the upshot of that question was a fifty-fifty partnership.
Together they had gone south in the Peterhead boat and intercepted the trading schooner carrying Wolf’s mail and supplies. Even on that brief trip Smith had proved his worth.
“Couldn’t have done better if I’d gone through the whole durn country with a comb,” Wolf reflected aloud. “A real nice lad—and looks like he’ll make a cribbage player too.”
His musings were disturbed by Netilak who came in with the mail sack. Next year there would be mail for
Ken—a girl outside, sure—but this year there would be no need to ask him take part in the ritual of sorting. Do it by himself, as he had done it twice a year for eight years.
He broke the seal and emptied the contents of the sack on to the floor. The letters—there were nearly a hundred of them, all addressed to Mr. Wolfstrom Brady—he arranged in packets according to handwriting. Half a dozen marked “Not to be opened until Christmas,” he wrapped up carefully and took into his bedroom. The remainder he would read at his leisure—two or three a day would last for nearly a month at that rate.
In addition to the letters there was a sizeable pile of parcels, magazines and newspapers. He selected a large bundle of papers, cut the cord, and flattened them out on the floor. After flipping them through he saw that they had been arranged in order of date, and the latest, on top of the pile, was two months old—June 19.
He lifted up the bundle, intending to stack it in a corner of the room, when a folded paper from the bottom dropped to the floor. He opened it up and saw that it was dated a week later than the latest in the pile; he figured that somebody had slipped it in at the last minute. He smoothed it out and was about to place it with the others when a two column photograph on the front page caught his eye and he whistled with astonishment.
“I’m hanged if it isn’t Ken,” he said.
And then the headlines danced in front of him. Police Hunt Slayer—Believed Holt Murdered By Nephew— Butler Testifies.
Frowning he turned to the story. “Police are convinced,” he read, “that Jabez Holt, wealthy mill owner who was found battered to death in his study yesterday, was killed by his nephew, Kenneth Holt. The young man, who is thought to be mentally unbalanced, left town on the night of the murder, and is believed headed for Canada. At the inquest this morning James Bailey, the dead man’s butler, gave sensational evidence. He testified that on the night of the murder he overheard Jabez Holt reprimanding his nephew for extravagance and laziness.”
There was more of it. The butler had heard Jabez Holt threaten to change his will. Police theory was that the young man, unbalanced at the best of times, had worked himself into a maniacal frenzy and battered his uncle to death with a paper weight. Panic must have
gripped him, for instead of waiting to benefit under the will he had taken a number of Bonds from the study safe and was seen that same night boarding a Michigan Central train.
Wolf held the paper at arm’s length and studied the picture. It was Ken right enough. There was the name, too. Called himself Smith on the spur of the moment, likely—but figured his given name didn’t matter.
He was dazed at first. The thing was too fantastic for truth. He would put it up to Ken and find out. Why, he was one of the straightest kids he’d ever met. Wouldn’t do a thing like that.
His thoughts swung off at a tangent. It had seemed strange, a youngster heading north alone, right to the fringe of the Arctic. Strange, too, that he never talked about himself.
Incredulity vanished beneath a barrage of suspicion. He was harboring a murderer all right and the thing for him to do was decide upon a plan of action. The nearest police detachment was at Chesterfield Inlet, two hundred and fifty miles south. Impossible to get down there in the Peterhead boat, for in a few days— a week at most—the lakes and rivers would freeze over. It would be equally impossible to travel overland for at least two months, for the ice on the lakes would be green—criss-crossed by wide leads.
He decided to hang on until it was time to go for the winter mail. He would go for it early—maybe in December—and take Ken with him. In the meantime he would pretend he knew nothing—keep an eye on the guns—sleep lightly—watch points.
AT SUPPER he observed his partner closely and again he found himself incredulous. He was an upstanding youth—clear-eyed, cheerful, unconcerned.
“Say, Ken,” he said, “what was you doin’ before you tackled the fur game?”
