A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 18
"YOU FOUND HIS CAIRN"
THE news that Hedon brought struck the party with a shock. Margaret alone was unaffected by it; indeed, it was doubtful if she heard it at all. Geoff would have said that his thought also had been entirely occupied with Eric and the fact that he had been found. But now he realised that concurrently he had been thinking of more than that. His thoughts had been running thus:
Eric must have been living on the country for at least a year. He spoke of the Eskimos and mentioned that they had seen the party; therefore the Eskimos could not be far away, and must have food and fuel.
So the finding of Hedon seemed to mean at least the putting off of starvation. But his news, as he gave it in greater detail, was most serious. In the fall and winter of the year previous, when Eric alone came down the coast, there had been more than the usual amount of game of all kinds. But this year, as the Viborg party already had reason to know, was one of those seasons in the North when, for reasons unexplained, animals seemed to desert great districts.
Hedon's story of his own adventures was simple and direct. As he had written in his record at Mason Land, he had left the hut in the spring of the year before, expecting to travel directly south over the ice before it broke up. Crossing the island, he shot a bear, and before leaving land built a cairn at the southwest cape and left there a report which, if found, would save any relief expedition from crossing to the cabin. He then had six dogs in good condition and one sledge. The ice broke up early, but by careful travel he managed to work his way down to the large Prince of Wales Land before the sea was entirely open. There he found plenty of game through the course of summer, and with the autumn freeze-up he crossed the channel to Victoria Island.
As caribou were plenty that fall he had an abundance of meat for himself and his dogs till he got down to where the Eskimos were, and he lived with them till the spring on deer meat and seals which they caught. Then he travelled to the south shore of Victoria Land and found a whaler, the Nares, which had been wintering there. He was aboard this vessel on his way south by way of Alaska and the Bering Sea when it met the Kadiack at the end of the summer. The Kadiack had come directly from Nome and brought reports of the Viborg's starting up to Mason Land by the original route of the Aurora. Hedon immediately changed from the Nares to the Kadiack and returned with it into Coronation Gulf, where it was to winter. Taking supplies from the ship on his sledge, and accompanied by one Eskimo, Eric returned more than four hundred miles on his trail as rapidly as he could to meet any relief party that might have found his cairns and be following his route.
On this trip he lived on the country after his supplies from the Kadiack gave out. For a while he found caribou; then game of all kinds became very scarce. The Eskimos he met were in want and having a very hard time. He gained a village about thirty miles below the camp of the Viborg people, where an Eskimo hunter told him of seeing a party which he had supposed to be the strange white kabluna travelling south over the ice and later going into camp after the storm. The Eskimo had been afraid to approach and had hidden. Hedon took this man and started with him and a sledge; but as they approached the camp of the kabluna the Eskimo lost courage and deserted, so Eric came on alone.
Many details were not then told; but what was related made plain that at least one of the cairns Eric built on his journey south had been erected upon a shore visited by the Viborg after leaving Mason Land. Geoff could not be sure, from Hedon's description of the place, whether the cairn which had been missed by the searchers sent on shore had stood in one of the spots explored only by Latham. But Geoff learned that it was Eric who had visited and had photographed the stone house near the spot where the Viborg burned. Further, Eric had built the Aurora cairns where Geoff had discovered the stones strewed in front of the lonely little hut. The message left there told simply that he had reached that spot safely and was traveling on south well supplied.
There was no longer doubt in Geoff's mind, after he learned this, that Latham had found both cairns and destroyed them. But Koehler was watching Geoff as he questioned Eric; and the doctor checked the boy as he saw Geoff's hot impulse to turn upon Latham with his charge. Koehler drew him away from the others gathered in the little shelter.
"He knew Eric had crossed the sea from Mason Land safely when he tried to make us all go home!" Geoff cried.
"We don't know that. We can't prove it," Koehler cautioned.
"Who but he could have knocked down the cairns before that stone house?"
