"Davy," said he, then, "how old are you?"
"Ten," I answered. "How old did you believe me?"
"Eighty," said he.
The next day, being Sunday, we all gathered in the little church to hear Mr. Mason preach. Nick and I sat in the high box pew of the family with Mrs. Temple, who paid not the least attention to the sermon. As for me, the rhythm of it held me in fascination. Mr. Mason had written it out and that afternoon read over this part of it to Nick. The quotation I recall, having since read it many times, and the gist of it was in this wise:—
"And he said unto him, 'What thou wilt have thou wilt have, despite the sin of it. Blessed are the stolid, and thrice cursed he who hath imagination,—for that imagination shall devour him. And in thy life a sin shall be presented unto thee with a great longing. God, who is in heaven, gird thee for that struggle, my son, for it will surely come. That it may be said of you, "Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction." Seven days shalt thou wrestle with thy soul; seven nights shall evil haunt thee, and how thou shalt come forth from that struggle no man may know.'"
MAN PROPOSES, BUT GOD DISPOSES
A week passed, and another Sunday came,—a Sunday so still and hot and moist that steam seemed to rise from the heavy trees,—an idle day for master and servant alike. A hush was in the air, and a presage of we knew not what. It weighed upon my spirits, and even Nick's, and we wandered restlessly under the trees, seeking for distraction.
About two o'clock a black line came on the horizon, and slowly crept higher until it broke into giant, fantastic shapes. Mutterings arose, but the sun shone hot as ever.
"We're to have a hurricane," said Nick. "I wish we might have it and be done with it."
At five the sun went under. I remember that Madame was lolling listless in the garden, daintily arrayed in fine linen, trying to talk to Mr. Mason, when a sound startled us. It was the sound of swift hoof beats on the soft drive.
Mrs. Temple got up, an unusual thing. Perchance she was expecting a message from some of the gentlemen; or else she may well have been tired of Mr. Mason. Nick and I were before her, and, running through the house, arrived at the portico in time to see a negro ride up on a horse covered with lather.
It was the same negro who had fetched me hither from Mr. Lowndes. And when I saw him my heart stood still lest he had brought news of my father.
"What's to do, boy?" cried Nicholas to him.
The boy held in his hand a letter with a great red seal.
"Fo' Mistis Temple," he said, and, looking at me queerly, he took off his cap as he jumped from the horse. Mistress Temple herself having arrived, he handed her the letter. She took it, and broke the seal carelessly.
"Oh," she said, "it's only from Mr. Lowndes. I wonder what he wishes now."
Every moment of her reading was for me an agony, and she read slowly. The last words she spoke aloud:—
"'If you do not wish the lad, send him to me, as Kate is very fond of him.' So Kate is very fond of him," she repeated. And handing the letter to Mr. Mason, she added, "Tell him, Parson."
The words burned into my soul and seared it. And to this day I tremble with anger as I think of them. The scene comes before me: the sky, the darkened portico, and Nicholas running after his mother crying: "Oh, mamma, how could you! How could you!"
Mr. Mason bent over me in compassion, and smoothed my hair.
"David," said he, in a thick voice, "you are a brave boy, David. You will need all your courage now, my son. May God keep your nature sweet!"
He led me gently into the arbor and told me how, under Captain Baskin, the detachment had been ambushed by the Cherokees; and how my father, with Ensign Calhoun and another, had been killed, fighting bravely. The rest of the company had cut their way through and reached the settlements after terrible hardships.
I was left an orphan.
I shall not dwell here on the bitterness of those moments. We have all known sorrows in our lives,—great sorrows. The clergyman was a wise man, and did not strive to comfort me with words. But he sat there under the leaves with his arm about me until a blinding bolt split the blackness of the sky and the thunder rent our ears, and a Caribbean storm broke over Temple Bow with all the fury of the tropics. Then he led me through the drenching rain into the house, nor heeded the wet himself on his Sunday coat.
A great anger stayed me in my sorrow. I would no longer tarry under Mrs. Temple's roof, though the world without were a sea or a desert. The one resolution to escape rose stronger and stronger within me, and I determined neither to eat nor sleep until I had got away. The thought of leaving Nick was heavy indeed; and when he ran to me in the dark hall and threw his arms around me, it needed all my strength to keep from crying aloud.
"Davy," he said passionately, "Davy, you mustn't mind what she says. She never means anything she says—she never cares for anything save her pleasure. You and I will stay here until we are old enough to run away to Kentucky. Davy! Answer me, Davy!"
I could not, try as I would. There were no words that would come with honesty. But I pulled him down on the mahogany settle near the door which led into the back gallery, and there we sat huddled together in silence, while the storm raged furiously outside and the draughts banged the great doors of the house. In the lightning flashes I saw Nick's face, and it haunted me afterwards through many years of wandering. On it was written a sorrow for me greater than my own sorrow. For God had given to this lad every human passion and compassion.
The storm rolled away with the night, and Mammy came through the hall with a candle.
"Whah is you, Marse Nick? Whah is you, honey? You' suppah's ready."
And so we went into our little dining room, but I would not eat. The good old negress brushed her eyes with her apron as she pressed a cake upon me she had made herself, for she had grown fond of me. And presently we went away silently to bed.
It was a long, long time before Nick's breathing told me that he was asleep. He held me tightly clutched to him, and I know that he feared I would leave him. The thought of going broke my heart, but I never once wavered in my resolve, and I lay staring into the darkness, pondering what to do. I thought of good Mr. Lowndes and his wife, and I decided to go to Charlestown. Some of my boyish motives come back to me now: I should be near Nick; and even at that age,—having lived a life of self-reliance,—I thought of gaining an education and of rising to a place of trust. Yes, I would go to Mr. Lowndes, and ask him to let me work for him and so earn my education.
With a heavy spirit I crept out of bed, slowly disengaging Nick's arm lest he should wake. He turned over and sighed in his sleep. Carefully I dressed myself, and after I was dressed I could not refrain from slipping to the bedside to bend over him once again,—for he was the only one in my life with whom I had found true companionship. Then I climbed carefully out of the window, and so down the corner of the house to the ground.
It was starlight, and a waning moon hung in the sky. I made my way through the drive between the black shadows of the forest, and came at length to the big gates at the entrance, locked for the night. A strange thought of their futility struck me as I climbed the rail fence beside them, and pushed on into the main road, the mud sucking under my shoes as I went. As I try now to cast my memory back I can recall no fear, only a vast sense of loneliness, and the very song of it seemed to be sung in never ending refrain by the insects of the night. I had been alone in the mountains before. I have crossed great strips of wilderness since, but always there was love to go back to. Then I was leaving the only being in the world that remained to me.
I must have walked two hours or more before I came to the mire of a cross-road, and there I stood in a quandary of doubt as to which side led to Charlestown.
As I lingered a light began to tremble in the heavens. A cock crew in the distance. I sat down on a fallen log to rest. But presently, as the light grew, I heard shouts which drew nearer and deeper and brought me to my feet in an uncertainty of expectation. Next came the rattling of chains, the scramble of hoofs in the mire, and here was a wagon with a big canvas cover. Beside the straining horses was a great, burly man with a red beard, cracking his long whip, and calling to the horses in a strange tongue. He stopped still beside his panting animals when he saw me, his high boots sunk in the mud.
"Gut morning, poy," he said, wiping his red face with his sleeve; "what you do here?"
"I am going to Charlestown," I answered.
"Ach!" he cried, "dot is pad. Mein poy, he run avay. You are ein gut poy, I know. I vill pay ein gut price to help me vit mein wagon—ja."
"Where are you going?" I demanded, with a sudden wavering.
"Up country—pack country. You know der Proad River—yes?"
No, I did not. But a longing came upon me for the old backwoods life, with its freedom and self-reliance, and a hatred for this steaming country of heat and violent storms, and artificiality and pomp. And I had a desire, even at that age, to make my own way in the world.
"What will you give me?" I asked.
At that he put his finger to his nose.
"Thruppence py the day."
I shook my head. He looked at me queerly.
"How old you pe,—twelve, yes?"
Now I had no notion of telling him. So I said: "Is this the Charlestown road?"
"Fourpence!" he cried, "dot is riches."
"I will go for sixpence," I answered.
"Mein Gott!" he cried, "sixpence. Dot is robbery." But seeing me obdurate, he added: "I vill give it, because ein poy I must have. Vat is your name,—Tavid? You are ein sharp poy, Tavid."
And so I went with him.
In writing a biography, the relative value of days and years should hold. There are days which count in space for years, and years for days. I spent the time on the whole happily with this Dutchman, whose name was Hans Koppel. He talked merrily save when he spoke of the war against England, and then contemptuously, for he was a bitter English partisan. And in contrast to this he would dwell for hours on a king he called Friedrich der Grosse, and a war he waged that was a war; and how this mighty king had fought a mighty queen at Rossbach and Leuthen in his own country,—battles that were battles.
"And you were there, Hans?" I asked him once.
"Ja," he said, "but I did not stay."
"You ran away?"
"Ja," Hans would answer, laughing, "run avay. I love peace, Tavid. Dot is vy I come here, and now," bitterly, "and now ve haf var again once."
I would say nothing; but I must have looked my disapproval, for he went on to explain that in Saxe-Gotha, where he was born, men were made to fight whether they would or no; and they were stolen from their wives at night by soldiers of the great king, or lured away by fair promises.
Travelling with incredible slowness, in due time we came to a county called Orangeburg, where all were Dutchmen like Hans, and very few spoke English. And they all thought like Hans, and loved peace, and hated the Congress. On Sundays, as we lay over at the taverns, these would be filled with a rollicking crowd of fiddlers and dancers, quaintly dressed, the women bringing their children and babies. At such times Hans would be drunk, and I would have to feed the tired horses and mount watch over the cargo. I had many adventures, but none worth the telling here. And at length we came to Hans's farm, in a prettily rolling country on the Broad River. Hans's wife spoke no English at all, nor did the brood of children running about the house. I had small fancy for staying in such a place, and so Hans paid me two crowns for my three weeks' service; I think, with real regret, for labor was scarce in those parts, and though I was young, I knew how to work. And I could at least have guided his plough in the furrow and cared for his cattle.
It was the first money I had earned in my life, and a prouder day than many I have had since.
For the convenience of travellers passing that way, Hans kept a tavern,—if it could have been dignified by such a name. It was in truth merely a log house with shakedowns, and stood across the rude road from his log farmhouse. And he gave me leave to sleep there and to work for my board until I cared to leave. It so chanced that on the second day after my arrival a pack-train came along, guided by a nettlesome old man and a strong, black-haired lass of sixteen or thereabouts. The old man, whose name was Ripley, wore a nut-brown hunting shirt trimmed with red cotton; and he had no sooner slipped the packs from his horses than he began to rail at Hans, who stood looking on.
"You damned Dutchmen be all Tories, and worse," he cried; "you stay here and till your farms while our boys are off in the hill towns fighting Cherokees. I wish the devils had every one of your fat sculps. Polly Ann, water the nags."
Hans replied to this sally with great vigor, lapsing into Dutch. Polly Ann led the scrawny ponies to the trough, but her eyes snapped with merriment as she listened. She was a wonderfully comely lass, despite her loose cotton gown and poke-bonnet and the shoepacks on her feet. She had blue eyes, the whitest, strongest of teeth, and the rosiest of faces.
"Gran'pa hates a Dutchman wuss'n pizen," she said to me. "So do I. We've all been burned out and sculped up river—and they never give us so much as a man or a measure of corn."
I helped her feed the animals, and tether them, and loose their bells for the night, and carry the packs under cover.
"All the boys is gone to join Rutherford and lam the Indians," she continued, "so Gran'pa and I had to go to the settlements. There wahn't any one else. What's your name?" she demanded suddenly.
I told her.
She sat down on a log at the corner of the house, and pulled me down beside her.
"And whar be you from?"
I told her. It was impossible to look into her face and not tell her. She listened eagerly, now with compassion, and now showing her white teeth in amusement. And when I had done, much to my discomfiture, she seized me in her strong arms and kissed me.
"Poor Davy," she cried, "you ain't got a home. You shall come home with us."
Catching me by the hand, she ran like a deer across the road to where her grandfather was still quarrelling violently with Hans, and pulled him backward by the skirts of his hunting shirt. I looked for another and mightier explosion from the old backwoodsman, but to my astonishment he seemed to forget Hans's existence, and turned and smiled on her benevolently.
"Polly Ann," said he, "what be you about now?"
"Gran'pa," said she, "here's Davy Trimble, who's a good boy, and his pa is just killed by the Cherokees along with Baskin, and he wants work and a home, and he's comin' along with us."
"All right, David," answered Mr. Ripley, mildly, "ef Polly Ann says so, you kin come. Whar was you raised?"
I told him on the upper Yadkin.
"You don't tell me," said he. "Did ye ever know Dan'l Boone?"
"I did, indeed, sir," I answered, my face lighting up. "Can you tell me where he is now?"
"He's gone to Kaintuckee, them new settlements, fer good. And ef I wasn't eighty years old, I'd go thar, too."
"I reckon I'll go thar when I'm married," said Polly Ann, and blushed redder than ever. Drawing me to her, she said, "I'll take you, too, Davy."
"When you marry that wuthless Tom McChesney," said her grandfather, testily.
"He's not wuthless," said Polly hotly, "he's the best man in Rutherford's army. He'll git more sculps then any of 'em,—you see."
"Tavy is ein gut poy," Hans put in, for he had recovered his composure. "I wish much he stay mit me."
As for me, Polly Ann never consulted me on the subject—nor had she need to. I would have followed her to kingdom come, and at the thought of reaching the mountains my heart leaped with joy. We all slept in the one flea-infested, windowless room of the "tavern" that night; and before dawn I was up and untethered the horses, and Polly Ann and I together lifted the two bushels of alum salt on one of the beasts and the ploughshare on the other. By daylight we had left Hans and his farm forever.
I can see the lass now, as she strode along the trace by the flowing river, through sunlight and shadow, straight and supple and strong. Sometimes she sang like a bird, and the forest rang. Sometimes she would make fun of her grandfather or of me; and again she would be silent for an hour at a time, staring ahead, and then I knew she was thinking of that Tom McChesney. She would wake from those reveries with a laugh, and give me a push to send me rolling down a bank.
"What's the matter, Davy? You look as solemn as a wood-owl. What a little wiseacre you be!"
Once I retorted, "You were thinking of that Tom McChesney."
"Ay, that she was, I'll warrant," snapped her grandfather.
Polly Ann replied, with a merry peal of laughter, "You are both jealous of Tom—both of you. But, Davy, when you see him you'll love him as much as I do."
"I'll not," I said sturdily.
"He's a man to look upon—"
"He's a rip-roarer," old man Ripley put in. "Ye're daft about him."
"That I am," said Polly, flushing and subsiding; "but he'll not know it."
As we rose into the more rugged country we passed more than one charred cabin that told its silent story of Indian massacre. Only on the scattered hill farms women and boys and old men were working in the fields, all save the scalawags having gone to join Rutherford. There were plenty of these around the taverns to make eyes at Polly Ann and open love to her, had she allowed them; but she treated them in return to such scathing tirades that they were glad to desist—all but one. He must have been an escaped redemptioner, for he wore jauntily a swanskin three-cornered hat and stained breeches of a fine cloth. He was a bold, vain fellow.
"My beauty," says he, as we sat at supper, "silver and Wedgwood better become you than pewter and a trencher."
"And I reckon a rope would sit better on your neck than a ruff," retorted Polly Ann, while the company shouted with laughter. But he was not the kind to become discomfited.
"I'd give a guinea to see you in silk. But I vow your hair looks better as it is."
"Not so yours," said she, like lightning; "'twould look better to me hanging on the belt of one of them red devils."
In the morning, when he would have lifted the pack of alum salt, Polly Ann gave him a push that sent him sprawling. But she did it in such good nature withal that the fellow mistook her. He scrambled to his feet, flung his arm about her waist, and kissed her. Whereupon I hit him with a sapling, and he staggered and let her go.
"You imp of hell!" he cried, rubbing the bump. He made a vicious dash at me that boded no good, but I slipped behind the hominy block; and Polly Ann, who was like a panther on her feet, dashed at him and gave him a buffet in the cheek that sent him reeling again.
After that we were more devoted friends than ever.
We travelled slowly, day by day, until I saw the mountains lift blue against the western sky, and the sight of them was like home once more. I loved them; and though I thought with sadness of my father, I was on the whole happier with Polly Ann than I had been in the lonely cabin on the Yadkin. Her spirits flagged a little as she drew near home, but old Mr. Ripley's rose.
"There's Burr's," he would say, "and O'Hara's and Williamson's," marking the cabins set amongst the stump-dotted corn-fields. "And thar," sweeping his hand at a blackened heap of logs lying on the stones, "thar's whar Nell Tyler and her baby was sculped."
"Poor Nell," said Polly Ann, the tears coming into her eyes as she turned away.
"And Jim Tyler was killed gittin' to the fort. He can't say I didn't warn him."
"I reckon he'll never say nuthin', now," said Polly Ann.
It was in truth a dismal sight,—the shapeless timbers, the corn, planted with such care, choked with weeds, and the poor utensils of the little family scattered and broken before the door-sill. These same Indians had killed my father; and there surged up in my breast that hatred of the painted race felt by every backwoods boy in my time.
Towards the end of the day the trace led into a beautiful green valley, and in the middle of it was a stream shining in the afternoon sun. Then Polly Ann fell entirely silent. And presently, as the shadows grew purple, we came to a cabin set under some spreading trees on a knoll where a woman sat spinning at the door, three children playing at her feet. She stared at us so earnestly that I looked at Polly Ann, and saw her redden and pale. The children were the first to come shouting at us, and then the woman dropped her wool and ran down the slope straight into Polly Ann's arms. Mr. Ripley halted the horses with a grunt.
The two women drew off and looked into each other's faces. Then Polly Ann dropped her eyes.
"Have ye—?" she said, and stopped.
"No, Polly Ann, not one word sence Tom and his Pa went. What do folks say in the settlements?"
Polly Ann turned up her nose.
"They don't know nuthin' in the settlements," she replied.
"I wrote to Tom and told him you was gone," said the older woman. "I knowed he'd wanter hear."
And she looked meaningly at Polly Ann, who said nothing. The children had been pulling at the girl's skirts, and suddenly she made a dash at them. They scattered, screaming with delight, and she after them.
"Howdy, Mr. Ripley?" said the woman, smiling a little.
"Howdy, Mis' McChesney?" said the old man, shortly.
So this was the mother of Tom, of whom I had heard so much. She was, in truth, a motherly-looking person, her fleshy face creased with strong character.
"Who hev ye brought with ye?" she asked, glancing at me.
"A lad Polly Ann took a shine to in the settlements," said the old man. "Polly Ann! Polly Ann!" he cried sharply, "we'll hev to be gittin' home." And then, as though an afterthought (which it really was not), he added, "How be ye for salt, Mis' McChesney?"
"So-so," said she.
"Wal, I reckon a little might come handy," said he. And to the girl who stood panting beside him, "Polly, give Mis' McChesney some salt."
Polly Ann did, and generously,—the salt they had carried with so much labor threescore and ten miles from the settlements. Then we took our departure, the girl turning for one last look at Tom's mother, and at the cabin where he had dwelt. We were all silent the rest of the way, climbing the slender trail through the forest over the gap into the next valley. For I was jealous of Tom. I am not ashamed to own it now.
In the smoky haze that rises just before night lets her curtain fall, we descended the farther slope, and came to Mr. Ripley's cabin.
IN SIGHT OF THE BLUE WALL ONCE MORE
Polly Ann lived alone with her grandfather, her father and mother having been killed by Indians some years before. There was that bond between us, had we needed one. Her father had built the cabin, a large one with a loft and a ladder climbing to it, and a sleeping room and a kitchen. The cabin stood on a terrace that nature had levelled, looking across a swift and shallow stream towards the mountains. There was the truck patch, with its yellow squashes and melons, and cabbages and beans, where Polly Ann and I worked through the hot mornings; and the corn patch, with the great stumps of the primeval trees standing in it. All around us the silent forest threw its encircling arms, spreading up the slopes, higher and higher, to crown the crests with the little pines and hemlocks and balsam fir.
There had been no meat save bacon since the McChesneys had left, for of late game had become scarce, and old Mr. Ripley was too feeble to go on the long hunts. So one day, when Polly Ann was gone across the ridge, I took down the long rifle from the buckhorns over the hearth, and the hunting knife and powder-horn and pouch beside it, and trudged up the slope to a game trail I discovered. All day I waited, until the forest light grew gray, when a buck came and stood over the water, raising his head and stamping from time to time. I took aim in the notch of a sapling, brought him down, cleaned and skinned and dragged him into the water, and triumphantly hauled one of his hams down the trail. Polly Ann gave a cry of joy when she saw me.
"Davy," she exclaimed, "little Davy, I reckoned you was gone away from us. Gran'pa, here is Davy back, and he has shot a deer."
"You don't say?" replied Mr. Ripley, surveying me and my booty with a grim smile.
"How could you, Gran'pa?" said Polly Ann, reproachfully.
"Wal," said Mr. Ripley, "the gun was gone, an' Davy. I reckon he ain't sich a little rascal after all."
Polly Ann and I went up the next day, and brought the rest of the buck merrily homeward. After that I became the hunter of the family; but oftener than not I returned tired and empty-handed, and ravenously hungry. Indeed, our chief game was rattlesnakes, which we killed by the dozens in the corn and truck patches.
As Polly Ann and I went about our daily chores, we would talk of Tom McChesney. Often she would sit idle at the hand-mill, a light in her eyes that I would have given kingdoms for. One ever memorable morning, early in the crisp autumn, a grizzled man strode up the trail, and Polly Ann dropped the ear of corn she was husking and stood still, her bosom heaving. It was Mr. McChesney, Tom's father—alone.
"No, Polly Ann," he cried, "there ain't nuthin' happened. We've laid out the hill towns. But the Virginna men wanted a guide, and Tom volunteered, and so he ain't come back with Rutherford's boys."
Polly Ann seized him by the shoulders, and looked him in the face.
"Be you tellin' the truth, Warner McChesney?" she said in a hard voice.
"As God hears me," said Warner McChesney, solemnly. "He sent ye this."
He drew from the bosom of his hunting shirt a soiled piece of birch bark, scrawled over with rude writing. Polly seized it, and flew into the house.
The hickories turned a flaunting yellow, the oaks a copper-red, the leaves crackled on the Catawba vines, and still Tom McChesney did not come. The Cherokees were homeless and houseless and subdued,—their hill towns burned, their corn destroyed, their squaws and children wanderers. One by one the men of the Grape Vine settlement returned to save what they might of their crops, and plough for the next year—Burrs, O'Haras, Williamsons, and Winns. Yes, Tom had gone to guide the Virginia boys. All had tales to tell of his prowess, and how he had saved Rutherford's men from ambush at the risk of his life. To all of which Polly Ann listened with conscious pride, and replied with sallies.
"I reckon I don't care if he never comes back," she would cry. "If he likes the Virginny boys more than me, there be others here I fancy more than him."
Whereupon the informant, if he were not bound in matrimony, would begin to make eyes at Polly Ann. Or, if he were bolder, and went at the wooing in the more demonstrative fashion of the backwoods—Polly Ann had a way of hitting him behind the ear with most surprising effect.
One windy morning when the leaves were kiting over the valley we were getting ready for pounding hominy, when a figure appeared on the trail. Steadying the hood of her sunbonnet with her hand, the girl gazed long and earnestly, and a lump came into my throat at the thought that the comer might be Tom McChesney. Polly Ann sat down at the block again in disgust.
"It's only Chauncey Dike," she said.
"Who's Chauncey Dike?" I asked.
"He reckons he's a buck," was all that Polly Ann vouchsafed.
Chauncey drew near with a strut. He had very long black hair, a new coonskin cap with a long tassel, and a new blue-fringed hunting shirt. What first caught my eye was a couple of withered Indian scalps that hung by their long locks from his girdle. Chauncey Dike was certainly handsome.
"Wal, Polly Ann, are ye tired of hanging out fer Tom?" he cried, when a dozen paces away.
"I wouldn't be if you was the only one left ter choose," Polly Ann retorted.
Chauncey Dike stopped in his tracks and haw-hawed with laughter. But I could see that he was not very much pleased.
"Wal," said he, "I 'low ye won't see Tom very soon. He's gone to Kaintuckee."
"Has he?" said Polly Ann, with brave indifference.
"He met a gal on the trail—a blazin' fine gal," said Chauncey Dike. "She was goin' to Kaintuckee. And Tom—he 'lowed he'd go 'long."
Polly Ann laughed, and fingered the withered pieces of skin at Chauncey's girdle.
"Did Tom give you them sculps?" she asked innocently.
Chauncey drew up stiffly.
"Who? Tom McChesney? I reckon he ain't got none to give. This here's from a big brave at Noewee, whar the Virginny boys was surprised." And he held up the one with the longest tuft. "He'd liked to tomahawked me out'n the briers, but I throwed him fust."
"Shucks," said Polly Ann, pounding the corn, "I reckon you found him dead."
But that night, as we sat before the fading red of the backlog, the old man dozing in his chair, Polly Ann put her hand on mine.
"Davy," she said softly, "do you reckon he's gone to Kaintuckee?"
How could I tell?
The days passed. The wind grew colder, and one subdued dawn we awoke to find that the pines had fantastic white arms, and the stream ran black between white banks. All that day, and for many days after, the snow added silently to the thickness of its blanket, and winter was upon us. It was a long winter and a rare one. Polly Ann sat by the little window of the cabin, spinning the flax into linsey-woolsey. And she made a hunting shirt for her grandfather, and another little one for me which she fitted with careful fingers. But as she spun, her wheel made the only music—for Polly Ann sang no more. Once I came on her as she was thrusting the tattered piece of birch bark into her gown, but she never spoke to me more of Tom McChesney. When, from time to time, the snow melted on the hillsides, I sometimes surprised a deer there and shot him with the heavy rifle. And so the months wore on till spring.
The buds reddened and popped, and the briers grew pink and white. Through the lengthening days we toiled in the truck patch, but always as I bent to my work Polly Ann's face saddened me—it had once been so bright, and it should have been so at this season. Old Mr. Ripley grew querulous and savage and hard to please. In the evening, when my work was done, I often lay on the banks of the stream staring at the high ridge (its ragged edges the setting sun burned a molten gold), and the thought grew on me that I might make my way over the mountains into that land beyond, and find Tom for Polly Ann. I even climbed the watershed to the east as far as the O'Hara farm, to sound that big Irishman about the trail. For he had once gone to Kentucky, to come back with his scalp and little besides. O'Hara, with his brogue, gave me such a terrifying notion of the horrors of the Wilderness Trail that I threw up all thought of following it alone, and so I resolved to wait until I heard of some settlers going over it. But none went from the Grape Vine settlement that spring.
War was a-waging in Kentucky. The great Indian nations were making a frantic effort to drive from their hunting grounds the little bands of settlers there, and these were in sore straits.
So I waited, and gave Polly Ann no hint of my intention.
Sometimes she herself would slip away across the notch to see Mrs. McChesney and the children. She never took me with her on these journeys, but nearly always when she came back at nightfall her eyes would be red, and I knew the two women had been weeping together. There came a certain hot Sunday in July when she went on this errand, and Grandpa Ripley having gone to spend the day at old man Winn's, I was left alone. I remember I sat on the squared log of the door-step, wondering whether, if I were to make my way to Salisbury, I could fall in with a party going across the mountains into Kentucky. And wondering, likewise, what Polly Ann would do without me. I was cleaning the long rifle,—a labor I loved,—when suddenly I looked up, startled to see a man standing in front of me. How he got there I know not. I stared at him. He was a young man, very spare and very burned, with bright red hair and blue eyes that had a kind of laughter in them, and yet were sober. His buckskin hunting shirt was old and stained and frayed by the briers, and his leggins and moccasins were wet from fording the stream. He leaned his chin on the muzzle of his gun.
"Folks live here, sonny?" said he.
"Whar be they?"
"Out," said I.
"Comin' back?" he asked.
"To-night," said I, and began to rub the lock.
"Be they good folks?" said he.
"Yes," I answered.
"Wal," said he, making a move to pass me, "I reckon I'll slip in and take what I've a mind to, and move on."
Now I liked the man's looks very much, but I did not know what he would do. So I got in his way and clutched the gun. It was loaded, but not primed, and I emptied a little powder from the flask in the pan. At that he grinned.
"You're a good boy, sonny," he said. "Do you reckon you could hit me if you shot?"
"Yes," I said. But I knew I could scarcely hold the gun out straight without a rest.
"And do you reckon I could hit you fust?" he asked. At that I laughed, and he laughed.
"What's your name?"
I told him.
"Who do you love best in all the world?" said he.
It was a queer question. But I told him Polly Ann Ripley.
"Oh!" said he, after a pause. "And what's SHE like?"
"She's beautiful," I said; "she's been very kind to me. She took me home with her from the settlements when I had no place to go. She's good."
"And a sharp tongue, I reckon," said he.
"When people need it," I answered.
"Oh!" said he. And presently, "She's very merry, I'll warrant."
"She used to be, but that's gone by," I said.
"Gone by!" said he, his voice falling, "is she sick?"
"No," said I, "she's not sick, she's sad."
"Sad?" said he. It was then I noticed that he had a cut across his temple, red and barely healed. "Do you reckon your Polly Ann would give me a little mite to eat?"
This time I jumped up, ran into the house, and got down some corn-pone and a leg of turkey. For that was the rule of the border. He took them in great bites, but slowly, and he picked the bones clean.
"I had breakfast yesterday morning," said he, "about forty mile from here."
"And nothing since?" said I, in astonishment.
"Fresh air and water and exercise," said he, and sat down on the grass. He was silent for a long while, and so was I. For a notion had struck me, though I hardly dared to give it voice.
"Are you going away?" I asked at last.
"Why?" said he.
"If you were going to Kaintuckee—" I began, and faltered. For he stared at me very hard.
"Kaintuckee!" he said. "There's a country! But it's full of blood and Injun varmints now. Would you leave Polly Ann and go to Kaintuckee?"
"Are you going?" I said.
"I reckon I am," he said, "as soon as I kin."
"Will you take me?" I asked, breathless. "I—I won't be in your way, and I can walk—and—shoot game."
At that he bent back his head and laughed, which made me redden with anger. Then he turned and looked at me more soberly.
"You're a queer little piece," said he. "Why do you want to go thar?"
"I want to find Tom McChesney for Polly Ann," I said.
He turned away his face.
"A good-for-nothing scamp," said he.
"I have long thought so," I said.
He laughed again. It was a laugh that made me want to join him, had I not been irritated.
"And he's a scamp, you say. And why?"
"Else he would be coming back to Polly Ann."
"Mayhap he couldn't," said the stranger.
"Chauncey Dike said he went off with another girl into Kaintuckee."
"And what did Polly Ann say to that?" the stranger demanded.
"She asked Chauncey if Tom McChesney gave him the scalps he had on his belt."
At that he laughed in good earnest, and slapped his breech-clouts repeatedly. All at once he stopped, and stared up the ridge.
"Is that Polly Ann?" said he.
I looked, and far up the trail was a speck.
"I reckon it is," I answered, and wondered at his eyesight. "She travels over to see Tom McChesney's Ma once in a while."
He looked at me queerly.
"I reckon I'll go here and sit down, Davy," said he, "so's not to be in the way." And he walked around the corner of the house.
Polly Ann sauntered down the trail slowly, as was her wont after such an occasion. And the man behind the house twice whispered with extreme caution, "How near is she?" before she came up the path.
"Have you been lonesome, Davy?" she said.
"No," said I, "I've had a visitor."
"It's not Chauncey Dike again?" she said. "He doesn't dare show his face here."
"No, it wasn't Chauncey. This man would like to have seen you, Polly Ann. He—" here I braced myself,—"he knew Tom McChesney. He called him a good-for-nothing scamp."
"He did—did he!" said Polly Ann, very low. "I reckon it was good for him I wasn't here."
"What are you laughing at, you little monkey," said Polly Ann, crossly. "'Pon my soul, sometimes I reckon you are a witch."
"Polly Ann," I said, "did I ever do anything but good to you?"
She made a dive at me, and before I could escape caught me in her strong young arms and hugged me.
"You're the best friend I have, little Davy," she cried.
"I reckon that's so," said the stranger, who had risen and was standing at the corner.
Polly Ann looked at him like a frightened doe. And as she stared, uncertain whether to stay or fly, the color surged into her cheeks and mounted to her fair forehead.
"Tom!" she faltered.
"I've come back, Polly Ann," said he. But his voice was not so clear as a while ago.
Then Polly Ann surprised me.
"What made you come back?" said she, as though she didn't care a minkskin. Whereat Mr. McChesney shifted his feet.
"I reckon it was to fetch you, Polly Ann."
"I like that!" cried she. "He's come to fetch me, Davy." That was the first time in months her laugh had sounded natural. "I heerd you fetched one gal acrost the mountains, and now you want to fetch another."
"Polly Ann," says he, "there was a time when you knew a truthful man from a liar."
"That time's past," retorted she; "I reckon all men are liars. What are ye tom-foolin' about here for, Tom McChesney, when yere Ma's breakin' her heart? I wonder ye come back at all."
"Polly Ann," says he, very serious, "I ain't a boaster. But when I think what I come through to git here, I wonder that I come back at all. The folks shut up at Harrod's said it was sure death ter cross the mountains now. I've walked two hundred miles, and fed seven times, and my sculp's as near hangin' on a Red Stick's belt as I ever want it to be."
"Tom McChesney," said Polly Ann, with her hands on her hips and her sunbonnet tilted, "that's the longest speech you ever made in your life."
I declare I lost my temper with Polly Ann then, nor did I blame Tom McChesney for turning on his heel and walking away. But he had gone no distance at all before Polly Ann, with three springs, was at his shoulder.
"Tom!" she said very gently.
He hesitated, stopped, thumped the stock of his gun on the ground, and wheeled. He looked at her doubtingly, and her eyes fell to the ground.
"Tom McChesney," said she, "you're a born fool with wimmen."
"Thank God for that," said he, his eyes devouring her.
"Ay," said she. And then, "You want me to go to Kaintuckee with you?"
"That's what I come for," he stammered, his assurance all run away again.
"I'll go," she answered, so gently that her words were all but blown away by the summer wind. He laid his rifle against a stump at the edge of the corn-field, but she bounded clear of him. Then she stood, panting, her eyes sparkling.
"I'll go," she said, raising her finger, "I'll go for one thing."
"What's that?" he demanded.
"That you'll take Davy along with us."
This time Tom had her, struggling like a wild thing in his arms, and kissing her black hair madly. As for me, I might have been in the next settlement for all they cared. And then Polly Ann, as red as a holly berry, broke away from him and ran to me, caught me up, and hid her face in my shoulder. Tom McChesney stood looking at us, grinning, and that day I ceased to hate him.
"There's no devil ef I don't take him, Polly Ann," said he. "Why, he was a-goin' to Kaintuckee ter find me for you."
"What?" said she, raising her head.
"That's what he told me afore he knew who I was. He wanted to know ef I'd fetch him thar."
"Little Davy!" cried Polly Ann.
The last I saw of them that day they were going off up the trace towards his mother's, Polly Ann keeping ahead of him and just out of his reach. And I was very, very happy. For Tom McChesney had come back at last, and Polly Ann was herself once more.
As long as I live I shall never forget Polly Ann's wedding.
She was all for delay, and such a bunch of coquetry as I have never seen. She raised one objection after another; but Tom was a firm man, and his late experiences in the wilderness had made him impatient of trifling. He had promised the Kentucky settlers, fighting for their lives in their blockhouses, that he would come back again. And a resolute man who was a good shot was sorely missed in the country in those days.
It was not the thousand dangers and hardships of the journey across the Wilderness Trail that frightened Polly Ann. Not she. Nor would she listen to Tom when he implored her to let him return alone, to come back for her when the redskins had got over the first furies of their hatred. As for me, the thought of going with them into that promised land was like wine. Wondering what the place was like, I could not sleep of nights.
"Ain't you afeerd to go, Davy?" said Tom to me.
"You promised Polly Ann to take me," said I, indignantly.
"Davy," said he, "you ain't over handsome. 'Twouldn't improve yere looks to be bald. They hev a way of takin' yere ha'r. Better stay behind with Gran'pa Ripley till I kin fetch ye both."
"Tom," said Polly Ann, "you kin just go back alone if you don't take Davy."
So one of the Winn boys agreed to come over to stay with old Mr. Ripley until quieter times.
The preparations for the wedding went on apace that week. I had not thought that the Grape Vine settlement held so many people. And they came from other settlements, too, for news spread quickly in that country, despite the distances. Tom McChesney was plainly a favorite with the men who had marched with Rutherford. All the week they came, loaded with offerings, turkeys and venison and pork and bear meat—greatest delicacy of all—until the cool spring was filled for the feast. From thirty miles down the Broad, a gaunt Baptist preacher on a fat white pony arrived the night before. He had been sent for to tie the knot.
Polly Ann's wedding-day dawned bright and fair, and long before the sun glistened on the corn tassels we were up and clearing out the big room. The fiddlers came first—a merry lot. And then the guests from afar began to arrive. Some of them had travelled half the night. The bridegroom's friends were assembling at the McChesney place. At last, when the sun was over the stream, rose such Indian war-whoops and shots from the ridge trail as made me think the redskins were upon us. The shouts and hurrahs grew louder and louder, the quickening thud of horses' hoofs was heard in the woods, and there burst into sight of the assembly by the truck patch two wild figures on crazed horses charging down the path towards the house. We scattered to right and left. On they came, leaping logs and brush and ditches, until one of them pulled up, yelling madly, at the very door, the foam-flecked sides of his horse moving with quick heaves.
It was Chauncey Dike, and he had won the race for the bottle of "Black Betty,"—Chauncey Dike, his long, black hair shining with bear's oil. Amid the cheers of the bride's friends he leaped from his saddle, mounted a stump and, flapping his arms, crowed in victory. Before he had done the vanguard of the groom's friends were upon us, pell-mell, all in the finest of backwoods regalia,—new hunting shirts, trimmed with bits of color, and all armed to the teeth—scalping knife, tomahawk, and all. Nor had Chauncey Dike forgotten the scalp of the brave who leaped at him out of the briers at Neowee.
Polly Ann was radiant in a white linen gown, woven and sewed by her own hands. It was not such a gown as Mrs. Temple, Nick's mother, would have worn, and yet she was to me an hundred times more beautiful than that lady in all her silks. Peeping out from under it were the little blue-beaded moccasins which Tom himself had brought across the mountains in the bosom of his hunting shirt. Polly Ann was radiant, and yet at times so rapturously shy that when the preacher announced himself ready to tie the knot she ran into the house and hid in the cupboard—for Polly Ann was a child of nature. Thence, coloring like a wild rose, she was dragged by a boisterous bevy of girls in linsey-woolsey to the spreading maple of the forest that stood on the high bank over the stream. The assembly fell solemn, and not a sound was heard save the breathing of Nature in the heyday of her time. And though I was happy, the sobs rose in my throat. There stood Polly Ann, as white now as the bleached linen she wore, and Tom McChesney, tall and spare and broad, as strong a figure of a man as ever I laid eyes on. God had truly made that couple for wedlock in His leafy temple.
The deep-toned words of the preacher in prayer broke the stillness. They were made man and wife. And then began a day of merriment, of unrestraint, such as the backwoods alone knows. The feast was spread out in the long grass under the trees—sides of venison, bear meat, corn-pone fresh baked by Mrs. McChesney and Polly Ann herself, and all the vegetables in the patch. There was no stint, either, of maple beer and rum and "Black Betty," and toasts to the bride and groom amidst gusts of laughter "that they might populate Kaintuckee." And Polly Ann would have it that I should sit by her side under the maple.
The fiddlers played, and there were foot races and shooting matches. Ay, and wrestling matches in the severe manner of the backwoods between the young bucks, more than one of which might have ended seriously were it not for the high humor of the crowd. Tom McChesney himself was in most of them, a hot favorite. By a trick he had learned in the Indian country he threw Chauncey Dike (no mean adversary) so hard that the backwoods dandy lay for a moment in sleep. Contrary to the custom of many, Tom was not in the habit of crowing on such occasions, nor did he even smile as he helped Chauncey to his feet. But Polly Ann knew, and I knew, that he was thinking of what Chauncey had said to her.