Smith looked up embarrassed.
“How’d you manage to live—on nothin’ particular?”
“I get you now, Wolf. . didn’t before. . .worked in an office. . .cashier. . rotten job.”
Wolf looked at him narrowly.
“What made you suddenly decide to come up here?”
“It was a hunch.” His face turned dull red and he took a gulp of tea before continuing. “I figured I could make money up here. And I wanted to get away. . . from things.”
The meal dragged on uncomfortably. Wolf answered his partner’s questions in monosyllables. Before he had gone out of his way to be pleasant, friendly, communicative, now he talked grudgingly. Once, glancing up, he saw Ken looking at him queerly.
When Nana came to clear away she found Wolf reading his mail. The one-with-curly-hair was sitting in the rocker, but he was not smiling.
\\ ƒ INTER came as suddenly as a tropic night. They * ’ woke up one morning, shivering beneath fourpoint blankets, to find the house enveloped in a driving mist of snow. The bay was invisible and the boat, which they had hauled up, appeared as a grey smudge against a background of white.
In the early days of winter Wolf was too busy to speculate concerning his partner. His days were spent in the store adjoining the house. There he unpacked the goods he had brought up in the Peterhead, checked items against invoices and arranged his stock.
On the counter there were silk handkerchiefs, alarm clocks, bottles of cheap perfume, needle cases, flamboyant shawls—things which the women would touch, lift up and covet. In front of the counter were the rifles, arranged in stands.
“They always want new rifles,” he explained to Ken, “but be careful. Never trade a rifle to a hunter who has a debt, an’ make sure he’s got a good line of grub.”
The grub—flour, tea and sugar mostly—he stored behind the counter. Back of the counter, too, was the tobacco—canisters of plug, pound tins of mixture, and a case of cigarettes.
During the days spent together in the store the nightmare of knowledge dwindled in Wolf’s mind until it seemed no more than an inconsequential memory. He treated his partner with the friendliness of old—answered his questions, joked with him, yarned when they knocked off for a spell and a pipe.
But with the work finished he began to brood again. Every detail of the newspaper story came back to torment him. By some trick of memory he could recall it almost word for word. Every time he looked at Ken he saw the photograph again with its caption: Police Hunt Slayer.
He did his best to maintain a friendly reserve, but he was conscious that this reserve produced a peculiar
effect upon his partner. Smith, upon his arrival at the post, had been carefree, friendly, anxious to please. He had been ready to talk for hours on any subject under the sun. Now he had matched his character to meet the changed conditions. He rarely smiled. He never attempted to start a conversation.
Wolf noticed with some consternation that he was doing everything in his power to popularize himself with the natives. Whole days he spent in the igloos near the shack talking and joking with them.
His mannerisms underwent a change. In the early days he had been studiously polite—amusingly polite, it had seemed to Wolf, who was accustomed to the rough and ready usage of the frontier. But all this was changed. He seemed deliberately to school himself against any habits which might show his breeding. He assumed an uncouth manner, spoke ungrammatically, used language which came unhandily to his tongue.
His appearance changed, too. He allowed his beard to grow, and his hair went unbrushed from one week’s end to another. The change took place so gradually that Wolf failed, at first, to recognize it as deliberate. Bit by bit, however, he fitted the puzzle together. Smith intended putting him out of the way—pleading an accident—trusting to luck and his popularity with the natives that he would never be found out.
' I 'HE suspicion was confirmed in his mind chancily.
They were sitting at dinner. It was a glum meal. Outside a blizzard was raging, clouds of snow drove by the windows and ice-cold draughts flirted through the shack.
“Tough,” said Smith, “to get caught in this.”
Wolf nodded. There was a long silence between them. An uneasy silence.
“Say, Wolf,” Smith said at last, “what’d happen supposin’ anything happened to one of us. Me, f’rinstance. Supposin’ I was killed or caught out in a drift. What’d you do? Tell the Mounties?”
