S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Far in the forest, a story online

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" I'm to fix him for the night. I'll be a half-
hour, maybe ; then I'm to take your place, Jones."
" He won't want no bed to-morrow night," said
Jones, " the way the men's talkin'."


" That's so," said Ance. " Wouldn't bet he'd
see mornin', ef I had my way." Then he went
in and closed the door.

" What time is it V 9 said Riverius through the
dark, smoky atmosphere, thick from the smoulder-
ing smudge.

" Nigh on to eleven, I guess."

" Oh, it's Yickers, is it not?"

" Yes, it's me." And he drew near.

" What's wanted now ? Anything new, Ance ?"

" Look here, Mr. Ryverus. Air you minded to
stay and resk it? You was this mornin'. You'd 'a'
bin wiser ef you'd 'a' took to my notion and left."

" I shall stay. Indeed, what choice is left me ?"

"You needn't."

" What ! Why should I want to go ? I am

" Talk low," said Ance. " You 'ain't got one
chance in a hundred. I've come to help you.
Mrs. Preston she says go. That's what she says.
There's men now out there gittin' a rope ready."

The German shuddered. He thought of those
of his race who had died in battle or by the axe,
and to perish by a brute's death amidst a howling
drunken mob, — " Ah !"

" I will do as you say. What risk will you run ?
That troubles me, Ance."

"All right. I don't run no resk. We kin do
it. ]STow you listen. Let's untie your hands.
It '11 supple 'em a bit. You may want 'em."

" Thank you. Himmel ! what it is to be free
He wished much to ask


Ance why he was so eager to help him, but he
thought this could wait, and Ance was keenly
anxious to act.

"Look here. In ten minutes I've got to take
Jones's place. When I go out, tie this deer-thong
across the door-way, 'bout a foot high. "When I
call, ' Fire ! fire !' then you git ready. Wilson's a
dead shot. I'll holler to him to run in and look
arter you. He'll trip over the thong, sure. Then
you jump over him, take to the woods, and make
for the river. I'll shoot over you. Go right into
the river and let the water take you down. The
dug-out's resky. t They'd maybe see it. Kin you

"I? Of course."

" Well, them rapids don't trifle with a man ; but
it's the only way. Are you game fur it ?"

" Yes."

" Take your boots off* 'fore you wade in. They're
onhandy in the water. Drop 'em when you're well
out. Try to make in at Laurel Mountain. Go right
up to my cabin and hide. Guess no one won't look
fur you thar."

"Is that all?"

" Yes."

" What fire is it you expect ? Who is helping

" That'll keep. 'Ain't no time now. And look
sharp. I'll jine you soon's I kin git off." And, so
saying, he went out.

Kiverius, moving with caution, at once laid aside
his coat, put a pistol in his belt, secured all the gold


he had about his person, arranged the cord across
the door-way, and waited anxiously a few feet from
the entrance. The time seemed endless. " Ach !"
he exclaimed. A sudden, dulled murmur came to
him from without through the gloom. The noise
of drunken revel ceased abruptly. Then there were
oaths, cries of " Fire ! fire !" Suddenly Ance also
shouted, " Fire ! fire !" and, throwing the door wide
open, cried, " Run in, Wilson, and stay by him.
Shoot him if he runs. Quick !"

Wilson obeyed, made a hasty rush into the cabin,
caught on the deer-thong, and fell headlong with a
curse. Riverius leaped over him as a deer leaps,
and before the guard could regain his rifle was off
and away into the woods on his right. A single
shot passed high above him as Ance fired. He
made for the river direct and with rash indifference
to exposure. As he crossed an open space, he was
seen in the growing light, the night itself being
none too dark, and the ping, ping of two rifle-balls
perilously close did not lessen his speed. He tore
off his boots and plunged in, waded some thirty
feet, struck wild water, and in a moment was fight-
ing for life in the white rush of the rapids. Then
he let fall his boots. For two long minutes he was
rolled over, tumbled about, hustled against rocks.
Once his head struck, and for a moment he wi\s
dazed, and then a vast surge lifted him, with strong
tenderness over a great boulder, and at once he was
in swift but quiet water. E[e shook the moisture
from his face a,u4 h^ir and passed a hand over his
eyes to clear his sight. He was flying with dan-


