Two things soon became plain after our struggle back to the post was resumed. One was that winter was fast closing in upon us; the other was that Hubbard's condition was such as might well cause the gravest concern. The morning that we broke camp on Lake Mary (Tuesday, September 29th), was ushered in by a gale from the west and driving snow. The mercury had dropped to 24, and all of us were a-shiver when we issued from the tent. While George and I were preparing the outfit for travel Hubbard caught twelve trout in the pool. On the lake we encountered as heavy a sea as our little canoe could weather, and we had to struggle hard for an hour to reach the farther shore. Upon landing, Hubbard was again attacked with diarrhoea. George and I carried the packs up the high bank to a sheltered spot in the woods, but when I returned to Hubbard he insisted on helping me to carry the canoe. Up the steep ascent we laboured, and then, as we put the canoe down, Hubbard said:
"I'm dead tired and weak, boys; I think I'll have to take a little rest."
After building him a roaring log fire, George and I carried the canoe a mile and a half ahead through the driving snow, which was of the wet kind that clings to every bush and tree, robing the woods in a pure and spotless white that inevitably suggests fairyland. But I was not in a mood to admire the beauty of it all. Upon our return to Hubbard he announced that we should have to camp where we were for the day, that he might have time to recuperate. The delay affected him keenly. We should eat nearly as much food in our idleness as we should in moving onward, and the thought of drawing on our thirty-five pounds of dried fish without making progress was anything but pleasant.
The wintry weather did not worry us; for we knew the snow then falling would disappear before the ground became covered for good, and we felt sure we should reach the Susan Valley before freezing-up time, in which event ice would assist rather than retard our progress, as even with the Susan River open it would be impossible to use the canoe in its shoal, rapid waters. As for Hubbard's condition, I suppose it worried me more than anyone else. George had failed to note the signs of increasing weakness in our leader that I had, and Hubbard himself was so under the influence of his indomitable spirit that for a long time he apparently did not realise the possibility of an utter collapse.
By the campfire that night he was confident we should be able to make up the next day for the delay caused by his weakness. For a long time he sat silently gazing into the fire, but as he had just been expressing a longing to see his wife, if only for a moment, I knew he did not see the blaze before him. He was looking into another fire—a big, wood fire in an old-fashioned fireplace in the cheerful sitting-room of a far-away Congers home, and his wife was by his side. He put out his arm to draw her closer to him. I could see it all and understand—understand the look of perfect happiness that his fancy's picture brought to his face. But when George arose to throw some more logs on the fire, the shower of sparks that flew heavenward brought him suddenly back to reality—to the snow-covered woods of Labrador.
"I hope we shall be able to find another house in Congers with a fireplace such as our old one had," he said, turning to me as if he knew I had been reading his thoughts. "In the evening we sit long before the fire without lighting a lamp. Sometimes we make believe we're camping, and make our tea and broil some bacon or melt some cheese for our crackers over the coals, and have a jolly time. I want you, b'y, to visit us often and join us in those teas, and see if you don't find them as delightful as we do."
The next morning (September 30th) Hubbard said he was much better, and gave the order to advance. We made a short march, camping just beyond the long swamp on the edge of the boulder-strewn country we had found so hard to traverse on the upward trail. On the way we stopped for a pot of tea at a place in the swamp where we had previously camped, and there discovered a treasure; namely, the bones of a caribou hoof we had used in making soup. We seized upon the bones eagerly, put them in the fire and licked the grease off them as it was drawn out by the heat. Then we cracked them and devoured the bit of grease we found inside.
It was agreed that from this point George and I should carry the canoe about two miles ahead, while Hubbard carried the packs to a convenient place beyond the swamps and there pitched camp. It was about dusk when George and I, after a laborious struggle among the boulders and brush, put the canoe down and turned back. As we approached the place that had been selected for a camp, we looked expectantly for the glow of the fire, but none was to be seen. At length we heard axe strokes, and came upon Hubbard cutting wood. He greeted us with rather a wan smile.
"I've been slow, boys," he said. "I haven't got the firewood cut yet, nor the boughs for the bed. I've only just pitched the tent."
"I'll get the other axe," I said quickly, "and help you while George builds the fire."
"No, no," he protested; "you get the boughs while I'm getting the wood."
"I can get the boughs after we have the wood chopped; it won't take me long and you must let me help you."
At that Hubbard said, "Thank you, b'y," in a tone of great relief. Then he added slowly, "I'm still a bit weak, and it's hard to work fast to-night."
It was the first time since we left the post that he consented to anyone doing any part of his share of the work. It is true that since we had turned back I had been relieving him of his share of carrying the canoe, but I was able to do so only by telling him I much preferred toting the boat to juggling with the packs. From this time on, however, he consented, with less resistance, to George or myself doing this or that while he rested by the fire. The fact was he had reached the stage where he was kept going only by his grit.
October began with tremendous gales and a driving rain mixed with sleet, that removed all traces of the snow. The sleet stung our faces, and we frequently had to take refuge from the blasts in the lee of bushes and trees so as to recover our breath; but we managed to advance our camp three miles on the first, pitching the tent on the shore of one of the limpid ponds among the boulders. For supper we ate the last of the dried fish, which again left us with only the diminishing stock of pea meal, and none of us did much talking when we crouched about the fire.
On Friday (October 2d), with high hopes of getting fish, we hurried ahead with our packs to the pool where Hubbard had caught the big trout with his emergency kit and the tamarack pole, and near which we had camped for a day while he rested and George made a trip to the mountains from which he discovered Lake Mary and Windbound Lake. The sight of the old camping place brought back to me the remembrance of how sick Hubbard had been there a month before, and how the thought had come to me to try to make him give up the struggle.
The weather was very unfavourable for trouting—a cold west wind was blowing accompanied by snow squalls—but Hubbard caught two within a few minutes, and George boiled them with a bit of pea meal for luncheon. Then, leaving Hubbard to try for more fish, George and I went back to the canoe. While we were returning to camp, George shot a duck with my rifle. It was a very fat black duck, and we gloated long over its fine condition. Only three more trout rewarded Hubbard's afternoon's work. However, we had duck for supper, and were nearer home, and that comforted us.
I remember that while we sat by the fire that evening George produced from somewhere in the recesses of his pockets a New York Central Railroad timetable on which was printed a buffet lunch menu, and handed it to us with the suggestion that we give our orders for breakfast. Hubbard examined it and quickly said:
"Give me a glass of cream, some graham gems, marmalade, oatmeal and cream, a jelly omelette, a sirloin steak, lyonnaise potatoes, rolls, and a pot of chocolate. And you might bring me also," he added, "a plate of griddle cakes and maple syrup."
Every dish on that menu card from end to end we thoroughly discussed, our ultimate conclusion being that each of us would take a full portion of everything on the list and might repeat the order.
It was on this evening also that, while calculating the length of time it would take us to travel from point to point on our back trail, we began the discussion as to whether it would be better to stick to the canoe on the "big river" (the Beaver) and follow it down to its mouth, wherever that might be, or abandon the canoe at the place where we had portaged into the river from Lake Elson, and make a dash overland with light packs to the Susan Valley and down that valley to the hunters' cabins we had seen at the head of Grand Lake, where we hoped we might find a cache of provisions. Hubbard was strongly in favour of the latter plan, while George and I favoured the former. As the reader knows, I had a great dread of the Susan Valley, and expressed my feelings freely. But we all had the idea that the "big river" emptied into Goose Bay (the extreme western end of Hamilton Inlet), and Hubbard reasoned that we might reach the broad waters of the bay far from a house, be windbound indefinitely and die of starvation on the shore. On the other hand, we were sure of the route through the Susan Valley, and, in his opinion, it would be better to bear the ills we had borne before than fly to others we know not of. I cannot deny that his argument had weight, but we decided that for the present we should hold the matter in abeyance. One thing we felt reasonably sure of, and that was we should get fish in the big river, and we eagerly counted the days it would take us to reach it.
