But, however that might be, it is a fact that Jan spared no more than the most occasional odd ends of thought for these two silent, slinking watchers of his trail. His active mind was concentrated upon quite other matters, and was becoming more and more set and concentrated, more absorbingly preoccupied with every minute of his progress.
A bloodhound judge who had watched Jan now would have known that he no longer sniffed the trail, as he ran, for guidance. The trail was too fresh for that. He could have followed it with his nose held high in the air. It was for the sheer joy it brought him that he ran now with low-hanging flews, drinking in the scent he followed. And because of the warmth of the trail, Jan followed it at the gallop, his great frame well extended to every stride.
Of a sudden he checked. It was exactly as though he had run his head into a noose on the end of a snare line made fast to one of the darkling trees which skirted his path on the right-hand side. Here the scent which he followed left the trail almost at right angles, turning into the wood.
A moment more and Jan came into full view of a camp-fire, beside which were a sled, a single dog, and two men. But Jan saw no camp-fire, nor any other thing than the track under his questing nose.
The single dog by the sled leaped to its feet with a growling bark. One of the two men stood up sharply in the firelight, ordering his dog in to heel. His eyes (full of wonder) lighted then on the approaching figure of Jan, head down; and he reached for his rifle where it lay athwart the log on which he had been sitting.
As Jan drew in, the other dog flew at his throat. Without wasting breath upon a snarl, Jan gave the husky his shoulder, with a jar which sent the poor beast sprawling into the red flickering edge of the fire. And in the same moment Jan let out a most singular cry as he reared up on his hind feet, allowing his fore paws, very gently and without pressure, to rest on the man’s chest.
His cry had something of a bark in it, but yet was not a bark. It had a good deal of a kind of crooning whine about it, but yet was not a whine. It was just a cry of almost overpowering joy and gladness; and it was so uncannily different from any dog-talk she had ever heard, that the singed and frightened husky bitch by the fire stood gaping open-mouthed to harken at it.
And the man—long-practised discipline made him lay down his gun, instead of dropping it; and then he voiced an exclamation of astonishment scarcely more articulate than Jan’s own cry, and his two arms swung out and around the hound’s massive shoulders in a movement that was an embrace.
“Why, Jan—dear old Jan! Jan, come back to me—here! Good old Jan!”
It was with something strangely like a sob that the bearded sergeant, Dick Vaughan, sank down to a sitting position on the log, with Jan’s head between his hands.