“I took your word of honor,” said Jean sarcastically.
“And I will take yours to an extent,” replied Howland, pouring the coffee. Suddenly he picked up the revolver. “You never saw me shoot, did you? See that cup over there?” He pointed to a small tin pack-cup hanging to a nail on the wall a dozen paces from them. Three times without missing he drove bullets through it, and smiled across at Croisset.
“I am going to give you the use of your arms and legs, except at night,” he said.
“Mon Dieu, it is safe,” grunted Jean. “I give you my word that I will be good, M’seur.”
The sun was up when Croisset led the way outside. His dogs and sledge were a hundred yards from the building, and Howland’s first move was to take possession of the Frenchman’s rifle and eject the cartridges while Jean tossed chunks of caribou flesh to the huskies. When they were ready to start Jean turned slowly and half reached out a mittened hand to the engineer.
“M’seur,” he said softly, “I can not help liking you, though I know that I should have killed you long ago. I tell you again that if you go into the North there is only one chance in a hundred that you will come back alive. Great God, M’seur, up where you wish to go the very trees will fall on you and the carrion ravens pick, out your eyes! And that chance—that one chance in a hundred, M’seur—”
“I will take,” interrupted Howland decisively.
“I was going to say, M’seur,” finished Jean quietly, “that unless accident has befallen those who left Wekusko yesterday that one chance is gone. If you go South you are safe. If you go into the North you are no better than a dead man.”
“There will at least be a little fun at the finish,” laughed the young engineer. “Come, Jean, hit up the dogs!”
“Mon Dieu, I say you are a fool—and a brave man,” said Croisset, and his whip twisted sinuously in mid-air and cracked in sharp command over the yellow backs of the huskies.
Behind the sledge ran Howland, to the right of the team ran Jean. Once or twice when Croisset glanced back his eyes met those of the engineer. He cracked his whip and smiled, and Howland’s teeth gleamed back coldly in reply. A mutual understanding flashed between them in these glances. In a sudden spurt Howland knew that the Frenchman could quickly put distance between them—but not a distance that his bullets could not cover in the space of a breath. He had made up his mind to fire, deliberately and with his greatest skill, if Croisset made the slightest movement toward escape. If he was compelled to kill or wound his companion he could still go on alone with the dogs, for the trail of Meleese and Jackpine would be as plain as their own, which they were following back into the South.