Day had broken cold and gray,
cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and
climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led
eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he
paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at
his watch. It was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though
there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed
an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the
day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry
the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had
seen the sun, and he knew that a few more-days must pass before that cheerful
orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately
The man flung a look back along the way he had come. The Yukon lay a
mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as
many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle, undulations
where the ice jams of the freeze-up had formed. North and south, as far
as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save for a dark hairline that
curved and twisted from around the spruce-covered island to the south,
and that curved and twisted away into the north, where it disappeared behind
another spruce-covered island. This dark hair-line was the trail--the main
trail--that led south five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and
salt water; and that led north seventy miles to Dawson, and still on to
the north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering
Sea, a thousand miles and half a thousand more.
But all this--the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence
of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness
of it all--made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long
used to it. He was a newcomer! in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his
first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.
He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and
not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees
of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and
that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature
of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within
certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead
him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.
Fifty degrees below zero stood forte bite of frost that hurt and that must
be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and
thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees
below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought
that never entered his head.
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive
crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before
it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty
below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the
air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below--how much colder he did
not know. But the temperature did not matter. He was bound for the old
claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already.
They had come over across the divide from the Indian Creek country, while
he had come the roundabout way to take; a look at the possibilities of
getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon. He would
be in to camp by six o'clock; a bit after dark, it was true, but the boys
would be there, a fire would be going, and a hot supper would be ready.
As for lunch, he pressed his hand against the protruding bundle under his
jacket. It was also under his shirt, wrapped up in a handkerchief and lying
against the naked skin. It was the only way to keep the biscuits from freezing.
He smiled agreeably to himself as he thought of those biscuits, each cut
open and sopped in bacon grease, and each enclosing a generous slice of
He plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A foot
of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over, and he was glad
he was without a sled, traveling light. In fact, he carried nothing but
the lunch wrapped in the handkerchief. He was surprised, however, at the
cold. It certainly was cold, he concluded as he rubbed his numb nose and
cheek-bones with his mittened hand. He was a warm-whiskered man, but the
hair on his face did not protect the high cheek-bones and the eager nose
that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air.
At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolfdog,
gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its
brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold.
It knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer
tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment. In reality, it was
not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below,
than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero. Since the freezing
point is thirty-two above zero, it meant that one hundred and seven degrees
of frost obtained. The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly
in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold
such as was in the man's brain. But the brute had its instinct. It experienced
a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along
at the man's heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement
of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere
and build a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else
to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.
The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine
powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes whitened
by its crystalled breath. The man's red beard and mustache were likewise
frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing
with every warm, moist breath he exhaled. Also, the man was chewing tobacco,
and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear
his chin when he expelled the juice. The result was that a crystal beard
of the color and solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin.
If he fell down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments.
But he did not mind the appendage. It was the penalty all tobacco-chewers
paid in that country, and he had been out before in two cold snaps. They
had not been so cold as this, he knew, but by the spirit thermometer at
Sixty Mile he knew they had been registered at fifty below and at fifty-five.
He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles, crossed
a wide flat of rigger-heads, and dropped down a bank to the frozen bed
of a small stream. This was Henderson Creek, and he knew he was ten miles
from the forks. He looked at his watch. It was ten o'clock. He was making
four miles an hour, and he calculated that he would arrive at the forks
at half-past twelve. He decided to celebrate that event by eating his lunch
The dog dropped in again at his heels, with a tail drooping discouragement,
as the man swung along the creek-bed. The furrow of the old sled-trail
was plainly visible, but a dozen inches of snow covered the marks of the
last runners. In a month no man had come up or down that silent creek.
The man held steadily on. He was not much given to thinking, and just then
particularly he had nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch
at-the forks and that at six o'clock he would be in camp with the boys.
There was nobody to talk to; and, had there been, speech would have been
impossible because of the ice-muzzle on his mouth. So he continued monotonously
to chew tobacco and to increase the length of his amber beard.
Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold
and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he rubbed
his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand. He did this
automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as he would, the instant
he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the following instant the end
of his nose went numb. He was sure to frost his cheeks; he knew that, and
experienced a pang of regret that he had not devised a nose-strap of the
sort Bud wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as
well, and saved them. But it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted
cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious.
Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and
he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber jams,
and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet. Once coming around
a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse, curved away from the
place where he had been walking, and retreated several paces back along
the trail. The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom,--no creek
could contain water in that arctic winter,--but he knew also that there
were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the
snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never
froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps.
They hid pools of water under the snow that might be three inches deep,
or three feet. Sometimes a skin of ice. half an inch thick covered them,
and in turn was covered by the snow Sometimes there were alternate layers
of water and ice-skin, so that when one broke through he kept on breaking
through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the waist.
That was why he had shied in such panic. He had felt the give under
his feet and heard the crackle of a snow-hidden ice-skin. And to get his
feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger. At the very least
it meant delay, for he would be forced to stop and build a fire, and under
its protection to bare his feet while he dried his socks and moccasins.
He stood and studied the creek-bed and its banks, and decided that the
flow of water came from the right. He reflected a while, rubbing his nose
and cheeks, then skirted to the left, stepping gingerly and testing the
footing for each step. Once clear of the danger, he took a fresh chew of
tobacco and swung along at his four-mile gait.
In the course of the next two hours he came upon several similar traps.
Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance
that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a close call; and
once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog
did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward, and then
it went quickly across the white, unbroken surface. Suddenly it broke through,
floundered to one side, and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its
forefeet and legs, and almost immediately the water that clung to it turned
to ice. It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped
down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between
the toes. l his was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would
mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting
that arose from the deep crypts of its being. But the man knew, having
achieved a judgment on the subject, and he removed the mitten from his
right hand and helped tear out the ice-particles. He did not expose his
fingers more than a minute, and was astonished at the swift numbness that
smote them. It certainly was cold. He pulled on the mitten hastily, and
beat the hand savagely across his chest.
At twelve o'clock the day was at its brightest. Yet the sun was too
far south on its winter journey to clear the horizon. The bulge of the
earth intervened between it and Henderson Creek, where the man walked under
a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow. At half-past twelve, to the minute,
he arrived at the forks of the creek. He was pleased at the speed he had
made. If he kept it up, he would certainly be with the boys by six. He
unbuttoned his jacket and shirt and drew forth his lunch. The action consumed
no more than a quarter of a minute, yet in that brief moment the numbness
laid hold of the exposed fingers. He did not put the mitten on, but, instead
struck the fingers a dozen sharp smashes against his leg. Then he sat down
on a snow-covered log to eat. The sting that followed upon the striking
of his fingers against his leg ceased so quickly that he was startled.
He had had no chance to take a bite of biscuit. He struck the fingers repeatedly
and returned them to the mitten, baring the other hand for the purpose
of eating, He tried to take a mouthful, but the ice-muzzle prevented. He
had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness,
and as he chuckled he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers.
Also, he noted that the stinging which had first come to his toes when
he sat down was already passing away. He wandered whether the toes were
warm or numb. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they
He pulled the mitten on hurriedly and stood up. He was a bit frightened.
He stamped up and down until the stinging returned into the feet. It certainly
was cold, was his thought. That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth
when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed
at him at the time! That showed one must not be too sure of things. There
was no mistake about it, it was cold. He strode up and down, stamping his
feet and threshing his arms, until reassured by the returning warmth. Then
he got out matches and proceeded to make a fire. From the undergrowth,
where high water of the previous spring had lodged a supply of seasoned
twigs, he got his firewood. Working carefully from a small beginning, he
soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice from his face and
in the protection of which he ate his biscuits. For the moment the cold
space was outwitted. The dog took satisfaction in the fire, stretching
out close enough for warmth and far enough away to escape being singed.
When the man had finished, be filled his pipe and took his comfortable
time over a smoke. Then he pulled on his mittens, settled the ear-flaps
of his cap firmly about his ears, and took the creek trail up the left
fork. The dog was disappointed and yearned back toward the fire. This man
did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been
ignorant of cold of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below
freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited
the knowledge. And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such
fearful cold. It was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow and wait
for a curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face of outer space whence
this cold came. On the other hand, there was no keen intimacy between the
dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and the only
caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whiplash and of
harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whiplash. So, the
dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not
concerned in the welfare of the man, it was for its own sake that it yearned
back toward the fire. But the man whistled, and spoke to it with the sound
of whiplashes and the dog swung in at the man's heel and followed after.
The man took a chew of tobacco and proceeded to start a new amber beard.
