Read CHAPTER I of The Hound From The North , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

IN THE MOUNTAINS

A pallid sun, low, gleaming just over a rampart of mountain-tops. Sundogs heralds of stormy weather fiercely staring, like sentries, upon either hand of the mighty sphere of light. Vast glaciers shimmering jewel-like in the steely light of the semi-Arctic evening. Black belts of gloomy pinewoods on the lower slopes of the mountains; the trees snow-burdened, but black with the darkness of night in their melancholy depths. The earth white; snow to the thickness of many feet on all. Life none; not a beast of the earth, nor a fowl of the air, nor the hum of an insect. Solitude. Cold grey, pitiless cold. Night is approaching.

The hill ranges which backbone the American continent the northern extremity of the Rocky Mountains. The barrier which confronts the traveller as he journeys from the Yukon Valley to the Alaskan seaboard. Land where the foot of man but rarely treads. And mid-winter.

But now, in the dying light of day, a man comes slowly, painfully into the picture. What an atom in that infinity of awful grandeur. One little life in all that desert of snow and ice. And what a life. The poor wretch was swathed in furs; snow-shoes on his feet, and a long staff lent his drooping figure support. His whole attitude told its own tale of exhaustion. But a closer inspection, one glance into the fierce-burning eyes, which glowered from the depths of two cavernous sockets, would have added a sequel of starvation. The eyes had a frenzied look in them, the look of a man without hope, but with still that instinct of life burning in his brain. Every now and again he raised one mitted hand and pressed it to nose and cheeks. He knew his face was frozen, but he had no desire to stop to thaw it out. He was beyond such trifles. His upturned storm-collar had become massed with icicles about his mouth, and the fur was frozen solidly to his chin whisker, but he gave the matter no heed.

The man tottered on, still onward with the dogged persistence which the inborn love of life inspires. He longed to rest, to seat himself upon the snow just where he happened to be, to indulge that craving for sleep which was upon him. His state of exhaustion fostered these feelings, and only his brain fought for him and clung to life. He knew what that drowsy sensation meant. He was slowly freezing. To rest meant sleep to sleep meant death.

Slowly he dragged himself up the inclining ledge he was traversing. The path was low at the base of one of the loftiest crags. It wound its way upwards in such a fashion that he could see little more than fifty yards ahead of him ere it turned away to the left as it skirted the hill. He was using his last reserve of strength, and he knew it. At the top he stood half dazed. The mountain rose sheer up to dizzy heights on one side, and a precipice was on the other. He turned his dreadful eyes this way and that. Then he scanned the prospect before him a haze of dimly-outlined mountains. He glanced back, tracing his uneven tracks until they disappeared in the grey evening light. Then he turned back again to a contemplation of what lay before him. Suddenly his staff slipped from his hand as though he no longer had the strength to grip it. Then, raising his arms aloft, he gave vent to one despairing cry in which was expressed all the pent-up agony of his soul. It was the cry of one from whom all hope had gone.

“God! God have mercy on me! I am lost lost!”

The despairing note echoed and re-echoed among the hills. And as each echo came back to his dulled ears it was as though some invisible being mocked him. Suddenly he braced himself, and his mind obtained a momentary triumph over his physical weakness. He stooped to recover his staff. His limbs refused to obey his will. He stumbled. Then he crumpled and fell in a heap upon the snow.

All was silent, and he lay quite still. Death was gripping him, and he knew it. Presently he wearily raised his head. He gazed about him with eyelids more than half closed. “Is it worth the struggle?” he seemed to ask; “is there any hope?” He felt so warm, so comfortable out there in the bitter winter air. Where had been the use of his efforts? Where the use of the gold he had so laboriously collected at the new Eldorado? At the thought of his gold his spirit tried to rouse him from the sleep with which he was threatened. His eyelids opened wide, and his eyes, from which intelligence was fast disappearing, rolled in their gaunt sockets. His body heaved as though he were about to rise, but beyond that he did not move.

