Since the weather had become colder we always fished with bait, if any were available, and so, when after a few minutes a small trout took Hubbard's fly, he made his next cast with a fin cut from his first catch. Before he cast the fly, George and I ran the canoe through the rapid to a point just below the pool where we had decided to camp. Then, leaving George to finish the work of making camp, I took my rod and joined Hubbard. All day long, and until after dusk, we fished. We got sixty. But they were all tiny, not averaging more than six inches long.
The test of our fortunes was not encouraging. Hubbard especially was disappointed, as he had been cherishing the hope that we might catch enough to carry us well down the trail. And what were sixty little fish divided among three ravenous men! We ate fifteen of them for luncheon and eighteen for supper, and began to fear the worst. The pea meal now was down to one and a half pounds.
It was late when we gave up trying to get more fish, but we sat long by the fire considering the possibility of finding scraps at the camp down the Beaver where we had killed the caribou on August 12. The head, we remembered, had been left practically untouched, and besides the bones there were three hoofs lying about somewhere, if they had not been carried off by animals. We knew that these scraps had been rotting for two months, but we looked forward hopefully to reaching them on the morrow.
No lovelier morning ever dawned than that of Saturday (October 10th), and until midday the weather was balmy and warm; but in the afternoon clouds began to gather attended by a raw west wind. While George and I shot the rapids, Hubbard fished them, catching in all seventeen little trout. Some of the rapids George and I went through in the canoe we should never, under ordinary conditions, have dreamed of shooting. But George expressed the sentiments of all of us when he said: "We may as well drown as starve, and it's a blamed sight quicker." Only when the river made actual falls did George and I resort to portaging. However, we did not make the progress we had hoped, and much disappointed that we could not reach Camp Caribou that night, we camped at the foot of the last fall above the lake expansion on the shore of which George and I had ascended a hill to be rewarded with a splendid view of the country and the Kipling Mountains. Our day's food consisted of three trout each at each of our three meals.
Sunday (October 11th) was another perfect day. It was wintry, but we had become inured to the cold. We each had a pair of skin mittens, which although practically gone as to the palms, served to protect our hands from the winds. Before we started forward I read aloud John xvii. Again in the morning we divided nine little trout among us, and the remaining eight we had for luncheon. The weather was now so cold that do what we would we never again could induce a trout, large or small, to take the bait or rise to the fly.
In the course of the day George took two long shots at ducks, and missed both times; it would have been phenomenal if he hadn't. There was one fall that we could not shoot, and we landed on the bank to unload the canoe. All three of us tried to lift the canoe so as to carry it about thirty yards down to where we could again launch it, but we were unable to get it to our heads and it fell to ground with a crash. Then we looked at one another and understood. No one spoke, but we all understood. Up to this time Hubbard and I had kept up the fiction that we were "not so weak," but now all of us knew that concealment no longer was possible, and the clear perception came to us that if we ever got out of the wilderness it would be only by the grace of God.
With difficulty we dragged the canoe to the launching place, and on the way found the cleaning rod Hubbard's father had made for him, which had been lost while we were portaging around the fall on our upward journey. Hubbard picked the rod up tenderly and put it in the canoe.
An hour before sunset we reached Camp Caribou, the place where we had broiled those luscious steaks that 12th of August and had merrily talked and feasted far into the night. Having dragged the canoe up on the sandy shore, we did not wait to unload it, but at once staggered up the bank to begin our eager search for scraps. The head of the caribou, dried and worm-eaten, was where we had left it. The bones we had cut the meat from were there. The remnants of the stomach, partially washed away, were there. But we found only two hoofs. We had left three. Up and down and all around the camp we searched for that other hoof; but it was gone.
"Somebody's taken it," said George. "Somebody's taken it, sure—a marten or somebody."
When all the refuse we could find had been collected, and the tent had been pitched on the spot where it stood before, George got a fire going and prepared our banquet of bones and hoofs. The bit of hair that clung to the skin on the upper part of the hoofs he singed off by holding them a moment in the fire. Then, taking an axe, he chopped the hoofs and bones up together, and placed some of the mess in the kettle to boil. A really greasy, though very rancid, broth resulted. Some of the bones and particularly the hoofs were maggoty, but, as Hubbard said, the maggots seemed to make the broth the richer, and we drank it all. It tasted good. For some time we sat gnawing the gristle and scraps of decayed flesh that clung to the bones, and we were honestly thankful for our meal.
