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

MR. ZACHARY SMITH

“Rot, man, rot! I’ve been up here long enough to know my way about this devil’s country. No confounded neche can teach me. The trail forked at that bush we passed three days back. We’re all right. I wish I felt as sure about the weather.”

Leslie Grey broke off abruptly. His tone was resentful, as well as dictatorial. He was never what one might call an easy man. He was always headstrong, and never failed to resent interference on the smallest provocation. Perhaps these things were in the nature of his calling. He was one of the head Customs officials on the Canadian side of the Alaskan boundary. His companion was a subordinate.

The latter was a man of medium height, and from the little that could be seen of his face between the high folds of the storm-collar of his buffalo coat, he possessed a long nose and a pair of dark, keen, yet merry eyes. His name was Robb Chillingwood. The two men were tramping along on snow-shoes in the rear of a dog-train. An Indian was keeping pace with the dogs in front; the latter, five in number, harnessed in the usual tandem fashion to a heavily-laden sled.

“It’s no use anticipating bad weather,” replied Chillingwood, quietly. “But as to the question of the trail ”

“There’s no question,” interrupted Grey, sharply.

“Ah, the map shows two clumps of bush. The trail turns off at one of them. My chart says the second. I studied it carefully. The ‘confounded neche,’ as you call him, says ‘not yet.’ Which means that he considers it to be the second bush. You say no.”

“The neche only knows the trail by repute. You have never been over it before. I have travelled it six times. You make me tired. Give it a rest. Perhaps you can make something of those nasty, sharp puffs of wind which keep lifting the ground snow at intervals.”

Robb shrugged his fur-coated shoulders, and glanced up at the sun. It seemed to be struggling hard to pierce a grey haze which hung over the mountains. The sundogs, too, could be seen, but, like the sun itself, they were dim and glowed rather than shone. That patchy wind, so well known in the west of Canada, was very evident just then. It seemed to hit the snow-bound earth, slither viciously along the surface, sweep up a thin cloud of loose surface snow, then drop in an instant, but only to operate in the same manner at some other spot. This was going on spasmodically in many directions, the snow brushing up in hissing eddies at each attack. And slowly the grey mist on the hills was obscuring the sun.

Robb Chillingwood was a man of some experience on the prairie, although, as his companion had said, he was new to this particular mountain trail. To his trained eye the outlook was not encouraging.

“Storm,” he observed shortly.

“That’s my opinion,” said Grey definitely.

“According to calculations, if we have not got off the trail,” Chillingwood went on, with a sly look at his superior, “we should reach Dougal’s roadside hostelry in the Pass by eight o’clock well before dark. We ought to escape the storm.”

“You mean we shall,” said Grey pointedly.

“If ”

“Bunkum!”

The two men relapsed into silence. They were very good friends these two. Both were used to the strenuous northern winter. Both understood the dangers of a blizzard. Their argument about the trail they were on was quite a friendly one. It was only the dictatorial manner of Leslie Grey which gave it the appearance of a quarrel. Chillingwood understood him, and took no notice of his somewhat irascible remarks, whilst, for himself, he remained of opinion that he had read his Ordnance chart aright.

They tramped on. Each man, with a common thought, was watching the weather indications. As the time passed the wind “patches” grew in size, in force, and in frequency of recurrence. The haze upon the surrounding hills rapidly deepened, and the air was full of frost particles. A storm was coming on apace. Nor was Dougal’s wayside hostelry within sight.

“It’s a rotten life on the boundary,” said Robb, as though continuing a thought aloud.

“It’s not so much the life,” replied Grey vindictively, “it’s the d d red tape that demands the half-yearly journey down country. That’s the dog’s part of our business. Why can’t they establish a branch bank up here for the bullion and send all ‘returns’ by mail? There is a postal service of a kind. It’s a one-horsed lay out Government work. There’ll come a rush to the Yukon valley this year, and when there’s a chance of doing something for ourselves having done all we can for the Government I suppose they’ll shift us. It’s the way of Governments. I’m sick of it. I draw four thousand dollars a year, and I earn every cent of it. You ”

“Draw one thousand, and think myself lucky if I taste fresh vegetables once a week during the summer. Say, Leslie, do you think it’s possible to assimilate the humble but useful hog by means of a steady diet of ’sour-belly’?”

Grey laughed.

“If that were possible I guess we ought to make the primest bacon. Hallo, here comes the d d neche. What’s up now, I wonder? Well, Rainy-Moon, what is it?”

