Read CHAPTER VIII - THE CENSUS HEROES OF THE FROZEN NORTH of The Boy With the U.S. Census, free online book, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, on

“This is surely one blazing day,” said Hamilton one day early in June, as after the noon hour, he settled back at his work on the punching machine.

“We’ll cool you off all right,” responded the foreman, who was coming up at the moment and heard the boy’s remark, “for I understand they’re looking for editors on the Alaskan schedules. A big batch of them has just arrived and I happen to know that your name has been recommended. Mr. Cullern asked me to send you to him just as soon as you came in.”

“I should like that above all things,” Hamilton replied, “partly because I’ve always been interested in Alaska, and also because this work has got a little monotonous. I hadn’t thought of the Alaskan census,” he continued, “and that’s strange too; I should think census-taking up in that country must have been full of excitement and adventure.”

“Probably it was,” responded his friend, “but you won’t find any thrilling yarns on the schedules; they’ll be just like any other schedules, I should imagine, only that the occupations will be of a different variety. But you had better go along and see the chief.”

Hamilton went gladly, thinking that no matter how formal the schedules might be that dealt with Alaska they could not help but show to some extent the character of the conditions in which they had been secured and the difficulties attaching to work in that isolated land.

“How would you like to try your hand at the editing of the Alaska schedules, Noble?” asked the chief of the division when the boy appeared before him a few moments later.

“Very much indeed, Mr. Cullern,” Hamilton replied.

“I understand that you have shown a great deal of interest in your work while you have been here,” the chief said, “and when I was asked yesterday if I had any one to recommend I thought of you at once. Having had experience in the manufactures end, as well as in the population, ought to help you a good deal in the work. You were a special agent in the manufactures, were you not?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy answered, “but I don’t think any of the places to which I went resembled in any way the conditions in Alaska.”

“Probably not,” the chief said dryly, “New England isn’t usually considered in that light. But the underlying principles are the same, of course, all the way through. Well, if you want to try it, here is your chance.”

“Very well, sir,” Hamilton answered promptly. “I shall be glad to take it up.”

The boy waited a moment, but as there seemed nothing more to be said, he walked back to his machine, to straighten up before leaving.

“As soon as you’re through with that schedule,” the foreman in charge of the sub-section told him, “let me know, and then you can go to Mr. Barnes, who is in charge of the Alaskan schedules.”

“I’ve nearly finished,” answered the boy, “I’ll be done in a quarter of an hour anyway.”

Accordingly, a little later, Hamilton found his way to another part of the building, where he met his new superior, a small, alert, nervous, quick-spoken man, who, as Hamilton afterwards found out, had the capacity of working at lightning speed, and then stopping and wanting to talk at intervals. He said very little when Hamilton first came to him, merely handing him a number of schedules to edit.

Hamilton watched him furtively several times and noted the amazing rapidity of his work. Secretly he knew he could not attain that speed, but he thought he had better make as good a showing as he could, and so he, too, buckled to the job for all he was worth. When the boy had done two or three schedules, each containing fifty names, Mr. Barnes reached out for those that had been edited and went through them closely. He made one or two corrections.

“That’s not half bad, Noble,” he said suddenly, “but I can see from one or two little things you let go by that you are not entirely familiar with that country. I’ll tell you more about it later, but in the meantime you had better look over some of the reports the supervisors have sent in; they give you an insight into what those enumerators out there had to go through in order to secure anything like complete schedules. Here in one from the Fourth District, for example, there is a graphic description of the work which I think you ought to enjoy. It’s good writing, too.”

“My enumeration work was in Kentucky,” said Hamilton, “so I haven’t much line on the conditions in the North. But I’ve always enjoyed books and stories about Alaska, and I’d like to read the report.”

“It will give you the atmosphere,” said Barnes, “listen to this paragraph, for example: ’The work was performed during the severest winter known in this part of Alaska by the oldest settlers there. There did not appear to be a man who did not have a pride in his work, an anxiety to create a record for traveling time, a desire to enumerate all the people in the district assigned to him, and to have to his credit less loss of time because of weather than any of the other agents.’”

“I guess,” said Hamilton, “that supervisor had those enumerators just breaking their necks to beat out the other agents, and he worked on their pride to get up their speed.”

