Skeleton Lake, An Episode in Camp
The utter loneliness of our moose-camp on Skeleton
Lake had impressed us from the beginning—in the
Quebec backwoods, five days by trail and canoe
from civilisation—and perhaps the singular name
contributed a little to the sensation of eeriness that
made itself felt in the camp circle when once the
sun was down and the late October mists began
rising from the lake and winding their way in
among the tree trunks.
For, in these regions, all names of lakes and hills
and islands have their origin in some actual event,
taking either the name of a chief participant, such
as Smith's Ridge, or claiming a place in the map
by perpetuating some special feature of the journey
or the scenery, such as Long Island, Deep Rapids,
or Rainy Lake.
All names thus have their meaning and are
usually pretty recently acquired, while the majority
are self-explanatory and suggest human and pioneer
relations. Skeleton Lake, therefore, was a name
full of suggestion, and though none of us knew the
origin or the story of its birth, we all were conscious
of a certain lugubrious atmosphere that haunted its
shores and islands, and but for the evidences of
recent moose tracks in its neighbourhood we
should probably have pitched our tents elsewhere.
For several hundred miles in any direction we
knew of only one other party of whites. They
had journeyed up on the train with us, getting in
at North Bay, and hailing from Boston way. A
common goal and object had served by way of
introduction. But the acquaintance had made
little progress. This noisy, aggressive Yankee did
not suit our fancy much as a possible neighbour,
and it was only a slight intimacy between his chief
guide, Jake the Swede, and one of our men that
kept the thing going at all. They went into camp
on Beaver Creek, fifty miles and more to the west
But that was six weeks ago, and seemed as many
months, for days and nights pass slowly in these
solitudes and the scale of time changes wonderfully.
Our men always seemed to know by instinct pretty
well "whar them other fellows was movin'," but in
the interval no one had come across their trails, or
once so much as heard their rifle shots.
Our little camp consisted of the professor, his
wife, a splendid shot and keen woods-woman, and
myself. We had a guide apiece, and hunted daily
in pairs from before sunrise till dark.
It was our last evening in the woods, and the
professor was lying in my little wedge tent, discussing
the dangers of hunting alone in couples in
this way. The flap of the tent hung back and let
in fragrant odours of cooking over an open wood
fire; everywhere there were bustle and preparation,
and one canoe already lay packed with moose horns,
her nose pointing southwards.
"If an accident happened to one of them," he
was saying, "the survivor's story when he returned
to camp would be entirely unsupported evidence,
wouldn't it? Because, you see—"
And he went on laying down the law after the
manner of professors, until I became so bored that
my attention began to wander to pictures and
memories of the scenes we were just about to leave:
Garden Lake, with its hundred islands; the rapids
out of Round Pond; the countless vistas of forest,
crimson and gold in the autumn sunshine; and the
starlit nights we had spent watching in cold, cramped
positions for the wary moose on lonely lakes among
the hills. The hum of the professor's voice in
time grew more soothing. A nod or a grunt was
all the reply he looked for. Fortunately, he loathed
interruptions. I think I could almost have gone
to sleep under his very nose; perhaps I did sleep
for a brief interval.
Then it all came about so quickly, and the tragedy
of it was so unexpected and painful, throwing our
peaceful camp into momentary confusion, that now
it all seems to have happened with the uncanny
swiftness of a dream.
First, there was the abrupt ceasing of the droning
voice, and then the running of quick little steps
over the pine needles, and the confusion of men's
voices; and the next instant the professor's wife
was at the tent door, hatless, her face white, her
hunting bloomers bagging at the wrong places, a
rifle in her hand, and her words running into one
"Quick, Harry! It's Rushton. I was asleep
and it woke me. Something's happened. You
must deal with it!"
In a second we were outside the tent with our
"My God!" I heard the professor exclaim, as if
he had first made the discovery. "It is Rushton!"
I saw the guides helping—dragging—a man out
of a canoe. A brief space of deep silence followed
in which I heard only the waves from the canoe
washing up on the sand; and then, immediately
after, came the voice of a man talking with amazing
rapidity and with odd gaps between his words. It
was Rushton telling his story, and the tones of his
voice, now whispering, now almost shouting, mixed
with sobs and solemn oaths and frequent appeals to
the Deity, somehow or other struck the false note
at the very start, and before any of us guessed or
knew anything at all. Something moved secretly
between his words, a shadow veiling the stars,
destroying the peace of our little camp, and touching
us all personally with an undefinable sense of
horror and distrust.
