The New Partner
A drama of the North Country starring “Wickie", one-man dog, and The Woman who Conquered Fear
SEWELL PEASLEE WRIGHT
WICKIE sighed and slid his muzzle along his mighty paws, seeking a more comfortable position. He closed both eyes for a moment, and then opened one long enough to roll a strained, lazy glance over his shoulder toward the formless clouds that were rising slowly above the bush on the other side of the lake. Methodically he sniffed the breeze.
There was a storm coming. Wickie knew that from the black rim of cloud rising from the north and east. He knew it from the uneasy way the jack-pines whispered far above his head. And he knew it from the fresh damp smell of the wind that came from the direction of those heavy, snowladen clouds.
Wickie, as a matter of fact, knew a great many things. That was one reason why he was Ed Winslow’s lead dog. Ed wouldn’t have had a lead dog who didn’t know things. Ed was a bushman, and a bushman prides himself upon his dogs.
How Wickie came by his name was one of the things he didn’t know. He had some confused recollection of lean, puppy days; of people who were dark-skinned and had many children, and spoke in coarse, deep voices; a people who smelled strongly of skins and smoke and grease and sweat, and who had called him by a name that was like his present one and yet not quite the same.
Ed had shortened the Cree name when he bought the dog.
It was a very good name for a dog, as it turned out. You could say “Wickie, old boy,” very caressingly; you could call “Wickiee!” and draw out the last long syllable, and you could say “Wickie!” very sharply, accenting the first syllable so that the name sounded almost like the crack of a whip.
Most of the time, however, it was “Wickie you old scoundrel,” or “Wickie, me lad,” with a slap on the shoulder or little tug at an ear by way of expressing the friendly feeling of comradeship that a man has tor a good dog.
As for Wickie, he could grin until his wolfish muzzle lost almost all of its savagery, and his oblique huskie’s eyes seemed fairly to twinkle. And of course he could hold his
head and his plumy tail high, as any sled dog does who has the pride of his position.
Wickie groaned wearily to himself and settled his muzzle still more easily on his paws. He closed the one rolling eye. It would storm before long, and that meant a hard trip back to the big camp.
It meant shrieking winds to lean against, and soft snow to ball up under foot and clutch at the bottom of the toboggan. It meant snow matted in your coat and stinging your eyes and your nostrils, and even your tongue when you panted. And it meant wind that sucked your breath out of your lungs, so that you choked and gasped and felt weak and dizzy.
Wickie, who was trail-wise, knew all these things.
He knew, too, that the man had been acting strangely ever since they had come into the bush that fall. He had been silent and forgetful, and he had made long, profitless trips out to the big camp with the cluster of little ones around it, where they bought food and supplies and which, during previous winters, they had visited but once between the time of going in and the time of coming out.
WICKIE even knew, or thought he knew, the reason for this strange conduct. There was a stranger at the place where they bought their supplies; a slim little creature with very dark bright eyes, and a scarlet mouth like a smear of blood. She wore very beautiful furs, and had a scent like many strange flowers, not the kinds which grew in the bush during the time the moose came down to water to avoid the little flying things and yet like them, too.
Her voice was soft and friendly but it lacked the solid, reliable quality that Wickie liked in the man. And at times her voice rose in sudden unexpected sounds that made you nervous and that were meant for a laugh, for the man always joined her at such times with his deep quiet chuckle that made you feel good all over.
She was laughing now, an excited, nervous note in her voice. Wickie slanted one ear back better to pick up the sound. The man was laughing, and the others were talking in loud happy voices, and laughing too.
There were several here this time who had not been here before. A little woman with a grey, smiling face, and a man who remained close to her side; a tall, gaunt man with frosted hair and very wise old eyes. And a short round man with a very red face and very blue eyes, whose clothes were, strangely, all black beneath his long fur parka.
They came out of the big camp, still laughing and talking. Wickie leaped to his feet and turned in his traces, watching them.
The man and the girl were in the lead, walking swiftly hand in hand. Behind them were the little woman with the grey, smiling face and the tall man who had the very wise old eyes. Then there was the square-shouldered man who was always at the big camp here, and the woman who was always with him. Behind them, tucking something away in a pocket, was the short round man with the red face and the strange black clothes.
Wickie watched the man anxiously. Something had happened. Apparently it was something pleasantly exciting, and yet a lead dog cannot be too sure. He must be ready for an emergency.
