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IX. THE MISTAKE OF CREATION
"Whoa!" Smoke yelled at the dogs, throwing his weight back on the gee-pole to bring the sled to a halt.
"What's eatin' you now?" Shorty complained. "They ain't no water under that footing."
"No; but look at that trail cutting out to the right," Smoke answered. "I thought nobody was wintering in this section."
The dogs, on the moment they stopped, dropped in the snow and began biting out the particles of ice from between their toes. This ice had been water five minutes before. The animals had broken through a skein of ice, snow-powdered, which had hidden the spring water that oozed out of the bank and pooled on top of the three-foot winter crust of Nordbeska River.
"First I heard of anybody up the Nordbeska," Shorty said, staring at the all but obliterated track covered by two feet of snow, that left the bed of the river at right angles and entered the mouth of a small stream flowing from the left. "Mebbe they're hunters and pulled their freight long ago."
Smoke, scooping the light snow away with mittened hands, paused to consider, scooped again, and again paused. "No," he decided. "There's been travel both ways, but the last travel was up that creek. Whoever they are, they're there now--certain. There's been no travel for weeks. Now what's been keeping them there all the time? That's what I want to know."
"And what I want to know is where we're going to camp to-night," Shorty said, staring disconsolately at the sky-line in the southwest, where the mid-afternoon twilight was darkening into night.
"Let's follow the track up the creek," was Smoke's suggestion. "There's plenty of dead timber. We can camp any time."
"Sure we can camp any time, but we got to travel most of the time if we ain't goin' to starve, an' we got to travel in the right direction."
"We're going to find something up that creek," Smoke went on.
"But look at the grub! Look at them dogs!" Shorty cried. "Look at--oh, hell, all right. You will have your will."
"It won't make the trip a day longer," Smoke urged. "Possibly no more than a mile longer."
"Men has died for as little as a mile," Shorty retorted, shaking his head with lugubrious resignation. "Come on for trouble. Get up, you poor sore-foots, you--get up! Haw! You Bright! Haw!"
The lead-dog obeyed, and the whole team strained weakly into the soft snow.
"Whoa!" Shorty yelled. "It's pack trail."
Smoke pulled his snow-shoes from under the sled-lashings, bound them to his moccasined feet, and went to the fore to press and pack the light surface for the dogs.
It was heavy work. Dogs and men had been for days on short rations, and few and limited were the reserves of energy they could call upon. Though they followed the creek bed, so pronounced was its fall that they toiled on a stiff and unrelenting up-grade. The high rocky walls quickly drew near together, so that their way led up the bottom of a narrow gorge. The long lingering twilight, blocked by the high mountains, was no more than semi-darkness.