A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI

LATHAM'S ANSWER

JUST nine days later that question was answered. The meat of the seals killed by the Eskimos on their lucky day had been eaten; and for a week almost no food was to be had. Then came another day of fortune for the Eskimo spearmen at the seal holes, and for another twenty-four hours there was to be food and to spare.

The extra meat was stored away, and after a full gorge the Eskimo hunters slept soundly. The next morning, when they awoke, their meat—or most of it—was gone; and as the alarm spread round the village it was found that two men were missing to explain the absence of the meat. One was an Eskimo—the man who carved the runes on the handles of his spears—the other man missing was Latham. With them had gone a sledge and four of the dogs that had been kept in fair condition.

Their trail over new snow which had fallen told plainly the tale of their departure. The man who toed out as he trod had gone first with the dogs and the loaded sledge; after him—how far behind him could not be told, but after him—followed the footsteps of an Eskimo.

Eric Hedon and Geoff, with two of the Palugmiuts, took the trail and followed it as fast as they could. Now it became plainer, by the proof that the Eskimo had been running and the other man had not, that the two men had not set out together; now it was plainly a case of pursuit, with the first man knowing that he was followed and trying to urge on his team. But the dogs, ill-fed, were tiring. Half a mile farther and part of the load of the sledge was discovered—seal meat and a bag of oil lay on the snow. There was nothing to show whether these had been thrown off to lighten the sledge in the race or whether they had fallen by accident; but the sledge seemed to have travelled faster from then on and the pursuing Eskimo apparently ceased to gain. It was another mile and more before anything else showed on the snow; and then it was not the carcass of another seal but the form of a man.

The Eskimos saw first from far off that this man had been of their people; it was the pursuer who lay dead on the snow with the stain of his blood about him. He had been shot through the head from close by; and before he died there had been a struggle. His body was frozen, for he had lain there some hours; but before falling he used his spear—the seal spear with the handle which he had carved before the whites in the hut. Only the shaft of the spear was in his hand; the head had been broken off.

The two Eskimos, straightening after examining the body of their tribesman, muttered to each other and looked toward the white men. Hedon spoke to them quietly and pointed to the snow beyond.

Geoff, following the direction, saw spots of blood on the snow. These accompanied the track of the sledge and the dogs and the man who went on; the two white men and the Eskimos followed them. Now the blood-spotted trail showed footprints of a man weakening and staggering; they climbed a little ridge and then stopped. The track of the sledge and of the dogs continued; but instead of the man's footprints now was the blur where a body had fallen. At the bottom of the ridge Latham lay.

Here the white men, ahead of the Eskimos, bent down and turned over the body—for Latham lay dead. The Eskimos came up beside the others and saw for themselves that their tribesman had avenged his own death; in the last struggle he had struck with his spear.

Geoff, gasping as he gazed up from the face of the friend who had been his hero, met Hedon's eyes. Eric could have had no associations with this man which, even at such a moment, could make for mercy; but as Geoff looked at him Eric answered the unspoken question.

"He was going in the direction of the Kadiack," Hedon said quietly. "He was going for help for us. We know that was what he believed some one ought to do. Of course the Eskimo couldn't understand that; he thought Latham was just stealing meat."

Geoff shook his head. "Eric, I know the truth. He was going to make sure of saving himself—then send back help to us afterward."

Hedon was looking down at the tracks in the snow. "What I don't see," he said, "is why he kept on going in this direction after he got that hurt. He must have known he couldn't go far; yet he went on with the dogs."

"He knew he'd killed the Eskimo. He couldn't go back," Geoff said.

"No, there's something else in this." Hedon said, unsatisfied. "See, the dogs went on beyond here after he died, or before. You'd expect them to stay near here or to have turned back toward the village. Come with me, Geoff."

They left the Eskimos to watch the body and followed on the trail of the unguided sledge. Soon they saw it ahead, overturned, the dogs tangled and snarled in the harness.

"Geoff!" Eric cried, as they came up and saw the snow where the sledge was overturned. "You see, Geoff? See! That's it!"

"What?"

"Look—those other sledge marks in the snow! See, two sledges, heavy and with strong dogs in good shape and travelling fast. The dogs here must have winded them after Latham shot the Eskimo, and they ran on this way. So he came after them. Then he fell and they came here."

"But"—Geoff stared down at the snow, weak and trembling as he thought of the possibility of relief coming from these sledges of men, strong and travelling fast—"what do these mean?"

"We can't tell yet; but we can soon find out. We've got enough in us to catch them, Geoff! We must! They can't have gone far and we can catch them when they camp. Come! Come on!"

About the Eskimo snow huts on the ice of the long bay the hunt for seals seemed going on that day as usual. Three of the Eskimo spearmen were missing from the blocks of snow where they had sat at watch for the seals; and three of the whites who also had sentineled the animal's breathing holes were gone.

The speamen still at their work looked up often over the sea ice to the south and along the snow-covered shores; and the women came often out of the igloos to look for signs of the return of the men who had stolen the meat and of those who had gone after them. But the moon was beginning to sink in the sky before, far away, some one saw four men with a team of dogs and a sledge approaching. Then behind it appeared three men and another dog team and sledge; then three more men and another team.

At the sight of these alarm ran round the houses and spread to the spearmen on the ice. The Eskimos gathered before the village and, excited and watchful, waited for the sledges to draw near. Before these came close, two of the men with the first sledge ran out to one side and signalled, so that the Eskimos knew that those two were their tribesmen and that they were returning with strangers, all friendly. When a short distance off, the sledges halted and four of the men came forward to meet four from the village.

