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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 1. The Most Terrible Thing In The World
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 1. The Most Terrible Thing In The World Post by :ben.g Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2030

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 1. The Most Terrible Thing In The World


At Point Fullerton, one thousand miles straight north of civilization, Sergeant William MacVeigh wrote with the stub end of a pencil between his fingers the last words of his semi-annual report to the Commissioner of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police at Regina.

He concluded:

"I beg to say that I have made every effort to run down
Scottie Deane, the murderer. I have not given up hope
of finding him, but I believe that he has gone from
my territory and is probably now somewhere within the
limits of the Fort Churchill patrol. We have hunted
the country for three hundred miles south along the
shore of Hudson's Bay to Eskimo Point, and as far north
as Wagner Inlet. Within three months we have made three
patrols west of the Bay, unraveling sixteen hundred
miles without finding our man or word of him. I
respectfully advise a close watch of the patrols south
of the Barren Lands."

"There!" said MacVeigh aloud, straightening his rounded shoulders with a groan of relief. "It's done."

From his bunk in a corner of the little wind and storm beaten cabin which represented Law at the top end of the earth Private Pelliter lifted a head wearily from his sick bed and said: "I'm bloomin' glad of it, Mac. Now mebbe you'll give me a drink of water and shoot that devilish huskie that keeps howling every now and then out there as though death was after me."

"Nervous?" said MacVeigh, stretching his strong young frame with another sigh of satisfaction. "What if you had to write this twice a year?" And he pointed at the report.

"It isn't any longer than the letters you wrote to that girl of yours--"

Pelliter stopped short. There was a moment of embarrassing silence. Then he added, bluntly, and with a hand reaching out: "I beg your pardon, Mac. It's this fever. I forgot for a moment that-- that you two-- had broken."

"That's all right," said MacVeigh, with a quiver in his voice, as he turned for the water.

"You see," he added, returning with a tin cup, "this report is different. When you're writing to the Big Mogul himself something gets on your nerves. And it has been a bad year with us, Pelly. We fell down on Scottie, and let the raiders from that whaler get away from us. And-- By Jo, I forgot to mention the wolves!"

"Put in a P. S.," suggested Pelliter.

"A P. S. to his Royal Nibs!" cried MacVeigh, staring incredulously at his mate. "There's no use of feeling your pulse any more, Pelly. The fever's got you. You're sure out of your head."

He spoke cheerfully, trying to bring a smile to the other's pale face. Pelliter dropped back with a sigh.

"No-- there isn't any use feeling my pulse," he repeated. "It isn't sickness, Bill-- not sickness of the ordinary sort. It's in my brain-- that's where it is. Think of it-- nine months up here, and never a glimpse of a white man's face except yours. Nine months without the sound of a woman's voice. Nine months of just that dead, gray world out there, with the northern lights hissing at us every night like snakes and the black rocks staring at us as they've stared for a million centuries. There may be glory in it, but that's all. We're 'eroes all right, but there's no one knows it but ourselves and the six hundred and forty-nine other men of the Royal Mounted. My God, what I'd give for the sight of a girl's face, for just a moment's touch of her hand! It would drive out this fever, for it's the fever of loneliness, Mac-- a sort of madness, and it's splitting my 'ead."

"Tush, tush!" said MacVeigh, taking his mate's hand. "Wake up, Pelly! Think of what's coming. Only a few months more of it, and we'll be changed. And then-- think of what a heaven you'll be entering. You'll be able to enjoy it more than the other fellows, for they've never had this. And I'm going to bring you back a letter-- from the little girl--"

Pelliter's face brightened.

"God bless her!" he exclaimed. "There'll be letters from her-- a dozen of them. She's waited a long time for me, and she's true to the bottom of her dear heart. You've got my letter safe?"


MacVeigh went back to the rough little table and added still further to his report to the Commissioner of the Royal Mounted in the following words:

"Pelliter is sick with a strange trouble in his head. At times
I have been afraid he was going mad, and if he lives I advise
his transfer south at an early date. I am leaving for Churchill
two weeks ahead of the usual time in order to get medicines.
I also wish to add a word to what I said about wolves in my
last report. We have seem them repeatedly in packs of from
fifty to one thousand. Late this autumn a pack attacked a
large herd of traveling caribou fifteen miles in from the Bay,
and we counted the remands of one hundred and sixty animals
killed over a distance of less than three miles. It is my
opinion that the wolves kill at least five thousand caribou
in this patrol each year.

