THE GOLDEN DRAGON OF YELLOWKNIFE
A Maclean’s Novelette complete in this issue by FRANCES SHELLEY WEES
THE PLANE was moored at the end of the narrow-planked dock, its grey wings catching glints of morning sun as the floats lifted and fell on the faintly moving water. The wide centre door stood open, and through it Henry and the boys were loading their supplies. Mary sat on the wharf piling and watched, her hand quieting the shivering excitement in Jennie’s small delicate shoulder as the child stood beside her.
The rolled tent had been pushed into the back of the plane. The canvas packsacks filled with their miner’s hammers, the acid bottles, even indelible pencils for the stakes, lay upon it. The dynamite was in the plane. The paddles had gone in first, to lie fiat on the floor. On the far float, the men had lashed the long canoe. From the end of the wharf Bert lifted the fat soft roll of the blue sleeping bags and handed if. across to Henry. They were the best sleeping bags, waterproof lined with wool, filled with eiderdown.
Jennie whispered, “They’ll sleep warm, Mommie.”
Here at Yellowknife in the August morning the air was balmy and soft, but Henry and the boys were going north, two or three hundred miles into the bush, and for two weeks. Anything could happen in two weeks, even freeze-up, although that was unlikely so early. The nights could turn bitterly cold. It wouldn’t matter. With these sleeping bags Henry and the boys would sleep warm.
Young Andy was in the plane with Henry, helping stow cargo. He was burning to go, but he couldn’t.
Henry came to the plane door, his old felt hat pushed back on his head, his face pink with exertion and happiness. He stood looking over the stack of food boxes that Kruger had sent, down from the store. He had made up his food list carefully. There wasn’t a penny to spare, and Henry had a way of thinking he could go without. There had been much hunger in the past and they all knew how to face it, but hunger was a vicious enemy and not one to harass this dream, this longed-for venture of Henry’s. The pile seemed pitifully small. A pang went through Mary’s heart, an old familiar pang, to think that she would not be with them to manage, to make the food stretch out, to try to make sure that they ate regularly and that each one got enough. What she had to remember was that for once there was enough . . . cans of pork and beans, cheese, flour and sugar and coffee, even some cans of milk; and a good supply of meat, eggs and bacon and half a big ham. There was plenty.
Joe came loping along the path from their cabin down along the shore at the left. He had gone back for something. He stopped beside his mother and sister, to tweak one of Jennie’s long fair pigtails and show her what was in his hand. It was a block of wood, with a vague shape beginning to emerge from it. ‘T forgot your rabbit,” he explained, “Dad’ll likely stop prospecting long enough evenings so as I can finish it.” He dropped the half-carved block into his jacket pocket and went on, to lift one of the boxes of food and hand it in to his father.
Jennie turned and looked quickly at her mother, her blue eyes deep. Jennie understood too much of people’s feelings. She was like a small clear pool, reflecting everything, moved by everything. She said nothing.
Bert and Joe handed the boxes of food over to Henry, Joe quick and sure, Bert slower, more careful.
Bert was big and handsome, much handsomer than either Joe or Henry, with his half-curly black hair and his black-brown eyes.
Older than Joe, Bert had seen more of the bad years and he was more apprehensive. He didn’t understand life very well. Some of the important things he didn’t understand at all.
There was a flutter of color and movement at the right, and Mary turned. The young pilot, Morrison, was coming, sauntering down the path from the town, and Nell Ormick was with him, her hands pushed into the pockets of brown slacks, a red sweater above them.
Bert caught sight of them. He stood for a second with the packing box in his arms looking, and then turned to hand it to Henry. He stood as if he were watching his father stow it away, and his shoulders were stiff and square under the grey flannel shirt.
Joe glanced at Bert, caught sight of the pilot and Nell, grinned and said, “Well, look who’s here! You come down to bring us a horseshoe, or something?”
Nell flashed a glance at him, bright and insolent. She had not come here to see him, anyway, the glance said.
She was a small girl, rounded, with thick curls as black as Bert’s, tied back with a red ribbon. Her lips were full, pouting, and she carried her breasts high, flaunting them. The young pilot couldn’t keep his eyes off her. He was not much older than Bert, twenty-one or so, but he had a narrow look, almost shifty. Probably he understood this girl as Bert did not. She had no power to hurt him.
She came along the wharf and passed Mary and Jennie. She looked at them briefly. “Hello,” she said.
Jennie stared at her. Mary did not reply. The girl had not really been speaking to her, scarcely knew she was there. Her eyes were on Bert. “Thought I better come down and wish you luck,” she told him.
Joe said brashly, “Yeah, a good idea. He might come back a millionaire. You got to keep your insurance up.”
The pilot said coldly, “You guys loaded? Might as well get going.”
Henry hopped out of the plane, and Andy, with a last regretful glance over the dunnage, hopped out after him. Henry’s blue shirt was marked with sweat. He hauled up his belt, tightened it. He glanced at Nell Ormick, standing with Bert, and then came to Alary. “We’re all set.”
The pilot moved along. He and Joe checked again the canoe on the far float, and he got in to examine the placing of the cargo. He knew his responsibilities, even if he didn’t seem to care too much about his job. He was probably trustworthy.
Mary stood up. She was exactly the same height as Henry. She looked into his burning blue eyes, as eager as they had been on the day she had met him. He was young to her, as young as on that first day, with his quick springy step, his never-failing energy, his ways of getting around trouble, his eagerness, his love.
She said, “You’d better put on your Mackinaw, Henry. And don’t lay it down on a rock out there on your dragon, and go off and forget it.”
But their eyes met for half a second, and everything was said.
THE MEN were in the plane, Henry beside the pilot, the boys in the back. The doors closed.
Mary and Jennie and Andy stood together at the very end of the wharf. Nell Ormick was already on her way back to the town, with Bert peering from the glass door panel after her. Joe winked at Jennie and crossed his fingers at Andy, who answered with the same gesture. Henry was looking with an odd anxiety at Mary, the first hint of anxiety. She smiled at him warmly, and he relaxed.
The motor roared. The plane slid away from the wharf, turned, skimmed over the water, hesitated, rushed forward and then lifted. It was above the trees, turning, swinging to the north; it was a bird in the blue, smaller and smaller. It was gone. The sound of the engines died away.
Mary turned. Her hand was holding Jennie’s tightly. Andy looked up at her, and the blue eyes so like his father’s were bright with tears. They met hers frankly. “I wanted to go something awful, Mom.”
“I know, Andy.”
“There wasn’t another sleeping bag. But I didn’t care. I’d have made out. Maybe there wasn’t enough grub. I’d have fished for them, or hunted. I wanted to go.”
“There’ll be lots more chances for you.”
He said quickly, “You mean you don’t think Dad’s going to find his gold after all?”
“Even if he does, you’ve got your own gold to look for.”
“Yeah,” he said thoughtfully. Someone was running down the path from town, a big figure, burly, carrying a roped box in each hand. It was Kruger, from the store.
Mary stopped. She stared up the slope at him. As he came in sight of the dock he stopped too, and let the boxes down slowly. He stood there, not moving, waiting for them to come up to him. His broad red face was miserable.
Andy said, “What’d they forget?” “It wasn’t them. It was me. I told that damned young pilot to bring down these boxes. I thought he had. He carried them outside, right enough.
But that Ormick girl come along, and the boys said he walked off with her. I ought to’ve had brains enough to . . . a green kid, that’s what he is. He oughtn’t to be up here flying, we ain’t got no place for the likes of him.”
“What’s in the boxes?” Mary asked.
“Hell, it’s all their meat and eggs. I was packing it at the last, getting it out of the ice to pack it.” His faded eyes rested on Mary’s face.
A chipmunk ran down a jackpine at the side of the path and sat listening, his eye bright.
It was Andy who said, “Heck, if it
had to be anything, meat was the best thing. They’ve got guns. They’re swell hunters.”
Kruger took a long breath. He nodded.
After a minute Mary said, “You couldn’t help it, Kruger. It’s not your fault.”
“I wish I knew how to fix it. Maybe we ought to send that guy back in tomorrow. He’ll be the only one knows where to find them. Alaybe that’s the thing to do.”
“He’s charging eighty-five dollars one way,” Mary said.
“Well, eighty-five dollars ... if Henry’s needing the meat . . .” he stopped. A blank look spread over his face.
“What is it?”
“He ain’t cornin’ back here. He’s goin’ up to Edmonton. He’s tryin’ to get into the Air Force. They told him to be down for some kind of test in the next few days. He’s been sick all winter, he has to take a lot of tests. Alaybe he won’t come in again until time to go for Henry, in two weeks. And there ain’t a soul knows where Henry’s gone but him.” He took off his checked cap and rubbed his bald head. “Sometimes I think there’s too damn much hush-hush up here. This here keepin’ things quiet about where the gold is is all right up to a point, but it puts an awful load on one spot. Do you know where Henry’s gone?” He looked at her directly.
“I do,” Andy said excitedly. “I could find them, 1 know I could. T’m sure of it. I’ve heard Dad tell it so much, I could find them.”
Kruger shook his head. “It’s a big country, lookin’ down from the sky,
kid. If they was lookin’ for you, sendin’ up smoke, you might find them. If they ain’t, if they don’t want no plane to see them, you might as well forget it unless you know within a pretty small territory.”
Jennie, standing close against her mother, began to shiver again. Mary said evenly, “Andy’s right. They’re all good hunters. If they’ve got matches and coffee and bread and the other things, they’ll make out.” She managed a smile. “Henry always makes out, Kruger.”
Mary walked back to the cabin, over
the packed earth of the trail, past the poplars, past a stand of fragrant spruce, dipping down into a grove of wolfwillow and up again to the clearing through the pines. Jennie walked beside her, silent.
TWO HOURS out of Yellowknife, Henry bent forward suddenly and looked away ahead of the plane, toward a long break in the trees lying on the earth like a ragged blanket. From this distance the break looked like a scar, like a tear in the blanket, a long narrow crooked torn place. As he saw it, the
pilot veered north again, as if he had let himself get off course and was straightening out. Henry glanced up at the thin dark face, disinterested, a closed face behind which the boy was thinking his own thoughts.
He leaned over and yelled, “Slide over east a few miles. See that break?
I want to have a look.”
Morrison nodded and swung the plane back. He dropped down a hundred feet or so. The plane passed three small lakes in a row, a chain of round beads, moved again over thick evergreens, and then came to the beginning of the break. It was a ridge of rock that lay below, long and twisting, a bare ridge, broad at this southern end, tapering off to the north into a bent tail, with two wings as plain as the wings of a bird, stretching off one to each side. Rut it was not the shape of any bird which lay below —but of a dragon, shaped and molded out of the bare hard rock.
