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Lure of the Labrador Wild, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap12"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> XII. THE BEGINNING OF THE RETREAT </H3> <P> Upon reaching the mainland we stopped to assort and dry our baggage. All of us felt we had entered upon a race against starvation, and everything that was not strictly necessary to aid our progress to Northwest River Post we threw away. In addition to many odds and ends of clothing we abandoned about three pounds of tea. Tea was the one thing of which we had carried an abundance, and though we had used it freely, we had more than we deemed necessary to carry us through. </P> <P> While we were nearing the shore, we sighted three little ducklings bobbing up and down in the tumbling waves and repeatedly diving. They were too far off to reach with a pistol, and Hubbard took his rifle. It seemed almost like attacking a fly with a cannon, but with our thoughts on grub, none of us was impressed with its incongruity then. After Hubbard had fired two or three shots, one of the ducklings suddenly turned over. We paddled to it with feverish haste, and found that it had been stunned by a ball that had barely grazed its bill. It was a lucky shot; for if the bullet had gone through the duckling's body there would have been little left of it to eat. </P> <P> While George and I were drying the camp equipment, Hubbard caught five small trout in the stream that emptied into the lake at this point&mdash;the stream we had followed down. These fish we ate for luncheon. Once more ready to start, we pushed up the stream to the place where we had last camped before reaching the lake, and there we again pitched our tent. For supper we made soup of the duckling. It was almost like coming home to reach this old camping ground, and it cheered us considerably. The first day of the forty-mile portage we had to make before reaching fairly continuous water had been, as a whole, depressing. Rain, accompanied by a cold wind, began to fall early in the afternoon. The weather was so cold, in fact, that the trout would not rise after we caught the five near the lake, and this made us uneasy as to how the fishing would prove farther down the trail. The day's journey, moreover, had made it clear, in spite of our efforts to hide the fact from one another, that we were much weaker than when we last had made portages. We had reached the stage where none of us could carry the canoe alone. Decidedly we were not the same men that had set out so blithely from the post eight weeks before. As for myself, I had shortened my belt thirteen inches since July 15th. </P> <P> It became the custom now for George and me to go ahead with the canoe for a mile or so while Hubbard brought forward in turn each of the three packs for about an eighth of a mile. Then George and I would return to him, and, each taking a pack, we would advance to the place where the canoe had been left. Sometimes, however, this routine was varied, Hubbard now and then helping George with the canoe while I juggled with the packs until they returned to me. Despite the fact that we had fewer as well as lighter packs to carry than on the up trail, our progress was slower because of our increasing weakness. Whereas it had taken us three days on the up trail to portage the fifteen miles between Lake Mary and Windbound Lake, it now took us five days to cover the same ground. </P> <P> On Tuesday, the 22d, the second day of our portage, it rained all the time, and for the greater part of the day we floundered through marshes and swamps. We caught no fish and killed no game. Hubbard tried to stalk a goose in a swamp, wading above his knees in mud and water to get a shot; but he finally had to fire at such long range that he missed, and the bird flew away, to our great disappointment. Our day's food consisted of half a pound of pea meal for each man. During the day Hubbard had an attack of vomiting, and at night, when we reached our second camping ground above the lake, we were all miserable and thoroughly soaked, though still buoyed up by the knowledge that we were going home. </P> <P> The cold rain continued on the 23d until late in the day, when the sky cleared and evening set in cold and crisp. That day I was attacked with vomiting. Our food was the same as on the day previous, with the addition of some mossberries and cranberries we found on the barren ridge over which we crossed. It was another day of hard portaging on stomachs crying for food, and when we pitched our camp we were so exhausted that we staggered like drunken men. Silent and depressed, we took our places on the seat of boughs that George had prepared by the roaring fire; but after we had eaten our meagre supper and drunk our tea, and our clothes had begun to dry in the genial glow, we found our tongues again; and, half forgetting that, starving and desperate, we were still in the midst of the wilderness, far from human help, we once more talked of the homes that were calling to us over the dreary wastes; talked of the dear people that would welcome us back and of the good things they would give us to eat; talked until far into the night, dreading to go to the cold tent and the wet blankets. </P> <P> We awoke on the morning of the 24th to find six inches of snow on the ground and the storm still raging, with the temperature down to 28. Soon after we began plodding through the snow on a pea-soup breakfast, George left us to hunt geese. The night before he had told Hubbard he would kill a goose in the morning, if he were permitted to go on with a rifle. He had heard the geese flying, and believed they had alighted for the night in a small lake some distance ahead. The knowledge that he was a famous goose hunter "down the bay" made his confidence impressive; still we were doubtful about his succeeding in his quest; for the geese had been so hard to approach of late we were beginning to fear we should never shoot any more. For half an hour after George had taken his pack and a rifle and gone on, Hubbard and I slowly followed his trail through the snow. Then in the distance we heard a "Bang!" and after a short interval, "Bang!&mdash;Bang!"&mdash;three shots in all. </P> <P> "He's seen them," said Hubbard. </P> <P> "And shot one," said I. </P> <P> "I'm not so sure of that," returned Hubbard; "I'm afraid they flew and he tried to wing them, and if that's the case the chances are against him." </P> <P> Presently we came upon George's pack near the western end of the little lake, and we stopped and anxiously waited for him to appear. In a few moments he came. </P> <P> "You can kick me," he began with apparent disgust; then, observing the look of keen disappointment upon Hubbard's haggard face, he quickly changed his tone. "That's all right, fellus," he said; "I got a goose. I saw 'em out there fifty yards from shore, and I bellied along through the brush as close as I dared, and fired and knocked one over. Then the others flew out about two hundred yards farther, and I thought I'd chance another shot; for if I didn't try I wouldn't get another, and if I did I might knock one over. So I shot again and did get another. Then the rest of the flock rose up, and I tried to wing one, but missed, and they've gone now. But there's two dead ones out in the lake." </P> <P> Joy?&mdash;the word fails to express our feeling. George and I hurried back for the canoe, and when we paddled out, there, sure enough, were the two geese, one dead and the other helpless with a broken wing. George ended the life of the wounded goose with a pistol, and we paddled back to our packs and built a big fire in the lee of a thick clump of trees. The snow had turned into a fierce, driving rain, but that did not bother us. To dress the geese did not take long. We put the giblets and entrails to boil immediately, and, to quiet our impatience while waiting for them to cook, George cut from the necks a piece of skin and fat for each of us. These we warmed on the end of a stick, taking great care not to heat them enough to permit a single drop of the oil to escape from the fat; then, half raw as they were, we ate them down greedily and found them delicious. It was really wonderful how much happiness that bit of game brought us. As we were eating the giblets and entrails and drinking the broth, we freely admitted that never before had we sat down to such a banquet. </P> <P> "And," remarked Hubbard, "just think how original is our menu. I'll bet there isn't a menu in New York that contains boiled goose entrails." </P> <P> On the 25th the fierce northwest gale still blew, and the air was again filled with snow. But still we pushed onward. Let the wind blow, and the snow and rain come as they liked, they could not stop us&mdash;we were going home. We portaged this day to another of our old camps by a small lake. On the evening before we had eaten the wings and feet of the geese boiled. For breakfast we had half a goose, for luncheon we had pea soup, and at night we had the other half of the goose left over from the morning. We scorched the bones in the fire and ate even them. These meals did not begin to satisfy our appetites, but they were sufficient to give us a little new life. </P> <P> While we were sitting around the fire Hubbard wished me to promise to spend Thanksgiving Day with him that year&mdash;if we reached home in time. For two years I had spent the day at his home, and Thanksgiving, he said, must be our reunion day always. No matter what happened, we must always make