The Test





Pierre "Feroce" showed disapproval in his every attitude as plainly as

disgust peered from the seams in his dark face; it lurked in his scowl

and in the curl of his long rawhide that bit among the sled dogs. So

at least thought Willard, as he clung to the swinging sledge.



They were skirting the coast, keeping to the glare ice, wind-swept and

clean, that lay outside the jumbled shore pack. The team ran silently

in the free gait of the grey wolf, romping in harness from pure joy of

motion and the intoxication of perfect life, making the sled runners

whine like the song of a cutlass.



This route is dangerous, of course, from hidden cracks in the floes,

and most travellers hug the bluffs, but he who rides with Pierre

"Feroce" takes chances. It was this that had won him the name of

"Wild" Pierre--the most reckless, tireless man of the trails, a scoffer

at peril, bolting through danger with rush and frenzy, overcoming

sheerly by vigour those obstacles which destroy strong men in the North.



The power that pulsed within him gleamed from his eyes, rang in his

song, showed in the aggressive thrust of his sensual face.



This particular morning, however, Pierre's distemper had crystallized

into a great contempt for his companion. Of all trials, the most

detestable is to hit the trail with half a man, a pale, anemic weakling

like this stranger.



Though modest in the extent of his learning, Pierre gloated in a

freedom of speech, the which no man dared deny him. He turned to eye

his companion cynically for a second time, and contempt was patent in

his gaze. Willard appeared slender and pallid in his furs, though his

clear-cut features spoke a certain strength and much refinement.



"Bah! I t'ink you dam poor feller," he said finally. "'Ow you 'goin'

stan' thees trip, eh? She's need beeg mans, not leetle runt like you."



Amusement at this frankness glimmered in Willard's eyes.



"You're like all ignorant people. You think in order to stand hardship

a man should be able to toss a sack of flour in his teeth or juggle a

cask of salt-horse."



"Sure t'ing," grinned Pierre. "That's right. Look at me. Mebbe you

hear 'bout Pierre 'Feroce' sometime, eh?"



"Oh, yes; everybody knows you; knows you're a big bully. I've seen you

drink a quart of this wood alcohol they call whisky up here, and then

jump the bar from a stand, but you're all animal--you haven't the

refinement and the culture that makes real strength. It's the mind

that makes us stand punishment."



"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed the Canadian. "Wat a fonny talk. She'll take

the heducate man for stan' the col', eh? Mon Dieu!" He roared again

till the sled dogs turned fearful glances backward and bushy tails

drooped under the weight of their fright. Great noise came oftenest

with great rage from Pierre, and they had too frequently felt the both

to forget.



"Yes, you haven't the mentality. Sometime you'll use up your physical

resources and go to pieces like a burned wick."



Pierre was greatly amused. His yellow teeth shone, and he gave vent to

violent mirth as, following the thought, he pictured a naked mind

wandering over the hills with the quicksilver at sixty degrees.



"Did you ever see a six-day race? Of course not; you barbarians

haven't sunk to the level of our dissolute East, where we joy in Roman

spectacles, but if you had you'd see it's will that wins; it's the man

that eats his soul by inches. The educated soldier stands the campaign

best. You run too much to muscle--you're not balanced."



"I t'ink mebbe you'll 'ave chance for show 'im, thees stout will of

yours. She's goin' be long 'mush' troo the mountains, plentee snow,

plentee cold."



Although Pierre's ridicule was galling, Willard felt the charm of the

morning too strongly to admit of anger or to argue his pet theory.



The sun, brilliant and cold, lent a paradoxical cheerfulness to the

desolation, and, though never a sign of life broke the stillness around

them, the beauty of the scintillant, gleaming mountains, distinct as

cameos, that guarded the bay, appealed to him with the strange

attraction of the Arctics; that attraction that calls and calls

insistently, till men forsake God's country for its mystery.



He breathed the biting air cleaned by leagues of lifeless barrens and

voids of crackling frost till he ached with the exhilaration of a

perfect morning on the Circle.



