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slushy depths. Even the broad tread of snow-shoes failed to save them.
Then, too, the dogs floundered belly-deep, and the broad bottoms of the
sleds alone saved the outfit from complete disaster. The increasing
hardships left Steve without respite. It was only on the hill-tops, when
the veer of the wind carried it to the northward, and, for a brief
spell, Arctic conditions returned, that any measure of ease was
ironically vouchsafed.

The effort was tremendous. It went on for days whose number it was
difficult to estimate in the grope of the unchanging twilight. A day's
work might be a single hill conquered. It might be a moist, clammy
valley crossed. Perhaps two miles, three, or even five. Distance
remained unconsidered. For always was the next effort no less than the
last, till mind, and heart, and body were worn well-nigh threadbare.
There was no pause, no hesitation. It must be on, on to the end,
or - disaster.

Steve knew. Only the barest necessity of rest could be permitted both
for himself, his men, his dogs. The faith of his men still burned
strongly in hearts which he had never known to fail, but he dared not
risk the chance of a prolonged inactivity with its opportunity for
contemplation of the hell through which they were all passing. He knew.
Oh yes. He knew from his understanding of his own feelings and emotions.

He lived in the daily hope of discovering something with which to dazzle
imagination already dulling. His faith was pinned to the summit of a
great, grey headland towering amongst its fellows ahead. He had
discovered its presence long since, and, from the moment of discovery,
he had sought its elusive slopes. Instinct, that had no great reason to
support it, warned him that the view from its summit would tell them the
things they desired to know. And they were the things they all must
learn quickly if failure were not to rob them of the fruits of their
great adventure.

Yes. He desired that dull grey summit just now as he desired nothing
else in the world.

Every emotion was stirring when, at length, Steve found himself climbing
the last of the upward slopes of the "Hill of Promise," as he had named
it. He had laughed as he coined the name. But there had been no laughter
in his heart. If the promise were not fulfilled - - ?

But it would be fulfilled. It must be fulfilled. These were the things
Steve told himself in that fever of straining which only mental
extremity knows.

He topped the last rugged lift to the summit. His men were somewhere
below, floundering in his wake. He had no heed for them just now. Hope,
a fever of hope alone sustained his weary limbs over the inhospitable
ice.

A great shout echoed down the slope. It came with all the power of a
strong man's lungs.

"Ho, you! Quick!"

Steve had reached the rugged crest. A second shout came back to the
floundering Indians.

"God! It's a - wonder!"

* * * * *

The moment was profound. Eyes that were prepared for well-nigh anything
monstrous gazed out spellbound. Tongues had no words, and hearts were
stirred to their depths. The whole world ahead was afire. It was a
conflagration of incalculable immensity.

The horizon was one blaze of transcendent light. It was rendered a
hundred-fold more amazing by its contrast against the grey of the Arctic
night. At a given point, in the centre of all, a well of fire was
belching skywards. It was churning the overhanging clouds of smoke, and
lighting them with the myriad hues that belong to the tumbled glory of a
stormy summer sunset. Then, too, rumblings and dull thunders came up to
the watching men like the groanings of a world in travail.

For miles the hill-tops seemed to have been swept clear of ice and snow.
They were shorn of their winter shroud. They stood up like black,
unsightly, broken teeth, against a cavernous background of fire burning
in the maw of some Moloch colossus. They stood out bared to the bone of
the world's foundations.

Julyman shaded his eyes with hands that sought to shut out a vision his
savage superstition could no longer support. Oolak had no such emotion.
He turned from it to something which, to his mind, was of greater
interest. Steve alone remained absorbed in that radiant beyond.

The Arctic night no longer reigned supreme. It seemed to have been
devoured at a gulp. The heavenly lights had lost all power in face of
this earthly glory. A mist of smoke had switched off the gleam of
starlight, and the moon and mock-moons wore the tarnished hue of silver
that has lost its burnish. The ghosts of the aurora no longer trod their
measure of stately minuet. They had passed into the world of shadow to
which they rightly belonged.

The heart of Unaga was bared for all to see, that fierce heart which
drives the bravest Indian tongue to the hush of dread.

"We not mak' him - that! Oh, no!"

