Read CHAPTER XXXI - THE LONG TRAIL of Man Size, free online book, by William MacLeod Raine, on ReadCentral.com.

For four days Whaley lay between life and death.  There were hours when the vital current in him ebbed so low that McRae thought it was the beginning of the end.  But after the fifth day he began definitely to mend.  His appetite increased.  The fever in him abated.  The delirium passed away.  Just a week from the time he had been wounded, McRae put him on the cariole and took him to town over the hard crust of the snow.

Beresford returned from Fort Edmonton a few hours later, carrying with him an appointment for Morse as guide and deputy constable.

Maintiens droit,” said the officer, clapping his friend on the shoulder.  “You’re one of us now.  A great chance for a short life you’ve got.  Time for the insurance companies to cancel any policies they may have on you.”

Morse smiled.  He was only a deputy, appointed temporarily, but it pleased him to be chosen even in this capacity as a member of the most efficient police force in the world.  “Maintiens droit” was the motto of the Mounted.  Tom did not intend that the morale of that body should suffer through him if he could help it.

Angus McRae had offered his dog-train for the pursuit and Beresford had promptly accepted.  The four dogs of the Scotch trapper were far and away better than any others that could be picked up in a hurry.  They had stamina, and they were not savage and wolfish like most of those belonging to the Indians and even to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Supplies for the trip had been gathered by Morse.  From the Crees he had bought two hundred pounds of dried fish for the dogs.  Their own provisions consisted of pemmican, dried caribou meat, flour, salt, tea, and tobacco.

All Faraway was out to see the start.  The travelers would certainly cover hundreds and perhaps thousands of miles before their return.  Even in that country of wide spaces, where men mushed far when the rivers and lakes were closed, this was likely to prove an epic trip.

Beresford cracked the long lash and Cuffy leaned forward in the traces.  The tangle of dogs straightened out and began to move.  A French voyageur lifted his throat in a peculiar shout that was half a bark.  Indians and half-breeds snowshoed down the street beside the sled.  At the door of the McRae house stood Angus, his wife, and daughter.

“God wi’ you haith,” the trapper called.

Jessie waved a scarf, and Beresford, who had spent the previous evening with her, threw up a hand in gay greeting.

The calvacade drew to the edge of the woods.  Morse looked back.  A slim figure, hardly distinguishable in the distance, still stood in front of the McRae house fluttering the scarf.

A turn in the trail hid her.  Faraway was shut out of view.

For four or five miles the trappers stayed with them.  It was rather a custom of the North to speed travelers on their way in this fashion.  At the edge of the first lake the Indians and half-breeds said good-bye and turned back.

Morse moved onto the ice and broke trail.  The dogs followed in tandem - Cuffy, Koona, Bull, and Cæsar.  They traveled fast over the ice and reached the woods beyond.  The timber was not thick.  Beyond this was a second lake, a larger one.  By the time they had crossed this, the sun was going down.

The men watched for a sheltered place to camp and as soon as they found one, they threw off the trail to the edge of the woods, drawing up the sledge back of them as a wind-break.  They gathered pine for fuel and cut balsam boughs for beds.  It had come on to snow, and they ate supper with their backs to the drive of the flakes, the hoods of their furs drawn over their heads.

The dogs sat round in a half-circle watching them and the frozen fish thawing before the fire.  Their faces, tilted a little sideways, ears cocked and eyes bright, looked anxiously expectant.  When the fish were half-thawed, Morse tossed them by turn to the waiting animals, who managed to get rid of their supper with a snap and a gulp.  Afterward they burrowed down in the snow and fell asleep.

On the blazing logs Beresford had put two kettles filled with snow.  These he refilled after the snow melted, until enough water was in them.  Into one kettle he put a piece of fat caribou meat.  The other was to make tea.

Using their snowshoes as shovels, they scraped a place clear and scattered balsam boughs on it.  On this they spread an empty flour sack, cut open at the side.  Tin plates and cups served as dish.

Their supper consisted of soggy bannocks, fat meat, and tea.  While they ate, the snow continued to fall.  It was not unwelcome, for so long as this lasted the cold could not be intolerable.  Moreover, snow makes a good white blanket and protects against sudden drops in temperature.

