S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Far in the forest, a story online

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and the fire was swiftly sweeping around them.
The cry was heard again.

"It's Phely! It's Phely, for sure!" Seeing
little, he dashed madly down the slope, gasping for
breath and beating the laurels aside as he went.
Ah ! He had her in his arms, a scared, sobbing,
half-choked little creature. Turning, the man fled
in haste up the rocks. On all sides there was fire.
Again he ran up the main mountain-side, and at
last came out on the bare top at the head of the slide.
He knew at once that he was trapped, and that soon
the fierce wind, which now and then dropped a
deluge of sparks around, and the flame and smoke
from the southwest, would make life impossible.
He set the child down, and for an instant stood
still in perplexity. The next moment he turned
and stooped to see more clearly. A dozen axes lay


under the log-shoot. He drove one deep into the
bottom logs of the slide. Then with furious energy
he dragged a piece of squared log, cut to use in
mending the slide, up on the short inclined plane
at its head. He pushed it down until it stayed
against the axe. He lifted a second timber and
slid it down beside it. No man on the broad Alle-
ghany but Ance could have done the thing, nor he,
perhaps, under other circumstances. At the upper
ends of the logs were the auger-holes bored to re-
ceive the spikes meant to bind them fast when
used. He remembered the day he had bored them,
— the day before he had last seen Miriam. He
could not find the spikes, owing to the blinding
gusts of smoke, but there were axe-helves at his
feet, and two he drove, blow on blow, into the
auger-holes. Then he ran back to a lumber-pile,
groped about, and found some ox-harness. He cut
loose the hide traces, stumbled back again, reeling
and half blinded, and, shutting his eyes,, skilfully
fastened the traces firmly about the axe-helves so
as to bind the two logs together. Next he took
oft' his coat, seized the weeping half-strangled child,
and sat down on the two logs he had thus
united. For a moment he looked about him.
There was no fire visibly nearer on three sides
than two hundred yards, but as to this he could
only guess or see dimly as the swirling smoke per-
mitted. Certainly the bushy, stone-laden summit
was clear as yet. What lay between him and the
river he could not tell, but above the rolling storm-
driven smoke-clouds there was an ominous red


light. So far he had acted with remarkable de-
cisiveness. The means were familiar; the bold
action he contemplated was in accord with the
fearlessness of his character. As he sat on the
logs, dealing with the slight hesitation which now
disturbed his purpose, the gray smoke was dense
about him. His eyes watered. He could see noth-
ing beyond a dozen feet, except the wavering glare
overhead and now and then the lines of orange-
red the lightning cast athwart the sky. A few
large drops of rain fell. Should he risk the ven-
ture and stay? Had he been alone, this would
have been his choice. He did not underestimate
the peril of the other choice. He sat leaning for-
ward, grasping the handle of the axe which alone
held fast the logs beneath him. A fiercer rush
of wind over the hill-top brought more rain, but,
striking the southwestern slope, sent the marching
blaze of distorted spirals of crimson and yellow
far up into the sky. He bent down and saw the
white face of the child, one cheek a fiery red,
the mouth convulsed. " Too late !" he cried, and
quickty wrapped his coat fold on fold over the
child's face. Then, with one broad hand pressing
the garment firmly against Phely's face, with the
other he loosened the staying axe with a quick
motion and cast it from him. The timbers did not
move. He lifted himself and pushed at the raised
side of the slide. They started. How slow, he
thought. Through the smoke which let nothing
be seen ten feet away the great squared logs slid,
gathering impetus as they went. Open-eyed, half


