A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 17



BETWEEN the two tents they divided evenly into four and four at night. The arrangement which Margaret herself had suggested and which was accepted was that she and Geoff and McNeal and Koehler should share one shelter, while Latham, Brunton, Michaelis and Linn took the other near by."

"I can help best by taking care of McNeal," Margaret said. "I'm in the same position as a trained nurse with my patient and his doctor and my brother in a hospital. There's nothing out of the way in a girl at home doing what I'm doing among men; and much less is that the case here."

So she did her part and permitted no special consideration. Protest by Latham amounted to nothing; and in the days that followed Geoff witnessed more and more evidences of his sister's sense and strength. Physically—that is, in her inability to right a loaded sledge that had overturned—she was lacking in power in comparison to the others; but her endurance of cold and fatigue was at least as great as that of the strongest. In first assigning measured rations Koehler had made Margaret's allowance the same as that of the men; but immediately she had cut down her portion. Now with hard, continuous trudging and sometimes tugging the sledge over rough ice, she thrived on half the amount given to each of the men.

Slowly but steadily the supplies on the sledges diminished as fuel was burned and food eaten. Even the dim grey twilight, which was the day, was failing; and the weather was colder and colder. Koehler, superintending the packing of the sledges, got all the remaining provisions and gear upon the first two sledges and on the third with McNeal. There no longer was need for even one sledge to make a relay.

"This means faster going now!" said Koehler, trying to cheer them as he and Geoff and Latham got into the harness to pull.

Latham shook his head. "We'll be lucky to keep up the pace with one trip that we did with two."

It was merely admitting that they were all losing strength. The dogs, though still being fed their prepared ration, tired even more quickly than the men. Upon that march the three men with the last sledge soon caught up with Linn and his three dogs, then with Michaelis and his four, though at first these had had no trouble in keeping ahead. The day scarcely lightened to twilight; only the chance that the sky was clear and the stars shining bright gave them light to pick their way for the first hours of the march. At two o'clock, by the watch Koehler carried, the sky clouded over and light was gone. A blizzard with black, blinding snow suddenly blew down from the north. The three men in harness, who had been making the trail, were half a mile ahead of the other sledges when the total darkness came. At once they stopped and made camp. McNeal had been on the sledge with Margaret marching beside him. While they threw up a snow shelter they shouted to guide the three men with the other two sledges; but both passed and circled before, after three hours, the whole party was together again.

The storm kept up, and under such conditions further travel was impossible. Even at noon light failed to penetrate the clouds; the world without the two tiny tents, now made into snow igloos, was all black wilderness. Only a crack of yellow light sometimes shone on the snow, which covered everything, to prove it was really white and not all inky like the sky. The dogs huddled close between the tents, buried in the snow.

Sixteen days this great black blizzard blew, days separated from each other only by recording the moving of the hands of a watch. The eight, crowded in their cramped shelters, cooked their rations over oil stoves and ate their food three times a day at intervals indicated by the watches. When the third of these times was passed and the watch told that it would be twelve hours before cooking a meal again, they stretched out and tried to go to sleep.

But sleep during such nights was slower and slower to come. The insomnia which attacks those confined and inactive in the long Arctic night seized Geoff at once; it mastered also McNeal and Koehler stretched out beside him. From the other shelter Geoff heard the sound of talk and sometimes the shrillness of argument during the hours which the watches said were night; and he knew the men there were sleepless too.

They tried to fight this sleeplessness; and in those periods of the darkness still called daytime they tied sledge ropes together and each in turn went out and, with one end of the rope fast in the tent, tramped away from the shelter and up and down, holding the other end of the rope, till the cold exhausted him. But still this brought no sleep.

Margaret, clothed in her Eskimo garments, took this exercise like the men; but she alone did not need it. Through the endless periods known as nights she lay just beyond Geoff, quietly and evenly breathing. He put out an arm sometimes and touched her gently; then he lay a long time wondering about her.

