The Marooned Campers

by Charles Hoy Fort

There is one reason why you should be astonished at nothing that we did. It is such a good reason that it would account for things even more foolish than we did.

We were very young.

When we were little boys we met in Bill Scrubbs' house. Perhaps two hundred times Mrs. Scrubbs broke up those meetings; certainly two hundred times old Mr. Scrubbs pounced upon us and drove us down the stairs--but we always came back. We had to; some meeting place was necessary to us when we were little boys, and the necessity continued when we were young fellows of twenty-two and twenty-three.

A dozen of us were in Billy's room. It was our room.

We were talking about a new billiard "shark." Then we went on to ballot-box stuffing.

Billy said: "I'm going camping."

And every one of the foolish, enthusiastic eleven cried: "So'm I!"

One wanted to go up the river; another wanted to go down the river; some wanted mountains; others wanted a lake.

Billy said: "I'm just going to get on the cars and not know where I'm going. Just keep on going till I come to a place I like. Then I'll get out, even if I have to keep on going all the way to Labrador."

And the foolish eleven cried: "So'm I!"

Jeb Heffles was cautious. He had to be; he was so heavy and clumsy that experience had taught him to look around before he moved.

Jeb said: "But we ought to send some one ahead to build a camp and have things ready."

Billy objected.

"In that case we would know where we were going, which would spoil the sport of the thing." His objection was sustained.

So, after great difficulties to arrange that our vacations should come together, we met one morning in the railroad station, and boarded a train, nearly going away without Tommy Swallow, who had to try every machine in the station that would produce anything for a penny in the slot.

We had tickets to Saratoga.

After leaving Saratoga, the conductor was astonished to see us still there.

"Can't stop now!" he exclaimed. "It's your own fault. The brakeman called out Saratoga plain enough."

We took tickets to Fort Edward, receiving rebate slips.

Again the conductor was astonished.

"Why, here! You're left again. We just passed Fort Edward."

We paid to Ticonderoga and got more rebate slips.

At Ticonderoga it was all we could do to rescue "Stretch" Leonard, whom the conductor had seized determined that at least one of us should not pass his station again. More rebates.

And then discussion began, as we rushed northward along the shore of Lake Champlain, with the opposite shore slowly retreating beyond a widening expanse of blue. Tommy Swallow urged us to get out at a station, because he liked its name done artistically in clam shells. Guffy approved the looks of a girl in another station and wanted to camp there. But the truth is that most of us wanted to get as far away as we could; the remoter our camp, the more interesting it would be. So the rails kept on ticking under us, and the wise ones who had seized seats on the shady side found themselves on the sunny side, and the conductor kept on shaking his head hopelessly at us, trying to decide as to just what ward we had escaped from, until Billy Scrubbs cried:

"There's an island!"

At the next station we sprawled and tumbled out. For Billy had seen an island, and an island was just what we wanted. So through a small town, we paraded, laden with canned goods and hams and celery salt, taking a road leading south, looking for Billy's island. Why, from our impression in the train, the island could not be a mile away, for Billy's exclamation had seemed to run into the brakeman's cry of the station. But we kept on walking until walking became trudging, and still nothing dotted the blue expanse that we saw in glimpses through trees.

Here and there was a house or barn, but we disliked to question anyone. We might have been foolish, but it seemed a little too foolish to say: "Pardon me, but have you seen an island around here this afternoon?" Rather than to advertise for an island lost, strayed or stolen, we kept on trudging, Guffy making a fearful time of it because he had a case of canned goods on his back while some one else had a package of pepper in his pocket. Why, one would think that any place along the lake would do; there would be trees and water and rocks, just the same. Not a bit of it! We wanted that island, and nothing but that island would do; so we kept on trudging, and the island kept on hiding.

Some Billy or Tommy or Jimmie threw a stone at a cow. He seemed to resent the existence of a cow where he wanted everything aboriginal. And a farmer, a common, everyday farmer, who should have been a trapper or a scout, shouted at us from a distant field.

