The Saving of Pete Conlan
THE SAVING OF
By E. R. PUNSHON
NEWS came through first from an Indian; it was confirmed by Dan O'Neil, who had passed that way, "hitting the trail for all he was worth," as he said himself, for fear of being caught by freeze-up, and then there was the Count to tell us how Pete had shown him his injured foot.
Both Dan O'Neil and the Count had advised Pete to clear before the bad days came, but Pete wanted to wait for the Evans boys. Unluckily, the Evans boys had come back on the valley trail, and so there was Pete caught by the winter in his cabin way up north.
Well, we all knew what that meant, and there was a good deal of talk about it. Of course, he could have pulled through very well with plenty of stores; but we knew he couldn't have much, and Dan O'Neil said he wasn't far from the bottom of the flour bag even then, near a week before freeze-up. Some blamed Dan O'Neil and the Count for not just toting Pete along, anyway, but he had seemed sure the Evans boys would be along before a great while, and it hadn't occurred to either of them to doubt it. In fact, it wasn't once in a hundred times anyone took the valley trail so late in the year. More blamed the Evans boys, but no doubt they had supposed Pete would clear out same as he generally did, maybe they had never thought about him at all.
The Count didn't think Pete was as short of stores as Dan O'Neil made out, but, anyway, it wasn't likely he could have enough to hold out much after Christmas. A man up against it can do wonders on snow and birch-bark, but, all the same, that's feed that has its limitations. Then there were his dogs, but by the time it comes to dogs, dogs don't amount to much. I know that's my experience. Likely enough, Pete's would have wandered off before he was real pressed, or eaten each other, or else the wolves would have got them. A very good soup can be made of boiled leather—boots and such-like—which I've known help a man to hold out till help came; and there's other ways a starving man finds out. But, on the whole, Pete's chances didn't seem too rosy. Anyway, he wasn't what the insurance companies would call an eligible subject.
It was talked about a good deal in the saloons, and the more we thought of him out there, the other side of Lost Men's Hills, miles from help, with the winter gales roaring past straight from the Pole itself, and the thermometer dropping and dropping like it meant to touch bottom and couldn't, but would go on trying—why, the warmer and cosier the saloons used to seem.
"Wonder how Pete's doing?" men used to say to each other, and then they would liquor up and grow quiet and thoughtful.
One of the parsons in the town made a sermon about it, which most thought playing it a little low down on a fellow in a sight worse fix than the parson had ever known, and men used to swop stories of fellows they had known cut off by freeze-up and forced to winter way up. It was in the bar of the Morphy house one night a big, tough fellow from the Ottawa River was telling us a story like that—it was about two fellows and some Chinks caught by freeze-up without any grub, and in the spring there was two fellows fat and rosy, and no Chinks at all, and none of us believed a word of the tale—when a little man in the corner near the stove spoke up sudden like.
"If this man is starving out there," he said, "why don't some of you go and fetch him in?"
The Ottawa River fellow—his name was Mike Pierce—looked at the little man steady like over a glass of whisky, same as if the little man was some kind of worm, and an unpleasant kind at that.
"Been long in the country, mister?" he asked at last.
"Nope," said the little man.
"Well, then," said Mike, and drank off his whisky as though that were settled.
"Where I come from," said the little man, "if a bloke's in a hole, and another bloke can give him a hand, he does. That's all."
Mike turned round and looked at him as if he disliked him more and more every minute.
"See here," he said at last, quiet like, "I'll go if you'll go."
"Right-o," said the little man.
No one else said a word. Mike knew what he was in for all right, but we suspicioned the little man didn't, not by a long way. It was just plain foolishness, nothing more or less. The distance was great, the weather was worse than usual, there wasn't the semblance of a trail, there was Lost Men's Hills to cross, there wasn't one chance in a hundred of getting through. Besides, likely enough Pete was dead by now.
"See here, gentlemen," said Morphy himself, "there ain't no one sorrier for Pete than what I am. It's tough luck, but he's struck it tough, and there's no more to be said. Some does, some don't—it's the way things go."
"That's so," we all agreed, for it sounded good sense, anyway, and, besides, Morphy is a lot respected—naturally, him being the owner of the best-run and most respectable saloon in the town.
Sort of encouraged by our all agreeing that way, Morphy went on—
"I ain't saying but what it does a mighty lot of credit to these two gentlemen, Mr. Pierce and—— I don't think I know your name, sir?" he says to the little man.
"I'm 'Arry 'All," said the little man.
It took us a little while to tumble to it that he meant Harry Hall, him being an Englishman, and weak about the "aitches," as they all are. One of the boys did spot that he came from London, though, and asked him, and he said, "Yes, he did—from the Mile End Road." He told us later that that is a well-known locality and a leading quarter of the town.
"Well, Mr. Hall, sir," Morphy went on, "I only wish it could be done, but it can't, though the notion does you credit, and does us all credit, and to show my appreciation, gentlemen, the drinks are on me. Name your liquors. Mike, what's yours?"