As he lay there a sound reached his numbed ears. Clear through the crisp night air it came with the keenness and piercing incision which is only obtained in the still air of such latitudes. It was a human cry: a long-drawn “whoop.” Like his own cry, it echoed amongst the hills. It only needed such as this to support the inclinations of the sufferer’s will. His head was again raised. And in his wild eyes was a look of alertness hope. He listened. He counted the echoes as they came. Then, with an almost superhuman effort, he struggled to his feet. New life had come to him born of hope. His weakened frame answered to his great effort. His heart was throbbing wildly.

As he stood up the cry came to him again, nearer this time. He moved forward and rounded the bend in the path. Again the cry. Now just ahead of him. He answered it with joy in his tone and shambled on. Now two dark figures loomed up in the grey twilight. They were moving swiftly along the ledge towards him. They cried out something in a foreign tongue. He did not understand, but his joy was no less. They came up, and he saw before him the short, stout figures of two fur-clad Eskimos. He was saved.

Inside a small dugout a dingy oil lamp shed its murky rays upon squalid surroundings. The place was reeking with the offensive odours exhaled from the burning oil. The atmosphere was stifling.

There were four occupants of this abode, and, stretched in various attitudes on dusty blankets spread upon the ground, they presented a strange picture. Two of these were Eskimos. The broad, flat faces, sharp noses, and heavy lips were unmistakable, as were their dusky, greasy skins and squat figures. A third man was something between the white-man and the redskin. He was in the nature of a half-breed, and, though not exactly pleasant to look upon, he was certainly interesting as a study. He was lying with limbs outstretched and his head propped upon one hand, while his gaze was directed with thoughtful intensity towards a small, fierce-burning camp-stove, which, at that moment, was rendering the hut so unbearably hot.

His face was sallow, and indented with smallpox scars. He had no hair upon it, except a tuft or two of eyebrows, which the ravages of disease had condescended to leave to him. His nose, which was his best feature, was beaky, but beautifully aquiline; but his mouth was wide, with a lower lip that sagged loosely from its fellow above. His head was small, and was burdened with a crown of lank black hair which had been allowed to grow Indian-like until it hung upon his shoulders. He was of medium height, and his arms were of undue length.

The other occupant of the dugout was our traveller. He was stretched upon a blanket, on which was spread his fur coat; and he was alternating between the disposal of a bowl of steaming soup and groaning with the racking pains caused by his recently thawed-out frost-bites.

The soup warmed his starving body, and his pain increased proportionately. In spite of the latter, however, he felt very much alive. Occasionally he glanced round upon his silent companions. Whenever he did so one or the other, or both of the Eskimos were gazing stolidly at him.

He was rather a good-looking man, notwithstanding his now unkempt appearance. His eyes were large very large in their hollow sockets. His nose and cheeks were, at present, a mass of blisters from the thawing frost-bites, and his mouth and chin were hidden behind a curtain of whisker of about three weeks’ growth. There was no mistaking him for anything but an Anglo-Saxon, and a man of considerable and very fine proportions.

When his soup was finished he set the bowl down and leaned back with a sigh. The pock-marked man glanced over at him.

“More?” he said, in a deep, not unmusical, tone.

The half-starved traveller nodded, and his eyes sparkled. One of the Eskimos rose and re-filled the bowl from a tin camp-kettle which stood on the stove. The famished man took it and at once began to sup the invigorating liquid. The agonies of his frost-bites were terrible, but the pangs of hunger were greater. By and by the bowl was set down empty.

The half-breed sat up and crossed his legs, and leant his body against two sacks which contained something that crackled slightly under his weight.

“Give you something more solid in an hour or so. Best not have it too soon,” he said, speaking slowly, but with good enunciation.

“Not now?” said the traveller, in a disappointed tone.

The other shook his head.

“We’re all going to have supper then. Best wait.” Then, after a pause: “Where from?”

“Forty Mile Creek,” said the other.

“You don’t say! Alone?”

There was a curious saving of words in this man’s mode of speech.
Possibly he had learned this method from his Indian associates.

The traveller nodded.

“Yes.”

“Where to?”

“The sea-coast.”

The half-breed laughed gutturally.

“Forty Mile Creek. Sea-coast. On foot. Alone. Winter. You must be mad.”

The traveller shook his head.