In a way she was the cause of all the hardship suffered, the dangers passed through, the death possibly but little ahead. She was to blame for bringing the party up there, but no one of the men who had been on the Aurora—not even McNeal at any moment of his suffering—showed sign of regret that she had made them come. On the contrary, when Geoff heard them mention the matter at all it was with shame that it had required her faith and determination to return them to the North for the rescue of their missing comrades. She had shown to them that Thomas and Hedon had not died, as they had supposed, but both had lived to reach Mason Land; and it was at least possible that Eric Hedon still was alive. They still might find him; but if they did, with their food all but gone and with a more alarming scarcity of fuel, they could not help him much. If he had any supplies at all he more likely would have to aid them. But it was more probable that Hedon, if he still were living, had descended the coast of this Victoria Land months before and reached the whalers or trading ships which sometimes came from Alaska into Coronation Gulf.

The Viborg party could not hope to follow that far without more food and fuel. Their hope during each march, while they dragged themselves south along the coast, had been to find the Eskimos supposed to be somewhere on those shores. But after each march the Eskimos and the land and strip of sea where food might be found still were somewhat ahead—always ahead, vaguely retreating before them as they exhausted themselves in their effort to advance, mocking them and drawing them on.

To Geoff, born and brought up under conditions in which he never could have considered actual want or lack of food as possible, it sometimes was incredible that he and his sister and the others would starve or freeze, actually die, from having no food and no fuel to keep them warm, after the last small supplies on their sledges were gone. The cutting down of their rations and their other discomforts still often seemed to Geoff as a voluntary matter, which they could end or alter at their will. Then at other moments the terrible reality of starvation stared like a spectre before him; he felt himself weak, cold, dying, and the realness of their necessity, their desperate extremity, overwhelmed him. He could understand how these same experiences of feeling must be seizing Latham. The man's ten years' advantage of Geoff gave Price no advantage in ability to bear their present privations. Rather Latham's longer possession of every luxury and of power to provide for himself left him more unable to understand that now he was helpless, that unless some fortune that he could not control should favour the party, he would starve, actually die from lack of food.

The realisation of this, when it came to Latham, sometimes frightened him as it did Geoff, but at other moments it angered him and made him burst out with ugly exasperation and rage that he could be threatened so. Geoff overheard expressions of this sometimes in the words which came to him in the night from the other shelter through the snow tunnel that connected the two.

"What did you expect?" Linn's voice was saying sarcastically in return to something from Latham. "A hot and cold bath and coffee and cantaloupe in the morning, sir?" Linn now was mimicking the subservience of a club waiter.

"Shut up!" commanded Latham hotly.

"Very good, sir. Thank you, sir. Very good, sir!" Linn jeered on.

Latham's reply was inarticulate; evidently it was some action, for Michaelis sharply cried: "Look out!"

At the same moment Geoff felt McNeal's bandaged hand grasp him.

"Go in and stop that!" the skipper whispered hoarsely; and Koehler already was moving. But before either got to the tunnel, Brunton, in the other shelter, had interfered and quiet, if not peace, was restored. Geoff lay back in silence, thinking.

One fact was absolutely clear to him: If the party got through all right, some one was going to pay Latham for what he had endured. Geoff tingled hot in the rage of his helplessness as he realised what must be the result if, after all they had borne and might still endure, they got home safe. Latham would hold Margaret to her pledge; of that he was certain. Whether or not they found Eric Hedon, or upon return learned that he had reached civilisation safely, Latham would require his recompense from Margaret; and Geoff knew that his sister would force herself to pay.

Yet she was able to sleep. What peace could there be in her mind? Did she believe now that she was to die and was she content to give her life in the search for the man she loved?

Twenty-eight hours later, or about nine in the morning of the second day after this, the blizzard at last blew out; by noon the stars were shining and by three in the afternoon the moon appeared and spread its clear green light over the snow-clad world. All the party—McNeal with help now could limp a few steps—stood out before the snow shelters and looked over the land and sea.