I can see that group to this day, with all the
detail of a good photograph: standing half-way
between the firelight and the darkness, a slight
mist rising from the lake, the frosty stars, and our
men, in silence that was all sympathy, dragging
Rushton across the rocks towards the camp fire.
Their moccasins crunched on the sand and slipped
several times on the stones beneath the weight of
the limp, exhausted body, and I can still see every
inch of the pared cedar branch he had used for a
paddle on that lonely and dreadful journey.
But what struck me most, as it struck us all,
was the limp exhaustion of his body compared to
the strength of his utterance and the tearing rush
of his words. A vigorous driving-power was there
at work, forcing out the tale, red-hot and throbbing,
full of discrepancies and the strangest contradictions;
and the nature of this driving-power I first
began to appreciate when they had lifted him into
the circle of firelight and I saw his face, grey
under the tan, terror in the eyes, tears too, hair
and beard awry, and listened to the wild stream
of words pouring forth without ceasing.
I think we all understood then, but it was only
after many years that anyone dared to confess
what he thought.
There was Matt Morris, my guide; Silver Fizz,
whose real name was unknown, and who bore the
title of his favourite drink; and huge Hank
Milligan—all ears and kind intention; and there
was Rushton, pouring out his ready-made tale,
with ever-shifting eyes, turning from face to face,
seeking confirmation of details none had witnessed
but himself—and one other.
Silver Fizz was the first to recover from the
shock of the thing, and to realise, with the natural
sense of chivalry common to most genuine back-woodsmen,
that the man was at a terrible disadvantage.
At any rate, he was the first to start
putting the matter to rights.
"Never mind telling it just now," he said in a
gruff voice, but with real gentleness; "get a bite
t'eat first and then let her go afterwards. Better
have a horn of whisky too. It ain't all packed
yet, I guess."
"Couldn't eat or drink a thing," cried the other.
"Good Lord, don't you see, man, I want to talk to
someone first? I want to get it out of me to
someone who can answer—answer. I've had
nothing but trees to talk with for three days, and
I can't carry it alone any longer. Those cursed,
silent trees—I've told it 'em a thousand times.
Now, just see here, it was this way. When we
started out from camp—"
He looked fearfully about him, and we realised
it was useless to stop him. The story was bound
to come, and come it did.
Now, the story itself was nothing out of the
way; such tales are told by the dozen round any
camp fire where men who have knocked about in the
woods are in the circle. It was the way he told it
that made our flesh creep. He was near the truth
all along, but he was skimming it, and the skimming
took off the cream that might have saved his soul.
Of course, he smothered it in words—odd words,
too—melodramatic, poetic, out-of-the-way words
that lie just on the edge of frenzy. Of course, too,
he kept asking us each in turn, scanning our faces
with those restless, frightened eyes of his, "What
would you have done?" "What else could I do?"
and "Was that my fault?" But that was nothing,
for he was no milk-and-water fellow who dealt in
hints and suggestions; he told his story boldly,
forcing his conclusions upon us as if we had been
so many wax cylinders of a phonograph that would
repeat accurately what had been told us, and these
questions I have mentioned he used to emphasise
any special point that he seemed to think required
The fact was, however, the picture of what had
actually happened was so vivid still in his own
mind that it reached ours by a process of telepathy
which he could not control or prevent. All through
his true-false words this picture stood forth in
fearful detail against the shadows behind him. He
could not veil, much less obliterate, it. We knew;
and, I always thought, he knew that we knew.
The story itself, as I have said, was sufficiently
ordinary. Jake and himself, in a nine-foot canoe,
had upset in the middle of a lake, and had held
hands across the upturned craft for several hours,
eventually cutting holes in her ribs to stick their
arms through and grasp hands lest the numbness of
the cold water should overcome them. They were
miles from shore, and the wind was drifting them
down upon a little island. But when they got within
a few hundred yards of the island, they realised
to their horror that they would after all drift past it.
