POLARIS OF THE SNOWS by Charles B Stilson
7: The Stranger
POLARIS stood so long at the lip of the strange path that Rose Emer uncurled from her seat on the sledge and ran forward to see what held him.
“A path—in this wilderness!” she cried in wonder. And then: “Why, we must be near to one of Captain Scoland’s stations. Our troubles are nearly at an end.”
“No, lady; I think these tracks lead to no station of your captain’s, and our troubles may be just begun. Here are the tracks of many men—”
“But they must be those of our men,” returned Rose Emer, “for who else could have made them?”
Polaris stepped into the trail and examined it with keen eyes.
“Lady, did they of your company dress their feet as do you or as I do?’ he asked, pointing to his moccasins of bearskin.
“Why, they wore heavy boots of felt, with an overshoe of leather, spiked with steel,” said the girl.
“And did they have with them any beasts other than the dogs of which you have told me?” queried Polaris.
Rose Emer shook her head. “No, they had only the dogs,” she replied. “What tracks are there?”
Polaris arose from his examination of the trail. “Now, of all the strange things we have met by land and by sea, I account this the strangest of all,” he said. “Here are the footprints of many men whose feet were clad as are my own, and with them the marks of a heavy sledge and the hacks of four-footed animals new to me—unless, indeed, they be those of dogs in boots—”
“What? Show me where!” Rose Emer knelt beside him to stare at the medley of footprints. She looked up at him wide-eyed a moment later.
“Why, this is impossible!” she gasped. “And yet—what can it mean? Those are the hoofprints of unshod horses!”
Polaris smiled down at her. “Remember the showers of ashes, Rose Emer; and that
I told you that we were to learn some great new thing if we won safe to shore,” he said.
“Now are we at its gates. Stay—something glimmers yonder in the trail!”
He strode away, and returned shortly, bearing something that he had plucked from the snow.
“Bore any man in your company aught like this?” he asked, and held out to her a long, slender-bladed knife.
Wider grew the eyes of the girl in wonder as she took the weapon from him and looked at it. It was of one piece, both blade and shaft, nicely balanced and exquisitely wrought; but it was of no metal which the girl had ever seen. Only in the finest of iridescent glass had she ever seen the bewildering play of colours that was reflected from its bright blade when the sunlight fell on it. It was nearly a foot long, needlepointed and razor-keen.
From the glittering dagger to the man’s face the girl looked slowly. “There is no metal known in the world to-day like that from which this knife is made,” said she. ‘Who and what are they who dropped it here? And here, there are letters on the blade. They look like Greek.”
She pointed to a beautifully clear inscription running down the blade. It read as follows:
|Polaris took the knife quickly and read where the girl pointed.|
“A strange thing in a strange land,” he said. “The words are Greek. They read:
‘Ho chalkeus Kard epoie me’—’Kard the Smith made me.’”
In the midst of her amazement at their discovery the girl marvelled again at the living wonder who stood before them—a man who had survived in this awful wilderness, and who had there acquired through the patience of his father an education superior to her own, with all her advantages. For Polaris spoke and read Greek and something of Latin, besides being conversant with several of the languages of the modern world.
“Now we must make choice,” he said. “Shall we cross this path and go on, seeking a pass in the mountains? Shall we follow it back whither it came from, or shall we follow on whither it leads, and asked of them who made it if there be a way to the north that we may take?”
“Polaris,” she answered, and the heart of the man thrilled to the answer, for it was the first time he had heard his name on her lips, “it must be as you think best. In these places I am helpless, and you are the master. We will do whatever you think for the best.”
“No, lady; in no way am I the master,” he replied quickly. “I do but wish to serve you. Perhaps it were better to go on alone. And then, perhaps again, it were much time and wandering saved to find these folk and ask them of the ways. It may be that they, too, have a ship and are on the trail of the great pole, although something seems to tell me that such is not so.”
“You mean that you think they live here?” asked the girl.
Polaris inclined his head. “Yes, lady, and I am curious to see what manner of men they may be, they who drive horses across the snows and leave knives of unknown metal to mark their trail. Now it is for you to say.”
THE end of it was that they turned south on the trail of the strange people, and as they went they wondered much who Kard the Smith might be, who stamped his wares with ancient Greek inscriptions, yet who did not shoe his horses—or ponies, for the hoofprints were very small.
It was only after some urging that Polaris persuaded the pack to take the path. When they did he let them out to their speed, for the going was plain, and he had no fear of accident in a road travelled by so many. Straight on the trail led them toward the cloud-tipped mountain cluster that lay dim to the south.
As they travelled other circumstances arose to puzzle them. Once a flight of strange birds passed far above them, flying in the same direction. They came to a spot where the strangers had made camp, and there were the remains of a fire with charred wood. Then as they drew nearer, with many miles passed, they saw that the haze which hung about the mountain summits appeared to be not of clouds, but of smoke.
On the second stage of their journey Polaris halted the dogs at a new wonder. “Lady,” he said, “look hard and tell me the colour of those hills, or is it that my eyes are giving way to the snow blindness?”
Rose Emer arose in the sledge and gazed at the hills, and cried: “Green! Green! But how can they be?”
“Warm air, green hills, and people with horses,” Polaris smiled. “It seems that such are not all in the north. Ah, the good green hills I have read of and which I have so longed to see!”
On sped the dogs, and nearer and nearer loomed the hills of green, set like immense, dull emeralds in the white of the snows. Only at their summits were they black and craggy and scarred. Above them spiralled shifting clouds of smoke.
And as they journeyed, the sun shining on the softening snows, and the air growing warmer and warmer, in an ice-locked sound five hundred miles to the north, a little company of weary-faced men gathered on the deck of the good ship Felix, and one of their number read the burial service for the repose of Rose and John Emer and Homer Burleson, strayed from the ship and given up for dead after a searching party had failed to find any trace of them.
As the travellers neared the base of the foot-hills of the mountain range the ground became more uneven, being broken by rock slopes and small hills, many of which were bare of snow. Around these the trail wound zigzag. They swung around one of the sharp curves, and Polaris reined in the dogs.
“Now, lady, here comes one along the trail who may solve for us all our riddles!” he cried, and pointed ahead.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK