In the afternoon the man came to a track. It was that of another man, who did not walk, but who dragged himself on his hands and knees. The man thought it might be Bill, but he thought about it without any interest. He had no curiosity. Feeling and emotion had left him. He was no longer able to feel pain. Yet the life that was in him drove him ahead. He was very tired, but it refused to die. It was because it refused to die that he still ate muskeg berries and small fish, drank his hot water, and kept a careful eye on the sick wolf.
He followed the track of the other man who dragged himself along. Soon he came to the end of it. There were a few freshly cleaned bones where the grass was marked by the footprints of many wolves. He saw a moose-skin bag, exactly like his own. It had been torn by sharp teeth. He picked it up, although its weight was almost too much for his weak fingers. Bill had carried it to the end. Now he would have the last laugh. He would live and carry it to the ship in the shining sea. He laughed aloud, making an inhuman sound, and the sick wolf howled with him. The man ceased suddenly. How could he laugh at Bill, if that were Bill; if those bones, so pinky-white and clean, were Bill?
He turned away. Bill had deserted him. But he would not take the gold, nor would he eat Bill’s bones. Bill would have done so, however, had their situations been exchanged.
He came to a pool of water. Bending over it in search of fish, he threw his head back as if he had been struck. He had caught sight of his face in the water. So awful was it that his feelings were stirred long enough to be shocked. There were three fish in the pool, which was too large to empty. After several attempts to catch them in his tin container, he stopped. He was afraid, because of his great weakness, that he might fall and sink into the water. It was for this reason, too, that he did not trust himself to ride down the river atop one of the many logs to be found along its banks.
That day he lessened the distance between him and the ship by three miles. The next day he traveled only two miles, because he was now dragging himself on his hands and knees as Bill had done. At the end of the fifth day the ship was still seven miles away. He was unable to travel as much as a mile a day. However, the summer weather continued, and he continued to move toward the ship. And always the sick wolf coughed at his heels.
His knees had become red meat like his feet. Although he bound them with the shirt from his back, it was a red track he left behind him on the grass and stones. Once, glancing back, he saw the wolf licking his bloody track hungrily. He saw clearly what his own end might be— unless he could kill the wolf. Then began as awful an event as has ever been told: two sick creatures dragging their dying bodies across a wasteland and hunting each other’s lives.
Had it been a well wolf, it would not have mattered so much to the man. But the thought of feeding the mouth of that nearly dead thing was hateful. His mind had begun to wander again and he was troubled by hallucinations. His reasonable moments grew shorter.
He was awakened once from a faint sleep by a cough close to his ear. The wolf leaped back, losing its footing and falling in its weakness. It was a funny sight, but he could not laugh. Nor was he afraid. He was too far gone for that. But his mind was for the moment clear, and he lay and considered.
The ship was no more than four miles away. He could see it quite well when he rubbed his eyes. He could also see the white sail of a small boat cutting the water of the shining sea. But he could never drag himself those four miles. He knew that, and was very calm about the fact. He knew that he could not travel another half a mile. And yet he wanted to live. It was unreasonable that he should die after all he had been through. Fate asked too much of him. And, dying, he could not accept death. It was madness, perhaps, but in the very grasp of death he refused to die.
He closed his eyes and tried to keep himself calm. He struggled against the awful desire for sleep that threatened him. It was much like a sea, this deadly sleepiness. It rose and rose, mastering his entire self, bit by bit. Sometimes he was almost lost, swimming through its waters with a weakening effort. Then, by some strange power of the soul, his will would strike out more strongly against it.
Without movement he lay on his back. He could hear, slowly drawing nearer and nearer, the sound of the sick wolf’s breathing. It came closer, always closer, and he did not move. It was beside his ear. The dry tongue moved across his face. His hands struck out. Actually, he had willed them to strike out. The fingers were curved, but they closed on empty air. Quickness requires strength, and the man had not his strength.
The quiet waiting of the wolf was awful. The man’s waiting was no less awful. For half a day he lay without motion, fighting off sleep. He waited for the thing that was to feed upon him and upon which he wished to feed. Sometimes the sea of sleep rose over him and he dreamed long dreams. But always, through it all, waking and dreaming, he waited for the noisy breath and the feel of the tongue.
This time he did not hear the breath. He slipped slowly from some dream to feel the tongue along his hand. He waited. The teeth pressed softly, then more firmly. The wolf was using its last strength in an effort to sink its teeth into the food for which it had waited so long. But the man, too, had waited long. The hand closed on the wolf’s mouth. Slowly, while the wolf struggled weakly, the other hand moved across the wolf’s body. Five minutes later the whole weight of the man’s body was on top of the wolf. The hands had not sufficient strength to grasp the wolf about the throat until it died. But the face of the man was pressed close to the throat of the wolf and the mouth of the man was full of hair. At the end of half an hour the man felt some warm drops of blood in his throat. It was not pleasant. It was like hot, melted metal being forced into his stomach, and it was forced by his will alone. Later the man rolled on his back and slept.
There were some scientists traveling on the fishing ship Bedford. From where they stood on the ship, they could see a strange object on the shore. It was moving down the beach toward the water. They were unable to decide what it was. Being men of science, they climbed into a smaller boat and went ashore to examine it. And they saw something that was alive but which could hardly be called a man. It was blind and did not know what it was doing. Its movements produced little effect. But still it continued to drag itself across the ground at the rate of about twenty feet an hour.
Three weeks later the man lay in a bed on the fishing boat. With tears streaming down his face, he told who he was and what he had experienced. He also talked without meaning about his mother, and a home in California among the flowers.
The days were not many after that when he sat at table with the scientists and the ship’s officers. He delighted in the sight of so much food and watched it carefully as it went into the mouths of others. With the disappearance of each mouthful an expression of sorrow came into his eyes. He was not mad. However, he hated those men at mealtimes. He was afraid that there would not be enough food. He inquired of the cook, the cabin boy, the captain, concerning the food supply. They reassured him numerous times. But he would not believe them and went into the kitchen to see with his own eyes.
It was noticed that the man was getting fat. He grew bigger with each day. The scientists shook their heads and gave their opinions on the problem. They limited the amount of food given to the man at his meals, but still his weight increased.
The seamen smiled. They knew. And when the scientists decided to observe the man, they learned the reason. They saw him walk about the ship after breakfast. Like a man begging with an outstretched hand, he approached a seaman. The seaman smiled and gave him a piece of bread. He grasped it, and looked at it as a greedy man looks at gold. Then he put it inside his shirt. He received similar gifts from other smiling seamen.
The scientists were careful. They allowed him to continue. But they secretly examined his bed. It was lined with bread; every inch of space was filled with bread. Yet he was not mad. He was preparing for another possible famine—that was all. He would recover from it, the scientists said. And he did, even before the Bedford sailed into San Francisco Bay.
Words in This Story
knee(s) – n. the joint that bends at the middle of your leg
curiosity – n. the desire to learn or know more about something or someone
footprint(s) – n. a track or mark left by a foot or shoe
howl(ed) – v. to make a long, loud cry that sounds sad
cease(ed) – v. to stop doing something
desert(ed) – v. to leave and stop helping or supporting someone or something
bend(ing) – v. to move your body so that it is not straight
at (his) heels – idm. following someone very closely
tongue – n. the soft, movable part in the mouth that is used for tasting and eating food and in human beings for speaking
curved – adj. having a rounded shape
throat – n. the front part of the part of the body between the head and the part of your body where your arm is connected
sail – n. a large piece of strong cloth that is connected to a ship or boat and that is used to catch the wind that moves the ship or boat through the water
madness – n. behavior or thinking that is very foolish or dangerous
shore – n. the land along the edge of an area of water
sorrow – n. a feeling of sadness or grief caused especially by the loss of someone or something
inquire(d) of – p.v. to ask someone a question
cabin boy – n. a boy whose job is to serve a ship's officers or passengers
seamen – n. experienced sailors
beg(ging) – v. to ask people for money or food
famine – n. a situation in which many people do not have enough food to eat