The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine
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"How did you manage to cut through the snow?" I asked. "Had you a shovel?"
"Oh, no," replied the other. "I used the tin pan. I found it answered very well as a scoop. Each time that I filled it I threw the contents out of our door."
"It must have been slow and difficult work," I said.
"Indeed it was," he replied. "The labor was arduous, and occupied me several hours. But when I saw a respectable man at a fire, and a stage-coach near by, I felt rewarded for all my trouble. May I ask you, sir, how you came to be thus snow-bound?"
I then briefly related the circumstances of our mishap, and had scarcely finished when a shrill sound came through the tunnel into the shed. It was the voice of Mrs. Aleshine.
"Hello!" she screamed, "are you in there? An' you don't mean to tell me there are other people in that hole?"
Feeling quite certain that my wife and her companions were in a state of mental agitation on the other side of the drift, I called back that I would be with them in a moment, and then explained to the gentleman why I could not remain with him longer. "But before I go," I said, "is there anything I can do for you? Do you really want an iron pot?"
"The food that remains to us," he answered, "is fragmentary and rather distasteful to the ladies, and I thought if I could make a little stew of it, it might prove more acceptable to them. But do not let me detain you another instant from your friends, and I advise you to go through that tunnel feet foremost, for you might, otherwise, experience difficulties in getting out at the other end."
I accepted his suggestion, and by his assistance and the help of the rough window-frame, I got into the hole feet first, and soon ejected myself into the midst of my alarmed companions. When they heard where I had been, and what I had seen, they were naturally astounded.
"Another party deserted at this very point!" exclaimed Ruth, who was both excitable and imaginative. "This looks like a conspiracy! Are we to be robbed and murdered?"
At these words Mrs. Aleshine sprang toward me. "Mr. Craig," she exclaimed, "if it's robbers, don't lose a minute! Never let 'em get ahead of you! Pull out your pistol and fire through the hole!"
"Gracious me! Barb'ry Aleshine," said Mrs. Lecks, "you don't suppose the robbers is them poor unfortunates on the other side of the drift! And I must say, Mrs. Craig, that if there was any such thing as a conspiracy, your father must have been in it, for it was him who landed us just here. But of course none of us supposes nothin' of that kind, and the first thing we've got to think of is what we can do for them poor people."
"They seem to have some food left, but not much," I said, "and I fear they must be suffering from cold."
"Couldn't we poke some wood to them through this hole?" said Mrs. Aleshine, whose combative feelings had changed to the deepest compassion. "I should think they must be nearly froze, with nothin' to warm 'em but hard-b'iled eggs."
"That's so!" said Mrs.Aleshine. "Just shout in to them that if they'll shove them eggs through the hole, I'll bile 'em fur 'em as often as they want 'em."
"I've just got to say this," ejaculated Mrs. Lecks, as she and Mrs. Aleshine were busily placing a portion of our now very much reduced stock of provisions in the smallest of our baskets: "this is the first time in my life that I ever heard of people warmin' themselves up with hens' eggs and spirits, excep' when mixed up into egg-nog; and that they resisted that temptation and contented themselves with plain honest heat, though very little of it, shows what kind of people they must be. And now, do you suppose we could slide this basket in without upsettin' the little kittle?"
I called to the gentleman that we were about to send him a basket, and then, by the aid of an umbrella, I gently pushed it through the snow tunnel to a point where he could reach it. Hearty thanks came back to us through the hole, and when the basket and kettle were returned, we prepared our own evening meal.
"For the life of me," said Mrs. Lecks, as she sipped a cup of tea, "I can't imagine, if there was a shed so near us, why we didn't know it."
"That has been puzzling me," I replied; "but the other road, on which the shed is built, is probably lower than this one, so that the upper part of the shed could not have projected far above the embankment between the two roads, and if there were weeds and dead grasses on the bank, as there probably were, they would have prevented us from noticing the top of a weather-worn shed."
"Especially," said Mrs. Lecks, "as we wasn't lookin' for sheds, and, as far as I know, we wasn't lookin' for anything on that side of the coach, for all my eyes was busy starin' about on the side we got in and out of, and down the road."
"Which mine was too," added Mrs. Aleshine. "An' after it begun to snow we couldn't see nothin' anyhow, partic'larly when everything was all covered up."
"Well," added Mrs. Lecks, in conclusion, "as we didn't see the shed, it's a comfort to think there was reasons for it, and that we are not born fools."
