Read CHAPTER XXXIV - THE MAN-HUNTERS READ SIGN of Man Size, free online book, by William MacLeod Raine, on ReadCentral.com.

In the white North travelers are few and far.  It is impossible for one to pass through the country without leaving a record of his progress written on the terrain and in the minds of the natives.  The fugitive did not attempt concealment.  He had with him now an Indian guide and was pushing into the Barren Lands.  There was no uncertainty about his movements.  From Fort Chippewayan he had swung to the northwest in the line of the great frozen lakes, skirting Athabasca and following the Great Slave River to the lake of the same name.  This he crossed at the narrowest point, about where the river empties into it, and headed for the eastern extremity of Lake La Martre.

On his heels, still far behind, trod the two pursuers, patient, dogged, and inexorable.  They had left far in the rear the out-forts of the Mounted and the little settlements of the free traders.  Already they were deep in the Hudson’s Bay Company trapping-grounds.  Ahead of them lay the Barrens, stretching to the inlets of the Arctic Ocean.

The days were drawing out and the nights getting shorter.  The untempered sun of the Northland beat down on the cold snow crystals and reflected a million sparks of light.  In that white field the glare was almost unbearable.  Both of them wore smoked glasses, but even with these their eyes continually smarted.  They grew red and swollen.  If time had not been so great an element in their journey, they would have tried to travel only after sunset.  But they could not afford this.  West would keep going as long and as fast as he could.

Each of them dreaded snow-blindness.  They knew the sign of it - a dreadful pain, a smarting of the eyeballs as though hot burning sand were being flung against them.  In camp at night they bathed their swollen lids and applied a cool and healing salve.

Meanwhile the weeks slipped into months and still they held like bulldogs to the trail of the man they were after.

The silence of the wide, empty white wastes surrounded them, except for an occasional word, the whine of a dog, and the slithering crunch of the sled-runners.  From unfriendly frozen deserts they passed, through eternal stillness, into the snow wilderness that seemed to stretch forever.  When they came to forests, now thinner, smaller, and less frequent, they welcomed them as they would an old friend.

“He’s headin’ for Great Bear, looks like,” Morse suggested one morning after an hour in which neither of them had spoken.

“I was wondering when you’d chirp up, Tom,” Beresford grinned cheerfully.  “Sometimes I think I’m fed up for life on the hissing of snowshoe runners.  The human voice sure sounds good up here.  Yes, Great Bear Lake.  And after that, where?”

“Up the lake, across to the Mackenzie, and down it to the ocean, I’d say.  He’s makin’ for the whaling waters.  Herschel Island maybe.  He’s hoping to bump into a whaler and get down on it to ’Frisco.”

“Your guess is just as good as any,” the Canadian admitted.  “He’s cut out a man-sized job for himself.  I’ll say that for him.  It’s a five-to-one bet he never gets through alive, even if we don’t nab him.”

“What else can he do?  He’s got to keep going or be dragged back to be hanged.  I’d travel too if I were in his place.”

“So would I. He’s certainly hitting her up.  Wish he’d break his leg for a week or two,” the constable said airily.

They swung into a dense spruce swamp and jumped up a half-grown bear.  He was so close to them that Tom, who was breaking trail, could see his little shining eyes.  Morse was carrying his rifle, in the hope that he might see a lynx or a moose.  The bear turned to scamper away, but the intention never became a fact.  A bullet crashed through the head and brought the animal down.

An hour later they reached an Indian camp on the edge of a lake.  On stages, built well up from the ground, drying fish were hanging out of reach of the dogs.  These animals came charging toward the travelers as usual, lean, bristling, wolfish creatures that never had been half-tamed.

Beresford lashed them back with the whip.  Indians came out from the huts, matted hair hanging over their eyes.  After the usual greetings and small presents had been made, the man-hunters asked questions.

“Great Bear Lake - wah-he-o-che (how far)?”

The head man opened his eyes.  Nobody in his right mind went to the great water at this time of year.  It was maybe fifteen, maybe twenty days’ travel.  Who could tell?  Were all the fair skins mad?  Only three days since another dog-train had passed through driven by a big shaggy man who had left them no presents after he had bought fish.  Three whites in as many days, and before that none but voyageur half-breeds in twice that number of years.

The trooper let out a boyish whoop.  “Gaining fast.  Only three days behind him, Tom.  If our luck stands up, he’ll never reach the Great Bear.”

There was reason back of Beresford’s exultant shout.  At least one of West’s dogs had bleeding feet.  This the stained snow on the trail told them.  Either the big man had no shoes for the animals or was too careless to use them when needed, the constable had suggested to his friend.

“It’s not carelessness,” Morse said.  “It’s his bullying nature.  Likely he’s got the shoes, only he won’t put ’em on.  He’ll beat the poor brute over the head instead and curse his luck when he breaks down.  He’s too bull-headed to be a good driver.”

On the fourth day after this they came upon one of the minor tragedies of sub-Arctic travel.  The skeleton of a dog lay beside the trail.  Its bones had been picked clean by its ravenous cannibal companions.

“Three left,” Beresford commented.  “He’ll be figuring on picking up another when he meets any Indians or Eskimos.”

“If he does it won’t be any good to work with his train.  I believe we’ve got him.  He isn’t twenty-five miles ahead of us right now.”

“I’d put it at twenty.  In about three days now the fireworks will begin.”

It was the second day after this that they began to notice something peculiar about the trail they were following.  Hitherto it had taken a straight line, except when the bad terrain had made a detour advisable.  Now it swayed uncertainly, much as a drunken man staggers down a street.