They changed their moccasins and duffles and pulled on as night-wear long buffalo-skin boots, hood, mufflers, and fur mits.  A heavy fur robe and a blanket were added.  Into these last they snuggled down, wrapping themselves up so completely that a tenderfoot would have smothered for lack of air.

Before they retired, they could hear the ice on the lake cracking like distant thunder.  The trees back of them occasionally snapped from the cold with reports that sounded like pistol shots.

In five minutes both men were asleep.  They lay with their heads entirely covered, as the Indians did.  Not once during the night did they stir.  To disarrange their bedding and expose the nose or the hands to the air would be to risk being frozen.

Morse woke first.  He soon had a roaring fire.  Again there were two kettles on it, one for fat meat and the other for strong tea.  No fish were thawing before the heat, for dogs are fed only once a day.  Otherwise they get sleepy and sluggish, losing the edge of their keenness.

They were off to an early start.  There was a cold head wind that was uncomfortable.  For hours they held to the slow, swinging stride of the webs.  Sometimes the trail was through the forest, sometimes in and out of brush and small timber.  Twice during the day they crossed lakes and hit up a lively pace.  Once they came to a muskeg, four miles across, and had to plough over the moss hags while brush tangled their feet and slapped their faces.

Cuffy was a prince of leaders.  He seemed to know by some sixth sense the best way to wind through underbrush and over swamps.  He was master of the train and ruled by strength and courage as well as intelligence.  Bull had ideas of his own, but after one sharp brush with Cuffy, from which he had emerged ruffled and bleeding, the native dog relinquished claim to dominance.

The travelers made about fifteen miles before noon.  They came to a solitary tepee, built on the edge of a lake with a background of snow-burdened spruce.  This lodge was constructed of poles arranged cone-shaped side by side, the chinks between plastered with moss wedged in to fill every crevice.  A thin wisp of smoke rose from an open space in the top.

At the sound of the yelping dogs a man lifted the moose-skin curtain that served as a door.  He was an old and wrinkled Cree.  His face was so brown and tough and netted with seams that it resembled a piece of alligator leather.  From out of it peered two very small bright eyes.

“Ugh!  Ugh!” he grunted.

This appeared to be all the English that he knew.  Beresford tried him in French and discovered he had a smattering of it.  After a good many attempts, the soldier found that he had seen no white man with a dog-train in many moons.  The Cree lived there alone, it appeared, and trapped for a living.  Why he was separated from all his kin and tribal relations the young Canadian could not find out at the time.  Later he learned that the old fellow was an outcast because he had once shown the white feather in a battle with Blackfeet fifty years earlier.

Before they left, the travelers discovered that he knew two more words of English.  One was rum, the other tobacco.  He begged for both.  They left him a half-foot of tobacco.  The scant supply of whiskey they had brought was for an emergency.

Just before night fell, Morse shot two ptarmigan in the woods.  These made a welcome addition to their usual fare.

Though both the men were experienced in the use of snowshoes, their feet were raw from the chafing of the thongs.  Before the camp-fire they greased the sore places with tallow.  In a few days the irritation due to the webs would disappear and the leg muscles brought into service by this new and steady shuffle would harden and grow fit.

They had built a wind-break of brush beside the sled and covered the ground with spruce boughs after clearing away the snow.  Here they rested after supper, drying socks, duffles, and moccasins, which were wet with perspiration, before the popping fire.

Beresford pulled out his English briar pipe and Tom one picked from the Company stock.  Smoke wreathed their heads while they lounged indolently on the spruce bed and occasionally exchanged a remark.  They knew each other well enough for long silences.  When they talked, it was because they had something to say.

The Canadian looked at his friend’s new gun-case and remarked with a gleam in his eye: 

“I spoke for that first, Tom.  Had miners on it, I thought.”

The American laughed sardonically.  “It was a present for a good boy,” he explained.  “I’ve a notion somebody was glad I was mushin’ with you on this trip.  Maybe you can guess why.  Anyhow, I drew a present out of it.”

“I see you did,” Beresford answered, grinning.

“I’m to look after you proper an’ see you’re tucked up.”

“Oh, that’s it?”

“That’s just it.”

The constable looked at him queerly, started to say something, then changed his mind.