It was now growing dark, and but few further communications took place through the little tunnel.
"Before we get ready to go to sleep," said Mrs. Aleshine, "for, havin' no candles, I guess we won't sit up late, hadn't we better rig up some kind of a little sled to put in that hole, with strings at both ends, so that we kin send in mustard-plasters and peppermint to them poor people if they happen to be sick in the night?"
This little project was not considered necessary, and after receiving assurances from the gentleman on the other side that he would be able to keep his party warm until morning, we bade each other good night; and, after having replenished the fire, I got into the stage, where my companions had already established themselves in their corners. I slept very little, while I frequently went out to attend to the fire, and my mind was racked by the most serious apprehensions. Our food was nearly gone, and if relief did not come to us very soon I could see nothing but a slow death before us, and, so far as I could imagine, there was no more reason to expect succor on the following day than there had been on the one just passed. Where were the men to be found who could cut a road to us through those miles of snow-drifts?
Very little was said during the night by my companions, but I am sure that they felt the seriousness of our situation, and that their slumbers were broken and unrefreshing. If there had been anything to do, Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine would have been cheered up by the prospect of doing it; but we all felt that there was nothing we could do.
After a second night spent in the stage-coach on that lonely and desolate mountain road where we were now snow-bound, I arose early in the morning, and went into the forest to collect some fuel; and while thus engaged I made the discovery that the snow was covered with a hard crust which would bear my weight. After the storm had ceased the day before, the sun had shone brightly and the temperature had moderated very much, so that the surface of the snow had slightly thawed. During the night it became cold again, and this surface froze into a hard coating of ice. When I found I could walk where I pleased, my spirits rose, and I immediately set out to view the situation. The aspect of the road gave me no encouragement. The snowfall had been a heavy one, but had it not been for the high wind which accompanied it, it would have thrown but moderate difficulties in the way of our rescue. Reaching a point which commanded a considerable view along the side of the mountain, I could see that in many places the road was completely lost to sight on account of the great snow-drifts piled up on it. I then walked to the point where the two roads met, and crossing over, I climbed a slight rise in the ground which had cut off my view in this direction, and found myself in a position from which I could look directly down the side of the mountain below the road.
Here, the mountain-side, which I had supposed to be very steep and rugged, descended in a long and gradual slope to the plains below, and for the greater part of the distance was covered by a smooth, shining surface of frozen snow, unbroken by rock or tree. This snowy slope apparently extended for a mile or more, and then I could see that it gradually blended itself into the greenish-brown turf of the lower country. Down in the valley there still were leaves upon the trees, and there were patches of verdure over the land. The storm which had piled its snows up here had given them rain down there and had freshened everything. It was like looking down into another climate and on another land. I saw a little smoke coming up behind a patch of trees. It must be that there was a house there! Could it be possible that we were within a mile or two of a human habitation? Yet, what comfort was there in that thought? The people in that house could not get to us, nor we to them, nor could they have heard of our situation, for the point where our road reached the lower country was miles farther on.
As I stood thus and gazed, it seemed to me that I could make a run and slide down the mountain-side into green fields, into safety, into life. I remembered those savage warriors who, looking from the summits of the Alps upon the fertile plains of Italy, seated themselves upon their shields and slid down to conquest and rich spoils.
An idea came into my mind, and I gave it glad welcome. There was no time to be lost. The sun was not yet high, but it was mounting in a clear sky, and should its rays become warm enough to melt the crust on which I stood, our last chance of escape would be gone. To plow our way to any place through deep, soft snow would be impossible. I hurried back to our coach, and found three very grave women standing around the fire. They were looking at a small quantity of food at the bottom of a large basket.
"That's every crumb there is left," said Mrs. Aleshine to me, "and when we pass in some to them unfortunates on the other side of the drift, – which, of course, we're bound to do, – we'll have what I call a skimpy meal. And that's not the worst of it. Until somebody gets up to us, it will be our last meal."
I took my poor Ruth by the hand, for she was looking very pale and troubled, and I said: "My dear friends, nobody can get up to this place for a long, long time; and before help could possibly reach us we should all be dead. But do not be frightened. It is not necessary to wait for any one to come to us. The snow is now covered with a crust which will bear our weight. I have thought of a way in which we can slide down the mountain-side, which, from a spot where I have been standing this morning, is no steeper than some coasting-hills, though very much longer. In a few minutes we can pass from this region of snow, where death from cold and starvation must soon overtake us, to a grassy valley where there is no snow, and where we shall be within walking distance of a house in which people are living."