Wolf looked up quickly. “Sure, what’d you expect?”
“An’ would there be an inquest an’ all the rest of the fuss?”
“You bet,” Wolf answered evenly.
To Wolf the nights became an agony. In the early days of their partnership he had arranged that Smith should sleep in a bunk in the living room. Before he suspected his partner’s plans the arrangement was satisfactory enough. His nerves were in good shape, then, and if he experienced a slight uneasiness after the lights were turned out it did not prevent him from sleeping.
But day by day growing suspicions began to undermine his morale. He began to sit up late, reading, so that he could be sure Smith was asleep before he went into his own room. And then, when Smith took it into his head to stay up with him—to sit him out—he compromised by reading in bed. He would lie there for hours, every nerve tensed for an attack which he deemed inevitable.
The climax—the breaking point when he realized that his nerves were no longer under control—came
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on the night before the trapping season opened. He was lying on the bed, sleeping fitfully, when a noise in the living room jerked him into sudden wakefulness. For a full minute he remained still, holding his breath, trying to hear his partner’s regular breathing in the next room. Instead he heard a faint rattle as if a rifle bolt were being moved to and fro in the breech. Looking down he saw a pencil of light beneath the door.
He jumped out of bed and blundered into the living room. Smith was sitting with his back to the table and across his knees was a rifle. He started when Wolf entered the room and allowed the butt to slip to the floor.
“Gimme that gun,” Wolf demanded. “Think I’m not wise to your game?”
Smith rose to his feet, placed the rifle on the table behind him, and advanced, crouching, across the room.
“Who you talkin’ to?” he asked. “What’s got you, anyway? Guess I got a right to clean my gun if I want to.”
He planted himself in front of Wolf, fists clenched, head lowered.
“Cleanin’ your gun—like blazes you were—at two o’clock in the morning. You give it me—quick.”
Smith dropped his hands and shrugged his shoulders.
“Take it, if that’s the way you feel.”
Wolf crossed to the table and picked it up. He snapped back the bolt and a cartridge jerked out on to the floor.
“Cleaning it, eh?”
He carried the rifle into his room and slammed the door. Afterwards he heard Smith pacing up and down restlessly; then he heard the creaking of his bunk and he knew he had climbed into it fully dressed.
Back and forth he argued through the night, probing for a way out. There was still a month to go before he could make the journey to Chesterfield. In the meantime Smith was certain to get an opportunity to catch him unawares. Impossible to keep awake and watchful for a month.
The alarm, set for seven o’clock, brought him out of bed in a cold sweat.
He muttered as he shut ii off. “I got to do something. My nerves are in wicked shape—wicked.”
When he went into the kitchen to wash he was surprised to find Smith already up and cooking breakfast. He greeted him gruffly.
“Feelin’ better?” Smith asked. “Sorry if I woke you up.”
“Guess you are,” Wolf grunted as he shoved his head into the water. “Yes, I guess you are.”
Wolf, who was an early riser, usually officiated at breakfast. His task it was to pour the coffee, cut the bread and serve the bacon. He was surprised when he reached the fable to find that Smith had usurped his place. The younger man had already served out the food and was pouring coffee from the enamel pot which served as percolator. Wolf said nothing, but reached for the cup nearest him.
Smith laid a hand on it. “Not enough sugar in that one for you. Like plenty of sugar, don’t you?” He broke off embarrassed, for Wolf was looking at him through narrowed eyes.
“So that’s the game. I got half a mind to force that coffee down your throat—and whatever else is in it.”
Wolf picked up the second cup, took it into the kitchen and sloshed its contents into the sink.
“I’ll pour my own,” he said when he returned.
The meal was nearly over when Smith announced that he was leaving for a spell. “We’re gettin’ on each other’s nerves. Maybe it’s my fault. Anyway I’m goin’ to push off for a bit. Mind if I
take Netilak and one of the teams?” Wolf thought quickly. So he was going to try and get out to civilization, that was it. Never make it alone—not across eight hundred miles of Barrens. And he would give Netilak instructions to bring him back—at all costs.