So the long summer afternoon wore away into twilight, and the sun fell behind the blue ridges we were to cross. Pine knots were lighted in the big room, the fiddlers set to again, and then came jigs and three and four handed reels that made the puncheons rattle,—chicken-flutter and cut-the-buckle,—and Polly Ann was the leader now, the young men flinging the girls from fireplace to window in the reels, and back again; and when, panting and perspiring, the lass was too tired to stand longer, she dropped into the hospitable lap of the nearest buck who was perched on the bench along the wall awaiting his chance. For so it went in the backwoods in those days, and long after, and no harm in it that ever I could see.
Well, suddenly, as if by concert, the music stopped, and a shout of laughter rang under the beams as Polly Ann flew out of the door with the girls after her, as swift of foot as she. They dragged her, a struggling captive, to the bride-chamber which made the other end of the house, and when they emerged, blushing and giggling and subdued, the fun began with Tom McChesney. He gave the young men a pretty fight indeed, and long before they had him conquered the elder guests had made their escape through door and window.
All night the reels and jigs went on, and the feasting and drinking too. In the fine rain that came at dawn to hide the crests, the company rode wearily homeward through the notches.
THE NOLLICHUCKY TRACE
Some to endure, and many to quail, Some to conquer, and many to fail, Toiling over the Wilderness Trail.
As long as I live I shall never forget the morning we started on our journey across the Blue Wall. Before the sun chased away the filmy veil of mist from the brooks in the valley, the McChesneys, father, mother, and children, were gathered to see us depart. And as they helped us to tighten the packsaddles Tom himself had made from chosen tree-forks, they did not cease lamenting that we were going to certain death. Our scrawny horses splashed across the stream, and we turned to see a gaunt and lonely figure standing apart against the sun, stern and sorrowful. We waved our hands, and set our faces towards Kaintuckee.
Tom walked ahead, rifle on shoulder, then Polly Ann; and lastly I drove the two shaggy ponies, the instruments of husbandry we had been able to gather awry on their packs,—a scythe, a spade, and a hoe. I triumphantly carried the axe.
It was not long before we were in the wilderness, shut in by mountain crags, and presently Polly Ann forgot her sorrows in the perils of the trace. Choked by briers and grapevines, blocked by sliding stones and earth, it rose and rose through the heat and burden of the day until it lost itself in the open heights. As the sun was wearing down to the western ridges the mischievous sorrel mare turned her pack on a sapling, and one of the precious bags burst. In an instant we were on our knees gathering the golden meal in our hands. Polly Ann baked journeycakes on a hot stone from what we saved under the shiny ivy leaves, and scarce had I spancelled the horses ere Tom returned with a fat turkey he had shot.
"Was there ever sech a wedding journey!" said Polly Ann, as we sat about the fire, for the mountain air was chill. "And Tom and Davy as grave as parsons. Ye'd guess one of you was Rutherford himself, and the other Mr. Boone."
No wonder he was grave. I little realized then the task he had set himself, to pilot a woman and a lad into a country haunted by frenzied savages, when single men feared to go this season. But now he smiled, and patted Polly Ann's brown hand.
"It's one of yer own choosing, lass," said he.
"Of my own choosing!" cried she. "Come, Davy, we'll go back to Grandpa."
"I reckon the redskins won't bother us till we git by the Nollichucky and Watauga settlements," he said.
"The redskins!" said Polly Ann, indignant; "I reckon if one of 'em did git me he'd kiss me once in a while."
Whereupon Tom, looking more sheepish still, tried to kiss her, and failed ignominiously, for she vanished into the dark woods.
"If a redskin got you here," said Tom, when she had slipped back, "he'd fetch you to Nick-a-jack Cave."
"What's that?" she demanded.
"Where all the red and white and yellow scalawags over the mountains is gathered," he answered. And he told of a deep gorge between towering mountains where a great river cried angrily, of a black cave out of which a black stream ran, where a man could paddle a dugout for miles into the rock. The river was the Tennessee, and the place the resort of the Chickamauga bandits, pirates of the mountains, outcasts of all nations. And Dragging Canoe was their chief.
It was on the whole a merry journey, the first part of it, if a rough one. Often Polly Ann would draw me to her and whisper: "We'll hold out, Davy. He'll never now." When the truth was that the big fellow was going at half his pace on our account. He told us there was no fear of redskins here, yet, when the scream of a painter or the hoot of an owl stirred me from my exhausted slumber, I caught sight of him with his back to a tree, staring into the forest, his rifle at his side. The day was dawning.
"Turn about's fair," I expostulated.
"Ye'll need yere sleep, Davy," said he, "or ye'll never grow any bigger."
"I thought Kaintuckee was to the west," I said, "and you're making north." For I had observed him day after day. We had left the trails. Sometimes he climbed tree, and again he sent me to the upper branches, whence I surveyed a sea of tree-tops waving in the wind, and looked onward to where a green velvet hollow lay nestling on the western side of a saddle-backed ridge.
"North!" said Tom to Polly Ann, laughing. "The little devil will beat me at woodcraft soon. Ay, north, Davy. I'm hunting for the Nollichucky Trace that leads to the Watauga settlement."
It was wonderful to me how he chose his way through the mountains. Once in a while we caught sight of a yellow blaze in a tree, made by himself scarce a month gone, when he came southward alone to fetch Polly Ann. Again, the tired roan shied back from the bleached bones of a traveller, picked clean by wolves. At sundown, when we loosed our exhausted horses to graze on the wet grass by the streams, Tom would go off to look for a deer or turkey, and often not come back to us until long after darkness had fallen.
"Davy'll take care of you, Polly Ann," he would say as he left us.
And she would smile at him bravely and say, "I reckon I kin look out for Davy awhile yet."
But when he was gone, and the crooning stillness set in broken only by the many sounds of the night, we would sit huddled together by the fire. It was dread for him she felt, not for herself. And in both our minds rose red images of hideous foes skulking behind his brave form as he trod the forest floor. Polly Ann was not the woman to whimper.
And yet I have but dim recollections of this journey. It was no hardship to a lad brought up in woodcraft. Fear of the Indians, like a dog shivering with the cold, was a deadened pain on the border.
Strangely enough it was I who chanced upon the Nollichucky Trace, which follows the meanderings of that river northward through the great Smoky Mountains. It was made long ago by the Southern Indians as they threaded their way to the Hunting Lands of Kaintuckee, and shared now by Indian traders. The path was redolent with odors, and bright with mountain shrubs and flowers,—the pink laurel bush, the shining rhododendron, and the grape and plum and wild crab. The clear notes of the mountain birds were in our ears by day, and the music of the water falling over the ledges, mingled with that of the leaves rustling in the wind, lulled us to sleep at night. High above us, as we descended, the gap, from naked crag to timber-covered ridge, was spanned by the eagle's flight. And virgin valleys, where future generations were to be born, spread out and narrowed again,—valleys with a deep carpet of cane and grass, where the deer and elk and bear fed unmolested.
It was perchance the next evening that my eyes fell upon a sight which is one of the wonders of my boyish memories. The trail slipped to the edge of a precipice, and at our feet the valley widened. Planted amidst giant trees, on a shining green lawn that ran down to the racing Nollichucky was the strangest house it has ever been my lot to see—of no shape, of huge size, and built of logs, one wing hitched to another by "dog alleys" (as we called them); and from its wide stone chimneys the pearly smoke rose upward in the still air through the poplar branches. Beyond it a setting sun gilded the corn-fields, and horses and cattle dotted the pastures. We stood for a while staring at this oasis in the wilderness, and to my boyish fancy it was a fitting introduction to a delectable land.
"Glory be to heaven!" exclaimed Polly Ann.
"It's Nollichucky Jack's house," said Tom.
"And who may he be?" said she.
"Who may he be!" cried Tom; "Captain John Sevier, king of the border, and I reckon the best man to sweep out redskins in the Watauga settlements."
"Do you know him?" said she.
"I was chose as one of his scouts when we fired the Cherokee hill towns last summer," said Tom, with pride. "Thar was blood and thunder for ye! We went down the Great War-path which lies below us, and when we was through there wasn't a corn-shuck or a wigwam or a war post left. We didn't harm the squaws nor the children, but there warn't no prisoners took. When Nollichucky Jack strikes I reckon it's more like a thunderbolt nor anything else."
"Do you think he's at home, Tom?" I asked, fearful that I should not see this celebrated person.
"We'll soon l'arn," said he, as we descended. "I heerd he was agoin' to punish them Chickamauga robbers by Nick-a-jack."
Just then we heard a prodigious barking, and a dozen hounds came charging down the path at our horses' legs, the roan shying into the truck patch. A man's voice, deep, clear, compelling, was heard calling:—
"Vi! Flora! Ripper!"
I saw him coming from the porch of the house, a tall slim figure in a hunting shirt—that fitted to perfection—and cavalry boots. His face, his carriage, his quick movement and stride filled my notion of a hero, and my instinct told me he was a gentleman born.
"Why, bless my soul, it's Tom McChesney!" he cried, ten paces away, while Tom grinned with pleasure at the recognition "But what have you here?"
"A wife," said Tom, standing on one foot.
Captain Sevier fixed his dark blue eyes on Polly Ann with approbation, and he bowed to her very gracefully.
"Where are you going, Ma'am, may I ask?" he said.
"To Kaintuckee," said Polly Ann.
"To Kaintuckee!" cried Captain Sevier, turning to Tom. "Egad, then, you've no right to a wife,—and to such a wife," and he glanced again at Polly Ann. "Why, McChesney, you never struck me as a rash man. Have you lost your senses, to take a woman into Kentucky this year?"
"So the forts be still in trouble?" said Tom.
"Trouble?" cried Mr. Sevier, with a quick fling of his whip at an unruly hound, "Harrodstown, Boonesboro, Logan's Fort at St. Asaph's,—they don't dare stick their noses outside the stockades. The Indians have swarmed into Kentucky like red ants, I tell you. Ten days ago, when I was in the Holston settlements, Major Ben Logan came in. His fort had been shut up since May, they were out of powder and lead, and somebody had to come. How did he come? As the wolf lopes, nay, as the crow flies over crag and ford, Cumberland, Clinch, and all, forty miles a day for five days, and never saw a trace—for the war parties were watching the Wilderness Road." And he swung again towards Polly Ann. "You'll not go to Kaintuckee, ma'am; you'll stay here with us until the redskins are beaten off there. He may go if he likes."
"I reckon we didn't come this far to give out, Captain Sevier," said she.
"You don't look to be the kind to give out, Mrs. McChesney," said he. "And yet it may not be a matter of giving out," he added more soberly. This mixture of heartiness and gravity seemed to sit well on him. "Surely you have been enterprising, Tom. Where in the name of the Continental Congress did you get the lad?"
