A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

THE CROSS ABOVE THE CABIN

GEOFF jumped up and went on deck. The morning was clearer and the sun was breaking through the mist, showing a sea choked with ice. For mile after mile ahead and on both sides ice shrouded the water. A few streaks of green showed here and there a narrow crack between the floes; but they were closing constantly and changing.

"'Tis that we were aiming to get through all yesterday." McNeal indicated the ice grimly. "Yet if the fog hadn't cleared I'd not have given up trying. Yon is Mason Isle."

To the left of the bow, in the direction the Scotchman pointed, a shadow of an outline of a rocky shore rose. The mist thinned a little more and now showed it plainly—a black, bold, barren ridge of rock, stretching far back and rising to a height of some fifteen hundred feet and running as far to the north and west as the eye could follow it.

"The South Cape!" Koehler confirmed the identification. Brunton and Linn, the other two who had been on the Aurora, stood also staring toward the shore.

Geoff watched these men closely. What recollections was the sight of that shore bringing back to them? A part of their hardships, their dangers, there had been told. But Geoff knew that they had told only a part of the experiences which that land must recall.

Geoff looked beyond the men to his sister. Margaret stood at the rail a little away from the others. She was wearing the heavy blouse and the trousers and coat that she had worn almost constantly since she had been aboard the Viborg. But this morning she seemed dressed with more particular care, as for an occasion. And as her brother looked toward her he wondered with a deeper feeling of sympathy what the occasion for her would be.

Her eyes were bright and her lips closed firmly together, and her little hand clenched at her side as she gazed toward the shores that must tell her whether her lover might yet be alive. Would this land by its silence say that Eric Hedon and his companion had been lost long before and lay with their dogs and sledge at the bottom of the Arctic sea? Or might it tell, instead, that they had gained that desolate place only to die there? For a moment, as she looked at the black barrens ahead, fear of what might be found seized her. Her blue eyes dimmed, her lips trembled, her hands unclenched. Then quickly she banished her dread and her doubt and turned about, hopeful, confident again and smiling. Latham had come up beside her and stood looking from her to the beach.

Geoff watched them, understanding but vaguely the bargain between them. Latham, he knew, was paying for the expedition to prove that Hedon was dead; and up to the time that they went aboard the Viborg Geoff had looked upon the proof of Hedon's death as the best outcome for his sister. He had been a boy away at school during most of the time that Hedon had been in Chicago. Hedon had been to him, therefore, only a vague, stubborn obstacle between his sister and Latham—an obstacle that every one had deplored. When the change had come with Geoff he himself could not tell; but, as he looked at Latham standing with Margaret, Geoff was aware for the first time that he wanted to find Hedon.

"The cabin is on the other side of the island," Margaret was saying quietly to Price.

"So I understand—about fifty miles away."

"We can't bring the vessel in closer with any safety." McNeal joined them and reported impersonally to both.

"But a boat can make it?"

"Well handled," McNeal qualified. "Who goes?"

"I, of course," said Latham.

Geoff intruded. "And I."

Koehler and Brunton were chosen also.

"It's no Arctic work," McNeal deprecated. "A row of a mile or so with plenty of stout ice to step on to if you're clumsy. And then a tramp of a day or so on shore. You'll take dogs, doctor?"

Koehler shook his head. Of the twenty-six beasts which had been on board on leaving Greenland seven remained, and only five of these were in good condition. There was no snow for a sledge journey at that season, but in the manner of the Eskimos' summer travel the dogs might carry packs.

"There'll be only one camp between here and the cabin each way; we can pack our own supply," Koehler decided.

The four for the shore party went about their preparations—blankets, a light silk tent, food and fuel for four days, rifles and cartridges. As they loosened their boat in its davits, Margaret kept close to them.

"I'm not going to ask you to take me," she assured over and over again. "I'd slow you and make it harder. But you'll try to signal me as soon as you can about—what you find?"

"How?" asked Geoff.

"We'll be watching all the time from the ship. You four will probably all come back together. If you've good news, walk abreast about five paces apart; walk two and two together if it's bad. If one comes ahead alone to give us news or—or ask for help or anything else, let him run to the right and then back to his path if it's good news; to the left if it's bad."

"You've thought out everything, haven't you?" Geoff grasped her and kissed her.

Price, with pack strapped for the march, halted beside her. The others busying themselves, turned away.

"Do I have a kiss too?" he asked.

She looked up at him startled. At that moment full realisation of one result of their search seemed to come to her. She had fought it off before, not letting herself believe that they might not find Eric Hedon alive. But now, with the final arbitrament so close, she drew back from him; yet, according to her given word, if they found that which must show her that Eric was dead this man must be her husband. And they might find that within the day.

She drew toward Latham trembling.

"For good luck?" She raised her lips.

"For good luck." He kissed her and went back to his place with the others. The boat dropped to the water and the four men sprang in. All rowing, they made good speed down the little channels between the ice. Koehler steered for a bit of sloping beach and brought them to the foreshore upon which they could drag the boat above the tide. They climbed up and waving good-bye to the Viborg, they set off on their tramp to the old Aurora depot.

As they followed the shore about the cape and the ship sank out of sight, there was no place Geoff had ever seen with which to compare in barrenness and desolation this piece of Arctic land. Off shore as far as the eye could see there was ice, and the black rock upon which they marched was as barren. Naked of soil, no bush or twig or shoot of tree or shrub found any root there; nor was there grass or herb. In cracks in the rock shreds of grey moss and lichens grew; nothing else. Mile after mile was marked with no change but the shifting of the lines of the rugged rocks rising in the interior and a different indentation of shore.

Yet this was the land toward which, after the Aurora was lost, the four men who returned had struggled on and on and the gaining of which at last had saved their lives. Here Thomas and Eric Hedon must have come if they now were alive.

"There is where we took to the sea ice again to sledge south." Koehler pointed out another cape.

They came to it and kicked upon the ground the rusted cans emptied there and left by the four men two years before.

"We came down that shore with sledges," Brunton told in greater detail, motioning with his arms. As he glanced far ahead suddenly he stared and stooped.

"What is it?" Geoff asked, and then looked at Latham who had halted and already had his glasses to his eyes. Far up the bare shore a speck of white showed; and the others now saw it also.

"A skeleton!" Latham decided.

"What?"

Latham handed his glasses to Koehler. The doctor too made out the whitened bones.

"A man's?" asked Geoff.

"Can't tell. Animal's probably."

"Of course."

But as they went on now the four doubled their pace. Two hundred yards away. Geoff broke into a run.

"An animal!" he called back, as he came close enough to see the claws of the feet and the shape of the skull.

"Animal?" It was Latham close behind him.

"A bear!"

"Yes, that's all."

The two slowed and walked, panting. A change from the tenseness of the first sight of the bones had come over both. Geoff watched Latham and drew a little from him. When Price had seen the skeleton first, had he hoped it was a man's, with one chance in two that it was Eric Hedon's?

Geoff himself once had been ready to believe that Eric was dead—that is, when at home he had been told that Hedon probably had been drowned five thousand miles away, he had chosen to accept that probability. But up here, seeing a skeleton on the shore and wishing that it was Eric's—well, that was different.

Koehler overtook them as they walked more slowly. He stooped beside the bones.

"A bear," he confirmed; "killed by a bullet through the head."

"Bullet?"

The doctor pointed; there was no doubt of it. Two small holes were opposite each other in the skull. "He was shot by a rifle bullet—last year, I should say. We know this was not here when we went away. Did we kill a bear here, Brunton?"

"Not a bear," the Canadian confirmed. "A seal on the ice, that was all."

"Couldn't you forget?" Latham asked him. "You must have killed it here."

The skeleton had changed from proof that one of the men sought was dead to evidence that one of them at least had reached this land.

Brunton shook his head positively. "None of us will ever forget where we got our fresh meat on that march south," he said. His keen eyes were scanning the outline of the hill farther on. "Besides, we built no cairn here. What do you see there?"

Two piles of stone stood on the promontory farther along the shore. In their concentration upon the animal's skeleton the others had missed them till now. The piles stood north and south, the northern heap plainly the larger. They were separated, apparently, by about five paces.

"An Aurora type of cairns!" Koehler also recognised. "Two, fifteen feet apart, the larger to the north."

The four hastened, Geoff as before leading, and this time Latham came with the other two.

"The larger would contain the message," the doctor called as Geoff reached them.

"I know." He was tearing the stones away; now the others helped him.

"Look for anything which could be sealed; a little bottle, can, thermometer tube or anything that would keep out water."

Geoff picked up the fragments of a small glass tube.

"Here's something that might have kept out water, but hasn't."

The doctor, taking it, recognised it as a section of barometer tube which had been sealed at both ends, and, judging from the pulp upon the glass, once had contained papers. But the tumbling of the stones in the cairn had broken it; the melting snow and rain long before had made a mush of the paper. Nothing could be read from that.

"But we now know that Hedon or Thomas must have got here," Koehler said, as he put down the pulp at last.

"That's not certain," denied Latham.

"Not certain; no." The doctor looked at him. "But we'll find out at the cabin who was here."

That some one had been on the island was more evident every hour. Scraps of gear and cans told the passage of a man—or men—by a route different from that travelled by Koehler, Brunton, McNeal and Linn on their retreat two years before. They slept that night where apparently another camp had been. Starting off early the next morning, by noon they reached a slope which looked down on the northern shore of the island and showed far off on the edge of a little bay the dark dot of the Aurora depot shack facing the endless white wastes of the polar sea.

There was no movement about it, and as nearer and nearer they came, still they saw no sign of any habitation of the little cabin more recent than that of two years before. Externally it showed to Koehler and to Brunton no difference or disturbance; but now, as they looked up on the hill behind the cabin, there was something new, something that of itself spoke as clearly to the strangers to the little cabin as to the men who had sought it before in refuge and left it again in their retreat to the south.

A rude, wooden cross—a single, lonely cross marking a grave—stood on the slope behind the cabin looking out over it to the sea. Koehler and Brunton had no need to tell each other that it had been raised there since they had left. As far as one might see the lonely cross its message was plain. Two men—Ian Thomas and Eric Hedon—had reached that cabin. One had died there; the other had raised the cross over him.

Which man lay under the cross? And when the other had buried him and raised the little battered cross above the grave, how long had he survived? The hut ahead surely would tell that at least. Geoff again ran ahead of the others, gained the door of the hut and, hammering back a bolt, opened the door and went in.