The forest wilderness

When we last left Comfort (in Welcome to Indiana Territory), she had just disembarked from a flatboat in company with her guide, Alexander Potins, and was headed north on the Red Banks Trail towards her father’s homestead, when they met with danger.

© Comfort Marvel Mysteries 2020

Panther? No one said anything about panthers!

“Don’t move too fast, Lassie,” Potins said, stepping slowly in front of me. “I’ll hold the wee bastard off until you’re well away. ” He took my valise and eased it to the ground, then edged me back into the neighboring brush.

I tried to run but was rooted where I stood while I watched man and beast, each mesmerized by the other, each refusing to break eye contact. Potins inched carefully to the right, luring the cat away from my piece of hedge, while she inched simultaneously closer to her human enemy.

I, too, was captivated by the ballet. Shoot it, shoot it, I silently willed, hoping the musket would take over where its owner could not and end this graceful adagio.

In answer to my plea, a blast suspended the impasse, although not the dance. Potins let out a battle cry like something out of Henry V and the panther answered in kind, a foreboding human-like scream. They rolled around in the dirt—man-panther, panther-man, and back again—a beautiful blur of plaid and soft gold, until I was certain they would both rise and take a bow after their wonderful and choreographed performance. [1]

Not until blood streaked the golden leaves scarlet, and the tawny victor began to haul her prize into the opposite wood, did I realize it was over. She struggled against the shear bulk of the Scottish guide dragged beneath her body as she walked. Do something. You can’t just let him become her next meal. But she paused, as if she sensed my thoughts and growled a warning.

There was nothing I could do now but run.

I dared not return to the road so I followed a scant trail deeper into the wood, trying to keep my bearing north, the way we had been headed. I kept listening for the soft patter of foot-pads behind me, but heard only my own ragged breathing and the rustle of brush as I sank deeper into the forest. [2]

As I ran, the trail became narrower and narrower until it disappeared altogether and I was flanked on all sides by undergrowth. Not even a whisper of air could penetrate the fortress the forest had built and I half expected a leafy arm to reach out and consume me.

If only I could see something other than green. A sea of it. Everywhere. Even overhead was shielded in a canvas of leaves that barely let in a hint of blue sky much less dappled sunlight.

That’s it. Up. I need to go up. Unfortunately, the only way to do that, without wings, was to climb a tree. A skill I had never mastered, even as a child.

I surveyed my present surroundings. There were at least ten trees within arms’ reach of where I stood, all with the lowest limbs far out of my reach, even if I jumped. I pushed my way through to the next patch of fortress with similar results. Again. And Again. Always with the same outcome: limbs too high; trees too tall.

I kept at it until, at last, I found a tree that had somehow been uprooted and now listed at such an angle to make shinnying along its length possible. The top rested against a larger oak with a limb that, if I were lucky, would be within reach when I stood from my toppled ramp.

Gowns, it turned out, were not made for climbing trees, or even crawling up conveniently angled ones, without strangling oneself with fabric pulled tight across the throat. So after a couple of false starts, I grabbed the little pen knife I kept in my bag and cut a large slit up the center of my new cotton gown and petticoat. I doffed shoes and stockings, and then, with my knees free, I could actually make progress and, while slow, I finally made it to the trunk of the supporting tree and ever so carefully inched myself to a standing position.

I had hoped to be able to see something from here, but I would have to go higher to get a good view of the floor below and any trails that might be hiding therein. Thankfully, a limb was easily within reach. All I had to do was hang from it while I swung one leg over and then lever myself over and stand once more.

That’s all. Just become some sort of acrobat. In the middle of the wilderness. With no net to catch me if I fell.

Easy as falling off a log… (to be continued)

Sources & Notes

  1. When I think of panthers, I always see the black variety à la Jungle Book. But there are several historical accounts of buff or tawny panthers recorded in early Indiana History. Today, these cats would be more commonly referred to as mountain lions or pumas.
    Sources: a) William M. Cockrum, Pioneer History of Indiana (Oakland City IN: Press of Oakland City Journal, 1907) 473; b) George R. Wilson, Journal of Thomas Dean (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1919) 377; c) Indiana Department of Natural Resources / Mountain Lions, 31 March 2020.
  2. You may think of Indiana as rolling farmland, but in the early 1800s when the territory was first being settled, it was, in fact, “a solitude of impenetrable swamps and dense forests.”
    Source: Wilson, Journal of Thomas Dean, 13.

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