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A Daughter of the Snows online

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"Does he move?" Jacob Welse asked, and, on a shake of St. Vincent's
head, brought his rifle from the tent.

He fired six shots skyward in rapid succession. "He moves!" The
correspondent followed him closely. "He is crawling to the bank. Ah!
. . . No; one moment . . . Yes! He lies on the ground and raises his
hat, or something, on a stick. He is waving it." (Jacob Welse fired
six more shots.) "He waves again. Now he has dropped it and lies
quite still."

All three looked inquiringly to Jacob Welse.

He shrugged his shoulders. "How should I know? A white man or an
Indian; starvation most likely, or else he is injured."

"But he may be dying," Frona pleaded, as though her father, who had
done most things, could do all things.

"We can do nothing."

"Ah! Terrible! terrible!" The baron wrung his hands. "Before our
very eyes, and we can do nothing! No!" he exclaimed, with swift
resolution, "it shall not be! I will cross the ice!"

He would have started precipitately down the bank had not Jacob Welse
caught his arm.

"Not such a rush, baron. Keep your head."

"But - "

"But nothing. Does the man want food, or medicine, or what? Wait a
moment. We will try it together."

"Count me in," St. Vincent volunteered promptly, and Frona's eyes

While she made up a bundle of food in the tent, the men provided and
rigged themselves with sixty or seventy feet of light rope. Jacob
Welse and St. Vincent made themselves fast to it at either end, and the
baron in the middle. He claimed the food as his portion, and strapped
it to his broad shoulders. Frona watched their progress from the bank.
The first hundred yards were easy going, but she noticed at once the
change when they had passed the limit of the fairly solid shore-ice.
Her father led sturdily, feeling ahead and to the side with his staff
and changing direction continually.

St. Vincent, at the rear of the extended line, was the first to go
through, but he fell with the pole thrust deftly across the opening and
resting on the ice. His head did not go under, though the current
sucked powerfully, and the two men dragged him out after a sharp pull.
Frona saw them consult together for a minute, with much pointing and
gesticulating on the part of the baron, and then St. Vincent detach
himself and turn shoreward.

"Br-r-r-r," he shivered, coming up the bank to her. "It's impossible."

"But why didn't they come in?" she asked, a slight note of displeasure
manifest in her voice.

"Said they were going to make one more try, first. That Courbertin is
hot-headed, you know."

"And my father just as bull-headed," she smiled. "But hadn't you
better change? There are spare things in the tent."

"Oh, no." He threw himself down beside her. "It's warm in the sun."

For an hour they watched the two men, who had become mere specks of
black in the distance; for they had managed to gain the middle of the
river and at the same time had worked nearly a mile up-stream. Frona
followed them closely with the glasses, though often they were lost to
sight behind the ice-ridges.

"It was unfair of them," she heard St. Vincent complain, "to say they
were only going to have one more try. Otherwise I should not have
turned back. Yet they can't make it - absolutely impossible."

"Yes . . . No . . . Yes! They're turning back," she announced. "But
listen! What is that?"

A hoarse rumble, like distant thunder, rose from the midst of the ice.
She sprang to her feet. "Gregory, the river can't be breaking!"

"No, no; surely not. See, it is gone." The noise which had come from
above had died away downstream.

"But there! There!"

Another rumble, hoarser and more ominous than before, lifted itself and
hushed the robins and the squirrels. When abreast of them, it sounded
like a railroad train on a distant trestle. A third rumble, which
approached a roar and was of greater duration, began from above and
passed by.

"Oh, why don't they hurry!"

The two specks had stopped, evidently in conversation. She ran the
glasses hastily up and down the river. Though another roar had risen,
she could make out no commotion. The ice lay still and motionless.
The robins resumed their singing, and the squirrels were chattering
with spiteful glee.

"Don't fear, Frona." St. Vincent put his arm about her protectingly.
"If there is any danger, they know it better than we, and they are
taking their time."

"I never saw a big river break up," she confessed, and resigned herself
to the waiting.

The roars rose and fell sporadically, but there were no other signs of
disruption, and gradually the two men, with frequent duckings, worked
inshore. The water was streaming from them and they were shivering
severely as they came up the bank.

"At last!" Frona had both her father's hands in hers. "I thought you
would never come back."

"There, there. Run and get dinner," Jacob Welse laughed. "There was
no danger."

"But what was it?"

