[Illustration: Plan of Fort Prince of Wales, from Robson’s Drawing, 1733-47.]
The retreat from the Arctic was made with all swiftness, keeping close to the Coppermine River. For thirty miles from the sea not a tree was to be seen. The river was sinuous and narrow, hemmed in by walls of solid rock, down which streamed cascades and mountain torrents. On both sides of the high bank extended endless reaches of swamps and barrens. Twenty miles from the sea Hearne found the copper mines from which the Indians made their weapons. His guides were to join their families in the Athabasca country of the southwest, and thither Matonabbee now led the way at such a terrible pace that moccasins were worn to shreds and toe-nails torn from the feet of the marchers; and woe to the man who fell behind, for the wolf pack prowled on the rear.
When the smoke of moss fires told of the wives’ camp, the Indians halted to take the sweat bath of purification for the cleansing of all blood guilt from the massacre. Heated stones were thrown into a small pool. In this each Indian bathed himself, invoking his deity for freedom from all punishment for the deaths of the slain. By August the Indians had joined their wives. By October they were on Lake Athabasca, which had already frozen. Here one of the wives, in the last stages of consumption, could go no farther. For a band short of food to halt on the march meant death to all. The Northern wilderness has its grim unwritten law, inexorable and merciless as death. For those who fall by the way there is no pity. A whole tribe may not be exposed to death for the sake of one person. Civilized nations follow the same principle in their quarantine. Giving the squaw food and a tent, the Indians left her to meet her last enemy, whether death came by starvation or cold or the wolf pack. Again and again the abandoned squaw came up with the marchers, weeping and begging their pity, only to fall from weakness. But the wilderness has no pity; and so they left her.
Christmas of 1771 was passed on Athabasca Lake, the northern lights rustling overhead with the crackling of a flag. There was food in plenty; for the Athabasca was rich in buffalo meadows and beaver dams and moose yards. On the lake shore Hearne found a little cabin, in which dwelt a solitary woman of the Dog Rib tribe who for eight months had not seen a soul. Her band had been massacred. She alone escaped and had lived here in hiding for almost a year. In spring the Indians of the lake carried their furs to the forts of Hudson Bay. With the Athabascans went Hearne, reaching Fort Prince of Wales on June 30, 1772, after eighteen months’ absence.
He had discovered Coppermine River, the Arctic Ocean, and the Athabasca country,—a region in all as large as half European Russia.