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A Romance of the Northern Trail
by James Oliver Curwood, 1913
TO CARLOTTA WHO IS WITH ME AND TO VIOLA WHO FILLS FOR ME A DREAM OF THE FUTURE I AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATE THIS BOOK
THE MOST TERRIBLE THING IN THE WORLD
At Point Fullerton, one thousand miles straight north of civilization, Sergeant William MacVeigh wrote with the stub end of a pencil between his fingers the last words of his semi-annual report to the Commissioner of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police at Regina.
"I beg to say that I have made every effort to run down Scottie Deane, the murderer. I have not given up hope of finding him, but I believe that he has gone from my territory and is probably now somewhere within the limits of the Fort Churchill patrol. We have hunted the country for three hundred miles south along the shore of Hudson's Bay to Eskimo Point, and as far north as Wagner Inlet. Within three months we have made three patrols west of the Bay, unraveling sixteen hundred miles without finding our man or word of him. I respectfully advise a close watch of the patrols south of the Barren Lands."
"There!" said MacVeigh aloud, straightening his rounded shoulders with a groan of relief. "It's done."
From his bunk in a corner of the little wind and storm beaten cabin which represented Law at the top end of the earth Private Pelliter lifted a head wearily from his sick bed and said: "I'm bloomin' glad of it, Mac. Now mebbe you'll give me a drink of water and shoot that devilish huskie that keeps howling every now and then out there as though death was after me."
"Nervous?" said MacVeigh, stretching his strong young frame with another sigh of satisfaction. "What if you had to write this twice a year?" And he pointed at the report.
"It isn't any longer than the letters you wrote to that girl of yours--"
Pelliter stopped short. There was a moment of embarrassing silence. Then he added, bluntly, and with a hand reaching out: "I beg your pardon, Mac. It's this fever. I forgot for a moment that-- that you two-- had broken."
"That's all right," said MacVeigh, with a quiver in his voice, as he turned for the water.
"You see," he added, returning with a tin cup, "this report is different. When you're writing to the Big Mogul himself something gets on your nerves. And it has been a bad year with us, Pelly. We fell down on Scottie, and let the raiders from that whaler get away from us. And-- By Jo, I forgot to mention the wolves!"
"Put in a P. S.," suggested Pelliter.
"A P. S. to his Royal Nibs!" cried MacVeigh, staring incredulously at his mate. "There's no use of feeling your pulse any more, Pelly. The fever's got you. You're sure out of your head."
He spoke cheerfully, trying to bring a smile to the other's pale face. Pelliter dropped back with a sigh.
"No-- there isn't any use feeling my pulse," he repeated. "It isn't sickness, Bill-- not sickness of the ordinary sort. It's in my brain-- that's where it is. Think of it-- nine months up here, and never a glimpse of a white man's face except yours. Nine months without the sound of a woman's voice. Nine months of just that dead, gray world out there, with the northern lights hissing at us every night like snakes and the black rocks staring at us as they've stared for a million centuries. There may be glory in it, but that's all. We're 'eroes all right, but there's no one knows it but ourselves and the six hundred and forty-nine other men of the Royal Mounted. My God, what I'd give for the sight of a girl's face, for just a moment's touch of her hand! It would drive out this fever, for it's the fever of loneliness, Mac-- a sort of madness, and it's splitting my 'ead."
"Tush, tush!" said MacVeigh, taking his mate's hand. "Wake up, Pelly! Think of what's coming. Only a few months more of it, and we'll be changed. And then-- think of what a heaven you'll be entering. You'll be able to enjoy it more than the other fellows, for they've never had this. And I'm going to bring you back a letter-- from the little girl--"
Pelliter's face brightened.
"God bless her!" he exclaimed. "There'll be letters from her-- a dozen of them. She's waited a long time for me, and she's true to the bottom of her dear heart. You've got my letter safe?"
