THE PEACE RIVER TRAIL
Winter set in with unusual rigor, the temperature dropping after heavy snow to fifty below zero, and hovering between thirty and sixty below for weeks together.
Jim Willis and his sled-team lived on a practically “straight” meat diet. Jan had forgotten the taste of sun-dried salmon, and men and dogs together were living now on moose-meat chopped with an ax from the slabs and chunks that were stowed away on the sled. Willis occasionally treated himself to a dish of boiled beans, and when fortune favored he ate ptarmigan. But moose-meat was the staple for man and dogs alike.
For months the valleys they had traversed had been rich in game. But in the northland the movements of game are mysterious and unaccountable; and now, in a bleak and gloomy stretch of country north of the Caribou Mountains, they had seen no trace of life of any kind for a fortnight except wolves. And of these, by day and by night, Jim Willis had seen and heard more than he cared about. It seemed the brutes had come from country quite unlike the valleys Willis had traveled, and resembling more nearly that in which he now found himself. For these wolves were gaunt and poor, and the absence of game made them more than normally audacious. So far from seeking to avoid man and his dogs, they seemed to infest Willis’s trail, ranging emptily and wistfully to his rear and upon either side as hungry sharks patrol a ship’s wake.
The circumstances would have had little enough of significance for Willis, but for an accident which befell just before the cold snap set in. Hastening along the track of a moose he had already mortally wounded, beside one of the tributaries of the Mackenzie, Willis had had the misfortune to take a false step among half-formed ice, and he and his gun had fallen into deep water. The bigger part of a day was given to the attempted salvaging of that gun. But in the end the quest had to be relinquished.
The gun was never seen again; and, though Jim had good store of ammunition, he now had no weapon of any sort or kind, save ax and whip. This was the reason why the presence of large packs of hungry wolves annoyed him and made him anxious to reach a Peace River station as speedily as might be. He carried a fair stock of moose-meat, but accidents might happen, and in any case, apart from the presence of hungry wolves in large numbers, no man cares to be without weapons of precision in the wilderness, for it is these which more than any other thing give him his mastery over the predatory of the wild.
Just before three o’clock in an afternoon of still, intense cold, when daylight was fading out, the narrow devious watercourse whose frozen surface had formed Willis’s trail for many a mile, brought him at last to a bend of the Peace River from which he knew he could reach a settlement within four or five days of good traveling. Therefore his arrival at this point was of more interest and importance to Willis than any ordinary camping halt. But it struck him as curious that Jan should show the interest he did show in it.