“Which way you plan goin’?” he asked. “East. Netilak says the foxes are runnin’ near the coast.”
Wolf nodded. “How long d’you figure you’ll be gone?”
“Three weeks—maybe a month.” “Sure, okay with me. Better take Netilak’s team. I’ll speak to him.”
Wolf gave Netilak careful instructions. He was to be back in thirty sleeps—at all costs.
Y\7"HEN they had gone Wolf soon vv recovered his equanimity. Indeed, he derived no little pleasure from the thought of Smith’s chagrin when he discovered that his plan to escape was foiled. He would try to persuade Netilak to accompany him—offer him bribes— but he was confident that the Eskimo would follow his instructions faithfully.
But thirty days passed and there was no sign of the two men. Believing they might be nearing camp Wolf took the second team of dogs and went down the inlet. When he had cleared the point he could see for miles along the hummocky shore ice, but there was no sign of them.
“He was desperate,” he reflected aloud. “Chances are he’s killed Netilak and taken the dogs. If I’d had any guts I should ’ve kept him here—even if it meant tying him up.”
He decided to make for Chesterfield with all possible speed and warn the police. His plans for the trip were simple. He would take Kenuk—travel light— push on regardless of weather. That evening Nana put his gear in shape, mended rips in his caribou skin clothes, packed the grub box.
It was dark when they prepared to pull out in the morning—muddy grey. There was a wind blowing from the northwest which whipped up the snow into lashing tails and stung their faces with dull pain. The thermometer, which had been dropping steadily for days, registered thirty-eight below.
“No good”. . . Kenuk, his straggling beard covered with ice, looked up and pointed to the riffle of snow driving over the hill behind the shack. “No good. Soon wind blow hard. . drift. . no see. Maybe we wait. . one, two sleeps.” Wolf shook his head. “We go; travel quick.”
The Eskimo shrugged his shoulders and busied himself harnessing the dogs, fan fashion, each on a separate trace. At last he shook the traces clear, grunted his readiness to start, and pulled out his thirty-foot whip from under the front lashing of the komatik.
Before they had gone a mile the dogs settled down to a pace which was little more than walking speed. Kenuk ran ahead of them, flapped his arms in encouragement and Wolf maintained a jog trot alongside.
For two hours they travelled before the sky was lightened by a laggard dawn. Wolf looked at his watch and saw that it was past ten. By three it would be pitch dark again. Disquieting thoughts took shape. . .they would build their igloo in the dark. . . and it was drifting harder now. . turning colder. Maybe he should have taken Kenuk’s advice and waited. . but thirty days start . . . wanted a lot of making up . .and Netilak murdered. . .never forgive himself. . . never forgive. His thoughts kept time to the soft pad, pad of his feet.
It was drifting harder. He looked up, brushed the rime from the hood of his koolitak, and saw Kenuk, less than fifty
feet in front of the dogs, as a ghostly blur in the driving mist. Presently he would vanish altogether. There would be nothing to follow save the shallow imprints of his feet in the hard snow. As he looked Kenuk turned round and stood still. He came into focus like a close-up on the screen. The dogs closed in round him and curled up in the snow.
“Boil kettle,” he grunted.
Over tea he again voiced disapproval of the trip. “No good. . He broke off into Eskimo. “This wind will blow very hard, maybe for many days. Soon be too thick to travel.”
Wolf pulled a pipe from the smoke bag slung over his shoulder, warmed the stem in his mitt so that his lips would not freeze on it.
“We go all time through drift,” he said.
In the afternoon the drift was too heavy for Kenuk to travel in front of the dogs. He ran alongside the komatik and steered the team with deft flicks of the lash. For the greater part of the day they travelled over snow which had packed hard into little wavelets as sand does after the tide has receded, but here and there were patches of glare ice on which the dogs slithered helplessly. Night found them midway across a spit of land and Kenuk counselled stopping.