It was then the quarrel began. Jake was for
leaving the canoe and swimming. Rushton
believed in waiting till they actually had passed
the island and were sheltered from the wind. Then
they could make the island easily by swimming,
canoe and all. But Jake refused to give in, and
after a short struggle—Rushton admitted there
was a struggle—got free from the canoe—and
disappeared without a single cry.
Rushton held on and proved the correctness of
his theory, and finally made the island, canoe and
all, after being in the water over five hours. He
described to us how he crawled up on to the shore,
and fainted at once, with his feet lying half in the
water; how lost and terrified he felt upon regaining
consciousness in the dark; how the canoe had
drifted away and his extraordinary luck in finding
it caught again at the end of the island by a
projecting cedar branch. He told us that the little
axe—another bit of real luck—had caught in the
thwart when the canoe turned over, and how the
little bottle in his pocket holding the emergency
matches was whole and dry. He made a blazing
fire and searched the island from end to end, calling
upon Jake in the darkness, but getting no answer;
till, finally, so many half-drowned men seemed to
come crawling out of the water on to the rocks, and
vanish among the shadows when he came up with
them, that he lost his nerve completely and returned
to lie down by the fire till the daylight came.
He then cut a bough to replace the lost paddles,
and after one more useless search for his lost
companion, he got into the canoe, fearing every
moment he would upset again, and crossed over to
the mainland. He knew roughly the position of
our camping place, and after paddling day and
night, and making many weary portages, without
food or covering, he reached us two days later.
This, more or less, was the story, and we,
knowing whereof he spoke, knew that every word
was literally true, and at the same time went to
the building up of a hideous and prodigious lie.
Once the recital was over, he collapsed, and
Silver Fizz, after a general expression of sympathy
from the rest of us, came again to the rescue.
"But now, Mister, you jest got to eat and drink
whether you've a mind to, or no."
And Matt Morris, cook that night, soon had the
fried trout and bacon, and the wheat cakes and
hot coffee passing round a rather silent and
oppressed circle. So we ate round the fire,
ravenously, as we had eaten every night for the
past six weeks, but with this difference: that there
was one among us who was more than ravenous—and
In spite of all our devices he somehow kept
himself the centre of observation. When his tin
mug was empty, Morris instantly passed the tea-pail;
when he began to mop up the bacon grease
with the dough on his fork, Hank reached out for
the frying pan; and the can of steaming boiled
potatoes was always by his side. And there was
another difference as well: he was sick, terribly
sick before the meal was over, and this sudden
nausea after food was more eloquent than words of
what the man had passed through on his dreadful,
foodless, ghost-haunted journey of forty miles to
our camp. In the darkness he thought he would
go crazy, he said. There were voices in the trees,
and figures were always lifting themselves out of
the water, or from behind boulders, to look at him
and make awful signs. Jake constantly peered at
him through the underbrush, and everywhere the
shadows were moving, with eyes, footsteps, and
We tried hard to talk of other things, but it was
no use, for he was bursting with the rehearsal of
his story and refused to allow himself the chances
we were so willing and anxious to grant him.
After a good night's rest he might have had more
self-control and better judgment, and would
probably have acted differently. But, as it was,
we found it impossible to help him.
Once the pipes were lit, and the dishes cleared
away, it was useless to pretend any longer. The
sparks from the burning logs zigzagged upwards
into a sky brilliant with stars. It was all wonderfully
still and peaceful, and the forest odours
floated to us on the sharp autumn air. The cedar
fire smelt sweet and we could just hear the gentle
wash of tiny waves along the shore. All was calm,
beautiful, and remote from the world of men and
passion. It was, indeed, a night to touch the soul,
and yet, I think, none of us heeded these things.
A bull-moose might almost have thrust his great
head over our shoulders and have escaped unnoticed.
The death of Jake the Swede, with its sinister
setting, was the real presence that held the centre
of the stage and compelled attention.
"You won't p'raps care to come along, Mister," said
Morris, by way of a beginning; "but I guess I'll go
with one of the boys here and have a hunt for it."
"Sure," said Hank. "Jake an' I done some
biggish trips together in the old days, and I'll
do that much for'm."
"It's deep water, they tell me, round them
islands," added Silver Fizz; "but we'll find it, sure
pop,—if it's thar."
They all spoke of the body as "it."
There was a minute or two of heavy silence, and
then Rushton again burst out with his story in
almost the identical words he had used before. It
was almost as if he had learned it by heart. He
wholly failed to appreciate the efforts of the others
to let him off.
Silver Fizz rushed in, hoping to stop him, Morris
and Hank closely following his lead.
"I once knew another travellin' partner of his,"
he began quickly; "used to live down Moosejaw
"Is that so?" said Hank.
"Kind o' useful sort er feller," chimed in Morris.
All the idea the men had was to stop the tongue
wagging before the discrepancies became so glaring
that we should be forced to take notice of them,
and ask questions. But, just as well try to stop
an angry bull-moose on the run, or prevent Beaver
Creek freezing in mid-winter by throwing in pebbles
near the shore. Out it came! And, though the
discrepancy this time was insignificant, it somehow
brought us all in a second face to face with the
inevitable and dreaded climax.
"And so I tramped all over that little bit of an
island, hoping he might somehow have gotten in
without my knowing it, and always thinking I
heard that awful last cry of his in the darkness—and
then the night dropped down impenetrably,
like a damn thick blanket out of the sky, and—"
All eyes fell away from his face. Hank poked
up the logs with his boot, and Morris seized an
ember in his bare fingers to light his pipe, although
it was already emitting clouds of smoke. But the
professor caught the ball flying.
"I thought you said he sank without a cry,"
he remarked quietly, looking straight up into
the frightened face opposite, and then riddling
mercilessly the confused explanation that followed.
The cumulative effect of all these forces, hitherto
so rigorously repressed, now made itself felt, and
the circle spontaneously broke up, everybody
moving at once by a common instinct. The
professor's wife left the party abruptly, with
excuses about an early start next morning. She
first shook hands with Rushton, mumbling something
about his comfort in the night.
The question of his comfort, however, devolved
by force of circumstances upon myself, and he
shared my tent. Just before wrapping up in my
double blankets—for the night was bitterly cold—he
turned and began to explain that he had a habit
of talking in his sleep and hoped I would wake
him if he disturbed me by doing so.
Well, he did talk in his sleep—and it disturbed
me very much indeed. The anger and violence of
his words remain with me to this day, and it was
clear in a minute that he was living over again
some portion of the scene upon the lake. I listened,
horror-struck, for a moment or two, and then understood
that I was face to face with one of two alternatives:
I must continue an unwilling eavesdropper, or
I must waken him. The former was impossible for
me, yet I shrank from the latter with the greatest
repugnance; and in my dilemma I saw the only
way out of the difficulty and at once accepted it.
Cold though it was, I crawled stealthily out of
my warm sleeping-bag and left the tent, intending
to keep the old fire alight under the stars and spend
the remaining hours till daylight in the open.
As soon as I was out I noticed at once another
figure moving silently along the shore. It was
Hank Milligan, and it was plain enough what he
was doing: he was examining the holes that had
been cut in the upper ribs of the canoe. He looked
half ashamed when I came up with him, and
mumbled something about not being able to sleep
for the cold. But, there, standing together beside
the over-turned canoe, we both saw that the holes
were far too small for a man's hand and arm and
could not possibly have been cut by two men
hanging on for their lives in deep water. Those
holes had been made afterwards.
Hank said nothing to me and I said nothing to
Hank, and presently he moved off to collect logs
for the fire, which needed replenishing, for it was a
piercingly cold night and there were many degrees
Three days later Hank and Silver Fizz followed
with stumbling footsteps the old Indian trail that
leads from Beaver Creek to the southwards. A
hammock was slung between them, and it weighed
heavily. Yet neither of the men complained; and,
indeed, speech between them was almost nothing.
Their thoughts, however, were exceedingly busy,
and the terrible secret of the woods which formed
their burden weighed far more heavily than the
uncouth, shifting mass that lay in the swinging
hammock and tugged so severely at their shoulders.
They had found "it" in four feet of water not
more than a couple of yards from the lee shore of
the island. And in the back of the head was a
long, terrible wound which no man could possibly
have inflicted upon himself.