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  ― 11 ―

The Ways of God

“DONE!” The two men looked at one another blankly. “Done!”

It was twilight, and the night was coming, though it was only seven o'clock. The sky was heavy and lowering, with a promise of snow in it; the wind cutting and chill; behind them the rock rose up sheltering a little, and before them the fire blazed and danced, sending up every now and then a shower of sparks as the logs burned and rolled against each other. Fire was the only cheery, comfortable thing they had found in all the wilds of Labrador.

The half-breed was desperately hurt. Fate had been unkind all through, but this it seemed to Lester was the very worst thing that could have befallen them. They could not abandon him, and to stay meant death. The wind moaned through the dwarf fir trees, and Cordner looked at him questioningly out of hollow, cavernous eyes. His gaunt cheek had fallen in, and his lips quivered a little.

“If it weren't for Louie,” he said.

There is always the woman, the woman who sits and waits at home. But he could not think of the girl whom Cordner was going to marry; his thoughts were so full of another woman. He looked into the heart of the fire, and he seemed to see her rocking slowly backwards and forwards with the child, his child, in her arms. The firelight gleamed on her golden hair, he saw the child's hand nestle in the laces at her neck—


  ― 12 ―
mother and child, the eternal symbol—he could not keep his thoughts to the matter in hand. Were privation, hunger and cold and bitter disappointment making him lightheaded?

“One of us must push on,” he heard Cordner's voice saying, “and one'll stop behind and look after the poor chap. We can't be more than five days off the Post now?”

But he did not state it as a fact, he asked a question.

“The Skipper,” they had always called the half-breed guide, the man who knew the way, the Skipper “says he thinks it's five days off, but he wasn't very certain.” In his own ears his voice sounded dead and monotonous, and Cordner took him up passionately.

“It can't be more than five days off! Man! we're starving now!”

There! It was out! They had never acknowledged it before. They had plodded steadily on, as cheerfully as they might, ignoring the rapidly diminishing provisions, joking over the handful of peasemeal. Was not the Hudson Bay Company's Post quite close, and then they would be within reach of civilisation and all that civilisation meant to them?

But now they were facing things, and it seemed to mean death, certain death.

Cordner sat down on a log and spread out his thin hands to the blaze. His chum noticed they were but skin and bone. For all the tan, he could see the blaze through them.

“See here, John,” he said, “you're the stronger of us two. We've not much to boast of, either of us. This expedition has pretty near finished us. We've been walking on the edge of a precipice for the last week, and it seems we've gone over ker-flop. Without the Skipper——”

He paused, and Lester looked intently into the fire. Slowly—slowly the woman rocked herself backwards and forwards; he heard the little creak of the chair, saw her smile as she bent over the child. Was she thinking of him? Would their child suffice her, after


  ― 13 ―
the first shock? How she had clung to him when the moment for parting had come. “Dear, forgive me, forgive me. I can't—I can't let you go.”

But he had gone, and now he came back to the present, and Cordner's tired voice was speaking.

“We can't abandon the Skipper. He's been telling me,” his voice shook a little, “that that's what his own people would do, just leave him to take his chance. He hardly seems to expect us under the circumstances to do anything else, but I told him we're not heathen Indians——”

“No,” said Lester, and it seemed to him his wife raised her face and looked at him long and lovingly. The firelight made long bars up to his eyes, and he would not look at his friend lest the other should see the tears.

“Of course, that's what I said,” went on Cordner deliberately, “one of us will stay with him while the other pushes on and gets help.”

“Help,” echoed Lester; then he looked round him and laughed. Cordner's words had broken up his dream. There was no woman to look at him with tender eyes. There was only a fire in the wilderness, a tent of balloon silk huddling under a rock, and a bitter wind moaning through the dwarf firs.

“Don't laugh, man,” said the other, hastily, “for God's sake, don't laugh. We must get help if we're to get out of this. Think—think of the women who are waiting for us.”

“Yes.” Lester was a man of few words.

“Very well, then.” There was something feverish in Cordner's manner, a sort of tense excitement that the other felt and understood. “One of us must go, and that one must be you.”

“I! I couldn't leave you, Ted.”

She was back in the fire now, holding out her hand and beckoning. So vivid was the vision that he had to restrain himself from calling her by name.