"I married him along with Polly Ann," said Tom.
"That was the bargain, and I reckon he was worth it."
"I'd take a dozen to get her," declared Mr. Sevier, while Polly Ann blushed. "Well, well, supper's waiting us, and cider and applejack, for we don't get a wedding party every day. Some gentlemen are here whose word may have more weight and whose attractions may be greater than mine."
He whistled to a negro lad, who took our horses, and led us through the court-yard and the house to the lawn at the far side of it. A rude table was set there under a great tree, and around it three gentlemen were talking. My memory of all of them is more vivid than it might be were their names not household words in the Western country. Captain Sevier startled them.
"My friends," said he, "if you have despatches for Kaintuckee, I pray you get them ready over night."
They looked up at him, one sternly, the other two gravely.
"What the devil do you mean, Sevier?" said the stern one.
"That my friend, Tom McChesney, is going there with his wife, unless we can stop him," said Sevier.
"Stop him!" thundered the stern gentleman, kicking back his chair and straightening up to what seemed to me a colossal height. I stared at him, boylike. He had long, iron-gray hair and a creased, fleshy face and sunken eyes. He looked as if he might stop anybody as he turned upon Tom. "Who the devil is this Tom McChesney?" he demanded.
"The best scout I ever laid eyes on," said he. "A deadly man with a Deckard, an unerring man at choosing a wife" (and he bowed to the reddening Polly Ann), "and a fool to run the risk of losing her."
"Tut, tut," said the iron gentleman, who was the famous Captain Evan Shelby of King's Meadows, "he'll leave her here in our settlements while he helps us fight Dragging Canoe and his Chickamauga pirates."
"If he leaves me," said Polly Ann, her eyes flashing, "that's an end to the bargain. He'll never find me more."
Captain Sevier laughed again.
"There's spirit for you," he cried, slapping his whip against his boot.
At this another gentleman stood up, a younger counterpart of the first, only he towered higher and his shoulders were broader. He had a big-featured face, and pleasant eyes—that twinkled now—sunken in, with fleshy creases at the corners.
"Tom McChesney," said he, "don't mind my father. If any man besides Logan can get inside the forts, you can. Do you remember me?"
"I reckon I do, Mr. Isaac Shelby," said Tom, putting a big hand into Mr. Shelby's bigger one. "I reckon I won't soon forget how you stepped out of ranks and tuk command when the boys was runnin', and turned the tide."
He looked like the man to step out of ranks and take command.
"Pish!" said Mr. Isaac Shelby, blushing like a girl; "where would I have been if you and Moore and Findley and the rest hadn't stood 'em off till we turned round?"
By this time the third gentleman had drawn my attention. Not by anything he said, for he remained silent, sitting with his dark brown head bent forward, quietly gazing at the scene from under his brows. The instant he spoke they turned towards him. He was perhaps forty, and broad-shouldered, not so tall as Mr. Sevier.
"Why do you go to Kaintuckee, McChesney?" he asked.
"I give my word to Mr. Harrod and Mr. Clark to come back, Mr. Robertson," said Tom.
"And the wife? If you take her, you run a great risk of losing her."
"And if he leaves me," said Polly Ann, flinging her head, "he will lose me sure."
The others laughed, but Mr. Robertson merely smiled.
"Faith," cried Captain Sevier, "if those I met coming back helter-skelter over the Wilderness Trace had been of that stripe, they'd have more men in the forts now."
With that the Captain called for supper to be served where we sat. He was a widower, with lads somewhere near my own age, and I recall being shown about the place by them. And later, when the fireflies glowed and the Nollichucky sang in the darkness, we listened to the talk of the war of the year gone by. I needed not to be told that before me were the renowned leaders of the Watauga settlements. My hero worship cried it aloud within me. These captains dwelt on the border-land of mystery, conquered the wilderness, and drove before them its savage tribes by their might. When they spoke of the Cherokees and told how that same Stuart—the companion of Cameron—was urging them to war against our people, a fierce anger blazed within me. For the Cherokees had killed my father.
I remember the men,—scarcely what they said: Evan Shelby's words, like heavy blows on an anvil; Isaac Shelby's, none the less forceful; James Robertson compelling his listeners by some strange power. He was perchance the strongest man there, though none of us guessed, after ruling that region, that he was to repeat untold hardships to found and rear another settlement farther west. But best I loved to hear Captain Sevier, whose talk lacked not force, but had a daring, a humor, a lightness of touch, that seemed more in keeping with that world I had left behind me in Charlestown. Him I loved, and at length I solved the puzzle. To me he was Nick Temple grown to manhood.
I slept in the room with Captain Sevier's boys, and one window of it was of paper smeared with bear's grease, through which the sunlight came all bleared and yellow in the morning. I had a boy's interest in affairs, and I remember being told that the gentlemen were met here to discuss the treaty between themselves and the great Oconostota, chief of the Cherokees, and also to consider the policy of punishing once for all Dragging Canoe and his bandits at Chickamauga.
As we sat at breakfast under the trees, these gentlemen generously dropped their own business to counsel Tom, and I observed with pride that he had gained their regard during the last year's war. Shelby's threats and Robertson's warnings and Sevier's exhortations having no effect upon his determination to proceed to Kentucky, they began to advise him how to go, and he sat silent while they talked. And finally, when they asked him, he spoke of making through Carter's Valley for Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Trail.
"Egad," cried Captain Sevier, "I have so many times found the boldest plan the safest that I have become a coward that way. What do you say to it, Mr. Robertson?"
Mr. Robertson leaned his square shoulders over the table.
"He may fall in with a party going over," he answered, without looking up.
Polly Ann looked at Tom as if to say that the whole Continental Army could not give her as much protection.
We left that hospitable place about nine o'clock, Mr. Robertson having written a letter to Colonel Daniel Boone,—shut up in the fort at Boonesboro,—should we be so fortunate as to reach Kaintuckee: and another to a young gentleman by the name of George Rogers Clark, apparently a leader there. Captain Sevier bowed over Polly Ann's hand as if she were a great lady, and wished her a happy honeymoon, and me he patted on the head and called a brave lad. And soon we had passed beyond the corn-field into the Wilderness again.
Our way was down the Nollichucky, past the great bend of it below Lick Creek, and so to the Great War-path, the trail by which countless parties of red marauders had travelled north and south. It led, indeed, northeast between the mountain ranges. Although we kept a watch by day and night, we saw no sign of Dragging Canoe or his men, and at length we forded the Holston and came to the scattered settlement in Carter's Valley.
I have since racked my brain to remember at whose cabin we stopped there. He was a rough backwoodsman with a wife and a horde of children. But I recall that a great rain came out of the mountains and down the valley. We were counting over the powder gourds in our packs, when there burst in at the door as wild a man as has ever been my lot to see. His brown beard was grown like a bramble patch, his eye had a violet light, and his hunting shirt was in tatters. He was thin to gauntness, ate ravenously of the food that was set before him, and throwing off his soaked moccasins, he spread his scalded feet to the blaze, and the steaming odor of drying leather filled the room.
"Whar be ye from?" asked Tom.
For answer the man bared his arm, then his shoulder, and two angry scars, long and red, revealed themselves, and around his wrists were deep gouges where he had been bound.
"They killed Sue," he cried, "sculped her afore my very eyes. And they chopped my boy outen the hickory withes and carried him to the Creek Nation. At a place where there was a standin' stone I broke loose from three of 'em and come here over the mountains, and I ain't had nothin', stranger, but berries and chainey brier-root for ten days. God damn 'em!" he cried, standing up and tottering with the pain in his feet, "if I can get a Deckard—"
"Will you go back?" said Tom.
"Go back!" he shouted, "I'll go back and fight 'em while I have blood in my body."
He fell into a bunk, but his sorrow haunted him even in his troubled sleep, and his moans awed us as we listened. The next day he told us his story with more calmness. It was horrible indeed, and might well have frightened a less courageous woman than Polly Ann. Imploring her not to go, he became wild again, and brought tears to her eyes when he spoke of his own wife. "They tomahawked her, ma'am, because she could not walk, and the baby beside her, and I standing by with my arms tied."
As long as I live I shall never forget that scene, and how Tom pleaded with Polly Ann to stay behind, but she would not listen to him.
"You're going, Tom?" she said.
"Yes," he answered, turning away, "I gave 'em my word."
"And your word to me?" said Polly Ann.
He did not answer.
We fixed on a Saturday to start, to give the horses time to rest, and in the hope that we might hear of some relief party going over the Gap. On Thursday Tom made a trip to the store in the valley, and came back with a Deckard rifle he had bought for the stranger, whose name was Weldon. There was no news from Kaintuckee, but the Carter's Valley settlers seemed to think that matters were better there. It was that same night, I believe, that two men arrived from Fort Chiswell. One, whose name was Cutcheon, was a little man with a short forehead and a bad eye, and he wore a weather-beaten blue coat of military cut. The second was a big, light-colored, fleshy man, and a loud talker. He wore a hunting shirt and leggings. They were both the worse for rum they had had on the road, the big man talking very loud and boastfully.
"Afeard to go to Kaintuckee!" said he. "I've met a parcel o' cowards on the road, turned back. There ain't nothin' to be afeard of, eh, stranger?" he added, to Tom, who paid no manner of attention to him. The small man scarce opened his mouth, but sat with his head bowed forward on his breast when he was not drinking. We passed a dismal, crowded night in the room with such companions. When they heard that we were to go over the mountains, nothing would satisfy the big man but to go with us.
"Come, stranger," said he to Tom, "two good rifles such as we is ain't to be throwed away."
"Why do you want to go over?" asked Tom. "Be ye a Tory?" he demanded suspiciously.
"Why do you go over?" retorted Riley, for that was his name. "I reckon I'm no more of a Tory than you."
"Whar did ye come from?" said Tom.
"Chiswell's mines, taking out lead for the army o' Congress. But there ain't excitement enough in it."
"And you?" said Tom, turning to Cutcheon and eying his military coat.
"I got tired of their damned discipline," the man answered surlily. He was a deserter.
"Look you," said Tom, sternly, "if you come, what I say is law."
