Chapter XI. Into the Great Unknown
 

For a few seconds Reynolds stared upon his new discovery. Then he examined the walls elsewhere, and no matter where he looked, he found nuggets of gold protruding from the earth. His excitement now became intense, and seizing a burning stick he began to explore the cave. Everywhere it was the same. The earth beneath his feet was even filled with nuggets, and, they gleamed upon him from overhead. He felt that he must be dreaming, or else his terrible experiences of late had turned his brain. Could it be possible that he had accidentally stumbled upon a vein of the precious metal, rich beyond the wildest bounds of imagination! He put his hand to his face, and even pinched himself to make sure that he was awake.

When the brand had flickered out, he walked back to the fire and sat down. He tried to calm himself that he might think over his wonderful discovery. The rain still pelted down outside, and the wind roared among the trees. But Reynolds paid no attention to them now. He saw nothing but gold, heaps of it, piled high before him, and himself the richest man in the whole world. What would not the miners of Big Draw give to know of this discovery! How they would flock to the place, followed by thousands of others. What a change would ensue in a short time. No longer would it be the desolate wilderness, but alive with frantic human beings.

But suppose he should never live to tell the tale? He was lost, far from any habitation, and with only enough food for a most meagre breakfast. No, he must not die. It was necessary for him to live, to make his great discovery known; and to reap the rich harvest himself. And Glen! Again he thought of her. He would be able to go to her a rich man instead of almost a beggar. He smiled as he recalled what he had said to Frontier Samson. The prospector had given him his choice between gold and the girl, and he had chosen the latter. His love had not changed in the least degree, but why should he not have the gold as well as the girl?

Reynolds sat for a long time that night absorbed in deep thought. He slept upon the ground, and his dreams were a jumble of wild animals, gold, and a beautiful girl. He awoke early and noted with satisfaction that the storm had ceased, and the sky was clear. Having eaten the last of the salmon, he left the cave and viewed his surroundings in order to locate his bearings should he ever return to the place. He believed that he was about half way up the highest hill in the immediate vicinity, and that he could not fail to miss seeing it from a distance. He noticed that the hill formed the apex of a triangular formation, while two hills, one to the right and the other to left, served as base corners. He was sure that he could remember such guiding marks, and would be able to return to the cave without any difficulty.

It was with a feeling of reluctance that he at length left the cave and again assayed the climb up the side of the hill, which became steeper and more precipitous the farther he advanced. At times he was forced to pull himself up by means of roots and small trees, so his progress was accordingly slow. The sun was hot, and often he grew faint from heat and fatigue. He watched for any sign of life, of rabbit, bird, or squirrel. But the place seemed deserted, and even the plant life was scant and scrubby. A fierce thirst came upon him, for no water had passed his lips since the previous day.

Thus hour after hour he toiled upward. He did not dare to return to the brook below, for that would mean certain death. It had to be ever on until the summit was reached, and what then? His courage almost failed as he thought of what that barren peak might have in store for him. He had been disappointed so often, surely Fate would not abandon him now after he had made such a fierce fight for life.

When but a hundred yards from his goal, he paused for a minute's respite. He turned his bloodshot eyes to the sky. A great eagle was soaring majestically athwart the blue. It seemed to mock him by its easy flight. It angered him as he followed its every movement. Why should a mere bird have such freedom of motion, while man was so helpless? To the eagle, distance was nothing; it laughed the highest mountain peak to scorn, and its food was wherever its fancy led. He suddenly thought of the gold he had discovered. In the world of civilization what a power it would mean. What could it not do toward providing ease and reputation? And of what use was that treasure to him now? It was of no more value than the stones beneath his feet, and he would gladly have given it all for one good meal and a draught of refreshing water.

