Nearer the white teeth gleamed, fiercer the gale, swifter the current, sweeping back the boats. The Mary C. was left behind, fighting for life, while it seemed as if no human power could keep the Tulare from being hurled against the western shore. Twice, in spite of all they could do, she was driven within a few feet of what looked like certain death. With a huge effort, that last time, her little crew had just got her well in mid-stream, when a heavy roller breaking on the starboard side drenched the men and half filled the cockpit. Each rower, still pulling for dear life with one hand, bailed the boat with the other; but for all their promptness a certain amount of the water froze solid before they could get it out.
“Great luck, if we’re going to take in water like this,” said the cheerful Kentuckian, shipping his oar and knocking off the ice—“great luck that all the stores are so well protected.”
“Protected!” snapped out an anxious, cast-iron-looking man at the rudder.
“Yes, protected. How’s water to get through the ice-coat that’s over everything?”
The cast-iron steersman set his jaw grimly. They seemed to be comparatively safe now, with half a mile of open water between them and the western shore.
But they sat as before, stiff, alert, each man in his ice jacket that cracked and crunched as he bent to his oar. Now right, now left, again they eyed the shore.
Would it be—could it be there they would have to land? And if they did...?
Lord, how it blew!
“Hard a-port!” called out the steersman. There, just ahead, was a great white-capped “roller” coming—coming, the biggest wave they had encountered since leaving open sea.
But MacCann, the steersman, swung the boat straight into the crested roller, and the Tulare took it gamely, “bow on.” All was going well when, just in the boiling middle of what they had thought was foaming “white-cap,” the boat struck something solid, shivered, and went shooting down, half under water; recovered, up again, and seemed to pause in a second’s doubt on the very top of the great wave. In that second that seemed an eternity one man’s courage snapped.
Potts threw down his oar and swore by——and by——he wouldn’t pull another——stroke on the——Yukon.
While he was pouring out the words, the steersman sprang from the tiller, and seized Potts’ oar just in time to save the boat from capsizing. Then he and the big Kentuckian both turned on the distracted Potts.
“You infernal quitter!” shouted the steersman, and choked with fury. But even under the insult of that “meanest word in the language,” Potts sat glaring defiantly, with his half-frozen hands in his pockets.
“It ain’t a river, anyhow, this ain’t,” he said. “It’s plain, simple Hell and water.”
The others had no time to realise that Potts was clean out of his senses for the moment, and the Kentuckian, still pulling like mad, faced the “quitter” with a determination born of terror.