XII. THE BEGINNING OF THE RETREAT
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.
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.
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—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.
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.
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
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.
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!—Bang!"—three shots in all.
"He's seen them," said Hubbard.
"And shot one," said I.
"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
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.
"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
Joy?—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.
"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."
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—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.
While we were sitting around the fire Hubbard wished me to promise to
spend Thanksgiving Day with him that year—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—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
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—Hubbard, George, and myself.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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—all we should
need, in fact—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
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.
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:
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me,<BR>
Let me hide myself in Thee."<BR>
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.
"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?"
"No," said I; "nothing but old trails; not a fresh track anywhere. What
were you talking about?"
"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."
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.
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.
"What are you shooting at now?" asked Hubbard.
"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."
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.
"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."
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.