IN an instant Courtland had regained complete possession of himself. His distracting passion—how distracting he had never before realized—was gone! His clear sight—no longer distorted by sentiment—had come back; he saw everything in its just proportion—his duty, the plantation, the helpless freedman threatened by lawless fury; the two women—no longer his one tantalizing vision, but now only a passing detail of the work before him. He saw them through no aberrating mist of tenderness or expediency—but with the single directness of the man of action.
The shot had clearly been intended for Cato. Even if it were an act of mere personal revenge, it showed a confidence and security in the would-be assassin that betokened cooperation and an organized plan. He had availed himself of the thunderstorm, the flash and long reverberating roll of sound—an artifice not unknown to border ambush—to confuse discovery at the instant. Yet the attack might be only an isolated one; or it might be the beginning of a general raid upon the Syndicate’s freedmen. If the former he could protect Cato from its repetition by guarding him in the office until he could be conveyed to a place of safety; if the latter, he must at once collect the negroes at their quarters, and take Cato with him. He resolved upon the latter course. The quarters were half a mile from the Dows’ dwelling—which was two miles away.
He sat down and wrote a few lines to Miss Dows stating that, in view of some threatened disturbances in the town, he thought it advisable to keep the negroes in their quarters, whither he was himself going. He sent her his housekeeper and the child, as they had both better remain in a place of security until he returned to town. He gave the note to Zoe, bidding her hasten by the back garden across the fields. Then he turned to Cato.
“I am going with you to the quarters tonight,” he said quietly, “and you can carry your pistol back to the armory yourself.” He handed him the weapon. The negro received it gratefully, but suddenly cast a searching glance at his employer. Courtland’s face, however, betrayed no change. When Zoe had gone, he continued tranquilly, “We will go by the back way through the woods.” As the negro started slightly, Courtland continued in the same even tone: “The sulphur you smelled just now, Cato, was the smoke of a gun fired at you from the street. I don’t propose that the shot shall be repeated under the same advantages.”
The negro became violently agitated. “It was dat sneakin’ hound, Tom Higbee,” he said huskily.
Courtland looked at him sharply. “Then there was something more than words passed between him and you, Cato. What happened? Come, speak out!”
“He lashed me with his whip, and I gib him one right under the yeah, and drupped him,” said Cato, recovering his courage with his anger at the recollection. “I had a right to defend myse’f, sah.”
“Yes, and I hope you’ll be able to do it, now,” said Courtland calmly, his face giving no sign of his conviction that Cato’s fate was doomed by that single retaliating blow, “but you’ll be safer at the quarters.” He passed into his bedroom, took a revolver from his bedhead and a derringer from the drawer, both of which he quickly slipped beneath his buttoned coat, and returned.
“When we are in the fields, clear of the house, keep close by my side, and even try to keep step with me. What you have to say, say now; there must be no talking to betray our position—we must go silently, and you’ll have enough to do to exercise your eyes and ears. I shall stand between you and any attack, but I expect you to obey orders without hesitation.” He opened the back door, motioned to Cato to pass out, followed him, locked the door behind them, and taking the negro’s arm walked beside the low palings to the end of the garden, where they climbed the fence and stood upon the open field beyond.
Unfortunately, it had grown lighter with the breaking of the heavy clouds, and gusty gleams of moonlight chased each other over the field, or struck a glitter from standing rain-pools between the little hillocks. To cross the open field and gain the fringe of woods on the other side was the nearest way to the quarters, but for the moment was the most exposed course; to follow the hedge to the bottom of the field and the boundary fence and then cross at right angles, in its shadow, would be safer, but they would lose valuable time. Believing that Cato’s vengeful assailant was still hovering near with his comrades, Courtland cast a quick glance down the shadowy line of Osage hedge beside them. Suddenly Cato grasped his arm and pointed in the same direction, where the boundary fence he had noticed—a barrier of rough palings—crossed the field. With the moon low on the other side of it, it was a mere black silhouette, broken only by bright silver openings and gaps along its surface that indicated the moonlit field beyond. At first Courtland saw nothing else. Then he was struck by the fact that these openings became successively and regularly eclipsed, as with the passing of some opaque object behind them. It was a file of men on the other side of the fence, keeping in its shelter as they crossed the field towards his house. Roughly calculating from the passing obscurations, there must have been twelve or fifteen in all.
He could no longer doubt their combined intentions, nor hesitate how to meet them. He must at once make for the quarters with Cato, even if he had to cross that open field before them. He knew that they would avoid injuring him personally, in the fear of possible Federal and political complications, and he resolved to use that fear to insure Cato’s safety. Placing his hands on the negro’s shoulders, he shoved him forwards, falling into a “lock step” so close behind him that it became impossible for the most expert marksman to fire at one without imperiling the other’s life. When half way across the field he noticed that the shadows seen through the openings of the fence had paused. The ambushed men had evidently seen the double apparition, understood it, and, as he expected, dared not fire. He reached the other side with Cato in safety, but not before he saw the fateful shadows again moving, and this time in their own direction. They were evidently intending to pursue them. But once within the woods Courtland knew that his chances were equal. He breathed more freely. Cato, now less agitated, had even regained something of his former emotional combativeness which Courtland had checked. Although far from confident of his henchman’s prowess in an emergency, the prospect of getting him safe into the quarters seemed brighter.
It was necessary, also, to trust to his superior wood-craft and knowledge of the locality, and Courtland still walking between him and his pursuers and covering his retreat allowed him to lead the way. It lay over ground that was beginning to slope gently; the underbrush was presently exchanged for springy moss, the character of the trees changed, the black trunks of cypresses made the gloom thicker. Trailing vines and parasites brushed their faces, a current of damp air seemed to flow just above the soil in which their lower limbs moved sluggishly as through stagnant water. As yet there was no indication of pursuit. But Courtland felt that it was not abandoned. Indeed, he had barely time to check an exclamation from the negro, before the dull gallop of horse-hoofs in the open ahead of them was plain to them both. It was a second party of their pursuers, mounted, who had evidently been sent to prevent their final egress from the woods, while those they had just evaded were no doubt slowly and silently following them on foot. They were to be caught between two fires!
“What is there to the left of us?” whispered Courtland quickly.
Courtland set his teeth together. His dull-witted companion had evidently walked them both into the trap! Nevertheless, his resolve was quickly made. He could already see through the thinning fringe of timber the figures of the mounted men in the moonlight.
“This should be the boundary line of the plantation? This field beside us is ours?” he said interrogatively.
“Yes,” returned the negro, “but de quarters is a mile furder.”
“Good! Stay here until I come back or call you; I’m going to talk to these fellows. But if you value your life, don’t you speak nor stir.”
He strode quickly through the intervening trees and stepped out into the moonlight. A suppressed shout greeted him, and half a dozen mounted men, masked and carrying rifles, rode down towards him, but he remained quietly waiting there, and as the nearest approached him, he made a step forward and cried, “Halt!”
The men pulled up sharply and mechanically at that ring of military imperiousness.
“What are you doing here?” said Courtland.
“We reckon that’s our business, co’nnle.”
“It’s mine, when you’re on property that I control.”
The man hesitated and looked interrogatively towards his fellows. “I allow you’ve got us there, co’nnle,” he said at last with the lazy insolence of conscious power, “but I don’t mind telling you we’re wanting a nigger about the size of your Cato. We hain’t got anything agin you, co’nnle; we don’t want to interfere with your property, and your ways, but we don’t calculate to have strangers interfere with our ways and our customs. Trot out your nigger—you No’th’n folks don’t call him ‘property,’ you know—and we’ll clear off your land.”
“And may I ask what you want of Cato?” said Courtland quietly.
“To show him that all the Federal law in hell won’t protect him when he strikes a white man!” burst out one of the masked figures, riding forward.
“Then you compel me to show you,” said Courtland immovably, “what any Federal citizen may do in the defense of Federal law. For I’ll kill the first man that attempts to lay hands upon him on my property. Some of you, who have already tried to assassinate him in cold blood, I have met before in less dishonorable warfare than this, and they know I am able to keep my word.”
There was a moment’s silence; the barrel of the revolver he was holding at his side glistened for an instant in the moonlight, but he did not move. The two men rode up to the first speaker and exchanged words. A light laugh followed, and the first speaker turned again to Courtland with a mocking politeness.
“Very well, co’nnle, if that’s your opinion, and you allow we can’t follow our game over your property, why, we reckon we’ll have to give way to those who can. Sorry to have troubled you. Good-night.”
He lifted his hat ironically, waved it to his followers, and the next moment the whole party were galloping furiously towards the high road.
For the first time that evening a nervous sense of apprehension passed over Courtland. The impending of some unknown danger is always more terrible to a brave man than the most overwhelming odds that he can see and realize. He felt instinctively that they had uttered no vague bravado to cover up their defeat; there was still some advantage on which they confidently reckoned—but what? Was it only a reference to the other party tracking them through the woods on which their enemies now solely relied? He regained Cato quickly; the white teeth of the foolishly confident negro were already flashing his imagined triumph to his employer. Courtland’s heart grew sick as he saw it.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, Cato,” he said dryly; “nor are they. Keep your eyes and ears open, and attend to me. How long can we keep in the cover of these woods, and still push on in the direction of the quarters?”
