“How would you go about it?” Sprague finally half panted, half whined at him.
“Sit down and get a good rest till a lull comes in the wind, and then buck in for all we’re worth.”
Simple as the idea was, he had been the first to evolve it; the first time it was applied it worked, and they hoisted a blanket to the mast and sped down the lake. Stine and Sprague immediately became cheerful. Shorty, despite his chronic pessimism, was always cheerful, and Kit was too interested to be otherwise. Sprague struggled with the steering-sweep for a quarter of an hour, and then looked appealingly at Kit, who relieved him.
“My arms are fairly broken with the strain of it,” Sprague muttered apologetically.
“You never ate bear-meat, did you?” Kit asked sympathetically.
“What the devil do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing; I was just wondering.”
But behind his employer’s back Kit caught the approving grin of Shorty, who had already caught the whim of his metaphor.
Kit steered the length of Linderman, displaying an aptitude that caused both young men of money and disinclination for work to name him boat-steerer. Shorty was no less pleased, and volunteered to continue cooking and leave the boat work to the other.
Between Linderman and Lake Bennett was a portage. The boat, lightly loaded, was lined down the small but violent connecting stream, and here Kit learned a vast deal more about boats and water. But when it came to packing the outfit, Stine and Sprague disappeared, and their men spent two days of back-breaking toil in getting the outfit across. And this was the history of many miserable days of the trip – Kit and Shorty working to exhaustion, while their masters toiled not and demanded to be waited upon.
But the iron-bound arctic winter continued to close down, and they were held back by numerous and unavoidable delays. At Windy Arm, Stine arbitrarily dispossessed Kit of the steering-sweep and within the hour wrecked the boat on a wave-beaten lee shore. Two days were lost here in making repairs, and the morning of the fresh start, as they came down to embark, on stern and bow, in large letters, was charcoaled “The Chechako.”
Kit grinned at the appropriateness of the invidious word.
“Huh!” said Shorty, when accused by Stine. “I can sure read and spell, an’ I know that chechako means tenderfoot, but my education never went high enough to learn me to spell a jaw-breaker like that.”
Both employers looked daggers at Kit, for the insult rankled; nor did he mention that the night before, Shorty had besought him for the spelling of that particular word.
“That’s ‘most as bad as your bear-meat slam at ‘em,” Shorty confided later.
Kit chuckled. Along with the continuous discovery of his own powers had come an ever-increasing disapproval of the two masters. It was not so much irritation, which was always present, as disgust. He had got his taste of the meat, and liked it; but they were teaching him how not to eat it. Privily, he thanked God that he was not made as they. He came to dislike them to a degree that bordered on hatred. Their malingering bothered him less than their helpless inefficiency. Somewhere in him, old Isaac Bellew and all the rest of the hardy Bellews were making good.
“Shorty,” he said one day, in the usual delay of getting started, “I could almost fetch them a rap over the head with an oar and bury them in the river.”
“Same here,” Shorty agreed. “They’re not meat-eaters. They’re fish-eaters, and they sure stink.”
They came to the rapids; first, the Box Canyon, and, several miles below, the White Horse. The Box Canyon was adequately named. It was a box, a trap. Once in it, the only way out was through. On either side arose perpendicular walls of rock. The river narrowed to a fraction of its width and roared through this gloomy passage in a madness of motion that heaped the water in the center into a ridge fully eight feet higher than at the rocky sides. This ridge, in turn, was crested with stiff, upstanding waves that curled over yet remained each in its unvarying place. The Canyon was well feared, for it had collected its toll of dead from the passing goldrushers.
Tying to the bank above, where lay a score of other anxious boats, Kit and his companions went ahead on foot to investigate. They crept to the brink and gazed down at the swirl of water. Sprague drew back, shuddering.
“My God!” he exclaimed. “A swimmer hasn’t a chance in that.”
Shorty touched Kit significantly with his elbow and said in an undertone:
“Cold feet. Dollars to doughnuts they don’t go through.”
Kit scarcely heard. From the beginning of the boat trip he had been learning the stubbornness and inconceivable viciousness of the elements, and this glimpse of what was below him acted as a challenge. “We’ve got to ride that ridge,” he said. “If we get off it we’ll hit the walls.”
“And never know what hit us,” was Shorty’s verdict. “Can you swim, Smoke?”
“I’d wish I couldn’t if anything went wrong in there.”
“That’s what I say,” a stranger, standing alongside and peering down into the Canyon, said mournfully. “And I wish I were through it.”
“I wouldn’t sell my chance to go through,” Kit answered.
He spoke honestly, but it was with the idea of heartening the man. He turned to go back to the boat.
“Are you going to tackle it?” the man asked.
“I wish I could get the courage to,” the other confessed. “I’ve been here for hours. The longer I look, the more afraid I am. I am not a boatman, and I have with me only my nephew, who is a young boy, and my wife. If you get through safely, will you run my boat through?”
Kit looked at Shorty, who delayed to answer.
“He’s got his wife with him,” Kit suggested. Nor had he mistaken his man.
“Sure,” Shorty affirmed. “It was just what I was stopping to think about. I knew there was some reason I ought to do it.”
Again they turned to go, but Sprague and Stine made no movement.
“Good luck, Smoke,” Sprague called to him. “I’ll – er – ” He hesitated. “I’ll just stay here and watch you.”
“We need three men in the boat, two at the oars and one at the steering-sweep,” Kit said quietly.
Sprague looked at Stine.
“I’m damned if I do,” said that gentleman. “If you’re not afraid to stand here and look on, I’m not.”
“Who’s afraid?” Sprague demanded hotly.
Stine retorted in kind, and their two men left them in the thick of a squabble.
“We can do without them,” Kit said to Shorty. “You take the bow with a paddle, and I’ll handle the steering-sweep. All you’ll have to do is just to help keep her straight. Once we’re started, you won’t be able to hear me, so just keep on keeping her straight.”
They cast off the boat and worked out to middle in the quickening current. From the Canyon came an ever-growing roar. The river sucked in to the entrance with the smoothness of molten glass, and here, as the darkening walls received them, Shorty took a chew of tobacco and dipped his paddle. The boat leaped on the first crests of the ridge, and they were deafened by the uproar of wild water that reverberated from the narrow walls and multiplied itself. They were half-smothered with flying spray. At times Kit could not see his comrade at the bow. It was only a matter of two minutes, in which time they rode the ridge three-quarters of a mile and emerged in safety and tied to the bank in the eddy below.
Shorty emptied his mouth of tobacco juice – he had forgotten to spit – and spoke.
“That was bear-meat,” he exulted, “the real bear-meat. Say, we want a few, didn’t we? Smoke, I don’t mind tellin’ you in confidence that before we started I was the gosh-dangdest scaredest man this side of the Rocky Mountains. Now I’m a bear-eater. Come on an’ we’ll run that other boat through.”
Midway back, on foot, they encountered their employers, who had watched the passage from above.
“There comes the fish-eaters,” said Shorty. “Keep to win’ward.”
After running the stranger’s boat through, whose name proved to be Breck, Kit and Shorty met his wife, a slender, girlish woman whose blue eyes were moist with gratitude. Breck himself tried to hand Kit fifty dollars, and then attempted it on Shorty.
“Stranger,” was the latter’s rejection, “I come into this country to make money outa the ground an’ not outa my fellow critters.”