Trapped by a Tree

Being an account of the terrible experience which befell an Australian bushman. While at work in the lonely box-tree forests of the South, he was pinned by the hand between the two halves of a great log. Here he remained, a helpless prisoner, for several days, suffering terrible agonies from hunger and thirst. Assistance came just in the nick of time through the instrumentality of a snared opossum.

Seated round the campfire one starlit night, near the beautiful “City of the Plains,” I heard the following story from the lips of an old weather-beaten bushman, whose left hand hung limp and useless at his side.

It was quite dark when I came at last to the gate in the long fence which skirted the lonely bush road. On the opposite side of the track, the ghostly outlines of numberless bleached and ring-barked box-trees loomed out of the silent darkness. Over the gate at which I leaned, a broad sweep of undulating pasture land stretched away to the homestead, where the lights were twinkling in the low windows with a ruddy glow. A momentary glance at the scene around me and I swung open the wide gate of the station paddock and went down the now almost invisible bridle-path which led to the homestead. Crossing the pasture land, I passed under the boughs of the belt of poplars which skirted the homestead, thence under the low stone walls of the station orchards, and across the swinging plank bridge which spanned the willow-hung creek, until I stood on the rose-trellised veranda, and, tapping at the door, asked to see the squatter. A moment later, he appeared—a tall, bearded, middle-aged man with a shrewd face and a kindly eye. Without loss of time, I briefly explained my errand.

He led the way into the house, and we soon fell to discussing the terms and conditions of the proposed contract. These, however, are immaterial to the present narrative, and all I need say is that I finally undertook the work and inquired where the scene of my future operations was to be.

“It is too dark to show you just where the spot is,” replied the squatter, thoughtfully. “But I think you are bushman enough to follow my directions. If you go due westward from this station, you will cross four paddocks

WE FELL TO DISCUSSING THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS

before you reach timber. Strike the bush near the white slip-rails in the last fence, and continue due westward for three miles. There you will find a patch of fifty acres which I had cleared a year ago. Cross this and again enter the bush, still proceeding in the same direction, until you have put another three miles between yourself and the old clearing, then camp, and work in a circle round you until the fifty acres are complete. Grub and burn everything as you go, and come into the station every week or so for provisions. I will come and have a look at you in a week’s time to see how you are getting on. I think that is all I need say. Of course, you can get anything you want from the station storekeeper.”

I thanked him and, satisfied with the arrangement, left the house and returned to the township—some four miles or so to the northeast of the station—to gather my few, but indispensable belongings and to await the morrow.

Early the next morning I once more set out for the station, where I straightway opened an account with the storekeeper by the purchase of a week’s supply of fresh and salt meat, flour, tea, sugar, tobacco, and matches. I strapped the somewhat bulky package onto the front of my already burdensome swag, and, with my two American axes, tomahawk, wedges, and flint in my hands and over my free shoulder, set out for the scene of my future labors.

Thus burdened, it is scarcely to be wondered at that my progress was not remarkable either for speed or for the pleasure which accompanied it; so that, after covering the first three miles of bush, crossing the old clearing, and again entering timber, I was not altogether dissatisfied by the sight of a thin column of blue smoke curling upwards through the dense bush not a hundred yards ahead of me. It was now midday, and the prospect of a good rest under the shady branches of the box-trees, with someone to talk to into the bargain, was eminently agreeable. Presently the white canvas of a bush-tent gleamed through the tall scrub, and a moment later I emerged into a comparatively open space among the trees, and stood face to face with the man who was to be my “next-door neighbor” for some time to come, and who, though all unknown to me, was to be the means of delivering me from a terrible death.

