The man cursed, threw the empty gun on the ground. He uttered a cry of pain as he started to drag himself to his feet. It was a slow task. When he finally stood on his feet, he needed another minute or two to straighten himself, so that he could stand as a man should stand.
He climbed a small hill and looked about. There were no trees, no bushes. There was nothing but grassy gray plants and some gray rocks and gray streams. The sky was gray. There was no sun or promise of sun. He had no idea where north was, and he had forgotten how he had come to this spot the night before. But he was not lost. He knew that. Soon he would come to the land of the little sticks. He felt that it lay to the left somewhere, not far. Possibly it was over the next low hill.
He returned to prepare his pack for traveling. He assured himself of the existence of his three separate portions of matches, although he did not stop to count them. But he did pause, trying to decide what to do about a bag made from moose skin. It was not large. It could be covered by his two hands. But he knew it weighed 15 pounds—as much as all the rest of the pack. This worried him. He finally set it to one side and proceeded to roll the pack. He paused again to gaze at the moose-skin bag. He picked it up quickly with a quick glance around him. It was as if he thought the cruel wasteland was trying to steal it. When he rose to his feet, the bag was included in the pack on his back.
He started walking to the left, stopping now and again to eat muskeg berries. His ankle had stiffened, but the pain of it was nothing compared with the pain of his stomach. His hunger was so great he could not keep his mind steady on the course he had to follow to arrive at the land of the little sticks.
The berries did not help his hunger. Their bitter taste only made his tongue and mouth sore.
He came to a valley where some birds rose from the rocky places. “Ker-ker-ker” was the sound of their cry. He threw stones at them but could not hit them. He placed his pack on the ground and followed them as a cat advances on a bird. The sharp rocks cut through his trousers until his knees left a trail of blood. But the hurt was lost in the pain of his hunger. He moved his body through the wet plants, becoming wet and cold in the process. But he did not notice this, so great was his desire for food.
Always the birds rose before him. Their cry of “Ker-ker-ker” sounded as if they were laughing at him. He cursed them and cried aloud at them with their own cry.
Once he came upon one that must have been asleep. He did not see it until it flew up in his face from behind some rocks. He grasped the air as suddenly as the rise of the bird, and there remained in his hand three tail feathers. As he watched its flight he hated it. He felt that it had done him some great wrong. Then he returned to where he had left his pack and lifted it again to his back.
As the day continued, he came into valleys where game was more plentiful. Twenty or more caribou passed by, within easy shooting distance of a gun. He felt a wild desire to run after them, certain that he could catch them. A small black animal came toward him, carrying a bird in its mouth. The man shouted. It was a fearful cry, but the animal, leaping away in fright, did not drop the bird.
Late in the afternoon he followed a stream which flowed through some thick grass. He grasped these grasses firmly near the root and pulled up what looked like a vegetable. It was round and white. Eagerly he sank his teeth into it. It was tender on the outside and gave the promise of food. But its inside was hard and stringy, and, like the berries, it had no food value. Nevertheless, he threw off his pack and went among the grasses on his hands and knees, eating the grass like a cow.
He was very tired and often wished to rest—to lie down and to sleep. But he was led on, not so much by his desire to find the land of the little sticks as by his hunger.
He looked into every pool of water, searching without success for things to eat. Then, as the night darkened, he discovered a single small fish in one of these pools. He plunged his whole arm in, but the fish escaped his grasp. He reached for it with both hands and stirred the mud at the bottom of the pool. During his excitement he fell in, getting wet as high as his shoulders. Then the water was too cloudy with mud to allow him to see the fish. He was forced to wait until the mud had again settled to the bottom.
Then he tried again, until the water was again filled with mud. But he could not wait. He took a tin container from his pack and began to empty the water from the pool. He threw it out wildly at first, and so short a distance that it flowed into the pool again. He worked more carefully, trying to be calm, but his heart was pounding and his hands were trembling. At the end of half an hour the pool was nearly dry. Not a cupful of water remained. And there was no fish.
Then he discovered a narrow opening among the stones through which it had escaped into a larger pool—a pool which he could not empty in a night and a day. If he had known of the opening, he could have closed it with a rock before he began and the fish would have been his.
Thus he thought, and he sank down upon the wet earth. At first he cried softly to himself. And then he cried loudly to the uncaring wasteland around him.
He built a fire and warmed himself by drinking hot water. Then he built a camp on the rocks as he had done the night before. The last things he did were to be certain that his matches were dry and to wind his watch. The blankets were wet. His ankle pained him. But he knew only that he was hungry. Through his restless sleep he dreamed of feasts and food served in all imaginable manners.
When he awakened he was cold and sick. There was no sun. The gray of earth and sky had become deeper. A cold wind was blowing and snow was whitening the hilltops. The air about him grew white with snow as he made a fire and boiled more water. But it was wet snow, half rain. At first it melted as soon as it hit the earth. But it continued falling, covering the ground and destroying his fire.
This was a signal for him to put his pack on his back and struggle forward, he knew not where. He was not concerned with the land of little sticks, nor with Bill and the cache under the upturned boat by the river Dease. He was mad because of hunger. He did not notice the course he followed, except that it led him through the bottoms of the valleys. He felt his way through the wet snow to the watery muskeg berries, and was guided by touch as he pulled up the grass by the roots. But it had no taste and did not satisfy his hunger.
He had no fire that night, nor hot water. He pulled his blanket around him to sleep the broken sleep of hunger. The snow became a cold rain. He awakened many times to feel it falling on his upturned face.