“I'm the weakest of all three. It would be simply suicidal to send me out with any hope of my getting


  ― 14 ―
through alone.” Cordner put his hand up to his mouth, and Lester wondered if he, too, were seeing visions in the fire. “I must stay and look after the Skipper, and if you get through——”

He paused, and the other man burst out, “My God! I can't leave you, I can't, I can't. There's not above three pounds of peasemeal left, five days there, and say three days back——”

“Don't look at it that way. Men have lived on less, and, remember, you're our only hope.”

“I.” His voice stuck in his throat. If it is hard to plod on starving, worn out, cold, it is a thousand times worse to sit down deliberately and wait.

“John, I know you'll do your best.” Cordner's voice was steady. “If you knew how I'm counting on seeing Louie again.”

So he, too, saw visions in the fire.

Nothing more was said on the subject. When they rose in the morning it seemed to be the accepted fact that he was to go. The half-breed was not conscious, but Cordner stood up in the dim light of the early morning, and helped him gather together the few things he was to take with him. He declined to take any of the peasemeal.

“I'll have a chance of getting game,” he said, touching his Winchester.

“But——”

“Have some sense, Ted. I'll take one pinch of tobacco, that's all. No, no, there's not three pipefuls there. Do you think I don't know what it'll be to wait all those long hours. Now, I must go.”

He had not thought how hard it would be to leave him. The other held out his hand, and they stood looking at one another.

“You'll tell Louie——”

“You'll tell her yourself.”

It was a dark morning. The wind shrieked round the rock that sheltered the little tent in a mournful minor wail, and on its breath came the weird sounds of the wilderness, the beating of the rain amongst the


  ― 15 ―
stones, the cry of the rushing river as it fretted on its rocky course, the snapping of the fir branches, and the honk honk of the wild geese as they flew in a triangle overhead.

“In a week, Ted, hold out for a week. I'll be back in a week,” and he stepped out, and presently, when he looked back, the tent was hidden by rock and tree; he was alone in the wilderness.

A sense of loneliness seized upon him. He had known all along that the pinch would come in the last few days, the days before they reached Hamilton Inlet, but he had reckoned on the feeling that goes so far with the traveller, that this was the last; the hardships would soon be over. But now the guide was dying, and his comrade was behind, waiting, and the unknown rose up before him, mysterious, terrible. Suppose he missed the way, wandered but for a day, then not only would he perish, but also the man who waited behind, who had let him go without a murmur.

If he went not a step out of his way, there must at least elapse eight days, eight terrible, foodless days—eight days—eight days—eight days—his feet marched to it, the wind moaned it through the trees, the river shrieked it. They stretched away before him, long, interminable as the road he was to go; eternity itself seemed not more terrible than those eight days. He would count it five, he said to himself, he would count it five, because the next three would be bringing food and warmth and hope to the waiting men, and he tramped on over the stones and moss through the poor little starved forest, and said to himself, “Five, five, only five.”

Then he left the forest. The river widened a little and flowed north-east through rocky country that was hard to pass over, because it was so stony and rough. Here and there was a wind-beaten tree, here and there a stunted bush, and again, in sheltered corners of the stones, patches of green-stuff, moss, and small, creeping, vine-like plants. He looked to his feet and among the green he saw something bright and red and


  ― 16 ―
hard. He stooped—berries. He gathered and ate and filled his pockets. They were crude and harsh, but he had set out on his journey on a spoonful of peasemeal, and, as he ate, the thought came to him that he ought to go back and tell Cordner that these berries were within three hours of him.

“Eight days, eight days, eight days,” sang the river loud and insistent, and turning back would make it eight and a half, and then he closed his eyes and saw again his wife's face and read the prayer that was ever on her lips, “Come back to me, come back to me, I cannot live without you.”

He was so weary, but even when he sat down with his back to a stone, the urgency of his errand would not let him rest.

“Eight days, eight, eight days,” shrieked the very stones, and it seemed to him he was putting his own desires before the need of his friend, the friend who was waiting so patiently, whose only hope was in him. It was all very well for him to rest and save himself. He would be all right in the end; he would go to those loving arms. He had three days to the good, but what about Cordner? Every moment he delayed put off his rescue.

