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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Yukon Trail - Chapter 28. A Message From The Dead
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The Yukon Trail - Chapter 28. A Message From The Dead Post by :Jeff_Carter Category :Long Stories Author :William Macleod Raine Date :May 2012 Read :822

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The Yukon Trail - Chapter 28. A Message From The Dead

CHAPTER XXVIII. A MESSAGE FROM THE DEAD

Macdonald drove his team into the teeth of the storm. The wind came in gusts. Sometimes the gale was so stiff that the dogs could scarcely crawl forward against it; again there were moments of comparative stillness, followed by squalls that slapped the driver in the face like the whipping of a loose sail on a catboat.

High drifts made the trail difficult. Not once but fifty times Macdonald left the gee-pole to break a way through snow-waves for the sled. The best he could get out of his dogs was three miles an hour, and he knew that there was not another team or driver in the North could have done so well.

It was close to noon when he reached a division of the road known as the Fork. One trail ran down to the river and up it to the distant creeks. The other led across the divide, struck the Yukon, and pointed a way to the coast. White drifts had long since blotted out the track of the sled that had preceded him. Had the fugitives gone up the river to the creeks with intent to hole themselves up for the winter? Or was it their purpose to cross the divide and go out over the ice to the coast?

The pursuer knew that Gid Holt was wise as a weasel. He could follow blindfolded the paths that led to every creek in the gold-fields. It might be taken as a certainty that he had not plunged into such a desperate venture without having a plan well worked out beforehand. Elliot had a high grade of intelligence. Would they try to reach the coast and make their get-away to Seattle? Or would they dig themselves in till the heavy snows were past and come back to civilization with the story of a lucky strike to account for the gold they brought with them? Neither gold-dust nor nuggets could be identified. There would be no way of proving the story false. The only evidence against them would be that they had left at Kusiak and this was merely of a corroborative kind. There would be no chance of convicting them upon it.

But to strike for Seattle was to throw away all pretense of innocence. Fugitives from justice, they would have to disappear from sight in order to escape. The hunt for them would continue until at last they were unearthed.

One fork of the road led to comparative safety; the other went by devious windings to the penitentiary and perhaps the gallows. The Scotchman put himself in the place of the men he was trailing. Given the same conditions, he knew which path he would follow.

Macdonald took the trail that led down to the river, to the distant gold-creeks which offered a refuge from man-hunters in many a deserted cabin marooned by the deep snows.

Even the iron frame and steel muscles of the Scotch-Canadian protested against the task he had set them that day. It was a time to sit snugly inside by a stove and listen to the howling of the wind as it hurled itself down from the divide. But from daylight till dark Colby Macdonald fought with drifts and breasted the storm. He got into the harness with the dogs. He broke trail for them, cheered them, soothed, comforted, punished. Long after night had fallen he staggered into the hut of two prospectors, his parka so stiff with frozen snow that it had to be beaten with a hammer before the coat could be removed.

"How long since a dog team passed--seven huskies and two men?" was his first question.

"No dog team has passed for four days," one of the men answered.

"You mean you haven't seen one," Macdonald corrected.

"I mean none has passed--unless it went by in the night while we slept. And even then our dogs would have warned us."

Macdonald flung his ice-coated gloves to a table and stooped to take off his mukluks. His face was blue with the cold, but the bleak look in the eyes came from within. He said nothing more until he was free of his wet clothes. Then he sat down heavily and passed a hand over his frozen eyebrows.

"Get me something to eat and take care of my dogs. There is food for them on the sled," he said.

While he ate he told them of the bank robbery and the murder. Their resentment against the men who had done it was quite genuine. There could be no doubt they told the truth when they said no sled had preceded his. They were honest, reliable prospectors. He knew them both well.

The weary man slept like a log. He opened his eyes next morning to find one of his hosts shaking him.

"Six o'clock, Mr. Macdonald. Your breakfast is ready. Jim is looking out for the huskies."

Half an hour later the Scotchman gave the order, "Mush!" He was off again, this time on the back trail as far as the Narrows, from which point he meant to strike across to intersect the fork of the road leading to the divide.

The storm had passed and when the late sun rose it was in a blue sky. Fine enough the day was overhead, but the slushy snow, where it was worn thin on the river by the sweep of the wind, made heavy travel for the dogs. Macdonald was glad enough to reach the Narrows, where he could turn from the river and cut across to hit the trail of the men he was following. He had about five miles to go before he would reach the Smith Crossing road and every foot of it he would have to break trail for the dogs. This was slow business, since he had no partner at the gee-pole. Back and forth, back and forth he trudged, beating down the loose snow for the runners. It was a hill trail, and the drifts were in most places not very deep. But the Scotchman was doing the work of two, and at a killing pace.

Over a ridge the team plunged down into a little park where the snow was deeper. Macdonald, breaking trail across the mountain valley, found his feet weighted with packed ice slush so that he could hardly move them. When at last he had beaten down a path for his dogs he stood breathing deep at the summit of the slope. Before him lay the main road to Smith's Crossing, scarce fifty yards away. He gave a deep whoop of triumph, for along it ran the wavering tracks left by a sled. He was on the heels of his enemy at last.

As he turned back to his Siberian hounds, the eyes of Macdonald came to abrupt attention. On the hillside, not ten yards from him, something stuck out of the snow like a signpost. It was the foot of a man.

Slowly Macdonald moved toward it. He knew well enough what he had stumbled across--one of the tragedies that in the North are likely to be found in the wake of every widespread blizzard. Some unfortunate traveler, blinded by the white swirl, had wandered from the trail and had staggered up a draw to his death.

With a little digging the Alaskan uncovered a leg. The man had died where he had fallen, face down. Macdonald scooped away the snow and found a pack strapped to the back of the buried man. He cut the thongs and tried to ease it away. But the gunnysack had frozen to the parka. When he pulled, the rotten sacking gave way under the strain. The contents of the pack spilled out.

The eyes in the grim face of Macdonald grew hard and steely. He had found, by some strange freak of chance, much more than he had expected, to find. Using his snowshoe as a shovel, he dug the body free and turned it over. At sight of the face he gave a cry of astonishment.

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