And the Boy, seeing without looking, taking in every move, every shade in the mood of the broken-spirited man, ready to die here, like a dog, in the snow, instead of pressing on as long as he could crawl—the Boy, in a fever of silent rage, called him that “meanest word in the language—a quitter.” And as, surreptitiously, he took in the vast discouragement of the older man, there was nothing in the Boy’s changed heart to say, “Poor fellow! if he can’t go on, I’ll stay and die with him”; but only, “He’s got to go on! ... and if he refuses ... well——” He felt about in his deadened brain, and the best he could bring forth was: “I won’t leave him—yet.”
* * * * *
A mighty river-jam had forced them up on the low range of hills. It was about midnight to judge by the moon—clear of snow and the wind down. The Boy straightened up at a curious sight just below them. Something black in the moonlight. The Colonel paused, looked down, and passed his hand over his eyes.
The Boy had seen the thing first, and had said to himself, “Looks like a sled, but it’s a vision. It’s come to seeing things now.”
When he saw the Colonel stop and stare, he threw down his rope and began to laugh, for there below were the blackened remains of a big fire, silhouetted sharply on the snow.
“Looks like we’ve come to a camp, Boss!”
He hadn’t called the Colonel by the old nickname for many a day. He stood there laughing in an idiotic kind of way, wrapping his stiff hands in his parki, Indian fashion, and looking down to the level of the ancient river terrace, where the weather-stained old Indian sled was sharply etched on the moonlit whiteness.
Just a sled lying in the moonlight. But the change that can be wrought in a man’s heart upon sight of a human sign! it may be idle to speak of that to any but those who have travelled the desolate ways of the North.
Side by side the two went down the slope, slid and slipped and couldn’t stop themselves, till they were below the landmark. Looking up, they saw that a piece of soiled canvas or a skin, held down with a drift-log, fell from under the sled, portiere-wise from the top of the terrace, straight down to the sheltered level, where the camp fire had been. Coming closer, they saw the curtain was not canvas, but dressed deerskin.
“Indians!” said the Colonel.
But with the rubbing out of other distinctions this, too, was curiously faint. Just so there were human beings it seemed enough. Within four feet of the deerskin door the Colonel stopped, shot through by a sharp misgiving. What was behind? A living man’s camp, or a dead man’s tomb? Succour, or some stark picture of defeat, and of their own oncoming doom?
The Colonel stood stock-still waiting for the Boy. For the first time in many days even he hung back. He seemed to lack the courage to be the one to extinguish hope by the mere drawing of a curtain from a snow-drift’s face. The Kentuckian pulled himself together and went forward. He lifted his hand to the deerskin, but his fingers shook so he couldn’t take hold: