"Somebody in here is nothing but a low down, conniving little weasel."
The English man, Ian Knowles spat out the words in a loud voice. Then punctuated his outburst by stabbing his hunting knife into the huge sawed off tree trunk that served as a table. His thrust was so hard it buried half the eight inch blade. The rest of it vibrated back and forth like a turning fork. Only it didn't make a sound.
The only noise in the make shift lean too came from the howl of the wind and the sound of snow pellets hitting against its sides and roof. There was a fierce blizzard outside and it was snowing, but not the normal soft, fluffy flakes. Instead, the snow was more like hail. Driven by the raging winds, the frozen sleet pounded incessantly against the shanty but it wasn't like the drumming of a steady rain. Instead there were brief lulls until another huge gust of wind would toss the pellets about like marbles.
The other three occupants of the hovel stirred at the sound of Knowles' voice. If nothing else, it was a relief from the boredom of being cooped up inside until the storm finally blew itself out. The men had been trapped there in the North West Territories along the Liard River for three days. Their march to the 1898 Klondike gold rush suspended but far from over because as soon as the storm abated they would be on their way again. Such was their resolve. A year ago they had been part of a group of a dozen men that started out on foot for the fabled gold fields from Edmonton, Alberta but they were all that remained. The rest had given up, turned around and headed back home.
They were all wrapped in robes, thick woolen caps and heavy boots to ward off the icy chill of the northern winter. They lay sprawled against the walls of the lean too and watched as Knowles' eyes wildly moved about the hut and landed on each person in turn. He was tall and gaunt. His face was barely visible through his long, stringy hair that sprung from his fur cap. His thick, unkempt beard also obscured his features so that only his feverish eyes could be seen. They were black ovals tinged with red from the ordeal he was going through and they glittered as hard as the gold they sought.
The first man they fell upon was the Frenchman, Francois Boisevert who everybody called Frenchie. From the depths of his robe that was pulled tight up to his chin and the same long hair and thick beard that hid his face, the man starred back at Knowles. Next to Knowles, Frenchie was the most experienced of the group. He had been a fur trapper and woodsman in northern Quebec for a few years before heading west to Edmonton. From that city he had made his way up into northern Alberta where he continued to trap furs while looking for gold. It was there he met Knowles who was trapping along the Peace River.
He worried about the sudden outburst from his fellow KIondiker. At first he thought that maybe Knowles was the victim of the monotony and perils of trying to survive a winter in the far north. It took every bit of endurance, fortitude and experience a man had and sometime even that wasn't enough because it could break the toughest of men. He'd known some men go stark, raving mad, while others just gave up and headed back to civilization.
Then, because he knew Knowles and had never seen him back down from any challenge, he changed his mind. He thought it might be just plain old cabin fever that the Englishman was suffering from. He knew from experience that being cooped up in the tight confines of a miserable hut with almost nothing to eat and nothing to do for days could drive a wedge between even the best of friends. He'd even seen grown men who'd known each other for years suddenly become bitter enemies. There was one story he heard in which two brothers ended up fighting and almost killing one another.
Then he finally decided it really didn't matter because whatever Knowles' beef was, it wasn't with him. As far as he knew he had done nothing wrong, had committed no infraction to incur the Englishman's wrath so he decided it was best to just wait and see what happened. He stared right back at Knowles, caught his wild, crazy eyes and held them. When Knowles's eyes moved elsewhere, Frenchie shrugged his shoulders and wondered what the outcome of this little drama would be.
They fell on Mike Ryan, the rookie of the foursome. The Irishman was huddled in the corner trying to keep warm and dreaming about Ireland. It was barely two years ago that he said goodbye to his family in preparation for his trip to North America. When he boarded the rusty old relic of a ship that took him to Toronto all he had was the clothes on his back and a few belongings stuffed in a bag. But he did have his dreams and hopes. He had been told about how the streets of the city were paved with gold and anybody with the willingness to work hard and a strong back could make a fortune.
He had believed the stories too, thinking that within a year or two he would be back in Ireland with enough money to buy himself a farm. Instead, he met obstacle after obstacle and discovered that the stories of easy money just weren't true. Within months he was so disillusioned he left Toronto and headed west where he was told the opportunities were much better.
