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- Gaut Gurley - 10/59 -


protruding from the upper and lower windows of the well-crammed receptacle passing under the name of barn. Beyond this little opening, and bounding it on every side, stood the encircling wall of woods, through and over which gleamed the bright waters of the far-spreading Umbagog on the north; while all around, towering up in their green glories, rose, one above another, the amphitheatric hills, till their lessening individual forms were lost, or mingled in the vision with the lofty summits of the distant White Mountains in the south and west, and of the bold detached eminences which shot up from the dark wilderness and studded the horizon in all other directions.

Such, and in such a locality, was, as the reader probably has already inferred, the residence which Mark Elwood had pitched upon for beginning life anew. On leaving the city, as represented in the last chapter, he had, under the goading remembrance of follies left behind, and the incitements of hope-constructed prospects before, perseveringly pushed on, till he reached this lone and wild terminus of civilized life; when, finding, a mile beyond the last of the scattered settlements of the vicinity, a place on which an opening had been made and the walls and roof of a spacious log house erected, the year before, he had succeeded in purchasing it, for ready money, at a price which was much below its value, and which left him nearly half his little fund to be expended in more thoroughly clearing the land, getting in crops, making the house habitable, and felling an additional tract of forest. And with so much energy and resolution had he pursued his object of seeing himself and family once more united at a comfortable home, that, within three months from the time he commenced operations, which was in the first of the spring months, he had accomplished it all; for his wife and son, rejoicing in the knowledge of his success which he had communicated to them, and promptly responding to his invitation to join him, had come on, with their little all of goods and money, in teams hired for the purpose; and they were now all together fully installed in their new home, pleased with the novelty and freshness of every thing around them, proud and secure in their conscious independence and exemption from the dangers and trials they had recently passed through, and contented and happy in their situation.

The particular time we have taken for the reappearance of the family on this, their new stage of action, was a warm but breezy afternoon, on one of the last days of July. Elwood was engaged in his new-mown field, in cutting and grubbing up the bushes and sprouts which had sprung up during the season around the log-heaps and stumps, and could not easily or conveniently be cut by the common scythe while mowing the grass. He was no longer robed in the broadcloth and fine linen, in which, as the rich merchant, he might have been seen, perhaps, one year ago that day, sauntering about "on 'change" among the solid men of Boston. These had been mostly worn out or sold during the changing fortunes of the year, and their place was now wisely supplied by the long tow-frock and the other coarse garments in common use among the settlers. Nor had his physical appearance undergone a much less change. Instead of the pallid brow, leaden eye, fleshly look, and the red cheek of the wine-bibber and luxurist of the cities, he exhibited the embrowned, thin, but firm and healthy face, and the clear and cheerful complexion of the contented laborer of the country,--tell-tale looks both, which we always encounter with as much secret disgust in the former as we do with involuntary respect in the latter. He now paused in his labors, and stood for some time looking about the horizon, as if watching the signs of the weather; now noting the progress of the haze gathering in the south, and now turning his cheek first one way and then another, apparently to ascertain the doubtful direction of the wind, which, from a lively western breeze, had within the last hour lulled down into those small, fluctuating puffs usually observable when counter-currents are springing up, balancing, and beginning to strive for the mastery. After a while he moved slowly towards the house, continuing his observations as he went, till he came near the open window at which Mrs. Elwood was sitting at her needle-work, from which she occasionally lifted her eyes, and glanced somewhat anxiously along the path leading down through the woods to a landing-place on the lake; when, looking round and observing her husband standing near, giving token of being about to speak, she interposed and said:

"You have seen nothing of Claud, I suppose? What can be the reason why he does not return? He was to have been at home long before this, was he not?"

"Yes," carelessly replied Elwood, "unless he concluded to take a bout in the woods. He took his fowling-piece with him, to use in case the trout wouldn't bite, you know. Phillips, the old hunter, came into the field where we were last night, and said he was out of meat, and must skirt the lake to-day for a buck. I presume Claud may have joined him. There! hark! that sounded like Claud's piece," he added, as the distant report of a gun rose from the woods westward of the lake and died away in swelling echoes on the opposite shore. "And there, again!" he continued, as another and sharper report burst, the next moment, from the same locality,--"there goes another, but not his, as he could not have loaded so quick. That must have been Phillips' long rifle. They are doubtless together somewhere near the Magalloway,--some three miles distant, I should judge,--and are probably having fine sport with something."

"That may be the case, perhaps," responded Mrs. Elwood. "I wish, however, he would come; for I cannot yet quite divest myself of the idea that there may be danger in these wild scenes of the lakes and the woods. But what was you about to say when I first spoke? You were going to say something, I thought."

"O--yes--why, I was about to say that I had made up my mind to set fire to the _slash_. It is dry enough now to get a good burn; and it looks to me a good deal like rain. I wish to get the land cleared and ready to sow with winter wheat by the first of September; and I don't like to risk the chance of finding every thing in so good order again."

"There is no danger that the fire will spread, or be blown to the buildings, is there?"

"No, the wind is springing up in the south now, and will drive the fire only towards the lake in the direction of the landing."

"But Claud may be there."

"Well, if he should be, the fire won't burn up the lake, I think; and, if it besets the path in the woods, he can come round some other way," jocosely said Elwood, moving away to carry his purpose into execution.

Having procured a parcel of splinters split from the dry and resinous roots of some old pine stub,--that never-failing and by no means contemptible substitute for lamp or candle among the pioneers of a pine-growing country,--he proceeded rapidly to the edge of the _slash_, as a tract of felled forest is generally denominated by the first settlers, especially of the northern States. Here, pausing a moment to mark with his eye the most favorable places to communicate the fire, he picked his way along the southern end to the farthest side of the tangled mass of trees of every description composing the slash, which was a piece of some four or five acres, lying on the western border and extending north and south the whole length of the opening. And, having reached his destination, and kindled all his splinters into a blaze, he threw one of them into the thickest nest of pine or other evergreen boughs at hand, and darted back to his next marked station, where he threw in another of his blazing torches, and so on till he reached the cleared ground, which was not one moment too soon for his safety. For so dry and inflammable had every thing there become, under the scorching sun of the preceding fortnight, which had been relieved by neither rain nor cloud, that, the instant the fire touched the tinder-like leaves, it flashed up as from a parcel of scattered gunpowder; and, bursting with almost explosive quickness all around, and swiftly leaping from bough to bough and treetop to treetop, it spread with such astonishing celerity that he found it hard on his heels, or whirling in a hot cloud over his head, at every pause he made to throw in a new but now unnecessary torch, in his rapid and constantly quickened run through the slash. And when, after running some distance into the open field, to escape the stifling smoke and heat by which he was even there assailed, he turned round to note more fully the surprising progress that the terrible element he had thus let loose was making, he beheld all that part of the slash which he had a moment before passed through already enveloped, from side to side, in a continuous blaze, whose red, curling crest, mounting every instant higher and higher, was advancing with the seeming speed of a race-horse on its fiery destination. Half-appalled by the sight of such a sudden and unexpected outburst of the fire he had kindled, Elwood hurried on to his house, and joined his startled wife in the yard; when the two took station on an adjoining knoll, and looked down upon the conflagration in progress with increasing wonder and uneasiness,--so comparatively new was the scene to them both, and so far did it promise to exceed all their previous conceptions, in magnitude and grandeur, of any thing of the kind to be met with in the new settlements. And it was, indeed, a grand and fearful spectacle: For, with constantly increasing fury, and with the rapidity of the wind before which it was driving, still raged and rolled on the red tempest of fire. Now surging aloft, and streaking with its winding jets of flame the fiercely whirling clouds of smoke that marked its advance, and now dying away in hoarse murmurs, as if to gather strength for the new and more furious outburst that the next moment followed, it kept on its terrific march till it reached the central elevation, which embraced the most tangled, densely covered, and combustible part of the slash, and on which had been left standing an enormous dry pine, that towered so up high above the surrounding forest as to have long served as a landmark for the hunters and fishermen, in setting their courses through the woods or over the lake. Here the fiery billow, as if governed by the human tactics of a military assault, paused, parted, and swept by on either side, till it had inclosed the elevation; when suddenly it shot up from every side in an hundred converging tongues of flame, which, soon meeting and expanding into one, quickly enveloped the whole hill in one broad, unbroken robe of sheeted fire, encompassed and mounted the veteran pine, and around its colossal trunk formed a huge, whirling pyramid of mingling smoke and flame that rose to the mid-heavens, shedding, in place of the darkened sun, a lurid glare over the forest, and sending forth the stormy roar of a belching volcano. The next moment a shower of cinders and the burning fragments of twigs, bark, and boughs which had been carried high up by the force of the ascending currents, fell hot and hissing to the earth over every part of the adjoining fields, to and even far beyond the spot where Elwood and his wife were standing.

"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Elwood, aroused from the mute amazement with which he and his more terrified companion had been beholding the scene, as soon as these indications of danger were thus brought to his very feet. "Good Heavens! this is more than I bargained for. See,--the fire is catching on the stumps all over the field!"

"The house!" half-screamed Mrs. Elwood. "What is that rising from the shingles up there near the top of the roof?"

"Smoke, as I am alive!" cried the other, in serious alarm, as he glanced up to the roof, where several slender threads of smoke were beginning to steal along the shingles. "Run, Alice, run with the pails for the brook, while I throw up the ladder against the gable. We must be lively, or within one hour we shall be as houseless as beggars."

"O, where is Claud? where is Claud?" exclaimed the distressed wife and mother, as she flew to the house to do her husband's bidding.

Yes, where was Claud? At the risk of the charge of purposely tantalizing the reader, we must break off here, to follow the young man just named, in the unexpected adventures which he also had experienced during that eventful day. But for this we will take a new chapter.


Gaut Gurley - 10/59

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