Thursday, 9 November 2017

One Christmas Day

Told by Edward Burton and Set Down by H. H Powell
From The Wide World Magazine, 1908. Vol. xx.—49.
So popular were the series of “Queer Fixes” which we recently published, detailing out-of-the-ordinary happenings and remarkable predicaments, that we have decided to continue them. Below will be found the second instalment of a fascinating collection of narratives.

I AM hardly likely to forget my first Christmas in Canada; it came so perilously near being my last upon this terrestrial sphere that the memory of my thrilling experience is still responsible for my nastiest form of nightmare.
Fresh out from the old country in the previous spring, with all the average emigrant young Englishman’s enthusiasm for an open-air life, spiced with the prospect of a little sport and adventure, I had gladly jumped at a job as chainman on a railroad survey party—one of those hardy little bands of nomadic tent-dwellers, continually engaged in extending the civilizing influence of the steel highway ever farther into the wilds of the Dominion. And a pleasant life it proved in many ways, though very far from the easy-going semi-picnic I had innocently imagined.
It was not till the snow came to stay in late November, and the mercury evinced an un­pleasant disposition to drop daily farther below zero, that I began to favourably compare the joys of civilization with the various discomforts of life under canvas, but unexpected promotion to the post of rodman more than determined me not to funk the severities of the winter.
After several months in the bush we had approached a comparatively settled neighbourhood, and much to the general satisfaction were enabled to shift camp again just before Christmas and pitch our weather-beaten tents in the wind-screened shelter of a pine-clump not more than a dozen miles from the rail. All the boys had been eagerly calculating upon this move to enable them to take advantage of the two consecutive days’ holiday occasioned by the twenty-fifth falling upon a Saturday. By quitting work a little earlier than usual on the Friday there would be time to board either the east or west bound cars, pay a flying visit home, and be back to a latish breakfast on Monday. Even our ambitiously energetic chief, who grudged every minute of the working hours, was favourable to the scheme, to which it seemed there was only one awkward drawback. Someone of responsibility must remain in charge of the camp, for, in addition to stores and personal effects, there were all the valuable professional instruments and the whole result of many months of labour in the shape of plans and notes representing an expenditure of many thousand dollars.
“How about old Jim?” suggested the leveller, when the question was first seriously discussed. “I hear he means staying in camp, anyway.”
“Daren’t trust him, worse luck,” said the chief, decidedly. “Heaven only knows what the drunken old sweep would be up to. If he wasn’t such a dandy cook I’d have fired him months ago.”
“We’ll have to draw lots for it, I reckon,” put in Laurie, the transit man. “If my luck’s anything like what it’s been at poker the last month, the job’s a cinch (certainty) for me.”
But here I came to the rescue and dispelled the dawning apprehension depicted in half-a-dozen faces by volunteering for the task myself, a very minor sacrifice considering that I had no friends within reach, and little inclination to spend the festive season in a strange hotel. My offer was gratefully accepted, and thus it came about that Christmas Eve saw the whole party, barring Jim and me, sleighing gaily off to the station, shouting “Merry Christmasat us until the rig was out of hearing. They meant well, no doubt, but I couldn’t help feeling the irony of the familiar words as l gazed over the lonely expanse of snow whitened landscape before turning back into my deserted tent.
Old Jim, however, did his best to rise to the occasion. We had mince-pies for supper, and I was actually promised goose and plum-pudding on the morrow. It was perishingly cold outside, but over a red-hot stove we made ourselves pretty snug while my companion yarned of the days when he cooked for a big lumber-camp far north up the French River —a job, as I happened to know, from which he had been finally “fired” for “runningamuck” armed with a meat-chopper, during one of his periodical bouts of hard drinking.
At breakfast next morning Jim announced his intention of “slipping over to the village for a flash of rye.”
It wasn’t above four miles, he said, and he’d be there and back in no time on snow-shoes; anyway, he must have “a finger or two” to make it feel like Christmas. Knowing his reputation, I was not without misgivings as to the results of an expedition it would have been futile to remonstrate against, and they changed to conviction as hour after hour went by and he did not reappear. Well, I was certainly not going to cook goose and pudding for myself, and so the promised Christmas banquet resolved itself into a handful of soda crackers and a cup of cocoa. All the dull grey afternoon I read and smoked; evening came, but no Jim, and being by this time pretty peckish, and feeling it was useless to wait longer, I went across to the cook-tent to fry a slice or two of pork for supper.