His occupation was sufficiently indicated by the task upon which he was engaged. The snaring of opossums is an employment which, at one season of the year at least, is not unprofitable. Flat sheets of bark were propped here and there around the campfire, and upon each sheet the skin of an opossum was stretched, fur downwards, towards the widening embers. By this primitive process the skins were dried, or “cured,” preparatory to their collection by the fur travelers who annually scour the country. When I came upon him, the man was kneeling on the ground, fixing fresh skins to other sheets of bark. A fragment of dead wood served as a hammer, and a small tin of horseshoe nails lay on the ground beside him. On the opposite side of the fire, a watchful sheep-dog was lying with his nose between his fore-paws, intently watching his master, but at my approach, he looked up and growled. Some newly-made snares were also lying on the ground, and, as one of these innocent-looking trifles played no inconsiderable part in the story I am about to relate, some brief description of their construction is perhaps necessary. The trapper takes a short length of coarse twine and another of fine wire. Placing the ends of both together, he rubs the two between his palm and the leg of his stout moleskin trousers until they become united. Then, in one end of the twisted line, he forms a loop, through which he passes the other end, and so forms a running noose. Selecting a tree whose bark bears unmistakable signs of the frequent transit of opossums to and from the upper branches, the trapper leans a long dead bough against the trunk and affixes his snare upon it by tying the loose end tightly round the bough and leaving the noose free. The object of the wire is here apparent, for, by stiffening the otherwise limp twine, it makes the noose stand upright in a circle above the leaning branch. When night falls, the opossum, who has slumbered all day in the tree-top, descends to the earth in search of food, and, discovering as he nears the ground a less perpendicular means of descent, walks down the dead branch and passes unconsciously through the open noose, which, tightening about his body as he proceeds, finally pulls him up with a jerk and holds him prisoner until the arrival, the following morning, of the expectant trapper, who quickly dispatches the imprisoned animal. Sometimes it happens that an exceptionally large opossum finds himself hampered with an exceptionally small branch, and in such cases, he will not only drag the bough down to the ground but will pull it after him through the dense bush for a mile or so, and thus give the trapper a good hunt for his prey. This circumstance, fortunately for myself, occurred, as you will presently see, to the trapper who now stood before me.

I bade him goodbye, and, once more “humping” my burdensome “swag,” continued my journey through the remaining three miles of bush which still separated me from my future camp. I soon reached the spot, and, selecting a piece of clear rising ground, put up my bush-tent with as little delay as possible—for by this time the afternoon was well advanced—and made everything snug and secure for the night.

Early the next morning I commenced my labors, and the silent solitudes of the great bush awoke to the ring of the axe and the crash of mighty trees struck down in their prime. And so a week went by, each day echoing with the strokes of my destroying blade, and each night aglow with the red fires which consumed the fallen giants of the wood.

At the end of the week, I revisited the homestead to procure a fresh supply of provisions, having a friendly smoke and a chat with the trapper on my way back to camp, and the following day the squatter rode in to overlook the work. “By the way,” he said, after approving what had been done, “have you got your wedges with you?”

“Yes,” I said, and brought them out of my tent.

“Well,” said he, pointing to a huge straight box-tree which was still standing, “I want a few good planks for building purposes, and I think that tree would be just the thing. I see it is out of your way at present, but there is no immediate hurry. When you come to that particular tree, cut it off as near the ground as possible, and then split the trunk right up the middle with your wedges, I will send a couple of bullock-teams in about a fortnight’s time to draw the two halves home to the station. Of course, I will pay you whatever you deem reasonable for the extra work.”

I thanked him and readily undertook the task, and he soon after rode away in the direction of the homestead.

THE SILENT SOLITUDES AWOKE TO THE SOUND OF THE AXE

The following morning I went over to the great box-tree which the squatter had pointed out. The gap in the great trunk gaped wider and deeper, and the white splinters of sap-laden wood flew faster and faster beneath the stroke of the relentless blade. And then there came a gentle swaying of the stately tree, a rustling among the myriad leaves overhead, a splintering of rending wood, a sudden surging, as of a great sea lashed into uncontrollable fury, the cracking and bursting of a thousand boughs, and a roar as of a mighty wind, and the great giant of the forest crashed to the ground with a thud that shook the earth and startled the denizens of the silent bush from their midday sleep. Then, having lopped off all the branches which had not been broken in the fall of the great tree, I began the more serious and difficult task of splitting the giant trunk evenly from end to end. A strong stroke of my axe-blade left a long, narrow gash in the great trunk, from which I had already stripped off the bark, and within this slit, I inserted the thin end of a small steel wedge, upon the upper and thicker end of which I brought down the butt of the long-handled axe with great swinging strokes. At first, the fallen log withstood the surely increasing strain, but at last, a sharp report rang out, like the crack of a rifle, and the slit suddenly lengthened and widened, while the wedge sank deep into the gaping wood. Then, some three inches from the buried wedge, I inserted another, larger than the first, and again the vigorous blows of the axe-head drove it deep into the white wood, while the great log strained and cracked and gaped yet wider, and the first wedge grew loose in the growing aperture. I, therefore, withdrew it, and inserted a third beside the one which now remained firmly embedded in the great trunk. The driving in of this loosened the second in like manner, and, drawing it out, I re-inserted it farther up the gap, where the aperture was narrower. Thus, using the wedges alternately, I made the gap in the fallen tree grow longer and deeper and wider, to the running accompaniment of rending, splintering wood, until the terrible thing happened the mere recollection of which, even to this day, calls forth an involuntary shudder of horror.