"Stewart River's broken and sending its ice down under the Yukon ice.
We could hear the grinding plainly out there."

"Ah! And it was terrible! terrible!" cried the baron. "And that poor,
poor man, we cannot save him!"

"Yes, we can. We'll have a try with the dogs after dinner. Hurry,

But the dogs were a failure. Jacob Welse picked out the leaders as the
more intelligent, and with grub-packs on them drove them out from the
bank. They could not grasp what was demanded of them. Whenever they
tried to return they were driven back with sticks and clods and
imprecations. This only bewildered them, and they retreated out of
range, whence they raised their wet, cold paws and whined pitifully to
the shore.

"If they could only make it once, they would understand, and then it
would go like clock-work. Ah! Would you? Go on! Chook, Miriam!
Chook! The thing is to get the first one across."

Jacob Welse finally succeeded in getting Miriam, lead-dog to Frona's
team, to take the trail left by him and the baron. The dog went on
bravely, scrambling over, floundering through, and sometimes swimming;
but when she had gained the farthest point reached by them, she sat
down helplessly. Later on, she cut back to the shore at a tangent,
landing on the deserted island above; and an hour afterwards trotted
into camp minus the grub-pack. Then the two dogs, hovering just out of
range, compromised matters by devouring each other's burdens; after
which the attempt was given over and they were called in.

During the afternoon the noise increased in frequency, and by nightfall
was continuous, but by morning it had ceased utterly. The river had
risen eight feet, and in many places was running over its crust. Much
crackling and splitting were going on, and fissures leaping into life
and multiplying in all directions.

"The under-tow ice has jammed below among the islands," Jacob Welse
explained. "That's what caused the rise. Then, again, it has jammed
at the mouth of the Stewart and is backing up. When that breaks
through, it will go down underneath and stick on the lower jam."

"And then? and then?" The baron exulted.

"La Bijou will swim again."

As the light grew stronger, they searched for the man across the river.
He had not moved, but in response to their rifle-shots waved feebly.

"Nothing for it till the river breaks, baron, and then a dash with La
Bijou. St. Vincent, you had better bring your blankets up and sleep
here to-night. We'll need three paddles, and I think we can get

"No need," the correspondent hastened to reply. "The back-channel is
like adamant, and I'll be up by daybreak."

"But I? Why not?" Baron Courbertin demanded. Frona laughed.
"Remember, we haven't given you your first lessons yet."

"And there'll hardly be time to-morrow," Jacob Welse added. "When she
goes, she goes with a rush. St. Vincent, McPherson, and I will have to
make the crew, I'm afraid. Sorry, baron. Stay with us another year
and you'll be fit."

But Baron Courbertin was inconsolable, and sulked for a full half-hour.


"Awake! You dreamers, wake!"

Frona was out of her sleeping-furs at Del Bishop's first call; but ere
she had slipped a skirt on and bare feet into moccasins, her father,
beyond the blanket-curtain, had thrown back the flaps of the tent and
stumbled out.

The river was up. In the chill gray light she could see the ice
rubbing softly against the very crest of the bank; it even topped it in
places, and the huge cakes worked inshore many feet. A hundred yards
out the white field merged into the dim dawn and the gray sky. Subdued
splits and splutters whispered from out the obscureness, and a gentle
grinding could be heard.

"When will it go?" she asked of Del.

"Not a bit too lively for us. See there!" He pointed with his toe to
the water lapping out from under the ice and creeping greedily towards
them. "A foot rise every ten minutes."

"Danger?" he scoffed. "Not on your life. It's got to go. Them
islands" - waving his hand indefinitely down river - "can't hold up under
more pressure. If they don't let go the ice, the ice'll scour them
clean out of the bed of the Yukon. Sure! But I've got to be chasin'
back. Lower ground down our way. Fifteen inches on the cabin floor,
and McPherson and Corliss hustlin' perishables into the bunks."

"Tell McPherson to be ready for a call," Jacob Welse shouted after him.
And then to Frona, "Now's the time for St. Vincent to cross the

The baron, shivering barefooted, pulled out his watch. "Ten minutes to
three," he chattered.

"Hadn't you better go back and get your moccasins?" Frona asked.
"There will be time."

"And miss the magnificence? Hark!"