The eagle was still soaring overhead, free and buoyant. It was nearer now, wheeling closer and closer to Reynolds as he clung like a snail to the side of the hill. And he was made in the image of God! The thought stung him. Why should such things be? Instantly there flashed into his mind a picture he had often seen. It was the side of a steep cliff, and there a shepherd was rescuing a sheep from its perilous position. The man was clinging with His left hand to a crevice in the rock, while with His right He was reaching far over to lift up the poor animal, which was looking up pathetically into the shepherd's loving face. He knew the meaning of that picture, and it came to him now with a startling intensity. Why did he think of it? he asked himself. Although his life was clean, yet Reynolds was not what might be called a religious man. He was not in the habit of praying, and he seldom went to church. But something about that picture appealed to him as he crouched on that burning hillside. Was there One who would help him out of his present difficulty? He believed there was, for he had been so taught as a little child. He remembered the Master's words, "Ask, and ye shall have." "Here, then, is a chance to test the truthfulness of that saying," a voice whispered.

"I shall not do it," Reynolds emphatically declared. "I have not prayed for so long, that I'm not going to act the hypocrite now, and cry for help when I'm in a tight corner. I daresay He would assist me, but I am ashamed to ask Him. If I should only think of a friend when I am in trouble I should consider myself a mean cur, and unfit to have the friendship of anyone. And that's about how I stand with Him, so I do not consider myself worthy of His help."

Although Reynolds reasoned in this manner, yet that picture of The Good Shepherd inspired him. He could not get it out of his mind as he lay there watching the eagle soaring nearer and nearer.

"I wonder what that bird is after?" he mused. "It is coming this way, and it seems to be getting ready to alight. Perhaps it has a nest somewhere on this hill."

This thought aroused him. An eagle's nest! It was generally built on some high rocky place, and why should there not be one here? And if so, there might be eggs, and eggs would mean food for a starving man.

Eagerly and anxiously he watched the bird now, hoping and longing that it would alight close to where he was crouching. Neither was he disappointed, for in a few minutes the eagle drove straight for the hill, about fifty yards above, and landed upon a rocky ledge. Seizing a stick lying near, with cat-like agility, Reynolds sprang forward, and hurried to the spot where the bird had alighted. From what he had heard and read about eagles he surmised that a struggle lay ahead of him, so he clutched the stick firmly as he advanced.

It took him but a few minutes to reach the place, and as he paused and looked keenly around for the nest, an infuriated mass of great wings and feathers hurled itself upon him. Taken by surprise, Reynolds staggered back, and lifted his stick to ward off the attack. How he saved himself from being torn to pieces by the talons and beak of that angry bird he never could tell. It was a mystery to him that he was able to defend himself at all. But do it he did, and used his stick in such a skilful manner that he kept the creature from tearing at his face. Fortunately he had a good footing, which enabled him to retreat at each desperate onslaught, and to meet the bird with a furious blow as it wheeled and circled close above his head. But he realised that he could not endure the strain much longer, for he was weak through lack of food and hard climbing. The energy of the eagle, on the other hand, seemed just as keen as ever, and it might continue the fight for hours. Reynolds grew desperate as he thought of this, and he was determined that he should not leave his body there as food for his opponent.

He watched as the bird again circled and once more swept to the attack. But he was ready, and as it swooped close enough he threw his entire remaining strength into one great swinging blow. The stick struck the eagle fair on the head with a resounding crash, and so great was the force of the impact that the cudgel snapped like a pipestem, and the broken end hurtled over the ledge. The eagle's fight was done. It swerved from its course, and frantically tried to recover itself. But all in vain. Far out over the hillside it swung, and then a helpless and inert mass, it dropped down, and crashed into the tops of the firs and jack-pines, which lifted their heads like pointed spears to receive the victim.

Reynolds watched until the bird had disappeared. Then he breathed a deep sigh of relief, and examined his wounds. His hands were bleeding, and such clothes as he had were literally torn into shreds. He was so weak that he could hardly stand, and he sank down upon the ground.