"Animals—bears sometimes destroy cairns."
"You know they didn't destroy those!"
Koehler made no direct denial. The men of the party, except Latham, were coming out of the shelter, where they all had gathered to hear Hedon's story, and entering the second hut. Latham and Margaret were left with Eric Hedon, and after a few moments Latham also came to the other shelter. As he appeared Koehler signalled to Geoff to make no charges before the others.
"Come outside with me a moment!" Geoff therefore invited Latham.
The man, looking at him suspiciously, complied. The two walked out in the bitter cold alone. The moon was just setting, but the last green rays showed to each man his companion's face.
"What do you want?" Latham demanded.
"Price, how did you come to miss Eric's cairns?"
"What are you getting at?"
"You know what I'm getting at!"
"I will!" Geoff defied. "I'll tell you I believe you found—or at least could have found if you'd decently searched—one of his cairns on those first islands below Mason Land."
"You confounded——" Latham began.
"Shut up! I told you that because I'm sure of it. Either you found his cairn there or you didn't look where you said you did. But pass that; I can't prove it; I just know it. I know you found and knocked over and said nothing about his cairns before that stone house where we found his camera spool."
Latham waited menacingly for him to go on.
"Koehler and I found the stones of the cairns under the snow. We thought then they were Aurora cairns, but we weren't sure of it, so we said nothing. But now we know Hedon built cairns there; and that you found them and threw them down and then came back and denied you'd seen the place when we told about the house."
"That's exactly true!" Latham caught Geoff off guard with the sudden admission.
"Then you did it?"
"I found those last cairns, and I would have told you so myself in a moment," Latham returned.
"Oh, you would?"
"Anywhere else and under any other conditions I'd knock you down for what you've said," Latham faced him. "Call Koehler out here and any one else you've told that to."
Geoff hesitated, then obeyed. The three stood together on the ice.
"Koehler!" Latham addressed the older man and now disregarded Geoff. "He's been telling me you found the cairns by that stone house knocked down. I want to tell you now I found those cairns and got the message saying that Hedon had passed that point almost a year before. I took it out and knocked down the cairns."
"Well," questioned the doctor quietly. "Why?"
"Because I felt that in our condition at that time nothing should influence our movements but our own interests. I could not trust the rest of you not to be fools and try to follow up a man who'd been by twelve months before. I acted in the interests of all."
"I see," said Koehler quietly.
Latham turned away and went back into the shelter with the other men.
In the farther little snow hut Margaret Sherwood and Eric were left alone. He lay on the sleeping shelf of snow where Koehler had commanded him to remain after his wound had been dressed and where he had told his story. Beside him Margaret sat. Now that they were alone he tried to rise, but she, instead of coming closer to him, drew away. He sank back a little and gazed at her with a question.
"My dear!" he cried to her softly. "My dear! Why, what is the matter? What has been the matter, dear?"
"Don't say that!" she forbade him, and shut her eyes as he stared at her.
"What? Don't say that anything is the matter, Margaret?"
"No; don't say—don't call me as you used to!"
"I don't understand! I have seen that something is strange, of course, Margaret; but—tell me, what is it?"
"Help me to tell you, Eric!" she appealed.
"Why, Margaret! Help you—now?"
"Oh, surely you saw!" she motioned dumbly.
"Latham, you mean?" he questioned. "Yes, I saw he stayed here after the others. He—there were other things in the way he spoke to you, looked at you, looked at me. I see, Margaret; then I did not just imagine them?"
"What do you mean?"
"How can I tell you, Eric?"
"They mean"—he and she both had forgotten what the surgeon had warned them; he drew himsef up now straight and faced her in his direct demand, the blood running hot to flush his face and a ruddy spot welling through the cloths of his bandage—"they mean he has some claim on you?"
Then she told him, beginning with the report of McNeal and Koehler and the others who came back from the Aurora that he must be dead.