Such was the sacrifice we were put to by our need of company. But in those days a man was a man, and scarce enough on the Wilderness Trail in that year of '77. So we started away from Carter's Valley on a bright Saturday morning, the grass glistening after a week's rain, the road sodden, and the smell of the summer earth heavy. Tom and Weldon walked ahead, driving the two horses, followed by Cutcheon, his head dropped between his shoulders. The big man, Riley, regaled Polly Ann.
"My pluck is," said he, "my pluck is to give a redskin no chance. Shoot 'em down like hogs. It takes a good un to stalk me, Ma'am. Up on the Kanawha I've had hand-to-hand fights with 'em, and made 'em cry quits."
"Law!" exclaimed Polly Ann, nudging me, "it was a lucky thing we run into you in the valley."
But presently we left the road and took a mountain trail,—as stiff a climb as we had yet had. Polly Ann went up it like a bird, talking all the while to Riley, who blew like a bellows. For once he was silent.
We spent two, perchance three, days climbing and descending and fording. At night Tom would suffer none to watch save Weldon and himself, not trusting Riley or Cutcheon. And the rascals were well content to sleep. At length we came, to a cabin on a creek, the corn between the stumps around it choked with weeds, and no sign of smoke in the chimney. Behind it slanted up, in giant steps, a forest-clad hill of a thousand feet, and in front of it the stream was dammed and lined with cane.
"Who keeps house?" cried Tom, at the threshold.
He pushed back the door, fashioned in one great slab from a forest tree. His welcome was an angry whir, and a huge yellow rattler lay coiled within, his head reared to strike. Polly Ann leaned back.
"Mercy," she cried, "that's a bad sign."
But Tom killed the snake, and we made ready to use the cabin that night and the next day. For the horses were to be rested and meat was to be got, as we could not use our guns so freely on the far side of Cumberland Gap. In the morning, before he and Weldon left, Tom took me around the end of the cabin.
"Davy," said he, "I don't trust these rascals. Kin you shoot a pistol?"
I reckoned I could.
He had taken one out of the pack he had got from Captain Sevier and pushed it between the logs where the clay had fallen out. "If they try anything," said he, "shoot 'em. And don't be afeard of killing 'em." He patted me on the back, and went off up the slope with Weldon. Polly Ann and I stood watching them until they were out of sight.
About eleven o'clock Riley and Cutcheon moved off to the edge of a cane-brake near the water, and sat there for a while, talking in low tones. The horses were belled and spancelled near by, feeding on the cane and wild grass, and Polly Ann was cooking journey-cakes on a stone.
"What makes you so sober, Davy?" she said.
I didn't answer.
"Davy," she cried, "be happy while you're young. 'Tis a fine day, and Kaintuckee's over yonder." She picked up her skirts and sang:—
"First upon the heeltap, Then upon the toe."
The men by the cane-brake turned and came towards us.
"Ye're happy to-day, Mis' McChesney," said Riley.
"Why shouldn't I be?" said Polly Ann; "we're all a-goin' to Kaintuckee."
"We're a-goin' back to Cyarter's Valley," said Riley, in his blustering way. "This here ain't as excitin' as I thought. I reckon there ain't no redskins nohow."
"What!" cried Polly Ann, in loud scorn, "ye're a-goin' to desert? There'll be redskins enough by and by, I'll warrant ye."
"How'd you like to come along of us," says Riley; "that ain't any place for wimmen, over yonder."
"Along of you!" cried Polly Ann, with flashing eyes. "Do you hear that, Davy?"
I did. Meanwhile the man Cutcheon was slowly walking towards her. It took scarce a second for me to make up my mind. I slipped around the corner of the house, seized the pistol, primed it with a trembling hand, and came back to behold Polly Ann, with flaming cheeks, facing them. They did not so much as glance at me. Riley held a little back of the two, being the coward. But Cutcheon stood ready, like a wolf.
I did not wait for him to spring, but, taking the best aim I could with my two hands, fired. With a curse that echoed in the crags, he threw up his arms and fell forward, writhing, on the turf.
"Run for the cabin, Polly Ann," I shouted, "and bar the door."
There was no need. For an instant Riley wavered, and then fled to the cane.
Polly Ann and I went to the man on the ground, and turned him over. His eyes slid upwards. There was a bloody froth on his lips.
"Davy!" cried she, awestricken, "Davy, ye've killed him!"
I grew dizzy and sick at the thought, but she caught me and held me to her. Presently we sat down on the door log, gazing at the corpse. Then I began to reflect, and took out my powder gourd and loaded the pistol.
"What are ye a-doing?" she said.
"In case the other one comes back," said I.
"Pooh," said Polly Ann, "he'll not come back." Which was true. I have never laid eyes on Riley to this day.
"I reckon we'd better fetch it out of the sun," said she, after a while. And so we dragged it under an oak, covered the face, and left it.
He was the first man I ever killed, and the business by no means came natural to me. And that day the journey-cakes which Polly Ann had made were untasted by us both. The afternoon dragged interminably. Try as we would, we could not get out of our minds the Thing that lay under the oak.
It was near sundown when Tom and Weldon appeared on the mountain side carrying a buck between them. Tom glanced from one to the other of us keenly. He was very quick to divine.
"Whar be they?" said he.
"Show him, Davy," said Polly Ann.
I took him over to the oak, and Polly Ann told him the story. He gave me one look, I remember, and there was more of gratitude in it than in a thousand words. Then he seized a piece of cold cake from the stone.
"Which trace did he take?" he demanded of me.
But Polly Ann hung on his shoulder.
"Tom, Tom!" she cried, "you beant goin' to leave us again. Tom, he'll die in the wilderness, and we must git to Kaintuckee."
* * * * * * *
The next vivid thing in my memory is the view of the last barrier Nature had reared between us and the delectable country. It stood like a lion at the gateway, and for some minutes we gazed at it in terror from Powell's Valley below. How many thousands have looked at it with sinking hearts! How many weaklings has its frown turned back! There seemed to be engraved upon it the dark history of the dark and bloody land beyond. Nothing in this life worth having is won for the asking; and the best is fought for, and bled for, and died for. Written, too, upon that towering wall of white rock, in the handwriting of God Himself, is the history of the indomitable Race to which we belong.
For fifty miles we travelled under it, towards the Gap, our eyes drawn to it by a resistless fascination. The sun went over it early in the day, as though glad to leave the place, and after that a dark scowl would settle there. At night we felt its presence, like a curse. Even Polly Ann was silent. And she had need to be now. When it was necessary, we talked in low tones, and the bell-clappers on the horses were not loosed at night. It was here, but four years gone, that Daniel Boone's family was attacked, and his son killed by the Indians.
We passed, from time to time, deserted cabins and camps, and some places that might once have been called settlements: Elk Garden, where the pioneers of the last four years had been wont to lay in a simple supply of seed corn and Irish potatoes; and the spot where Henderson and his company had camped on the way to establish Boonesboro two years before. And at last we struck the trace that mounted upward to the Gateway itself.
ON THE WILDERNESS TRAIL
And now we had our hands upon the latch, and God alone knew what was behind the gate. Toil, with a certainty, but our lives had known it. Death, perchance. But Death had been near to all of us, and his presence did not frighten. As we climbed towards the Gap, I recalled with strange aptness a quaint saying of my father's that Kaintuckee was the Garden of Eden, and that men were being justly punished with blood for their presumption.
As if to crown that judgment, the day was dark and lowering, with showers of rain from time to time. And when we spoke,—Polly Ann and I,—it was in whispers. The trace was very narrow, with Daniel Boone's blazes, two years old, upon the trees; but the way was not over steep. Cumberland Mountain was as silent and deserted as when the first man had known it.
Alas, for the vanity of human presage! We gained the top, and entered unmolested. No Eden suddenly dazzled our eye, no splendor burst upon it. Nothing told us, as we halted in our weariness, that we had reached the Promised Land. The mists weighed heavily on the evergreens of the slopes and hid the ridges, and we passed that night in cold discomfort. It was the first of many without a fire.
The next day brought us to the Cumberland, tawny and swollen from the rains, and here we had to stop to fell trees to make a raft on which to ferry over our packs. We bound the logs together with grapevines, and as we worked my imagination painted for me many a red face peering from the bushes on the farther shore. And when we got into the river and were caught and spun by the hurrying stream, I hearkened for a shot from the farther bank. While Polly Ann and I were scrambling to get the raft landed, Tom and Weldon swam over with the horses. And so we lay the second night dolefully in the rain. But not so much as a whimper escaped from Polly Ann. I have often told her since that the sorest trial she had was the guard she kept on her tongue,—a hardship indeed for one of Irish inheritance. Many a pull had she lightened for us by a flash of humor.
The next morning the sun relented, and the wine of his dawn was wine indeed to our flagging hopes. Going down to wash at the river's brink, I heard a movement in the cane, and stood frozen and staring until a great, bearded head, black as tar, was thrust out between the stalks and looked at me with blinking red eyes. The next step revealed the hump of the beast, and the next his tasselled tail lashing his dirty brown quarters. I did not tarry longer, but ran to tell Tom. He made bold to risk a shot and light a fire, and thus we had buffalo meat for some days after.
We were still in the mountains. The trail led down the river for a bit through the worst of canebrakes, and every now and again we stopped while Tom and Weldon scouted. Once the roan mare made a dash through the brake, and, though Polly Ann burst through one way to head her off and I another, we reached the bank of Richland Creek in time to see her nose and the top of her pack above the brown water. There was nothing for it but to swim after her, which I did, and caught her quietly feeding in the cane on the other side. By great good fortune the other horse bore the powder.
"Drat you, Nancy," said Polly Ann to the mare, as she handed me my clothes, "I'd sooner carry the pack myself than be bothered with you."
"Hush," said I, "the redskins will get us."
Polly Ann regarded me scornfully as I stood bedraggled before her.
"Redskins!" she cried. "Nonsense! I reckon it's all talk about redskins."
But we had scarce caught up ere we saw Tom standing rigid with his hand raised. Before him, on a mound bared of cane, were the charred remains of a fire. The sight of them transformed Weldon. His eyes glared again, even as when we had first seen him, curses escaped under his breath, and he would have darted into the cane had not Tom seized him sternly by the shoulder. As for me, my heart hammered against my ribs, and I grew sick with listening. It was at that instant that my admiration for Tom McChesney burst bounds, and that I got some real inkling of what woodcraft might be. Stepping silently between the tree trunks, his eyes bent on the leafy loam, he found a footprint here and another there, and suddenly he went into the cane with a sign to us to remain. It seemed an age before he returned. Then he began to rake the ashes, and, suddenly bending down, seized something in them,—the broken bowl of an Indian pipe.