The bones from which we made our broth were not thrown away. On the contrary we carefully took them from the kettle and placed them with the other bones, to boil and reboil them until the last particle of grease had been extracted. There was little left on the head save the hide, but that also was placed with the pile of bones, as well as the antlers, which were in velvet, and what remained of the stomach and its contents.
After we had finished gnawing our bones, George sat very quiet as if brooding over some great problem. Finally he arose, brought his camp bag to the fire, and, resuming his seat, went low into the recesses of the bag. Still holding his hand in the bag, he looked at me and grinned.
"Well?" said I.
"Sh-h-h," he replied, and slowly withdrawing his hand held up—an ounce package of cut plug tobacco!
I stared at the tobacco, and then again caught George's eye. Our smiles became beatific.
"I've been savin' this for when we needed it most," said George. "And I guess the time's come."
He handed me the package, and I filled my pipe, long unused to anything save leaves from the teapot and red willow bark. Then George filled his pipe.
From the fire we took brands and applied them to the tobacco. Deep, deep were our inhalations of the fragrant smoke.
"George," said I, "however in the world could you keep it so long?"
"Well," said George—puff, puff—"well, when we were gettin' so short of grub"—puff—"thinks I"—puff—"the time's comin'"—puff, puff—"when we'll need cheerin' up"—puff—"and, says I,"—puff—"I'll just sneak this away until that time comes."
"George," said I, lying back and watching the smoke curl upward in the light of the fire, "you are not a half bad sort of a fellow."
"Wallace," said be, "we'll have a pipeful of this every night until it is gone."
"I'd try it, too," said Hubbard wistfully, "but I know it would make me sick, so I'll drink a little tea."
After he had had his tea, he read to us the First Psalm. These readings from the Bible brought with them a feeling of indescribable comfort, and I fancy we all went to our blankets that night content to know that whatever was, was for the best.
With the first signs of dawn we were up and had another pot of bone broth. Again the morning (October 12th) was crisp and beautiful, and the continuance of the good weather gave us new courage. While the others broke camp, I went on down the river bank in the hope of finding game, but when, after I had walked a mile, they overtook me with the canoe I had seen nothing. While boiling bones at noon, we industriously employed ourselves in removing the velvet skin from the antlers and singeing the hair off. In the afternoon we encountered more rapids. Once Hubbard relieved me at the stern paddle, but he was too weak to act quickly, and we had a narrow escape from being overturned.
While making camp at night, George heard a whiskey jack calling, and he sneaked off into the brush and shot it. We reserved it as a dainty for breakfast. As we sat by the fire gnawing bones and chewing up scorched pieces of antlers, we again discussed the question as to whether we should stick to the canoe and run the river out to its mouth or abandon the canoe where we had entered the river. As usual George and I urged the former course.
"When you're in the bush stick to your canoe as long as you can," said George; "that's always a good plan."
But Hubbard was firm in the belief that we should take the route we knew, and renewed his argument about the possibility of getting windbound on Goose Bay, into which we thought the river flowed. Being windbound had for him especial terrors, due, I suppose, to his normally active nature. Another thing that inclined him towards taking the old trail was his strong faith that we should get trout in the outlet to Lake Elson, where we had such a successful fishing on the inbound journey. He argued, furthermore, that along what we then thought was the Nascaupee River we should be able to recover the provisions we had abandoned soon after plunging into the wild.
"However," he said in closing, "we'll see how we feel about it to-morrow. I'll sleep on it."
I remember I dreaded so much a return to the Susan Valley that I told Hubbard it seemed like suicide to leave the river we were on and abandon the canoe. I felt strongly on the subject and expressed my opinion freely. But it was a question of judgment about which one man's opinion was as likely to be right as another's and, recognising this, we never permitted our discussions as to the best course to follow to create any ill-feeling.
On Tuesday (October 13th) the weather continued to favour us. We shot the rapids without a mishap, and camped at night within three miles of where we had entered the river. But still the question about leaving it was undecided. The whiskey jack and a bit of pea meal helped our pot of bone broth at breakfast, and in addition to more broth we had in the evening some of the caribou stomach and its contents and a part of a moccasin that Hubbard had made from the caribou skin and had worn full of holes. Boiled in the kettle the skin swelled thick and was fairly palatable.
Clouds and a sprinkle of rain introduced the morning of Wednesday (October 14th). While the bones were boiling for breakfast, George brought out the caribou skin that he had picked up on the shore of Lake Disappointment after we had abandoned it. Now as he put a piece of it in the kettle, we recalled his prophecy that some day we might want to eat it, and laughed. Into the pot also went one-sixth of a pound of pea meal together with a few lumps of flour that we carefully scraped from a bag we had thrown away in the summer and found near the camp. While we were eating this breakfast (and really enjoying it) we again considered the problem as to whether or not we should leave the river. In the course of the discussion George said quietly:
"I had a strange dream about that last night, fellus."
