TUESDAY: The Barrens, Part Two

BY KATHARINE O’FLYNN

This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Read Part One here. This story was previousy published in Artica magazine in 2010. Copyright is held by the author.

AT FIVE o’clock, when the civilized world would be having tea, or perhaps cocktails on this festive evening, James cooked and ate a solitary meal of caribou steak and oatmeal. He brewed tea. He sang Silent Night, all three verses. Hornby absolutely forbade singing around him, couldn’t abide music. “Animals don’t sing; why should we?” was his argument.

James bathed Bhaie’s festering wound. The dog, who had stepped on a fox trap and all but severed the foot, whimpered as James worked.

Then, to save wood, he let the fire go out and crawled into his sleeping bag. A person slept long hours in the northern winters.

He woke Christmas morning to intense cold.

At least he assumed it was morning. To add to his aggravations, his watch had stopped while he slept and no amount of shaking would persuade it to start again.

Bhaie’s foot was looking worse.

James threaded his way through the roof props to the entryway and dug out the door. The blizzard had not abated.

There was only enough wood left for about half an hour’s burning. James lit the stove. He fried a steak and heated water. He ate, and for a long time sat by the stove watching the ashes crumple. He scoured the dishes with sand and shook out his sleeping furs. The sandy gravel around the dug-out cracked like gun shots as it cooled. The wind howled and snapped at the blanket over the doorway.

For Christmas dinner James ate a chunk of the meat he’d cooked at breakfast, and tried to chew some raw oatmeal. The water in the pot on the stove had formed a rim of ice. He broke through it and poured a little into a dish for Bhaie. He drank the rest himself. He sat by the cold stove and sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” while Bhaie stared at him.

There’d be nothing more to eat or drink till Hornby arrived with the wood. There was nothing to do but wait. James crept into his sleeping bag and tried to sleep.

Instead he worried. What if Hornby didn’t make it back? Of course Hornby knew better than anyone else how to survive in this country. “The white Indian” people called him. But sooner or later the time must come when his skills would fail him; he was no longer a young man. He could have a heart attack out there in the frozen wastes. James should have gone with him. He’d been crazy to think Bhaie needed his care, to believe that he could save him by bathing the foot now and then. He and the dog would freeze or suffocate or starve, or all three. It was a terrible way to die. He pulled the blankets over his head and wept till he fell asleep.

When he woke the next morning, or what he thought must be morning, his beard was frozen to the blanket. He pried it off and stood up cautiously. They’d need another roof prop by the stove; an avalanche of sand had fallen there during the night. He could hear the storm still howling as he dug out the doorway. “It doesn’t look as though anyone will come to our aid today,” James said to Bhaie.

As soon as he’d spoken the words aloud, the thought became intolerable to him. He would not wait another day. He could not. He was shivering, like the dog. Without fuel, they couldn’t last more than a day, two at the most. They had food but they couldn’t eat it; it was frozen solid.

He would have to try to walk out to the Stewarts’ cabin on the river. He knew the route from his hunting and trapping and wood-gathering trips. But walking in the blizzard would be like walking blindfolded. A person could get hopelessly lost within a hundred yards of his camp. James didn’t even have a watch to time the stages of the journey. It would be insane to venture out in this.

But it would be just as insane to lie down and quietly freeze to death here.

Of course, it was not certain that he would freeze. Hornby might get through any minute. He always cut things fine, but always before had come through when he was needed.

On the other hand, he was known for being vague about supplies. He might assume there was enough wood in the cave for another few days and arrive later, when it suited him better. Then he would find the frozen corpses of a man and a dog.

The longer James waited, the colder and weaker he would get, and the less chance he would have of reaching the Stewart cabin.

The two options spun through James’s mind like wind-driven snow: to wait and risk freezing to death here, or to set out for the Stewarts and risk freezing to death on the way.

In the end, he knew there was no choice. He could not make himself stay in this frightful, tomb-like cave. “Better to perish in the storm than to lie waiting for death, eh Bhaie?”

Bhaie wagged a feeble tail.

He attached a rawhide rope to the dog’s collar. Bhaie was unlikely to run away but James felt the need to be attached to some living creature. Then he hooded a blanket around his head and stepped out. The snow fell so thick it seemed like a solid wall in front of him.

Hornby had taught him how to walk in a storm. “When the snow clears for a moment, look for a landmark, then make for it as fast as you can. The faster you go, the less likely you are to stray from course.” But there were few landmarks on the barrens, and none visible in the white blizzard.

James clung to the guide pole they’d set to mark the doorway of their cave. He was tempted to go back in and crawl under all the furs and go to sleep. But sleep, he knew, was the very worst temptation for one in danger of freezing. He’d made his decision; he would go.

His course was southeast as far as the lake and then straight east. “If we keep the wind to our right and slightly behind we should make it to the lake all right,” he explained to Bhaie. But would he recognize the lake when he came to it, or would the snow-covered ice merge with snow-covered land?

“Hornby!” he called one last time. The worst irony would be if he and Hornby unknowingly crossed paths in the blinding whiteness.