They all stopped beside the toboggan. Everybody was talking at once; everybody except the round man with the very blue eyes and the black clothes. Wickie listened curiously, trying to read the voices.
“Oh, Ruth, my little girl; I’m so happy, and yet ...” “Now, mother, you know l ” “I’ll take good care of
her, Mrs. Turner; the very best I know how ...” That last was the man talking; Wickie’s man. His voice was fairly shaking.
“Of course you will, Ed; you know how these women are. Come, mother ...” The men shook hands. They did that excitedly, too. The women threw their arms around each other and made strange, choking noises.
Only the man in the black clothes seemed calm. He stood outside the little circle, smiling quietly and understandingly.
All the dogs were watching now. They knew a storm was coming up, and they were excited by all the laughing and chattering. Blue, the wheel dog, whined and snapped at the
flank of the dog ahead—a trick of his when he was angry or impatient. Wickie glanced at Blue and rumbled a soft, deep-throated warning. This was not time for a fight. But would they never cease chattering?
“ . . . not used to the bush. Oh, be good to her, Ed! Good-by, dear ...” “Good-by ...” “Good-by, Ed . . . Ruth ...” “Oh, good-by, dad ...”
The man was tucking a warm four-point blanket around the girl; the old red one that was faded and scorched to a livid salmon color. She seemed very pale as she sat there on the toboggan, her eyes large and dark and her mouth red like blood.
The red mouth moved in a tremulous, half-frightened smile.
“Like a bug in a rug,” she nodded.
The man picked up his whip. He glanced around at the little group, silent now, and gestured with one mittened hand. Then the whip cracked sharply in the thin, brittle air, and the man’s voice, deep and full of command, came reassuringly:
“All right, Wickie! Mush! Hi-ya/”
That was better. Wickie grinned as he threw himself against his little round padded collar.
Through the soft snow it was a mad scramble, then a gay, romping race down the bank to the smooth floor of the lake. Easy going there, so Wickie dropped a step, letting his traces slacken. A lead dog’s prerogative, that.
Trotting along easily, he cast a swift glance over his shoulder. The girl was seated on the toboggan, her face turned up toward the sky and the man.
He was bending low, one hand on her shoulder, as he walked along swiftly at her side. They were talking very softly, and they were both smiling.
And the eyes of both were alight with an emotion which was strange and unfamiliar to Wickie.
It made him vaguely, strangely unhappy.
THE wind freshened with every passing minute. It was beginning now to pick up little wisps of snow and send them spinning, rising and falling and twisting over the black ice. The smoky horizon of cloud had lifted until it was almost overhead, and when they passed close to the shore Wickie could hear the rapid mutter of the wind in the naked branches of the birches and poplars, and its mournful, thoughtful whistle in the fans of the jack-pines.
The man knew that the storm was about to break. Wickie could tell that he knew from the way in which he constantly urged on the dogs and from the reassuring tone of his voice as he talked to the girl.
Wickie, in his own rather hazy fashion, wondered about these things. The man had never been afraid to mush into a storm before. They had plunged into more than one howling blizzard and pushed on until they reached camp, without considering it more than a hard and disagreeable part of the day’s work.
It must be the girl—the new partner. Wickie knew all about partners.
Several years before, the man had had a partner. Slim, he had called him. A partner was another man who had a string of dogs also, and came to the big camp every six or seven days. Then after a day or two, he went one way and the man went the other way ; and that was all there was to it.
But this new partner was different. She did not do her share of the work, and she made you feel uncomfortable when she spoke. She put a sort of fear into the voice of the man, and she changed him in other ways, too.
It was the man’s habit to talk to his dogs when they stopped to rest, and look over various minor ailments such as Blue’s lame foot and the old sore on Tick’s shoulder. But with this new partner along, he paid no heed to Wickie or any of the dogs, save to crack his whip and shout at them much more often than usual.
With the big camp still an hour away, the storm broke. The first flakes came sifting down easily before a gusty little breeze, but the snow came thicker and faster every minute, and the breeze became a slashing wind that drove the snow hissing before it.
Wickie lowered his head and tail and trotted on. The soft snow made the footing uncertain and increased the drag of the loaded toboggan. Wickie took up the slack of his traces and pulled with the rest of the team—a good lead dog does not shirk when the going is hard.
They rounded the rocky point, marked by the lone crooked jack-pine that grew near the very tip. That meant they were only a short dash from camp. Around the point,
down a long pointed cove, up a few hundred yards of stream, and there you were at the little round lake and the big camp.
Just as they rounded the point and swung into the cove. Wickie saw three grey, swift shapes streaking through the smother. His hackle lifted, parting the packed snow in little rifts, and he growled softly, deep in his throat. His half-brothers, the timber wolves, were the only things in the bush that Wickie feared.
Uneasily he slackened his pace and glanced back over his snow-matted shoulder. The man and the woman looked up, and the woman cried out sharply,
“Wolves! Oh, Ed! Look!”
“Now, don’t worry, dear; they’re running away as fast as they can. They’re more anxious to get away than you are to have them. See them go?”
“Yes, but they’ll come back, Ed. I know they will! In the storm, and everything . . ” She stopped, and began making soft whimpering noises like a little puppy that is hurt or lost.
The man laughed loudly into the wind and patted her shoulder.
“Why, there’s not even a pack,” he said. "Just three of them. And this has been an easy, open winter. There’s no danger, darling. Besides, we’ll be home in just a few minutes, now—home ”
“I’m afraid,” she whimpered. “Oh, make the dogs go faster. They’re slowing up, Ed!”
“All right, dear, but don’t be frightened. Please!” The long black whip lashed out into the driving snow. “Hi-ya. Wickie! Mush on! Mush along there ! Vite! Wickie!” He spoke the name harshly, with a biting accent on the first syllable so that it sounded almost like the snap of the whip.
Wickie, watching the three swift, silent shapes disappear into the swirling gloom, growled again and picked up the pace. Unwillingly, their tails tucked between their legs and their muzzles high, searching the stinging wind, the other dogs followed him.
Wickie went on. but resentment was growing in his heart. The words he had not understood, but he knew that it was this new partner that had made the man unjustly harsh.
It was the new partner who had made so many changes in their way of living, who had caused the man to neglect his team, to deny them the words and caresses that were the reward of love and loyalty. Wickie had never been jealous before. It was a new experience, a new sensation. It made him sullen and unhappy.
He went on, picking his way unerringly through the storm, down the cove, along the frozen stream—with its drifts through which the man should have broken trail instead of leaving the dogs to struggle through as best they could—out on to the little round lake, and finally up the steep, short trail to the big camp, cold and silent and banked high with snow. Before the door, Wickie stopped and stood waiting, eyeing his warm, snug kennel at one side of the
But the man did not come up at once, according to his custom, and unharness the dogs immediately. Instead, he carefully unwrapped the snow-packed folds of the old fourpoint blanket and lifted the girl to her feet.
“Home, darling,” said the man, laughing queerly into the face of the storm. “Our home.”
THE girl looked around the little clearing, with its grim surrounding wall of black jack-pines, and out across the little lake, hazy and grey in the storm, the opposite shore lost in the smother. Last of all, as though she dreaded the vision, she glanced at the camp, with its neatly squared corners of interlocking logs, its overhanging eaves weighted down with icicles, and its battened door drifted latch-high with snow.
"Oh,” she cried, and there was still a sort of whimper in her voice, “take me inside, Ed. I’m so cold and cramped and tired.”
The man laughed again and swung her up into his arms. Ploughing through the snow to the door, he lifted the latch with his knee and carried her over the threshold. He put her down inside, and hastily cleared away the drifted snow so that he could close the door.
She said something in a weary voice, and he replied with a few words, cheery and reassuring; and yet it seemed to Wickie whose ears were very sharp, that there was a note of disappointment or of hurt in the man’s voice.
Then the door closed and the latch clicked in place. There were sounds of movements from within. The man and the girl were talking in low, disjointed sentences. There was the sound of kindling breaking into fine splinters in the mah’s hands; the swift, oily crackle of birch bark burning, and the snapping of the kindling as it caught.
The good smell of wood smoke whipped in the wind. The flames hummed waveringly in the chimney as the wind waxed and waned ; rose finally to a deep-throated roar. And
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still the dogs stood in their traces, their backs turned to the storm, moving about uneasily and whining their impatience.
They were home. Their work was done— and it had been hard work. Their kennels were waiting, warm and snug.