gerous speed down the black hurry of the stream.
He looked about him, and saw only leaping jets of
spray, black wood-masses, and over all, behind him
and to left, a splendor of ruddy light on high and
here and there quick spurts of name and mounting
sparks. Then ahead he caught sight of white
water, and struck out for the mid-current. With
a vast effort he won the wild crest, sure that to fail
was death. The last rapid had been child's play to
this. It was brief. There was one fierce shoot,
with a fall of fifteen feet. It was like a drop
through the air. He shot under, and came up
breathless and exhausted. The rest was easy. He
kept his head straight, and gradually worked shore-
ward. He seemed to be in a narrow vale of black
water, the shores close in on him, the sky as it were
down almost upon him. He was clear-headed
enough to wonder at the delusion. Then he saw
the slope of Laurel Mountain, and the sharp line
of the lumber-slide where it crossed a gorge. Sud-
denly he struck bottom. He had been needlessly
swimming in two feet of water. At last, tired out
and bruised, he rolled himself on shore and sat
down to rest. The glow behind him was now mag-
nificent. A vast glory of rich ruby light flared
upward, and, cloud-caught, flooded all the sky. He
wondered. Some one had fired the woods. Two
rainless months, the leaves sapless, the floor of pine-
needles, the very earth dry, the wind raging furi-
ously through the trees overhead. The woods
would burn to the river, and quicker to the east-
ward. There was ruin to many, risk to not a few.


Enormous loss, centuries of growth gone, to save
a single life. Who had done it ? Even in his still
present peril the vastness of the sacrifice excited
his imagination. At last, thoughtful, alert and
rested, he struggled up the mountain, hurting his
feet and plunging through the tangle of the vigor-
ous laurels. After an hour, he won the farther spur,
and found himself near the top, and at the door of
Vickers's cabin. He cast himself down on the
ground and felt safe for the first time. The spur
he was on rose nearly nine hundred feet above the
river, and back of it, broken by abrupt ravines, the
country gradually fell away, a sloping table-land.
The main mountain dropped more precipitously
to the Alleghany, and parallel to its course was
cleft by the deep rocky gorges which had caused
Riverius to suggest a slide as the readiest means
of getting logs to the water.

Now and then, glancing out at the ominous and
growing light of the burning woods, the German sat
in thought. The wind was blowing more and more
fiercely. This, he reflected, would probably keep
the fire away from Mrs. Preston's clearing, which
covered some two hundred acres, and where great
precautions had been taken against the spread of
fire. She and Paul were safe at least for the time ;
but it was quite possible that, as the sparks mounted,
upper currents might scatter them far and wide and
mysteriously light at a distance new and destruc-
tive fires. As for himself, he had little fear. There
would be nobody to trouble him so long as this
remorseless blaze endangered camps, cattle, oxen,


wood-sleds, and the rough homes of men. But he
was flying from the suspicion of murder. Life,
happy life, would be out of the question until that
matter was settled and the murderer known. Im-
agination poisoned for him all the sweet future. It
is at times a cruel scourge to the refined and gentle.
He seemed to himself to be involved personally in
the train of consequences that had led to Miriam's
death. Had he but waited a day longer, it would
not have been. Had he less desired to help her, no
suspicion could have touched him. How soon after
he left did it occur ? How could a man have done
so brutal a deed ? Could any set of contingencies
ever lead him to do such an act? Suddenly he
shivered. It was in part from the growing chill in
the night air at that height, and in part because he
had a sudden realization of the fact that a man who
had not done a murder might come to believe he
had done it. He recoiled as from a precipice,
leaped to his feet, and began to walk to and fro.
He had the fortunate intellectual training which
enables a man to drive back to their caves the wild
beasts of morbid emotion and to keep them penned.
The exercise helped him. At last he went into the
cabin, found a blanket, and lay down on the floor,
dragging over him a worn buffalo-robe and some
dead boughs meant for kindling. He could not
sleep, but the warming body helped the mind to
wholesomeness, and he lay and thought of Bessy


When Paul and his mother, avoiding the camp-
fires, slipped aside and went into the woods, the
riotous noise around the fires was at its worst, and
oaths and loud words and broken songs were in the
pleasant night air, and were blown to her ear by
the growing wind which pursued her steps.
" Come, Paul," she said. " Could God have made
such beasts ?"

The boy was singularly resolute. He was all of
the mother, and more, and none of the weaker
father. He understood her well, and had a boy's
indifference to the consequences of what they were
about to do.

