Twenty Campers

by Charles Hoy Fort

Watermelons were undulating in a green streak from a cart to the rear of Leonidas Marcy's store. Men in a line caught melons with a sharp slap on each side, and turned just in time to catch another, with catching and throwing in one motion. Only a moment's delay would mean a melon against ribs instead of between hands, but these men were expert "passers."

The watermelons belonged to little Marcy. He seemed uninterested in them. Barrels and crates were his. He turned from barrels and crates, for there was something else that absorbed all his imagination. It was the wall of the warehouse next door. The wall was slowly settling. Some day it would lean over Marcy's property; then the vengeful little fellow would sue.

Marcy chuckled; his neighbor, Hiram Ramshack, knew nothing of the wall's trespassing. Some day he would be informed by a stiff, folded paper with a red seal. Then Ramshack would rage. He would be put to great expense and inconvenience. Marcy would look across his passageway from his office window and would see tearing down and rebuilding. He would be happy. He could picture Ramshack's impotent fury. He would be very happy.

The wall was encroaching at the rate of about an inch a year. At last it was over the dividing line. Marcy went to see his lawyer to tell him what to do, almost running in his excitement--in fact, breaking into a trot before he was halfway.

But as to "Doc" Sordorst. Doc Sordorst came to town as a physical culturist. During the winter he prospered, but in the spring he made a mistake. It seemed to him that a summer camp would be a paying investment; this belief was caused by the enthusiasm his suggestions provoked.

"Pure air, Mr. Ramshack!" he said. "Just what you need! How would you like to join in with several dozen of our townsmen for two weeks or a month in the woods?"

Said Ramshack: "Fine! Just what I've always wanted. I'll go a whole month with you. Sort of communing with nature, hey? I've always wanted to commune, though would have to be shown how first."

A dozen and then twenty, townsmen said: "It's the best way of spending summer that could be!"

Then came the mistake.

Doc went ahead and built his camp. It was on Lake Muggins. Lake Muggins was only twenty miles from the city.

Said Ramshack: "Muggins! What a name! And how can one get into the heart of the woods and commune at only twenty miles away? I think I'll keep on working all summer, and then take a good long rest next year."

Said others: "Muggins! Now, if it only had an Indian name-- but Muggins! Might as well camp out in the park as only twenty miles away."

"Muggins!" exclaimed the twenty, as if playing a game.

So Doc Sordorst had a camp on his hands--as it were, of course. He thought the matter over. He worked hard, for thinking is hard work. One seems to wrestle, yet with no tangible opponent; thinking is grasping without hands and digging without arms. Wrestling and grasping and digging went on in the top of Doc's head, until an idea came.

Said Doc: "Then, if they won't have a lake with a commonplace name and only twenty miles from the city, I must give them what they do want."

And just how sensible was this decision you would realize were you acquainted with these recalcitrant campers. There was "Little-neck" Leonard--close as a clam! And "Hard-shell" Patterson--impervious to everything not strictly along business lines. Ramshack, Marcy and the rest were quite as little-necked, hard-shelled and impervious, while the city itself was known in surrounding villages as "Squeezetown," for it was the center of grinding, and pressing, and getting as much over a dollar's worth as one could possibly get for a dollar.

Said Doc: "It's pretty hard to lose all the labor and cost of my camp, but still there may be something in it for me. I'll have to satisfy them."

He went away. He came back.

Said Doc Sordorst: "And now you will be pleased! I've located an ideal camp this time, and it will be ready in a week. Ideal, I say! Right on Lake Longuelia, named after the famous Algonquin chief. Nestling in the Adirondacks!"

"The Algonquin chief!" exclaimed twenty seemingly impervious business men. But one force could make them momentarily forget grinding and bargaining; it was a tucked-away and covered-over joy in the picturesque, which stirred into life so that, just for a moment now and then, stock reports were forgotten, and all repeated:

"Nestling in the Adirondacks! That's fine!"