Now and again he roused himself as he plodded on, telling himself these were feverish fancies; a man must take necessary rest; these fears were born of his weakened condition. But the moment he sat down to rest they came back again, crowding in on his brain until sitting still was no rest, until ease was only to be bought by a steady pushing on, though every bone in his body ached, though his eyes closed for very weariness, and he woke with a start to find he was sleeping as he walked. But he tramped on through the long, long day, and at last, in the late afternoon, the sun set in the south-west behind a bank of clouds with only the faintest tinge of brightness in those clouds to show where he was, and common sense told the weary traveller he must try and sleep, though all the little devils that shrieked from behind the stones should


  ― 17 ―
stand round him, mocking that he was wasting his time, stealing his friend's life.

He gathered together with difficulty a few sticks, and, under the shelter of a rock, built himself a little fire and crouched over it. If it had not been for Cordner and the half-breed, away behind there, he would not have been all unhappy, for he saw his wife's face in the glowing coals; he was going to her. Four days now, four days now, sang the river in a lullaby, and he dropped into an uneasy sleep.

He wakened in the morning to a white world. Trees, rocks, stones, moss, all were shrouded in white, all harsh angles were gone, for the wind had died, and the snow lay just where it had fallen. The place where his fire had been was just a softly rounded heap of white.

He rose with a feeling of dismay. Winter, winter. It had stopped snowing, but, if much more fell, the way would soon be impassable for him, and the little mocking devils that were in the river and behind the rocks began again. True, they said, “Seven days, seven days,” now, but at the back of his mind was an uneasy feeling that the eighth day had been wasted, that he had not used it to the profit of his comrades waiting behind there.

“What else could I have done?” he cried, and rose to his feet. Before him stretched the white way he should go, and he started off again, munching for his breakfast some of the crude, hard berries he had put in his pocket the night before.

It was one long struggle. He lifted one foot and deliberately put it before the other. It seemed to him it would be too much effort to make another step, but he made it, and yet another, and in all the still white world not a creature moved, not a thing stirred. Once a little wind blew up a swirl of snow, then it died down, and again he was alone with the stillness. Four days from the Post, four long, weary, hopeless days. He neither looked behind him nor before him now. When he thought, it was of a woman slowly rocking before


  ― 18 ―
the fire with a child in her arms, and then he found himself murmuring again, “Four days, four days, four days.”

And at midday he came to a sudden halt. There was a trail on the white carpet of snow, a strongly-marked trail going north.

It roused him from his lethargy, and he rubbed his eyes and looked at it again. Caribou! And they had long given up looking for caribou. He had thought to find a porcupine, or, maybe, some ptarmigan, but a great caribou! Meat and life for all of them! What luck! And the wind was blowing from it to him. It seemed to him the woman he had watched all the morning sprang to her feet and held up the child eager and glad, and he turned away from his path, away to the north, and followed the trail of the caribou.

Hope lent him strength. It must be a straggler from the great herd that crosses Labrador in the autumn. The tracks were fresh. Could he kill it? Was he risking everything, his own life, his friend's, his wife's happiness, all that made life dear? The question loomed large as he stumbled on. An hour passed. He had no difficulty in following the trail in the newly-fallen snow; another hour, and his feet grew leaden again, and the mocking little devils hidden behind every snow-covered excrescence cried, “Four days and a half, four days and a half! To-night it will be five days again!”

But still before him lay the trail, plainly marked in the snow; it would be madness to go back now, and he pushed on till a dull feeling came over him that this was a dream-world he was in, a phantom trail he was following, that he might follow, follow till he dropped in his tracks and died there in the wilderness.

“Dear God!” he cried, “not that, not that. Have pity!”

And then he lost the trail. It went right up to a bare plain of rock, off the slightly sloping surface of which the little wind had blown the snow and on the


  ― 19 ―
bare rock the hoofs had made no mark. It was only a little plateau, and beyond was a small patch of spruce, dwarfed and stunted. The very thought of seeking again for the trail filled him with dismay. He could tramp on, one foot after the other, all the way to Hamilton Inlet, but he could not seek for that trail. He was nearly five hours out of his track now—five hours added to the long tale that must elapse before he reached help. All the little devils behind the rocks shrieked in chorus, shrieked with delight, and his wife's face in the firelight looked white, worn, and reproachful. It was a foretaste of the end, for now he knew he would never reach her, never see her again, never touch those golden curls, never feel those soft lips against his. He was going to die, Cordner was going to die, the half-breed was already dead, and he dropped down quietly on the rock with the feeling that this was the end; and even as he fell he saw a movement among the spruce branches, a movement that was not caused by the wind, and knew he had come up with his quarry at last!

