“It’s no use,” he said to his daughter. “I’ve sprained a tendon. You go ahead and stake for me as well as yourself.”
“Can’t we do something?” Smoke asked solicitously.
Louis Gastell shook his head. “She can stake two claims as well as one. I’ll crawl over to the bank, start a fire, and bandage my ankle. I’ll be all right. Go on, Joy. Stake ours above the Discovery claim; it’s richer higher up.”
“Here’s some birch bark,” Smoke said, dividing his supply equally. “We’ll take care of your daughter.”
Louis Gastell laughed harshly. “Thank you just the same,” he said. “But she can take care of herself. Follow her and watch her.”
“Do you mind if I lead?” she asked Smoke, as she headed on. “I know this country better than you.”
“Lead on,” Smoke answered gallantly, “though I agree with you it’s a darned shame all us chechakos are going to beat that Sea Lion bunch to it. Isn’t there some way to shake them?”
She shook her head. “We can’t hide our trail, and they’ll follow it like sheep.”
After a quarter of a mile, she turned sharply to the west. Smoke noticed that they were going through unpacked snow, but neither he nor Shorty observed that the dim trail they had been on still led south. Had they witnessed the subsequent procedure of Louis Gastell, the history of the Klondike would have been written differently; for they would have seen that old-timer, no longer limping, running with his nose to the trail like a hound, following them. Also, they would have seen him trample and widen the turn to the fresh trail they had made to the west. And, finally, they would have seen him keep on the old dim trail that still led south.
A trail did run up the creek, but so slight was it that they continually lost it in the darkness. After a quarter of an hour, Joy Gastell was willing to drop into the rear and let the two men take turns in breaking a way through the snow. This slowness of the leaders enabled the whole stampede to catch up, and when daylight came, at nine o’clock, as far back as they could see was an unbroken line of men. Joy’s dark eyes sparkled at the sight.
“How long since we started up the creek?” she asked.
“Fully two hours,” Smoke answered.
“And two hours back make four,” she laughed. “The stampede from Sea Lion is saved.”
A faint suspicion crossed Smoke’s mind, and he stopped and confronted her.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“You don’t? Then I’ll tell you. This is Norway Creek. Squaw Creek is the next to the south.”
Smoke was for the moment, speechless.
“You did it on purpose?” Shorty demanded.
“I did it to give the old-timers a chance.” She laughed mockingly. The men grinned at each other and finally joined her. “I’d lay you across my knee an’ give you a wallopin’, if women folk wasn’t so scarce in this country,” Shorty assured her.
“Your father didn’t sprain a tendon, but waited till we were out of sight and then went on?” Smoke asked.
“And you were the decoy?”
Again she nodded, and this time Smoke’s laughter rang out clear and true. It was the spontaneous laughter of a frankly beaten man.
“Why don’t you get angry with me?” she queried ruefully. “Or – or wallop me?”
“Well, we might as well be starting back,” Shorty urged. “My feet’s gettin’ cold standin’ here.”
Smoke shook his head. “That would mean four hours lost. We must be eight miles up this creek now, and from the look ahead Norway is making a long swing south. We’ll follow it, then cross over the divide somehow, and tap Squaw Creek somewhere above Discovery.” He looked at Joy. “Won’t you come along with us? I told your father we’d look after you.”
“I – ” She hesitated. “I think I shall, if you don’t mind.” She was looking straight at him, and her face was no longer defiant and mocking. “Really, Mr. Smoke, you make me almost sorry for what I have done. But somebody had to save the old-timers.”
“It strikes me that stampeding is at best a sporting proposition.”
“And it strikes me you two are very game about it,” she went on, then added with the shadow of a sigh: “What a pity you are not old-timers!”
For two hours more they kept to the frozen creek-bed of Norway, then turned into a narrow and rugged tributary that flowed from the south. At midday they began the ascent of the divide itself. Behind them, looking down and back, they could see the long line of stampeders breaking up. Here and there, in scores of places, thin smoke-columns advertised the making of camps.
As for themselves, the going was hard. They wallowed through snow to their waists, and were compelled to stop every few yards to breathe. Shorty was the first to call a halt.
