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List Of Contents | Contents of In the Wilderness, by Charles Dudley Warner
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descend; and before we reached the level reaches, where the stream
flows with a murmurous noise through open woods, one of our party
began to show signs of exhaustion.

This was Old Phelps, whose appetite had failed the day before,--his
imagination being in better working order than his stomach: he had
eaten little that day, and his legs became so groggy that he was
obliged to rest at short intervals.  Here was a situation!  The
afternoon was wearing away.  We had six or seven miles of unknown
wilderness to traverse, a portion of it swampy, in which a progress
of more than a mile an hour is difficult, and the condition of the
guide compelled even a slower march.  What should we do in that
lonesome solitude if the guide became disabled?  We couldn't carry
him out; could we find our own way out to get assistance?  The guide
himself had never been there before; and although he knew the general
direction of our point of egress, and was entirely adequate to
extricate himself from any position in the woods, his knowledge was
of that occult sort possessed by woodsmen which it is impossible to
communicate.  Our object was to strike a trail that led from the Au
Sable Pond, the other side of the mountain-range, to an inlet on Mud
Pond.  We knew that if we traveled southwestward far enough we must
strike that trail, but how far?  No one could tell.  If we reached
that trail, and found a boat at the inlet, there would be only a row
of a couple of miles to the house at the foot of the lake.  If no
boat was there, then we must circle the lake three or four miles
farther through a cedar-swamp, with no trail in particular.  The
prospect was not pleasing.  We were short of supplies, for we had not
expected to pass that night in the woods.  The pleasure of the
excursion began to develop itself.

We stumbled on in the general direction marked out, through a forest
that began to seem endless as hour after hour passed, compelled as we
were to make long detours over the ridges of the foothills to avoid
the swamp, which sent out from the border of the lake long tongues
into the firm ground.  The guide became more ill at every step, and
needed frequent halts and long rests.  Food he could not eat; and
tea, water, and even brandy he rejected.  Again and again the old
philosopher, enfeebled by excessive exertion and illness, would
collapse in a heap on the ground, an almost comical picture of
despair, while we stood and waited the waning of the day, and peered
forward in vain for any sign of an open country.  At every brook we
encountered, we suggested a halt for the night, while it was still
light enough to select a camping-place, but the plucky old man
wouldn't hear of it: the trail might be only a quarter of a mile
ahead, and we crawled on again at a snail's pace.  His honor as a
guide seemed to be at stake; and, besides, he confessed to a notion
that his end was near, and he didn't want to die like a dog in the
woods.  And yet, if this was his last journey, it seemed not an
inappropriate ending for the old woodsman to lie down and give up the
ghost in the midst of the untamed forest and the solemn silences he
felt most at home in.  There is a popular theory, held by civilians,
that a soldier likes to die in battle.  I suppose it is as true that
a woodsman would like to "pass in his chips,"--the figure seems to be
inevitable, struck down by illness and exposure, in the forest
solitude, with heaven in sight and a tree-root for his pillow.

The guide seemed really to fear that, if we did not get out of the
woods that night, he would never go out; and, yielding to his dogged
resolution, we kept on in search of the trail, although the gathering
of dusk over the ground warned us that we might easily cross the
trail without recognizing it.  We were traveling by the light in the
upper sky, and by the forms of the tree-stems, which every moment
grew dimmer.  At last the end came.  We had just felt our way over
what seemed to be a little run of water, when the old man sunk down,
remarking, "I might as well die here as anywhere," and was silent.

Suddenly night fell like a blanket on us.  We could neither see the
guide nor each other.  We became at once conscious that miles of
night on all sides shut us in.  The sky was clouded over: there
wasn't a gleam of light to show us where to step.  Our first thought
was to build a fire, which would drive back the thick darkness into
the woods, and boil some water for our tea.  But it was too dark to
use the axe.  We scraped together leaves and twigs to make a blaze,
and, as this failed, such dead sticks as we could find by groping
about.  The fire was only a temporary affair, but it sufficed to boil
a can of water.  The water we obtained by feeling about the stones of
the little run for an opening big enough to dip our cup in.  The
supper to be prepared was fortunately simple.  It consisted of a
decoction of tea and other leaves which had got into the pail, and a
part of a loaf of bread.  A loaf of bread which has been carried in a
knapsack for a couple of days, bruised and handled and hacked at with
a hunting-knife, becomes an uninteresting object.  But we ate of it
with thankfulness, washed it down with hot fluid, and bitterly
thought of the morrow.  Would our old friend survive the night?
Would he be in any condition to travel in the morning?  How were we
to get out with him or without him?

The old man lay silent in the bushes out of sight, and desired only
to be let alone.  We tried to tempt him with the offer of a piece of
toast: it was no temptation.  Tea we thought would revive him: he
refused it.  A drink of brandy would certainly quicken his life: he
couldn't touch it.  We were at the end of our resources.  He seemed
to think that if he were at home, and could get a bit of fried bacon,
or a piece of pie, he should be all right.  We knew no more how to
doctor him than if he had been a sick bear.  He withdrew within
himself, rolled himself up, so to speak, in his primitive habits, and
waited for the healing power of nature.  Before our feeble fire
disappeared, we smoothed a level place near it for Phelps to lie on,
and got him over to it.  But it didn't suit: it was too open.  In
fact, at the moment some drops of rain fell.  Rain was quite outside
of our program for the night.  But the guide had an instinct about
it; and, while we were groping about some yards distant for a place
where we could lie down, he crawled away into the darkness, and
curled himself up amid the roots of a gigantic pine, very much as a
bear would do, I suppose, with his back against the trunk, and there
passed the night comparatively dry and comfortable; but of this we
knew nothing till morning, and had to trust to the assurance of a
voice out of the darkness that he was all right.

Our own bed where we spread our blankets was excellent in one
respect,--there was no danger of tumbling out of it.  At first the
rain pattered gently on the leaves overhead, and we congratulated
ourselves on the snugness of our situation.  There was something
cheerful about this free life.  We contrasted our condition with that
of tired invalids who were tossing on downy beds, and wooing sleep in
vain.  Nothing was so wholesome and invigorating as this bivouac in
the forest.  But, somehow, sleep did not come.  The rain had ceased
to patter, and began to fall with a steady determination, a sort of
soak, soak, all about us.  In fact, it roared on the rubber blanket,
and beat in our faces.  The wind began to stir a little, and there
was a moaning on high.  Not contented with dripping, the rain was
driven into our faces.  Another suspicious circumstance was noticed.
Little rills of water got established along the sides under the
blankets, cold, undeniable streams, that interfered with drowsiness.
Pools of water settled on the bed; and the chaplain had a habit of
moving suddenly, and letting a quart or two inside, and down my neck.
It began to be evident that we and our bed were probably the wettest
objects in the woods.  The rubber was an excellent catch-all.  There
was no trouble about ventilation, but we found that we had
established our quarters without any provision for drainage.  There
was not exactly a wild tempest abroad; but there was a degree of
liveliness in the thrashing limbs and the creaking of the tree-
branches which rubbed against each other, and the pouring rain
increased in volume and power of penetration.  Sleep was quite out of
the question, with so much to distract our attention.  In fine, our
misery became so perfect that we both broke out into loud and
sarcastic laughter over the absurdity of our situation.  We had
subjected ourselves to all this forlornness simply for pleasure.
Whether Old Phelps was still in existence, we couldn't tell: we could
get no response from him.  With daylight, if he continued ill and
could not move, our situation would be little improved.  Our supplies
were gone, we lay in a pond, a deluge of water was pouring down on
us.  This was summer recreation.  The whole thing was so excessively
absurd that we laughed again, louder than ever.  We had plenty of
this sort of amusement.  Suddenly through the night we heard a sort
of reply that started us bolt upright.  This was a prolonged squawk.
It was like the voice of no beast or bird with which we were
familiar.  At first it was distant; but it rapidly approached,
tearing through the night and apparently through the tree-tops, like
the harsh cry of a web-footed bird with a snarl in it; in fact, as I
said, a squawk.  It came close to us, and then turned, and as rapidly
as it came fled away through the forest, and we lost the unearthly
noise far up the mountain-slope.

"What was that, Phelps? "we cried out.  But no response came; and we
wondered if his spirit had been rent away, or if some evil genius had
sought it, and then, baffled by his serene and philosophic spirit,
had shot off into the void in rage and disappointment.

The night had no other adventure.  The moon at length coming up
behind the clouds lent a spectral aspect to the forest, and deceived
us for a time into the notion that day was at hand; but the rain
never ceased, and we lay wishful and waiting, with no item of solid
misery wanting that we could conceive.

Day was slow a-coming, and didn't amount to much when it came, so
heavy were the clouds; but the rain slackened.  We crawled out of our
water-cure "pack," and sought the guide.  To our infinite relief he
announced himself not only alive, but in a going condition.  I looked
at my watch.  It had stopped at five o'clock.  I poured the water out
of it, and shook it; but, not being constructed on the hydraulic
principle, it refused to go.  Some hours later we encountered a
huntsman, from whom I procured some gun-grease; with this I filled
the watch, and heated it in by the fire.  This is a most effectual
way of treating a delicate Genevan timepiece.

The light disclosed fully the suspected fact that our bed had been
made in a slight depression: the under rubber blanket spread in this
had prevented the rain from soaking into the ground, and we had been
lying in what was in fact a well-contrived bathtub.  While Old Phelps
was pulling himself together, and we were wringing some gallons of
water out of our blankets, we questioned the old man about the
"squawk," and what bird was possessed of such a voice.  It was not a
bird at all, he said, but a cat, the black-cat of the woods, larger
than the domestic animal, and an ugly customer, who is fond of fish,
and carries a pelt that is worth two or three dollars in the market.
Occasionally he blunders into a sable-trap; and he is altogether
hateful in his ways, and has the most uncultivated voice that is
heard in the woods.  We shall remember him as one of the least
pleasant phantoms of that cheerful night when we lay in the storm,
fearing any moment the advent to one of us of the grimmest messenger.

We rolled up and shouldered our wet belongings, and, before the
shades had yet lifted from the saturated bushes, pursued our march.
It was a relief to be again in motion, although our progress was
slow, and it was a question every rod whether the guide could go on.
We had the day before us; but if we did not find a boat at the inlet
a day might not suffice, in the weak condition of the guide, to
extricate us from our ridiculous position.  There was nothing heroic
in it; we had no object: it was merely, as it must appear by this
time, a pleasure excursion, and we might be lost or perish in it
without reward and with little sympathy.  We had something like a
hour and a half of stumbling through the swamp when suddenly we stood
in the little trail!  Slight as it was, it appeared to us a very
Broadway to Paradise if broad ways ever lead thither.  Phelps hailed
it and sank down in it like one reprieved from death.  But the boat?
Leaving him, we quickly ran a quarter of a mile down to the inlet.
The boat was there.  Our shout to the guide would have roused him out
of a death-slumber.  He came down the trail with the agility of an
aged deer: never was so glad a sound in his ear, he said, as that
shout.  It was in a very jubilant mood that we emptied the boat of
water, pushed off, shipped the clumsy oars, and bent to the two-mile
row through the black waters of the winding, desolate channel, and
over the lake, whose dark waves were tossed a little in the morning
breeze.  The trunks of dead trees stand about this lake, and all its
shores are ragged with ghastly drift-wood; but it was open to the
sky, and although the heavy clouds still obscured all the mountain-
ranges we had a sense of escape and freedom that almost made the
melancholy scene lovely.

How lightly past hardship sits upon us!  All the misery of the night
vanished, as if it had not been, in the shelter of the log cabin at
Mud Pond, with dry clothes that fitted us as the skin of the bear
fits him in the spring, a noble breakfast, a toasting fire,
solicitude about our comfort, judicious sympathy with our suffering,
and willingness to hear the now growing tale of our adventure.  Then
came, in a day of absolute idleness, while the showers came and went,
and the mountains appeared and disappeared in sun and storm, that
perfect physical enjoyment which consists in a feeling of strength
without any inclination to use it, and in a delicious languor which
is too enjoyable to be surrendered to sleep.







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