Yet the man left them standing out in the storm, with the wind stinging their muzzles and sucking the breath from their lungs, while the snow packed deeper and deeper in their shaggy coats.
It was the new partner, decided Wickie; the new partner.
He stared unwinkingly at the door of the camp, his yellowish, oblique eyes narrowed and hard.
The new partner.
Wickie hated the new partner.
YY niEN they started out on the trail VV three or four days later, Wickie hoped that things would be different; that the man would be the same old companion of the trail. He was disappointed.
The new partner had cried when they left, and the man had stopped the team at the edge of the clearing to go back and comfort her.
“But. darling. I’ll be back in just a few days! And there’s wood enough all piled up by the stove to last you through, and all those books we brought in for you to read. You shouldn’t be too lonesome.”
“I know. But suppose something should happen to you? What would I do?”
The man hesitated just a moment, then his laugh rang out clear and strong.
“Don’t worry about that, Ruth. I’ve lived in the bush nearly ten years. I’ll be back Friday night, sure. It may be after dark but I’ll be here. Now, smile for me, can’t you?”
“Of course, Ed. I’m just a selfish little fool, I guess.” And after a time he had come hurrying back to the dogs, and they had gone on down the trail, the man swinging along ahead, breaking trail through the new fallen snow.
rT"'HAT night, at their first lay-over camp, he unharnessed the dogs quickly and silently. There was an anxious, worried look on his face and in his eyes. He fed the dogs silently and stood for a moment beside Wickie, staring moodily down the trail through the rapidly gathering dusk.
“I wonder how your new missus is, Wickie?” muttered the man. But his eyes were not on the dog; they were fixed along the trail on which they had just come. "Poor kid; it’s her first night all alone in the bush. Perhaps ...” He paused a moment, and the troubled look deepened in his eyes. “Poor little Ruth.” he sighed, and strode back to the little lay-over camp with his head bowed on his chest.
The next day and the next it was the same. It was the same all the days that they were out on the trail. The last day the man pushed the dogs at top speed, so that they arrived at the big headquarters camp just as dusk fell.
As he came into the clearing the man shouted joyously, and the new partner, pulling on her fine fur parka as she came, ran out to meet them. The man wrapped her hungrily in his long, strong arms.
Wickie watched them with smoldering eyes. This was no true partner. She did not go out on another trail when the man was working. She had changed the man; had made him anxious, unhappy. She made him neglect his dogs. She made him forget everything except herself.
The new partner made no effort to help the man unharness the dogs; instead she seemed to get in his way. And she talked constantly in her woman’s voice which Wickie did not like.
“Oh, I’ve been so lonesome, Ed! And so frightened ! Last night I could hear a whole pack of wolves howling; close, too. It seemed as though the days would never pass.”
“I know how it must have been. I was thinking about you all the time and worry-
ing about you. But you’ll become used to it. dear. After all. this is your country,
“No! It’s different in town, Ed, even though the bush is all around. There are stores, and other people, and trains. Here it is so silent and lonely and sort of—sort of threatening. As though something was just waiting to get you.”
“You’ll soon get over feeling that way about the bush, honey. I should think that staying there with your uncle at the Post would have given you a taste of it.”
“But I wasn’t alone. That’s what makes it terrible; being alone out here in the bush.”
She turned away, and started crying. The man hurriedly finished with the dogs, and then, putting his arms around her shoulders, led her into the house, talking gently, lovingly, the way he had talked to Wickie the time he had cut his foot so badly.
The man came out later in the darkness and fed the dogs a hot, steaming, grateful meal. Then he hurried back into the camp with its one square, yellow window.
Wickie, his meal finished, stared at that window from the shelter of his kennel.
No, she was no partner. Wickie knew about partners. The one that came in off the trail first and had the most time to rest always fed the dogs and did the other little chores around the camp, such as getting up wood for the night and going down to the lake for water.
But this one did none of these things. She merely talked and made the man unhappy. And worse, she made those strange, disturbing sounds like a little puppy that is hurt or lost.
She had changed the man ; had taken him away from Wickie and the rest of the team.
Wickie hated her.
'T'HE next morning the man came out, whistling softly under his breath, and harnessed the team. Wickie watched the proceedings with amazement and resentment.
After five or six days on the trail, you came back to the big camp and rested for a couple of days. They had just got in the night before, and now the man was putting on the harness again. Was this some further effect of the new partner’s presence?