Also, his moist breath quickly powdered with white his mustache, eyebrows,
and lashes. There did not seem to be so many springs on the left fork of
the Henderson, and for half an hour the man saw no signs of any. And then
it happened. At a place where there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken
snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath, tee man broke through. It was
not deep. He wet himself halfway to the knees before he floundered out
to the firm crust.
He was angry, and cursed his luck aloud. He had hoped to get into camp
with the boys at six o'clock, and this would delay him an hour, for he
would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear. This was imperative
at that low temperature--he knew that much; and he turned aside to the
bank, which he climbed. On top, tangled in the underbrush about the trunks
of several small spruce trees, was a high-water deposit of dry firewood--sticks
and twigs, principally, but also larger portions of seasoned branches and
fine, dry, last-year's grasses. He threw down several large pieces on top
of the snow. This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame
from drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he
got by touching a match to a small shred of birch bark that he took from
his pocket. This burned even more readily than paper. Placing it on the
foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass and with the
tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually,
as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which
he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their entanglement
in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew there must be no
failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his
first attempt to build a fire--that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet
are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore
his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be
restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he
runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.
All this the man knew. The old-timer on Sulphur Creek had told him about
it the previous fall, and now he was appreciating the advice. Already all
sensation had gone out of his feet. To build the fire he had been forced
to remove his mittens, and the fingers had quickly gone numb. His pace
of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the surface of
his body and to all the extremities. But the instant he stopped, the action
of the pump eased down. The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of
the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force
of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive,
like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself
up from the fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped
that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now it ebbed away and sank
down into the recesses of his body. The extremities were the first to feel
its absence. His wet feet froze the faster, and his exposed fingers numbed
the faster, though they had not yet begun to freeze. Nose and cheeks were
already freezing, while the skin of all his body chilled as it lost its
But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would be only touched by the
frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. He was feeding
it with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute he would be able
to feed it with branches the size of his wrier, and then he could remove
his wet toot-gear, and, while it dried, he could keep his naked feet warm
by the fire, rubbing them at first, of course, with snow. The fire was
a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old timer on Sulphur
Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the
law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well,
here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself.
Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a
man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was
a man could travel alone. But it was surprising, the rapidity with which
his cheeks and nose were freezing. And he had not thought his fingers could
go lifeless in so short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely
make them move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote from his
body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether
or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between him and
All of which counted for little. There was the fire, snapping and crackling
and promising life with every dancing flame. He started to untie his moccasins.
They were coated with ice; the thick German socks were like sheaths of
iron halfway to the knees; and the moccasin strings were like rods of steel
all twisted and knotted as by some conflagration. For a moment he tugged
with his numb fingers, then, realizing the folly of it, he drew his sheath-knife.
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own fault
or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce
tree. He should have built it in the open. But it had been easier to pull
the twigs from the brush and drop them directly on the fire. Now the tree
under which he had done this carried a weight of snow on its boughs. No
wind had blown for weeks, and each bough was fully freighted. Each time
he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree--an
imperceptible agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient
to bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its
load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process
continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an
avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire,
and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh
and disordered snow.
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence
of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had
been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old-timer on Sulphur Creek was
right. If he had only had a trail-mate he would have been in no danger
now. The trail-mate could have built the fire. Well, it was up to him to
build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure.
Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes His feet must
be badly frozen by now, and there would be some time before the second
fire Was ready.
Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them. He was busy
all the time they were passing through his mind. He made a new foundation
for a fire, this time in the open, where no treacherous tree could blot
it out. Next, he gathered dry grasses and tiny twigs from the high-water
flotsam. He could not bring his fingers together to pull them out, but
he was able to gather them by the handful. In this way he got many rotten
twigs and bits of green moss that were undesirable, but it was the best
he could do. He worked methodically, even collecting an armful of the larger
branches to be used later when the fire gathered strength. And all the
while the dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in its
eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire-provider, and the fire was slow
When all was ready, the man reached in his pocket for a second piece
of birch bark. He knew the bark was there, and, though he could not feel
it with his fingers, he could hear its crisp rustling as he fumbled for
it. Try as he would, he could not clutch hold of it. And all the time in
his consciousness, was the knowledge that each instant his feet were freezing.
This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought against it and
kept calm. He pulled on his mittens with his teeth, and threshed his arms
back and forth, beating his hands with all his might against his sides.
