MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, THE GALE WAS STILL BLOWING and whitecaps were jumping on the lake. George looked over the distance they had to cross. Big swells kept breaking everywhere—the bay was shallow and studded with rocks. It was no weather for heading out in a canoe, but that didn't matter. They didn't have a choice anymore. Had to get off this lake. Had to get started for home.
Hubbard and Wallace knelt up front like always. They didn't have to do much thinking—just paddle. But George had to steer. He had to watch the wind and keep the canoe angled right with the waves. He had to think about the boulders too: which ones were deep enough to slide over; which to slip around with a quick pry; which to stay clear of altogether. Going out in a wind like this was taking a long chance, but as far as George could see, they didn't have any choice.
It seemed to him, sometimes, he was the only one who could see this. It seemed that he held a kind of secret—unknown to the others and carried deep inside.
When he thought about the secret, it seemed a peculiar thing—something that should not be secret at all. It was something they should all know and talk about but didn't. Maybe because it had started out very small, deep inside where nobody else knew about it. Maybe the fellow thinking about it didn't even know himself at first.
George's secret had begun to grow long before they were windbound. It had begun before they went across the long portage for forty miles; back before they had spent so much time hunting the outlet of Disappointment Lake; before, even, they crossed the big mountain range. Back at Camp Caribou it had started, where they had eaten slice after slice of roast venison. Thick, juicy meat and all they wanted, bellies full, everyone content.
The morning George was packing up the dried meat, he noticed the four caribou hooves lying a ways from the fire. Now, a caribou hoof was just a lot of gristle and tendon. There was nothing to it. But George picked up one of the hooves anyway, and put it in the bag with the other meat. Not all four, just one. Maybe the secret in his thoughts was so small, he didn't really feel it yet—just put the hoof in the bag and told himself, "We'll want this someday, maybe." Without thinking—or wanting to think—anything more.
But the secret was there: small, but riding inside, like the caribou hoof stuck in a corner of his pack.