"I have the honor to be, sir,

"Your obedient servant,
"In charge of detachment."

He folded the report, placed it with other treasures in the waterproof rubber bag which always went into his pack, and returned to Pelliter's side.

"I hate to leave you alone, Pelly," he said. "But I'll make a fast trip of it-- four hundred and fifty miles over the ice, and I'll do it in ten days or bust. Then ten days back, mebbe two weeks, and you'll have the medicines and the letters. Hurrah!"

"Hurrah!" cried Pelliter.

He turned his face a little to the wall. Something rose up in MacVeigh's throat and choked him as he gripped Pelliter's hand.

"My God, Bill, is that the sun ?" suddenly cried Pelliter.

MacVeigh wheeled toward the one window of the cabin. The sick man tumbled from his bunk. Together they stood for a moment at the window, staring far to the south and east, where a faint red rim of gold shot up through the leaden sky.

"It's the sun," said MacVeigh, like one speaking a prayer.

"The first in four months," breathed Pelliter.

Like starving men the two gazed through the window. The golden light lingered for a few moments, then died away. Pelliter went back to his bunk.

Half an hour later four dogs, a sledge, and a man were moving swiftly through the dead and silent gloom of Arctic day. Sergeant MacVeigh was on his way to Fort Churchill, more than four hundred miles away.

This is the loneliest journey in the world, the trip down from the solitary little wind-beaten cabin at Point Fullerton to Fort Churchill. That cabin has but one rival in the whole of the Northland-- the other cabin at Herschel Island, at the mouth of the Firth, where twenty-one wooden crosses mark twenty-one white men's graves. But whalers come to Herschel. Unless by accident, or to break the laws, they never come in the neighborhood of Fullerton. It is at Fullerton that men die of the most terrible thing in the world-- loneliness. In the little cabin men have gone mad.

The gloomy truth oppressed MacVeigh as he guided his dog team over the ice into the south. He was afraid for Pelliter. He prayed that Pelliter might see the sun now and then. On the second day he stopped at a cache of fish which they had put up in the early autumn for dog feed. He stopped at a second cache on the fifth day, and spent the sixth night at an Eskimo igloo at Blind Eskimo Point. Late en the ninth day he came into Fort Churchill, with an average of fifty miles a day to his credit.

From Fullerton men came in nearer dead than alive when they made the hazard in winter. MacVeigh's face was raw from the beat of the wind. His eyes were red. He had a touch of runner's cramp. He slept for twenty-four hours in a warm bed without stirring. When he awoke he raged at the commanding officer of the barrack for letting him sleep so long, ate three meals in one, and did up his business in a hurry.

His heart warmed with pleasure when he sorted out of his mail nine letters for Pelliter, all addressed in the same small, girlish hand. There was none for himself-- none of the sort which Pelliter was receiving, and the sickening loneliness within him grew almost suffocating.

He laughed softly as he broke a law. He opened one of Pelliter's letters-- the last one written-- and calmly read it. It was filled with the sweet tenderness of a girl's love, and tears came into his red eyes. Then he sat down and answered it. He told the girl about Pelliter, and confessed to her that he had opened her last letter. And the chief of what he said was that it would be a glorious surprise to a man who was going mad (only he used loneliness in place of madness) if she would come up to Churchill the following spring and marry him there. He told her that he had opened her letter because he loved Pelliter more than most men loved their brothers. Then he resealed the letter, gave his mail to the superintendent, packed his medicines and supplies, and made ready to return.

On this same day there came into Churchill a halfbreed who had been hunting white foxes near Blind Eskimo, and who now and then did scout work for the department. He brought the information that he had seen a white man and a white woman ten miles south of the Maguse River. The news thrilled MacVeigh.

"I'll stop at the Eskimo camp," he said to the superintendent. "It's worth investigating, for I never knew of a white woman north of sixty in this country. It might be Scottie Deane."

"Not very likely," replied the superintendent. "Scottie is a tall man, straight and powerful. Coujag says this man was no taller than himself, and walked like a hunchback. But if there are white people out there their history is worth knowing."

The following morning MacVeigh started north. He reached the half-dozen igloos which made up the Eskimo village late the third day. Bye-Bye, the chief man, offered him no encouragement, MacVeigh gave him a pound of bacon, and in return for the magnificent present Bye-Bye told him that he had seen no white people. MacVeigh gave him another pound, and Bye-Bye added that he had not heard of any white people. He listened with the lifeless stare of a walrus while MacVeigh impressed upon him that he was going inland the next morning to search for white people whom he had heard were there. That night, in a blinding snow-storm, Bye-Bye disappeared from camp.