Now, each of the twenty could have gone to the seashore, to New York, or even to Europe without ostentation, but to go camping made each feel himself so interesting that he wanted to parade or have fireworks, even though the going away would be early in the morning. For these interesting twenty would sleep in bunks; they would gather around a camp fire; they would hear the sounds of a forest at night. There would be no Indians to battle with; no bears, no panthers; besides squirrels and woodchucks, there would be no animal life; yet the feeling of what had been was upon each of the twenty, as he felt upon himself the atmosphere of the mighty hunter and pioneer.

Perhaps the best pleased of all was Marcy. He chuckled, and no wonder, for he was preparing a very fine joke.

Said Marcy: "And now I'll make that Ramshack squirm for swindling me that time! Just as he's enjoying himself most, he'll get word that his wall must come down. It'll spoil his vacation, and I'll grin derision at him. That's what I call great!"

Hard-shell Patterson was the first to reach the station one June morning at seven o'clock. He was a big, fat old fellow, who all his life had worn sober and respectable black. This morning he wore yellow, blue and green knickerbockers, a sombrero, a belt with holsters on it.

Marcy strolled in, grinning a little because he was so conspicuous. A cowboy hat, leggings the color of molasses held up to the sun, a crimson sash!

Queer! One associates picturesqueness with manliness, as in the life of the trapper, the cowboy, the scout. And yet picturesqueness is close to effeminacy--bright colors, soft sashes, long hair. Which may be a sage reflection, but sage reflections may be out of order on June mornings at seven o'clock.

Then Ramshack appeared. A shooting coat and leather boots. A pith helmet! For many years Ramshack had grubbed amid canned goods; there he was, aflame with his sense of the picturesque.

Seventeen other barbarians, dressed as if to play "character" parts, came to the station, each advancing to the growing group of his fellows, beginning to grin as soon as in sight, in embarrassment that heightened until he was near enough to speak.

Marcy was whispering: "Look at that Ramshack! If he isn't a sight!"

And Ramshack was nudging some one, saying: "Well, if that Marcy isn't the worst-looking comic valentine I've ever seen!" But upon all twenty was the feeling that to go camping was the most extraordinary thing in the world.

"All aboard!"

The engine jolted back against the train in an engine's uncivil way. There was a blast of a breath, quicker puffs, jerky snorts and a rushing away.

You would have thought the car occupied by the twenty owned outright by them. Such exclusiveness! Snobbishness radiated from them so that a drummer got up and went to another car. Other passengers followed. For they were only commonplace citizens; the twenty were going camping.

And internal snobbishness, as well! Old Patterson wore a frown ten miles long as the train rushed north; then a fifteen-mile scowl. For he was prominent and leading, whereas some of his fellows were in a small way. Some were clerks. No wonder old Patterson scowled along the map. This one detested that one; others were disgusted to find themselves companions with those that they disliked most. Everything was unpleasant and ominous, in fact.

"Change cars!"

Changing cars was interesting, for it seemed to suggest going to greater remoteness. Then Doc Sordorst came out in an unexpected way. He was in command. The campers were his "patients," and in every trifle would have to obey him, or--well, take a train going the other way.

As if saying to himself, "Oh, you put me to all that trouble and expense, did you?" Doc bullied and harassed, pretending great solicitude as to health, making his "patients" sit together on the sunny side of the car, seeming to enjoy antipathies as unfriendly members of his party sat side by side; forbidding them to leave their seats for fear of draughts--well, Doc had planned an evening of scores, it seemed.

"All out!" Some tumbled out, some stepped out with dignity; all felt the marvels of steam and iron; it was early in the afternoon, yet many were the milestones left behind.

There were wagons waiting. Some "piled in"; some of the fat old fellows clambered into carts with difficulty; under a hot sun and over a dusty road, the twenty rolled away. Then the heat of the sun was turned to balminess by overhanging boughs, and the moisture of the woods was in the softness of the road. A blue patch shone through the green leaves. Glimpses of blue were hung in the trees, and then blue coolness stretched like a sky upside down.

Said Doc: "Lake Longuelia, boys!"

And the only suitable response seemed to be: "Hooray!"

"Here's the camp!"