"How long will this keep up?" he panted. "What else lies before me? I am a poor specimen of a human being now, and unfitted for another encounter of any kind. This was my own fault, though. That poor devil I just sent to its doom was merely acting in self-defence. But the survival of the fittest is the law of the wilderness just as in the ways of so-called civilization. That bird had what I needed; and that settles it."

This turned his mind upon the nest, which he suspected was somewhere near. In another minute he had found it, a mass of sticks, in the midst of which was a hollow lined with wild grass, and lying there were three white eggs. Eagerly he seized one, and held it in his hand. Was it fresh? he wondered, or was it ready to be hatched?

Drawing forth his pocket-knife, he perforated each end of the egg, and smelled the contents. It was fresh, having been recently laid. In another instant it was at his parched lips, and never did he remember having tasted anything half as refreshing. Then he looked longingly at the other two.

"No, I must not eat them now," he told himself. "I shall need them for supper and breakfast. The Lord only knows when I shall get anything more."

The mention of the Lord brought back to him the picture of The Good Shepherd rescuing the lost sheep. "Strange, very strange," he mused, as he picked up the eggs and continued his climb. "Can it be possible that the Lord had anything to do with that eagle coming here just when I was about all in, and ready to drop from hunger and thirst? I am not ashamed, anyway, to confess my gratitude, even though I disliked the idea of praying."

A few minutes later he stood on the top of the hill, a bleak, desolate spot, rocky, and devoid of the least sign of vegetation. But this mattered nothing to him now, for his eyes rested almost immediately upon a silver gleam away to the left. It was water, and a river at that! An exclamation of joy leaped from his lips, as from that lonely peak he viewed the river of his salvation. Where it led, he did not know, but surely along that stream he would find human beings, able and willing to succor him.

Forgotten now was his weariness, and a new hope possessed his soul. He could not expect to reach the river that afternoon, for several valleys and small hills intervened. But he could go part of the way and on the morrow complete the journey. Carefully guarding his two precious eggs, he hurried down the opposite side of the hill as fast as it was possible, and night found him by the side of a small wood-enshrouded lake. Here he stopped, drank of the cool refreshing water, and built a small fire. Finding a smooth stone, he washed it clean, and heating it thoroughly, he was enabled to fry one of the eggs upon the surface. In the morning the other was treated in a similar manner, and thus strengthened, but his hunger not appeased, he sped onward.

This last lap of his journey to the river was a trying one. Reynolds made it more difficult by his feverish impatience, and when about the middle of the afternoon he heard the ripple of water, and caught the first gleam through the trees of its sparkling surface, he was completely exhausted, and had only sufficient strength to drag his weary form to the river's bank. A refreshing drink of the ice-cold water and a rest of a few minutes revived him. The stream was swift, far swifter than he had anticipated. But this encouraged him, for if once launched upon its surface it would bear him speedily out of that desolate wilderness.

A craft of some kind was necessary, so searching around, he found several good-sized trees, stripped and bare, which had been brought down stream by the spring floods, and left stranded upon the bank. With considerable difficulty he managed to fashion these into a rude raft, binding all together with strong, pliable willow withes. As a boy he had often made rafts, and the knowledge acquired then served him in good stead now.

Finding a stout pole, he stepped upon the raft, and to his delight found that it would easily bear his weight. Pushing it from the shore, it was soon caught by the strong current and borne rapidly down stream. The steering was an easy matter, so, sitting upon the raft, he gave himself up to the luxury of this new mode of travel. It was such a great relief from his fearful wandering through the woods and climbing the hills, that but for his pangs of hunger he would have been quite happy.

All through, the night the raft swung on its way, the plaything of the current which kept it clear of bars and rocks. Reynolds did not dare to sleep, for he could not tell what lay ahead. It might be a dangerous rapid, or at any minute he might come to some camp along the shore, and it would be necessary to be wide awake and alert.