Also before him undulated the grandest string of dogs the Coast had

known. Seven there were, tall and grey, with tails like plumes, whom

none but Pierre could lay hand upon, fierce and fearless as their

master. He drove with the killing cruelty of a stampeder, and they

loved him.



"You say you have grub cached at the old Indian hut on the Good Hope?"

questioned Willard.



"Sure! Five poun' bacon, leetle flour and rice. I cache one gum-boot

too, ha! Good thing for make fire queeck, eh?"



"You bet; an old rubber boot comes handy when it's too cold to make

shavings."



Leaving the coast, they ascended a deep and tortuous river where the

snow lay thick and soft. One man on snow-shoes broke trail for the

dogs till they reached the foothills. It was hard work, but infinitely

preferable to that which followed, for now they came into a dangerous

stretch of overflows. The stream, frozen to its bed, clogged the

passage of the spring water beneath, forcing it up through cracks till

it spread over the solid ice, forming pools and sheets covered with

treacherous ice-skins. Wet feet are fatal to man and beast, and they

made laborious detours, wallowing trails through tangled willows waist

deep in the snow smother, or clinging precariously to the overhanging

bluffs. As they reached the river's source the sky blackened suddenly,

and great clouds of snow rushed over the bleak hills, boiling down into

the valley with a furious draught. They flung up their flimsy tent,

only to have it flattened by the force of the gale that cut like

well-honed steel. Frozen spots leaped out white on their faces, while

their hands stiffened ere they could fasten the guy strings.



Finally, having lashed the tent bottom to the protruding willow tops,

by grace of heavy lifting they strained their flapping shelter up

sufficiently to crawl within.



"By Gar! She's blow hup ver' queeck," yelled Pierre, as he set the

ten-pound sheet-iron stove, its pipe swaying drunkenly with the heaving

tent.



"Good t'ing she hit us in the brush." He spoke as calmly as though

danger was distant, and a moment later the little box was roaring with

its oil-soaked kindlings.



"Will this stove burn green willow tops?" cried Willard.



"Sure! She's good stove. She'll burn hicicles eef you get 'im start

one times. See 'im get red?"



They rubbed the stiff spots from their cheeks, then, seizing the axe,

Willard crawled forth into the storm and dug at the base of the gnarled

bushes. Occasionally a shrub assumed the proportions of a man's

wrist--but rarely. Gathering an armful, he bore them inside, and

twisting the tips into withes, he fed the fire. The frozen twigs

sizzled and snapped, threatening to fail utterly, but with much blowing

he sustained a blaze sufficient to melt a pot of snow. Boiling was out

of the question, but the tea leaves became soaked and the bacon

cauterized.



Pierre freed and fed the dogs. Each gulped its dried salmon, and,

curling in the lee of the tent, was quickly drifted over. Next he cut

blocks from the solid bottom snow and built a barricade to windward.

Then he accumulated a mow of willow tops without the tent-fly. All the

time the wind drew down the valley like the breath of a giant bellows.



"Supper," shouted Willard, and as Pierre crawled into the candle-light

he found him squatted, fur-bundled, over the stove, which settled

steadily into the snow, melting its way downward toward a firmer

foundation.



The heat was insufficient to thaw the frozen sweat in his clothes; his

eyes were bleary and wet from smoke, and his nose needed continuous

blowing, but he spoke pleasantly, a fact which Pierre noted with

approval.



"We'll need a habeas corpus for this stove if you don't get something

to hold her up, and I might state, if it's worthy of mention, that your

nose is frozen again."



Pierre brought an armful of stones from the creek edge, distributing

them beneath the stove on a bed of twisted willows; then swallowing

their scanty, half-cooked food, they crawled, shivering, into the

deerskin sleeping-bags, that animal heat might dry their clammy

garments.



Four days the wind roared and the ice filings poured over their shelter

while they huddled beneath. When one travels on rations delay is

dangerous. Each morning, dragging themselves out into the maelstrom,

they took sticks and poked into the drifts for dogs. Each animal as

found was exhumed, given a fish, and became straightway reburied in the

whirling white that seethed down from the mountains.



On the fifth, without warning, the storm died, and the air stilled to a

perfect silence.