From nowhere in particular a brisk crackling arose, then died away.
The ice was in motion. Slowly, very slowly, it proceeded down stream.
There was no commotion, no ear-splitting thunder, no splendid display
of force; simply a silent flood of white, an orderly procession of
tight-packed ice - packed so closely that not a drop of water was in
evidence. It was there, somewhere, down underneath; but it had to be
taken on faith. There was a dull hum or muffled grating, but so low in
pitch that the ear strained to catch it.

"Ah! Where is the magnificence? It is a fake!"

The baron shook his fists angrily at the river, and Jacob Welse's thick
brows seemed to draw down in order to hide the grim smile in his eyes.

"Ha! ha! I laugh! I snap my fingers! See! I defy!"

As the challenge left his lips. Baron Courbertin stepped upon a cake
which rubbed lightly past at his feet. So unexpected was it, that when
Jacob Welse reached after him he was gone.

The ice was picking up in momentum, and the hum growing louder and more
threatening. Balancing gracefully, like a circus-rider, the Frenchman
whirled away along the rim of the bank. Fifty precarious feet he rode,
his mount becoming more unstable every instant, and he leaped neatly to
the shore. He came back laughing, and received for his pains two or
three of the choicest phrases Jacob Welse could select from the
essentially masculine portion of his vocabulary.

"And for why?" Courbertin demanded, stung to the quick.

"For why?" Jacob Welse mimicked wrathfully, pointing into the sleek
stream sliding by.

A great cake had driven its nose into the bed of the river thirty feet
below and was struggling to up-end. All the frigid flood behind
crinkled and bent back like so much paper. Then the stalled cake
turned completely over and thrust its muddy nose skyward. But the
squeeze caught it, while cake mounted cake at its back, and its fifty
feet of muck and gouge were hurled into the air. It crashed upon the
moving mass beneath, and flying fragments landed at the feet of those
that watched. Caught broadside in a chaos of pressures, it crumbled
into scattered pieces and disappeared.

"God!" The baron spoke the word reverently and with awe.

Frona caught his hand on the one side and her father's on the other.
The ice was now leaping past in feverish haste. Somewhere below a
heavy cake butted into the bank, and the ground swayed under their
feet. Another followed it, nearer the surface, and as they sprang
back, upreared mightily, and, with a ton or so of soil on its broad
back, bowled insolently onward. And yet another, reaching inshore like
a huge hand, ripped three careless pines out by the roots and bore them

Day had broken, and the driving white gorged the Yukon from shore to
shore. What of the pressure of pent water behind, the speed of the
flood had become dizzying. Down all its length the bank was being
gashed and gouged, and the island was jarring and shaking to its

"Oh, great! Great!" Frona sprang up and down between the men. "Where
is your fake, baron?"

"Ah!" He shook his head. "Ah! I was wrong. I am miserable. But the
magnificence! Look!"

He pointed down to the bunch of islands which obstructed the bend.
There the mile-wide stream divided and subdivided again, - which was
well for water, but not so well for packed ice. The islands drove
their wedged heads into the frozen flood and tossed the cakes high into
the air. But cake pressed upon cake and shelved out of the water, out
and up, sliding and grinding and climbing, and still more cakes from
behind, till hillocks and mountains of ice upreared and crashed among
the trees.

"A likely place for a jam," Jacob Welse said. "Get the glasses,
Frona." He gazed through them long and steadily. "It's growing,
spreading out. A cake at the right time and the right place . . ."

"But the river is falling!" Frona cried.

The ice had dropped six feet below the top of the bank, and the Baron
Courbertin marked it with a stick.

"Our man's still there, but he doesn't move."

It was clear day, and the sun was breaking forth in the north-east.
They took turn about with the glasses in gazing across the river.

"Look! Is it not marvellous?" Courbertin pointed to the mark he had
made. The water had dropped another foot. "Ah! Too bad! too bad!
The jam; there will be none!"

Jacob Welse regarded him gravely.

"Ah! There will be?" he asked, picking up hope.

Frona looked inquiringly at her father.

"Jams are not always nice," he said, with a short laugh. "It all
depends where they take place and where you happen to be."

"But the river! Look! It falls; I can see it before my eyes."

"It is not too late." He swept the island-studded bend and saw the
ice-mountains larger and reaching out one to the other. "Go into the
tent, Courbertin, and put on the pair of moccasins you'll find by the
stove. Go on. You won't miss anything. And you, Frona, start the
fire and get the coffee under way."

Half an hour after, though the river had fallen twenty feet, they found
the ice still pounding along.

"Now the fun begins. Here, take a squint, you hot-headed Gaul. The
left-hand channel, man. Now she takes it!"

