Chapter X. Adrift in the Wilderness

Nowhere, perhaps, except adrift in mid-ocean, is the sense of loneliness more appalling than to be lost in a labyrinthine forest of the mighty north. Even upon the ocean there is always the chance of being picked up by a passing vessel. But lost in the wilderness! hidden from view, what hope can the stoutest heart entertain of rescue? Here a man is but a thing of naught, an insect creeping upon the ground, a mere speck, the veritable plaything of chance.

Reynolds, however, was well hardened to desperate situations. Often in France he had been alone in "No Man's Land," with death close at hand. He had never flinched then, and he was determined that he would not do so now.

"I told Harmon that I like adventure and desperate undertakings," he mused. "I have certainly enough here to satisfy me for a while. But it can't be helped, and so I must make the best of it. Rest is what I need at present, and I am not going to worry about to-morrow. 'One thing at a time' has been my motto, and I guess it's a good one."

He awoke early the next morning, though the sun was up ahead of him. He sprang to his feet and peered around. But nothing could he see, except trees on every side.

"I must get out of this," he muttered, "and strike for the high hills. Perhaps there I may be able to get my proper bearings. I must find a breakfast somewhere, but with my scanty supply of ammunition, it is necessary to be careful."

Picking up his rifle, he started forth, and for several hours moved steadily onward. Through a break in the forest he had caught sight of a high hill, and toward this he laboriously made his way. He had to descend first into a deep valley, where a large wild meadow offered an inviting feeding-ground for moose. But not a sign of life could he see, and greatly disappointed he was forced to begin the hard climb up the opposite side of the hill.

About the middle of the afternoon he succeeded in shooting a rabbit, which he at once skinned and broiled over a small fire. He was weak from hunger and hard, anxious travelling, so this food gave him much refreshment. He ate sparingly, nevertheless, knowing that he might not be able to procure anything more for supper. With only two cartridges left, his outlook was far from encouraging.

When the summit of the hill was at length reached, he climbed a large fir tree from which he was enabled to obtain an excellent view of the surrounding country. Far off rose great snow-capped mountain peaks, over which fleecy clouds were lazily drifting. A vast sea of forest stretched on every side, broken here and there by placid, shimmering lakes. But which was the one near the camp where Frontier Samson was no doubt anxiously awaiting the wanderer's return? That was the question which agitated Reynolds' mind. No sign of human life could he behold, and he wondered in which direction Big Draw mining camp lay. So completely had he lost his bearings that he had no idea which was the right course to pursue. Anyway, it was necessary to keep on the move, for to remain where he was meant certain death. If he must die, he would die fighting, game to the very last. Surely beyond some of those outstanding hills he could find a river, which would bear him out of that wilderness maze. A high crest to the left looked promising, and toward this he at once started.

He slept that night in a valley by a little brook which gurgled down to a lake beyond. The remains of the rabbit served him for supper, and where was he to obtain his next meal? He had startled several grouse during the day, and once he detected the plunging of a moose. But nothing came within the range of his rifle except a few noisy squirrels, but upon these he did not dare to waste his two remaining cartridges. In his extremity he would have welcomed the sight of a bear, and even a grizzly at that. He could then afford to exhaust his ammunition, as the flesh of a bear would last him for many days. But no bear had he met, although signs of them were at times abundant, especially in the valleys.

The next morning in a mood of desperation, he took a long shot at a flying grouse and missed it. One cartridge now remained, and it was absolutely necessary to reserve that for something large. Down the valley lay a big wide meadow, and here he believed he might find a moose feeding. It was worth trying, at any rate. Walking warily along the edge of the forest, he was at length rewarded by seeing a fine animal some distance off on the opposite side of the meadow. Reynolds instantly stopped, and his hands trembled through the excitement of his discovery. If he could get a little closer he felt sure that the moose would be his. But just as he took a few steps forward, the animal lifted its great head and sniffed the air. There was not a second to lose, so bringing the rifle to his shoulder, he took a quick aim and fired. With a startled snort, the moose reared, staggered, and then with tremendous leaps bounded across the twenty or thirty yards of intervening meadow and vanished in the forest. Reynolds could hear it crashing its way among the trees as he hurried out into the open. The sounds grew fainter and fainter, and finally ceased. The animal had made good its escape, although evidently wounded.

Reynolds' previous discouragement was nothing to what he experienced now. He moved mechanically toward the spot where the moose had been grazing. Why he did so he could not tell. He reached the border of the forest, and flung himself down upon the grass. With his last cartridge gone, what chance had he of life? He had been in many a dire strait in the past, but nothing to equal this. He was face to face with death, more surely and in a far more terrible form than he had ever encountered in far off France.

"This is certainly 'No Man's Land,'" he muttered. "I do not believe a human being ever trod this region before and it is not likely that anyone will come here during the next one hundred years. And to think that I missed that shot when my life depended upon it! It must be my nerves."

A feeling of annoyance swept upon him, and picking up his rifle, he hurled it among the trees.

"Lie there," he ordered. "You are of no use to me now, and I have no strength to tote you along."

Then he laughed, and the hollow sound of his voice startled him. He sprang to his feet and looked around. Why had he laughed? he asked himself. Was he going out of his mind? He glanced at his hands and shuddered, so bruised and bleeding were they. His clothes, too, were in tatters, while his boots were so worn that portions of his feet were visible.

