The Jungle Fugitives/An Unpleasant Companion
AN UNPLEASANT COMPANION
"Say, Jack, the shellbarks are droppin' thick down in Big Woods. What a chance for a fellow to lay up a bushel or two before the crowd gets down there in the morning."
"Wouldn't it, though, Ned!" I replied wistfully, for if there was anything I had a fondness for, it was shellbarks.
We were trudging home to our dinner, for Ned and I lived close to the schoolhouse, much to the envy of some less fortunate pupils who brought their noonday meal with them in tin pails. It was a late September Friday, and a soft golden haze lay on hillside and woodland, and the quail were whistling in the furrows; and, as Ned spoke, I could see in my mind's eye just how Big Woods would look that afternoon with the soft sunlight slanting through the trees, and glimmering on the quiet waters of the creek.
"Well, Jack, will you go?" said Ned abruptly.
"You mean will I play truant?" I asked, a little startled.
"Yes; there's no danger, Jack; we'll tell the teacher we had to stay home to cut corn."
At first, I resisted Ned's appeal. I had played truant once before, a long time ago, and the memory of the punishment that I received in the woodshed at home was still strongly impressed on my memory.
But this, I thought, was an exceptional case, I badly wanted a bushel or two of shellbarks, and I knew full well that, unless they were gathered that afternoon, they wouldn't be gathered at all; for bright and early the next morning all the boys in the neighborhood would be down in Big Woods, armed with clubs and baskets and sacks, and even the squirrels would stand a poor show after that invasion.
In our selfishness, we never thought that other people might have a fondness for shellbarks as well as ourselves. So, after a little more pleading on Ned's part, I gave in, and we agreed to meet down at the foot of our orchard, as soon as dinner was over, for Ned lived right across, on the next farm. In a corner of the barn, I found my old chestnut club, a hickory stave, well coiled with lead at the top. Shoving this under my jacket, so no prying eyes could see it, I joined Ned at the meeting-place, and off we went in high spirits for the Yellow-breeches.
It was a good mile to Big Woods, for we had to circle away down to Hake's Mill to get across the creek, but we felt well repaid for our trouble when we arrived there. The fallen nuts lay thick amid the dead leaves, and up on the half-naked trees the splitting hulls hung in clusters, willing to drop their burden at the least rustle of the breeze.
We heaped the shellbarks in great piles, ready to stow away in Ned's big wheat bag; and, when the ground was cleaned up pretty well, and the leaves had been thoroughly raked, we turned our attention to a close cluster of trees that stood close by the creek. These nuts were unusually large, and thin-shelled. The hulls were cracked apart, but very few nuts lay on the ground, so I hauled out my club, and drove it fairly into the heart of the tree. A shower of nuts came down, with a merry clatter that gladdened our hearts; but the club, striking the trunk of the tree, bounded sideways and lodged in the crotch of a limb overhanging the creek, some twenty or thirty feet above the water.
Here was a dilemma. I didn't want to lose that club, for it had done good service in past autumns, and had gone through a great many hairbreadth escapes.
If we tried to dislodge it by hurling sticks or stones, it would fall into the water, and just at that point the creek was very deep, and moreover, as popular tradition held, a treacherous undertow existed which would render the recovery of the club impossible.
"Climb the tree, Jack," said Ned; "that's your only chance."
I was always considered a pretty good climber, so, after a little hesitation (for this was an unusually difficult tree), I started up the slippery trunk, and, with Ned's friendly aid, pulled myself among the lower limbs.
It was an easy matter to reach the particular bough that I wanted, but then came the tug. I was half-inclined to give up the whole thing and go down to the ground, but Ned kept egging me on so confidently that I determined to go through with it.
Straddling the limb, I took a firm hold with both hands in front of me, for no other boughs were close enough to be grasped, and thus inch by inch I moved cautiously forward.
The branch creaked and groaned, and at last began to bend in such an alarming fashion that I stopped short.
There was the club, not four feet away now, and far below I could see the quiet waters of the creek, wrinkling the reflected foliage as a dropping nut or stray leaf rippled the surface.
"You're nearly there, now," cried Ned, with hearty encouragement; "just a little more, Jack, and you'll have it.
"But the limb will break," I called down.
"No, it won't," he insisted, "don't be afraid."
