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   Chapter 17 LOST IN A BLIZZARD

Troop One of the Labrador By Dillon Wallace Characters: 13132

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


After a time Jamie awoke. The two men were still sitting by the fire and were again drinking from the bottle. He was uncomfortable in his cramped position, but dared not move, and he lay very still and watched the men and the fire and the black wall of the mysterious, trackless forest beyond. Shadows rose and fell and flitted in and out of the circle of firelight. Weird and uncanny they seemed, taking strange forms like dancing spirits. In the darkness outside the firelight and moving shadows Jamie fancied that terrible ghoulish forms were stalking stealthily and grinning maliciously at him.

For a long while Jamie lay awake and watched. Again and again the men drank from the bottle, and when they spoke at intervals their voices sounded unnatural and thick. Once one of them arose to replenish the fire, and he moved unsteadily upon his feet, at which the little lad marvelled, for he was a large, strong man. Presently Jamie's eyes drooped again, and once more he slept.

When he again awoke dawn was breaking. Snow was falling heavily. The two men were in a deep sleep. The fire had died down to a bed of coals, and Jamie was shivering with the cold.

His arms were numb, and his body and limbs ached from the cramped position in which he lay because of his bound arms and feet. With some effort he turned over, and this brought him some relief, but not for long, and presently he rolled back to his original position that he might see the red coals of the fire.

Jamie tried to move his hands, but his wrists were too firmly tied, and the effort brought only pain. Then he lay still and studied the smouldering fire. Behind it lay the remnants of a back log that had been burned through in the centre. The inner ends of the log, where it was separated, were, like the coals before it, red and glowing, and he thought that if he could push them together they would blaze and give out warmth.

Then, suddenly, an idea flashed into Jamie's brain. Those red ends of the log would burn the string that bound him, and he could free himself if he could only reach them and press the string against them.

His movements in turning over had not disturbed his captors. They were still sleeping profoundly. From the condition of the fire it was evident they had been sitting by it the greater part of the night and had replenished it at a late hour, else all the coals would have been dead.

Hank lay at the opposite end of the lean-to from Jamie, and Bill in the centre, with their feet toward the fire. Jamie was lying at the back, his head near Bill's head and his feet toward the end of the lean-to farthest from Hank.

For several minutes Jamie studied the position of each and the possibilities of working his way out of the lean-to without awakening the men. Finally he determined to make an attempt to gain his freedom.

Cautiously and as noiselessly as possible he began to wriggle away, inch by inch, from Bill, and toward the fire. Several times he fancied the men moved restlessly in their sleep, but when he looked toward them they appeared to be still sleeping heavily. On each occasion, however, he lay still until he became wholly satisfied that he had been mistaken and that they had not been disturbed.

Little by little he edged away until at length he was well outside the lean-to. His efforts were painful and slow, but in the course of half an hour he was near enough to the end of the log to touch it with his bound feet. His exertions had set his blood in motion and inspired him with hope of success.

With much care and patience he pushed the stick until he was able to rest the string, where it crossed between his ankles, upon the glowing end. Drawing his feet as far apart as possible, with all the strength he possessed, he was quickly rewarded by feeling a relaxation, and in a moment his heart leaped with joy. The string was severed.

Squirming around upon his chest, Jamie arose to a kneeling position, and then stood erect. So far as his legs were concerned he was free.

Jamie's first impulse was to run wildly away, but he restrained himself. Standing over the men he looked down upon them. Neither had moved, and to all appearances they were sleeping as soundly as ever.

"I'm thinkin' now I'll try to burn off the string on my hands too," he decided. "'Twill be easier gettin' on with un free, and I'll travel a rare lot faster with my arms loose."

Burning the strings from his wrists, however, proved a much more difficult problem than burning them from his ankles. He sat down with his back to the hot end of the stick, but discovered that it was no easy matter to find just the right position between the wrists. Several efforts resulted only in painful burns on his hands, but he was not discouraged, and finally was rewarded. The string where it crossed between his wrists was brought into contact with the sharp point of the glowing hot stick, and though the reflected heat burned him cruelly he held the string pressed against the fire until at last it crumbled away and his hands flew apart.

"She took grit," said he, "but I made out to do un."

With the joy of freedom and the anxiety to escape his tormentors, Jamie was oblivious to the pain of his burned and blistered wrists. He could use both hands and feet, and was confident that he would soon find the camp and his friends.

Jamie ran as fast as his short legs would carry him. The snow was nearly knee deep, but it was soft and feathery and he scarcely gave it thought at first. He had no doubt that he knew exactly in which direction camp lay, and it never entered his head that he might go wrong or lose his way as he dashed through the woods at the best speed of which he was capable.

Presently the impediment of the snow compelled him to reduce his gait to a walk, and for nearly an hour he pushed on in what he supposed was a straight line, when he came suddenly upon fresh axe cuttings and a moment later saw through the thickly falling snow a familiar lean-to. He stopped in consternation and fright, scarcely knowing which way to turn. He was within fifty feet of the two desperate men from whom he had so recently fled. In the storm he had made a complete circuit.

The men were still soundly sleeping, and instinctively Jamie backed away. He had lost a full hour of valuable time. The men might awake at any moment, discover his absence and trail him and overtake him in the snow.

These thoughts flashed through Jamie's mind, and in wild panic he turned and ran until at length exhaustion brought him t

o a halt.

