Little Mitchell Is Found, and Takes a Strange Journey
W hen the little gray bunny mother did not come home, the babies in the crotch of the old chestnut tree got very hungry, and I am sure they cried all night.
No doubt they were cold too, for they had no little furry mother to curl herself about them and keep them warm. Poor babies! I suppose they cuddled as close together as they could, and cried and cried, and wondered why mother did not come home and take care of them.
At last, when morning came, the strongest one—that was our Little Mitchell, you know—felt so desperate that, although he was only two or three days old and had not got his eyes open yet, he climbed up to the crotch of the tree to find out what he could.
All he felt was the cold keen air of the early morning; and then, being all confused, I suppose, and not knowing how high he was from the ground,—for his eyes were tight shut, remember,—he tried to walk out into space, and down he fell,—not to the ground, oh dear, no! If he had fallen to the ground he would have been killed, and this story would never have been told.
When he felt himself falling, he caught at the tree-trunk with his little claws, and managed to get hold of a piece of loosened bark. Here he clung, terribly frightened, and crying like a little baby,—which, indeed, he was.
Perhaps it was a good thing for him that his eyes were shut, for how frightened he would have been to look down and see the earth so far below him!—such a cold, unfriendly earth, too, with nothing on it for a baby squirrel to eat.
I do not know how long he had been clinging there and crying before the lady came. For now it is time for his lady to come along, and when she once comes Little Mitchell will be in the story every minute until it ends.
You see, as soon as breakfast was over and they had all eaten all the hot corn-pone and fried cabbage they wanted, the lady was ready to start up the mountain.
The little children and their mother and the school-teacher were sorry to see the lady go, and the father looked anxious,—for Mount Mitchell is a very wild mountain and a very big one, and he was afraid they would get lost. He offered to go and show them; but the guide said no, he knew the way.
So the lady and her guide started on up the mountain in the cold morning air, and it became so steep right away that the lady had to keep stopping to get her breath.
It was while she was stopping to breathe that the guide
"Listen! I hear a boomer, and I would like to get to see it."
"Boomer" is their name for the little red squirrel, of which the mountaineers are very fond, and which is not nearly so common there as the big gray squirrel. The people who live down below call the mountain people "mountain boomers,"—why, I do not know, unless perhaps they think they live in the mountains like squirrels.
Well, the guide began to look around to find the boomer, and the lady looked around too, and at last they spied a little squirrel clinging to the bark of a tall chestnut tree, twenty feet from the ground, and crying very hard.
They soon found that it was no boomer, but a tiny gray squirrel. The guide threw up small sticks and bits of bark to make him run; but he did not stir, even when a bit of bark hit his tail.
Then said the guide, "I'm going up to get him."
So up the tree he went, clinging with arms and knees, for the tree-trunk was so big his arms could not reach half-way around it.
It was a very hard climb, but the man got there at last, and, catching the little fellow by the tail, came sliding down, the little squirrel squeaking frantically, for it was both frightened and hurt at being handled in that rough way. Its own little bunny mother never picked it up by the tail, you know.
The man put the little fellow in the lady's hand, and, to her surprise, she saw it was a young gray squirrel with its eyes not yet open.
And now you know it was Little Mitchell, who had fallen out of his nest and was lying there in the lady's hand.
Such a funny little fellow as he was!—all head and feet, with almost no body at all, and a queer little stub of a tail that was hardly as long as his queer little body.
The lady laughed when she saw him, and then she felt very sorry for the helpless little one.
What could she do with him? She could not lay him down on the cold mountain and go away and leave him. And yet he must just as surely die if she took him, she thought, for she had nothing with which to feed him.
He nosed around in her hand in such a comical, helpless way, not crying now, but whimpering like a very tired, worn-out little baby,—which, you know, is just what he was.
Finally the lady started on with him in her hand; but he squirmed and whimpered so, she soon grew tired of holding him—and then, what do you think she did?
She had on a warm flannel waist with a soft loose belt, and into the waist she tucked him. In a moment he had worked his way down under the belt, where he snuggled up, stopped crying, and went fast asleep.
You see, he was almost dead from cold and weariness.
On went the lady, slowly climbing up the steep mountain; and the wonder is that Little Mitchell was not squeezed to death under her belt. But he slept on.
On through the great chestnut forest went the lady and her guide,—on past the handsome tulip trees, the great oaks, and all kinds of beautiful forest trees,
The sun grew hot on the mountain side, and the air became soft and hazy,—a little too soft and hazy for safety on that wild mountain, where storms ride swiftly up like witches from nowhere.
But on and up they went, until they came out of the forest to a wide sloping pasture,—a "bald" they call such open places on the mountains.
Here they found the ground covered thick with grass and flowers, and a herd of cattle grazing. These half-wild cattle raised their heads as the lady and her guide came out of the forest into their pasture, and some of them shook their long horns and began to step nearer. But the guide shouted and waved a big stick at them, and they went off.
And Baby Mitchell slept on.
When they were half-way across the "bald" that sloped gently upward, the lady turned around and looked back over the tree-tops.
It was a wonderful view.
Below was the valley where stood the log-cabin; but she could not see the cabin, it was so close under the mountain; and the valley itself looked like a slit, it was so deep and narrow.
And now you know why the night came on so soon, and why the morning sun was so long in shining down into the cabbage patch. The valley was so deep and narrow that the sun could not look into it until it was high up in the sky.
Across the narrow valley, and right in front, was a splendid tree-covered spur of the Blue Ridge mountains; and off a little to the left was the queer-looking Table Mountain, stuck up like a big hat set on the head of a mountain. Beyond were billows upon billows of mountains; and beyond them, far off in the distance, the lowlands looked blue and level like the sea.
The lady stood several minutes looking at the grand and beautiful view, with Baby Mitchell fast asleep under her belt. Then she went on, and at last they got to the top of the "bald," and, with a last look back at the wide world below, the lady followed her guide on into the black fir forest.
The black fir forest was very black indeed, and the fir trees towered up and up and up so high you could not see their tops, and so thick you could not see the sky through their branches. Oh, but it was dark under them!—it was like walking under thousands of Christmas trees before the candles and presents have been put on; only these trees were ten times as big as Christmas trees. They were balsam firs, the kind you get the sweet-smelling needles from to put into sofa pillows; only these were ten times as big as the balsam firs that grow in the North. But they smelled just as sweet as those, and all the forest was filled with the perfume of them. The ground was covered ankle deep with soft green moss that the lady's feet sank into as she walked.
And everywhere were the rhododendrons. It was too late for them to be in bloom, so they were not as lovely as they are sometimes. When you get into the rhododendrons, you cannot see up into the tree branches, because the rhododendron branches are tangled about you and above you with their stiff green leaves. They make the woods seem dreadfully black and gloomy; but when they are in bloom it is another matter.
The lady and the guide went on and on under the twisted rhododendrons, and Baby Mitchell lay fast asleep under the lady's belt.
Then the guide lost the trail.
It was, in fact, a great deal easier to lose it than to keep it. Indeed, it could hardly be called a trail at all, it was so little used, and one had to know the mountain very well indeed to get safely to the top.
Such a wild and lovely forest as they found now, you never were in. I do not believe such balsam firs grow anvwhere else in the world. Their dark green tops make the mountains look black, excepting when the air is hazy and makes them look faint and blue in the distance. But when the air is clear the mountains look black because of the fir trees that grow all the way up to their tops.
And when anybody asks, you can tell them that is why the Black Mountains got their name; and Mount Mitchell, you know, is one of the Black Mountains,—the very highest one of all.
Well, they lost the trail, the lady and her guide, and soon they had to creep on their hands and knees under the rhododendrons that twisted great tangly arms about them and tripped them up with roots that lay like giant snakes upon the ground. And then they came to awful precipices, and had to creep back again. And sometimes they had to climb over immense fallen logs, slippery with a deep coat of green moss.
