An Odyssey of the North

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I.

“Sixty ounces, without even a piece of paper! Ever expect to see it again?”

Malemute Kid shrugged his shoulders. Why did he quit? Prince was interested in the Indian dog-driver whom his partner had just bought out of Her Majesty's mail service.

“Don't know. He couldn’t desert and then stay here, and he was just wild to remain in the country. Palavered around like a crazy man. Something happened to him when he got to Dawson, couldn’t make out what, and he made up his mind on the jump; and in the same breath he said he d been working to this very end for years. He had everything mixed up. Talked of making me rich, putting me onto a mine with more gold than Eldorado and Bonanza together. Never saw a man talk on so in my life. It was only sixty ounces, and the look in his face when I agreed was worth the price.”

“Who is he, anyway?”

“Don't know. But he’s a fellow to whet your curiosity. I never saw him before, but all the Coast was talking about him eight years ago. Sort of mysterious, you know. They called him the Strange One, Ulysses, and the Man with the Otter Skins. He came down out of the north, in the dead of winter, skirting Bering Sea and traveling like mad. No one ever learned where he came from, but he must have come far. He was badly travel-worn when he got food from the Swedish missionary on Golovin Bay, and asked the way south. We beard of this afterward. Then he abandoned the shoreline, heading right across Norton Sound. Terrible weather, snowstorms and high winds, but he pulled through where a thousand other men would have died; missing St. Michaels, and making the land at Pastilik. He'd lost all but two dogs, and was nearly gone with starvation.

“He was so anxious to go on that Father Roubeau fitted him out with grub; but he couldn’t let him have any dogs, for he was only waiting my arrival to go on trail himself. Mr. Ulysses knew too much to start without animals, and fretted around for several days. He had on his sled a bunch of beautifully cured otter skins, sea otters, you know, worth their weight in gold. There happened to be at Pastilik an old Shylock of a Russian trader, who had dogs to kill. Well, they didn’t dicker very long, but when the Strange One headed south again, it was in the rear of a spanking dog team. Mr. Shylock, by the way, had the otter skins. I saw them. Dogs must have brought him five hundred apiece. And it wasn’t as if the Strange One didn’t know the value of sea otter: he was Indian; and besides, what little he talked showed he'd been among white men.

“After the ice passed out of the sea, word came up from Nunivak Island that he had gone in there for grub. Then he dropped from sight, and this is the first heard of him in eight years. Now where did he come from? And what was he doing there? And why did he come from there? Another mystery of the north, Prince, for you to solve.”

“Thanks, awfully,” was the mining engineer’s response, muffled and sleepy, from his sleeping-furs; “but you have so many confounded mysteries up here that my hands are full as it is. Anyway, I Don't expect I'll ever hear of the chap again, nor you, either, of your sixty ounces.”

The cold weather had come on with the long nights, and the sun had begun to play his ancient game of peekaboo along the southern snow line ere aught was heard of Malemute Kid's grubstake. And then, one bleak morning in early January, a heavily laden dog train pulled into his cabin below Stuart River. He of the Otter Skins was there, and with him walked a man such as the gods have almost forgotten how to fashion. Men never talked of luck and pluck and five-hundred-dollar dirt without bringing in the name of Axel Gunderson; nor could tales of nerve or strength or daring pass up and down the camp fire without the summoning of his presence. And when the conversation flagged, it blazed anew at mention of the woman who shared his fortunes.

As has been noted, in the making of Axel Gunderson the gods had remembered their old-time cunning, and cast him after the manner of men who were born when the world was young. Full seven feet he towered in his picturesque costume which marked a king of Eldorado. His chest, neck, and limbs were those of a giant. To bear his three hundred pounds of bone and muscle, his snowshoes were greater by a generous yard than those of other men. Roughhewn, with rugged brow and massive jaw and unflinching eyes of palest blue, his face told the tale of one who knew but the law of might. Of the yellow of ripe corn silk, his frost-incrusted hair swept like day across the night, and fell far down his coat of bearskin. A vague tradition of the sea seemed to cling about him, as he swung down the narrow trail in advance of the dogs; and he brought the butt of his dogwhip against Malemute Kid's door as a Norse sea rover, on southern foray, might thunder for admittance at the castle gate.

