An hour went by, and a second hour. The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air. It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned his head until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across the narrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.
A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness. Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.
«They're after us, Bill,» said the man at the front.
His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparent effort.
«Meat is scarce,» answered his comrade. «I ain't seen a rabbit sign for days.»
Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for the hunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.
At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of spruce trees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at the side of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered on the far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, but evinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.
«Seems to me, Henry, they're stayin' remarkable close to camp,» Bill commented.
Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.
«They know where their hides is safe,» he said. «They'd sooner eat grub than be grub. They're pretty wise, them dogs.»
Bill shook his head. «Oh, I don't know.»
His comrade looked at him curiously. «First time I ever heard you say anything about their not bein' wise.»
«Henry,» said the other, munching with deliberation the beans he was eating, «did you happen to notice the way them dogs kicked up when I was a-feedin' 'em?»
«They did cut up more'n usual,» Henry acknowledged.
«How many dogs 've we got, Henry?»
«Well, Henry . . . « Bill stopped for a moment, in order that his words might gain greater significance. «As I was sayin', Henry, we've got six dogs. I took six fish out of the bag. I gave one fish to each dog, an', Henry, I was one fish short.»
«You counted wrong.»
«We've got six dogs,» the other reiterated dispassionately. «I took out six fish. One Ear didn't get no fish. I came back to the bag afterward an' got 'm his fish.»
«We've only got six dogs,» Henry said.
«Henry,» Bill went on. «I won't say they was all dogs, but there was seven of 'm that got fish.»
Henry stopped eating to glance across the fire and count the dogs.
«There's only six now,» he said.
«I saw the other one run off across the snow,» Bill announced with cool positiveness. «I saw seven.»
Henry looked at him commiseratingly, and said, «I'll be almighty glad when this trip's over.»
«What d'ye mean by that?» Bill demanded.
«I mean that this load of ourn is gettin' on your nerves, an' that you're beginnin' to see things.»
«I thought of that,» Bill answered gravely. «An' so, when I saw it run off across the snow, I looked in the snow an' saw its tracks. Then I counted the dogs an' there was still six of 'em. The tracks is there in the snow now. D'ye want to look at 'em? I'll show 'em to you.»
Henry did not reply, but munched on in silence, until, the meal finished, he topped it with a final cup a of coffee. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said:
«Then you're thinkin' as it was-«
A long wailing cry, fiercely sad, from somewhere in the darkness, had interrupted him. He stopped to listen to it, then he finished his sentence with a wave of his hand toward the sound of the cry,