“We been hittin’ the trail for over twelve hours,” he said. “Smoke, I’m plum willin’ to say I’m good an’ tired. An’ so are you. An’ I’m free to shout that I can sure hang on to this here pasear like a starvin’ Indian to a hunk of bear-meat. But this poor girl here can’t keep her legs no time if she don’t get something in her stomach. Here’s where we build a fire. What d’ye say?”
So quickly, so deftly and methodically, did they go about making a temporary camp, that Joy, watching with jealous eyes, admitted to herself that the old-timers could not do it better. Spruce boughs, with a spread blanket on top, gave a foundation for rest and cooking operations. But they kept away from the heat of the fire until noses and cheeks had been rubbed cruelly.
Smoke spat in the air, and the resultant crackle was so immediate and loud that he shook his head. “I give it up,” he said. “I’ve never seen cold like this.”
“One winter on the Koyukuk it went to eighty-six below,” Joy answered. “It’s at least seventy or seventy-five right now, and I know I’ve frosted my cheeks. They’re burning like fire.”
On the steep slope of the divide there was no ice, so snow, as fine and hard and crystalline as granulated sugar, was poured into the gold-pan by the bushel until enough water was melted for the coffee. Smoke fried bacon and thawed biscuits. Shorty kept the fuel supplied and tended the fire, and Joy set the simple table composed of two plates, two cups, two spoons, a tin of mixed salt and pepper, and a tin of sugar. When it came to eating, she and Smoke shared one set between them. They ate out of the same plate and drank from the same cup.
It was nearly two in the afternoon when they cleared the crest of the divide and began dropping down a feeder of Squaw Creek. Earlier in the winter some moose-hunter had made a trail up the canyon – that is, in going up and down he had stepped always in his previous tracks. As a result, in the midst of soft snow, and veiled under later snow falls, was a line of irregular hummocks. If one’s foot missed a hummock, he plunged down through unpacked snow and usually to a fall. Also, the moose-hunter had been an exceptionally long-legged individual. Joy, who was eager now that the two men should stake, and fearing that they were slackening their pace on account of her evident weariness, insisted on taking her turn in the lead. The speed and manner in which she negotiated the precarious footing called out Shorty’s unqualified approval.
“Look at her!” he cried. “She’s the real goods an’ the red meat. Look at them moccasins swing along. No high-heels there. She uses the legs God gave her. She’s the right squaw for any bear-hunter.”
She flashed back a smile of acknowledgment that included Smoke. He caught a feeling of chumminess, though at the same time he was bitingly aware that it was very much of a woman who embraced him in that comradely smile.
Looking back, as they came to the bank of Squaw Creek, they could see the stampede, strung out irregularly, struggling along the descent of the divide.
They slipped down the bank to the creek bed. The stream, frozen solidly to bottom, was from twenty to thirty feet wide and ran between six- and eight-foot earth banks of alluvial wash. No recent feet had disturbed the snow that lay upon its ice, and they knew they were above the Discovery claim and the last stakes of the Sea Lion stampeders.
“Look out for springs,” Joy warned, as Smoke led the way down the creek. “At seventy below you’ll lose your feet if you break through.”
These springs, common to most Klondike streams, never cease at the lowest temperatures. The water flows out from the banks and lies in pools which are cuddled from the cold by later surface-freezings and snow falls. Thus, a man, stepping on dry snow, might break through half an inch of ice-skin and find himself up to the knees in water. In five minutes, unless able to remove the wet gear, the loss of one’s foot was the penalty.
Though only three in the afternoon, the long grey twilight of the Arctic had settled down. They watched for a blazed tree on either bank, which would show the center-stake of the last claim located. Joy, impulsively eager, was the first to find it. She darted ahead of Smoke, crying: “Somebody’s been here! See the snow! Look for the blaze! There it is! See that spruce!”
She sank suddenly to her waist in the snow.
“Now I’ve done it,” she said woefully. Then she cried: “Don’t come near me! I’ll wade out.”
Step by step, each time breaking through the thin skin of ice concealed under the dry snow, she forced her way to solid footing. Smoke did not wait, but sprang to the bank, where dry and seasoned twigs and sticks, lodged amongst the brush by spring freshets, waited the match. By the time she reached his side, the first flames and flickers of an assured fire were rising.
“Sit down!” he commanded.
She obediently sat down in the snow. He slipped his pack from his back, and spread a blanket for her feet.
From above came the voices of the stampeders who followed them.