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The Weight Of Obligation
by [?]

THIS is the story of a burden, the tale of a load that irked a strong man’s shoulders. To those who do not know the North it may seem strange, but to those who understand the humors of men in solitude, and the extravagant vagaries that steal in upon their minds, as fog drifts with the night, it will not appear unusual. There are spirits in the wilderness, eerie forces which play pranks; some droll or whimsical, others grim.

Johnny Cantwell and Mortimer Grant were partners, trail mates, brothers in soul if not in blood. The ebb and flood of frontier life had brought them together, its hardships had united them until they were as one. They were something of a mystery to each other, neither having surrendered all his confidence, and because of this they retained their mutual attraction. They had met by accident, but they remained together by desire.

The spirit of adventure bubbled merrily within them, and it led them into curious byways. It was this which sent them northward from the States in the dead of winter, on the heels of the Stony River strike; it was this which induced them to land at Katmai instead of Illiamna, whither their land journey should have commenced.

“There are two routes over the coast range,” the captain of the Dora told them, “and only two. Illiamna Pass is low and easy, but the distance is longer than by way of Katmai. I can land you at either place.”

“Katmai is pretty tough, isn’t it?” Grant inquired.

“We’ve understood it’s the worst pass in Alaska.” Cantwell’s eyes were eager.

“It’s awful! Nobody travels it except natives, and they don’t like it. Now, Illiamna–“

“We’ll try Katmai. Eh, Mort?”

“Sure! They don’t come hard enough for us, Cap. We’ll see if it’s as bad as it’s painted.”

So, one gray January morning they were landed on a frozen beach, their outfit was flung ashore through the surf, the lifeboat pulled away, and the Dora disappeared after a farewell toot of her whistle. Their last glimpse of her showed the captain waving good-by and the purser flapping a red tablecloth at them from the after-deck.

“Cheerful place, this,” Grant remarked, as he noted the desolate surroundings of dune and hillside.

The beach itself was black and raw where the surf washed it, but elsewhere all was white, save for the thickets of alder and willow which protruded nakedly. The bay was little more than a hollow scooped out of the Alaskan range; along the foothills behind there was a belt of spruce and cottonwood and birch. It was a lonely and apparently unpeopled wilderness in which they had been set down.

“Seems good to be back in the North again, doesn’t it?” said Cantwell, cheerily. “I’m tired of the booze, and the street cars, and the dames, and all that civilized stuff. I’d rather be broke in Alaska–with you–than a banker’s son, back home.”

Soon a globular Russian half-breed, the Katmai trader, appeared among the dunes, and with him were some native villagers. That night the partners slept in a snug log cabin, the roof of which was chained down with old ships’ cables. Petellin, the fat little trader, explained that roofs in Katmai had a way of sailing off to seaward when the wind blew. He listened to their plan of crossing the divide and nodded.

It could be done, of course, he agreed, but they were foolish to try it, when the Illiamna route was open. Still, now that they were here, he would find dogs for them, and a guide. The village hunters were out after meat, however, and until they returned the white men would need to wait in patience.

There followed several days of idleness, during which Cantwell and Grant amused themselves around the village, teasing the squaws, playing games with the boys, and flirting harmlessly with the girls, one of whom, in particular, was not unattractive. She was perhaps three-quarters Aleut, the other quarter being plain coquette, and, having been educated at the town of Kodiak, she knew the ways and the wiles of the white man.