The Jungle Fugitives/Lost in a Blizzard
LOST IN A BLIZZARD.
If I were given my choice between a visit from a cyclone or a blizzard, I would unhesitatingly choose the former. True, there is no resisting its terrific power, and a man caught in its embrace is as helpless as a child when seized by a Bengal tiger; but there is a chance of escape, and the whole thing is over in a few minutes. You may be lifted into the air and dropped with only a few broken bones, or, by plunging into a "cyclone pit," the fury of the sky may glide harmlessly over your head; but in the case of a blizzard, however, let me tell you the one woeful experience of my life.
The snow fell steadily for two days and nights, and looking out from my home in western Kansas I saw that it lay fully three feet on a level. By a strange providence my wife, who had been my brave and faithful helper for several years, was away on a visit to her friends in Topeka, and my only companion was my servant Jack, a middle-aged African, who in his youth was a slave in Kentucky.
Things had not gone well with us of late. The grasshoppers and drought played the mischief with out crops, and it was a question with me for months whether the wisest course to take was not to throw up my hands, let everything go to the bow-wows and, in the dry-goods firm, that I knew was returning to St. Louis, resume my situation still open for me. A man hates to confess himself beaten, and I decided to remain where I was one more year. Then, if there was no improvement, I would turn my back on Kansas forever.
"Master Thomas," said Jack, as the dismal December afternoon drew to a close, "thar isn't a pound ob flour in de house. Shall I go to de village and get some?"
"No; I will go myself."
It was the sudden realization of the unutterable loneliness I would feel without any companion that led me to this rash declaration. The town was only a mile distant, but it would require hours to make the journey there and back, and I could not bear the thought of being without the society of any one for that time. I had read everything in the house; the single horse and cow I owned had been looked after, and there was absolutely nothing to do but to sit down before the scant fire, listen to the sifting of the snow against the window panes, and give way to gloomy reverie.
Anything was preferable to this, and it was with a feeling akin to relief that I added:
"I might do so had I not noticed this afternoon that he had gone lame."
"Better let de flour go, den, for de snow am too deep and de storm to heavy for you to tramp all de way to town and back again."
"No; while I haven't much fear of our starving, yet, if the snow-fall continues, we shall be in a bad way. I can carry twenty-five pounds without trouble, and will be back in a few hours; then the storm may rage as hard as it pleases, for all we care."
The preparations were quickly made, and, to shorten my story, I may say that, after a laborious tramp, I reached the village without mishap, bought my quarter of a hundred of flour, slung it over my shoulder, and started on my return.
By this time I had made several disquieting discoveries. The snow was falling faster than ever, the cold was increasing, a gale was blowing, and, under the circumstances, of course there was not a glimmer of light in the sky. My course was directly across the prairie, and in the event of my tracks being obliterated by the snow—as was almost certain to be the case—it was almost impossible for me to prevent myself from going astray.
My hope lay in Jack's promise that he would keep a bright light burning in the upper story to guide me on my course. On a clear night this light was visible from the village, but somehow or other I failed to take into account the state of the weather. The air was full of eddying flakes, which would render the headlight of a locomotive invisible a hundred yards distant. Strange that this important fact never occurred to me until I was fully a fourth of a mile from the village. Then, after looking in vain for the beacon light, the danger of my situation struck me, and I halted.
"I am certain to go wrong," I said to myself.
"It is out of my power to follow a direct course without something to serve as a compass. I will go back to the village and wait till morning."
Wheeling about in my tracks, I resumed my wearisome tramp through the heavy snow, and kept it up until I was certain I had travelled fully a fourth of a mile. Then when I paused a moment and gazed ahead and around, I was confronted by blank darkness on every hand. What a proof of a man's tendency to go wrong, that in aiming at a village of fifty dwellings, and only a fourth of a mile away, I had missed it altogether!
This discovery gave me my first thrill of real alarm. I shouted, but my voice fell dead in the snowy air. The gale was blowing more furiously than ever, and the cold was so intense that it penetrated my thick clothing and caused my teeth to rattle together!
"You can be of no use to me," I exclaimed, flinging away the small bag of flour. "The village can't be far off, and I will find it."
Determined to retain my self-possession, I made a careful calculation of the proper course to follow, and plunged into my work with more vigor than ever. I continually glanced up in quest of the flickering lights, and listened, in the hope of hearing some sound that could guide me, but nothing of the kind was seen or heard, and it was not long before the terrible truth burst upon me that I was lost.
Aye, and lost in a blizzard! The wind had risen almost to a hurricane; the cold cut through the thickest clothing, and the snow struck my face like the prick of millions of needles. I shouted again, but, convinced that it was a useless waste of strength, I soon ceased.
It was certain death to remain motionless, and almost equally fatal to push on; but there was a possibility that I might strike the right direction, and anything was preferable to remaining idle. And so, with a desperation akin to despair, I threw all the vigor at my command into my benumbed limbs, and bent every possible energy to the life and death task before me.
The sleet drove against my cheeks with such spiteful and penetrating fierceness that I could make no use of my eyes, I could only bend my head to the blast and labor through the snow, praying that Providence would guide my footsteps in the right direction.
I was plodding forward in this heavy, aimless fashion when I noticed that the violence of the gale was drifting the snow. Sometimes I would strike a space of several yards where it did not reach to my ankles. Then I would suddenly lurch into a wall that reached to my shoulders. After wallowing through this, I might strike a shallow portion again, where, while walking quite briskly, a windrow of snow would be hurled against my breast and face with such fury as to force me backward and off my feet.
Bracing myself, I waited until there was a sufficient lull in the blizzard for me to make some use of my eyes. I blinked and peered toward the different points of the compass, but without catching the first twinkle of light.
"I am lost—lost—" I moaned; "there is no help for me!"
An extraordinary collapse must have come over me, for my senses seemed to forsake me on the instant. I went down in the eddying, blinding snow, and knew no more.
At the moment of giving way I was less than a hundred yards from the easternmost house of the village. My despairing cry was heard, and hospitable hands carried me into the dwelling within a quarter of an hour after losing my consciousness. Intelligent and prompt treatment prevented any serious consequences, but the remembrance of that brief time exposed to the fury of the blizzard will remain with me to my dying day.