Ruth grasped my arm. "Will it be safe?" she exclaimed.
"I think so," I answered. "I see no reason why we should meet with any accident. At any rate, it is much safer than remaining here for another hour; for if the crust melts, our last chance is gone."
"Mr. Craig," said Mrs. Lecks, "me and Mrs. Aleshine is no hands at coastin' downhill, havin' given up that sort of thing since we was little girls with short frocks and it didn't make no matter anyway. But you know more about these things than we do; and if you say we can get out of this dreadful place by slidin' downhill, we're ready to follow, if you'll just go ahead. We followed you through the ocean, with nothin' between our feet and the bottom but miles o' water and nobody knows what sorts of dreadful fish; and when you say it's the right way to save our lives, we're ready to follow you again. And as for you, Mrs. Ruth, don't you be frightened. I don't know what we're goin' to slide on, but, whatever it is, even if it's our own selves, me and Mrs. Aleshine will take you between us, and if anything is run against, we'll get the bumps, and not you."
I was delighted to see how rapidly my proposition was accepted, and we made a hasty breakfast, first sending in some of our food to the other party. The gentleman reported through the hole of communication that they were all fairly well, but a good deal stiffened by cold and want of exercise. He inquired, in a very anxious voice, if I had discovered any signs of approaching relief. To this I replied that I had devised a plan by which we could get ourselves out of our present dangerous situation, and that in a very short time I would come round to the door of his shed – for I could now walk on the crusted snow – and tell him about it. He answered that these words cheered his heart, and that he would do everything possible to co?perate with me.
I now went to work vigorously. I took the cushions from the coach, four of them all together, and carried them to the brink of the slope down which I purposed to make our descent. I also conveyed thither a long coil of rawhide rope which I had previously discovered in the boot of the coach. I then hurried along the other road, which, as has been said before, lay at a somewhat lower level than the one we were on, and when I reached the shed I found the door had been opened, and the gentleman, with his tin pan, had scooped away a good deal of the snow about it, so as to admit of a moderately easy passage in and out. He met me outside, and grasped my hand.
"Sir, if you have a plan to propose," he said, "state it quickly. We are in a position of great danger. Those two ladies inside the shed cannot much longer endure this exposure, and I presume that the ladies in your party – although their voices, which I occasionally hear, do not seem to indicate it – must be in a like condition."
I replied that, so far, my companions had borne up very well, and without further waste of words proceeded to unfold my plan of escape.
When he had heard it the gentleman put on a very serious expression. "It seems hazardous," he said, "but it may be the only way out of our danger. Will you show me the point from which you took your observations?"
"Yes," said I; "but we must be in haste. The sun is getting up in the sky, and this crust may soon begin to melt. It is not yet really winter, you know."
We stepped quickly to the spot where I had carried the cushions. The gentleman stood and silently gazed first at the blocked-up roadway, then at the long, smooth slope of the mountain-side directly beneath us, and then at the verdure of the plain below, which had grown greener under the increasing brightness of the day. "Sir," said he, turning to me, "there is nothing to be done but to adopt your plan, or to remain here and die. We will accompany you in the descent, and I place myself under your orders."
"The first thing," said I, "is to bring here your carriage cushions, and help me to arrange them."
When he had brought the three cushions from the shed, the gentleman and I proceeded to place them with the others on the snow, so that the whole formed a sort of wide and nearly square mattress. Then, with the rawhide rope, we bound them together in a rough but secure network of cordage. In this part of the work I found my companion very apt and skilful.
When this rude mattress was completed, I requested the gentleman to bring his ladies to the place, while I went for mine.
"What are we to pack up to take with us?" said Mrs. Aleshine, when I reached our coach.
"We take nothing at all," said I, "but the money in our pockets, and our rugs and wraps. Everything else must be left in the coach, to be brought down to us when the roads shall be cleared out."
With our rugs and shawls on our arms, we left the coach, and as we were crossing the other road we saw the gentleman and his companions approaching. These ladies were very much wrapped up, but one of them seemed to step along lightly and without difficulty, while the other moved slowly and was at times assisted by the gentleman.