We urged him to tell us what it was.
"It was a strange dream," he repeated, and hesitated. Then: "Well, I dreamed the Lord stood before me, very beautiful and bright, and He had a mighty kind look on His face, and He said to me: 'George, don't leave this river—just stick to it and it will take you out to Grand Lake where you'll find Blake's cache with lots of grub, and then you'll be all right and safe. I can't spare you any more fish, George, and if you leave this river you won't get any more. Just stick to this river, and I'll take you out safe.'
"The Lord was all smilin' and bright," continued George, "and He looked at me very pleasant. Then He went away, and I dreamed we went right down the river and came out in Grand Lake near where we had left it comin' up, and we found Blake there, and he fed us and gave us all the grub we wanted, and we had a fine time."
It was quite evident that George was greatly impressed by his dream. I give it here simply for what it is worth. At the same time I cannot help characterising it as remarkable, not to say extraordinary; for none of us had had even a suspicion that the river we were on emptied into Grand Lake at all, much less that its mouth was near the point where we left the lake. But I myself attached no importance to the dream at the time, whatever I may think now; I was chiefly influenced, I suppose, in my opposition to the abandonment of the river by the unspeakable dread I had felt all along of returning to the Susan Valley—was it a premonition?—and no doubt it was only natural that Hubbard should disregard the dream.
"It surely was an unusual dream," he said to George; "but it isn't possible, as you know, for this river to empty into Grand Lake. We were talking about leaving the river until late last night, and you had it on your mind—that's what made you dream about it."
"May be it was," said George calmly; "but it was a mighty strange dream, and we'd better think about it before we leave the river. Stick to the canoe, Hubbard, that's what I say. Wallace and I 'll shoot the rapids all right. They're sure to be not so bad as we've had, and I think they'll be a lot better. We can run 'em, can't we, Wallace?"
I added my opinion to George's that there would be more water to cover the rocks farther down, and said that however bad the rapids might be I should venture to take the stern paddle in every one that George dared to tackle. But Hubbard only said:
"I still think, boys, we should take the trail we know."
"That means suicide," I said for the second time, rather bitterly, I fear. "We'll surely leave our bones in that awful valley over there. We're too weak to accomplish that march."
Once more Hubbard marshalled his arguments in favour of the overland route, and George and I said no more that morning.
Soon after we relaunched the canoe something occurred to change the current of our thoughts. A little way ahead of us, swimming slowly down the river, George espied a duck. No one spoke while we landed him, rifle in hand, on the bank. Cautiously he stole down among the alders and willows that lined the shore, and then crawled on hands and knees through the marsh until the duck was opposite to him. It seemed a very small thing for a rifle target while it was moving, and as George put the rifle to his shoulder and carefully aimed, Hubbard and I watched him with nerves drawn to a tension. Once he lowered the rifle, changed his position slightly, then again raised the weapon to his shoulder. He was deliberation personified. Would he never fire? But suddenly the stillness of the wilderness was broken by a loud, clear report. And Hubbard and I breathed again, breathed a prayer of gratitude, as we saw the duck turn over on its back. With his long black hair falling loosely over his ears, ragged, and dripping wet with the marsh water, George arose and returned to us. Stopping for a moment before entering the canoe, he looked heavenward and reverently said:
"The Lord surely guided that bullet."
It was still early in the morning when we arrived at the point where we had portaged into the river. George prepared the duck—small it was but very fat—for a delicious, glorious luncheon, and while it was cooking we had our last discussion as to whether or not we should leave the river.
"Well," I at length said to Hubbard, "a final decision can be deferred no longer. It's up to you, b'y—which route are we to take?"
"I firmly believe," said Hubbard, "that we should stick to our old trail."
George and I said no more. The question was settled. Hubbard was the leader. Immediately after luncheon we set to work preparing for the march overland. In addition to several minor articles of equipment, we decided to leave behind us the artificial horizon, the sextant box, and one of the axes. When our light packs had been prepared, we turned the canoe bottom up on the river bank. I hated to leave it. I turned once to pat and stroke the little craft that had carried us so far in safety. To me it was one of our party—a dear friend and comrade. It seemed cruel to abandon it there in the midst of the wilderness. In my abnormal state of mind I could scarcely restrain the tears.
But the best of friends must part, and so, shouldering our light packs, we bid the canoe a last farewell, and staggered forward to the horrors in store for us on the trail below.