“’That the service lost none of its men from freezing to death, and that every man returned safely, is a matter for congratulation and of good fortune, from the fact that there were in this part of Alaska more deaths from the weather this winter than all preceding years in total; cases in which those who met such deaths did not begin to go through the sacrifice and privation that these agents of the service did.’”

“Makes you proud to have been an enumerator, doesn’t it?” asked the boy. “But it always seems difficult to realize hardship unless you have been there.”

“I spent a winter in Alaska,” said Barnes emphatically, “and I can feel the thrill of it in every line. He knows what he’s writing of, too, this man. Hear how he describes it: ‘All the men in the service,’” he continued, “’covered hundreds of miles over the ice and snow, in weather ranging from 30 to 70 degrees below zero, the average temperature probably being about 40 below. Because of the absolute lack of beaten trails ’ I wonder,” he broke off, “if any one who hasn’t been there can grasp what it means!”

Hamilton waited.

“No beaten trail,” Barnes said reminiscently, “means where stunted willows emphasize by their starved and shivering appearance the nearness of the timber; where the snow-drifts, each with its little feather of drifting snow sheering from its crest, are heaped high; where the snow underfoot is unbroken; where under snow-filled skies a wind studded with needle-sharp ice crystals blows a perfect gale; where the lonely and frozen desolation is peopled only by the haunting shape of fear that next morning a wan and feeble sun may find you staggering still blindly on, hopelessly lost, or fallen beside a drift where the winter’s snows must melt before your fate is known.”

He stopped abruptly and went on with his schedule. Hamilton worked on in silence. Presently, as though there had been no pause, Barnes resumed his quotation from the supervisor’s report:

“’Because of the absolute lack of beaten trails, and the fact that the snow lies so loosely on the ground like so much salt, no matter what its depth may be, it was necessary through all their work to snow-shoe ahead of the dog-teams. When one considers their isolation, often traveling for days without other shelter than a tent and fur robes it can be understood what sacrifices some of these men made to visit far-away prospectors’ cabins and claims. However, no man who travels in this part of the country ever considers that there is any hardship, unless there is loss of life, and they take their work stoically and good-naturedly, though they drop in their tracks at the end of the day.’”

He tossed over the report to Hamilton.

“Look it over,” he said. “I tell you there’s some stirring stuff in that, and just the bald reports of the enumerators’ trips leave the stories of explorers in the shade.”

The boy took up the report as he was bidden, and read it with avidity. Presently, upon a boyish exclamation, the other spoke:

“What’s that one you’ve struck?”

“It’s the enumerator from the district of Chandler,” answered Hamilton.

“Go ahead and read it aloud,” Barnes said, “I can go on with these schedules just as well while you do.”

“‘At no time after he left Fairbanks,’” read the boy, “’did the thermometer get above 30 degrees below zero. His long journey away from a base of supplies made it impossible for him to carry a sufficient supply of grub, and he was obliged to live off the country, killing moose, mountain sheep, and other fresh meat. He froze portions of his face several times, and on one occasion dropped into six feet of open water, nearly losing his life in consequence.’”

“That would be fearful,” said Barnes, “unless he could pitch camp right there, put up a tent, build a fire, and change into dry clothing.”

“There seems to have been mighty little wood for that up there,” Hamilton remarked, “because, speaking of this same enumerator, the supervisor says, further on, ’In crossing the Arctic Range and in returning he traveled above timber line eighteen hours in both directions, which, in a country where fire is a necessity, can be understood is a very considerable sacrifice. He traveled in many places where a white man had never been before, and as there are no beaten trails or government roads in the district anywhere, he was obliged, everywhere, to snow-shoe ahead of his team to beat down a trail.’”

“Did you ever snow-shoe?” asked Barnes abruptly.

“Once,” answered Hamilton, “when I went to Canada to visit some cousins; they had a snow-shoe tramp and insisted on my coming along. But I was stiff for a week.”

“Well,” said the editor, “when you try to break trail and have to keep ahead of a dog-team coming along at a fair clip, it’s just about the hardest kind of work there is.”

“They all seem to have had their own troubles,” said Hamilton, who had been glancing down the pages of the report: “here’s the next chap, who got caught in a blizzard while accompanying the mail carrier, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that the people of the nearest settlement knew that the mail carrier was expected on that day and sent out a rescue party to search for him, neither of the two men would ever have been found, and the census would have lost a man.”

