"'Tis a wild night, yet there are those abroad
The evening, which had been beautiful before, had undergone a change. The moon was obscured, and gigantic shadows, dense and winged, hurried with deep-toned cries along the heavens, as if in angry pursuit. Occasionally, in sudden gusts, the winds moaned heavily among the pines; a cooling freshness impregnated the atmosphere, and repeated flashes of sharpest lightning imparted to the prospect a splendour which illuminated, while increasing the perils of that path which our adventurers were now pursuing. Large drops, at moments, fell from the driving clouds, and every thing promised the coming on of one of those sudden and severe thunderstorms, so common to the early summer of the South.
Singleton looked up anxiously at the wild confusion of sky and forest around him. The woods seemed to apprehend the danger, and the melancholy sighing of their branches appeared to indicate an instinct consciousness, which had its moral likeness to the feeling in the bosom of the observer. How many of these mighty pines were to be prostrated under that approaching tempest! how many beautiful vines, which had clung to them like affections that only desire an object to fasten upon, would share in their ruin! How could Singleton overlook the analogy between the fortune of his family and friends, and that which his imagination depicted as the probable destiny of the forest?
"We shall have it before long, Humphries, for you see the black horns yonder in the break before us. I begin to feel the warm breath of the hurricane already, and we must look out for some smaller woods. I like not these high pines in a storm like this, so use your memory, man, and lead on to some thicket of scrubbyoaks—if you can think of one near at hand. Ha!—we must speed—we have lingered too long. Why did you not hurry me? You should have known how difficult it was for me to hurry myself in such a situation."
This was spoken by Singleton at moments when the gusts permitted him to be heard, and when the irregularity of the route suffered his companion to keep beside him. The lieutenant answered promptly—
"That was the very reason why I did not wish to hurry you, major. I knew you hadn't seen your folks for a mighty long spell, and so I couldn't find it in my heart to break in upon you, though I felt dub'ous that the storm would be soon upon us."
"A bad reason for a soldier. Friends and family are scarcely desirable at such a time as this, since we can seldom see them, or only see their suffering. Ha!—that was sharp!"
"Yes, sir, but at some distance. We are coming to the stunted oaks now, which are rather squat, and not so likely to give as the pines. There aint so much of 'em, you see. Keep a look out, sir, or the branches will pull you from your horse. The road here is pretty much overgrown, and the vines crowd thick upon it."
"A word in season," exclaimed Singleton, as he drew back before an overhanging branch which had been bent by the wind, and was thrust entirely across his path. A few moments were spent in rounding the obstruction, and the storm grew heavier; the winds no longer laboured among the trees, but rushed along with a force which flattened their elastic tops, so that it either swept clean through them, or laid them prostrate for ever. A stronger hold, a positive straining in their effort, became necessary now, with both riders, in order to secure themselves firmly in their saddles; while their horses, with uplifted ears, and an occasional snort, in this manner, not less than by a shiver of their whole frames, betrayed their own apprehensions, and, as it were, appealed to their masters for protection.
"The dumb beast knows where to look, after all, major: he knows that man is most able, you see, to take care of him, though man wants his keeper too. But the beast don't know that. He's like the good soldier that minds his own captain, and looks to him only,though the captain himself has a general from whom he gets orders. Now, say what you will, major, there's reason in the horse—the good horse, I mean, for some horses that I've straddled in my time have shown themselves mighty foolish and unreasonable."
Humphries stroked the neck of his steed fondly, and coaxed him by an affectionate word, as he uttered himself thus, with no very profound philosophy. He seemed desirous of assuring the steed that he held him of the better class, and favoured him accordingly. Singleton assented to the notion of his companion, who did not, however, see the smile which accompanied his answer.
"Yes, yes, Humphries, the horse knows his master, and is the least able or willing of all animals to do without him. I would we had our nags in safety now: I would these five miles were well over."
"It's a tough ride; but that's so much the better, major—the less apt we are to be troubled with the tories."
"I should rather plunge through a crowd of them, now, in a charge against superior cavalry, than take it in such a night as this, when the wind lifts you, at every bound, half out of your saddle, and, but for the lightning, which comes quite too nigh to be at all times pleasant, your face would make momentary acquaintance with boughs and branches, vines and thorns, that give no notice and leave their mark at every brush. A charge were far less difficult."
"Almost as safe, sir, that's certain, and not more unpleasant. But let us hold up, major, for a while, and push for the thicket. We shall now have the worst of the hurricane. See the edge of it yonder—how black! and now—only hear the roaring!"
"Yes, it comes. I feel it on my cheek. It sends a breath like fire before it, sultry and thick, as if it had been sweeping all day over beds of the hottest sand. Lead the way, Humphries."
"Here, sir,—follow close and quick. There's a clump of forest, with nothing but small trees, lying to the left—now, sir, that flash will show it to you—there we can be snug till the storm passes over. It has a long body and it shakes it mightily, but it goes too fast to stay long in its journey, and a few minutes, sir—a few minutes is all we want. Mind the vine there, sir; and there, to your left, isa gully, where an old tree's roots have come up. Now, major, the sooner we dismount and squat with our horses the better."
They had now reached the spot to which Humphries had directed his course—a thick undergrowth of small timber—of field pine, the stunted oak, black-jack, and hickory—few of sufficient size to feel the force of the tempest, or prove very conspicuous conductors of the lightning. Obeying the suggestion and following the example of his companion, Singleton dismounted, and the two placed themselves and their horses as much upon the sheltered side of the clump as possible, yet sufficiently far to escape any danger from its overthrow. Here they awaited the coming of the tempest. The experienced woodsman alone could have spoken for its approach. A moment's pause had intervened, when the suddenly aroused elements seemed as suddenly to have sunk into grim repose. A slight sighing of the wind only, as it wound sluggishly along the distant wood, had its warning, and the dense blackness of the embodied storm was only evident at moments when the occasional rush of the lightning made visible its gloomy terrors.
"It's making ready for a charge, major: it's just like a good captain, sir, that calls in his scouts and sentries, and orders all things to keep quiet, and without beat of drum gets all fixed to spring out from the bush upon them that's coming. It won't be long now, sir, before we get it; but just now it's still as the grave. It's waiting for its outriders—them long streaky white clouds it sent out an hour ago, like so many scouts. They're a-coming up now, and when they all get up together—then look out for the squall. Quiet now, Mossfoot—quiet now, creature—don't be frightened—it's not a-going to hurt you, old fellow—not a bit."
Humphries patted his favourite while speaking, and strove to soothe and quiet the impatience which both horses exhibited. This was in that strange pause of the storm which is its most remarkable feature in the South—that singular interregnum of the winds, when, after giving repeated notice of their most terrific action, they seem almost to forget their purpose, and for a few moments appear to slumber in their inactivity.
But the pause was only momentary, and was now at an end. In another instant, they heard the rush and the roar as of a thousand wild steeds of the desert ploughing the sands; then followed the mournful howling of the trees—the shrieking of the lashed winds, as if, under the influence of some fierce demon who enjoyed his triumph, they plunged through the forest, wailing at their own destructive progress, yet compelled unswervingly to hurry forward. They twisted the pine from its place, snapping it as a reed, while its heavy fall to the ground which it had so long sheltered, called up, even amid the roar of the tempest, a thousand echoes from the forest. The branches of the wood were prostrated like so much heather, wrested and swept from the tree which yielded them without a struggle to the blast; and the crouching horses and riders below were in an instant covered with a cloud of fragments. These were the precursors merely: then came the arrowy flight and form of the hurricane itself—its actual bulk—its embodied power, pressing along through the forest in a gyratory progress, not fifty yards wide, never distending in width, yet capriciously winding from right to left and left to right, in a zigzag direction, as if a playful spirit thus strove to mix with all the terrors of destruction the sportive mood of the most idle fancy. In this progress, the whole wood in its path underwent prostration—the tall, proud pine, the deep-rooted and unbending oak, the small cedar and the pliant shrub, torn, dismembered of their fine proportions; some, only by a timely yielding to the pressure, passed over with little injury, as if too much scorned by the assailant for his wrath. The larger trees in the neighbourhood of the spot where our partisans had taken shelter, shared the harsher fortune generally, for they were in the very track of the tempest. Too sturdy and massive to yield, they withheld their homage, and were either snapped off relentlessly and short, or were torn and twisted up from their very roots. The poor horses, with eyes staring in the direction of the storm, with ears erect, and manes flying in the wind, stood trembling in every joint, too much terrified, or too conscious of their helplessness, to attempt to fly. All around the crouching party the woods seemed for several seconds absolutely flattened. Huge trees were prostrated, and their branches were clustering thickly, and almost forming a prison around them; leaving it doubtful, as the huge terror rolled over their heads, whether they could ever make their escape fromthe enclosure. Rush after rush of the trooping winds went over them, keeping them immovable in their crowded shelter and position—each succeeding troop wilder and weightier than the last, until at length a sullen, bellowing murmur, which before they had not heard, announced the greater weight of the hurricane to be overthrowing the forests in the distance.
The chief danger had overblown. Gradually the warm, oppressive breath passed off; the air again grew suddenly cool, and a gush of heavy drops came falling from the heavens, as if they too had been just released from the intolerable pressure which had burdened earth. Moaning pitifully, the prostrated trees and shrubs, those which had survived the storm, though shorn by its scythes, gradually, and seemingly with painful effort, once more elevated themselves to their old position. Their sighings, as they did so, were almost human to the ears of our crouching warriors, whom their movement in part released. Far and near, the moaning of the forest around them was strangely, but not unpleasantly, heightened in its effect upon their senses, by the distant and declining roar of the past and far travelling hurricane, as, ploughing the deep woods and laying waste all in its progess, it rushed on to a meeting with the kindred storms that gather about the gloomy Cape Hatteras, and stir and foam along the waters of the Atlantic.
"Well, I'm glad it's no worse, major," cried Humphries, rising and shaking himself from the brush with which he was covered. "The danger is now over, though it was mighty close to our haunches. Look, now, at this pine, split all to shivers, and the top not five feet from Mossfoot's quarters. The poor beast would ha' been in a sad fix a little to the left there."
Extricating themselves, they helped their steeds out of the brush, though with some difficulty—soothing them all the while with words of encouragement. As Humphries had already remarked in his rude fashion, the horse, at such moments, feels and acknowledges his dependence upon man, looks to him for the bridle, and flies to him for protection. They were almost passive in the hands of their masters, and under the unsubsided fear would have followed them, like tame dogs, in any direction.
The storm, though diminished of its terrors, still continued; butthis did not discourage the troopers. They were soon mounted, and once more upon their way. The darkness, in part, had been dissipated by the hurricane. It had swept on to other regions, leaving behind it only detached masses of wind and rain-clouds sluggishly hanging, or fitfully flying along the sky. These, though still sufficient to defeat the light of the moon, could not altogether prevent a straggling ray which peeped out timidly at pauses in the storm; and which, though it could not illumine still contrived to diminish somewhat the gloomy and forbidding character of the scene. Such gleams in the natural, are like the assurances of hope in the moral world—they speak of to-morrow—they promise us that the clouds must pass away—they cheer, when there is little left to charm.
The path over which the partisans journeyed had been little used, and was greatly overgrown. They could move but slowly, therefore, in the imperfect light; and, but for the frequent flashes of lightning it might have been doubtful, though Humphries knew the country, whether they could have found their way. But the same agent which gave them light, had nearly destroyed them. While Humphries, descending from his steed, which he led by the bridle, was looking about for a by-path that he expected to find in the neighbourhood, a sudden stroke of the lightning, and the overwhelming blaze which seemed to kindle all around them, and remained for several seconds stationary, drove back the now doubly terrified steeds, and almost blinded their riders. That of Singleton sank upon his haunches, while Mossfoot, in her terror, dragged Humphries, who still grasped firmly his bridle, to some little distance in the woods. Sudden blackness succeeded, save in one spot, where a tree had been smitten by the fluid, and was now blazing along the oozy gum at its sides. The line of fire was drawn along the tree, up and down—a bright flame, that showed them more of the track they were pursuing than they had seen before. In the first moment following the cessation of the fiercer blaze made by the lightning, and when the tree first began to extend a certain light, Singleton thought he saw through the copse the outline of a human form, on foot, moving quickly along the road above him. He called quickly to Humphries, but the lieutenant was busy withhis steed, and did not seem to hear. Again was the object visible, and Singleton then cried out—
"Who goes there?—ho!"
No answer; and the fugitive only seemed to increase his speed, turning aside to the denser woods, as if he strove to elude observation. The challenge was repeated.
"What, ho! there—who goes? Speak, or I shoot."
He detached one of his pistols from the holster as he spoke, and cocked it to be in readiness. Still no answer, the person addressed moving more quickly than ever. With the sight, with an instinct like lightning, the partisan put spurs to his steed, and drove fearlessly through the bush in pursuit. The fugitive now took fairly to his heels, leaping over a fallen tree, fully in sight of his pursuer. In a moment after, the steed went after him—Humphries, by this time in saddle, closely following on the heels of his commander. For a moment the object was lost to sight, but in the next he appeared again.
"Stand!" was the cry, and with it the shot. The ball rushed into the bush which seemed to shelter the flying man, and where they had last seen him—they bounded to the spot, but nothing was to be seen.
"He was here—you saw him, Humphries, did you not?"
"A bit of him, major—a small chance of him behind the bush, but too little a mark for them pistols."
"He is there—there!" and catching another glimpse of the fugitive. Singleton led the pursuit, again firing as he flew, and, without pausing to wait the result, leaping down to the spot where he appeared to them. The pursuit was equally fruitless with the aim. The place was bare. They had plunged into a hollow, and found themselves in a pond, almost knee deep in water. They looked about vainly, Humphries leading the search with unusual earnestness.
"I like not, major, that the fellow should escape. Why should he stand a shot, rather than refuse to halt, and answer to a civil question? I'm dub'ous, major, there's something wrong in it; and he came from the direction leading to our camp."
"Ha! are you sure of that, Humphries?—think you so?"
"Ay, sir—the pine that was struck marks the by-path through which I should have carried you in daylight. It is the shortest, though the worst; and he could not have been far from it when you started him. Ah! I have it now. A mile from this is the house of old Mother Blonay, the dam of that fellow Goggle. We will ride there, major, if you say so."
"With what object, Humphries? what has she to do with it?"
"I suspect the fugitive to be Goggle, the chap I warned you not to take into the troop. Better we had hung him up, for he's not one to depend upon. All his blood's bad: his father—him they call so, at least—was a horse-thief; and some say, that he had a cross in his blood. As for that, it's clear to me, that Goggle is a half-breed Indian, or mestizo, or something. Anybody that looks on Goggle will say so; and then the nature of the beast is so like an Indian—why, sir, he's got no more feeling than a pine stump."
"And with what motive would you ride to his mother's?"
"Why, sir, if this skulking chap be Goggle, he's either been there, or is on his way there; and if so, be sure he's after mischief. Proctor or Huck at the garrison will soon have him among them, and he'll get his pay in English guineas for desertion. Now, sir, it's easy to see if he's been there, for I s'pose the old hag don't mind to tell us."
"Lead on! A mile, you say?"
"A short mile; and if he's not been there yet, he must be about somewhere, and we may get something out of the old woman, who passes for a witch about here, and tells fortunes, and can show you where to find stolen cattle; and they do say, major, though I never believed it—they do say," and the tones of his voice fell as he spoke—"they do say she can put the bad mouth upon people; and there's not a few that lay all their aches and complaints to her door."
"Indeed!" was the reply of Singleton; "indeed! she is a sight worth seeing; and so let us ride, Humphries, and get out of this swamp thicket with all possible speed."
"A long leap, major, will be sure to do it. But better we moveslowly. I don't want to lose our chance at this rascal for something; and who knows but we may catch him there. He's a great skunk, now, major, that same Goggle; and though hanging's much too good for him, yet them pistols would have pleased me better had they lodged the ball more closely."