MacVeigh left his dogs to rest up at the igloo village and swung northwest on snow-shoes with the break of arctic dawn, which was but little better than the night itself. He planned to continue in this direction until he struck the Barren, then patrol in a wide circle that would bring him back to the Eskimo camp the next night. From the first he was handicapped by the storm. He lost Bye-Bye's snow-shoe tracks a hundred yards from the igloos. All that day he searched in sheltered places for signs of a camp or trail. In the afternoon the wind died away, the sky cleared, and in the wake of the calm the cold became so intense that trees cracked with reports like pistol shots.

He stopped to build a fire of scrub bush and eat his supper on the edge of the Barren just as the cold stars began blazing over his head. It was a white, still night. The southern timberline lay far behind him, and to the north there was no timber for three hundred miles. Between those lines there was no life, and so there was no sound. On the west the Barren thrust itself down in a long finger ten miles in width, and across that MacVeigh would have to strike to reach the wooded country beyond. It was over there that he had the greatest hope of discovering a trail. After he had finished his supper he loaded his pipe, and sat hunched close up to his fire, staring out over the Barren. For some reason he was filled with a strange and uncomfortable emotion, and he wished that he had brought along one of his tired dogs to keep him company.

He was accustomed to loneliness; he had laughed in the face of things that had driven other men mad. But to-night there seemed to be something about him that he had never known before, something that wormed its way deep down into his soul and made his pulse beat faster. He thought of Pelliter on his fever bed, of Scottie Deane, and then of himself. After all, was there much to choose between the three of them?

A picture rose slowly before him in the bush-fire, and in that picture he saw Scottie, the man-hunted man, fighting a great fight to keep himself from being hung by the neck until he was dead; and then he saw Pelliter, dying of the sickness which comes of loneliness, and beyond those two, like a pale cameo appearing for a moment out of gloom, he saw the picture of a face. It was a girl's face, and it was gone in an instant. He had hoped against hope that she would write to him again. But she had failed him.

He rose to his feet with a little laugh, partly of joy and partly of pain, as he thought of the true heart that was waiting for Pelliter. He tied on his snow-shoes and struck out over the Barren. He moved swiftly, looking sharply ahead of him. The night grew brighter, the stars more brilliant. The zipp, zipp, zipp of the tails of his snow-shoes was the only sound he heard except the first faint, hissing monotone of the aurora in the northern skies, which came to him like the shivering run of steel sledge runners on hard snow.

In place of sound the night about him began to fill with ghostly life. His shadow beckoned and grimaced ahead of him, and the stunted bush seemed to move. His eyes were alert and questing. Within himself he reasoned that he would see nothing, and yet some unusual instinct moved him to caution. At regular intervals he stopped to listen and to sniff the air for an odor of smoke. More and more he became like a beast of prey. He left the last bush behind him. Ahead of him the starlit space was now unbroken by a single shadow. Weird whispers came with a low wind that was gathering in the north.

Suddenly MacVeigh stopped and swung his rifle into the crook of his arm. Something that was not the wind had come up out of the night. He lifted his fur cap from his ears and listened. He heard it again, faintly, the frosty singing of sledge runners. The sledge was approaching from the open Barren, and he cleared for action. He took off his heavy fur mittens and snapped them to his belt, replaced them with his light service gloves, and examined his revolver to see that the cylinder was not frozen. Then he stood silent and waited.

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 2. Billy Meets The Woman
CHAPTER II. BILLY MEETS THE WOMANOut of the gloom a sledge approached slowly. It took form at last in a dim shadow, and MacVeigh saw that it would pass very near to him. He made out, one after another, a human figure, three dogs, and the toboggan. There was something appalling in the quiet of this specter of life looming up out of the night. He could no longer hear the sledge, though it was within fifty paces of him. The figure in advance walked slowly and with bowed head, and the dogs and the sledge followed in a ghostly line.

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Chapter XXVIInto the stream Carrigan plunged and found it only waist-deep in crossing. He saw where Black Roger had come out of the water and where his feet had plowed deep in the ash and char and smoldering debris ahead. This trail he followed. The air he breathed was hot and filled with stifling clouds of ash and char-dust and smoke. His feet struck red-hot embers under the ash, and he smelled burning leather. A forest of spruce and cedar skeletons still crackled and snapped and burst out into sudden tongues of flame about him, and the air he breathed grew