Julyman's tone was hushed and fearful. He moved close to the white man
in urgent appeal.

"Boss Steve not mak' him. No. Julyman all come dead. Julyman not mush
on. Oh, no."

"Julyman'll do just as 'Boss' Steve says."

Steve had dragged his gaze from the wonder that held it. He was coldly
regarding the haunted eyes of a man he knew to be fearless enough as men
understand fearlessness.

This was no time for sympathy or weakness. It was his purpose to
penetrate to that blazing heart, as nearly as the object of his journey
demanded. He was in no mood to listen patiently to words inspired by
benighted superstition.

"Him - Unaga!" Julyman protested, his outstretched arm shaking. "No - mak'
him? Yes?"

"We mak' this!"

It was Oolak who answered him. He spoke with a preliminary, contemptuous
grunt. He, too, was pointing. But he was pointing at that which lay near
at hand. He stood leaning his crippled body on his gee-pole, and gazing
down at that which lay immediately in front of them, groaning and
grumbling like some suffering living creature.

Steve followed the direction of the outstretched arm. He had been
absorbed in the distance. All else had been forgotten. He found himself
gazing down upon what appeared to be a cascading sea of phosphorescent
light. He recognized it instantly, and the fiery heart of Unaga was
forgotten.

A mighty glacier barred the way, and the peak on which they stood was
its highest point. It stretched out far ahead. It reached beyond such
range of vision as the Arctic night permitted. It sloped away down,
down, so gradually, yet so deeply, so widely that it warned him of the
opening of the jaws of a mighty valley, through the heart of which there
probably flowed the broad bosom of a very great river. The play of the
phosphorescent light was the reflection of Unaga's lights caught by the
myriad facets of broken ice upon its tumbled surface.

Steve nodded.

"Yes. We make this," he cried, in a fashion to forbid all discussion.
Then after a pause that gave his decision due effect: "There's a valley
away out there. And I guess it'll likely hand us the things we got to
know. We've beaten those darn hills. We've beaten the snow and ice - and
the cold. The things we're going to find down there need beating, too."

He turned from the barrier which left him undismayed. A great light was
shining in his eyes as he passed Julyman by. They rested eagerly,
questioningly, upon the unemotional face of Oolak whose keen
understanding he knew to be profound.

"Well?" he demanded in the fashion of a man aware that his question is
not in vain.

Oolak turned. He raised his face, and his sensitive nostrils distended
with a deep intake of breath. A moment later he made a swift gesture
with the gee-pole on which he had been supporting himself.

"I mak' him smell. So!"

He spoke with unusual animation.

Steve had been seeking and waiting for just such words.

"You smell - what?" he demanded.

"Oolak smell him all sweet - lak' - lak' - - "

Steve interrupted with a nod.

"I know," he cried. "Like - like - - "

But that which he would have said remained unspoken. There was no need
for words. The rest was in his eyes, in his voice. Oolak's corroboration
of the evidence of his own senses meant the final triumph he was
seeking.




CHAPTER XIV

THE VALLEY OF DREAMS


Steve's dream of triumph was brief. Born at the moment of his first
sight of the burning heart of Unaga it lived to provide a stimulant for
jaded mind and body at a time of need. Then he awoke to realities such
as he had never contemplated.

For once experience and imagination failed him. He was entering a land
of wonder in the belief that he was prepared for everything monstrous in
Nature. He believed that with the stupendous vision of Unaga he had
witnessed Nature's most sublime effort. So, out of his confidence he was
trapped as easily as a man of no experience at all.

At his bidding dogs and men moved to the assault of the glacial barrier.
The thing that they contemplated was by no means new. A hundred times
had the broken surface of glacier formed some part of their long winter
trail. It was never without danger, but it was never a sufficient
barrier to give them pause.

The surface of the glacier appeared to be that which they all knew. The
only feature for disquiet were the thunderous detonations, the deep
rumbling groans that rose up out of its far-off heart, and found a
hundred echoes amongst the surrounding hills. For the rest, it was a
broken surface, bearing every feature of a summer thaw frozen down again
by the icy breath of winter, and adorned with a patchwork of drift
snow.