It was, quite evidently, for as soon as the team was ready, the man went back into the camp and came out with her. Both were dressed for the trail.
“It’s easy, dear,” the man was saying.
“But I don’t want to learn to drive the dogs, Ed,” she protested. “I don’t care about them. And they don’t like me. That lead dog of yours positively hates me. I can see it in his eyes.”
“Wickie?” The man laughed reassuringly. “Why he’s the best natured old huskie in the world. Aren’t you, Wickie?”
Wickie looked up at the man and grinned, his breath steaming before his eyes.
"See?” said the man triumphantly. “I’ll show you how to drive them, and then I’ll leave Wickie and Dodo with you—he’s the one with the funny face and the brown spots, just ahead of Blue. Then you can mush around the lake and along the trails. If you say so, I’ll put out a few sets for you, and what you take will be your very own. Slim Whitesides’s wife and Dutch Neidert’s both have their own little lines near camp. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“No. I’m afraid of the bush, Ed. But if you want me to learn to drive the dogs, I suppose you’ll have your way about it. That’s the way a man is when he gets an idea in his head. Come on, let’s start.”
The man turned away, looked at the dogs. Wickie could see that the hurt, troubled look was deeper than ever in his eyes.
“I’m sorry you feel that way about it, dear,” he said after a moment’s pause. “I was thinking of you when I suggested it. Well, anyway, here we go!” He forced a certain degree of gaiety into his voice but he could not fool Wickie. Wickie had a sharp ear.
It was a very simple lesson. It irritated Wickie. A partner should know the meaning of “Mush,” and “Gee” and “Haw.” And this partner couldn’t even remember whether “gee” meant right or left.
The man showed her how to harness and unharness, too. They started in on Wickie, but as soon as she bent over him Wickie rumbled a warning, deep in his throat, and his black lips twitched back until his teeth were bared. He couldn’t help it; he hated this new partner.
“Wickie!” There was more anger in the man’s voice than Wickie had ever heard before. The name sounded exactly like the crack of a whip. “Don’t you dare do that again! Aren’t you ashamed?”
Wickie crouched and hung his head, and refused to meet the man’s eyes. That tone of voice hurt him more than the whip.
“You see?” The girl’s voice was triumphant, bitter. “He hates me. I’m afraid of him. Don’t leave him.”
“No, he doesn’t hate you, dear. He just doesn’t understand. And Tick isn’t broken in enough to leave with you. It’ll take me weeks to make a decent lead dog out of him. Go ahead and pat Wickie; he’ll make up with you.”
“He won’t; he hates me.” But she reached out her hand, very cautiously, and stroked Wickie’s head. Wickie bore it in bitter silence because that was evidently the man’s wish.
“There! That’s all there is to it!” cried the man happily. “You have to be introduced to a huskie, dear. He’ll be all right now. Go ahead and take off his harness. Just unsnap the traces and then unbuckle that one strap—that’s it. Fine! Now it comes right off over his head, collar and all. Why, you’re a regular old timer, honey!” The girl smiled rather uncertainly, and together they finished the job.
TT WAS the morning of the second day after the lesson that Wickie learned what the man’s words had meant. The man harnessed only three of his dogs, putting Tick in at the head of the little string, and leaving Wickie and Dodo tugging at the chains which held them to their kennels.
“Good-by, dear; have a good time. Play around with the dogs and get used to the bush. You’ll learn to love it like all the rest of us. Take the little rifle with you if you’re afraid. I’ll be back Friday, and I want you to put on an exhibition of plain and fancy mushing for me. Will you?”
“I’ll try, Ed. Be careful, won’t you?” The man put his arms around her and kissed her.
“Of course, dear. Life’s pretty precious with you in it. ’By!”
He spoke to the dogs, and they trotted down the trail. Tick glancing back wonderingly over his shoulder.
Wickie watched them without moving, his oblique, yellowish eyes stony and expressionless. When the man was out of sight, he crawled back in his kennel, his muzzle upon his paws.
In the afternoon the girl came up with Wickie s harness.
"Wickie! Come on out, boy. Come on!” Wickie rose and stalked out of his kennel, his chain clinking musically in the snow. He glanced at the harness and then up into the girl’s face.