"These dog bad froze," said Pierre, swearing earnestly as he harnessed.

"I don' like eet much. They goin' play hout I'm 'fraid." He knelt and

chewed from between their toes the ice pellets that had accumulated. A

malamoot is hard pressed to let his feet mass, and this added to the

men's uneasiness.



As they mounted the great divide, mountains rolled away on every hand,

barren, desolate, marble-white; always the whiteness; always the

listening silence that oppressed like a weight. Myriads of creek

valleys radiated below in a bewildering maze of twisting seams.



"Those are the Ass's Ears, I suppose," said Willard, gazing at two

great fangs that bit deep into the sky-line. "Is it true that no man

has ever reached them?"



"Yes. The hinjun say that's w'ere hall the storm come from, biccause

w'en the win' blow troo the Ass's Ear, look out! Somebody goin' ketch

'ell."



Dogs' feet wear quickly after freezing, for crusted snow cuts like a

knife. Spots of blood showed in their tracks, growing more plentiful

till every print was a crimson stain. They limped pitifully on their

raw pads, and occasionally one whined. At every stop they sank in

track, licking their lacerated paws, rising only at the cost of much

whipping.



On the second night, faint and starved, they reached the hut. Digging

away the drifts, they crawled inside to find it half full of snow--snow

which had sifted through the crevices. Pierre groped among the shadows

and swore excitedly.



"What's up?" said Willard.



Vocal effort of the simplest is exhausting when spent with hunger, and

these were the first words he had spoken for hours.



"By Gar! she's gone. Somebody stole my grub!"



Willard felt a terrible sinking, and his stomach cried for food.



"How far is it to the Crooked River Road House?"



"One long day drive--forty mile."



"We must make it to-morrow or go hungry, eh? Well this isn't the first

dog fish I ever ate." Both men gnawed a mouldy dried salmon from their

precious store.



As Willard removed his footgear he groaned.



"Wat's the mattaire?"



"I froze my foot two days ago--snow-shoe strap too tight." He

exhibited a heel, from which, in removing his inner sock, the flesh and

skin had come away.



"That's all right," grinned Pierre. "You got the beeg will lef' yet.

It take the heducate man for stan' the col', you know."



Willard gritted his teeth.



They awoke to the whine of a grey windstorm that swept the cutting snow

in swirling clouds and made travel a madness. The next day was worse.



Two days of hunger weigh heavy when the cold weakens, and they grew

gaunt and fell away in their features.



"I'm glad we've got another feed for the dogs," remarked Willard. "We

can't let them run hungry, even if we do."



"I t'ink she's be hall right to-mor'," ventured Pierre. "Thees ain't

snow--jus' win'; bimeby all blow hout. Sacre! I'll can eat 'nuff for

'ole harmy."



For days both men had been cold, and the sensation of complete warmth

had come to seem strange and unreal, while their faces cracked where

the spots had been.



Willard felt himself on the verge of collapse. He recalled his words

about strong men, gazing the while at Pierre. The Canadian evinced

suffering only in the haggard droop of eye and mouth; otherwise he

looked strong and dogged.



Willard felt his own features had shrunk to a mask of loose-jawed

suffering, and he set his mental sinews, muttering to himself.



He was dizzy and faint as he stretched himself in the still morning air

upon waking, and hobbled painfully, but as his companion emerged from

the darkened shelter into the crystalline brightness he forgot his own

misery at sight of him. The big man reeled as though struck when the

dazzle from the hills reached him, and he moaned, shielding his sight.

Snow-blindness had found him in a night.



Slowly they plodded out of the valley, for hunger gnawed acutely, and

they left a trail of blood tracks from the dogs. It took the combined

efforts of both men to lash them to foot after each pause. Thus

progress was slow and fraught with agony.



As they rose near the pass, miles of Arctic wastes bared themselves.

All about towered bald domes, while everywhere stretched the monotonous

white, the endless snow unbroken by tree or shrub, pallid and menacing,

maddening to the eye.



"Thank God, the worst's over," sighed Willard, flinging himself onto

the sled. "We'll make it to the summit next time; then she's down hill

all the way to the road house."