Henry turned and looked at the boys. Roth pairs of eyes were startled. They knew what he was seeing, what he had seen on that trip two months ago, and they were seeing it too. Rert’s eyes had gone black and remote. Joe’s were sparkling with excitement.
This thing about the dragon, Henry knew quite well, was silly. Rut it had always been his particular story, about a boy named Jason and a hideous, threatening, dangerous dragon. His father had told it to him when he was not much more than a baby, and he knew well why, out of all the Jason boys, his father had given the legend to him for his own. He was small, the smallest of the family, the youngest, and his father had been trying to give him something special of his own, a special strength and courage that he could use all bis life. That dragon in the old story, a Greek story, had been guarding the biggest treasure in the world, and be was very strong and clever; but still young Jason had been stronger, and cleverer, and bolder, and he had tricked the monster at last and killed it, and he had taken away the gold.
He stared ahead. There was a good-sized lake at the tail end of the dragon, and just, offshore a little threecornered island, as if the long tail had dipped down under the water and its tip was sticking up.
He edged over on his seat and yelled to the pilot, “That lake suits me, I guess. See that island? You can set us down there.”
The pilot peered down at it. In some ways he was careful enough, this green kid. He was a good flyer and he was careful of his plane.
The sight of the dragon, so plain and clear, was almost more than Henry could stand. For two months he had been dreaming of it, telling Mary and the boys about it, but back in his mind he had been thinking secretly that he must have imagined some of it. The rock in this country came up through the overburden in patches, irregular and meaningless; a man didn’t know where to start prospecting. Men went out and tramped over the country for a lifetime, trying to find something different, some special formation, a streak of rock that came from a particular underground fold or sweep that might carry the hidden gold. Why had no one seen this strange and striking formation until now? Plenty of men had flown over it. He, Henry, hadn’t had much chance to fly until last June. His trip north to Johnson Lake had been his first long flight, and he had seen the dragon then. He hadn’t been able to believe that Peters, the man from Toronto flying in with a geologist and an engineer, wouldn’t look down and see the dragon and say at once, “There it is . . . set us down there.”
Peters hadn’t paid any attention to the dragon. He had a folder of maps and notes that had belonged to some prospector who had been killed in an accident. He was a stockbroker, and a rich man, and of course anybody would want to make a strike, but his trip down north was nothing urgent. He wanted to look over the country the dead prospector had thought might be interesting. Henry had been hired in Yellowknife to check over supplies, and then to ride with the pilot in the plane chartered in Edmonton and help set up camp. He, Henry Jason, had a reputation for a close mouth, and he wasn’t supposed to be a prospector. He ran a water taxi in Yellowknife, brought in logs for the electric light poles, built cabins for newcomers, and was a general handy man in the town. Nohody knew that he was a prospector at heart and had just been biding his time.
This was gold-heavy rock.
riAHE PLANE circled again over the 1 little island. It was bare; only that spur of rock, with a few pines, some clumps of birch, a little grove of spruce trees at one end and on the north, at the very tip of the tail, a thin carpet of what looked like wolf willow and a few low bushes. It was only a few rods from shore. It looked perfect for a camp. There was nothing on it to attract bears, so their camp would he safe.
Henry said suddenly, “Turn around and fly back a few miles, will you?. I want to get this layout straight in my head.”
The pilot gave him a sideways glance and a lofty smile, but he turned the plane. Henry leaned to the side door and fixed the whole pattern of the formation in his mind, judging distances, trying to figure trails, the easiest ways of getting up to the knohhed rock and covering it, making a map of the outlying wings. The rock was right for gold; even from here, you could almost see the gold lying along the ridge. He knew gold-bearing rock.
Peters and his party hadn’t seen the dragon because their minds were fixed farther ahead.
Henry had seen it twice on that trip—once going in, sitting with his heart in his mouth for fear Peters would see it too, and once coming back out with Hickson, the grizzled pilot from Edmonton. His mind had been full of ways and means to get in here himself. He didn’t have enough money. You had to charter a plane to come and go, and you had to have equipment and food. Three hundred and fifty dollars would do it. He was just getting on his feet in Yellowknife. How soon could he get together three hundred and fifty dollars?
That flight had been around the first of June. In three weeks, Hickson had come back in for Peters and his party, and Henry had seen them and talked to them when they came back to Yellowknife. Henry had a feeling that Peters wasn’t really looking for gold so much as sizing up the place and the people, so that if some prospector made a strike he’d be able to figure whether he wanted to finance it, back there on Bay Street in Toronto.
He had been a good-natured fellow, and in more ways than one his trip had been a godsend. He had unloaded all his gear at Kruger’s for a reasonable price, because, he said, there’d be other men needing it and there was no sense his carting it all the way back to Toronto.
It was his tent, his sleeping bags, his dynamite that Henry had got from Kruger. Kruger was a nice fellow. He
was struggling along himself, not on his feet yet. He owed Henry for bringing in a load of supplies in the spring, and he had said, “You take this stuff of Peters and your grub, and 1 won’t have to fork out cash.”
Henry had talked it over with Mary, drinking a cup of tea from the end of the white oilcloth-covered table in the cabin at Yellowknife. He hated not to take out his credit at Kruger’s in food and things for her. But she understood. “When I get to the dragon and find the gold,” he had told her, “we’ll fly in a cow, Mary.”
He had taken a sip of the strong black tea. “We’ll have cream on everything, and you can make butter again, if you want to.”
Mary had said gently, “Milk wouldn’t do Jennie any harm.” Then she had looked down at her hands, as if she saw the butter paddles in them, and Henry had looked at her hands too. They were thin, and the bones showed, and the scar on her left wrist was red. Henry didn’t like looking at Mary’s hands. Looking at Mary he hated himself, in a way; but he couldn’t help himself any more than he could
help breathing. There was something he had to do.
The young pilot said now in a flat voice, “Well, you seen enough? You want to go back to that lake, Mr. Jason? Or what?”
“Well,” Henry decided, as if it didn’t matter too much, “sure, I guess it’s as good as any. Set us down there and we’ll make camp.”
The plane swung around, flew again t he length of the dragon, settled to the lake, slid up to the small island. The sixteen-foot canoe twisted the plane a little as it hit the water; the kid wasn’t used to flying with a canoe lashed to the float. But they skimmed over the water and got to the island, up against a slat> of flat rock pushing out into the water. The engine stopped.
The silence was like a blow after the roar of the engines. It took a minute to feel it. There was not the breath of a breeze; no whisper rustled in the leaves of the white-boled birches.
Henry sat for a moment in the open plane door and looked at the island. Then he got out, stepping on the float and then to the flat grey rock, lined with heavy grime farther up to show the high-water mark. His heart was pounding, but he walked as if this was something he had done a hundred times before.
The boys got out, wordless, and began unloading the plane. Henry walked up the rock, across a strip of rounded boulders, and into an open stretch between some pines. Two good-sized spruce trees grew a few yards away. The boughs would make their beds.
The boys brought the duffel up and stacked it neatly at one side of the camp site. Henry checked the pieces over in his mind. Tent, sleeping bags, food, knapsacks, tools, guns, ammunition, fishing tackle. They wouldn’t need the guns and the tackle; they had plenty to eat, and they didn’t want to waste time on hunting. But a man was a fool to travel without guns in the north. Anything could happen when you had to depend on a plane for transportation . . . storm, accident, anything. He had been half-tempted not to bring the rifle . . . the boys liked hunting, and so did he, but he hadn’t wanted to take time for it. Still at the last minute he’d known he was a fool not to bring it.
“Seems to me we got everything . . . you sure the plane’s empty?”
The pilot put his head into it again. “Cleaned out,” he said, and came back to Henry. He glanced at the pile of stuff on the ground and there was suddenly a quick surprised look on his face. But he rubbed it out. It was something that bothered him, though. He turned some thought over in his mind.
Henry put his hand into his pocket and got his money out. He counted out eighty-five dollars. There was exactly the same amount left on the roll, as he knew well. Should he give the boy the whole now? With any other pilot, that would have been the thing to do. You had to trust men in the north, and it was silly to carry the money around for two weeks. Maybe he would take his Mackinaw off and leave it on a rock, as Mary had said. He had intended to hand the money all over. But the boy’s face wasn’t right. It had a shifty look now. almost a guilty look.
“You coming in yourself for us on the seventeenth? Or will you leave a map for Savage? He’s safe.”
“I’m not likely to get into the Air Force in two weeks. They say I’ve got a spot on my lung, or something.
I had pneumonia.”
“Well, then,” Henry said, and put the other eighty-five dollars back in his pocket. “It’s all right to talk to Savage, but you won’t tell nobody else where we are, will you? We can get along without visitors.”
Morrison looked down at him. He folded the money and put it into the breast pocket of bis leather jacket. “You guys all have your big secrets.” He turned back to the plane. “I won’t even be in Yellowknife, anyway, for a few days. Maybe not until I come in for you. But I’ll be back.” He stopped. “You guys brought your guns, did you?”
“Sure,” Henry looked at him quickly. “You come back on time, we won’t need them.”
“I’ve heard you’re kind of famous hunters, all three of you.” He went on, opened the door on his side of the plane, hesitated with a foot on the step. “I’ll be along on the seventeenth. You don’t need to worry.” He pulled himself up, slid into his seat, slammed the doors. The motor roared, the plane slid backward, turned, then hurried forward, ruffling up the water. It went into the lake, stopped, and then rushed forward again, to lift in a moment over its own shadow, black and wavering on the clear water. Then, in no time at all, it was gone.
IT WAS four o’clock when the plane disappeared in the sky, heading south for Edmonton. Within the hour the three of them had set up the small tent, cut spruce boughs for a bed, put the sleeping bags on it, got a supply of kindling, put their boxes of food on the boulder behind it and got out their packsacks and some dynamite.
Bert straightened. He ran a hand over his black hair. “I’m ready to go.” “Well,” Henry said, and found him-
self taking a quick breath. It was an exciting, almost a frightening kind of time, the end of something, maybe the beginning of something else. Things kept going through his head, as he got his plaid Mackinaw and fastened his Colt to his belt. He never went anywhere without that old Colt; it had saved his life a couple of times, and they might need it now. There were bears in this country, plenty of them.
Bert said suddenly, “I feel kind of unlucky. That pilot had a go-to-hell way with him. We’d be in a fine fix if he just dropped us out of his mind, come the seventeenth. There ain’t a living soul knows where we are, not even Mom. Not a soul but that scatterbrained guy, and a lot he cares. We could find the biggest gold mine in the world over there on your dragon’s back, and what good would it do us if nobody ever came to get us out of here?”
Henry said, “Don’t be so uneasy. I had that figured out. He ain’t going to forget that money, here in my pocket just waiting for him to pick it up for flying a couple hours. I didn’t take too much of a liking to him either. But money talks to his kind. Now let’s get to it. We got hours of daylight ahead.”