He hated her. and because he hated her the hackle rose stiffly on his shoulders and the deep, rumbling warning of his kind quivered in his throat. The girl backed away hastily, the harness trailing. From a point of safety she stared at Wickie for a moment, and then with a little cry of anger and impatience she hurried back to camp and flung the harness on its peg. A moment later the door slammed shut behind her.
Wickie stared after her thoughtfully. She was afraid. Of all things, Wickie hated cowardice the most. With a sound that was half a sigh and half a grunt of contempt, Wickie turned and sought the comfortable gloom of his kennel.
The next day and the next she came to Wickie’s kennel with his harness, and each time he came out and stared at her with his hackle bristling and that deep note of warning in his throat. And each time she took the harness back and flung it angrily upon its peg.
The last time, from the comer of the camp, she turned and stamped her foot like an angry deer.
“You big ugly brute! Ugh, how I hate you! But I’ll try every day. Every day. And then when he comes back I’ll tell him, and that will be the end of this foolishness. You might as well be working out there on the trail instead of laying around and eating. You snarling lummox!”
What a weak, cowardly creature to take for a partner !
'“PHAT evening she flung Wickie’s food -*■ at him grudgingly. Wickie, understanding her mood, ate with relish, and later, when the moon came up, he howled dismally with his muzzle pointed straight at the sky.
The light went out of the square yellow window for a time, and then, as the moon sailed higher, it glared with the cold, reflected blue light that came from the sky.
It was very quiet, for there was no wind. The only sound that broke the utter stillness was the faint clamor of a hunting wolf pack, miles and miles away, and once the querulous call of an owl hunting on the far side of the lake.
Then, strangely enough, the blue vacant glare of the moon on the little panes of the window gave way to another light—an uncertain, dancing, reddish light that came from within the camp.
Wickie watched it curiously, a vague feeling of unrest growing every instant.
The light grew brighter. From red it changed to orange and then to yellow. A flame flickered across the window—another —a solid, wavering wall of fire.
He could hear the crackle of it now. He could see smoke curling out under the eaves through the heavy foliage fringe of icicles. He could even smell it. Something was wrong !
Wickie shot out of his kennel to the length of his chain. Excitedly he howled his warning—a sharp, wavering sound that cut through the icy air and came back in echoes from distant hills.
Dodo, aroused by the commotion, began barking in sympathy.
There was a sudden muffled scream from inside the camp; a sound of running feet. The door flew open and the girl staggered out into the moonlight, wrapped in a dragging blanket, her face nearly as white as the snow and her eyes large and round with fear.
“Fire! Fire!” she screamed. ‘Oh, Ed! It’s burning up—everything!”
SHE stood there for a moment, pulling the blanket closer around her, shivering. Smoke and little darting flames came out at her from behind the open door.
Wickie, silenced for a moment, watched her curiously. Here was danger, a rather terrible danger. What would she do?
The girl stared, as though fascinated, into the camp, and then suddenly she gritted her teeth and darted inside. Wickie howled an unheeded warning, and Dodo danced, barking frantically, at the end of his chain.
She was out in a moment, a heavy bundle of fur in her arms and her feet stuck in flapping, high-laced pacs. She threw the bundle far out into the snow and dodged back into the smoke and flames, the blanket pulled cowl-like over her head.
She came out with another bundle and ran back into the camp. The window was a solid square of writhing yellow flame now, and the smoke was fairly pouring out beneath the eaves. One whole side of the camp was ablaze.
Six trips she made, and was going in again when the black smoke pouring out from the doorway suddenly disappeared in a
bright puff of flame and an impenetrable wall of fire curtained the entrance.
The girl fell back, panting and coughing, staring at the spectacle. After a moment’s rest she ran up to the camp and snatched the two pairs of harness from their pegs. She withdrew to a safe distance with the harnesses slung over one shoulder, dragging the toboggan, that had been leaning against the camp, with the other hand.
Little spurts of flame licked out beneath the eaves and between the logs where the chinking had burned away. The icicles melted swiftly and fell into the snow. The glass in the window snapped in the heat and dropped, hissing, beside the icicles. Smoke and flame poured out through the window, and the heat made Wickie blink. Dodo was on top of his kennel, barking and pulling at his chain, his eyes glazed with fright.
For the first time, it seemed, the girl noticed the dogs. She came running up to them, dragging the harnesses.
