So he loaded the old shot-gun. It belched forth fire and smoke into space. And the thunder of his shot went rolling off in a reverberating din among the mountain echoes, until a hundred tongues repeated his appeal for help. Again he loaded rapidly and fired. And yet again, with nervous, eager fingers. So on, till he had let off half a dozen shots in quick succession.
Then he waited, listening as if every pulse in his body had suddenly become an ear.
But when the last growling echo had died away, not a sound broke the almost absolute silence on the mountain-side. Evidently not a human soul was near enough to hear or understand his signals of distress.
In these bitter minutes some sensations ran through Dol Farrar which he had never known before; and, as he afterwards expressed it, “they were enough to cover any fellow with goose-flesh.”
He felt that he had reached the dreariest point of the unknown, and was a lonely, drifting atom in this immense solitude of forest and rock.
Never in his life before or afterwards did he come so near to Point Despair as when he stumbled down the mountain, spurning that treacherous trail, and going wherever his jaded feet found travelling tolerably easy. He had picked up the shot-gun; but the black ducks, the primary cause of his misadventure, he clean forgot, leaving them lying amid the chaos at the foot of the crag, to have their bones picked by some lucky raccoon or fox.
Wandering along in a zigzag way, he by and by reached the base of the mountain at a point where there was a break in the forest. A patch of dreary-looking swamp was before him, covered with clumps of alder-bushes—a true Slough of Despond.
Dol Farrar knew none of the miseries of plunging through an alder-swamp, but he luckily recalled in time a warning from Cyrus that a slight wetting would render his moccasins useless. While he halted undecidedly on its brink, he pulled out his watch; one glance at this, and another at the sky, which now lay open like a scroll above him, gave him a sickening shock. He had started from camp at noon; now it was after five o’clock. Little more than another hour, and not twilight, but the blackness of a total eclipse, would reign in the forest.
The blood rushed to his head, and his mouth grew feverish at the thought. As he licked his cracking lips, he caught a faint, tinkling, rumbling sound of falling water somewhere to the right. Of a sudden his sufferings of mind and body were merged into one burning desire to drink, and he turned eagerly in that direction.