CHAPTER XXXIV. A MEETING IN THE NIGHT - HARDSHIPS OF BUSH'S PARTY - SIBERIAN FAMINES - FISH SAVINGS BANKS - WORK IN THE NORTHERN DISTRICT - STARVING POLE CUTTERS - A JOURNEY TO YAMSK

Availing ourselves of the road which had been broken by the sledges of the priest, we made more rapid progress toward Anadyrsk than I had anticipated, and on November 22d we camped at the foot of a range of low mountains known as the "Russki Krebet," only thirty versts south of the settlement. With the hope of reaching our destination before the next morning, we had intended to travel all night; but a storm sprang up most inopportunely just before dark and prevented us from getting over the pass. About midnight the wind abated a little, the moon came out occasionally through rifts in the clouds, and, fearing that we should have no better opportunity, we roused up our tired dogs and began the ascent of the mountain. It was a wild, lonely scene. The snow was drifting in dense clouds down the pass, half hiding from sight the bare white peaks on either side, and blotting out all the landscape behind us as we ascended. Now and then the misty moonbeams would struggle faintly through the clouds of flying snow and light up for a moment the great barren slope of the mountain above our heads; then they would be suddenly smothered in dark vapour, the wind would come roaring down the ravine again, and everything would vanish in clouds and darkness. Blinded and panting for breath, we finally gained the summit, and as we stopped for a moment to rest our tired dogs, we were suddenly startled by the sight of a long line of dark objects passing swiftly across the bare mountain-top only a few yards away and plunging down into the ravine out of which we had just come. I caught only a glimpse of them, but they seemed to be dog-sledges, and with a great shout we started in pursuit. Dog-sledges they were, and as we drew nearer I recognised among them the old sealskin covered pavoska which I had left at Anadyrsk the previous winter, and which I knew must be occupied by an American. With heart beating fast from excitement I sprang from my sledge, ran up to the pavoska, and demanded in English, "Who is it?" It was too dark to recognise faces, but I knew well the voice that answered "Bush!" and never was that voice more welcome. For more than three weeks I had not seen a countryman nor spoken a word of English; I was lonely and disheartened by constantly accumulating misfortunes, when suddenly at midnight on a desolate mountain-top, in a storm, I met an old friend and comrade whom I had almost given up as dead. It was a joyful meeting. The natives who had gone to Anadyr Bay in search of Bush and his party had returned in safety, bringing Bush with them, and he was on his way to Gizhiga to carry the news of the famine and get provisions and help. He had been stopped by the storm as we had, and when it abated a little at midnight we had both started from opposite sides to cross the mountain, and had thus met upon the summit.

We went back together to my deserted camp on the south side of the mountain, blew up the embers of my still smouldering fire, spread down our bearskins, and sat there talking until we were as white as polar bears with the drifting snow, and day began to break in the East.

Bush brought more bad news. They had gone down to the mouth of the Anadyr, as the priest had already informed me, in the early part of June, and had waited there for the Company's vessels almost four months. Their provisions had finally given out, and they had been compelled to subsist upon the few fish that they were able to catch from day to day, and go hungry when they could catch none. For salt they scraped the staves of an old pork-barrel which had been left at Macrae's camp the previous winter, and for coffee they drank burned rice water. At last, however, salt and rice both failed, and they were reduced to an unvarying and often scanty diet of boiled fish, without coffee, bread, or salt. Living in the midst of a great moss swamp fifty miles from the nearest tree, dressing in skins for the want of anything else, suffering frequently from hunger, tormented constantly by mosquitoes, from which they had no protection, and looking day after day and week after week for vessels which never came, their situation was certainly miserable. The Company's bark Golden Gate had finally arrived in October, bringing twenty-five men and a small steamer; but winter had already set in, and five days afterwards, before they could finish discharging the vessel's cargo, she was wrecked by ice. Her crew and nearly all her stores were saved, but by this misfortune the number of the party was increased from twenty-five to forty-seven, without any corresponding increase in the quantity of provisions for their subsistence. Fortunately, however, there were bands of Wandering Chukchis within reach, and from them Bush succeeded in buying a considerable number of reindeer, which he caused to be frozen and stored away for future use. After the freezing over of the Anadyr River, Bush was left, as Macrae had been the previous winter, without any means of getting up to the settlement, a distance of 250 miles; but he had foreseen this difficulty, and had left orders at Anadyrsk that if he failed to return in canoes before the river closed, dog-sledges should be sent to his assistance. Notwithstanding the famine the dog-sledges were sent, and Bush, with two men, had returned on them to Anadyrsk. Finding that settlement famine-stricken and deserted, he had started without a moment's delay for Gizhiga, his exhausted and starving dogs dying along the road.

The situation of affairs, then, when I met Bush on the summit of the Russki Krebet, was briefly as follows: