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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter48)

2006-09-08 19:48


  Every one who lives in the big woods gets lost at some time. Yes, even Daniel Boone did sometimes go astray. And whether it is to end as a joke or a horrible tragedy depends entirely on the way in which the person takes it. This is, indeed, the grand test of a hunter and scout, the trial of his knowledge, his muscle, and, above everything, his courage; and, like all supreme trials, it comes without warning.

  The wonderful flocks of wild pigeons had arrived. For a few days in May they were there in millions, swarming over the ground in long-reaching hordes, walking along, pecking and feeding, the rearmost flying on ahead, ever to the front. The food they sought so eagerly now was chiefly the seeds of the slippery elm, tiny nuts showered down on wings like broad-brimmed hats. And when the flock arose at some alarm, the sound was like that of the sea beach in a storm.

  There seemed to be most pigeons in the low country southeast of the lake, of course, because, being low, it had most elms. So Rolf took his bow and arrows, crossed in the canoe, and confidently set about gathering in a dozen or two for broilers.

  It is amazing how well the game seems to gauge the range of your weapon and keep the exact safe distance. It is marvellous how many times you may shoot an arrow into a flock of pigeons and never kill one. Rolf went on and on, always in sight of the long, straggling flocks on the ground or in the air, but rarely within range of them. Again and again he fired a random shot into the distant mass, without success for two hours. Finally a pigeon was touched and dropped, but it rose as he ran forward, and flew ten yards, to drop once more. Again he rushed at it, but it fluttered out of reach and so led him on and on for about half an hour's breathless race, until at last he stopped, took deliberate aim, and killed it with an arrow.

  Now a peculiar wailing and squealing from the woods far ahead attracted him. He stalked and crawled for many minutes before he found out, as he should have known, that it was caused by a mischievous bluejay.

  At length he came to a spring in a low hollow, and leaving his bow and arrows on a dry log, he went down to get a drink

  As he arose, he found himself face to face with a doe and a fat, little yearling buck, only twenty yards away. They stared at him, quite unalarmed, and, determining to add the yearling to his bag, Rolf went back quietly to his bow and arrows.

  ~The deer were just out of range now, but inclined to take a curious interest in the hunter. Once when he stood still for a long time, they walked forward two or three steps; but whenever he advanced, they trotted farther away.

  To kill a deer with an arrow is quite a feat of woodcraft, and Rolf was keen to show his prowess; so he kept on with varying devices, and was continually within sight of the success that did not actually arrive.

  Then the deer grew wilder and loped away, as he entered another valley that was alive with pigeons.

  He was feeling hungry now, so he plucked the pigeon he had secured, made a fire with the flint and steel he always carried, then roasted the bird carefully on a stick. and having eaten it, felt ready for more travel.

  The day was cloudy, so he could not see the sun; but he knew it was late, and he made for camp.

  The country he found himself in was entirely strange to him, and the sun's whereabouts doubtful; but he knew the general line of travel and strode along rapidly toward the place where he had left the canoe.

  After two hours' tramping, he was surprised at not seeing the lake through the trees, and he added to his pace.

  Three hours passed and still no sign of the water.

  He began to think he had struck too far to the north; so corrected his course and strode along with occasional spells of trotting. But another hour wore away arid no lake appeared.

  Then Rolf knew he was off his bearings. He climbed a tree and got a partial view of the country. To the right was a small hill. He made for that. The course led him through a hollow. In this he recognized two huge basswood trees, that gave him a reassuring sense. A little farther he came on a spring, strangely like the one he had left some hours ago. As he stooped to drink, he saw deer tracks, then a human track. He studied it. Assuredly it was his own track, though now it seemed on the south side instead of the north. He stared at the dead gray sky, hoping for sign of sun, but it gave no hint. He tramped off hastily toward the hill that promised a lookout. He went faster and faster. In half an hour the woods opened a little, then dipped. He hastened down, and at the bottom found himself standing by the same old spring, though again it had changed its north bearing.

  He was stunned by this succession of blows. He knew now he was lost in the woods; had been tramping in a circle.

  The spring whirled around him; it seemed now north and now south. His first impulse was to rush madly northwesterly, as he understood it. He looked at all the trees for guidance. Most moss should be on the north side. It would be so, if all trees were perfectly straight and evenly exposed, but alas! none are so. All lean one way or another, and by the moss he could prove any given side to be north. He looked for the hemlock top twigs. Tradition says they always point easterly; but now they differed among themselves as to which was east.

  Rolf got more and more worried. He was a brave boy, but grim fear came into his mind as he realized that he was too far from camp to be heard; the ground was too leafy for trailing him; without help he could not get away from that awful spring. His head began to swim, when all at once he remembered a bit of advice his guide had given him long ago: "Don't get scared when you're lost. Hunger don't kill the lost man, and it ain't cold that does it; it's being afraid. Don't be afraid, and everything will come out all right."

  So, instead of running, Rolf sat down to think it over.

  "Now," said he, "I went due southeast all day from the canoe." Then he stopped; like a shock it came to him that he had not seen the sun all day. Had he really gone southeast? It was a devastating thought, enough to unhinge some men; but again Rolf said to himself "Never mind, now; don't get scared, and it'll be all right. In the morning the sky will be clear."

  As he sat pondering, a red squirrel chippered and scolded from a near tree; closer and closer the impudent creature came to sputter at the intruder.

  Rolf drew his bow, and when the blunt arrow dropped to the ground, there also dropped the red squirrel, turned into acceptable meat. Rolf put this small game into his pocket, realizing that this was his supper.

  It would soon be dark now, so he prepared to spend the night.

  While yet he could see, he gathered a pile of dry wood into a sheltered hollow. Then he made a wind-break and a bed of balsam boughs. Flint, steel, tinder, and birch bark soon created a cheerful fire, and there is no better comforter that the lone lost man can command.

