The Natchez Trace, By John Swain (continued)

And in all of these things which go to make a road enjoyable to the traveler, and give it, to me, all the authority and charm of an intimate personal narrative, this century-old highway of the Southwest is paramount.

"Water Valley"
Where the Trace descends into a hollow
Century-old—nay, much more than that. For when the first white men came to the valley of the Cumberland, they found this same thoroughfare along the ridge-tops from the Duck River and the region beyond it up to the salt-lick at Nashville, as deeply grooved and as smoothly worn as it is to-day. Countless herds of buffalo, traveling in the same path for unnumbered years, had made a trail which red man and white adopted as they found it. Buffalo, like Indians, are hilltop travelers in a wooded region, and the white man in a new land found safety on the same lofty ridges.

A hundred years ago the eyes of America were on the Southwest. We were on the edge of a war with Spain over the closing of the Mississippi; and under orders from Washington, Wilkinson, in command at Fort Adams, held solemn conclave with the Indians who owned the east bank of the big river, and by treaty established a sacred post-road through their country. It left Nashville on the old buffalo trace, crossed the Tennessee at Colbert’s Ferry below the Mussel Shoals, and striking the hills back of the Big Black, came down to Natchez and on to New Orleans, with a branch to the Walnut Hills. The road was more than a military necessity, for so many pirates infested the Mississippi that merchants returning from New Orleans needed a safer route home with their money.

A cabin on the hill

After it was opened it became all things to the Southwest. Methodism went down that way in the person of Tobias Gibson; later, Lorenzo Dow followed him with the camp-meeting spirit. Old Hickory marched his army down to Natchez over this route in 1813, and marched it back again next spring. And from that day till nearly our own it has been the great CENTER of that country's activity. Now the railroads have come, the settlers have moved down into the valleys and opened up poorer roads in the beds of branches and through swampy lowlands. But the Trace is still there upon its ridges, the best road of them all.

Thus it was with a reverence for all the old road has seen that I turned into the Hillsborough pike in Franklin, Tennessee, and set out upon my pilgrimage. I fell in with a farmer lad, and moved by the eternal rivalry of city and country, we raced along at a gait of five miles an hour, up hill and down, each wishing fervently that the legs of the other would give out, yet neither willing to call a halt. We were at Boston Corners long before lunch-time, and so far was I on my way that when I had finished a generous meal at a farmhouse and had chatted for half an hour with my host, I had but to stroll up a crooked wagon-track through the woods, on the edge of a noisy brook, three miles at most, to the cross-road and the thrice blazed tree that told me I had come at last to the highway of history and legend.

Almost around the corner I ran across my first tradition—a living one. I had passed a log schoolhouse in which a score of youngsters were at their tasks or peering out through the open chinks, and had begun to notice here and there long, ragged scars on the oldest trees, relics of the days of blazed trails; I had found my’ hilltop road a pleasant but lonely one and was beginning to wonder where I should pass the night, when I sighted an old man and a young mule, like December and May, trudging slowly across a stony field. Sickly yellow corn a foot above ground fairly cried for better nourishment. An old woman in a half-demolished log cabin crooned a weird song; and the mule, a shaggy, two-year-old jennet, with feeble strength pulled a tiny plow with which the old man was steering a wavering two-inch furrow between the rows. The string harness broke as they reached the fence, and he paused to watch me manipulate my camera—something the like of which he had never seen, the use of which he does not know to-day.

“Corn's got to be plowed,” he whined in a feeble, apologetic voice, as he saw me; and then, with a weary smile of ready friendship, came up to the stake and rider on which I leaned.

A living tradition he was, indeed. Forty years before, a young man in a Northern village, he had enlisted for the war. Wounded in some skirmish in its second year, he had been captured by the country people, and had been held captive till the fighting was over.

There was no notion of “exchange of prisoners" in their minds. They had secured a “Yankee,” and they kept him at work till a couple of cavalrymen, jogging homeward, told them of Lee's surrender and the final peace. Then they turned him loose; but by that time a more subtle chain had been woven about him, and so he married and settled down among his old captors. Somehow he never prospered. He had secured a discharge but had lost his papers, so he could get no pension; and now with his wife, as old and feeble as himself, he struggles on from year to year with his stony field, fetching his water— for drinking purposes only—up a path through the brambles from a brook in the valley, seldom going beyond the sight of his cabin, waiting, waiting, waiting for this captivity of life to cease. Poor old chap! He patted his jennet on the neck and assured me weakly that she was “a willin’ little beast.”

He told me how I might follow the road for another five miles to a certain weather-beaten chapel, and there turn into a lane and go a half-mile or so back to some cabins, and from them take a path diagonally across some fields, and over a bit of ridge and down through the woods there to a clearing, and on down to the bed of a branch, and along that to the ruins of a mill, and across the branch again by that, and up the hill again, when I should come to Slater’s, whose cabin was larger than his own, and as hospitable. So I did, and wondered as I went what girl up North had grieved because her lover had not returned, what mother had mourned a missing son as dead, while he was struggling through his life down there.

Slater was as hospitable as I had been led to expect. He took me in to share the comfort of his big living-room, and after a supper of pork and biscuits we sat before an oak-log fire—up on the hilltop it was a frosty night for all it was June—and he questioned me for news of the outer world, which he had not seen in twenty years. Slater was a melancholy man. He lived on pork and biscuits too much and had trouble, he assured me, “with his intensities.” So with cheerful good-will I recommended him to write to Dr. Dowie, one of whose cardinal principles, I neglected to add, is “thou shalt eat no pork.” I shuddered to think of my hospitable host deprived of this, almost his only sustenance. He made me a full partner in the great log bedroom, in the distant gloomy corners of which, in an array of four-posters, slept the multitude of children and their elders, retiring in the chaste seclusion of the darkness, and arising before daylight could bring a blush to any cheek.

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