“There’s a way roun’ de edge o’ de swamp, sah, but we’d have to go back a spell to find it.”
“And dar’s moccasins and copperheads lying round here in de trail! Dey don’t go for us ginerally—but,” he hesitated, “white men don’t stand much show.”
“Good! Then it is as bad for those who are chasing us as for me. That will do. Lead on.”
They retraced their steps cautiously, until the negro turned into a lighter by-way. A strange mephitic odor seemed to come from sodden leaves and mosses that began to ooze under their feet. They had picked their way in silence for some minutes; the stunted willows and cypress standing farther and farther apart, and the openings with clumps of sedge were frequent. Courtland was beginning to fear this exposure of his follower, and had moved up beside him, when suddenly the negro caught his arm, and trembled violently. His lips were parted over his teeth, the whites of his eyes glistened, he seemed gasping and speechless with fear.
“What’s the matter, Cato?” said Courtland glancing instinctively at the ground beneath. “Speak, man!—have you been bitten?”
The word seemed to wring an agonized cry from the miserable man.
“Bitten! No; but don’t you hear ’em coming, sah! God Almighty! don’t you hear dat?”
“De dogs! de houns!—de bloodhouns! Dey’ve set ’em loose on me!”
It was true! A faint baying in the distance was now distinctly audible to Courtland. He knew now plainly the full, cruel purport of the leader’s speech,—those who could go anywhere were tracking their game!
Every trace of manhood had vanished from the negro’s cowering frame. Courtland laid his hand assuringly, appealingly, and then savagely on his shoulder.
“Come! Enough of this! I am here, and will stand by you, whatever comes. These dogs are no more to be feared than the others. Rouse yourself, man, and at least help me make a fight of it.”
“No! no!” screamed the terrified man. “Lemme go! Lemme go back to de Massas! Tell ’em I’ll come! Tell ’em to call de houns off me, and I’ll go quiet! Lemme go!” He struggled violently in his companion’s grasp.
In all Courtland’s self-control, habits of coolness, and discipline, it is to be feared there was still something of the old Berserker temper. His face was white, his eyes blazed in the darkness; only his voice kept that level distinctness which made it for a moment more terrible than even the baying of the tracking hounds to the negro’s ear. “Cato,” he said, “attempt to run now, and, by God! I’ll save the dogs the trouble of grappling your living carcass! Come here! Up that tree with you!” pointing to a swamp magnolia. “Don’t move as long as I can stand here, and when I’m down—but not till then—save yourself—the best you can.”
He half helped, half dragged, the now passive African to the solitary tree; as the bay of a single hound came nearer, the negro convulsively scrambled from Courtland’s knee and shoulder to the fork of branches a dozen feet from the ground. Courtland drew his revolver, and, stepping back a few yards into the open, awaited the attack.
It came unexpectedly from behind. A sudden yelp of panting cruelty and frenzied anticipation at Courtland’s back caused him to change front quickly, and the dripping fangs and snaky boa-like neck of a gray weird shadow passed him. With an awful supernaturalness of instinct, it kept on in an unerring line to the fateful tree. But that dread directness of scent was Courtland’s opportunity. His revolver flashed out in an aim as unerring. The brute, pierced through neck and brain, dashed on against the tree in his impetus, and then rolled over against it in a quivering bulk. Again another bay coming from the same direction told Courtland that his pursuers had outflanked him, and the whole pack were crossing the swamp. But he was prepared; again the same weird shadow, as spectral and monstrous as a dream, dashed out into the brief light of the open, but this time it was stopped, and rolled over convulsively before it had crossed. Flushed, with the fire of fight in his veins, Courtland turned almost furiously from the fallen brutes at his feet to meet the onset of the more cowardly hunters whom he knew were at his heels. At that moment it would have fared ill with the foremost. No longer the calculating steward and diplomatic manager, no longer the cool-headed arbiter of conflicting interests, he was ready to meet them, not only with the intrepid instincts of a soldier, but with an aroused partisan fury equal to their own. To his surprise no one followed; the baying of a third hound seemed to be silenced and checked; the silence was broken only by the sound of distant disputing voices and the uneasy trampling of hoofs. This was followed by two or three rifle shots in the distance, but not either in the direction of the quarters nor the Dows’ dwelling-house. There evidently was some interruption in the pursuit,—a diversion of some kind had taken place,—but what he knew not. He could think of no one who might have interfered on his behalf, and the shouting and wrangling seemed to be carried on in the accents of the one sectional party. He called cautiously to Cato. The negro did not reply. He crossed to the tree and shook it impatiently. Its boughs were empty; Cato was gone! The miserable negro must have taken advantage of the first diversion in his favor to escape. But where, and how, there was nothing left to indicate.
