Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The treeshad been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, andthey seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fadinglight. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was adesolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spiritof it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter,but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that wasmirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost andpartaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful andincommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life andthe effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-heartedNorthland Wild.
But there was life, abroad in the land and defiant. Down the frozenwaterway toiled a string of wolfish dogs. Their bristly fur was rimedwith frost. Their breath froze in the air as it left their mouths,spouting forth in spumes of vapour that settled upon the hair of theirbodies and formed into crystals of frost. Leather harness was on thedogs, and leather traces attached them to a sled which dragged alongbehind. The sled was without runners. It was made of stout birch-bark,and its full surface rested on the snow. The front end of the sled wasturned up, like a scroll, in order to force down and under the bore ofsoft snow that surged like a wave before it. On the sled, securelylashed, was a long and narrow oblong box. There were other things on thesled — blankets, an axe, and a coffee-pot and frying-pan; but prominent,occupying most of the space, was the long and narrow oblong box.
In advance of the dogs, on wide snowshoes, toiled a man. At the rear ofthe sled toiled a second man. On the sled, in the box, lay a third manwhose toil was over, — a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten downuntil he would never move nor struggle again. It is not the way of theWild to like movement. Life is an offence to it, for life is movement;and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water toprevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees tillthey are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terriblyof all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man — man who is themost restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that allmovement must in the end come to the cessation of movement.
But at front and rear, unawed and indomitable, toiled the two men whowere not yet dead. Their bodies were covered with fur and soft-tannedleather. Eyelashes and cheeks and lips were so coated with the crystalsfrom their frozen breath that their faces were not discernible. Thisgave them the seeming of ghostly masques, undertakers in a spectral worldat the funeral of some ghost. But under it all they were men,penetrating the land of desolation and mockery and silence, punyadventurers bent on colossal adventure, pitting themselves against themight of a world as remote and alien and pulseless as the abysses ofspace.
They travelled on without speech, saving their breath for the work oftheir bodies. On every side was the silence, pressing upon them with atangible presence. It affected their minds as the many atmospheres ofdeep water affect the body of the diver. It crushed them with the weightof unending vastness and unalterable decree. It crushed them into theremotest recesses of their own minds, pressing out of them, like juicesfrom the grape, all the false ardours and exaltations and undueself-values of the human soul, until they perceived themselves finite andsmall, specks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdomamidst the play and inter-play of the great blind elements and forces.
An hour went by, and a second hour. The pale light of the short sunlessday was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air.It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note,where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. Itmight have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with acertain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned hishead until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across thenarrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.
A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness.Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snowexpanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, alsoto the rear and to the left of the second cry.
“They’re after us, Bill,” said the man at the front.
His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparenteffort.
“Meat is scarce,” answered his comrade. “I ain’t seen a rabbit sign fordays.”
Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for thehunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.
At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of sprucetrees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at theside of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered onthe far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, butevinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.
“Seems to me, Henry, they’re stayin’ remarkable close to camp,” Billcommented.
Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with apiece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on thecoffin and begun to eat.