The wind whipped away his words. He let go of the guide post and started out into the storm. Bhaie followed, limping on three legs.

His right side was colder than the left. That was good. And the right side of his face stung more. Excellent. If the wind direction changed they would be lost, but he wouldn’t let himself think about that.

He tried to feel the tilt of the land beneath his feet. He should be going slightly downhill, then more steeply down just before the lake. When they turned east, they’d climb. But the drifts confused him. He battled uphill and then down, like a ship on a stormy sea. He must not let himself fall into the deception of the circle. He must keep the wind to his side.

He marvelled at how dark it could be despite the whiteness of the snow. No sun was visible, only a sullen grey light beyond the whirling, stinging snow, a grey that grew darker as the afternoon drew on. There was no question of stopping to camp, for there was no shelter, no wood for fire. “We’ll keep on going till we get there,” he told Bhaie.

Sometimes he pulled the dog, and sometimes the dog seemed to pull him
.
When he guessed they’d been walking for four hours he stopped and peered around him. All he could see was white. This could be the lake. It could be the plain. He couldn’t be sure. He turned east. He surrendered himself to the power of the wind, now coming from behind and a little to his left. His only hope was to keep going.

To have the wind behind him was a relief. As far as he could tell, the landscape was featureless, just how a frozen lake should look. “We might very well be on the right track,” he told Bhaie, trying to imitate Hornby’s careless optimism.

They went on for perhaps an hour, perhaps two, perhaps three until Bhaie simply lay down in the snow. “Come on, fellow. It can’t be far now.” James could still walk. The dog could walk. They were probably going in the right direction. And if they weren’t, James preferred to meet death walking rather than lying down.

Searching through the murk ahead, James thought he saw something solid over to the right. He moved toward it as fast as he could and Bhaie let himself be led. Could it be a tree? No, rock. It was rock. Or ice. Bhaie lay down again as soon as James stopped to feel the object in front of him. Rock. A large rock. And wood too. A pole? A sawed off log? He felt his way along the solid surface. Another pole. More rock. Could it, oh, could it actually be a cabin? The Stewarts’ cabin? He pounded with his fists against the hardness.

A door opened inwards. Golden light beamed out into the darkness.

James fell towards it.

The first person James saw as his eyelashes thawed and his eyes adjusted to the light was Hornby. A surge of anger jolted through his chill veins. Trust Hornby to keep himself snug and warm, leaving others to fight for their lives through storm and cold.

But he had fought well; he had made it through. He was safe and soon he would be warm. He was well. Hornby was well. And the Stewart brothers were here, and they were well. Everyone was well.

And Bhaie too. He was glad to see they’d let the dog come in. He was lying on an old fur, worrying at his foot. Smart dog. He’d known where they were. Without him, James might have walked right on past the cabin.

Hornby brought a mug of hot sweet tea and James began to drink in tiny sips.

The Stewarts were taking off his moccasins, one working on the right foot, one on the left. He wanted to fall around their necks and hug these tough, dirty, bearded men. He wouldn’t, of course. They’d think he’d gone bushed for sure if he did.

“You were lucky to get through,” Hornby remarked.

James nodded, still not able to speak. “Lucky,” Hornby said. Not wise, or brave or resourceful, just lucky.

Well, James didn’t care what Hornby thought. He was just glad to see him and the Stewarts and to sit in the orange-gold light of the cabin. He felt the warmth of the fire and the hot drink penetrating his frigid body.

Hornby said, “You’ve saved me a journey. I was planning to run up to the den with the wood first thing in the morning.”

That meant, James realized, that he needn’t have ventured on this trek at all. He would have been quite safe, only a little cold and hungry, if he’d waited in the cave.

Unless the roof fell in.

Or Hornby didn’t make it.

“You mightn’t have made it through,” he croaked.

Hornby laughed off the possibility. “I can get through any storm.”

“Me too!” James boasted back and then began to laugh. He was safe and warm and happy and among men. His feet ached as they thawed into feeling, and even the pain felt good. He wanted to stay right here, like this, forever. Hornby could crack and suck marrow bones all day long if he wished, and never, ever wash the blood from his hands, and James would still be glad of his presence. And the Stewarts too were fine fellows. We was in the best of company.

Andy Stewart, having satisfied himself that James’s feet were only slightly frostbitten, moved over to examine Bhaie. He looked at the dog’s paw. “That leg’s not going to get better. You’ll have to shoot him.”

“I know,” James’ elation sputtered out like a wet fire. “I know. But let’s leave him be till morning,” he pleaded.

“All right, so.” Stewart nodded.

James sipped at the tea. It could as easily have been he who stepped on that carelessly misplaced trap. Or Hornby. Or one of the Stewarts. In this country no one was ever really safe — only at ease for a while.

James finished his tea and asked for more.

3 comments

  1. Dave Moores

    Great work, I’m never going there, though!
    I wished the dog had an amputation and survived. He deserved it. I also wished the feckless Hornby could have been taught a lesson, he deserved that, too.

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