William reached by reflex for the book in his pocket, meaning to write down that poetic thought in the margins, but then shook his head, muttering, “Idiot,” to himself.
He wasn’t really worried. He had, as he’d told Captain Richardson, been in and out of the Great Dismal many times. Granted, he’d not been here by himself; he and his father had come now and then with a hunting party or with some of his father’s Indian friends. And some years before. But—
“Shit!” he said. He’d pressed the horse through what he’d hoped was the thicket edging the road, only to find more thicket—dark clumps of hairy-barked juniper, aromatic as a glass of Holland gin in the rain. No room to turn. Muttering, he kneed the horse and pulled back, clicking his tongue.
Uneasily, he saw that the imprints of the horse’s hooves were filling slowly with water. Not from the rain; the ground was wet. Very wet. He heard the sucking noise as the horse’s back hooves struck bog, and by reflex he leaned forward, urgently kneeing the horse in the ribs.
Caught wrong-footed, the horse stumbled, caught himself—and then the horse’s hind legs gave way suddenly, slipping in the mud, and he flung up his head, whinnying in surprise. William, taken equally unaware, bounced over his rolled bed-sack and fell off, landing with a splash.
He rose up like a scalded cat, panicked at the thought of being sucked down into one of the quaking bogs that lurked in the Great Dismal. He’d seen the skeleton of a deer caught in one once, nothing still visible save the antlered skull, half sunk and twisted to one side, its long yellow teeth showing in what he’d imagined to be a scream.
He splashed hastily toward a tussock, sprang atop it, and crouched there like the toad-king, heart hammering. His horse—was it trapped, had the bog got it?
The gelding was down, thrashing in the mud, whinnying in panic, muddy water flying in sheets from its struggles.
“Jesus.” He clutched handsful of the rough grass, balanced precariously. Was it bog? Or only a slough?
Gritting his teeth, he stretched one long leg out, gingerly setting foot on the agitated surface. His boot pressed down… down… He pulled it hastily back, but it came readily, with a ploop! of mud and water. Again… yes, there was a bottom! All right, now the other… He stood up, arms waving storklike for balance, and…
“All right!” he said, breathless. A slough—no more, thank God!
He splashed toward the horse and snatched up the canvas bedsack, loosened in the fall. Flinging it over the horse’s head, he wrapped it hastily round the animal’s eyes. It was what you did for a horse too panicked to leave a burning barn; his father had shown him how when the barn at Mount Josiah had been struck by lightning one year.
Rather to his astonishment, it seemed to help. The horse was shaking its head to and fro but had quit churning its legs. He seized the bridle and blew into the horse’s nostrils, talking calming nonsense.
The horse snorted, spraying him with droplets, but seemed to collect itself. He pulled its head up, and it rolled onto its chest with a great swash of muddy water, and in almost the same motion, surged heavily to its feet. It shook itself from head to tail, the canvas flapping loose and mud showering everything within ten feet of the animal.
William was much too happy to care. He seized the end of the canvas and pulled it off, then took hold of the bridle.
“Right,” he said, breathless. “Let’s get out of this.”
The horse was not paying attention; its dish-faced head lifted suddenly, turned to the side.
The huge nostrils flared red, and with an explosive grunt, the horse charged past him, jerking the reins from his hands and knocking him flat in the water—again.
“You frigging bastard! What the devil—” William stopped short, crouched in the mud. Something long, drab, and extremely fast passed less than two paces from him. Something big.
His head jerked round, but it was already gone, silent in pursuit of the blundering horse, whose panicked flight he could hear receding in the distance, punctuated by the crashing of broken brush and the occasional clang of shed equipment.
He swallowed. They hunted now and then together, he’d heard. Catamounts. In pairs.
The back of his neck prickled, and he turned his head as far as he could manage, afraid to move more for fear of drawing the attention of anything that might be lurking in the dark tangle of gum trees and underbrush behind him. No sound, save the increasing patter of raindrops on the swamp.
An egret burst white from the trees on the far side of the slough, nearly stopping his heart. He froze, breath held until he thought he’d suffocate in the effort to hear, but nothing happened, and at last he breathed and rose to his feet, the skirts of his coat plastered to his thighs, dripping.
