A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

MARGARET EXPLAINS FOR PRICE

FOR a moment after the last explosion, as for the instant following the bursting of the first tank, the rush of the flaming gas seemed to smother the fire in the wooden hulk. But at once the red and yellow flames leaped up again, finishing their work of destruction of the oil-soaked wreckage of the ship and the supplies left in the frame of the hull. Figures, fiercely fighting to save some of these, came close and hacked holes in the ice through which to dip the buckets they had kept and get water to throw upon the roaring blaze.

These men were plainly recognisable in the glare from the flame. Latham was among them, Geoff saw; but some one was missing; there were only six.

He recognised Koehler next to him, and was about to call to ask him who the missing man might be when the doctor dropped his bucket and demanded of him instead:

"Where's McNeal?"

The skipper was the one not there.

"Where's McNeal?" Koehler called to others.

They ceased their useless work and looked about. McNeal certainly was missing.

A little distance from the ship in every direction big splinters of spars, broken boxes, other material scattered from the Viborg by the bursting of the tanks, blazed and smouldered on the ice. Beside one of these glowing piles lay a dark figure stretched out which, as Koehler recognised with a cry, was the figure of a man. He ran to it and stooped, pulling it away from the burning wood beside which it lay, and with his hands the doctor crushed out the sparks that still gleamed in the charred clothing.

"It's McNeal!" he announced to the others. He bent and made a quick examination. "He's not dead!" The doctor voiced his relief. "He must have been struck by that." He motioned to the burning wood scattered by the explosion of the tanks. "It knocked him out and set his clothes on fire; but there's still life in him."

Indeed, while the doctor worked with him the skipper of the burning ship stirred. As sensation first returned to him he writhed with the pain of his burns and cried out; then recovering himself, he opened his eyes and saw his ship blazing, and about him the faces of his crew.

"Go back!" he screamed to them hoarsely. "Get back and save what you can!" His voice cracked as he tried by his tone to enforce his command. "Every man get back there. I'm all right."

The doctor could do all that might be done for McNeal at that moment; so the other five went back to the ship, leaving only the girl with the injured man and physician. Yet the return of the rest nearer to the ship proved useless. The whole hulk of the Viborg was in flames, devouring food, supplies and gear, and cartridges popped in the blaze. All about the ship on the ice were boxes or fragments of boxes and other material scattered by the explosions. Most of these piles were burning, so the five men went about smothering these fires before they returned to the ship to watch, helplessly, the burning down of the fire till they could come close enough to poke and rake under the charred timbers of the smoking ruins for such supplies as might not have been destroyed entirely.

As the light of the fire diminished, the slow, dull dawn of the Arctic day was breaking. Koehler, having done what he could for McNeal, left the skipper in Margaret's care and joined the others about the ruin of the ship. Solemnly and silently the six searched the charcoal and ashes. As the daylight strengthened, Geoff for the first time considered his own state and saw the condition of the others. He was blackened from head to foot with smoke and smudge; his hands had been burned, the pain shooting up his arms at every move, and his fingers twinged and gave him agony. But his burns were nothing compared to those of Brunton and Michaelis. These men, however, worked beside him without mentioning their hurts even to each other. Michaelis merely turned his face away when some twinge of pain threatened to make him grimace; and Brunton, defying his hurts to disable him, hummed loudly to himself between his gasps.

Amid a smouldering heap Koehler now found a box of surgical supplies and medicine, most of which had been saved by the heavy steel case. He brought it to where McNeal lay on the ice wrapped up in a blanket and watched by Margaret.

Doctor Koehler treated McNeal's burns, then turned to attend to the others.

As Koehler required each man to be examined Geoff found himself estimating each by his hurts. Not only Brunton and Michaelis but Linn too had suffered seriously. Koehler himself was burned about his hands and face. Beside these Geoff felt shame as he came up. Latham did not come for examination at all. As Margaret rose from beside McNeal, Latham met her and they walked a little away. Geoff followed them and came close as they halted. He heard his sister speaking.

"You were overcome by smoke when they missed you," she was saying to Price. "I found you unconscious on the deck and pulled you up and got you down on the ice. Do you see? I got you down on the ice and you came to yourself there. That was how it was, Price!"

