Phantoms of the Woods

After my visit to Black Hawk’s cabin, things went on as before, except that I no longer wandered far from the house, lest in some way I should run across the outlaw Burke. Mr. Blake being away, I was now more than ever taken up with the care of things, and so, being occupied, the events I have related little by little faded from my mind. In this way the autumn closed, and winter came on with high winds that moaned and shrieked in the trees and about the windows of the house, as if seeking in vain for some place of warmth and comfort. This till one day, when we had heard nothing from the outer world for a long time, Mr. Blake returned from Appletop, where he had work of some kind. Going about his business, he had scarce a word to say, being more reticent than ever before, I thought, if that could be. When, however, I would have asked him about Uncle Job, he put me off with some abruptness of manner, and doing so, appeared greatly disturbed. At this, and upon his persisting, I cried out in alarm and as a peevish child might have done:
“Uncle Job is dead!”
“No, no! not that, my son,” he answered, his eyes wavering, as men’s will who are weak or seek to mislead you.
“He is ailing, then?”
“No, he is well; as well as you are,” he answered, glancing toward his wife, as if asking her aid.
“Then what is the matter? I know you are keeping something from me?” I persisted.
“There is nothing the matter; or nothing you could help one way or the other,” he answered, his embarrassment growing greater.
“Tell me what it is, then?” I cried, feeling sure he was hiding something from me.
“There, don’t get excited, my son. It’s nothing, I’m sure, if the truth were known,” he answered, floundering about in his speech.
“Nothing!” I answered, forgetting myself and laying hold of his arm. “What is it, then?”
“It’s nothing bad, anyway,” he replied, sweat starting from his forehead; “only a bit queer, maybe, but that’s all.”
“What is it that’s queer?” I exclaimed, ready to fly at his throat, so great was my rage at his continued attempt to evade my inquiry.
“Strange, I had better have said,” he answered, closing his mouth as if nothing would induce him to say more.
“What’s strange?” I persisted. “Whatever it is, I am sure Uncle Job would want me to know.”
“Don’t keep him in suspense longer, dear,” Mrs. Blake here interposed. “It can’t do any good.”
“Is it best?” he asked, as if not agreeing with her.
“Yes; for it can’t be kept from him forever,” she answered.
“Well, then, my son,” he spoke up at last, with sorrowful voice, “your Uncle has been arrested, but none of us believes he has done anything wrong, and know that it will all be cleared up at last.”
“Arrested!” I exclaimed, scarce able to speak; “Uncle Job arrested, and for what?”
“Oh, the charge is of no account. It is not true, of course. It can’t be; every one says that!” Mr. Blake went on, the effort to talk and to lighten the force of what he was saying being altogether beyond him.
“Tell him, my dear; it will do no good now to keep anything back,” Mrs. Blake spoke up again, putting her arm about me as a mother might a stricken child.
“All right; you know best, my dear, I suppose. Well, then, my son, your uncle is accused of taking—taking money, but no one believes he stole it.”
“Uncle Job steal money!” I cried, too much overcome to say more.
18“Well, the money was left with him, and in the morning it was gone.”
“What money?” I exclaimed, “and why do they say he took it?”
“Because he slept in the office that night.”
“Oh, but some one else might have taken it. Uncle Job wouldn’t!”
“That is what we all think, but who did take it? That is the question that puzzles every one, for nothing in the room was disturbed, and no one could have entered.”
“Who had him arrested—Moth?” I asked, my thoughts reverting to him as the source of all our troubles.
“No; the man the money belonged to. He came up from Rock Island, but brought Moth along and a constable, and after they had been in Appletop a few hours they accused your Uncle Job, and he was arrested.”
“I knew it was Moth; but where is Uncle Job now?”
“In jail.”
“In jail!” I cried, breaking down.
“His friends offered to bail him out, but he refused, saying he was innocent, and would never leave the place till it was made clear.”
“In jail! Poor uncle! And what are they doing to clear him?” I asked, scarce able to speak.
“I don’t know. He even refused to have a lawyer, saying there was no need of one; but Mr. Seymour got one on his own account, and Rathe says he will hire another.”
“Yes; he is dreadfully worked up over the scandal.”
“When did it all happen?” I asked, striving in vain to control myself.
“A week ago!”
“A week ago, and nobody has told me! Oh, Uncle Job, you haven’t a friend in the world, and will surely be lost!” I cried. “Why did I come here, anyway, and leave you! I was a coward to fear Moth, when you were in greater danger than I.”
“There! don’t take on so, my dear. I’m sure it will all come out right in the end,” Mrs. Blake interposed, hopefully.
“No; and I’m going to him, and to-day—and now,” I cried, taking up my hat.
This Mr. and Mrs. Blake, however, would not permit, saying it was foolish, and that Moth was in Appletop and would give me trouble, while I could do nothing. This only made me the more determined, for I thought there was something back that had not been disclosed, but of what nature I could form no idea. Nor did it matter, for nothing could be worse than Uncle Job’s plight and the crime he was accused of. That he had done any wrong I did not for a moment believe. He who was incapable of even a bad thought! Thus the day wore itself out amid my entreaties, the night closing in somber and gray, with a light fall of snow. My determination in nowise changed, I excused myself when supper was over, and going to my room, slipped on a heavy jacket, and opening the window jumped to the ground. Hastening, I reached the old abandoned road, sure my absence would not be discovered until morning; but in any event, I would not return, for they had no claim on me, and as for Moth, I no longer cared for him, so great was my distress over Uncle Job’s unhappy plight.