He was standing in a peat bog; there was spongy vegetation under his feet, but the water rose up over the tops of his boots. He wasn’t sinking, but he couldn’t pull the boots out with his feet still in them and was obliged to draw his feet out one at a time, then wrench the boots free and squelch toward higher ground in his stockings, boots in his hands.
The sanctuary of a rotted log reached, he sat down to empty the water out of his boots, grimly reckoning his situation as he put them on again.
He was lost. In a swamp known to have devoured any number of people, both Indian and white. On foot, without food, fire, or any shelter beyond the flimsy protection offered by the canvas bedsack—this the standard army issue, a literal sack made of canvas with a slit in it, meant to be stuffed with straw or dry grass—both these substances conspicuously lacking in his present circumstances. All he possessed otherwise was the contents of his pockets, this consisting of a clasp knife, a lead pencil, a very soggy bit of bread and cheese, a filthy handkerchief, a few coins, his watch, and his book, also doubtless soaked. He reached to check, discovered that the watch had stopped and the book was gone, and swore, loudly.
That seemed to help a bit, so he did it again. The rain was falling heavily now, not that it mattered in the slightest, given his state. The louse in his breeches, evidently waking to discover its habitat flooded, set off on a determined march to discover drier quarters.
Muttering blasphemies, he stood up, draped the empty canvas over his head, and limped off in the direction in which his horse had departed, scratching.
HE NEVER FOUND THE horse. Either the catamount had killed it, somewhere out of sight, or it had escaped to wander alone through the swamp. He did find two items shed from its saddle: a small waxed packet containing tobacco, and a frying pan. Neither of these seemed immediately useful, but he was loath to part with any remnant of civilization.
Soaked to the skin and shivering under the scanty shelter of his canvas, he crouched among the roots of a sweet gum tree, watching lightning split the night sky. Each blue-white flash was blinding, even through closed eyelids, each jolt of thunder shaking air gone sharp as a knife with the acrid smell of lightning and burnt things.
He had grown almost accustomed to the cannonade when a tremendous blast knocked him flat and swept him skidding sideways through mud and rotted leaves. Choking and gasping, he sat up, swiping mud off his face. What the devil had happened? A sharp pain in his arm penetrated his confusion, and, looking down, he saw by the light of the lightning’s flash that a splinter of wood, perhaps six inches long, was embedded in the flesh of his right forearm.
Glaring wildly round, he saw that the swamp near him was suddenly studded with splinters and chunks of fresh wood, and the smell of sap and heart-wood rose, piercing amid the hot, dancing scent of electricity.
There. Another flash, and he saw it. A hundred feet away, he had noted a huge bald cypress, thinking to use it as a landmark come dawn; it was by far the tallest tree within sight. No longer: the lightning showed him empty air where the towering trunk had been, another flash, the ragged spike of what was left.
Quivering and half deafened by the thunder, he pulled the splinter out of his arm and pressed the fabric of his shirt to the wound to stop it bleeding. It wasn’t deep, but the shock of the explosion made his hand shake. He pulled his canvas tight round his shoulders against the driving rain, and curled up again among the sweet gum’s roots.
Sometime in the night, the storm moved off, and with the cessation of the noise, he lapsed into an uneasy doze, from which he woke to find himself staring into the white nothingness of fog.
A coldness beyond the bone chill of dawn went through him. His childhood had been spent in the Lake District of England, and he’d known from his earliest memories that the coming of fog on the fells was a danger. Sheep were often lost in the fog, falling to their deaths, parted from the flock and killed by dogs or foxes, freezing, or simply disappearing. Men were sometimes lost in the fog, as well.
The dead came down with the fog, Nanny Elspeth said. He could see her, a spare old woman, straight-backed and fearless, standing at the nursery window, looking out at the drifting white. She’d said it quietly, as though to herself; he didn’t think she’d realized he was there. When she did, she drew the curtain with a brisk snap and came to make his tea, saying nothing more.
He could do with a cup of hot tea, he thought, preferably with a great deal of whisky in it. Hot tea, hot buttered toast, jam sandwiches, and cake…
The thought of nursery teas recalled his wodge of soggy bread and cheese, and he drew this carefully out of his pocket, immeasurably heartened by its presence. He ate it slowly, savoring the tasteless mass as though it were a brandied peach, and felt very much better, despite the clammy touch of the fog on his face, the dripping of water from the ends of his hair, and the fact that he was still wet to the skin; his muscles ached from shivering all night.
He had had the presence of mind to set the frying pan out in the rain the night before, and thus had fresh water to drink, tasting deliciously of bacon fat.
“Not so bad,” he said aloud, wiping his mouth. “Yet.”
His voice sounded strange. Voices always did, in a fog.
He’d been lost in fog twice before, and he had no desire to repeat that experience, though repeat it he did, now and then, in nightmares. Stumbling blind through a white so thick he couldn’t see his own feet, hearing the voices of the dead.
He closed his eyes, preferring momentary darkness to the swirl of white, but could still feel its fingers, cold on his face.
He’d heard the voices then. He tried not to listen now.
He got to his feet, determined. He had to move. At the same time, to go wandering blind through bogs and clinging growth would be madness.
He tied the frying pan to his belt and, slinging the wet canvas over his shoulder, put out a hand and began to grope. Juniper wouldn’t do; the wood shredded under a knife, and the trees grew in such fashion that no branch ran straight for more than a few inches. Sweet gum or tupelo was better, but an alder would be best.
He found a small stand of alder saplings after an age of sidling cautiously through the mist, planting one foot at a time and waiting to see the effect, pausing whenever he hit a tree to press its leaves to his mouth and nose by way of identification.
Feeling about among the slender trunks, he picked one an inch or so in diameter and, planting his feet solidly, grasped the sapling with both hands and wrenched it up. It came, with a groan of yielding earth and a shower of leaves—and a heavy body slithered suddenly across his boot. He let out a cry and smashed the root end of his sapling down, but the snake had long since fled.
Sweating despite the chill, he undid the frying pan and used it to prod gingerly at the unseen ground. Eliciting no movement, and finding the surface relatively firm, he turned the pan over and sat upon it.
By bringing the wood close to his face, he could make out the movements of his hands sufficiently as to avoid cutting himself and, with a good deal of labor, managed to strip the sapling and trim it to a handy six-foot length. He then set about whittling the end to a sharpened point.
The Great Dismal was dangerous, but it teemed with game. That was the lure that drew hunters into its mysterious depths. William wasn’t about to try to kill a bear, or even a deer, with a homemade spear. He was, however, reasonably adept at gigging frogs, or had been. A groom on his grandfather’s estate had taught him long ago, he’d done it often with his father in Virginia, and while it wasn’t a skill he’d found occasion to practice in the last few years in London, he felt sure that he hadn’t forgotten.
He could hear the frogs all round him, cheerfully unimpressed by the fog.
“Brek-ek-ek-ex, co-ax, co-ax,” he murmured. “Brek-ek-ek-ex co-ax!” The frogs seemed likewise unimpressed with quotations from Aristophanes.
“Right, you. Just wait,” he said to them, testing his point with a thumb. Adequate. A gigging spear ideally would be trident-shaped…. Well, why not? He had time.
Biting his tongue with concentration, he set about to carve two additional sharpened twigs and notch them to join the main spear. He briefly considered twisting bits of juniper bark to make a binding, but rejected that notion in favor of unraveling a length of thread from the fringe of his shirt.
The swamp was sodden in the wake of the storm. He’d lost his tinderbox, but he doubted that even one of Jehovah’s thunderbolts, such as he’d witnessed the night before, would ignite a fire here. On the other hand, by the time the sun came out and he eventually succeeded in catching a frog, he’d probably be desperate enough to eat it raw.
He paradoxically found this thought comforting. He wasn’t going to starve, then, nor would he die of thirst—being in this swamp was like living in a sponge.
He had nothing so definite as a plan. Only the knowledge that the swamp was large but finite. That being so, once he had the sun to guide him and could be assured of not wandering in circles, he proposed to make his way in a straight line until he reached solid ground or the lake. If he found the lake … well, Dismal Town was built on its edge. He had only to walk round the circumference, and eventually he would find it.