Bright and cold and crisp was Saturday morning (October 3d), with black wind-driven clouds and occasional snow squalls later in the day. About noon, when Hubbard had gone ahead with a pack, George and I sighted two small black ducks while we were canoeing across a pond. They were quietly swimming about fifty yards in front of us. I passed my rifle ahead to George. He carefully knelt in the canoe, and took a deliberate aim while I held my breath. Then, Crack! went the rifle, and but one duck rose on the wing. Quick as a flash, without removing the rifle from his shoulder, George threw the lever forward and back. Instantly the rifle again spoke, and the bird in the air tumbled over and over into the water. The first duck had been decapitated; the other received a bullet through its body.
The moment was intense; for we had only a little fish for breakfast, and the outlook for other meals had seemed dismal indeed; but George was stoicism itself; not a word did he utter, nor did a feature of his face change. When, after picking up the ducks, we touched the shore, I jumped out, took his hand and said "George, you're a wonder." But he only grinned in his good-natured way and remarked: "We needed 'em." Tying the birds' legs together, he slung them over his shoulder, and proudly we marched to the place where Hubbard was awaiting us, to make his heart glad with our good fortune. One of the ducks we ate on the spot, and the other we had for supper at our camp by a little pond among the moonlit hills.
The thermometer registered only 10 degrees above zero on Sunday morning (October 4th), but there was not a cloud in the sky, and we should have enjoyed the crisp, clear air had it not been for the ever-present spectre of starvation. All the food we had besides the pea meal was two of the fish Hubbard had caught two days before. One of these we ate for breakfast, boiled with a little pea meal. Our old trail led us up during the forenoon to the shore of one of the larger of the small lakes with which the country abounded. This lake we crossed with difficulty, being compelled to break the ice ahead of the canoe with our paddles.
On the opposite shore we stopped to make a fire for tea—that was all we thought we should have for luncheon; just tea. George stepped into the timber to get wood, and in a moment returned and asked me for my pistol.
"I saw a partridge in there," he said quietly.
Presently Hubbard and I heard the pistol crack, and we counted, at short intervals, four shots.
"There's something up," said Hubbard, and we started to our feet just as George came in view with a grin on his face and four spruce-grouse in his hand. He always did those things in that quiet, matter-of-fact way.
Two of the birds George cooked immediately, and as he served to each an equal share, Hubbard said:
"Boys, we should thank the Lord for this food. It has seemed sometimes, I know, as if He had forgotten us; but He has not. Just now when we needed food so much He gave us these partridges. Let us thank Him."
So we bowed our heads for a moment, we three gaunt, ragged men, sitting there by our fire in the open, with the icy lake at our backs and the dark wilderness of fir trees before us.
During the afternoon we bagged two more grouse. Hubbard shot them as they fluttered up before him on the trail, and a meal on the morrow was assured. The day's work practically completed our forty-mile portage; for we camped at night on the first little lake north of Lake Disappointment. It was well that we had about reached fairly continuous water. None of us would have been able to stand much longer the strain of those rough portages day after day. Fortunate as we had been in getting game at critical moments since leaving Windbound Lake, the quantity of food we had eaten was far below that which was necessary to sustain the strength of men who had to do hard physical work.
It had become so that when we tried to sit down our legs would give way and we would tumble down. Hubbard was failing daily. He habitually staggered when he walked, and on this last day of our long portage he came near going all to pieces nervously. When he started to tell me something about his wife's sister, he could not recall her name, although it had been perfectly familiar, and this and other lapses of memory appeared to frighten him. For a long time he sat very still with his face buried in his hands, doubtless striving to rally his forces. And the most pitiable part of it was his fear that George and I should notice his weakness and lose courage.
But he rallied—rallied so as again to become the inspirer of George and me, he who was the weakest physically of the three.