“That was up in the Tanana region, wasn’t it?” queried Barnes, but without looking up from his work.

“Yes,” answered the boy, “and from all accounts that must be a wild part of the country. Speaking of that same enumerator, the supervisor says: ’That this agent survived the work during the stormy period and came back alive was the wonder of the older inhabitants of the country. No less than four times this man was found by other travelers in an exhausted condition, not far from complete collapse, and assisted to a stopping place. He lost three dogs, and suffered terribly himself from frost-bite. In the same district, during the same time, eight persons were frozen to death, six men and two women.’ There’s quite a story here, too, telling how he himself rescued a couple of trappers in the last stages of hunger, exposure, and exhaustion.”

“It’s fearful to think of,” the other commented; “just imagine those agonizing journeys in the teeth of an Arctic wind, traveling over hundreds of miles of trackless wilderness to get less than one-tenth as many people as a city enumerator would find in one block!”

“But why do it in winter?” asked Hamilton. “It’s hot up there in summer, I’ve heard, and driving in the warm weather is pleasant enough; there’s no hardship in that!”

“You can’t drive where there are no roads, and you can’t ride where there are no horses. Then the time available is short.”

“Why is it so short?”

“You haven’t a railroad going to every point in Alaska,” Barnes pointed out, “there’s usually a trip of several hundred miles before you get to the place from which to start. And when are you going to make that journey?”

“In the spring,” Hamilton said, “as soon as it gets mild.”

“I reckon you don’t know much about Alaska,” the older man remarked. “When the snow thaws, the creeks overflow, and the rivers become raging torrents. You can’t ride, and if you walk, how are you going to cross a swollen river, filled with pieces of ice the size of this room? Those Alaska rivers are huge bodies of water, many of them, and there are no bridges.”

“How about boats?”

“You mean traveling on those ice-filled rivers? It couldn’t be done.”

“But as soon as the ice goes out?”

“That’s pretty well into June, to start with, and then you would have to pole up against the current all the way, and the currents of most of the rivers are very swift. Did you ever pole a boat up against a swift mountain river? I thought not. Suppose, by very hard work, you could make two or three miles an hour up stream, at that rate how long would it take you to go up to the highest settlement? And then you would have to go all the way down again and ascend the next stream; and even then more than half the settlements would be on streams and creeks you could not get to with boats because of falls, of rapids, of long portages, and things of that kind.”

“I guess they couldn’t use a boat,” said Hamilton, “but still I don’t see why they couldn’t ride!”

“Ride what? Dogs? Or reindeer? I suppose you mean to take a horse up there?”

“That’s what I was thinking of,” Hamilton admitted.

“How would you get him up there? Take him in a dog-sled the preceding winter? You know a horse couldn’t travel on the snow like a dog-team. And if you did get him up to the starting point during the winter, on what would you feed him? Dried salmon? That’s all there is, and while it makes good enough dog-feed, a horse isn’t built that way. There’s no hay-cutting section up there, and your horse would starve to death before you had a chance to ride him. And even supposing that you could keep him alive, I don’t believe you could ride him over the tundra swamps; there is no horse made that could keep his footing on those marshy tussocks.”

“I see you’re right,” said Hamilton, “I hadn’t thought of all that.”

The older man continued: “There are horses in the towns of southern Alaska, because, you know, there is one narrow strip that runs a long way south, and there the weather is not severe. But the north is another matter entirely. The pay that you would have to offer in order to lure the men away from the gold-diggings would be enormous. No, it had to be a winter job, and in the Geography section where I was last year it took us all our time to estimate satisfactory enumeration districts for Alaska.”

“The Geography section?” queried Hamilton in surprise. “I hadn’t heard of that. What is that part of the census work for?”

“To map out the enumeration districts,” his superior explained. “That is a most important part of the work. You remember that the enumeration district was supposed to provide exactly a month’s work for each man?”

“Yes,” Hamilton answered, “I know I had to hustle in order to get mine done in the month.”

“Supposing,” said the other, “that all the people that were on your schedule had lived in villages close together, would it have taken you as long to do?”

“Of course not,” Hamilton replied, “I could have done it in half the time. What delayed things was riding from farm to farm, and they were scattered all over the countryside.”