But nothing happened, and morning found him still floating onward into the great unknown. He was ravenously hungry, and once he ran the raft ashore and gathered a number of willow twigs. These he gnawed as he once more continued his voyage. This, however, was poor food for a starving man, and he was well aware that unless he could obtain something more substantial he must miserably perish. Game was plentiful along the river, and several times he saw moose and bears, while early that morning he ran close to a flock of wild ducks. But their presence only mocked him now, weaponless as he was.

This day was a most trying one, for about the middle of the forenoon it began to rain, and Reynolds was wet to the skin as he sat huddled upon the raft. Anxiously he peered forward, hoping that around every bend something more cheering than the monotonous trees would meet his eyes. But hour after hour it was just the same, and the rain continued without any cessation. Would the river never end? he asked himself over and over again. Whither was it bearing him, anyway? At times the sinuous water appeared like a demon, carrying him on to destruction. Its gurgle and ripple sounded in his ears like mocking laughter, and the great brooding forest in its intense silence seemed in league with the stream. Of what avail were all his mighty efforts? He had escaped from the tangle of the forest, only to be lured to ruin by the river.

The afternoon waned, and night drew near, and still the raft swept onward. Reynolds felt that he could endure the strain but little longer. He was chilled to the bone, and cramped from his huddled position. He must land, and get some circulation in his body, providing he had any strength left.

He was about to run the raft ashore, when to his great delight it suddenly shot forth from its forest prison into the open expanse of a broad and silent lake. Reynolds staggered painfully to his feet and looked around. He could only see a short distance, as a heavy mist lay over the water. His eyes scanned the shore, but no sign of human habitation could he behold. There was nothing except the same scene of desolation which had been his companion for weary days.

The raft was motionless now, some distance out upon the lake. Slowly Reynolds forced it to the shore, and secured it in a little cove.

"I might as well stay here for the night," he muttered. "It may be clear to-morrow which will enable me to see farther. Oh, for something to eat!"

With much difficulty he started a fire, for the wood was wet, and then warmed himself before the cheerful blaze. It was not raining so hard now, for which he was thankful. He tried to dry his rags of clothes by hanging them on sticks near the fire. His boots were off his feet, with the uppers alone clinging to his ankles. Removing these, he examined them. Then an idea flashed into his mind. He had heard of men eating their boots in their extremity, and why should not he! It was worth the try, at any rate.

It took him but a second to whip out his knife and cut a piece from the top of one of the boots. This he washed clean in the lake, and tasted it. Only one on the extreme verge of starvation can in any manner comprehend what even a portion of a boot means. There is some nourishment there, as Reynolds soon found. Almost ravenously he chewed that piece of leather, extracting from it whatever life-giving substance it contained. When it had been converted to mere pulp, he helped himself to another piece. He was in a most desperate situation, but if he could sustain his strength for another night and day he believed that his life would be spared. Surely along that lake he would find human beings, whether Indians or whites he did not care, who would give him food.

He awoke early the next morning, and having partaken his breakfast of another piece of boot, he pushed off his raft. There was only one way for him to go, and that was with the breeze which was drawing down the lake. The mist was now lifting, and although he strained his eyes, he could see no sign of life. He had to pole the raft now, and in order to do so he was forced to keep close to the shore where the water was shallow.

Thus all through the morning and far on into the afternoon he urged the raft forward with all the strength at his command. There were so many curves to the shore that following these lengthened the voyage. From point to point he moved, each time to be disappointed as he looked ahead and saw nothing but trees and water.

The sun was hot, and the perspiration poured down his face. But with the energy of despair he drove his pole again and again into the water. As the afternoon waned, and night drew near, the limit of his endurance was reached, and he knew that he could do no more. He had struggled for life, but to no purpose. Rest was all that he cared for now. His head began to swim, and he sank exhausted upon the raft. And there he lay, face downward, while the raft drifted at its own sweet will. Presently a breeze sprang up and cooled the air. But it did not affect Reynolds in the least. He had fought to the last grain of strength, and when that left him he was beyond all sense of time, place, and feeling.