blind, Ance stared ahead. Quick and quicker they
shot through the sombre cloud-darkened twilight.
In a few seconds the speed was awful. The trees
here and there below them in the gorges were
ablaze, the heat intense. As he felt the influence
of the single curve dangerously sway him, the man
fell back flat and caught at the side of the timber
he was lying on. His hand was crushed, but they
were not thrown out. Then there was a blinding
rush, swift as an eagle's swoop. He clasped both
hands over the child's mouth and nose, gave one
fierce scream of torture as they flashed through
a blazing belt of pine and birch, and instantly
after, with garments on fire, shot off the end of the
slide, and, hurled headlong, fell twenty feet into
deep water. He rose to the top and lifted the
child above the surface. Was it dead? Would it
live ? He knew not. The cool water eased him,
and there was little or no smoke on the level of
the deep, comparatively quiet pool. He could dimly
see lights on the shore. It was all he could do to
make the land. He paused on the edge as he
staggered out. Ah ! the child was struggling,
alive, crying wildly. Then he tried to shout for
help, but could make only a hoarse, hollow sound.
"Why was he so weak? Gasping for breath, he
stumbled along, climbed the bank, saw a light, and
ran pitching to right and left like one drunk. Sud-
denly he was aware of a camp-fire, voices, Philetus,
Rollins, Paul. He saw no more, but fell headlong
at their feet, as they started up, the child, little the
worse for the ordeal, rolling from his grasp.


" My God ! he's saved it !" said Mrs. Preston, as
she lifted Phely.

" He is burnt," said Paul, as Rollins pushed him
aside and knelt down by Ance to examine him.

Paul ran to Philetus. " She's saved, — saved !"
cried the boy. " Oh, thank God, Philetus, she's
saved ! Mother, bring her here."

The old man stood still. " Where be the maid?"
he said.

" Here," returned Mrs. Preston.

He took Phely in his arms, the child still dazed
and crying, as he covered her face with kisses.

" Take her, ma'am," he said to Mrs. Preston.
" Who saved her ? Who fetched her out ?"

" Ance," she replied.

" Heaven ain't good enough for that man. Take
me to him," putting out his hand. Consider un-
derstood him. " This way, Phil," he said, and led
him to Ance, who was lying near the fire, groaning,
and trying to speak. Philetus knelt down.

" Here, take some whiskey," said Rollins, lifting
Vickers's head. He swallowed a mouthful, and
gave a shrill cry of pain, thrusting the cup away.

" He's burned in'ardly," said Rollins. " Get
some water. Lord ! and his face, too." The water
he took with effort.

" Pm done for," he moaned, hoarsely, opening
his eyes and groping about with his sound hand.
" Air that you, Phil ?"

"It's me, Ance."

" Where's Ryverus ?"

" What's that he says ?" cried Rollins.


" He wants Ryverus," returned Philetus. " God,
he knows. He s a-sayin' somethin'."

" Ryverus ! Fetch Ryverus ! Fetch him afore
I die."

" He isn't here," said Rollins, kneeling beside
him, and greatly puzzled.

" Then Phil— Phil Where's Phil ? Oh, my

God, my throat!" He spoke louder, writhing in
anguish. Phil bent over him, and the hurt man
drew him closer, an arm under his neck.

"I done it, Phil. 'Twasn't him. I didn't go
to. That's why I got him off. Under the stone,
— under the stone in the brook by the blazed
hickory, — her apron. Lord, forgive me. You
jus' curse me, Phil, and let me die."

" He done it. 'Twasn't Ryverus," said Philetus,
raising his clear, sightless eyes, while speechless
amazement fell for an instant upon the listening

" Phil ! Phil !" said Ance. The blind man bent
down. " You won't curse me ? I giv' you the

" You didn't go to hurt her. I ain't no harder
nor Christ, Ance," And he took the hand of the
dying man, who lay gasping, but said no more.

Mrs. Preston moved over to Rollins. " Are you
satisfied ?"

" Yes."

" Then send and get Mr. Riverius. Paul knows."

" Come, Paul, Pll go myself," cried Rollins.
" Come." And he hurried to the boat.

Those who were left tried to help the man at


their feet, but in vain. The red, scorched face moved
now and then, contorted by pain which even the anaes-
thesia of growing suffocation could not wholly relieve.

His breath came and went, and at times appeared
to have ceased forever; after each long interval it
came again quicker and shorter.

Elizabeth Preston sat beside him, pitiful, without
power to aid the man who had sinned, suffered, and
was paying the death price for the life of the child
he had saved. Philetus leaned against a tree, self-
absorbed and motionless. His little Ophelia, wet and
scared into silence, lay at his feet, wrapped in a
blanket, and away from the view of torment none
knew how to lessen. Over them all hung a gray pall
of smoke, now thick, now thin. The flaring camp-
fire lit this strange scene, where was no sound save
the crackling of burning logs, the dull roar of the
rapids, and now and then a groan wrung out by
torture such as no man can bear in soundless endur-
ance. Once the dying man raised himself on his
elbows and murmured hoarsely:

" Fetch Ryverus. Where is he ? "

At last the noise of clinking poles came up from
the smoke-hidden stream. The group opened as
Riverius, advancing with rapid steps, knelt down on
the sod beside Ance.

