We began our march back to the Susan Valley with a definite plan. Some twenty-five miles below, on the Susan River, we had abandoned about four pounds of wet flour; twelve or fifteen miles below the flour there was a pound of powdered milk, and four or five miles still further down the trail a pail with perhaps four pounds of lard. Hubbard considered the distances and mapped out each day's march as he hoped to accomplish it. We had in our possession, besides the caribou bones and hide, one and one-sixth pounds of pea meal. Could we reach the flour? If so, that perhaps would take us on to the milk powder, and that to the lard; and then we should be within easy distance of Grand Lake and Blake's winter hunting cache.
Hubbard was hopeful; George and I were fearful. Hubbard's belief that we should be able to reach the flour was largely based on his expectation that we should get fish in the outlet to Lake Elson. His idea was that the water of the lake would be much warmer than that of the river. He had, poor chap! the fatal faculty, common to persons of the optimistic temperament, of making himself believe what he wanted to believe. Neither George nor I remarked on the possibilities or probabilities of our getting fish in Lake Elson's outlet, and just before we said good-bye to the canoe Hubbard turned to me and said:
"Wallace, don't you think we'll get them there? Aren't you hopeful we shall?"
"Yes, I hope," I answered. "But I fear. The fish, you know, b'y, haven't been rising at all for several days, and perhaps it's better not to let our hopes run too high; for then, if they fail us, the disappointment won't be so hard to bear."
"Yes, that's so," he replied; "but it makes me feel good to look forward to good fishing there. We will get fish there, we will! Just say we will, b'y; for that makes me feel happy."
"We will—we'll say we will," I repeated to comfort him.
Under ordinary conditions we should have found our packs, in their depleted state, very easy to carry; but, as it was, they weighed us down grievously as we trudged laboriously up the hill from the river and over the ridge to the marsh on the farther side of which lay Lake Elson. On the top of the ridge and on the slope where it descended to the marsh we found a few mossberries, which we ate while we rested. Crossing the marsh, we stepped from bog to bog when we could, but a large part of the time were knee-deep in the icy water and mud. Our feet at this time were wrapped in pieces of a camp blanket, tied to what remained of the moccasin uppers with pieces of our old trolling line. George and I were all but spent when we reached our old camping ground on the outlet to Lake Elson, and what it cost Hubbard to get across that marsh I can only imagine.
As soon as we arrived Hubbard tried the fish. It did not take him long to become convinced that there was no hope of inducing any to rise. It was a severe blow to him, but he rallied his courage and soon apparently was as full of confidence as ever that we should be able to reach the flour. While Hubbard was trying the fish, George looked the old camp over carefully for refuse, and found two goose heads, some goose bones, and the lard pail we had emptied there.
"I'll heat the pail," he said, "and maybe there'll be a little grease sticking to it that we can stir in our broth." Then, after looking at us for a moment, he put his hand into the pail and added: "I've got a little surprise here. I thought I'd keep it until the bones were boiled, but I guess you might as well have it now."
From out of the pail he brought three little pieces of bacon—just a mouthful for each. I cannot remember what we said, but as I write I can almost feel again the thrill of joy that came to me upon beholding those little pieces of bacon. They seemed like a bit of food from home, and they were to us as the rarest dainty.
George reboiled the bones with a piece of the hide and the remainder of the deer's stomach, and with this and the goose bones and heads we finished our supper. We were fairly comfortable when we went to rest. The hunger pangs were passing now. I have said that at this time I was in an abnormal state of mind. I suppose that was true of us all. The love of life had ceased to be strong upon us. For myself I know that I was conscious only of a feeling that I must do all I could to preserve my life and to help the others. Probably it was the beginning of the feeling of indifference, or reconciliation with the inevitable, that mercifully comes at the approach of death.
In the morning (Thursday, October 15th) we again went over our belongings, and decided to abandon numerous articles we had hitherto hoped to carry through with us—my rifle and cartridges, some pistol ammunition, the sextant, the tarpaulin, fifteen rolls of photograph films, my fishing rod, maps, and note book, and various other odds and ends, including the cleaning rod Hubbard's father had made for him.