  The squirrel roasted in its hide proved a passable supper, and Rolf curled up to sleep. The night would have been pleasant and uneventful, but that it turned chilly, and when the fire burnt low, the cold awakened him, so he had a succession of naps and fire-buildings.

  Soon after dawn, he heard a tremendous roaring, and in a few minutes the wood was filled again with pigeons.

  Rolf was living on the country now, so he sallied forth with his bow. Luck was with him; at the first shot he downed a big, fat cock. At the second he winged another, and as it scrambled through the brush, he rushed headlong in pursuit. It fluttered away beyond reach, halfflying, half-running, and Rolf, in reckless pursuit, went sliding and tumbling down a bank to land at the bottom with a horrid jar. One leg was twisted under him; he thought it was broken, for there was a fearful pain in the lower part. But when he pulled himself together he found no broken bones, indeed, but an ankle badly sprained. Now his situation was truly grave, for he was crippled and incapable of travelling.

  He had secured the second bird, and crawling painfully and slowly back to the fire, he could not but feel more and more despondent and gloomy as the measure of his misfortune was realized.

  "There is only one thing that can shame a man, that is to be afraid." And again, "There's always a way out." These were the sayings that came ringing through his head to his heart; one was from Quonab, the other from old Sylvanne. Yes, there's always a way, and the stout heart can always find it.

  Rolf prepared and cooked the two birds, made a breakfast of one and put the other in his pocket for lunch, not realizing at the time that his lunch would be eaten on this same spot. More than once, as he sat, small flocks of ducks flew over the trees due northward. At length the sky, now clear, was ablaze with the rising sun, and when it came, it was in Rolf's western sky.

  Now he comprehended the duck flight. They were really heading southeast for their feeding grounds on the Indian Lake, and Rolf, had he been able to tramp, could have followed, but his foot was growing worse. It was badly swollen, and not likely to be of service for many a day - perhaps weeks —— and it took all of his fortitude not to lie down and weep over this last misfortune.

  Again came the figure of that grim, kindly, strong old pioneer, with the gray-blue eyes and his voice was saying: "Jest when things looks about as black as they can look, if ye hold steady, keep cool and kind, something sure happens to make it all easy. There's always a way and the stout heart will find it."

  What way was there for him? He would die of hunger and cold before Quonab could find him, and again came the spectre of fear. If only he could devise some way of letting his comrade know. He shouted once or twice, in the faint hope that the still air might carry the sound, but the silent wood was silent when he ceased.

  Then one of his talks with Quonab came to mind. He remembered how the Indian, as a little papoose, had been lost for three days. Though, then but ten years old, he had built a smoke fire that brought him help. Yes, that was the Indian way; two smokes means "I am lost"; "double for trouble."

  Fired by this new hope, Rolf crawled a little apart from his camp and built a bright fire, then smothered it with rotten wood and green leaves. The column of smoke it sent up was densely white and towered above the trees.

  Then painfully he hobbled and crawled to a place one hundred yards away, and made another smoke. Now all he could do was wait.

  A fat pigeon, strayed from its dock, sat on a bough above his camp, in a way to tempt Providence. Rolf drew a blunt arrow to the head and speedily had the pigeon in hand for some future meal.

  As he prepared it, he noticed that its crop was crammed with the winged seed of the slippery elm, so he put them all back again into the body when it was cleaned, knowing well that they are a delicious food and in this case would furnish a welcome variant to the bird itself.

  An hour crawled by. Rolf had to go out to the far fire, for it was nearly dead. Instinctively he sought a stout stick to help him; then remembered how Hoag had managed with one leg and two crutches. "Ho!" he exclaimed. "That is the answer —— this is the 'way."'

  Now his attention was fixed on all the possible crutches. The trees seemed full of them, but all at impossible heights. It was long before he found one that he could cut with his knife. Certainly he was an hour working at it; then he heard a sound that made his blood jump.

  From far away in the north it came, faint but reaching;


  Rolf dropped his knife and listened with the instinctively open mouth that takes all pressure from the eardrums and makes them keen. It came again: " Ye-hoo-o." No mistake now, and Rolf sent the ringing answer back:

  "Ye-hoo-o, ye-hoo-o."

  In ten minutes there was a sharp " yap, yap," and Skookum bounded out of the woods to leap and bark around Rolf, as though he knew all about it; while a few minutes later, came Quonab striding.

  "Ho, boy," he said, with a quiet smile, and took Rolf's hand. "Ugh! That was good," and he nodded to the smoke fire. "I knew you were in trouble."

  "Yes," and Rolf pointed to the swollen ankle.

  The Indian picked up the lad in his arms and carried him back to the little camp. Then, from his light pack, he took bread and tea and made a meal for both. And, as they ate, each heard the other's tale.

  "I was troubled when you did not come back last night, for you had no food or blanket. I did not sleep. At dawn I went to the hill, where I pray, and looked away southeast where you went in the canoe. I saw nothing. Then I went to a higher hill, where I could see the northeast, and even while I watched, I saw the two smokes, so I knew my son was alive."

  "You mean to tell me I am northeast of camp? "

  "About four miles. I did not come very quickly, because I had to go for the canoe and travel here.

  "How do you mean by canoe?" said Rolf, in surprise.

  You are only half a mile from Jesup River," was the reply. "I soon bring you home."

  It was incredible at first, but easy of proof. With the hatchet they made a couple of serviceable crutches and set out together.

  In twenty minutes they were afloat in the canoe; in an hour they were safely home again.

  And Rolf pondered it not a little. At the very moment of blackest despair, the way had opened, and it had been so simple, so natural, so effectual. Surely, as long as he lived, he would remember it "There is always a way, and the stout heart will find it."

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