The Indian had stopped his dogs and now turned back to speak to the two men. His face was expressionless. He was a tall specimen of the Cree Indian.

“Ugh,” he grunted, as he came to a standstill. Then he stretched out his arm with a wide sweep in the direction of the mountains. “No good, white-men coyote, yes. So,” and he pointed to the south and made a motion of running, “yes. Plenty beef, plenty fire-water. White-man store.” His face slowly expanded into a smile. Then the smile died out suddenly and he turned to the north and made a long ‘soo-o-o-sh’ with rising intonation, signifying the rising wind. “Him very bad. White-man sleep sleep. Wake no.” And he finished up with a shake of the head.

Then his arm dropped to his side, and he waited for Grey to speak. For a moment the Customs officer remained silent. Chillingwood waited anxiously. Both men understood the Indian’s meaning. Chillingwood believed the man to be right about the trail. As to the coming storm, and the probable consequences if they were caught in it, that was patent to all three.

But Grey, with characteristic pig-headedness, gave no heed to the superior intelligence of the Indian where matters of direction in a wild country were concerned. He knew he was on the right trail. That was sufficient for him. But he surveyed the surrounding mountains well before he spoke. They had halted in a sort of cup-like hollow, with towering sides surmounted by huge glaciers down which the wind was now whistling with vicious force. There were only two exits from this vast arena. The one by which the travellers had entered it, and the other directly ahead of them; the latter was only to be approached by a wide ledge which skirted one of the mountains and inclined sharply upwards. Higher up the mountain slope was a belt of pinewoods, close to which was a stubbly growth of low bush. This was curiously black in contrast with the white surroundings, for no snow was upon its weedy branches and shrivelled, discoloured leaves. Suddenly, while Grey was looking out beyond the dog-train, he observed the impress of snow-shoes in the snow. He pointed to them and drew his companion’s attention.

“You see,” he said triumphantly, “there has been some one passing this way just ahead of us. Look here, neche, you just get right on and don’t let me have any more nonsense about the trail.”

The Indian shook his head.

“Ow,” he grunted. “This little just little.” Then he pointed ahead. “Big, white all white. No, no; white-man no come dis way. Bimeby neche so,” and Rainy-Moon made a motion of lying down and sleeping. He meant that they would get lost and die in the snow.

Grey became angry.

“Get on,” he shouted. And Rainy-Moon reluctantly turned and started his dogs afresh.

The little party ascended the sloping path. The whipping snow lashed their faces as the wind rushed it up from the ground in rapidly thickening clouds. The fierce gusts were concentrating into a steady shrieking blast. A grey cloud of snow, thin as yet, but plainly perceptible, was in the air. The threat it conveyed was no idle one. The terror of the blizzard was well known to those people. And they knew that in a short space they would have to seek what shelter they might chance to find upon these almost barren mountains.

The white-men tightened the woollen scarves about the storm-collars of their coats, and occasionally beat their mitted hands against their sides. The gathering wind was intensifying the cold.

“If this goes on we shall have to make that belt of pinewoods for shelter,” observed Robb Chillingwood practically. “It won’t do to take chances of losing the dogs and their load in the storm. What say?”

They had rounded a bend and Grey was watchfully gazing ahead. He did not seem to hear his companion’s question. Suddenly he pointed directly along the path towards a point where it seemed to vanish between two vast crags.

“Smoke,” he said. And his tone conveyed that he wished his companion to understand that he, Grey, had been right about the trail, and that Robb had been wrong. “That’s Dougal’s store,” he went on, after a slight pause.

Chillingwood looked as directed. He saw the rush of smoke which, in the rising storm, was ruthlessly swept from the mouth of a piece of upright stove-pipe, which in the now grey surroundings could just be distinguished.

“But I thought there was a broad, open trail at Dougal’s,” he said, at last, after gazing for some moments at the tiny smoke-stack.

“Maybe the road opens out here,” answered Grey weakly.

But it didn’t. Instead it narrowed. And as they ascended the slope it became more and more precipitous. The storm was now beating up, seemingly from every direction, and it was with difficulty that the five great huskies hauled their burden in the face of it. However, Rainy-Moon urged them to their task with no light hand, and just as the storm settled down to its work in right good earnest they drew up abreast of a small dugout. The path had narrowed down to barely six feet in width, bordered on the left hand by a sharp slope upwards towards the pinewood belt above, and on the right by a sheer precipice; whilst fifty feet further on there was no more path just space. As this became apparent to him, Robb Chillingwood could not help wondering what their fate might have been had the storm overtaken them earlier, and they had not come upon the dugout. However, he had no time for much speculation on the subject, for, as the dogs came to a stand, the door of the dugout was thrown back and a tall, cadaverous-looking man stood framed in the opening.