For a few minutes he stood rigidly still, as if in a dream. The intense loneliness of the place was appalling. It was unnerving him, and he was losing control of himself. Suddenly he started and ran as if for life, back over the track he had recently traversed. He was no longer the Tom Reynolds who had started forth from Big Draw, but a denizen of the wilds. The desire for food possessed him. It made him mad, a demon, ready to fall upon any creature that crossed his path. He was crafty as well, and reaching the shelter of the forest, he glided cautiously along the edge of the meadow, up toward the little brook where he had slept the night before. No tiger creeping through the jungle moved more stealthily than did he. Nothing escaped his notice, and he eagerly watched for rabbit or squirrel that he might pounce upon it.

For some time he thus advanced, but nothing could he see. At length he came to an opening in the trees, which exposed the brook plainly to view. His eyes swept the stream, and as they did so they presently rested upon a black object crouched upon a fallen tree projecting out over the brook. He recognized it at once as a black bear, watching for fish. It was lying flat on the log, with one big paw close to the water waiting for its breakfast.

Reynolds' first impulse was to rush forward and engage the brute in a deadly conflict. But a natural caution restrained him, and he accordingly waited to see what would happen. Neither did he have to wait long, for in a twinkling the big paw struck, the water splashed, and a shiny form hurtled through the air, and fell several yards away. And after it sprang the bear, but his body had scarcely left the log ere Reynolds was bounding toward him with such yells and whoops that the forest resounded on all sides. Startled and surprised beyond measure, the bear paused and looked back. Seeing, but not understanding the strange creature rushing toward him with wildly waving arms, and emitting such blood-curdling yells, it uttered a hoarse growl of fear and rage and lumbered off for the shelter of the forest as fast as its legs would carry it.

Reynolds paid no more attention to the bear than if it had been a gnat, but sprang greedily upon the fish, which was wriggling and beating itself around upon the ground. It was a young king-salmon, and although not large, Reynolds thought it the finest fish he had ever beheld. It did not take him long to despatch his prize, and in a few minutes a portion of it was sizzling over a small fire he had lighted. Never had any food tasted so good, he imagined, and the strength thus gained brought back his normal state of mind. He felt more like himself, and ready for another effort to free himself from his wilderness prison. He even smiled as he thought of the bear's fright and its ignominious retreat.

"Lost your breakfast, old boy, didn't you?" he called out. "You weren't expecting company, were you? But I am grateful to you, and wish you better luck next time."

Taking with him the remainder of the fish, Reynolds once more continued his journey. The high ridge was a long way off, and before it could be reached it would be necessary to cross several smaller hills and a number of valleys. But with strength renewed, he sped onward.

All through the day the heat had been almost over-powering. It poured its hot rays full upon him, and not a breath of wind stirred the trees. He was about half way up the high hill when the weather suddenly changed. The sky darkened, and the wind began to howl through the forest. Great black clouds massed in vast battalions overhead, and in less than half an hour the storm burst.

Reynolds had paused on a rocky ledge as the tempest swept upon him. Never before had he experienced such a storm. It seemed as if the very windows of heaven had suddenly opened to deluge the earth. He looked hurriedly around for shelter, and seeing an overhanging portion of rock, he at once made his way thither, and crouched low for protection. The rain, however, swirled in after him, forcing him to move farther back. That he was able to do this surprised him, and feeling with his hands, he discovered that there was a big open space to the rear, and that he was at the entrance of a cave, how large he did not know. Fortunately he was provided with a good supply of matches, so striking one, he examined his new abode. The brief feeble light showed that the cave was about a foot higher than his head, and much larger than he had supposed. He had no inclination to explore it just then, for some dry sticks lying at his feet arrested his attention. He was hungry after his hard tramp, so a piece of salmon would be most acceptable.

It did not take him long to light a small fire as near the mouth of the cave as the rain would permit, and, prepare his meal. The fire felt good, too, for the air was damp and chilly.

"I might as well spend the night here," he mused, "for even if the storm does let up, I would only get soaked from the drenched trees. And, besides, I cannot see anything from the top of the hill until the clouds roll away and the air clears."

He ate the nicely browned piece of fish, and when he had finished he leaned comfortably back, filled and lighted his pipe. This was the first time he had thought of smoking since leaving Frontier Samson. He wondered where the old prospector was, and whether he was hunting frantically for his lost companion. His mind turned naturally to Glen. He was farther from her now than ever, and should he see her again? The thought of her had stimulated him during his recent terrible experiences. Over and over again she seemed to be standing by his side, urging him to go on, and renewing his fainting spirits. He pictured her now as he had last seen her at the top of that steep trail, mounted upon her horse. He recalled for the thousandth time her clear musical voice, the bright flash of her eyes, and the deep flush which had mantled her cheeks at the mention of Curly's name.

"I must find her," he emphatically declared, as he stirred up the dwindling fire, and added a couple of sticks. "I expected to be with her before this, but here I am, lodged like a bear in this dismal hole."

He glanced around the cave, and as he did so, he gave a sudden start. Something in one side of the wall where the fire-light fell attracted his attention. It made his heart beat fast, and brought him to his feet in an instant. His hand reached up and touched it. Then he quickly struck a match, and examined it more carefully. Yes, he was right, and he had made no mistake. It was gold!