Prince bared his womanly arms and kneaded sour-dough bread, casting, as he did so, many a glance at the three guests, three guests the like of which might never come under a mans roof in a lifetime. The Strange One, whom Malemute Kid had surnamed Ulysses of the North, fascinated him; but his interest chiefly gravitated between Axel Gunderson and Axel Gunderson's wife. She felt the day's journey, for she had softened in comfortable cabins during the many days since her husband mastered the wealth of frozen pay streaks, and she was tired. She rested against his great breast like a slender flower against a wall, replying lazily to Malemute Kid's good-natured banter, and stirring Prince's blood strangely with an occasional sweep of her deep, dark eyes.

For Prince was a man, and healthy, and had seen few women in many months. And she was older than he, and an Indian besides. But she was different from all native wives he had met: she had traveled, had been in his country among others, he gathered from the conversation; and she knew most of the things the women of his own race knew, and much more that it was not in the nature of things for them to know. She could make a meal of sun-dried fish or a bed in the snow; yet she teased them with tantalizing details of many-course dinners, and caused strange internal dissensions to arise at the mention of various quondam dishes which they had well-nigh forgotten. She knew the ways of the moose, the bear, and the little blue fox, and of the wild amphibians of the northern seas; she was skilled in the lore of the woods and the streams, and the tale writ by man and bird and beast upon the delicate snow crust was to her an open book; yet Prince caught the appreciative twinkle in her eye as she read the Rules of the Camp. These Rules had been fathered by the Unquenchable Bettles at a time when his blood ran high, and were remarkable for the terse simplicity of their humor. Prince always turned them to the wall before the arrival of ladies; but who could suspect that this native wife Well, it was too late now.

This, then, was the wife of Axel Gunderson, a woman whose name and fame had traveled with her husband's, hand in hand, through all the northland. At table, Malemute Kid baited her with the assurance of an old friend, and Prince shook off the shyness of first acquaintance and joined in. But she held her own in the unequal contest, while her husband, slower in wit, ventured naught but applause. And he was very proud of her; his every look and action revealed the magnitude of the place she occupied in his life. He of the Otter Skins ate in silence, forgotten in the merry battle; and long ere the others were done he pushed back from the table and went out among the dogs. Yet all too soon his fellow travelers drew on their mittens and parkas, and followed him.

There had been no snow for many days, and the sleds slipped along the hard-packed Yukon trail as easily as if it had been glare ice. Ulysses led the first sled; with the second came Prince and Axel Gunderson's wife; while Malemute Kid and the yellow-haired giant brought up the third.

“It’s only a hunch, Kid,” he said; “but I think it’s straight. He’s never been there, but he tells a good story, and shows a map I heard of when I was in the Kootenay country, years ago. I d like to have you go along; but he’s a strange one, and swore point-blank to throw it up if any one was brought in. But when I come back you'll get first tip, and I'll stake you next to me, and give you a half share in the town site besides.”

“No! no!” he cried, as the other strove to interrupt. “I m running this, and before I m done it'll need two heads. If it’s all right, why it'll be a second Cripple Creek, man; do you hear? a second Cripple Creek! It’s quartz, you know, not placer; and if we work it right we'll corral the whole thing, millions upon millions. I ye heard of the place before, and so have you. We'll build a town thousands of workmen good waterways steam~ ship lines big carrying trade light-draught steamers for head-reaches survey a railroad, perhaps sawmills electric light plant do our own banking commercial company syndicate Say! just you hold your hush till I get back, and then we’ll see.”

The sleds came to a halt where the trail crossed the mouth of Stuart River. An unbroken sea of frost, its wide expanse stretched away into the unknown east. The snowshoes were withdrawn from the lashings of the sleds. Axel Gunderson shook hands and stepped to the fore, his great webbed shoes sinking a fair half yard into the feathery surface and packing the snow so the dogs should not wallow. His wife fell in behind the last sled, betraying long practice in the art of handling the awkward footgear. The stillness was broken with cheery farewells; the dogs whined; and He of the Otter Skins talked with his whip to a recalcitrant wheeler.

An hour later, the train had taken on the likeness of a black pencil crawling in a long, straight line across a mighty sheet of foolscap.

II.

One night, many weeks later, Malemute Kid and Prince fell to solving chess problems from the torn page of an ancient magazine. The Kid had just returned from his Bonanza properties, and was resting up preparatory to a long moose hunt. Prince too had been on creek and trail nearly all winter, and had grown hungry for a blissful week of cabin life.

“Interpose the black knight, and force the king. No, that won't do. See, the next move” —

“Why advance the pawn two squares? Bound to take it in transit, and with the bishop out of the way” —

“But hold on! That leaves a hole, and” —

“No; it’s protected. Go ahead! You'll see it works.”

