Thus it was hurriedly decided that the trapper should lead the way. Holcomb suggested that he and the trapper should return to the burned camp in the hope, if possible, of finding something left which might be of use on the journey. They were sadly in need of an axe; the dull hatchet they had found in the cook’s shanty they knew would prove next to useless. So Holcomb and Holt set off at once for the scene of the disaster while the rest got together into more practical carrying shape all that they possessed, ready for a start immediately on their return.
Soon Holcomb and the trapper were trudging about in the stifling heat of the ruins; they had drenched themselves to the waist in the brook and were thus enabled to make a hurried search within the fire zone. The first ruins they came upon were the stables—not a horse had escaped.
Although they found it impossible to approach the still blazing ruins of the main camp, they discovered among the smouldering, charred timbers of Holcomb’s cabin the blade of a double-bitted axe, its helve burned off. A few rods further on, in the blinding smoke, they found a keg of nails. The only things the flames had left around them were of iron. An iron reservoir lay on its side where it had fallen; twisted girders loomed above the cauldron of desultory flame, marking the rectangle of the main camp. They shovelled the hot nails and the blades of the two axes into a blackened tin bucket and started back to the brook.
The trapper led. He had gone about a dozen rods farther on when he halted abruptly, peering under the palm of his hand at a smouldering log ahead of him.
“God Almighty!” he cried, staring back at Holcomb, as he pointed to the smoking log.
Holcomb, with stinging eyes, saw a claw of a hand thrust above the log. The bones of the wrist were visible; the rest resembled a misfit glove, the fingers hanging in shreds. The hand connected with the body of a man lying close against the opposite side of the log. The legs from the knees down were gone; the remainder of the man was a mass of burned flesh and rags. Near the stump of the right arm lay a charred kerosene can.
Under the trapper’s guidance the party left the burned camp behind them. They pushed on in silence, following mechanically the tall, lank figure of the old man ahead of their single file. He led them up timbered ridges and along their spines; he swerved down into swampy hollows choked with wind-slash, around which they were obliged to make tedious detours. The fine drizzle had turned into a steady soft rain that pattered on the broad moose-hopple leaves. Often they plunged into swamp mud nearly to their knees. The fallen logs over which they climbed were as slippery as wet glass—the branch spikes on these logs as dangerous under slipping feet as upturned pitchforks. The men were top-heavy under their packs; the women uncomplaining and soaked to their skins. The moist air was still impregnated with the scent of smoke—a sinister odour which kept in their minds the events of the morning.