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CHAPTER XIII.


AT THE SUMMIT OF CHILKOOT PASS.


At Sheep Camp, which lay in something of a hollow, there had been a goodly collection of trees and brush, but now, as the little party started on the journey to the summit of Chilkoot Pass, all this was left behind, and nothing confronted them but immense beds or glaciers of snow, which crunched under their feet and gave forth a hollow sound. At certain points they could plainly hear the rushing of water far beneath.

"Gracious, if a fellow went through this crust of snow what would happen to him?" said Randy, as he trudged on, with his uncle just ahead of him and Earl behind.

"Let us hope that no such fate overtakes any of the party," replied Mr. Portney, gravely. "It is not likely that one can break through here," he added, "for the snow in the trail is pretty well packed down."

The blinding glare of the sun had caused all to put on their smoked glasses, or goggles, but now, as the great orb of day was lost to sight behind the mountain tops, these protectors for the eyes were removed, that they might see their way clearer. The Alaskan twilight was creeping on them, causing all their surroundings to turn to a pale blue color. The mists of the mountains were also rising, and on every hand were weird, ghostlike shadows which enhanced this scene of wild desolation.

On and on went the white members of the party, doing their best to keep the sturdy Indian pack-carriers well in sight. But the red people, with their hideously painted faces, knew every foot of the way, and made rapid progress, and it was all the others could do at times to keep up.

By ten o'clock it began to grow colder, and even the boys could feel the crust of snow on which they were trudging becoming firmer beneath their feet. It was far from dark, a pale glimmer of light hanging on every mountain top. But now the trail became suddenly steeper, and they found themselves going straight up the side of a hill several hundred feet high.

"Plant your feet firmly at every step," were Foster Portney's words of caution. "And remember, looking back will do you no good."

This last warning was for Randy's benefit, for the lad had just looked back and shivered over the awful descent below him. A fall would mean a long roll, and a broken neck over a cliff below.

Captain Zoss had gone on ahead with the Indians and just before midnight he came back with a warning to watch out for several splits, or crevasses, in the glaciers they were now traversing.

"Salmon Head says he heard a report of several new ones just before starting, and these are as yet unmarked," he said.

"We'll be as careful as we can," said Dr. Barwaithe. "We can do no more."

They now passed over a broad plain of snow where the mists hung more thickly than ever. They had almost reached the centre of the plain when a loud cry from the Indians ahead caused them to halt.

"What can be the meaning of that?" questioned Earl. "Can they be in trouble?"

Presently, from among the mists appeared the form of one of the Indian carriers, without his bundle. He soon explained in broken English that he had been sent back by Salmon Head to warn them of a split in the ice field just ahead. One of the Indian women had slipped in, and it was by mere good fortune that some of the men had rescued her.

This Indian remained with them until the crack was reached, where he resumed his pack and went on. The opening was an irregular one, from four to eight feet wide and of unfathomable depth. Fortunately the sides were well defined and firm, so they had small trouble in leaping across.

"It was good of them to send a man back," said the doctor, as he paused to peer down into the crevasse. "Had we not been warned we might have slipped into that without knowing it."

The trail now wound in and out among a number of small hills, and once again the party ahead was lost to sight. With the increasing cold came a stiff wind through the passes, bringing down upon their heads a veritable storm of snow, swept from the mountain tops above.

"I can readily understand how impossible it would be to make one's way through this Pass during the winter," said Dr. Barwaithe. "A regular fall of snow would mean a blizzard down here and a snowing in from which there would be no escape until spring arrived."

"And think of the cold!" said Earl. "Phew! the thermometer must go to about forty below zero!"

"It does go as low as that at times," replied his uncle. "No; travelling through this Pass during the long Alaskan winter is entirely out of the question. The man to undertake it would be a madman."

They had come to the end of the comparatively level portion of the trail, and now climbing so dangerous was at hand that little more was said. From one steep icy elevation they would crawl to the next, until several hundred feet up. Then came a turn around a cliff where the passageway was scarcely two feet wide, with a wall on one side and what appeared misty, bottomless space on the other. Here the Indians had fastened a hand-rope which each was glad enough to clutch as he wormed his way along to safer ground.

"Well, I don't want any more of that!" said Earl, with a long sigh of relief. "A slip there, and it would be good-by, sure!"

"Yes, and I guess they would never even get your body," added Randy.

There was no time left to halt, for the Indians were pressing on, their endurance, and especially the endurance of the women and the boys, proving a constant wonder to Randy and Earl, the latter declaring that they must be tougher than pine knots to stand it.

"One more big climb, boys, and we'll be at the summit!" was the welcome announcement made by Captain Zoss; but when Earl and Randy looked at the climb he mentioned their hearts fairly sank within them and they wondered how in the world they were going to make it without its costing them their lives.

An almost sheer wall of ice and snow confronted them, rising in an irregular form to a height of four hundred feet. This cliff, if such it might be called, was more light at its top than at the base, and consequently it appeared to stand out towards them as they gazed up at it. Along the face the Indian pack-carriers were crawling, like flies on a lumpy white-washed wall.

"We can't do—" began Randy, when he felt his arm pinched by Earl.

"We must do it, Randy," came back in a whisper. "The Indians are doing it, and so can we—if we'll put our grit into it."

"Now take it slow and be sure of one foot before you move the next," said Foster Portney, warning them again. "Dig as deeply into the ice and snow as you can. And above all things. Randy and Earl, don't look back!" And the uncle shook his fist to emphasize his words.

A breathing spell was taken, and then they started slowly for the base of the cliff, where Captain Zoss got down on his knees to make sure that they were on the right trail, if trail it could be called. He soon announced that one party had gone up at one place and the others at a spot about thirty feet to the left.

"I'll try my luck here," he said, and the doctor agreed to follow him. There was no telling which trail was the better, and the Portneys took the other, Mr. Portney going first, with Randy next and Earl last. The uncle wished to make sure of the footing before he allowed the boys to come after him.

The first hundred feet up were not as difficult as Randy and Earl had imagined, but now every step had to be calculated, and when half way up Foster Portney came to a halt.

"Here's a very steep place," he announced, without, however, looking back. "Randy, when you reach it, catch hold of the spur of ice with your left hand and put your foot just beneath it. Tell Earl to do the same."

"I will," answered Randy, but when the spot mentioned was reached poor Randy's heart leaped into his throat. The sheer wall before him was nearly as high as a house, and there was nothing to cling to but little lumps of ice which stuck out here and there. The lumps might crack off, and then—he did not dare to think further than that. He was strangely tempted to look below him, but his uncle's words of warning rang in his ears—"Don't look back!" and he did not.

One step was taken, and then another, and Randy felt as if he was suspended in the air, with nothing above or beneath him. A brief vision of himself lying mangled far below flashed across his mind, and he wished himself safe back in the woods of Maine again. What was all the gold in Alaska worth alongside of such an agonizing risk of life as this?

But he must go on; he could not remain where he was forever. The next step was even more difficult, and he held his breath as he took it. He had been climbing up the cliff for less than quarter of an hour, yet he felt a year older than when he had begun. Would the climb never come to an end?

"Take it easy, boys; we are almost there," came the encouraging voice of Foster Portney, although the uncle was almost as fearful as his nephews. "A little to the right now, and beware of those snow lumps; they are not firm enough to hold to. I can see the top just above my head. Ah, here I am. Now, Randy, another step and give me your hand. Now, Earl, take the same step Randy took. There you are. Thank God we are safe so far!"

The two boys echoed their uncle's sentiment, with a deep feeling in their hearts which they never forgot. The summit of Chilkoot Pass had been reached at last.