It was very interesting. Somebody knocked at the door a second time before Malemute Kid said, Come in. The door swung open. Something staggered in. Prince caught one square look, and sprang to his feet. The horror in his eyes caused Malemute Kid to whirl about; and he too was startled, though he had seen bad things before. The thing tottered blindly toward them. Prince edged away till he reached the nail from which hung his Smith & Wesson.

“My God! what is it?” he whispered to Malemute Kid.

“Don't know. Looks like a case of freezing and no grub,” replied the Kid, sliding away in the opposite direction. “Watch out! It may be mad,” he warned, coming back from closing the door.

The thing advanced to the table. The bright flame of the slush lamp caught its eye. It was amused, and gave voice to eldritch cackles which betokened mirth. Then, suddenly, he for it was a man swayed back, with a hitch to his skin trousers, and began to sing a chanty, such as men lift when they swing around the capstan circle and the sea snorts in their ears —

“Yan-kee ship come down de ri-ib-er,
     Pull! my bully boys! Pull!
D’yeh want to know de captain ru-nns her?
     Pull! my bully boys! Pull!
Jon-a-than Jones oh South Caho-li-in-a,
     Pull! my bully” —

 He broke off abruptly, tottered with a wolfish snarl to the meat shelf, and before they could intercept was tearing with his teeth at a chunk of raw bacon. The struggle was fierce between him and Malemute Kid; but his mad strength left him as suddenly as it had come, and he weakly surrendered the spoil. Between them they got him upon a stool, where he sprawled with half his body across the table. A small dose of whiskey of the North strengthened him, so that he could dip a spoon into the sugar caddy which Malemute Kid placed before him. After his appetite had been somewhat cloyed, Prince, shuddering as he did so, passed him a mug of weak beef tea.

The creature’s eyes were alight with a sombre frenzy, which blazed and waned with every mouthful. There was very little skin to the face. The face, for that matter, sunken and emaciated, bore very little likeness to human countenance. Frost after frost had bitten deeply, each depositing its stratum of scab upon the half-healed scar that went before. This dry, hard surface was of a bloody-black color, serrated by grievous cracks wherein the raw red flesh peeped forth. His skin garments were dirty and in tatters, and the fur of one side was singed and burned away, showing where he had lain upon his fire.

Malemute Kid pointed to where the sun-tanned hide had been cut away, strip by strip, the grim signature of famine.

“Who are you?” slowly and distinctly enunciated the Kid. The man paid no heed.

“Where do you come from?”

“Yan-kee ship come down de ri-lb-er,” was the quavering response.

“Don't doubt the beggar came down the river,” the Kid said, shaking him in an endeavor to start a more lucid flow of talk.

But the man shrieked at the contact, clapping a hand to his side in evident pain. He rose slowly to his feet, half leaning on the table.

“She laughed at me so with the hate in her eye; and she would not come.”

His voice died away, and he was sinking back, when Malemute Kid gripped him by the wrist and shouted, “Who? Who would not come?”

“She, Unga. She laughed, and struck at me, so, and so. And then” —

“Yes? And then” —

“And then what?”

“And then he lay very still, in the snow, a long time. He is still in the snow.” The two men looked at each other helplessly.

“Who is in the snow?”

“She, Unga. She looked at me with the hate in her eye, and then” —

“Yes, yes.”

 “And then she took the knife, so; and once, twice she was weak. I traveled very slow. And there is much gold in that place, very much gold.”

“Where is Unga?” For all Malemute Kid knew, she might be dying a mile away. He shook the man savagely, repeating again and again, “Where is Unga?”

“She — is — in — the — snow.”

“Go on!” The Kid was pressing his wrist cruelly.

“So — I — would — be — in — the — snow — but — I — had — a — debt — to — pay. — It — was — heavy — I — had — a — debt — to — pay — a — debt — to — pay — I — had” —  The faltering monosyllables ceased, as he fumbled in his pouch and drew forth a buckskin sack. “A — debt — to — pay — five — pounds — of — gold — grub  — stake  — Mal — e — mute — Kid — I” — The exhausted head dropped upon the table; nor could Malemute Kid rouse it again.

“It’s Ulysses,” he said quietly, tossing the bag of dust on the table. “Guess it’s all day with Axel Gunderson and the woman. Come on, let’s get him between the blankets. He’s Indian: he’ll pull through, and tell a tale besides.”

As they cut his garments from him, near his right breast could be seen two unhealed, hard-lipped knife thrusts.

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