A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

THE RECORD IN THE CABIN

AS Geoff entered the little cabin the interior lay dimly dark and still before him. Most of the light entered from behind through the door which he had flung open. There was one window, small and high, with glass dimmed by a hundred storms.

The main room of the cabin was about twenty feet long and little more than half as wide, with shelves for benches or bunks on both walls. There were a petroleum stove and lamps, cooking utensils and other equipment in evidence. The smaller room beyond had been a storeroom and was filled with boxes and crates. Everything was neatly arranged.

As Geoff stepped in and looked down at the floor he started back. A heap of fur clothing lay in one corner, like a man lying there face downward. Geoff stooped and pulled at the heap and saw no man was there. Still, when he straightened, he looked in awe about the silent house for the form of the man who had buried his comrade on the hill.

The coming up of the others and Koehler's question as to how he had found the door brought Geoff's senses back. It was plain that, since he found the door bolted without, the other man could not have died within. He had gone out to die—or to live? At least he had left all in order behind him.

"They—or one of them, anyway—lived here for a long time," Brunton said simply, as he examined the room where the stores had been. "We took away all we could load on our sledges, but we left more than enough supplies for two men for a year."

He showed the empty casks and cases.

Koehler nodded silently. He was searching for the container which would hold the account of what had happened there. Brunton turned over the clothing and blankets left behind; they might have belonged to either of the missing men. There was nothing to tell who had lived last.

"Bandages gone, and antiseptics!" The doctor was inventorying the surgical supplies remaining. "Some one was hurt."

Latham, assisting Koehler, took a tin can from a shelf. It was empty, judging from its lightness, but was tightly closed. He pulled off the cover.

"Here's their message!" He pulled paper from the tin. "Thomas was the one that lived last! This must be his writing. It's not Hedon's."

The doctor took the paper from him. "That's neither Thomas' nor Hedon's," he said shortly. "That's mine."

"Yours?"

"Our message we left here. I wrote it and sealed it in that can. Thomas and Hedon—or whoever got here—undoubtedly opened the can and read that, then put it back. They'd write their own report independently, not knowing what a storm might do to this hut. They've added nothing to this."

Latham went to the door.

"Where're you going?" asked Geoff.

"Up the hill to the cross to see if it tells anything."

Geoff had an impulse to go with him, then turned back. Latham went out. Koehler continued his search, but it was Brunton who, in the semidarkness, found the second tin, seemingly empty but sealed. He cut a hole in the tin with his knife and pulled out a paper. As he brought it into better light under the tiny window Koehler and Geoff crowded beside him. Brunton spread the paper and displayed writing.

"Eric Hedon's!" Geoff cried as he saw it, and the surge of hot blood to his face let him know fully for the first time how hard he had hoped it. He looked to Koehler and to Brunton. They had been comrades to both the men who had come here after them; one had been their leader. This writing, being Hedon's, told them that their commander was the one lying under the cross on the hill. Certainly as much for Thomas' sake as for Hedon's had these men been glad to return to the North.

"Ian, old comrade! Ian!" Koehler repeated hoarsely to himself, as the realisation of Thomas' death there came to him. Brunton bent his head a moment. Yet the next instant, as the men looked at each other again, Geoff saw that there was in a way relief in their manner. If at the start of the expedition they could not have chosen which of their two mates they would wish to find if they could find but one, now it seemed better that it might be Hedon.

They turned about. Latham again had come into the hut; he moved less quickly.

"The inscription on the cross says that it is Thomas who is buried back there," he reported to the others as they looked at him. "It says he died a little over a year ago." He gave the date. "That's all."

"We've just found Eric Hedon's report," said Koehler. Latham gazed at it.

"Read it," he directed.

The doctor held the sheets straight and read slowly and carefully.

"'Captain Ian Thomas, commander, and Eric Hedon, engineer, of Aurora expedition, returned to this place on May second'"—there followed the date of the second year previous—"'finding from records left here and replaced in same order as found that Jeremiah McNeal, sailing master, Dr. Otto Koehler, Jules Brunton, mate, and Hugo Linn, seaman and cook, and Eskimos Natsakat, Uluso and Tanniack arrived here safely upon the tenth of March of same year. They reported loss by drowning of Richard Mullin, mate, and Eskimos Panniuk and Akrut, by breaking through young ice with sledge and dog team attempting to cross lead on retreat from wreck of Aurora, which was crushed in polar pack on the first of February about two hundred miles N. W. This confirms our observation of same accident to Mullin and Eskimos, who undoubtedly were drowned.