Geoff came no nearer. At first but one idea possessed him. Latham had deserted when the fire began getting dangerous; and Margaret was arranging for him an explanation of his absence when McNeal, believing he was below, had twice gone down to the hold to get him. Then as Geoff heard Margaret repeat her explanation it seemed rather that she must be telling Price what really had happened, and that Price had been overcome, as she said, and confused as to what had occurred till she now told him. Yet as Geoff recalled Margaret's words in the last moment before they abandoned the ship the first idea again seized him.

Geoff retreated from them. Latham and Margaret turned back to the others and, rejoining them, repeated their tale, which no one questioned. Indeed, it was not strange if Price had been overcome by smoke. Rather it was remarkable that the others, having taken the risks they had, still had escaped. For another period Geoff's doubts were removed; and yet again they returned. He could not mention them to any one else either to dismiss or to confirm them. If Latham really had been overcome and helpless, Geoff could not be forgiven for suggesting another idea; and if Price and Margaret were now lying it was better to let the lie stand.

What did Margaret's action mean if she was lying for Price and, knowing he had run away, was defending him before the others? It must mean that Margaret, having given Latham her word to be his wife, already was acting in spirit as his wife. What he did, she did; his honour had become her honour; and she, as his wife, not only would not bear witness against him but would deceive and lie to save him.

As Geoff realised this he knew that his sister would not tell him the truth about Latham even if he asked her. Margaret, when she gave her word to Price, had drawn away from the rest, even from her brother. She made herself one with Latham. Nothing more convincing could have told Geoff that when she pleaded for continuance of the search for Eric Hedon it had been without hope of finding him for herself.

Geoff, his burns dressed, set himself with the others to gathering together and counting up such salvage from the fire as might prevent their calamity from becoming complete. Besides, there was immediate need of setting up a shelter for McNeal.

The very small part of their stores that had been sent ashore the day before of course had been saved. If these had been selected with any anticipation of immdiate disaster they would have been better chosen; as it was, the men had taken off the first boxes that offered. Several of these contained dog feed; also there were a few cakes of pemmican and a few cans of fuel. These cans were the greatest treasures, as all the oil left on the ship had been burned. One portable aluminum stove was recovered in repairable condition. Of other essential supplies they regained a case of cartridges and a few rifles not seriously damaged. All the clothing had been destroyed except the little Margaret had saved from the forward cabins. The lack of skin clothing was most serious, and scarcely less so was the loss of the skins and materials for proper tents. Every one wore the garments he had worn the day before; but these were not Arctic winter clothing. Moreover, McNeal's clothes had been burned on him; and Brunton's and Michaelis' outer garments were charred through. Inventory showed that after patching and repairing all that had been saved, there was scarcely a single suitable winter outfit for each person. There were blankets that might be used as substitutes for the lost tents.

The seven dogs that survived out of the twenty-six taken from Greenland had been put ashore the day before and therefore were safe, and so were three sledges. After all food and other supplies had been gathered and inspected it was estimated that there might be proper provision and fuel for the whole party for something like two months.

"Of course that means," Koehler said quietly, as they finished bringing up the salvage to the station on the shore, "that we can't go through the winter on what we have. We've either got to live off this land or move to land we can live on."

"Live off the land?" Geoff repeated, looking up over the snow-streaked black rocks. If the caribou hunt had seemed to him fruitless yesterday when it was suggested to provide a delicacy for the party, now such a hunt as a necessity was dismaying. "I don't believe even an Eskimo can live here."

"Then we have to find where they are living and live like them—get our clothing as well as food from animals."

By unspoken consent Koehler had assumed command of the party after McNeal was disabled. The skipper was conscious continuously now and quite clear in his head but entirely unable to move himself. When he was brought into the hut built from the wreckage of the ship the operation was agony. Koehler would not commit himself as to how long it must be before McNeal might be about. Brunton kept on his feet and did his best to work, but it was plain that he would be of little use for a long time; and Michaelis used only one arm. But as these injured men went about their work, neither on that day of disaster nor later did Geoff hear any man inquire or complain as to who might have been to blame, by neglect or otherwise, for the fire. And Geoff understood the reason for that. The one who was to blame, must remain with the small party now facing privation, perhaps death, on account of the fault which caused the fire. It must be more than enough for that man himself to realise it. To bear besides even the silent censure of the others would be unendurable.