Joe was always hungry. He said, “Maybe we better take a lunch.” He went over to the canvas bread bag and got a loaf and a wedge of cheese. He dropped them into his packsack. “That’ll hold us till supper,” he said.
As they paddled across to the mainland the water of the lake was quiet. The rock ahead was interesting; the
long low ridge of the dragon’s back was made up of sharp horny projections and deep divides, more uneven than it had looked from the air. The whole formation sloped down into the lake and dipped under it, with their dot of an island only the tip of the long hidden tail. There was little growth on the harsh rock, a few white-boled birch trees, a sparse scattering of pines, and some stunted small bushes crawling down into the chasms. Henry, peering at the mainland as the boys paddled, tried to plan their route. “That ain’t going to be so easy to climb,” he decided. “It’s not so high, but it’s steep on this side. Look, Joe . . . take a curve here around the end and see what it’s like on the west. Maybe the slope’ll be easier. I sure do intend to see what’s on the top of that ridge.”
The canoe turned and went along the shore, past the rock sloping down into the water. It looked right, that rock, just right. The sight of it stirred Henry all up inside. They came around on the western side of the ridge and there was a long triangular cove tucked into the bend, a cove with a marshy beach and a stream trickling through it into the lake.
“There, that’s better,” Henry muttered. The boys turned into the cove and Bert jumped out, to step to the soggy earth and drag the canoe ashore. Henry and Joe got out. They faced a long narrow ravine, cutting into the fold of the heavy rock. Along its east side the stone was sheer, rising ten feet or so, as if a giant’s knife had sliced it. The men pulled the canoe well up on the land and started up the ravine along the stream. After a hundred yards or so the triangle came to a point, then came through a final thicket, to the edge of the sloping rock.
Henry got his hammer and squatted down. He hit the rock a smart crack and a piece broke off. He regarded it carefully. “Well, I dunno. I don’t like this stretch of stuff anyway. I want to get right up there on the back. I got a feeling there’s gold running along that back, like the yellow stripe on a snake.”
Joe grinned. “Maybe pure gold, already poured into bricks, ready to be lugged away.”
They made their way up the fifteenfoot rise of the rock, clutching and scrambling. A few yards along the formation, Bert, in the lead, stopped sharply. He said under his breath, “Moose, Dad. You want it?”
Across the ravine, standing with his back to them, a moose with a wide spread of antlers stood against the green farther slope. Henry felt for his Colt; the moose was within range. It was an easy mark. But killing it would mean making their way across the ravine, skinning the animal, cutting it up, getting the meat back to camp. “We don’t need it. It’s a good sign, though, if we get so we do want fresh meat. Probably plenty more around.”
“Well, okay,” Bert said dryly. “I kind of hate to see good meat go to waste, though, and that might be the only moose in the country.”
Joe said, “You sure you don’t want him?”
Henry shook his head, and Joe put his fingers into his mouth and whistled like a siren. The moose, who had thought himself alone in his safe wilderness, flung up his head as if he’d been shot and leaped up the ravine and over the top of the low ridge. He was gone.
They scrambled on up the slope. After ten minutes or so they came out on what had seemed to be the top, but was only a fold of rock. Between them and the true dragon’s back was a crevasse, dark and slippery, and narrow, but not narrow enough to leap over. Joe dropped a pebble into it; it was deep.
“Well,” Henry said, “this just wasn’t the way to come. I guess we can’t get there tonight. In the morning we’ll start back at the tail where it slides down into the lake. That hump ain’t more’n twelve, fifteen feet high. We’ll make a way up it someway.” He got a stick of dynamite from his packsack. “I’m going to try this spur, though,” he said. “I don’t have the feeling for it, hut you never can tell.”
The boys watched him as he set the dynamite in place and cut a fuse. He
glanced round, marked the spot where they would have to be when the explosion came, lit the fuse and set off rapidly, the boys striding with him. The rock burst open and went up in a shower of pieces.
They went back. Henry took up a sharp-edged chunk with eagerness. It looked dull, but as he turned it and the light caught it there were tiny glittering specks on its surface.
“Fool’s gold,” Bert said flatly.
Henry spat on the rock and rubbed it with his thumb. The glitter did not dull. He said, “No, it’s the real thing.
Not much, but it’s the real thing.” He turned the rock over and over in his fingers. “I was sure of it.”
“Well, I be damned,” Bert said, and sat down.
Joe sat down too. He got the bread and cheese from his packsack and broke off chunks of each, to hand them to his father and brother. He said comfortably, “No use finding a million dollars on an empty stomach.”
It was nearly eight o’clock. The country was warm and still, with the sun not too far down on the horizon, but Henry suddenly felt tired. He said,
“Maybe we ought to get back to camp and cook ourselves something hot. Then we can turn in and get a real sleep and be up at daybreak.”
Bert was turning the piece of rock over in his hands. Joe, chewing on his bread and cheese, was looking at it, thinking. He said, after a minute, “Dad ... if this really is gold . . . I mean, cripes, I don’t think I ever really believed you. It don’t make sense in our family, someway. But if it is gold . . . the kind some of the others has found . . . real gold, piles and stacks of it . . . what’re you going to do with it?”
Bert lifted his eyes to Joe. He had been thinking, too. His mind was far away. “What do you mean? What do you think people do with gold?”
Henry said slowly, “There ain’t many things you can’t do when you got a million dollars. But as for the first one . . . that’s a thing I’ve had figgered out for a long time. I’m going to buy your mother a diamond ring, as big a diamond as I can find, and a fur coat. That’s the first money that gets spent. She had a diamond once . . .” he stopped. He said steadily, “The very biggest diamond I can get my hands on, and a fur coat.”
“Well,” Henry said, thinking. “I guess we’d go down to Edmonton and buy us a house, with bedrooms for everybody, and electricity and a bathroom. And Andy and Jennie’d keep on at school, go to high school, and on to college, get a real education. They got a fine college in Edmonton. I only had about three years at school myself, before I was ten, and you, too, coming through the depression and the dust and the trip north . . . well, you certainly didn’t get much. Your mother feels real bad about that. She had quite a bit of schooling.”
Bert got up and walked to the edge of the slope. He stared down into the crevasse. Behind his back, Joe and Henry looked at each other. They were both thinking the same things. Bert would have his problems, if there was gold in this ridge.
Henry got up. He picked up his hammer and put the rest of the dynamite back in his packsack. “Maybe it’s a little early to count chickens. Let’s go make camp.”
He had an uneasy feeling as they went back to the island in the gre>* and yellow dusk, with the night chill beginning to creep over the water. There was no sense in being uneasy. Things would work out. Maybe it was that he kept thinking that if this really was the big strike, it was late. But he couldn’t have hurried any faster, and it was never too late to find gold, it couldn’t be. As soon as Mary had a good house, with flowered wallpaper and soft beds and lots of running water, once she got rested, she’d be fine again, not pale and quiet and sort of lost, the way she was a lot of the time now, as if she were giving up. She’d be herself again, full of hope, and eagerness and joy. Money would make all the difference. It always did. Surely it always did.
They beached the canoe against the lengthening shadow. Bert went to chop more wood for morning, mostly because he was turning a lot of things over in his mind, Henry decided, and wanted to be alone.
Nobody else thought the blackhaired girl, Nell Ormick, was much good; but Bert couldn’t stay away from her. Bert had always been shy with girls before. Mary was sick about the whole thing, but it had seemed, so far, like nothing much more than waiting until somebody with money came along, and then Nell would throw Bert over. It would hurt, but he’d pick himself up, and he’d have learned a lesson. But if there was gold on the ridge ...
Joe lit the fire in the stove and put the coffee on, so that in a few minutes it began to make the place smell homey and somehow safe. Henry stood staring across at the dragon’s back, lying under the red rays of the sinking sun, fading and changing shape as the light slipped down and the shadows crept along its sides.
Behind him, Joe was rustling papers, going through the boxes. He said, “Hey, Dad ... I can’t lay my hands on the bacon. There ain’t no meat here at all.”
“It’s there,” Henry said. “Kruger never forgets anything. There’s ten pounds of bacon and half a big ham. There’s six dozen eggs in the case too, for breakfasts. Try the big wooden case. It was heavy, it’s got the meat.”
Joe said, “There ain’t no meat in that case. The meat didn’t come.”
Henry turned quickly and went to him. All the food was spread out on the rocks: flour, sugar, bread, butter,
jam, some cans of pork and beans, coffee, tea, cans of milk. Nothing else.
The biggest wooden box, its top b>ards loose, was behind Joe. “What’s in that?” Henry demanded.
Joe lifted a board. “It’s grapefruit juice, see? Kruger said to take it along. He made us a present of it, for luck.”
Henry said slowly, “I didn’t hear him. I thought that box was the meat, when we was loading.”
Bert came back with an armful of wood. He piled it neatly near the stove. He’d heard them talking. He said, “I had a hunch about that moose. 1 should’ve played my own hunch that time. I sure should’ve.”
“Oh, well,” Henry said firmly, “it don’t matter. Tonight we’ll have pork and beans . . . there’s six cans. Tomorrow we’ll just have to take along the rifle and pick off a moose or a deer, that’s all. And the water’s full of fish. Kruger’s sent the grapefruit juice out instead of the meat, that’s what’s happened. I should have been watching. I sure should have been watching.”
They started out before five next morning, after a filling breakfast of pancakes and coffee. “Have to go easy on the butter,” Bert said, acting as cook. “We haven’t got no bacon fat for grease. We better try to get a deer or something, today. We’ll sure need meat.”
“We’ll take the rifle,” Henry said absently. His mind was on a way to get up that rocky wall on the other shore.
Joe packed up a lunch. They set off in the canoe in the still morning. There was a light mist rising from the water, and no sounds at all: no wind, no bird chirpings, not even the splash of a leaping fish to break the quiet water. The paddles dipped smoothly, and except for their silky whisper, the world was silent. It was deserted.
It didn’t feel quite right, Henry thought to himself and knew that he was nervous, tense as a wary cat.
Getting up on top of the dragon’s back was simple, after all. They drove three pegs into cracks and used therp for steps. After the first ten feet the rock began to slope off to the right and left in little side runs, and was not smooth and slippery but scored deep with old glacial scratches, running from north to south where the ice had once pushed forward and then melted. The walking was easy. Here on top the rock was bare, except for patches of moss and lichen, and like a roadway over the top of the world. It was high, here on the ridge, much higher than any other part of the geography around, so that the straggling forest, the lakes
and small streams, stretched away below them on all sides. They walked south, toward the buried head and wings of the dragon, so plain from the air, so hidden and unsuspected here. They walked upward toward a central hump, watching the world around them, a world of dark pine and fir and spruce, of lakes glinting in the morning sun, of the brilliant green and white of the birches set in clumps among the darker evergreens. Henry knew the terrain well; there were thousands of miles of it all across the top of the map. His mind skipped over it; he was
thinking of the rock under h» feet, watching it, considering every change in its color, its texture.
