But Jan did see Willis, and the loose skin of his battered shoulders even shrank a little, in anticipation of a blow. Jan thought himself still in the traces. (As a fact he was; and breast-band, too.)
The moment Willis spoke—his low “My God!”—Jan fancied he had heard the old order to “Mush on!” and doubtless that another blow from the haft of Beeching’s whip was due. In view of his then desperate state, the effort with which Jan answered the command he fancied he heard was a positive miracle. He actually staggered to his feet, though too weak to lift his eyelids, and plunged forward, with weakly scrabbling paws, to throw his weight upon the traces. And plunging against nothing but space, he had surely crashed to earth again, and in that moment crossed the Divide, but for Willis.
Willis was not of the type of men who waste breath over repetitions of exclamation of surprise. As Jan slowly heaved up his body, in a last effort at duty, Willis swiftly lowered his own body, dropping upon his knees, both arms widely extended. And it was at Willis’s broad chest, and between his strongly supporting arms, that the wreck of Jan plunged, in response to what must be reckoned by far the greatest effort, till then, that the great hound had ever made.
And if the thing had ended there, this incident alone proved that when he chose the tent, before any of the more ambitious habitations near by, Jan had chosen what was assuredly the best place for him in all that town.
BACK TO THE TRAIL
Late that same evening two men who looked in to see Jim Willis found him playing sick-nurse to all that remained of the strangest-looking hound ever seen in those parts. His stove was well alight, and near by, on the bed, were a spoon, a flask of whisky, a dish of hot milk, and some meat-juice in a jar.
There was some talk about the hound, and then the bigger of the visitors said:
“Well, Jim, what’s it to be? Will you tackle the job, or won’t you? You must admit, if the trail is bad, the money’s pretty good. Will you go?”
Willis nodded shortly. That meant acquiescence in the statement that the money was “good.” Then he pointed to the hound, whose head rested on his knee. (He himself was sitting on the ground.)
“Well, no, Mike; I guess I won’t,” he said, slowly. “You say I’d have to hit out to-morrow; and I reckon I’m going to try an’ yank this feller back into the world before I go anywheres.”
“But, hell, Jim,” said the other man, a little petulantly. “I like a dawg as well as the next man, and this one does seem to have been some husky in his time. Only—well, you admit yourself the money’s good, and—say, I won’t try any bluffs with you. There ain’t another man in the place we could trust to do the job. Come, now, is it a go, Jim?”
Willis pondered a minute, eying Jan’s head the while.