Day came. It was a gray day with no sun. It had ceased raining. The sharpness of his hunger had departed. There was a dull pain in his stomach, but it did not trouble him so much. He was more in control of himself. And once again he was interested in the land of little sticks and the cache by the river Dease.
He cut the remains of one of his blankets into strips and bound his bleeding feet. He used one of the strips on his swelled ankle and prepared himself for a day of travel. When he was ready to pick up his pack, he paused long before deciding to keep the moose-skin bag, but when he departed, it went with him.
The snow had melted under the rain, and only the hilltops showed white. The sun appeared and he succeeded in locating the way he had been traveling. But now he knew that he was lost. Perhaps he had wandered too far to the left. He now turned to the right to return to his true course.
Although the hunger pains were not as great as they had been, he realized that he was weak. He was forced to pause for frequent rests. At those times he ate the muskeg berries and grasses. His tongue felt dry and large and it tasted bitter in his mouth. His heart troubled him very much. When he had traveled a few minutes, it would begin pounding. Then it would leap in a series of beats that made him feel faint.
In the middle of the day he found two small fish in a large pool. It was impossible to empty it. But he was calmer now and he managed to catch them. They were no bigger than his little finger, but now he was not particularly hungry. The dull pain in his stomach had been growing duller. It almost seemed that his stomach was asleep. He ate the fish with great care. The eating was an act of pure reason. Although he had no desire to eat, he knew that he must eat to live.
In the evening he caught three more small fish, eating two and saving the third for breakfast. The sun had dried the wet plants and he was able to build a fire. He had not traveled more than ten miles that day. The next day, traveling whenever his heart permitted, he went no more than five miles. But his stomach did not give him any pain. It seemed to be sleeping. He was now in a strange country, too, and the caribou were becoming more plentiful. There were wolves also. Their howls could be heard across the land, and once he saw three of them crossing his path.
Another night passed. And in the morning, being more reasonable, he untied the leather string that held the moose-skin bag. From its open mouth poured a yellow stream of gold dust. He divided the gold into two equal parts. One half, wrapped in a piece of a blanket, he hid among a large formation of rocks. The other half he returned to the bag. He also began to use strips of the one remaining blanket for his feet. He still kept his gun, because there were cartridges in that cache by the river Dease.
This was a cloudy day, and this day hunger waked in him again. He was very weak. It was no uncommon thing now for him to fall. Once he fell into a bird’s nest. There were four tiny birds, a day or so old, no more than a mouthful. He ate them greedily, putting them alive into his mouth and crushing them like eggshells between his teeth. The mother bird flew about him with cries of anger. He used his gun as a club with which to hit her, but she flew beyond his reach. He threw stones at her and by chance, one broke a wing. Then she ran away, dragging the broken wing, with him following her.
The little birds had not satisfied his hunger. He jumped along on his painful ankle, throwing stones and screaming loudly at times. At other times, he struggled along silently, picking himself up patiently when he fell, or rubbing his eyes with his hand when faintness threatened to overpower him.
The bird led him across some wet ground in the bottom of the valley. He discovered footprints in the wet grasses. They were not his own. He could see that. They must be Bill’s. But he could not stop, because the mother bird was running ahead. He would catch her first. Then he would return and examine the footprints.
He tired the mother bird; but he tired himself also. She lay on her side breathing heavily. He lay on his side, a dozen feet away, unable to move toward her. And as he recovered, she recovered. She flew beyond reach as his hungry hand stretched out to catch her. The hunt started again. Night darkened and she escaped. He fell because of weakness, cutting his face. He did not move for a long time; then he rolled on his side. He wound his watch and lay there until morning.
It was another gray day. Half of his last blanket had been used for foot-wrappings. He failed to find Bill’s trail again. It was not important. His hunger drove him on. He wondered if Bill, too, were lost. By the middle of the day, the weight of his pack became too great. Again he divided the gold, this time merely pouring half of it on the ground. In the afternoon he threw away the rest of it. There remained now only the half of the blanket, the tin container, and the gun.
A hallucination began to trouble him. He felt certain that one cartridge remained. It was in his gun and he had not seen it. However, he knew all the time that the gun was empty. But the hallucination continued. He fought it for hours. Then, he opened his gun eagerly, only to find nothing inside.
He struggled ahead for half an hour, when the hallucination arose again. Again he fought it, and still it continued. To give himself relief, he again opened the gun and found it empty.
At times his mind wandered even further. But these moments away from reality were brief, because always the pains of hunger forced him to return. Once, as his mind was wandering, he was returned to reality by a sight that almost caused him to faint. Before him stood a horse. A horse! He could not believe his eyes. A thick cloud was in his eyes, flashing with points of light. He rubbed his eyes fiercely to clear his sight. Then he saw before him not a horse, but a great brown bear. The animal was studying him with curiosity.
Words in This Story
curse(d) - v. to say an offensive word that people say when they are angry
bush(es) - n. a plant that has stems of wood and is smaller than a tree
pause - v. to stop for a short period of time
moose - n. a large animal with very large, flat antlers that lives in forests in the northern part of America, Europe, and Asia
glance - v. to look at someone or something very quickly
stiffen(ed) - v. to become difficult to bend or move
trouser(s) - n. pants
mud - n. soft, wet dirt
feast(s) - n. a special meal with large amounts of food and drink
wolves - n. (plural form of wolf) a large wild animal that is similar to a dog and that often hunts in groups
nest - n. the place where a bird lays its eggs and takes care of its young
eggshell(s) - n. the hard outside part of an egg
wing - n. a part of an animal's body that is used for flying
hallucination - n. an image, sound or smell that seems real but does not really exist
bear - n. any one of a group of large and heavy animals that have thick hair and sharp claws and that can stand on two legs like a person