“If there’s a snack of cold stuff in the pack dig it out,” he commanded. “We’ll eat on the run, if you’ve got anything to eat. If you haven’t, we’ll go hungry. We’re going to overtake that sledge sometime this afternoon or to-night—or bust!”
“The saints be blessed, then we are most certain to bust, M’seur,” gasped Jean. “And if we don’t the dogs will. Non, it is impossible!”
“Is there anything to eat?”
“A morsel of cold meat—that is all. But I say that it is impossible. That sledge—”
Howland interrupted him with an impatient gesture.
“And I say that if there is anything to eat in there, get it out, and be quick about it, Croisset. We’re going to overtake those precious friends of yours, and I warn you that if you make any attempt to lose time something unpleasant is going to happen. Understand?”
Jean had bent to unstrap one end of the sledge pack and an angry flash leaped into his eyes at the threatening tone of the engineer’s voice. For a moment he seemed on the point of speech, but caught himself and in silence divided the small chunk of meat which he drew from the pack, giving the larger share to Howland as he went to the head of the dogs. Only once or twice during the next hour did he look back, and after each of these glances he redoubled his efforts at urging on the huskies. Before they had come to the edge of the black banskian forest which Jean had pointed out from the farther side of the plain, Howland saw that the pace was telling on the team. The leader was trailing lame, and now and then the whole pack would settle back in their traces, to be urged on again by the fierce cracking of Croisset’s long whip. To add to his own discomfiture Howland found that he could no longer keep up with Jean and the dogs, and with his weight added to the sledge the huskies settled down into a tugging walk.
Thus they came into the deep low forest, and Jean, apparently oblivious of the exhaustion of both man and dogs, walked now in advance of the team, his eyes constantly on the thin trail ahead. Howland could not fail to see that his unnecessary threat of a few hours before still rankled in the Frenchman’s mind, and several times he made an effort to break the other’s taciturnity. But Jean strode on in moody silence, answering only those things which were put to him directly, and speaking not an unnecessary word. At last the engineer jumped from the sledge and overtook his companion.
“Hold on, Jean,” he cried. “I’ve got enough. You’re right, and I want to apologize. We’re busted—that is, the dogs and I are busted, and we might as well give it up until we’ve had a feed. What do you say?”
“I say that you have stopped just in time, M’seur,” replied Croisset with purring softness. “Another half hour and we would have been through the forest, and just beyond that—in the edge of the plain—are those whom you seek, Meleese and her people. That is what I started to tell you back there when you shut me up. Mon Dieu, if it were not for Meleese I would let you go on. And then—what would happen then, M’seur, if you made your visit to them in broad day? Listen!”