They came at last to the peak of the ridge, and Henry stopped. This was his goal, the place to start. He laid down his axe and his rifle. He put his packsack on the greenish rock and took from it his hammer, his miner’s glass, his bottle of acid, the roll of dynamite sticks.
Bert said, “I haven’t laid eyes on an animal since we got up here. Kind of a queer thing. Haven’t even seen a squirrel in the trees. I been watching,
too. I wouldn’t mind a squirrel stew for supper, if nothing else turns up. But there don’t seem to be a thing.”
“Too early in the morning,” Joe said. “There'll be plenty before the o^y’s out. And if we don’t shoot nothing v>t can catch us a couple fat whitefish for supper.”
“August ain’t the time for good fishing,” Bert reminded him. “They’ll be all out in the bottom of the lake.” “Oh, not all,” Joe said comfortably. He kicked at an outcropping of quartz. He said to his father, “What you waiting for? Don’t it look right yet?”
“It looks all right,” Henry said. He pushed away the sickish feeling that had crept over him, a thing of fear and anticipation, of knowing that one little burst of dynamite, even one stroke of his pick, might open up not only the surface of the rock, but the whole stuff and pattern of their lives . . . his own and Mary’s, Bert’s and Joe’s, young Andy’s and little Jennie’s. Open them up to what? To a new force, something much bigger and stronger than his own. So far he had run this family, been the centre of it, in control. Times had been bad and the going had been tough, too tough. But they’d stuck together, they were a family, with him carrying the load and directing the course. Now . . . if there was gold under this smoothed-out surface of mottled, greenish-grey rock, under the glacial patterns, woven into the heavy stone . . . now what would happen?
Bert wasn’t waiting. He got some dynamite and had set a small charge under an overlapping ledge fifty-feet away. He turned and looked at his father. “Shall I set it off?”
Henry said slowly, “Might as well.” The fuse sizzled. Bert hurried back. The small blast came and the rock showered up.
They went forward, all three of them together. The blast had broken off the overhang under which the charge was set, and split down into a small crevice. Henry put his hand down and drew up the loose slab lying along the inside of the crevice. He held it out in the sun and stared at it. It was quartz in big squarish chunks, and in it, in flecks and spots, in patches as big as a child’s fingernail, was what looked like gold, dark yellow, glinting in the sun.
The boys held their breaths while lie tried it with the acid.
Henry found himself after a while
sitting on a big boulder. He was still holding the chunk of quartz in his hand, staring at it. The sweat was running down his face, but he felt cold. He turned the chunk over and over, fie looked at his boys, and Bert was kneeling in a funny stiff way with his hands on his thighs, staring at the rock; Joe was sitting on another boulder, his eyes on the flecks of gold patterned in the quartz.
Henry said in a voice that sounded like somebody else’s, “I guess we come to the right place. I guess we did.”
Bert’s voice was husky. “You couldn’t be making no mistake, could you, Dad?”
Henry turned the rock over and studied it again from every angle. He touched the spots of dark yellow. “Don’t see how I could. I watched ’em testing for gold a thousand times, ever since I was fourteen. 1 mean, I knew then what gold was. I been seeing it for the last ten years too. It’s gold, all right. Only, my head’s thick, this ain’t penetrating real good, not yet.”
Bert said heavily, “Maybe we just turned up a little strike, a skinny thin vein. This is too quick to be true, that’s why it don’t make no sense. How do we know?”
“There’s a lot of gold in that piece Dad’s got,” Joe said. “If it really is gold, and he ought to know. Far as that goes, 1 know myself. It sure looks like all the gold rock I ever saw, it sure does, boy. You’re hard to satisfy.”
“No matter how good it is, if there ain’t enough of it, it won’t get us nowhere,” Bert said stubbornly. “I’ve heard lots of prospector’s talk. You can find patches of gold, and it don’t get you nowheres unless there’s enough to make some big mining company, or somebody with money, get behind you. You got to be awful careful. You can’t carry your gold out in chunks in a canoe or a plane.”
“What’s to stop them getting it out of here?” Joe demanded. “They could swing barges up to the edge of this here rock and pile the stuff on. They don’t even need to dig deep, it’s laying right on top.”
Henry got up. “Bert’s right, in a way,” he said. He laid the piece of quartz down carefully and got his pick from beside the boulder. “Only one way to find out,” he said, and set off along the steep harsh ridge.
Every twenty feet or so, at first, they putt down a charge and blew the face of r,he rock open. The pieces that came outt of the solid mass were all the same, flecked and spotted, almost painted over with the shining stuff, heavy with it. They went on along the rock, over humps and through hollows, around a strip of spruce trees growing in a cleft, past a gaping pothole, away along the dragon’s back to the place where one of the spreading wings joined on and flung itself off to the west. They were half a mile or more from the lake shore, from the tail dipping into the water, and the rock had not changed. The gold did not quite lie in bars ready to be can-ied away, but it was peppered into that whole strip down the dragon’s back just as Henry had thought of it, like the yellow stripe down the back of a snake. They set their charges deeper as they went along, down into crevasses, poked into hollows under overhanging spurs. The rock was the same. Henry had never seen samples marked so strongly, no matter how good the prospector said it was. Never.
They stopped at last, there at the beginning of the big wing. Joe said to Bert, “Well, you old stick-in-themud, you satisfied? Maybe we ought to tie a string around this here animal of Dad’s and drag the whole thing back
to Yellowknife. Maybe, if we got him stirred up, he’d walk back. Maybe his belly is solid gold, laid on like scales. You think we ought to take the whole thing back, prove something or other to you?”
Bert looked at his father. He swallowed. His eyes were black now, filled with fear mixed with a kind of crazy believing. “It don’t seem as if it’s really us,” he said.
“No,” Henry agreed. “No, it don’t.”
“Well, somebody has to find gold sometimes, always bas,” Joe said sensibly. “Just because we’ve always had it kind of rough . . . well, maybe all that means is that our turn has come. We sure been waiting long enough.”
Henry got his things together, still numb. There was a dead feeling in the pit of his stomach. This wasn’t the way a man ought to feel at a time like this. Here was his gold, as he had dreamed it. He ought to feel excited, happy, wild with joy, not numb and queer; lost, maybe even a little scared. His gold stretched all along the dragon’s back, as he had known it would. There was lots to be done before it could be got out of here, but other men got through that part of it. Maybe it was just that he didn’t know much about that part of it. Other men had to get in to file claims ... it would start a thousand new patterns in a thousand lives, this gold of his. But it was good gold, found in an honest way, and his own gold, here on the dragon he’d always dreamed about. He began to let the exultation rise in him, to push the foolish fears away. Gold ... it was life, really. It meant everything. It meant planes and houses and diamond rings and cows, fur coats and automobiles and college educations, silk dresses and good things to eat, places to see and things to do . . . all of those things were here, everything a man could hope for or dream of, all in this glittering stuff frozen into the rock, gold that had been lying for a million years, sealed, useless, hidden and guarded in the solid, grim old stone.
The next ten days and more went by in a dream. There was gold everywhere, up and down the dragon’s back, under the overburden along the spurs which Henry Jason had seen from the air as the sprawling buried wings of the defending armored creature, out beyond them in the flying masses that lay miles off. They made two or three tentative explorations to those masses, and the gold was always there. But it was richest and heaviest along the first central ridge.
The three of them worked incessantly, tramping, sampling, testing, measuring distances, trimming stakes, figuring out where to set them up, changing them again and again to try to encompass the best territory. They tried to centre them on the richest deposits, to figure out where the mine shaft might go down to cut into the heaviest veins. Among them they could lay claim to more than two thousand acres. If they chose the right ones, strategically fitted together, they would control the whole area. Each man could stake six claims for himself, and six more for each of two proxies. Henry staked his own six right in the centre of the dragon’s back, with his first stake on the central hump. Next to his were six for Mary. He took great pains with her stakes, printing her name with his neatest pencil strokes. His remaining claims were staked for his mother, Rachel, living alone now on the old ranch down at Elbow. Bert staked for himself, and Andy, and then came to his father with a curious look on hh face and said he’d like to take Nell Ormick as his other proxy.
Bert said, “She’s had a kind of hard time, Dad. She ain’t got no folks . . . maybe if we let her in on this . . . T mean, T have to stake my six other claims for somebody.”
Henrv sat Awn on a small boulder. He said carefollv, “How sure are you of the girl, Bert? You think she . . . you . . . VOM think you want to marry her?”
Bert’s open face flushed. “Well, I ain’t had nothing to offer her yet. And she’s had a tough life. She come up here to Yellowknife to get away from the kind of ways her family lived . . . all huddled together . .
“I thought you said she didn’t have no folks.”
“Well, she hasn’t. I mean, she ain’t going to live like them. She wants to be somebody, get somewheres. She says she can’t carry a whole mess of people like them along with her. Her mother can’t talk English, and her father drinks home-brew and gets into fights. She don’t want no part of them.”
Henry looked up at Bert. “You made love to her yet?”
Bert got redder. “She won’t let me. She’s . . . she says she’s a good girl. She has a time keeping the men away that’s after her.”
Henry found himself thinking, she’s smart, that one. But how could you tell a boy when he wouldn’t understand?
He said instead, “Know what I think? Maybe we’d be right to keep this whole set of claims in the family, this core here in the middle. Then when we get back to town, when we get these claims registered, then you bring Nell out here and let her stake her own, out on the edge of our stuff. That’ll do it, Bert. You can let her in on the ground floor that way, and still not break up our centre in case . . . you see,” he said quickly, “a woman don’t like to feel bought. You do it this way, she’s beholden to you and always will be. Do it the other way, and she’s her own boss. She’s free. She’ll feel a whole lot better about it.”
Bert said nothing. He pushed a hand into the pocket of his khaki pants and stared at the edge of the sky.
Henry read his mind. He risked saying one more thing. “You buy a woman, son, you can’t hold her. She never feels she ought to be true. You bought her. She ain’t her own anyways. See what I mean? It’s dangerous.”
After a little Bert nodded.
Joe, sharpening claim stakes on the rock nearby, said curiously. “How do you know so much about women, Dad? Never saw you pay no attention to any, except Mom.”
“Ain’t never needed to,” Henry said. “It’s like looking at the back of a mirror, looking at other women. It ain’t often a man’s as lucky as me. I got what every man wants, but he don t often get it. So he keeps on hunting.” He got up again and took off his plaid cap, to settle it over his unruly hair. “I never had to look for women,” he said.
“So you settled for gold,” Joe said with a grin.
Henry stared at him.