“Good snow here for igloo,” he said.
Wolf would have gone on, but he knew that on the sea ice they might travel for miles without finding snow for building. Kenuk started the igloo in the lee of a ridge and as soon as the first spiral of blocks was completed Wolf began to bank up loose snow and chink between crevices.
W/HEN the igloo was finished they * ’ crawled inside. Kenuk lit a candle and arranged the sleeping skins on the floor while Wolf busied himself with the cooking. Before long the igloo was filled with vapor, so that even the flickering candle standing on a jutting ledge of snow, was distinguishable only as a yellow blur on the mist.
Wolf lost himself in morbid thoughts. The heat of the stove caused a drip to start immediately above him. A lump of slushy snow detached itself from the roof and caught him fairly on the nape of the neck. He swore luridly, but bit off the words when he heard Kenuk laugh. Should have treated it as a joke. Never curse about a trifle like that in the ordinary way. Nerves rotten.
Kenuk rose from his place, grabbed a handful of soft snow from the floor and slapped it over the drip. After dusting off his mitts he seated himself again on the sleeping skins and continued to puff at his pipe.
“Tomorrow,” he said at last, “we do not travel.”
It was a question rather than a statement of fact.
Wolf shook his head. “We go on.”
“Better to stay here in the igloo. There will be a great wind blowing so that we shall be unable to see our hands. This journey. . .there has been some evil conjuring.”
They unrolled their sleeping bags and crawled into them. Soon Wolf could hear Kenuk’s heavy breathing, but he himself remained awake long into the night. Desperately he tried to force a blankness upon his mind, but thoughts whirled through it endlessly.
On the -following day there was, as Kenuk had predicted, a great wind blowing. The snow drove by them like ice-cold steam under pressure. Only during brief lulls could they see the dogs . . . and to each other, though less than two feet separated them, they appeared formless as wraiths.
Kenuk succeeded in keeping a course by cutting at an angle the wavelets of snow formed by the prevailing wind. It was not difficult to keep to the general direction, but it was impossible to look
for good going. They could only press on blindly. The dogs were constantly fouling their traces over ice-hummocks and time after time the komatik jammed nose first under up-ended slabs.
A scant ten miles, Wolf figured, they covered that second day.
The wind dropped a little on the third day and they were able to make good time. The dogs, which had shown signs of tiring, pulled eagerly. During the midday stop they were unusually restive and howled dolefully. Not until Kenuk cracked his lash and rolled it toward them would they be quiet.
Once Wolf heard an answering howl above the swish of the wind. He wondered if by luck he had blundered into the fugitive, but Kenuk dismissed the question with a shrug and a single word.
'""THEY awakened on the morning of the fourth day to find that a side of their igloo had caved in under pressure of the wind. It was blowing harder than ever and the driving snow had piled on top of them and covered their gear. With a dexterity born of practice they succeeded in dressing inside their sleeping bags. Afterwards Kenuk crawled outside and repaired the wall as best he could.
Somehow Wolf managed to make tea, but they were compelled to eat their breakfast in darkness, for there was no way of shielding the candle from the numbing blasts which swept their shelter.
As soon as he had eaten his fill Kenuk crawled outside to harness the dogs. Wolf groped for the gear beneath an overburden of snow. By nine o’clock they were ready to hit the trail.
Wolf felt for one of the lashings of the komatik and gripped it firmly. Opposite him, in the muddy darkness, he could make out the shapeless form of Kenuk. He could hear the dogs howling above the rush of the wind; he could hear the swish of the snow against the sled like a wave swirling along a pebbly beach. He experienced a strange detachment from the world—a feeling that he was nothing more than a consciousness in whirling space.
Mechanically he started forward as he felt the lashing tauten in his mitt. It was colder than ever. The wind, striking diagonally, swept under the hood of his parka and seared his neck like a flame. His cheeks, scabbed with frostbite, were stiff as boards. Somehow the cold seemed a living thing—an enemy attacking from every point at once.
