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The Gold Hunters: A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds

The Gold Hunters: A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds



The deep hush of noon hovered over the vast solitude of Canadian forest. The moose and caribou had fed since early dawn, and were resting quietly in the warmth of the ...
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  The deep hush of noon hovered over the vast solitude of Canadianforest. The moose and caribou had fed since early dawn, and wereresting quietly in the warmth of the February sun; the lynx was curledaway in his niche between the great rocks, waiting for the sun tosink farther into the north and west before resuming his maraudingadventures; the fox was taking his midday slumber and the restlessmoose-birds were fluffing themselves lazily in the warm glow that wasbeginning to melt the snows of late winter.

  It was that hour when the old hunter on the trail takes off his pack,silently gathers wood for a fire, eats his dinner and smokes his pipe,eyes and ears alert;--that hour when, if you speak above a whisper, hewill say to you,

  "Sh-h-h-h! Be quiet! You can't tell how near we are to game.Everything has had its morning feed and is lying low. The game won'tbe moving again for an hour or two, and there may be moose or cariboua gunshot ahead. We couldn't hear them--now!"

  And yet, after a time one thing detached itself from this lifelesssolitude. At first it was nothing more than a spot on the sunny sideof a snow-covered ridge. Then it moved, stretched itself like a dog,with its forefeet extended far to the front and its shoulders hunchedlow--and was a wolf.

  A wolf is a heavy sleeper after a feast. A hunter would have said thatthis wolf had gorged itself the night before. Still, something hadalarmed it. Faintly there came to this wilderness outlaw that mostthrilling of all things to the denizens of the forest--the scent ofman. He came down the ridge with the slow indifference of a full-fedanimal, and with only a half of his old cunning; trotted across thesoftening snow of an opening and stopped where the man-scent was sostrong that he lifted his head straight up to the sky and sent out tohis comrades in forest and plain the warning signal that he had strucka human trail. A wolf will do this, and no more, in broad day. Atnight he might follow, and others would join him in the chase; butwith daylight about him he gives the warning and after a little slinksaway from the trail.

  But something held this wolf. There was a mystery in the air whichpuzzled him. Straight ahead there ran the broad, smooth trail of asled and the footprints of many dogs. Sometime within the last hourthe "dog mail" from Wabinosh House had passed that way on its longtrip to civilization. But it was not the swift passage of man anddog that held the wolf rigidly alert, ready for flight--and yethesitating. It was something from the opposite direction, from theNorth, out of which the wind was coming. First it was sound; then itwas scent--then both, and the wolf sped in swift flight up the sunlitridge.

  In the direction from which the alarm came there stretched a smalllake, and on its farther edge, a quarter of a mile away, theresuddenly darted out from the dense rim of balsam forest a jumble ofdogs and sledge and man. For a few moments the mass of animals seemedentangled in some kind of wreck or engaged in one of those fiercebattles in which the half-wild sledge-dogs of the North frequentlyengage, even on the trail. Then there came the sharp, commanding criesof a human voice, the cracking of a whip, the yelping of thehuskies, and the disordered team straightened itself and came like ayellowish-gray streak across the smooth surface of the lake. Closebeside the sledge ran the man. He was tall, and thin, and even at thatdistance one would have recognized him as an Indian. Hardly had theteam and its wild-looking driver progressed a quarter of the distanceacross the lake when there came a shout farther back, and a secondsledge burst into view from out of the thick forest. Beside thissledge, too, a driver was running with desperate speed.

  The leader now leaped upon his sledge, his voice rising in sharp criesof exhortation, his whip whirling and cracking over the backs of hisdogs. The second driver still ran, and thus gained upon the teamahead, so that when they came to the opposite side of the lake, wherethe wolf had sent out the warning cry to his people, the twelve dogsof the two teams were almost abreast.