And then fear took possession of him. Suppose he missed! He was afraid even to move lest the great reindeer should hear and flee. It seemed to him to take ages to rise to his knees, æons to fit his Winchester to his shoulder; all the heavens were full of the sound he made. His arms trembled, the whole landscape waved before his eyes, and then he brought all his will to bear to calm himself, took steady aim at the hairy shoulder he could just see between the branches, and fired.

“Crack!”

He fired twice, and then he rose to his feet, trembling. He heard a crashing among the trees, and the bitterness of death was in his heart, for he thought the beast had fled, and he knew he had no strength to follow; and then, as the smoke cleared, there came a stillness, and he lurched forward to the edge of the wood.

He hoped for nothing; this was just his last effort.


  ― 20 ―
It was hardly worth while, but he might stumble forward just a little farther.

What was that dark thing lying on the snow? Spruce branches? He rubbed his eyes, made one desperate rush forward, and there at his feet, its lifeblood crimsoning the snow, lay the caribou he had stalked.

He dropped on his face again, sobbing softly to himself, but it was not despair this time. Here was life—life and hope and gladness; he would hold his wife in his arms again, he would kiss his child, all the world was at his feet; and presently he struggled up and made a fire and broiled a steak of the deer meat.

He ate carefully and with restraint, for he was a starving man, but it seemed to him his life was ebbing back to his veins; the loneliness passed for a moment, the little fire here under the spruce seemed the very acme of comfort, and before he quite realised what he was doing he had dropped asleep. His sleep, too, was deep and refreshing, but he woke with a start to find that the night was falling and the little fire was dead.

But he was satisfied. He had food and the wherewithal to make a fire. He could have shouted and danced for joy, for the way to Hamilton Inlet seemed so short now. Such a little way, and home and happiness were within his grasp. And as he cooked his evening meal he was more than content. He was strong now. He would march some way to-night, some way towards home and wife and child and happiness.

And then doubt came to him again. The mocking little devils among the branches of the spruce cried out, “A whole day gone. A whole day gone. You are full, but Cordner is starving, starving, starving!”

He knew it was only fancy, and he hung the caribou meat up among the branches; then he took as much as he could upon his shoulders, and started to retrace his steps to the river. He abandoned his Winchester because it was heavy, and it was better to take meat, and then he plodded on, figuring out to himself how


  ― 21 ―
far on his way he would get to-night. There should be a moon if the clouds lifted sufficiently to let it be seen, but at least the song of the river would guide him.

He heard it at last out of the darkness, and he dropped on to a stone to rest for a little. Four days to Hamilton Inlet, and he had meat enough and to spare. The longing in him to get there grew intense. He would not camp here, he had slept this afternoon; he would push on through the darkness, guided by the sound of the rushing water; he would walk till he was weary, and then light a fire and sleep.

And then it seemed to him out of the darkness all the devils that had haunted him rose up, shrieking, “You are abandoning your friend, deserting him, deserting him, deserting him. You are full, and he is starving. The meanest thing in the world is surely the man who abandons his friend!”

He rose to his feet and shook his fist. “I am bringing him help,” he said aloud, and though the darkness had been full of shouting voices, his own sounded loud and strange above them all. Abandon Cordner? What else could he do but push on to Hamilton Inlet?

He might take him back this meat. All round him voices were shouting it. But go back? It would put off the day of their rescue; it would lengthen their stay in the wilderness. Who could tell if, after he had gone back, he would yet have strength to reach the deer meat in the spruce wood? His life might be spent in a backward and forward tramp until the caribou was all gone, and then—and then—— His wife was beckoning him down the trail by the river, and he stretched out his arms to her.

“Dear, I will come.”

He rose to his feet resolutely, walked half-a-dozen steps, and then turned back. He had meat, and Cordner must share, aye, if it cost him his life and her happiness, Cordner must share, and he went back on his own tracks again.

And through the darkness he plodded on. There


  ― 22 ―
was no rift in the clouds. The wind rose in a dreary moan, and a driving sleet began to fall that cut his face like knives. The load he carried was a dead weight, and there was no lift in his feet as he felt his way among the rocks by the river. He hardly knew what he expected. There was no hope in the river's song now, for life was ebbing, and hope was dead.