"They'll sure be cotchin' me," he panted, "and I'm not knowin' the way in the snow! I'll be goin' right around and comin' back again to the same place if I don't look out! I can't bide here," he continued in desperation. "I'll have to go somewheres else or they'll sure cotch me!"

Bewildered and frightened Jamie looked wildly about him. Then he bethought himself of the compass in his pocket. Eagerly drawing it forth he held it in his hand and studied its face.

"The Bay's to the suth'ard, whatever," he calculated. "If the Bay's to the suth'ard the brook's to the east'ard. I'll be lettin' the compass pilot me to the east'ard. 'Twill take me the right direction whatever."

Levelling the compass carefully in his hand so that the needle swung freely he found the east, and as rapidly as his little legs would carry him set out again in his effort to escape the two sleeping men and to find camp and his friends.

At intervals he stopped to consult his compass. Then he would hurry forward again as fast as ever he could go through the snow, looking behind him fearfully, half expecting each time to see the men in close pursuit, and always with the dread that a gruff voice in the rear would command him to halt, or that a rifle bullet would be sent after him without warning.

As time passed and there was no indication that he was followed, Jamie began to feel some degree of security. Because of the storm it was unlikely that the men would venture upon the Bay. They had kept late hours drinking at the bottle, and unless they were awakened by the cold they would in all probability sleep late and therefore not discover his absence until the thickly falling snow had so far covered his trail as to preclude the possibility of them following it with certainty.

With his mind more or less relieved on this point, Jamie suddenly realized that he was hungry. It was nearing midday. He had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours, and he had the normal appetite of a healthy boy. The snow had perceptibly increased in depth since his escape from the lean-to, and walking was correspondingly hard. He was so hungry and so weary that at length he could scarcely force one foot ahead of the other.

The wind was rising, and in crossing an open frozen marsh the snow drifted before the gale in clouds so dense as to be suffocating. The storm was attaining the proportions of a blizzard, and when Jamie again reached the shelter of the forest beyond the marsh he found it necessary to stop to rest and regain his breath.

"'Twill never do to try to cross another mesh," he decided. "I'm like to be overcome with un and perish before I finds my way out of un to the timber. I'll stick to the woods, and if I can't stick to un I'll have to bide where I is till the snow stops. I wonders now if Doctor Joe and David is out lookin' for me. I'm not thinkin' they'd bide in the tent with me lost out here and they not knowin' where I is."

When he was rested a little he arose, took his direction with the compass, and floundered on through the snow.

"They's sure out somewhere lookin' for me," he thought, "but 'tis snowin' so hard they never will find me! I'll have to keep goin' till I finds camp. 'Tis strange now I'm not comin' to the brook, 'tis wonderful strange. I'm thinkin' though I were crossin' two meshes with the men in the night, and I've only been crossin' one goin' back to-day. I'm fearin' I'll never be able to cross un though, when I comes to the next un."

Presently, as Jamie had thought would be the case, he came to another marsh. It satisfied him that he was going in the right direction, but at the same time it lay out before him as a well-nigh impassable barrier. The wind was driving the snow across it in swirling dense clouds, and he stood for a little in the shelter of the trees and viewed it with heavy heart.

"'Tis a bigger mesh than the other," he commented to himself, "but I'll have to try to cross un. I can't bide here. I'll freeze to death with no shelter and I has no axe for makin' a shelter. I'm not knowin' what to do."

For a little while he hesitated, then he plunged out upon the edge of the marsh. He was nearly swept from his feet, and to recover his breath he was forced to retreat again to the woods. Three times he tried to face the storm-swept marsh, but each time was sent staggering back to shelter. It was a task beyond the strength and endurance of so young a lad, and utterly exhausted and bitterly disappointed, he sat down upon the trunk of a fallen tree to rest.

"I never can make un whilst the nasty weather lasts," he acknowledged. "I'm fair scrammed and I'll have to wait for the wind to ease before I tries un again."

He could scarce restrain the tears. It was a bitter disappointment. He was so hungry, and so weary, and wished so hard to reach the safety of camp and freedom from the still present danger of being recaptured.

"I'll have plenty o' grit and a stout heart like a man," he presently declared. "I don't mind bein' a bit hungry, and I'll never be givin' up! I'll never give up whatever! Pop says plenty o' grit'll pull a man out o' most any fix. I'm in a bad fix now, and I'll have grit and won't be gettin' scared. 'Twill never do to be gettin' scared whatever."

Jamie sat quietly upon the log, and presently found himself dozing. He sprang to his feet, for sleeping under these conditions was dangerous. He tried to walk about, but was so tired that he again returned to the log to rest. It was growing colder, and he shivered. The storm was increasing in fury.

"I'm not knowin' what to do!" he said despairingly. "If I goes on I'll perish and if I keeps still I'll freeze to death and I'm too wearied to move about to keep warm. 'Tis likely the storm'll last the night through whatever, and I'll never be able to stick un out that long."

Jamie again found himself dozing, and again he got upon his feet.

"I'll have to be doin' somethin'," said he. "I'll keep my grit and try to think of somethin' to do or I'll perish."

Jamie was right. He was in peril, and grave peril. Even though the storm-swept marsh had not stood in his way he was quite too weary to walk farther. He was thrown entirely upon his own resources. His life depended upon his own initiative, for he was quite beyond help from others. It was a great unpeopled wilderness in which Jamie was lost, and he was but a wee lad, and even though Doctor Joe and David were looking for him there was scarce a chance that they could find him in the raging storm.

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