The twenty jumped into color. Green overhead, brown of pine needles on the ground, the blueness gently rolling pebbles on a yellow beach. There was a hut. It was made not of wood such as houses are made of, but with corrugated sides of slabs cut from the sides of trees. And the slabs had bark on! No wonder the twenty said: "Hooray!"

Said Ramshack, as if recognizing, yet not quite sure:

"Why, it's nature! Say, how is it they commune?"

He said: "Hello, Marcy!"

Marcy discovered Ramshack.

He said: "Why, hello! Feeling all right after the trip?"

"Why, yes, thanks; that is, all but the cinder. Never went on the cars yet without getting a cinder in my eye."

Said Marcy: "Let me see; maybe I can get it out for you."

Marcy made Ramshack hideous by twisting his eyelid, and with the corner of his handkerchief removed the cinder.

Then Doc, the tyrant, really began his campaign of revenge.

He said: "Some one must chop wood." And for this task he detailed young Shaster and old Patterson. Shaster had been the old fellow's bookkeeper, but their business relations had broken up in a fine row. A brass-edged ruler had been flourished, even though whacked harmlessly only upon a desk.

The old fellow look at the young fellow.

He said to himself: "It was double dealing for Doc to withhold that young scoundrel's name until the last moment. I shall see to it that none of my friends have anything to do with him."

Said young Shaster: "Just let me get in a boat with that old miser! That's all!"

But he soon saw that murder in some other form would have to be turned to. Not in twenty years had the old fellow been in a body of water, except as an island in a bath tub.

Old Patterson, a remarkable sight in tights, stood ankle deep at the lakeside. Then he retreated, scratching the tickling of drying water on a left ankle with a right toe.

Some one laughed. As if leading a regiment, Old Patterson marched into the lake, pushed out a great wave in front of him, and, to his own and general astonishment, swam as well as ever he had. Swam on his back and then floated with drifting toes and nose; dived and swam under water; even Shaster exclaimed: "Good enough!"

They had dinner on a rough plank for a table.

Some one said: "Please pass the butter."

The others thought this too civilized, and felt that something was missing, until some genius cried: "Slide the grease!"

"Would you kindly pass the griddle cakes? What? No way to talk? Then sling us a grid."

And where in all commonplace, uninteresting civilization would you run across such a joke as taking the request literally and flapping a hot disk at an eye?

"Slam us some bread!" called Patterson, the jolliest old boy in the woods. Young Shaster grabbed half a loaf and twirled it, the old fellow catching it as if he had spent his life behind the bat, the young fellow looking greatly as his wife looked when she felt called upon to exclaim: "Oh, I forgot! I'm mad at you!"

Said old Patterson: "I'll bet ten cents I can climb to the top of that maple tree as fast as anyone here!"

Which caused admiring Shaster to cry: "You're all right!" And half an hour later he was helping as mightily as anyone to dislodge the old fellow, who had climbed but had stuck in a fork twenty feet above the ground.

And because he could swim as well as when a boy, Patterson, ponderous and clumsy, seemed to feel that he could do everything as well as when a boy. A heartrending crash! Old Patterson had tried to leap over a bench. Groans and gasps! Tried to turn a somersault to win back the ten cents lost in the maple tree.

Night came on. Chill was in the air. The campers discovered the logic of fire worshippers. They have a god that does something for them. The god sprang high from a pile of pine knots and spread away in snapping sparks. There was the gayety of twenty boys in a circle of light, with the mystery of blackness around. A sixty-year-old boy was so disrespectful of his elders as to fill the pipe of a boy somewhat older with pepper and a layer of tobacco on top. And if that was not a good joke!

Some one pushed a log from under Patterson. The old fellow's heels were in the air. Never had he enjoyed a better joke!

Said Patterson: "When I was a young fellow, I had a fine tenor voice. I'll sing with anyone here."

And he sang in a voice ridiculously high and out of proportion to his bulk, while little Marcy joined in with a voice quite as disproportionate, so awesomely deep and rumbling was it.

Ramshack could not have told what he felt, but he was moved. Perhaps the feeling was atavistic in their make-believe primitive life. They were adventurers in a savage land, perhaps; and all would help one another against foes, whether human or beast.