That settled it. I wasn't afraid, and Ned should know it.
I took a firmer grip on the bough, and slid forward half a foot.
Crack, crack,—the big branch slowly began to split, and as I made a frantic effort to crawl back, a strange noise from the bushy part of the tree overhead turned my gaze upward.
It's a wonder my hair didn't turn white that very instant, for what I saw was a big, tawny wild-cat, with blazing eyes and quivering claws, crouched on a narrow limb. I knew the animal was going to spring, and I tried to shout as loudly as I could, but my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and the only sound I made was an odd cry that caused Ned to laugh, for he couldn't see what was the matter from where he stood.
Then like a streak the brute plumped down on my back, and with a tremendous splash, limb, wildcat, and myself went into the creek.
I heard Ned shout, as the water closed over me, and then everything became dark.
I rose to the surface terribly frightened, for, sad to relate, I had never learned to swim, and Ned could do very little in that direction. Instead of clutching at the empty air, as most drowning persons do, I caught hold of something substantial; and when the water was out of my eyes and out of my stomach, for I had swallowed about a pint, I saw that I was hanging to the bushy end of the broken limb. That was all very well, but the next thing I observed was not so pleasant, for six feet distant, on the thick part of the branch, sat the wild-cat, apparently none the worse for his fall. His sharp claws were driven into the bark, and he was calmly licking his dripping fur. Meanwhile the current was sweeping us down stream, and Ned was running along the bank in a sad state of fright and excitement. My back began to hurt pretty badly, and I discovered that my face was torn and bleeding in one or two places, though whether this was caused by the fall or by the wild-cat I did not know.
"Swim, Jack, let go and swim," shouted Ned, and then, remembering perhaps that I was unable to follow his instructions, he suddenly turned and ran back through the woods at the top of his speed, instead of making any effort to help me.
I was badly scared before, and now, when I saw, as I supposed, my last hope vanish, I began to shout for help as loudly as I could.
But at the very first cry the wild-cat lifted his head, and emitted a vicious snarl. As I howled louder than ever, he advanced a foot or two along the limb, ripping off the bark, and fixing his big glaring eyes savagely on my face.
I was terrified into silence, and, as soon as I ceased shouting, the brute stopped and coolly proceeded to lick his fur again.
Apparently, he did not object to my presence so long as I remained quiet. The worst of it was that my end of the branch was pretty far down in the water, and threatened every moment to carry me entirely under the surface.
In this precarious situation, I drifted down the creek, until the bend drew near that sweeps round to Hake's Mill. Here the country was a little more open, and a farmhouse came into sight over the brow of a hill.
There was a chance of rescue, and in spite of my previous experience, I decided to try it, for my limbs were becoming chilled, and I knew I could not hold on much longer.
"Help! Help!" I cried with might and main. No answer came back, but before I could shout a third time the wild-cat uttered a snarl, and began creeping toward me, inch by inch, and lashing the water fiercely with his tail. Lower and lower sank the branch, until my shoulders were submerged, and still the beast kept advancing.
I continued to shout, but no welcome voice responded, only empty echoes floating back from the hills.
Then I must have given up all hope, for I remember wondering vaguely what had become of Ned, and what they were doing in school, and whether my absence was noticed or not.
The cold water was rippling about my neck now, and the wild-cat was so close that I could note the horrible colors of the glaring eyes, and feel the hot breath in my face. I wondered how it would feel when those two rows of needle-like teeth met in my flesh; and then, before I could think any more, a deafening report filled my ears, and, through the cloud of smoke that rolled over the creek, the wild-cat bounded high in air, and fell into the water with a loud splash. That was all I remembered then. The next thing I knew, I was lying in a grassy hollow, alongside the creek, while Ned and an old farmer bent over me, and threw water in my face. Ned's desertion was explained. He had cut off the bend in the creek by running over the hill, and, accompanied by the farmer, who happened to be down in the woods hunting rabbits, they had arrived just in time to shoot the wild-cat and drag me out of the water. That was the last time I played truant. I didn't lose my share of the shellbarks, for Ned went down early the next morning and got them, but I did lose the chestnut club, and what was worse, in spite of my sore back, I spent a very unpleasant quarter of an hour out in the woodshed, just two days later, and Ned, I am happy to say, passed through the same edifying experience.