As Courtland had taken little note of the trail, he had no idea of his own whereabouts. He knew he must return to the fringe of cypress to be able to cross the open field and gain the negro quarters, where it was still possible that Cato had fled. Taking a general direction from the few stars visible above the opening, he began to retrace his steps. But he had no longer the negro’s woodcraft to guide him. At times his feet were caught in trailing vines which seemed to coil around his ankles with ominous suggestiveness; at times the yielding soil beneath his tread showed his perilous proximity to the swamp, as well as the fact that he was beginning to incline towards that dread circle which is the hopeless instinct of all lost and straying humanity. Luckily the edge of the swamp was more open, and he would be enabled to correct his changed course again by the position of the stars. But he was becoming chilled and exhausted by these fruitless efforts, and at length, after a more devious and prolonged detour, which brought him back to the swamp again, he resolved to skirt its edge in search of some other mode of issuance. Beyond him, the light seemed stronger, as of a more extended opening or clearing, and there was even a superficial gleam from the end of the swamp itself, as if from some ignis fatuus or the glancing of a pool of unbroken water. A few rods farther brought him to it and a full view of the unencumbered expanse. Beyond him, far across the swamp, he could see a hillside bathed in the moonlight with symmetrical lines of small white squares dotting its slopes and stretching down into a valley of gleaming shafts, pyramids, and tombs. It was the cemetery; the white squares on the hillside were the soldiers’ graves. And among them even at that distance, uplifting solemnly, like a reproachful phantom, was the broken shaft above the dust of Chester Brooks.
With the view of that fateful spot, which he had not seen since his last meeting there with Sally Dows, a flood of recollection rushed upon him. In the white mist that hung low along the farther edge of the swamp he fancied he could see again the battery smoke through which the ghostly figure of the dead rider had charged his gun three years before; in the vapory white plumes of a funereal plant in the long avenue he was reminded of the light figure of Miss Sally as she appeared at their last meeting. In another moment, in his already dazed condition, he might have succumbed to some sensuous memory of her former fascinations, but he threw it off savagely now, with a quick and bitter recalling of her deceit and his own weakness. Turning his back upon the scene with a half-superstitious tremor, he plunged once more into the trackless covert. But he was conscious that his eyesight was gradually growing dim and his strength falling. He was obliged from time to time to stop and rally his sluggish senses, that seemed to grow heavier under some deadly exhalation that flowed around him. He even seemed to hear familiar voices,—but that must be delusion. At last he stumbled. Throwing out an arm to protect himself, he came heavily down upon the ooze, striking a dull, half-elastic root that seemed—it must have been another delusion—to move beneath him, and even—so confused were his senses now—to strike back angrily upon his prostrate arm. A sharp pain ran from his elbow to shoulder and for a moment stung him to full consciousness again. There were voices surely,—the voices of their former pursuers! If they were seeking to revenge themselves upon him for Cato’s escape, he was ready for them. He cocked his revolver and stood erect. A torch flashed through the wood. But even at that moment a film came over his eyes; he staggered and fell.
An interval of helpless semi-consciousness ensued. He felt himself lifted by strong arms and carried forward, his arm hanging uselessly at his side. The dank odor of the wood was presently exchanged for the free air of the open field; the flaming pine-knot torches were extinguished in the bright moonlight. People pressed around him, but so indistinctly he could not recognize them. All his consciousness seemed centred in the burning, throbbing pain of his arm. He felt himself laid upon the gravel; the sleeve cut from his shoulder, the cool sensation of the hot and bursting skin bared to the night air, and then a soft, cool, and indescribable pressure upon a wound he had not felt before. A voice followed,—high, lazily petulant, and familiar to him, and yet one he strove in vain to recall.
“De Lawdy-Gawd save us, Miss Sally! Wot yo’ doin’ dah? Chile! Chile! Yo’ ’ll kill yo’se’f, shuah!”
The pressure continued, strange and potent even through his pain, and was then withdrawn. And a voice that thrilled him said:—
“It’s the only thing to save him! Hush, ye chattering black crow! Say anything about this to a living soul, and I’ll have yo’ flogged! Now trot out the whiskey bottle and pour it down him.”