THE NIGHT RIDE
He left the great room for his own
cabin at the usual hour. No one but Ruth observed
his going. She smiled at him as he passed, and
caught his hand and gave it a little teasing, affectionate
squeeze. He must leave “The Famous History
of Montilion” unread for one night, so
she said, and he must go to bed at once,
since he was to be up before the sun. These little
ways of Ruth’s were usually very sweet to him,
but he did not find them so that night. He made
no reply, and looked at her gravely, without an answering
smile. Had anything been needed to fix his purpose,
this gentle raillery would have been more than enough.
He went straight from the door of
Cedar House to the stable under the hill, stopping
at his cabin only long enough to get his rifle.
The stable was very dark within, but he knew where
to find the pony that he always rode, and the saddle
and bridle which he always used, without needing to
see. And the pony knew him, too, for all the darkness,
and welcomed him with a friendly whinny which said
so as plainly as words. For the boy and the pony
were good friends, and moreover they understood one
another perfectly, which is rarely the case with the
best of friends. And then they were both foundlings,
and that may have made another bond between them.
The pony had been a wild colt caught in the forest
on the other side of the river. Nothing was known
of his ancestors, although they were supposed by those
who knew best, to have been the worn-out horses of
good blood which had been deserted in the wilderness
by the Spaniards. But then everything cruel was
laid at the door of the hated Spaniards in those days,
when they had so lately been forced to take their
throttling grasp from the throat of the Beautiful
River. The pony certainly bore no outward mark
of noble ancestry. He was a homely, humble, rough-coated
little beast. Yet David liked him better than
all the other finer horses in the judge’s stables,
notwithstanding that some of these had real pedigrees;
for good horses were already appearing in Kentucky.
The judge allowed David to claim the pony as his own.
Robert Knox was a kind man when he did not forget,
and he never forgot any one without forgetting himself, first
and most of all, as he did sometimes.
David always thought of the pony as
an orphan like himself, and his own bruised feelings
were very tender toward the friendless little fellow.
He led him from the stable now as a mark of respect
and because it was dark; for he knew that the pony,
with a word, would follow him anywhere, at any time,
like a faithful dog. It was not quite so dark
outside, and springing into the saddle, the boy bent
down and stroked the rough neck and the tangled mane
that no brush could ever make smooth. The pony
lifted his head to meet the caress, and then these
two orphans of the wilderness looked out dimly, wondering,
over this wonderful new country into which both were
come, without knowing how or why or whence, through
no will or choice of their own.
That portion of Kentucky rises gently
but steadily from the river, and rolls gradually upward
toward its eastern hills. On this October night
so close to the very beginning of the commonwealth,
these terraced hills were still covered with the primeval
forest. Hill after hill, and forest after forest,
on and on and higher and higher, till the earth and
the heavens came together. Near the river on
the natural open spaces, and where earliest the clearings
had been made, the boy could see the widely scattered
rude homes, the young orchards, and the new fields,
which the first Kentuckians had won from the wilderness,
from the savage, from the wild beast and the pestilence.
Southward, and a long way off, lay the great Cypress
Swamp. The wavering sable line of its tree-tops
spread a pall across the starless horizon. The
deadly white mists which shrouded its gloomy mystery
through the sunniest day were now creeping out to
enshroud the higher land. Through the mingled
mist and darkness the sombre trunks of the towering
cypress trees rose with supernatural blackness.
The mysterious “knees,” those strange,
naked, blackened roots, so wildly gnarled and twisted
about the foot of the cypress, appeared to writhe
out of the swamp’s awful dimness like monstrous
serpents seen in a dreadful dream.