"Yes!" he nodded to her. "I knew that, of course. At Mason Land I realised that they would tell you that I was dead. That's why I went over the ice in June—after poor Thomas was dead—and didn't wait till the freeze again. Margaret, I had to try to get to you."
"And every one was sure you were dead—every one, every one, Eric," she went on. "They all said I must forget you; I must give you up; I must marry him. My father and mother had wanted me to marry him, you know, and so did every one else. They said even if you came back I should put you away, but that surely you were dead. But I wouldn't believe it."
"Go on, Margaret!" he cried.
"Then came the message of the wild goose!"
She told him of that.
"What a strange thing!" He stared at her for a moment. "And how nearly true that was!"
"It was true; that was it, Eric! Oh, my love—forgive me, but I had to say it that once—that message made me almost mad. I knew it mightn't be real—that is, I knew it might not have been sent by you; but everything in my soul told me that what it said was true. You were safe. You needed help. And I had to send it to you!"
"My poor sweet heart!"
"Eric, you must see how it was with me. I sent at once for my cousin—Mrs. Chandler, you remember her. She told me I was a fool and scolded me. I could get no money from her. I knew I should be laughed at in the same way by other people, and I had no time to seek other people. I had to do what I was to do at once, you see that, else I could have no chance of sending a ship for you that year."
"Of course I see, Margaret!"
"Then Price and Geoff came. They were against me, both of them, as I knew they'd be; but I was desperate. Eric, you see I thought of you starving, dying—perhaps dying a day before I could get a ship to you, because I delayed. I wasn't afraid to risk myself to save you."
She choked and halted again. "I must know it all now, Margaret!" he commanded her.
"Then Price made his offer to me. I didn't have the money; I couldn't get it. But he would give it to me that day, that moment, if I would give you up in case we sent a ship and couldn't find you. So we made the bargain."
"Yes. We arranged that he would give me a ship to send to you at once. I could have it and go in it myself to Mason Land; only, if I failed to find you there, I was to give you up and—and——"
"But," Eric cried, "there you found——"
"That you had been there and gone and were to build cairns if you got to the islands south. We searched them week after week, but you hadn't got there. I couldn't show that you'd got there. He said that your own message proved you must be lost and he ordered the ship south. He said there was no use in our looking for you longer; that he'd filled his part of the bargain. So he claimed me."
"Claimed you?" Eric let her go and his eyes glowed.
"The men turned on him and refused to go back. Then he said I'd tricked him; that I meant to cheat him all along; that I used the men to force him to stay beyond his bargain. Eric, it was true; from his point of view it was true. I didn't care about anything else but finding you; I was afraid he might make the men go back. So I told him he'd done his part and I'd do mine; but he must stay and search longer, no matter how hopeless it was. Then he did."
"He has my word that he can claim me when we get home."
For another moment in silence Hedon stared at her, then shut his eyes and swayed in a faint. She caught him as he was about to fall and laid him down gently on the sleeping shelf.
"Margaret," he murmured to her, "I know how you offered it."
"It was because I couldn't think of anything beyond finding you that I did it," she cried to him. "And now—Doctor!" she called. Doctor!"
Koehler came in. He took Hedon from her and after a moment sent her away. Though outwardly she was controlled, inwardly she was beside herself when Geoff came to her and told her of the cairns.
"What?" she cried. "How do you know Price had found one of Eric's cairns before he tried to turn the ship back?"
Geoff told her how they had found the cairns by the stone house thrown down, and that Latham had admitted doing it.
"But that can't help me," she cried; "that was too late. Nothing he did then could change my word of honour given him. But before I gave my word on the ship, Geoff, can we know he had seen a cairn of Eric's then?"
Geoff had no answer for that. No one could answer that question but Latham; and already he had given his answer. He had seen no cairn and had known no more than any of the others when he had required and taken Margaret's word, which now bound her to him though Eric Hedon was found.