“Kind o’ struck it lucky,” he observed, without any great show of enthusiasm. “Come right in. The neche can take the dogs round the side there,” pointing to the left of the dugout. “There’s a weatherproof shack there where I keep my kindling. Guess he can fix up in that till this d d breeze has blown itself out. You’ve missed the trail, I take it. Come right in.”

Half-an-hour later the two Customs officers were seated with their host round the camp-stove which stood hissing and spluttering in the centre of the hut. The dogs and Rainy-Moon were housed in the woodshed.

Now that the travellers were divested of their heavy furs, their appearance was less picturesque but more presentable. Robb Chillingwood was about twenty-five; his whole countenance indexed a sturdy honesty of thought and a merry disposition. There was considerable strength too about brow and jaw. Leslie Grey was shorter than his companion. A man of dapper, sturdy figure, and with a face good-looking, obstinate, and displaying as much sense of humour as a barbed-wire fence post. He was fully thirty years of age.

Their host possessed a long, attenuated, but powerful figure, and a face chiefly remarkable for its cadaverous hollows and a pair of hungry eyes and a dark chin-whisker.

“Yes, sir,” this individual was saying, “she’s goin’ to howl good and hard for the next forty-eight hours, or I don’t know these parts. Maybe you’re from the valley?”

Chillingwood shook his head.

“No. Fort Cudahy way,” he said. “My name’s Chillingwood Robb Chillingwood. This is Mr. Leslie Grey, Customs officer. I am his assistant.”

The long man glanced slowly at his guests. His great eyes seemed to take in the details of each man’s appearance with solemn curiosity. Then he twisted slowly upon the upturned box on which he was seated and crossed his legs.

“I’m pleased to meet you, gentlemen. It’s lonely in these parts lonely.” He shuddered as though with cold. “I’ve been trapping in these latitudes for a considerable period, and it’s lonely. My name is Zachary Smith.”

As the trapper pronounced his name he glanced keenly from one to the other of the two men beside him. His look was suggestive of doubt. He seemed to be trying to re-assure himself that he had never before crossed the paths of these chance guests of his. After a moment of apprehensive silence he went on slowly, like one groping in darkness. His confidence was not fully established.

“You can make up your minds to a couple of days in this shanty anyhow. I mostly live on ‘sour-belly’ and ‘hard tack.’ Don’t sound inviting, eh?”

Chillingwood laughed pleasantly.

“We’re Government officials,” he said with meaning.

“Yes,” put in Grey. “But we’ve got plenty of canned truck in our baggage. I’m thinking you may find our supplies a pleasant change.”

“No doubt no doubt whatever. Cat’s meat would be a delicacy after months of tallowy pork.”

This slow-spoken trapper surveyed his guests thoughtfully. The travellers were enjoying the comforting shelter and warmth. Neither of them seemed particularly talkative.

Presently Grey roused himself. Extreme heat after extreme cold always has a somnolent effect on those who experience it.

“We’d best get the stuff off the sleigh, Chillingwood,” said he. “Rainy-Moon’s above the average Indian for honesty, but, nevertheless, we don’t need to take chances. And,” as the younger man rose and stretched himself, “food is good on occasions. What does Mr. Zachary Smith say?”

“Ay, let’s sample some white-man’s grub. Gentlemen, this is a fortunate meeting all round.”

Chillingwood passed out of the hut. As he opened the door a vindictive blast of wind swept a cloud of snow in, and the frozen particles fell crackling and hissing upon the glowing stove.

“And they call this a white-man’s country,” observed Mr. Smith pensively, as the door closed again. He opened the stove and proceeded to knock the embers together preparatory to stoking up afresh.

“Guess you were making for the Pass,” he said conversationally.

“Yes,” replied Grey.

“Missed the trail,” the other said, pitching a cord-wood stick accurately into the centre of the glowing embers.

Grey made no answer.

“’Tisn’t in the way of Governments to show consideration to their servants,” Mr. Smith went on, filling the stove with fuel to the limit of its holding capacity. “It’s a deadly season to be forced to travel about in.”

“Consideration,” said Grey bitterly. “I’m forced to undertake this journey twice a year. Which means I am on the road the best part of my time. And merely because there is no bank or authorized place for depositing ”

“Ah, gold,” put in Mr. Zachary Smith quietly.