A breeze had sprung up which filled the air with fine frozen particles blown from the uncrusted beds of snow along the edge of the forest, and I counseled Ruth to cover up her mouth and breathe as little of this snow powder as possible.
"If I'm to go coastin' at all," said Mrs. Aleshine, "I'd as lief do it with strangers as friends; and a little liefer, for that matter, if there's any bones to be broken. But I must say that I'd like to make the acquaintance of them ladies afore I git on to the sled, which" – at that moment catching sight of the mattress – "you don't mean to say that that's it?"
"Barb'ry Aleshine," said Mrs. Lecks, from underneath her great woolen comforter, "if you want to get your lungs friz, you'd better go on talkin'. Manners is manners, but they can wait till we get to the bottom of the hill."
Notwithstanding this admonition, I noticed that as soon as the two parties met, both Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine advanced and shook hands with the ladies who had been their neighbors under such peculiar circumstances, and that Mrs. Lecks herself expressed a muffled hope that they might all get down safely.
I now pushed the mattress which was to serve as our sled as close as was prudent to the edge of the descent, and requested the party to seat themselves upon it. Without hesitation Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine sat down, taking Ruth between them, as they had promised to do. My young wife was very nervous, but the cool demeanor of her companions, and my evident belief in the practicability of the plan, gave her courage, and she quietly took her seat. The younger of the two strange ladies stepped lightly on the cushions, and before seating herself stood up for a good look at the far-extending bed of snow over which we were to take our way. The prospect did not appear to deter her, and she sat down promptly and with an air that seemed to say that she anticipated a certain enjoyment from the adventure. The elder lady, however, exhibited very different emotions. She shrank back from the cushions toward which the gentleman was conducting her, and turned her face away from the declivity. Her companion assured her that it was absolutely necessary that we should descend from the mountain in this way, for there was no other; and asserting his belief that our slide would be a perfectly safe one, he gently drew her to the mattress and induced her to sit down.
I now noticed, for the first time, that the gentleman carried under one arm, and covered by his long cloak, a large package of some sort, and I immediately said to him: "It will be very imprudent for us to attempt to carry any of our property except what we can put in our pockets or wrap around us. Everything else should be left here, either in your carriage or our coach, and I have no fear that anything will be lost. But even if our luggage were in danger of being molested, we cannot afford to consider it under circumstances such as these."
"My dear sir," said the gentleman, speaking very gravely, "I appreciate the hazards of our position as keenly as yourself. Our valises, and all the light luggage which we had with us in our carriage, I have left there, and shall not give them another thought. But with the parcel I hold under this arm I cannot part, and if I go down the mountain-side on these cushions, it must go with me. If you refuse in such a case to allow me to be one of your party, I must remain behind, and endeavor to find a board or something else on which I can make the descent of the mountain."
He spoke courteously, but with an air of decision which showed me that it would be of no use to argue with him. Besides, there was no time for parleying, and if this gentleman chose to take his chances with but one arm at liberty, it was no longer my affair. I therefore desired him to sit down, and I arranged the company so that they sat back to back, their feet drawn up to the edge of the mattress. I then took the place which had been reserved for me as steersman, and having tied several shawls together, end to end, I passed them around the whole of us under our arms, thus binding us all firmly together. I felt that one of our greatest dangers would be that one or more of the party might slip from the mattress during the descent.
When all was ready I asked the gentleman, who, with the elder lady, sat near me at the back of the mattress, to assist in giving us a start by pushing outward with his heels while I thrust the handle of my wooden shovel into the crust and thus pushed the mattress forward. The starting was a little difficult, but in a minute or two we had pushed the mattress partly over the brink, and then, after a few more efforts, we began to slide downward.
The motion, at first slow, suddenly became quite rapid, and I heard behind me a cry or exclamation, from whom I knew not, but I felt quite sure it did not come from any of my party. I hoped to be able to make some use of my shovel in the guidance of our unwieldy raft or mattress-sled, but I soon found this impossible, and down we went over the smooth, hard-frozen slope, with nothing to direct our course but the varying undulations of the mountain-side. Every moment we seemed to go faster and faster, and soon we began to revolve, so that sometimes I was in front and sometimes behind. Once, when passing over a very smooth sheet of snow, we fairly spun around, so that in every direction feet were flying out from a common center and heels grating on the frozen crust. But there were no more cries or exclamations. Each one of us grasped the cordage which held the cushions together, and the rapidity of the motion forced us almost to hold our breath.
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