first blinked his eyes in the light of day in a trading post on the Yukon
River. Masters, his father, was one of those world missionaries who are known
as "pioneers," and who spend the years of their life in pushing
outward the walls of civilizations and in planting the wilderness. He had
selected Alaska as his field of labor, and his wife had gone with him to that
land of frost and cold.
Now, to be born to the moccasin and pack-strap is indeed a hard way of entering the world, but far harder it is to lose one's mother while yet a child. This was Walt's misfortune when he was fourteen years old.
He had, at different times, done deeds which few boys get the chance to do, and he had learned to take some pride in himself and to be unafraid. With most people pride goeth before a fall; but not so with Walt. His was a healthy belief in his own strength and fitness, and knowing his limitations, he was neither overweening nor presumptuous. He had learned to meet reverses with the stoicism of the Indian. Shame, to him, lay not in the failure to accomplish, but in the failure to strive. So, when he attempted to cross the Yukon between two ice-runs, and was chased by the trail, he was not cast down by his defeat.
The way of it was this. After passing the winter at his father's claim on Mazy May, he came down to an island on the Yukon and went into camp. This was late in the spring, just before the breaking of the ice on the river. It was quite warm, and the days were growing marvelously long. Only the night before, when he was talking with Chilkoot Jim, the daylight had not faded and sent him off to bed till ten o'clock. Even Chilkoot Jim, an Indian boy who was about Walt's own age, was surprised at the rapidity with which summer was coming on. The snow had melted from all the southern hillsides and the level surfaces of the flats and islands; everywhere could be heard the trickling of water and the song of hidden rivulets; but somehow, under its three-foot ice-sheet, the Yukon delayed to heave its great length of three thousand miles and shake off the frosty fetters which bound it.
But it was evident that the time was fast approaching when it would again run free. Great fissures were splitting the ice in all directions, while the water was beginning to flood through them and over the top. On this morning a frightful rumbling brought the two boys hurriedly from their blankets. Standing on the bank, they soon discovered the cause. The Stewart River had broken loose and reared a great ice barrier, where it entered the Yukon, barely a mile above their island. While a great deal of the Stewart ice had been thus piled up, the remainder was now flowing under the Yukon ice, pounding and thumping at the solid surface above it as it passed onward toward the sea.
"To-day um break um," Chilkoot Jim said, nodding his head. "Sure!"
"And then maybe two days for the ice to pass by," Walt added, "and you and I'll be starting for Dawson. It's only seventy miles, and if the current runs five miles an hour and we paddle three, we ought to make it inside of ten hours. What do you think?"
"Sure!" Chilkoot Jim did not know much English, and this favorite word of his was made to do duty on all occasions.
After breakfast, the boys got out the Peterborough canoe from its winter cache. It was an admirable sample of the boat-builder's skill, an imported article brought from the natural home of the canoe—Canada. It had been packed over the Chilkoot Pass, two years before, on a man's back, and had then carried the first mail in six months into the Klondike. Walt, who happened to be in Dawson at the time, had bought it for three hundred dollars' worth of dust which he had mined on the Mazy May.
It had been a revelation, both to him and to Chilkoot Jim, for up to its advent they had been used to no other craft than the flimsy birch-bark canoes of the Indians and the rude polling-boats of the whites. Jim, in fact, spent many a happy half-hour in silent admiration of its perfect lines.
"Um good. Sure!" Jim lifted his gaze from the dainty craft, expressing his delight in the same terms of the thousandth time. But glancing over Walt's shoulder, he saw something on the river which startled him. "Look! See!" he cried.
A man had been racing a dog-team across the slushy surface for the shore, and had been cut off by the rising flood. As Walt whirled round to see, the ice behind the man burst into violent commotion, splitting and smashing into fragments which bobbled up and down and turned turtle like so many corks.
A gush of water followed, burying the sled and washing the dogs from their feet. Tangled in their harness and securely fastened to the heavy sled, they must drown in a few minutes unless rescued by the man. Bravely his manhood answered.
Floundering about with the drowning animals, nearly hip-deep in the icy flood, he cut and slashed with his sheath-knife at the traces. One by one the dogs struck out for shore, the first reaching safety ere the last was released. Then the master, abandoning the sled, followed them. It was a struggle in which little help could be given, and Walt and Chilkoot Jim could only, at the last, grasp his hands and drag him, half-fainting, up the bank.
First he sat down till he had recovered his breath; next he knocked the water from his ears like a boy who had just been swimming; and after that he whistled his dogs together to see whether they had all escaped. These things done, he turned his attention to the lads.
"I'm Muso," he said, "Pete Muso, and I'm looking for Charley Drake. His partner is dying down at Dawson, and they want him to come at once, as soon as the river breaks. He's got a cabin on this island, hasn't he?"
"Yes," Walt answered, "but he's over on the other side of the river, with a couple of other men, getting out a raft of logs for a grub-stake."
The stranger's disappointment was great.
Exhausted by his weary journey, just escaped from sudden death, overcome by all
he had undergone in carrying the message which was now useless, he looked
dazed. The tears welled into his eyes, and his voice was choked with sobs as he
repeated, aimlessly, "But his partner's dying. It's his partner, you know,
and he wants to see him before he dies."
Walt and Jim knew that nothing could be done, and as aimlessly looked out on the hopeless river. No man could venture on it and live. On the other bank, and several miles up-stream, a thin column of smoke wavered to the sky. Charley Drake was cooking his dinner there; seventy miles below, his partner lay dying; yet no word of it could be sent.
But even as they looked, a change came over the river. There was a muffled rending and tearing, and, as if by magic, the surface water disappeared, while the great ice-sheet, reaching from shore to shore, and broken into all manner and sizes of cakes, floated silently up toward them. The ice which had been pounding along underneath had evidently grounded at some point lower down, and was now backing up the water like a mill-dam. This had broken the ice-sheet from the land and lifted it on top of the rising water.
"Um break up very quick," Chilkoot Jim said.
"Then here goes!" Muso cried, at the same time beginning to strip his wet clothes.
The Indian boy laughed. "Mebbe you get um in middle, mebbe not. All the same, the trail um go down-stream, and you go, too. Sure!" He glanced at Walt, that he might back him up in preventing this insane attempt.
"You're not going to try and make it across?" Walt queried.
Muso nodded his head, sat down, and proceeded to unlace his moccasins.
"But you mustn't!" Walt protested. "It's certain death. The river'll break before you get half-way, and then what good'll your message be?"
But the stranger doggedly went on undressing, muttering in an undertone, "I want Charley Drake! Don't you understand? It's his partner, dying."
"Um sick man. Bimeby —— " The Indian boy put a finger to his forehead and whirled his hand in quick circles, thus indicating the approach of brain fever. "Um work too hard, and um think too much, all the time think about sick man at Dawson. Very quick um head go round—so." And he feigned the bodily dizziness which is caused by a disordered brain.
By this time, undressed as if for a swim, Muso rose to his feet and started for the bank. Walt stepped in front, barring the way. He shot a glance at his comrade. Jim nodded that he understood and would stand by.
"Get out of my way, boy!" Muso commanded, roughly, trying to thrust him aside.
But Walt closed in, and with the aid of Jim succeeded in tripping him upon his back. He struggled weakly for a few moments, but was too wearied by his long journey to cope successfully with the two boys whose muscles were healthy and trail-hardened.
"Pack um into camp, roll um in plenty blanket, and I fix um good," Jim advised.
This was quickly accomplished, and the sufferer made as comfortable as possible. After he had been attended to, and Jim had utilized the medical lore picked up in the camps of his own people, they fed the stranger's dogs and cooked dinner. They said very little to each other, but each boy was thinking hard, and when they went out into the sunshine a few minutes later, their minds were intent on the same project.
The river had now risen twenty feet, the ice rubbing softly against the top of the bank. All noise had ceased. Countless millions of tons of ice and water were silently waiting the supreme moment, when all bonds would be broken and the mad rush to the sea would begin. Suddenly, without the slighted apparent effort, everything began to move downstream. The jam had broken.
Slowly at first, but faster and faster the frozen sea dashed past. The noise returned again, and the air trembled to a mighty churning and grinding. Huge blocks of ice were shot into the air by the pressure; others butted wildly into the bank; still others, swinging and pivoting, reached inshore and swept rows of pines away as easily as if they were so many matches.
In awe-stricken silence the boys watched the magnificent spectacle, and it was not until the ice had slackened its speed and fallen to its old level that Walt cried, "Look, Jim! Look at the trail going by!"
And in truth it was the trail going by—the trail upon which they had camped and traveled during all the preceding winter. Next winter they would journey with dogs and sleds over the same ground, but not on the same trail. That trail, the old trail, was passing away before their eyes.
Looking up-stream, they saw open water. No more ice was coming down, although vast quantities of it still remained on the upper reaches, jammed somewhere amid the maze of islands which covered the Yukon's breast. As a matter of fact, there were several more jams yet to break, one after another, and to send down as many ice-runs. The next might come along in a few minutes; it might delay for hours. Perhaps there would be time to paddle across. Walt looked questioningly at his comrade.
"Sure!" Jim remarked, and without another word they carried the canoe down the bank. Each knew the danger of what they were about to attempt, but they wasted no speech over it. Wild life had taught them both that the need of things demanded effort and action, and that the tongue found its fit vocation at the camp-fire when the day's work was done.
With dexterity born of long practice they launched the canoe, and were soon making it spring to each stroke of the paddles as they stemmed the muddy current. A steady procession of lagging ice-cakes, each thoroughly capable of crushing the Peterborough like an egg-shell, was drifting on the surface, and it required of the boys the utmost vigilance and skill to thread them safely.
Anxiously they watched the great bend above, down which at any moment might rush another ice-run. And as anxiously they watched the ice stranded against the bank and towering a score of feet above them. Cake was poised upon cake and piled in precarious confusion, while the boys had to hug the shore closely to avoid the swifter current of midstream. Now and again great heaps of this ice tottered and fell into the river, rolling and rumbling like distant thunder, and lashing the water into fair-sized tidal waves.
Several times they were nearly swamped, but saved themselves by quick work with the paddles. And all the time Charley Drake's pillared camp smoke grew nearer and clearer. But it was still on the opposite shore, and they knew they must get higher up before they attempted to shoot across.
Entering the Stewart River, they paddled up a few hundred yards, shot across, and then continued up the right bank of the Yukon. Before long they came to the Bald-Face Bluffs—huge walls of rock which rose perpendicularly from the river. Here the current was swiftest inshore, forming the first serious obstacle encountered by the boys. Below the bluffs they rested from their exertions in a favorable eddy, and then, paddling their strongest, strove to dash past.
At first they gained, but in the swiftest place the current overpowered them. For a full sixty seconds they remained stationary, neither advancing nor receding, the grim cliff base within reach of their arms, their paddles dipping and lifting like clockwork, and the rough water dashing by in muddy haste. For a full sixty seconds, and then the canoe sheered in to the shore. To prevent instant destruction, they pressed their paddles against the rocks, sheered back into the stream, and were swept away. Regaining the eddy, they stopped for breath. A second time they attempted the passage; but just as they were almost past, a threatening ice-cake whirled down upon them on the angry tide, and they were forced to flee before it.
"Um stiff, I think yes," Chilkoot Jim said, mopping the sweat from his face as they again rested in the eddy. "Next time um make um, sure."
"We've got to. That's all there is about it," Walt answered, his teeth set and lips tight-drawn, for Pete Muso had set a bad example, and he was almost ready to cry from exhaustion and failure. A third time they darted out of the head of the eddy, plunged into the swirling waters, and worked a snail-like course ahead. Often they stood still for the space of many strokes, but whatever they gained they held, and they at last drew out into easier water far above. But every moment was precious. There was no telling when the Yukon would again become a scene of wild anarchy in which neither man nor any of his works could hope to endure. So they held steadily to their course till they had passed above Charley Drake's camp by a quarter of a mile. The river was fully a mile wide at this point, and they had to reckon on being carried down by the swift current in crossing it.