“Dodo! Be quiet!” she snapped, and Wickie hardly recognized her voice. "Dodo ! Let me—there!” She tightened the strap around the dog’s middle until he grunted and picked up the dangling traces. A moment later Dodo was fastened to the toboggan and she was back at Wickie’s kennel.
“All right, Wickie,” she said quietly enough. “Come here, boy !”
Wickie glanced up at her and bared his teeth. The warning in his throat rose even above the sullen roar of the flames.
"Wickie!” She snatched up one of the traces and swung an end, armed with its heavy snap, suggestively in her hand. Wickie braced himself, flattening his ears and snarling.
Instantly, the end of the trace lashed him across the flank. It was as sharp, as painful, as any blow Wickie had received in years. He turned his head swiftly and stared up at her in surprise. How did she dare . . .
“Now behave yourself, Wickie! You’re going to be harnessed and I’m going to do it. Will you be good?”
The collar came closer, closer. It was a case of either snap at the hand that held the collar or let it slip over your head. And it was her hand—the hand of the partner Wickie hated.
But—the loose end of the trace was ready. Wickie knew from the tone of her voice that she would not hesitate to use it again. The metal snap was heavy; it was as bad as the stinging tip end of a dog-whip’s lash.
Wickie hesitated. The girl did not. The collar slipped on over his head, the strap around his belly was tightened—too tight, but then a partner like this could not be expected to know better—and Wickie was on his way to the toboggan, to be instantly snapped in ahead of Dodo.
“Good boy, Wickie,” she cried rather breathlessly. "I hated to hit you. If you hadn’t howled so and awakened me ... I was dreaming such terrible dreams ...”
All the time she was busy piling things on the toboggan. When she had finished, there was only a little bundle of clothes left, and these she drew on hastily, while Wickie watched the roaring furnace that had been a camp. Watched it furtively, with quick, nervous, sidelong glances, for the roar and the heat of it frightened him.
The girl slipped into her snowshoes. They had been stuck in a drift near the house, and although the heat had stiffened the babiche they were otherwise uninjured.
Clad in her long parka of fine skins, she strode to the head of the team.
“Mush on, Wickie! Mush!” she ordered, and went on ahead, breaking trail rather clumsily, Wickie thought, around the edge of the clearing.
She came to the beginning of the trail; not the trail the man had taken three days before, but the one along which he would return in two days. It seemed to Wickie that was the wrong trail ; they should have followed the man. He would know what to do. Wickie felt the need of the man’s presence, of his deep, reassuring voice . . .
“Mush, Wickie. Hi-ya! Mush !” ordered the new partner sharply, as Wickie hesitated. “Come along, boy!”
Wickie glanced up at her and suddenly he laughed.
Her high woman’s voice was amusing with that note of command in it. But she seemed to know what she wanted to do. and after all Wickie was used to obeying commands.
Obediently he followed her along the trail that led away from the red ruin in the clearing.
'“THE light behind them died slowly away and the red glare faded from the sky. The silence and the black-and-silver loneliness of the bush in the moonlight closed in around them.
From somewhere, closer than when Wickie had first heard them, the wolf pack howled ; and the girl hesitated a moment, waiting for the team to come up, as though she sought their protection.
They went on and on along the trail. The girl’s snowshoes began to clack with weariness, the dragging frames beating against each other with every step. Now and then she rested for a moment, seated on a windfall, while the two dogs stretched out in the snow and panted gratefully. For two dogs, there was a big load on the toboggan.
The hours dragged by. The sky to the south and east lightened, and after a time the sun came up. But there still was nothing before them but the barely discernible trail marked by its careless blazes.
The girl rested more often now. And each time when she went on, her head dangled more wearily, her shoulders slumped more despondently, and her feet dragged past one another more slowly—more slowly.
She looked behind at the dogs only at long intervals. She did not speak to them; breath was too precious. Wickie was glad she did not go faster and that she rested often, for both he and Dodo were very weary. They were struggling with a load that would have been light for the full team, but which was much more than two dogs should be expected to pull.
But they kept on. The sun mounted higher and higher. Its grateful warmth took some of the chill out of the air, and that helped, but not much. Only rest and sleep are full cures for trail weariness.
At last the girl cried out softly and looked back at the dogs. Her face was strained and haggard, and there were dark circles under her great dark eyes. She tried to smile, and her voice as she spoke was hoarse and uncertain.
‘ ‘Camp, boys ! ” she whispered. ‘Come on, Wickie. Bravely, now !”