"Meaning," says the little man from the Mile End Road, "meaning nobody ain't going?"
We had started talking again, but we all stopped at that and stared our hardest at the blame little fool in the corner by the stove, who didn't know what he was up against. I tell you you could have heard a fly sneeze in that saloon. Rummy thing, too, the more silent it was, the more plain we seemed to see Pete in his cabin way up, across Lost Men's Hills, waiting and waiting till the cold and hunger got him, and the wolves broke in and gave him his funeral.
"Gentlemen," began Morphy, "the drinks——"
But no one took any notice of him, and his voice trailed off into silence, and Mike Pierce let loose a flood of language that laid out a bull-puncher talking to his team the way Morphy's rag-time kid would lay out you or me at high-toned music on the piano.
"It's just plain foolishness," said Mike at last, "but what I said I stick to."
"Right-o," said the little man, and Mike gave him the sort of look you give your best Sunday go-to-meeting enemy the day after he's played you the lowest down trick you ever heard of.
The very next day they started. Mike was no slouch, once he began, and he fairly made things hum, getting all ready. We had passed the hat round, and they were as well equipped as could be—good stores, good dogs, first-class outfit in every way. All they wanted they had, for the boys had come down with the dust ready enough, and some of us even began to think they had a dog's chance of getting through, especially those who didn't know Lost Men's Hills.
But they had no luck from the start. Only two days after they left the weather broke. It was bad enough in town; what it was like out there we knew well enough.
I remember, when it cleared a bit, there were five suns in the sky, and by the warmth that came you couldn't tell which was the real one and which the mock.
Bad as the weather was, Mike Pierce and Harry Hall pushed on. Likely Harry Hall didn't know what he was in for. He had been in the country a while and done journeys, you understand, but none like this. Mike knew, though—he knew what was before them, and he didn't like the prospects one little bit. His only consolation was to sit by the fire at night and think what Hall would have to go through. Great Heavens, I don't suppose any man ever hated any other quite so awful as Mike Pierce came to hate that little London chap from the Mile End Road.
When the weather broke, the snow came, the bitter, blinding snow, driving so thick and fast before the gale that a man could not see his mittened hand if he held it before his face, and the dogs set on the trail would only whimper and turn their noses up-wind. For a week they were held fast, and they not fifty miles on their journey. Then the wind let up, and the curling snow wreaths dropped, and Hall said—
"It can't be done; let's go back."
Mike cursed him good and hearty.
"You let us in for it," he said, "and you'll see it through."
So off they started, and hard work it was, breaking a trail through that untrodden snow. They lost two dogs in a drift, and the cold—sixty below it was—grew till trees they passed would split, rent by the frost as by an axe, and no matter how big a fire they lit, the heat from it seemed but a lost thing in that enormous cold—a little lost futile thing that made no difference at all.
Their week's delay had made them a bit short, for their supplies had been very carefully calculated, so that they should travel as lightly as they could. They tried to make up the time they had lost by pushing on faster, and then there came the wind again, the bitter wind from the north that stabs clean through you like the point of a spear. It brought the snow, too, the driving snow that covers all the world in one white pall of death. It seemed to get colder every day. When they halted they cut down whole trees and heaped them up till the flames roared sky-high, and yet it is a fact that the meat they cooked would be crisp and frizzled on one side and still raw and frozen on the other. Then they lost their best dog, the team-leader. It slept so near the fire one night it scorched all one flank, and the next day the frost got in the wound and it died. The loss was a heavy one, and they made slower progress than ever, for the dogs hadn't fought out which was to be the new leader, and pulled mighty badly. Hall was fair broken up.
"Mate," he said, "we've given it a fair trial, and it can't be done. Let's go back."
"We ain't quitting," was all Mike said. "You let us in for this, and you'll see it through."
And he sat quiet there by the fire, hating Hall as I suppose one man has seldom hated another.
"You're going on," Mike said.
A day or two later, when they had lost another day. Hall tried again. He argued, entreated, implored, wept—but what's the good of tears that freeze before they've well come into your eyes?
"You're going on," Mike said again, as he sat there, hating Hall with all his heart. "We ain't quitting."
They came to Lost Men's Hills. It was crossing them finished the thing, as most of us expected it would. Half-way through the dogs got at the stores while Mike and Hall were away from camp, trying to chop a trail clear. There wasn't an awful lot left by the time the dogs were through, and Hall was so mad he killed two of them, letting fly with his axe and never thinking. Mike was pretty near killing him in return, only he thought that would really be doing Hall a kindness. Another dog ran off and vanished—likely the wolves got him—and so there they were, only half-way over the hills, with two dogs left.