“Exactly,” Barnes continued, “but I suppose you never stopped to think that the number of people in each district and the nature of the ground to be covered both had to be considered. Then allowance had to be made for the enumeration of those not readily accessible, and for such natural obstacles as unbridged rivers; all these had to be mapped out and gone over by the Census Bureau before the sections were assigned.”

“No,” the boy replied, “I never really stopped to think who it was that made up all those districts. And, now you come to speak of it, I don’t see how it could have been done without being on the ground.”

“Yet it is evident,” the other said, “that it must have been done. It wouldn’t be fair to tell a man to finish a district that represented seven or eight weeks’ work, nor to promise a month’s work to a man and then give him a district that had only two or three weeks’ employment. You couldn’t alter the districts afterwards, either, as everything had to be prepared in Washington for enumeration and tabulation by the original districts as mapped out.”

“You mean,” said Hamilton, “that every square mile of territory in the United States, the number of people on it, the kind of land it was, the roads and trails, the distance from the nearest town, the rivers, and the location of bridges across them, and all that sort of thing had to be worked out in advance?”

“Every acre,” was the reply, “and the worst of it was that there was very little to go by. The lists for the last Decennial Census were only of use in the Eastern districts, for in the West large towns had grown up that were mere villages then. Whole sections of territory which were uninhabited ten years ago are thick with farms today and the ’Great American Desert’ of a few years ago is becoming, under irrigation, the ‘Great American Garden.’”

“The Survey maps helped, I should think,” said Hamilton. “I have a friend, Roger Doughty, on the Geological Survey, and he told me all about the making of the Topographic maps.”

“They helped, of course, but even with those it was hard to work out some of the queerly shaped districts. The supervisors helped us greatly after the larger districts had been planned, but the Geography division had to keep in touch with every detail until the entire country was divided into proportionately equal sections.

“And you had to do that for Alaska, as well!”

“As far as we could. Of course it was difficult to determine routes of travel there, and to a large extent that had to be left to the supervisors, but they merely revised our original districting. It took a lot of figuring in Alaska because of the tremendous travel difficulties there and the thousands of miles of territory still unsurveyed.”

“I had never realized the need of all that preparatory work,” the boy admitted.

“There’s a great deal of the work that has to be done in the years before the census and in the years after,” he was informed, “and the Bureau is kept just as busy as it can be, all the while. The Decennial Census, although it is the biggest part of the census work, is only one of its many branches, and then there are always other matters being looked after, like the Quinquennial Census of Manufactures, and such numberings as those of the Religious Bodies and the Marriage and Divorce Statistics of a few years ago.”

“I understood the Bureau had regular work all the year round?” Hamilton said.

“Indeed it has. All the births and deaths that are registered are tabulated here, and a number of tables of vital statistics are worked out which are of immense value to doctors not only in the United States but all over the world. Then, as I think you know, we have for years made a special study of cotton crop conditions, and there is a bulletin published at stated intervals showing the state of the cotton industry in the United States. Then there is all the statistical work on cities of over 30,000 inhabitants, and there is scarcely a question which has reference to the population or the manufacturing interests of the country that is not referred sooner or later to the Bureau of the Census.”

“You work with the Forest Service, too, I believe,” said Hamilton. “Wilbur Loyle, a forest ranger whom I knew very well, showed me some figures that the Bureau had prepared.”

“Only in the collection and publication of statistics of forest products,” said Barnes, rising and changing his office coat, for the conversation had run on long after office hours, “owing to their co-operation the task is not cumbersome; questions of information or special statistics asked for by Congress or by the executive departments take up a great deal of time when added to an already extensive routine work.”

Editing the schedules of the population of Alaska, just as Hamilton had expected, proved to be of the most intense interest, since, despite the closest desire on the part of the enumerators to confine themselves strictly to official facts, the wildness of the frontier life would creep in. An example of this was the listing of an Eskimo girl on the schedule as having “Sun” and “Sea” for her parents with an explanatory note to the effect that she had been found as a tiny girl upon a heap of sea moss on the beach. Another was when an enumerator wrote on his schedule under ‘language spoken,’ “Some pesky lingo; I know most of their talk, but this was too much for me and the hut was too strong to stay in long.”