“Not mad. I could have done it, only I lost my way. I had all my stages thought out carefully. I tramped from the sea-coast originally. Where am I now?”

The half-breed eyed the speaker curiously. He seemed to think well before he answered. Then

“Within a few miles of the Pass. To the north.”

An impressive silence followed. The half-breed continued to eye the sick man, and, to judge from the expression of his face, his thoughts were not altogether unpleasant. He watched the weary face before him until the eyes gradually closed, and, in spite of the burning pains of the frost-bites, exhaustion did its work, and the man slept. He waited for some moments listening to the heavy, regular breathing, then he turned to his companions and spoke long and earnestly in a curious tongue. One of the Eskimos rose and removed a piece of bacon from a nail in the wall. This he placed in the camp-kettle on the stove. Then he took a tin billy and dipped it full from a bucket containing beans that had been set to soak. These also went into the camp-kettle. Then the fellow threw himself down again upon his blankets, and, for some time, the three men continued to converse in low tones. They glanced frequently at the sleeper, and occasionally gurgled out a curious throaty chuckle. Their whole attitude was furtive, and the man slept on.

An hour passed two. The third was more than half gone. The hut reeked with the smell of cooking victuals. The Eskimo, who seemed to act as cook, occasionally looked into the camp-kettle. The other two were lying on their blankets, sometimes conversing, but more often silent, gazing stolidly before them. At length the cook uttered a sharp ejaculation and lifted the steaming kettle from its place on the stove. Then he produced four deep pannikins from a sack, and four greasy-looking spoons. From another he produced a pile of biscuits. “Hard tack,” well known on the northern trails.

Supper was ready, and the pock-marked man leant over and roused the traveller.

“Food,” he said laconically, as the startled sleeper rubbed his eyes.

The man sat up and gazed hungrily at the iron pot. The Indian served out the pork with ruthless hands. A knife divided the piece into four, and he placed one in each pannikin. Then he poured the beans and soup over each portion. The biscuits were placed within reach, and the supper was served.

The sick man devoured his uncouth food with great relish. The soup which had been first given him had done him much good, and now the “solid” completed the restoration so opportunely begun. He was a vigorous man, and his exhaustion had chiefly been brought about by lack of food. Now, as he sat with his empty pannikin in front of him, he looked gratefully over at his rescuers, and slowly munched some dry biscuit, and sipped occasionally from a great beaker of black coffee. Life was very sweet to him at that moment, and he thought joyfully of the belt inside his clothes laden with the golden result of his labours on Forty Mile Creek.

Now the half-breed turned to him.

“Feeling pretty good?” he observed, conversationally.

“Yes, thanks to you and your friends. You must let me pay you for this.” The suggestion was coarsely put. Returning strength was restoring the stranger to his usual condition of mind. There was little refinement about this man from the Yukon.

The other waived the suggestion.

“Sour-belly’s pretty good tack when y’ can’t get any better. Been many days on the road?”

“Three weeks.” The traveller was conscious of three pairs of eyes fixed upon his face.

“Hoofing right along?”

“Yes. I missed the trail nearly a week back. Followed the track of a dog-train. It came some distance this way. Then I lost it.”

“Ah! Food ran out, maybe.”

The half-breed had now turned away, and was gazing at the stove as though it had a great fascination for him.

“Yes, I meant to make the Pass where I could lay in a fresh store. Instead of that I wandered on till I found the empty pack got too heavy, then I left it.”

“Left it?” The half-breed raised his two little tufts of eyebrows, but his eyes remained staring at the stove.

“Oh, it was empty clean empty. You see, I didn’t trust anything but food in my pack.”

“No. That’s so. Maybe gold isn’t safe in a pack?”

The pock-marked face remained turned towards the glowing stove. The man’s manner was quite indifferent. It suggested that he merely wished to talk.

The traveller seemed to draw back into his shell at the mention of gold. A slight pause followed.

“Maybe you ain’t been digging up there?” the half-breed went on presently.

“It’s rotten bad digging on the Creek,” the traveller said, clumsily endeavouring to evade the question.

“So I’ve heard,” said the half-breed.