Half a mile from the grey headland which was their starting point,
confidence received its first check. It was Oolak who made discovery.
The watchful, silent creature was unerring in his instincts, unerring in
his scent of a treachery he always anticipated. He had halted his dogs,
and stood in the half light, peering out this way and that at the
legions of ice spectres surrounding them. Then, quite suddenly, he
hailed the white man to his side, and indicated the ice on which they
were standing.

"It all him move," he said, with his peculiarly significant brevity.

Steve stood for a moment without reply. He was less sensitive to
indications than the Indian. In fact he failed to realize the thing the
other had discovered. He shook his head.

"Guess you're - - "

But his denial remained uncompleted. It was interrupted by a sharp cry
from Julyman some distance away with the rear sled. The two men turned
in his direction. They beheld his lean figure busy amongst his dogs,
plying his club impartially, as though in an effort to quell some canine
dispute.

But that was not all. As they gazed they saw the iron-shod tail of the
sled rise up. It seemed to be flung up with great force. For a moment it
remained poised. Then it crashed over on its side to the accompaniment
of a cracking, splitting roar, like the bombardment of massed artillery.

Steve waited for nothing. Even with the roar of sub-glacial thunders
hammering on his ear drums, he rushed to the man's assistance. Oolak
turned to his own dogs.

The din subsided almost in a moment. Steve reached the sled where
Julyman had beaten the dogs to the required condition. In a moment they
were at work setting things to rights. After that the dogs were strung
out afresh, and Julyman "mushed" them on, and brought them abreast of
the train of the waiting Oolak.

The dogs crouched down on the rough surface of the inhospitable ice.
Their great limbs were shaking under heavy coats of fur, and they
whimpered plaintively, stirred by some unspeakable apprehension. The men
were standing by, gazing back over the ghostly field of ice, with wonder
and disquiet in their eyes.

Again it was Oolak who spoke. He pointed at the headland from which they
had started. It was dim, shadowy, half lost in the grey twilight.

"Him all go back," he said, as though he were making the most ordinary
announcement.

Then he pointed at something nearer. It was just beyond where the sled
had been overturned.

"Him all break up. So."

His tone had changed. There was that in his harsh voice which was
utterly new to it.

It was the moment of Steve's awakening from the dream of triumph he had
dreamed. It was the moment of the shattering of the confidence of years.
A wide fissure, of the proportions of a chasm, had opened up just beyond
where the mishap had occurred. It was as Oolak said. The grey headland
looked to be moving backwards, vanishing in the shadows of the Arctic
night.

The approach to the heart of Unaga was yielding a reality that had been
entirely uncalculated.

The widening chasm, stretching far as the eye could see on either hand,
had completely cut off all retreat. Steve and his men were standing on a
belt of ice that was moving. It was slipping away from the parent body,
gliding ponderously almost without tangible motion, down the great
glacial slope. They were trapped on the bosom of a glacial field in the
titanic throes of its death agony; a melting, groaning mass riding
monstrously to its own destruction in those far-off, mist-laden depths
of the valley below.

It must have been unbelievable but for the definite evidence of it all.
Here, in the depths of an Arctic winter, with the whole earth shadowed
under a grey of frigid night, a glacial field, which a thousand years
could not have built up, was melting under a heat no less than the
summer of lower latitudes.

It was a moment for panic. But Steve resisted with all his might.

The position was supremely critical. There were no means of retreat in
face of that amazing fissure. There could be no standing still. They
must go on with the dread tide of grinding ice, on and on to the end.
And for the end their trust must be in the gods of fortune for such
mercies as they chose to vouchsafe.

Steve's order rang out amidst the booming of the ice. It was urgent. It
was fierce in the need of the moment. The Indians knew. He had no need
to explain. Before them lay the hideous downward slope with possible
hell at the bottom. And the demon of avalanche was hard upon their
heels.

In a frenzy the dogs leapt at their work. There was no need for club or
urging. They were only too eager to quit the quaking ice and lose their
consciousness of the thunders of the under-world in a rush of vital
movement.

Steve warned himself there remained a fighting chance. It was the man's
courage which inspired the thought. The dogs took the only chance they
knew. They at least understood the soullessness of Nature's might when
arrayed for destruction.