“I guess a man’s got to look for something,” Joe said. “Maybe what I ought to be doin’ right now is figuring what I want to find. Maybe I had. If you don’t do that maybe you just climb on a horse and ride off all directions at once, all your life.” He looked up at his father. “You sure didn’t. You been heading north, to this ridge of gold, ever since I can remember.” He looked up, his bluegrey eyes half laughing, half serious. “But I still don’t know what happens when you find what you been hunting for, whether it’s women or gold or something else.”
Bert walked away, down along the ridge alone. Joe looked after him. “He’ll do what you said,” he muttered. “He knows that’s right. But he’s worried about Nell. Me, I don’t think she’s any good. In the first place, she knows a lot more than he does. And as far as I can tell,” Joe said, his eyes darkening, “she makes the same kind of moves at me as she does at Bert. I ain’t told him. But she’s got a trick of walking up beside a fella . . . well, me . . . and puttin’ her hand on his arm . . . you can feel it, warm and kind of soft, through your shirt sleeve . . . and then her voice gets low and she says somethin’ kind of sympathetic like ‘you worked awful hard today, didn’t you’ . . . you know, something like that.” Joe whittled a slice off his stake. “Hell,” he said, “I’m only eighteen. Seems to me she spreads herself out a good deal, laying that kind of thing on when I’m only eighteen. Fm not thinkin’ about getting married ... so it seems to me . . .” his voice trailed off.
Henry took a long breath and went hack to work. There was bound to be a little while now, before the gold really meant anything, when things
weren’t straight. They were all three, even Joe with his high spirits, feeling gaunt, unsatisfied, undernourished. They’d found gold so fast, they hadn’t thought much about food, except to eat hearty meals as long as they could. The pork and beans were gone and they’d been living on bread and jam and pancakes. They had forgotten about hunting; two or three times they hadn’t even taken the rifle out of camp, although it wouldn’t have made any difference. There wasn’t an animal in sight; it was as if something had given a signal and every living thing had
vanished when the men arrived.
It was true that Joe had set the fishlines each night when they came in, but there hadn’t been a bite. There were no berries in this part of the country. No fish, no berries, no game . . . it didn’t make sense. Something would have to be done.
When they went in to camp that night Bert said, “What do you think of trying some dynamite on the water to bring up a few fish? We’re just about down to the bottom of the grub barrel.” “Too bad we can’t fry up a mess of gold,” Joe said. He went for the
dynamite. Henry built the fire and looked over the remains of the food. This was only the thirteenth. Four full days to go, maybe only three, if Morrison came on the morning of the seventeenth, and not enough flour for more than three or four pancakes for breakfast, only enough bread for one meal, only a scraping of jam, no canned milk, a couple of cups of sugar, some tea and coffee, nothing eist*. The grapefruit juice was gone.
Joe went down to the end of the island and threw the dynamite charge out into the water. Ina moment there was a muffled roar and then the water spurted up in a wide fountain. They waited.
Nothing came to the surface; no fish at all. The waters were empty.
The darkness fell. “Tomorrow we’ll have to take time off for hunting,” Henry said.
Joe broke the last half loaf of bread into three pieces. They were all quiet, struck suddenly, almost as if it had come up on them without warning, by this business of needing food. They were foolish to have paid no attention until now.
ON THE morning of the fourteenth they woke up feeling weak. Joe was all right, and he didn’t say anything about being hungry, but he was. Bert looked white and drained, and Henry felt as if his legs wouldn’t work.
Joe said, “You two better stay in camp. I’ll go over to the mainland and find us that moose. He likely comes down to that stream to drink . . . I’ll see if I can find his tracks and go after him.”
“I’ll come with you,” Bert said. “Two sets of eyes is better than one. We got to have something to eat.” He looked at his father, worrying.
Henry said, “I’m all right. But I’ll stay here and try the fishing again, really go after them. You boys come back at noon with a moose and I’ll have a big pan of fish.”
He fished all day, but there were no fish. There were no birds flying over the island, no birds in the air over the mainland; although he watched everywhere with his sharp practiced eye, nothing moved among the trees. There was no game.
The boys did not come home until dusk. They got out of the canoe silently, and they had no moose. After they were out Bert reached back into the canoe and brought up a thing, a skinny bird, an old hawk.
“There wasn’t nothing else,” he said. He got the fire going. Bert pulled the feathers off the bird and cleaned it. He cut it up and they put it into the pan, with salt. When it began to cook, it stank.
Bert put a spoonful of sugar into the stew, and shook the flour tin over it. They drank some coffee in silence, waiting for the tough, stringy meat of the hawk to get soft enough to eat.
Henry said, leaning against his tree, “It ain’t the first time we had it rough. Maybe it’ll be the last.”
Bert said roughly, as if he had been thinking about it, “I don’t trust that pilot.”
The acrid smell of the hawk meat hung in the air. Henry thought about it, and then about the dragon’s back, and the gold claims, staked out over there on the mainland. Only half of them were staked yet; there would be twenty-one hundred acres for the Jasons, all of it heavy with gold. It gave his heart a warm feeling. Never mind the hawk meat; it was the last of the miseries.
Bert got up again. He poked at the hawk with a fork. He got the big enamel mugs and dipped out the stew, dividing it carefully. He handed a mug to his father and a mug to Joe.
“Well,” Henry said, gagging a little at the rank smell. He forced himself to swallow. “It’s got strength in it, anyways.”
They ate in silence. The broth was bitter, even with the sugar in it, but it would put some life into them. Bert took the empty mugs in silence and went down to the lakeshore to wash them. Joe got out his jackknife and set to work whittling on the block of wood he’d brought with him, the rabbit he was making for Jennie. He had a way with wood and a knife, Joe did.
Henry sat watching the quick thin hands.
Joe’s rabbit was beginning to look lifelike. His hands were smart. It was always Joe who fixed things in the house for his mother, making the table legs stand even, fixing a shelf out of a scrap of crooked board, making a broom out of a bunch of twigs and a peeled poplar. He had made his own canoe, the one they were using.
What would happen to Joe? He talked about planes, but he didn’t really care too much about them. He didn’t hang around them the way young Andy did. How did you find out what boys ought to do?
Henry said, “I don’t know’s I’d have thought so much about gold if it hadn’t been for that land my brother George bought sight unseen, up at Athabaska, worthless land. Maybe if I hadn’t gone up there to look it over, and seen prospecting, I’d have stuck to cattle raising, or wheat. Funny how things happen. What makes them happen?”
Joe said, “I might’ve liked farming. I might’ve liked to go to school and learn about real farming, and settle down to steady living, not moving along all the time, having a chance to read and find out things. But farming the way we seen it ... I sure never liked being poor, and any farmer I can remember was dirt poor.”
“You seen them in bad times,” Henry reminded him. “It seemod as if the whole world began to blow up all at once when you was three, four years old. There was something happened down in the States, a stockmarket crash, and then right a way the bottom fell out of the world . . . the price of wheat went to nothing, and then the dust began to blow and there wasn’t any wheat anyways. The cattle starved in the fields and died, and people lost everything. Maybe it’s as well that we’d got started north . . .” he stopped.
Bert said flatly, “Mom would rather have stayed on a farm. Women don’t want to go traipsing all over the map. They want to get settled and stay there, have a nice pretty house. Mom’s had it pretty tough.”
Henry looked at him, knowing where he’d got the words. Nell. The grasping, dissatisfied woman. After a minute he said gently, “She ain’t complained.”
“She ain’t the complaining kind.”
Joe looked from one to the other. He was sensing what was going on in Bert’s mind, too, and he didn’t like it. Joe was a peacemaker.
Lying that night in his eiderdown bag, smelling the familiar good spruce smell, secure against the chill, Henry could not get to sleep. His mind was full of Mary . . . There was so much he needed to talk over with her . . . if only the plane would come in the morning! Bert’s words, even if they had come from Nell, had made him feel guilty and sick.
Mary wasn’t the complaining kind. No. Somehow it hurt to hear it said.
She’d had plenty to complain of.
He got up out of his sleeping bag and went out to sit on a rock on the shore, shivering a little in the night chill, but not caring. He just sat there, staring at the faint light lying on the water. If only the plane would drop out of the sky like a miracle, tomorrow. If only he could get to Mary soon, soon ... to talk to her, to tell her ... to say he was sorry for the bad times, to let her know they were all over. He’d buy her a diamond ring like a headlight, and a fur coat that would make all the women in the country jealous.
But he couldfi’t give back to her—he could never give back to her—-the baby girl she’d wanted so much, the baby she’d lost there in Meadow Lake, lost because he hadn’t brought her enough to eat or things to keep her warm. She’d got pneumonia there, and she had nearly died; the baby was born dead, a tiny little thing with blue eyes and silvery hair . . . she was buried there in the woods, lying alone.
That was something Mary could never forget or forgive. She had never mentioned it. Could he cover that over . . . with gold?
BACK at Yellowknife, for the two weeks which had to pass before the seventeenth of August, Mary lived in an apprehension that was almost like a spell. She had lived in fear and dread before this, waiting and watching and hoping for Henry to come with food, or a job, or just to come home out of the dangers of the life he lived. Often he had gone out into blizzards with the doctor in Lucky Lake, bundled in buffalo robes in the sleigh, facing into a storm that would last for three days or more. When Henry had been working on the big dam at Elbow, going down in a diver’s suit to clear the mud out of the pump at the bottom of the icy water, there had never been a day when she was sure he would come again.
But this time of fear and waiting was worst of all. Perhaps it was mixed with a little hope that Henry really woula find his gold—or perhaps it was colored with a really serious fear of what would happen to him if he didn’t. He had always been able to get up and start again from every apparent defeat, but that was because he had never counted any of the battles so far as real. It was his dragon that was real to him, and the gold it must be guarding. If he lost this battle he would lose his dreams, and dreams were all that he lived on.
Yes, that was true. It was never reality that sustained Henry, but dreams
Morrison didn’t come back to Yellowknife with the Norseman. Nobody else knew where Henry was.
Signals had found Morrison in Edmonton, or found his family, rather, who said yes, he was certainly coming back in a few days. He hadn’t come.
Would he come?
If he didn’t, what was to be done?
The fear had grown and grown that he would not come. He had still not arrived at bedtime of the sixteenth, and Mary had tucked Jennie into her cot and then gone outside again, to find Andy hanging around outside the cabin, as worried as she was.
He said, “What’ll we do, Mom?”
“He may come first thing in the morning. Or he may go in straight from Edmonton and get them. Maybe that’s what’s been in his mind.”
“Yeah,” Andy said. “Maybe that’s it. It could be, couldn’t it? It’s sensible.”
They had gone to bed, and Andy had dropped off to sleep as he always did, the moment his head was on the pillow. But she had lain awake; and then, long after dark, she had heard the sound of the plane’s engines, the Norseman’s engines, and had known it was down on the little bay. She had wakened Andy and told him, to make it real.