"Shawnees!" he said; "I reckoned so." It was at length the beseeching in Polly Ann's eyes that he answered.
"A war party—tracks three days old. They took poplar."
To take poplar was our backwoods expression for embarking in a canoe, the dugouts being fashioned from the great poplar trees.
I did not reflect then, as I have since and often, how great was the knowledge and resource Tom practised that day. Our feeling for him (Polly Ann's and mine) fell little short of worship. In company ill at ease, in the forest he became silent and masterful—an unerring woodsman, capable of meeting the Indian on his own footing. And, strangest thought of all, he and many I could name who went into Kentucky, had escaped, by a kind of strange fate, being born in the north of Ireland. This was so of Andrew Jackson himself.
The rest of the day he led us in silence down the trace, his eye alert to penetrate every corner of the forest, his hand near the trigger of his long Deckard. I followed in boylike imitation, searching every thicket for alien form and color, and yearning for stature and responsibility. As for poor Weldon, he would stride for hours at a time with eyes fixed ahead, a wild figure,—ragged and fringed. And we knew that the soul within him was torn with thoughts of his dead wife and of his child in captivity. Again, when the trance left him, he was an addition to our little party not to be despised.
At dark Polly Ann and I carried the packs across a creek on a fallen tree, she taking one end and I the other. We camped there, where the loam was trampled and torn by countless herds of bison, and had only parched corn and the remains of a buffalo steak for supper, as the meal was mouldy from its wetting, and running low. When Weldon had gone a little distance up the creek to scout, Tom relented from the sternness which his vigilance imposed and came and sat down on a log beside Polly Ann and me.
"'Tis a hard journey, little girl," he said, patting her; "I reckon I done wrong to fetch you."
I can see him now, as the twilight settled down over the wilderness, his honest face red and freckled, but aglow with the tenderness it had hidden during the day, one big hand enfolding hers, and the other on my shoulder.
"Hark, Davy!" said Polly Ann, "he's fair tired of us already. Davy, take me back."
"Hush, Polly Ann," he answered; delighted at her raillery. "But I've a word to say to you. If we come on to the redskins, you and Davy make for the cane as hard as you kin kilter. Keep out of sight."
"As hard as we kin kilter!" exclaimed Polly Ann, indignantly. "I reckon not, Tom McChesney. Davy taught me to shoot long ago, afore you made up your mind to come back from Kaintuckee."
Tom chuckled. "So Davy taught you to shoot," he said, and checked himself. "He ain't such a bad one with a pistol,"—and he patted me,—"but I allow ye'd better hunt kiver just the same. And if they ketch ye, Polly Ann, just you go along and pretend to be happy, and tear off a snatch of your dress now and then, if you get a chance. It wouldn't take me but a little time to run into Harrodstown or Boone's Station from here, and fetch a party to follow ye."
Two days went by,—two days of strain in sunlight, and of watching and fitful sleep in darkness. But the Wilderness Trail was deserted. Here and there a lean-to—silent remnant of the year gone by—spoke of the little bands of emigrants which had once made their way so cheerfully to the new country. Again it was a child's doll, the rags of it beaten by the weather to a rusty hue. Every hour that we progressed seemed to justify the sagacity and boldness of Tom's plan, nor did it appear to have entered a painted skull that a white man would have the hardihood to try the trail this year. There were neither signs nor sounds save Nature's own, the hoot of the wood-owl, the distant bark of a mountain wolf, the whir of a partridge as she left her brood. At length we could stand no more the repression that silence and watching put upon us, and when a rotten bank gave way and flung Polly Ann and the sorrel mare into a creek, even Weldon smiled as we pulled her, bedraggled and laughing, from the muddy water. This was after we had ferried the Rockcastle River.
Our trace rose and fell over height and valley, until we knew that we were come to a wonderland at last. We stood one evening on a spur as the setting sun flooded the natural park below us with a crystal light and, striking a tall sycamore, turned its green to gold. We were now on the hills whence the water ran down to nourish the fat land, and I could scarce believe that the garden spot on which our eyes feasted could be the scene of the blood and suffering of which we had heard. Here at last was the fairyland of my childhood, the country beyond the Blue Wall.
We went down the river that led into it, with awes as though we were trespassers against God Himself,—as though He had made it too beautiful and too fruitful for the toilers of this earth. And you who read this an hundred years hence may not believe the marvels of it to the pioneer, and in particular to one born and bred in the scanty, hard soil of the mountains. Nature had made it for her park,—ay, and scented it with her own perfumes. Giant trees, which had watched generations come and go, some of which mayhap had been saplings when the Norman came to England, grew in groves,—the gnarled and twisted oak, and that godsend to the settlers, the sugar-maple; the coffee tree with its drooping buds; the mulberry, the cherry, and the plum; the sassafras and the pawpaw; the poplar and the sycamore, slender maidens of the forest, garbed in daintier colors,—ay, and that resplendent brunette with the white flowers, the magnolia; and all underneath, in the green shade, enamelled banks which the birds themselves sought to rival.
At length, one afternoon, we came to the grove of wild apple trees so lovingly spoken of by emigrants as the Crab Orchard, and where formerly they had delighted to linger. The plain near by was flecked with the brown backs of feeding buffalo, but we dared not stop, and pressed on to find a camp in the forest. As we walked in the filtered sunlight we had a great fright, Polly Ann and I. Shrill, discordant cries suddenly burst from the branches above us, and a flock of strange, green birds flecked with red flew over our heads. Even Tom, intent upon the trail, turned and laughed at Polly Ann as she stood clutching me.
"Shucks," said he, "they're only paroquets."
We made our camp in a little dell where there was short green grass by the brookside and steep banks overgrown with brambles on either hand. Tom knew the place, and declared that we were within thirty miles of the station. A giant oak had blown down across the water, and, cutting out a few branches of this, we spread our blankets under it on the turf. Tethering our faithful beasts, and cutting a quantity of pea-vine for their night's food, we lay down to sleep, Tom taking the first watch.
I had the second, for Tom trusted me now, and glorying in that trust I was alert and vigilant. A shy moon peeped at me between the trees, and was fantastically reflected in the water. The creek rippled over the limestone, and an elk screamed in the forest far beyond. When at length I had called Weldon to take the third watch, I lay down with a sense of peace, soothed by the sweet odors of the night.
I awoke suddenly. I had been dreaming of Nick Temple and Temple Bow, and my father coming back to me there with a great gash in his shoulder like Weldon's. I lay for a moment dazed by the transition, staring through the gray light. Then I sat up, the soft stamping and snorting of the horses in my ears. The sorrel mare had her nose high, her tail twitching, but there was no other sound in the leafy wilderness. With a bound of returning sense I looked for Weldon. He had fallen asleep on the bank above, his body dropped across the trunk of the oak. I leaped on the trunk and made my way along it, stepping over him, until I reached and hid myself in the great roots of the tree on the bank above. The cold shiver of the dawn was in my body as I waited and listened. Should I wake Tom? The vast forest was silent, and yet in its shadowy depths my imagination drew moving forms. I hesitated.
The light grew: the boles of the trees came out, one by one, through the purple. The tangled mass down the creek took on a shade of green, and a faint breath came from the southward. The sorrel mare sniffed it, and stamped. Then silence again,—a long silence. Could it be that the cane moved in the thicket? Or had my eyes deceived me? I stared so hard that it seemed to rustle all over. Perhaps some deer were feeding there, for it was no unusual thing, when we rose in the morning, to hear the whistle of a startled doe near our camping ground. I was thoroughly frightened now,—and yet I had the speculative Scotch mind. The thicket was some one hundred and fifty yards above, and on the flooded lands at a bend. If there were Indians in it, they could not see the sleeping forms of our party under me because of a bend in the stream. They might have seen me, though I had kept very still in the twisted roots of the oak, and now I was cramped. If Indians were there, they could determine our position well enough by the occasional stamping and snorting of the horses. And this made my fear more probable, for I had heard that horses and cattle often warned pioneers of the presence of redskins.
Another thing: if they were a small party, they would probably seek to surprise us by coming out of the cane into the creek bed above the bend, and stalk down the creek. If a large band, they would surround and overpower us. I drew the conclusion that it must be a small party—if a party at all. And I would have given a shot in the arm to be able to see over the banks of the creek. Finally I decided to awake Tom.
It was no easy matter to get down to where he was without being seen by eyes in the cane. I clung to the under branches of the oak, finally reached the shelving bank, and slid down slowly. I touched him on the shoulder. He awoke with a start, and by instinct seized the rifle lying beside him.
"What is it, Davy?" he whispered.
I told what had happened and my surmise. He glanced then at the restless horses and nodded, pointing up at the sleeping figure of Weldon, in full sight on the log. The Indians must have seen him.
Tom picked up the spare rifle.
"Davy," said he, "you stay here beside Polly Ann, behind the oak. You kin shoot with a rest; but don't shoot," said he, earnestly, "for God's sake don't shoot unless you're sure to kill."
I nodded. For a moment he looked at the face of Polly Ann, sleeping peacefully, and the fierce light faded from his eyes. He brushed her on the cheek and she awoke and smiled at him, trustfully, lovingly. He put his finger to his lips.
"Stay with Davy," he said. Turning to me, he added: "When you wake Weldon, wake him easy. So." He put his hand in mine, and gradually tightened it. "Wake him that way, and he won't jump."
Polly Ann asked no questions. She looked at Tom, and her soul was in her face. She seized the pistol from the blanket. Then we watched him creeping down the creek on his belly, close to the bank. Next we moved behind the fallen tree, and I put my hand in Weldon's. He woke with a sigh, started, but we drew him down behind the log. Presently he climbed cautiously up the bank and took station in the muddy roots of the tree. Then we waited, watching Tom with a prayer in our hearts. Those who have not felt it know not the fearfulness of waiting for an Indian attack.
At last Tom reached the bend in the bank, beside some red-bud bushes, and there he stayed. A level shaft of light shot through the forest. The birds, twittering, awoke. A great hawk soared high in the blue over our heads. An hour passed. I had sighted the rifle among the yellow leaves of the fallen oak an hundred times. But Polly Ann looked not once to the right or left. Her eyes and her prayers followed the form of her husband.