“What then?” demanded Howland.
“You can shoot me a little later,” temporized the Frenchman with a show of his old coolness. “Mon Dieu, I am afraid of that gun, M’seur. I will get you out of this if I can. Will you give me the chance—or will you shoot?”
“I will shoot—if you fail,” replied the engineer.
Barely were the words out of his mouth when Croisset sprang to the head of the dogs, seized the leader by his neck-trace and half dragged the team and sledge through the thick bush that edged the trail. A dozen paces farther on the dense scrub opened into the clearer run of the low-hanging banskian through which Jean started at a slow trot, with Howland a yard behind him, and the huskies following with human-like cleverness in the sinuous twistings of the trail which the Frenchman marked out for them. They had progressed not more than three hundred yards when there came to them for a third time the hallooing of a voice. With a sharp “hup, hup,” and a low crack of his whip Jean stopped the dogs.
“The Virgin be praised, but that is luck!” he exclaimed. “They have turned off into another trail to the east, M’seur. If they had come on to that break in the bush where we dragged the sledge through—” He shrugged his shoulders with a gasp of relief. “Sacre, they would not be fools enough to pass it without wondering!”
Howland had broken the breech of his revolver and was replacing the three empty cartridges with fresh ones.
“There will be no mistake next time,” he said, holding out the weapon. “You were as near your death a few moments ago as ever before in your life, Croisset—and now for a little plain understanding between us. Until we stopped out there I had some faith in you. Now I have none. I regard you as my worst enemy, and though you are deuced near to your friends I tell you that you were never in a tighter box in your life. If I fail in my mission here, you shall die. If others come along that trail before dark, and run us down, I will kill you. Unless you make it possible for me to see and talk with Meleese I will kill you. Your life hangs on my success; with my failure your death is as certain as the coming of night. I am going to put a bullet through you at the slightest suspicion of treachery. Under the circumstances what do you propose to do?”
“I am glad that you changed your mind, M’seur, and I will not tempt you again. I will do the best that I can,” said Jean. Through a narrow break in the tops of the banskian pines a few feathery flakes of snow were falling, and Jean lifted his eyes to the slit of gray sky above them. “Within an hour it will be snowing heavily,” he affirmed. “If they do not run across our trail by that time, M’seur, we shall be safe.”
He led the way through the forest again, more slowly and with greater caution than before, and whenever he looked over his shoulder he caught the dull gleam of Howland’s revolver as it pointed at the hollow of his back.