  Quickly there came a slackening in the pace set by the leading dog ofeach team, and half a minute later the sledges stopped. The dogs flungthemselves down in their harness, panting, with gaping jaws, the snowreddening under their bleeding feet. The men, too, showed signs ofterrible strain. The elder of these, as we have said, was an Indian,pure breed of the great Northern wilderness. His companion was a youthwho had not yet reached his twenties, slender, but with the strengthand agility of an animal in his limbs, his handsome face bronzed bythe free life of the forest, and in his veins a plentiful strain ofthat blood which made his comrade kin.

  In those two we have again met our old friends Mukoki and Wabigoon:Mukoki, the faithful old warrior and pathfinder, and Wabigoon, theadventurous half-Indian son of the factor of Wabinosh House. Bothwere at the height of some great excitement. For a few moments, whilegaining breath, they gazed silently into each other's face.

  "I'm afraid--we can't--catch them, Muky," panted the younger. "What doyou think--"

  He stopped, for Mukoki had thrown himself on his knees in the snow adozen feet in front of the teams. From that point there ran straightahead of them the trail of the dog mail. For perhaps a full minute heexamined the imprints of the dogs' feet and the smooth path madeby the sledge. Then he looked up, and with one of those inimitablechuckles which meant so much when coming from him, he said:

  "We catch heem--sure! See--sledge heem go _deep_. Both ride. Big loadfor dogs. We catch heem--sure!"

  "But our dogs!" persisted Wabigoon, his face still filled with doubt."They're completely bushed, and my leader has gone lame. See howthey're bleeding!"

  The huskies, as the big wolfish sledge-dogs of the far North arecalled, were indeed in a pitiable condition. The warm sun had weakenedthe hard crust of the snow until at every leap the feet of the animalshad broken through, tearing and wounding themselves on its ragged,knife-like edges. Mukoki's face became more serious as he carefullyexamined the teams.

  "Bad--ver' bad," he grunted. "We fool--fool!"

  "For not bringing dog shoes?" said Wabigoon. "I've got a dozen shoeson my sledge--enough for three dogs. By George--" He leaped quickly tohis toboggan, caught up the dog moccasins, and turned again to the oldIndian, alive with new excitement. "We've got just one chance, Muky!"he half shouted.

  "Pick out the strongest dogs. One of us must go on alone!"

  The sharp commands of the two adventurers and the cracking of Mukoki'swhip brought the tired and bleeding animals to their feet. Over thepads of three of the largest and strongest were drawn the buckskinmoccasins, and to these three, hitched to Wabigoon's sledge, wereadded six others that appeared to have a little endurance still leftin them. A few moments later the long line of dogs was speedingswiftly over the trail of the Hudson Bay mail, and beside the sled ranWabigoon.

  Thus this thrilling pursuit of the dog mail had continued since earlydawn. For never more than a minute or two at a time had there been arest. Over mountain and lake, through dense forest and across barrenplain man and dog had sped without food or drink, snatching upmouthfuls of snow here and there--always their eyes upon the freshtrail of the flying mail. Even the fierce huskies seemed to understandthat the chase had become a matter of life and death, and that theywere to follow the trail ahead of them, ceaselessly and withoutdeviation, until the end of their masters was accomplished. The humanscent was becoming stronger and stronger in their wolf-like nostrils.Somewhere on that trail there were men, and other dogs, and they wereto overtake them!

  Even now, bleeding and stumbling as they ran, the blood of battle, theexcitement of the chase, was hot within them. Half-wolf, half-dog,their white fangs snarling as stronger whiffs of the man-smell came tothem, they were filled with the savage desperation of the youth whourged them on. The keen instinct of the wild pointed out their road tothem, and they needed no guiding hand. Faithful until the last theydragged on their burden, their tongues lolling farther from theirjaws, their hearts growing weaker, their eyes bloodshot until theyglowed like red balls. Now and then, when he had run until hisendurance was gone, Wabigoon would fling himself upon the sledge toregain breath and rest his limbs, and the dogs would tug harder,scarce slackening their speed under the increased weight. Once a hugemoose crashed through the forest a hundred paces away, but the huskiespaid no attention to it; a little farther on a lynx, aroused fromhis sun bath on a rock, rolled like a great gray ball across thetrail,--the dogs cringed but for an instant at the sight of thismortal enemy of theirs, and then went on.

  Slower and slower grew the pace. The rearmost dog was now no more thana drag, and reaching a keen-edged knife far out over the end of thesledge Wabi severed his breast strap and the exhausted animal rolledout free beside the trail. Two others of the team were pulling scarcea pound, another was running lame, and the trail behind was spottedwith pads of blood. Each minute added to the despair that was growingin the youth's face. His eyes, like those of his faithful dogs, werered from the terrible strain of the race, his lips were parted, hislegs, as tireless as those of a red deer, were weakening under him.More and more frequently he flung himself upon the sledge, pantingfor breath, and shorter and shorter became his intervals of runningbetween these periods of rest. The end of the chase was almost athand. They could not overtake the Hudson Bay mail!

  With a final cry of encouragement Wabi sprang from the sledge andplunged along at the head of the dogs, urging them on in one lastsupreme effort. Ahead of them was a break in the forest trail andbeyond that, mile upon mile, stretched the vast white surface of LakeNipigon. And far out in the glare of sun and snow there moved anobject, something that was no more than a thin black streak toWabi's blinded eyes but which he knew was the dog mail on its way tocivilization. He tried to shout, but the sound that fell from his lipscould not have been heard a hundred paces away; his limbs totteredbeneath him; his feet seemed suddenly to turn into lead, and he sankhelpless into the snow. The faithful pack crowded about him lickinghis face and hands, their hot breath escaping between their gapingjaws like hissing steam For a few moments it seemed to the Indianyouth that day had suddenly turned into night. His eyes closed, thepanting of the dogs came to him more and more faintly, as if they weremoving away; he felt himself sinking, sinking slowly down into utterblackness.

  Desperately he fought to bring himself back into life. There was onemore chance--just one! He heard the dogs again, he felt their tonguesupon his hands and face, and he dragged himself to his knees, gropingout with his hands like one who had gone blind. A few feet away wasthe sledge, and out there, far beyond his vision now, was the HudsonBay mail!

  Foot by foot he drew himself out from among the tangle of dogs. Hereached the sledge, and his fingers gripped convulsively at the coldsteel of his rifle. One more chance! One more chance! The words--thethought--filled his brain, and he raised the rifle to his shoulder,pointing its muzzle up to the sky so that he would not harm the dogs.And then, once, twice, five times he fired into the air, and at theend of the fifth shot he drew fresh cartridges from his belt,and fired again and again, until the black streak far out in thewilderness of ice and snow stopped in its progress--and turned back.And still the sharp signals rang out again and again, until the barrelof Wabi's rifle grew hot, and his cartridge belt was empty.

  Slowly the gloom cleared away before his eyes. He heard a shout, andstaggered to his feet, stretching out his arms and calling a name asthe dog mail stopped half a hundred yards from his own team.

  With something between a yell of joy and a cry of astonishment a youthof about Wabi's age sprang from the second sleigh and ran to theIndian boy, catching him in his arms as for a second time, he sankfainting upon the snow.

  "Wabi--what's the matter?" he cried. "Are you hurt? Are you--"

  For a moment Wabigoon struggled to overcome his weakness.

  "Rod--" he whispered, "Rod--Minnetaki--"

  His lips ceased to move and he sank heavily in his companion's arms.

  "What is it, Wabi? Quick! Speak!" urged the other. His face had grownstrangely white, his voice trembled. "What about--Minnetaki?"

  Again the Indian youth fought to bring himself back to life. His wordscame faintly,

  "Minnetaki--has been captured--by--the--Woongas!"

  Then even his breath seemed to stop, and he lay like one dead.