At last they paused some five hundred yards or
more from the clearing. " Now, mother," he said.
" If Ance is to get him off, we must make sure.
Look here. We'll set long bits of birch sloped this
way against a dozen trees. Then we can light the
farthest from the river and touch off" each as we go
down the slope. You take the four nearest the
river, — any ones. They are all big birches and
pretty ragged. The bit of bark will take a little
time to burn up to the trunk. Now, mother. Be
quick, and keep me in sight. The boat is right
below, if they follow un ; but they won't. Now."
He leaned down and very coolly adjusted the slips
of bark. " Ready ?" he said.


" Yes," she replied.

There was the sputter and yellow flame of matches
struck. In a few seconds a dozen little innocent
spires of rich, crimson flame were climbing up
the bark. He was at her side, and looked back.
" By George !" he cried. In an instant a half-
dozen trees were ablaze. The loose ragged bark
of the birch, always inflammable, was now as dry as
if baked. The beautiful wild flame rose instantly
with a furious howl to the top of the tree, a thing
to be remembered when once seen and heard.
" Run !" he said, for she stood as if paralyzed with
terror by the demon they had set free. The forest
was like day with an unearthly red, and the shadows
of trees flashed out black as jet across the dry
woodland floor. As they fled, behind them the
roar of the flame as it leaped and caught and
ruined each great birch was repeated over and
over. He pulled her down the steep bank. Then
he half cocked his rifle, which he had kept ready,
and waited. The sound of drunken orgy suddenly
ceased to load the air with curses. Loud cries
were heard, and three rifle-shots, as her grip on
Paul's arm tightened, and she prayed as women
rarely pray.

" He's off, sure," said Paul. " Come, let's get
back ; and be careful, mother, and don't take hold
of me. Mind, I shall shoot if any one says a word
to you."

" Don't, if you can help it," she said.

As they walked up the stream, unknown to them
the kindly water bore past them in the darkness


what she loved best on earth. Opposite their cabin
they went up from the bank.

" Ask no questions, Paul."

" Of course," he said.

The camp-fires were deserted. In vain hope the
men, under Rollins's lead, had gone into the woods
to fight the fire. Bessy and Paul gained the house
readily, and stood at the door.

" Let me go and see if he's off," he said.

" Not a step. Wait. It is in God's hands now.
Put away that rifle."

He did so, and came back. The roar from
the burning wood no man could hear without
some sense of fear. The wind leaped on it as
with a living thing's delight, and drove the flame
in great flaring masses from tree to tree. Acres
were ablaze. The pines beyond the birch grove
tossed, writhed, and blazed, exuding resinous sap
to feed the fire. Beneath, the dry pine-needles
carried it far and wide with a speed past belief.
There was something like the energy of life in
the rage with which the fire did its work, now
rising in cruel splendor high in heaven, now, as
if mysteriously eager, darting in long blasts of
ruin through the open spaces. Over all rose,
black and awful, a growing, rolling shaft of dense
smoke, and, spreading out above in a black dome,
rosy with reflections from beneath and starred
with sparks and gusts of flame which seemed to
burn in mid-air, spread and spread wider and
more wide.

" It is awful, my son," she said.


" We did it well, mother. I must know about
Mr. Riverius."

" Wait."

Presently her patient courage had its reward.
Two men came out of the woods and passed
quickly before them.

" This is awful business, Mrs. Preston. There
won't be a tree from here to Damson's Ferry.
You're pretty safe, unless the wind turns."

" Must 'a' bin sot afire," said the other man.

" That's what I say," said Wilson. " It's bin
done o' purpose."

" Where is Mr. Riverius ?" she said. She could
bear the suspense no longer.

" You won't be sorry to know he got away."

" Indeed !"

" I missed him, that's a fact. It was a trick, the
whole thing. I 'ain't bin back yet to look, but
there was somethin' tripped me at the door, and I
didn't wait to see. We came for axes. Come,
Joe. This fire'll bust up Rollins." And they
hastened away towards the burning forest.

" George !" said the boy, " Rollins will suffer for
to-day's work; and I'm not sorry, either."

"Hush, Paul. Run up to his cabin and see.
Bring any papers you can find, and his note-books
on the table. Stop, I'll come too."

They ran across the deserted open space, and
entered, Paul first. He fell over the deer-thong.
"Look out," he said. " Mother, that was clever."
And he explained it to her as she stood.

" Get it off. Hide it," she said. He cut it away


and put it in his pocket as she came in, and, strik-
ing a match, lit a candle. At once they gathered
up papers, note-books, and a portfolio which was
locked. " Take them, Paul." And he sped away.
Then she stood alone. It was the first time she
had been by herself in the cabin. " God bless and
keep you !" she prayed, and went out.