I had driven one of the big wedges into the hard white wood and, throwing my axe upon one side—for I was tired with the exertion and intended taking a short rest—I put my left hand into the aperture to remove its predecessor. But before I could withdraw it, the firm wedge sprang from its position and, the aperture creaking and narrowing as the wedge slipped upwards, the great white mouth of the gaping trunk closed about my hand and held it as in a vice! Vainly I attempted to extricate it from the powerful grip of the great log. Then, feeling in my pockets, I found another wedge, and placing it close to my imprisoned hand turned to grasp the axe with which to drive it into the aperture. This, I could see, would sufficiently widen the gap to enable me to withdraw my hand, which by this time was losing its first sensation of numbness and becoming intensely painful. But, to my unspeakable horror, the axe lay upon the ground beyond my reach! Stretching myself out at full length, and as far as my imprisoned hand would allow, I almost touched it with my foot. Farther and farther, I strained, till great drops stood upon my forehead and trickled into my beard, and every muscle stood out, hard and tense, under the terrible strain—farther and yet farther, till my foot actually touched the tip of the white axe-handle. Then, unable to continue the terrible tension of nerve and muscle, I fell exhausted beside the log, with strained sinews and throbbing temples, and wondered what next I should do to free myself from that relentless grip.

First, I looked about for a billet of wood with which to drive in the wedge, but there were none within my reach. Even the boughs I had lopped from the fallen tree were lying some distance farther up the great trunk, even farther removed than my axe. Then I caught sight of the wedge which had sprung, and, leaping to my feet, I tore blindly at it, in a frenzied attempt to release the lower half of the bright steel from the grip of the great log. But it had only sprung halfway out of the white wood, and, though I tore at the upper end of the wedge with the strength of despair and until the fingers of my free hand were torn and lacerated by the sharp burred edges of the oft-hammered steel, the grip of the great log was as firm and immovable about the half-released wedge as about my crushed and throbbing fingers. Could I but have withdrawn this wedge, I might have used it to batter in the other. And then another thought flashed into my mind and inspired me with renewed hope. If I could not use the imprisoned wedge to drive in the one I had just inserted, why not reverse the position and hammer in the former by means of the latter? Instantly acting upon this suggestion, I gripped the free wedge with frenzied fingers, and battered the head of the other with all the strength of a last and desperate hope. But, alas! the wedge I held was the small one with which I had commenced operations upon the great log, and though I struck the imprisoned wedge till my breath came in long, labored gasps and the great drops of perspiration ran into my smarting eyes, not a fiber of the great log relaxed, and I realized that this hope, too, was a hope no longer. Again I tried to reach the axe—stretching myself out at full length and straining every sinew in a perfect paroxysm of unutterable despair—and again my foot just touched the tip of the white curved handle, but would reach no farther. And then, in unspeakable misery and hopelessness, I sank with a low cry upon the trampled turf by the side of my ghastly trap, and watched, with aching eyeballs, while the great crimson sun sank down among the foliage of the western forest. And when the stars came out in their legions, they beheld the prostrate figure of a despairing man, with parched tongue and cracking lips, waiting for a death whose steps are terribly slow.

THE GAPING TRUNK CLOSED ABOUT MY HAND

All through that long and terrible night I lay upon the great log and tossed feverishly from side to side, with a mind which was fast giving way within me. But one idea possessed me, and sent a faint ray of renewed hope tingling through my veins. The trapper! His camp, it is true, was three miles to the eastward, and I knew I could not hope to make myself heard at so great a distance. But would he not be abroad early in the morning, to gather in his spoils and reset his snares? And might I not hope that, by some fortuitous circumstance, he might come within the radius of my voice, and, responding thereto, deliver me from this dreadful death? So, when the morning dawned and the laughing jackasses sent up their weird, unearthly greeting to the rising sun, I put my free hand up to my dry, parched lips and sent forth the high-pitched “Coo-ee!” of the bush into the silent solitudes on every hand. But the faint morning breeze brought no response. Again and again, I repeated the cry, till my tongue dried in my mouth and my voice grew hoarse as a raven’s. But no one answered. No voice but that of Nature disturbed the stillness of the dense bush. White yellow-crested cockatoos and green and crimson parakeets skimmed lightly overhead, the locusts rattled unceasingly in the sap-laden scrub, and a glittering snake rustled among the tussocks of tall grass which grew in the open spaces among the trees. But no more welcome sound than these came to me all through that long and terrible day of unutterable torture, and again the sun dipped down in the west.