The lady remembered Baby Mitchell under her belt, and crept along as carefully as she could; yet it is a wonder he wasn't squeezed to death. But he was a good tired baby, that said never a word, but slept on, warm and snug under the soft belt.
It was hard work for the lady, and the air began to smell damp, and sweeter than ever,—the way it does before a rain.
And now and then they would get glimpses through the forest to where was a deep gorge with a tremendous tree-clad spur beyond, and down into this gorge went pouring what looked like a river of white mist.
The lady was frightened now, for she knew they were lost on the wild mountain, and that the white river she saw was the fog-clouds rolling in.
The fog-clouds sometimes shut down on the mountains so thick and heavy that you cannot see your way at all; and then it is not safe to take so much as a step.
But the guide struggled on as fast as he could, and would not own that they were lost, though his face was all drawn with fear of the wild cloud-covered mountain.
At last they reached a little icy stream coming down the mountain and began to climb up its bed, not minding the cold water that soaked their feet. Then on they went as fast as they could struggle through the terrible forest, and just as they got to a trail that the guide knew would lead them to the top the rain began to fall and a cloud closed swiftly about them. But they were on the right path now, so they did not care for the creeping cloud.
It was still a long, long walk to the top,—for one thing that always astonishes strangers who go to these mountains is the way distances stretch out. They tell you it is two miles to a place, and when you have gone two miles it is still two miles farther,—only sometimes when you have gone the two miles it is four more before you get there.
Well, they got to the top at last, but by that time the rain was pouring and the clouds had settled down over everything. It was a terrible storm they were in, and so icy cold.
But Little Mitchell slept on,—he was so very, very tired, you see, and then the lady had managed somehow to keep him dry and warm.
You can see the whole world from the top of Mount Mitchell,—well, no, not really the whole world, but you know what I mean,—you can see so much it seems as if it must be the whole world; and that is why the lady had wanted to go there. But for all she could see that day, she might as well have stayed at home.
It is usually that way on Mount Mitchell. No matter how clear it is when you start, there is a watchful cloud that goes sneaking up after you, or else comes sneaking down from its hiding-place back of the sky as soon as you come, and the first thing you know it has folded itself down over the mountain-top and blotted out everything from sight.
There is a cave on the top of Mount Mitchell, made by a large overhanging rock. People generally go up from the sensible side of the mountain,—which is not the side the lady went up, because she didn't know any better, you see.
The people who go up from the sensible side take blankets and food on the backs of mules, and stay all night in the cave. That is good fun.
But the lady had no blankets and no mule,—only a very tired guide, who was so tired because he got frightened on the mountain thinking he had lost the way, and a poor little hungry baby squirrel fast asleep under her belt.
The lady looked into the cave, and what do you think she found?
A couch of balsam boughs; but that doesn't count.
An old coffee-pot; but that doesn't count.
A little can partly full of condensed milk; and that does count,—for, you see, it saved Baby Mitchell's life.
Somebody had been camping there sometime, and had left the can of milk, and it had not turned sour because it is so cold up there even in midsummer.
While the guide was trying to make a fire out of wet sticks, the lady took Little Mitchell out from under her belt,—and a very limp baby he was by this time, for he was nearly starved to death, of course.
She dipped the end of her finger in the milk and put it in Little Mitchell's mouth. Perhaps you think he wouldn't eat condensed milk. You should have seen him! He licked every bit from the lady's finger, and then cried for more.
She fed him all she dared,—for when you are almost starved it is dangerous to eat too much at a time, you know. When she would give him no more, he cried very hard,—he was such a hungry baby, and the milk tasted so good. But pretty soon he quieted down and went fast asleep again, and was tucked back under the soft belt.
The guide could not start a fire,—which shows he was not a "truly" guide, for a "truly" guide can make a fire out of icicles, you know.
So, all wet and shivery, they sat in the cave and ate some lunch out of the lady's bag, which had been carried by the guide.
They hardly dared to rest at all, for they had to get to the foot of the mountain before night; so in a few minutes they started down.