Walt turned his head from his place in the bow. Jim nodded. Without further parley they headed the canoe out from the shore, at an angle of forty-five degrees against the current. They were on the last stretch now; the goal was in fair sight. Indeed, as they looked up from their toil to mark their progress, they could see Charley Drake and his two comrades come town to the edge of the river to watch them.
Five hundred yards; four hundred yards; the Peterborough cut the water like a blade of steel; the paddles were dipping, dipping, dipping in rapid rhythm—and then a warning shout from the bank sent a chill to their hearts. Round the great bend just above rolled a mighty wall of glistening white. Behind it, urging it on to lightning speed, were a million tons of long-pent water.
The right flank of the ice-run, unable to get cleanly round the bend, collided with the opposite shore, and even as they looked they saw the ice mountains rear toward the sky, rise, collapse, and rise again in glittering convulsions. The advancing roar filled the air so that Walt could not make himself heard; but he paused long enough to wave his paddle significantly in the direction of Dawson. Perhaps Charley Drake, seeing, might understand.
With two swift strokes they whirled the Peterborough down-stream. They must keep ahead of the rushing flood. It was impossible to make either bank tat that moment. Every ounce of their strength went into the paddles, and the frail canoe fairly rose and leaped ahead at each stroke. They said nothing. Each knew and had faith in the other, and they were too wise to waste their breath. The shore-line—trees, islands and the Stewart River—flew by at a bewildering rate, but they barely looked at it.
Occasionally Chilkoot Jim stole a glance behind him at the pursuing trail, and marked the fact that they held their own. Once he shaped a sharper course toward the bank, but found the trail was overtaking them, and gave it up.
Gradually they worked in to land, their failing strength warning them that it was soon or never. And at last, when they did draw up to the bank, they were confronted by the inhospitable barrier of the stranded shore-ice. Not a place could be found to land, and with safety virtually within arm's reach, they were forced to flee on down the stream. They passed a score of places, at each of which, had they had plenty of time, they could have clambered out; but behind pressed on the inexorable trail, and would not let them pause.
Half a mile of this work drew heavily upon their strength; and the trail came upon them nearer and nearer. Its sullen grind was in their ears, and its collisions against the bank made one continuous succession of terrifying crashes. Walt felt his heart thumping against his ribs and caught each breath in painful gasps. But worst of all was the constant demand upon his arms.
If he could only rest for the space of one stroke, he felt that the torture would be relieved; but no, it was dip and lift, dip and lift, till it seemed as if at each stroke he would surely die. But he knew that Chilkoot Jim was suffering likewise; and their lives depended each upon the other; and that it would be a blot upon his manhood should he fail or even miss a stroke.
They were very weary, but their faith was large, and if either felt afraid, it was not of the other, but of himself.
Flashing round a sharp point, they came upon their last chance for escape. An island lay close inshore, upon the nose of which the ice lay piled in a long slope. They drove the Peterborough half out of the water upon a shelving cake and leaped out. Then, dragging the canoe along, slipping and tripping and falling, but always getting nearer the top, they made their last mad scramble.
As they cleared the crest and fell within the shelter of the pines, a tremendous crash announced the arrival of the trail. One huge cake, shoved to the, shoved to the top of the rim-ice, balanced threateningly above them and then toppled forward.
With one jerk they flung themselves and the canoe from beneath, and again fell, breathless and panting for air. The thunder of the ice-run came dimly to their ears; but they did not care. It held no interest for them whatsoever. All they wished was simply to lie there, just as they had fallen, and enjoy the inaction of repose.
Two hours later, when the river once more ran open, they carried the Peterborough down to the water. But just before they launched it, Charley Drake and a comrade paddled up in another canoe.
"Well, you boys hardly deserve to have good folks out looking for you, the way you've behaved," was his greeting. "What under the sun made you leave your tent and get chased by the trail? Eh? That's what I'd like to know."
It took but a minute to explain the real state of affairs, and but another to see Charley Drake hurrying along on his way to his sick partner at Dawson.
"Pretty close shave, that," Walt Masters said, as they prepared to get aboard and paddle back to camp.
"Sure!" Chilkoot Jim replied, rubbing his stiffened biceps in a meditative fashion.
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