It was while splitting kindling for the stove that the catastrophe happened. The heavy, keen-edged axe-blade glanced off a frosted notch in the log and gashed me deeply between the toes of the left foot, slicing through my thin deer-hide moccasin like paper.
Sick with pain, I rapidly pulled off my instantly-ensanguined footwear, and saw at a glance that the injury was a most serious one. By the horrible way in which the blood gushed out I knew that I had severed an important artery, and though it flowed less rapidly after I had bound my handkerchief about the wound and drawn a moccasin lace tightly around the ankle, I felt only too sure that, without speedy surgical assistance, I must inevitably bleed to death.
And I candidly confess that it was with a sinking heart that I realized how well-nigh hopeless were the prospects of help of any sort. Jim’s return was, of course, a broken reed to trust to; four miles of deep snow lay between me and the village where he was doubtless carous­ing; and dark and late as it was not a soul was likely to pass within shouting distance of our isolated camp.
Every moment the situation grew more desperate. A frightful feeling of faintness was gradually creeping over me, and, though I strove hard to collect my thoughts and hit upon some feasible means of attracting attention, I racked my fast-clouding brain in vain. Once a desperate hope crossed my mind that I might possibly win as far as the concession road, that lay about a mile or so distant, and take the chance of being picked up there. But the mere effort of limping a few yards brought on the haemorrhage so profusely that I was forced to abandon the idea.
I had become so weak and giddy that I doubt if I could have staggered even a hundred yards.
And yet it was horrible to lie there absolutely helpless in that silent solitude with one’s life-blood fast ebbing away, and with no hope, no remote possibility of rescue.
More than once I made clumsy attempts to bind the wound to greater advantage, but all I could do seemed of little avail to stanch its persistent flow. Twice at least I fancy I must have lapsed into a semi-swoon; at any rate, I seemed to lose count of time for a space, only to wake again to all the horrors of the situation. I was getting a little light-headed, too; I actually caught myself laughing hysterically at a grotesque shadow cast upon the canvas by something in the tent.
Pulling myself together, I looked round to try to discover the object, and it was in doing so that the gleam of the coal-oil can attracted my attention, and Heaven sent me inspiration reply to my prayers. A mad, wild scheme seemed at the time, but, desperate as my plight was, I felt it the only chance of salvation.
With an infinitely painful effort—so weak had I become by this time—I dragged the heavy can across the tent, saturated with paraffin the foot-deep layer of straw upon which Jim and his mate spread their blankets, and, after searching vainly for a match, knocked off the lamp-glass and flung the blazing wick into the centre of the inflammable pile. It was my final effort. All I remember after that was a leaping sheet of flame, that singed my hair and enveloped everything within reach in its fiery embrace, while I somehow stumbled into the open and collapsed upon an adjacent snow-drift within dangerous distance of the wind-fanned flames.
It was, I learnt afterwards, an elderly settler sleighing home with his wife from a Christmas gathering who first noticed the conflagration. “Jee!” he exclaimed; “them surveyor fellers up yonder must have set their camp afire somehow, or else some prowling hobo’s done it for ’em. Best drive over and see if we can lend a hand.” And so they found me, apparently lifeless, upon a blood-stained snow-bank, still licked by a hundred fiery tongues. Quickly they put me aboard the sleigh and galloped to the abode of a young surgeon who had recently set up practice in the neighbourhood.
“A miracle—nothing short of a miracle he hasn’t bled to death,” was the medico’s verdict. “Another ten minutes, and I could have done nothing for him. As it is, I doubt very much if he’ll pull through.”

But I did, you see, though only after a long, long struggle, complicated by an attack of brain fever, in which I raved deliriously of my awful experience. The boys behaved like bricks when they came back, and even the autocratic company treated me as well as I could expect—thankful, perhaps, for the comparatively unimportant nature of the damage. Whatever suspicions were entertained by the officials at head-quarters, I was never called upon to explain exactly how I came to fire the tents. They contented themselves with “firingme.

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