Ahead was a tiny clearing and a tiny camp. One of the lay-over camps. The last one in the circuit of the trap line before you came to the big headquarters camp that was now only a black rectangle of ruin in the clearing by the little round lake.
Wickie looked up at her and laughed. It was good. Camp was close, and there were kennels. The girl turned and staggered on, and the dogs followed with new strength in their trembling limbs.
They stopped before the door of the little camp, and the girl leaned against the rough logs for a moment, gathering up the remainder of her strength. Then, with fumbling fingers, she unsnapped Wickie’s traces and led him to a kennel.
It wasn’t his kennel, but then she couldn’t know. She unbuckled the harness and dragged it back to the camp. Then she came with Dodo and tied him out, too.
She was just starting back to the camp when a faint clear voice came to them out of the bush. Wickie pricked his ears and looked down the trail. Not the trail along which they had come, but the one leading to the camp from the opposite direction.
Wickie knew that voice. It was the man’s.
“Tick!” the voice said. “Mush! Mush
The girl knew that voice, too. She whispered something that Wickie did not understand, and knelt there in the snow between the two kennels, staring down the trail from whence that voice had come.
For a little time there was no sound and then, much closer, the man spoke again.
“Good boys! Mush . . . Mush on boys!”
He was pleading with them, and his whole heart was in his voice. “Tick . . . We’ve got to make it . Hi-ya!”
The three came into view, the man lurching down the trail ahead of the three weary dogs. The man’s head was bowed; he did not see them at all.
Then the girl rose to her feet and called out to him.
“Ed! Oh, Ed! Here—here I am, dear!”
The man looked up, and stood swaying in his tracks. Uncertainly, he drew the furry sleeve of his parka across his eyes.
"Ruth?” he muttered, so softly that even Wickie’s sharp ears barely caught the sound. "Ruth?” And then suddenly he came running awkwardly, and with a sharp inarticulate cry took her in his arms.
V\ T’ICKIE watched them with his yellowW ish oblique eyes. He wondered dimly why they stood there and talked when they were both so weary their knees buckled
under them. Talk was not an important thing. Neither cared what the other said anyway, for each was constantly interrupting.
“But, Ed, how did you know that—’ “The fire lit up the whole sky, dear. The dogs saw it and started barking. I was almost sure it was the camp, so—”
"But how did the dogs ever stand it? All day and then—”
“They’re good dogs. But, darling, I can’t—”
“Oh, Ed, it was terrible. The flames roared clear up to the sky and the heat was blistering. But I couldn’t see all the fur and the food burn up, not after you’d worked so hard and we’d planned—”
“And you got the stuff out and mushed all this way? It’s a good day’s trip between my lay-over camps, young lady. And at night, too! Weren’t you afraid?”
The new partner reached up and put her
arms around the man’s neck. She smiled, and her eyes were beautiful.
“No—not very, Ed. I just forgot to be afraid—most of the time. It just had to be done. And I think—I was ashamed to be
“Yes. Wickie was right behind me, watching. Wickie”—she laughed a queer, nervous little laugh—“Wickie hasn’t approved of me. I was afraid of him—and the bush. It’s kind of funny, but I wanted him to like me. He seemed to hate me so. I guess that’s the woman of it, Ed.
“It was Wickie that woke me up. And after I bluffed him and put the harness on him, he—laughed at me. Did you know Wickie could laugh?”
“Of course,” chuckled the man. He glanced at Wickie and one eye closed and opened swiftly. Wickie grinned at that friendly signal.
“Well, then I wasn't afraid of him any
more. I had to harness him and get the stuff to a camp, and so I did. I knew you’d be coming along this trail by tonight anyway, and you’d find me. And, somehow, Wickie and Dodo and I, we made it. Didn’t we, Wickie?”
She reached down fearlessly and tweaked Wickie’s ear. Wickie lifted his head and glanced at the man. The man was smiling very happily, and his eyes were as bright as the stars on a cold, clear night.
Wickie laughed, his breath steaming around his muzzle frostily, and the man slapped him affectionately across his shoulder.
“Wickie, me lad.” he said softly, caressingly. “We’re partners, aren’t we—the whole outfit of us?”
And because Wickie was a lead dog and very wise he laughed again. And the man and his new partner looked into each other’s eyes with new-born understanding and laughed with him.