“And reams of ‘returns.’”

“They reckon that the ‘rush’ to the Yukon’ll come next year. Maybe things will alter then.”

Smith straightened himself up from his occupation. His face displayed but the most ordinary interest in the conversation.

At that moment Chillingwood returned bearing two small brass-bound chests. The Indian followed him bringing a number of packages of tinned food. Smith glanced from the chests which were as much as Chillingwood could carry to the angular proportions of the Indian’s burden, then back again to the chests. He watched furtively as the officer deposited the latter; then he turned back to the stove and opened the damper.

Then followed a meal of which all three partook with that heartiness which comes of an appetite induced by a hardy open-air life. They talked but little while they ate, and that little was of the prospects of the new Eldorado. Leslie Grey spoke with the bitterness of a disappointed man. In reality he had been successful in the business he had adopted. But some men are born grumblers, and he was one. It is probable that had he been born a prince he would have loudly lamented the fact that he was not a king. Chillingwood was different; he accepted the situation and enjoyed his life. He was unambitious whilst faithfully doing that which he regarded as his duty, first to himself, then to his employers. His method of life was something like that of the sailor. He fully appreciated the motto of the seafaring gentry one hand for himself and one for his employers. When in doubt both hands for self. He meant to break away from his present employment when the Yukon “rush” came. In the meantime he was on the spot. Mr. Zachary Smith chiefly listened. He could eat and watch his guests. He could study them. And he seemed in no way inclined to waste his time on words when he could do the other two things. He said little about himself, and was mainly contented with comprehensive nods and grunts, whilst he devoured huge portions of tinned tongue and swallowed bumpers of scalding tea.

After dinner the travellers produced their pipes. Grey offered his tobacco to their host. Mr. Zachary Smith shook his head.

“Given up tobacco mostly,” he said, glancing in the direction of the door, which groaned under a sudden attack from the storm which was now howling with terrible force outside. “It isn’t that I don’t like it. But when a man gets cooped up in these hills he’s like to run out of it, and then it’s uncomfortable. I’ve taken on a native weed which does me for smoking when I need it which isn’t often. It grows hereabouts and isn’t likely to give out. Guess I won’t smoke now.”

Grey shrugged and lit his pipe. If any man could be fool enough to reject tobacco, Leslie Grey was not the sort of man to press him. He was intolerant of ideas in any one but himself. Chillingwood sucked luxuriously at his pipe and thought big things.

The blue smoke clouds curled insinuatingly about the heads of the smokers, and rose heavily upon the dense atmosphere of the hut. The two men stretched themselves indolently upon the ground, sometimes speaking, but, for the most part, silent. These wayfarers thought little of time. They had a certain task to perform which, the elements permitting, they would carry out in due course. In the meantime it was storming, and they had been fortunate in finding shelter in these wastes of snow and ice; they were glad to accept what comfort came their way. This enforced delay would find a simple record in Leslie Grey’s report to his superiors. “Owing to a heavy storm, etc.” They were Government servants. The routine of these men’s lives was all very monotonous, but they were used to it, and use is a wonderful thing. It so closely borders on content.

Cards were produced later on. Mr. Zachary Smith resisted the blandishments of “cut-throat” euchre. He had no money to spare for gambling, he informed his guests; he would look on. He sat over the stove whilst the others played. Later on the cards were put away, and the travellers, curling themselves into their blankets, composed themselves to sleep.

The lean figure sat silently blinking at the red sides of the fire-box. His legs were crossed, and he nursed his knee in a restful embrace. For nearly an hour he sat thus, and only the slow movement of his great rolling eyes, and an occasional inclination of his head told of the active thought which was passing behind his mask-like features.

As he sat there he looked older by half a score of years than either of his companions, but, in reality, he was a young man. The furrows and hollows upon his face were the marks of privation and exposure, not of age. His bowed figure was not the result of weakness or senility, it was chiefly the result of great height and the slouching gait of one who has done much slow tramping. Mr. Zachary Smith made an interesting study as he sat silently beside his stove.

His face was the face of an honest man when his eyes were concealed beneath their heavy lids. It was a good face, and refined; tough, vigorous, honest, until the eyelids were raised. Then the expression was utterly changed. A something looked out from those great rolling eyeballs which was furtive, watchful, doubtful. They were eyes one sometimes sees in a madman or a great criminal. And now, as he sat absorbed in his own reflections, their gaze alternated between the two brass-bound chests and the recumbent figure of Leslie Grey.

So he sat, this self-styled Zachary Smith, trapper.