He did this sitting down, and he stood up to do it; and all the while the
do,g sat in the snow, its wolf-brush of a tail curled around warmly over
its forefeet, its sharp wolf-ears pricked forward intently as it watched
the man And the man, as he beat and threshed with his arms and hands, felt
a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that was warm ant secure
in its natural covering.
After a time he was aware of the first far-away signals of sensation
in his beaten fingers. The faint tingling grew stronger till it evolved
into a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man hailed with
satisfaction. He stripped the mitten from his right hand and fetched forth
the birch bark. The exposed fingers were quickly going numb again. Next
he brought out his bunch of sulphur matches. But the tremendous cold had
already driven the life out of his fingers. In his effort to separate one
match from the others, the whole bunch fell in the snow. He tried to pick
it out of the snow, but failed. The dead fingers could neither touch nor
clutch. He was very careful. He drove the thought of his freezing feet,
and nose, and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches.
He watched, using the sense of vision in place of that of touch, and when
he saw his fingers on each side the bunch, he dosed them--that is, he willed
to close them, for the wires were down, and the fingers did not obey. He
pulled the mitten on the right hand and beat it fiercely against his knee.
Then. with both mittened hands, he scooped the bunch of matches, along
with much snow, into his lap. Yet he was no better off.
After some manipulation he managed to get the bunch between the heels
of his mittened hands. In this fashion he carried it to his mouth. The
ice crackled and snapped when by a violent effort he opened his mouth.
He drew the lower jaw in, curled the upper lip out of the way, and scraped
the bunch with his upper teeth in order to separate a match. He succeeded
in getting one, which he dropped on his lap. He was no better off. He could
not pick it up. Then he devised a way. He picked it up in his teeth and
scratched it on his leg. Twenty times he scratched before he succeeded
in lighting it. As it flamed he held it with his teeth to the birch bark.
But the burning brimstone went up his nostrils and into his lungs, causing
him to cough spasmodically. The match fell into the snow and went out.
The old-timer an Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of
controlled despair that ensued after fifty below, a man should travel with
a partner. He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any sensation. Suddenly
he bared both hands, removing the mittens with his teeth. He caught the
whole bunch between the heels of his hands. His arm muscles not being frozen
enabled him to press the hand-heels tightly against the matches. Then he
scratched the bunch along his leg It flared into flame, seventy sulphur
matches at once! There was no wind to blow them out He kept his head to
one side to escape the strangling fumes, and held the blazing bunch to
the birth bark. As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand.
His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface he
could feel it. The sensation developed into pain that grew acute. And still
he endured, it holding the flame of the matches clumsily to the bark that
would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way,
absorbing most of the flame.
At last, when he could endure no more, he jerked his hands apart. The
blazing matches fell sizzling into the snow, but the birch bark was alight.
He began laying dry grasses and the tiniest twigs on the flame. He could
not pick and choose, for he had to lift the fuel between the heels of his
hands. Small pieces of rotten wood and green moss clung to the twigs, and
he bit them off as well as he could with his teeth. He cherished the flame
carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish. The withdrawal
of blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and
he grew more awkward. A large piece of green moss fell squarely on the
little fire. He tried to poke it out with his fingers, but his shivering
frame made him poke too far and he disrupted the nucleus of the little
fire, the burning grasses and tiny twigs separating and scattering. He
tried to poke them together again, but in spite of the tenseness of the
effort, his shivering got away with him, and the twigs were hopelessly
scattered. Each twig gushed a puff of smoke and went out. The fire-provider
had failed. As he looked apathetically about him, his eyes chanced on the
dog, sitting across the ruins of the fire from him, in the snow, making
restless, hunching movements, slightly lifting one forefoot and then the
other, shifting its weight back and forth on them with wistful eagerness.
The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the
tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside
the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands
in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build
another fire. He spoke to the dog, calling it to him; but in his voice
was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal, who had never known
the man to speak in such way before. Something was the matter, and its
suspicious nature sensed danger--it knew not what danger, but somewhere,
somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man. It flattened its
ears down at the sound of the man's voice, and its restless, hunching movements
and the liftings and shiftings of its forefeet became more pronounced;
but it would not come to the man. He got on his hands and knees and crawled
toward the dog. This unusual posture again excited suspicion, and the animal
sidled mincingly away.
The man sat up in the snow for a moment and struggled for calmness.