The wind had gone down; it was still and very cold, and in all the world about there was no sign or stir of life. Everywhere was the glistening, green, shimmering snow. But the land and that shore of the sea seemed as favourable as any they had found or now were likely to reach for supplying them with food. There was no sense in spending their last strength in pushing on to another spot as bare as this. So instead of harnessing the dogs to the sleds Koehler took the beasts out over the ice. Four of the seven had been trained by Eskimos to smell seal holes in the ice under the snow. The doctor had tried the dogs at other camps without success; but now they had to find something.

In the same spirit Geoff took one of the best rifles; Latham took the other; Brunton bore the third gun, which had been repaired. They had hunted for weeks with the knowledge that soon their lives must be dependent upon their getting animals for food, but their want no longer was in the future; it was upon them. Geoff, as he hunted, felt the gnawing of hunger and the easy exhaustion from reduced rations. He searched for sight of something moving somewhere with sudden, unforewarned brute readiness to shoot and spring after the shot, to rush upon his quarry and tear it to pieces.

It was the second moonlit "day" of this hunt on the edge of the ice, while Koehler still led his dogs over the frozen sea in the vain hope of smelling a seal, that Geoff at last saw something away to the south. He stood and stared, sick and trembling. The "buck ague" he had felt when, in Maine, he had sighted his first big game was nothing to the weakness that assailed him now as he made certain of seeing a large animal and watched it come on.

Both Latham and Michaelis happened to be within hearing, but he was afraid yet to cry a warning lest, after all their weeks of nothing, his eyes were tricking him and the object far away over the ice was only an hallucination. Then he called and pointed it out.

The others saw it too. It was very far away and indistinct in the moonlight; but they saw it climb up over a ridge of ice and slip down. It disappeared behind a hummock; and as Geoff stared he was beginning to believe that after all his eyes had tricked him when it clambered up and showed itself again. Instantly the three men hid. The animal was up the wind, so no scent from them could betray them. It was coming toward them and they crept cautiously to meet it.

"A bear!" Latham now confirmed Geoff's recognition.

"Bear!" repeated Brunton, almost in awe.

The animal continued to come toward them, showing itself now huge, almost monstrous, as it stood erect on the top of an ice ridge and, seeming doubtful of its direction, looked round. Then it slipped down, disappeared and came in sight again, always closer.

The three hunters, creeping toward it with rifles ready, exchanged their guesses of the pounds of meat it meant. They separated a little to trap the beast and half surrounded it as it came on. It now was within long-range rifle fire; but the moon was low, and with the long dark shadows the light was tricky and they might overguess or underreckon the range by hundreds of yards. The bear still was coming toward them, so they could afford to wait.

Then the baying of a dog behind them brought them about; another dog gave tongue, and from the rear, where Koehler had been leading the brutes over the ice, five of the beasts burst by. They had scented the bear and were rushing to meet it. Brunton shouted to them loudly, but they went on.

The bear had not yet noticed the dogs. In another moment they must be upon him and either send him scurrying away or, if he stood at bay, he must destroy the hunger-weakened dogs as they came up. They were gaunt, slow, in no shape to dodge quickly or to give fight. The big animal came up over another ice ridge. The three hunters called to each other, crouched, aimed and fired almost together, then fired again and again. The big animal seemed not struck by the first fire; only the roar of the rifles or now the noise of the dogs seemed to reach him.

He stopped and stood erect, a straight, distinct target, and the rifles rang out again. The tall beast toppled and fell. He tumbled forward and slipped down the side of the ridge. As he slid slowly the rifles emptied to make sure of the game; then the dogs rushed close and were upon the animal.

"Got him!" Latham cried.

"Got him!" Geoff echoed, exultant.

Brunton wasted no words. "The dogs! They'll tear it up. Quick!"

The three ran, stumbling and slipping over the hummocks. The dogs indeed had reached their quarry. The men could hear them snarling and fighting together behind the hummock back of which the bear had slid. The hunters ran closer and saw the dogs. They were not tearing the animal that had been shot. Two of the beasts seemed giving battle to the other three to keep them away from the still heap on the ice; the two large dogs fought off the three and themselves made no effort to tear the bear, but circled, uglily snarling and watching the other brutes.

Brunton bawled to these to call them off; the dogs came a little away and then ran back. The bear now seemed not so huge as when it stood on the ridge. It was much smaller, and as the hunters came closer and the moonlight showed it against the snow it was not so white.

Indeed, it was dark and with one paw—which was not a paw at all but a skin-clothed arm—stretching away from the body.

"Man!" Geoff cried hoarsely, and stumbled forward. "A man! We shot a man!"

"Man!" Brunton roared as he ran up.

The dogs now were about him and obeyed.

"Man?" Latham cried.

They all now saw a rifle, which had been slung over the man's shoulders, lying on the ice beside him; the man was on his face as he had fallen. He was garbed in skin clothing of the ordinary type of the northern Eskimo; the hood covered the back of his head; his hands were in mittens. A dark blotch of blood, flowing from somewhere under his hood, made a pool on the ice; and he lay very still. Now that the men had come up the dogs stood quieted, watching. The two largest smelled beside the body and sniffed, and looked up and put their noses down and sniffed again. Geoff recognised these two dogs and remembered that they were the two of their teams which had been on the Aurora.

"A man with a gun!" Geoff cried, and with the help of the other two he turned the body over.

The limbs fell dully and the body was all weight, inert. The blood from the wound in the head had already frozen in a dark streak down one side of the face. The blood hid the face above the brow and about the chin; but it was a face that one who had seen it would not forget. The eyes were closed—the good, blue eyes always direct, eager, interested; the lips were tight shut and the cheeks were thin, but—there was no doubt of his identity.

"Eric Hedon!" Geoff gasped. "Eric Hedon! We shot Eric!"

He heard the hard breathing and the groan of Brunton beside him. Geoff stared into Brunton's face and then at Latham. The man stared back at him; and for the moment there was sense in neither face. Then Latham looked down again.

"It is Eric Hedon," he said.

How he had come there, travelling alone over the ice to the north, they could not ask; he lay heavily, a weight in their arms.

A figure approached from the direction of the camp; it was Koehler following the dogs. He had heard the shots and probably seen the quarry fall. The three men looked at each other; then, leaving Hedon to the others, Geoff rose and went to meet the doctor. Koehler began running eagerly, thinking that game had been taken.

"Good work, Geoff!" he hailed. "You got him?"

"Oh, doctor!" Geoff called. "Come quick!"

Koehler caught the tone; it was the cry of need for his help as a physician.

"What's happened? Who's hurt?" he asked.



"Doctor—Eric Hedon!"


"That's Eric! We shot him. He's dead!"

The surgeon came up and saw. The others had no more to tell him; he had witnessed all that they had done. He took the body from Brunton's arms and pulled the hood farther back. A gush of blood flowed over the frozen streak as the physician worked; he felt under the coat and looked up.

"There may be a chance!" Koehler whispered.

"Of life?"

"I'll see." The doctor felt skilfully over the wound in the head; then he looked up. "Unless you've hit him somewhere else he may live!"

"May live?"

"We'll know better in a moment."

Silently Brunton aided the surgeon in a swift search for other wounds.

"That's all!" Koehler cried at last. "I believe the bullet only grazed his skull. I don't think it pierced at all or fractured. Maybe it only stunned him. The cold stopped the blood."

Indeed as they spoke together the wounded man seemed to be sensible of their presence. He stirred a little and his lips parted. Koehler melted snow in his hand and poured the drops into Hedon's mouth.

"Move his arms and legs a little to warm him," the doctor directed. "Not too hard; we mustn't make the blood flow."

He reached within his own clothing and tore off a strip for a bandage. Hedon opened his eyes. He saw Koehler bending over him and recognised him.

"It's only a frostbite, doctor," he said clearly. "I tell you I'm all right. I can go on."

He closed his eyes again. None of the others spoke. The words were familiar to Geoff. He recalled a story Koehler had told of Hedon on one of the sledge expedition from the Aurora when Eric had frozen his feet. Hedon was speaking again.