He heard a rasp as the runners of the komatik struck glare ice, and he took a firmer grip on the lashing to avoid slipping over. It was awkward travelling— keeping the sled on a reasonably straight course and at the same time leaning on it for support. Reminded him, fantastically, of two drunken men holding each other up.
The glare ice ended abruptly with a hard-packed drift up which the dogs slithered. Beyond, there was bad going. Every minute, it seemed, a yelp would warn them that one of the dogs had snagged its trace on a hummock.
Once or twice during the morning he heard the faraway howl which had disturbed him on the previous day. He knew that wolves, goaded by hunger, would attack humans. In a blizzard rifles would be useless. The thought of grey, snarling shapes leaping out of the silver darkness began to obsess him. He shouted his fears to Kenuk.
The Eskimo grunted and tapped the snow knives which he had pushed handily under the lashings of the komatik.
During the noonday stop Wolf was seized with fear that something was going to happen, something terrible. But when they started off again his mind was numbed. Monotonously he counted paces, checked the hundreds off by crooking his fingers, held arguments
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with himself as to whether he had missed such and such a step.
'VTL/’HEN disaster came he was saved from immediate death by his preoccupation. He heard Kenuk shout; heard the shout merge into an agonizing scream. He lifted his head in annoyance and stood stock still while he memorized the number he had reached. Mustn’t take another step—get all confused with the counting. What the devil did Kenuk want, anyway?
About him was confusion. The dogs blasted the drift with their howls and suddenly the howls were silenced—eerily —as if a gigantic blanket had been thrown over them. Kenuk screamed a second time and disappeared into the murk. Wolf, jerked suddenly into reality, felt the ice slipping away beneath him. The komatik began to run forward with gathering speed. He clutched at it frantically—felt himself being carried forward—felt a staggering blow on the jaw—felt himself falling, falling, falling, into a bottomless black pit.
He recovered consciousness with a jolt. He was lying on a patch of glare ice and he could see through the driving snow ahead the black shimmer of open water.
He had no doubt as to the fate which had befallen Kenuk and the dogs. They had seen the lead too late—plunged to certain death in the ice cold water. His own escape had been miraculous. A runner of the tilting sled had caught him on the jaw—knocked him senseless to safety.
Safety? He pulled his frozen lips into a smile. Far better to have pitched into the water with Kenuk. On his belly he crawled back from the water’s edge and scrambled to his feet. Now that he was alone and the prospect of warmth and shelter for the night was gone his situation seemed unendurable. He was like a doctor using all his resources to postpone inevitable death a few pain-racked minutes.
Although the way he took mattered little, he decided to continue south in the direction of the post at Chesterfield. Once he had decided upon the course he travelled mechanically—step after step, mile after mile. Toward dusk there came a lull in the storm and he could see overhead glimmering stars. Darkness closed in about him and the wfnd started up again with renewed force. He wanted to quit—but the will to live overruled hint.
All night long he fought through the
Í orm. As he struggled it came upon him ïat the wind and cold were living things -evil powers trying to force him to ibmission. He cursed them through ;iff lips, he waved his fists and dared hem to come out like men, he roared /ith insane laughter. Once he toppled ver, and minutes passed before he could lamber to his feet again. When at last íe did he found that his feet were frost>itten, and he knew that the end was /ery close.
But the will to live spurred him on ike a goad. He began to run, banging iis feet hard on the snow. Time after ,ime he stumbled over, to rise, panting ind exhausted, for another fling with leath.
DAWN came and the wind tapered off into fitful gusts that sent snakelike tails whipping over the ice. The sun, flaming red, thrust itself above the ice hummocks and tinged the driven clouds with gold. Pearl-grey shadows cut the snow.
Through glazed eyes Wolf saw the day break. For a minute he stood, swaying drunkenly from side to side, looking full into the sun. Dully he realized that the storm had passed, but it was too late. He turned about and faced the northwest. He shook his fist at the horizon as though an enemy lurked beyond the hummocks and drifts.