Courbertin saw the left-hand channel close, and then a great white
barrier heave up and travel from island to island. The ice before them
slowed down and came to rest. Then followed the instant rise of the
river. Up it came in a swift rush, as though nothing short of the sky
could stop it. As when they were first awakened, the cakes rubbed and
slid inshore over the crest of the bank, the muddy water creeping in
advance and marking the way.

"Mon Dieu! But this is not nice!"

"But magnificent, baron," Frona teased. "In the meanwhile you are
getting your feet wet."

He retreated out of the water, and in time, for a small avalanche of
cakes rattled down upon the place he had just left. The rising water
had forced the ice up till it stood breast-high above the island like a

"But it will go down soon when the jam breaks. See, even now it comes
up not so swift. It has broken."

Frona was watching the barrier. "No, it hasn't," she denied.

"But the water no longer rises like a race-horse."

"Nor does it stop rising."

He was puzzled for the nonce. Then his face brightened. "Ah! I have
it! Above, somewhere, there is another jam. Most excellent, is it

She caught his excited hand in hers and detained him. "But, listen.
Suppose the upper jam breaks and the lower jam holds?"

He looked at her steadily till he grasped the full import. His face
flushed, and with a quick intake of the breath he straightened up and
threw back his head. He made a sweeping gesture as though to include
the island. "Then you, and I, the tent, the boats, cabins, trees,
everything, and La Bijou! Pouf! and all are gone, to the devil!"

Frona shook her head. "It is too bad."

"Bad? Pardon. Magnificent!"

"No, no, baron; not that. But that you are not an Anglo-Saxon. The
race could well be proud of you."

"And you, Frona, would you not glorify the French!"

"At it again, eh? Throwing bouquets at yourselves." Del Bishop
grinned at them, and made to depart as quickly as he had come. "But
twist yourselves. Some sick men in a cabin down here. Got to get 'em
out. You're needed. And don't be all day about it," he shouted over
his shoulder as he disappeared among the trees.

The river was still rising, though more slowly, and as soon as they
left the high ground they were splashing along ankle-deep in the water.
Winding in and out among the trees, they came upon a boat which had
been hauled out the previous fall. And three _chechaquos_, who had
managed to get into the country thus far over the ice, had piled
themselves into it, also their tent, sleds, and dogs. But the boat was
perilously near the ice-gorge, which growled and wrestled and
over-topped it a bare dozen feet away.

"Come! Get out of this, you fools!" Jacob Welse shouted as he went

Del Bishop had told them to "get the hell out of there" when he ran by,
and they could not understand. One of them turned up an unheeding,
terrified face. Another lay prone and listless across the thwarts as
though bereft of strength; while the third, with the face of a clerk,
rocked back and forth and moaned monotonously, "My God! My God!"

The baron stopped long enough to shake him. "Damn!" he cried. "Your
legs, man! - not God, but your legs! Ah! ah! - hump yourself! Yes,
hump! Get a move on! Twist! Get back from the bank! The woods, the
trees, anywhere!"

He tried to drag him out, but the man struck at him savagely and held

"How one collects the vernacular," he confided proudly to Frona as they
hurried on. "Twist! It is a strong word, and suitable."

"You should travel with Del," she laughed. "He'd increase your stock
in no time."

"You don't say so."

"Yes, but I do."

"Ah! Your idioms. I shall never learn." And he shook his head
despairingly with both his hands.

They came out in a clearing, where a cabin stood close to the river.
On its flat earth-roof two sick men, swathed in blankets, were lying,
while Bishop, Corliss, and Jacob Welse were splashing about inside the
cabin after the clothes-bags and general outfit. The mean depth of the
flood was a couple of feet, but the floor of the cabin had been dug out
for purposes of warmth, and there the water was to the waist.

"Keep the tobacco dry," one of the sick men said feebly from the roof.

"Tobacco, hell!" his companion advised. "Look out for the flour. And
the sugar," he added, as an afterthought.

"That's 'cause Bill he don't smoke, miss," the first man explained.
"But keep an eye on it, won't you?" he pleaded.

"Here. Now shut up." Del tossed the canister beside him, and the man
clutched it as though it were a sack of nuggets.

"Can I be of any use?" she asked, looking up at them.

"Nope. Scurvy. Nothing'll do 'em any good but God's country and raw
potatoes." The pocket-miner regarded her for a moment. "What are you
doing here, anyway? Go on back to high ground."

But with a groan and a crash, the ice-wall bulged in. A fifty-ton cake
ended over, splashing them with muddy water, and settled down before
the door. A smaller cake drove against the out-jutting corner-logs and
the cabin reeled. Courbertin and Jacob Welse were inside.

"After you," Frona heard the baron, and then her father's short amused
laugh; and the gallant Frenchman came out last, squeezing his way
between the cake and the logs.

"Say, Bill, if that there lower jam holds, we're goners;" the man with
the canister called to his partner.

"Ay, that it will," came the answer. "Below Nulato I saw Bixbie Island
swept clean as my old mother's kitchen floor."

The men came hastily together about Frona.

"This won't do. We've got to carry them over to your shack, Corliss."
As he spoke, Jacob Welse clambered nimbly up the cabin and gazed down
at the big barrier. "Where's McPherson?" he asked.

"Petrified astride the ridge-pole this last hour."

Jacob Welse waved his arm. "It's breaking! There she goes!"

"No kitchen floor this time. Bill, with my respects to your old
woman," called he of the tobacco.

"Ay," answered the imperturbable Bill.

The whole river seemed to pick itself up and start down the stream.
With the increasing motion the ice-wall broke in a hundred places, and
from up and down the shore came the rending and crashing of uprooted

Corliss and Bishop laid hold of Bill and started off to McPherson's,
and Jacob Welse and the baron were just sliding his mate over the
eaves, when a huge block of ice rammed in and smote the cabin squarely.
Frona saw it, and cried a warning, but the tiered logs were overthrown
like a house of cards. She saw Courbertin and the sick man hurled
clear of the wreckage, and her father go down with it. She sprang to
the spot, but he did not rise. She pulled at him to get his mouth
above water, but at full stretch his head, barely showed. Then she let
go and felt about with her hands till she found his right arm jammed
between the logs. These she could not move, but she thrust between
them one of the roof-poles which had underlaid the dirt and moss. It
was a rude handspike and hardly equal to the work, for when she threw
her weight upon the free end it bent and crackled. Heedful of the
warning, she came in a couple of feet and swung upon it tentatively and
carefully till something gave and Jacob Welse shoved his muddy face
into the air.

He drew half a dozen great breaths, and burst out, "But that tastes
good!" And then, throwing a quick glance about him, Frona, Del Bishop
is a most veracious man."

"Why?" she asked, perplexedly.

"Because he said you'd do, you know."

He kissed her, and they both spat the mud from their lips, laughing.
Courbertin floundered round a corner of the wreckage.

"Never was there such a man!" he cried, gleefully. "He is mad, crazy!
There is no appeasement. His skull is cracked by the fall, and his
tobacco is gone. It is chiefly the tobacco which is lamentable."

But his skull was not cracked, for it was merely a slit of the scalp of
five inches or so.

"You'll have to wait till the others come back. I can't carry." Jacob
Welse pointed to his right arm, which hung dead. "Only wrenched," he
explained. "No bones broken."

The baron struck an extravagant attitude and pointed down at Frona's
foot. "Ah! the water, it is gone, and there, a jewel of the flood, a
pearl of price!"

Her well-worn moccasins had gone rotten from the soaking, and a little
white toe peeped out at the world of slime.

"Then I am indeed wealthy, baron; for I have nine others."

"And who shall deny? who shall deny?" he cried, fervently.

"What a ridiculous, foolish, lovable fellow it is!"

"I kiss your hand." And he knelt gallantly in the muck.

She jerked her hand away, and, burying it with its mate in his curly
mop, shook his head back and forth. "What shall I do with him, father?"

Jacob Welse shrugged his shoulders and laughed; and she turned
Courbertin's face up and kissed him on the lips. And Jacob Welse knew
that his was the larger share in that manifest joy.

The river, fallen to its winter level, was pounding its ice-glut
steadily along. But in falling it had rimmed the shore with a
twenty-foot wall of stranded floes. The great blocks were spilled
inland among the thrown and standing trees and the slime-coated flowers
and grasses like the titanic vomit of some Northland monster. The sun
was not idle, and the steaming thaw washed the mud and foulness from
the bergs till they blazed like heaped diamonds in the brightness, or
shimmered opalescent-blue. Yet they were reared hazardously one on

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Online LibraryJack LondonA Daughter of the Snows → online text (page 15 of 20)