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Lure of the Labrador Wild, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap18"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> XVIII. WANDERING ALONE </H3> <P> With every hour the storm gathered new force, and over the barren knolls, along which my course for some distance lay, the snow whirled furiously. The track George and I had made on our downward journey soon was obliterated. Once in the forenoon, as I pushed blindly on against the storm, I heard a snort, and, looking up, beheld, only a few yards away, a big caribou. He was standing directly in my path. For a second he regarded me, with his head thrown back in fear and wonder; and then, giving another snort, he dashed away into the maze of whirling snow. </P> <P> My eyes troubled me greatly, and the pain at length grew so intense that I was forced to sit down in the snow for perhaps half an hour with both eyes tightly closed. I was keeping some distance from the river, as the obstructions here were fewer than near the bank. In the afternoon it occurred to me that I might have turned in my course, and I took my compass from its case, to satisfy myself that I was going in the right direction; but my sight was so impaired that I could not read the dial, nor be certain which way the needle pointed. And I wondered vaguely whether I was becoming totally blind. </P> <P> My day's progress was not satisfactory. I had hoped to reach the place where George and I had forded the river, and cross to the north shore before bivouacking, but in the deepening snow it was impossible. With the first indications of night, I halted in a thick spruce grove near the river and drew together a fairly good supply of dead wood. On the under side of the branches of the fir trees was generally to be found a thick growth of hairy moss, and with a handful of this as tinder it did not take me long to get a good fire blazing. Close to the fire I threw a pile of spruce boughs that I broke from low branches and the smaller trees. I melted snow in my cup for water, and in this put a few lumps of mould from the flour bag, eating the mixture after it had cooked a while. On the couch of boughs by the fire I spent a fairly comfortable night, waking only at intervals to throw on more wood and shake the snow from my back. </P> <P> The storm was still raging in the morning (Wednesday, October 21st). With the first grey streaks of dawn, I boiled another cup of snow water and mould, and then, slinging the flour bag over my shoulder, began my day's struggle. The snow was now knee-deep. Soon I reached the fording place. The river was beginning to freeze over. For two or three yards from shore the ice bore my weight; then I sank up to my waist in the cold current. Approaching the other shore, I broke the outer ice with my arms until it became thick enough to permit me to climb out upon it. </P> <P> The ice that immediately formed on my clothing make walking impossible, and reluctantly I halted to build a fire and dry myself. This took fully an hour and a half, to my extreme vexation. I realised now that my hope of reaching Hubbard that night was vain. While I dried my clothing, I made a cup of tea. I had just enough left for two brewings, so after drinking the tea I preserved the leaves for further use, wrapping them carefully in a bit of rag. Once more on my way up the valley, I found, to my consternation and almost despair, that my eyes would again compel me to stop, and for nearly an hour I sat with them closed. That night, with the snow still falling, though very lightly, I made my couch of boughs by a fairly comfortable fire, and rested well. </P> <P> On Thursday morning (October 22d) a light snow was failing, and the weather was very cold. The cup of thin gruel that I made from the green lumps of mould nauseated me, and I had to brew some tea to settle my stomach and stimulate me. With my piece of blanket drawn over my head to protect my ears from the biting wind, and with my hands wrapped in the folds, I continued my struggle towards camp. I had to force my way, blindly and desperately, through thick clumps of fir trees, and as the branches were hanging low under their weight of feathery snow, I continually received a deluge of snow in my face. </P> <P> My stock of matches was small and time was precious, and I did not stop at noon to build a fire. Even when night began to close in upon me I still plodded on, believing that I now must be near Hubbard. The snow was falling gently, and as there was a moon behind the clouds the night was sufficiently light for me to make my way tediously through the trees, with the roar of the rapids to guide me. It must have been near midnight when, utterly exhausted, I was forced to abandon the hope of finding Hubbard before morning. Fearing that the mould would again sicken me, I ate nothing when I halted; I simply collected a few dry sticks and huddled for the remainder of the night by a miserable fire, dozing and awaking with a shudder from awful dreams. </P> <P> The storm continued during the night, and with the morning of Friday (October 23d) broke upon the world and me with renewed fury. I prepared myself another dose of the mould, and forced it down. I was nervously anxious to get on and find Hubbard. I knew I must be near him now, although the snow had changed the whole face of the country and obliterated all the landmarks. Soon I crossed a brook, frozen and covered with snow, that I felt must be the one near our camp. Eagerly I looked about me for the tent. Because of the falling snow and the snow-bent branches, I could scarcely see twenty yards in any direction. From snow-covered rock to snow-covered rock I went, believing each in turn to be the tent, but always to meet disappointment. Repeatedly I stopped to peer into the maze of snow for smoke. But there was none. Again and again I shouted. But there was no answer. The tent was really near me, but it kept its secret well. </P> <P> I travelled on and on. I became desperate. Over and over I repeated to myself, "I must find Hubbard before night comes&mdash;I must find him&mdash;I must&mdash;I must." At length the first signs of night warned me that I must collect my wood, that I might be as comfortable as possible through the dreary hours of darkness. As night came on the storm moderated. The wind ceased. An unwonted, solemn, awful stillness came upon the world. It seemed to choke me. I was filled with an unutterable, a sickening dread. Hubbard's face as I had last seen it was constantly before me. Was he looking and waiting for me? Why could I not find him? I must find him in the morning. I must, I must. Before going to sleep I made some more gruel and tea, drinking them both as a duty. </P> <P> The snow was falling gently on Saturday (October 24th), the wind had mercifully abated, and the temperature was somewhat milder. After more gruel and the last cup of tea I was to have in my lonely wanderings, I renewed my search for Hubbard. I decided that possibly I was below the camp, and pushed on to the westward. Finally I became convinced I was in a part of the country I had never seen before. I began to feel that possibly I was far above the camp; that a rescuing party had found Hubbard, and that, as my tracks in the snow had been covered, they had abandoned the hope of finding me and had returned. They might even have passed me in the valley below; it was quite possible. But perhaps George's strength had failed him, and help never would come to any of us. </P> <P> I turned about, and again started down the valley. After a time I attempted to cross the ice on the river, to try and discover some familiar landmark on the south shore. In midstream, where the current had not permitted thick ice to form, I broke through. The water was nearly up to my armpits. Standing there with the icy current swirling about me, I said, "What's the use?" It seemed to me I had reached the limit of human endurance. Instead of trying to struggle on, how much pleasanter to permit myself to sink beneath the water and thus end it all! It would be such a relief to die. </P> <P> Then there came to me the remembrance that it was my duty to live as long as I could. I must do my best. As long as I had any strength left, I must exert myself to live. With a great effort I climbed out on the hard ice, and made my way back to the north shore. Night was approaching. I staggered into the spruce growth, and there came upon the same brook I have previously mentioned as crossing. Near its bank I made my night fire. That fire was within two hundred yards of the tent. Perhaps it is just as well that I did not know it. </P> <P> The snow, which had fallen rather mildly, all day, thickened with the coming of night. All the loose wood was now buried under the snow, and it was with difficulty that I gathered a scant supply for the night. My wet rags were freezing hard and stiff. I moved about, half-dazed. I broke only a few branches for my bed, and sat down. Scarcely had I done so when a woman's voice came to me, kindly and low and encouraging. </P> <P> "Hadn't you better break a few more boughs?" it said. "You will rest better then." </P> <P> There was no mistaking the voice. It was clear and distinct. It was the voice of my wife, who had been dead for more than three years. I remember it did not impress me as being at all strange that my wife, who was dead, should be speaking to me up there in the Labrador wilderness. It seemed to me perfectly natural that she should be looking after my comfort, even as she had done in life. I arose and broke the boughs. </P> <P> I am not a spiritist. I have never taken any stock in the theory that the spirits of the dead are able to communicate with the living. So far as I have thought about them at all, it has been my opinion that spiritists are either fools or frauds. But I am endeavouring to give a faithful account of my feelings and sensations at the time of which I am writing, and the incident of the voice cannot be ignored. Perhaps it was all a delusion&mdash;an hallucination, if you will, due to the gradual breaking down of my body and mind. As to that, the reader can form his own conclusions. Certain it is, that from this time on, when I needed help and encouragement the most, I felt a vague assurance that my wife was by my side; and I verily believe, that if it had not been for this,&mdash;hallucination, delusion, actuality, reality, or whatever it may have been,&mdash;I should now be in a land where the truth about these things is probably known for certain. </P> <P> At times I even thought I saw my wife. And often, often throughout those terrible days her voice came to me, kindly and low and encouraging. When I felt I really could plod no farther through the snow, her voice would tell me not to lose heart, but to do my best, and all would be right in the end. And when, wearied beyond measure at night, I would fall into a heavy sleep, and my fire would burn low, a hand on my shoulder would arouse me, and her voice would tell me to get up and throw on more wood. Now and again I fancied I heard the voice of my mother, who died when I was a boy, also encouraging and reassuring me. Indescribably comforting were those voices, whatever their origin may have been. They soothed me, and brought balm for my loneliness. In the wilderness, and amid the falling snow, those that loved me were ministering unto me and keeping me from harm. At least, so it seemed to me. And now, as I think of those dear voices, and feel once more that loving touch on my shoulder, there comes back to me that verse from the Psalm George read at our parting&mdash;"For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways." </P> <P> It is all like a half-dream to me now. I know that after Saturday night (October 24th), when I bivouacked within a stone's throw of Hubbard's tent, I lost all count of the days, and soon could not recall even the month. I travelled on and on, always down the valley. Sometimes I fancied I heard men shouting, and I would reply. But the men did not come, and I would say to myself over and over again, "Man proposes, God disposes; it is His will and best for all." </P> <P> The flour mould nauseated me to such an extent that for a day at a time I could not force myself to eat it. The snow clogged in all that was left of my cowhide moccasins (larigans), and I took them off and fastened them to my belt, walking thereafter in my stocking feet. I wore two pairs of woollen socks, but holes already were beginning to appear in the toes and heels. The bushes tore away the legs of my trousers completely, and my drawers, which thus became the sole protection of my legs from the middle of my thighs down, had big holes in them. Each night I cut a piece of leather from my moccasin uppers, and boiled it in my cup until morning, when I would eat it and drink the water. I found afterward, carefully preserved in my match box, one of the brass eyelets from the moccasins. Probably I put it away thinking I might have to eat even that. </P> <P> I knew there was something the matter with my feet; they complained to me every night. They seemed to me like individuals that were dependent upon me, and they told me it was my duty to care for them. But I gave no heed to their complaints. I had enough to do to care for myself. My feet must look out for themselves. Why should I worry about them? </P> <P> And still it snowed, night and day&mdash;sometimes gently, sometimes blindingly; but always it snowed. Once while plodding along the side of a rocky hill, I staggered over the edge of a shelving rock and fell several feet into a snow drift. I was uninjured, but extricating myself was desperately hard work, and it was very pleasant and soft in the snow, and I was so tired and sleepy. Why not give it up and go to sleep? But she was with me, and she whispered, "Struggle on, and all will be well," and reluctantly I dragged my poor old body out. </P> <P> There were times when the feeling was strong upon me that I had been alone and wandering on forever, and that, like the Wandering Jew, I must go on forever. At other times I fancied I was dead, and that the snow-covered wilderness was another world. Instinctively I built my fire at night under the stump of a fallen tree, if I could find one; for the rotten wood would smoulder until morning, and a supply of other wood was very hard to get. </P> <P> One evening I remember crossing the river, which had now gone into its long winter sleep tucked away under a blanket of ice and snow, and building a fire under a rotten stump on the south side behind a bank near the shore. I felt that I must be well down the valley. My supply of wood was miserably small, but I had worked hard all day and could not gather any more. I fell down by the fire and struggled against sleep. She told me I must not sleep. When I dozed, her hand on my shoulder would arouse me. Thus the night passed. </P> <P> At dawn I realised in a vague sort of way that the clouds had at last broken away; that the weather was clear and biting cold. Before me was the river. It had been a raging torrent when I first saw it; now it lay quiet and still under its heavy winter blanket. At my back the low bank with its stunted spruce trees hid the ridge of barren, rocky hills and knolls that lay beyond. </P> <P> A few embers of the rotten stump were smouldering, sending skyward, with each fitful gust of the east wind, a fugitive curl of smoke. A few yards away lay a dead tree, with its branches close to the snow. If I could break some of those branches off, and get them back to my smouldering stump, I might fan the embers into a blaze, get some heat and melt snow in my cup for a hot drink. Not that I craved the drink or anything else, but it perhaps would give me strength to go just a little farther. </P> <P> I pulled my piece of ragged blanket over my shoulders and struggled to my feet. It was no use. I swayed dizzily about, took a few steps forward and fell. I crawled slowly back to the smouldering stump and tried to think. I felt no pain; I was just weary to the last degree. Should I not now be justified in surrendering to the overpowering desire to sleep? Perhaps, I argued, it would strengthen me. I could no longer walk; why not sleep? But still I was told that I must not... </P> <P> Was Hubbard still waiting and watching for me to come back?&mdash;somewhere in that still wilderness of snow was he waiting and watching and hoping? Perhaps he was dead, and at rest. Poor Hubbard... </P> <P> Why did not the men come to look for us&mdash;the trappers that George was to send? Had they come and missed me, and gone away again? Or was George, brave fellow, lying dead on the trail somewhere below? How long had I been wandering, anyway... </P> <P> My sisters in far-away New York, were they hoping and praying to hear from me? Perhaps they never would. There was a certain grave in a little cemetery on the banks of the dear old Hudson. It had been arranged that I should lie beside that grave when I went to sleep forever. Would they find my bones and take them back?... </P> <P> How enthusiastic Hubbard had been for this expedition! It was going to make his reputation, he thought. Well, well, man proposes, God disposes; it was His will and best for all. </P> <P> I found myself dozing, and with an effort to recover myself sat up straight. The sun was making its way above the horizon. I looked at it and hoped that its warming rays would give me strength to do my duty&mdash;my duty to live as long as I could. Anyway, the storms had passed! the storms had passed! </P> <P> I dozed again. It may have been that I was entering upon my final sleep. But gradually I became hazily conscious of an unusual sound. Was it a shout? I was aroused. I made a great effort and got on my feet. I listened. There it was again! It was a shout, I felt sure it was a shout! With every bit of energy at my command, I sent up an answering "Hello!" All was silent. I began to fear that again I had been deceived. Then over the bank above me came four swarthy men on snow-shoes, with big packs on their backs. </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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