The Shaman/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X.

Daylight came and, lying there in the sled, not at all uncomfortable save for my bonds, I watched for familiar landmarks. For a time I saw shapes of mountains that I remembered, and then these lost semblance of familiarity and I wondered if we were still going backward over our own trail. At last we halted, a quick camp fire was made, and after but a few minutes the shaman came to my sled, put those gorillalike arms of his under me, and lifted me to a sitting posture.

“You give word not fight, friend,” he said, grinning, “and I make arms loose, ummh?”

I grinned back at him as if it were all a joke and gave my promise. He immediately took off all my lashings save those round my knees and feet and called to one of his men, who brought me a steaming cup of tea and a huge slab of smoked salmon that had been skin-grilled and was hot from the fire. I started to eat with prodigious relish, and then thought of poor Jack. I interceded for him with the shaman who was reluctant to extend favors to one who had put up such a fight and was endowed with such great strength.

“He'll promise and will keep his word,” I insisted. “Peluk, I give you my word this is so. You'll take mine, won't you?”

“Me not know other mans so well as know you,” the shaman hesitated, and then finally said, “You askum give you word be good.”

“Of course I promise! Anything to get these cursed thongs off my hands and elbows! I'm cramped stiff!” Jack called. “You've got the best of it, you damned old savage! I'd be a fool not to see that.”

“Yes, that, so,” the shaman said; but he did not grin when he released Jack's upper bindings. In fact he scowled at him with sullen eyes. I made up my mind that if I ever got a chance to speak to Jack alone I would advise him to discretion, and warn him that our situation was far more dangerous and menacing than he deemed. I very much regretted that I had not confided in him all that I had learned, if not while in Malitka's house, at least after we had made our departure therefrom. I accused myself of having been an overly cautious fool and of having at the same time reposed overconfidence in the simplicity of the shaman.

It was quite evident that we had turned off our own trail somewhere, probably miles back, and were heading in a direction that could not return us to the village. We were bound for an unknown destination. Whatever Madame Malitka's intentions, for I was convinced that she was the author of our capture, she did not propose to have us again brought into her presence. And what was more, she quite certainly had never even thought of letting us escape. I wondered what we had done to incur her displeasure or fear after her first decision to save our lives and eventually to grant us liberty. But had she ever so intended? I gave it up; nor could I come to a conclusion as I brooded over the subject throughout that interminable, trying day.

As the forenoon advanced Peluk began to show signs of disappointment at our speed, although to me it was a very rapid progress. He finally stopped and walked slowly past the dogs of both teams, as they lay steaming and panting on the ground. He shook his head and then turned thoughtfully and stared at the sleds.

“We must go faster than we have been,” he growled in his own tongue to his men. “We must lighten the sleds down to the bone.”

He turned to me and spoke in English.

'Mus' get you out for li'l time. No fight?”

“Of course not,” I assented, and his men lifted me from my very comfortable bed in the body of the sled and laid me on the snow.

Immediately they seized our tent, stove, grub box and all hampers and carried them to the foot of a blasted tree. I took the opportunity to advise Jack to submit, adding a hint to the effect that I knew more about it than he did and would explain if we ever had an opportunity. And so, when it came his turn to be ousted, he accepted with good grace and even offered to assist if the shaman would but free him entirely. Peluk's face was wooden and he made no reply nor concession. Within a few minutes more Jack's sled was also emptied.

The three Indians conferred quietly beneath the dead tree and then I saw that they were going to travel light to the utmost; for they discarded even a portion of the food. They gave each dog a whole salmon, brought one of the choice smoked king salmon to both Jack and me, and devoured one themselves, eating with great hurried gulps and tearing the flesh away from the skin with fingers and teeth. They counted out enough more for but barely one or two additional meals for man and beast, made them into a bundle, took from the grub box the tea and sugar, and rolled the remainder of the food into a rubber ground sheet. With the sled lashings they tied this into a bundle and one of the natives, with the loose end of the rope in his teeth, climbed the dead tree until he came to a branch well above the ground, after which he hoisted the bundle upward and lashed it into a crotch. It was evident that they were making a cache, for now they put all our belongings, save a few blankets and our sleeping bags, at the foot of the tree and spread over all the tent, weighting it down as best they could. I sat there striving to conjecture whether this could be to us a hopeful or inimical indication. One of the Indians, whose hunger was not satisfied, started to eat another of the edible salmon. He was harshly ordered to desist.

