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A Tent in Agony

A SULLIVAN COUNTY TALE

Four men once came to a wet place in the roadless forest to fish. They
pitched their tent fair upon the brow of a pine-clothed ridge of riven
rocks whence a bowlder could be made to crash through the brush and
whirl past the trees to the lake below. On fragrant hemlock boughs they
slept the sleep of unsuccessful fishermen, for upon the lake alternately
the sun made them lazy and the rain made them wet. Finally they ate the
last bit of bacon and smoked and burned the last fearful and wonderful
hoecake.

Immediately a little man volunteered to stay and hold the camp while the
remaining three should go the Sullivan county miles to a farmhouse for
supplies. They gazed at him dismally. "There's only one of you--the
devil make a twin," they said in parting malediction, and disappeared
down the hill in the known direction of a distant cabin. When it came
night and the hemlocks began to sob they had not returned. The little
man sat close to his companion, the campfire, and encouraged it with
logs. He puffed fiercely at a heavy built brier, and regarded a thousand
shadows which were about to assault him. Suddenly he heard the approach
of the unknown, crackling the twigs and rustling the dead leaves. The
little man arose slowly to his feet, his clothes refused to fit his
back, his pipe dropped from his mouth, his knees smote each other.
"Hah!" he bellowed hoarsely in menace. A growl replied and a bear paced
into the light of the fire. The little man supported himself upon a
sapling and regarded his visitor.

The bear was evidently a veteran and a fighter, for the black of his
coat had become tawny with age. There was confidence in his gait and
arrogance in his small, twinkling eye. He rolled back his lips and
disclosed his white teeth. The fire magnified the red of his mouth. The
little man had never before confronted the terrible and he could not
wrest it from his breast. "Hah!" he roared. The bear interpreted this as
the challenge of a gladiator. He approached warily. As he came near, the
boots of fear were suddenly upon the little man's feet. He cried out and
then darted around the campfire. "Ho!" said the bear to himself, "this
thing won't fight--it runs. Well, suppose I catch it." So upon his
features there fixed the animal look of going--somewhere. He started
intensely around the campfire. The little man shrieked and ran
furiously. Twice around they went.

The hand of heaven sometimes falls heavily upon the righteous. The bear
gained.

In desperation the little man flew into the tent. The bear stopped and
sniffed at the entrance. He scented the scent of many men. Finally he
ventured in.

The little man crouched in a distant corner. The bear advanced,
creeping, his blood burning, his hair erect, his jowls dripping. The
little man yelled and rustled clumsily under the flap at the end of the
tent. The bear snarled awfully and made a jump and a grab at his
disappearing game. The little man, now without the tent, felt a
tremendous paw grab his coat tails. He squirmed and wriggled out of his
coat like a schoolboy in the hands of an avenger. The bear bowled
triumphantly and jerked the coat into the tent and took two bites, a
punch and a hug before he, discovered his man was not in it. Then he
grew not very angry, for a bear on a spree is not a black-haired pirate.
He is merely a hoodlum. He lay down on his back, took the coat on his
four paws and began to play uproariously with it. The most appalling,
blood-curdling whoops and yells came to where the little man was crying
in a treetop and froze his blood. He moaned a little speech meant for a
prayer and clung convulsively to the bending branches. He gazed with
tearful wistfulness at where his comrade, the campfire, was giving dying
flickers and crackles. Finally, there was a roar from the tent which
eclipsed all roars; a snarl which it seemed would shake the stolid
silence of the mountain and cause it to shrug its granite shoulders. The
little man quaked and shrivelled to a grip and a pair of eyes. In the
glow of the embers he saw the white tent quiver and fall with a crash.
The bear's merry play had disturbed the center pole and brought a chaos
of canvas upon his head.

Now the little man became the witness of a mighty scene. The tent began
to flounder. It took flopping strides in the direction of the lake.
Marvellous sounds came from within--rips and tears, and great groans and
pants. The little man went into giggling hysterics.

The entangled monster failed to extricate himself before he had walloped
the tent frenziedly to the edge of the mountain. So it came to pass that
three men, clambering up the hill with bundles and baskets, saw their
tent approaching. It seemed to them like a white-robed phantom pursued
by hornets. Its moans riffled the hemlock twigs.

The three men dropped their bundles and scurried to one side, their eyes
gleaming with fear. The canvas avalanche swept past them. They leaned,
faint and dumb, against trees and listened, their blood stagnant. Below
them it struck the base of a great pine tree, where it writhed and
struggled. The three watched its convolutions a moment and then started
terrifically for the top of the hill. As they disappeared, the bear cut
loose with a mighty effort. He cast one dishevelled and agonized look at
the white thing, and then started wildly for the inner recesses of the
forest.

The three fear-stricken individuals ran to the rebuilt fire. The little
man reposed by it calmly smoking. They sprang at him and overwhelmed him
with interrogations. He contemplated darkness and took a long, pompous
puff. "There's only one of me--and the devil made a twin," he said.

Stephen Crane