"I wonder where father and mother are now," said Hubbard, as he took a last look at the cleaning rod. For a few moments he clung to it lovingly; then handed it to me with the words, "Put it with your rifle and fishing rod, b'y." And as I removed the cartridge from the magazine, and held the rifle up for a last look before wrapping it in the tarpaulin, he said: "It almost makes me cry to see you leave the fishing rod. If it is at all possible, we must see that the things are recovered. If they are, I want you to promise me that when you die you'll will the rod to me. It has got us more grub than anything else in the outfit, and it's carried us over some bad times. I'd like to have it, and I'd keep and cherish it always."
I promised him that he certainly should have it. Well, the rod was recovered. And now when I look at the old weather-beaten piece of wood as it reposes comfortably in my den at home, I recall this incident, and my imagination carries me back to those last fishing days when Hubbard used it; and I can see again his gaunt form arrayed in rags as he anxiously whipped the waters on our terrible struggle homeward. It is the only thing I have with which he was closely associated during those awful days, and it is my most precious possession.
As we were chewing on a piece of hide and drinking the water from the reboiled bones at breakfast, Hubbard told us he had had a realistic dream of rejoining his wife. The boy was again piteously homesick, and when we shouldered with difficulty our lightened packs and began the weary struggle on, my heart was heavy with a great dread. Dark clouds hung low in the sky, but the day was mild. Once or twice while skirting Lake Elson we halted to pick the few scattering mossberries that were to be found, once we halted to make tea to stimulate us, and at our old camp on Mountaineer Lake we again boiled the bones and used the water to wash down another piece of the caribou hide.
In the afternoon George took the lead, I followed, and Hubbard brought up the rear. Suddenly George stopped, dropped his pack, and drew Hubbard's pistol, which he carried because he was heading the procession. Hubbard and I also halted and dropped our packs. Into the brush George disappeared, and we heard, at short intervals, the pistol crack three times. Then George reappeared with three spruce-grouse. How our hearts bounded! How we took George's hand and pressed it, while his face lighted up with the old familiar grin! We fingered the birds to make sure they were good and fat. We turned them over and over and gloated over them. George plucked them at once that we might see their plump bodies. It is true we were not so very hungry, but those birds meant that we could travel just so much the farther.
We pushed on that we might make our night camp at the place where we had held the goose banquet on the 3d of August—that glorious night when we were so eager to proceed, when the northern lights illuminated the heavens and the lichens gleamed on the barren hill. Hubbard, I noticed, was lagging, and I told George quietly to set a slower pace. Then, to give Hubbard encouragement, I fell to the rear. The boy was staggering fearfully, and I watched him with increasing consternation. "We must get him out of here! We must! We must!" I kept saying to myself. The camping place was only two hundred yards away when he sank on the trail. I was at his side in a moment. He looked up at me with a pitiful smile, and spoke so low I could scarcely hear him.
"B'y, I've got to rest here—a little—just a little while...you understand...My legs—have given out."
"That's right, b'y, take a little rest," I said. "You'll be all right soon. But rest a little. I'll rest a bit with you; and then we'll leave your pack here, and you walk to camp light, and I'll come back for your pack."
In a few minutes he got bravely up. We left his pack and together walked slowly on to join George at the old goose camp on Goose Creek. Then I returned for the pack that had been left behind.
George boiled one of the grouse for supper. Hubbard told us he was not discouraged. His weakness, he said, was only momentary, and he was sure he would be quite himself in the morning, ready to continue the march homeward. After supper, as he was lying before the fire, he asked me, if I was not too tired, to read him the latter part of the sixth chapter of Matthew. I took the Book and read as he requested, closing with the words:
"Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
"How beautiful, how encouraging that is!" said Hubbard, as I put away the Book. He crawled into the tent to go to sleep. Then: "I'm so happy, b'y, so very, very happy to-night...for we're going home...we're going home." And he slept.
Before I lay down I wrote in my diary:
"Hubbard is in very bad shape—completely worn out physically and mentally—but withal a great hero, never complaining and always trying to cheer us up."
George said he was sick when he went to rest, and that added to my concern.
Friday morning (October 16th) came clear, mild, and beautiful. I was up at break of day to start the fire, and soon was followed by George and a little later by Hubbard. We all said we were feeling better. George shot a foolhardy whiskey jack that ventured too near the camp, and it went into the pot with a grouse for breakfast. The meal eaten, we all felt very much stronger, but decided that more outfit must be abandoned. I gave George my extra undershirt and a blue flannel shirt, both of which he donned. Every scrap we thought at the time we could do without, including many photograph films and George's blanket, was cached.
After Hubbard read aloud John xv, we resumed the struggle. Naturally George and I relieved Hubbard of everything he would permit us to. The fact was, we could not have taken much more and moved. When Hubbard broke down on the trail, it was strictly necessary for me to make two trips with the packs; although his weighed something less than ten pounds, I could not have carried it in addition to my own if my life had depended upon it.
Just below the place where Hubbard caught so many fish that day in August that we killed the geese, we stopped for a moment to rest. Hardly had we halted when George grabbed Hubbard's rifle, exclaiming, "Deer!" About four hundred yards below us, a magnificent caribou, his head held high, dashed across the stream and into the bush. He was on our lee and had winded us. No shot was fired. One fleeting glance, and he was gone. Our feelings can be imagined. His capture would have secured our safety.
We struggled on. At midday we ate our last grouse. At this stopping place George abandoned his waterproof camp bag and his personal effects that he might be able to carry Hubbard's rifle. This relieved Hubbard of seven pounds, but he again failed before we reached our night camp. It was like the previous evening. With jaws set he tottered grimly on until his legs refused to carry him farther, and he sank to the ground. Again I helped him into camp, and returned for his pack.
We pitched the tent facing a big rock so that the heat from the fire, blazing between, might be reflected into the tent, the front of which was thrown wide open. Of course George and I did all the camp work. Fortunately there was not much to do; our camps being pitched on the sites of previous ones, we had stakes ready to hand for the tent, and in this part of the country we were able to find branches and logs that we could burn without cutting. We still had one axe with us, but neither George nor I had the strength to swing it.
The night was cold and damp. For supper we had another piece of the caribou hide, and water from the much-boiled bones with what I believed was the last of the pea meal—about two spoonfuls that Hubbard shook into the pot from the package, which he then threw away. As we reclined in the open front of the tent before the fire, I again read from the Bible, and again a feeling of religious exaltation came to Hubbard. "I'm so happy, and oh! so sleepy," he murmured, and was quiet. He did not make his usual entry in his diary. In my own diary for this date I find:
"Hubbard's condition is pitiable, but he bears himself like the hero that he is—trying always to cheer and encourage us. He is visibly failing. His voice is very weak and low. I fear he will break down at every step. O God, what can we do! How can we save him!"
On Saturday (October 17th) threatening clouds overcast the sky, and a raw wind was blowing. It penetrated our rags and set us a-shiver. At dawn we had more water from the bones and more of the hide. Cold and utterly miserable, we forced our way along. Our progress was becoming slower and slower. But every step was taking us nearer home, we said, and with that thought we encouraged ourselves. At noon we came upon our first camp above the Susan River. There George picked up one of our old flour bags. A few lumps of mouldy flour were clinging to it, and he scraped them carefully into the pot to give a little substance to the bone water. We also found a box with a bit of baking powder still in it. The powder was streaked with rust from the tin, but we ate it all.
Then Hubbard made a find—a box nearly half full of pasty mustard. After we had each eaten a mouthful, George put the remainder in the pot. He was about to throw the box away when Hubbard asked that it be returned to him. Hubbard took the box and sat holding it in his hand.
"That box came from Congers," he said, as if in a reverie. "It came from my home in Congers. Mina has had this very box in her hands. It came from the little grocery store where I've been so often. Mina handed it to me before I left home. She said the mustard might be useful for plasters. We've eaten it instead. I wonder where my girl is now. I wonder when I'll see her again. Yes, she had that very box in her hands-in her hands! She's been such a good wife to me."
Slowly he bent his head, and the tears trickled down his cheeks.
George and I turned away.
It was near night when we reached the point near the junction of the Susan River and Goose Creek where we were to cross the river to what had been our last camping ground in the awful valley, and which was to prove our last camp in Labrador. Hubbard staggered along during the afternoon with the greatest difficulty, and finally again sank to the ground, completely exhausted. George took his pack across the river. While he crouched there on the trail, Hubbard's face bore an expression of absolute despair. At length I helped him to his feet, and in silence we forded the shallow stream.