And thus these dark fancies swayed
the boy’s imagination as wind sways flame, till
he suddenly remembered and turned from them more quickly
and firmly than ever before. He had made up his
mind to cease dreaming with his eyes open. He
was resolved to see only real sights and to hear only
real sounds from this time on. He did not deceive
himself by thinking that this ever could be easy for
him to do. He knew too well that in place of
the cool, steady common-sense which should dwell in
every man’s breast, there dwelt something strangely
hot and restless in his own. He had always felt
this difference without understanding it; but he had
hoped that no one else knew it up to the
cruel revelation of Ruth’s laughing and kindly
meant words. Well, neither Ruth nor any one should
ever again have cause to laugh at him for romantic
weakness, if he might help it by keeping guard over
He therefore sternly kept his eyes
away from the swamp where mystery always brooded.
He would not look at the wonderful mound near the swamp,
which he never before had passed without wonder.
It was then as it is now such
an amazing monument to a vanished race. It is
so unaccountably placed, this mountain of earth in
the midst of level lowlands; so astounding in size
and so unmistakably the work of unknown human hands.
Never till that night had David’s fervid imagination
turned toward it without his beginning forthwith to
wonder over the secrets of the ages which lie buried
beneath. He had hitherto always thought of this
mound in association with the mysterious blazed trail
through the forest. But that was much farther
off and more directly south, and no one but the boy
had ever found any connection between the two.
He, dreaming, would sometimes imagine that the same
vanished race had marked the path through the forest
by cutting the trees on either side this
marvellous blazed trail which De Soto is sometimes
said to have found when he came, and again to have
made himself, regardless of the fact that history does
not mention his being anywhere near. The romance
of the buried treasure which this mystic path was
believed to lead to, perpetually held David under
a spell of enchantment. But he would not allow
himself to linger over these mysteries now. He
also resisted the horrible fascination of the Dismal
Slough that long, frightful black pit linking
the swamp to the river. And most of all he shrunk
from giving a thought or a glance toward the gloom
hanging over Duff’s Fort, which was still farther
off, and the strongest, most bloody link in the long
and unbroken chain of crime then stretching clear
across southwestern Kentucky.
As these uneasy thoughts thronged,
a faint sound borne by the wind caused him to turn
his head with a nervous start, and he saw something
moving in the deeper darkness that surrounded the swamp.
He pulled up the pony, tightening his grip on the
rifle, and strained his eyes, trying to make out what
this moving object was. The wavering mists were
very thick, and he thought at first that it might be
nothing worse than a denser gathering of the deadly
vapor creeping out of the swamp. The fog suddenly
fell like a heavy curtain, and he could see nothing.
And then lifting again, it gave him a fleeting glimpse
of a body of horsemen riding rapidly in the edge of
the forest, as if seeking the shadow of the trees.
He could see only the black outline of the swiftly
moving shapes, but he knew that they must be part
of the band which was filling the whole country with
terror, violence, and death. None other could
be riding at night toward Duff’s Fort.
He thought of the money in his pocket, and felt the
thumping of his heart as his hand involuntarily went
up to touch it, making sure that it was still safe.
He sat motionless scarcely daring to breathe watching
the shadows till he suddenly realized with a breath
of relief that they were going the other way, in the
opposite direction from his own road. And then
after waiting and watching a little longer, in order
to make sure that they were out of sight, he rode
The courage and calmness which he
had found in himself under this test, heartened him
and made him the more determined to control his wandering
fancy. Looking now neither to the right nor the
left, he pressed on through the clearing toward the
buffalo track in the border of the forest which would
lead him into the Wilderness Road. Sternly setting
his thoughts on the errand that was taking him to the
salt-works, he began to think of the place in which
they were situated, and to wonder why so bare, so
brown, and so desolate a spot should have been called
Green Lick. There was no greenness about it, and
not the slightest sign that there ever had been any
verdure, although it still lay in the very heart of
an almost tropical forest. It must surely have
been as it was now since time immemorial. Myriads
of wild beasts coming and going through numberless
centuries to drink the salt water, had trodden the
earth around it as hard as iron, and had worn it down
far below the surface of the surrounding country.