Now, in the early morning, she was sitting on the doorstep of the cabin, drinking coffee. Everything was all right again. Morrison would be tired and not anxious to start out too early, but that didn’t matter. Up at the dragon’s back, wherever that was, Henry and the boys would be out of bed, packing up their camp, getting ready for the plane. Maybe Morrison wouldn’t get to them until noon; maybe they wouldn’t be home until evening. But they would be home today, and all the bad time would be over. She had to think what to say to Henry if he hadn’t found gold. He would be suffering from something a good deal worse than disappointment, if he hadn’t. Disillusionment, a feeling that life had let him down. She would have to make him feel that it was all part of a pattern, that he could try again until he really did succeed.
She leaned her head against the peeled upright log that was the doorpost of her big cabin. It was a good cabin, one of the first built here in Yellowknife. It had windows, four of them, and a good chimney; and even if there weren’t any real partitions, she knew by this time how to divide one room off to give them all a little privacy.
She hadn’t really believed, not deep in her heart, that Henry would find gold on this first real trip, but she couldn’t help hoping that he would. If he didn’t, now that he thought he’d seen the dragon that belonged in his own story, now that he’d tied the whole meaning of his life to it, it wasn’t going to be good for him. He was like a child about that story, that dragon. In a way it was a shame that his father had ever told him the tale of the daring courageous young Jason of long ago, of the vicious clever dragon and the treasure of the Golden Fleece. Just because his name was Jason.
She knew the real story of the Golden Fleece; she always had. Back in Greece people had looked for gold, as the world had always looked for gold. They didn’t always use it for money, but they wanted it for ornaments and for jewelry. They didn’t know anything about mining. The gold was found in streams, and when they wanted to separate it from the earth they put the muddy mass into a sheepskin and poured water through. The thick wool of the fleece would catch and hold the heavy gold, and so a fleece that had been used for such a sieve could be valuable, before they picked all the gold from it. And somewhere, sometime, there’d been a scramble and some fighting for such a loaded fleece; and in the end a man named Jason had got it. The whole story had grown from something as simple as that. But
back in the old days there had been storytellers, just as Louis Jason was a born storyteller, with his darting imagination and his quick easy tongue, and he and his kind had embroidered the old story until it made a long, long adventure, full of dangers and hard problems, even with magic and the dark beautiful sorceresses mixed up in it.
Sitting on the doorstep, Mary took a deep breath of the pure cool northern air. Their log house was set up on a rocky slope, out of the muskeg and the swampy ground at the end of the bay. The new town was building farther away. Henry had brought in poles for the electric system and most of them were already up, along the main street and dipping into the new part of town. But these old cabins were going to be abandoned, and sitting here, there wasn’t much visible that looked like civilization.
Her mind was still turning over the old Jason story, matching it with Henry’s own life. It had had great bearing. It had always been a challenge and a promise. She thought, there’ve been plenty of dangers and hard tasks mixed up in Henry’s life, and most of them he’s conquered; some of the things he’s done have been like magic. But there hadn’t been any tricky women. It was a thing she was sure of, and it was worth the whole world to her. Never, since the minute Henry had walked across that dance floor to look at her with the burning, sparkling blue eyes, never had he looked at another woman.
Joe was like his father. He probably wouldn’t see any girl until his own girl came along, and then he’d go straight to her and stay there. Bert ... he didn’t have the gift. He wouldn’t be safe. He would need help.
Her eye caught a sudden cautious movement at the back of the log house over on the ridge. It was Ole Larsen’s house, but Ole was not there; he had had to take his wife back to her home in Regina last month. She had cancer. But his house wasn’t empty; three of the men who had come north to set up the electric power plant and get it going were there, batching. They were young men, quick and smart, especially the job boss, Les Jones. The few Yellowknife girls found lots of excuses to wander along past the places where these newcomers were working, no matter how their mothers tried to keep an eye on them. These young men from outside, they seemed to think that Yellowknife white girls were fair prey, as so many men felt the Eskimo and Indian girls were, as if living up here in the wilderness changed a girl’s value and meaning. There’d been a good few tales of their goings on, and three or four times in the last month that house of Ole Larsen’s had been lit up all night.
Now, as Mary looked toward it, she saw a girl’s figure come out of the back door and pull it quietly shut behind her. She moved along the back of the house, keeping close, until she got to the far corner; then she was gone out of sight beyond it, and probably slipping down through the rocks and the bush to the path that went down to the bay and along the shore. Mary’s mini went over the possibilities. This was not good, this girl slipping out of that cabin; most of the women of Yellowknife were wives or daughters ... or sisters.
There were three women in town who might have been expected to be in that cabin but this slim girl was not one of them. The girl had moved gracefully. She was young. She was wearing a red dress with no sleeves and her arms had flashed white and bare in the morning sun.
BAC K in the cabin, beyond the patched cotton sheet Mary had hung for a curtain, she heard Andy stirring. It took him about a minute to dress. He came out from behind the curtain and across the floor, quiet in his bare feet. His hair was tousled, his eyes crinkled with sleep, but his mind, as always, was wide awake. He said, “Hey, Mom, why didn’t you wake me up? Has the plane gone? Did you hear it go?”
“It’s only barely six,” Mary said. “I wouldn’t think he’d go for a couple of hours. Thank God he came in last night. I don’t know what I’d have done.” She looked at him, this youngest lad of hers and Henry’s. “There’s bacon ready for you in the frying pan, Andy. You want to bring it out and cook it over the grate? It won’t do Jennie any harm to sleep some more.” He went back and got the pan with the thick bacon striped neatly in it. He set it on the grate near the chopping stump over the smoldering fire left from the one she had built to make the coffee, and then dashed off down the path to the brook below the slope. He came back with his face wet and
shining. “It ain’t everybody’s got running water,” he said, and took down the coarse towel hanging beside the door to wipe his hands and face. He said in a low voice, “Gee, I’m excited! Morrison had to come back. He had to. Gee, Mom, what if they really have found gold at last! You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go all the way around the world and see everything, that’s what. Every single thing there is in the whole world to see.” She said evenly, “You’ll go to school. You can travel in between times.” “School’s too slow.”
But his eyes met hers, and he grinned. His thick black lashes fringed the eyes as blue as a blue jay’s wing, eyes exactly like his father’s. He turned and set to work cooking the bacon over the iron grate Henry had put up for an outside fire. There was a stove in the house, but they cooked outside when they could. It saved fuel and work. The chipmunk sat on the stump, watchful, and eyed Andy’s movements.
He got two thick slabs of bread from inside the house, set his bacon between them and came out to sit down beside her. The chipmunk, sniffing at the air, began to creep closer through the small litter of twigs and pine needles on the clean dark earth.
Andy said, “I sure hope they shot a deer or a moose right away. Old man Kruger keeps on feeling awful about that meat. I told him, don’t you worry. My father will be all right. But Kruger says the hunting isn’t so good this summer, and he was awful bothered. He just said that last night. He’s been worried sick.”
Mary took a deep breath. “I’ll be glad when they get safe home. Your father doesn’t get along so well any more, when he doesn’t have the right things to eat. His stomach’s bad. He’s nervous, that’s part of it.”
“Mom . . .” Andy sat up sharply. “Mom, listen!”
There was a quick burst of sound down at the bay and then the steady hum of a plane’s engine warming up. The two sat together, listening. In a few minutes the plane rose above the low ragged rim of trees, circled, and then darted off through the blue sky.
Andy said slowly, “But he’s going the wrong way! He’s off south, to Edmonton !”
Mary strained her eyes. Andy was right. The plane went on and on, straight across the lake, south and south, néver veering, until it disappeared. She got a shakiness inside her, but she said, “It isn’t the only plane. There’s another. He must have told Savage where to go.”
“But that was the Norseman, Morrison’s plane. Savage only has a little Moth. He wouldn’t go after Dad and the boys with all their gear. He hasn’t got room. That was the big plane leaving. Anyway, Savage can’t go. He doesn’t know where to go! Tt isn’t as if they were on the map.”
“Surely Morrison is coming right back!”
Andy got up. He wiped the crumbs off his face with the back of his hand. “I’m going down to the bay and find out what’s what. Don’t worry. I won’t spill any beans.”
He darted off. Mary got up slowly and stood thinking. Her heart was fast and she stood still, trying to quiet it.
There was a sound above her on the pathway from the house and she turned. Jennie was there, slender and pale in her striped flannelette pyjamas cut from a pair of Andy’s, her hair braided in two long ash-blond braids, roughened a little from the pillow. One front tooth was still out, and she lisped a little. She said sleepily, “Andy’s up and gone. Mommie, is the plane back
yet? Has Andy gone to meet Daddy and the boys?”
“Not yet,” Mary said calmly, “but they’ll be along. Here, wet your face in this cold water, Jennie. It’ll give.you some color.”
Jennie bent slowly and dabbled her fingers listlessly in the stream. Her mother looked at her carefully. She wasn’t sick, she was just as she always was. Maybe girls were all like this, limp and not too lively, not like boys. Mary didn’t know much about girls. She’d had no sisters, and her other baby girl . . . she pushed away the memory. Losing the other baby had heen such a heartbreak to Henry; she mustn’t think about it.
She said briskly, “I’ll go boil you an egg, Jennie. Kruger sent down a dozen from the box the men had left behind.”
“I don’t want an egg,” Jennie said dreamily. “I’ll eat when the men come, Mommie. When they come home, I’ll eat, Mommie . . . will they bring the gold right back with them?
Big pieces of it, so we’ll be rich right away?”
“Maybe they will,” Mary said. “They’ll bring gold if they’ve found gold . . . but don’t let’s count on it too much. You know how many men go out looking and come back disappointed. Gold isn’t that easy to find, Jennie. If it was, everybody would have lots of it.”
“Daddy was awfully sure. He said he knew the gold was on the dragon’s back. He knows all about that bad dragon, trying to keep the gold hidden. Only in the story . . .” her eyes, resting on her mother, were thoughtful.
“Jason had to kill the dragon,” Jennie said. “How can you kill a stone dragon? How can you even fight it? Maybe it . . . maybe it will come to life and get up and just . . . fall on them, mash them, maybe it will kill them. There’s no witch to make magic and save them, like in the story. It’s what I’ve been dreaming about—that big awful dragon getting up . . . pulling himself up out of the earth . . .
and then falling on them, catching them between his sharp claws . . .”
“Hush!” Mary said sharply. “You mustn’t let your imagination run away with you, child! You mustn’t!”
“But they haven’t got any magic,” Jennie said.
Her mother set her arm around the thin shoulders. “They’ve got us, darling. We love them, and love is magic. You remember that, Jennie. Remember it always. Love is magic. As long as we love them, the dragon can’t win. No dragon can win. Never, where there’s love.”
Jennie stared up at her. She said slowly, “You don’t talk like that much. You talk about . . . socks and . . . stove wood, and me not eating.”