a special effort to spend that day together in the years to come. We must never drift apart. We were brothers, comrades&mdash;more than brothers. We had endured the greatest hardships together, had fought our way through that awful country together, had starved together; and never had there been misunderstanding, never a word of dissension. </P> <P> From this time on we talked less about what we should eat when we reached civilisation. True, we would sometimes lapse into restaurant and home-dinner talks, but we fought against it as much as possible, realising that to permit our thoughts to dwell on good things to eat accentuated our distress. Gradually we talked more and more of childhoods days, and incidents, long forgotten, came vividly before us. It was a psychological phenomenon I cannot account for; but it was the case with all of us&mdash;Hubbard, George, and myself. </P> <P> During these trying times we had one never-failing source of amusement, which, because it was the only one, was all the more valued and taken advantage of. I refer to our appearance. George had shaved once since we had gone into the country, but neither Hubbard nor I had known the caress of a razor since we left the post on July 15th. None of us had felt the loving touch of the scissors upon his hair since leaving New York in June, and our heads were shaggy masses of more or less dishevelled and tangled locks. Long-continued exposure to sun and storm and the smoke of campfires had covered our faces with a deep coat of brown. Our eyes were sunken deep into their sockets. Our lips were drawn to thin lines over our teeth. The skin of our faces and hands was stretched tight over the bones. We were almost as thin, and almost the colour of the mummies one sees in museums. </P> <P> As for our clothing, it was still hanging upon us, and that is about all that can be said of it. Our trousers, full of rents, were tied together with pieces of fish line. The bottoms of our moccasins were so hopelessly gone that we had our feet wrapped in rags, with pieces of fishline tied around what remained of the uppers. Our flannel shirts were full of rents. Around our necks we wore red bandanna handkerchiefs. Our soft felt hats had become shapeless things so full of rents that if it were not for the bandanna handkerchiefs we wore in them our hair would have protruded at every point. </P> <P> Frequently we would picture ourselves walking into our homes or through the streets of New York as we then were, and laugh at the thought. "Wallace," Hubbard would say, "the cops wouldn't let you walk a block; they'd run you in sure. You're the most disreputable-looking individual I ever saw, by long odds." And I would retort: "I'd make a good second to you; for you're the worst that ever happened." </P> <P> It was on Saturday morning, the 26th, that we reached the western end of Lake Mary and completed fifteen miles of our forty-mile portage. We pitched our tent, as we had done before, on the site of the old Indian camp, near the brook George had pointed out as a good fishing place. The rain and wind continued in the morning, but at midday the sun came out and we were able to dry our blankets. Always we waited for the sun to dry the blankets; for we had had so many articles of clothing burned while hanging before the fire we did not dare to trust the blankets near it. </P> <P> While we were following our old trail to the lake, Hubbard decapitated a duck with a rifle bullet, and we went into camp with high hopes of more food in the way of fish. Hubbard's rod was hopelessly broken, so he took mine, now much wound with linen thread, but, still usable if not very pliable, and while I made camp and George prepared the duck for luncheon, he caught twenty trout of fair size, which caused our spirits to run high. </P> <P> Luncheon over, Hubbard resumed his fishing, and I stole away with my rifle along the marshes in the hope of seeing a caribou. When I returned towards dusk without having sighted any game, I found a stage over the fire and George hanging up trout to dry. Hubbard, it appeared, had caught ninety-five more. Our exultation knew no bounds. We had not dreamed of any such catch as that. By remaining in camp and fishing another day, we should, at this rate, be able to dry nearly enough trout to see us through to Lake Disappointment. </P> <P> We were as happy and as free from care as children. Our great success here made us feel sure that down below, where we had caught so many fish on our inbound journey, we should again get plenty&mdash;all we should need, in fact&mdash;and our safety seemed assured. We admitted we had felt doubts as to the outcome, which we had not expressed out of consideration for one another. But now we felt we could look forward to reaching home as a