The boy had seen it often, but always by daylight,
and never alone, so that he noted many things now
which he had not observed before. The huge bison
must have gone over that well-beaten track one by
one, to judge by its narrowness. He could see
it dimly, running into the clearing like a black line
beginning far off between the bordering trees; but
as he looked, the darkness deepened, the mists thickened,
and a look of unreality came over familiar objects.
And then through the wavering gloom there suddenly
towered a great dark mass topped by something which
rose against the wild dimness like a colossal blacksmith’s
anvil. It might have been Vulcan’s own
forge, so strange and fabulous a thing it seemed!
The boy’s heart leaped with his pony’s
leap. His imagination spread its swift wings
ere he could think; but in another instant he reminded
himself. This was not an awful apparition, but
a real thing, wondrous and unaccountable enough in
its reality. It was Anvil Rock a great,
solitary rock rising abruptly from the reckless
loam of a level country, and lifting its single peak,
rudely shaped like a blacksmith’s anvil, straight
up toward the clouds. It was already serving as
a landmark in the wilderness, and must continue so
to serve all that portion of Kentucky, so long as
the levelling hand of man may be withheld from one
of the natural wonders of the world.
Beyond Anvil Rock the night grew blacker.
When David reached the buffalo track he could no longer
see even dimly, the forest closing densely in on both
sides of the narrow path, and arching darkly overhead.
Instinctively he put up his hand again and touched
the money in his breast pocket. His grasp on
the rifle unconsciously grew firmer, but he loosed
the bridle-rein for a moment to pat the pony.
The little beast entered the shadows of the trees
without a tremor; yet there were dangers therein for
him no less than for his rider, and his excited breathing
told that he knew this quite as well as his master.
It was so dark that neither could see the path, and
the boy was trusting more to the pony than to himself,
as they went swiftly forward through the still darkness
of the forest. The pony’s unshod feet made
scarcely a sound on the soft, moist earth. There
had been no frost to thin the thick branches hanging
low over their heads. The few leaves which had
drifted down were still unwithered, and only made
the hoof-beats more soundless on the yielding earth,
so that there was not a rustle at the noiseless passing
of the pony and his rider. Only a sudden gust
of wind now and then sent a murmur through the dark
tree-tops and gently swayed the sombre boughs.
And so they sped on, drawing nearer and nearer to the
Wilderness Road, till presently the wind brought the
strong odor of boiling salt water. The woods
became now still further darkened and entangled by
many fallen trees which had been felled to make fuel
for the furnaces, and by huge heaps of logs piled
ready for burning. Here and there were great
whitening giants of the forest still standing after
they had been slain, as soldiers death-stricken stand
for an instant on the field of battle. It seemed
to the fanciful boy that the wind sighed most mournfully
among these wan ghosts of trees, and that the dead
boughs, moved by the sighing wind, smote one another
with infinite sadness.
There was no sound other than this
moaning of the wind through the forest and the muffled
beating of the pony’s feet on the leaf-covered
path. Once a great owl flew across the dark way
with a deadened beating of his heavy wings. Again
wolves howled, but so far in the distance that the
sound came as the faintest echo. A stronger gust
of the fitful wind filled the forest with the sulphurous
vapors arising from the evaporating furnaces.
A moment more, and the vivid glare of the fires flared
luridly through the wild tangle of the undergrowth.
Against this red glare many black shadows the
dark forms of the firemen could now be
indistinctly seen moving like evil spirits around the
smoking, flaming pits.
It was a wild, strange sight, wild
and strange enough to fire a cooler fancy than David’s.
He forgot his errand, forgot the money, forgot where
he was everything but the romance of the
scene which had taken him captive. Every nerve
in his tense young body was strung like the cord of
a harp; his young heart was beating as if a heavy hammer
swung in his breast. And then, without so much
as the warning rustle of a leaf or a sound more alarming
than the sigh of the wind, two blurred black shapes
burst out of the forest upon him.