" Do you know me, Ance ? "

A smile went over the red face on which the Ger-
man gazed.

" Yes, you're — you're Ryverus."

"Water, quick! water," said Riverius. He moist-
ened the hot, black lips.


" It is I, Ance. "What is it I can do for you ? "

Twice in the effort to speak Ance failed. Riverius
bent lower to catch what he was trying to say.

"What is it, Ance?"

" I want to say I clone it. I didn't go to do it.
Christ ! I told 'em. They know."

" Yes, yes, I too know. We all know. WTiat else
is there % "

" I'd of liked to wrastle a fall with you."

Riverius sat mute, holding the scorched hand.
Ance drew a long breath. Those who looked on
watched to see his strong chest rise again. A minute
passed. Riverius rose.

" He is dead," he said. " God rest his soul ! "


A year and three months had gone by when Johan
Riverius and his wife stood in a terraced garden
overlooking vine-clad hillsides and the half-seen
windings of a little Saxon river.

Elizabeth Preston had fonnd in the German gen-
tleman the true companion of a life to be satisfied
with nothing else than the best honesties of head
and heart. Happiness and prosperity had enriched
the woman with a riper form, and that serenity of
face without which beauty is impossible. So thought
the man at her side.

"Ah!" he said, "there is Paul on his pony. He
will ride well in time. There is a good soldier in
that boy. Some day my old regiment will have him."

" No, no/' she said. " His career will be at home,
not here. I shall harden my heart and bid him go
when the time comes."

"Ah, well," returned Riverius, "the day is not
yet, and to harden thy heart when it comes — per-
haps. What of mine ? I love the boy well."

The woman smiled. " I shall have my way. I can
make reason hammer my heart hard enough if there
be need. When the time comes, Johan, you will
make it easy. I sometimes think I am too indulgent
with him nowadays, but love and happiness play
tricks with one's moral nature." She stood still, of a
sudden thoughtful.


" Ah, Bess, Bess, I know that look ! Now again you
are thinking that once in your life you failed of

" Yes ; it does not trouble me now, but it does come
back to my memory often, like a ghost I do not fear,
but cannot get rid of."

" Would you do it again ? "

" Yes, a thousand times."

" Then that is enough ; and to comfort you, all the
casuists are on the side of that good, stout lie. Let
the past bury its dead sins. The graveyard for thy
wicked memories need not be large."

"But, Johan— "

"No, no," he urged, smiling. "We will talk of
more pleasant things."

" But I must talk. There are things from which
escape is not easy. Over and over you have bid me
cease when I have sorrowed at the thought of the
vast ruin I made to save you. I am grieved, but I
do not repent. I dream about it ; it ivill come back."

" Himmel! to be haunted this way by all one's past
sins! I have news for you that should lay all thy
ghosts. I have waited, but to-day I can with free-
dom speak. I had to wait, and now we will have to
be economical for two or three years."

" Why, Johan ? But that matters little. Economy
does not alarm me. What is it? Do not keep me
waiting. I am — I am a little sensitive just now.
Small things disturb me."

He turned and for a moment considered her anx-
iously. " What is it, my dear ? " She looked to be in
perfect health.


" Oh, nothing."

" Good ! I have paid Rollins all, and more than
all, the fire cost him. I have left you in debt to no
man. Consider Kinsman is in charge of the new
mill, with Rollins to oversee my affairs. Poor old
Philetns Richmond is cared for in an asylum — a
hopeless case; and little Ophelia the good German
sisters at Lilitz will educate. Are you satisfied ? n

"Oh, Johan! And I must have troubled you.
This was what I wanted. 77

He smiled. " And what interest am I to have on
all this money which goes to settle your debts ? 77

" This, 77 she said, and whispered in his ear, flushing
as she told her mother-secret.

" Only this was wanting,' 7 he said. " Thank God ! 77
And he kissed her.






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Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 17 of 17)