Our camp was made a short distance below the junction of the streams, among the fir trees a little way from the river bank. Here and there through the forest were numerous large rocks. Before one of these we pitched the tent, with the front of it open to receive the heat from the fire as it was reflected from the rock. More bone water and hide served us for supper, with the addition of a yeast cake from a package George had carried throughout the trip and never used. Huddling in the front of the tent, we counselled.
"Well, boys," said Hubbard, "I'm busted. I can't go any farther—that's plain. I can't go any farther. We've got to do something."
In the silence the crackling of the logs became pronounced.
"George," Hubbard continued, "maybe you had better try to reach Blake's camp, and send in help if you're strong enough to get there. If you find a cache, and don't find Blake, try to get back with some of the grub. There's that old bag with a little flour in it—you might find that. And then the milk powder and the lard farther down. Maybe Wallace could go with you as far as the flour and bring back a little of it here. What do you say, b'y?"
"I say it's well," I answered. "We've got to do something at once."
"It's the only thing to do," said George. "I'm willin', and I'll do the best I can to find Blake and get help."
"Then," said Hubbard, "you'd better start in the morning, boys. If you don't find the bag, you'd better go on with George, Wallace; for then there would be no use of your trying to get back here. Yes, boys, you'd better start in the morning. I'll be quite comfortable here alone until help comes."
"I'll come back, flour or no flour," I said, dreading the thought of his staying there alone in the wilderness.
We planned it all before Hubbard went to sleep. George and I, when we started in the morning, were to carry as little as possible. I thought I should be able to reach the flour bag and be back within three days. We were to prepare for Hubbard a supply of wood, and leave him everything on hand that might be called food—the bones and the remainder of the hide, a sack with some lumps of flour sticking to it that I had recovered at this camp, and the rest of the yeast cakes. George and I were to depend solely on the chance of finding game.
"I'm much relieved now," said Hubbard, when it had all been settled. "I feel happy and contented. I feel that our troubles are about ended. I am very, very happy and contented."
He lay down in his blanket. After a little he said: "B'y, I'm rather chilly; won't you make the fire a little bigger."
I threw on more wood, and when I sat down I told him I should keep the fire going all night; for the air was damp and chill.
"Oh, thank you, b'y," he murmured, "thank you. You're so good." After another silence, the words came faintly: "B'y, won't you read to me those two chapters we've had before?—the fourteenth of John and the thirteenth of First Corinthians... I'd like to hear them again, b'y... I'm very... sleepy... but I want to hear you read before... I go... to sleep."
Leaning over so that the light of the fire might shine on the Book, I turned to the fourteenth of John and began: "'Let not your heart be troubled'" I paused to glance at Hubbard. He was asleep. Like a weary child, he had fallen asleep with the first words. The dancing flames lit up his poor, haggard, brown face; but upon it now there was no look of suffering; it was radiant with peace.
George lay by his side, also asleep. Thus I began a night of weary vigil and foreboding. My heart was heavy with a presentiment of something dreadful. In the forest beyond the fire the darkness was intense. There was a restless stir among the fir tops; then a weary, weary sighing. The wind had arisen. I dozed. But what was that! I sat suddenly erect.
On the canvas above me sounded a patter, patter, patter. Rain!
Gradually the real and the seeming became blended. Beyond the fire-glow, on the edge of the black pall of night, horrid shapes began to gather. They leered at me, and mocked me, and oh! they were telling me something dreadful was going to happen. A sudden jerk, and I sat up and stared wildly about me. Nothing but the sighing tree-tops, and the patter, patter, patter of the rain. The fire had died down. I struggled to my feet, and threw on more wood.
Again the horrid shapes leered at me from out the gloom. Then I heard myself exclaiming, "No, no, no!" The nameless dread was strong upon me. I listened intently for Hubbard's breathing. Had it ceased? I crawled over and peered long and anxiously at his face—his face which was so spectral and wan in the uncertain firelight. Twice I did this. A confused sense of things evil and malicious, a confused sense of sighing wind and pattering rain, a confused sense of starts and jerks and struggles with wood, and the night wore on.
The black slowly faded into drab. The trees, dripping with moisture, gradually took shape. The day of our parting had come.