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In the morning, as usual, they were among the last of the boats to start. Breck, despite his boating inefficiency, and with only his wife and nephew for crew, had broken camp, loaded his boat, and pulled out at the first streak of day. But there was no hurry in Stine and Sprague, who seemed incapable of realizing that the freeze-up might come at any time. They malingered, got in the way, delayed, and doubted the work of Kit and Shorty.
"I'm sure losing my respect for God, seein' as he must a-made them two mistakes in human form," was the latter's blasphemous way of expressing his disgust.
"Well, you're the real goods at any rate," Kit grinned back at him. "It makes me respect God the more just to look at you."
"He was sure goin' some, eh?" was Shorty's fashion of overcoming the embarrassment of the compliment.
The trail by water crossed Lake Le Barge. Here was no fast current, but a tideless stretch of forty miles which must be rowed unless a fair wind blew. But the time for fair wind was past, and an icy gale blew in their teeth out of the north. This made a rough sea, against which it was almost impossible to pull the boat. Added to their troubles was driving snow; also, the freezing of the water on their oar-blades kept one man occupied in chopping it off with a hatchet. Compelled to take their turn at the oars, Sprague and Stine patently loafed. Kit had learned how to throw his weight on an oar, but he noted that his employers made a seeming of throwing their weights and that they dipped their oars at a cheating angle.
At the end of three hours, Sprague pulled his oar in and said they would run back into the mouth of the river for shelter. Stine seconded him, and the several hard-won miles were lost. A second day, and a third, the same fruitless attempt was made. In the river mouth, the continually arriving boats from White Horse made a flotilla of over two hundred. Each day forty or fifty arrived, and only two or three won to the north-west short of the lake and did not come back. Ice was now forming in the eddies, and connecting from eddy to eddy in thin lines around the points. The freeze-up was very imminent.
"We could make it if they had the souls of clams," Kit told Shorty, as they dried their moccasins by the fire on the evening of the third day. "We could have made it to-day if they hadn't turned back. Another hour's work would have fetched that west shore. They're--they're babes in the woods."
"Sure," Shorty agreed. He turned his moccasin to the flame and debated a moment. "Look here, Smoke. It's hundreds of miles to Dawson. If we don't want to freeze in here, we've got to do something. What d'ye say?"
Kit looked at him, and waited.
"We've got the immortal cinch on them two babes," Shorty expounded. "They can give orders an' shed mazuma, but, as you say, they're plum babes. If we're goin' to Dawson, we got to take charge of this here outfit."
They looked at each other.
"It's a go," said Kit, as his hand went out in ratification.
In the morning, long before daylight, Shorty issued his call.
"Come on!" he roared. "Tumble out, you sleepers! Here's your coffee! Kick in to it! We're goin' to make a start!"
Grumbling and complaining, Stine and Sprague were forced to get under way two hours earlier than ever before. If anything, the gale was stiffer, and in a short time every man's face was iced up, while the oars were heavy with ice. Three hours they struggled, and four, one man steering, one chopping ice, two toiling at the oars, and each taking his various turns. The north-west shore loomed nearer and nearer. The gale blew even harder, and at last Sprague pulled in his oar in token of surrender. Shorty sprang to it, though his relief had only begun.
"Chop ice," he said, handing Sprague the hatchet.
"But what's the use?" the other whined. "We can't make it. We're going to turn back."
"We're going on," said Shorty. "Chop ice. An' when you feel better you can spell me."
It was heart-breaking toil, but they gained the shore, only to find it composed of surge-beaten rocks and cliffs, with no place to land.
"I told you so," Sprague whimpered.
"You never peeped," Shorty answered.
"We're going back."
Nobody spoke, and Kit held the boat into the seas as they skirted the forbidding shore. Sometimes they gained no more than a foot to the stroke, and there were times when two or three strokes no more than enabled them to hold their own. He did his best to hearten the two weaklings. He pointed out that the boats which had won to this shore had never come back. Perforce, he argued, they had found a shelter somewhere ahead. Another hour they laboured, and a second.
"If you fellows put into your oars some of that coffee you swig in your blankets, we'd make it," was Shorty's encouragement. "You're just goin' through the motions an' not pullin' a pound."
A few minutes later Sprague drew in his oar.
"I'm finished," he said, and there were tears in his voice.
"So are the rest of us," Kit answered, himself ready to cry or to commit murder, so great was his exhaustion. "But we're going on just the same."
"We're going back. Turn the boat around."
"Shorty, if he won't pull, take that oar yourself," Kit commanded.
"Sure," was the answer. "He can chop ice."