Steve drove for the fringe of it all, where the ice lapped against the
rising walls of the valley to which they were dropping. It was his only
course. He felt it to be his only chance. He had no real hope. It was
instinctive decision unsupported by reason. He knew that ahead lay the
great valley obscured under a fog of mist, and he could only guess at
the perils that lay hidden there.

No, he did not know. He had no desire to question. Instinct alone could
serve him now, and instinct urged him to flee from the middle course of
the glacier as he would flee from the breath of pestilence.

From the first moments of blind rush for safety all sense of time became
utterly lost. So, too, with fatigue. So, too, with the matter of
distance. Labour became well-nigh superhuman amidst the moving ice
hummocks. And the speed, and the jolting, and pitching of the sleds
transformed the chaotic world about them into still more utter
confusion.

The sweaty mist came up from below seeking to enshroud them in long,
gauzy tentacles.

How long the struggle endured it would have been impossible to tell.
There was thought only for the fissures that opened with a roar at their
feet, for the ice driving down upon their heels, for the melting streams
coursing amongst the hummocks. And - the threat of the enveloping mists.

The dogs ran with the recklessness of a stampede, and the precious
burden of the sleds was a treasure upon the salving of which mind and
body were concentrated to the exclusion of all else. Even the security
of life and limb was a matter of far less concern.

The mist closed down. The terror of sightlessness was added to the rest.

Utter helplessness supervened. It was the final disaster. The closing
down of the fog meant the last of intelligent effort. The whole outfit
was left groping, blind, and conscious only of the terror of the
downward rush they could no longer check. Ghostly ice hummocks rose up
at them out of the darkness and buffeted like frigid legions advancing
to the attack. Fissures yawned agape. The booming ice roared on,
deafening, maddening. It was the struggle of brave men doomed. It was
sublimely pitiful. It was a moment for the tears of angels.

* * * * *

Out of the west the breeze had freshened. It came in little hasty gusts,
like the breath of invisible giants. The inky night seemed to lighten,
and, here and there, the flash of a star shone out, while a faint,
silvery sheen struggled for mastery in the stirring fog which fought so
desperately to deny the eyes of the Arctic night.

A distant booming came up out of the fog. It was the softened sound of
far-off thunder. There was another sound, too. It was less awesome, but
no less significant. It was the steady droning of cascading waters
falling in a mighty tide. It suggested the plunge into the darkness of
an abyss, or even the lesser immensity of surging rapids in the course
of a mountain river.

Steadily the western breeze increased. It lost its patchiness and
settled to a pleasant, warming drift. Slowly the inky darkness rolled
away. The peeping stars remained, or only lost their radiance in the
gossamer lightness of passing mist. The silver of the aurora shone down
triumphantly upon the _snowless earth_, and the glory of the moon lit
the remoteness with its frigid smile.

On the dark monotony of an earth robbed of its winter clothing a cluster
of moving figures stood out in faint relief, and presently a light
flashed out like the infinitesimal blaze of a firefly in the night. It
passed, and then it came again. Again it passed. And again it came.
This time it lived and grew. A fire had lit, and the group of figures
were crouching over it as though to protect it against the dark
immensity of the world surrounding them.

* * * * *

The distant thunders had died away. No longer was there the ominous
droning of falling waters. The utter stillness of the Arctic night was
supreme.

The steady play of the western breeze came down the highway of the
valley whose far-off slopes rose to unmeasured heights. To the westward
the dull reflections of earthly fire lit the sky with deep, sanguinary
hues, and the starlight seemed to have lost its power behind a haze of
cloud. For the rest the night was lit by the aurora.

Steve and his Indians were standing on the moist banks of a broad,
flowing river, the surface of whose waters served as a mirror to the
splendid lights above. Away behind them, where the ground rose up
towards the higher slopes, was the glimmer of the fire which marked
their camp. They were all three gazing out at the western reflection of
earthly fires.

For the moment there was silence. For the moment each was absorbed in
his own thought. None gave a sign of the nature of that thought, but it
was an easy thing to guess since their faces were turned towards the
reflection of Unaga's fires.

It was Steve who first withdrew his gaze. He seemed reluctant. He turned
and surveyed the snowless territory about them.