"Huh!" said Billy or Tommy, or whoever he was. "That native is making a great time over his old beast. You would think it a sacred cow!" You certainly would; for the farmer shouted faint words and gesticulated violently.

We forgot him. There was the island!

Just as we were reproaching Billy Scrubbs for seeing things in his imagination only, we rounded a curve. There was the little island, half a mile out, built of rocks high out of the lake, and with pines on top.

Drawn up on a beach were two old scows--leaky old tubs, with notches cut in their sides for oars. Naturally enough, they were ours. Six of us scrambled into one scow, and some one pushed out, sprawling over the stern, trying to keep his feet from getting wet. The other scow was launched, and we were pushing ripples ahead of us halfway from the shore, when we heard shouting on the beach.

There was the farmer. Another farmer was with him. Both gesticulated with their fists so that we wondered what was so remarkable about their old cow, though, of course, we said we cared nothing for two farmers, twenty-seven farmers or ninety-two farmers. We kept on rowing. Rocks poked out of trees; trees crept further apart, and we could see leaves as well as pine needles.

We saw something else.

There was a hut on the island.

Then our disappointment was keen; after all our trudging and searching, we had arrived to find some one else in possession.

But it was our island! Hadn't Billy Scrubbs seen it first? Why, we'd be invaders and pirates and all sorts of people! By every right the island was ours.

It was. When we climbed the rocks we found nothing but such an abandoned camp as one may see all along Lake Champlain. There was even a stove, which we disapproved, for we wanted to wrap fish and squirrels in clay and roast the lumps in a camp fire as woodsmen should, or toast something that had been alive, holding it on the end of a forked stick. The island, a hut for cooking and a hut for sleeping were ours, and some patriot climbed the highest tree to tie a flag on top.

Guffy was cook. He said he was, so the rest of us had to be contented with such titles as Admiral of the Fleet and Master of Perch Hounds, finding honors enough to go around.

Guffy! Next time we go camping, if anyone ever does go camping twice, we won't have any cook. For dinner we'd have canned salmon, which some idiot had supplied in vast quantities for this camp, around which fish leaped every few minutes--jumping at gnats and leaving bubbles, sometime making a slapping sound, as if to remind us that we were surrounded by life away down deep.

Guffy kept us out of the kitchen and did mysterious things until he called us for the salmon. It was stewed. Guffy was the cook, and, despite threats and pleading, practiced his cooking with everything--frying canned corned beef, roasting bologna, even boiling pickles. He had to do something with everything, inasmuch as he was the cook.

We ate salmon, and then wanted to get in with the fish. The proudest moment in Tommy Swallow's life arrived. He had many interesting scars, but they had always been covered up. When the rest of us were testing the water with our toes, he was proudly showing what barbed wire had done to him. Some of us plunged and some sneaked in, air above and water below warm enough, but an icy rim creeping up; Tommy was telling the story of the mark on his left knee. He was conceitedly showing what a hatchet had done to him, continuing as a guide book to his scars, when some one came along with a push, and he brought up pebbles to prove that he had reached bottom.

Guffy called us. Been cooking again! It was nowhere near time for supper, but Guffy was cook, and would cook if his cooking should bankrupt us. This time we had a ragout of minced bacon, raspberry jam and sardines.

Guffy said: "It's great!"

He said: "Ain't it funny? Why, I never knew that I could cook! It just comes to me naturally." Then he did desperate things with soused mackerel, smoked herring and salt cod, while the rest of us went away to fish.

Some Billy or Jimmie dropped a spoon hook, and, with it lying idle, tried to catch perch, and some other Billy or Jimmie trolled with a worm for pike, for there were earthworms on the island, and we wondered how they got there, never having seen any swim. The rest of us sat in a row with rods in a line and talked learnedly of split bamboo, gaffs and landing nets. "Stretch" Leonard caught a fish.

"Time for supper, boys!" called Guffy; and some Ike or Harry rowed over to the mainland for milk, which Guffy assured us was indispensable in his cooking.

Ike or Harry, or whoever he was, came back with no milk, but a story that excited us. He had gone to a farmhouse. It was on the farm where one of us had insulted the cow. Someone had begun shouting the moment that he appeared, and the violence of the shouting had made him so thoughtful that he had gone no nearer.