“I beat you,” he whispered. “Blew your worst, but you couldn’t get me down...”
His blackened lips twisted into a smile. Desperately he tried to move his legs, but they refused to obey him and like a groggy prizefighter he pitched forward on to the snow.
The luring blackness of oncoming death engulfed him. He was at peace, comfortable, pleasantly drowsy. It was . . .not so terrible. . .this business of dying.
And then, on the very verge of sleep and death, a long-drawn howl galvanized him into life—sweating with terror. Clumsily he managed to raise himself on to his knees, and saw grey shapes tearing toward him over the snow. Futilely, like a broken thing, he began to crawl away.
“Not that—God, not that,” he whispered.
There was the crack of a lash, a guttural shout, but he was too exhausted to hear or care. He sat in a daze—dimly conscious that Ken was forcing tea down his throat, thawing out his feet in ice cold water, telling him something about Kenuk—Kenuk found alive on an ice floe. Later on he remembered them lashing him to the komatik in his sleeping bag.
À WEEK later he was sitting in the police shack at Chesterfield—alone. He had not seen Ken since their arrival, for the younger man had elected to stay at the company post. Although grateful for his life Wolf could not dismiss from his mind the searing truth that Smith was a murderer. Nothing he did could expiate that.
“An’ I can’t make out why the blazes he saved my life,” he reflected aloud. “Just don’t seem reasonable—after fixin’ to shoot me.”
Morbid thoughts returned to torment him. In spite of everything he knew that it was his duty to tell the police.
There was a tap at the door. Ken entered.
“Feelin’ better?” he asked. “I figured a good rest would fix you up—that’s why I didn’t come before.”
“Feelin’ fine,” Wolf told him.
There was an uncomfortable pause. “What made you follow me?” he asked at length.
“Why. . . we were late gettin’back. . . natives told me you had gone out in a
drift. . travellin’ light. I figured there was something wrong.”
Wolf narrowed his eyes, nodded his head thoughtfully. Funny. . .which ever way you looked at it. . .there was the gun. . the coffee. . poisoned.
Didn’t seem possible he could be mistaken. Suddenly he slapped his hand on the arm of the chair. “But I don’t give a darn. You may be a murderer, but you’re a man for all that—so beat it. Take the dogs—take Netilak—an’ beat it.”
Ken looked at him with startled surprise. “What’s eatin’ you now, Wolf? Me—a murderer? Why. .you’recrazy !”
Wolf dug into his pocket and dug out the clipping. Without a word he handed it to Ken.
“That’s my uncle,” Ken whispered. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“And the photograph of—the murderer?” Wolf asked.
“That’s me. . .but. . .so that’s why you were so funny. An’ all that time I thought you had gone mad—might be dangerous.”
“But it don’t explain that,” Wolf insisted dully.
“Is that the mail?” Ken kicked two sacks on the floor.
Wolf nodded and Ken knelt down and started to pull at the seal. “D’you mind?”
The sack was upturned and a medley of parcels and papers dropped to the floor. Ken ripped open a bundle, sorted it through feverishly. Presently, trembling with excitement, he pushed a paper into Wolf’s hand.
A headline danced before Wolf’s eyes: “Butler Confesses To Murder Of Jabez Holt—Still Searching for Missing Heir.”
So that was it. The kid was innocent after all. Likely as not his uncle had joshed him that he couldn’t earn a living. He looked up.
“Say, Ken,” he said, “I—won’t blame you a darn bit if you take a pot at me now.”
“Pot—bunk—let’s forget it. Partly my fault for changing my name.”
But still Wolf looked miserable. He thought back through the months made wretched by his imaginings—months which might have been the happiest in eight long years. “An’ now it’s too late,” he said aloud.
Ken gripped his hand. “Quit worryin’,” he said. “I’m not pullin’ out. Brady and Holt, fur traders, have only just started.”