Margaret stood beside McNeal and Koehler, watching the strangers approach for the parley. During the hours since the discovery that the seal meat had been stolen and Latham and an Eskimo missing she had gone about confused, unable to imagine the consequences to her and to the rest of the party of what Latham had done. She could not know whether or not it might be better for Eric and her brother and the Eskimos who pursued with them to overtake Latham. During her long hours of suspense she had pictured every happening, every possible result of Latham's flight and his pursuit, except the correct one.

As the ten men came in sight she had not doubted that only four could be strangers; and of course these four must be Eskimos met by some chance. But now, as the strangers came nearer, the Eskimo standing beyond Koehler saw that two of the sledges and the manner of harnessing of two of the dog teams were strange. He uttered a cry which told the news to his tribesmen and which Koehler understood.

"That's a party of white men!" the doctor announced to Margaret and McNeal.

"White?"

The strangers came closer. "There were six strange men," Koehler made out from the manner of the garments. "I think they all are white!"

"Six!" the girl repeated.

She sensed that if this was so two of those who had left the village were not now returning. Where were these two men? Why had they not come back?

The four advance men from the approaching party came near enough to be better recognised. Two were strangers—white men apparently, as the Eskimo and Koehler had said; one of the other men was an Eskimo who had gone with Eric and Geoff; the fourth man was Eric.

Now Margaret saw too that her brother was with the six men who had remained behind. So Geoff and Eric both had come back with the Eskimos who went with them in pursuit of Latham. The parley with the four men from the village was short and satisfactory. Some one signalled for the rest of the strangers to approach; and Eric left the parley and came on to the group before the snow huts.

As she saw him come toward her Margaret had a strange feeling that brought back to her the dread and suspense of the moments on the Viborg off Mason Land as she saw the party returning from the cabin signal to the ship good news and then bad. There seemed in one instant relief and triumph in Eric's bearing, then depression or constraint.

"Koehler!" he called, addressing the man beside Margaret, though his eyes were on her, "those are men from the Kadiack! The ship moved farther east after I left it last fall. It's wintering a hundred miles south of here—not almost five hundred southwest! It's well supplied and all right!"

Slowly Margaret sensed the news as Eric told it. The Canadian exploration ship, having found ice conditions favourable after Eric had left the ship at the point where it had planned to winter, had moved four hundred miles farther east. Reports had reached the vessel of the desperate condition of the Eskimos, so a shore party, well supplied, was sent to search for starving people, to supply some and bring others for relief to the ship. This was the party which Eric and Geoff had met and brought with them. So every one was safe, that was certain. They could travel easily to the ship, which was large.

"What about Latham?" McNeal was asking. And as Margaret looked at Eric he gazed at her and still for an instant was silent.

"Then where's Latham?" McNeal insisted. "Has he gone on to the ship?"

"No," Eric shook his head. "No."

The men from the Kadiack now were coming up, and as Margaret saw them and heard their voices the realisation that at last she and all the rest were safe came over her for the first time. With the sense of safety came also realisation of what rescue and return home would require of her. She knew that until this moment she had held that always far before her, and during the last weeks it had seemed an outcome no longer to be feared, so unlikely had it appeared that they could return to where Latham could claim her. But now that possibility again confronted her; and for some hours Eric must have been realising it. That was what took from the triumph of his return with his news of their rescue; that kept him dumb now as McNeal reminded him of Latham, and made him look at her, unable to meet her eyes.

"Then what about Latham, Eric?" Koehler persisted; and he too seemed now to understand.

"He's dead, doctor," Eric said quietly to him.

"Dead?" Koehler repeated.

Margaret, dazed, seemed not to have heard the word or not to have understood it. She stared at Eric, frightened, trembling. He turned to her.

"We have brought him—his body—back on one of the sledges," he said to her; then turned back to Koehler. Simply and quietly he related what he and Geoff and the Eskimos had found. Then he turned again to Margaret.

"He saved us, Margaret," he said to her. "Whatever he tried to do, he saved us. We must remember that whenever we remember anything else about him."

"Yes, yes," she repeated. "Yes."

"I have been thinking of what my father used to say, Margaret—you know he was a missionary. He said the greatest mistake in the world was to look for God always to select an angel to send on an errand. Of course Latham couldn't have known about the men coming from the Kadiack; but do you know if he hadn't gone just when he did, and drawn us after him, those men wouldn't have found us. They were turning inshore and going back another way, and they would have missed us by five miles but for him."

Margaret gazed at him, dazed. She heard what he told her and made out the words; but after the fact of their safety only one other realisation seemed to seize her.

"He's dead, you said," she repeated.

"Yes, Margaret; he's dead."

She stared past Eric over the snow to the men and the dog teams and sledges from the Kadiack. "But we will be saved, all the rest of us? All the rest—that must mean you and I, too, Eric—will be saved?"

"All the rest of us are saved, Margaret."

Her eyes closed and for a minute she was unsteady. Her hand groped and caught support from Eric. As she swayed, Koehler had started to her, but now he turned away. She opened her eyes again and gazed at Eric and then past him. "They are still there beyond you, Eric? I mean the men who have come and saved us. They are still there, the men who will take us home?"

"They are still there, Margaret."

"And you—you, Eric, Eric—you are still here with me! I still have you and we are saved? We—you and I—are going home now?"

"Yes, Margaret," he said to her gently. "Yes; we are going home."