George Cary Eggleston
Camp Venture: A Story of the Virginia Mountains
On the Mountain Side
"I'm tired, and the other pack mules are tired, and from the way you move I imagine that the rest of you donkeys are tired!" called out Jack Ridsdale, as the last of the mules and their drivers scrambled up the bank and gained a secure foothold on the little plateau.
"I move that we camp here for the night. All in favor say 'aye.' The motion's carried unanimously."
With that the tall boy threw off the pack that burdened his shoulders, set his gun up against a friendly tree and proceeded in other ways to relieve himself of the restraints under which he had toiled up the steep mountain side since early morning, with only now and then a minute's pause for breath.
"This is a good place to camp in," he presently added. "There's grazing for the mules, there's timber around for fire wood and I hear water trickling down from the cliff yonder. So 'Alabama,' which is Cherokee eloquence meaning 'here we rest.'"
The party consisted of five sturdy boys and a man, the Doctor, not nearly so stalwart in appearance, who seemed about twenty-eight or thirty years old. Each member of the party carried a heavy pack upon his back and each had a gun slung over his shoulder and an axe hanging by his girdle. There were four packmules heavily laden and manifestly weary with the long climb up the mountain.
As the boys were scarcely less weary than the mules they eagerly welcomed Jack Ridsdale's decision to go no farther that day, but rest where they were for the night.
"Now then," Jack resumed as soon as he got his breath again – a thing requiring some effort in the rarefied atmosphere of the high mountain peak – "we're all starved. The first thing to do is to get a fire started and get the kettle on for supper. If some of you fellows will unload the mules and get out the necessary things I'll chop some wood and we'll have a fire going in next to no time."
With that he swung his axe over his shoulder and stalked off into the nearby edge of the wood land. There with deft blows – for he was an expert with the axe – he quickly converted some fallen limbs and dead trees into a rude sort of fire wood which the other boys shouldered and carried to the glade where the Doctor had started a little fire that needed only feeding to become a great one.
During their laborious climb up the steep mountain side the party had found the early November day rather too warm for comfort; but now that the sun had sunk behind the mountain, and evening was drawing near, there was a sharp feeling of coming frost in the atmosphere, and as it would be necessary to sleep out of doors that night with no shelter but the stars, Jack continued his chopping until a great pile of dry wood lay near the fire ready for use during the night.
In the meantime the other boys busied themselves in getting supper ready. Harry Ridsdale – Jack's younger brother – prepared a great pot of coffee, while Ed Parmly fried panful after panful of salt pork, and Jim Chenowith endeavored to boil some potatoes. "Little Tom" Ridsdale, another brother of Jack's, employed himself in bringing the wood as fast as his brother chopped it, and piling it near the fire. While these things were doing the Doctor had carefully unpacked some of his scientific instruments and hung them up on trees at points, convenient for observation.
Presently Ed Parmly called out: "Now fellows, supper's ready – at least the pork and the coffee are waiting for Jim Chenowith to dish up his potatoes. Come Jim, what's the matter? Are you trying to boil those potatoes into mush?"
"No," answered Jim, jabbing the tubers with a stick which he had sharpened for that purpose, "but somehow the potatoes don't seem to want to get done. Mother always boils them in from ten to twenty minutes, according to their size, and these are about the ten minute size, yet I've boiled them for full half an hour and they're only now beginning to get soft."
"Your mother's potato kettle," said the Doctor, "isn't boiled at an elevation of two thousand feet above the sea level and that," consulting his aneroid barometer, "is about our present altitude."
"How do you find out that?"
"What has height to do with boiling potatoes?"
These questions were fired at the Doctor instantly.
"One at a time please," said the Doctor, "and as I see Jim is at last dishing up his potatoes we'll postpone the answer to both questions, if you don't mind, till we have satisfied our appetites."
The hungry fellows were ready enough to give exclusive attention to the business in hand, and as they sat there on logs and other improvised seats with tin plates before them and tin cups at hand they were a picturesque and attractive group, such as an artist would have rejoiced to portray.