MacVeigh went back to the rough little table and added still further to his report to the Commissioner of the Royal Mounted in the following words:
"Pelliter is sick with a strange trouble in his head. At times I have been afraid he was going mad, and if he lives I advise his transfer south at an early date. I am leaving for Churchill two weeks ahead of the usual time in order to get medicines. I also wish to add a word to what I said about wolves in my last report. We have seem them repeatedly in packs of from fifty to one thousand. Late this autumn a pack attacked a large herd of traveling caribou fifteen miles in from the Bay, and we counted the remands of one hundred and sixty animals killed over a distance of less than three miles. It is my opinion that the wolves kill at least five thousand caribou in this patrol each year.
"I have the honor to be, sir,
"Your obedient servant, " WILLIAM MACVEIGH, Sergeant, "In charge of detachment."
He folded the report, placed it with other treasures in the waterproof rubber bag which always went into his pack, and returned to Pelliter's side.
"I hate to leave you alone, Pelly," he said. "But I'll make a fast trip of it-- four hundred and fifty miles over the ice, and I'll do it in ten days or bust. Then ten days back, mebbe two weeks, and you'll have the medicines and the letters. Hurrah!"
"Hurrah!" cried Pelliter.
He turned his face a little to the wall. Something rose up in MacVeigh's throat and choked him as he gripped Pelliter's hand.
"My God, Bill, is that the sun ?" suddenly cried Pelliter.
MacVeigh wheeled toward the one window of the cabin. The sick man tumbled from his bunk. Together they stood for a moment at the window, staring far to the south and east, where a faint red rim of gold shot up through the leaden sky.
"It's the sun," said MacVeigh, like one speaking a prayer.
"The first in four months," breathed Pelliter.
Like starving men the two gazed through the window. The golden light lingered for a few moments, then died away. Pelliter went back to his bunk.
Half an hour later four dogs, a sledge, and a man were moving swiftly through the dead and silent gloom of Arctic day. Sergeant MacVeigh was on his way to Fort Churchill, more than four hundred miles away.
This is the loneliest journey in the world, the trip down from the solitary little wind-beaten cabin at Point Fullerton to Fort Churchill. That cabin has but one rival in the whole of the Northland-- the other cabin at Herschel Island, at the mouth of the Firth, where twenty-one wooden crosses mark twenty-one white men's graves. But whalers come to Herschel. Unless by accident, or to break the laws, they never come in the neighborhood of Fullerton. It is at Fullerton that men die of the most terrible thing in the world-- loneliness. In the little cabin men have gone mad.
The gloomy truth oppressed MacVeigh as he guided his dog team over the ice into the south. He was afraid for Pelliter. He prayed that Pelliter might see the sun now and then. On the second day he stopped at a cache of fish which they had put up in the early autumn for dog feed. He stopped at a second cache on the fifth day, and spent the sixth night at an Eskimo igloo at Blind Eskimo Point. Late en the ninth day he came into Fort Churchill, with an average of fifty miles a day to his credit.
From Fullerton men came in nearer dead than alive when they made the hazard in winter. MacVeigh's face was raw from the beat of the wind. His eyes were red. He had a touch of runner's cramp. He slept for twenty-four hours in a warm bed without stirring. When he awoke he raged at the commanding officer of the barrack for letting him sleep so long, ate three meals in one, and did up his business in a hurry.
His heart warmed with pleasure when he sorted out of his mail nine letters for Pelliter, all addressed in the same small, girlish hand. There was none for himself-- none of the sort which Pelliter was receiving, and the sickening loneliness within him grew almost suffocating.
He laughed softly as he broke a law. He opened one of Pelliter's letters-- the last one written-- and calmly read it. It was filled with the sweet tenderness of a girl's love, and tears came into his red eyes. Then he sat down and answered it. He told the girl about Pelliter, and confessed to her that he had opened her last letter. And the chief of what he said was that it would be a glorious surprise to a man who was going mad (only he used loneliness in place of madness) if she would come up to Churchill the following spring and marry him
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