He had produced a pipe, and was leisurely filling it from a pouch of antelope hide. His two companions did the same. The stranger took his pipe from his fur coat pocket and cut some tobacco from a plug. This he offered to his companions, but it was rejected in favour of their own.

“The only thing I’ve had that and my fur coat to keep me from freezing to death for more than four days. Haven’t so much as seen a sign of life since I lost the dog track.”

“This country’s a terror,” observed the half-breed emphatically.

All four men lit their pipes. The sick man only drew once or twice at his, then he laid it aside. The process of smoking caused the blisters on his face to smart terribly.

“Gives your face gyp,” said the half-breed, sympathetically. “Best not bother to smoke to-night.”

He pulled vigorously at his own pipe, and the two Indians followed suit. And gradually a pleasant odour, not of tobacco but some strange perfume, disguised the reek of the atmosphere. It was pungent but delightful, and the stranger remarked upon it.

“What’s that you are smoking?” he asked.

For one instant the half-breed’s eyes were turned upon him with a curious look. Then he turned back to the contemplation of the stove.

“Kind o’ weed that grows around these wilds,” he answered. “Only stuff we get hereabouts. It’s good when you’re used to it.” He laughed quietly.

The stranger looked from one to the other of his three companions. He was struck by a sudden thought.

“What do you do here? I mean for a living?”

“Trap,” replied the Breed shortly.

“Many furs about?”

“Fair.”

“Slow work,” said the stranger, indifferently.

Then a silence fell. The wayfarer was getting very drowsy. The pungent odour from his companions’ pipes seemed to have a strangely soothing effect upon him. Before he was aware of it he caught himself nodding, and, try as he would, he could not keep his heavy eyelids open. The men smoked on in silence. Three pairs of eyes watched the stranger’s efforts to keep awake, and a malicious gleam was in the look with which they surveyed him. He was too sleepy to observe. Besides, had he been in condition to do so, the expression of their eyes would probably have been different. Slowly his head drooped forward. He was dreaming pleasantly already, although, as yet, he was not quite asleep. Now he no longer attempted to keep his eyes open. Further his head drooped forward. The three men were still as mice. Then suddenly he rolled over on one side, and his stertorous breathing indicated a deep, unnatural slumber.

The hut was in darkness but for a beam of light which made its way in through a narrow slit over the door. The sunlight shone down upon the huddled figure of the traveller, who still slept in the attitude in which he had rolled over on his fur coat when sleep had first overcome him. Otherwise the hut was empty. The half-breed and his companions had disappeared. The fire was out. The lamp had burned itself out. The place was intensely cold.

Suddenly the sleeper stirred. He straightened himself out and turned over. Then, without further warning, he sat up and found himself staring up at the dazzling streak of light.

“Daylight,” he murmured; “and they’ve let the stove go out. Gee! but I feel queer about the head.”

Moving his head so that his eyes should miss the glare of light, he gazed about him. He was alone, and as he realized this he scrambled to his feet, and, for the moment, the room everything about him seemed to be turning topsy-turvy. He placed his hand against the post which supported the roof and steadied himself.

“I wonder where they are?” he muttered. “Ah! of course,” as an afterthought, “they are out at their traps. They might have stoked the fire. It’s perishing in here. I feel beastly queer; must be the effects of starvation.”

Then he moved a step forward. He brought up suddenly to a standstill. His two hands went to his waist. They moved, groping round it spasmodically. Undoing his clothes he passed his hand into his shirt. Then one word escaped him. One word almost a whisper but conveying such a world of fierce, horror-stricken intensity

“Robbed!”

And the look which accompanied his exclamation was the look of a man whose mind is distracted.

So he stood for some seconds. His lips moved, but no words escaped them. His hand remained within his shirt, and his fingers continued to grope about mechanically. And all the time the dazed, strained look burned in his great, roving eyes.

It was gone. That broad belt, weighted down with the result of one year’s toil, gold dust and nuggets, was gone. Presently he seated himself on the cold iron of the stove. Thus he sat for an hour, looking straight before him with eyes that seemed to draw closer together, so intense was their gaze. And who shall say what thoughts he thought; what wild schemes of revenge he planned? There was no outward sign. Just those silent moving lips.