“Put that back!” Peluk growled at him. “Your belly may be lean before we reach other food. Fool! Can't you see that an accident of any kind might mean starvation? Put it back, I tell you!”

It wasn't a reassuring remark, and I was thankful that he was so engrossed in his projects that he did not chance to look at my face which might, at that moment, have betrayed my understanding of his tongue. I surmise that I must have looked crestfallen. He might have read that I feared starvation camps ahead on that unknown trail. And I have known famine, an experience that one never cares to repeat, that blanches the souls and bodies of those who have survived.

I was sitting staring at my feet when he returned to my side.

“Peluk,” I said placidly, “maybe you'd be good enough to give my partner and me a smoke—a pipe; or even a cigarette would be——

“Humph! Forgetum smoke!” he exclaimed. “One time, yes, mebbe ten time—you give me smoke.”

His eyes twinkled in their folds of flesh that swept outward to his high cheek bones, and from his pocket he produced a packet of cigarette papers I had given him and some of my own tobacco. He even provided me with one of my own matches from a block of sulphurs he took from his own pocket. He did a like service for Jack but with a stolid, disinterested air. And then, his time of relaxation expired, he resumed action. We were lifted into the denuded and far less comfortable beds of the sleds, the harnesses of the dogs were disentangled and we swept out toward our unknown goal.

Urged on by the shaman, our speed was faster than I had ever believed it possible for dogs to maintain. With loads so light that they offered scarcely any resistance, they fell to the long wolf trot over level trails and into the long wolf lope down declivities. Their drivers took turns in lounging on the rails of the sleds, recovering breath, or in running ahead, The lean hips of the runner always worked rhythmically as with long forward fling of narrow snowshoe, arms bent to sides, and backward-thrown head he lunged forward.

At intervals the shaman himself took his turn in that headlong pace, his great shoulders swinging, the skirts of his blue denim parka fluttering about his sturdy legs, his head bared, exposing the cropped, grizzled hair. Then when panting he would signal for one of his followers to relieve him, leap to one side with that agility that had astonished me, take a few running strides as the sled came abreast, and throw himself over upon the birch rail that creaked and groaned beneath his weight.

Perched there, sidewise, with one moccasined foot patting the snow and always forcing the sled forward with his stroke, and the temporarily abandoned snowshoe thrown over my legs in the sled, he became a living thing of savagery, an animal of the chase, of speed, of determination. He had a goal in mind. He would spare nothing—not even his own body—to reach it. We did not pause until the dusk of the afternoon waned to the pallor of a night lightened solely by early stars and unbroken snows. For a long time high and rough mountains had been in sight which we constantly approached. We climbed over the low and gently rolling foot-hills to a place where the ascent must inevitably be more steep, and the shaman called another halt.

“Make fire,” he brusquely commanded his men. “The dogs must rest,” and then sat on the edge of my sled with his arms folded and stared upward at the dimming southern mountaintops whose peaks were still out lined against the horizon. He muttered to himself inaudible words, as if perplexed or dissatisfied. He then removed his long, narrow snowshoes and stuck them in the snow, toes upward.

“Legs tired?” he asked turning his inscrutable face toward me.

“Tired? They are dead!” I exclaimed. “Are you going to camp here?”

He ignored my question, regarded me for a moment more as if deciding something, and then leaned forward and grinned.

“Me sorry keep you so,” he said gently. “You call me friend. Other man call me savage. I unnerstan' that word. Me no like. But you say—friend. Ugh!”

He came closer, bending his bulky shoulders over and planting both huge mittened hands on the sled rail by my side and peering at me, as if to read my eyes.

“Me, Peluk, mus' do many things no like do; but—me, Peluk, shaman, and tyune—what you call chief—of my people, mus' do what think bes' for my people. Unnerstan'—ummh?”

“Yes, I understand,” I replied, wondering what he had in his mind.

“Very good!” he said, still regarding me. “My young mans—free, four, faive dozen—say mus' kill. No like killum you, who been my friend; but kill other man quick—all same caribou, moose, dog. No matter. But you—nope! Lady think you gone—never come back! But—but——

He stopped while the horrible suggestion came to my mind that she had actually condemned us to death; bade us farewell with a quiet face knowing that we were doomed!

“Nope,” he went on. “No can do. My papoose climb on your knee. You pat him, make very good friends, bring him li'l look'-glass and call him 'my boy.' Very fine thing say, that, 'my boy!' Show you like li'l' feller. So, very big sad—me—Peluk. No can think what bes' do. Mus' do bes' can. Mebbe you help, ummh?”