Ramshack tried to express something of this, and he turned to Marcy, as if to indulge a pleasure in an enmity that in the forest could not exist.

He said: "This is great!"

All that Marcy could answer with was: "Bet your life!" But it was a response that made Ramshack say to himself:

"Why, Marcy's the finest fellow on earth!"

The fire god had sunk to a smoldering that could not leap.

Some one said: "We'd better put out the lantern and retire."

And what a thing that was to say! One could hear something like that in any civilized home. But it was a joke, because everything was a joke.

Some more experienced woodsman amended:

"Naw! Douse the glim!" Which was wording more in harmony with rough pine slabs and pine needles for a floor.

The forest came to life: the honk of the wild goose; the hiss of a serpent; the growling of a panther; the swishing of arrows through leaves. But only Marcy heard the snoring, for only he could not sleep.

Marcy thought of the surprise he had prepared for Ramshack. He did not chuckle this time.

Sometimes the twenty were boys, and sometimes they were very young children. Everything pleased them; idly leaning head down over the side of a boat to look under at deep light from the side not shadowed; thrusting sticks into the water, just to see an angle spring into a straight line by refraction; feeling the electric thrill of a fish not caught but nibbling.

"It must be fine to know how to commune with nature!" said Ramshack. "I wish I hadn't lost all my life in business and knew how to commune a little. Look at these ripple marks in the sand. Just like the stripes scrubbed on a shirt over an ironing board."

But he paused. He amazed himself. Never before had it occurred to him that he had so much poetry in him.

And in the evening when looking at stars; he said:

"Just like the twinkling of bubbles in a frying pancake. Why, that's quite a thought! Like poetry, isn't it?"

But he forgot his admiration for himself, for voices were roaring and growling and grumbling old songs, there in the very old woods, evoking feeling as old as is the feeling that comes with any kind of music when greenness is overhead, and underfoot is the brown of green that has fallen.

The emotion of Ramshack, poet and communicant at the altar of nature, burst from him.

He exclaimed: "This isn't so rotten, is it?"

And Marcy was moved so that he agreed:

"I'm sure I've seen rottener."

The next morning Doc Sordorst had something to say.

Said Doc: "Well, here in a way is one of our rules half broken. You know we agreed that there should be no letters or newspapers sent to camp, so as to keep away from all worries. Still, if anything important should arise, it should be sent through my office. Letter for you, Marcy."

Marcy read the letter and muttered. When Ramshack asked him to go fishing, he muttered again, shamefacedly this time, and would not go fishing.

The letter told him that suit would be brought against Ramshack at nine o'clock that morning. Already it was seven. Telegraph wires were down; only by train could Marcy stop proceedings. Then suit would be surely brought. It seemed a pity.

"I wouldn't wish it for the world!" exclaimed Marcy. "If by a special, whether train or engine, I could reach town by nine o'clock, I'd do it. There's no way of doing it; I'm hundreds of miles away."

Said Doc Sordorst: "Is it as important as that, Marcy?"

And Marcy, feeling that to sue and annoy that very fine fellow, Ramshack, would be the wickedest act of his life, answered gloomily:

"It certainly is!"

Then Doc writhed and made a fearful face. He writhed again, and his confession came out:

"Boys, by various little schemes, especially when changing cars, I have fooled you for business reasons of my own. Marcy, that is really Lake Muggins, and you are only twenty miles away!"

Some one grumbled and some one laughed.

"Sir," began old Patterson, "this is very dishonorable--"

But he laughed, and everyone else laughed, for everything is a joke when out camping.

That is, everyone laughed except Marcy. Marcy's short legs were shooting pellets of mud backward. As luck would have it, he caught his train, accomplished his purpose, and by dinner time was back from the city and seated at the rough pine table.

As he was only twenty miles away, to this day Ramshack has never discovered that his wall has anything in common with a certain long-famous tower in Italy.

To return to the Table of Contents for Charles Hoy Fort's Short Stories, click here.

To return to the Fortean Web Site of Mr. X, click here.

To send electronic mail to Mr. X, (, click here.

© X, 1998, 1999