Such comments made it easy to create a picture of the semi-savagery of the fur-clad fishers on the shores of the Arctic Sea.

Another schedule, one which interested the boy greatly, was that in which the age of an Indian was described as “200 snows.” To try to get this worked out to the probably true age of 80 or 90 years evidently had been quite a task. The enumerator wrote:

“This Indian ain’t 200 years old. He says he’s 200 snows, but I can’t quite figure it out. He says he was 20 snows when he got first woman, kept her 4 snows, then she go away! He complained that ’he had no women 4 suns and catch no women 4 snows.’ He ’got more woman, keep her 5 snows, then she eat cold (frozen to death). Got no woman 20 snows, she good woman.’ He could not give any clue about his children only that ‘his chickens 30 to 45 snows!’ They reckon here only from what they can remember, so this buck is probably counting from about ten years old. That would make him thirty when he first got a wife, thirty-four when she died, thirty-eight when he got his next wife, and forty-three when she died. Counting his oldest child at 45 this would make him about seventy-five. Where the ‘200 snows’ comes in, I don’t see.”

A great treat to the boy came, however, when one of the enumerators from the Second District of Alaska, who had been summoned East in the spring on business concerning some property with which he was associated, and had come as soon as the break-up permitted travel, dropped into the Census Bureau. He made himself known to the Director, and the latter, always ready to show attention and being really proud of the Census Bureau staff, arranged to have him shown around the building. The Alaskan was a small fellow, hard as nails, given to stretches of silence, but with a ready, infectious laugh and the ability to tell a good yarn after he got started. Presently, just before quitting time, he reached the desk where Barnes and Hamilton were editing schedules.

“This ought to interest you,” said the Bureau official who was showing him around, “these men are just going over the Alaskan schedules before sending them to the machines to be punched and tabulated.”

Looking interested, the man bent forward and, with a muttered word of apology, picked up the schedule on which Hamilton was working at the time. “This must be one o’ mine!” he said, with an air of surprise.

“But that is marked, ’Copy’!” said Hamilton “I was just wondering where the original was.”

“I’m willin’ to gamble quite a stack, son,” was the surprising reply, “that you’d have been wonderin’ a whole lot more if the original had come down to you.”

“Why, how’s that?”

“Well, I reckon I c’n handle dogs better’n I can a pen,” he said, “an’ when you come to try an’ write one o’ these schedules on scraps o’ dried skin you c’n count it sure’s shootin’ there’s some decipherin’ got to be done.”

Barnes looked at the official who was showing the Alaskan ’round the building, and knowing him very well, he said to the visitor, “Spin us the yarn; I’ve been up there and I’d like to hear it myself, and I know the lad is just wild to hear it.”

“I want to be a part of that audience, too,” said the official, with a smile.

“I don’t want to hold up the job!” the visitor suggested hesitatingly.

“Go ahead,” his conductor answered. “Here we are all waiting, and it’s nearly half-past four anyway.”

“Well, then, it was up in the Noatak Pass ” he was beginning, when Hamilton stopped him.

“I don’t want to interrupt, right at the start,” he said, “but where is that pass?”

“I should have told you,” said the miner goodhumoredly, “it’s the pass between the Endicott an’ the Baird ranges, at the extreme northern end of the Rockies. I hated to go through it, an’ I wouldn’t have, most times, not unless there was a mighty big pull to get me over there, but I had promised to count every one in my district, an’ so, of course, there was nothin’ else to do but go, even though I knew there was no one on the other side but a bunch of Eskimos. Well, we were halfway up the pass when the Indian guide stopped the dogs an’ listened. It was just about noon an’ the travelin’ was good, so that, wantin’ to make time, I got good an’ mad at the stop. Knowin’ my Indian, I kep’ quiet just the same, always bein’ willin’ to bet on an Indian bein’ right on the trail. First off, I could notice nothin’, then, when I threw back my parka hood I could hear a boomin’ in the air as though some one was beatin’ a gong, miles and miles away. It was so steady a sound that after you had once heard it for a while you wouldn’t notice it, an’ you would have to listen again real hard to see if it was still goin’ on.”

“Like distant thunder?” queried Hamilton.

“Not a bit. It was high, like a gong, an’ it wasn’t any too good to hear. The dogs knew it, too, for though we had been stopped nearly five minutes none of them had started to fight.”

