Nancy Huston Banks.

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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 on.

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.



The pony fell back almost to his haunches before the boy could draw the
reins. The two horses recoiled with equal suddenness and violence. An
unexpected encounter with the unknown in the darkness filled even the
dumb brutes with alarm, and brute and human alike had reason to be
alarmed; for this time and this place - stamped in blood on
history - marked the very height and centre of the reign of terror on the
Wilderness Road.

The boy strained his terrified gaze through the dark, but he could see
nothing except those vague, black forms of two horsemen, looming large
and threatening against the lurid glow of the furnace fires which
faintly lit the forest. The men and their horses looked like monstrous
creatures, half human and half beast, both as silent and motionless as
himself. He felt that they also were listening and watching in tense
waiting as he waited and watched, hearing only the frightened panting of
the horses and the faint rustle of the sable leaves overhead. And so all
held for an instant, which seemed endless, till a sudden gust of wind
swung the boughs and sent the glare of the furnace flames far and high
through the forest. The vivid flash came and went like lightning, but it
lasted long enough for the boy to recognize one of the black shapes.

"Father!" he cried. "Father Orin!"

"Bless my soul - it's young David!" exclaimed the priest.

There was as much relief in his tone as in the boy's, and he turned
hastily to the horseman at his side.

"Doctor, this is a young friend of mine - a member of Judge Knox's
family. You have heard of the judge. And, David, this is Doctor Colbert.
You, no doubt, have heard of him."

David murmured something. He had never before been introduced to any
one; and had never before been so acutely conscious that he had no
surname. The doctor sent his horse forward, coming close to the pony's
side. He held out his hand - as David felt rather than saw - and he took
the boy's hand in a warm, kind clasp. It was the first time that a man
had given David his hand as one frank, earnest, fearless man gives it to
another - but never to a woman, and rarely to a boy. David did not know
what it was that he felt as their hands met in the darkness, but he knew
that the touch was like balm to his bruised pride, which had been aching
so sorely throughout the lonely ride. Father Orin now rode nearer on
the other side, and although no more than the dimmest outline of any
object could be seen, the boy saw that the priest continued to turn his
head and cast backward glances into the dark forest. When he spoke, it
was in a low tone, strangely guarded and serious for him, who was always
as outspoken and light-hearted as though his hard life of toil and
self-sacrifice had been the most thoughtless and happiest play.

"But how does it happen that you are here, my son?" he asked, almost in
a whisper. "I can't understand the judge's allowing it. Can it be
possible that he has sent you - on business? Why - ! A man isn't safe on
this part of the Wilderness Road at night, and hardly at midday, alone.
For a child like you - "

There it was again, like a blow on a bruise! The boy instantly sat
higher in the saddle, trying to look as tall as he could, and forgetting
that no one could see. And replying hastily in his deepest, most manly
voice, he said scornfully, that there was nothing to be afraid of with
his rifle across the saddle-bow, declaring proudly that he knew how to
deal with wild beasts, should any cross his path. As for the Indians, he
scoffed at the idea; there were none in that country, and never had been
any thereabouts, except as they came and went over the Shawnee Crossing.

"But you are mistaken; the Meek boys - James and Charles - were killed
only a few weeks ago, just across the river," said the priest. "And
they were better able to take care of themselves than you are, my child.
Come, you must turn back with us. We cannot go with you, and we must not
allow you to go on alone."

Saying this, Father Orin turned his horse and moved forward. David made
no movement to follow. Tightening the reins on the pony's neck, he did
not try to turn him. Something in the stiff lines of the boy's dark
figure told the doctor part of the truth. He broke in quickly, speaking
not as a man speaks to a child, but as one man to another.

"There are worse things than wild beasts or Indians to be met on the
Wilderness Road," he said. "And the strongest and the bravest are
helpless against a stab in the back, or a trap in the dark."

David felt a sudden wish to see the speaker's face. He longed to see how
a man looked who had a voice like that. It stirred him, and yet soothed
him at the same time. Every tone of it rang clear and true, like a bell
of purest metal. All who heard it felt the strength that it
sounded - strength of body and mind and heart and spirit.

David fell under its influence at once. He was turning the pony's head
when Father Orin in his anxiety erred again.

"I am surprised at the judge," the priest said. "This isn't like
him - forgetful as he is about most things. And what are you here for, my
son? Where were you going?"

"The judge has nothing to do with my coming to-night. He merely told me
to take this money - "

"Hush! Hush!" cried the two men in a breath. At the instant they pressed
closer to the boy's side, as if the same instinct of protection moved
them both at the same moment. "Come on! Let's ride faster," they said
together. "It is not so dark or so dangerous in the buffalo track."

The pony, turning suddenly, pressed forward with the other horses, more
of his own accord than with his rider's consent, and gallantly kept his
place between them, although they were soon going at the top of their
speed. Nothing more was said for several minutes, and then the doctor
spoke to the boy.

"You will give us the pleasure of your company all the way, I trust,
sir," he said ceremoniously, and as no one ever had spoken to David. "It
is a long, lonesome ride, and my home is still farther off than yours."

David murmured a pleased, bashful assent. They had now reached the
buffalo track, which was not wide enough for the three to ride abreast.
It was therefore necessary for them to fall into single file, and David
managed to get the lead. This made him feel better, and more of a man,
for the darkness was still deep, and the black boughs overhead still
hung low and heavy. Neither of the horsemen spoke again for a long time
after entering upon the buffalo track. Once more the only sound was the
steady, muffled beating of the horses' swiftly moving feet. The two men
were buried in their own thoughts of duties and aims far beyond the
boy's understanding, and he was not thinking of these silent companions
by his side - he was scarcely thinking at all; he was merely feeling. He
was held under a spell, dumb and breathless, enchanted by the mystery of
the wilderness at night.

It was so black, so beautiful, so terrible, so soundless, so motionless,
so unfathomable. There was no moon. The few pale stars glimmered dimly
far above the dark arches of the trees. No bird moved among the sable
branches, or even twittered in its sleep as if disturbed by the light,
swift passing of the shadowy horsemen. No wild animal stirred in his
uneasy rest or even breathed less deeply in his hunting dreams, at the
flitting of the shadows across his hidden lair.

The mystery, the beauty, and the terror went beyond the black border of
the forest. Out in the open and over the clearing, the mists from the
swamp mingling with the darkness gave everything a look of fantastic
unreality yet wilder than it had worn earlier in the night. Dense
earth-clouds were thus massed about the base of Anvil Rock. Its
blackened peak loomed through the clouds, - a strange, wild sight,
apparently belonging neither to earth or to heaven. But far beyond and
above was a stranger, wilder sight still; the strangest and wildest of
all; one of the strangest and wildest, surely, that human eyes ever
rested upon.

There across the northern sky sped the great comet. Come, none ever knew
whence, and speeding none ever knew whither, it reached on that
night - on this fifteenth of October - the summit of its swift, awful,
arching flight. It was now at the greatest of its terrible splendor and
appalling beauty. It was now at the very height of its boundless
influence over the hopes and fears of the superstitious, romantic,
emotional, poetic race which was struggling to people the wilderness. As
it thus burst upon the vision of the three horsemen, each felt its power
in his own way, - the man of faith, the man of science, and the fanciful
boy, - each was differently but deeply moved. The men looked at the comet
as the wise and learned of the earth look at the marvels of another
world. The boy gazed quiveringly, like a harp struck by a powerful hand.
He strove to cast his fancies aside, and to remember what he had heard
before the comet had become visible to this country. He tried vainly to
recall the talk about it - not the idle and foolish superstitions which
Miss Penelope had mentioned, and which all the common people
believed - but the scientific facts so far as they were known. Yet even
his imagination failed to realize that this flaming head, with its
strange halo of darkness, and its horrible hair of livid green light,
was four million times greater than the earth; or that its luminous
veil - woven of star-dust so fine that other stars shone
through - streamed across one hundred million of miles, thick strewn with
other stars.

"Listen!" cried the doctor. "Hear that!" A distant roaring, like the
oncoming of a sudden storm, rolled upward from the mists and darkness
lying thicker around the swamp.

"There it is again!" Doctor Colbert went on, as if he had been waiting
and listening for the sound. "There must be great excitement at the
camp-meeting on this last night. Does it still interest you, Father? It
does me, intensely. This is not the usual peculiar excitement which
seems to belong to a crowd, though that, too, is always curious,
mysterious, and interesting. We all know well enough that for some
unknown reason a crowd will do wild, strange, and foolish things, which
the individuals composing it would never be guilty of alone. But this is
something entirely different and still more curious and mysterious.
Those people down yonder keep this up by themselves when they are
alone - it attacks some of them before they have ever seen one of the
meetings. It is certainly the strangest phenomenon of its kind that the
world ever saw. It never loses its painful fascination for me. I can't
pass it by. How is it with you?"

The priest hesitated before replying. "Any form of faith - the crudest,
the most absurd that any soul ever staked its salvation upon - must
always be the most interesting subject in the world to every thinking

"It seems so to me," the doctor replied. "And I assure you that there is
no irreverence in the scientific curiosity which I feel in this
extraordinary epidemic of religious frenzy; for it is certainly
something of that sort. It is unmistakably contagious. I have become
more and more certain of that as I have watched the poor wretches who
are shrieking down yonder. It is a mental and moral epidemic, and so
highly contagious that it has swept the whole state, till it now sweeps
the remotest corner of the wilderness. And it seems to have originated
in Kentucky. It is something peculiarly our own."

"Yes," said Father Orin, "Kentucky is the pioneer in religion, as well
as politics, for the whole West. But my church came first," he added
with a chuckle. "Remember that! The Catholics always lead the way and
clear up the brush, with the Methodists following close behind. I got a
little the start of brother Peter Cartwright; but that was my good luck,
and not any lack of zeal on his part. And I've got to stir my stumps to
keep ahead of him, I can tell you."

"He is down there at the meeting to-night, no doubt. He is its leading
spirit. I should like to know what he really thinks of it all. He is by
nature a wonderfully intelligent young fellow. And what do you really
think of it, Father?" the doctor pressed. "Is this the same thing that
has come down the ages? Is it the same that we find in the Bible - making
great men and wise ones do such wild things? Is it the same that made a
dignified gentleman, like David, dance - as those fanatics are doing down
there - till he became a laughing-stock? Is it the same that made a
sensible man like Saul join his faith to a witch and believe that he saw
visions? And then, just remember the scandalous capers - even worse than
the others - that the decent Jeremiah cut."

"Tut! Tut! Tut!" exclaimed the priest, in a voice that betrayed a smile.
"Those were holy men, my young friend. I cannot allow them to be laughed

"Oh, come now, Father, be honest," said the doctor, laughing aloud, but
adding quickly in a serious tone: "I am quite in earnest. What do you
make of it all? I should greatly like to have your opinion. Is there
anything in the science of your profession to explain it? There isn't in
mine. The more of it I see, and the longer I study it, the farther I am
from finding its source, its cause, and its real character. There! Just
hear that!"

"Well, well," said Father Orin, with a sigh of evasion, "if you are
going on to the camp-meeting, Toby and I will have to leave you here. We
have a sick call 'way over on the Eagle Creek flats. And it's a ticklish
business, going over there in the dark, isn't it, old man?" he said,
patting his big gray horse. "The last time we went in the night the limb
of a tree, that I couldn't see, dragged me from the saddle." He laughed
as if this were a joke on Toby or himself, or both. "But Toby is a
better swimmer than I am. He's better at a good many things. He got me
out all right that time and a good many other times. He always does his
part of our duty, and never lets me shirk mine, if he can help it. Well,
then, we must be moving along, Toby, old man." He turned suddenly to the
boy. "Will you go with me, David? My way passes close to Cedar House."

"Perhaps, sir, you would like to go on to the meeting," said the doctor
to David. "It would give me pleasure to have you with me - if you prefer
to go with me. Afterward we can ride home together. My cabin is not far
beyond Cedar House."

After a little more talk it was decided that the boy should go with the
doctor, and the priest bade them both a cheerful good night.

"Now, Toby, we must be putting in our best licks. If you don't look out,
old man, we will be getting into idle ways. Keep us up to the
mark - right up to the mark, old man!"

And so, talking to Toby, and chuckling as if Toby made telling replies,
the good man and his good horse vanished in the earth-clouds round Anvil
Rock. But the doctor and the boy sat their horses in motionless silence,
listening to the kind, merry voice and the faithful beat, beat, of the
steady feet, till both gradually died away behind the night's heavy
black curtain.



As they turned and were riding on toward the camp-meeting, the doctor
spoke of the priest and his horse. The boy listened with the wondering
awe that most of us feel, when some stranger points out the heroism of a
simple soul or an everyday deed which we have known, unknowingly, all
our lives.

"Father Orin and Toby are a pair to take your hat off to," the young
doctor said. "I have come to know them fairly well by this time,
although I have not been here very long. It isn't necessary for any one
to be long in the neighborhood before finding out what those two are
doing. And then my own work among the suffering gives me many
opportunities to know what they are doing and trying to do. The church
side is only one side of their good work. I am not a Catholic, and
consequently see little of that side; but I meet them everywhere
constantly caring for the poor and the afflicted without any regard for
creed. And they never have any money, worth speaking of, to help with.
They have only their time and their strength and their whole laborious,
self-sacrificing lives to give. The expedients that they resort to in a
pinch would make anybody laugh - to keep from crying. They were out the
other day with a brand-new plan. They travelled about fifty miles
through the wilderness trying to find a purchaser for the new overcoat
that a Methodist friend gives Father Orin every fall. He, of course, had
given his old coat to some shivering wretch last spring while it was

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Online LibraryNancy Huston BanksRound Anvil Rock A Romance → online text (page 4 of 20)