At last, stumbling for very weariness, he crawled along till he sheltered a little under the lee of a rock and lay there, too weary and heart-sick even to make a fire, dozing and waking, dozing and waking, till the sullen dawn broke, and he saw before him the rocky, weary way he had traversed yesterday morning. Yesterday morning! Thirty hours still to the camp! He gathered a few sticks and lighted a fire, preparing to broil himself a steak, and then he paused. It was so much waste for him to eat. The meat must go to Cordner and the half-breed; he would come back to that he had hung in the spruce wood.

It was a disappointment. He was hungry now, hungrier than he had been the night before, when he had grown accustomed to his hunger, and he looked longingly at the meat. But no; he might eat once at the camp, not more, and he rested his elbows on his knees, and his chin on his hands, and stared into the glowing coals. The fire was a bright red eye in the surrounding greyness, and he warmed his chilled feet and tried to conjure up his wife's face.

But it would not come. He bowed his head. The sweet woman had vanished out of his life then. Never more, never more, wailed the river. He would do his duty, and for the rest——

He rose and kicked the fire into a blaze, because he would have the last of its warmth before he went on, and, turning, stooped to his pack.

He heard a shout. For a second he started, then stooped to his pack again. He must stagger on, and for the shout he had heard so many voices, the mocking devils never left him, and he had wakened to the crying of the river.




  ― 23 ―

Again came the shout and he looked up. The flames were dancing before his eyes, and he could see nothing but them and the whiteness of the snow. He dropped the pack and looked round, and now the call came quite distinctly.

“Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!”

He made a hollow of his hands and shaded his eyes, peering out into the driving snow. The sleet was gone, it was snow now, whirling and dancing and turning the place into fairyland. Were there two dark figures advancing? Cordner and the Skipper! The Skipper all right, and they could go on together! His heart beat suffocatingly. A dream, a dream! He looked again and rubbed his eyes. A dream—was it a dream? Two figures muffled to the eyes were coming towards him. He noted the woollen scarf of one blowing out in the breeze, and remembered that they had not a woollen scarf among them, and one of the men was square and short.

How plainly he could see them. He had seen his wife and child, but he had seen them differently. She had sat in her chair as if she had been by her own fireside, while these men might have been out here in Labrador. They bent a little before the cutting wind; on their shoulders the snow seemed to be piling up. Who were they? What did they mean? The mocking devils he had only known were there, and heard in a sort of minor key, which, though it rang in his ears so loud, was yet subordinate to the sounds of the wild. He could hear these men's footsteps. They came closer, and he stood still, staring.

“Hallo!” said the leader again. “In the name of God, who are ye?”

“John Lester.” His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and his name sounded strange in his own ears.

His questioner stepped out quickly and laid his hands on his shoulders.

“Mon, are ye clean daft? What are ye doin’ on the Little Muskrat River? John Lester sud be well doon the Beaver on the way to Hamilton Inlet the noo.”




  ― 24 ―

“I am John Lester,” he managed to say. “The Little Muskrat? Isn't this the Beaver?”

“Gude sakes! The Beaver! Ye're thretty hour north o’ the Beaver, an’ the roughest country in the world lies atween. John Lester! I am Ian MacDonald, the factor at Hamilton Inlet.”

Lester dropped as if he had been shot. Now the burden had gone his strength had gone, and not until they had given him some hot tea and chafed his hands and broiled some steak for him did he recover sufficiently to explain where Cordner and the half-breed were.

“Thretty hour, say ye? Na, na, not for strong men. Ye'll come along to my camp an’ rest ye there, an’ Tam an’ me an’ anither breed I hae alon’ ’ll see after the ithers. We've juist been lookin’ round a bit. There's always a chance of a little game before the place closes for the winter, an’ y'll no be sayin’ the time's been wasted.”

And when, a month later, Lester sat by his own fireside again, and took his wife in his arms, he told her how he had sacrificed all hope of her for the sake of taking back food to his comrade.

Her arms were round him, his head on her breast.

“Oh, my dear, my dear!”

“And,” he went on, “if I had not—if I had not—— The Skipper was all wrong; we were following down the wrong river, going blindly out into the wilderness. If I had held on after I shot the caribou instead of turning back—MacDonald was turning back when he saw the glint of my fire—if I had gone on—if he had passed but half an hour earlier—if the breed had not fallen and hurt himself——”

He looked in her face and saw the tears on her cheeks.

“Oh, my dear,” she said, “my dearest, who shall understand the ways of God!”

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