But Sprague refused to give over the oar; Stine had ceased rowing, and the boat was drifting backward.
"Turn around, Smoke," Sprague ordered.
And Kit, who never in his life had cursed any man, astonished himself.
"I'll see you in hell, first," he replied. "Take hold of that oar and pull."
It is in moments of exhaustion that men lose all their reserves of civilization, and such a moment had come. Each man had reached the breaking-point. Sprague jerked off a mitten, drew his revolver, and turned it on his steersman. This was a new experience to Kit. He had never had a gun presented at him in his life. And now, to his surprise, it seemed to mean nothing at all. It was the most natural thing in the world.
"If you don't put that gun up," he said, "I'll take it away and rap you over the knuckles with it."
"If you don't turn the boat around I'll shoot you," Sprague threatened.
Then Shorty took a hand. He ceased chopping ice and stood up behind Sprague.
"Go on an' shoot," said Shorty, wiggling the hatchet. "I'm just aching for a chance to brain you. Go on an' start the festivities."
"This is mutiny," Stine broke in. "You were engaged to obey orders."
Shorty turned on him.
"Oh, you'll get yours as soon as I finish with your pardner, you little hog-wallopin' snooper, you."
"Sprague," Kit said, "I'll give you just thirty seconds to put away that gun and get that oar out."
Sprague hesitated, gave a short hysterical laugh, put the revolver away and bent his back to the work.
For two hours more, inch by inch, they fought their way along the edge of the foaming rocks, until Kit feared he had made a mistake. And then, when on the verge of himself turning back, they came abreast of a narrow opening, not twenty feet wide, which led into a land-locked inclosure where the fiercest gusts scarcely flawed the surface. It was the haven gained by the boats of previous days. They landed on a shelving beach, and the two employers lay in collapse in the boat, while Kit and Shorty pitched the tent, built a fire, and started the cooking.
"What's a hog-walloping snooper, Shorty?" Kit asked.
"Blamed if I know," was the answer; "but he's one just the same."
The gale, which had been dying quickly, ceased at nightfall, and it came on clear and cold. A cup of coffee, set aside to cool and forgotten, a few minutes later was found coated with half an inch of ice. At eight o'clock, when Sprague and Stine, already rolled in their blankets, were sleeping the sleep of exhaustion, Kit came back from a look at the boat.
"It's the freeze-up, Shorty," he announced. "There's a skin of ice over the whole pond already."
"What are you going to do?"
"There's only one thing. The lake of course freezes first. The rapid current of the river may keep it open for days. This time to-morrow any boat caught in Lake Le Barge remains there until next year."
"You mean we got to get out to-night? Now?"
"Tumble out, you sleepers!" was Shorty's answer, couched in a roar, as he began casting off the guy-ropes of the tent.
The other two awoke, groaning with the pain of stiffened muscles and the pain of rousing from exhausted sleep.
"What time is it?" Stine asked.
"It's dark yet," was the objection.
Shorty jerked out a couple of guy-ropes, and the tent began to sag.
"It's not morning," he said. "It's evening. Come on. The lake's freezin'. We got to get acrost."
Stine sat up, his face bitter and wrathful.
"Let it freeze. We're not going to stir."
"All right," said Shorty. "We're goin' on with the boat."
"You were engaged--"
"To take you to Dawson," Shorty caught him up. "Well, we're takin' you, ain't we?"
He punctuated his query by bringing half the tent down on top of them.
They broke their way through the thin ice in the little harbour, and came out on the lake, where the water, heavy and glassy, froze on their oars with every stroke. The water soon became like mush, clogging the stroke of the oars and freezing in the air even as it dripped. Later the surface began to form a skin, and the boat proceeded slower and slower.
Often, afterwards, when Kit tried to remember that night and failed to bring up aught but nightmare recollections, he wondered what must have been the sufferings of Stine and Sprague. His one impression of himself was that he struggled through biting frost and intolerable exertion for a thousand years more or less.
Morning found them stationary. Stine complained of frosted fingers, and Sprague of his nose, while the pain in Kit's cheeks and nose told him that he, too, had been touched. With each accretion of daylight they could see farther, and far as they could see was icy surface. The water of the lake was gone. A hundred yards away was the shore of the north end. Shorty insisted that it was the opening of the river and that he could see water. He and Kit alone were able to work, and with their oars they broke the ice and forced the boat along. And at the last gasp of their strength they made the suck of the rapid river. One look back showed them several boats which had fought through the night and were hopelessly frozen in; then they whirled around a bend in a current running six miles an hour.
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