certainty. And, feeling freer to indulge our fancies, our talk at once returned to the good things we were going to eat. </P> <P> Sunday, the 27th, was warm and clear, with a southwest wind, and everything seemed favourable for more fish. For breakfast we ate the last of our goose, and for luncheon trout entrails and roe. While George and I were drying fish during the forenoon, Hubbard caught fifty more. One big fellow had sores all over his body, and we threw it aside. Towards noon the fish ceased to rise, the pool probably being fished out. After luncheon I again left camp with my rifle in the vain hope of sighting a caribou. </P> <P> The gloom of night was beginning to gather when I returned. As I approached, stepping noiselessly on the mossy carpet of the forest, I saw Hubbard sitting alone by the bright-burning fire, mending his moccasins. Something in his attitude made me pause. He was bareheaded, and his long, unkempt hair hung half way down to his shoulders. As he sat there in the red glow of the fire, with the sombre woods beyond and the lonely stretch of lake below, and I took note of his emaciated form and his features so haggard and drawn, I seemed for the first time to realise fully the condition to which the boy had been brought by his sufferings. And while I stood there, still unobserved, I heard him softly humming to himself: </P> <P CLASS="poem"> "Rock of Ages, cleft for me,<BR> Let me hide myself in Thee."<BR> </P> <P> How strangely the old hymn sounded among those solitudes! After a little I again started to advance, and as I stepped upon a dry branch Hubbard stopped his singing and looked up quickly. </P> <P> "Wallace," he exclaimed, "I'm glad to see you! George and I have been having a long Sunday talk and we missed you. We were wishing you'd come. No luck?" </P> <P> "No," said I; "nothing but old trails; not a fresh track anywhere. What were you talking about?" </P> <P> "We had a chapter from the Bible and a little talk about it. I've been thinking about my class of boys in the Sunday-school at Congers, and how glad I'll be to get back to them again; I've a lot I want to tell them. It's restful just to think of that little church, and this Sunday afternoon I've been thinking about it a good deal." </P> <P> George was lying in the tent, and Hubbard and I joined him and continued our conversation there. Hubbard spoke of the luck we had had in catching trout, saying: "It's God's way of taking care of us so long as we do our best." It was wonderful to see how, as his body became weaker, his spirit grew brighter. Steadily he became more gentle and affectionate; the more he suffered the more his faith in the God of his youth seemed to increase. </P> <P> Early the next morning (September 28th) George, who was the first to be stirring, poked his head into the tent, and with an air of mystery asked me for my pistol. A moment later we heard a shot. Hubbard and I both looked out, to see George returning with empty hands and an expression of deep chagrin. </P> <P> "What are you shooting at now?" asked Hubbard. </P> <P> "The blackest marten I ever saw," said George. "I knocked him over, but he got on his feet again and was into the lake and away before I could reach him. The beggar was right here in camp tryin' to make off with that fish with sores we threw away. He might have made good eatin' if we'd got him." </P> <P> As the day was squally with snow, and a heavy wind was kicking up a sea on the lake, we decided to remain in camp another day and smoke the fish a little more. While we kept the smoke going under the stage, we sat by the fire and chatted. The day's rations consisted of three fish for each man at each of the three meals. By way of a little variety we roasted some of the fish on sticks. We were all very weak, but George explained that away. </P> <P> "The Indians," he said, "always go to pieces after they've been hard up for a while and finally get grub. Then they feed up and get strong again. It's the grub comin' all of a sudden that makes you weak. Your mind feelin' easier, you feel you can't do anything." </P> <P> Hubbard and I agreed that George was right. Our minds certainly had relaxed; homeward bound with enough fish on hand to last us for several days, we had no doubts as to the future. We decided, however, that whatever the weather conditions in the morning might be, we should break camp and push on with the greatest possible speed, as it was the part of wisdom to make our supply of fish carry us down the back trail as far as possible. So we went to our blankets more than eager for the morning's start, and more confident we should get out safely than at any time since we began the retreat. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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