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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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IN THE BIG WOODS

[59]

M
Y terror was indescribable. As I leaped forward along the uneven roadway, I fancied that the savage beast was close behind me, his open mouth frothing, his sharp fangs just ready to bury themselves in my back. In my agony I would have shriecked, but my tongue seemed paralyzed; I could not utter a sound. But all this time I clung instinctively and desperately to the little kettle which contained the precious fire, resolved that, come what might, I would never surrender that for which all these perils had been encountered.

I ran on, following the wagon tracks, until I came to an open gap in the fence. I went through the gap and found myself in Old Enoch's hay-field. Everything was very quiet there, and I mustered courage to look behind me. No dog or other living thing was in sight. I was all alone, and safe. Now I must hasten homeward by the nearest way.

It required but a few moments for me to recover my bearings. Then crossing the hay-field, I soon came to the little clearing and the high dividing fence which I had climbed a short time before. I was not quite sure where to find the path, however, and so, getting over into the wild woods, I began to look around for it.

Then to my great joy, Inviz came out from among the bushes and put his arm around me.

[60] "O Inviz, I'm so glad thee has come," I said. "I have had an awful time of it."

"Yes, I know it," he replied. "Little Enick was very wicked to put thee in such a fright. But it's all over now, and thee is quite safe."

"That's true," I said, "but I wish I could find the right path. Then we could run straight home through the woods and get there before it's dark."

"I think the path is right at the foot of this hill," said Inviz. "Let's go down there and see."

So, hand in hand, we ran down the wooded slope until we came to a little cleared place at the bottom, where there was a brook; and there, surely enough, was a path, but whether it was the right one or some other, we both doubted.

"We might try it, and see where it goes to," said Inviz.

Darkness was falling very rapidly in the woods, and presently as we came to a place where the trees stood quite close together, I had to feel my way with feet and hands. More than once my heart began to throb, and I could feel the shivers beginning to pulsate in the small of my back; and then Inviz would put his warm cheek against my own, and pat my shoulder gently, and say, "Courage! Courage! We'll soon be out of this."

But it seemed as though we should never get through that fearful place. Twice I lost the path and found it again only by carefully moving to the right and then to the left and feeling every inch of the ground with my bare feet. At length, however, a broad opening appeared among the trees, and above it the moon was shining.

"I think that is our clearing," said Inviz.

[61] "But it looks strange," I answered.

Full of hope, we pushed straight forward, neglectful of the path, and quite sure that we were through the woods and almost home. Then suddenly I heard in front of us a sound which I had not previously noticed.

"What's that? What's that?"

"It's frogs, Robert!" answered Inviz. "It's frogs, and this ain't our clearing at all, but it's the big swamp."

At the same moment I saw the reflection of the moon upon the surface of the dark water, and I knew that I was only a few steps from the edge of the horrible pool. I started back with an involuntary cry, and as I did so, there was a sudden rustling in the bushes near by which made my hair stand on end. It was probably some harmless night animal disturbed in its haunts and frightened by so unusual a presence; but my imagination at once pictured a far more dreadful being.

"It's the Old Feller, and he's after me!" I cried to Inviz; but my little playmate had deserted me, and I was alone.

Then, with all the strength that remained in my body, I ran back into the dense woods, away from the black water and the miry shores of the swamp and the fearful lair of the Evil One. I tripped over a log, and as I fell, the little kettle with its precious contents was hurled from my grasp and went bowling along between the trees. The next moment the red coals were scattered upon the bare ground and I heard them sizzling in the dampness.

With the desperation that gives courage, I was up again, alternately running and creeping, falling and rising, feeling my way through thickets of underbrush, and pausing occasionally in fear as some slight unusual [62] sound was heard in the gloom. Several times I fancied that I saw the Old Feller dodging among the shadows and ready to catch hold of me at any moment. Twice I distinctly heard him, at no great distance, calling my name. His voice sounded much like David's—coarse and husky—and I felt sure that the old deceiver was trying to get me into his power by making me believe that it really was David. Once I saw a light moving among the trees, and the certainty that this was carried by some uncanny being made me hasten in the opposite direction as fast as possible. It never occurred to me that father and the big boys might be in these very woods, searching for me with a lantern and occasionally calling my name.

How long I wandered aimlessly and in fear through the great forest, I can not tell—it seemed to me ages and ages. The moon, shining through the tree-tops, shed just enough light to enable me to distinguish near-by objects, while it gave to everything a weird and ghostly appearance which added greatly to my terror. Often I stumbled over logs and brushwood, I became entangled in briers, I ran unwittingly into dark places, from which I escaped with difficulty. Gradually, however, my fears seemed to wear themselves out, and little by little I became indifferent to danger. The woods seemed full of dreadful creatures; they ran before me, they followed after me, they grinned at me from behind trees and bushes, they reached down from the overhanging branches as though trying to catch me by the hair. Although I was not a whit more courageous than before, yet my sense of fear was so benumbed that I shrank from none of those things. My only thought was that I must keep going, going, going.

[63] At length, to my surprise, I came suddenly into a road—a good broad road running straight through the woods. The moon shone so brightly that I could plainly see the tracks of wagon wheels and the hoof-prints of horses; and how very soothing and grateful was the warm soft earth to my tired and wounded feet! And then the thought came pressing upon me that I must follow this road, that I must keep going, going, and that I must never give up until I had left the great woods behind me.

As I turned to the right, following the wagon tracks, I heard my name called—oh, so softly!—and the next moment my invisible playmate was at my side. What a sense of comfort and companionship came over me, as I again felt his hand in mine, his arm around me, his warm breath upon my cheek!

"Oh, Inviz, it was so dark and so scary in the woods!"

"Yes, Robert, but we are safe now. This road is the big road that goes right past our farm, and all we have to do is to keep going ahead."

"I am so glad thee is with me, Inviz."

"Yes, and I mean to stay with thee. So be brave, be brave."

With a stout heart, but with feet that were very, very tender, I pressed forward. After a long time the woods became less dense, the moon shone brighter, it was easier to follow the windings of the wagon tracks. Then we came to an old deadening, and beyond it to a fine large farm with fields of hay and corn on both sides of the road.

"Cheer up! We shall soon be home," said Inviz.

And then, right before me in the road, I saw the shadowy form of a huge beast, standing motionless but [64] no doubt waiting to seize me as I approached it. At the same moment I heard a rushing of heavy feat behind me, as of great animals suddenly roused from their lurking places.

"Run! Run!" shouted Inviz; and his words awakened new terror in my heart. I turned instinctively about and made for the near-by fence, which I climbed without once glancing behind me; then, leaping over into the field, I fell sprawling into a great heap of new-mown hay. At the same moment the tinkle of a cow bell told me what sort of beasts those were that had given me this last alarm.

"It's only three or four harmless old cows," laughed Inviz. "No use to be afraid!"

Oh, what a comfortable feeling it was, to lie there half buried in the soft sweet-smelling hay! I made no effort to rise, and presently Inviz came and cuddled down beside me.

"I like this," I said, nestling deeper into the hay.

"So do I," he answered. "It is so nice and safe here, and the cows are such good company!"

And then I forgot everything.


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