Pierre said nothing.



Away to the northward glimmered the Ass's Ears, and as the speaker eyed

them carelessly he noted gauzy shreds and streamers veiling their tops.

The phenomena interested him, for he knew that here must be wind--wind,

the terror of the bleak tundra; the hopeless, merciless master of the

barrens! However, the distant range beneath the twin peaks showed

clear-cut and distinct against the sky, and he did not mention the

occurrence to the guide, although he recalled the words of the Indians:

"Beware of the wind through the Ass's Ears."



Again they laboured up the steep slope, wallowing in the sliding snow,

straining silently at the load; again they threw themselves, exhausted,

upon it. Now, as he eyed the panorama below, it seemed to have

suffered a subtle change, indefinable and odd. Although but a few

minutes had elapsed, the coast mountains no longer loomed clear against

the horizon, and his visual range appeared foreshortened, as though the

utter distances had lengthened, bringing closer the edge of things.

The twin peaks seemed endlessly distant and hazy, while the air had

thickened as though congested with possibilities, lending a remoteness

to the landscape.



"If it blows up on us here, we're gone," he thought, "for it's miles to

shelter, and we're right in the saddle of the hills."



Pierre, half blinded as he was, arose uneasily and cast the air like a

wild beast, his great head thrown back, his nostrils quivering.



"I smell the win'," he cried. "Mon Dieu! She's goin' blow!"



A volatile pennant floated out from a near-bye peak, hanging about its

crest like faint smoke. Then along the brow of the pass writhed a wisp

of drifting, twisting flakelets, idling hither and yon, astatic and

aimless, settling in a hollow. They sensed a thrill and rustle to the

air, though never a breath had touched them; then, as they mounted

higher, a draught fanned them, icy as interstellar space. The view

from the summit was grotesquely distorted, and glancing upward they

found the guardian peaks had gone a-smoke with clouds of snow that

whirled confusedly, while an increasing breath sucked over the summit,

stronger each second. Dry snow began to rustle slothfully about their

feet. So swiftly were the changes wrought, that before the mind had

grasped their import the storm was on them, roaring down from every

side, swooping out of the boiling sky, a raging blast from the voids of

sunless space.



Pierre's shouts as he slashed at the sled lashings were snatched from

his lips in scattered scraps. He dragged forth the whipping tent and

threw himself upon it with the sleeping-bags. Having cut loose the

dogs, Willard crawled within his sack and they drew the flapping canvas

over them. The air was twilight and heavy with efflorescent granules

that hurtled past in a drone.



They removed their outer garments that the fur might fold closer

against them, and lay exposed to the full hate of the gale. They hoped

to be drifted over, but no snow could lodge in this hurricane, and it

sifted past, dry and sharp, eddying out a bare place wherein they lay.

Thus the wind drove the chill to their bones bitterly.



An unnourished human body responds but weakly, so, vitiated by their

fast and labours, their suffering smote them with tenfold cruelty.



All night the north wind shouted, and, as the next day waned with its

violence undiminished, the frost crept in upon them till they rolled

and tossed shivering. Twice they essayed to crawl out, but were driven

back to cower for endless, hopeless hours.



It is in such black, aimless times that thought becomes distorted.

Willard felt his mind wandering through bleak dreams and tortured

fancies, always to find himself harping on his early argument with

Pierre: "It's the mind that counts." Later he roused to the fact that

his knees, where they pressed against the bag, were frozen; also his

feet were numb and senseless. In his acquired consciousness he knew

that along the course of his previous mental vagary lay madness, and

the need of action bore upon him imperatively.



He shouted to his mate, but "Wild" Pierre seemed strangely apathetic.



"We've got to run for it at daylight. We're freezing. Here! Hold on!

What are you doing? Wait for daylight!" Pierre had scrambled stiffly

out of his cover and his gabblings reached Willard. He raised a

clenched fist into the darkness of the streaming night, cursing

horribly with words that appalled the other.



"Man! man! don't curse your God. This is bad enough as it is. Cover

up. Quick!"



Although apparently unmindful of his presence, the other crawled back

muttering.