“Do dogs fight every time they stop?”

“Just about. They try to, anyway. In the traces, of course, they can’t do much but snap an’ snarl, but that they’re always doin’. This time, however, all save one or two of them stood upright sniffin’ uneasily.

“‘Wind?’ I asked the Indian.

“‘Heap wind!’ he answered. ‘Go back?’

“Now you may lay ten to one that when an Indian is the first to suggest goin’ back, trouble with a big ‘T’ is right handy. I reckon that was the first time I ever did hear an Indian propose goin’ back. ’Why go back, Billy?’ I asked.

“‘Heap wind,’ he repeated, ‘old trail easy.’ He pointed ahead, ’No trail!’”

“He meant, I suppose,” Hamilton interjected, “that if you doubled on your tracks the trail would have been broken before, and it would be easy going.”

“That’s the bull’s-eye, and if a storm did come up we’d have a trail to follow and not get lost.”

“Did you go back?”

“I did not. I figured that while we were about a day’s journey to a settlement either way, we were perhaps an hour nearer where we were goin’ than where we had come from, an’ that perhaps the storm would hold off long enough for us to make it. Those storms last for days, sometimes, an’ we’d have the trip to make anyway, even if we did go back. Besides, I didn’t want to lose the time. ‘No, Billy,’ I called to the Siwash, ‘go on!’

“I was sorry the minute I said it, because I knew the Siwash thought me wrong, although, bein’ an Indian, of course he never showed a sign. He started up the dogs without a word. I knew he thought it reckless and dangerous, but tortures wouldn’t have made him say so. In half an hour’s time, I began to be sure he was right.”

“Did the storm strike as soon as that?” asked the boy.

“No. If it had, I think I should have gone back. But at the end of that half-hour, we topped a rise that gave a view of the country ahead an’ showed it to be broken an’ bad travelin’. I shouldn’t have liked the look of it at any time, but with a storm brewin’ an’ the Indian wantin’ to go back, it sure did look ugly. But the faint roarin’ of the distant storm sounded no louder, the sky was no heavier, the air no colder, the wind no higher, an’ I built my hopes upon a delay in its comin’, an’ plunged on. We were makin’ good time; the dogs were keepin’ up a fast lick, an’ the Indian ahead, workin’ to break the trail, was movin’ like a streak. I sure never did see an Indian travel the speed he did. I was behind, pushin’ the sled, an’ I had to put out all there was in me. An hour went by, an’ I was just beginnin’ to think that we would be able to cover the greater part of the distance, when a huge white shape rose from the snow near by, passed in front of the sledge, and disappeared. I’ve been scared once in my life. This was that once.”

“What was it?” asked Hamilton breathlessly.

“I watched,” the Alaskan continued, “an’ presently about a hundred yards away, an’ a little to the right of the sled, the snow began to move. I couldn’t feel a breath of wind. But the snow seemed to writhe an’ stir as though some monster from the Arctic night was wakin’ from his winter sleep, an’ a wisp of snow hurled upwards; then, with a heave the snow crust broke an’ fell apart an’ a column of snow shot up like a geyser swirlin’ into a pillar a hundred feet high.

“A moment it stood; then swayed over an’ begun to move slowly at first, but gatherin’ speed every second, noiselessly, save for a sound like the indrawin’ of a breath and a faint crackin’ as the hard snow crust shivered into atoms where it struck. Aimlessly, yet seemin’ to have a hidden purpose as though wreathin’ the figures of some Boreal dance, it come near us and fell back; moved away an’ threatened again; then swept upon us till its icy breathin’ gripped our throats, an’ our hearts stood still.

“An’ in the silence, one dog whined.

“Behind the sled there stirred the snow anew, an’ in a moment or two another column threw itself at the sky, and behind us an’ around, other of these columns rose an’ moved like spectral dancers under the slate-green clouds of the snow-filled sky. No wind, no sound but the lone leader of the team howlin’ in utter fear.”

“A dancing blizzard!” said Barnes, in an awed tone, under his breath.