Hunger had now taken hold of me, but its pangs were as nothing to the torments of my ever-increasing thirst. My blistered tongue protruded from my mouth, and my sight grew dim and distorted. Ever and anon my brain seemed to stand still. Then it would rush on again in a mad whirl, which I was unable to control, until once again it stood still, as if gathering strength for the next paroxysm. And so the night closed in upon me, still lying helpless and hopeless, and the stars came out again to look upon the scene. Soon great black storm clouds came up, and I knew that rain was at hand! How I thanked Heaven for the precious drops which I knew would soon moisten my blistered tongue and parched throat! Nearer came the dark draperies of the storm until they were almost overhead. Then the storm burst in all its pent-up fury. The glowing heavens flashed with lurid tongues of flame, and an echoing cannonade of thunder rent the air. The giants of the forest strained and groaned and heaved as the wind shrieked madly through their twisted boughs. One after another, torn up by the roots, crashed to the earth amid a splintering of rending boughs. And then the rain came down—hissing, blinding, seething, like a mighty torrent. And, oh! how eagerly I lapped the cool, delicious drops and gulped them down my parched throat! Even when the storm had abated, I tore off the collar of my bush-shirt and, dipping it again and again into the narrow stream of water which the rain had left in the trough of the great log, squeezed the precious drops into my mouth. Soon the stars peeped forth again, and the storm clouds disappeared above the trees. And so the night wore on till morning dawned once more in the east, and the sun rose up to light another day.

Again I put forth my feeble voice in a vain endeavor to attract the attention of my neighbor the trapper. But all to no purpose. Then I began to wonder whether he would be attracted to the spot by the mysterious extinguishing of my fires, which, slowly burning themselves out since my captivity, had now been entirely quenched by the rain. If not, I felt that my extremity was indeed a terrible one. At least ten days must elapse before the arrival of the bullock-teams to carry home the log, and I knew I could never last till then. No; my only hope was in the trapper, and even he might fail to reach me until too late. The night had brought me relief, but as the day advanced my agonies returned anew, and the torments of hunger and thirst took fresh hold upon me. All that day my sufferings increased, and night found me restless and delirious, talking incoherently and disconnectedly to myself between the occasional fits of stupor which came over me.

Another day and another night came and went, and there was no change. And still another day and another night passed over my head, and in the darkness of that night I prayed for death as fervently as some men pray for life. But it came not.

Still another day went by, and in the silence of the night which followed it, I heard a rustling sound among the trees, but knew not whence it came. Again and again, I caught the sound, but death had so far claimed me for his own that the power of reasoning out the cause had long since left me, and I could only lie and listen to the sound in a bewildered, apathetic way. But when the morning dawned I almost shrieked for joy, for there, upon the ground, was a huge opossum, tugging at a dry, dead bough, which was fastened to his body by the trapper’s snare. And then I knew no more, for consciousness deserted me, and I sank helpless to the ground.

I awoke to hear the ring of steel against steel, and, looking up from where I lay, I saw the tall figure of the trapper swinging the axe above his head and driving the wedge deep into the gaping wood. In another moment, my hand, crushed almost to a pulp, dropped from the widening gap, and the trapper, throwing down his axe, knelt down beside me.

“ALL RIGHT, OLD CHAP.” HE SAID

“All right, old chap,” he said, with infinite tenderness, “I’ll bring some water and a little brandy out of your tent, and then I’ll be off to the homestead as fast as my legs can carry me. Keep up till I come back.” And, pressing my hand, he was gone, almost before I had realized it.

How quickly he went may be judged from the fact that in less than two hours the galloping of horses’ feet caught my ear, and I knew that I was saved. A comfortable stretcher of bark was hastily improvised, and I was conveyed to the homestead. Just before leaving the scene of my ghastly experience, I noticed the big opossum still fettered to the dead branch, and, beckoning to the trapper, I begged him by signals—for I could not speak—to let the poor beast go. Comprehending me, he did so, and the sight of that terrified creature scampering off into the dense undergrowth did me more good than I can tell.

And so they carried me back to the station and, with careful nursing, renewed within me the life that was almost gone. And though this hand will never more wield an axe, there are still plenty of odd jobs in the glorious bush that come within my scope. But the one thing I will not do is to set snares for the little creatures whose fur is so soft and brown.

W.J. Mowbray
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