As the dim morning greyed the smother they rose and fought their way

downward toward the valley. Long since they had lost their griping

hunger, and now held only an apathetic indifference to food, with a

cringing dread of the cold and a stubborn sense of their extreme

necessity.



They fell many times, but gradually drew themselves more under control,

the exercise suscitating them, as they staggered downward, blinded and

buffeted, their only hope the road-house.



Willard marvelled dully at the change in Pierre. His face had

shrivelled to blackened freezes stretched upon a bony substructure, and

lighted by feverish, glittering, black, black eyes. It seemed to him

that his own lagging body had long since failed, and that his aching,

naked soul wandered stiffly through the endless day. As night

approached Pierre stopped frequently, propping himself with legs far

apart; sometimes he laughed. Invariably this horrible sound shocked

Willard into a keener sense of the surroundings, and it grew to

irritate him, for the Frenchman's mental wanderings increased with the

darkness. What made him rouse one with his awful laughter? These

spells of walking insensibility were pleasanter far. At last the big

man fell. To Willard's mechanical endeavours to help he spoke

sleepily, but with the sanity of a man under great stress.



"Dat no good. I'm goin' freeze right 'ere--freeze stiff as 'ell. Au

revoir."



"Get up!" Willard kicked him weakly, then sat upon the prostrate man as

his own faculties went wandering.



Eventually he roused, and digging into the snow buried the other, first

covering his face with the ample parka hood. Then he struck down the

valley. In one lucid spell he found he had followed a sled trail,

which was blown clear and distinct by the wind that had now almost died

away.



Occasionally his mind grew clear, and his pains beat in upon him till

he grew furious at the life in him which refused to end, which forced

him ever through this gauntlet of misery. More often he was conscious

only of a vague and terrible extremity outside of himself that goaded

him forever forward. Anon he strained to recollect his destination.

His features had set in an implacable grimace of physical torture--like

a runner in the fury of a finish--till the frost hardened them so. At

times he fell heavily, face downward, and at length upon the trail,

lying so till that omnipresent coercion that had frozen in his brain

drove him forward.



He heard his own voice maundering through lifeless lips like that of a

stranger: "The man that can eat his soul will win, Pierre."



Sometimes he cried like a child and slaver ran from his open mouth,

freezing at his breast. One of his hands was going dead. He stripped

the left mitten off and drew it laboriously over the right. One he

would save at least, even though he lost the other. He looked at the

bare member dully, and he could not tell that the cold had eased till

the bitterness was nearly out of the air. He laboured with the fitful

spurts of a machine run down.



Ten men and many dogs lay together in the Crooked River Road House

through the storm. At late bedtime of the last night came a scratching

on the door.



"Somebody's left a dog outside," said a teamster, and rose to let him

in. He opened the door only to retreat affrightedly.



"My God!" he said. "My God!" and the miners crowded forward.



A figure tottered over the portal, swaying drunkenly. They shuddered

at the sight of its face as it crossed toward the fire. It did not

walk; it shuffled, haltingly, with flexed knees and hanging shoulders,

the strides measuring inches only--a grisly burlesque upon senility.



Pausing in the circle, it mumbled thickly, with great effort, as though

gleaning words from infinite distance:



"Wild Pierre--frozen--buried--in--snow--hurry!" Then he straightened

and spoke strongly, his voice flooding the room:



"It's the mind, Pierre. Ha! ha! ha! The mind."



He cackled hideously, and plunged forward into a miner's arms.





It was many days before his delirium broke. Gradually he felt the

pressure of many bandages upon him, and the hunger of convalescence.

As he lay in his bunk the past came to him hazy and horrible; then the

hum of voices, one loud, insistent, and familiar.



He turned weakly, to behold Pierre propped in a chair by the stove,

frost-scarred and pale, but aggressive even in recuperation. He

gesticulated fiercely with a bandaged hand, hot in controversy with

some big-limbed, bearded strangers.



"Bah! You fellers no good--too beeg in the ches', too leetle in the

forehead. She'll tak' the heducate mans for stan' the 'ardsheep--lak'

me an' Meestaire Weelard."





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