The storm in which I now found myself was mild to a degree, and such as country people like to face. Coming on lightly from the south, with scarce any wind, the snow did not fly here and there as we sometimes see it, but came in great wavering flakes, each lying where it fell, and softly, as if the particles followed some order of things laid down from the beginning, so deft were they and free from bustle or any show of activity. Walking and partly running, the soft flakes falling on my face cooled my blood and stimulated my strength, so that I looked forward to my journey with something akin to pleasure. A moon half full lessened the somber gray of the sky, bringing out in glad relief the myriad forms built up by the snow on either side of the half-hidden path. The stillness of the night and the seclusion of the forest soothed and rested my mind, worn with the events of the day, and in that mood I hurried on, refreshed and comforted by the contrast. All my life I had been thus abroad, and the breaking of a twig or creaking of a limb under the piled-up snow did not startle me as it would some, but came like the welcome of a friend. In this way I ran on, elated, sometimes singing lightly, but observing all that came within my view, and more particularly the curious forms built up by the fast-falling shower. Of these, some appeared to welcome the storm, while others stood aloof in gloomy reproof. Thus the staring, upright limbs of the maple would have none of it, but spurned the gentle drops as a woman might a soft caress, neither seeking nor accepting grace of any kind. The hickory and wild crab, too, looked black and sour in the twilight, as if viewing what was going on with no kindly spirit. Drooping and in loving embrace, in reproof of the others, the elms caught up great armfuls of the falling flakes and held them tenderly, as a mother might an ailing child. The oaks, too, like sturdy, brown-headed men—for so their clinging leaves made them appear in the uncertain light—held their burden as if in some way the foliage of other months would the sooner return to bless them because of it. Underneath and diminutive, like waiting children, the elders stood waist-deep, canopies of snow forming above them like umbrellas uplifted against the storm. Other and lesser shrubs crouched down, or bending forward had the look of wearing collars turned up about their ears, so sturdy did they appear. Still smaller plants, growing on the margin of the path, no bigger than your hand, stood up for a while like mice or foxes perched on end, but only to sink down one by one and disappear, as the snow piled higher and higher about them.
For a long time my journey, thus diverted, was such as we think of afterward with pleasurable emotion; but by and by, the wind veering suddenly to the north and rising, the particles of snow, before so soft and comforting, came cold and cutting like crystals of ice. This change, with the depth of the snow, hindered my progress, and after a while produced something like despondency in my mind, so surely is the traveler affected by what occurs about him that he should foresee but cannot in any way alter. Going on resolutely, and thinking as yet but lightly of the change, the rising wind and hardening snow soon made each step a burden. The flakes, too, before so mute, now whirled and eddied about my path, blinding my eyes and blocking my way with great uplifted banks, in which, before I could suspect their presence, I found myself struggling up to my waist. Thus impeded and my strength wasted, I went forward as in a mire, my limbs and body no longer full of glow and vigor, but benumbed with the cold, which each moment grew more intense. Struggling to make headway, in a little while I began to lie longer when I fell, comforted by my ease, and lifting myself with reluctance from the soft embrace. Wearied and chilled, I yet feared to rest, lest sleep should overtake me, and sleeping, I should awake no more. Startled at the thought, I would get to my feet, but with wavering steps and slow, like a drunken man or one enfeebled by age or sickness. Finally, despite all my efforts my strength being gone, I could no longer rise. Looking forward with a despairing cry, a gray wolf, gaunt with hunger, stood watching me amid the whirling snow, scarce a yard’s length from where I lay. Behind him there was another, lean like the first, and with eyes of fire. Roused by the sight, I stood upright. If these were all it did not matter, but if a pack, then indeed I was lost. Waiting, no more appeared; but stirred into life I uttered a feeble cry, striking in dull rage at the brute nearest me. At this it moved aside, but only a little way, and turning, faced me as before, and this expectantly, as if awaiting some event that could not now be long delayed. Alarmed, and yet attaching little importance to the presence of the brutes, I dragged my steps forward, but soon to find my strength spent and my spirits broken. Resting, the chill and roar of the wind as it plowed through the naked trees filled me with sadness and indescribable languor, in which the longing to sleep overcame all other thoughts. Despairing, I looked about for a place where I might lie down and yet in some measure be protected from the fierce cold and whirling snow. Some place, indeed, less bleak, with the appearance of warmth, if nothing more. So much indeed does the semblance of life lure us even in death; for of desire to live I now had none, and like a hunted animal, sought only a place in which to lie down and die.
In this mood, and looking forward, a cluster of oaks caught my eye, their brown leaves seeming to offer shelter and warmth from the fierce storm and biting cold. Making my way slowly toward them, the wolves kept pace on either side, but not obtrusively, as if the end could now be plainly seen. Reaching the haven, and looking about despairingly, as one takes leave of the world, I found myself on the outer rim of the great forest. Gazing with hungry eyes toward the open country, the faint twinkle of a lighted candle after a while caught my eye across the intervening space, but dimly, and as one sees a star in the far-off heavens. Looking long and earnestly, I at last discerned the outlines of the Eagle’s Nest, standing black and chill in the wide expanse. At this I gave a cry of joy, and hearing it, the wolves too gave voice, but dolefully, as if the proximity of men filled them with dire dismay. Benumbed with cold and the clinging snow, but cheered by what I saw, I made my way from beneath the friendly trees to the open plain. Here the wind, meeting no obstruction, rushed on more fiercely than before; but pressing toward the light, which each moment shone more clear and warm, I at last reached the door, and lifting the latch, plunged forward into the room, carrying the snow that filled the entrance with me. Going down, I made out the sorrowful figure of Fox seated before the open hearth, his chin pitched forward in his hand, as if conjuring a doleful sermon of some sort. Calling his name as I fell, the light faded from my sight, and I knew no more.