A half-hour later, Rollins came back with Ance
and some other men, and, black with smoke, en-
tered her dwelling. He sat down, exhausted, while
the men stood about.

" What is it you want ?" said Bessy.

" Where were you when this fire started, Mrs.
Preston ?"

" In the house," she said, calmly.

" And this boy ?"

" In the house also."

" I'd hang him up a bit and find out," said a
man, the foreman of Rollins's gang.

" What ! a boy like that ther ?" exclaimed Ance.
" Not ef I know it." There was a murmur of

" You are fools," said Mrs. Preston. " Do you
think I want to see my woods afire ?"

" I don't know," returned Rollins. " For a turn
of a cent, I'd do it. I'd know someway. I'm a
ruined man. Thirty years of work clean gone.
Hang him ? I'd hang you if I was sure."

" Coward !" she said.

" Oh, this won't do, Rollins !" cried a man,
coming forward.

" And that's what I say," added Ance.


Opinion was against him, and Rollins doggedly
went out.

" Guess Ryverus he got off," said Ance, boldly.

" And there's no time to look for him, nuther,"
said another.

Meanwhile, Rollins began to give orders as to
his distant camp and oxen, and sent men away up
the river to do what they could. In an hour the
cabin was left silent, and Becky, Paul, and his
mother sat watching the growth of the blaze which
the two latter had started. Ance accepted a mis-
sion from Rollins, but soon turned aside, struck for
the river, and in an hour or so was at his own

When the men had gone, Becky persuaded Mrs.
Preston to lie down for the few hours left of the
night, promising to keep awake and be watchful.
Paul declared that he would keep her company,
but before long sunk down on the boards of the
little piazza which sheltered the front of the cabin,
and was soon lost in sleep. Becky covered him
with a blanket, tucked another under his head, and
sat staring at the enormous dome of rosy gold
above the still growing fire. There was less wind,
and the smoke and flame went up straight in air,
not yet so far away that Becky could not hear the
dull roar and catch at times the explosive sound of
some suddenly-heated tree split by the swift boiling
of its sap.

The woman had been but a spectator at the play,
and was capable only of such human interests as
habit gives, appetites command, or mere animal


curiosity imparts. Just now, she was a little dis-
turbed. The stillness threatened a change of wind.
All her life she had lived in the woods, and knew
well their dangers. The fire had left a hundred
yards unburned between the place at which it
started and the clearing. This belt was now slowly
yielding to the flames, which, however, might pos-
sibly do no harm, as the open space was broad and
two weeks before had been harrowed over to de-
stroy the dry grass and prepare for risk, since in
all that land no man had passed a day since June
without fear or thought of this dreaded enemy.


About six o'clock Becky awakened Paul. He
started up.

" What is it?" he said.

"You'd best go and look round in the woods
and see if ther' ain't no fire goin' to start 'mong
the pines. The wind's 'most stopped, and them
sparks is a-droppin'. It might rain 'fore night.
Don't make no noise. Yer mother's fell asleep.
I was in to see."

" I'll go," he said.

He made a complete and distant circuit in the
woods, and at the river climbed a lightning-scathed
pine. A hundred feet in air he sat astride of a limb
and looked in growing wonder. Widening from
the place at which it set out,. the fire had spread to
the river, and inland for miles. Par away it still
raged under mounting, heaving masses of smoke,
which now and then burst into gigantic gusts of
fire high in air as the gases the products of im-
perfect combustion were sufficiently heated from
below. The river-bed was full of smoke, and at
times to left he could see the sun, an umber globe,
and sometimes as the smoke veil on the river
swirled or lifted it cast on the water the same
sombre tint. The boy recognized in the vastness
of the catastrophe and in the unusualness of the
lights and colors something which made him serious.


He wondered where Riverius was now, and at last
descended. Perhaps he had taken the dug-out. He
would look.

As he approached the shore, he paused. The
pirogue was pulled up, and in it asleep lay Phi-
letus, his head propped on a stiff bit of bark set
against the bow. On his breast, also asleep, and
wrapped in his blanket, was the little Ophelia. Paul
touched him, and at last shook him. He was sleep-
ing profoundly. He sat up. " What's that ?" he

" It is I, Paul Preston. How could you sleep in
this smoke ? It's awful." The child was coughing
in her slumber.

" That's so," returned Philetus. " Got to get out
of this."

Phely aroused as he lifted her. " Phely's hun-
gry," she said. " Phely wants mother."