But they kept on some way, and, what's more, they shook clear of the hills and came out on the plain beyond, which the wind had swept fairly clear of snow, so that the going was better. But the cold was worse, for the wind from the Pole crawled over it like a thin flame without warmth; and if they shut their eyes, to save them a minute from the glare of the snow, the lashes would freeze to their cheeks, so that they could not open them again. There wasn't much wood about here, and what there was was mighty small stuff. They used to dream of great fires and of rooms with huge blazing stoves and big red curtains over the doors and windows, and then they would wake shivering, to find themselves still alone in that tremendous cold. Hall lost an ear the frost bit off, and Mike was glad when that happened, and would have smiled had his frozen muscles been capable of any such movement.
The days were short, the nights black and long. Often the Northern Lights would blaze overhead in great streams of red and crimson and yellow, and the stars were a glory and a wonder; but little those two heeded as they fought their way on, frozen, starving, despairing, hating each other more fiercely with every hardship they endured.
They had almost forgotten their errand now. They were like automata, as if the cold had frozen even their thoughts. All they knew was that they had to push on, through the cold that was like a lost soul's despair, through the silence that was like that which reigns half-way between the stars.
They lost both their last dogs, and quarrelled feebly, in bitter whispers, about whose fault it was. Mike got his knife out, and Hall tried to load their gun; but his fingers were too stiff to get the cartridge into the breech, and Mike was so weak he let the knife fall in the snow and lost it. Luckily there was plenty of wood about, and Hall built the biggest fire they had had for a long time, though its warmth was against at last to the cold as a child's lifted hand against the march of a conquering army. That night Mike refused his supper—he said it was curry he wanted, curry so hot it blistered your mouth as you ate it, and then blistered you all the way down. If he couldn't have curry, he wouldn't have anything.
"I'm done," he said; "I'm going to cash in this trip."
"You're a nice one!" Hall mocked him. "Garn, you and your not quitting!"
"I ain't quitting—I've quit," said Mike.
He crawled away into his sleeping-sack, and there the frost found him, so that in the morning he was cold and stiff.
There were twenty miles still to cover, there or thereabouts, and Hall sat a time considering when he found out what had happened.
"Done it so far together," said Hall to himself; "may as well stick it out together."
You see, there were wolves about—wolves that had followed all the way from the woods on Lost Men's Hills, and Hall, for all he had hated Mike, couldn't make up his mind to leave him so.
He slung up the rest of their stores on a tree—it was mighty little they had left now—so as to be safe, and he hoisted Mike, who was stiff as a log of wood, on his back, and off he started.
How he did it no one will ever know. The cold struck through and through him, so that there was no longer left to him even the memory of warmth. He was worn out with what he had been through, he was only half conscious of what he did, the dead man on his back weighed him down, but somehow or other, stumbling, falling, reeling, on and on he went, and the slow, snow-covered miles grew less one by one.
From above the four mock suns looked down on him as they followed the true sun to his westering, the stars came out above, the Northern Lights flamed above his head, above the strangest sight that even they had ever seen. In that great silence of the vast white wilderness even the faint crackling of the far-flung streamers was something of a relief, and Hall was glad of it, and mumbled sometimes in reply.
It had been soon after sun-up when, with the dead man on his back, he started out to cover the twenty miles that still lay between him and his destination; it was nearly sun-up next day when he and what he bore came at last to Pete's little cabin on the side of the hill. It is to be supposed some instinct held him straight on his course through the night, for they say his trail was as true as a deer's to the water-hole. But he was nearly done when he came at last to the door of the shack and hammered on it with his fists.
Pete had the scare of his life. He had never dreamed there was a living soul within a couple of hundred miles or more. Since freeze-up he had heard no sound save the howling of the wind, or the drifting of the snow, or the splitting of a tree or a stone in the rending cold. For the rest, there had been the silence that falls where the rule of -60° bears sway, and now here were two men, one living and one dead, coming hammering at his door.
At first he was inclined to believe he had gone mad, as men have done in the frozen solitudes, and that his visitors were only visions of his own; but he says he reckoned even a vision would be glad of food and warmth, and he hustled round right smart to fill up the stove with fresh wood and get a hot breakfast ready.
Mike they hoisted up on the roof of the shack. They reckoned he wouldn't mind, and they wanted him out of the way of the dogs. Then Hall tried to get thawed out, while Pete hustled around. There is no doubt he was mighty good to them, but, of course, a man's glad to have visitors when he hasn't seen a soul for months, and then, too, he was mighty sorry and concerned about Hall's condition, and what had happened to poor Mike Pierce.
"It's real lucky I have good and plenty stores," he said, "ain't it?"
"Plenty stores, have you?" asked Hall.
"Yep, plenty and to spare," answered Pete. "Gosh, we'll make a big feed, we will so. There's some tinned tomatoes we'll have, and some canned corn, and I'll fry some pancakes. Which would you rather have—venison or bear meat? I've got both."
"Ain't no ways short," said Hall, "that's a sure thing."
"I should say," agreed Pete. "The Evans boys left me a whole heap. They went back the valley trail, but they pushed on here first and left me plenty of stuff, and then I got a bear and a couple of deer before the bad time began. But, bless me," he added, remembering suddenly, "what was you two doing this way this time of year? "
"Oh, just mouching around," answered Henry Hall.