As is usual with boys in the mountain regions of Southern Virginia, they were very tall – the older ones nearing, and Jack exceeding, six feet in height, while even "Little Tom" stood five feet seven in his socks with a year or two of growth still ahead of him. They were all robust fellows, too, lean, muscular, thin visaged, clear eyed and bronzed of face. They wore high boots, into which the legs of their trousers were thrust, and, over their trousers, thick woollen hunting shirts, the whole crowned with soft felt hats. It was precisely the dress which Washington urged upon Congress as the best service uniform that could be devised for the use of the American army.
"Now then Doctor," said Jim Chenowith, pushing away his tin plate and swallowing the last of the coffee from his big tin cup, "tell us why the potatoes wouldn't cook."
"Simply because the water wasn't hot enough to cook them as quickly as usual."
"Not hot enough? Why it was boiling like a volcano every moment of the time," said Jim in protest.
"Yes, but the boiling of water doesn't always mean the same thing. You see at or near the sea level water boils at a temperature of 212 degrees, Fahrenheit. But when you climb up mountains you come into a rarer and lighter atmosphere and water boils at considerably lower temperatures."
"But I kept my potato kettle boiling very hard – " interrupted Jim; "I never stopped firing up under it."
"That made no difference whatever in the amount of heat in it," answered the Doctor. "When water boils at all it is just as hot as fire can make it, unless it is shut completely off from contact with the air, as is the case in steamboilers. You can't make it any hotter no matter how much you may 'fire up' under the kettle."
"Why, how's that?" asked "Little Tom," becoming interested. "The more fire you make in a stove the hotter the stove gets, and the hotter the room gets, too. Why isn't it the same way with a kettle of water?"
"I'll explain that," said the Doctor, "and I think I can make you understand it. When water boils it gives off the vapor which we commonly call steam. That is to say, some of the water is converted by heat into vapor. It requires a great deal of heat to make the change from liquid to vapor and so the process of giving off steam cools the water. That is why you put a lid on a pot that you wish to boil quickly. You do it to check the cooling process by confining the vapor and preventing a too rapid conversion of water into steam."
"Is that the reason that you can hold your hand in the steam from a kettle when you can't hold it in the water that the steam comes from," asked Jim.
"Yes. The steam is really hotter than the water, but it needs all its own heat to keep it in the form of vapor, and so it doesn't give off enough heat to burn your hand after it gets a little way from the pot and begins to expand freely. Now as I was saying the harder you boil water the more steam it gives off and the heating and cooling processes are so exactly balanced that boiling water stands always at a uniform temperature no matter whether it is boiling hard as we say, or only just barely boiling. But in a dense atmosphere it requires more heat to boil water than it does in a rarefied atmosphere like that up here on the mountain. At Leadville and other places lying from 10,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky mountains you can't boil potatoes at all and it takes full ten minutes to boil an egg into that condition which we call 'soft.' It all depends upon the temperature of boiling water, and that is considerably lower here than down in the valleys where we live."
"But Doctor," said Harry, "you promised to tell us how you find out how high we are above the sea level."
The Doctor got up, went to a tree and took down a scientific instrument.
"This," he said, "is an aneroid barometer. It measures the atmospheric pressure, and as that pressure steadily and pretty uniformly decreases as we go higher up, the instrument tells us at once how high we are."
"But will it measure so accurately that you can trust it?" asked one of the now eagerly interested boys.
"Let me show you," said the Doctor. "Make a torch, for it is growing dark, and come with me down the hill a little way. First look where the needle stands now."
They all carefully observed the register and then proceeded with their mentor down the hill a little way. He there exhibited his instrument again and it registered fifty feet lower than it had done on the plateau above. Returning to the camp fire they found that the needle had resumed its former pointing.
"Then you can tell by that instrument exactly how high you are at any time?" queried Jack.
"No, not exactly. You see the atmospheric pressure varies somewhat with the weather even if you observe it always on the same level. One has to allow for that, but allowing for it we can tell by the instrument what our elevation is with something closely approaching accuracy."
Just then came an interruption. A tall rough bearded, unkempt mountaineer, rifle in hand, stalked out of the woods and approached the camp fire. After inspecting the company and their belongings in silence for a time, he spoke a single word of question – "Huntin'?"
"No," answered Jack, who had risen in all his length of limb.
"Jest campin' out?"
"No," answered Jack, still adhering to that monosyllable.
"Mout I ax then, what ye're a doin' of up here in the high mountings? You see us fellers what lives up here ain't over fond of strangers that comes potterin' round without explainin' of their selves."