“If there had been anythin’ to do, it would have been easier,” the Alaskan continued, “but to move was not more dangerous than to stay still. In answer to a sign, the Indian started up the dogs again, an’ we went on, though the road ahead looked like the ice-forest of a disordered dream. Presently, without a moment’s warnin’ one of the huge snow pillars came rushin’ straight at us, an’ I braced myself by the sledge to hold to it if I could, but it swerved before it reached us an’ ran along beside the trail. About fifty feet ahead it swerved again and cut across the trail, an’ the extreme edge caught the Indian, picked him up in the air, an’ threw him at least thirty feet.”

“Was he hurt?” cried Hamilton.

“Not a bit, for there was nothin’ to fall on but snow. He picked himself up, looked carefully at his snow-shoes to see that they had not been damaged, an’ resumed his place at the head of the dogs. What would have become of him if he had been plucked into the middle of the whirlwind is hard to say. I wouldn’t have counted on seein’ him again anyway.”

“But you never really got caught by any?”

“Wouldn’t be here talkin’, if I had,” was the reply. “But when we come to the track of that whirlwind column, it was a puzzle how to get across. The column, goin’ like a railroad train, had cut a gully in the hard snow full ten feet deep, the sides as clean cut as though done with a knife, or rather with a scoop, because the edge was slightly scolloped all the way along.”

“How did you get across?”

“Axes,” was the brief reply. “We cut through the snow crust and beat down a steep path on both sides of the gully an’ made the dogs take it. Dog harness is strong, but I was afraid of the strain on it that time.”

“How long did the blizzard last?”

“You mean the whirlwinds?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy answered.

“Not very long, quarter of an hour, perhaps. Then I felt a slight breeze, an’ at the same moment the columns, bendin’ their heads like grass before the wind, swept to the right of us, an’ were out of sight in a moment. The Indian yelled and pointed to the left, throwin’ himself on the ground as he did so.”

“What was it?” cried Hamilton.

“It looked like a solid wall of snow, an’ before I realized it was comin’, the storm struck, hurled me to the ground, an’ rolled me over an’ over in the snow. I wasn’t hurt, of course, but it took me so long to get my breath that I thought it was never goin’ to come, an’ that I should suffocate. But after that first burst, the blizzard settled down to the regular variety, an’ we all felt more at home. But even at that, it was the worst one I ever saw in the North, an’ I’ve been there nine winters.”

“What did you do? Go back?”

“No use tryin’ to go back,” the traveler said, “because those whirlwinds had cut gullies across the snow in every direction so that our old trail was no use to us. We went ahead a bit, as far as we could, but soon realized that there was nothin’ to do but camp right where we were an’ wait for the blizzard to blow over. Usually two days is enough for the average storm to let up a little, but it was not until the third day that there was any chance of startin’, an’ even then it was almost as bad as could be for travel. But I had to make a start then.”

“Why?” asked Hamilton, who always wanted to know the details of everything.

“Because we were runnin’ short of dog-feed, an’ you can’t let your dogs die of hunger, for then you can’t get anywhere. But the blizzard had drifted everything an’ was still driftin’, so that the snow was hard in some places and soft in others; the travelin’ was almost impossible, an’ you couldn’t see twenty yards ahead. Then while the blizzard had filled the gullies made by the whirlwinds, the snow in them was not packed down as hard as the rest of the surface, an’ dogs an’ sled an’ Indian an’ myself would all go flounderin’ into the drift, an’ it would be a tough pull to get the sled out again. That was a hard trip.

“The worst of it came when, without a bit of warnin’, without our even knowin’ where we were, the hard crust of the snow gave way beneath us, an’ the sled, the dogs, and myself fell headlong down a slope an’ into a stream of runnin’ water, the sled upside down, of course.”

“How about the Indian?” asked the boy.

“He saved himself from goin’ into the water, an’ it was a good thing that he did, for he was able to help in pullin’ us out. But, from one point of view, the accident was a help, for it told the Indian just where we were. There was only one stream of that size in that neighborhood, an’ until we found it, we were hopelessly lost. But from that time we knew that the settlement we were headin’ for was straight up the stream, an’ all we had to do was to follow it. But it was a race for life, in order to get to camp before frozen clothin’ and various frostbites crippled me entirely.”

“But how about the dogs?” queried Hamilton. “I should think it would be worse for them than for you.”

The Alaskan shook his head.