Then he pulled on his mittens, by means of his teeth, and got upon his
feet. He glanced down at first in order to assure himself that he was really
standing up, for the absence of sensation in his feet left him unrelated
to the earth. His erect position in itself started to drive the webs of
suspicion from the dog's mind; and when he spoke peremptorily, with the
sound of whiplashes in his voice, the dog rendered its customary allegiance
and came to him. As it came within reaching distance, the man lost his
control. His arms flashed out to the dog, and he experienced genuine surprise
when he discovered that his hands could not clutch, that there was neither
bend nor feeling in the fingers. He had forgotten for the moment that they
were frozen and that they were freezing more and more. All this happened
quickly, and before the animal could get away, he encircled its body with
his arms. He sat down in the snow, and in this fashion held the dog, while
it snarled and whined and struggled.
But it was all he could do, hold its body encircled in his arms and
sit there. He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no way
to do it. With his helpless hands he could neither draw nor hold his sheath
knife nor throttle the animal. He released it, and it plunged wildly away,
with tail between its legs, and still snarling. It halted forty feet away
and surveyed him curiously, with ears sharply pricked forward. The man
looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging
on the ends of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have
to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were. He began threshing
his arms back and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides.
He did this for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood
up to the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was
aroused in the hands. He had an impression that they hung like weights
on the ends of his arms, but when he tried to run the impression down,
he could not find it.
A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear
quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter
of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but
that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him. This
threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up the creek-bed along the
old, dim trail. The dog joined in behind and kept up with him. He ran blindly,
without intention, in fear such as he had never known in his life. Slowly,
as he plowed and floundered through the snow, he began to see things again,
the banks of the creek, the old timber-jams, the leafless aspens, and the
sky. The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe, if he
ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough, he
would reach camp and the boys. Without doubt he would lose some fingers
and toes and some of his face; but the boys would take care of him, and
save the rest of him when he got there. And at the same time there was
another thought in his mind that said he would never get to the camp and
the boys; that it was too many miles away, that the freezing had too great
a start on him, and that he would soon be stiff and dead. This thought
he kept in the background and refused to consider. Sometimes it pushed
itself forward and demanded to be heard, but he thrust it back and strove
to think of other things.
It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen
that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weigh.
of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and
to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had once seen a winged
Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over
His theory of running until he reached camp and the boys had one flaw
in it: he lacked the endurance. Several times he stumbled, and finally
he tottered, crumpled up, and fell. When he tried to rise, he failed. He
must sit and rest, he decided, and next time he would merely walk and keep
on going. As he sat and regained his breath, he noted that he was feeling
quite warm and comfortable He was not shivering, and it even seemed that
a warm glow had come to his chest and trunk. And yet, when he touched his
nose or cheeks, there was no sensation. Running would not thaw them out.
Nor would it thaw out his hands and feet. Then the thought came to him
that the frozen portions of his body must be extending. He tried to keep
this thought down, to forget it, to think of something else; he was aware
of the panicky feeling that it caused, and he was afraid of the panic.
But the thought asserted itself, and persisted, until it produced a vision
of his body totally frozen. This was too much, and he made another wild
run along the trail. Once he slowed down to a walk, but the thought of
the freezing extending itself made him run again.
And all the time the dog ran with him, at his heels. When he fell down
a second time, it curled its tad! over its forefeet and sat in front of
him, facing him, curiously eager and intent The warmth and security of
the animal angered him, and he cursed it till it flattened down its ears
appealingly. This time the shivering came more quickly upon the man. He
was losing in his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body
from all sides. The thought of it drove him on, but he ran no more than
a hundred feet, when he staggered and pitched headlong. It was his last
panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained
in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity. However, the
conception did not come to him in such terms. His idea of it was that he
had been making a fool of himself, running around like a chicken with its
head cut off--such was the simile that occurred to him. Well, he was bound
to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it decently. With this new-found
peace of mind came the first glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he
thought, to sleep off to death. It was like salting an anaesthetic. Freezing
was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.
He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found himself
with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself. And, still with
them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the
snow. He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out
of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow.
It certainly was cold, was his thought. When he got back to the States
he could tell the folks what real cold was He drifted on from this to a
vision of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek He could see him quite clearly,
warm and comfortable, and smoking a pipe.
"You were right, old hoss; you were right," the man mumbled to the old-timer
of Sulphur Creek.
Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable
and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting.
The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs
of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog's experience had it
known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight
drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great
lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its
ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained
silent. Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to
the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and
back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped
and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted
up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other
food-providers and fire-providers.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .