As they emerged, Smoke drew off one mitten, lighted a match, and glanced at the thermometer that hung beside the door. He remittened his naked hand hastily as if the frost had burned him. Overhead arched the flaming aurora borealis, while from all Dawson arose the mournful howling of thousands of wolf-dogs.
“What did it say?” Breck asked.
“Sixty below.” Kit spat experimentally, and the spittle crackled in the air. “And the thermometer is certainly working. It’s falling all the time. An hour ago it was only fifty-two. Don’t tell me it’s a stampede.”
“It is,” Breck whispered back cautiously, casting anxious eyes about in fear of some other listener. “You know Squaw Creek? – empties in on the other side of the Yukon thirty miles up?”
“Nothing doing there,” was Smoke’s judgment. “It was prospected years ago.”
“So were all the other rich creeks. Listen! It’s big. Only eight to twenty feet to bedrock. There won’t be a claim that don’t run to half a million. It’s a dead secret. Two or three of my close friends let me in on it. I told my wife right away that I was going to find you before I started. Now, so long. My pack’s hidden down the bank. In fact, when they told me, they made me promise not to pull out until Dawson was asleep. You know what it means if you’re seen with a stampeding outfit. Get your partner and follow. You ought to stake fourth or fifth claim from Discovery. Don’t forget – Squaw Creek. It’s the third after you pass Swede Creek.”
When Smoke entered the little cabin on the hillside back of Dawson, he heard a heavy familiar breathing.
“Aw, go to bed,” Shorty mumbled, as Smoke shook his shoulder. “I’m not on the night shift,” was his next remark, as the rousing hand became more vigorous. “Tell your troubles to the barkeeper.”
“Kick into your clothes,” Smoke said. “We’ve got to stake a couple of claims.”
Shorty sat up and started to explode, but Smoke’s hand covered his mouth.
“Ssh!” Smoke warned. “It’s a big strike. Don’t wake the neighborhood. Dawson’s asleep.”
“Huh! You got to show me. Nobody tells anybody about a strike, of course not. But ain’t it plum amazin’ the way everybody hits the trail just the same?”
“Squaw Creek,” Smoke whispered. “It’s right. Breck gave me the tip. Shallow bedrock. Gold from the grass-roots down. Come on. We’ll sling a couple of light packs together and pull out.”
Shorty’s eyes closed as he lapsed back into sleep. The next moment his blankets were swept off him.
“If you don’t want them, I do,” Smoke explained.
Shorty followed the blankets and began to dress.
“Goin’ to take the dogs?” he asked.
“No. The trail up the creek is sure to be unbroken, and we can make better time without them.”
“Then I’ll throw ‘em a meal, which’ll have to last ‘em till we get back. Be sure you take some birch-bark and a candle.”
Shorty opened the door, felt the bite of the cold, and shrank back to pull down his ear-flaps and mitten his hands.
Five minutes later he returned, sharply rubbing his nose.
“Smoke, I’m sure opposed to makin’ this stampede. It’s colder than the hinges of hell a thousand years before the first fire was lighted. Besides, it’s Friday the thirteenth, an’ we’re goin’ to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”
With small stampeding-packs on their backs, they closed the door behind them and started down the hill. The display of the aurora borealis had ceased, and only the stars leaped in the great cold and by their uncertain light made traps for the feet. Shorty floundered off a turn of the trail into deep snow, and raised his voice in blessing of the date of the week and month and year.
“Can’t you keep still?” Smoke chided. “Leave the almanac alone. You’ll have all Dawson awake and after us.”
“Huh! See the light in that cabin? An’ in that one over there? An’ hear that door slam? Oh, sure Dawson’s asleep. Them lights? Just buryin’ their dead. They ain’t stampedin’, betcher life they ain’t.”
By the time they reached the foot of the hill and were fairly in Dawson, lights were springing up in the cabins, doors were slamming, and from behind came the sound of many moccasins on the hard-packed snow. Again Shorty delivered himself.
“But it beats hell the amount of mourners there is.”
They passed a man who stood by the path and was calling anxiously in a low voice: “Oh, Charley; get a move on.”
“See that pack on his back, Smoke? The graveyard’s sure a long ways off when the mourners got to pack their blankets.”
By the time they reached the main street a hundred men were in line behind them, and while they sought in the deceptive starlight for the trail that dipped down the bank to the river, more men could be heard arriving. Shorty slipped and shot down the thirty-foot chute into the soft snow. Smoke followed, knocking him over as he was rising to his feet.
“I found it first,” he gurgled, taking off his mittens to shake the snow out of the gauntlets.
The next moment they were scrambling wildly out of the way of the hurtling bodies of those that followed. At the time of the freeze-up, a jam had occurred at this point, and cakes of ice were up-ended in snow-covered confusion. After several hard falls, Smoke drew out his candle and lighted it. Those in the rear hailed it with acclaim. In the windless air it burned easily, and he led the way more quickly.
“It’s a sure stampede,” Shorty decided. “Or might all them be sleep-walkers?”
“We’re at the head of the procession at any rate,” was Smoke’s answer.
“Oh, I don’t know. Mebbe that’s a firefly ahead there. Mebbe they’re all fireflies – that one, an’ that one. Look at ‘em! Believe me, they is a whole string of processions ahead.”
It was a mile across the jams to the west bank of the Yukon, and candles flickered the full length of the twisting trail. Behind them, clear to the top of the bank they had descended, were more candles.
“Say, Smoke, this ain’t no stampede. It’s a exode-us. They must be a thousand men ahead of us an’ ten thousand behind. Now, you listen to your uncle. My medicine’s good. When I get a hunch it’s sure right. An’ we’re in wrong on this stampede. Let’s turn back an’ hit the sleep.”
“You’d better save your breath if you intend to keep up,” Smoke retorted gruffly.
“Huh! My legs is short, but I slog along slack at the knees an’ don’t worry my muscles none, an’ I can sure walk every piker here off the ice.”
And Smoke knew he was right, for he had long since learned his comrade’s phenomenal walking powers.
“I’ve been holding back to give you a chance,” Smoke jeered.
“An’ I’m plum troddin’ on your heels. If you can’t do better, let me go ahead and set pace.”
Smoke quickened, and was soon at the rear of the nearest bunch of stampeders.
“Hike along, you, Smoke,” the other urged. “Walk over them unburied dead. This ain’t no funeral. Hit the frost like you was goin’ somewheres.”
Smoke counted eight men and two women in this party, and before the way across the jam-ice was won, he and Shorty had passed another party twenty strong. Within a few feet of the west bank, the trail swerved to the south, emerging from the jam upon smooth ice. The ice, however, was buried under several feet of fine snow. Through this the sled-trail ran, a narrow ribbon of packed footing barely two feet in width. On either side one sank to his knees and deeper in the snow. The stampeders they overtook were reluctant to give way, and often Smoke and Shorty had to plunge into the deep snow and by supreme efforts flounder past.
Shorty was irrepressible and pessimistic. When the stampeders resented being passed, he retorted in kind.
“What’s your hurry?” one of them asked.
“What’s yours?” he answered. “A stampede come down from Indian River yesterday afternoon an’ beat you to it. They ain’t no claims left.”
“That being so, I repeat, what’s your hurry?”
“WHO? Me? I ain’t no stampeder. I’m workin’ for the government. I’m on official business. I’m just traipsin’ along to take the census of Squaw Creek.”