Well, let them shout; they were jealous of us, living on our island, enjoying ourselves, while they pushed old hoes and plows. And, in spite of even Guffy, we did enjoy ourselves.

You know how a brown branch of dead pine will burn. We trimmed off a pile of branches. A spark in its midst leaped through the dried needles and spread with a roar. It was night, but we were in a patch of light, while Guffy used the only lantern to go on cooking--experimenting with ham, and finding out how many things might be done with boned chicken, lamenting because he had not the bones for soup, really wanting us to go ashore and take the bones away from a chicken, to see what he could do with them.

But never mind Guffy, who would surely bankrupt us in time; the rest of us told stories. Curiously enough, most of them were respectable stories. We were away off on an island in a great lake. To be sure, there were farms, but we thought only of the woods on shore. There was no older person to keep us in order. There was no law among us, and because we were on an island we seemed to be away from things as things are.

It was the water; perhaps the trees; perhaps the rocks. We felt gentle and quiet around the fire. We began to call one another "pard" and all that sort of thing, though in the city most of us had never been very good friends, simply clubbing together because one has to know some one, you know.

We sang, "Comrades, comrades, ever since we were boys!"

We really were. We certainly were, though there had been a hundred quarrels among us, some so lasting that only trees and rocks and water could patch them up. We sang that we were comrades; and an old pine tree or an old bald rock made it real.

Guffy cried from the kitchen: "Great! It must have been in me all the while, but I never suspected how I could cook!"

We suspected a good deal, but could prove few identities, as we forced ourselves to try his latest compound.

We crept into bunks, and there was a shower of thumps. Shoes were coming off.

In the morning the admiral manned his fleet, and we went out in the scows. Going nowhere in particular; just wanting to know what was behind the first point of land, or splash around on the beach, or perhaps row up the creek to see what came next.

Four men with shotguns stood on the beach. They cried: "Keep off!"

Keep off? That seemed rather a remarkable command. Instead of keeping off, we kept on rowing. A shotgun was fired to our left. We were astonished by the widespread jumping of tiny fountains from the muzzle not wider than an inch; then we realized that business was meant.

The admiral directed that the fleet should go to the point.

Three men, one with a rifle, cried:

"Keep off!"

We tried the mouth of the creek.

"Keep off!"

We kept off.

Several times during the day we tried to row to the mainland.

"Keep off!"

We kept off.

Then we were prisoners. For some unknown reason, perhaps until a sufficient force to attack us could be gathered, we were held on the island. And, so far as we knew, our only crime was that one of us had insulted a cow. What kind of cow? Why such a susceptible cow?

Now, you know how young fellows are. You know just how great is their conceit. That anyone or any number of anyones should make us prisoners hurt our self-respect so that we were--why, we were terrific! Each one of the twelve felt himself not one of twelve, but all twelve put together. We'd do this! We'd do that!

We did nothing. Along the shore shotguns sprouted.

And we cared nothing for fishing; we cared nothing for swimming; all that we wanted was to get away from this island that we had so very much wanted to get to.

Only one of us was without excitement.

Said Guffy: "Great! Come try succotash and marmalade."

There was a growing crowd on the beach; it grew until night, and then along the beach was the flashing of lanterns.

We thought of sending the admiral alone with a white flag to patch up the difficulty, if possible.

Prisoners on that wretched little island! We had a hundred yards of freedom in any direction, yet we paced up and down in batches of three. Four batches paced up and down with the feeling that one would have if a prisoner on a whole continent.

Billy Scrubbs had seemed to be our leader, but the situation created big, fat Jeb Heffles. For we were starving after the third day. Every can had been opened by our wicked, wasteful cook--and we were starving! To be sure, we could catch fifty, sixty--who knows how many?--fish a day. But just because there was nothing reserved in the larder, we were sure we were starving, though perch, and even lake trout, pushed out their noses all around us.

