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The Brand
by [?]


The valley was very still. No breath of wind had stirred it for many days. It was smothered so heavily in snow that the firs were bent; even the bare birch limbs carried precarious burdens, and when gravity relieved some sagging branch the mass beneath welcomed the avalanche so softly that the only sound was a whisper as the bough returned to its position. The brooding cold had cleared the air of sound as it had of moisture. No birds piped, there was no murmur of running water, no evidence of animal life except an occasional wavering line etched into the white by the feet of some tiny rodent.

The rolling hills were sparsely timbered, against an empty north sky a jumble of saw-toothed peaks were limned like carvings, and everywhere was the same unending hush of winter. The desolation was complete.

Yet there was life here, for spaced at regular intervals across the gulch were mounds of white, each forming the lips of a rectangular cavity resembling an open grave. They were perfectly aligned and separated from each other by precisely thirty paces; surrounding each was a clearing out of which freshly cut stumps protruded bearing snow caps fashioned like the chapeau of a drum-major. There were six of these holes, and a seventh was in process of digging. Over the last one a crude windlass straddled and the heap of debris at its feet showed raw and dirty against the snow. Out of the aperture a thin vapor rose lazily, coating the drum and rope with rime; from the clearing a narrow trail wound to a cabin beside the creek-bank.

McGill came out into the morning and with him came his three giant malamutes, wolf-gray, shaggy, and silent like their master. He eyed the drooping, white-robed forest and the desolate ridges that shut him in, then said, in a voice harsh from disuse:

“Hello, people! Anything happened yet?”

He made it a practice to speak aloud whenever he thought of it, for the hush of an arctic winter plays pranks with a person’s mind, and there is a certain effect of sanity in spoken words, senseless though they be.

After a moment he repeated his greeting: “Good morning, I said. Can’t you answer?” Then his cheeks flamed above his heavy beard and he yelled, loudly, ” Good morning, you —-! Can’t you say anything?” He glared reproachfully at a giant spruce from the lower limbs of which depended the quarters of several caribou. “Tom, you ain’t gone back on me? Say hello. You and me are friends. Speak up!” After a time he shook his head, murmuring: “It’s no use. I’ve got to make all the noise there is. If it would only blow–or something. I’d like to hear the wind.”

He strode toward the prospect hole, the dogs following sedately, their feet making no sound in the snow. They, too, felt the weight of isolation and never left his side. Arriving at the dump, McGill stood motionless beside the windlass for a long time, staring into nothingness with eyes that were strained and miserable. When the cold bit him he roused himself and addressed the steam-filled opening dispiritedly:

“So, you didn’t freeze up on me. That’s good. I’ll get bed-rock to-day and show you up for a dirty cheat. Pay! Bah! there ain’t none!”

He descended a ladder at one end of the shaft, gathered the charred logs, tied them into a bundle with the end of the windlass rope, then, mounting the ladder, hoisted them to the surface. Next, hooking on the ungainly wooden bucket, he lowered it, after which he descended for a second time.

There began a long and monotonous series of ascents and descents, for every bucket of gravel meant two journeys the full depth of the pit. It was a tedious and primitive process, involving a tremendous waste of effort, but he was methodical, and each time the tub rose it carried a burden sufficient to tax the strength of two men. He handled it easily, however, and by midday had removed the thawed ground and scraped a sample from close to frost. He laid a light fire, then took the heaping gold-pan under his arm and set off for his cabin, accompanied by the malamutes.