The Partisan/VI

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The Partisan by William Gilmore Simms
Chapter VI


"Stretch out thy waud before thou set'st thy foot;
 'Tis a dim way before thee, aud the trees
 Of byegone centuries bave spread their arms
 Athwart thy path. Now make thy footiug sure
 And now, God cheer us, for the toil is done."

Night had fairly set in—a clear starlight night—before the three set forth upon their proposed adventure. To Major Singleton, who was a native of the middle country, and had lived heretofore almost exclusively in it, the path they now travelled was entirely unknown. It was necessary, therefore, to move on slowly and with due circumspection. But for this, the party would have advanced with as much speed as if they were pursuing the common highway; for, to the other two, accustomed all their lives to the woodland cover and the tangled recesses of the swamps, their present route, uncleared, in close thicket growth, and diverging as it continually did, was, nevertheless, no mystery. Though necessarily somewhat slow in their progress, the delay was much less than might have been expected; for Singleton, however ignorant of the immediate ground over which they sped, was yet thoroughly versed in forest life, and had traversed the larger and denser swamps of the Santee, a task, though similar, infinitely more difficult and extensive than the one now before him. After a little while, therefore, when his eye grew more accustomed to the peculiar shades about him, he spurred his good steed forward with much more readiness than at their first setting out, and it was not long before the yielding of the soil beneath his hoofs and the occasional plash of the water, together with the more frequent appearance of the solemn and ghostly cypresses around them, gave sufficient indication of the proximity of the swamp recesses.

They had ridden some five miles, and in all this time no word had been spoken by either of the three, except when, here andthere, an increased difficulty in the path led Humphries to the utterance of some caution to his companions. They were now close upon the cypress causeway, and the swamp was gathering around them. Their pace grew slower and more fatiguing, for the freshet had swept the temporary structure over which they rode, and many of the rails were floating in their path. Little gaps were continually presenting themselves, many of which they saw not, but which, fortunately for their safety, were generally avoided by the horses without any call for interference on the part of their riders. Stumbling sometimes, however, they were warned not to press their animals; and picking their way with as much care as possible, they went on in single file, carefully and slowly, over the narrow and broken embankment. It was at this part of their progress that Humphries broke out more freely into speech than he had done before, for his usual characteristic was that of taciturnity.

"Now I do hate these dams and causeways; our people know nothing of road-making, and they ridge and bridge it, while our bones ache and our legs go through at every step we take in going over them. Yet they won't learn—they won't look or listen. They do as they have done a hundred years before, and all your teaching is of no manner of use. Here is this causeway now—every freshet must break its banks and tear up the poles, yet they come back a week after, and lay them down just as before. They never ask if there's a way to build it, which is to make it lasting. They never think of such a thing. Their fathers did so a hundred years ago, and that's reason enough why they should do so now."

"And what plan have you, Humphries, by which to make the dam solid and strong against the freshets, such as we have, that sweep every thing before them, and sometimes give us half a dozen feet of water for a week, over a road that we have been accustomed to walk dryshod?"

"To be sure there is a way, major, and with far less labour. There's no use in building a road unless you give it a backbone. You must run a ridge through it, and all the freshets make it stronger, for they wash the refuse and the mud up against it, instead of washing it away. You see all good roads rise in the centre. The waters run off and never settle, which they always doin the hollows between these poles. You fell your tree, always a good big one, to make your ridge—your backbone; and if it be a causeway like this, running through a swamp, that you would build, why you fell your dozen trees, or more, according to the freshet's call for them. You lay them side by side, not across, but, up and down the road, taking care to put the big ones in the centre. So you may run it for miles, heaping the earth up to the logs. A road made after that fashion will stand a thousand years, while such a thing as this must always be washing away with every freshet. It takes, in the first place, you see, a great deal more of labour and time, and a great deal more of timber, to build it after this fashion; then, it takes more dirt to cover the rails—a hundred times the quantity—and unless they're well covered, they can't be kept down; they will always come loose, and be floating with every rain, and then the water settles heavily in their places and between them. This can't be the case where you lay the timber up and down, as I tell you. It must stand fast; for the rain can't settle, and the earth gathers close to the ridge, and hugs it tighter the more the water beats on it. Besides, building it this way, you use heavy timber, which the waters can't move at any season. But here we stop; we have no further use for the causeway to-night; there's our mark. See to that white tree there; it's a blasted pine, and it shines in a dark night as if it was painted. The lightning peeled it from top to toe. It's a'most two years since. I was not far off in the swamp, catching terrapins, when it was struck, and I was stupified for an hour after, and my head had a ringing in it I didn't get rid of for a month."

"What, do we go aside here?" inquired Davis, who did not seem to relish the diversion, as the first plunge they were required to make from the broken causeway was into a turbid pond, black, and almost covered with fragments of decayed timber and loose bundles of brush.

"Yes, that's our path," replied Humphries, who resolutely put his horse forward as he spoke.

"This is about one of the worst places, major, that we shall have to go through, and we take it on purpose, so that we may not be tracked so easily. Here, when we leave the causeway, we make nomark, and few people think to look for us in the worst place on the line. No, indeed; most people have a love to make hard things easy, though they ought to know that when a man wants to hide, he takes a hole, and not a highway, to do it in. Here, major, this way—to your left, Davis—through the bog."

The party followed as their guide directed, and after some twenty minutes' plunging, they were deep in the shadow and the shelter of the swamp. The gloom was thicker around them, and was only relieved by the pale and skeleton forms of the cypresses, clustering in groups along the plashy sides of the still lake, and giving meet dwelling-place to the screech-owl, that hooted at intervals from their rugged branches. Sometimes a phosphorescent gleam played over the stagnant pond, into which the terrapin plunged heavily at their approach; while on the neighbouring banks the frogs of all degrees croaked forth their inharmonious chant, making the scene more hideous, and certainly adding greatly to the sense of gloom which it inspired in those who penetrated it. A thousand other sounds filled up the pauses between the conclusion of one and the commencement of another discordant chorus from these admitted croakers—sounds of alarm, of invitation, of exulting tyranny—the cry of the little bird, when the black-snake, hugging the high tree, climbs up to the nest of her young, while, with shrieks of rage, flapping his roused wings, the male flies furiously at his head, and gallantly enough, though vainly, endeavours to drive him back from his unholy purpose—the hum of the drowsy beetle, the faint chirp of the cricket, and the buzz of the innumerable thousands of bee, bird, and insect, which make the swamps of the South, in midsuunmer and its commencement, the vast storehouse, in all its forms, of the most various and animated life—all these were around the adventurers, with their gloomy and distracting noises, until they became utterly unheeded at last, and the party boldly kept its onward course into their yet deeper recesses.

"Well, Humphries," said Major Singleton, at length breaking the silence, "so far, so good; and now what is our farther progress, and what the chances for trapping this Travis? Will he not steal a march upon us, and be into the swamp before daylight?"

"Never fear it, major," replied the other, coolly enough, whilekeeping on his way. "You remember, sir, what Huck gave us of his plan. He will place himself upon the skirts of the swamp, high above the point at which we struck, and keep quiet till morning. He will be up betimes, and all that we must do is to be up before him. We have a long ride for it, as it is one part of our work to stop him before he gets too far into the brush. I know his course just as if I saw him on it."

"Yes; such, indeed, may have been the plan; but is there no chance of his departing from it? A good leader will not hold himself bound to a prescribed course, if he finds a better. He may push for the swamp to-night, and I am very anxious that we should be in time to strike him efficiently."

"We shall, sir," replied the other, calmly; "we shall have sufficient time, for I know Travis of old. He is a good hound for scent, but a poor one for chase. He goes slow to be certain, and is always certain to be slow. It's nature with him now, though quick enough, they say, some twenty years ago, when he went out after the Cherokees. Besides, he has a long sweep to make before he gets fairly into the swamp, and the freshet we have had lately will throw him out often enough, and make his way longer. We shall be in time."

"I am glad you are so sure of your man, Humphries. I would not like to lose a good chance at the party. A successful blow struck in this quarter, and just at this moment, would have a fine effect. Why, man, it would bring out those fellows handsomely, whose ears are now full of this protection business, which troubles them so much. If they must fight, they will see the wisdom of taking part with the side which does not call upon them to strike friends or brethren. They must join with us to a man, or go to the West Indies, and that, no doubt, some of the dastards will not fail to do in preference. God help me, but I can scarce keep from cursing them, as I think on their degradation."

"Bad enough, major, bad enough when it's the poor man, without house and home, and nothing to live for and nothing to lose, who takes up with the enemy and fights his battles; but it's much worse when the rich men and the gentlemen, who ought to know better, and to set a good example, it's much worse when they're thefirst to do so. Now I know and I feel, though I expect you won't be so willing to believe it, that, after all, it's the poor man who is the best friend of his country in the time of danger. He doesn't reckon how much he's to lose, or what risk he's to run, when there's a sudden difficulty to get through with. He doesn't think till it's all over, and then he may ask how much he gains by it, without getting a civil answer."

"There's truth in what you say, Humphries, and we do the poor but slack justice in our estimation of them. We see only their poverty, and not their feelings and affections; we have, therefore, but little sympathy, and perhaps nothing more than life and like wants in common with them."

"That's a God's truth here, major, where the poor man does the fighting and the labour, and the rich man takes protection to save his house from the fire. Now, it's just so with this poor man Frampton. He was one of Buford's men, and when Tarleton came upon them, cutting them up root and branch, he took to the swamp, and wouldn't come in, all his neighbours could do, because the man had a good principle for his country. Well, you see what he's lost;—you can't know his sufferings till you see him, major, and I won't try to teach you; but if there's a man can look on him, and see his misery, and know what did it, without taking up sword and rifle, I don't want to know that man. I know one that's of a different way of thinking, and willing to do both."

"And I another!" exclaimed Davis, who had been silent in their ride hitherto.

"Is Frampton here in the swamp—and shall we see him to-night?" asked Singleton, curious to behold a man who, coming from the poorest class of farmers in the neighbourhood, had maintained such a tenacious spirit of resistance to invasion, when the more leading people around him and indeed the greater majority, had subscribed to terms of indulgence, which, if less honourable, were here far more safe. The sufferings of the man himself, the cruel treatment his wife had undergone, and her subsequent death, also contributed largely to that interest which, upon hearing his simple but pathetic story, the speaker had immediately felt to know him.

"We shall see him in an hour, major, and a melancholy sight itis; you'll be surprised, and if you aint very strong of heart, it will go nigh to sicken you. But it does good to see it for one's self; it makes one strong against tyranny."

"It grows very dark here."

"That's water before you, and a good big pond, too," said Davis.

"This is the track, major;" and Humphries led the way to the left, inclining more in the direction of the river. A sullen, child-like cry, succeeded by a sudden plunge into the water, indicated the vicinity of an alligator, which they had disturbed in his own home; the rich globules of light, showering over the water around him, giving a singular beauty to the scene, in every other respect so dark and gloomy. They kept continually turning in a zigzag fashion almost at every step, to avoid the waving vine, the close thicket, or the half-stagnant creek, crowded with decayed fragments of an older and an overthrown forest.

A shrill whistle at this moment, thrice repeated, saluted their ears. It was caught up in the distance by another, and another, in a voice so like, that they might almost have passed for so many echoes of the same.

"Our sentries watch closely, major; we must answer them, or we may sup on cold lead," said Humphries. As he spoke, he responded to the signal, and his answer was immediately followed by the appearance of a figure emerging from behind a tree that bulged out a little to the left of the tussock upon which they were now standing. The dim outline only, and no feature of the new-comer, was distinguishable by the group.

"Ha! Warner, you watch?—All's well; and now lead the way. Are all the boys in camp?"

"All!" was the reply; "and a few more come in from Buford's corps who know Frampton."

"And how is he?—does he know them?"

"He's in a bad fix, and knows nothing. You can hardly get word out of him since his wife's come."

"His wife! Why, man, what do you think of?—his wife's dead!" exclaimed Humphries with surprise.

"Yes—we know that; but he brought her, all the same as was alive, on his shoulders, and he won't give her up. There hesits, close alongside of her, watching her all the time, and brushing flies from her face. He don't seem to mind that she's dead."

"Great God!" exclaimed Singleton, "the unhappy man is mad. Let us push on, and see what can be done for him."

"Ah! nothing can be done for him, I'm afeared," answered Humphries. But, without a word farther, following their new guide, Warner, they advanced upon their way, until the blaze of a huge fire, bursting as it were out of the very bosom of the darkness, rose wavingly before them. The camp of the outlawed whigs, or rebels as they were styled by the enemy, lonely and unattractive, on a little island of the swamp, in a few moments after rose fully in their sight; and plunging into the creek that surrounded it, though swimming at that moment, a bound or two carried them safely over, and they stood in the presence of their comrades.