But never in all that weary march did it manifest again any such modest alacrity. If, thereafter, in the long going “up river” there came an interval of downhill, the sled turned summersaults in the air, wound its forward or backward rope round willow scrub or alder, or else advanced precipitately with an evil, low-comedy air, bottom side up, to attack its master in the shins. It either held back with a power superhuman, or it lunged forward with a momentum that capsized its weary conductor. Its manners grew steadily worse as the travellers pushed farther and farther into the wilderness, beyond the exorcising power of Holy Cross, beyond the softening influences of Christian hospitality at Episcopal Anvik, even beyond Tischsocket, the last of the Indian villages for a hundred miles.
The two who had been scornful of the frailty of temper they had seen common in men’s dealings up here in the North, began to realize that all other trials of brotherhood pale before the strain of life on the Arctic trail. Beyond any question, after a while something goes wrong with the nerves. The huge drafts on muscular endurance have, no doubt, something to do with it. They worked hard for fourteen, sometimes seventeen, hours at a stretch; they were ill-fed, suffering from exposure, intense cold, and a haunting uncertainty of the end of the undertaking. They were reasonable fellows as men go, with a respect for each other, but when hardship has got on the nerves, when you are suffering the agonies of snow-blindness, sore feet, and the pangs of hunger, you are not, to put it mildly, at your best as a member of the social order. They sometimes said things they were ashamed to remember, but both men grew carefuller at crucial moments, and the talkative one more silent as time went on.
By the rule of the day the hard shift before dinner usually fell to the Boy. It was the worst time in the twenty-four hours, and equally dreaded by both men. It was only the first night out from Anvik, after an unusually trying day, the Boy was tramping heavily ahead, bent like an old man before the cutting sleet, fettered like a criminal, hands behind back, rope-wound, stiff, straining at the burden of the slow and sullen sled. On a sudden he stopped, straightened his back, and remonstrated with the Colonel in unprintable terms, for putting off the halt later than ever they had yet, “after such a day.”
“Can’t make fire with green cotton-wood,” was the Colonel’s rejoiner.
“Then let’s stop and rest, anyhow.”
“Nuh! We know where that would land us. Men who stop to rest, go to sleep in the snow, and men who go to sleep in the snow on empty stomachs don’t wake up.”