Up at the clearing, Andy burst through the trees and came tearing down the path. His face was white. “Mom, something terrible has happened! That plane that went ... it was the big plane, the Norseman, and it’s gone to Edmonton for a party and then on up to Aklavik. It will be gone ten days or more. It didn’t go after Dad and the boys at all, and it isn’t coming back!”
“Because Morrison isn’t here . . . he didn’t come back yesterday after all! They let him in the Air Force at last. And the pilot that came in last night, he’s an old man—he took over from Morrison, but he never said a thing to Savage about Dad apd the boys . . . not a word. So Morrison didn’t say a thing to him, that’s what!” Andy began to cry, tears of rage and fear and frustration. “And Savage is getting his plane ready to go to Resolution . . . there’s a sick missionary’s wife there, he has to go in and get her, and he says anyway, he hasn’t got the least idea of where Dad went!”
Mary started for the path, with Jennie at her heels in the striped pyjamas, her pigtails flying. Andy tore on ahead. They skirted the clump of trees at the foot of the slope and ran along the path below the old part of town, toward the sheltered part of the bay where the planes rode at their moorings. Only the small plane was there now, the two-seater. You could get four men into the two narrow seats. It was really an emergency plane. Savage, tall and bony, was standing at the edge of the water, his hands on his narrow hips as he frowned at his little plane, bouncing a little on the water. He was worrying. He turned to Mary with relief. “I sure don’t know what to do, Mrs. Jason, I sure don’t. I didn’t know your men were to come out today. Even if I knew where they are, even if I didn’t have to go to Resolution, I still couldn’t bring them out. They’ve got a tent and a canoe and sleeping bags, and I can’t carry all that. If they were in trouble now . . . but there isn’t any special rush, is there? I mean ... we have to get in touch with Morrison . . . he’ll still be in Edmonton, he only got his letter yesterday, and we’ll need his directions. Damned young idiot,” he said angrily, “he didn’t know much, but he ought to know better than this.”
Mary said, “We mustn’t wait.” And knew that what she said was true. She had pushed away the urgency for days, but it was upon her now, heavy and demanding.
“But they’ve got their stuff . . . and Henry’s a fine shot. So’re the boys.”
“What do you know about the hunting up there?”
“Well,” he said, and his eyes on her face darkened.
“They left half their food behind. They were on skimpy enough rations anyway, three hard-working men . . . and all their meat and eggs got left behind. Kruger’s ... he feels pretty bad about it. They didn’t have nearly enough without the meat, and if the hunting’s not good . . . Savage, they could be in bad trouble.”
“I’d trust Henry Jason to get out of trouble better than any man I know. Rut . . .” he stopped. “Anyway, I don’t know where they are, except north.”
Andy said, “I can find them, Savage. I know I can. I know I can. Dad talked about it so much ... I can find the very spot. Take me. I can find them!”
Mary looked at Andy. “I think he can. Probably Henry will be sending up smoke. He hadn’t too much confidence in Morrison, maybe he’d expect him to need help to find them. They’re on the way to Johnson’s Lake . . . halfway as the crow flies, Henry said. Andy knows the formation his father was heading for. He’s small and light. Henry’s not too heavy. You could bring the men back and never mind the gear.” Then, as he hesitated, “Henry will pay you. He has the money with him.”
“Oh, to hell with the money,” Savage said angrily. “Rut I’ve got to go to Resolution . . . they had a fire, this woman’s burned bad.”
Mary thought of the woman, maybe waiting now for the sound of the plane, lying in torture . . . “How long will it take you?”
“I don’t know how bad she is or what I’ve got to do. Maybe I have to take i her to the city hospital at Edmonton. Look . . .”
Mary waited. Her face felt drawn, thin. He looked at her. He pressed his lips together. He said, “I’ll go to Resolution fast as I can get there. I’ll do what I have to do there. Then I’ll come back, soon as I can, and go for Henry and the boys. Retter than that, I can’t do.”
He went out and got into his plane. Mary and Andy and Jennie watched it skim over the water and lift. They turned on the path to go home, walking slowly. Andy put his hand on his mother’s shoulder, a warm, strong hand. Jennie tucked her fingers into her mother’s palm.
They turned up the hill from the lake, as if none of them wanted to go home. They got to the wooden sidewalk running along the slope and stepped up to it, to walk along past the frame buildings. Nothing was open yet except the eating places.
The café on the corner had a goodsized glass window. Inside, behind the cash register, a girl was standing. Mary glanced at her and then looked again. It was Nell Ormick, wearing a red dress with no sleeves. She was the girl who’d crept out from the Larsen cabin at six o’clock this morning.
She looked up from the cash register, caught sight of Mary and the two children out on the sidewalk, and lifted her hand to wave. She smiled, a wide smile that showed her sparkling white teeth.
Mary found herself catching her breath. This girl was no good. She was bad for Rert. He was going to be the weakest in the family, the one most easily led.
If Henry had found gold ... if he really had . . . this girl would make terrible trouble. It was gold she wanted, too, for clothes and travel and jewelry and living in shiny luxurious places. Mary knew. She knew the girl through and through; but how could you tell Rert, make him bel'°ve, save him?
Mary said to the children, “Wait here a minute. I’ll be right back.”
She walked into the café. She knew how she looked, in her old blue jeans and her shabby cotton blouse with the skimpy sweater buttoned over it. She wasn’t anybody Nell Ormick had any respect for or fear of.
Nell looked up. She said, “Oh, hello. I seen you going by. This is the day the boys come home, isn’t it?”
Mary stood quietly on her side of the counter and looked at Nell. She said in a low voice, “Yes, I hope so. But 1 just wanted to tell you that I saw you at six o’clock this morning.” Nell stared at her. Her face went white for a second, and then the angry color rose in it. “Oh, you did, did you? Well, you want to make somethin’ of it? I don’t know’s it’s apy of your business, Mrs. Henry Jason!”
Mary said, “Just see that it isn’t, that’s all,” and went back to the children.
Savage did not come back from Fort Resolution for two and a half days, until the late afternoon of the twentieth. He’d had a bad time. The woman had been terribly burned, was in great pain, and she’d had to be taken to Edmonton. In the city, Savage had tried to find Morrison, to get from him Henry’s location. Rut Morrison was already on his way east, in a plane, and not to be reached.
There were dark circles under Savage’s eyes and his face looked haggard with fatigue. Mary said, “You
must be tired. Too tired to think of flying.”
“No, I’m all right. I got in a few hours of sleep last night, while some of the boys were trying to track down that, no-good Morrison for me. Fine air-force pilot he’ll be, off to save the country with no more sense of responsibility than he’s got!”
Mary said, “If the hunting is any good at all . . .”
“I’ve been checking on it,” Savage said gruffly. “It’s too dry up there this summer. Even the bears seem to have left. So if your men were short on supplies to begin with, they might be a little bothered. If you think the lad can find them, we better get going. I’d trust Henry to have things figured out and have a good big smoke signal ready when they hear the plane. If it’s halfway to Johnson’s Lake, and the kid knows the formation . . . well, I think we better get going.”
Andy was already racing out along the narrow runway. Savage looked at Mary and grinned. “That kid’s bright as they come,” he said. “We’ll be back in three-four hours with vour men. You just stop worrying, Mrs. Jason. Andy and I’ll find them.”
BERT got up again and looked at the row of notches on the birch tree beside the door of the tent. He said for the tenth time, “We didn’t make no mistakes. We cut a notch every day. This is the nineteenth.”
Bert sat down on his owp log. He said the thing that was in Henry’s mind, torturing him. He said, “We should have started off in the canoe
day before yesterday. We could make it back to Yellowknife in four-five days. Maybe even a half a day’s paddling would’ve brought us to game country. The animals ain’t all dead. They just ain’t around here. We should’ve tried to make it.”
Joe came along the trail from the lake. He had a bunch of leaves and grass in his hand. He said to Bert, “Aw, shut up. Why should Dad’ve thought that guy wouldn’t come in foins? We’d look like a bunch of fools, wouldn’t we, out in the canoe paddling to Yellowknife and all the time that
plane on its way in for us. It don’t make sense.” He got the frying pan from its twig on a tree and sat down with it. He started pulling the leaves off the twigs and putting them into the pan along with the handfuls of grass. He poured water over them.
“What’s that for?” Henry said dully. There was something wrong with him. He got waves of a kind of hot sickness over and over, when the pain in his stomach hit him. Hot and then cold, he would be, and all the time a dullness in his mind.
“Well, we can call it soup,” Joe said.
He set the pan on the wire grill over the flames. He grinned. He was thin, too, as thin as Bert, but there was no anger in him.
“Fine stuff,” Bert said now.
“Rabbits live on it. What’s a rabbit got that we haven’t got? Must be something in it.” Joe reached for the salt. “It’ll be hot, anyway.” He looked at Henry anxiously. “Hot water’s better than cold. Mom always gives you a hot. drink when you get this pain.”
Henry got up. His legs were like old potato sprouts, but he got down to the shore to stand heside the boys. He said, “I want you should go to Yellowknife. You can make it. There’ll be lots of portages. You take the rifle. You can make it in four days. And then you can come right back for me.”
They looked at him. They weren’t alike, those two, but the look on their faces was alike now, as if the same thoughts and feeling were printed on like a pattern in calico.
Joe said, “You think I’d ever dare face Mom, if we left you now? Say, what’s the matter with you, Dad? You quitting?” He put an arm through Henry’s and walked with him back to camp. He sat Henry down on the log again, as if he were an old man. He took up his frying pan and poured the hot water from the leaves and grass into three mugs. He gave one to Henry. “Hi, Bert, soup’s on,” he called, and Bert came slowly up the trail.
Henry sipped at the hot liquid and tried not to gag. It wasn’t that it tasted bad. It was just that his stomach couldn’t seem to take anything.
Joe drank off his hot water. “Not bad,” he said, and smacked his lips. Bert sat turning the mug round and round.
THE DAY went on. Three times they thought they heard a plane, and there was no plane. The boys had the fishlines set, but they all knew it was useless. Their last bit of dynamite had brought up nothing, not even minnows. The fish were away out in deep water, lying on the bottom away from the warmed water. There were no fish, and no partridges, no rabbits, no game of any kind. There was nothing.
Night came. They sat around the fire chewing on willow twigs for a while, to ease the gnawing. They weren’t really hungry any more, not what you could call hungry. They were sick men now, Henry knew, all three of them. Nothing sounded right or looked right; the world was a haze of confusion.
He heard somebody groaning. Then he heard Joe say to Bert, “We got to do something, fella. We got to.”
Morning came again, and Henry tried to get up, but the minute he moved he had to spit up some drops of blood. He didn’t tell the boys. They were already up. Joe came into the tent after a minute and said, “We’re going over to the mainland. We’re going to find something moving, and shoot it, and that’s that. I’ve fixed the sleeping bags for you down on the rocks, right near the fire, so you can watch for the plane.”