He was actually appealing to me to advise him, to assist him from difficulties that to him were so pregnant, so overwhelming.

“Peluk,” I said, laying one of my hands over his, “I don't know what you are up against. I can't even guess. But neither my friend nor I will do anything to hurt you if we can help it. We'll try to play your game if we can.”

I must have spoken too rapidly for his comprehension, or used expressions beyond his knowledge of English, for he appeared puzzled. The only thing he understood was that my hand was laid over his in friendship and in pledge.

“Um-m-m-h!” he rumbled. “Me no catchum all speak, but—but—think if legs loose you no run away. Think if you say you no run away, me makum legs loose so you walk—ummh?”

“Yes,” I declared, eagerly seizing the proffer of physical liberty. “If you make my feet and legs loose, I will come with you. No run. No fight. Go where you say. My friend the same. I speak for him. I give my word for both.”

For answer he slipped from beneath his parka a long, keen blade and with one quick stroke carved through the tough rawhide that bound my knees. Another swift, skillful and strong flick and my tired feet could move at will. He put a hand beneath my armpit and lifted me to my feet. One of his runners saw me standing erect and rushed toward us whipping from a concealed sheath a hunting knife. Peluk threw up a hand and uttered an angry, imperative shout.

“Stop!” he commanded in his own tongue. “Stop! Am I the chief or not? Do you want to feel my knife in your heart? No? Then go back to the fire. Cook. Put the kettle in the edge. Tell Karslu to cut meat from the white man's stuff. I know what I do. You obey!”

As if terrified the man hastily replaced his knife and with exaggerated obedience did as he was bid. He threw fresh fagots onto the blaze and seized the remnant of bacon that had been confiscated from our stores.

Exulting in my freedom, but cramped and stiff, and moving stodgily, I walked across to Jack and bent over him.

“Leave it to me,” I muttered rapidly. “It's our only chance. I've given my word that we will not try to run or fight; that we will go with them wherever they take us. When the time comes that we can talk alone I'll tell you a lot of things you don't know.” And then I turned to the shaman and said, “I speak for my friend. Let him loose.”

For quite an appreciable time Peluk hesitated, and then, almost unwillingly, crossed over and cut Jack's bonds.

“Thanks!” Jack growled as he moved his cramped limbs; but the shaman ignored him and turning to me said, “Me take your word. But if he try run away mus' shoot.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “if he tries to run you can shoot.”

When, after the brief halt, we prepared to start, the shaman recklessly abandoned our sled and much of its contents and hitched our dogs in with his own team. He and each of his men strapped our and their rifles across their backs, and we tore along at a trying pace. The shaman's two runners seemed tireless, and the shaman himself displayed a marvelous endurance, but both Jack and I were compelled to cling to the sled handles and occasionally to throw ourselves on the sled rails for rest.

Off in the north a great tongue of flame leaped across the sky where the aurora borealis initiated its marvelously beautiful exhibition. Fold on fold of colors so mysterious and graduated as to be bewildering spread out and then began a slow shifting and swirling that could be likened to nothing so much as the graceful undulations of a fire dancer's skirts. It was so brilliant that for a time it lent a cold, ethereal beauty to the mountains through which we were traveling. We twisted this way and that so frequently that nothing but the immovable stars enabled us to retain any sense of direction. The heavenly fireworks died away, and left us in the starlit dimness of night. The moon arose and again all that frozen world was beautified and softened.

For more than two hours our dogs, poor tired beasts, had been lagging ever more slowly, but either because he was himself too weary to protest or because we had journeyed fast enough to relieve whatever suspense the shaman may have previously felt, he traveled silently. Only once was there even a momentary halt, and that was when the shaman and his fellows appeared to be in some slight doubt about the advisability of taking a right or left gulch that appeared to lead upward through the mountains. We adopted the one to the right that brought us to the crest of a divide, and one of the runners called back to the shaman exultantly, “This has proved the best. I had not forgotten. We are all right.”

Trudging behind the sled I wondered what this meant, but I had not long to wait. We descended a long gully so steep that we were compelled to hold the sled to keep it from sliding down on the “wheel dogs'” heels, passed between two cliffs, dropped with a downward rush for another twenty yards, and reached the bottom. I stared about me as the dogs' harnesses were readjusted and then gave a gasp of knowledge.

We were on the trail to the gold camp and but a few miles from the last and final climb, the prodigiously steep, narrow gut between rocky walls that would bring the mines of the valley into view.