“A ‘husky’ can stand just about anythin’ in the way of cold,” he said, “an’ my leaders ‘Tussle’ and ‘Bully’ were a couple of wonders. Only one of the dogs gave out. Well, we made the camp finally, pretty well done up all round. The worst of it was, that when we come to unpack the sled we did it with an ax because everythin’ was frozen solid the census pouch was missin’. Luckily there was no past work in it, only blank schedules, information papers, an’ things of that sort. So I made up the schedules on odd bits of paper and skins, as I told you, an’ the supervisor copied them on the schedule to send in, an’ that schedule you have in your hand is the copy of those very pieces of skin.”

Hamilton glanced at the paper with redoubled interest.

“I suppose it was no use trying to get the pouch back,” he said.

“I didn’t think it would be,” the Alaskan replied “but I tried to reach the place where the sled had been overturned, an’ each time the weather drove me back. On the third day I got a chance to go with some Eskimos with reindeer to a little settlement about twenty miles off, an’ so I went along and got the names there, comin’ back on a reindeer sled. That’s the only time I ever felt like Santa Claus. I’m sure I don’t look it.”

Hamilton looked at his spare figure and laughed.

“No,” he said, “I don’t think an artist would be likely to pick you for the part. How did you like the reindeer, though? I’ve always wondered that they didn’t use them more in Alaska. The government keeps a herd, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” was the reply, “but that is more for fresh meat than for travel. A good reindeer is a cracker-jack of an animal when he wants to be, but when he takes a streak to quit, it doesn’t matter where it is or what you do to him, he won’t go another step. A balky mule is an angel of meekness beside a reindeer. You can always make a mule see what you want him to do although the odds are that he won’t do it even then but when a reindeer gets stubborn, why, he just can’t be made to understand anythin’!”

“Yet I’ve read that they use them a good deal in Lapland!” said the boy in surprise.

“They have domesticated them more thoroughly, I guess,” the Northerner replied. “In time they may be worked up here in the same way, and when you consider how short a time the government has had to do what is already accomplished, it seems to me the result is wonderful. Of course, so far as traffic is concerned there are dogs enough, and they do the work in mighty good shape.”

“How did you work back from the settlement which you had got to with such difficulty?” the boy asked.

“I came back another way, in order to take in a little group of houses on a small pay-creek,” was the reply. “But it was comin’ back from that trip, on the Koatak River, that I had quite a time, although I was not the sufferer. We had been havin’ a hard spell of weather, but there come a week when conditions on the trail were much better an’ we were reelin’ off the miles in great shape. I hadn’t a place on my map for about sixty miles, when in the distance I saw a little hut, just in the fringe of some stunted cottonwoods and some scraggy willows, for we were not far from the timber limit.

“‘Billy,’ I called to the Indian, ‘ever see that hut before?’

“The Indian shook his head, but knowin’ that I wanted to see an’ count everybody in the district, he turned off the trail he said it was a trail but I couldn’t see it an’ led the way to the hut. I went in an’ found a man lying on a couple of planks, just about dead. He was one of the survivors of the wrecked steamer Filarleon, and had frozen all the fingers of both hands. Two or three were turnin’ gangrenous; an’ one of these had got so bad that with his other crippled hand, he had sawed off the decomposin’ member with his pocket-knife. One foot also was frozen an’ had turned black, but that afterwards recovered.”

“What did you do for him?” asked the boy.

“Put him on the sled, of course,” the Alaskan answered, “an’ took him to the nearest settlement. I afterwards heard that a doctor happened in to camp soon after I left, an’ got at his hurts right away, an’ that he was put back into fair condition all but the one finger. That’s no tenderfoot’s country up there.”

“I wonder you stuck it out,” said Hamilton. “But then,” he added a moment later, “I can see how a fellow would hate to quit.”

“It was tough,” reluctantly admitted the narrator, “an’ I’ll tell you what I did. I’m not much of a hand with the pen, but right in the middle of the work I found a man who was goin’ down the river, an’ I sat down and wrote a long letter to the supervisor. It was about as plaintive a thing as I ever read. I had no reason to expect an answer, but by chance another party was comin’ up that way, an’ some weeks later I received a reply. What do you suppose he said!”

“I haven’t the least idea,” answered the boy.

“His answer read just this way:

“’I chose you because you were experienced in the treeless coast. Go to it. We are expecting you to make good.’”

“And,” Hamilton said, his eyes shining, “I’ll bet you did!”