The canoe slid off through the soundless water. Henry lay on the soft bed and slept, or dreamed, or did something. Mostly he kept thinking about Mary, but he couldn’t get to her.
She didn’t look at him with soft warm eyes. Her eyes were accusing. She was thinking of all the times he had failed her . . . why should any man make any woman suffer the way she had suffered?
He had been lying there a long, long time. He opened his eyes and saw a bird, far off in the southern sky. He looked at it. It was a hawk, as all the others had been hawks. Hawk meat was rank to eat. The hawk circled around, away down there in the south, and then came on north. It got bigger and bigger, and if a man didn’t know he was out of his head he’d say it had engines.
It came right overhead, following along the dragon’s back. It wasn’t a hawk. It was a plane.
Henry sat up. He stared away up at it, flying off in the pale blue sky. It was a plane. It was gone.
No ... no ... it circled again . . .
He struggled up. He tried to find the matches, but the box was lost. After a long time he found the box, under the edge of the sleeping bags. The plane was gone.
But the fire ... he should have lit the fire. It was too late, but he should have lit it.
He struck a match and held it to the crumple of dry grass and dead leaves the boys had put there under the branches. The first match went out. The second one caught. The flames whispered a little, and then crept along slowly, like a stalking cat’s feet, silent and quiet, creeping up into the heavier tangle above.
What was the use of lighting a fire? The plane was gone.
He sank back on his bed. He heard the fire crackling. It didn’t matter. He heard something like the beat of an engine, but the plane was gone. He heard something like a rifle shot, and that would be the boys, over on the mainland, shooting at an elephant. He heard something like Andy’s voice, but that was part of his dream.
He had found his gold.
It wasn’t his gold. That was what the north was telling him. You fool! You search for what is not your own. You find it. I will teach you a lesson. It is not your gold. It is mine, forever and forever. I set the dragon there and he will never give it up.
DUSK fell. The evening chill began to creep into the air. Mary shut the log door and built a glowing fire in the wood stove. She went to the orange box nailed to the wall in the corner and surveyed her larder. Savage had emergency rations with him, canned soup, coffee; all the pilots carried them. And Kruger stood ready to give her anything she might need. It would be more like Henry to bring home half a deer and a couple of fat ducks than to come home hungry . . . but if the hunting was really bad . . .
Suddenly Mary thought, “I hope they have found gold. Please God . . . even if it’s only a little bit! This child needs help . . . and Henry ought to go to a doctor . . . and Andy must go on to school. And Bert needs to get away from here, find a place where he feels needed and strong, and Joe ought to get some kind of training. If Henry hasn’t found gold this time . . . he’ll still have to go on looking, because that’s the way he is made. Even just a little bit, God, not the big strike—just enough to give us another start . . . and keep Henry dreaming. He’ll die if he can’t dream.”
The hands of the round black clock on the table moved slowly. Mary got a dipper of water and poured it into the grey enamel dishpan, to set it on the stove to warm. She got her dishcloth, and then washed the white oilcloth on the table again. There were some specks of wood ashes on it. She said, ‘Jennie, it still isn’t dark. It’s only nine o’clock. Go out and gather a few spruce boughs, nice tidy ones, and we’ll put them on the table in a lard pail. They smell lovely and they’ll look nice.”
That was something Jennie liked to do. She went quickly. Mary put more wood on the fire and put water into the lard pail, ready for the spruce boughs. She filled the teakettle again and set it on the front of the stove.
Nine o’clock. They would surely be on their way back. They might be almost here. Savage wouldn’t be wasting time loading gear, because he couldn’t carry any. They’d have to go back in for it. If they’d found gold . . . there’d be money to pay for the trip. If they hadn’t . . . well ... it would come from somewhere. Nothing mattered except to get them home.
11 was as Jennie was settling the dark evergreen boughs into the pail on the table that they both heard the tiny far-off beat of the engine’s heart. They looked at each other, not breathing. Jennie’s eyes were wide; Mary felt her own wide, too. After a moment she went slowly to the door and opened it, looking to the north, listening.
The plane was coming.
They went down to tl^e lake, to the water’s edge, and stood waiting with their cold hands clasped together. The plane was still far away, but the faint tick had turned now into a heavier pulse, into a hum. Then, at last, there was a small dark bird against the darkening sky, and almost at once the plane was down, alighting on the water, rushing toward them. Mary strained her eyes, trying to see who was in the cabin.
The door burst open and Andy, triumphant and shining-faced, leaped over the pontoon to the wharf. He said wildly, “Mom, Mom, we found them! I saw the dragon miles away, I was sure where they were, and we circled round and round it, and they lit the signal . . . they’re starved, but they found . . .” he stopped. He turned back and put out a hand.
Henry got out of the plane, his hands on Andy’s shoulder.
The two boys followed him, and for a moment they all stood still, with the seaplane behind them outlined against the darkening sky. They made a picture Mary knew she would never forget. Joe and Bert were gaunt and unshaven, hollow-eyed. They had been hungry. And Henry looked sick. But Joe’s blue eyes sparkled as they looked at Mary, and Savage, the pilot, was trying to bury a deep excitement.
Mary’s eyes lifted at last to Bert.
He was changed. No matter how
starved his body might be, it was as if his spirit was starving no longer. He took a step toward her and put his arms around her. His cheek touched her hair; he hugged her hard, and said in a queer voice, “Dad didn’t really care about gold after all, not the kind that’s in the rock. He did a lot of talkin’ in the nighttime. I guess he always did know the difference between fool’s gold and the real stuff.”
Mary heard him, and realized that he was telling her something new about himself. She loosened her fingers from Jennie’s cold little hand and went to
meet Henry. He was haggard, so weak he could scarcely stand. In him there was no pride, no triumph, no glow of happiness. His eyes seeking hers were full of a strange doubt, a questioning she had never seen in them.
She put her arms around his shoulders. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Wasn’t it right, after all? What is wrong, Henry? Wasn’t it your own dragon? Was there only a little gold?” “I thought we wasn’t going to get back so’s I could tell you.”
“So you could tell me what?”
Joe said, “Hey, break it up, you two,
and get moving! Mom, we’re plain ordinary starved. We haven’t had nothing to eat for a week but an old dead hawk and a skinny rabbit, and the soup and coffee Savage brought. You got half a cow boiling on the stove, or do we head for Kruger’s?”
Jennie was dancing with impatience, clutching Joe’s hand. “Joe, did Daddy find . . .” she stopped, looking at Savage, not sure what he knew or ought to know. “You’ll have to go to Kruger’s and get things,” she said. “I’ll come and help.”
Bert bent quickly and kissed his little sister, something Mary had never seen him do. He took Jennie’s other hand and the two big boys and the little girl started off after Andy, tearing ahead up the path to the store.
Mary was really puzzled about Henry. She led him along the wharf, up the bank, along the path to the cabin. Two or three times he started to speak, but she quietened him. Inside the cabin she took off the old felt hat and the plaid Mackinaw and laid them on the bed. She looked into his face. It was very pale, and the blue eyes were dull and empty. They fixed
themselves miserably on hers.
“Henry, don’t grieve. Whatever happened, if you lost all your gear, if there wasn’t much gold, it doesn’t matter. The boys look happy so I know something good happened. You’ll get to your real strike sometime, if the dragon let you down. Don’t break vour heart over this.”
But he said, “Oh, we found the gold. All the gold in the world. Only—I got. to thinking, the last three-four days it’s too late, Mary. It’s too late. You’ve had too hard a time. No woman could stand it and get over
it. Nothing can change that hard time, nothing can change what I done to you.”
Something warm and new stirred in Mary’s heart. For a good many years she had hidden there a little hurt, a pain, a secret aching sorrow, always pushed away in shame at her own self-pity. She had always understood Henry and known what to expect from him. She needn’t be sorry for herself. Now she knew that if it had ever really existed, that pain, Henry’s first acknowledgment of it had taken it away.
She said, “You’ve found your gold.
Henry? And you’re worrying about
He put out his hands, groping, and clasped her arms above the elbow. Through the sleeve of her shirt she felt the coldness of those hands. He kept looking into her face, his eyes searching hers. He was sick with unhappiness and self-accusation. He lifted her hand, her left hand, and looked at it; at the bones showing, and the blue veins, and the twisted scar across the wrist and up the back where the four-inch sliver had gone in when she had been scrubbing the mill floor at Waterways. It wasn’t a pretty hand any more. Mary didn’t often look at it.
He said, “I been a fool. I always thought ... if only I could buy you a diamond again! Your other diamond, your engagement ring, that you gave to the man in Saskatoon to get gas so we could start north ... I always thought, that wouldn’t hurt you any more if I could just get you a big new diamond. Not that you ever complained or asked for one. I guess it was me I didn’t want hurt knowin’ what I’d done to you. I guess that’s wJiat it was.”
“Oh, Henry, Henry . . . hush! Was there really gold on the dragon’s back? Gold, at last?”
He said numbly, “The place stinks with gold.”
Mary thought, he has found his gold. But it is meaningless. He has lost his dragon, it is dead at last, the enticing thing that led him on and on through all the pain and the danger. Having the gold will not be enough. He has lost his dream.
A man cannot live without a dream.
Reality is not for men.
What must a woman always do? What could a woman do now?
She lifted her chin and laughed suddenly. She made herself look young again, with pink in her cheeks and a sparkle in her eyes. She said, “You’re right about me wanting a diamond. I loved my engagement ring, but it had only a little diamond, Henry, much as I loved it. But I’ll tell you a secret . . . you know what? All my life I’ve wanted a ring with a diamond in it as big as a postage stamp. A square diamond. I’ve seen them in pictures. Only, what use was there for me to say such a thing? If you didn’t find your gold I could never have it. But if you really have found your gold . . .”
“You mean that? You really mean that?” The blue began to come back into his eyes again, a hint of the old blue fire.
“A great big diamond, shining and glittering like a piece off a blue moon, too wonderful to be true, Henry. I don’t think they make diamonds as big as the one I want! And ... if you can afford it . . . if there’s enough gold left ... I want a long fox coat, soft and thick and pure snowy white.”
He stared at her. He straightened his shoulders a little, but the old swagger was not quite in them. Knowledge lay in his eyes, a new knowledge, as if out there with the dragon he had tasted the bitter fruit of the tree. He had seen himself and judged himself and his innocence was gone.
Mary put her arms around him quickly and pressed him close. “You found the gold for all of us at last, Henry. We need it, all of us. Jennie and Joe and Andy and Bert and me. It will make a new world for us all. You’ve won through for us all.”
He put his rough scratchy cheek against hers. His hand patted her shoulder, a new comforting kind of patting. He was trembling with weakness and sickness. But he said, “I’ll get you your coat. I’ll go up to the Arctic. I’ll trap the foxes myself.” ★