Darkness came on fast that November night. Stars began to twinkle in the night sky even as the sun’s last rays winked into oblivion. Autumn was fully upon us with its shortened days and unpredictable weather. The day which had just been extinguished had held reminders of summer’s sweet warmth, particularly in sunny patches of the forest. Yet, with the setting sun all such reminders had been whisked away, replaced by a deep chill which promised a long night.
I continued to hurry-scurry down the unfamiliar trail hoping against hope I’d not miss my friends entirely. Captain Jacobs had been clear in his instruction; we were to assemble at the appointed area at five of the clock. We would launch for a temporary camp along the creek Friday night, hunt Saturday morning and move on to a station camp Saturday afternoon. Yet, if my pocket watch were to be trusted, five had been gone round entirely and the hands were now closer to seven. I knew the main party of the expedition would have gone on without me, all but Mr. Egener who had graciously promised to await my arrival, regardless of the time. Although I felt horrible for holding him back, I was especially thankful for his kindness as I trudged through the dark night.
Time and darkness seemed to be turning against me, as did the map. My eyes, which had once been keen even in the dark, had begun to blur with age and now I found I could barely read jumble of lines and words. Regardless of how close to my face or how much I squinted, I simply could not make out the path I was to take. Frustrated, I began to question why I had done this to myself, let alone to my friend who was (I hoped) patiently waiting.
A few more miles and my doubt and frustration doubled, I squinted again at my map and discovered a turning I had surely missed! For heaven sake, it seemed I could not see far away either! Age is a great betrayer, aided and abetted by my failing eyes! I turned to retrace my steps, this time with my pathetic eyes peeled even more widely. Ha! There it was! The turn onto Crooked Creek Road which I’d missed.
I carried on with a watchful eye. Good thing too, for it wasn’t another mile afore I chanced upon a gent walking the road toward me his riflegun clubbed, gamebag empty. I clutched my own firelock, checked the prime and began to whistle a tune, thinking not to startle the man and cause my own demise. The gentleman doffed his hat and admonished me for tarrying upon the path in the darkness. I assured him of my intent to meet with a party of hunters and inquired if he hadn’t come across them himself. As a matter of fact, he had passed a lone gentleman with a pirogue, not even a mile back. I thanked him for this bit of good news and bade him a good hunt of his own.
True to the gentleman’s word, less than a mile later I came upon my friend Dan Egener and his well stocked boat. Ah, a happier sight I’d not had in some time! Much relieved to have found him, I immediately settled myself and my small belongings into his pirogue and we set off in the direction Captain Jacobs had indicated. Had I thought it dark before? T’was nothing compared to the darkness of the creek bottom! My tired eyes were open wide and my ears strained for any sound of our friends. There was little talk between Dan and I as we concentrated upon our task.
Less than a mile into our journey things began to go badly. The pirogue, laden down with our supplies scrapped bottom on numerous occasions, causing us to pole the thing along more oft than paddling. Traveling became treacherous though there was no fear of turning over in the cold water which was at times only a few inches deep. Silently we struggled, each considering our folly and neither wanting to put voice to our fears. An hour slipped past, yet we had only traveled a tiny distance.
Finally, my voice broke the silence and I asked if perhaps I should signal with my firelock to see if our friends were nearby. Dan readily agreed and I balanced myself to fire the long gun. The rifle's crack nearly blinded and deafened us when my dear Lady of the Woods riflegun discharged. I reloaded and fired again, hoping for the immediate response of Captain Jacobs.
Silence once more enveloped us, there was no response in the dark night.
We carried on as best we were able until once more the dread scrape of the bow upon the shoals brought us to a complete halt. We sat. Grounded. He, no doubt, wondering why he’d foolishly waited for me. Me, hating myself for being the cause of such a mess. Both us, wondering how it could have been possible for the others to navigate through the shallow water? Heaving mightily we struggled together to back the little vessel off the shoals. Finally, we began to float mere inches above the mud. There seemed no other course than to turn around and return to the launch point. Thus, we put our backs and arms to the task, and as another hour slid into dark oblivion we arrived back where we’d begun.
Ironically, even though we’d literally gotten nowhere, we regained a positive outlook and determined to make the best of the situation. Back on shore we pulled our bedrolls and foodstuffs from the boat, laughing at the folly of trying to navigate in the dark. Soon a tiny crackling fire yielded bit of warmth and tea as we laid our plans for another attempt in the morn. After a very late night meal of jerked meat and hardboiled eggs, we bid each other sleep well and each turned in to our bedroll. Though the fire, laughter and pleasant conversation had warmed my spirits, afore long a chill set in which refused to leave for the days to come. Throughout the cold night I barely slept, my ears strained to hear the crack of Captain Jacob's firelock or even a hint of voices carried over the water, yet I heard nothing.
To be Continued in a future edition of On the Trail Magazine.