"Who's here, Koehler?" he was saying. "Who's here?"

"We came for you, Eric," the doctor said slowly and distinctly. "We came back for you."

"I know. Thomas is dead." Hedon replied. "I buried him; he——"

"We know about that, Eric," Koehler said quietly. "We went up there and found your record—at Mason Land."

"At Mason Land!" Hedon repeated. "You went there? Who went?" he persisted.

Koehler tried to quiet him.

Hedon opened his eyes and moved so as to look past the doctor and saw Geoff and Latham, whom he did not seem to know.

"Hello, Brunton!" he hailed weakly. "I know you came up for me, doctor," he continued. "I heard that. But—you're all right?"

"We're all right." Brunton, bending over him, seized Hedon's arm, and moaned.

"All right, Jules. My fault," Eric murmured.

His mind was completely clear now, and he seemed also gaining strength. "Doctor, who's here?" he demanded.

"Jerry and Brunton and Linn and I came back for you," the surgeon said. "Here are Price Latham and Geoffrey Sherwood, who came with us too."

Hedon repeated the names. "And—and anybody else?" he asked. His eyes had closed.

Koehler realised that in some way Hedon had word of the expedition. He was in suspense before the question which he dared not put direct.

"Margaret Sherwood came," the doctor added. "She's here too; we're all well."

Hedon's eyes opened and stared. "Say that again!"

Koehler repeated.

"She didn't come!" Hedon denied. "They—they said she was going to; but she didn't come up here with the rest of you on the ship. Koehler, tell me she didn't."

"She came."

"Oh, Koehler! She came? Where? Where's the—the ship?"

"She's not on the ship, Eric. She's with us now; she's near here."

The wounded man struggled to rise. The surgeon half helped, half hindered him.

"I'm all right, Koehler," he insisted. "That didn't hurt me." He struggled till they let him stand, then he staggered and Koehler supported him.

"Go back to camp for a sledge," the doctor directed Geoff. "You'd better say nothing to your sister till we get him nearer camp; there's no use bringing her 'way out here."

The instruction seemed to bring to Hedon better realisation of the girl's nearness. "What?" he asked; then collected himself. "Yes. Don't—don't—that is, do as he says. But wait a minute."

Geoff hesitated, standing before Hedon, who was now held up between Koehler and Brunton. His recollection of Eric had been only a boy's impression formed four years before; now he knew that he never had known Hedon at all. Impulsively Geoff caught Hedon's shoulder.

"I'm one that fired at you," he said. "Perhaps I hit; probably I'm the one that did. I had a good gun."

"I might have known you'd be hunting," Eric said. "I almost shot a man once. I should have been careful. The Eskimos told me you were near."

"You were coming for us?" Koehler was able to restrain the question no longer.


"You knew we were here?"


"How?" Latham asked that. The doctor checked himself.

"The Kadiack, you know——"

"Yes, we know her," Koehler said. "The Canadian exploration ship."

"Yes. She left Nome about the time the Viborg started."

"Then you know about the Viborg?"

"The Kadiack came into Coronation Bay"—Hedon motioned south—"two months ago. She's wintering there. She brought news from Alaska that you'd started. They said Margaret too. I thought something must be wrong about that; but," he appealed now to Geoff, "she's really here?"

"She's here," Geoff assured. "I'm Geoff, you see. I'm her brother."

"I know you now," said Hedon. "I only wanted to be—sure. Then, if she is here, don't tell her—that is, you won't worry her about me?"

"Go for the sledge," Koehler again commanded Geoff.

Geoff started off for the sledge, hearing them still talking behind him. A hundred questions, a thousand wonders, rushed to his mind, but he put them off and hurried ahead. Wherever Hedon had come from and whatever he had gone through, he seemed to be strong and in fair shape. The wound in his head, even if not dangerous, would have more seriously disabled a weak man. As Geoff was climbing the first ice ridge toward the camp he saw figures before him. An empty sledge pulled by a man who must be Michaelis and another figure which must be Margaret were coming toward him. Evidently they had heard the shots and afterward had seen that something was wrong.