"'Dr. Koehler, in his report written for the other party, expresses belief that Thomas and the writer also must have been lost at the same time crossing lead—'"

"We know all that," Latham urged impatiently.

"Hedon is properly reporting briefly what he himself observed," Koehler explained. "He could not assume that we got back home; and no one with any experience in the Arctic leaves any message assuming that any other, even in the same cairn with it, will be found in good condition."

He continued reading:

"This was supposed with good reason, especially as they waited for us two months and did not move on till they were convinced we must have been lost with Mullin. However, though unable to cross lead which they got over safely, we were able to regain the pack ice and, remaining upon it, were driven north by drift. We fortunately shot one polar bear and two seals, and with supplies saved from Aurora we managed to live on the ice, building Eskimo snow shelter. After five weeks wind and direction of drift changed, northerly winds blowing pack south and closing leads ahead of us. By cautious travel and good luck we crossed ice till within two days of this depot. Not being fortunate in finding either bear or seals and without fresh meat and other food failing, Thomas suffered seriously from exposure and exhaustion, and upon April twenty-ninth, when crossing very rough ice, he fell heavily and fractured his right hip. As our dogs were in condition to give some help, I was able in four days to sledge him to this cabin where reset hip as well as could.

"'Here we found good amount of supplies remaining, except fresh meat, which was able to procure by hunting seals. Owing to Thomas' weak condition and poor setting of fracture, his hip was slow to knit and it was midsummer before he could be moved. Sea then was open, and, having no boat, we waited for the winter freeze-up to cross the sea ice to the south. Freeze did not come till October, when Thomas, attempting to travel with leg stiff, again fell on rough ground and was so badly injured that he had to brought back to this depot. From effects of this second injury blood poisoning set in. He was very ill all winter; seemed cured from blood poisoning, but after some secondary infection finally died on June first. Buried him, reading service and erecting cross on hill behind this cabin. To-day, June fifth, am starting south from here with team of four dogs in fair condition and sledge. My plan is to follow coast south to open water, cross channels on ice to lands directly south.

"'Open ice conditions coming early this year, believe this plan better than route announced by McNeal, Koehler, Brunton and Linn to the east, according to their record left here. Am taking with me records of expedition which Thomas and I had been carrying, also diaries and copy of messages left here and all personal papers and letters written by Ian Thomas. On prominent headlands upon shores reached will build cairns of Aurora type containing brief reports as agreed.

"'Eric Hedon.'"


The doctor lowered the paper and looked about the quiet, dim little room. Left in order and locked without, it told no more of the long suffering there of the leader of the Aurora party now lying under the cross on the hill; it told no more of the year's vigil of Eric Hedon beside his dying comrade.

"Well," said Koehler at last, "that accounts for more than a year of the time Hedon's been missing. We knew he didn't go south from here till a year ago last June."

"Or start south," said Latham.

"This isn't quite clear." Koehler referred again to Hedon's record. "He speaks of open ice conditions early last year."

"And from what we've heard on the way up we know that's true," said Latham.

"So he may have had to change his plans after leaving here. If he built that cairn near the bones of the bear on the south shore and left a message there, he did it after leaving here, or otherwise he surely would have mentioned it in this report."

"You mean something must have gone wrong with him after he left here?"

"Not necessarily. He may have built those cairns just to record some alteration in his plan on account of ice conditions, or for any other reason."

Latham took the report from the doctor.

"We've got to look at this sensibly," he said. "This tells us that Thomas and Hedon got back to land here and Thomas died. It also tells us that Hedon left here alone to try to travel south over the ice before it broke up. He seemed to expect, even before he started, to have difficulty in travelling south."

"What are you getting at?" Brunton asked directly.

"This: His record here of course is proof that he got here safely and started away in June; but it takes away the only evidence that we had that he was living at any time later."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Look at the date on which Thomas died. Thomas was dead and buried here more than two months before the date of the message taken from the bird reporting both men safe here and well."

Koehler looked at him keenly. "I see your point. There may be more to discover on the island. We'll look."