" Oh, Lord !" groaned Philetus.

" Come," said Paul. " My mother will get her
breakfast. Come along, Phil."

"You're a boy, and 'ain't no reason. Your
mother and me ain't friends no more. She give it
to me hot yesterday. I'm goin' home."

" You can't do it, Phil. It isn't safe alone. If
the wind changes, there won't be a tree alive down
to the Ohio. Wait for Consider. He said he'd be
back; and Phely — the child's half starved."

"I'll go," he answered, and silently followed
Paul through the thickening smoke, which was less
oppressive as they rose above the stream.

About twenty feet from the cabin, Philetus sat



down on a stump. " Take her in," he said, " and
feed the maid. I'll bide here."

" Come, Phely," said Paul. He did not question
Phil's decision, and meant merely to report it to
his mother and leave it to her. Ophelia was easily
comforted by Becky's supplies, and Mrs. Preston,
after hearing from Paul, went out at once to Phi-

She was happy over Riverius's escape, and awed
and even troubled at the thing she had done, now
that the need for action had passed by. It was as
if she had wakened by a touch an earthquake or
some such enormous physical catastrophe beyond
the common power of mortal summons. Yester-
day night it had seemed not only needful, and there-
fore right, but also a just and delightful vengeance.
It hurt her, too, that she had lied to Rollins and
before Paul. She was her gentle self to-day, hum-
ble, thankful, and free from passion.

" Come in and eat, Philetus," she said.

" Not bite or sup in that cabin. You 'ain't bin no
friend of mine. You're his friend that murdered
my Miriam. You sot them woods ablaze. You
done it. You raised that hell-fire that's a-roarin'
yonder. May it find him, find him, and burn his
body and scorch his soul !"

Bessy recoiled, terrified. " You are foolish. I,
a woman, — I set my own woods afire ? Nonsense !"

" Will you go to say you didn't do it ?" She
could not, would not lie again, and was glad that
he was unable to see her face. " You ain't used to
lyin'. You done it well to Rollins. I heerd about it.


You can't lie to me. The Lord's on my side. He's
a-listenin'. When you're a-castm' up accounts with
him, he says there's a murderer loose, there's a dead
woman a-lyin' white and still, there's a little help-
less thing sayin' 'Mother!' like to break a man's

" Philetus, it is useless to talk to you. If you
say that I set that wood afire, you know what may
come of it. Leave me Ophelia, and go home with
Consider. I hear that Mrs. Rollins went there.
When all is settled, come back, and we will talk
about the child. I want to help her and you."

He stood silent a moment. " I'm that dazed, 1
don't know. I'm a-seein' red all the while, — red
like blood. Where's that man Byverus ?"

" I do not know."

" Keep the child. He won't hurt her, I guess."

" You are worn out, Philetus. You want food."

" Not bite or sup in that cabin."

" Well, I'll send it out to you."

" Not in nothin' he's touched."

" No."

" Then I'll take it. It is willed that we should

She left the distraught old man, and sent him his
breakfast by Becky. Then he waited patiently till
Consider came, and went away with him to the
desolated cabin and the dead wife.


When Ance entered his cabin, he looked around,
and, seeing no one, began to think that Riverius
had been lost in the river. The German kept silent,
to make sure in the darkness before he spoke that
it was certainly Yickers. The latter stood at the
door and lifted a glass to see how much whiskey
he poured out. As he did so, Riverius was sure,
and said, aloud, " Don't do that." Ance dropped
flask and corn-cob stopper, and turned.

"You skeered me." He was trembling.

Riverius rose. " You must not drink. We shall
both want clear heads. How is it at Mrs. Pres-

" Oh, all right; but them woods is burnin' like
the devil was a-blowin' 'em."

" Who set them afire ? You did not tell me."

" Mrs. Preston and Paul. They done it well,

"Mrs. Preston!" murmured Riverius. Again
he owed her a life, but now no sense of over-
powering obligation disturbed him. " Ah ! she is
worth a dozen of me," he thought. "Is it burning
still ?"

"Burnin' ! You bet; and it'll burn for a week,
unless the rain comes. Mostly them big fires
fetches rain. Anyway, it'll keep the men a-flyin'
round and £jit us a chance to leave. We'd best lie


by here two or three days and then take to the

" Could you carry a message to Mrs. Preston to-
morrow ?"

" I might."

" And now about that murder, Ance, — if it was
one. I have heard so little. I want to understand

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