It was an extraordinary display of Nature's mood. They were treading
underfoot a growth of lank grass, and the slopes of the valley were clad
with bluffs of bare-poled woodlands. The air was warm. It was warmer
than the breath of a temperate winter, and the low-growing scrub marking
the course of the river was breaking into new growth of a whitish hue.

The amazement of the discovery of these things had long since passed.
Steve and his Indians had returned again to the reality of things.

Steve drew a deep breath.

"We can't make another yard with the dogs," he said. "The snow's gone.
It's gone for keeps."

It was a simple statement of the facts. And Oolak and Julyman were
equally alive to them.

"Then him all mak' back?"

There was eagerness in Julyman's question. The terror of that through
which they had passed was still in his mind. So, too, with the fiery
heart of Unaga that lay ahead. Oolak had nothing to add, so he kept to
his customary silence.

Steve shook his head.

"There's no quitting," he said simply. "Guess we've come nigh three
hundred miles. We've got through a territory to break the heart of a
stone image. God's mercy helped us back on that darn glacier when we
were beat like dead men. It's a sort of dream I just can't remember, and
don't want to anyway. Say, do you guess a miracle was sent down to us,
which kept us clear of going over that darn precipice with the ice? Was
it a miracle that carried us where there wasn't worse than a flow
banking on the slope of this valley? Was the mercy of it all sent to
have us quit now, with the end of things coming right to our hand? I
just guess not. It's there ahead. Somewhere down this valley. We can
smell it so plain we'll need the poison masks in a day's journey.
There's going to be no quitting. The sleds'll have to stop right here.
And the dogs. You boys, too. Guess I'm going on afoot. When I've located
the stuff," he went on, his eyes lighting, and his words coming
sharply, "when I locate the stuff in full growth, the harvest we're
yearning to cut, why, then I'll get right back here, and we'll go afoot,
all three of us, and we'll cut it, and bale it, and portage it right
here to the sleds. And when we've got all we can haul we'll cast for
that trail the Sleepers make in summer, and just cut out all that hell
of ice we came over. That's how I see it. And we're going to put it
right through if it breaks us, and beats us to death."

Steve spoke with his eyes fixed upon the far-off lights of Unaga. His
words were the words of a man obsessed. But there was nothing in his
manner to suggest a mind weakening under its burden. It was simple, sane
determination that looked out of his eyes.

Julyman answered him, and a world of relief was in his tone.

"Him dog. Him sled. All him Indian man him stop by camp. Oh, yes."

Steve nodded. Then he pointed out down the river.

"It's a crazy territory anyway," he said. "Those darn fires have turned
it summer when winter's freezing up the marrow of things. When summer
gets around I guess it's likely the next thing to hell. But the thing
we're yearning for is lying there, somewhere ahead. And I'm after it if
I never make the fort again, and the folks we've left behind. Come on.
We'll get right back to camp. I need to fix things for the big chance
I'm going to take, and you boys'll wait around till I get back. If
things go wrong, and this thing beats me, why, just hang on till you
figger the food trucks liable to leave you short, then hit a trail over
the southern hills and work around back to the fort with word to Marcel
and An-ina. Guess there won't be any message."




CHAPTER XV

THE HEART OF UNAGA


Alone in the great silence. Without even the cry of desolation wrung
from starving wolf, or the howl of depression which ever seems to haunt
the heart of the coyote world. Alone with groping thought, with burning
hope, and the undermining of doubt which the strongest cannot always
shake off. Steve had taken the plunge which robbed him of human
companionship.

It was the prompting of that spirit which borders so closely the line
where earthly sanity passes. It was the spirit which finds its
inspiration in the Great Purpose which drives on for the achievement of
the human task on earth. The dreamer of dreams is born to translate his
visions into reality, or to lie broken before the task. Steve was no
visionary. He was something more, something greater. His was the stern
heart of purpose selected for the translation of the dream of the
dreamer who had fallen by the way.

Steve permitted himself no reflection upon the spiritual appeal of his
purpose. These things might concern those of a wider, deeper
intelligence. Or, perhaps, those whose weakness unfitted them for the
battle of the strong. It was for him to claim issue in the battle he
sought. And come life and victory, or death and defeat, he was prepared
to accept the verdict without complaint.

The twinkling eyes of the heavens searched down upon the infinitesimal



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 24 of 30)