Time? Never tell one of us that life is short! Minutes were long, slim things divided by seconds ticking reluctantly. Hours? We were sure that there could not be more than six or seven in an ordinary lifetime. We played poker for our rebate slips, until Hamilton got them all and hasn't worked since. Just to help along the time, we dug a hole in the center of the island, where the earth was soft, merely to see how deep we could dig. We paced in batches of three, and no batch would speak to another except unpleasantly.

Night came on, and lanterns twinkled as they moved alongshore behind trees here and there. We were watching lanterns, wondering how far they would go and where they would go next, when Jeb Heffles could stand it no longer.

Said Jeb: "Fellers, just give me Tommy's revolver. That's all I want! We'll swim over to the mouth of the creek, where the lantern shows the last outpost. I'll kill that fellow, and all of you be primed to swear it was self-defense."

Never before had any of us taken part in a killing. It was very interesting, Jeb might do it, but to each of us a twelfth of a notch would be accredited.

Said Jeb: "The scows would be spotted, so we'll swim to the mainland in a bunch, and here's an old door for a raft to pile our clothes on."

It was a dark night. The only stars that twinkled were the red and blue and green ones on the shore; and we piled our clothes on the raft, so that in the dark to pick out the right shoes or coats or anything else would be impossible.

There was not a splash as we sank cautiously into the water, which seemed many degrees warmer, with no sun to warm it. We swam together, all twelve of us, two dragging the raft behind and Jeb Heffles with his hands or with his nose pushing a cracker-box ahead. In it was the revolver. We kept Guffy in the center, because a half-mile swim might be too much for him. If it should be, there were eleven close by to help him, even if they could never quite forgive him. We whispered and called softly to assure ourselves that no one had fallen behind. And on we went, white dashes flitting through dark water, with pines on shore seeming to make jagged shadows even on blackness.

It was hard work for Guffy, but he spoke only once.

He said: "What a shame I used up all the vanilla before I could try it with sauerkraut!"

We said: "Save your breath, and just wait till we get you home, Guffy!" but we kept swimming close to him, and our fastest swimming was no faster than his slowest.

Our knees grated on sunken rocks; we had reached the shore, and a red lantern was not more than fifty feet away.

Then Jeb squirmed out of the water without a sound except faint dripping, bearing his cracker box. Big, powerful fellow, a fit match for any man. But what struck us at the time was that he had to give a valuable minute or so to dress first. It was nothing like modesty, but with not a second to waste, Jeb seemed to feel that without clothes he would be helpless and a match for no one.

He slipped through the trees and won a little battle without fighting. He called softly, and each of us, scrambling into some one else's clothes, traced him by his voice and the light of the lantern.

Jeb was fondling his revolver as if recognizing its power, yet ashamed to appear melodramatic. In a silly kind of a way he was saying to a man with a gun at his feet:

"Now, you know what I'll do to you! Now, it's self-defense, you know! Now, don't try any tricks, you know!"

And the man seemed to shrivel away from him and moved his hands as if to ward off the rest of us.

Why, even the cow could not have been more insulted than we were! This man, even in his fear of Jeb's revolver, waved us from him as if excommunication or something like it had befallen us.

We were excited and crowded around; that is, all but Guffy, who looked at a treetop and said:

"I wonder how coffee would go in beef stew."

Said Jeb: "Now, you don't want to try any tricks, you know! But where's the nearest railroad station? We're about tired of this sort of thing. Where's the nearest station? You've got to show us."

Said the man: "I'll show you, and only too glad to. Keep my gun and keep it pointed at me, but don't touch me and don't come nearer than twenty feet. The station ain't three miles away." And he led us to the station without trying to trick us.

We had escaped, and our vacation had been enjoyable enough, after all; still, there was something that we wanted to know, standing there waiting for the train, tall fellows in short fellows' trousers, and long-armed fellows with sleeves ending above the wrists.

We asked him what all the trouble was.

"Don't touch me! Just keep away is all I ask! Why, they had smallpox in town, and you came along and took the quarantine camp!"

Well, some of us edged away and some of us sprang away, each fearing that some one else would infect him.

We're alive yet!

We're even planning another vacation, though this time we'll have one without any germs in it.

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