“What’s wrong with him?  It can’t be liquor.  Yet if he’s not drunk, what’s got into him?” the soldier asked aloud, expecting no answer that explained this phenomenon.

Tom shook his head.  “See.  The Indian’s drivin’ now.  He follows a straight enough line.  You can tell he’s at the tail line by the shape of the webs.  And West’s still lurchin’ along in a crazy way.  He fell down here.  Is he sick, d’ you reckon?”

“Give it up.  Anyhow, he’s in trouble.  We’ll know soon enough what it is.  Before night now we’ll maybe see them.”

Before they had gone another mile, the trail in the snow showed another peculiarity.  It made a wide half-circle and was heading south again.

“He’s given up.  What’s that mean?  Out of grub, d’ you think?” Beresford asked.

“No.  If they had been, he’d have made camp and gone hunting.  We crossed musk-ox sign to-day, you know.”

“Righto.  Can’t be that.  He must be sick.”

They kept their eyes open.  At any moment now they were likely to make a discovery.  Since they were in a country of scrubby brush they moved cautiously to prevent an ambush.  There was just a possibility that the fugitive might have caught sight of them and be preparing an unwelcome surprise.  But it was a possibility that did not look like a probability.

“Something gone ’way off in his plans,” Morse said after they had mushed on the south trail for an hour.  “Looks like he don’t know what he’s doing.  Has he gone crazy?”

“Might be that.  Men do in this country a lot.  We don’t know what a tough time he’s been through.”

“I’ll bet he’s bucked blizzards aplenty in the last two months.  Notice one thing.  West’s trailin’ after the guide like a lamb.  He’s makin’ a sure-enough drunk track.  See how the point of his shoe caught the snow there an’ flung him down.  The Cree stopped the sled right away so West could get up.  Why did he do that?  And why don’t West ever stray a foot outa the path that’s broke?  That’s not like him.  He’s always boss o’ the outfit - always leadin’.”

Beresford was puzzled, too.  “I don’t get the situation.  It’s been pretty nearly a thousand miles that we’ve been following this trail - eight hundred, anyhow.  All the way Bully West has stamped his big foot on it as boss.  Now he takes second place.  The reason’s beyond me.”

His friend’s mind jumped at a conclusion.  “I reckon I know why he’s followin’ the straight and narrow path.  The guide’s got a line round his waist and West’s tied to it.”

“Why?”

The sun’s rays, reflected from the snow in a blinding, brilliant glare, smote Morse full in the eyes.  For days the white fields had been very trying to the sight.  There had been moments when black spots had flickered before him, when red-hot sand had been flung against his eyeballs if he could judge by the burning sensation.

He knew now, in a flash, what was wrong with West.

To Beresford he told it in two words.

The constable slapped his thigh.  “Of course.  That’s the answer.”

Night fell, the fugitives still not in sight.  The country was so rough that they might be within a mile or two and yet not be seen.

“Better camp, I reckon,” Morse suggested.

“Yes.  Here.  We’ll come up with them to-morrow.”

They were treated that evening to an indescribably brilliant pyrotechnic display in the heavens.  An aurora flashed across the sky such as neither of them had ever seen before.  The vault was aglow with waves of red, violet, and purple that danced and whirled, with fickle, inconstant flashes of gold and green and yellow bars.  A radiant incandescence of great power lit the arch and flooded it with light that poured through the cathedral windows of the Most High.

At daybreak they were up.  Quickly they breakfasted and loaded.  The trail they followed was before noon a rotten one, due to a sudden rise in the temperature, but it still bore south steadily.

They reached the camp where West and his guide had spent the night.  Another chapter of the long story of the trail was written here.  The sled and the guide had gone on south, but West had not been with them.  His webs went wandering off at an angle, hesitant and uncertain.  Sometimes they doubled across the track he had already made.

Beresford was breaking trail.  His hand shot straight out.  In the distance there was a tiny black speck in the waste of white.  It moved.

Even yet the men who had come to bring the law into the Lone Lands did not relax their vigilance.  They knew West’s crafty, cunning mind.  This might be a ruse to trap them.  When they left the sled and moved forward, it was with rules ready.  The hunters stalked their prey as they would have done a musk ox.  Slowly, noiselessly, they approached.

The figure was that of a huge man.  He sat huddled in the snow, his back to them.  Despair was in the droop of the head and the set of the bowed shoulders.

One of the dogs howled.  The big torso straightened instantly.  The shaggy head came up.  Bully West was listening intently.  He turned and looked straight at them, but he gave no sign of knowing they were there.  The constable took a step and the hissing of the shoe-runner sounded.

“I’m watchin’ you, Stomak-o-sox,” the heavy voice of the convict growled.  “Can’t fool me.  I see every step you’re takin’.”

It was an empty boast, almost pathetic in its futility.  Morse and Beresford moved closer, still without speech.

West broke into violent, impotent cursing.  “You’re there, you damned wood Cree!  Think I don’t know?  Think I can’t see you?  Well, I can.  Plain as you can see me.  You come here an’ get me, or I’ll skin you alive like I done last week.  Hear me?”

The voice rose to a scream.  It betrayed terror - the horrible deadly fear of being left alone to perish in the icy wastes of the North.

Beresford crept close and waved a hand in front of the big man’s eyes.  West did not know it.  He babbled vain and foolish threats at his guide.

The convict had gone blind - snow-blind, and Stomak-o-sox had left him alone to make a push for his own life while there was still time.