"Geoff," Margaret recognised and hailed him, "what is it?"

He stopped, panting, and let them come up. As they climbed the ridge they could clearly see Brunton and Koehler half carrying Hedon between them and Latham walking alongside with the guns.

"What is that? Who is that?" Margaret cried quickly. She saw that another man was there and that the trouble was not an accident to one of the hunters.

"Margaret, it's Eric!"


"He was coming to meet us."

She had stopped, but now she was running ahead of the others toward the group. They did not see her coming, or at least only Latham might have. They were picking their way over very rough ice. Then Hedon looked up. As Margaret approached in her Eskimo garments he could not have known her at the distance, yet something made him certain it was she before either of the men holding him saw her. He freed himself from their help as though they only hindered him, and with a summoning of his strength he sprang forward and toward her.

She ran to him with a cry; then, controlling herself, she called to him to stop, to wait, and she called to Koehler to catch him. Hedon laughed and tried to shake off his helpers as they seized him, then he stumbled dizzily. The surgeon had his arm round him and was supporting him when Margaret reached them.

She had pulled off her mittens as she ran; and now, as she saw how Eric had been hurt, she put her bare fingers to his face and touched him softly. In his dizziness he clung to Koehler, his eyes closed; and for an instant after he recovered from his faint he seemed not to dare to open his eyes, as though if he did either she must vanish or he could not bear more emotion at that moment. So he clung to Koehler as he felt her fingers satisfy themselves as to his hurt and heard her quick breathing.

"Margaret!" he murmured. "It's really you? Speak to me again. Let me hear your voice. All the time she had been examining his hurt she had been repeating his name ceaselessly: "Eric! Eric! Eric!" till it ran into a murmur.

"It's I—Margaret!" now she cried to him. "Eric, open your eyes; look at me!"

He obeyed, and for the first second of his sight of her face he seemed strong again, but again he reeled and was weak as he tried to stand without support. She helped to hold him while Michaelis brought up the sledge. They set him on it and supported him there.

"Margaret, why did you come?" he repeated to her again and again, as Brunton and Koehler and Geoff put themselves into the harness with Michaelis and as they slowly and carefully drew him on toward their camp. Margaret marched on one side, supporting him; on the other side Latham walked. "They told me—I mean the ship that came from Alaska—that you started on the Viborg. But I couldn't believe it, Margaret. I couldn't believe it even a minute ago when they said you were here."

"Every one else said you were dead, Eric," she explained; and once having said his name to him she must speak it over and over again—"Eric, Eric, Eric. But I knew you must be alive. I believe if every one else failed I must find you. So I came."

"And I knew you had come when they told me," he confessed; "really I knew it was so. For I knew—you!"

So they brought him to their shelters. As they took him in and as he met McNeal and Linn, for the first time he sensed that disaster had happened.

"Why, Jerry, what's happened? Old fellow, you've—why, you—what's happened?" he appealed. "Why, you're all here!" he realised; "Linn, you and McNeal." He named over the others. "Koehler, where's the ship? Whom have you left on the ship?"

The doctor, unable to put off the news longer, met him. "There's no one on the ship, Eric."

"You mean——"

Koehler still hesitated; then Margaret, as though that were nothing now that she had found Eric told him.

"The ship's burned."


"Yes, north of here—two months ago."


Now that she had started she saw no way except to tell him all.

"It burned with almost all our supplies."

"I see." Hedon looked at McNeal, then about the circle of men, and then round the little shelter. "Where were you going?" he asked.

"South to find the Eskimos."

He winced.

"What is it?" Margaret cried with concern.

"The Eskimos are south of here—just a little. You've almost got to them. It was one of them told me you were here. But"—now he hesitated, and looked from the girl to the others, and then told them—"I was trying to get to you to turn you back to your ship as soon as I could. For the Eskimos themselves are starving. The hunt was bad this fall and they're getting almost nothing this winter. They've not got food enough for themselves. There's no living on this part of the country this year."