Ryan was slaving away at various jobs in Edmonton without much prospects of any of them going anywhere when news of the big strike along the Klondike River in the Yukon hit the area with a bang. Like thousands of other young men he got caught up in the gold fever. He was so excited he immediately quit his job and started making plans to go to Vancouver, British Columbia. From there, thousands of people were piling onto boats that would take them north along the coast and into Skagway, Alaska. They were told that from there they were within in spitting distance of the gold fields. All the frenzied gold seekers had to do was cross a couple of mountain ranges, which they would quickly learn were nearly impossible to climb.
Then Ryan heard of a group who were going to go overland to the Yukon. He didn't hesitate to join them and a few weeks later he was part of a12 men crew canoeing through northern Alberta and into the North West Territories. All of them were convinced that they would be picking gold nuggets out of the Klondike River by spring. Now, more than a year later, he was one of four men left. It was proof that what he lacked in experience, he made up for in fortitude and strength of will because he still hadn't given up. He was still determined to reach the fabled gold fields.
Since he didn't exactly understand what was going on, Ryan sat up straight with his body tensed and ready for action. Under his robes he felt for his knife. He kept it sheathed but gripped it tightly just in case. If there was gonna be a fight he wanted to be ready.
Outwardly he refused to show fear lest it make the men think he was guilty of something or worse yet, scared. He knew that these rough and tumble men wouldn't take any guff from anybody. For them, to act afraid was to show cowardice, a trait they all despised. Any trace of that and he would lose their respect.
Ryan felt relieved when Knowles blazing eyes left his and landed on the fourth man, Hans Norbert. The Swede was a huge, giant of man who stood even taller than the six foot Knowles. His body was also thicker and heavier but he had the same long, stringy hair and thick bushy heard. He stared back defiantly at the English man as if daring him to say something.
Knowles seized the challenge and spoke again.
"It's you isn't it?" He glared at Norbert.
Now it wasn't only his hard, unyielding fiery eyes that showed his anger. His body showed it too. It seemed to be quivering with rage, just like his knife had when he thrust it deep into the tree trunk.
"You've been holding out on us, haven't you Norbert? You caught a rabbit in one your snares and you didn't share it with us. You didn't volunteer to put in our communal pot, did you? Instead you cooked it when we all thought you'd gone outside to relieve yourself but I found the remains of the fire. Although there was only ashes left the smell of fresh cooked rabbit lingered in the air. I swear I could almost taste it and it sure set my hungry stomach to growling. And you know something? I bet you're still hoarding some of it while the rest of us are damn near starving to death. Aren't you?"
Knowles accusation made Frenchie and Ryan focus their attention on the Swede. They knew very little about him because he never talked much about himself. He had joined them in Edmonton and although not the friendliest person, nobody had complaints about him because up until today he had always pulled his share.
But now, although he wasn't admitting to the horrible deed, his head hung low and he barely managed to look them in the eye. He wasn't denying it either but his body posture spoke the truth. One look told the pair that Knowles was right. Norbert was guilty as hell.
Frenchie looked at him with disgust for a full moment before speaking.
"Knowles's right isn't he? You are a sneaky little weasel, nothing but a god damn scavenger," he spat. "You ate the fucking rabbit all by yourself, didn't you? It didn't even bother you that your friends were starving. Did it?"
Ryan stayed silent because he didn't know what to say. He lacked experience in these matters because he'd only been a year tramping through the wilderness while men like Knowles and Frenchie had been doing it for many years. But he did know one thing for certain. Norbert wasn't much of a man if he wouldn't share the rabbit. Small as the hare was it would have been a great addition to the pot that hung over the open pit fire. All it contained now was bits of flour and winter berries. A couple of days ago it also had a few bits of meat floating in it but those were long gone. Under ordinary circumstances it would have been easy enough to replenish it with some fresh game but the cursed winter storm had kept them inside for three days. Maybe in the morning it would let up but if it didn't they'd be stuck in the hut and unable to hunt for another day.
"You understand what this means, don't you, Norbert? Knowles spoke again.
When the Swede still refused to say anything, Knowles explained it.
"You're no longer part of the group. That's what it means. You refuse to share because you think you can do it all by yourself, well, that's fine because we no longer want you with us. You're just not man enough to be with us so from here on you're on your own. You'll have to fend for yourself. Understand?"
Knowles took his angry eyes off Norbert long enough to see if the Irishman and the Frenchman were in agreement with him.
"You'd better believe it. I don't want no more part of him," Frenchie quickly spat out. He put his words to action by immediately grabbing his bed roll and bag of possessions and moving as far away from the Swede as he could.
Ryan nodded in agreement and quickly grabbed his meager possessions and moved over by Frenchie. Knowles promptly turned his back on the Swede and did the same. He shoved his bedroll beside Ryan's so that the trio took up one whole side of the little hut. This left Norbert all by himself against the other wall. Although only a few feet separated them, it could've have been a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon. For the rest of the night Knowles, Ryan and Frenchie talked quietly among themselves but they refused to look at Norbert. It was if he wasn't even there.
They also shared a couple of cups of what was left of the communal food pot but nobody offered Norbert the smallest taste. He was so ignored it was as if he were one hundred miles away. They didn't even look at him. As far as they were concerned he no longer existed.
When the men woke up the next morning they were met with dead silence. It was eerie. After three days the blizzard had moved on sometime during the night. There were no more wild, violent gusts of wind threatening to blow away their hut. The pounding of snow pellets was also gone.
"Let's move our asses," Knowles urged Frenchie and Ryan. "Grab your kits. The storm's gone. It gives us a chance to get moving again so we're leaving right now."
He completely ignored Norbert who still sat by himself against one wall of the hut. The Swede in turn never said a word to explain or justify his actions. He just silently watched the trio gather up their meager possessions but his blank eyes followed their every move. To Ryan it seemed as if Norbert was actually accusing them of some crime, like it was somehow their fault.
The Swede remained inside the shelter while the trio stumbled outside. They were greeted by bright sunlight but bitterly cold temperatures. The storm had passed by alright but now it felt as if the temperature had plummeted down to impossible depths.
"Damn, it must be a least 40 below out here, maybe even colder," grumbled Frenchie as they tramped about in circles, trying to loosen cramped limbs and get the blood flowing in their half frozen, half-starved bodies.
The frigid air made them gasp when they breathed and their breaths froze instantly leaving vast clouds vapor, like a steam engine. In addition, the frigid conditions made everything so brittle there was a loud snap, crackle and pop with every step they took. There was also a loud crunching as their boots hit the layers of frozen snow pellets. It made it sound as if they were walking on gravel.
Ryan said nothing. He was too busy getting into his snow shoes and adjusting the pack he would carry over his shoulder.
"You got that right Frenchie," Knowles agreed. "She bottomed right out over night and that damn storm drove all the game out of the area so we'd best get moving. If we get lucky then maybe we can find something further on."
As soon as everybody was ready, they set off. As usual they were led by Knowles who set a pretty fast pace. Right behind him was Frenchie and then Ryan. He took one final look back at the hut that had been their home for three days and saw Norbert. He had just come out of the ram shackled hovel and was silently staring at them. There were still no signs or words of explanation as he watched them disappear from sight and abandon him.
The trio hiked for hours that day. Despite the gnawing hunger in their stomachs they pushed themselves onward as fast as they could. Driven by their thirst for gold and the need to find something to eat, they only stopped a couple of times. Each one was just long enough to heat the thin gruel in their cooking pot. Also, it looked as if Knowles prediction had been right. The whole wintery landscape was totally barren and devoid of any creatures. Any animals worth killing for food had fled during the blizzard.
Whenever they took the brief rests Ryan would look back and spot Norbert. He was following their tracks but always lagging about 50 yards behind. It made it obvious that he was no longer part of the group, but an individual, all on his own. To anyone who didn't understand what had happened, it looked as if he were stalking them rather than being left behind.
"Don't worry about him Ryan. It's not our fault. He made his own decision and decided not to share with us. Now he's on his own so he's no longer a concern to us." Frenchie advised when he saw the Irishman occasionally look back as if checking on Norbert's progress.
But Ryan couldn't help himself. He kept thinking about how long the Swede would last with only the remnants of the rabbit to eat and nobody coming to his aide. It made him wonder how a person could sink to such lows that he would deliberately refuse to share, even when it mean back stabbing his friends and putting his own life in peril.
They took turns leading. After Knowles got tired of setting the pace, he stepped aside, waited for Frenchie to pass him and take the lead. That put Ryan in second place and Knowles fell in behind him. When Frenchie go tired it was Ryan's turn to break trail until Knowles regained some strength and took the lead again.