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The Flies in Amber

by Robert Dunn

I FIRST mentioned this story on the Sourdough beach, to the crowd of us miners that had landed there before the stampede. The line of talk we had under way drew it out.

We had been arguing about that sentiment you find in the North—the miner's hate of any creature with a white skin who lives domestically with an Indian.

Lots of such outcasts—squaw-men—fished and traded in the creeks about there, and our oratory was bitter. In a country like Alaska, our hard life along with the Indians' shiftless ease sometimes makes you think that a struggle is on to see which race will come out on top. Yet we know just how good a Siwash is. He's a hero at facing danger, has Christian honesty till we corrupt him, and we've all fought his battles against the blows and sneers of Chechawkos. Our respect for him in his place is as big as our hate of him out of it, for a squaw's father and brothers are beasts, too, when a white man rules their shack.

The beach knew that I had been Gail Cresset's partner and had found him in a bad way some Winters before in a valley of the Tordrillo Mountains, which rise out of the Kuskokwim tundras six hundred miles inland from Sourdough; but no details how or why. Out of respect for Gail and the other person concerned, I had never told everything. But as both were then out of Alaska for good, their interests couldn't be prejudiced by a clean breast.

Gail at that time was a clean-skinned boy of twenty, born in Alaska, who had taken his medicine with starving rations and Wintering alone. He hired out for the Summer as horse-rustler to a scientific outfit going to explore the Kuskokwim. Their cayuses fought mudholes and mosquitoes for two months, till one morning in late August a pinto mare back-trailed from camp. Gail started to track her, and though no man was cuter to the tricks of the tundra, it fooled him as it has others as wise. Lost he was, and with no gun.

He prowled about three weeks, the yellow moss sucking away strength and courage, sour blueberries cheating him with hopes of surviving, till he felt he was starving, not being hungry any more. Specks would float before his eyes, which he knew were caribou prancing in the distance, and he would wave a hand at them and laugh, as a man does when he's flattered.

One day he came out of the timber. Across four miles of moss and ponds rose the foothills in a string of shiny black cones. And there, perched in a valley over the gray thumb of a glacier coming down from the big peaks behind, was a cabin with smoke rising from it. On he crawled over the stones of the river boiling out of the ice, to find the shack new and fitted up for three prospectors, but empty, staring empty! Still, he got at a pan of bread on a bench, brewed tea, and, when he felt himself again, explored about. Outside he saw footprints in the moss and followed them back along the shelf above where the glacier is just a hell of gravel cones. And soon the sight of a human figure stopped him as he ran.

It was a woman, bending over in a ragged coat. In one hand she held a narrow white band, in the other a thick disk. Always facing the ice, so that Gail saw only her back, she walked slowly toward him from the edge of a pond. Every moment she stooped, paying out the tape-line, measuring the moss yard by yard. And when she reached the boulder by his side, she stood up straight and bareheaded, her black hair scattered over her shoulders, and, shading her eyes, gazed out on the glacier, throwing forward an arm as if to choose some object there.

Gail choked his wonder and remarked in his quiet way that he guessed that his carcass was the first she'd ever saved the life of. She dropped her reel and grew stiff to the muscles of her neck. She told him to go away, get out, quick! But he had begun his hard luck story, so she listened and he saw the fear die away from her eyes, till she cut in and said, "No pity here," and sighed.

When he was done, she brightened up. "Then you must be a scientist, so you can tell me. How fast do glaciers move?"

Gail gave her that queer, gentle smile of his, and said she had him bad, but that he'd heard them say—nodding to his outfit down in the timber—that some glaciers move thirty feet a day, some forty, and faster in the middle.

"I've been measuring," she went on, pointing to a boulder that hung at a ticklish angle from a cone of ice. "That rock out yonder was thirty feet nearer the mountain yesterday, and that would mean that by next March, the bodies——"

"Look y' here. Whose bodies?" cut in he solemnly.

"My husband and my father are buried in that glacier. Down in the ice, like flies in amber," she told him. "Flies in amber. And I'm waiting here for the ice to give up its dead—until they come out at the moraine—so I can give them a decent burial. I will wait forever, if I must."

Gail stared at her and whistled, being such' a savage. Then with a warmth in his heart he never felt before, he seized her hand and said, "Poor girl!" and asked her why the men fell in. She told him how the three of them had prospected along the face of the range; how flies had killed their horses, forcing them to camp till snow came, and they could draw enough grub on hand-sleds to reach the Tanana. But the day the cabi...

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